Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Full fathom five, true terror lies ... soon!!!


Can anyone think of a scarier place on Earth than the deepest regions of the sea? You know, that endless unlit realm of mud, sand and rock, silent except for those eerie, inhuman calls echoing through the void, empty apart from those immense, amorphous shapes gliding past you in the gloom.

Can anyone think of a worse predicament to be in than marooned on the sea's surface with no food, no water and no land in sight, and maybe with a few fins cutting the waves in a circle around you, or perhaps even worse, with some great glistening tentacle waving at you from a few yards distant?

It is one of the great unknowable forces, of course - the ocean.

It surrounds us all. We've sailed it, we've swum in it, we've fished it, mapped it, mined it, holidayed on it. We've trawled many of its hidden vaults, photographed its weirdest denizens. And yet it remains enigmatic.

One of the greatest elemental powers in our world, it can decimate fleets, swallow towns, annihilate civilisations. Vast, moody, mysterious and completely unfeeling, it could and would snuff out each of our lives in the blink of an eye, without a moment's hestitation.

Anyway, we'll talk a bit more about that in a minute.

When I commenced editing my TERROR TALES series for GRAY FRIAR PRESS, I was following in the footsteps of the charming MARY DANBY and the late, great R. CHETWYND-HAYES at Fontana Books, whose TALES OF TERROR series in the 1970s first introduced the concept of intermingling horror fiction with horror fact and presenting it in a procession of regionalised anthologies. Just as Mary and Ron did, my initial plan was to tour the UK, interspersing spooky folklore with original horror fiction from some very distinctive localities - WALESLONDONCORNWALL - though sensitive to accusations (none of which have materialised, by the way) that I might just be copying my forerunners, I was derermined to introduce some slight variations, dare I say it - go into a little more detail. So, while Ron and Mary did SCOTTISH TALES OF TERROR, my intent was to do TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS and TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS. Where Ron and Mary did EUROPEAN TALES OF TERROR, my ambition is to do TERROR TALES OF WESTERN  EUROPETERROR TALES OF EASTERN EUROPETERROR TALES OF SCANDINAVIATERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, etc (though that's all for the future - there's only so much time in the present, you know).

But all along I knew that one subject I couldn't prevaticate about, that I simply had to plunge straight into (pun fully intended), just as Ron and Mary did all those years ago, was the SEA, or, as it will be called in my case, the OCEAN. 

As we speak, TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN (pictured topside, mi hearties!), is still in production, so don't go looking for it yet.

It won't be published until later this year. But, as always, what an absolute joy it's been to work on it. The cover art was provided by the ever-incredible NEIL WILLIAMS, and in this volume I'll be honoured to include stories by such luminaries of the horror and thriller genres as PETER JAMES, ROBERT SHEARMAN, STEPHEN LAWS, ADAM NEVILL, LYNDA E. RUCKER and CONRAD WILLIAMS.

Suffice to say that every aspect of oceanic terror has been investigated by this erstwhile crew: from ghost ships to devils of the deep, from hideous curses to haunted islands, from hellish storms to murderous mariners, from sunken cities to ghastly eco-monstrosities.

It's exhausting stuff, just listing it all. But I think this will be one of the best TERROR TALES titles to date, and I can't wait to release it. So keep watching this space for publication dates, table of contents, back-cover blurb, etc. And if you've yet to go on holiday this August, be careful where you swim, or surf, or float on your air-bed.

You never know what might be underneath you, or approaching you from behind, or waiting on shore, hidden below the innocent looking sand - just biding its time.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Masterclass melding of crime and horror

Dark tales, sinister tales, thrillers, chillers, horrors, crime and suspense - whatever you want to call them, multimillion book-selling heavyright PETER JAMES excells at them. But you won't need to analyse his sales figures to know this.

Just check out A TWIST OF THE KNIFE, his short story collection published by Macmillan in 2014. In an age when short tales tend to be seen as non-viable by mainstream publishers, especially on the printed page (in ebook terms it's increasingly a different story, of course), the fact that Peter James's collection came out both in hardback and softback, and now adorns the top shelves in all the best high street bookstores is a very good sign for the great man. It indicates that he long ago passed into that highest echelon of literary endeavour, wherein format, labelling, pigeon-holing etc doesn't matter one jot. The quality of the work is all.

And quality is the bottom line here.

Regular followers of this blog will know that I'm not in the habit of reviewing books. Whenever I come across a piece of work that really does it for me, I tend to either tweet my approval or slam a few sentences onto Facebook. But I'm going to make a big exception for A TWIST OF THE KNIFE, because not only does it comprise 30 (yes, you read that correctly - 30!) amazingly tense, mysterious and sublimely well-written short stories, it also blends my two real literary loves - crime and horror.

Fans of Peter James will know that he's long had a foot in both camps, though his worldwide fame
undoubtedly stems from the soaring success he's had with the Roy Grace novels. These are hard-edged but massively readable crime thrillers following the investigations of a Brighton-based detective superintendent as he pursues badmen of every ilk.

But A TWIST OF THE KNIFE is somewhat different. Yes, it contains several wickedly-plotted murder-mysteries - Roy Grace himself pops up in one story - but overall there is a slightly different feel to this book. To call it 'otherworldly' would not be completely accurate. There is nothing overtly weird or fantastical about these tales; all are firmly grounded in the contemporary here and now - and yet you never feel as if the supernatural is very far away.

Take Dream Holiday, for example. An urbane couple - there is surely no-one else working in thrillers today who writes the sophisticated middle-class better than Peter James! - are planning a luxurious holiday in Switzerland, though wife Annie, instead of looking forward to it, is increasingly bewildered and frightened by a recurring dream that seems to promise disaster. Well ... you won't need me to tell you that disaster does duly come, but in the very last way the reader expects. Trust me, this tome is well named, because horrendous twists in the tale are fully the order of play, as perfectly exemplified in this contribution.

