This constitutes the 13th volume to date in the TERROR TALES series, and once again it’s been a huge labour of love by all concerned.
I offer my sincerest thanks not just to the writers, who have really gone above and beyond in their efforts to produce some bone-chilling fiction of the Southern Scottish variety, but to my artist friend and colleague, Neil Williams, who yet again has perfectly captured the mood of the anthology with his jacket art, and of course, to TELOS PUBLISHING for producing such a beautiful book.
I’m even more delighted that it’s out in time for Halloween, and I aim to celebrate on today’s blogpost by talking a little bit more about it, and by throwing you a few choice snippets from some of its contents. Before any of that, though, I also intend today to review and discuss another new book that would be an excellent buy for Halloween because it’s ghostly as hell and because, seeing that it’s set in the beautiful Perthshire countryside (not quite the Scottish Lowlands, but very near) it sits nicely in today’s column. That book is Helen Grant’s exceptionally spooky TOO NEAR THE DEAD.
If you’re only here for the Helen Grant review, that’s perfectly fine as always. Just hurry on down to the Thrillers, Chillers section, which, as usual, is located towards the lower end of today’s post.
However, if you’ve got a bit more time on your hands. Why not first check out …
I’m not going to say too much about this new one because I assume most people who read this blog will now be very familiar with the TERROR TALES series, the titles it contains, what we’ve been trying to do with it etc.
In comparison, pulling a ghost and horror anthology out of the Scottish Lowlands might superficially have seemed like more of a challenge. But not a bit of it. Okay, it’s gentle rather than grand, it boasts hills rather than mountains, but even some basic research will reveal that, purely in folklore terms, the Lowlands is equally as dramatic a landscape as the Highlands, and historically is as blood-soaked and brutal a realm as you could find anywhere.
This was the place where most of Scotland’s battles with England were fought, but also where civil strife took its bitter course, and where reiver clans raided and feuded. As such, the landscape is studded with castles, towers, gibbets and other relics of war and violence, while the ghosts that haunt it are a veritable who’s who of Scottish notables, everyone from the Black Douglas (beheaded in 1463) to Lord Darnley, husband to Mary, Queen of Scots (strangled in 1567). The Lowlands were also immortalised by a range of poets and rural balladeers, who painted it as lovely but mysterious, spinning vivid tales of witches, warlocks, brownies and selkies. Even the great cities of this region once harboured evil reputations, Edinburgh (or ‘Auld Reekie’), formerly a filthy slum notorious for plague and atrocity, Glasgow renowned for its bad old days of sectarianism and organised crime.
But, enough chit-chat from me. I want you to read the book, after all, not learn all there is to know from today’s blogpost. The main thing is that TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS has now been published, and is available as an ebook or paperback. Just follow the links. If you do, I can confidently predict that you won’t be disappointed.
But just in case you need a little more persuasion, here, as promised, are three short but juicy extracts:
It paused and turned to face me, as if we were playing a dreadful game. I saw the frozen features of a mask. The papier-mache was painted red, with blue and yellow swirls running up and down it. It had huge white eyes with round staring holes to see through, and it must have been a trick of the firelight, because for a second I thought that behind those eyeholes there was real fire …
He tied up all the men of fighting age and made them watch their babies being thrown on the fires that were now raging. His brigands raped the women, the girls, even the young men. The elders were dragged to the anvil and their ankles and knees and elbows were smashed with the smithy’s hammer until they could only crawl like worms …
Whatever was heading towards them was large. An image rose up in Meg’s mind, one she’d seen in a picture book: a wizened woman with sparse, lanky hair, grey skin and a grin that showed a mouth full of metal teeth …
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.
TOO NEAR THE DEAD
Fenella ‘Fen’ Munro is a freelance copywriter from London. In all ways, a modern, educated, independent-minded woman. Though at the commencement of this short but progressively more frightening novel, we meet her trapped in a truly terrifying nightmare. She thinks she has just woken up, only to find herself dressed in an oppressively old-fashioned wedding gown and immured inside a solid, body-length box, which, as it’s lined with satin, is quite clearly a coffin. When she actually does wake up, and finds herself safely alive in Barr Dubh, her new house in the Perthshire countryside, which she has recently bought with her author fiancé, James Sinclair, she is badly shaken up by the vividness of the dream, but pushes the whole thing to the back of her mind as she has lots of other things to be getting on with.
