Tuesday, 3 September 2019

At last, the SEASON OF MIST is upon us!

Well, August was a bit of a disappointment. We had a couple of nice days, admittedly, but on the whole it was an early taste of autumn. And now, inevitably, the real thing has arrived. 

However, this provides an exciting opportunity for me, because now, at last, I can talk properly about SEASON OF MIST, a 40,000-word novella of mine, which is available right now in ebook format (with the paperback following in about a month’s time).

Obviously, you can see the front cover here, and I’m sure you’ll agree that it comprises some majestic artwork from Neil Williams. I’ll give you the full skinny on this in a second, because I should also mention that this week I’ll be reviewing and discussing another dark British thriller with a strong folk-horror vibe: FEROCITY, by Stephen Laws.

Laws, as many of you will recall, is a writer with a great horror pedigree and many best-sellers under his belt. If you’re only here for that review, you’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Feel free to dive straight down there, if you so wish. However, if you’ve got a little more time before then, we can talk about …

Season of Mist

To start with, here’s the back cover blurb:

Our last autumn of innocence. Star-spangled nights. Mist-wreathed woodland. A twisted shape watching coldly from the shadows.

Industrial Lancashire, 1974.

The kids in the coal-mining town of Ashburn love the waning of the year. Fancy dress and scary stories for Halloween. Fireworks and treacle toffee on Guy Fawkes Night. And a month after that, snow and the approach of Christmas.

But this particular autumn will be memorable for entirely different reasons.

Because this year someone is killing the children of Ashburn.

Or should that be SOMETHING?

While police and parents search for a maniac, Stephen Carter and his schoolmates know better. They may be on the cusp of adulthood, but there’s still enough of the youngster left in each of them to recognise the work of an evil supernatural being unique to these deserts of slagheap and coal-tip.

***

This book is a reprint; I should come clean about that straight away. It first appeared as a short novel in my collection, WALKERS IN THE DARK (below right), from AshTree Press back in 2010. But that was several years ago and I like to think that I’ve picked up a few more readers since then, particularly from among the crime and thriller crowd. And for that reason alone, I’m very hopeful that this particular tale can fly again.

Because SEASON OF MIST, apart from being among my personal favourites of all the things I’ve ever written, is at least as much a crime-thriller as it is a horror (though there is strong horror in it, not to mention much supernatural folklore).

The back-cover blurb gives about as much of the outline away as I’m prepared to countenance, and so I won’t go into any more detail about it than that. But here’s a thumbnail background on what inspired it ...

Origins

SEASON OF MIST springs directly from my love of two things when I was a child.

Firstly, the autumn, that ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (Keats), which, when we were youngsters, always seemed to steal upon us very quickly once the school summer holidays had ended. Before we could blink, the evenings were darker, longer, our local woods had become desolate and eerie. Yet, we always seemed to adjust to it subconsciously; instead of building camps, tree-houses and rope-swings, our attention switched naturally to scarier games, to telling ghost stories and, of course, to preparing for those two great autumn festivals here in the UK: Halloween and Bonfire Night.

In the early 1970s, Halloween wasn’t such a big deal in Britain, not like now. But all that this meant was that we kids had to improvise our own parties, our own costumes, and our own trick-or-treating expeditions. What this added up to was that, on October 31, and probably for several days leading up to it, ours was a world without adult supervision. Which meant that it could sometimes get out of hand, but also that there was no limit to the terror you could inflict on each other, and most important of all, that there was no one there to help if a real ghost or monster showed up.

Conversely, meanwhile, Bonfire Night was bigger back then than it is now. Ever since the Millennium, fireworks have become a staple form of entertainment at everything from weddings to birthdays, from Midsummer to New Year’s Eve. But back in the early ’70s, it was only really November 5 when we used to light up the skies, which meant that this was a particularly exhilarating time for youngsters. You made your Guy Fawkeses out of any old clothes you could scrounge, you built you bonfires anywhere you could (no Health & Safety back then, remember), you acquired fireworks by any means possible (usually older siblings, or understanding parents), and you very stoically navigated the macabre TV warnings that suddenly started cropping up during children’s television, depicting burnt kids from the previous year.

And of course, once these two major main events of the autumn were over, you still had December to look forward to. The opening of Advent calendars, the flowery frost patterns on bedroom windows in the mornings, the early winter snowfalls (which were so common in Lancashire in the 1970s), and after all that, of course, Christmas itself. Yes, the waning of the year was the most exciting time ever when I was a nipper.

The second thing that inspired this book was personal nostalgia.

It seems to me that, over the years, many big-name American horror authors have felt they owed themselves at least one hefty tome chronicling the events of their final days of childhood, saying important stuff about coming of age, a changing society etc, but also spicing it up with all kinds of supernatural terror.

Just off the top of my head, Stephen King wrote It, Robert McCammon wrote Boy’s Life, Dan Simmons wrote Summer of Night. Hell, Ray Bradbury probably started it with that all-time October classic, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Now ... okay, stay calm. I’m NOT comparing myself with those geniuses. To start with, SEASON OF MIST is only 40,000 words in length – which means that when the paperback comes out, it will probably stretch to about 130 pages. But yes, when I wrote it I was unashamedly mining that same seam of fond childhood recollection, of sexual awakenings and of a transforming society (and at the same time giving it a much darker edge).

Of course, there were some differences.

While Mr King wrote about Derry, Maine, Mr McCammon about Zephyr, Alabama, Mr Simmons about Elm Haven, Illinois, and Mr Bradbury about Green Town, Illinois, I opted for Ashburn, Lancashire, a thinly-veiled Wigan, which, when I was young was still an industrial blot on the Northern English landscape, a sooty sprawl of colliery spoil-land, derelict mills and rows of condemned terraced housing. 

We had woods too though, and parks, and farms and quiet country lanes on the outskirts of town – I’m not channelling George Orwell here. But fair or foul, it was all one big playground to me and my mates. We were scarcely ever indoors whatever the weather, and had some truly wonderful times, but some spooky ones too – and that’s the point today. Some really spooky ones - when the leaves shrivelled, and the nights drew in, and the season of mist was upon us.

Okay … sorry for that dollop of half-assed purple prose. I couldn’t resist. Back to business. As I say, the ebook of SEASON OF MIST can now be acquired, and at the bargain price of £1.99. Within the next month or so, we’ll be bringing out the paperback as well, so, if you’d rather be flicking pages than looking at a screen, keep watching this space.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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.

FEROCITY 
by Stephen Laws (2007)

Cath Lane is a very talented and successful British author. She is only in her early 30s and seemingly has the world at her feet. Then, one rainy night in New York, in the midst of negotiating another lucrative deal, and just having given birth to her first child, Rynne, Cath and her husband, David, are attacked by a down-and-out, who knifes the latter brutally before fleeing the scene.

Five years later, Cath, now a withdrawn widow, has moved back home to England and lives with her daughter in a remote stone farmhouse on the Northumbrian moors. It’s something of a solitary existence, though Rynne, who has almost no memory of her father, goes to school locally, at Nicolham, and they have the assistance of Faye Roche, a spirited sixty-something, who knows the area well and now acts as their housekeeper and live-in babysitter.

Cath is attempting to get her career back on track, but is lonely and sorrowful, and constantly haunted by nightmares about that terrible night. However, the first hint of normality returns to her life when she makes friends with Drew Hall, a young and rugged local farmer, who is almost knocked down outside her house by a fast-moving car belonging to reckless millionaire businessman and playboy, Kapler Dietersen.

There would perhaps be an immediate attraction between Cath and Drew were it not for the shadow that lies between them. And this is not Dietersen, who, though he’s not popular in the district, is seen as something of a joke rather than a threat; it is Drew himself, who has many demons of his own, some of which might well be real and could even be prowling the dreary moorland at this very moment, combing for their next victim.

