Saturday, 24 September 2022

Get your autumn and winter scares FREE


Okay, well my overseas ramblings are done for 2022 and I return to an England already rich in autumnal flavour. Yes, the leaves appear to be turning orange quite early this year, the mist is rising and the long, dark nights are already drawing in.

As we say, at roughly this time each September, the atmosphere is ripening for very scary stories. And who am I to disappoint on that score?

So, this week I want to focus on a new publication of mine, which has recently become available on Audible and Kindle: THE DEAD TIME, 4 Books for the End of the Year.

As you can probably see from the image, it’s a collection of four books in one, two novellas and two collections of stories, all themed for the darker end of the year, a bumper pack of eerie tales set between (and incorporating) autumn and Christmas.

However, these are re-releases. 

I want to make that crystal clear straight away. 

The four books contained in THE DEAD TIME have all been published before individually, and so you may already have read them. Of course, that doesn’t mean that if you haven’t, this won’t be a very enjoyable and cost-effective way to dive into them as a newbie … especially as we’ve devised a scheme by which you might be able to get hold of the Audible version of THE DEAD TIME absolutely FREE.

But more about that a little later. First, also this week, again in keeping with the overarching theme of terrifying tales, I’ll be reviewing Reggie Oliver’s wonderful collection of short stories, FLOWERS OF THE SEA, yet another smorgasbord of bone-chilling delights from one of Britain’s current true masters of the scary short story.

If you’re only here for the Reggie Oliver review, that’s absolutely fine. Just zoom on down to the end of this blogpost, where, as always, you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section. However, if you’re also interested in sampling some of my own output, stick around a bit first, and let’s get acquainted with …

The waning of the year

I won’t bore you all by blathering on again about how much I love ghost and horror stories, and how each year the gradual descent into autumn and winter stirs a new yearning inside me to both read and write within that genre. Suffice to say that yet again, we are there … it’s that time of year, and as usual my head is firmly in that ghostly realm.

But even more so this year, as I’ve got something exciting and relevant to put out there.

As already stated, THE DEAD TIME is a collection of four books in one, two novellas – SEASON OF MIST and SPARROWHAWK, and two collections of Christmas ghost stories, IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER and THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE.

As I mentioned previously, all have been published before, but all four also got the Audible treatment courtesy of actor and narrator par excellence, GREG PATMORE (left), who performed these titles the first time around, and recently suggested re-issuing them under a single umbrella, giving any punters interested an opportunity to get hold of them all together and at a bargain price (or maybe even absolutely FREE).

And so, again, who was I to disappoint?

Here is the finished product, THE DEAD TIME, available now either on Audible or Kindle, the amazing cover coming to us from the monumentally talented NEIL WILLIAMS.

I keep hinting that there’s a chance you can listen to it for FREE, and indeed there is. But I’ll only be revealing how you do that at the end of today’s post. Before then, here’s a bit of info about THE DEAD TIME’s constituent parts, as seen in the original blurbs that appeared on the backs of their jackets.


SEASON OF MIST (novella)

Our last autumn of innocence. Star-spangled nights. Mist-wreathed woodland. A twisted shape watching coldly from the shadows.

Industrial Lancashire, 1974.

The kids in the coal-mining town of Ashburn love the waning of the year. Fancy dress and scary stories for Halloween. Fireworks and treacle toffee on Guy Fawkes Night. And a month after that, snow and the approach of Christmas.

But this particular autumn will be memorable for entirely different reasons.

Because this year someone is killing the children of Ashburn.

Or should that be SOMETHING?

While police and parents search for a maniac, Stephen Carter and his schoolmates know better. They may be on the cusp of adulthood, but there’s still enough of the youngster left in each of them to recognise the work of an evil supernatural being unique to these deserts of slagheap and coal-tip …


SPARROWHAWK (novella)


In the year 1843, embittered Afghan war veteran John Sparrowhawk is released from the ‘prison by the beautiful and enigmatic Miss Evangeline.

