Wednesday 25 August 2021

Delving into the deepest, darkest dystopias

Hello all. If it seems that I haven’t been posting as many blogs as usual in recent times, that’s correct, I haven’t. Basically, I’m waiting to make announcements. But August is the height of the holiday season, and people are not at their desks.

If I could unveil the jacket for my next stand-alone thriller, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, and go to town a little more on the synopsis, believe me, I would. Likewise, if I could show you the cover and the amazing table of contents for the next TERROR TALES volume, or talk about the next HECK novel, or the proposed LUCY CLAYBURN TV series, or if I could say anything at all about the new screenplay I’ve just been commissioned to write after one of my older novellas was very unexpectedly optioned for film development last month, I would eagerly do so.

I would go to town, trust me. I would trumpet it from the rooftops.

But in all these cases things are not quite ready yet, and even here at du Cote de Chez Finch, we must patiently await developments. Therefore, this is another of what I consider to be my ‘holding pattern’ blogposts. In other words, I blabber a bit and chuck out a few radical ideas that some writers, readers and general followers of dark fiction might find interesting.

Therefore, I’ll this week be looking at some of the Most Extreme Cities on Earth, grim metropolises that literally scream to be written about in crime, thriller or horror fiction, urban locations that for various reasons would make absolutely perfect backdrops for dark, strange and stressful reading.

On that same theme, today’s Thrillers, Chillers book review will focus on Ahmed Saadawi’s remarkable postmodernist nightmare of present day Iraq, FRANKENSTEIN IN BAGHDAD.

If you’ve only called in for the Saadawi review, that’s absolutely fine. You’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Zoom on down there straight away.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a minute to spare, you might find time to enjoy …

Extremes of urban darkness

Neither thriller fiction, crime fiction, horror fiction, nor dark fiction in general, is any stranger to inaccessible and hostile locations. In fact, it’s often enhanced by them. My last blogpost, which I made at the end of last month, focussed on far-flung places, the extreme ends of the Earth (and beyond), where some of the greatest and most chilling novels ever written have been set. For the most part, though, these were wilderness environments noteworthy for their terrifyingly low or high temperatures, their dangerous flora and fauna, their challenging geography, their utter isolation from everyday human contact, and so on.

This week I thought why not take a similar idea into the city, because there are lots of inhabited places on Earth – real places! – which, while not necessarily horrendous to live in (I’m sure many of their occupants are rightly happy with their lot), would drop the jaw of the average outsider, and could make highly atmospheric backgrounds against which to set suspenseful, frightening fiction.

The ten cities I’ve picked today may already feature in novels or movies. If they do, apologies … I was unaware of the fact (which is not unusual, to be fair), but even if they don’t that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some great works of fiction set in some of the world’s most extreme urban locations.

For example, Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill is a literary but very frightening ghost story set in the heart of Medellin, Columbia, once known as the most dangerous city in the world due to the power and ruthlessness of the infamous Medellin Cartel. 

Sam Hawken’s The Dead Women of Juárez, meanwhile, takes us to the once romantic but now desolate Mexican border town, Ciudad Juárez, in the middle of the 1990s, where an alcoholic detective struggles to get off first base as the city is overwhelmed by an unstoppable epidemic of feminicides. 

Then we have Chris Petit’s The Butchers of Berlin, wherein we travel back to a time when Germany’s capital burns nightly due to Allied air raids, the blacked-out streets are riddled with crime, violence and corpses, the terror of the advancing Russians is overwhelming, drunkenness, poverty and madness are rife, the Nazis still rule, and yet a conscience-stricken cop must somehow investigate a heinous conspiracy.

Of course, cities don’t have to be deprived, or overrun by crime and squalor, or flattened by war, or impossibly isolated, or simply forgotten in order to play host to serial killers, satanic cults, organised crime, human slavery, torture-for-hire, Snuf pornography, etc. But just imagine that your fictional detective is investigating something along these lines at the same time as having to cope with everyday life (and crime) in any one of these …


1. Pyongyang, North Korea

Possibly the ultimate real-life dystopia. It’s not just the brutal and secretive regime that overshadows everyday existence here, it’s the near-shameless way the capital city reflects this. Pyongyang is filled with bleak architectural monstrosities, many seeming to serve no purpose and many standing empty. It’s also famous for its roads, huge highways in some cases, that lead absolutely nowhere. At least on this image you can’t see the notorious Ryugyong Hotel, where the lifts don’t work (even those connecting to the lowest of its 105 floors), many interior walls are bare concrete, and of course, where almost no one ever stays. Assuming you could ever think of some method by which to convincingly set your thriller in Pyongyang, you’d lack for no obstacles to put in your hero’s way.

