Friday, 16 March 2018

Horror meets Crime in a new twilight zone

To celebrate the paperback publication earlier this month of John Connolly’s masterly A GAME OF GHOSTS, which I’ll be reviewing and discussing further down in today’s column, I thought I’d also talk a little bit about the horror and thriller genres - once seen as rivals, but now more like bedfellows - and that mysterious twilight zone where they meet.

Very relevant to this, I’ll also be chatting about PARTNERS IN CRIME at The Quad in Derby in a week’s time, on March 24, where with various other authors, I’ll again be discussing this same subject.

If you’re only here for the A GAME OF GHOSTS review, then feel free to scoot down to the bottom of today’s blogpost – you’ll find it in the usual place. However, if you’re interested in a broad-range discussion about the horror/thriller cloth from which this latest Charlie Parker outing is cut, then stick around for a bit (and by all means, have a say in the comments section).

First off, PARTNERS IN CRIME – and this isn’t just a plug for an event I’m attending as a guest; it’s totally relevant to today’s topic. It’ll be a ground-breaking occasion, which will feature appearances from such crime-writing luminaries as Stuart MacBride, Fiona Cummins, AK Benedict, Steph Broadribb, Barry Forshaw, SJ Holliday, Jo Jakeman, David Mark and Roz Watkins. Okay, so far so familiar if you like crime fiction festivals, but I’m sure you’ll admit that all these names operate primarily at the darker end of the crime-writing spectrum, and look at who’s organising this event – it’s not the CWA, but the HWA, in other words the Horror Writers Association!

What’s more, the panels are completely in synch with this. The two I’ll be participating in, I, Monster: Has the Serial Killer Replaced The Monster in Dark Literature? and Taboo! How Dark is Too Dark? (at 3pm and 4pm respectively), are also, each in their own way, looking at the overlap between the two genres.

In fact, the overall purpose of the event is to thoroughly examine this overlap, and ask has it always been there or is it something relatively new (perhaps spawned by the lack of new horror novels that mainstream publishing in the UK now seems willing to put its money behind)?

Personally, I’ve long contended that there isn’t a great deal of difference between the two genres, and in fact have wondered if there is any difference, might it simply be the choice of labels allocated by various marketing departments?

When I was moderating a panel at CrimeFest in Bristol last year, James Carol, author of many a brutal serial killer tale, said something similar to: ‘I write horror novels, but my publishers call them crime’.

Now, I wouldn’t say that I write horror novels. Not any more. But I think readers of my Heck and Lucy Clayburn books would agree that they contain strong horror elements. STALKERS, for example, concerns the hunt for a rape-club, the clients of which can nominate any victim, the operators then abducting said victim, providing a private venue where the attack can take place, and then disposing of all the evidence afterwards, (including the victim).

Similarly grim, STRANGERS follows a policewoman working undercover as a prostitute to try and catch a fellow streetwalker who is sexually murdering her male clients, and experiencing every kind of late night urban terror you can imagine.

It seems to me that, in reality, there is no such thing as ‘too dark’ in modern crime writing.

But perhaps this fusion between the two forms has always actually been there.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, an era when mainstream publishing was not embarrassed to use the H word, the Pan Books of Horror Stories were incredibly gory and disturbing, but for the most part told tales of hardcore crime.

Okay, they rarely featured mysteries or whodunnits, but there were very few ghosts there, and even fewer vampires and werewolves, while conversely there were lots of rapists, serial killers, torturers and sundry other demented madmen. Herbert Van Thal, who initially edited the series, and some of the star names he acquired material from – like Charles Birkin, Dulcie Gray, Patrica Highsmith and Mary Danby – had no qualms at all about producing uber-dark crime thrillers when they were asked to provide horror.

Even earlier anthology series, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night, were the same, mingling full-on horror with hard-boiled cop and PI stuff. To the editors and readers in those days, there was almost no distinction between the two. It was unapologetically the nerve-wracking end of the fiction spectrum. That was the sole criteria, and if you were uncomfortable when you got there, it was your own fault for straying in.

Modern masters have adopted a similar approach.

Stephen King became a global sensation with his early horror novels. In more recent years, he’s tended to write crime – but it often includes at least a pinch of traditional horror. Misery, published in 1987, is essentially an abduction plot but it features a terrifying antagonist in the shape of Annie Wilkes, a lunatic fan capable of almost any level of violence. Joyland (pub. 2013) is a proper crime novel, but it’s set in a rundown amusement park, a staple of the horror genre, and includes a ghost and a serial killer.

And there are plenty of others.

Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series totally straddles the two genres. In the Repairman Jack novels, F Paul Wilson introduced us to a hero who one week might be battling mob racketeers in the heart of Manhattan, and the next could be on the run from a horde of Bengali demons. The same is true of the previously mentioned Charlie Parker, John Connolly’s soldier of fortune in a world constantly on the edge of tipping into supernatural madness.

Joe R Lansdale and other Southern Gothic and rural noir writers like William Gay and Donald Ray Pollock frequently pitch us into otherworldly crimescapes, and often hit us with characters so deranged that they’d certainly have found a home in the old Pan Horrors. Here in Europe, James Oswald, Sarah Pinborough, Mark Edwards and Iceland’s Yrsa Sigurdardottir write crime but often with chilling supernatural subplots.