Penniless and alone in the world, he takes employment with his mysterious benefactor, agreeing to stand guard over a house in Bloomsbury for the duration of the Christmas period.

But while London is gripped in the coldest winter in living memory, Sparrowhawk soon comes to realise that he is being stalked by a supernatural entity, whose terrifying presence is only partially cloaked by the mist and the snow and the gnawing winter darkness.


IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER 
(short story collection)

Christmas. A time of feasting and good cheer. Gifts, cards, blazing holly logs. But it isn’t always joyful. It’s the coldest time of year. The days are short, the nights long, and chilling myths lie hidden behind the raucous revelry.

The ghoulish events in the frozen workhouse
The undead presence at the costumed ball
The pantomime that became a massacre
The winter goddess with the heart of ice
The thieves who woke the dark side of the festive spirit



(short story collection)

Christmas, the happiest time of year. Plum puddings, candy canes, carols by the fireside.
But outside, the mist lies deep and still. Frost gnaws at your fingertips. Shadowy forms lurk in the evergreens.

It’s the season for ghost stories. For dark warnings. For eerie myths drawing on the blood rites of the past …

The Christmas present that wants to butcher you
The horned devil in the Santa Claus suit
The terrifying events at Mistletoe Hall
The movie makers trapped in a winter nightmare
The annual puppet show that ends in death


And now the bit you’ve all been waiting for. I’ve been suggesting throughout this blogpost that you might be able to get this title on Audible for absolutely NO CHARGE. Well, here’s how you do it:

I have 10 FREE Audible codes to give away, five are British and five American. All you need to do to go into the hat, from which I’ll draw the lucky winners next Friday afternoon, is find me on Twitter, follow me and retweet the tweet in which I publicise this same draw. It will open with the phrase: WIN A BUMPER CROP OF CHILLERS ON AUDIBLE.


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.

FLOWERS OF THE SEA 
by Reggie Oliver (2013)

The sixth collection of short fiction from eloquent British wordsmith, Reggie Oliver, and another bang-up job by Tartarus Press, who are currently on a mission to showcase the best of weird writing in the most elegant fashion. By almost any standards, this is a pretty interesting collection, not least because you can’t categorise the whole of it as horror or even weird. There are strong literary efforts on show here too, not to mention some personal and moving introspection by the author, plus much that draws on his classical education at Eton.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I’ll let the publishers themselves introduce it in their own words. Here is the official back-cover blurb:

The sixth collection of ‘strange stories’ by Reggie Oliver follows the award-winning Mrs Midnight (2011). Oliver’s variety of subject matter, wit, characterisation and stylistic elegance are on display, as is his gift for telling a good story …

The rivalry between two former MI5 members in a seaside town escalates into something deeply sinister and mysterious. The one-time assistant to a musical genius is dying in early 19th century Vienna and cannot escape his obsession with their last collaboration. In Weimar Germany a mass murderer is awaiting his execution with perplexing eagerness …

There are two novellas in this collection. ‘Lord of the Fleas’ is a study of a sinister 18th century architect, told through various documents, including an unpublished fragment of Boswell’s ‘Life of Dr Johnson’, and a series of increasingly desperate letters from a young woman to her cousin in the style of the epistolary novels of Fanny Burney. The other novella, ‘A Child’s Problem’, inspired by a painting in the Tate Gallery by Richard Dadd, was nominated for ‘Best Novella’ in the Shirley Jackson awards of 2012 …


When most readers hear the name Reggie Oliver – and awareness of this fine purveyor of ghostly fiction is spreading very fast – they think the Jamesian school. That is ghostly material written in the style of MR James. Not just crisp, neat and concisely yet richly descriptive and characterised, but with a scholarly air, and tending to involve antiquarians or occultists meddling in age-old mysteries, and inevitably bringing upon themselves supernatural vengeance, the avenger often taking the form of a revenant, a semi-corporeal undead thing that has either risen from a place of entombment or been summoned from beyond, and which can wreak actual physical and even mortal damage on its human opponents.

