It can only be that worst page of the calendar, January. But if nothing else, at least in January we get to look ahead bookwise, to see what treats 2023 might have in store for us. So, that will take up the bulk of today’s post: as I always do at this time of year, I’m going to preview the 10 crime novels, the 10 thriller novels and the 10 horror novels (and anthologies) due to be released between now and the end of June that I am most looking forward to.
However, as always in these blogposts, there are other treats too. For instance, in celebration of the new Amazon supernatural horror series, The Rig (well, not really in celebration of it, but it’s a link of sorts, even if tenuous), I shall be reviewing another ocean-bound oil-platform horror, Paul E Cooley’s THE BLACK.
As usual, you will find that in my Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s column. Before any of that though, how’s about, we go …
USURPER: Book One of the WULFBURY CHRONICLES, tells the tale of a young Saxon noble, Cerdic Aelfricsson of Wulfbury, who, during the chaos and violence of the Norman Conquest, loses everything that matters to him, his family, his friends, his home, but who is determined that this will not be the end of his line, and that no matter how brutal and terrifying the odds, he will fight back to the last ounce of strength he possesses.
As a huge fan all my life of historical action writers like Ben Kane, Mark Chadbourn/James Wilde, Matthew Harffy, Anthony Riches, David Gilman and Bernard Cornwell, even going back to such long-distant exponents of the art as Henry Treece and Alfred Duggan, it’s long been my ambition to venture back to the Dark Ages myself and pen a few sword-wielding adventures of my own.
Well, as you’re soon going to get bored of seeing me say it on here, my first one, USURPER, can be pre-ordered right now. It will be published electronically and in paperback on April 27.
And now, for something somewhat different. As promised …
I’ve already mentioned this in today’s intro, so I won’t go on too much about it. Suffice to say that I’ve been looking online and getting very excited about certain books due for publication between now and the end of June this year. So, I’m going to share with you my picks for the 10 most intriguing forthcoming titles in the following three categories of dark fiction: Crime, Thriller, Horror.
Hope you enjoy (and agree, or, if you disagree, you can always put me right in the comments section). If there’s any book or author I’ve missed out who you really think should be included, I offer humble apologies in advance. It might be an oversight on my part, or it might be that this particular publication hasn’t caught my imagination. If I spent a week on this, I could probably preview a 100 titles in each category, but alas, I haven’t got the time or space for that.
Enough natter, let’s just get on with it. Not having read any of these forthcoming books yet, these obviously aren’t reviews. Instead of that, I’m going to leave it to the publishers to do the talking by featuring the back-cover blurb for each title that I choose …
THE DEAD OF WINTER
It was supposed to be an easy job.
All Detective Constable Edward Reekie had to do was pick up a dying prisoner from HMP Grampian and deliver him somewhere to live out his last few months in peace.
From the outside, Glenfarach looks like a quaint, sleepy, snow-dusted village, nestled deep in the heart of Cairngorms National Park, but things aren’t what they seem. The place is thick with security cameras and there’s a strict nine o'clock curfew, because Glenfarach is the final sanctuary for people who’ve served their sentences but can’t be safely released into the general population.
Edward’s new boss, DI Montgomery-Porter, insists they head back to Aberdeen before the approaching blizzards shut everything down, but when an ex-cop-turned-gangster is discovered tortured to death in his bungalow, someone needs to take charge.
The weather’s closing in, tensions are mounting, and time’s running out - something nasty has come to Glenfarach, and Edward is standing right in its way ...
On the third day of the Kendleton Country Fair in Lancashire, thirteen-year-old Charlotte Kirkham goes missing. Retired detective superintendent Henry Christie is there as a volunteer steward, but Charlotte’s sudden disappearance isn’t the only thing troubling him. The man with the burger van looks familiar ... for all the wrong reasons.
Leonard Lennox was jailed for twelve years for abducting a young girl. Henry rescued her, unharmed, and helped put Leonard behind bars. Now he’s out, with his own criminal outfit, old scores to settle, and a son who was last seen talking to Charlotte at the fair. Is history about to repeat itself? Henry is soon drawn into another hair-raising, pulse-pounding race against time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher ...
