Friday 28 May 2021

Daytrips to terror: the counties of England


Bit of a fun blog today, I’ve decided. It’s a Bank Holiday after all, so here’s something to entertain you while you put your feet up in the sun … something scary, obviously.

Inspired by my work on the Terror Tales series, I thought I’d make a round-trip of England and recommend a suitable ghost or horror story for each county. Works of fiction rather than ‘true’ scary tales, with the authors all credited and a thumbnail sketch offered in each case

Because of this, on a similar theme, I thought today would also be a good opportunity to discuss and chat about LTC Rolt’s legendary ghost story collection of the 1940s, SLEEP NO MORE, which for those unaware is still regarded as a Jamesian masterclass albeit drawing its aura and inspiration from Britain’s industrial heritage rather than digging into our ancient and medieval past.

If you’re only here to check out the Rolt review, that’s fine. You’ll find it, as with all my book reviews, at the lower end of today’s blogpost, in the Thrillers, Chillers section.

However, if you’re also keen to discover a chilling tale for every county in England, stick around here and take a …

Daytrip to terror

Before we embark on our Bank Holiday scare marathon, I need to offer a couple of quick thoughts.

When I first had the idea to do this, it struck me as a daunting task. Those among us who enjoy scary stories probably remember hundreds of them vaguely. Highly likely, we remember what it was about them that unsettled us so much. We’ll recall the eerie situation, perhaps the personalities of the main protagonists. Almost certainly we’ll recollect the terrifying punchline. But it’s highly unlikely that in each case we’ll be able to remember exactly where and when it was set.

And so it was with me when I decided to pen this blog.

How the heck could I remember every story I’d ever read in such detail that I’d know which ones to include? At the very least it would involve days, if not weeks, of research as I dug these tales up again and re-read them. And frankly, when it was only for a blogpost, that would have involved an expenditure of time that I simply couldn’t afford. So … I’ve mainly gone here for stories that I could remember very clearly, which means there could be some obvious choices I’ve neglected to include. Sorry about that. Feel free to let me know, though, and maybe, at some point, we can do a Daytrips to Terror 2.

What this also means, sadly, is that not every author I know and love is represented here, so apologies to you guys (and gals). On a similar subject, I determined from the outset that each author here would only be mentioned once, so additional apologies to anyone who thinks they could have supplied several titles for this list. But as I’ve just said, this may not be the last time we do this.

(As a footnote, you’ll spot that I’ve included a story of my own. I don’t normally apologise for that, but on this particular occasion I wasn’t going to do this … until I realised that, rack my brains though I did, I couldn’t find anything else for that particular slot).

You may also wonder why I drew the line at England, and didn’t venture into Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Well, I initially intended to, but I’ll freely admit that I struggled to find a suitable story for every county in those countries. 

No doubt I’d have succeeded had I been able to dedicate weeks and months to the research, but as I say, this is just a blog, so I had to impose a limit somewhere. However, that doesn’t mean I won’t go there at some point in the future, so all thoughts and suggestions are welcome. TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS will be published by Telos before the end of this year, so that will give me a huge head-start, and alongside TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS (published in 2015), could be the springboard for another list.

Okay, enough blather. Here we go …

DAYTRIPS TO TERROR

BEDFORDSHIRE

Taking Tusk Mountain by Allen Ashley


An ex-con trying to get his life back on track reluctantly joins a scheme to break into a storage unit at Whipsnade Zoo where offcut elephant tusks are kept, but doesn’t allow for the facility’s mysterious guardians …

BERKSHIRE

Summer Holiday by John Llewellyn Probert

The gleefully fiendish heir to a family fortune arranges for his annoying relatives to spend a holiday weekend at Oakley Court, the country house where numerous British horror films were made, his plan: to kill them off in ways representative of those famous, gruesome movies …


BUCKINGHAMSHIRE

Wide Shining Light by Rio Youers


Two old schoolfriends reunite after many years. Martin is going through a torturous and acrimonious divorce, but Richard, a thoughtful widower, is able to offer help and advice. The two become firm pals again, but Richard has some fairly dark secrets of his own, and it isn’t long before Martin is drawn into them …


CAMBRIDGESHIRE

Dolly by Susan Hill


In post-war Britain, Edward and Leonora, two young but distant cousins, are sent to live with relatives in a remote corner of the fen country. It’s an eerie location, but Leonora thinks her life would improve if she could only have the exotic porcelain doll she long ago set her heart on …


CHANNEL ISLANDS

Cold for Evermore 
by A.F. Kidd

Terry takes a well-earned solo holiday on Sark, in an idyllic cottage off a quiet country lane. She hasn’t been there long, however, before she hears the story of a drowned child, whose horrible spectre is still said to roam the district, and whom, if it physically touches you, is a portent of imminent death …


CHESHIRE

The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral by Robert Westall

Steeplejack Joe Clarke is an affirmed atheist, but he happily takes on a difficult job at the top of medieval Muncaster Cathedral’s highest tower. It strikes him as odd that one of the bigger firms were not brought in first, but it is only when bad things start happening that he can’t help wondering if there might be something wrong with the steeple’s unusually hideous gargoyle …

CORNWALL

The Beautiful Ones by Mary Williams


When hen-pecked Arthur’s domineering wife browbeats him into moving to Cornwall, he expects to be unhappy. But then one day, a local oddball gives him the gift of an unusual plant, which, the more he tends it in his quiet, upstairs den, the more it assumes the form of an alluring woman …


CUMBRIA

The Claife Crier by Carole Johnstone


Teenage Kerry doesn’t get on with her father, but when they attempt to bond during a Lake District hiking trip, they get lost in rainy Claife woods, the haunt, or so legend tells, of the Claife Cryer, a phantom so horrible that just to look at it causes insanity …


DERBYSHIRE

Help the Witch by Tom Cox

Jeff, an academic struggling to recover after a painful breakup, rents a cottage high in the Peak District, just in time to get snowed in by a terrible winter. It is probably not the best time to discover that the cottage is haunted by a spirit still lingering after the ghastly carnage of the plague era ...


DEVON

The Hunter by David Case


When a series of hideous murders occurs on Dartmoor, the corpses left torn apart and headless, rumours circulate that a werewolf is at large. The police are at a loss to stop the slayings, but retired big game hunters, Wetherby and Byron, think they may have a chance …


DORSET

The Sea Change by Helen Grant


An adventurous dive-team falls out when obsessive team-leader Daffy develops a strange compulsion to visit the same eerie offshore wreck again and again, at an increasingly strange and terrible cost …


DURHAM

Dagon’s Bell by Brian Lumley


A young couple move into age-old Kettlethorpe Farm on the North Sea coast. It has great potential, but also lots of mysterious character. 

For example, it bears the ancient engraving of a fierce merman, while former residents were described by neighbours as having weird fishlike features. Scariest of all, though, is the story of the mysterious undersea bell …


ESSEX

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James


A demure governess takes charge of two orphaned children who have essentially been left to their own devices in an isolated country house. The governess likes the children despite their superior attitude, but increasingly catches sight of a pair of unknown adults hanging around the property …


GLOUCESTERSHIRE

WS by LP Hartley


A novelist becomes progressively more concerned by a series of vaguely menacing postcards, which he receives one after another, each one posted from a little closer to his home. They are signed WS, but the only WS he knows is his own arch-villain, a malevolent but entirely fictional character …


GREATER MANCHESTER

The Narrows by Simon Bestwick


During a nuclear attack, a small band of teachers and pupils from a Manchester school seek shelter in the underground waterway system, but while only slow death by poisoning awaits them above ground, it soon becomes clear that there’s something even worse down here …


HAMPSHIRE

The Humgoo by Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes


Mansfield, a lost motorist, calls for directions in a rundown village, where the filthy, emaciated locals seem to possess no modern amenities. When he finds his car damaged, he is forced to stay overnight, only to then discover that his new hosts get all their food and clothes from ‘boxes’ … in the nearby graveyard.


