Friday, 23 October 2020

New Christmas terrors now ready to order

More Christmas goodies  are coming your way this week. Okay, I know it’s still only autumn, but as I’ve mentioned a couple of times on here, I’m bringing out two collections of festive-themed horror stories this year, and the sooner the better I reckon, now that the days are shortening, the nights lengthening and the rolling winter fog lurking just off-stage.

They are, as I promised you all quite a few weeks ago: THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER.

While we’re talking scary short stories, I’ll also be taking the opportunity today to review and discuss Mariana Enriquez’s quite remarkable debut collection in English, THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE

For any of you Brits who don’t know Argentine author Enriquez’s work – and why would you as, previously, she’s mostly been published in her native Spanish? – this is horror with a conscience. But it’s still horror, trust me.

If you’re only here for the Mariana Enriquez review, that’s fine as always. Scoot on down to the lower end of today’s post, and you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section. However, if you’re also interested in spooky tales of the Yuletide variety, then stick around here for a bit first, while we get stuck into some …

Seasonal ghosts

First things first. My apologies for hitting you with Christmas stuff when it’s still only October. I know it’s a pain. I, like everyone else, find it bewildering and irritating to see Christmas movies on television when there is still two and a half months to go. But the reality is that if I want people just to know about this stuff, never mind buy it in time to be able to read it, I’ve got to put the info out there well in advance. Contrary to popular belief, bringing Christmas fiction out in Christmas week itself doesn’t really work. In that case, it most likely wouldn’t be looked at until January at the earliest, and let’s be honest, how many of us are ready to deal with anything concerning Christmas in the drab, dreary days following New Year?

Anyway, back to business.

As already mentioned, the two new titles are: THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER.

Before we look at them individually, I should add that very soon we’ll be bringing both these titles out in Audible as well, read by actor Greg Patmore, who did such a sterling job with last year’s big autumn publication, SEASON OF MIST. All info on that will be posted on here as soon as it’s available.

The first of the two new books is called THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and it’s a completely new collection, which comprises four stories and a novella. Some are reprints, obviously, but one story, The Tenth Lesson, will be published for the very first time. It is available to order right now, in both Kindle and paperback. Just follow the links. You’ll find a full Table of Contents and a few brief trailers a bit further down. 

The second of the two new books, meanwhile, IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, may sound vaguely familiar. That’s because it was first published as an e-book several years ago. On that front, nothing has changed. The e-book remains as it always was, and is still available to purchase. Just follow the link. The real development with IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER is that it’s also, at long last, coming out in paperback. Yes, those of you who don’t have e-readers will be able to give it a whirl too, in your case in the good old-fashioned way by flipping pages while seated comfortably, malt whisky in hand, next to a crackling winter fire.

Festive treats

Both these titles, THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, sprang from my lifelong love affair with Christmas ghost stories. Regular followers of this blog will know that I write new ones annually, and often post them on here. But even before the days of the Internet, I was a student of that unique subgenre, and penned seasonal spook tales regularly, many seeing publication in magazines and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Of course, I’m not being particularly original in having done this. Both MR James and Charles Dickens got there well ahead of me, and even Shakespeare references the tradition, mentioning in A Winter’s Tale the Old English custom of telling ghost stories communally around the roaring flames of the manor house hearth.

I’m not putting myself in that august category, by the way, but I always like to point out that I’m ploughing a time-honoured furrow, so that you hopefully won’t think me too much of an eccentric.

And now, enough gabble. Time for some …

Trailers

THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE is specifically designed to put the chill back into the coldest part of the year. Here is the full list of contents, and some choice snippets:

The Merry Makers
The walls were stone, but hung with sumptuous, brightly coloured tapestries. The roof, far overhead, was vaulted, supported by great oaken hammer-beams, and now crisscrossed with swags of evergreen. At the far end towered a colossal Christmas tree, perhaps twenty-five feet tall; I imagined that it had been hewn down in some frosty Norwegian forest and brought over here especially. It reached as high as a stained-glass skylight in a slanted section of ceiling, and was hung with ribbons and ornaments, and glowed with myriad electric lights. Down the centre of the room lay a vast banquet table laid with all kinds of festive delicacies. My eyes skated perplexedly over yet more pies, puddings and pastries, over roasted fowl and baked fish, over dates, sweet meats and fat German sausages.
     More important than any of this, there were guests. Guests the like of which I had never seen; eight seated one side of the table, eight on the other. Life size effigies, I realised, my blood chilling, lumpen papier-mâché monstrosities clad in gaudy robes. Sinterklass in his bishop’s garb and mitre, a crozier clamped in his gloved, ring-covered hand. Krampus, with his humped back and shaggy goat’s head. Belsnickel, with his bearskin cloak and cap, his Mr Punch features, and his vicious, many-tailed whip …

The Unreal
Before sitting and making himself comfortable, Hetherington scrutinised the life-size Scrooge puppet standing up close. Less detail was visible in the night-vision’s green mist. With head drooped, its face was completely indistinguishable aside from its long, tapering nose. In terms of shape, the figure was bone-thin – almost emaciated, like a suspended corpse. The fact it would be hanging just behind and to his left was added unpleasantness.
     Determined to push such nonsense from his mind, he shoved his chair backward a few feet, so that at least it hung in his eye-line. Then he settled down.
     The chair, which was hard and stiff-backed, was uncomfortable, but that was good – the last thing he wanted was to drop off to sleep. Murmuring these thoughts to his viewers, he appraised the auditorium as it stood empty in front of him. Night-vision wasn’t perfect; but at least he could distinguish its basic dimensions; the rows of seating, and the two downstairs aisles. It was only when he glanced up to the balcony that he glimpsed what he thought was a person.
     Hetherington blinked once, twice – then stood up and walked to the front of the stage.
     He had to be mistaken. Perhaps the fogginess of his vision was playing tricks on him? But it definitely looked as if someone was sitting in one of the seats up there. In the extreme right-hand block, three rows up from the front barrier.
     “Hello?” he called hesitantly. “Mr Lampwick?”
     But it surely couldn’t be Lampwick. He’d left, and the whole place was locked up. And there was nobody else here, or there wasn’t supposed to be. The shape on the balcony didn’t respond, or even move, but the more Hetherington stared up at it, the more it resembled a seated figure, possibly wearing a heavy overcoat.
     “Hello!” he shouted again, more belligerently, his voice echoing to the high ceiling.
     Still the figure sat motionless …

Krampus
I yanked off my balaclava, my hair soaked with icy sweat – and heard a distinctive clank as the front gate banged open again. Incredulously, I listened to the progression of heavy misshapen feet along our snowy front path, and then into the alley beside the house, whereupon they abruptly stopped. I was now listening so intently that I fancied I could hear the whispering of the snowflakes outside, but apart from that there was only silence. Torturous, prolonged silence.
     It is almost impossible to convey the horror and isolation I felt at that moment, even though I was ensconced in my own home. I stared fixedly at the kitchen door. For a time, there was nothing else in the world but that door – and what I suspected lurked just beyond it. I was unable to move; I didn’t dare move, terrified that if my feet scuffed on the floor they would alert the thing to my presence, even though such thoughts were patently ludicrous – it had followed me all the way home. Even if it hadn’t, it knew where I lived; according to our myths, it knew where every child lived.
     There was a soft crunch of snow, this directly on the other side of the door, and then a further pause. Was it listening in through the planks as I was listening out? We had a telephone – I don’t know why it never occurred to me to run and dial 999. I suspect I was simply too mesmerised by events. My nerves were taut as cello strings, my hair standing on end. But I quickly broke from this stupor when the door-handle started to turn …

