Tuesday 26 April 2016

The two Marks knock it out of the ballpark

Today we’re going to start on a completely self-indulgent note as I have no intention of missing this opportunity to show off the new cover for STRANGERS, my next crime novel (due for publication in September). 

Regular followers of this column will know that the German-language cover has recently been publicised as well - in fact there are two other German covers newly released aside from STRANGERS (or perhaps that should be SCHWARZE WITWEN!), but I'll discuss the new book and its various different and exciting jackets in a separate post, as the main emphasis today is to heap praise on two other novels - from the ever-trusty pens of MARK EDWARDS and MARK BILLINGHAM - which have completely caught my imagination during this month of April.   

They are both crime novels, so there is an ongoing theme here, but they amply illustrate the incredible range of styles and subject-matter that fall within the crime/thriller medium, and very adequately show just how good modern British crime-writing can be. 

So here, without further ado, is this week's ...


An ongoing 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, 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.

by Mark Edwards (2013)

Love-birds Jamie and Kirsty think they’re living the suburban dream when they acquire a spacious London flat at a knock-down price. The neighbourhood is genteel, the neighbours themselves welcoming. On top of that, both Jamie and Kirsty have good jobs, he a software engineer, she a paediatric nurse. A comfortable middle-class life together beckons.

Until – slowly and subtly – things start to go wrong.

The arrival of dead rats on their doorstep could be the work of an overly industrious local cat, but why does someone keep sending the Fire Brigade to their address, who keeps ordering fast food deliveries they don’t want, and why are they deluged with peculiar and sometimes downright offensive junk-mail? It isn’t long before they start to suspect they may somehow have offended their downstairs neighbours, Chris and Lucy Newton, a slightly older and curiously unsophisticated couple. Initially, there are scant clues that the Newtons are behind this campaign of unprovoked harassment, though they do complain to Jamie and Kirsty rather a lot and often about the most innocuous things.

In the first instance there is no obvious sense of danger, but author Mark Edwards is nothing if not an expert when it comes to slowly and mercilessly turning the psychological screw.

In its most basic sense, the situation the young couple have found themselves in is the stuff of nightmares. These are pleasant, conscientious people looking only to get on with their lives. One thing they are not is adversarial. Jamie is no macho man, and neither he nor Kirsty are streetwise – if anything they are na├»ve. Quite clearly they’d be easy victims for a determined sociopath, particularly if this warped person decided to make them his/her new ‘hobby’ – and this is the raw and terrible nerve that Mark Edwards now relentlessly plucks.

The violations against Jamie and Kirsty’s happy world become steadily more vicious and personal, soon invading every aspect of their lives, leaving our heroes increasingly frightened and disoriented, especially as the Newtons, whenever they are encountered face-to-face, remain affable and polite, which even puts doubt in the reader’s mind that they may be guilty. But a whole new level of horror is reached when Paul, Jamie’s best friend and sole ally, is terribly injured in a go-carting accident, which again looks as if it might have been engineered by Chris Newton.

This has a devastating effect on Jamie and Kirsty, whose own relationship finally starts to suffer. Isolated and friendless, feeling besieged, the couple try to struggle on, but even this isn’t the end of it. Each new day brings ever more elaborately sadistic outrages, until soon, driven beyond despair, having lost everything, Jamie opts to take drastic action to fight back.

But his invisible opponents are no ordinary neighbours from Hell.

Up until now, civilised man Jamie has only been able to guess at the degree of wickedness that faces him here …

The Magpies is a fascinating and highly intelligent psycho thriller written by an expert in low-key terror, but genuine spice is added to this hair-raising brew because the author himself experienced similar persecution in his earlier life, and that harrowing authenticity is written all the way through. It certainly explains why the torment is piled on so ruthlessly, layer after layer, each ghastly new development superseded by the next – if it isn’t rats it is spiders, if it isn’t damaging computer viruses, it is stage-managed fatal accidents – until it literally becomes overwhelming, until you, the reader, are ready to rip your own hair out, never mind the novel's hapless heroes.

However, there is more to this than mere mental torture. The mystery and suspense run deep. We are never totally convinced that Jamie and Kirsty are correct about the identity of their anonymous foes – there are several other neighbours aside from the Newtons, and some of their normal friends are less than helpful. Their increasing air of paranoia only adds to the mix; they become confused and irrational; so cleverly is the book written that at times you even wonder if anything malicious is actually going on at all.

On top of that, The Magpies is a finely-observed study of a strong relationship cracking under outside pressure. The slow deterioration of Jamie and Kirsty’s partnership is as tragic as it is frightening, and completely compelling because it is so believable. Be warned, the pain and desolation that soon fill the central characters’ lives in this book feel very real indeed. Of course, that also intensifies the reader’s desire to see justice done – or should that be revenge?

