Thursday, 31 January 2019

When crime thrillers push it to the limit

Today, I’m going to be talking about the darkness at the heart of the atypically violent or hard-edged crime novel, always assuming there is darkness at the heart of it – which is a question we’ll need to answer if we can.

On a not dissimilar subject, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Dale Brendan Hyde’s grisly and disturbing debut novel, THE INK RUN. It was only published in 2018 and it’s already attained cult popularity, but good grief, it’s a tough read at times – you’ll need the strongest stomach possible.

If you’re only here for the Dale Brendan Hyde review, you’ll find it as usual at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Don’t hesitate to get straight on down there (and when you’ve finished, let me know what you think – it is a discussion as well as a review, after all).

Before any of that, though, check out the picture topside.

EXIT WOUNDS is an anthology of new crime writing from Titan Books, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan, which I’m very proud to be part of. My short story, The New Lad, will be gracing its pages. But if that’s not sufficient reason to buy it, look at some of the other (real) heavyweights involved: Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Dean Koontz, Val McDermid, John Connolly, Joe R Lansdale …

You can’t go far wrong there, I’m sure you’ll agree.

EXIT WOUNDS is published on May 21 this year but is already available for pre-order. (In fact, don’t let reading this blog delay you – buy it NOW; you know you won’t regret it).

Dark at heart

My new novel, STOLEN, which is also my last novel for Avon Books, is published on May 16. It’s a third outing for DC Lucy Clayburn, and along with the usual grotty urban world through which our tired police heroine must make her way, it deals with several especially grim subjects: animal cruelty – to a hideous degree; ultra-violent attacks on the homeless; and the mysterious abduction of several OAPs.

I think that when writing this book, probably more than any other, I became acutely aware how thin the line is between what must be deemed a necessary portrayal of human barbarism and the infliction on readers of self-indulgent gore so graphic that it verges on titillation.

Now, I’ve been censored before – by my own editors, before anyone asks. They dug their heels in with DEAD MAN WALKING, when a scene which originally depicted a decapitation by garden shears was replaced by a simple throat-cutting. Likewise, there was some concern about an attempted rape in SACRIFICE, and some of the choice, non-PC language used by seasoned police officers in my most recent Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH. In both the latter cases, after due consideration, and some minor trimming, the original passages were allowed to stand because a decision was reached that they weren’t OTT, but were simple representations of real life, albeit real life on the seedy and sordid side.

With all that in mind, it’s surprising that some things I’ve written were not questioned. A full bodily impalement (lengthways) in SACRIFICE, for example. Heck’s beating and framing of a known hoodlum to gain information in ASHES TO ASHES. Or the so-called ‘Stranger’ in DEAD MAN WALKING, a serial killer whose victims suffered attacks to the eyes with sharpened pencils. Book editors are all different, of course, each one having his or her own limit of permissibility.

But needless to say, with the three areas I’ve mentioned with regard to the latest Lucy Clayburn book, STOLEN, there have been a few tense exchanges of views. In the end I have made some cuts, but on the whole the admittedly horrific subject-matter remains intact. I guess I successfully tabled the argument that the grimness of the situation needed to be addressed fully. I particularly wanted to show, and indeed I have always sought to show, just how onerous the average police officer’s day-to-day experiences can be.

As a psychologist friend once said to me: ‘The coppers I deal with are often as traumatised as war veterans. They don’t just deal constantly with death, cruelty and danger, but every time they go to work, they meet numerous people for whom it is the very worst day of their lives. That has a massive impact on them after a while.’

Another friend once said to me (though this was many years ago): ‘I wish you’d never become a police officer. It’s made you all hard and horrible.’

Well, there you have it … the cause and the symptom.

As such, it would feel very disingenuous of me to write my cop novels now and not be true to the reality of the police experience (and presumably the experience of those others involved in that world, the offenders too). If there is a darkness at the heart of crime fiction – successful crime fiction, at least – perhaps it’s that unedifying truth.

Maybe that’s why the horror genre has suffered more when it comes to censorship than the thriller genre. Because ultimately, it’s seen as fantasy and so is not taken as seriously. 

In the age of the video nasties, with a wide range of horror material like The Burning, SS Experiment Camp and Cannibal Holocaust (much of it crass, exploitative and embarrassingly low-budget, though the official list also included movies now regarded as horror classics, like The Exorcist, Suspiria and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) forcibly removed from the shelves, other uncompromisingly gritty, adult-themed movies, for the most part urban thrillers – Taxi Driver, for example, Death Wish, Get Carter and Prime Cut – were immediately hailed as the all-time-greats we regard them as today. Primarily, I again suspect that’s because the thriller medium is seen as portraying a form of truth.

But it’s not simple by any stretch of the imagination. The Dirty Harry movies, hardcase crime thrillers of the old school, were seen as divisive and even accused of being ‘fascist’ at the time of their release, while, if memory serves, Straw Dogs – the original version–  was also banned in the UK.

All this shows is that there has long been heated debate about violence on film, and even violence within books. Both the original novel Frankenstein, published in 1818, and the 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff, caused outrage in certain quarters. It goes on just as heatedly today. Quentin Tarantino can’t release anything without it attracting controversy for its inevitable gruesomeness (and that’s even though Tarantino increasingly leans towards the comic-strip). In the world of literature, there are demands that violence against women in particular be toned down; earlier this year, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard about something like this, the Staunch Prize was offered to authors of novels in the thriller genre ‘in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’ (though in the age of the #MeToo movement, this may be a slightly separate issue).

So, as a writer of crime thrillers (and horror, from time to time) where do I stand on banning and censoring and excessive editing?

It’s difficult to be sure, because there are no easy solutions.

I know my books are dark, and I make no apologies for that. Maybe I can comfort myself with the notion that when I write hardcore crime, I’m only telling the truth about the way things are. But I’m also aware that it’s a truth not everyone wants to hear. The counter-argument to that might be that if they don’t want to hear it, they don’t have to buy the book. And yet in the same breath I must admit that I want as many people as possible to buy the book.

What a conundrum.

I don’t know what the answer is. Ultimately, as a writer, you’ve just got to say things as you see them. I can’t write cop stuff that isn’t down, dirty, violent and frank. Because that was my experience doing the job. I can’t talk about psychopaths without highlighting the destruction they cause, though I think (or hope) that I can do it in a non-salacious way.

It’s interesting, though, isn’t it? The above paragraph alone suggests that I’m probably thinking about it more now than I ever used to. Is that the wisdom of age kicking in, or has the disapproval of editors who’ve occasionally had to rein me in finally left its mark?

Seriously, who knows?


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE INK RUN 
by Dale Brendan Hyde (2018)

Schoolboy, Otiss, lives a life that is beyond ghastly, trapped in a sordid existence of inner-city squalor and non-stop parental violence. You may think you know about this kind of thing, and that you’ve heard it all before – but if you want my honest opinion, I sincerely doubt it.

Because the story of Otiss Kites takes it way past anything that you’d imagine an ordinary human being could survive. And I suppose one of the big questions from very early on in the novel is … will Otiss survive?

