Sunday 17 March 2019

Horror and terror from above and below

Some horror fun this week. As you can see above, I finally have the finished jacket for TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND, which we are looking to put out mid-summer. Unfortunately, I can’t give you the final TOC yet. You’ll just have to keep watching this space for that.

Anyway, more about Terror Tales in a minute. I will also, because we’re back in the horror world this week, be revisiting something I did just over a week ago with crime/thrillers: I’ll be running down a list of my TOP 25 HORROR NOVEL-TO-FILM ADAPTATIONS.

In addition today, I’ll be reviewing that mistress of the macabre, Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology, THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s got an oceanic horror theme, which is right up my street in a big way. There is truly nothing scarier to me than the deep sea. 

If you’re only here for the Ellen Datlow anthology review, that’s fine. As always, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Just scoot on down there now. If, however, you’ve got a bit more time to spare, perhaps you’ll be interested in the other stuff first.

Terror Tales

I’ll make this fairly quick because regular readers of this column will already know about the Terror Tales books (mainly because I never stop yapping about them).

Just to put newcomers to this blog completely in the spooky picture, TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND is the latest in a series that I’ve been working on since 2011. It combines both fact and fiction, though mainly fiction provided by a host of top-quality horror names. Check some of these out: Stephen Laws, Adam Nevill (right), Peter James, Ramsey Campbell (left), Carole Johnstone, Robert Shearman, Alison Littlewood, Reggie Oliver (and many, many more). Most of this fiction is purposely derived from the folklore of whichever region happens to be in the spotlight.

NORTHWEST ENGLAND is the 11th in the series. All previous titles are displayed in the side-panel on the right. Just scroll down and check them out.

Book to film

A few of you may recall that back on March 10th, I posted a gallery of 25 crime/thriller novels that I think were adapted particularly well as movies or TV shows. I didn’t say these were the best crime/thriller novels or even the best crime/thriller movies, just that I thought this particular batch had made the transition from page to screen especially well. It garnered a number of positive responses across social media, so now, in my own inimitable way, I’m going to do it again. And this time, because we’re talking horror today – yep, you guessed it – it’s going to be horror novels.

So, without further ado, here they are. In chronological order, because I have no particular order of preference here, enjoy my …

Top 25 Horror Book-to-Film Adaptations

Given that both Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, and James Whale’s 1931 movie version, simply called Frankenstein (which was not the first film adaptation, by the way – that came in 1910), are both so revered, there are huge differences between the two, and fans of the novel are still furious about some of them. In the book, for example, there is no idiot assistant to foolishly select a criminal’s brain for use in the monster’s creation (which, they argue, wipes out much of the novel’s meaning). Likewise, while in the book, the monster murders Frankenstein’s family, in the film the obsessed doctor has no family. Plus, in the book, the monster doesn’t drown a child, but saves one. That said, Boris Karloff’s stunning performance, the make-up effects, the look and feel of the film – it genuinely set the tone for a whole host of classic monster movies from Universal Studios in the 30s and 40s – still render it one of the greatest horror movies of all time. 

Though Bram Stoker’s ground-breaking 1897 novel, Dracula, had been filmed many times by 1958, when Terence Fisher remade it for Hammer, this was easily, and still is, one of the most eye-catching versions committed to film. Though again there are immense plot-changes – screenwriter Jimmy Sangster simplified it significantly to fit a small budget – the inspired casting of 6ft4 Christopher Lee in the title role did away with Bela Lugosi’s urbane Romanian count, restoring Stoker’s savage beast, and at the same time added an element of sexual danger. It was the first colour Dracula film too, so while the ‘stage scenery’ castle and hand-painted Carpathian Mountains evoked a near fairy tale atmosphere, the blood ran a vivid shade of red and the peachy cleavages heaved, creating yet more iconic staples of the new movie franchise that was slowly but surely being born. Christopher Lee would himself become a staple of that, as would Peter Cushing, who to date still rules as the greatest of all the Van Helsings.

When Henry James wrote his novella, The Turn of the Screw in 1898, he purposely set out to create a ghost story that would be very different from what was then the norm, and in this he 100% succeeded, telling the tale of a governess put in charge of two children in a remote country house and coming to suspect that the spirits of two former staff members are exerting a corrupting influence on the youngsters, and yet constantly asking the question: are these ghosts real, or just some repressed neurotic horror that is haunting the governess alone. The debate has raged in literary circles for decades, and the much-lauded 1961 movie version, The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave, only added to this. Clayton kept some of William Archibald’s original script, which suggested that the evil entities were real, but later brought in Truman Capote to ask those all-important psychological questions. The film is probably debated as much now as the novel.

Many will say that it’s criminal to ignore the 1939 movie version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1901 chiller, The Hound of the Baskervilles, but we’re talking horror movies today rather than Gothic mysteries, and for that we must look to Hammer’s gory 1959 remake, written by Peter Bryan, directed by Terence Fisher, and starring Cushing and Lee as Sherlock Holmes and Henry Baskerville respectively. To live up to the studio’s rep, it comprised a much more monstrous hound, several archetypal horror movie moments – purposely added, which don’t appear in the novel – such as the brutal murder of the servant girl, the spider in the boot, the Baskerville webbed hand, Miss Stapleton’s death in Grimpen Mire etc, and an all-round darker and more terrifying atmosphere. More faithful to the novel is André Morell’s Watson, the great actor giving Holmes a more stolid and dependable sidekick than the pantomime figure cut by Nigel Bruce back in ’39. Many other versions have followed since, but this remains the definitive one.

When Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris was published in 1933, it was much more than a horror novel. Set against the violent backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune, and inspired by the perverse antics of François Bertrand, the Vampire of Montparnasse, it was very much a polemic on the frenzied French politics of the 19th century, but it was a werewolf story too, or at least the tale of a man so deranged that he became a murderous animal. Hammer’s vivid The Curse of the Werewolf, directed in 1961 by Terence Fisher from a script by Anthony Hinds, was the first movie adaptation, but little of the original tale made it onto film, and none of the political commentary did. The movie, which starred Oliver Reed in his first major screen role, was not even set in France, but Spain, however the conception of the monster through rape, the love of a woman holding the transformation at bay and the hero’s pursuit by a distraught adoptive father were recognisable threads.

In the post-atomic age of the mid-1950s, authors of both book and film for a brief time looked to science to provide horrors of the new era, and US novelist Jack Finney hit it right on the nail with The Body Snatchers in 1954. The ingenious tale of a discreet invasion of Earth, as witnessed in one small California town, where humans are being replaced by duplicates grown from alien pods, and the originals quietly disposed of, was the perfect blend of sci-fi and McCarthy era paranoia. That said, despite the wonderful idea, it wasn’t especially horrific. The ending, in particular, is a let-down. The excellent and more subtle movie version from Don Siegel in 1956 improved on this immensely, but it is the big budget 1978 version, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy, directed by Philip Kaufman and written by WD Richter, that better managed to capture the soulless horror of the duplicates and thus turned it into a full-blown dystopian nightmare.

Still on the sci-fi trail, John Wyndham also gave us a ‘small town invasion’ story in 1957 with his novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, in which, through a form of xenogenesis, all the women of child-bearing age in a small Wiltshire village fall pregnant on the same day, and end up giving birth to a different species of humanoids: 61 children who don’t just look different – they have golden eyes and pale skin – but who grow quickly, possess super-intelligence, and through telepathy and telekinesis, and a willingness to use these gifts to cause harm, look set to become a new dominant life-form. Some critics called the novel ‘cosy’, but others found its concept more than a little disturbing. The first movie version, Village of the Damned, made by Wolf Rilla in 1960 from a script by Stirling Sillipant that stayed faithful to the novel, starred George Saunders and scream queen Barbara Shelley, and added massively to the Midwich mythology by turning the Children into platinum-haired devils, making them iconic monsters of the 1950s sci-horror era. 

