Sunday, 7 May 2017

Making our gory mark in far distant places

Fast on the heels of my last blog, I’m posting a new one today, and this is mainly in anticipation of CRIMEFEST at Bristol, later this month. 

In addition, in rather timely fashion, I’ll also be reviewing L.A. Larkin’s international conspiracy tour de force, DEVOUR (it’s timely in the sense that Ms. Larkin will be chairing one of the panels on which I’m sitting at Bristol … an event I can hardly wait for, though Im always a tad nervous about these things).

As usual, you’ll find that review towards the lower end of today’s post. But before we get down there, I want to talk a little bit about the Bristol event, but also – and maybe you can treat this as a kind of ‘thought for the week’ – about the many benefits that writers can draw from reading and reviewing their rivals’ work.

That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but just bear with me for a couple of secs …

If you look above, you’ll see a billboard advert for Chris Ould’s very enjoyable Killing Bay; you’ll also see that it’s carrying a quotation from my good self. Now, that billboard is located on London Bridge, one of the most heavily utilised thoroughfares in the capital. It’s a truly great showcase for Chris Ould, but it’s not a bad showcase for me either. In fact, this has been happening quite a lot in the last few months. As you’ll see, just to make the point, I’ve liberally peppered today’s blog with advertising graphics professionally produced by publishers for their authors, which all carry snippets from reviews I’ve given them.

I’m sure you can all envisage the advantage I gain from this.

Of course, we don’t review fellow authors’ works specifically because we hope this will happen. It isn’t, and can never be, a guaranteed way to get your name into the public eye, because quite often you’ll never hear about said review again, let alone see it on a giant billboard in the heart of London. But as you can see, if/when that does happen, even though the main focus is on another writer’s book, it certainly helps get the message out that you too are a person of note.


But even if you don’t even get close to such an honour, posting positive reviews about works you’ve enjoyed is never a waste of time. It’s to all our advantage if our genre of choice is healthy and busy, and if the public are enthusiastically buying the kinds of books we write. And then, if there is a symbiotic offshoot, because other authors and their editors are so grateful to see our positive comments that they return the compliment, all the better, eh?

It’s not as if leaving reviews is a difficult procedure these days. We don’t all have to do what I do, which is write lengthy blogs. Online retailers like Amazon, and review sites like Goodreads, enable us to leave quick, short paragraphs in praise of those books we’ve enjoyed. And it frustrates me no end when I talk to fellow authors who somehow can never find the time to do this. Ultimately, I feel certain that their own careers would benefit if they could only make this minor effort a little more often.


Anyway, that’s my lecture for the week over with. Let’s concentrate next on CRIMEFEST 2017, which as always, is located at the Marriott Royal in Bristol, and this year runs from May 18-21.

For those not in the know, Bristol CrimeFest is one of the biggest and best crime-writing events in the UK. In short, it’s a convention for crime and thriller readers – not just the fanatics, but those with a passing interest as well – and it provides a big draw for novelists, publishers, editors, agents, reviewers and bloggers from around the world.

As well as the annual gala dinner, its programme comprises interviews with guest authors, one-to-one manuscript assessments, pitching sessions with agents, and over 40 panels featuring crime fiction figures from all corners of the genre. But the tone is never less than informal, friendly and very inclusive. You pop along there as a reader and you spot your favourite crime/thriller author in the hotel corridor, don’t hesitate to stop him/her for a quick chat – that’s what we’re there for. 

Special guests this year include authors Ann Cleeves, Anthony Horowitz and Peter Lovesey, artist Tom Adams and Agatha Christie expert and archivist, John Curran.

I attend CrimeFest every year these days, but have more responsibility than usual in 2017, as I’m participating in two panels. First of all, on Thursday May 18 at 3.50pm, I’ll be in the more than capable hands of L.A. Larkin (see today’s book review!), when she moderates The Hunter Hunted: Running For Your Life. And I’ll be on that panel in some very august company: Stefan Ahnhem, Felix Francis and Antti Tuomainen. But more nerve-rackingly still, I’ll be chairing my own panel on Friday May 19, at 9am: How Many Deaths? The  Appeal of the Serial Killer in Crime Fiction. On the table with me for this one are Helen Fields, James Carol, Mark Roberts and Leigh Russell.

If nothing else, I can safely predict that we’re going to have a lot of fun.

Not everyone can make it to Bristol, I know … but if you are there and you fancy a quick natter, just nudge my shoulder and I’ll be happy to gossip for a bit.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

DEVOUR
by L.A. Larkin (2016)

After a high-risk assignment in Afghanistan’s poppy-growing region, on the trail of a terrorist network, energetic investigative-journalist, Olivia Wolfe – who is no stranger to danger, but even by her normal rip-roaring standards only just returns from this trip with her life and limbs intact – is dispatched by her demanding editor, Moz Cohen, to the even more perilous realm of western Antarctica.

At first, she isn’t keen. It doesn’t sound like her normal field: a team from the British Antarctic Survey drilling down through fathoms of concrete-hard ice in a quest to discover samples of prehistoric life that may still be lurking in subglacial Lake Ellsworth … until she learns that her real mission is to investigate the various ‘accidents’ that are befalling the BAS crew at their research station, including an unexplained and rather horrible death, which more than likely was murder.

This is more up Wolfe’s street, but the situation is complicated by an unseen but menacing presence at home, a mysterious stalker, pursuing her both in reality and online, who barely leaves a trace of himself but is always undeniably there. Who this person is, and why he/she may have a beef with Wolfe is a complex thing to ascertain: there are plenty of people with reason to punish a journalist who has uncovered their dirty dealings in the past. At the same time, of course, Wolfe has to head down to the bottom of the world, to find out whatever she can about the problems facing the BAS.

This, in itself, is no picnic. The difficult conditions of the Antarctic and an engineering/scientific team who, though on the surface they seem quite normal, soon start to reveal stresses and strains among their ranks, combine to make Wolfe’s job a real challenge. While team-leader Professor Michael Heatherton is a time-served professional, dedicated to his cause and with no apparent interests other than a pursuit of knowledge, other members of the group are more secretive, in particular the intense and rather introverted Scottish scientist, Toby Sinclair.

On top of that, she learns that a rival Russian expedition to nearby Lake Vostok, whose mission failed when the lake was polluted by inadequate drilling processes, are now trying to bribe and bully their way into the British effort, which, in Wolfe’s eyes, puts them high on the suspect list – not least the most menacing member of the Russian party, Sergey Grankin, who is almost certainly a government agent. It also raises questions, particularly among the rest of the British team, about naturalised Brit but Russian-born engineer, Vitaly Rushkov; he is one of their own colleagues, at least superficially, but though Wolfe finds him attractive, he also frustrates her because he won’t reveal enough about himself to win her trust.

The tension is ramped up even more – to breakneck pace in fact, when the British team succeed in their quest, breaking through into the subterranean lake – an incredible three kilometres below the ice – and discovering something that hasn’t seen the light of day for millions upon millions of years; something so appalling that it has the potential to completely destroy modern society.

Needless to say, in the time-honoured fashion of greedy world-powers both fictional and real, it isn’t long before various shady forces are competing for control of this monstrous thing.

Even from this relatively early stage of the novel, it is difficult to reveal any more of the actual synopsis for fear of giving away spoilers, but suffice to say that, even when Wolfe returns to London, she finds herself in the midst of a deadly conflict, with numerous vying interests turning the city into a war-zone, and even the little she has already discovered making her into a prime target. Wolfe has developed lots of good contacts in her time, but even two of the best on her home turf – former top cop, Jerry Butcher, something of a father to her, and the infinitely shadier DCI Dan Casburn – are of minimal help; they may even be a hindrance as she tries to battle her way through a tangled web of confusing lies and life-threatening deceit, only to uncover a shocking and terrifying truth …  
              
If you like your thrillers to have an international scope, then this one is definitely for you. Devour is a wide-ranging, continent-spanning adventure played out in tough, no-nonsense fashion against a latter-day Cold War-type atmosphere. But don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re in 007 territory here. There is a high-tech dimension to Devour for sure, but there is also an aura of realism. We’re not talking ridiculous gadgetry, improbable skills and mind-boggling schemes for world-domination. New heroine, Olivia Wolfe, though she herself is a more than competent globe-trotter and thoroughly au fait with all the latest communications devices, is also very human, which is her most appealing aspect.

