Tuesday 29 May 2018

Brand new Heck novella, absolutely FREE

Anyone waiting for the next Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH, which will hit the shelves in August, and who can’t wait that long, may be interested to learn that a brand new Heck e-novella, DEATH’S DOOR, set when he was still a young detective constable in the East End of London, will be available much sooner than that … entirely free of charge.

In addition today, while we’re talking about shorter-than-usual forays into dark fiction, I’ll be offering a detailed review and discussion of Stephen King’s excellent chiller, JOYLAND.

If you’re only here for the King review, no problem. You’ll find that, as usual, down at the lower end of today’s blog. Feel free to shoot on down there straight away. However, if you’ve got a bit more time on your hands, perhaps you’ll be interested to learn a little more about DEATH’S DOOR.

Early days

When KISS OF DEATH comes out this August, it will be the seventh book in the DS Mark Heckenburg series, and as part of that, it occurs in the present-day UK, its events unfolding as you read about them. Set against a backdrop of savage police cuts, it concerns a ho-holds-barred hunt by the Serial Crimes Unit for a hit-list of Britain’s 20 most dangerous and violent criminals who are still on the run from justice, during the course of which Heck and DSU Gemma Piper (his former girlfriend-turned-boss) get their hands on some grainy, black-and-white video footage with truly hideous content, which subsequently leads them to uncover a terrifying conspiracy.

No more about that at present. But much more about DEATH’S DOOR (out on June 29, for the princely price of nothing at all) which while it isn’t exactly a prelude to  KISS OF DEATH, (though, as a bonus, it does contain a sneak peek at the novel!) tells an earlier but very relevant tale from Heck and Gemma’s relationship.

I’m hopeful that most regular readers by now will be equally as interested in the overarching ‘Heck and Gemma’ story thread as they are the horrible crimes that Heck regularly finds himself investigating (I’d be inhuman if I hadn’t noticed that the ‘will they or won’t they?’ thing is now a big issue for certain followers of the series), and DEATH’S DOOR will only add to that, taking us back to a time when our two heroes weren’t just boyfriend and girlfriend, but were actually living together in a small flat in Finsbury Park.

However, stresses in the relationship are now finally showing. You may recall that, last Christmas, I ran the novella, BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT on this blog, which was set even earlier in their relationship, when all was hunky dory and the twosome, as well as being very much in love, were working well together as fellow detective constables in Bethnal Green CID. When DEATH’S DOOR is set, they are still working as DCs in Bethnal Green (and as I say, by this time living together), but Gemma is increasingly frustrated with Heck’s rule-bending and risk-taking, especially as she is about to embark on the series of promotions that will eventually propel her to the uppermost tier of the job.

That said, if there’s one thing Gemma unfailingly trusts about Heck, it’s his intuition. And when he comes to suspect that a mysterious peeping tom who has occasionally been spotted on a local housing estate might pose a much, much greater threat than it initially seems, she knows that it won’t pay to ignore him …

As I say, you can acquire DEATH’S DOOR, all 20,000 words of it, from your favourite online retailers from June 29, and it won’t cost you anything. If you’re planning to buy KISS OF DEATH later in the year, I strongly suggest you dip into this one first, as it gives yet more of the crucial back-story between the series’ two central characters (and as a quick reminder, it also gives you a glimpse at some early chapters of the forthcoming novel).

Still on the subject of my fictional police heroes, I have to say that I love this fantabulous cover from Piper Verlag, my publishers over in Germany.

This is IM SCHATTEN DES SYNDIKATS, the German translation of SHADOWS, my second Lucy Clayburn novel (published over here last October, but due out from Piper next January).

Again, as with the first Lucy novel to appear in Germany, the marketing strategy is noticeably different.

As you can see here, the original English novel hit the shops in the style of a domestic noir – which wasn’t strictly accurate, in my view, given that the Lucy Clayburn novels are dark-toned police procedurals, but which was understandable given how popular domestic thrillers were in the UK up to and including last year.

Over in Germany, there is clearly a greater interest among sales strategists in Lucy’s biker credentials and her ‘action girl’ approach to policing (the inheritance, no doubt, of her estranged father, who is now a high-ranking figure in the Manchester underworld).

Either way, I love this latest cover from Piper just as much as any of the others. As with SCHWARZE WITWEN, the first German edition of a Lucy Clayburn novel, it completely captures the image of the heroine that I had in my mind’s eye when I first wrote about her.  


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi 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 Stephen King (2013)

It is 1973, and New England-born college guy, Devin Jones, is screwing things up educationally. Head over heels in love with classmate, Wendy Keegan, he just can’t focus on his studies – a problem that worsens when reality starts dawning that her increasing coolness is basically because she doesn’t share his ardour.

As the girl is at no stage kind enough to turn around and tell him he’s dumped, Devin continues to delude himself that Wendy is his, even when he flees into a summer job at Joyland, a second-rate amusement part on the North Carolina beachfront.

Deep down, of course, he’s well aware that the relationship has fractured, probably fatally, but instead of facing the fact, he throws himself into the new alliances he makes at the park, specifically with fellow ‘greenies’ (summer-staff), Tom Kennedy and Erin Cook, but also with hardbitten carney regulars, Fred Dean, Lane Hardy, and even grouchy old Eddie Parks, the latter group of whom, though they are civil enough with Devin on his first arrival, only become his firm pals when they discover that he excels at ‘wearing the fur’, i.e. putting on the costume of Howie the Happy Hound, the park’s mascot, and entertaining the kiddies.

It’s a long, hot, hardworking summer, during which the tireless Devin wins the approval of nonagenarian park-owner, Bradley Easterbrook, ends up being mothered by firm but fair landlady, Emmalina Shoplaw, and even attracts the attention of fortune-teller, Rozzy Gold, who is disturbed to see something bad in the kid’s future.

