Sunday, 3 January 2021

Gloomy year but with some lights in black

Well … 2020 bowed out the way so many of us feared it would but hoped it wouldn’t: doomy and gloomy thanks to the seemingly unending Covid crisis. I can’t complain too much, of course. I’m sure that my 2020 was a lot less painful and difficult than the one endured by so many others, but there’ve been times when it’s been extra-trying for all of us, and there’s no immediate end to the problem in sight yet.

Still, if nothing else, we had a frosty, snowy Christmas and New Year here in Lancashire, even if we weren’t allowed to get together to enjoy it properly, and I will admit, despite all these other distractions, to having had a prodigious year in terms of output. In fact, when I look back on 2020, I’m staggered by how much material of mine has actually got out there. So, in today’s blogpost, I’ll be running a quick but completely self-indulgent recap on everything of mine that’s been published during this darkest of years, and thanking those responsible.

In addition, because we appear to be sitting in a real-life freezer at present, today would seem like an opportune time to run a fairly detailed review and discussion of Tim Curran’s nightmarish novel of South Antarctic horror, HIVE.

If you’re only here fore the Curran review, that’s no problem. You’ll find it, as usual, at the lower end of today’s blog, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Meanwhile, if you’ve got a bit more time, you might be interested in this …

Roundup and thanks

So, 2020 was more of a short story year for me than I’ve had in recent times, which is something I’m very glad about, as I’ve always loved penning short-form scary stuff and in previous years haven’t felt that I’ve found enough time for it.

Things got going on that front from the word ‘go’ when the psycho-thriller anthology, TROUBLE AND STRIFE, was published over the Christmas and New Year period in 2019, though it was 2020 before it first started doing the rounds properly.

I was chuffed to bits to be invited to this by editor and writer, Simon Wood, and remain eternally thankful to Down & Books for putting out such a superbly finished piece of dark literature.

The antho comprised stories drawing on Cockney rhyming slang. Mine, Mr Kipper, told the tale of a nervous employee working alone at a book recycling centre in the heart of a town being terrorised by a Ripper-type serial killer. Other amazing tales came from such luminaries of the thriller genre as Steve Brewer, Jay Stringer and Catriona McPherson.

Another anthology contribution followed in April, in the ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS 2. This book more or less speaks for itself, being the second in the series of annual horror anthologies put out by Alchemy Press, one of the busiest and yet highest quality independent publishing houses in the UK. 

Huge thanks go to editors Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards for inviting me to participate (I’m strongly hoping that it won’t be the last time I do).

My story was What Did You See?, which followed the (mis)fortunes of two young women who travel to the heart of the Cotswolds one snowy Christmas Eve, not intending to enact an ancient ritual, but inevitably finding themselves drawn towards it. Of course, I wasn’t alone. The book also included superb horror stories from the likes of Gail-Nina Anderson, John Llewellyn Probert, Thana Niveau, Nancy Kilpatrick and Samantha Lee, among many others.

The middle part of the year was given over to what I will always consider my main writing output, which is my crime novels. On this occasion it was ONE EYE OPEN, my first title for Orion Books. It was longer in the making than a couple of months, of course. I’m sure the ball started rolling on this one way back in 2019, but the book was finally completed and published in August 2020. Since then it’s done very nicely in terms of sales, I’m happy to report.

It tells the story of Sergeant Lynda Hagen, a female Traffic officer, who investigates a serious road accident and single-handedly detects anomalies but, because her supervisors don’t take it seriously, is drawn almost alone into a deadly confrontation with the underworld.

My thanks go to Orion Books for the great job they did with this one, but also to my editor at Orion, Emad Akhtar for his robust and constructive approach. I could never have created the finished product without him. 

My second big publication of 2020 came shortly afterwards in September. As well as writing dark fiction, some may know that I also enjoy editing it … specifically in the shape of my Terror Tales series. Now in its 10th year, this series of folklore-themed horror anthologies, each volume set in a different geographical region of the UK (and maybe beyond, depending on how long the series lasts), has been very close to my heart for quite a time now. I commenced it with Gray Friar Press, but the last three volumes have come out via Telos Publishing, who’ve taken on the mantle in sterling fashion.

This year’s volume was TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES, the 12th in the series and one of the most positively reviewed to date. Many thanks to Telos for their usual hi-spec finish on the book, and to the host of great authors who responded to my call. It contains excellent stories from the likes of Steve Duffy, Reggie Oliver, Helen Grant, Tina Rath, David J Howe, Jason Gould and many others.

Autumn followed, of course, and I spent the bulk of that evocative season preparing three Christmas-themed releases. These comprised a re-issue of my festive Victorian-era novella, SPARROWHAWK, which back in 2010 was short-listed for the British Fantasy Award but last October was put out again in paperback, in a spanking new cover, in ebook form, and on Audible, narrated by the amazing Greg Patmore.

It concerns John Sparrowhawk, an ex-cavalry soldier who is released from the debtor’s prison just in time for the Christmas of 1842, but, having no home to call his own, takes employment with the beautiful and enigmatic Miss Evangeline, who pays him to stand guard over a mysterious house in Bloomsbury. It seems easy enough, until the season turns bitterly cold and a terrifying supernatural presence reveals itself.

Narrator Greg Patmore went on to do a similarly incredible job with the other two October publications, a pair of collections of Christmas-themed horror stories: IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER and THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE, the former an original (again in paperback, on Kindle and in Audible) and the latter a reissue (again, in all formats).

I repeat that a special thanks goes to Greg for bringing these three autumn/Christmas releases to life with his atmospheric readings (and an astonishingly wide range of character voices).

But October was a busy month for other reasons too. On the 20th, I was delighted to hit my third anthology of the year, when a short story of mine, Branch Line, appeared in the Flame Tree Press horror anthology, AFTER SUNDOWN, edited by the inexhaustible Mark Morris, who also selected works from the likes of Tim Lebbon, Ramsey Campbell, Sarah Lotz and CJ Tudor.

My own story was one I particularly liked. It centres around a stretch of abandoned railway line, reputedly haunted, and the terrible fate that awaits two schoolboys who venture up there.

Once again, huge thanks go to Mark Morris and to Flame Tree Press for choosing my work and showcasing it in such a fine publication.

Meanwhile, a short story from last year, The New Lad (which appeared in Titan BooksEXIT WOUNDS, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan), almost regained traction when it made the short-list for the 2020 Dagger Awards in the capacity of Best Short Story, but it was beaten at the death during the Awards (the first time they’ve ever been held online) by Lauren Henderson’s excellent tale, #Me Too (which appeared in the anthology Invisible Blood, edited by Maxim Jakubowski).

So, 2020 hasn’t always been a story of win-win. But it’s never unpleasant to find oneself moving in such esteemed company.

Back in the world of horror, November saw the publication of ILL MET BY DARKNESS, a hardback collection of four of my novellas, all brand new, from Sarob Press. In chronological order, the stories it contains are Snicker-Snack, which brings the Jabberwock into present-day London, Down to a Sunless Sea, which concerns the archaeological exploration of an undersea Greek temple, The Hell Wain, in which two gangsters arrive in a remote Lancashire town to carry out a hit, only to find the place mysteriously deserted even though it’s Bonfire Night, and Spirit of the Season, the story of an academic’s attempt to make contact with the real Father Christmas. 

The physical quality of this particular book took my breath away. So, once again I owe a huge debt of thanks to Sarob and Rob Morgan in particular for asking me to send him something, and for doing such a great job when it arrived.

The last thing of mine to hit the public realm in 2020 was the reprint of my 1998 short story, THE FIMBULWINTER, which I posted on my blog on December 17 as my annual free-to-read Christmas story, though, given that it pitches an everyday copper into the midst of the winter at the end of the world, it’s not expressly about Christmas and can easily be read … well, now.


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. 

HIVE by Tim Curran (2012) 

Outline
Deep in the central Antarctic, in the face of a fast-approaching winter, the US research base, Kharkhov Station, where scientific tests are underway across a wide range of disciplines, makes an incredible discovery. At Medusa Drift, a deep excavation camp some distance from HQ, maverick paleobiologist, Professor Robert Gates, has uncovered several inhuman mummies encased in the ice. Quite clearly, these horrific specimens belong to an unknown species, and so Gates feels they are worthy of detailed examination.

