Okay, well I’ve always believed in striking while the iron’s hot, so even though the dust hasn’t yet settled following the launch of my latest crime novel, ONE EYE OPEN, I’m now going to talk about a new book I’m bringing out in the near future, though this one, even though it’s equally dark, is very different in style and subject-matter. In short, it’s the latest in my series of Terror Tales anthologies, TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES.
I can’t talk too much about it yet, though at least, as you can see, I’ve got the artwork to brag about (courtesy of the amazing Neil Williams) and can fill you in a little bit on the background.
Also this week, maintaining that Brit folk-horror(ish) tone, I’ll be reviewing THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS by Lanyon Jones, a legendary collection of traditional ghost stories from a writer whose contribution to the genre, though always quality, has largely now been forgotten.
If you’re only here for the Lanyon Jones review, then all you need to do is zoom on down to the lower end of today’s blog, where you’ll find it, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. However, if you’ve got a bit more time, there are a couple of other things I want to mention. First off …
My third Lucy Clayburn novel, STOLEN, will be published in Germany in approximately one year’s time, but the official cover is already being publicised, and I have to say, it’s yet another very cool piece of work from Piper Verlag, all of whose jackets for this series, and for the Heck series too, have been hugely eye-catching in my view, and have always – particularly with regard to the Lucy books – leaned strongly towards the action-thriller genre, unlike the British versions, which hinted more at domestic noir.
Anyway, here’s the latest. NACHTE DER HUNDE, which loosely translates as NIGHT OF THE DOGS. With luck, all my readers over there will enjoy it thoroughly.
And now that other thing I want to chat to you about today …
Home Counties horror
Hopefully, lots of ghost and horror story fans will now know about my Terror Tales series, which I’ve been editing – initially under the Gray Prior Press banner, but now with TELOS PUBLISHING – for the last nine years.
The concept behind this series was to tour the British Isles, each book focussing on a different geographic region and publishing original horror fiction related to the myths or lore of that region, interspersing it with non-fictional (i.e. real life) tales of terror and mystery. The plan was always to draw on folklore and history, to try and create as authentic an atmosphere of each book’s particular district as possible, and to use a wide range of writers (though some, inevitably, have been back for more and more). Not all of the authors had to be native to the region under consideration, but at least they needed to be familiar with it.
TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES is the latest in the series, and will be out this autumn. Apologies that I can’t be specific with a date of publication yet, or a full table of contents, but the book is now complete and in the process of being proof-read. All that other essential info will be posted here as soon as it’s actually available.
I assure you, contrary to a lot of opinion – and I’ve been greeted by raised eyebrows several times when mentioning this book – the Home Counties are not without their own chilling pantheon of native tales. All sorts of nasty stuff has gone on amid those well-heeled, semi-rural communities. Oh yes, the veneer of sedate prosperity can conceal a wealth of sins. But in addition to that, the Home Counties weren’t always the dormer district to London. Once, there were unbroken tracts of forest and heath where now there are suburban railway stations and blue chip company HQs. Where the stockbroker belt now flourishes, formerly there were sacred groves and woodland pools; and while the scenery might have changed, the occupants of these ancient sites haven’t necessarily gone anywhere.
But I’ll say no more about it at this stage. Hopefully, the blurb on the artwork at the top of this column will serve as a good indicator of TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES’ flavour.
This will be the twelfth book in the series thus far. We’ve been all over the UK and even out to sea. And even if I say so myself, we’ve included some masterly pieces of fiction from recognised experts in the field like Peter James, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Gallagher, Adam Nevill, Stephen Laws, Lynda Rucker, Carole Johnstone and Sam Stone (along with many others).
