Tuesday, 23 April 2019

It’s heading this way, the legion of the dead


I’m unashamedly channelling Game of Thrones this week, but not, I trust, in a way that anyone will object to. Because, in truth, the main thing I’ll be talking about is my own novel of 2010, STRONGHOLD ... which bears some remarkable similarities to the events currently unfolding in Westeros.

More about that a little later.

In addition, today, on the same subject of epic horror/fantasy novels that have undergone the glossy TV treatment, I’ll be offering a detailed review and discussion of Joe Hill’s big, scary, 21st century soon-to-be classic, NOS4R2.

If you’re only really here because you want to read the Joe Hill review and/or participate in any resulting discussion, that’s fine as always. Just skip on down to the bottom of today’s post. You’ll find my review in the usual Thrillers, Chillers section. However, if you’ve got a bit more time, why not stick around for the other stuff first … ?

Armies of the dead

As promised, I’m going to talk a little bit about Game of Thrones, but I have to be careful here because I know not everyone watches it at the same time these days, and there are probably some folk who haven’t even started on Season 8 as yet. However, it’s probably not too much of a SPOILER to mention that, as we approach the series’ astounding conclusion, the armies of mankind are now massing around the northern citadel that is Winterfell, while the numerically vastly superior armies of the dead are pouring down from the polar region in unstoppable hordes, and that a gargantuan battle is in the offing.

Probably because George RR Martin never – at least, thus far – reached this point in the novel series, it’s proving to be potent stuff. None of us knows what’s going to happen next and we’re all on the edges of our seats with excitement … me included, even though I, more than many, have cause to recognise some of the dynamics in play here.

Now, before I start, let me make it abundantly clear that I am NOT accusing anyone of copying anything.

There are only so many ideas that have ever been put onto paper, and even though Game of Thrones, or A Song of Ice and Fire, as the books were originally collectively called, only matured in recent times into the gigantic war between the living and the dead that we know today, the saga commenced back in 1996, when the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, was actually published. So, I can hardly claim that I got there first.

However, let me elaborate a little on the subject of my medieval fantasy/horror novel, STRONGHOLD, first published in 2010, and if nothing else, you’ll see that great minds truly think alike.

In a nutshell, STRONGHOLD focusses on a great fortification, manned by a professional but relatively small army of knights, archers and men-at-arms, and under threat from a colossal force of walking-dead, a horde of rotted but ravening zombies roused from graveyards and carnage-strewn battlefields by Dark Ages magic. Ah yes, you see. There is some similarity here. Only some I’ll admit, but though, overall, it doesn’t even come close to being the same story, it’s close enough for me to feel absolutely no shame in plugging STRONGHOLD this week while everyone is so justifiably excited about Game of Thrones on TV.

Stronghold

It all began in 2009, when I was approached by Jon Oliver, the senior commissioning editor at Abaddon Books, and the unsung genius behind the Tomes of the Dead series.

In short, Tomes of the Dead was a group of stand-alone zombie novels from Abaddon which, while not occupying a shared universe, were specifically written to mark a subversion or reinterpretation of the genre, while sometimes – though not always – employing a recognisable historical backdrop.

My brief was simply to write a zombie novel that would strike a similar note. As a lifelong student of medieval history, and someone who rarely gets the opportunity to fictionalise it outside the short story format, the idea grew on me that I’d like to set something in Britain during the intense and tumultuous reign of the English king, Edward I, who ruled from 1272 until 1307.

Edward Longshanks, as the Scots called him, was a very divisive figure. Though one of the strongest kings that England ever had, and though seen by the English as a just ruler rather than a tyrant, who empowered and enriched his kingdom and came to preside over a near picture-perfect medieval realm, he made relentless aggressive war on England’s neighbours, particularly Scotland and Wales. Ultimately, he was less successful in Scotland, though the violence caused by his ambitions there was ongoing and terrible, while Wales, despite spirited resistance, eventually fell completely under his yoke.  

All this is long ago now, and the hostilities are thankfully forgotten, mainly confined these days to rivalry in sport and terrace banter.

