Thursday, 11 August 2022

When swords were mightier than words


This week (as loosely promised last week), I’ve got a big announcement to make. But first, once again, I must apologise for the tardiness of recent posts. Lots of readers have been sending me messages to ask me stuff, and I haven’t been able to tell them anything solid, mostly because of circumstances beyond my control, but at last the dam is starting to break.

To begin with, I can today tell the world about a new contract I’ve signed to write a whole new series of books for Canelo. It’s a very different venture, this one, and a radical new direction for me!

So new in fact – in professional terms, that is – that once I embark on it, you might call me a stranger in a strange land. And entirely by coincidence (honest!), that happens to be the name of the book I’ll be reviewing today, Robert Heinlein’s astonishing work of high concept science-fiction, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.


I’m aware that was rather a weak link, by the way, but suffice to say that SIASL was Heinlein’s masterwork, a true futuristic epic, and in my new venture, I’m also entering the world of the epic novel (though not the future, the past), so there is a kind of connection between the two.

As always, if you want to go straight to the book review, shoot on down to the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s post. But remember, there’s this other massive development to talk about first …

A new direction

It’s probably a secret to many readers of this blog, mainly because it deals primarily with ‘dark fiction’, but I have an abiding love of historical novels. And by that, I don’t mean historical romance or historical mystery. I mean historical action, preferably set around dramatic true events of the past. Epic adventures from the days when swords spoke louder than words.

The novels of Ben Kane, Bernard Cornwell, David Gilman, Conn Iggulden, Matthew Harffy, Christian Cameron, Angus Donald and many others, fill my shelves. What’s more, my interest covers a huge spectrum, from the Ancient World right up to our most recent international conflicts. 

It’s not just out-and-out military stuff, though. 

I’m equally fascinated by the intrigues of kings and their courtiers, the madness of emperors, the heroism of knights, the untamed spirit of the Vikings … all of these writers I’ve named specialise in these fields, and I’ve long yearned to have a crack at this exhilarating stuff myself. So, in the end, I did.

Throughout the pandemic, I was busy writing on spec. A load of new stuff has poured out of my keyboard, including a big historical actioner called WOLFHEAD, which is set in England at the cross-over point between the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. 

It follows the adventures of Cerdic of Wulfbury, a young English earl who loses everything during the blood-drenched fury of Harald Hardraada’s invasion of Northumbria in 1066, but who’s determined to win it all back despite the chaos and brutality of the ensuing Norman Conquest.

I’m now proud to announce that the book has been bought by Canelo, who’ll be bringing it out in paperback and ebook, as written by ‘PW Finch’, next April.

They’ve also, and this is the really cool bit, commissioned a further two novels from me, not exactly follow-ups but also set in the early medieval period, and occurring during tumultuous but true historical events.

I consider this an unbelievably exciting development in my career, but one minor question remains: whether or not I should include news and updates about this new line of novels on this blog?

WALKING IN THE DARK is primarily concerned with dark fiction, and a lot of my historical writing will be very dark indeed, but it won’t be Dark Fiction per se. So, do I include it on here simply because it’s written by me, or do I start an entirely new blog dedicated to the ages of swords and chivalry?

At present, I genuinely don’t know (so all answers will be given grateful consideration).

Heck

And now onto something radically different. My bread and butter, you might say. The book series that first got me into mass-market publication.

The DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg novels have been by far my most successful book series to date, and back in 2018, with KISS OF DEATH, I left them on something of a cliff-hanger. The intention was always to write and publish a follow-up very quickly, but many things have got in the way, not least Covid, on/off lockdowns, a change of publisher, a new deal to write standalone crime thrillers for Orion, etc. However, while Heck has been nowhere near the bookshelves of late, he’s never been far from my thoughts.

Or my laptop.

I’m happy to announce that the next Heck novel is already written. As I say, I managed to use lockdown to get well ahead on my actual writing, but finding a publication slot for it has proved complex. I’m very hopeful that now at last there are movements on this front too, and that we’ll be able to make an announcement on this as well, very soon in the near future.

All those to whom this comes as welcome news, keep checking in, because I’ll post result news as things progress.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Robert Heinlein (1961)

Outline
About a century into the future, the manned Earthship Envoy is lost while attempting to land on Mars and all communications from its handpicked crew cease. As World War III is just about to break out on Earth, no further missions to the Red Planet are possible for another 25 years, at the end of which the spacecraft Champion makes the same journey and this time lands successfully. The crew of the Champion, including the Arabic scholar and astronaut, ‘Stinky’ Mahmoud, make contact with the Martian race (who are fantastically indifferent to humanity), and are surprised to learn that a new-born child survived the crash of the Envoy, a child that has now grown to adulthood under the care and governance of the Martians.

For reasons uncertain to the crew of the Champion, the child-turned-man is ordered by his adopted parents to return to Earth with his own people, who name him Valentine Michael Smith.

He arrives on an Earth he doesn’t know, but which is also very different from the one that existed when his own parents set out on the first expedition. Individual countries are now demilitarised, having been replaced by a Federation of Free Nations, and there is a single World Government, which guarantees peace and stability. However, there is also a dark side to this new order. Organised religions now wield huge political power, the most sinister of them the massively influential Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, while the government itself is autocratic and, if necessary, can call on a force of highly trained and ultra ruthless troops, the Special Service, known somewhat appropriately as the SS.

Childlike and disoriented, the seemingly helpless Smith is at first incarcerated in the military medical facility, Bethesda Hospital, in Maryland. As he understands nothing about gender, because it doesn’t exist on Mars, Smith is treated only by male staff. But an independent-minded nurse, Jill Boardman, considers this a challenge and when she tricks her way into his private apartment, shares a glass of water with him, unaware at the time that this makes her his ‘water brother’, a deep and important relationship on Mars where water is a rare but crucial resource.

Strangely affected by the meeting with Smith, Jill later describes it to her on/off boyfriend, Ben Caxton, an investigative journalist, who advises her that, as sole heir to the crew of the Envoy, Smith is already extraordinarily rich, but thanks to some legal precedents set during Earth’s colonisation of the Moon, he might also be the lawful owner of Mars, which would not just make him the wealthiest man in the world by some margin, it would put him at the centre of a political storm of epic proportions, which could likely endanger his life. Jill is worried enough by this to bug Smith’s hospital room, while Caxton writes news stories designed to embarrass the World Government into releasing the captive.

However, Caxton is arrested by the SS, and in a panic, Jill attempts to smuggle Smith out of the hospital. When the SS catch up with her too, Smith, with a curious sleight of hand, makes them all disappear. Jill is horrified to have witnessed what she assumes is mass murder, which in its turn sends Smith into a self-induced catatonic trance. With no other option, Jill takes Smith to Pennsylvania and the rural retreat of Jubal Harshaw, an old friend of Caxton’s and a retired physician and lawyer, who now makes his living as a writer and is regarded as one of the foremost thinkers of the age.

While staying at Harshaw’s pleasant but chaotic enclave, which he shares with various tough handymen and a trio of beautiful, super-intelligent secretaries, Anne, Miriam and Dorcas, Smith becomes more attuned to the patterns of life on Earth, and demonstrates genius-level intelligence and advanced telekinetic powers, all of which fascinate Harshaw but alarm him as well. In return, Smith is particularly intrigued by the human concepts of religion and God. Neither exist in the minds of Martians, but they are not impossible for him to understand as, on Mars, the afterlife is populated by the Old Ones, the souls of Martians who have died, or ‘discorporated’ as he refers to it, and who then adopt deity-like status. To Smith, the term ‘to grok’ means to be completely familiar with something in a deep and profound way, and so to him, God is ‘one who groks all things’, which means that God is all things. This leads him to coin the phrase whenever greeting friends, ‘thou art God,’ though he remains oblivious to the possibility that this may be misunderstood in a world where religious fanatics exert strenuous authority.

While Smith familiarises himself with (and becomes an expert in) all things human, and slowly but surely wins the hearts of Jill, Anne, Miriam and Dorcas, Harshaw fends off an assault by an SS snatch squad by contacting Joseph Douglas, Secretary General of the Federation of Free States, in the process managing to secure the release of Ben Caxton and establish that Smith is not the heir-apparent to Mars itself, making him politically unimportant and therefore much safer. As a final protective measure, Harshaw persuades Douglas to make himself the hugely wealthy Man from Mars’s official business advisor, a very lucrative position, which will render Smith all but untouchable.

