Sunday, 22 October 2017

It's here again: darkness, devilry and dread

The horror … the horror …

Yes, we’re in the final run-up to Halloween, and so this week I’m going to take a brief break from talking about my new crime novel, SHADOWS, in order to celebrate the season of ultimate darkness.

I’m going to do this on three fronts: firstly, as a horror story writer myself (in my spare time, these days), by focussing on several scary story collections and anthologies which you need to be getting your teeth into at this time of year; secondly, by presenting a gallery of what I consider to be the 25 BEST HORROR NOVEL COVERS EVER; and thirdly, by reviewing and discussing in my usual forensic detail S.L.Grey’s spine-chilling THE APARTMENT – as always, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s post.

Books to read

One thing I always love about the waning of the year is the inevitable association it brings with eerie stories. I’m not going to prattle too much about how the oncoming cold and darkness and the dying of the land each autumn brought fear and concern to our ancient ancestors, who imagined that this was due to the presence of witches, goblins and other evil entities, and so in turn sought to commune with their own spirits to guarantee the timely return of the sun – but it’s a common belief among anthropologists that we still live with at least one result of this today: an increased awareness of and interest in spooky stories in the period between (and including) Halloween and Christmas.

Anyway, without more ado, if you share that interest and awareness, and you’re so inclined, why not check out some of these books?

Initially, I’m going to do a bit of self-pimpery. As I said, I’m no stranger to writing horror stories, myself. There isn’t enough space here to go back through my entire short story bibliography (and I doubt anyone reading this would have the patience for that anyway, and rightly so), but here are a couple of titles that might be of interest.

DON'T READ ALONE was published in 2013, and features, among other things, an embittered writer who accidentally invokes the spirit of the Green Man, a cop whose determination to locate a missing child takes him into a nightmarish underground complex, and a bunch of marooned holiday-makers who are menaced by an ancient, oceanic beast ...

DARK WINTER TALES is a more recent title, dating to 2016. In this one, again among other stuff, a housing estate is terrorised by a strangler with seeming inhuman powers, students visit a haunted house where, whatever happens, you are never supposed to look behind you, and the mother of the last man hanged in England becomes obsessed with an executioner’s dummy.

I also have a personal interest in GREAT BRITISH HORROR 2: DARK SATANIC MILLS, featured at the top of this column, which is a relatively recent title – September, 2017 – published by the excellent Black Shuck Books and edited by the indefatigable Steve Shaw. You don’t need to look too far beyond the list of contributors on the cover (again, check the top of this blogpost) to know you’ll be getting quality, but with authors like Carole Johnstone, Gary McMahon, John Llewellyn Probert and Angela Slatter, can you really afford to miss it?

On the subject of anthologies, I also want to mention NEW FEARS, another recent publication, as edited by a good friend of mine and a top writer in his own right, the legendary Mark Morris. This title is a particularly important publication for horror fans, as it could well mark the commencement of a new, annual, high quality horror antho series, something we’ve been sorely lacking in recent years. Again, check out some of the stars on the contents list, and just listen to the titles of the stories they’ve written: The Boggle Hole by Alison LittlewoodThe Embarrassment of Dead Grandmothers by Sarah LotzThe House of the Head by Josh Malerman ...

Lastly, here’s a particularly relevant title. Adam Nevill is a another close friend of mine, and another incredible writer – yes, I’m in real name-dropping mode today! – but he’s probably best known at this moment for the current cinema adaptation of his bone-numbing novel, THE RITUAL.

However, of equal interest to dark fiction fans should be his first collection of short stories, SOME WILL NOT SLEEP, which, trust me, contains some true fictional nightmares. I defy anyone to read stories like Where Angels Come In, The Original Occupant, Yellow Teeth and Pig Thing, and to sleep easily for the next few nights.

But don’t take my word for it … investigate these titles for yourself.  

