Wednesday 29 July 2020

A couple of snippets from ONE EYE OPEN

Yesterday, this happened …

Hopefully, that video speaks for itself, but in a nutshell, advance copies of my next novel, ONE EYE OPEN, arrived at our pad, which was something of an unexpected pleasure. It will also give me the opportunity to read a couple of choice snippets for you all … which I’m going to do very shortly in this post.

Before we get onto that, I should also mention that today I’ll also be reviewing and discussing the claustrophobically chilling (and all-round excellent) psycho-thriller, THE RESIDENT, by David Jackson.

As always with my book reviews, you’ll be able to find that at the lower end of today’s post. But if you don’t like reading reviews before you’ve read the books yourself, I still urge you to get hold of this one. Jackson is a high-quality thriller writer, and THE RESIDENT is knife-edge stuff all the way through. As I say, my full review is at the bottom end of today’s post, in the Thrillers, Chillers section.

However, if you’ve got a bit of spare time first, why not check out …

One Eye Open

As you’re probably sick of me saying by now, ONE EYE OPEN is my first book for Orion, and it’s a stand alone crime thriller, which pitches an Essex Traffic officer into a world of robbery, double-dealing and murder. 

As promised, I’ll shortly be reading a couple of clips from the finished book. 

But before then, for your delectation (and my complete and shameless self-aggrandisement), here is the back-cover blurb, followed by a short handful of quotes from the 25 NetGalley reviewers to thus far give it the big thumbs-up.


A high-speed crash leaves a man and woman clinging to life.
Neither of them carries ID. Their car has fake number plates.
In their luggage: a huge amount of cash.
Who are they? What are they hiding?
And what were they running from?


DS Lynda Hagen, once a brilliant detective, gave it all up to raise her family.
But something about this case reignites a spark in her...


What begins as an investigation soon becomes an obsession.
And it will lead her to a secret so dangerous that soon there will be nowhere left to hide.

‘I absolutely loved this stand alone masterpiece’. – Beverley S.

‘Fast paced action, dramatic shootouts and an overwhelming sense of threat’. – Jen L.

‘A rich police thriller from an author who always gives a great insight to the world of criminals and the police who go after them’. – Pat C.

‘Breathtaking, shocking and dark!’ – Samantha L.

And now, while my head shrinks back to its normal size, here are a couple of short(ish) readings from the book, provided by yours truly.

In this first one, it’s a cold winter’s day as DS Lynda Hagen pursues a potential witness to a crime into an abandoned holiday park …

In this second one, ex-racing driver, Elliot Wade, finds himself in a fast car with two shady characters, and a lot to prove …

Okay, hope you guys enjoyed those. As I say, ONE EYE OPEN is available for purchase from August 20 in all your usual outlets. Hope you’re interested enough to take a punt.


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 (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … 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.

THE RESIDENT by David Jackson (2020)

Schizophrenic serial killer, Brogan, his hands still red with the blood of his latest victims, is on the run from the police in the heart of an urban sprawl. But when all avenues of escape seem to be closed to him, he seeks refuge in the empty end-house of a rather run-down terraced row. Unexpectedly, this doesn’t just give him the ability to lie low, because when he investigates the property thoroughly, forcing his way up into the loft, he finds that the dividing wall between this and the next property is incomplete, along with the next dividing wall after that, and the next one and so on.

In short, Brogan finds that he can access all the houses on this side of the street without the official occupants even knowing that he is there … so long as they don’t come up into their attics.

With a jolt of intoxicating pleasure, it slowly dawns on the killer, who never plans very far ahead, that this empty house can be much more than just a useful hiding place.

The problem is that his mind is divided neatly in two, one half more conciliatory but still unstable, callous and inclined to a sexual enjoyment of violence, the other half clever, scheming and sadistic. Occasionally, these two distinct personalities, who occupy Brogan’s head both at the same time, fall out with each other, but mostly they exist in a state of symbiosis, and they are completely in sync when it comes to the way that Brogan should be spending the next few days.  Because not only can he creep down into the houses when their owners are out, feed himself and rummage around among private possessions in order to steal, he can also learn all there is about his new hosts, and start to play games with them, alternately antagonising them, making fun of them, frightening them, setting them against each other, the outcomes of which he can watch from the safety of the loft space overhead.

And it’s not as if there isn’t plenty of material for him to work with. Eighty-year-old Elsie is one occupant, an elderly lady who lives alone and is now suffering from mild dementia. Carers visit from time to time, but mostly she is vulnerable and very easily played with.