By the time you get to the end of this intense and absorbing novel, you won’t really care.

As always, purely as a bit of fun fantasy-casting, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Magpies ever makes it to the screen:

Jamie – Ben Whishaw
Kirsty – Sophie Turner
Paul – Rupert Grint
Chris – Neil Maskell
Lucy – MyAnna Buring

by Mark Billingham (2013)

DI Tom Thorne and girlfriend, DS Helen Weeks, have taken a winter holiday in the Cotswolds, where they intend to spend Valentine’s Day together and enjoy a well-earned rest. But, as you can probably guess, from the commencement of Time of Death, the 13th outing for Mark Billingham’s gruff, no-nonsense hero, it is never going to be quite as easy as that.

Thorne, a veteran of the Murder Squad, is approaching middle-age these days, and still hasn’t entirely worked out his relationship with the relatively new woman in his life, DS Weeks. She is younger than he is, and doesn’t see the world in the same stark terms. However, it is Helen who makes the decision to suddenly interrupt their break and head north into rainy, flood-stricken Warwickshire, where an old school acquaintance, Linda Bates, is in trouble.

It seems that in Polesford, Helen’s rural but far-from-idyllic hometown, two teenage girls have been abducted, and one has now turned up in the woods, brutally murdered. In response, Warwickshire Police have laid their hands on local man, Stephen Bates – Linda’s husband – and look set to charge him with the crime.

Thorne is a little bemused as to why they are getting involved. By her own admission, Helen was not Linda’s best friend when they were kids, though they seem to share some kind of unspoken connection. On top of that, all Helen can really do once they arrive is provide a shoulder for Linda to cry on. And it’s a much-needed shoulder. Linda and her family are distraught and already being ostracised by their neighbours. Moreover, when Thorne looks into the case as an observer, it seems pretty straightforward. Even though Bates maintains his innocence, there is a mass of evidence stacked against him, and his alibi doesn’t stand up – in due course, he is charged with kidnapping and murder.

However, not all in Polesford is exactly as it should be.

Thorne isn’t won over by the loutish townsfolk, by the media who have swamped the place in a search for ever-more sensationalist news angles, or by the local investigation team, who have not been as thorough as he would like and who are increasingly resentful of his presence. When Phil Hendricks, his tattoo-covered but trusty forensics expert, joins him in Polesford, they commence an enquiry of their own – unofficially of course – and quickly start to uncover anomalies in the evidence.

Pretty soon, Thorne is convinced that Bates is innocent. But the local fuzz will have no truck with that, and in fact complain to his bosses in the Met (who attempt to call him off), while Helen is only marginally more useful. For the moment at least, the level-headed policewoman he knows and loves has vanished, to be replaced by someone who is secretive, snappy and inordinately stressed. Clearly, Helen herself has more than superficial issues with the town of her birth, and there is no guarantee they are unconnected to this enquiry.

But Thorne, the hard-nosed investigator, is now in his element. Amid foul weather and despite a storm of hostility, he battles on determinedly. Because if nothing else, he strongly suspects that the second of the two abducted girls is still in the grasp of the real killer, maybe still alive, and if so, enduring who knows what horrors …

Tom Thorne is an iconic cop character in British crime fiction, and his cases are never less than totally readable. I particularly enjoyed this one, though, because it takes a new approach.

All the usual coolness of Mark Billingham’s crime-writing is there. The slick prose; the polished characterisation; the quickfire, uber-realistic dialogue; the grim tone – yet again the ‘real crime’ feel pervades this book: desolated lives, a non-empathetic public, the countless unsavoury elements that combine to create Broken Britain. This is vintage Thorne territory, but on this occasion the Met’s best bloodhound is not seeking to prove a murder suspect’s guilt, but to establish his innocence.

And it works so well.

Thorne is one of crime fiction’s top good guys, mainly because he’s believable – totally human and fallible – but at the same time he has all the attributes of a hero. He’s no angel, but he knows a dodgy situation when he encounters one, and he doesn’t care whose nose he puts out when he’s on the trail of justice. Hendricks of course – Thorne’s less conservative, happier-go-luckier other self – makes a great sparring partner, but together their combined intellect is a fearsome force. And this is the other thing about Time of Death: it is distinctly NOT a tale of brawn over brain. Don’t get me wrong; Thorne can kick arse if he wants to (and so can Helen Weeks, as this book illustrates), but this time it’s all about the minutiae of forensics, Thorne and Hendricks bouncing ideas back and forth at lightning speed as they strive to save an innocent man and rescue a tormented child.

This is raw, page-turning action, even though much of it is cerebral rather than physical.

