Friday, 3 April 2020

First glimpse of my latest: ONE EYE OPEN

I’m very proud today to be able to unveil the cover to my next novel, ONE EYE OPEN, which will be out in August. I’ve been hammered with questions about this recently, and in today’s blog shall endeavour to answer the main ones.

However, I will admit straight away that this book marks a bit of a departure for me, in that it’s a free-standing cop thriller rather than part of an ongoing series.

On the subject of departures, also in today’s blog, I’ll be reviewing and discussing Stuart MacBride’s breakneck actioner, HALFHEAD. Most of you will know Stuart as one of Scotland’s premier crime writers, but this one marked a big change for him in that, though it still involves cops and criminals, it is set in a Dystopian sci-fi future.

If you’re only here for the MacBride review, that’s perfectly fine. As always, just jump down to the bottom of the column, where you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section. However, if you’re interested in my books as well, stick around here for a while and check out …

One Eye Open

Hopefully, you won’t mind me talking about this today and for once completely ignoring the Coronavirus. I’m sure we’re all happy to take a break from the crisis now and then, even if it’s only to talk about my forthcoming new novel.

The first few questions about this one, which quite a few people have put to me, are as follows: ‘Is the new book a Heck or a Lucy Clayburn?’. ‘And if it’s neither of those, why not?’ ‘What’s going on?’

Well … no, it’s neither of those.

ONE EYE OPEN is a freestanding thriller written as my debut for Orion Books, who I joined last year (though already, I’m chuffed to bits to figure on the amazing writers’ wall in their central office’s downstairs lobby, as this image illustrates!).

The new novel introduces a completely different character, Detective Sergeant Lynda Hagen of the Essex Police. Once a police career girl and former hotshot in the CID, these days Lynda is struggling to balance her job with married life. She has two children and an ex-cop husband who’s trying to make it as a writer, failing and thus sliding into depression.

She’s still a detective, but to make things more manageable, several years ago accepted a transfer into the Essex Roads Policing Division (i.e. Traffic), specifically the Serious Collision Investigation Unit, where she spends all day assessing nasty accidents and trying to work out who’s to blame.

It’s steady if unspectacular work, which keeps her occupied Monday-to-Friday, nine-till-five. Then, one cold January morning, the first day back after the Christmas holidays, in fact, she is assigned to investigate what seems like a routine accident in which a nondescript car is utterly smashed and its two occupants left unconscious and brain-damaged. Very quickly, though, anomalies emerge.

Firstly, there doesn’t appear to have been any other vehicle involved … so why did the car leave the empty road at what appears to have been extraordinary speed?

Secondly, the car shouldn’t actually exist. There is no record of it anywhere.

Thirdly, neither should the people who were inside it. Because they too are complete unknowns.

Despite her busy and difficult domestic life, despite the fact that officially she’s only here to investigate RTAs, the seasoned criminal investigator inside Lynda Hagen now wakes up. She knows when she’s been confronted with a genuine and menacing mystery.

Naturally, they want to take it off her and give it to a higher power. But Lynda isn’t having that. This may be more than just a straightforward accident … they have two people on the point of death. But it is still her case, and she’s damned if she’s not going to investigate it until the cows come home, if that’s what it takes.

Of course, even Lynda Hagen might occasionally bite off more than she can chew. She certainly has no concept of the conspiracy she’s about to uncover, or the major underworld players who will soon be getting on her back.

The biggest problem Lynda faces here is not that she’s been out of her ‘serious crime’ groove for a while, but what she’s become since. A housewife. A mum. She’s still a cop, yes, but just being a cop won’t protect you on its own. And when you’ve got dependents who rely on you for care, who need you, who you love more deeply than you ever imagined possible, that might make you very vulnerable indeed.

Background

Okay, so there’s the blurb. I’ve also shown you the new cover. Hopefully, together they’ll whet a few appetites. But now I should address other questions put to me regarding this. Such as, for example, what about the Heck series? What about Lucy Clayburn? Does this mean there won’t be any more?

No, it emphatically does not.

It’s just that, from time to time, as a writer, you want to broaden your scope. Writing continually about characters like Heck and Lucy is very invigorating. They become second nature to you. You know by instinct how they’re going to respond to different situations and predicaments. But there are times when you need to take a break from that, to freshen your ideas.

Also, as an author you don’t want to become known only for two series. Versatility is a virtue in the fiction game, and I don’t think I’d be alone in proclaiming that. Other writers in the crime and thriller field do the same thing (Stuart MacBride for example, as I’m illustrating today). It doesn’t mean they stop writing about their favourite characters; it just means that they take a break now and then.

It’s probably also worth mentioning – and I don’t want to labour this point too much, but it’s relevant – that, just because fans of a series are deeply involved in it, that doesn’t mean the rest of the reading world automatically will be.

The problem with an ongoing series is that the more titles in it you produce, the harder it can often be for new readers to get into it. I’m exactly the same. If someone says to me ‘have you tried such-and-such an author’, and they give him/her a glowing recommendation, I’ll immediately look their stuff up. But if I then find that the latest one is volume 12 in a long-running saga, that can be off-putting. And just saying that you’ll go back and start at the beginning doesn’t always work either. You may go back to the first book in the series, and it might have been published over a decade ago, in which case the author’s style will have been very different, the subject-matter might seemed dated, and so on. 

Again, you could be put off.

All that said, my existing fanbase matters to me a great deal.

First of all, I’m strongly hopeful they’ll enjoy ONE EYE OPEN. Even though this is a self-contained freestander, it still bears what I consider to be all the Finch hallmarks: suspense, action, gruesome crime and tough, antagonistic characters knocking sparks off each other as they battle their way through a complex mystery.

But as I said before, the other two series have NOT ended.

I appreciate that KISS OF DEATH, the seventh in the Mark Heckenburg books, brought us to a nightmarish cliff-hanger. It wasn’t my intention to keep people hanging from that hook for a very long time. But it’s the way the cards fell in terms of my career and the direction it needed to take.

Be assured, Heck will be back in the not-too-distant future, as will Lucy Clayburn, who, if you read  STOLEN, has also reached a critical turning-point in her story.

So, I can only ask, if you’re absolute die-hard Heck and Lucy fans, to show a little more patience. Again, you have my guarantee that neither of those series has ended. I wouldn’t do that to you, nor to myself. It’s an author’s conceit, I suppose, but purely for creative purposes, we don’t like to leave stories half-told.

In the meantime, though, I hope you enjoy ONE EYE OPEN.


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.

by Stuart MacBride (2010)

Outline 
The future. Scotland is now an independent country, a republic. But all is not well. The weather systems are awry, periods of scorching dry heat alternating with freezing cold monsoons, while Glasgow has become a vast megalopolis covering a huge stretch of the country. Inevitably, much of it is impoverished, the population crammed into immense high-rise slums called ‘connurbs’, where crime and drug abuse are rife, and only the constant use of virtual reality entertainment, VR, keeps the people distracted from the awfulness of their lives. Though even this can cause problems, VR Syndrome being a kind of contagious psychotic state that leads to wholesale violence and destruction. 

