Well, it’s almost Halloween, and so we’re sticking firmly in horror mode today.
To start with, for this week’s book review, I’ll be discussing Peter James’s uber-scary haunted house chiller, THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL.
As usual with all my book reviews, you can find that at the lower end of this post.
In the meantime, still in the world of spooks, my publishers at Avon Books (HarperCollins), who published my horror e-collection, DARK WINTER TALES, this time last year, have asked me this year if I’d ever consider putting together a list of my five scariest moments in horror films and offering a little synopsis in each case to try and capture the mood. As this is the kind of challenge I’m always up for, I undertook said task with relish, and here, today, are the results.
I should reiterate that these aren’t necessarily what I consider to be the five best horror movies ever made, or even my five personal favourite horror movies; they are the five movies that happen to contain the individual scenes which I consider to be among the most spine-chilling or flesh-creeping, or both, ever put onto celluloid.
It’s a subjective thing, of course. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I hope you’ll all at least agree that it’s a good bit of late-October fun.
So here we go, in no particular order …
IT FOLLOWS (2014)
After a disturbing sexual encounter with her mysterious new boyfriend, Hugh, Michigan college student, Jay, is relentlessly followed by a shape-shifting demonic entity, which only she can see. It pursues her at walking pace, but will not stop, never tires, and cannot be dissuaded in any way from continuing the pursuit. According to Hugh, when it finally catches up with her, it will brutally murder and mutilate her.
My favourite scene comes relatively early on in the movie, when Jay is still unsure that what Hugh has told her is true, but is sufficiently distressed by her last tryst with him to be concerned in class when she spies a curious figure approaching across the college campus: a gaunt old woman wearing what looks like a hospital gown, but apparently heading straight for her. Jay flees her lecture, only to be confronted by the same figure in the adjacent corridor, and up close it’s a ghastly specimen indeed. The chase is well and truly on.
LEGION: EXORCIST III (1990)
A veteran Georgetown police detective is baffled by a series of Satanic murders because they remind him of those committed by the Gemini Killer, who died in the electric chair several years earlier. He is also drawn to a chilling but unavoidable suspicion that there may be a connection between this series of slayings and the case of the possessed child, Regan McNeil, as dealt with in the original Exorcist movie, the events of which happened 15 years before.
The most hair-raising scene in the film for me involves an elderly priest in the local Catholic church, who is hearing confessions. An unseen penitent enters the confessional. The priest can’t see who it is, of course, but at first all appears to be normal. The penitent speaks in an odd, creaky voice, but seems harmless enough, until suddenly, while cackling dementedly, he/she confesses to 17 sadistic murders. The priest is terror-stricken, but it’s too late. The scene ends with blood flowing out from under the confessional door.
SALEM’S LOT (2004)
A 21st century adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel, in which writer, Ben Mears, returns to his home town of Jerusalem’s Lot, in New England, where he intends to write a new novel that will help him shake off the demons of his past. Unfortunately, the town is ailing economically. Not only that, it is gradually being taken over by vampires from Europe, who are using the local residents’ own sins and weaknesses to attack them.
In discussing Salem’s Lot, either the 1979 version, or this one, most fans nominate the Danny Glick at the window scene as their moment of purest terror, but my scene occurs later on, when Mears and local man, Floyd Tibbits, fight and are jailed for the night in adjoining cells. Tibbits, part vampirised, forces himself along an impossibly narrow ventilation shaft to get at Mears, literally breaking and disjointing his own bones in the process. Mears manages to keep him back, and Tibbits is found dead the next day, having gnawed his own wrists and drunk his own blood.
NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957)
Holden, an American criminal psychologist, arrives in England to investigate the activities of a so-called devil cult who are suspected of several murders. Holden isn’t buying that there is a supernatural angle to all this, but after he encounters Karswell, the urbane leader of the cult, who threatens him with demonic vengeance if he doesn’t call off the enquiry, a series of chilling events occur which gradually persuades him otherwise.
For me, the most memorable scene in this classic movie comes when Holden drives out to Karswell’s country estate, where a Halloween party is being held for children from the local village. Karswell, a self-proclaimed warlock, is as affable and charming as ever, and dresses as a friendly clown to entertain the youngsters, though once again he makes subtle threats to his adult guest. Holden maintains his air of amused indifference to this – until Karswell casually invokes a massive wind-storm, which destroys the party and sends the children screaming for cover.
JACOB’S LADDER (1990)
Wounded Vietnam veteran, Jake Singer, tries to rebuild his life in New York, but is increasingly plagued by bizarre dreams, flashbacks and chilling hallucinations, which slowly begin ripping his life apart. He seeks answers with other members of his old detachment, only to find that they are similarly tortured. Now, however, there are new dangers: a secret group is apparently hunting the vets down, while reality itself appears to be changing, much for the worse.
Easily my favourite scene in this twisting, turning head-trip of a thriller, and perhaps one of the most frightening scenes in any scary movie ever, occurs when Jake is abducted by unknown assailants and, after injuring himself while escaping a speeding car, is taken to a grimy hospital, and then transferred down to a lower section, which is a scene of utter horror, with corpses and body-parts strewing the filthy hallways, and raving mental patients caged or trapped in torture devices. Only now does Jake suspect that he might actually be dead and newly arrived in Hell.
