Friday 31 May 2019

Back on the chiller trail: more eerie places

It may seem odd but even though it’s the first week of June, I’ve been thinking autumnal thoughts this week. That’s because I’m going to chat a little bit about an autumn-set novella of mine, SEASON OF MIST, from 2010, which I intend to reissue both in print and ebook form around September / October this year. It’s both a thriller and a horror rolled into one, with strong folkloric elements, with means that talking about it now ties in neatly with another bit of fun I’ve got lined up for today.

I’ve been doing another of those gazetteers of STRANGE AND EERIE PLACES, but this week, instead of the UK and Ireland, which I’ve already done, I’ll be focussing on WESTERN EUROPE.

In addition to those two treats, and because we’re exclusively talking weird, scary mysteries today, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Simon Stranzas’s intriguingly strange and spooky anthology, AICKMAN’S HEIRS

If you’re only here for the anthology review, that’s fine. Just pop down to the lower end of today’s blogpost; that’s where all my reviews go. However, if you’ve got a bit more time, perhaps you’ll like to stick around at this end a bit longer. Especially as I’m now about to discuss …

Season of Mist

Back in 2010, I penned a bunch of original horror novellas, which were all published together in one book, WALKERS IN THE DARK, by Ash-Tree Press, and launched at World Horror in Brighton. The book got quite a few good write-ups, but alas, a decade later it’s no longer in print.

However, one of the stories in there, SEASON OF MIST – which clocked in at 40,000 words – was almost classifiable as a short novel in is own right, and I reckon it’s time it saw the light of day again.

Back then in the early 2000s, I was mostly writing horror and science-fiction (mainly Dr Who). I hadn’t at that stage developed a profile as a crime novelist but was increasingly drawing on my police experience to develop thriller concepts. However, when the idea for SEASON OF MIST popped into my head, it allowed me to wear two hats at once, giving me the opportunity to link my long-standing interest in folk-horror with the kind of brutal crime story that is all too real in Britain today and was equally real when I was a youngster in the early 1970s.

One particular memory of that long-ago decade still sticks in my mind: the autumn of 1974, when the preparations for Halloween in my hometown of Wigan, Lancashire, were made particularly scary by a local rumour that a child-killer was on the loose. In reality, there was one murder, and it did occur on a dark October night not too far from our patch. A bunch of teens had been playing hide and seek in the vicinity of a derelict hospital; one of them disappeared during the course of the game and was later found cut to pieces. It’s difficult to trace the details now, but I understand that the murderer was eventually arrested and turned out to be a mentally ill vagrant, who was then locked away in a secure institution.

Of course, as children, the true facts of the tragedy didn’t trouble us. We were just awe-stricken by the raw horror of it. You see ... we too would shortly be dressed in Halloween garb and running around the darkened streets, woods and derelict mills and coal-tips that dotted our borough (like this one above, thanks to Dave Attrill). And this time, of course, it would be even more frightening than usual because now a real monster was on the loose.

The chilling memory of that long-distant Halloween Night, which was every bit as terrifying as we’d expected it to be, but which thankfully saw no one else actually die, lingered long for me – primarily because as well as being electrifyingly scary it was also hugely enjoyable, the perfect Halloween in fact.

Of course, simply recreating those actual events for SEASON OF MIST would not have been good enough. A much better idea, it seemed to me, was to combine them with an especially uncanny bit of Wigan mythology, as related to me when I was a tiny tot by my coal-miner grandfather.

According to local folklore, Red Clogs was an evil spirit that roamed the colliery wastes of our town, after a terrible underground disaster claimed the life of a collier, taking his feet in the process. In the isolated world of that 1970s industrial heartland, we were all fearfully familiar with this evil and remorseless entity … whose mythical depredations could easily, in the eyes of a bunch of innocent children, have masked the presence of a real serial killer.

SEASON OF MIST was the result. As I say, it’s a 40,000-word novella, which I’ll be looking to republish both in electronic format and in print as the autumn of the year approaches. So, watch this space.

Eerie places

Now, as promised, some other stuff ...

A few months ago, on January 9, I posted a blog – My Own Gazetteer of Strange, Eerie Places. It was a round-up of my top 20 strange and scary places in Britain and Ireland. Places I’d love to visit in my fiction, or, in one or two cases, places that I already had visited.

It proved to be a popular post; it received a lot of hits, and there were lots of positive and interested comments on Facebook and Twitter.

Given that people apparently liked it so much, it seems like an obvious next step to do the same thing again, only now to venture beyond the boundaries of the British Isles, in fact maybe to take this show all over the world, though obviously we can only visit one geographic region at a time.

I thought I’d start the ball rolling this week with Western Europe.

It’s one of the oldest constantly inhabited regions on Earth, it has a long, complex history (much of it blood-soaked), and there is literally a wealth of legend and folklore to get our teeth into. It’s also a corner of the globe where many truly ancient monuments have been lovingly preserved.

I should say straight away that I’ve had to be sensible with the number of places which for these purposes I’ve considered to be part of Western Europe. It could never be as simple as drawing a new line of longitude down the centre of the continent and treating everything to the west of it as fair game. For one thing, it would take forever to research so many potential venues, and for another, even opting only to include the very best, I’d finish up with many more than 20. So, I’m going to be discerning, and, as in the future I intend to write separate blogs about the eeriest, scariest places in Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and so forth, today I’m looking exclusively at Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and Austria.

So, without further ado, please enjoy (and feel free to comment on): 


1 Beelitz-Heilstätten

A district of a historic town in Brandenburg, eastern Germany, and home to an infamous abandoned hospital complex, some 60 buildings strong and for the most part accessible, which for years now has enabled members of the public to enter it at will, holding night-time vigils and taking multiple eerie photographs. Despite its exceptionally grim appearance – numerous film companies have shot footage here, making full gruesome use of the endless bleak corridors and rubble-strewn, graffiti-covered treatment rooms – the 100-year-old ruin has no specific reputation for occult or supernatural activity, though like all derelict medical complexes, it possesses a distinct aura of misery and melancholy. If it adds kudos, past patients include arch-villains Adolf Hitler and Erich Honecker.
2 Chateau Champtoce

It isn’t much to look at today – there’s scarcely enough of it left to be haunted – but Chateau Champtoce in Maine, central France, was one of several castles belonging in the early 15th century to legendary warrior, warlock and serial child-murderer, Gilles de Rais. A hero of the Hundred Years War and right-hand man to Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais later retired to private life, where he is said to have sunk into a quagmire of depravity. At least 80 peasant boys, but maybe as many as 600, are said to have been lured into his various castles, where they were sodomised, sexually tortured and murdered, sometimes amid hellish Satanic rites. De Rais was hanged and burned in 1440, and though debates rage about the extent of his guilt, some claiming that the Church framed him, most historians consider him guilty as charged. 