His main problem, from the outset, is not so much his impoverished life in a decayed corner of the post-industrial North in the uncaring 1970s (though that hardly helps), but his father, Stan, who is not just a drunk, a druggie and a bully, but an out-of-control psychopath and calculating sadist, whose pitiless cruelties verge on the utterly deranged.

For example, on one occasion, he makes his son wash up, having deliberately failed to mention that the dirty water in the sink is full of broken glass. On another, he insists on combing his boy’s hair with a cactus plant. On another, he uses the young un’s toothbrush to clean the toilet bowl (and doesn’t tell him, in the hope that he will brush his teeth afterwards). On yet another, he ties the youngster’s genitals tightly with thread, and then forces him to drink jug after jug of water, denying him any relief. And none of this is the worst of it.

But none of these horrors – which are all done casually and often on a whim (and are nearly always accompanied by roaring, mocking laughter) – can compare to the clever but heinous plan that Stan, not quite the unthinking, toothless brute we are initially led to believe, has really got cooking.

Before we move onto that, it’s essential to consider some of the other characters in young Otiss’s terrible life, not all of whom are total negatives.

For example, he isn’t entirely friendless. His pal, Johnny Sand, suspects that Otiss is being brutalized at home, but can’t really guess at the full extent of it, and at the end of the day can only offer a youthful shoulder to cry on and a few books for his long-suffering school-mate to read. Otiss also pays regular but secret visits to his ailing grandfather, a one-time bare-knuckle boxing champion known as Poleaxe Pedley, but again, the old man is limited in how much comfort he can provide. Despite that, these are about the closest experiences Otiss ever has of normal, caring human relationships. He also finds some solace in the construction of a crude raft and the many hours he spends floating on it in the middle of an abandoned mill-pond, slipping through dream-states as he yearns intensely for a better life. But ultimately none of this will protect him day-to-day.

Someone who maybe could, but doesn’t even try, is Tish, his weary, alcoholic mother.

While a key part of the misery he encounters hourly – mainly because she allows it to go on, but also because, though she doesn’t quite abuse her son the way his father does, she also neglects him (in one heart-rending scene stepping without comment over his beaten-up body while heading out to work) – Tish is more of a disappointment than anything else.

Otiss is certain that she’d be less callous and more concerned for him if his father wasn’t there, though I suspect this owes to wishful thinking rather than reality, because while it is Otiss suffering the brunt of the violence, Tish – who’s been thoroughly victimized herself in the past (and can only unburden herself of this by shrieking insanely at the door several minutes after Stan has gone out) – is simply glad that it’s not her, which implies a degree of selfishness that can probably never be reversed. (She also, on one occasion, turns her rings around when slapping Otiss, to cause maximum damage, even Stan moved to compliment her for using their son’s blood on her fingernails rather than polish ... so, some hope of this witch ever finding her maternal side!).

On the subject of Tish, we now come back to Stan’s real plan – and don’t worry, this isn’t a give-away because it happens relatively early in the narrative.

Stan regularly plays around with other women – pretty unimpressively on one occasion, when Otiss gets to spy on him – and, soon deciding that he can do without Tish in his life, opts to plot her demise, a decision fuelled by the desensitising effects of hulk weed, which the guy smokes increasingly regularly, despite it being a much stronger form of cannabis than the norm. An opportunity to finally start this ball rolling arises when Otiss, who, unsurprisingly, among various other mental aberrations, takes to sleep-walking. Stan frog-marches him to the doctor, adding the lie that the lad is showing increased aggression towards his mother. Otiss is bemused by this, but no more than that. Then, in a later incident, when Otiss mistakenly thinks that Stan has bitten Tish’s throat out, he urges a neighbor to call the police, only to find the whole thing a set-up designed to make him look like a liar and trouble-maker.

So, that’s now two authorities – the NHS and the cops – who are starting to earmark the youngster as a dangerous oddball.

Perhaps inevitably, not long after the neighbour who called the fuzz has mysteriously died (murdered by Stan for sure, Otiss decides), Tish also meets her end, thrown down the cellar stairs with such savagery that she breaks her neck. 

And it’s from this point in the book that Otiss’s life, which, if he thought it was bad before, now plunges dramatically downward, literally into Hades itself.

Found hiding in the attic (hiding from Stan, though the police don’t realise this), Otiss – who’s now a teen and therefore can carry the can – is arrested. Stan’s portrayal of a distraught and despairing spouse appalled by the behavior of his wayward son is Oscar-worthy, and completely wins over the investigating officers, who then use various brutish means to coerce Otiss into signing a confession that he murdered his mother, leaving little hope for him. As a countermeasure, his solicitor, Liberace ‘Liberty’ Kerty, work up a defence of ‘diminished responsibility on the grounds of automatism’ – in other words, Otiss did the foul deed while he was actually asleep – which the judge at the special hearing reluctantly accepts.

Otiss is thus ordered to be detained for a decade under the Mental Health Act, and dispatched to the Faberon institute, a place for the criminally insane that would grace any Batman movie. It all looks modern and professional on the outside, but Otiss quickly suspects this is a front, and he’s correct, because on the inside, he finds himself entombed in an even more abusive environment than his home, confined to an austere, dungeon-like cell, surrounded by maniacs – both patients and staff alike, it seems – and subjected to a trial programme of old-fashioned ‘cure-all’ methods.

These include beds with thick straps on them, heavy and constant medication, padded rooms, electro-shock therapy, and even injections behind the eyeballs.

Yet again, we wonder if it’s even remotely possible that Otiss can survive this ongoing cascade of horrific abuse for the next ten years. And if he does, what kind of adult will finally emerge when the hospital doors are slammed behind him. How will he get his jollies back in the ordinary world then, we wonder, and what in particular will all this mean for the one person whom Otiss has sworn to kill before all others, even though it’s someone who, deep down, he still fears greatly: his own dear ‘Da’, Stanley Kites? …

Lots of crime writers describe domestic abuse and the violence and torment suffered by the young and helpless without, in truth, having ever experienced it at first-hand. Dale Brendan Hyde, who by his own admission, had a troubled early life, may not have experienced it either – at least not to this extent (dear God, I hope he didn’t!). But he certainly writes as if he did. Be under no illusion, The Ink Run is savage stuff from beginning to end, one of the darkest – if not the darkest – novel that I’ve ever read.

At least part of that stems from the author’s unwillingness to hide anything. The reader is right there, on the spot, for near enough every minute of Otiss’s agony. Even the sexual torture is unstintingly displayed. It also stems from our awareness that suffering of this sort is all too real in our world, maybe even in the next street to the one where we live, the perpetrators often able to conceal it from prying eyes and to present a façade of decorum in its place, the rest of us helping this along by pretending that it isn’t going on (because, in truth, we can’t even stand to think about it).

In fact, façades – the pretense of cultured normality – are a big issue in The Ink Run.

