Sunday, 3 January 2021

Gloomy year but with some lights in black

Well … 2020 bowed out the way so many of us feared it would but hoped it wouldn’t: doomy and gloomy thanks to the seemingly unending Covid crisis. I can’t complain too much, of course. I’m sure that my 2020 was a lot less painful and difficult than the one endured by so many others, but there’ve been times when it’s been extra-trying for all of us, and there’s no immediate end to the problem in sight yet.

Still, if nothing else, we had a frosty, snowy Christmas and New Year here in Lancashire, even if we weren’t allowed to get together to enjoy it properly, and I will admit, despite all these other distractions, to having had a prodigious year in terms of output. In fact, when I look back on 2020, I’m staggered by how much material of mine has actually got out there. So, in today’s blogpost, I’ll be running a quick but completely self-indulgent recap on everything of mine that’s been published during this darkest of years, and thanking those responsible.

In addition, because we appear to be sitting in a real-life freezer at present, today would seem like an opportune time to run a fairly detailed review and discussion of Tim Curran’s nightmarish novel of South Antarctic horror, HIVE.

If you’re only here fore the Curran review, that’s no problem. You’ll find it, as usual, at the lower end of today’s blog, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Meanwhile, if you’ve got a bit more time, you might be interested in this …

Roundup and thanks

So, 2020 was more of a short story year for me than I’ve had in recent times, which is something I’m very glad about, as I’ve always loved penning short-form scary stuff and in previous years haven’t felt that I’ve found enough time for it.

Things got going on that front from the word ‘go’ when the psycho-thriller anthology, TROUBLE AND STRIFE, was published over the Christmas and New Year period in 2019, though it was 2020 before it first started doing the rounds properly.

I was chuffed to bits to be invited to this by editor and writer, Simon Wood, and remain eternally thankful to Down & Books for putting out such a superbly finished piece of dark literature.

The antho comprised stories drawing on Cockney rhyming slang. Mine, Mr Kipper, told the tale of a nervous employee working alone at a book recycling centre in the heart of a town being terrorised by a Ripper-type serial killer. Other amazing tales came from such luminaries of the thriller genre as Steve Brewer, Jay Stringer and Catriona McPherson.

Another anthology contribution followed in April, in the ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS 2. This book more or less speaks for itself, being the second in the series of annual horror anthologies put out by Alchemy Press, one of the busiest and yet highest quality independent publishing houses in the UK. 

Huge thanks go to editors Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards for inviting me to participate (I’m strongly hoping that it won’t be the last time I do).

My story was What Did You See?, which followed the (mis)fortunes of two young women who travel to the heart of the Cotswolds one snowy Christmas Eve, not intending to enact an ancient ritual, but inevitably finding themselves drawn towards it. Of course, I wasn’t alone. The book also included superb horror stories from the likes of Gail-Nina Anderson, John Llewellyn Probert, Thana Niveau, Nancy Kilpatrick and Samantha Lee, among many others.

The middle part of the year was given over to what I will always consider my main writing output, which is my crime novels. On this occasion it was ONE EYE OPEN, my first title for Orion Books. It was longer in the making than a couple of months, of course. I’m sure the ball started rolling on this one way back in 2019, but the book was finally completed and published in August 2020. Since then it’s done very nicely in terms of sales, I’m happy to report.

It tells the story of Sergeant Lynda Hagen, a female Traffic officer, who investigates a serious road accident and single-handedly detects anomalies but, because her supervisors don’t take it seriously, is drawn almost alone into a deadly confrontation with the underworld.

My thanks go to Orion Books for the great job they did with this one, but also to my editor at Orion, Emad Akhtar for his robust and constructive approach. I could never have created the finished product without him. 

My second big publication of 2020 came shortly afterwards in September. As well as writing dark fiction, some may know that I also enjoy editing it … specifically in the shape of my Terror Tales series. Now in its 10th year, this series of folklore-themed horror anthologies, each volume set in a different geographical region of the UK (and maybe beyond, depending on how long the series lasts), has been very close to my heart for quite a time now. I commenced it with Gray Friar Press, but the last three volumes have come out via Telos Publishing, who’ve taken on the mantle in sterling fashion.

This year’s volume was TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES, the 12th in the series and one of the most positively reviewed to date. Many thanks to Telos for their usual hi-spec finish on the book, and to the host of great authors who responded to my call. It contains excellent stories from the likes of Steve Duffy, Reggie Oliver, Helen Grant, Tina Rath, David J Howe, Jason Gould and many others.

