Sunday 28 October 2018

How scary can you go on this special night?

This next week is traditionally the scariest in our calendar. It’s Halloween, when all kinds of evil, supernatural forces are unleashed on the Earth.

So, that’s going to be today’s theme. We’re talking spoooooky. At least, that’s the plan.

First, I’ll be delving into my own material, of course – what else, this is my blog? I thought it might be fun to see if my cop writing has ever leaned towards the ghostlier end of the chiller spectrum. You wouldn’t expect it to, but you might be surprised. I’ll also be reviewing and discussing what I consider to be the best supernatural thriller that I’ve read for quite a long time, Sarah Waters’ stunning THE LITTLE STRANGER.

If you’re only here for the Sarah Waters review, you’ll find it towards the lower end of today’s post, as always. Scoot on down there right now, if you wish. However, if you’ve got a few spare moments, you might want to stick around while I navel-gaze for a bit on my own horror output, and join me while I wonder if I continued working through those darker-than-dark themes after I shifted into the world of hardboiled cop thrillers.

Cops n Horrors

People who know me are aware that I commenced my professional career penning scripts for ITV’s long-running police drama, The Bill. So, it wouldn’t really be true to say that I started out as a horror writer. 

However, even if I say so myself, in the years that followed The Bill, I had quite a bit of success writing horror stories and novellas. This was during the 1990s, the 2000s and well into the 2010s. My inaugural collection of short stories, After Shocks, won the British Fantasy Award in 2002 for Best Collection. I won it again, for Best Novella (with Kid) in 2007, and later that same year, I won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Medium-Length Story with my Green Man-inspired folk-tale, The Old North Road.

I still love horror stories, both as a reader and a writer, and I scribble them out whenever I can. Regular followers of this blog will know that I try to post a brand-new festive ghost story on here each Christmas. But inevitably, since I’ve begun writing crime and thriller novels, there hasn’t been as much time for this. Note that it’s not because my interest has changed. In truth, I regard it all as dark fiction, seeing the two sub-genres - thriller and horror - as twisted horns on the same jet-black goat.

But inevitably, as thriller novels have become my bread and butter, that is the area in which I am now primarily focussed. It doesn’t mean, though, that even in this capacity, I haven’t strayed a little bit into the realms of supernatural horror – or something close to that.

No, I’m not going to pretend that my Mark Heckenburg and Lucy Clayburn books are horror novels masquerading as cop thrillers. They are cop thrillers through and through. But on occasion, mysterious and eerie things have happened in them.

Someone asked me the other day: ‘Have you ever put ghosts into your cop novels?’

The answer is a firm NO. Both Heck and Lucy live in the real world. The laws of physics apply, and that’s all there is to it. But I did realise after I’d been pressed on the matter, that I have, on occasion, gone all out to create weird and disturbing scenarios in which I lay on the ghost movie atmosphere as thickly as I can get away with.

Here are two excepts you may enjoy, which sort of – I hope – prove that point.

The first comes from the Mark Heckenburg novel, DEAD MAN WALKING, which is set in the high Lake District during a bitter and foggy November and sees Heck in pursuit of a deranged mutilation-murderer, the epicentre of whose series appears to be the scattered communities around the isolated Witchcradle Tarn:

