Monday, 4 July 2016

Dead men walk again in the mountain mist


There are a few bits and bobs to report today. I'm also happy to include my detailed review of Mark Mills's fantastic wartime murder mystery, THE INFORMATION OFFICER, which as usual can be found towards the lower end of this post. Be my guest and shoot on down there if you wish, but for those who've got a bit more time on their hands ... the main news of the week is that DEAD MAN WALKING, my serial killer novel of 2014, is available now on e-download at the reduced price of 99p (and will remain so until July 11).

For those who don't remember it, or those who are tuning into this column for the first time, DEAD MAN WALKING was the fourth novel in my DS Heckenburg series and is set entirely in the British Lake District during a freezing and foggy winter (check the image above for a taste of what that actually means). It sees Heck and Gemma, his ex-girlfriend now turned boss, more or less marooned in a high mountain village, which appears to be the epicentre of a deranged killing spree, the unknown assailant crossing the fells and rivers and forests from one isolated farm or settlement to the next, hacking and shooting his random victims to death and gouging out their eyes in the process.

Here's a quick extract to whet your whistles:

As with most of the other vehicles, the car’s tyres looked as if they’d been repeatedly sliced, reducing them to ribbons, negating any possibility it could be driven anywhere.
Up close, Heck noticed that the front passenger window had been powered down. Someone had probably appeared on the verge, waving to the vehicle as it had cruised through the fog. It had braked alongside them. Down went the panel as those inside sought an explanation. Bang bang bang went the assassin’s gun.
Heck stuck his head inside.
     It was another abattoir, blood and brain spatter streaking the dashboard, the upholstery, the insides of all the windows, even the ceiling. The officer in the passenger seat, a youngish burly guy with a shaven head, had taken one in the left temple and one in the throat. The officer behind the wheel looked about the same age, but was slimmer; his face was unrecognisable because most of it had been blown away. There was one other officer in the back, an older man with a mop of iron-grey hair. He’d taken one in the forehead and one through the cheek ...

*

In other thriller news this week, I was very honoured to be invited to attend the Big Book Bonanza event at the Black Dog Ballroom in Manchester (part of the HarperCollins annual book showcase), where in company with Jo Cannon (the only other author present), I was introduced by my publishers, Avon, to a whole range of Waterstone's folk from all across the Northwest, with whom we socialised, gossiped, drank and generally discussed our work. Also available at the venue was a mountainous pile of uncorrected proofs for STRANGERS, my next police thriller, which is actually published in September - so I'm delighted to be able to report that my book-signing arm was pretty tired by the end of the evening.

STRANGERS is a bit of a deviation for me in that I move away from the Serial Crimes Unit at Scotland Yard, Heck's home base, to the junior ranks of the CID up in Manchester, where a young female cop, Lucy Clayburn, is trying to find her feet in the quest to capture 'Jill the Ripper', a female lunatic who targets and then sexually mutilates and murders men.

Isn't this a bit of a reverse to the norm?, I hear you ask.

Yes, certainly, and well ... why not? One of the most contentious issues in crime thrillers today, particularly those focussing on sexual or serial homicide, tends to be the preponderance of female victims. This reflects real life of course, tragically. Most of the world's real-life sadistic killers appear to be men, and most of the innocents they butcher are women. It's a hideous trend but one that doesn't  necessarily need to be reflected in fiction. 
So in STRANGERS I've tried to buck it. Here's a quick excerpt:

Lucy went left, turning a corner into open space. Nothing stirred in the inky blackness in front of her. Instinctively, she reached for the phone in her pocket, to switch its light on, only to remember that it was in the pocket of the other coat. Not that she was completely blinded; after so long at the bottom of Dedman Delph, her eyes were readjusting quickly. She spied a row of broken windows further to her left, all covered in wire netting. It gave sufficient illumination to show a floor strewn with boxes and piles of old newspapers, and what looked like masses of wood and timber piled against the walls.

     Still there was no movement, neither from Nehwal nor anyone hiding out in here. Even so, Lucy only shuffled forward with caution. ‘Ma’am?
     There was no reply. Until a fierce red light seared through the windows, a loud series of rat-a-tat bangs accompanying it.
      More fireworks … but even so Lucy froze.
     In that fleeting instant, she’d seen a figure standing in a corner.
     Indistinct but tall – taller than she was – and wearing dark clothing, including some kind of hat pulled partly down over its face. It stood very still between an old wardrobe and an upright roll of carpet.
     Lucy pivoted slowly towards it. As the firework flashes diminished again, only its outline remained visible – its outline and its face, which, though it was partially concealed, glinted palely, and, she now saw, was garish in the extreme; grotesquely made-up with bright slashes of what in proper lighting would no doubt be lurid colour ...


*

In other news this week, non-crime-related on this occasion (we're strictly into the realms of the weird and surreal with this one!) I was very flattered to be asked to supply a story to top fantasy author Storm Constantine's DARK IN THE DAY anthology.