And this is the thing about Joyland. Though it does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a great afternoon for young families, it has a dark history. There was a murder here in the 1960s, when a girl had her throat cut on the Horror House ride. If that isn’t enough, the case was never solved, and rumour-mongers hold that the victim, Linda Gray, was only one of several attributable to the same maniac.

This macabre story is of growing interest to Devin, especially when he learns that the Horror House is now supposed to be haunted for real, Linda Gray’s sad ghost lingering in its shadows, looking to make contact with anyone she can, so that she can name her killer.

Devin never sees the ghost, himself, or even senses its presence, and is envious when he learns that Tom Kennedy has done, even though Tom doesn’t think this cool at all, and in fact was so frightened by the experience that, once the summer is over, he plans to get as far from Joyland as he can – and intends to take Erin with him, as the twosome are now an item (despite Erin and Devin’s mutual attraction).

Meanwhile, Devin, who’s grown to accept that he’ll never see Wendy again, is cultivating a relationship with another young woman, though this one is far more complex.

Single mother, Annie Ross, is spending the summer in her wealthy evangelical preacher father’s coastal mansion, and is sole guardian to her crippled, dying and yet permanently cheerful son, Michael. It is Michael who initially makes friends with Devin, a relationship Annie tries to discourage because she thinks it will end in tears – though when she actually gets to know Devin, she realises that he’s an okay guy.

But even this arrangement starts to prove difficult. Young Michael is another who possesses second-sight – and in his case it’s genuine. He doesn’t just get vague impressions like Rozzy Gold, so when he too warns Devin that something bad is looming, it needs to be taken seriously.

From a reader’s perspective, of course, it’s impossible not to form a suspicion that this approaching danger must be connected to story of the Funhouse Killer, with which Devin is increasingly fascinated. In fact, at the end of summer, when Tom and Erin go back to college, but Devin stays on – having decided to take a year out – the girl, at Devin’s behest, starts to research the case, and comes up with some compelling clues, which she duly sends back.

The question is will Devin be able to make use of these, and if he can, will that in itself be a problem? Because, if you’re a soulless, many-times murderer, and you learn that someone’s investigating you, aren’t you going to take action to prevent it? And if you’re really and truly wicked, isn’t it also possible that you won’t just draw the line at dealing with him, but maybe with all those he knows and loves as well? …

My first impression on reading Joyland was that it may have started life as a novella, or even a short story. It’s a fairly slight concept, and a very linear narrative, uncluttered by the usual side-tracks and detours that Stephen King’s larger novels are renowned for. Was it originally a shortie, I wonder, and in that inimitable Steve King style, did it simply grow with the telling? That said, it isn’t padded; there’s no issue there, and it’s a very fast read – so no-one must be concerned that Joyland is a bit of nothing.

The second impression I got is that it’s another classic piece of King’s folksy Americana. Once again, we’re in the US of the author’s younger days, his college years perhaps, which are evoked in completely authentic and loving detail. This is a classic Stephen King retrospective on earlier periods of his life. Not content just to tell you how it looked and sounded and smelled, he gets you right into the mindset, helps you capture the zeitgeist. To start with, this is a politer age; everyone, you feel, has less than they do now, yet they are more genteel. People are adults when they hit their mid-20s, and automatically are treated with respect by juveniles. Students work their way through the vacation, and they work damn hard, because they need the money. Rules at rooming houses are there to be obeyed. Children are less streetwise, and yet intangibly tougher than their counterparts today. The simple pleasures of an amusement park are deemed a worthwhile experience for working class families who take nothing for granted.

As for King’s descriptive powers … well, it’s the usual case of every other writer who reads it going green with envy. Everything about Joyland, the park, is vivid. You can hear the whistles and bells of the rides, you can smell the candy-floss and ketchup, can hear the roar of the nearby surf, and feel the tremors of excitement on first sight of the simp-hoister (Ferris wheel), Zamp rides (children’s attractions) and bang-shies (rifle ranges). 

Is it as terrifying as so many of his other works?

No, not a bit of it.

It’s a thriller. Be under no illusion about that, but it’s a low-key thriller. More important to the author on this occasion is the development of some wonderfully believable characters and relationships, and a deep contemplation of the afterlife.

Devin, for example, is only a young man – he rarely thinks about death; but there’s a killer at large, who preys on women younger even than he is. At the same time, little Michael is terminally ill, a fact he’s accepted with numbing bravery and stoicism. Because Joyland isn’t set now, this isn’t a world of atheists to whom death is oblivion. But this isn’t the long past either, so there’s uncertainty, there’s doubt, there’s fear. Annie Ross cannot disassociate the Jesus she learned about and loved as a little girl from the money-grabbing millionaire phoney that is her father. Even though there’s supposedly a ghost at Joyland, physical proof that we’re all spirits, Devin has never seen it, even though he yearns to (he misses his deceased mom terribly, and would love to hook up with her again).

This is all immensely affecting and moving – but there’s no schmaltz or sugar here; this is not a Disney story. And it makes for a hugely satisfying if very different kind of read.

I didn’t know much about Joyland when I picked it up. I tuned in expecting a typical blood-churning Stephen King chiller. I didn’t get that, but what I did get was yet another remarkable (if slightly shorter than usual) reading experience from one of the 20th and 21st centuries’ great masters of the written word.

Amazingly, given that almost everything Stephen King ever writes ends up on film or TV at some point, Joyland hasn’t – as far as I know – been adapted just yet. So (as usual) I’ll take a chance to nominate my own cast straight away. No-one’s going to listen to me, but hell, these guys would be great:

Devin Jones – Zac Efron
Annie Ross – Sienna Miller
Erin Cook – Saoirse Ronan
Tom Kennedy – Kevin McHale
Emmalina Shoplaw – Kathy Bates
Eddie Parks – Billy Drago
Lane Hardy – Clancy Brown
Bradley Easterbrook – M. Emmet Walsh

As usual, the only one I can’t cast is young Michael Ross; I know so little about child actors of those tender years that it would be a wasted exercise.

