Sunday, 12 March 2023

Twenty high points of horror in British TV


Well, I’m still in a holding pattern at present with regard to blogposts. There are several announcements I want to make, but simply can’t. So, perhaps you can indulge me and we’ll just have a fun post this week. 

Today therefore, purely for a laugh, I thought I’d give you My TOP 20 SCARIEST BRITISH TV HORROR MOMENTS.

Note that I said ‘TV’, not cinema. However, we’ll also be venturing into the world of literary horror today, because in addition to that, I’ll be reviewing THE DEVIL TAKES YOU HOME by Gabino Iglesias, a fascinating and terrifying crime novel, which ranges much further into the darkness than almost any other thriller I’ve read to date.


If you’re only here for the Iglesias review, that’s no problem. Just do the usual thing. Scoot down to the bottom end of today’s post, to the Thrillers, Chillers section, and you’ll find it there.

But, before we crack on with Brit TV’s best ever terror, check this out.

Why 1066?

I’m not going to spend too much time on this, because the podcast does most of the talking, but my new novel, a historical adventure called USURPER, is out in just over one month’s time. There’ll probably be quite a bit of promotional stuff appearing on this over the next few months, and last week I was pleased to get the ball rolling by being interviewed by Dick Newman for the Australian-based podcast, ENGLISH HISTORY, FACT AND FICTION, a chat in which we focussed on that most apocalyptic year in the history of England, why I chose it and how I sought to milk the most darkness and drama out of it that I possibly could. And, well, here it is now. Those interested, please feel free to check it out. The interview kicks in at around 45.

Heck

A quick update on the Heck series, primarily because people keep tweeting me and asking, which I massively appreciate, by the way (I love it that the books made such an impact). All I can do is reiterate that the series is not finished. Two new Heck novels have been written, the first one picking up exactly where the last one left off, and I am as eager as anyone else to see them on the shelves. But I am NOT in full control of publishing schedules. There are other people involved in the process, and it’s always a matter of all our interests falling into line. But I ASSURE those of you to whom this matters, that the series is NOT done, and at some point soon, the next Heck novel will be published.

And now …

Top 20 SCARIEST MOMENTS IN BRITISH TV HORROR

(As strongly influenced by HORRIFIED MAGAZINE 

It seems bizarre in this day and age, when many of our network broadcasters seem convinced that fly-on-the-wall docu-soaps are vastly more captivating for British TV audiences than original drama or comedy, but television in the UK was once a seedbed of genuinely frightening horror.

The golden era of this was probably the 1970s and 1980s, when a plethora of horror anthology shows, aimed both at adults and younger viewers, darkened our screens. But you could go way further back than that, with Nigel Kneale’s ground-breaking Quatermass series (pictured at the top), which ran throughout the 1950s, and Dr Who of course, which kicked off in 1963, a so-called children’s TV show that would go on to scare the pants of viewers of all ages on umpteen occasions. 

Also in the ’60s, and perhaps in terms of harder core horror, we had Mystery and Imagination (1966-1970), Late Night Horror (1968) and Journey to the Unknown (1968/69), not all of which, sadly, remain intact in the television archive.

As I say, it was really the 1970s when British TV genuinely picked up the horror torch and ran with it. The tone was set, weirdly enough, with a whole range of public information films, many of them again aimed at children, warning the UK populace about the dangers of everyday life. No one, but no one, forgets Lonely Water (1973), in which horror veteran Donald Pleasence played a menacing hooded figure who haunted the banks of isolated rivers, canals and millponds, just waiting to drown unwary youngsters. 

But that was only the start of it. Even British TV’s exponents of higher culture got in on the act, Play for Today hitting the nation with Robin Redbreast in 1970 and Penda’s Fen in 1974.

In terms of actual horror shows, the ’70s and ‘80s produced some bona fide classics, Doom Watch, Dead of Night, Thriller, Ghost Story for Christmas, Beasts, Shadows, Supernatural, Hammer House of Horror, Tales of the Unexpected, Shades of Darkness, among many others.

Shows like these became thinner on the ground in later decades, but there are still one or two highlights post-1989 that are worth mentioning. Stephen Gallagher’s Chimera, a chilling adaptation of his own highly intelligent 1982 sci-fi/horror novel, hit our screens in 1992, while Ghosts in 1995 successfully revived the spirit of those earlier supernatural portmanteau dramas.

But enough of all this. You didn’t come here today to get a TV history lesson. If you want one of those, you can easily learn more on the subject from far more scholarly websites than this. As I’ve already mentioned, HORRIFIED MAGAZINE is a great place to start, and SCARRED FOR LIFE vols 1 and 2 would help as well. But perhaps if you’re keen to zero in on a few high points, this list below will be of interest.

As I say, it’s my personal Top 20 Scariest Moments in British TV Horror. I’m sure there’ll be many arguments about absentees. No Warning to the Curious? No Robin Redbreast? No reference at all to the legendary younger viewers’ series, Children of the Stones? Surely that one’s worthy of a mention?

Well … yes, they all are. But there is insufficient time and room here for an encyclopaedic account. So, you’ll just have to make do with the really good moments I remember best, though by all means feel free to point out any particularly shocking absences in the Comments section. The more the merrier.

Anyway, let’s get on with it …
 
1. WHITE BEAR – BLACK MIRROR (2013)


Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror was much given over to dystopian futures, but this one hits us with a sneaky double-bluff, its bedraggled heroine staggering through a protracted but corny succession of sci-fi/horror twists and turns, only for it to turn out that she’s the main actor in a popular but horrific game-show. A slick comment on our modern habit of filming torture rather than trying to stop it.

2. BABY – BEASTS (1976)


Nigel Kneale’s first appearance on this list but far from his last. Perhaps it seems a little talkie by modern standards, but not a word is really wasted as the doomed young couple at the heart of it eagerly renovate their olde worlde country cottage, only to find something very nasty embedded in the wall. At this stage, of course, they don’t know the real meaning of ‘nasty’, but they soon will.

3. THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989)


An amazingly atmospheric adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story masterclass. The directing, the acting, the writing (of course Mr Kneale again!), everything is pitch-perfect. The location is dreariness personified, and yet possesses an atmosphere of strangeness and dread that owes nothing to cinematic trickery. It also contains one of the scariest spectres in TV history.

4. SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER – 
GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS (1979)


Something of an arthouse effort for the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas slot, perhaps because it was part of the Omnibus series. It amounts to a very faithful recreation of one of Sheridan Le Fanu’s most frightening short stories. Beautifully dressed, impressively underplayed, directed as though it’s actually a succession of Flemish School paintings, and boasting a truly terrifying denouement.

5. MEN AGAINST FIRE – BLACK MIRROR (2016)


Another of Black Mirror’s dystopian parables, as penned by Charlie Brooker, this time following the fortunes of a military unit, and one soldier in particular, as they track down and wipe out nests of so-called ‘roaches’, savage humanoid insurgents who are ruining the land. The real horror, of course, is the mind control by which the troopers are persuaded to view these innocent intruders as a threat.

6. QUIET AS A NUN – ARMCHAIR THRILLER (1978)


Cosy crime meets full-on horror in a TV series that simply refused to pull its punches when it came to scaring its audience. Antonia Fraser wrote the original novel as part of her Jemima Shore series, in which there was much to do with big inheritances, country houses and murder, but this one is worth including simply for episode 3 and the bone-chilling appearance of the infamous Black Nun.

7. SOMEONE AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS – 
THRILLER (1973)


One of the earliest episodes of Thriller, number three in the first series, and one that would cut deeply with anyone who’s ever stayed in a low-rent bedsit. The rickety stairs, the dingy passages, the strange sounds from the other rooms, the increasingly weird fellow occupants, and the occasional moments of 1970s sleaze all place this one firmly in Pan Book of Horror Stories country.

8. THE SIGNALMAN – 
GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS (1976)
 

One of the most memorable of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, and the first to be adapted from non-MR James source material. The eerie tunnel mouth location, the enshrouding fog, the constant bleakness of the moors and, of course, Denholm Elliot’s performance as the harrowed and haunted hero of the title all last long in the festive memory.

9. THE HOUSE THAT BLED TO DEATH – 
HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR (1980)


The one episode of this hit and miss series that everyone remembers. With the case of the Amityville Horror still a talking-point, this tale of an innocent family hounded in their new home by a demonic force that either created or was caused by an act of pure evil, was timely indeed, and incorporated some spectacularly horrible moments. Remember the children’s party that became a bloodbath?

10. HATED IN THE NATION – BLACK MIRROR (2016)


Another ingenious idea from Charlie Brooker, and a concept that could grace either Quatermass or Dr Who, a swarm of bee-bots, developed to help pollinate crops, being hacked and unleashed against a daily target of choice, as chosen by social media users. Not just an ominous vision of things to come, but a nightmare that might become reality even sooner than Brooker realised.