To quote Storm herself:

"We're used to weird dreams but what about the wide-awake weird? This collection celebrates evocative tales of oddness that span the genres of magic realism, the supernatural, the fantastical and the speculative ..."

I'm in some truly great company in here, as you can see from the list of august names on the cover. My own contribution is a story called WICKEN FEN, which concerns an ill-fated barge trip into the Cambridgeshire fens on a very hot and eerily quiet summer's day.

*

THRILLER, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ...

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

THE INFORMATION OFFICER by Mark Mills (2009)

Malta was no place to be in the summer of 1942.

A British-held strategic fortress in the middle of the Mediterranean, it maintained a vital link between the Allied base at Gibraltar and the Eighth Army in North Africa, for which reason it was hammered by Axis planes, wave after wave carpet-bombing the island indiscriminately, not just killing and maiming members of the garrison, but making life a misery for the natives, filling their graveyards with fresh corpses, their hospitals with casualties and laying waste to their homes and businesses.

This is the remarkable and tumultuous backdrop to Mark Mills's fascinating crime thriller, The Information Officer. It is also one hell of a headache for the book’s main hero, Major Max Chadwick … because Max is quite literally the British authority in Malta’s ‘Information Officer’, aka propaganda chief. He it is who, on a daily basis, must minimise the bad news and find and exaggerate the good, not just to boost the morale of the beleaguered British forces, but to try and keep the islanders onside. This isn’t Malta’s war, after all. Why should the Maltese support the British in this terrible, apocalyptic fight which was never of their making and for which they are now paying such an appalling price?

As you can imagine, Max’s job is a difficult one at the best of times, but it gets a whole lot harder when British doctor, Freddie Lambert, confides in him that he thinks there may be a serial killer of prostitutes on the island, and more worrying still, that it could be a British submariner. Max is stunned, but the facts speak for themselves: it seems that three Maltese hostesses catering to British forces have been found raped and murdered, their deaths disguised as bombing fatalities – and that one of them was clutching a tell-tale military lapel when discovered.

The implications of this are so terrifying – namely that on the eve of a possible German invasion, it could turn the Maltese against the British, which might lead to a complete collapse of Allied operations in the Mediterranean – that the governor’s main priority is to keep the whole thing under wraps. But Max, egged on by Lilian, a feisty Anglo/Maltese girl who edits one of the local newspapers, undertakes to investigate himself.

What follows is a death-defying game of cat and mouse played out among blazing ruins and raining bombs, Max increasingly coming to suspect that not only may the killer be a Nazi agent trying to set the British and Maltese apart, but possibly a double-agent too. Suddenly, he doesn’t know who to trust; the comfy world of the British officer corps no longer feels familiar. Max even suspects that he himself may be in danger, but the die is now cast, and this affable if rather louche young man, finally determined to do something honourable for the war effort, persists in trying to muddle his way to an answer. At the same time, he must navigate the tricky waters of adultery, because, very ill-advisedly, he is currently the lover of Mitzi, a sad but brave Englishwoman who spends every day writing letters of condolence to the sweethearts of airmen recently killed, and yet who is trapped in a loveless marriage herself. Of course, this complex situation is only made a hundred times worse when Max uncovers evidence that may implicate Mitzi’s husband …

The Information Officer is a many-headed beast: serial killer mystery, wartime adventure and espionage thriller all rolled into one, with a big dollop of romance mixed in.

It is also, to use some period terminology, a corking read.

To start with, it benefits from an immense historicity, painting an incredibly evocative picture of life on Malta during those hellish days, juxtaposing the sun-burnished ‘olde worlde’ architecture, the dusty hills and azure Mediterranean seascapes with an endless carnage of burned buildings, heaped corpses and severed limbs – and yet it goes much further even than this into the realms of mind-boggling authenticity. From the outset here, we are steeped in the officer class, a world of clubs, barracks, bunkers and cocktail evenings, all crammed with stiff upper-lip types, not to mention their dutiful wives, who, in the time-honoured fashion of Britain’s colonies, are also spirited, sensual and occasionally wayward. Moments of war-induced craziness abound, drinks parties and love-making sessions going uninterrupted by colossal air raids, some of the chaps practicing their golf swings by lofting high shots at the German fighters cruising low overhead, Max himself roaring around the island and its many craters on a clapped-out motorbike that he cobbled together from the charred and broken parts of lots of others (and finally, inevitably, coming a cropper on it) – and yet all of this stands in sharp, shameful contrast to the empty shops and endless misery of the local people, to the deep, sweaty shelters where the innocent Maltese hide petrified from the endless aerial onslaught.