Wednesday 16 May 2018

Demons, demons ... everywhere demons!

We’re firmly back on the horror trail this week. Primarily, that’s because there are big developments with the TERROR TALES series that I want to tell you about, but also because I’ll be reviewing and discussing A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS, Paul Tremblay’s masterly study of a suburban family’s catastrophic decline during the course of what may or may not be a demonic possession.

As always, you’ll find that review towards the lower end of today’s blog. Skip straight on down if you’ve a mind to, but if you’ve got a bit more time, perhaps you’ll be interested to hang around and see what’s happening with TERROR TALES.

First of all, if readers of the series can forgive me, I’ll just need to give those who are new to it a quick thumbnail sketch.

TERROR TALES was born from my love of regional folklore, not just in the UK but all over the world.

It was long my dream to commence editing a series of anthologies dedicated to this uniquely homespun brand of horror, but in order to create as broad an overview as possible, I knew that I’d need to focus each particular volume on a specific geographic region. So, for example, the first book in the series was TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT. Since then, we’ve covered, in no order of preference, the COTSWOLDS, EAST ANGLIA, WALES, LONDON, CORNWALL, the SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, YORKSHIRE, the SEASIDE and the OCEAN.

My plan was not just to publish new fiction based on local terrifying mythology, but also to reprint a few classics here and there, and to intersperse the stories with short, factual anecdotes on the same theme.

So, again using TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT as an example, the marvellous stories Little Mag’s Barrow and The Coniston Star Mystery, as written by Adam Nevill and Simon Clark respectively, found themselves sitting either side of a vignette concerning the life and crimes of Tom Fool, the Mad Jester of Muncaster Castle (also depicted on the book’s cover). This has been the style of the series ever since, and from the responses I’ve had from readers, one of its most popular aspects.

When I first started with TERROR TALES back in 2011, the plan was to publish two books a year. But events have gradually conspired against that. My own novel-writing career has, to a degree, sky-rocketed, which has left me much less time to focus on the anthologies, and by the same token, Gary Fry, the owner of Gray Friar Press, the original publisher, has seen his own career develop and been left with no option but to move on.

This caused a brief interlude in the series, though last year we returned with a new publisher, Telos Books, and our first new title in a year and a half, TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL.

I’m glad to say that our audience hadn’t deserted us, but even now, with a new publisher behind us, doing two books a year is a bit on the difficult side. So, the revised ambition is just to do one. That will be a much more manageable time-frame and will give all those involved opportunities to do other things as well.

As such, this year’s offering, which I’m hoping will be available for pre-order in the early autumn, will be TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND. I’m not able to show you the cover yet, though I’ve already viewed Neil Williams’s sensation artwork, and I’m totally blown away by it. Hopefully it will be available for you all to take a good look at in the very near future. Keep watching this space.

Making movies

Still on the subject of horror anthologies, here’s a fun thing.

I loved the recent, very scary movie, Ghost Stories (below, right), not least because it went where other recent British horror movies have feared to tread.

Some of you will already know that it was adapted by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson from their stage play of the same name. It tells a nightmarish supernatural tale in which three chilling shorts cleverly interweave with a central narrative, creating a very satisfying whole. It got a mainstream cinema release, which is a rarity for this kind of movie in the 21st century, and has been widely viewed and applauded.

At one time, British cinema was no stranger to this kind of thing. I’m sure you’ll all remember the halcyon days of the Amicus portmanteaux: Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, Torture Garden, Vault of Horror, Asylum, etc … which were very successful in the 1960s and 1970s (having taken their cue, of course from the classic Ealing chiller of 1945, Dead of Night).

I’d like nothing better than to see horror film-makers get back to this format in some shape of other, and it seems I’m not the only one. After the success of Ghost Stories, I understand that The Field Guide to Evil, another big-money portmanteau horror, is currently in production, while Channel 4 is presently running its True Horror TV series, in which real-life ghostly events from around the UK are each week dramatised and presented to us in short ‘horror fiction’ fashion.

In respect of this apparent new interest in the short scary form, I thought I’d slightly alter my regular Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers section, by occasionally reviewing and discussing anthologies and single-author collections as well as novels – and each time I cover one, selecting four particular stories from it, which I’d love to see incorporated into a single movie, complete with my usual fantasy casting, etc.

While I’m not in a position to review any new anthologies at this moment, though I’m already inserting several into my to-be-read pile, I thought I might as well start with the Terror Tales books. I won’t review these as such – that would bit rich, me reviewing my own anthologies (five stars all round, lads!) – but I can at least turn each one into a portmanteau horror movie, pick the four stories necessary and cast them. In which case, assuming you’ve bought into the conceit of that, we might as well start at the beginning, with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT (I’ll work my way through the others during the course of this year).

So, here is …

Just a bit of fun, remember. No film-maker has optioned this book yet, or any of the stories inside it (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed. Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book – I love all the stories in these anthos equally – but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, and your vivid imaginations, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories to each other. It could be that they’re all trapped in a cellar by a broken lift, and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of Horror), or are marooned on a fogbound train and forced to listen to each other’s fortunes as read by a mysterious man with a pack of cards (al la Dr Terror) – but basically it’s up to you.

Yes, I know, I’m copping out on that bit. But, tough. You’ve got the idea. So, without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I envisage performing in them:

ABOVE THE WORLD by Ramsey Campbell

Lonely soul, Knox, is convinced that he hasn’t returned to the idyllic country hotel on the shores of Lake Bassenthwaite because he’s nostalgic about the holiday he once spent there with his lovely wife, Wendy. He’s moved on from those happy days, he tells himself, as he sets out on a solo hike through the surrounding fells, despite the impending stormy weather. He doesn’t regret their separation several years later, and he feels no grief that his ex-wife and the new man in her life suddenly and recently died while exploring these self-same wooded hills. What matter that he keeps hearing the drifting voices of an elusive couple? What matter the increasing sense that he isn’t alone in this bleak, desolate place …?