When a night-time firebomb attack at a Brighton travellers’ site kills women and children, Chief Superintendent Jo Howe has strong reason to believe the new, dubiously elected, neo-nazi council leader is behind the murders. Against the direct orders of her chief constable, Jo digs deep into the killings secretly briefing the senior investigating officer of her suspicions.
As she delves further, Jo uncovers an underworld of human trafficking, slavery and euthanasia all leading to a devastating plot which threatens thousands of lives and from which the murderous politician looks sure to walk scott-free. Having narrowly survived a plot to kill her, where another was not so lucky, she realises that only by facing near-certain death once more can she thwart this terrorist outrage.
Has someone got away with murder?
When a tech entrepreneur from Shoreditch is found dead in a construction site, along with three skeletons which are discovered to be over a hundred years old, Detective Kamil Rahman sets out to prove himself on his first case for the Met Police.
1930. Nell Fagan is a journalist on the trail of a intriguing and bizarre mystery: in 1606, a man vanished from a locked gatehouse in a remote Yorkshire village, and 300 years later, it happened again. Nell confides in the best sleuth she knows, judge’s daughter Rachel Savernake. Thank goodness she did, because barely a week later Nell disappears, and Rachel is left to put together the pieces of the puzzle.
Looking for answers, Rachel travels to lonely Blackstone Fell in Yorkshire, with its eerie moor and sinister tower. With help from her friend Jacob Flint - who’s determined to expose a fraudulent clairvoyant - Rachel will risk her life to bring an end to the disappearances and bring the truth to light.
A dazzling mystery peopled by clerics and medics; journalists and judges, Blackstone Fell explores the shadowy borderlands between spiritual and scientific; between sanity and madness; and between virtue and deadly sin.
BLOOD RUNS COLD
She was taken against her will.
On her fifteenth birthday, trafficking victim Affi Smith goes for a run and never returns. With a new identity and secure home in the Scottish Highlands, she was supposed to be safe ...
She escaped once.
With personal ties to Affi’s case, DS Max Craigie joins the investigation. When he discovers other trafficking victims have disappeared in exactly the same circumstances, he knows one thing for certain – there’s a leak somewhere within law-enforcement.
She won’t outrun them again.
The clock is ticking ... Max must catch Affi’s kidnappers and expose the mole before anyone else goes missing. Even it if means turning suspicions onto his own team…
Former Jersey City detective and single mother of two, Mickey Gibson, now works for global investigation company, ProEye, to track down assets of the wealthy who have tried to avoid their creditors. One day she gets a call from a colleague, Arlene Robinson, asking her to visit the home of a notorious arms dealer who has cheated some of ProEye’s clients in the past. Mickey arrives at the mansion to discover the body of a man hidden in a secret room.
It turns out that nothing is at it seems. The arms dealer did not exist, and nobody at ProEye knew of Arlene Robinson. Mickey had been tricked and now the cops were involved. The body was that of Thomas Lancaster who’d been in Witness Protection having had links with the mob.
Now begins a cat-and-mouse showdown between hardened ex-cop, Mickey, and a woman with sociopathic tendencies who has no name and a mysterious past. She intends to get what she wants and people who get in her way will die. For Mickey to stop her, she must first discover her true identity and what damaged her all those years ago. And the truth behind why she selected Micky to become her nemesis ...
‘Mrs. Fennessy, please go home.’
She smiles, but her eyes shine with agony. ‘All my small blessings are gone.’
In the summer of 1974 a heatwave blankets Boston and Mary Pat Fennessey is trying to stay one step ahead of the bill collectors. Mary Pat has lived her entire life in the housing projects of ‘Southie’, the Irish American enclave that stubbornly adheres to old tradition and stands proudly apart.
One night Mary Pat’s teenage daughter Jules stays out late and doesn't come home. That same evening, a young black man is found dead, struck by a subway train under mysterious circumstances.