Here are several sample covers from the rest of the Terror Tales series, and the blurbs that accompanied them:
England’s majestic Northwest, land of rain-washed skies, dark forests and brooding, windswept hills. Famous too for its industrial blight and brutal persecutions; a realm where skulls scream and witches wail, gallows creak and grave-robbers prowl the long, black nights …
The hideous scarecrows of Lune
The heathen rite at Knowsley
The revenge killings in Preston
The elegant ghost of Combermere
The berserk boggart of Moston
The malformed brute on Mann
The walking dead at Haigh Hall
Cornwall, England’s most scenic county: windswept moors, rugged cliffs and wild, foaming seas. But smugglers and wreckers once haunted its hidden coves, mermaid myths abound, pixie lore lingers, henges signal a pagan past, and fanged beasts stalk the ancient, overgrown lanes …
The serpent woman of Pengersick
The screaming demon of Land’s End
The nightmare masquerade at Padstow
The feathered horror of Mawnan
The terrible voice at St Agnes
The ritual slaughter at Crantock
The hoof-footed fetch of Bodmin Moor
The rolling blue ocean. Timeless, vast, ancient, mysterious. Where eerie voices call through the lightless deeps, monstrous shapes skim beneath the waves, and legends tell of sunken cities, fiendish fogs, ships steered only by dead men, and forgotten isles where abominations lurk ...
The multi-limbed horror in the Ross Sea
The hideous curse of Palmyra Atoll
The murderous duo of the Messina Strait
The doomed crew of the Flying Dutchman
The devil fish of the South Pacific
The alien creatures in the English Channel
The giant predator of the Mariana Trench
Wales – ‘Land of my Fathers’, cradle of poetry, song and mythic rural splendour. But also a scene of oppression and tragedy, where angry spirits stalk castle and coal mine alike, death-knells sound amid fogbound peaks, and dragons stir in bottomless pools …
The headless spectre of Kidwelly
The sea terror off Anglesey
The soul stealer of Porthcawl
The blood rites at Abergavenny
The fatal fruit of Criccieth
The dark serpent of Bodalog
The Christmas slaughter at Llanfabon
The city of London – whose gold-paved streets are lost in choking fog and echo to the trundling of the plague-carts, whose twisting back alleys ring with cries of ‘Murder!’, whose awful Tower is stained with the blood of princes and paupers alike …
The night stalker of Hammersmith
The brutal butchery in Holborn
The depraved spirit of Sydenham
The fallen angel of Dalston
The murder den at Notting Hill
The haunted sewers of Bermondsey
The red-eyed ghoul of Highgate
The Cotswolds – land of green fields, manor houses and thatched-roof villages, where the screams of ancient massacres linger in the leafy woods, faeries weave sadistic spells, and pagan gods stir beneath the moonlit hills …
The flesh-eating fiend of St. John’s
The vengeful spirit of Little Lawford
The satanic murders at Meon Hill
The ghastly mutilation at Wychavon
The demon dancers of Warwick
The cannibal feast at Alvington
The twisted revenant of Stratford-upon-Avon
If you like the sound of all this, folks, and you fancy dipping into the dark side of the Home Counties, just keep watching this space. As already stated, all the info you’ll need will be posted on here as soon as it’s available.
THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …
An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (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 SEVEN DEADLY SINS by Lanyon Jones (1979)
Keith Lanyon Jones, an author we haven’t heard much from since the mid-1980s, wrote in his spare time but by vocation was an Anglican vicar, and so inevitable similarities have been drawn between him and MR James, especially as both of them worked within the familiar English ghost story tradition and penned their terrors initially as Christmas entertainments for friends and family. However, while there is some resemblance between the two, that isn’t the whole story by any means, and Jones, while his writing career appears to have been relatively short-lived, was clearly open to other influences as well, not least Arthur Machen and even HP Lovecraft.
In 1979, he presented his publisher, William Kimber, with this ‘concept album’ of a collection: seven completely new supernatural tales, all linked together by the central theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, each story representing one of the sins in particular.
Here’s the blurb that originally appeared on the inside sleeve:
In this unusual book the author invokes a world of the macabre, of evil and the powers of darkness. But his world has a difference. For in it, evil is not brought about by malign outside forces acting with irrational and random blows against mankind, but by mankind’s own weaknesses. Pride, covetousness, gluttony, lust, sloth, anger and envy. To each is devoted a tale of force and power, demonstrating how from little beginnings man can be led down the primrose path to chaos and evil. Writing with perceptions of the working of men’s minds, the author has created seven tales around this ancient conception with modern application.