Some reviewers, those only looking for a crime thriller, have expressed irritation at this constant intrusion into the narrative by World War Two, but I strongly disagree with them, firstly on the basis that this intense wartime atmosphere is so vivid as to be almost intoxicating, but also because such complaints totally miss the point about the possible insurrection this series of heinous murders might ignite. Surely no stakes in a psycho killer story have ever been as high as these?

Meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos, Max Chadwick makes an unlikely and yet likeable hero. An affable young man, though pretty ordinary in many ways, promoted to his position through family connections, he’s never been completely prepared for the daily difficulties of his role, through in that ‘band of brothers’ fashion he manages to keep it together sufficiently to get through. In terms of the other characters, Freddie Lambert, his closest friend, is a different kettle of fish; cut from the same cloth, but a hard-headed customer who remains completely focussed on his own task, which is to patch up the shattered bodies of friend and foe alike, and occasionally taking time out to forensically assess the murder victims. Then we have Elliot, another key player in the drama, an American officer who for various reasons is currently stationed on Malta, but who is much more than a standard wise-cracker – there are many mysterious depths to Max’s US buddy. 

It would be wrong to sign off without mentioning the ladies, though here, I think, lies the only weak link in The Information Officer. Both Lilian and Mitzi, while strong and beautiful, are somewhat underused, though to be fair that is often because we see so much of the action from Max’s own viewpoint (or from the killer’s, who of course is never named until the grand finale) – though this does seem to weaken them a little, Lilian understandably humourless as she witnesses the annihilation of her countrymen, Mitzi whose status as permanently unhappy wife leaves her in a kind of Limbo.

But these are only small criticisms. The Information Officer is one terrific thriller, totally engrossing as a mystery and hair-raising in its depictions of wartime terror and destruction, not to mention in the depredations of Malta’s very own Ripper – and on top of that it all ends with one of the best twists it’s ever been my experience to encounter on the written page.

I consider myself an expert, and I never even saw it coming. 

As always – purely for fun, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Information Officer ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (and this one is absolutely begging for it):

Max – Tom Hiddleston
Lilian – Valentina Lodovini
Freddie – Benedict Cumberbatch
Elliot – Robert Downey Jnr
Mitzi – Kelly Reilly

(Thanks to Pixabay Free Images for the shot at the top).

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Massive names sign as the War Wolf howls

It’s all about the lupine this week, as we focus our thoughts on those fearsome wolfish things that prowl the benighted woods and moors on two legs, often in the glare of an icy full moon, snarling and slashing and snapping and biting, and tearing anyone they encounter to gory shreds for no more reason than the demonic rage that possesses them drives them to do it …

Sorry if that seems like an OTT intro, but I’ve got some exciting news on the movie-making front (and what a rarity that is these days!), as WAR WOLF, my medieval action/horror screenplay suddenly starts moving towards preproduction, with big budget movie maestro SIMON WEST slated to direct.

On a conveniently similar subject, I also cast my eye this week over one of the great werewolf novels of our time, Whitley Strieber’s THE WOLFEN, which first hit the shelves way back in 1978 (as a teen horror buff  back in those days, I remember buying it on the very day it appeared in our local bookshop, which kind of places me in history … I think).

As usual, that review can be found at the lower end of this post. Feel free to get straight down there now and check it out if you wish. But if you’re as interested in ‘movie werewolves’ as you are in ‘novel werewolves’, then you might want to read the next few paragraphs first as I'm now in a position to fully update you all on WAR WOLF and to lay bare all these meaty new developments I've so tantalisingly hinted at.

In concept, WAR WOLF started life as an original horror movie idea, which I first pitched way back in 2013 to top production company, AMBER ENTERTAINMENT.

The idea sprang from my fascination with medieval history and my lifelong love affair with ancient European legends. Throughout my writing life, I’ve enjoyed merging the real with the unreal. That hasn’t particularly applied to my crime writing, but when it’s come to fantasy and horror I’ve found it the perfect vehicle. There is truly nothing I enjoy more than invoking one of those tumultuous events in western history (in The Gods of Green And Grey it was the Roman Conquest of Britain, in Sparrowhawk the massacre of British troops in 19th century Afghanistan and the subsequent penning of a great Victorian novel) and then dovetailing it all with weird and mythical horror.

In this regard, the Hundred Years War was something I'd always fancied having a bash at.

Waged between the kingdoms of England and France between 1337 and 1453, this was an incredibly bitter and prolonged struggle, which saw five generations of kings on either side of the English Channel fight furiously for control of the French Crown. A series of horrendous battles, apocalyptic sieges and protracted campaigns responsible for the destruction of numberless towns, villages, vineyards and harvests, went on to cost an estimated 3.5 million lives (and remember, this was with axes, swords, spears and arrows, not modern mechanised weaponry, so in terms of pure carnage it was unimaginably up close and personal).

