Thursday, 17 October 2019

Galleries of Darkness, for October - Week 3

Okay, it’s now Week 3 of my OCTOBER GALLERIES OF DARKNESS, and judging from the responses I’m getting on Facebook and Twitter so far, most people seem to approve. This week again, I’ll be focussing on 20 more artists – painters, book illustrators, game designers etc – who’ve made their nightmares so vivid and real that the rest of us can be enjoy them (or be terrified by them) just as much.

On top of that, because it’s still October and the focus remains on extreme darkness, I’ll be reviewing and discussing in my usual forensic detail THE ICE LANDS by Steinar Bragi. This is a very strange and disturbing novel, my first actual venture into Nordic Horror (as opposed to Nordic Noir), and in truth was unlike anything I’d ever read before. I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing it, though it was undoubtedly a challenge.

If you’ve only popped in for THE ICE LANDS review, you can locate it, as usual, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Hurtle on down there and immerse yourself in it straight away. On the other hand, if you’re in no rush, here are a couple of other things that might be to your liking. Not just our latest Gallery of Darkness – you’ll find that in due course – but this as well …

Darkness in the heart of Wigan

After a strap-line like that you may indeed wonder what I’m about to discuss with you. Well, it’s at least as exciting as it sounds.

Basically, for the third year on the trot, I’m honoured to have been asked to participate in WIGAN NOIR at the Old Courts Courtroom (below, right).

Loosely, it’s part of the Noir at the Bar phenomenon, which first came over to Britain from the USA several years ago, and which sees published crime and thriller writers get up on podiums in the midst of crowded drinking-holes and read out concise chunks from their latest or forthcoming novels (just enough usually to whet the appetites of all those in attendance), and then answer a few questions from guest interviewers.

It’s become a national thing now, and thus far to date I’m flattered to have been asked to partake in these events in Carlisle, Skipton and Manchester. But it’s probably inevitable that the WIGAN NOIR events are closest to my heart, as they happen in my home-town.

Organised by fellow author, the indefatigable Malcolm Hollindrake, these have been very successful occasions thus far, often selling out well in advance. They tick all the usual boxes: the industrial or post-industrial urban atmosphere that often goes with Noir fiction, the bar-room environment, the tough prose with which the audience are invariably assailed. But also the impressive names that have so far been attracted.

This year is no different in that regard. Again, I’m honoured to be sharing a platform with such illustrious northern writers as Caroline England, RC Bridgestock, Dale Brendan Hyde and Nick Oldham.

Unfortunately, I’m delivering this bit of promotion rather late in the day, as the event happens tonight at the Old Courts Courtroom in Wigan (don’t worry, there are several bars), commencing 7pm, with tickets £3 in advance or £4 on the door).

For my own part, I’ll be taking the opportunity to read from my new novella, SEASON OF MIST, which sees an industrial Lancashire town in the 1970s, Ashburn, living in terror of a serial child-killer, though one particular group of youngsters are enthralled by a local legend of the autumn, which lays the blame firmly at the bloodied feet of an evil spirit called Red Clogs …

This will be a fairly apt choice, I feel, as Ashburn is basically a thinly-veiled Wigan, though it’s the Wigan of my youth – 1974 – rather than the Wigan of today. More than a few will remember it, I’m sure.

Again, I realise this is late notice, but hopefully not too late. Looking forward to seeing some of you there. 

And now …


Those who’ve checked in with this blog over the last two weeks should be well aware that I’m currently in the middle of a month-long feature concerning artists (painters, illustrators, photographers and such), who have dipped into the ultimate darkness.

In short, each Thursday during October I’ll be posting a different gallery of chilling images as produced by some masters and mistresses of the visual nightmare. As I announced at the start of this month, there’ll be 100 in total, the final 20 to jar your world on Thursday October 31, a date which otherwise needs no introduction. (And even then, trust me, I’ll only have scratched the surface – there is a vast sea of wonderfully disturbing artwork out there).

We open today’s blog with the eye-popping Lucifero by Francesco Scaramuzza (was this the model for the monster in Night of the Demon, or what?). But this was drawn as part of Scaramuzza’s monumental illustration of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which took him most of the 1820s to complete, and mainly this month I’m looking to feature more contemporary works, if for no other reason than it should hopefully introduce viewers to some dark artists they perhaps haven’t heard about previously.