2. Norilsk, Russia

The world’s northernmost city and one of the coldest continuously inhabited places on Earth is Norilsk, which is situated far into the Russian Arctic. It’s also one of the most polluted, its chemical and metallurgic operations running night and day, innumerable pipes and chimneys pumping out smoke, gas and other unregulated toxins, though in truth you won’t notice this easily when the city is swept by blizzards for approx 130 days a year, deep snow covers the ground for 270 days, and darkness reigns 24/7 for six weeks in the depths of winter. Even in summer the air is cold and if it doesn’t snow, the rain is highly acidic. Add to that the usual Stalinist infrastructure – concrete filing-cabinets passing for blocks of flats, public services that work inadequately and intermittently in the harsh conditions – and most authors I know would struggle to make their book grimmer than the average day in a real Norilsk citizen’s life.

3. Tijuana, Mexico

The tragedies of Mexico’s border cities are widely known, but Tijuana embodies them. There are good things here, but bad things too, including Friendship Park, where locals can approach the wire fence and hold sad conversations through it with relatives who were successful in their efforts to enter the US. Much local industry comprises foreign-owned industrial plants where sweatshop conditions prevail and pay is poor. Many Tijuana neighbourhoods are thus slums, tin-shack housing balanced precariously on piles of tyres. And then there is the crime. The border outpost long attracted rough trade, meaning that sex shows and drugs were always available. But the dope wars have left the city battle-scarred, kidnappings and robberies happen regularly, and everyday tourism has collapsed. This sadly eroded statue, erected in 1990 to look to the future, says much.

4. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

At first glance, Ashgabat looks as though it doesn’t belong anywhere near this list. Even though it’s located in the middle of barren nothingness, on the edge of Central Asia’s Karakum Desert, it’s incredibly neat, tidy and pretty. In fact, you might say that it’s actually a bit too neat and pretty. And there’s the rub. A former Soviet state, Turkmenistan is still a dictatorship, current and former rulers enjoying such power (and wealth from the country’s vast gas reserve), that they’ve been able to pass edicts to the effect that all public buildings must be sheathed in glimmering white marble, that only white cars are permitted, and that public entertainments (oh, and dogs!) are banned. Monuments dominate every skyline: fabulous statues and hugely OTT buildings. It’s a mystical, pristine fantasy land, but strictly controlled. The secret police are never far away.

5. Iquitos, Peru

It’s easy for people who haven’t been there to picture the Amazon River as a picturesque waterway flowing slowly and dreamily through an endless, emerald paradise. And while this may be true along some stretches it’s less the case when you arrive at the Amazonian city of Iquitos in Peru. First off, it has the unenviable reputation of being the world’s largest city that can’t be reached by road, though even travelling by river it’s four days to the next town. Living conditions can be very hard here; Iquitos suffers from intense thunderstorms, which often cause flooding (and that’s a serious risk to life when you look at the teeming stilted shanties built along the muddy riverbanks!). Poverty is also much in evidence, which causes regular social unrest. If you want to tell a tale set literally in an ‘urban jungle’, this could be the place.

6. Yakutsk, Russia

Back to the frozen north again, and this time a city in Siberia that can only be reached along a wilderness track, the Kolyma Highway, which was built by gulag prisoners, so many of whom died and were buried there that even today it’s known as the Road of Bones. Another road, the Lena Highway, also connects to Yakutsk, but only for part of the year as at one point it requires you to drive over the ice covering the River Lena (as yet unbridged). Little wonder it’s generally regarded as the most isolated city on Earth (it’s just under 5,000 miles from Moscow!). It’s also another one that’s incredibly cold, boasting a year-round average temperature of -8 (though predictably, it’ll probably be the one warm day of the year when your fictional hero chances his car on the Lena). A city for which the term ‘back of beyond’ was surely coined.