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One of the joys (or agonies) of being an author is that first moment when you get to see the cover allocated to your latest book. You don’t always like them; appreciation of art is a subjective thing, of course. But just because you don’t like your latest jacket, that doesn’t mean others won’t, or that it isn’t actually fantastic. However, throughout the history of published fiction there have occasionally been book-covers so jaw-dropping that no serious person could ever do anything other than take a big, awe-stricken step backwards on first seeing them.

And the horror genre is no exception.

So here, in no particular order, are THE BEST 25 HORROR NOVEL COVERS EVER (including one or two short story collections, because this is horror, and in horror, the short form really counts):


1. THE LURKER AT THE THRESHOLD
H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth (Panther, 1970)


Familiar Lovecraft territory from the start as Ambrose Dewart returns to his ancient ancestral pile in the heart of rural Massachusetts, only to uncover horrific revelations about his family’s past and their connections to ancient evil. Mostly written by August Derleth from scraps of original HP text (first published in 1945), this reprint cover still conveys the intense cosmic horror better than all others ... 


2. KRONOS 
Jeremy Robinson (Variance, 2009)


Can’t really comment on the book as I haven’t read it yet, but anyone who’s even vaguely uncomfortable swimming with deep water beneath them, or who gets nervy thinking about the ocean abyss, how does this one look to you? It concerns a former Navy Seal who is determined to avenge the loss of his daughter by destroying a mysterious, colossal sea-creature ...


3. THE RITUAL
Adam Nevill (Pan, 2012)


Originally published in 2011, the reprint cover of this modern folk-horror classic still captures the atmosphere of the book better than any other. When four middle-aged English guys hit the wild backwoods of northern Sweden, they find themselves lost in a depthless primeval forest, filled with ancient mysteries and hideous relics, and with something ghastly in pursuit. Totally terrifying ... 


4. THE OCTOBER COUNTRY
Ray Bradbury (Ballantine, 1955)


A superb jacket to one of the ultimate horror collections, its otherworldly elements perfectly complementing the 1950s Avant-garde style to indicate that what you’re going to get here won’t just consist of the chilling and macabre, but will be liberally laced with weirdness and typical Ray Bradbury fantastica ...     


5. MR. HANDS 
Gary A. Braunbeck (Leisure, 2007)


This paperback edition put an unforgettable but very to-the-point cover on Gary Braunbeck’s third novel in the Cedar Hill series. For the uninitiated, Cedar Hill is a fictional blue-collar town in Ohio, where mysterious secrets are kept and unexplained forces wreak havoc. In this installment, Braunbeck gives his own unique take on the legend of the golem, as the jacket clearly shows ... 


6. JAWS
Peter Benchley (Doubleday, 1974)


The original simple-and-yet-so-effective Doubleday cover to the book that emptied seaside bathing areas across the Northern Hemisphere during one of the hottest summers on record. There’s not much more you can say, except that this perfectly judged image - along with all those others derived from it - has become one of the most distinctive and iconic in horror novel history ...


7. DRACULA
Bram Stoker (Penguin Classics, 2004)


Since its first publication by Archibald Constable in 1897, Dracula has had every kind of cover conceivable, from the garish to the subtle, from the saucy to the romantic. For me, this is the best of them all, because it perfectly addresses the problem of how to re-jacket a story that so many artists have already tackled in so many different styles, and pulls it off with modernist aplomb ... 


8. KIN
Kealn Patrick Burke (Cemetery Dance, 2011)


A deceptively simple and seemingly non-horrific cover, and yet when it’s combined with the strangely menacing title, you won’t need anyone to tell you that here is a tale of rural cannibalism and depravity, which draws heavily on the backwoods mythology that fuelled such onscreen horrors as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Strong stomachs required ...


9. THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND
William Hope Hodsgon (Sphere, 1980)


First published in 1908, this superior supernatural chiller went on to influence such later luminaries of the horror and fantasy genres as H.P. Lovecraft and Terry Pratchett. It tells the tale of a distressed recluse who seeks refuge in an isolated house in the Irish hinterland, only to find that he has attracted the attention of an evil subterranean race; like this incredible jacket doesn’'t tell you that already ...  


10. I AM LEGEND
Richard Matheson (Orb, 1997)


First published in 1954, what initially seemed like a pulp horror dime-novel soon emerged as one of the seminal horror stories of all time in that it kick-started the zombie-plague genre and was one of the first to moot the possibility of a worldwide Apocalypse caused by germ warfare. The Orb cover completely embodies the nightmare scenario of mankind reduced to living-dead monsterdom ... 


11. IT
Stephen King (New English Library, 1987)


How do you illustrate a horror novel in which the main monster presents different terrifying facets of itself to different characters? This original classic does the job perfectly, because though the balloon is there and even though we know it was the clown lurking in the sewer on the day young Georgie died, it wasn’t one of these new-fangled killer clowns. It was something much, much worse ...


12. SECRET OF VENTRILOQUISM
Jon Padgett (Dunhams Manor, 2016)


Another book on this list which I haven’t yet finished, but which simply screams to be read thanks to its unique and unsettling cover. Jon Padgett’s much-lauded debut collection presents us with a series of interlinked stories which most reviewers have praised for invoking fear through a consistent atmosphere of the weird and uncanny rather than gross-out horror. The cover strongly hints at this ... 


13. DARK HARVEST
Norman Partridge (Tor, 2006) 


American authors, as a whole, tend to utilise Halloween in their writing more than their British counterparts, and this has led to some startlingly atmospheric, autumnal US covers over the years, but this one, and this book, encapsulate the aura more than most. Master of the folklore chiller, Norman Partridge hits us hard with his tale of an isolated country town and its annual Halloween nightmare ...


14. THE PILO FAMILY CIRCUS 
Will Elliott (Underland, 2009)


You won’t need a fear of clowns to be disturbed by this one, but that generations-old phobia is clearly plucked at by this excellent cover. Wildly funny and darkly macabre, it tells of a guy who is recruited to join the circus by a trio of psychopathic clowns, and finds himself in an hellish netherworld of  weird fortune-tellers, maniac freaks, crazy dwarfs, and of course clowns, lots of mad, bad clowns ... 


15. SEED
Ania Ahlborn (47North, 2012)


The Southern Gothic genre goes full-on mythic horror in this pacy tale of a country boy on the run from his own personal demon. The scary cartoon-style cover only gives you one part of the story but it’s more than enough for me. You’ve got the rural folklore element, the demonic element, you’ve got the idea that this is one pursuit that isn’t going to end easily. A hell-ride of a horror novel ...


16. AMERICAN PSYCHO
Bret Easton Ellis (Picador, 1991)


This seminal indictment of yuppie culture and high-end capitalism as seen through the prism of a Wall Street madman so obsessed with superficial gain that he views people as mere commodities which he can brutalise for fun, has divided opinions all its life. Amazingly perceptive, but sexually ultra-violent, it could only ever see the light of day in a cool, ambiguous jacket like this ...   


17. BRITISH INVASION
Chris Golden, Tim Lebbon, James A Moore 
(Cemetery Dance, 2008)


A cover that completely speaks for itself. Cemetery Dance are a specialist and powerhouse publisher of horror novels, collections, anthologies (and, of course, a very successful monthly magazine of the same name) based in the US, and understandably focussing for the most part on American talent. That isn’t a house rule, however, and this specially commissioned antho took CD to the UK ...    


18. HEX
Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Hodder, 2016)


The rather marvellous, movie-style jacket to Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s first English-language novel, which nicely underscores the notion of a rural town entrapped by a 17th century curse. Of course, it’s not so simple. Much of the tension stems from the hi-tech app the townsfolk use to track their nemesis, the hideous Black Rock Witch, though this soon brings its own horrors ...