HEREFORDSHIRE

A View from a Hill 
by MR James

When Cambridge academic Fanshawe visits the country home of an old friend, the duo enjoy a pleasant walk to a local beauty spot. But when Fanshawe takes in the fine view with a pair of binoculars previously owned by a noted antiquarian, he is disturbed to see a body swinging on a gibbet …


HERTFORDSHIRE

Love Leaves Last by Mick Sims


An ambitious suburbanite takes his family to the country residence of an old pal, where he hopes to conclude an important business deal. The new guests are welcomed lavishly, but then given a stern but bizarre warning: at no time on these premises must anyone engage in physical relations …


ISLE OF MAN

Only Sleeping by Peter Bell


When a grief-stricken boarder commits suicide at a Manx guesthouse and the zealous local vicar refuses to allow the burial in his churchyard, a child visitor, who always found the poor woman inexplicably creepy, becomes convinced that her ghost will seek him out …


ISLES OF SCILLY

The Terror on Tobit by Charles Birkin


When two young women holidaying in the Scillies announce that they’d like to camp for one night on uninhabited Tobit, the locals try to dissuade them. People have vanished on Tobit, they are told. It belongs to the sea, and the sea’s creatures. But the girls insist on going …


ISLE OF WIGHT

The Long-Term Residents by Kit Pedler


An exhausted scientist takes a well-earned break at an Isle of Wight hotel, only to be shocked by how old and feeble the vast majority of its permanent residents appear to be. When he decides that he’s had enough, he discovers that leaving isn’t quite so easy …


KENT

Rawhead Rex by Clive Barker


The peace of a prosperous rural community is shattered when a young farmer, tired of the sight of the heavy stone that his father and grandfather before him inexplicably left in the middle of one of his fields, brings a mechanical digger to the problem, and accidentally releases an horrendous ogre-like creature from its centuries-long subterranean confinement …



LANCASHIRE

The Poor Weather Crossings Company 
by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Sykes, bored visitor to Morecambe, opts to kill some time by taking a guided tour across the famously dangerous sands, assuming that in the safe hands of Mr Calcraft it will be okay. But a storm is brewing, and the mudflats are even more treacherous than usual, and Mr Calcraft seems a little odd …


LEICESTERSHIRE

Bosworth Summit Pound by LTC Rolt

Fawcett, a man in ailing health, takes a solo boat trip through central England’s quiet network of canals, only for his illness to overcome him. Later on, after his death, his journal, tells a tale of terror concerning a particularly menacing canal tunnel at the journey’s halfway point …


LINCOLNSHIRE

The Vicar of Wryde St Luke by Steve Duffy


An antiquarian cleric discovers an ancient grimoire in an abandoned church in the fens, which was closed decades ago due to the activities of its diabolist vicar. But when he takes the priceless book away, something horrific comes in pursuit …


LONDON

The Soldier by Roger Johnson


Obsessive young Richard dreams about being a soldier. When he discovers a hidden church in the heart of the City of London, he learns about the Worshipful Company of Militia, a mysterious order who predate Christianity but who now have an urgent need for new blood …


MERSEYSIDE

The Companion by Ramsey Campbell


As darkness falls on New Brighton, a lonely and nervous man takes refuge from a gang of troublesome youths in what appears to be a derelict fairground. Weirdly, the Ghost Train is still operational, and on an inexplicable whim, he jumps aboard …


NORFOLK

Wolferton Hall by James Doig


A young scholar is permitted to attend Wolferton Hall, to make a detailed study of the medieval Throgmorton Papers. On arrival, he finds the hall mostly boarded up but filled with dusty antiquities and weird hints that Wolferton once knew evil. The scholar, a rationalist, is unconcerned, even though he’ll be working here alone …


NORTHAMPTONSHIRE

Crow-Raven by Paul Finch


Detective Sergeant Nick Brooker investigates a double-murder at Buckton Hall, a preserved manor house from the Middle Ages, where both victims appear to have been slain with ancient weapons. Could this be connected to the Crow-Raven family who once lived here? Minor medieval barons who, according to the myth, were all vicious hunchbacks …


NORTHUMBERLAND

Heads by Gary McMahon


When a couple suffer their second miscarriage, they move to the countryside to heal. But then find three carved stone heads buried in the garden of their new cottage, two of which appear to be human, one a weird hybrid. Research pulls up an eerie story of witchcraft and Celtic ritual, and now the wife falls pregnant again …


NOTTINGHAMSHIRE

Fairground Attraction by Steve Lockley


A youngster who feels inadequate and self-conscious thanks to the unsightly birthmark on his face visits a travelling fair, and meets a girl disfigured by an ugly scar. When she tells him there is a way that both of them can look ‘normal’, he allows her to lead him into the mysterious Hall of Mirrors …


OXFORDSHIRE

In the Quiet and in the Dark by Alison Littlewood

Young Steph thinks she’ll find her new life in the rural village of Long Compton boring, but she makes friends surprisingly quickly in local girls, Holly and Anne, and can’t help admitting that she finds the handsome lad, Kix, pretty alluring, even if he is always hanging around the mysterious Rollright Stones …


SHROPSHIRE

One Over the Twelve by Clive Ward


When two old friends reminisce, one tells a terrifying tale about the old hall near the village where he grew up, the eerie sepulchre connected to it, and the strange fate of a peripheral underworld figure who took up residence there, and fell foul of a mysterious presence …


SOMERSET

Treading the Maze by Lisa Tuttle


Amy and Phil love the peaceful Glastonbury guest house where they take a well-earned break. When they look from the window and see a group of unknown people parading in ritual fashion around a turf maze, Phil is entranced, but Amy feels strangely frightened …


STAFFORDSHIRE

The Cone by HG Wells


Raut, a talented artist, visits the ironworks in Stoke, where he intends to capture the ferocity of the industrial landscape on canvas. Horrocks, the manager of the plant, whose wife Raut had an affair with, is only too happy to show him around. In fact, Horrocks is extraordinarily helpful. He particularly wants to take Raut to check out the blast furnaces …


SUFFOLK

Deep Water by Christopher Harman


When Aldeburgh resident Peter’s wife vanishes, leaving him a cryptic note concerning the mysterious ‘Seagrim’, he assumes that she’s drowned herself having discovered the secret affair he’s been conducting. However, an investigating cop is suspicious rather than helpful, while Peter keeps catching glimpses of someone who looks distinctly but not entirely like his missing wife …


SURREY

Where Are They Now? by Tina Rath

When a spirited but veteran actress goes missing after announcing that she intends to investigate a strange-looking mansion she’s recently spotted off a local woodland path, an eccentric acquaintance becomes convinced that she has fallen victim to the faeries …


SUSSEX

The Room in the Tower 
by EF Benson

A man is haunted by a recurring nightmare about visiting an old university friend’s house, where the friend’s sinister mother assigns him the terrifying ‘room in the tower’. When he visits the family for real, all seems well, until a rainstorm maroons him and he is offered the room in the tower …


TYNE & WEAR

The Song My Sister Sang by Stephen Laws


When an oil slick devastates the Tynemouth coast, Dean volunteers to help clean up the gulls. But he soon becomes uneasy when the disaster takes him close to the derelict swimming pool, where, as a jealous child, he callously allowed his baby sister to drown …