Imposing the law on this concrete Hell falls to two agencies. First of all, the Bluecoats, who, providing both a uniformed service and a detective department, perform a fairly standard police function, but who are under-resourced, under-manned and under-trained, and in the eyes of many are little more than voluntary militia who do their best to keep the streets safe but often fail. Secondly, the Network, a paramilitary FBI-type operation with overarching powers and a remit to deal mainly with serious and organised crime. The two forces interact a lot, but don’t get on especially well, the Bluecoats seeing the Network as elitist, the Network seeing the Bluecoats as carrot-crunchers.

Both are armed with a fascinating array of futuristic weapons, from ‘zappers’, to ‘whompers’, to ‘thrummers’. As such, lethal shootings by police officers are a regular occurrence, but they are not controversial. This is a society constantly on the verge of criminal anarchy, and the law must regularly bare its teeth simply to stay in control. In the same authoritative spirit, condemned felons are ‘halfheaded’, which means they are lobotomised, bar-coded, have their bottom jaw surgically removed, along with any other bits and pieces that might make them human, and are then given orange jumpsuits and menial daily tasks to perform, such as mopping toilets and public concourses. They are, in effect, a brainless slave caste who serve as an everyday warning that crime will not be tolerated. Unfortunately, they are also such a common sight that no one really notices them anymore and so the lesson is often lost.

Halfhead opens with one of these anonymous drudges seemingly becoming aware of itself and discovering that it has just committed a brutal murder in a public toilet.

Technically, halfheads are asexual, but in this case it’s different. Oddly, this one finds itself recovering memories of a past in which she was Doctor Fiona Westfield, a beautiful but deranged medical practitioner who, as well as being a mass murderer in her own right, delighted in using her psychoanalytical skills to turn her patients into killers. Clearly, in this particular case, the halfheading process has failed, though at this stage of the narrative we don’t understand why.

Meanwhile, the hero of our story, Network Assistant Section Director Will Hunter, is adapting to life as a widower. At the same time, he’s struggling to get over a terrifying experience from 11 years earlier, when his team were annihilated during an operation in Sherman House, a towering connurb off Monstrosity Square, one of the most dangerous corners of Glasgow’s inner city. At the time, VR Syndrome rioters were going crazy in their thousands and Will only managed to get one man out, earning a lifelong pal in Agent Brian Alexander, but at the same time developing a very keen fear of Sherman House. Unfortunately, the next murder he’s assigned to investigate is in one of the toilets there (needless to say, it’s the one we opened the book with, though there are plenty of others to choose from). Again, there are violent incidents when the Network arrive, but Hunter sees enough to recognise the handiwork of someone he arrested many years ago … but surely that can’t be so, because Fiona Westfield (who murdered his wife among her many other victims!) was convicted and halfheaded. Not only that, he then learns that she was recently incinerated when a prisoner transport crashed off a city flyover.

So, she can’t possibly be involved. Can she?

At the same time, Hunter has other issues to deal with. Though he has feelings for hard-hitting Lieutenant Emily Brand, who commands one of the Network’s airborne SWAT teams, he develops stronger feelings for Detective Sergeant Jo Cameron, who comes over from the Bluecoats on secondment, and though brave and smart, is inexperienced at this level of law enforcement.  

Hunter struggles to keep everything on track, especially as there are further weird and unexplainable crimes at Sherman House, which necessitates yet more police visits, stirring up the natives to homicidal hostility.

During one such incident, Hunter and Cameron are abducted by a group of urban guerrillas who turn out, thankfully, to be on the payroll of two mysterious government agents, Ken Petai and his supervisor, Tokumu Kikan, who claim to have a secret base underneath Sherman House, from where they are conducting experiments to try and create a vaccine with which to combat VR Syndrome.
At least, this is the story they give out, and yet later on, when Hunter makes checks to try and verify it, he is unable to find any real evidence of this operation. Whoever Petai and Tokumu are, they are clearly off the charts when it comes to ‘classified intel’. Which Hunter doesn’t buy for one minute.

Meanwhile, Fiona Westfield is well on her way to recovery, using various ingenious and utterly ruthless methods to restore her physical appearance (killing and torturing repeatedly in the process), and drawing up an exhaustive list of all those people she intends to make suffer in a way they’ve never suffered before. And top of that list, inevitably, is the guy who put her here in the first place. Assistant Section Director Will Hunter …

Review
I’ve seen a lot of debate online as to whether this amazing effort from Stuart MacBride should be classified as another slice of Tartan Noir, or as science fiction. I would add a further possibility: could it also be classified as a horror novel?, because believe me, Halfhead pulls no punches when it comes to ghoulish concepts and even more ghoulish detail. There is some genuinely nightmarish stuff to be found in here.

Of course, I understand the overall debate. MacBride is a poster child for Scottish crime writing, and rightly so. His books are never less than utterly gripping, and often so intensely dark and gritty that they stray into the realms of thriller/horror. Sci-fi, on the other hand, is something he isn’t known for – or at least he wasn’t until Halfhead came out (hence the B added to his name for this particular publication), and yet the lasting impression I had after finishing this book was that I’d just burned my way through something sitting midway between Blade Runner (the movie, not the novel) and Judge Dredd (the comic strip, not the movie). Though this, it has to be said, is mainly because of the dystopian aura it casts rather than because of advanced scientific concepts (though it does have some of the latter too).

In Halfhead, we are eyebrows-deep in a hellish urban future of soulless tower blocks, where the temperatures sear in summer and acid rain falls in autumn, where criminality of every type is rampant, in fact where zones of such lawlessness exist that even a paramilitary police equipped with heavily armed ‘firefly’ gunships only venture there at their peril, and where investigators like the Bluecoat detectives and Network agents move wearily from murder to massacre, because there is no time even to consider lesser crimes.

Ultimately, though, this is still a cop story. And how.

Because, again typically of Stuart MacBride, it’s the ‘human suffering’ factor that he’s most interested in. And that doesn’t just apply to the depressed, bone-weary law enforcers, but even to the halfheads, that voiceless criminal underclass whom it would have been more humane to electrocute or gas. The former, for the most part divorced or bereaved, socialise only with each other, drink too much, argue, fight, despise their bosses and go home each night to drab, empty apartments with mind-numbing views of the urban sprawl. The latter, though they’ve all committed despicable crimes, are grotesque and yet pitiful zombie-like figures, lepers of the future, dragging themselves mindlessly through every day, completely below the notice of ordinary citizens.

This is one of the things that hit me hardest about Halfhead. Though spirited characters like Jo Cameron, Emily Brand and Brian Alexander liven the gloom with their wisecracking (which is always dark because these are coppers), you know that much of it is bravado. This is an existence rather than a life, and the terrain of our future Glasgow only adds to it. It’s a steel and concrete Pandemonium, the cops chasing suspects or themselves being pursued by mobs along endless brick tunnels, rubbish-strewn underpasses and desolate rooftops. There is no hint of the natural world. Even the air itself needs to be scrubbed clean by great hovering machines, which are invariably rusty and broken. It’s as though everything here is purpose-designed to break the spirit.

