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

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Delving into the deepest, darkest dystopias


Hello all. If it seems that I haven’t been posting as many blogs as usual in recent times, that’s correct, I haven’t. Basically, I’m waiting to make announcements. But August is the height of the holiday season, and people are not at their desks.

If I could unveil the jacket for my next stand-alone thriller, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, and go to town a little more on the synopsis, believe me, I would. Likewise, if I could show you the cover and the amazing table of contents for the next TERROR TALES volume, or talk about the next HECK novel, or the proposed LUCY CLAYBURN TV series, or if I could say anything at all about the new screenplay I’ve just been commissioned to write after one of my older novellas was very unexpectedly optioned for film development last month, I would eagerly do so.

I would go to town, trust me. I would trumpet it from the rooftops.

But in all these cases things are not quite ready yet, and even here at du Cote de Chez Finch, we must patiently await developments. Therefore, this is another of what I consider to be my ‘holding pattern’ blogposts. In other words, I blabber a bit and chuck out a few radical ideas that some writers, readers and general followers of dark fiction might find interesting.

Therefore, I’ll this week be looking at some of the Most Extreme Cities on Earth, grim metropolises that literally scream to be written about in crime, thriller or horror fiction, urban locations that for various reasons would make absolutely perfect backdrops for dark, strange and stressful reading.

On that same theme, today’s Thrillers, Chillers book review will focus on Ahmed Saadawi’s remarkable postmodernist nightmare of present day Iraq, FRANKENSTEIN IN BAGHDAD.

If you’ve only called in for the Saadawi review, that’s absolutely fine. You’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Zoom on down there straight away.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a minute to spare, you might find time to enjoy …

Extremes of urban darkness

Neither thriller fiction, crime fiction, horror fiction, nor dark fiction in general, is any stranger to inaccessible and hostile locations. In fact, it’s often enhanced by them. My last blogpost, which I made at the end of last month, focussed on far-flung places, the extreme ends of the Earth (and beyond), where some of the greatest and most chilling novels ever written have been set. For the most part, though, these were wilderness environments noteworthy for their terrifyingly low or high temperatures, their dangerous flora and fauna, their challenging geography, their utter isolation from everyday human contact, and so on.

This week I thought why not take a similar idea into the city, because there are lots of inhabited places on Earth – real places! – which, while not necessarily horrendous to live in (I’m sure many of their occupants are rightly happy with their lot), would drop the jaw of the average outsider, and could make highly atmospheric backgrounds against which to set suspenseful, frightening fiction.

The ten cities I’ve picked today may already feature in novels or movies. If they do, apologies … I was unaware of the fact (which is not unusual, to be fair), but even if they don’t that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some great works of fiction set in some of the world’s most extreme urban locations.

For example, Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill is a literary but very frightening ghost story set in the heart of Medellin, Columbia, once known as the most dangerous city in the world due to the power and ruthlessness of the infamous Medellin Cartel. 

Sam Hawken’s The Dead Women of Juárez, meanwhile, takes us to the once romantic but now desolate Mexican border town, Ciudad Juárez, in the middle of the 1990s, where an alcoholic detective struggles to get off first base as the city is overwhelmed by an unstoppable epidemic of feminicides. 

Then we have Chris Petit’s The Butchers of Berlin, wherein we travel back to a time when Germany’s capital burns nightly due to Allied air raids, the blacked-out streets are riddled with crime, violence and corpses, the terror of the advancing Russians is overwhelming, drunkenness, poverty and madness are rife, the Nazis still rule, and yet a conscience-stricken cop must somehow investigate a heinous conspiracy.

Of course, cities don’t have to be deprived, or overrun by crime and squalor, or flattened by war, or impossibly isolated, or simply forgotten in order to play host to serial killers, satanic cults, organised crime, human slavery, torture-for-hire, Snuf pornography, etc. But just imagine that your fictional detective is investigating something along these lines at the same time as having to cope with everyday life (and crime) in any one of these …

STRANGE DYSTOPIAS

1. Pyongyang, North Korea


Possibly the ultimate real-life dystopia. It’s not just the brutal and secretive regime that overshadows everyday existence here, it’s the near-shameless way the capital city reflects this. Pyongyang is filled with bleak architectural monstrosities, many seeming to serve no purpose and many standing empty. It’s also famous for its roads, huge highways in some cases, that lead absolutely nowhere. At least on this image you can’t see the notorious Ryugyong Hotel, where the lifts don’t work (even those connecting to the lowest of its 105 floors), many interior walls are bare concrete, and of course, where almost no one ever stays. Assuming you could ever think of some method by which to convincingly set your thriller in Pyongyang, you’d lack for no obstacles to put in your hero’s way.