WARWICKSHIRE

Black Dust by Graham Joyce

A collier is trapped far underground. A neighbour of his, but someone he distinctly doesn’t like, joins the rescue team when they make their perilous journey into the depths. On the surface meanwhile, their two sons play together in a natural cave-mouth …


WEST MIDLANDS

The Lost District by Joel Lane


A depressed man recalls an experience he had as a youth in the 1970s, when he encountered a strange but attractive girl on a local playground, and she led him back to Clayheath, an eerie, run-down district he had never heard of before, and from which, or so she said, no one ever leaves …


WILTSHIRE

Lapland Nights by Reggie Oliver


A young woman wearied by caring for her difficult OAP mother takes advantage of the OPEN network, in which the workload is shared by other carers. When it is her turn, she finds herself lumbered, not just with her own parent, but with the Strellbriggs, an aged couple with some very peculiar and disturbing habits …


WORCESTERSHIRE

Reality or Delusion? by Mrs Henry Wood


A love triangle in a farming village leads to catastrophe when Maria, a jilted young woman denounces Daniel, her cheating fiancé, not just for his betrayal of her but for stealing his neighbour’s corn. Shamed and depressed, Daniel disappears, but this may not be the last Maria sees of him …


YORKSHIRE

The Waiting Room by Robert Aickman


When Pendlebury misses a late connection, he is forced to spend a night in the waiting room of a dismal urban railway station. It’s bitterly cold and with all the staff gone home, he’s terribly alone. But it isn’t just the physical discomfort that he’ll have to worry about …


Okay, hope you all enjoyed that or at least found it informative. As I say, there may be more in the future. What you’ll notice I’ve NOT done here is include the antecedents for each story, i.e. list when and where it was first published, where you can read it etc. That’s again because time was not on my side, but also because so many of these stories have been anthologised repeatedly that it’s often difficult to establish their best showcase. My recommendation, if you really want to hunt some of these titles down, is to search online. Most will be listed on there somewhere, and their most recent date of publication should be easily obtainable.

I would also like to thank fine art photographer, Neil Burnell, who created the amazing image at the top of todays blog. It depicts Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, in Devon. 


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.

SLEEP NO MORE
by LTC Rolt (1948)

A newly-reissued single collection of British ghost stories from an author not primarily associated with the supernatural genre, but a book with a long reputation in the field, particularly among fans of Jamesian-style ghost fiction, for being a forgotten classic.

Before we assess the book in closer detail, here is the publishers’ own description of its contents:

This powerful collection of stories of the supernatural combines LTC Rolt’s writing talent with his unparalleled knowledge of Britain’s industrial heritage to produce tales of real mystery and imagination. This haunting anthology takes the reader on a journey from Cornwall to Wales and from the hill country of Shropshire to the west coast of Ireland.

‘The House of Vengeance,’ set in the Black Mountains of South Wales, tells what happens when a walker becomes lost and disorientated as the mist falls, while in ‘The Gartside Fell Disaster’ an old railwayman recounts the terrible night when the ‘Mountaineer’ came to grief. Alongside these are twelve other tales of elemental fears and strange and inexplicable happenings.

First published in 1948, this enduring collection will appeal to all those who, like Tom Rolt, are passionate about the backdrop of our industrial landscape and will delight and terrify anyone who loves a good old-fashioned ghost story …


Lionel Thomas Caswell Rolt (1910-1974) was best known during his lifetime as a trained engineer who turned his hand to writing on engineering and industrial matters, and, most famously, to producing well-regarded biographies on the two great pioneers of that field, Thomas Telford and Isembard Kingdom Brunel. He was also renowned for his interest in and knowledge of cars, trains and other vehicles, which manifested itself in his participation in vintage car rallies and the development of heritage railways, as well as for being a narrow boat enthusiast and a major promoter of leisure cruising on Britain’s inland waterways.

What there was no outward sign of was his fascination with ghost stories, particularly the ghost stories of MR James, which were characterised by atmospheric old English (or old European) locations, gentleman scholar protagonists, and malevolent spectral foes invoked through their attachment to mysterious and arcane artefacts or locations. Bearing this in mind, and that Rolt was also a close friend to Robert Aickman, a fellow conservationist and a founder member of the Inland Waterways Association (which restored Britain’s by then semi-derelict canal system) but best known today as an author and very accomplished practitioner of the English weird tale, it may be less of a surprise that in due course the one-time engineer also penned a bunch of ghost stories.

Sleep No More was first published by Constable in 1948, and was immediately well-received. But because Rolt didn’t write any follow-up collections, his standing as a ghost story writer gradually faded until by the turn of the century, for the average man on the street at least, it had more or less vanished. New small-circulation editions have since been produced by enthusiasts: Branch Line (who specialised in publishing railway books) in 1974, and the late much-lamented Ash-Tree Press in 1996 (who added two extra stories to the line-up), but both those versions are now out of print. For that reason alone, this relatively new edition (2010) from The History Press must be regarded as something of a collector’s must, but also because with a new introduction by Susan Hill, it’s a really nice piece of work in its own right.

As to whether the material it contains still works, well … it did for me.

To start with, it’s all beautifully and compellingly written. Tom Rolt couldn’t just paint pretty pictures with his words. He did it succinctly. Considering that much of his output was factual non-fiction, he also had the talent to pace his stories effectively and people them with convincing characters.

In terms of style, there is no doubt that Rolt was strongly influenced by MR James, though Rolt’s world was not that of academia or the cloister, and this is clearly represented in his tales, in many of which, though the central characters are often lonesome scholarly types on missions of discovery through the British back-country, the settings are abandoned industrial sites or places where industry or engineering is in process or has left its mark on the landscape. However, what is very reminiscent of the old master is the malign and even deadly nature of the supernatural threats, while from Robert Aickman, he appears to have inherited an intriguing habit of injecting strangeness into his stories as well, not always providing clean cut explanations for the weird and disturbing events he describes.

For that reason, some of the stories in this collection I’d regard as eerie rather than out-and-out frightening, but that’s a good thing, because that means they were affecting and left me thinking about them long afterwards.

Three of the best stories in the book fall into this category, The Shouting (one of the two later additions), Cwm Garron (which is exceptional) and Hawley Bank Foundry, but because I’m going to be discussing these three a little later on (in the movie adaptation part of this review) I won’t say too much synopsis-wise, except to comment that all three take place in otherworldly semi-rural locations, and that all hit us straight off with an indefinably doom-laden atmosphere, which steadily deepens until reaching a stark, bone-chilling denouement.

Also falling into this category is The Cat Returns, in which a car breaks down on a stormy night and the honeymooning couple inside it fight their way through the rain on foot until encountering an isolated house. A man they suspect is a servant admits them and bids them stay over, but he seems to be terrified of something … and then the phone rings. There’s a bit of a traditional ghost story vibe with this one, but again, the creepiness of the situation, almost from the beginning, is its main asset. Likewise, in World’s End, a traveller on the Pembroke Coast becomes lost in a sea fret and takes refuge in an inn, where he must share a bedroom with a man he doesn’t know and subsequently endures an appalling experience. This is another dreamlike Aickmanesque tale, with much to disturb the reader before we even consider its supernatural message.

Perhaps the most overtly Jamesian story in the book, and another of the best, is Bosworth Summit Pound. Again, I’ll be talking about this one a little more later on, so I’m offering no thumbnail synopsis, but it’s got the personal touch and perhaps the most authentic feel of them all (not that they haven’t all got the air of authenticity when it comes to the industrial heritage of Britain) as it takes the reader deep into Rolt’s beloved inland waterway system.