Autumn followed, of course, and I spent the bulk of that evocative season preparing three Christmas-themed releases. These comprised a re-issue of my festive Victorian-era novella, SPARROWHAWK, which back in 2010 was short-listed for the British Fantasy Award but last October was put out again in paperback, in a spanking new cover, in ebook form, and on Audible, narrated by the amazing Greg Patmore.

It concerns John Sparrowhawk, an ex-cavalry soldier who is released from the debtor’s prison just in time for the Christmas of 1842, but, having no home to call his own, takes employment with the beautiful and enigmatic Miss Evangeline, who pays him to stand guard over a mysterious house in Bloomsbury. It seems easy enough, until the season turns bitterly cold and a terrifying supernatural presence reveals itself.

Narrator Greg Patmore went on to do a similarly incredible job with the other two October publications, a pair of collections of Christmas-themed horror stories: IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER and THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE, the former an original (again in paperback, on Kindle and in Audible) and the latter a reissue (again, in all formats).

I repeat that a special thanks goes to Greg for bringing these three autumn/Christmas releases to life with his atmospheric readings (and an astonishingly wide range of character voices).

But October was a busy month for other reasons too. On the 20th, I was delighted to hit my third anthology of the year, when a short story of mine, Branch Line, appeared in the Flame Tree Press horror anthology, AFTER SUNDOWN, edited by the inexhaustible Mark Morris, who also selected works from the likes of Tim Lebbon, Ramsey Campbell, Sarah Lotz and CJ Tudor.

My own story was one I particularly liked. It centres around a stretch of abandoned railway line, reputedly haunted, and the terrible fate that awaits two schoolboys who venture up there.

Once again, huge thanks go to Mark Morris and to Flame Tree Press for choosing my work and showcasing it in such a fine publication.

Meanwhile, a short story from last year, The New Lad (which appeared in Titan BooksEXIT WOUNDS, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan), almost regained traction when it made the short-list for the 2020 Dagger Awards in the capacity of Best Short Story, but it was beaten at the death during the Awards (the first time they’ve ever been held online) by Lauren Henderson’s excellent tale, #Me Too (which appeared in the anthology Invisible Blood, edited by Maxim Jakubowski).

So, 2020 hasn’t always been a story of win-win. But it’s never unpleasant to find oneself moving in such esteemed company.

Back in the world of horror, November saw the publication of ILL MET BY DARKNESS, a hardback collection of four of my novellas, all brand new, from Sarob Press. In chronological order, the stories it contains are Snicker-Snack, which brings the Jabberwock into present-day London, Down to a Sunless Sea, which concerns the archaeological exploration of an undersea Greek temple, The Hell Wain, in which two gangsters arrive in a remote Lancashire town to carry out a hit, only to find the place mysteriously deserted even though it’s Bonfire Night, and Spirit of the Season, the story of an academic’s attempt to make contact with the real Father Christmas. 

The physical quality of this particular book took my breath away. So, once again I owe a huge debt of thanks to Sarob and Rob Morgan in particular for asking me to send him something, and for doing such a great job when it arrived.

The last thing of mine to hit the public realm in 2020 was the reprint of my 1998 short story, THE FIMBULWINTER, which I posted on my blog on December 17 as my annual free-to-read Christmas story, though, given that it pitches an everyday copper into the midst of the winter at the end of the world, it’s not expressly about Christmas and can easily be read … well, now.


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. 

HIVE by Tim Curran (2012) 

Outline
Deep in the central Antarctic, in the face of a fast-approaching winter, the US research base, Kharkhov Station, where scientific tests are underway across a wide range of disciplines, makes an incredible discovery. At Medusa Drift, a deep excavation camp some distance from HQ, maverick paleobiologist, Professor Robert Gates, has uncovered several inhuman mummies encased in the ice. Quite clearly, these horrific specimens belong to an unknown species, and so Gates feels they are worthy of detailed examination.

Isolated in a storage unit separated from the main camp, the extinct life-forms, which appear to be weird composites of fish, reptile and insect, are slowly thawed out. Chief engineer, Jim Hayes, is unsure whether this is a good idea as they know nothing about these bizarre creatures, while station hand, Lind, becomes disoriented, insisting that his mind is being invaded by unknown intellects, and finally suffering a spectacular nervous breakdown and being confined to Biomed by the deeply concerned Doctor Elaine Sharkey. Only oddly unemotional station chief, LaHune, seems unmoved by these chilling events.