Back to the supernatural, Shirley Jackson’s benchmark novel, The Haunting of Hill House, published in 1959, is often, and quite rightly, cited as the greatest haunted house story ever written. It focusses on four psychic investigators and their summer-long evaluation of a lonely mansion with a history of suicides and violent deaths. One of the group, the ill-fated Eleanor Vance, who has a troubled family background, increasingly seems to be at the centre of the weird happenings, and the question is eventually raised: is Eleanor the haunted or the haunter? Adapted for film and TV several times now, it is still Robert Wise’s 1963 version, The Haunting, that towers highest. Nelson Gidding’s script, though more overtly psychological than the novel, remained at least as terrifying, if not more so, while Wise turned Hill House into a shadowy landscape of eerie statues, faces in wallpaper and pounding doors, touching on primal fears that linger long after the movie has finished. A very worthy adaptation of a ghostly classic.

Though Robert Bloch denied that he was inspired by the Ed Gein murders of 1957, there were distinct similarities between fiction and reality when his legendary novel, Psycho, was published in 1959. Both Gein and Norman Bates were dominated by their puritanical mothers and both wore the deceased old ladies’ clothing while sexually murdering young women in the Midwest back-country. The book, which was seen as straightforward slasher, wasn’t especially controversial on publication, but when Alfred Hitchcock’s movie version came out in 1960, many thought the thriller maestro was lowering his own tone, and reviews were mixed. However, in a short time it came to be seen as a masterful horror film, filled with twists and intense shocks. Joseph Stefano’s script stayed mainly loyal to the novel, with the exception of a few adjustments, the main one of which saw Bates transformed from a fat, middle-aged drunk to a handsome young man in order to accommodate star Anthony Perkins.

Ira Levin’s chilling 1967 novel, Rosemary’s Baby is often credited with spawning the horror boom of the 1970s, but even if that isn’t quite true, it certainly kick-started the interest in Satanic horror that would come to dominate that era. One of the best-selling novels of the 1960s, it follows the misfortunes of a young housewife, who moves with her underachieving actor husband into a New York apartment building and finds herself drawing the attention of a diabolist cult, which soon seems to comprise almost everyone she knows. Newly pregnant, she fears that the cult wants her child for a Satanic sacrifice, but in truth their designs are far worse. Roman Polanski’s movie version of 1968 was an exemplary adaptation, Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes in the lead roles, and the director going all out to create as realistic a picture of slow-burning domestic terror as possible, but at the same time asking searching questions about religion, paranoia and the role of women and mothers in modern society.

Actor David Pinner’s now mostly-forgotten tale of rural horror, Ritual, published in 1967, would find its way to movie adaptation within six years, but the eventual film made from it would be unrecognisable. In the book, a priggish young police detective investigates a ritualistic child-murder in an isolated and underprivileged Cornish village, soon uncovering evidence that a pagan ceremony is being planned, which will culminate in a major and no doubt very bloody event on Midsummer’s Eve. To start with, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, which was made in 1973, relocated the tale to the Outer Hebrides, and cast a devout uniformed officer in the lead, but those were only two of innumerable changes, the biggest of which is the ending, which is completely different. In truth, it’s an adaptation in name rather than reality – only a hint of the original concept remaining, screenwriter Anthony Shaffer having evolved a totally new story when Hardy and star, Christopher Lee, decided that the novel was unfilmable. (Check HERE for one of my much fuller book reviews).

First published in 1971William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist raised the bar for literary horror quite dramatically. Based loosely on an alleged real exorcism in Maryland in 1949, when Jesuit priests apparently rid a young boy of demonic forces, it tells the disturbing story of a possession in Georgetown in the early 1970s, the victim a little girl called Regan McNeil, the daughter of an atheist who nevertheless calls on the Catholic Church for help. If the novel wasn’t controversial enough, the 1973 movie, directed by William Freidkin and written by Blatty himself, was all that and more, facing charges of blasphemy, obscenity etc in its gruelling portrayal of an exhausting battle against a new level of on-screen evil. Both book and film are now regarded as horror classics, though purists claim the film comes second in that it depicts the exorcism as ending fairly quickly rather than lasting months, and because, unlike the book, it fails to the nail down the personality of Pazuzu, the demon infesting young Regan. 

Horror legend Richard Matheson got in on the haunted house act in 1971, with Hell House. Treading a path familiar to ghost novel fans, but still an excellent read, it concerns a band of psychic investigators who are hired by a rich but terminally ill man to crack the secret of life after death, and so enter the infamous Belasco house, reputedly the most haunted house in Maine, now called ‘Hell House’ because of the evil deeds performed there by Emeric Belasco, a former owner who has since vanished. They consider themselves up to the task, but one by one are undermined by a cruel influence that picks at their deepest insecurities. John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House, released in 1973, scripted by Matheson himself, moved the action to England, toned down the sexual shenanigans from the original novel, skimped a little on the characters and ended everything rather abruptly. However, both book and film were much lauded for the deep sense of foreboding they instilled in readers and viewers alike.

Another big haunted house novel followed in 1973, when Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings was published. It sees the Rolfes, a middle-class New York family, take a rented home far upstate during a hot summer. The once luxurious country house is available at a bargain price as the Allerdyces, the oddball owners, explain that their ageing mother will remain all summer in her attic apartment, and though she’ll need to be fed three times a day, the family will otherwise have no contact with her. However, once they’re installed, the newcomers are each haunted by different things: weirdness in the house itself, and personal demons of their own. It was filmed in 1976, directed by Dan Curtis from a script he co-wrote with William F Nolan, and starred an impressive cast: Bette Davies, Karen Black and Oliver Reed. Rural California became the new location for the tale, but otherwise it stuck close to the original narrative – until near the end, at which point there is a new big twist, which in my view improves on the novel.

Peter Benchley’s best-seller, Jaws, came out in early 1974, and thanks to the massive publicity drive almost single-handedly gave birth to the summer blockbuster. It was derived from a real-life horror in 1916, when a great white shark attacked and killed swimmers along the Jersey Shore, updating the tale and setting it on fictional Amity Island, where the local mayor’s debts to the Mafia mean that he must keep the beaches open all summer despite continuous attacks by a rogue great white, at the same time ignoring the warnings of the local police chief. Stephen Spielberg turned the hit novel into a hit movie in 1975, but made many changes, ditching a purposeless infidelity subplot, removing the Mafia, and consciously making all the characters more likeable. Even Quint, the anti-heroic shark-hunter – in the novel a taciturn Ahab rip-off – becomes a vengeance-seeking survivor of the Indianapolis disaster, and a truly memorable character. It’s not often the film is better than the book, but this is one clear instance. 

Stephen King initially had no faith in his first published novel, Carrie, which hit the shelves in 1974, though it became a massive success and is today one of the USA’s most discussed and certainly most-banned popular novels. It is written in epistolary style but pulls no punches in its grim tale of miserable high school student, Carrie White, a 16-year-old frump, whose old-fashioned clothes and Christian fundamentalist mother attract much mockery, but who harbours secret telekinetic powers, and after suffering a particularly cruel prank, unleashes them to destroy the entire town. The biggest difference in Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, written by Lawrence Cohen, is that big finale: in the movie, Carrie’s revenge finishes at the high school gates, but in the book it goes much further. The casting of glamorous 26-year-old Sissy Spacek in the lead raised a few eyebrows but her performance was faultless, matched only by Piper Laurie, who played her nasty but tragic mother. One thing the book lacked, of course, was that killer ending under the ‘For Sale’ sign.

Salem’s Lot, published in 1975, was Stephen King’s second novel. It remains perhaps the most straightforward and easily accessible of the maestro’s epic horror tales, and concerns an isolated New England town which, though it has various problems beneath its quaint surface, lives day to day in peaceful fashion until it is gradually and discreetly overtaken by a clutch of traditional, blood-drinking vampires. The famous ‘TV movie’ version of 1979 possesses great moments, but a lesser known TV version also arrived in 2004, starring Rob Lowe and Donald Sutherland, changing the atmosphere of the story by presenting Salem’s Lot as a rundown ‘methland’ and hero Ben Mears, a novelist in the original, as a journalist returning from war, who is now reviled thanks to having turned in some US soldiers for war crimes. The later version ramps up the horror massively on the 1979 version, which almost feels like a 12 certificate in comparison, but though it makes a compelling drama, it’s still not a patch on the novel.  