This is not by any means the whole story with MR James, and likewise, Reggie Oliver doesn’t always plump for this. But Oliver enjoys his ghosts and his curses and his atmospheric Jamesian locations: old theatres or churches, isolated manor houses, or quiet rustic towns in East Anglia or France. In addition, as Dr James did, he enjoys frightening his readers, and has now become something of a past-master at that.

Fans of his will thus be delighted to know that there are a number of examples of all these things in Flowers of the Sea.

For example, the novella A Child’s Problem is set in Regency England, where an unwanted boy is despatched to the grand estate of his wealthy blowhard uncle. However, there are mysteries here, and maybe a ghost or two, and it soon becomes apparent that whatever vengeance is coming for the lord of Tankerton Hall, it will come from beyond the grave.

Similarly, Jamesian, though with a very modern twist, is The Spooks of Shellborough, in which a retired MI5 officer finds no peace in the quiet resort where he settles down in his dotage, especially when a former comrade turns up to sour the atmosphere. There is a dark history between these two going all the way back to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, involving betrayal, torture and murder, and it isn’t over yet.

But perhaps the most undeniably Jamesian tale in Flowers of the Sea is Between Four Yews. Given that this is one of the best stories Reggie Oliver has so far penned in my view, and also one of the broadest in scale, I’ll say a little more about this one later and will merely point out here that it concerns an unwise attempt to harness supernatural power and the terrifying consequences.

As well as MR James, Reggie Oliver’s most recent output has been likened to that of Robert Aickman, an author from a later era but another ‘strange’ story specialist, who didn’t concern himself with ghosts and ghouls as much as with macabre oddness often tinged with deviant psychology.

If you can picture an author who melds this approach with that of MR James, then you’ve probably got Reggie Oliver in one. The most Aickmanesque (if such a word exists) story in this book is also one of the best. Didman’s Corner concerns a bereaved man seeking to recover by hiring a cottage in a rural enclave he once called home. But another cottage nearby, one in a semi-ruinous condition, slowly starts stirring frightful memories.

Perhaps in keeping with the Aickmanesque spirit, in the Author’s Note at the back of this book, Reggie Oliver writes that while he has no objection to being classified as a ‘horror writer,’ he is less interested in such horror tropes as blood and mutilation (though he won’t shy away from gruesomeness if it’s required), and more attracted to the ‘metaphysical dimension’.

Well, that might be the case, but humble as Reggie Oliver is, he can still do horror better than many other practitioners in the field.

For example, in Charm, an Oxford don and his wife rent a Cotswolds manor house, but don’t realise how closely this will bring them to the orbit of its owner, an aristocratic boor whose obstinate refusal to accept that his playboy days are long behind him looks likely to bring into the present the ghosts of a very, very dark past.

Similarly bone-chilling, and a would-be ideal choice for any horror anthology, is Striding Edge, which, as you might imagine, is set in the higher peaks of England’s majestic Lake District, but also happens to be filled with evil cults and bizarre spirits, and features a nightmarish trip along one of the most perilous, fog-shrouded routes in the mountains. More about this one later.

On the subject of genuinely frightening stories, there are two particular entries in Flowers of the Sea that I consider to be stand-out examples. Easily the most frightening in the book, and the most frightening of almost any book, is Hand to Mouth, very closely followed by Come into My Parlour, though both are massively different in tone, the former drawing on traditional haunted house horrors, but doing them with shuddersome effectiveness, the latter hitting us in the heart of the family unit, bringing a child’s silly fears to the forefront and making them massively and terrifyingly real. More about both of these two later on as well.

Less definitively classifiable as horror, or even as supernatural fiction, though both are strange, dark tales that leave you thinking about them long afterwards, are Singing Blood and Lightning.

The former is in many ways a fictionalisation of the case of German mass murderer, Peter Kurten, though the names and details of the crimes have been changed. It’s set towards the end of World War Two and sees an ageing priest discussing the concept of evil with two intellectual friends and recollecting his role as prison chaplain when a vicious serial killer was awaiting execution by guillotine.

