Monday, 24 September 2018

Brutal tale of blood, fire and Viking wrath

Some exciting movie news this week concerning my short horror novel of 2001, CAPE WRATH, in which a warlike Viking spirit brings savage Norse rituals to the modern age. The one project of mine that has probably attracted more interest from film-makers than any other, it’s now been re-optioned again, and the road to pre-production this time looks as if it may be a quick and relatively untroubled one.

In addition, today, and (slightly) in keeping with CAPE WRATH, which has a kind of folk-horror vibe, I’ll be reviewing and discussing Lindsey Barraclough’s amazingly atmospheric tale of rural terror, LONG LANKIN

Okay … LONG LANKIN is steeped in the sun-soaked glories of a blissful English summer, and it’s now officially autumn, so how, you’re wondering, can it be an appropriate post for this time of year? Well hell, I enjoyed the book so much that I didn’t want to wait a whole eight months to talk about it. It’s that simple. You’ll just have to imagine that the leaves haven’t started shrivelling and falling and that it hasn’t suddenly turned damp, cool and misty.

If you’re only here for the LONG LANKIN review, you’ll find it, as usual, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. So be my guest and get on down there right away. However, if you’ve got a few minutes of your tea-break left, perhaps you’ll be interested to learn a little more about the new developments with …

Cape Wrath – the movie

Some readers of this column will be very familiar with my novel, CAPE WRATH, and some won’t. Others will know the name simply in reference to the northernmost point of mainland Britain, a place of granite headlands and roaring surf.

Well, the location is certainly relevant – because that is where the vast bulk of the novel takes place. If you’ve ever visited it, you’ll consider it well named. Even by the standards of Northern Scotland, it’s a dramatic and picturesque place.

Back in 2001, when I first came up with the idea, I couldn’t think of anywhere more suitable to set my proposed story about an archaeological dig that goes very, very wrong.
I’ll try not to give away too many SPOILERS, but CAPE WRATH tells the tale of a university archaeology team, who head north from England to the rugged isle of Craeghatir (pronounced Crag-a-tar!), which lies several miles beyond Cape Wrath. As you’d imagine, it’s initially a story of wild winds and heaving seas, but the island itself is ringed with crags, which shelter its inland area, a pristine paradise of deep glens, rushing burns and, unlike most islands in this far corner of Scotland, dense pinewood. It is also wreathed in superstition.

Somewhere here, according to a recently translated rune-stone, is the last resting place of Ivar the Boneless, possibly the most infamous Viking adventurer of them all. 

Though almost forgotten today, Ivar, a real personality of the ninth century, who lived, breathed and slew all over Britain and Ireland, was renowned for his prowess in battle and his pitiless cruelty (and for being memorably portrayed by Kirk Douglas in the 1958 movie, The Vikings, above). 

His obsessive loyalty to the Norse Gods, and his relentless quest to avenge his father, Ragnar Lodbrok (who was thrown by the English into a pit of vipers) drove him and his so-called ‘Great Army’ through numerous Christian realms, raping, pillaging, burning and killing in various elaborate and grotesque ways. According to written records, the Viking Blood Eagle – a sacrifice to Odin which involved the victim’s lungs being torn out while he still lived – was only enacted a handful of times, and yet nearly all those occasions are associated with Ivar the Boneless.

Though his exploits in life are well documented, what became of him in death is unknown. Most scholars agree that he died in his bed, far more peacefully than the majority of those he vanquished, but his burial place is lost to us. At least, it was until I wrote CAPE WRATH.

In CAPE WRATH, he was entombed by his brother, Halfdan, on Craeghatir, where he remained undiscovered until Professor Jo Mercy and her team arrived. If they could find the tomb and then open it, what treasures would lie within? Ivar was no mere raider; he laid waste kingdoms across the entire western world of the Dark Ages, or so the legends tells, gathering a fabulous trove.

What story would his mouldering bones tell? All kinds of myths about Ivar abound. That he was seven feet tall. That he was half man / half bear. That he was born a cripple, and somehow overcame this purely through his aggressive nature. Now the truth would at last be out.

