Thursday, 1 December 2016

Admit it, you're all just dying for Christmas


I don’t know about you, but whenever we get to December, I start thinking scary. I’m sure it’s as much to do with the short days, long dark nights and desolate, frozen landscapes as it is our midwinter tradition of telling ghost stories, though in truth, I don’t think any of us really need a reason. I now automatically associate the waning of the year, especially the days leading up to Christmas, with genuinely creepy tales – no nursery stuff about elves and pixies in this neck of the woods. 

In that spirit, I’m this week reviewing an especially frightening horror novel, which also happens to be set in the depths of winter, in fact one of the darkest, coldest winters you could imagine: Michelle Paver’s thoroughly terrifying DARK MATTERHowever, before we get to that - as usual, youll find a full review and discussion of that novel towards the lower end of this post - a word or two about my own ‘ghost story for Christmas’ output ...

Some of you may be aware that around this time each year, I’m in the habit of posting one of my own Christmas terror tales right here on this blog. There’ll be no exception to that rule this year, though as it’s not quite Christmas yet, you’ll need to tune in for a that a little later in the month. I've got no actual date for it yet, but it will be in a couple of weeks’ time and before December 24.

This year’s offering will be THE UNREAL, which features a ghost-hunter holding a solo vigil in a supposedly haunted theatre on a very cold and lonely Christmas Eve.

Before then, I’m going to make use of the time of year to unashamedly pimp some of my other Christmas stories - so apologies for this in advance. All have been published in the relatively recent past, but they may well have skipped your attention as they only tend to appear on readers’ radars between October and December.

The most obvious one that springs to mind is my novella of 2010, SPARROWHAWK, which has been reviewed in the following terms;

A supernatural feast in more ways than one.

The author superbly captures the atmosphere of 19th century London; the plot is gripping from the outset.

A Christmas tale with a twist that is captivating.


SPARROWHAWK is one of my favourite novellas, as it contains what I still consider to be some of my best writing. It follows the fortunes of Captain John Sparrowhawk, a veteran of the Afghan War of the early 1840s, who on surviving a campaign which saw all his men killed, returns home shell-shocked to find that his depressed wife has died during his absence. Resigning his commission and falling into drink and gambling, he soon runs up debts, which finally see him incarcerated in the terrible Fleet Prison.

This is where the story actually opens; with Sparrowhawk at his wits’ end after one whole year on Debtors’ Row, and no apparent way to purchase his liberty – until, very unexpectedly, and just as a bitterly cold December descends on London, the beautiful and enigmatic Miss Evangeline offers to pay his debts on the condition he will do a job for her: protect an unnamed middle class family against an unspecified foe for the duration of the Christmas period.

With nothing to lose, Sparrowhawk takes the job, but soon finds himself pitted against a very dangerous opponent – a supernatural entity with many and varied forms, which quickly takes advantage of the thick frost, freezing fog and heavy Yuletide snow, and wastes no time in using fragments of Sparrowhawks own tragic past to torture him.

Here’s a quick extract:

Sparrowhawk advanced a few yards into the park. As always, the moonlight reflected brilliantly from the snow, and at first he saw nothing. But then, gradually, he became aware of a heavy-set figure about thirty yards to the left of the bandstand. It stood perfectly still and watched him. He continued to advance, steadily. If this fellow was nothing more than a curious passer-by, the shotgun would involve some awkward explanations, but Sparrowhawk was playing for high stakes here, and he kept the weapon levelled.
A few yards more, however, and he relaxed again.
The figure was a snowman.
Some children must have built it during the day, though when he circled it, it struck him as odder than usual. It had no features – no lumps of coal for eyes, no traditional carrot for a nose, yet someone had stuck a cigar where its mouth should be – a full-sized Cuban cheroot of the sort Sparrowhawk favoured but couldn’t afford. Likewise, the evening coat and top-hat, the former of which was velvet, the latter silk, made for expensive adornments. Even though the figure had no eyes, he felt as though it was looking straight at him. He contemplated knocking the thing down and trampling it, but decided that this would be cruel on the children who’d built it. At the very least he could take the cheroot, though it occurred to him that maybe the cheroot had been left here specifically for that purpose and that it might have been tainted in some way. On reflection, that seemed a little ridiculous, though of course stranger things had so far happened. 
Sparrowhawk resumed his patrol, ignoring the snowman further. The rest of his shift was uneventful, and in the morning he went back to his residence. When he returned the following evening, he noticed that the snowman had gone. He wandered around, but there was no trace of it. There wasn’t even a clump of messy snow where it had stood. The surface was smooth, unbroken – even though there hadn’t been another snow shower for the last couple of days.

SPARROWHAWK is a special case really, as on penning it, I didn’t set out with the sole intention of writing a horror story. If I say so myself, I think it’s a lot bigger than that, hence it’s length – at 40,000 words it’s a novella rather than a short. There is horror in there – ghosts, monsters and festive frights – but I think it’s more a tale of self-discovery than anything else, with lots of romance as well, some Dickensian-era social drama, and lashings of the traditional Victorian Christmas. 