The Tenth Lesson
Tregarron came to an abrupt halt at the top, eyes scanning the darkened passage ahead, along which several bedroom doors stood open, each one shedding even darker darkness.
     “I’m warning you,” he shouted, hefting the poker. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because I write children’s books, I’m some kind of sissy.”
     There was no response.
     He advanced a few yards, eyeing the carpet. But if there’d been any snow left on the intruder’s boots by the time he’d arrived up here, there was no trace of it now.
     “Look, if this is just a joke … if you work for someone who thinks he’s found something out about my real attitude to Christmas, maybe I can live with that. Maybe there won’t be any need for rough stuff. But you’ve got to step out where I can see you.”
      In direct response to this, he heard a sudden whirring and clicking, as if gears and wheels had gone into motion, and a steady repeated creak: the sound of timber under pressure.
     And then it appeared, at the far end of the passage, from a bedroom on the right.
     The soldier.
     Initially he saw it only in profile. Until it swung about to face him.
     Tregarron insisted to himself again that it was someone inside a suit. And yet the inflexibility of its painted grinning face, the jerkiness of its movements, the ramrod stiffness of its posture made this seem incredibly unlikely. Abruptly, the soldier went on en garde, tilting sharply forward, musket levelled at waist-height. To Tregarron’s even greater incredulity, he now saw a glint of steel at the weapon’s tip …

The Stain 
The observatory was accessible by a narrow, winding stairway, which during daytime would be bathed in sunshine from an overhead skylight, but at night was a black spiral. Nevertheless, they proceeded up it, silent and bunched together. At the top, the doorway to the observatory stood wide open. Frosted moonlight filled the spacious room beyond it from the overhead dome. At this ungodly hour it didn’t reveal a great deal, though one thing was quite clear: the observatory had been trashed.
     Broken ornaments lay scattered on the carpet. Every item of furniture, even the heavy four-posted bed, had been overturned.
     At last, Wilkes found the light switch and turned it on, which brought additional macabre detail to their attention. Previously plump upholstery had been slashed and gutted. There were daubings on the walls in some vile black substance: to Rick they resembled the runic symbols from Night Of The Demon, though they were so crude and unclear they could also have been attempted recreations of the devil-figures painted on the floor for Wilkes’ original Black Mass scene. More worrying than any of this, though, were the shapes laid out in the centre of the room. These had been formed from folded bedsheets. The sheets themselves were pristine, not damaged in any way. But it was the shapes they made that were so significant.
     They were human coffins.
     And there were seven of them: one for each person present …

IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER is published in paperback for the first time today, (but as previously mentioned, has already been available for some time in ebook form). Here are some short whistle-wetters:

The Christmas Toys
In the very centre, on a raised mound, there was a stable, its front section removed, revealing a baby in a manger and toy soldier-sized figures of Mary and Joseph kneeling one to either side. Above them, a single star was suspended. Somewhere on the floor one of the wires to the fallen Christmas trees sparked, and the star began to shine with a pale, silvery luminescence. At the same time figures started moving in the town. Tookey watched in fascination as three or four men, again no more than toy soldier size but distinctly sinister in hoods and cloaks, and with curved daggers, roved up and down the narrow streets, moving along electric runners that he hadn’t noticed previously. One by one they visited each house, the internal light to which would then turn blood-red – to the accompaniment of tinny shrieks.
     “What the …?” Tookey breathed. He had some vague memory of a school lesson during which he’d been told about that bad-tempered bastard – wasn’t his name ‘Herod’? – having all the babies killed to try and get to Jesus. But Christ, you didn’t put something like that in a Christmas decoration!

Midnight Service
“Can I help?” came a voice from behind.
     Capstick spun around. A tall, lean figure in a gray suit and clerical collar, with a pale face and short sandy hair, had entered the hall behind him.
     “Oh, I’m sorry …” Capstick stammered, not sure whether to address the man as ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend’. “But, well, this may sound a bit ridiculous …”
     “Gentleman of the road, are you?”
     “What?” Capstick was startled. Surely he didn’t look that bad? He brushed self-consciously at his beard. “Erm … no, though I will admit to being lost.”
     “So many do at this festive time of year.” 
     As the vicar wove his way forward through the seats, Capstick saw that he was actually quite old, his face wrinkled with a yellowish tinge, his eyes rheumy. His hair, which was colourless, was extraordinarily thin; it looked sandy from a distance because he’d greased the few lank strands of it that remained backward over his liver-spotted scalp. His suit, once smart, was dusty and crumpled.
     “I’m stuck in town by accident,” Capstick added, slightly distracted by this. “Trying to find some … well, first of all, some accommodation. And secondly, some transport out of here.”
     “The first of those we can help you with ... of course we can.” The vicar smiled, his bloodless lips drawn back on brownish pegs, and laced his fingers together. “The second, alas, no.”

The Faerie
“It’s a grand-looking place,” Arthur said. “Can’t think what it’s doing all the way out here in the wilds of Derbyshire.”
      He reached for the knocker, but the door creaked open as soon as he touched it.
     They glanced through, and saw an arched stone passage with low wooden beams across its ceiling. It ended at a flight of four broad steps, which led up into a living area. A rosy flush of firelight was visible up there, and a pleasant scent struck their nostrils, a combination of oranges and cinnamon, and something else: evergreens. The reason for that soon became obvious. The beams in the entrance hall had been decked for Christmas: alternating strands of ivy and holly had been woven around them. The only sound was a distant crackle of flames.
     To Arthur it was extremely welcoming, but Gabby had different ideas.
     Oddly, she began to tug on his arm, trying to draw him away. “We should go, Daddy. We should go right now.”
     He glanced down at her, puzzled. “What’re you talking about?”
     “I bet it’s the furry house,” she said.
     “What?”
     “It was in that book you got me. It said that out on the moors, when people are lost, the furry house comes and the people go inside and think they’re safe. And the furry house disappears, and they go with it. And they’re never seen again.”
     Arthur chuckled and tapped on the door-jamb with his knuckles. “Darling, this isn’t a fairy house. Look, it’s as solid as you and me.”
     “That doesn’t mean anything. They have to look real to trap people.”

The Mummers
It was Eric Hazelwood who’d first told Phil about the mummers of Holker Hall.
     This had been several years before, in the halcyon days when the Mercury had been the plain old Mercury. At the time, they were discussing a possible centrespread on local ghosts. Eric had long been a student of the supernatural, but he wasn’t keen on using the Holker Hall mystery. After all, this wasn’t some spectral pussy cat with a cute purr, or a thirsty pub ghost who drew himself generous measures after hours and in so doing helped drum up custom. There was little to snigger at in this tale, and those members of the Bradleigh public who knew about it responded accordingly. The myth wasn’t known widely enough for the hall to be shunned; the Groves still played host to adventurous children and picnicking families, especially in summer, while the ornate old building was a source of architectural interest, but that was about it. Few went near the place at night, and none on Christmas Eve. These spooks didn’t just scare you; they signed your death warrant. It was only a story of course, but why take the chance?
     Phil still wasn’t sure if he believed it, though now, as eight o’clock came and went, then nine and finally ten, he was increasingly distracted from the drunken frolics in the banquet lounge to the opaque winter darkness outside. He could well imagine the miles and miles of frozen, unlit woodland lying between himself and civilisation. Once or twice, he thought vague forms were cavorting out there, though that was unlikely. It was way too early yet; the mummers were only supposed to emerge from the Groves at midnight. Of course, no-one could say for sure, because allegedly no-one had lived to tell …