The Shining, published in 1977, established Stephen King as one of the world’s leading horror authors. It tells the iconic tale of the Torrance family – recovering alcoholic, Jack, his spirited wife, Wendy, and their son, Danny, who has ESP – whose winter-long stint as caretakers at the remote Overlook hotel in the Colorado Rockies goes slowly wrong as a succession of malign spirits commence driving the father mad. The book is terrifying, and rightly regarded as a horror classic. However, when Stanley Kubrick adapted it in 1980, King was disappointed with the outcome, particularly Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance as a man who is already distinctly odd and Shelley Duvall’s portrayal of Wendy as a dull, slightly dim-witted housewife, while others have complained that much of the original plot-line was also unnecessarily omitted. Defenders of the film point to Kubrick’s habit of stripping narratives down to the bare essentials, and to the many wickedly spooky touches of his own that he adds to the demonic mix. 

Audience appreciation of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story, The Woman in Black, first published in 1983, is often coloured by the very OTT 2012 movie version, which filled the narrative with jump-shocks and relied heavily on special effects and theatrical grotesquerie. The original novel was a much more subtle tale, following the experiences of Arthur Kipps, a young Edwardian-era lawyer charged with sorting out the affairs of deceased widow, Alice Drablow, whose home, Eel Marsh House, stands empty on an island off England’s bleak northeast coast, only to arrive there alone and find himself at the mercy of a fearsome female spectre. The 1989 British TV version, directed by Herbert Wise and written by the great Nigel Kneale, was much more faithful to the novel, though it changed the ending slightly, evoking the mist and dreariness of the landscape, the austere ordinariness of the house and calling on a phantom that only occasionally appears but when it does, is spine-chilling, to create an air of sustained supernatural evil.    

William Peter Blatty didn’t initially want to write a sequel to The Exorcist in book form but was finally persuaded when a script he had penned for original director, William Friedkin, was discarded. In 1983 he turned it into the novel, Legion, using the opportunity to completely ignore the terrible Exorcist II: The Heretic, to tell the story of an horrific serial murder case in Georgetown some 20 years after the Regan MacNeil possession, though the same cop from the original, Lt. Kinderman, eventually links the two together. Blatty muses much on religion and philosophy in this clever, literary chiller, and does his best to carry it over into the movie version, Exorcist III, which he wrote and directed in 1990, though in a notorious incident, a much more garish finale was forced on him by the production company, who felt that the ending, as it was, was insufficiently similar to The Exorcist. Blatty was famously unhappy with the result, but it is still a very fine horror movie, with some exceptionally scary and disturbing moments.

Stephen King allegedly wrote Misery, published in 1987, as a metaphor for his struggle with drugs, and whether that is true or not, he certainly poured an awful lot of personal darkness into this intense, claustrophobic novel. It tells the story of Paul Sheldon, a romance writer, who, having killed off his main character, Misery Chastain, is caught in a Colorado snowstorm, which drives his car off the road and leaves him severely injured. When he is rescued by an ex-nurse, Annie Wilkes, who lives nearby, she turns out to be a huge fan of his work, but on learning that Misery has died, holds him prisoner, forcing him to rewrite the book with terror and torture. The 1990 movie version, directed by William Steiner and written by William Goldman, was loyal to the book, although not quite as horrific – the hobbling scene by sledgehammer was a pale imitation of King’s original, in which an axe and a blowtorch were used – but the main talking-point was the chilling performance of Kathy Bates as the madwoman, Annie.   

Thomas Harris wrote his serial killer thriller, Red Dragon, in 1981, to much acclaim, but its sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, followed in 1988, and this one was seen as the bigger achievement. It follows the career path of an FBI trainee as she is pitched into a Midwest murder case and sent to glean the opinion of the notorious Hannibal Lecter, a shrink-turned-serial murderer who is now locked in a high-security mental hospital. Harris won much praise for his unashamed portrayal of the brutal sexism the vulnerable Clarice Starling is exposed to from her fellow law-enforcers, and for the book’s in-depth but quick and readable depiction of FBI procedures, as well as for hitting us with a highly suspenseful, gut-churning narrative. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 movie, written by Ted Tally and starring Jodie Foster and a gleefully maniacal Anthony Hopkins, has now passed into history. Though it skimped on a lot of the novel’s finer detail, it still provided a memorable horror experience, and won a bunch of Oscars into the bargain.

When Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island was published in 2003, the author, so famous for his crime novels, announced that he’d been looking to write something a lot more macabre and Gothic than usual, and that was certainly the result. It’s set in 1954, and sees damaged war veteran turned US Marshall, Ted Daniels, head to Ashecliffe Hospital on Shutter Island. It’s a high security facility for the criminally insane, but now a notorious inmate has escaped, and Daniels is charged with investigating the case. He also plans to use his visit to get even with the killer of his wife, Andrew Laeddis, who was incarcerated there two years ago. But on arrival, Daniels finds many more mysteries than he expected, and widespread use of illegal psychotropic drugs, which is creating a nightmarish environment for the inmates. Martin Scorcese adapted it in 2010 and with Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead, it was an inevitable smash, regally retaining the novel’s deep atmosphere of creeping psychological horror.

The Terror, by Dan Simmons, was published in 2007, and at 900+ pages, provided its readers with a mammoth task. The general consensus, however, is that it’s worth every word. It uses a real-life mystery – what happened to the Royal Navy’s exploration ships, the Terror and the Erebus in their 1845 quest to open the Northwest Passage? – to spin a terrifying but exhilarating historical yarn, filled with both the natural horrors of the wild Arctic and the darkest terrors of Inuit mythology, and will surely, in time, be seen as one of literature’s great supernatural thrillers. At such an enormous length, and containing virtually no padding, it never seemed possible that such a book could find a satisfactory home on film, until 2018, when David Kajganich developed a 10-episode TV series for AMC. A superbly written and directed adaptation, crammed with top-quality TV talent and staying faithful to nearly all the salient characters and plot points in the novel, it made for an unforgettable viewing experience. (Check HERE for one of my much fuller book reviews).

One of the great achievements of Adam Nevill’s 2011 novel, The Ritual, was the sheer terror it generated and sustained over 400 pages, despite a deceptively simple story-line. It sees four ex-college friends, Brits from different backgrounds, reunite for a hike through an extensive tract of Swedish forest. Things have now changed in the group since the old days, one key character, Luke, feeling less than the others because he has failed at life. However, these minor issues are sidelined when the guys get lost, find a macabre pagan temple, and then are pursued through the endless woods by a grotesque beast, which kills them one by one. David Bruckner’s 2017 movie version made several big changes, adding a robbery/murder subplot and replacing the black metal band who live on the fringes of the wood with a forgotten village of inbred and mutated Odin-worshippers. It still worked well, but I preferred the monster in the book, which Nevill describes to us through drip-feed glimpses, and which attacks with elemental ferocity.


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.

ed. by Ellen Datlow (2018)

Widely esteemed editor, Ellen Datlow, the creator of innumerable top-class horror anthologies, finally turns her informed gaze to the ocean. The result is this hugely imaginative and varied collection of chilling tales set around and beneath the sea. 

First of all, rather than outline each contribution on a blow-by-blow basis, I’ll let the official Night Shade blurb prepare the ground, as that nicely hints at the salt-scented horrors you can expect.

Stranded on a desert island, a young man yearns for objects from his past. A local from a small coastal town in England is found dead as the tide goes out. A Norwegian whaling ship is stranded in the Arctic, its crew threatened by mysterious forces. In the nineteenth century, a ship drifts in becalmed waters in the Indian Ocean, those on it haunted by their evil deeds. A surfer turned diver discovers there are things worse than drowning under the sea. Something from the sea is creating monsters on land.

In The Devil and the Deep, award-winning editor Ellen Datlow shares an all-original anthology of horror that covers the depths of the deep blue sea, with brand new stories from New York Times bestsellers and award-winning authors such as Seanan McGuire, Christopher Golden, Stephen Graham Jones, and more.