The other one is very different, superficially an unremarkable character study, though its undertones are grotesque. In this one, two retired actors reminisce about a terrible night when they were young, when an astonishing lightning storm threatened to destroy the ramshackle theatre where they were performing and provoked a series of unnerving incidents leading finally to tragedy.

But a special mention in this book must go to two stories, which, while horrific in some ways (and deeply sad in others), are certainly not horror, and are clearly very personal to the author. It is these, I suggest, that pitch Reggie Oliver into the realm of literary writer as well as supernaturalist, though many of his readers will already place him there.

In the exceptional (and heartbreaking) Flowers of the Sea, an author telepathically connected to his artist wife suffers appalling visions and a gradual disengagement from reality as she slowly succumbs to dementia. Likewise, in Waving to the Boats, worn-out Arthur endures deep depression as he accompanies his beloved but dementia-stricken wife on a dull boat-trip, unaware of the unexpected destiny that awaits him.

I won’t say any more about either of these beautifully crafted stories except that they are emotional gut-punches. But for that you need to read them yourselves.

That isn’t all the stories in Flowers of the Sea, but these are the titles that made most impact on me, and as you can see, there are plenty to choose from. It amounts to another masterly collection of eerie and disturbing tales from one of the genre’s most subtle and ingenious talents.

And now …

FLOWERS OF THE SEA – the movie.

Sadly, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), and in truth I can’t see it happening any time soon, if at all. So, this week, this part of the review is even more a bit of wishful thinking than usual. But I’m going to stick my oar in anyway, just in case some bright and moneyed individual makes the wise decision to bring this collection to 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 compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances, which require them to relate spooky stories. It could be that they unwisely enter an eerie old wax museum, where each one of them finds his/her own self featuring in one of several grotesque effigies (remember the movie, Waxwork?), or maybe they take a trip underground, and find themselves in the presence of a menacing crypt-keeper, who forces them to reveal their deepest terrors (Tales from the Crypt, guys?).

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

Come Into My Parlour: An impressionable child lives in constant fear of his strange and misanthropic Aunt Harriet, whom he one day angers when he refuses to perform an objectionable task for her. The following Christmas, having promised to punish him, she gifts him a book of fairy tales, which contains some truly horrific engravings …

Aunt Harriet – Lindsay Duncan

Between Four Yews: An eerie visitation in a prep school leads to the uncovering of a Victorian-era notebook, and the terrifying tale it tells about an obsessive quest for revenge, a trip to the Middle East and the ensnaring of a familiar spirit, or djinn …

Uncle Edward – Jim Broadbent
Sampson – Mark Gatiss

Striding Edge: A student teacher makes a trip to Helvellyn and Striding Edge, where he encounters an old school acquaintance, Derek Shorecliff, who is now involved with the paganistic and vaguely fascist sect, the Greenwood Folk. He never liked Shorecliff before, but only now does he find the guy frightening …

The Narrator – Alex Pettyfer
Derek Shorecliff – Tom Felton

Hand to Mouth: An underemployed actor accepts a job to spend the whole winter as live-in caretaker at the ruinous French chateau recently acquired by his yuppie cousin. Only when he arrives there does he become aware of the terrifying ghost story attached …

Jane (no harm in making a gender change here, I feel) – Georgie Henley

Friday, 2 September 2022

Dark-hearted trio for a darker time of year


I was hoping to be able to tell you more interesting stuff this week, particularly with regard to the Heck series and my next crime novel and so forth, but despite the fact we’ve slipped quietly into the autumn, we are in many ways still deep in the holiday season, and information in my industry isn’t travelling back and forth quite the way it would in normal times.

So, yet again, I’m going to have to put any announcements on hold, and instead, we’ll be focussing on the fact that it is now autumn by going a little GHOSTLY …


Yes, despite all appearances, September is with us, and the waning of the year has officially commenced. Okay, there are only the merest hints of red out there in the woodland brocade thus far, the sun is high and the air temperatures warm. But the fruit is hanging full and lush, the nights are drawing in and the mornings are starting out misty.

