Friday, 20 November 2015

Frost, snow and other terrors of the season

It's always difficult at this time of year not to get caught up in the whirlwind of pre-Christmas jazz (even though it's still only November, which is rapidly becoming the month that time forgot). But in truth, I can't afford not to.

I'm not a big fan of making your Christmas preparations early - some houses in Wigan have been sporting fairy lights and glowing Nativity figures on their roofs since as early as November 7th. Can you believe that? But I understand why the retailers have to do it. This is their main selling season, and as so often these days, it's a selling season I'm hoping to participate in myself.

Don't worry, I'm not going to hit you with a load of advertising pap. I just want to say a few words about a piece of writing I completed in 2010, which probably still ranks as my personal favourite work, and though it's a Gothic / horror / supernatural / adventure / romance (try saying that when you've been on the festive sherry), it's also a Christmas story, possibly the most Christmassy Christmas story I've ever written -SPARROWHAWK.

(But before I get into all that ... at the foot of this column, you'll find my hopefully timely review of Jonathan Aycliffe's amazingly frightening supernatural novel, NAOMI’S ROOM. So if SPARROWHAWK doesn't ring your Christmas bells, that one definitely ought to).

SPARROWHAWK is a novella rather than a novel or short story - it clocks in at just over 40,000 words, and it was written over the long, white winter of 2009/2010.

People living up here in the North of England will remember that one, I'm sure. How on something like December 21, after days of sloppy sleet, the temperature suddenly dropped by seven degrees in one hour. How, when the snow started tumbling that night it barely stopped until well into the New Year. How our towns and cities came to resemble images from Christmas cards, or scenes from A Christmas Carol. How no cars could move, so we brought our last-minute Christmas shopping home from the supermarket on sledges.

How on Christmas Eve itself we were able to chill all the beer for our annual party by standing it in the snow on the back terrace.

How entire families got snowed in together, and like or loath it, ended up celebrating one big Yuletide party, which went on for days and days after the main event.

I mean, how could I not spend that most spectacular season of goodwill penning a brand new Christmas story?

Was it any surprise - certainly not to me, on reflection - that I still think it one of the best things I've ever written?

SPARROWHAWK, which is set in Dickensian London and follows the fortunes (though mainly they are misfortunes) of Captain John Sparrowhawk, an Afghan War veteran, and an embittered loner and widower, who in the year 1843 is released from the Debtors' Prison by the beautiful but enigmatic Miss Evangeline when she pays what he owes and hires him for a difficult but mysterious job - keeping watch on a London house for the duration of a very cold and snowy December.

I said earlier that SPARROWHAWK was a Gothic / horror / supernatural / adventure / romance, and I wasn't joking. It's a wide-ranging tale, emotionally and spiritually as well as geographically, and I strove strenuously for it to tick all those boxes. It's certainly not just a Victorian ghost story, as it has sometimes been described, though there are plenty of ghosts in there too.

What I tried to do with SPARROWHAWK was take a broken soul at the lowest ebb of his life and send him on a magical but eerie journey through a time of year we're all very much in love with but also wary of, because we know it has a flip-side.

While the middle-classes of Bloomsbury and Little Chelsea pull crackers, sing carols and play parlour games, the homeless of Southwark, Eastcheap and Petticoat Lane shiver under icicle-clad bridges. While the Christmas spirit pushes some to acts of great generosity, others remain unaffected, driving darkly on down their dangerous roads, oblivious to the chains they wear, their personal notion of misrule a horror to all those in their power.

While some Christmas elves are a delight, capering and full of good cheer, others are more like goblins, lurking in the evergreens and enjoying the warmth of our homes but all the time plotting against us.

I wanted to touch on all these things with SPARROWHAWK. I also wanted to give him love, or at least a taste of it - because though this is a failed husband, a reluctant father and a thoroughly undeserving specimen, all men should catch at least a glimpse of light and happiness at Christmas time. For those who enjoy my Heck novels, there's a bit of action in there too. Sparrowhawk is a warrior. He fought heroically if hopelessly in the British Empire's first great Afghan War. Now he must fight at home, in London - on the frozen back-streets, in the dank, empty warehouses, on the ice of the River Thames - against a series of foes who will challenge his sanity and his soul as well as his physical flesh.

Anyway, no more blurbing. You either like the sound of this one or you don't. But just in case you want the teeniest bit more, here are three extracts, which hint at different aspects of the Christmas of 1843 that Captain John Sparrowhawk finds himself confronted with:

All newcomers were checked on a list before being issued with a seating card and given the option of sherry or champagne, of which Sparrowhawk chose the latter and was subsequently treated to several flutes. When the assembly was complete, a bagpiper played them through an arched, whitewashed tunnel into a great, candle-lit eating hall. At one end there was a roaring fire, its mantel decked with Christmas brocade, though the bulk of the décor in the room was military, comprising countless emblems and battle standards, both home-grown and captured on the field. The dining tables were arranged around the edges of the hall, aside from the head-table, where the banquet’s host and his special guests would be seated. Down the centre, a very long table groaned beneath the weight of a festive feast. Every type of culinary luxury was on display: roast turkeys stuffed with figs and hazelnuts, saddles of pork glazed with sweet sauce, platters of salmon garnished with oysters, roast duckling, roast quail, beef and ale pies, chicken pies, mutton pies, venison pies, lamb shanks, trays of German sausage, bowls of steamed and minted vegetables. There were also cakes, puddings, tarts, plates of biscuits and great wedges of cheese filled with cranberries, apricots and other rich, spiced fruit.
     When General Pollock appeared, there were roars of appreciation. He was every inch the figure of legend: a great, bluff, hearty fellow, broad of shoulder, barrel of chest, and sparkling in his artilleryman’s dress-uniform of cocked hat and blue tunic with scarlet collar, gold cord loops and white belt. His hair was an immense, tawny mane, which extended onto his cheeks and top lip in the largest pair of mutton-chop whiskers Sparrowhawk had ever seen. When he greeted each guest personally, his grip was strong, almost overpowering. His large, penetrating eyes were as gold as sunburned savannah grass. Yet, when he came face-to-face with Sparrowhawk, having initially looked dismayed to see civilian garb, he broke into the warmest and toothiest of smiles.
     “Captain Sparrowhawk!” he boomed.

