Sunday, 13 September 2020

When Britain turns dark, drear and spooky

Well, no one expected the COVID crisis to last as long as it has, certainly not into the autumn, which is where we are now. But life must go on as much as it can, and one of the best ways I find not to ponder the depressing and seemingly intangible issue of Coronavirus is to treat each new week as a separate entity and enjoy it for itself, and now, because we’re finally into the waning of the year, there are suddenly lots of new ways to do this.

Invariably, on this blog at least, that means appreciation of the dark side.

Yes. It’s cooler and duller now, and the nights are growing longer, the chill of winter looming. It’s the time for bonfires, conkers and, most important of all, ghost stories. For this reason, I’m going to be talking a bit today about SEASON OF MIST, the autumnal ghost/horror/serial killer novella of mine, which was published this time last year, and in that same vein – the flipside of Merrie England – we’ll be reviewing and discussing BEST BRITISH HORROR 2018, as edited by Johnny Mains.

If you’re only here to read today’s book review, that’s fine. Feel free to zoom on down to the lower end of the blog. As usual, you’ll find it in the THRILLERS, CHILLERS section. But if you’ve got a bit more time first, there are a couple of other minor things.

Riding high

First of all, ONE EYE OPEN has been my main novel release this year. Regular readers will probably know that it was published in August.

Well … the good news is that, despite a very crammed September, which saw such mega-tomes as Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Robert Harris’s V2, all published, along with hundreds and hundreds of others, ONE EYE OPEN is still riding high in the charts. It reached something of a watermark last week when it arrived at #66 in the Kindle Top 100. (Okay, that’s not #1, but when you consider all the millions and millions of other e-titles out there, I can hardly complain). So, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who’s so far bought a copy along with those who are planning to but haven’t done it quite yet (don’t worry, there’s still time).

While we authors tend not to be affected by reviews, either good or bad (we can’t afford to be – it’s only ever one person’s opinion), we cannot fail to be hugely gratified when we see our books rocket up the charts. If nothing else, that means word of mouth is spreading that lots of people like what we’ve written. It’s never less than lovely to know that your work is hitting the spot widely.

So, thanks again to everyone who has purchased ONE EYE OPEN. I hope you are finding it a rewarding experience. And now, the not insignificant matter of …

The mist

My novella, SEASON OF MIST, was published this time last year in paperback, on Kindle and on Audible, where it was narrated by the actor Greg Patmore, who put a voice to it that I could not have hoped for in my wildest dreams.

It first appeared as part of the collection, WALKERS IN THE DARK, which was published in 2010 and launched in Brighton at the World Horror Convention. That original piece of work, like so many other publications from one-time supernatural powerhouse, Ash-Tree Press, had been long, long out of print by 2019. And of course, it predated the new audience I’ve managed to gain for myself through my crime and thriller writing.

Thus, last year, it suddenly seemed very sensible to dig SEASON OF MIST up and bring it out again as a stand-alone item. Which is exactly what I did.

This particular novella had always been intended as a celebration of the autumn, particularly the British autumn, which can easily adopt a Sleepy Hollow-esque appearance - flame-red leaves on the trees, low-lying mist, and fiery jack-o-lanterns watching malevolently from doorsteps – but which has some unique attributes of its own: a deep, dank chill in the fungus-riddled depths of the woods, early winter fog and frost, fireworks exploding overhead, treacle, toffee apples.

The actual story is set during the autumn of 1974, and follows a bunch of 12 and 13-year-olds, whose happy preparations for Halloween and Bonfire Night, and then afterwards, Christmas, are massively disrupted when a series of child-murders occurs in their Lancashire town, the victims all beaten savagely to death.

While parents make frantic efforts to keep everyone indoors, the youngsters won’t be harnessed. This is their favourite time of year, after all, and they are eager to get out at every opportunity to find the killer themselves. The only difference is that, while the police are searching for a maniac, the youngsters know better, and they blame the felonies on Red Clogs, an infamous child-murdering demon supposedly escaped from one of the derelict collieries in the town.

By the way, despite the ages of the main protagonists, SEASON OF MIST is NOT a children’s or YA book, so please be warned about that.

From the outset, it was always intended to be a combination of crime-thriller and horror story, the pre-DNA era hunt for a serial killer continually overlapping with the folklore and mysticism of Northwest England during its heyday of soot and grime. 

From reviews like these …

… took me back to my childhood in Lancashire …

… a wonderfully creepy coming-of-age story …

… really enjoyed the urban legend that ran through it  …

… I like to think I succeeded, but as I mentioned before, these are no more than individual opinions. I wonder what yours might be?


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 (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … 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.