This again is vintage Stuart MacBride, whose world-famous Logan McRae series takes place on the concrete meanstreets of Aberdeen. As are the crime scenes, which again are goriness personified, and the investigations themselves, which see brave, isolated cops pitted not just against every kind of verminous criminal, but against hostile and monolithic power structures within the police itself.

It all makes for a dark but compelling narrative, and this is helped by some characteristically blistering action sequences. In Halfhead, the cops expect serious trouble on a daily basis, and not only do they get it, they respond in kind. Violence is its own currency here. We’ve already listed the range of extraordinary weapons the law can call upon, and the villains are just as bad. Inevitably, the body count soars on both sides of the criminal divide (we visit at least two police funerals). And yet an intriguing mystery and potential complex conspiracy still lies at the centre of this story, especially when Hunter and co finally make contact with the secretive cell operating from the bowels of Sherman House, which I obviously can’t say too much more about except to comment that, though it won’t be an unfamiliar one to modern day thriller fans, it’s a very grown-up idea, which is only leaked to us bit by bit, so it keeps us guessing almost to the end (it’s also done as gruesomely as possible, so you’ll need a strong stomach as it all unfolds).

Despite these multiple hardships, MacBride gives us a great set of characters, all of whose attitudes under pressure – to crack bad jokes, to drink hard, to slag off the brass etc – are very reminiscent of the real thing, which makes you enjoy the company of everyone involved.

Will Hunter is the calm heart of the investigation team that gradually coalesces around him. He’s an intuitive and authorative officer, but an all-round good egg rather than a bad ass. Jo Cameron is an excellent foil: beautiful, tough, witty, but a little (and fetchingly) naive, and with an amusingly appalling dress sense. Brian Alexander and Emily Brand are back-up good guys to an extent, but again superbly realised, the latter a spit-and-polish trooper of the old school, who is unfailingly loyal to her crew and can always be relied on to maintain discipline when the lead is flying, the former an unruly roughneck of the type you find in every police station, an arch micky-taker whose approach to life is perhaps not serious enough for the gaffers but who can cheer a room up and is good to have in a corner.

The villains of the piece are equally well-drawn.

You know from the outset that Ken Peitai and Tokumu Kikan are up to no good, but they are purposely kept out of the limelight for much of the narrative, for which reason I won’t discuss them now. Much more central to the villainy in Halfhead is Fiona Westfield. This one’s a real psychopaths’ psychopath, a female Hannibal Lecter, so clever and organised that she is not only able to start reversing the halfheading process, but she actually commences tracking down her old acquaintances, friends, foes and proteges alike, works out the best and quickest way of getting her old programme of maniac-making back on the road, and still takes time out to claim more and more victims for no other reason than the sheer pleasure it gives her to bathe in their blood (you perhaps now understand what I meant when I said that this is a horror story as well as a crime thriller).

Is it possible that Westfield is a bit OTT? Well, yes … but remember this is a Mega-City One scenario. Everything here is over the top: the architecture, the weather, the callousness of the conspirators, the firepower of the police. So, to be the queen of crime in Halfhead, she was always going to need to be something really special. In any case, how does any ordinary person recover from a lobotomy, restore her own severed jaw, transform herself back from the status of lumbering mute into deadly, beautiful predator? Nothing less than a true mistress of evil would suffice.

Not everyone who’s read Halfhead likes it, some crime fans writing that they prefer the dourer, more grounded-in-reality Logan McRae mysteries, some sci-fan readers complaining that it’s just a cop story with a bit of tech added for dramatic effect. Personally, I took it for what I think it was intended to be: an intense, brooding thriller, played at lightning pace, the author throwing blood and grime at you with every turn, and employing constant seat-edge tension. I enjoyed every grisly, hardboiled page of it.

And now, as often, I’m going to try to cast this beast should film or TV ever come to call. Only a bit of fun, of course. I have no real pull in the wider world of moviedom (you’ll be surprised to learn):

Assistant Section Director Will Hunter – Sam Heughan
Detective Sergeant Jo Cameron – Katie Leung
Special Agent Brian Alexander – John Hannah
Lieutenant Emily Brand – Isla Fisher
Dr Fiona Westfield – Erin Richards
Ken Peitai – Claes Bang
Tokumu Kikan – James Cosmo

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Look north for more darkness and dread


A small bit of fantasy diversion this week, I hope, seeing as so many of us are still locked down indoors, and those of us who are allowed out finding only empty streets and parks, unable to visit friends or loved ones or even call in for a quick one at the pub.

It will end in due course, so don’t despair too much. In the meantime, all we authors can do is offer up small bits of entertainment, even if they’re only shortlived and don’t distract anyone for too long. But anything is better than nothing, I reckon. For that reason, today, rather than hitting you with the usual list of updates on my own publication schedule, my main focus will be to bring you my GAZETTEER OF STRANGE, EERIE PLACES 5, this installment concentrating on SCANDINAVIA.

In the same vein and atmosphere, I’ll also be offering a detailed review and discussion of Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s superior Icelandic chiller, THE UNDESIRED, which, though it’s non-supernatural, is a deeply frightening and disturbing tale.

If you’re only really interested in the Sigurdardottir review, that’s absolutely fine. Feel free to skip on down to the lower end of today’s post, where you’ll find it, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Before any of that …

Promises, promises

I’ve been talking a lot recently, often in response to questions on Facebook and Twitter, about my next novel, which is due out in August. Well, obviously the world has changed beyond recognition since I wrote and delivered it, and even since it was accepted for publication. However, as far as I’m aware, it is still due out in August, and this new book, which is a free-standing contemporary crime thriller, will still be called ONE EYE OPEN. I can’t say much more than that because in the very near future, maybe even this week, we’ll be doing an official cover launch online, at which point I’ll post another blog straight away, containing as much detail as possible about the forthcoming novel, along with all the relevant links, artwork and such.

On this occasion, I strongly advise you to keep on watching this space, because as you’re probably aware, planned conventions and other public events scheduled for this year are being cancelled or postponed at a rate of knots. So, as things stand at present, it’s only via this medium that I’m going to be able to communicate all the necessary details.

And now, also as promised, my fifth Gazetteer of Strange, Eerie Places will assess the scariest Top 20 mythical and mysterious places in Scandinavia.

Spooky up north

The Scandinavian world is truly one of remarkable contradictions.

Widely regarded these days as being among the leading exponents of caring and civilised behaviour, Scandinavians nevertheless first introduced themselves to the rest of mankind in a storm of incredible violence.

Viking raiders looted, pillaged, raped and killed on so massive and ferocious a scale that those on the wrong end of it often thought Armageddon had arrived (check out Alex Høgh Andersen here as Viking chieftain, Ivar the Boneless, in the TV series, Vikings)

A university anthropologist once expressed to me a firm conviction that Scandinavian races are so innately pleasant today because it was literally the case that every single negative element had drained out of their homelands during the Dark Ages.

And there’s no denying that the Norwegians, the Swedes, the Finns, the Icelanders etc are famous for their orderly societies and law-abiding ways. Oh, they have social problems like everyone else, but in their dealings with the outside world, they are unfailingly courteous and helpful.