Knox - Steve Pemberton
Wendy - Anna Friel


Amateur frogmen, Blake Keller and Andrew Harper plan to scour the depths of Coniston Water, searching for the remains of famous escape artist, Iskander Carvesh, who drowned in 1910, when the boat he was chained upon, the Coniston Star, sank without trace. It’ll be a dangerous dive, but Keller and Harper know what they are doing. The only potential fly in the ointment, is Enid, a handsome blonde they’ve only known a day but who wants to accompany them. Loudmouthed Keller delights in trying to frighten her with his tales of underwater peril, but Enid is no novice, and she has dark reasons of her own for making this very dangerous dive …

Keller - Steve Oram
Harper - Michael Socha
Enid - Florence Pugh

THE CLAIFE CRYER – by Carole Johnstone

The tale of the Claife Cryer, a horrible, disembodied voice said to have cried out from the shadows on the wooded west shore of Windermere, luring a young ferryman to his death, is one of the scariest Lake District ghost stories Kerry has ever heard. But of course, she doesn’t believe it, or she tries not to on the day she and her unpleasant father attempt a bonding exercise by exploring that thickly-treed region. Local gossips say the voice belonged to a deranged monk from a monastery now long abandoned. Spooky as that is, Kerry doesn’t feel it’s half as bad as spending time with her scornful and argumentative parent, but then, as twilight descends, she hears an awful cry. And then she hears it again. And again. Undeniably, it’s getting closer …

Kerry - Ella Purnell              
Dad - David Morrissey

THE MORAINE by Simon Bestwick

College lecturers Steve and Diane’s relationship is in trouble. Hopes were high that a Lake District hiking trip would be just the thing. But they’re still not getting on, and that’s not helped by the terrible October weather, everything wet and gloomy, and now – typically – just when they’re lost among the high, rock-strewn peaks, a thick mist coming down, which ensures that they lose the path as well. Even then, in danger, they don’t form easy allies – though in truth, they don’t know the meaning of danger yet. That will only come when they realise they’re being stalked by something unseen, something that can mimic animal sounds and human voices, and which appears to be stalking them underneath the endless heaps of moraine …

Steve - Iwan Rheon
Diane - Jessica Brown Findlay


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi 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 Paul Tremblay (2016)

Meredith Barrett is an intelligent, sophisticated and seemingly stable young woman, leading a relatively quiet life in a South Boston apartment. However, it’s fairly well known that when she was a child, something appalling happened to her family, something she hasn’t been able to speak fully about for years, in consequence of which the true facts in the case are much-mythologised. When best-selling author, Rachel Neville, arrives to interview Meredith, a loose agreement has been reached that the younger woman will finally, for the first time, tell all.

Rachel is unsure what she is going to get, or whether it will be adequately enthralling for a new book, but the story, when it starts to unfold, astounds her. It concerns a young suburban family entrapped by an intangible but malevolent something, which may have an entirely mundane (i.e. psychological) explanation, or alternatively could be the work of the Devil.

Central to the story are the then-eight-year-old Meredith, known back then as Merry, and her 15-year-old sister, Marjorie. They enjoy a typical sisterly relationship, adoring each other but at the same time adversarial, delighting in catching each other out with naughty, sometimes nasty tricks. Marjorie is the cannier and more dominant of the two, but Merry, while not necessarily adept at this game, is so willing to meet every challenge that Marjorie treats her with a degree of grudging respect, and affectionately calls her ‘Monkey’.

From a reader’s POV, it’s a charming scenario, and something that’s instantly recognisable in happy families everywhere.

The rest of the Barrett clan consists of father, John, a Catholic by upbringing who, since he lost his middle-management job a year and a half ago, is trying to re-energise his religious beliefs, and mother, Sarah, also a Catholic, but one who has grown away from the Church of her childhood and is now skeptical of its teachings.

Worried about their dwindling finances, the parents are going through a difficult patch, but their real problems commence when Marjorie starts displaying erratic behavior. On some occasions, it’s odd but harmless, Marjorie telling her sister some unusually scary and macabre stories, or rearranging her bedroom posters into weird patterns, but on others it’s more sinister, such as when she sneaks into Merry’s room while she’s asleep, and clamps her nose and mouth shut.

Merry, as our main observer, is never quite sure whether Marjorie, a natural mischief-maker, is faking all this bizarre stuff or not. But parents, John and Sarah, have been concerned about Marjorie’s fractious, moody behavior for some time.

Initially, at Sarah’s behest, a psycho-analytical approach is taken, but medical personnel, though they talk to her and prescribe meds (for which they charge handsomely), are unable to fix the older girl’s apparent personality-change, which continues to worsen. One minute she is mocking her father’s belief in Heaven in a cruel, smug way, and the next she is screaming at her parents to get the voices out of her head.

Increasingly fearful that she might be possessed, a worry encouraged in no small fashion by Marjorie herself when she climbs the bare wall of her bedroom with spider-like strength and agility, John finally calls on a Catholic priest, Father Wanderly, who talks to Marjorie, seemingly calming her during a foul-mouthed tirade, but afterward admits suspicion that something evil has taken hold of her. Eager for publicity, the priest then makes an incredible suggestion: that the Barretts put themselves into a weekly television show, in which Marjorie’s deteriorating behavior will be filmed and discussed by various ‘experts’ in the field, from psychiatrists to theologians, with the grand finale the exorcism itself, at which point the heroic priest will cleanse the child of the entity possessing her.

Unsurprisingly, Sarah is not keen on this idea, but when a television company gets involved and substantial cash is offered, everything changes.

Thus, The Possession is born.