7. Agbogbloshie, Ghana

The closest locality on this list to the living Hell we saw in Blade Runner 2049. But in all seriousness, the waste and pollution here is ghastly. Part of Ghana’s capital city, Accra, Agbogbloshie commenced life as an out-of-town wetland, but during the 1980s became home to refugees fleeing a tribal war. Slum settlements arose, and in the 1990s, when electricity was introduced, a demand grew for household appliances. Most of these arrived second-hand, did not last and subsequently were consigned to open landfills. The area’s reputation for ‘processing’ electrical waste grew, and soon it was shipping in from other African cities and even overseas. Agbogbloshie is now a dumping ground for such vile e-rubbish, the whole town overwhelmed by mountains of the stuff. It’s allegedly vital to the local economy, but ruinous to local health.

8. Kangbashi, Inner Mongolia (China)

Kangbashi is actually part of a city rather than a city in itself. It is connected to Ordos, a thriving metropolitan zone close to the Yellow River. But the big mystery here is how eerily deserted it is. A huge showpiece suburb built in response to an unexpected mining boom in central China, it was designed (and equipped, because it has everything a city could need, from children’s play areas to fully functioning bus services) to house over a million people. But somehow, for reasons never fully explained, that anticipated influx of workers never arrived. For years, Kangbashi stood almost entirely empty, the silence echoing along its unused subways, ringing around its numerous identikit apartment complexes, though if that disappoints you because you can’t write a book with no one in it, don’t worry … by all accounts, the apartments are now, finally filling.

9. Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela is yet another country whose political and economic problems have become endemic, a grim fact that feeds directly into Caracas’s main problem: violent crime. It has the highest murder rate of any capital city in the world, about twenty a day, approximately nine out of ten such incidents going unsolved. Street robberies and kidnappings, meanwhile, are almost beyond counting. It is particularly dangerous for foreigners, who are perceived to be carrying dollars, but even the impoverished locals follow simple rules: don’t flash any jewellery, cash or your watch; don’t drive a swanky car; always hurry through crowded areas; and if you’re going to a party, don’t leave and head for home until daylight. The perpetrators are mostly street-gangs who live by the rule ‘the strong take everything’. And mostly, they do.

10. Dzerzhinsk, Russia

I feel guilty including another Russian city, but if dystopia exists anywhere today, it’s surely in Dzerzhinsk, where the life expectancy for women is 48, and for men 42. Located near Novgorod, all kinds of nasty substances were made here during the Soviet era, everything from pesticides to poison gasses for use in chemical warfare (for which reason it was closed to foreigners until very recently). But even now, at least ten chemical factories are still at work in the city, filling the air (and supposedly the water supply) with dioxins and heavy metals. Perhaps the city’s most shocking feature is the ‘White Sea’, a legacy of the toxic waste products once routinely buried in the earth here. It resembles a huge salt flat, but it’s actually a sludge of deadly chemicals left suppurating in the open air. It covers 100 acres and killed off an entire forest as it spread.

(Many thanks to the various photographers originally responsible for these images, which I picked up simply by trawling the Net. If any would like to make themselves known to me, I will happily credit their work. The painting at the top of this blogpost, meanwhile, is by the amazing STEFAN KOIDL, much of whose work takes a deeply dystopian look at the world we know). 


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.

by Ahmed Saadawi (2013)


Iraq, 2003. A shell of a country in every sense of the word, but nowhere does that apply more visibly than in Baghdad itself, where the social and architectural fabric of the city has been near-enough destroyed even though the war is still raging. Saddam and his forces have gone, while the Americans and their allies have retreated into fortified enclaves, from which they only occasionally emerge in armoured columns, making swift and futile patrols. But now a range of replacement killers, not just the Sunni and Shiite militias and the Iraqi National Guard, but armed gangs of seemingly every persuasion, shoot it out daily on the shell-ravaged streets, and bombings are a common occurrence, the resulting indiscriminate explosions killing dozens each time and annihilating more and more of the city’s infrastructure, doing so much damage that what remains of the Iraqi government are completely unable to repair it.

The ordinary citizens eke out an appalling existence amid corpses and bullet-scarred ruins, and yet somehow they survive. One of these, an eccentric, happy-go-lucky junk dealer called Hadi, prowls the rubble looking for things to sell, and occasionally entertains his neighbours in the time-honoured tradition of Scheherazade with his tall stories.