Stan Kites, the main villain, despite belonging in a lunatic asylum himself, is able to keep on pretending that he’s innocent even when there is glaring evidence that he’s a degenerate, drug-addled bully. Lazy and incompetent police officers pretend that they’re doing their job even though some of them must at least suspect that Otiss is a victim and his father a wrong ’un. A prejudiced legal system pretends that it has a heart – though it doesn’t pretend very hard in the case of Judge Yama! – by sending the mentally unfit for care rather than punishment, even though unaware and uninterested in what that ‘care’ actually entails. The Faberon hospital pretends that it’s a respectable establishment, while behind its grim walls, medieval methods are employed to forcibly drive mad men sane.

Author Dale Brendan Hyde has other subtexts too. He seems to be almost indecently fascinated by the debasement of the human body and soul. But then that is the key to one of the big questions this book asks: what is the correct response to endless, systematic mistreatment? When you are so wronged, and even the state appears to be in on it (thereby offering no hope of justice!), is ‘morality’ a word that even has meaning anymore? Surely you are justified in retaliating violently yourself? Or are you? Doesn’t that make you as bad as them? Or does none of that bloody matter when it’s all about making something right, at least for you personally?

These are difficult questions for the reader to ponder, let alone answer, after protracted immersion in a narrative this grotesque. Many will opt for the easy and obvious response: do it to them before they do it to you. The cover of the book almost encourages this with its stark message:

You can’t escape your DNA

But that’s a little bit tricky in itself.

If it’s in your DNA, it’s inevitable, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what you think. Otiss will do as Stan did, because his genes are quite simply bad. Which means that violent criminality is more about nature than nurture.

Well, I’m not sure Dale Brendan Hyde believes that. Otherwise, I doubt he’d have written this novel. And indeed, though ultimately all semblance of happiness is finally snuffed out for Otiss – ironically, when he’s taken into ‘care’ – throughout his formative years there are rays of hope for him to cling to. The books that Johnny Sand gives him provide occasional enlightened insights into the human condition, which he can’t glean from his normal life. At the same time, his grandfather is the living memory of a very different kind of tough, working class male; a man of violence, yes, but also a man of honour, whose bare-knuckle exploits were conducted in chivalrous fashion. That better life Otiss dreamed about on his raft was out there; he just couldn’t reach it.

So, while The Ink Run is very violent and gruesome, at times almost to a point where you need to put the book down, it has serious, meaningful depths. Be under no illusion. This is not some just some slice of lascivious goreography.

It’s also an amazing read purely because of the sheer quality of the writing.

It’s a big tome, clocking in at nearly 400 pages, and densely written, but it comes at you rapid-fire. And it’s a compelling story, a real page-turner.

I initially had some reservations when I saw that it was written in a kind of vernacular, and littered with purposeful misspellings and grammatical errors, even though I understood that this was to convey young Otiss’s only semi-educated state. But as the narrative gripped me, and that happened very quickly indeed because it thumps along at pace, none of this came to matter anymore.

Dale Brendan Hyde is a talented wordsmith, who has worked tirelessly at his craft. He writes near-hallucinogenic prose, darkly and dingily poetic, and highly visual. He also packs this debut novel of his with harsh detail gleaned from his own background, his days as a young hoodlum and the jail time he served, enriching the whole novel with an air of authenticity that other crime writers can only dream about.

It’s all the more remarkable an achievement, of course, because of that difficult start in life. It doesn’t surprise me that Hyde has given interviews in which he pays tribute to authors like Jimmy Boyle (A Sense of Freedom) and Noel ‘Razor’ Smith (A Rusty Gun), who turned their backs on lives of crime by opting to write instead, citing them as a huge influence on his personal reformation.

He certainly does those guys proud with The Ink Run. It’s a challenging book, make no mistake, and you’ll need to tough it out – at times you’ll think you’re reading horror rather than crime. But again, this is what it’s meant to be. It’s a slap in the face, it’s been purposely written to knock us all out of our comfort and complacency. It deals with real, serious issues. And for that reason alone, it needs to be read widely. But if you take the chance, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. This is an astonishing debut.

At the end of these book reviews, I often like to indulge myself in a bit of fantasy casting, imagining that the book is being adapted for film and TV and nominating those stars who I think would make it live and breathe on screen. I’m not going to do that here for the simple reason that known names would get in the way. If done properly, The Ink Run would be as tough, gritty and unforgiving a piece of cinema as anyone has ever seen, and I suspect that only a cast of unknowns could make that happen effectively (look at Ken Loach’s movies, if you want the living proof). Even so, I hope it gets made at some point. And if it doesn’t hold back, the way Dale Brendan Hyde refuses to hold back on the written page, it would be a major event indeed.    

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

My own gazetteer of strange, eerie places


Today, I’m taking advantage of a photo-gallery idea I recently had.

It came from a question someone asked me: what are the most amazing places in Britain that you’ve ever written about? Now, that’s not an easy one to answer. I mean, define ‘amazing’. But it certainly struck me that it would be fun to contemplate the most scary and mysterious places that I’ve ever written about … or more importantly, that I would LOVE to write about but haven’t thus far.

So, that’s what today’s blogpost is all about.

I’m going to take you on a whistle-stop tour of the top ten weirdest/eeriest real-life places in Britain and Ireland that I would love to take my fictional characters to in either my crime-thriller novels or my horror stories. And, as an added bonus – and why the hell not? – I’m also going to show you my top ten weirdest/eeriest real-life places that my fictional characters actually HAVE visited.

Somewhat in keeping with that theme, I’ll also be offering a detailed review and discussion of Rosemary Pardoe’s compelling new anthology, THE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS BOOK OF FOLK HORROR.

If you’re purely interested in the review, fair enough, You’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s post. Just scoot on down there right now. However, if first you fancy checking out a few remote corners of Britain and Ireland where folkloric type chills are said to manifest in real life, then stick around for a bit …


British and Irish Top 10 spooky spots where my fictional characters may fear to tread, but where they’re going to tread at some point, like it or not …


The uncanny, ankle-breaking moonscape of the Burren in County Clare, Western Ireland. A glaciated georama, it visually embodies spookiness. Even Oliver Cromwell said of it ‘a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury one’. I’m sure that some thriller/horror writer has dealt with it before, though I haven’t personally, and I’d love to get there at some point.



The Hellfire Caves in the Chiltern Hills near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. A tourist attraction for many years now, they have a genuine arcane history, having played host to Francis Dashwood’s infamous Hellfire Club of the 18th century, which saw drunken reprobates from the local aristocracy indulge in orgies, black magic and even (allegedly) human sacrifice. If I ever do manage to set some fiction there, I’ll be late to the party as Hammer Horror beat me to it years ago, having filmed To the Devil a Daughter there back in 1976.



Possibly the world’s most famous avenue of beech trees, the Dark Hedges, which run along the Bregagh Road near Armoy in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland. HBO’s Game of Thrones has immortalised this remarkable sight, making it into a world-famous tourist attraction, which probably renders it useless for my purposes now – it’s only a road at the end of the day, but Hell, what a road! It could so easily be a movie set, but it’s a genuine piece of nature, the trees first planted in 1775.