Even those tales without an outré edge skate along the boundaries of purest nightmare. Sun Over The Yard Arm, a satsifyingly lengthy piece, which tells the story of a husband and wife team's ill-fated yachting trip across the Indian Ocean, is spook-free but would not be out of place in one of those big, chunky anthologies of the world's greatest horror stories. I won't say anything else for fear of providing spoilers, but it's a spellbinding and ghoulish read.

At the same time, two other chillers, Venice Aphrodisiac and A Christmas Tradition are what you might once have called twisted tales (no pun intended, I'm sure): short but erotically charged chillers, again with deceptively simple but, when you think about it, astonishingly transgressive concepts at their heart.

All in all, this a supreme collection of dark tales. Scary, mysterious, suspense-filled, and yes, at times rather sexy. If you read crime, it's a must for your collection. If you read horror, it's exactly the same. A TWIST OF THE KNIFE gets my strongest recommendation.  

Monday, 15 June 2015

Terror strikes in the Scottish Highlands

I'm very pleased indeed to announce volume eight in the TERROR TALES series that I edit for GRAY FRIAR PRESS: TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS. You can order it now though it is officially published on June 18.

The basic premise of this series is to do a round-tour of the British Isles (and maybe beyond), publishing brand new scary fiction from a plethora of top quality writers, and in each book interspersing the works of fiction with true tales of terror appertaining to the region in question. As you can imagine, the Highlands of Scotland loaned themselves very nicely indeed to this scheme. With a bloody and bitter history and some incredibly spooky folklore, the wildest and most northerly realm of mainland Britain (though we get out to the islands too!) gifted us a vast range of horrors to have fun with.

Anyway, I'll shut my mouth now and let the book itself do the talking. Here's the official front cover artwork (courtesy of the never-less-than-amazing Neil Williams) and back-cover blurb. Below that sits the full table of contents, and under that a few choice excerpts to hopefully whet your appetites:

The Scottish Highlands, picturesque home to grand mountains and plunging glens. But also a land of bitterness, betrayal and blood-feud, where phantom pipers lament callous slaughters, evil spirits haunt crag and loch, and ancient monsters roam the fogbound moors …

The Black Wolf of Badenoch
The deformed horror at Glamis
The witch coven of Auldearn
The faceless giant of Ben Macdui
The shrieking voices on Skye
The feathered fiend of Glen Etive
The headless killer at Arisaig

And many more chilling tales by William Meikle, Helen Grant, Barbara Roden, Carole Johnstone, DP Watt and other award-winning masters and mistresses of the macabre. 


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Skye’s Skary Places – Ian Hunter
Phantoms in the Mist
The Dove – Helen Grant
Prey of the Fin-Folk
Strone House - Barbara Roden
The Well of Heads
Face Down In The Earth – Tom Johnstone
The Vanishing
The Dreaming God Is Singing Where She Lies - William Meikle
The Curse of Scotland
The Housekeeper – Rosie Seymour
From Out The Hollow Hills
The Executioner - Peter Bell
Saurians of the Deep
You Must Be Cold - John Whitbourn
Glamis Castle
The Fellow Travellers Sheila Hodgson
Daemonologie
Shelleycoat – Graeme Hurry
Evil Monsters
The Other House, The Other Voice – Craig Herbertson
The Mull Plane Mystery
Myself/Thyself - DP Watt
The Bauchan
Broken Spectres - Carl Barker
The Big Grey Man
Jack Knife – Gary Fry
Tristicloke the Wolf
The Foul Mass At Tongue House - Johnny Mains
The Drummer of Cortachy
There You’ll Be – Carole Johnstone 

A person must be a brute if he can sit of an evening warming his hands over the fire and know that under the stone upon which his buckled shoe rests is the mouldering body of his own child. How could he stand the evil scent that must have seeped from under it, rising on the warm air?
The Dove
Helen Grant

Oh, there are all sorts of vague tales about weird voices, climbers’ ghosts, and so on – the winds make peculiar sounds howling round the crags. But the only creature linked specifically with the Cuillin is the Uraisg. There’s a corrie and a pass named after it. It’s supposed to look like a goat in a man’s shape, all shaggy, with sharp teeth and claws. Very frightening to behold.”
The Executioner
Peter Bell

The collectivised farms were famine factories. It wasn’t just sheepdogs who worked seven days a week all their short lives. In the hamlets there were scaffolds: they sagged with examples bearing placards strung round stretched necks. From Lochgilphead I heard the crackle of a distant firing squad.
You Must Be Cold
John Whitbourn

If you guys can forgive me a personal indulgence, I really feel as if the TERROR TALES series is going from strength to strength at present. It's certainly my intention, if we manage to sustain the series for long enough, to take it way beyond the British Isles. But of course it's all about time and patience. To date, we've done eight in the series. In addition to HIGHLANDS, we've done LAKE DISTRICT, COTSWOLDS, EAST ANGLIA, LONDON, SEASIDE, WALES and YORKSHIRE. But rather than blab on about those here, I recommend you follow the 'Edited Anthologies' link at the top of this page. There is a lot more detail over there.

With regard to my own short story writing ... well, the demands of the HECK novel series is preventing me throwing myself back into it. But I still try to keep my hand in now and then. It's a great pleasure to me that, thanks largely to Heck, there appears to be much renewed interest in my story and novella back-catalogue. 

The latest one to get the full audio treatment from WHOLE STORY AUDIOBOOKS is my 2009 novella, THE BALEFUL DEAD. It's a lengthy piece - well over 30,000 words, while the narration by Jon Keeble (who is excellent, as always) lasts three hours! - and it tells the tale of an ageing metal band who have all but given up, when their scheming manager hatches a plan to re-ignite their careers by use of an Ancient Roman death-ritual.