The Killing Ground
And then the moon slipped out again, and thirty yards to his right he saw a ruined building.
     When he ventured towards it, he did so slowly.
     It sat on top of a small hillock and was maybe fifteen feet tall at its apex. It was built from pale stone, but as Alec got closer and saw veins and greenish stains all over it, he realised that this was marble. The building was a folly, or at least that was the impression it gave. It was octagonal in shape, but in each section of wall there was an open entranceway, all equidistant from each other, all upright and perfectly rectangular.
     He ascended the hill and when he reached the building, halted warily.
     The entrance directly in front of him seemed more like a doorway than the others, which perhaps were merely windows. This one had a lintel, and above that an engraving: a triangle with some kind of astrological symbol in the middle, possibly the Eye of Horus, though it was difficult to tell.
     Definitely a folly though.
     Alec poked his head inside and sniffed. Compared to the fresh tang of the snowy wood this place smelled damp, mildewed. He hesitated before entering, but the other seven apertures allowed in sufficient moonlight to show that the place was empty, even derelict, so he proceeded. He saw that each one of the other entrances, or windows, had a stump of broken, eroded stonework set into its base. The remnants of statues, he realised, though now that his eyes were attuning to the dimness, he spotted that one of them remained intact. It occupied an aperture on the north side, but though human in outline and roughly Alec’s height, none of its features were visible because it was covered with ivy …

Apologies by the way for the title of the first book, THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE. Whatever happens at the end of this year, it certainly won’t be the Christmas any of you deserve after the difficulties you’ve had to put up with during 2020. But don’t read too much into that. Here’s hoping you enjoy these festive forays into the world of sprites, ghouls and winter demons. It’s just a bit of fun, a diversion for the holiday, but one that, with luck, will also leave you so discombobulated that phrases like spirit of the season’ will never mean the same thing again.

(By the way, youll probably have realised by now that many of the festive horror images I’ve stuck in here and there have no actual connection to either of the two books, but are generic representations of Christmas nastiness. I located them amid a bunch of images depicting scary Victorian Christmas cards, so theoretically there shouldn’t be any copyright issues. But if there are, the owners need only to let me know and I will happily give credits or take down straight away if that is required).

***

 THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

by Mariana Enriquez (2016)

As a writer, journalist and respected social commentator, Mariana Enriquez is widely published in her home country of Argentina, but this is the first English translation of one of her books, and it’s to the immense good fortune of all genre fans that it’s a collection of horror stories cut from some of the darkest cloth imaginable.

Before we get into it, here’s the publisher’s own official blurb:

Twelve stories of ghosts, demons and wild women; of sharp-toothed children and stolen skulls. In this sleep-stealing collection, Enriquez transports the reader to the crime-ridden streets of post-dictatorship Buenos Aires, where exhausted fathers conjure up child-killers, and young women, tired of suffering in silence, decide there’s nothing left to do but set themselves on fire.

The first thing I really noticed about this in-your-face collection of succinctly-written but hugely effective horror stories, as translated (crisply and beautifully, I have to say) by Megan McDowell, was the complexity of ways in which the horror comes to us. Even though this is a strange, dark world filled with surreal twists and endless visitations by the supernatural, it’s also a circus of real-life urban horrors.

All the way through the book, in one form or another, Mariana Enriquez soliluquizes on the deep scars her country has suffered in recent history, not just during the days of the military junta, but throughout the cash-strapped aftermath that followed. So, while we have demons and spectres, we also have feminicide and malnourished children. The bizarrely grotesque, goblins and devils, jockey for attention alongside more commonplace killers, maniacs and torturers. It’s a place where the villainies of the undead and the evils of injustice are evenly matched, where haunted houses stand amid the appalling squalour of slum neighbourhoods, meaning there is no refuge either inside of them or out.

One of the most obvious shadows that lies over Mariana Enriquez’s world is that of the well documented ‘Dirty War’, the period of repression suffered by her countrymen between 1976 and 1983, when the ruling military power imposed state terrorism on its own people, thousands who were considered a political or ideological threat kidnapped and murdered, and countless others imprisoned without trial or driven into lifelong exile.

Simply writing about this period as it happened, providing an eye-witness account of the many brutalities, would be one way to respond. But Mariana Enriquez, who was a child through most of this period, has instead chosen a more subtle approach, portraying the darkness through the prism of ghost stories and Gothic horror.  

The Inn is an excellent example. In this elegant tale, schoolgirl Florencia doesn’t much care for her family’s summer home in the country, though when she’s there, she does enjoy the company of village girl, Rocio, who, in her turn, despises Elena, owner of the village hotel, ‘The Inn’. One year, when the place is empty of guests, the two girls force entry, looking to cause mischief, neither paying any attention to the fact that the fine old building was once a police training school, or that during the dictatorship, people were tortured and murdered there. You won’t need to be a student of supernatural fiction to deduce what is going to happen next, though it’s still very delicately done.

Even more subtle, is Spiderweb, in which a young woman, her objectionable husband and her beautiful cousin enjoy the country’s new-found freedoms by taking a road-trip to the border, briefly crossing over from Argentina into Paraguay, which is still a police state under the iron control of Alfredo Stroessner. Here, they are menaced by drunken soldiers, but worse is to come on the way back, when they stop at a run-down wayside hotel, for there is much that is strange on the borderland between one world and the next …

Of course, it isn’t just the dictatorship itself that haunts these pages. Following the junta’s downfall, the country entered a period of democracy, which still exists today, but happiness didn’t immediately follow as the Argentine people were dogged by corruption, hyperinflation and economic instability, and a subsequent proliferation of drugs and crime, particularly in the major urban centres.

None of the stories in Things We Lost in the Fire better illustrate this new darkness than Under the Black Water, which again examines its subject through the lens of traditional horror, even adding a Lovecraftian vibe in this instance (in fact, this is probably the most ‘horror’ of all the horror stories in this collection, so more about this one later). 

The social commentary continues with The Dirty Kid, in which a middle-class woman insists on staying in her family home in Constitucion, Buenos Aires, even though the area has now gone to seed. She worries endlessly about the dirty homeless boy across the street, especially when there is a child murder in the district, the victim mutilated in a ghastly Satanic ritual.

This is typical of many of Mariana Enriquez’s tales, which are strictly adult-reading but in which the youthfulness of the protagonists is a highly worrying factor. Many are female, but at least an equal number are also children, and their vulnerability in the face of unknowable and uncontrollable forces is skin-crawling, especially in a society so deeply damaged by events that occurred before most of them were even born.

In The Intoxicated Years, a trio of rebel girls from poor backgrounds grow up drinking and taking drugs at every opportunity. They are impressed one night when they see what they believe is a ghost girl in a local park, even though for a ghost she was giving off a distinct aura of evil. When one of them finds the ghost’s ribbon, the evil starts to infect them too. A similar note of darkness and despair is struck by End of Term, the focus of which is schoolgirl who continually self-harms until she is forced to leave school. All the way through, she insists that she isn’t ill and that a man who no one else can see is instructing her to do it. She also says that this man is now taking a clear interest in her best friend …

But this disturbing combo of social blight and innocence marred is never more searingly told than in the title story, Things We Lost in the Fire, which is really one of the most horrible tales I’ve ever read, uber-dark in tone and concept, but undeniably, astonishingly effective (more details about this one later).

I don’t wish to give the wrong impression, though. While many of these stories are ‘activist’ tales, the author using fiction as the tool by which she examines and criticises her malfunctioning world, the fantasy-horror is nearly always there. Readers purely looking for a good old-fashioned scare will not go wrong with this one.