James is currently in Madrid, on a promotional tour for his latest novel, leaving Fen to do the heavy lifting back at home. She isn’t too concerned. They have only recently moved in, and life is good. Her job, especially now that she’s gone freelance, doesn’t entirely satisfy her, but it was through the publishing business that she first met the handsome, courteous and very talented James, so she has no complaints.
Not that one or two minor clouds don’t soon appear on the horizon.
For example, she makes friends with Seonaid McBryde, who runs the local wedding shop, but then, quite unintentionally, seems to upset the woman by suggesting that she wouldn’t mind a lavender wedding dress. Only by way of terse explanation, does Seonaid reply that lavender is considered an unlucky colour in this part of Scotland. Despite that, Fen thinks it was an over-the-top reaction, though later on she sees the same thing again when a folk band providing live music in a nearby pub are given the cold shoulder by a whole crowd of locals because they dare to sing a song called Lavender Lady.
From here on, odd and discomforting events become more noticeable, slowly souring Fen’s experience of her exciting new home and life.
When James returns from Spain, for instance, even though it is late at night, she thinks she sees someone standing in the garden, watching the house, though when the two of them investigate, there is no one there. Then, Fen’s best friend and former work colleague, Belle, arrives to stay for a few days, and though the threesome get on famously (Belle considering James to be a real catch), the guest soon becomes uncomfortable in the house. Finally, she confesses to Fen that she woke up in the middle of her second night there, and found herself in a completely different building: a much older, gaunter residence with a colder, less friendly atmosphere, and when she tried to walk around it, she got lost among its countless shabby rooms and passages, only to then hear someone hammering relentlessly on the front door, demanding to be admitted with what sounded like real and even dangerous anger.
Fen tries to dismiss this as another bad dream, but Belle, who claims to have a sensitivity to these things, insists that there’s something wrong with Barr Dubh … if not the house itself, the ground it is built upon.
Once Belle has returned to London, Fen, disappointed by her friend’s reaction, continues to have nightmares of her own. On one occasion, very distressingly, it’s a pair of unsmiling men trying to manhandle her paralysed body into a coffin; on another, two Victorian-era domestic staff, who discover her corpse as she lies dead in a bed and a bedroom that are not her own.
James, who’s writing another book, is understanding though not as helpful as he might be. And now we learn that Fen’s own past is not as trauma-free as her initial appearance might suggest. She’s hidden it well from almost everyone who knows her, but Fen had a very dysfunctional childhood in the home of two brutally strict parents, the memories of which haunt her deeply. So, the obvious next concern is whether the nightmares could be products of her own disturbed imagination?
However, Fen then meets a local historian, who doesn’t know anything about Barr Dubh, which is a relatively new house, but wonders if it occupies the same spot as Barr Buidhe, a much older, much more Gothic building, which was so thoroughly demolished that not a scrap of it remains today … except, supposedly, for a ruined chapel and overgrown graveyard, both of which may still exist in an untended corner of the grounds. Despite the two of them striking up a rapport, even this pleasant individual makes a quick exit when Fen enquires why the colour lavender seems to have evil connotations in this neighbourhood, though not without offering a brief explanation that in these parts it’s regarded as the colour of mourning.
Increasingly uneasy about the house she’s moved to (because her nightmares are not just getting worse, they seem incredibly real, almost as if she is peering into actual history, and on more and more occasions she suspects that someone – or something – is lurking outside at night), Fen becomes strangely convinced that if she can prove Barr Dubh occupies the same site as the much older structure, some answers will be provided.
But that may mean exploring the encircling woods to see if the ruined chapel and graveyard are still standing. Specifically, she now realises, the part of the woods where on her first few days here, she sighted that mysterious figure in lavender …
Helen Grant is another of those well-kept secrets when it comes to ghostly fiction. With a thoroughly deserved reputation as an award-winning author of children’s and YA mysteries – The Glass Demon, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden and Silent Saturday, to name several – the ghost stories she aims at the adult market are perhaps less well-known, primarily because they have mostly been shorter than novel-length and largely published by the independent press.
However, all that may shortly change.