     Sparrowhawk clicked his heels and bowed slightly. It didn’t feel right to make a formal salute when he was no longer in the service. “I’m honoured, my lord. And exceedingly grateful for your invitation.”
     “The honour is mine, captain. You’ll note from our seating arrangements that you’ve been placed alongside me at the head-table?”
     Sparrowhawk was astounded, and said so.
     “Not a bit of it, dear chap,” General Pollock replied. “There’ll always be room at my table for heroes of a genuine ilk.”

Pictured above is the horrendous last stand at Gundamuck, of which Sparrowhawk is the only survivor. Of course in a tale like this the good cheer of a Christmas military reunion is never going to last. There are many layers of life in Victorian London, and it's Sparrowhawk's fate to sample them all:

At this early hour of the day, only a handful of ruffians and painted doxies were present. Some were asleep in corners. Others were bleary eyed and brutally hungover. The landlord and his skivvies were doing what they could to clean the place up, replacing the coals in the hearth, laying fresh straw, bringing in new barrels from the storehouse at the rear. Sparrowhawk, still in his working garb and looking haggard and unshaven from his long watch, fitted in comfortably. No questions were asked when he ordered a mug of rum and a flagon of beer, and retired to the corner where he’d first located Willoughby.
     Only a few minutes passed before someone else sat at his table. It was one of the women. She wore a pretty bonnet with dyed-pink ostrich plumes, but this served to accentuate the drabness of the rest of her attire. Her dress was also pink, and formerly had been a mass of frills and lace, but now was faded and ragged, revealing the stained chemise beneath. Her bodice had been patched several times, but was still missing buttons. Her face, though dabbled with blusher and rouge, was extraordinarily handsome – which seemed strange given the life these impoverished creatures lived. But then Sparrowhawk smelled rose and jasmine, and he understood.
     “I almost didn’t recognise you,” he said.
     Miss Evangeline placed his letter on the table. “So you’ve resigned again?”
     He drank more beer. “I have.”
     “You realise what this means?”
     “I’m quite prepared for it. If you’ve been able to find me already, I expect the bailiffs will have no trouble arresting me by this afternoon.”
     “On what grounds can the bailiffs arrest you? Your debt has been paid.”
     “You said you’d bill my bail back to the court.”
     “A little white lie. As I told you when we first met, we didn’t make you a loan. You owe us nothing.”
     Sparrowhawk was puzzled. “You’re not concerned that your man will be unprotected for this final week?”
     “Not at all. Because he won’t be. I have no intention of allowing you to resign.”

Miss Evangeline has a touch of the 'other' about her. In the nicest possible way, of course. The same could be said for certain other individuals Sparrowhawk will encounter during this deep-frozen Christmas, except that they won't be so nice:

The marionette was directly behind him. Its arms were by its sides, but its head had jerked upright, the beads rolling in its bauble eyes. Its hinged jaw dropped to revel a cavernous blood-red mouth, from which a demented squawk issued - the same squawk he had heard on Doughty Street.
     With stiff jerks of its strings, it again raised its arms. Then it raised its left leg, and brought it down hard. It did the same with its right, and suddenly it was dancing a wild, maniacal jig; at first in front of him, then to his right, and then to his rear. With piercing squeals of laughter, it cavorted around him like a dervish. Sparrowhawk stood rigid, closing his eyes, trying to shut out the horror. But the frenzied laughter grew in volume and shrillness until it was almost ear-shatter
     "Enough!" he finally roared.
     He ripped out his sabre and, with three deft strokes, severed the dancing devil's strings. It crashed to the floor, again nothing more than a heap of lifeless disjointed wood.

First published in 2010 by Pendragon Press, SPARROWHAWK is now out of print unfortunately, but can still be bought as an e-novella for the non-too-princely sum of £2.41.



An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I've recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, 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 about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then this part of the blog may not be for you. Don't say you haven't been warned.

NAOMI’S ROOM by Jonathan Aycliffe (1991)

Cambridge professor, Charles Hillenbrand’s life comes to a crashing halt one snowy Christmas Eve when his four-year-old daughter, Naomi, is abducted during a shopping trip to Hamleys. When her mutilated body turns up a few days later in Spitalfields, his world ends.

Inconsolable, Charles and his wife, Laura, will never be the same again. They must now eke out a miserable, blame-filled existence in their once handsome townhouse, their formerly close relationship doomed, their careers on hold. But is Naomi really gone? Because the next thing they know, a haunting has commenced – initially little more than bumps in the night, though it soon escalates into far more terrifying phenomena: footsteps in the attic; strange faces peering from windows when no-one is supposed to be home; Naomi’s toys moving around apparently of their own volition. However, it is only when a troubled press photographer called Lewis presents Hillenbrand with a series of snapshots in which curious half-seen figures are visible in constant attendance on the family that it becomes apparent something more is at work here than the spirit of a happy child who doesn’t yet realise she is dead …

As a lifelong fan of supernatural fiction, I always knew that at some point I’d have to check out Jonathan Aycliffe, aka Denis MacEoin’s spine-chilling classic, Naomi’s Room, and for some inexplicable reason it’s taken me this long to do it. However, I got there in the end and I was not disappointed.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot, because basically there is a mystery to be solved here, and a very frightening one – which Hillenbrand, our tortured protagonist, must get to the bottom of (and then survive the horror of its shocking revelation!), or he’ll never find peace of mind again. Okay, that may sound familiar in a cosy ‘English ghost story’ sort of way. But it all really worked for me. The tone of Naomi’s Room is exactly the sort I like when it comes to spooky fiction. There is something of the Gothic about it, something of M.R. James. Hip young academics though they are, the Hillenbrands still live apart from the rest of us, cosseted in the elitist, hermetically-sealed world of Cambridge academia. But as with M.R. James’s best stories, ultimately that provides no protection against the insidious threat of some decidedly malevolent spirits, whose cruel intent becomes more and more apparent the further on you read.