Now a deceptive one. This is the idyllic Blue Lagoon in the hills near Buxton, Derbyshire. Looks gorgeous, doesn’t it? Fancy a dip on a nice summer’s day? Well … best not to, because the water is only that lush blue colour thanks to being toned blue by toxic chemicals leaching from the surrounding rocks. Plus, it’s not a lagoon or even a lake, it’s a flooded quarry which just beneath the surface is filled with car wrecks, dead animals and human excrement. It has no esoteric history as far as I know, but it’s just so damned nasty that I can’t ignore it forever. (As a footnote, it’s recently been dyed jet-black to stop people swimming).



Back in the world of folklore and fable, the Beetham Fairy Steps, on the border between Lancashire and Cumbria, offer chilling false promises. They’re a natural rock formation, unless you believe the rumours that the faeries carved them. If so, and you venture down, making a wish en route, and manage not to touch the sides before you reach the bottom, your wish will supposedly be granted. But ensure that a so-called shade is not coming up at the same time; a dark form with glowing eyes – encounter this and it means you are doomed to die very soon.



Further south in my home county of Lancashire, we have Pendle Hill, notorious for the 12 female inhabitants of the region accused of causing death by witchcraft in 1612, tried for their lives and then (ten of them, at least) hanged. It’s a bleak, windswept place, undeniably eerie on desolate autumn days, but it’s beautiful too in a wild wilderness kind of way. At least part of its evil reputation stems from visitors venturing up there on dark Halloween nights, losing their way and falling down ditches and into gullies. I’ve written many times about rural Lancashire, but never about Pendle Hill itself. 



There aren’t many places in the British Isles where you can shake hands with an 800-years-old mummy, but the crypt of St Michan’s Church, Dublin, is one. Believe it or not, a legal glitch enables visitors to have physical contact with certain of these dried-out, 11th century corpses, as Church Law only forbade the opening of the caskets, not the touching of their contents – and the caskets have collapsed under their own weight, whereas natural chemicals in the walls are believed to have preserved the bodies. Rumour holds that Bram Stoker was first inspired to write about the undead after visiting this nightmarish place.



High in the Yorkshire Dales lies Trollers Gill, wherein strange deaths have been recorded since the 14th century. The name of the gorge hints at early stories that trolls would lie in wait along the top and throw heavy stones down on anyone passing below – and indeed there are reports of lone travellers who have died under falling rocks. Meanwhile, the Gill is most famous for the Barghest, or ‘hill ghost’, a terrifying demon dog, said by some to have been brought here by the Danes as a mythological weapon of mass destruction. One glance from its fiery eyes is certain death. (The image is by Matt O’Brien).



There’s surely no more picturesque nor more tragic a place in Britain than Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands. Featured in many movies because it is quite simply beyond beautiful, it’s also the scene of bitter betrayal and foul, bloody murder. Little wonder that when night falls and the mist rolls down the hillsides, the shadowy forms of the massacred MacDonalds – callously slain in 1692 by the same government forces they had recently fed and sheltered –  are said to roam the silent glens. (The image comes to us from Travels with a Kilt).



The spectacularly spooky Mary King’s Close underneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Said to be rife with ghosts, this fascinating visitor attraction comprises several streets remaining from the 17th century, which were simply buried under new architecture in the 18th and eventually forgotten. Rumours abound that murder victims and plague sufferers still haunt its claustrophobic confines, while it’s now been proven that the Close once ran alongside the Nor Loch, a mini lake into which the city’s sewers discharged, leaving it so vile and polluted that it gave off poisonous fumes. Surely, no writer on the dark side can resist underground Edinburgh for long? But just in case you think you can, look more closely at the picture. Is that an hallucination caused by foul gas … or an honest to goodness spectre?  (The image comes to us from the Real Mary King’s Close).


British and Irish Top 10 spooky spots where my fictional characters have already trodden … 


No, not the entrance to Mordor, but Castle Crag at the north end of Borrowdale in the Lake District. In my 2014 thriller novel, DEAD MAN WALKING, I transplanted it, cairns and all, to the Langdale Pikes. You may recall that Heck followed it up through thick fog to a ghastly ruin of a house, where something very nasty awaited him. (Picture by Tim Parkin).



Red Sand Towers, a World War II anti-aircraft emplacement still standing in the Thames estuary in Kent. I renamed it Blacksand Tower for my 2013 thriller novel, STALKERS. Anyone who read it may recall that Heck was marooned there at the mercy of a psychotic hitman.



Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. An extensive spread of marsh, broad and reedbed mostly owned by the National Trust. It doesn’t look too scary, but there are many fenland myths attached to it – lantern-men, witches, black dogs, and the fearsome, vampire-like mere-wives. I went all out to make it as scary as possible in my aptly-titled horror story of 2012, Wicken Fen.



The notoriously scary Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor in Devon, in legend the kennels of the nightmarish Yeth Hounds, Satan’s pack, or Odin’s depending on which era of folklore particularly interests you. I hope I managed to capture its demonic aura properly in my horror story of 2009, We, Who Live in the Wood.



Where else but Highgate Cemetery in North London? Okay, I know it’s not really Highgate Cemetery; it’s actually a still from the Weeping Angels on Dr Who, but it appears on so many websites dedicated to London’s most famous and ancient graveyard that I thought I’d try to cheat you all too. I haven’t written anything set in Highgate Cemetery yet … but I am doing in my next-but-one thriller novel, which unfortunately I can’t name at this stage.



Lindisfarne, better known as Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast. A mystical, majestic place rather than somewhere that’s likely to haunt you, but a wealth of myths are attached to it, while the actual history is bloody enough, the Viking raid of 793 leaving the island’s small population, both monks and lay-folk, slaughtered en masse. There was plenty more violence there in my thriller novel of 2014, THE KILLING CLUB, which saw Heck take refuge on the island while being pursued by a gang of terrorists. (Picture by Swalby).



A pic from the recent past now, because Dreamland, at Margate, has since been revamped and reopened. But when I saw it a few years ago, it was one of several abandoned theme parks in the UK, all of which combine that strange air of melancholy mingled with menace. I was inspired to include one such ruined fun park in my seaside horror story of 2014, The Incident at North Shore.



The one and only Long Meg and Her Daughters site in Cumbria, with me included just to prove that I’ve been there. One of our most spectacular Neolithic henges, some of the stones still displaying visible Bronze Age carvings. Mythology tells how they were witches transformed into rock by an angry saint. But pagan groups still celebrate there – the evidence of rituals is widely to be seen, and I made extensive use of it in my Lovecraftian novella of 2002, Long Meg and Her Daughters.



The fathomless, ever-mysterious Loch Morar, in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Over 1,000 feet in depth, it’s the deepest, darkest freshwater body in the British Isles. Needless to say, it’s got its own monster legend, occasional sightings of a huge, unidentified creature having led to the tale of Morag, ‘the Harbinger of death, the giant swimmer in deep green Morar’, an impressive quote I remember from somewhere but can’t quite put my finger on. Anyway, I visited the loch in my horror story of 2015, The House of the Hag. (The picture is by Andrew Hillhouse).



