Wednesday, 24 November 2021

NEVER SEEN AGAIN is starting to feel real


I’m chuffed to bits to be able to share this with you today. It’s a first visual of my upcoming novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, a crime-thriller due for publication on March 22 next year.

Now okay, this is the bookproof that will shortly be going out to reviewers, not the book itself, but hey, it’s still exciting. And if you’re starting to think that I’m sounding like an inordinately happy man, that’s because it’s been over a year since my last novel came out but now at last the production wheels are turning again.

Also today, on the subject of action/crime novels with a place close to my heart, I’ll be reviewing and discussing David Gilman’s epic thriller, 
THE ENGLISHMAN. If you’re looking for a winter read, this would be a particularly good choice as it takes you all the way from the dank, chilly London backstreets to the blizzard-swept forests of central Russia. And trust me, it’s every bit as tough as it sounds.

If you’re only here for the David Gilman review, that’s perfectly okay. Just zoom on down today’s post. You’ll find the relevant item, as always, at the lower end in the Thrillers, Chillers section.

But don’t be too hasty. First, why don’t we talk a little about ...


So, yes ... it’s almost here, my new crime novel. The bookproofs are going out, while anyone interested in getting hold of a digital proof from NETGALLEY needs only follow the link and register.  

With regard to the book itself, there are obvious limits on how much I can say about it at this stage, but I’ll tell you as much as I can. First off, there are several questions I’m already being asked about it:

1) Is this a Mark Heckenburg novel by any chance? (Or, as a couple have also asked, does it feature Lucy Clayburn?).

2) If not, why not?

3) And if not, when are we actually going to see further investigations by these other two characters?

The answers, in this order, are: 1 No (and No). 2 Because I have to have some variation of themes and characters in my writing. 3 Very soon (so please don’t worry).

But today, we’re going to chat about NEVER SEEN AGAIN (the finished version of which, by the way, is also available for pre-order right NOW).

So, what is it about?, you ask.

Well, here is the current proof's brief but to-the-point back-cover blurb:

Jodie Martindale’s disappearance remains a mystery, unsolved to this day. 

David Kelman covered the story. But he made a huge mistake, which cost someone their life.

Six years later, he has new evidence: a message from Jodie - sent two weeks ago ...

As you may have deduced, this new novel doesn’t involve a police investigation. Or at least it doesn’t centre on one. The reason for this is simple. I thought it would be an interesting experiment (maybe for just this one book, maybe for more, who knows?) to step away from the hi-tech world of modern law enforcement, where every conceivable kind of gadget and database is at the hero’s fingertips, and strip things down to their basics: pit a solitary character, who has nothing going for him but his wits and experience, into a tense struggle with a nameless but colossal opponent.

It might be fun, I felt, to devise a fiendish plot and then throw an ordinary bloke into it, an everyman who has no police powers or training, no intelligence services to draw upon, no access to firearms units, no firearms training in his own right, and perhaps most important of all, no experience even of unarmed combat outside the normal rough-and-tumble of everyday life.

But how would such an individual get on?

Well …

First of all, he’d have to be highly driven.

In direct response to that, I’m not going to say anymore about the plot of NEVER SEEN AGAIN, but I don’t think I’ve ever written about a character who is more personally driven than David Kelman in this book – so that’s one box ticked.

Secondly, he’d have to have at least a bit of nous. You could not just walk off the street and investigate a professional abduction with any realistic hope of making headway.

So in addition to David being bonded to this case at his emotional core, he has one other advantage over many of us in that he used to be a crime reporter, which means that he knows the underworld reasonably well, even if (unlike Heck, for example), he can’t be bullish when he gets in there, and can’t call on an army to back him up.

Perhaps a more interesting question, though … and one that I really sought to tackle when writing this novel, was: where does an average Joe stand in terms of morality when a prospect like this comes along? I mean, okay, anyone who considers themselves an upstanding citizen would want to help break a serious criminal case if they got the chance. But where do you stand ethically if you obtain a piece of vital evidence and decide to use it for your own investigation rather than hand it to the experts?

Superficially, that’s going to make you an offender in your own right … isn’t it?

Well, as I’ve said, I’m not going to divulge any essential plot points for NEVER SEEN AGAIN today, but suffice to say that, even though David Kelman has strong and worthy reasons for wanting to crack this case himself, it’s a moral grey area even here.

It’s a real conundrum, but it’s also part of a much bigger question.

After I finished as a police officer I became a journalist, and remained in that role for a decade. So, I have more than a bit of personal interest in this. And one thing that’s always annoyed (but also bewildered) me is how unflatteringly journalists have often been portrayed in contemporary entertainment. 

From Rita Skeeter, the on-the-make hack of Harry Potter fame, to the tabloid guys on Spitting Image, who were literally depicted as pigs, it’s a profession that creatives have many times invited us to regard with (at best) suspicion and (at worst) loathing and derision. And yet billions of people all over the world watch the news and read it, and that news is provided by these self-same journalists. In addition to that, there have been numerous cases where brave and intrepid news teams have made a significant dent in criminal activity.

Most famously of all perhaps, from 1972 to 1974, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigated the burglary at the Democratic National Committee HQ in the Watergate Building in DC, and wrote sensational news stories as the case unfolded, indicating that knowledge of the break-in and attempts to cover it up led all the way into the upper reaches of the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, and the White House, ultimately leading to the resignation of US President, Richard Nixon.

Equally impressively, in 2002 the Boston Globe broke the news that countless crimes of a serious sexual nature had been committed inside the Catholic Church in the United States, which led to many criminal prosecutions and lawsuits and for the first time ever, turned an international spotlight on the whole shameful affair.

We have British examples too. In 1997 the Daily Mail took the gamble of naming the five white men suspected of brutally killing black teenager Stephen Lawrence, none of whom at this stage had been convicted, labelling them ‘murderers’ and challenging the group to sue them if they weren’t, which roused public fury against the accused and led to severe criticism of the police for botching the investigation.

Okay, I’m not saying the press are all angels. Very far from it. I’m sure it wouldn’t take much research to produce an equally eye-catching list of occasions when journalists have behaved shockingly badly, using extremely underhand methods to get stories.

It’s swings and roundabouts. Even in my own experience, there were some journalists who would sell their souls to get the goods, but at the same time there were others who, purely on a point of principle, would not run stories that were damaging or intrusive to individuals if they felt it was not in the public interest.

Yes, there are definitely two sides to this much-maligned industry, but sometimes the dividing line between the two might be a tad blurry. And NEVER SEEN AGAIN, I suppose, was my first big opportunity to examine this issue closely.

Now, all right … it’s a crime-thriller, not a polemic on the subject of journalistic integrity. I’m not claiming the latter and never would. But this twilight zone between the acceptable and unacceptable in terms of news gathering and reporting has long bugged me, and is a matter that is particularly relevant in the modern age, so I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy sticking my nose into it.

But don’t worry. No matter how serious I might consider the subtext, I’d never let that get in the way of what I hope are my novels’ usual traits of thrills, spills and intrigue. There is a dark and disturbing puzzle at the heart of NEVER SEEN AGAIN, which simply has to be solved – and it isn’t the sort of puzzle you can get to the bottom of sitting in an armchair with a laptop on your knee. 

Our characters have to get out there, stepping into the firing line as they pursue and are, on occasion, themselves pursued by the mad, bad and dangerous to know, and in the process they take in a range of locations. 

Everywhere from the tip of Cornwall in the depths of a sun-soaked summer to the dangerous backstreets of a run-down resort town in Kent, from the green fields and cow-filled meadows of Constable Country to the ultra high-security prison, Gull Rock, the final destination of the UK’s most thoroughly wicked.

I’ll say no more about it, other than to reiterate that I’m especially excited about this one. I can’t wait to reconnect with my readers, and to hit you all with what I hope will be my usual mix of eerie mystery and hardboiled action.

As I say, NEVER SEEN AGAIN is published next March, but available for pre-order right NOW. Again though, if you can’t wait that long and would like to get hold of an electronic proof, all you need do is register on NETGALLEY and pre-order. It isn’t live yet, but it won’t be long.


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 ENGLISHMAN
 
by David Gilman (2020)

Outline
In 2013, airborne companies from the French Foreign Legion attack Al-Qaeda bases dug into the mountains of Mali in West Africa. It’s a ferocious battle, which sees the terrorists destroyed. But along the way, paratrooper Dan Raglan, an Englishman – but only one of many non-French nationals in the Legion – is wounded both physically and mentally.

Many years later, in London, Jeremy Carter, a successful banker, is car-jacked by Russian gunmen, who kill his driver and take him hostage, though his adopted son, Steven, manages to escape. A whirlwind of events follows, the Metropolitan Police swinging into action but, having deduced that this is not a terrorist incident, opting to keep the investigation in-house.

