Thursday, 24 March 2016

A roadtrip north, with demons on my mind



I’ve recently read another awesome piece of dark fiction, THE DEMONOLOGIST by Andrew Pyper, which I’d like to bring to everyone’s attention, but you’ll find my full review of it at the lower end of this column. Scroll down now if you so wish, though if you fancy a more leisurely stroll first, here’s a quick rundown on my last couple of days, which comprised a pretty remarkable journey from bookshop to bookshop across what seemed like the whole of the England's wild north. This is not the kind of thing that happens regularly in the life of an author, but it’s certainly an experience to remember when it does …

The Great White North was the Great Green, Cork-Brown and Generally Misty North these last two days of mid-March, as I travelled uphill and down dale, ploughing back and forth between North Yorkshire, Northumbria and Cumbria in a pre-arranged quest to meet those many gallant folk who fight the good fight in the cause of that institution so beloved by so many of us, and yet probably widely underappreciated too: the small, independent bookshop.

Among other narrow, winding routes, I followed the ‘Old North Road’ (any cool fanboy types remember that old story of mine?), and crisscrossed the respective forests of Loon, Gisburn and Grizedale, and all the way called in at town and village bookstores, meeting the managers and sales staff, and signing piles of Heck novels.

The whole delightful thing was arranged for me by those kind folk at HarperCollins, who not only pre-booked the meets-and-greets, but even provided a driver for one lengthy stretch of the trip – thanks for that, Mike (did those bleak moorland roads get a bit dicey, or what?) – though I think I must have spent 12 hours at the wheel myself over the last couple of days. I was a bit stiff when I finally got home yesterday night.

The whole charabanc kicked off with a cracking event at the White Rose Book Café in Thirsk, where, in company with successful children’s author, Rob Biddulph, I met a load of local booksellers, all hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic folk who are seriously dedicated to their trade. I was treated to a lip-smacking three-course dinner at The Black Lion (which I washed down with copious beers), made an impromptu speech – which seemed to go down okay – and then was allocated a very cosy room upstairs in a delightfully olde worlde hotel, The Golden Fleece.

The following day, we really hit the road, traversing the wildest, most windswept realms of England’s far north, skirting mountain, fell and forest, at times barely seeing another human being, but always receiving warm welcomes in those quaint little bookshops on our itinerary. In fact, at the Kendal branch of Waterstones, a customer I’d just signed a copy of HUNTED for collapsed on the spot and had an immediate epileptic fit. That’s no lie, though I don’t think it was due to the excitement of meeting me (even though she afterwards, jokily, said that it was). She recovered quickly and safely, so there was nothing to worry about.

Overall, it was an amazing couple of days. Huge thanks go to everyone who attended these events and made me feel so welcome. Off the top of my head – and I really hope I’ve not missed anyone out (please remind me if I have)! – here are some of the folk I encountered who were such good company and so interested in stocking and promoting my novels: Bookends (Carlisle and Keswick), Waterstones (Carlisle and Kendal), White Rose Books (Thirsk), Forum Books (Corbridge), the Little Ripon Bookshop (Ripon), Drake Bookshop (Stockton), the Grove Bookshop (Ilkley), Bertram Books (wholesalers), and the Booksellers Association. Thanks also to the guys at Harper who facilitated the experience: Mike, Olivia, Ben, Mick, Harriet, and Helen and Helena back in the office (as before, I sincerely hope I’ve not missed anyone out – please feel free to correct me, if I have).

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For those further interested in this type of thing, here is a blog I penned at the beginning of the month for the HarperCollins INDIE THINKING website, on the subject of small independent booksellers (in this case with a slight bias towards second-hand bookshops) and my lifelong love-affair with them …

I owe my late father a great deal, not least my love of books – which he infected me with at a very early age, but also a love of bookshops. I suppose people would expect a writer to say something like that, but for me it’s actually a very personal thing, and not just for reasons of nostalgia, though that comes into it too.

To start with, let’s tear ourselves away for a second from this current age, wherein so many of us lead such rapid-fire lives that we don’t have time to browse for books any more, but purchase our reading material online or pop distractedly into our high street chain-stores, where all the new best-sellers are arrayed in front of us on a display stand so that we can quickly grab one and be on our way again.

No, I’m talking about that other world of book-buying; that easier, gentler, more discerning world. The one I was introduced to – as I say, by my Dad – quite often while we were holidaying somewhere else in the UK, exploring quaint villages or country towns in the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands, or down in Cornwall or the Cotswolds.