19. FRANKENSTEIN
Mary Shelley 
(Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818)


If anyone knows who is responsible for this fascinating cover to the age-old horror classic, and/or when it was put it out, I’d be interested to know. I found it floating around online with no notice of provenance attached. If it isn’t actually the cover to an edition of Mary Shelley’s seminal monster saga of 1818 (which had no illustration on its very first cover), then it really should be ...


20. SHUTTER
Courtney Alameda (Square Fish, 2016)


Another book on the list which I haven’t read, but which strongly begs you to take it down from the bookshop shelf. It’s a YA work, so it may not be to every horror reader’s taste, but this is one hell of a great jacket, which more than sells the story inside. In a nutshell, a trainee monster-hunter identifies her potential targets by tracking the auras of the undead through the prismatic spectrum ...


21. THE EXORCIST
William Peter Blatty (Harper & Row, 1971)


The book cover that struck terror into the world in the early 1970s, and certainly one that you had to ensure your parents or teachers never caught you with if you were a kid (like me). Everyone knows the story thanks to the movie version, which was very faithful to the novel. Suggestive of evil for sure, but mainly powerful because of the novel’s fearsome reputation, a spell that hasn’t yet broken ... 


22. HARVEST HOME
Thomas Tryon (Alfred A. Knopf, 1973)


Published in the early days of the small town/village horror cycle that would become so popular, this harrowing tale of a urban couple’s relocation to a seemingly idyllic world of country life and time-honoured tradition will seem very familiar now, though it’s still one of the best of its kind. The simple yet clearly explicit illustration on this, its original cover, tells us exactly what to expect ...   


23. TOYBOX
Al Sarrantonio (Leisure, 2003)


An absolutely perfect cover for the US horror master’s first collection of short stories, because childhood toys and childhood fears are a subtle but ongoing theme here, though the tales themselves, even if linked by a central framing device, are all stand-alones. If you haven’t encountered Al previously, you’re in for a treat. Contains 18 short but beautifully-written chillers ... 


24. THE HOUSE OF DEAD MAIDS
Clare B. Dunkle (Square Fish, 2011)


Another YA inclusion in the list, but another novel excellently illustrated by its jacket, because in this case, supernatural creepiness is to the fore rather than extreme horror or grue. It tells the tale of a young woman who takes a job in a dismal mansion, only to find that most of the time she’s expected to entertain a vicious, sociopathic child. And that isn’t even close to being the worst of it ...


25. WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE
Shirley Jackson (Penguin, 2006)


Saving one of the most literary entries for last, we have Shirley Jackson’s last novel (first pub in 1962), which is more a Gothic mystery than a full-on horror tale, but which nevertheless evokes deep psychological fear as it focusses on a wealthy but oddball family whose presence in a traditionalist small town invites hostility, jealousy and greed, as this wonderful reprint cover amply indicates ...  


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 S.L. Grey (2017)

Cape Town residents, Mark and Steph Sebastian, are not the most happily married couple.

To start with, there is an age gap between them, Mark considerably older than his pretty young wife, and though this doesn’t trouble them superficially, deep down we suspect it’s been an issue of sorts from early in their relationship. Add to that the trauma Mark suffered in a previous marriage when his first daughter, Zoe, died a terrible death, and the poor wage he earns as an uninspiring lecturer in one of South Africa’s lesser universities, and you can understand why he is so troubled.

Steph is not the perfect spouse, either. A stay-at-home mum with their new baby-daughter, Hayden (when the family so clearly needs a second wage), and attractive enough to catch the eye of, and even flirt with hunky young guys in the neighbourhood, she inevitably wonders if she chose the wrong man to spend the rest of her life with – her parents certainly think she did! – and yet she remains pathologically suspicious of Carla, a sophisticated woman from Mark’s past, whom he never took to bed but is still friendly with.