And the background to it all is richly atmospheric too, the rain-sodden landscape a last word in winter dreariness, the support-cast almost entirely comprised of gossips and misery-merchants: metal-head taxi-driver Jason Sweeney is particularly odious and a masterwork of slow-building menace; Trevor Hare, the pub landlord and former cop who becomes Thorne’s confidant in the village, is an opinionated know-all; Linda Jackson herself ranges back and forth between sweetness, light and embittered, foul-mouthed shrewiness; even Stephen Bates is a self-centred oddball and someone you wouldn’t ordinarily root for, and yet such is Billingham’s skill that you end up doing precisely that.

This is one of the best and most unusual police novels I’ve read in quite a while, but it’s not just a procedural. Sexual misbehaviour is a key aspect of this story, especially abusive misbehaviour, and not just where extreme examples like homicide are concerned. But Mark Billingham is a serious writer – he doesn’t do pulp fiction – and as such he handles these heart-rending subjects with a deftness of touch and understanding that elevate the entire thing way above the level of routine tawdry suspense thriller.

Time of Death is an intriguing but grown-up mystery, played out at breathless pace and yet never once straying beyond the realms of the completely authentic. An excellent read.

And here again, just for fun, are my selections for who should take the lead roles if Time of Death ever makes it to the screen (Thorne is no stranger to TV of course; Sleepyhead and Scaredycat – Thorne #1 and #2 – both made it in 2010, and for me David Morrissey and Aiden Gillen were perfect in their respective parts, so I’d see no reason to change that now):

DI Tom Thorne – David Morrissey
DS Helen Weeks – Lorraine Burroughs
Phil Hendricks – Aiden Gillen
Linda Bates – Felicity Jones
Stephen Bates – Arthur Darvill
Trevor Hare – Trevor Eve
Jason Sweeney – Cillian Murphy
Aurora Harley – Anya Taylor-Joy

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Nightmarish world of ghosts and monsters

I almost feel honoured this week to be reviewing BROKEN MONSTERS by Lauren Beukes, which is surely one of the most astonishing horror/fantasy/thriller novels I’ve read in many a year. But as usual, that’s for a little later – you can find my full review of it at the lower end of this column. Feel free to scroll your way down there right away if you so wish, but for those with more time on their hands, I’m first going to talk a little about the Jamesian elements in my TERROR TALES series, and am also honoured – I’m doubly honoured today, it seems – to be able to include the whole of a rather spiffing review of the series as written by the legendary Rosemary Pardoe in that Bible of all things MR James, the GHOSTS & SCHOLARS newsletter.

First of all ... what is the definition of Jamesian fiction?

Well ... lots of us would love to have a final, decisive answer on that. Such a thing would certainly aid with our own ghost stories. But I think that overall it’s a pleasingly elusive concept. Montague Rhodes James (left) is one of the most important writers of supernatural fiction in literary history, as relevant in the field now as he was during his lifetime (1862 – 1936). Readers of all cultures and creeds adore his work and get many different things out of it, so I don’t think it’s possible to lay out a definitive set pattern of requirements.

However, to try and be at least a little bit specific, I think there are some key ingredients to Jamesian fiction which you can sort of rely on ...

Firstly, the setting needs to be quite distinctive. Often it’s some fine old building of religious or scholarly antiquity: a cathedral, an abbey or a university, though seaside villages are also acceptable so long as they are – well, Jamesian in tone (sorry … not much help, I know). Rural towns in Europe and Scandinavia are not unknown, though it helps if they are also seats of arcane knowledge and ancient ritual.

Secondly, the cause of the trouble will often be the recovery after many centuries of some ancient, eldritch thing: the discovery of a long lost tomb or hidden room, or the retrieval of an old book or scroll, or some other dusty and mysterious artefact.

Thirdly, the supernatural entity invoked by this impertinence will be horrible and merciless. Call it a ghost if you wish (and sometimes it will be – as in an ancestor who returns), but that isn’t a prerequisite.

It could be a demon, a vampire, a ghoul, an animated church statue; Hell, it could be nothing we have a name for, but it must be real and it must be on its way already – coming fast to enact vengeance for the trespass or to reclaim the pillaged item (and quite often it won’t be seen in its grisly entirety until the final awful moments of the tale, though readers will get the nod that it’s on its way long before it arrives).

Fourthly, the hero is often a mild-mannered, intelligent but rather asexual character, a clergyman or university don, an amateur archaeologist or some other kind of scholar; someone learned in the field but unusually innocent in general terms – this innocence will quite often be his undoing, as he plods happily into the most appalling danger.  

Fifthly, the story is FRIGHTENING. This is probably the one non-negotiable element. Forget your nice, funny or whimsical English ghost stories, forget those voices from beyond that seek only to assist. MR James had no time for that nursery room gentility. His tales are still among the most chilling ever written, usually with savage outcomes, and you’re not doing the tradition any justice if you try to write Jamesian ghost stories of your own and don’t make them extremely scary and/or disturbing.