The two events seem unconnected. But Mary Pat, propelled by a desperate search for her missing daughter, begins turning over stones best left untouched - asking questions that bother Marty Butler, chieftain of the Irish mob, and the men who work for him, men who don’t take kindly to any threat to their business.
Set against the hot, tumultuous months when the city’s desegregation of its public schools exploded in violence, Small Mercies is a superb thriller, a brutal depiction of criminality and power, and an unflinching portrait of the dark heart of American racism.
Meet Detective Miller: unique, unconventional, and criminally underestimated...
He’s a detective, a dancer, he has no respect for authority - and he’s the best hope Blackpool has for keeping criminals off the streets. Meet Detective Declan Miller.
A double murder in a seaside hotel sees a grieving Miller return to work to solve what appears to be a case of mistaken identity. Just why were two completely unconnected men taken out?
Despite a somewhat dubious relationship with both reality and his new partner, can the eccentric, offbeat Miller find answers where his colleagues have found only an impossible puzzle?
ALL THE SINNERS BLEED
After years of working as an FBI agent, Titus Crown returns home to Charon County, land of moonshine and cornbread, fist fights and honeysuckle. Seeing his hometown struggling with a bigoted police force inspires him to run for sheriff. He wins, and becomes the first black sheriff in the history of the county.
Then a year to the day after his election, a young black man is fatally shot by Titus’s deputies.
Titus pledges to follow the truth wherever it leads. But no one expected he would unearth a serial killer who has been hiding in plain sight, haunting the dirt lanes and woodland clearings of Charon.
Now, Titus must pull off the impossible: stay true to his instincts, prevent outright panic, and investigate a shocking crime in a small town where everyone knows everyone yet secrets flourish. All while also breaking up backroads bar fights and being forced to protect racist Confederate pride marchers.
For a black man wearing a police uniform in the American South, that's no easy feat. But Charon is Titus’s home and his heart, and he won’t let the darkness overtake it. Even as it threatens to consume him ...
Can he trust his friends – or his own mind – to make sense of the danger they appear to be in? Thwarted by the world and by his own innate desires, buffeted by unhealthy fixations, Bret spirals into paranoia and isolation as the relationship between The Trawler and Robert Mallory hurtles inexorably toward a collision.
Gripping, sly, suspenseful, deeply haunting and often darkly funny, The Shards is a mesmerising fusing of fact and fiction that brilliantly explores the emotional fabric of Bret’s life at 17 – sex and jealousy, obsession and murderous rage.
THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD
In retreat from a devastating loss and crushing injustice, Katie lives alone in a fortresslike stone house on Jacob’s Ladder island. Once a rising star in the art world, she finds refuge in her painting.
The neighboring island of Ringrock houses a secret: a government research facility. And now two agents have arrived on Jacob’s Ladder in search of someone―or something―they refuse to identify. Although an air of menace hangs over these men, an infinitely greater threat has arrived, one so strange even the island animals are in a state of high alarm.
Katie soon finds herself in an epic and terrifying battle with a mysterious enemy. But Katie’s not alone after all: a brave young girl appears out of the violent squall. As Katie and her companion struggle across a dark and eerie landscape, against them is an omnipresent terror that could bring about the end of the world.
LOOK BOTH WAYS
They think as one. They act as one. They kill as one.
The residents of Garrett Island are part of a visionary experiment. Their cars have been sent to the mainland and for one month, they’ve got self-driving vehicles called Arrivals. With just a voice command, an Arrival will take you where you want to go, and as the cars are all aware of each other, road accidents should be a thing of the past.
As the world’s press arrives for a glimpse of this driverless future, islander and single mom Sandra Montrose preps for the huge media event. She’s ready for this new world. Her husband died when he fell asleep at the wheel, and she’s relieved her two teens, Archie and Katie, may never need driver’s licenses.
But as the day gets underway, there are signs all is not well. A member of the press has vanished. There are rumours of industrial sabotage.
Before long, the sleek driverless cars are no longer taking orders. They’re starting to organize. They’re starting to hunt. And they’ve got the residents of Garrett Island in their sights.