Drew also lost his spouse, though in this case his wife was killed in an accident involving a mechanical harvester, which he now keeps locked up in a dilapidated outbuilding and won’t touch, almost in a real-world attempt to keep the ghastly memory at bay. But one way in which he’s managed to genuinely distract himself from this troubling past is with his determined quest to prove that big cats are abroad on his land.

Several times now, Drew has actually encountered these ferocious panther-like beasts, plus he’s seen how depleted his livestock has become, a clear indication that a breeding population of such killers is covertly flourishing in the district, hidden from prying eyes even though it is very evidently at the top of the food-chain. With no natural enemies, this makes it an extremely dangerous entity. Hall is certain that it’ll only be a matter of time before a human is killed by them.

Of course, he isn’t able to prove any of this, and as his obsession has come to fill his entire life, he has allowed his farm business to run down and his home to turn ramshackle, which means that he’s now viewed in the area as a figure of sympathy (other farmers have lost sheep too) but also as something of an eccentric. A knock-on effect of this is that Cath, who, five years after her own loss, is now unconsciously yearning to re-energise her love life, is also slightly wary of him.

And yet, Drew Hall is not the oddest person in the area. The arrogant Kapler Dietersen affects the attitude of lord of the manor, and though he is an awkward and difficult customer, especially as he shares none of the locals’ affection for this wild, rural corner of England, nor respects any of its customs – for which reason he is at daggers drawn with Hall in particular – even he is not the main menace in everyone’s midst.

That honour may belong to a newcomer, an outsider, a mysterious individual called Tully. But then again, perhaps even Tully might have met his match when it comes to those dark, sleek, flesh-eating forms now roaming this district by night with ever-greater confidence …

I was delighted to learn that Ferocity, which was first published in 2007, had received a new lease of life this year, courtesy of The Brooligan Press – in fact, the sensational cover I’ve used to accompany this review is the brand new one. Other Laws masterpieces of yesteryear are also getting a makeover in 2019, Darkfall last March for example, also from Brooligan, and Ghost Train in November from Valancourt Books, among others.

However, if this gives you impression that Stephen Laws is a name from the horror past, you couldn’t really be more wrong. Yes, he has a huge track-record in the industry. But he is still going strong, and the reissue of his earlier novels – like Ferocity, which in truth wasn’t that long ago – is purpose-designed to his bring his work, which is as fresh and vital as ever, to a new generation of horror readers.

And what a worthy ambition that is.

However, in that regard, Ferocity is perhaps an unusual example of his output, because it isn’t strictly a horror novel. Don’t get me wrong. It has a dark, brooding atmosphere, is packed with suspense and features several moments of full-on terror, but such is the surprising route this enjoyable countryside romp takes that I’d classify it as more of – perhaps, possibly, maybe – a thriller, though there are undoubtedly some horror elements.

For example, the quest to uncover England’s big cats comes straight out of the folk-horror playbook. For those not in the know, the UK officially no longer has any native big cat species, and yet sightings continue to be made in the English heartlands, and farm stock continues to be damaged by such semi-mythological entities as the Surrey Puma, the Fen Tiger and most famous of all, the Beast of Bodmin Moor, whom Laws himself wrote interestingly about HERE after he went on a bona fide Beast of Bodmin hunt himself. All of these legends possibly owe to the existence in the British wild of panthers and leopards, which may have formed breeding populations after they were illegally released from captivity on introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976. There is also a story that a number of US regiments based in the UK during World War Two kept big cats as live mascots and were also forced to release them into the wild when they were redeployed to the European battle zone.

Whether there is anything in this or not – whether it’s a rumour based on solid fact, or drawn from credulous imagination – who can say, but it’s one of the great urban legends of modern Britain, though in truth that should read ‘rural legend’. And it’s marvelous to finally see these mysterious creatures finally get ‘their own book’ if you know what I mean.

Needless to say, Laws goes at it full tilt in Ferocity, packing his narrative with as much big cat mythos as he possibly can, and jacking up the tension tremendously when he finally gets it through to his characters, and to us, the readers, what exactly it would mean if a huge predator was lurking in our spinneys and hedgerows, one smart enough to evade humans but savage enough to effortlessly kill them if the situation demands, and fully capable of wreaking blood-soaked havoc on a wide scale if it felt genuinely threatened.

That’s very much the world we’re in with Ferocity, though in truth it’s even more dangerous than that. Because these particular cats have an added advantage over teeth, claws and superpowered strength and aggression. They have camouflage too. This fascinating avenue isn’t fully explored by Laws in my view; I was a little bemused as to how it could actually happen – but in truth, it works very well. Though we get the occasional glimpse of life from the perspective of the predator, how could we possibly expect it to list for us and explain all its unique attributes? This leaves us with no choice but to accept that the deadliest hunters of all are those we don’t yet know about, in which case the reason for their success must remain something of a mystery.

Of course, in Ferocity, the nameless big cats stalking the fells and moors of England’s Northeast aren’t the only danger. They’re not the worst danger either. As usual, that honour is bestowed upon Man himself. I won’t go too much more into the synopsis for fear of spoiling it for you, but suffice to say that, no matter how brutal and merciless Nature can be, it will always find a counterpart in humanity. And that’s all done very believably here.

Of course, for fictional villainy to have impact, it must square off against genuine virtue, and Laws doesn’t let us down on that score either. Cath Lane and Drew Hall appeal to us immediately because they’ve suffered bereavement, as a result of which both are to an extent lost. Lane is a successful novelist, but to meet her you wouldn’t realise that; thanks to her tragic loss, she’s now shrunk back from the limelight and seems bereft of purpose. Moving across the Atlantic and settling in County Durham, with its endless woods and bleak moorland, she has almost personified her desolate state of mind. She doesn’t really know why she’s here; it was a wild flight to who knew where.

Hall, on the other hand, has found greater purpose. Despite the premature death of his wife, he remains the bluff, blunt hill-farmer that he was before, but he now throws most of his energies into uncovering the truth about the big cats that he is sure are stalking his land, a downside of which is the neglect he shows to his everyday means of existence - and at some point this will cost him dear.

Ferocity is a thoroughly exciting and engaging action-thriller of a type you wouldn’t normally expect from a horror maestro like Stephen Laws, though it’s got a dark edge as well, and it steeps us deep in the mystery and tradition of Northern England’s ancient, mist-shrouded landscape. It’s also smoothly and accessibly written, and gambols along with the jaunty energy of the fearsome beasts at the very heart of it. A bouncing page-turner, which I guarantee you’ll enjoy.

And now, as always – and as always, probably unwisely – I will attempt to cast Ferocity just in case those behind any possible film or TV version need some advice beforehand. Just a bit of fun, of course. I mean, who’d ask me?

Cath Lane – Freema Agyeman
Drew Hall – Tom Cullen
Faye Roche  – Celia Imrie
Kapler Dietersen – Hilton McRae
Tully – Phil Daniels

(Thanks to Lonely Planet for the Bonfire Night image).

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Back from the grave: a brood of aged tales


Something a little different this week. I’m going to talk about a bunch of short stories I wrote for Telstar Records back in the early 1990s, when the word ‘audible’ didn’t exist and we called it ‘spoken word’ instead.

True to form, they were all horrors and thrillers. Yes, some things never change. But in truth, it was almost 30 years ago, and so imagine my surprise when I recently came across quite a few of them, repackaged and for sale online.

It was a surprise, to be honest, but something of a delight too. There are a couple of interesting anecdotes I can share about this long-ago project – so bear with me.

On a not dissimilar subject – short, dark fiction – I’ll also be reviewing in today’s post Tom Cox’s very interesting collection of rural weirdness, HELP THE WITCH.