I’ve always been a lover of the sea. I sail it whenever I can, I poke around its edges, I delve beneath the surface. Its legends, of course, are utterly fascinating, not to mention chilling. Even without them, it would be easy to imagine unspeakable horrors lurking in the fathomless gloom of the deep. No wonder the ocean has hit us with so many tales of ghosts, monsters, mermaids, lost cities, sunken wrecks. With all that in mind, how could I resist this particular anthology, especially as it had been put together by one of my favourite editors?

So … did it live up to my expectations?

In so many ways, yes. That said, its diversity of non-conventional themes also caught me a little by surprise, though it really shouldn’t have done. Ellen Datlow is a horror editor of eclectic tastes. I should have expected from the outset that she’d be less interested in Hodgson-type tales of krakens and gillmen, or sci-fiey trips into the abyss to uncover lost extraterrestrial artefacts, instead preferring much more intellectual and thought-provoking concepts.

Such as Siobhan Carroll’s Haunt, wherein an 18th century cargo ship is damaged by a monsoon and then haunted by the spectral form of a slaver, its crew picked off one by one, even those who regret their former involvement in the infamous trade. Or Ray Cluley’s The Whalers Song, in which a Norwegian whaling vessel is holed below the waterline and its crew washed up on a desolate, mysterious shore, which is strewn as far as the eye can see with the bones of sea-going mammals.

I think it could be argued that not all the stories are essentially connected to the sea. Simon Bestwick’s straightforward and very well-written Deadwater, which follows the fortunes of a habour-side waitress and her determination to investigate the drowning death of her depressed friend, is more about people than the ocean, though the author’s neat prose and ever-perceptive analysis of damaged relationships (not to mention his mischievous and highly effective use of unreliable narrative) creates a fine opening entry for the book.

Even more removed from the roaring reefs and abyssal depths is Bradley Denton’s A Ship of the South Wind, which at first glance is a bit of a cheat as it’s set amid the oceans of grass on America’s great plains of the 19th century and derives from frontier tales about so-called ‘wind wagons’, which allegedly saw pioneers of the Old West attach sails to their wheeled rigs in order to enable swifter travel across the prairie (though there was a real ocean there once too, we are also reminded). Though perhaps the most ambiguous of all the stories in The Devil and the Deep, and the one least concerned with the physical reality of our oceans, is Stephen Graham Jones’ entertaining curiosity Broken Record, in which a shipwrecked traveller is stranded on a comic-strip desert island, and the only ten things he is able to salvage are the ten essential items he was asked to make a list of when he was a child. There isn’t a great deal of horror in this one, but it’s certainly a head-trip.

All that said, this antho is not entirely po-faced and deadly serious. Michael Marshall Smith plays it for laughs (a little of the schoolboy variety, it has to be said) in Shit Happens, the tale of an executive jamboree on the Queen Mary, which finds itself disrupted by a zombie/cannibal outbreak.

At the same time, other stories lean more towards the traditional. Fodder’s Jig by Lee Thomas and What My Mother Left Me by Alyssa Wong concern themselves with monsters, though in unexpected, atypical ways, even though the former touches a little on the Chthuhlu mythos and the latter is a rumination on the legend of the selkie.

There are ghosts too, of a sort. Not just in Haunt, but in Terry Dowling’s The Tryal Attract, which sees an Aussie suburbanite learn a terrible truth from a sea-scoured skull in the upstairs back room of a neighbour’s house, and much more subtly in Steve Rasnic Tem’s achingly sad Saudade, wherein a recently-made widower takes a sea-cruise for senior singles, but, though he initially can’t overcome his grief and longing for the life he has lost, then meets a dangerously alluring woman.

But is there much in the way of real terror to be found here? Is this anthology deserving of the horror shelf? This is a question I need to answer, because some online critics have made the accusation that The Devil and the Deep simply isn’t scary enough.

Well … horror is often in the eye of the beholder when it comes to fiction. As I stated earlier, Ellen Datlow hasn’t opted to include anything too obviously of the schlock school, but that doesn’t mean the nerves don’t jangle now and then.

The Curious Allure of the SeaThe Deep Sea Swell and He Sings of Salt and Wormwood, by Christopher Golden, John Langan and Brian Hodge respectively (and more about these three later), are all built on very disturbing notions, while Seanan McGuire’s Sister, Dearest SisterLet Me Show You Down to the Sea and AC Wise’s A Moment Before Breaking both concern vengeance from the depths, and are distinctly dark at heart, so you don’t get an easy ride from either of those.

At the end of the day, those who read short horror fiction widely, will know Ellen Datlow’s work well, and can be assured that The Devil and the Deep is exactly the sort of book they would probably expect from her, filled with high quality fiction, and boasting a wide range of subjects and a compelling line-up of very accomplished authors, each doing their bit to ensure that you’ll never run blithely into the waves again.

And now …


Just a bit of fun, this part. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

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 readers, 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 connected to various items available in a seaside trinket shop (as in a nautical version of From Beyond the Grave) or are marooned on a fogbound cruise-ship and forced to listen to each other’s fortunes as read by a mysterious sea-dog with a pack of cards (in an oceanic version of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

The Deep Sea Swell (by John Langan): American tourist, Susan, visits Scotland, her husband’s homeland, but is terrified when the ferry they take for a trip across the Hebridean seas hits a winter storm, and even more so when the water-filled suit of a long dead deep-range diver is washed aboard, animated by an eerie life of its own …
Susan – Emma Stone

Fodder’s Jig (by Lee Thomas): In Galveston, a wealthy man comes out of the closet and, to the chagrin of his family, announces his love for a younger guy. At the same time, a series of globsters, hideous lumps of rotting flesh, float inshore, infecting people with a bizarre virus, which causes them first to dance and then to march down to the sea, where a ghastly date with destiny awaits them …
George Caldwell – Colm Meaney
George’s Beau – Sean Faris

He Sings of Salt and Wormwood (by Brian Hodge): Competitive surfer and free-diver Danny is recuperating from injury with artist girlfriend, Gail, in a clifftop cottage on the Oregon coast; it’s an idyllic existence until the serenity is broken by the arrival onshore of carved wooden effigies. They appear to resemble Gail, and have clearly been created deep under the waves …
Danny – Daniel Dae Kim
Gail – Carey Mulligan

The Curious Allure of the Sea (by Christopher Golden): Jenny is left grief-stricken when her father is lost at sea. But when she finds a curiously-marked stone in his empty boat and has its oceanic spiral pattern tattooed on her flesh as a memento, she becomes an object of weird unexplained fascination to all around her. Birds, animals, people, fishes. Even the dead …
Jenny – Natalie Alyn Lind

Sunday 10 March 2019

Grotesque secrets of the DEATH HOUSE

I have some exciting news today for anyone who enjoys my Lucy Clayburn novels. As you may know, the next one in the series, STOLEN, is out in May. But in case you can’t wait until then, a Lucy Clayburn e-story, DEATH HOUSE, is now available on Amazon, and it will be FREE for this coming week. If you fancy downloading it, you’ll also get the first few chapters of STOLEN thrown in. 

Scroll down a bit for some more info on that.

Also today, I thought it might be fun to draw up a list of my top 25 book-to-movie crime/thriller adaptations, and to add a little bit of text in each case, to explain why I’ve picked them. Check through it to see what you think, and don’t hesitate to suggest any titles that I might have missed.

And in addition to all that – because it’s a real treat, today’s blog – I’ll be reviewing and discussing the always inimitable James Lee Burke’s border noir crime novel par excellence, RAIN GODS.

If you’re only here for the JLB review, you’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s post. Jump straight down there and enjoy. However, if you’ve got a bit more time, perhaps you’ll be interested in some of the other stuff first. Either way, the choice is yours.

Death House

So … onto this week’s free gift, assuming you’re interested in that sort of thing.

DEATH HOUSE was a short story that I originally penned when STRANGERS, the first Lucy Clayburn novel, was published in 2016. It has appeared in print before, but only in a special edition of STRANGERS that was sold through Sainsbury’s. As only relatively few readers are likely to have read it, and the chances of getting hold of one of those special Sainsbury’s books must now be pretty damn slim, I thought we could celebrate the approaching publication of the third novel in the series by making this free-standing short story available to everyone else.

I repeat that DEATH HOUSE is a short story rather than a novel or novella, but it concerns an impromptu investigation that Lucy launches when a uniformed PC is called to a sudden death in a run-down Manchester council house and finds something that rather disturbs him.