MI6, however, are not so easily fobbed off. Ultra-cool section boss, Maguire, is convinced that Carter has not been abducted because he’s a wealthy banker but because he’s an undercover intelligence officer who’s been working several highly classified missions focussed on the Russian state. Maguire is content to let the police believe they are dealing with organised crime – in fact, in some ways it is organised crime, Russian spy chiefs having learned that using gangsters to carry out their hits means they have more deniability – but to maintain his low profile, he officially keeps his own people out of it while unofficially putting into play a single secret asset from outside the fold.

This asset is ‘the Englishman’, ex-Legionnaire Dan Raglan, now living in a rural enclave in central France with other retired members of his regiment. Raglan wouldn’t otherwise take the job, but when the request is delivered to him by junior MI6 operative, Abash ‘Abbie’ Khalsa, and he hears that Jeremy Carter and his family, old friends, are involved, he knows that he must participate.

Raglan is a complex character. A battle-scarred veteran who is now a man of peace, he has never really questioned the role he played in many clandestine wars, but he’s still haunted by that day in Mali, when he had no option but to kill a child terrorist. Even his knowledge that the Carters are the victims of the London attack might not have been adequate to bring him back fully into action, but when he learns that young Steven, twelve years old, is still lost somewhere in the city, also with a target on his back, there is no chance that he won’t respond.

With the assistance of Abbie, a spook so low in the pecking order that no one will even notice she’s absent from her desk, Raglan searches the capital. Thanks to protocols Carter put in place in the event of his family ever being targetted, the young boy, Steven, has survived. Though he is mentally devastated by what happened, the knowledge he possesses assists in the investigation massively.

It isn’t long before Raglan uncovers the presence of someone he knows of old, a Russian ex-special forces soldier turned lethal assassin, Yegor ‘JD’ Kutznetzov, who evidently is here in London with his gang of handpicked killers not just to kidnap Jeremy Carter, but to extract every ounce of information from him they can. That will mean prolonged, brutal torture, and hardened though he is to the dark side of international espionage, even Carter will be hard-put to withstand this for long.

At least Raglan is no longer alone in the hunt. Alongside the spirited but inexperienced Abbie, he is also assisted by Major Elena Sorokina, a senior Moscow police detective, who has arrived in London because JD murdered four Russian cops. She is a cold, gorgeous presence, but she knows her stuff and is almost feral when it comes to combat.

The enlarged band continue the pursuit of their elusive enemy, and increasingly make ground. But they are unaware at this stage that the trail won’t just take them back and forth across the city, through one blazing shootout after another, but into Europe, and finally into Russia, specifically to a gulag hellhole in the frozen wilderness of the Ural Mountains, the end of the line for Russia’s worst criminals, a place of the damned that is infamously impossible to break out of …

Review
Though it’s been marketed as a Cold War-type thriller of the Len Deighton / John le Carré school, The Englishman, in my opinion at least, owes more to Lee Child or Tom Clancy. Our main protagonist here is highly intelligent and expertly trained, but he’s a roughneck too, who can smash down doors with a single kick and won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on any number of opponents.

All that said, he isn’t 007. As I intimated earlier, Raglan is a realistically complex character.

Like Bond, he was orphaned as a child and taken in by a caring foster family. Also like Bond, this still meant that he had a dysfunctional childhood, which as an adult made him an ideal candidate for a career in the world of cloaks and daggers. But unlike Bond, in Raglan’s case this was the commando arm of the French Foreign Legion, a notoriously tough training regime and a combat force that would send him into action time and again, often in wars that were never even declared.

As such, he has run a gauntlet of battlefront ordeals. This has left him older and wiser than his years, with contacts across the secretive military world and a wealth of frontline knowledge, an experience gleaned from theatres as varied as deserts, jungles and bullet-riddled inner city backstreets. But Raglan has suffered too. He has a dark inner self and difficulties forming meaningful relationships. His only real friends are fellow ex-Legionnaires, most of whom live like he does: off the grid. When he goes back into action, he slips into it effortlessly, as though that is now his real purpose and trying to live like a civilian a waste of time.

If Dan Raglan isn’t tailor-made to be the focal point of a whole series of novels to follow, then I’ve never encountered another character who is (and indeed, this very week I’ve learned that a timely sequel, Betrayal, is scheduled for publication in January). But do you root for him? Do you feel his pain? Do you shudder with genuine horror at the unimaginably difficult mission this novel confronts him with?

I’m not sure that Raglan is ultra-sympathetic. He’s too hard and too adept at what he does to ever be considered vulnerable. But there is sufficient depth here for him to be interesting. There is certainly much more to him than the average Hollywood action man, easily enough to keep you hooked even in the unlikely event the skilfully-choreographed action scenes don’t.

The other characters may lean a little towards stock: Maguire the MI6 chief who, while ostensibly affable, is not entirely trustworthy; Abbie the feisty, spirited underling with lots of guts but so much to learn; Sorokina a wintry Russian beauty of the classical sort. But that said, it all works. Everyone involved has enough about them to make The Englishman an intense and immersive experience.

It helps, of course, that David Gilman writes with such authority. Formerly a creator of historical novels, he’s also an ex-soldier who knows his military procedures, his weapons and combat strategies, while his battle-scenes, most of which are up close and personal in the confined spaces of urban dereliction or the cramped, frozen forests of the Russian taiga, are fast, brutal affairs, in which you feel every gut-thumping impact of bullet striking body, every bone-crunching punch, kick or karate chop. Yes, there are deaths aplenty in The Englishman, so be warned: some of them are protracted and gruesome (Gilman certainly makes you realise what it would take to kill someone hand-to-hand, and what kind of person you’d need to be, and it’s not edifying).

This is a full-on thriller all-round, so even when we aren’t involved in physical confrontation, the pace is unrelenting, a subliminal clock ticking as the good guys race from one vital clue to the next, the tension cranking up constantly through awareness that at any moment our heroes could stray into the crosshairs of a bunch of antagonists who are genuinely among the worst of the worst.

The plot in some ways might not ring true. It’s an incredible assignment that Raglan finishes up undertaking. To call it ‘daunting’ would be an understatement even for the toughest undercover agent. But when it’s as speedy and exhilarating a read as The Englishman, I’m not sure that matters. I should point out, though, that David Gilman is not just an action writer. As a wordsmith in general, his talent is prodigious, his prose descriptive but never fulsome, and easily accessible. He carries you through this huge story with deceptive ease, remaining clear and concise at all times.

It may not be the most original concept, but for those who enjoy their international thrillers, The Englishman is as good as any of the rest and better than most. First-rate fun.

And now my usual folly as I attempt to cast this beast in the event that a film or TV company gets interested and drops me a line to ask my opinion. (Obviously the latter won’t happen, but I’d be surprised if the former doesn’t; this one is made for the big screen).

Dan Raglan – Michael Fassbender
Major Elena Sorokina – Yuliya Snigir
Yegor ‘JD’ Kutznetzov - Danila Kozlovsky
Abash Khalsa – Hazel Keech
Jeremy Carter – Mark Strong
Maguire – Owen Teale
Yefimov – Konstantin Lavronenko

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Mist and terror in the Lowlands. Out now


W
ell, I’m delighted to say that TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS is available RIGHT NOW as either an ebook or a paperback. In other words, it is now published and just waiting for you to go and get it.

This constitutes the 13th volume to date in the TERROR TALES series, and once again it’s been a huge labour of love by all concerned.

I offer my sincerest thanks not just to the writers, who have really gone above and beyond in their efforts to produce some bone-chilling fiction of the Southern Scottish variety, but to my artist friend and colleague, Neil Williams, who yet again has perfectly captured the mood of the anthology with his jacket art, and of course, to TELOS PUBLISHING for producing such a beautiful book.

I’m even more delighted that it’s out in time for Halloween, and I aim to celebrate on today’s blogpost by talking a little bit more about it, and by throwing you a few choice snippets from some of its contents. Before any of that, though, I also intend today to review and discuss another new book that would be an excellent buy for Halloween because it’s ghostly as hell and because, seeing that it’s set in the beautiful Perthshire countryside (not quite the Scottish Lowlands, but very near) it sits nicely in today’s column. That book is Helen Grant’s exceptionally spooky TOO NEAR THE DEAD.

If you’re only here for the Helen Grant review, that’s perfectly fine as always. Just hurry on down to the Thrillers, Chillers section, which, as usual, is located towards the lower end of today’s post.

However, if you’ve got a bit more time on your hands. Why not first check out …

More Terror Tales

I’m not going to say too much about this new one because I assume most people who read this blog will now be very familiar with the TERROR TALES series, the titles it contains, what we’ve been trying to do with it etc. 