BEST BRITISH HORROR 2018 ed by Johnny Mains (2018)

Contrary to popular opinion, short horror fiction is in a healthy state these days. Okay, it may not appear very regularly from mass-market publishers, and in fact is scattered widely across the independent presses both here in the UK and the US and now even further afield. There is literally a vast number of practitioners. Of varying skill, admittedly, though a lot of them are very good indeed, and their work would sit comfortably back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Pan and Fontana horror series ruled the supermarkets and railway forecourts (in fact, some of them are superior to many of that era’s routinely gruesome offerings, written with much greater care and imagination).

Of course, the quickest way to find these new stars of short-form scarefare is through the plethora of now annual Year’s Best anthologies. Unfortunately, by the nature of the beast, these books can only ever scratch the surface of what’s out there more widely. But whenever you get hold of them, they are still worth studying in detail because invariably their editors have done an awful lot of wide-ranging research before compiling their final tables of contents.

On which subject, step forward editor, Johnny Mains, a man whose knowledge of short horror fiction is surpassed only by his love for that genre and his tireless efforts to bring the very best authors, both old and new, to the attention of the broader public. One of Mains’s most heartfelt quests has been to establish a regular Best British Horror series. Through no fault of his own, and despite valiant efforts, this hasn’t yet become a reality, though he hasn’t given up so far and has brought several such titles out already.

This latest one, Best British Horror 2018, from NewCon Press, clearly shows what the world is currently missing.

Mains certainly has an eclectic taste in horror, which is a good thing, I suppose, when you’re working on a Year’s Best volume, and it’s amply illustrated in this one, the stories ranging far across the chiller spectrum in terms of their subject-matter.

To start with, fans of traditional Gothic horror will be more than satisfied.

Mains’s choices hit this note repeatedly (though not solely). Reggie Oliver, a big favourite in the genre for his ability to elicit genuine terror with the most gentlemanly prose, hits us twice in this anthology, but most impressively with the unnerving Love and Death, which concerns a mysteriously captivating and highly dangerous work of art, while Daniel McGachey, whose reputation in the world of ‘Jamesian’ horror is growing fast, contributes Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling, the story of a magnificent but malevolent old clock, which, whenever it chimes, bodes well for no one (much more about this one and Love and Death later). Then there is Mark Morris’s flat-out horrifying We Who Sing Beneath the Ground, in which Stacy, a young teacher, relocates to Cornwall, but becomes so concerned when one of her pupils at the village school is strangely absent that she makes an ill-advised trip to the remote and dilapidated farm where he lives …

Morris’s soon-to-be-classic Cornish chiller links us nicely into the next subgenre touched on by Mains, which is surely ‘Monsters’. Not everyone goes for this kind of in-yer-face horror. Some readers consider themselves too grown-up or are convinced there should be no place for physical aberrations in modern age scare fiction, when warped psychology is known to be the root of so much fear and despair and Man himself has been exposed as the worst offender in terms of basic cruelty. But as Best British Horror 2018 shows, when done properly, and dare I say it – subtly – there can always be room for tales of nature gone mad.

For example, check out VH Leslie’s Shell Baby, in which something truly awful comes out of the Hebridean Sea (more about this one later), or Laura Mauro’s Sun Dogs, in which young Sadie, the child of misguided survivalists, now lives alone on the edge of the Nevada desert, but then takes in a ragged stranger, June, to whom she is immediately attracted even though June’s arrival seems to coincide with a recent spate of fatal animal attacks.

A different corner of creepy fiction fast-growing in terms of popularity, in fact blooming exponentially at present, is folk-horror. If you discount the Mark Morris story (which sort of fits that bill), Johnny Mains only selects one very folky story on this occasion, but it is more than satisfying, one of the best in the book in my view (not to mention most disturbing), and is probably the first story of this bunch that you may want to read twice just to make sure you haven’t missed any of its nuances. In a nutshell, in Claire Dean’s very clever The Unwish, a dysfunctional family return to their favourite holiday cottage out in the countryside, but sibling rivals, Amy and Sara, don’t get on, Amy’s new boyfriend is late arriving, while Amy herself is increasingly convinced that one time when they were here, even though no one else seems to remember it, she had a little sister …

Of course, no collection of horror stories can possibly exist in modern times without taking a couple of trips at least into the darker recesses of the human mind. Psychological horror is always a challenge to write effectively, authors who prefer it often seeking to unsettle their readers rather than petrify them, though when it’s done successfully, be prepared to be blown out of your comfort zone in a big way.

Three coldly effective examples from Best British Horror 2018 do exactly this.

Ray Cluley gives us In the Light of St Ives, in which eccentric artist, Claire, sets fire to her house in Cornwall, and is badly burned in the process, her older sister, Emily, investigating but unsure whether Claire’s incredible revelations about the light and colour in the house betray an unhinged mind or something much more sinister. Cate Gardner, meanwhile, who can always be relied on to pick at the rawest of nerves, adds Fragments of a Broken Doll, in which we meet demented OAP, Trill, who lives in a slum tenement close to a prison. When a convicted murderer escapes, he hides in her house, constantly protesting his innocence. But the real question is how innocent is Trill?