11. NIGHT OF THE MARIONETTES – SUPERNATURAL (1977)


Supernatural was bedevilled by low budget production, sometimes playing the Blue Peter trick of offering simple line-drawings as excuses for exotic landscapes, but though all the stories trod familiar Gothic horror footpaths, this very different spin on Frankenstein added much, much more. Again, it’s too talkie, but the actual festival of the marionettes is a genuine eye-popper.

12. LEAVING LILY (1975)


A little-seen half-hour gem from the pen and director’s chair of Graham Baker. It concerns a young Norfolk farmhand determined to do his bit at the height of World War One, but while he spends his last day before enlistment with his village sweetheart, Lily, a menacing khaki-clad figure is slowly crossing the fens towards them, and with it, a terrible revelation.

13. DURING BARTY’S PARTY – BEASTS (1976)


The near total studio-bound production somehow fails to reduce the nightmarish quality of this episode from Hell. You never see the verminous antagonists, but the noise they make is mind-numbing, the screams of the dying appallingly real, while the cast give it everything they’ve got, slipping from suburban normality into childlike terror and despair with total conviction.

14. DORABELLA – SUPERNATURAL (1977)


A vampire tale makes the cut. It’s not perfect, but all the tropes are there: the Grand Tour setting, the journey into the heart of a nameless land, the Gothic castle, the mysterious beauty who only appears at night, and the gleefully demonic nature of the undead, particularly in the guise of TV horror veteran John Justin, who is truly terrifying as the titular anti-heroine’s monstrous father.

15. THE BOYS’ CLUB – URBAN GOTHIC (2000)


An ultra-violent tale of the inner city to contrast sharply with the others on this list. The marvellous East End nightclub where it was mostly filmed, the fun that ‘old lag’ actors Leslie Grantham, Nicholas Ball, Ray Burdis and John Bowler all have in familiar underworld roles, and the story itself – a study of youthful arrogance taken to lethal levels – all conspire to make this a distinct cut above the rest of the series.

16. GHOSTWATCH (1992)


Stephen Volk’s ingenious foray into paranormal mockumentary long before anyone else thought of it. Based on the infamous Enfield haunting, Volk placed TV presenters Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene in a fabricated outside broadcast allegedly coming by live transmission from a suburban cul-de-sac, where a young family are in the grip of supernatural evil. It literally terrified the nation.

17. MR LOVEDAY’S LITTLE OUTING (2006)


An ensemble cast partly perform and partly narrate this neat adaptation of one of Evelyn Waugh’s few horror stories. The genteel author originally intended this as a slice of dark, satirical humour, but it’s actually pretty grim. It tells the tale of an insane murderer and the ghastly thing he does when a naive socialite engineers his release from the asylum where he’s been held for 35 years.

18. THE LANDLADY – TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED (1979)


By far one of Roald Dahl’s nastiest and most unnerving horror stories. It’s little wonder that, before it was adapted for TV, it was a mainstay of Pan Horror type anthologies. It concerns a travelling man, who arrives at a small guest house, which initially seems ideal, but from where no guest has ever re-emerged alive. A bit of a one-trick idea, but genuinely horrible.

19. THE TWO FACES OF EVIL – 
HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR (1980)


Another high point in the unfortunately uneven Hammer House of Horror series. In this one, a nice family out on a road trip offer a lift to a mysterious hooded hitchhiker, only to find themselves at the mercy of an evil doppelganger. Ultimately, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s bone-chilling all the same, and it ends with a truly memorable denouement.

20. COUNT DRACULA (1977)


Louis Jourdan and Frank Finlay as the Count and Van Helsing respectively are the heart and soul of this very faithful adaptation of the novel, which is probably more of an heir to the Hammer style than anything committed to celluloid since. Lots of blood, but also lots of sex. Dracula is a lover as well as a monster in this version, which makes him a far more interesting character in his own right.


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.

by Gabino Iglesias (2022)

Outline
Life is a massive struggle for Mario, a native Texan of Puerto Rican descent. After a tough upbringing at the skirts of a drug addict mother, he started out with huge disadvantages, but never had much luck as an adult either, or much cash. But then the two true lights in his life are put out. When his beautiful young daughter, Anita, dies from an unusually deadly strain of leukaemia, his wife, Melisa, whom he loves dearly, goes into her shell, turning hostile to Mario, openly calling him a loser and a waste of space, and basically blaming him for all their misfortune, before abruptly leaving him.

Mario is plunged to horrendous depths by this, because in truth he’s already gone out of his way for his family. Having lost his minimal wage job through his constant attendance at the hospital, he eventually resorted to crime to pay Anita’s medical bills, his old mate, a methhead-turned-dealer called Brian securing him work as a small-time hitman. Mario, who’s essentially a moral guy, didn’t want to do it at first, but eventually convinced himself that the people he was killing were also underworld figures, who didn’t really deserve to live.

Ultimately of course, it was all for nothing, because he never earned enough to help his ailing daughter, and now it’s too late. Mario is thus a husk of a man when Brian comes calling again, this time with the offer of a high-paying job. It seems that just over the border, in Mexico, a certain Don Vasquez, a lesser crime lord overall but someone of great ambition, is looking to hire three freelance gunmen to hit a cash delivery for the Sinaloa Cartel. If it’s pulled off successfully, there’ll be huge rewards for all involved.

Brian is certainly taking the deal, along with Juanca, a superstitious ex-Cartel member with a long history of violence. At first, Mario is indifferent, unconcerned what happens to him. But then he begins to figure that with 200 large in his pocket, he might be able to entice Melisa back. Of course, they’ll be taking a staggeringly high risk. The Sinaloans are the kings of crime and vengeance in Mexico, and even beyond those borders. So, the robbers are told they’re going to need ‘special protection’. Again, Mario is okay with this, even if a bit baffled by what it actually means. He just wants to get the job done, reunite with Melisa and disappear.

But he has no comprehension of the Hell he is descending into.

To start with, Don Vasquez has well-earned his sinister reputation. His business partner, maybe his actual partner, is Gloria, a bruja, or witch, and it’s through her auspices that they will be ‘protected’, but they first must endure a series of diabolical, blood-soaked rituals, during which both the innocent and the not so innocent are horrifically tortured and mutilated.

Again, Mario seeks to excuse his presence in this company. The Cartel are the bad guys, so they deserve to be punished. He’s only doing this because he has no choice. All his life, he and his fellow brown-skinned folk have got the short end of the stick, so why should they worry about breaking a few rules themselves? But in truth, he’s starting to have doubts. Not just about himself, but about his co-bandits.

Juanca, it seems, is capable of murderous acts at the drop of a hat, and is mainly in this to get even with his former employers, on whose orders his brother was chopped to pieces while still alive (photographs of which atrocity, Juanca keeps in his car). Even Brian, most of the time a happy-go-lucky junky, continues to give away clues that he’s planning to acquire Mario’s wedge of the pay-off as well as his own. And all this time, they’re in possession of an eviscerated corpse, which they’re under orders to use in some way as a kind of weapon. Even Brian is bemused by this, continually asking what they’ve got it for, Juanca becoming increasingly irate the more often the subject is raised.

And of course, at the end of all this, if they even make it to the proposed ambush site, they’ve got to take on the Sinaloa Cartel, some of whose most experienced sicarios will be guarding the cash truck …

Review
The first thing to say about The Devil Takes You Home is that it’s not your regular crime thriller. It’s not even your regular dope wars actioner. It is full of action, and it is set within the milieu of the dope wars. But it cuts much deeper than any of that.

One of the key subtexts Gabino Iglesias analyses here is evil. Evil as the utter absence of human morality, a vacuum of destructive chaos, and evil as an actual sentient force complete with demons and otherworldly monstrosities. And maybe evil as a combination of both, the pair of them cross-fertilising each other.

All through this book, our hero, Mario, who has been driven to the absolute end of his emotional tether, internalises and attempts to rationalise the acts of evil that he himself is either committing or standing by and allowing to happen. We hear much about the racism and prejudice that his people have been subjected to for so many generations. We are thoroughly persuaded that even by the standard of other modern day slums, life in the barrio is unlike any other form of existence. It’s cheap, it’s anonymous, no one on the outside cares about it. Mario is an American citizen, but he hails from a forgotten world where even basic necessities are hard to come by, and which most of the rest of the US does not want to know about, if it’s even aware that it exists.

All of these realities are given to us again and again as reasons for the unfolding nightmare in The Devil Takes You Home, and they are viable in that context. It’s no surprise that in Mario’s world, where there are so few indications that ‘the system’ accepted by the rest of western civilisation actually works, the gun rules and the gang member is king. But, you know, I’m not convinced that even Mario believes it 100%. This is a guy who was raised in the Christian tradition. Even now, he has much to do with saints and prayer. He is severely damaged, that much is evident, his constant failures often wrought on him by powers beyond his control, and then the untimely death of his daughter have all helped reduce him to a shadow of the man he could have been. But he still has a moral core, and he knows that all this is wrong, and deep down, he is shocked at how far he has somehow strayed from the path of the righteous.

In addition to all this, as I’ve already hinted, Gabino Iglesias contemplates evil as the work of an actual dark power, and this is the part that really separates The Devil Takes You Home from other crime thrillers of its ilk, because not only is it filled with scenes of horrific violence, it also contains visions, phantasms, witches, satanic practises and yes, even demons.