Now a VIP, Smith is celebrated worldwide, and even invited to visit the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, the appeal of which is easy to see given that it encourages sex, drunkenness and gambling so long as they all occur on church premises and any money spent goes to the church itself. Despite the Fosterites’ obvious hypocrisy (their temples are more like casinos or brothels than places of worship), no one ever challenges them because bribery of politicians and policemen, and violence against dissenters, are also within church policy.

Unimpressed by this farrago, Smith, now with Jill as his adoring acolyte, goes on the road, performing tricks in a carnival, where he meets tattooed snake-handler and Fosterite loyalist, Patty Paiwonski (who after a steamy night of sex, also becomes his disciple), and visiting ‘girlie’ shows in which he convinces Jill to participate so that he might try and fathom the mystery of human lust. But none of this satisfies Smith as he looks for a way to make Martian sense of the strange world that is Earth. Eventually, still enthralled by the concepts of religion and faith, he uses his limitless wealth to create the Church of All Worlds, with himself, now much deluded about his own status, as the guru and messiah at its heart.

This new religion borrows heavily from the Fosterite cult, particularly the freedom to sexually experiment, but it is not interested in making money and proves hugely attractive to the masses because Smith calls on his psychic abilities to perform what appear to be real-life miracles. In due course all those he has met, including Miriam, Dorcas, Anne and even Ben Caxton, have been drawn in and become followers.

Only the arch-cynic Jubal Harshaw keeps one eye on the monolithic Fosterite power from which adherents are now defecting en masse, and worries that established leaders rarely appreciate it when newcomers chip away at their base …

Review
It seems to me that fiction is filled with Christ allegories. What’s more, they range widely, from CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (to name two very obvious examples), and from The Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix to The Who’s rock opera, Tommy (to name two that are less so). But I doubt there’ve been any that are quite as in your face as Robert Heinlein’s philosophical sci-fi masterwork, Stranger in a Strange Land.

And yet, it isn’t a straightforward analogy.

You might consider that Heinlein, who by the norms of speculative authordom at the time was considered to be culturally and politically conservative, would be the obvious one to preach the Jesus story through the prism of science fiction. And at first glance, it looks as if he did just that, with Valentine Michael Smith the miracle-working prophet, Earth the desert in which he comes to realise his purpose, the SS the Romans, the Fosterite Chuch the Sanhedrin and Jubal Harshaw the Judas-like face of mankind, who later yearns to believe that he was in touch with the divine but will always be tortured by doubt.

So yes, when Robert Heinlein first penned his 220,000-word epic, it genuinely must have looked to many as if he was giving us a blow-by-blow re-run of the New Testament.

But as I say, there are problems with this thesis.

First of all, the society that Smith eventually creates is as unAmerican as you could have imagined at the time of the book’s publication, promoting communal living, nudism, free love and shared ownership of everything. It would certainly interest and influence the hippie movement (and indeed it did, including the Manson sect!), but the hippies weren’t around in 1961. What Heinlein was espousing was at the time a very revolutionary creed, so much so that if it had been allowed to, it would undoubtedly have caused offence to the real-life religious authorities of the era. It might even have been deemed sacrilegious and, despite it winning the Hugo Award and taking sci-fi for the first time ever into the New York Times best-seller lists, it was cut by 60,000 words before hitting the high street bookshops, and even then was quickly removed from schools, colleges and libraries.

Heinlein’s response to this was, first of all, that Stranger in a Strange Land had never been intended as a religious text, but that the idea had sprung originally from The Jungle Book, and secondly, that he wasn’t in the business of teaching anyone anything, but was simply posing a hatful of new ideas, which his readers could judge for themselves. “It’s an invitation to think,” he famously said, “not believe”. At no stage, did he state that Valentine Michael’s Smith’s proposed Heaven on Earth was possible or even desirable.

And maybe there are hints of this in the actual narrative. For much of the book, Smith remains an innocent, trying to learn his way through the complications and absurdities of a society that he had no notion even existed before his 25th birthday. But he has latent psychic powers, vastly more than the average human, and as he gradually becomes aware, has no hesitation in using them. Making members of the SS ‘disappear’, in other words killing them, might seem forgivable. But they aren’t the only group he reserves this punishment for. In other cases, he doesn’t always go the whole hog, but simply makes his opponents’ clothing disappear in public. He also spends time as a carney, where he learns cheap tricks and gimmicks, and later on during his ministry, retains something of the same aura: namely that he is a conjuror putting on a show, the superficial wonders of which mask his empty message and power-seeking nature.

Other reviewers have wondered if this is a flaw in the writing. Myself, I consider it deliberate.

For example, while it’s true that Smith’s lack of interest in monetary gain would definitely have rung a bell with ascetic Christians everywhere, in Stranger in a Strange Land it only comes about because he’s already flush with inexhaustible amounts of cash. So, it’s hardly laudable. And while he identifies the Fosterite Church as a glaring case of evangelical phoniness, he borrows several of its most popular elements – the cathartic use of group-sex being one – as a means to boost his own operation. It might be relevant that Heinlein’s original title for this novel was The Heretic.

For all these reasons, though Stranger in a Strange Land is regarded widely as a sci-fi classic, it remains divisive even now, 60 years after first publication. But that’s its strength. There is so much in this book to discuss that it cannot fail to stimulate lively minds.

It’s not perfect, though.

It was the unabridged version I read, which at 220,000 words is simply too long and drawn out, but I’ve heard similar said of the 160,000-word version. This is primarily because much of the run-time is occupied by philosophical discussion, usually when Jubal’s on the page, rather than actual action. Heinlein even had problems with this on publication. Puttnam, the book’s original publisher, considered that it was too much of a mammoth read for what it actually contained, and this also was given as a reason for the huge cuts the author was required to make.

In addition, and this is a point that could be made often about sci-fi writers of the golden age, while Heinlein’s cosmic vision was astonishing, there are many moments in the book that are clearly stuck in the 1950s. For example, his characters still smoke and drink lots of coffee. Crude slurs are used in reference to homosexuality (which otherwise barely rears its head), while the banter between men and women is laden with innuendo.

In fact, it’s this latter aspect of Stranger in a Strange Land that is most glaringly at odds with the author’s concept of a future Earth, especially in his examination of possible routes to a happier society.

Looking back on our own era of sexual liberation, we can see that it was never intended to create an age of objectification (even though it did), but in this novel at least, Robert Heinlein sees no grey area between the two. So, for example, we go from relatively innocuous anachronisms like nurses still wearing stockings under their uniforms and doctors referring to them with saucy nicknames, to the slightly more serious, such as the moment in the story where Jill Boardman opines that most women who are raped have instigated it themselves.

But it’s the continued eroticisation of female characters in this book that seems to jar the most. Though Jill Boardman, a strong, intelligent woman, previously earned her living as a highly-qualified nurse, when she’s on the road with Smith he uncovers a secret exhibitionistic side to her nature and encourages her appearance in strip shows. And though this could be seen as part of her preparation for life as a priestess in Smith’s temple, as her main role then will be to have sex with the new devotees, that itself is surely a questionable destiny. But Heinlein goes even further than this, Smith later using his telekinetic powers to reshape the already-delectable Jill and other female acolytes into literal love goddesses.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t offended by it, but I won’t pretend that I didn’t find all this a bit curious and at odds with the more thoughtful and introspective first half of the book.

Again though, could this have been Heinlein’s intention all along?

We’ve already discussed Valentine Michael Smith’s conman tendencies and when the mob finally descends on his Church of All Worlds, the sort of charges they level at him include running a prostitution racket and corruption of minors … even in the midst of the carnage is the author hitting us with some bitter truths about the glorious sin-free world we’ve been invited to imagine?

I suppose you just have to read it and draw your own conclusions. And despite it’s huge length, and despite what might sound like several reservations on my part, that won’t be a trial.