In the early stages, the experience isn’t too painful. Merry is intrigued to have TV people living with them. She doesn’t much like producer/director, Barry Cotton, but she gets on well with writer, Ken Fletcher. Marjorie’s antics remain unpredictable, but this is something that Merry, in that traditional way of easy-going eight-year-olds, has got used to. So, everything is cool.

Until Merry sees her sister strapped down on her bed for hardline interrogation. Until she sees her parents’ relationship completely break down, Sarah blaming John for this invasion of their lives, and John, who’s been desperate to find answers in his faith and has failed, losing track of reality and engaging in violent altercations with the crowds of curious onlookers who now attend their house day and night (many openly vilifying the family for this exploitation of their daughter’s illness).

And still there are questions in Merry’s mind about whether Marjorie is faking it. The older sister is a crafty child, even sly. In that tiresome way of all teen rebels without a cause, is it possible that she could be doing this to punish her quarreling mum and dad? Is it that she’s just a silly, naïve child, who, as a form of attention-seeking, is unconsciously allowing a callous media to manipulate her? Or could it be that she’s simply mentally ill? … because from the frightening things we are seeing now – and yes, by this stage of the narrative, it is way past a joke! – we could easily be witnessing a psychological breakdown.

Or alternatively, is it something genuinely evil?

There is no overt indication that a supernatural force is at work, but then … would a demon that wants to do extensive damage reveal its hand so quickly? And despite at one point assuring Merry that she has pretended to be possessed from the beginning in order to win her family the TV deal, Marjorie continues to give the impression that she is under some kind of malign influence, speaking in different, unrecognisable voices, moving around on all fours, and displaying arcane knowledge.

Despite the covert admission made to her, Merry is still unsure what to believe. And so are we, the readers. But one thing is certain. The ghastly turmoil besetting the Barrett family is not going to be resolved easily, or without serious and maybe multiple casualties …

Possession is an old premise for horror stories, these days. But Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is a very original take on it. Whereas in early classics like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (not to mention recent movies like The Rite and The Conjuring), the investigators, usually after some doubt, settle on a firm conviction that evil spirits are real, A Head Full of Ghosts takes more of a Shirley Jackson approach, keeping us guessing right to the end of the book. And rather than doing this by locking everyone in a supposed haunted house for the weekend, the author throws us into very unfamiliar territory by locating it in a suburban family home, now massively disrupted not just by the elder daughter’s apparent illness, but by the economic stresses that are driving the parents apart, and the unfeeling presence of a TV crew who are mainly interested in securing a ratings hit.

And this is a point where A Head Full of Ghosts becomes a genuine horror show, with every key character tormented in his or her own way, and on various levels.

Non-believing Sarah only goes through with the whole farrago because she knows they need the money (if there’s any demon here, it could be argued that it’s Mammon). But even this leaves her racked with guilt, not just because she fears that she’s giving credence to something she reviles, the paternalistic power of the Church, but also because she can clearly see that Marjorie’s condition is worsening, not improving. This is such a terrible burden that she can’t bear it alone, but of course she can’t put it onto her daughter because she is convinced the teenager is ill, and so she directs it at her husband, treating his religious desperation as a kind of pathetic hysteria.

For John, it’s even more torturous. As head of the family, and former main bread-winner, he would normally be the guy who sorts things out, but on this occasion he can’t – in fact it’s quite the opposite, the burly, bearded Bostonian constantly belittled by his wife and his smart-mouthed daughter (or whatever’s lurking inside her). He’s vulnerable in other ways too: his certainty that they’re facing an infernal foe is terrifying him given that God and his angels seem incapable of intervening; at the same time, he is bewildered and mortified that his Christian beliefs are attracting scorn rather than respect, which in the end leaves him a puppet of a man, easy to manipulate and easier still to blame (and maybe, just maybe, the absolute perfect target for a genuinely malevolent intellect).

And then there is Merry, who, all the way through the book views these events in a mild state of disbelief, internalising the shock because she’s a child, naïvely assuming that one day she’ll simply wake up and find everything back to normal because her mum and dad have resolved it. Overall, Merry is a marvelous creation, Tremblay completely and convincingly getting into the lively and genuinely funny day-to-day world of a bright little eight-year-old.

Not that this reduces the awfulness of the predicament, an effect the author achieves without throwing buckets of gore and vomit over us or hitting us with horrendous blasphemy (though these disturbing elements are not completely absent). He primarily relies on the interplay of these tormented individuals, a once close-knit family brutally broken, and who though they’re now in a virtual goldfish bowl of public attention, are more isolated than they could ever have imagined.

There is such devastation here that I’m not sure it even matters whether a devious intelligence is directing the chaos, or whether it’s just rotten luck; the terror of this tale doesn’t need any such revelation. But even so, the book ends with a savage jolt, which because it again makes you reconsider everything you’ve just read, caps the whole thing off perfectly. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Tremblay enjoys himself immensely in this book, filling it with a host of classic horror references, which has attracted much praise from the genre. We’ve already mentioned The Exorcist, The Turn of the Screw, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (a study of young woman going slowly mad) is clearly lurking in the background, along with The Amityville Horror (wherein a middle-class family struggling to pay their bills turn to the supernatural as a solution), Paranormal Activity, which also features a pair of quirky children at the root of the disturbance, and even Scream, another postmodern horror outing which trades on sneaky allusions to other works of fiction. If these references aren’t oblique enough in the text itself, you get several of them through an amusingly hyper-critical ‘horror fan blog’ provided by a lively young lady called Karen Brissette, which interrupts the narrative at regular intervals, analyzing the TV show from an uber-cynical ‘keyboard warrior’ perspective – though be warned, even this slice of 21st century normality is deceptive.

Overall, A Head Full of Ghosts is one clever, insightful and darkly entertaining horror novel. Just don’t expect your spirits to be uplifted by it.