But let’s not make any bones about it. The Scandinavian landscapes are as savage as ever. Straddling the Arctic Circle, they comprise deep, dark lakes, towering, jagged mountains and fathomless forests. No wonder Nordic thriller writers are so inspired by their native wildernesses and the harshness of their climate, or that Tolkien became so absorbed in a culture that peopled its epic countryside with frightening and fantastical beings (for the uninitiated, Middle Earth is derived from Midgard, the Old Norse word for the world of men). Monsters, dwarfs, trolls and frost giants abound through Norse legends in which even the gods, when the mood was on them, could be inimical to the survival of humanity.

It was prophesied, for example, that Fenris, the Great Wolf, would eat the Sun and Moon, while Jörmungandr, the World Serpent, would poison all the seas of the Earth. Even Odin, the Allfather, was a less than benevolent figure, who would take any woman he fancied, accept the most gruesome human sacrifices (the Blood-Eagle, anyone!) and presided over the hall of Valhalla, an anarchic afterlife realm where only the most blood-soaked warriors could drink and wench till the end of time.

But enough blather. There’s the customary wordy intro done. Now, welcome to:

GAZETTEER OF STRANGE, EERIE PLACES 5:
SCANDINAVIA

1. Akershus Castle, Norway



Akershus Castle in Norway is one of those archetypal ancient fortresses whose history is so grim that it’s now the haunt of numerous ghosts. Dominating Oslo’s harbour, it was built in 1300 as a royal residence, but by 1309 was the epicentre of violence, Swedish forces attempting to storm it, a futile endeavour that would be repeated several times over the following centuries. All castles have dungeons, of course, but Akershus’s were mainly used in the 18th century, when political prisoners were held there. The regime was unremittingly brutal, countless dying, others finding themselves rented out as free labour, earning Akershus the soubriquet ‘Slavery Tower’. WWII added its own brand of bloodshed, when the Gestapo occupied the castle and Norwegian partisans were executed there. Even after the war, it saw violence, when Vidkun Quisling and seven other collaborators were shot by firing squad. Akershus is now a government office. But screams and cries are often heard, while two particular spirits are so familiar that they have names. Malcanisen is the apparition of a ferocious dog supposedly buried alive at the castle gate in medieval times to prevent the entry of evil (in which cause, it clearly failed). If it rears at you out of the darkness, you will die horribly in the next three months. Then there is Mantelgeisen, a female spectre, dressed in heavy robes but with no face, who walks the darkened corridors at night.

2. Fana, Norway


I’ve titled this section ‘Fana’, but it could just as easily be Holmenkollen, Skjold, Sarpsborg or any one of numerous other locations in Norway. All were the sites of antique stave churches, complex timber-framed structures, once typical across Northern Europe but by the 20th century found mostly in Scandinavia, primarily Norway. Beloved by locals, they were not just religious edifices, but atmospheric examples of traditional Nordic architecture. They are mostly famous now, though, for having been burned down during the 1990s by groups associated with Black Metal. An extreme spin-off from the normal Metal scene, Black Metal, as exemplified in its early days by pseudo-Satanist bands like Venom and Mercyful Fate, formed its own unique subculture in Norway, where bands like Mayhem and Darkthrone, who favoured Odin rather than the Devil, led the movement. The wave of church-burnings, of which the Fantoft Stave Church in Fana, Bergen, in the west of the country, was only the first, led to numerous eventual convictions. These crimes were not supported by everyone in the Black Metal community, some describing the arson as futile, immature and a pathetic attempt to gain acceptance, though others insisted that they were retaliation against a weak, foreign religion and an effort to redirect Norway back towards its warlike pagan roots. )The image comes from the 2019 movie, Lords of Chaos)

3. Borgvattnet, Sweden


Borgvattnet Vicarage is famous as one of the most haunted spots in Sweden. Located in Ragunda, in the north of the country, it’s a simple enough timber building, first erected in 1876. It looks innocuous from the outside, but the story is that it’s a hive of malicious supernatural activity, which over the years has seen people tipped out of chairs and even pushed through windows. The tales first started not long after it was opened. At first, standard haunted house phenomena was reported: doors opening and closing, furniture moving. But then the spirits, if spirits they are, graduated to screaming, laughing and eventually the violent poltergeist activity that we’ve already mentioned. In the 20th century, witnesses allegedly saw the phantom shapes of three elderly women. Rumours about the causes of all this vary. Aborted babies were supposedly buried in unmarked graves at the site, though there is no evidence of this, while another unproven tale holds that female staff were regularly accosted, creating a kind of psychic force that was innately resistant to the presence of the churchmen. The stories were taken so seriously that in the 1890s, a famous exorcist, Tore Forslund, was summoned. He remained on site for a whole year but was unable to rid the building of its unseen presences. The Vicarage is allegedly still haunted today, but now this is deemed an attraction, guests paying for the privilege of sleeping there.


4. Tupilaq, Greenland


Not a place, but a thing, and such a thing as you’ll only see in nightmares (you hope). First, I must deal with the location, because Greenland lies close to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and perhaps would be more at home in a Gazetteer of the Great White North, but it’s also part of the Kingdom of Denmark, so it works for us today. Despite that, the tupilaq owes solely to the Inuit religion, in which it exists as an avenging monster created by a shaman to destroy a specific enemy. Westerners may be familiar with it if they’ve read Dan Simmons’ masterly novel, The Terror, or watched the TV drama, Fortitude. It is, in essence, a golem, but bound together in doll-like form from animal parts and subjected to a ritualistic ceremony. Associated primarily with Greenland – but that’s a big place, remember, comprising various belief systems – it may come as either a ghost, an invisible something, or simply a gigantic chimera-like version of the object the shaman made. According to legend, when the target has been destroyed, the tupilaq ceases to exist, unravelling back into its perishable constituent parts, which may explain why none, not even in their inert doll form, have been preserved for posterity. However, many bone carvings depict tupilaqs on the rampage, and they are quite terrifying, similar to the totemic structures carved by Native American tribes in that they comprise many heads and bodies, all ferocious, all rolled into one.


5. Gamla Stan, Sweden


Gamla Stan is the picturesque Old Town section of Stockholm, comprising open squares, baroque buildings and winding, cobbled alleys. But it has a gruesome past, the outcome of which is an alleged plethora of supernatural activity. The roots of the horror lie in the Kalmar Union, a medieval arrangement wherein the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden would all function together under a single ruler. In 1520, Danish king, Christian II, ascended to the throne. But opposition to the Union in Sweden had become increasingly violent. When Christian took power, he suppressed the rebels, but then promised pardons for all. For his coronation on November 4, he announced three days of feasting, inviting the heads of many Swedish baronial families who had opposed him, again promising amnesty. It was only after the feast when the retaliation began, his opponents hauled one by one into Stortorget, the main square, and there either beheaded or hanged. The incident became known as the Stockholm Bloodbath, and even today, visitors to Gamla Stan have reported seeing the square awash with spectral gore or hearing the gibbers of long-dead prisoners as they are despatched to eternity. Just off the square, there is a red building containing 92 white stones, each one representing a victim of the purge. If any of these is moved, folklore holds that the soul it represents will haunt Gamla Stan for ever more.