Heinlein focusses mostly on story and subtext(s), not bothering us with gluts of unnecessary scientific detail, though as usual he almost casually tosses in a variety of wonderful ideas. I especially liked the emergence of a strand of humanity who possess total recall, and who subsequently find employment not just as super-secretaries but as professional legal witnesses, while Smith’s Martian-taught ability to literally shut himself down, slip into voluntary catatonia so that he can take all the time he needs to work stuff out, is something I’ve never seen previously.

The novel is wordy by modern standards, but superbly written, as you’d expect – the author never puts a foot wrong technically – and peopled with characters so vivid that you can feel them in the room with you. Despite the widely ranging philosophy and deep and protracted investigations of human culture and society, it’s never over-heavy. The whole thing flows from the page, at no stage getting away from itself even though it runs to colossal length. But on top of that, there’s something mischievously joyful about it all. Heinlein might not have believed in the ‘free-money free-sex’ society he experiments with here, but he clearly liked the idea. And if he genuinely did, as some reviewers have suggested, set out to purposely slaughter all the sacred cows of 1950s America, he did it with a twinkle in his eye.

Ultimately, you’ve just got to read Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s so vast a project that no single review can cover every base in one go. And for this reason alone, it’s rightly earned its classic status. And if you don’t believe that, how many other sci-fi novels can you name that still cause heated arguments over half a century after publication and even went on to inspire the creation of a real-life religious movement (because the Church of All Worlds is now an actual thing)?

So, there you go. Don’t listen to me. Just read it, and as the late Robert Heinlein would have said, decide for yourself.

I’m not sure if it would ever be possible to do Stranger in a Strange Land justice on film or TV given how prevalent the sex and nudity, but I suppose the less-than-prudish 21st century would be the time to do it. It probably won’t happen, but in case anyone’s talking about it, here’s your cast, fellas:

Valentine Michael Smith – Brant Daugherty
Jill Boardman – Jennifer Lawrence
Ben Caxton – Cillian Murphy
Jubal Harshaw – Jon Voight
Dr ‘Stinky’ Mahmoud – Riz Ahmed
Patty Paiwonski – Rachael Harris
Joseph Douglas – JK Simmons
Anne – Emma Stone
Miriam – Zazie Beetz
Dorcas –Miranda Kerr

Monday, 1 August 2022

Henges, barrows and malicious pixie folk


Humble apologies if I’ve been a less than conscientious poster this last few weeks. That’s not because I’ve been away on holiday. It’s simply that an awful lot has been going on behind the scenes here at Finch Towers, and yet at no stage have I actually been able to report anything solid. However, at last all this is finally changing.

I hoped to have quite a bit of interesting stuff to report today – mainly about my novel-writing, both current projects and future plans – but even if any such announcement on that front needs to go on hold for another week or so (I know, I know … frustrating!), at least I can talk freely about some major progress made on the latest installment of my TERROR TALES anthology series, which we’re looking to publish in the autumn and which will be TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY, and I will certainly enjoy dropping a few fun hints about what it will contain.


In keeping with that last item, today’s book review also takes us into the West Country.

It’s the bone-chilling horror novel, CUNNING FOLK, by Adam Nevill. As usual, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s post, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Scoot on down there straight away if you must, but let me remind you that I have other stuff to talk about first.

Mystical England

I’m now in the process of line-editing the stories I’ve compiled for TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY, and it’s proving to be an absolute joy.

The West Country lies at the very heart of mystical England, the spiritual home of what we these days call ‘folk horror’.

Its pastoral landscape is planted thick with rural legends and studded with the relics of ancient civilisations now entirely vanished from history. Avebury, Stonehenge, Silsbury (right) and other time-worn monuments attract thousands of tourists each year, but remain steeped in bewildering mystery. The lore of this place is equally venerable. According to myth, this is the Summer Land, and entrances to the faerie realm still lurk behind the tranquil facades of woodland pools, at the backs of caves or in the gnarled faces of age-old trees. King Arthur, they say, ruled this land from Cadbury Castle, the original Camelot, while Jesus himself walked amid the limestone ridges of the Mendip Hills, his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, later planting the Glastonbury Thorn and watering it from the Holy Grail.

But there are terror tales here too.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle was only mining a long-standing Devonshire tradition that phantom hounds roamed the wilds of Dartmoor, while mysterious hill figures hint at the one-time presence of pagan gods and warlike giants. 

So rich is this region in eerie superstition that it remains the only part of the British Isles to spawn its own supernatural drama series, West Country Tales, screened on BBC2 in the early 1980s.

From the outset, I considered it vital that all the stories I accepted hit this spot precisely, and I had to advise all potential authors of that in the firmest possible terms.

In the end, they haven’t disappointed, and yet we’ve got an astonishing range of material. Everything from the demonic being who stalked the people of Devon to the Somerset farmer driven to physical ruin after trespassing at the pixie fair, from the many-limbed beast lurking among the shoreline rocks to the murderers who tore each other to pieces in the presence of their victim.

But I don’t want to say too much, obviously. The book isn’t due out until the autumn, and if you want to hear more, you’ll need to wait until then (though I will be posting a few more teasers in the weeks between then and now). But just for the fun of it, here’s a gallery of images related to some of the eeriness we’ll explore in this latest anthology.

A circle of cute figurines on a nicely-laid table in a rather majestic coastal residence. But each time one of them gets broken, something truly terrible happens. One by one, a select group of very different people are meeting grisly fates ...

A scenic river flowing through a picturesque realm. Nowhere could be prettier, neither in summer nor winter. But people keep dying here, and rumours persist that something horrible prowls the scenic riverbank ...

A narrow defile in an arty part of town. But the blood that soaked the cobblestones here was very real indeed. So real that even today, the locals still avoid it after dark, while the tourists, who think it sounds amazing, tend to find the inky shadows lurking in its eerie recesses just a little bit too much if they go there alone  ...

People don’t just avoid these woods because of their otherworldly appearance, it’s because of the terrifying predators that supposedly live here, one of them in particular with a reputation for having ripped out throats well into modern times ...


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

CUNNING FOLK
by Adam LG Nevill (2021)

Outline
No home is heaven with hell next door …

That’s the perfectly apposite tag-line for this tale of dark magic and deadly vindictiveness in the leafy heartlands of England’s West Country.

The narrative opens on a suitably grim note with a nameless householder, clearly in the midst of a complex renovation, suddenly downing tools and, in near robotic fashion, choosing to hang himself from one of his recently-installed light fittings.

Six months later, a happy little quartet of penniless city-folk, father of one and unsuccessful graphic designer, Tom, wife and bank clerk, Fiona, nursery-age daughter, Gracey, and cute-as-a-button puppy, Archie, arrive at the ramshackle rural cottage they’ve recently acquired for a knockdown price (even though it has still drained their life savings).

The location is stunning. Lush countryside runs to every horizon, while the land behind the cottage ascends into scenic hillside and is thickly wooded. The only other habitation is the beautifully kept house next door, the gardens to which are almost improbably well-manicured.

It would be a dream location for any family looking to escape city life (as Tom and Fiona are), except for the not insignificant matter of the new cottage itself.

The place has clearly been in a state of rack and ruin for a long time, and though Fiona has allowed her husband to talk her into abandoning their low-rent flat in a grotty part of town in order to embark on this adventure, she is concerned that restoring the isolated country residence to its former glory may actually lie outside of Tom’s powers, even though he’s a useful handyman. At the same time she’s been left uneasy by the story that the last resident here committed suicide by hanging himself.

Tom is more optimistic, and is convinced that, no matter how much effort is required, he’ll be able to transform the semi-ruin into the ideal home for his little girl, with whom he’s as besotted as any doting father can be, and for whom he envisages a safe, healthy future amid the green woods and rolling meadows of the English countryside.

Needless to say, Fate has different ideas.

An ageing but eccentric couple, Magi and Medea Moot, live next door, and almost from the outset, seem to go out of their way to be unwelcoming to the newcomers. They aren’t friendly when Tom tries to introduce himself and insist on keeping a scruffy old caravan parked in such a spot that it causes inconvenience whenever he or Fiona try to get out of their drive. In addition, there are some disturbing oddities where the neighbours are concerned: from strangers of all sorts calling by to purchase bagged items from the Moots and not leaving without kissing the back of Medea’s dirtily-gloved hand, to their weird ability to notice whenever anyone is observing them from the house next door and always responding to it sharply. They exude an aura of power and menace – they even infiltrate the young family’s dreams – and it isn’t long before Tom starts to feel oppressed by this.