I won’t reveal any more about it now, except to reiterate that it will also include the first three chapters of STOLEN, the next Lucy Clayburn novel, and that it’s completely FREE from tomorrow, Monday March 11, until Friday March 15 (after which it goes up to 99p). So, get in quickly. Follow the link, and DEATH HOUSE is yours.

Epic cases of book-to-film

Crime and thriller movies, eh! Who doesn’t love them?

The genre’s been through so many incarnations over the years – from those intense and moody noirs of the ’40s and ’50s, to the Cold War spy-fests of the ’60s, to the political conspiracies of the ’70s, to the ’80s action blockbusters, to the ‘real life’ organised crime sagas of the ’90s, to those lower-key domestic mysteries of the 2000s.

Yet, what is often overlooked by cinema audiences is that many of these, if not nearly all, were based on or derived from original novels. In some cases, there’ve been countless deviations from the plot lines the book-writers produced, while others have remained completely faithful to the text. Some are hugely well-known as having come from novels, but then others so overshadowed the original works that the book and even the author are now long-forgotten.

The same also applies to television. We’ve had some remarkable TV crime in the past, and yet a lot of it was initially published in novel form.

So, without further messing about, here – in chronological order, rather than in any order of preference – are my Top 25 Film and/or TV Crime/Thriller adaptations. I’ve not based these choices specifically on the quality of the original book, or the quality of the film or TV that resulted, but on the overall package the public received from both book and film combined, and from the lasting impression that these great works of entertainment art, now existing in two separate halves rather than one whole, have made.

Inevitably, there’ll be some omissions, so feel free to chip in with any ideas of your own. In addition to that, there are only so many items I can include, so, for the sake of brevity, I’m restricting my choices to English-language material, which unfortunately means that I must exclude foreign originals like Celle qui n’etait plus (Pierre Boileau), filmed as Les Diaboliques, and even some English language originals that were later adapted in other languages, such as Edgar Wallace’s early masterpiece, Dark Eyes of London, filmed in in German, rather marvellously, as Die toten Augen von London (giving Klaus Kinski one of his best early roles). And I am purposely not considering ‘true crime’ classics, even if they later received glorious movie treatment, so the likes of Wiseguy (Nicholas Pileggi, later filmed as Goodfellas), and Zodiac (Robert Graysmith) don’t make the cut either. It’s also the case that long-running book series, which spawned long-running TV shows will also – again for reasons of conciseness – need to be left out; so that means that I’ve sadly got no room for legends like Holmes, Morse, Banks, Wexford, Hill et al. Sorry about that, guys, but we have to have a limit somewhere.

Anyway, here are my Top 25 Crime/Thriller Books-to-Film …
Dashiell Hammett needs no introduction to crime fans, but in 1930 his novel The Maltese Falcon was a big departure from what he’d been doing up to that point, in that it featured a named central character, Sam Spade, a PI in San Francisco. That said, all the traditional boxes were still ticked, Spade hired by a femme fatale to track down her missing sister but finding himself framed for murder and then pitched into the complex hunt for a mysterious but allegedly priceless statuette. Several film adaptations have followed, but the third of these, written and directed by John Huston in 1941 and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Gladys George, is the one best remembered. Even though it shed much of the sexual implication that dogged earlier productions, it remains a film noir classic.

Graham Greene wrote Brighton Rock in 1938 and would probably be staggered to learn that it’s almost as pertinent now as it was then. It follows the career of Pinkie Brown, an unstable teenager and gangland wannabe, who controls various low-key rackets in pre-war Brighton, but starts to come unstuck when he murders an old rival. More than just a thriller, the author musing much on sin and damnation, it still caught the public’s imagination as a British noir and was adapted a couple of times for stage before hitting the big screen in 1947. Written by Terence Rattigan (and Greene) and directed by the Boulting Brothers, the film saw Richard Attenborough playing against type but still giving a spellbinding performance as the young hoodlum. The movie remains close to the novel for much of the story but takes a more psychological slant than moral.

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s classic novel of ‘who dies next’ was originally published in 1939 under a different title, which we won’t repeat here to avoid offending modern sensibilities (though in the States it was Ten Little Indians), and tells the ingenious tale of eight strangers who are lured to a house on an island just off the Devon coast, where one by one, they are mysteriously murdered. There have been numerous adaptations to date, but one of the best came as a three-part TV serial from the BBC in 2015. Written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Craig Viveiros, it starred an ensemble cast, including Charles Dance, Sam Neill, Toby Stephens and Miranda Richardson, pitching them into a more nightmarish than usual version of the famous tale, evoking a near-horror atmosphere. 

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler was published in 1939 and introduced the novel-reading world to private eye Philip Marlowe, who, in this first outing, is sent to track down a wild-living young daughter of Los Angeles high society, and finds himself enmeshed in a web of drugs, pornography and blackmail. An archetypal character in crime fiction now, Marlowe was forever immortalised by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ 1946 movie version (scripted by William Faulkner, among others), which thanks to its tough talk and hardboiled atmosphere, and of course Lauren Bacall smouldering as only she could (giving it a bit more than usual, in fact, to get around the restrictions of the Hays Code), is now regarded as one of the quintessential movie noirs.

Influenced by the miseries of the Great Depression, and the true story of serial killer, Harry Powell, fantasist and horror writer Davis Grubb penned one of the greatest crime novels ever in 1953The Night of the Hunter drew heavily on the Southern Gothic tradition in its depiction of a murderous criminal, who, on his release from jail, sets out to steal money from the family of an executed cellmate, adopting the guise of a travelling preacher in the process, and becoming a figure of terror to the dead con’s children. Charles Laughton famously started and ended his directorial career with his 1955 movie version, neither audiences nor critics taking to his ‘German expressionist’ style, but it provided career-defining roles for Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters and in time came rightly to be considered a masterpiece.

John D MacDonald’s incredibly tense 1957 suspense novel, The Executioners, might not sound familiar today, but the synopsis will likely ring a bell, with hero Sam Bowden, a liberal-minded army officer, whose evidence sent Private Max Cady to prison for rape, forced to defend his family violently when, 14 years later, Cady is released, tracks his nemesis down on civie street and commences a campaign of increasingly vicious harassment. When director Lee J Thompson and writer Jim Webb brought it to the screen in 1962, as Cape Fear, the censors demanded many changes. Cady was no longer a rapist, while the military background was expunged entirely. However, the terror remained, with Gregory Peck perfectly cast as the family man struggling to fight off Robert Mitchum’s evil psycho. 

In 1959, Ian Fleming penned Goldfinger, his 7th James Bond novel. To many, the 007 books are badly flawed, often filled with plot-holes, and Goldfinger is not problem-free in this regard. Bond’s pursuit of crooked metallurgist, Auric Goldfinger, on M’s instruction, is deemed a big coincidence given that he opens the novel blackmailing Goldfinger in Miami on behalf of a friend, while later on, the scheme to steal the US gold reserve from Fort Knox has been derided as ludicrous. However, Guy Hamilton’s 1964 film, the 3rd in the series, improves on much of this, altering the plan to the ruination of the Fort Knox gold by detonation of a dirty bomb (thus inflating the value of the villain’s own reserve), and by moving Goldfinger from SMERSH to SPECTRE. It also benefits from Shirley Bassey’s thumping rendition of one of the great movie theme songs.  

Len Deighton smashed his way into Cold War fiction in 1962, with his novel, The IPCRESS File, giving us a complex, intelligent spy thriller in which an anonymous British Intelligence officer presents a report to the MoD, detailing his investigation into a double-agent’s plan to kidnap and sell high-ranking VIPs to the KGB. It’s a lesson in spy-school suspense but the antithesis of Bond, imbued with Soviet-era greyness. Sydney Furie’s 1965 movie adaptation, The Ipcress File, was smart enough to retain this gloomy atmosphere, but by necessity, especially with Michael Caine on board, the unknown operative had to be given a fuller personality, and so ex-thief ‘Harry Palmer’ was born, a name allegedly suggested by Caine himself, though at one point in the book, the hero muses that his name might once have been ‘Harry’. 