6. Trøndelag, Norway


In December 2009, the population of Trøndelag, in central Norway, was transfixed by a manifestation in the winter sky that, at first glance, could not have been anything other than a spectacular UFO event. People were stopped in the street, stunned, by the sight of a bright blue beam, at one end of which there was a fast-turning spiral of intense white light, a concentric grey halo gradually expanding outward from it. The anomaly lasted for over ten minutes before simply winking out, by the end of which period sightings of it were being reported all over northern Norway and Sweden, and video footage appearing on the internet. On its own, it might not have caused panic, but Norwegians remembered that something similar had been spotted above their country that November, so there was widespread concern, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute’s initial explanation – that it might be an unusual variant on the Northern Lights – failing to provide comfort. UFO spotters wondered if it might have signalled the opening of a wormhole, while others linked it to the recent Hadron Collider experiments in Switzerland (nearly 2,000 miles away!). A less alarming answer was eventually provided by the Russian Defence Ministry, when they admitted that one of their Bulava missiles had failed during a test flight and gone into a tail-spin in the upper atmosphere, the spectral halo created by jettisoned rocket fuel.


7. Jussäro, Finland


Another of those localities that occasionally find their way onto this Gazetteer simply because they are eerie rather than haunted or cursed. Jussäro is Finland’s only official ghost town. That doesn’t mean there are actual ghosts there (as far as anyone knows), but that it now stands completely abandoned, most of its buildings still intact, nature gradually reclaiming it. Jussäro occupies an island in the Baltic Sea, off Finland’s southern coast. Nothing of great consequence has ever happened there, though it had a strange reputation early in the last century, when there were an inordinate number of shipwrecks on its rocky shores, the skippers of said ships always reporting that their compasses had gone haywire. An enquiry into this phenomenon revealed a heavy lode of iron ore on Jussäro, which led to a rapid expansion of occupancy on the island as a mining company was set up and workers flocked there. Operations continued until 1965, at which point the iron deposits were exhausted, and after that there was no reason for anyone to stay. The mine and adjoining town, much of which had been pretty basic anyway, was thus left derelict, and the industrial relics rapidly overgrown, giving Jussäro a mysterious and haunting atmosphere. Today, the island can be visited by the more intrepid tourist, and what they find there is a strange mixture of deserted, neo-Stalinist architecture and deep, untamed vegetation.


8. Surtshellir, Iceland


The popular television series, Vikings, plays fast and loose with a lot of facts, but it makes some efforts to stay true to known history. Fans were enthralled by one episode in which the adventurer, Floki, sails all the way to Iceland, then unknown, and, finding an incredible georama of glaciers, geysers and volcanoes, thinks he’s arrived in Asgard. This isn’t too far removed from what actually happened in 868, when Norse Viking, Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson sailed to a mysterious landmass he’d heard about, and arriving in Iceland, also felt that he’d reached the land of the gods. Because of its dramatic landforms, Iceland has maintained this aura ever since. A great example is Surtshellir, a gigantic lava cave in west Iceland, which, when first seen by Norsemen, was believed the home of Surt, the fire giant whom mythology prophesied would one day engulf the world in flame. Little wonder they weren’t eager to explore it, though Irish monks who got there first (sorry, Floki, you weren’t the first!), may have done so as early as 770. By the 10th century, with a thriving community on Iceland, Surtshellir was avoided because it was a hideout for bandits and murderers. This may account for stories persisting today that it is haunted. Weird but natural sounds can be heard in the colossal system and would have enforced the stories put about to keep people away that there were mystical beings in the cave’s depths.


9. Backroads, Denmark


With so many of us still isolated due to Coronavirus, it may not seem appropriate discussing the medieval Danish monster, Pesta, but it neatly illustrates how intangible danger can be rationalised by the uneducated into something easier to comprehend. When the Black Death swept the world in the 14th century, the effects were devastating. The bacterium Yersinia pestis, it was highly contagious, and spread by rats and fleas. It decimated Eurasia, claiming 200 million lives. There was no science or medicine in that era, while the religious authorities, though they made efforts to repel the plague through prayer and penance, ultimately perished as well. It was a scourge for which the medieval world was completely unprepared. As such, all kinds of myths abounded: the plague travelled as a poisonous black cloud or miasma; the plague was carried by bands of lepers; the plague was deliberately spread by Jews. Most chilling of all, in Denmark, they said,  the plague followed a terrifying being called Pesta, who would roam the wooded backroads. Its form was ghastly: a hideous hag draped in black, invulnerable to all weapons. Wherever Pesta went, the Black Death was known to strike, and in due course Pesta would visit every settlement. Your only hope was if it carried a rake on the day it came to your village, for then only some of your community would die. If it carried a broom, however, Pesta was claiming everyone.


10. Kruunuvuori, Finland


A key difference between Jussäro, off Finland’s Baltic coast, and Kruunuvuori, only three miles outside Helsinki, is that while the former is recognised as a ghost town, the latter is not even recognised as a town. However, in appearance terms, they are equally spooky, the latter perhaps spookier. We are used to seeing the kind of industrial ruins that clad Jussäro, but at the height of its occupancy in the 1950s, Kruunuvuori was a wealthy if detached suburb of the capital, consisting almost entirely of mansions and luxury villas. A scenic spot on the Laajasalo peninsula, Helsinki’s elite had built their summer residences there as early as the mid-19th century, though famine and war slowed its development. In 1955, businessman, Aarne J. Aarnio, bought the whole site, his aim to create a playground for the rich and famous, a Côte d'Azur on the Baltic, but he was stopped in his tracks by a ban on building permits and soon lost interest. Prospective buyers and renters looked elsewhere, residents moved out, and by the 1970s all that remained was a clutter of woodland villas and mini palaces now deteriorated into eyesores, particularly as the only visitors by then were arsonists and graffiti artists, the latter covering the once-grand remains with bizarre imagery. Like Jussäro, there are no ghost stories connected to Kruunuvuori, though urban explorers have reported unidentifiable cries from the encircling woods.


11. Lejre, Denmark


Beowulf is one of the most celebrated poems in Old English literature. Dating to the 10th century, it tells the tale of a Viking hero, a Geat (or Swede) who comes to the aid of a beleaguered Danish king called Hrothgar. The latter has built himself a magnificent new mead-hall, Heorot, only for it to be attacked nightly by a ghastly, man-eating fiend called Grendel, who dwells in the nearby swamp with his equally monstrous mother. Interestingly, while the Beowulf of the poem was based on a mythical hero of earlier centuries, Hrothgar and Heorot have a real place in history. The former has been identified with a 6th century Danish sub-king of the Scylding line, the latter with his grand seat of rule, the hall of Hleiðargarðr, which has now been excavated at Lejre on Zealand in east Denmark. But what of Grendel? Hopefully, he was purely a work of fiction. Never physically described in the poem, Grendel is the ultimate Dark Ages nightmare. Vaguely manlike, but able to kill and cannibalise 30 ordinary men at a time, he is referred to variously as the ‘walker in the dark’, the ‘marsh reiver’, the ‘child of Cain’, but also as an outsider, an exile and a tortured soul. It is this human touch that has always fascinated scholars about him. He first went to Heorot out of curiosity, potentially a friend, but was rejected by the Danes. Furious, he came back as their terrible and implacable foe, a blueprint serial killer of the ancient world.  


