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 …


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

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