Isolated in a storage unit separated from the main camp, the extinct life-forms, which appear to be weird composites of fish, reptile and insect, are slowly thawed out. Chief engineer, Jim Hayes, is unsure whether this is a good idea as they know nothing about these bizarre creatures, while station hand, Lind, becomes disoriented, insisting that his mind is being invaded by unknown intellects, and finally suffering a spectacular nervous breakdown and being confined to Biomed by the deeply concerned Doctor Elaine Sharkey. Only oddly unemotional station chief, LaHune, seems unmoved by these chilling events.

The crew has no real idea what they have found, but as more and more members of staff are beset by weird dreams concerning lost civilisations, fantastical cities constructed in Antarctica at the dawn of time, and hordes of winged monstrosities sweeping aggressively overhead, Gates develops an incredible theory that an ancient, non-human race settled this region before it froze over, and that their relics still remain buried under the ice sheet.

The weather worsens meanwhile, further isolating the base, and back at Medusa Drift one of the scientists disappears. When all communications are cut, Hayes realises that they are in serious trouble. Gates, meanwhile, returns to Medusa Drift. He is intent on finding his missing colleague, but in the process, in company with other scientists, descends through a complex series of ice caves, finally discovering the terrifying primordial city that so many of the others have been dreaming about. It soon becomes clear that whatever beings dwelled here, they were immensely powerful and malign. What’s more, though dormant, they are not necessarily dead.

While all this is happening, the story intersects with (though some readers have said ‘is interrupted by’) two additional but separate narratives in the form of journals from the 1920s.

Firstly, when British academic, Arthur Blackburn, had a nightmarish experience as he too ventured into this forbidden realm and in the process aroused the ire of a truly horrific beast. And secondly, when a fearless explorer called Fox set out with his own team to find out what happened to Blackburn, and also uncovered evidence that an alien civilisation once called the South Pole home, a civilisation so heartlessly cruel that it is all but inimical to the survival of mankind … 

Review
It’s impossible to talk about Hive without mentioning the many influences that are clearly on show here. The first and most obvious one is HP Lovecraft’s original short novel of Antarctic terror, At the Mountains of Madness. Whether Hive was ever intended to be an actual sequel to that, I’m unsure, but it fulfils that role completely, unofficially maybe, though in so many ways it’s a re-run of the same story. We have the archaeological expedition marooned in the frozen waste; we have the discovery of a city sunken beneath the ice; we have the re-emergence of a prehistoric evil long thought dormant in the depths of that city, and so forth.

There are some key differences which I’ll talk about in due course, but the similarities are many, even down to the atmosphere of the setting, and the tone of the language, which, while not quite as grandiose as Lovecraft’s, is florid and descriptive.

Then there are strong hints of the John Carpenter film, The Thing, itself an adaptation of John W Campbell’s Who Goes There? (written in 1938, interestingly, only four years after At the Mountains of Madness) though it’s the film that Hive most resembles, dealing mainly with a contemporary polar base, the discovery by accident of an extra-terrestrial horror buried beneath ice caps millions of years old, and its explosion back to life amid fountains of spraying blood, bursting brains and other liquified human tissue, not to mention the arrival of demonic human husks now horrifically possessed.

The third piece of work it reminds me of is Nigel Kneale’s era-defining Quatermass and the Pit (1958), though in terms of this comparison it’s more to do with human race-memories of a wicked, winged species, who, having cultivated and culled one civilisation after another, crossed the vastness of space to Earth, where they fell into a dreamless state, only to wake up several billennia later when disturbed by human excavation.

All of these similarities with Hive are very obviously there, but while many sci-fi/horror/fantasy purists object to that on principle, I can’t say that it bothered me a great deal.

Everything’s derivative of other things. As I implied earlier, Who Goes There? provided the basis for The Thing but might itself have been influenced by At the Mountains of Madness. And none of this has prevented Tim Curran from telling a rattling good yarn. That said, I did have one or two problems with it.

For example, the jury still seems to be out on whether the additional 150 pages of 1920s expeditionary detail, apparently absent from some earlier versions of Hive, were worth including. This may be unfashionable, but it’s my personal view that, while they don’t add massively to the whole, they are better written, more intriguing and, in truth, a lot more frightening than much of the 21st century section. Everything about them is raw, more visceral, more brutal. The prose is leaner, the characters more satisfying (perhaps because both Blackburn and Fox are instantly recognisable as stiff-upper-lip Brits, different from each other in personality, but still the types of guys who even in that end-of-Empire era, still thought it their duty to go out and conquer unknown places).

Given that there was probably no hope of either of these additional sections of the story seeing the light of publication as stand-alones – they wouldn’t really serve any purpose in that capacity other than to re-tread At the Mountains of Madness even more closely than Hive itself does – they do add to the book because they contain quality writing. That said, this doesn’t mean they don’t feel a bit jemmied in, or that they don’t interrupt the general flow of the narrative.

I also had the feeling that Tim Curran could have wielded his editor’s pen a tad more vigorously. Okay, that was a problem Lovecraft suffered from too, but as the inventor of this mythos, he usually gets a pass. In Curran’s case, admittedly wonderful but also endless descriptions of the Antarctic ice sheet and the many geophysical challenges it presents – the near impassable barriers of the Dominion Mountain Range and the Transantarctics, for example – get wearing as they roll on for page after page. It’s the same with all the technical stuff. It’s all fascinating at first, the complexities of setting up a ‘deep drift camp’, of drilling down to Lake Vordog, of simply surviving through four months of complete darkness and temperatures below –60. The descriptions of the camp, and the instructive technical writing this involves, are all completely believable, and they absolutely place you there, right on the spot. But there’s just too much of it.

It’s the same with the alien city beneath the glaciers. So often we’re told it’s indescribably evil, and yet so often Curran tries to describe it. Yes, this was another problem that Lovecraft suffered from, and in both cases, it gets a little boring.

But everything I’ve said notwithstanding, Tim Curran writes very well. His prose is vivid and powerful, and he handles the overall story excellently, recreating what in real life would be a colossal undertaking in totally authentic detail. At times, it feels as if Curran himself has been involved in the setting up and managing of an Antarctic research station.

And while this is a horror novel, is it frightening?

Yes. Undeniably.

It was a chilling concept from the beginning, when Lovecraft first hatched it. But as I mentioned a few paragraphs back, Curran has made some interesting changes off his own bat, adding whole new dimensions of cosmic (Quartermass-ian?) horror, inasmuch as the Old Ones are no longer just callous cosmic entities who could destroy mankind or nourish him at a whim, but evil genocidal schemers who, once they’ve been awakened, can finally put into action an almost unimaginably abhorrent plan.

But for all that, the most frightening sequences of all are provided, as is so often the case in Lovecraftian fiction, by the shoggoths (or Elder Things), mindless but unstoppable servants. I won’t go into too much detail, but on the strength of this book, Curran does the shoggoths excellently well; better than I’ve seen anyone else. One scene in particular, when a blizzard-begirt camp is attacked by one such monstrosity, is literally spine-chilling and gripped me intensely.

In so many ways, Hive is an extraordinary piece of work. As I say, it’s a little dragged out in parts, and the linear narrative, even when not interrupted twice by different storylines, is too repetitious for its own good. But there is all kinds of good stuff here. If you like horror at the ends of the Earth, if you like ancient evils blazing back to life after aeons of slumber, if you like Lovecraft, hell if you only like John Carpenter’s The Thing, this novel should be of very genuine interest.

I’m certain it’d be a pointless exercise wishing to see Hive hit either the TV or the cinema screens, as any movie mogul behind such a wonderful Lovecraftian enterprise would surely want to go back to the source and do At the Mountains of Madness instead, but just on the off-chance, in case some heroic individual with loads and loads of money opts to do Curran’s version first, I’m yet again going to get my oar in early, and recommend the perfect cast:

Jim Hayes – Clayne Crawford
Doctor Elaine Sharkey – Jessica Chastain
Professor Robert Gates – Daniel Bruhl
Dennis LaHune – Cory Michael Smith
Cutcheon – Neil Grayston
Fox – Matt Smith

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Anyone up for another seasonal screamer?


Christmas seems to have come astonishingly quickly this year. Too quickly, alas, for the vaccine to really save it. Unfortunately, we’re going to have a very stripped-down version of the festive season in 2020. However, there’s one tradition you can rely on as much this year as in all those past. And that is my annual posting of a seasonal horror story on this blog. 