Unlike many stories in this traditional vein, there is quite a bit of gore in this one, while the basic premise concerns the torture and murder of children – and the author makes no effort to conceal those details from us – so it’s a bit more disturbing than the norm. But don’t let that put you off, because if you’re here to be scared, you’re in the right place. By the latter stages of this novel, the atmosphere of dread is immense, the sense of helplessness in the face of the maleficent ‘other world’ overpowering.

Even with its dollops of grue, it may still sound a tad safe and conventional to some of you. I wouldn’t totally deny that, but it’s really an excellent chiller with full potential to keep you awake at night, and so is well deserving of the fine reputation it has gained for itself over the many years of its publication.

Once again, purely as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Naomi’s Room were ever to make it to the screen. I think it would make a particularly good 'ghost story for Christmas' type drama, if the Beeb ever get around to doing more of them. (I believe it is currently under option somewhere, but then what isn’t?):

Charles Hillenbrand – David Tennant
Laura Hillenbrand – Lenora Crichlow
Lewis – Rhys Ifans
Detective Superintendent Ruthven – Sean Harris

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Mystery thrillers in days of smoke and soot

Seeing as there's been a delay on the next Heck novel, I didn't want this autumn to pass without any kind of publication from me. So I've taken the opportunity to club together a bunch of stories that are among my favourites and have now released them as an e-collection, MAJOR CRADDOCK INVESTIGATES, the cover to which you'll find left, superbly illustrated, as always, by Neil Williams.

(Before I say any more about this, just a quick note to the effect that I recently read Stav Sherez's excellent and uber-grim crime novel ELEVEN DAYS, and there's a full review of it at the bottom of this column).

My Major Craddock novellas, which I mostly penned in
the late 1990s and early 2000s, are a combination of police thriller, period fantasy and gothic horror. They follow the enquiries of a Victorian-era copper, the recently widowed Major Jim Craddock, who after he leaves the British Army in India returns to his native Lancashire, now a blackened wasteland of cotton mills, coal mines, squalor and deprivation, to head up the local detective division.

There are many routine police matters to deal with - robbery, murder, rape, 
crimes as common in the 1860s as they are now, if not more so given the extreme poverty that so much of the population was forced to dwell in. But there are other things to deal with too, stranger things. Craddock saw much that was inexplicable during his time in the Raj, a land of magic, mystery and ancient belief. So he is better placed than most to deal with crimes back in Britain that possess apparent occult or supernatural aspects. So it's a very good thing that he's arrived when he has.

There was only one Craddock novella originally: The Magic Lantern Show, which, in his review of it, best-selling US author, Brian Hodge, said: "Finch places considerable stock in atmosphere, and builds fear and unease well with a judicious balance between what is seen, unseen and merely hinted at. A welcome new voice from across the pond."

This was lavish praise indeed from a master of his trade like Hodge, and it helped convince me that in Craddock we had a potentially reusable character. In addition, the background of smoke, fire and soot in Britain's industrial north during the 19th century was just too interesting not to revisit.

The result was three more Craddock novellas, all of which are now included in MAJOR CRADDOCK INVESTIGATES.

Aside from The Magic Lantern Show, which first appeared in The Dark Satanic in 1999, they are: Shadows In The Rafters, which was first published in By The Gas Flame Flickering in 2000, The Weeping In The Witch Hours, which first appeared in Darkness Rising in 2003 (edited by the indefatiguable Maynard & Sims), and The Coils Unseen, which is original to this collection.

They've perhaps been tidied and tightened up a little bit since their original publication, but they still reach a word-count of approximately 70,000, so they've rather neatly formed a complete book. Only one of them, The Magic Lantern Show, is set at Christmas, but I like to think they all have that 'Dickensian ghost story' feel, so they could well be a fun thing to get your hands on as we wind the year down towards the festive season.

MAJOR CRADDOCK INVESTIGATES is available for download now and HERE at a cost of £1.99. In case you still aren't convinced, here are a few excerpts from its contents:

“I’m going to enjoy delivering this bastard to the Assizes,” Craddock said, gazing down on the strangled woman.
     The lanterns of two constables cast a wavering glow on her filthied corpse. She was sitting against a wall at a junction of two alleyways, her head hanging at a hideous angle. Her ragged dress was in disarray, her greying hair in matted locks. Once again, the neck was blackened and torn by fingers of steel. The expression on her muddied face was almost too ghastly to look at.
“Has she been used?” Munro asked of the various constables gathered there. “Has anyone looked?”
Tough and granite-faced as they were, they shrugged sheepishly. It was easy to understand their dilemma. A multitude stared out and down from the surrounding windows; in all adjoining passages, dark groups of locals were being held back. It wasn’t the done thing for peelers to be caught peeping under a woman’s skirt, even if she had just been slaughtered by some demented person.
“The doctor can do that when he arrives,” the major said. He knelt beside the body, his face grave. His voice lowered to a monotone. “Gentlemen – there is a monster among us. We must step very carefully from here on in ...”
The Magic Lantern Show

Major Craddock and Sergeant Rafferty gazed in disbelief at the thing that hung in front of them. It had once been a human, but was now dried-out, crinkled, withered to a papery husk, as if every drop of juice had been forcibly drained. What was nore, it was bound and suspended as though on a gibbet, though no gibbet Craddock recalled had ever been set up in the depths of a railway shed. The ropes binding the skeletal thing were ancient and frayed but ran tautly up into the high, black rafters, form which it was now plain that other atrocities dangled. Rafferty held the lamp aloft in order to see better. Some of them were high, some of them low, but in every case it was the same story: withered skin, exposed bones, shreds of old clothing.
     "Christ loves a Christian," the sergeant breathed. "What evil are we seeing here?"
     Even in his gloves, Major Craddock reached only gingerly to touch the shrivelled face in front of them. Strands of carrot-red hair hung down over empty eye sockets. Though all the features were creased and leathery, it was easy to see that the mouth was disfigured by a gruesome harelip. 
     "This ... this is Fred Childs," he said. "Good God, this boy can only have been dead a few days."
     Rafferty shook his head. "That's impossible!"
     "Something's drunk him dry."
Shadows In The Rafters

