Sunday 22 November 2020

Where lies the future for TERROR TALES?

Today, I’ll be asking the question what does the future hold for my TERROR TALES series? Now, before some smart Alec says ‘you need to ask your publisher, surely?’, I’m talking purely in the aesthetic sense.

Yes, whatever happens with the TERROR TALES series, however long it’s destined to last in its current format, will be entirely down to TELOS PUBLISHING, who’ve done such an amazing job with the last three volumes. The last one in particular, TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES, seems to be attracting huge interest online.

But what I’m pondering today is where to go with the substance of the series. Those who follow it will have realised that we are now past halfway in our round-tour of mainland Britain. Okay, we’re not going to complete it in the next year or so. There are still plenty of places to visit here in Blighty. But it will happen eventually, so where do we take TERROR TALES after that?

I have rafts of ideas, but there are lots of issues to talk about.

In addition today, and it’s very in keeping with the main theme, because this is one author whose stories have featured regularly in TERROR TALES, I’ll be reviewing THE BALLET OF DR CALIGARI, Reggie Oliver’s seventh collection of horror stories under the Tartarus Press banner. 

For those who don’t know him, Reggie Oliver has often been referred to as the best kept secret in British horror and as the heir-apparent to both MR James (left) and Robert Aickman ... imagine that combination, if you can. He’s also known worldwide for his endlessly inventive scenarios and for the eloquence of his nightmarish prose.

If you’re only here for that review, you can find it at the bottom of today’s blog, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. 

If that’s your main interest today, shoot on down there straight away. However, those with a little more time on their hands, may also be interested in …

Terror Tales from everywhere

I don’t want to get repetitive on you and go again through the whole story behind my TERROR TALES series (in which we’ve so far published twelve titles). Suffice to say that it was inspired by the Fontana Tales of Terror series of the 1970s, which was mostly helmed by Ron Chetwynd-Hayes, and which selected one specific region per volume and would then tell horror stories about it, snippets of true terror interspersing with great works of fiction, some of these old and well-known, others brand new but commissioned from some of the best authors around.

I’ve adopted exactly the same format with the TERROR TALES series, though whereas Fontana had broader targets: Welsh Tales of Terror, Irish Tales of Terror, Scottish Tales of Terror for example, we’ve narrowed things done a little. Yes, we too have done TERROR TALES OF WALES and CORNWALL, as Fontana did, but we started with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, and went on to do TERROR TALES OF THE COTSWOLDS, EAST ANGLIA, LONDON, YORKSHIRE etc etc.

The big question now, having covered roughly half of the mainland UK, is where do we go once we’ve finished with this little island?

Well, before that, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve got firm plans for the immediate future. For example, to compliment TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, we simply must, at some point, publish TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS. Other British districts that we must go to include THE WEST COUNTRY, THE ENGLISH MIDLANDS, and to balance out TERROR TALES OF NOTHWEST ENGLAND, there has to be a TERROR TALES OF NORTHEAST ENGLAND

At the other end of the country, meanwhile, THE SOUTH COAST would also be worth a book.

By the way, the reason behind these relatively small target areas is quite simple. Having extensively researched the folklore and mythology that provides the factual palate-cleansers located between the works of fiction in these anthologies, I’ve uncovered vast amounts of scary material, chilling tales purporting to be true and located in all these different regions of the country. It would have been a crying shame to throw much of it away simply because we were taking too large a scope and therefore couldn’t fit it in.

But still we get back to that nagging question: where do we go when mainland Britain is done?

Terror overseas

I’ve never worked on the basis that the writers who produce fiction for these books need to be ‘ethnically correct’ for the region under examination, but I’ve always been insistent that each story must be relevant to that region. However, once you’ve gone overseas, the ethics of this approach become murkier.

I’d certainly like to do TERROR TALES OF IRELAND (again, as Fontana did back in the day). I pride myself on knowing plenty of Irish writers. On top of that, Britain and Ireland enjoy a close friendship these days, with much cultural exchange. I strongly doubt that anyone would object if there were one or two British (or American authors) in there as well … so it really wouldn’t be a problem putting this one together.