As you can probably tell, I’m a long-time lover of the Jamesian tale. Not that I’ve written too many myself – one or two at the most – but as editor of the TERROR TALES series, I have tried to include more than a few in the final line-ups, or at the very least have commissioned new work from contemporary ghost story writers who are strongly associated with the Jamesian school – Reggie Oliver, Steve Duffy, Roger Johnson, Helen Grant and Peter Bell, among many others.

Even if I hadn’t been a Jamesian fan, it would be near enough impossible to edit a series of supernatural horror anthologies based on and inspired by British regional folklore without including at least a few stories of that persuasion, the late MRJ also strongly influenced by eerie rural locations, village mysteries, hidden secrets, isolated coves, etc.

As such, and as I mentioned at the start of this post, the series has now come to the attention of Rosemary Pardoe at GHOSTS & SCHOLARS, and she was good enough to include this lengthy assessment of it in her March edition. In case you missed that, Rosemary has now, very kindly, granted me permission to reprint her review in full on this blog.

And so here we go (many thanks, Ro):  

Edited by Paul Finch
Gray Friar Press 
Reviewed by Rosemary Pardoe

Paul Finch has been editing his Terror Tales series of paperback anthologies for Gray Friar Press on a roughly twice-yearly basis now since 2011.  

To date there have been nine volumes: Terror Tales of London, Terror Tales of East Anglia, Terror Tales of the Cotswolds, Terror Tales of the Lake District, Terror Tales of the Seaside, Terror Tales of Wales, Terror Tales of Yorkshire, Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands and most recently Terror Tales of the Ocean. All of them are still available (print on demand) and all contain a mixture of (mostly) new stories with a few reprints by (mostly) current writers, set in the relevant areas, interspersed with little vignettes of local mythology, folklore and history.  

There are stories for Jamesian aficionados in the majority of the collections; and tales by authors whose names will be familiar to readers of Ghosts & Scholars, Haunted Library publications and the G&S Books of Shadows.

Thus, for instance, in the Scottish Highlands book there are stories by Helen Grant, Peter Bell, John Whitbourn and D.P. Watt, as well as a reprint of Sheila Hodgson's ‘The Fellow Travellers’. Similarly in Yorkshire, Chico Kidd and Christopher Harman feature; in Wales are Steve Duffy (‘Old as the Hills’, reprinted from G&S 33), Reggie Oliver and John Llewellyn Probert; at the Seaside are Ramsey Campbell, Reggie Oliver and Christopher Harman; in London, Roger Johnson's superb London that was Rome-influenced ‘The Soldier’ is a highlight; in the Cotswolds we find Ramsey Campbell, Christopher Harman, Reggie Oliver and John Llewellyn Probert; and in the Lake District are Ramsey Campbell, Reggie Oliver and Peter Bell. 

Of course, not all of these authors contribute Jamesian stories, while some of the writers who might be less familiar to G&S readers do. To illustrate the mix, and for obvious reasons, I've picked Terror Tales of East Anglia (2012) to look at in slightly more detail. 

It contains thirteen stories with twelve non-fiction vignettes; the latter are a mix of the familiar (the Murder in the Red Barn, the ghostly knight of Wandlebury Camp, the Rendlesham Forest UFO) and the unfamiliar (the mutilated torso that haunted Happisburgh, the demon of Wallasea Island, the giggling ghost of Dagworth Castle). 

Most of the tales are original to the volume, although some have since been reprinted elsewhere. 

The first Jamesian story is ‘The Watchman’ by Roger Johnson, reprinted from The Best of Ghosts & Scholars (1986). When a statue on the west front of Stockbridge Minster in Suffolk is replaced by one of St Michael and All Angels, it becomes clear that the former was sculpted from the life; and anyone who attempts to steal from the Minster is running a considerable risk. ‘The Watchman’ isn’t Roger at his best (which, as we know, can be very good indeed), but it’s a decent, workmanlike, if predictable, antiquarian tale. 

I would say the same about Edward Pearce’s ‘The Little Wooden Box’, which again deals with the perils of stealing from an ecclesiastical building. 

Steve Duffy’s ‘The Marsh Warden’ (originally published in Midnight Never Comes, 1997), set in and around an inn on the Essex marshes, is also traditional in plot, involving plague pits and haunted wells. But it’s so immaculately and atmospherically written that it’s a joy to read and (although I admire him for being his own man and going his own way) it makes me regret that Steve no longer seems to write Jamesian fiction. 