If you’re looking for some more typical seasonal terror, I’m still rather proud of IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, which was first published in November 2014 (and republished this year in Germany, both electronically and in paperback, as DAS GESPENST VON KILLINGLY HALL) and which collects five of my Christmas horror stories. In this case, it’s exactly what it says on the tin: a bunch of seasonal chillers designed to make your hair stand on end. Here are some tasters and some short extracts:


THE CHRISTMAS TOYS

Two burglars target an ordinary suburban house one Christmas Eve, only to awaken the dark side of the festive spirit …

… it appeared to be an entire representation of Bethlehem in miniature. Fleetingly, Tookey was touched by long ago memories of his infant school days, when the hopes and fears of all the years had seemed to apply to him as much as all the other kids. The flat-roofed houses were brown or beige, as if moulded from mud-brick, the glow of mellow lamplight visible from each interior, donkeys and camels yoked outside. In the very centre, on a raised mound, there was a stable, its frontage removed, revealing a baby in a manger and toy soldier-sized figures of Mary and Joseph kneeling one to either side. Above them, a single star was suspended. Somewhere on the floor one of the wires to the fallen Christmas trees sparked, and the star began to shine with a pale, silvery luminescence. At the same time figures started moving in the town. Tookey watched in fascination as three or four men – again no more than toy soldier size – but distinctly sinister in hoods and cloaks, and with curved daggers, roved up and down the narrow streets, moving along electric runners which he hadn’t noticed previously. One by one they visited each house, the internal light to which would then turn blood-red – to the accompaniment of tinny shrieks.
“What the …?” Tookey breathed. He had some vague memory of a school lesson during which he’d been told about that bad-tempered bastard – wasn’t his name ‘Herod’? – having all the babies killed to try and get to Jesus.


MIDNIGHT SERVICE

A stranded traveller in a desolate town one snowy Christmas Eve. Where can he find shelter? The former workhouse, of course …

… it was ludicrously dark. There didn’t seem to be any windows down there, not even small ones. On one hand this shouldn’t surprise him: he knew all about the old workhouses and how they’d been designed to be as uncomfortable as possible, to deter all but the most desperate poor; but on the other hand, if someone insisted on re-adapting one of those aged buildings for more modern use, was it asking too much that they update it a little? At the bottom of the stairs, he blundered into a damp, musty hanging – and only when he struggled past that did he at last see light: Christmas firelight shimmering around what looked like tall sections of flat, theatrical scenery. He shrugged his ram’s costume onto his shoulders as he sidled his way through. Somewhere ahead, he could hear whispers and titters of anticipation. It seemed the audience was in place.
Then a woman stepped into his path.
He recognised her as the woman he’d seen earlier. Her costume was rustic Victorian – that ground-length skirt, that shawl, that coal-scuttle bonnet from beneath which wisps of stringy, metal-gray hair protruded. But like Reverend What’s-His-Name, she was incredibly old, her face wizened as desiccated leather, her mouth a toothless, crumpled maw, her eyes milky, sightless orbs.


THE FAERIE

Timid husband Arthur snatches his young daughter and flees his angry wife across the wintry moors, finally seeking sanctuary in a mysterious snowbound house …

The house was now directly above them. Thanks to the flurrying flakes, much of it was still hidden, but his first guess looked to have been correct. It was about the size of an old barn, but its windows – in particular the two bay windows at the front – though mullioned, were almost certainly a recent installation. The mellow light that flooded out of them was extremely comforting.
“Come on,” he said, unfastening his seatbelt and zipping his anorak up.
He switched the engine off, and they climbed out of the car together. Initially the wind took their breath away; it had a sword’s edge, and a sword straight from the Pole. Snowflakes fluttered in their faces like moths as they fought their way up a tall flight of steps, which, thanks to each tread being several inches deep, were highly treacherous.
At the top, they advanced along a short path – only visible as a linear and slightly sunken section of snow – until they saw the front door. It was impressively tall and wide, with a carved pediment over the lintel; it looked like a symbol of the sun with a tree growing against it. The door itself was of solid oak with a big brass knocker.


    “It’s a grand-looking place,” Arthur said. “Can’t think what it’s doing all the way out here in the wilds of Derbyshire.”
He reached for the knocker, but the door creaked open as soon as he touched it.
    They glanced through, and saw an arched stone passage with low wooden beams across its ceiling. It ended at a flight of four broad steps, which led up into a living area. A rosy flush of firelight was visible up there, and a pleasant scent struck their nostrils, a combination of oranges and cinnamon, and something else – evergreens.


THE MUMMERS

Two men plot an elaborate Christmas Eve revenge by summoning a pantomime from Hell …

Phil glanced around at a gilt-framed portrait propped in a corner. It was done in dark oils and had been varnished in order to preserve it. Much of the varnish was now dirty and yellowed, but through it the deeply-troubled visage of Hugh Holker was still visible; an elderly man with sagging jowls, a heavily furrowed brow and thick grey tufts for sideburns. Phil had been in to look at the picture several times already, and still found it compelling. The artist had depicted Holker leaning forward on his fist, in a posture of dignified contemplation, but had etched despair and even fear into the final composition. The old industrialist’s eyes bore a stark quality, as if some ghastly apparition had just materialised before him. In the background meanwhile there were indistinct mist-forms, swirls and eddies of smoke or fog, which might have had more to do with the picture’s age than the artist’s intent, but which were ominously obscure all the same.
“… to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray,” sang Perry.
With a pang of unease, Phil was reminded of his purpose here. He glanced at his watch – it read seven-thirty; time was ticking away quickly. Almost too quickly. He shivered – trepidation, anxiety, fear, all mixed in one; but then he heard again the raucous, gluttonous shouts filling the room behind him, and his nerves settled.
What was it Eric had said? That this was an experiment?
Yes, and Phil too was keen to see the result.