3 Lisbon backstreets

Though Portugal is regarded as a holiday idyll, it suffers severe social problems that most visitors never see. Some 2.6 million of its inhabitants live below the poverty line, and many of its larger cities’ most run-down neighbourhoods consist of slums and shack housing where drugs and crime are rife. One scary myth emerged in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, several years ago. It concerned an unknown gang who would prowl the most deprived neighbourhoods late at night, leaping on random victims and offering them death, a beating or ‘a clown face’. Most opted for the latter, unaware that it meant the sides of their mouths would be slit, creating horrific Joker-like visages. It’s a very spooky story that has legs even today, despite it being discredited in 2009, when police and health services failed to locate a single record of any such assault victim.

4 IM Cooling Tower

The much-photographed Power Plant IM has been disused since the early days of this century, and though scheduled for demolition and regularly patrolled by security guards, still stands tall in the Belgian town of Charleroi, a dangerous, dystopian edifice beloved by urban adventurers. Originally built in 1921, it was for a brief time the biggest coal-burning plant in Belgium. Incredibly, despite its antique status, it continued to function – albeit with various modern adaptations – right through until 2006, when its excessive C02 emissions led to a protest by Greenpeace and its closure the following year. It presents us with another totemic Western European structure, which though incredibly eerie to look at has no actual history of odd or uncanny events. But check it out. It can’t really be excluded from a list like this, can it? 

5 Castle Frankenstein

Yes, this is it, the original one-and-only Castle Frankenstein. It stands in the Odenwald mountain range in western Germany and was the official home of the powerful Frankenstein family from 1250 to 1662. It fell into ruin in the 18th century and remains in that state to this day. The Odenwald are heavily wooded and the centre of many legends, including one tale that a local alchemist, Johann Dippel, who lived in the castle after the Frankensteins had vacated it, dug up a corpse and brought it to life with black magic. Stories that Mary Shelley was inspired by this nightmarish folk-tale are doubted, some scholars claiming that she was never even in the region. That aside, the castle is reputed to be the centre of much paranormal activity and is regularly the site of televised Halloween and Walpurgis ghost-hunting events.

6 Paris Catacombs

All kinds of urban myths surround this infamous network of ancient underground ossuaries. One holds that hidden in its darkness is the entrance to Hell, another that diabolical sects convene here, and yet another that it is filled ghosts who only make themselves known after midnight, attempting to lure lonely explorers into the depths. What is fact is that over 6 million human remains are interred here. If that isn’t unnerving enough, a video camera was once found down here containing footage which indicated that the cameraman, who was never seen again, was being chased by something. Stranger still, on another occasion, a fully-equipped cinema was uncovered by police, complete with working phone-lines and cameras that were filming them; the cinema’s creators were never located, but a note was left, which said: ‘Don’t search!’   

7 Chateau Miranda

Sadly, it was demolished in 2017, so no one can ever visit this famous neo-Gothic castle in the Namur region of Belgium again, but if wasn’t one of the scariest looking buildings in all of Western Europe, I’d be astonished. Though construction commenced in 1866, it was 1907 before it was completed, and its owners, the aristocratic Liedekerke-De Beaufort family, only occupied it until WWII, at which point it was taken over by German forces. Though it survived that era intact – it even survived the Battle of the Bulge! – the family never returned, and it became an orphanage and hospital before abandonment in 1991, from which point it was the focus of urban explorations and ghost hunts. Unfortunately, amazingly even, it was never known for its supernatural activity, but looking at it today it surely should have been.

8 Fribourg Forest

Not many of us would associate Switzerland with scary places given the general magnificence of its Alpine landscape. Most pictures from rural Switzerland strike us with awe rather than fear, but then in 2013 the newspaper, Le Matin, acquired this picture of a mysterious being known as Le Loyon, a weird giant wearing a boiler suit, cloak and gas mask, who for the previous decade had reportedly been seen wandering the paths in Fribourg Forest, in western Switzerland, terrifying all those who encountered him. The story was taken seriously by both local law enforcement and the press, though no assault or threatening behaviour was ever reported. Initial fears that Le Loyon was an alien or some kind of cryptid have now been dismissed as more recent sightings suggest the ‘giant’ is only slightly over 6ft tall.

9 Two horrors for the price of one

Two streets in the vicinity of Paris. Very pleasant, very unthreatening. Except that both – the main road in Gambais, a rural commune in the Île-de-France (top), and Rue le Sueur, a stone’s throw from Avenue des Champs-Elysées (bottom) – have a chilling past. The former housed Henri Landru, known as ‘Bluebeard’. A ‘lonely hearts’ predator, Landru seduced single women, who he’d lure back to his home, where they’d be killed and dismembered. By 1919, he’d murdered at least 11, though police failed to trace a further 72 that he’d been in correspondence with. In Rue le Sueur meanwhile stood the home of Marcel Petiot, who during WWII tortured and murdered at least 23 desperate folk he’d lured there, having promised them escape from the Occupation (though his real total was more like 60). Both killers died on the guillotine, unrepentant to the last

10 Woods of Eefde

The peaceful woodlands surrounding the village of Eefde in the East Netherlands province of Gelderland are a singularly pleasant place, but are also said to be the haunt of the Witte Wieven, which literally means ‘the white women’. They are the centre of a mysterious rather than frightening Dutch legend, which holds that herbalists, midwives and other valued village wise women would, after death, be buried with full honours and their grave sites venerated afterwards. As such, their spirits would rise and wander the locality, offering assistance and hindrance depending on the worthiness of whichever person came into their path. The belief appears to stem from the Dark Ages, wherein pre-Christian tales of Elves were woven in with Church teachings about the afterlife. Eefde is renowned for its ‘white woman’ activity.

11 Chateau de Raray

Possibly the ultimate fairy tale manor house, Chateau Raray in Picardy (as famously photographed above by Simon Marsden), is an exclusive hotel and golf course these days, so you’re unlikely to turn up there and feel creeped out in any way. But if the current building, which dates back to the early 18th century, doesn’t overwhelm you with its otherworldly atmosphere, then the myriad gardens, arches, shaded walks, and rows of busts and statues surely will. It’s no surprise that in 1946, avant-garde film-maker Jean Cocteau chose it as the location for many of the exteriors in his haunting masterpiece, La Belle et la Bête. That said, it isn’t just an embodiment of magic and mystery. A couple of particularly eerie tales hold that the main building is haunted by the ghost of a servant girl who hanged herself, and the gardens by a statue that moves around at night.

12 Kampehl

From the sublime now to the grotesque, in a rural church at Kampehl in northeast Germany. Here, you’ll find an open coffin and in it, the mummified corpse of Christian Kahlbutz, an ill-tempered landowner of the 17th century, who, when accused of murder, swore that if he was guilty of the charge, God would never let his corpse rot. He died of natural causes in 1701, but in 1794 workmen re-opened the vault and were stunned to discover the uncorrupted corpse. All kinds of myths are attached to it, including a tale that during Napoleonic times, some French soldiers attempted to crucify it in the village centre, but that it became animated in its outrage, driving them away in terror. During the 20th century, two doctors autopsied the remains, but were unable to explain their non-deterioration.