In good weather, this was a stunningly beautiful spot. Fellstead Corrie was a natural amphitheatre in the hillside, its gentle slopes thick with bracken, gorse and springy heather, and ascending on all sides to high, ice-carved ridges. The farmhouse itself stood close to a bubbling pool at the foot of a cataract, which poured from the dizzying heights of High White Stones like a helter-skelter. At its rear there was a network of allotments, greenhouses (mostly dingy with mould and filled with brambles), decrepit barns and sheds which all belonged to Annie, and swathes of overgrown pasture for which there were now no animals to graze upon. The building, which was early eighteenth-century in origin, was large and sprawling, comprising various wings and gables, and built from solid Lakeland stone with a roof of Westmorland slate. Spruced up, it would be magnificent, and in a location like this it would make a superb country house or holiday inn. But in its current state of semi-dereliction, it was an eyesore. Both the walls and roof were crabbed with lichen, the rotted iron gutters stuffed with mosses and bird’s nests. 
     But of course, none of this dilapidation was visible at present. 
     With the basket over her left wrist and the shotgun cradled under her right arm, Hazel felt her way across the rickety bridge. Fellstead Beck gurgled past underneath, having circled around the farm from the waterfall plunge-pool. A few dozen yards to her right somewhere, it dropped down a narrow gully into the lower valley, eventually at some point – Hazel wasn’t sure exactly where – flowing into the tarn.
     On the other side of the bridge, beyond a pair of moss-clad gateposts, she entered the farmyard proper, her feet clipping on aged paving stones as she approached the darkened structure just vaguely visible in the fog. When she halted again, the only sound was the distant rushing of water. Meanwhile, not a single light shone from the eerie edifice. In the icy murk, it resembled an abandoned Viking long-hall; the remnant of some Nordic nightmare rather than a family home. Disconcertingly, the darkness beyond its windows seemed even darker than the darkness outside. Annie Beckwith had no electricity, no gas … but surely she would keep a fire in her living room?  Didn’t she even have candles?
     Hazel checked her phone again. It was now after seven-forty. Too early even for Annie Beckwith to go to bed. She approached the front door. If the old lady was sleeping, Hazel didn’t like the idea of disturbing her. But she’d not come all this way to turn back without at least trying to make contact. She knocked several times on the warped, scabby wood. There was no thunderous echo inside; the door was too thick and heavy. Likewise, there was no reply.
     Hazel tried again – the same.
     She fumbled for the handle, a corroded iron ring, which, when she twisted it, turned easily. There was a clunk as the latch was disengaged on the other side, and the door creaked open an inch. To open it the rest of the way, she had to put her shoulder against it, grating it inward over the stone floor.
     This was also a tad discomforting. It wasn’t common practise for folk in this part of the world to keep their doors permanently locked, but surely a lone OAP like Annie would do so at night, especially living all the way out here?
     ‘Hello!’ Hazel called into the blackness.
     Again, there was no response.
     She sidled through, unbidden, and was hit with an eye-watering stench, the combined aromas of grime, mildew and decay. 
     Hazel shone her torch around the room, which was so cluttered with broken and dingy furniture that it was more like a lock-up crammed with rubbish than an actual living space. Dust furred everything, so that colours – the fabrics in the upholstery and lampshades and the many drapes and curtains – were indiscernible, each item a uniform grey-brown. And yet, evidence of the fine old farmhouse this had once been was still there. The fireplace was a broad stone hearth, elaborately carved around its edges with vines and animals, though currently filled with cinders, burnt fragments of feathers and what looked like chicken bones. The mantel above was a huge affair, again constructed from Lakeland stone and heavily corniced, and yet dangling with tendrils of wax from the multiple melted candles on top of it. A mirror was placed above the mantel, so old and tarnished that only cloudy vagueness was reflected there. Ancient sepia photographs hung in cracked, lopsided frames, the faces they depicted lost beneath films of dirt. These added to the house’s melancholy air, but also created the eerie sensation that eyes were upon her. Hazel turned sharply a couple of times, imagining there was someone hidden in a corner whom she hadn’t previously noticed, perhaps peering out through one of those veils of dust-web, eyes bloodshot, yellow peg teeth fixed in a limpid, deranged grin.
     ‘For God’s sake, woman, what’s the matter with you?’ she said to herself in a tight voice. Her and her bloody imagination. ‘Annie?’ she called out. ‘Annie, it’s Hazel Carter! You know, from The Witch’s Kettle down in Cragwood Keld!’
     There was no answer, but her voice echoed in various parts of the house. Immediately on her left, an arched doorway led into a passage that Hazel thought connected with the kitchen and dining room, but the blackness down there was so thick it was almost tangible. She ignored it, moving into the centre of the lounge, only to freeze at a skittering, rustling sound. She turned, just as a whip-like tail vanished beneath the web-shrouded hulk of an age-old Welsh dresser.
     Hazel had to fight down a pang of revulsion. The place was clearly unfit for human habitation as it was, but if it was crawling with rats as well …
     A furry, grey body scuttled along the mantle, casting a huge, amorphous shadow as she followed it with her torch. Stubs of candles went flying to the floor, their ceramic holders shattering. The rat leapt after them and moved in a blur of speed down the passage towards the kitchen.
     There was no question, Hazel decided – they had to get the social services onto this. Annie would hate them for it, but what choice did they have?
     But this was assuming Annie was still alive.
     At least there was no sign of forced entry, or that there’d been any kind of struggle in here. Not, if Hazel was totally honest, that it would be easy to tell.
     She glanced at the brown-stained ceiling, realising with a sense of deep oppression that she had yet to check the upstairs. So unwilling that it was difficult to set her legs in motion, she advanced across the room to a square entry in the facing wall, which led to other rooms as well as the foot of the main stair. She approached it and gazed up. Even without fog, the darkness at the top was impermeable. It seemed to absorb the glow of her torch rather than retreat from it. Hazel hesitated before placing the basket of food on a side-table and, with shotgun levelled in one hand and torch extended in the other, slowly ascended. The hair was stiff on her scalp. It was actually a terrible thing she was doing here; she’d entered someone’s home uninvited, and was now processing from one area to the next with a loaded firearm. But she couldn’t leave. She’d called out and no one had responded, and with the house unlocked, implying someone was at home, she knew there was some kind of problem here. The temptation to call again was strong, but now some basic instinct advised her that stealth was a better option.
      Hazel reached the top of the staircase. The landing was all cobwebs, bare floorboards and plaster walls, the plaster so damp and dirty that it was falling away in chunks, revealing bone-like lathes underneath. Various doorways opened off it. The doorway to the room that Hazel thought Annie might use as a bedroom was at the end of a short passage on the left. When she directed her torch in that direction, the door was partly open, more blackness lurking on the other side. Someone could easily be waiting in there, watching her, and she wouldn’t see them from here.
Despite this, Hazel trod slowly forward, only halting when she was right in front of it. Even close up, the room was hidden from view. There was insufficient space between the door and its jamb for her torch to illuminate anything beyond. But now there was something else too – a faint but rather fetid smell, like open drains.
      Hazel knew she was going to have to say something. It wasn’t the done thing to barge unannounced into someone’s private room, especially with a gun, not even if you were concerned for their wellbeing. Steeling herself in the face of an urge to hurry back downstairs and leave the building, she spoke loudly and clearly.
      ‘Annie? Are you all right in there? It’s Hazel Carter … you know, from The Witch’s Kettle down in Cragwood Keld.’
      Again there was no response, but the silence was beyond creepy. It was intense, weird; a listening silence. Despite every molecule in her body telling her to flee this odious place, Hazel propelled herself forward, pushing against the door, and as it swung open, entered with torch in one hand and shotgun balanced over the top of it.
      What she saw in there had her blinking with shock.
      And then screeching with horror ...


Did I hit the Halloween(ish) spot with that? I don’t know. Only you readers can provide an answer.

Here’s another example. This one also has an autumnal setting, but comes from the first Lucy Clayburn novel, STRANGERS, which sees a young policewoman go undercover as a good-time girl on the back-streets of Manchester at a time when one of the more deranged of the city’s prostitutes is brutally and sexually murdering her male clients.