The crew has no real idea what they have found, but as more and more members of staff are beset by weird dreams concerning lost civilisations, fantastical cities constructed in Antarctica at the dawn of time, and hordes of winged monstrosities sweeping aggressively overhead, Gates develops an incredible theory that an ancient, non-human race settled this region before it froze over, and that their relics still remain buried under the ice sheet.

The weather worsens meanwhile, further isolating the base, and back at Medusa Drift one of the scientists disappears. When all communications are cut, Hayes realises that they are in serious trouble. Gates, meanwhile, returns to Medusa Drift. He is intent on finding his missing colleague, but in the process, in company with other scientists, descends through a complex series of ice caves, finally discovering the terrifying primordial city that so many of the others have been dreaming about. It soon becomes clear that whatever beings dwelled here, they were immensely powerful and malign. What’s more, though dormant, they are not necessarily dead.

While all this is happening, the story intersects with (though some readers have said ‘is interrupted by’) two additional but separate narratives in the form of journals from the 1920s.

Firstly, when British academic, Arthur Blackburn, had a nightmarish experience as he too ventured into this forbidden realm and in the process aroused the ire of a truly horrific beast. And secondly, when a fearless explorer called Fox set out with his own team to find out what happened to Blackburn, and also uncovered evidence that an alien civilisation once called the South Pole home, a civilisation so heartlessly cruel that it is all but inimical to the survival of mankind … 

Review
It’s impossible to talk about Hive without mentioning the many influences that are clearly on show here. The first and most obvious one is HP Lovecraft’s original short novel of Antarctic terror, At the Mountains of Madness. Whether Hive was ever intended to be an actual sequel to that, I’m unsure, but it fulfils that role completely, unofficially maybe, though in so many ways it’s a re-run of the same story. We have the archaeological expedition marooned in the frozen waste; we have the discovery of a city sunken beneath the ice; we have the re-emergence of a prehistoric evil long thought dormant in the depths of that city, and so forth.

There are some key differences which I’ll talk about in due course, but the similarities are many, even down to the atmosphere of the setting, and the tone of the language, which, while not quite as grandiose as Lovecraft’s, is florid and descriptive.

Then there are strong hints of the John Carpenter film, The Thing, itself an adaptation of John W Campbell’s Who Goes There? (written in 1938, interestingly, only four years after At the Mountains of Madness) though it’s the film that Hive most resembles, dealing mainly with a contemporary polar base, the discovery by accident of an extra-terrestrial horror buried beneath ice caps millions of years old, and its explosion back to life amid fountains of spraying blood, bursting brains and other liquified human tissue, not to mention the arrival of demonic human husks now horrifically possessed.

The third piece of work it reminds me of is Nigel Kneale’s era-defining Quatermass and the Pit (1958), though in terms of this comparison it’s more to do with human race-memories of a wicked, winged species, who, having cultivated and culled one civilisation after another, crossed the vastness of space to Earth, where they fell into a dreamless state, only to wake up several billennia later when disturbed by human excavation.

All of these similarities with Hive are very obviously there, but while many sci-fi/horror/fantasy purists object to that on principle, I can’t say that it bothered me a great deal.

Everything’s derivative of other things. As I implied earlier, Who Goes There? provided the basis for The Thing but might itself have been influenced by At the Mountains of Madness. And none of this has prevented Tim Curran from telling a rattling good yarn. That said, I did have one or two problems with it.

For example, the jury still seems to be out on whether the additional 150 pages of 1920s expeditionary detail, apparently absent from some earlier versions of Hive, were worth including. This may be unfashionable, but it’s my personal view that, while they don’t add massively to the whole, they are better written, more intriguing and, in truth, a lot more frightening than much of the 21st century section. Everything about them is raw, more visceral, more brutal. The prose is leaner, the characters more satisfying (perhaps because both Blackburn and Fox are instantly recognisable as stiff-upper-lip Brits, different from each other in personality, but still the types of guys who even in that end-of-Empire era, still thought it their duty to go out and conquer unknown places).