13 Porte de Martray

The last of the medieval gateways to the city of Loudun in southwest France. Loudun was the scene of extraordinary events in 1634, as made famous by maverick movie-maker, Ken Russell. Though a lurid take on the true events, his controversial 1971 movie, The Devils, was largely accurate in its portrayal of a religious town in the grip of Satanic panic. When members of the local Ursuline convent accused non-celibate priest, Urbain Grandier, of sending demons to sexually torment them, a brutal enquiry followed, resulting in Grandier’s torture and eventual burning at the stake in the town square. Though an impressive document survives, purporting to show Grandier’s written pact with Lucifer, historians blame mass hysteria by the nuns and political contrivance by Grandier’s old foe, the lethal Cardinal Richelieu.

14 Salzburg

The wonderfully baroque capital of Austria, Salzburg, can boast a plethora of ancient eerie tales, but supernaturalists are best advised to visit it during the Christmas season, when the Krampus and Perchta parades are held. It’s a well-loved costume event, but visitors are often unnerved as the shaggy, horned brutes rampage down the snowy streets, snorting and roaring. Krampus, now familiar to non-Tyrolean audiences via Hollywood, is seen as a kind of anti-Santa, a monstrous being that takes away naughty children rather than rewards those who are nice. Perchta, meanwhile, appears as a half-animal hag, whose purpose is also to terrify and punish those who haven’t performed well during the year. Both are believed descended from winter gods that were worshipped and feared in the mountains during the pre-Christian era.
15 Dadipark

Dadipark is no longer with us, having been demolished in the last couple of years and turned into a green recreational zone, but the one-time amusement park just south of Antwerp, in Belgium, was a derelict, overgrown edifice for the best part of two decades, having been forced to close after an increasingly gruesome series of accidents. Opened in 1950, initially as entertainment for children whose parents had made pilgrimage to the Dadizele basilica, it was one of the first of its kind in Europe, and soon grew into a huge operation, though safety concerns were continually aired as a succession of nasty incidents left visitors injured. When a child lost his arm in 2000, it was the final straw. The park stood empty and decaying for many years, countless ghost stories celebrating its eerie, desolate appearance.

16 Montsegur

The last stronghold of the Albigensians, Montsegur is a mountain-top castle, which like so many of its kind in southern France is remarkably well-preserved (though in truth, it is much rebuilt). Overlooking the beautiful Languedoc, it is riddled with ghostly tales – spectral mists, whispering voices and shadowy figures – most of which allegedly relate to the atrocities of the Albigensian Crusade, which in the 13th century confronted the Albigensian (or Cathar) religion, a radical offshoot of Christianity declared heretical by the papacy. The campaign was earmarked by numerous slaughters, though it ended in 1244, at Montsegur, where the last of the Cathars were holed up. After surrender, all 244 survivors were burned alive in a gigantic bonfire down in the valley. The site is still known as the ‘Field of the Burned’, and on dark nights, distant weeping can allegedly be heard.  

17 La Jument lighthouse

Made famous by this incredible photograph taken by Jean Guichard in 1989, the La Jument lighthouse was always considered one of the most dangerous postings in the world. Located off the coast of Brittany, it was an area long notorious for huge seas, roaring waves and catastrophic storms. Before the lighthouse was even built, there were numerous wrecks on the nearby coast. Between 1888 and 1904 alone, 31 ships went down there. These included the 1896 sinking of the SS Drummond Castle, which cost 250 lives. Even after the lighthouse was opened in 1911 (its construction delayed by a procession of incredible storms), there were repeated reports of it being inundated by waves, windows shattering, furniture washed out to sea, keepers only just surviving. It still stands today but is now fully automated.

18 Palais Garnier

The Palais Garnier opened in 1875 to house the Paris Opera, and still stands today in all its opulent glory. One of the most famous opera houses in the world, the Palais Garnier was named after its architect, Charles Garnier, and was a grandiose structure, both inside and out. However, it was put on the map once and for all by Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera. Everyone knows the famous story, but few know that Leroux based many of its key elements on allegedly true melodramatic tales concerning the Palais Garnier. There is a huge underwater reservoir, though not quite a candlelit lake, while staff often blamed odd accidents on a resident ‘Phantom’. There is even a story that a missing actress’s bones were found locked in a cellar trunk many years after her unexplained disappearance.

19 Moosham Castle

Moosham Castle is a well-preserved medieval fortress in eastern Austria. Privately owned today, though some sections of it are open to the public as art galleries, it is a peaceful, scenic place, and yet its history comprises some of the grimmest events ever put on record. Already the centre of numerous baronial feuds during the Middle Ages, in 1675 the Zaubererjackl witch trials were held there, which eventually saw 139 people, most of them men but many of them children, hanged, burned and strangled. Others were spared death, but branded and mutilated (their hands chopped off). The bloodshed didn’t end there, the castle becoming the centre of a werewolf scare in the early 1800s, when hundreds of animals were found torn and half-eaten in the vicinity. Local peasants claimed the former evil had precipitated the latter.

20 Rennes-le-Chateau

A Pyrennean religious centre, which allegedly sits on a great mystery. The story starts with Bérenger Saunière, a humble priest who in the 1880s occupied this crumbling rural church, and yet went on not only to rebuild it lavishly, but to deck it with bizarre statues, including this chilling image of Asmodeus, and by the 1890s, to have spent over 650,000 francs doing so. Saunière died in 1917, never having disclosed this fortune’s origin. Some believe he practised simony, though there is doubt that the crime of selling Masses could ever have raised such a sum, while others insist that he found the treasure of the Cathars, and others that he had discovered documents proving that Christ’s descendants (yes, you heard that right!) had founded several lines of European kings – if true, you could only guess at the potential pay-off he could have demanded.


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.

 edited by Simon Strantzas (2015)

An intriguing anthology of weird, open-ended tales, chilling in tone and concept though rarely indulging in blood and gore or utilising standard supernatural tropes, and written in homage to the late, great Robert Aickman, a British author of the 20th century, who specialised in the strange and macabre rather than the out-and-out horrific.

Rather than just tell you everything that happens from one story to the next, I’ll let Undertow provide the intro. Here’s their official blurb, which nicely hints at the enjoyable weirdness to come.

Edited by Simon Strantzas, ‘Aickman’s Heirs’ is an anthology of strange, weird tales by modern visionaries of weird fiction, in the milieu of Robert Aickman, the master of strange and ambiguous stories. Editor and author Strantzas, an important figure in weird fiction, has been hailed as the heir to Aickman’s oeuvre, and is ideally suited to edit this exciting volume. Featuring all-original stories from Brian Evenson, Lisa Tuttle, John Langan, Helen Marshall, Michael Cisco, and others.