Nehwal said nothing but waited outside the Lexus, while Lucy stripped off her raincoat and then wrestled her way into the much heavier parka. Once it was on, she zipped it and then tugged up its stovepipe hood, so that her head and face were almost completely covered.
     She jumped out and they approached the Fiesta side-by-side, though Lucy’s stilettos were hardly the ideal footwear on the softish clay surface, which broke and shifted under their pinpoint heels. They halted by the vehicle’s front-offside corner. In the weak, brownish glow of the interior light, the figure in the front passenger seat was covered by a sheet.
      That sheet was dingy and blotched with crimson.
     Nehwal dug a pair of disposable latex gloves from her back pocket, and pulled them on. Then she moved forward to the open passenger window, and reached through, catching the edge of the sheet between two fingertips and trying to pull it. Initially, the sheet resisted but then, slowly, it began to slide free, rancid fold after rancid fold passing down over the inert shape beneath, until it dropped into the footwell.
     Involuntarily, despite their near half-century of combined experience, the two policewomen grunted with shock.
      It was an elderly man – quite elderly in fact, maybe somewhere in his seventies – though actual identification would not be easy. His face hadn’t exactly been obliterated, but it was so puffed and bruised and cut, and so much blood had streaked down over it from his dented cranium, that it would have been difficult even for a relative to recognise him. Whoever he was, his trousers had been pushed down to his ankles and his grimy shirt torn open into two flaps; the women didn’t need to look too hard at the gory mess exposed between his thighs to guess at the cause of death.
     ‘God almighty,’ Lucy breathed.
     ‘There’s a spool of crime-scene tape in the boot of my car,’ Nehwal said dispassionately, taking her phone from the frontal pouch of her sweat-shirt. ‘We want a perimeter ASAP.’ 
      Lucy made to move but then stopped. ‘Ma’am … what about that idiot we saw running?’
      ‘He’s well gone by now, but we need to trace him.’ Nehwal tapped in a number.
      ‘A male suspect after all, ma’am?’
     ‘Unlikely. Unless he had his own clever reasons for pointing us in the right direction.’
     ‘A dogger then? Looking for some fun.’
      ‘Probably. Doesn’t know how lucky he is he didn’t get it, does he? But he’s a witness … so we need him. Blast it … can’t get a signal.’
      ‘Lowest part of town. Reception’s always poor down here. Ma’am … this body looks very fresh.’   Though it broke all the rules, Lucy couldn’t resist placing a knuckle against the corpse’s neck. The banging of her heart steadily increased. ‘He’s still warm.’
      Before Nehwal could respond, there was a clatter of woodwork from inside the pump-house. They swung around together, gazing at the gloomy structure.
      Instinctively, Nehwal pocketed the phone so that both her hands were free.
      They waited, their smoky breath furling around them.
     Aside from a renewed popping and fizzing of distant fireworks, there was silence. Nehwal switched her torch on, its cone of light embossing the mossy, red-brick exterior of the old industrial outbuilding, yet intensifying the blackness behind its apertures. Lucy couldn’t help glancing back at the mutilated form slumped in the car. An OAP yes, but the seventh in line, and the others hadn’t been even close to that age. One of them had weighed twenty-five stone, for God’s sake! Two of them got chopped together at the same time!
     Just how physically powerful was this killer? What kind of chance would they realistically stand in a full-on confrontation, even the pair of them together?
     ‘Go round the back,’ Nehwal said quietly. ‘Cover the rear exit.’ Lucy nodded and made to move, only for Nehwal to grip her wrist. ‘Go armed.’
     ‘Ma’am, I’ve been plain clothes all day, I’ve got no …’
     ‘Find something.’
      Lucy was initially bewildered by this, but then spotted the way Nehwal was wielding the torch – now like a baton rather than a flashlight. She leaned down and picked up a broken half-brick, before proceeding warily around the exterior, stepping with difficulty through clumps of desiccated weeds and thorns. At the rear, she halted in front of a single narrow doorway, the door itself broken off and lying to one side.
     Various stagnant odours leaked through the gap: oil, mildew, rotted rags.
     She listened again. Something creaked inside, very faintly – but that could have been Nehwal progressing in from the front.
     Unable to believe she was doing this while wearing a skirt, heels and a heavy old coat that wasn’t hers, and with a jagged lump of brick in her hand, Lucy edged forward into the darkness – and almost immediately came to another bare brick wall.
     From here, she could go either left or right. Theoretically she should have held this point, to ensure no one slipped past. But there was no conceivable way she could allow her boss, who was no more than five-five and in her early fifties, to enter the building alone.
     Heart thumping, Lucy went left, turning a corner into open space. Nothing stirred in the inky blackness in front of her. Instinctively, she reached for the phone in her pocket, to switch its light on, only to remember that it was in the pocket of the other coat. Not that she was completely blinded; after so long at the bottom of Dedman Delph, her eyes were readjusting quickly. She spied a row of broken windows further to her left, all covered in wire netting. It gave sufficient illumination to show a floor strewn with boxes and piles of old newspapers, and what looked like masses of wood and timber piled against the walls.
      Still there was no movement, neither from Nehwal nor anyone hiding out in here. Even so, Lucy only shuffled forward with caution. ‘Ma’am?’
     There was no reply. Until a fierce red light seared through the windows, a loud series of rat-a-tat bangs accompanying it.
     More fireworks … but even so Lucy froze.
     In that fleeting instant, she’d seen a figure standing in a corner.
     Indistinct but tall – taller than she was – and wearing dark clothing, including some kind of hat pulled partly down over its face. It stood very still between an old wardrobe and an upright roll of carpet.
     Lucy pivoted slowly towards it. As the firework flashes diminished again, only its outline remained visible – its outline and its face, which, though it was partially concealed, glinted palely, and, she now saw, was garish in the extreme; grotesquely made-up with bright slashes of what in proper lighting would no doubt be lurid colour.
     An icy barb went through her as she realised that the figure was wearing a mask.
     It could even be a clown mask.
     And yet still it didn’t move. Its build was difficult to distinguish, but there was something slightly “off” about it, she now thought: it seemed to sag a little.
     Injured maybe? Tired? Or playacting?
      Lucy hadn’t glimpsed any kind of weapon, neither a blunt instrument nor a blade, but the hunk of brick in her hand suddenly felt ungainly and inadequate.
      She faced the figure full on. There was about six yards between them. At any second, she expected it to lurch forward in a blur of speed, maybe silently, maybe screaming.
      She lofted the brick as though to throw it.
     ‘Listen …’ She spoke quietly, calmly. ‘I am a police officer, and I am armed … and you are going to have to show me both your hands.’
     The figure made no move to comply.
     ‘I will tell you one more time …’
     ‘Relax,’ a voice interrupted.
      Lucy jumped as the room filled with brilliant white torchlight.
      Nehwal stepped in through a connecting door, which in the dimness Lucy hadn’t previously noticed. The DSU’s beam focused itself on the shape in the corner.
     It wasn’t a living person at all, but a mannequin, an effigy suspended between two corroded bolts in the wall by loops of string tied under its armpits, which explained the odd posture. It was made from an old dark suit and a tatty brown sweater. Its head was a crumpled football, with a plastic mask attached to the front, the latter not depicting the face of a clown but the face of a grinning male with a sharp moustache and pointed beard. The broad-brimmed Guy Fawkes hat looked like a fancy dress shop reject …