However, open conflict comes dramatically closer when Gracey, eager to investigate her new domain, follows Archie up through the woods at the back of the two properties to a secluded tumulus or barrow, which is ringed with stones and has clearly been prepared for some kind of ritual. After interfering with some of the items used to dress it, she is chased back to the cottage by the Moots. They are not aggressively hostile at this stage, though Tom, who is wearing down under the pressure of the endless repair work he’s engaged in, is angered by his neighbours’ proprietorial attitude to the woodland (which is what he brought Gracey here to experience). And later that night, when he finds his rear fence deliberately smashed to pieces, he retaliates by noisily drilling brackets into the two houses’ shared wall. In response to this, Tom hears strange sounds – animals sounds, in fact – on the other side of the wall, but though he is vaguely disturbed, he still feels as though he’s winning the contest. Until the next day, when the Moots argue with a harassed visitor and cruelly mock him as he leaves. Tom accosts the visitor, trying to find out more about the repellent old couple, only to be advised to leave soon, because if he doesn’t, the Moots will make him leave.

More determined than ever to make this his dream home, Tom, in increasingly belligerent mood, has more altercations with the ageing weirdoes, but then Gracey, drawn into the woods by a compelling voice, sees something so strange that it leaves her dazed and lost. On recovering the child, Tom heads into the woods himself, this time to locate the missing Archie, which he does, but not before spying a mangled fox nailed to a tree. Tom tries to confront his neighbours again, but fails, and the next day finds his garden blighted, everything dying and rotten, and Archie dead, seemingly poisoned, which breaks his daughter’s heart. Enraged beyond reason, Tom takes his chainsaw and cuts down the Moots’ row of ornamental birch trees.

Which is the prelude to the gloves finally coming off.

Only now will the hot-headed townie father come to learn what truly terrifying powers the duo of witches next door can command …

Review
Anyone who’s familiar with the work of Adam Nevill will know that when he does horror, he really does horror. The author of various bone-chilling novels, such as The Ritual and The Reddening, to name but two, along with sundry hair-raising short stories, he can be so unrelenting when he starts to pile on the horror that it becomes stressful just reading it. And when I say ‘the horror’, I’m not talking gore. I’m talking an atmosphere of dread that steadily intensifies until it is difficult to keep turning the pages. I’m talking a succession of nightmarish predicaments, the anticipation of which alone can have you physically shuddering. One of Nevill’s trademarks is the pitting of suburban everymen, day-to-day Brits, usually families, against the most horrifying of supernatural opponents, and then slowly cranking the dial upward until his hapless individuals are enmeshed in a crescendo of otherworldly terror with no route out of it that won’t cost them hugely.

None of Nevill’s protagonists emerge from his stories unscathed. If they emerge at all. This is often because his antagonists are usually so irredeemably strange and evil. They are more like elemental forces than actual thinking-beings.

You may consider this analysis a little OTT so far, but if that’s the case, I challenge you to read Cunning Folk, because it’s as true here as in any of Nevill’s other works.

What might in some hands be nothing more than a simple morality tale about the folly of getting ‘into it’ with a neighbour, especially when it’s a neighbour you don’t really know, in Adam Nevill’s hands becomes a parable of emotional annihilation. And that’s because he recognises that the real horror here lies in the destruction from within of a victimised family unit.

We don’t hear a lot about Tom and Fiona’s life together, except that they’ve been married for 18 years, and so clearly love each other. We also learn that, for whatever reason, Tom’s business has gone belly-up and that for some time now they’ve been living on Fiona’s relatively meagre earnings. This was the spur to the departure from the city to the country. But much of their past remains a mystery. In my view, this is deliberate by the author, as his intent was to present his readers with a situation that many of us have either experienced for ourselves or lived in fear of. We are all of us Tom and Fiona: unremarkable citizens for whom life is mostly a struggle, but whose aspirations have not entirely been blunted just yet.

This makes their abrupt confrontation with a particularly acute form of occult villainy all the more harrowing, but it also explains their diverse reactions. Tom and Fiona, like most real-world partnerships that have endured the test of time, are two halves of the same whole, Tom the energy and exuberance, Fiona the pragmatist and the level head. But this alliance is designed to withstand the ordinary trials of life, not the extraordinary. And here’s where the real tragedy of Cunning Folk kicks in. Tom and Fiona never cease loving each other, but Tom’s reaction when he becomes convinced they’re facing a supernatural evil is to fight it at every turn until he’s literally got nothing left to fight with, while Fiona’s real-world concerns – the collapsing state of the house, their lack of income, her and her daughter’s increased isolation as Tom gets ever more haplessly angry and distracted – eclipses everything else until she’s forced to conclude that she and Gracey simply have to leave (if they’ll be allowed to).

To watch the rapid disintegration of a solid family is a truly terrible thing. You might be tempted to say that they obviously weren’t that solid, but in Cunning Folk I beg to differ, because the opposition here is literally monstrous.

Folk horror is a popular subgenre today, and Adam Nevill is an expert practitioner. He went there with both The Ritual and The Reddening, and he can keep going there again and again as far as I’m concerned because one thing Nevill does that is very different to many other folk horror writers is continually give us a different version of it.

It’s all too easy with folk horror to keep rehashing the ideas behind The Wicker Man, but for my money there’s always been more to it than that. British folklore in particular ranges widely through the myths and fables of a very ancient society. And if we must talk about witchcraft and rural magic, there’s a whole universe right there, because it comes in numerous forms. And in Cunning Folk, as in The Reddening, Adam Nevill digs deep into that multifaceted tradition, pulling out some particularly ghastly scenarios: a duo of semi-transmogrified human/animal hybrids gambolling through the night-time woods in pursuit of prey; their ferocious attacks upon doors and windows with mismatched teeth and claws; the ghastly life-size mannequins crudely built for the sole purpose of destroying innocent lives.

His description of the mound in the forest pre-prepared for some blasphemous ceremony, the haunting voice calling out from it, the horrific physical impact on a human being when one of their most prized possessions is purposely and brutally damaged (truly one of the most nightmarish scenes in the whole book!) will all take you close to the zenith of scary fiction.

As I say, intense horror is one of Nevill’s specialities.

I don’t want to reveal too much more about Cunning Folk for fear of spoiling it. But if you like folk horror, or plain, non specific horror, or if you just like any kind of thriller so long as there is huge tension and terror baked in, then this is definitely one for you.

As usual I’m now going to play my little game of naming a select cast in eager anticipation of Cunning Folk being adapted for film or TV, though in this case I’m going need to be quick off the mark, as it’s an Adam Nevill novel, and these days that means it’s likely to get snapped up pretty damn fast (in addition to which it’s a small canvas tale, which would be music to the ears of most producers I know).

Tom – Jamie Dornan
Fiona – Clare-Hope Ashitey
Medea – Helena Bonham Carter
Magi – Andrew Tiernan
Blackwood – Craig Parkinson

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Yet more book scares heading your way

Well, midsummer has now passed, incredible though that may seem, and the second half of 2022 is looming. As I promised way back at the start of the year, I’ll today be offering another round-up of forthcoming attractions in the world of dark fiction. Namely, ten crime novels, ten thriller novels and ten horror novels (though some of these latter may be anthologies) all due for publication in the next six months, all of which I’m anticipating with lip-smacking eagerness.

On the subject of horror, I haven’t reviewed a horror novel for a few months now, so perhaps today is an opportune moment to offer my thoughts on Simon Raven’s unusual but enjoyable supernatural classic, DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET. It’s got some cop stuff in it too, this one, so it ticks more than one box. Yep, I love it when crime fiction crashes into horror fiction.

If you’re interested, you’ll find the Raven review, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of this column.

Before that …

Next up

I’ve got something going on myself that I’d like to chat about quickly.



First of all, I’m really chuffed to be on the first panel of the day in the Orion Incident Room on July 22 at the Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. As you can see from the above artwork, I’ll be in the august company of Simon Beckett, John Sutherland and Adam Simcox, and we’ll be discussing The Previous Life of a Writer: How Past Careers Inform Compelling Crime Fiction.