In fact, Devour’s greatest strength for me – considering that it’s painted on such an immense canvas – is that it’s all very plausible.

I’d go as far as to say that it’s terrifyingly plausible.

To start with, there is a real sense of danger in this book, and I don’t just mean the horrific force lurking in the sub-Antarctic depths (more about that later), but also from our heroine’s various antagonists. Whoever’s on your tail in Devour, whether they be opium lords, terrorists or security service personnel gone rogue (or even not gone rogue – just doing their government’s dirty work at full throttle!) – you soon get to learn that they are experts at what they do; it’ll only ever be a page or so before they catch up with you. It also becomes plain at an early stage that none of these heinous individuals are playing by the rules of chivalry.

Oh yes, there is some real brutality on show here. Everything about Devour is harsh, gritty and real. Its central characters spend much of it in a state of fear, particularly the civilian scientists who never imagined that their ground-breaking research could have caused such chaos, not to mention Wolfe herself, who soon learns that even if she emerges from this adventure unscathed, her life as she knew it will be over. Several times there are references to people who simply disappear, or run the risk of disappearing – in L.A. Larkin’s world, the niceties of international law just don’t apply when such threats as this endanger the planet, and I, for one, am more than prepared to believe that could be true.

Even routine activities, such as travelling, are given a rugged makeover. We’re talking long plane journeys, soulless waystations, the extreme geophysical conditions of the Arctic, not to mention a drab and wintry London which itself has the potential to endanger life – for example, in one scene, Wolfe gets soaking wet and as it’s December, it isn’t long before she’s struggling with hypothermia. At the same time, death means death; during an early sojourn to Afghanistan, she witnesses the shooting of a young woman, and it haunts her afterwards; she sees it playing through her head again and again.

These are the uber-realistic touches that we simply don’t get in run-of-the-mill thrillers, and Larkin hits us with them repeatedly, as if saying: “This is what it means, this is how it would actually be if you were to genuinely participate in this world”.

And I totally loved it, almost as much as I loved the central character.

Olivia Wolfe is an excellent heroine. She may not be the sort who can take waves of bad guys apart with her bare hands, or jump from plane to train to motorbike and still make it to her favourite restaurant in time for dinner. She may be a martial artist of sorts, but she gets battered, she gets hurt, she gets frightened. However, her main asset is that she is a skilled and highly driven investigative journalist. She hasn’t just got a nose for a great story, no matter how far afield it may lie, she has the determination and wherewithal to get there in time to cover it. But she has a survival instinct too. In anticipation of the dangers she will face, she is technically proficient, and perhaps more importantly, an exceptional judge of character, knowing instinctively who to trust and who to suspect.

In some ways, this may make her a tad unsympathetic. All the way through, she has an on/off romantic relationship with the Russian engineer, Yushkov, and yet she maintains an antipathy towards him too because … well, mainly because he’s Russian, and in this book the Russians are generally up to no good. It reaches a stage where as a reader it almost becomes tiresome, and yet that’s the point. Olivia Wolfe has survived as long as she has because she’s smarter than we are. She has really played this game, whereas we haven’t.

If I’m giving the impression that this is an edgier-than-usual book, that’s probably accurate. It’s no romp, that’s for sure. But this slap-in-the-face factor serves two purposes: it makes you believe it absolutely, and it keeps you glued to the pages – as, of course, does the overarching, and vaguely monstrous – concept.

On that subject, it would be easy, if you’d only read the blurbs, to think that what you’ve got here is something akin to John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (filmed as The Thing from Another World). And why not? Something nasty is lurking under the polar ice, a bunch of well-meaning scientists discover it and thaw it out, only to find that it’s a force beyond Man’s experience, which imperils the Earth as a result. And if it sounds like science fiction, there may be an element of that, though I draw your attention to the real attempt by British scientists to drill down to Lake Ellsworth in 2012, which failed (maybe fortuitously, or maybe it was halted – who can say?). But it’s all still incredibly plausible. I’m not going to give out any spoilers concerning the nature of the thing, but it’s truly horrifying because, even if surprises you – which it did me – you can very quickly envisage the colossal destruction that would result.

In addition, the novel is underlined with in-depth research – no B-movie stuff, this. LA Larkin, an Antarctic explorer in her own right, handles the biological and engineering complexities of the mission to the South Pole and the follow-up investigations with the same authority and conviction that she does the political intrigue and secret service chicanery, and yet weaves it all seamlessly into the narrative and the dialogue so that at no point do we feel we’re being hit by a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia.

It all makes for a totally believable and completely enthralling techno/eco thriller, perhaps with a few dollops of psycho horror mixed in for good measure (because let’s not forget that there’s an equally formless, equally dangerous threat to Olivia Wolfe lurking at home).

An all-round, superbly-crafted reading experience, which just screams for your attention.

And now, as usual and just for laughs, I’m going to nominate my own cast should Devour ever make it to the screen (and in this era of conspiracy thrillers and girl heroes, I reckon now would be the perfect time). Anyway, here are my picks:

Olivia Wolfe – Emily Blunt
Michael Heatherton – Tim McInnerny
Vitaly Yushkov – Igor Petrenko
Toby Sinclair – Alan Cumming
DCI Dan Casburn – Mark A. Sheppard
Jerry Butcher – Hugh Laurie
Mozart Cohen – Ian McShane
Sergey Grankin – Vladimir Mashkov

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Terror Tales of Cornwall hits the shelves

And here we are at last. After much frantic scampering about, I can announce that TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL is done, dusted and ready to buy. And yes, it does exactly what it says on the tin. 

It takes you down to England’s quaintest, most beautiful, most mysterious, and often wildest coastal region, and then hits you with many aspects of the terrors to be found there.

On a similar ‘homely horror’ subject, this week I’ll also be reviewing Dan Simmons’s seminal story of rural darkness, SUMMER OF NIGHTAs usual with my novel reviews, you can find that one at the lower end of today’s post, and as always, it’s a detailed and in-depth discussion.

But first, we’re going to talk about my new anthology of regionally-flavoured chillers, TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL.

Oh, I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to say that.

I guess everyone who follows this blog is well aware that the TERROR TALES series, which has now been running since 2011, was interrupted about a year ago when Gray Friar Press sadly had to withdraw from the game. But the gauntlet has been passed, and is now firmly in the grasp of TELOS PUBLISHING, who have done a masterly job with this, their first contribution.

In case anyone is concerned, fear not – the book looks much like the previous volumes (why fix something that isn’t broken?). It has the same style and layout, ghoulish fact interspersing with ghastly fiction, and it follows the same ethos, offering (mostly) new supernatural horror stories based on the mythology, folklore, history and geography of the region. In other words, these aren’t just stories that happen to be set in Cornwall, they are stories about Cornwall.

So, without further ado, here is the artwork for the book in all its glory, the back-cover blurb, and the full table of contents:

Cornwall, England’s most scenic county: windswept moors; rugged cliffs; and wild, foaming seas. But smugglers and wreckers once haunted its hidden coves, mermaid myths abound, pixie lore lingers, henges signal a pagan past, and fanged beasts stalk the ancient, overgrown lanes …

The serpent woman of Pengersick
The screaming demon of Land’s End
The nightmare masquerade at Padstow
The feathered horror of Mawnan
The terrible voice at St Agnes
The ritual slaughter at Crantock
The hoof-footed fetch of Bodmin Moor

And many more chilling tales by Mark Morris, Ray Cluley, Reggie Oliver, Sarah Singleton, Mark Samuels, Thana Niveau and other award-winning masters and mistresses of the macabre.

