Tuesday 31 March 2020

Look north for more darkness and dread

A small bit of fantasy diversion this week, I hope, seeing as so many of us are still locked down indoors, and those of us who are allowed out finding only empty streets and parks, unable to visit friends or loved ones or even call in for a quick one at the pub.

It will end in due course, so don’t despair too much. In the meantime, all we authors can do is offer up small bits of entertainment, even if they’re only shortlived and don’t distract anyone for too long. But anything is better than nothing, I reckon. For that reason, today, rather than hitting you with the usual list of updates on my own publication schedule, my main focus will be to bring you my GAZETTEER OF STRANGE, EERIE PLACES 5, this installment concentrating on SCANDINAVIA.

In the same vein and atmosphere, I’ll also be offering a detailed review and discussion of Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s superior Icelandic chiller, THE UNDESIRED, which, though it’s non-supernatural, is a deeply frightening and disturbing tale.

If you’re only really interested in the Sigurdardottir review, that’s absolutely fine. Feel free to skip on down to the lower end of today’s post, where you’ll find it, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Before any of that …

Promises, promises

I’ve been talking a lot recently, often in response to questions on Facebook and Twitter, about my next novel, which is due out in August. Well, obviously the world has changed beyond recognition since I wrote and delivered it, and even since it was accepted for publication. However, as far as I’m aware, it is still due out in August, and this new book, which is a free-standing contemporary crime thriller, will still be called ONE EYE OPEN. I can’t say much more than that because in the very near future, maybe even this week, we’ll be doing an official cover launch online, at which point I’ll post another blog straight away, containing as much detail as possible about the forthcoming novel, along with all the relevant links, artwork and such.

On this occasion, I strongly advise you to keep on watching this space, because as you’re probably aware, planned conventions and other public events scheduled for this year are being cancelled or postponed at a rate of knots. So, as things stand at present, it’s only via this medium that I’m going to be able to communicate all the necessary details.

And now, also as promised, my fifth Gazetteer of Strange, Eerie Places will assess the scariest Top 20 mythical and mysterious places in Scandinavia.

Spooky up north

The Scandinavian world is truly one of remarkable contradictions.

Widely regarded these days as being among the leading exponents of caring and civilised behaviour, Scandinavians nevertheless first introduced themselves to the rest of mankind in a storm of incredible violence.

Viking raiders looted, pillaged, raped and killed on so massive and ferocious a scale that those on the wrong end of it often thought Armageddon had arrived (check out Alex Høgh Andersen here as Viking chieftain, Ivar the Boneless, in the TV series, Vikings)

A university anthropologist once expressed to me a firm conviction that Scandinavian races are so innately pleasant today because it was literally the case that every single negative element had drained out of their homelands during the Dark Ages.

And there’s no denying that the Norwegians, the Swedes, the Finns, the Icelanders etc are famous for their orderly societies and law-abiding ways. Oh, they have social problems like everyone else, but in their dealings with the outside world, they are unfailingly courteous and helpful.

But let’s not make any bones about it. The Scandinavian landscapes are as savage as ever. Straddling the Arctic Circle, they comprise deep, dark lakes, towering, jagged mountains and fathomless forests. No wonder Nordic thriller writers are so inspired by their native wildernesses and the harshness of their climate, or that Tolkien became so absorbed in a culture that peopled its epic countryside with frightening and fantastical beings (for the uninitiated, Middle Earth is derived from Midgard, the Old Norse word for the world of men). Monsters, dwarfs, trolls and frost giants abound through Norse legends in which even the gods, when the mood was on them, could be inimical to the survival of humanity.

It was prophesied, for example, that Fenris, the Great Wolf, would eat the Sun and Moon, while Jörmungandr, the World Serpent, would poison all the seas of the Earth. Even Odin, the Allfather, was a less than benevolent figure, who would take any woman he fancied, accept the most gruesome human sacrifices (the Blood-Eagle, anyone!) and presided over the hall of Valhalla, an anarchic afterlife realm where only the most blood-soaked warriors could drink and wench till the end of time.

But enough blather. There’s the customary wordy intro done. Now, welcome to:


1. Akershus Castle, Norway

Akershus Castle in Norway is one of those archetypal ancient fortresses whose history is so grim that it’s now the haunt of numerous ghosts. Dominating Oslo’s harbour, it was built in 1300 as a royal residence, but by 1309 was the epicentre of violence, Swedish forces attempting to storm it, a futile endeavour that would be repeated several times over the following centuries. All castles have dungeons, of course, but Akershus’s were mainly used in the 18th century, when political prisoners were held there. The regime was unremittingly brutal, countless dying, others finding themselves rented out as free labour, earning Akershus the soubriquet ‘Slavery Tower’. WWII added its own brand of bloodshed, when the Gestapo occupied the castle and Norwegian partisans were executed there. Even after the war, it saw violence, when Vidkun Quisling and seven other collaborators were shot by firing squad. Akershus is now a government office. But screams and cries are often heard, while two particular spirits are so familiar that they have names. Malcanisen is the apparition of a ferocious dog supposedly buried alive at the castle gate in medieval times to prevent the entry of evil (in which cause, it clearly failed). If it rears at you out of the darkness, you will die horribly in the next three months. Then there is Mantelgeisen, a female spectre, dressed in heavy robes but with no face, who walks the darkened corridors at night.

2. Fana, Norway

I’ve titled this section ‘Fana’, but it could just as easily be Holmenkollen, Skjold, Sarpsborg or any one of numerous other locations in Norway. All were the sites of antique stave churches, complex timber-framed structures, once typical across Northern Europe but by the 20th century found mostly in Scandinavia, primarily Norway. Beloved by locals, they were not just religious edifices, but atmospheric examples of traditional Nordic architecture. They are mostly famous now, though, for having been burned down during the 1990s by groups associated with Black Metal. An extreme spin-off from the normal Metal scene, Black Metal, as exemplified in its early days by pseudo-Satanist bands like Venom and Mercyful Fate, formed its own unique subculture in Norway, where bands like Mayhem and Darkthrone, who favoured Odin rather than the Devil, led the movement. The wave of church-burnings, of which the Fantoft Stave Church in Fana, Bergen, in the west of the country, was only the first, led to numerous eventual convictions. These crimes were not supported by everyone in the Black Metal community, some describing the arson as futile, immature and a pathetic attempt to gain acceptance, though others insisted that they were retaliation against a weak, foreign religion and an effort to redirect Norway back towards its warlike pagan roots. )The image comes from the 2019 movie, Lords of Chaos)

3. Borgvattnet, Sweden

Borgvattnet Vicarage is famous as one of the most haunted spots in Sweden. Located in Ragunda, in the north of the country, it’s a simple enough timber building, first erected in 1876. It looks innocuous from the outside, but the story is that it’s a hive of malicious supernatural activity, which over the years has seen people tipped out of chairs and even pushed through windows. The tales first started not long after it was opened. At first, standard haunted house phenomena was reported: doors opening and closing, furniture moving. But then the spirits, if spirits they are, graduated to screaming, laughing and eventually the violent poltergeist activity that we’ve already mentioned. In the 20th century, witnesses allegedly saw the phantom shapes of three elderly women. Rumours about the causes of all this vary. Aborted babies were supposedly buried in unmarked graves at the site, though there is no evidence of this, while another unproven tale holds that female staff were regularly accosted, creating a kind of psychic force that was innately resistant to the presence of the churchmen. The stories were taken so seriously that in the 1890s, a famous exorcist, Tore Forslund, was summoned. He remained on site for a whole year but was unable to rid the building of its unseen presences. The Vicarage is allegedly still haunted today, but now this is deemed an attraction, guests paying for the privilege of sleeping there.

4. Tupilaq, Greenland

Not a place, but a thing, and such a thing as you’ll only see in nightmares (you hope). First, I must deal with the location, because Greenland lies close to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and perhaps would be more at home in a Gazetteer of the Great White North, but it’s also part of the Kingdom of Denmark, so it works for us today. Despite that, the tupilaq owes solely to the Inuit religion, in which it exists as an avenging monster created by a shaman to destroy a specific enemy. Westerners may be familiar with it if they’ve read Dan Simmons’ masterly novel, The Terror, or watched the TV drama, Fortitude. It is, in essence, a golem, but bound together in doll-like form from animal parts and subjected to a ritualistic ceremony. Associated primarily with Greenland – but that’s a big place, remember, comprising various belief systems – it may come as either a ghost, an invisible something, or simply a gigantic chimera-like version of the object the shaman made. According to legend, when the target has been destroyed, the tupilaq ceases to exist, unravelling back into its perishable constituent parts, which may explain why none, not even in their inert doll form, have been preserved for posterity. However, many bone carvings depict tupilaqs on the rampage, and they are quite terrifying, similar to the totemic structures carved by Native American tribes in that they comprise many heads and bodies, all ferocious, all rolled into one.