John Sutherland is an ex-cop like me, Simon Beckett was a journalist and Adam Simcox is a commercial film-maker, so I think we’ll have plenty to talk about.

In addition to all that, I was hoping to share some rather good news this week about future novel-writing plans of mine, but the actual confirmation of this is still proving elusive. So, rather than put this particular blogpost on hold any longer, I will hopefully be in a position to talk about that the next time around.

Now for today’s main event …

Top picks: the second half of 2022

Here’s a selection of books I’m looking forward to that are due out between July and December this year. As always, I apologise in advance if I’ve left anyone out, or if I’ve neglected to mention someone’s favourite author who also has a forthcoming publication due, but I can’t extend these lists indefinitely. So, once again, I’m restricting myself to 10 Crime, 10 Thriller and 10 Horror. That doesn’t mean there are not lots of others due out as well that will also wow their readerships. Keep scanning the internet, and you’ll find them all in due course.

Here are the picks, plus the artwork, plus, in each case, the publisher’s own blurb ...  
by Graham Bartlett 
(Out Now in hb)

How far would you go?

The murder of a promising footballer, son of Brighton’s highest-ranking police officer, means Detective Superintendent Jo Howe has a complicated and sensitive case on her hands. The situation becomes yet more desperate following devastating blackmail threats.

Howe can trust no one as she tracks the brutal killer in a city balanced on a knife edge of vigilante action and a police force riven with corruption.


FATAL WITNESS 
by Robert Bryndza 
(Jul 7 in hb and pb)

How do you find a killer who has destroyed all the evidence?

Detective Erika Foster is on a late-night walk near her new house in Blackheath when she stumbles upon the brutal murder of Vicky Clarke, a true-crime podcaster.

Erika is assigned to the case and discovers that Vicky had been working on a new podcast episode about a sexual predator who preys on young female students around South London, staking out his victims in their halls of residence before breaking in at the dead of night.

When Erika discovers that Vicky’s notes and sound recordings were stolen from her flat at the time of her murder, it leads her to believe that Vicky was close to unmasking the attacker, and she was killed to guarantee her silence.

The case takes on a disturbing twist when the body of a young Bulgarian student doctor is discovered in the same building, and this makes Erika question everything she thought she knew about Vicky. With very little evidence, the clock is ticking to find the killer before he strikes again.


by Leigh Russell 
(Aug 30 in pb)

A wheelchair-using woman is strangled and her son, Eddy, is arrested. When his alibi falls apart, the police are satisfied that he is guilty. Only Detective Geraldine Steel doubts whether Eddy is cunning enough to kill his mother and cover his tracks so successfully.

The situation becomes more complicated when the girlfriend Eddy claims he was with at the time of the murder denies having met him. Shortly after the girl thinks she is being stalked, her dead body is discovered outside Eddy’s house.

As the body count grows, the investigation team become confused, putting Geraldine under almost unbearable pressure.


THE LAST GIRL TO DIE 
by Helen Fields 
(Sept 1 in pb)

In search of a new life, seventeen-year-old Adriana Clark’s family moves to the ancient, ocean-battered Isle of Mull, far off the coast of Scotland. Then she goes missing. Faced with hostile locals and indifferent police, her desperate parents turn to private investigator Sadie Levesque.

Sadie is the best at what she does. But when she finds Adriana’s body in a cliffside cave, a seaweed crown carefully arranged on her head, she knows she’s dealing with something she’s never encountered before.

The deeper she digs into the island’s secrets, the closer danger creeps – and the more urgent her quest to find the killer grows. Because what if Adriana is not the last girl to die?


by Nick Oldham 
(Sept 6 in hb)

Secrets, lies, murder ... and planning permission. 

Henry Christie is pulled into two chilling murder investigations and uncovers dark secrets dating back to the Second World War in this unflinching thriller.

Henry Christie is focused on running his pub, the Tawny Owl, where he learns of the Kendleton protest group’s fury with James Twain, a local property developer, and the keen desire of some residents to solve a murder that stretches back to the Second World War.

When James is viciously killed in his barn, and another body is found in similar disturbing circumstances nearby, Henry is drawn into the investigations and the villagers’ dark wartime secrets. Pulled out of retirement once more to lead a double murder inquiry for Lancashire police, can he uncover the truth behind chilling events both past and present?
by Peter James 
(Sept 29 in hb)

Harry and Freya, an ordinary couple, dreamed for years of finding something priceless buried amongst the tat in a car boot sale.

It was a dream they knew in their hearts would never come true – until the day it did.

They buy the drab portrait for a few pounds, for its beautiful frame, planning to cut the painting out. Then studying it back at home there seems to be another picture beneath, of a stunning landscape. Could it be a long-lost masterpiece from 1770? If genuine, it could be worth millions.

One collector is certain it is genuine. Someone who uses any method he can to get what he wants and who will stop at nothing.

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace finds himself plunged into an unfamiliar and rarefied world of fine art. Outwardly it appears respectable, gentlemanly, above reproach. But beneath the veneer, he rapidly finds that greed, deception and violence walk hand-in-hand. And Harry and Freya Kipling are about to discover that their dream is turning into their worst nightmare ...


by Neil Lancaster 
(Sept 29 in hb)

He’ll watch you.

A lawyer is found dead at sunrise on a lonely clifftop at Dunnet Head on the northernmost tip of Scotland. It was supposed to be his honeymoon, but now his wife will never see him again.

He’ll hunt you.

The case is linked to several mysterious deaths, including the murder of the lawyer’s last client – Scotland’s most notorious criminal ... who has just walked free. DS Max Craigie knows this can only mean one thing: they have a vigilante serial killer on their hands.

He’ll leave you to die.

But this time the killer isn’t on the run; he’s on the investigation team. And the rules are different when the murderer is this close to home.

He knows their weaknesses, knows how to stay hidden, and he thinks he’s above the law ...


by Roger A Price 
(Nov 1 in ebook)

An informant goes missing after disclosing to DS Martin Draker, of the Northwest’s Regional Organised Crime  unit, that a corrupt police official is importing heroin from India.

Field analyst Cath is investigating an upsurge in deaths caused by a new drug with similar effects to cocaine.

A body, believed to be that of the missing informant, is discovered in a burned-out car, along with a note threatening further deaths if the police don’t back off.

Cath launches a TV appeal warning of the dangers of Sky White. The gangster, Dan Manning, is incensed; she could kill the new drug’s market before it gets going.

Before Manning has a chance to stop her, the police must catch him before the body count rises.


DESERT STAR 
by Michael Connelly 
(Nov 8 in hb)

LAPD detective Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch work together to hunt the killer who is Bosch’s ‘white whale’- a man responsible for the murder of an entire family.

A year has passed since LAPD detective Renée Ballard quit the force in the face of misogyny, demoralisation, and endless red tape. Yet, after the chief of police himself tells her she can write her ticket within the department, Ballard takes back her badge, leaving ‘the Late Show’ to rebuild the cold case unit at the elite Robbery-Homicide Division.

For years, Harry Bosch has been working a case that haunts him but that he hasn’t been able to crack - the murder of an entire family by a psychopath who still walks free. Ballard makes Bosch an offer: come work with her as a volunteer investigator in the new Open-Unsolved Unit, and he can pursue his ‘white whale’ with the resources of the LAPD behind him.

The two must put aside old resentments to work together again and close in on a dangerous killer.


LONG SHADOWS 
by David Baldacci 
(Nov 10 in hb)

Memory man FBI agent, Amos Decker, returns in this action-packed thriller to investigate the mysterious and brutal murder of a federal judge and her bodyguard at her home in an exclusive, gated community in Florida.

Things are changing for Decker. He’s in crisis following the suicide of a close friend and receipt of a letter concerning a personal issue which could change his life forever. Together with the prospect of working with a new partner, Frederica White, Amos knows that this case will take all of his special skills to solve.

As darkness falls, evil comes to light ...

Judge Julia Cummins seemingly had no enemies, and there was no forced entry to her property. Close friends and neighbours in the community apparently heard nothing, and Cummins’ distraught ex-husband, Barry, and teenage son, Tyler, both have strong alibis. Decker must first find the answer to why the judge felt the need for a bodyguard, and the meaning behind the strange calling card left by the killer.