CONTENTS

We Who Sing Beneath the Ground by Mark Morris
Golden Days of Terror
In the Light of St Ives by Ray Cluley
Morgawr Rising
Trouble at Botathan by Reggie Oliver
From the Lady Downs
Mebyon versus Suna by John Whitbourn
The Serpent of Pengersick
The Unseen by Paul Edwards
Finned Angels, Fish-Tailed Devils
Dragon Path by Jacqueline Simpson
Jamaica Inn
The Old Traditions Are Best by Paul Finch
Guardians of the Castle
The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things by Mark Valentine
The Hooper
His Anger Was Kindled by Kate Farrell
The Bodmin Fetch
Four Windows and a Door by DP Watt
Owlman
Claws by Steve Jordan
The Cursing Psalm
A Beast by Any Other Name by Adrian Cole
Of the Demon, Tregeagle
Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning by Mark Samuels
Slaughter at Penryn
The Memory of Stone by Sarah Singleton
Queen of the Wind
Shelter from the Storm by Ian Hunter
The Voice in the Tunnels
Losing Its Identity by Thana Niveau


Just to whet your whistles even more, here are three snippets from the stories contained herein:

They came for him, the white children. They dragged him out of the house, like a rag doll. Rocks scored his skin and bruised his bones. At the edge of the sea, they peeled off his clothes and sank their hands through his pouched skin into his body, marvelling at his viscera, taking him to pieces, playfully.
The Memory of Stone 
Sarah Singleton

No more than two metres away was a circular pit that, as far as she could tell, stretched from one wall of the barn to the other. She thought of animal traps, in the bottom of which might be sharpened stakes designed to pierce the animal’s body as it fell. Oh God, oh God. Was that what this was? She tilted her phone down, shining it into the hole.
     It wasn’t black down there, as she had expected. It was red.
     Blood red.
We Who Sing Beneath the Ground
Mark Morris

The masked man yanked the chainsaw’s cord, and Lee shrunk towards the door, then whirled when he heard hoof falls and the creaking of floorboards behind him.
     There was that flashing again – a tiny red dot – and Lee realised that he was looking straight into the lens of a video camera.
The Unseen
 Paul Edwards


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

SUMMER OF NIGHT 
by Dan Simmons (1991)

It is 1960 and the start of summer in the Illinois farming town of Elm Haven. For a bunch of local school-leavers, a tightknit group of adventurous 11-year-olds self-defined as the ‘Bike Patrol’, long months of vacation lie ahead. The sun is high, the corn ripening in the encircling fields, and while the adults have their own issues to deal with – the new decade is already presenting different political challenges! – for the youngsters it’s just another extended playtime.

But then something goes wrong. One of their former classmates, a hillbilly kid called Tubby Cooke, disappears, and the Patrol – level-headed leader Dale Stewart and his younger brother, Lawrence, brave and good-hearted Mike O’Rourke, troublesome roughneck Jim Harlen, super-intelligent Duane McBride and loyal team-player Kevin Grumbacher – take it on themselves to investigate.

And very soon, they wish they hadn’t.

At the heart of Elm Haven stands Old Central, the large, ornate and crumbling schoolhouse they’ve just left, which is now condemned and will shortly be torn down. The guys can’t help but feel there was always something wrong about Old Central – not just the school itself, but its staff too, who behaved increasingly oddly as the end of the semester approached. The kids especially become suspicious when they learn that Tubby was last seen alive in the school toilets.

But it’s a hot summer and there is lots of other fun to be had, and so the investigation is undertaken half-heartedly. Surely there was nothing really wrong with their old school?, and none of them much liked Tubby Cooke anyway, nor his oddball sister, Cortie. Within a few days, the whole thing is put to bed … but now it seems their inquisitiveness has aroused a latent hostile force, which they’d never previously noticed in Elm Haven.

The Rendering Truck, a ramshackle vehicle full of rotting animal carcasses, takes to following them around town and trying to run them off the road, while a weird WWI era soldier begins popping up in their peripheral vision and even chases them when he catches them out in the fields.

Something weird is indeed going on here, and Old Central seems to lie at the heart of it.

However, it is only when Duane researches the history of the school and learns that as well as a legacy to the town from the wealthy and mysterious Ashley family, it was also used to house an arcane artefact shipped over to the States from Europe and associated throughout its long history with sorcery and devil-worship, that Hell is really unleashed.

Nightmare faces appear at the boys’ windows, shadow shapes emerge from under their beds, axe-wielding figures attack their tents, and horrible things stir in the corn.

Amid many other distractions that the Bike Patrol never anticipated this summer – sexual awakenings and the like – they now must battle for their lives against this dark and intangible foe, which can assume a multitude of forms and soon seems to infest every corner of Elm Haven …

So many US horror writers appear to owe it to themselves to at some point produce at least one novel steeped in the Americana of their small-town youth. This furrow has been successfully ploughed by such major names in the genre as Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and Robert McCammon – to name but a few, so it was no surprise to learn that Dan Simmons had done it too, producing in Summer of Night a semi-autobiographical account of his boyhood in the agricultural Midwest, recollecting it as a fun romp for the most-part, but at the same time striving to capture the complexity of that last summer of childhood, that confusing moment in life when we willingly or unwillingly trade everything that went before, even the good stuff, for a completely different mode of existence (and so often find it a raw deal), and then pumping the adventure levels up dramatically with lashings of supernatural terror.

In the hands of all these great writers, this has proved a potent mix, an unashamed juxtaposing of that cosy age of boy-scout camps and Mickey Mantle baseball cards with the looming subliminal fear of something monstrous and unexplainable. Psychoanalysts would no doubt have a field-day, talking about the remorseless approach of adulthood, the end of play and the commencement of work, and maybe even, with the advantage of hindsight, the transition of that relatively comfortable post-WWII era in America to the more unstable 1960s with its social discord and the horrors of Vietnam.

There is probably something in that, though I suspect it’s actually a lot simpler. Summer of Night is clearly a very personal work for Dan Simmons, but its greatest strength lies in the rollicking and hair-raising tale it tells, and its straightforward pitting of good against evil in such easily understandable fashion that it wouldn’t be out of place on the YA shelves were it not for the juicy language and its frank discussion of adolescent sexuality.

It is certainly a lively and worthy addition to the small-town horror cycle. Many familiar motifs are here: the non-too-perfect lives of some of the kids (who even in the midst of cheerful innocence must cope with ill-health at home, low incomes, drunken or absent fathers, etc), the roaming bands of bullies, the grim and rotting building at the heart of town, the aristocratic founding-family now elevated to semi-mythical status, the existence of something ancient and cruel which only was hinted at prior to this book, the adults who stubbornly refuse to believe in it, and of course the endless, sun-soaked landscapes of youthful reminiscence.

One criticism often levelled at Summer of Night is that it’s too similar in tone to Stephen King’s own nostalgic masterpiece, It. I see that, but I don’t consider it a weakness – the two novels are cousins for sure but Summer is in no sense a rip-off, as the narratives diverge noticeably. However, I do think Dan Simmons’s book suffers a little by comparison.

Whereas It bounces back and forth between childhood and adulthood, Summer of Night anchors us in 1960, and to see the whole thing through the eyes of a bunch of 11-year-olds becomes a bit of a strain when you’re hundreds of pages in and yearning for some adult interaction. It also means that you must suspend belief considerably. Even for a supernatural tale, some of the solutions our youthful heroes adopt feel as if they’d be a little beyond the average bunch of youngsters – their proficiency and ruthlessness with firearms for example, their ability to pick clues from distant history, and their overall maturity in the face of a horrific crisis (when at the same time some of them are too frightened of the dark to turn their bedroom lights off, and others are content to step out of the battle to attend birthday parties and dig for bootlegger treasure!!!).

But these are the only real brickbats. The rest of this novel is a whole load of fun.

Typically for Dan Simmons, it’s a lengthy tale, but it’s sweetly written and totally engrossing. Living, breathing characters populate a richly detailed community. An air of the authentic early ’60s sits vividly on the page, and yet the lurking menace, which, while vague in the early stages, never feels out of place – in fact these are the best parts of the book for me: the slow-dawning awareness that something terrible, only glimpsed at first, is coming on apace, threatening to sweep away this idyllic little enclave in a turbulent world.

And of course, when the book finally fires – it fires on all cylinders.

As you’d expect, there is a grand climax at the end, but well before then – throughout most of the second half of the novel – Simmons hits us a with a series of spectacular action set-pieces, each one scarier and more explosive than the one before it. And don’t be lulled into complacency by the extreme youth of our main protagonists – not all these chilling encounters end well for them (though to say any more on that would really spoil things).

Summer of Night is what people used to refer to as an ‘airport novel’ – in other words it’s a big, fat volume, so big that you’d happily buy it on the first day of your holidays and expect it to see you right the way through. That’s most likely what would have happened; at over 500 pages, it’s an absolute whopper. But though reading habits have changed a little since the 1990s, I still recommend this exciting and enjoyable tome. It may transport you back to your own past, it may provide no more than an amusing diversion for an hour each day, but once you get into the meat of it I guarantee you’ll stick with it right to the end.