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

THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters (2009)

Rural Warwickshire, the late 1940s. A country doctor called Faraday attends Hundreds Hall, a historic local estate, which he has fond memories of as a child. His mother worked there for a time, as a domestic, and Faraday is still moved by memories of an Empire Day party there back in 1919, when his younger self was so entranced by the 18th century grandeur of the place that he performed a minor act of vandalism, breaking off an ornamental acorn to keep as a memento.

However, things have now changed dramatically. Faraday is shocked to see how badly the house has declined and how overgrown and unkempt its extensive gardens have become, but he keeps this to himself for the time being. He has been called in to treat a maid who has taken a strange dislike to the building and is feigning illness, but he later strikes up a relationship with the widowed aristocratic owner of the property, Mrs Ayres, and her grown-up children, the shabby, eccentric but not unattractive Caroline, and the crippled ex-fighter pilot, Roderick (or Roddie). 

A burgeoning friendship follows, as Faraday uses new methods to successfully treat Roddie’s long-lasting war-wounds, but he is unimpressed by the family’s management of the estate, which, even though his own origins are humble, he considers a grand property and a great landmark in the district. In time he learns that the cause of this lies not so much with Roddie’s ineptitude – though that is also a problem – but with the family’s rapidly dwindling finances. A new era is dawning, complete with a determined and belligerent Labour Government, and what remains of the English rural gentry must diversify into successful business ventures in order to generate new income, or it will simply die out. The ageing Mrs Ayres, ‘a true Edwardian at heart’, regards all this with a fatalistic gloom, as though resigned to her fate, Caroline feels the solution is to sell things off (various family heirlooms and considerable portions of the estate have already gone under the hammer), while Roddie becomes ever more cynical and stressed. 

Faraday, a relative newcomer, continues to observe these unfolding problems rather than participate in their attempted resolution, but he is present when Caroline’s loveable Labrador, Gyp, unaccountably attacks and mauls a visiting child, and in response to strident demands from the authorities – and in a truly heartbreaking scene – assists in putting the animal down.

The tragedy brings Faraday and Caroline closer together, though romance still feels elusive, but Roddie responds by sinking into a trough of drink and despondency. Faraday suspects this is due to self-loathing stemming from the young man’s inability to reverse the estate’s failing fortunes, only for Roddie to then insist that some malign entity invaded his bedroom on the night of the dog-attack and that, if he allows it to, it will switch its hostility to his mother and sister. The rest of the family are bewildered, but then burn marks are discovered on the walls and ceiling of Roddie’s bedroom, and one night, Caroline detects a smell of smoke and finds the entire room ablaze.

Roddie, so drunk that he didn’t even notice, continues to rant that a mysterious, malevolent being regularly visits their home, and in due course, again with Faraday’s help, is committed to an asylum, where he quickly makes himself at home because he can no longer stand the thought of residing at Hundreds.

Caroline and her mother are left so distraught that they struggle to maintain interest in the state of their house and are unconcerned by how the rest of the county views them – both of which were formerly big issues – so Faraday becomes more and more involved, particularly in regard to Caroline, whom he increasingly suspects he has fallen in love with. Caroline responds in kind, though is less enthusiastic overall, at times seeming confused about her feelings rather than enamoured with the new man in her life.

Meanwhile, the haunting – if that is what it is – appears to intensify. Weird, juvenile writing is discovered on the walls, the maids are summoned by bells rung from the abandoned nursery, phone-calls are received in the early hours of the morning – apparently from no-one, and, most chillingly of all, a weird, malformed voice is heard burbling on the other end of a long-defunct communications tube that still runs through the heart of the house.

Faraday is aggressively dismissive, mocking Caroline’s notion that some kind of curse or taint is affecting the family’s fortunes, and openly worried by Mrs Ayres’ belief that the ghost of her long-dead first daughter, Susan (or Suki), has returned to her family home, which he suspects is a sign of mental disintegration. Things almost come to a head when the elderly matriarch has a particularly terrifying experience in the nursery – a hair-raising scene by almost any standards – and is physically injured in her attempts to escape.

Faraday is frustrated, considering much of this a distraction from his new purpose in life, which is to marry Caroline – who is still only vaguely agreeable to his proposal – and take charge of the crumbling estate in order to rescue it.

But even Faraday cannot ignore the next ghostly event. No-one can. Mrs Ayres, who never really recovered from her ordeal in the nursery, and who has now relapsed into a distant, dreamy state, repeats her conviction that the ghost is Suki, who may be unaware that her visits are causing damage, but who is essentially a good spirit, seeking only the love and companionship of her lost mother. 

Mrs Ayres could not be more wrong …

Let’s get to it directly. The Little Stranger is one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. But it’s actually a lot more than that. No-one could seriously expect a stylish literary writer like Sarah Waters to pen a supernatural novel with no more intent than to frighten her readers.