Then there is Jack and Pam, a middle-aged couple who clearly love each other even though they squabble like cat and dog, and blame each other whenever anything goes wrong (and are out a lot of the time, their property left ripe for plundering); they too make easy targets for manipulation.

Last but very far from least, there is Collette and Martyn. This pair are of particular interest to Brogan, because they are only in their twenties, Collette beautiful and sweet and, Brogan suspects, a little sad.

What fun he is going to have with her in particular.

This is certainly one of the shortest synopses I’ve ever written for one of my online book reviews, quite simply because you’ve already got the crux of it, and to say more might give away vital spoilers.

Suffice to say that Brogan, the new unknown resident in the terraced row, is going to enjoy himself a great deal at the expense of his various unwitting hosts. But it isn’t going to go all his way. Anything can happen in the next few days, things he won’t be expecting at all, and while the situation is unlikely to end well for those who officially live here, it could easily go badly for him too …

The Resident is certainly not the first ‘hider in the house’ scenario I’ve encountered in crime and thriller fiction. I’m pretty sure there was even a movie called Hider in the House once. However, there is no idea these days that is original, and in any case, this is without doubt the most intense, dramatic, best-plotted and most enjoyable version of the grand old theme that I have ever read. It’s not a massive tome, coming in at just over 300 pages, but it literally flipped by because almost every one of its short, concise chapters ends on a cliff-hanger as taut as piano wire.

Brogan himself is a fascinating antagonist. We only get to learn about his many terrible crimes through the bizarre conversations that occur inside his head, which we hear in full, and which as well as being subtly informative both about him and his grotesque track-record, are also chilling in their depiction of criminal insanity, and at times wildly if darkly funny.

Yes, there are some comedic elements in this grim tale, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. I even had to stifle a snigger or two at the thought of Brogan, a mad killer, happily making himself at home in others people’s houses, cooking beans, buttering toast, stirring tea, while the actual occupants are out at work, though God knows, it would be an unspeakable invasion of privacy if it were to happen in real life.

You probably wouldn’t care as much for the characters wrapped up in this horror if you didn’t gradually come to see them so clearly, and this is another neat touch by David Jackson. When the killer first arrives in his improvised refuge, neither he nor we know anything at all about the population of this terraced row, but that’s okay, because we learn about them as Brogan does and at exactly the same pace, by listening to their interactions through trapdoors or watching them through peepholes in the ceiling.

While Jack and Pam are perhaps a little bit stock, Elsie is a wonderful creation. I can imagine that a veteran actress would have a lot of fun with this part in any screen adaptation. Her tragic situation, which you might expect to cast her as one of life’s forgotten victims and maybe a constant mope, is enlivened by the return of her maternal instincts (long buried, but always there) and the feistiness with which she treats her carers when she starts to suspect they are humouring her about the ‘return of her deceased son’.

The other stars of the show, though, are the final couple in the terraced row, Collette and Martyn, though Collette is the more important of the two, at least where Brogan is concerned.

In classic ‘beauty and the beast’ fashion, Brogan doesn’t just desire her physically; the more he gets to know about her, the more he subconsciously likes her, and the more he starts to think of her as a potential companion rather than a victim. In concert with this, the more he starts to distrust and finally hate her husband, Martyn, which developing ménage à trois gives us some of the most intense and emotionally dramatic sequences in the book.

But all the thrills and chills aside, in a relatively quickfire piece of writing, David Jackson has created several such exceptional dynamics, which crank the readability of The Resident up to top notch. You really feel for everyone, and really need to know what’s going to happen next.

Of course, getting back to Brogan and the terrible situation he has engineered and soon ends up trapped in – and this is the real heart of the story, the part that works so well for me – he may increasingly take Collette and Elsie’s side, he may view them both (but mainly Collette) as lost, abused and neglected, as a twosome who deserve so much more than life has dealt them, so it’s no wonder he sees himself reflected there. But this isn’t going to be reciprocated, because to the likes of Collette, Brogan will always be a monster. That’s the underlying darkness in this tale, and its cleverness. Though you live inside his head with him and get to know him well, though you even start to empathise a little … you never forget that Brogan is a monster.

Read The Resident. It’s a superb, fast-paced thriller, weaving multi-layered characters into a scenario from Hell that will have you both shuddering and snickering all the way through.