Also with a Jamesian aura, though in a very different way, is New Corner. This one tells the story of a 1930s land speed trial, which is continually interrupted when the new corner of the racetrack becomes subject to curious phenomena, including disturbing smells and apparitions. As with many a classic Jamesian tale, the stakes are raised drastically when one of the officials has a terrible dream, which seemingly presages an awful disaster.

Even without the shadow of Dr James lying over it, this would be a powerful and frightening ghost story, as is Agony of Flame, which follows the misfortune of two men who, during a fishing holiday in the West of Ireland, are puzzled by the lights shining nightly from a ruined castle on an island in a loch. Against their better judgement, they investigate … and pay the price for the rest of their lives.

Taking us smoothly into the realm of the more traditional non-Jamesian ghost story is A Visitor at Ashcombe, in which a successful industrialist and his wife move to a mansion in the Cotswolds and insist on opening up a forbidden chamber, where once, it is said, a celebrated witch-hunter held court. Almost inevitably, chaos and tragedy result.

Similarly reminiscent of the older, more typical English ghost story (Dickens’s The Signalman being a good example here) is The Garside Fell Disaster, in which a Victorian-era signalman reflects on the events that led to a railway accident in the tunnel where he was stationed in the wilds of Cumbria and his conviction that there’d always been something odd about that mountain. Meanwhile, in Hear Not My Steps, a professional ghost hunter takes it on himself to spend a night in a haunted room. He’s never encountered a real ghost yet, though all that will shortly change.

In Music Hath Charms, a young man inherits a coastal house in Cornwall. When he travels down there with a friend, it is in a semi-dilapidated state. It also boasts an uncanny history, and when they search among its lumber they find a curious musical box, which produces a tune the new owner falls in love with but which his friend is strangely repelled by. In The House of Vengeance (the second of the two later additions), meanwhile, young John gets lost while hiking through the Brecon Beacons to his friend’s cottage. When a fierce storm strikes, he seeks sanctuary in a curious farmhouse that is not on any map.

These more familiar types of ghost stories are perhaps slightly less impressive in terms of originality, featuring, as they do, demonic spirits, possession etc. At least, that’s the case when they’re read today. But overall this is an excellent collection of supernatural tales. It’s a superior standard of writing, often taking place in unusual settings and strange, blighted locations, and if the ambition was to produce something as intensely and lingeringly scary as MR James often was, then it’s a very worthy effort indeed.

We’ve often heard it proclaimed that such and such an author is the next MR James, and while I’ve never read one yet who was, LTC Rolt comes very close.

And now …

SLEEP NO MORE – the movie.

I doubt that any film maker has optioned this book yet, and whether or not it’s ever likely to happen, but as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my opinions just in case some major player decides to put it on the 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 portmanteau 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 they find themselves in an idyllic country villa, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (al la Dead of Night), or maybe locked in the basement of a Thames-side tower block, where drink and the passage of time forces them each to reveal their deepest fears (a la Vault of Horror).

Without further chit-chat, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

The Shouting: Edward takes a rental cottage in a quiet corner of Devon, on the edge of coastal woodlands. But he soon becomes intrigued by the strange-looking children who pass his place while making an unexplained daily trip to a curious mound of turf deep in the trees ...

Edwina (no reason why it can’t be a woman) – Ruth Wilson

Bosworth Summit Pound: Fawcett, a man in ailing health, takes a boat trip along one of England’s lesser known waterways, which he doesn’t survive. His journal, however, relates a tale of terror concerning a bone-chilling encounter in a menacing canal tunnel at the journey’s halfway point …

Fawcett – Richard E Grant

Cwm Garron: Carfax embarks on a one-man holiday in the Welsh mountains. He stays at a peaceful inn in a picturesque valley. But a fellow guest, Elphinstone, a noted folklorist, advises him that not everything here is as pleasant as it may seem …

Carfax – Matthew Goode
Elphinstone (another gender change, but no harm done) – Alison Wright

Hawley Bank Foundry: During World War II, an industrialist reopens an abandoned ironworks deep in the Shropshire countryside, and immediately there are strange goings-on: reports of phantom figures and some type of unknown vermin that infest the factory and kill the local cats …

Frimley – Ken Stott
Clegg – Liam Cunningham

Wednesday 19 May 2021

A few bits of news ... and a few maniacs too

It’s a quick news update blogpost this week.

We’re all aware that there are lots of big issues to discuss at present, but I also have a few writing-related items of interest that I thought people might be interested in.

And having just completed another rewrite on my next novel, today seems like a good opportunity to get them out there.

In addition, and because today I’ll mostly be talking about short story projects (all of a dark and disturbing bent, I hope), I thought this might also be an opportune time to review and discuss Stephen Jones’s epic anthology of the deranged, PSYCHO-MANIA!

If you’re only here for the Jones review, never fear. Just scoot on straight down to the lower end of today’s blogpost, the Thrillers, Chillers section, where all my reviews are posted. If, on the other hand, you have a bit more time, here are …

A few items of news

From the middle of next month onwards, I’ll be appearing online in MIDSUMMER MACABRE, as organised and edited by the tireless Joseph Freeman.

This is the current Covid version of the ghost, horror and suspense story readings that Freeman used to organise down in East Anglia in front of live audiences. As such a thing hasn’t been possible this last fourteen months or so, Freeman has since diversified into presenting the stories on videocast, each of the guest authors having recorded themselves narrating one of their personal favourite tales. I was very gratified to be asked to participate in MIDSUMMER MACABRE because initially I was invited to last Christmas’s WINTER TALES but my schedule ultimately got in the way. It’s surely a mark of the man that Joe Freeman was happy to invite me again.

This time I was able to contribute my short story, Children Don’t Play Here Anymore

It was first published in Kealan Patrick Burke’s anthology Quietly Now, a tribute to the late, great Charles L Grant who, for those who don’t know, was a master of the subtle, slow-burn chiller, and whose fiction was often set in small-town America where much of the horror lay just below the surface. Anyway, Quietly Now was published in 2004, seventeen years ago I shudder to realise, and so I felt it high time my story was aired again.

Children Don’t Play Here Anymore centres around a retired police detective, who continually, on the same date each year, revisits the scene of the one murder he failed to solve. Every time, he puts more pieces of the confusing puzzle together. Every time, it gets a little bit more terrifying …

MIDSUMMER MACABRE goes live from June 19, and also includes submissions from Freeman himself, Simon Clark, Alison Littlewood, and Graham Masterton and Dawn G Harris.

Solving the insoluble

Later this month, meanwhile, I’m equally pleased to be featuring in a special promotional e-version of Greydogtales’ excellent OCCULT DETECTIVE MAGAZINE, which publishes and promotes fiction about those who meddle in the weird, the strange and the scary (I’m sure you get the picture: think Flaxman Low, Abraham Van Helsing, John Silence and, of course, Carnacki the Ghost-Finder).

I’m particularly excited about this one, as it gave me an opportunity to bring back my own occult investigator, Major Jim Craddock, a former soldier of the Northwest Frontier who in the early 1860s takes over as Chief Officer of Police in Wigan, my home town of course, but a blot on the Lancashire landscape during the Industrial Revolution, a crucible of smoke, fire and squalor but also the venue for many bizarre events. The Craddock outing I’ve chosen on this occasion is Shadows in the Rafters, which was first published in 2003 in The Derelict of Death (edited by John B. Ford and Steve Lines).

In this particular case, Craddock is still dealing with the fall-out from a local pit strike when it comes to his attention that street-children are disappearing in the vicinity of one of the abandoned pit-heads, and that something is being seen at night, which local folk are referring to as the Scuttling Shadow …

This special OCCULT DETECTIVE MAGAZINE promo e-edition, which will be downloadable entirely FREE, will be out later this month. As soon as I get the links, I will post them on Twitter and Facebook.