5. Gamla Stan, Sweden

Gamla Stan is the picturesque Old Town section of Stockholm, comprising open squares, baroque buildings and winding, cobbled alleys. But it has a gruesome past, the outcome of which is an alleged plethora of supernatural activity. The roots of the horror lie in the Kalmar Union, a medieval arrangement wherein the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden would all function together under a single ruler. In 1520, Danish king, Christian II, ascended to the throne. But opposition to the Union in Sweden had become increasingly violent. When Christian took power, he suppressed the rebels, but then promised pardons for all. For his coronation on November 4, he announced three days of feasting, inviting the heads of many Swedish baronial families who had opposed him, again promising amnesty. It was only after the feast when the retaliation began, his opponents hauled one by one into Stortorget, the main square, and there either beheaded or hanged. The incident became known as the Stockholm Bloodbath, and even today, visitors to Gamla Stan have reported seeing the square awash with spectral gore or hearing the gibbers of long-dead prisoners as they are despatched to eternity. Just off the square, there is a red building containing 92 white stones, each one representing a victim of the purge. If any of these is moved, folklore holds that the soul it represents will haunt Gamla Stan for ever more.

6. Trøndelag, Norway

In December 2009, the population of Trøndelag, in central Norway, was transfixed by a manifestation in the winter sky that, at first glance, could not have been anything other than a spectacular UFO event. People were stopped in the street, stunned, by the sight of a bright blue beam, at one end of which there was a fast-turning spiral of intense white light, a concentric grey halo gradually expanding outward from it. The anomaly lasted for over ten minutes before simply winking out, by the end of which period sightings of it were being reported all over northern Norway and Sweden, and video footage appearing on the internet. On its own, it might not have caused panic, but Norwegians remembered that something similar had been spotted above their country that November, so there was widespread concern, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute’s initial explanation – that it might be an unusual variant on the Northern Lights – failing to provide comfort. UFO spotters wondered if it might have signalled the opening of a wormhole, while others linked it to the recent Hadron Collider experiments in Switzerland (nearly 2,000 miles away!). A less alarming answer was eventually provided by the Russian Defence Ministry, when they admitted that one of their Bulava missiles had failed during a test flight and gone into a tail-spin in the upper atmosphere, the spectral halo created by jettisoned rocket fuel.

7. Jussäro, Finland

Another of those localities that occasionally find their way onto this Gazetteer simply because they are eerie rather than haunted or cursed. Jussäro is Finland’s only official ghost town. That doesn’t mean there are actual ghosts there (as far as anyone knows), but that it now stands completely abandoned, most of its buildings still intact, nature gradually reclaiming it. Jussäro occupies an island in the Baltic Sea, off Finland’s southern coast. Nothing of great consequence has ever happened there, though it had a strange reputation early in the last century, when there were an inordinate number of shipwrecks on its rocky shores, the skippers of said ships always reporting that their compasses had gone haywire. An enquiry into this phenomenon revealed a heavy lode of iron ore on Jussäro, which led to a rapid expansion of occupancy on the island as a mining company was set up and workers flocked there. Operations continued until 1965, at which point the iron deposits were exhausted, and after that there was no reason for anyone to stay. The mine and adjoining town, much of which had been pretty basic anyway, was thus left derelict, and the industrial relics rapidly overgrown, giving Jussäro a mysterious and haunting atmosphere. Today, the island can be visited by the more intrepid tourist, and what they find there is a strange mixture of deserted, neo-Stalinist architecture and deep, untamed vegetation.

8. Surtshellir, Iceland

The popular television series, Vikings, plays fast and loose with a lot of facts, but it makes some efforts to stay true to known history. Fans were enthralled by one episode in which the adventurer, Floki, sails all the way to Iceland, then unknown, and, finding an incredible georama of glaciers, geysers and volcanoes, thinks he’s arrived in Asgard. This isn’t too far removed from what actually happened in 868, when Norse Viking, Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson sailed to a mysterious landmass he’d heard about, and arriving in Iceland, also felt that he’d reached the land of the gods. Because of its dramatic landforms, Iceland has maintained this aura ever since. A great example is Surtshellir, a gigantic lava cave in west Iceland, which, when first seen by Norsemen, was believed the home of Surt, the fire giant whom mythology prophesied would one day engulf the world in flame. Little wonder they weren’t eager to explore it, though Irish monks who got there first (sorry, Floki, you weren’t the first!), may have done so as early as 770. By the 10th century, with a thriving community on Iceland, Surtshellir was avoided because it was a hideout for bandits and murderers. This may account for stories persisting today that it is haunted. Weird but natural sounds can be heard in the colossal system and would have enforced the stories put about to keep people away that there were mystical beings in the cave’s depths.

9. Backroads, Denmark

With so many of us still isolated due to Coronavirus, it may not seem appropriate discussing the medieval Danish monster, Pesta, but it neatly illustrates how intangible danger can be rationalised by the uneducated into something easier to comprehend. When the Black Death swept the world in the 14th century, the effects were devastating. The bacterium Yersinia pestis, it was highly contagious, and spread by rats and fleas. It decimated Eurasia, claiming 200 million lives. There was no science or medicine in that era, while the religious authorities, though they made efforts to repel the plague through prayer and penance, ultimately perished as well. It was a scourge for which the medieval world was completely unprepared. As such, all kinds of myths abounded: the plague travelled as a poisonous black cloud or miasma; the plague was carried by bands of lepers; the plague was deliberately spread by Jews. Most chilling of all, in Denmark, they said,  the plague followed a terrifying being called Pesta, who would roam the wooded backroads. Its form was ghastly: a hideous hag draped in black, invulnerable to all weapons. Wherever Pesta went, the Black Death was known to strike, and in due course Pesta would visit every settlement. Your only hope was if it carried a rake on the day it came to your village, for then only some of your community would die. If it carried a broom, however, Pesta was claiming everyone.

10. Kruunuvuori, Finland

A key difference between Jussäro, off Finland’s Baltic coast, and Kruunuvuori, only three miles outside Helsinki, is that while the former is recognised as a ghost town, the latter is not even recognised as a town. However, in appearance terms, they are equally spooky, the latter perhaps spookier. We are used to seeing the kind of industrial ruins that clad Jussäro, but at the height of its occupancy in the 1950s, Kruunuvuori was a wealthy if detached suburb of the capital, consisting almost entirely of mansions and luxury villas. A scenic spot on the Laajasalo peninsula, Helsinki’s elite had built their summer residences there as early as the mid-19th century, though famine and war slowed its development. In 1955, businessman, Aarne J. Aarnio, bought the whole site, his aim to create a playground for the rich and famous, a Côte d'Azur on the Baltic, but he was stopped in his tracks by a ban on building permits and soon lost interest. Prospective buyers and renters looked elsewhere, residents moved out, and by the 1970s all that remained was a clutter of woodland villas and mini palaces now deteriorated into eyesores, particularly as the only visitors by then were arsonists and graffiti artists, the latter covering the once-grand remains with bizarre imagery. Like Jussäro, there are no ghost stories connected to Kruunuvuori, though urban explorers have reported unidentifiable cries from the encircling woods.

11. Lejre, Denmark

Beowulf is one of the most celebrated poems in Old English literature. Dating to the 10th century, it tells the tale of a Viking hero, a Geat (or Swede) who comes to the aid of a beleaguered Danish king called Hrothgar. The latter has built himself a magnificent new mead-hall, Heorot, only for it to be attacked nightly by a ghastly, man-eating fiend called Grendel, who dwells in the nearby swamp with his equally monstrous mother. Interestingly, while the Beowulf of the poem was based on a mythical hero of earlier centuries, Hrothgar and Heorot have a real place in history. The former has been identified with a 6th century Danish sub-king of the Scylding line, the latter with his grand seat of rule, the hall of Hleiðargarðr, which has now been excavated at Lejre on Zealand in east Denmark. But what of Grendel? Hopefully, he was purely a work of fiction. Never physically described in the poem, Grendel is the ultimate Dark Ages nightmare. Vaguely manlike, but able to kill and cannibalise 30 ordinary men at a time, he is referred to variously as the ‘walker in the dark’, the ‘marsh reiver’, the ‘child of Cain’, but also as an outsider, an exile and a tortured soul. It is this human touch that has always fascinated scholars about him. He first went to Heorot out of curiosity, potentially a friend, but was rejected by the Danes. Furious, he came back as their terrible and implacable foe, a blueprint serial killer of the ancient world.  