As always, I’m now going to try and cast this saga. Just a bit of fun – who would ask me? – but here are the main actors I would choose, were I putting this cracker on the screen:

Brogan – Max Irons
Collette – Lupita Nyong’o
Elsie – Gemma Jones
Martyn – Samuel Anderson

Sunday 12 July 2020

All the chills of Christmas this dark July

So, we had blistering sunshine in March and April, pouring rain and bitter winds in June, and now … we’ve got Christmas in July.

Well, it’s not strictly true that we’ve got Christmas in July, but as the jacket art is now ready for the three Christmas books I intend to bring out this autumn, I thought this might be an opportune time to give you your first glimpse, and maybe to chat a little about the plans I’ll put into force once this strangest summer of all has ended.

Which reminds me that – even though the virus is still with us, and many holidays have been cancelled, and the weather is pathetic compared to the weather we had in spring – it is still summer. So, in keeping with that, today I’ll also be reviewing and discussing one of the best summertime horror novels I’ve ever read: THE ELEMENTALS by the late, great Michael McDowell. 

If you’re only here for the McDowell discussion, then that’s fine, as always. Just shoot on down to the lower end of today’s blog, and you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section.

Before then, however, if you’ve got a bit of extra time, I’m going to talk a little about …

Scary stuff this Christmas

Readers who follow this column regularly, will know that I’m a big fan of Christmas-themed scare-fare. Now, I assure you that this doesn’t mean I think about the festive season from January to December. I like all the seasons, and I particularly enjoy horror fiction (folk-horror would be the thing for this, I guess) that encompasses these different times of year with their various special days and ancient festivals.

But winter, and Christmas in particular, has always been a biggie in this regard. If you need proof of that, don’t take my word for it. I mean, I might have written many Christmas ghost and horror stories, but it’s a tradition that goes way back to MR James, Charles Dickens and beyond. So, there is a kind of precedent for it, to say the least.

By the way, I’m not comparing myself to those masters of the short form, but I do like to think I’ve got a decent track record when it comes to this sort of thing. Hence, I thought this year I’d try to package some Christmas specials – some ‘Christmas annuals’, as they used to say in comic parlance – and put them out there in print.

Two of these will not be unfamiliar, though I did feel it was about time they got something of a reboot.

First of all, we have:

Five Festive Chillers

First published in 2013, though some technical hiccups saw it briefly removed from Amazon a couple of years ago, which obliterated the 30-odd approving reviews it had garnered, this is a collection of five Christmas stories and novellas, all supernatural in tone, all horrific in theme.

The table of contents is as follows:

The Christmas Toys
Midnight Service
The Faerie
The Mummers
The Killing Ground

You may wonder why I’m bringing it out again. Well, the truth is that I’m not really. It remains available as an ebook as it always was, but one complaint I received back in the day was that it never existed in print. Well … from this autumn it will do, under the above newly-designed wrap from the original artist, the indefatigable Neil Williams.

Yes, it’s the same stories that appeared electronically, but for the first time ever (in English) it will now be available in paperback too. On top of that, I’m very excited to announce that it will also be coming out in Audible, as narrated by actor, Greg Patmore, who did such a storming job with last year’s autumn release, SEASON OF MIST.

In a similar mood but much newer, the second festive collection I’ll be bringing out towards the end of this year is:

Five Festive Terror Tales

This is another collection of horror stories and novellas set in and around the Christmas season. But these you won’t have seen together in a single collection, electronically or otherwise … until now. Here’s the table of contents:

The Merry Makers
The Unreal
The Tenth Lesson
The Stain

This too will be available in print, as an ebook and on Audible (yet again, with Greg Patmore providing the silken tones). As before, enjoy the marvellous cover art created by Neil Williams.

Last of the three, we’re back in familiar territory again, but with a completely new look. This one is:


People may recall that this Christmas-themed horror / romantic / Victorian novella first appeared in 2010 from Pendragon Press, and that it was shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award in the capacity of Best Novella the following year. In due course though, the print-run ended, and it was available from that point only as an ebook.

Well, the ebook remains and can be acquired as we speak. But this autumn there’ll be a brand new paperback version and again, it will be coming out on Audible (courtesy of Mr Patmore).

For those unaware, the story is set during the bitter winter of 1843, and follows the fortunes of an Afghan War veteran, who, on release from the debtors’ prison is tasked with protecting a mysterious house in Bloomsbury against an unknown enemy, a duty that unleashes a literal smogasbord of Yuletide terrors.

To round up, I apologise for talking Christmas in early July, but I do like to drop hints about what’s coming in the months ahead. If you continue to watch this space, there’ll be many more details – links, background info etc – posted here as the summer finally wanes and the darker months draw on.