It was first published in the collection, GROANING SHADOWS (2009) and later was reissued in my e-collection DON'T READ ALONE (2013). It is still one of my personal favourite novellas, combining, as it does, my love of hard rock, ancient history, British folklore and evil mysticism. Hopefully the flavour is Jamesian with a generous dollop of Le Fanu - but that's for the audience to judge. Anyway, here's a brief snippet:

Beyond the first cover of the trees only more trees were visible: gnarled, mossy stanchions, their lower boughs heavy with bright new leaves. Here and there, rhododendrons had risen up between them, great profusions of glossy, tangled vegetation, which blotted out all vision.
“Are we going back?” Rob wondered.
“No,” I said.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no hero, but I’m fifty-one years old and I’ve been around. I’ve seen and done things, both good and bad, that the average man couldn’t even dream of – I wasn’t going to be spooked by the eerie hush of an English woodland.
So we pressed on. And eventually we came to the Lamuratum.
It emerged through the trees ahead of us in steady, unspectacular fashion.
The Grecian pillars, each one about nine feet tall, were made from marble and arranged in a neat circle. As the picture I’d seen earlier had illustrated, small lintels or roofs connected them. Initially it must have been quite startling; a gleaming white edifice amid all this lush, natural greenery. But over the decades it had accumulated considerable filth: leaf-mould, watermarks, streaks of bird-droppings. The tall stones were now mottled a yukky grey-green and filmed with lichen. I think its phoniness – the fact that it wasn’t really ancient – made it all the more repugnant. It was like a modern building gone to rack and ruin through sheer, bloody-minded neglect.
We approached it reluctantly. I’d expected the structure to be half-buried in undergrowth, but that wasn’t the case. The open space surrounding it was bare earth, beaten flat as though trodden by countless feet. Its interior was equally accessible. No fence or barrier had been put around it. All we needed to do was walk in between the pillars and there we were. The ground inside was also firm and bare. In the very centre was a low marble plinth, squarish, about three feet wide by three, and standing to knee-height. Its upper surface was slightly concave and coated with a greasy, black residue that was odious just to look at.
“I’m liking this place less and less,” Rob said.
     “We were warned not to come here.”

Friday, 22 May 2015

Stranger and far more hideous than fiction

One thing that readers seem to like most about my DS Mark Heckenburg novels is the gallery of maniacs I serve up. 

If nothing else, I can honestly say that I’ve done my best to create a procession of twisted madmen (and women) whose crimes are never less than unspeakable but are also varied and bizarre. 

There is no such thing as 'too crazy' in these novels, because no matter how heinous and deadly these individuals or groups of individuals appear to be, we have a hero in Heck who is always more than a match for them.

Unfortunately though, Heck is an imaginary character. He doesn’t really exist. And insane criminals do.

There’s no getting away from it; despite we writers’ best efforts, the real world – the annals of true crime – are always so much stranger and more terrifying than fiction. You only need to glance at some of history’s weirdest and scariest unsolved murders to see that, and to be badly unnerved by them.

Here, in no particular order, are ten cases I’ve picked at random which are surely among the strangest and most disturbing ever recorded by the world’s police forces.


1. THE STATEN ISLAND 'CROPSEY' MURDERS

In the 1980s, a series of vicious crimes on Staten Island, New York, appeared to bring a local urban legend to nightmarish life. 

The story of the escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand and a lust for juvenile blood comes straight from the slasher movie how-to guide. But in Staten Island, it centres on a real place, the Willowbrook State School, an institution for the mentally ill, whose appalling conditions were exposed to the rest of America in 1972 by crusading reporter Geraldo Rivera. The Willowbrook asylum – a ‘snake-pit’, according to Senator Robert Kennedy – was closed in 1986 and for a time it stood in ruins, with rumours slowly spreading that one of its former inmates, a killer called Cropsey, had evaded transfer and still lived in the derelict structure’s labyrinthine underground passages.

But sensationalist fantasy ran smack-bang into ugly reality when it emerged that Staten Island, in particular the district around Willowbrook, had for quite some time been the hunting ground for an unknown but genuine child murderer. 

Between 1972 and 1987, four children and a 22-year-old man with learning difficulties disappeared, and with the exception of one of them, 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger, none were ever seen again. Schweiger’s remains were uncovered in a shallow grave 35 days after she went missing. Police eventually brought charges for this offence against Andre Rand, a local oddball who had a history of mental problems himself, despite having worked at the asylum rather than being incarcerated there, but were only able to convict him of kidnapping Schweiger and, later on, Holly Ann Hughes, who had vanished in 1981. 

Rand is currently serving 50 years to life, and though he must be a prime suspect in the other disappearances, all of which are now regarded as homicides, they remain officially unsolved. Little wonder the legend of Cropsey persists.


2. THE TEXARKANA RAMPAGE

In 1946, Texarkana, a twin-city region straddling the border between Texas and Arkansas, was the unlikely venue for a shocking ten-week killing spree by a hooded maniac, whose bloody rampage became known as the ‘Moonlight Murders’, earned him the melodramatic soubriquet ‘Phantom Slayer’, and would go on to spawn two successful horror movies of the same name, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976 and 2014). 

In essence a ‘red-light bandit’, the killer’s modus operandi was to don his mask, a white cloth with eye-slits, and approach couples parked up in lovers’ lanes. At pistol-point, he would beat and rob his victims, rape or sexually assault the women, and then riddle both of them with lead. He attacked four couples in this way, claiming five lives in total and seriously injuring the remainder.

Despite the authorities flooding the city with Texas Rangers, including such living legends as M.T. 'Lone Wolf' Gonzaullas, the madman created a reign of absolute terror. Gun stores ran out of weapons and ammunition, and the streets were empty from dusk till dawn – aside from truckloads of rifle-toting youths who would prowl in impromptu vigilante patrols, which provided another major headache for the police. As often happens in cases of this sort, investigators were swamped with leads, all of which they were obliged to follow, though it was later revealed that a number of these had been provided by members of the public trying to make trouble for personal enemies. 