12. Lake Bodom, Finland

Lake Bodom is a handsome body of water, located close to Espoo, Finland’s second city, but its history is so grim that the name alone induces shudders. On June 5, 1960, four teenagers, two boys and two girls, pitched camp by the waterside, but that night were assaulted with horrific violence, battered and stabbed as they slept. Only one of them, Nils Gustafsson, survived, though severely injured himself and unable to recall what had happened. The investigation was botched from the start, multiple police officers trampling the crime scene before it could be forensically analysed. However, detectives had several leads. A local bully called Valdemar Gyllström was known to have a violent grudge against campers. Though later dismissed from the enquiry, he remained a viable suspect to some until his suicide in the lake in 1969. Gustafsson was also suspected, in his case late on – he was tried for murder in 2004 – when cold case officers theorised that he had fallen out with the other three and been thrown out of the tent, though the court acquitted him. One creepy aspect of the case remains a photograph taken at the victims’ funeral, which shows a man in the crowd who clearly matches a police artist’s drawing of an unknown person seen leaving the area straight after the killings. To date, the murders are unsolved, and Lake Bodom, though lovely, remains a dark blot on the history of southern Finland.

13. Scheffler Palace, Sweden

A rather ordinary looking building, these days used mainly as a storage unit for Stockholm University, Scheffler palace, known locally as Spökslottet, the ‘Ghost Castle’, is believed the most haunted building in Sweden. It was built by a respectable merchant in 1697, but sometime in the 1700s came into the ownership of Jakob von Balthazar Knigge, a reputed Satanist. No one knew much about Knigge, but he vanished one night, witnesses claming that he’d been driven away in a black carriage, pulled by a team of black horses under the whip of a demonic driver. From here on, there were numerous reported incidents: strange symbols appearing on the walls and disappearing; a ferocious wind blowing through the house from no known source (both classic traits of supposed infernal manifestation). A priest from Stockholm Cathedral was summoned, but during an attempted cleansing, was thrown bodily through an upstairs window and severely injured. Later incidents involve mirrors shattering when people looked in them, and the visit of a medium, who claimed that a young couple had been bricked up alive in the basement. It goes on even today. Recently, a university clerk became uncomfortable working in the Palace alone, especially after she left her office for a minute, returned and found a vile message written on her computer. She never told anyone what the message said, and never entered the building again.

 14. Hólmavík, Iceland

The Museum of Icelandic Witchcraft and Sorcery is located at Hólmavík in the Westfjords of Iceland. Visitors can view an array of mysterious objects, everything from magical staves to grimoires (ancient books filled with incantations), from preserved tilberi (diminutive creatures created by female witches for stealing milk) to a pair of nábrók or necropants (trousers made from cured human skin, the pockets to which were believed to be endlessly full of money). It’s a fascinating attraction, but it hints at a dark past. There were witch hunts all across Iceland in the 17th century, the Protestant authorities deeply concerned by the islanders’ ongoing interest in magic and admiration for spells and hexes connected to lingering beliefs in the old Norse gods. Unusually, most of those accused on Iceland were male. Pursuit of them led to, among others, the Kirkjuból witch trial in 1654, which saw an old priest accuse two of his parishioners, a father and son, both of whom were burned at the stake, and then be awarded all their goods, and the trial in 1625 of one Jón Rögnvaldsson, whose family admitted that he had long been interested in harnessing the power of the ancient runes. Rögnvaldsson was burned alive too, but others were luckier. Icelandic folklorist, Jón lærði Guðmundsson, supposedly used magic to turn away several Turkish slave ships; he was tried for sorcery in the 1630s, but a grateful court exonerated him.

15. Troldeskoven, Denmark

Troldeskoven, or ‘Troll Forest’ is a remarkable stretch of woodland in Himmerland, Denmark. It’s easy to see why folk would believe there were mystical powers at work here, the wood comprised of bizarrely and fantastically twisted beech trees, many boasting multiple trunks. Unfortunately, the explanation for this is rather prosaic. These ‘røllebøge’ beeches were first introduced into Denmark in the Middle Ages. They grow this way naturally, but over the centuries they have been carefully harvested, each time only some of their trunks lopped, allowing more and more to grow in their place. However, the reference to troll activity in Troldeskoven should come as no surprise given the troll’s unique place in Scandinavian folklore. Most people know trolls today as weirdos who hang out on the internet. Either that or cute dolls with luminous hair. But by origin, the troll is a more sinister figure. In the stories, they are nearly always brutish, ugly and evil, often murderers and cannibals. They tend to live in the wilderness, forests and mountains. Supernatural by nature, they are usually deemed to have magical powers and allegedly may turn to rock if caught in sunlight. Trolls have become one of Scandinavia’s great modern-day exports, but at one time they were genuinely feared, some cryptozoologists wondering if they represent an ancient folk-memory of a large and predatory primate that perhaps once lived in this region.

16. Hessdalen, Norway

Central Norway is certainly the place for UFO activity if you like grand celestial spectacles, but the case of the Hessdalen Lights is a real enigma. Unlike the spiral seen in the sky above Trøndelag, which turned out to be a rogue Russian missile, the Hessdalen lights (occurring in the same geographic location) remain firmly unexplained. Another way in which they differ from most UFO sightings is that they have been filmed and photographed extensively and studied by august bodies in considerable detail. Weird lights in the sky were first seen over Hessdalen as early as the 1930s, and since then have become a regular occurrence. They often take the form of balls of shimmering light, red, white or gold in colour. Sometimes they simply hover, sometimes they shoot about, sometimes they slowly meander. On other occasions they have been seen to form bewildering geometric patterns and even perform ‘dances’. This latter has particularly intrigued UFO spotters, as have reports that when emerging in daylight, the lights appear as silvery, maybe even metallic discs or orbs. Ongoing enquiries are being driven by UFO-Norge and UFO-Sweden, but high-level science has also been brought in to study the phenomenon. Several complex hypotheses (none of them yet proven) now range from unknown types of combustion caused by hydrogen, oxygen and sodium to piezoelectricty generated by quartz deposits in the cliffs.

17. Nordland, Norway

One of the eeriest myths in all of Scandinavia concerns the Draugr. All the countries of the Nordic world tell tales of this demonic legion, though the legend is most prevalent in Norway, whose 16,000 miles of rocky, uninhabited coast make the perfect backdrop for these stories of mariners drowned at sea but then washed up in a state of undead rage. Even in mythology, the draug is a unique being: a person who has died and yet in whose rotting corpse the spirit is still trapped, thus granting it a devilish half-life, which almost invariably it will use to kill and cause chaos. They are said to come plodding ashore as sodden, bloated relics, draped in seaweed, though drowning isn’t the sole cause of their existence. In one saga, Icelandic hero, Grettir, faces a draug called Glam, who was killed by a troll and returned to wreak his anger on an inland farming community. However, the draugr are most associated with the coastlines of central and northern Norway, such as in Trøndelag, where two draugs allegedly fought over the soul of a human, and in Nordland, where a fisherman defeated a draug by summoning ghosts of the Christian dead. The legend may harp back to ancient Norse myths, and Loki’s scheme to attack Midgard with ships made from the bones of dead men and manned by crews of the damned. The author, JRR Tolkien, was very impressed, basing the men of Dunharrow and his barrow-wights on these hellish foes.

18. Snæfellsnes, Iceland

Snæfellsnes, a peninsula in western Iceland and home to the world-famous Snæfellsjökull volcano, is renowned for its bleakness and wild beauty. It was also the home of Iceland’s only known serial killer. Björn Pétursson was born in 1555 and grew up in the remote village of Öxl, and though his life story reads like a horror novel, much of it is testified to in reliable court documents. The nastiness started early, his mother having developed a craving for blood while pregnant with him, and his oddball father agreeing to let her drink his. Despite this, Björn seemed to have a fairly conventional peasant childhood (despite showing some violent tendencies), but at the age of 15 had a bizarre dream in which a stranger told him to climb a local mountain, on top of which he’d locate the implement that would make his name. The next day, Pétursson climbed the peak and found the axe with which he would go on to kill his first victim, a neighbouring farm-boy chosen at random, though it was only after he’d inherited a nearby croft that he gave full rein to his blood-lust, slaughtering all visitors and passers-by with the same trusty blade. In 1596, when a homeless woman escaped his clutches (after he’d already slain her three children), he was arrested. The remnants of many corpses – one estimate is 18 – were found on the premises, and Pétursson was convicted and subsequently put to a horrible death on the breaking-wheel.