Now okay, I know it’s pretty dark and gloomy outlook at present, but I promise you that this distinctly is not the case in the book I’ve chosen to review this week. Read on if you don’t mind getting sunstroke simply from the written page.


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 (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … 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 Michael McDowell (1981)

The Savages and McCrays are a prosperous pair of families. Born into the Deep South elite, Alabama aristocracy from way back, they lack for absolutely nothing.

Head of the Savage household, Dauphin, is a multi-millionaire and still relatively young. He’s known far and wide as a thoroughly nice guy, and is married to former beauty queen, Leigh, ex of the McCrays, which is where the link between the two families comes in. The McCrays, in their turn, live under the shadow of their patriarch, Lawton, a hugely successful businessman who is now standing for Congress, while his son, Luker, who lives in New York, is so well-fixed professionally that, at the drop of a hat, he can afford to take the entire summer off and vacation in the South.

And yet for all this gold-plated privilege, there are deep strains within the two families, equally deep animosities and even deeper divisions.

Lawton McCray, for example, is separated from his wife, Big Barbara, and reviled by Luker, who views him as the worst kind of ruthless capitalist but as a dangerous man too, because in the spirit of the Old South, where he was born, Lawton will stop at nothing, even crime and violence, to get what he wants. Due in no small way to this unhealthy arrangement, Big Barbara is an unreformed alcoholic, which has left her a silly, unthinking woman, who Luker can also barely tolerate, though recognising that there’s no real evil in her, he does his best. All that said, Luker himself has no dealings with his own ex-wife, from whom he is very acrimoniously divorced … to such an extent that his teenage daughter, India, who has lived with him most of her life, has been raised to dread the mere mention of her mother’s name. India, in fact, though a free-spirited, well-educated New York girl, often struggles because of her father’s domestic prejudices, whether they are merited or not, scarcely knowing how to react to her grandparents.

And then there is the infamously bad-tempered Marian Savage, Leigh’s mother-in-law, whom Luker also hates – or perhaps that should be hated, because we open the narrative at Marian’s funeral. Just in case none of what we’ve so far learned is dysfunctional enough, the funeral service, which is very poorly attended, is interrupted halfway through by an age-old Savage tradition, Dauphin opening his mother’s casket and stabbing her in the heart. Apparently, this is now the custom at all Savage funerals on account of a non-too-distant ancestor being unfortunately buried alive.

So far so Southern Gothic, you may think, and yes, we are firmly in that sun-soaked, uber-melodramatic territory. But The Elementals is also a ghost story, and it isn’t long before we arrive at the scene of the haunting.

At the close of the funeral, the two famlies head south to Mobile, on the Gulf Coast, where they are both part-owners of Beldame. This is basically a narrow spit of sand extending far out into the ocean (though often, the high tide renders it an island), the extreme tip of which is occupied by a row of three beautiful Victorian houses. Here, year-round warm weather (gloriously so in summer), blue skies, an even bluer sea, and complete isolation, always provide a relaxing break. The older members of the two families are completely besotted with the place and have been coming here since the 1950s. Even India, who has never been before, doesn’t much care for her relatives and would rather be in New York, is stunned when she first arrives. She can’t believe how lovely it is, even if oddities emerge almost straight away.

The third house in the row, for example, is owned by neither the Savages nor the McCrays (no one seems to know who owns it) and is succumbing to an immense sand dune, which has built up alongside it and is now slowly engulfing the entire structure.

In due course, this third house will start to cause serious problems, though at first all is well.

It’s unusually hot, even for Southern Alabama, and the two families are just glad to have got away from it all, and now unwind in the taciturn but fastidious care of Odessa, the Savages’ black servant, who’s been with the family since before the Civil Rights Movement but who stays with them because she is treated like a relative, even though she herself doesn’t behave this way.

During this languid time (when the livin’ is very easy!) other quirks of Savage/McCray family life emerge in full keeping with the oddball Southern Gothic tradition. Though Luker is well regarded by his family, he swears and profanes freely in front of them all, including his mother, and thinks nothing of sunbathing naked in the presence of his 13-year-old daughter (a liberal approach to life that she returns in full). But none of this seems out of place here at Beldame, where the sun beats down, the sea laps, the sands continually shift, and time literally seems to stop (the families never follow any kind of itinerary when they’re here, they just let the day and the mood take them).

And yet throughout, there is a clear feeling that, despite the summer lassitude, all is not well. The families love Beldame, but it’s soon evident that they are wary of the place too, particularly the third house, though no one seems to be willing to say why, especially Odessa, even though she – or so India suspects – knows most.