If there’d been panic in town early on in the case, the fourth attack had the potential to make things a thousand times worse. The Starks were a married couple in their 30s, who were shot through the windows of their own house. If the Phantom was now a home-invader too, there was almost no limit to the numbers of victims he could claim – Texarkana was a big place. But for some reason there were no further incidents. The murders simply ended. 

The police did have a favourite suspect, a prolific car thief called Youell Swinney, but lack of evidence meant that he was never charged. In the years following, other suspects were added to the roster – some having voluntarily confessed – but in none of these cases was there conclusive proof. The Phantom Slayer remains as elusive now as he was in 1946. 

3. BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM 

The beautiful heart of rural England has often been the setting for strange and horrible murders. In truth, there is nowhere more likely for unnatural deaths to occur than in shady lanes or quaint, thatch-roofed villages surrounded by green fields and wooded hills. But that is in the world of fiction. Crime writers love their country murder mysteries, possibly because in reality these verdant havens are very safe. The leafy shires of central England are famous for their low crime rates. But there was one hideous murder here that has baffled law enforcement for the last 70 years, and is seemingly no closer to being solved now than it ever was. 

The investigation began in 1943, when four boys from Stourbridge, in what was then Worcestershire, at the heart of the scenic Cotswolds, were poaching near Wychbury Hill. It was early evening when they scaled an old Wych elm in search of birds’ eggs. Half way up, to their horror, they saw that it was hollow and that a human skeleton had been jammed inside. 

The skeleton, which was recovered intact, was all that remained of a woman who had been lodged inside the tree alive some 18 months previously, though she had died from asphyxiation having first had her mouth crammed with taffeta. A police search located the bones of a human hand scattered around the tree, which seemed to have occult significance, though this brought them no nearer to solving the case.

Two years later, connections were made with the death of Charles Walton in neighbouring Warwickwhire. A suspected warlock, Walton died after being slashed with a billhook and pinned to the ground with a pitchfork as part of an apparent satanic ritual. But this case too would go on to confound investigators. 

Thanks to the war, there were numerous missing persons registered in the UK, but police were unable to find any that matched the skeleton in the Wych elm. Was there a wall of silence due to occult activity? Other baffling clues had by this time emerged.

In 1944, a bizarre question was painted on a wall in Birmingham: WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WITCH ELM? Bella? Whether the name was real or a literary device of the graffiti artist was unknown, but from this point on the same message appeared again and again, painted on walls, tombstones and trees in the vicinity of Stourbridge. Incredibly, the last recorded incidence of this was in 1999, when the message was sprayed onto a 200-year-old obelisk. Whoever was responsible was never traced, but the name now given to the unknown victim opened other lines of enquiry. Briefly, there was a possible espionage link when it was considered the bones might belong to a German cabaret singer turned spy called Clara Bauerle (Clarabella?), who could have been eliminated by security forces for reasons of national security. 

Unfortunately, it is impossible to bring a modern eye to the case. Both the remains of ‘Bella’ and the medical records obtained at the time have vanished. But armchair detectives have now moved back to the occult theory, citing the unlikelihood that two such similarly weird murders could remain unsolved for so many decades and not be connected, and arguing that the almost gleefully cryptic graffiti and the apparent unwillingness to talk of folk who in normal circumstances would be among the most law-abiding in the country are strongly suggestive of village witchcraft.

4. THE KEDDIE CABIN MASSACRE

Bryan Bertino's chilling home-invasion horror movie, The Strangers, which hit the cinemas in 2008, features a nightmare scenario in which a young couple in a remote woodland cabin are terrorised by three masked criminals who have seemingly chosen their victims at random and intend to cause them as much suffering as possible for no reason other than the pleasure it gives them.

It makes for a discomforting viewing experience, with (SPOILERS AHEAD!) no happy ending, and implications all the way through that psychopathic killers can live among us unnoticed, ordinary members of society until the urge comes upon them to strike. 

But what many may not know is that though the movie was not an exact account of a real event, it was strongly influenced by a ghastly crime in California's Northern Sierras in 1981.

At the time, Sue Sharp, 36, her five children and a family friend, were vacationing in a log cabin, no. 28, in a campsite attached to the small railroad town of Keddie. This was a wooded location, but it didn't exist in complete isolation. There were other cabins nearby occupied by fellow holidaymakers. And in fact, on the night of April 11, 14-year-old Sheila Sharp had a sleepover with friends in one of these neighbouring properties. It was a hugely fortunate decision on her part, because when she returned to cabin 28 in the morning, she was greeted by the most harrowing scene.

Three of her loved ones, her mother, her brother, John, 15, and his friend Dana, 17, had all been murdered; first bound with wire and electrical tape and then attacked with a variety of household implements until they were unrecognisable. Miraculously, the youngest children were all still alive and unharmed in their bedrooms, though 12-year-old Tina was missing.

Police theories varied. Was this a simple burglary that had gone wrong? If so, it was an astonishingly personal attack. Was it a twisted sex assault? That seemed more likely, especially as in 1984 an anonymous phone-call led officers to a secondary crime scene some 57 miles away, where part of Tina's skull and several other of her bones were located.

Police issued a sketch of two suspects, whose details were obtained from one of the surviving children, but this brought them no closer to a solution. 

The case remains unsolved, but there are countless questions that need answering. Researchers have claimed there were many unsavoury characters in and around Keddie at the time, including drug addicts and dealers, known child molesters and even a couple of disturbed Vietnam vets. The victims themselves had links to unstable individuals. Even some employees at the resort had dubious backgrounds. And yet still no charges were brought. Accusations have since been made that the local sheriff's department badly botched the initial investigation, but as to that we can only speculate.