I must admit that 2020 has been an unusually busy year for me on the short story-writing front. Though I’ve been eyebrows deep in my novels as well (ONE EYE OPEN came out in August), I’ve somehow managed to find the time to bring out a new collection of Christmas ghost stories, THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE, to re-issue an older collection and an older novella, IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER and SPARROWHAWK, and to publish via SAROB PRESS a hardback collection of four brand-new folk horror novellas, ILL MET BY DARKNESS.

The upshot of all this is that the short story I’ve posted on here today is a reprint. However, it’s an old and venerable one. It’s only seen the light of day once before, and that was in my first collection, AFTER SHOCKS (from Ash-Tree Press), which won the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 2002. Several clues as to the story’s age should reveal themselves as the narrative progresses. For that same reason, I’m confident there’ll be a considerable number of people to whom this tale is completely new.

It’s called THE FIMBULWINTER, and while I wouldn’t call it a Christmas story per se, it’s set deep in a very dark December indeed, and hopefully can be categorised as one of my scariest stories of the wintertime.

So, we’ll get straight to it this year. I won’t bore you with any lectures about why we love spooky stories at Christmas. There’s an awful lot of stuff on that subject already out there, I’ve noticed; something to do with this grimmest of all years, I suspect. But before we get going, I’ve at least got time to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and, in case we don’t have contact again before 2021, a Happy New Year (certainly a much happier one than many folk had in 2020).

Hope you enjoy the story …


THE FIMBULWINTER

Manning first suspected there was something wrong when snow fell in mid-October.
     Had it fluttered down for an hour and melted, he’d probably have forgotten about it by the following morning. But as it came down thick and heavy, smothering the hills of northern England and continuing uninterrupted for day after day, week after week, his misgivings grew. By November, it covered the entire country and what felt like polar winds were blowing. Bonfire Night was unofficially cancelled; a few hardy souls chanced it, but temperatures were six below that day and it was blizzarding again, so scarcely a firework was seen. Come December, the dales around Heatherby, the Yorkshire town where Manning and his two constables ran the sub-divisional police station, were more like the Russian Steppe. The wolds were wind-blasted tundra; rivers and streams had lain frozen for longer than anyone could remember; climbers and walkers were lost on a daily basis. Things were no better in the town itself: there was traffic chaos, pipes and cisterns broke, power lines came down.
     The weather people remained cheerful about it. It was the same all over Europe, Asia and North America, they said. Even Africa was having its coldest spell this century. And anyway, Britain was long overdue a hard winter. We’d been spoiled in previous years. The Met Office admitted some surprise at the protracted severity of the weather, but blamed it on a high pressure system sitting stubbornly over Scandinavia and pulling cold air down from the Arctic. Opinions were divided among Greenhouse Effect theorists, some concerned that it discredited their viewpoint, though as one frizzy-haired, jumper-clad professor insisted on a TV chat show, it could also be considered proof positive that things were “going wrong”, many of his colleagues fearful that the first casualty of global warming was always going to be the Gulf Steam, which tended to keep Britain warm and moist during all but the deepest months of the winter.
     Sergeant Manning didn’t know much about the Gulf Stream, but he did know that something was “going wrong”. As he guided his police Range Rover up the precarious road to the Mawby Hill estate on the afternoon of December 13, his wheels crunching and sliding in deep snow, he thought about Geraldine’s odd mood that morning. His wife taught at Heatherby Juniors, and had been working with her pupils on Norse myths. Thus, when she’d drawn back the curtains that day on a world yet again blanked-out, she’d spoken about the legendary winter-of-winters, and how it was supposed to herald the destruction of the world. She’d tried to laugh about it, but only in a sombre way.
     Manning hadn’t been listening. Instead, he’d grabbed her from behind, kneading her breasts through her nightie, nuzzling her neck, hoping for a spot of nookie before work. But Geraldine hadn’t responded. The same despondency had settled on her recently that had affected so many others over the last few weeks. Her handsome features were morose and drawn; there were dark circles under her eyes. She wasn’t at school that day; the plumbing was down and they were waiting for engineers to arrive from Huddersfield to fix it, but normally she’d still be up and about. On this occasion, she didn’t even get dressed, let alone start the day’s routine of tidying-up and marking.
     Manning wished he had time for such fancies. He didn’t say it openly, but civies made him laugh. There hadn’t been a single day in his entire working life when something as mundane as fractured plumbing had sent him home early. And on a day like this, it was a good thing. Harsh weather kept the criminals at bay, but it brought in a rash of other irritations. There were frequent road accidents for example, not to mention regular checks to make on the district’s more remote hamlets.
     On top of all that, a fissure had appeared alongside the trunk road leading south to the M62, and another at the bottom of the seventy-foot escarpment at the top of which sat Mawby Hill. They’d been impressive to look at: yawning cracks in the ground, perhaps a metre or so across and in both cases of indefinite length. He wasn’t sure how deep they were, either, but the snow was pouring in and showing no sign of filling them up. Born and raised in the West Yorkshire coalfields, Manning had seen this sort of thing before and it disturbed him. Heatherby had originally been a farming village located at the confluence of several high valleys. However, it had expanded and changed over the centuries to meet the demands of industry and parts of it, especially those residential districts along its southern edge, had been built on uneven coal tips now long disused. As far as he knew, these were safe, heavily compacted, while more recent and therefore looser workings were further down the valley, out of harm’s way. It was just possible though, that the extreme cold had caused some kind of subsidence. Manning wasn’t taking any chances; he’d fenced the cracks off with traffic cones and bright yellow incident tape, just about every inch he had in the station, and was now waiting for word from HQ. Inevitably, in this weather no one was able to do anything in a rush.
     Now he had an even weirder job on. Someone on Mawby Hill had reported children frightened by “a very tall man”. As he reached the estate and slowed to a halt at the end of the first street, he wondered just how tall you had to be to frighten the kids of Mawby Hill. Since the pit closure, the estate was almost fully unemployed and what youngsters there were tended to be tearaways.
     The road ahead, meanwhile, was bare of life, arrowhead flakes sweeping over it. No-one had gritted, so every surface was deeply buried. Parked cars were visible as rounded hummocks. The Pennine hills, which always made for a scenic backdrop, were indistinguishable from the sky. The few Christmas decorations sparkling from windows had a meagre, half-hearted look about them. Theoretically, white Christmases were adorable, but the weeks and weeks of persistent snow, and the endless problems it caused in a country not geared up to deal with it, were subduing everyone’s mood.
     Slowly, Manning gunned the Range Rover forward, the windscreen wipers thudding. Aside from that, there was a muffled silence. He prowled the streets with painstaking slowness, but saw no-one at all, let alone “a very tall man”. He didn’t doubt that something had gone on, however. Even this weather, too cold for children to sit in class, would not be too cold for them to go out snowballing. So, it was hard to explain why they weren’t. He grabbed his radio. “Manning to Six!”
     “Go ahead, sarge,” came a tinny voice from the Comms Suite at Slaithwaite.
     “Yeah, Jen. I’m on the Mawby now. No trace of anything unusual. No trace of anything, in fact. I’m not happy, though. Think I might knock on a few doors.”
     “Received, sarge. Listen ... before you do, can you look at a ‘vulnerable’?
     Manning groaned. Likely as not, this would mean a trip to some even more remote spot. He was glad he had his shovel in the back. “What about 1415, Jen?”
     “Negative on that, sarge. I can’t raise Marty.
     “What do you mean you can’t raise him?”
     “Not answering his radio, sarge. You know what he’s like.
     Manning snorted. He knew exactly. Marty Culvin was a long serving street-bobby but prone to extreme laziness. Days like this were ideal for parking up somewhere and having a snooze. He’d often turn his radio down so as not to be disturbed by static. “Keep trying him, Jen. And when you get him, tell him he’s in for a bollocking. Let’s have the details.”