In anticipation of the real darkness shortly to come, not to mention the fog and the cold and the twisting, leafless branches, this seems like the ideal opportunity to launch an occasional new feature, which I’ve been toying with for quite some time.

Welcome to …

TRIO OF TERROR

It struck me recently, while combing my way through the world of dark and eerie fiction, that, while it’s a lot of fun and very rewarding to be reviewing novels and collections or anthologies of short stories, one form of fiction I’m not offering my thoughts on is the short novel or novella.

Now, this was a bit of a shock given that I’ve written quite a few of these and at one time had a reasonable rep for them. My own novella, Kid, won the British Fantasy Award in 2007, and two more, Sparrowhawk and The Tatterfoal, were both short-listed for the same award in 2010. And it’s not as if I haven’t read and enjoyed novellas by others. Vardoger by Stephen Volk (2009) is one of the finest I’ve ever read, closely followed by White by Tim Lebbon (1999). At the same time, who could forget such classics of their kind as Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894) and HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931).

So, hell, I thought, I ought to start reviewing novellas (and short novels) as well. I owe it to the authors and to anyone else who, by some remote chance, might be following my tips on here.

Thus, without further ado, here’s the new feature, and here’s the way it’ll work. Unlike an anthology or a full-blown novel, the average novella – most clock in at around 20K to 50K words – is too slim an object to my mind to merit a full Thrillers, Chillers entry all of its own. So, what I thought I’d do is review each one as they came along, but then store said write-ups in the back room until I had three I loved that sat together neatly, and then put the whole trio on the blog.

I stress that I won’t be doing a compare-and-contrast between the three; they’ll all be individual entities, written by different authors and may even have been written years and years apart. But it’ll be an interesting exercise to review three each time that perhaps complement each other either by tone, undercurrent or subtext. This week, for example, I’ll be reviewing Dolly by Susan Hill, The Devil’s Own Work by Alan Judd, and Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge … yes, you’ve guessed it, the common theme here today is ‘the darkness within ourselves’.

This will also assist at the end of each review, when I discuss a potential (i.e. imaginary) three-episode TV series, because you can’t have three episodes of something like that, which are wildly different from each other; theme must be maintained.

As usual, 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 novellas in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (in each case, 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.

DOLLY by Susan Hill (2013)


Outline
We’re in England in the post-war era, and we open as two children, each in their own way lost, are relocated together at remote Iyott House. They are cousins but they barely know each other, and they couldn’t be more different in temperament.

Edward Cayley is an orphan who has been raised by his business-like stepbrother, not exactly cruelly but with no expectation of warmth or generosity, so he remains a quiet, observant boy who shows little in the way of emotion. Leonora van Horst, on the other hand, is the daughter of a flighty single mother, who travels the world in pursuit of wealthy men, and has never yet found happiness. Leonora is subsequently a spoiled, haughty child, who, while not unintelligent, has willfully turned a blind eye to her parent’s uselessness.

Edward and Leonora are not natural friends, and their new residence is hardly likely to make them so. It’s a dreary, damp abode far out in the Cambridgeshire fens, though their new guardian, their elderly Aunt Kestrel Dickinson, while unused to children, is inclined towards kindness and attempts to make them welcome, even if she has no option but to install their bedrooms in the attic.

As a wet, misty spring gives way to a hot summer, the eeriness of the children’s new home recedes, and their relationship develops. Edward still finds it difficult to get on with the ever-superior Leonora, but gradually her façade crumbles and she reveals much about her early life, pointing out the deficiencies of her mother, who is too self-centred to ever understand her daughter’s needs and desires, and failed always to buy her the one thing she really wanted: a beautiful doll dressed as an exotic princess.