As a footnote, attempts were made to rent the Keddie cabin out again in later years, but there were no takers. Eventually it became an eyesore, a dilapidated relic of an awful and unexplainable event. It was demolished in 2006.

5. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF AMY BRADLEY

This case does not, to our knowledge, involve a murder, but it is nevertheless one of the eeriest and most distressing of its kind, not just because of the personal suffering it may well involve, but because of its quite terrible implications.

Amy Lynn Bradley was the all-American girl. Born in 1974 in Virginia, she grew up to be beautiful, intelligent and athletic, and was understandably the apple of her family's eye. In 1998, at the age of 23, with the flower of her young adulthood still ahead of her, she accompanied her parents on a luxurious holiday to the Caribbean aboard the cruise ship, Rhapsody of the Seas. By all accounts she wasn't overly fond of sailing, but soon found herself enjoying the incredible facilities aboard the immense ocean liner - until tragedy struck in a quite unforgettable way.

In the early hours of March 6, Amy's father recalled waking in the family cabin and spotting his daughter sleeping outside on the balcony. This was the last time that he or any other member of his family would see her alive, because later that morning they awoke to find the cabin open and Amy missing. The ship had by this time docked at Curacao in the Antilles, but despite this it was felt that Amy was most likely still on board. It seemed improbable that she'd go ashore alone. However, the ship was searched, and no trace of her was discovered. The search continued on land, but with a similarly negative result. By this time, a witness had come forward, claiming to have seen Amy at around 5.30 am in one of the ship's elevators in company with members of the band Blue Orchid, with whom she'd allegedly been socialising in the on-board nightclub the previous evening. But this lead also drew a blank.

By now, Amy's frantic parents had come to suspect foul play. So the Curacao authorities got involved. Thinking it possible that Amy might have fallen overboard before the ship had reached harbour, or maybe even had jumped, they scoured the sea, but no body was discovered.

And that was more or less the last that anyone heard of Amy Lynn Bradley. 

Until several years had passed, and other unsubstantiated sightings were made public. 

For instance, Amy had supposedly been spotted on a Curacao beach later in 1998, and in a Barbados toilet in 2005. Most alarming of all, however, an American sailor came forward to report that he'd been in a brothel in Curacao during the mid 2000s when he was approached by an American woman working there, who claimed that she was Amy Bradley and begged him to help her, only for two pimps to roughly hustle her away. When the authorities traced the brothel, it was found that it had burned down. There were no physical clues to indicate where any of its workforce might have relocated to. Likewise, its former owners were untraceable.

Amy's family did not leave it there. They continued to hunt for their daughter, making the case a media sensation in the US. It featured on high profile TV shows like Dr Phil and America's Most Wanted. In 2006 there was another disturbing development when a photograph was emailed to the family. It had been downloaded from a website advertising the services of South American prostitutes, and it showed a girl very similar to Amy reclining on a bed. Forensic examination of the image has divided opinion, with some experts claiming the woman is definitely Amy, but with others less sure.

The worrying point was made repeatedly in the American press that young white girls are considered a prime commodity by international sex traffickers. This was also a consideration in 2005 when blonde Alabama-born Natalee Holloway went missing in Aruba, in the Dutch Caribbean. In this case, though, a number of suspects - both local men and tourists - were arrested and re-arrested several times. Eventually, they were all dismissed from the enquiry, but though Natalee was never found, connection between the two cases is considered tenuous. 

Natalee Holloway was declared dead in absentia in 2012, though the quest still goes on to locate Amy Bradley, who has now been missing for 17 years, and if she's still alive will be aged 40. 

6. BLOODLESS CORPSES ON THE HIGHWAY

Almost inevitably, given the uncanny circumstances surrounding various of the crimes mentioned in this column, the words ‘ritual’ and ‘occult’ are likely to pop up. But in law-enforcement terms these phrases are overused. Many serial murder cases are described as having ‘ritualistic’ elements when in fact the killings are just plain weird, the reason for that being the perpetrators are insane. Cults and other criminal groups who claim to dabble in the occult often know nothing about the ancient art, but use it as a means by which to divide and control their followers, or maybe to gain sexual and financial favours. However, some unexplained cases, though they are few and far between, bear genuine hallmarks of Satanist activity, and perhaps the most infamous of these concerns the murders of Howard Green and Carol Marron in New Jersey. 

It was a cold evening in December 1979, when motorists in West Paterson sighted two figures lying by the roadside. Police were called, and on arrival discovered the sackcloth-wrapped corpses of a man and woman. Their names were Howard Green and Carol Marron, and they had both been beaten to death. But it didn’t end there; both of them clasped knots of black hair in their hands and bore strange but identical mutilations. For example, both their faces had been smashed in from the left side and both had been stabbed through the right eye. In addition, and more bewildering and ghoulish still, both bodies had been completely drained of blood. 

Equally odd, especially in the light of such off-the-wall carnage, was the apparent normality of Green and Marron’s everyday lives. A cab driver and a secretary, aged 53 and 33 respectively, they’d led an seemingly mundane existence in Brooklyn. But when detectives searched their apartment they found extensive black magic paraphernalia. 

Friends of the couple were unable to assist, claiming to have seen them on a New York subway train the day before the murders and detecting nothing strange. But a short time later the journalist Maury Terry received an anonymous letter discussing the incident, apparently directing him to a shadowy group whom it referred to as ‘OTO’, and hinting that more Satanic murders might follow. Attempts have been made to connect the aforementioned ‘OTO’ with the Ordo Templi Orientis, a spiritual and philosophical society which Aleister Crowley was once a leading member of, but if this was ever a genuine clue it led nowhere. 

No additional homicides obviously linked to the double-slaying have followed, and it remains unsolved to this day. 

7. SLAUGHTER AT HINTERKAIFECK

The mass-killing at the isolated rural community of Hinterkaifeck in the Ingolstadt region of Bavaria in March 1922 is one of the most infamous crimes in German history. It is also the most mysterious. 