The doctor had ordered the dead men photographed specifically because of the expressions they’d been wearing, which were truly horrible: masks of agony and fear, their mouths yawning open, their eyes clenched shut, their brows and cheeks set rigid and furrowed. Only once had Craddock seen such a thing before. In Oudh, on the sub-continent, he’d watched two criminals who’d attempted to assassinate the maharaja be staked out on the ground and then trampled by trained elephants. It had been a gruesome display indeed, but these faces very closely reminded him of it.
“Whatever killed these men was ghastly,” he said, thinking aloud.
“Whatever killed these men did so by acute heart failure,” Doctor Benedict replied. “Nothing more.”
“You performed full post-mortems?”
“Of course.”
“And did either man have a physical condition that might have caused it?”
“The older’s chap’s arteries were bunged up with calcium. I doubt he’d have lived too much longer in any case.”
“And the younger chap?”
Benedict became pensive. “More difficult. He seemed to be in the pink. But one can’t second-guess the human heart. If it stops, it stops … there’s no arguing with it.”
“And what might cause it to stop?” Craddock asked. “Assuming the medical ailments were lacking.”
“Shock would be the obvious thing.”
“That would be physical shock? Trauma?”
“Or emotional shock. But that’s rare. Extremely rare.”
“But it happens?” Craddock said. “There is a possibility that someone could actually be frightened to death?”
Benedict took off his spectacles. “It would have to be terror beyond imagining.”
Craddock considered. That wasn’t an especially pleasant thought.
The Weeping In The Witch Hours

The ballast had finally fragmented, and an immense, gelatinous something was slowly writhing free of its clutches.
It would have been impossible for either man, given the brief time he stood there, to offer a complete description of the abomination they now beheld. But they caught fleeting glimpses of translucent, tentacle-like protuberances oozing up through the rubble, and in the central area – where Krugg had drained his victims, and then died himself – a blob-like focal point, a quivering mound of vitreous flesh slowly forcing itself upwards, palpitating, glistening – and at the same time glowing, for it was from this very thing that the eerie, oceanic light seemed to emanate. Yet, phosphorescence wasn’t the only thing the monstrosity contained. In the very midst of it, in the thickest part, directly below the emergent point – the head, if such a thing could be called a ‘head’ – the two officers saw a human figure deeply embedded. Preposterous though it seemed, this figure appeared to be riding the creature, or at least controlling it; a demonic human agent safely encased at the globular core, issuing commands through malignant thought-impulses.
Of course all this was fantasy, and unhinged fantasy at that.
The enclosed figure was neither riding nor controlling anything. It wasn’t even moving – not of its own accord, for it was no longer sentient. It wasn’t just dead, it was long dead, little more than bones and carrion. Yet it struck the two officers with horror all the same, for though many of its clothes had faded and rotted away, they were still recognisable as the ragged remnants of a French naval uniform.
“Holy Christ!” Munro screamed. “HOLY JESUS CHRIST!”
The Coils Unseen



An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I've recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, 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 about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then this part of the blog may not be for you. You have been warned.

ELEVEN DAYS by Stav Sherez (2013)

When a small convent burns down in a quiet corner of West London and the ten nuns who lived there are incinerated alive, there is shock and horror – even more so when it becomes apparent the fire was started deliberately. However, this is not just a tragic case of arson. When DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller are ordered to investigate, they quickly uncover a number of bewildering mysteries. Why did the nuns just accept their terrible fate, seemingly making no effort to escape? Why was there an unidentified 11th corpse in the ashes; as it transpires, the corpse of Emily Maxted, an angry and rebellious young woman who normally would never be seen anywhere near a church? And where is the mysterious Father McCarthy, the priest who supposedly tended to the nuns’ spiritual needs and a man with a shadowy past?

Under pressure from their superiors, in particular the narcissistic Assistant Chief Constable Quinn, to close the case quickly, preferably before Christmas – which is 11 days away – Carrigan and Miller embark on a difficult, time-pressured enquiry, which rapidly opens up into something enormous and, as it soon comes to involve South American politics, radical theology and ruthless Albanian gangsters, more perilous than anything they’ve experienced before.

If that isn’t enough, the Machievellian politics of both the Metropolitan Police and the Roman Catholic Church provide numerous distractions and in some cases near insurmountable obstacles. Lots of people have things to hide, it seems, and some have no intention of going down without taking large chunks of the world with them …

This is a labyrinthine tale, but a completely compelling one, so cleverly written by Sherez that almost every chapter either sparks a new revelation or ends on a genuine cliff-hanger. It is also a very mature novel, painted in shades of grey in that, though it does feature some of the nastiest villains I’ve come across in quite a while, there is scarcely a character in it who doesn’t have some angle, some issue, who by personal necessity is failing to follow the straight and narrow. The various political and religious activists, for example, are exceedingly well drawn – portayed largely as idealists, whose motivations are often to be lauded and yet whose zealotry has completely clouded their judgement. In an age of easy targeting, it’s a relief to see so sensitive a subject handled in such a grown-up manner.

On top of that, the whole book is played out in a near-Dickensian atmosphere of heavy snow, bitter frost and the impending Christmas season, which gives it an almost otherworldly feel (and not necessarily a pleasant one, as both our main protagonists think they are facing the festive days alone). 

Carrigan and Miller make great heroes, both still vulnerable after suffering personal sadness and yet stoic and determined, and, despite differing in professional terms, dealing quite manfully with the clear if unspoken feelings they are developing for each other. They are especially challenged in this story, as they are frequently dealing with elite-level opponents to whom their police status is meaningless – which makes you cheer all the more for them as they gradually progress the investigation (though quite often, and very realistically in terms of the frustration caused, it’s often a case of one step forward and three steps back).

One of the most intriguing and suspense-laden police thrillers I’ve read in quite a while, and despite the grimness of the concept, almost poetic in the quality of its penmanship. Hugely deserving of its critical acclaim.