19. Northern Seas

The Greenland Sea, the Arctic Ocean, the North Atlantic. Evocative names, though not in a pleasant way. There is no more nightmarish a prospect than going down amid the roaring grey waves of the far north. Though perhaps there is extra terror here because of what might lurk underneath. “Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea, His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep, The Kraken sleepeth …” So wrote Tennyson about one of the most terrifying monsters in mythology, not least because for once, this monster is real. The kraken is universally known as the giant, multi-tentacled predator of the deep, but it seems obvious today that these stories are referencing the giant squid, a denizen of the northern seas who can grow to 50 feet long, and who, though it prefers the dark depths, surfaces occasionally. They are not known to attack modern shipping, but in the Age of Sail were frequently accused of this. Tales of the kraken originated among Scandinavian sailors, specifically in the Viking saga, Örvar-Oddr, which describes a journey to Baffin Island and an encounter with two colossal monsters, the lyngbakr and the hafgufa. The second of these, which would pretend to be an island and then drown all those going ashore, is seen as a prototype for the kraken. More interesting was the description given of a ‘young kraken’ washed up at Alstahaug in Norway in 1680, which reads like an accurate eyewitness account of a beached giant squid.

20. Honningsvåg, Norway

If you’ll allow me to finish this blog off with a personal entry, I’d like to talk briefly about my own trip to Honningsvåg, on the North Cape of Norway, and, 500 miles above the Arctic Circle, Europe’s most northerly town. It was one of the great experiences of my life. Honningsvåg is the smallest city in Norway, boasting only 2,500 inhabitants, and a land of midnight sun in summer and constant darkness in winter. No trees grow there, and sometimes polar bears pay visits. But the most eyecatching thing, at least to someone of my macabre sensibilities, was the abandoned edifice of the Grand Arctic Hotel. For all I know, it may be in use now, but at the time it struck me as remarkable that it was ever opened so far from the world’s normal trade routes. Looking in through the window, all I saw was dust and emptiness. It was a melancholy sight, but there was something ghostly about it too. I was reminded of MR James’ experiences in Scandinavia. He visited Sweden and Denmark in 1899 and 1901, and was clearly inspired, because after the comedic tale, The Story of a Troll-Hunt, he also wrote the infinitely more frightening Count Magnus and Number 13, in which the spectres are evil and murderous. It’s almost as though there is something extra creepy about the folk tales and ghost stories of Scandinavia. MR James clearly felt this, and I did too, especially when assessing the Grand Arctic Hotel. I’ve always told myself that I don’t fear the supernatural, but it really did strike me as somewhere I wouldn’t want to spend the night on my own. In early Scandinavian myth, ghosts were often wicked and harmful, and even the mightiest Viking jarls feared them. Personally, I can understand why.


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 Yrsa Sigurdardottir (2015)

It’s the present day in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Ódinn Hafsteinsson is starting a new job, investigating the events at Krókur, a residential care home for juvenile delinquents, which back in the 1970s was the centre of a shocking scandal when two of the boys were found dead.

Such a grim task is not as energising as it may sound. Ódinn is not a cop, he’s a government admin officer and most of his days are spent at a desktop computer in the middle of a typically soulless public-sector office. What’s more, though the case he’s looking into may involve historic child abuse, no major revelations are expected, and his department’s interest is only really cursory as it’s part of a large-scale review of childcare procedures in earlier decades, the aim to discover if anyone who went through the system back then has any kind of complaint that might be worthy of compensation.

That said, there are one or two oddities. Roberta, the woman who investigated the Krókur facility before Ódinn didn’t complete her enquiry, dying part-way through – at her desk, in fact – from heart-failure. As a result, another colleague in the office, Dilja, thinks that this particular case is bad luck, and when Ódinn starts to get into it, he notes that Krókur was actually a rather terrible place, both physically (it was a rundown farmhouse in a remote part of the country, which was difficult both to get out to and to come home from), and in terms of the harsh treatment it offered its teenage inmates (13-16 years old and for the most part low-risk individuals who’d only committed minor offences). He also discovers evidence that Roberta was having a more difficult time than usual when he finds anonymous messages sent to her that threatened violence if she continued to investigate.

However, though there are clearly mysteries here, Ódinn has other things going on in his life that continually distract him. His ex-wife, Lara, has recently died, having fallen from her top-floor apartment window in an unlikely domestic accident, and though he’s very busy at work, he now finds himself back in charge of his 11-year-old daughter, Rún, which though he loves her, is something he never looked for … especially as the child is clearly (if internally) traumatised by the loss of her mother. It doesn’t help his state of mind as, the more he speaks to Rún and her grandmother (his hostile former mother-in-law) and then to some neighbours in the same block of flats, he starts to wonder if Lara’s death might be more sinister than the police have concluded. At the same time, he finds himself doubting his own sanity, because increasingly he senses a presence in the old apartment, as if Lara is still around somewhere. Rún, who suffers terribly from nightmares, is fearful of exactly the same thing.

Meanwhile, back in 1974, we meet Aldis, a woman in her early 20s, who cleans and performs other menial tasks at the Krókur centre in the days leading up to the double tragedy.

Aldis hates her time here, and if it wasn’t for the fact that she herself is on the run from a difficult home life (and needs the money in order to get started in a proper job in Reykjavik), she’d be off like a shot. The farmhouse stands in an empty wilderness, housing depressed and hopeless young inmates rather than real criminals, and is controlled by husband and wife overseers, Veigar and Lilja, who are humourless Bible-thumpers as well as brutal taskmasters.

Aldis herself is treated poorly, though at least she has more freedom than the boys. Unlike them, she isn’t barred in at night, even though Veigar and Lilja don’t approve of anyone roaming around the property after hours, especially as they seem convinced that a prowler is regularly visiting them under cover of darkness. Unfortunately, this ‘privilege’ itself almost gets Aldis into trouble when she too sees a dark figure furtively checking out the facility, but in addition to that, spots Veigar behaving so strangely that she starts to wonder if he’s fully sane himself.

For all this, her life at Krókur continues to be drab and boring … until Einar arrives, a youngster who is patently older than the other inmates – closer to Aldis’ own age in fact – and who she is instantly attracted to. But Einar too is mysterious. Why is he here when the next oldest internee is only 16, and what could he have done to get himself sent here?

Einar is amused that Aldis is interested in him, and their relationship grows, eventually becoming intimate. Naturally, this is so against the rules that you genuinely fear for the daring twosome’s lives whenever they hook up together, and in the long run you feel certain that it’s going to have a disastrous outcome.

I hesitate to offer any further synopsis for The Undesired for fear of spoiling it for you, but it won’t surprise anyone to learn that the contemporary thread involving Ódinn, Rún et al, will in the pacy final third of the book link up neatly with the 1974 thread involving Aldis and Einar, to provide one shocking jolt of a climax …

To me, the greatest strength of The Undesired is how well written it is, and that’s an especially impressive thing when you consider that I read Victoria Cribb’s translation, and so can only guess at how effective Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s original Icelandic version was.

Either way, this book is a fine read, so long as you enjoy dark and chilling tales from the grimmer end of the human experience.

Whether she’s talking about the grey, slushy streets of Reykjavik, spartan government offices where sluggish, unmotivated staff probe unwillingly into past abuses, or the bleak, windswept hinterland surrounding the isolated care home, a hellish facility that you can easily imagine coming straight from gritty 1970s reality, the author achieves the same effect: hitting us with an air of numbing despondency and yet at the same time using crisp, vivid prose that compels us to read on.

In that familiar way of so many Scandi Noirs repackaged for the UK market, The Undesired comes at us with the look and a feel of a crime thriller that has one foot in the horror camp. I’ve noted a couple of reviewers taking issue with this, complaining that it was sold to them as a partial ghost story whereas in truth it includes no real supernatural elements. However, for me, a psychological form of horror is very prevalent in this book. We’re dealing with a father and daughter in Ódinn and Rún who are haunted by the loss of Lara, in fact tortured by it to a point beyond which there is almost no recall for either of them, especially Ódinn, who literally starts losing his grip on reality as a direct result. It’s harrowing stuff.

It’s also the case that everything about the Krókur homestead speaks horror. It’s functional rather than Gothic, but it exists far from civilisation on the edge of archetypical Icelandic nothingness. Add to that the Dickensian-type tyranny of Veigar and Lilja, who run the place like their private fief and apply their own vindictive laws in callous, arbitrary fashion, and you’ve got a real nightmare.