You’d have thought, perhaps from the outset, that with Lanyon Jones being himself a priest, he’d have a clear and tight grip on the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins, but one immediate weakness that struck me about this book was how irrelevant that central theme becomes once the story-telling actually gets going. The links between the stories and the sins are tenuous in almost every case, virtually invisible in a couple, and while that doesn’t detract from the stories themselves, given that there isn’t much else to the book – there is no encompassing central narrative concerning the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, and no connections between the stories themselves or the characters who appear in them – the overall concept is so undeveloped as to seem pointless.
In fact, I’d go as far as to wonder if Jones handed over a batch of new stand-alone ghost stories first, and possibly after some consultation with his editor, who wanted something a bit different, retitled it The Seven Deadly Sins afterwards, apportioning one sin to each story even if the emphasis of the story itself lay somewhere else.
As I say, though, this has no bearing on the seven stories themselves, which cover a range of subjects and demonstrate a variety of other influences. The quality, as you’d find with any collection of fiction, whether it all stems from the same author or is part of an anthology of tales by many authors, is variable. Some of the stories have dated a little, while others imply a vaguely innocent outlook on life (which the work of MR James never did, despite his scholarly bachelor background), but if the main purpose of a ghost story is to frighten its readers, then on the whole, Lanyon Jones does a pretty good job here, most of these forays into the supernatural packing in several extremely scary moments.
Given that there are only seven stories to consider, and that they are all, notionally at least, connected by the same theme, I won’t do my usual thing with collections of short fiction, which is pick out the handful I enjoyed most and talk about them in detail. Instead, I’ll run through them all in order. And as I always like to do some imaginary casting at the end, I’ll play that game here too, falsifying a Seven Deadly Sins TV series and putting together a minor cast for each episode (just a bit of fun, of course).
The Weirdwood (Pride)
Neilson, a new vicar in a rural parish considers himself too modern to indulge in such antiquated rituals as ‘beating the bounds,’ which alarms his rustic congregation. They have lost livestock recently, the bodies of sheep found torn and covered in slime. They blame whatever lurks in the so-called Weirdwood, a dense area of trees, which grows beyond the parish in a strange and unnatural hollow. Collins, vicar of the next parish along, advises that old customs should be respected, but still Neilson resists. Until one of his aged parishioners tries to beat the bounds himself, and promptly disappears …
A rather lengthy tale to open the collection, Jones immediately hitting us with a folk-horror vibe, implying that certain time-honoured parish rituals might have more than a ceremonial role in the unchanging village life of the English countryside. Lots of stuff about the druids in this one, tree worship and ancient spirits long thought suppressed by Christianity, along with some atmospheric descriptions of menacingly thick, leafy woodland, and a scary and unusual monster.
In our imaginary TV show:
Neilson – David Tennant
Collins – Timothy Spall
The Collector (Covetousness)
Scheming academic, Casgil, travels to remote Woolminster Cathedral the week before Christmas, where he has convinced benevolent Canon Cedric that he wishes to examine a batch of medieval documents. In reality he is seeking the antique chess set that a former Woolminster canon, who was also a warlock, supposedly used in a match he played against the Devil. Canon Cedric doesn’t seem to know about this, and so graciously allows Casgil to commence his search in the cathedral’s old and eerie library …
The best and most frightening story in the book for me, and easily the most reminiscent of MR James. Lots of monkish terror, a snowy Christmas setting and a musty old cathedral archive that fills with spooky shadows worryingly early on December afternoons all add to the flavour, while the nasty twist at the end is a genuinely horrifying one. All round, an excellent and satisfying tale.
In our imaginary TV show:
Casgil – Lennie James
Canon Cedric – Hugh Bonneville
An Inheritance (Anger)
Old Harold attempts to dissuade his nephew, Mark, from buying an ornate house in his West Country village, claiming that the 16th century property has a troubled past. To try and prove his point, Harold tells Mark the story of Ralph Asher, who inherited the same house many years earlier, and was subjected to bizarre and hostile phenomena …
This one is a story within a story, and, in the first instance at least, is told in a confused, rambling fashion to represent the drifting concentration of Old Harold, but that doesn’t help the narrative much. In fact, it confuses things a little. We get there in the end, partly through dollops of expo, and though once again there are several effective Jamesian scares en route, this piece overall feels oddly imbalanced, which dilutes its impact.