This was truly the conflict to end them all, one of the very bloodiest of the Middle Ages, but it struck me that I could make it even bloodier if I factored in the medieval French legend of the Loup Garou, a man/wolf hybrid created either by sorcery or a curse, which though it most likely had passed into Frankish folklore from Scandinavian mythology via the Viking invasions of the Dark Ages (Berserkers and all that!), would soon become archetypally French and the prototype for all werewolf tales to follow (not to mention the cause of a good number of real-life werewolf trials – France had vastly more than any other European country, most of which resulted in burnings at the stake or breakings on the wheel!).

Anyway, enough with the history lesson. I’m sure most of you already have a pretty good handle on where werewolves come from. And this may possibly explain why my pitch found such a positive response.

At first I'd thought it the longest shot conceivable. Imagine offering a modern day movie house a period piece (and I mean a real period piece, with armour and castles and a cast of thousands!), which would be prohibitively expensive in its own right! And then imagine adding lots and lots of werewolves, with all those costly fur and blood effects! But what I maybe hadn’t accounted for was the new age of high fantasy we are currently living in – Lord of the Rings really kicking things off on the big screen of course, and Game of Thrones continuing the good fight on TV (not to mention the huge interest generated by games: The Elder Scrolls - Skyrim, Witcher 3 - Wild Hunt, Dragon Age - Inquisiton and the like).

All of a sudden these kinds of projects are HOT.

I should add that this is only my theory for the reason WAR WOLF received the immediate thumbs-up, though I think there’s something in it. Suffice to say I was very surprised by the response – delighted, but still surprised.

AMBER, who are nothing if not an ambitious and forward-thinking media company, subsequently commissioned a script from me. I got stuck into it, and though it went through several drafts, as is always the way these days, and another top writer of my acquaintance, ANDY BRIGGS, was brought on board to assist (as is also the way in the modern movies), we gradually made progress until we finally reached the stage early last month when ace Hollywood director SIMON WEST (who's been responsible for such hits as Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Expendables 2) took the helm, while make-up experts DAVE AND LOU ELSEY also signed up (their roster of spectacular successes includes Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Where the Wild Things Are and X Men: First Class).

What we have now is a planned franchise of ‘War Wolf’ movies scheduled for production through a partnership of AMBER, FORTITUDE INTERNATIONAL and SIMON WEST, with the first installment set for a November shoot in Italy.

Now, I must admit that I’ve been in this heady position in the past. I’ve penned many movies over the years, only two of which have ever made it to the screen – THE DEVIL’S ROCK (2011) and SPIRIT TRAP (2005) – and while several of the others have reached the stage where they were apparently only weeks from preproduction, the chances of anything really happening still felt slim, before, somewhat predictably, they began to fade (fewer and fewer phone-calls, fewer and fewer invitations to lunch, etc) until the whole thing had whispered away like smoke.

But this is distinctly NOT the feeling I have on this occasion.

I doubt I’ve ever been involved with a movie project to which as much A-list talent was so enthusiastically attached. It feels good, folks, I mean really good. So you’ve simply got to keep watching THIS space.

The ‘Wolf of War’ could be howling very, very soon. 





THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ...


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


THE WOLFEN 
by Whitley Strieber (1978)

When two beat-cops are murdered in a Brooklyn scrapyard, ‘fire and water’ detectives Becky Neff and George Wilson are put on the case. But it soon becomes apparent that this is not going to be just another day in Homicide. The murder scene is utterly repellent, the two victims having been mutilated, disembowelled and partially eaten, and then things turn even more bizarre when forensic analysis uncovers traces of unidentifiable ‘canine’ assailants.

Neff and Wilson consider various possibilities. Is a pack of particularly dangerous strays stalking New York? Or has someone trained himself a couple of killer dogs?

And of course, it doesn’t end with these two crimes. Soon there are more unexplained mutilation-deaths, usually in the most deprived corners of the city, the victims invariably drug-users or homeless alcoholics. In fact, it transpires that many Skid Row types have gone missing in the recent past without anyone really noticing.

Has something terrible been living concealed alongside the normal citizenry for decades maybe, feeding on the flotsam of modern urban life?

This ‘something’ is introduced to us in short-order, because a big part of this famous crime/horror crossover novel’s appeal is that it gives us the chance to assess the unfolding drama from both viewpoints – man’s and beast’s.

The Wolfen themselves are a kind of werewolf pack, only they don’t live normal lives and then suddenly grow hairy at night and start howling at the moon. They retain their hybrid form 24/7, and are incredibly strong and ferocious, and very, very agile – when they launch their murderous attacks, which we get to see unstintingly, it is in a blood-spattered blur of immeasurable speed. They are also hyper-sensitive and intelligent, and it isn’t long before they realise the cops are hunting them. As such, they opt to strike back hard, pre-empting their own demise by killing their two main opponents, Neff and Wilson.