In the days leading up to the dread event, 63-year-old Andreas Gruber, owner of the farm in question, complained to neighbours that he thought his home was haunted, having encountered what at the time seemed like unexplained phenomena - footprints in the snow encircling the farm, noises in the attic and missing sets of keys. With the advantage of hindsight, we can now assume that these oddities were down to a very human perpetrator, who was scoping out the property in anticipation of a planned home-invasion – which finally came on the evening of March 31. 

Whatever the purpose behind the attack, Andreas and his family, his wife, Cazilia (72), their daughter, Viktoria Gabriel (35), her two young children, Cazilia and Josef, and the maid, Maria (44), were taken to the barn in twos, where they were all hacked to death with a mattock or pickaxe. The ghastly scene was finally discovered four days later by concerned neighbours, and a massive police investigation, headed up by Munich CID, swung into action. 

Though, rather amazingly, detectives have pursued leads in the case as recently as 1986, no arrests have ever been made because none of the known facts make much sense. It was initially assumed that robbery was the motive, and that either a vagrant or maybe someone living locally was responsible. However, considerable money was then found at the murder scene - there had been no theft. Odder still, evidence suggested that the culprit had remained on the property for several days afterwards, presumably sleeping in the family beds, eating their food, warming himself by their fire and even feeding and milking their cattle. This revelation baffled the Grubers’ neighbours, as it seemed to contradict the disturbing image in the local collective consciousness that some drooling madman had watched the farm for days from the surrounding woods while planning his homicidal attack. 

The most promising line of enquiry involved Karl Gabriel, Viktoria’s husband, who had supposedly died in the trenches in 1914, though his body was never actually accounted for. It seemed vaguely possible that Karl had survived the battle, maybe disfigured, and had finally returned home deranged. But many veterans who’d known Karl personally convinced detectives that they had seen him die. 

The case remains unsolved despite everyone’s best efforts. As recently as 2007, the Police Academy in Furstenfeldbruck re-examined the facts using the most modern techniques, but they too were flummoxed by the lack of evidence and motive in one of Germany’s most enduring and macabre mysteries.

8. THE BIZARRE FATE OF ELISA LAM

In the age of the internet and viral rumour-mongering, any human tragedy can be turned overnight into an international horror story if it is even remotely quirky, and tastelessness never enters into it. Thus, people with deformities have been blamed on alien insemination, and curious behaviour by the mentally ill is deemed demonic possession. 

But this isn’t to say that there isn’t some genuine unexplained weirdness out there, and if a death is involved, it becomes vital to work out the truth. 

One such, the drowning on top of a Los Angeles hotel in 2013 of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student, became a sensation. Primarily this was because CCTV footage taken in the hotel lift during Elisa’s final hours depicts some very unusual behaviour, but also because four months later the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office issued findings in which there was clear uncertainty about whether or not her death was accidental. 

Even without the lift footage, the circumstances in which Elisa Lam departed this world are curious. In short, her nude body was found in the drinking-water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel in downtown LA, where it had been decaying for several days. The water tank was so constructed – it was raised on concrete blocks, had no fixed ladder for access and was heavily lidded – that it was near enough impossible to fall into it by accident. But simply to get up there Elisa must have negotiated several locked doors and passageways to which only staff had access. Suicide was considered a possibility, though Elisa’s family insisted she’d never shown suicidal tendencies before, while detailed examination of the body found no obvious sign of violence or sexual assault, though the latter wasn’t definitively ruled out. 

In all ways, it was a bewildering mystery.

Elisa’s behaviour in the lift, which involved apparent conversations with somebody no-one else could see, strange hand signals and an apparent attempt to hide, might be explainable by her bipolar condition and the heavy medication she was on, but it is undeniably eerie to watch online. It didn’t help, of course, that the manner of her demise bore similarities to the haunting Japanese horror movie, Dark Water (2002), while the actual location, the Cecil Hotel, was itself a disturbing element. 

A focal point in a rundown district of town, the Cecil had a dark history all of its own. Elizabeth Short, the ‘Black Dahlia’, called there just before her own murder in 1947, there was another rape and murder inside the hotel in 1964, while two notorious serial killers, Jack Unterweger and Richard Ramirez, both lived there for a time. 

In retrospect it seems highly unlikely that Elisa Lam was a victim of foul play, but as long as so many perplexing questions remain, it will figure highly in criminology's list of distressing curiosities.

9. CRAZY GRAFFITI, OR SOMETHING MORE SINISTER?

In normal circumstances, if one followed a trail of unexplained deaths over a period of ten years in a specific area, and more often than not found the same piece of weird graffiti close to each scene, one would soon come to suspect criminality. However, where the so-called 'Smiley Face Murders' are concerned there is much dispute.

The case was first made that an unknown serial killer of men was at large in the northern American states in 2008 by retired New York police detectives, Kevin Gannon and Tony Duarte. They'd been looking into the deaths of 45 young white males, for the most part college students, who since the late 1990s had been found drowned in different bodies of water: canals, brooks, lakes, reservoirs and the like, across 11 different states.

The previous assumption was that the deceased had died by misadventure while stumbling back to their dorms after a heavy night partying. But Gannon and Duarte's research indicated that in at least 12 of these cases, an unusual piece of graffiti, a crudely drawn smiling face, was found either close to the scene where the body was discovered, or close to the point where it had entered the water. They made the argument that for healthy young men, many of them sporty types, death by accidental drowning ought to be quite unusual, even if a lot of them were drunk at the time. They also noted that the vast majority of the victims were white; far fewer black males were found to have drowned by accident in the same time and place. To Gannon and Duarte, this indicated that an agenda was in play.