2. Norilsk, Russia


The world’s northernmost city and one of the coldest continuously inhabited places on Earth is Norilsk, which is situated far into the Russian Arctic. It’s also one of the most polluted, its chemical and metallurgic operations running night and day, innumerable pipes and chimneys pumping out smoke, gas and other unregulated toxins, though in truth you won’t notice this easily when the city is swept by blizzards for approx 130 days a year, deep snow covers the ground for 270 days, and darkness reigns 24/7 for six weeks in the depths of winter. Even in summer the air is cold and if it doesn’t snow, the rain is highly acidic. Add to that the usual Stalinist infrastructure – concrete filing-cabinets passing for blocks of flats, public services that work inadequately and intermittently in the harsh conditions – and most authors I know would struggle to make their book grimmer than the average day in a real Norilsk citizen’s life.

3. Tijuana, Mexico


The tragedies of Mexico’s border cities are widely known, but Tijuana embodies them. There are good things here, but bad things too, including Friendship Park, where locals can approach the wire fence and hold sad conversations through it with relatives who were successful in their efforts to enter the US. Much local industry comprises foreign-owned industrial plants where sweatshop conditions prevail and pay is poor. Many Tijuana neighbourhoods are thus slums, tin-shack housing balanced precariously on piles of tyres. And then there is the crime. The border outpost long attracted rough trade, meaning that sex shows and drugs were always available. But the dope wars have left the city battle-scarred, kidnappings and robberies happen regularly, and everyday tourism has collapsed. This sadly eroded statue, erected in 1990 to look to the future, says much.

4. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan


At first glance, Ashgabat looks as though it doesn’t belong anywhere near this list. Even though it’s located in the middle of barren nothingness, on the edge of Central Asia’s Karakum Desert, it’s incredibly neat, tidy and pretty. In fact, you might say that it’s actually a bit too neat and pretty. And there’s the rub. A former Soviet state, Turkmenistan is still a dictatorship, current and former rulers enjoying such power (and wealth from the country’s vast gas reserve), that they’ve been able to pass edicts to the effect that all public buildings must be sheathed in glimmering white marble, that only white cars are permitted, and that public entertainments (oh, and dogs!) are banned. Monuments dominate every skyline: fabulous statues and hugely OTT buildings. It’s a mystical, pristine fantasy land, but strictly controlled. The secret police are never far away.

5. Iquitos, Peru


It’s easy for people who haven’t been there to picture the Amazon River as a picturesque waterway flowing slowly and dreamily through an endless, emerald paradise. And while this may be true along some stretches it’s less the case when you arrive at the Amazonian city of Iquitos in Peru. First off, it has the unenviable reputation of being the world’s largest city that can’t be reached by road, though even travelling by river it’s four days to the next town. Living conditions can be very hard here; Iquitos suffers from intense thunderstorms, which often cause flooding (and that’s a serious risk to life when you look at the teeming stilted shanties built along the muddy riverbanks!). Poverty is also much in evidence, which causes regular social unrest. If you want to tell a tale set literally in an ‘urban jungle’, this could be the place.

6. Yakutsk, Russia


Back to the frozen north again, and this time a city in Siberia that can only be reached along a wilderness track, the Kolyma Highway, which was built by gulag prisoners, so many of whom died and were buried there that even today it’s known as the Road of Bones. Another road, the Lena Highway, also connects to Yakutsk, but only for part of the year as at one point it requires you to drive over the ice covering the River Lena (as yet unbridged). Little wonder it’s generally regarded as the most isolated city on Earth (it’s just under 5,000 miles from Moscow!). It’s also another one that’s incredibly cold, boasting a year-round average temperature of -8 (though predictably, it’ll probably be the one warm day of the year when your fictional hero chances his car on the Lena). A city for which the term ‘back of beyond’ was surely coined.