But then, when we go further afield into Europe, it might become more of an issue. I have optimistic plans to take the TERROR TALES series around the European continent, from the MEDITERRANEAN to SCANDINAVIA, from WESTERN EUROPE to EASTERN EUROPE. I reckon those are four potentially delightful books that I wish I could start editing right now. But the problem is that I don’t know many authors from the countries we would cover. In fact, in most cases, none at all.

I’ve no doubt that I could safely commission a whole bunch of superb fictional horror stories set in all of these lands, but they would be by English-speaking authors, and even though said Brits might know these places inside out, would that be the correct thing to do?

I’d genuinely value opinions on this. 

Personally, I’d be inclined to say ‘yes it would’ given that the only other alternative would be not doing these books at all.

However, once you’ve cleared that hurdle, and are looking to take the series even further afield, other complexities arise.

The Americas, you might think, would be the obvious next place for the series to pitch up, North America in particular: it’s primarily English-speaking, plus I know many writers from the US and Canada. 

What a laugh we’d have with that. Imagine it: TERROR TALES OF THE DEEP SOUTH, TERROR TALES OF THE GREAT PLAINS, TERROR TALES OF NEW YORK, TERROR TALES OF THE WHITE NORTH etc etc etc. 

Except that how could I, an Englishman, who has only ever visited the North American continent twice in his entire life, possibly have the temerity to set myself up as editor for an American folklore-based anthology? Surely, it would have to be another American? I mean, don’t get me wrong … I would love to have a go, but I would only attempt this with the tacit permission of the American horror fiction community.

Consider this, and then imagine the even more immense problems if I was to try my hand at editing
TERROR TALES OF CENTRAL AMERICA or TERROR TALES OF SOUTH AMERICA

Both those regions have wonderful literary traditions, and again, strong horror-writing communities … but alas, I’d be a total stranger in their eyes (and largely ignorant of their expertise).

The same issues would apply to TERROR TALES OF THE CARIBBEAN, TERROR TALES OF THE MIDDLE EAST or TERROR TALES OF THE FAR EAST. In the latter case, when JJ Strating edited Fontana’s Oriental Tales of Terror back in 1971, at least half the stories were provided by authors of Oriental origin or western writers who were living there. I wouldn’t have the contacts or knowledge to even commence compiling an anthology of that sort.

A better option might be, once we have covered Britain and Europe, to move out of the realm of specifics.

So, for example, TERROR TALES OF THE TROPICS would sit very nicely alongside TERROR TALES OF THE TUNDRA. I couldn’t see that there’d be much controversy there. 

TERROR TALES OF OUTER SPACE has to be done at some point, if for no other reason than to honour Fontana’s Tales of Terror from Outer Space (I’ve already done TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN and TERROR TALES OF THE SEASIDE in tribute to Fontana’s original Sea Tales of Terror).

Beyond that, we could move onto society itself. How about TERROR TALES OF THE INNER CITY, TERROR TALES OF THE SUBURBS, TERROR TALES OF THE COUNTRYSIDE and TERROR TALES OF THE WILDERNESS …?

We could even start looking at the calendar.

TERROR TALES OF CHRISTMAS
would be an obvious one. Likewise, TERROR TALES OF
HALLOWEEN
. But what about TERROR TALES OF SPRING, TERROR TALES OF SUMMER, AUTUMN, WINTER … ? I know what you’re thinking. At the rate we produce these books, which is roughly one a year, we’d all be pushing Zimmer frames before we got even half way through a list like this. But should that stop us trying?

Perhaps our final pursuit, after all this, as the series gradually winds its way towards a stately and inevitable end, is horror culture itself.

These titles would round it all off nicely: TERROR TALES OF THE OCCULT, TERROR TALES OF THE SUPERNATURAL, TERROR TALES OF MONSTERS, TERROR TALES OF FOLKLORE, and finishing it all off maybe, TERROR TALES OF MANIACS.