THE KILLING GROUND

During an atmospheric English Christmas, man and wife security experts are hired to protect a film stars family from the cannibal woman said to haunt their new country estate …

“Ruth, this is like the biggest load of crap in the history of humanity.”
Alec zipped up his fleece jacket and stood shivering in the snow. It was ankle-deep, and flakes were falling steadily. They both stared up at the window to Claudette Duvalier’s bedroom.
“Are you telling me someone couldn’t climb up there?” Ruth said.
The window was some twenty feet up, but ten feet below it a kitchen-annex abutted outwards four yards or so. In keeping with the general architecture this too was castellated, but that wouldn’t present a major obstacle. To prove her point, Ruth clambered lithely up the drainpipe beside the kitchen window, scrambled over the mock-battlements, and then had only ten feet of sheer wall to scale. That might have been more difficult had it not been densely clad with ivy. She only had to ascend a few feet to prove it would easily hold someone of her weight. She jumped back down and stood next to her husband, beating fragments of leaf from her gloved hands.
“Satisfied?”
“No I’m not,” he said. “You’re wearing sweats and trainers. We’re talking about a woman in a long dress.”
“Rags. Not exactly a long dress.”
“Okay, you’re in peak physical condition. We’re talking about a woman who’s been dead nearly nine-hundred years.”

More recently, last Christmas in fact, DARK WINTER TALES was published. While this didn’t specifically include tales of horror associated with the Christmas season, it was published last December because my publishers at Avon (HarperCollins) were interested to see how well a collection of dark and spooky tales would sell at this time of year. There are only one or two supernatural stories in here, but all were selected (hopefully) because they are dark and suitably nightmarish in tone. Anyway, as above here are a few tasters and extracts:


THE INCIDENT AT NORTH SHORE

A policewoman is summoned by her secret lover to an illicit tryst in an abandoned theme park. Unfortunately, it’s the same night that a homicidal maniac has escaped from the nearby asylum.

Sharon stood by the barrier and phoned him again. Still it went to voice-mail. “Geoff!” she said under her breath. And then, because frankly she couldn’t take much more of this: “Geoff, where the hell are you?”
A voice replied. At first she thought it was another echo, though on this occasion it sounded as if it had come from inside the Haunted Palace. She ducked under the barrier and stood at the foot of the access ramp, on which only eroded metal stubs remained of the rail-car system. The door at the top stood ajar.
Finally, she ascended. It had definitely sounded as if the voice had called her by name. So it was Geoff. But if so, why didn’t he come out? She approached the door, the glare of her torch penetrating the gaunt passage beyond but revealing very little. When she entered, it stank of mildew. The ghostly murals that once adorned the fake brick walls had mouldered to the point where they were unrecognisable. She ventured on, turning a sharp corner – no doubt one of those hairpin bends where, for their own entertainment, everyone inside the car would be thrown violently to one side – and stopped in her tracks.
A tall figure stood in the dimness, just beyond the reach of her torchlight.
“Geoff?” she said, in the sort of querulous tone the general public would never associate with a police officer on duty.
The figure remained motionless; made no reply.
“Geoff?”
Still no reply; no movement. She advanced a couple more steps, the light spearing ahead of her. And then a couple more, and finally, relieved, she strode forward boldly.
It was a department store mannequin, albeit in a hideous state: burned, mutilated, covered with spray-paint. Up close, its face had been scarred and slashed frenziedly; for some reason, she imagined a pair of scissors …


CHILDREN DON’T PLAY HERE ANYMORE

A retired detective can’t give up on his last unsolved case. Who killed the young boy in the quiet stretch of woodland? A final clue reveals a horrible truth.

As I perambulate downhill, it strikes me as immensely sad how modern children are denied the youth of wild adventure that Geoff and others like him enjoyed. A wood like the one at the bottom of the Dell should not be silent and filled with undisturbed shadows; courting couples sneaking off into its undergrowth should not go unspied-upon; tadpole-filled ponds like the one deep in the middle here should not remain unplundered.
But that is the way of it these days. And with good reason.
The murder of Andrew Conroy was really quite horrible. More so from my point of view, perhaps, because I knew the kid personally. He was a contemporary of Geoff’s … went to the same school and scout troop, was a member of the same swimming club. Don’t ever believe it if someone tells you that police detectives get hardened to the slaughter of the innocents.
Especially don’t believe it if those police detectives happen to work in their home town …


TOK

A series of strangulation murders are apparently committed by someone with non-human qualities. Bernadette suspects the weird stuffed creature in her in-laws’ gloomy old house.

The Bannerwood wasn’t by any means a problem housing estate, being privately owned and suburban in character. But it was vast and sprawling, and on first being built it was occupied mainly by young families, which soon meant there were lots of children gambolling around – so many children, as Miriam Presswick would complain. Children in gangs, children running, children shouting, children screaming – and children encroaching, always encroaching, finding ever more reasons to trespass on her property: in summer chasing footballs or playing hide and seek among her trees, in autumn trick-or-treating or throwing fireworks onto her lawn.
Berni didn’t know whether such persecutions had actually taken place or were purely imaginary, but given Miriam’s personal history it was no surprise that her sense of embattlement had finally become so acute that she’d had the outer wall erected, cutting herself off completely from the busy world that had suddenly encircled her. Despite that, but not atypically of psychological breakdown (not to mention advancing senility), even this security measure had in due course proved insufficient. In the last year alone, Miriam had contacted her son on average once a week to complain that people were trying to climb over the wall, were scratching on her doors, tapping on her windows. Nonsense, of course. Utter nonsense. Though Don had not admitted that. He would never have the guts to be so abrupt with his mother. He’d tried to calm her, tried to reassure her that she was imagining it – to no avail.
And then, this last week, the murders had started.


GOD’S FIST

When a disgraced cop allows the violence of modern life to explode in his mind, an odd experience in a church confessional sends him on a mission to clean things up.