I should also say that, though the book doesn’t in the end concern itself much with child abuse, the aura of those terrible revelations that come at us seemingly more and more regularly about the suffering of children in so-called care homes in the past, pervades the narrative. It’s one of those things which, out in the real world, is so utterly awful that you can hardly bear to contemplate it, and as I say, though Yrsa Sigurdardottir hints at it rather than immerses us in it, she only needs to do that and our stomachs turn instantly to water.

But with all that in mind, does The Undesired work as a thriller?

I think so, yes.

It’s a small canvas story in truth, and quite a slow burn, but there are various mysteries to be solved here, and they get more intriguing the more tantalising clues Yrsa Sigurdardottir drops our way. It’s also sprinkled with spooky, even genuinely scary scenes despite it not involving any ghosts of the paranormal sort. There are also some satisfying payoffs, and a huge twist near the end, which though one or two commentators said they saw coming, I certainly didn’t and subsequently found very satisfying.

In terms of the main leads, both characters are intriguing because they are so different from each other and yet – and this seems strange to regard as a positive – are pretty ordinary as star-turns go, each of them loaded with personal baggage.

Ódinn is a distinctly non-charismatic civil servant type, who is tormented by his family circumstances, drinks too much and is visibly struggling with depression (which is no surprise given that he’s a single parent who doesn’t really want to be and who spends his days hemmed in by heaped, dog-eared paperwork). He looks, speaks and behaves like a middle-aged man even though he is not even close to that stage in life … and yet despite everything, he proves fanciable to his attractive colleague, Dilja, so his cause isn’t totally hopeless.

In contrast, Aldis is more of a wild child. She too has a car-wreck of a domestic life, and to escape it has rented herself out as unskilled labour, a skivvy in effect, to Veigar and Lilja. Her part of the story is set in 1974, and so while she’s a rebel with a free-spirited hippy attitude (even if it’s crushed early on by the combined gloom and menace of Krókur), she’s passive rather than aggressive, and a realist rather than a dreamer. Though working as a virtual slave at Krókur is a grotesque experience, what else has she got? Wander off in that era thinking you could wing an existence at the expense of others, and you had another thing coming. However, Aldis’ youthful zest is restored a little when the handsome Einar comes along, too much in fact, because – quite realistically, we feel – she only has minor hesitation in behaving inappropriately with him, barely even considering the serious consequences this might bring.

Again, no more from me about either Ódinn or Aldis as it would give stuff away. But they work well in context, making for a pair of unusual ‘everyman’ figures considering they play the central roles in this brooding, shadow-filled mystery.

Again, I reiterate that The Undesired is excellently written – that alone should keep you reading, because it’s an absolute joy – but the story is enthralling as well, especially when you hit the final third and it starts unravelling at speed towards a shocking conclusion.

All crime and mystery readers will be well rewarded if they take a chance on this one. Horror fans … well, if you’re expecting MR James transposed to the Arctic, then no, that isn’t what you’re going to get. But if you like psychological chills, twisted minds, unreliable narration to conceal horrific but all-too-believable realities, then this book will work for you too.

As you may know, I often like to close my book reviews with a bit of fantasy casting, naming the actors I personally would want to take the lead roles should the book in question ever get the movie or TV treatment. It’s often difficult when I’m contemplating Scandi Noirs, because I know so few actors from that part of the world. I’m going to have a shot today, anyway, though you’ll need to cut me some slack. This can’t be an extensive cast-list, just the main characters.

Ódinn – Nikolaj Lie Kaas
Aldis – Jodie Comer
Dilja – Agnes Kittelsen
Einar – Jakob Hoff Oftebro (older than in the book, but I suspect that all the inmates at Krókur would need to be made older anyway).

(The image at the top of today’s blog comes to us from SAALBACH; the image of Borgvattnet Vicarage comes from AtlasObscura; the image of Surtshellir comes from PhotosfromIceland; the image of the Holmavik Museum comes from Iceland.for91days. All the other images I found floating around on the internet without credits. If any of the original creators want me to rectify this or even to see their pictures removed, just drop me a line and I will of course oblige).

Tuesday 3 March 2020

Book to film, or not ... as the case may be

I’ve got a few interesting bits and bobs to chat about this week, including the title of my next novel, ONE EYE OPEN (out in August, with a cover reveal soon, I promise). But given that this publication is a few months off yet, I thought that today, which seems to be a bit of a lull in events, might be a suitable opportunity for me to talk a little about my film career to date (such as it is!), to add some meat to the bones of those occasional comments I make at conventions about movie projects of mine that never took off (some of which still may, of course).

On a not dissimilar subject, books-to-films, I also offer a belated review of James Ellroy’s astonishing and groundbreaking 1990 cop novel, LA CONFIDENTIAL, which of course became a massive hit movie seven years later. You may wonder why I’m reviewing that at this late stage. Well, I’ll answer all such questions down below … as usual, you’ll find the review at the lower end of today’s blog.

In the meantime, before we get to that, here’s an image to feast your eyes upon.

It seems I now have my own dedicated corner in The Brasshouse, that legendary pub in the very heart of Birmingham, bang next door to the Black Sabbath bridge. The two gentlemen pictured doing me this honour are Paulo Jacinto, the landlord, (on the left), and events organiser down in Brum, Mike Olley.

The background to his is that back in 2017, when SHADOWS, my second Lucy Clayburn novel, was published, I opened the action in The Brasshouse – yep, the very same place – and the owners were so happy when they read about this that they didn’t just invite me down to sample some ale and have a chat as a guest at one of their music festivals (not to mention pull a pint or two, as you can see here), but they have also now memorialised the book on the wall of the main bar.

I can’t thank the folk down at The Brasshouse enough for this great honour. It’s not something we authors tend to see a lot of, and so massive gratitude goes to Mike, Paulo and all the others.

And now (if you can forgive a really self-indulgent strap-header) …

Paul Finch – the movies

I’m aware that makes me sound as if I’ve got a track-record in film to equal John Milius’s. Well, not quite. Let me elaborate …

In my humble opinion, one of the most dispiriting things about writing – not just writing for a living, but any kind of writing – is the number of projects that never hit paydirt.

Now, what that does NOT mean is that I expect everything I write to rip across the sky like a meteor. Firstly, because not all of it is good enough for that. But also because – and this is a fact of life in the industry – even if our latest piece of work is the best thing we’ve ever done, there’ll still be an element of luck involved if it really ends up flying. On occasion, the most talented wordsmiths on the planet need to be in the right place at the right time. Of course, of all the writers I know, I bet there aren’t any who, even though they are fully aware of this, don’t occasionally bemoan those great ideas they’ve submitted as premises or treatments, or even as finished works, and yet which somehow or other, for reasons that should mystify the universe, have never caught the imagination of a single publisher or producer.

In my own personal experience, this has primarily been with movie projects. Not that I’m alone in that.

No author I know, even full-time novelists who have never attempted to write a screenplay, wouldn’t be excited to see their work adapted for the silver screen. And yet, despite the significant numbers of movies produced annually, so many of us can still tell stories about projects of ours that we privately thought would be sure-fire cinema hits and yet which, in the end, never even reached pre-production let alone principle photography.

I’ve now seen 12 of my novels published, alongside several collections of short stories. In addition, in my early days, I wrote TV scripts for The Bill and innumerable episodes of various children’s animation shows. And yet the world of film has proved dishearteningly elusive.

Now, I should add straight away that this hasn’t been the whole story. Two of my movie scripts HAVE been produced and DID hit the cinema. So, it’s not all abject misery. In which case you may wonder why I’m complaining. 

Well … I’m not really. I just thought it might be instructive, now that I’m on the runway to publication of my 13th novel, to point out that it’s not all been cakes and ale.

For those interested, the two success stories were SPIRIT TRAP (2005) and THE DEVIL’S ROCK (2011).

The former starred Billie Piper and Sam Troughton, and tells the tale of a bunch of students who take over a dilapidated London mansion where an old Russian spirit clock, long since defunct, is set in motion again, a whole series of supernatural events then following. 

My role was primarily that of script-doctor (in other words I had to rewrite a pre-existing script). The film wasn’t hugely successful, but it’s gathered something of a cult following in the years since its release, and it’s a regular on the Horror Channel, so I suppose it was a result of sorts.

The second of the two, THE DEVIL’S ROCK, is set on the Eve of D-Day and concerns two New Zealand commandos, whose mission to destroy a German gun emplacement on an outpost of the Channel Islands uncovers a plot to unleash a demonic force against the Allies.

This was a great experience, all-round. The script was mostly my own work, though I developed the story with director (and good friend of mine), PAUL CAMPION, who went on to do a sterling job behind the camera. On completion, it received a very positive response from critics and fans alike – the night of the premiere in Soho was one of my proudest moments – and if it hadn’t been for the constant pirating of the finished product, it would have gone on to make quite a bit of money and would have secured a sequel at the very least.