Please forgive me for thinking aloud today. That’s often all I do on this blog, if I’m honest. Though I make no apology for dreaming these dreams.

Maybe we’ve been a little bit ambitious, but if anyone has any better ideas, feel free to let me know. You can rest assured, any that are really good will be freely pinched.


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 … 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 BALLET OF DR CALIGARI
by Reggie Oliver (2018)

Reggie Oliver is one of the most readable and elegant purveyors of supernatural fiction working today, and yet his reputation in that field continues to elude many out there in the wider world. This is a minor tragedy in my view because, on merit alone, Oliver deserves to be a household name. At least he is well-recognised within the genre itself, a cause served admirably by Tartarus Press, who to date have brought out seven collections of his stories. 

The Ballet of Dr Caligari is the most recent on the list, but is something of an oddity in that it incorporates the best of Madder Mysteries, a much earlier Oliver collection, put out in 2009 in fact but which for various reasons was read by almost nobody. The opportunity to get hold of older material that almost sank without trace through no fault of the author gives added value to this particular collection, of course, though there are many more recent stories in here as well, these congregated in the second half of the book, which makes for a most satisfying whole.

When Reggie Oliver first burst onto the ghost story scene in the early 2000s, he was viewed by many as the heir to MR James, his preferred subject the traditional English supernatural tale though with more than a hint of danger in it. Since then, however, and this is excellently illustrated in The Ballet of Dr Caligari, his style has moved more towards the realms of Arthur Machen and Robert Aickman in that he favours strangeness over the straightforwardly ghostly. And yet Oliver’s work is just as frightening now as it ever was, even if he does tend to tackle slightly more complex subject-matter.

Things that have never changed, however, include his eloquent writing style, his scholarly tone, his mordant wit, his effortless evocation of different times and places and his skilled creation of sad, lost characters, all of it coming neatly packaged in deceptively gentle prose.

Another trademark of Oliver’s are his regular trips down memory lane where his own theatrical career was concerned. Oliver was a successful actor, theatre director, playwright and biographer before he moved into a darker literary world, his supernatural canon subsequently making many visits to Britain’s provincial theatre-land of former decades, the majority of these stories steeped in melancholy, though not always because the author is bemoaning the loss of something wonderful. Oliver never skimps on detail when it comes to the tawdriness of some of the experiences he had back then, be it damp dressing rooms, dingy backstage corridors, unpleasant and even predatory fellow professionals, or maybe just second rate accommodation in seaside towns that time forgot.

The Final Stage is a perfect example in this particular collection. It sees an arrogant young actor injured during rehearsal, knocked unconscious and plunged into a theatrical hell of his own making. Another powerful tale of this ilk, less disturbing but dark and foggy nonetheless, is The Vampyre Trap, an atmospheric murder mystery set in Bradford’s Victorian era theatre district, complete with ghosts, arson and multiple deaths by strychnine poisoning. Though by far the most intriguing and yet repellent study of theatre life in times gone by is Baskerville’s Midgets. Read in the age of diversity, it walks the line somewhat, but like many of these stories, it comes to us from another era, when sensibilities were significantly different. I consider this one quite a special piece as low-key horror stories go, so more about this one later.

Reggie Oliver could never really be regarded as an experimental author, but there are three particular stories in The Ballet of Dr Caligari that are fascinatingly off-the-wall compared to his normal output. The first of these, Tawny, you probably would have to classify as experimental fiction, because the story is told entirely in dialogue between characters who are never formally introduced. Such is Oliver’s skill, however, that this never becomes a problem. It concerns an upper class christening, which is interrupted by the arrival of a huge, shaggy animal, which might be a local farm dog gone astray, or something much more sinister.