Hadi, we realise, like so many of his fellow Iraqis, is in a state of ongoing traumatic stress, so much so that he barely knows it anymore. His grasp of reality is so tenuous that one day, instead of collecting rubbish and trying to sell it in his shop, he collects disparate human body parts, thinking that if he can stitch them all together and give them a proper burial, it will soothe a great number of aggrieved souls.

At the same time, in a particularly effective, near hallucinatory sequence, Hasib Mohamed Jaafar, a conscientious security guard, is killed in yet another suicide truck-bomb attack, his body almost vapourised in the blast, his spirit cast to the four winds.

Though it doesn’t remain there.

Deeply affronted by its own murder, Hasib’s spirit comes in search of a new host, and discovers the sewn-together travesty in Hadi’s outhouse. It duly possesses the homemade corpse, bringing it to a monstrous kind of life.

The patchwork horror has no initial purpose other than to wander the devastation of its former home city, though of course it can’t do this by daytime, for it is so hideous to look upon. Instead, it travels by night … and starts to commit murders.

These are not carried out for their own sake, for the hybrid thing, utterly deranged, is a mix of personalities, and having heard the prayers of those slain from whom it is comprised, now seeks vengeance on all their behalf. There is thus a rhyme and reason behind its crimewave, though few initially notice this thanks to the surplus of criminal violence already in progress. Nevertheless, urban legends spread that a monster, the Whatsitsname, as they call it, is on a non-stop nocturnal rampage, and soon the population are as terrorised by this as they are by any of the insurgent militia.

No one can locate the Whatsitsname during daytime because it has found a place to lie low. Elishva, an Assyrian Christian widow, who lives in the district of Bataween at the very heart of the guerrilla war being waged in the city, has long been in mourning for a son who never came home from the Iran/Iraq conflict of the early 1980s. When the Whatsitsname breaks into her house, the disturbed woman confronts it, and immediately decides that this is her disfigured son, returned at last.

Her home and the motherly care she provides prove convenient for the Whatsitsname, which is far from done in its quest for vengeance. It has now expanded its search, hunting down anyone it considers to be a criminal, though its righteousness is increasingly compromised because as the body parts it seeks vengeance for rot and fall away, it replaces them with new chunks of humanity, and some of these, inevitably, come from slaughtered men who were once criminals themselves.

Meanwhile, determined to investigate the ongoing bloodbath are two very different characters.

Mahmoud al-Sawadi is a local journalist who is working on the story, though his life is complicated by his Machievellian editor, Ali Bahir al-Saidi, whose mistress, Nawal al-Wadir, Mahmoud happens to be in love with, and whose intrigues look increasingly likely to get the magazine closed. Mahmoud’s direct opposite in terms of temperament and intellect is Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid, head of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, and a brutal, autocratic man drawn from the old regime but now charged with finding the Whatsitsname. Denuded of all his old methods, his spies and informers, Majid relies increasingly – and this is another nod, I suspect, to the magical days of The Arabian Nights and The Thief of Baghdad – on astrologers, soothsayers and other mystics, who attempt to collect intelligence by contacting the djinn.

Meanwhile, our main antagonist continues to scour the benighted backstreets, killling with a free hand, and at the same time, amassing a band of fanatical followers, creating, in effect, yet another insurgent group with which to torment the tragic city …

It’s perhaps an obvious point to make that Frankenstein in Baghdad was published in English in 2018, 200 years to the year after the first publication of Frankenstein (or, as it was alternatively titled, The Modern Prometheus), but that is largely it in terms of similarities. Though both novels share a murderous, sewn-together monstrosity as their central antagonist, in the latter book there is no real concept of good v evil, minimal debate between science and religion, and no musing at all on the folly of Man playing God. In any case, Frankenstein in Baghdad was first published in Arabic in 2013, so it was never intended to be an anniversary reboot.

In truth, it’s a whole different animal from the original but it’s also a hugely affecting read, and no surprise to me that Iraqi author, Ahmed Saadawi, won the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (an Arab-speaking world version of our own Booker Prize, for which it was also later shortlisted).