When you pick up The Little Stranger – though you will be frightened trust me – you’ll also find yourself immersed in the decaying world of the landed gentry as the second half of the 20th century dawns. This isn’t just to be found in the Ayres family, who for all their wartime service are so incapable of living well in the ‘post feudal’ era of the new modern age that we suspect they must perish, but in the nouveau riche Baker-Hydes, who have the money but not the manners, and in Doctor Faraday, the educated commoner from rustic stock, who, though he initially likes the Ayres, gradually finds his power and influence over them growing, and starts to enjoy it. Throughout, the narrative is dominated by the imposing structure of Hundreds Hall, which initially appears to us in happier times as a grand ‘wedding cake’ of a country mansion surrounded by acres of manicured parkland, but later as a gloomy, dilapidated edifice accessible only through a dank, dreary wood. If that isn’t a metaphor for the collapse of the privileged class in postwar England, then I don’t know what is.

First, though, let’s talk about the actual ghost story.

The ability to inflict a genuine chill on your readers is a rare one. Not every horror or thriller writer possesses it, so I took real pleasure in discovering that Sarah Waters, who hasn’t strayed often into this kind of darkness before, does.

Though the author has a much bigger job on here than merely telling a spooky yarn, none of it would have worked if the ghostly elements in The Little Stranger hadn’t been frightening. Thankfully, in seeking to achieve that effect, she emulates one of literature’s great mistresses of the ghost story, Shirley Jackson, by opting for the ‘less is more’ approach.

When eeriness first arises in Hundreds Hall, it is very subtle, very slight, barely detectable even – especially as all the characters have so many more important issues to content with, but one by one, as they fall victim to it, their unease spreads to the reader.

Questions abound, however.

Is there really a supernatural presence in Hundreds Hall? If so, why is it only manifesting now? Even when an explanation of sorts – the ghost of deceased daughter, Suki – is provided by the dazed and confused Mrs Ayres, the question remains: Why is it so malicious?

Even then, for the longest time, this mystery seems almost inconsequential. The deterioration of the family and their property is a much more serious problem. Faraday’s attempted wooing of the stand-offish Caroline occupies centre-stage, and rightly so; she is the only one who can get things back on track, but only, he suspects, if she will accept his courtship, because she too is scatty in many ways. Even after Roddie’s breakdown, which he squarely lays at the door of an evil spirit, it seems more likely to us – because we witness no supernatural occurrences – that the son of the house has finally succumbed to the combined horrors of his wartime ordeal and his abject failure to restore the family’s pride.

After this, of course, things change, genuine haunted house type phenomena occurring more frequently. The curious writing on the wall is reminiscent of the real-life Borley Rectory, which only burned down nine years prior to the commencement of this story. The ringing of the servants’ bells when there is nobody there may take us back to the opening scenes of A Christmas Carol, but there is no good humour to be had here, because the terrible voice on the communications tube, and the growing conviction that a baleful intelligence is coming and going as it wishes, soon takes us into full-on psycho-supernatural territory, reminding us of classic chillers like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. It’s certainly the case that by the last quarter of The Little Stranger, you wouldn’t want to be marooned in Hundreds Hall, a gaunt, dreadful relic of the past, seemingly cut off from modern civilisation. When the ‘Little Stranger’ actually appears, it’s a ghastly and harrowing moment, which leaves everyone sickened with fear.

Everyone except Faraday, that is. Which brings me neatly to the characters, and the main two protagonists, Faraday himself and Caroline Ayres.

While Faraday is our central character, he’s not exactly the hero of the piece. If anything, he is more the yardstick by which the decline of the Ayres family and the dereliction of their once magnificent family home are measured. He was the one who attended Hundreds for that wonderful Empire Day celebration so many years prior to the main narrative. He is the only non-Ayres personality who falls in love with the estate – so much so that he even takes a bit of it away with him (which upsets his mother because, though he’s clearly enamoured by the place, such a deed implies covetousness rather than deference).

All that complexity aside, Faraday is a fascinating and multi-layered character. As a doctor, you’d think him a pillar of the community; a well-spoken, well-regarded chap in whom anyone could confide. But the class factor comes into play here too. Faraday, who is not the Ayres’ first choice doctor, attempts to ape the breeding of his hosts, but innately lacks it. He is also an intemperate man; he carries grudges and when he doesn’t get his own way, resorts to private but heavy drinking. He’s an efficient and reliable doctor, but he is also a hardcore rationalist, and this – a deliberate ploy by the author – becomes tiresome as the tale moves on, the entire family soon living in fear of a supernatural adversary, but Faraday continually and testily dismissing the whole thing as nonsense, finding vapid explanations for some of the most mysterious happenings.

He also lacks self-awareness, blissfully unaware that such an attitude is an implied criticism of the family, at the same time as clumsily courting Caroline Ayres, in his own mind very successfully, though to the readers it’s an evident disaster. When on occasion, his frequent presence at Hundreds Hall is queried, he fails to understand why the family might deem him intrusive.

In contrast, Caroline Ayres, is a more traditional but perhaps more-flawed-than-usual heroine. She is all that remains of the great family, but there is no glamour to her, and little in the way of wisdom or spirit. But she is determined and brave, and even when almost everything else has gone, her common sense remains. Towards the end of the book, Caroline, worn almost to the bone, is literally the last bastion of the Ayres family name. It’s quite a responsibility if you care about these things, as we readers have come to at this stage.

She also goes on a similar if opposite journey to Faraday. Even though her growing fear that something evil is dogging them takes much longer to manifest that it does with her mother and brother, she becomes – in a great twist of irony – progressively more realistic than her suitor. He may mock her eventual conviction that they are somehow cursed, but Caroline handles her problems by whittling down her hopes and expectations, and planning a more frugal future, while Faraday’s ambitions grow steadily more preposterous.