If you’re only here for the Tom Cox discussion and review, that’s perfectly fine. Head on down to the bottom of this blog, which is where all my reviews usually go. You’ll find it there under the ‘Thrillers, Chillers’ section. However, if you’ve got a bit more time on your hands, let’s chat a little about …

Past treasures unearthed

Okay … that might sound a little conceited, to assume that any of the short stories I wrote during my earliest days of professional authorship could ever be construed ‘past treasures’. But it was a while ago and it was an interesting time.

In the early 1990s, my police days were behind me and I was working as a journalist in Wigan, primarily, or so it seems, covering sport. I was learning my craft at the time. I hadn’t even moved over to Manchester at this stage.  One area, however, where I like to think I was fairly well advanced was in short story writing.


Having been raised on a diet of short, sharp horror fiction – the likes of the Pan and Fontana Horror anthologies but also the writings of such classic age scare-meisters as MR James, HP Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood – I’d long been writing spooky stories in my spare time. Even when I was a cop, though in those very earliest days, out of necessity I’d been using a pseudonym: Robert Eastland.

Of course, way back then, my score rate was fairly low. I still remember the euphoric feeling when I received my first ever short story acceptance. It seems an awful long time ago now, but it was on a Saturday morning and I was lying in the bath when the post arrived downstairs. Oh yes, there was no Internet back then … in those days, a visit from the postman could actually mean something.

It was only a small thing, if I remember rightly. A thousand and a half words accepted for a short-lived, small-circulation British small press mag, but I was elated.

This was around 1990, but you know, it’s amazing how quickly you can hone your craft – any craft in truth – if you’re prepared to work hard on it and learn the lessons of rejection. Soon, as what was then referred to as ‘the Golden Age of the British Inde Press’ truly began to flower, providing endless opportunities for new young writers (many of whom are big names today), I was fortunate enough to sell more and more stories, and at the same time, because of my police background, to blag my way onto The Bill. It was this latter that secured me a literary agent, and from that point on, everything changed.

Spoken word

For example, not long after signing with my new agent, which was around 1993, I was asked into the office concerning an offer that had just come in from Telstar Records. In short, they were looking for writers who specialised in ghost, horror and crime stories, said writers – or writer (as in singular) – to produce a whole series of chilling tales for a new ‘spoken word’ series they were planning.

Yes, that was a brand-new thing back then. It was called ‘spoken word’ – in other words, actors reading fiction on tape (it wasn’t even on CD at this stage) and it was a truly fledgling form of entertainment.


Even so, who was I to turn down such an offer? I got to it industriously. I seem to remember writing something like one short story every two or three days for the best part of two months. Almost all of them were accepted by Telstar, who planned to kick off the series with an antho called From the Graveyard (see at the top), and who, when it came to the actual recording, attached some phenomenal actors. People like Hannah Gordon, Joss Ackland, Honor Blackman, Colin Baker, Ross Kemp, Dennis Waterman, Peter Bowles, James Bolam, Roger Daltrey and others.

My brief encounter with Roger Daltrey was particularly amusing as he was selected to read a story of mine called Fancy Dress Night, which concerns a murderous misanthrope who attends a New Year’s Eve fancy dress party dressed as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but with a tank of fuel concealed in his hump, which he intends to slowly discharge all over the crowded dance-floor. Before the night is over, of course, he will ignite it, and then flee the scene. But the best-laid evil plans rarely work out … am I right?

Anyway, Roger seemed to like the story, and suggested one slight change – which I approved of. But we had this discussion when he rang me at the Wigan Observer editorial office. I found him very amiable and chatty, and we were on the phone for a good ten minutes. When he hung up, I turned around and the entire office was standing behind me, ear-wigging.

Word that Roger Daltrey was on the line had got around fast.



In the end he did a great job for me, but so did most of the other readers. Bill Oddie, then known mainly as a comedian, read a tale called The Ogre of the Scraggs, which told the story of a group of kids taking their scrambler bikes over an extensive area of spoil-land and slagheap, and meeting something very unpleasant during the process. He literally could not have done a better job (despite being a naturalised Brummie, he got the Wigan accent bang-on).

The late, great Jon Pertwee also graced me with a reading. In fact, someone told me once that they thought A Glitch in Time, which centred around a series of nightmarishly problematic time-travel experiments at a secretive US Airforce base was the last piece of professional work he ever did, which, if true, would have been an honour beyond my wildest dreams given that Mr Pertwee was, and still is in my view, the quintessential Dr Who.

The list goes on, basically. Rula Lenska was equally superb in her reading of Skeleton Crew, which focussed on an understrength police station in a rough inner-city area on the night a deadly and vengeful cop-killer gets loose from jail. For those interested, this tale went down so well that I was later able to enlarge it, develop it, hack it, chop it, change it etc, into an episode of The Bill called Protect and Survive, which I wrote sometime in the early 2000s.

I could go on like this for a while, but I don’t want to get too boring about it. I’ll just reiterate that the spoken word versions of quite a few of these stories – maybe all, I honestly don’t know! – seem to have been repackaged again during the early 2000s (even though I only discovered them quite recently; they’ve been repackaged more than once since they were first put out, I suspect – I sold the audio rights at the time, so there was no necessity that I be kept in the loop). But their latest incarnations appears to be these collections, the jackets to which I’ve posted throughout this blog.

Sorry, but for all the reasons laid out, I don’t actually know the tables of contents and should point out at this stage that not all the stories collected in them are mine (or Robert Eastland’s, who, as I say, is also me). Other writers did contribute, though I think I provided the lion’s share. It’s probably also worth mentioning that quite a few of these tales will have appeared in print format since then, so be warned, there’s a possibility, if you go for them, that you might double up.

Anyway, that’s it on the subject of these. On the subject on another older story soon to be unearthed, a 40K-word novella of mine, Season of Mist, which originally appeared in the Ash-Tree Press collection, Walkers in the Dark in 2010, will shortly be republished, both electronically and in print (and maybe via Audible too) hopefully in time for this autumn. If you’re interested, keep watching this space.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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.

HELP THE WITCH 
by Tom Cox (2018)

The debut collection of stories from a highly accomplished novelist, journalist and essay writer, who previously has written profoundly and entertainingly about animals and the countryside, but also about music and sport. This is his first collection of supernatural(ish) fiction, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s strongly flavoured with folklore.

Initially, rather than simply list all the stories contained here and tell you what happens in each one of them, I’ll let Unbound’s official online blurb do the talking as it strongly hints at the spooky stuff lurking inside:

Inspired by our native landscapes, saturated by the shadows beneath trees and behind doors, listening to the run of water and half-heard voices, Tom Cox’s first collection of short stories is a series of evocative and unsettling trips into worlds previously visited by the likes of M. R. James and E. F. Benson.

Railway tunnels, the lanes and hills of the Peak District, family homes, old stones, shreds fluttering on barbed wire, night drawing in, something that might be an animal shifting on the other side of a hedge: Tom has drawn on his life-long love of weird fiction, folklore and nature s unregarded corners to write a collection of stories that will delight fans old and new and leave them very uneasy about turning the reading lamp off.

After all that, the main problem with Help the Witch is going to come if readers tune in expecting a bunch of traditional rural or folk-themed horror stories, because if they do that, they are almost certain to be disappointed. The blurb above describes Tom Cox as a kind of heir-apparent to MR James and EF Benson, but in my opinion that’s a little misleading.

Of course, both James and Benson were a lot more than simple ghost story writers, the former a medievalist scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, the latter a famed novelist, biographer and archaeologist. But everything about Help the Witch, from its jacket art, to the splendid illustrations inside, to the blurb on the book’s inner sleeve implies that what we’re in for here is a collection of stories cut from the cloth of the uncanny.

That isn’t solely the case, though I don’t mean to say that Cox – who’s a truly excellent writer – doesn’t delve more than a little bit into that eerie world. Two stories in particular, the titular Help the Witch and Just Good Friends (of which more about later), are both exquisite chillers centred around real characters with complex emotions, and hauntings (of a kind) which come at us very subtly and genuinely frighteningly (even though Cox is not aiming for anything like the degree of terror that James and Benson routinely achieved).