Can strangeness in itself be scary? Probably not, though it can certainly be unsettling. And indeed, that was my main reaction to most of the contents of Aickman’s Heirs … a feeling that I was ill-at-ease, that I’d somehow been disturbed without really knowing how or why, and yet at the same time was deeply satisfied.

As that was also my reaction to much of Robert Aickman’s fiction (he wrote 48 short stories in total – many of which have become staples of ‘classic horror’ collections), then I can only conclude that editor, Simon Strantzas, and the numerous writers he has brought together for this book, have hit their main target quite successfully.

We have here an entire range of weirdness, most stories hinting at the grotesque rather than explicitly demonstrating it, and yet, though they rarely hit us with a killer last line or murderous unseen twist, always leaving us deeply discomfited.

Take Brian Evenson’s Seaside Town, in which a mismatched couple visit a French coastal resort where dreariness is the watchword, only for the male of the pair to be inexplicably abandoned by his partner, with no real clue where he is or why. Or Richard Gavin’s Neithernor, which sees a snobbish art critic determined to investigate when he uncovers evidence that his artistic cousin might be a hostage in the grotty little gallery in the next town.

Another key trait of Robert Aickman’s was his relentless merging of the mundane with the bizarre. Very illustrative of this, Ringing the Changes was perhaps one of the great man’s most famous and certainly most oft-reprinted tales, taking another awkward couple to another dull seaside town, this time on the English east coast during the off-season, settling them down in one of the most depressing pubs imaginable, and then filling the air with a clangour of church-bells which literally will not stop until the dead themselves have been wakened. Picking up the torch in Aickman’s Heirs, Nina Allan’s lengthy tale, A Change of Scene, pays direct tribute to the story, in some ways that I won’t mention here as that would be too much of a spoiler, though put it this way, it’s set in the same miserable town (spelled only slightly differently), features another strained couple – two lifelong friends this time, both widowed (again, one of them may have been in the original tale) – and has much to say about the resort’s curious number of church steeples.

Less recognisable, perhaps, but equally disquieting in its clash between the ordinary and the extraordinary is John Howard’s Least Light, Most Night, which sees a reserved, even rather shy office worker reluctantly accept a curious invitation to attend the house of a colleague whom he doesn’t know well for tea and biscuits, at which point he is drawn into a very odd world indeed.

Robert Aickman rarely missed a chance to evoke a dreamlike, often nightmarish atmosphere. And Aickman’s Heirs goes for this too, in a big way.

Take David Nickle’s Camp, which plucks a sophisticated newlywed gay couple out of the city and sends them on a do-it-yourself honeymoon in the Canadian wilderness, where a slow and terrible transformation commences. Or Lynda Rucker’s The Dying Season, wherein another couple trapped in a failing relationship visit a holiday resort so miserably rundown that it scarcely seems possible it could exist in the real world.

With all these stories, of course, and all the others contained herein – there are 15 in total – Aickmanesque ambiguity reigns supreme, solutions often left to the interpretation of the reader. Characterisation typically runs deep (though, at times, is complex – with loneliness and isolation key and repeating themes), while menace arrives subtly, much of the damage self-inflicted, our heroes beset by the results of bad choices and poor personal judgements.

Again like Aickman’s originals, the stories are expertly crafted and exquisitely written. You’d expect that from highly regarded professionals like Lisa Tuttle and John Langan, whose contributions – The Book that Finds You and Underground Economy, respectively, are among the best in the tome. But Camp is a particularly excellent example too, as are The Dying Season, A Change of Scene, and DP Watt’s deceptively gentle A Delicate Craft.

Don’t just take my word for it, though – check it out for yourself.

In fact, in this case you really should, because Aickman’s Heirs, like most of Robert Aickman’s own work, will probably divide horror fans. Those who always need a clear resolution, or who like to be jump-scared out of their skins, and of course those who consider themselves gore or splatter hounds, most likely won’t be enamoured. In many ways, the stories in here are literary shorts at least as much as they are horror – but if you have any interest in the ‘other’, that strange, outré world of speculative writing, where nothing is necessarily what it appears to be, messages are purposely mixed, and much of the quiet terror stems from frailties of the human psyche, then Aickman’s Heirs could definitely be an anthology for you. 

And now …

AICKMAN’S HEIRS – the movie

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 audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they’ve all got lost in an underground catacomb and are then confronted by a mysterious monk (a la Tales from the Crypt) or are the subjects of memoirs related by a vampire to a famous horror author in an elusive and Gothic London club (al la The Monster Club) – but basically, it’s up to you.

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

The Dying Season (by Lynda E Rucker): A gentle artist and her bullying corporate husband spend an off-season holiday at a drab seaside trailer park, which is almost empty except for the disturbingly strange couple across the way …
Silvia – Emma Dumont
John – Toby Regbo
Lynn – Ruth Wilson
Gabriel – Miles Jupp

Two Brothers (by Malcolm Devlin): When William’s older brother, Stephen, goes to boarding school, the younger sibling is left to his own devices in their big country house. He yearns for his brother’s return, but when Christmas arrives, and Stephen comes home, he has subtly changed …
Father – Philip Jackson
(Alas, my knowledge of child actors isn’t broad enough to effectively cast either Stephen or William).

A Delicate Craft (by DP Watt): A lonely Polish plumber looking for work in the English East Midlands meets and befriends elderly Agnes, who teaches him the delicate art of lace-making. A rare skill, for which there is a terrible price to pay …
Boydan – Antoni Pawlicki
Agnes – Helen Mirren

Seven Minutes in Heaven (by Nadia Bulkin): A sulky 20-something is fascinated by her hometown of Hartbury’s eerie twin, Manfield, which still stands a few miles down the road despite having been evacuated after a pesticide disaster. In due course, she uncovers a terrifying truth …
Amanda – Jessica Henwick

Thursday 16 May 2019

The mental aberrations of sociopathic men

Well … it’s publication day for STOLEN, my third Lucy Clayburn novel, so I’m inevitably going to be talking a little bit about that today (but not too much, as I’ve gassed a lot about it recently). But given that there is lots of gangster stuff in STOLEN, including one massive underworld hit (which has certainly got one or two reviewers gossiping), I thought we might also chat a bit about gangland atrocities, and just as an academic exercise, that I’d single out the 10 MOST SHOCKING AND TERRIFYING that I’ve ever come across in real life.

On top of that, because today we’re looking deep into the mental aberrations of evil, sociopathic men, I’ll be reviewing and discussing CAIN’S BLOOD by Geoffrey Girard, which is as grim and disturbing as the modern crime thriller tends to get, but with sci-fi elements interwoven. If you’ve only called in to check out the Geoffrey Girard review, no problemo. You’ll find it at the lower end of today’s blogpost, as always. Feel free to zoom on down there ASAP.