As usual, purely for fun you understand, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Eleven Days ever makes it to the screen (it would be the second in the series, A Dark Redemption coming first, but let’s do it anyway):

DI Jack Carrigan – Clive Owen
DS Geneva Miller – Eva Green
Donna Maxted – Emma Watson
Roger Holden – Ben Kinglsey
ACC Quinn – Tom Wilkinson
Father McCarthy – Ken Stott
Viktor – Jerome Flynn

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Grim tales from the darker end of the year

Okay ... it's THAT time of year again. Summer is finally over. The vibrant greens and yellows of the August leafage transform to red and orange. The mornings turns fresher and cooler, the nights arrive earlier and earlier - soon they are intruding into the very afternoon. Mist starts to linger on our woodland paths. And our thoughts turn slowly but surely to the darker side of the human experience ...

It's amazing how many tellers of sinister tales have taken inspiration from the autumn months. I'm sure this harks back to those centuries-old traditions, our Norse, Saxon and Celtic ancestors having gathered the harvest and, finding themselves with nothing else to do for the next few months, crowding around the longhouse hearth, drinking ale and mead and filling each other's heads with lurid tales about the evil beings cavorting in the icy darkness outside.

The waning of the year has always exerted an eerie fascination on the minds of men. It's quite understandable given that we were once exclusively an agrarian society. In those days, the return of autumn to our land, with its cold nights, tumbling leaves and grey fogs, foreshadowing the onset of winter, during which time everything seemed to die, was in itself a terrifying prospect. In an age minus gas fires and electric lighting, when no medication was available with which to treat those innumerable cold weather ailments, just surviving the season could be a real challenge. For a superstitious people, it was easy to believe that this new harsh regime was the natural abode of goblins, ghouls and other evil spirits.

This folk memory clearly lingers in our modern tradition for autumn and winter spook stories.

Some of the best scary fiction I've ever read has mined this exact seam. One little-known tale, Hannah of the Fields by Carey Curtis Smith, made a lasting impression on me; after I'd read it, I knew I'd never look at the Harvest Festival the same way again. Meanwhile, one of the truly best horror stories ever written, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, pits young Jim Nightshade against the 'Autumn People', who, under the guidance of the malevolent Mr. Dark, seem to encompass everything magical, mysterious and menacing about those shortening, gloomy days at the end of the year.

At the same time, Ramsey Campbell's exquisite little suburban horror story, The Guy, perfectly captures the haunting atmosphere on November 5, when British kids, for some reason never completely understood abroad, are permitted to make effigies of human beings and gleefully burn them on bonfires (though this version of the annual event is augmented with several of Campbell's own typically grotesque innovations). Likewise, Halloween - the big daddy of all autumn festivals - has provided the backdrop to some nightmarish stories, not least another of the finest ever written, Casting The Runes by M.R. James, which was eventually adapted as an equally memorable Halloween-set movie, Night of the Demon.

Of course, as these twin-subjects of Bonfire Night and Halloween testify, autumn wouldn't be autum without its special days and customs.

And yet, how many of these twisted occasions actually are there?

A couple of years ago, to mark the publication of my novel SACRIFICE, in which DS Mark Heckenburg pursues a gang of killers who are 'honouring' special days and customs with sadistic and yet very appropriate human sacrifices, I wrote a piece for this blog about the rites of spring, and how there were so many strange and uncanny traditions during March, April and May that that was by far the best time of year in which to set such a book. Consquently, it didn't come as a complete surprise to me to discover that the atumn - which gets most people's vote as the spookiest time of year - is not quite so well-endowed.

In actual fact, I'd first realised this back in 2009, when writing my novella, Season of Mist, which at this time is no longer in print, though it may still be possible to find copies of WALKERS IN THE DARK - the ASH-TREE PRESS collection in which it first appeared - available online (I do intend to put this right, by the way - hopefully there'll be an e-release sometime soon). Season of Mist concerned a bunch of school-age children in the industrial North of England, and how they became convinced that the crimes of a local serial killer were the work of a demon inadvertantly released from a derelict coalmine. It was set during the September, October and November of 1974, and my original intent was to utilise as many eerie autumn customs as I could. But ultimately, with the exception of one or two curiosties - Braughing Old Man's Day on October 2, Old Michaelmas Day (or Dog-Whipping Day!!!) on October 10, and a few modern inventions like Punkie Night, Mischief Night and Devil's Night, all in late October - I ended up falling back on the the main two occasions, which, as you'd expect, were Halloween on October 31 and Bonfire Night (or Guy Fawkes Night) on November 5.

Halloween, of course, speaks for itself. Though it's a misunderstood festival, owing mainly to the Eve of Hallowtime, a medieval Christian feast on which the dead were religiously honoured, rather than a witches' sabbath, it did coincide with Samhain, an ancient Irish feast marking the end of the Harvest season and one which most likely had pre-Christian roots, so it still deserves its esoteric reputation. When the customs of these feasts are brought together - the lighting of jack-o-lanterns, the bobbing for apples, the ghoulish masquerade, the trick or treat, the telling of ghost stories - you have an event that has rightly served as an inspiration to thriller and horror writers since time immemorial, A well as those tales already mentioned, and just off the top of my head, The Samhain Feis by Peter Tremayne, The Black Pumpkin by Dean Koontz, Boo by Richard Laymon, Hollow Eyes by Guy N. Smith, The Candle In The Skull by Basil Copper, and All Souls' by Edith Wharton are all among my favourite ghost and horror stories, while Hollywood indulges itself too, seemingly every year, recent movies like Sleepy Hollow and Trick 'r' Treat going overboard in their efforts to recreate the Halloween horror experience.