Whether that proves to be a problem for the reader is really up to them. It certainly breaks from crime fiction tradition, overlapping very comfortably into the world of horror. Personally, I like both, and combinations thereof are even better, so it worked excellently for me. But prospective buyers should be warned: much horror is also to be found in the graphic descriptions of underworld brutality. And this goes way past the average shoot-’em-up. We’re talking Don Winslow and The Cartel territory here: children systematically dismembered, adults disembowelled by crocodiles, merciless beatings that seem to go on for ages. And all the way through, the terrible looming menace of the Cartel, who are infamous for exercising vengeance the way a child would if granted absolute power, inflicting as much pain, fear and horror on their foes as they possibly can.

This is a real devil’s brew of a book (pun intended) in that regard, and again, it’s up to the individual reader how much he or she can take. Put it this way: I can take a lot, but I squirmed with discomfort on certain occasions.

But, how does it hold together as a novel? Is it more than the sum of all these grotesque parts?

Of all the books I’ve read, the one The Devil Takes You Home reminded me of most was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is also set along the US/Mexico border, and involves a band of desperadoes embarking on an odyssey of crime across the sun-baked badlands at the behest of a villain of such towering evil that he must surely be devilish, none of them able to trust each other let alone their actual enemies. Of course, Blood Meridian didn’t have the fantastical elements (aside from the landscapes), but The Devil Takes You Home is very similar in that it’s a personalised journey into the ultimate heart of human darkness, and a weary attempt to understand why bad men do the things they do.

In equal similarity to that time-honoured classic, Iglesias’s novel is beautifully and concisely written. The sense of place and character are all but tangible. Your skin burns to the touch of the Texas sun. You shudder at the presence of deranged and deformed individuals who scare you just by being on the page. And if at least one purpose of this story is to contrast the visceral, in-yer-face evils of this hellish place with maybe the wider-spread, more subtle evils of the ‘civilised world’, then it succeeds on that level too.

Maybe it’s not the great American novel that Blood Meridian is proclaimed to be, but The Devil Takes You Home lives long in the memory. It’s an ideal read for horror fans, and for thriller fans too if they can accept that certain cruel acts can indeed summon the darkness, but its appeal should go way beyond that, because there is much, much more to it.

And now, as usual, here’s my attempt to pre-empt the cast of this baby, should it end up on the silver screen at some point, which it surely must do. Only a bit of fun, of course.

Mario – Pedro Pascal (who else but the man of the moment?)
Brian – Bill Skarsgård
Juanca – Eugenio Derbez

(I have a little confession to make. The image accompanying the entry for LEAVING LILY in the 20 Top TV Horror Moments section is obviously not a screen-grab from British television. It is a reproduction of STORMTROOPERS ADVANCING UNDER GAS by Otto Dix, a German painter and WW1 veteran who specialised in creating horrific portrayals of that ghastly conflict, so I felt it was a reasonable replacement. LEAVING LILY has almost no footprint on the internet at present, though I understand that a video copy of it still exists in the archive, so it might at some point be re-released). 

Friday, 10 February 2023

A TV slot, Heck latest and bloody battles


Something pretty exciting will be happening this evening, so I’m going to be parping on about that today, giving you all the details available. I’ll also be talking about my Heck series, and will be discussing USURPER, my first historical novel, due out in April. And to round all that off, to ensure that I’ve covered the entire spectrum of my literary interests – crime thrillers and historical adventures thus far – I’m also going to dive into the world of supernatural horror, by offering my usual detailed review of Steve Duffy’s latest collection, THE FACES AT YOUR SHOULDER.

As usual, you’ll find that review in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s post. So, don’t hesitate to get down there straight away, if that’s all you’re here for.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in my work too, perhaps you might first want to check out …

Local TV

Those who follow this blog, or read my books, will already know that my most recent crime novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, was recently made the subject of a high-profile arts competition in the West Midlands, when the challenge was issued by the much-lauded Birmingham Art Zone to a group of local painters, requiring them each to condense and convert that 130,000-word crime thriller into a single canvas.

It was my suggestion originally, but it was still an enormous thing to ask of them.

How do you convey an entire book in one painting?

However, three of them undertook the challenge; they each creating their own interpretation of NEVER SEEN AGAIN, and last November, I, as the original author, was asked to attend a special ceremony at the Velvet Music Rooms on Broad Street, Birmingham, to select the winner.

It was a high pressure situation, as I’m sure you can appreciate, especially given that the three artists – Helen Owen, Helen Roberts and Paula Gabb – were standing there smiling at me at the time. But it had to be done, and it was.

The picture topside depicts myself and Mike Olley, Westside Bid boss, who organised this whole thing, standing with three finalist paintings, while on the right here, Lorraine Olley, Birmingham singer and media personality, presents me with the difficult choice.

For the full skinny on this story, just scroll back through these blogposts to last November, and you’ll find it all there. I do need to add though, that what even those who are regulars on here may not know is that the entire process, more or less from conception of the idea to the unveiling and judging ceremony several months later, was filmed by West Midlands TV journalist, Nick Duffy. Multiple interviews were also held, all captured on Nick’s trusty camera, and trips were even made to our home towns, to assess the inspirations behind our various artistic endeavours. The final result, a 20-minute-long documentary, called Paul Finch - Never Seen Again: A Novel Imagined Through Art, which I’ve already had the privilege of viewing, and which frankly amazed me with how well shot and edited it was, not to mention the way it managed to catch the whole of this quite dramatic event (in my life, at least) in such a brief time without leaving out a moment of tension or suspense, is a remarkable piece of TV art in its own right from Nick.

That’s the good news.
 
The really good news is that everyone else will now get a chance to see it too. 

This evening, Friday Feb 10, at 6.15pm, a three minute and 25 second highlight programme will air on the Local TV Network with repeats across Saturday and Sunday. You will find it on Freeview 7 and Virgin 159 (Leeds TV, Yorkshire TV, North Wales TV, South Wales TV, Tees TV, Tyne TV, North East TV, Birmingham TV, West Midlands TV, Bristol TV, Cardiff TV, Liverpool TV). I’m assuming, though it seems a safe bet, that these highlights will also carry links to wherever online you can view the whole thing, should you be so inclined.

Heck latest

On a not unrelated subject, I now want to talk about some of my earlier crime novels.

The Heck series is pretty well what put me on the thriller-writing map. I commenced penning these novels around 2012, having, prior to that, spread myself a little more widely, covering horror, sci-fi, Dr Who and so on. But the Heck novels, published by Avon at HarperCollins, which in some ways, I suppose, took the hardboiled thriller about as far as it could go in terms of gritty realism, brutal violence and uber-dark subject matter (if I do say so myself), became a big success for me.

I’m continually asked by fans whether or not the series will continue, as with the seventh Heck book, KISS OF DEATH, I left them all on something of a cliff-hanger.

Well, in answer to that, I firstly should apologise. It wasn’t my intention to let this huge period of time intervene in the series, but the end of Heck 7 coincided with a change of publisher and with the Covid outbreak, both of which contrived to send my writing schedule haywire. Even at the time, I didn’t just write Heck; I had many other fictional irons in the fire, which I wanted to get out there. So, it all ended up being a bit of a muddle.

But I can guarantee for any fans reading this that Heck is very far from finished. Since the last book was published in 2018, I’ve written two more Mark Heckenburg novels, picking up directly from where the last one ended. When people ask – and that seems to happen, even now, at a rate of about three and four times a day, I can only reply that publishing these novels is not within my control (unless I opt to publish them myself, of course); it’s down to whoever my publisher happens to be at the time, and many of them have their own schedule chaos to contend with, even now, a couple of years after Covid ‘ended’.

So, it’s not at all straightforward, but I reiterate to all the Heck readers that, whatever happens, however beyond my control it may seem to be at present, I absolutely and firmly assure you that the Heck series has NOT finished. More Heck novels are already written and just waiting to be published, and more are forthcoming. I just beg you all to be patient a little bit longer.

And now let’s go way back into the …


Mists of time

It’s been both a fascinating and a harrowing experience writing my new historical adventure novel, USURPERBOOK ONE OF THE WULFBURY CHRONICLES, which will be published by Canelo on April 27 this year.

I can say this safely now, because I’ve put the final touches to it, and it’s left my desk never to return.

The reason I say ‘harrowing’ is because it’s very much new territory for me. I like to think that I know the Middle Ages, particularly the early Middle Ages, very well. I studied it at degree level, and I’ve been obsessed with historical adventure literature all my life. But finally put pen to paper and writing one of my own was a very new experience and a challenge.

(I have written in the pre-mechanised era before, long ago now, when I wrote STRONGHOLD and DARK NORTH, but if you follow those links, you’ll see that they were fantasy novels rather than actual history).