7. Agbogbloshie, Ghana


The closest locality on this list to the living Hell we saw in Blade Runner 2049. But in all seriousness, the waste and pollution here is ghastly. Part of Ghana’s capital city, Accra, Agbogbloshie commenced life as an out-of-town wetland, but during the 1980s became home to refugees fleeing a tribal war. Slum settlements arose, and in the 1990s, when electricity was introduced, a demand grew for household appliances. Most of these arrived second-hand, did not last and subsequently were consigned to open landfills. The area’s reputation for ‘processing’ electrical waste grew, and soon it was shipping in from other African cities and even overseas. Agbogbloshie is now a dumping ground for such vile e-rubbish, the whole town overwhelmed by mountains of the stuff. It’s allegedly vital to the local economy, but ruinous to local health.

8. Kangbashi, Inner Mongolia (China)


Kangbashi is actually part of a city rather than a city in itself. It is connected to Ordos, a thriving metropolitan zone close to the Yellow River. But the big mystery here is how eerily deserted it is. A huge showpiece suburb built in response to an unexpected mining boom in central China, it was designed (and equipped, because it has everything a city could need, from children’s play areas to fully functioning bus services) to house over a million people. But somehow, for reasons never fully explained, that anticipated influx of workers never arrived. For years, Kangbashi stood almost entirely empty, the silence echoing along its unused subways, ringing around its numerous identikit apartment complexes, though if that disappoints you because you can’t write a book with no one in it, don’t worry … by all accounts, the apartments are now, finally filling.

9. Caracas, Venezuela


Venezuela is yet another country whose political and economic problems have become endemic, a grim fact that feeds directly into Caracas’s main problem: violent crime. It has the highest murder rate of any capital city in the world, about twenty a day, approximately nine out of ten such incidents going unsolved. Street robberies and kidnappings, meanwhile, are almost beyond counting. It is particularly dangerous for foreigners, who are perceived to be carrying dollars, but even the impoverished locals follow simple rules: don’t flash any jewellery, cash or your watch; don’t drive a swanky car; always hurry through crowded areas; and if you’re going to a party, don’t leave and head for home until daylight. The perpetrators are mostly street-gangs who live by the rule ‘the strong take everything’. And mostly, they do.

10. Dzerzhinsk, Russia


I feel guilty including another Russian city, but if dystopia exists anywhere today, it’s surely in Dzerzhinsk, where the life expectancy for women is 48, and for men 42. Located near Novgorod, all kinds of nasty substances were made here during the Soviet era, everything from pesticides to poison gasses for use in chemical warfare (for which reason it was closed to foreigners until very recently). But even now, at least ten chemical factories are still at work in the city, filling the air (and supposedly the water supply) with dioxins and heavy metals. Perhaps the city’s most shocking feature is the ‘White Sea’, a legacy of the toxic waste products once routinely buried in the earth here. It resembles a huge salt flat, but it’s actually a sludge of deadly chemicals left suppurating in the open air. It covers 100 acres and killed off an entire forest as it spread.

(Many thanks to the various photographers originally responsible for these images, which I picked up simply by trawling the Net. If any would like to make themselves known to me, I will happily credit their work. The painting at the top of this blogpost, meanwhile, is by the amazing STEFAN KOIDL, much of whose work takes a deeply dystopian look at the world we know). 


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.



FRANKENSTEIN IN BAGHDAD
by Ahmed Saadawi (2013)

Outline

Iraq, 2003. A shell of a country in every sense of the word, but nowhere does that apply more visibly than in Baghdad itself, where the social and architectural fabric of the city has been near-enough destroyed even though the war is still raging. Saddam and his forces have gone, while the Americans and their allies have retreated into fortified enclaves, from which they only occasionally emerge in armoured columns, making swift and futile patrols. But now a range of replacement killers, not just the Sunni and Shiite militias and the Iraqi National Guard, but armed gangs of seemingly every persuasion, shoot it out daily on the shell-ravaged streets, and bombings are a common occurrence, the resulting indiscriminate explosions killing dozens each time and annihilating more and more of the city’s infrastructure, doing so much damage that what remains of the Iraqi government are completely unable to repair it.

The ordinary citizens eke out an appalling existence amid corpses and bullet-scarred ruins, and yet somehow they survive. One of these, an eccentric, happy-go-lucky junk dealer called Hadi, prowls the rubble looking for things to sell, and occasionally entertains his neighbours in the time-honoured tradition of Scheherazade with his tall stories.