Someone has decided it’s payback time.


THRILLER


THE RUINS 
by Phoebe Wynn 
(July 7 in hb)

Amidst the glamour of the French Riviera lies the crumbling façade of Chateau de Sètes, a small slice of France still held by the British aristocracy. But this long since abandoned chateau is now up for sale, and two people are desperate to get their hands on it despite its terrible history.

Summer, 1985: Ruby has stayed at the chateau with her family every summer of her twelve years. It was her favourite place to be, away from the strictures of her formal childhood, but this year uninvited guests have descended, and everything is about to change...

As the intense August heat cloaks the chateau, the adults within start to lose sight of themselves. Old disputes are thrown back and forth, tempers rise, morals loosen, and darkness begins to creep around them all. Ruby and her two young friends soon discover it is best not to be seen or heard as the summer spirals down to one fateful night and an incident that can never be undone ...

Summer, 2010: One of the three young girls, now grown and newly widowed, returns to the chateau, and in her fight to free herself from its grip, she uncovers what truly happened that long, dark summer.

With riveting psychological complexity, The Ruins captures the glittering allure of the Mediterranean, and the dark shadows that wait beneath the surface.


THE ACCOMPLICE 
by Steve Cavanagh 
(July 21 in hb)

THE MOST HATED WOMAN IN AMERICA

The Sandman killings have been solved. Daniel Miller murdered fourteen people before he vanished. His wife, Carrie, now faces trial as his accomplice. The FBI, the District Attorney, the media and everyone in America believes she knew and helped cover up her husband’s crimes.

THE LAWYER

Eddie Flynn won’t take a case unless his client is innocent. Now, he has to prove to a jury, and the entire world, that Carrie Miller was just another victim of the Sandman. She didn’t know her husband’s dark side and she had no part in the murders. But so far, Eddie and his team are the only ones who believe her.

THE FORMER FBI AGENT

Gabriel Lake used to be a federal agent, before someone tried to kill him. Now, he’s an investigator with a vendetta against the Sandman. He’s the only one who can catch him, because he believes that everything the FBI knows about serial killers is wrong.

THE KILLER

With his wife on trial, the Sandman is forced to come out of hiding to save her from a life sentence. He will kill to protect her and everyone involved in the case is a target.

Even Eddie Flynn ...


TOTAL CONTROL 
by Alex Shaw 
(Jul 21 in pb)

The target doesn’t exist

When cyber terrorist Fang Bao abruptly reappears after years in hiding, MI6 agent and former SAS trooper Jack Tate is sent to bring him in – but when Fang is assassinated by an unknown assailant, Tate realises he was only a pawn in a plot that threatens to put the whole world in danger.

The mission is impossible ...

Now Tate has to uncover a lethal conspiracy that stretches all the way from Germany through the United States and into the dark heart of the jungle in Myanmar. As the enemy hunt down the owners of military secrets that would make them indestructible, Tate must race to identify not only their next target, but the enemy themselves.

The war is about to begin …

Soon he learns the dark truth at the heart of the global conspiracy. The enemy doesn’t want to just assassinate a world leader; they want to make war – and Tate is the only one who can stop them.


THE DEVIL TAKES YOU HOME 
by Gabino Iglesias 
(Aug 2 in hb)

‘Sometimes God is your copilot, but it’s the Devil who takes you home.’

It was never just a job. Becoming a hitman was the only way Mario could cover his young daughter’s medical expenses. But before long his family is left in pieces, and he’s barely even put a dent in the stack of bills.

Then he’s presented with an offer: one last score that will either pull him out of poverty forever or put a bullet in the back of his skull. A man named Juanca needs help stealing $2 million dollars from a drug cartel.

Together, they begin a journey to an underworld where unspeakable horrors happen every day. He’s a man with nothing to lose, but the Devil is waiting for him.

Wrestling with demons of our world and beyond, this blistering thriller charts the unforgettable quest of a husband and father in search of his lost soul.


1989 
by Val McDermid 
(Aug 18 in hb)

There’s nothing like a killer story ...

1989. The world is changing, and Allie Burns is still on the front line, covering the stories that count.

Although Allie is no longer an investigative journalist, her instincts are sharper than ever. When she discovers a lead about the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable, Allie is determined to give a voice to those who have been silenced.

As Allie edges closer to exposing the truth, she travels beyond the Iron Curtain, to East Berlin on the brink of revolution. The dark heart of the story is more shocking than she ever imagined. And to tell it, Allie must risk her freedom and her life ...


by Lucy Foley 
(Sept 29 in pb)

Welcome to No.12 rue des Amants

A beautiful old apartment block, far from the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower and the bustling banks of the Seine. Where nothing goes unseen, and everyone has a story to unlock.

The watchful concierge

The scorned lover

The prying journalist

The naïve student

The unwanted guest

There was a murder here last night.

A mystery lies behind the door of apartment three.

Who holds the key?


THE INHERITANCE 
by Howard Linskey 
(Sept 29 in pb)

You will inherit everything. The house. The money.

There’s just one condition.

You have to catch a killer first ...

Sarah always had a soft spot for her Aunt Evelyn, a famous writer, but she’d always assumed the elderly woman was penniless.

But when Evelyn dies, Sarah gets a shock.

Evelyn has a significant fortune, including a foreboding mansion, Cragsmoor, on the outskirts of a small Northumberland town. She wants to leave it to Sarah. But that's not all she wants.

For most of her life, she’d been haunted by a cold case. Many years ago, her childhood friend Lucy went missing. She was last seen in the house Evie has now left to Sarah. Evie spent years searching for the truth, desperate to find out what really happened the day Lucy disappeared.

Now, her final wish is for Sarah to go back to the house where it all began, and uncover the truth. If she does, she will inherit everything.

But if there is a secret at Cragsmoor, someone has benefitted from it remaining hidden. Someone who has already killed once before ...


JACKAL 
by Erin E Adams 
(Oct 4 in hb)

A young black girl goes missing in the woods outside her white rustbelt town. But she’s not the first-and she may not be the last ...

It’s watching.

Liz Rocher is coming home ... reluctantly. As a black woman, Liz doesn't exactly have fond memories of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a predominantly white town. But her best friend is getting married, so she braces herself for a weekend of awkward, passive-aggressive reunions. Liz has grown, though; she can handle whatever awaits her. But on the day of the wedding, somewhere between dancing and dessert, the couple’s daughter, Caroline, disappears - and the only thing left behind is a piece of white fabric covered in blood.

It’s taking.

As a frantic search begins, with the police combing the trees for Caroline, Liz is the only one who notices a pattern: A summer night. A missing girl. A party in the woods. She’s seen this before. Keisha Woodson, the only other black girl in Liz's high school, walked into the woods with a mysterious man and was later found with her chest cavity ripped open and her heart removed. Liz shudders at the thought that it could have been her, and now, with Caroline missing, it can’t be a coincidence. As Liz starts to dig through the town’s history, she uncovers a horrifying secret about the place she once called home. Children have been going missing in these woods for years. All of them black. All of them girls.

It’s your turn.

With the evil in the forest creeping closer, Liz knows what she must do: find Caroline, or be entirely consumed by the darkness.


NO PLAN B 
by Lee Child 
(Oct 25 in hb)

Gerrardsville, Colorado. One tragic event. Two witnesses. Two conflicting accounts. One witness sees a woman throw herself in front of a bus - clearly suicide. The other witness is Jack Reacher. And he sees what really happened - a man in grey hoodie and jeans, swift and silent as a shadow, pushed the victim to her death, before grabbing her bag and sauntering away.

Reacher follows the killer on foot, not knowing that this was no random act of violence. It is part of something much bigger ... a sinister, secret conspiracy, with powerful people on the take, enmeshed in an elaborate plot that leaves no room for error. If any step is compromised, the threat will have to be quickly and permanently removed.

But when the threat is Reacher, there is No Plan B ...


THE MURDER RULE 
by Derva McTiernan 
(Dec 8 in pb)

No one is innocent in this story.

First Rule: Make them like you.

Second Rule: Make them need you.

Third Rule: Make them pay.


They think I’m a young, idealistic law student, that I’m passionate about reforming a corrupt and brutal system.

