SPARROWHAWK, my Christmas horror novella of last year, which was nominated as a finalist in the British Fantasy Awards, has finally made it into ebook form - HERE (UK) and HERE (US) – just in time for the 2011 festive season.
This Yuletide tale of terror and torment is probably my favourite piece of work to date (so much so that I’ve even written a two-episode film/TV script from it, entirely on spec). Quite a few of you will already be familiar with it, but for those who aren’t, and for those who prefer their reading matter in electronic format, this new version could be just what you need if you fancy acquiring something spooky but seasonal this December.
Here’s the official blurb:
In December 1843, embittered Afghan War veteran, John Sparrowhawk, is released from the debtor’s prison by the beautiful but enigmatic Miss Evangeline.
Penniless, alone and tortured by the demons of his past, he has no option but to accept employment with his mysterious new benefactor. The job she offers him is to stand guard over a house in Bloomsbury for the duration of the Christmas period. It sounds simple enough, but as the coldest winter in living memory descends on London, Sparrowhawk senses the presence of an unseen but very dangerous enemy, who will soon start to manifest in the most horrific and terrifying ways …
I’d add a bit to that now, pointing out that SPARROWHAWK isn’t just a horror story. Sure, it comprises strong horror elements, but its setting is Victorian London – desolate, frosty backstreets, ice-cold rooms in drab tenements, bustling Christmas markets wreathed in a fog of London breath as paupers and pickpockets rub shoulders with the rich and splendid – so I think it’s atmosphere is more that of a festive ghost story.
Some of its evil entities are certainly drawn from that milieu:
… The marionette was directly behind him. Its arms were by its sides, but its head had jerked upright, the beads rolling in its bauble eyes. Its hinged jaw dropped to reveal a cavernous blood-red mouth, from which a demented squawk issued …
But SPARROWHAWK is not just a ghost story either. It’s also a period adventure, taking us from the battle-scarred plains of 19th century Afghanistan to the smoke-blackened moors of industrial Lancashire, from thieves’ kitchens in London’s teeming slums to glittering ballrooms filled with lords, ladies and Machiavellian schemers.
There is beauty in SPARROWHAWK:
… Leticia was ‘peaches and cream’ pretty, as she’d always been: her lips strawberry pink, her eyes peppermint green; soft freckles dusted her nose …
And there are monsters:
… 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 …
I’m acutely aware that I’m what really doing here is banging my own drum again. But I guess the object of this exercise is to try to give you a sort of cinematic trailer, and not only that, a trailer with an epic feel.
For example, there is no shortage of action:
… Tribesmen were surging on all sides, their powerful jezails pouring non-stop fire into the close-packed British ranks …
… he drew his sabre and cut his way among them. He hacked an Afghan’s legs away. He shore another’s arm at the elbow. He rammed his sword through a screaming mouth, only for the blade to snap as he tried to yank it free …
… He followed them at his own pace for several miles, heading through Clerkenwell and St Luke’s, and eventually into Hoxton, where the ways became narrow and twisting, passing between rookeries that reeked of squalour and villainy …
… He made to move away, but she stopped him, turned his face to hers, and, standing up on tip toes, kissed him on the lips. Her mouth was warm, moist, sweet as rosewater. It lingered on his for several moments.
When they separated again, she asked: “Am I real enough for you now?” …
… Their lips met again. His loins stirred as their tongues entwined. His muscles tightened as her hands crept around his back, the contours of her body fitting snugly against his. Suddenly, for the first time in months, Sparrowhawk felt strong again, healthy, vital…
But why take my word for it? Since the book was first published last Christmas, quite a few positive reviews have appeared. Here are some choice extracts:
Finch excels, both in his creation of the Victorian milieu, with compelling portrayals of the snowbound streets and the lives of the poor, so that you can feel the ache of the cold as it gets into your bones and the hunger in your belly, and also in the way in which the attacking entities use Sparrowhawk’s psychology against him, so that his emotional well-being is more under threat than his physical person.
Finch also uses the novel to criticise the politics of the day, and by inference those of our own time seem firmly in his sights also, with plenty of correspondence to be drawn – British soldiers involved in a hopeless Afghan conflict, civil unrest at home over social conditions, etc. Scenes such as the victory feast at which Sparrowhawk’s vanity is massaged by a famous general of the conflict, and his memories of the Peterloo massacre, ground the book in our present day as much as they do the Victorian age …
Sparrowhawk is defined as “a Victorian ghost story” masterfully blending different fictional elements. Partly it’s a historical tableau – the story is set in London in 1843 and features an Afghan war veteran who, at the beginning of the story lies in a debtor’s prison – depicting with efficacy the features of life during Victorian England.
A mysterious and fascinating employer recruits Sparrowhawk to guard and protect the inhabitants of a London house against unspecified enemies which soon will reveal their true, supernatural nature. Thus the novella soon becomes a ghostly, horrific tale full of creepy surprises.
In addition Finch manages to squeeze into the tale a fleeting love story which will briefly soothe the Captain’s emotional pain deriving from a past private tragedy.
Reading this book is a pleasure for any lover of good fiction. I warmly invite you to partake in this pleasure.
Finch’s strength in this sub-genre is his obvious detailed knowledge of the periods he writes about. This is not portrayed through any great protracted exposition but via the everyday lives of the characters. Sparrowhawk’s revelations about the tragedy of the original Afghanistan war resonate into modern times but it is the war’s effect on the returning soldiers that is most powerful. Here are war heroes sent by their lords and masters to do their bidding in the most dreadful circumstances only to find on their return they are discarded by society, sound familiar?
This emotional resonance is portrayed with a light touch but is only part of the story. The details of the surroundings and everyday life in Victorian London really bring the book alive, you can almost smell the filthy backstreets and grimy bodies. But this is first and foremost a ghost story and it succeeds by never revealing too much of the threat.
Ideally it’s a book that should be read on a snowy Christmas Eve, preferably by candlelight and with the local urchins singing Christmas carols outside but even in a blazing hot April it still managed to impart that atmosphere and Christmas spirit.
The Black Abyss
I should add quickly that SPARROWHAWK is still available to buy in print form if you prefer it (the original text has not been altered in any way for this ebook). Just call in at PENDRAGON PRESS or AMAZON UK or US.
But if you’re dead-set on the new electronic version, you can buy it HERE. I’m not trying to twist your arm or anything, even though John Sparrowhawk definitely would – literally – but at £2.86 / $4.41, is this an opportunity for an early Christmas prezzie that you can honestly afford to miss?