As a former cop, Skelton knew John Pizer of old; at least he knew about him. He knew for instance that Pizer – who’d begun his illustrious career offering protection to hotdog vendors outside football stadiums, but who then served time for GBH and later progressed as muscle for larger, wealthier outfits – now dabbled in smack, Ecstasy and illegal steroids, and ran sections of the red-light district, providing outlets where the hardest of hardcore porn was available, and controlling the dozens of goodtime girls who waited in the salons and parlours, or if they were drabber, skinnier and more visibly damaged by the life, in the roach-ridden alleys and backstreets where only the most desperate punters would seek them out. Pizer had now attained that relatively secure underworld status where he continued to reap the rewards but rarely got his own hands dirty, instead having numerous fall guys, or in his case girls, to take the rap.
“Hey, John!”
Pizer halted. It was just after eight, and he was taking his normal morning walk with his young pit-bull, Ivan. He was dressed in a snazzy designer running suit and flash trainers, but, as always, was distinctive with his gold-encased hands and his pink, shaven dome. Even so, he hadn’t expected to meet anyone he knew. He was cutting through a narrow ginnel to the park when he heard the voice. He turned – a tall, heavily built man, wearing jeans and a denim jacket, with a shock of black hair and dense black sideburns, was approaching.
“Who are you?” Pizer asked.
Beside him, Ivan started to growl.
Skelton smiled. “Got a message for you.”
“Yeah?”
“From God.”
Pizer looked puzzled. “Uh?”
Skelton jerked his right arm forward, the monkey wrench shooting out from his denim sleeve, landing neatly in his right palm. “But this white-trash ornament gets it first.”
He smashed the heavy tool down on the pit-bull’s head …


WHAT’S BEHIND YOU?

Art students think it’ll be a hoot to walk one-by-one through the supposedly haunted rectory. But it’s unnerving to be told that whatever they hear behind them, they must never look round.

There have been shipwrecks on that coast throughout history,” he said in his melodious Welsh voice. “And it’s entirely possible the injured and dying were brought ashore at Rhossili Bay and perhaps spent their final minutes in Rhossili Rectory, a remote structure at the foot of Rhossili Down, and at one time the only habitation in the vicinity. There were also stories that this Rectory was built on the site of a Dark Age monastery, sacked by the Danes and later buried in sand during a tempest.”
I remember that he watched us all closely as he spoke, smiling like a cat. He had a thick, red/grey brush of a beard and moustache, and round spectacles. His eyes, which were very green, twinkled like jewels beneath the rim of his fedora.
“However,” he added ominously, “none of these potentially dramatic events can really explain the true depths of fear and despair this unholy presence has caused. You see, gentlemen … you must never turn and look. That is what they say.” We exchanged baffled glances, and he chuckled in that hearty way of his. “Rhossili Rectory is now ruined and empty, and according to the story, an evil spirit haunts it. One can only surmise that it may be connected to the historical events I have mentioned. But whatever its origins, the locals don’t take this as a joke. You’ll notice that when we arrive. The Rectory is far along the beach from Rhossili village and the boarding house where we’ll be staying. It’s very isolated – people do not go there.”
“What form does this spirit take?” Flickwood asked, sounding nervous.
“Oh, Mr. Flickwood … you walk through that ruined building on your own, day or night, and you will find out. I guarantee it.”


THOSE THEY LEFT BEHIND

The mother of the last man in England hanged becomes obsessed with the plastic head she sees on the market. When she learns it was part of a hangman’s dummy, she knows she has to have it.

Out of professional necessity, Shirley had already researched the events surrounding Tommy Dawkins’s execution. He’d been found guilty of murdering a girl called Mary Stillwell, who’d lived next door. Apparently he’d also mutilated her, quite horribly. No-one had really understood why he’d done it. Had there been something going on between them? Had Mary Stillwell resisted a sexual advance maybe? No answers were ever provided. But this had happened in 1965, and the twenty-year-old was subsequently tried, and, as he’d already confessed, was convicted and sentenced to death; a sentence carried out swiftly – only a few days before the passing of the Murder Act, which effectively abolished capital punishment in Great Britain.
He’d been one of the very last men to hang. Whether this in itself was a sore point with Elsie, Shirley didn’t know. But it couldn’t have helped.
Strangely, though the bereaved woman had proclaimed her son’s innocence at the time, and had tried to claim that his penalty was an injustice, she’d afterwards come to accept it with surprising speed and dignity. There’d been no histrionics in the following months, no letters to the newspapers or the Home Secretary. When, over the next few years, the policeman who’d arrested Tommy – Shirley thought he was called Mackeson – had occasionally come to visit Elsie, she’d maintained a cold but proud silence. Of course, Elsie was part of that steely World War II generation, who kept their grief and rage buried deep inside, only allowing it to surface now and then – like when her local church, previously a source of strength during her difficult years as a young widow, had refused even to acknowledge that there might be hope for her son in the afterlife.


HAG FOLD

When a run-down inner city district is terrorised by a sex-killer, a brutal firearms cop is brought in. He knows this area well. He grew up here. It left its mark on him as surely as it did on the killer.