In normal circumstances with these reviews, I like to close with some fantasy casting, just for fun picking who I’d love to see play the leads if the book in question were ever to make it to the screen. Alas, on this occasion I must stick my hand up and admit to knowing so little about Hollywood’s current A-list of child stars that I couldn’t make any meaningful suggestions. And given that the kids totally dominate the book, it would seem a little crass to try and cast the adult characters when so many of them occupy background roles.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Publication day loometh - and Heck is back

Okay then, it’s publication week, this week, so forgive me if I’m going to be talking rather a lot today about my latest novel, ASHES TO ASHES

However, the ego cant be allowed to run away with itself completely, so it won’t just be about me today. In addition, one of my stable-mates at Avon Books, the irrepressible C.L. Taylor (Cally, to those who know her well, as seen left), has also brought a recent thriller out – THE ESCAPE, which I’m very pleased to be reviewing this week. You can find that full-length review and discussion, as usual, at the lower end of today’s post.

Before we actually get to that, I was with Cally at the HarperCollins building at London Bridge earlier this week, for a couple of very enjoyable forums. First of all, we joined forces to do a live video Podcast for HarperCollins (right), which seemed to go down very well – it received significant numbers of hits while we were gabbling, but for those not able to tune in at the time, you can watch the full recording of it below.


We also did a big Q&A session, a really big one – a full two hours of a job – with a great audience comprising bloggers, reviewers, up-and-coming writers, students and everyday readers. As I expected, it was a great deal of fun, the event chaired by Cally’s and my mutual editor, Helen Huthwaite, who kept the subjects rolling and brought in the audience at every opportunity, ensuring that we were hit with all kinds of questions. I like to think we imparted as much of our knowledge of the business as we could in the time available, and were able to chart in words our own personal journeys to publication, both of which have been long and complex, and occasionally fraught with difficulty, setbacks, etc.

Judging from some of the responses online, I think we hit the spot with it. Everyone seemed to have a good day.

These are certainly the events that make this profession worthwhile. It’s probably true to say that we’ve all done our spells alone in the garret, pursuing that much-mythologised solitary existence, the lone writer slogging for hours and hours in a dingy, low-rent room, maybe working by candle-light as he/she bashes out their latest doomed-to-be-undiscovered masterpiece on some clunky, second-hand typewriter. Oh yes, I think we’ve all been there at one time or other. All I can say is … if that’s your current status, you’ve just got to stick with it, because trust me, the rewards will come, and when they do – when you suddenly come face-to-face with the reality of lots and lots of people liking and knowing your work – it will make every moment of that hardship worthwhile.

But just remember, when it does happen, to socialise with those who read you … at least as much as is practicable. That can be a reward in itself, but I don’t believe any of us can actually afford to be aloof. We’re only ever as successful as our last book, and I suspect the public are far more likely to read it and give it the big thumbs-up if they feel they know us as people as well as authors.

Now, onto the subject of ASHES TO ASHES. I can only say that I’m very happy with it. It’s no exaggeration that this book has been a long time in gestation, pirimarily with regard to Hecks own character. From the outset, I think it’s been plain to followers of this series that our much harassed hero has had deep problems connected to his early home-life in the Lancashire mill-town of Bradburn.

Superficially, we all know what these entail. Heck’s bewildering decision to join the police shortly after a lazy detective framed his older brother for a series of violent burglaries he didn’t commit, which subsequently led to that same brother’s suicide in prison, left the Heckenburg family stunned and appalled. The isolation this created eventually became too much for Heck, and after two years in the Greater Manchester Police, he sought reassignment to the Metropolitan Police in London, where he eventually made a new life and a real career for himself.

But the one question that has always remained unanswered is why Heck did what he did. Why would he betray his family in this way, especially as prior to these terrible events, he’d never shown any interest in joining law-enforcement?

Well … in ASHES TO ASHES, after five books (some of which are pictured left), we finally get to the truth of it. Before this novel commences, Heck has occasionally had cause to visit Bradburn during his career. He has managed, to a degree, to patch up his relationship with his sole surviving close-relative, his older sister, Dana, but there are others who still regard him as a despicable traitor. As such, in ASHES TO ASHES, when pursuing a professional torturer now believed to be participating in a gang war in Bradburn, he has no option but to pitch camp in his old town, Heck won’t just be forced to confront the different deranged killers employed by the various gangs, but also his own demons … which, once and for all, will see him expose the root-cause of the immense, life-changing decision he made all those years ago.

And of course, not unusually for the Heck novels, it’s no easy path getting there. I’ve gone all out to lace this sixth outing with thrills, chills and violence aplenty as he works his way to a solution, encountering almost every kind of viciousness and villainy en route, whilst seeing a home-town that is all but burning around him.

This is one aspect of the book that has already been noted by several reviewers. I particularly like this one in SHOTS MAGAZINE.

If you haven’t got time to pop over there and read it all, reviewer Gwen Moffat gives us a flavour of it, when she writes of Bradburn:

This city, once prosperous, is floundering in the grip of a crime wave. Gang warfare is threatened between an old firm under an established godfather, and a splinter group led by a vicious but charismatic young tearaway. Sagan, employed by the godfather, tips the balance but The Incinerator is a great leveller. And there are the Russians: fearsome jokers in the pack, the Tartarstans from St Petersburg who know no rules. The dilemma facing the cops is a choice between allowing the villains to destroy each other (with all the collateral damage to the citizens) or to find some way to save the city from anarchy.

It’s also summed up very nicely by Wendy of LITTLE BOOKNESS LANE, with:

Ashes to Ashes is uncompromisingly grisly, releasing fearsome opponents from every conceivable angle. Its furious, violent encounters creep a little close to home for our rebellious hero, who relies on gut instinct, backed up by a wing and a prayer. 
     The author makes full use of urban landscapes which become a playground for some ‘killer’ games to be factored in. It has all the intensity that unrestrained action and carnage could possibly deliver.

It’s probably true to say that ASHES TO ASHES is probably a tad more violent than previous books in the Heck canon (though not a great deal, I don’t think). But I make no apologies for that. This is a battle fought on Heck’s home turf, and as we know, those are always the most viciously contested. It’s also a battle he has to wage against two different but deadly enemies both at the same time, in which case it’s surely understandable that he must fall back on the most extreme methods possible.

Anyway, you’ll have to judge for yourselves. ASHES TO ASHES is published on April 6. That’s Thursday this week. Hope you feel like visiting your local bookshop and seeing what all the fuss is about.     

*

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.  

THE ESCAPE 
by C.L. Taylor (2017)

Bristol wife and mother, Jo Blackmore, is struggling desperately with her nerves. Bereaved of her first child, Kevin, when he was still a baby, she struggles constantly with depression, and even though she now has another youngster, two-year-old Elise – a happy and healthy child – she is anxious, paranoid and increasingly suffers from agoraphobia.

In this regard, her once-loving husband, Max, is neither use nor ornament. A successful investigative reporter, he’s long felt that his job needs more attention than his family does, and despite Jo’s ailing mental condition, increasingly displays annoyance and frustration with her rather than affection. The twosome are certainly growing apart, but it finally comes to a head when Jo is one day fooled into giving a ride to a blonde-haired woman known only as Paula, who, once she’s in the car, demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of the Blackmores’ personal lives and makes vicious threats.

Jo and Elise emerge unscathed from the incident, but Jo is terrified, and so when Max responds with near indifference, the rift between them widens dramatically … especially as the mysterious Paula now upgrades her campaign of harassment, menacing the fragile Jo at every opportunity. Even when Paula finally reveals that this is all about Max, who apparently owes her something he plainly won’t give, he is blasé about the problem, dismissing the blonde tormentor as a fantasist or mental case, and refusing to entertain the possibility that she may be someone from his past.

Furious to be getting no support from her husband at a time when she needs it more than ever, Jo decides to leave, and starts making secret plans to take Elise to her parents’ home in Cheshire. But this decision, though it affords Jo some relief from her turmoil, and to all intents and purposes has been made in complete privacy, now seems to trigger a whole new wave of ever-more frightening events, which involve, among other things, house-breaking and violent assault.

And at no stage is Jo able to draw reassurance from law-enforcement, because no-one actually believes that she is being persecuted, the Social Services, who have been craftily and nastily manipulated, wondering if Jo, with her history of mental instability, might not be a fit and proper person to look after the one light in her life, Elise. Max, who now feels openly betrayed by his wife, continues to be as unhelpful as possible, prompting Jo to wonder if he too has some kind of agenda.