And it isn’t just the written word. Check out the movies.

Back in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock blazed something of a trail by putting Robert Bloch’s 1959 cross-over chiller, Psycho, on film. In later years, David Fincher’s Se7en walked a tightrope between horror movie and hardboiled crime thriller (it works perfectly on both fronts). What about even more recent efforts like The Strangers, Shutter Island, Identity, Vacancy, Wolf Creek, Don’t Breathe?

Again, they tick plenty boxes on both sides of the fence.

So, PARTNERS IN CRIME is not going to be looking at some radical new direction in dark writing. It’ll be examining a furrow that’s been nicely and neatly ploughed for some considerable time.

(Of course, it’s not all cakes and ale. To return briefly to a point I touched on earlier, I ask the question again: are more horror writers migrating into crime and thriller fiction these days because they can’t make a living otherwise? I suspect there may be something in that. There are all kinds of pressures on professional writers in the 21st century. The advent of self-publishing and the huge exposure it finds through online retail means there are more titles out there now than ever before. Prices have gone down as a result, and so it’s harder for pro writers to obtain the ‘living wage’ advances that once were standard.

That affects everyone in the game, but if you’re a horror writer, there are other burdens to bear alongside this. Horror readership was once dominated by young men, and it seems to be a new rule that young men don’t read much any more, but play computer games instead. Horror movies, meanwhile, remain as popular as ever, but this rarely translates into popularity for horror novels – which I suspect is also an age and culture thing).

But you know, there is also a lot of good news here, from what I can see, and not just because I like writing crime fiction with a very dark edge, but because it means we have a whole new generation of crime/thriller wordsmiths who will always take the gloves off.

Sarah Pinborough (above) and Yrsa Sigurdardottir (below) may look as if butter wouldn’t melt, but their material is edgy and terrifying, and judging from their endlessly rising star statuses, the reading public fully appreciates that.

On which subject, time to move on now, and check out the latest paperback from another of the cross-genre’s absolute maestros …   


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 John Connolly (2017)

Now is definitely not the ideal time for ex-NYPD cop and Maine-based private eye, Charlie Parker, to find himself embroiled in family-related legal matters, though I suppose there is never a good time for this kind of sadness.

Egged on by her domineering father, ex-partner Rachel has finally decided that Parker’s career is far too dangerous for their young daughter, Sam, and so is looking to the courts to restrict his access to her. Already denied one daughter, Jennifer – who was murdered along with her mother, Susan, (Parker’s wife) in a previous book, and yet whose ghost continually and very tenderly watches over him – the wearied investigator is left horrified by the prospect of this, and yet is helpless to resist. At the same time, he finds himself dragged into a particularly mystifying investigation, when his ever-secretive FBI handler, Edgar Ross, puts him on the trail of another PI, Jaycob Eklund, who dropped out of sight while looking into a series of historic murders and disappearances which have occurred all over the US.

Distracted by these big problems at home, but with his usual thorough professionalism, and assisted by ex-mob associates, Louis and Angel, Parker gets on the case, and almost immediately makes an unusual discovery – all the unsolved crimes that Eklund was investigating appear to be connected to reported hauntings. And that would be ‘hauntings’ in the traditional sense of the word, as in involving ghosts, spectres and the like.

This curious development then draws to his attention to the so-called Brethren, a cult-like group of the 19th century, whose leader, Peter Magus’s determination to live away from society, to rule his clan the way he saw fit, and to provide for them by murdering and robbing any outsiders who wandered too near, ensured their eventual destruction in a Waco-type apocalypse, and their immortalisation by romanticists as the Capstead Martyrs.

Except that the Brethren didn’t totally die out.

Before their final destruction, Magus had invoked what he believed were ‘angelic’ powers to ensure that his people would find the strength to resist punishment in the afterlife, though it isn’t long before Parker starts suspecting that, in actual fact, these powers have originated from somewhere else entirely (and what a moment that gives us, later on in the book). Either way, the Brethren not only still survive in American society today – secretly but murderously, as exemplified by the deadly and incestuous Kirk and Sally Buckner, whose phoney suburban lifestyle masks a truly venomous reality – but also on the ethereal plane, where their tortured spirits remain a real force to be reckoned with, and where they have used their psychic energies to zone in on Parker as a potential threat to their existence.

While all this is going on, Parker meets a pair of more earthly foes in the shape of Mother, the weird but scary matriarch of a declining New England crime family, and her odious son, Philip, who are also determinedly investigating the case and keen to know everything the PI knows. As if this isn’t enough, several villains whom Parker has encountered in previous novels also make an appearance. The Hollow Men, another vicious group of disembodied souls (he first met them in The Unquiet, Charlie Parker 6) and an obsessive serial killer, the Collector, (who first appeared in The Wrath of Angels, Charlie Parker 11) are drawn steadily into the case, piling on the pressure at a time when he really doesn’t need it.    