The two other stories in the trio, while not what I’d regard as experimental, certainly belong in the school of weird fiction rather than the overtly supernatural, though both are deeply macabre. Probably the more lauded of the two, and probably the most Aickmanesque tale in the whole of this collection, if not the most Aickmanesque tale that Oliver has ever written, is A Donkey at the Mysteries, which tells the story of an adventurous undergraduate who makes a one-man tour of Ancient Greek sites, only to arrive on the island of Thrakonisos, where his investigation of the mysterious Sanctuary of the Great Gods invokes an ancient and malignant power. The third story in this small group, The Head, is equally difficult to categorise, but no less unnerving and no less morbidly chilling. In this one, an eccentric art-dealer receives a terminal diagnosis, and so plans to commit suicide with the assistance of an amoral young taxi driver he takes a fancy to, though it won’t be as easy as either of them expects.

Oliver aficionados may consider that more familiar territory is to be found in Love and Death. In this one we’re firmly back in the world of the recognisably supernatural, but it’s a slower burn than usual, and laced with academic interest. It takes place in Victorian London, where it sees Martin Isaacs, an unsuccessful artist, commissioned to recover a missing work of genius, Love and Death, as painted by Basil Hallward, his former mentor, who has now mysteriously disappeared. But the painting, a classical image in the Renaissance style, is misleadingly beautiful. In reality, it destroys all that it touches. A similar tone is struck by Lady With a Rose, in which a young British artist sets up shop in Rome of the 1960s, where he struggles to make a living until he is summoned to the grand home of Prince Valerio Grandoni, who has an unusual and potentially very dangerous commission for him.

Both of these arts-themed tales are intriguing rather than out-and-out frightening, but they hint at extreme darkness and will keep you glued to the page. 

Possibly the dreamiest (and perhaps most meaningful) story in the book, and certainly the most folk-horrorish (if such a word exists), is Porson’s Piece, another deceptively gentle fable. It centres on Jane, an Oxford scholar, who seeks an interview with Bernard Wilkes, a former professor of philosophy now in his 80s. She finds him living in a quaint Cotswolds village, but though he’s still an avowed atheist, he now lives in fear of a nearby strip of land called Porson’s Piece, on which the dead are said to dance.

Of course, no Reggie Oliver collection would ever be worthy of the name if it didn’t contain at least a bunch of Gothic horror stories penned with the sole intention of instilling terror in the reader. This, for me, is where the great man really excels, and The Ballet of Dr Caligari is no exception.

First up is The Game of Bear, co-written with MR James himself, though obviously Oliver added his bit long after Dr James had died, the story at that point incomplete.

It centres on Henry Pardue, fortunate heir to a vast country estate, though endless problems are caused for him by his cousin, Caroline, who feels that with her own small inheritance, she has been ill-treated. When Caroline dies, Pardue hopes the matter is over, but it isn’t … as he will learn for himself that following Christmas Day, during the infamous Game of Bear.

Three other tales, owing purely to the imagination of Reggie Oliver, are worthy to stand alongside this one in terms of how genuinely hair-raising they become: The Devil’s Funeral, which I seriously believe is one of the best and eeriest horror stories of modern times, even though it’s set in a distinctly Jamesian past; The Endless Corridor, an uber-Gothic terror tale reminiscent of the great horror writers of earlier eras, Poe, Shelley, Stevenson and so on; and the titular story, The Ballet of Dr Caligari, a phenomenal piece of dark fiction, which though it draws heavily on the original classic tale, is possibly even more crammed with madness and obsession and certainly no less chilling.

I’ve not even hinted at the synopses behind these three final stories simply because I’ll deal with those in the next section. In the meantime, all fans of short eerie fiction should get hold of The Ballet of Dr Caligari. It’s a mixed bag for sure, but the writing is of the highest quality (as are the illustrations, which are provided by the author himself), and it amply demonstrates what a fine and versatile writer Reggie Oliver is.

And now …

THE BALLET OF DR CALIGARI – the movie.

Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware). So as always, part of this review will involve me non-too-seriously casting this beast before someone with enough development money comes along and does it for real. Here are my thoughts.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances that require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they are trapped in a cellar by a broken lift and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of
Horror
), or maybe they find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (al la Dead of Night).

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

(It may look like I’ve spent a fortune on these actors, but remember, for portmanteau horrors they only usually have to work for one day each 😉).