With USURPER, there were so many more details I had to take care of than I was used to, so much more research to carry out. And when it came to the actual writing, it was vital, I felt, to pace it correctly. Now, you may think that for a professional author, that ability ought to be baked in, and or course, whether you’re writing about the 21st century or the 11th, it shouldn’t make a lot of difference. You don’t want to bog your readers down with extraneous material. You want to keep them hooked. You want the narrative to keep bouncing along. But there are things you simply must take into account, if for no other reason than authenticity. The pace of life was slower then, long-range communications were almost nonexistent, educated folk were few and far between, it was an age of unquestioning faith and acceptance of status (or lack of it). What did all this mean for the progress of the plot, for the dialogue, for intellectual discourse between characters, even for the way individuals thought when going about their everyday business?

As I say, a challenge. And only you guys, the readers, will be able to judge whether I rose to it or not.

In the meantime, I’m happy to report that the final proof-read is done – again, it’s something very new in my writing experience, having to deal, not just with Latin, but with Ancient Greek as well! – and the book has now gone into production, complete with its snazzy new cover and some amazing quotes from some very esteemed historical fiction writers, all of whom have been fulsome in their praise.

The next time we see it, it will be for sale, which is not a nerve-wracking thought at all, is 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 … 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.

THE FACES AT YOUR SHOULDER
by Steve Duffy (2023)

Okay, I’m going to say it out loud: Steve Duffy is one of the very best purveyors of ghost and horror fiction working in the English language today. The fact that he is criminally under-published in the wider mass-market is the mass-market’s own fault, and it’s a big one. Those who specialise in reading supernatural fiction will of course know about him already, as his short stories and novellas have appeared prolifically in numerous magazines and anthologies for the best part of the last 30 years, but the wider reading public don’t and that is definitely their loss.

It may be partly through Duffy’s own choice that he hasn’t yet conquered the literary world. He clearly prefers to work in the short form, and we all know the disdain that so many of the big publishing houses hold for that. But I still consider it a tragedy that works as exquisitely penned as these are denied to so many readers of spooky (or even wider mainstream) fiction, not least because in some of even his shortest stories, the ideas behind then are mind-blowingly massive. At least Duffy now seems to have found a reliable and high-quality home at Sarob Press, who to date have published two of his six short story collections, this one, The Faces at Your Shoulder being the second.

Before I say anything else, I’ll let Sarob introduce this one themselves, with their own promotional blurb:


Where are the monsters? Sometimes they’re right behind you.

In this new collection of six novelettes – three are wholly original to this volume – Steve Duffy invites us to look over our shoulders, and asks us whether we recognise the faces that we see. Some of them are all too human, some are animals, and some are like nothing we’ve ever seen – yet.

In the snowy wastes of the Yukon and the mining country of Appalachia an age-old terror is unwittingly unleashed…

After-hours at the Pacific View diner, meet a glamorous, mysterious film star and uncover a monstrous bargain…

In Streatham or in Ethiopia, you must be careful what you wish for – very careful – or anything might happen…

Christmas is a time for family, and that means dark secrets, desperate desires and occult constructs…

Down at the zoo something is stirring: the animals know, but the warders won’t realise until it’s already too late…

Young love blossoms at the New York World’s Fair, but the future has its own agenda…



Steve Duffy’s subject-matter of choice is eclectic to say the least. He writes accessibly and entertainingly in almost any environment, the backgrounds in this collection alone ranging from a drab suburban zoo in present-day Britain to Hollywood in the age of the casting couch and gangland moll. In days gone by, he was a master of the Jamesian school of ghost story, both in terms of period and place, though at the same time he produced socially cutting tales of modern-day anguish and urban society gone mad, many of our contemporary ills wrapped up as unique kinds of monsters or revenants. Quite often, he likes to invoke a prosaic atmosphere, but this is invariably to lull his readers into a false sense of security, because one thing you also always get with Mr Duffy is a big supernatural twist, though it will never be something obvious.

The Faces at Your Shoulder, which contains three original pieces alongside three cherry-picked reprints, is a perfect case in point. If anything, this book has a distinctly 20th century American flavour, but the menace flowing through it, which, though it’s always so clever that you never see it coming (even if it several times hints at Armageddon!), arrives in a wide variety of shapes and forms, few of which you’ll have encountered before.

Anyway, enough of my hyperbole. As The Faces at Your Shoulder contains only six stories (all fairly lengthy), I won’t do what I usually do with collections, which is select the tales I liked the best and talk about them in extra detail. Instead, I’ll run through them all in chronological order. And as I always enjoy doing some fantasy casting at the end, I’ll do the same here, only will invent a TV series adaptation and pick out a few actors for each episode (all in the spirit of having a laugh of course – I only wish it wasn’t, though with the casts I choose, I’d be pushing my luck even at mega-budget).

Now, time to let the stories do the talking:

The Oram County Whoosit

Virginia of the 1920s. When two journalists are assigned to write about a strange and frightening creature found in a coal mine, they think it just another hoax. After all, this is the golden age of huckster sideshow folk. However, this may be different. The older guy in particular is a little concerned, wondering why the find reminds him of a terrifying experience he had back during the days of the Gold Rush …

A much anthologised slice of ‘HP Lovecraft meets Jack London’, strong characters, an atmospheric backdrop and the author having great fun in a geographic realm where he’s rarely ventured before.

In our imaginary TV show:
Fenwick – Nicholas Hoult
Keith – Tommy Lee Jones

The Soul is a Bird

A dying pensioner relates an incredible tale to his nephew, how, way back in 1933, he offered sanctuary to a famous and beautiful movie star seemingly in trouble with the mob, only to hear that it wasn’t money she owed, but her soul, and that after seven years of fame and fortune, a very dark power was calling in the debt …

The first of the trio of original stories, a 20th century Faustian pact at the heart of the Hollywood dream, some convincingly devilish villains and a grand finale straight out of Weird Tales

In our imaginary TV show:
Norm – Miles Teller
Alice – DeWanda Wise
Eira Lure – Margot Robbie

In the Days Before the Monsters

When a mystical stone falls from the prehistoric sky, it grants free wishes to all those who come in contact with it. In due course, venerated as something celestial, it is kept in an ark in deepest Abyssinia, only to pass eventually into the hands of bandits, then to an international thief, and finally to London, where a youngster who thinks only of dinosaurs gets his hands upon it …

Probably the first ever Steve Duffy tale in which monsters literally abound. Strong hints of Indiana Jones and even Dr Who of the 1970s, and even though it’s done partly with tongue in cheek, the cosmic concept at the heart of it is so convincingly presented, and the setting so ‘everyday’, that it’s really quite unnerving.

In our imaginary TV show:
Ajani – Alexander Siddig
Henry – Djimon Honsou

The Psychomenteum

The Christmas of 1944 is ruined when Baltimore kids, Grayson and Chuck, and their henpecked dad are forced by their strong-willed mom to take a road-trip to Alabama, specifically to visit the remnants of her once aristocratic southern family in their faded palatial home. The reason: mom is convinced something bad has happened to her brother in the Pacific, and for reasons she won’t explain, feels certain that only back home can they make contact with him …

The most Gothic story in the novel, but also the most psychologically twisted in terms of several of its characters. For all the intensity of the genuinely bone-chilling supernatural undercurrent, it’s the level of human corruption on show here that makes the lasting impact.

In our imaginary TV show:
Mom – Jessica Biel

The Lion’s Den

A zookeeper relates the baffling events leading up to the closure of the zoo where he worked, and how it all started with a visitor, behaving like a madman as he climbed into the lions’ enclosure, stripped naked and lectured the angry beasts in a language no one understood, and then vanished. And how afterwards, the animals, seemingly now with minds of their own, set about dismantling of all the park’s safety and security procedures …

Probably the most startling concept in the entire collection, again superbly grafted onto a deceptively mundane scenario. It’s a slow-burn idea, but as it unfolds you’ll literally be gobsmacked at its potential ramifications.

In our imaginary TV show:
The Keeper – Kris Marshall

Futureboro

New York, the late 1930s. Young Zack lands a job at the World’s Fair as a spotter at ‘Futureboro’, the city of the future. However, bizarre acts of vandalism, violence and political extremism start marring the miniaturised cityscape, seemingly reflecting events in Europe. Henny, a Jewish engineer on the project, is concerned that it’s linked to Yoyodyne, who built Futureboro, but who are also developing a hi-tech bomb-delivery system, which they shortly expect to make them very rich …

The most cerebral tale in the book closes out proceedings. The main horror here stems from the hindsight we all now share about the outcome of political zealotry in the first half of the 20th century, but it’s such a well-told tale, so subtle and sophisticated in terms of its conception and execution, that its appeal reaches far beyond the world of the scary story.

In our imaginary TV show:
Zack – Alex Wolff
Henny – Michael Shannon

Okay, that’s The Faces at Your Shoulder, the sixth collection to date from an author whose appeal lies not just in his writing style, which, despite being tight as a corkscrew, nearly always feels fulsome in the best sort of way, but in his concepts, which – and this is especially on show here – travel far beyond the normal conventions of horror fiction, even though they are horrific and scary in every sense of those terms!

Why not check his work out and see for yourself?

