Wednesday, 20 September 2023

During dark days in the autumn of the year


Today, I’m delighted to be able to show off the stonking cover for my next historical novel, BATTLE LORD, which is out in January, and which as those interested may have guessed, is a direct sequel to USURPER, published last April. You’ll find that a few paragraphs down, where I’ll also give a brief intro to BATTLE LORD.

In addition this week, because I’m reminded with each passing day by the slowly turning weather and leaves, that we’re now into the last quadrant of the year, I’ll be giving another plug to my autumn novella, SEASON OF MIST (hopefully in an imaginative way, which will be more than just a straightforward advert), and in addition to all that, in the Thrillers, Chillers section, which you’ll find at the lower end of today’s post, will be reviewing and discussing Max Brooks’s terrifying tale of the Pacific Northwest, DEVOLUTION.

So, lots to get through today. But before anything else, as promised, here’s the jacket art for my next historical novel, BATTLE LORD, the sequel to USURPER, which will be published on January 8. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s pretty damn eye-catching.

I’ll be talking a lot more about BATTLE LORD in the coming weeks and months, but very quickly for those who are intrigued already, it picks up only a couple of days after the point where USURPER ends, with 17-year-old Cerdic Aelfriccson, the sole surviving son of Earl Rothgar of Ripon, and one of the few English survivors of the battle of Hastings, now wounded, disoriented and riddled with despair. He is a prisoner of the Normans and already being mistreated to the very edge of death. However, Cerdic is determined to survive. Not only that; he is determined to win back everything he has lost.

His family’s home in Swaledale, in Northumbria, and their central fortification, Wulfbury, were captured by a splinter-group from the Viking army of Harald ‘the Hardraada’ Sigurdsson, a Norse leader of great renown. However, though the Hardraada was slain shortly afterwards at the battle of Stamford Bridge, those who captured Wulfbury still hang onto it, bent on making it the centre of their own Northern English powerbase.

Cerdic is already formulating a plan for their destruction, but first he must somehow get past this latest horde of invaders, the near-invincible army of William the Conqueror.

As I say, BATTLE LORD, though it’s available for pre-order right now, is only published next January, when it will be available in ebook, paperback and on Audible. If you like your medieval adventures red as raw meat, filled with blood and thunder, this one should be for you, though of course, if you haven’t tried USURPER yet, which is the first in the series, I strongly recommend that you make a beeline for that one straight away.

And now, on a somewhat different note, let’s dive into some …

Autumn chills

People who read a lot of my work may be aware that one of the pieces I’m most proud of is the novella, SEASON OF MIST, which was first published in the collection, WALKERS IN THE DARK, in 2010, (now long out of print) but was re-released as a stand-alone publication by Brentwood Press in 2019.

A horror/thriller set in 1974, it is partly autobiographical, and it follows the fortunes of a small group of school-age children in an industrial Lancashire town, who are increasingly convinced that the serial killer currently targeting the town’s young is an evil spirit resurrected from a nearby derelict coal mine, known simply as Red Clogs. (It is NOT, by the way, a story for child or YA readers).

Rather than rabbit on about the story itself (there are plenty of reviews online to take care of that), I thought that today it might just be fun to have a look at the season of mist itself, the autumn (or fall, to our buddies across the Atlantic), and try to work out what it is that induces this need in us (well … certainly in me) both to read and write scary stories.

However, what I’m not going to do is repeat myself by waxing lyrical about winter being ‘the dead time’, when even the land itself appears to be in the grip of malignancy (so obviously there must be ghosts and goblins about!), or ‘the dark time’, a tradition going back millennia, when, with the harvest collected and no real work to do until early spring, all there was left was to sit around the long-hall fire, drinking mead and regaling each other with tall tales.

Primarily, this is because I’m not talking about the winter, I’m talking about the autumn.

Now, okay, let’s not split hairs. Autumn is the gateway to winter. We all know that. But it’s in the autumn when the nights start lengthening, the vegetation withers, the mist rises and all of a sudden even a walk in the woods seems a lot creepier than it did a couple of weeks earlier.

Autumn has a flavour all of its own.

So, bearing SEASON OF MIST in mind, I thought I’d take a look at this time of year – to be specific, the months of September, October and November – from my own perspective, and try to work out what it is about that period that so inspires authors of dark and fantastical fiction.

To do this, of course, I’ve got to go back to the age before the internet. The reason is simple: in the world of mass media, the autumnal horror tradition has become the whole story. You can’t go online from mid-September onward now without seeing links and adverts plastered with jack-o-lanterns, ghost faces, skulls and witches. The retailers have got involved. Even here in the UK, we’ve now adopted the full-on, Americanised version of Halloween … and in some ways, more power to its elbow (I’m not going to try to pretend I don’t love it). 

But I’m not here today to talk about that. As I say, I’m looking at a time when we were NOT force-fed ghostly stuff at this time of year, to try and establish exactly what it was about the SEASON OF MIST (see what I did there: plug, plug … sorry, I’m as bad as the rest of them) that made it the natural home of the spook story. So, backwards we go now, to those long ago ...

Happy days

Well … I may refer to my childhood experience of the autumn in such terms, but the truth is that it wasn’t always happy. Not in early September.

Just think about it.

All those sun-soaked summer days of limitless pleasure, dressed only in shorts and t-shirts, riding your bikes along leafy woodland paths, going with your mates on the train to Blackpool or Southport, playing cricket or footy all day in the park, two piles of your packed lunches providing the goal posts. Only coming home after ten o’clock, because it was that late when the sun finally went down, but getting up again at the crack of dawn, because it was already broad daylight, and doing the whole thing again … and all without a worry in the world. But then, almost overnight, (and it was overnight, because one day it was August, and then suddenly it was September), you were going back to the world of school and homework, the weather worsening around your ears, the long dark nights drawing in, the green and pleasant land of your long, rambling summer holiday slowly and systematically obliterated.

That said, kids being kids, we didn’t let it get us down for long. Once the autumn got going, you automatically became aware that it had its own delicacies.

Looking back on it, there were some curious traditions. I remember that, during the early 1970s, it was always in or around September when we started to play marbles and trump cards. The obvious explanation is with the weather deteriorating, we kids were forced to find indoor distractions. Meanwhile, the other big autumn sport when I was young was conkers, which apart from the bit where you got rollocked by adults for battering the neighbourhood’s horse-chestnut trees with sticks and stones, was the best fun ever.

(I understand that kids are not allowed to play conkers anymore; I’m sure there’s a valid reason for this in the eyes of some, but frankly, the mind boggles. How can you have the autumn and not have conkers?)

Ultimately of course, conkers and marbles had nothing whatsoever to do with the spooky side of the autumn (I merely mention them to provide some period colour). Much more relevant to this post were the special events of the season, but not perhaps in the order some might expect.

For instance, during my childhood, the main festival at this time of year was not Halloween, but November 5, Bonfire Night.

Don’t get me wrong. We were aware of Halloween, and we did celebrate it, but Halloween parties in our day tended to be organised by kids themselves, with minimal adult involvement and almost no money spent, costumes usually homemade or improvised, and tin cans with faces cut into them standing in for pumpkins and turnips. 

But for Bonfire Night, things were different. 

That was the occasion when all the stops got pulled out, when you’d intone rhyming couplets about it at school – Remember, remember, etc – when your mum would get the black peas and the treacle toffee ready, when the gruesome safety adverts would fill you with genuine horror, and on the big night itself, when the sky would glitter with pyrotechnics, and everyone’s back yard was alight with blazing piles of timber, the air thick with gunpowder smoke and echoing to whistles and shrieks …

There were so many signs in autumn that all this excitement was approaching, even as early as September.