It became part and parcel of those dreamy holidays, our regular visits to the many bookshops we discovered, which almost without fail were small and discreet, tucked away in cathedral mews or down the ends of harbour-side alleys. Just talking about atmospheric shops like that brings back a rush of fond memories: the clangour of the door-bell when you entered; the combined smells of dust, pipe-smoke and sun-warmed leather binding; the respectful murmur of polite enquiries at the counter; the rustle of age-yellowed pages from the browser alongside you …

That is something a great many of us have lost in these days of e-readers and orders-by-iPhone: the sheer joy of working your way along the shelves, searching through innumerable titles of a type you would rarely encounter during one of your quick-fire visits to the city centre. And it wasn’t just aesthetically pleasing; it actually paid dividends!

My personal preference is for dark and scary fiction, everything from thriller novels to collections of ghost stories. I’m a lifelong collector too; it’s been my quest of decades to create an immense library of the mysterious, the brooding and the macabre. And how often on these trips this tenacity and perseverance was rewarded – and not just in days long past.

One particularly joyous occasions in the 1990s, by which time I was grown up and had my own family, we were heading north when we happened to call in at Cartmel, a Cumbrian village famous mainly for its racecourse but also for its medieval church and its dramatic encircling fells, and on days when the race-meet is not in town, for its rapid return to the status of sleepy hamlet, when only the occasional clatter of hiking boots or lazy yapping of a dog will disturb the peace. Here, after lunching in a local pub, I followed a chalkboard sign which simply read BOOKSELLER, passed under an ivy-covered arch and at the end of a narrow passage, discovered a tiny shop with mullioned windows and an open door.

Tiny on the outside maybe, though indoors it was a virtual Tardis, seeming to physically expand as I wandered from one shelf-lined room to the next, each one crammed with books, which for once were ranked in completely comprehensible order. I found the Horror/Thriller section without difficulty, and there was blown away by the treasures on offer: Not just classics of the genre, but rarities and collectables too: authors whose work had long been discontinued by their publishers, titles that were deleted decades ago – and so many of them high on my ‘want-want-want’ list.

To start with, almost the entire series of the Pan Horror Stories occupied the top shelf. I’d been an avid hunter of these anthologies since I was far too young to legally read them. I was only a handful away from a full set. But now, in one fell swoop, I’d acquired them all. There was also a bunch of classics from the Arkham House vault, not to mention original paperback editions of two of my favourite hard-as-nails crime novels, Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis and Hell is a City by Maurice Procter.

What a haul that was. The first day of my holiday and I’d provided myself with a month’s worth of quality reading, and purely because I followed in the family tradition of refusing to pass the local independent bookshop without checking inside.

Sadly, that smashing little place, whose name, somewhat criminally, I have forgotten, has long ceased to trade (what a sadness it was the first day I called back there, to find it empty). But it can’t be a surprise that even today I get no end of pleasure from the same pastime: invading every little side-street bookshop I see in every new town I visit.

So what can we learn from this? Well, it’s pretty simple. Support your local booksellers. Unfortunately, they’re a tad like sunny spells – there’s never any guarantee they’re here to stay. So get through that door and ring that bell at every opportunity.

It’s not like it’ll be chore.

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THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ...

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and fantasy) – 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 DEMONOLOGIST by Andrew Pyper (2013)

Nothing is going right in the life of Professor David Ullman. He’s an expert in demonic literature, in particular Milton’s Paradise Lost, but he’s also an atheist, so he gets no spiritual fulfilment from this. In addition, his home life is a mess, his marriage falling apart and his 12-year-old daughter, Tess, suffering from depression. Then he learns that his best friend, Elaine O’Brien, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In an effort to get away from it all, Ullman accepts a curious invitation to travel to Venice and bring his expertise to bear on “a phenomenon”. Taking Tess with him, he embarks on what he hopes will be a short but welcome holiday. However, the phenomenon turns out to be the apparent and rather horrible possession of an unknown man in a dingy backstreet house. Bewildered and distressed, Ullman returns to his hotel, only to find Tess in a similar condition, standing on the roof. Before he can intervene, she throws herself into the Grand Canal, screaming two words: “Find me!”

When the police search, no body is recovered. But Ullman saw the incident with his own eyes, and is certain his daughter is dead. He returns to the States, devastated, but soon embarks on a mission to learn more about the evil spirit he confronted in that grubby old house.

So begins a journey from religious denial to religious conviction for David Ullman. And it’s a very arduous journey indeed, a demonic entity that he’s only previously encountered in fictional work leading him from pillar to post across North America with a series of complex clues. It’s also a journey he must make with an extremely dangerous man on his heels, a proficient killer who calls himself ‘George Barone’ after a famous Mafia hitman. Whoever this guy really is and whoever’s paid him to pursue Ullman are details that remain elusive for the time-being. All that matters initially is Ullman surviving and unravelling the devilish puzzle that has been laid in front of him in the seemingly vain hope that, at the end of it all, he might find Tess, and that she might – just might! – still be alive …

In some ways, The Demonologist is more like a road trip than a horror novel, but be under no illusions. For all its arthouse trappings, it is a horror novel, and in some ways a very traditional one. It’s not even low on gore – there are killings aplenty, while the demon, when it appears, will be very familiar in its motives and manners to those imagined by orthodox religious folk.