Eventually, with scarcely a friend in the world to turn to, and growing threats on all sides, the embattled young mother opts to put her child in the car and simply go on the run. It seems unlikely that she’ll find any refuge in the UK, so she heads overseas to the land of her mother’s birth, Ireland.

But even over there, things are not all they may be. Despite the picturesque surroundings of Clogherhead in County Louth, the ever beady-eyed landlady, Mary Byrne, is also a woman with secrets, while the mere fact that Jo’s family originated around here seems to arouse some latent hostility.

Meanwhile, the danger that Jo felt creeping up on her in the UK hasn’t gone away, and it isn’t long before it crosses the Irish Sea in pursuit of her …   

C.L. Taylor is fast emerging as the queen of British domestic noir. With such tales of homespun terror as The Missing and The Accident already under her belt, she now hits us with another one, and in her own inimitable style, manages to make even the seemingly safest of places – leafy Middle England – into a suburban minefield.

I should say from the outset that there are no extremes of horror in this book. We’re not dealing with massacres, rape or rampant child-abuse. But in many ways, The Escape is more subtly harrowing than any of those. Because the enemies here, at least for a good part of the novel, are the very institutions that are supposed to be there to help – they are especially supposed to help people like Jo Blackmore, a woman of good character but emotionally distraught to the point where many aspects of ordinary life are too much for her.

This is brave writing by Taylor. So often in thriller fiction, as in real life in fact, the police, the social services (even the nursery school establishment, for Heaven’s sake!), are firmly with the good guys, but so cleverly constructed is this story, and at the same time so skewed is the reality of things when viewed through the prism of mild mental illness, that they are here projected in a very different light. Jo Blackmore wants nothing more than to be able to live her life and raise her daughter, with or without her self-centred husband – which part of it is very much up to him. Yet there are so many implacable forces ganging up against her; and who the hell do they think they are, anyway, to interfere in the way she conducts her own affairs and raises her own little girl!

I should hastily add that the caring establishment is not the arch-enemy here, but it does present Jo with a wall of faceless and frightening bureaucracy, which not only must she somehow get over in order to find her freedom, but which is also doing a very effective job of shielding the real villains, though needless to say – and what a surprise this isn’t! – it doesn’t prove very effective in preventing them from striking at her.

I don’t think I’ve ever read another book in which the innocent were so up against it as Jo Blackmore is here. There is very little brutality in The Escape, the unfairness Jo faces in this tale is a monster in itself – not that this stops you wondering from time to time if maybe, just maybe, she has finally succumbed to her demons and the fault may lie with her after all. But that’s a question you can only find an answer to by reading the book. And this is another aspect of C.L. Taylor’s thrillers for which she is rightly lauded: the psychological questions she poses. From the very start, we are informed that Jo Blackmore is battling with post-natal depression. But just how far has it actually gone? Could it be that she is seriously mentally ill? How do we know what is real and what isn’t?

This delightful twisty element, which is masterfully blended into the narrative, gives The Escape a real Hitchockian aura, which when you consider that it’s a consciously low-key mystery-thriller – as I say, a ‘domestic noir’ – shows how effectively written it is.

A big book, but a quick read. Another of those famous page-turners. You won’t be disappointed.

And now, as usual, I’m going to be cheeky enough to suggest my own cast should The Escape ever make it to the screen, and given network television’s current fascination with the ups and downs and ins and outs of modern middle-class life, particularly when there’s a darker edge to it, I reckon this one would be idea. Anyway, here we go:

Jo Blackmore – Eleanor Tomlinson
Max Blackmore – Ioan Gruffud
Paula – Amanda Abbington
Mary Byrne – Sinead Cusack

Thursday, 16 March 2017

In your face crime and grime, British style

This week we’re on the dark, rain-wet streets and grimy urban landscapes of the British crime thriller. Firstly, because we yet again are going to be talking about my forthcoming new release, ASHES TO ASHES, which is now only four weeks away. Secondly, because I thought this would be an opportune time to pick out and highlight the TEN BEST BRITISH CRIME MOVIES YOUVE POSSIBLY NOT SEEN, and thirdly, because I’m also going to be reviewing and discussing Mark Roberts’s gritty and tension-riddled, Liverpool-set crime novel, DEAD SILENT.

As always, that book review can be found at the lower end of today’s post. In the meantime, as mentioned above, ASHES TO ASHES, the sixth DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg novel, is due to hit the bookshelves on April 6. This time, we’re taking the lonely hero home to Bradburn, the Lancashire mill-town where he was born and raised, and which has haunted him all his life because of certain dreadful things that happened there.

But in ASHES TO ASHES, Heck goes back to Bradburn not so much unwillingly – he never likes returning ‘home’ – but determinedly, because the town of his birth is now overrun by criminals and drug-addicts, and at the same time being terrorised by two rival killers, who seem to be running up scorecards of victims in defiance of each other. And these are not run-of-the-mill stranglings or throat-cuttings. One of the killers is a professional torturer, who uses the most ingenious and protracted methods to despatch his subjects, while the other, known by the press as ‘the Incinerator’, wears heavy body-armour and wields a flame-thrower.

Yes, it gets nasty … which has often been a hallmark of British crime fiction, and especially British crime movies.

By their very nature, I’ve long found these a fascinating animal. Certainly, up until the more recent age of the mockney/cockney antics we started seeing in romps like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Layer Cake (2004) and Sexy Beast (2000), British crime cinema took its main inspiration from the American noirs of the 1940s, telling dour, downbeat tales of weary individuals trying to forge their way through cities blighted by squalor and vice, featuring lead-characters – be they cops, PIs, or even villains – who were often no better than they had to be, establishments that were inherently corrupt, and an underworld that was all-consuming.

The tone was bleak throughout, and they rarely ended well.

Most students of the genre will be familiar with the classics in this field. Brighton Rock (1947), Get Carter (1971) and the Long Good Friday (1980) are still in many ways the benchmark, but it also seems to me that there has been a whole swathe of British crime thrillers which rarely get a mention these days, and yet which tick all the boxes and stand up very well indeed.

And so here, just for the fun of it, and in no particular order, are …

THE TEN BEST BRITISH CRIME MOVIES YOUVE POSSIBLY NOT SEEN:   

The Squeeze (1977): Alcoholic Scotland Yard detective Stacy Keach has to throw off the DTs when his ex-wife is kidnapped by gangsters as part of a plan to pull a massive heist. Stephen Boyd and David Hemmings add kudos as the lead blaggers.

The Reckoning (1969): Nicol Williamson is the northern-born executive, successful at business, but whose inner loutishness isolates him from the London middle-classes. When his elderly father is beaten to death by Hell’s Angels, he heads back home looking for revenge.

The Internecine Project (1974): James Coburn is the London-based spy chief, who opts to clean house by arranging for his operatives to kill each other all on the same night. Rousing support from a cast of old reliables like Ian Hendry, Harry Andrews (left), Lee Grant and Michael Jayston.

Hell is a City (1960): Manchester DI Stanley Baker’s life falls apart as he goes all out to catch an old lag who has busted out of jail and is determined to reclaim the loot from his last job. Brit noir at its most intense, at the dawn of the swinging 60s.

The Offence (1973): Detective Sergeant Sean Connery struggles to contain his inner beast when he collars suspected child molester, Ian Bannen. Trevor Howard and Peter Bowles are his fellow detectives. Unrelentingly bleak cop drama, way ahead of its time.

Villain (1971): Vicious East End gang boss Richard Burton over-extends his reach when he joins forces with a rival firm who neither trust nor like him. Ian McShane is the underworld fixer who can’t prevent his gaffer from making this final, fatal mistake.

Sitting Target (1972): Psychotic killer Oliver Reeds busts out of prison, but eschews the escape route his gang have laid out, by looking to get even with the wife who betrayed him. Edward Woodward is the cop determined to nail him.

The Psychopath (1966): London cops investigate a string of murders in which the horribly mutilated victims all have dolls left by their corpses. Blood and guts from the ‘Pan Horror’ era of crime thrillers. Patrick Wymark is the DI with the least enviable job in town.

Eastern Promises (2007): Midwife Naomi Watts falls fouls of the Russian Mafia when she comes into possession of a baby, the mere existence of which proves they are trafficking underage prostitutes into the UK. Vincent Cassel and Viggo Mortensen are the menacing mobsters.