But as both a historian and a writer, I’ve long been intrigued by the split personality of a kingdom that could embrace pageantry and valour, that could build fairy tale castles, sing songs of courtly love and promote the cult of chivalry, a kingdom which in all ways resembled the Arthurian ideal ... and yet one that was also haughty and treacherous with its neighbours, one that would use its immense military power to ghastly effect against its enemies (both real and imagined) and would bring terror and misery to abject lands, while all the time lionising itself for these ‘achievements’.

In so many ways, this is the curse of the West. We saw it in the Romans, the crusaders, the conquistadors, right up in fact to the triumphalist days of the British Empire and the expansion of the fledgling US through territories that basically belonged to other people.

Ugly or not, it’s a fact of history now. It’s also a fascinating dramatic concept.

People who thought they were doing right when plainly they were doing wrong. (Or did they think that? And if they actually didn’t, how on Earth did they handle it in terms of conscience?)

STRONGHOLD gave me the opportunity to try and encapsulate all this in a single horror/fantasy tale.

In it, as I say, I visited Edward I’s England, a dominant military state in the process of violently absorbing a smaller neighbour, Wales …

It’s the year 1295 when the book opens, and the conquest of Cymru is far from complete. King Edward, having constructed a ring of impressive castles to pin down those lands and people that he’s already subdued, now relies on his all-powerful marcher-lords to enforce his will and deal ruthlessly with any recalcitrant.

Thus far, we’ve been following history to the letter, but now we take a right-hand turn into the realms of fiction.

When the Earl of Clun, one of Edward’s most vicious right-hand men, brings his retinue into Wales, ostensibly it’s to recapture Grogen Castle, which for a brief time has been in the hands of Madog ap Llywelyn’s Welsh rebels, but he also lays waste to the land in the process, burning villages and massacring not just those who’ve surrendered to him in good faith, but all those innocents who have strayed into his path.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when he reaches Grogen Castle, which is high in the Cambrian Mountains, he finds it abandoned and overlooking a now desolated countryside. Clun reoccupies the mighty structure and awaits further orders. He doesn’t anticipate a massive counter-strike. The Welsh have also been defeated at the battle of Maes Moydog, so in all probability the rebellion is over.

But then something happens that he and his men never expected.

Betrayed by Clun, who promised there would be no reprisals against her people, Welsh countess, Madalyn of Lyn, seeks out Gwyddon, a druid, and with his assistance and the mystical Pair Dadeni, the ‘Cauldron of Rebirth’, she rouses an army of rot and decay, not just those slain by the English in recent campaigns, but those adorning the gibbets from years earlier, those buried under cairns and filling the mountain graveyards.

Before Clun knows it, a vast army of the vengeful dead is encroaching on Grogen. Already, his force is cut off. He has only the few hundred men he brought here. They have the advantage of their indomitable ramparts, but the dead have the advantage of already being dead, of not letting wounds impede them, of continuing to attack though bristling with arrows and hacked and clashed by axe and sword.

What follows is a wholesale, non-stop assault on the massive castle, which section by section is gradually overwhelmed. The English, who were at odds with each other in the earlier part of the book, now stand shoulder-to-shoulder and fight furiously, but are aghast with horror as they even see their own fallen inevitably rise up again and join the hideous legion …

Okay, I guess it all sounds pretty simple. A load of sword-wielding blood and thunder, with lots of zombie horror woven in. And all that after I chatted so garrulously about my highfalutin historical and philosophical ambitions. But note that a handful of English knights who have committed terrible atrocities are my central characters here. They – the oppressors, not the oppressed – are the ones under siege and at war with the dead. And this is the point where I try to examine that juxtaposition between bravery and cruelty, honour and arrogance. This is the moment where I take a long hard look at the issues of ‘only following orders’, of ‘my country right or wrong’, of ‘my king before my conscience’, and present my readers with a clutch of heroes who are ravaged by guilt and shame – and all this in the face of impending, seemingly justified destruction.

Okay, sorry about that. Yes, as I said it’s an unashamed plug for a book of mine published nearly 10 years ago, but this is my blog, so I can do what I want (yaaah!).