And yet, Bonfire Night, which is only really celebrated here in the UK, has more recent origins and is in several ways a much darker and crueller occasion. At one time it was illegal in England not to commemorate the capture of Guy Fawkes and the Catholic gunpowder plotters on November 5 1605 and the subsequent foiling of their plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament and murder King James I. None of those convicted were executed by burning - they were hanged, drawn and quartered instead, but the immolation of Guy Fawkes effigies all over the UK each November 5 still invokes memories of a sectarian British Isles in which religious and political differences could incur draconian punishments. That said, it's largely a fun and harmless occasion these days, sadly diminishing in my view, as health and safety regulations prohibit the impromptu lighting of bonfires outside private premises, and the use of fireworks has become quite common on special occasions all year round. However, as well as Ramsey Campbell's great tale, I can easily think of several other Bonfire Night-themed short stories: Funeral March Of A Marionette by John Metcalfe, and at least three that first appeared in the legendary Pan Horror series - Guy Fawkes Night by Richard Davis, Bonfire by C.A. Cooper, and Firework Night by St. John Bird. so clearly the spirit of the occasion still lingers in those darker imaginations.

But for all these quirky traditions - wearing pumpkin heads for God's sake, burning mannequins at the stake - it's still the ambience of this time of year that does it for me. We've no sooner got used to the light and warmth of summer when suddenly it's turned cold and dark again. All at once there's a smell of fungus and mildew in the air; rich pastures become desokate wastes; trees wither before our eyes. This is surely the ideal season in which to write and set scary stories - and you don't even have to use the meaning of the special dates. Look at the iconic movie,  Halloween. It's actually nothing to do with the festival of All Hallows Eve - it's a tale of a mass murder which just happens to be set on October 31, and yet it works so well. Hey, it doesn't even have to be genuinely scary. Check out that comedy/horror masterpiece of stage and screen, Arsensic and Old Lace. I swear, you'll be screaming with laughter, not terror, but it's another Halloween classic all the same.

So go on, take the darkening of the year on the chin. Immerse yourself in its dreariness and gloom, and in the eeriness and downright weirdness of its customs, and let it carry you away on a tide of imaginary menace. And get bloody writing.



A new and ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I've recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, 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 about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then this part of the blog may not be for you. You have been warned.

THE TERROR by Dan Simmons (2007)

In 1845, the Franklin Expedition set sail from England to forge the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. It wasn’t the first expedition to attempt this, and it wouldn’t be the last. But few better equipped vessels under the control of more reliable and experienced crews would ever undertake the task. It is all the more baffling then that the Franklin Expedition wasn’t just a failure but a catastrophe. Both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, vanished without trace – it was 2014 before the remnants of one of the vessels, the Erebus, were found underwater in Baffin Bay, and though a few pathetic graves were also discovered onshore, the majority of the 200-strong crew were never accounted for.

What actually happened will never be known, but in his blockbusting horror opus, The Terror, US author Dan Simmons gives us his own unique version of events – and it is one of the most enthralling and chilling stories you are ever likely to read.

As if the ravages of hypothermia, frostbite, scurvy and lead poisoning aren’t enough, the ships’ crews, who are already icebound when we join them, must also deal with a ferocious and unstoppable monster drawn straight from the darkest corner of Inuit mythology and now intent upon hunting them to the last man …

But, whatever you do, don’t come at this book under the impression that it’s simply a creature feature. Yes, the monster is relentless and terrifying and one of the main characters in the book – and its attacks are truly horrific, but there is so much more to The Terror than this.

To begin with, Simmons gives us a detail-crammed account of a hugely complex and heroic undertaking, leaving nothing out as he constructs in our mind’s eye the image of an invincible force, the best the Royal Navy’s Discovery Service can offer – the cream of its officers, the pick of its men, and the finest two ships in the fleet, both driven by new-fangled steam engines and ploughing the ice with their armour plated hulls – and then, slowly and sadistically deconstructs it, hitting us blow by blow with its gradual deteoriation in the White Hell of the Arctic wilderness, one thing after another going wrong from the mundane to the unbelievably disastrous … until all that remains is annihilation. Even without the monster, this would be an orgy of hardship, the participants constantly called on to use every scrap of strength and ingenuity they have just to survive for one day more, and so often failing.

It’s an epic of endurance, a saga of suffering. And as such, the book is massive – its prodigious length (an amazing 944 pages!) has supposedly put some punters off. But it’s so well-written and so readable that – for all its colossal length there is scarely no padding, and despite the fact so much of it is spent on the desolate ice-floes or deep in the nauseating dungeons below decks – its pace just bounces along. 

And as I say, it’s more than just a litany of horrors. Before its huge cast of characters gets whittled down, Dan Simmons creates a vivid cross-section of 19th century sea-faring life, from tough, professional seamen to damned rankers, from captains courageous to traitors and mutineers. The life-and-death intricacies of Arctic navigation are also laid out in minute and fascinating detail. It’s a wonder of research. You’d almost believe Simmons had been there himself and experienced it.

And then we have the set-pieces, which are among the best and most savage I’ve ever read. The battles with the ice-beast, the brutal flogging of the seditious, the cannibalisation of slain comrades, and most startling of all, a grand and crazy masquerade on the ice – men driven mad by cold and starvation cavorting in lurid costmes, performing profane rituals from the world of Grand Guignol in temperatures of a hundred below …

I can’t say anymore, except that The Terror is a historical horror masterpiece and must be read to be believed. Whatever you do, don’t let its size put you off. This is a page-turner of the first order.

And now, as usual just for fun, a bit of fantasy casting. My picks for who should play the leads if The Terror were ever to make it to the screen (my latest understanding is that a TV series is in development – probably not enough masked superheroes for it to get the big screen treatment):

Captain Francis Crozier – Michael Fassbender
Doctor Harry Goodsir – Timothy Spall
Lieutenant John Irving – Eddie Redmayne
Cornelius Hickey – Andy Serkis
Thomas Blanky – Robson Green
Lady Silence – Roseanne Supernault
Sir John Franklin – Anthony Hopkins

(This week's pictures, are, from the top down: Autumn Woods by 221 Bbakerbabe; the original cover for Something Wicked This Way Comes, Niall McGuinness in Night of the Demon; Sacrifice; Walkers In The Dark; a still from Trick 'r' Treat Bonfire Night at Billiecray by William Warby, Cary Grant in Arsenic And Old Lace, and The Terror.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Madness, murder, mayhem - Glasgow style

First up, the all-important news that I'll be appearing at the Bellshill Cultural Centre, just outside Glasgow, on Tuesday October 13 this year, to chat about my Heck novels and anything else the audience is interested in. It starts at 7pm and it's free. But I've been told that booking is advised. Here's the number: 01698 346770/346771, while the actual online details are HERE. For those interested, the address is John Street, Bellshill, ML4 1RJ.