The League of Gentlemen (1960): A bunch of former WWII commandos, unable to reintegrate into society, reconvene to carry out a complex and violent bank robbery  (pictured top). A host of classy talent includes Jack Hawkins, Bryan Forbes and Richard Attenborough.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.  

DEAD SILENT 
by Mark Roberts (2016)

Liverpool in the depths of December. Christmas is approaching, but there is little joy to be had in the Sefton Park district of the wintry city.

DCI Eve Clay and her team of experienced homicide investigators are baffled and horrified when they are called to the murder of retired octogenarian college professor, Leonard Lawson, an expert in medieval art. To make the case even more disturbing, Lawson, who was ritually slaughtered inside his own home and then fastened to a stake in the fashion of a game-animal, was discovered by his daughter, Louise, an ageing and rather fragile lady herself, who is so shocked by the incident that she can barely even discuss it.

This resolute silence, whether it’s a natural reaction to the horror of the incident, or something more sinister – and Clay is undecided either way – impedes the police, who are keen to delve into the victim’s past, not to mention his current circle of acquaintances, to try and work out who might harbour such a grudge that they would inflict such sadistic violence on him.

At least Clay can call upon a considerable amount of expertise. DS Bill Hendricks is her strong right-arm, and a no-nonsense but deep-thinking copper who knows his job inside out. DS Gina Riley is the softer face of the job, another experienced detective but a gentle soul when she wants to be, and very intuitive. Meanwhile, DS’s Karl Stone and Terry Mason are each formidable in their own way, as are the various other support staff the charismatic DCI can call upon.

With such power and knowledge in her corner, it isn’t long before Clay is making progress, a matter of hours in fact, though the mystery steadily deepens, leading her first to a care home for mentally disabled men (including the likeable, innocent Abey), and yet run by the non-too-pleasant Adam Miller and his attractive if weary wife, Danielle (who may or may not be more than just a colleague to the young, modern-minded carer, Gideon Stephens).

Yes, it seems as if there are mysteries within mysteries to be uncovered during this investigation. However, Clay and her crew continue to make ground, finally becoming interested in Gabriel Huddersfield, a disturbed loner who haunts the park and makes strange and even menacing religious speeches, and being drawn irresistibly towards three curious if time-honoured paintings: The Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch, and The Tower of Babel and The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel.

These garish Renaissance masterpieces were all regarded at the time, and by modern scholars, as instructions for the benefit of mankind, giving warnings about his fate should he stray from the path of righteousness, each one incorporating terrifying and brutal imagery in order to deliver its fearsome message.

But even though these objects inform the case, and Clay and her team soon develop suspects, the enquiry continues to widen. What role, for example, does the rather strange character who was the late Professor Noone have to play in all this, and what exactly was the so-called ‘English Experiment’? All we know about it initially is that it wasn’t very ethical and that it somehow involved children.

Clay herself becomes emotionally attached to the case, its quasi-religious undertones affecting her more and more, because, as a childhood orphan, she was raised by Catholic nuns, though in her case – and this makes a welcome change in a work of modern fiction – it wasn’t all negative; Clay owes her empathetic nature to the love and affection she received from her guardian, Sister Philomena, while the tough but kindly Father Murphy recognised and nurtured the spark of leonine determination that would go on to gird her greatly for the challenging paths ahead.

But all this will be rendered null and void of course if the Selfton Park murderer is not apprehended quickly. Because, almost inevitably, he now strikes again, committing two more equally horrific ritualistic slayings.

Clay and her team find themselves racing against time to end this ghastliness, a race that takes them into and around some very notable Liverpool landmarks, the city’s two great cathedrals for example, and all along the snowy, slushy banks of the Mersey (all of which are generously mapped out for us). And all the while, they become ever more aware that this is no ordinary level of depravity they are dealing with. Nor is it necessarily the work of a single killer. Who, for example, is ‘the First Born’, and who is the ‘Angel of Destruction’? Whoever these ememies of society actually are, however many they number, and whatever their crazed, fervour-driven motives, it soon becomes apparent that they are just as likely to be a threat to the police hunting them as they were to those victims they have already butchered …

Dead Silent is the second Eve Clay novel from Mark Roberts, and a pretty intriguing follow-up to the original outing, Blood Mist.

From the outset, the chilly urban setting is excellently realised. You totally get the feeling that you’re in a wintry Liverpool, the bitter cold all but emanating from its pages, the age-old monolithic structures of the city’s great cathedrals standing stark and timeless against this dreary backdrop, the gloomy greyness of which is more than matched by the mood; the murder detectives certainly have no time for the impending fun of Christmas as they work doggedly through what is basically a single high-intensity shift, pursuing a pair of truly malign and murderous opponents.

And that’s another vital point to make. Dead Silent is another of those oft-quoted ‘page-turners’, but in this case it’s the real deal – because it practically takes place in real time.

The enquiry commences at 2.38am on a freezing December morning, and finishes at 8.04pm that night, the chapters, each one of which opens helpfully with a time-clock, often arriving within a few minutes of each other. This is a clever device, which really does keep you reading, especially as almost every new chapter brings another key development in the multi-stranded tale.

If this sounds as though Dead Silent is exclusively about the enquiry, and skimps on any additional drama or character development, then that would be incorrect. It is about the enquiry – this is a murder investigation, commencing with a report that an apparently injured party is walking the streets in a daze, and finishing with a major result for the local murder team (and a twist in the tale from Hell, a shocker of an ending that literally hits you like a hammer-blow!), with very few events occurring in between that aren’t connected to it. However, the rapid unfolding of this bewildering mystery, and the warm but intensely professional interplay between the various detectives keeps everything rattling along.

Because this is a highly experienced and very well-oiled investigation unit, each member slotting comfortably and proficiently into his or her place, attacking the case on several fronts at once, and yet at the same time operating as a super-efficient whole, of which DCI Eve Clay is the central hub.

Of course, this kind of arrangement is replicated in big city police departments across the world, and is usually the reason why mystifying murders are reported on the lunchtime news, only for the arrest of a suspect to be announced by teatime. As an ex-copper, it gave me a real pang of pleasure to see one of the main offenders here, a cruel narcissist and Pound Shop megalomaniac, expressing dismay and disbelief when he learns how quickly he is being closed down.

And yet, Mark Roberts doesn’t just rush us through the case. He also gives himself lots of time to do some great character work.

As previously stated, Eve Clay is the keystone, the intellectual and organisational force behind the team’s progress, but at the same time, while a mother back at home, also a mother to her troops, someone they can confide in when they have problems, but also someone they have implicit faith will lead them from one success to the next. What is really fascinating about Clay, though, is the way her difficult childhood in a Catholic orphanage has strengthened her emotionally and gifted her with a warmth the likes of which I’ve rarely seen in fictional detectives (and which, at times, is genuinely touching). She makes a fine if unusual hero.

To avoid giving away too many spoilers, I must, by necessity, avoid discussing the civilian characters in the book, except to say that Mark Roberts takes a cynical but perceptive view of the kind of people police officers meet when investigating serious crime.

Ultimately, all those involved in this case, even if only on the periphery, are abnormal in one way or another, while those at the heart of it … well, suffice to say that some kind of insanity is at work here. Because surely only insanity, or pure evil, or a combination of both, can lie at the root of murders like these. Roberts investigates this wickedness to a full and satisfying degree, completely explaining – if not excusing – the terrible acts that are depicted, and yet at the same time using them to underscore the dour tone of the book. Because there is nothing particularly extravagant or outlandish about the villains in Dead Silent, even if they do commit horrific and sadistic murders. They may be depraved, but there is still an air of the kitchen sink about them, of the mundane, of the self-absorbed losers that so many violent sexual criminals are in real life – again, this adds a welcome flavour of the authentic.

To finish on a personal note, I also loved the arcane, artistic elements in the tale. Again, I won’t go into this in too much detail, but I’ve long been awe-stricken by messianic later-medieval painters like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Though replete with multiple meanings, their lurid visions of Hell and damnation, of a world gone mad (or maybe a world born mad!), are among the most memorable and disturbing ever committed to canvas. It’s distressing to consider that such horror derived from men of artistry and intellect, but then to see these ancient atrocities interwoven with latter-day insanities like the English Experiment (which again has emerged from men with talent and education!), is fascinating, and gives this novel a richness of aura and depth of atmosphere that I’ve rarely encountered in crime fiction.

Read Dead Silent. It’s a class act.

