Tuesday 13 April 2021

At last getting back to some kind of normal

Well, life is finally getting back to something approximating normality. The pub beer gardens reopened yesterday, which was a huge relief for lots of us. More important than that, for me at least, our non-necessary shops were also allowed to reopen, which, on a lovely spring day as we had yesterday seemed to bring town centres to life all across the country.

I know there are lots of hoops to jump through yet, and there’ll be plenty more concerns before we hit full recovery, but if nothing else, it feels as though we’ve come a long way since those dull, dark, deep-frozen nights in December and January when I could walk my dogs through Wigan and Standish and see everything closed and scarcely a living soul.

Anyway, to celebrate this change for the better, I yesterday received a most unexpected treat. Check the pic above and read on for the details.

Alas, it’s not all good news this week. I’ll also be talking a little today about the loss of a friend (albeit one I haven’t seen in the flesh for several years) and a very important figure in genre fiction. More details about that one further down too.

On top of everything else, I’m now in the process of compiling TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS. It’s far too early to talk about it in detail yet, but I’ve been getting some great fiction in for it, while the non-fiction I’ve collected is, as usual, hair-raisingly chilling. Keep reading and I’ll drop a few mischievous hints.

On the subject of original short-form horror, I’ll also be reviewing the VALANCOURT BOOK OF WORLD HORROR STORIES #1 today, as edited by James D Jenkins and Ryan Cagle.

If you’re only here for the Valancourt review, that’s cool. As ever, you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Feel free to rattle on down there and get stuck in, though if you’ve got a bit more time, perhaps you’ll be equally interested in …

Celebration Day

Yesterday’s full reopening of walk-in retail came as a big respite to many in England, not least because lots of people I know are book addicts, readers or writers or both, and to be able to go into shops and browse along bookshelves again was a lunchtime or weekend joy which, up until yesterday, they’d been torturously denied for months on end.

Now, there’s no doubt that the book-buying public has been well-served by the online sector (not to mention the nation’s delivery men and women), who’ve done a sterling job during these dark days. But there’s something inherently magical about being able to pop into bookshops as well: the relaxing ambience, the quiet, respectful chatter, the soft rustle of pages as you and others like you search eagerly for the next find. Imagine my delight yesterday, therefore, when Kate, the irrepressible manager at Waterstones Wigan, my local branch (pictured at the top with my good self), contacted me in the morning and asked if I’d be interested in marking their grand reopening by popping in and signing those books of mine that they had in stock.

What an honour. How could I say no?

A friend later commented: ‘It must be wonderful to be a celebrity in your own town.’

Well … I’d completely dispute that. I slipped in and out of the shop, in truth. It was a fairly unobtrusive event even though – and this was great to see – the store was nicely busy on its first day back. But there was a good feeling in the air and a really positive vibe, which I was delighted to contribute to in my own small way.

Support your local bookshop whenever you can, folks. And don’t think purely in terms of those small independents who always needs customers (though you can’t buy their wares enough, in my view). While Waterstones may be a nationwide operation, your local branch will only be there as long as people go into it. Our high streets are in a meagre enough state as it is, especially since Covid started. Let’s not also lose our booksellers too, whoever they might be.

A big loss

On a more sombre note, I was upset yesterday to hear about the death, at only 63, of JOHN PELAN, a US writer, editor and publisher of dark and weird fiction, and a huge and positive influence within the genre, not just in the States, but here in Europe as well.

Basically, John lived and breathed the scary stuff. His suburban Seattle home, which my wife and I were very graciously welcomed into by John and his wife, Cathy, back in 2001, was, in the wise words of horror maestro Brian Keene, ‘like going into the greatest library in the world’. I couldn’t believe it as I was conducted from one room to the next, both upstairs and down, each one of which was lined with shelves groaning beneath the weight of classic horror and mystery novels and anthologies.

But John wasn’t just a collector. As I said, he wrote himself, he edited, he published (he particularly favoured bringing forgotten classics back to public attention), but perhaps most important of all, he was a huge supporter and promoter of new talent. I was fortunate enough to come under his wing when I was starting out, as did many others I know (Brian Keene, Tim Lebbon, Michael Arnzen, Matt Cardin etc, to name a few). John keenly explored rafts of new and prospective writing. He was a towering figure to new authors, and yet unfailingly polite, constructive and encouraging about material he considered to be promising.

A priceless mentor and adviser to so many of us. He’ll be sorely missed.

Rest in peace, big guy.

The Low Road

And now all things Scottish. Or at least Lowlands Scottish.