Sunday, 15 January 2023

Darkness till June: books to chill your hide


Well, it’s that time of year again. Yes, bleak, dull, cold, wet (or frozen), the sky permanently grey, the landscape desolate, and absolutely zilch to look forward to until Easter in about three months.

It can only be that worst page of the calendar, January. But if nothing else, at least in January we get to look ahead bookwise, to see what treats 2023 might have in store for us. So, that will take up the bulk of today’s post: as I always do at this time of year, I’m going to preview the 10 crime novels, the 10 thriller novels and the 10 horror novels (and anthologies) due to be released between now and the end of June that I am most looking forward to.


However, as always in these blogposts, there are other treats too. For instance, in celebration of the new Amazon supernatural horror series, The Rig (well, not really in celebration of it, but it’s a link of sorts, even if tenuous), I shall be reviewing another ocean-bound oil-platform horror, Paul E Cooley’s THE BLACK.

As usual, you will find that in my Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s column. Before any of that though, how’s about, we go …

Way back

Here’s a quick reminder, courtesy of The Bookseller, that my first novel of the serious historical epic variety, USURPER: Book One of the WULFBURY CHRONICLES, tells the tale of a young Saxon noble, Cerdic Aelfricsson of Wulfbury, who, during the chaos and violence of the Norman Conquest, loses everything that matters to him, his family, his friends, his home, but who is determined that this will not be the end of his line, and that no matter how brutal and terrifying the odds, he will fight back to the last ounce of strength he possesses.

As a huge fan all my life of historical action writers like Ben Kane, Mark Chadbourn/James Wilde, Matthew Harffy, Anthony Riches, David Gilman and Bernard Cornwell, even going back to such long-distant exponents of the art as Henry Treece and Alfred Duggan, it’s long been my ambition to venture back to the Dark Ages myself and pen a few sword-wielding adventures of my own.

Well, as you’re soon going to get bored of seeing me say it on here, my first one, USURPER, can be pre-ordered right now. It will be published electronically and in paperback on April 27.

And now, for something somewhat different. As promised …

DARKNESS TILL JUNE
Thirty new books I’ll need to read with the light on

I’ve already mentioned this in today’s intro, so I won’t go on too much about it. Suffice to say that I’ve been looking online and getting very excited about certain books due for publication between now and the end of June this year. So, I’m going to share with you my picks for the 10 most intriguing forthcoming titles in the following three categories of dark fiction: Crime, Thriller, Horror.

Hope you enjoy (and agree, or, if you disagree, you can always put me right in the comments section). If there’s any book or author I’ve missed out who you really think should be included, I offer humble apologies in advance. It might be an oversight on my part, or it might be that this particular publication hasn’t caught my imagination. If I spent a week on this, I could probably preview a 100 titles in each category, but alas, I haven’t got the time or space for that.

Enough natter, let’s just get on with it. Not having read any of these forthcoming books yet, these obviously aren’t reviews. Instead of that, I’m going to leave it to the publishers to do the talking by featuring the back-cover blurb for each title that I choose …

CRIME

THE DEAD OF WINTER 
by Stuart MacBride 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Feb 16)

It was supposed to be an easy job.

All Detective Constable Edward Reekie had to do was pick up a dying prisoner from HMP Grampian and deliver him somewhere to live out his last few months in peace.

From the outside, Glenfarach looks like a quaint, sleepy, snow-dusted village, nestled deep in the heart of Cairngorms National Park, but things aren’t what they seem. The place is thick with security cameras and there’s a strict nine o'clock curfew, because Glenfarach is the final sanctuary for people who’ve served their sentences but can’t be safely released into the general population.

Edward’s new boss, DI Montgomery-Porter, insists they head back to Aberdeen before the approaching blizzards shut everything down, but when an ex-cop-turned-gangster is discovered tortured to death in his bungalow, someone needs to take charge.

The weather’s closing in, tensions are mounting, and times running out - something nasty has come to Glenfarach, and Edward is standing right in its way ...


DEATH RIDE
by Nick Oldham 
(pub in eb and hb on Mar 7)

An unwelcome face from the past at a local fair leads Henry Christie on a white-knuckled race against time to find a missing girl.

On the third day of the Kendleton Country Fair in Lancashire, thirteen-year-old Charlotte Kirkham goes missing. Retired detective superintendent Henry Christie is there as a volunteer steward, but Charlotte’s sudden disappearance isn’t the only thing troubling him. The man with the burger van looks familiar ... for all the wrong reasons.

Leonard Lennox was jailed for twelve years for abducting a young girl. Henry rescued her, unharmed, and helped put Leonard behind bars. Now he’s out, with his own criminal outfit, old scores to settle, and a son who was last seen talking to Charlotte at the fair. Is history about to repeat itself? Henry is soon drawn into another hair-raising, pulse-pounding race against time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher ...
by Graham Bartlett 
(pub in eb on Feb 16, in hb on Mar 23)

When a night-time firebomb attack at a Brighton travellers’ site kills women and children, Chief Superintendent Jo Howe has strong reason to believe the new, dubiously elected, neo-nazi council leader is behind the murders. Against the direct orders of her chief constable, Jo digs deep into the killings secretly briefing the senior investigating officer of her suspicions.

As she delves further, Jo uncovers an underworld of human trafficking, slavery and euthanasia all leading to a devastating plot which threatens thousands of lives and from which the murderous politician looks sure to walk scott-free. Having narrowly survived a plot to kill her, where another was not so lucky, she realises that only by facing near-certain death once more can she thwart this terrorist outrage.


THE DETECTIVE 
by Ajay Chowdhury 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Apr 13)

Has someone got away with murder?

When a tech entrepreneur from Shoreditch is found dead in a construction site, along with three skeletons which are discovered to be over a hundred years old, Detective Kamil Rahman sets out to prove himself on his first case for the Met Police.


BLACKSTONE FELL 
by Martin Edwards 
(out now, pub in pb on Apr 13)

1930. Nell Fagan is a journalist on the trail of a intriguing and bizarre mystery: in 1606, a man vanished from a locked gatehouse in a remote Yorkshire village, and 300 years later, it happened again. Nell confides in the best sleuth she knows, judge’s daughter Rachel Savernake. Thank goodness she did, because barely a week later Nell disappears, and Rachel is left to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

Looking for answers, Rachel travels to lonely Blackstone Fell in Yorkshire, with its eerie moor and sinister tower. With help from her friend Jacob Flint - who’s determined to expose a fraudulent clairvoyant - Rachel will risk her life to bring an end to the disappearances and bring the truth to light.

A dazzling mystery peopled by clerics and medics; journalists and judges, Blackstone Fell explores the shadowy borderlands between spiritual and scientific; between sanity and madness; and between virtue and deadly sin.


BLOOD RUNS COLD 
by Neil Lancaster 
(pub in eb and hb on Apr 13)

She was taken against her will.

On her fifteenth birthday, trafficking victim Affi Smith goes for a run and never returns. With a new identity and secure home in the Scottish Highlands, she was supposed to be safe ...

She escaped once.

With personal ties to Affi’s case, DS Max Craigie joins the investigation. When he discovers other trafficking victims have disappeared in exactly the same circumstances, he knows one thing for certain – there’s a leak somewhere within law-enforcement.

She won’t outrun them again.

The clock is ticking ... Max must catch Affi’s kidnappers and expose the mole before anyone else goes missing. Even it if means turning suspicions onto his own team…


SIMPLY LIES 
by David Baldacci 
(pub in eb, ab and hb on Apr 13)

No truth

Former Jersey City detective and single mother of two, Mickey Gibson, now works for global investigation company, ProEye, to track down assets of the wealthy who have tried to avoid their creditors. One day she gets a call from a colleague, Arlene Robinson, asking her to visit the home of a notorious arms dealer who has cheated some of ProEye’s clients in the past. Mickey arrives at the mansion to discover the body of a man hidden in a secret room.

No limits

It turns out that nothing is at it seems. The arms dealer did not exist, and nobody at ProEye knew of Arlene Robinson. Mickey had been tricked and now the cops were involved. The body was that of Thomas Lancaster who’d been in Witness Protection having had links with the mob.

No fear

Now begins a cat-and-mouse showdown between hardened ex-cop, Mickey, and a woman with sociopathic tendencies who has no name and a mysterious past. She intends to get what she wants and people who get in her way will die. For Mickey to stop her, she must first discover her true identity and what damaged her all those years ago. And the truth behind why she selected Micky to become her nemesis ...


SMALL MERCIES 
by Dennis Lehane 
(pub in eb and hb on Apr 25)

‘Mrs. Fennessy, please go home.’
‘And do what?’
‘Whatever you do when you're home.’
‘And then what?’
‘Get up the next day and do it again.’
She shakes her head. ‘That's not living.’
‘It is if you can find the small blessings.’
She smiles, but her eyes shine with agony. ‘All my small blessings are gone.’

In the summer of 1974 a heatwave blankets Boston and Mary Pat Fennessey is trying to stay one step ahead of the bill collectors. Mary Pat has lived her entire life in the housing projects of ‘Southie’, the Irish American enclave that stubbornly adheres to old tradition and stands proudly apart.

