Discover more from IF YOU GO AWAY - News from P M Buchan
English ghost stories & occult Westerns 👻
'The Apparition Phase', 'Haints Stay', 'Lucky' & 'Barbarian'
Hi, I’m P M Buchan. I’ve written for publications including Times Literary Supplement, Starburst and SCREAM: The Horror Magazine, and have been interviewed by or had my stories reviewed in Kerrang!, Rue Morgue, Fortean Times and Famous Monsters of Filmland. In a former life, I used to write comics, but now, not so much.
Since September 2021, I’ve mostly been writing and rewriting a novel that I hope is approaching completion. Between that, full-time work and raising a family with a lot of neurodivergence and complicated, conflicting needs, there isn’t much space for me to write regularly about anything else. When I do find the time, Substack is the place that I publish it.
This newsletter, IF YOU GO AWAY, is where you’ll find my interviews with other transgressive artists, reviews and recommendations of dark art, and general proof that I still exist in the world even when I don’t have something new to sell. I’ve got a meeting lined up next week to begin another long-form interview, similar to the last one that I conducted with artist and occultist Jason Atomic. Until then, there are some books and films that I really want to tell you about.
The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean
Set in a claustrophobic version of England in the 1970s, The Apparition Phase is a story of oppressive hauntings, lonely adolescence and the tension between not knowing whether it would be scarier for the supernatural to exist, or for nothing to exist beyond our physical existence.
Protagonists Tim and Abi are twins who I found effortlessly believable and relatable. Longing to escape the drudgery of their mundane lives, they throw themselves into books about ghosts, folklore and the occult. Photographs purported to have captured glimpses of the spirit world provide a focal point for their obsessions, which makes it almost inevitable that they would try to stage their own version of a ghost photograph.
When they try to fool a girl at school into believing that their staged photograph is real, the prank backfires spectacularly, setting them on a path that furthers their isolation and distance from their peers. What follows is an exploration of grief, alongside coming-of-age with other troubled teens who are entangled in an experiment to prove the existence of life after death.
I wouldn’t want to give away any more of the plot, but can say that this is an endlessly readable book, written with confidence and pace. It reminded me of Steven Hall’s Maxwell’s Demon, which I also raced through because every word on every page felt so effortless and natural. The Apparition Phase brings the UK in the 1970s to life in a way that’s unlikely to turn off people elsewhere in the world, but paints a particularly vivid picture for anybody who grew up with a similar background in the latter half of the twentieth century. Despite being a child of the 1980s, so much of what author Will Maclean writes feels familiar to me. This shouldn’t be a surprise - it’s only really in the past fifteen years or so that the speed of life has spiralled exponentially. Back then, we were constantly surrounded by out-of-date textbooks, wearing yesterday’s fashion and watching old films on television and reruns of television series that were decades old. Life on demand is a relatively recent phenomenon.
After a decade of reviewing hundreds of comics and graphic novels, it has taken me a year or two to get used to regularly reading prose again, but I feel like I’m back in the rhythm of it and can say with confidence that The Apparition Phase is a genuinely enjoyable read.
If you’re a spooky kid who grew up ruminating on the Loch Ness Monster, the legends of Borley Rectory or phenomena like spontaneous human combustion, I think you’ll enjoy this novel as much as I did. It’s not terrifying or harrowingly dark, but it had the hair standing up on my arms more than once. It’s eerie, well-written and fun.
Haints Stay by Colin Winnette
Released in 2015 and billed as an Acid Western, I really wanted to enjoy Haints Stay. I’ve long had an affection for the Western, particularly when it’s used as a lens to explore the conflict between dreams and reality that occurs when idealism and ambition meet the brutality of the frontier. There are few things that I want to read about more than the deeds that people are willing to perform to survive at the edges of things. That’s a pretty narrow definition of the Westerns that I enjoy, but it applies pretty consistently to all of my favourites.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is in my mind one of the most powerful stories in existence, both in the intricate, dense novel by Ron Hansen and in the lyrical, beautiful film that boasts what must surely be Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s most accomplished soundtrack. I love The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I love Deadwood, I love Once Upon A Time in the West, and I love Unforgiven. More recently, I loved The Harder They Fall. Which is a long preamble leading into the fact that I felt like Haints Stay started strong and got its hooks in me, then lost its way and ended in disappointment.
From start to finish, Haints Stay compared unfavourably to The Sisters Brothers. It’s probably unfair to hold them up against each other, but both are quirky character studies of killer-for-hire brothers in the wild west, their success hinging on the plausibility and depth of the relationship between brothers who understand very little about themselves and show even less inclination to take responsibility for their own predicaments.