When our heroes wise up to the fact they are next in line, they go to ground themselves, but that isn’t easy when the predators on their tail are the most proficient, the most savage and the most relentless the modern world has ever seen …

How to start discussing this superior and extraordinary horror novel of the 1970s without saying that I’m completely bamboozled it ever dropped from sight the way it has? This is partly, I suspect, due to the rather poor movie adaptation made in 1981, which, though it had its moments, strayed a long way from the original, preferring to talk politics and Native American mysticism, and starring Albert Finny as Wilson and Diane Venora as Neff, two good actors but sadly miscast here.

The worst mistake the film made, however, was with the Wolfen themselves, which it basically depicted as large, cute-looking dogs who panted more than they snarled, and whose complex nature and society it completely failed to examine. In the novel, the Wolfen are hellish antagonists for our hapless cop heroes, especially as at first no-one even believes they exist; they are literally a pack of killing machines – as curious Dr. Carl Ferguson, from the New York Museum of Natural History, discovers when he tries to make friends with them – and yet you sympathise with their position. This is their world as much as ours, but they know that if they were to come out into the open they’d be exterminated. Despite this, they are remarkable creatures; not just physically impressive, but reasoning and emotional – they have strong family ties, individual personalities, an order of rank and loyalty, and a strong survival instinct, which naturally resists a world they know would unhesitatingly destroy them.

On top of all this, the original Neff and Wilson are a great pair of down-at-heel heroes, the former a cool and attractive but tightly-wound officer who is constantly having to deal with the fall-out of cop-husband Dick’s dodgy dealings (he is now being investigated for corruption), and who wages a daily personal war against the institutionalised chauvinism that embattles her (this is the 70s, remember – female detectives were few and far between). Wilson, on the other hand, is more an archetype: slobbish, a drinker and a time-served veteran who, though he’s good at the job, is often unmotivated these days. He drives his partner mad with his lackadaisical approach and cynical attitude (not to mention his unspoken desire for her), but on the whole they work well together and trust each other, and you genuinely fear for them as the danger intensifies.

One accusation aimed at The Wolfen was that its hardboiled crime atmosphere jars with the underlying horror story, and that many of its protagonists are too willing to accept the mythical supernatural killers in their midst. But I don’t buy that. To start with, the Wolfen are basically animals – monstrous for sure, but non-supernatural. Secondly, Neff and Wilson only come round to accepting this via a long learning-curve, during which they encounter increasingly persuasive and gory evidence.

Meanwhile, the vast, grimy sprawl of the city has a role too. Yes, superficially The Wolfen is a crime thriller: it goes heavy on the legal speak and the police procedural, and as I’ve said, the cops are real cops with real-life problems – everything in The Wolfen, aside from the beasts themselves, is real. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which any city, least of all the Big Apple, is as dingily and desolately portrayed as it is here.

I swear, it’s almost dreamlike: the endless dirt and garbage, the graffiti, the urban dereliction, the towering hulks of empty, boarded-up buildings – it’s a despair-ridden Hellscape, a darkly fantastical necropolis where almost any type of badness could be lurking. And it is used particularly well in one scene, where the two cops are drawn into the hideous environment of a derelict apartment block by the persistent crying of a baby, only to suddenly get suspicious that this isn’t what they are hearing at all but someone, or something, mimicking the sound in order to lure them. This is easily one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in any novel … for which reason I’ll say no more about it because that would really spoil things.

Suffice to say that Strieber corkscrews the tension from this point on, creating fewer and fewer places where our heroes can feel safe, until eventually there is nowhere at all – and what an explosive finale results from that.

At the end of the day, you just have to read The Wolfen yourselves. Okay, it’s an oldish book, but it’s still incredibly fast and taut, and beautiful writing – even when it’s ‘beautifully horrible’ like this – is beautiful writing, whatever its era. 

As usual – purely for fun, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if a more truthful version of The Wolfen ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (the first film was okay in parts, but in my view it made the big mistake of veering way too far from the source material; if it ain’t broken, why fix it?):

Detective Becky Neff – Bridget Moynahan 
Detective George Wilson  David Duchovny 
Dr. Carl Ferguson – Chiwetel Ejiofor

(In terms of the images used in this blog, from top to bottom we have: Paul Campion's pre-production design of a minion werewolf from the early days of development on War Wolf; an original medieval portrayal of the bloody battle of Aljubarotta in 1385; two 17th century woodcuts depicting werewolves; Andy Briggs; Simon West;The Devil's Rock; more Paul Campion preproduction artwork, this time depicting the War Wolf as it encroaches on an enemy stronghold; and last but far from least, the original 1978 cover of The Wolfen - the very one I bought all those years ago, heheheh ...)

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Most terrifying mysteries of the real world


There’s definitely an air of ‘the truth is out there’ this week, as we assess some strange and bewildering things that may actually exist in our world … though then again, they may not.