It’s an oddity, but the popular song Loch Lomond, sung lustily by many a Sassenach and his family as they head north for a holiday in that green and beautiful land beyond Hadrian’s Wall, particularly the catchy chorus line – ‘O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road, And I’ll be in Scotland a’fore ye – originated as a Jacobite ballad featuring a brave rebel who returned to Scotland before those of lesser courage as he’d been despatched there by the English hangman.

Yes. A grimmer ditty than many may realise.

But this nicely sums up the attraction to me that the Scottish Lowlands presented when I was looking to edit my next volume of TERROR TALES.

Often seen as a gentle, benign landscape compared to the bleak fastnesses of the Highlands, the Lowlands boasts scenic ranges of hills, glens and lochs all of its own. There is much wilderness to be found there, though thanks to the Lowlands’ proximity to Scotland’s two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, it tends to be more populous and somewhat less geographically dramatic. However, in terms of history and mythology, the Lowlands is considerably more blood-soaked and brutal. 

This was the realm where most of Scotland’s battles with England were fought, but also where civil strife took its bitter course, and where reiver clans raided and feuded. As such, the landscape is studded with castles, towers, gibbets and other relics of war and violence, while the ghosts that haunt it are a veritable who’s who of Scottish notables, everyone from the Black Douglas (beheaded in 1463) to Lord Darnley, husband to Mary, Queen of Scots (strangled in 1567). 

The Lowlands were also immortalised by a plethora of poets and rural balladeers, who painted it as lovely but mysterious, spinning vivid tales of witches, warlocks, brownies and selkies. Even the great cities of this region, now among the greatest in Europe, once harboured evil reputations, Edinburgh (or ‘Auld Reekie’), formerly a filthy slum notorious for plague and atrocity, Glasgow renowned for its bad old days of sectarianism and organised crime.

The book is only due out from Telos in the autumn, so I won’t say much more about it in terms of revealing detail. Though I will mention again that I’ve had some superb submissions already, while the local folklore is living up every inch to the horror I anticipated. And just to whet your appetites even more, here are some pics I’ve purloined from the Net (credits will be given at the bottom of today’s column, if it’s possible to find them), which I hope hint strongly at the chills to come. Feel free to play a guessing about who or what these images refer to.

Gentleman by day, killer by night ...

True life horror embodied in border stronghold granite ...

A host of miniature corpses found buried in miniature coffins ...

A hellishly burning coach, crashing around Edinburgh’s midnight streets ... 


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.

ed. by James D Jenkins and Ryan Cagle (2020)

Valancourt Books are fast becoming the go-to publishers for quality but out-of-print fiction. An American independent firm, they were started by James Jenkins and Ryan Cagle in 2005, their aim to rediscover and republish masterworks from former eras that are now largely forgotten. Thus far, their focus has been divided about equally between gay fiction and Gothic horror fiction, many of the latter titles dating way back into the 1800s, though quite a few were published as recently as the 1980s.

But Valancourt are also increasingly interested in putting out horror anthologies, particularly – and this appears to be very in keeping with their raison d’être – bunches of tales that, for whatever reason, have slipped under the radar of the modern western reader.

No horror anthology that I’ve seen and read in many a year more appropriately meets this ambition than the Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories. But before we discuss it in detail, I’ll let the publishers themselves explain the purpose behind this book in their own official blurb:

What if there were a whole world of great horror fiction out there you didn't know anything about, written by authors in distant lands and in foreign languages, outstanding horror stories you had no access to, written in languages you couldn't read? For an avid horror fan, what could be more horrifying than that?

For this ground-breaking volume, the first of its kind, the editors of Valancourt Books have scoured the world, reading horror stories from dozens of countries in nearly twenty languages, to find some of the best contemporary international horror stories. The stories in this volume come from 19 countries on 5 continents and were originally written in 13 different languages. All 20 foreign language stories in this volume are appearing in English for the first time ever. The book includes stories by some of the world's preeminent horror authors, many of them not yet known in the English-speaking world …

Two things struck me straight away about the Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories 1.

Firstly, that it’s already being billed as Volume One. Well, if that’s not a good sign, nothing is. Valancourt certainly appear to have strong confidence in their titles. And why not, as they’ve been a success story for quite a few years now. Let’s hope that this clear indication they intend the series to run plays out in full.