Fireworks started appearing in every corner-shop window. You could buy them individually in those days, not just in Government-approved boxes, and chucking bangers at each other was a very popular pastime, though much frowned-upon by parents and the authorities. Pyramid-shaped bonfires, or ‘bommies’, would sprout on every scrap of wasteland, each usually with its own quota of rubber tyres on top, and would be zealously defended by those who’d built them. 

But most relevant of all to today’s post, the penny-for-the-guy gangs materialised. Bunches of eager youngsters who’d shove their Guy Fawkes effigies from door to door in wheelbarrows, asking for money, or would wait in prominent places in town centres or on the corners of housing estates.

The Guys were very strange objects: straw or newspaper-stuffed mannequins, often wearing garish masks to cover the blankness of their real faces. There was invariably an air of the grotesque about these limp and ragged replicas of humanity, not least because you knew they represented an arch-traitor who had died a barbarous death, and because they themselves would shortly be consumed by flames, to the encouraging roars of a joyful crowd.

Did this feed into the eerie side of the season?

I personally think it did. I’ve already mentioned that we marked Halloween as well. The two celebrations were only a week apart, so often your Halloween stuff was stored in the same shed as your bonfire stuff. Lifeless dummies, ugly masks and dark, dingy clothing briefly became part and parcel of the season.

But don’t assume the rough-and-ready nature of these preparations spoiled anything. For example, the cheapness of the British Halloween in that era was often compensated for by the lack of adult supervision, which meant you could get away with an awful lot. Trick or treating could sometimes get out of hand, though the main advantage of having no mums or dads around was that you could up the stakes when it came to scaring the bejeezus out of each other.

The first time I ever heard the synopsis of The Exorcist was during one of our Halloween Night ghost story sessions – bear in mind that I was about 10 at the time – and as we were all sitting around in the darkness of some dilapidated garage on the edge of derelict industrial land, it scared me half to death. Equally, we improvised a range of terrifying games: Scream Inn, Slaughter in the Dark, Werewolf By Night, which were all designed to take advantage of the opaque blackness and drifting mist on evenings in the lonesome October.

That brings me to the other key factor: the way the environment subtly changed during the autumn.

The verdant landscapes of summer (even in Wigan we had some of those) slowly morphing into something distinctly more sinister, the sun-dappled greenery becoming hanging mats of decay, tides of fallen leaves obscuring the paths and footways, scabrous, fungus-riddled tree-trunks emerging from the lank, brown foliage. Even the air smelled different. It was colder, damper. Get out into the woods and wasteland, and there was a constant reek of mildew.

It was the perfect setting for horror stories and horror games. My particular group of friends, who, frankly, were significantly braver (or more reckless) than many others of our age, would venture far from the streetlights, probing into the shadow-filled ruins of collieries and factories, or along redundant railway lines where you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, all the while telling each other more terrifying tales – about escaped lunatics and mass murderers, about the ghosts of long-dead, horribly mutilated pitmen still wandering the coal tips (yes, Red Clogs was a genuine legend of that time and place, a vengeful spectre who allegedly haunted every Lancashire colliery from Giant’s Hall, near where I lived, to Sutton Manor in St Helens), or about Nanny Green Teeth, who swam the flashes and canals looking to drown unwary youngsters, and even the Pendle Witches, whose evil souls still rode the high winds, screeching with angry glee.

But even if we hadn’t been of that inclination, the uncanny transformation of the land would have worked its spell on us, would have made us think dark thoughts whether we liked it or not.

Here’s a brief but hopefully appropriate snippet from SEASON OF MIST:

     In 1974, it was Dom’s suggestion that we hold the Halloween party in the garage at his house. That seemed like a good idea to me. It was separate from the main house, at the end of a secondary drive, and surrounded by thick evergreen shrubbery. It didn’t have any power connected to it, and even its wooden door, which was covered in flaking blue paint, had to be lifted manually to enable you to get inside. It also meant that we’d have to spend at least a few days around Dom’s house, sorting things out, and that might bring me back into the orbit of his sister, who I hadn’t seen for the best part of a month.
     I know it sounds ridiculous: on one hand excitedly planning a childish party, and on the other lusting for the attention of a shapely, dark-haired nineteen-year-old. But these juxtaposed emotions were real. I was on the cusp of manhood and didn’t realise it. We’d no idea that within a year we’d no longer be having Halloween parties in darkened garages, would have minimal interest in fireworks, and would view Christmas mainly as an opportunity to steal kisses from girls in class and sneak bottles of cider from our parents’ festive stock. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why 1974 was one of the greatest and yet at the same time most terrible years of my life. I lived every moment of it with huge intensity, as though unconsciously aware that it was my childhood’s last fling. Even now, so many years later, I remember every sight and sound of that last autumn of innocence, every star-spangled night, every mist-wreathed woodland, every twisted shape watching coldly from the shadows …

That was the autumn of my childhood, which extended from the late-1960s to the late-1970s, and it may go some way to explaining why even now, at the age of 59, I still consider these later months of the year to be so satisfyingly scary. Even without the preponderance of Halloweenorama that now gets rammed down our throats on TV and online, they would have that same effect.

And I suspect I’m not the only one. Here, for your delectation, is a quick, off-the-top-of-my-head list of some of the best ghost and horror stories in which the autumn is a key player (all predating the huge Halloween retail operation that we see today). Check out:

The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe
The Beckoning Fair One – Oliver Onions
Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
The Guy – Ramsey Campbell
Eyes – Charles L Grant
The Black Pumpkin – Dean Koontz
Dark Harvest – Norman Partridge

And so on and so forth. Even after a quick experimental mind-scan, there are far too many to name, which is vindication of a sort, I suppose.


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.

DEVOLUTION 
by Max Brooks (2020)

Outline
Thirteen months have passed since Mount Rainier, an active volcano in the Cascade Mountains, in America’s Pacific Northwest, erupted with devastating consequences. Among the many casualties recorded at the time was the majority of the population of Greenloop, a small town in a remote corner of Mount Rainier National Park, which was completely destroyed during the disaster. All of its occupants’ bodies were recovered later, with the exception of one, a certain Kate Holland, who has never been seen since.

When a local reporter is contacted by Kate’s brother, one Frank McCray, who tells him that the population of Greenloop didn’t die in a mudslide or from poisonous volcanic fumes, or anything of that sort, but in fact were murdered by a Bigfoot clan, having itself been displaced by the eruption, the newshound undertakes to investigate, first of all by studying Kate’s journal, but also by holding in-depth interviews with McCray himself and National Park ranger, Josephine Schell.

The narrative that follows has been cobbled together from these various sources, in addition to items drawn from earlier works of Bigfoot research, and it tells a terrifying tale …

When Kate Holland and her husband, Dan, first arrive in Greenloop, they find it a place of many inconsistencies. The creation of wealthy techno-czar, Tony Durrant, it is on one hand a site of communal living, a purpose-built, eco-conscious hamlet far out in the wilderness, allowing its residents to give up safely on urban living and get back in synch with the natural world (for example, its dwellings are environmentally-friendly cabins, its backup power resources courtesy of solar panelling and biogas generators), but at the same time it is entirely dependent on modern tech, everything here automated and controlled by apps on its occupants’ laptops, phones or iPads, while essential supplies are air-lifted in by drones and wi-fi delivered by fibre-optic cable. If that isn’t enough, Seattle, which is only 90 miles away, is easily reachable by the nearest highway.