Chuffed to bits

Lastly today, I was chuffed to bits recently to learn that online horror specialists HORROR DELVE have recently posted an article, TEN TERRIFYING TALES BY PAUL FINCH, in which author Matt Cowan focusses on the ten short stories of mine that he considers most frightening.

I’m completely flattered by this, and had no idea it was coming out.

It’s all subjective, of course. Not everyone will agree with Matt’s selections, but it’s a great honour that anyone should consider anything you have written to be worthy of mention online.

I’m tempted to list the stories here and run through them in synopsis terms, but I don’t think that would be very fair on Matt, as he’s just gone to great efforts to outline them himself. 

If you’re interested, just follow the link. HORROR DELVE is a great website anyway, taking regular deep dives into the wider genre both past and present.

Hounds of Hell

Moving away from horror briefly (though some would probably contest that assertion), I’m also pleased to assert that my third Lucy Clayburn novel, STOLEN, has now been translated into German, and will be published by prestigious Munich-baseed publisher, Piper Verlag, on Kindle in July, in paperback in September. The German title will be NACHT DER HUNDE (Night of the Dogs in English), and to quickly recap, it sees Manchester police detective, Lucy Clayburn struggling to deal with the revelation that the father she never knew as a child is a major organised crime figure while at the same time trying to track down a mysterious black van, which may be an urban myth, but which has reportedly been seen several times in the vicinity of unexplained abductions …

And perhaps just to reinforce the scurrilous theory that NACHT DER HUNDE (or STOLEN) contains one or two horror(ish) moments, here’s a very short extract:

… on reaching the bottom of the depression, Lucy scrambled over to look. The stench of decay thickened, becoming almost intolerable. Flies swarmed aggressively. In truth, it was a nightmarish scene, almost demonic: the figure of the nun, cadaverous, degraded, draped in her dirty, ragged raiment, yet hands joined in prayer as she stood upright on a hillside of waste and filth, a storm of winged horrors buzzing around her.
     The contents of the pit were the crowning, hellish glory.
     Lucy gazed down on a tangle of butchered, half-burned, half-rotted forms crammed on top of each other. Maybe ten or eleven, maybe more …




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.

PSYCHO-MANIA! edited by Stephen Jones (2013)

Stephen Jones is one of a small handful of professional editors who for many years have been flying the flag for the written horror anthology despite all kinds of opposition from mainstream publishing, which, even now, despite an increasing prevalence of horror anthology movies, seems sceptical about the short story collection format. Jones has never let this dissuade him, and has continued to have mass-market hits. This book, Psycho-Mania!, was one of them, though this one adopted a slightly different approach from the norm.

Instead of collating a bunch of individual stories and putting them out under a single title, Jones commissioned horror writer, John Llewellyn Probert, to create a framework story, Screams in the Dark, much the way the anthology film-makers often did (surely, most horror enthusiasts will remember Peter Cushing as Doctor Shrek in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, or Ralph Richardson as the stone-faced crypt-keeper in Tales from the Crypt?) and then inserted the tales, both old and new, afterwards, but only after ensuring that they fitted the bill.

The result is this massive, rip-roaring horror antho, which takes murderous insanity as its overarching theme, and hits us with a grand line-up of stories, none of which, though they are all tied together at the central point, can’t also be read as thoroughly entertaining standalones.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I’ll let the publishers give you a flavour of it with an extract from their own official back-cover blurb:

When journalist Robert Stanhope arrives at the Crowsmoor asylum for the criminally insane to interview the institute’s enigmatic director, Dr Lionel Parrish, little does he realise that an apparently simple series of tests will lead him into a terrifying world of murder and insanity…

In this chilling new anthology, some of the biggest and brightest names in horror and crime fiction bring you twisted tales of psychos, schizoids and serial killers, many with a supernatural twist.

One thing you can always guarantee with a Stephen Jones anthology is a wide and eclectic selection of stories. Jones has long proved himself an expert at assembling wide-ranging tales with which to represent every aspect of his chosen theme. He doesn’t hold back from using reprints either, if they suit the tone of the book, though neither does he fall into the trap that other anthologists do of simply cobbling together bunches of well-known tales to provide huge names for inclusion on the cover, and repackage them as something new. When Stephen Jones dips into the past, he does so carefully, ensuring to find rare treasures that many of his readers are unlikely to have read previously.

As such, Psycho-Mania! is underpinned by several forays into the twisted minds of writers of earlier days that still feel as fresh and vital as they ever did, and portray criminal insanity in all its varied and garish forms.

For example, in Basil Copper’s The Recompensing of Albano Pizar, wherein a scheming literary agent humiliates the widow of a deceased best-selling author by selling private letters for publication, moving her to volcanic anger and a terrible revenge. Slightly more familiar perhaps, mainly due to its inclusion in the 1974 Amicus portmanteau horror, From Beyond the Grave, we also have R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s The Gatecrasher, in which a bored young Londoner holds a séance with his friends and unwittingly summons the soul of a mass killer who might even be Jack the Ripper (perhaps inevitably, one of several visits to Ripper territory that this antho makes). It’s a legendary tale, which many will know without possibly ever having realised that it commenced life as a short story.

An author who could never be described as belonging to former days is the inexhaustible Ramsey Campbell, even though he’s been supplying horror stories to the genre for what seems like umpteen generations now. His contribution here, the dark but expertly-written See How They Run, is another oldie (well … 1993, so not too old), and introduces us to Foulsham, a Crown Court juror, who strongly empathises with a suspect on trial for mass murder, though when that suspect is found guilty and commits suicide, he feels increasingly as if the killer is still close.

Two especially well-known stories in horrordom are Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper and The Tell-Tale Heart by Robert Bloch and Edgar Allan Poe respectively, but both merit their inclusion here given their status as two of the world’s stand-out Gothic horror stories, and their shared observation of human descent into madness. The former follows the famous murder case, but casts the killer as an immortal being who commits human sacrifices in the form of atrocious murders throughout the ages in an effort to continually extend his life, while the latter is Poe’s short but notorious study of claustrophobic and ultimately murderous paranoia.

Less well-known maybe, though not to the genre’s purists, is Harlan Ellison’s All the Birds Come Home to Roost. It’s something of an oddity by the standards of the rest of the fare on offer, but it all plays out at manic pace and its denouement completely satisfies (more about this one later).

But Stephen Jones has never been one of those anthologists who relies purely on re-unearthing great classics and dusting them off for new generations. Over the years, he’s given many a fledgling short story-writer a welcome leg-up in career terms, and at the same time has always been keen to summon relative newcomers to whatever anthology he happens to be working on, not just for diversity’s sake, but to bring in fresh, different voices and thereby ensure that every aspect of his chosen subject is explored.

Psycho-Mania! is no exception to that.

Of course, no one would consider a seasoned horror writer like Robert Shearman to be a new kid on the block, but with his edgy surrealism and dark explorations of damaged humanity, he’s certainly a writer for modern times. In That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love, he takes us back to post-WW1 England, where Julian, who was too young to fight, marries Karen, who lost her brother on the front line. But Karen is a strange woman, who lives in a house inhabited mainly by dolls.

Another regular contributor to Stephen Jones anthologies, and very much an author of the now as well as being a master of the subtle chiller is Conrad Williams. In his very effective Manners, a homeless and seemingly harmless countryman ekes out a strange existence by living wild and feasting on roadkill. In this, he’s doing nothing wrong … not in his own mind, at least. These are only animals, which are already dead. Aren’t they?