It’s usually the case when I complete one of these reviews, that I also try to cast it. But I don’t think I’m going to bother with A Head Full of Ghosts simply because the two main characters are the youngsters, Merry and Marjorie, and as I have no real clue about exciting new child actors, it would utterly self-defeating to cast everyone except the two main protagonists. Either way, A Head Full of Ghosts deserves to be on the screen in some shape or form, and as soon as possible, because it is horror stories like this that will keep the genre alive and kicking at adult and intellectual level.

Thursday 10 May 2018

New Brit-grit, new journeys into darkness

I’m happy today to be able to reveal in all its glory the cover for the next Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH

Those who follow the investigations of DS Mark Heckenburg of the Serial Crimes Unit at Scotland Yard will likely be aware that this seventh novel in the series will be published on August 9 this year, and though its cover, which I hope you’ll agree is rather eye-catching, has been knocking around for a few weeks on one or two online retail sites, today is the official cover launch, so it’s possible that most of you will now be seeing it for the first time.

I’ll be talking a bit more about it, and the book, shortly. But in addition this week, on the same subject of gritty new cop thrillers, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing BLOODY JANUARY by Alan Parks, a smack-in-the-face slice of tartan noir (and at the same time a period piece), which takes the Brit-grit genre even further into the realms of hardboiled crime fiction.

If you’re only really here for the Alan Parks review, that’s fine. Skip down to the end of today’s post. As usual, you’ll find it there. But if you’ve got a couple of minutes first, I’m sure you won’t mind if I elaborate a little on the subject of KISS OF DEATH.

I will admit to being quite taken by the above cover. I don’t just consider it striking, it’s also relevant to the narrative, and regular readers of modern crime fiction will probably agree that that’s unusual.

So often these days, our thriller novels are jacketed with what are almost standardised images.

Quite often, for example, if it’s a police procedural, we’ll get a diminutive figure silhouetted against either a generic urban backdrop, or, if it’s a police procedural set in the sticks, against a bleak rural backdrop. If there’s a particularly dark tone to the book, we might simply see a run-down cottage set against emptiness, or if we’re in the world of domestic noir, there’ll be a suburban variation on that theme. Then again, if we’re dealing with gangsters rather than cops, we might focus on a figure in an overcoat, maybe wearing shades and hefting a firearm, or perhaps a roulette wheel scattered with jewellery and spent bullet casings.

I’m not being derisory when I make these observations. These are the memes the current marketing crowd go for in order to hit maximum sales, and it works, so who can complain? And yes, the KISS OF DEATH cover, to an extent, fulfils that tradition. It’s a cop thriller, so again we have a small figure silhouetted against an awesome backdrop. But in this case it’s the sea, and that’s the clever part of it.

Because in KISS OF DEATH, one of the many locations Heck visits during the course of his investigation, is Cornwall.

Regular readers of the series will know that Heck is a detective sergeant in the Serial Crimes Unit, which is part of the National Crime Group (before anyone accuses me of pinching ideas from reality, the real-life National Crime Agency, also based at Scotland Yard, was only formed after the first Heck book was published, and so I always say that they pinched the idea from me). And because this gives him a remit to cover all the police force areas of England and Wales, he tends to follow clues all around the country, taking in a host of different venues.

STALKERS, the very first Heck novel, took him from Kent to Manchester to the Midlands. In SACRIFICE, he travelled from London to West Yorkshire, in THE KILLING CLUB he ended up on Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast. DEAD MAN WALKING took him to the Lake District, HUNTED to the Surrey Weald.

It’s the same in KISS OF DEATH, Heck following all leads doggedly, which ultimately will lead him, among other places, to the East End of London, Humberside and yes, as I’ve already promised, the idyllic Cornish coast at the height of a lovely summer.

I obviously can’t give too much of the synopsis away at this stage, but suffice to say that in KISS OF DEATH, the National Crime Group is finally feeling the economic pinch. Police forces all over the UK are having to rationalise their resources and manpower because, in the age of austerity, the funding is simply not there. Even NCG’s most specialist departments, of which the Serial Crimes Unit is only one, are having to take a long, hard look at themselves.

In the Heck book prior to KISS OF DEATH, which was ASHES TO ASHES, you may recall that Heck was on the trail of a professional torturer who rented himself out to the highest bidder. Inevitably, he worked mostly for crime syndicates, and on that occasion, it took him to Greater Manchester, to Heck’s industrialised hometown of Bradburn in fact, where a splinter-group had broken away from the local drugs cartel, resulting in a bloody underworld feud. At the same time, while the torturer happily toured the Northwest with his so-called Pain Box (a caravan filled with torture devices), in the pay of one side, the other brought in their own fearful enforcer, the Incinerator, a crazy killer who used a flamethrower to reduce his targets to ashes. Heck, of course, was caught smack-bang in the middle.

Eventually, as you’d expect, it was resolved (but not without casualities), and the Serial Crimes Unit closed a major case. But when KISS OF DEATH commences, even this hasn’t been enough to ensure their survival. Money is simply too tight, and full-time murder investigation teams are deemed a luxury the British police can no longer afford. As such, Heck’s boss and one-time girlfriend, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, is handed a list of the UK’s most wanted felons who are still at large and still believed to be in the country.

Their crimes range across the board of horror; from Terry Godley, who hijacked a car in Nottingham, making the two teenagers inside it kneel before shooting them both in the back of the head, to Christopher Brenner, who chained three sex-workers in his Luton cellar, beat and raped them, and then left them to starve, to Leonard Spate, who strangled a Carlisle prostitute and then burned down the house in which her two children were sleeping – and these heinous specimens are only a few of them. Heck is instructed to focus on Eddie Creeley, a Humberside-born bank robber and kidnapper, who during the course of his ultra-violent career has killed at least two people after taking them hostage and injecting them with drain cleaner and battery acid.

Oh yes, only the worst of the worst figure on this list.