Grace isn’t exactly thrilled when her newly widowed mother, Jackie, asks to move in with her. They’ve never had a great relationship, and Grace likes her space―especially now that she’s stuck at home during a pandemic. Then again, she needs help with the mortgage after losing her job. And maybe it’ll be a chance for them to bond―or at least give each other a hand.
But living with Mother isn’t for everyone. Good intentions turn bad soon after Jackie moves in. Old wounds fester; new ones open. Grace starts having nightmares about her disabled twin sister, who died when they were kids. And Jackie discovers that Grace secretly catfishes people online―a hobby Jackie thinks is unforgivable.
When Jackie makes an earth-shattering accusation against her, Grace sees it as an act of revenge, and it sends her spiraling into a sleep-deprived madness. As the walls close in, the ghosts of Grace’s past collide with a new but familiar threat: Mom.
They’re locked up for your safety.
Now, you’re locked in with them.
Dr Connie Woolwine has five days to catch a killer.
On a locked ward in the world’s highest-security prison hospital, a scream shatters the night. The next morning, a nurse’s body is found and her daughter has been taken. A ransom must be paid, and the clock is ticking.
Forensic profiler Dr Connie Woolwine is renowned for her ability to get inside the mind of a murderer. Now, she must go deep undercover among the most deranged and dangerous men on earth and use her unique skills to find the girl – before it’s too late.
But as the walls close in around her, can Connie get the killer before The Institution gets her?
Framed for murder. Now she’s free ...
A woman attends a funeral, standing in the shadows and watching in agony as her sons grieve. But she is unable to comfort them - or reveal her secret.
A decade earlier, Heather gets her children ready for bed and awaits the return of her husband Liam, little realising that this is the last night they will spend together as a family. Because tomorrow she will be accused of Liam’s murder.
Ten years ago Heather lost everything. Now she will stop at nothing to clear her name - and to get her children back ...
I WILL FIND YOU
David and Cheryl Burroughs are living the dream - married, a beautiful house in the suburbs, a three year old son named Matthew - when tragedy strikes one night in the worst possible way.
David awakes to find himself covered in blood, but not his own - his son’s. And while he knows he did not murder his son, the overwhelming evidence against him puts him behind bars indefinitely.
Five years into his imprisonment, Cheryl’s sister arrives - and drops a bombshell.
She’s come with a photograph that a friend took on vacation at a theme park. The boy in the background seems familiar - and even though David realizes it can’t be, he knows it is.
It’s Matthew, and he’s still alive.
David plans a harrowing escape from prison, determined to do what seems impossible - save his son, clear his own name, and discover the real story of what happened that devastating night.
Charlie Garner has a bad feeling. His ex-wife, Meg, has been missing for over a week and one quick peek into her home shows all her possessions packed up in boxes. Neighbors claim she’s running from bill collectors, but Charlie suspects something more sinister is afoot. Meg was last seen working at the local donut shop, a business run by a shadow group most refer to as The Saucer People; a space-age, evangelist cult who believe their compound to be the site of an extraterrestrial Second Coming.
Along with his brother, Felix, and beautiful, randy journalist Amelia ‘Scrappy’ Moon, Charlie uncovers strange and frightening details about the compound (read: a massive, doomsday storehouse of weapons, a leashed chimpanzee!) When the body of their key informer is found dead with his arms ripped out of their sockets, Charlie knows he’s in danger but remains dogged in his quest to rescue Meg.
Brimming with colurful characters and Lansdale’s characteristic bounce, this rollicking crime novel examines the insidious rise of fringe groups and those under their sway with black comedy and glints of pathos.
My phone has no reception, something we’ve been told to expect from time to time out here, and my stomach feels uneasy. Maybe it's the motion of the waves or maybe it’s the fact that Pete didn’t leave a note or a text. He usually leaves a note with a heart.
I pull on jeans and a jumper and scrunch my hair on top of my head and take my key card and step out into the corridor.
Thirty seconds later it hits me.
All the other cabin doors are wedged open.
Every single one is unoccupied and unlocked.