Also classifiable as ghost and/or horror stories are Listings, an account of a weird haunting as relayed through a succession of news reports, magazine items etc running far into the future, and The Pool, wherein the turning seasons cause the malignant energy lurking beneath a woodland pool – an intriguingly unknowable entity – to wax and wane in terms of its power. Both comprise top quality wordsmithery by Cox, though the first tale is almost experimental in terms of its narrative style, while the second is a detailed and very lyrical study of the natural environment of the English woodlands rather than an actual scary story. (Again, more about these two later).

Beyond that, though, I’m not sure that every piece in Help the Witch did it for me. Perhaps I just didn’t think deeply enough, but contributions like Seance and Nine Tiny Stories About Houses seemed like existential oddities, even though the former is quite amusing, while another one, Robot, had the air of something that had been penned quickly and without a great deal of purpose.

I reiterate, however, that Tom Cox is a fine writer. Even those stories that didn’t endear themselves to me as chillers are skilled and poetic in their execution. But overall, it wasn’t quite what I felt I’d been led to expect. Folk-horror is a subgenre of supernatural fiction already well populated by established masters and mistresses of the form – Reggie Oliver, Steve Duffy, Helen Grant, Adam Nevill, Sarah Singleton, to name but a few – and that would be stiff competition for anyone.

But ultimately, it’s in the eye of the beholder. I can only say what I personally felt, and even I, who am not 100% sold on Help the Witch, consider that at least half the book, if not more, is well worth the price I paid for it. So, go on … grab a copy, yourself, and see what you think. There is a bit of something here for everyone.

 And now …

HELP THE WITCH – the movie.

Just a bit of fun, this. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but they are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that all find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (al la Dead of Night) or are the subjects of unsolved paranormal cases handed by one retired and decrepit investigator to a young up-n-comer (al la Ghost Stories) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Just Good Friends: Helen, a beautiful 30-something, is unlucky in love until she meets the gentle, enigmatic Peter, who she is strongly attracted to despite their relationship remaining platonic. Things are finally warming up between them when Peter inexplicably claims that he’s always known her and has been following her since she was young. Unnerved by such weirdness, Helen breaks the relationship off and gets a new boyfriend, only to develop an urge to return to her native Cornwall to see her ailing mother, Alice, and investigate the mysterious old seaside house that she increasingly remembers from childhood …

Helen – Claire Foy
Peter – William Moseley

Listings: The story of a bad place on the edge of the Somerset marshes. A human habitation, but a spot where various houses, pubs and the like have all been troubled by a mysterious, malevolent entity who may or may not be Tunk, the fearsome, sheep-headed goblin of local West Country myth …

(It’s up to the screenwriter to come up with a cast-list for this one, as no individual of significance stands out in the original short story).

The Pool: A scenic woodland pool with a mysterious, anonymous something lurking in its opaque depths exerts a subtle evil influence over all those who venture near it, no matter how fun-loving they are or innocent their motives. ...

(Again, it’s up to the screenwriter to come up with a cast-list for this one, as no specific character provides a focus for the tale).

Help the Witch: Jeff, an academic on the run from an irrevocably broken relationship, heads north into the Derbyshire Peaks, where he takes a primitive cottage high on a valley edge just in time to get snowed in by a terrible winter. It is probably not the best time to discover that the cottage is haunted by a spirit still lingering after the ghastly carnage of the plague era …

Jeff – Ben Whishaw
Catherine (voice only) – Lena Headey

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Popping down to the Med? Be sooo careful!


Well … it’s the height of summer, as if you hadn’t realised, and lots of lucky people are heading off on holiday, or, if not that, are lapping up the lovely sunshine here. So, in keeping with that spirit, I thought that I too would take a break from the self-promotion trail this week, and instead of talking at length about anything I might have coming up, I’d whisk us all down to the Mediterranean, for the third installment of my personal GAZETTEER OF STRANGE AND EERIE PLACES.

Yes, we’re on the mystery hunt again, but this time in the realm of what was once called the ‘Roman Lake’ and all the rugged, sun-kissed lands adjoining it.

In that same spirit of blue sea, blue sky and strange beings lurking just beyond this façade of loveliness, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Mira Grant’s fine novel of oceanic terror, INTO THE DROWNING DEEP.

If you’re only here for the Mira Grant review, scoot down to the lower end of today’s blogpost, where you usually find such things. If, however, you’ve got time for the other stuff too, stick around here for a bit.

The Brasshouse

Before we get on to my latest round-up of strange and scary places, just a quick mention – I only promised not to talk about this kind of stuff AT LENGTH, remember – of a special visit I’ll be making to one of the oldest and most famous pubs in Birmingham, The Brasshouse on Broad Street, at 3pm this coming Sunday. 

This is a ticketed ‘Meet the Author’ event, which has been organised as part of the 35th annual Birmingham Jazz Festival. Now, jazz and thriller-writing don’t always go together, you’ll probably think, but on this occasion they do, as The Brasshouse, one of the main hubs of the festival, figures at the start of my eighth novel, SHADOWS. A young chap enjoys a few bevies there before setting out alone … to meet his fate on the dark, rain-soaked streets of the West Midlands capital.

And now, as promised, let me take you all to a place where it rarely ever rains …

Chilling in the Med

At the commencement of this year, I started a new occasional feature on this blog: My Own Gazetteer of Strange, Eerie Places. It all began last January with a run-down of my top 20 strange and scary places in Britain and Ireland. It drew a lot of response, all of it positive … so much so that later on, in May, I took the obvious next step and ran a second installment, this time looking specifically at Western Europe.

Again, this went down well with readers, who hit the blog hundreds of times and sent me various votes of approval via Facebook, Twitter etc. It’s now my plan, in due course, to go all around the world. But that can’t be done quickly or easily, and I have no written-down schedule as yet, so, you’ll just need to keep on checking in. 

However, it seemed very sensible, given the time of year at present, not to mention the weather, to head next to the Mediterranean.

Once described by David Attenborough as ‘the First Eden’, the Med isn’t just a holiday haven. It sits between Europe, Asia and Africa, and played a truly vital role in the political and cultural development of some of the world’s most significant civilisations, both ancient and modern. Its legends and folklore naturally reflect this; there is probably nowhere else on Earth where such a plethora of strange mythology is so intensively concentrated, or where so much physical evidence of this can still be seen and experienced today.

So, without further ado, please enjoy (and feel free to comment on) ...


Gazetteer of Strange, Eerie Places 3: Mediterranean

1 Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo


Probably one of the most macabre tourist attractions in the whole of the Mediterranean area, the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, in Sicily, contain around 8,000 corpses, some 1,250 on open display, having been preserved by various methods of mummification. It’s often seen by outsiders as a ghoulish spectacle, but modern Sicilians take a pragmatic view, arguing that the Catacombs help them commune with their deceased ancestors the way prayer alone never could, and point to the benefits drawn from scientific analysis of the remains. It all began accidentally, when 16th century monks excavated the Catacombs because their normal burial grounds were full. As the rock was too hard to permit grave digging, the bodies were left on shelves or in niches, and thus required cleaning, dressing and a degree of preservation. Wealthy lay-folk liked the idea of being able to visit their lost relatives, and so paid for the privilege, and thus it began. The last interment was in the 1920s, but the Catacombs are as popular today with tourists as ever. However, it’s a measure of how profane some visitors can be that iron grilles have now been installed to prevent them tampering with and even posing alongside the corpses.