But would something else come out with it?

Why did Halfdan refuse to cremate his brother, as other heroic Viking leaders were in that age?

Why did he bury him without any fanfare?

Why did he choose this most isolated place?

Why have strange and terrible things happened to everyone else who has ever come here?

And why do Professor Mercy’s rival academics fear that opening this ancient tomb could be a very serious mistake?

Okay, no more plot details. I’m afraid it’s the usual thing. If you want to know more, you have to buy the book. Or alternatively, hang around until the film is made.

That said ... I don’t want to over-egg the ‘movie development’ pudding.

Like many writers, lots of my work has been optioned for movie and TV development in the past, and very little of it has ever, in the end, seen the light of day. CAPE WRATH, itself, was short-listed for the prestigious Bram Stoker Award in 2002, which drew it to the attention of a much wider audience than the norm, and saw it optioned for film development almost straight away. It remained under option, on and off, for roughly the next nine years, during which time I must have produced at least ten drafts of the script.

Each time, it felt as if we were getting a little bit closer; at one point we were less than a month from pre-production – I remember walking around Soho in a daze of excitement that day – but ultimately, events conspired to prevent it from reaching principle photography.

I’m not complaining, by the way. This is par for the course when you’re a professional writer, and let’s be honest, if nothing else, it’s better that your work attracts the attention of film and TV-makers even temporarily than it remains unnoticed by anyone.

The new interest this month, however, comes from Shock Tactics Films Ltd, and from top screenwriter and novelist, Raymond Khoury, who is probably best known for his best-selling Knight Templar books. Raymond has been a fan of CAPE WRATH for some time and has long been keen to write a script. A couple of friends have asked me about this – how it feels, handing my novel over for another writer to make his own interpretation. My position is simple. I’m very busy at the moment with my Heck and Lucy Clayburn novels, and anyway, I’ve already read Raymond’s script, which is absolutely superb. So why object?

A deal was thus struck, and CAPE WRATH is back under option. Will it be Development Hell or Development Heaven? You never know with these things, but it’s always a lot more exciting when a project is going somewhere than when it’s sitting on your back shelf, gathering dust.

Keep watching this space, and I’ll fill you in on all the details as they arrive.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – 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 Lindsey Barraclough (2012)

It is 1958, and Limehouse resident, Harry Drumm, decides that he can no longer look after his two daughters. His wife has been confined to an asylum thanks to an ever worsening mental condition, and he is struggling to hold down a job. Hoping, for the time being at least, that his girls will have a better life in the countryside, he sends them to live with their great Aunt Ida, who occupies Guerdon Hall, a moated manor house in the Essex village of Bryers Guerdon.

The children, 14-year old Cora, and her 10-year-younger sister, Mimi, are already disoriented when they arrive in the the remote spot, and this isn’t helped by the state of the Hall, which is a rotted, Gothic pile encircled by overgrown marshland, by the village itself, which is very poor, and especially by Aunt Ida, who is cold, mean-spirited, unflinchingly strict and seemingly determined to send them back to London at the first opportunity. On the few occasions she deigns to explain this, she simply says that Bryers Guerdon is no place for youngsters and promises to write to their father, demanding that he take them back.

This is fine by Cora and Mimi, who find the house dreary, damp and stuffy because all its windows are nailed shut, and filled with frightening paintings which take on new dimensions of terror at night. However, Harry does not come back to retrieve his daughters, and the lonely duo are forced to adapt to life in this mysterious village, making friends with two brothers, Roger and Peter Jotman, who come from a rumbustious but friendly household, and advise Cora that their aunt has a bad reputation locally. Rumours hold that she is a witch and that she murdered members of her own family, which is why she rarely leaves her home except for necessities, and hardly ever interacts with any of her neighbours.

To fill the long, hot days of summer holiday that lie ahead, the youngsters opt to investigate these rumours for themselves, exploring the village and its surrounding localities, and finally coming to All Hallows church, a shunned, semi-abandoned edifice in the woods, its grounds overhung by the ‘Gypsy Tree,’ where dolls and shoes hang from the branches, and accessible only by a locked lychgate, carved over the top of which are the words, Cave Bestiam, which they soon learn are Latin for the ominous phrase, ‘Beware the Beast’.