My heart starts beating harder. I break out into a run. At the end of the long corridor I take a lift down to the Ocean Lobby.
There’s nobody here.
My mouth is dry.
It’s like I’m trapped on a runaway train.
No, this is worse.
The RMS Atlantica is steaming out into the ocean and I am the only person on board.
This was supposed to be the holiday of a lifetime for Cas. Now she just needs to survive.
Five million reasons why Ben Koenig had to disappear. Only one to bring him back ...
Ben Koenig is a ghost. He doesn’t exist any more.
Six years ago it was Koenig who headed up the US Marshal’s elite Special Ops group. They were the unit who hunted the bad guys - the really bad guys. They did this so no one else had to.
Until the day Koenig disappeared. He told no one why and he left no forwarding address. For six years he became a grey man. Invisible. He drifted from town to town, state to state. He was untraceable. It was as if he had never been.
But now Koenig’s face is on every television screen in the country. Someone from his past is trying to find him and they don’t care how they do it. In the burning heat of the Chihuahuan Desert lies a town called Gauntlet, and there are people in there who have a secret they’ll do anything to protect. They’ve killed before and they will kill again.
Only this time they’ve made a mistake. They’ve dismissed Koenig as just another drifter - but they’re wrong. Because Koenig has a condition, a unique disorder that makes it impossible for him to experience fear. And now they’re about to find out what a truly fearless man is capable of. Because Koenig’s coming for them. And hell’s coming with him ...
When Louise finds out her parents have died, she dreads going home. She doesn’t want to leave her daughter with her ex and fly to Charleston. She doesn’t want to deal with her family home, stuffed to the rafters with the remnants of her father’s academic career and her mother’s lifelong obsession with puppets and dolls. She doesn’t want to learn how to live without the two people who knew and loved her best in the world.
Mostly, she doesn’t want to deal with her brother, Mark, who never left their hometown, gets fired from one job after another, and resents her success. But she’ll need his help to get the house ready for sale because it’ll take more than some new paint on the walls and clearing out a lifetime of memories to get this place on the market.
Some houses don’t want to be sold, and their home has other plans for both of them…
Fade to Black is the newest hit ghost hunting reality TV show. Led by husband and wife team Matt and Claire Kirklin, it delivers weekly hauntings investigated by a dedicated team of ghost hunting experts.
Episode Thirteen takes them to every ghost hunter’s holy grail: the Paranormal Research Foundation. This brooding, derelict mansion holds secrets and clues about bizarre experiments that took place there in the 1970s. It’s also famously haunted, and the team hopes their scientific techniques and high tech gear will prove it. But as the house begins to reveal itself to them, proof of an afterlife might not be everything Matt dreamed of. A story told in broken pieces, in tapes, journals, and correspondence, this is the story of Episode Thirteen-and how everything went terribly, horribly wrong.
Where are the monsters? Sometimes they’re right behind you.
In this new collection of six novelettes – three are wholly original to this volume – Steve Duffy invites us to look over our shoulders, and asks us whether we recognise the faces that we see. Some of them are all too human, some are animals, and some are like nothing we’ve ever seen – yet.
In the snowy wastes of the Yukon and the mining country of Appalachia an age-old terror is unwittingly unleashed…
After-hours at the Pacific View diner, meet a glamorous, mysterious film star and uncover a monstrous bargain…
In Streatham or in Ethiopia, you must be careful what you wish for – very careful – or anything might happen…
Christmas is a time for family, and that means dark secrets, desperate desires and occult constructs…
Down at the zoo something is stirring: the animals know, but the warders won’t realise until it’s already too late…
Young love blossoms at the New York World’s Fair, but the future has its own agenda…
The humans who inhabit Dream Fox and Other Strange Stories seem destined to test the limitations of rational existence. Some have accidentally strayed into no-man’s land, such as the narrator of Bipolarity who must decide how to learn to live (or not) with her mental illness; or the protagonist of Beguiled who may be forced by family attitudes into social obscurity; or, in School Trip, unpromising June’s unexpected discovery of her own ‘special powers’. Other stories, such as Home Comforts, are more playful, although the uncanny is never far away.