But that is where the good news ends. Because, as I say, none of my other film projects, thus far at least, have risen to those heady heights.

The first of these that’s worth talking about came way back at the end of the last century (crikey, that makes it sound longer ago than it actually was, though it still seems like a lifetime to me), and was a retelling of THE GOLEM.

At the time, Talisman Films, flush with confidence after the success of their Liam Neeson vehicle, Rob Roy, were really up for this one. You may recall that the Golem was a monstrous clay man, who, in the legend, was animated by rabbinical magic and put in defence of a Jewish community facing the terror of a pogrom. (The image here comes from the 1915 German horror film of the same name).

The initial plan had been to re-set the story during World War II, but after several development meetings, we decided this would be prohibitively expensive and perhaps not quite current enough given that the Balkan War was currently raging. So, we updated it and tweaked it, putting the Golem, the invincible guardian of the Jews (but a willing protector of ALL innocents), in defence of a Muslim town being terrorised by Serb guerrillas. We also threw some British and American spec-ops guys in to ensure we got the funding.

I only wrote two or three script versions of this before the producer and I settled on one that we really liked. And then, for reasons that completely elude me, but were probably financial, the project was shelved. Indefinitely. That was the first serious film script I’d ever written, and briefly it looked as if it was going well and that we were all headed for a stonking big success. But alas, it’s all long over. THE GOLEM – my version of it, at least – is not even in Development Hell anymore.

Following this, I wrote a speculative script, THE BELFRIES, (or BELFRY MEADOWS depending on which draft you saw) adapted from a short story of mine that was published in the 2004 horror anthology, Acquainted with the Night. No one had asked for it at that stage, but I wrote the script anyway, thinking that it would make a very cinematic ghost story. 

It concerns Stella, a young Manchester woman, newly married to the man of her dreams, Mike, who moves into a brand-new housing estate in the English West Country, where, because Mike is a director for the building firm, they get their pick of the posh new houses. The problem is that they are still the only residents on site and will remain so for several months. With Mike working away a lot of the time, what this actually means is that Stella will be the one alone, surrounded by rows of silent, empty new-builds. Inevitably, a haunting commences, which grows progressively more terrifying. Her investigation initially focusses on the legends and folklore of the West Country, but in actual fact the real evil is much closer to home.

I couldn’t get anyone to bite with this one, and yet I mention it here because only a year later, the story made such an impact on an Oscar-winning writer/director with Creative Artists in Hollywood that he optioned it on the condition he could adapt it himself. This would have involved him re-setting the story in California, but I had no issue with that (I’m nothing if not infinitely flexible if you want to make movies out of my books and stories!), but alas, though the option was renewed twice over several years, the film still wasn’t made.

While all this was going on, there was CAPE WRATH. This was originally my novella of 2001, which really started attracting attention when it was short-listed for the Bram Stoker Award in 2002. It follows a mission to a mist-begirt island in the Outer Hebrides, where a small group of archaeologists believe they have found the burial mound of infamous Viking, Ivar the Boneless. Needless to say, once they open the tomb, all manner of Norse-flavoured horror explodes out at them. 

This project was initially optioned by a young producer who I got on with like a house on fire, and who continued to renew it for – wait for this – the next seven years! I must have written 15 versions of the script in that time, before it gradually dawned on me that, no matter how often I ‘polished’ it, it simply wasn’t going to get made. At one point we were apparently a month from pre-production. But the month passed and, guess what … nothing happened. Sometimes the word ‘dispiriting’ doesn’t even come close to covering it.

However, this one may yet have a happy ending, because CAPE WRATH has recently been optioned again by a very workmanlike outfit headed up by a successful London-based writer/producer, so this one could still happen.

Another that has been ongoing for quite a few years now but is not yet dead is THE FREEZE.

This was an idea I initially sketched out as a possible novella, but in the end wrote as an on-spec screenplay. This would have been around 2010, I think, as it was likely inspired by the succession of extra-cold winters that we had in the UK around then (I remember -17 being recorded one Christmas Day lunchtime, which is pretty unusual even in Lancashire).

Anyway, the story concerns a bunch of delinquent girls on an outward-bound course of self discovery up in the Lake District, who find themselves marooned in their hostel by a terrible blizzard. At the same time, a prison transport carrying a group of Britain’s deadliest killers is en route to a new offshore supermax prison. Inevitably, the prison transport crashes, the murderers escape and in order to avoid freezing to death, they must try to force entry to the isolated hostel. The girls, meanwhile, if they want to survive, must somehow keep them out.

Now, this is another project, which though it’s been through umpteen changes and rewrites, and though all kinds of alternate storylines have been suggested, I still have high hopes for, mainly because the indefatigable Paul Campion is the film-maker currently most interested and he’s presently hawking it around production offices all over the Southern Hemisphere. Yet again, I don’t care if it’s set in the snowy wilds of New Zealand’s South Island if that means it gets made.

On the subject of the energetic Mr Campion, it’s also worth mentioning VOODOO DAWN.

This was another of those film projects that I derived from a short story of mine, though this one, it must be said, goes way back. Lore of the Jungle was written in 1993 and narrated by Dennis Waterman on a Telstar Audible horror anthology called Creatures of the Night.

It follows the misfortunes of a London gang, whose latest escapade leaves several people dead and arouses the ire of a bokor, or voodoo priest. The next thing the gang know, their hideout is under siege by the zombified remains of their victims.

In the script version, which I first wrote in the early 2000s, I set the gang’s hideout at the top of a derelict tower block in South London. The mind boggled at the potential this gave us for blood-drenched zombie action in the graffiti covered stairwells and lift shafts of a decayed urban high-rise, opening the door for all kinds of Reanimator-type gore effects. Paul Campion, being a special effects man to his bones, was hugely involved in this project’s development (check out his amazing concept art above), but yet again, though we rewrote it until we were absolutely delighted with it, and then touted it to a number of producers, and though several were very positive, none were able to raise the required money. And then, in the end, other circumstances kicked in. Attack the Block was made, along with the French zombie/gangster movie, The Horde. And then, as the slaughter-the-undead craze became overwhelming, we even had Cockneys vs Zombies. Personally, I consider VOODOO DAWN to be better than any of those, or even all of them rolled into one, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I!

THE DEAD ROOM – or DARK GROUND as it was later retitled – was another interesting project. This was already written in first draft form when it was brought to me by a well-regarded company who wanted to make a haunted house movie set in the UK, specifically on the Pembroke Coast. The draft I saw was very accomplished, but the producers wanted it updated along the lines specified by the director they’d hired. I went down to the director’s house in Cardiff for a couple of days and we worked through the script in various harbour-side bars, but again, in due course, the project fell by the wayside. I can’t quite remember why, but I know that this one was very disappointing as it had all seemed to be going so well and I’d made the critical mistake of actually expecting it to happen.

VODYANOI (or, for a brief time, DEEP BLACK) was the result of several meetings with a relatively new team who were keen to make a horror movie set in Russia but which didn’t denigrate the Russian people or their culture. I understood this concern. At the time, we had lots of movies like The Green Elephant, Mute Witness and Hostel, which implied that the social chaos in what had once been the Eastern Bloc had enabled the rise of Snuf film makers, torture-for-pleasure companies and, basically, insane levels of sadistic and deranged criminality. They didn’t want anything like that, so when I suggested we look at Slavonic mythology, they were very enthusiastic.

The story I came up with concerned an Anglo/Russian research team who travel to a remote lake in the Ural Mountains, where it has been discovered that natural pollution caused by metallic run-off from the encircling hills is creating monstrosities in the unexplored depths.

I was delighted with both the idea and my finished script, and felt that it came straight out of the Dr Who/Quatermass stable in that it combined sci-fi, folklore and eco-horror (plus it had finally given me a chance to indulge in one of my favourite things, which is underwater action) … but somehow, once again, it just didn’t happen.

This was an especially disenchanting episode for me, as it involved several hellish drives down from my home in Wigan to Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, at least twice during furious blizzards, for development meetings that went on for hours and seemed to lead nowhere. Of all those I’ve been involved with, I think this project was the worst experience in that I entertained such high hopes for it and put in an awful lot of effort – for absolutely zero gain.
HUNTING GROUND was another idea of mine that originated as a film premise rather than a book or story. In this one, a special forces unit sent to destroy a chemical weapons store in the Afghan mountains are immersed in an unknown agent but return home seemingly unharmed. Later however, while showing a bunch of journalists around their secret training base on a remote island, they begin manifesting homicidal tendencies. The base is shortly due to be decommissioned so there is no one else there to help the civies. I suppose you could have called this one a survival action/horror/thriller. Everyone who saw it seemed to really like it, but it took a bunch of young movie-makers, fresh out of film school, to actually option it. They wanted me to change the main protagonists from adult journalists to army cadets on a training course of their own, therefore aiming the film at a younger audience. I wasn’t initially keen but eventually saw how it could work. Alas, despite rewriting it to that effect, nothing came of it in the long-term.