Crime correspondent Arthur La Bern was also a prolific writer of crime fiction, but he’s largely unknown today except possibly for Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, published in 1966. Set in the late 40s, it focuses on ex-RAF ‘candle-dropper’ Richard Blamey, who deals with his guilt about bombing Dresden by drinking heavily. Meanwhile, a ‘necktie killer’ is terrorising West London. When the evidence points to Blamey, he is unable to provide a coherent defence, even though we know he isn’t guilty. Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, made in 1970, diverted significantly from the original, the most problematic change being the late 60s setting, which made the casting of Jon Finch (then 28) as a WWII ace seem ridiculous. However, the film packs incredible tension and several grim set-pieces that have passed into thriller history.

In 1966, Roderick Thorp’s The Detective gave us a classy if somewhat belated noir, introducing us to New York private eye, Joe Leland, a WWII vet enlisted to investigate the apparent suicide of an old friend, a quest which leads him into a world of corruption and murder. The movie version of the same name, released in 1968, was directed by Gordon Douglas, written by Abby Mann, and cast Frank Sinatra in the lead, though it played fast and loose with the original narrative, making Leland a police detective rather than a PI and taking advantage of the new permissive society to hit us with blunt dialogue, including much candid cop-talk, and taboo subject-matter; homosexuality had never been as frankly dealt with in a movie prior to this. Sinatra, 53 at the time, is generally considered to have graced it with his career-best performance.

Author Gordon Williams entered the public consciousness in 1969, not so much for writing the successful novel, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, but for his loud denunciation of the controversial movie, starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, that followed. In Williams’ book, an American scholar and his English wife and daughter move to a cottage in Cornwall. However, the American doesn’t fit in with the locals, and when he offers refuge to an escaped child-killer, unaware of his past, a mob forms and the mild-mannered intellectual becomes a brutal defender of his home. Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 version, Straw Dogs, removed the young child and savagely (and infamously) sexualised an attack on the hero’s wife, adding a much darker dimension to the story. However, the subtext remained, and Peckinpah’s trademark ‘visually poetic’ violence elevated it into a massive hit.

Mario Puzo’s seminal The Godfather, published in 1969, became a global phenomenon in terms of sales, and is still credited with introducing English-speaking crime readers for the first time to the inner workings of the Mafia. It was set in the States, of course, following the fortunes of a fictional Mafia family, the Coreleones, headed up by Don Vito and his two sons, Sonny and Michael, and examining the brutal wars they engage in with rival families in New York in the years after World War II. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 movie version is equally celebrated as an iconic piece of work. It made the names of Al Pacino, James Caan and Diane Keaton, and offered Marlon Brando one of his juiciest roles. The two equally lauded spin-offs, though Puzo was involved with them, were only partially derived from the original novel.

As the optimism of the 1960s ended, a darker, grimmer age of violence and cynicism dawned, ushered in in 1970 by Ted Lewis’s ground-breaking British crime novel, Jack’s Return Home. Often regarded as the birth of Brit-Grit (British noir with a hardboiled edge), its tale of a London racketeer heading back to his north-country home to avenge the death of his non-criminal brother is in itself a gangland classic, but it was done in so bleak and seedy a fashion that it made a much bigger impact on publication than anyone expected. The Mike Hodges movie that followed, Get Carter, released in 1971, starring Michael Caine and a host of old reliables, though it deviated here and there from the original narrative, remained largely loyal and the few changes it made were improvements (Scunthorpe to Newcastle, for example). It remains revered to this day. (Check HERE for one of my much fuller book reviews)

Frederick Forsyth was already an experienced war correspondent, and something of a maverick when, in 1971, he wrote his debut novel, The Day of the Jackal. Inspired by the real-life attempted assassination of General de Gaulle by a disenchanted French air force officer in 1962 in retaliation for the Algerian truce (which Forsyth reported on), it revisited but reimagined the incident, this time with an anonymous British contract killer hired by an extreme right-wing branch of the French Secret Service. Though publishers were initially wary, the book rocketed on sale, and a film was inevitable. It followed in 1973, directed by Fred Zinneman but starring the then relatively unknown Edward Fox. An unusual degree of cooperation from the French authorities during filming, granting never-before access to government offices and such, ensured that it would have a completely authentic feel.

US author Morton Freedgood might not be familiar today, and is probably better known by his pseudonym, John Godey. In 1972, he published a novel that is also little-known in the modern age, The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome. It was a curiosity, to be honest, not especially well-written according to some purists, but it told the intriguing story of a disfigured jail-bird who undergoes facial reconstruction as part of his rehab, only to then assume a new identity and plot an elaborate million-dollar heist. Its 40s/50s tone was jettisoned in 1989, when Walter Hill remade it as an action-packed New Orleans revenge thriller, retitled Johnny Handsome. An outstanding cast – Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Morgan Freeman and Forest Whitaker – elevated it way above the norm, but Ry Cooder’s intensely moody Cajun score was the main winner. 

In 1972, David Morrell was inspired by Vietnam vets he met to write First Blood, in which the simply-named ‘Rambo’, a former spec ops soldier, now homeless, is mistreated by a sheriff in backwoods Kentucky, arrested on trumped-up charges, and when he escapes into the hills, commences a life-or-death battle with the pursuing authorities. It was tautly written and tough as nails, pulling no punches in the numbers of lawmen who die hunting the deadly fugitive. A movie adaptation was inevitable but languished in development hell for years until 1982, when Sly Stallone’s star-power pushed it into production, though this also led to a softening of the tale. There are fewer killings, the re-named ‘John Rambo’ is more of a misunderstood hero, and the ending is a tad more upbeat. Like the book, however, it is widely held to be an action-thriller classic. 

Back to John Godey again now, aka Mortoon Freedgood, who was nothing if not prolific during his heyday of the 50s, 60s and 70s. His 1973 hardcase crime classic, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, was both cruel and ingenious in its depiction of a disparate band of professional criminals and their hijacking of a New York subway train, their intention to execute one passenger per minute if the Mayor doesn’t pay them a $1 million ransom within one hour. The first movie version, which remains the paciest and most suspenseful, came from Joseph Sargent in 1974, with a script by Peter Stone that was tight as a corkscrew, and cast Robert Shaw as the British ex-SAS leader of the gang, and Walter Mathau as the cop out to thwart him. No wonder it couldn’t fail.

‘Is it safe?’ A phrase burned into the thriller fan’s consciousness thanks to William Goldman’s superb 1974 novel, Marathon Man. A pacy conspiracy, it centres on Tom Levy, a student at Columbia University, who is training to run the New York Marathon at the same time as trying to clear the name of his late father, whose academic career was ruined by McCarthyism. If that isn’t tough enough, Tom then gets drawn into the machinations of his older brother, ‘Doc’, a CIA agent currently handling Christian Szell, an old Nazi informer living in Paraguay, but planning to steal the German’s ill-gotten wealth when he comes to the US. John Schlesinger’s 1976 movie version stuck close to the novel, including the ‘is it safe?’ torture scene, and starred Dustin Hoffman and Roy Scheider, though Laurence Olivier stole the show as the maniacal old war criminal.

In the years after Watergate, US thrillers were much concerned with illegal operations by government departments, and James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor, published in 1974, was a prime example. It concerns a CIA bookworm whose job is basically to pinch good ideas from spy novels, but who one days finds all his colleagues murdered. As he flees the killers, he tries to work out who is doing this and why, soon turning up evidence that a rogue CIA unit is covering its tracks. Sydney Pollack’s 1975 movie version, Three Days of the Condor, combined politically active star-power in the guise of Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, and that mid-70s paranoia about government dirty tricks that we’ve already mentioned to create a box-office slammer. Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel’s screenplay won many awards. 

The Troubles in Northern Ireland may seem like history now, but in 1978 they were very current indeed, so what a time it was for Gerald Seymour’s taut thriller, Harry’s Game, to hit the shelves. It follows the hunt for an IRA sniper in Belfast after a cabinet minister is assassinated, with undercover British Army officer, Harry Brown (also an Ulsterman), the agent charged with this most difficult task. Its ultra-realistic portrayal of a shattered community was unforgiving, and this continued when Seymour adapted his own novel as a mini-series for Yorkshire Television in 1982, presenting a warts-and-all picture of the crisis-torn state, from which neither side comes up smelling of roses. TV star, Ray Lonnen, who tended to specialise in secret agent roles, was rock-solid and totally believable in the titular lead.