Suffice to say that, TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS was always going to be an exciting project. 

I edited TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS way back in 2015, and approached that one with high excitement because the Highlands and Islands, for all kinds of obvious reasons, are a natural environment for spooky stories. I knew we were going to have great fun with it, and we did, none of the writers letting us down.

In comparison, pulling a ghost and horror anthology out of the Scottish Lowlands might superficially have seemed like more of a challenge. But not a bit of it. Okay, it’s gentle rather than grand, it boasts hills rather than mountains, but even some basic research will reveal that, purely in folklore terms, the Lowlands is equally as dramatic a landscape as the Highlands, and historically is as blood-soaked and brutal a realm as you could find anywhere.

This was the place where most of Scotland’s battles with England were fought, but also where civil strife took its bitter course, and where reiver clans raided and feuded. As such, the landscape is studded with castles, towers, gibbets and other relics of war and violence, while the ghosts that haunt it are a veritable who’s who of Scottish notables, everyone from the Black Douglas (beheaded in 1463) to Lord Darnley, husband to Mary, Queen of Scots (strangled in 1567). The Lowlands were also immortalised by a range of poets and rural balladeers, who painted it as lovely but mysterious, spinning vivid tales of witches, warlocks, brownies and selkies. Even the great cities of this region once harboured evil reputations, Edinburgh (or ‘Auld Reekie’), formerly a filthy slum notorious for plague and atrocity, Glasgow renowned for its bad old days of sectarianism and organised crime.

But, enough chit-chat from me. I want you to read the book, after all, not learn all there is to know from today’s blogpost. The main thing is that TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS has now been published, and is available as an ebook or paperback. Just follow the links. If you do, I can confidently predict that you won’t be disappointed.

But just in case you need a little more persuasion, here, as promised, are three short but juicy extracts:

It paused and turned to face me, as if we were playing a dreadful game. I saw the frozen features of a mask. The papier-mache was painted red, with blue and yellow swirls running up and down it. It had huge white eyes with round staring holes to see through, and it must have been a trick of the firelight, because for a second I thought that behind those eyeholes there was real fire …
The Strathantine Imps
Steve Duffy

He tied up all the men of fighting age and made them watch their babies being thrown on the fires that were now raging. His brigands raped the women, the girls, even the young men. The elders were dragged to the anvil and their ankles and knees and elbows were smashed with the smithy’s hammer until they could only crawl like worms …
The Moss-Trooper
MW Craven

Whatever was heading towards them was large. An image rose up in Meg’s mind, one she’d seen in a picture book: a wizened woman with sparse, lanky hair, grey skin and a grin that showed a mouth full of metal teeth …
The Ringlet Stones
Charlotte Bond


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.

TOO NEAR THE DEAD 
by Helen Grant (2021)

Outline
Fenella ‘Fen’ Munro is a freelance copywriter from London. In all ways, a modern, educated, independent-minded woman. Though at the commencement of this short but progressively more frightening novel, we meet her trapped in a truly terrifying nightmare. She thinks she has just woken up, only to find herself dressed in an oppressively old-fashioned wedding gown and immured inside a solid, body-length box, which, as it’s lined with satin, is quite clearly a coffin. When she actually does wake up, and finds herself safely alive in Barr Dubh, her new house in the Perthshire countryside, which she has recently bought with her author fiancé, James Sinclair, she is badly shaken up by the vividness of the dream, but pushes the whole thing to the back of her mind as she has lots of other things to be getting on with.

James is currently in Madrid, on a promotional tour for his latest novel, leaving Fen to do the heavy lifting back at home. She isn’t too concerned. They have only recently moved in, and life is good. Her job, especially now that she’s gone freelance, doesn’t entirely satisfy her, but it was through the publishing business that she first met the handsome, courteous and very talented James, so she has no complaints.

A couple of times while awaiting his return, she thinks she spies someone in a lavender gown walking along the edge of the nearby woodland, but aside from that the house is nicely secluded and the surrounding countryside peaceful and quiet. Fen is at last starting to think that she’s living the dream.

Not that one or two minor clouds don’t soon appear on the horizon.

For example, she makes friends with Seonaid McBryde, who runs the local wedding shop, but then, quite unintentionally, seems to upset the woman by suggesting that she wouldn’t mind a lavender wedding dress. Only by way of terse explanation, does Seonaid reply that lavender is considered an unlucky colour in this part of Scotland. Despite that, Fen thinks it was an over-the-top reaction, though later on she sees the same thing again when a folk band providing live music in a nearby pub are given the cold shoulder by a whole crowd of locals because they dare to sing a song called Lavender Lady.

From here on, odd and discomforting events become more noticeable, slowly souring Fen’s experience of her exciting new home and life.

When James returns from Spain, for instance, even though it is late at night, she thinks she sees someone standing in the garden, watching the house, though when the two of them investigate, there is no one there. Then, Fen’s best friend and former work colleague, Belle, arrives to stay for a few days, and though the threesome get on famously (Belle considering James to be a real catch), the guest soon becomes uncomfortable in the house. Finally, she confesses to Fen that she woke up in the middle of her second night there, and found herself in a completely different building: a much older, gaunter residence with a colder, less friendly atmosphere, and when she tried to walk around it, she got lost among its countless shabby rooms and passages, only to then hear someone hammering relentlessly on the front door, demanding to be admitted with what sounded like real and even dangerous anger.

Fen tries to dismiss this as another bad dream, but Belle, who claims to have a sensitivity to these things, insists that there’s something wrong with Barr Dubh … if not the house itself, the ground it is built upon.

Once Belle has returned to London, Fen, disappointed by her friend’s reaction, continues to have nightmares of her own. On one occasion, very distressingly, it’s a pair of unsmiling men trying to manhandle her paralysed body into a coffin; on another, two Victorian-era domestic staff, who discover her corpse as she lies dead in a bed and a bedroom that are not her own.

James, who’s writing another book, is understanding though not as helpful as he might be. And now we learn that Fen’s own past is not as trauma-free as her initial appearance might suggest. She’s hidden it well from almost everyone who knows her, but Fen had a very dysfunctional childhood in the home of two brutally strict parents, the memories of which haunt her deeply. So, the obvious next concern is whether the nightmares could be products of her own disturbed imagination?

However, Fen then meets a local historian, who doesn’t know anything about Barr Dubh, which is a relatively new house, but wonders if it occupies the same spot as Barr Buidhe, a much older, much more Gothic building, which was so thoroughly demolished that not a scrap of it remains today … except, supposedly, for a ruined chapel and overgrown graveyard, both of which may still exist in an untended corner of the grounds. Despite the two of them striking up a rapport, even this pleasant individual makes a quick exit when Fen enquires why the colour lavender seems to have evil connotations in this neighbourhood, though not without offering a brief explanation that in these parts it’s regarded as the colour of mourning.

Increasingly uneasy about the house she’s moved to (because her nightmares are not just getting worse, they seem incredibly real, almost as if she is peering into actual history, and on more and more occasions she suspects that someone – or something – is lurking outside at night), Fen becomes strangely convinced that if she can prove Barr Dubh occupies the same site as the much older structure, some answers will be provided.

But that may mean exploring the encircling woods to see if the ruined chapel and graveyard are still standing. Specifically, she now realises, the part of the woods where on her first few days here, she sighted that mysterious figure in lavender …

Review
Helen Grant is another of those well-kept secrets when it comes to ghostly fiction. With a thoroughly deserved reputation as an award-winning author of children’s and YA mysteries – The Glass Demon, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden and Silent Saturday, to name several – the ghost stories she aims at the adult market are perhaps less well-known, primarily because they have mostly been shorter than novel-length and largely published by the independent press.

However, all that may shortly change.

Grant’s supernatural horror novel, Ghost, which was written squarely for mature readers, won considerable acclaim in 2018, not just for its scares but for its believable multi-layered characters and the depth and complexity of their relationship. And now it looks as though Grant has done it again, only this time even more forcefully, with her second full-length novel for the adult market, Too Near the Dead, which yet again pits ordinary but troubled people against forces from beyond that are anything but benign.

That’s probably the thing that strikes you first about Too Near the Dead: there is a real flavour of MR James. Though few of the obvious ‘Jamesian’ tropes are present (there are no learned clergymen here!), Grant demonstrates real literary skill in conjuring an atmosphere of utter dread and the threat of something truly terrible lurking just beyond our perception, and in ways so subtle that you don’t notice them at the time. Okay, the nightmare sequences I’ve referred to in the outline above are gut-thumpingly scary, but they are only nightmares. It’s through the waking experiences of Fen Munro, as she tries to go about her lovely new life and yet, drip by drip, disturbing weirdness intrudes, that we increasingly sense the approaching horror.