The more the children put themselves around and the more people they get to know, the more discomforted Cora becomes. Aunt Ida still hasn’t accepted them, and constantly scolds her for meddling in things that don’t concern her, but in addition to this, there are odd, unexplained events. Both girls feel as if some strange, frightening presence is drawing ever closer, while at the same time they hear whispered voices at night, seemingly trying to warn them, and even spot what look like the ghosts of children in the derelict churchyard.

Piece by piece, through a succession of interviews with garrulous local folk, and their examination of old documents and relics from a troubled past – in which Cora and Ida’s family in particular, the Guerdons, were helplessly entrapped – the story emerges that an age-old curse has awakened; something ancient and evil, which lurks in the encircling marshes, and over the the centuries has stolen away numerous of the Guerdon children. At one time, his name was Cain Lankin. He was a real person who lived hereabouts, albeit hideous to look upon and whose deeds were horrific, consorting with witches not the least of them. Inevitably, centuries later, decayed and foul, as carnivorous as ever, and known by the final name they gave him, ‘Long Lankin’ because he barely even fitted into the gibbet cage, he is now more terrible than ever, and he drools with hunger for four-year-old Mimi … 

As some may already know, the novel, Long Lankin, is based on an Old English ballad of approximately the same name (though there are various names, it has to be said: Long Lankyn, Lammikin, Balankin, etc), the original author of which is unnamed and the date of composition, though unknown, thought to date back to Elizabethan times at least. It tells the story of a wealthy woman and her baby who are murdered by a malign being, which emerges from the marshy woodland surrounding their country home and is admitted to the residence by an untrustworthy female servant. One version of it is fully quoted at the start of the book, the sinister opening verse reading as follows:

Says milord to milady, as he mounted his horse:
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.”
Says milord to milady, as he went on his way:
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the hay.”

In some versions of the song, particularly the older ones, Lankin is a mason who has not been paid for work he performed on the property and is seeking to recompense himself with aristocratic blood. But in others, he is a bogeyman or monster – a Grendel-like figure, though a more modern, internet-age analogy might be with Slenderman – who is evil merely for the sake of it and sustains himself on the life-force of infant children.

Suffice to say that in the novel, Long Lankin, Lindsey Barraclough opts for the second of these explanations, casting Lankin as a dangerous, malevolent villain of supernatural origin. Though she details where he comes from, giving him a near-human backstory, it is flavoured with witchcraft and village superstition. And indeed, rural folklore is very much to the fore in this tale.

As I write, there is something of a renaissance in folk-themed horror stories, wherein the focus lies with mysterious rituals and customs, eerie fables, scary myths and half-told tales that may possess a kernel of unedifying truth. This is an area where I personally have an interest, much of my own written horror leaning towards the mythologies of old Britain, so as Long Lankin satisfies almost all of these criteria, it was hugely attractive to me from the outset.

That said, I initially hesitated because it is marked as a YA novel. It’s not for children by any means, but it is certainly aimed at a slightly younger readership than me. But in the end, I dived in, and I wasn’t at all disappointed. There isn’t much in the way of sex and violence, as you’d expect, but this is one exquisitely creepy tale, its setting beautifully realised.

It’s not just rural England in the 1950s, we’re in the marshlands of eastern Essex, at the height of a hot, sleepy summer, but Great Britain is not a happy land. The destructive impact of two world wars can be felt everywhere: back in smoky London, where city girls Cora and Mimi Drumm hail from, and out here in the swampy greenwood, where villages are poverty-stricken, roads impassable, cottages run down, and most of the adult population tired and cranky. There is also a prominent sense of loss. Many local men died in the wars that have only recently passed, and there is scarcely a family of any class that hasn’t been bereaved to a greater or lesser extent. For a so-called YA novel, this is a painful and grown-up portrayal of a society that has triumphed over Hitler, but as would always be the case after such massive conflict, has paid a terrible price.