Adela’s House and The Neighbour’s Courtyard are deeply chilling ghost stories in their own right; I’d go as far as to say that the former is actually terrifying, probably the most frightening story in the book (much more about these two later). But it doesn’t stop there. In Green Red Orange, Enriquez swoops through the ‘slipstream’ school with the psychological terror tale of manic depressive Marco, who locks himself into his bedroom, from then on living only through the Internet, where he is so captivated by the sordid secrets of the Deep Web that even his ex-girlfriend can’t get through to him …

More traditional but no less alarming (so much so on both scores that this one could easily date back to the nastiest days of the Pan Horror series) is the mock-amusingly titled Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt, in which a Buenos Aires murder tour guide, increasingly frustrated by his wife’s fawning over their new child while he himself is ignored, cheerfully informs tourists about the atrocities committed by serial child killer, Santos Godino. When the murderer’s hideous apparition suddenly appears to him (and to him alone), it weaves a strange and hypnotic spell …

Overall, Things We Lost in the Fire is a fascinating, multi-layered horror collection, and one which, because it was only translated into English relatively recently, may well have slipped under the radars of many UK and US-based horror fiction fans. Well, hopefully it won’t do for much longer. Check it out now. It gets my strongest recommendation.

And now, as usual …

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE – the movie.

Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), and to be fair, if they did, they’d be undertaking the production of one very dark and grown-up horror movie. However, this part of the review is always the fun part, so I’m going to crack on with it anyway, though I’m not going to be so bold as to try to cast this one. To do this project justice, it would need to be Argentinian from start to finish, and my knowledge of Argentina’s current hottest film and TV stars is non-existent, so I have nothing of value to offer. That aside, here are my thoughts in anticipation of someone loaded with cash deciding that this radical little bunch of Latin American terror tales should immediately be adapted for the screen.

Note: As always, these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four different women have been thrown together in unusual circumstances that require them to relate spooky stories relating to modern-day Argentina.

Without further messing about, here are the stories I would choose:

Adela’s House: Teenagers Clara and Pablo are best friends with one-armed Adela. The threesome love horror films and scary stories, and when they learn that there is an abandoned, bricked-up house in their town centre, they know they must find a way to get inside. It proves to be easier than they expected, but is still a terrible, terrible mistake …

Under the Black Water: Crusading DA, Marina, is trying to implicate a corrupt cop in the murders of two teenagers who were thrown into the industrially polluted River Riachuelo, which encircles Villa Moreno, the worst slum in Buenos Aires. When she learns that one of the dead boys has been seen walking the district, she heads over there to investigate. Alone, of course. Because no one else will go there with her …

The Neighbour’s Courtyard: Paula, an ex-charity worker disgraced by her failure to save a homeless child from serious injury, moves to a new house to try to restore her failing marriage. But husband Miguel’s intolerance of her ever-deepening depression only gets worse when she starts to suspect that a little boy, whom Miguel never sees or hears, is being abused in the mysterious house next door …

Things We Lost in the Fire: When a radical feminist movement adopts self-immolation as a form of extreme protest, young Silvina is inspired to join the group and films all the ‘bonfires’ as they occur. These aren’t suicides, however, the survivors afterwards walking proudly (and hideously) scarred among their fellow citizens. Silvina is awe-stricken by them, and wonders at what point she too will be chosen …

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Christmas chiller is back out in paperback

Okay, well it’s still a few weeks off Christmas, but the year is definitely waning, and for this reason I want to talk a little bit today about SPARROWHAWK, a festive novella of mine: a ghost story, needless to say, set in the depths of snowy Victorian Britain. It was first published back in 2010, but as you can see from the image on your right, its now out again, both in paperback and ebook, having been given a complete makeover. On top of all that, there’s an Audible version as well, coming out very soon.

In addition today, because we’re talking a period piece with strong horror elements, I thought this might also be the appropriate time for me to review and discuss Kate Ellis’s ultra-spooky WW1 era serial killer thriller, A HIGH MORTALITY OF DOVES.

If you’re only here for the Kate Ellis review, that’s fine as always. And, as usual, you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Speed right down there now, if that’s your choice.

But first, as promised above, it’s time for my own personal …

Winter soldier

You may recall that towards the end of the 2000s, we had a succession of very cold and snowy winters here in the UK. At the time, these inspired me to fully develop a novella idea I’d been playing about with for some time, though the actual core of the story was influenced – very mysteriously, I now feel – by an inexplicable dream I had concerning a Victorian soldier called John Sparrowhawk (yes, the name was given to me too!), who returns home from war traumatised and alone, only to find himself embroiled in a chilling Christmas mystery.

I finally started sketching things out in November 2009, during which month it was already snowing here in Lancashire and what increasingly looked as if it was going to be a very traditional Christmas was almost upon us. From there on, everything seemed to fall into place, the whole storyline spinning itself out in front of me, the characters dropping into the plot one by one of their own volition.

I’d always felt that, while writing a Victorian-era Christmas ghost story would be following a well-worn path – there are so many prototypes, after all – what might be a little different would be trying to create one that spoke genuinely of its period and of the festive season and, at the same time, had a relevance for today. And somehow, I felt in myself – and okay, I know I’m the author so obviously I was biased – that SPARROWHAWK might just do that.

Inevitably, as it was scheduled to run to 40,000 words, it wasn’t finished in time for that Christmas. In fact, I was still writing it at Easter 2010, which fell during a gloriously warm and sunny April (and that increased the challenge dramatically, trust me) but the novella was ready by the following autumn, and picked up by independent publisher, Pendragon Press, who, adorning it with a splendidly spectral cover by artist, James Higgins, published it the following December, which, again as fortune would have it, was very cold and very snowy.

The book seemed to do well. The paperback edition sold out quickly, while the ebook version just went on and on. In 2011, it was shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award in the capacity of Best Novella, but lost out to Simon Clark’s excellent HUMPTY’S BONES (if you’re going to lose out, you might as well lose out to something that’s really good, I always say). Only a year after that did its shelf life begin to wind down.

So why, you may wonder, a decade later, am I bringing out this completely new paperback edition of SPARROWHAWK complete with a snazzy new cover courtesy of the inexhaustible Neil Williams, and not only that, putting out an original Audible version too (as narrated by Greg Patmore, who did such an amazing job with my autumnal horror / thriller of 2019, SEASON OF MIST)?

Well, it’s simple. On a personal front, I may be better known these days as a writer of crime thrillers than ghost and horror stories, but I like to think that I still have a foot in both camps and I want my new readers to know about this and to read SPARROWHAWK. But at the same time, we can’t pretend that period supernatural thrillers are not back in a big way. In these final years of the 2010s, authors like Laura Purcell, Michelle Paver and Diane Setterfield have forged a dynamic new path for the period chiller subgenre, weaving in gothic and darkly romantic elements alongside vivid historical detail and of course that invaluable 21st century social relevance, to create an entirely new experience for ghost story fans.

Does SPARROWHAWK hit these same buttons?

I’d like to think so, but as I’ve already said, I’m biased. It’s up to you guys, really.

The Kindle edition is still available now as it always was, but the new-look paperback version is out as of yesterday, the Audible due in the next couple of weeks.