‘Wolferton Hall’ by James Doig (originally in Shadows and Silence, 2000) is another tale that deals in the standard James themes: an academic researches family papers in a Norfolk country house, and is disturbed by a fresco depicting a "man being pursued by [a] curious scarecrow figure". Yet a story like this, when written with the skilful scholarly touch that is characteristic of James Doig, remains extremely effective and satisfying. Johnny Mains’ ‘Aldeburgh’, a sequel to ‘A Warning to the Curious’ as the title suggests, is more unusual. Or at least it starts that way as a murder mystery, with the intriguing premise that the events in the story were based on fact, and were inspired by the death of one Mr Payton. His demise was witnessed by MRJ himself, and Mr Payton has a son who accuses MRJ of killing his father. 

Unfortunately the tale peters out with an ending that doesn’t live up to the promise of the start (it’s also a problem that the character of MRJ in the story isn’t in the least like the real one). Another story set in (a renamed) Aldeburgh is Reggie Oliver’s excellent ‘The Spooks of Shellborough’. 

This is not exactly a ‘Warning to the Curious’-connected tale, and yet it takes certain motifs from that story: the distant figure which haunts the narrator's golfing companion; and also the description of the two bodies at the end, found with their mouths choked by sand. 

The final image of the revenant is Jamesian enough, and shocks because the rest of the tale is so restrained. I also like ‘Double Space’, Gary Fry’s smart variant on the ‘Casting the Runes’ style curse that rebounds on its sender.

Non-Jamesian stories are by the likes of Christopher Harman, Paul Finch and Simon Bestwick, but my favourite of these is Mark Valentine's superb ‘The Fall of the King of Babylon’ (reprinted in Seventeen Stories, 2013). Mark rarely tackles out-and-out horror, but this is an exception. Set in Ely in the medieval period when that city acquired its name from its thriving industry in the harvesting of a certain sort of fish, this story demonstrates that one should never get on their wrong side. As an eel-phobic, I never really doubted that, but non-phobics will get a chill from the tale too, and everyone can appreciate the wonderfully evoked, dark setting and atmosphere.

Happily, there is no end in sight for the Terror Tales series. 

The latest, Terror Tales of the Ocean (with contributions from Stephen Laws, Steve Duffy, Adam Golaski, Adam Nevill, Lynda E. Rucker, etc.), continues to the same standard, although by its nature there are few if any Jamesian stories in this volume. 

Paul Finch already has plans for Terror Tales of Cornwall, Terror Tales of the Northwest, Terror Tales of the Home Counties, Terror Tales of the Midlands and Terror Tales of the South Coast.  He won't even be stopping when Great Britain is fully covered, the idea at that stage being to venture over the seas to Europe and possibly beyond. 

With such a good stable of authors regularly participating, I don't foresee any drop-off in quality either. Inevitably not every story will please everyone (some by no means please me) but other anthologists will struggle hard to reach the consistent standard of these books, which G&S has neglected for too long ...

Again, many thanks to Rosemary. You can hook up with Ghosts & Scholars and discover all you need to about Jamesian fiction both old and new by either following this LINK. Or alternatively, contact Rosemary Pardoe directly at dandrpardoe@gmail.com and she’ll be happy to send you an info/order form.

The images used in this section of the blog, from the top down, are: Lost Hearts (BBC, 1973); MRJ himself; Whistle and I'll Come to You (BBC, 1968); The Tractate Middloth (BBC, 2013); The Stalls of Barchester (BBC, 1971); G&S #9, cover illustration by Tony Patrick; G&S #28, cover illustration by Paul Lowe; G&S #32, cover illustration by Paul Lowe; G&S # 19, cover illustration by Douglas Walters; and Terror Tales of the Ocean, artwork by Neil Williams.



An ongoing 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, 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.

by Lauren Beukes (2014)

The time is now. The place is Detroit, a city in its post-industrial death throes.

This is a landscape that is not just physically decayed, but morally bereft: where there are more citizens without jobs than with; where the homeless almost outnumber the residents; where over-worldly youngsters drink, take drugs and swear; where underage girls tease online paedophiles just for kicks, and high school kids are more interested in filming their friends being bullied than in helping them out; a place where graffiti and ruin-porn pass for art; where any hipster careerist thinks he/she can be a sculptor, or a musician, or a writer, or a journalist, or a social commentator, and yet somehow all of them finish up being vapid, vacuous wannabes.

In the midst of this urban ooze, cop and single mom Detective Gabi Versado finds herself investigating a particularly distressing case.

The fusing of a dead boy’s torso to the hindquarters of a deer sparks the commencement of a sadistic and gratuitous murder spree – the handiwork of a killer soon known as the ‘Detroit Monster’ because of the grotesque public displays he makes of his victims.