When Edward confides this in Aunt Kestrel, she makes a wearying expedition to London to try and find such an item for Leonora’s birthday, finally returning with a delicate China doll, which though expensive and gorgeous is not the one Leonora wanted. In the most horrific display of ingratitude, the girl has a spectacular tantrum and hurls the doll at the wall, breaking it, before storming off, thereby setting in motion a series of supernatural events that will not just follow the two children into adulthood but will blight both their lives to the point of ruin …

Review
The first thing to say about Dolly is that we are firmly in Susan Hill territory. You won’t need to be a student of the genre to be aware that her most famous work to date is The Woman in Black, which is set at bleak Eel Marsh House on the northeast coast. Well, here we are further south in East Anglia, but it’s a flat, equally dreary landscape, and while the house has a different name, Yyott, the nearby village is called Eeyle.

So, straight from the beginning with Dolly, you know what you’re going to get.

Realistic, non-melodramatic characters compete for our attention against a grim backdrop of Gothic landscapes and supernatural spite that quite literally knows no end and which, at times, is genuinely so chilling that you may well be looking over your shoulder while you read.

Yes, there’s something about Susan Hill’s work that touches a very raw nerve.

So many ghost stories fall flat in the modern age, when society is seemingly beset by such a profusion of worrying issues that we find it difficult to fear the dead. But not in The Woman in Black, as many will attest, and definitely not in Dolly.

In addition, the manner of the evil that confronts us here is very unexpected. We’re not talking revenants, or rotted corpses rising, or shadow-figures rattling chains. But, without giving anything away, what happens in Dolly would still be mind-bendingly terrifying were it to happen to someone in real life.

So, don’t be fooled into thinking this is some quaint tale from the ‘ancestor that returned’ stable. It really, really isn’t. The horror here is real and visceral, and literally goes bone-deep.

On top of that, it’s all wonderfully written. Yet again, Susan Hill calls on her inner poet, perfectly and succinctly capturing the flat wilderness that is the East Anglian mudflats, the silent, winding waterways, the empty skies, the occasional rotting hulk of an abandoned farmhouse.

Read it, even if you’re not a ghost story aficionado. This is a mystery chiller of the first order, which will keep you awake and thinking about it long after you’ve turned the final page. But it’s also a wonderful piece of writing that grips, moves and entertains, and yet doesn’t waste a single word during its very manageable 160 pages.


THE DEVIL’S OWN WORK 
by Alan Judd (1991)

Outline
Two university friends embark on very different careers when they finish their education. One of them, an unnamed chap who becomes a schoolteacher, is deeply interested in literary fiction but has no talent himself and faces a future on the fringes of the intelligentsia, though, as a contented suburbanite, he isn’t daunted by this, especially when his French sweetheart, Chantal, accepts his proposal and the two of them settle down to what looks like a quiet middle-class life.

In contrast, the other one, Edward (surname never given), is a talented but inexperienced novelist, whose charm and good looks have opened doors for him before he’s even published his first book, and whose family’s wealth has allowed him to work as a literary reviewer while attempting to make his name as an author. Ironically though, it is one of Edward’s reviews that finally draws the world’s attention to him.

When he brutally criticises the latest novel by much-lauded writer, O.M. Tyrell, accusing the widely respected ‘doyen of English letters’ of favouring excessive style over anything approaching substance, the literati are stunned. Tyrell, though an octogenarian now and famously reclusive, is regarded as a genius whose work has for decades been beyond reproach. However Tyrell responds, which in itself is remarkable, by inviting Edward to interview him at his retreat on Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera.

At the same time, the teacher and Chantal will also be in southern France, visiting in-laws, and so a plan is made that all three will meet up after the interview and enjoy a brief holiday together. The teacher and Chantal arrive a day early, and see Tyrell in a harbourside café with his mistress Eudoxie, an exotic, ageless beauty who appears to wait on her very elderly beau hand and foot. That night, Edward attends Tyrell’s house as intended, but towards the end of the two writers’ friendly enough discussion, the older man dies from what seems to be a sudden heart attack. Before he expires, he hands Edward a bulky, handwritten manuscript, which at first glance is almost illegible, saying that this is for him … that it was ‘meant for him’.

