Sandra Scholes for The British Fantasy Society

Though he is no stranger to writing fiction, Parlour Tricks is Carl Barker’s first collection of short stories, 14 in all with the central theme of illusion. And by that he means the art of illusion used by famous conjurers when they perform their magic tricks in front of a rapt audience. In the Afterword, Barker mentions what led him to create these tales with a horror theme to them and explains each on in The Inner Circle where the stories are based on the performances given by the conjurer; the death saw, rabbit from the hat, spoon-bending, raising the dead, card trick, musical interlude, Chinese water torture cell, ventriloquism, the human torch, the doves and fire-eating. Barker’s stories are loosely based too with fifteen ideas that work well as subject matter.

What is most noticeable is how well-written the stories are. He doesn’t need a slick introduction from an already well established author to tell others how good he is at the written word. When you read From Chatterton Hill you already tell he can write with a style that both engages and gives you the thought that you will want to continue reading the next story and so on. The reason you read Parlour Tricks isn’t to do with the cover art by Luke Spooner, it’s the back cover image of Barker running from the strange moving ball in a funny attempt to recreate the scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie, and of course the description of what the stories are like. Who doesn’t want to read about a soul devourer, devil worshippers in Blackpool and odd clairvoyants. It’s strange, macabre, but as I said, well-written.

His work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies including; The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic 2, Shadow Masters – An Anthology from the Horror Zine and Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands. Each story is situational with characters who seem normal enough until you start delving into their pasts. In “With the Band” Bryan is called by Jukebox Willy who wants to reform their old band. The only snag is Jukebox and the rest of the band are long since dead. As both he and his lover, Sandra are the only two from the band who are still alive, Jukebox haunts them until the inevitable happens. The Substitution Trunk is the theme of the next story, The Cabinet of Ed Monroe where Edwin wakes to find a woman around him naked and dead, which leads him to think he might have killed her. Though this is such a strange notion, he can’t help but think it was possible, then the uncanny happens, a man in a top hat tells him the girl is part of his “act” and he is a performer of sorts, though Edwin still can’t tell if he is real or the stuff of his dreams. This is Edwin’s state for most of the story, yet the reader gets to discover the truth right at the end as Edwin has a wife who accuses him of sleepwalking through his life, intent on divorcing him as he has been a waste of time since they have been together. I suppose this way you don’t have to feel sorry for him when he goes through his ordeal.

Houdini’s Vanishing Elephant Illusion is a variation on the classic Pepper’s Ghost and smoke and mirrors is the theme of one of my favourites here, The Man Who Came to Dinner. It is an emotional tale of death and reminded me of Brad Pitt’s role in Meet Joe Black where a mystery man comes to dinner to encounter only one man who will be taken on a special journey. I like that the stories all have themes and cater to everyone’s taste in horror stories, from the bizarre to the funny, the gory to the strange, Carl Barker will have plenty more to write and engage with.

Brian James Lewis for Hellnotes / Horror Review

Wow! Talk about an interesting short story collection! Carl Barker’s Parlour Tricks is what you are looking for if you enjoy twisted speculative fiction with shocking endings. Not only does this book boast a highly divergent content level, it also ties the stories together by relating them to specific magic tricks in a section called The Inner Circle at the end of the book. At first, I was a little skeptical of that, but it works! The cover art by Luke Spooner draws you into Barker’s clutches and after that it’s time for the magic to begin. Kids, don’t try these at home!

Eater of Lost Causes is a cool tale about Leonard, a young dude who discovers an amazing ability to experience people’s lives by eating their ordinary household trash. Things like teabags, egg cartons, and cardboard yield up the lives of their previous owners to his wondering mind. Leonard likes the way his “trips” take him away from the disaster zone of his parents’ crumbling marriage and all the abuse his mother heaps upon him in her angry times. After an especially bad time, the boy hits the road and ends up in the giant landfill where all the city’s garbage is dumped off. The possibilities provided are unlimited and Leonard makes a very special friend, who helps him to understand his powers. But good things can’t last forever and an attack from a Cthulu-type monster destroys Leonard’s new life. What will he do to survive?