On top of all that, Greenloop is an expensive place to live, only really available to moneyed academics who can afford to give up on the rest of the world. It doesn’t go uncommented on that folk like these, who’ve rarely, if ever, got their hands dirty doing real outdoors work, are likely to be among the least able to survive off the grid in the event of some kind of disaster. They don’t possess anything as useful as an actual tool, never mind a weapon, and they certainly lack the muscle-memory to use one.

In truth, it’s a pretence at ‘going green’ rather than the real thing, an elaborate form of virtue signalling, minus any actual hardship, but it would be untrue to say that life in Greenloop is not, in its unique way, quite attractive.

Kate Holland herself is very much a creature of the modern world, a hyper-stressed executive type, who is here to try and decompress, and with the aid of a journal, which her therapist insists she keeps in detail and regularly updates, is seeking to reorganise her entire approach to life.

She’d particularly like to fix her relationship with husband, Dan, though this feels as if it will be quite a challenge.

It’s through Kate’s journal that we follow her initial interactions with other Greenloop residents, all of whom are, in their different ways, well-heeled oddballs, none seeming to possess even the most basic life skills, with the exception of the acerbic artist Mostar, who, it gradually becomes obvious, has led a far more lived-in life than any of the others, including Kate and Dan.

Few of the residents really get on, but for the sake of peace, efforts to be civil to each other are mostly successful. However, when Mount Rainier erupts, it is a real and serious problem. The community, though undamaged by the fall-out from the volcano, find themselves completely cut off from the rest of the country. What’s worse, the Washington State infrastructure has been hugely disrupted, while wholesale civil disorder has broken out in Seattle, the sum total of which is that rescuers won’t be coming along any time soon.

Tony, the de facto leader of the community, even though he’s somewhat uninspiring in that role, suggests that they only need to sit tight and help will arrive at some point. Mostar, who we later learn was in the Balkans during the war of the 1990s, makes practical suggestions, not just about rationing food, but in terms of educating themselves in matters of basic maintenance. At first, the townsfolk respond constructively to the crisis, but gradually, as their isolation continues, the supplies diminish and conditions get harder, and people who, despite initial brief comradeship, really don’t like each other, soon start to display it.

To make matters worse, Kate increasingly suspects that some kind of hostile animal lurking in the woods nearby is taking ever greater interest in them. More and more evidence of this emerges, and when she is one day chased back into the compound by a huge apelike creature, she is drawn to the conclusion not just that Bigfoot is real, but that he’s here, finally driven out of hiding by the eruption.

Of course, no one believes her at first. Most likely she encountered a bear. Typical townie. How would she know the difference? But the beasts now encircling Greenloop are getting steadily bolder, and when the townsfolk start hearing blood-chilling, ape-like shrieks in the woods, and find their bins and compost containers ripped open, they realise that it isn’t just one enormous hominid they are facing here, but several. Eco-conscious retiree, Vincent Boothe, attempts to make contact, but is rewarded by a shower of heavy stones, which do massive damage and clearly illustrate that their as yet (mostly) unseen opponents are very antagonistic.

Still feeling that this is all some massive misunderstanding between species, Vincent volunteers to go out of town on foot and literally hike his way to civilisation. Mostar advises against this, but he won’t listen … and that night they are all wakened by his screams of agony. Despite Mostar’s warning that it’s a trap, Kate and Dan also risk venturing out.

All they find left of him is scattered meat and bone. Whatever the giant apes dined on previously has evidently now been denied to them by Mount Rainier. So, they’ve found something else to eat. The community thus defers to Mostar, who prepares it for war …

Review
Anyone who knows their great apes knows they are not to be trifled with. Once you are out there in the wild, our closest relatives on the evolutionary scale can be our most dangerous enemies. Intelligent, ferocious, incredibly strong and aggressively tribal, the ape and monkey species of the world can pose a very serious threat to any human who, intentionally or otherwise, wanders into their domain. This is a fact of life as we know it. But now imagine that they each stand to about eight or nine feet tall and weigh in at about 490lbs, and that you are deep in their territory but can’t get away because Nature has conspired against it.

This is the premise of Devolution, Max Brooks’ latest epistolatory horror-adventure. And it’s a genuinely terrifying one, even more so as the human enclave soon being encroached on by the sasquatch clan is weaker than you might normally find. This is the land of gun ownership, but they don’t have any guns. This is the land of the outdoorsman, but there are no outdoorsmen here. Greenloop is all about sustainable living, but it can’t sustain itself even for a week when its power has been cut.

As I worked my way through the first half of the book – which is a real ‘slow burn’, I have to say – all these facts were gnawing on me. It struck me from the outset that this deluded techno-hipster community was vastly more vulnerable than even its most enlightened member realised. That it was, in fact, ripe for the plucking. Of course, it only makes things worse that, even though the residents of Greenloop don’t know about it, we readers are well aware – because we’ve been told in advance – of the savage forces gathering in the encircling forest.

I found that idea alone intensely frightening. And it doesn’t get any easier the more the Greenloop residents realise what they are up against, because there is nothing they can do about it anyway. Nothing obvious, at least. When the battle commences, it’s every bit as violently one-sided as you would expect, though the humans increasingly show ingenuity and aggression of their own, slowly but surely evening the score.

And it’s this that makes Devolution more than just another scary creature-feature.

As with Brooks’ thumping first success, World War Z, the author, while he’s undoubtedly keen to tell a rattling good terror tale, is also interested here in how humanity would respond to such an assault (in effect, how quickly and effectively they could and would go to war). In the first book it was the world-scale response. In this one, it’s the world in miniature.

The Greenloop community comprises a diverse assortment of interesting characters, all with their own strengths and flaws. Some reviewers have accused Brooks of wasting time with this.

‘We know they’re all going to die anyway, so why bother building them up?’

But for me that’s missing the point. First of all, Brooks, as all good fiction writers should, is ensuring that these characters in peril are characters we care about. If they’re just blank sheets it won’t matter if they get torn apart. Secondly, and this I think is his real aim, he’s putting us – mankind – in the frame. It takes all sorts to make a human community, with the usual exception of deadly fighters and square-jawed heroes. Because let’s be honest, in how many communities in the world do those people actually exist? One response to Devolution has been to sneer at how ineffectual this bunch of latter-day middle-class hippies actually are, to laugh at how easily they are picked off by monstrous brutes with far lower intellects, to say smugly that this is the outcome of easy living and over-reliance on technology. But how many of the rest of us don’t fall into that same category? How many of the rest of us wouldn’t make it out of the wild woods alive if we were abandoned there, with or without the presence of giant, man-eating apes?

However, this isn’t a situation that will remain unchanged.

It’s a near certainty that humans, when they are under attack, will eventually counterattack. We are a notoriously belligerent race in our own right. We mastered the beasts when we had very little to fight them with save sticks and stones. So, in Devolution, the hominids don’t have it all their own way.

By this, I don’t mean to say that Max Brooks goes all The Hills Have Eyes on us. It’s not the case here that those who are seemingly innocent at the start of it eventually are so abused that they become abusers themselves. That said, they demonstrate a significant degree of devolution. Particularly Kate Holland, whose disappearance at the end of the narrative may not be down to the predators having dragged her off into the trees.

The big question is does it all work?

Well, for me the answer is a resounding yes, for various reasons.

Not all reviewers have appreciated the epistolary style, which, as I’ve already mentioned, was also used in World War Z, but for me it adds a classic horror vibe. The presence of Bigfoot in the North American backwoods is still a matter of debate. Is he there, or isn’t he? It’s an age-old mystery with its roots in Native American lore, a definitive answer still elusive thanks to the sparsity of hard evidence. And this novel simply adds to that.