We now come to what’s probably the last of the early projects of mine that almost got there. I’ve been working on HEART AND MIND for so long that I genuinely cannot remember when I first hatched the idea, though I suspect it was right back at the beginning of my freelance career, around 1998 or 1999. This was long before my Heck or Lucy Clayburn novels, but at the time I was writing scripts for The Bill, so I had my police/crime thriller head screwed on.

This one was originally set not long after the battle of Tora Bora (right), and sees an SAS soldier return home, traumatised, only to find that his mother has been shot dead during a botched robbery, for which the chief suspect is the nephew of a Manchester crime lord. When he hears from his ex-girlfriend, who’s now the DI investigating the case, that the nephew, though reviled by many in the underworld, will likely get away with it because they will always protect their own, he takes the law into his own hands, enacting a vengeance on the mob that literally rocks them where they stand.

I particularly liked this one as it turned the normal crime thriller situation on its head, seeing gangland itself horribly victimised, and the chief villain, Frank Kelman, an elderly Kray-like character, who was looking to get out of the crime game once and for all, now forcibly dragged back into it.

Once again, more producers than I can remember had solid sniffs around this one, but as before, the project – though it seemed to find favour wherever I took it – remains unclaimed at this stage, and all options have again expired. However, I still have hopes for it. The script has been written, rewritten, polished etc, and is now just waiting for someone with some development money to take a punt on it.

This brings us to the most recent film project of all, and one that is still doing the rounds.

WAR WOLF got achingly close to pre-production. It was an idea of mine loosely based on one of my fantasy novels, STRONGHOLD, though the average man in the street probably wouldn’t see much similarity between them now.

To give you a thumb-nail, the film script is set in central France during the Hundred Years War and pits a company of English knights, who have recently been the victors in some very bloody battles, against an army of vengeful werewolves. This one was optioned by a very serious London and LA-based outfit, the announcement of which even made the pages of Variety, and again, in the early stages, Paul Campion was attached to direct (here’s yet more of his amazing concept art).

Despite having all that quality on board, there’ve been lots of ups and downs in the development of this project and endless drafts have been written (not just by me, but also by my co-writer and good buddy, Andy Briggs), but the good news in this case is that it is still being talked about and considered, and could easily happen. Fingers crossed for this one.


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

by James Ellroy (1990)

Los Angeles in the early 1950s, where three cops are following very different routes in their efforts to rise through the ranks.

First off, Ed Exley, son of legendary ace-detective now turned top businessman and successful civic engineer, Preston Exley, is a one-time college boy and supposed war hero (though in truth, his wartime heroics are a fake, which only he knows about), who is determined to go far in this toughest of professions, primarily because he yearns to emulate if not improve upon his father’s achievements. Secondly, there is Wendel ‘Bud’ White, a pitiless hardcase who, thanks to a nightmarish childhood during which he was chained up by his psychotic father and made to watch his mother suffer a fatal beating with a tyre iron, has a particular bone to pick with every domestic bully he meets. Lastly, there is ‘Trashcan’ Jack ‘the Big V’ Vincennes, a superficially ultra-cool character, who works the narco desk, earns big bucks advising for the hit TV show, Badge of Honour, and busts celebrity drug-users after first setting up photo ops for scandal mag, Hush-Hush, with its scoop-hound in chief, Sid Hudgens, for which he is also very well-paid.

Clearly, none of this unethical threesome are shining examples of LA’s finest, and from the start they seem unlikely ever to be bedfellows when it comes to investigating crime. In fact, early on in the book there is active loathing between them.

Exley, who’s duty-officer at the division’s headquarters one booze-soaked Christmas Eve, when dozens of officers participate in the brutal and continuous beating of several Hispanic youths being held for assaulting a couple of patrolmen (a reflection of the real life ‘Bloody Christmas’ event in LA in 1951), regards it as his duty to report the incident. The chain-reaction this ignites sees Vincennes, who was only peripherally involved, transferred to Vice, and White, also an unwilling participant, severely censured, but more importantly, White’s partner, Dick Stensland, who was the main instigator, dismissed from the force and sent into a downward spiral of drunkenness and crime, which finally sees him executed in the gas chamber.   

The three men duly settle into new routines, hating each other from a distance, and time moves on, a sense of which we readers mainly glean from a torrent of official police reports and newspaper articles, including plenty from the ever irreverent Hush-Hush.

Vincennes and White wallow along at reduced pace, the former, now a drug-user himself, disgusted to be investigating such uninteresting villains as pimps and pornographers, the latter making a bit on the side by strong-arming gangsters under the affable but manipulative control of Captain Dudley Smith, whose secretive unit enjoys almost free license in its use of violence, blackmail and bribery. Exley, meanwhile, the only one whose chances of promotion have improved since the Bloody Christmas outrage, is still looking for the big case that will make his career.

Ed’s father, Preston Exley, though he made his real wealth building freeways and the gigantic amusement park, Dream-a-Dreamland (a thinly veiled Disneyland), became an overnight sensation as a cop when he captured a serial killer who didn’t just abduct and butcher children, including a popular child star of the 1930s, but who then stitched their severed parts together to create his very own Frankenstein monster. Ed, now a detective in his own right, has never had a case that even approaches this one, until the ‘Nite Owl Massacre’ occurs; what looks like an armed robbery at an overnight diner, which spins out of control and sees three members of staff and three customers shot dead. 

Dubbed the ‘Southland’s Crime of the Century’, Exley is determined that this will be the enquiry that defines his career, but as the demand for results from Chief William Parker grow louder and louder, he closes in too speedily on three black hoodlums who actually have a solid alibi: at the same time as the Nite Owl murders were happening, this sordid trio had abducted a young Latino woman, raped and beaten her and were then in the process of pimping her out to various of their lowlife friends. Despite increasing evidence to the contrary, Exley persuades himself that the threesome are guilty of the Nite Owl attack too and winds up gunning them down when they attempt to go on the run, even though he is armed at the time and they aren’t.

What follows from this shocking miscarriage of ‘absolute justice’ is a bewildering explosion of plot and counter-plot, each more complex and brutal than the last, all cross-cutting each other and played out at breakneck pace, involving yet more serial murders (recent ones as well as the older ones), gangland hit after gangland hit, mutilation of prostitutes, the distribution of progressively weirder and more gruesome pornography, heroin trafficking (in rivers), racketeering and conspiracy among public officials, senior cops behaving like mob bosses, junior cops acting like crazy gunmen (even our three police antiheroes, who repeatedly fail to step up and do the right thing), the whole narrative finally descending into a maelstrom of violence and corruption in the perfectly inappropriately named City of the Angels, which in this book is more like Pandemonium itself.

Somehow or other, Exley, White and Vincennes are going to get to the incredible truth behind the Nite Owl slaughter, and sundry other horrific crimes, but they’ll literally play Hell getting it done, and will then find themselves confronting a cadre of deadly villains who are surely among the most evil ever committed to paper. Well before the end, the chances that all three of them will make it through seem remarkably slim …

What can you say about a novel like LA Confidential, which is so well-known already and so widely revered that it makes any kind of review in 2020 incidental?

I hesitated to put pen to paper regarding this because all I could think was that no one would care about my view. The book has already sold millions of copies, it was made into a massively successful Hollywood movie some 22 years ago, it is volume three in the hugely influential LA Quartet series, which, again, the vast majority of the reading public already knows about. There’s no obvious reason why I should have my say so late in the day, but you know, when you finally get around to reading a book like this, you just have to comment.

And after that intro, I imagine you’ll expect me to be controversial. Well … not as controversial as the novel itself, put it that way.

First, I suppose I should discuss the aspects of LA Confidential that are likely to cause ‘issues’ for people. To start with, it’s not woke. And that’s a serious understatement.

The book was written in 1990, which though that is relatively recent in terms of Noir, was still long before authors were expected to show any real degree of racial or gender sensitivity. On top of that, it’s set in the 1950s, when machismo was the order of things in male society, women were viewed either as ornaments or homemakers (or both), and ethnic minorities were openly considered to be second-class citizens.

And then there is the author factor.