*

Charlie Hardaker had been a gamekeeper during his working life. Now he was retired. Very, very retired.
     Manning stood by the broken-down door, staring at the corpse in the middle of the kitchen. He’d been in the job twenty-five years, most of it spent in inner city areas of Bradford and Leeds, and had seen some abominations: a lonely woman who’d died from a heart attack and over the following month had been devoured by her starving Alsatian; a teenage girl raped then macheted, both arms lopped off at the elbows; a motorway crash so severe that one victim’s broken spine had come out through the side of his neck.
     But nothing could have prepared him for this.
     Thankfully, the snow, which had been billowing in through the open door for the last few hours, covered much of the horror, though Manning could still see enough: the iced blood coating every surface, the indescribable mutilation of the corpse. He took it in at a single glance, before turning away to vomit.
     Hardaker, for whatever reason, had gone out through the rear door of his lonely cottage. Whoever he’d met out there had then thrown him back in. Possibly, the wind had closed the door behind the old man, but that hadn’t mattered, because whoever had thrown him in, had thrown him clean through it, bursting it from its hinges and bringing down huge chunks of plaster. It wasn’t clear whether the unimaginably savage beating the victim had taken had come before that or after, but old Charlie’s face was a blackened ruin, the bones smashed inward. Both eyes had ruptured, only blood-glutted sockets remaining. More horrifying than any of this, however, was the actual murder weapon.
     It was Charlie’s bottom jaw.
     The killer had torn it off and bludgeoned the old man to death with it. It now lay beside him, an angled piece of bone clad in crimson shreds of flesh. Three yellowing teeth were still visible in it.
     Manning vomited again before he was able to muster the strength to look around outside the property. The moorland encircling it was a white wilderness, snow whistling across it in spiteful flurries. There was no trace of footprints. Manning doubted that even tracker dogs would make headway in this. He took shelter by the gable wall and tried to contact Comms, but his message broke repeatedly. He plodded back to the Range Rover, now buried to the wheel-arches, and tried to use the force radio. Even that gave out only crackles. From what he could gather, some kind of incident was going on in the neighbouring sub-division. Eventually, he re-entered the house, stepped gingerly past the body and tried to use the telephone in the old man’s hall. Inevitably, it was dead.
     He stood there, darkness growing around him. Manning had attended many murder scenes before, and the usual feelings assailed him: revulsion at being there – Hardaker’s house was impeccable, but somehow these dens of death always seemed squalid; anger – the futile yearning for revenge against the faceless murderer was often overpowering; and guilt – no cop in the world could attend a murder without thinking that if he or she had been there earlier it might not have happened, that the helpless victim would not have died unprotected and alone, the law unaware they even existed.
     Ordinarily, he couldn’t leave the scene, especially as the broken door meant it was impossible to secure, but this time he had no option. It was vital that CID and Forensics arrived before the evidence deteriorated. He also, laughably, needed to certify death, and that would take a doctor. He glanced around the interior of the house before leaving. Only the kitchen showed signs of physical damage. There was no indication that any other part of the building had even been touched, which suggested that robbery wasn’t the motive. That didn’t surprise Manning; he’d already marked this one as the work of a maniac.
     It was only as he climbed back into the Range Rover that he thought about the “very tall man”. It was an ugly notion, but he dismissed it. Mawby Hill was over twelve miles away, which in this weather might as well have been a hundred.
     However, by the time he was half way down the rough track to Heatherby, something even more worrying had happened. The swathe of snowy moorland to his left appeared to have fractured. A brand new zig-zag line bisected it in an east-west direction. Manning jammed his brakes on, skidding thirty yards and hitting the kerb before he was able to jump out. He stood gaping. Short of an earthquake, there was surely no explanation for this. He was up in the hills, here. As far as he knew, there’d never been colliery excavation on the northern side of the town.
     As far as he knew.
     When did that ever mean anything? Who was to say there hadn’t at least been tunnelling? Who was to say the town’s foundations weren’t riddled with galleries now in-filling one after another?
     Briefly, he was beset by a nightmarish vision of Heatherby itself, the entire town, subsiding, of horrendous casualties, of a thousand people suddenly rendered homeless in the worst possible weather. He leaped into the Range Rover and set off at a reckless pace, snow spurting out to either side. This was getting way too big for the skeleton staff of a sub-divisional nick. He needed help and he needed it fast.