And now, as always at the end of one of my book reviews, I’m going to be bold (or foolish) enough to propose a cast should Dead Silent ever make it to the screen, though most likely that would only happen if Blood Mist happened first. Nevertheless, here are my picks:

DCI Eve Clay – Claire Sweeney 
DS Gina Riley – Tricia Penrose
DS Bill Hendricks – Liam Cunningham
Danielle Miller – Cathy Tyson 
Adam Miller – Paul McGann 
Gideon Stephens – Tom Hughes
Louise Lawson – Alison Steadman
Leonard Lawson – Malcom McDowell
DS Karl Stone – Stephen Graham
DS Terry Mason – Joe Dempsie
Gabriel Huddersfield – Luke Treadaway
Abey – Allen Leech

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Fancy a little touch of terror in the night?

I’m pleased to be able to report that the TERROR TALES series is back on track. If you look left, you’ll see that the final proof of TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL has arrived. 

After months of unavoidable delays and disruption, it suddenly feels very real again.

I’ll fill you in on the latest situation a bit further down in today’s post. Very relevantly to this, I’ll also be offering a detailed discussion and review of Reggie Oliver’s amazing novel, THE DRACULA PAPERS – it’s relevant because a new story by Reggie appears in the Cornwall book, but also because it’s horror and horror is the theme of the day.

But as usual, you’ll be able to find that review at the lower end of today’s post. If you’re happy to stick around here a little while first, there are some other bits and bobs to talk about ...


First of all, I’ll be appearing at the Mill Forge Hotel, just outside Gretna Green, this coming Saturday (March 11) as part of the CRIME AND PUBLISHMENT weekend, to make a presentation and talk animatedly (at least, I hope I'll be animated) about HOW TO PUT HORROR INTO YOUR CRIME WRITING.

I won’t be the only attraction at the Mill Forge this weekend, of course. LIN ANDERSON (left) will be there to talk about the use of forensics, and TOM HARPER (right) to discuss suspense, among several other immeasurable talents.

My own subject was chosen for me by GRAHAM SMITH, Mill gaffer and crime-writer extraordinaire, so I owe him a big debt of thanks for that. He was very keen to hear me impart any wisdom I may have gleaned during my gradual transformation over the years from horror writer to crime novelist.

I will admit, I was a bit nervous initially. My two-and-a-half hour slot is considerably longer than any previous slot of this sort that I’ve been allocated, but I think (hope, pray!) that I’ll have prepped my stuff sufficiently to make this an interesting time for all those planning to attend.

If you are heading to the Mill this weekend, I look forward to seeing you. And if you’re a regular on this blog, or on Facebook or Twitter, or whatever, please introduce yourself to me. It’s always great to put names to faces.

Now … onto the subject of the TERROR TALES books.

It was a personal mission of mine for several years to edit anthologies of original horror fiction, specifically in reference to folklore, mythology and real-life paranormal or occult-related mysteries, of which we have an absolute plethora here in the UK.

The result was the TTs, as I like to call them.

Originally published by the late lamented Gray Friar Press, the series started out spiffingly with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT and then ran on through THE COTSWOLDS, EAST ANGLIA, LONDON, THE SEASIDE, WALES, YORKSHIRE, THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS and THE OCEAN (yes, we’ve gone further and further afield the deeper into it we delved – it quickly became apparent to me that there were plenty other places in the world replete with eeriness and the arcane, so it was never the plan to draw the line once we’d covered the UK … not that we’re even close to that yet).

My motivation behind each book was not just to tell a bunch of scary stories from a particular geographic region, but to try and tap the zeitgeist of that district; to really get a feel for its culture and beliefs, its legends and curiosities.
As such, taking a leaf out of R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s TALES OF TERROR series from the 1970s, as published by Fontana, I opted to intersperse the fictional stories with non-fictional anecdotes – true terror tales if you like, supernatural occurrences, bizarre mysteries, horrific events, unexplained but ghastly crimes.

So for example, while in TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN, we have Steve Duffy’s fictional account of a sea-rescue from Hell in ‘Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed’, we also examine the true life mystery of the Palmyra Atoll curse. Likewise, while in  TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, we join Peter Bell on an ill-fated climbing expedition to a mountain-top rock form called ‘The Executioner’, we also investigate the incredible true facts in the case of the killer and cannibal, Tristicloke the Wolf.

This format was replicated throughout the series, and went on to win quite a bit of praise from various corners.

Anyway, as many are now probably aware, early last year, when half way through production of the 10th book in the series, TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL, the publisher, Gray Friar, through no fault of their own, were forced to cease trading. It was a sad event in the independent press, not just because of the TTs, but because GF had been a hugely productive outfit and a very adventurous publisher of British weird fiction.

All good things come to an end, but I was determined that TERROR TALES was going to continue. I needed to look around for a new publisher of course, and this coincided with the ever more time consuming process of writing of my own crime novels, which seemed to reduce the hours available to the bare minimum.

But despite this, we’ve got there in the end.

The new book is coming out from TELOS PUBLISHING, a hugely well-regarded independent publisher here in the UK. And it’s with every likelihood, and a firm intention on both our parts, that more volumes will follow.

But don’t just take my word for it. As you saw above, the final proof of TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL arrived at my office only yesterday.

So yes, after a long hiatus, the series is finally up and running again.

We don’t have an actual publication date or pre-order page as yet, but if you keep your eyes glued to this blog, Facebook, Twitter etc, I shall endeavour to post that information as soon as I get it, along with the full jacket, including the back-cover blurb, and a detailed table of contents.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.


In the mid-16th century, Prince Vladimir Dracul of Transylvania, son of the vain and greedy king, Xantho, commences his rise to prominence as ‘the Impaler’ and in due course as ‘Dracula the Vampire’, through a series of violent, hair-raising adventures, an intense love affair and a succession of bizarre supernatural events.

All of this is observed and, in fact, noted down and related to us in diary form by the German scholar, Doctor Martin Bellorious, who at the start of this book, along with his companions, sly alchemist-in-training Matthew Verney and good-natured dwarf, Razendoringer, flees the University of Wittenberg before a heresy charge can be levelled, and heads east through ever more dangerous territories.   

It is already difficult to say much more about this astonishing narrative, because almost from the word-go, amazing, delightful and crucially important plot-developments occur – and continue to occur at a rate of at least one a chapter. Suffice to say that this is Europe of the 1570s, a vast, desolate, largely lawless land, where bandits haunt the highways, wolves fill the forests, armies wage endless internecine warfare, noblemen rule as crazy despots, black magic is very, very real and, when night falls, all kinds of evil supernatural beings walk abroad.

Even before Bellorious and his friends reach the ‘safety’ of Castle Dracula, they have several hair-raising escapades in this torturous land of far beyond, narrowly avoiding nasty fates at the hands of various antagonists, including, among several others, two ogre-like cannibals and then Rudolph, the unhinged ruler of Bohemia. And when the dauntless band makes it to Transylvania and then into Castle Dracula, they find themselves immersed in the cutthroat politics of Xantho’s Machiavellian court.

For example, despite a straightforward appointment to school rival princes Vlad (pictured above in his more famous later guise) and Mircea, Bellorious soon earns the enmity of the ambitious chamberlain, Alexander of Glem, who constantly puts dangers and difficulties in his path, he learns unsavoury things about Queen Eupraxia – things which could easily get him killed, he discovers that Xantho is more interested in acquiring wealth and in mocking his gibbering courtiers than he is in organising matters of state, and he struggles to educate Prince Mircea, whose main interests are guzzling wine and ravishing servant girls.

At the same time, there are countless weird and wonderful things in Castle Dracula. From complete absurdities – like a mechanical eating machine which Xantho forces upon one of his boyar flatterers; to the highly distasteful – like the deranged courtier who lives on a diet of spiders, cockroaches and other vermin; to the truly terrifying – like the vampiristic ghost said to roam the Old Queen’s apartments and the tribe of madmen living in the deepest, most forgotten parts of the castle dungeons.

Unfortunately for Bellorious, he doesn’t have much time to explore properly in order to assess these curiosities. Because all the time this is happening, the legions of Murad III (right), Sultan of the immense Ottoman Empire, are massing on the border under the super-efficient leadership of the ferocious Turkish warrior, Grand Vizier Sokolly. Despite the warnings of Ragul, Xantho’s illegitimate son and commander-in-chief of his armed forces, Xantho is strangely unconcerned about any this, so when the attack finally arrives it does so with overwhelming force. By this time, Bellorious has enlightened Prince Vlad sufficiently for him to realise that his homeland is in very serious trouble, and the noble youth participates in the following campaign with almost reckless courage. But both he and his teacher are aware from an early stage that victory, ultimately, is going to elude them, even if it is wrested away from them by skillful negotiation rather than bloody conflict.