However, if you’re also interested in the other stuff, stick around a little longer, and let’s talk first about …

Lucy Clayburn 3

I’m very happy to see STOLEN, the third novel in my Lucy Clayburn series, published today. This latest installment finds my young police heroine still working cases in Crowley CID, Crowley being the ‘November Division’ of the Greater Manchester Police area (and a rough, tough beat by any standards).

However, she’s also facing a domestic crisis as her mother, Cora, normally a law-abiding citizen, is increasingly looking back to her wild youth, contemplating a possible reunion with her old flame, and Lucy’s estranged father, gangland boss Frank McCracken. As you can imagine, this isn’t going down too well with Lucy, who, when she first discovered that she and McCracken were related – and it was as much a revelation to him as to her – made a deal with him to keep it secret, because if news like this got out, it could be mutually catastrophic to both their careers.

At the same time, there are various heinous things going on in Crowley, which are soon likely to distract Lucy even from this. A number of pets have disappeared in unusual circumstances, and Lucy traces this, or so she thinks, to a dog-fighting ring, only to then learn that she’s off-track – and that now people are disappearing as well.

At first, it’s members of the homeless community, whose absence no one has noticed except Sister Cassiopeia, a drug-addicted former nun, who caters to the Skid Row folk as a kind of self-appointed pastor. Lucy initially takes this story no more seriously than she does the urban myth that a mysterious black van was prowling the housing estates on the nights the pet dogs were abducted … until she learns that this black van is supposedly still on the prowl, and no longer just looking for animals.

Something fiendish is clearly going on. It may be connected to the horrific inner-city wilderness that is the Fairview Landfill site, because weirds things are also supposedly going on out there. But alternatively, it might be linked to the network of disused air-raid tunnels that run underneath Crowley’s many derelict mills. One thing is certain: when an OAP is brutally abducted from his home – and once again there are stories that a van was heard racing away – Lucy has no option but to launch herself into a very complex and distressing investigation.

As I say, STOLEN is out today, from all the usual retailers. 

The worst mob hits ever

I saw a rather concerning headline in the news this last week. It read:

Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before

The accompanying story described how Britain has now become the hub of numerous international criminal networks, whose various rackets include prostitution, protection, slave-trading, gun and drug smuggling, murder-for-hire and the laundering of billions of pounds through London every year. Other figures, apparently straight from the National Crime Agency, reveal that there are 4,629 active gangs and syndicates in the UK today, which together employ 33,598 full-time professional criminals.

Stats like these will come as a sobering shock to many, particularly to those one or two reviewers of my Lucy Clayburn novels who have expressed doubt that highly-organised and well-resourced criminal cartels like the Crew – my fictional firm who control the North of England – genuinely exist in Britain today.

I should say straight away that I’m not quoting these sad figures as some kind of ‘told you so’ point-scoring exercise. I mention them simply to illustrate that the terrifying influence and extreme brutality exercised by the Crew in my three Lucy Clayburn novels to date – STRANGERS, SHADOWS and STOLEN – are not too far removed from reality.

The latest of those three novels, the one published today in fact, STOLEN, is particularly worth mentioning in this context because it features what has been described as ‘a horrendous sequence’ in which a major gang hit is carried out with ‘visceral, shocking violence’.

As always, I make no apologies for this kind of stuff. Unlike my Heck novels, which generally involve the pursuit of serial killers, my Lucy Clayburn books always have one foot in the realm of organised crime. And I honestly don’t feel that you’re doing anything other than shortchanging your audience if you fail to depict this fearsome hoodlum world in warts and all fashion.

So, yes … there is victimisation and savagery in these books, and the horror and despair of being caught on the wrong side of merciless gangs, and there is also, as I’ve said, that big, gruesome gang-hit which is carried out with extreme prejudice.

Also relevant to this conversation, I think, is the character of Frank McCracken, Lucy’s estranged father, whom she never knew until she was thirty years old and ten years a cop, and who in her absence has risen through the ranks of the Manchester mob until he now has a seat at the top table.

There are times in the books when Frank comes over as a good guy: affable, approachable, handsome, very urbane. And this is another effort on my part to be authentic. Because all these things are derived from real-life legendary dons who made their bones in the so-called golden age of gangsterism. The likes of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (left) were, at first glance, attractive and even charismatic figures. But the comparison doesn’t end there because, like all these infamous real-life villains, Frank McCracken’s seductive appearance conceals a deeply ingrained psychotic nature. He isn’t sweet and kind, he’s treacherous. He isn’t a straight-up businessman, he lies, cheats and breaks every rule in the book. He isn’t just violent, he’s a killer. I should add here that Frank is more progressive than his compatriots in some ways; he doesn’t like killing and doesn’t do it gratuitously. But by the same token, if he deems it necessary, he’ll do it without hesitation. Not only that … he runs an entire subdivision of the Crew, whose most vicious and murderous elements he will happily unleash on anyone and everyone who emerges as a possible threat (whatever their age or gender).

This is surely the most curious crux of the high-level organised crime phenomenon. Its chief practitioners know what decent society is because they yearn to move in it, they seek its validation, they adopt its trappings. It often seems as if they aspire to be part of it themselves, and yet they are often so inherently indecent that taking that final step is nearly always beyond them. They will never be part of the moneyed but respected establishment they seem to be in awe of, and deep down, I suspect, most of them probably wouldn’t want to be anyway.

Why would they? In the words of Henry Hill, the real-life enforcer at the heart of Nicholas Pileggi’s wonderful script for the Martin Scorsesi 1990 Mafia classic, Goodfellas:

… we were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all, just for the asking. Our wives, mothers, kids, everybody rode along. I had paper bags filled with jewelry stashed in the kitchen. I had a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed. Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I'd bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I'd either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies. Didn't matter. It didn't mean anything. When I was broke, I would go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking.

And of course, I say it again, anyone who gets in the way is simply rubbed out. By means and methods that are never considered to be too horrific. Which brings us to the main meat of today’s chit-chat.

STOLEN is already drawing attention because of its brutal gangland vengeance scene, and because a leading character in the series, who up until this point the readers might have started liking, thinks nothing of issuing an extreme bloody sanction against a rival faction.

So now, let’s talk about some real ones.

Just for interest’s sake, I thought I’d draw you a list, in no particular order, of the 10 most shocking and terrifying mob hits (and/or hitmen) in the history of organised crime:

1) St Valentine’s Day Massacre

Still one of the most famous gangland slaughters of all time, the St Valentine’s Day Massacre seems like a relatively small event by modern standards, but it was the culmination of a long and well-publicised underworld war that had terrorised Chicago for much of the Prohibition era, and of course it was ordered by Al Capone (below), who is still regarded today as America’s first celebrity gangster. In short, Capone’s South Side Italian outfit had been in conflict with a gang of Irish hoodlums led by George ‘Bugs’ Moran, whose power base was on the city’s North Side.