And now, just in case you need your appetites whetting even more, here’s a handful of brief trailers:

He approached it, frightened but at the same time fascinated.
     The elf made no move, and when he got close, he saw why. It wasn’t a real man, but a marionette. It was life-size, but its face and hands were carved from jointed wood and had been crudely painted. Its body and limbs were suspended by strings, which rose towards the ceiling but there were lost in dimness. It was also – and this was perhaps the most disquieting thing of all – a close representation of his father.
     It seemed that Doctor Joseph Sparrowhawk, the one-time academic, philosopher, publisher and pamphleteer, was now little more than a comic mannequin. Its head lay to one side, its eyes glass baubles containing beads designed to roll crazily around. Its chin and nose were exaggerated, Punch-like, in the tradition of the season, but the lank white hair was the same, the white side-whiskers were the same, the prominent brow, the small, firm mouth …

Despite the intense cold, the mob was in full strength and voice, all classes and creeds represented, the coster folk eagerly supplying them with wintry consumables, everything from boiled puddings to roast chestnuts and hot coffee. Excitable urchins darted back and forth; occasionally a beadle or constable managed to get hold of one and whipped him until he yowled, before kicking him on his way. A tall placard revealed the presence of a long-song seller. “Three yards a yenep, three a yenep!” he shouted hoarsely, as he told the ghoulish tale of James Keggs, a buckle-maker from Southwark, who had lured four unfortunate women back to his cellar room, and there throttled them and raped their corpses. Several well-to-do ladies did the honourable thing by fainting in their carriages.
     “Four victims,” Miss Evangeline said. “That’s two short of your tally.”
     “Hardly,” Sparrowhawk replied. “My full tally would make your toes curl.”
    
With another low growl, this one mewling and prolonged, the lion-thing tore off its dress shirt. The naked torso beneath was massive of shoulder and chest, padded all over with muscle, rich with thick, tawny fur. The monster hunched low, the entire room reverberating to its growls. Fleetingly Sparrowhawk saw its eyes again: pits of molten gold. With an ear-splitting roar, it charged, still on two legs but in a stooped, gambolling run, swerving in and out of the moonlight.
     Sparrowhawk knew that it would leap on him and tear him apart, snap his limbs, flay the flesh from his ribs, clamp his skull with its colossal jaws, its ivory teeth sinking like bayonets through skin and bone ...


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 Kate Ellis (2017)

Outline
It’s 1919, and Britain is still reeling from the horrors of the trenches. But the village of Wenfield in Derbyshire appears to have suffered more than most. Numerous of its young men failed to return, while others have only done so after being horribly wounded or shellshocked, many of their families broken as a result. As if this isn’t difficult enough for the grief-stricken local population, a bizarre series of crimes now commences.

It begins with Myrtle Bligh, a young woman who volunteered at the wartime hospital set up in the nearby stately home, Tarnhey Court. Though she believes her fiancé, Stanley, killed on the Somme, she is stunned to suddenly receive a letter from him explaining that he is alive but in trouble, and that he needs to have a secret meeting with her out in nearby Pooley Woods. Excited beyond belief, Myrtle rushes out there, but when Stanley confronts her in the shadow of the trees, he is nothing like the man she remembers. He is nothing like any man at all.

A short time later, Myrtle is found murdered, ripped apart by a military bayonet, her mouth slit to the ears, with a dead dove shoved inside it.

The investigation is initially undertaken by the local constabulary, led by the stolid but unimaginative Sergeant Teague, while the medical examination is spearheaded by local GP, the cold and rather reserved Dr Winsmore. Fascinated by this ghoulish turn of events is Winsmore’s daughter, Flora, who served alongside the deceased Myrtle as a nurse at Tarnhey Court, and thanks to this experience, is disturbed neither by gruesome injuries nor the fast-spreading rumour that a ghostly soldier with a nightmarish face has been seen lurking on the outskirts of the village.

Flora’s father disapproves of his daughter’s involvement. In fact, even though she helps out at his surgery, he even tries to dissuade her from applying to nursing college so that she can take up the profession full-time, seemingly determined to maintain her sheltered existence in the village and keep her under his benign but firm control.

However, this becomes increasingly difficult for him when there is another identical murder, Annie Dryden, whose son went missing in action years ago, summoned to meet him by anonymous letter, her butchered body subsequently found off an overgrown country lane.

Flora – despite being affected by her own personal loss, her brother having died in Flanders (or maybe because of this!) – determines to be useful and continues to attempt to inject herself into the investigation, though nothing about the case is simple. Wenfield is not just a village of gossip and backbiting, it’s also a village of secrets. Most people here resent someone or other among their neighbours, and almost everyone has something to hide. Even Flora’s own father has a murky past; his wife (Flora’s mother) supposedly ran off with a ‘fancy man’ some time ago, leaving him to enter into an unspecified relationship with his beautiful housekeeper, Edith, who became like a second mother to the young Flora until she left the family’s service during the war. Even the local landowner, Sir William Cartwright, and his son, Roderick – an old friend of Flora’s – have secrets, and not of the edifying kind. It isn’t even as if there aren’t other potential culprits. For example, Winsmore’s colleague, Dr Bone, is a handsome but superficially charming man, though Flora happens to know from personal experience that has an unhealthy appetite for young girls.

As such, it all seems too simple to Flora when the murder spree is blamed on a local simpleton, Jack Blemthwaite (mainly because he is the one who discovered Myrtle’s body). Inevitably, the charges don’t stick, but even then it takes a third murder, while Jack is in prison, for the case against him to be dropped.

Flora is mightily relieved when an experienced murder detective, Inspector Albert Lincoln, is at last sent up from Scotland Yard. Though battle-scarred himself and, thanks to great unhappiness at home, something of an introverted character, Lincoln is a clear-headed, analytical investigator, who immediately brings in a more professional approach, an aspect of his character that Flora finds instantly attractive.

She is also fascinated by his observations that, though all the female victims here were brutally murdered, there was never a sexual assault, suggesting that this isn’t just a rampaging lust killer. The so-called phantom soldier roaming the village outskirts is also significant, he feels, as is the symbolic insertion of a white dove – normally a sign of peace – into each of the corpses.

Gradually, under Lincoln’s (ever closer) guidance, Flora comes to realise that the killings in Wenfield, which are not necessarily over yet, are part of a complex web of malice and deceit, and that there are actually a great number of very viable suspects … 

Review
When I first commenced reading A High Mortality of Doves, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The promotional material was intriguing, describing a series of murders occurring in a small rural community immediately following World War One, the chief suspect a phantom soldier with a painted, doll-like face. It promised all kinds of interest, hinting at everything from the historical novel to the village green murder mystery, from a spine-chilling MR James-type ghost story to the suspense-laden tale of a serial predator.

And indeed, in due course, the book ticks all of these boxes.

The immediate thing that struck me is how well Kate Ellis goes about recreating the immediate post-war atmosphere of small-town England in 1919, by which point, of course, the country hasn’t had anything like enough time to recover. Disproportionate numbers of young men never came home from the Front, while the ones who did carry hideous scars, either physically or mentally, or both.

This part of the book is particularly vividly done (without being heavy-handed), bringing it home to the reader with a bump just what it would have meant to live in a community like this, where the numbers of menfolk have been so cruelly depleted, where so many of the womenfolk, young and old alike, are bereaved. Inevitably, Wenfield is not a happy place, though concerted efforts are made by all to be ‘stiff upper lip’ about it, put on a brave face and get on with their lives (though already there are hints of the terrible Spanish Flu scourge that followed so quickly after World War One and also killed millions).

That’s the backdrop to the narrative, which is unique enough, though the story itself is more than a little bit compelling.

