Saturday, 29 December 2018

Eerie East Anglia, above and below ground

Well, it’s not quite New Year yet, but this is likely to be the last time I speak to you all before 2019, so it seems an appropriate time to say Happy New Year and to wish you all every success and prosperity in the months ahead.

On the personal front, my next novel, STOLEN, which is book 3 in the Lucy Clayburn saga, will be published on May 16. That’s some way off yet, I know, and as such, I still haven’t got any cover artwork for you. But the official back-cover blurb has now appeared online, and so I’m going to run that today before I do anything else.

Staying on the subject of lady cops, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Elly Griffiths’ intriguing mystery-thriller, THE CHALK PIT, which sees her female investigator, Dr Ruth Galloway, head into the tunnels underneath Norwich, where something truly odious may be going on.

As usual, you'll find the Elly Griffiths review at the lower end of today’s blogpost. But talking about Norwich and odious, I’m also moved today to muse a little on East Anglia, and the mythical horrors that may lurk amid its flat fields, gentle broads and deceptively pretty woodlands – particularly in regard to an anthology I edited, which was published several years ago, called TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA.

But more about that later. First up, here’s the latest on the Lucy Clayburn front.

Missing without trace

Regular followers of this column will know that Lucy Clayburn is a young street-cop – a detective now, though she started out in uniform – in the fictional Crowley district of Manchester, and who, though she technically works divisional CID, frequently gets embroiled in much darker and more complex enquiries.

She’s appeared in two of my novels to date: STRANGERS in 2016, and SHADOWS in 2017, and will be hitting the bookshelves again in May next year.

Here, as promised, is the official blurb for the next book:

How do you find the missing when there’s no trail to follow?

DC Lucy Clayburn is having a tough time of it. Not only is her estranged father one of the North West’s toughest gangsters, but she is in the midst of one of the biggest police operations of her life.

Members of the public have started to disappear, taken from the streets as they’re going about their every day lives. But no bodies are appearing – it’s almost as if the victims never existed.

Lucy must chase a trail of dead ends and false starts as the disappearances mount up. But when her father gets caught in the crossfire, the investigation suddenly becomes a whole lot bloodier…

The Sunday Times bestseller returns with his latest nail-shredding thriller – a must for all fans of Happy Valley and M.J. Arlidge.

 A cheerless realm

And now back to East Anglia. But before today’s Thrillers, Chillers section focusses on Norwich-set Gothic crime novel, THE CHALK PIT, I must talk a little about that anthology I edited back in 2012, TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA.

This was the third volume in my round-the-UK antho series, which I started in 2011. The ethos of the Terror Tales books has always been to mingle local fact with local fiction, with a heavy emphasis on folklore – and of course to terrify readers out of their wits. (This has been the format throughout the series, and the format we’ll continue to use when, next year, my Terror Tales publishers, Telos Publishing, and I, will be going all out to get TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND ready for an autumn release).

Before I say anything else about the East Anglian anthology (seven years old last September), please allow me to explain why I’m even thinking about it at the end of 2018.

Frankly … it’s because of the time of year.

We’ve got some snow and ice forecast for next month, but at present Britain is a typical dreary scene: drab, leafless woods, grey, gloom-shrouded moorland, skies colourless and cold, any abandoned buildings, follies, disused bridges or railway tunnels, or other curious, unearthly structures standing desolate and alone in a landscape devoid of life.

Doesn’t that start to make you think MR James?

Whether it does or doesn’t, it always starts to make me think of the old ghost story master. Though, maybe this is as much the influence of the many television adaptations as it is the wonderfully frightening stories that he, himself, penned.

Because, though many of his eerie fictions were set at Christmas, or written to be read at Christmas, and in later decades became regarded as ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ (the famous BBC adaptations of the 1970s can now be bought together on DVD under that very title), they actually contain very few Christmassy elements. Oh yes, he frequently touches on the religious side of it – Midnight Mass, the Nine Lessons and Carols, etc – but the tales are quite spartan when it comes to festive trappings. We aren’t overly concerned with Christmas trees, or Yule logs, or wassailing, or even that staple of so many Christmas stories – snow.

So, though they are undoubtedly winter tales, they don’t always feel as if Christmas – at least, the Dickensian Christmas that we all know and love – is an essential ingredient, instead depicting the rural landscape of eastern England where so many of them are set (Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex), in the bleakest way imaginable. Okay, I know that’s not the whole story, but that’s very much my personal perception of the archetypal Jamesian backdrop, and that’s why, when we’ve finally worked our way through the festive bun-fight, and found ourselves with the bulk of the winter still stretching ahead, and especially if it’s as snowless and cheerless as this one, I inevitably find myself drawn to the writings of MR James and to the Jamesian school of horror writers.

Which brings me neatly back to TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA.