Is Kate Holland’s journal for real? Did these things genuinely happen, or was she driven crazy by horror and despair at the deaths of her friends during a volcanic catastrophe? No certain answer is possible, so ultimately, along with all those bits of grainy film and curious late-night audio recordings we can these days check out on YouTube, it can never be anything more than yet another fragment of a clue, the authenticity of which can only be guessed at.

This also puts it in the category of ‘found footage’ horror, or perhaps ‘found text’, though that in itself is nothing new; it harks back to the classic days of Bram Stoker, HP Lovecraft and Weird Tales. However, it also serves a functional purpose. Though I strongly doubt that anyone could recollect conversations of days earlier so perfectly word-for-word that you could reproduce them in a diary and they’d read as smoothly as they do here, which is perhaps one overarching weakness of Devolution, I’m prepared to give leeway because I can’t help thinking that telling this story as a straight narrative, particularly as so much of the first half of it concerns Greenloop world-building, I can’t help thinking it would drag too much in the build-up.

All round, Devolution is a superior horror novel, a good old-fashioned monster story, with a strong Man v Nature subtext, which is particularly pertinent in this age, when we all unquestioningly support green issues, and yet should perhaps be cautious that we don’t get exactly what we wish for. It’s a wild world out there; we’ve conquered a lot of it, but it wouldn’t take much for it to conquer us back.

For once, I’m not going to bother with my homegrown casting choices for a movie version of Devolution, as Legendary Entertainment optioned it on publication, and, according to the Hollywood Reporter last year, had appointed James Ashcroft to direct (mockumentary style, by all accounts), and that trailers may hit the internet before the end of this year.

(As always, most of the artwork on this post has been snaffled while it was floating around on the Internet uncredited. However, the upright image of the autumn woodland was created by Johnny G. If any of the others would like to step forward, I will be delighted to credit them as well, or, if required, take the pictures down).

Tuesday, 5 September 2023

When cruel maniacs lurked in the suburbs


There’s been a bit of a gap since my last blogpost. I’ve been away on holiday since we last spoke, plus I’ve had to say goodbye to a beloved friend. But things are kind of back on the straight and narrow now, as we head into the season of mist … which probably means that today is quite an opportune time to talk about one of my personal favourite pieces of work, the original SEASON OF MIST, which I’m always going to promote around this time of year, because, in the words of one reviewer, it’s “richly flavoursome of the autumn months”.

Seeing that it’s set in Northern England of the 1970s, today will also be a good time to get introspective about yet another thing that spurred me into my writing career. So, this week we focus on that particular decade, but most specifically on a series of horror books that I will forever associate with it, and which completely captivated me as I ventured into the world of adult fiction.

On a not dissimilar subject, for this week’s review, I’ll be taking a detailed look at an issue of Tom English’s excellent horror magazine, NIGHTMARE ABBEY: WINTER SOLSTICE 2022.
 

If you’re only here for the Nightmare Abbey review, you’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s post, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. First of all, though, it’s …

That time of year again

I won’t say too much about SEASON OF MIST, as I find myself promoting it on here every September, October and November. Instead, I’ll just post the back cover blurb, remind everyone that it can be had in paperback, ebook or on Audible (in two formats, freestanding or as part of a ‘waning of the year’ Audible collection, THE DEAD TIME), and I’ll then close with select quotes from some of the excellent reviews that it’s received over the years.

SEASON OF MIST

Our last autumn of innocence. Star-spangled nights. Mist-wreathed woodland. A twisted shape watching coldly from the shadows ...


Industrial Lancashire 1974

The kids in the coal-mining town of Ashburn love the waning of the year. Fancy dress and scary stories for Halloween. Fireworks and treacle toffee on Guy Fawkes Night. And a month after that, snow and the approach of Christmas.

But this particular autumn will be memorable for entirely different reasons.

Because this year someone is killing the children of Ashburn.

Or should that be SOMETHING?

While police and parents search for a maniac, Stephen Carter and his schoolmates know better. They may be on the cusp of adulthood, but there’s still enough of the youngster left in each of them to recognise the work of an evil supernatural being unique to these deserts of slagheap and coal-tip.


“A masterfully told story of autumn and boyhood and fear and courage. It’s a crime story, a ghost story, a whodunnit. I usually avoid coming-of-age stories but this one is special …”

“A perfect mix of nostalgia for childhood days of freedom and friendship, and fear as the young people of a small Lancashire town are stalked by a brutal killer who becomes linked to a terrifying local legend …”

“… the suspense and tension build to a memorable climax that works brilliantly, even though it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.”

“A great narrative and characters add to this absolutely nail-biting read …”

“I read this over two evenings and it took me back to my childhood in Lancashire around that time. I love a creepy story and it would make a great TV drama …”


And now ...

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED


What on earth is it that could make you want to be a writer?

Every one of us is different, I suppose. We all found our own unique ways into this profession, but I’d hazard a guess that majority of us have experienced ‘Damascene moments’ … in other words were at some point struck by an astonishing revelation or motivation that we never saw coming, and which, while it might not have jolted us into the world of authorship at that very moment, became a persuasive factor in later years ... was in fact the spur that ultimately drove us on towards a very different future.

In a previous post, I highlighted the role that the great neon sign for GRANADA TELEVISION, glimmering across the rain-swept Manchester rooftops one dark and terrible night, played in pushing me towards the writing game. Today, I’m zeroing in on another aspect of my early life, which proved equally instrumental, though it may be the last thing you expect.


SPUR #2 – THE PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES

The 1970s in Britain, or so we’re often told, was a sordid time to be alive, and while I’d argue that we’re mainly told this by people who weren’t there, there were undeniable drawbacks to living in that decade. 

We ate the wrong things, drank too much, smoked too much, we were racist and chauvinistic, and society as a whole was far too sexualised: there were no modesty boards on girlie mags back then, while our TV sitcoms were laced with blue humour. And of course, there was violence: the 1970s was an era of industrial decline and unemployment, but as some traditional structures remained in place – the Church, the family unit etc – this didn’t divert directionless young men into theft and drug dealing, the way it seems to today, as much as into heavy drinking and regular brawling in pubs and clubs.

Saturday night was definitely alright for fighting in those days. There was little in the way of organised security in town centre bars, so when it kicked off in the ’70s, those establishments would literally get wrecked. We all know that this was also the age of football hooliganism, not to mention skinheads, boot boys and Hell’s Angels.

So … Wow!, you must be thinking, this it the decade this guy is trying to sell to us?

Well, no, I’m not. But the 1970s, the decade in which I came of age, was an essential factor in my development as a writer. And a key aspect of that was the PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES.

Now, hold your horses. This isn’t as much of a right-hand turn on what I was just talking about as you may think. Because, horror, in terms of movies, TV and written fiction, was also a massive thing in the 1970s. 

Hammer were still packing cinemas with blood-drenched but titillating affairs like Hands of the Ripper, Countess Dracula and Twins of Evil, but you also had infinitely higher budget and way more frightening movies like The Exorcist and The Omen, alongside family blockbusters like Jaws, while our TV schedules also did their bit. Programmes like Supernatural, Beasts and Ghost Story for Christmas sent chills through the living rooms of Britain like nothing that had gone before them.