James Ellroy is famous for his cynical and subversive public persona, and while there is doubt as to how much of that is genuine, it’s certain that he could not have set out to write a book like LA Confidential without willfully seeking to stun his audience, without purposely reinventing Los Angeles as a vile underbelly peopled by deviants of every sort – pimps, hookers, hopheads, high-level criminals, bent officials and cops themselves who are little more than drunken, corrupt brutes – without consciously seeking to offend almost every corner of society.

There is almost no one in this book – white, black, Hispanic, straight, gay etc – that you can actually sympathise with, no one who doesn’t deserve the many slurs and insults that would cause uproar in any novel published today but which are thrown about like confetti in this one. And quite often, this decidedly tough language doesn’t just occur in the dialogue. The author himself is equally guilty, frequently dropping the N and Q words, and yet somehow, in mysterious Tarantino fashion, getting a free pass from the critics. Is LA Confidential such unimpeachable art that this can be tolerated? Well, no I wouldn’t say so. But then I wouldn’t say that about Tarantino’s movies either. But things are as they are. No one seems to mind.

On top of the juicy language here, there is a whole ream of social and criminal horror for the average reader to digest. As I say, almost no one is redeemable in LA Confidential. From arch real-life gangsters and former Bugsy Siegel sidekicks, Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato, right down to verminous tabloid scumbag, Sid Hudgens, everyone in this book is ruthless, deceitful and treacherous. They’ve all got an angle, they’ve all got their own interests at heart, they all do each other down with a narcissistic glee that owes nothing to necessity. And in many cases, they all have hideous secrets. For example, musician Burt ‘Deuce’ Perkins did time on a chain gang for ‘unnatural acts against dogs’! Ray Dieterling, cartoon animator turned movie millionaire (Walt Disney, anyone?), had his own son murdered!

Even our three heroes – Exley, White and Vincennes – are so deeply flawed that in normal circumstances you’d expect to view them as villains. Exley is the best of the bunch, except that he lives a lie where his war record is concerned, and is obsessively, ruthlessly ambitious, a personal weakness that actually starts to make a physical impression on him. The fact that he killed the wrong people after the Nite Owl Massacre bothers him a little, but it doesn’t on its own ruin his life.

Jack Vincennes also regrets shooting innocent people, but his response is to keep self-medicating with ever heavier narcotics, even though he’ll still happily bust pushers and users, all the time fantasising about his beautiful girlfriend, Karen, getting down and dirty in full-on porn movie orgies.

Bud White also has a girlfriend that he doesn’t really deserve, in Lyn Bracken, a former prostitute from a high-class stable, where all the girls were surgically modified to look like film stars, in her case Veronica Lake. She sees something in the apelike White, though Heaven knows what, especially as his innate loathing of wife-batterers doesn’t prevent him beating her when he learns that she’s been unfaithful.

Then we have the actual horror with which this book is deeply layered.

As I’ve already intimated, James Ellroy’s LA is a nightmarish netherworld, liberally strewn with horrific murders, gang rapes and ghastly dismemberments. Most of the victims, male or female, adult or child, are killed in the most barbarous ways imaginable. Sid Hudgens for example is hacked apart while he is still alive, while others are tortured to death with caustic chemicals, including acid. In a way, of course, this emboldens the reader to keep going, because it makes him/her realise that as bad as Exley, White and Vincennes are, there are always worst beasts lurking just beyond the next page, and that maybe only a bunch of human wolves like these will be able to take them down.

But seriously, be prepared for the gruesomeness of this book. The scene of the Nite Owl Massacre is described as though it’s an abattoir, the condition of the Frankenstein killer’s prepubescent victims, when finally discovered by Preston Exley, has to be read to be believed. In another staggeringly violent moment, Bud White shoves a suspect’s hand down a garbage disposal, churning it to mush … and remember, White is supposed to be one of the good guys.

The final brickbat, if it is such a thing (and this is entirely subjective), is the manner in which the novel is written.

According to the stories, when James Ellroy delivered the first draft of LA Confidential to his publishers, it clocked in at 900,000 words. Even in the States, they balked at publishing something so enormous. The author was ordered to cut it back significantly, which he didn’t consider possible unless he literally stripped out half of almost every sentence he’d written, glueing many of the remnants back together in what almost looks like haphazard fashion. The result is a literary style that at first read is so startling you really don’t think you’re going to get used to it. This chunk of text, for example, comes from the very first page of Chapter One:

Bud White in an unmarked, watching the ‘1951’ on the City Hall Christmas tree blink. The back seat was packed with liquor for the station party; he’d scrounged merchants all day, avoiding Parker’s dictate: married men had the 24th and Christmas off, all duty rosters were bachelors only; the Central detective squad was despatched to round up vagrants: the chief wanted local stumblebums chilled so they wouldn’t crash Mayor Bowron’s lawn party for underprivileged kids and scarf all the cookies …

It’s a similar story all the way through. It’s almost as though you’re reading a genuine cop’s abbreviated notes. It’s more like a stream of consciousness than actual literature.

Bud packed up, got out, brainstormed some more – pimp war clicks, clickouts – Duke Cathcart had two skags in his stable, no stomach for pushing a 14-year-old nymphet – he was a pimp disaster area. He tried to click Duke’s pad tossed to the Nite Owl – no gears meshed, odds on the (blacks) remained high. If the tossing played, tie it to Cathcart’s ‘new’ gig – Feather Royko talked it up – she came off clean as Sinful Cindy came off hinky . . .

However, I urge you all to stick with it. My initial reaction was negative, but within a page I’d adjusted. Not only that, it had taken nothing away from the epic sweep of the story, or any of the author’s multiple overlaying subplots.

And yes, as you’ve probably guessed, we’re now onto the positives about LA Confidential, which are frankly overwhelming.

If you can make the mental leap into the world of exaggerated darkness that this novel occupies, few of the negatives I’ve already mentioned will bother you. Because, taken as a whole, this really is one of the greatest Noir novels ever written. Yes, it’s appallingly brutal and rude and crass, but it works so damn well. It’s trio of antiheroes appeal for the simple reason that, though a disgrace to their profession, they are much the lesser of various competing evils. Certainly, their many opponents, both criminals and cops, are among the most dangerous I’ve encountered on the written page. The pace and jeopardy never relent, even though the narrative straddles the best part of a decade. And for all the punchiness of the prose, it is full of the most remarkable and yet disturbing imagery: two buddies getting uproariously drunk together in the death cell on the night before one of them is executed; a stable of high-class call girls, already beautiful but expensively re-cut into movie goddess lookalikes; a serial killer so deranged that he turns his child victims into mismatched puppets.

Of course, it’s not just a horror story or a fast-moving crime caper. James Ellroy is nothing if not a serious writer. On one hand he might like to shock, but on the other he likes to inform, and his main interest in LA Confidential, it rapidly becomes clear, is his detailed examination of three damaged souls who eventually manage to rise above the rampant lawlessness of their lives even though it ultimately demands astonishing sacrifices of them.

Not that this is a tale of redemption or salvation. No one gets forgiven here, or excused – but they may, possibly, escape. Which is surely the most that any of them can expect. But however unlikely that may seem, it’s all carried through at speed and with panache by the author, and it’s completely believably done. This book is a multifaceted deluge of ideas, a perplexing number of threads dangling as we reach the final quarter, but Ellroy ties them all up smoothly and neatly in the closing pages, leaving no questions unanswered.

You may have realised it by now, but you can’t just watch the 1997 movie version of LA Confidential and claim that you’re au fait with this most fulsome chapter in Ellroy’s LA story. However you regard the movie, it condenses only a handful of threads from the novel, and not even, in my view, the most important ones. It roughly tells the same tale but in a very quick, accessible and clean-cut way, which doesn’t even share the same atmosphere. I like the movie, incidentally, but will state for the record that, even though I saw it first, it did not spoil my reading of the novel, and nor will it for you. So, even if you’ve only seen the film, I urge you to read the book as well; it’s easily one of the most challenging and yet exhilarating police thrillers on the market. It’s a true epic and a cop classic.

You will NOT be disappointed.

Everything I’ve just said about the movie version notwithstanding, it’s a fine viewing experience in its own right, and it’s probably close enough to the original in terms of its main characters to render one of my customary casting sessions pointless. I could certainly never improve on the actors they signed up back in 1997. So, on this occasion, I won’t bother trying.

(The images of the clapperboard, the scary lake, the eerie figure in the snowy wood and the battle of Tora Bora were freely lifted from the internet, where I found them floating around with no author names attached. As always I'll be delighted to attach credits, or even remove these images if the originators would like to make themselves known).