*

The first thing Manning saw as he approached the police station at the top of Heatherby Market Street, was PC Culvin climbing from the cabin of a farm truck. One or two other vehicles were around, all moving in a reckless hurry it seemed to Manning, but the farm vehicle stood out clearly, as always, caked in mud. It pulled slowly away as Manning drove up. Culvin was walking under the arch towards the personnel door when he glanced back. He stopped and waited. Manning had braked and climbed out before he saw that the PC had been hurt. Culvin’s uniform was dishevelled and the fluorescent green anorak he wore over it streaked with blood. He looked pale and clamped a crimson-blotted handkerchief to the side of his head.
     “Have a bump?” Manning asked, keying in the access code.
     The PC shook his head groggily. “Can’t remember. Was up on Pit Meadow Lane. Bert Longshaw said someone killed his sheep, battered ’em like. Whole flock.”
     “What?
     Culvin shook his head again. They entered the locker room, which was dark and empty, though the central heating had been on full blast for so long that it was stultifying. They stripped off their gloves and anorak. Manning hung his hat on a hook.
     “I never got there,” Culvin said. “I was half way up, when I went off the road. Bloody weird, I’ll tell you. One minute I was driving, the next my front wheels’d gone down this hole ... you know, like a crack, but straight across the tarmac. I mean right across it. All jagged.”
     Manning felt a twitch at the back of his neck. Bert Longshaw’s farm was four miles east of Heatherby. So … first south, then north, now east. “Go on.”
     “Like a landslip, it was. Honest sarge, I’ve been up that road fifty times this year, and I’ve never seen that before.”
     Manning nodded. “Course ... if you’d been wearing a belt, it might have been less painful for you.” This was an issue they’d discussed at length several times. Manning had discussed it with many junior officers.
     “I was wearing a belt.” Culvin touched the gash on the side of his head, where blood was still seeping. “This happened when I got out. Someone lobbed something at me.”
     “Come again?”
     “Didn’t see ’em, it was snowing that bad. When I came round, I found a piece of granite the size of a breezeblock. Must have used a bleeding ballista …”
     Manning could only stare at him. He was thinking of the strength it took to throw a man through a solid wooden door.
     “Good job it only glanced me,” Culvin added. “Good job I had my helmet on an’ all. Bert picked me up about ten minutes later. Reckon I’m going to need stitches and a tetanus.”
     Manning nodded, but he was still thinking about Charlie Hardaker. “I can’t let you go for them yet, Marty.”
     Culvin stood in amazed silence as his sergeant related what had happened. He might have been a lazy sod, but he was basically a conscientious copper. Five minutes later, he’d popped into the first aid room to get an Elastoplast and some antiseptic, and was then off to the garage at the back to check out the supervision car. He’d stand guard at the Hardaker house until someone relieved him, he said.
     “And for Christ’s sake, be careful!” Manning shouted after him from the personnel door. “It’s bad news up there. I’ll be up as soon as I’ve got CID.”
     Manning walked down the passage to the office, but heard someone shouting inside it before he even went in. It was Gary Parker, the youngest copper at the nick, and the shift’s front desk clerk and custody officer. When Manning entered, Parker was stripped to his shirt and tie, and trying to raise someone on one of the telephones. He glanced up with what could only be described as immense relief.
     “Sarge ... thank God. I’ve been trying to get you. There’s an Operation Response!”
     Manning halted mid-stride. “What?”
     Parker nodded, his young face pale and bewildered. “Yeah. I don’t know the details ... the line went dead. Something’s going on at Halifax. They need every spare body they can get. A riot, or something.”
     “In this weather?”
     “I only heard a bit of it.”
     Manning struggled to make sense of the situation. “Who were you trying to call?”
     “Comms. I can’t get ’em on the radio.” The young officer seemed close to panic. “I don’t know what’s going on!”
     “Just keep trying,” Manning said.
     Parker did, while Manning picked up a different line and dialled Force HQ at Leeds. There was no response. The number didn’t even ring out. Manning stood back. The control he exercised daily in so smooth and professional a fashion that he barely needed to think about it anymore, was slipping away like water through his fingers. He glanced sideways, to where flakes the size of feathers tumbled past the fogged window. Darkness was falling as well. Another vehicle thundered by at what seemed like suicidal speed, swishing through the snow, headlights glaring. This was wrong ... all wrong.
     Manning opened the radio cupboard, took out a new pack of recharged batteries and fitted them into his PR. Changing the frequency, he tried to contact the next division. “Sergeant 1768 Manning, Foxtrot Division to Tango control, over.”
     A hiss of static erupted from the receiver, then a voice. It was not the clipped, efficient voice of the average radio-operator however, but a falsetto screech. “Urgent message, repeat, urgent message ... officer injured on ...”
     With a crackle, it died away. One of the phones began to ring. Manning turned eagerly, but Parker had already grabbed it. “Hello ... West Yorkshire Police at Heatherby. Yeah ... what ... I’m sorry, love, I didn’t ... what do you mean ... no you’ve got to ... Jesus wept!” He slapped the side of the phone, knocked the receiver against the desktop, then turned to his sergeant. “You’re not going to believe this ... some woman’s just said her husband’s been murdered!”
     Manning stared at him.
     “Line’s gone dead,” Parker added. “Didn’t even get a name and address.”
    Only after what seemed like minutes, did Manning manage to get himself together. “What ... what happened?”
     “She was screaming herself hoarse, but it sounded something like the back garden. Someone came over the fence and killed him in the back garden ...”
     “And we don’t know where?”
     Parker shook his head.
     “Dial a recall.”
     The PC tried, but again slammed the phone down. “It’s dead! Totally dead. They’ve all gone dead. We’re cut off ... Christ!
     “All right!” Manning snapped. “It’s a blizzard, that’s all! Get it together!”
     Parker nodded and tried to calm himself down.
     “I’m going up to Charlie Hardaker’s place,” Manning said. “He’s been topped too. Hold the fort, if you think you can manage it.”
     He snatched a hi-viz slicker from a row of pegs and left by the front desk; but when he reached the steps, he stopped short. The snowbound town had come alive, vehicles screaming past in both directions, their drivers apparently oblivious to the danger. Some were already showing accident damage. As Manning watched, a Ford Escort went into a horrifying skid and crashed headlong into a lamp post, knocking it backward through a shop window and buckling its own bonnet and fender. Even more astonishing, the Escort driver simply threw the car into reverse, backed up and took off again at high speed, kicking up fountains of slush.
     The snow continued to cascade. Where it lay, it was banked against walls in drifts that were maybe six or seven feet deep, but it made no difference: pedestrians were out as well, racing back and forth; some weren’t even wearing coats. The deadened air rang with frantic voices. Manning heard a terrific crash, an explosion of wood and metal. It sounded like a house roof caving in, yet he stood there in a daze, barely noticing as someone approached him. Only at the last second did he turn … just as a solid fist smashed into his jaw.
     The next thing he knew, he was lying face-down, his mouth full of hot, metallic fluid.
     “Useless pigs!” someone hissed in his ear. A steel-toed boot whumped into his ribs. “Where’s your Orgreave army now when we need it?” The man kicked him again, before lumbering away.
     It was several minutes before Manning had come round sufficiently to sit up, ten minutes before he could stand. He suspected his jaw was broken, but knew he didn’t have time to worry about it. He tottered groggily to the Range Rover and climbed inside.
     Driving was a nightmare, the blizzard reducing pedestrians to vague phantoms in the murk, obscuring vehicles down to their headlamps. If it was possible, the temperature had dropped even further. The roads were rivers of ice and Manning had several minor collisions before getting out of the town centre. Ordinarily, each one would have meant a written report and probably disciplinary action. Now, he didn’t give them a second thought; he only had one interest, to get up the mountainside.
     But it was too late.
     He was only halfway to Charlie Hardaker’s house, when he saw the wrecked police vehicle in his headlights. It was lying on its roof, its windows shattered. Black pools of oil were visible around it.
     Manning leaped out, torch in hand, and approached. The wind whipped the snowflakes at him like stinging wasps. He ignored it, circling the crashed supervision car. There was no movement from inside, only darkness. Any tell-tale tracks had already been buried.
     He halted, peering around, at which point the ground began to shake.
     At first, it was a rumble under his feet. He lurched backward, alarmed.
     The wrecked shell of the supervision car rattled violently, and from beneath it came another fissure. Initially it was visible only as a deepening groove in the snow, but it made rapid progress, and when the snow fell into it Manning saw a deep, widening split in the road surface. It lengthened speedily, scurrying away towards the Range Rover. He bolted for the vehicle, jumped in and slammed it into reverse …
     And a torn-off human head landed on the bonnet.
     The first Manning knew there was a thump of metal, and then a waxy white face under a mop of blood-sodden hair was screaming silently through the windscreen. In that first second Manning didn’t recognise it; the eyes had popped out, the mouth gaped wider than was humanly possible. Then he saw the Elastoplast still fastened over the wounded temple.
     “Culvin!” Manning shrieked, jamming his foot down.
     The head toppled, showing a jagged stump of smoking red meat. A film of blood sprayed over the windscreen, the wipers smearing it in a livid slick. Manning reversed like a madman, the wheels losing their grip repeatedly, the vehicle careering sideways. Still that face of lunacy gaped at him through the crimson fog. Manning looked back through his rear window but saw nothing for the cake of frost. It didn’t matter. He revved harder and harder, the car, borne by its own weight and velocity, turning sideways on the double-glazed surface. Manning fought the wheel, shouting, his lips flecked with froth. He saw himself going over some precipitous edge, turning end on end, beating his cranium to sponge on the roof, engine flames searing his flesh to parchment long before the all-engulfing anaesthesia of death.
     But there was no edge. There were no flames. There was only the maelstrom of snow and darkness, the treacherous road of ice, the smashed and laughing face, now pressed against the glass by G-force, imprinting its visage in gore. And something else: the figure pursuing the car down the road. Or rather … the figures
     The Range Rover turned like a top, spinning madly, bouncing kerb to kerb, the world passing it by in a blurry kaleidoscope. But with each revolution, Manning caught flickered glimpses of grey, cyclopean figures bounding down onto the road, pursuing his vehicle like maddened apes, or elephants, or rhinoceroses, or all three merged into some fevered biological blasphemy.
     What could throw a man clean through a wooden door?
     The ground thundered, or was that the wind, or the constant clash of bodywork on rock and kerb, or Manning’s faltering heart beating a tattoo of terror beyond imagining.
     Fleetingly, the empty downward road appeared before him, and he tromped the gas. In his crazed eagerness, he almost overshot, but he righted at the last second, a wall of sparks blazing along the Range Rover’s offside as he blasted down the high verge, hubcaps shearing off like bottle-tops, and then he was moving freely, only the beautiful empty darkness in front. And the crusty gauze of blood, of course. And Culvin’s head, somehow moored to the bonnet, wagging from side to side as though in disapproval. Manning hit his brakes to try and dislodge it, skidding uncontrollably, though at the next bend it flew into the night of its own accord. It couldn’t have done so more impressively had it sprouted bat wings.
     Manning righted the wheel as he precipitated forward. His teeth chattered so savagely that he couldn’t utter a prayer of thanks. He couldn’t even check the mirror to see if those fucking hallucinations were still following him. None of that mattered. Escape was all. Escape from this Roller Coaster road. From this cursed town. From this nightmare. And then he remembered Geraldine. At home all day. On her own.
     A moan tore from his lips.
     He floored the accelerator with everything he had.