They think I’m working hard to impress them.

They think I’m here to save an innocent man on Death Row.

They're wrong. I’m going to bury him.


HORROR


THE PALLBEARERS’ CLUB 
by Paul Tremblay 
(Jul 5 in pb)

1988, Art Barbara is a painfully shy/socially awkward teenager, underweight, acne-ridden, and suffering from scoliosis when he starts the Pallbearers’ Club. 

Members volunteer as mourners for the homeless and lonely, those with no one else to bury them. Art recruits his former bully, Eddie Patrick, a fellow slacker Cayla, and the mysterious Mercy Brown. Art and Mercy quickly form an intense friendship, but one day Art takes a photo of Mercy, and captures a strange parasitic creature wrapped around her ...


GHOSTFLOWERS 
by Rus Wornom 
(Jul 8 in pb)

Sheriff Buddy Hicks doesn’t like hippies in his town ... especially not long-haired hippie bikers.

As soon as the sheriff saw him, he knew the biker was trouble. Now something feels different in Stonebridge - something he doesn’t understand - and he's not going to put up with radicals in his town ... not some biker, and not some smart mouth like Summer Moore.

There are secrets in the woods.

Ben Castle, who summoned the biker with a note scrawled in blood ...

Louise Moore, who refuses to lose control of her daughter like she lost her husband ...

Summer and the biker, locked in a dance, an embrace of shadows that has lasted for centuries ...

And even the mountains themselves hold secrets ...

It’s a rock and roll Grand Guignol.

It’s a death-dance in the moonlight.

Ghostflowers

It’s a love story. With blood.


THE FURIES 
by John Connolly 
(Aug 4 in hb)

The Furies: mythological snake-haired goddesses of vengeance, pursuers of those who have committed unavenged crimes. Now, private investigator Charlie Parker is drawn into a world of modern furies. In The Sisters Strange, the return of the criminal Raum Buker to Portland, Maine, brings with it chaos and murder, as an act of theft threatens not only to tear apart his own existence but also that of Raum’s former lovers, the enigmatic sisters Dolors and Ambar Strange. 

And in The Furies Parker finds himself fighting to protect two more women as the city of Portland shuts down in the face of a global pandemic, but it may be that his clients are more capable of taking care of themselves than anyone could have imagined ... Two novels in one from the master of the modern supernatural thriller.



by Stephen King 
(Sept 6 in hb)

Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was ten, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself - and his dad. Then, when Charlie is seventeen, he meets a dog named Radar and her ageing master, Howard Bowditch, a recluse in a big house at the top of a big hill, with a locked shed in the backyard. Sometimes strange sounds emerge from it.

Charlie starts doing jobs for Mr. Bowditch and loses his heart to Radar. Then, when Bowditch dies, he leaves Charlie a cassette tape telling a story no one would believe. What Bowditch knows, and has kept secret all his long life, is that inside the shed is a portal to another world.


FELLSTONES 
by Ramsey Campbell 
(Sept 13 in hb and pb)

Fellstones takes its name from seven objects on the village green. It’s where Paul Dunstan was adopted by the Staveleys after his parents died in an accident for which he blames himself. The way the Staveleys tried to control him made him move away and change his name. Why were they obsessed with a strange song he seemed to have made up as a child?

Now their daughter Adele has found him. By the time he discovers the cosmic truth about the stones, he may be trapped. There are other dark secrets he’ll discover, and memories to confront. The Fellstones dream, but they’re about to waken.


ISOLATION 
edited by Dan Coxon 
(Sept 13 in pb)

A chilling horror anthology of 18 stories about the terrifying fears of isolation, from the modern masters of horror.

Featuring Tim Lebbon, Paul Tremblay, Joe R. Lansdale, M.R. Carey, Ken Liu and many more.

Lost in the wilderness, or shunned from society, it remains one of our deepest held fears. This horror anthology calls on leading horror writers to confront the dark moments, the challenges that we must face alone: hikers lost in the woods; astronauts adrift in the silence of deep space; the quiet voice trapped in a crowd; the prisoner with no hope of escape. Experience the chilling terrors of Isolation.

Featuring Paul Tremblay, Joe R. Lansdale, Ken Liu, M.R. Carey, Jonathan Maberry, Tim Lebbon, Lisa Tuttle, Michael Marshall Smith, Ramsey Campbell, Nina Allan, Laird Barron, A.G. Slatter, Mark Morris, Alison Littlewood, Owl Goingback, Brian Evenson, Marian Womack, Gwendolyn Kiste, Lynda E. Rucker and Chikodili Emelumadu.


DAPHNE 
by Josh Malerman 
(Sept 20 in hb)

It’s the last summer for Kit Lamb: the last summer before college. The last summer with her high school basketball team, and with Dana, her best friend. The last summer before her life begins.

But the night before the big game, one of Kit’s players tells a ghost story about Daphne, a girl who went to their school many years ago and died under mysterious circumstances. Some say she was murdered, others that she died by her own hand. And some say that Daphne is a murderer herself. They also say that Daphne is still out there, obsessed with revenge, and will appear anytime someone thinks about her to kill again.

After Kit hears the story, her teammates vanish, one by one, and Kit begins to suspect that the stories about Daphne are real ... and to fear that her own mind is conjuring the killer. Now it’s a race against time as Kit searches for the truth behind the legend and learns to face her own fears. Or else the summer of her lifetime will become the last summer of her life.
by Brian McAuley 
(Oct 4 in hb)

Scream meets The Shining in this page-turning horror tale about an ageing actor haunted by the slasher movie villain he brought to life.

Decades after playing the titular killer in the 80s horror franchise Night of the Reaper, Howard Browning has been reduced to signing autographs for his dwindling fanbase at genre conventions. When the studio announces a series reboot, the ageing thespian is crushed to learn he’s being replaced in the iconic role by heartthrob Trevor Mane, a former sitcom child-star who’s fresh out of rehab. Trevor is determined to stay sober and revamp his image while Howard refuses to let go of the character he created, setting the stage for a cross-generational clash over the soul of a monster. But as Howard fights to reclaim his legacy, the sinister alter ego consumes his unravelling mind, pushing him to the brink of violence. Is the method actor succumbing to madness or has the devilish Reaper taken on a life of its own?

In his razor-sharp debut novel, film and television writer Brian McAuley melds wicked suspense with dark humour and heart. Curse of the Reaper is a tightly plotted thriller that walks the tightrope between the psychological and the supernatural, while characters struggling with addiction and identity bring to light the harrowing cost of Hollywood fame.


edited by Mark Morris 
(Oct 18 in hb and pb)

Close to Midnight is the third volume in an annual, non-themed horror series of entirely original stories, showcasing the very best short fiction that the genre has to offer, and edited by Mark Morris. 

This new anthology contains 20 original horror stories, 16 of which have been commissioned from some of the top names in the genre, and 4 of which have been selected from the 100s of stories sent to Flame Tree during a 2-week open submissions window.


WHAT MOVES THE DEAD 
by T Kingfisher 
(Oct 18 in pb)

When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania.

What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves.

Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET 
by Simon Raven (1960)

Outline
It’s the mid-1950s, and war veteran and academic, Anthony Seymour, is leading a comfortable if relatively uneventful life, when, one pleasant evening, he is called on in his rooms by a Detective Inspector John Tyrrel from Scotland Yard, who is looking for information concerning an old friend of his, Richard Fountain. Seymour shared digs with Fountain at public school and they later studied together at Lancaster College, Cambridge (a thinly-disguised King’s).

After a rather coy conversation, in which neither party seems willing to reveal his full hand, Seymour explains a little about his and Fountain’s shared past, while Tyrrel divulges that Fountain, a budding archaeologist, currently on a research trip to the Greek islands, appears to have fallen foul of the Greek authorities, who won’t specify what he’s done to annoy them but insist that he leave their jurisdiction straight away. Tyrrel, as a concerned copper, is now wondering what will be Greece’s loss and Britain’s gain.

Seymour wonders too, and now we learn a little more about the mysterious Richard Fountain.

Though he hails from a lower middle-class background, he has benefitted throughout his education from scholarships and has become something of a star student, especially now that he’s at Cambridge, though Seymour, who knows him better than anyone, has always felt there was an edge to Fountain’s character, something vaguely menacing, though he’s never been able to define it to his own satisfaction.