The youngster finally starts to wheedle it out of her elders just what the problem is, learning that the third house has been a blot on this picturesque coastline for quite some time. The reasons for this seem to vary. It’s not exactly an eyesore, but it’s been empty and unclaimed for so long that it’s decaying as well as disappearing into the sand. It seems especially weird though that third house is still fully furnished inside, almost as if someone still lives there. And yet neither the McCrays nor the Savages ever go in to look around.

Most interesting to India, though, are the third property’s ghostly aspects.

There are only one or two stories to this effect, and they have the aura of campfire tales. For example, a bunch of school friends once swore blind that they saw a naked fat woman walking around on the third house’s roof.

When India commences her own investigation of the third property, she immediately detects a presence and later learns that Odessa had a little girl once, Martha Ann, who disappeared here but was presumed drowned, India concludes that the third house is haunted by the child’s ghost. Odessa, finally breaking her silence, simply replies that it isn’t so.

Martha Ann is indeed dead, she says, but what occupies the third house is not her ghost. It is something much, much worse …

Michael McDowell wrote several successful novels, but died at the tragically young age of 49, which on the evidence of The Elementals, was a major loss to genre fiction.

Because, in short, this is a very frightening ghost story.

Not only that, it tips all expectations on their head. Sun, sea, sand. Hardly scary, you may think. Well, you’d be wrong. An affluent southern family: handsome men, gorgeous women, heated passions – all the ingredients of a domestic melodrama rather than a horror story, right?


Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’s a bit of a culture shock when you first start reading The Elementals. Because the one or two minor macabre details aside – Marian Savage’s funeral, Luker’s utter (and never fully explained) hatred for his ex-wife – it does feel as if you’ve strayed into a Tennessee Williams play. But that doesn’t last long. Because Beldame (which in Old English used to mean ‘witch’, of course), is so well-realised a location that it really is a place apart. Its atmosphere is one of strangeness, dreaminess, and yet all the time, right from the outset, the sinister presence of the third house is there, just on the corner of our vision.

All of this feeds nicely into the plot’s slow-burn development. We certainly have a lengthy period when nothing really seems to happen, the family re-acclimatising to Beldame, sunbathing, sleeping, engaging in idle conversation, and yet odd, unnatural things do happen. At first, they are small, and eerie rather than frightening. But they come more and more regularly, the sense of foreboding gradually growing, until finally the occupants of the third house, disturbed from their slumbers by both India’s curiosity and Lawton’s villainous schemes, explode out in some of the most terrifying ways imaginable.

But I think what works best for me in The Elementals is not so much the increasingly scarier story, but the unknowable nature of the antagonists.

I don’t want to say too much about them because I don’t want to spoil things more than I already have. But as you are likely to guess from an early stage, these aren’t ghosts or even demons in the conventional sense. This is something else entirely. Luker McCray only calls them ‘elementals’ because he can’t think of any other way to describe them, but it’s highly appropriate. Because whatever they are, they are part of this place, and always have been.

It certainly makes for a intriguing conflict: the time-honoured, all-powerful southern clan coming up against an infinitely more ancient and immovable force, something intangible and yet sentient, something that is intricately connected to this lonesome spit of land, so much so that it can control the sand, the air and the water, and yet something that can strike at its opponent in any number of ghastly and horrifying ways – and trust me, these are ghastly.

You may have to wait a little while for them, but the moments of horror, when they come, are literally hair-raising.

As I say, apart from the catastrophe of losing Michael McDowell as a person, we also lost a prodigious talent, and what I imagine would have been a plethora of such clever and spine-tingling tales.

If you’ve not read The Elementals, you must do. It was first published in the 1980s, but it’s a timeless chiller in the best way, and I’m not remotely surprised that Poppy Z Brite referred to it as ‘surely one of the most terrifying novels ever written,’, or that Stephen King described McDowell as ‘the finest writer of paperback originals in America,’ while Peter Straub called him ‘one of the best writers of horror in this or any other country’.

And now, here we go again. I’m going to be bold (or stupid) enough to try and nominate my own cast should this very fine horror story ever hit the screen. If only I had the power to make it happen in reality:

India McCray – Lara Decaro
Odessa Red – Viola Davis
Luker McCray – Joe Kinnaman
Lawton McCray – Woody Harrelson
Big Barbara – Rebecca Front

(The picture at the top is not mine, but despite searching online, I couldn't find an owner. If anyone has an issue with me using it without a credit, just let me know and I'll add a credit immediately, or even remove it).