If all this isn’t bad enough, the couple’s suburban home is then violently burgled while they are present, the trio tied up and terrorised by a gang of knife-wielding bandits. They are not physically injured, but Mark feels unmanned by the incident because he did nothing to defend his wife and child (even though there was patently nothing he could do), while, Steph, we suspect, though she won’t say it in as many words, now thinks even less of him than she did before.

The visceral horror of the episode lingers long afterwards, the couple no longer feeling safe in their home and spending what little cash they have on an updated security system.

When the suggestion is made that they need a holiday to try and rediscover the affection they once held for each other, the Sebastians dismiss it as unaffordable nonsense. But then, a house-swap website is drawn to their attention, and they learn about a French couple, the Petits, who are looking for a place in Cape Town, for which they will temporarily exchange their own luxury apartment in Paris.

It all looks fantastic online, and of course Mark and Steph have always wanted to visit the City of Light. The deal is signed, and things finally seem to be looking up. With Hayden left in the capable hands of Steph’s parents, the duo fly to Europe, eagerly anticipating a much-needed vacation in the cradle of culture and romance.

What they actually find, however, is the exact opposite.

The apartment, when they manage to locate it in the backstreets of the Pigalle, is a seedy dump in what feels like a semi-derelict building. It is gloomy, damp and filled with all kinds of unsavoury mementoes, including items which seem to have relevance to Mark’s own unhappy past (though he won’t admit this to Steph), and there is only one other resident, an eccentric artist called Mireille, who lives in a garret on the top floor. This might at least hint at the old Bohemian Paris we all know and love, except that Mireille appears to be deranged, and lives in such squalor that they soon come to suspect she’s squatting in the building rather than paying rent.

Add to this the terrible weather – it’s a bitterly cold February – the Sebastians being financially unequipped for a holiday in France, and an increasing mystery about the Petits themselves, who never showed up to claim the house in Cape Town and now appear to be out of contact, and we have a rapidly unfolding nightmare.

But this is only the start of it.  

Weird and unexplained incidents in the apartment hint at a supernatural, even malevolent presence, and when Mark finds himself grappling with some ghastly hallucinations, at times losing track of where he is and what he’s doing here, they decide it’s time to head home. But leaving this apartment is not as easy as it sounds, and even if the Sebastians manage it, Steph, for one, fears that they haven’t seen the last of the subliminal evil they’ve encountered here …

The first thing to say is that I’m a bit staggered by the number of negative reviews that this book has received online. Some readers appear to have come at it expecting full-blown horror, as in demons and gore on every page, while others sound resentful that the publicity material accompanying its release – describing it as “a terrifying tour de force,” for example – has misrepresented a book that they clearly expected to leave them quaking under the bedclothes.

Well, the advice I would give to these folks comes in two parts.

1)      Never read too much into publicity material – its job is to entice you, not inform you.

2)      Instead, read what it says on the tin – that’s a more tested method for finding out what’s inside.

If you did the latter, you’d have no problem at all with The Apartment, because, as it says in the blurb, this is a disturbing little psychological thriller, which, no, may not have you screaming in fear by bombarding you with ghost-train effects, but yes, will unsettle you no end by immersing you in an intensely creepy predicament, which gets steadily worse for the main protagonists the deeper into the novel you penetrate.

I safely predict that any readers who are even vaguely sensitive to unpleasant situations will be bemused and unnerved in equal measure, as lead-characters, Mark and Steph Sebastian, first try to fathom out how it is they come to be stuck in this awful place, and then try to establish an escape route, both of which missions are fraught with difficulty.

There are some odious elements in the book too; some real hair-curlers, in fact.

The seaminess of the just-about habitable apartment is wonderfully evoked by joint-authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg (who share the pseudonym, SL Grey), even if it remains largely intangible, deriving mostly from its air of inexplicable abandonment, from its unspoken aura of dread, from the decayed left-overs of nameless former occupants still to be found there even years later. All of this is so well realised by the authors, who at no stage hit you in the face with it, that you couldn’t imagine wanting to spend even a single day and night there, let alone a week-long vacation. The term ‘shudder-inducing’ is often over-used, but it would be perfectly fitting in this circumstance.