Hadi, we realise, like so many of his fellow Iraqis, is in a state of ongoing traumatic stress, so much so that he barely knows it anymore. His grasp of reality is so tenuous that one day, instead of collecting rubbish and trying to sell it in his shop, he collects disparate human body parts, thinking that if he can stitch them all together and give them a proper burial, it will soothe a great number of aggrieved souls.

At the same time, in a particularly effective, near hallucinatory sequence, Hasib Mohamed Jaafar, a conscientious security guard, is killed in yet another suicide truck-bomb attack, his body almost vapourised in the blast, his spirit cast to the four winds.

Though it doesn’t remain there.

Deeply affronted by its own murder, Hasib’s spirit comes in search of a new host, and discovers the sewn-together travesty in Hadi’s outhouse. It duly possesses the homemade corpse, bringing it to a monstrous kind of life.

The patchwork horror has no initial purpose other than to wander the devastation of its former home city, though of course it can’t do this by daytime, for it is so hideous to look upon. Instead, it travels by night … and starts to commit murders.

These are not carried out for their own sake, for the hybrid thing, utterly deranged, is a mix of personalities, and having heard the prayers of those slain from whom it is comprised, now seeks vengeance on all their behalf. There is thus a rhyme and reason behind its crimewave, though few initially notice this thanks to the surplus of criminal violence already in progress. Nevertheless, urban legends spread that a monster, the Whatsitsname, as they call it, is on a non-stop nocturnal rampage, and soon the population are as terrorised by this as they are by any of the insurgent militia.

No one can locate the Whatsitsname during daytime because it has found a place to lie low. Elishva, an Assyrian Christian widow, who lives in the district of Bataween at the very heart of the guerrilla war being waged in the city, has long been in mourning for a son who never came home from the Iran/Iraq conflict of the early 1980s. When the Whatsitsname breaks into her house, the disturbed woman confronts it, and immediately decides that this is her disfigured son, returned at last.

Her home and the motherly care she provides prove convenient for the Whatsitsname, which is far from done in its quest for vengeance. It has now expanded its search, hunting down anyone it considers to be a criminal, though its righteousness is increasingly compromised because as the body parts it seeks vengeance for rot and fall away, it replaces them with new chunks of humanity, and some of these, inevitably, come from slaughtered men who were once criminals themselves.

Meanwhile, determined to investigate the ongoing bloodbath are two very different characters.

Mahmoud al-Sawadi is a local journalist who is working on the story, though his life is complicated by his Machievellian editor, Ali Bahir al-Saidi, whose mistress, Nawal al-Wadir, Mahmoud happens to be in love with, and whose intrigues look increasingly likely to get the magazine closed. Mahmoud’s direct opposite in terms of temperament and intellect is Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid, head of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, and a brutal, autocratic man drawn from the old regime but now charged with finding the Whatsitsname. Denuded of all his old methods, his spies and informers, Majid relies increasingly – and this is another nod, I suspect, to the magical days of The Arabian Nights and The Thief of Baghdad – on astrologers, soothsayers and other mystics, who attempt to collect intelligence by contacting the djinn.

Meanwhile, our main antagonist continues to scour the benighted backstreets, killling with a free hand, and at the same time, amassing a band of fanatical followers, creating, in effect, yet another insurgent group with which to torment the tragic city …

Review
It’s perhaps an obvious point to make that Frankenstein in Baghdad was published in English in 2018, 200 years to the year after the first publication of Frankenstein (or, as it was alternatively titled, The Modern Prometheus), but that is largely it in terms of similarities. Though both novels share a murderous, sewn-together monstrosity as their central antagonist, in the latter book there is no real concept of good v evil, minimal debate between science and religion, and no musing at all on the folly of Man playing God. In any case, Frankenstein in Baghdad was first published in Arabic in 2013, so it was never intended to be an anniversary reboot.

In truth, it’s a whole different animal from the original but it’s also a hugely affecting read, and no surprise to me that Iraqi author, Ahmed Saadawi, won the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (an Arab-speaking world version of our own Booker Prize, for which it was also later shortlisted).