Scott Edelman is another time-served genre writer who in Psycho-Mania! contributes a brand new story, The Trembling Living Wire, a total gut-punch in terms of psycho horror, while relative newcomer (in comparison), Rio Youers, swoops through the deceptively law-abiding suburbs to give us something equally terrifying in Wide-Shining Light, though both these stories are so powerful that these are two more I intend to discuss in more detail later on.

Psycho-Mania! also contains new stories featuring characters familiar to us from past escapades.

In the richly-written The Green Hour from ghost story maestro, Reggie Oliver, August Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe’s famous detective, is called out of alcoholic retirement to investigate a series of hideous mutilation-murders occurring around the Paris Exposition of 1867.

Meanwhile, in the deeply intriguing Bryant & May and the Seven Points, Christopher Fowler brings back two of his own criminal investigators, elderly and venerable police detectives, Bryant and May, who look into the disappearance of a depressed MI5 agent, their search leading them to an eerie London circus peopled by a whole range of menacing individuals.

Equally popular on the bookshelves today, Michael Marshall (still better known to horror fans by his original moniker, Michael Marshall Smith), revisits his ‘Straw Men’ universe in Failure, hitting us with the story of a quiet man in a pleasant suburban town who is so concerned that his domestically violent son might also be a rapist that he takes extreme action to discover the truth.

But Psycho-Mania! would not be a Stephen Jones anthology if it contained nothing but murder and mayhem. Jones’s many horror anthologies are no strangers to showcasing deeper, introspective material as well.

Take the ever-reliable Steve Rasnic Tem’s poignant The Secret Laws of the Universe, in which a schizophrenic suburbanite is constantly spoken to by his furniture and electrical appliances, all of which urge him to murder his wife. He desperately doesn’t want to, and finally opts to see if killing someone else will make it go away. Meanwhile, in Brian Hodge’s intricately-considered Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella, a disturbed girl makes a cry for help by staging a hunger strike live on the internet, only for an insane killer to commence stalking her, intent on teaching her the error of her narcissistic ways.

Similarly affecting, Michael Kelly’s The Beach tells the story of Elspeth, who lives in a summertime resort, but when autumn and winter come and the tourists depart, is literally driven mad by its air of loneliness and desolation. More alarming but equally personal, Dennis Etchison’s Got To Kill Them All sees a worn-out TV personality head home intent on brutally punishing the wife he is convinced has been cheating. En route, he makes the mistake of giving a ride to a depressed young man going through similar problems.

Another thing you’re always assured of when Stephen Jones occupies the editorial helm is not just the quality of the stories he chooses, but the quality of the writing overall. There’s always a danger in an age when so much fiction is self-published that substandard material will make it onto the market often enough for the reading public to come to accept it as the norm. Well, not on Mr Jones’s watch. In fact, I’d go further and say that, when compiling his anthologies, Jones often looks for writing he deems exceptional rather than simply good. There are two particular examples of this in Psycho-Mania!

The late, great Joel Lane’s prose was never less than exquisite, but in The Long Shift he excels himself. We meet Jim, a drunken loser, who travels to distant Wales to get even with Baxter, his former boss and an unapologetic office bully. Baxter is now retired, but Jim hates him and blames him for so much that he intends to kill him. Baxter’s cottage is isolated, however, and when Jim arrives, certain things inside it indicate that all is not as it should be.

Meanwhile, another fine author, Kim Newman, dips a little into horror movie culture (and proceeds to make hay with it) with The Only Ending We Have, which sees Jayne, a beautiful body-double flee the set of the movie, Psycho, after being groped once too often by the lecherous Alfred Hitchcock, only to drive into a storm and pull off the highway at a gloomy hotel run by a weird mother-and-son double act. Don’t think you already know how this one ends. Trust me, you don’t

Of course, a book like this can never just be about the publication of clever, compelling and insightful stories. They also have to be scary and horrific. At the end of the day, Psycho-Mania! is a horror anthology, and it wouldn’t be able to wear that tag if Stephen Jones hadn’t included several tales written purely and simply to freeze the blood.

For instance, in Robert Silverberg’s ghoulish The Undertaker’s Sideline, a respected mortician operates a nasty racket in which he exhumes his clients from their graves and sells their meat from a butcher’s shop in the next town. It’s a profitable system until a local youngster works out what he is doing.

The horror of this tale is perhaps topped in Peter Crowther’s seriously chilling Eater, which sees a bunch of cops spending an eerie night in the station house while keeping a cannibal killer in the holding cells, only for one of them to become increasingly certain that the ultra-dangerous suspect can somehow possess the bodies of others.

But perhaps the two most disturbing stories of all owe their icky aura to their sheer plausibility, to the fact that you could easily believe they are accounts of real crime sprees.

In Paul McAuley’s I Spy, an abused child isolates himself as he grows up, imagining that he has developed secret super-powers and abilities to do good deeds, though in reality he is terrorising the whole town. Then we have Mark Morris, who provides possibly the darkest story in the book, Essence, which introduces us to an ordinary married couple who secretly are also serial killers. Hidden behind their genial appearance and apparent respectability, they have raped and murdered dozens of girls. Their secret is an MO that is completely foolproof. Or so they think …

There are many more stories in Psycho-Mania! Some 35 in total, which means that you’re going to get a lot more bang for your buck than this review may imply. I’m not going to mention them all, mainly because there isn’t time or space, but also because I have to leave you wanting something. But put it this way, with authors whose work I haven’t yet mentioned like Lawrence Block, Neil Gaiman, Joe R Lansdale and Brian Lumley, you’re not going to go far wrong with Psycho-Mania! It gets my strongest recommendation as another cracking horror anthology from that master of darkness, Stephen Jones.

And now …

PSYCHO-MANIA! – the movie (not to be confused, of course, with Psychomania, the biker chiller of 1973)

Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), and if they ever do, unavoidable similarities would be drawn with Amicus’s Asylum of 1972, but as this part of the review is always the fun part, I’m proceeding with it anyway. So, here are my thoughts just in case someone possessing that rare combination of brains AND money decides that Psycho-Mania! simply must be a film.

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 inclusion in what would be a more complex compendium horror than usual. On this occasion, we don’t need to look for a mist-begirt railway waiting room or a labyrinth of underground catacombs to provide us with a wraparound story. 

On this occasion, John Llewellyn Probert (pictured) tells us all we need to know with his overarching tale, Screams in the Dark.

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

Screams in the Dark (by John Llewellyn Probert): Cynical medical journalist, Robert Stanhope, is invited to attend Crowsmoor, a high-security hospital for the criminally insane. In response to several scurrilous articles he has written concerning the institution, the senior clinician there, Dr Lionel Parrish, offers him access to the hospital files and challenges him to pick through them and declare which of the blood-curdling entries relate to genuine patients and which are entirely fictional …

Robert Stanhope – Harry Lloyd
Lionel Parrish – John Llewellyn Probert himself (I mean, come on ... who could do a better job?)