With Wenfield in mourning, and hardly a prosperous village anyway (this is industrial Derbyshire, not the leafy Home Counties), the mood is already very different from anything you’d find in the more typical cosy murder mystery, and yet now we have a brutal slayer and mutilator on the loose rather than a straightforward murderer, and if that isn’t horrific enough, evidence that he may or may not be supernatural in origin. It’s no spoiler to reveal that early on in the text, we see the killer for ourselves as he approaches his victims in lonely places, and he is indeed frightening, a ghastly apparition – ‘human yet not human,’ as the author describes him – someone you’d run a mile from even if he wasn’t about to carve you up with his bayonet. That doesn’t mean that A High Mortality of Doves is a horror story, but it certainly adds more than a frisson of fear to proceedings, particularly whenever another poor woman receives an anonymous message to go and meet a relative she’d thought lost in the mud and blood of the trenches.

Ultimately, of course, despite all these extra trappings, A High Mortality of Doves is still a whodunnit, Kate Ellis cleverly sprinkling her plot with a host of potential suspects … like Sydney Pepper and David Eames, who came back from war disfigured and possibly demented, or Roderick Cartwright, who signed up willingly but was kept out of harm’s way and now resents the hostility of the town’s widows, or like Dr Winsmore, who still can’t (or won’t) account for his wife’s absence, or, more than anyone else, like Dr Bone, who already has a history of sexual predation against women and girls (even though no one knows about this, or at least they don’t dare repeat the rumour because after all, it’s still the Age of Men).

In classic Midsomer Murders fashion, all of these individuals, and others like them, become feasible suspects, the focus of the investigation shifting back and forth between them as the plot twists and loops, the tide of suspicion turning constantly, Kate Ellis keeping the reader guessing right to its final pages, maintaining the satisfaction level throughout (though by the end, it feels like a very different story from the one you started, and I mean that in in a good way).

Another of the book’s strengths is its characters. Flora Winsmore makes for a spirited and likeable lead, and is nicely illustrative of the young women of that era, when World War One changed society and enabled the rise of the suffragette movement. The preceding years have allowed Flora to prove that she is as good and conscientious a worker as any of her male colleagues, having enjoyed the useful independence she found while nursing the wounded, and now keen to take it on full-time. The deep frustration she feels about her father’s refusal to accept this is understandable, and if she at times seems a little eager to thrust herself into the investigation, it’s forgivable given her proactive nature and the relationship she embarks on with Albert Lincoln.

Lincoln himself is an equally complex character, though he owes a little more to that golden age of fictional but sharp-eyed detectives who are invariably imported from outside the murder-stricken community to resolve a case quickly and with minimum fuss while all the locals remain flummoxed. Okay, it isn’t quite that simple, but Lincoln is a familiar figure to us, despite his various scars, though that doesn’t make him any the less reassuring a presence at the heart of this dark tale.

I will admit to having some doubts about the burgeoning romance between Lincoln and Flora, and couldn’t help wondering if it felt a little bit forced. Both characters at least appear to have solid moral centres, and while Flora’s desire to make a new life for herself in the modern world naturally leads her into the arms of a city man with real-life experience, Lincoln’s response appears to be rather callous considering that he’s already married and, though it’s a loveless match, the deep depression that his wife is entrapped in. Lincoln is a sad, rather noble figure, and his dalliance with the feisty Flora feels like a bit of a misstep to me, but that’s only one viewpoint, and lots of others have disagreed.

A High Mortality of Doves remains an engaging and atmospheric mystery, set against the authentically turbulent background of a nation in mourning and in flux. Scary and intriguing in equal parts, while the final devastating denouement is worth the price alone. 

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. My attempt to cast A High Mortality of Doves. Don’t worry, I’ve not been given that actual task. Should we ever be fortunate enough to see this novel be adapted for film or TV, someone who knows what they’re doing will get the gig. This is just a bit of fun (as you’ll realise when you see how much money I’ve spent on the actors).

Flora Winsmore – Lucy Boynton
DI Albert Lincoln – Dominic Cooper
Roderick Cartwright – Aneurin Barnard
Dr Winsmore – Ian Hart
Dr Bone – Rory Kinnear
Sir William Cartwright – Guy Pearce
Edith Barton – Alison Pargeter
Sydney Pepper – Adrian Bower
David Eames – Jamie Bell

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Terror Tales of the Home Counties is here

Okay, it’s here. After much trumpeting online this week, TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES is finally available for pre-order. In addition, I’m at last able to reveal its TABLE OF CONTENTS.

You’ve already seen the artwork. Now check out the list of authors who’ll be gracing our pages, along with a few juicy snippets and a bit of back-story to this publication and others like it.

On top of all that, in the same ‘Mysterious Britain’ vein, I’ll be offering a detailed review and discussion of another British folk-horror collection, THIS DREAMING ISLE, as edited by Dan Coxon, which again brings you a package of original fiction written by a host of horror stars.

If you’re only here because you’re interested in the Coxon antho, that’s fine (Grrr!). As usual, all you need to do is zoom on down to the final section of today’s blog, Thrillers, Chillers, where you can read it straight away. However, before then – just stay awhile – and let’s talk about the …

Home Counties

I like to think that my back-cover blurb to this new book (below) says it all. But just in case you’re still unsure, the Home Counties have to be one of the most bucolic regions of the UK. 

Suburban and semi-rural, they have long possessed the aura of agricultural heartland, and yet they are close enough to London to participate in its buoyant economic life. 

Oh yes, the Home Counties are a tale of prettiness and prosperity. It’s as tranquil as England gets, and as picturesque. Nothing ever goes wrong in this neck of the woods.

You reckon?

Think again.

There’s a dark side to everywhere, even here. And this little lot will leave you in no doubt of that:

CONTENTS

In the English Rain by Steve Duffy
Devils in the Countryside
Monkey’s by Reggie Oliver
The Ostrich Inn
The Old, Cold Clay by Gail-Nina Anderson
The Buckland Shag
Between by Sam Dawson
Three More for the Hangman
My Somnambulant Heart – Andrew Hook
The Horned Huntsman
The Gravedigger of Witchfield by Steven J Dines
The Naphill Death Omen
Where are they Now? by Tina Rath
Land of Dark Arts
The Doom by Paul Finch
Lord Stanhope’s Homonculi
Summer Holiday by John Llewellyn Probert                  
The Coldest Christmas of All
Chesham by Helen Grant
The Raven
Love Leaves Last by Mick Sims
The Thing by the Roadside
The Topsy Turvy Ones by Tom Johnstone
Knocking Knoll
Taking Tusk Mountain by Allen Ashley
The Drowned
Moses by David J Howe
Eerie in Oil
The Old Man in Apartment Ninety by Jason Gould

And for your further delectation, here are a few short clips, just to whet your appetites further:

A man lay on a king-sized bed with his hands behind his neck. He wore a full black-devil mask with gold paint around the eyes and running down either side of the face like tears. The horns and lips were painted red. Like everyone else at the party, he was naked except for the mask he wore. His body was muscular and hairy …
The Gravedigger of Witchfield by Steven J Dines

She would never have got into a car with a perfect stranger, on a sunny day, when she knew a bus would be along in a few minutes. It’s not as if it was pouring with rain … I mean, she wasn’t an idiot. Sharp as a tack … and they never found anything. Not a trace of her or her belongings. Her bank card’s never been used, her phone wasn’t recycled … Nothing.
Where Are They Now? by Tina Rath

The Spanish director José Larraz had filmed his extremely low budget ‘Vampyres’ at Oakley Court. While there was no specific death scene that one could identify with that film, Aunt Agatha certainly liked her wine (there is a prolonged segment featuring wine tasting in the movie) and she was thin enough that her veins would be easily accessible for a neat and hopefully fuss-free exsanguination …
Summer Holiday by John Llewellyn Probert

My mind is populated with scraps of memory intertwined with what can only be nightmares. From those taboo spaces, the abandoned mansion, the lonely copse, the mouldering shelters, things not distinctly seen come creeping. Something shifts stealthily within the empty house. A child wanders into the copse and does not come out again. A Silver Cross pram stands in the shade under a tree in the park – the mother returns with an ice cream, gazes inside, and screams and screams …
Chesham by Helen Grant

TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES is the 12th in a series of horror anthologies I’ve been editing since 2011 (firstly through Gray Friar Press and now through TELOS PUBLISHING, my overarching aim to create a vivid picture of my homeland through the prism of its folklore and mystery, its diversity of landscape and legend. 