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.
by Peter James (2016)
When well-heeled Brighton couple and self-confessed townies, Ollie and Caro Harcourt, move out into the Sussex countryside, leaving their suburban life behind and taking possession of a rambling 18th century mansion, Cold Hill House, they are determined to make this new phase of their life work even though they expect it to be quite a challenge. Caro, a solicitor, is less than entranced by the place, finding it bleak and isolated, while Jade, their 12-year-old daughter, resents having been made to move away from her friends, but Ollie, a self-employed, home-based graphic designer who has always wanted to lead a rural lifestyle, sees it as a dream come true, and when push comes to shove, the whole family will admit that the grand old manor has great potential: it is a little run-down, a tad decrepit, but as long-term investments go it feels like a fairly safe bet.
But of course things are never quite so simple in the ever-menacing world of Peter James.
To start with, the house has many basic problems. There is a seemingly infinite list of structural defects, while time in general has taken its toll on the age-old property; the wear and tear is vastly more immense than the surveyors reported. Ollie, enthusiastic though he is, soon comes to fear that his new home may actually be a money pit.
Then there are those other, more intangible problems.
Within a very short time, the Harcourts start to suspect they are not alone here. Whose is the spectral female form they occasionally glimpse in the house? Who is the rather unpleasant old man Ollie several times encounters in the nearby country lane and yet whom no-one in the nearby village seems to know? Why is there a brooding atmosphere in this place when it should be so idyllic? And if all this isn’t bad enough, the fear stakes are upped dramatically when the family starts to have problems with their social media: strange figures appear on computer screens; bizarre and eerie messages are left via email, the origins of which are untraceable. Whatever the entity is that haunts this place – because it rapidly becomes clear that this is what they are dealing with here, a haunting – it is soon infesting their laptops, iPhones and other electrical devices.
These contacts are increasingly less pleasant, until eventually they become downright hostile, with progressively more callous and damaging acts accompanying them.
Whatever walks in Cold Hill House, it is not some dim and distant memory of a life lived long ago, it is a thinking, sentient being, and quite clearly it isn’t interested merely in distressing and alarming the Harcourts so much as in tormenting, torturing and ultimately destroying them …
I love haunted house books. The bar for me was first set with The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson back in 1959, and raised even higher – in terms of pure terror, if not literary merit – by Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror in 1977. Both these books were particularly intriguing as haunted house stories went, because they presented us with nightmarish supernatural entities, mysterious, unknown beings hell-bent not just on scaring the innocents who had fallen into their clutches, but on terrorising them to death and beyond. As such, The House on Cold Hill was a real surprise for me, as I mainly know Peter James as a writer of superb crime thrillers. But this latest novel of his follows in the ‘Hill House’ tradition and adds comfortably to the canon.
All the author’s usual strengths are on display here. It is slickly and expertly written, which makes for a fast and easy read. The scene is set perfectly; you can picture the ornate but crumbling façade of the venerable old structure; you can smell the dank and stagnant air in its secret upper rooms; the rolling Sussex landscape is sumptuously present.
His characters, while not exactly oddballs, are not your regular heroes – they all have flaws (and very quickly and very cleverly the evil force seeks to gain leverage through these). Ollie Harcourt is the main protagonist, though he’s in some ways a rather effete and ineffectual figure – his initial response to the haunting is to try and shrug it off, in effect hoping that it goes away of its own volition. But it’s important to understand his plight. He has sunk every penny he’s got into this project; and when it suddenly seems like a bad idea, it’s too late for him to do anything – certain readers’ complaints that he should just have upped sticks and left simply don’t ring true. Likewise, he is dealing with something utterly beyond his ken. Ollie is your archetypical forty-something ‘Middle England’ guy. He’s never encountered anything horrific in his life, let alone anything paranormal. He is completely steeped in the contemporary world with its huge complexity of electronic gadgets and virtual superhighways – and when all this turns against him, in the most unconventional way, his scientific mind is unable to process it.
Which brings me onto another interesting aspect of the book: the science it employs.
Some reviewers have criticised The House on Cold Hill for not doing anything particularly new with the haunted house milieu. But the supernatural infestation of online media is something I’ve never seen done before, at least not this effectively. It goes even further than that. Despite the overarching supernatural atmosphere, science is never far away in this book. In fact, this is the first horror novel I’ve read in which the author seeks and explores a genuine scientific explanation for the existence of ghosts. And you know, it’s all pretty plausible. I’ll not give anything away, but Peter James has definitely done his homework. There is one scene in which Ollie Harcourt mulls over the situation with a physicist friend of his, and you can easily picture the author himself, a well-known and very thorough researcher, having exactly the same conversation with someone similarly qualified.
It also helps with the mood and authenticity that Peter James is personally experienced in this kind of scenario, as the lonely edifice at Cold Hill is apparently based on a real house he himself lived in once, and where he apparently had a less-than-comfortable time (though presumably he didn’t experience anything like the horrors on show here – I doubt he’d have emerged sane if he had).
All of this adds up to The House on Cold Hill being a very neat little ‘old school’ chiller. It’s no ground-breaker in horror terms, but it’s a good, absorbing read, which, being fairly low on gore – certainly compared to the Roy Grace books – is unlikely to make you scream with unbearable terror, but is guaranteed to creep you out repeatedly as you rustle through its traditionalist, doom-laden pages.
As usual – just for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The House on Cold Hill ever makes it to the movie or TV screen.
Ollie Harcourt – Rupert Penry-Jones
Caro Harcourt – Anna Friel