Dream Fox also includes ‘a book within a book’: Mary Belgrove’s Book of Unusual Experiences—containing nine diverse accounts of weird and paranormal happenings written by those who experienced them, compiled and commented upon by the eponymous Ms Belgrove, whose dying wish is to publish evidence of such events for scientists to study. Who can resist accounts of indestructible mushrooms, a country house party that goes disastrously wrong, prehistoric wish-fulfilment magic, or the dream-fuelled psychedelic love story that is View from a Tower?
Dream Fox and Other Strange Stories is Rosalie Parker’s fifth collection of strange tales.
Eric Ross is on the run from a mysterious past with his two daughters in tow. Having left his wife, his house, his whole life behind in Maryland, he’s desperate for money - it’s not easy to find steady, safe work when you can’t provide references, you can’t stay in one place for long, and you’re paranoid that your past is creeping back up on you.
BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR 14
For more than four decades, Ellen Datlow has been at the centre of horror. Bringing you the most frightening and terrifying stories, Datlow always has her finger on the pulse of what horror readers crave. Now, with the fourteenth volume of the series, Datlow is back again to bring you the stories that will keep you up at night. Encompassed in the pages of The Best Horror of the Year have been such illustrious writers as: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Stephen Graham Jones, Joyce Carol Oates, Laird Barron, Mira Grant, and many others.
With each passing year, science, technology, and the march of time shine light into the craggy corners of the universe, making the fears of an earlier generation seem quaint. But this light creates its own shadows. The Best Horror of the Year chronicles these shifting shadows. It is a catalogue of terror, fear, and unpleasantness as articulated by today’s most challenging and exciting writers.
Among the stolen items is a recording of her mother’s voice, taped on the eve of a trip back to Earth, just before the Silence descended. Driven by righteous fury and desperation to lift her father’s broken spirits, Anabelle sets out to confront the thieves and bring back the sole vestige of her mother. Accompanied by her loyal robotic companion, Watson, an outcast spaceship pilot named Joe Reilly, and the hardened outlaw Sally Milkwood, Anabelle must first pass through Dig Town, a derelict mining community where a mineral called the Strange has warped the residents in frightening ways, and then brave the Martian desert.
As she nears the shadowy Peabody Crater––the epicentre of bizarre goings-on in the colonies––Mars is revealed as a vast haunted house, infested with ghosts, alive with malignant intent―and New Galveston, once a safe haven, nothing more than a guttering candle in a dark world.
Alejandra no longer knows who she is. To her husband, she is a wife, and to her children, a mother. But they cannot see who Alejandra has become: a woman struggling with a darkness that threatens to consume her. Nor can they see what Alejandra sees. In times of despair, a ghostly vision appears to her, the apparition of a crying woman in a ragged white gown.
When Alejandra visits a therapist, she begins exploring her family’s history, starting with the biological mother she only recently rediscovered. As she goes deeper into the lives of the women in her family, she learns that heartbreak and tragedy are not the only things she has in common with her ancestors.
Because the crying woman was with them, too. She is La Llorona, the vengeful and murderous mother of Mexican legend. And she will not leave until Alejandra follows her grandmother, and all the women who came before her into the darkness.
But Alejandra has inherited more than just pain. She has inherited the strength and the courage of her foremothers―and she will have to summon everything they have given her to banish La Llorona forever.
LOOKING GLASS SOUND
In a windswept cottage overlooking the sea, Wilder Harlow begins the last book he will ever write. It is the story of his childhood companions and the killer that stalked their small New England town. Of the body they found, the horror of that discovery echoing down the decades. And of Sky, Wilder’s one-time friend, who stole his unfinished memoir and turned it into a lurid bestselling novel, The Sound and the Dagger.
This book will be Wilder’s revenge on Sky, a man who betrayed his trust and died without ever telling him why. But as he writes, Wilder begins to find notes written in Sky’s signature green ink and events in his manuscript start to chime eerily with the present. Is Sky haunting him? Did Wilder have more to do with Sky’s death than he admits? And who is the woman drowning in the cove, whom no-one else can see?
