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).

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