Baskerville’s Midgets: A professional actor stays regularly at a theatrical guest-house in a drab seaside resort. One year, however, he is progressively more disturbed by an unruly band of performing midgets who have finished up in the same lodgings …

The Actor – Peter Capaldi 
Ruby Baker - Emily Watson

The Devil’s Funeral: In an age when Darwinian theories are capturing the public imagination, idealistic Canon Simms of Morchester Cathedral is tormented by nightmarish visions, which he feels are predicting disaster for the Church of England. The older, sturdier Dean Bennett is helpful but dismisses his fears as dreams. Neither link the young man’s terrors with the impending arrival of the strangely secretive Bishop Hartley …

Simms – Arthur Darvill
Bennett – Robert Pugh
Hartley – Michael Sheen

The Endless Corridor: A lady academic researches a romantic poet of the Regency period, William Sotherham, and in so doing, uncovers a terrifying tale concerning a trip he made across Spain, which saw him call at an isolated and long-abandoned monastery …

Academic – Kate Winslet
Sotherham – Robert Pattinson

The Ballet of Dr Caligari: When Charles May, a young London composer, is commissioned to write a ballet for Sir Daniel Vernon, one of the most acclaimed choreographers at the British National Ballet, he jumps at the chance. But when he learns the ballet must tell the famous horror story of ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, he wonders if he is doing the right thing …

Charles May – Kit Harington
Daniel Vernon – Anthony Sher 
Jane ‘Marda’ Fisher – Elizabeth Olsen

Sunday 1 November 2020

ILL MET BY DARKNESS - coming your way


I’ve got a little surprise today. Hopefully, readers of this column will consider it a pleasant one. It’s an imminent new publication of mine, which I haven’t mentioned at all until this moment, and which, with any luck, will fit in nicely with everyone’s reading habits as we enter this dark and ghostly time of year. It’s being published by the inexhaustible SAROB PRESS, and is called ILL MET BY DARKNESS. It will only be available as a hardback limited edition and contains four completely new horror novellas of mine, all of which have a distinctly folklorish vibe.

Even if I say so myself, I’ve been busy during this pandemic. Very, very busy in fact. But I’m reasonably optimistic (and praying) that you’ll consider this effort worthwhile. 

A bit more about ILL MET BY DARKNESS shortly. In addition today, also on the subject of supernatural horror, I’ll be reviewing and discussing yet another of Michelle Paver’s exceptionally frightening novels of the uncanny, THIN AIR.

If you’re only here for the Michelle Paver review, that’s fine. Just head on down to the bottom of today’s blogpost, where, as usual, you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Killers section. But before we do any of that, here are a couple of items of …

Other news

Firstly, an update on TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES, the latest volume in my Terror Tales series, which you may now be aware is available to order (both electronically and in paperback) either from the publisher, TELOS, or from AMAZON. Watch this space for further info regarding other retailers.

I should also remind you that SPARROWHAWK, my Christmas ghost novella of 2010, which has had a recent makeover, is also available both as an ebook and paperback (again) and is now out on Audible too.

On top of that, two other collections of my Christmas-themed ghost and horror stories are newly out in paperback and on Kindle. They are THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER.

And now for today’s big new item of interest …

Ill Met by Darkness

A few months ago, I was approached by Rob Morgan, that fine gentleman at SAROB PRESS, who, if you’re not familiar with them, specialise in publishing collections of supernatural tales, primarily in deluxe, hand-numbered, limited, hardcover editions, and was asked if I’d be interested in writing an all-new collection of folk-horror(ish) fiction; specifically, Sarob were looking at four novellas.

Now, that’s not the kind of offer a writer receives every day. So, even though I was not entirely sure my schedule would permit it, I said yes. That was one of the few good things that happened to me during last summer’s national lockdown, the imposition of which gave me more time to play with than usual, which in its turn enabled me to write ILL MET BY DARKNESS alongside my regular crime novel commitments

I think the thing that really swung it for me was the folk-horror element. For those not in the know (and surely there’s no one left on Earth by now?), folk-horror is a subgenre of horror fiction in which the focus rests on the British ‘old and wyrd’, particularly that half-forgotten world of ancient ritual and arcane belief. 