Back to the Lake District with my final selection, not because the Lodore Falls have got any reputation within folklore, but simply because they are so spectacular and because I was yet again able to transplant them to somewhere else in the Lake District for the sake of dramatic license. In my thriller novel of 2014, DEAD MAN WALKING, I really indulged myself, sending Heck on a frantic downhill boat-race with a serial killer. I used the Lodore Falls as the model, relocating them to the high Langdales and renaming them the Cragwood Race. If you feel this isn’t quite as good a pic as the others, that’s because I took it myself. Sorry about that. 

(I've included photo credits wherever I could find them, though many of these images were simply floating around online. The dramatic picture at the very top comes from Visit Wiltshire. The short stories I reference were first published as follows: Wicken Fen in Terror Tales of East Anglia; We, Who Live in the Wood in Black Static 14; The Incident at North Shore in Terror Tales of Wales; Long Meg and Her Daughters in Children of Cthulhu; The House of the Hag in The 2nd Spectral Book of Horror Stories).


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS BOOK OF FOLK HORROR 
ed by Rosemary Pardoe (2018)

An enthralling anthology of macabre supernatural tales, some old and some brand new, but all drawing heavily on folklore, primarily of the British variety, and written in the style and tone of MR James.

Initially, rather than outline all the stories contained here, I’ll let the official Sarob Press blurb do the talking, as it nicely pitches the chills and thrills to come.

Sarob Press is delighted to present a superb collection of Jamesian folk horror tales. Ten have been selected from the pages of editor Rosemary Pardoe’s journals Ghosts & Scholars and The Ghosts & Scholars MR James Newsletter – and seven are newly written especially for this volume. The previously published stories date from as early as 1980 and as recently as 2015.

Here, you’ll find folk horror in a variety of expected and unexpected settings, from ancient burial mounds in Wiltshire and East Anglia to a park in Liverpool, by way of ruins in Ireland and the countryside villages of the Lake District, Dorset, Derbyshire and an unspecified southern county. In the new stories the settings range further afield and include Scotland and Greece. In one case, while the setting is Scotland, the folk horror comes terrifyingly from pre-war Germany.

For the uninitiated, Ghosts & Scholars, which Rosemary Pardoe also edits, is a long-running and very informative magazine, which as well as encouraging scholarly research into MR James (a noted academic as well as a famous writer of ghost stories), includes new fiction written in the Jamesian fashion, articles, reviews and atmospheric artwork.

To my mind, there’s always been a correlation between James’ style of writing and the concept of folk horror, a subgenre that has long been with us, but which has returned to the public’s attention in a big way after the release of recent horror movies like The Ritual, Borderlands, Wake Wood, A Field in England etc.

All that said, I don’t think the two forms are necessarily the same thing.

MR James is widely regarded as the architect of the modern English ghost story, focussing on arcane but mainly fictional mysteries, often setting his tales in the world of antiquarians, where scholarly meddlers arouse the ire of supernatural malcontents by seeking out musty treasures of the past. James died in 1936, so invariably the bulk of his stories occur in the first quarter of the 20th century, a period very familiar to traditionalist ghost story fans, and while many modern authors who’ve been influenced by him have set their fiction in our own age, the gentlemanly tone often remains.

James’ stories frequently take us to countryside locations, Lost Hearts and A View from a Hill for example, or isolated stretches of coast, such as in A Warning to the Curious. Though, in my mind this still doesn’t automatically equate with folk horror; sometimes there’s a more occultic feel to his fiction, such as with Casting the Runes or Number 13, or they may be straight tales of vengeance from beyond, like The Mezzotint and, most famously of all, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

Ultimately, I suppose it depends how you define folk horror, which is also a bit of a conundrum as opinions on that vary widely. To some, it must reverberate with archaic lore and pre-Christian tradition derived from the land and the turning year, whereas to others it’s all things rural, from standing stones and faerie rings to time-honoured village murder mysteries.

To me, it’s simpler still: folk horror is horror fiction derived from recognisable folklore. There needs be nothing more to it than that.

Even then, I can’t see an unavoidable link between folk horror and Jamesian horror. But that’s me being finickity, because, as I also said, they certainly make for very cosy bedfellows, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that Rosemary Pardoe has been able to raid the innumerable back-copies of Ghosts & Scholars for reprints and at the same time acquire some quality new fiction from modern Jamesian writers to put together this very effective and chilling anthology.

In some stories, as you’d expect, James’ favorite theme of vengeful revenants is to the fore: in Geoffrey Warburton’s The Lane for example, where a simple grassy path appears to lead into another dimension controlled by an evil force that was summoned in times past, or in Chico Kidd’s Figures in a Landscape, where an investigation of some old Irish ruins leads to near-disaster.

At the same time, in others we’re talking full florid folk horror. Philip Thompson’s Beatrix Paints a Landscape (1884), sees the Lake District’s most famous resident encounter a menacing woodland entity – the polar opposite of the friendly Lakeland creatures she so lovingly wrote about and drew, in Carole Tyrrell’s Lorelei we’re concerned with a village well, the dark goddess dwelling at the bottom of it, and the terrible effect she has on those who hear her call, while in SA Rennnie’s Out of the Water, Out of the Ground, one of several truly excellent stories contained herein, we face the full terror of what it would mean to be at war with the little people.

This of course is a key factor in any work of horror fiction: how highly did it score on the scareometer?

In that regard, The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror is pretty satisfactory. As I’ve already mentioned, Out of the Water, Out of the Ground is especially frightening, but Michael Chislett gets us there too with Meeting Mr Ketchum, in which a hot Lammas Day sees two youngsters casually disturb an East Anglian tumulus, which unfortunately for them, is not undefended, while in CE Ward’s The Spinney, a deceptively simple tale, a motorist stranded in the Derbyshire wilds is inexplicably pursued across a desolate landscape by two increasingly menacing figures.

Possibly the two scariest stories in the entire book, however, are traceable back to my native Northwest: Christopher Harman’s genuinely bone-chilling Sisters Rise, which is centred around an eerie megalith on a lonely Lancashire hillside, and Ramsey Campbell’s short but effective The Burning, set in the depths of urban Liverpool on a cold Bonfire Night. Campbell needs no introduction of horror aficionados, of course, but The Burning is a particularly strong entry because, despite its brevity, it examines the brutal origins of November 5th, the mob mentality of sectarian violence and the victimising of the innocent.

It’s no surprise that we get such an intelligent message from Campbell, but there are other entries in the book that are equally thought-provoking.

Gail-Nina Anderson’s intriguing Variant Versions follows the quest to pin down the truth about an obscure rural ballad, the author balancing the scare factor, which is very subtle, with a genuine academic enquiry into the feminist origins of old country tales. In The Walls, meanwhile, by the ever-reliable Terry Lamsley (whose valuable contributions to the genre sadly seem to have ended years ago now), an attempt to investigate an old lead mine invokes a very different and unusual kind of entity, while in The Valley of Achor, Helen Grant takes us to the Perthshire wilderness, where an ancient pagan site has found a unique and disturbing way to reclaim itself from the new religion imposed on it during the Christian conversion.