Such is the skill with which this is pulled off that you are well into the book, totally engrossed, before you’ve really noticed it.

It helps, of course, that Too Near the Dead is a mystery as well as a traditional ghost story. That’s another Jamesian box ticked, our brave but isolated protagonist increasingly seeking to answer questions from long ago, certain this will be the only way to save herself, but suspecting that there will be more and more of a price to pay for such intrusive enquiry. And all of this only intensifies the book’s pace, the pages flying by as the intrigued reader rushes on, determined to learn as much as possible.

While all this may sound as though it’s a tale exclusively in the vein of past masters of the genre (I’ve already mentioned MR James, but there are hints of Wakefield, Le Fanu and others too), the setting is Britain (and Scotland specifically) in the 2020s. Our main characters are London sophisticates, but the locals they encounter are not bumpkins. Yes, there is a degree of superstition in the area, particularly around the colour lavender, but overall the occupants of the district are modern enough to be embarrassed about this and not to want to talk about it.

On top of that, subtlety remains the order of play. Fen’s initial enquiries into the history of Barr Dubh and whatever building was there before it, do not immediately uncover horrific historical detail. In Too Near the Dead, the distant past is buried and forgotten. Barr Dubh itself is a new-build with no skeletons in any of its own cupboards. It’s distinctly not the case that local taxis won’t drive there after dusk, or anything so melodramatic. In this respect, Too Near the Dead is neatly separated from the main body of the new wave of powerfully-written ‘Gothic romance,’ which is usually set in Victorian or Edwardian times and often has much to do with lunatic asylums and locked upper rooms.

But for all that, one of the most potent aspects of Helen Grant’s new novel is its grasp on the emotional pain of its characters. Even in her shorter fiction, the author rarely gives us tales in which individuals have suffered unfeasible torments in their lives. She mostly writes about real people with everyday hang-ups, though hang-ups that nevertheless are a source of ongoing anguish. And Too Near the Dead is no exception. We don’t learn anything very quickly about Fenella Munro’s early life; it’s almost as though she’s overcome it, put it out of her mind. But gradually, as the narrative unfolds, we start to realise that it’s still there to an extent, a period of teenage suffering, which, while it’s no longer so acute that it bothers her minute-by-minute, manifests itself strongly (if indefinably) when she starts to have doubts about husband James’s private affairs, and therefore subconsciously about the entire viability of her too-good-to-be-true new life.

For me, it’s this psychological subtext that really elevates Too Near the Dead. You could even go as far as to say that the real antagonist in this novel is not so much a revenant from the tragic past but Fen’s desperate fear that, ultimately, happiness will never be hers (a metaphor which the revenant nicely underlines at the book’s big climax)

Superficially a classy chiller of the old school, Too Near the Dead is actually a clever and very contemporary story, dealing with non-extraordinary people, who, despite their work-a-day exteriors, are just as likely to be trapped in the throes of personal hauntings as any of their more visibly harrowed fictional counterparts. Add the lush but succinct descriptive work, Helen Grant completely capturing the green hills, quiet glens and verdant woods of the lower Highlands, and you have an exceptional piece of writing that works on every level.

And now, yet again, I’m going to cast this beast. I’d love to see it adapted for the screen, perhaps in the Ghost Story for Christmas slot. But until that happens, you’re going to have to rely on your (and Helen Grant’s) imagination. Here are the actors I would choose.

Fen – Michelle Ryan
James – Matt Smith 
Belle – Rebecca Hall

Friday, 10 September 2021

Terror descends on the Scottish Lowlands

Okay, so what do we all think about this?

And don’t bother putting your answers on a postcard. As you probably realise, TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS is the latest installment in the TERROR TALES series, and one I’ve been particularly excited about for quite some time for reasons that I’ll go into below … along with the table of contents of course, the back-cover blurb and anything else necessary to send you straight to the TELOS website, where the book, which will be published on October 22 this year, is already AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER.

On a not dissimilar subject today – i.e. rural ghost stories, folk horror and tales of dread drawn from all corners of this sceptred isle – I’ll be offering a detailed review and discussion of GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND, Vol 1 in the hugely popular anthology series, GREAT BRITISH HORROR, as edited by Steve J Shaw.


If you’re only here for the GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND chit-chat, by all means shoot down to the lower end of today’s blogpost and the Thrillers, Chillers section, where I post all my book reviews. On this occasion, though, I recommend you stick around a little while at least. If you’re not familiar with the TERROR TALES books but you enjoy GREAT BRITISH HORROR … well, I mean, come on! How different in tone do you think they’re really going to be?

Still here?

Okay, cool. Let’s get on with …


The TERROR TALES series has been running since 2011, as many of you are hopefully aware. For those who aren’t, we publish annually, each year featuring a different corner of the British Isles and mining it thoroughly both for horror fiction and horror non-fiction, the ‘true’ anecdotes always interspersing with the stories, one or two of which will usually be lesser-know classics, though the vast majority are original works by some of the best names in the business.

If you don’t believe that latter boast, just check out the back-cover blurb and the Table of Contents below:

The Scottish Lowlands. Gentle hills, dreamy woods, romantic ballads, heroic songs. But dark castles tell tales of torture and woe, of reiver cruelty and the madness of kings. While the shades of slain armies still battle in the mist, witch-hunters ride and the bone-fires blaze ...

The Moss-Trooper by MW Craven
Bastions of Dread
The Strathantine Imps by Steve Duffy
Spirits of Palace and Tomb
Gie Me Something ta Eat Afore I Dee by John Alfred Taylor
Glasgow’s Dancing Corpse
Land of the Foreigner by Tracy Fahey
The Bloodiest of Ends
Proud Lady in a Cage by Fred Urquhart
The Ghost Road
Drumglass Chapel by Reggie Oliver
The Devil in the Dark City
Two Shakes of a Dead Lamb’s Tail by Anna Taborksa
I’ll Be in Scotland Before You
The Ringlet Stones by Charlotte Bond
The Real Mr Hyde
Coulter’s Candy by Johnny Mains
Dishes Served Cold
Echoes from the Past by Graham Smith
The Murder Dolls
Herders by Willie Meikle
The Vampire of Annandale
Birds of Prey by SJI Holliday
The Selkirk Undead
The Clearance by Paul M. Feeney
The Overtoun Bridge Mystery
The Fourth Presence by SA Rennie

The Lowlands of Scotland was always going to be an exciting call, because it ticks so many of the Terror Tales boxes. 

Though you might, on first thinking about it, assume that the Scottish Highlands would be the more dramatic backdrop for a collection of chilling tales, and indeed we did TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS back in 2015, you have to remember that while the Highlands is undoubtedly wreathed in Celtic folklore, the Lowlands were much more embroiled in the brutal mainstream politics of the British Isles.

Thus, more slaughters and other atrocities took place there, and not just as the Scots saw off foreign invaders like the Romans, the Norse and the English, but because there were civil wars as well. If you’ve never heard about the Covenanters, or the Jacobites, or if you thought the English Civil War was confined only to England, well you should find this volume informative as well as entertaining. Some of the region’s darkest, bloodiest days stemmed from brother turning upon brother.

That said, with so many pitiless massacres in its past, the Lowlands’ ghost lore is absolutely rife. You can parachute into Southern Scotland just about anywhere, onto the roof of a castle or church, an open stretch of moor, a defensive wall, a tower, even on top of a tenement in Glasgow or a terraced house in the old West Bow district of Edinburgh, and you’ll disturb its dead occupants as surely as those that are living. Likewise, tales of diabolism run rampant throughout the region’s mythology. This too was a realm where witchcraft was both practised and persecuted, while the sprites and goblins associated with the braes and cairns of this strange and lovely land were almost unique in their wickedness.

And when it comes to evil beings, we aren’t just discussing those of the supernatural variety. From Bluidy Mackenzie to Bible John, the Scottish Lowlands has produced an array of fiendish villains, real-life bogeymen, the mere mention of whose names casts long and eerie shadows.

Many of them will appear here, in this book, in one form or another. But that’s enough from me for now. If you really want do drill deep into TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS, you know what you need to do.

As I say, it’s out on October 22, and available for pre-order on the TELOS PUBLISHING website right 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 … 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.


GREAT BRITISH HORROR 1: GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND
edited by Steve J Shaw (2016)

Black Shuck Books is one of the most exciting publishers of homegrown horror to have emerged onto the British scene in the last few years. The Great British Horror series is only one of several that owner, publisher and senior commissioning editor, Steve J Shaw, currently has underway, but it’s already proving to be hugely productive. Five titles have been launched under the banner to date in both paperback and hardback, and this one, Green and Pleasant Land, was the first.