Unlike Leonard, who is forced out of place multiple times, Bryan finds himself forced into place by the leader of his rock band. In With The Band Jukebox Willy wants Bryan to return to his position of guitar virtuoso in their former band and he’s not going to take no for an answer. Trouble is that the rest of the band died in a plane crash 18 years ago. So they can’t all just meet up in a pub and start grooving. No, the place that Bryan will have to go in order to join the others is a dank dark hell pit. He tries to ignore Willy, but Bryan finds that the ghoulish drummer is everywhere and his rampages are becoming more dangerous. Soon decomposing creatures are crossing into the world of the living and wreaking havoc. Bryan’s only chance for survival is in playing at least one concert. Will he make it out alive?

The Man Who Came To Dinner is a powerful piece undiminished by its brevity. Since I have used a similar approach to death in one of my stories, I totally get it. We all fear death, especially as young, single folk. There is so much we want to do yet-NEED to do! But, when a person is at the other end of the spectrum, death can bring mercy and relief from pain or loneliness. May we all be fortunate enough to have such a polite Ferryman taking us to the next world.

Since my aim is to whet your appetite and not spoil your meal, that’s it for the previews. Now it’s time for me to answer the big question. Would I purchase a copy of Parlour Tricks for myself or a friend? Indeed I would! Every book I’ve read from Parallel Universe Publications is better than the previous one. I’m not just saying that to be nice, either. There is definitely a positive evolution taking place as they grow their catalog of available works. As a reviewer, that is something enjoyable to watch. I totally encourage you to purchase a copy of Carl Barker’s Parlour Tricks in your favorite format today! Please keep in mind that this book is intended for adults and contains material best suited for them. As always, thanks for reading and remember: If you find yourself chained to a breakfast bar with no clothes on, it’s probably the work of a nutty ex-girlfriend. Good Luck!

Peter Tennant for Black Static #53

Relevant excerpt from review of anthology:

Phantoms and personal rivalries become entwined in ‘Broken Spectres‘ by Carl Barker, with two mountaineers coming unstuck in time on the slopes of Ben Nevis. I’m not quite sure why protagonist Martin would wish to tell his aggressively alpha male friend Steve that he’s in love with his wife while they’re alone together on a mountainside, unless he has a death wish, but that quibble aside this is an absorbing story, rich in incidental and historical detail, and presenting a convincing picture of the camaraderie of climbers. However it runs out of steam a little towards the end, with apparently no idea where to take the plot, and so introducing the monster in the machine by way of providing an unexpected resolution.

Demonik for Vault of Evil: Brit Horror Pulp Plus!

Relevant excerpt from review of anthology:

Carl Barker – ‘Broken Spectres’: If your climbing partner and lifelong best mate happens to be an Alpha male with a tendency toward psychotic violence, it’s not advisable to sleep with his wife. Martin, who deeply loves Jenny, resolves to confess all to Steve as they ascend Ben Nevis. You might think you know where this is heading, but with the arrival of a second two-man party, the story takes off into an entirely unexpected direction, and it’s brilliant! Dressed as they are in such inadequate Victorian attire, the soon to be ex-friends at first take Dr. George McRae and young Angus Rankin for wacky students having a lark or, at best, members of a Historical re-enactment society. Has nobody told them the Observatory they’re so determined to reach has been a ruin since the Great War? And why are they so insistent that the Supervisor of same has turned mad sniper? Onwards and upwards into the thick, rolling mist with its ghosts, madness and violence.

Shadowhawk for The Founding Fields

Relevant excerpt from review of anthology:

A perfect story (‘The Beastly Ninth’). The dark and dreary mood of the battlefield is captured really well and the execution of the story is also perfect. The casting of Napoleon as some kind of a black magic sorcerer is what really sold me on this one, although we don’t see the man himself at all.

Mihir Wanchoo for Fantasy Book Critic

Relevant excerpt from review of anthology:

‘The Beastly Ninth’ by Carl Barker – This was the first historical story in this collection and deals with the battle between the French and English. Napoleon has returned to France after escaping from his island prison and the person chosen to stop him is the Duke of Wellington, Lord Arthur Wellesley. This story was just an all out hit with me, drawing upon history and mixing it with the supernatural, the author really surprised me with the end twist as well. This is a story which I hope the author decides to write more about and give us a longer story.

The Troubled Scribe

Relevant excerpt from review of anthology:

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one (‘The Beastly Ninth’), because I think the title sucks. In fact, I almost skipped it entirely. Damn sure glad I didn’t because this is one of my favorites. Actually it might be my favorite overall.  (5 out of 5) Great writing, badass setting and plot, wonderful characters. When the French and the English go to war, nobody plays fair. Absolutely loved this one.