12. Lake Bodom, Finland


Lake Bodom is a handsome body of water, located close to Espoo, Finland’s second city, but its history is so grim that the name alone induces shudders. On June 5, 1960, four teenagers, two boys and two girls, pitched camp by the waterside, but that night were assaulted with horrific violence, battered and stabbed as they slept. Only one of them, Nils Gustafsson, survived, though severely injured himself and unable to recall what had happened. The investigation was botched from the start, multiple police officers trampling the crime scene before it could be forensically analysed. However, detectives had several leads. A local bully called Valdemar Gyllström was known to have a violent grudge against campers. Though later dismissed from the enquiry, he remained a viable suspect to some until his suicide in the lake in 1969. Gustafsson was also suspected, in his case late on – he was tried for murder in 2004 – when cold case officers theorised that he had fallen out with the other three and been thrown out of the tent, though the court acquitted him. One creepy aspect of the case remains a photograph taken at the victims’ funeral, which shows a man in the crowd who clearly matches a police artist’s drawing of an unknown person seen leaving the area straight after the killings. To date, the murders are unsolved, and Lake Bodom, though lovely, remains a dark blot on the history of southern Finland.


13. Scheffler Palace, Sweden


A rather ordinary looking building, these days used mainly as a storage unit for Stockholm University, Scheffler palace, known locally as Spökslottet, the ‘Ghost Castle’, is believed the most haunted building in Sweden. It was built by a respectable merchant in 1697, but sometime in the 1700s came into the ownership of Jakob von Balthazar Knigge, a reputed Satanist. No one knew much about Knigge, but he vanished one night, witnesses claming that he’d been driven away in a black carriage, pulled by a team of black horses under the whip of a demonic driver. From here on, there were numerous reported incidents: strange symbols appearing on the walls and disappearing; a ferocious wind blowing through the house from no known source (both classic traits of supposed infernal manifestation). A priest from Stockholm Cathedral was summoned, but during an attempted cleansing, was thrown bodily through an upstairs window and severely injured. Later incidents involve mirrors shattering when people looked in them, and the visit of a medium, who claimed that a young couple had been bricked up alive in the basement. It goes on even today. Recently, a university clerk became uncomfortable working in the Palace alone, especially after she left her office for a minute, returned and found a vile message written on her computer. She never told anyone what the message said, and never entered the building again.


 14. Hólmavík, Iceland


The Museum of Icelandic Witchcraft and Sorcery is located at Hólmavík in the Westfjords of Iceland. Visitors can view an array of mysterious objects, everything from magical staves to grimoires (ancient books filled with incantations), from preserved tilberi (diminutive creatures created by female witches for stealing milk) to a pair of nábrók or necropants (trousers made from cured human skin, the pockets to which were believed to be endlessly full of money). It’s a fascinating attraction, but it hints at a dark past. There were witch hunts all across Iceland in the 17th century, the Protestant authorities deeply concerned by the islanders’ ongoing interest in magic and admiration for spells and hexes connected to lingering beliefs in the old Norse gods. Unusually, most of those accused on Iceland were male. Pursuit of them led to, among others, the Kirkjuból witch trial in 1654, which saw an old priest accuse two of his parishioners, a father and son, both of whom were burned at the stake, and then be awarded all their goods, and the trial in 1625 of one Jón Rögnvaldsson, whose family admitted that he had long been interested in harnessing the power of the ancient runes. Rögnvaldsson was burned alive too, but others were luckier. Icelandic folklorist, Jón lærði Guðmundsson, supposedly used magic to turn away several Turkish slave ships; he was tried for sorcery in the 1630s, but a grateful court exonerated him.


15. Troldeskoven, Denmark


Troldeskoven, or ‘Troll Forest’ is a remarkable stretch of woodland in Himmerland, Denmark. It’s easy to see why folk would believe there were mystical powers at work here, the wood comprised of bizarrely and fantastically twisted beech trees, many boasting multiple trunks. Unfortunately, the explanation for this is rather prosaic. These ‘røllebøge’ beeches were first introduced into Denmark in the Middle Ages. They grow this way naturally, but over the centuries they have been carefully harvested, each time only some of their trunks lopped, allowing more and more to grow in their place. However, the reference to troll activity in Troldeskoven should come as no surprise given the troll’s unique place in Scandinavian folklore. Most people know trolls today as weirdos who hang out on the internet. Either that or cute dolls with luminous hair. But by origin, the troll is a more sinister figure. In the stories, they are nearly always brutish, ugly and evil, often murderers and cannibals. They tend to live in the wilderness, forests and mountains. Supernatural by nature, they are usually deemed to have magical powers and allegedly may turn to rock if caught in sunlight. Trolls have become one of Scandinavia’s great modern-day exports, but at one time they were genuinely feared, some cryptozoologists wondering if they represent an ancient folk-memory of a large and predatory primate that perhaps once lived in this region.


16. Hessdalen, Norway


Central Norway is certainly the place for UFO activity if you like grand celestial spectacles, but the case of the Hessdalen Lights is a real enigma. Unlike the spiral seen in the sky above Trøndelag, which turned out to be a rogue Russian missile, the Hessdalen lights (occurring in the same geographic location) remain firmly unexplained. Another way in which they differ from most UFO sightings is that they have been filmed and photographed extensively and studied by august bodies in considerable detail. Weird lights in the sky were first seen over Hessdalen as early as the 1930s, and since then have become a regular occurrence. They often take the form of balls of shimmering light, red, white or gold in colour. Sometimes they simply hover, sometimes they shoot about, sometimes they slowly meander. On other occasions they have been seen to form bewildering geometric patterns and even perform ‘dances’. This latter has particularly intrigued UFO spotters, as have reports that when emerging in daylight, the lights appear as silvery, maybe even metallic discs or orbs. Ongoing enquiries are being driven by UFO-Norge and UFO-Sweden, but high-level science has also been brought in to study the phenomenon. Several complex hypotheses (none of them yet proven) now range from unknown types of combustion caused by hydrogen, oxygen and sodium to piezoelectricty generated by quartz deposits in the cliffs.


17. Nordland, Norway


One of the eeriest myths in all of Scandinavia concerns the Draugr. All the countries of the Nordic world tell tales of this demonic legion, though the legend is most prevalent in Norway, whose 16,000 miles of rocky, uninhabited coast make the perfect backdrop for these stories of mariners drowned at sea but then washed up in a state of undead rage. Even in mythology, the draug is a unique being: a person who has died and yet in whose rotting corpse the spirit is still trapped, thus granting it a devilish half-life, which almost invariably it will use to kill and cause chaos. They are said to come plodding ashore as sodden, bloated relics, draped in seaweed, though drowning isn’t the sole cause of their existence. In one saga, Icelandic hero, Grettir, faces a draug called Glam, who was killed by a troll and returned to wreak his anger on an inland farming community. However, the draugr are most associated with the coastlines of central and northern Norway, such as in Trøndelag, where two draugs allegedly fought over the soul of a human, and in Nordland, where a fisherman defeated a draug by summoning ghosts of the Christian dead. The legend may harp back to ancient Norse myths, and Loki’s scheme to attack Midgard with ships made from the bones of dead men and manned by crews of the damned. The author, JRR Tolkien, was very impressed, basing the men of Dunharrow and his barrow-wights on these hellish foes.


