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

No comments:

Post a Comment