No longer able to trust his own eyes, Wilder begins to wonder: is he writing the book, or is the book writing him?
THE OTHER SIDE OF NEVER
Come with me where dreams are born and time is never planned …
A wide range of stories inspired by J.M. Barrie’s classic tale, the faraway Neverland and its beloved characters – such as Wendy, Captain Hook, The Lost Boys, Tinkerbell and of course Peter Pan himself! Masters of fantasy, science-fiction and horror come together to give their unique takes and twists on the mythos.
Featuring stories from: Alison Littlewood, Priya Sharma, Muriel Gray, Rio Youers, Cavan Scott, Guy Adams, Edward Cox, Anna Smith Spark, Paul Finch, Robert Shearman, A.K. Benedict, Premee Mohamed, Lavie Tidhar, Laura Mauro, Seanan McGuire, Kirsty Logan, Claire North, A.C. Wise, Gama Ray Martinez.
THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …
An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – 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 (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … 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.
When veteran freelance marine engineer, Tom Calhoun, and his team arrive at the exploratory oil platform, Leaguer, far out in the middle of the ocean (the actual location is never specified, but we presume the Pacific because of the depths involved), he expects that they’re about to make a find so colossal they’ll all be able to retire on it.
The rig, under the control of hardnosed rig-chief Martin Vraebel and a team of experienced roughnecks headed up by ace fixer, Steve Gomez, is prepping to drill down into the floor of a hitherto unknown ocean trench lying beneath 30,000 feet of water but which recent geophysical survey suggests contains a reservoir of crude oil larger than all the reserves of Saudi Arabia put together.
It is a fantastical prospect, almost unimaginable, but there are problems from the outset.
Vraebel and his crew don’t take particularly kindly to Calhoun’s team, who they consider to be opportunist outsiders with no interest in the rig’s protocols, and to an extent this is true, the worst offender being Calhoun’s lead-techie, a self-confident but irritatingly proficient nerd called Craig ‘Catfish’ Standlee, who cares mostly for his underwater robots and little for anyone or anything else. Calhoun’s other lieutenant, Shawna Sigler, is more than the usual pretty face: she’s a top geologist, who is here to assess the quality of the crude when samples are finally brought up from the deep, and whose findings will determine whether or not the exploratory platform will shortly be transformed into a full-on excavation rig, but the roughnecks are still unimpressed by what they perceive to be a little girl who looks fresh out of college.
Despite these earlier tensions, the operation goes ahead, and the drill finally strikes the bottom of the trench, a region so previously unknown to the world that it has no official name aside from the code-number M2. And it is now that the team’s problems really begin. Below a thin layer of rock at the sea floor, there is indeed a gargantuan supply of oil, the purest that Shawna Sigler has ever seen, but this is no ordinary oil, or at least what lurks within it isn’t ordinary; it’s very far from being ordinary – and very, very far from being inert.
That it lives and breathes is one baffling fact; that mere contact between this living liquid and any non-metallic substance will sizzle said substance down to foul, reeking vapour is another; but perhaps most frightening of all, the material is sentient. It doesn’t just lie there, it senses its prey and hunts it relentlessly, and with every new organism it absorbs, it grows exponentially in size and aggression.
Almost inevitably, Calhoun and the rest of the crew only come to learn about this horror after samples of the hostile material have already been brought aboard, and by then it’s too late …
If you like good old-fashioned monster movies, then The Black is definitely for you.
I wouldn’t say it’s the most original idea. The author himself, in his afterword, mentions taking inspiration from such cinematic classics as The Blob and The Thing. I would add to that list: Alien, Leviathan, and Fury from the Deep, a famous early story in the Dr Who canon, but most of all the Korean oil rig-based horror movie, Sector 7. But none of that really detracted from my enjoyment as a reader. It’s often been said that there have only ever been seven original stories ever written, and that everything else is a derivation of one or the other … so similarity to something else is hardly an issue.