The Little Stranger is an amazing piece of writing, and it’s no surprise to me that it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s hard to classify, for sure. I only tend to cover what I call ‘dark fiction’ on this blog, but it fulfils every aspect of that, even if it is many more things besides.

You just have to read it. Whether you’re a ghost story fan, or not, you won’t be disappointed.

I normally sign off on my book reviews with some fantasy casting, selecting the key characters and telling the world – which obviously will pay scrupulous attention – who I’d choose to play them onscreen. But, as I write, a movie version of The Little Stranger is already doing the rounds on the cinema, so any thoughts from me on the matter would be even more irrelevant than they usually are.

Monday 8 October 2018

Catch yourself a bunch of killers - for 99p

We’re talking evil killers this week (for a change, I hear you all say). 

But no, seriously … today’s blog is going to focus on heinous murderers and their gruesome deeds. That’s partly because it’s the main theme of the latest Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH, which I have some news about that you may not want to miss. Its also because, name by name, I’ll be bringing you details of the very worst offenders on the actual ‘Most Wanted’ list that features in the new novel. And lastly, it’s because I’ll also be offering a detailed review and discussion of Chris Petit’s brutal and disturbing wartime crime thriller (which is also packed with fiendish killers), THE BUTCHERS OF BERLIN.

If your main interest is the Chris Petit review, don’t worry about it – you’ll find it, as usual, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Just hasten on down there and get stuck in. If you’re also interested in the Heck news though, then stick around for a bit.

Get it cheap

The first and most important thing to say today is that KISS OF DEATH has done very nicely indeed since its launch in August. As I write these words, it resides in the Top 50 on the Kindle paid-for chart (is No. 1 in ‘Vigilante Justice’ - I know, I didn’t think any such thing existed either), and can boast a 5-star strike rate of 86% thus far. That means I’ve got an awful lot of satisfied customers already, which I’m very grateful for. But of course, I’m even more grateful for those of you who’ve bought the book, even if you haven’t yet reviewed it. For those of you still considering, be advised that it’s now available on Kindle for 99p, and will remain so until the end of this month (October, 2018).

So, if you weren’t sure before, maybe that’ll tip the balance. Get it while it’s cheap.

Worst of the worst

One of the key plot-lines in KISS OF DEATH, meanwhile, is the development of ‘Operation Sledgehammer’, which concerns the creation of a British ‘Most Wanted’ list, comprising the 20 most dangerous British criminals still on the loose and believed to be dwelling somewhere in the UK. The team of which DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is an integral part, the Serial Crimes Unit, who are basically facing the axe thanks to rampant police cuts, are charged with bringing every name on that list to justice in as short a time as possible.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, so this involved me having to come up with my own list of deadly felons. That isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds, but I won’t pretend that it wasn’t a lot of fun doing it - in a strange, dark and twisted kind of way.

Here, for want of a better term, are the ‘stars’ of that list, the sort of individuals who even Heck and all his cronies would be stiffly challenged by. And remember, in KISS OF DEATH, they have to collar ALL of them - no excuses - or it could be their jobs:

Eddie Creeley: A Humberside underworld enforcer who diversified into armed robbery, and
proceeded to hit a number of banks and security vans. In all cases, Creeley’s crimes were noteworthy for the extreme violence he used against bank staff, witnesses etc. In one case, the wife of a bank manager was held hostage and injected with battery acid, which inevitably killed her, while two security guards were beaten and injected with drain cleaner, one dying, the other suffering severe brain damage.

Leonard Spate: A part-time taxi driver in Workington, who raped and beat a woman to death after picking her up at a local nightclub. Arrested on suspicion, he escaped from custody before he could be charged, violently beating a young policewoman in the process. He later raped and strangled a prostitute, after holding her hostage in her own home, and then burned down the house afterwards, which also claimed the lives of her two children, who were sleeping there at the time.

Terry Godley: A lifelong violent criminal, who, while serving time for earlier offences, was classified ‘one of the most dangerous individuals in the UK prison system’. Godley hadn’t been out of jail long when he carried out an armed car-jacking in Nottingham. There were two teenage boys in the vehicle at the time. Both were later found dead, having been made to kneel before being shot through the back of the head, execution style.

Henry Alfonso: Otherwise known as ‘the Creeper’, Alfonso was a prolific burglar from Canning Town, London, who always went about his business wearing a ski-mask and carrying a butcher’s knife. Though he often stole, his main purpose was to commit rape. Targeting student premises and women living alone, all of which he had noted and watched carefully beforehand, he was active for several years before he was identified, hitting as many as 50 targets, maybe many more. 

Patrick Hallahan: A bodybuilder turned heroin addict, whose craving for smack led him into ever more violent crimes, which he often carried out in a semi-crazed state. Such was his condition, when, armed with a pistol and a shotgun, he held up a McDonald’s restaurant in Slough. It was a weekend lunchtime, so the diner was crowded with families. Fearing for their children, two men tackled him. Hallahan responded by shooting and killing both, and then killing a member of staff before fleeing. 

Christopher Brenner: The self-titled ‘Priest of Pain’, Brenner - a former soldier and nurse - was, by his own admission, a sado-masochist, who several times was reported to the police for assaulting and brutalising sex-workers. He eventually went on the run when a severely emaciated woman escaped from the cellar of his Luton house. Responding police found two others chained down there. All had been repeatedly raped, tortured and starved to the point of near-death.

John Stroud: A one-time runner for the Birmingham mob, who later turned enforcer, Stroud was sentenced to 15 years for his part in the botched assassination of a crusading newspaper reporter, but released after serving just over half of his sentence. No longer wanted by his former firm, he took it out on the two uniformed police officers who’d originally arrested him, ambushing them in their patrol car after calling in a fake accident, and shooting both of them dead.