The Trembling Living Wire (by Scott Edelman): Mr Iz, a deranged choirmaster, makes his prize students’ voices more soulful by secretly doing dreadful things to their families, often depriving them of those they love most. But then Celia comes along with the voice of an angel, and he singles her out for special treatment …

Mr Iz – Peter Capaldi
Celia – Georgie Henley

The Tell-Tale Heart (by Edgar Allan Poe): A nameless but nervous man is gradually driven mad by the filmy blue ‘vulture-like eye’ of the old man whom he lodges with in a grim tenement building, and conceives a plan to murder and dismember him, concealing the gruesome remains under the floorboards. But when the job is done, the killer is increasingly aware of a strange thumping sound …

The lodger – Ben Daniels
The old man – Malcolm McDowell

All the Birds Come Home to Roost (by Harlan Ellison): A successful attorney (and a user and abuser of women) goes slowly insane as some bizarre quirk of fate sees him revisited by one past girlfriend after another, all the time drawing him closer and closer to the strange and frightening Cindy …

Kirxby – David Morrissey
Cindy – Rachel Weisz

Wide Shining Light (by Rio Youers): Two old schoolfriends reunite after many years. One of them, Martin, is going through an acrimonious divorce, but the other, Richard, a thoughtful widower, is able to offer help and advice. The two become firm pals again, but Richard has some fairly dark secrets of his own, and it isn’t long before Martin is drawn into them …

Martin – Martin Freeman
Richard – Mark Gatiss
Lorna – Natalia Tena

Friday 7 May 2021

Heck back soon chasing worst of the worst


Okay … today I’ve decided that I owe all my Heck fans an update.

I’m currently completing the edits on my second stand-alone thriller for Orion (title and cover art to be revealed in the very near future), but I’m regularly hammered with emails and private messages enquiring about my Heck series and when it will resume. So, it’s clearly high time that we had a chat about that in some detail.

In addition today, on the subject of ongoing detective series, I’m very pleased to be offering a detailed review and discussion of Richard Montanari’s SHUTTER MAN, the ninth outing for Philadelphia crime-fighting duo, Byrne and Balzano.

If you’re only here for the Montanari review, you’ll find it, as is always the case, in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s post. Feel free to rattle on down there straight away. On the other hand, if you want to talk a little about Heck first, stick around a bit at this end.

Rampage

The last Heck book I wrote, the seventh in the series, was KISS OF DEATH, which was published in 2018. It was described by an online reviewer as ‘a rampage of a novel,’ the central character going through an ‘ordeal of an investigation’, which at the very end ‘leaves the readers as bruised and brutalised as he is’.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think he meant that in a bad way. The book still sits on Amazon with an average rating of 4.5 stars.

Perhaps the biggest talking-point about it, though, was the ending, which appears to have caused shockwaves among my readers and is, I suspect, the main reason behind the plethora of mail I’ve been getting recently. I think it’s also the case that because two and a half years have passed since then, and I’ve had two other books – neither of them Hecks – published in the intervening time, Heck fans have been getting worried that the series has ended prematurely.

‘Surely you’re not going to leave it hanging like that?’ one asked.

‘You’re not going to end the series there,’ came another missive. ‘There has to be more.’

And possibly the best one to date: ‘I command you to write more. It won’t do to finish things like that.’

Without going into too much detail about KISS OF DEATH, because there are bound to be some thriller fans who haven’t read it yet, I purposely let the book end on a big cliff-hanger, the idea being to shake the world of crime-writing with my own personal bombshell.

Okay, I’m not sure that actually happened, but as you’ve seen, it made something of an impact. I should hastily add that it was not my original intention to keep everyone waiting a long time for Heck 8, the direct follow-up, but this period of my writing life coincided with a change of publisher. I moved from Avon at HarperCollins, who had published all the previous Heck books, to Orion, who were more interested in stand-alone thrillers. I’ve always been a stand-alone fan, so I found that new arrangement very satisfactory. However, it was always my intention to get back to Heck at some point.

Therefore, Heck 8, the sequel to KISS OF DEATH, which will pick up the story only a couple of months later, is written and now going through the editing process. It will be published, if all goes to plan, early next year. But I’m aware that this is always a fluid situation, so I’ll continue to post updates on this blog.

In the meantime, if you’re a Heck fan, and you’ve read all the books that are currently out there, you may not be aware that there are also some Heck e-stories and e-novellas you can gobble up. These are primarily set in Heck’s past – i.e. well before the recent calamities that have befallen him – but combine similar levels of action, terror and frank, in-yer-face cop stuff, and include guest appearances by a host of familiar faces from the novels.

First up is A WANTED MAN (2015). 

Here’s the official blurb: 

Get back to where it all started in this race-against-the-clock short story, as a young PC Mark Heckenburg tackles the first in a long line of very bad criminals…

It’s 1997 and PC Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is patrolling the rain-lashed streets of Manchester. In the quiet hours of the early morning, nothing stirs.

Until the crackle of Heck’s police radio signals that all isn’t well out there in the darkness…

‘The Spider’ – a housebreaker notorious for his violent, vicious assaults – has come out to play. And it looks like Heck’s about to become his next prey …

Another you might like the sound of, especially as the ebook in this case is FREE (yes, you read that correctly!), is DEATH’S DOOR (2018).

Here’s the official blurb:

Obsession makes the heart grow fonder . . .

When a stalking case lands on DC Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg’s desk it seems pretty straightforward.

But when Heck discovers that the victim lives in the same house that a young woman was brutally murdered in six years earlier, instinct tells him that it’s not so simple after all.

Before long Heck is entangled in something far more dangerous than he had expected. In a race against the clock, can Heck and Gemma stop history from repeating itself – or will they end up getting caught in the crossfire?

In the above story, Heck has by this time joined the Metropolitan Police, and is working as a divisional CID officer in London, alongside the smart and spirited DC Gemma Piper. 

He’s at the same stage of his career in this next one … although I feel honour-bound to tell you (as it’s May) that this third choice has a Christmas setting, but then again, this too is FREE, and in this case you don’t even need a Kindle to read it.

In BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT (2017) Heck is still a divisional DC, working in Bethnal Green, but it’s Christmas Eve, a very snowy Christmas Eve, which is causing no end of transport and communications problems. Heck is on duty alone, providing solo CID night cover when Gemma Piper pops in to keep him company.

Which is perfect timing on her part.

Because an horrific crime-spree has just commenced, which is seemingly the work of a very weird bunch of carol singers … 

As I say, you don’t even need an e-reader to check out this one. You can find it here: PART 1, PART 2 and PART 3.

Hopefully, if you haven’t read these extra tales, they’ll be of some interest if you’re a keen Heckie. But if you have already, fear not. As I say, the next novel isn’t too far in the future.

 

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.

SHUTTER MAN 
by Richard Montanari (2015)

Outline
This ninth outing for Richard Montanari’s popular Philadelphia crime-fighting team of Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano takes a three-stranded approach to storytelling, though all these plots quickly entwine. 

First off, Byrne and Balzano are no longer working hand-in-hand. Balzano has left Homicide to join the DA’s office, while Byrne, seeming older and slightly more world-weary, now trudges the murder investigation footpath alone. Not that they won’t be working together again very shortly (as if we would expect otherwise).

When Byrne attends a horrific crime scene where a suburban family have been massacred, the mother, father and son duct-taped to chairs and shot, the mother’s face peeled off as though for a trophy, he suspects that this won’t be the last he hears of the killer (or killers) and it seems highly likely that the Homicide division and the District Attorney are going to be focussed on this case together.

The second attack follows in short-order, an elderly man tied up and shot in his own home, his face also removed. Clues now begin to emerge; for example, both the primary victims have had their birth certificates stolen, and in the second case, a handkerchief is found written on in blood. Even more disturbingly, reports are now coming in that, in the latter case, a mysterious woman in white was seen singing close to the crime scene at roughly the time when the slaying occurred.

Byrne can’t help wondering if some kind of occult ritual is being enacted here, though – and this happens early in the plot, so it isn’t a spoiler – further evidence increasingly links the murders to the Farren clan, a notorious family who for decades have tormented the population of Philly’s tough Irish neighbourhood, Devil’s Pocket.

Which brings us to the second strand of the novel.