The main thing about The Black is that, for the most part, it’s carried off with real conviction. I don’t know if Paul E. Cooley has ever actually worked or been resident on an oil platform, but you could certainly be forgiven for thinking that he must have, given the standard of authenticity here. Some reviewers have complained that there is too much technical writing on show, and that our nonstop immersion in convincing engineer-speak and petro-science terminology either lost them on entry or could only mean that an author who has done a lot of detailed research is determined to show off. But for me, while it’s certainly present, it’s non-intrusive and it makes the whole thing seem a lot more real, which only added to my pleasure. In fact, I’m quite jealous of Cooley’s abilities here; he completely and comfortably recreates the world of an exploration rig, bouncing around its many complex, multi-levelled interiors and its harsher exteriors in easy-to-follow fashion, laying out the rules and processes in a clear, straightforward way which underpins the entire narrative.
Okay, there is some roughneck jargon which perhaps bewilders, but this is a world I have never visited in real life, and at no stage did I feel confused or frustrated, so full credit to Paul E. Cooley for that.
Unfortunately, I have one or two minor complaints with regard to the author’s general style.
Characters are frequently called by different names. So, on one page, Calhoun may be referred to as ‘Calhoun’ and on the next it may be ‘Thomas’, and this happens across the roster, with almost every character. It’s a moot-point, but personally, I regard it as an error. For me, there is nothing noticeably repetitive about using the same name again and again; it ensures that the reader knows exactly who you are talking about, and it causes no momentary interruption to the general flow of narrative as time is wasted trying to work out who is who.
I also took issue with some of Cooley’s back-and-forthing between time zones. What I mean is, in a moment of high excitement, Catfish may encounter someone we’ve just been following as they fought their way up to the bridge, but we then roll back in time a few minutes to see how Catfish also fought his way there. This interrupts the momentum of the book, and again, is a device the author uses several times through the narrative. It’s clunky writing for me, which again risks leaving the reader scratching his/her head in bemusement.
But these are really the only problems I had with The Black.
Tom Calhoun makes for a good strong lead despite his old and crusty nature, and is ably supported by his protégés, the petite and level-headed Shawna and the geeky Catfish. None of these characters are whiter than white; all have flaws and can cause annoyance in their own way – which again makes for a realistic read.
The roughneck community on the rig is perhaps a little more thinly drawn. We meet a few of the rig-workers in greater detail near the very end of the book, which I suppose is a bit of a weakness, but they’re pretty much as you’d expect them to be: tough, bluff, blue-collar guys with a no-nonsense attitude. Of those we already know, Martin Vraebel, the permanently stressed rig-chief, is less likeable than Calhoun: no friendlier than he needs to be, narrow-mindedly ambitious, mistrusting of strangers in his domain even when they’re here to help; a fairly typical senior management klutz of the sort we’ve all encountered in real life, so he works well. Less clear-cut is his number two, Steve Gomez, the guy who really makes the Leaguer tick. He’s reliable and ultra-efficient, but we only get to hear about this; we don’t actually see him doing anything notable aside from sneering at Calhoun’s team.
But again, I can forgive that; we have our main leads, and we have our situation, and of course, we have our chthonic monster, which, when it finally attacks, does so with irresistible force and terror, which is another nicely realistic touch. This is one elemental entity that won’t be contained, one primordial being that no amount of science, weaponry or technology can destroy.
I daren’t say more because I don’t want to risk giving away too many spoilers. The minor issues I’ve mentioned aside, The Black is a great romp in that fine old tradition of B-movie creature features. And if that’s your thing, you’re in for a real fun ride.
As you’re no doubt aware, at the end of these book reviews, I like to make a few suggestions about casting, and who I would pick were the novel in question ever to make it to the screen. Today is no exception, and so here – as always, just for the fun of it – are my picks for who should play the lead characters in The Black:
Tom Calhoun – Ed O’Neill
Shawna Sigler – Felicia Day
Craig ‘Catfish’ Standlee – Grey Damon
Martin Vraebel – Lance Reddick
Steve Gomez – Rafael Amaya