Sunday, 1 November 2020

ILL MET BY DARKNESS - coming your way


I’ve got a little surprise today. Hopefully, readers of this column will consider it a pleasant one. It’s an imminent new publication of mine, which I haven’t mentioned at all until this moment, and which, with any luck, will fit in nicely with everyone’s reading habits as we enter this dark and ghostly time of year. It’s being published by the inexhaustible SAROB PRESS, and is called ILL MET BY DARKNESS. It will only be available as a hardback limited edition and contains four completely new horror novellas of mine, all of which have a distinctly folklorish vibe.

Even if I say so myself, I’ve been busy during this pandemic. Very, very busy in fact. But I’m reasonably optimistic (and praying) that you’ll consider this effort worthwhile. 

A bit more about ILL MET BY DARKNESS shortly. In addition today, also on the subject of supernatural horror, I’ll be reviewing and discussing yet another of Michelle Paver’s exceptionally frightening novels of the uncanny, THIN AIR.

If you’re only here for the Michelle Paver review, that’s fine. Just head on down to the bottom of today’s blogpost, where, as usual, you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Killers section. But before we do any of that, here are a couple of items of …

Other news

Firstly, an update on TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES, the latest volume in my Terror Tales series, which you may now be aware is available to order (both electronically and in paperback) either from the publisher, TELOS, or from AMAZON. Watch this space for further info regarding other retailers.

I should also remind you that SPARROWHAWK, my Christmas ghost novella of 2010, which has had a recent makeover, is also available both as an ebook and paperback (again) and is now out on Audible too.

On top of that, two other collections of my Christmas-themed ghost and horror stories are newly out in paperback and on Kindle. They are THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER.

And now for today’s big new item of interest …

Ill Met by Darkness

A few months ago, I was approached by Rob Morgan, that fine gentleman at SAROB PRESS, who, if you’re not familiar with them, specialise in publishing collections of supernatural tales, primarily in deluxe, hand-numbered, limited, hardcover editions, and was asked if I’d be interested in writing an all-new collection of folk-horror(ish) fiction; specifically, Sarob were looking at four novellas.

Now, that’s not the kind of offer a writer receives every day. So, even though I was not entirely sure my schedule would permit it, I said yes. That was one of the few good things that happened to me during last summer’s national lockdown, the imposition of which gave me more time to play with than usual, which in its turn enabled me to write ILL MET BY DARKNESS alongside my regular crime novel commitments

I think the thing that really swung it for me was the folk-horror element. For those not in the know (and surely there’s no one left on Earth by now?), folk-horror is a subgenre of horror fiction in which the focus rests on the British ‘old and wyrd’, particularly that half-forgotten world of ancient ritual and arcane belief. 

It came to the attention of the wider public in the early 1970s with a famous unholy trinity of British horror movies, Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). With the exception of BOSC director, Piers Haggard, who is alleged to have coined the phrase, it’s unlikely that anyone involved at the time was aware that they were creating folk-horror. Most probably felt they were channelling traditional occult and witchcraft tropes, and weaving them into authentically grimy and realistic British rural backdrops (which was a worthy enough ambition).

At the risk of sounding ludicrously big-headed, I like to think that I personally carried the folk-horror candle for quite a while after these films were long done and dusted, and well before the subgenre became as widely popular as it is now. Not just because of my own short horror fiction, which has often drawn on British folklore, but through the Terror Tales series I’ve been editing since 2011, an anthology round-trip of the British Isles, each volume attached to one particular region, the stories within (both the fictional and factual) drawing heavily and purposely on the lore and mythology of that region.

Okay, I’m not going to claim that I’m somehow responsible for the resurgence of interest in folk-horror; that would be palpable nonsense. But I’ve long been a fan, and am totally delighted to see it now getting the attention it deserves.

Which  brings me back to SAROB PRESS and ILL MET BY DARKNESS. It was not a difficult thing for me to get stuck into. My top drawer has been crammed with folk-horror(ish) ideas for quite a while, and the four that I finally selected I penned in double-quick time, even though, as I say, these are novellas and novelettes rather than short stories. Sarob, I am glad to say, were very happy with them, and the finished result can be ordered right now.

For those who don’t mind their appetites being whetted, here’s a list of the stories included, each one accompanied by a tiny teaser ….

SNICKER-SNACK

One summer evening, Gilpin sets out across London, intending to get his hands on a semi-mythical piece of artwork, a picture once associated with a terrifying monster that no one ever sees and lives. He doesn’t even know if the image really exists, but he is absolutely determined. He will have what he wants, whatever the consequence, no matter how dire …

DOWN TO A SUNLESS SEA

The idyllic island of Crete. Azure seas washing rocky, sun-bleached shores. Inland vistas of vineyards and olive groves. A landscape steeped in myth. Anyone can enjoy themselves here, so long as they don’t delve too deeply behind the party island facade; so long as the distant past is left to rest, and its treasures remain untouched … 

THE HELL WAIN

The Forest of Bowland. Lancashire’s best-kept secret. A pristine realm of hilltop, moor and fathomless woodland. When two London gangsters arrive there one Bonfire Night, at the remote village of Hackenthorpe, they have murder in mind. But immediately they’re uneasy. Why is it so quiet? Why is no one around? And yet why do they feel that they aren’t quite alone?