Haints Stay begins mesmerisingly, hinting at dark pasts, malevolent forces and an air of spirituality or occult that would differentiate it from The Sisters Brothers. There’s something poetic about the emptying of teeth from dead bodies and burying them to placate their ghosts. The novel opens with a dark foreshadowing of trauma in the recent past and worse to come, but then inexplicably the characters separate on their own journeys and meander towards unrelated, isolated conclusions. There’s a lot of bloodshed and violence, but the darkness never felt sincere to me. Whole towns are killed, cannibals decimate central characters, but somehow it all feels inconsequential, more like a sketch or a poem than a story that I could empathise with or get my teeth into.
Sadly, I was glad when Haints Stay was over, because it never felt like it lived up to its promise. It felt like the outline of what should have been an interesting story, with some very clever dialogue and memorable descriptions that were slotted into placeholder text and plot-points that should have been resolved or deleted. The blurb pitches as intentional weirdness what I interpreted as an unfinished draft.
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Lucky & Barbarian
Similarly, I’ve watched some horror films recently that I absolutely loved, and some that felt compromised to the point of impotence. Lucky (2020) is a fascinating subversion of the home-invasion horror sub-genre, about a self-help author who is hunted each night by a faceless man who breaks into her house and tries to kill her. The trailers for the film were absolutely electrifying, juxtaposing the horror of the situation with the matter-of-fact way that when the protagonist asks for help or tells the men in her life, they look at her blankly and tell her that’s just the way that things are.
It would be hard to describe how excited I was about watching Lucky. The premise is incredible, the performances sell it all convincingly, and the film has a lot to say about violence against women, gas-lighting and the gap between self-reliance and our unwillingness as a society to make structural changes that would be necessary to limit gendered violence. Unfortunately, the finished edit of the film plays out more like a fever dream or a poem than conventional entertainment. Lucky comes frustratingly close to telling a great story, but the narrative that I was hoping for never quite materialised, so I got to the end and felt like it was all message and no story.
Much more successful, in my opinion, was Barbarian (2022), a brutal but incredibly-fun film that plays off contemporary fears and events to bring to life what is actually a very traditional but well-executed horror. The less you know about it going in, the better, but the characters live in a world where poverty clashes with gentrification, where #metoo is a very present threat for the male and female characters in different ways, and where expectations are subverted when you think they’ll be reinforced, and reinforced when you think they’ll be subverted. It’s fast, oppressive, funny and gory, with enough modernity to be relevant in 2023 and enough affection for the genre to still deliver on everything I look for in a horror.
There’s not a lot to report about my own writing, other than that I took the advice of a more experienced friend and went back to the draft of my novel to fix some things that needed fixing. I didn’t want to go back to it any more than I want to pull my own teeth, but it feels a lot stronger now, so I’m optimistic about reaching the finish line.
Other than that, family takes up most of my bandwidth. I try to imagine what it would be like to live in a house where every excursion doesn’t take hours of negotiation and planning, timetables and weather reports, where unexpected changes don’t lead to meltdowns and wanton destruction, or even where it’s possible to turn off at the end of the night because people will go to bed and leave you with enough space and time to recover for the next day.
With a maddening amount of hard work, however, we do okay most days and sometimes we do brilliantly. I spend a lot of my time taking care of people, so I get into the sea as often as I’m able. Being submerged in the water or feeling the waves crashing over me is one of the only times that my brain switches off and I feel connected to the world again. Last school half-term holidays we took our kids to Fistral beach in Newquay for surf lessons (pictured!), which was a really fulfilling way to spend a day. I feel inspired now to learn how to surf in my free time and take advantage of some of the fantastic coastline within driving distance of my house.
My music recommendation for this week is Blood & Sawdust, a Spotify playlist of murder-folk, folk-punk, horror-punk and more.
Featuring Bridge City Sinners, AJJ, Amigo the Devil, the Unsettlers and more, this is pretty much what I listen to when I think about Westerns. I grew up listening to nothing but metal, so I have no idea where this love of dark folk music came from, but this is the one playlist that I go back to and update more regularly than any other.
Finally, before leaving, I’d be remiss not to mention that two of the world’s greatest living writers are now on Substack. Craig Clevenger, author of The Contortionist’s Handbook, Dermaphoria, and most recently Mother Howl, can be found here:
And Will Christopher Baer has returned from the wilderness and is publishing new writing here:
Will Christopher Baer is the author of Kiss Me, Judas, which is without question my favourite novel of all time, and has been since I read it over twenty years ago. I love a lot of authors and I love a lot of books for a lot of different reasons, but nothing has stayed with me the way that Kiss Me, Judas had. If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. The very best kind of neo noir, the best love story, the most unreliable narrator. The main character wakes in a bathtub full of ice, with a missing kidney, and becomes obsessed with the woman who stole it from him. I love it unconditionally.
That’s it from me for today. Take care of yourself, share this with anybody who you think might be interested and get in touch if you want to talk.
P M Buchan