18. Snæfellsnes, Iceland


Snæfellsnes, a peninsula in western Iceland and home to the world-famous Snæfellsjökull volcano, is renowned for its bleakness and wild beauty. It was also the home of Iceland’s only known serial killer. Björn Pétursson was born in 1555 and grew up in the remote village of Öxl, and though his life story reads like a horror novel, much of it is testified to in reliable court documents. The nastiness started early, his mother having developed a craving for blood while pregnant with him, and his oddball father agreeing to let her drink his. Despite this, Björn seemed to have a fairly conventional peasant childhood (despite showing some violent tendencies), but at the age of 15 had a bizarre dream in which a stranger told him to climb a local mountain, on top of which he’d locate the implement that would make his name. The next day, Pétursson climbed the peak and found the axe with which he would go on to kill his first victim, a neighbouring farm-boy chosen at random, though it was only after he’d inherited a nearby croft that he gave full rein to his blood-lust, slaughtering all visitors and passers-by with the same trusty blade. In 1596, when a homeless woman escaped his clutches (after he’d already slain her three children), he was arrested. The remnants of many corpses – one estimate is 18 – were found on the premises, and Pétursson was convicted and subsequently put to a horrible death on the breaking-wheel.


19. Northern Seas


The Greenland Sea, the Arctic Ocean, the North Atlantic. Evocative names, though not in a pleasant way. There is no more nightmarish a prospect than going down amid the roaring grey waves of the far north. Though perhaps there is extra terror here because of what might lurk underneath. “Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea, His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep, The Kraken sleepeth …” So wrote Tennyson about one of the most terrifying monsters in mythology, not least because for once, this monster is real. The kraken is universally known as the giant, multi-tentacled predator of the deep, but it seems obvious today that these stories are referencing the giant squid, a denizen of the northern seas who can grow to 50 feet long, and who, though it prefers the dark depths, surfaces occasionally. They are not known to attack modern shipping, but in the Age of Sail were frequently accused of this. Tales of the kraken originated among Scandinavian sailors, specifically in the Viking saga, Örvar-Oddr, which describes a journey to Baffin Island and an encounter with two colossal monsters, the lyngbakr and the hafgufa. The second of these, which would pretend to be an island and then drown all those going ashore, is seen as a prototype for the kraken. More interesting was the description given of a ‘young kraken’ washed up at Alstahaug in Norway in 1680, which reads like an accurate eyewitness account of a beached giant squid.


20. Honningsvåg, Norway


If you’ll allow me to finish this blog off with a personal entry, I’d like to talk briefly about my own trip to Honningsvåg, on the North Cape of Norway, and, 500 miles above the Arctic Circle, Europe’s most northerly town. It was one of the great experiences of my life. Honningsvåg is the smallest city in Norway, boasting only 2,500 inhabitants, and a land of midnight sun in summer and constant darkness in winter. No trees grow there, and sometimes polar bears pay visits. But the most eyecatching thing, at least to someone of my macabre sensibilities, was the abandoned edifice of the Grand Arctic Hotel. For all I know, it may be in use now, but at the time it struck me as remarkable that it was ever opened so far from the world’s normal trade routes. Looking in through the window, all I saw was dust and emptiness. It was a melancholy sight, but there was something ghostly about it too. I was reminded of MR James’ experiences in Scandinavia. He visited Sweden and Denmark in 1899 and 1901, and was clearly inspired, because after the comedic tale, The Story of a Troll-Hunt, he also wrote the infinitely more frightening Count Magnus and Number 13, in which the spectres are evil and murderous. It’s almost as though there is something extra creepy about the folk tales and ghost stories of Scandinavia. MR James clearly felt this, and I did too, especially when assessing the Grand Arctic Hotel. I’ve always told myself that I don’t fear the supernatural, but it really did strike me as somewhere I wouldn’t want to spend the night on my own. In early Scandinavian myth, ghosts were often wicked and harmful, and even the mightiest Viking jarls feared them. Personally, I can understand why.


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 … 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 UNDESIRED
by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (2015)

Outline
It’s the present day in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Ódinn Hafsteinsson is starting a new job, investigating the events at Krókur, a residential care home for juvenile delinquents, which back in the 1970s was the centre of a shocking scandal when two of the boys were found dead.

Such a grim task is not as energising as it may sound. Ódinn is not a cop, he’s a government admin officer and most of his days are spent at a desktop computer in the middle of a typically soulless public-sector office. What’s more, though the case he’s looking into may involve historic child abuse, no major revelations are expected, and his department’s interest is only really cursory as it’s part of a large-scale review of childcare procedures in earlier decades, the aim to discover if anyone who went through the system back then has any kind of complaint that might be worthy of compensation.

That said, there are one or two oddities. Roberta, the woman who investigated the Krókur facility before Ódinn didn’t complete her enquiry, dying part-way through – at her desk, in fact – from heart-failure. As a result, another colleague in the office, Dilja, thinks that this particular case is bad luck, and when Ódinn starts to get into it, he notes that Krókur was actually a rather terrible place, both physically (it was a rundown farmhouse in a remote part of the country, which was difficult both to get out to and to come home from), and in terms of the harsh treatment it offered its teenage inmates (13-16 years old and for the most part low-risk individuals who’d only committed minor offences). He also discovers evidence that Roberta was having a more difficult time than usual when he finds anonymous messages sent to her that threatened violence if she continued to investigate.

However, though there are clearly mysteries here, Ódinn has other things going on in his life that continually distract him. His ex-wife, Lara, has recently died, having fallen from her top-floor apartment window in an unlikely domestic accident, and though he’s very busy at work, he now finds himself back in charge of his 11-year-old daughter, Rún, which though he loves her, is something he never looked for … especially as the child is clearly (if internally) traumatised by the loss of her mother. It doesn’t help his state of mind as, the more he speaks to Rún and her grandmother (his hostile former mother-in-law) and then to some neighbours in the same block of flats, he starts to wonder if Lara’s death might be more sinister than the police have concluded. At the same time, he finds himself doubting his own sanity, because increasingly he senses a presence in the old apartment, as if Lara is still around somewhere. Rún, who suffers terribly from nightmares, is fearful of exactly the same thing.

Meanwhile, back in 1974, we meet Aldis, a woman in her early 20s, who cleans and performs other menial tasks at the Krókur centre in the days leading up to the double tragedy.

Aldis hates her time here, and if it wasn’t for the fact that she herself is on the run from a difficult home life (and needs the money in order to get started in a proper job in Reykjavik), she’d be off like a shot. The farmhouse stands in an empty wilderness, housing depressed and hopeless young inmates rather than real criminals, and is controlled by husband and wife overseers, Veigar and Lilja, who are humourless Bible-thumpers as well as brutal taskmasters.

