Monday 31 August 2015

Thrillers, chillers, shockers and killers ...

A new series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – 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 in this column, 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.

DEVIL’S PEAK by Deon Meyer (2005)

Devil’s Peak takes us into the heart of Cape Town’s Serious and Violent Crimes Unit, where one of the lead investigators, now a recovering alcoholic, finds himself pitted against the most dangerous opponent of his career.

DI Benny Griessel is an instinctively brilliant detective, a natural hunter of criminals. But hard drinking has destroyed his family life and made him a laughing stock in the department where once he was a legend. Not a good time for him to come up against ‘Artemis’, a vigilante serial-killer targetting child-abusers, who doesn’t just enjoy what appears to be advanced military training but is operating with the tacit approval of many of Griessel’s fellow cops.

One of the most startling thing about this crime masterwork from South African author, Deon Meyer, is that it was originally penned in Afrikaans. All the more credit, then, to translater KL Seegers for producing such a beautifully written and yet blood-pumpingly readable English language version.

But it isn’t just about the action. A far, far cry from your basic ‘cops and robbers’ or blow-by-blow ‘good guys v bad guys’, Devil’s Peak is a grown-up and multi-faceted tale, tough and visceral in tone, but also rich in flawed characters and deeply redolent of both urban and rural South Africa; not just the geographic landscape, but the political and social scene as well.

The three central personalities: drunken cop, Griessel, high class call-girl, Christine van Rooyen, and vigilante avenger, Thobela Mpayipheli, are so well-drawn that you can literally see them in front of you. Griessel in particular is a wonderful creation. You might be tempted to say, “okay, another alcoholic antihero … big deal”, but in this case it’s for real. By this I mean that Griessel’s recuperation from his alcoholism is every bit as gruelling as you’d expect it to be in reality. The reader isn’t spared a single torturous moment of his DTs, or allowed to forget for one minute the devastation his drinking has caused in both his private and public life. It makes him a hugely sympathetic if very conflicted hero, but hardly equips him to face the floodtide of heinous crimes exploding around him.

And yet this is all very serious stuff. The painful realities of an understaffed police force trying to function in the face of corruption, cynicism and spiralling crime rates, and in a society still divided and impoverished in so many ways, are never skimped on. There are times in Devil’s Peak when you really do wonder if there is any hope that good can overcome evil.

Anyway, I’ll say no more, because this novel has to be read cover to cover to be fully appreciated, and once you start you won’t be able to stop. I managed it in only two sittings, if I recall correctly.

A taut but very human crime thriller, which rises to a spectacularly brutal and exciting finale. No wonder Meyer is so highly rated. It’s my first one of his and won’t be my last. He deserves all the accolades.

Just as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if we’re ever fortunate enough to see Devil’s Peak transferred to the screen (I think an adaptation may possibly be in development):

DI Benny Griessel – Arnold Vosloo
Thobela Mpayipheli, ‘Artemis’ – Idris Elba
Christine van Rooyen – Jessica Marais

THE DEEP by Nick Cutter (2015)

When the world’s population is decimated by an incurable and rapidly expanding plague, mankind’s last hope rests with maverick scientist Clayton Nelson and his team as they test a possible solution at the foot of the Challenger Deep (40,000 feet below the ocean’s surface). But when all contact with the submarine base is suddenly cut – seemingly at Clayton’s own whim – the only remaining option is to send down his brother, Luke, to try and talk the nortoriously erratic genius around.

But Luke and Clayton, having shared a nightmarish childhood, don’t get on very well, and in any case there are things lurking down there that are beyond the normal comprehension of most human beings.

Make no mistake, the events that follow comprise pure horror – for all sorts of reasons.

Never has the terror of deep sea exploration been as fully and vividly realised as it is here. Nick Cutter takes us down through untold lightless fathoms to a realm that is alien in every sense of the word; an environment where oxygen itself turns toxic, where the tiniest chink in the hull could create an incoming jet of water so intense it will slice a man in half, and yet where native creatures exist that have no place in any sane creation. But it isn’t just the twisting of physics and biology that bedevils the reader’s mind here, it is Man’s helplessness in the face of it. With Hell triumphant on the outside, on the inside of the claustrophobic sea-base the foulness and disarray is horrendous; the sense of besiegement under millions of tonnes of crushing black water is overpowering. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book to which my most overriding response was “thank God I’m not there”.

And if all that isn’t bad enough, then there is the actual enemy – a force of evil crueller and more terrible than anything ever encountered on the ocean floor before (and just imagine what that actually means). A sentient something that will play catastrophic havoc with human minds, not to mention their anatomy, purely for reasons of its own fascination. To say more about this would be a real spoiler, but put it this way, there are some occasions when wickedness knows no bounds – quite literally; neither intellectual, spiritual, nor even physical. There are points in this novel where you must be prepared to be very disgusted indeed.