The dispute was originally over turf and booze, but by 1929 there’d been so many murders and assaults and the level of hatred was so intense that no kind of peace treaty was ever possible. On the morning of February 14 that year, five members of the North Side Gang and two associates were hanging out at a Lincoln Park garage, well inside their own territory, when the premises were raided by four cops, who lined them all up against a wall, before mowing them down with Thompson submachine guns. Needless to say, the four ‘cops’ were Capone assassins, two wearing stolen police uniforms, the other two claiming to be plain-clothes. Moran himself wasn’t present but was said to have been so unnerved by the massacre that in due course he got out of Chicago, and to a lesser extent, out of the business.

2) Murder, Inc.

Initially formed as the enforcement arm of the US’s National Crime Syndicate, Murder, Inc (pictured at the top of this column) started life as the blunt instrument by which the will of a merciless higher power was enforced, but in due course rose to prominence as an empowered faction in its own right, before falling from grace with amazing speed. When Lucky Luciano created the Crime Commission, the governing arm of the American Mafia, in 1931, Murder, Inc were to serve as its executioners, the idea being that if they only ever struck on the orders of the overarching committee, there would never be retaliation between the Five Families. 

A gang of purposely chosen contract killers, headed up by accomplished hitmen Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter (above), Albert ‘the Mad Hatter’ Anastasia and Abraham ‘Kid Twist’ Reles, they slew regularly for the Commission, utilising every weapon imaginable, from guns to knives, neck-wires to ice-picks, baseball bats to broken bottles, but also began accepting contracts from mob bosses in other parts of the country too, breaking their own rule and subsequently claiming maybe 2,000 victims in the next ten years. 

The writing appeared on the wall in 1940 when Kid Twist became a government witness, the first of several. A succession of arrests followed, leading members facing long prison terms or death, Lepke becoming the first major organised crime figure in the US to go to the electric chair. Anastasia saved himself by having Twist murdered but was shot dead himself in 1957 (above), having annoyed key rivals.

3) Cannibal Stew

Organised crime had always been prevalent in the former Yugoslavia, with Yugoslav criminals particularly active, in fact prominent in some cases, in Western Europe, though in overall terms it was relatively small-time. The big change came during the 1990s, when the Balkan Wars saw Bosnia, Croatia and Herzegovina devastated, and the international community retaliate against Serbia with severe sanctions, which led to an economic crisis and galvanised thousands of young men, including many ex-soldiers, paramilitaries and other combat veterans to join criminal organisations. 

From this point on, the Serbian Mafia spread its tentacles far and wide, involving itself in drug smuggling, arms trafficking, gambling, protection, kidnapping and armed robbery, all of which necessitated the regular use of extreme violence. However, one of the grisliest episodes in anyone’s criminal history occurred in a Madrid flat in 2009, when two Serbian gangsters from the Zemun Clan, Stretko ‘the Beast’ Kalinic (above, left) and Luka Bojovic, punished light-fingered gunman, Milan Jurisic (above, right), by brutalising him with a hammer, skinning him, filleting him and putting him through a mincing machine, before making him into a stew and eating him. Kalinic was later sentenced to life imprisonment for a whole series of such sadistic murders committed in his capacity as a hitman, mainly on the evidence of informers from inside his own organisation.

4) The Iceman Cometh

Probably the most terrifying hitman ever to be associated with the New York Mafia was Richard Kuklinski, the so-called ‘Iceman’ (right). In so many ways, this guy was everyone’s worst nightmare. He stood 6ft5, was built like the Hulk and worked as a freelance mob murderer from 1954 to 1986, in which time he is said to have killed anything from 100 to 250 men, always concealing this horrific truth beneath the respected veneer of a middle-class family man who lived with his wife and children in suburban New Jersey. 

Kuklinski was referred to as the Iceman because it was his habit to freeze his victims’ corpses and only dispose of them long after they’d been killed, thus confounding investigators, but his real usefulness to Mafia bosses was how utterly indifferent he was to human suffering. Kuklinski would kill by any means – knife, gun, bomb and so on – but, if the contract required it, he would torture and kill too, on more than one occasion kidnapping his targets, feeding them alive to a horde of voracious rats, and filming it while it happened, an MO which prompted one gangland underboss to comment that he ‘had no soul’. Kuklinski, who was also a racketeer in his own right, was convicted of six murders in 1986, and died in jail in 2006. He confessed while inside but claimed that he’d lost count of his actual tally as he used to practise on the homeless long before he began accepting contracts.

5) Fatally Chopped

In April 2013, a long and bitter war between the rival halves of an infamous Hong Kong triad society, the Wo Shing Wo, led to an incredibly gruesome and very public murder, in which a notorious local gangster was literally disembowelled alive in front of stunned spectators. Mouse Shing, a 30-year-old underboss of the Wo Shing Wo, was recovering in hospital after receiving leg wounds in an earlier attack. A key figure in the Hau Sai faction, who were attempting to resist infiltration of their territory in Hong Kong’s Sheung Shui district by the infamously violent Yen Chai, Mouse Shing had survived the earlier assault but was till a key target. 

He’d no sooner left the hospital, even though impaired by his wounds – he was said to be walking with a cane – when a car sped up, and two assassins leapt out armed with knives, an axe and a meat-cleaver. What was described as a truly horrendous attack followed, the unarmed and undefended Mouse hacked and chopped, his lower abdomen sliced open so that, in the words of appalled pedestrians on the public street, his intestines were literally hanging out. Other deep wounds later found on his arms and limbs suggested that his assailants had also attempted to lop off his limbs. Rushed back into the hospital, Mouse was worked on frantically by the dismayed staff, but he was too grotesquely injured to survive. 

6) Crates of heads / Hanging Corpses

The violence of the Mexican cartels is renowned. The influence they wield is chilling, their appetite for revenge nightmarish. Almost no atrocity is deemed beyond such ruthless, monolithic power-structures as the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, Los Zetas, La Familia etc. All enforce their authority with extreme terror, and have used their incredible wealth, generated from trafficking coke into the US, to buy off the police, the military, the financial sector, the judiciary, even large sections of the government. As an illustration of the murderous mayhem caused by the Mexican drugs cartels, the so-called Mexican Drug War, which commenced in 2006, has now cost 60,000 lives.

Against a background of such bloodthirsty chaos, to single out any particular hit as an example of rampant criminality would seem ridiculous, but there are certain outstanding incidents that still defy belief. Acapulco, a tourist Mecca of the 1970s and 1980s, became less attractive in 2011, when 15 headless bodies were dumped on the streets, on the apparent orders of the Sinaloa Cartel. The heads themselves were in a nearby crate. If that isn’t enough, in one night the following year, 23 tortured people, including four women, were found either hanging from a public bridge or beheaded and dumped on the street in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, sad relics of the war between the Zetas and the Sinaloans. 