STRONGHOLD is still out there, still gets quite decent reviews and is still available from most online retailers. So, if you like Game of Thrones, and you can’t wait for that climactic battle between the living and the dead, perhaps you’ll be interested in dipping into this one first?

Just a suggestion.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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.

NOS4R2 
by Joe Hill (2013)

A mesmerising horror novel with an air of urban fairy tale about it, though don’t let that fool you. This is one intensely frightening ride.

In a chilling opening scene, we visit a prison hospital in 2008, where Charles Manx, a suspected child killer who has been lying in a coma for years, apparently revives and terrorises a young nurse with stories about a mysterious and terrible place called Christmasland. However, when other staff check on him, he’s unconscious again, his brain function virtually zero.

In one of many leaps back and forth in time, we now move back to 1986, where a feisty youngster called Vic McQueen uses her Raleigh bike and the mysterious Shorter Way Bridge, a semi-derelict structure in the woods behind her Massachusetts home, to travel to the location of whichever object she happens to be looking for, whatever that object may be, wherever the location may lie. She doesn’t know how this happens, just accepts it as magic, even though the more she uses it, the more physical damage it causes to her, particularly to her eye. Vic thinks she’s the only person who enjoys this bizarre privilege, but when one trip takes her all the way to Iowa, she meets a scatty librarian called Maggie, who routinely uses a special bag of Scrabble tiles to answer questions and find missing items in similar fashion. Whereas Vic suffers with her eye, the Scrabble divination causes Maggie to stutter, though both agree that they feel ill generally whenever they’ve worked one of these miracles.

It is while she’s comparing notes with Maggie, that Vic learns about evil Charlie Manx, an older man, who has similar powers to theirs, which he draws through his classic Rolls-Royce Wraith (the registration number of which you can probably guess) and uses them to abduct children.

When Vic heads for home, the Shorter Way takes such a toll on her that she falls seriously ill, losing her Raleigh in the process. Meanwhile, Charlie Manx – a real person, who does indeed kidnap children in his Rolls-Royce Wraith – enlists burgeoning serial killer, Bing Partridge, to assist in his crimes. Partridge works at a chemical factory and steals several tanks of sevoflurane gas with which to overcome the parents of the child-victims (in the process thinking of the gas as ‘gingerbread smoke’ because of its unique smell, one of many instances in which Christmas joy is turned on its head in this book). Ultimately, Partridge is easily recruited because, though sexually depraved, he is childlike in certain ways, and when Manx tells him that he whisks his abductees away to his wonderful secret refuge, Christmasland, where they can do festive things all day and never grow old, it appeals to him immensely.

Flashing forward ten years, we now find Vic McQueen an unhappy teenager, worn out by her even unhappier parents’ constant fighting. After a bitter row with her mother, she uses the Shorter Way to visit Manx’s house in Colorado – a bizarre place high in the pinewoods, where Christmas music plays all day and Christmas ornaments adorn the surrounding trees whatever month of the year it happens to be. Her plan is to get herself abducted in order to punish her mother, but when she finds another young child locked in Manx’s Wraith, she attempts to free it, only to discover that it has transformed into a horrific, vampire-like travesty of the human being it once was. With the child-thing’s assistance, Manx almost captures Vic, his house burning down in the process, but in a desperately tense and superbly crafted scene, she escapes on the back of a motorbike driven by a tubby but startled motorcyclist called Lou Carmody. Even then, Vic isn’t completely safe. The vengeful Manx follows the pair of them to a mountain diner and general store, where he horrifically kills a soldier on leave before other customers overpower him.
               
We now return to 2008, and the current narrative, where the adult Vic has had success as a children’s author and is several years into a relationship with Lou but is again unhappy. The one light in her life is her son, Bruce Wayne Carmody – Lou having named him so because, though lovable, he is also a comic-book geek – but she continually receives phone calls from the vampire children of Christmasland (and very chilling they are!) berating her for the imprisonment of their father, Charlie Manx. Having already spent time in therapy, which has persuaded her that her earlier experience of this was all stress-related fantasy, Vic subsequently lives in terror that she is losing her mind.