One night Mary Pat’s teenage daughter Jules stays out late and doesn't come home. That same evening, a young black man is found dead, struck by a subway train under mysterious circumstances.

The two events seem unconnected. But Mary Pat, propelled by a desperate search for her missing daughter, begins turning over stones best left untouched - asking questions that bother Marty Butler, chieftain of the Irish mob, and the men who work for him, men who don’t take kindly to any threat to their business.

Set against the hot, tumultuous months when the city’s desegregation of its public schools exploded in violence, Small Mercies is a superb thriller, a brutal depiction of criminality and power, and an unflinching portrait of the dark heart of American racism.
by Mark Billingham 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on May 25)

Meet Detective Miller: unique, unconventional, and criminally underestimated...

He’s a detective, a dancer, he has no respect for authority ­- and he’s the best hope Blackpool has for keeping criminals off the streets. Meet Detective Declan Miller.

A double murder in a seaside hotel sees a grieving Miller return to work to solve what appears to be a case of mistaken identity. Just why were two completely unconnected men taken out?

Despite a somewhat dubious relationship with both reality and his new partner, can the eccentric, offbeat Miller find answers where his colleagues have found only an impossible puzzle?


ALL THE SINNERS BLEED 
by SA Crosby 
(pub in eb and hb on Jun 6)

After years of working as an FBI agent, Titus Crown returns home to Charon County, land of moonshine and cornbread, fist fights and honeysuckle. Seeing his hometown struggling with a bigoted police force inspires him to run for sheriff. He wins, and becomes the first black sheriff in the history of the county.

Then a year to the day after his election, a young black man is fatally shot by Titus’s deputies.

Titus pledges to follow the truth wherever it leads. But no one expected he would unearth a serial killer who has been hiding in plain sight, haunting the dirt lanes and woodland clearings of Charon.

Now, Titus must pull off the impossible: stay true to his instincts, prevent outright panic, and investigate a shocking crime in a small town where everyone knows everyone yet secrets flourish. All while also breaking up backroads bar fights and being forced to protect racist Confederate pride marchers.

For a black man wearing a police uniform in the American South, that's no easy feat. But Charon is Titus’s home and his heart, and he won’t let the darkness overtake it. Even as it threatens to consume him ...


THRILLER

by Bret Easton Ellis
(pub in eb and hb on Jan 17, in ab on Jan 24)

LA, 1981. Buckley College in heat. 17-year-old Bret is a senior at the exclusive Buckley prep school when a new student arrives with a mysterious past. Robert Mallory is bright, handsome, charismatic, and shielding a secret from Bret and his friends, even as he becomes a part of their tightly knit circle. Bret’s obsession with Mallory is equalled only by his increasingly unsettling preoccupation with The Trawler, a serial killer on the loose who seems to be drawing ever closer to Bret and his friends, taunting them with grotesque threats and horrific, sharply local acts of violence.

Can he trust his friends – or his own mind – to make sense of the danger they appear to be in? Thwarted by the world and by his own innate desires, buffeted by unhealthy fixations, Bret spirals into paranoia and isolation as the relationship between The Trawler and Robert Mallory hurtles inexorably toward a collision.

Gripping, sly, suspenseful, deeply haunting and often darkly funny, The Shards is a mesmerising fusing of fact and fiction that brilliantly explores the emotional fabric of Bret’s life at 17 – sex and jealousy, obsession and murderous rage.


THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD 
by Dean R Koontz
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Jan 24)

In retreat from a devastating loss and crushing injustice, Katie lives alone in a fortresslike stone house on Jacob’s Ladder island. Once a rising star in the art world, she finds refuge in her painting.

The neighboring island of Ringrock houses a secret: a government research facility. And now two agents have arrived on Jacob’s Ladder in search of someone―or something―they refuse to identify. Although an air of menace hangs over these men, an infinitely greater threat has arrived, one so strange even the island animals are in a state of high alarm.

Katie soon finds herself in an epic and terrifying battle with a mysterious enemy. But Katie’s not alone after all: a brave young girl appears out of the violent squall. As Katie and her companion struggle across a dark and eerie landscape, against them is an omnipresent terror that could bring about the end of the world.


LOOK BOTH WAYS 
by Linwood Barclay 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Feb 2, pb on Jun 8)

They think as one. They act as one. They kill as one.

The residents of Garrett Island are part of a visionary experiment. Their cars have been sent to the mainland and for one month, they’ve got self-driving vehicles called Arrivals. With just a voice command, an Arrival will take you where you want to go, and as the cars are all aware of each other, road accidents should be a thing of the past.

As the world’s press arrives for a glimpse of this driverless future, islander and single mom Sandra Montrose preps for the huge media event. She’s ready for this new world. Her husband died when he fell asleep at the wheel, and she’s relieved her two teens, Archie and Katie, may never need driver’s licenses.

But as the day gets underway, there are signs all is not well. A member of the press has vanished. There are rumours of industrial sabotage.

Before long, the sleek driverless cars are no longer taking orders. They’re starting to organize. They’re starting to hunt. And they’ve got the residents of Garrett Island in their sights.


by Zoe Stage 
(pub in ab, eb, hb and pb on Mar 1)

Grace isn’t exactly thrilled when her newly widowed mother, Jackie, asks to move in with her. They’ve never had a great relationship, and Grace likes her space―especially now that she’s stuck at home during a pandemic. Then again, she needs help with the mortgage after losing her job. And maybe it’ll be a chance for them to bond―or at least give each other a hand.

But living with Mother isn’t for everyone. Good intentions turn bad soon after Jackie moves in. Old wounds fester; new ones open. Grace starts having nightmares about her disabled twin sister, who died when they were kids. And Jackie discovers that Grace secretly catfishes people online―a hobby Jackie thinks is unforgivable.

When Jackie makes an earth-shattering accusation against her, Grace sees it as an act of revenge, and it sends her spiraling into a sleep-deprived madness. As the walls close in, the ghosts of Grace’s past collide with a new but familiar threat: Mom.


THE INSTITUTION 
by Helen Fields 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Mar 2)

They’re locked up for your safety.

Now, you’re locked in with them.

Dr Connie Woolwine has five days to catch a killer.

On a locked ward in the world’s highest-security prison hospital, a scream shatters the night. The next morning, a nurse’s body is found and her daughter has been taken. A ransom must be paid, and the clock is ticking.

Forensic profiler Dr Connie Woolwine is renowned for her ability to get inside the mind of a murderer. Now, she must go deep undercover among the most deranged and dangerous men on earth and use her unique skills to find the girl – before it’s too late.

But as the walls close in around her, can Connie get the killer before The Institution gets her?


THE MOTHER 
by TM Logan 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Mar 2)

Framed for murder. Now she’s free ...

A woman attends a funeral, standing in the shadows and watching in agony as her sons grieve. But she is unable to comfort them - or reveal her secret.

A decade earlier, Heather gets her children ready for bed and awaits the return of her husband Liam, little realising that this is the last night they will spend together as a family. Because tomorrow she will be accused of Liam’s murder.

Ten years ago Heather lost everything. Now she will stop at nothing to clear her name - and to get her children back ...


I WILL FIND YOU 
by Harlan Coben 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Mar 16)

David and Cheryl Burroughs are living the dream - married, a beautiful house in the suburbs, a three year old son named Matthew - when tragedy strikes one night in the worst possible way.

David awakes to find himself covered in blood, but not his own - his son’s. And while he knows he did not murder his son, the overwhelming evidence against him puts him behind bars indefinitely.

Five years into his imprisonment, Cheryl’s sister arrives - and drops a bombshell.

She’s come with a photograph that a friend took on vacation at a theme park. The boy in the background seems familiar - and even though David realizes it can’t be, he knows it is.

It’s Matthew, and he’s still alive.

David plans a harrowing escape from prison, determined to do what seems impossible - save his son, clear his own name, and discover the real story of what happened that devastating night.


by Joe R Lansdale 
(pub in ab and eb on Mar 21, in hb on Apr 13)

Charlie Garner has a bad feeling. His ex-wife, Meg, has been missing for over a week and one quick peek into her home shows all her possessions packed up in boxes. Neighbors claim she’s running from bill collectors, but Charlie suspects something more sinister is afoot. Meg was last seen working at the local donut shop, a business run by a shadow group most refer to as The Saucer People; a space-age, evangelist cult who believe their compound to be the site of an extraterrestrial Second Coming.

Along with his brother, Felix, and beautiful, randy journalist Amelia ‘Scrappy’ Moon, Charlie uncovers strange and frightening details about the compound (read: a massive, doomsday storehouse of weapons, a leashed chimpanzee!) When the body of their key informer is found dead with his arms ripped out of their sockets, Charlie knows he’s in danger but remains dogged in his quest to rescue Meg.

Brimming with colurful characters and Lansdale’s characteristic bounce, this rollicking crime novel examines the insidious rise of fringe groups and those under their sway with black comedy and glints of pathos.


by Will Dean 
(pub on ab, eb and hb on May 11)

My phone has no reception, something we’ve been told to expect from time to time out here, and my stomach feels uneasy. Maybe it's the motion of the waves or maybe it’s the fact that Pete didn’t leave a note or a text. He usually leaves a note with a heart.