And ultimately, at least at subtext level, that’s what this is all about: a soul’s voyage from darkness to light. It’s been suggested that in some ways it mirrors Satan’s journey in Paradise Lost; he too clawed his agonising way out of the pit, though in his case there was no chance of redemption at the end.  

David Ullman is a strange kind of hero – somewhat stiff, somewhat stuffy, quite superior on some occasions, and yet vulnerable and uncertain in others (he’s been dealt a pretty crappy hand, after all!), and for much of the time in this book, he’s terrified, relying on intellect rather than raw courage. For all that, he’s a nice guy in his odd, introspective way. So you can’t help but root for him along every inch of his difficult path.

I personally wasn’t terrified by The Demonologist, even though I first noticed it in various ‘top 10 scariest novels’ lists. But I was intrigued and pleasantly unnerved (the hitman is in many ways your very worst nightmare – an utterly cold, completely unemotional professional murderer), and once I got into it, I found it a damn good read. It’s taut, tense, and while it might not keep you awake at night, it will certainly keep you turning the pages.

As usual, just for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Demonologist someday makes it to the screen (I’ve heard that a movie version is in development, but we’ll have to wait and see):

Professor David Ullman – Brian Cranston
Elaine O’Brien – Mayim Bialik
George Barone – Viggo Mortensen

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At the risk of making myself look less heroic and melodramatic, that pic at the top of this column is sadly not a shot of my good self striking  a 'lord of all I survey' pose on the edge of a typically dark and silent northern lake, but Heck from the cover of HUNTED. For those interested, that image was originally going to be part of the cover for DEAD MAN WALKING  the fourth Heck novel, the one actually set in the Lake District ... but for some reason it was pushed back to the fifth and most recent in the series.

The Bookends picture is by Kenneth Allen, the Little Ripon shot used by courtesy of the Little Ripon Bookshop.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Murderous mutterings: the city and the sea

Well ... NOIR AT THE BAR at Carlisle last week was a fantastic occasion.

I felt hugely honoured to be invited to participate in the first of these remarkable events ever to be held in England. On arrival, it was no surprise to find myself on the podium (so to speak) with some serious British crime-writing talent, but I was totally blown away by the huge and enthusiastic attendance by local crime fans.

More about NOIR AT THE BAR in a minute, but first a quick note to the effect that my detailed review of Frank De Felitta's terrifying SEA TRIAL can be found at the lower end of this column, so just scroll down to it when you get tired of my usual blather.

Now, back to NOIR AT THE BAR. For those interested, by origin this is an American institution first pioneered by crime blogger Pete Rozovsky (of  DETECTIVES BEYOND BORDERS) in Philadelphia back in 2008 (as shown above), and finally brought to the UK in June last year, when the inaugural event was organised by Brit crime writers, JAY STRINGER and RUSSEL D. McLEAN, in Glasgow.

In concept, it's not especially radical, but it is a tad unnerving: a gang of crime and thriller writers pick a public bar on a specific night, and gather there in the beer fumes and the low-key lighting and, when they are able to call the general clientele to order (folk who can gain admittance free-of-charge and without tickets!), read out selected extracts from their latest works.

The readings can be anything of the writers' choice, but almost invariably the guys and girls in the spotlight go for the moodiest, darkest and, well ... the most noirish thing they have penned.

I was amazed when I first heard about this. I thought: "Suppose there are disturbances caused by drunks? Suppose the local bar-flies just don't want it and get irritable?" But that is the whole point. NOIR AT THE BAR is about edgy stuff: this is crime fiction at its hardest; volatile characters in a dangerous world of rain-wet streets, broken neon signs fizzling on and off, menacing shapes lurking under dripping archways, etc ... 

It takes a bit more planning than all this, of course. You can't just turn up at a pub and expect everyone to drop what they're doing. It needs to be prearranged, and in the case of the Carlisle NOIR AT THE BAR, the plaudits for this must go to three hardened crime-writers in their own right, the legendary trio, Crime Ink-CorporatedMATT HILTONGRAHAM SMITH and MIKE CRAVEN (all pictured here).

The venue was the MOO BAR, smack in Carlisle city centre; a real 'spit-and-sawdust' place, as we used to refer to them, with an enormous range of real ales on offer, a bunch of very hard-working staff, and, as I said before, a smashing crowd, who packed it to the outer doors and remained rapt through every reading. 