To start with, today’s book review will focus on Steve Alten’s epic action/horror tale of cryptozoology gone mad, MEG. It already enjoys classic status, but if you haven’t yet heard of it, think blue water and an unfeasibly massive dorsal fin cutting a bloody wake along a sun-drenched but worryingly depopulated coastline, and you won’t go far wrong.

For those who’ve only come here for the review, you’ll find it, as always, towards the lower end of this post. Be my guest and zoom on down. However, for those who’ve got a little more time on their hands, I first I thought it might be fun to trawl through my top 10 weird and scary photos from the internet and, where possible, offer real-world explanations for them.

Yes, you’ll most likely have seen several of these images before, if not all of them, but I dug around a bit and tried to come up with some relevant background info. Most, as you’ll see, are not actually as mysterious as they may initially appear, but one or two still defy understanding.
 
1. MEGALODON …


Megalodon, or Carcharodon megalodon, was the apex predator of the prehistoric ocean. In essence, a gargantuan shark, a 60 foot long, 50 ton killing machine, it is probably more deserving of the epithet ‘sea monster’ than any other aquatic creature that has ever lived.

It flourished primarily in the Cenozoic Era, and though there are fragments of archaeological evidence to suggest that specimens of Megalodon might have lived on until as recently as 10,000 years ago (a blip in evolutionary time between then and now!), the clever money is on them all being gone by the year 1,000,000 BC. 

However, when this incredible photograph first emerged in the early 2010s, purporting to show an image captured by German naval forces during World War Two just off Cape Town, it set the cryptozoological community’s head spinning.

Rumours had circled for years that Megalodon might still exist; the ocean’s extreme depths are largely unmapped, there have been many unexplained sinkings of ships, occasional so-called sightings, and so forth. But this picture looked like the first piece of real, solid evidence.

Except, sadly, that it wasn’t.

It was first presented as proof on Megalodon, The Monster Shark Lives, a mockumentary first aired by Discovery Channel in 2013, to which disclaimers attached to the programme before it was aired admitted that some of the evidence about to be screened was fictional.

As such, it is most likely to be a professionally-made fake.

German military forces never used the swastika watermark on their photographic records, the sepia-toning was unknown in military reconnaissance photography at that time, and the titanic dorsal fin, somewhat suspiciously, is leaving no wake. One independent researcher has even claimed to have found the actual footage from which this still was taken, and assures us there was no shark there beforehand, of any size.


2. THE LAST PHOTOGRAPH OF CHARLIE NOONAN …


This now famous American legend tells the tale of a roaming folklorist in the 1920s/30s called Charlie Noonan. According to the tales, Noonan would travel from state to state, seeking out strange and wonderful stories and looking to capture evidence for them on his box-camera. His final trip took him to Oklahoma at the time of the Dust Bowl. He was on the trail of a mysterious old woman who allegedly lived in an area of farmland that had completely died, and who supposedly “was not entirely human”.  It was never specified what the latter actually meant, but she was also said to be accompanied by a demonic hound.

Even then, in a time of despair, the whole thing sounded fanciful, but Noonan eventually got in touch with his wife and told her that he’d met a farmer who’d directed him to a shack where he believed the old woman lived. Noonan apparently set off, but was never heard from again. Several months later, news of his disappearance made the papers, and a Tulsa pawnbroker remembered an itinerant coming into his shop a few days earlier and selling him an old box-camera.

When the pawnbroker examined the camera, it was engraved with the name ‘Charles Noonan’. It also contained a roll of film, which the authorities subsequently developed. The above picture was the only image on the film.

This is certainly a spooky story, and while investigators have never uncovered anything to prove that it really happened – for example, Charlie Noonan is untraceable as a historical person – they have never been able to disprove it either. It first appeared online on a Creepypasta webpage, which may weaken its provenance in the eyes of some, though the author of that page asserted that he came into possession of it when an anonymous correspondent attempted to sell a clutch of supernatural images to a publishing house he was employed by at the time.
 

3. THE BLACK KNIGHT SATELLITE …



The ‘Black Knight Satellite’ is possibly our most well-known legend of outer space.

In essence, it is an unknown UFO which has reputedly been circling Earth in a near-polar orbit for the last 13,000 years, and from time to time beaming down indecipherable signals.
Conspiracy theorists claim that NASA astronauts have located and examined this elusive extraterrestrial object and, rather suspiciously, have kept the data to themselves. It is shrouded in mystery – even the origins of the name are unknown, but the scientific establishment denies its existence, putting the ‘sightings’ down to a combination of misidentified natural phenomena and science-fiction stories masquerading as truth.

The image above, one of several allegedly depicting the anomaly, is dismissed as a normal piece of space debris, probably connected to one of Earth’s own rocket or satellite launches.