Before digging into it story by story, let’s allow the publishers themselves to make an introduction. Here is the back cover blurb:

Great British Horror 1 is the first in an annual series showcasing the best in modern British horror. Every year, the series will feature ten British authors, plus one international guest contributor, telling tales of this sceptred isle.

The 2016 edition, Green and Pleasant Land, features eleven original stories of small town, rural and folk horror from eleven authors at the very top of their game.

I suppose it’s easily possible these days to conflate folk-horror fiction with all things British. Okay, people still dispute what actually constitutes folk-horror, even now, a decade after it suddenly reappeared and elbowed out some space for itself in what was already a much pigeon-holed market. But if you consider that in its most basic sense, it involves witchcraft, remote rural locations, stone circles and ancient cults, you won’t go far wrong.

After all, the three horror movies (all British of course) that celeb horror aficionado Mark Gatiss originally nominated as the unholy trinity from which folk-horror was born – Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man – are all exactly that. But, judging from his editorial decisions on show here, Black Shuck head honcho, Steve J Shaw, might give you an argument that traditional British horror isn’t solely drawn from folklore, and in fact that the ‘British horror’ label could also be attached to several other very identifiable subgenres.


Traditional ghost stories, for example, are still a staple of it, and have been for a long time. MR James, EF Benson and even Charles Dickens got out into the British back-country and told chilling supernatural tales decades before the term folk-horror was coined. Visionaries like Arthur Machen added strangeness to the mix. In later years, the 1960s and 1970s, the Pan Horror anthologies became notorious for the violence and sleaziness of their stories, many of which focussed on madness and murder rather than ghosts and goblins but invariably took place in mundane and yet recognisably British locations.

Around the same time, the Amicus portmanteau movies, while drawing so much inspiration (and sometimes a whole lot more) from American horror comics, were almost entirely located in the UK and thoroughly flavoured by British culture. On top of that, this was the age of Hammer, who, though they set almost everything they did in the past and in semi-mythical central European locations, produced the majority of their films on the same sets in and around Bray Studios in Berkshire, using familiar all-British casts, and could not have been more British in tone.

All of these influences, and others, are on show in the Great British Horror series, though perhaps it was always going to be inevitable that Volume 1, Green and Pleasant Land, in which the emphasis lies on the British countryside, was going to lean most strongly towards folklore.

Like all the other volumes that would follow in this series (to date), Green and Pleasant Land contains eleven stories, ten written by British authors, one extra contribution sourced from overseas.

The folk-horror stories themselves are an eclectic mix.

For example, very traditionally, in Rich Hawkins’s Meat for the Field, a young man tortured by guilt decides that he can no longer stand the human sacrifices committed by the cult that dominates his poor rural village, and resolves to do something about it. It’s an interesting twist on the secretive village witchcraft tale that we’ve become so used to on film and TV in that it’s an insider confronting the evil rather than an outsider, but all the comforting tropes are there.

In contrast, VE Leslie’s Hermaness has a gentler tone, but leans towards the psychological. It focusses on a young couple who, despite their crumbling relationship, go on holiday to Shetland. While there, Brian dismisses Nell’s knowledge of the local seabirds and her fascination for the mythology of the region, showing much more interest in a sexy American tourist. And then the mysterious fog comes down …

There are even darker forces at work in the three other folk-horror contributions.

Ray Cluley’s The Castellmarch Man takes us on a round-trip of ancient sites, many of them in Wales, and delves deeply into Arthurian legend, but as this is the strongest story in the collection in my opinion, I’ll save the synopsis for this one until later; just trust me, it’s ultra-creepy. Another powerful folk-tale is AK Benedict’s Misericord, in which an academic and her fiancé visit a marshland church, which for centuries has somehow withstood the local floodwaters. According to the vicar, this is down to the power of prayer. But could it be something else?

But perhaps the most folk-horrorish (is there such a phrase?) story here is Jasper Bark’s complex but compelling Scottish Highlands novella, Quiet Places. There are many ideas and concepts wrapped up in this one, so it’s no surprise that it runs to 70 plus pages (I understand that a new, revised and lengthier version has since been released as a stand-alone), but none of them are wasted. More about this one later too.

But as I said, Green and Pleasant Land doesn’t lurk solely in the realms of folk-horror.

We get more than a dollop of Machenesque weirdness (with some extra nasty stuff added) from Laura Mauro in Strange as Angels, though this is another strong entry, so I’ll be talking a little more about this one later too, while the aforementioned Pan Horror series would not have turned its nose up at Adam Millard’s sad and ultimately horrifying She Waits on the Upland (more about this one later as well), or David Moody’s Ostrich, in which a pleasant country cottage becomes a prison when it dawns on a middle-aged housewife that all her controlling husband wants her to do is keep the place spick and span. Inevitably, she soon reaches breaking point …

Less pulpy in tone and in some ways more relevant to the here and now – this one certainly enshrines the darker side of England’s green and pleasant land! – the ever-reliable James Everington hits us with A Glimpse of Red, the story of a foreign woman living in Britain under Witness Protection, but going slowly mad on the streets of an English market town that seems hopelessly alien to her.

Less ‘real world’ and in fact a whole lot more bizarre, we should also mention two unearthly tales that simply take possession of the word ‘horror’ and run with it like mad.

In Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Mr Denning Sings, we centre on an eager churchgoer, who loves singing hymns during services at his local country church. But one week, the celebration is repeatedly disrupted by an ugly coughing sound, which no one else in the congregation seems to hear, though that doesn’t stop the hideous entity causing it to finally materialise. Even eerier, we have Blue Eyes by Barbie Wilde, in which a homeless alcoholic discovers the corpse of a beautiful woman in the woods, and returns to it repeatedly to use it as his personal sex toy. But how dead is this woman? And is she even a woman?

All round, Green and Pleasant Land is an excellent start to the Great British Horror series. As I say, it’s a diverse but entertaining mix of dark fiction, richly flavoursome of the British countryside but not hidebound by the more typical conventions of ‘rural horror’. More important still (to me at least), all the stories selected are of the highest quality, expertly written and paced, and in many cases, deeply unsettling. It gets my strongest recommendation.

And now …

GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND – the movie

I doubt that any film maker has optioned this book yet, or even that it’s ever likely to happen, but as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my opinions just in case some major player decides to put it on the screen.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a portmanteau horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. 

Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to either relate spooky stories or listen to them. An eerie village pub might suffice in this case, or a bus stop out on lonely moorland, or even an endlessly winding woodland path as a bunch of progressively less-cheery hillwalkers tramp sturdily along it.

Without further waffle, here are the stories and the (very expensive) casts I would choose:

The Castellmarch Man (by Ray Cluley): Charley and Lynsey enjoy ‘geo-caching’ around the UK, visiting ancient or sacred sites and leaving evidence of their visits in specially provided boxes. On a trip to rural Wales, however, they meet the mysterious and scary ‘Castellmarch Man’, and their lives will never be the same again … 

Charley – Andrew Scott
Lynsey – Jodie Turner-Smith

He Waits on the Upland (by Adam Millard): Embittered old farmer, Graham, is struggling on many fronts. His wife, Jenny, is slowly succumbing to dementia, and he is convinced that his rude and coarse neighbour’s pack of dangerous dogs are damaging his sheep. One night, he decides to take firm action …

Graham – Brian Cox
Jenny – Gemma Jones

Strange as Angels (by Laura Mauro): Two recovering drug addicts discover a small winged creature, which they christen an ‘angel’. They feed it meat and it grows, but when Frankie, the girl, starts to become overly fond of it, Jimmy, the boy, is increasingly jealous …

Frankie – Anya Taylor-Joy
Jimmy – Jack O‘Connell

Quiet Places (by Jasper Bark): A mysterious feline beast stalks a remote community in the Scottish Highlands, holding the local laird, David, enthralled by its mere presence. But his spirited lover, Sally, is determined to free him whatever it takes, despite the warnings of local librarian, Jane…

Sally – Natalie Dormer
David – David Tennant
Jane – Kelly Macdonald

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Dark days ahead, and dark anthologies too

Okay, it’s that time of year again. September is already getting on, and the mist and mellow fruitfulness of the autumn has arrived. That means it’s time for some dark and eerie stories.

Come off it, I hear you say. It’s always time for dark and eerie stories on this blog.

Well yes, that’s true. But it’s even more the case in the waning of the year, with the longer nights, mistier mornings and the fast approach of our favourite ghostly festivals, Halloween and Christmas. Mustn’t get carried away, of course … most of us are probably still nursing sunburn from the hot days of July, but today’s blog is all about preparation for the dark time, and the deluge of brand new spooky ANTHOLOGIES that are about to descend on you and make it even darker.