There’d already been numerous replacements at the top, senior investigators having been sacked, sidelined or forced through overwork into early retirement. A catalogue of errors, initially caused by a preponderance of evidence so vast it literally overwhelmed the pre-computer age intelligence system, had received glaring press attention and had been referred too scornfully in the House of Commons. We’d had the usual barrel-load of hoaxes, some obvious, some not so obvious, but all of which had had to be investigated, which had soaked up yet more time and manpower. Experts from Scotland Yard had been called in, but had failed to make an impact. Even the FBI had been contacted; they’d provided GMP detectives with a detailed profile of the killer, but that too had failed to get results. There’d been door-to-door questionings, traffic spot-checks, random stop-and-searches, follow-up interviews based on all vehicle registrations spotted in the district – still nothing. There’d even been widespread blooding for DNA, though that hadn’t been much use as the Strangler always took care to wear a condom when he raped. It’s probably fair to say that as much as was humanly possible was being done, but as long as the maniac was at liberty to strike, that wasn’t going to be enough. By the time I transferred to GMP, we had ‘Men Off The Streets’ marches to contend with, ‘Reinstate The Death Penalty’ protests, ‘public vigilance committees’ – basically gangs of drunken hooligans who got off on harassing strangers once the pubs had chucked-out, and a constant stream of well-meaning cranks, who poured into police stations armed with everything from crystal balls to divining rods.
I avoided all this for as long as I could, putting in for one training course after another, sitting my sergeant’s exam, even volunteering to work Firearms at the airport. It might not sound very public-spirited of me, but let me tell you there is nothing even vaguely romantic about wandering the backstreets all night dressed as a tramp, or going house-to-house all day with an artist’s impression so vague it could be your own uncle and you wouldn’t recognise him. But after the Beverly Jones murder – she was the yummy mummy dragged from her own back garden – the shit really hit the fan. There was wholesale panic: police stations were besieged; patrol cars got jeered at; chief superintendents ran amok in their own offices ...


I hope all that was of interest. Sorry again ... there was quite a bit of self-pimpery there, but people often ask me these days what other books of mine can they read?, so I guess it’s only fair to post the details here. And as I say, at this time of year, it makes a kind of sense to focus those earlier publications that were specifically tailored for this dark and wintry time of year. Of course, as I mentioned at the top, it isn’t just me who prefers his horror to be a dish served ice-cold.

Now at last - I'm sure some of you must be thinking that - we reach that part of the programme where we talk about a different writer ...


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.


by Michelle Paver (2011)

It is London in 1937, and young Jack Miller is something of a lost soul. He was raised in the middle-class, but now has no family or partner, he lives in a cheap, dreary apartment, and despite being a qualified physicist, his career prospects look bleak. He’s also quite clearly suffering from depression, though this isn’t the kind of thing you can talk about in these days of stiff-upper-lips, much less seek treatment for.

As such, Miller finds life a struggle. In fact, it’s damaged him. He’s become a misanthrope who doesn’t like or trust anybody, especially those he associates with the ruling class – which hardly helps when he volunteers to join a scientific expedition to the High Arctic, and in his first meeting with the organisers, finds them a well-heeled bunch, ex-public school boys who reek of old money.

Personality-wise, they aren’t an entirely bad lot. Expedition leader, Gus Balfour, is a traditional square-jawed hero, an Oxford Blue, a man’s man and all that – but he’s a genuinely friendly chap and is tackling the mission with an air of stolid professionalism. Algernon ‘Algie’ Carlisle is less attractive; pudgy, pompous and inclined to casual cruelty where animals are concerned. Miller initially despises Algie, but eventually weighs things up, and decides that anything must be better than lingering on alone in a bleak, fog-shrouded London, and so he grudgingly joins the trip, the destination of which is Gruhuken, on a remote stretch of the Spitsbergen coast.

When they arrive in Gruhuken the following autumn, it is a beautiful, pristine wilderness, but of course the intense cold here is likely to prove a real challenge, especially with the long darkness of the polar winter rapidly encroaching. Quickly and efficiently, the team set their equipment up, organise their cabin and then explore a little. There is nobody else here now, though there are signs that others have been present in the past: trappers, miners and the like. None of these appear to have lasted long, while hoary old Norwegian skipper, Erikkson, in charge of the team’s transport ship, doesn’t even like it that Gus Balfour’s team have turned up.

Erikkson won’t be specific about his fears, but strongly implies that something dwells on this coast which doesn’t like interlopers. And indeed, Jack Miller also starts to feel this, several times spotting what he thinks is an odd, distorted figure lurking in the vicinity of the camp. At first he is reluctant to let this trouble him, because for quite some time he is almost neurotically obsessed with how much he doesn’t like his expedition comrades, not even Gus Balfour – whom he has an increasing if (earlier on at least) unspoken attraction towards. Equally irrationally, he dislikes their pack of sled-dogs, even the youngest of the huskies, the frolicsome Isaak, who shows a clear disposition to be affectionate towards him.

However, Miller soon comes to learn the value of friends, as, one by one, through illness, injury and bereavement, they are forced to return home. The rapidly diminishing party feels increasingly marooned and ever more embattled by the worsening wintry elements: heavy snow, shrieking wind and deep sub-zero temperatures make for very cold comfort. When Gus Balfour collapses with an appendicitis, it looks as if the mission will end prematurely – because someone needs to escort the patient back to civilisation, which will leave only one person to man the base, and this just as the 24-hour ‘blackout’ of the Arctic Night is finally falling.

Defiantly, Miller – because even now feeling encumbered by his ‘ugly duckling’ status, he is keen to assert himself – volunteers for this task. It is only likely to be for a few weeks before the others return, but no-one thinks this is a good idea, especially not Erikkson. However, Miller insists, so in due course he is left behind at Gruhuken, with the nearest human being two days’ sail away across the ice-clogged Barents Sea, and now facing the winter darkness entirely on his own.

Or so he would like to think. Because the stranded loner is very soon reminded that someone or something else is close at hand, watching his every move, growing steadily bolder as it senses his isolation.