Secondly, that the quality of the stories in this collection is extraordinarily high. It’s often the case, I think, that when you pick up any kind of anthology, you probably won’t expect much more than half of its contents to really delight you if for no other reason than tastes differ. There’ll always be a few stories that you’re okay with but won’t really remember, probably one or two more that you’re indifferent to, and maybe a couple that you absolutely hate. Either way, it’s a rarity that anyone closes an anthology satisfied that every contribution thrilled and excited them.

I can’t honestly claim that that’s the entire story here, and I’m sure that editors Jenkins and Cagle would not expect that. But the vast majority of the fiction here is simply superb. And even the tiny handful of stories that didn’t blow me away are all excellently written (and translated – we must never forget the various translators, who have done an excellent and enormous job with this particular volume).

One thing that did surprise me is the lack of obvious folk-horror. It’s a current trend in the genre for authors to go rural, digging up ancient tales and arcane customs, and imposing them on the modern world. I expected the Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories to go exactly that way. Folklore is a rich seam to tap if you’re looking to scare people, and there must be many non English-speaking authors who dip regularly into that vast reservoir of world mythology lying beyond the boundaries of the Anglosphere. But aside from a couple of stories, this doesn’t really happen here.

What we’ve got instead is a very eclectic range of material, brought to us from countries as culturally and geographically diverse as Ivory Coast and Sweden, Mexico and Canada. But the bulk of it falls into one of two categories: either traditional horror stories in that they contain ghosts, devils, monsters etc, or the bizarre, leaning towards slipsteam and surrealism. However, without fail, all are eerie, disturbing and ultra-dark.

If we look at the more traditional stories first, they range over a variety of subject matter, but all are frightening in the best possible way.

Take Twin Shadows, penned by Québécois author Ariane Gélinas. It tells the eerie tale of young Floriane, who grows up in a huge spooky old house, but who has a constant companion in the form of a twin sister that no one else cares about or even, if the truth be told, knows about. This one would sit comfortably in any edition of classic ghost stories. A similarly Gothic tale, albeit perhaps even more frightening, is Backstairs, written by Sweden’s Anders Fager, a period piece that takes us to another dismal mansion with a chilling mystery at the heart of it (this is an astonishingly good piece of work, so more about this one later).

More contemporary in tone but still packed with classic tropes we have Dutch writer Christien Boomsma’s The Bones in Her Eyes, a story of witchcraft and dark magic set in the suburbs (though this is another top quality contribution, so more about this one later as well). Less ghostly, but no less mysterious and disturbing, is Senior Ligotti by Mexico’s Bernard Esquinca. In this one, Estaban, a struggling writer with a pregnant wife falls for the charm of Senior Ligotti, an elderly but wealthy reader, who offers him a cheap apartment and access to a major publishing house in return for friendship. Unfortunately, Ligotti’s idea of friendship is not Estaban’s.

From Finland comes a classic monster story. Pale Toes by Marko Hautala is not to be read by anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. It features a married couple, mismatched in age, their relationship clearly failing, but who take a hiking holiday along the Franco-Spanish border and meet a scruffy Englishman who promises to show them subterranean cave drawings that no one else has ever seen. They are wary of accepting, but in the end, unfortunately, they do.

Perhaps the one clear occasion when Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories does stray into the realms of folk-horror is with The White Cormorant by Norwegian writer, Frithjof Spalder, though it is set in Ireland. It concerns a cocky young fisherman who opts to sale single-handed around a deadly mass of ocean rocks, but who is subsequently wrecked in the foam and then saved by a mysterious being, as a result of which encounter his life will never be the same again.

Leaning a little away from traditional themes towards a more surreal form of horror, we have two other pieces that I’ll be pleased to talk a little bit more about later on. Down, in Their World by Romanian writer, Flavius Ardelean, has the typical air of a dark Slavic fairy tale in that it’s instructive as well as terrifying. Perhaps one of the creepiest stories in the entire book, though, is provided by Hungarian author, Attila Veres, The Time Remaining, an apparently gentle study of a child’s attachment to his favourite childhood toy, which rapidly descends into a nightmare.

More firmly in the world of the weird, Spain’s Jose Maria Latorre provides Snapshots, a short quirky chiller in which a young man heads for a city centre photobooth, only to find that each set of images shows him looking older than the time before. Thinking the machine faulty, he determinedly continues, but the pictures now show him ageing fast …

From Italy, and, if anything, even more disturbing is Luigi Musolini’s deeply psychological Uironda, in which a depressed truck-driver, worn out and at the end of his tether, takes on endless long, hard jobs, but hears increasingly about a mysterious turn-off leading to a mythical city (Uironda), which no sane trucker would ever want to visit … so why does our weary hero feel drawn there?