When I first commissioned a bunch of authors to send me some terrifying tales for this book, I didn’t specify that they needed to be written in the style of MR James, but almost inevitably, links were made, and a Jamesian tone generated.

Its back-cover blurb, which I wrote after selecting the stories, is perhaps a clearer indication of this:

East Anglia – a drear, flat land of fens and broads, lone gibbets and isolated cottages, where demon dogs howl in the night, witches and warlocks lurk at every crossroads, and corpse-candles burn in the marshland mist …

The giggling horror of Dagworth – The wandering torso of Happisburgh – The vile apparitions at Wicken – The slavering beast of Rendlesham – The faceless evil on Wallasea – The killer hounds of Southery – The dark guardian of Wandlebury ...

And so now, to celebrate this for no other reason than the weather being Jamesian and the mood very Jamesian (at least to me), I proudly present …

East Anglian terrors on film

Now, first of all, this is not a real thing. Not by any means. (Not yet, anyway).

But you may recall that, earlier this year, I decided to 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, of course, selecting four particular stories from the book in question, which I’d love to see incorporated into a single movie, and giving them my usual fantasy cast.

Well … I’ve still got no anthologies ready to review at present, though plenty reside in my to-be-read pile. So, in the meantime, and just for a bit of a laugh, I’m keeping my hand in by doing it with the Terror Tales books. Obviously, I won’t be reviewing them as well, as that would be a bit incestuous (even though they are all brilliant), but at least I can turn each one into a portmanteau horror movie all of my own. You may recall that on May 16, we did it with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, and on July 4 with TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL. And so, totally keeping up with that theme, here is is …


As I say, just a bit of fun. No film-maker has optioned this book yet, or any of the stories inside it, 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, 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, come in. 

Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. It could be that they visit a series of sideshows in a run-down fair hosted by a mysterious, vaguely demonic showman, (remember Torture Garden?) or force entry to an eerie old wax museum, where each one of them finds his/her reflection in one of several ghastly effigies (Waxwork, anyone?) – but basically, it’s up to you.

So, without further ado, here are the stories and the casts I envisage performing in them:       

The Watchman (by Roger Johnson)

Woolton Minster, a Norman church deep in rural Suffolk, is a nondescript religious building, not particularly handsome, nor especially rich, but it contains some precious vessels and boasts several horrific gargoyles, including one that stands almost ten feet in height. Thomas Drinkhall, a Scrooge-like local merchant, who has recently lost everything through misadventure, is unimpressed by this menacing figure, and as he carries a spare key to the church, resolves to rob the place. Night falls and Drinkhall secretly enters the ancient building, but it isn’t long before he starts to suspect that something else is there, something that moves with heavy, clumping feet …

Tomasina Drinkhall (for the sake of gender diversity) – Kathy Bates

Wicken Fen (by Paul Finch - sorry guys, but I’m never going to pass a chance to put my own work on film)

Middle-aged Londoners, Trevor and Gerry, take a weekend’s break away from their wives, hiring a narrow-boat on the Cambridgeshire broads, at the same time eyeing up girls and drinking lots of beer. But stresses soon emerge in their relationship, Gerry wanting to do more than just oggle the talent, and Trevor soon missing home. However, when they spy two young ladies who think nothing of sunbathing nude, even Trevor’s head is turned. He wants to stay loyal to his wife back home, but this nubile twosome are sexiness personified. Unfortunately, neither man has heard anything about the East Anglian myth of the terrifying mere-wives ...

Trevor English – Hugh Grant
Gerry Axewood – Jason Isaacs

Deep Water (by Christopher Harman)

Musician Peter Belloes might be having an affair with pretty young Elise, but when his wife, Celine, goes missing in their seaside hometown, he gets worried. Celine, a novelist who specialised in adapting East Anglian myths as children’s stories, was investigating the legend of the nightmarish Seagrim, which has clearly been a darker-than-usual project. The oddly odious Detective Sergeant Trench suspects that Celine drowned herself because of her husband’s infidelity, the Seagrim merely a metaphor for this. But Belloes isn’t even sure Celine is dead, especially when he starts to catch glimpses of her dripping-wet figure in various spots around town …

Peter Belloes – Colin Firth
Detective Sergeant Trench – Timothy Spall

Wolferton Hall (by James Doig)

Medievalist, Hugh Terne, is given permission to occupy Throgmorton Hall in the wilds of Norfolk. There are plenty of documents to dig through, but a two-panelled fresco really catches his eye, depicting on one side the funeral of a murder victim and on the other a terrified man being chased by a skeleton. It creates an eerie atmosphere in the lonely manor house, as does the story that the Throgmorton family came into possession of the property after swindling it from a reputed sorcerer, who duly cursed the property. Is the curse still in force? And is there any truth in the rumour that it involves that infamous East Anglian demon, Black Shuck himself … 

Julie Terne (again for the sake of gender diversity) – Nathalie Emmanuel


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.

by Elly Griffiths (2017)

Professor Ruth Galloway is Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. She also works regularly for the local Serious Crimes Unit (and its rugged, adversarial boss, DCI Harry Nelson) as a forensic investigator, but this is rural East Anglia, and as the largest nearby towns are Norwich and King’s Lynn, no one would expect Galloway to find herself on regular secondment to the police. However, that isn’t the case. Over the years, she’s had enough involvement in murder enquiries to consider the cops her colleagues, but on this occasion, it is Galloway herself who sets the ball rolling when she is summoned into the chalk workings underneath Norwich to examine some recently discovered bones.