Miller, a methodical sort who has many duties to attend, is bent on working his way through this ordeal by following a tight schedule that is designed to keep him busy. But slowly, his unease about the thing outside becomes full-blown fear, and eventually, with pitch-darkness covering the frozen land, terror. He now knows that he is not alone here. Something truly awful is prowling his perimeter; he hears it regularly, and glimpses it through the flurrying snow.

Can it enter the cabin? He prays to God not.

It’s possible that the dogs might dissuade this entity from drawing any closer, but then the dogs disappear too. Still, Miller holds on, expecting his companions to return imminently, only to receive another very grave shock: the sea is freezing over. Which means, not only that no boat can dock here and so the others may not be able to return to Gruhuken until spring, but that he can no longer leave even if he suddenly decides that he can’t stand it any longer.

Miller may be stuck here, facing this horror alone, for the entire duration of the Arctic winter …

One thing needs to be clearly understood from the outset with Dark Matter: this is a ghost story. That may be something you’d immediately infer from the teaser outline I’ve posted above, but you must to be under no illusion that this is what you’re dealing with. This is not a psychological thriller, or a tale of polar espionage, or a boy’s own mystery – this is an out-and-out ghost story very much in the tradition of M.R. James, and it’s a pretty terrifying one at that.

But that doesn’t mean to say this novel isn’t also multi-layered. There are all kinds of things going on here. To begin with, a number of different spectres haunt these eerie pages.

The spectre of World War Two is just around the corner; all the players on-stage are acutely aware of this, even if they rarely discuss it – their madcap mission is in some ways an attempt to run away from all that, because these young, able-bodied men are exactly the sort who, like their fathers before them, will be expected to enlist. Even the distant lands of the Arctic provide no real refuge from this sad reality, because, as we are we reminded several times, the mission itself has been underwritten by both the Admiralty and the War Office, who are looking to gather vital meteorological data.

In addition, we have the spectre of Miller’s latent and yet – at least as far as he’s concerned – unknown homosexuality. It informs his character throughout. He pathologically opposes almost everything the handsome Gus stands for, and so can’t understand his attraction to the guy. This in itself becomes an intangible form of torture for him.

And then of course there is the spectre of class division. Jack Miller doesn’t hail from the lowest stratum of society. He’s a middle-class boy, but he isn’t upper-class, and back in the 1930s – at least to young Miller’s immature mind – this is a big issue. After all, this is the age of the British Empire, an era when the rich weren’t idle, but saw it as their ancestral duty to go out and conquer the world, and if they couldn’t do that, go out and at the very least explore and civilise it. That is Gus Balfour all over, while Miller, in contrast, is part of the ‘nation of shopkeepers’, the everyday folk who, while not exactly poor, have no such hifalutin aspirations, and yet feel unmanned by this limitation of their lives to the eternally mundane.

Michelle Paver showcases this final spectre very neatly indeed, even to the point where it becomes irritating, we 21st century readers, who don’t experience this kind of thing, finally getting fed up with Miller and saying: “For God’s sake, Jack … these blokes are okay! Just do your job and man up!”

Man up, Jack!

Just what the author intends us to say, and exactly the kind of thing the posh boys of the 1930s would have said, had they used such parlance.

As well being a clever piece of work, Dark Matter is also exquisitely written. Michelle Paver, an Arctic traveller in her own right, paints a striking picture of the far, far north, which is all the more remarkable because she rarely references colour: everything up there is either white or grey, and yet the Arctic atmosphere is vividly communicated, as is its air of utter isolation. Early on in the book, this loneliness at the top of the world is exhilarating – we’re deep in the one of the last great wildernesses, a picturesque realm barely hinting at the existence of man. We can see it, feel it, smell it; it’s almost visceral – you literally shiver at the awesomeness of it.

But later on, of course, with the group decimated and the terrible threat of four months of complete and frozen darkness about to fall, everything changes. What was scenic becomes desolate, what was wild and untamed becomes life-threatening, what was merely unsettling becomes nerve-shredding.

Which brings me onto the ghostliness of Dark Matter; the real ghostliness that is – the malevolent thing that actively haunts Gruhuken.

As I mentioned previously, we are in solid M.R. James territory here. Okay, we aren’t talking cathedral cloisters or misty graveyards, we’re in the High Arctic and there is only one person present, but this is every inch a Jamesian-style horror story.

The undead force menacing Jack Miller is real and deadly. It’s also relentless, and the atmosphere this creates, particularly in the later stages of the book, with Miller trapped in the claustrophobic confines of the cabin, struggling just to keep a single light burning, almost suffering a coronary at every undue sound (not an easy predicament with the polar wind screeching through chinks and snowflakes rattling the window-panes), is quite literally hair-raising.

But the author doesn’t just go full-bloodedly for this. From early in the text, she employs many crafty, low-key devices to disturb her readers: Isaak whimpering, his ears flattening whenever he senses evil approaching; a gruesome bear-hunting post seeming to move around of its own ability; Miller suffering a series of progressively more lurid and horrible nightmares.

Oddly, Michelle Paver has drawn some criticism for her use of these time-honoured methods. One or two critics aren’t impressed that Dark Matter is set in the ‘old world’, the actual time of M.R. James in fact, or that its basic concept is the isolation of an already stressed and nervous character in a terrible environment where the fear-factor will inevitably then crank itself up to an eventual crescendo from which only madness can result. There have been dark mutterings about Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black or Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House, but as a reader who knew that he was acquiring a ghost story – because it said so on the cover – this is exactly what I wanted.

I have some sympathy with the more measured criticism that Dark Matter, though superbly written and intensely frightening, doesn’t do anything to progress the supernatural horror genre. But again, I suppose it all depends what you are reading it for. If you’re not looking for the cutting edge, and simply want to be terrified out of your wits by some good, old-fashioned scare-fare then this is undoubtedly a book for you.