Also from the world of deranged psychology comes Cristina Fernandez Cubas’ much-reprinted Spanish parable, The Angle of Horror. In this tale, which is already famous in the Spanish-speaking world, young Julia is delighted when her beloved older brother, Carlos, returns from a trip to England, only to find that he is behaving strangely. The rest of the family suspect he is in love, but Carlos confides in Julia that he has discovered the ‘horror of the angle’. This is a subtle one by any standards and probably bears a second reading, though much more on the nose is Peruvian writer Tanya Tynjala’s memorable The Collector, which sees a young man, Julian, so desperate for intimate relations with the beautiful Diana, that eventually, on a promise, he arranges to meet her at the rundown café attached to an isolated gas station. Almost immediately, though, it feels as if something isn’t quite right.

More complex, though no less sinister, we have two genuine slices of dark surrealism. Firstly, in Menopause, courtesy of Ivory Coast author, Flore Hazoume, which takes us into the heart of a small community where, for no obvious reason, all the women are young and fair and all the men wise and mature. Secondly, equally concerned with issues of gender and inequality, from Ecuador, Solange Rodriquez Pappe provides Tiny Women, which commences with a woman attempting to clean out her infirm parents’ dirty, trash-filled house, and discovering a colony of tiny women living like insects in the debris. They aren’t easy to disperse, but then her philandering, sexist brother arrives for the night, and all hell will soon be let loose.

I’m not going to talk about every story in the Valancourt Book of World Horror. There are obviously many others, 21 in overall total, so be under no illusions, this is a big chunky anthology with lots more going for it than I have mentioned here. On top of this, editors Jenkins and Cagle introduce each entry in concise but informative fashion, ensuring that we know all we need to in advance of what in many cases may be our first foray into high-quality ‘foreign language’ horror. For that reason alone – never mind that this book features genuinely scary fiction almost all the way through – I urge you to take a chance on it. And at the same time express my fondest hope that this really is only Volume One of what will shortly become an ongoing series.

And now …


I doubt that any film maker has optioned this book yet (thus far, at least), and who knows how likely it is ever to happen, but as this part of the review is always a bit of a laugh, here are my views just in case some major player decides to transfer it to the big screen.

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 which require them to either relate spooky stories or listen to them. It could be that some doctor must judge the sanity of his patents from them, a la Asylum (pictured), or maybe the tales are spun to bored travellers by a mysterious tarot card-reader on a trans-continental train in an international version of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors.

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

The Bones in Her Eyes (by Christien Boomsma): Caring Tara runs over a pet cat while driving through the suburbs, and regretfully takes the dying animal to its aged owner, Mrs Gottlieb. But the nice old lady seems strangely unconcerned, while Tara then goes on to suffer a succession of eerie dreams, about a cat that cannot die and a small, neat house filled with necromantic magic ...
Tara – Sylvia Hoeks
Mrs Gottlieb – Willeke van Ammelrooy

Down, in Their World (by Flavius Ardelean): Four poverty-stricken men attempt to steal iron from an abandoned mine in which a paedophile killer once dumped his victims. Increasingly they feel they are not alone down there, and when one of them is critically injured, two go for help, leaving only the casualty and his brother behind …
Stere – Vlad Ivanov
Nicu – Alec Secăreanu

The Time Remaining (by Attila Veres): A distressed child is persuaded by his mother that Villi, his favourite cuddly toy, is sick and dying. The child can’t have this and decides to do everything in his power to keep the ailing Villi alive…
The Child – You’ll have to fill this blank in yourselves, as I know no Hungarian child actors.

Backstairs (by Anders Fager) A psychotherapist investigates the case of a wealthy widow’s daughter, a pretty girl who is constantly beset by the most horrific nightmares and who even manifests cuts and bruises as if these terrifying fantasies are actually real …
Elvira – Alicia Vikander
Dr Lohrman – Stellan Skarsgård
Mrs Wallin – Lena Endre

(Ownership of the pix used in today’s blogpost are as follows: Kate took the shots at Waterstones, while the movie stills come from Outlaw King (2018) and Asylum (1972). The image of Jekyll and Hyde comes from the advertising accompanying a British Library event concerning The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; I’m not sure who the actual illustrator was, but if he or she would like to make themselves known, I will happily post a credit. The picture of the murder dolls comes to us from the National Museum of Scotland, while the burning coach is West Bow, Midnight by AA Ritchie. Im unaware who took the photo of the late, great John Pelan, but again, if the photographer would like to make him or herself known to me, I will happily post a credit.