There are other stories in the book which I haven’t yet mentioned, but that’s basically because we’re out of room. Put it this way, none disappoint. This is a lively and engaging anthology, filled with often gentle and yet hair-raising tales. What it eschews in terms of excessive blood and guts, it more than makes up for in its intelligence and its undoubted style, and of course, in its air of creeping dread. I feel sure that Dr James would have been delighted to get involved.

And now …

THE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS BOOK OF FOLK HORROR 
– the movie.

Just a bit of fun. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but they are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium 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 relate spooky stories. It could be that they’re all held in separate cells in a mental hospital, eager to tell their individual tales to the new house-man (a la Asylum) or find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (as in Dead of Night) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Sisters Rise (by Christopher Harman): A teacher-turned-local historian spends his retirement at the Forest of Bowland Visitor Centre, Lancashire. When a bunch of schoolchildren are terrified on Sisters Rise, where their tree-rubbings reveal faces in the bark, he investigates, but it’s a fearsome task. At the heart of the Rise stands the monstrous sandstone megalith, Tall Maud…

Rodney – Mark Addy
Ann Allan – Emily Beecham
Marjorie – Miranda Richardson

The Burning (by Ramsey Campbell): Recently rendered unemployed, Liverpudlian lad Blake attends the Guy Fawkes celebrations downtown in a sour and angry state. He yearns to punish those who, to his mind at least, are the cause of his redundancy. But he isn’t the only one out that night looking to scapegoat someone else for their troubles …

Blake – Matt Ryan

The Discontent of Familiars (by John Llewellyn Probert): A middle-aged academic inherits big money and uses it to buy a rural cottage, once allegedly the home of a witch whose familiar was a raven. He soon becomes convinced that an evil presence remains, and is increasingly afraid of the woods across the river, which are filled with ravens …

John Wilson – Tobias Menzies
Doctor – Andy Nyman

Out of the Water, Out of the Ground (by SA Rennie): An art-school guy is summoned to an isolated castle in the Cairngorms, where a friend is living in a state of mortal if irrational terror, convinced that recent blasphemies by his late father, the death of his brother in an overseas war and the rape of the land by industry and technology have aroused the ire of the local dwarves …

James – James McArdle
His friend – Will Poulter

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Eerie East Anglia, above and below ground


Well, it’s not quite New Year yet, but this is likely to be the last time I speak to you all before 2019, so it seems an appropriate time to say Happy New Year and to wish you all every success and prosperity in the months ahead.

On the personal front, my next novel, STOLEN, which is book 3 in the Lucy Clayburn saga, will be published on May 16. That’s some way off yet, I know, and as such, I still haven’t got any cover artwork for you. But the official back-cover blurb has now appeared online, and so I’m going to run that today before I do anything else.

Staying on the subject of lady cops, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Elly Griffiths’ intriguing mystery-thriller, THE CHALK PIT, which sees her female investigator, Dr Ruth Galloway, head into the tunnels underneath Norwich, where something truly odious may be going on.

As usual, you'll find the Elly Griffiths review at the lower end of today’s blogpost. But talking about Norwich and odious, I’m also moved today to muse a little on East Anglia, and the mythical horrors that may lurk amid its flat fields, gentle broads and deceptively pretty woodlands – particularly in regard to an anthology I edited, which was published several years ago, called TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA.

But more about that later. First up, here’s the latest on the Lucy Clayburn front.

Missing without trace

Regular followers of this column will know that Lucy Clayburn is a young street-cop – a detective now, though she started out in uniform – in the fictional Crowley district of Manchester, and who, though she technically works divisional CID, frequently gets embroiled in much darker and more complex enquiries.

She’s appeared in two of my novels to date: STRANGERS in 2016, and SHADOWS in 2017, and will be hitting the bookshelves again in May next year.

Here, as promised, is the official blurb for the next book:

How do you find the missing when there’s no trail to follow?

DC Lucy Clayburn is having a tough time of it. Not only is her estranged father one of the North West’s toughest gangsters, but she is in the midst of one of the biggest police operations of her life.

Members of the public have started to disappear, taken from the streets as they’re going about their every day lives. But no bodies are appearing – it’s almost as if the victims never existed.

Lucy must chase a trail of dead ends and false starts as the disappearances mount up. But when her father gets caught in the crossfire, the investigation suddenly becomes a whole lot bloodier…

The Sunday Times bestseller returns with his latest nail-shredding thriller – a must for all fans of Happy Valley and M.J. Arlidge.

 A cheerless realm

And now back to East Anglia. But before today’s Thrillers, Chillers section focusses on Norwich-set Gothic crime novel, THE CHALK PIT, I must talk a little about that anthology I edited back in 2012, TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA.

This was the third volume in my round-the-UK antho series, which I started in 2011. The ethos of the Terror Tales books has always been to mingle local fact with local fiction, with a heavy emphasis on folklore – and of course to terrify readers out of their wits. (This has been the format throughout the series, and the format we’ll continue to use when, next year, my Terror Tales publishers, Telos Publishing, and I, will be going all out to get TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND ready for an autumn release).

Before I say anything else about the East Anglian anthology (seven years old last September), please allow me to explain why I’m even thinking about it at the end of 2018.

Frankly … it’s because of the time of year.

We’ve got some snow and ice forecast for next month, but at present Britain is a typical dreary scene: drab, leafless woods, grey, gloom-shrouded moorland, skies colourless and cold, any abandoned buildings, follies, disused bridges or railway tunnels, or other curious, unearthly structures standing desolate and alone in a landscape devoid of life.

Doesn’t that start to make you think MR James?

Whether it does or doesn’t, it always starts to make me think of the old ghost story master. Though, maybe this is as much the influence of the many television adaptations as it is the wonderfully frightening stories that he, himself, penned.

Because, though many of his eerie fictions were set at Christmas, or written to be read at Christmas, and in later decades became regarded as ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ (the famous BBC adaptations of the 1970s can now be bought together on DVD under that very title), they actually contain very few Christmassy elements. Oh yes, he frequently touches on the religious side of it – Midnight Mass, the Nine Lessons and Carols, etc – but the tales are quite spartan when it comes to festive trappings. We aren’t overly concerned with Christmas trees, or Yule logs, or wassailing, or even that staple of so many Christmas stories – snow.

So, though they are undoubtedly winter tales, they don’t always feel as if Christmas – at least, the Dickensian Christmas that we all know and love – is an essential ingredient, instead depicting the rural landscape of eastern England where so many of them are set (Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex), in the bleakest way imaginable. Okay, I know that’s not the whole story, but that’s very much my personal perception of the archetypal Jamesian backdrop, and that’s why, when we’ve finally worked our way through the festive bun-fight, and found ourselves with the bulk of the winter still stretching ahead, and especially if it’s as snowless and cheerless as this one, I inevitably find myself drawn to the writings of MR James and to the Jamesian school of horror writers.

Which brings me neatly back to TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA.

When I first commissioned a bunch of authors to send me some terrifying tales for this book, I didn’t specify that they needed to be written in the style of MR James, but almost inevitably, links were made, and a Jamesian tone generated.