At the same time, Luke Nelson, a likeable hero in every possible way, is no more than an everyman. A veterinary surgeon, who by pure luck – pure bad luck in this case – happens to know the egomaniac scientist well. He has no skills of his own that he can bring to bear in this demonic zone, no specialist knowledge. His battle-scarred military sidekick, Lieutenant Alice Sykes, aside from being a submersible pilot, is in a similar position. The desperate twosome find themselves completely at the mercy of forces beyond their imagining, and yet somehow they must not just endure, but must save the world with their actions.

This an amazing piece of fiction. Another against-all-odds ordeal for the characters involved,  which races along at whipcrack speed and yet is written with great visual elan, including the complex technical stuff, which Cutter never shirks, but presents to us in quick, slick, easy-to-understand fashion. It is is also both horrifying and terrifying – in that numbing, near-nihilistic way that always seems to earmark those ‘adventures’ occurring on the very edge of human reality. An oceanic horror classic.

As always, and just for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if we ever get to see The Deep transferred to the screen:

Dr. Luke Nelson – David Franco
Lt Cdr. Alice Sykes – Charlise Theron
Prof. Clayton Nelson – James Franco

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Full fathom five, true terror lies ... soon!!!

Can anyone think of a scarier place on Earth than the deepest regions of the sea? You know, that endless unlit realm of mud, sand and rock, silent except for those eerie, inhuman calls echoing through the void, empty apart from those immense, amorphous shapes gliding past you in the gloom.

Can anyone think of a worse predicament to be in than marooned on the sea's surface with no food, no water and no land in sight, and maybe with a few fins cutting the waves in a circle around you, or perhaps even worse, with some great glistening tentacle waving at you from a few yards distant?

It is one of the great unknowable forces, of course - the ocean.

It surrounds us all. We've sailed it, we've swum in it, we've fished it, mapped it, mined it, holidayed on it. We've trawled many of its hidden vaults, photographed its weirdest denizens. And yet it remains enigmatic.

One of the greatest elemental powers in our world, it can decimate fleets, swallow towns, annihilate civilisations. Vast, moody, mysterious and completely unfeeling, it could and would snuff out each of our lives in the blink of an eye, without a moment's hestitation.

Anyway, we'll talk a bit more about that in a minute.

When I commenced editing my TERROR TALES series for GRAY FRIAR PRESS, I was following in the footsteps of the charming MARY DANBY and the late, great R. CHETWYND-HAYES at Fontana Books, whose TALES OF TERROR series in the 1970s first introduced the concept of intermingling horror fiction with horror fact and presenting it in a procession of regionalised anthologies. Just as Mary and Ron did, my initial plan was to tour the UK, interspersing spooky folklore with original horror fiction from some very distinctive localities - WALESLONDONCORNWALL - though sensitive to accusations (none of which have materialised, by the way) that I might just be copying my forerunners, I was derermined to introduce some slight variations, dare I say it - go into a little more detail. So, while Ron and Mary did SCOTTISH TALES OF TERROR, my intent was to do TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS and TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS. Where Ron and Mary did EUROPEAN TALES OF TERROR, my ambition is to do TERROR TALES OF WESTERN  EUROPETERROR TALES OF EASTERN EUROPETERROR TALES OF SCANDINAVIATERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, etc (though that's all for the future - there's only so much time in the present, you know).

But all along I knew that one subject I couldn't prevaticate about, that I simply had to plunge straight into (pun fully intended), just as Ron and Mary did all those years ago, was the SEA, or, as it will be called in my case, the OCEAN. 

As we speak, TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN (pictured topside, mi hearties!), is still in production, so don't go looking for it yet.

It won't be published until later this year. But, as always, what an absolute joy it's been to work on it. The cover art was provided by the ever-incredible NEIL WILLIAMS, and in this volume I'll be honoured to include stories by such luminaries of the horror and thriller genres as PETER JAMES, ROBERT SHEARMAN, STEPHEN LAWS, ADAM NEVILL, LYNDA E. RUCKER and CONRAD WILLIAMS.

Suffice to say that every aspect of oceanic terror has been investigated by this erstwhile crew: from ghost ships to devils of the deep, from hideous curses to haunted islands, from hellish storms to murderous mariners, from sunken cities to ghastly eco-monstrosities.

It's exhausting stuff, just listing it all. But I think this will be one of the best TERROR TALES titles to date, and I can't wait to release it. So keep watching this space for publication dates, table of contents, back-cover blurb, etc. And if you've yet to go on holiday this August, be careful where you swim, or surf, or float on your air-bed.

You never know what might be underneath you, or approaching you from behind, or waiting on shore, hidden below the innocent looking sand - just biding its time.