*

The Mannings lived at the end of a cul-de-sac on the southern outskirts of Heatherby. Aside from the various new housing estates being constructed atop the south bank of the M62 motorway, theirs was the last district of habitation. Nothing much happened there. The neighbours liked each other. The children were civil. There was no possible danger. Apart from the fact the entire estate was built on a wide plateau long ago reclaimed from a Coal Board slag heap. Steep slopes fell away on three sides of it.
     And now they were literally falling away.
     As Manning’s Range Rover skidded down the road towards his front door, he saw a gigantic fissure wriggling across the ice at the far end, saw pavement flags upending in the snow, heard the staccato crackle of rocks and boulders as they snapped like rotten bones. When, with an ear-splitting roar, the farthest house vanished from view, toppling backward into a void, it was four doors from his own.
     Manning hit the brakes so hard he almost turned the car on its side. Somewhere ahead, a telephone pole came down, cables lashing and sparking like electric eels. There was another explosion of timber and the next house began to slide, its roof lopsiding, windows bursting outward. Was anyone inside it? Was anyone in the street even? Manning didn’t care so long as he found Geraldine. The road juddered beneath his feet as he ran up his drive to the front door. As it opened, cracks spider-webbed over the lintel.
     “Geraldine!” he bellowed.
     His wife waited in the lounge, white-faced, eyes glazed. She already wore a coat and had a bag in her hand. The television was on, but the screen was a haze of static. Vague figures moved ponderously about in it, someone was screaming. An American newscaster said something about “international calamity”. Manning didn’t care. He wasn’t listening. He took his wife by the hand and dragged her out of the house. As he did, the floor began to tilt. Boards sprang under the carpet. The burglar alarm went off.
     Snowflakes danced into their eyes as they blundered towards the car. As they climbed in, Manning saw a branch-line of the fissure working its way along the centre of the street towards him. He turned the vehicle around and sped away with seconds to spare. In the wing mirror, his house distorted as it fell backward out of view. A split-second later, the fissure widened and with the cacophony of an earthquake, the entire southern side of the cul-de-sac slid away, paving, front gardens, houses, cars, all vanishing.
     And then he saw something else. Just before he spun around the next corner, the copper glanced down alongside his vehicle and saw something that he simply refused to believe. Something vaguely humanoid deep down in the cleft, its back braced against one rock face, its massive feet planted on the other, its legs bent double, thighs bulging with granite muscles as it strained and heaved and pushed.
     Manning tried to blot it from his mind as he drove for the M62. Everyone else had had the same idea, however. The slip-roads were chocka with vehicles packed with frightened people and travelling at furious speeds. Collisions were frequent, skids a constant hazard. Screams and curses echoed over the yowling engines, but no one stopped to swap addresses or demand restitution. No one dared. Behind them, spread in vast panorama, were the twinkling lights of Heatherby. Many of those lights now winked out, in their place the spreading crimson glare of house and shop fires, massive, lumpy figures moving among them.
     “It’s the end of everything,” Geraldine said in shaking monotone.
     “Don’t talk wet!” Manning spat, but he had trouble getting the words out. “Just ... just a landslide or something. You know ... an earthquake. Pits ... pits have caved in.”
     They sped down the access ramp past the first of the new housing estates, onto the yellow-lit motorway, where true Pandemonium reigned. The M62 was a troubled route at the best of times, but now had to be seen to be believed. The traffic was moving, but it was solid as a log-jam, vans and trucks crammed in with the cars, many running five or six abreast, some on the hard shoulder. An unending dissonance of horns and engines raged through the frozen air. That was the west-bound carriageway. Incredibly, east-bound the lanes were deserted. Though maybe that wasn’t so incredible, Manning thought. Because if you went east on the M62, you also went north, into the teeth of the storm ... and whatever it had brought with it.
     He pushed his way out onto the crowded motorway, only to be buffeted repeatedly.
     “I don’t know where they’re running to,” Geraldine muttered. “There’s no escape ...”
     “For Christ’s sake!”
     “It’s the Fimbulwinter. It’s happened like the legend said. And now they’ve come back. To reap the discord and reclaim the world.”
     She sounded as if she was quoting something, but Manning was too distracted to wonder what. He swore loudly as they crashed into a car in front and then were jolted from behind. Amazingly, the log-jam continued to move, totalled vehicles dragged along with the rest. “What … what’re you gibbering about?” he shouted.
     “What I say,” she said. “Them. The giants.”
     Manning wanted to slap her and shout at her, tell her that the last thing he needed now was for his wife to go crazy on him. But he’d already seen things that day that defied explanation. That surely couldn’t exist in the world of law, order and science, where up until this morning he had spent his entire life.
     That was when the first missile hit the car.
     Initially they thought it another collision. Then the second missile struck, crashing over the bonnet with terrific violence. Geraldine screamed. Manning swore.
     A house-brick. A full-sized house-brick flung from the embankment like a tennis ball. Two others hit home in quick succession, sending shockwaves through the chassis. By now, missiles were striking other vehicles too, raining down all along the motorway, smashing on roofs and bonnets. As far as the eye could see, snowflakes billowed in the yellow glare of the street-lights, but showers of a more terrible sort were falling with them. Projected from the embankment.
     Only then did it dawn on Manning what was happening.
     This was an attack. A full-scale, preplanned attack.
     An army had emerged from the tempest and overrun him and his people in their own encampment. Then it had herded them down into this narrow gully where their vast numbers were a disadvantage. That army was now deployed alongside, hidden by the driving snow and thanks to those miles and miles of half-built houses on the new estates, provided with stockpiles of ammunition.
     He got his foot down hard, but only succeeded in shunting the Jaguar in front. It scarcely mattered, for one second later the black blur of a twirling brick swooped on the Jaguar’s windscreen, staving it in like paper. The Jag went wildly out of control, skidding sideways and flipping onto its side. Manning swerved around it as it exploded. In his rearview mirror, orange flames mushroomed into the air, but still the missiles came down, thrown with horrendous force by the unseen foe, sleeting into the sea of headlights, shattering windows, gashing bodywork. It was the same directly ahead. Bricks, stones, breeze-blocks, girders even, bounced from the roofs and flanks of the sliding cars. Sparks flashed from repeated impacts. There were further detonations, plumes of flame and smoke. Dams of crumpled metal appeared as vehicles, filled only with the dead and battered, careered into one another, tangling wheels and bumpers, losing speed, slithering upside-down. In many places, people were getting out and trying to run, though swarms of missiles felled them. Either that, or other cars cut them down. Broken bodies flew ragged in the air, or rolled in the gutters between grinding, slewing wheels. The stink of petrol was everywhere, the screams and shouts deafening. Manning screamed along with them. He’d long forgotten that he was a policeman. He forced Geraldine down into the foot-space, then ducked himself as a doorstep-sized chunk of brick and ice came glittering at his windshield. By a miracle, the glass held, though it frosted with cracks. He drove on regardless, hitting and knocking things, keeping as low as he could, cringing with every shuddering blow.
     A piece of paving stone skittered across his roof, slamming through the front passenger window of an Audi on his right, crushing the skull of whoever was sitting there, spraying the inside of its windscreen scarlet. Even in his dazed condition, Manning heard a male voice going hysterical, the driver maybe, and the howls of what sounded like children from the back. Then the Audi front-ended the rear of a stationary HGV, and fragmented with the force of its erupting fuel tank.
     Manning stomped his pedal to the floor to escape the blast, unable to look at the writhing, blazing figures in his rear-view mirror, only to run aground himself, bullocked sideways by an out-of-control van. Another vehicle hit him, this time from behind, spinning him. A second later the Range Rover was stationary, hemmed between smoking wrecks, the icy air seeping into it. Then the driver’s window imploded, and what felt like a fist in a mailed glove hammered into Manning’s cheek. His head flew to one side, and he heard Geraldine crying out and grabbing at him.
     “I’m ... I’m all right,” he stammered, his thoughts swimming. A bloodied half-brick lay in his lap.
     “Oh my God, George,” she gasped. “You’re bleeding.”
     “I’m all right!” he insisted again, though he knew that he wasn’t. Loose bones ticked in the side of his face. Half of his head had gone numb. Fighting off unconsciousness, he kicked open his door and clambered out. “We’ve got ... got to get out of here.
     But in both directions now, the motorway was jammed up with burning, twisted vehicles, many skew-whiff or on their sides. Hapless figures milled among the smouldering hulks, climbing over them, or lying trapped, shrieking for help. Close by, a businessman, still in his pin-striped suit but with a cut forehead and broken glasses, was trying to drag a sports bag from the boot of his Bentley.
     “For Christ’s sake!” he shouted hysterically. “It’s my life’s savings ... for Christ’s sake, someone help me!”
     His bag was trapped, however. Haul as he may, he couldn’t shift it. He was about to shout again when a brick impacted in his open mouth. It sounded like a hammer hitting a pumpkin. His arms flopped bonelessly as he sank to the ground, his head a pulverised mass of brick and bone. Then a missile struck Manning’s shoulder. He went down with a gasp, falling over a mangled car bonnet. He knew instantly that his shoulder was broken. The pain was nauseating.
     Black moments passed before he realised that Geraldine was tugging at him. In a daze, he levered himself up and walked. Like a stumbling, drunken man, he allowed his wife to lead him across the motorway, threading through the debris. Behind them, voices still moaned and wept, the deluge of missiles still beat a thunderous tattoo on chrome and concrete. When they reached the north side of the motorway, the unbroken snow on the embankment was too deep for them to make any headway. It was several feet in places, and as they ploughed into it, simply swallowed them to the waist. Sapped of strength, it became a futile battle. They attempted to struggle up anyway, the slope rearing above them like the south face of Everest. Manning, one side of his body leaden and useless, leaking blood by the pint from his slashed-open face, was the first of the two to collapse. He toppled forward, half-burying himself. Compared to the ice-edged wind, the enveloping snow was warm as a blanket.
     Slowly and awkwardly, he rolled onto his back, gradually becoming aware of Geraldine hunched down beside him. Somewhere below, the streetlamps winked off post by post. Darkness spread, only islands of flame holding it at bay. The crashing and banging endured with renewed intensity, for tall shadows were now slinking down from the snows, carrying cudgels. Where the rain of bricks ceased, the slamming of clubs – scaffolding pipes, football goalposts, the stems of traffic lights – commenced.
     Manning wasn’t interested. He wasn’t cold any more. He couldn’t even feel his broken shoulder. He sensed Geraldine lying down with her head on his chest, her thin, shivering form coating over with flakes.
     “How ... many of them, I wonder?” he stammered.
     “How many rocks in the earth?” she replied.
     If Manning could have nodded, he would. “Better ... this way, then.”
     “Better this way,” she said. 