Its back-cover blurb, which I wrote after selecting the stories, is perhaps a clearer indication of this:

East Anglia – a drear, flat land of fens and broads, lone gibbets and isolated cottages, where demon dogs howl in the night, witches and warlocks lurk at every crossroads, and corpse-candles burn in the marshland mist …

The giggling horror of Dagworth – The wandering torso of Happisburgh – The vile apparitions at Wicken – The slavering beast of Rendlesham – The faceless evil on Wallasea – The killer hounds of Southery – The dark guardian of Wandlebury ...

And so now, to celebrate this for no other reason than the weather being Jamesian and the mood very Jamesian (at least to me), I proudly present …

East Anglian terrors on film

Now, first of all, this is not a real thing. Not by any means. (Not yet, anyway).

But you may recall that, earlier this year, I decided to alter my regular Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers section by occasionally reviewing and discussing anthologies and single-author collections as well as novels, and each time, of course, selecting four particular stories from the book in question, which I’d love to see incorporated into a single movie, and giving them my usual fantasy cast.

Well … I’ve still got no anthologies ready to review at present, though plenty reside in my to-be-read pile. So, in the meantime, and just for a bit of a laugh, I’m keeping my hand in by doing it with the Terror Tales books. Obviously, I won’t be reviewing them as well, as that would be a bit incestuous (even though they are all brilliant), but at least I can turn each one into a portmanteau horror movie all of my own. You may recall that on May 16, we did it with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, and on July 4 with TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL. And so, totally keeping up with that theme, here is is …

TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA – the movie

As I say, just a bit of fun. No film-maker has optioned this book yet, or any of the stories inside it, but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed. 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 a compendium 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 relate spooky stories. It could be that they visit a series of sideshows in a run-down fair hosted by a mysterious, vaguely demonic showman, (remember Torture Garden?) or force entry to an eerie old wax museum, where each one of them finds his/her reflection in one of several ghastly effigies (Waxwork, anyone?) – but basically, it’s up to you.

So, without further ado, here are the stories and the casts I envisage performing in them:       


The Watchman (by Roger Johnson)

Woolton Minster, a Norman church deep in rural Suffolk, is a nondescript religious building, not particularly handsome, nor especially rich, but it contains some precious vessels and boasts several horrific gargoyles, including one that stands almost ten feet in height. Thomas Drinkhall, a Scrooge-like local merchant, who has recently lost everything through misadventure, is unimpressed by this menacing figure, and as he carries a spare key to the church, resolves to rob the place. Night falls and Drinkhall secretly enters the ancient building, but it isn’t long before he starts to suspect that something else is there, something that moves with heavy, clumping feet …

Tomasina Drinkhall (for the sake of gender diversity) – Kathy Bates


Wicken Fen (by Paul Finch - sorry guys, but I’m never going to pass a chance to put my own work on film)

Middle-aged Londoners, Trevor and Gerry, take a weekend’s break away from their wives, hiring a narrow-boat on the Cambridgeshire broads, at the same time eyeing up girls and drinking lots of beer. But stresses soon emerge in their relationship, Gerry wanting to do more than just oggle the talent, and Trevor soon missing home. However, when they spy two young ladies who think nothing of sunbathing nude, even Trevor’s head is turned. He wants to stay loyal to his wife back home, but this nubile twosome are sexiness personified. Unfortunately, neither man has heard anything about the East Anglian myth of the terrifying mere-wives ...

Trevor English – Hugh Grant
Gerry Axewood – Jason Isaacs


Deep Water (by Christopher Harman)

Musician Peter Belloes might be having an affair with pretty young Elise, but when his wife, Celine, goes missing in their seaside hometown, he gets worried. Celine, a novelist who specialised in adapting East Anglian myths as children’s stories, was investigating the legend of the nightmarish Seagrim, which has clearly been a darker-than-usual project. The oddly odious Detective Sergeant Trench suspects that Celine drowned herself because of her husband’s infidelity, the Seagrim merely a metaphor for this. But Belloes isn’t even sure Celine is dead, especially when he starts to catch glimpses of her dripping-wet figure in various spots around town …

Peter Belloes – Colin Firth
Detective Sergeant Trench – Timothy Spall


Wolferton Hall (by James Doig)

Medievalist, Hugh Terne, is given permission to occupy Throgmorton Hall in the wilds of Norfolk. There are plenty of documents to dig through, but a two-panelled fresco really catches his eye, depicting on one side the funeral of a murder victim and on the other a terrified man being chased by a skeleton. It creates an eerie atmosphere in the lonely manor house, as does the story that the Throgmorton family came into possession of the property after swindling it from a reputed sorcerer, who duly cursed the property. Is the curse still in force? And is there any truth in the rumour that it involves that infamous East Anglian demon, Black Shuck himself … 

Julie Terne (again for the sake of gender diversity) – Nathalie Emmanuel
        

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE CHALK PIT 
by Elly Griffiths (2017)

Professor Ruth Galloway is Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. She also works regularly for the local Serious Crimes Unit (and its rugged, adversarial boss, DCI Harry Nelson) as a forensic investigator, but this is rural East Anglia, and as the largest nearby towns are Norwich and King’s Lynn, no one would expect Galloway to find herself on regular secondment to the police. However, that isn’t the case. Over the years, she’s had enough involvement in murder enquiries to consider the cops her colleagues, but on this occasion, it is Galloway herself who sets the ball rolling when she is summoned into the chalk workings underneath Norwich to examine some recently discovered bones.

Ordinarily, she’d expect these to be ancient and therefore of greater interest to the university than the local homicide team, only for her initial examination to show that not only are they relatively recent, but that they’ve been boiled clean – which might indicate that the unfortunate victim was cooked and eaten after he/she was killed.

This is hardly music to the ears of handsome architect Quentin Swan, who, though he is the one who called Galloway in, is looking to develop a subterranean shopping mall and food court, and now realises that he must put his obsessive dream on hold. Harry Nelson, meanwhile, is looking into the disappearance of a homeless woman called Babs. It isn’t a high priority, especially as other members of the local homeless community are proving unwilling to talk. But then he gets word – from an unreliable source, admittedly, but it’s unnerving nonetheless – that Babs has been ‘taken underground’.

No one really knows what this means, but further investigation uncovers rumours that a nameless group is dwelling in the labyrinthine passages beneath the city streets, not just the sewers, cellars and crypts, but in the same chalk workings that Ruth Galloway is investigating.

Galloway and Nelson are unsure what to make of this. It could be just a myth, but these stories won’t go away – and now there is the potential cannibal angle. Is it conceivable, as the scholarly Dr Martin Kellerman suggests, that some mysterious branch of the homeless community have not just become troglodytes, but are now hunting humans as food?

It’s almost too horrible to contemplate, but there are other sinister developments that seem to confirm this suspicion. Two of the homeless men who’ve admitted to knowing Babs and who seem to possess knowledge about what happened to her are found brutally murdered, one on the police station steps. In response, the whole machinery of the law swings into action, the division’s very correct Superintendent Jo Archer, determined that, at the very least, they have a serial killer on their patch who must be stopped.

Of course, fear that it may even be worse than that – namely that the killer is protecting a cannibal clan – preys on all their minds, and this is the kind of distraction that no one in The Chalk Pit needs. Because despite all outward appearances, this is quite a dysfunctional unit.