Grant’s supernatural horror novel, Ghost, which was written squarely for mature readers, won considerable acclaim in 2018, not just for its scares but for its believable multi-layered characters and the depth and complexity of their relationship. And now it looks as though Grant has done it again, only this time even more forcefully, with her second full-length novel for the adult market, Too Near the Dead, which yet again pits ordinary but troubled people against forces from beyond that are anything but benign.
That’s probably the thing that strikes you first about Too Near the Dead: there is a real flavour of MR James. Though few of the obvious ‘Jamesian’ tropes are present (there are no learned clergymen here!), Grant demonstrates real literary skill in conjuring an atmosphere of utter dread and the threat of something truly terrible lurking just beyond our perception, and in ways so subtle that you don’t notice them at the time. Okay, the nightmare sequences I’ve referred to in the outline above are gut-thumpingly scary, but they are only nightmares. It’s through the waking experiences of Fen Munro, as she tries to go about her lovely new life and yet, drip by drip, disturbing weirdness intrudes, that we increasingly sense the approaching horror.
Such is the skill with which this is pulled off that you are well into the book, totally engrossed, before you’ve really noticed it.
It helps, of course, that Too Near the Dead is a mystery as well as a traditional ghost story. That’s another Jamesian box ticked, our brave but isolated protagonist increasingly seeking to answer questions from long ago, certain this will be the only way to save herself, but suspecting that there will be more and more of a price to pay for such intrusive enquiry. And all of this only intensifies the book’s pace, the pages flying by as the intrigued reader rushes on, determined to learn as much as possible.
While all this may sound as though it’s a tale exclusively in the vein of past masters of the genre (I’ve already mentioned MR James, but there are hints of Wakefield, Le Fanu and others too), the setting is Britain (and Scotland specifically) in the 2020s. Our main characters are London sophisticates, but the locals they encounter are not bumpkins. Yes, there is a degree of superstition in the area, particularly around the colour lavender, but overall the occupants of the district are modern enough to be embarrassed about this and not to want to talk about it.
On top of that, subtlety remains the order of play. Fen’s initial enquiries into the history of Barr Dubh and whatever building was there before it, do not immediately uncover horrific historical detail. In Too Near the Dead, the distant past is buried and forgotten. Barr Dubh itself is a new-build with no skeletons in any of its own cupboards. It’s distinctly not the case that local taxis won’t drive there after dusk, or anything so melodramatic. In this respect, Too Near the Dead is neatly separated from the main body of the new wave of powerfully-written ‘Gothic romance,’ which is usually set in Victorian or Edwardian times and often has much to do with lunatic asylums and locked upper rooms.
But for all that, one of the most potent aspects of Helen Grant’s new novel is its grasp on the emotional pain of its characters. Even in her shorter fiction, the author rarely gives us tales in which individuals have suffered unfeasible torments in their lives. She mostly writes about real people with everyday hang-ups, though hang-ups that nevertheless are a source of ongoing anguish. And Too Near the Dead is no exception. We don’t learn anything very quickly about Fenella Munro’s early life; it’s almost as though she’s overcome it, put it out of her mind. But gradually, as the narrative unfolds, we start to realise that it’s still there to an extent, a period of teenage suffering, which, while it’s no longer so acute that it bothers her minute-by-minute, manifests itself strongly (if indefinably) when she starts to have doubts about husband James’s private affairs, and therefore subconsciously about the entire viability of her too-good-to-be-true new life.
For me, it’s this psychological subtext that really elevates Too Near the Dead. You could even go as far as to say that the real antagonist in this novel is not so much a revenant from the tragic past but Fen’s desperate fear that, ultimately, happiness will never be hers (a metaphor which the revenant nicely underlines at the book’s big climax)
Superficially a classy chiller of the old school, Too Near the Dead is actually a clever and very contemporary story, dealing with non-extraordinary people, who, despite their work-a-day exteriors, are just as likely to be trapped in the throes of personal hauntings as any of their more visibly harrowed fictional counterparts. Add the lush but succinct descriptive work, Helen Grant completely capturing the green hills, quiet glens and verdant woods of the lower Highlands, and you have an exceptional piece of writing that works on every level.
And now, yet again, I’m going to cast this beast. I’d love to see it adapted for the screen, perhaps in the Ghost Story for Christmas slot. But until that happens, you’re going to have to rely on your (and Helen Grant’s) imagination. Here are the actors I would choose.
Fen – Michelle Ryan
James – Matt Smith