Yes, indeed. Today we’re going to be talking about a whole glut of forthcoming collections of terrifying tales that should easily see you through this autumn and winter.

In addition to that, because we’re looking specifically at short stories this week, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Steve Duffy’s latest incredible book of short fiction, FINDING YOURSELF IN THE DARK. If you’re only here for the Duffy chatter, you’ll find it in the usual place: the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s blogpost.


However, if you’re a keen follower of short scary from a variety of sources, then check out …

DARK FICTION FOR DARK SEASONS
Forthcoming Anthologies for this autumn and winter

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I’m very happy to announce that TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS, volume 14 in my round-Britain folk horror anthology series, has now been accepted by those spiffing chaps at TELOS, and they’ll be looking to publish it this October. But some minor things are still in the works, so there is no guarantee of that date yet. Keep watching this space for updates, artwork, tables of contents, blurbs, excerpts, and of course ordering details.

And now let’s get onto today’s business.

Roughly in publication order, here are 15 of the most exciting-looking dark fiction anthologies due for publication between now and next February.

GREAT BRITISH HORROR 6: ARS GRATIA SANGUIS
Edited by Steve J Shaw
(Out Now)


The high quality Brit horror series continues in the capable hands of editor Steve J Shaw, this time focused on the UK arts scene, which will never have been as dark and twisted as this.

Untitled (Cloud of Blood) – Brian Evenson
From Life – Muriel Gray
Having a Benny – Sarah Lotz
Our Lady of Flies – Teika Marija Smits
Everybody’s Always Losing Somebody – Sean Hogan
Sibyl – Lisa Tuttle
The Acolyte’s Triptych – Steve Duffy
The Field Has Eyes, the Wood Has Ears – Helen Grant
The Redeemers – Andrew Hook
Blind Man’s Buff – Lucie McKnight Hardy
The Waiting Room – Stephen Volk

RAILROAD TALES
Edited by Trevor Denyer
(Out Now)


Long-serving horror and spec fiction editor, Trevor Denyer, takes to the railways in his latest exploration of the dark shadows that lurk behind those deceptively ordinary icons of what appear to be our everyday lives.

The Tracks Through the Forest – John Kiste
Awaydays – Allen Ashley
The Hoosac Tunnel Legacy – Norm Vigeant
Railway Mutton Curry – Nidheesh Samant
The Number Nine – James E Coplin
Ghost Walker – Andrew Darlington
Sparrow’s Flight – Nancy Brewka-Clark
Harberry Close – CM Saunders
Geisterbahnhof – Saroise Ni Chiaragain
The Anniversary – David Penn
Across the Vale – Catherine Pugh
Where the Train Stops – Susan York
The Nibbler – Gayle Fiddler
Short Platform – Gary Couzens
Wilshire Station – Caitlin Marceau
And You Heard the Rattling Death Train – Simon Bestwick
Not All Trains Crash – Steven Pirie
Ballyshannon Junction – Jim Mountfield
Caboose – Andrew Hook
The Tracks – Michael Gore
The Devil Rides the Night Train – Curtis James McConnell
The Pier Station – George Jacobs
The Samovar – AJ Lewis

OUT OF THE DARKNESS
Edited by Dan Coxon
(Due for publication on September 16)


Dan Coxon joins forces with Together for Mental Wellbeing and a host of quality authors to challenge our worst fears through the medium of horror fiction. As Dan himself says, we must understand our demons to overcome them.

Nocturia – Nicholas Royle
The Note – Jenn Ashworth
Lonely Souls in Quiet Houses – Laura Mauro
Seabound – Alison Moore
Goodbye, Jonathan Tumbledown – Tim Major
The Chorus – Aliya Whiteley
Meet on the Edge – Gareth E. Rees
The Forlorn Hope – Verity Holloway
Oblio – Richard V. Hirst
Still She Visits – Eugen Bacon
Bloodybones Jones – Sam Thompson
Flotsam and Jetsam – Malcolm Devlin
The Lightness of their Hearts – Georgina Bruce
The Residential – Gary Budden
Replacement Bus Service – Ashley Stokes
Temple – Anna Vaught
The Hungry Dark – Simon Bestwick

DAGGERS DRAWN
Edited by Maxim Jakubowski
(Due for publication on September 21)


One of crime fiction’s most knowledgeable editors and authors, Maxim Jakubowski, gets together 19 of the Crime Writers Association’s scariest and most intense Dagger Award-winning short stories in one unforgettable must-have volume.

Swift 98 - Peter O'Donnell
Some Sunny Day – Julian Rathbone
Funny Story – Larry Beinhart
Herbert in Motion – Ian Rankin
Roots – Jerry Sykes
Martha Grace – Stella Duffy
The Weekender – Jeffery Deaver
Needle Match – Peter Lovesey
The Bookbinder’s Apprentice – Martin Edwards
Homework – Phil Lovesey
Laptop – Cath Staincliffe
The Message – Margaret Murphy
Fedora – John Harvey
Apocrypha – Richard Lange
On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier – John Connolly
The Trials of Margaret – LC Tyler
Nemo Me Impune Lacessit – Denise Mina
The Dummies’ Guide to Serial Killing – Danuta Kot
@Me Too – Lauren Henderson

WHEN THINGS GET DARK
Edited by Ellen Datlow
(Due for publication on September 21)


American mistress of horror, Ellen Datlow, summons top class authors to channel the spirit of Shirley Jackson in a brand new volume of completely original tales.

Funeral Birds – M Rickert
For Sale by Owner – Elizabeth Hand
In the Deep Woods; The Light is Different There - Seanan McGuire
A Hundred Miles and a Mile – Carmen Maria Machado
Quiet Dead things – Cassandra Khaw
Something Like Living Creatures – John Langan
Money of the Dead – Karen Heuler
Hag – Benjjamin Percy
Take Me, I am Free – Joyce Carol Oates
A Trip to Paris – Richard Kadrey
The Party – Paul Tremblay
Refinery Road – Stephen Graham Jones
The Door in the Fence – Jeffrey Ford
Pear of Anguish – Gemma Files
Special Meal – Josh Malerman
Sooner or Later, Your Wife Will Drive You Home – Genevieve Valentine
Tiptoe – Laird Barron
Skindler’s Veil – Kelly Link

DECEMBER TALES
Edited by JD Horn
(Due for publication on September 28)


Terrifying ghost stories have long been an essential ingredient of the Christmas festivities. JD Horn gathers a whole host of them here, both old and new, to chill your bones in time for the season of frost.

Grey Glass – Reggie Oliver
Whessoe – Nugent Barker
Cold Reflections – Sybil Ward
The White and the Black – Erckmann-Chatrian
Jetty Sara – Glen Hirshberg
Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad – MR James
Ours – PJ Manney
The Queen of Spades – Alexander Pushkin
A Plague on the House – Lisa Morton
The Doll’s House – F Marion Crawford
The Shadow of the Dream – J Lincoln Fenn
The Old Nurse’s Story – Elizabeth Gaskell
Two Alices – Kate Maruyama
Aunt Joanna – Sabine Baring-Gould
A Blacksmith’s Gift – Eddie Generous
The Spectral Rout – Frances Power Cobbe
Fairytale of New York – Tonya Hurley
The Red Room – HG Wells
Epiphany – Nicole D Sconiers
Vera – Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam
Incident at the Red Hawk Road Stop – Eric J Guignard
Above the World – Ramsey Campbell
Last Night at the Dairy Bar – Tod Goldberg

GRUESOME GROTESQUES Vol 6: CARNIVAL OF FREAKS
Edited by Trevor Kennedy
(Due for publication on October 4)


The latest, much-awaited volume in the amazing, ultra-pulpy horror series, Gruesome Grotesques, from top DJ and tireless horror fan and editor, Trevor Kennedy.

Welcome to Circus Americana – Abdul Qaadir Taariq Bakari-Muhammad
Freakshow, A Show for Freaks – Adrian Baldwin
Sweet Susie Webb – Allison Weir
Nanosophobia: The Fear of Clowns – AP Sessler
The Uncanny Valet – Julianna Ocean
It Found Me – Belle Taine
Gone Fishing – Carl Redding
The Hidden Carnivale – Con Connolly
Black Candle Spell – Con Connolly
Three Eyed Jack – David Riley
Eye Attack – David L Tamarin
Dreams of Fertility – David L Tamarin
A Letter from a Lunatic – Dean M Drinkel
The Lost Smile – DT Langdale
Hello Sailor – EF Hay
Wish You Were Here – Henry Myllyla
Don’t F**k with Mr Weasles – HR Boldwood
Smack the Baby – Johnny Mains
Shoot All the Clowns – Kasey Hill
Dickless in Seattle – Kasey Hill
The Incredible Mr Maisers – Lyedson Enrique
Mark Mackey – Elizabeth Thornhill
Hall of Dreams – Mike Chinn
The Octo-Man – Randy Broecker
Closing Night – Raven Dane
Lady Charade – Rick Mohl
The Canned Tuna (A Fantastic Fish Tale) – Rob Thomas
Night of the Wereclowns – Russell Holbrook
The Crookback King – Aveto Manev
The Ringmaster – Ty Schwamberger

CRIMINAL PURSUITS
Edited by Samantha Lee Howe
(Due for publication on October 10)

In support of human rights charity, POhWER, top crime and thriller writer, Samantha Lee Howe, pulls together a bunch of stories from some of the classiest names in the business to prove that murderous mayhem is not a pastime reserved for the present.