However, law enforcement tended to dismiss the thesis. They pointed to the fact that none of those drowning victims save two showed any signs of physical trauma (Patrick McNeil was fished from New York's East River in 1997, and Chris Jenkins from the Mississippi in 2002 - both were deemed to have died elsewhere, and were established as unconnected homicides). As for the unlikeliness of so many accidents occurring, the skeptics claimed that many of those named were not just drunk at the time, but inebriated - in other words, much more vulnerable to accident than they would normally be.

Doubtful profilers have also had their say, pointing out a complete lack of identifiable motive. In no case was there any sign of robbery or sexual assault. They reckoned that it was difficult to conceive of a killer, much less a group of killers, who would genuinely find satisfaction in repeatedly drowning strangers who were barely aware of what was happening to them.

Of course, the 'smiley face' imagery was harder to dismiss. There was no trace of it at over 50% of the death scenes, but it was present at many others, and that would seem like quite a coincidence. Skeptics rebutted this by arguing that smiling faces are a common signature of graffiti artists, that they appear in bus shelters and on subway walls throughout America, and that using this tenuous evidence as a hook on which to hang a massive murder enquiry would at best be a poor reason to waste an awful lot of tax-payers' money and at worst a sorry excuse for needlessly and sensationally ripping open the lives of bereaved families all over again.

While that may not in itself be a convincing argument, there hasn't been enough evidence to warrant a full enquiry. To date, the Smiley Face Murders remain a myth. However, as an addendum to this curious tale, there was a not unrelated meeting at the start of 2015 in Manchester, northern England, between senior detectives and Professor of Psychology, Craig Jackson.

Jackson was very concerned that 61 drowning deaths of young men had occurred in Manchester in the last six years, particularly in the vicinity of Canal Street, where the city's gay nightlife is centred. Jackson openly stated that he was fearful a serial killer was at work, whose method, whether or not it involved sex with the victims, culminated in him pushing or throwing them into one of the city centre's many dark, industrial-age waterways.

Whether this could actually be a foolproof method by which to kill someone is debatable, but for the time being Greater Manchester Police are not taking the theory too seriously. However, a total of 61 deaths of young men is a statistic that won't easily fade away, while over in North America, the memory of those primitive grinning faces won't be erased half as easily as the graffiti itself was.

10. THE RIPPER'S OTHER VICTIMS

Conventional wisdom holds that Jack the Ripper, the depraved serial killer who terrorised London's East End in 1888, only murdered and mutilated five women, but this is a 'fact' that would not have been recognised by police detectives at the time. 

Only recently, after decades of careful analysis, have crime historians - now equipped with such modern techniques as behavioural science, forensic psychology and geographic profiling - firmly concluded that there were only five Ripper victims - the 'Canonical Five', as they have become known. Some argue there were even less than that. But at the time, the enquiry into the Whitechapel Murders was very wide-ranging, and at one stage at least 11 butchered victims were held to be the Ripper's work. Quite possibly there were even more than that.

In 1888, the London police had never before encountered a relentless and theatrical repeat-killer of this nature. The horrific mutilations, the apparent ritualistic elements, the cryptic letters to the press, the total chaos it caused in the East End's crammed, filthy streets made this an overwhelming investigation. And bear in mind that at this stage forensic science wasn't even in its infancy. The world's police forces wouldn't acquire fingerprint technology for another 14 years.

In light of this, the fact that a large number of homicides were initially clumped together under the umbrella of the same investigation should not surprise us. But were those Victorian detectives so far from the mark? Contrary to popular belief, serial killers do not always use the same modus operandi. The craft of murder - and that is how many of them view it - grows in the practice; it is refined, improved upon; it changes. And it is also dependent on opportunity and the convenience of the moment. Take Long Liz Stride for instance. Of the Canonical Five, she was the least mutilated; she simply had her throat cut. The general opinion there is that the murderer was interrupted and had to slink away before he could damage her further.

That said, the many other unfortunates initially considered to be the madman's victims display so wide a range of physical destruction that it is difficult to identify any kind of psychological pattern, certainly not if you examine them in chronological order. Anyway, judge for yourselves.

The first genuinely possible Ripper killing occurred in April 1888 in Whitechapel, when prostitute Emma Smith suffered a sexual assault so vicious that she died from her wounds the following morning. Then, in August, another local prostitute, Martha Tabram, was attacked and stabbed to death, her body punctured 39 times. The five generally accepted Ripper murders - those of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Long Liz, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly - all follow from this point. But in addition to these there were the deaths of Rose Mylett - a Whitechapel drunk, who was strangled the following December, Alice McKenzie, whose throat was slashed in July 1889, a nameless victim in Pinchin Street in September 1889, who was so dismembered by her assailant that she'd ever afterwards be known as the 'Pinchin Street Torso', and Frances Coles, whose throat was cut in February 1891.

Here, most investigators draw their limit. Even the most ardent advocates of the Canonical Five tend to acknowledge the possibility that Jack the Ripper might conceivably have killed as many as these 11. However, as stated earlier, there were other violent and sexual deaths in the same time and place which also bear examination.

A mysterious Whitechapel prostitute called Fairy Fay was allegedly impaled with an iron spike during the Christmas of 1887, though no records confirm these details. During the spring of 1888, two other local prostitutes, Annie Millwood and Ada Wilson, reported vicious knife-attacks, which they only just survived. In November that year, a third, Annie Farmer, also claimed to have survived the Ripper. Her throat had been cut, but it was only superficial. Additionally, the Ripper has been linked to the 'Thames Torso Case', wherein a headless woman, never to be identified, was found in a cellar in October 1888, and the dismembered body-parts of known prostitute Liz Jackson were fished out of the Thames in June 1889, though these gruesome discoveries were made in Whitehall and Battersea respectively, and were nowhere near Whitechapel.

More outlandishly, the murder and evisceration of a small boy in Bradford in December 1888 was speculatively linked to the case, while the murder of a New York street-woman in April 1891 bore striking similarities.