After that, we have Dispossession, which comes to us from a true master and long-term exponent of the understated psychological chiller, Nicholas Royle. In this one, a disturbed man seeks sanctuary in a new flat, but can’t escape the influence of his old one or the endless memories of his own haunted past. This is another that you might want to read twice just in case you miss something, but even if you don’t, it will still affect you in that intangibly macabre way that Nick Royle stories seem to specialise in.

Psychological horror is often twinned closely with the sort of surreal, fantastical horror that at one time used to be called ‘slipstream’ (especially when it busted the boundaries between genres). I was never the biggest fan, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t recognise the talent so regularly on show, and that is certainly the case with Georgina Bruce’s The Book of Dreems, which introduces us to Kate, who might be a real person, but might also be an android, a doll, a so-called ‘dreemy peep’. Kate herself isn’t sure. But she knows one thing: Fraser, the man who controls her, bosses her, fixes her glitches and then purposely breaks her again, is a tyrant who needs to be stopped. It’s a strange one for sure, an ugly nightmare of a story, but so engrossing that you’ll read it right to the end.

Of course, whereas horror was once seen as second rate pulp, as the naughty child of adult fiction, the bad boy who lots of people liked but wouldn’t admit to it, the reality has always been that dark tales can inform as well as entertain. Sometimes these are difficult roads to take because we don’t always like facing the sad realities of our lives, or the messed-up world we have contributed to creating. Yes, stories like these can be gloomy avenues, but they can be instructive too, even if garish and gory.

The two most serious stories in Best British Horror 2018, aren’t especially gory (or garish, for that matter), but they are grim explorations of human frailty and are thus of high value.

In James Everington’s twisty The Affair, retired middle-aged couple, Neil and Lynda, are haunted by two dopplegangers: younger, more energised versions of themselves, whose youth and virility are a torturous reminder of all they have lost. Then we have The Lies We Tell by Charlotte Bond, in which self-centred realtor, Cathy, lies constantly to her children, who she doesn’t care for anymore, and to her husband, Vikram, who doesn’t yet know about the affair she is having. Someone knows, however. Someone who has been keeping a careful tally of every untruth that Cathy has ever uttered …

So, there we have it. That is Best British Horror 2018. I haven’t mentioned all the stories in this book; I don’t want to spoil everything for you. Suffice to say that this is an ambitious collection of very varied tales, put together with care and loving attention. No doubt there were many other stories published in 2018 that could have been included, but there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, and editor, Johnny Mains, has done us all a great service here in trying to cast as wide a scope as possible on the work being done by Brit horror authors in contemporary times. This is an outstanding collection, which all true fans will delight in.

And now, after all that, we have …

BEST BRITISH HORROR 2018 – the movie

Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware). However, this part of the review is always the fun part, so I’m going to crack on with it anyway. As such, here are my thoughts in anticipation of someone loaded with cash deciding that this lovely little book should immediately be on the screen.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in 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 that require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they are nervous offerings made by prospective new members to the merciless Club of the Damned (a la Supernatural, right) or maybe are related to us in the form of atmospheric fireside readings (a la Spine Chillers) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose (though, timewise, a couple may need updating if they are to work in this context):

Love and Death (by Reggie Oliver): In Victorian London, Martin Isaacs, an unsuccessful artist, is commissioned to recover a missing work of genius, Love and Death, as painted by Basil Hallward, his former mentor, who has now disappeared. But the painting, a classical image in the Renaissance style, is deceptively beautiful. In reality, it destroys all that it touches 

Isaacs – Jordan Patrick Smith
Hallward – Michael Sheen

Shell Baby (by VH Leslie): Tired of life, lonely Elspeth rents an isolated cottage in the Orkneys. She seeks complete isolation, but still yearns for the daughter she never had. On the first night, a weird experience while swimming sees her befriend an unusual baby sea creature. Delighted, Elspeth nurtures it, mothers it even, but it grows at an alarming rate, along with its voracious appetite …

Elspeth – Naomie Harris

Tools of the Trade (by Paul Finch – sorry, guys, but I’m never going to miss a chance to put my own stuff on film): A journalist and amateur medium search a derelict Lancashire hotel, which they believe houses the original knives used in the Jack the Ripper murders. They envisage wealth, but in the process awaken an ancient evil …

Adam Croaker – Robert James Collier
Dick Wetherby – Richard E Grant

Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling (by Daniel McGachey): Just after WWI, an antiques expert is consulted by the agent of a deceased millionaire and hears the chilling tale of a malevolent timepiece, the Awakening Clock, which, whenever it chimes the mysterious 13th hour, brings all manner of darkness upon its owner …

Lawrence – Martin Freeman
Fosdyke – Martin Jarvis
Hinchcliffe – Will Poulter
Shorehouse – Burn Gorman

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