I make no apologies for the fact that I don’t talk about these artists in any specific or educational detail. Firstly, I’m not qualified to do that, but as you’ll see from their intricate skills and subtextual immensity, there is way more to be said and debated than I could ever fit in here anyway. However, in most cases you can follow the links, and they will lead you through to much fuller information and, sometimes, online shops for prints, originals and the like.

One final warning: I’ve chosen nothing here simply because it is revolting. To me horror is about frightening its audience not making it sick. But despite that, these maestros of the darkest arts have some pretty harrowing dreams, and when it comes to recreating them for others, they do NOT hold back.

Here we go …




An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Steinar Bragi (2011)

In the aftermath of Iceland’s financial collapse, two young couples and dyed-in-the-wool townies, Hrafn, Vigdis, Anna and Egill, ostensibly friends though there are many strains in their relationships, take a road-trip into their country’s barren, cinder-strewn interior. They have half a mind to check out the unique natural environment, and maybe photograph some glaciers while they are there, though the reality, one suspects, is that they are simply trying to escape from personal pasts that have gone badly awry.

The couples themselves are not entirely happy with each other. They have strong sexual bonds, we come to learn, but the two men, having lost money during the recent crisis, are depressed and struggling, Egill slipping into alcoholism, Hrafn trying to make up his losses by selling drugs. In contrast, the two girls, who perhaps having led worthier professional lives, were less affected by the disaster but now are required to tolerate their menfolk’s misery and cynicism.

If this isn’t difficulty enough, the road-trip itself goes chaotically wrong.

It is out in the middle of nowhere when the travellers are engulfed in an almost unnatural fog, skidding off the road, hitting the outer wall of a crude, rock-built cabin and writing their car off in the process. The cabin’s two occupants, a strange old woman and her even older and infinitely stranger husband, come out to assist and bring the shaken foursome indoors – but there is an air of panic about this, and once everyone is inside, the weird duo promptly sets about barring every door and window.

And from here, the mysteries really begin to flow.

The old couple clearly were not impoverished once but evidently are now. More to the point, their isolated farm is all but a ruin, and surely cannot provide from the arid lands surrounding it. The twosome offers a refuge for their unwilling guests, but are generally non-communicative. For example, they give no explanation for the remains of slaughtered animals which seem to litter the vicinity of their wind-battered stead. Likewise, when Hrafn, Vigdis, Anna and Egill try to get their bearings by exploring the area, they come across the remnants of a village which now lies empty and gutted, with no trace of its former occupants but a palpable air of menace; and as before, no coherent explanation is forthcoming from the elderly couple.

The stranded foursome makes several attempts to get back to civilisation, but events conspire to thwart them. Increasingly, we feel – to our incredulity – they are settling here. And this is despite the legends of the Icelandic interior, which are really quite disturbing, as harsh a terrain as you could find anywhere, nothing but rocks and dirt stretching to every horizon, and some weather from Hell, including a tumultuous and prolonged grit-storm.

Soon, they are treating the farmhouse as their own and virtually ignoring its actual owners, who, oddly, seem to accept this, though deep down, we suspect, they know something our four hapless heroes don’t. It is certainly the case that Hrafn, Vigdis, Anna and Egill spend far too much time waging their own petty wars against each other, brooding on their past failures and taking it on themselves to investigate the deep interior of the cabin – another internal wasteland! – to notice that something very unpleasant is waiting outside …

If books were to be awarded marks for strangeness, then The Ice Lands would be up there with the best of them. Because this is one weird tale, and sorry though I am to admit it, I don’t necessarily mean this in a good way.

To counter that, I wouldn’t say that I found this novel disappointing – it’s an engrossing read, centred around an intriguing mystery – but I did find it dissatisfying. That possibly owes more to the way it was sold, at least in the English language version, than it does to the author’s original intention. In what must be considered a golden age of Nordic crime thrillers, and amid a growing awareness of Nordic horror, it was maybe a bit cheeky of the various blurbsters to pitch The Ice Lands as a tale of darkness and dread. I mean, it is a tale of darkness and dread, but it’s also a lot more than that … we quickly reach the stage, for example, where the narrative itself becomes less important than its subtext.

It’s beautifully written, the awfulness of the desolate locale handsomely described. As you’d expect from a poet, Steinar Bragi can certainly create stark and lasting imagery. But despite this, and despite its enthralling opening, The Ice Lands is not so much a story about four people in peril as much as it is an assessment of Iceland, both the country and the people, and where they stand in the turbulent world of today.