The organisers were subsequently delighted with the way the evening went, and rightly so. It was tremendously successful. I shared the platform with some amazing fellow crime-scribes: ZOE SHARP, NEIL WHITE, DAVID MARK, JAMES HILTON, LUCY CAMERON, TESS MAKOVESKY and JAY STRINGER. The line-up also included LINDA WRIGHT, who was the official 'wild card' reader. This latter is a very neat idea, which on each occasion will see a local amateur crime-writer drawn from a hat and invited to pariticpate. Linda more than held her own, but I think each one of us gave it everything we had, every presenation ending on a high note, with cheers and clapping from the gathered crowd. 

There was no particular order of play. We were drawn in lots from David Mark's ever reliable flat cap, and I found myself second-from-last. My chosen extract came from the most recent Heck novel, HUNTED, a sequence which saw Heck snare a Nottingham murder suspect by playing a very nasty trick on him at the back of his girlfriend's run-down council flat. 

I wasn't sure whether this would be the best plan - mainly because this chapter was already in the public domain having been put out by Avon as a taster before HUNTED was even published. But I needn't have worried. The attendance was hugely warm and appreciative. So good was the atmosphere that I didn't even feel vaguely nervous as I stepped up to the microphone (I mean, you can see how relaxed I am here ... honest).

Overall, it was a great event. As I say, it's the first one ever to be held in England, and a very worthy start to what will hopefully be an ongoing series of such entertainments. I was so inspired that it occurred to me to try and mount one in Wigan. We are close to Manchester and Liverpool here, and have no shortage of crime-writing talent in this vicinity.

So this is the question ...

Can we do a NOIR AT THE BAR here in Wigan? I'll be giving it some thought, but feel free to have your own say in the Comments box below.

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THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ...

A new series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror, fantasy and sci-fi 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, then these particular posts will not be your thing.


SEA TRIAL by Frank De Felitta (1980)

When adulterous businessman, Phil Sobel, and his married mistress, Tracey, embark on a secret boat trip to the Caribbean, they anticipate it will be the holiday of a lifetime. But they have no concept of the horrors ahead.

Rather than taking an official cruise, Phil and Tracey opt for a private charter run by a Florida couple, Captain Jack McCracken and his almost impossibly hospitable wife, Penny, who, as well as their luxurious motor-yacht (the amusingly named Penny Dreadful) also guarantee excellent seamanship and gourmet cooking.

Everything seems perfect. Captain Jack is a slightly odd fish – a bit distant, a bit philosophical, and he plays up outrageously to his self-image as a salty seadog. But Penny is very capable and can’t do enough for her guests, the sun is blazing and the sea that shimmering ‘swimming pool’ blue, so there’s no reason at all to assume this’ll be anything other than a luxurious experience.

Phil and Tracey feel they’ve finally got away from the stresses and strains of their deceitful life in New York

But only a couple of days in, things start going wrong: minor accidents and malfunctions, which gradually impinge on the couple’s enjoyment. In addition, the further they draw from land, the more their relationship with their hosts subtly changes. At first this is driven by necessity, the yacht’s systems failing and everyone having to pull their weight. But in a short time, Phil and Tracey are being treated less like paying customers on the boat and more like employees, and underpaid, ill-treated employees at that.

And of course by now there is no sign of land, and the two lubbers don’t have the first clue where they are …

If you’re a fan of both sea horrors and psycho thrillers, you can’t do much better than Sea Trial. Okay, it’s an old novel, one that’s been swimming around in the back of my awareness for several decades, and which for some unfathomable reason (alright, enough puns!) I’d failed to take a chance on. Well, now I have – and I’m very glad.

It’s a simple enough yarn, following a very basic premise – innocent couple get lured far from their comfort zone by the falsely charming, and are then plunged into a web of insanity. But it’s written in absorbing fashion, relying initially on brief but ominous hints that things may not be all they seem, and once the downward tilt towards disaster finally begins, accelerating to a rollicking pace, the fear and agony poured on unrelentingly.

De Felitta also achieves the near impossible by transforming the beautiful and serene Carribean Sea – and it never changes from that, there’s rarely a cloud in the sky – into a metamophorical desert where all hopes of rescue and salvation are repeatedly dashed.

This book is also a masterclass in the creation of understated villainy. Fictional baddies who roar and bellow don’t impress me much. Likewise, baddies who scream abuse as they brutalise, or baddies who cackle insanely. You don’t get any of that here. Nontheless, this is terrorising ordeal for the hapless victims caught up in it. How frail we ordinary humans sometimes are when confronted by monsters of the realistic variety. How weak we appear when straying only a few nautical miles from our orderly world and finding ourselves in the realm of savages …  

As always, just for a bit of a laugh, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Sea Trial someday makes it to the screen (I believe Tom Selleck was once lined up for a TV movie version, but whether that ever happened, I’m not sure):

Phil Sobel – John Hamm
Tracey Hansen – Holliday Grainger
Jack McCracken – Iain Glen
Penny McCracken – Rachel McAdams