7) Kansas City Massacre

Conspiracy theories abounded in the wake of the terrifying Kansas City Massacre in 1933, and still do today, a range of experts offering different viewpoints regarding the perpetrators and their motives. In short, a small group of cops and FBI agents were in the process of escorting bank robber, Frank ‘Jelly’ Nash back to Leavenworth Prison, from where he’d absconded several years earlier, when, in the car park at the Union Station railway depot, Kansas City, they were ambushed by a posse of gunmen armed with Thompsons. In the following rain of lead, signalled by a cry of ‘Let ‘em have it!’, four law enforcement officials were slain, while Frank Nash died in the car into which he’d just been bundled. 

The killers all escaped – at least initially, but what were their motives? Were they trying to free Frank Nash, or silence him? In due course, the FBI named other robbers, Vernon Miller (left), Adam Richetti and Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd (right), as their chief suspects. This was controversial, many – and not just fellow criminals – claiming that Richetti and Floyd were being framed as it was proving difficult to get them on other charges. Even today, that theory persists with certain crime historians, especially as Miller was later found mutilated in a ditch, a possible mob hit, which suggests the Mafia were involved. Either way, Floyd died in a shootout with cops in 1934, and Richetti was sent to the gas chamber in 1938.

8) Melbourne Killings

One country rarely associated with criminal atrocity, but where there is actually a flourishing organised crime scene is Australia, and in the early 2000s, its southern city, Melbourne, was the venue for a shocking underworld war, a succession of hits and shootouts claiming the lives of 36 prominent figures in the Aussie underworld. It all started when, thanks to the activities of the corrupt Painters and Dockers Union, Melbourne became the country’s capital of amphetamine distribution. Initially, the trade was controlled by one overarching firm, but when its leader, John Higgs, was jailed in 1996, a vacuum formed, and the jockeying for power that resulted transformed into a full-on gangster war, with several factions going at it. 

In all ways it resembled the bad old days in Chicago, with car bombs, drive-by shootings, gun-play in bars, restaurants and so forth ... and of course the more who died, the more places were left vacant, which only intensified the competition and the violence. A specialist police unit, the Puruna Taskforce, eventually brought the vying mobs to heel, but not until after a welter of carnage. Most of the murders remain officially unsolved, though a leading figure in the war, Carl Williams (above), was convicted of three (despite police suspecting that he carried out many more). Williams himself was killed in prison in 2010, the last victim of the war, when he was beaten to death with an exercise bike.

9) Football Face

Among the long, lurid list of drug cartel depredations in Mexico, one fairly small but nonetheless truly macabre incident stands out for all kinds of reasons. It happened in January 2010 in Los Mochis, in the northern half of Sinaloa state. It was so shocking, and so utterly mysterious, that even a drug and war-ravaged country like Mexico was rocked by it, especially as it was believed to be aimed at the powerful Juarez drug cartel in an effort to inflict on them the sort of terror they routinely inflicted on others. A certain Hugo Hernandez, who’d been kidnapped from the neighbouring state of Sonora, turned up several days later on an isolated road, headless and dismembered, his constituent parts in various different boxes. More shocking than this, though, a plastic bag was found near to the city hall. It contained a football, on the front of which Hernandez’s sliced-off face had been crudely stitched. A note that was also in the bag, a so-called ‘narcomanta’ read: ‘Happy New Year. Because this will be your last.’ (Check out the above image of Mexican cops examining a less gory manta – aka cartel warning – which was left at the site where five headless corpses had been dumped).

There was no obvious indication why Hernandez was chosen to suffer in this way, though the fact he came from Sonora could be relevant as that state was well known for its extensive marijuana crops. Whether the threat was followed up is unclear, but to date no evidence has come to light to give any obvious indication which cartel was responsible for this mindless act, even though there are plenty to choose from.

10) Kushchyovskaya Murders

Organised crime in Russia is a phenomenon of the 21st century, the overwhelming power of the Soviet Union having kept it in check for most of the 20th. Of course, the Russian syndicates are now among the most feared on Earth. But while much modern Russian gangsterism is either concentrated in the major cities or exported abroad, what is less well-known is that smaller, but no less brutal criminal gangs hold sway in rural parts of the vast country. This has partly been blamed on Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power in the centre, and his neglect of the provinces. 

Kushchyovskaya is a tragic witness to this. A prosperous farming community in the Northern Caucasus, it was long under the yoke of a local firm, which, with the collusion of corrupt bureaucrats and police officers, had lived like kings in the district, taking cuts of everything bought or sold, raping, robbing and generally terrorising the population. When, in 2010, an affluent farming family, the Ametovs, finally resisted, they paid a ghastly price. 

The farm was attacked by intruders that November, the entire family and their guests, 12 people in total (including four children), tied up and stabbed to death. The corpses were then drizzled with petrol and set alight. The crime shocked even a hardened land like Russia, leading to furious demands that Putin get to grips with the crime and corruption problem. In this case, the authorities responded hard (see above). Four perpetors were arrested and imprisoned, three having since committed suicide.


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.

CAIN’S BLOOD by Geoffrey Girard (2014)

DSTI is an ultra-secret biotech division working almost exclusively for the US military, so when things go disastrously wrong there, the problem is kept inhouse, with special operations chief, Colonel Stanforth, sending in one of his best men.

At first, ex-commando Shawn Castillo doesn’t know why he’s been given the job. A combat veteran with much experience in the Middle East (where he was captured by jihadis and viciously tortured), his normal field is counter-insurgency and espionage. On this occasion, as far as he knows, a group of six teenage delinquents being held in an educational facility attached to DSTI have absconded, committing several murders in the process. It sounds more like a job for the police. However, when Castillo arrives, it’s a scene of utter carnage, both institute staff and inmates alike lying slaughtered and dismembered.

But if that’s not enough, an even more terrifying revelation awaits him.

These so-called young offenders are actually cloned replicants of infamous serial killers – the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Albert Fish, Henry Lee Lucas et al – who have finally broken loose, and are now on a rampage, seemingly determined to fulfil the legacies of their genetic predecessors.

Prepared to chase and retrieve these burgeoning maniacs, Castillo is nevertheless suspicious of DSTI, unable to believe that any responsible group of scientists would indulge in such experiments. Though the plan was allegedly to isolate the predisposition towards violence in an effort to eliminate it from our world, he knows that the likes of Stanforth wouldn’t be involved if there wasn’t going to be some military application as well.