For this reason, in each volume I intersperse the fiction with snippets of true terror, i.e. non-fictional accounts of scary rumours and eerie fables connected to the districts in question. The actual fiction I elicit for these books MUST be localised. Whatever part of the country we are talking about, it’s not good enough just to have a story that happens to be set there. It must be relevant to that region, either through history, geography or lore.

To date, as you’re no doubt aware, we’ve covered about half of the UK. The full list of titles is as follows: TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES … THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDSNORTHWEST ENGLAND, CORNWALL, YORKSHIRE, WALES, LONDON, EAST ANGLIA, THE COTSWOLDS, THE LAKE DISTRICTTHE OCEANTHE SEASIDE.

And it’s my absolute intention to continue, and when the tapestry is complete, perhaps to venture beyond our shores. You may have already noticed that in 2015 we published TERROR TALES OFTHE OCEAN

Don’t ask me why I took a break from our round-Britain trip to produce that particular book. I simply can’t remember. But it contains stories set on and beneath oceans as far afield as the Pacific, the Indian and the Antarctic. And yes, there’ll be more of that in due course. There are many locations around the world, both land and sea, whose terrifying traditions I am eager to investigate.

You see, the one thing I’ve learned on this journey is that no corner of any place, no matter how placid on the outside, if you look hard enough, is free from uncanny folklore and gruesome history. But nothing, in my view, illustrates this better than TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES.

So many folk see the Home Counties and think of a place where the GDP per capita is almost indecently high. They see a region of chocolate box villages, cosy dormer towns and blue chip company HQs set in acres of manicured parkland, every part of it offering fast, direct links to the throbbing heart of London commerce.

However, affluence is not the whole story. Pockets of deprivation exist in the HCs, while the presence of so much often-isolated wealth has regularly attracted the interest of ‘higher end’ criminals. Yep, blood has been shed in the Home Counties, and not just recently. Southeast England was always the first part of the country to be invaded. At the same time, social unrest was never far away, local folk turning violent in their resistance to tax or mechanisation. Zealous residents like John Milton and John Bunyan indicate that this was once a land of religious fervour. Heretics were pilloried, martyrs publically burned; there were witch trials and hang-fairs, while highwaymen and footpads plagued the district’s leafy lanes, at many points of which they would later be gibbeted. And then there are those even darker tales. The Home Counties boast a plethora of devilish legends: satanic cults and covens fill its mythology, while malevolent woodland beings – goblins and sprites – haunt its pools and coppices, a host of royal ghosts roams the halls of its rambling country houses, and big cats lurk in every roadside hedgerow.

Fancy hearing more? Something specific perhaps? Something that will really ice your blood?

Well, there’s only one way that’s going to happen.

TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES is available to pre-order right now. Just follow the link.

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

ed by Dan Coxon (2018)

One of several recent anthologies of short stories brought out to celebrate the current and expanding interest in British folk-horror and the British folk-weird, though I think in this case the emphasis is more on the latter than the former despite editor Dan Coxon’s selection of stories by some very familiar and much-lauded horror writers. This Dreaming Isle comes to us from Unsung Stories, an independent, London-based imprint already responsible for a range of intriguing titles from a host of up-and-coming authors.

Before we get into the meat of the anthology, here’s what the publishers themselves have to say about it in their back-cover blurb:

Britain’s long history of folk tales, ghost stories and other uncanny fictions shimmers beneath the surface of this green and pleasant land. Every few generations the strangeness crawls out from the dark places of the British imagination, along literary ley lines, seeping into our art and culture. We are living through such a time.

This collection of seventeen new horror stories and weird fictions draws upon the landscape and history of the British Isles. They walk the realms of folklore and legend but are firmly rooted in the present, calling to the country’s forgotten spaces. The ghostly figures half-hidden by mist, the shadows in city corners, and the violence of the sea, battering the coastline relentlessly. The land dreams them all.

Featuring exclusive stories from Ramsey Campbell and Tim Lebbon, Jenn Ashworth and Andrew Michael Hurley, join us as we reclaim the dark heart of Britain’s literary legacy.

Unsung Stories have a self-stated aim to focus on literary fiction, and there’s no doubt with The Dreaming Isle that they’ve hit that target from the start. There is some immensely high quality writing on show here along with some very subtle story-telling. Whether the tales themselves will all be to everyone’s taste is another matter, but the technical skills of the authors Dan Coxon has brought together are beyond doubt. There isn’t a clunker in the book, every contribution a smooth and well-crafted piece of speculative fiction and a pleasure to read.

The folk aspect is also heavily to the fore, the book set now, in contemporary Britain, with all the bleak ugliness that sometimes entails, and yet is richly atmospheric of an ancient land steeped in mystery and tradition, so much of it drawn from the landscape itself and the seasons and customs that continuously transform it.

Whether it’s classifiable as ‘horror’ is, as I say, up for debate. But we are firmly in the realm of the weird, and there is much here that will disturb and unnerve the average reader even if it doesn’t necessarily terrify them.

Rather oddly, I thought, the book is divided up along geographic lines. We have a rural section, an urban section and then a coastal section. To me, though I wouldn’t be so bold as to try to establish the criteria for what folk-horror is or must be, I’ve always thought that one aspect of it at least is a concern about what lies just below the surface of modern society. Therefore, cities and towns are not special cases. Just because all the henges, holy wells and green ways that once occupied their sites have now been swept away by conurbation, that doesn’t mean the latent powers aren’t still there. But this is really a minor quibble. It’s the editor’s choice and it doesn’t really spoil anything, so I’m probably being pedantic just mentioning it.

Of the stories themselves, several from all these sections I can comfortably categorise as traditional spook stories, albeit spook stories written with panache … and though the horrors aren’t always subtle, they don’t bludgeon the reader either.

Possibly the best example of this is the first story in the book, The Pier at Ardentinny by Catriona Ward. This is an excellent piece all-round and ticks every box for me personally. It’s also the most typically horrorish in the book (for want of a better term) in that it features a disturbed central character being taken away from a terrible past to an apparent place of safety, only to be confronted by something even worse. (More about this one later).

Even more traditional than this in that it’s immersed in a more familiar legend, Alison Littlewood hits us with The Headland of Black Rock, in which a past-it actor who has used and abused women all his life takes a solo holiday on the Cornish coast and is immediately bewitched by a beautiful girl he sees strolling in the surf. It’s a well-trodden horror path, but as always with Littlewood, the quality of the prose carries you through at speed.

A similar theme of deserved comeuppance lurks in James Miller’s Not All Right, the first story in the book to take us into the city. In this one, a right-wing agitator and general layabout comes to London to look for a top job and while he does, stays in his powerbroker uncle’s posh flat. But the building is eerie as well as swish, and he never feels quite alone while he’s there. A slick, exquisite tale of creeping paranoia.

Back to the countryside again, and two more tales displaying classic supernatural tropes.