2 Poveglia Island, Venice


There are many islands in the Venetian lagoon, several playing host to astonishingly expensive hotels. But one island there where you’d never want to stay is Poveglia. Currently empty, covered with abandoned, overgrown buildings and protected by law – it’s illegal to set foot there without permission – the island is regarded as the most haunted in the world, and its grim history feeds into this. Once inhabited, Poveglia’s small population was driven to the mainland in 1379 to escape from Genoese pirates. But the island did not stay empty. In the 18th century, it was transformed into a colony for plague sufferers, ‘plague’ back then meaning just about any infectious illness – so those with a chance of recovering were incarcerated with those who were certain to die, meaning that they all died. An estimated 100,000 perished on Poveglia, most of their bodies burned, which is why 50% of the island’s soil is now said to be ash. From 1922 until 1968, it housed the mentally ill. Forgotten by their families, they lived in filth and were cruelly mistreated, one deranged doctor said to have performed horrible experiments on them, though this same doctor later threw himself from the bell-tower. His angry ghost is one of countless now said to walk the island. 

3 Cities of the Plain, Holy Land


There is much debate as to where the Cities of the Plain stood because little remains of them now. We only know they existed at all thanks to Biblical references and archaeological surveys on a coastal plain south of the Dead Sea, which have uncovered buried evidence of extensive habitations in the early days of the Ancient World. Those excavations have uncovered something else too: clues that these cities were destroyed abruptly by what looks distinctly like burning. There were five Cities of the Plain: Admah, Zeboim, Bela, Sodom and Gomorrah. You’ll remember that in the Book of Genesis, God was angered by their sinfulness and planned to vanquish them with flame. Abraham begged His mercy, and God agreed to spare the cities if His angels could find 10 good men within. His angels failed, and four of the cities were consumed by fire, only Bela escaping. Modern scholars believe that exploding gases released by seismic activity could have devastated the cities, or that debris from a meteorite impact – there was one around 1,700 BC – may have rained fire from Heaven. The transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt could be explained by the many such eerie objects dotted along the Dead Sea shore.

4 Llers Castle, Catalonia  


Thanks to a violent assault during the Spanish Civil War, all that remains of Llers Castle today is broken walls and mouldering stonework. It is unimpressive even by the standards of other castles in Catalonia, let alone those on the rest of the Spanish peninsula, and yet it boasts an extraordinary past and well deserves its place of honour in the European supernatural pantheon. Vampire legends are uncommon in Spanish culture, and yet Llers Castle stands at the heart of a particularly frightening one, which predates even those from the Balkans. In the mid-12th century, long before the word ‘vampire’ was even in use, Alfonso II of Aragon assigned the warlike Count Arnald Estruc to occupy Llers Castle and use it as his base to root out witches and other pagans. Estruc immediately attacked the local peasants, for which crime, when he died in 1173, he became an undead monster, still holed up in the grim bastion, but from here making nightly forays to suck the blood of local women as well as to seduce and impregnate them, the offspring of which horrific rapes were still-born monstrosities. According to different myths, Estruc was finally killed either by a warrior nun or a Jewish hermit using rituals from the Kabbalah.

Cruces de Malpique, La Palma


Located in the Atlantic Ocean, just off the western Moroccan coast, La Palma is not strictly in the Mediterranean Sea, but as one of the Canary Isles, an official Spanish archipelago, it works for our purposes, which allows us to include one of the eeriest and most fascinating dive sites in the world, the fabled ‘Cruces de Malpique’. At first glance an undersea cemetery some 60 feet down, about seven kilometres off the island’s south shore, the 40 stone crosses still standing erect on a natural lava bed are in actual fact a memorial to the Martyrs of Tazacorte. In 1570, a ship carrying 40 Jesuit missionaries was intercepted by corsairs under the control of the ruthless Jacques Sourie, a Huguenot and affirmed hater of Catholicism. Delighted to have such men in his grasp, Sourie had his crew hack all their arms off and throw them overboard so that they would inevitably drown. In 1742 the murder victims were declared martyrs by Pope Benedict XIV, but it was 1999 before their remains were recovered and the crosses erected where they lay. As an interesting footnote, a silver chalice can still be seen in a church in Tazacorte, which bears the teethmarks of one of the priests who accidentally bit into it while seeing a vision of his fate.

6 The Old City, Rhodes


The medieval quarter of the city of Rhodes on the Island of Rhodes, as built and fortified by the Knights Hospitaller at the time of the Crusades, remains one of the historic jewels of the Eastern Mediterranean. It also boasts one of the best attested-to tales of dragon lore ever recorded in Western Europe and offers a fascinating and convincing explanation not only for this story, but for many others that were similar. In the 1330s, a dragon was terrorising a swampy area of the island, taking both animals and people for its food. The Hospitallers’ Grand Master, Helion de Villeneuve, sent knights and dogs against it, but all were killed. Eventually, he ordered the people and his men simply to avoid the beast. However, one Hospitaller, Dieudonne de Gozon, considered such inaction dishonourable. He thus tracked the horror to a reservoir under the city, fought a furious battle with it, and though wounded, slew it. He cut off its head and presented it to the rejoicing people, who hung it from the entrance gate to the city, where it remained for many centuries. In 1837, a British scientist sketched the hanging skull and presented his drawing to naturalists in London, who proclaimed it the skull of an unusually large crocodile. So goes the tale, and be honest, it’s not at all impossible. 

7 Canfranc Station, Spain


Canfranc Station in the Spanish Pyrenees has no history of paranormal activity, but it is popular with urban explorers, not least because it is easy to gain access to the isolated yet opulent ruins (it was known as the ‘Titanic of the Mountains’). As such, it regularly features on lists of Europe’s scariest places, even though more Spaniards are said to have visited it in its current decrepit state than they did when it was in use. Its history is boringly mundane, though modern observers are still baffled that so grand a structure was erected to serve what is now felt to have been so small a purpose. The station was opened in 1928 at the Somport railway tunnel, its job not just to provide a customs checkpoint, but to transit passengers and freight from the narrow standard gauge of the French railways to the slightly wider Spanish gauge. At the time this apparently necessitated the construction of a huge depot at the station, plus hotel facilities and even a school. It all ended in 1970, when a train crash destroyed the L'Estanguet bridge on the French side of the tunnel, which was eventually seen as too expensive to repair. A much smaller, more modern facility at nearby Zaragoza-Delicias now performs the same duty. 

8 Knossos, Crete


When you visit Knossos, in Crete, formerly the ceremonial capital of the long-lost Minoan civilisation, it’s difficult to be sure whether you’re seeing an actual antiquity or a modern recreation, as so much of it was ‘restored’ by archaeologist Arthur Evans in the early 20th century. Though undoubtedly a major find, we don’t really know whether this ever was the palace of the legendary King Minos, much less whether its intricate under croft of passages and rooms formed the labyrinth that housed the man-eating Minotaur, but the place is soaked in atmosphere, and it’s easy to imagine it (as many say Evans did). Of all the Greek Islands, Crete does well regarding ancient monsters, boasting not just the Minotaur, but also Talos, the bronze giant remembered by all kids of a certain age from the movie, Jason and the Argonauts. The Minotaur, you may recall, was the bull-headed product of a ghastly liaison between the love-charmed Queen Pasiphae and a white bull, and was later slain by Theseus. Talos, the bronze colossus, was set to guard Crete (not Lemnos, the actual Isle of Bronze) by Minos’s mum, Queen Europa, and was destroyed by Medea, Jason’s lover, when she drugged him and unscrewed the cap on his heel.