Jumping back in time to 1976, we find Devil’s Pocket a poor but lively district. The Farrens, an innately lawless breed, who arrived here from the Old Country decades earlier, are still governed by their fearsome matriach, Moira, but while carefully polishing a reputation for being a bunch of likeable rogues, the reality is that one generation of Farren men after another, all taking their lead from the amoral grandmother they idolise, have scrounged, stolen and used violence and even murder to impose their will on their neighbours.

Local slum kids – like Kevin Byrne, for example – are very wary of them, but still, on the whole, enjoy their rough-and-tumble lives. However, on July 4 that year there is an eruption in the neighbourhood when Catriona Daugherty, a beautiful and delicate 11-year-old (and daughter of the homely but handsome local housewife, Angelica Daugherty, later to remarry as Angelica Leary), is sexually murdered. Kevin Byrne’s gang, who were particularly fond of Catriona, suspect Desmond Farren, a simple-minded, seemingly innocent member of the notorious clan because for a time there’ve been indications that he has unhealthy interests in young girls. Shortly afterwards, perhaps inevitably, Desmond Farren is also murdered, executed by a single gunshot to the back of the head, and a tidal wave of brutality is expected in response.

Back in the modern age, the third strand of the story introduces us to the youngest member of the Farrens, Michael. A good-looking and mostly polite young man, Michael harbours a deep and unusual secret. He suffered a car accident as a child, which afflicted him with the ultra-rare condition, prosopagnosia, alternately known as ‘face blindness’, which means that he is unable to recognise faces, even those of his loved ones, and therefore must carry photographs around all the time. This is something of a problem for all those who deal with him given that Michael, for all his outward charm, is also a cold-blooded killer, not just following in his family’s villainous tradition, but having emerged from his catastrophic injuries with a psychotic alter-ego, Billy the Wolf.

As these various threads gradually weave together, it isn’t long before Byrne and Balzano realise that they aren’t just pursuing an everyday serial killer, though the closer the investigation leads them to the double-tragedy of 1976, the more uneasy Kevin Byrne in particular becomes … 

Review
There is a reason that Richard Montanari is regarded as one of America’s best crime writers, and it is books like Shutter Man, what may at first seem like it’s going to be just another creepy serial killer story very quickly expanding into an epic, generations-spanning crime saga with cops, criminals and multiple intriguing storylines interweaving, all kinds of clearly-drawn characters coming and going, the whole thing centred around the rough, tough real-life neighbourhood of Devil’s Pocket in the Irish quarter of Philadelphia.

It’s actually not complex. Though we move back and forth in time and change perspective regularly, the narrative bounces along at a jaunty pace, every segment dovetailing nicely with the one before and afterwards so that clarity remains at all stages, the tension increasing steadily as the grande finale approaches.

Characterwise, we’re in completely safe territory. As I mentioned earlier, this is the ninth outing for Byrne and Balzano, a pair of chalk and cheese investigators who, rather ingeniously by Montanari, both feel as if they’ve aged as the books have gone on, and yet nevertheless still speak the same language professionally and are both experts in their own fields. As relationships go, this one is completely platonic, though the duo are closely united in their drive to maintain law and order in a city known for its ‘brotherly love’ but which often – at least from a police POV – proves to be otherwise.

Byrne is an instinct cop, who, though lacking the spiky persona of Harry Bosch or the slick, organisational backup of Charlie Parker, is a steady, dependable worker, the sort you can always rely on to close a case quickly, while Balzano is the analytical brain and legal genius who perhaps was always destined for the top table. Both make for compelling characters because they are no frills ‘everymen’ and yet, thanks to Montanari’s trademark psychological analysis of his more maladjusted characters, are regularly called upon to tackle extraordinary opponents.

Even by Montanari’s normal standards, the primary antagonist in Shutter Man, Billy the Wolf, is particularly worth talking about. In some ways, he’s probably more interesting than either Byrne or Balzano, because, despite some titillating revelations about Byrne’s wild youth, our two heroes are mostly straight bats, whereas in comparison, Billy’s face-blindness gives him a unique place among fictional villains. I’ve certainly never before encountered a key character who, from one minute to the next, cannot recognise those around him and is just as likely to draw his gun and fire on friends as foes.

Aside from this condition, he has other mental frailties – severe ones. To start with, he is a psychopath, lacking any kind of rational or questioning mind when it comes to his own family, which allows him to become engulfed in the Farrens’ age-old superstitious beliefs to a point where it completely subsumes and dehumanises him, though (again typically of Montanari, whose villains are rarely 100% evil) this is done so subtly that it never removes the genuine air of pathos the author manages to evoke for this confused young man, not least because, though he has given in to his own darkness, Billy is also, quite clearly, a pawn being used in a larger, more Machievellian game.

I think it’s safe to say that Richard Montanari is not impressed by criminal clans, especially those like the Farrens who came to the United States in the belief that escaping from poverty and injustice gave them a blank cheque to employ violence and dishonesty as their new way of life. This, I feel, is the actual subtext of Shutter Man: when the sins of the past are not purposely erased, they will come back at some point to hurt you. And if they’re actually celebrated, in due course you and everything you hold dear may be destroyed by them.

But don’t worry. Montanari doesn’t go too heavy on this. It’s all layered into the story and characters without you having to put your thinking cap on. Equally subliminally, he juggles issues of justice and revenge, wondering if you can ever have one without the other and concluding, after some soul-searching, that justice, while it must remain blind, can never – whatever the provocation – be a blunt instrument by which the innocent may be punished alongside the guilty.

Again, I stress that Shutter Man is not an overly deep crime thriller, but it’s hugely intelligent and a real cut above the normal ‘psycho on the loose’ story.

If it has any weaknesses, they are minuscule. Some reviewers have complained about the plethora of police protocol detail. The same charge could be levelled at other crime writers, of course, to varying degrees, but for my money it’s not intrusive in Shutter Man and it helps create a real feeling of authenticity. Others, meanwhile, have claimed that the jumping between time zones has fuddled them, but if that’s the case, many modern novels in all genres must have the same impact, so that’s pretty much their problem.

The only criticism levelled at Shutter Man that I lean towards a little bit, is that the history of the Farrens is given to us in unnecessarily detailed exposition, so many thugs and hoodlums passing through the book’s pages that they all tend to blend into one, while at the same time, particularly in these sequences, it rises to several terrifyingly gory and sadistic climaxes, which, woven in, as they often are, with atmospheric scenes of mid-20th century Americana, hark straight to the more visceral Mafia movies that we’ve seen in recent years. But in truth, neither the extensive nature nor the melodrama of this massive backstory are unimportant when the author is looking to tell such a big story. I can’t really see that merely dropping hints about it or dealing with those issues via glimpses of faded memory would have sufficed.

It’s all subjective, of course, but I found Shutter Man an invigorating, large-canvas thriller, carefully constructed around two highly likeable (and deeper than usual) central characters and a superbly mysterious and yet sympathetic villain.

And now, here we go again, I’m going to be dumb enough to try and cast the main characters myself in the event that Hollywood, or someone like that, comes a-knocking. I don’t think they have done yet, but you never know, it may only be round the corner (and what a treat that would be).

Kevin Byrne – Patrick Wilson
Jessica Balzano – Alyssa Milano
Michael ‘Billy the Wolf’ Farren – Jamie Dornan
Anjelica Leary – Laura Dern
Moira Farren – Fionnula Flanagan

(The image of the Christmas killers comes to us from DeviantArt and has no actual connection to any of these publications. Likewise, the pamphlet at the top, which was circulated in New York in the 1970s, a time when the city was suffering an epidemic of violent crime, not least the Son of Sam killings).