4. THE EJDALLIM WITCHES …


Sometime in the early 2010s, a New Orleans photographer got creative with the wedding he was covering. With the happy event taking place in the city’s attractive French Quarter, the imaginative snapper decided to get some really memorable pix by going airborne (most likely by using a drone). The resulting shots were certainly different from the norm, especially these two, which were uploaded onto the internet from a photobucket account called ‘Edjallim’, and appear to depict a whole row of uninvited guests: weird, masked and hooded figures standing in a row on a balcony overlooking the ceremony.

Amazing theories soon abounded. Had some kind of cult attended the wedding in secret, perhaps to work a spell or maybe profane a Christian ritual? Was it possible the photographer had captured a bunch of ghosts? After all, this was at the rear of the Brulatour House, which was built in 1816 and had witnessed many real-life melodramas over the passing centuries.

Unfortunately, the truth is more mundane. The Brulatour House is an adjunct of the Historic New Orleans Museum, and the eerie figures were part of an installation created by artist Dawn DeDeux.


5. EDWARD MORDRAKE …



The mysterious and distressing case of Edward Mordrake has long been thought to be true. Not least because of this famous photograph of him, which has circulated the internet for years, but also because the most detailed reference to his case can be found in Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, a distinguished publication of 1896, penned by doctors George Gould and Walter Pyle.

According to this august account, Mordrake was heir to a lavish estate in England in the mid-19th century, but he was also born with a second face on the back of his skull. What was more, this second face was actually alive. Most of the time it was inert, though close examination revealed that some changes in its expression occurred when Mordrake was in an emotional state: it inclined towards a smile when he was happy (which wasn’t very often), and to a sneer when he was sad. However, Mordrake begged the medical men of his age to surgically remove it, as he claimed that each night, when he was in bed, it whispered hideous things to him “such as are only heard in Hell”.

When this dangerous treatment was refused, Mordrake became progressively more deranged, finally taking his own life at the age of 23. While such a birth defect is not impossible – modern medicine concludes that Mordrake was stricken by craniopagus parasiticus, a rare form of parasitic twinning – there is still every chance that his story is pure fiction.

Gould and Pyle admitted to never having examined him, and drawing all their conclusions from an earlier article written by a layman who they didn’t name, though modern researchers think that layman was Charles Hildreth, a poet and fantasy author, who in the Boston Post of 1895 quoted the non-existent Royal Scientific Society as proof of famous hybrids like the ‘Fishwoman of Lincoln’ and the ‘Half-Human Crab’ (of whom there are no records anywhere), and of course, ‘Edward Mordrake, the two-faced man’. Meanwhile, the sole physical evidence for Modrake’s life – the above photograph – actually depicts a wax model made long after he supposedly died, though where it resides today, nobody knows.


6. THE FALLING BODY …


Texan family, the Coopers, moved into their dream home sometime in the mid-1950s. On the first night in the new property, the father took this photograph of his wife, two children and mother-in-law. When the picture was exposed, this ghastly falling form appeared, even though the family swore that no-one else was present when the picture was taken, much less someone hanging upside down or falling from the ceiling.

It certainly looks ghostly and no completely convincing explanation has ever been offered, but attempts to track down the Cooper family in modern times have noticeably failed – which seems odd, and in addition analysts have pointed to minor details apparently indicating Photoshop activity.

It has also been suggested that this is a double-exposure, or even that the entire set-up is fake, the family nothing more than models posing for a contemporary ‘horror art’ exhibit. The only problem with this latter, more prosaic theory is that there’s no record of that ever happening either.


7. SKUNK APE …


In 2000, this image was mailed anonymously to the Sheriff’s Department in Sarasota County, Florida, and purports to show the terrifying ‘Skunk Ape’, an unknown hominid said to roam the swamplands of the American South. 

As weird and mysterious photographs go, this one is certainly impressive. The person who sent the picture withheld their name, but claimed to be a local female resident, who caught the image in her own back garden and said that that on three separate occasions the monstrous ape had approached the house in search of apples scattered in the yard. She herself thought it might be an escaped orangutan.

The picture’s origin has now been traced to the vicinity of the Myakka River, and though it may seem suspicious that the photographer has still not come forward, the official explanation – that this is an everyday black bear – seems unrealistic to me. This is like no black bear I’ve ever seen.


8. THE FACES OF BELMEZ …


From 1971, the Pereira house in Andalusia, Spain, became the scene of a famous so-called paranormal event, when human faces began to form naturally in the concrete on the main floor.
Sensation followed sensation when the floor was torn up and re-laid, and yet more faces appeared, only to disappear later and then reappear again. Some were said to have aged, others to have changed their expressions depending on the mood of the Pereira family.

Excavations later revealed that the house was constructed on an old burial site, which in the eyes of many parapsychologists confirmed that this was a genuine supernatural incident, though scientists also got in on the act, claiming to have found various traces of paint which suggested that it might have been an elaborate hoax.