SPIRIT OF THE SEASON

Father Christmas lurks in our consciousness all the year round, not just in December. But his origins are mysterious, enigmatic, almost eerie. When a folklorist sets out to discover the truth behind the jovial myth, it leads him to Wenlock Castle in Oxfordshire, and a Christmas Eve that he and his companions will never forget, assuming they survive it …

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.

THIN AIR 
by Michelle Paver (2013)

Outline
It’s 1935, the British Empire is still a thing, and the Raj is the jewel in its crown. It’s also the age of men, a time when adventurous chaps with public school backgrounds must all do their bit to enhance their country’s reputation, which often translates into having dangerous escapades in remote overseas locations (usually after leaving their compliant wives and sweethearts behind to worry bravely and quietly on their own).

Perhaps inevitably, mountaineering scores high on this agenda.

On this particular occasion, the object of the exercise is Mount Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas. At 28,169 feet, it’s the third highest mountain in the world, but easily the most difficult climb, and the worst killer of climbers by a long chalk. Even experienced teams are wary of it as so many who have attempted the peak previously have met with disaster.

We follow the story of this latest attempt through the journal-type memoirs of Dr Stephen Pearce, who is very much a part of that fearless set, though a likeable and unassuming man who is privately tormented by self-doubt. Pearce wasn’t originally supposed to be part of this expedition; he was shortly due to marry into a respected and well-connected family, though uncertainty about the future of ‘domestic bliss’ that apparently faced him led him to break things off, which overnight has made him the talk of London society. 

Eager to get away from this febrile atmosphere, Pearce, an accomplished mountaineer already – though he’s never tackled anything like Kangchenjunga – eagerly accepts when his older brother, Christopher, or Kits, offers him the role of chief medical officer on the forthcoming trip. 

Kits, though outwardly he is all things to all men, has not acted entirely out of generosity. The Pearce brothers have existed in a state of sibling rivalry for many years now, which on occasion has threatened to get out of hand. Kits, who is constantly out for personal glory, is particularly domineering in his manner, and inclined to sulk and shamelessly complain if he ever imagines that his ‘little brother’ (or anyone, in fact) has beaten him to the prize. However, the expedition needs a medic. 

Despite this, the mission’s team-leader, Major Cotterell, a World War One veteran, hell-bent on beating the Germans to the summit of Kangchenjunga, is an affable man, who is more than welcoming, even if the others are much more ambivalent. 

From the beginning, however, there is an ominous air about the coming trip, which Pearce, who is prone to nightmares, seems to sense more than the others. 

He is not at all sure how he feels about Cotterell’s plan to follow the exact same path taken by the Edwardian adventurer, Edmund Lyell, whose 1905 expedition was a catastrophe, five members of his party dying, the remainder all critically injured. And his misgivings about this are in no way allayed when the team finally convenes in Darjeeling, and Pearce inadvertently meets Captain Charles Tennant, the sole crippled survivor of the Lyell ascent, and a man seemingly so deranged by his experiences on Mount Kangchenjunga that his warnings about the dangers facing them, while mostly incoherent, are apocalyptically dire. 

Even when the expedition gets under way, the men initially traversing a dreamy landscape of lush rainforest, deep gorges and gliding jade rivers, the coolies are also uneasy about attempting to climb the sacred mountain in the footsteps of Lyell, and this includes Nima, the Sherpa who becomes Pearce’s personal manservant and is easily one of the sturdiest and most reliable men on the expedition. 

In due course, the lower valleys fall behind, and the team commences the arduous climb. Even in the foothills there are problems, but Pearce is steadily more oppressed about what lies further ahead. And that isn’t just the sub-zero temperatures and paper-thin air, it is the unmistakeable feeling that something terrible is watching from far above, just waiting for them to stray into its forbidden territory … 

Review 
Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, which was published in 2011, was a hypnotically frightening ghost story about an ill-fated expedition to the High Arctic made back during the days of exploration by a well-heeled bunch of chaps looking to make their mark in a world still dominated by Great Britain. Horrors befell them from every side, both of the natural variety, the sort you’d expect during a trip to the ends of the Earth armed with little more than pluck, and of the infinitely more awful supernatural variety. 

I was hugely impressed by the tale; not just by how unashamedly scary it was, but by how it captured a unique moment in time: the vast complexities of the undertaking and the personal makeup of those individuals actually taking part, the class system that had created them, the imperialist outlook and so forth. For all these reasons, Dark Matter was a roaring success. 