It came to the attention of the wider public in the early 1970s with a famous unholy trinity of British horror movies, Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). With the exception of BOSC director, Piers Haggard, who is alleged to have coined the phrase, it’s unlikely that anyone involved at the time was aware that they were creating folk-horror. Most probably felt they were channelling traditional occult and witchcraft tropes, and weaving them into authentically grimy and realistic British rural backdrops (which was a worthy enough ambition).

At the risk of sounding ludicrously big-headed, I like to think that I personally carried the folk-horror candle for quite a while after these films were long done and dusted, and well before the subgenre became as widely popular as it is now. Not just because of my own short horror fiction, which has often drawn on British folklore, but through the Terror Tales series I’ve been editing since 2011, an anthology round-trip of the British Isles, each volume attached to one particular region, the stories within (both the fictional and factual) drawing heavily and purposely on the lore and mythology of that region.

Okay, I’m not going to claim that I’m somehow responsible for the resurgence of interest in folk-horror; that would be palpable nonsense. But I’ve long been a fan, and am totally delighted to see it now getting the attention it deserves.

Which  brings me back to SAROB PRESS and ILL MET BY DARKNESS. It was not a difficult thing for me to get stuck into. My top drawer has been crammed with folk-horror(ish) ideas for quite a while, and the four that I finally selected I penned in double-quick time, even though, as I say, these are novellas and novelettes rather than short stories. Sarob, I am glad to say, were very happy with them, and the finished result can be ordered right now.

For those who don’t mind their appetites being whetted, here’s a list of the stories included, each one accompanied by a tiny teaser ….

SNICKER-SNACK

One summer evening, Gilpin sets out across London, intending to get his hands on a semi-mythical piece of artwork, a picture once associated with a terrifying monster that no one ever sees and lives. He doesn’t even know if the image really exists, but he is absolutely determined. He will have what he wants, whatever the consequence, no matter how dire …

DOWN TO A SUNLESS SEA

The idyllic island of Crete. Azure seas washing rocky, sun-bleached shores. Inland vistas of vineyards and olive groves. A landscape steeped in myth. Anyone can enjoy themselves here, so long as they don’t delve too deeply behind the party island facade; so long as the distant past is left to rest, and its treasures remain untouched … 

THE HELL WAIN

The Forest of Bowland. Lancashire’s best-kept secret. A pristine realm of hilltop, moor and fathomless woodland. When two London gangsters arrive there one Bonfire Night, at the remote village of Hackenthorpe, they have murder in mind. But immediately they’re uneasy. Why is it so quiet? Why is no one around? And yet why do they feel that they aren’t quite alone?

SPIRIT OF THE SEASON

Father Christmas lurks in our consciousness all the year round, not just in December. But his origins are mysterious, enigmatic, almost eerie. When a folklorist sets out to discover the truth behind the jovial myth, it leads him to Wenlock Castle in Oxfordshire, and a Christmas Eve that he and his companions will never forget, assuming they survive it …

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.

THIN AIR 
by Michelle Paver (2013)

Outline
It’s 1935, the British Empire is still a thing, and the Raj is the jewel in its crown. It’s also the age of men, a time when adventurous chaps with public school backgrounds must all do their bit to enhance their country’s reputation, which often translates into having dangerous escapades in remote overseas locations (usually after leaving their compliant wives and sweethearts behind to worry bravely and quietly on their own).

Perhaps inevitably, mountaineering scores high on this agenda.

On this particular occasion, the object of the exercise is Mount Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas. At 28,169 feet, it’s the third highest mountain in the world, but easily the most difficult climb, and the worst killer of climbers by a long chalk. Even experienced teams are wary of it as so many who have attempted the peak previously have met with disaster.