Only God knows – or maybe the Devil – what will happen to them after that …    

It’s often said of Reggie Oliver that he is genre fiction’s best-kept secret. I have two immediate thoughts on that. First of all, it’s probably true. Secondly, if it is true it’s an absolute crime.

Oliver, who already had a successful career as an actor, theatre director, playwright and biographer before his writing took a distinctly darker turn in the early 2000s, is by far one of the most talented practitioners of spookiness currently working in the English language. It’s probably true to say that he first came to the literary horror world’s attention with a series of searingly frightening and at the same time very eloquent short stories – ghost stories on the surface, though often much deeper and more complex than that, strongly reminiscent of both M.R. James and Robert Aickman (if you can imagine such a thing!), and yet embracing every kind of nightmare in the weird fiction spectrum: from the restless dead to the demonic, from the spirits of myth to the often even worse aberrations of the human psyche, and invariably wrapping it all up in succinct, readable, and yet delightfully poetic prose.

Of course, not every expert in the short form is able to expand his skill into the much broader realm of the novel; the two disciplines don’t necessarily overlap. However, it was a joy (and somehow no surprise at all) to discover that this does not apply to Reggie Oliver, whose first novel, The Dracula Papers, is just as elegantly written, just as thought-provoking, just as shudder-inducing and just as much a pleasure and an entertainment as any of his short stories.

The first volume in a proposed trilogy studying the origins of Count Dracula the vampire, this is already a phenomenal feat of strange literature and though only one of three, a completely satisfying novel in its own right, which should appeal to a wide readership.

To begin with, The Dracula Papers isn’t specifically a horror novel, though there is much horror on show here: spine-chilling horror of the traditional ghost story variety on one hand, and sensual, shocking horror on the other – nothing explicit, though of such a lurid and Gothic tone that some of it wouldn’t be out of place in the old Dracula movies of the Hammer era. But in addition to all that, the book is written with such an air of authority, delving so deeply and fascinatingly into the culture of the time and place, touching on the many beliefs and philosophies prevalent in that age – everything from long-held superstitions, to late-medieval romances, to the intellectual chaos wrought by changing religion and advancing science – that it reeks of scholarship in its own right.

On top of that, it’s an historical saga on a grand but brutal scale. We see brandings, beheadings and impalements galore, a truly memorable scene wherein an avalanche of severed heads is launched over the walls of Castle Dracula by the besieging Turkish army, and one enormous battle which becomes a literal slaughterhouse.

Again, none of this is graphic or titillating, but it’s all there on the page – which only adds to the vivid portrayal of a terrible world now thankfully lost in time. And yet this itself is a kind of irony, because Oliver, rather bravely, makes no real effort to depict true historical events.

The Dracula Papers owes as much to folklore as it does to genuine history, and not a little amount to fiction. For example, the real Vlad Tepes and his brother, Mircea, lived in the 15th century not the 16th, there was no actual kingdom of Transylvania in this era, rather it was a principality of the kingdom of Hungary, while the lofty position the real Vlad aspired to was not as a king but as Prince of Wallachia, and Elizabeth Bathory (later known as ‘Countess Dracula’) who appears here renamed Nyela and as a deceased but murderess noblewoman of earlier decades, was not even born in 1477, when the real Vlad the Impaler died.

But none of this matters. In fact, it adds to the joy. Because what we’ve got here, rather than a textbook, is a richly-woven fabric of adult-themed fairy tales. For example, not even the well-educated and clear-minded Martin Bellorious thinks it odd that a local village is terrorised by a ‘murony’; in fact it is he who takes it on himself to dispose of the evil sprite. Rumours of the terrifying Black Cathedral – a secret university dedicated to the dark arts – are believed with absolute certainty. When Bellorious encounters Issachar, a vagrant claiming to be the Wandering Jew of apocryphal legend, he is honoured rather than doubtful. Likewise, when the Turkish sorcerer, Zushad, displays necromantic powers, Bellorious is only one of many fascinated witnesses to the dramatic and nightmarish outcome.  

But this is not just a story about myths coming true. Oliver also presents us with the real, functioning and yet terribly unjust world of the Reformation, where the peasantry struggles annually for survival, monarchs seek only to enrich themselves, and seats of intellectualism like colleges and guilds are too busy arguing about heresy to care about everyday affairs. He also concerns himself with military matters. Eastern Europe is now under threat from the Ottomans, the gunpowder-capable armies of the Early Modern Age constantly redrawing the map as they manoeuvre around each other, feinting and sallying, and occasionally clashing full-on to spectacularly bloody effect. At the same time, courtly intrigue is everywhere, both in the magnificent Ottoman capital of Istanbul – ‘Stamboul’, as it is referred to here – but also in the Spartan confines of Castle Dracula, where such is the underhand scheming that no-one, not even Xantho’s unfaithful wife, Queen Eupraxia, feels totally safe.

This brings me onto the characters, which – even those who only make a fleeting appearance – are constructed by Oliver swiftly and yet in full, complex fashion.

Even though we’re immersed in the world of angels and demons, there are few individuals here who are all good and all bad. Bellorious himself makes a fine lead, though he’s very human. Despite his status, he is only in his late 20s, and yet throughout the narrative displays wisdom, probity and empathy – he only takes lives when he has to, and though he’s a scholar and in many ways, an ascetic, his lustful yearning for the beautiful slave-girl, Inanna, is almost painful.

Dracula himself – Vlad in this preliminary volume – though he starts off a wide-eyed youth and an eager student, soon gives hints that he has a darker side: he is petty, he sulks and he will kill in battle with what can only be described as gusto. In addition, he is instantly recognisable as the scion of a noble house, for though he is brave, handsome and dashing, he is also self-centred to an alarming degree.

Other characters are equally colourful, if more briefly handled. Matthew Verney is untrustworthy from the outset, but Oliver paints him slowly and with immense skill, transforming him from ambiguity to villainy with a pace so subtle that it consciously takes up the length of the novel. Others meanwhile are more bound by their stations in life: rival sovereigns, Murad and Xantho, and the latter’s son and heir, Mircea, are distinctly unimpressive men, undeserving of the life-and-death control they exert, and yet so bored by it all that they often neglect their responsibilities, allowing ambitious underlings like Sokolly and Alexander of Glem to grow in power. Meanwhile, below them, better people are eternally doomed by their subservient status: Commander Ragul takes his job seriously, but knows that ultimately he will fail because he lacks the support of his king, and he is very aware that he himself will pay for this failure; star-crossed lovers Razendoringer and dwarf lady-in-waiting Dolabella, though spirited individuals of many talents, will always be servants and/or buffoons because they are dwarfs; while Inanna, the saddest character of all, has accepted her life as a sex-slave to the point where she will trade the abuse of her body to get better deals for her friends.

Despite these melancholic moments, The Dracula Papers, what we have so far seen of it, is a richly textured, meticulously-researched piece of fiction, but also a rolling, comedic, action-packed yarn, filled with magic, mystery and mayhem, romantic and sexual love, wild violence and chilling horror, and dosed throughout with the author’s trademark scholarly asides and scathing humour.

A bona fide treat of a novel that will leave no-one disappointed.

As usual, I’m now going to be bold enough to suggest a cast I personally would select should The Dracula Papers #1: The Scholar’s Tale ever make it to the screen (and how I would love to see that happen). It would be an expensive production for sure, but then so was Game of Thrones, and I’m always hearing how the networks are looking for a like-for-like follow-up to that hugely successful show. Well, guys … here you go.

Martin Bellorious – Darren Boyd (older than written, but itd work)
Prince Vladimir – Will Poulter
Razendoringer – Warwick Davis
Matthew Verney – Iwan Rheon
Prince Mircea – Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Ragul – Alexander Dreymon
Alexander of Glem – Daniel Webb
King Xantho – Vincent Regan
Queen Eupraxia – Patricia Velasquez
Issachar – Rutger Hauer
Grand Vizier Sokolly – Burak Özçivit
Inanna – Hend Sabry
Zushad – Art Malik