In our imaginary TV show:
Uncle Harold – Michael Palin
Ralph Asher – Christopher Eccleston
Hush-A-Bye, Baby (Lust)
Wealthy husband and father, Roland, brings his mistress, Miriam, to his family’s holiday home on the coast. Miriam has engineered this by deliberately leaving her last abortion late in the full knowledge it would make her ill, thus pricking Roland’s conscience so that he’d want to make it up to her. Miriam is a diehard gold-digger and convinced that all this will soon be hers. But old money isn’t easily available and both the aristocratic living and the aristocratic dead will have their own say on the matter …
In some respects, this story hasn’t aged well. The amoral mistress using the abortion of her married lover’s child to pressurise him into gold-plating her future (while he, though callous and distant, is depicted in a much less sinister light) is unlikely to win support in the age of the #MeToo movement. And this is a shame, because this is a tight and tense little story, sharply written, with believable characters and an effective setting, and once again some disturbing scare moments.
In our imaginary TV show:
Roland – Richard Madden
Miriam – Gemma Arterton
A lower middle-class family buy the home of their dreams in the wilds of Cornwall, but straight away there are problems. The two cats that come with the house don’t like them, furniture moves around on its own, there are cold spots on the back stairs, and then they learn that it once belonged to an elderly lady who was regarded in the neighbourhood as a self-taught witch and who may well have been murdered in the house by her own husband …
The second haunted house story of the collection, but for me the most disappointing tale in the book, because while, like An Inheritance, it lays down an immediately dark and menacing atmosphere, a likeable family finding themselves in the grip of malevolence, their opponent an unknowable and implacable force from beyond that manifests itself in all kinds of bone-chilling ways, it all ends on a ridiculously twee and disappointing note about which, frankly, the less said the better. In addition to that, I still haven’t been able to work out where ‘sloth’ comes in.
In our imaginary TV show (though the ending would need a complete rewrite to make my TV version):
Clare – Sara Martins
John – Ben Whishaw
The Coastguard (Gluttony)
An enthusiastic young biographer is assigned to work on the life story of a World War Two hero who has recently died. However, a series of weird events leads him to the tale of a mysterious character called Old Harry, and an isolated and mostly empty coastal village, which his desolate and fearsome spirit is still said to haunt …
Melancholy balances equally with supernatural chills in this meaningful and superior ghost story, which, though it deals with complex human weaknesses like failure, regret and guilt, works steadily towards its poignant conclusion, throwing in numerous jolts of terror along the way. Of all the stories in The Seven Deadly Sins, this one probably least deserves its overarching epithet. To talk about ‘gluttony’ in the context of this tale, while it’s not irrelevant, seems almost trite.
In our imaginary TV show:
The Biographer – Dev Patel
The Editor – Martin Clunes
Lady Jeffries – Sheila Hancock
Tempus Memoret (Envy)
Covetous antiques dealer, Pither, is determined to have the miniature replica of the great cathedral clock at Silchester despite the gruesome story that a Tudor-age curse still lies upon it. The smaller clock is currently owned by aged shopkeeper, Norris, but Norris doesn’t appear to have long to live …
A slow-burner of a chiller, which again leads steadily towards a much anticipated climax, with lots of ultra-scary moments along the way, and some wonderfully eerie and atmospheric scenes, particularly inside Norris’s dust-shrouded Aladdin’s Cave of a shop. Sadly, though, despite the establishment of a genuinely intriguing mystery, I don’t think the pay-off is really there. But, as is often the case with weird fiction, satisfaction tends to be in the eye of the beholder.
In our imaginary TV show:
Pither – Phil Glenister
Norris – Patrick Stewart
So, there we are. That’s The Seven Deadly Sins. If I’ve sounded so-so about this one, I still consider it a major stepping-stone in the ongoing drama of the English ghost story tradition. Despite being written in the 1970s, it harks back to an earlier, less cynical age, but most readers, I think, will thoroughly enjoy it. It’s left me feeling sorry that there aren’t lots more Lanyon Jones collections out there to snare my attention (there is one that I know about, When Dusk Comes Creeping In, which I’m on the hunt for next).