In keeping with the Glasgow theme, this week's Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers focusses on Craig Robertson's tough crime caper, WITNESS THE DEAD, which is set in the very heart of that great city. You can find that towards the bottom of this post. But first, on a slightly different note, it gives me great pleasure to announce that a couple more stories first published in my Terror Tales series have come to global attention by being selected for inclusion various in 'Year's Best' anthologies.

Followers of this blog may recall that earlier this year, my two Terror Tales anthologies of 2014, TERROR TALES OF WALES and TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE, were duly honoured when four stories appearing there were chosen by editor Johnny Mains for reprint in his excellent BEST BRITISH HORROR series. They were Learning The Language by John Llewellyn Probert and The Rising Tide by Priya Sharma, both from TERROR TALES OF WALES, and Random Flight by Rosalie Parker and On Ilkley Moor by Alison Littlewood, both from TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE.

Now, I'm glad to say, the latest batch of Year's Bests have come out, and both WALES and YORKSHIRE have again been granted recognition.

In TERROR TALES OF WALES, Stephen Volk's masterly novella, Matilda of the Night, invokes a real nightmare when an academic studying local folklore is inexorably drawn into the apparently senile ramblings of a hospitalised woman on the verge of death ... I knew from the moment I first received this tale that it had 'Year's Best' written all over it, it's sharply drawn characters interracting on the bleak stage of modern urban life, and yet the whole thing underwritten by the myths and magic of a dark, mysterious world that is not as far from us as we may like to think. It's no surprise, but a great joy nontheless to see it selected by Stephen Jones for BEST NEW HORROR 26.

Meanwhile, in TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE, Keris McDondald's disturbing fable, The Coat Off His Back, sees a museum employee charged with cleaning and preserving the artefact of a lifetime, an 18th century 'Innocent coat' - a form of magical protection - apparently dating back to the days of the highwaymen. But there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially where ancient and malevolent powers are concerned ... This was another tale that I knew was destined to go far when I first received it, beautifully written and intensely frightening, and yet very redolent of the grand old city of York, in which it all takes place. I'm delighted that American editor, Ellen Datlow, chose it for inclusion in BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR 7.

It's great news for both Stephen Volk and Keris McDonald (aka Janine Ashbless), and another big thumbs-up for the Terror Tales, series, which has done very well so far in terms of Year's Best selections. For the record, the totals thus far stand as follows; LONDON leads the field with four, YORKSHIRE and WALES are in joint-second place with three each, while SEASIDE, EAST ANGLIACOTSWOLDS and LAKE DISTRICT make up the chasing pack with one apiece.



A new and ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I've recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, 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 about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then this part of the blog may not be for you. You have been warned.

WITNESS THE DEAD by Craig Robertson (2013)

A brand new sex killer is terrorising Glasgow, dumping and displaying his ‘party girl’ victims in ritualistic fashion in the city’s various Gothic cemeteries. 

A seasoned but dysfunctional murder investigation team swings into action, aided and abetted by young crime scene photographer, Tony Winter. But this will be no straightforward enquiry. Retired detective Danny Neilson – Tony’s uncle – is convinced he’s seen this maniac’s hand before. Back in the ’70s, he hunted a Glasgow rape-strangler known as Red Silk, who also picked his victims up in bars and nightclubs. The problem is, the Red Silk murders were eventually pinned on another Scottish serial killer Archibald Atto – and Atto is still inside, serving a full-life sentence.

So what’s going on? Did the original Murder Squad get it wrong? Is this a copycat murderer? Or a student of Atto perhaps? One question definitely needs answering – how is it that Atto, all but incommunicado in the isolation block, knows so much about this latest batch of heinous crimes? …

I have all kinds of reasons to recommend his novel. A Glasgow native, Craig Robertson (pictured) brings the wintry city to life in glorious, gritty form, using lots of real locations, and painting a vivid picture of its lively and street-smart population – both as it is now, and as it was in the sectarian early ’70s. He also knows his local history, because this fictional case is clearly influenced by the unsolved Bible John murders of the 1960s, a dark chapter in Glasgow’s history, which continues to haunt many of those who remember it.

The police enquiry itself is excellently handled and worryingly authentic – there are lots of stresses and strains in the team, not to mention inopportune moments of realistic error-making, while the sheer griminess of its members’ daily experience has had a brutalising effect on them. There is little love lost here, and almost no political correctness, especially where hard knut boss DI Derek Addison is concerned, but none of this matters because this is not the nice, safe world so many of us inhabit – it is dark, bleak, dangerous, and at the risk of sounding clichéd, the wolves that scour it will only be brought down by wolves of a similar nature.

Robertson is also known for his character work, and it’s never been better exemplified than it is here. Winter himself is a flawed hero, his fascination with the artistry of violent death leaving him open to the wiles of Atto, who, during the course of several tense interviews, starts to recognise a like mind in the young snapper. This makes it all the more difficult for Winter’s on-off girlfiend, DS Rachel Nary, who might once have been the warm heart of this investigation unit had she too not been battered by life. For me though, the star of this show is Danny Neilson, who we see in two parallel narratives, as he was when still a carefree lad-about-town copper back in 1972, and as he is now, old, overweight, grouchy, constantly trying to patch up his many failed relationships, and at the same time obsessed with the case he never managed to solve.

So yeah … this is a bit of an ensemble job, with several lead characters, all of whom go on dark if fascinating journeys. And all the time of course, in the background, the clock ticks down to yet another vile murder.

I’ll say no more except that it’s a tour-de-force. If you like your urban crime fiction grimy, and you enjoy looking a little more deeply into the lives and loves and hates and fears of those caught up in it, then this one is definitely for you.