Usually at the end of these reviews, I like to indulge in some fantasy casting, selecting the actors I myself would recruit if the narrative in question was ever to hit the screens (and this one would make a perfect ‘ghost story for Christmas’ of the sort the BBC used to do so well in the days before they became too sophisticated for all that). This is possibly the first in the series where we’ve not had to look for any ladies, but such is the nature of this particular beast. Anyway, here we go:

Jack Miller – Aiden Turner
Gus Balfour – Tom Bateman
Algernon Carlisle – Tom Hollander
Erikkson – Vladimir Kulich

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Detective fiction: just how dark can it go?

We’re deep in the darkness this week, focussing exclusively on the grimmer end of the crime fiction spectrum. In that vein, I’ll be reviewing David Pinner’s famous horror/thriller of the 1960s, RITUAL – which eventually hit the cinemas as THE WICKER MAN. In addition to that, I’m going to repost a blog I wrote for the A LOVER OF BOOKS website back in September, when they asked me the following intriguing question:

HOW DARK CAN DETECTIVE FICTION GO?

Before we can answer this question, we need to remember that detective fiction is a pretty broad church, ranging from the pastoral-flavoured subgenre of the village green murder mystery to the ultra-violent world of inner city cops and the heinous criminals they pursue.

But by the nature of the beast, I think we must expect that it will always have the potential to get pretty dark. The bedrock of modern detective fiction for me is still the Hardboiled genre, as pioneered by the likes of Hammett and Chandler, and in which cynical antiheroes walk tightropes through worlds of crime and corruption.

Even back then in the more censorious 20s, 30s and 40s, our fictional investigators found themselves confronting the dregs of humanity, encountering contract killers, incest, rape, drug addiction, child abuse, sex slavery, domestic brutality – the whole gamut of social ills that still make us shudder when we’re watching the newsreels today.

It’s one of those difficult areas, I guess. In most cases, people read as a form of recreation, and therefore we authors write as a form of entertainment. But can it ever be morally acceptable to dredge through the most miserable of human experiences so that others can have fun?

The answer to that must be that we all live in the real world, and that we writers would be short-changing our readers if we tried to pretend that this wasn’t the case. It would be like telling a war story without the violence, or writing about the Third World as if there was no poverty or disease.

But the question still stands. How dark can you go?

Well … I’ve seen it done superbly well at the extreme limits of the spectrum. If you look at the world of horror novels rather than thrillers, some amazing examples stand out: THE WOLFEN (1978) by Whitley Strieber, in which two New York detectives hunt for an apparent cannibal killer and gradually come to realise they are tracking a werewolf pack; and LEGION (1983) by William Peter Blatty, in which a time-served cop investigates a series of appalling torture murders in Georgetown, only to find that he’s dealing with Satanic ritual. Neither of these books stint on the horror, but such is the skill and intensity with which they are told, that they are basically unputdownable.

In these cases, of course, the supernatural element is likely to
alleviate any concerns one might have about excessive gruesomeness and depravity, because that earmarks these works as fantasy, which means that not only is it not real, but that it’s not supposed to be real.

We authors are on slightly dodgier ground when we are purporting to tell stories that could easily be true.

For example, when I sat down to write STALKERS, my first DS Heckenburg novel, in 2012, I wondered if the idea of the Nice Guys Club, a crime syndicate who for big money would provide clients with rape victims of their choice, belonged more in a horror novel than a crime thriller. It seemed a very extreme notion. However, at the time, and despite my prior police experience, I truly had no idea how much sex trafficking there is in the world, how much torture-for-fun, how many Snuf movies are made. It soon transpired that I had no need to worry about my risky concept, because it was only representing one harrowing aspect of real life.

I think that’s why I’ve tackled my latest novel, STRANGERS – another potentially controversial one – in full-on fashion. This one is a no-holds-barred tale of the hunt by undercover policewomen for a female killer known to the press as Jill the Ripper, who preys on her johns and sexually mutilates them.

We’ve all seen TV dramas in which female detectives go under cover as prostitutes, and it’s often treated lightly, as if all the heroine needs to do is don a short skirt and stand sexily on the nearest street-corner. However, I’ve seen enough of it in real life to know that this is far more difficult and dangerous work than that. And after extensive discussions with fellow author and good friend of mine, ASH CAMERON, who as a long-serving policewoman in the Met, performed this duty many times, I felt I had a duty to paint as realistic a picture as possible of this grim business.

So … I make no apologies for the grimy subways or dingy toilet blocks, for the vomit in the gutters, the needles in the back-streets, the abuse the girls suffer from their punters, the violence from the pimps and dealers, the thrown excrement, and so forth.

Yes, I suspect STRANGERS is the darkest crime novel I’ve ever written, but no – because of the desperate state of some of our real lives – I don’t think I, or any other crime writer of my acquaintance, has even come close to pushing the boundaries towards unacceptability thus far.

You think crime writing’s gone dark? You ain’t seen nothing yet.



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.


RITUAL by David Pinner (1967)

In the late 1960s, the Cornish coastal village of Thorn is rocked when a young girl, Dian Spark, turns up dead at the foot of an ancient oak tree, apparently murdered in ritualistic fashion. But when idealistic young police detective, David Hanlin, is sent to investigate, he finds that he has entered a world apart.

It is a hot and beautiful summer and Thorn is a remote community, but this is not the picture-postcard Cornwall that we all know and love.