In terms of reading material, the bookshops of the UK were also awash with horror, both novels and anthologies. All these things considered, it was a perfect era for the Pan Horrors to thrive in. Now, don’t get me wrong, that series was not confined solely to the 1970s. The creation of legendary publisher and anthologist, Herbert van Thal, there were 30 volumes in total, and they ran from 1959 until 1989, but most enthusiasts would probably agree that in the late 1960s moving through into the 1970s they were really ratcheting up the sleaze factor.

And even by the standards of the conte cruel horror story, when I say ‘sleaze’, I’m talking about its most extreme incarnation: sexual violence, perversion, sadism and so forth.

Take John Arthur’s Don’t Go Down in the Woods in Vol 20 (1979), in which we meet a insatiable schoolgirl serial killer out on the prowl for hunky young men to slaughter, and Alex White’s The Clinic in Vol 14 (1973), wherein a young woman is sent for a new job at a mysterious clinic, only to find that she’s actually an inmate, who’s been sent there for a very severe form of re-education ... which sees her raped, tortured and mutilated.

No wonder there was a ‘lure of the forbidden’ thing going on for youngsters like me where the Pan Book of Horror Stories was concerned. It’s certainly the case that it wasn’t easy getting hold of these books if you were a young teen. Mums and dads were a lot stricter back then than today. Hell, my dad once made me take a copy of Monster Mag back to the shop because it featured a pull-out poster of Peter Cushing gloating over a severed head. So, they’d almost never consent to letting you buy one of the Pan Horrors yourself, and that was assuming you could find a shop lady who’d sell it to you. The only option therefore was usually to borrow one from some friend’s older brother, or maybe dip into that ‘behind the bike sheds’ black-market at school, wherein copies would inevitably come ragged and dog-eared, and much pawed over on the pages where rude things happened.

Looking back on it now, it’s actually amazing that some of the stories in the Pan Horror anthologies were ever allowed to make it into the public realm. But people of today need to understand that British society really was very different back then. In ’70s comedy, what might today be deemed blatant misogyny was then dismissed as saucy banter. Likewise, what in horror might now be decried as obscenity was then belittled as trashy yuk for immature minds but tolerated regardless.

No doubt, reams of sociological discourse have been produced on this matter. But for me, it’s a simple case that this was Britain at the end of the industrial age, and it was a messy time. Unemployment was booming, there was financial and political chaos, we had strikes, three-day weeks, power cuts, while the very fabric of the country seemed to be decaying around us, particularly in places like my hometown, Wigan, where so many factories, mills and mines were just standing derelict, canals were bogging up and railways lying overgrown and disused.

But it wasn’t just the working class who were affected, it was the country at large.

Pride in our Word War Two effort was fading, especially as so many things in the present seemed to be going wrong. 

We had much higher crime rates than we had been used to: serial killers suddenly seemed to be everywhere, while sex offences in general had increased drastically, and by then you could add terrorism to the mix (which was a threat to literally everyone; for a short time in the early/mid ’70s, you gave wide berth to waste-bins and even pillar boxes in case the IRA had planted bombs in them).

It’s a simple case that Postwar Britain was a tired. grimy place, and yet it clung to the fa├žade of respectability. Hipness was still regarded with suspicion. Most middle-aged people dressed as their parents and grandparents had done. Effing and blinding in public was taboo. An open homosexual lifestyle was illegal, and while we had rigid laws against hardcore porn (for which reason the backstreet sex shop trade flourished), those who worked with children or other vulnerable groups were appointed without even being vetted because the default assumption was that, to do that work, they simply MUST be nice and trustworthy.

And this, I think, is where the Pan Book of Horror Stories earned its place in history, because it really did – either by accident or design – capture the essence of a superficially polite society in which some truly vile things were going on behind neatly drawn chintz curtains.

For example, in Vol 9 (1968), in Raymond Smith’s Smile Please, a high-class stripper is contracted to perform a private show for a bunch of rich guys. Superficially, they want her to play Eve in the Garden of Eden; it’s all a bit silly but basically pretty innocent, until she ends up dying in the coils of a deadly snake while dressed only in fig leaves, her clients gleefully filming it. In Vol 12 (1971), Robert Ashley’s Pieces of Mary sees a nervous mother despatch her daughter to play with the quiet and studious boys next door, unaware of their fascination with human anatomy, and in Vol 14 (1973), R. Chetwynd-Hayes gets in on the act with It Came to Dinner, in which a homeless man is taken in by a well-off family, unaware that he’s to be the main course in a cannibal feast.

The seeds of my own crime thrillers were definitely sown around that time, though I suspect I didn’t realise it then. This applies particularly to my HECK books, which follow cases of the Serial Crimes Unit, a bunch of specialised detectives attached to the National Crime Group, charged with investigating spree murders, torture murders, rape murders, killings perpetrated by cults or the creators of snuff movies or red rooms, and all those other sorts of other heinous individuals we like to imagine are purely fictional but actually aren’t, and yet so many of whom are concealed among the rank and file of ordinary respectable society.

That latter was a particular theme in my crime novels: namely, that there are all kinds of deviants and psychopaths out there, despite appearances. Warped individuals who manage to keep a lid on their true selves during daytime hours, but once darkness falls give full vent to their very worst desires.

I saw much of this during my police career. Trust me, the most dangerous lunatics don’t look the part; mass murderers don’t wander the streets advertising their services.

However, I don’t want the tone of this post to get too grim. The Pan Book of Horror Stories was not exclusively an exercise in imaginative grue. Even the great anthologist, Mike Ashley, who was highly critical of the gore count in the series, admitted that most volumes contained some high-quality horror as well. So many writers I know who’ve made their career in dark fiction, or have even just dabbled in it, were avid readers of these books in their early days, which surely indicates there were many good and influential stories in there.

For example, Unburied Bane by N Dennett (or it could have been the prolific Eleanor Scott, working under a pseudonym) which appeared in Vol 3, was a traditional and terrifying story, in which a holidaying couple guest in a decrepit rural cottage, where one of those infamous ‘screaming skulls’ resides in the care of the semi-deranged and possible practising witch, Ann Skegg. In the same volume, we had Neville Kilvington’s Meshes of Doom, which sees a member of the Royal Botanical Society bury his murdered wife in the conservatory, only for a recently acquired exotic plant already resident there to start demonstrating amazing growth spurts and unnatural appetites.

Anyone who knows their stuff will be well aware of these two tales. They weren’t original to the Pan Book of Horror Stories, both having originated in the Creeps anthology series of the 1930s. But seeing that they’re among the best supernatural horror stories ever written, they were worthy inclusions, Herbert van Thal having resurrected them from a distant past and brought them to a completely new audience. That was an inspiration in itself if you were a youngster around then who was toying with the idea of writing a few spooky stories of your own.

There were original classics in there too. Eddy C Bertin’s The Whispering Horror, which first appeared in Vol 9, presented us with a conventional but wonderfully horrific vampire story, while David Case’s The Hunter, in Vol 12, unleashed big game hunters onto Dartmoor in pursuit of a murderous assailant who might well be a werewolf.

No, the Pan Book of Horror Stories was not just about the conte cruel. Though, as I’ve already said, those ultra grim tales of dastardly doings behind closed doors were an inspiration in their own right – an odd one, I’ll admit – but so was the high-quality writing of those many other less offensive but probably more frightening horrors the series also offered.

Therefore, all hail the Pan Book of Horror. Always controversial, often disturbing, but never less than entertaining, and an incalculable inspiration to generations of horror and thriller writers growing up in that era, myself included.


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.