We follow the story of this latest attempt through the journal-type memoirs of Dr Stephen Pearce, who is very much a part of that fearless set, though a likeable and unassuming man who is privately tormented by self-doubt. Pearce wasn’t originally supposed to be part of this expedition; he was shortly due to marry into a respected and well-connected family, though uncertainty about the future of ‘domestic bliss’ that apparently faced him led him to break things off, which overnight has made him the talk of London society. 

Eager to get away from this febrile atmosphere, Pearce, an accomplished mountaineer already – though he’s never tackled anything like Kangchenjunga – eagerly accepts when his older brother, Christopher, or Kits, offers him the role of chief medical officer on the forthcoming trip. 

Kits, though outwardly he is all things to all men, has not acted entirely out of generosity. The Pearce brothers have existed in a state of sibling rivalry for many years now, which on occasion has threatened to get out of hand. Kits, who is constantly out for personal glory, is particularly domineering in his manner, and inclined to sulk and shamelessly complain if he ever imagines that his ‘little brother’ (or anyone, in fact) has beaten him to the prize. However, the expedition needs a medic. 

Despite this, the mission’s team-leader, Major Cotterell, a World War One veteran, hell-bent on beating the Germans to the summit of Kangchenjunga, is an affable man, who is more than welcoming, even if the others are much more ambivalent. 

From the beginning, however, there is an ominous air about the coming trip, which Pearce, who is prone to nightmares, seems to sense more than the others. 

He is not at all sure how he feels about Cotterell’s plan to follow the exact same path taken by the Edwardian adventurer, Edmund Lyell, whose 1905 expedition was a catastrophe, five members of his party dying, the remainder all critically injured. And his misgivings about this are in no way allayed when the team finally convenes in Darjeeling, and Pearce inadvertently meets Captain Charles Tennant, the sole crippled survivor of the Lyell ascent, and a man seemingly so deranged by his experiences on Mount Kangchenjunga that his warnings about the dangers facing them, while mostly incoherent, are apocalyptically dire. 

Even when the expedition gets under way, the men initially traversing a dreamy landscape of lush rainforest, deep gorges and gliding jade rivers, the coolies are also uneasy about attempting to climb the sacred mountain in the footsteps of Lyell, and this includes Nima, the Sherpa who becomes Pearce’s personal manservant and is easily one of the sturdiest and most reliable men on the expedition. 

In due course, the lower valleys fall behind, and the team commences the arduous climb. Even in the foothills there are problems, but Pearce is steadily more oppressed about what lies further ahead. And that isn’t just the sub-zero temperatures and paper-thin air, it is the unmistakeable feeling that something terrible is watching from far above, just waiting for them to stray into its forbidden territory … 

Review 
Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, which was published in 2011, was a hypnotically frightening ghost story about an ill-fated expedition to the High Arctic made back during the days of exploration by a well-heeled bunch of chaps looking to make their mark in a world still dominated by Great Britain. Horrors befell them from every side, both of the natural variety, the sort you’d expect during a trip to the ends of the Earth armed with little more than pluck, and of the infinitely more awful supernatural variety. 

I was hugely impressed by the tale; not just by how unashamedly scary it was, but by how it captured a unique moment in time: the vast complexities of the undertaking and the personal makeup of those individuals actually taking part, the class system that had created them, the imperialist outlook and so forth. For all these reasons, Dark Matter was a roaring success. 

And now Michelle Paver has done it again. 

Thin Air may not sound massively different, and it certainly isn’t in terms of its tone. It’s not even especially different in terms of the actual story. But though most of the characters are cut from the same cloth as those in Dark Matter, they are all new, and each one of them, in his own right, is vivid and real. Also, while there are clear similarities between the narratives (I really can’t pretend that there aren’t!), I never felt that I was reading the same thing all over again. 

Okay, that’s a personal viewpoint, which others have disagreed with, but I can only tell you what I myself thought. 

At the forefront of the novel, of course, lies a terrifying ghost story. 