To begin with, the village itself is in a poor state, dull and impoverished, many of its buildings decayed, while the villagers themselves are odd and unfriendly. Mrs Spark, Dian’s bereaved mother, is a sultry but mysterious presence, courting a reputation for witchcraft and yet on the surface strongly opposed to the ancient rites that she is convinced caused the death of her youngest daughter. Her older daughter on the other hand, Anna – a seductive beauty and wannabe nymphomaniac – captivates Hanlin with her wanton ways, though, as he’s of a puritanical inclination, he also finds her revolting.

Other characters in the village are no less awkward to deal with for the out-of-place copper. Pastor White, the vicar, is patently mad. The penniless squire, Francis Fenn, plays bizarre flute music all day – badly, while out in the woods a homeless weirdo known only as Gypo provides a brawny and threatening presence. Meanwhile, at the rotten heart of the village sits retired local actor Lawrence Cready, an insufferably pompous and camp fellow, who occupies the manor house with his gay man-servant, Martin, and engages in strange and inappropriate games with Thorn’s resident tribe of rumbustious, urchin-like children.

We’ve already touched on Hanlin’s puritanical streak, and this soon becomes a key factor. Ever more certain that satanic practices are at play – especially as we draw closer to Midsummer Eve, for which some kind of secret celebration has clearly been planned – he throws his weight around with increasing anger and righteousness, ignoring the instructions of his superiors back in London, bullying some of the villagers and attempting unsuccessfully to make allies out of others. All the time he suspects that elaborate psychological games are being played with him, and yet, despite the occasional clues he finds and the air of decadence pervading the village (which also extends to the youngsters) he is unable to unearth any hard evidence.

When another child is murdered, Hanlin finally starts to realise that he’s out of his depth. His physical aversion to strong sunlight hampers him, the sensual Anna is a constant distraction – even he is becoming aware that his own bigotries are leading him to snap and fallacious judgements – and he feels increasingly tired and disoriented. The only remaining option, it seems, is to stick around for Midsummer Eve, to try and catch the malefactors in the act of their profanities …

The first thing to say about this one-time infamous novel of the occult from celebrated actor and playwright David Pinner, is that it provided a kind of unofficial basis for The Wicker Man, which hit the cinemas six years later. It was not an easy translation from page to screen, however. Though Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy allegedly co-purchased the rites to Ritual in 1971, the story goes that they ultimately found it unfilmable and so screenwriter Anthony Shaffer created his own macabre tale based only very loosely on the original. Some vague similarities are present: the lone policeman investigating an isolated village drenched in esoteric lore; in the midst of it all a controlling and sophisticated man with entirely ignoble motives; and the tauntingly desirable landlord’s daughter, who in the most memorable moment in the book – one scene at least which made it to the film virtually unchanged – dances naked against her bedroom wall, driving her lonely male target on the other side almost crazy with lust.

However, there are also significant differences. The book does not end the way the movie ends, and though Hanlin is unhealthily obsessed with his own cleanliness and upright character, he gives little indication of devout religious belief. There is also more menace in the village of Thorn than we found on Summerisle; no one makes any effort to be reasonable with Hanlin, everyone he encounters demanding that he leave, while several of the oddballs who populate the place, rather than living comfortably in their strange, secluded world, are clearly on the verge of insanity.

But enough said about The Wicker Man. At the end of the day, that was a completely different animal, and now has legendary status its own right. In comparison, Ritual has largely been forgotten, but it is nevertheless a curious book and bit of a mixed bag.

Pinner’s poetic style and ornate language occasionally feels out-of-date in the 21st century. The ‘moral’ stance has worn badly too. While the corruption of youth through sensual pagan practises understandably horrifies Hanlin and is a precursor to our modern-age zero tolerance of child abuse, he also takes issue with Cready and Martin simply because they are homosexual, and at the same time, while massively turned on by village minx, Anna, he also wants to beat her for her wickedness – not much of a reconstructed man, then, David Hanlin.

There are other problems with the novel too. The portrayal of lackadaisical police procedures is pretty ludicrous, even by the standards of the rural 1960s. And I wasn’t entirely convinced by Hanlin’s methods of detection – there was a little too much instinct and not nearly enough deduction for my liking. But in truth none of this really matters. I was very glad to get hold of Ritual. It was a famous book at the time and has been long out of print, and once I dug into it, my various complaints notwithstanding, I still found it a compelling read.

There are genuine mysteries here, and a growing sense of fear as the clock ticks steadily down to the big event of the summer. But it’s also subtly done. With two children murdered, it would be difficult for anyone to argue there is nothing wrong with this place, but very little of it falls into Hanlin’s lap; there are times when even he wonders if he is imagining the witchery he relentlessly hunts. Hanlin himself makes an unusual hero – I wouldn’t say you empathise with him much, but he strikes an effectively forlorn figure as he battles the largely unseen forces of evil. I also rather liked Anna. The hooker with the heart of gold is something of a cliché in thriller fiction, but Anna is altogether deeper and more complex than that, and makes a mischievous and sympathetic foil to Hanlin’s humourless Cromwellian.  

Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read, recommended for those who enjoy a touch of blatantly old-fashioned occult horror (and aren’t too worried about a distinct absence of political correctness).

I usually like to end these book reviews with a bunch of actors I personally would cast if the tale in question ever made it to the screen. Well, I venture to suggest that the original Wicker Man is probably the closest that Ritual will ever get to that. But just for laughs – it’s always for laughs of course – here are my picks should Ritual (as oppose to TWM) ever get the full celluloid treatment: 

DI David Hanlin – Kit Harrington
Anna Spark – Lily Collins
Squire Francis Fenn – Freddie Jones
Lawrence Cready – Ian McKellen
Pastor White – John Hurt
Mrs Spark – Minnie Driver