And now Michelle Paver has done it again. 

Thin Air may not sound massively different, and it certainly isn’t in terms of its tone. It’s not even especially different in terms of the actual story. But though most of the characters are cut from the same cloth as those in Dark Matter, they are all new, and each one of them, in his own right, is vivid and real. Also, while there are clear similarities between the narratives (I really can’t pretend that there aren’t!), I never felt that I was reading the same thing all over again. 

Okay, that’s a personal viewpoint, which others have disagreed with, but I can only tell you what I myself thought. 

At the forefront of the novel, of course, lies a terrifying ghost story. 

It features an arduous journey into an unknown realm, which even the locals are wary of, a place abounding with creatures from both reality, even if semi-mythical, like the snow leopard and the blue sheep, and from mythology, such as the yeti and the mountain spirits that the Sherpa people are so enthralled by. Almost from the beginning, though, there is an aura of impending but unknowable doom. And this doesn’t just stem from Captain Tennant’s demented rantings, alarming though that scene in the book is. So many previous missions have met catastrophe on this mountain that expecting the worst is perhaps the wisest course. 

Both Stephen Pearce and his brother knew all about the Lyell expedition from childhood, from reading about it in books and sitting at their aunt’s knee as she regaled them with the story, sparing no lurid detail. And yet Stephen in particular is convinced that they’ve never been given the full terrible facts. Of course, when they finally get up there, the more fanciful legends concerning Kangchenjunga seem a world away for the majority of the party. Initially, it’s just about survival. And yet, still those unspecified concerns that something lurks up here, something malevolent, race through Stephen Pearce’s mind, and through the reader’s. 

The tension grows steadily as, in the best fashion of MR James, we think we start to glimpse whatever it is, always just ahead of them, or sometimes behind, or maybe off to the side, but never far away. 

It’s certainly the case that fans of classic ghost stories should gobble this one up. It satisfies every requirement of that genre. It’s also impeccably researched. Michelle Paver has visited the Himalayas in real life, but she’s clearly immersed herself in the climbing lore of an earlier age too, because this book really takes you back to the 1930s, and the much rougher and readier methods used to undertake what were genuinely heroic endeavours. 

But again, I reiterate, that this isn’t just a ghost story. I don’t want to give much more away but the subtext to Thin Air, as with Dark Matter, is much concerned with the class system of that era and what was a routinely colonialist outlook, a mindset so cast in stone that it even extends into the frozen Hell at the top of Mount Kangchenjunga. 

But it’s all done subtly. This isn’t a book about villainous Brits and the poor, put-upon natives. It isn’t even a story about the self-perceived masters of the world proving themselves to be anything but, though it does illustrate, in the most succinct way, how attitudes of superiority can often come with a price … much more of a price than even its hardiest practitioners might be willing to pay. Not that they’ll have much choice. 

This brings me onto the characters in Thin Air, at which Michelle Paver yet again excels herself. Even the lesser personalities, McLellan and Garrard, the former a pompous, upper-class Scot, the latter Kits’s eager-to-please ‘yes’ man, while typical examples of the sorts you’d find out there in the Empire in those days, both are clearly and individually drawn. 

Again, Michelle Paver does not club her subject-matter here. Cotterell, for example, is a war hero and a true gentleman. Stephen Pearce himself, though very much a product of his time, is a sympathetic figure: the overlooked younger son, the batman to his betters even though he’s a fully qualified doctor (years of derogation by his ‘hero’ older brother have reduced him to this status even in his own eyes). Kits himself, while he’s an archetypical public school brat, a man whose brash over-confidence owes to his having everything he’s ever wanted laid on for him on a plate, does not consider that he’s doing evil. He’s top-dog, and that’s just the way it is; his constant belittling of Stephen is nothing more, in his mind at least, than gentle ribbing. 

Thin Air, while it might be a nice metaphor for the unhealthily rarefied atmosphere that certain types of imperialists inhabited back in those days, is not an anti-British polemic. The innate jingoism is presented to us as an everyday thing back then, even the Sherpas, expert mountaineers, accepting their subservient place as part of the natural order. The message that this was all terribly wrong (and highly likely to backfire) seeps through gradually, via the interactions of the characters and the emergence of ghastly revelations. 

For all these reasons, Thin Air’s appeal should reach far beyond ghost fiction fandom. But whoever you are, however deep and non-genre you prefer your literature to be, be prepared to be scared. The terror builds slowly but from the very first page, and it doesn’t let up. 

And now the fun bit. Or rather, the bit where I embarrass myself by trying to cast this work as if it was about to be translated to film or TV and I had the job of choosing the actors. Here we go: 

Stephen Pearce – George MacKay 
Christopher ‘Kits’ Pearce – Charlie Hunnam 
Major Cotterell – Ralph Ineson 
Charles Tennant – David Bradley 
Nima – Rajesh Hamal

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