On its first publication here, Frankenstein in Baghdad was rightly marketed as a horror novel. It contains so much death and brutality that it couldn’t really be anything else, apart from an anti-war novel, which it also is, but ultimately it’s much more than either or both of those things.

Throughout his intense narrative, Ahmed Saadawi muses movingly on the nature of his home country, and not just as the hellhole it became during the violence-stricken years immediately following the Allied invasion, but as a relatively new country in the midst of an ancient land, on its hugely diverse and cosmopolitan citizenship (the multipart creature referring to itself as ‘the first true Iraqi citizen’), and on how problematic all this appears to have become in modern times in the absence of effective leadership.

It’s all portrayed through the metaphor of the meaningfully-titled Whatsitsname, a composite creature progressively more at war with itself than those around it, the outcome of which confusion is a blood-trail that goes on and on, seemingly without end.

However, Ahmed Saadawi isn’t talking completely in riddles and parables. He also gives us a very stark account of life in a teeming city defeated in war and crushed by its enemies, and where the worst kind of lawless anarchy is an ongoing reality. Much of this darkness is lightened by sardonic humour, though it’s a poignant tale too, perhaps the saddest aspect of which is Saadawi’s eyewitness testimony to the resilience of his own people, who have had no option but to adapt their daily lives to a world where bombers and gunmen are running amok, to a cityscape that’s been physically devastated, to blocked roads and endless half-demolished houses, and to a government once famous for its ruthlessness but now more notable for near-comical ineptitude.

He paints a vivid but what we must also assume is an accurate picture of a broken society in which hope lies in short supply. The western powers who overthrew Saddam are nothing more by this time than omnipotent, uninterested figures who have no real stake in the country they destroyed, and yet Frankenstein in Baghdad, while a hard-hitting satire, is not a polemic or even politically slanted (it’s curious but maybe telling that among the many and varied individuals the Whatsitsname seeks to punish, there are no members of the Allied military, even though they are still present in the city). Much like the journalist version of himself, who briefly appears in the novel later on, Saadawi seems to be more interested in reporting the plain facts than offering colourful opinions. Even his monster occupies a strange twilight place between good and evil, the author simply describing the things it does and why it believes it does them (even though the creature itself is a confused mess by the end), along with the myths that are soon woven around it: a reflection perhaps of many societies’ inability to face the results of their own failings as seen in their creation of imaginary evil-doers.

It’s also a tale well-told. Originally written in Arabic, this translation of Frankenstein in Baghdad was provided by Jonathan Wright, and while it doesn’t comprise mercurial prose, it is solidly and enjoyably readable, packing in great descriptive work and much clarity of time, place and character.

As a non-Arabic speaker, I can never know what kind of impact the original text would have had on me, but I concur with the general opinion that this must be a superb rendition simply because it’s so damn good. Despite being sold as a horror novel, it was clearly never intended to be just that, and in that regard the translation’s tone is pitch-perfect, the horrors of war balanced nicely with Saadawi’s waspish humour (the monster frustrated at having to continually replace its decaying constituent parts, Brigadier Majid’s cruel but amateurish security service, who all look exactly the same as each other, and so on). And again – and I mention this again because I enjoyed it so much – we are repeatedly but subtly reminded about Iraq’s long tradition of mystery and legend, journalist Mahmoud al-Sawadi creating his own One Thousand and One Nights in the form of a scrapbook he is putting together containing his country’s strangest stories, Majid surrounding himself by buffoonish mystics and fake magicians.

I strongly recommend Frankenstein in Baghdad to fans of all literary disciplines. It’s a detailed study of present-day Iraq as well as a rattling good thriller. It’s also the Middle East as you’ll never have seen it before, and that can only be a good thing.

And now, as usual, I’m going to try and cast this saga in the event that it gets made into a film or TV series. It’s only a bit of fun of course (not least because my knowledge of Middle Eastern actors and actresses is not exactly encyclopaedic), but the authors always seem to like this part of the review, so I’m doing it anyway.

Mahmoud al-Sawadi – Malek Rahbani
Elishva – Nour Bitar
Hasib Mohamed Jaafar / the Whatsitsname – Oded Fehr
Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid – Hamzah Saman
Hadi – Omid Djalili
Ali Bahir al-Saidi – Anouar H. Smaine
Nawal al-Wadir – Sandra Saad