First of all, we have this scenic and yet near-prehistoric landscape, an unforgiving volcanic topography on which only the toughest and most ruthless creatures could ever eke out a living. It is soulless, merciless, a directionless wilderness that seems to go on forever, an illusion (if it is an illusion!), which only intensifies under the horrific Arctic weather, which alternately freezes and fogs the tired foursome stranded in the midst of it.

If that isn’t message enough that this is potentially a bad place, this inner desert is littered with the near-unrecognisable ruins of those who didn’t make it: animals reduced to bones and carrion, human habitations so long abandoned and weather-worn that it’s impossible to tell who once lived here or why they left.

In addition, the undercurrents to all this are those terrible legends of the Scandinavian far north. Trolls, kobolds and other goblin types abound in Icelandic folklore, but you learn at an early stage in The Ice Lands that these are not the cute fairies of English back-garden tradition. Instead, they are malign powers who resent the intrusion of modern man with such venom that they will kill, kidnap and maim in response. (It’s probably worth mentioning that the folkloric references with which Steinar Bragi peppers his book are among its creepiest passages, depicting some extremes of supernatural evil, so it’s scarcely surprising that the country’s bleak interior was a region that travellers sought to avoid in earlier times).

Then, on top of this, we have our main cast, a thirty-something foursome, all of them damaged, distressed and wearied by their experience of modern urban life.

Bragi has been accused of oversimplifying things here, by opting for a crude form of political correctness. I don’t entirely agree, though I can see where the argument has come from.

Hfran and Egill, the men, are basically idiots. Having played the markets in empty-headed fashion during Iceland’s economic boom of the early 2000s, only to crash and burn during the banking collapse of 2008 – to which disaster they have responded in the most boorish way possible, Egill is now a drunk, Hrafn a criminal. It’s almost as if the author is pointing out what he considers to be a characteristic male response to a crisis: i.e. ‘If I personally must fail, then I will damage everything around me en route’. In sharp contrast, the two women, Vigdis and Anna, a journalist and a therapist respectively, are harder workers and more altruistic in their worldview – which of course would be laudable, except that neither of them seems willing or able to separate herself from her worthless other half, plus they each display their own irritating follies, and so they themselves are not beyond criticism.

Overall though, I think the book’s characterisation is the bit where, for me, The Ice Lands loses a little of its power.

Hrafn, Vigdis, Anna and Egill are cyphers or exemplars, stereotypes with a purpose rather than individual personalities. They each come with an awful lot of back-story, though this feels forced, in my view, making them more like fictional characters than real people. It doesn’t help, either, that their dialogue sounds stilted, their arguments are unconvincing, their sex scenes feel contrived and their response – or lack of such – to disturbing weirdness (not to say terrifying threats), jars badly even in a tale which is only superficially a horror story. 

I wouldn’t say this killed my interest in the book, but it was something of a distraction (particularly the latter point).

All this said, it wouldn’t be true to say that there isn’t something genuinely eerie and affecting about The Ice Lands. Okay, it’s not a thriller in the conventional sense, and the events leading towards the end of the book are disconcertingly violent and horrible, even if they are a tad puzzling – I struggled to solve the mystery, unfortunately, but that may just be me – but there is something of Robert Aickman and even MR James in the actual setting. This horrible old farmhouse, with all its hidden depths, which, piece by piece, are uncovered and investigated, is deeply discomforting. Why is it here? What purpose did it ever serve in this drear wasteland? Who exactly are its frail and yet ever-watchful custodians? Why do they bar it at night? What terrible thing killed the animals outside? What about the ruined village, etc …?

You won’t need a vivid imagination to realise at an early stage that none of this is going to culminate in a happy ending.

If you’re like me, you’ll probably feel frustrated by some aspects of The Ice Lands, but you’ll also be sufficiently intrigued by all these many uncanny curiosities to stick with it to the end, and if you’re not put off by the increasing incidents of gore and are not dissuaded by an ever-greater atmosphere of approaching doom – you’ll keep going and will draw something out of it even if you’re not entirely sure what that is.

I don’t think I can confidently recommend The Ice Lands to traditionally-minded thriller or horror fans, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you prefer your fiction to come from the dark side.

It won’t be easy casting this one, as my knowledge of Scandinavian actors is not as broad as it could be, let alone my knowledge of Icelandic-born actors, so it’s fortunate this is just a bit of fun. Anyway, here we go: if The Ice Lands ever makes it to film or TV, and what an interesting project that would be, here are my picks: 

Hrafn - Stefán Karl Stefánsson
Vigdis - Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir
Anna - Anita Briem
Egill - Gísli Örn Garðarsson

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