It isn’t often that Parker feels the odds are stacked against him in a way that may prove insurmountable, but perhaps it was always bound to happen at some point …

Once again, John Connolly disproves the oft-aired maxim that you can’t mingle the modern-day crime thriller with supernatural horror. By my reckoning, A Game of Ghosts is now the 15th outing for super-intuitive private eye, Charlie Parker, and once again he’s walking a narrow line between the real world of organised crime and professional killers and the more nebulous realm of cults, covens and ghosts – but as always, the author pulls off the resulting complexity with his usual aplomb.

If there is any weakness to A Game of Ghosts, I think it’s probably that, 15 books in, the author no longer feels as much of a need to ease the genres together, and so newcomers to Charlie Parker may find it a curious blend.

What’s this? It’s got the air and tone of a hardboiled noir, and yet suddenly we’re talking about the undead!

If that’s the case, the only suggestion I can make is that you’d have been better starting at the beginning of the series rather than coming in so late (so go back to the first book; it’s not like you won’t enjoy it!).

Of course, those already familiar with Charlie Parker’s exploits will feel right at home. It’s not just the intriguing and never-less-than pacey story-telling that makes these novels such a delight, nor the endless right-angle turns in the narrative, which feel purpose-designed to throw you off kilter – it’s the style and verve with which they are written.

John Connolly’s slick prose and crackling dialogue are among the very best in the business, and I don’t say that lightly. In addition, the Parker books are liberally laced with the author’s signature mordant wit, which, certainly in the case of A Game of Ghosts, had me laughing out loud on several occasions, sometimes only a page or so after the hair on my scalp had prickled.

And yet, for all these light-hearted undercurrents, and despite the presence of beings from beyond –which in this one includes some real in-yer-face horrors (just wait till the finale!) – Connolly never loses sight of the fact that he’s writing a serious novel which also concerns itself with vile criminality. Various kinds of human barbarity are on show here, or at least are referred to. At times, the book almost switches into gritty ‘True Crime’ mode, taking us from gangland enforcement and torture (on occasion unstintingly described!) to rape, serial murder and so forth – in all cases, the casual disposal of human beings by creatures who are beyond amoral, and yet dealt with so matter-of-factly that it sets your skin-crawling.

Of course, such starkness hugely underscores the heroism of Parker and his trusty sidekicks, Angel and Louis, all three of whom, despite their many flaws (the latter two comprising a former hit-man and a thief), fearlessly tread these paths in their ongoing war against evil. And yet – and it’s particularly the case in this book – we focus too on the trio’s many vulnerabilities, which endears them to us even more: in A Game of Ghosts, for example, Angel is suffering health problems, which become an increasing cause of concern as the book goes on, both for Parker and Louis, and for the readers (some of these scenes are genuine tear-jerkers), while Parker himself is in the midst of his drawn-out domestic car-crash.

Isolated even more than usual from his estranged family, thanks to the legal shenanigans of his in-laws, and missing his two daughters (one living, one dead) desperately, as well as finally starting to feel the bumps, bangs and sprains of his chosen career, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the tough, two-fisted hero as tired and forlorn. It leaves you rooting for him more than ever, obviously, but the author handles these sequences with great pathos, never once straying into schmaltz.

Connolly is on equally great form when it comes to the secondary characters, especially the villains, who come in all shapes and sizes, though I do think that Mother and Philip, a demonic duo of heirs-apparent to a once-successful but now failing crime faction, are particularly abhorrent. Mother is a monster in almost every sense of the word, except that she’s clear-sighted and has no issue with doing the right thing if it suits her purposes, whereas Philip, equally a monster – a truly weird one – has the added disadvantage of being stupid, which means that he can’t even guess what’s around the next corner, let alone prepare for it: we suspect from the outset, with more than a little eager anticipation, that things aren’t going to go well for Philip.

But all this makes for a wonderful page-turner of a book. Assuming you like a touch of the darker stuff, A Game of Ghosts is John Connolly’s usual – a classy, expertly written thriller, spine-chilling and compelling in equal parts, pitching the reader into a world of supernatural make-believe but pumping up the hard-edged crime factor to a point where you’re absolutely convinced that it’s possible.

And now, as always, I’m going to round things off by trying to cast the book, should it ever make the screen. Frankly, given the success of the Charlie Parker series, I’m amazed this hasn’t happened already, though the last time I heard John Connolly opining on the subject, he didn’t feel that anyone serious had made a viable offer yet (things may have changed since then, of course). On top of that, there’d be the not inconsiderable issue that this is no. 15 in the series, so we must suspend belief and assume that all of the previous books, or some of them at least, have already been adapted, using the same essential cast that we have here. That may be a big ask, but hey! … this is my blog, so I can do what I want, yeah? 

Charlie Parker – Hugh Jackman (surely looking for a new introspective hard-man role now that Logan is finished)
Rachel – Vera Farmiga
Sam – Mia Talerico
Sally Buckner – Reese Witherspoon
Louis – Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Angel – John Leguizamo
Mother – Judi Dench
Philip – Marc Warren
Edgar Ross – Sam Neill
Don Routh – Mark Pellegrino
The Collector – Jared Leto

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