The ever-reliable Stephen Volk’s Cold Ashton is laced with righteous fury about bigotry and ignorance, but it doesn’t forget that it’s a horror story either, so it doesn’t completely dismiss the worries and concerns of the uneducated past, and ends on an intensely televisual (and rather spine-chilling) note. (More about this one later too). Then we have Kirsty Logan’s Domestic Magic, which gives us our second Scottish Highlands setting of the anthology, and evokes another ancient and unnerving piece of local mythology, the gradual emergence of which becomes progressively scarier. (More about this one later as well).

Over to the coast now, where one of the true masters of modern horror, Ramsey Campbell spins another of his unapologetically terrifying psychological yarns, The Devil in the Details. As always with Campbell, though there are snippets of local folklore embedded in this tale, the nightmarish qualities owe more to the inner demons of its disturbed and isolated characters, but the quality of the work, as ever, is supreme. (Yes … more about this one later too).

On the subject of damaged psychology, speculative fiction, by its very nature, is an art form made-to-measure for addressing the human condition, and This Dreaming Isle doesn’t let us down on that score.

Jenn Ashworth’s Old Trash maintains a semblance of the classic mythological horror story, but is ultimately more interested in the interplay of its juxtaposed characters as a tired but concerned mother struggles to get her wayward daughter out of an inappropriate relationship by treating her to a camping trip in the wilds around Pendle Hill, at the same time trying to ignore the local myths about roaming devil dog, Old Trash. You’ll never look at a tent the same way again.

Another dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship is on show in Alison Moore’s The Stone Dead, which sees recently separated mum, Lesley, living in an isolated coastal house where she is regularly visited and tormented by her own disapproving mother. It’s a truly agonising scenario, and something, you feel certain, is eventually going to give. 

Perhaps the subtlest tale in the book, though, comes from Aliya Whiteley. In Dark Shells, she takes the guise of an OAP whose mind is now drifting, and yet who is able to relate disjointed stories from her past to an interested researcher. There are eerie secrets buried in these tales of course, but the story’s greatest strength, for me at least, stems from its completely authentic portrayal of an aged person struggling to recollect, link and articulate the key events in her life.

Now, from the personal canvas of the inner self to the much broader canvas of the land.

It’s surprised me in recent years how much the folk-horror subgenre has become fixated on ‘the land’. But that is just me being unimaginative. The notion that everything about us is written there, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, is increasingly a subject of analysis in this field. And let’s be honest, the idea that the land itself – the rock forms, the forest, the marsh, the windswept coastline – is the key to our existence is hardly new. Throughout all of human history, we’ve worshipped it, we’ve fought over it, we’ve ruined it, we’ve regenerated it, we’ve played out every drama in our lives across every part of it. No wonder it’s fuelled so many of our fantasies and dreams. While we’ve changed as the millennia have rolled by, the land itself hasn’t, apart from superficially. We shouldn’t be surprised if everything about us, including everything we’ve ever believed, is somehow recorded there, layer upon layer. Not all of it, of course, good.

Inevitably, this key note is hit several times in This Dreaming Isle, though always in different, imaginative ways. The most startling example for me is surely Gareth E Rees’s very clever The Knucker, which sees different strands of history entwine to create the legend of the Knucker, a terrifying sea-dragon said to have terrorised England’s South Coast during the Dark Ages, and at the same time provide a ‘locked room’ mystery for 21st century cops when two travellers are found drowned miles from the nearest water-source. Meanwhile, another master of the lyrical horror story, Tim Lebbon, brings us his own unique take in Land of Many Seasons. Here, a lonely artist paints various aspects of a rugged Welsh mountainside at different times of year. Increasingly though, a strange figure keeps appearing on the canvas, which he has no memory of painting. The only explanation may lie in the eerie local legend of ‘the walker’.

Less spooky but no less disturbing, top-stylist Andrew Michael Hurley chips in with In My Father’s House, which also presents us with some very neat character work. In this one, Lancashire lad, Mike, isn’t keen to build bridges with his grumpy old dad, but after the aged parent gets a beating from someone, they reluctantly try to reconnect. Dad is a strange one, these days, though, as Mike discovers one night just before Christmas, on the wide, snowy moors.

Perhaps the most land-oriented of them all, however, comes in the shape of Gary Budden’s melancholy Hovering, in which the central character, Iain, while struggling to recover after the end of a long-term relationship, moves to Pegwell Bay in Kent, a deceptively dreary place, where the ghosts of many different pasts are soon congregating around him.

Of course, none of these affecting stories would pack an nth of the power they do if it wasn’t also for that inner landscape of the human mind, which they each evoke and examine in just as much detail as they do the wild spaces of forgotten Britain.

I haven’t talked about every story in This Dreaming Isle. That’s not because they didn’t all work for me, though inevitably one or two didn’t, but simply because I have to leave some of it to the imagination. But it would remiss of me not to at least mention in passing Robert Shearman’s astonishing contribution, The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand.

Shearman is nothing if not an expert surrealist, and in this tale takes it to new extremes, the central plank of it seeing a male escort hired to lie naked on the floor as a human rug during a decadent Kensington cocktail party, though at no stage is he given a firm answer as to when the ordeal will end. My initial thought after this was that it wasn’t folk-horror, and yet, in truth, I’d never be so bold as to proclaim that. There are multiple meanings to Shearman’s crisply-written and never-less-than-disturbing urban fiction – it’s down to all of us to get what we can out of it. Be warned, though: this tale is more distressing than most.  

And now …

THIS DREAMING ISLE – the movie.

Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware). But you never know. Until that happy time comes, here – purely in the spirit of having a bit of fun – are my thoughts on how it should look and feel were it ever to finish up on the big screen.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a compendium horror. Of course, no such movie can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate strange and eerie tales (with more of an emphasis on strangeness and dreaminess than usual, in this one, I think). 

It could be that each segment is an unsolved paranormal case, as handed by one retired and decrepit investigator to a young up-n-comer (al la Ghost Stories, right), or maybe their stories are all connected to various items available in a backstreet trinket shop (such as in From Beyond the Grave).

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

The Pier at Ardentinny (by Catriona Ward): Irene’s beauty protected her during her abusive childhood, but she still did bad things. Later, as a repressed adult, she potentially finds love with elderly and respectable Anthony, who takes her home to Scotland. But she’s worried, because rumour holds that if you look into the loch at Ardentinny, the reflection in the waters will reveal your true self …

Irene – Anya Taylor Joy
Anthony – Dougray Scott

Cold Ashton (by Stephen Volk): A Cotswolds scholar investigates a bunch of village documents detailing a 16th century witch trial. He is appalled by the injustice and cruelty meted out to the suspect, Joan Goodchyld, but chilled by the suggestion that whatever dark magic was woven all those centuries ago, the terrible results might still be in the village…

The Investigator– Jason Watkins
Joan Goodchyld – Katheryn Winnick

Domestic Magic (by Kirsty Logan): Same sex couple, Rain and Alison, inherit a tumbledown cottage in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a mess and needs much work, but more worrying than this are the many clues they find seemingly proving the family fable that Alison’s ambitious and ruthless grandma once trapped a kelpie here, and killed it …

Alison – Rose Leslie
Rain – Betty Gabriel

The Devil in the Details (by Ramsey Campbell): Young Brian and his family take newly divorced Aunt Leonie to a drab seaside town on the Northwest coast. But after witnessing a fatal accident, Brian becomes terrified of the mysteriously angelic murals, painted by a renownedly evil man, that seem to cover the interiors of the local stately buildings ...

Aunt Leonie – Annabel Scholey
Brian – All suggestions welcome. I don’t know too many child actors.