As usual, just for the fun of it, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Witness The Dead were ever to make it to the screen:

Tony Winter – James McAvoy
DS Rachel Nary – Karen Gillan
Danny Neilson – Brian Cox
Archibald Atto, Red Silk – Ciaran Hinds
DI Derek Addison – Dougray Scott

Monday, 31 August 2015

Thrillers, chillers, shockers and killers ...

A new series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail in this column, 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.

DEVIL’S PEAK by Deon Meyer (2005)

Devil’s Peak takes us into the heart of Cape Town’s Serious and Violent Crimes Unit, where one of the lead investigators, now a recovering alcoholic, finds himself pitted against the most dangerous opponent of his career.

DI Benny Griessel is an instinctively brilliant detective, a natural hunter of criminals. But hard drinking has destroyed his family life and made him a laughing stock in the department where once he was a legend. Not a good time for him to come up against ‘Artemis’, a vigilante serial-killer targetting child-abusers, who doesn’t just enjoy what appears to be advanced military training but is operating with the tacit approval of many of Griessel’s fellow cops.

One of the most startling thing about this crime masterwork from South African author, Deon Meyer, is that it was originally penned in Afrikaans. All the more credit, then, to translater KL Seegers for producing such a beautifully written and yet blood-pumpingly readable English language version.

But it isn’t just about the action. A far, far cry from your basic ‘cops and robbers’ or blow-by-blow ‘good guys v bad guys’, Devil’s Peak is a grown-up and multi-faceted tale, tough and visceral in tone, but also rich in flawed characters and deeply redolent of both urban and rural South Africa; not just the geographic landscape, but the political and social scene as well.

The three central personalities: drunken cop, Griessel, high class call-girl, Christine van Rooyen, and vigilante avenger, Thobela Mpayipheli, are so well-drawn that you can literally see them in front of you. Griessel in particular is a wonderful creation. You might be tempted to say, “okay, another alcoholic antihero … big deal”, but in this case it’s for real. By this I mean that Griessel’s recuperation from his alcoholism is every bit as gruelling as you’d expect it to be in reality. The reader isn’t spared a single torturous moment of his DTs, or allowed to forget for one minute the devastation his drinking has caused in both his private and public life. It makes him a hugely sympathetic if very conflicted hero, but hardly equips him to face the floodtide of heinous crimes exploding around him.

And yet this is all very serious stuff. The painful realities of an understaffed police force trying to function in the face of corruption, cynicism and spiralling crime rates, and in a society still divided and impoverished in so many ways, are never skimped on. There are times in Devil’s Peak when you really do wonder if there is any hope that good can overcome evil.

Anyway, I’ll say no more, because this novel has to be read cover to cover to be fully appreciated, and once you start you won’t be able to stop. I managed it in only two sittings, if I recall correctly.

A taut but very human crime thriller, which rises to a spectacularly brutal and exciting finale. No wonder Meyer is so highly rated. It’s my first one of his and won’t be my last. He deserves all the accolades.

Just as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if we’re ever fortunate enough to see Devil’s Peak transferred to the screen (I think an adaptation may possibly be in development):

DI Benny Griessel – Arnold Vosloo
Thobela Mpayipheli, ‘Artemis’ – Idris Elba
Christine van Rooyen – Jessica Marais

THE DEEP by Nick Cutter (2015)

When the world’s population is decimated by an incurable and rapidly expanding plague, mankind’s last hope rests with maverick scientist Clayton Nelson and his team as they test a possible solution at the foot of the Challenger Deep (40,000 feet below the ocean’s surface). But when all contact with the submarine base is suddenly cut – seemingly at Clayton’s own whim – the only remaining option is to send down his brother, Luke, to try and talk the nortoriously erratic genius around.

But Luke and Clayton, having shared a nightmarish childhood, don’t get on very well, and in any case there are things lurking down there that are beyond the normal comprehension of most human beings.

Make no mistake, the events that follow comprise pure horror – for all sorts of reasons.

Never has the terror of deep sea exploration been as fully and vividly realised as it is here. Nick Cutter takes us down through untold lightless fathoms to a realm that is alien in every sense of the word; an environment where oxygen itself turns toxic, where the tiniest chink in the hull could create an incoming jet of water so intense it will slice a man in half, and yet where native creatures exist that have no place in any sane creation. But it isn’t just the twisting of physics and biology that bedevils the reader’s mind here, it is Man’s helplessness in the face of it. With Hell triumphant on the outside, on the inside of the claustrophobic sea-base the foulness and disarray is horrendous; the sense of besiegement under millions of tonnes of crushing black water is overpowering. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book to which my most overriding response was “thank God I’m not there”.

And if all that isn’t bad enough, then there is the actual enemy – a force of evil crueller and more terrible than anything ever encountered on the ocean floor before (and just imagine what that actually means). A sentient something that will play catastrophic havoc with human minds, not to mention their anatomy, purely for reasons of its own fascination. To say more about this would be a real spoiler, but put it this way, there are some occasions when wickedness knows no bounds – quite literally; neither intellectual, spiritual, nor even physical. There are points in this novel where you must be prepared to be very disgusted indeed.

At the same time, Luke Nelson, a likeable hero in every possible way, is no more than an everyman. A veterinary surgeon, who by pure luck – pure bad luck in this case – happens to know the egomaniac scientist well. He has no skills of his own that he can bring to bear in this demonic zone, no specialist knowledge. His battle-scarred military sidekick, Lieutenant Alice Sykes, aside from being a submersible pilot, is in a similar position. The desperate twosome find themselves completely at the mercy of forces beyond their imagining, and yet somehow they must not just endure, but must save the world with their actions.

This an amazing piece of fiction. Another against-all-odds ordeal for the characters involved,  which races along at whipcrack speed and yet is written with great visual elan, including the complex technical stuff, which Cutter never shirks, but presents to us in quick, slick, easy-to-understand fashion. It is is also both horrifying and terrifying – in that numbing, near-nihilistic way that always seems to earmark those ‘adventures’ occurring on the very edge of human reality. An oceanic horror classic.

As always, and just for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if we ever get to see The Deep transferred to the screen:

Dr. Luke Nelson – David Franco
Lt Cdr. Alice Sykes – Charlise Theron
Prof. Clayton Nelson – James Franco