Because of all this, Vic separates from Lou, but not on unpleasant terms, returning to New England. As Manx falls into a coma in prison, and finally dies, her life stabilises somewhat. But then, one day in 2012, she is visited by a ragged, drug-addicted version of Maggie the librarian, who tells her not to relax, because while it’s been reported that Manx died in custody, in reality he resurrected himself and escaped from the morgue, and now is on the loose again, this time hellbent on punishing Vic, not so much by killing her, but by abducting her son, Bruce Wayne, and taking him away to the unearthly winter paradise, which, though it exists on no recognisable maps, we readers have seen and experienced for ourselves, so we know that it’s real: Christmasland …    

I read a lot of books that purport to be new takes on the vampire theme, but I don’t think I’ve encountered any that are quite as original and different as this one. When Stephen King, Joe Hill’s father, first wrote Salem’s Lot in 1975, it was one of the books that put him on the map as a horror supremo. But the bloodsuckers in that one were pretty traditional in their form and methods. It was the high-quality writing, wonderfully detailed characterisation and the sheer, unadulterated scariness of it that made Salem’s Lot such a gem.

Well, NOS4R2 has all that, plus a genuinely new kind of vampire antagonist. But that’s actually faint praise, because in truth there is so much good stuff in NOS4R2 that it’s difficult to know where to start.

To begin with, the notion of so-called ‘inscapes’ – fantasy realms constructed through sheer thought, which, though unreachable except via trans-dimensional conduits like the Shorter Way Bridge or Charlie Manx’s Wraith, nevertheless exist in a real time and place all of their own – is wondrous.

I admit that, at first glance, it may not work for everyone. The idea that this little girl can travel across the whole of North America in less than a minute by riding her Raleigh bike through a derelict covered bridge in backwoods New England may sound like something from a children’s fantasy novel, but then there’s the not insignificant matter of Charlie Manx, who uses his mysterious and imperious Wraith as his own conduit, though in his case the car also acts as a form of revival system from out of which he can draw life-energy vampirised from the innocent to heal life-threatening injury and illness and even restore himself to youth. It may all sound nutty and implausible, but in the world of inscapes – especially the way Joe Hill writes about them – you buy into it straight away.

Of course, the concept of inscape is not original to NOS4A2. Hill has played with it before in his two earlier novels, Horns and Heart-Shaped Box. But it is here where he thoroughly investigates and exploits the notion, and though, as I say, it may at first sound like a juvenile concept, in NOS4R2 it is rendered utterly believable and very, very frightening.

Charlie Manx is a key part of that, of course, and an amazing creation. He is first brought to our attention, because we know no better at this stage, as a serial child abductor and murderer, though in due course we realise that he is a lot more complex than that. Manx is one of the best modern variants on the Dracula theme that I’ve ever encountered. Yes, he does capture children and he does transform them into eerie, ghoul-like things. And yes, he is capable of using extreme violence against their parents and other guardians. But he is also a fully rounded individual. We learn about his difficult past and the bizarre philosophy for life that he evolved as a result of it, which leads him to believe that in taking children away to Christmasland and granting them immortality (of a sort) he is genuinely doing the right thing. He is thus playful as well as wicked and develops a great rapport with Bruce Wayne Carmody after he kidnaps the little boy. Manx is almost likable in these scenes, displaying good humour and generosity, while reserving his real disdain for semi-demented Renfield-like servant, Bing Partridge.

Which brings us onto villain number two. Setting aside the obvious Christmas allusions in his name, Bing Partridge is also a very real person and represents more bravura character-work by Hill. To start with, though devoid of humanity, he is no slavering madman, but extremely ordinary in appearance, and though he seems like a dumbass, this is really a shield with which he continually fools the parents of his child-targets, the mothers of whom he then singles out for truly appalling treatment. He even lures the enlightened Vic McQueen at one point, in a scene that, because we readers know about Bing from the beginning, literally reeks of evil.

The good guys in NOS4R2 are equally real and visible.