All the monumental complexity of a massive homicide enquiry follows, with various colourful but complex characters getting in on the act. For example, Layla is Gabi’s neglected yet spirited daughter, one of those brattish modern teens who can’t seem to live if she isn’t constantly active on social media, and yet who in this case is irrepressibly likeable; Jonno Haim is a failed New York writer-turned-blogger, a minimally-talented chancer looking to kick-start a career he hasn’t earned by shouldering his way into the Detroit arts scene; Thomas ‘TK’ Keen is an amiable hobo, a father figure to his fellow homeless, but a guy haunted by his own tragic and violent past; and then we have Clayton Broom, another failure – all these lives are broken in this land of broken dreams! – a skilled artist who struggles to support himself when his work doesn’t sell, and as such lives in a slum, absorbedly dwelling on his bizarre visions … which leaves him open to some very pernicious influences.

And this is the point where, for some readers at least, this novel’s wheels have come off.

Fans of Lauren Beukes, particularly those familiar with her stunning tale of magical realism, The Shining Girls, will probably expect Broken Monsters to enter the territory of the unreal at some point, and – well, that’s precisely what it does. Quite unapologetically. So be under no illusion. Despite first appearances, this is NOT a police procedural or even a traditional murder mystery.

At a relatively early stage, the identity of the felon is given away, but he quite literally is not himself. Call it what you will – an alien intelligence, a ghost, a demon, a faerie, an ancient god – but some powerful, unknowable and insane entity has awakened inside this already damaged soul, driving him to commit terrible deeds, each time intensifying the horror and savagery in its vain efforts to create better things, to entrance and heal the suffering public, and usher in a new age of wonder and enlightenment through the chalk doorways it motivates him to inscribe on walls near the scenes of his crimes.

And this is the real narrative, not the internal fantasy of a madman. The closer our various heroes come to resolving this case, the ever more bizarre, lurid and warped the realities they encounter, until we reach a point where you know in your bones that normality can never resume. It builds to such a crescendo of the weird and horrific that the annihilation of some of the good guys – or at least the annihilation of their sanity – seems inevitable …

I hate pigeon-holing in literature, but in this case it serves a valid purpose. Broken Monsters may not be your run-of-the-mill crime thriller. But neither is it your standard urban horror story. In fact, if the vague term ‘dark fantasy’ ever had a living embodiment, this is it. And so what if certain readers were not happy about that? That is down to their own preconceptions – they thought they were reading cops ‘n’ robbers when all the blurbs said otherwise.  

For me, in this case if none other, the quality is more important than the content. Because this is far and away one of the most readable novels I’ve ever picked up. It doesn’t just move at electrifying pace, it is exquisitely written. The loving descriptions of the half-abandoned city are intense and detailed – you can almost smell the oil and filth, the rotted steel, the rain-soaked concrete. The characters are rich and multi-layered, all forlorn, all struggling, all in many ways annoying, and yet on occasion funny and loveable too, and as such, so real that it is easy to form emotional connections with them. Even the killer is the star-turn in one achingly sad scene where, in an unwitting attempt to head off his ghastly future, he tries to reacquaint with the mother of his child, a slatternly ‘roadhouse mom’ – who casually and spitefully rejects him.

For all these reasons, Broken Monsters gets my highest recommendation. Yes, the change of gear (the ‘thriller to horror’ moment) is a bit of a jolt for those who didn’t anticipate it, but this is truly excellent stuff: compelling and fascinating, at the same time both depressing and uplifting. The depth and imagery of the ruined city and the raddled folk living therein is almost seductive; the soullessness of the internet age will horrify you; the constant madness of mass-communication, mass profanity, mass insolence, mass embarrassment – the whole damn thing is amazing and infuriating and scary and intoxicating all at the same time.

You may not love this novel (unlike me – I did, as if you can’t tell!), but I can damn well guarantee that you’ll be totally overwhelmed by it.

And as always – purely for a laugh, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Broken Monsters ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (which is surely very likely given the adaptation clamour that greeted The Shining Girls). 

Detective Gabi Versado – Salma Hayek 
Layla  – Amandla Stenburg 
Thomas 'TK' Keen  – Chris Chalk 
Jonna Haim  – Jonathan Rhys Meyers 
Clayton Broom  – Peter Stormare

Sunday 10 April 2016

Writing speculative scripts - is it worth it?

There are few more exciting thrillers I've read in recent times than Simon Wood's high octane THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY, and as such I've taken it on myself to scribble out a full review of it. But, as usual, you'll find that at the lower end of this column. 

Scroll down there straight away, if you wish. But if you also fancy pondering the thorny issue of spec scripts and whether it can ever pay to take the time out of your busy schedule to write them, then feel free to head south at a more leisurely pace, and check out my own views on the matter first ...