Ordinarily, she’d expect these to be ancient and therefore of greater interest to the university than the local homicide team, only for her initial examination to show that not only are they relatively recent, but that they’ve been boiled clean – which might indicate that the unfortunate victim was cooked and eaten after he/she was killed.

This is hardly music to the ears of handsome architect Quentin Swan, who, though he is the one who called Galloway in, is looking to develop a subterranean shopping mall and food court, and now realises that he must put his obsessive dream on hold. Harry Nelson, meanwhile, is looking into the disappearance of a homeless woman called Babs. It isn’t a high priority, especially as other members of the local homeless community are proving unwilling to talk. But then he gets word – from an unreliable source, admittedly, but it’s unnerving nonetheless – that Babs has been ‘taken underground’.

No one really knows what this means, but further investigation uncovers rumours that a nameless group is dwelling in the labyrinthine passages beneath the city streets, not just the sewers, cellars and crypts, but in the same chalk workings that Ruth Galloway is investigating.

Galloway and Nelson are unsure what to make of this. It could be just a myth, but these stories won’t go away – and now there is the potential cannibal angle. Is it conceivable, as the scholarly Dr Martin Kellerman suggests, that some mysterious branch of the homeless community have not just become troglodytes, but are now hunting humans as food?

It’s almost too horrible to contemplate, but there are other sinister developments that seem to confirm this suspicion. Two of the homeless men who’ve admitted to knowing Babs and who seem to possess knowledge about what happened to her are found brutally murdered, one on the police station steps. In response, the whole machinery of the law swings into action, the division’s very correct Superintendent Jo Archer, determined that, at the very least, they have a serial killer on their patch who must be stopped.

Of course, fear that it may even be worse than that – namely that the killer is protecting a cannibal clan – preys on all their minds, and this is the kind of distraction that no one in The Chalk Pit needs. Because despite all outward appearances, this is quite a dysfunctional unit.

To start with, Galloway and Nelson once had a fling, during the course of which Galloway became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. This is particularly awkward for Nelson, as he already has a wife, Michelle, who now knows about the affair and its illegitimate offspring, and resignedly accepts it, and two older legitimate daughters as well, who are still unaware that they have a half-sister. Nelson finds himself walking this tightrope every time he and Galloway work together, while his most able underlings – Detective Sergeants Judy Johnson and David ‘Cloughie’ Clough – are the opposite ends of the spectrum politically (Judy’s boyfriend, Michael ‘Cathbad’ Malone, is a practising druid while Cloughie likes beer and football!) and are often like fire and water with each other.

And then, as if all this means they haven’t already got enough to deal with, the stakes are raised dramatically, when a young, well-to-do mother vanishes from her own home, and once again rumours start circulating that she has been ‘taken underground’ …

My first thoughts on reading The Chalk Pit was that it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin. It’s difficult to elaborate on that point without revealing too much of the synopsis. But I’ve said it now, so I’m going to have to offer some kind of explanation.

The blurb for this book provides us with a real hook:

Boiled human bones have been found in Norwich’s web of underground tunnels. When forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway discovers the bones aren’t as old as originally thought, it’s time for DCI Nelson to launch a murder inquiry. What was initially just a medieval curiosity has taken a much more sinister nature …

Local academic Martin Kellerman knows all about the tunnels and their history – but can his assertions of cannibalism and ritual killing possibly be true?

On this basis, it would be very easy to get stuck into this book expecting to find a cannibal tribe lurking under the streets of Norwich. But suffice to say that there isn’t anything like the blood and thunder this might lead you to anticipate. 

Does that mean the book is disappointing?

Well … it all depends on what you were hoping for. Regular readers of the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, and The Chalk Pit comes ninth in that series, will know that they aren’t for the squeamish, but that there is still a degree of cosiness about them. They are solid procedurals, even though the main protagonist is not a copper. And the crimes that Galloway and her police allies investigate, while often grisly, are rarely OTT.