A quick reminder that, if you enjoyed this story today, there are more Christmas and winter-time ghost and horror stories available in my two collections: THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER.

(PS: None of the ARTWORK used in today’s blog was commissioned for this story. All of it I found floating around online with no names attached. If any of the creators want to get in touch with me, I will happily add their credits to this post. Or, if they’d rather, I can always take the images down).

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Darker crimes to chill you this Christmas

Well, we’re finally into December, so we can at last start talking all things Christmas again. Not that I haven’t been doing this already, I freely admit. But it occurred to me the other day that there is plenty of Christmas stuff to be discussed where my main novel of 2020, ONE EYE OPEN, is concerned (even though it was published during the summer). It’s set over Christmas after all, and packed with midwinter predicaments.

You’ll hopefully recall that it was a hardcase crime thriller, and in keeping with that dark and dangerous tone, I’ll also today be reviewing the rather excellent THE DARK INSIDE by Rod Reynolds, the fictionalisation of a very dramatic real-life murder case, which makes for a superb suspense novel.

If you’re only here for the Rod Reynolds review, I’ve got no problem with that. Just zoom on down to the lower end of today’s post, and you’ll find it, as always, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a bit more time, we can first chat a little about …

A Christmas caper

ONE EYE OPEN, my first crime novel for Orion, was published last August, and while the average man on the street might assume this meant it was going to be a summer read (and I wouldn’t argue with that as I consider it a real page-flipper), it is set during a deep-frozen Christmas and so ought to be a damn good read for the festive season too.

The story itself takes place between mid-December and early January, the centrepiece of it a well-planned but brutal armed robbery, which occurs on Christmas Eve itself. It all happens in the Essex and Suffolk countryside, a part of Britain perhaps not renowned for its plunges into Arctic weather, though this is exactly what occurs on this occasion, and it focusses not on some ace detective or specialist Major Investigation unit, but on a Traffic officer, Lynda Hagen, who, as well as having various lesser enquiries to put to bed, must also look after her demanding family during the Christmas season and take care of her husband, who’s still not fully recovered from a nervous breakdown.

The last thing she really needs, of course, is to be dragged into the world of organised crime, multi-million pound heists and gangland shootings.

I’m not going to say any more about ONE EYE OPEN, but will add that, at the time of this writing, it has over 500 glowing reviews on Amazon (but is still there, waiting for more 😉), and reiterate that it all happens during the Yuletide season, so it’s filled with Christmas trees, decorations, icicles and snow.

TV adaptations

It’s every writer’s dream that his or her latest book should get snapped up for film or TV. The advantages of this speak for themselves.  And yet, even though the plethora of new TV channels we now enjoy, and the movie-making budgets and standards that have been brought to television production generally means that projects are being gobbled up left, right and centre, to make a successful sale of this sort – at least, from a novelist’s point of view – is still rarer than rocking horse doo-dah.

We’ve all sold options. Oh, yes. Options are great. An option means that a production company owns the sole rights to adapting your work for a specified period of time. Usually it’s a year, or a couple of years. What it does NOT mean is that this adaptation is actually going to happen.

There is a cynical world-view among many authors that their work is often only acquired for these short periods of time simply to prevent anyone else getting their hands on it. I mean, the intent to make the damn thing will always be there, but the wherewithal could easily be lacking (and you can’t afford to get too uppity about that, because … well, you try persuading someone to give you a couple of million quid to make a movie!). On the basis of this intent, though, we writers – once we’ve done our diligence on the would-be producer, and assuming the price isn’t completely derisory – tend to go with it.

Anyway, after all that, and despite sounding a little world-weary, I am more than happy to announce that an option taken out previously on my Lucy Clayburn novels – STRANGERS, SHADOWS and STOLEN – has been renewed. Again, despite my warning tone in the paragraphs above, I’m very happy with this. I’ve done my research and the company involved are top-notch and the people manning it all quality professionals with impressive track-records. I feel very comfortable that, for the next few months at least, the books are in safe hands.

Big names

As a footnote, I’ve had quite a bit of fun with this recently, the production unit sending me their proposed lists of actors to approach for the various parts. 

Suffice to say that the key roles in the Lucy Clayburn stories are, firstly, Lucy herself, a 30-something police detective in Manchester, who has fought hard to overcome a drastic mistake she made as a junior, when she got one of her supervisors shot, but who now rides a Ducati and isn’t afraid to mix it with the bad guys (though she isn’t Wonderwoman; Lucy’s a tough, blue-collar lass, but I never envisaged her as one of those unlikely heroines who can knock six guys out with a single punch). 

Secondly, we have Lucy’s dad, Frank McCracken, a Manchester
crime-boss in his fifties, who’s done it all including murder and robbery. Lucy didn’t even know about his existence until late in the first book, STRANGERS, her single-parent mum, Cora Clayburn, having always mendaciously maintained that she never knew who Lucy’s father was. As you can imagine, once the twosome become aware of each other, there are some serious clashes of loyalties.

Some of the names and faces on the actor lists were stunning. For page after page, it was a case of “Wow, if we could only get her … or him!’ Most exciting of all, when the male list arrived at my house, the one actor, who I can’t name yet, but who I’d thought from inception would be perfect to play Frank, was sitting at the very top. Great minds think alike, or what?

Of course, I reiterate that none of this is guaranteed to happen as yet. But I think it’s safe to say that these are exciting times if you’re a fan of these particular books.

Audible delights

In another item of late news, I can report that the Audible adaptations of my three Christmas books this year are well on their way. 

SPARROWHAWK (the story of a Victorian-era soldier who, on his release from the debtors’ prison in the midst of a truly terrible winter, faces a life-or-death struggle against a supernatural foe that can draw on all the darkest legends of the festive season) is already out there in paperback, ebook and on Audible, just waiting for you to acquire it.

The other two, THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, which are collections of festive horror stories and novellas, are also now available in paperback and on Kindle. I’ve recently signed off on the Audible versions of these two, which, as with SPARROWHAWK, are amazingly well-performed by actor Greg Patmore, but given that this is the festive season and a lot of stuff is due out about now (especially as so many people will be staying in this year!), these latter two may arrive a little late. If that happens – and it’s only an ‘if’ at this stage – I wouldn’t expect anyone to want to listen to Christmas ghost stories once Christmas is over. But if that’s the case, never fear … you’ll still be able to get them next year.

Apologies about this uncertainty, by the way, as I have been enthusiastically drumming up interest in these Audibles over the last few weeks.


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.

THE DARK INSIDE
by Rod Reynolds (2015)

Outline
We commence proceedings in the newsroom of the The Examiner newspaper, New York, in 1946, where we meet long-serving newshound, Charlie Yates. At first glance, Yates is an unimpressive specimen, who, though he has fifteen years experience investigating and writing about crime, was injured out of the armed forces by a road accident before he could be sent overseas (which some folk feel worked out rather well for him), and now has anger-management issues that have put paid to his marriage and regularly enrage his equally ill-tempered boss.