NIGHTMARE ABBEY: WINTER SOLSTICE 2022 
edited by Tom English

In a recent interview, Nightmare Abbey editor, Tom English (of Black Infinity fame), explained how the inspiration behind his new horror magazine lay in the kinds of ‘dime store’ horror mags he loved to read in his youth, or at least would have loved to read had he found sufficient of them on the newsagent racks of the 1970s. By this, I gauge that Tom meant he was looking for some kind of reading material that covered the whole scope of horror, not just fiction but non-fiction too. He was seeking a periodical, if you like, an intelligent epistle carrying a range of well-informed articles as well as a bunch of spooky stories – and in that, he appears to have succeeded, because at just one glance, there is definitely something of the golden age about this relatively new kid on the block.

As you may have realised, Nightmare Abbey, from Dead Letter Press, is still in its infancy – only three volumes have come out to date, with Volume 4 due to drop around Halloween – though I only really became aware of it when Volume 2, or the Winter Solstice edition for 2022, hit the shelves. But it took me by surprise straight away. It calls itself a magazine, but it’s a hefty, chunky brute, running to 146 pages, and as it promises on the cover, it is packed with fascinating features relating to the genre we all love so much.

It also contains a wealth of fiction, both original stories and a few reprinted classics (in all cases, with detailed information attached concerning the author and so on). But, personally speaking, I found the non-fictional items most eye-catching given how rarely you get this sort of thing.

For example, and most interestingly of all for me, was film historian Gary Gerani’s scholarly essay on Thriller, the early 1960s horror anthology series from NBC, as presented by Boris Karloff, which gave early breaks to such wannabe actors at the time as William Shatner, Elizabeth Montgomery, Mary Tyler Moore, John Carradine and Bruce Dern.

In fictional terms, as always with anthology material, it’s something of a mixed bag, but that’s inevitable given how subjective literature can be. What I will say is that, from the outset, all of these tales are tightly and effectively penned, Tom English clearly exerting strong quality control from his editor’s chair, and nearly all of them exquisitely illustrated by fantasy artist extraordinaire, Allen Koszowski. For the most part, the tales are supernatural thrillers rather than conte cruels, though there’s a certain level of nastiness baked in to every one. We’re talking a ‘horror’ mag here, not a collection of ghost stories.

The contributions that most caught my eye were as follows:

First up, It by Theodore Sturgeon, in which the bones of a dead man are reclaimed by the earth and transformed into a shambling ‘mud doll’ horror, which goes on to terrorise a small rural community. It’s a much-anthologised classic, dating back to 1940, which served as a chilling prototype for later comic-book characters like the Heap, Solomon Grundy and Swamp Thing.

Then, in David Surface’s These Things That Walk Behind Me, we meet a mental patient, who, thanks to having suffered a severe nervous breakdown, is now incarcerated in a psyche ward, where he slowly starts to glimpse the terrible but invisible things that are driving humanity mad. A definite thought-provoker, this one, and far from comfortable reading.

Meanwhile, in two exceptionally well-written but tonally very different stories, James Dorr’s The Calm takes us back to 1755, where a combined colonial force of Brits and Americans makes a military expedition to an isolated settlement, wherein a native legend tells of the ‘wind that presages death’, while Gary Fry’s much more mundane in setting, but no less eerie Voices of the Dark introduces us to a formerly successful comedian, now battling the booze, who attempts his comeback on stage in a drab seaside town, only to find the old flat where he’s staying deep in grim secrets.

Another blast from the glorious past comes in the shape of Edward Lucas White’s House of the Nightmare, which, though it dates back to 1906, must surely remain in the running for ‘scariest haunted house story ever written’. It concerns a motorist who, when he finds himself stranded at a lonely and abandoned mansion, has no choice but to stay overnight and is soon beset by a series of increasingly more terrifying nightmares.

In That Which Overcomes, the always reliable John Llewellyn Probert sticks his own welcome oar into the mix, sending a pair of middle-aged doctors down into a mysterious underground labyrinth, which one of them is convinced claimed the life of his father. Apparently, the maze of unlit tunnels comes and goes, but whatever lurks down there is constant. JLP has ventured more and more into the supernatural as he himself has grown older, but you can always guarantee that he’ll have truly something horrible in store.

In three other strong and particularly mysterious entries, we have Dead Hands Clapping by Matt Cowan, in which the son of a former film star who died in a theatre explosion acquires an old sound tape supposedly containing a recording of the fatal incident, only to discover that it’s a past that shouldn’t be delved into, The Wynd by Helen Grant, in which a thief takes a narrow passage to an ornate church, intending to burgle it, but finds the entire district weirdly deserted, while the church itself seems … odd (to say the least), and Geoffrey L Norris’s Tableau for Two, in which a duo of brothers are called to clear out their deceased mother’s apartment, but uncover artefacts that remind them of the worst Halloween night of their lives.

Perhaps the strongest contribution in the whole volume comes, unsurprisingly to me, from Steve Duffy, whose La Nina Atardecer sees an American drug dealer crossing the Mexican desert to a vital meeting, and en route picking up a beautiful hitchhiker, whom he soon learns – the hard way – is much more than she appears. I don’t want to say too much more about this one, but put it this way, it’s nail-chewingly frightening and could easily be the premise behind a full-length horror movie.

So, there we go. That was my first dip into Nightmare Abbey, and it was a couple of hours very well spent. I hope it runs for years because it gets my highest recommendation. It seems to be setting itself up as a one-stop-shop for all things horror – both fictional and factual – which in itself is one of the most worthwhile endeavours I’ve seen for quite some time.

Grab a copy whenever you can. You won’t regret it.

(Efforts have been made to identify and credit all the creators of the imagery used in today's post, without success. If anyone recognises a piece of their own work, just drop me a line, and I will either provide the necessary info, or if it is required, delete the image entirely).

Thursday, 3 August 2023

Order 'Terror Tales of the Mediterranean'

Today, I’m delighted to present you with details of this year’s volume in my folk horror-themed anthology series, TERROR TALES. In 2023, as you can see, it will be TERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, which, as of today, is available for pre-order right HERE.

This is always one of my favourite parts of the anthology-creation process, hitting you with Neil Williams’ amazing artwork and listing the stories, both fiction and non-fiction, that you’ll find inside, and of course, teasing you with a few brief snippets from some of the incredible tales that will be gracing the new book’s pages.

I’ve made no secret that this year, for the first time ever, we’d be venturing into countries outside the United Kingdom, a potential sign of things to come. But more about that later, along with lots more concerning the contents of this year’s volume.

When it comes to this week
’s book review, alas, I’m unable to maintain synchronicity, as I haven’t got a Mediterranean-themed novel to hit you with. But, seeing that the TERROR TALES books primarily contain new horror stories of British origin, it’s probably (vaguely) thematic to pull in a British author who was very famous in his day for writing short, sharp shockers: Bernard Taylor. As such, I’ll also be offering a detailed review of Taylor’s recently republished 1980 horror novel, THE REAPING.

As usual, if you’re only here for the Taylor review, feel free to scurry on down to the bottom of his column, where you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section.

And now, today’s main event …


I reiterate that TERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN can now be preordered HERE. It will only be published in the autumn, but if you want to reserve your copy for the very first day of its actual existence, why waste time?