Back in England, the teacher gets a brief look at the mysterious manuscript but considers it gibberish and dismisses it as an antique curiosity. However, from this point on, Edward’s career as a novelist soars. He pours out one prize-winning tome after another, earning a fortune in the process, though the teacher increasingly dislikes his best friend’s new books, thinking them well-written but uncharacteristically shallow. He is most startled, however, when, as old acquaintances, they hook up again years later and he learns that Edward, a distracted and oddly indolent fellow these days, has not only adopted Tyrell’s mantle as England’s most revered author, but is living with Tyrell’s former partner, Eudoxie, who, while the rest of the group are progressing into middle age, looks no older than she did before …

Review
Alan Judd is a very respected novelist in his own right, but The Devil’s Own Work attracted particular interest when it was published because it was the first time (and, to date, the only time) in which his subject was the supernatural. Perhaps inevitably, given Judd’s literary reputation, but also because of his biography of Ford Maddox Ford (which was published one year earlier) and a brief essay at the end of The Devil’s Own Work, in which he reveals that Tyrell was based on Graham Greene, readers and reviewers have looked for much deeper meanings in the work.

It’s certainly the case that in The Devil’s Own Work, Judd is revisiting Faust (for the uninitiated, a 16th century German astrologer who reputedly sold his soul to Satan in exchange for a long and successful life, a concept that has been rebooted many times in fiction), but Judd also uses this short but eerie novella to take potshots at a number of contemporary targets.

It’s a clear excoriation of literary critics, not just those who can’t write themselves, but those who follow fashion, jump on bandwagons and subsequently lose all objectivity. It’s also an expression of frustration at the handful of writers who achieve incredible fame when their work hasn’t merited it but were simply in the right place at the right time. It’s that bandwagon thing again, I suppose, the random mob mentality that condemns some to obscurity and others to fortune and glory. All of this is embodied in the affable but bland personality of the narrator in The Devil’s Own Work. He’s an unremarkable everyman who blends into the background when superstars take the stage. He’s resigned to a future of anonymity, but deep inside he becomes terser the higher his friend’s star rises, especially as he considers the adulation to be fake because the work is ultimately poor.

And this perhaps was Judd’s real purpose in writing The Devil’s Own Work: as a shot across the bows of literary elitists everywhere who are resting on their laurels, or simply undeserving of the praise, or who have set aside their own voice for the sake of commercial success.

Which is all well and good, but is this short work also effective as a horror story, because that is how it is packaged? And the answer, for me at least, is yes.

The Devil’s Own Work is written in linear fashion, the narrator taking us through the events of all the main characters’ lives (those he is aware of!) in a more or less straight line from the early days of hope and ambition right through to the final disaster, without making many deviations en route. He takes time out here and there to offer nuanced thoughts and views and his understanding of how the literary world works in particular, but it’s all so smoothly and precisely written that you can’t help but enjoy every minute. And yet, while all this is going on, the evil in the midst of the tale subtly but inexorably tightens its grip.

Not just on Edward, but on all three of our main protagonists.

It won’t surprise anyone and it won’t spoil anything to mention that the splendidly-named Eudoxie is part of the demonic entity invoked here, while the mysterious manuscript (think something incomprehensible along the lines of the Voynich Manuscript) is the infernal source of Edward’s new ‘talent’. Early on, for the most part, it’s merely creepy, but the real jeopardy gradually emerges from the cursed writer’s ever more frantic efforts to free himself, and the terror that grows on him while his teacher friend observes coolly from what he assumes is a safe distance (‘envy’ as much a deadly sin as ‘greed’), the whole thing finally culminating in a finale which, while it isn’t exactly explosive, I personally found bone-chilling.

Alan Judd’s The Devil’s Own Work is the epitome of a literary horror story and hugely effective on many levels. And if you’re only here to be scared, don’t worry. That is one of them.