To start with, Galloway and Nelson once had a fling, during the course of which Galloway became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. This is particularly awkward for Nelson, as he already has a wife, Michelle, who now knows about the affair and its illegitimate offspring, and resignedly accepts it, and two older legitimate daughters as well, who are still unaware that they have a half-sister. Nelson finds himself walking this tightrope every time he and Galloway work together, while his most able underlings – Detective Sergeants Judy Johnson and David ‘Cloughie’ Clough – are the opposite ends of the spectrum politically (Judy’s boyfriend, Michael ‘Cathbad’ Malone, is a practising druid while Cloughie likes beer and football!) and are often like fire and water with each other.

And then, as if all this means they haven’t already got enough to deal with, the stakes are raised dramatically, when a young, well-to-do mother vanishes from her own home, and once again rumours start circulating that she has been ‘taken underground’ …

My first thoughts on reading The Chalk Pit was that it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin. It’s difficult to elaborate on that point without revealing too much of the synopsis. But I’ve said it now, so I’m going to have to offer some kind of explanation.

The blurb for this book provides us with a real hook:

Boiled human bones have been found in Norwich’s web of underground tunnels. When forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway discovers the bones aren’t as old as originally thought, it’s time for DCI Nelson to launch a murder inquiry. What was initially just a medieval curiosity has taken a much more sinister nature …

Local academic Martin Kellerman knows all about the tunnels and their history – but can his assertions of cannibalism and ritual killing possibly be true?

On this basis, it would be very easy to get stuck into this book expecting to find a cannibal tribe lurking under the streets of Norwich. But suffice to say that there isn’t anything like the blood and thunder this might lead you to anticipate. 

Does that mean the book is disappointing?

Well … it all depends on what you were hoping for. Regular readers of the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, and The Chalk Pit comes ninth in that series, will know that they aren’t for the squeamish, but that there is still a degree of cosiness about them. They are solid procedurals, even though the main protagonist is not a copper. And the crimes that Galloway and her police allies investigate, while often grisly, are rarely OTT.

It’s true that the books often come wrapped in jackets adorned with Gothic imagery, which could easily make you think that we’re in supernatural territory. But we aren’t; Elly Griffiths writes crime fiction, not horror. But such imagery isn’t totally misplaced as her books bounce joyously around ancient borough towns like Norwich and King’s Lynn, which are rich in East Anglian history and can boast their fair share of dramatic and violent events – everything from Celtic resistance to the Romans, to Saxon resistance to the Normans, and on into the witch-hunting era (which saw one poor wretch not hanged or burned, but boiled alive!). All of this gives her novels a richly esoteric flavour, and The Chalk Pit is particularly good in this regard. It concerns itself with many contemporary issues, such as child protection, class distinction, homelessness, but there are also hints of the Grand Guignol, with much to do concerning medieval buildings like churches and guildhalls, and of course that eerie network of long-forgotten tunnels snaking beneath the city streets.

Galloway herself is an archaeologist, whose main interest is antiquity and for whom the discovery of a pile of human bones is usually a source of delight rather than despair. Then there are characters like Cathbad, who harks back to the beliefs of those eldritch days predating Christianity. Oh yes, The Chalk Pit, like all of Elly Griffiths’ work, is rammed with local colour and local lore. Just don’t expect it to be gory or terrifying.

That said, the novel’s criminal investigation is deeply intriguing, and a genuine page-turner, particularly after Cloughie’s girlfriend, Cassandra, is kidnapped. I reckon I flew through the final third of the book. But at least half the jeopardy in this narrative doesn’t stem from the police enquiry, so much as from the tense relationships between characters.

This is particularly effective where Galloway and Nelson are concerned, their unrequited love providing the book’s emotional core. The irony here, of course, is that Galloway is a very modern woman. Independent-minded and successful, she doesn’t need a man in her life, but she wants Nelson. He, already married and with two grown-up daughters, is equally tortured, because while he loves Galloway, he dotes on his existing family too. And it’s all nicely understated. There are no outbursts here, no hysterical tears. The duo just gets on with it, working together quietly in that staid, stiff-upper-lip British way, but secretly enjoying the contacts they have with each other.

The rest of the cops – and The Chalk Pit is very much an ensemble piece, rather than exclusively a ‘Ruth Galloway adventure’ – are instantly recognisable as the sort of people you’d meet in any real-life police station.

Judy Johnson, another modern female, is confident, terse, leaning a little towards authoritarianism, and yet somehow just right for the off-the-wall man in her life, Cathbad. Then there is Cloughie, who is much more ‘old school’, and yet whose working-class origins ensure that he gets a rapport going with the many homeless characters they encounter. (On the subject of the homeless, and there are plenty in this book, I feel the author delivers an idealised picture of them. While they are all clearly damaged, few appear deeply troubled, instead spreading good will and happiness wherever they go – which I’m sorry to say I didn’t buy).

That only leaves us with the villains, though I don’t want to talk too much about them for fear of giving vital stuff away. But put it this way: we have an entire array of suspects by the end of this book. They’re all totally believable – none are slotted in as obvious red herrings, and all emerge under their own steam, Griffiths gradually persuading us without actually needing to say it that any one of them could be the killer.

But no more about that now; as I say, no further spoilers here.

Like all good novels, The Chalk Pit is not just about what’s happening on the surface. All through the book there is an interesting if subliminal discussion about the absence of faith in the modern day. Quite a few of the characters are hostile to religion, but as the case progresses, more and more are drawn to reminisce about their religious upbringing when they were young, and while there isn’t any obvious regret that it’s all gone, some of them start to recognise an emptiness in their lives, and increasingly as they suspect they’re up against a horrific evil, they feel less and less equipped to deal with it. It didn’t escape my notice that two of the most contented characters in the book are Cathbad, the druid, and Paul Pritchard, the born again ex-bank robber. And it won’t go unnoticed by anyone that, towards the end of the book, two characters who previously were planning to get hitched in a registry office, change their plans and opt for a church wedding instead.

The Chalk Pit is a great example of a fast, multi-layered (literally) and very well-written British police thriller, the sort you could easily imagine being put on television. A straightforward murder case, but believably presented and built around characters you care about. As long as you aren’t led by the blurb to expect gaudy displays of Dark Ages carnage, you should enjoy this one thoroughly.

As usual now, in the event that Ruth Galloway does end up on TV sometime, I’m going to try and pre-empt everyone by nominating my own cast. Just a bit of fun of course, but here are my picks for who ought to play the leads should The Chalk Pit ever make it to the screen:

Dr Ruth Galloway – Emily Watson
DCI Harry Nelson – Christopher Eccleston
Michelle Nelson – Jessica Hynes
DS Judy Johnson – Katie McGrath
Michael ‘Cathbad’ Malone – Kevin Doyle
Supt. Jo Archer – Helen Baxendale
DS David Clough – Kevin Fletcher
Cassandra Blackstock – Sophia Jayne Myles
Quentin Swan – Jason Hughes
Paul Pritchard – Patrick Baladi
Dr David Kellerman – Jeff Rawle