9 Vatican City, Rome


If you believe in the supernatural, it would be difficult to imagine that any location as ancient and as politically, culturally, philosophically and, above all, as spiritually significant as the Vatican would NOT be a hive of mysterious and paranormal activity. Ghost stories from the Vatican are legion, though the Catholic Church doesn’t like talking about them. The picture centres on one of the bell-towers of St Peter’s Basilica. It was captured by a tourist, and purports to show the spirit of a suicide victim gearing up to make his/her fatal leap all over again. At the same time, the ghost of Donna Olimpia Pamphili, close confidante to Pope Innocent X, and a woman accused of attempting to steal much papal wealth at the time of his death (1655), is said to haunt its many corridors and courtyards. Other spirits may never have led an earthly life. Famous exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, claimed that demonic entities often seek to infiltrate the holy citadel, while rumours persist that the Vatican’s Secret Archive (which is not so secret these days, as scholars are regularly permitted access) also includes a sinister ‘Black Library’, which keeps many forbidden books under lock and key to prevent them exerting a baleful influence.       

10 Haunted Mansions, Greece


It may surprise some, but mainland Greece boasts many haunted houses, most of their troubles associated with the Nazi occupation during World War Two. For example, the Villa Kazouli Kifisia in Athens, though used today as HQ for an environmental campaign group, is most famous for having been occupied by Gestapo officers between 1941 and 1944, and the many interrogations and murders that occurred there. The cries of the victims are heard even today. Villa Kallergis, also near Athens, is another gloomy abode with a dark past that still resurfaces. This one had a history of violence even before WWII, as the millionaire who built it murdered his wife and children there, before killing himself, but again, once the Germans took over, it became a scene of imprisonment and torture. Now apparently, the empty place resists demolition, workmen having inexplicably died while attempting to knock it down. Most frightening of all is the Kontos Mansion in Thessaly (pictured), which also was born in tragedy, when the Russian ambassador who built it in 1900 lost all four of his children to TB. Its tale of woe continued later when Nazi officials tortured and killed Greek resistance fighters there. Once again, their screams can still be heard.

11 Lierganes, Cantabria


A curious story comes to us from Northern Spain, and it’s all the stranger because it was recorded by Enlightenment writer, Friar Benito Jerónimo Feijóo, who was more famous for his debunking of myths. In 1674, near Lierganes, a young red-headed man called Francisco de la Vega, who had gone swimming, was washed out to sea and presumed drowned. Five years later, off the coast of Cadiz, an odd creature was captured in a net: a so-called ‘fish man’, apparently human, with a mop of red hair, but with scales and gills. Interrogated by local priests, the creature could only articulate one word: ‘Lierganes’. It was thus escorted north to the distant village and, once there, directed its new guardians to the house of Francisco de la Vega, where the astonished family proclaimed him their missing son. The creature remained with them for the next nine years, compliant but speaking little, always preferring to be nude, and, some felt, very sad. At length, it returned to the sea and was never seen again. Friar Benito’s assurances that the tale is true have bewildered modern scholars, though one physician has postulated that the so-called fish-man was actually a stranger suffering from cretinism and that the family declared him their son as a form of wish-fulfillment.

12 River Acheron, Epirus


According to the ancients, the River Acheron, or ‘River of Pain’, was one of the four rivers of Hell, both Virgil and Dante and later John Milton describing this as the waterway across which Charon would ferry the dead rather than the Styx. Of course, nobody knows whether this is true or not, as no one has ever returned from Hell. However, its namesake on Earth, the River Acheron in Epirus, in Northern Greece, may have a role to play in the emergence of this fearsome legend, as it was here where the terrifying Necromanteion was located. This great temple of necromancy, dedicated to the goddess Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, was also believed to provide a doorway into Hades, and it’s not inconceivable that a tributary of the Acheron flowed down beneath it, thus propagating the myth. As well as hosting elaborate rituals and sacrifices, the Necromanteion also provided pilgrims with an oracle, and it was here, according to Homer, where Odysseus asked questions of the dead. Various archaeological sites are claimed to be the remnants of the Necromanteion, but all are disputed. It was close to the ancient city of Ephyra, however, the relics of which are believed to have been discovered close to the Acheron.

13 Tortured Brides, Malta


Anyone reading this who’s never visited the isle of Malta, I recommend that you put this right forthwith. Culturally vibrant, unfailingly friendly and the beneficiary of glorious year-round weather, Malta is a delight. It’s also a courageous land, having withstood three colossal sieges: by the Moors in 1429, the Ottomans in 1565, and the Axis in 1940/42. For all this violence, Malta’s two most distressing ghost stories relate to domestic strife. In the 1780s, a young lady was imprisoned by an unsuitable suitor in an upper room of the Verdala Palace. Attempting to climb free, she fell to her death. Wearing a blue dress at the time, she is now known as the Blue Lady, her sad phantom often seen in mirrors in the palace, standing on high balconies or even falling, her blue dress billowing in the wind. Another tragic tale tells how in medieval times in the city of Mdina (pictured), a woman called Katrina, in resisting the advances of an amorous knight, accidentally killed him, for which crime she was sentenced to death. Married shortly before she was beheaded, her decapitated form is now said to walk the nighttime streets in her bloodstained bridal gown, approaching the lovelorn and advising them to give up on love and join her in death.

14 Spinalonga, Crete


The island of Spinalonga, in the Gulf of Mirabello, is one of the most beautiful spots on the Cretan coastline. Its turqoise sea, rugged, cypress-clad shoreline, bright sunshine and constant thrum of cicadas render it the quintessential Greek tourist experience. But its history is grim beyond belief. Known locally as Kalydon, the island, which is only swimming distance from the mainland but is rocky and bare, served from 1903 until 1957 as a leper colony. Though treatable since around 1940, leprosy still caused great fear and carried huge social stigma in the early 20th century, and when Spinalonga was in use, Greeks diagnosed with the disease would be deprived of all property, wealth and civil rights, had their identities erased and were confined for life to what was in effect a prison. On arrival at Spinalonga, they would only be admitted through a tunnel known as Dante’s Gate, which in time-honoured tradition was the entrance to Hell. Tales of how well the occupants of the island were treated vary, but medical care was offered along with religious ministry. Even so, it must have seemed a sorrowful exile for the sufferers, who’d effectively become non-persons, forgotten even by their families. The very stones here ache with that pain.  

15 Satanic University, Turin


Let’s get one thing clear: the above image is NOT the Satanic University of Turin. It is the city of Turin itself, which some will argue is itself a hotbed of Satanic lore, though that is surely a moot point. The actual Satanic University is concealed among the great city’s many collegiate structures, because only a select few are allowed admittance. Or so the story goes. It is only one of many rumours that Lucifer and his acolytes pervade this ancient capital of Piedmont. Devilish cults have reputedly made their homes here for centuries. The city itself is one of three believed by occultists to constitute a triangle of dark energy (London and San Francisco being the other two). A physical entrance to Hell is said to be hidden in Turin’s complex sewer network, and many churches in the city have been burgled, their sacred items stolen for use in the Black Mass. The Catholic Church responded in the 1980s, when Cardinal Ballestrero appointed six official exorcists to the city, though others, including his fellow churchmen, liken Satanism’s appeal in Turin to its appeal in California, arguing that both are affluent and that black magic has often been fun for the bored wealthy, who view it as harmless sport. Maybe this is a moot point too. 

16 Varosha, Cyprus


A sad, eerie relic of chaotic 20th century politics, Varosha, the derelict southern quarter of the Cypriot city of Famagusta, is a literal ghost town, and even though it has no paranormal history or supernatural reputation, it so reminds us of Man’s inability to make peace with himself that it can’t help but seem sinister. A bustling holiday resort in the 1960s, one of the party capitals of the Eastern Mediterranean, it boasted white sand beaches, high-rise hotels, nightclubs and classy shopping malls, and played host to the Hollywood jet-set, including the likes of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Raquel Welch. Now it stands empty and decaying, weeds overrunning everything, as it has done since July 1974, when the Turks invaded Cyprus. That month, facilitated by the British military, the city’s population fled their homes, convinced that a massacre would result when the vying forces met. In due course, the Turks advanced to the so-called Green Line, still the border between the rival factions, and closed off Varosha. They have held it ever since, defying UN Security Council resolutions, keeping it as leverage for future negotiations. At present, the only life there is the sea turtles that nest on its deserted beaches. 