Soo, script-writing on spec. Is it worth it?

A big question indeed.

This is a conversation I've had repeatedly with Cathy, my wife and best friend of the last 28 years and my business partner for the last four. So I'm very familiar with the arguments for and against, but even then finding a satisfactory answer is never easy (at least not at first glance).

When you're first starting out as a screen-writer, you don't have much choice. No producer is going to commission a script from you if you haven't got a track-record (these days you're lucky if they'll commission a script from you if you HAVE got one). It's amazing how much more receptive to your ideas film and TV companies tend to be if you can walk into their office, hit them with a cool pitch and then, in a single artistic flourish, lay a finished first-draft script on their desk as well (even though they'll probably not bother to read the script until you've written a concise outline and they've read that first).

But even then it's going to be a long-shot, mainly because, unless you had a consultation with them beforehand, you're not really sure what kind of project they're looking for, and even if you have had a consultation, things may have changed in the last couple of weeks, or some other writer who they may know better and therefore trust more might have come along with a similar or better idea, or maybe because you haven't developed the idea they expressed interest in the way they'd have liked you to because, you know, you didn't have a producer or script-editor looking over your shoulder while you were writing it, etc etc ...

Either way, it most likely means you've done an awful lot of work for nothing. And it won't end there.

The average  movie-length screenplay usually comes in at something like 20K-25K words, which is no small effort on your part when you're not being paid for it - and there's the other rub.

When you've invested so much time and effort into a thing, you don't want to just throw it into a drawer. You've got to keep hawking it around, which is yet more time and energy. And of course each new producer you show it to will likely be in a similar position to the first: Is it the sort of thing he/she is looking for?, have you developed it they way they'd like?, and so on.

It's an ominous prospect, and my own experience reinforces this. I'm better known these days as a novelist. But I've done my share of screen-writing. The problem is that - despite writing scripts for pre-existing television shows, where I had some success during my early days - I've only written two movie scripts which have actually progressed right the way through preproduction, been made, and have then gone out to general distribution. On the first of these, SPIRIT TRAP (2005), I was only a co-writer anyway, a first-draft script already existing when I was brought in to 'doctor' it. For the second, THE DEVIL'S ROCK (2011), I was acquainted with a talented young director, Paul Campion, who had already devised a detailed idea, had got a producer on board, and was willing to pay me to flesh it out into a script.

Neither of those projects involved speculative writing. The vast majority of the scripts I DID write on spec, however - and oh yes, there have been many - have rarely got close to principle photography, even though several have made it into actual development. For example, my screen adapation of  CAPE WRATH, my Bram Stroker Award nominee short novel of 2001, was under option for nearly nine years and has still never been made. It's been though something like 10 drafts now and has been workshopped half a dozen times, and is probably in the best shape I could ever imagine a script of mine being, but at present it sits and gathers dust. My forthcoming next novel, STRANGERS, conerning a young female detective at the sharp end of crime in Manchester, commenced life as a spec TV script called NO FURY way back in 1993; it was optioned on and off, but so much time passed on this one that in the end I saw better potential in turning it into a book.

So, on first glance - and purely coming at this with brain rather than heart, it doesn't look as if it's worth writing speculative film or TV scripts.

But you know ... are we really in this business because we are logic machines who will only type out what we are 100% sure we can sell, who will only create if there is a dead-cert buyer, who will only write what the general herd wants us to, who won't get out of bed for less than a guaranteed five grand a day?

Of course we aren't.

I don't know any writer who is successful today who hasn't at one time or another had to slug his/her way through a jungle of indifference, who hasn't ridden the blows of rejection again and again, who hasn't produced speculative work at length over many, many agonising years.

Back in 2013, at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, I was fortunate enough to chair a 'Selling Your Spec Script' panel, which among others comprised script-writing legends like Stephen Volk, Richard Christian Matheson and Peter Atkins, not to mention top London literary agent, Ellen Gallagher - all of whom were hugely positive about spec-script writing (with the obvious caveats that you have to do a proper job, you have to be professional, you have to be prepared to take an awful lot of metaphorical smacks on the nose, and so forth), all of them having done this very thing themselves multiple times.

None of the panelists felt that the difficulties you will encounter trying to sell a speculative script should put you off writing one - if you've actually got the gumption to embark on that rocky road.

One of the biggest off-putters when it comes to writing speculatively (be it scripts, books, stories, anything really) is the amount of unpaid time you are required to spend at your keyboard. But if I was to look at this, say ... from a purely personal perspective, it would be sheer folly for me NOT to make this time available. In addition to having three ideas-folders that are, each one, the size of a telephone directory, I also have stacks of novellas, novelettes and short stories, all published many years ago but now fading into the mists of history. With the best will in the world, at least some of these have got to be script-worthy, and so as a professional writer I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't dig through them now and then and adapt as many as I could into screenplays. Hell, if the story's already written, the characters are already developed - what have you got to lose?