Of course, Heck undertakes the pursuit with his usual gusto, but very quickly uncovers a clue that leaves him bamboozled: a video tape portraying the fugitive in a desperate fight for his life.

The police, it seems, are not the only party in pursuit of Eddie Creeley. In fact, they’re not the only party in pursuit of all the other villains on the list. And, what’s more important, this mysterious other party could already be several steps ahead of the Serial Crimes Unit … so much so that a literal harvest of blood is already being sown.

The big question here, though, is just how far are the British police, and Heck in particular, prepared to go to protect some of the country’s very worst killers?

I actually only finished my final proof-read of KISS OF DEATH yesterday, but I am more than happy with the way it’s turned out, and am very hopeful that readers will enjoy it. Particularly because there are some explosive developments in Heck’s overall storyline here, which could pitch the entire series into a completely new direction …

With luck, you’ll all approve and enjoy.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi 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 Alan Parks (2017)

The time is January, 1973. The place is Glasgow.

Change is in the air. Huge slum-clearance programmes are in progress (and grotty high-rise flats being thrown up in their place). Motorway extensions are being built that will bring traffic into the heart of town (and carve up the neighbourhoods). And heroin is set to arrive.

Okay, illegal drugs have always been here, but this is something else. A smack epidemic is about to engulf Glasgow, which will ruin countless lives and at the same time empower the city’s numerous ‘disorganised crime’ elements, turning street-gangs into full-time syndicates who will wage bloody war, not just against each other, but against the forces of law and order.

In this book, those forces are represented by Detective Constable Harry McCoy, a copper who, even though he’s relatively young, has been round the track a few times already. He drinks, takes drugs, sleeps with whores and breaks police protocol without conscience. Now, please don’t immediately switch off, thinking this a total cliché. Because though, yes, we’ve met many cop characters like this in recent fiction, in McCoy’s case there’s something a little more appealing about it.

Primarily, that’s because he’s ordinary.

Yes, he’s damaged. Yes, he mistrusts colleagues and hates criminals. All ‘noir hero’ boxes ticked so far. But McCoy is no man of steel who can knock out six hoodlums with a single punch. He’s no master of the one-liner. He doesn’t draw lustful glances from every femme fatale he meets. He’s basically a normal guy, who works hard but is okay at his job rather than brilliant, and a regular mickey-taker where his fellow detectives are concerned, especially trainee investigator, ‘Wattie’ Watson, and if his morality sometimes seems blurred on the surface, there’s no question that he (usually) will do the right thing; he’s even sympathetic to the underclass, or ‘jakies’ as they are called, which would certainly have marked him out as unusual copper in that time and place.

Harry McCoy is a likeable, lower-class everyman, who ended up being a Glasgow cop rather than set out to be one. But either way, he’s about to undertake one of the most challenging cases of his career.

When old lag, Howie Nairn summons him to the famous ‘special unit’ in the hellhole that is Barlinnie Prison of the early ’70s, he is told that a certain waitress in the city, a girl known only as Lorna, will be subject to a gangland hit the following day. Little additional info is available regarding this. McCoy doesn’t know why this particular waitress will supposedly be killed, when it will happen, or how, and as such he only looks for her half-heartedly. But no sooner has he found her than she is indeed killed, shot dead right in front of him, in the middle of the street, by a seemingly crazed gunman, who also shoots at the police and then turns the weapon on himself.

It’s a perplexing mystery, because despite the warning McCoy was given, it doesn’t feel like an underworld assassination, more like a domestic gone badly wrong. He and Wattie get stuck into it anyway, at the same time as investigating other routine crimes, even additional murders (this is a tough city). Departmental boss, DCI Murray is an ally of sorts, and though he isn’t here solely to cover McCoy’s back and demands results in the most aggressive way, he does give his detectives a considerable amount of leeway; far more than they would enjoy today (laid-back Detective Alaisdair Cowie for example, seems to glide effortlessly through every shift).

Not that this helps in the long run. The puzzle deepens when Nairn is himself murdered, his body left in a prison shower with throat slashed and tongue cut out. After this, McCoy leans back towards the syndicate angle, at which point Murray’s enthusiasm starts to wane. When McCoy discovers that the deceased waitress doubled as a good-time girl once the sun went down, and had connections to the aristocratic Dunlop family, the boss decides that enough is enough. Lord Gray Dunlop and his wild-living son, Teddy, are two of the wealthiest, most influential men in the city. They also have a posse of important friends, one of whom, the psychotic former cop, Jimmy Gibbs (who also happens to be dating McCoy’s ex), behaves as their unofficial fixer. Murray, totally unnerved by this, finally clamps down on the enquiry, leaving McCoy and (somewhat more reluctantly), Wattie, to investigate it off the books.

McCoy eventually turns to Stevie Cooper, a close friend from when they were in care together as children. Cooper, who is bigger and stronger than McCoy, used to defend him back during those terrible days, but he’s now a villain in his own right. What makes this relationship particularly difficult is that, though Cooper has no apparent links to the Dunlops and their secret cadre of highclass weirdoes, his own criminal ambitions are soaring, mainly due to the new-fangled heroin trade. He’s also sampling his own product more than is good for him, which is turning him paranoid, reckless and steadily more violent.

McCoy thus finds himself investigating a complex murder case while having to rely on the most unreliable sort of assistance, in the full knowledge that when he finally gets an answer – assuming he ever does, and isn’t himself killed en route – he isn’t even sure that he’ll dare pass it on to the city’s higher powers …

Long before I got to the end of Bloody January, which from the outset is a vivid recreation of Glasgow in the grimiest days of the early 1970s, lots of comparisons were rattling around inside my head. I thought about stark TV plays of that era, like Peter McDougall’s Just Another Saturday, which focussed on sectarian tensions in the city. I thought about John McKenzie’s seminal A Sense of Freedom, adapted from the biography of East Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle. I even thought about Ted Lewis’s remarkable evocation of the post-60s gangland culture in Northern England that was Jack’s Return Home (i.e. Get Carter).