Changeling
– Bryony Pearce
Flesh of a Fancy Woman – Paul Magrs
Dangerous Women – Sandra Murphy
Travellers – Maxim Jakubowski
Nights on the Town – Sally Spedding
Blindsided – Caroline England
The Victim – Awais Khan
The Way of All Flesh – Raven Dane
And Here’s the Next Clue – Amy Myers
The Trap – AA Chaudhuri
The Caveman Detective – Rhys Hughes
Faceless Killer – Christine Poulson
Slash – Samantha Lee Howe
The Good Neighbourhood – Paul Finch

THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF FOLK HORROR
Edited by Stephen Jones
(Due for publication on October 14)

Stephen Jones, one of the world’s most successful and respected horror anthology editors, meets folk horror, the genre’s current most popular craze. Seriously … what more could you ask for?

The White People
– Arthur Machen
Jenny Greenteeth – Alison Littlewood
All I Ever See – Mike Chinn
Wailing Well – MR James
The Offering – Michael Marshall Smith
St Ambrew’s Well – David A. Sutton
Sticks – Karl Edward Wagner
Gravedirt Mouth – Maura McHugh
Gavin’s Field – Steve Rasnic Tem
The Hound – HP Lovecraft
The King of Stones – Simon Strantzas
The Devil’s Piss Pot – Jan Edwards
The Mistake at the Monsoon Palace – Chris Fowler
Wyfa Medj – Storm Constantine
The Dark Country – Dennis Etchison
Ancient Lights – Algernon Blackwood
Porson’s Piece – Reggie Oliver
The Fourth Call – Ramsey Campbell
The Gypsies in the Wood – Kim Newman

BEYOND THE VEIL
Edited by Mark Morris
(Due for publication on October 19)


With a horror pedigree spanning decades, Mark Morris edits his second horror anthology for Flametree Press, again calling on a host of world-class talent to produce brand new tales of terror.

The God Bag
– Christopher Golden
Caker’s Man – Matthew Holness
The Beechfield Miracles – Priya Sharma
Clockwork – Dan Coxon
Soapstone – Aliya Whiteley
The Dark Bit – Toby Litt
Provenance Pond – Josh Malerman
For All the Dead – Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten
The Girl in the Pool – Bracken MacLeod
Nurse Varden – Jeremy Dyson
If, Then – Lisa L. Hannett
Aquarium Ward – Karter Mycroft
A Mystery for Julie Chu – Stephen Gallagher
Away Day – Lisa Tuttle
Polaroid and Seaweed – Peter Harness
Der Geisterbahnohof – Lynda E. Rucker
Arnie’s Ashes – John Everson
A Brief Tour of the Night – Nathan Ballingrud
The Care and Feeding of Household Gods – Frank J. Oreto
Yellowback – Gemma Files

ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS 3
Edited by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards
(Due for publication on October 29)


Indefatigable Alchemy Press crack on with their ever popular horror anthology series, in Volume 3 focusing on the subgenre of monsters.

Build Your Own Monster!!! Guaranteed to Scare the Whole Family!!!
— Bryn Fortey and Johnny Mains
The Head — Garry Kilworth
Inappetence — Steve Rasnic Tem
Songs in the Dark — Jenny Barber
The Beast of Bathwick — Sarah Ash
Cuckoo Flower — Tom Johnstone
A Song for Christmas — Ashe Woodward
Dream a Little Dream of Me and My Shadow — Adrian Cole
Memories of Clover — KT Wagner
Sun, Sand, Stone — Marion Pitman
Redwater — Simon Bestwick
Dreamcatcher — Pauline E Dungate
The Daughters — Tim Jeffreys
Black Spots — John Llewellyn Probert
Echoes of Days Passed — Mike Chinn
What the Snow Brings — Ralph Robert Moore

TALES WITH A STING: STORIES FROM ‘THE SKETCH’
Edited by Johnny Mains
(Due for publication on October 31)


Author and editor Johnny Mains is fast becoming the go-to guy for forgotten dark fiction. Here, he brings our attention to some of the true treasures contained in The Sketch magazine, ‘a journal of art and actuality’, which ran from 1893 until 1959!

His Wife
– Christine Castle
A Story with a Week Ending – Captain FRH Greenbank
As Luck Would Have It – E Winch
Taking the Veil – Katherine Mansfield
An Awkward Corner – Beatrice Heron-Maxwell
Eve and the Serpent – A Whatoff Allen
The Ring – Cyrus Brooks
The Waiting-Room – Winifred Duke
A Night’s Adventure – ‘Tanjong’
A Chapter of Them – W Douglas Newton
The Horoscope – Olga A Rosmanith
Plot by Mr Herringshaw – Norah Cotterill
Mr Hazeltip’s Villa – RC Cole
Fighter Pilots Shouldn’t Dream – ‘Wing Slip’
Recognition – St Vincent Troubridge
Lost Eden – Katherin Hortin
I Am Hanged! – Basil MacDonald Hastings
The Face – William Freeman
Panic – Winifred Agar

BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR: Vol 13
Edited by Ellen Datlow
(Due for publication on December 23)


One of the few annual ‘best of’ round-ups still on the market. Editor Ellen Datlow reads every single scrap of original short horror fiction so that you don’t have to, and here presents the absolute pick of the crop.

Exhalation #10
— AC Wise
A Hotel in Germany — Catriona Ward
A Deed Without a Name — Jack Lothian
Lords of the Matinee — Stephen Graham Jones
Cleaver, Meat, and Block — Maria Haskins
The Eight-Thousanders — Jason Sanford
Scold’s Bridle: A Cruelty – Richard Gavin
Come Closer — Gemma Files
It Doesn’t Feel Right — Michael Marshall Smith
Mine Seven — Elana Gomel
Sicko — Stephen Volk
Mouselode Maze — Christopher Harman
Heath Crawler — Sam Hicks
The Devil Will Be at the Door — David Surface
Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking — Tom Johnstone
Scream Queen — Nathan Ballingrud
We Do Like to Be Beside — Peter W Sutton
Contrition (1998) — JAW. McCarthy
Tethered Dogs — Gary McMahon
Bloody Rhapsody — Alessandro Manzetti
In the English Rain — Steve Duffy
A Treat For Your Last Day — Simon Bestwick
Trick of the Light — Andrew Humphrey
Two Truths and a Lie — Sarah Pinsker
The Whisper of Stars — Thana Niveau

BEST NEW HORROR Vol 31
Edited by Stephen Jones
(Due for publication late December-ish)

Steve Jones brings us his very last round-up of the year’s best horror stories, as the legendary and long-running series finally comes to an end. A sad day for sure, but you can guarantee that Mr Jones and his team will be determined to go out with another bang. This is another must-buy.

Zombie-ish – Scott Bradfield
Wake the Dead – Maura McHugh
Mercy Brown – Caitlín R. Kiernan
Mama Bruise – Jonathan Carroll
The Same As the Air – Alison Littlewood
Getting Through – Ramsey Campbell
The Children of Medea – Stephen Bacon
The Water of Dhu’l Nun – Don Webb
Under the Frenzy of the Fourteenth Moon – Ron Weighell
The Promise of Saints – Angela Slatter
Crawlspace Oracle – Richard Gavin
Downriver – Michael Chislett
Death in All Its Ripeness – Mark Samuels
Shrapnel – Richard Christian Matheson
Precipice – Dale Bailey
Antripuu – Simon Strantzas
A Crown of Leaves – Kristi DeMeester
A Stay at the Shores – Steve Rasnic Tem
The Old Man of the Woods – Reggie Oliver
Iron City – Tanith Lee
Slough – Glen Hirshberg
A Species of the Dead – D.P. Watt
The Burning Woods – Michael Marshall Smith

VALANCOURT BOOK OF WORLD HORROR STORIES: Vol 2
Edited by James D Jenkins and Ryan Cagle
(Due for publication on February 22)


Valancourt Books are currently rocking the horror world in all sorts of ways, not least with their short fiction series, Valancourt Book of World Horror. Vol 1 was a huge success; Vol 2 is likely to follow that same path.