Aldis herself is treated poorly, though at least she has more freedom than the boys. Unlike them, she isn’t barred in at night, even though Veigar and Lilja don’t approve of anyone roaming around the property after hours, especially as they seem convinced that a prowler is regularly visiting them under cover of darkness. Unfortunately, this ‘privilege’ itself almost gets Aldis into trouble when she too sees a dark figure furtively checking out the facility, but in addition to that, spots Veigar behaving so strangely that she starts to wonder if he’s fully sane himself.

For all this, her life at Krókur continues to be drab and boring … until Einar arrives, a youngster who is patently older than the other inmates – closer to Aldis’ own age in fact – and who she is instantly attracted to. But Einar too is mysterious. Why is he here when the next oldest internee is only 16, and what could he have done to get himself sent here?

Einar is amused that Aldis is interested in him, and their relationship grows, eventually becoming intimate. Naturally, this is so against the rules that you genuinely fear for the daring twosome’s lives whenever they hook up together, and in the long run you feel certain that it’s going to have a disastrous outcome.

I hesitate to offer any further synopsis for The Undesired for fear of spoiling it for you, but it won’t surprise anyone to learn that the contemporary thread involving Ódinn, Rún et al, will in the pacy final third of the book link up neatly with the 1974 thread involving Aldis and Einar, to provide one shocking jolt of a climax …

Review
To me, the greatest strength of The Undesired is how well written it is, and that’s an especially impressive thing when you consider that I read Victoria Cribb’s translation, and so can only guess at how effective Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s original Icelandic version was.

Either way, this book is a fine read, so long as you enjoy dark and chilling tales from the grimmer end of the human experience.

Whether she’s talking about the grey, slushy streets of Reykjavik, spartan government offices where sluggish, unmotivated staff probe unwillingly into past abuses, or the bleak, windswept hinterland surrounding the isolated care home, a hellish facility that you can easily imagine coming straight from gritty 1970s reality, the author achieves the same effect: hitting us with an air of numbing despondency and yet at the same time using crisp, vivid prose that compels us to read on.

In that familiar way of so many Scandi Noirs repackaged for the UK market, The Undesired comes at us with the look and a feel of a crime thriller that has one foot in the horror camp. I’ve noted a couple of reviewers taking issue with this, complaining that it was sold to them as a partial ghost story whereas in truth it includes no real supernatural elements. However, for me, a psychological form of horror is very prevalent in this book. We’re dealing with a father and daughter in Ódinn and Rún who are haunted by the loss of Lara, in fact tortured by it to a point beyond which there is almost no recall for either of them, especially Ódinn, who literally starts losing his grip on reality as a direct result. It’s harrowing stuff.

It’s also the case that everything about the Krókur homestead speaks horror. It’s functional rather than Gothic, but it exists far from civilisation on the edge of archetypical Icelandic nothingness. Add to that the Dickensian-type tyranny of Veigar and Lilja, who run the place like their private fief and apply their own vindictive laws in callous, arbitrary fashion, and you’ve got a real nightmare.

I should also say that, though the book doesn’t in the end concern itself much with child abuse, the aura of those terrible revelations that come at us seemingly more and more regularly about the suffering of children in so-called care homes in the past, pervades the narrative. It’s one of those things which, out in the real world, is so utterly awful that you can hardly bear to contemplate it, and as I say, though Yrsa Sigurdardottir hints at it rather than immerses us in it, she only needs to do that and our stomachs turn instantly to water.

But with all that in mind, does The Undesired work as a thriller?

I think so, yes.

It’s a small canvas story in truth, and quite a slow burn, but there are various mysteries to be solved here, and they get more intriguing the more tantalising clues Yrsa Sigurdardottir drops our way. It’s also sprinkled with spooky, even genuinely scary scenes despite it not involving any ghosts of the paranormal sort. There are also some satisfying payoffs, and a huge twist near the end, which though one or two commentators said they saw coming, I certainly didn’t and subsequently found very satisfying.

In terms of the main leads, both characters are intriguing because they are so different from each other and yet – and this seems strange to regard as a positive – are pretty ordinary as star-turns go, each of them loaded with personal baggage.

Ódinn is a distinctly non-charismatic civil servant type, who is tormented by his family circumstances, drinks too much and is visibly struggling with depression (which is no surprise given that he’s a single parent who doesn’t really want to be and who spends his days hemmed in by heaped, dog-eared paperwork). He looks, speaks and behaves like a middle-aged man even though he is not even close to that stage in life … and yet despite everything, he proves fanciable to his attractive colleague, Dilja, so his cause isn’t totally hopeless.

In contrast, Aldis is more of a wild child. She too has a car-wreck of a domestic life, and to escape it has rented herself out as unskilled labour, a skivvy in effect, to Veigar and Lilja. Her part of the story is set in 1974, and so while she’s a rebel with a free-spirited hippy attitude (even if it’s crushed early on by the combined gloom and menace of Krókur), she’s passive rather than aggressive, and a realist rather than a dreamer. Though working as a virtual slave at Krókur is a grotesque experience, what else has she got? Wander off in that era thinking you could wing an existence at the expense of others, and you had another thing coming. However, Aldis’ youthful zest is restored a little when the handsome Einar comes along, too much in fact, because – quite realistically, we feel – she only has minor hesitation in behaving inappropriately with him, barely even considering the serious consequences this might bring.

Again, no more from me about either Ódinn or Aldis as it would give stuff away. But they work well in context, making for a pair of unusual ‘everyman’ figures considering they play the central roles in this brooding, shadow-filled mystery.

Again, I reiterate that The Undesired is excellently written – that alone should keep you reading, because it’s an absolute joy – but the story is enthralling as well, especially when you hit the final third and it starts unravelling at speed towards a shocking conclusion.

All crime and mystery readers will be well rewarded if they take a chance on this one. Horror fans … well, if you’re expecting MR James transposed to the Arctic, then no, that isn’t what you’re going to get. But if you like psychological chills, twisted minds, unreliable narration to conceal horrific but all-too-believable realities, then this book will work for you too.

As you may know, I often like to close my book reviews with a bit of fantasy casting, naming the actors I personally would want to take the lead roles should the book in question ever get the movie or TV treatment. It’s often difficult when I’m contemplating Scandi Noirs, because I know so few actors from that part of the world. I’m going to have a shot today, anyway, though you’ll need to cut me some slack. This can’t be an extensive cast-list, just the main characters.

Ódinn – Nikolaj Lie Kaas
Aldis – Jodie Comer
Dilja – Agnes Kittelsen
Einar – Jakob Hoff Oftebro (older than in the book, but I suspect that all the inmates at Krókur would need to be made older anyway).

(The image at the top of today’s blog comes to us from SAALBACH; the image of Borgvattnet Vicarage comes from AtlasObscura; the image of Surtshellir comes from PhotosfromIceland; the image of the Holmavik Museum comes from Iceland.for91days. All the other images I found floating around on the internet without credits. If any of the original creators want me to rectify this or even to see their pictures removed, just drop me a line and I will of course oblige).