In this regard, any resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Parisian-set horror flick of 1976, The Tenant, (itself an adaptation of Roland Topor’s psychological chiller of 1964, Le Locataire Chimérique), owes mainly to the Grand Guignol setting, but The Apartment shares a similarly haunting and claustrophobic atmosphere, and that is no bad thing.

The city itself is used to great effect. Lotz and Greenberg take us all over the place, showing us the sights and immersing us in the magic of this great European capital, and yet it’s a two-edged sword, Mark and Steph remaining distanced from it all because they are so short of money, looking at the glitz through panes of rain-streaked glass, shivering in a wintry wind from which they can’t find shelter.

The impoverishment of the two heroes has drawn criticism from certain reviewers, who’ve expressed annoyance with the Sebastians and have doubted that this could happen, pointing out that they’re an educated couple, who surely have sufficient experience between them to avoid being marooned in a foreign city so short of cash that they can barely sustain themselves let alone buy a ticket home. But I’d argue that they are damaged goods, neither Mark nor Steph functioning at a full-on adult level.

This is given full effect by a clever device wherein the narrative is relayed to us in alternate chapters, one from Mark’s perspective, the next from Steph’s, the next from Mark’s, and so on. Not only does it ram home the message that these guys may be married but are certainly not allies, it also illustrates how unreliable they both are as narrators. Mark is still traumatised by terrible events in his early life; they occupy much of his day-to-day thinking, allowing him no enthusiasm for his job and only a little bit for his new wife and child. Little wonder, the apartment comes to embody all this, leaving him to suspect (or should that be ‘imagine’?) that there’s a malign presence in the desolate building. At the same time, Steph simply thinks the place is horrible and unsafe, for which she mainly blames Mark – somewhat unfairly, I feel, because it ought to be plain to a perceptive wife that her husband is struggling with his mental health – and obsesses constantly about her child, who she didn’t want to leave at home.

On top of that, they are both tortured by memories of the burglary, Mark riddled with regret that he didn’t do more to defend his family (as if that would have been remotely possible for a middle-aged man, though that, of course, exacerbates the main bone of contention between the couple), while Steph, feeling that she came very close to being raped and murdered, now finds the night-time an ordeal, feeling safe nowhere and seeing no protection in her husband.

In fact, so much of the narrative occurs inside the characters’ heads that this is definitely NOT your run-of-the-mill horror story. The gainsayers have got that much right, but I still found it hugely effective. It’s also been written in a readable, paired-down style – never fear, it’s still wonderfully descriptive and richly flavoursome of Paris ‘behind the scenes’ – but it rattles along at pace to an especially chilling climax (which, contrary to some of the more nonsensical reviews I’ve read, wraps the whole thing up both coherently and satisfyingly).

It can’t say that I had nightmares after reading The Apartment, but my skin crept, and I brooded on it long after I’d finished, which has got to be proof of a very worthwhile horror story.

I’ve no clue whether or not The Apartment is destined for any kind of film or TV development, but if not, it ought to be. As such, I’m going to display my usual conceit and nominate the cast I personally would opt for were it ever to get the adaptation treatment. Just for laughs of course – no-one would listen to me anyway – but here we go: 

Steph – Tanya van Graan
Mark – Sharlto Copley
Carla – Antoinette Louw
Mireille – Nathalie Baye

2 comments:

  1. Hi Paul, enjoyed 'Walking in the Dark' thanks,wonder if you would be interested in looking at the Skendleby (Ancient Gramarye) series.
    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nick-Brown/e/B00FOM9E1A/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

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    1. Thanks for drawing them to my attention, Guy. I'll get around to checking them out at the first opportunity.

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