The Nature of Love
– Luciano Lamberti
Train of Consequences – Roberto Causo
Screamer – Braulio Tavares
The Recording of the Will – Yavor Tsanev
Whitebone Spirit – Zhang Yueran
The Wonders of the Invisible World – Teddy Vork
The Grain Dryer of Tammõküla – Indrek Hargla
Dreams of Ash – Mélanie Fazi
Firstborn – Konstantinos Kellis
Lucky Night – Gary Victor
The Bell – Steinar Bragi
Shelter from the Storm – Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
The Pallid Eidolon – Stephan Friedman
The Old Wound and the Sun – Yasumi Tsuhara
The Ant – Anton Grasso
Owolabi Olowolagba – Dare Segun Falowo
The War – Wojciech Gunia
Footsteps of Hunger – Ana María Fuster Lavín
The Regensburg Festival – Val Votrin
Mask – Bora Chung
The Runner – Viola Cadruvi

UNCERTAINTIES: Vol 5
Edited by Brian J Showers
(Out Now)


A bit of a cheat in this case, as Uncertainties 5 has actually been out since last spring, but this unsung series of weird and horrific short fiction from Ireland’s Swan River Press is a complete gem. And as Vol 5 is still available, you need to check it out while you still can.

Three Sisters Bog
– Eoin Murphy
First a Bird – Ramsey Campbell
To See the Sea – Sean Hogan
Everything We Say and All the Things We Do – Jason E Rolfe
Not Even Legend – Alan Moore
Skeleton Day – Aislinn Clarke
Malady of Laughter – Inna Effress
Little Lives – Deirdre Sullivan
So Much Potential – Simon Strantzas
Away – Nina Antonia
Washed in the Blood of the Sun – John Langan
Trap – Carly Holmes


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 … 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.

FINDING YOURSELF IN THE DARK 
by Steve Duffy (2021)

Another installment of Sarob Press’s superb series of single-author collections of weird fiction. For those not in the know, Sarob trade exclusively in beautiful hardback editions (their jackets invariably illustrated with great panache by Paul Low), and have now published an extensive list of titles. They have a strong preference for supernatural fiction with a traditional feel, material reminiscent of the British greats of yesteryear, MR James, EF Benson, HR Wakefield and the like, though they are not bound by that, favouring contemporary authors with a generally much wider scope.

Steve Duffy is the perfect example. A writer for today though with a vast appreciation of the many masters and mistresses of ghost story excellence that went before him.

Finding Yourself in the Dark is his fifth collection to date, and, surprisingly, his first for Sarob Press. Here’s the blurb from its dust-jacket.

Robes, she decided; robes and an old-fashioned hat. No features were visible beneath the broad lowered brim of the hat, and the long brown mantle shrouded the body. Still, there was a general formlessness about it that went beyond whatever it was wearing. It’s the wrong shape, she thought, quite arbitrarily. Phoebe’s steps began to falter. She forced herself to go on, to get close enough to see what it was that she found so disconcerting. Slowly, the figure seemed to take notice of her, looked up at her approach. Now Phoebe could see what was wrong in its shape. For a head it had only a mask that covered all of its features; a medieval plague mask, the head of a bird or some other beaked creature, stark, grotesque, atavistically cruel. Its eyes, hollow voids in bone whiteness, goggled at her as if daring her to proceed. With a scream, she turned and ran …

Steve Duffy first came to my attention back in the 1990s as a member of the so-called ‘James Gang’, an unofficial bunch of relatively new writers who were strongly influenced by the works of MR James and whose stories came to populate such mainstay ghost fiction magazines of that halcyon age as Ghosts & Scholars and All Hallows. Many of his earlier stories were Jamesian in the extreme. But note that I say ‘many’, not ‘all’, for as a writer learning his trade, Duffy ventured far and wide within the parameters of weird and disturbing fiction, sometimes with straightforward non-Jamesian ghost stories, sometimes with near-comedies, sometimes with raw horror, and sometimes with multi-layered tales that were more concerned with the human condition and the state of contemporary society.

The years have passed since then, of course, and the more Duffy has poured out his fiction, the more of these deeper stories we are seeing. To my mind, his work is now firmly in the category of literary horror, though no doubt Duffy himself would dismiss such pigeon-holing as arrant silliness. In reflection of which, I’m pleased to say that, whatever pretentions he does or doesn’t have, he’s still keen on scaring the pants off his readers, and thus has no hesitation in filling his pages with ghouls, goblins and other eerie and unknowable beings.

Duffy is a versatile writer. Poetic, occasionally mischievous, always compelling. On top of that, his craftsmanship is exquisite. Only those who could really write became regulars in the unofficial club that was the James Gang, and Duffy was outstanding even by those standards. On that basis, imagine how good he is all these years later.

In which spirit, I don’t think I’ve read a single collection by any author as commandingly well written as Finding Yourself in the Dark. There isn’t a single dud here, every one of its twelve stories an exquisite piece of literature in its own right. And though the fine style is consistent, we’ve also got that wide range of subject-matter, the author hitting us alternately with straight-up bone-chillers and deeper, more introspective pieces. In all cases though, these stories cut. That’s the other thing with Steve Duffy. When he does horror, he does horror … and by that I mean it’s either scary or distressing or both. There is nothing ‘vanilla’ about his work, but it’s subtle too. Don’t expect to see an axe-murderer on the first page (though that could easily happen later on).

Here are a few teasers, just to whet your appetites.

Chambers of the Heart: Beautiful Olivia, now ageing somewhat, is bored working the low class Chelsea art gallery, which she fronts for a minor player in the London underworld. Then, one day in 1981, the mysterious, charming and strangely scary Mr Aamon comes to call …

The Other Four O’Clock: Matt and Samiya take a cottage on the East Anglian coastline during a cold and foggy winter. Everything is fine despite this, until they hear the other church bell tolling, the one from the distant past …

The Ice Beneath Us: In a remote, snowbound cabin in northern Alaska, two hardbitten ice fishermen relive a night of fear when they were menaced by a sinister stranger from the deep-frozen forest …

Next up, two particularly special pieces of horror writing …

The Clay Party: In 1846, a wagon train founders in hard country and terrible weather. When starving, the marooned settlers fall on each other, marshalled by the cannibalistic maniac, Hiderick. But spirited widow, Elizabeth, a woman of Eastern European heritage, will do anything she must to protect her child ...

A Day at the Hotel Radium: Jewish academic, Apalkov, has finally escaped Nazi Germany by taking a train to the fairy tale-like European free state of Grenzsental, where he joins an old colleague for an indefinite stay at the truly glorious Hotel Radium. It’s a heavenly location. Almost too good to be true …

And now …

FINDING YOURSELF IN THE DARK – the movie

Well, no film maker has optioned this book yet, and whether or not it’s ever likely to happen I couldn’t say, but seeing as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my thoughts (for what they’re worth) just in case some film-maker opts to get it onto the screen.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most intense, most filmic and therefore most right for adaptation in a portmanteau horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. 

Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to either relate spooky stories or listen to them. It could be that they find themselves in an eerie old wax museum, where each one of them finds his/her reflection in one of several grotesque effigies (Waxwork, anyone?), or maybe each story is a nervous offering made by some prospective new member to the merciless Club of the Damned (a la Supernatural).

Whatever, and without further blabber, here are the stories and casts I would choose:

The God of Storage Options: On a dreary Christmas Day, a young employee at a large, impersonal storage facility is asked into work to help his recently separated boss, Brough, drown his sorrows. It’s a desultory affair and the youngster gets drunk, only to wake up later alone and in the dark ...

The Youngster – Michael Socha
Brough – Lennie James

The Last House on Mullible Street: A London council worker uncovers a tape on which a bunch of East End workmen recall an incident from their shared youth. How during the Blitz, they broke into the house of an old Jewish neighbour and encountered a hulking creature, a man made entirely from mud …

Charlie, Ted, Ivor, Morrie, Titch – A bunch of Cockney urchins. Name ’em if you know ’em.

Even Clean Hands Do Damage: After losing her little daughter, heartbroken Rae begins to have visions of the dead trying to contact her. In an effort to lay these ghosts, she passes comforting messages to their loved ones. But then one day a mysterious and persistent spirit calls to her from far across the country, and she has no option but to travel …

Rae – Nathalie Emmanuel
Mrs Bayliss – Eve Myles

No Passage Landward: Phoebe seeks solitude on a private Welsh headland, but when a spiteful gatekeeper locks her into the parking area for the night, she learns that it was once the site of a leper colony. And very quickly, as the darkness falls, she begins to suspect that she isn’t alone …

Phoebe – Jodie Comer