It features an arduous journey into an unknown realm, which even the locals are wary of, a place abounding with creatures from both reality, even if semi-mythical, like the snow leopard and the blue sheep, and from mythology, such as the yeti and the mountain spirits that the Sherpa people are so enthralled by. Almost from the beginning, though, there is an aura of impending but unknowable doom. And this doesn’t just stem from Captain Tennant’s demented rantings, alarming though that scene in the book is. So many previous missions have met catastrophe on this mountain that expecting the worst is perhaps the wisest course. 

Both Stephen Pearce and his brother knew all about the Lyell expedition from childhood, from reading about it in books and sitting at their aunt’s knee as she regaled them with the story, sparing no lurid detail. And yet Stephen in particular is convinced that they’ve never been given the full terrible facts. Of course, when they finally get up there, the more fanciful legends concerning Kangchenjunga seem a world away for the majority of the party. Initially, it’s just about survival. And yet, still those unspecified concerns that something lurks up here, something malevolent, race through Stephen Pearce’s mind, and through the reader’s. 

The tension grows steadily as, in the best fashion of MR James, we think we start to glimpse whatever it is, always just ahead of them, or sometimes behind, or maybe off to the side, but never far away. 

It’s certainly the case that fans of classic ghost stories should gobble this one up. It satisfies every requirement of that genre. It’s also impeccably researched. Michelle Paver has visited the Himalayas in real life, but she’s clearly immersed herself in the climbing lore of an earlier age too, because this book really takes you back to the 1930s, and the much rougher and readier methods used to undertake what were genuinely heroic endeavours. 

But again, I reiterate, that this isn’t just a ghost story. I don’t want to give much more away but the subtext to Thin Air, as with Dark Matter, is much concerned with the class system of that era and what was a routinely colonialist outlook, a mindset so cast in stone that it even extends into the frozen Hell at the top of Mount Kangchenjunga. 

But it’s all done subtly. This isn’t a book about villainous Brits and the poor, put-upon natives. It isn’t even a story about the self-perceived masters of the world proving themselves to be anything but, though it does illustrate, in the most succinct way, how attitudes of superiority can often come with a price … much more of a price than even its hardiest practitioners might be willing to pay. Not that they’ll have much choice. 

This brings me onto the characters in Thin Air, at which Michelle Paver yet again excels herself. Even the lesser personalities, McLellan and Garrard, the former a pompous, upper-class Scot, the latter Kits’s eager-to-please ‘yes’ man, while typical examples of the sorts you’d find out there in the Empire in those days, both are clearly and individually drawn. 

Again, Michelle Paver does not club her subject-matter here. Cotterell, for example, is a war hero and a true gentleman. Stephen Pearce himself, though very much a product of his time, is a sympathetic figure: the overlooked younger son, the batman to his betters even though he’s a fully qualified doctor (years of derogation by his ‘hero’ older brother have reduced him to this status even in his own eyes). Kits himself, while he’s an archetypical public school brat, a man whose brash over-confidence owes to his having everything he’s ever wanted laid on for him on a plate, does not consider that he’s doing evil. He’s top-dog, and that’s just the way it is; his constant belittling of Stephen is nothing more, in his mind at least, than gentle ribbing. 

Thin Air, while it might be a nice metaphor for the unhealthily rarefied atmosphere that certain types of imperialists inhabited back in those days, is not an anti-British polemic. The innate jingoism is presented to us as an everyday thing back then, even the Sherpas, expert mountaineers, accepting their subservient place as part of the natural order. The message that this was all terribly wrong (and highly likely to backfire) seeps through gradually, via the interactions of the characters and the emergence of ghastly revelations. 

For all these reasons, Thin Air’s appeal should reach far beyond ghost fiction fandom. But whoever you are, however deep and non-genre you prefer your literature to be, be prepared to be scared. The terror builds slowly but from the very first page, and it doesn’t let up. 

And now the fun bit. Or rather, the bit where I embarrass myself by trying to cast this work as if it was about to be translated to film or TV and I had the job of choosing the actors. Here we go: 

Stephen Pearce – George MacKay 
Christopher ‘Kits’ Pearce – Charlie Hunnam 
Major Cotterell – Ralph Ineson 
Charles Tennant – David Bradley 
Nima – Rajesh Hamal