It’s true that the books often come wrapped in jackets adorned with Gothic imagery, which could easily make you think that we’re in supernatural territory. But we aren’t; Elly Griffiths writes crime fiction, not horror. But such imagery isn’t totally misplaced as her books bounce joyously around ancient borough towns like Norwich and King’s Lynn, which are rich in East Anglian history and can boast their fair share of dramatic and violent events – everything from Celtic resistance to the Romans, to Saxon resistance to the Normans, and on into the witch-hunting era (which saw one poor wretch not hanged or burned, but boiled alive!). All of this gives her novels a richly esoteric flavour, and The Chalk Pit is particularly good in this regard. It concerns itself with many contemporary issues, such as child protection, class distinction, homelessness, but there are also hints of the Grand Guignol, with much to do concerning medieval buildings like churches and guildhalls, and of course that eerie network of long-forgotten tunnels snaking beneath the city streets.

Galloway herself is an archaeologist, whose main interest is antiquity and for whom the discovery of a pile of human bones is usually a source of delight rather than despair. Then there are characters like Cathbad, who harks back to the beliefs of those eldritch days predating Christianity. Oh yes, The Chalk Pit, like all of Elly Griffiths’ work, is rammed with local colour and local lore. Just don’t expect it to be gory or terrifying.

That said, the novel’s criminal investigation is deeply intriguing, and a genuine page-turner, particularly after Cloughie’s girlfriend, Cassandra, is kidnapped. I reckon I flew through the final third of the book. But at least half the jeopardy in this narrative doesn’t stem from the police enquiry, so much as from the tense relationships between characters.

This is particularly effective where Galloway and Nelson are concerned, their unrequited love providing the book’s emotional core. The irony here, of course, is that Galloway is a very modern woman. Independent-minded and successful, she doesn’t need a man in her life, but she wants Nelson. He, already married and with two grown-up daughters, is equally tortured, because while he loves Galloway, he dotes on his existing family too. And it’s all nicely understated. There are no outbursts here, no hysterical tears. The duo just gets on with it, working together quietly in that staid, stiff-upper-lip British way, but secretly enjoying the contacts they have with each other.

The rest of the cops – and The Chalk Pit is very much an ensemble piece, rather than exclusively a ‘Ruth Galloway adventure’ – are instantly recognisable as the sort of people you’d meet in any real-life police station.

Judy Johnson, another modern female, is confident, terse, leaning a little towards authoritarianism, and yet somehow just right for the off-the-wall man in her life, Cathbad. Then there is Cloughie, who is much more ‘old school’, and yet whose working-class origins ensure that he gets a rapport going with the many homeless characters they encounter. (On the subject of the homeless, and there are plenty in this book, I feel the author delivers an idealised picture of them. While they are all clearly damaged, few appear deeply troubled, instead spreading good will and happiness wherever they go – which I’m sorry to say I didn’t buy).

That only leaves us with the villains, though I don’t want to talk too much about them for fear of giving vital stuff away. But put it this way: we have an entire array of suspects by the end of this book. They’re all totally believable – none are slotted in as obvious red herrings, and all emerge under their own steam, Griffiths gradually persuading us without actually needing to say it that any one of them could be the killer.

But no more about that now; as I say, no further spoilers here.

Like all good novels, The Chalk Pit is not just about what’s happening on the surface. All through the book there is an interesting if subliminal discussion about the absence of faith in the modern day. Quite a few of the characters are hostile to religion, but as the case progresses, more and more are drawn to reminisce about their religious upbringing when they were young, and while there isn’t any obvious regret that it’s all gone, some of them start to recognise an emptiness in their lives, and increasingly as they suspect they’re up against a horrific evil, they feel less and less equipped to deal with it. It didn’t escape my notice that two of the most contented characters in the book are Cathbad, the druid, and Paul Pritchard, the born again ex-bank robber. And it won’t go unnoticed by anyone that, towards the end of the book, two characters who previously were planning to get hitched in a registry office, change their plans and opt for a church wedding instead.

The Chalk Pit is a great example of a fast, multi-layered (literally) and very well-written British police thriller, the sort you could easily imagine being put on television. A straightforward murder case, but believably presented and built around characters you care about. As long as you aren’t led by the blurb to expect gaudy displays of Dark Ages carnage, you should enjoy this one thoroughly.

As usual now, in the event that Ruth Galloway does end up on TV sometime, I’m going to try and pre-empt everyone by nominating my own cast. Just a bit of fun of course, but here are my picks for who ought to play the leads should The Chalk Pit ever make it to the screen:

Dr Ruth Galloway – Emily Watson
DCI Harry Nelson – Christopher Eccleston
Michelle Nelson – Jessica Hynes
DS Judy Johnson – Katie McGrath
Michael ‘Cathbad’ Malone – Kevin Doyle
Supt. Jo Archer – Helen Baxendale
DS David Clough – Kevin Fletcher
Cassandra Blackstock – Sophia Jayne Myles
Quentin Swan – Jason Hughes
Paul Pritchard – Patrick Baladi
Dr David Kellerman – Jeff Rawle

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