Alan Parks’s Bloody January bears comparison to all these tasty slices of period Brit-grit, not least because it near-perfectly evokes a time when the hopes and fears of the 1960s had leaked away, leaving a residue of drugs and despondency, and a pile of worn-out cityscapes where poverty and unemployment were rife. But also because it depicts a fledgling organised crime scene, wherein yesterday’s nobodies have suddenly become today’s kingpins and yet still only have a few men to call their own, whose product is sparse and poor quality, who rarely even handle firearms let alone possess the stockpile that you’d expect today, and yet who, through the forbidden fruit they can offer, still court the interest of the metropolitan elite, not just corrupt politicians, but entertainers, TV personalities and journalists as well (opinion-leaders who, in their turn, can ensure that understaffed, underpaid and generally under-motivated police forces will largely be ineffective against them).   

In all these things, Alan Parks is right on the money with Bloody January.

Be under no illusion, you are there … in that exact place, in that warts-and-all timezone. Those who experienced the era for real won’t be entirely thankful. The 1970s seemed great to me, but then I was only a teenager and didn’t appreciate just how much a rough-and-ready British society was unprotected from itself. Those who weren’t there meanwhile, will be jolted – because it really was another planet.

Okay, it’s Glasgow. And in fact, it’s not just Glasgow, it’s the worst parts of town – the Gorbals et al – districts which back then were near enough no-go zones for everyone but the razor gangs who controlled them (perhaps not surprisingly, this is one of the first crime novels I’ve read in a long time when I felt genuine relief that it was Harry McCoy doing the investigating and not me). These are neighbourhoods where you have to watch your back at all times, where the underworld – though it aspires to be Al Capone – is still largely cooped up in soulless pubs and austere tenements, and makes up for its lack of wealth and jazz with extreme violence. (And yes, that’s all here too, in graphic, bloodcurdling fashion – you have been warned).

But what did I think of the actual book?

Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have one or two minor reservations.

As an ex-copper – and I worked a rough part of inner Manchester – I knew plenty men who would struggle to cope with the job these days, who drank hard and were less than gentle in their dealings with both suspects and the general public. But I knew none who were junkies.

I could be wrong here, but it seems to be the curse of many modern authors that they attach 21st century civilian notions of drugs and drug-taking to police characters, and this especially jars for me when we are talking about coppers of former eras. Because as recently as the 1980s, when I served, while you might have had many poisons of your own, to take the poison of those scumbags laying waste to the same working-class communities you yourself grew up in would have been well nigh unthinkable. I know few other criminal trades so reviled by police officers as drug-dealing; at least, that used to be the case. So, I have my doubts about that aspect of Harry McCoy’s character (though as I say, I can’t boast an all-encompassing knowledge on this).

I’m equally unsure about McCoy’s relationship with hard-man Stevie Cooper. Though, as fellow Catholics, it’s entirely plausible that they came up through the same school of sectarian hard knocks together, it deflated me a little to see McCoy, a hard-nosed detective, so weak in comparison to his hoodlum ‘brother from another mother’. But that doesn’t spoil things too much, if I’m honest. And I can’t deny that it adds an intriguing twist to the plot, which, as I say, interweaves with all the most satisfying tabloid type shenanigans of that era, pop stars and landed gentry hobnobbing with mobsters and hookers (even David Bowie makes an appearance at one point, a great moment in the book, even if the star doesn’t really seem to know where he is – which, given that this was 1973, is probably fairly accurate).

And yet, while we dip in and out of this pseudo glitz and glamour, we see the downside too. Alan Parks is no apologist for inner city villainy. While, in the time-honoured fashion of tartan noir, he looks beyond the evil facades of his criminals (Jean ‘Madame Polo’ Baird, for example, is a whorehouse madame but also a highly complex character), examining the origins of such behaviour and giving us a hero in McCoy who, on occasion, seems to have more in common with the underclass than the ‘polis’, he doesn’t stint in showing us the full fall-out of organised crime – and this makes for some distinctly uncomfortable reading. You don’t join heroin whores in their freezing, bombed-out flats without feeling the hopelessness of their lives and a deep fury at those who have caused it. You don’t experience the utter brutality doled out to everyone and anyone who doesn’t get with the programme without hating and fearing those responsible.

Apparently, Bloody January is Alan Parks’ first published novel. Well, if that’s truly the case, he’s already found his voice, hitting us with a slick, stripped-down narrative, which doesn’t waste a word on extraneous detail and yet still manage to capture the essence of every person and place it introduces us to, and invokes a wonderfully brooding atmosphere. It also hits the mark in its portrayal of the cops. Okay, there might be a degree of exaggeration here, with so many of Glasgow’s class of ’73 depicted as bent, inept or simply uninterested – they may have been a rough lot back, but folk should remember that they were doing a dangerous, thankless job at a very difficult time – but Parks nicely captures the interplay between them, which is endlessly profane, irreverent and amusing and fits right in with the tone of the book.

I can only hope that as Parks presses on with his career, he sticks somewhere close to this fast, gritty style. Take that and the enthralling narrative, and I whipped through Bloody January’s 300 pages as if they weren’t even there. I’m pretty confident that other crime fans will too. If you’re a student of the genre, and you haven’t had a piece of Alan Parks yet, time to rectify that.

And now, as always, I’m going to stick my neck out and to cast Bloody January’s key roles in the hope that it’ll some day soon hit our TV or cinema screens. Just for laughs, of course; as if anyone who matters would listen to my views. But anyway, here we go:

Harry McCoy – Richard Madden
Wattie – Kevin Guthrie
Murray – Robert Carlyle
Jean Baird – Julie Graham
Stevie Cooper – Sam Heughen
Jimmy Gibbs – Kevin McKidd
Lord Dunlop – Mark Strong
Cowie – Craig Ferguson