17 Straits of Messina, Sicily


Two of the most terrifying monsters in Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis, were located one at either side of the Straits of Messina and presented mariners of those days with a nightmarish choice, because to pass this place they needed to face one or the other. Scylla was usually the preferred option because she claimed fewer lives, but she was still a fearsome opponent. Once a gorgeous naiad, she was the daughter of Triton and Hecate (though other writers have claimed a more ferocious parentage, Typhon and Echidna), and was poisoned by a rival, which transformed her into a hideous monster with multiple tentacles and heads. Shunned by all, she went to live among the rocks on the north side of the strait, from where she would attack crews on open decks. Meanwhile, the exact form and origin of Charybdis are unknown, but it lurked on the seabed on the opposite side of the strait, sucking down the sea several times a day, wrecking ships in the resulting whirlpools. Both figure prominently in the Greek mythos, most prominently in The Odyssey, and are often seen as metaphorical figures, though whirlpools occur on the south side of the strait and large octopi have been netted on the other side, which might provide explanations of a sort.

18 Where Bad Kids Go, Lebanon


Life in Lebanon was often pretty risky. Long in ferment, with pan-Arabist forces hostile to the pro-western government, it flared into civil war in 1975, 15 years following during which slaughter and destruction were commonplace. If that wasn’t enough, a Lebanese photojournalist, who was a child at the time, has recently been talking online about a weird television show which aired there and was called Where Bad Kids Go. He had no idea where it was broadcast from but recalled that it laid down strict rules about the behaviour expected of children, always ending with a dingy warehouse door, which had been padlocked and from behind which could be heard horrific screams. Across that final image, the words This is Where Bad Kids Go would always be emblazoned. Years later, the journalist was working on a story in Lebanon, when he discovered a gutted building that he recognised. Inside it was that same padlocked door. When he forced the door open, he found a room covered in ancient bloodstains and strewn with children’s bones. Hanging from the ceiling, he claims, was a very old microphone. True, or typical online myth making? One thing is certain, some awful things happened in Lebanon during the 1980s. 

19 Yaros Prison, Aegean Sea


Most visitors to Greece leave again with nothing but happy memories. For many Northern Europeans, it remains the go-to holiday destination. But Greece, for all its atmospheric ruins, its dancing waiters and sun-soaked beaches, wasn’t always a happy place. Between 1967 and 1974 it was controlled by a military junta who imposed a fascist regime on a par with anything Europe had seen during the 1930s. One symptom of this was Yaros Prison, located on the barest and grimmest of the Cyclades Islands, just southeast of Athens. Known variously as ‘Death Island’ and ‘the Dachau of the Mediterranean’, Yaros primarily housed political prisoners, 22,000 of them in overall total, many of whom had never even stood trial, and treated them with incredible brutality, not just starving and working them to death, but torturing them as well. All that remains now are hollowed-out ruins, though the island is open to the public should the public be able to find a way to get to it. But there are no tourist facilities there, and rumours persist that a legion of ghosts haunts the island. If that doesn’t scare you, stories are rife that that the Greek Navy once bombarded it to try and destroy the evidence, using missiles containing depleted uranium.

20 Realm of Gods and Monsters, the Mediterranean


As the cradle of western culture and the head-water of so many of the world’s great mythologies, the Mediterranean region has spawned countless monstrous and fantastical beings that haunt our imaginations even today. We’ve already mentioned several, but as well as the Minotaur, Talos, Scylla and Charybdis, there is a multitude of others the surface of whose stories we can only scrape even in this final round-up (and even then there are lots that we haven’t got room to mention). Echidna, for example, the mother of all monsters (pictured above in the Bomarzo Monster Park, Italy), half ‘desirable female’ and half ‘speckled snake’, was the wife of the titan, Typhon, thanks to whose attentions she gave birth to all kinds of famous horrors She was a man-eater in every sense, who inhabited a cave on Ischia in the Gulf of Naples.

One of her children was the Hydra, notorious in both Greek and Roman legend as a serpentine monstrosity, which grew two heads for every one that some hapless hero lopped off (pictured topside, in an image unashamedly pinched from Jason and the Argonauts). In the end it took Hercules, the most hardcore Greek adventurer, to finish it. Its home was Lake Lerna in mainland Greece. 

Unconnected to Greek mythology, one of several chaos monsters referenced in the early books of the Bible is Leviathan, (pictured right, as imagined by Ben Erdt) a sea-beast so vast and terrifying that only God would be able to destroy it at the end of days, at which point He would feed its flesh to the faithful. Though Christians later re categorised it as a demon in its own right, in the initial days Leviathan’s abode was the whole Mediterranean Sea, which boiled when it swam.

Back in the world of Greek mythology we find Geryon, another horrific creature – gigantic in stature, three heads, three bodies, six hands, each one bearing a weapon, etc – whose home was the isle of Erythia, off southern Spain. Again, this ferocious entity was slain by Hercules (as depicted left). Then, over in the Southern Med, we have possibly the most feared trio of monsters in all the mythologies of the world: the Gorgon sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and the youngest and only one of them who was mortal, Medusa. Formerly a beautiful priestess in the Temple of Athena in Libya, Medusa was raped on the altar there by Poseidon, which sacrilegious act roused the goddess to fury, but as she couldn’t punish Poseidon, she punished the victim instead, transforming Medusa into the snake-haired harridan we know today. A creature so ghastly that her terrible gaze could literally turn a man to stone. She was beheaded by the hero, Perseus, who only escaped her equally savage sisters with the help of Pegasus. 

This leads us neatly to our final monster of the day, Cetus, a colossal sea-dragon, who at the same time was busy terrorising the coast of ‘Aethiopia’, which in the Ancient Greek world meant all those parts of North Africa not classified as Egypt or Libya. The local potentate, Queen Cassiopeia’s solution was to formally sacrifice her daughter, Andromeda, to the monster, but fortunately, Perseus turned up with Medusa’s head before she could be eaten, and duly turned Cetus into a lump of shapeless, barnacled rock, which today is lost among the countless others than litter the wine-dark sea’s magnificent, sun-drenched coastline (as seen above, though pssst!, that’s actually Hvitsekur in Iceland, which is a massive cheat, though you must admit, it looks good).


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ... 

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.

INTO THE DROWNING DEEP 
by Mira Grant (2017)

When the good ship Atagartis set sail for the Mariana Trench, hopes were high that the team aboard would uncover evidence of mermaids – real ones. And if that didn’t happen, at least the massive TV audience at home would be royally entertained, because the Atagartis had been chartered by global media company, Imagine Entertainment, whose main aim was to film a successful mockumentary in the style of real-life TV ‘hoaxes’ like Mermaids, The Body Found, and Megalodon, The Monster Shark Lives.

All of this took place in the oceanic sci-fi novella of 2015, Rolling in the Deep, by Mira Grant, aka Seanan McGuire, which went on to see Atagartis fall foul of a horde of genuine sub-aquatic beings, who through sheer hostility alone, seemed a far cry from the sweet-voiced, fish-tailed lovelies of myth and legend.

Now, Into the Drowning Deep, a full-blown sci-fi horror novel (set in our near future), picks up the story, with a new mission getting underway, basically to discover what happened to the last one (the Atagartis having been lost entirely, with all hands).

Keen to get involved is ocean scientist, Victoria ‘Tory’ Stewart, whose older sister, Anne, disappeared along with the original vessel, though she herself doesn’t know what to make of the few messages that made it home, which are mostly incoherent, or the odd snippet of footage, which depicts panicky crewmen and Imagine personnel under attack from some kind of unknown, sea-dwelling species with fins, gills and lots and lots of teeth.