One person who sees nothing but good in Fountain is the Cambridge Fellow, Doctor Walter Goodrich, who’s long been charmed by the young man’s promise, has self-appointed himself as his main adviser and generally attempted to control his career (even to the extent of seeing that a book of underwhelming poems penned by the youngster received wide publication). Goodrich appears to regard Fountain as the son he never had, and is unashamed about his long-term goal, which is to see him married to his plain but spirited daughter, Penelope.

Anthony Seymour has observed these events over several terms, as have one or two others, an effete fellow-student but good friend of Fountain’s called Piers Clarence, and gossipy old don, Marc Honeydew, and none of them feel it will end well, all suspecting that Fountain, who, though he’s weak in some ways (impotent, or so Clarence says), won’t be manipulated indefinitely.

In fact, Fountain has already displayed hints of rebelliousness, breaking away from his studies into ancient cults to do his own stint in the military (fighting the Mau Mau in Kenya, at no little risk to himself) and later on resisting Goodrich and Penelope’s attempts to persuade him to move into their family home by embarking on his two-year research trip to Greece and the Aegean islands (during which, according to Clarence, he hopes to finally find some kind of ultimate freedom).

When Seymour and Clarence learn that Fountain, still being sought by the Greek police so they can throw him out of the country, has now gone to ground, and that no one knows where he is, they opt to go over there and try to find him themselves.

Seymour first recruits an old army buddy of his, a hardy combat veteran, Major Roddy Longbow, who he knows he’ll be able to rely on in a tight spot, and they commence their own expedition to the Greek islands. Not long after arriving, they hear weird stories that Richard has taken up with a beautiful but enigmatic woman (the wonderfully-named Chryseis), whom he’s accompanied, she as the controlling influence, in the commission of a series of atrocities that no one seems to want to go into in any detail, though the Greeks are adamant that these two destructive people must be dealt with.

None of this sounds like the Richard Fountain known to Seymour and Clarence, and they can’t help wondering what kind of baleful influence this Chryseis woman has exerted. Finally, they pick up Fountain’s trail, and it takes them to the small island of Hydra just off the Peloponnese (in legend, home to the monster of the same name), where enquiries at a remote monastery reveal that Fountain was present but has now departed. The monks say simply that they treated him for a disease of the blood, but refrain from going into detail.

Only now does Piers Clarence start to wonder what kind of woman Chryseis actually is, or if she’s even a woman. It’s no ordinary disease of the blood, he tells the others, reminding them about the unnamed atrocities the elusive twosome have committed.

It is something much, much worse …

Review
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who regularly reads this column, and it certainly isn’t much of a spoiler (not to anyone who knows anything about literary horror) that Doctors Wear Scarlet is essentially a vampire story.

That said, it’s a very strange one, and it’s approached from a very oblique angle.

To start with, the word ‘vampire’ only appears in the book about three quarters of the way through, and it’s not really vampirism as we would understand it. Though there’s a hint of the supernatural, and though several characters in the novel refer to it as a ‘disease’, including a bunch of so-called experts in the shape of the monks on the isle of Hydra, the desire to drink an opponent’s blood is actually depicted as a kinky kind of psychological impulse, which is partly brought on by stressful situations but only after the subject has been vampirised by someone else (in other words infected, though a medical line of enquiry is never really approached).

In truth, Simon Raven stays curiously quiet on this core subject, neither he nor his characters, apart from a stuffy anthropologist who we meet briefly later on and who is mainly there to provide basic information, discussing it in any kind of explanatory detail. Even Piers Clarence, a key actor in Doctors Wear Scarlet, and the one who works out what they are dealing with first, refuses to put a name to it for several chapters, keeping both us and his fellow characters in the dark for far longer than I personally felt was necessary.

I won’t pretend that my irritation with the book wasn’t profound at this stage. Though not so much when I actually sat down and considered it.

You see, though Simon Raven drifted into supernatural fiction later in his career, he didn’t start out that way. Regarded as a great literary stylist, but also a wayward son of the privileged class, his initial output focussed on satirising the British establishment of the mid-20th century, and was often notorious for its pompous tone and unapologetic enjoyment of the elite lifestyle. So, in other words, when he wrote Doctors Wear Scarlet, he was aiming at a readership that wasn’t remotely interested in vampires, and probably knew nothing about Greek mythology, with which, I have to say, this book is subtly but effectively flavoured. They would probably have been both surprised and titillated when the concept of blood-drinking, not just as a fetish but as a form of personal control, finally raised its head.

And really, it’s that latter detail that this novel is about. The possession of others by any means possible.

For example, the main vampire, Chryseis, remains a frustratingly vague figure (the author barely commenting on her, even on those scarce occasions when she’s actually on the page), but that’s because the main villain is Doctor Walter Goodrich, the retired Cambridge don, who, having very little else to do now, has set himself a new goal: the full-time manipulation of Richard Fountain.

Is there a hint of implied homosexual desire in Goodrich’s attitude to the handsome and athletic young Fountain? If so, it’s better hidden than it is with other key characters in the book such as Piers Clarence and Marc Honeydew, though neither of them openly indulge in a lifestyle which, back in the mid-1950s, when this novel is set, was illegal under British law. It’s more the case with Goodrich that, while he superficially wishes to provide a suitable husband for his unattractive daughter, he is darkly determined to be much more than this young man’s mentor and benefactor, seeking to make the lad his creature, to exert such a controlling influence that through Richard Fountain, Walter Goodrich himself will live again (in effect, stealing his soul).

Goodrich is a deceptively complex and sinister individual, and it’s no surprise to me that in the movie adaptation of 1971, it was Peter Cushing who landed this plum role.

It’s another indication of how different this book is from the usual kind of horror novel that the very dramatic events in the mountains of Crete, which include one genuinely horrific and chilling sequence, which I won’t spoil by describing here (though it honestly shocked me), and which conclude when Chryseis is finally confronted, form the middle portion of this novel, while the big climax occurs back at Cambridge, during the Michaelmas Feast, though by this time I was really buying into the exquisitely written tale, so any alteration to normal narrative structure didn’t bother me. In fact, the big finish is all the more effective because it happens at Cambridge, not just a university but a world apart, a hotchpotch of arcane festivals, traditions and pageantry (the title ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’ refers to the brilliant red gowns sported by the college dons at formal events), and a place where Simon Raven’s writing really comes into its own, filled with sumptuous and fascinating detail, and spiced with his trademark waspish humour.

It is this, you feel, that the author really enjoys writing about, and it shows so evidently. It also provides a very satisfying finale to a thoroughly strange but completely readable novel.

I won’t deny that, overall, there are some weaknesses here. Tyrrel, though initially presented as a sparring partner for Seymour, is primarily a plot device. He’s too intellectual and doesn’t seem to have enough investigating to do for a 1950s police detective (or anything to do at all in terms of helping to move things along), while the idea that the entire senior staff at a respected institution like Cambridge University would, on the word of the provost, conspire to keep a murder ‘in-house’ verged on the ridiculous.

But these things aside, I recommend Doctors Wear Scarlet.

It’s unashamedly a dark mystery and a disturbing horror novel. And though the author is known first and foremost as a literary writer and satirist, and this strongly informs the approach he takes, it stands comfortably among many other greats of the field. Yes, it’s something of a curiosity, but it’s not off-puttingly long, and all fans of the genre (and beyond) should have no problem enjoying it.


Sadly, mine and your favourite part of the review is not going to happen this week. I normally hit you all at this point with an imaginary film or TV adaptation, nominating my own cast. 

But as I’ve already mentioned, a real adaptation has already happened with Doctors Wear Scarlet. It was made in 1971 as Incense for the Damned (aka Blood Suckers and Freedom Seekers), starring, as well as Peter Cushing as Goodrich, Patrick Mower as Richard Fountain, Alex Davion as Tony Seymour, Patrick Macnee as Longbow and Imogen Hassall as Chryseis. Intriguingly, the director, Robert Hartford-Davis, was so disappointed in the finished film, citing post-production interference, that he had his name removed from it. That may be one reason at least why it is so rarely screened these days.