Ultimately, it's a matter for the individual. It boils down to how serious you are about writing. If you're in it for the long-haul, you've got to keep battering that rampart of indifference with every weapon you've got, and the more of those weapons you produce, the greater your chance of creating a breach.

The whole thing was summed up far more eloquently than I ever could by Richard Christian Matheson at the Spec Scripts panel back at Brighton in 2013, when he said:

"You have to have a really high threshold for rejection. In this business, golden opportunities turn black. You have to keep writing. There are an extraordinary number of set-backs to face. Take an inventory of your nature: where is your threshold? It's not about the one moment; it's about momentum. You have to be relentless - in a way that you're not about anything else in your life. And you do that by loving to write - so all the rejection doesn't punch a hole in you; it just makes you keep on going."

There is one other thing too. It actually COULD happen for you. It's not impossible by any means. And don't take my word for that. Look at the evidence. TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE was a spec script written by Randy Brown, which languished with no-one interested in it for 10 years, until 2012, when Clint Eastwood picked it up and made a major movie out of it. Back in 1996, Shane Black's spec script THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT sold for a mind boggling $4 million.

At the end of the day, a good idea well-written is a good idea well-written. It doesn't matter if no producer or film-maker happens to be looking for it at that moment in time. It may still find a home at some point, so it's worth doing it for that reason alone.

And if it doesn't ... or it it doesn't straight away, you've still learned something, because there's no better school of writing than actually writing - and on top of that you've got yourself a neat little calling card into the bargain.

Seriously guys, how are you better off NOT writing a spec script than writing one?

It's a no-brainer.

(Thanks to my fellow wordsmith, T.D. Edge - whose excellent website can be found HERE - for making a note of that fine Richard Christian Matheson quote back in 2013, and for granting me permission to reproduce it in this column).



An ongoing 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, 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.

by Simon Wood (2015)

In Simon Wood’s heart-stopping thriller, The One That Got Away, PHd student and party girl, Zoe, has some rapid-fire growing up to do when she and her best friend, Holli, are abducted outside Vegas by desert serial killer, the Tally Man. Holli dies, but though Zoe escapes, she is both physically and emotionally scarred by the event, and finds her life in ruins. In fact, it gets worse than that. With one exception, the empathetic Inspector Ryan Greening, the cops are highly sceptical – there is no evidence of the abductions and soon Zoe herself becomes a suspect in Holli’s disappearance.

At the same time, the Tally Man – a deceptively clean-cut and yet highly obsessional psychopath – is very far from being finished with her …

This novel’s greatest strength in my view is its central character. Though initially a cold and distant figure, instinctively mistrustful of all those around her, Zoe remains likeable. A former free spirit, she is distressingly damaged by her experience … so you feel for her, you empathise with her pain. But at the same time, she isn’t cowed by trauma. In fact, she is driven by it to change her life, to become a hardened survivor, and in this you cheer her – because a key theme of this book is that fighting back, while not always desirable, may sometimes be a necessity if you want to make it through (especially when, as in this case, you can find no help among the grey faces of bureaucracy that surround you).

Of course, while Zoe struggles to convince the cops that she is the victim, the real killer – cool, intelligent, resourceful and relentless – gets ever closer, finally launching a protracted and carefully planned assault by which he intends to reclaim Zoe for his collection. Tired and alone, our heroine must face and resist this deranged aggression in almost complete isolation – which, though she is no longer the panic-stricken ‘fraidy-cat she was at the beginning, is a challenge of nightmarish proportions …  

Okay, this is a straightforward and simple idea. And yes, I’ve seen it done before, though rarely as well as this. The only real problem with this novel is finding enough time in which to sit down and read it, because trust me, it’s unputdownable. It starts out at 100 mph, and maintains that rip-roaring pace all the way through, the narrative careering from one hair-raising set-piece to the next. Some minor criticisms have been levelled at it: that it doesn’t possess enough twists and turns (virtually none, if I’m honest); that any cops behaving as some of these guys do would surely lose their jobs. But hey, it’s a great read … it keeps you on the edge of your seat and keeps you turning the pages, and what else is a thriller really supposed to do?

The One That Got Away gets my strongest recommendation, though as I say it’s another one you’ll need to find time for, because once you start you won’t want to stop. 

As usual, and purely for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The One That Got Away ever makes it to the screen (and in this case, I’d be surprised if that didn’t happen):

Zoe Sutton – Emilia Clarke
Inspector Ryan Greening – Jared Padalecki
Marshall Beck, the Tally Man – Timothy Olyphant