Ultimately, these additional murders can be no more now than a talking-point. We will never know whether or not they were handiwork of Jack the Ripper. Yet the irony is that perhaps we should hope they were. If there is anything worse than the idea that a crazed sex killer was on the loose in London in that long ago, candle-lit age, never to be apprehended, it is surely the thought that SEVERAL such killers were on the loose, and that they too would go on to evade capture.

Images used. From top to bottom, they are: A face of evil, from the movie, The Exorcist (1973); the advertising poster for the documentary movie, Cropsey (2009); the poster for the movie, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976); an original press photo of the Wych Elm tree in which Bella's body was found; a more recent press shot of the vandalised obelisk; a spooky still from the movie, The Strangers (2008); a police sketch artist's impression of the Keddie Cabin murder suspects; Amy Bradley; Natalee Holloway; Aleister Crowley; part of the carnage at Hinterkaifeck; the DVD cover for the movie Dark Water (2002); a CCTV still of Elisa Lam apparently hiding in the hotel elevator; original 'smiley face' graffiti; one of Manchester's many freight canals (thanks to BriYYZ); a traditional image of Jack the Ripper (thanks to Metro); and the Nemesis of Neglect, a satirical cartoon featuring Jack the Ripper as it appeared in Punch Magazine in 1888. 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Hunting a killer with the weirdest agenda!

Okay, we’re almost there. Just five days to go, and then the big moment arrives. Yeah, you’ve got it. The most exciting date of the year so far is May 7, and no, I’m NOT talking about the UK’s General Election.

I’d like to do that, and in the process utilise a wide range of popular Anglo-Saxon terms, but as that seems to be happening on every other blog, forum and message board at this moment, I’m going to give it a rest on here.

In any case, what I’m looking forward to is much more momentous. Because May 7 is not just Election Day, it’s also the day on which HUNTED, my fifth novel in the DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg series, is officially published.

This one sees Heck back from his brief stint in the Lake District and re-installed in the Serial Crimes Unit, though still slightly estranged from his former love and ever fiery boss, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper. As such, he cops for what initially looks like a straightforward job: poking his nose around the leafy lanes of Surrey to investigate whether a recent bizarre road accident could be something more than that.

Heck being Heck of course, it isn’t long before he smells a rat, and begins checking out other weird
and unlikely fatal accidents – and finds himself pitted against a completely new kind of psychopath.

I’m not going to say any more, but the images dotted through this column may drop hints about the terrible events that start to unfold. A few of these were forwarded to me by bloggers and reviewers, who received these eerie adornments in their press packs. But still I’m saying nowt – neither to them nor you (sorry, but you’ve just gotta read the book).

In another HUNTED-relative development, there is a chance to grab hold of a signed copy of the book one day early if you fancy it, and if you’re able to make the journey. LIVERPOOL WATERSTONES, which sits in the heart of that inestimable shopping centre, Liverpool One, are granting us a launch party on the evening of May 6.

I’ll be there, along with some wine and some beer, which you WON’T have to pay for, taking questions, first of all from that devilishly talented Liverpool crime novelist, LUCA VESTE, and then from the audience themselves if they want to put a few forward. I’ll also be happy to sign anything you put in front of me, not just HUNTED, though obviously it would be preferable if you picked up a copy of that as well (no pressure, heheheh).

The Liverpool event kicks off at 6.30pm, as I say on May 6. Admission is free, and we anticipate it running for about an hour and a little bit.

If you’re still unsure, here’s another little snippet from the novel:

Heck was now at the bottom of the stairs, listening, but he also kept one eye on the front door, acutely aware that at any moment the second of the two suspects could come sauntering in. Common sense bade him wait until the second target was on the plot, but another voice advised that it would be easier to tackle one than two, and that this was a chance he couldn’t miss.
     There was only dimness at the top of the stairs, but he fancied he could hear noises: the squeaking of age-old bedframes, occasional cries of pleasure – whether real or simulated, it was difficult to tell.
     Gail had now emerged from behind the counter as well, but he rounded on her quickly. ‘Best if you stay down here.’
     ‘What … why?’
     ‘To cover my back. It’ll be just my luck if the second one turns up while I’m in mid-arrest.’
     She looked uncertain. ‘What if the first one’s a handful?’
     Heck turned to the clerk. ‘Big fella, is he?’
     The clerk shrugged. ‘Five-six. Out of shape.’
     ‘I’ll take five-six and out of shape.’
     ‘Heck, wait!’ Gail protested. ‘What if he’s armed?’
     ‘I’ll think of something. I always do.’
     While Gail moved reluctantly back behind the counter, Heck headed upstairs.
     The treads creaked; the walls on either side were damp and scabby; the air was rank with odious smells: smoke, sweat, rotten cabbage. When he reached the first floor, a single passage ran from one side of the building to the other, laid with moldering carpet and littered here and there with crack phials and used condoms. Occasional dust-enshrouded bulbs created the dullest illumination. For some reason, unless it had all been his imagination, the squeaking beds and ecstatic voices had fallen silent.
     Heck ventured forward, following the numbers on the doors – five, six, seven, eight, but glancing over his shoulder as the top of the stair diminished behind him, acutely conscious of the space beyond it, which was an unlit recess. It was too easy to imagine someone concealed there, watching him. Turning a corner, he entered another dingy passage, now conscious of a curious sound – a low rumble, like distant thunder except that it was ongoing.
     A figure crossed the passage ahead of him; flickering through his vision from left to right, and then was gone.
     Heck froze. For a crazy second it had been like one of those ghost stories, where some hapless investigator is confronted by a phantom shape walking out of one wall and disappearing through another … until he shuffled forward a few feet and realised that two doors were open and facing each other. A faint pall of daylight lay between them, and he now recognised the dull thunder as the sound of water pouring into a metal tub …