Malcolm Kaye: The only real serial killer on the list, Kaye was already a prolific sex offender when he was charged with strangling four prostitutes in Liverpool, having struck all of them with a hammer first, and attempting to murder a fifth by battering her with a pipe. Suspected of an earlier attack in which a Liverpool housewife was strangled in her own home, he was being escorted from prison to a police station for further interview, when he escaped from custody and went on the run.

A motley crew, to be sure. Maybe too much even for Heck to bite off and chew. You think so? Well, sorry to be boring, but there’s only one way you’re going to find out. As I said earlier, this is a good time to snaffle a copy of KISS OF DEATH. It’s only 99p on Kindle at the moment, but the deal will only last until the end of this month. 


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

THE BUTCHERS OF BERLIN by Chris Petit (2016)

August Schlegel is a young detective with the Berlin Criminal Police. But this is no ordinary time to be a copper. It’s 1943, and the tide of the war is turning against Nazi Germany. The capital city is now regularly bombed, there is nothing but bad news from the front, and the government is virtually in hiding. The population meanwhile, attempts to lead as normal an existence as possible, but is hungry, weary and increasingly lawless.

Schlegel, himself, is a poor specimen of a police officer. Half English on his aristocratic mother’s side, he’s still a loyal German, but earlier in the war, rather foolishly, he was lured into joining the Einsatzkruppen, a mobile police battalion whose job was follow the army advancing into Russia, under the impression that he’d be rounding up partisans. Instead, he found himself participating in the firing squad massacres of civilians, mainly Jews. So horrendous did Schlegel find this work that he suffered a severe nervous breakdown, his hair turning white overnight. Sent home to recuperate, he was placed on ‘light duties’ in the form of attachment to a low-priority financial crimes unit.

Now, however, somewhat inexplicably, he is summoned by Homicide boss, Stoffel, to a murder/suicide. It’s a curious case, an elderly Jewish war-hero, Metzler, killing his building’s block warden by shooting, and then taking his own life. Stoffel explains that Schlegel has got the job simply because he was in the police station at the time, but that doesn’t explain why the case is being investigated at all. Metzler, the perpetrator, is dead already, and in any case, there are now daily round-ups, those few Jews remaining in Berlin being systematically deported to the east; why bother trying to prove that a Jew was responsible, because it won’t matter either way? Police Chief Nebe will shed no light on it and is vexed when questioned. Even more mysterious, is the arrival of the black-uniformed Eiko Morgen, a member of the SS judiciary, who declares that he’s now Schlegel’s partner in the investigation but declines to explain why or under whose authority.

No sooner has this unlikely duo embarked on their enquiry than further murders follow, both men and women slain, and these killings are infinitely more grotesque, the bodies found flayed, dismembered, and sometimes with money stuffed into their orifices. The convoluted enquiry, which is much distracted by daily events in a near-anarchic city where everyone is corrupt and no-one trustworthy, eventually leads to a hideous old slaughterhouse, where an oddball collection of workers is quick to blame the crimes on a gang of Jewish butchers, who were seeking to sew discord in the city but who now can’t be traced as they’ve all been deported. At the same time, just in case this dead-end doesn’t put paid to the enquiry, Stoffel pulls in a half-witted criminal who is willing to plead guilty to all the crimes, and many more, on the condition that he’ll be sent to a hospital rather than the guillotine.

Morgen, for one, is unconvinced, certain that the suspect is too dim to have carried out so many killings successfully and feeling that he’s been framed for the sake of convenience. When more murders follow, Nebe’s solution is simply to cover them up, Morgen and Schlegel feeling more like undertakers than detectives, but nevertheless continuing to investigate, their suspicions crystallising around a possible smuggling/counterfeiting ring and leading them back, almost inevitably, to that dingy slaughterhouse.

While all this is going on, in a parallel thread, we follow the fortunes of two young German women. Lore and Sybil are not just Jews, but lesbian lovers, which also makes them persona non grata in the eyes of the Nazis. If that isn’t enough, Sybil is a witness to the Metzler shooting, but daren’t come forward because she’s only surviving in Berlin by the skin of her teeth as it is. The duo moves about continually, just below the notice of the authorities, but are in danger all the time and suffer constant harassment and abuse. In due course, they are separated, and Sybil finds herself at the mercy of ruthless Gestapo chief, Gersten, who adds her to his cadre of so-called ‘catchers’, a group of alluring Jewish women – headed up by the ultra cold-hearted Stella Kübler, (‘Blonde Poison’ as her paymasters call her, and as they called her in real-life, because she was an actual person!), who are allowed to live in comfort and safety so long as they inform on their own people.

In a world where only the callous and vicious seem to prosper, Gersten is one of the worst people Sybil has ever met. But she isn’t alone in that assessment. Gersten’s name increasingly crops up in Schlegel and Morgen’s enquiry, neither of the investigators liking him, though both are wary of the power he wields.

Meanwhile, the murder victims pile up, the bombs continue to fall, and all around them the madness of a declining, collapsing society rages on. The mystery deepens steadily, Schlegel increasingly convinced that whatever conspiracy lies at the heart of it will only be exposed under the costliest circumstances. And at this stage, he doesn’t know the half of it …  

The first thing that struck me about The Butchers of Berlin was how harrowing (and presumably how realistic) a portrayal it is of a city teetering on the edge of damnation.

It’s the very height of World War II, but the war itself seems a long way away; German troops are fighting, but still on distant battlefields, there are only two bombing raids (though both are colossally destructive), and there is little discussion about military tactics or the fortunes of the nation, other than a resigned acknowledgement that the armies of National Socialism are finally in retreat. But the consequences of Hitler’s insane policies have bent a once cultured German society out of all shape and recognition. Little has been done to improve the city’s industrial infrastructure since the cash-strapped days of the Weimer Republic (and the bombing has flattened much of that – so, cue some very neat evocation of German cinematic expressionism by Chris Petit, who is also a renowned film-maker!). Wounded and deranged men lurk everywhere. Rationing and shortages have cut deeply into the heart of normal life. Most folk are impoverished, the black market is flourishing, crime rates have soared, and there is violence and rowdiness on the rubble-strewn streets – not everyone, it seems, is cowed by the Nazis. Meanwhile, everyday morality has virtually disappeared. The criminal police are incompetent, uninterested and most of the time drunk. There is widespread prostitution and depravity, racketeering and dishonesty are commonplace, the all-licensed Hitler Youth are running wild (behaving in lunatic and degenerate fashion), and when someone disappears it is simply accepted that they’ve been ‘sent to a camp’, with no-one especially concerned about where or why.