Of course, all this embitterment contrasts neatly with the book’s younger cast, who, in the way of children the world over, breeze their way through the summer holidays, oblivious to adult woes, playing and generally having fun (until the nightmare figure of Lankin arrives, of course). This enables Barraclough to indulge in some outstanding character work.

In Cora, Roger, Mimi and Peter, but in the older two children particularly, she creates a bunch of believable, happy-go-lucky youngsters, who, despite the hardships and privations of their everyday lives, are inquisitive, excitable and eager to ramble around the sun-drenched countryside, never letting anything so mundane as low-quality food, hand-me-down clothes, a clip round the ear or even a spooky old graveyard get them down. But these aren’t just the scampering, barefoot urchins of Enid Blyton. There’s a work ethic among these post-war brats, and a sense of duty: they do as they’re told, helping their parents out where they can and taking responsibility for their younger siblings because they live in a real but damaged world, which they know must be rebuilt. At the same time, each one is clearly an individual, with habits and traits specifically designed for them by the different lifestyles they up until now have led; Roger carefree for example, Cora sadder and more serious.

It’s the same with the adults. They are colourful but often multi-layered: Mrs Jotman, the ever-tired country housewife, who nevertheless is more of a mum to Cora and Mimi than their own mother has ever been; Harry Drumm, the Jack-the-lad Eastender, a chirpy character who, despite endless promises, never seems able to live up to his kids’ expectations; Gussie, the mad old cat-lady with her stumpy teeth and foul-smelling home, and a deep knowledge of rural lore forced upon her by terrible experiences during her girlhood; Mr Thorston, the scholarly, university-educated cottager who had so much to offer the world and gave it up so that he could look after his ailing wife; and Ida Eastfield, the stern auntie figure, but also the most complex person in this tale, and the one around whom most pathos is woven – because though she is unfriendly to the children and loses her temper easily, deep down this is through fear and guilt rather than dislike, and because she knows what lurks beyond the manor moat, her own tragic history intricately entwined with it, the horror of which is more than she can stand.

Which brings us at last to Cain Lankin, also a tragic figure, an outcast, a leper, a person so reviled in his day that his apparent death went unlamented. Yes, all the best monsters are able to touch some nerve inside us, to make us feel sorry for them, even if in this case it is only brief. Cain Lankin, we feel, was destined to do evil from his earliest days, and when he appears to us now in the 20th century, he’s adopted that mantle to its fullest extent. Whatever cruelties he and his lady-friend suffered, he has now repaid them a hundred times more often than necessary, and he continues to do so with obsessive, vampire-like relish.

Inevitably, it is Lankin who provides some of the most frightening moments in this book. And, YA or not, they are genuinely hair-raising. There is more than a touch of MR James when his hideous, emaciated form comes creeping in the night, crawling through the undergrowth on all-fours as he closes silently on his unsuspecting prey. But to say any more about that would be the ultimate spoiler.

If I have any criticism at all, it’s that I’m not massively sold on the novel’s division into three separate and regularly changing POVs – Cora’s, Roger’s and Ida’s. I’m not sure it adds anything to the narrative, which proceeds at its own stately pace and is all the more compelling because of it, layer upon layer of mystery being added as the story unfolds. But ultimately, it doesn’t spoil anything either, so I’m not really complaining.

The main thing is – don’t be put off by Long Lankin’s YA status. This is an effective and atmospheric horror novel, not exactly pacy, but richly evocative of rural England in the old days, with its long, hot summers, its village spells, its carven lychgates and its ancient, ancestral curses.

If that’s the stuff you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed.

Usually, as you probably know by now, I like to complete my book reviews with a bit of fantasy casting, should the project ever make it to the screen. On this occasion, though, I’m going to pass for two reasons. Firstly, Long Lankin is constructed around its child cast, and I don’t know enough about the current best child actors, so it would be a pointless effort. Secondly, because it has already been optioned for development by a British company … so, here’s hoping for a TV production as good (and as scary) as the source material.

(The image at the top of today’s column comes from the 2007 Viking movie, Pathfinder).

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