Vic McQueen is an unusual kind of heroine, first appearing as a spirited youngster mired in a violent and unhappy home – so far so good – but then evolving, perhaps inevitably, into a brattish teen delinquent, and finally reaching her adult incarnation as a scrawny, grungy outsider, scrawled with unsightly tattoos and suffering recurring mental problems. That said, she’s still a looker. Of course, she is; our heroes and heroines must always be lookers. But she’s been through the mill emotionally, and it shows. Even now she has minimal contact with her demolition expert father, who she blames for most of the domestic problems when she was young, and when she finally reconciles with her temperamental mother, the woman is dying from cancer. It’s no wonder that Vic struggles to hold things together even as she does brave and admirable things.

She does have an on/off boyfriend, of course: the affable heavyweight, Lou, with whom, once again, we’re in the realms of superb character-work by Joe Hill. Though a quality mechanic, Lou is an underachiever because he spends whole days with his head in the clouds. He’s brave, though, if a tad dim, and he loves Vic and their son, Bruce Wayne. He’s no hero in the traditional mode but has so many minor redeeming features that we like him all the way through the book.

Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, has inherited traits from both his parents: he’s courageous and inquisitive, possessing his mother’s looks and intellect and his father’s starry-eyed amiability. The youngster is a distinctly warm presence in the second half of the novel, which is a good thing because this section sees Vic tortured even more terribly by the fearsome denizens of Christmasland. In contrast to this terror, Bruce Wayne brings great meaning to her life and cheers us all up every time he appears, at one point even managing to win Charlie Manx over (or at least persuading him to buy them some fireworks, so they can have a bit of non-Christmas fun).

The other thing about NOS4R2 is how well-written it is. Joe Hill is clearly following in his father’s footsteps in producing big tomes – this one clocks in at about 700 pages – but it’s all so readable, and the descriptive work is sumptuous, particularly when we get to Christmasland. It initially appears as a kind of Tyrolean Neverland, where it is always December 25, icicles dangling permanently from lintels, Christmas trees shimmering, snow falling, everyone housed in Alpine ‘cuckoo clock’ lodges, where they spend all day (every day!) in front of hot fires, drinking cocoa and opening presents. And yet there is darkness here too, Hill displaying great skill to subtly show us just how mind-numbingly awful this would in due course become (it’s no wonder the children are deranged monsters).

Ultimately, NOS4R2 is far more than just a horror novel. It’s a haunting tale but an exhilarating one too. There is romance here and wild, escapist fantasy, plus it’s funny as well as frightening, it moves at rollicking pace and is filled with nods and winks to Stephen King’s world as well as Joe Hill’s; there is at least one reference to Shawshank Prison, and one to Derry, the New England town at the centre of It – all of which adds an air of family warmth to the saga, though I don’t wish to give the impression that Hill is some kind of crude imitation of his father. Not a bit of it. There are undoubted similarities – blue collar types in heartland America getting to grip with a fantastically cruel form of supernatural evil is a recurring theme in both these authors’ works – but Hill is perhaps more disciplined than his dad in terms of linear narrative, and at the same time has a slightly more poetic air about his prose. He possesses a strong voice of his own, though I’ve no doubt that his father is very proud of it.

In truth, I haven’t only recently discovered Joe Hill. He was good enough to sign his first collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, for me at a British Fantasy event many years ago and we chatted briefly. His short form work was impressive way back then, and though he hadn’t written any of his novels at that stage, it was pretty evident that he was going to. Well, now the first batch of them are here, and what a treat they are. I’ve no doubt that NOS4R2 and others like it will have universal appeal, but if there is anyone out there who, like me, particularly enjoys those big summertime blockbusters, the ones that were so massive and yet so engrossing that you’d take them away on holiday with you and they’d last you the entire fortnight, then Joe Hill and NOS4R2 in particular are definitely for you.

Okay, well … I usually like to end these book reviews with a bit of fantasy casting, nominating those actors I’d love to see take the lead roles when or if the book hits the screen. But the good news in this case is that a TV series has not just been commissioned, it has been written and shot – and Joe Hill himself, according to his tweets, is very happy with it. So, hell – forget the fantasy casting this week. Let’s wait and see what the real thing is like.

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