I pull on jeans and a jumper and scrunch my hair on top of my head and take my key card and step out into the corridor.

Thirty seconds later it hits me.

All the other cabin doors are wedged open.

Every single one is unoccupied and unlocked.

My heart starts beating harder. I break out into a run. At the end of the long corridor I take a lift down to the Ocean Lobby.

There’s nobody here.

My mouth is dry.

It’s like I’m trapped on a runaway train.

No, this is worse.

The RMS Atlantica is steaming out into the ocean and I am the only person on board.

This was supposed to be the holiday of a lifetime for Cas. Now she just needs to survive.


FEARLESS 
by MW Craven 
(Pub in ab, eb and hb on Jun 29)

Five million reasons why Ben Koenig had to disappear. Only one to bring him back ...

Ben Koenig is a ghost. He doesn’t exist any more.

Six years ago it was Koenig who headed up the US Marshal’s elite Special Ops group. They were the unit who hunted the bad guys - the really bad guys. They did this so no one else had to.

Until the day Koenig disappeared. He told no one why and he left no forwarding address. For six years he became a grey man. Invisible. He drifted from town to town, state to state. He was untraceable. It was as if he had never been.

But now Koenig’s face is on every television screen in the country. Someone from his past is trying to find him and they don’t care how they do it. In the burning heat of the Chihuahuan Desert lies a town called Gauntlet, and there are people in there who have a secret they’ll do anything to protect. They’ve killed before and they will kill again.

Only this time they’ve made a mistake. They’ve dismissed Koenig as just another drifter - but they’re wrong. Because Koenig has a condition, a unique disorder that makes it impossible for him to experience fear. And now they’re about to find out what a truly fearless man is capable of. Because Koenig’s coming for them. And hell’s coming with him ...
by Grady Hendrix 
(Pub in eb on Jan 14, in hb on Jan 17)

When Louise finds out her parents have died, she dreads going home. She doesn’t want to leave her daughter with her ex and fly to Charleston. She doesn’t want to deal with her family home, stuffed to the rafters with the remnants of her father’s academic career and her mother’s lifelong obsession with puppets and dolls. She doesn’t want to learn how to live without the two people who knew and loved her best in the world.

Mostly, she doesn’t want to deal with her brother, Mark, who never left their hometown, gets fired from one job after another, and resents her success. But she’ll need his help to get the house ready for sale because it’ll take more than some new paint on the walls and clearing out a lifetime of memories to get this place on the market.

Some houses don’t want to be sold, and their home has other plans for both of them…


EPISODE THIRTEEN 
by Craig DiLouie 
(Pub in eb, ab and pb on Jan 24)

Fade to Black is the newest hit ghost hunting reality TV show. Led by husband and wife team Matt and Claire Kirklin, it delivers weekly hauntings investigated by a dedicated team of ghost hunting experts.

Episode Thirteen takes them to every ghost hunter’s holy grail: the Paranormal Research Foundation. This brooding, derelict mansion holds secrets and clues about bizarre experiments that took place there in the 1970s. It’s also famously haunted, and the team hopes their scientific techniques and high tech gear will prove it. But as the house begins to reveal itself to them, proof of an afterlife might not be everything Matt dreamed of. A story told in broken pieces, in tapes, journals, and correspondence, this is the story of Episode Thirteen-and how everything went terribly, horribly wrong.


by Steve Duffy 
(Available Jan, in hb)

Where are the monsters? Sometimes they’re right behind you.

In this new collection of six novelettes – three are wholly original to this volume – Steve Duffy invites us to look over our shoulders, and asks us whether we recognise the faces that we see. Some of them are all too human, some are animals, and some are like nothing we’ve ever seen – yet.

In the snowy wastes of the Yukon and the mining country of Appalachia an age-old terror is unwittingly unleashed…

After-hours at the Pacific View diner, meet a glamorous, mysterious film star and uncover a monstrous bargain…

In Streatham or in Ethiopia, you must be careful what you wish for – very careful – or anything might happen…

Christmas is a time for family, and that means dark secrets, desperate desires and occult constructs…

Down at the zoo something is stirring: the animals know, but the warders won’t realise until it’s already too late…

Young love blossoms at the New York World’s Fair, but the future has its own agenda…

The latest collection of stories and novellas from ghost and horror story maestro, Steve Duffy.


by Rosalie Parker
(Pub Jan/Feb in hb)

The humans who inhabit Dream Fox and Other Strange Stories seem des­tined to test the limitations of rational existence. Some have accidentally stray­ed into no-man’s land, such as the narrator of Bipolarity who must decide how to learn to live (or not) with her mental illness; or the protag­onist of Beguiled who may be forced by fam­ily attitudes into social obscurity; or, in School Trip, un­promising June’s un­expected discovery of her own ‘special powers’. Other stories, such as Home Comforts, are more playful, although the uncanny is never far away.

Dream Fox also includes ‘a book within a book’: Mary Belgrove’s Book of Unusual Experiences—containing nine diverse accounts of weird and paranormal happenings written by those who experienced them, compiled and commented upon by the epony­mous Ms Belgrove, whose dying wish is to publish evidence of such events for scientists to study. Who can resist accounts of indestructible mushrooms, a country house party that goes dis­astrously wrong, prehistoric wish-fulfilment magic, or the dream-fuelled psychedelic love story that is View from a Tower?

Dream Fox and Other Strange Stories is Rosalie Parker’s fifth collec­tion of strange tales.

by Johnny Compton 
(Pub in eb and ab on Feb 7,  in hb on Mar 21)

Eric Ross is on the run from a mysterious past with his two daughters in tow. Having left his wife, his house, his whole life behind in Maryland, he’s desperate for money - it’s not easy to find steady, safe work when you can’t provide references, you can’t stay in one place for long, and you’re paranoid that your past is creeping back up on you. 

When he comes across the strange ad for the Masson House in Degener, Texas, Eric thinks they may have finally caught a lucky break. The Masson property, notorious for being one of the most haunted places in Texas, needs a caretaker of sorts. The owner is looking for proof of paranormal activity. All they need to do is stay in the house and keep a detailed record of everything that happens there. Provided the house’s horrors don’t drive them all mad, like the caretakers before them. 

The job calls to Eric, not just because there’s a huge payout if they can make it through, but because he wants to explore the secrets of the spite house. If it is indeed haunted, maybe it’ll help him understand the uncanny power that clings to his family, driving them from town to town, making them afraid to stop running.


BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR 14 
edited by Ellen Datlow 
(Out now, pub in pb on Feb 16)

For more than four decades, Ellen Datlow has been at the centre of horror. Bringing you the most frightening and terrifying stories, Datlow always has her finger on the pulse of what horror readers crave. Now, with the fourteenth volume of the series, Datlow is back again to bring you the stories that will keep you up at night. Encompassed in the pages of The Best Horror of the Year have been such illustrious writers as: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Stephen Graham Jones, Joyce Carol Oates, Laird Barron, Mira Grant, and many others.

With each passing year, science, technology, and the march of time shine light into the craggy corners of the universe, making the fears of an earlier generation seem quaint. But this light creates its own shadows. The Best Horror of the Year chronicles these shifting shadows. It is a catalogue of terror, fear, and unpleasantness as articulated by today’s most challenging and exciting writers.

by Nathan Ballingrud 
(Pub in eb and pb on Mar 21)

Anabelle Crisp is fourteen when the Silence arrives, severing all communication between Earth and her new home on Mars. One evening, while she and her father are closing the diner they run in the colony of New Galveston, they are robbed at gunpoint.

Among the stolen items is a recording of her mother’s voice, taped on the eve of a trip back to Earth, just before the Silence descended. Driven by righteous fury and desperation to lift her father’s broken spirits, Anabelle sets out to confront the thieves and bring back the sole vestige of her mother. Accompanied by her loyal robotic companion, Watson, an outcast spaceship pilot named Joe Reilly, and the hardened outlaw Sally Milkwood, Anabelle must first pass through Dig Town, a derelict mining community where a mineral called the Strange has warped the residents in frightening ways, and then brave the Martian desert.

As she nears the shadowy Peabody Crater––the epicentre of bizarre goings-on in the colonies––Mars is revealed as a vast haunted house, infested with ghosts, alive with malignant intent―and New Galveston, once a safe haven, nothing more than a guttering candle in a dark world.


by V. Castro 
(Pub in hb on Apr 18)

Alejandra no longer knows who she is. To her husband, she is a wife, and to her children, a mother. But they cannot see who Alejandra has become: a woman struggling with a darkness that threatens to consume her. Nor can they see what Alejandra sees. In times of despair, a ghostly vision appears to her, the apparition of a crying woman in a ragged white gown.

When Alejandra visits a therapist, she begins exploring her family’s history, starting with the biological mother she only recently rediscovered. As she goes deeper into the lives of the women in her family, she learns that heartbreak and tragedy are not the only things she has in common with her ancestors.