Roderick Thorp waited a decade to write a sequel to The Detective, giving us Nothing Lasts Forever in 1979, again featuring retired NY detective Joe Leland, but this time adopting a radically different tone, sending the laconic hero to the Klaxon Oil Corporation skyscraper in LA, where he awaits his daughter while she attends a Christmas Eve party. When a bunch of German terrorists takes everyone hostage, Leland resists them, playing cat and mouse through the building, armed only with a pistol. Incredibly, when John McTieran’s action epic, Die Hard, commenced production in 1987, an initial proposal was made that Frank Sinatra should star, thus to reprise his role from the 1968 original, but given that he was then 73, a wise decision was eventually taken to change the hero’s name and cast 33-year-old Bruce Willis instead.

James Ellroy was already one of the biggest names on the crime novel circuit in 1990, when the stylish LA Confidential was published. Set in 1951, it tells the lurid but compelling tale of three antagonistic LA detectives who join forces to unravel a net of heroin trafficking, prostitution and police corruption. With its combo of sex, drugs and Hollywood, it was a made-to-measure movie from the outset, and when Curtis Hanson’s film came out in 1997, it was nominated for a raft of Academy Awards, Kim Basinger winning her first. Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe didn’t win, but still owe their US careers to it, while Kevin Spacey was pitched into the acting front rank. From such a massive original novel, changes were unavoidable, and the result is a streamlined, condensed version, with several threads lost. But it’s still an awesome watch.

John Grisham’s second novel, The Firm, was published in 1991. It’s the one that put Grisham on the map and is still regarded today as one of the quintessential legal thrillers. It centres on a Harvard law student who joins a Memphis legal firm (having been seduced by the generous offer they make him), only to discover that previous employees have died in unusual circumstances, and when he investigates, that the firm is actually a front for large-scale Mafia tax-fraud and money-laundering. Sydney Pollack’s 1993 movie adaptation is equally well-known, featuring a bravura performance from Tom Cruise as the young guy in crisis – in the era before he was basically Superman! – a host of fine turns from the support cast, and an ending that is very different from and some have said a lot cleverer than the novel.

Journalist William Diehl was already an accomplished novelist when, in 1993, he published the hard-hitting thriller, Primal Fear, in which egocentric Chicago defence attorney, Martin Vail, opts to defend altar boy, Aaron Stampler, when he is accused of murdering an archbishop. It became the first of a trilogy of books setting Vail and Stampler against each other, though the first novel was an event in itself. In 1996, Gregory Hoblit filmed it with Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Edward Norton (whose powerhouse performance made his name). Shot before the Boston Globe revelations about pedophilia in the Catholic Church, the salacious aspects of the tale were toned down, and the archbishop made into a voyeur of consenting adult sex rather than a child-molester. Nevertheless, it remains an intense, gripping thriller.  

In 2012, Gillian’s Flynn’s Gone Girl was published to near-universal acclaim, not just presenting us with a taut mystery-thriller, but deeply penetrating the relationship of its husband-and-wife central characters, psychologically analysing them to a discomforting degree, and in the process, giving birth to what is these days referred to as ‘domestic noir’. The book centres on the strained relationship between Nick and Amy Dunne, whose move to the Midwest for the sake of an ailing relative is the last straw. Amy vanishes, and given that neither have spoken well of each other recently, Nick becomes a key suspect. David Fincher’s movie version of 2014 saw the director stick with Flynn as writer and cast Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Despite the absence of a few plot points, the film remains largely faithful to the book and was a big hit both with audiences and critics alike.


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 James Lee Burke (2009)

In the dusty southwest Texas town of Chapala Crossing, nine young Thai women, prostitutes by trade but double-hatting as drugs mules, are smuggled across the Mexican border and then machine-gunned to death, their mangled corpses bulldozed into the ground behind an abandoned clapboard church.

One of those participating in the atrocity is scar-faced Iraq veteran and full-time loser, Pete Flores – but Pete genuinely thought this would be nothing more than an illegal immigration job and is so horrified when the shooting starts that he flees town, taking level-headed bar-singer girlfriend, Vicki Gaddis, with him. Inadvertently, this puts both of them on the hit-list of whoever it was ordered and/or perpetrated the horrendous crime, and Pete – a kid who never seems to plan anything in advance – has no clue where they can go to find sanctuary, as he strongly suspects that if he calls the cops, he’s already so involved that he’ll finish up on Death Row.

Meanwhile, the corpses are uncovered by veteran lawman, Sheriff Hackberry Holland. We’ve met Hack before in James Lee Burke’s writing. A relative of Billy Bob Holland, who stars in a trio of his own novels, Hack was the central character in another Burke novel, Lay Down My Sword and Shield, but that was set an amazing 38 years prior to this one, when he was a vain young lawyer, hard-drinking, self-centred and much more immature than he is today. Now, in Rain Gods, he’s a lean, taciturn old-timer, hard-bitten by his job but also by the demons that continue to haunt him. He can’t get over the loss of his wife, and at the same time is tortured by memories of his POW days during the Korean War, when he was brutalised into betraying his comrades.

Despite all this, aided by his attractive and spirited deputy, Pam Tibbs, hindered by the aggressive and bullish immigration official, Isaac Clawson , and unsure whether or not to trust his semi-indifferent FBI contact, Ethan Riser, Hack slowly starts to make ground on the case. He forms a theory that the trafficked women were hijacked by someone whose main interest was the balloons of heroin in their bellies – and in the process uncovers a nest of viper-like criminality in this quiet, isolated place were previously nothing ever happened.

The problems for Chapala Crossing really began in 2005, it seems, when Hurricane Katrina swept a whole host of organised crime figures westward out of New Orleans. Without doubt the most dangerous of these is Josef Sholokoff, a Russian Mafia boss who now resides in Phoenix, Arizona, but who still exerts life and death control over a whole range of verminous criminals (and who was also probably the ‘owner’ of the murdered Thai women and the drugs they were importing). Not much further down the scale of evil comes rival and big-time Galveston pimp, Artie Rooney, who could easily have organised the hijack, and his hardcase enforcer, Hugo Cistranos. Then there is Nick Dolan, a more complex character – a casino and strip-club owner but also a restaurateur with a ‘family man’ side to him. Dolan is less obviously a gangster; he even has a characterful and law-abiding wife, Esther. The evidence increasingly suggests that Dolan was involved in the massacre too, but Holland isn’t totally buying it. Dolan feels like a classic fall-guy to him.

The real fly in everyone’s ointment, though, is Jack ‘Preacher’ Collins, a religiously inclined serial killer who rents himself out to the highest bidder as an ultra-ruthless hitman. Collins was almost certainly the shooter in the Thai killings – that’s no spoiler as you come to this conclusion early in the narrative – and now he is put on the trail of everyone else threatening to upset the apple-cart. Collins is a particularly difficult guy to deal with, even for those who are supposedly on his side; though he appears sane, he follows his own obscure rules, and there are times when almost any comment – no matter how innocent – may be taken by him as a provocation. Though he’s a Bible reader, this doesn’t prevent him regarding himself as the literal scourge of God, and a guy who, though self-admittedly ruthless, is always correct in his beliefs and actions. To complete the all-round maniac picture, he dons a fedora and a trench-coat when he’s on the job, and wields an old-fashioned Thompson submachine gun, so he looks more like a bootleg era gangster than a modern-day assassin – and the blazing, multi-round overkill of his attacks only reinforces this.

Holland and Tibbs, meanwhile, find themselves in one high-risk situation after another thanks to two of Rooney’s less intelligent but still very dangerous sidekicks – Bobby Lee Motree and Liam Eriksson. As if that’s not enough, their investigation gains no real assistance from FBI chief, Riser, who doesn’t really care what happens in Texas so long as the case eventually shows him a way to snare the really big fish in this pond, Josef Sholokoff.