Feeling that he isn’t learning as much as he can from DSTI’s reticent Dr Erdman, Castillo pursues his own enquiries, forcing entry to the home of senior geneticist, Dr Gregory Jacobson, who has also gone missing, and there uncovering clues that knock him sick. It seems that, under Jacboson’s direction, certain of the clones were being purposely abused and neglected by their foster parents (mostly redneck DSTI stooges) in order to encourage the development of vengeful and sadistic compulsions. At the same time, he locates Jacobson’s own adopted son, Jeff – who it soon turns out is the clone of mass-slayer, Jeffrey Dahmer, but who has been raised in a loving, caring environment, and so appears to be manifesting no violent urges. In his own way, Jeff – a bright, pleasant young guy – is another example of one of Jacobson’s callous experiments; in this case he’s the positive outcome of careful manipulation, though Castillo isn’t sure that he can trust him.

Aware, that Jeff Jacobson will be ‘neutralised’ – either killer or lobotomised – if handed back to DSTI, Castillo opts to take the youngster with him, though he knows that getting emotionally involved in this way is the last thing he should be doing.

Meanwhile, he starts gathering useful intel. Advised by his old army buddy, Ox, who is a mine of information on the US’s numerous secret human-experimentation projects, Castillo begins to suspect that the real purpose of the cloning programme was to breed a race of testtube supersoldiers who will kill mercilessly when instructed to. He also learns that Gregory Jacobson, who appears to have deliberately released this select bunch of ultra-dangerous subjects, is leaning towards insanity himself, having developed a firm conviction that he’s a descendent of Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the original Jack the Ripper enquiry. At the same time, he gets curious about a mysterious place called SharDhara, where something horrible seems to have happened.

Meanwhile, the pack of young killers roams from state to state, commiting a string of ever-more horrendous crimes (explicitly raping, torturing and killing men, women and children alike). At least this enables Castillo to track them, but it also makes things easier for something else on their tail, something infinitely more savage than Castillo, but at least as efficient when it comes to clandestine soldiering. Only when it’s almost too late, does Castillo begin to wonder if the DSTI supersoldier programme was much more advanced than he realised …  

The first thing to say about Cain’s Blood is that, as ‘high concept’ goes, it’s up there with the best of them. I personally have no idea whether it’s even remotely possible to distill the evil from a bunch of notorious killers into the specially-grown bodies of a new race of synthetic assassins, but it’s a zinger of an idea for a sci-fi thriller.

Geoff Girard attempts to make it sound feasible by literally burying us under a welter of pseudo-scientific detail, not just catching us with it on the hoof while the story unfolds, but hitting us with the occasional lecture about historic advances in the field of genetics, everything from the Austrian monk, Brother Mendel’s experiments with peas during the 1850s, to the ground-breaking ‘nuclear transfer’ that led to the creation of Dolly the Sheep at Edinburgh Univerity in the mid-1990s. Again, I’ve no idea how credible it all is, but the idea alone is so wonderfully twisted that you can’t help but plunge in.

Of course, even then it requires a conspiracy theorist mentality to fully get on board with it. The character of Ox is a walking, talking device in this regard, a paranoid war veteran, one of whose few purposes in the book is to voice suspicion about the US Government’s role in biological experiments that have caused untold damage to countless test subjects, many of whom weren’t even aware that they were participating. It makes for an astounding read, but whether it’s based on provable truth is another matter. If it was, I’d have thought that Cain’s Blood would have been a far more controversial publication. But again, I reiterate that none of this detracted from my enjoyment. And that’s partly because once we get through that quite considerable wall of shock revelation, we are firmly into pursuit-thriller territory, and we remain there for most of the rest of the novel.

Shawn Castillo is a type of hero very popular with modern American audiences: a former spec-ops guy so badly damaged, both physically and mentally, by the many wars he has recently fought for his country that, while he’s not exactly conscience-stricken, it has left him an out-and-out sceptic regarding his commanding officers, and yet, through his innate loyalty to the US flag, taking on new missions anyway (though you get the feeling early on that this could be the final one – Castillo really is that close to the edge). But in the meantime, he does all the things you’d expect from one of these former ‘shadow company’ types: closing down his targets with effortless ease; keeping his emotions in check but suffering constantly from combat nightmares; playing it cool when some barroom brawler is causing hassle, until he absolutely has no option but to go into action, at which point the baddies get strewn across whichever car park happens to be nearest; and finding it difficult to express his true feelings even to the one female in his life, Doctor Kristin, a beautiful, intelligent, empathetic woman, who is the only thing, until now, that has prevented Castillo from slipping into madness.

So far so familiar, I know … but it’s all done very well. Kristin has been criticised by some reviewers for embodying the sexy mother/wife archetype on whom these damaged heroes so often lean. And she does play that role to an extent, but it’s not by any means certain that she and Castillo are meant for each other. Castillo is only one of a number of traumatised vets she’s managed to bring back to normality – and in that regard, their relationship also serves to examine the immoral complexity of a situation where soldiers are trained and conditioned to go out and kill the enemies of their country (enemies, they personally know nothing about), and then are expected to return to society without any kind of hiccup.

But the character who’s probably got more depth than most of the others put together is young Jeff Jacobson, the genetic offspring of a savage serial killer. You might not have thought there’d be much down for this kid, certainly not when so many other of the ‘prodigals’ have immediately begun replicating the worst atrocities of the originals. And yet Jeff Jacobson has a large role to play in this narrative, because, in the end, it is he who’s the living proof that genetic deviance is not unconquerable. It is young Jeff who serves to illustrate that, for all their research into genes, chromosomes, embryology, X&Y and so on, the ‘playing at God’ scientists of DSTI are taking a blind alley in their efforts to isolate wickedness in the lab – and in fact, in their casual mistreatment of anyone and everyone for the supposed betterment of mankind, are themselves exemplifying a far more insidious form of evil.

Jeff Jacobson comes over as a great kid. It’s a bit mind-boggling for the reader when you consider that he’s the mirror-image of a young Jeffrey Dahmer, but he’s also affable, clever and helpful. Though Castillo is initially wary of him – who wouldn’t be, given his patronage? – the twosome gradually become friends, and in fact go further than that, forming a bond in their efforts to track down their devilish prey. Jeff’s not just the living proof that nurture is more important than nature but ends up providing the heart and soul of this otherwise dark novel.

As a final thought, I’ve now learned that Cain’s Blood was published in tandem with a YA version of these same events: Project Cain, told from the POV of one of the youngsters. That does surprise me, because this is one gory outing. Be advised, there is some seriously cruel and brutal stuff in here, which more than captures the horror of the original crimes committed by the likes of Dahmer, Bundy etc. But if you don’t mind that, then Cain’s Blood is a very satisfying thriller, maybe a little far-fetched, but enjoyable nevertheless.     

As always, I’m now going to be bold (stupid) enough to try and cast Cain’s Blood should it ever be adapted for the screen. Just a laugh of course. I doubt anyone who matters would listen to me anyway. But here we go:

Shawn Castillo – Ryan Eggold
Kristin – Keira Knightley
Jeff Jacobson – Garrett Ryan
Gregory Jacobson – David Morse
Colonel Stanforth – Gerard Butler
Ox – Barkhad Abdi
Erdman – William Sanderson