Because the crying woman was with them, too. She is La Llorona, the vengeful and murderous mother of Mexican legend. And she will not leave until Alejandra follows her grandmother, and all the women who came before her into the darkness.

But Alejandra has inherited more than just pain. She has inherited the strength and the courage of her foremothers―and she will have to summon everything they have given her to banish La Llorona forever.


LOOKING GLASS SOUND 
by Catriona Ward 
(Pub in eb and hb on Apr 20)

In a windswept cottage overlooking the sea, Wilder Harlow begins the last book he will ever write. It is the story of his childhood companions and the killer that stalked their small New England town. Of the body they found, the horror of that discovery echoing down the decades. And of Sky, Wilder’s one-time friend, who stole his unfinished memoir and turned it into a lurid bestselling novel, The Sound and the Dagger.

This book will be Wilder’s revenge on Sky, a man who betrayed his trust and died without ever telling him why. But as he writes, Wilder begins to find notes written in Sky’s signature green ink and events in his manuscript start to chime eerily with the present. Is Sky haunting him? Did Wilder have more to do with Sky’s death than he admits? And who is the woman drowning in the cove, whom no-one else can see?

No longer able to trust his own eyes, Wilder begins to wonder: is he writing the book, or is the book writing him?


THE OTHER SIDE OF NEVER 
edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan 
(Pub in eb and pb on May 9)

Come with me where dreams are born and time is never planned …

A wide range of stories inspired by J.M. Barrie’s classic tale, the faraway Neverland and its beloved characters – such as Wendy, Captain Hook, The Lost Boys, Tinkerbell and of course Peter Pan himself! Masters of fantasy, science-fiction and horror come together to give their unique takes and twists on the mythos.

Featuring stories from: Alison Littlewood, Priya Sharma, Muriel Gray, Rio Youers, Cavan Scott, Guy Adams, Edward Cox, Anna Smith Spark, Paul Finch, Robert Shearman, A.K. Benedict, Premee Mohamed, Lavie Tidhar, Laura Mauro, Seanan McGuire, Kirsty Logan, Claire North, A.C. Wise, Gama Ray Martinez.


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.

THE BLACK 
by Paul E. Cooley (2014)

Outline
When veteran freelance marine engineer, Tom Calhoun, and his team arrive at the exploratory oil platform, Leaguer, far out in the middle of the ocean (the actual location is never specified, but we presume the Pacific because of the depths involved), he expects that they’re about to make a find so colossal they’ll all be able to retire on it.

The rig, under the control of hardnosed rig-chief Martin Vraebel and a team of experienced roughnecks headed up by ace fixer, Steve Gomez, is prepping to drill down into the floor of a hitherto unknown ocean trench lying beneath 30,000 feet of water but which recent geophysical survey suggests contains a reservoir of crude oil larger than all the reserves of Saudi Arabia put together.

It is a fantastical prospect, almost unimaginable, but there are problems from the outset.

Vraebel and his crew don’t take particularly kindly to Calhoun’s team, who they consider to be opportunist outsiders with no interest in the rig’s protocols, and to an extent this is true, the worst offender being Calhoun’s lead-techie, a self-confident but irritatingly proficient nerd called Craig ‘Catfish’ Standlee, who cares mostly for his underwater robots and little for anyone or anything else. Calhoun’s other lieutenant, Shawna Sigler, is more than the usual pretty face: she’s a top geologist, who is here to assess the quality of the crude when samples are finally brought up from the deep, and whose findings will determine whether or not the exploratory platform will shortly be transformed into a full-on excavation rig, but the roughnecks are still unimpressed by what they perceive to be a little girl who looks fresh out of college.

Despite these earlier tensions, the operation goes ahead, and the drill finally strikes the bottom of the trench, a region so previously unknown to the world that it has no official name aside from the code-number M2. And it is now that the team’s problems really begin. Below a thin layer of rock at the sea floor, there is indeed a gargantuan supply of oil, the purest that Shawna Sigler has ever seen, but this is no ordinary oil, or at least what lurks within it isn’t ordinary; it’s very far from being ordinary – and very, very far from being inert.

That it lives and breathes is one baffling fact; that mere contact between this living liquid and any non-metallic substance will sizzle said substance down to foul, reeking vapour is another; but perhaps most frightening of all, the material is sentient. It doesn’t just lie there, it senses its prey and hunts it relentlessly, and with every new organism it absorbs, it grows exponentially in size and aggression.

Almost inevitably, Calhoun and the rest of the crew only come to learn about this horror after samples of the hostile material have already been brought aboard, and by then it’s too late …

Review
If you like good old-fashioned monster movies, then The Black is definitely for you.

I wouldn’t say it’s the most original idea. The author himself, in his afterword, mentions taking inspiration from such cinematic classics as The Blob and The Thing. I would add to that list: Alien, Leviathan, and Fury from the Deep, a famous early story in the Dr Who canon, but most of all the Korean oil rig-based horror movie, Sector 7. But none of that really detracted from my enjoyment as a reader. It’s often been said that there have only ever been seven original stories ever written, and that everything else is a derivation of one or the other … so similarity to something else is hardly an issue.

The main thing about The Black is that, for the most part, it’s carried off with real conviction. I don’t know if Paul E. Cooley has ever actually worked or been resident on an oil platform, but you could certainly be forgiven for thinking that he must have, given the standard of authenticity here. Some reviewers have complained that there is too much technical writing on show, and that our nonstop immersion in convincing engineer-speak and petro-science terminology either lost them on entry or could only mean that an author who has done a lot of detailed research is determined to show off. But for me, while it’s certainly present, it’s non-intrusive and it makes the whole thing seem a lot more real, which only added to my pleasure. In fact, I’m quite jealous of Cooley’s abilities here; he completely and comfortably recreates the world of an exploration rig, bouncing around its many complex, multi-levelled interiors and its harsher exteriors in easy-to-follow fashion, laying out the rules and processes in a clear, straightforward way which underpins the entire narrative.

Okay, there is some roughneck jargon which perhaps bewilders, but this is a world I have never visited in real life, and at no stage did I feel confused or frustrated, so full credit to Paul E. Cooley for that.

Unfortunately, I have one or two minor complaints with regard to the author’s general style.

Characters are frequently called by different names. So, on one page, Calhoun may be referred to as ‘Calhoun’ and on the next it may be ‘Thomas’, and this happens across the roster, with almost every character. It’s a moot-point, but personally, I regard it as an error. For me, there is nothing noticeably repetitive about using the same name again and again; it ensures that the reader knows exactly who you are talking about, and it causes no momentary interruption to the general flow of narrative as time is wasted trying to work out who is who.

I also took issue with some of Cooley’s back-and-forthing between time zones. What I mean is, in a moment of high excitement, Catfish may encounter someone we’ve just been following as they fought their way up to the bridge, but we then roll back in time a few minutes to see how Catfish also fought his way there. This interrupts the momentum of the book, and again, is a device the author uses several times through the narrative. It’s clunky writing for me, which again risks leaving the reader scratching his/her head in bemusement.

But these are really the only problems I had with The Black.

Tom Calhoun makes for a good strong lead despite his old and crusty nature, and is ably supported by his protégés, the petite and level-headed Shawna and the geeky Catfish. None of these characters are whiter than white; all have flaws and can cause annoyance in their own way – which again makes for a realistic read.

The roughneck community on the rig is perhaps a little more thinly drawn. We meet a few of the rig-workers in greater detail near the very end of the book, which I suppose is a bit of a weakness, but they’re pretty much as you’d expect them to be: tough, bluff, blue-collar guys with a no-nonsense attitude. Of those we already know, Martin Vraebel, the permanently stressed rig-chief, is less likeable than Calhoun: no friendlier than he needs to be, narrow-mindedly ambitious, mistrusting of strangers in his domain even when they’re here to help; a fairly typical senior management klutz of the sort we’ve all encountered in real life, so he works well. Less clear-cut is his number two, Steve Gomez, the guy who really makes the Leaguer tick. He’s reliable and ultra-efficient, but we only get to hear about this; we don’t actually see him doing anything notable aside from sneering at Calhoun’s team.

But again, I can forgive that; we have our main leads, and we have our situation, and of course, we have our chthonic monster, which, when it finally attacks, does so with irresistible force and terror, which is another nicely realistic touch. This is one elemental entity that won’t be contained, one primordial being that no amount of science, weaponry or technology can destroy.

I daren’t say more because I don’t want to risk giving away too many spoilers. The minor issues I’ve mentioned aside, The Black is a great romp in that fine old tradition of B-movie creature features. And if that’s your thing, you’re in for a real fun ride.

As you’re no doubt aware, at the end of these book reviews, I like to make a few suggestions about casting, and who I would pick were the novel in question ever to make it to the screen. Today is no exception, and so here – as always, just for the fun of it – are my picks for who should play the lead characters in The Black:

Tom Calhoun – Ed O’Neill
Shawna Sigler – Felicia Day
Craig ‘Catfish’ Standlee – Grey Damon
Martin Vraebel – Lance Reddick
Steve Gomez – Rafael Amaya