On its first publication here, Frankenstein in Baghdad was rightly marketed as a horror novel. It contains so much death and brutality that it couldn’t really be anything else, apart from an anti-war novel, which it also is, but ultimately it’s much more than either or both of those things.

Throughout his intense narrative, Ahmed Saadawi muses movingly on the nature of his home country, and not just as the hellhole it became during the violence-stricken years immediately following the Allied invasion, but as a relatively new country in the midst of an ancient land, on its hugely diverse and cosmopolitan citizenship (the multipart creature referring to itself as ‘the first true Iraqi citizen’), and on how problematic all this appears to have become in modern times in the absence of effective leadership.

It’s all portrayed through the metaphor of the meaningfully-titled Whatsitsname, a composite creature progressively more at war with itself than those around it, the outcome of which confusion is a blood-trail that goes on and on, seemingly without end.

However, Ahmed Saadawi isn’t talking completely in riddles and parables. He also gives us a very stark account of life in a teeming city defeated in war and crushed by its enemies, and where the worst kind of lawless anarchy is an ongoing reality. Much of this darkness is lightened by sardonic humour, though it’s a poignant tale too, perhaps the saddest aspect of which is Saadawi’s eyewitness testimony to the resilience of his own people, who have had no option but to adapt their daily lives to a world where bombers and gunmen are running amok, to a cityscape that’s been physically devastated, to blocked roads and endless half-demolished houses, and to a government once famous for its ruthlessness but now more notable for near-comical ineptitude.

He paints a vivid but what we must also assume is an accurate picture of a broken society in which hope lies in short supply. The western powers who overthrew Saddam are nothing more by this time than omnipotent, uninterested figures who have no real stake in the country they destroyed, and yet Frankenstein in Baghdad, while a hard-hitting satire, is not a polemic or even politically slanted (it’s curious but maybe telling that among the many and varied individuals the Whatsitsname seeks to punish, there are no members of the Allied military, even though they are still present in the city). Much like the journalist version of himself, who briefly appears in the novel later on, Saadawi seems to be more interested in reporting the plain facts than offering colourful opinions. Even his monster occupies a strange twilight place between good and evil, the author simply describing the things it does and why it believes it does them (even though the creature itself is a confused mess by the end), along with the myths that are soon woven around it: a reflection perhaps of many societies’ inability to face the results of their own failings as seen in their creation of imaginary evil-doers.

It’s also a tale well-told. Originally written in Arabic, this translation of Frankenstein in Baghdad was provided by Jonathan Wright, and while it doesn’t comprise mercurial prose, it is solidly and enjoyably readable, packing in great descriptive work and much clarity of time, place and character.

As a non-Arabic speaker, I can never know what kind of impact the original text would have had on me, but I concur with the general opinion that this must be a superb rendition simply because it’s so damn good. Despite being sold as a horror novel, it was clearly never intended to be just that, and in that regard the translation’s tone is pitch-perfect, the horrors of war balanced nicely with Saadawi’s waspish humour (the monster frustrated at having to continually replace its decaying constituent parts, Brigadier Majid’s cruel but amateurish security service, who all look exactly the same as each other, and so on). And again – and I mention this again because I enjoyed it so much – we are repeatedly but subtly reminded about Iraq’s long tradition of mystery and legend, journalist Mahmoud al-Sawadi creating his own One Thousand and One Nights in the form of a scrapbook he is putting together containing his country’s strangest stories, Majid surrounding himself by buffoonish mystics and fake magicians.

I strongly recommend Frankenstein in Baghdad to fans of all literary disciplines. It’s a detailed study of present-day Iraq as well as a rattling good thriller. It’s also the Middle East as you’ll never have seen it before, and that can only be a good thing.

And now, as usual, I’m going to try and cast this saga in the event that it gets made into a film or TV series. It’s only a bit of fun of course (not least because my knowledge of Middle Eastern actors and actresses is not exactly encyclopaedic), but the authors always seem to like this part of the review, so I’m doing it anyway.

Mahmoud al-Sawadi – Malek Rahbani
Elishva – Nour Bitar
Hasib Mohamed Jaafar / the Whatsitsname – Oded Fehr
Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid – Hamzah Saman
Hadi – Omid Djalili
Ali Bahir al-Saidi – Anouar H. Smaine
Nawal al-Wadir – Sandra Saad