The new ship, the Melusine, is better equipped, with a crew who know what to expect, with chemists, biologists, radar and sonar experts and other technicians, all determined to discover what it is that actually lurks in the deep, and is packed to the brim with TV folk from Imagine who are keen to catch everything on film, and thus create one of the greatest live ‘exploration of the unknown’ documentaries in television history.

As well as Tory Stewart and her research partner, Luis Martines – who both know they’ve only been invited to boost the ratings but are keen to make use of the opportunity – a whole range of oddball characters accompany the expedition.

Theo Blackwell is Imagine’s man on the spot, a textbook company man and official chief organiser of the mission, whose main role is to look after his employers’ interests, even though he once had his own mind, and indeed still carries the injuries that ended his youthful days of eco-warrior rebellion. His ex-wife, Dr Jillian Toth, a renowned marine biologist, is also on board. A spiky individual, her career has to an extent been sidelined as she’s a fervent believer that mermaids exist and has little time for those who don’t, but she still seems to be the one whom those in-the-know nearly always defer to.

Then there’s Olivia Sanderson, a professional YouTube presenter, beautiful and intelligent in equal measure, though inevitably she feels that everyone else regards her as a lightweight and so is here to assert herself as a serious professional and to hopefully make waves in the world of ‘real’ broadcasting.

More respected by far are the three Wilson sisters, the younger two – Holly and Heather – who though profoundly deaf, are an organic chemist and submersible pilot respectively, both at the tops of their respective fields, while their older sister, Hallie, a researcher in her own right, is there mainly to translate for them, as so few other people are able to sign.

Most eccentric of all, Jacques and Michi Abney – a husband and wife big game hunting team – are also on hand, with an arsenal of hi-tech weapons just in case the mer-people turn nasty again. This handsome but menacing twosome present a potentially quite serious problem as there is no certainty that they’ll be easy to control in the event of a confrontation, especially if some kind of ‘diplomatic initiative’ is favoured by the rest of the team. They are deadliness personified, living only for the hunt, unashamedly besotted with each other’s ruthlessness and openly disrespectful of the non-predatory humans around them.

Okay, from this point on, I don’t want to say too much more about the actual synopsis of Into the Drowning Deep for fear that it will give away essential spoilers.

Put it this way, the mission goes ahead, the Melusine soon arriving at the Mariana Trench, and the 40,000ft Challenger Deep in particular, where all manner of scientific surveys are soon under way, every key character playing his/her own vital role, employing a wide range of methods and materials, including a trio of highly-trained dolphins, who as aquanauts can surely not be bettered (at least, that’s what their human masters assume).

But aside from a few stresses and strains among the cast, and one or two malfunctions in the ship’s security kit, everything feels as if it’s going well, is in fact hunky dory. The expedition is so well-equipped and so expertly manned that danger is the last thing on anyone’s minds.

But as you’d expect, it isn’t long before something is stirring down below, something that deeply resents this unwarranted intrusion into its private realm, something that intends to respond with extreme violence. Yes, it seems that all those myths about lovelorn mermaids singing plaintively on sea-begirt rocks, yearning for a life on land and for peaceful interaction with human society, are a long way wide of the mark …

I came at this one very unsure what to expect. I love oceanic horror, even though it’s a sub-genre that can be hit-and-miss, and Mira Grant, aka Seanan McGuire, is an author I’m not too familiar with. However, I needn’t have had too many concerns, because right from the word go, Into the Drowning Deep is an easily accessible, reader-friendly adventure thriller, presented very much in the style of a techno/eco action movie.

Okay, I hear one criticism that’s been levelled at it: namely that it takes a little time to get going. Well, the first third of the narrative is pretty well all given over to character development, and there is an entire host of these individuals to get our teeth into, but I’m not sure that’s entirely to the book’s detriment. At no stage, even during these early chapters, does Mira Grant renege on her main duty as a horror author, which is to keep reminding us that the deep sea – the Challenger Deep in particular – is a dark and terrible place, inimical to human survival, and that an awful force is latent there, just waiting to explode upwards at the first provocation. This message is so thoroughly rammed home that you basically can’t wait for the action to commence, speaking of which, when things do start to move – not just on board the ship, but underneath it as well – the author delivers superbly.

Hair-raising chills abound, alternating with enough gore and violence to satisfy even the most hardcore of the genre’s addicts, while memories are stirred of many excellent ‘isolated scientists’ horror movies past, everything from Leviathan to Alien to The Thing.

But of course, no amount of action means a damn thing if you don’t care about the personalities involved, and here I maybe have one or two slight qualms.

I should say to begin with that Into the Drowning Deep is a female-led novel; all the best parts are hogged by women, while the men, for the most part, are secondary characters, if not unmemorable walk-ons. But that’s not a criticism. In fact, it’s quite welcome, as it corrects an imbalance that we’ve had in action/fantasy fiction for years. But ... and here’s the rub, several of these lead individuals are a little less than heroic, often behaving illogically and regularly displaying anger, resentment and a general brattishness rather than courage and wisdom, which seems to me to defeat the object of the exercise.

Jillian Toth and the Wilson twins are good examples, the former permanently angry that other academics won’t buy into her theories about mermaids (which in real life surely wouldn’t be difficult to understand) and thus coming over as an abrasive, self-righteous bully, while the Wilson twins are constantly frustrated that those with full hearing don’t understand what it’s like to be deaf – though my response to that would be ‘how could they’?

All this said, I’m not sure these are major issues, as eventually all the characters – most of whom, Tory in particular, are well-drawn and believable (though I could have done without the ‘male stripper’ security staff, which felt very odd) – end up thrown together and fighting for their lives against a previously unknown and apparently unstoppable foe.

Perhaps inevitably, Into the Drowning Deep is filled with science. You can’t really avoid that when you’re concerned with lifeforms that originated below the Hadean zone and you either want to get down to them or bring them up to you. As such, we’re exposed to all kinds of modern-day techo-speak – not just involving the necessary gadgetry, but chemistry, biology, oceanography etc – while the Melusine itself is a floating battle-platform of state-of-the-art sea-scanning apparatus. Personally, I’ve no idea how accurate or authentic it all is. I’m certain that Mira Grant will have done a considerable amount of research, but one particular scene – in which a mermaid is subjected to an autopsy – is very convincing indeed, organ after organ being laid out for us, and explained in so much authoritative detail that you really believe this is what it would take for a gilled, fish-tailed humanoid to exist in the deepest tracts of the ocean.

As well as the science, we also have dollops of philosophy, the author taking time off from the narrative to discuss such current issues as equality, gender diversity, global warming, pollution, ocean dumping, and so on. I must admit to feeling that some of these occasions interrupted the flow of the plot. There would certainly be room in a book like Into the Drowning Deep for such important ponderings, but perhaps a little bit less time could have been dedicated to it – the overall message is there anyway about our brutal disregard for the natural environment and the disastrous consequences that might follow.

But none of this stopped me enjoying the novel.

I was fortunate enough to read Into the Drowning Deep while sailing the Caribbean, so the endless, sun-kissed blue of the world’s most gorgeous seascape made the perfect backdrop against which to thoroughly enjoy this suspenseful and intelligent maritime adventure, which explores one of the oldest nautical mysteries known to mankind, turning it on its head maybe, but also making it live, breathe and terrify.

Into the Drowning Deep is a great piece of sci-fi/horror, and Mira Grant an author I’ll definitely seek out again.

As always at the end of one my book reviews, I’m now going pre-empt the inevitable (I hope so, at least) TV or movie adaptation, and nominate my own cast. Only a bit of fun, of course. Who’d listen to me, after all?

Tory Stewart – Angélica Celaya
Luis Martines – Gael Garcia Bernal
Theo Blackwell – Neil Patrick Harris
Dr Jillian Toth – Jennifer Garner
Olivia Sanderson – Sarah Hyland
Holly Wilson/Heather Wilson – Cara Delevingne
Hallie Wilson – Poppy Delevingne