C. Bryan Brown for Title Goes Here

Relevant excerpt from Issue Introduction:

Title Goes Here: detours back into standard horror fare with Carl Barker’s ‘Old Loves Die Hard.’ It can be very hard to mix genres, but Carl does it well. He crosses noir (done in a very fresh way) and horror into a seamless story about love, regret, revenge, and second chances. You don’t want to miss the next time Dylan Morris kills Jack Carragher. Or the first time. Or the third…

Nicole Storey for Chaotic Thoughts

Relevant excerpt from review of anthology:

Fish Out of Water’ – Author Carl Barker:  Any fan of the movie Leviathan and other marine-biology-based spooky movies will love this short!  The first part of the story was excellent, but I thought it should have ended differently.

Ursula K. Raphael for Dream Sonata Reviews

Relevant excerpt from review of anthology:

‘Fish Out of Water’ by Carl Barker was kind of like Jules Verne on crystal meth…incredibly intense and severely alarming.

DF Lewis’ Real-Time Review of BFS Journal (Winter 2010)

Relevant excerpt from review of journal:

This is a remarkable and substantial story (‘Unexploded Girlfriends’). Well-written, sometimes in an accomplished, but pedestrian, prose (in a good way when describing unpedestrian events), sometimes melodramatic, sometimes absurd – neatly absurd particularly in its very satisfying ending. A story of torture, madness, Poe-like devices, a pier, and coming back ouroboros-like to where you began, via a version of King’s Misery. If you don’t like torture, you won’t like this.  But, again, when you’ve read it all, I’m sure you will like it. A Fable with a Moral, like John Tait’s Mole and Snake: “I feel like a hapless mouse tied to the bottom of a grandfather clock, lured by the luxurious promise of cheese.” And it all takes places in Blackpool. And what is Mammone’s Well? Well, I leave you to read this remarkable, yet strangely pedestrian, strangely absurd, work.  And God is there somewhere, too, and Satan…

Michael Compton for Fangoria Magazine:

Relevant excerpt from review of anthology:

…and—this reviewer’s personal favorite—Carl Barker’sWhy The Wild Things Are.’ Here, our rather lax central character Lionel shifts about his house, sips Earl Grey, reads newspaper articles from the previous week and indifferently muses over whom he should notify regarding the dead postman lying face-down in his garden pond, being picked apart by infected fowl. Giving little thought toward the well-being of his former mail carrier, Lionel seems instead occupied with how he’ll obtain a second copy of Reader’s Digest to replace the copy he lost to the gore-filled pond in his front lawn.

In any anthology, not every story is going to be exceptional, and when thumbing through ZOMBIE ZOOLOGY, one can’t help but feel as though one or two of the entries were initially intended as basic animal-attack tales that underwent last-minute rewrites to better fit in with the undead angle. That said, there isn’t a single story in ZOMBIE ZOOLOGY that sinks below mediocre, and most of them, particularly the aforementioned, are quite clever and engaging.

Colleen Wanglund for Monster Librarian:

Relevant excerpt from review of anthology:

I didn’t care for ‘Why The Wild Things Are’ by Carl Barker, only because I didn’t think it flowed as well as the other stories.  A story about local wildlife turning into zombies and the government’s response, I found myself losing interest while reading about how it happened via a newspaper article along with the main character (he’d read it repeatedly). 

Gareth D. Jones for

Relevant excerpt from review of issue:

‘The Man Who Came To Dinner’ is Carl Barker’s first published story and he does an excellent job of capturing the occasion of a dinner party and the mysterious visitor who arrives unannounced. The man is uncomfortable in his surroundings and, through his eyes, the dinner party becomes a strange and incomprehensible ritual. It’s an impressive debut.’

Steve Redwood for The British Fantasy Society:

Relevant excerpt from review of issue:

Quite different is Carl Barker’s ‘The Man who Came to Dinner’. It’s pretty clear from the beginning who this “man” is – he’s about as gauche in human company as the Queen would be at a Goth party – but the story is carefully constructed, with two main protagonists, one on the point of death, who act always in character, and an ending, if not exactly uplifting, at least comforting. This is apparently the writer’s first published story, and a very worthy one too.

Nick Jackson for Midnight Street:

Relevant excerpt from review of issue:

Then, just as I thought the show was over, there was Carl Barker’s rather fine and wistful story, ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ describing an encounter between an enigmatic first-person narrator and a man who is forced to come to terms with his own mortality.  I hope Mr Barker will shortly be producing more such delicately-nuanced pieces.