After one particular incident in the office, Yates, his career hanging by a thread, is sent south to Texarkana, the twin cities that straddle the Texas-Arkansas border, where a series of gruesome fatal attacks are underway, young couples accosted by a hooded gunman in remote areas and shot, the women then sexually mutilated.

It’s a lurid case, the killer referred to locally as ‘the Phantom Slayer’, but Yates still considers it small potatoes and is infuriated both to have been landed with such a story in the first place and to have been sent out here to what he considers the boondocks, to cover it.

Ironically, the boondocks are equally unhappy to have him.

Though he puts up in the Mason Hotel, along with the rest of the press pack (because despite Yates’ frustration, this is fast turning into a big story!), he isn’t received well at the Chronicle, the local newspaper, which is owned by the same company as the Examiner and thus somewhere he’d expected to find allies. Neighbourhood crime reporter, Jimmy Robinson, something of an unstable character himself, views their guest as an arrogant interloper, while Chronicle editor, McGaffney, is less overtly hostile but evidently discomforted to have a big-city crime writer on the patch.

Despite being advised that Texarkana is not New York and that these murders actually mean something because almost everyone in town has been personally affected by them, Yates goes in feet-first, asking bullish questions of all and sundry, which brings him into near-immediate conflict with lead-investigator Sheriff Horace Bailey and his enforcer-in-chief, the ultra-menacing Lieutenant Jack Sherman, who warns him off subtly but in no uncertain terms.

Yates’ suggestion that the killer may be a deranged ex-GI gains no traction with anyone, even though the town is full of such potential suspects, hordes of demobbed men, many still trigger-happy, filling the town’s bars and flocking to work at nearby Red River Arsenal, a military supply depot where their expertise would be valued, but which is currently in the process of being acquired by the town’s most prominent citizen, millionaire Winfield Calloway, throwing its future into the balance.

As the body-count mounts, the town turning ever more volatile and the dogged Yates’ relationship with both the local press and police becoming so strained that the latter soon go from warning him to making open threats, he inveigles his way into the hospital to speak to 17-year-old Alice Anderson, thus far the only survivor of a Phantom attack. He finds her upset and confused, claiming no real memory of what happened but insisting that the police have been leaning on her, trying to put words into her mouth. Afterwards, when the cops release an official statement that Alice Anderson has described her assailant as a black man, Yates knows it for a lie.

Not long after this, a huge reward is offered, which Yates realises is going to lead to violence and intimidation against the local black community, while the real culprit is not only going unpunished but, for some reason, not even being pursued … maybe is even being protected.

Unsure who to trust, he tries to win the confidence of Lizzie Anderson, Alice’s attractive and adversarial older sister. However, Lizzie’s a woman of secrets too, and initially doesn’t seem to like him, never mind trust him. But then, bewilderingly, Alice disappears from the hospital, apparently without trace.

Against an ever-deepening mystery and in an atmosphere of simmering violence, Lizzie has no option but to turn to Charlie Yates, and Yates to her. Both feel the entire town is now ranged against them, including the killer who strikes by moonlight, the one they call the Phantom …

Review
The ‘Moonlight Murders’ that occurred in Texarkana in 1946 were a dreadful series of actual events, which saw five people killed and three others seriously wounded at the hands of an unknown killer dubbed ‘the Phantom’ because of the terrifying white hood he always wore. It’s one of the the most fascinating aspects of The Dark Inside that Rod Reynolds follows this grim, real-life history very closely indeed, even using the genuine locations of murder scenes like Spring Lake Park and Red River Army Depot. That said, he changes the names of the victims and the law enforcement officials charged with finding justice for them, and of course, purely for dramatic purposes, adds heaps of local corruption, whereas in reality there was no suggestion of such.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the legendary crime spree has been fictionalised.

In 1976, Charles Pierce made the notorious exploitation movie, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, which also told the tale but took liberties with many of the facts, suggesting, for instance, that one of the Phantom’s female victims was killed with a musical instrument, which definitely never happened and yet thanks to the movie became canon among teenagers interested in the case. Despite being vividly done, The Town That Dreaded Sundown barely rates a mention among worldwide horror movie fans these days, but it so plucked at the nerve strings of Texarkana residents that, even now, it regularly receives late-night open air screenings in Spring Lake Park.

The upshot of this (not to mention the fact that sundry other books have been written about the case, both fictional and non-fictional) is that it was never very likely Rod Reynolds would be accused of showing bad taste by dramatising these astonishing events, which I personally am more than happy about because I found The Dark Inside a thoroughly engrossing piece of grown-up thriller fiction, populated by completely convincing characters and speeding through a series of hairpin twists and turns that constantly threw me and left me eager to know what was coming next. To call this one a page-turner is not just hyperbole.

Charlie Yates makes for an excellent lead. He’s now gone on to star in two other novels, Black Night Falling and Cold Desert Sky, but this is his first appearance and it’s a powerful one, though the author set himself no small task birthing a hero who is flawed for all the wrong reasons: a guy deeply embarrassed and self-recriminating about his cowardice during World War Two, frustrated about his failures as a husband and a man, and when he first arrives in Texarkana, self-centred, aimless and drifting. Uninspired and mostly unrepentant, about the only thing Yates has got going for him is his nose for a story, but it is this that will lead him on a path to redemption. And that’s our main narrative arc.

Yes, there is a brutal murderer to unmask, but The Dark Inside is also about a man at his lowest ebb frantically trying to claw his way back to the light. And he only gets there incrementally, continually making bad choices and letting himself down, though that renders Yates all the more interesting to me. He’s the hero, of course, so you never quite give up on him. It’s no surprise that by the end of this book, the reader is one hundred percent behind the guy in his quest to put things right.

His relationship with Lizzie Anderson is a big part of this. Our heroine is hardly a femme fatale, beautiful and spirited, yes, but in her own way flawed as well as being tired and depressed. On top of that, she’s not at all attracted to Yates in the early stages of the narrative, and is eventually only drawn to him because it seems as if he’s the only guy she can trust.

Equally multi-layered is Rod Reynolds’ depiction of the book’s main villains, Horace Bailey and Jack Sherman in particular, both of whom hark back to that earlier age when ‘men were men’, even though in reality, as shown here, that could be quite nasty given the propensity of men like that for explosive violence. Bailey and Sherman are two characters you’re certain would kill you as soon as look at you if it suited their purpose. You only need to read The Dark Inside to be very thankful for the much more answerable law-enforcement agencies that we have today.

Other characters are also clearly drawn, Richard Davis, the town punk, and Winfield Calloway, Texarkana’s overweening patriarch (the sort of character Ed Begley would have played back in the ’50s and ’60s), providing much more than simple window-dressing, while local journalists Robinson and McGaffney are expertly cast as redneck newspaper men at least as concerned about protecting their hick town’s almost non-existent reputation as in breaking good stories.

I’ve never visited Texarkana, so I can’t comment on how authentically Rod Reynolds captures the atmosphere of the place, but in The Dark Inside he gives us a tremendously vivid picture of a functioning but self-absorbed community at a difficult time in the history of the American South: before the Civil Rights movement, with women and blacks still second class citizens, but with poverty and social problems never far from anyone’s door, and now with GIs flooding home from foreign battlefields, many traumatised, and of course all matters of dispute still deferred to the town’s ruling elite no matter how thuggish and inexperienced they may be.

This is even more remarkable because author Rod Reynolds is a Brit. So, all the more credit to him for producing this hardboiled slice of classic Southern Noir, in which the crimes are heinous, the atmosphere crackles and the characters bounce off each other like human ninepins.

The Dark Inside is a pitch-perfect period thriller, tense, claustrophobic and sweaty. It gets my very strongest recommendation.

I’m hoping that, with its taut tone and bad attitude and with the recent repopularisation of the Southern Gothic crime subgenre by such recent TV hits as True Detective and The Devil All the Time, it won’t be long before The Dark Inside hits our screens. So now, as usual, in eager anticipation of such a pleasure, I’m going to try and cast this beast. No one will listen to me, of course, but you must admit, it’s a fun exercise.

Charlie Yates – Adam Scott
Lizzie Anderson – Dakota Johnson
Sheriff Horace Bailey – Robert Patrick
Lieutenant Jack Sherman – Glenn Fleshler
Richard Davis – Jack Quaid
Winfield Calloway – Brett Cullen
Jimmy Robinson – Tommy Flanagan
McGaffney – Rainn Wilson