If that doesn’t persuade you, here, for your delectation, is the back-cover blurb, followed by the full Table of Contents:


The Mediterranean. Sun-bleached ruins, azure seas, foaming wine. But history’s cruellest tyrants reigned here, delighting in blood and torture. Myths tell of snake-haired harridans and one-eyed giants, of humans cooked on spits, of curses, scourges, and devious deities who played with men’s souls like pawns in chess …


The poison apples of Aegle
The human sacrifice on Crete
The beautiful predator of Palermo
The damned souls on Poveglia
The evil artefact at Koyuluk
The blood-drinking baron of Emporda
The demon attack in Vatican City

Includes terrifying tales by Jasper Bark, Simon Clark, Steve Duffy, Paul Finch, Sean Hogan, Carly Holmes, David J Howe, Maxim Jakubowski, Gary McMahon, Mark Morris, Reggie Oliver, Peter Shilston, Don Tumasonis and Aliya Whiteley.


TABLE OF CONTENTS

The Catacomb by Peter Shilston
Duo of Darkness
On Our Way to the Shore by Maxim Jakubowski
Belmez
Meet in the Middle by Aliya Whiteley
Island of the Damned
The Lovers by Steve Duffy
When Madmen Ruled the Earth
The Wretched Thicket of Thorn by Don Tumasonis
The Blue Room
This Haunted Heaven by Reggie Oliver
Born of Blood and Mystery
The Quiet Woman by Sean Hogan
Holy Terrors
The Teeth of the Hesperides by Jasper Bark
Cyclops
Reign of Hell by Paul Finch
In Human Guise
Mistral by Mark Morris
Ghosts of Malta
Mammone by Carly Holmes
Extinctor Draconis
Vromolimni by David J Howe
The Other Devils
Gerassimos Flamotas: A Day in the Life by Simon Clark
Lord of the Undead
Should Not Be by Gary McMahon

And while we’re at it, why don’t I try and tempt you with some juicy snippets:

There was a girl-child whose clothing looked at least two hundred years old, but who from her skin and hair might just have fallen asleep; but beyond her a man in priestly robes had lost his nose and his cheeks, and his eyes had decayed to blank milky globules; and further on the soldier in the chased steel breastplate, who was perhaps a mercenary from the Renaissance period, had lost his flesh entirely, and now grinned mindlessly with a naked skull …

Peter Shilston – The Catacomb

The shirt ripped and the boy’s knees gave out, he crumpled, and the man still did not stop. He hunched over, arranged the boy, stretching out his arms and legs, then reached into the boy’s stomach. His hand was in the boy’s stomach, material was pulled out, something wet, it separated into strands. The man put the strands into his mouth and chewed, he put more into his mouth, he kept chewing …

Aliya Whiteley – Meet in the Middle

The water bulged. Something vast was coming up from deep below, and the sound was that of a wellington boot being slowly lifted from a pool of thick, gelatinous mud. The lake sloshed around the edges as the thing heaved itself out, and when it fell back, the water level dropped by at least a foot. Sally took a step back, her eyes not quite comprehending what was in front of her. It was dark and seemed to suck the light into it. The redness from the lowering sun cast shadows over the creature, and it glistened as the water fell from it in sheets …

David J Howe – Vromolimni

Why the Mediterranean?

I’ve already been asked that a couple of times, even though I haven’t talked a great deal about this anthology yet. It’s a very good question. After all, there are several locations in the British Isles that we haven’t yet visited, the South Coast being one, the Midlands, the Northeast, etc. Why are we suddenly venturing so much farther afield?

Well, I’ve never made any pretence that TERROR TALES was first inspired by the Mary Danby-helmed Tales of Terror series, most frequently edited by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, which came out from Fontana Books in the 1970s. They followed a similar format to ours, but tended to cover broader regions than we do. However, they didn’t stop at the shores of Great Britain. Tales of Terror from Outer Space was a very popular title of theirs, along with European Tales of Terror and Oriental Tales of Terror.

Now, I’m not following that series religiously. I’m not here to ape everything that Mary and Ron did, great ambassadors for British horror though they were, but if the TERROR TALES series is to have real longevity, it can’t just pour out spooky tales gleaned from a single country. 

We’ve already branched out a little. TERROR TALES OF THE SEASIDE (2013), for example. Okay, it solely featured folklore and fiction from the British coastline, but it was all corners of the country, from Scotland to Kent, while TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN (2015), which won considerable praise, ranged widely across the Seven Seas.

But the truth is that, though I’m very keen to complete our own TERROR TALES tour of the United Kingdom, and will be doing exactly that, I’m now looking more and more overseas, taking regular deep dives into the mythic and folkloric culture of lands far away.

Of course, we can’t do every country on Earth. There are various reasons for this, not least that I only have time to edit one of these books per year, and so that would be an impossible target. But we can do regions, and TERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN will be the first.

What may follow from that in the future is anyone’s guess, though I’m pretty sure I’ve stated in an earlier blogpost that some corners of the world, while they are rich in tales of mystery and magic, and are planted thick with homegrown authors, would be difficult territory for me to venture into. TERROR TALES OF THE CARIBBEAN, for example, would be a perfect fit for this series. What greater source for this kind of material could there be than the land of hoodoo. But the Caribbean has a wealthy literary tradition of its own and boasts numberless talented writers, many of whom are unknown to me. The same would apply, sadly to Central and South America, to those various regions of the United States, to the Far East, even to Ireland. All those titles would be well worth including in this series, but our readers would be much better served by editors homegrown in those lands, who wouldn’t miss a trick in pulling the absolute best scare fare they could from their native soil.

This applies less to regions like the MEDITERRANEAN, which so many of us are already very familiar with. So, while TERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN is an exciting new venture, and there are others in a similar vein that we can do in the future, it’s not possible yet to put together a full list of prospects. 

But never fear; there are lots – and I mean lots – of other subjects we can tackle: TEROR TALES OF MONSTERS … of the SUPERNATURAL  … the OCCULT … the mind truly boggles.

Just keep watching this space. Who knows what we’ll hit you with next. 

But for the meantime, one final reminder that TERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, which on its own will throw you in the path of numerous horrific entities, both real and imaginary, is out in the autumn, and ready to pre-order. Get it HERE.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

THE REAPING
 
by Bernard Taylor (1980)

Outline
Family man, shopkeeper and wannabe artist, Tom Rigby, is your archetypal suburbanite. He’s suffered grievous losses in the past, his wife and several children having died in a terrible accident, but he is positive about life, he works hard and does what he can, mainly with the assistance of his caring older sister, Em, to look after his remaining brood, in particular his youngest son, Simion, with whom he is very close.

While, by his own admission, he is not exactly handsome, Rigby has a certain ‘everyman’ charm, which has attracted a new girlfriend, Ilona. She is younger than he is by several years and has a well-paid job as a makeup artist in the film industry. The downside of this is that Ilona is frequently away on location, meaning that she and her beau spend long periods apart, able only to communicate by letter. To cope with this, Rigby throws himself into his painting, which is not of such quality that it’s likely to make him a fortune, though at least it keeps him happy.

Then something happens that has the potential to change everything. After a local art exhibition in which his recent canvasses play a prominent role, Rigby is approached by a Mrs Weldon, a pleasant, efficient woman, who explains that she is housekeeper for a Miss Stewart, an elderly spinster who occupies a large country house down in Somerset, and who would like to hire an artist to paint a portrait of her niece, Catherine. Significant money is offered, but at first Rigby resists because he is planning to go on holiday with Ilona. Then, at the last minute, when Ilona has to cancel, work again getting in the way of their relationship, Rigby accepts the commission.

When he arrives at Woolvercombe House, where he expects to be spending the next few weeks, it isn’t an especially shabby place, but it isn’t modern, and there is an air of remoteness. Only a handful of staff keep things running: Miss Weldon herself, who retains an aura of firm control, a burly Cockney handyman, Hathaway, and a German-accented manservant and chauffeur called Karl, whose manner Rigby finds deferential but also strangely mocking. There is also Dr Macintosh, a Scottish-born medical practitioner, whose regular presence at the house is never really explained.