And then of course, there are the pogroms.

Those few remaining Jews who don’t wish to be rounded up and deported indulge in all kinds of chicanery, bribery, concealment and impersonation to remain at liberty, and even then, must tough it out in ways that only a few years earlier they’d have found intolerable. This is nowhere better exemplified than in the traumatised characters of Sybil and Lore, who have come to accept rape and blackmail as a daily occurrence and are more than willing to participate in pornography so long as it buys them a meal. Respectability as a concept no longer has meaning. Instead, survival is all. Even the upper class, as represented by Schlegel’s mother and her friends are faking it, partying, gossiping and affecting a façade of mischievous superiority, while at the same time, lying, cheating and playing constant games of one-upmanship simply to maintain a semblance of the lifestyle they once knew.

Berlin in 1943 is truly a city of ruins. A socio-political Hellscape where the population live like rats in anticipation of the approaching Apocalypse.

Against this Dantean backdrop, August Schlegel is almost an incidental character, partly because Chris Petit consciously imbues him with few redeeming features. He’s not an evil man – that’s about the best you can say for him, but he’s weak and tired and torn by his conscience. He’s also, for much of the narrative, a passenger, confused by the unfolding mystery as he travels on the coat-tails of Eiko Morgen, who is probably the first SS character I’ve encountered in fiction to elicit some degree of sympathy, though this isn’t easily won.

Morgen initially appears as a sinister hardcase, both intellectually and physically; he’s secretive, he’s cold, he’s far from friendly, and though he becomes an ally of Schlegel’s, he never really amounts to more than that – he’s certainly not what you’d call a companion. But it’s often a relief to see him, because whenever Morgen is present, the forces of darkness gathering around our main hero appear to retreat a little. Even so, because we never really know who Morgen works for – it could be Heinrich Himmler himself! – we’re never sure that Schegel should fully trust him, even though we’re glad he’s there.

But this is par for the course in a book where almost everyone is flawed, or at least compromised. We already know about Schlegel’s history as an Einsatzkommando, which, even though he was fooled into it and even though he is tortured by regret, is a ghastly blot on his soul. At least Schlegel has a conscience, though. In contrast, fellow cops Nebe and Stoffel are pathetic examples of public servants who after years of genuine service have now opted for the easier course, towing the party line, subverting the law, framing the innocent, and passing the buck at every opportunity. Even the Jews themselves display vengeful and villainous traits, Metzler shooting one of his persecutors through the eye, Stella Kübler, the senior Jew-catcher, much more then just a femme fatale, a literal black widow who revels in her status as a sexually empowered predator.

Then we have the actual villains, of course, such as Gersten and his lackeys, who are every bit as evil as you’d expect. The Gestapo chief epitomises that weird contradiction of Nazi Germany, wherein apparently civilised but in fact deeply maladjusted individuals used newly acquired power, which they’d never really earned, to pretend they were still pillars of their community while at the same time behaving like raving, demented beasts.

By comparison, heroines Lore and Sybil are almost impossibly innocent, the former tragically overconfident that they will somehow make it through this maelstrom, the latter more easily frightened and thus more circumspect about their chances. I don’t want to say too much more about the female leads, because that would give away an unconscionable amount of story-line. Suffice to say that, despite Schlegel’s best efforts, they are torn from pillar to post, and that much of the terror and suspense, which ramps up dramatically in the second half of the book, comes at the expense of Sybil in particular, whose attempts to preserve her own life are increasingly desperate and miserable.

It’s a grim fact of The Butchers of Berlin that the brualisation of human beings, both in mind and body, is never stinted on – and that doesn’t just end with the mutilation victims.

Not everyone has taken to this, some reviewers commenting that it isn’t so much a wartime thriller as a horror novel, others calling it insensitive to the real atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. My response to this would be that if you’re writing seriously about this time and place, then sugar-coating any aspect of it would be doing a disservice to history. If you don’t think it should be written about at all, that’s a different argument, but we’ve seen action-adventures set during wartime, as well as serious dramas, we’ve seen romances, comedies, musicals – is it really so outrageous to set a murder-mystery in the same milieu? And if it is, does that mean we shouldn’t set fiction and/or drama in Northern Ireland during the Troubles or in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, or even during the plague years of the Middle Ages. All these disasters are part of real human experience which we can’t simply ignore, so the argument doesn’t hold water for me.

Whatever your view on that, I thoroughly enjoyed The Butchers of Berlin, and have no hesitation recommending it to all crime and thriller fans (and yes, probably to horror fans too). It’s about as dark a novel as I’ve ever read. But it’s not just a gore-fest. It’s wonderfully written, very tense and very compelling. It’s also an intellectual exercise. It’ll demand a lot of you if you’re going to fathom the mystery out, so you’ve got to pay attention to every detail, no matter how apparently minor. Do that, though, and you’ll be very amply rewarded – so long as you’ve got the belly for it.

I’ve no idea whether The Butchers of Berlin is under any kind of film of TV option, but as usual on this blog, I’m now going to have a bit of fun by recommending the cast I would appoint should any such wondrous adaptation come about.

Schlegel – Bill Moseley
Morgen – Jared Harris
Sybil – Nina Dobrev
Gersten – Andrew Scott
Nebe – Philip Jackson
Stoffel – Craig Faribrass
Stella Kübler – Carice Van Houten
Heinrich Himmler – Tim Roth
Joseph Goebbels – Danny Webb