9. MIDWESTERN MATRICIDE …



This legendary Halloween photograph depicts the Buckley Family, hardworking Midwest farm folk, whose happy life came to a grisly end sometime in the late 19th century.

The story goes that, as part of a Halloween prank, local kids decided to make dummies, behead them and then pose for photographs. The Buckley children – somewhat disturbed, it would seem – opted to join in the fun by decapitating their own mother. The photographer only realised that he had captured a real murder scene on film later on, when the plate was developed.

The police were quickly called and attended the house, only to find the children missing. They were never seen again, though the mother’s remains were still on the premises, partially eaten.

So goes the story, though sadly it’s another classic hoax. In actual fact, the original photo depicted a normal rural family; it was modern day Halloween artist, Edward Allen, who craftily and skilfully adjusted it into the scene of Victorian horror you see here and called it ‘Midwestern Matricide’.


10. THE WHOPPER HOPPER …



This infamous image is another curiosity that’s been making rounds of the internet for years, and is allegedly a record of a 1937 incident when a Montana farm labourer brought down a gigantic grasshopper near Miles City with a single blast of his trusty shotgun.

No further details have ever been made available: who the farmhand was, who the photographer was, what happened to the bizarre creature’s carcass afterwards, why it hadn’t been blown apart by his Winchester 12-gauge, etc.

As you may have guessed, the reasons for this are because the whole thing is a fake.

Comedic ‘whopper hopper’ images were quite popular in the American Midwest in the 1930s, a time and place when grasshopper hordes were posing a particular problem for agriculture and the local community did their best to put a brave face on it. Most of these images were sold as postcards or for advertising promos, and were never intended to be taken seriously.
Frank Conard of Garden City, Kansas, may well have been the genius behind this one. He made several such, using carved wooden grasshopper models as props.

*

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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


MEG by Steve Alten (1997)

Former US Navy deep-sea diver, Jonas Taylor, is still haunted by the day he plumbed the bottom of the Mariana Trench and thought he glimpsed the long-extinct Megalodon. Few people took him seriously at the time, including Maggie, his ambitious TV reporter wife. Even though Taylor is now a civilian scientist, reasonably respected for his palaeontology work, Maggie knows that people still smirk behind his back and that this is no good for her career. As such, she embarks on a non-too-discreet affair with Bud Harris, Taylor’s former college buddy, who now leads a wealthy playboy lifestyle.

Taylor is thus at his lowest ebb when he is contacted by old friend Masao Tanaka, who runs a marine science operation. Tanaka has lost an earthquake-detecting submersible deep in the Mariana and wants Taylor to retrieve it for him with the aid of his two hotshot aquanaut kids, the adventurous, self-assured DJ and his sister, the uber-cool Terry.

Taylor is not enthusiastic about returning to the Trench, and his proposed assistants give him little confidence, DJ treating the whole Megalodon thing as a joke, Terry jealous and mistrustful that a non-family member is being brought into such a complex and costly enterprise.

Initially the recovery mission goes well. Though the descent into the Trench is horrific, Taylor starts to rediscover his old deep-sea diving touch. But then disaster strikes – DJ is attacked and killed by a colossal bioluminescent fish. The Megalodon …

It comes as no surprise to me that Steve Alten’s famous deep sea action/horror has been under option in Hollywood since 1997, or that it spawned a hatful of successful sequels. Because this is pure escapism at its best. Okay, even though the science sounds good I’m sure it doesn’t add up to much in reality – but who cares about that? Because this book has got everything that Jaws had, and more: clearly defined goodie and baddie characters, a hero with vulnerabilities, an exotic location (endless acres of cobalt-blue water!), and a gargantuan, near-indestructible monster, which according to cryptozoologists the world over could still very likely exist.

It’s also written in that wonderfully slick American style, especially the bone-jarring action sequences, which come thick and fast and at times seem to explode off the page.

A creature feature for sure, an ocean-borne Godzilla in which an ancient beast proves too mighty for all of man’s weapons, meaning that only a truly ingenious solution will fix it (and that solution turns out to be an absolute eye-popper). But great fun and another easy, rapid-fire read. One that anyone can happily get their teeth into (sorry).

As always, and it’s just a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Meg someday makes it to the screen (it’s allegedly been stuck in Development Hell for the last 18 years, somewhat uncharitably referred to as ‘Jurasssic Shark’ – but at last there are rumours that movements are now afoot, which is no surprise if true, as it’s too good a basic concept not to make it at some point):

Jonas Taylor – Jeremy Renner
Masao Tanaka – George Takei
Terry Tanaka – Anna Nagata
Maggie Taylor – Alice Eve
Bud Harris – Dustin Clare 

(PS: I've no idea who to credit for the marvelous image I use at the top of this column - no name was mentioned on the site where I found it. If the snapper responsible would like to get in touch, I'll happily credit him/her, or even, if they so wish, take it down).