Add to this dust-laden devil’s brew Holland and Tibbs’ repressed romantic relationship, which is causing them no end of problems because it’s distracting them both from their work, and you have a pair of local – to a certain extent ‘hick’ – cops who feel increasingly out of their depth.

Meanwhile, Flores and Gaddis remain on the run, moving from one so-called safe place to the next, but Jack Collins and his crew are only ever a couple of steps behind. There have been plenty of killings up to this point; the badlands of South Texas have surely never seemed badder or bloodier than this (hence perhaps, several references to the nearby Alamo!) – but we know in our bones that this situation is likely to get a whole lot worse before it gets better …

Rain Gods pulls James Lee Burke out of the Louisiana bayou, where his more regular hero, Detective Dave Robicheaux, pursues trigger-happy criminals of the swampland variety, and pitches him into the no less picturesque environment of another iconic Deep South back-country, the Texas southwest, where the landscape is barren and drifting with tumbleweed and the towns desolate and windblown. 
Despite this, comparisons between Hack – who now features in three novels, this being the second – and Robicheaux are going to be inevitable, though this is mainly in terms of the central character.
Robicheaux is also an alcoholic loner cop with a hell-raising background. And though younger than Hack, he’s not younger by a great deal. In addition, the two cops share a similar laconic air, and are often lost in introspective musings. 

But, you know … I don’t care.

If you pick up a James Lee Burke novel, or indeed any novel by an author you admire greatly, it’s hardly the case that you’ll hope or expect that this time he is going to speak to you in a different voice. And anyway, Rain Gods is an exquisite piece of crime fiction. It’s what you’d call a border noir or a rural noir, rather than a Southern Gothic – if such things actually matter – and it’s subsequently soaked with atmosphere. And as you’d expect, of course, it is beautifully written. In many ways, this has become James Lee Burke’s trademark, and the standout difference between him and so many other crime writers, his descriptive prose flowing deliciously and yet non-intrusively. Some reviewers have complained that maybe there is a little bit too much of this, and that it’s all just a touch too colourful and poetic for a hardboiled crime novel. But judge for yourself; check out this early, scene-setting paragraph at Chapala Crossing:

On the burnt-out end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression and was now home to bats and clusters of tumbleweed. Next to the filling station was a mechanic’s shed whose desiccated boards lay collapsed upon a rusted pickup truck with four flat bald tyres. At the intersection a stoplight hung from a horizontal cable strung between two power poles, its plastic covers shot out by .22 rifles.

Intrusive? Overly poetic?

Not a bit of a it.

For me, it’s perfect, dropping you straight into the time and place, totally capturing the heat, the sweat, the dust, the chirping of the cicadas in the creosote bushes, not to mention the rugged, dangerous aura of a wilderness outpost where the law hangs by a thread.

Character-wise, Burke does his usual amazing job, presenting us with a tough but vulnerable hero. Hackberry Holland is your archetypal seen-it-all oldster, a veteran peace-officer whose been in the job almost as long as he can remember and never seems to be off-duty. The result, he’s now a pillar of plain-spoken morality and a shrewd judge of character, who doesn’t suffer fools. Underlying all this, of course, is sorrow and regret for the many errors and losses of his past. He might be a septuagenarian, but Hack is still damaged goods, someone you might in real life find a little bit scary but at the same time someone you can root for. He’s also a survivor, a modern-day Wyaat Earp, the kind of cool, gruff customer who’s emerged from lots of gunfights because he knows to go into them with his gun already drawn.

Pam Tibbs is a perfect foil. Younger than Hack, but not a young woman, she too has been around, done it, seen it, etc. She is now old enough and wise enough to see past her boss’s craggy exterior, and to empathise with and adore the manly heart that is buried somewhere deep inside. She’s also a career cop, long-serving, authoritative, fearless in confrontation and very handy with a firearm. For all that she’s tough on the outside, though, a very pleasant lady lies within, which, thanks to some skilled writing, we learn about through her interactions with others rather than because we are told about it.

The atmosphere between these two literally crackles. It’s not merely that they are attracted to each other, it’s the fact that they are all each other has got in this harsh desert world, and that they become ever more aware of this as the tide of villainy rises around them. 

On the subject of Rain Gods’ villains … well, once again we are in vintage James Lee Burke territory, dealing not just with amoral scoundrels, but with complex individuals too, men who have no concern whatsoever for the fate of anyone other than themselves, but who are still able to function in the real world, who are much more than just Old West-style desperadoes. Some of them think only of the next pay-cheque, but others want to get out of this – they’re become frightened by the craziness of it all and fancy a taste of ordinary life, even if that’s something they’ve never known.

Nick Dolan is a perfect example. A Jewish guy who grew up on the wrong end of racist abuse, he knows what it’s like to be powerless and picked on, and so, though he’s a pimp by trade (among other stuff), he shies away from cruelty and wants to do good things too. He genuinely loves his family, and for their sake wants to start going straight.

At the opposite end of the hoodlum spectrum sits Josef Sholokoff. To a certain extent in crime fiction, Russian mobsters are the villains of the moment. With an unlimited capacity for violence, revenge and intimidation, they are the ogres and giants of the 21st century, the enemies who there’ll never be any option other than to eliminate. Sholokoff is one of the least well-developed characters in the book; he only appears in one scene, but it’s a nerve-rendingly scary moment, the guy living like a deranged king amid his court of murderous madmen. It’s little wonder that Sholokoff is Ethan Riser’s main target, the slaughter of nine drugs mules seeming irrelevant when stacked against his day-to-day acts of routine evil.

If Sholokoff is an uncharacteristically thinly-drawn character in Rain Gods, that’s not a real problem for me. His role primarily is to be the elemental force, the dark storm in the distance. The more immediate war occurs between law officers Holland and Tibbs and Preacher Jack Collins.

Collins is the criminal we spend most time with in Rain Gods and is therefore the most multi-layered in terms of personality. And what a personality it is. He is utterly insane; that is plain, but he’s not a homicidal maniac. His oblique attitude has evolved over many years of involvement in violence and bloodshed. But he adheres to his odd beliefs rigidly, which leads him to spare some you’d expect him to kill and kill others you’d expect him to spare. His daily reasoning is often impossible to penetrate. You might go out of your way to assist him, but don’t expect thanks. Don’t expect anything, because you could do him a really big favour – and his response might still be to pull the trigger on you. I can’t say too much more about Collins for fear of spoiling the story, but this is one wonderful and genuinely chilling bad guy. From the very outset, Hackberry Holland and Pam Tibbs have a real job on their hands with this character, not to mention Pete Flores and Vicki Gaddis, who you imagine could keep on running to the ends of the Earth and they still wouldn’t be safe.

I found Rain Gods a thumpingly enjoyable thriller, and a very, very fast read. Everything is so visible; you can smell it, you can feel it, you can see it. The people in the book are real, the landscapes dramatic, and the situation as frightening as any you’ll encounter in mystery thrillers. James Lee Burke is widely regarded as a literary lodestone, and with very good reason. When it comes to noir, whether it’s deep in the Louisiana swamps, or out on the sun-scorched badlands, his prose lives and breathes – at least, as much as the heat and dust and flying bullets allow it to. Rain Gods yet again proves that he’s an emperor among his kind.

Of course, Burke has been adapted for screen many times, but on the basis that I don’t think Rain Gods has had that pleasure yet, I’m now going to do my usual thing and nip in first with some suggestions for casting. Only a bit of fun, of course – who would listen to me (even though I think all of these actors would be superb in the respective roles)? It would be an expensive production, mind you. But then, as I always say, I have the advantage of a limitless budget. So, here we go:

Sheriff Hackberry Holland – Jeff Bridges
Deputy Pam Tibbs – Jennifer Connelly
Jack ‘Preacher’ Collins – Johnny Depp
Nick Dolan – Adrien Brody
Esther Dolan – Winona Ryder
Hugo Cistranos – Oscar Isaac
Artie Rooney – Robert Patrick
Pete Flores – Diego Boneta
Vicki Gaddis – Selena Gomez
Ethan Riser – Hugo Weaving
Isaac Clawson – Josh Brolin
Josef Sholokoff – Gary Oldman
Bobby Lee Motree – Joel Edgerton