Given that there was probably no hope of either of these additional sections of the story seeing the light of publication as stand-alones – they wouldn’t really serve any purpose in that capacity other than to re-tread At the Mountains of Madness even more closely than Hive itself does – they do add to the book because they contain quality writing. That said, this doesn’t mean they don’t feel a bit jemmied in, or that they don’t interrupt the general flow of the narrative.

I also had the feeling that Tim Curran could have wielded his editor’s pen a tad more vigorously. Okay, that was a problem Lovecraft suffered from too, but as the inventor of this mythos, he usually gets a pass. In Curran’s case, admittedly wonderful but also endless descriptions of the Antarctic ice sheet and the many geophysical challenges it presents – the near impassable barriers of the Dominion Mountain Range and the Transantarctics, for example – get wearing as they roll on for page after page. It’s the same with all the technical stuff. It’s all fascinating at first, the complexities of setting up a ‘deep drift camp’, of drilling down to Lake Vordog, of simply surviving through four months of complete darkness and temperatures below –60. The descriptions of the camp, and the instructive technical writing this involves, are all completely believable, and they absolutely place you there, right on the spot. But there’s just too much of it.

It’s the same with the alien city beneath the glaciers. So often we’re told it’s indescribably evil, and yet so often Curran tries to describe it. Yes, this was another problem that Lovecraft suffered from, and in both cases, it gets a little boring.

But everything I’ve said notwithstanding, Tim Curran writes very well. His prose is vivid and powerful, and he handles the overall story excellently, recreating what in real life would be a colossal undertaking in totally authentic detail. At times, it feels as if Curran himself has been involved in the setting up and managing of an Antarctic research station.

And while this is a horror novel, is it frightening?

Yes. Undeniably.

It was a chilling concept from the beginning, when Lovecraft first hatched it. But as I mentioned a few paragraphs back, Curran has made some interesting changes off his own bat, adding whole new dimensions of cosmic (Quartermass-ian?) horror, inasmuch as the Old Ones are no longer just callous cosmic entities who could destroy mankind or nourish him at a whim, but evil genocidal schemers who, once they’ve been awakened, can finally put into action an almost unimaginably abhorrent plan.

But for all that, the most frightening sequences of all are provided, as is so often the case in Lovecraftian fiction, by the shoggoths (or Elder Things), mindless but unstoppable servants. I won’t go into too much detail, but on the strength of this book, Curran does the shoggoths excellently well; better than I’ve seen anyone else. One scene in particular, when a blizzard-begirt camp is attacked by one such monstrosity, is literally spine-chilling and gripped me intensely.

In so many ways, Hive is an extraordinary piece of work. As I say, it’s a little dragged out in parts, and the linear narrative, even when not interrupted twice by different storylines, is too repetitious for its own good. But there is all kinds of good stuff here. If you like horror at the ends of the Earth, if you like ancient evils blazing back to life after aeons of slumber, if you like Lovecraft, hell if you only like John Carpenter’s The Thing, this novel should be of very genuine interest.

I’m certain it’d be a pointless exercise wishing to see Hive hit either the TV or the cinema screens, as any movie mogul behind such a wonderful Lovecraftian enterprise would surely want to go back to the source and do At the Mountains of Madness instead, but just on the off-chance, in case some heroic individual with loads and loads of money opts to do Curran’s version first, I’m yet again going to get my oar in early, and recommend the perfect cast:

Jim Hayes – Clayne Crawford
Doctor Elaine Sharkey – Jessica Chastain
Professor Robert Gates – Daniel Bruhl
Dennis LaHune – Cory Michael Smith
Cutcheon – Neil Grayston
Fox – Matt Smith

4 comments:

  1. Great review. Makes me want to read a novel I normally wouldn't consider

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  2. Excellent. Wouldn't be a bad decision.

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  3. I read this a number of years back, and I have to say while not a scary book, this novel unsettled me like no other I have ever read. The vivid descriptions of the dreams various characters had in particular affected me to the point that I had a few nights with similar dreams. I never work up in sweats, more just unsettled and feeling like something was off. I’ve never had an experience like that from any other book, so kudos to Mr. Curran. If you have any interest in lovecraftian horrors I’d certainly recommend this book.

    I will note
    That I believe the edition I read did not have the 100+ pages of side stories.

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  4. Thanks for the comments, Todd. The attack by the Shoggoth was a very scary scene for me, but as you say, highly likely it was missing from the version you read. But I totally agree with you re. all the rest. A great book to read when lying in bed listening to the wind whistle snow around the outside of your house ... as now, in fact.

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