When he is introduced to Miss Stewart herself, who otherwise he is told he will rarely meet, she is extremely aged, a hunched, veiled and odorous figure, who occupies a shadow-filled garret in the upper echelons of the house. While Rigby doesn’t take an instant dislike to her, he doesn’t find her a warm presence. She is particularly dismissive of the job she has hired him to do, and speaks disparagingly of her niece, leaving him mystified about why he is being paid so much money.

More mysteries follow. When Rigby spies women in monastic robes and cowls walking in the manor house gardens, he is advised that they are novice nuns, who, by some agreement made in the distant past, are lodged at Woolvercombe in the days prior to their travelling out to the missions, though he likely won’t meet them. They never, for example, come into the main part of the building, not even to eat, as they have their own quarters and refectory, and are here basically to spend their time in contemplation. So, if the guest would oblige everyone by treating the nuns’ small corner of the property as private, all will be well.

Rigby has no intention of getting to know the nuns. As far as he’s concerned, he is here to do a job, one that he hopes will only last a couple of weeks, and when it’s done, he’ll take the money and cheerfully head back to Ilona. But Mrs Weldon, for one, appears surprised that he expects his time here to be short, and encourages him to take as long as he needs. Rigby still intends to get this over and done with, but then he meets Catherine, the niece, an ethereal beauty in her late twenties, who is quietly spoken and makes for enchanting company.

She sits for Rigby often, though not as often as he’d like. Several times, things happen – either she is unwell or has had a minor accident – to prevent her attending his studio, which threatens to extend his stay. At the same time, the manor’s other curiosities pile up.

One night Rigby hears female screaming somewhere on the property, which Mrs Weldon dismisses as unimportant. On another occasion, while walking in the grounds, he accidentally comes close to several of the young nuns and is astonished to hear most irreverent language. He also detects, in a very overgrown section of the estate, a mysterious stone tower, which stands to considerable height. Whether it’s a folly, or something of functional significance he can’t say, though it’s an extravagant item. On yet another occasion, probably more disturbingly than anything he has dealt with up to now, he must rebuff an unexpected homosexual advance from Karl.

However, things take a turn for the really strange, when, later that same night, he hears Catherine out on the darkened landing being menaced by Hathaway. On offering her sanctuary in his room, he is shocked to learn that the apelike handyman has been a continual threat to her all the time she’s been here. When he advises her to complain either to her aunt or Mrs Weldon, she explains that Hathaway has been employed at Woolvercombe a long time and so nothing will happen. In fact, she regards Rigby’s room as the only possible place of refuge, and as such, the inevitable happens. She falls into his arms and they become lovers.

Despite this pleasant interlude, Rigby still wants to leave Woolvercombe as soon as possible to resume his own life (suffering no inconvenient guilt about having several times bedded the innocent Catherine!), but his departure is repeatedly hampered.

First of all, there are the endless delays with the painting. Then, when it is almost complete, his car breaks down for no obvious reason, Hathaway explaining that he’ll need to send away for a new part. After that, as if the breakdown isn’t enough, Karl loses the car keys.

Rigby is furious, especially as there is so little he can do. Increasingly, it feels as though he isn’t going to be allowed to leave Woolvercombe House …

Review
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Bernard Taylor earned himself a reputation as one of the quiet men of pulp fiction, a professional author of high talent who could turn his hand to almost anything – and indeed he did, his output ranging from horror to murder mystery to romance.

These days, it is probably his horror range that is best remembered. Even there though, Taylor was something of an enigma, specialising in creating contemporary tales that proceeded at their own pace, were subtle rather than gory, but were so intriguing that they’d draw you in anyway, often only hitting you with the horror element late in the day (and usually, they were all the more effective for that).

A master of the slow-burn then, Taylor became a household name among the horror aficionados of his era, though it’s probably true to say that, in terms of sales, he never really rose to the topmost rank. And if he ever did, he didn’t stay there for long, inevitably succumbing, as did so many others, to the downturn of interest in horror from mass-market publishers in the 1990s.

If for no other reason than this, it’s great to see this fine author being given a new lease of life by Valancourt Books who, yet again, are here unearthing for us another half-forgotten gem.

For all this, The Reaping is very much a book of its time. We are firmly in occult-related territory, the eerie presence of nuns, an unexplained building deep in overgrown woodland, the matriarchal nature of the Woolvercombe estate, and explicit sex, of which there is quite a bit, all hinting at devilry of the old school.

Does it all work?

Well, it’s an involving mystery, for sure. As per the author’s normal style, it doesn’t shower us with blood at every turn, or hit us with jump-scares and other fleeting terrors, but the more that is revealed about the increasingly macabre Woolvercombe House, the more we invest in it.

As we approach the grand finale, we find ourselves deeply engrossed in the story and very eager to know what kind of ritual nastiness lies at the heart of it. And you can’t ask for much more than that with a thriller.

If there’s any weakness with The Reaping, I think it lies with the main character, Tom Rigby. Yes, he’s an ordinary bloke, who has almost wandered into this tale of terror off the street, but there’s a degree of self-absorbtion that makes him a little unattractive, not to mention a tad unbelievable. A case in point is the moment when he queries the sounds of female distress that he’s heard late at night: evidently something unpleasant is happening, and yet he is very easily fobbed off. In addition, he becomes trapped at Woolvercombe House because he is told that his car has broken down … and because he doesn’t investigate it himself or attempt any repairs off his own bat.

These are minor quibbles, of course, but later on it gets a little more serious. When Rigby leaves the property having completed the painting, he is not impeded by anything as bothersome as feelings for Catherine, the vulnerable young woman he has been sleeping with, which feels like a glaring flaw in his character in 21st century eyes. More serious yet, potentially very serious actually, is his failure to contact the police when, quite late in the tale, it is reported that a girl he recognises as having been one of the nuns on the estate – a person he found very distressed at one point – has been discovered dead.

In fact, Rigby’s unwillingness to contact the police at any stage in this story did become quite irksome for me, because he isn’t at Woolvercombe long before he uncovers evidence of quite significant law-breaking. Again though, I suspect this owes more to the period in which the book was written rather than any kind of flaw in the narrative. The 1970s was not a decade in which personal responsibility was encouraged.

All that aside though, this is a neatly packaged little horror novel, with a very different (albeit in some ways, quite Gothic and traditional) concept at its heart, which, perhaps if the mechanics of it aren’t as fully explained as I would like, still leads us to a grotesque, visceral and very unexpected denouement. It also contains one slam-bang twist in the tail, which I for one never saw coming and which is almost worth the admission price on its own.

Check out The Reaping if you can. It’s a great example of the criminally underrated Bernard Taylor working at the peak of his powers, uninterested in the ‘one death every three or four pages’ thing that seems to be a requirement of much modern horror, hitting us instead with an effective slow-burn mystery-thriller that rises to a spectacularly chilling climax.

And now, as always, I shall endeavour to cast this tale in eager (maybe rather hopeful) anticipation of its adaptation for the screen. They wouldn’t come and ask me, obviously, but we can still have a bit of fun with it, can’t we:

Tom Rigby – Matthew Macfadyen
Catherine – Thomasin McKenzie
Ilona – Gemma Arterton
Mrs Weldon – Sophie Okonedo
Hathaway – Paul Anderson
Karl – Reece Shearsmith 
Dr Macintosh – Ken Stott