DARK HARVEST 
by Norman Partridge (2006)

Outline
It’s 1963, and we’re in a nameless Midwest town, which is famous for one thing only: rearing high-grade corn. The quality of the produce is no surprise for two main reasons. One, the cornfields stretch to virtually every horizon. Two, the town lives under an ancient spell, which, depending on the events of each Halloween Night, may leave it in financial ruin, or grant it the huge boon of agricultural success.

However, the latter is not easily obtained. For reasons a tad obscure (again, we’re looking at some kind of supernatural pact or curse), each October 31st, a nightmarish figure arises from the pumpkin patch at the end of the black road. It’s known by a variety of names – Hacksaw Face or Sawtooth Jack, or more commonly, the Halloween Boy. It takes the form of a suit of raggedy old clothes, now filled with vegetable matter (and candy!), with an oversized pumpkin for a head, on which a truly evil face has been carved.

Every year it’s the same story, the monstrosity slowly taking shape on a cruciform structure left out there just for this purpose, and finally, on Halloween Night, released, armed with a butcher’s knife and sent on foot into the town, where it will annihilate anyone it encounters, though ultimately, it has a more specific intention: to get to the old brick church at the heart of the curse before the automated bell system sounds the midnight hour. If it succeeds in this, the town is doomed – at least for another year, though the consensus is that it wouldn’t survive even a few months under such hardship.

To give the townsfolk a fighting chance, they are permitted to try and stop the monster, but this task may only be accomplished by a male aged between 16 and 18. Thus, every Halloween Night, in an event called simply ‘the Run’, while everybody else hides, the young guys in the town are out en masse, armed with baseball bats, pipes, axes, knives and pitchforks. Their purpose is to destroy the Halloween Boy before he gets anywhere near achieving his goal.

Inevitably, there’s an air of total lawlessness. The all-male teenage gangs have been starved for the previous five days, the idea that they’ll go after the creature all the more hungrily because of the chocolates and other goodies where his heart should be, but also, I suspect, so that none of them will be completely on their game. For both these reasons, there is much looting and Purge-type violence between the rival groups. In response, the town’s sole cop, Jerry Ricks, a hick of the first order, patrols with a vengeance, and thinks nothing of shooting first and asking questions later.

No matter how many people die on October 31st in this place, questions never seem to be asked. But Ricks isn’t just the way he is because he likes hurting people (even though he does). He’s also the paid-up attack-dog for the Harvesters’ Association, the shady controlling-power in this neck of the woods, who stand to gain the most whenever the Halloween Boy is beaten, and therefore are probably at the root (no pun intended) of this mysterious situation.

This makes the all-licensed Ricks a very dangerous individual indeed. Almost as bad as the monster at the heart of the tale. Maybe worse.

Meanwhile, all these dangers aside, the prize for the guy who finally takes the target down is felt to be worth the risk. His family is showered with financial benefits, a new house, a new car and the like. But he – the kid who did it – gets to leave. Because that is the other thing. No one else ever escapes this one-horse town. They literally can’t. It’s an out-of-time capsule, a mini-universe wherein the Halloween horror story repeats itself year after year, until it’s now become a self-fulfilling prophecy of blood.

This year though, it might be different, because a loner, Pete McCormick, the son of the town drunk, and a kid in awe of Jim Shepherd, who won the prize the previous year and has since vanished, is determined to find out what lies at the heart of this darkness. He is assisted in this by one Kelly Haines, a girl, so she shouldn’t even be on the streets, but someone else who’s been abused by the town’s authorities and is now determined to get answers (and payback).

It is no small thing for these two isolated youngsters, who have never seen beyond the endless flatlands of corn, to confront and defeat the monstrous Halloween Boy, and at the same time evade the ever-watchful eyes of Jerry Ricks and the Harvesters’ Association …

Review
I first approached Dark Harvest thinking we were in the realms of an archetypal stalk-and-slash romp. It had all the makings. An undead maniac with scarecrow attributes and edged steel in his fist. A Palookaville town cut off by geography and culture from the rest of the modern world. Teens in jock jackets riding hot rods while armed with bats. A redneck cop who lets his nightstick do all the talking. And of course, lashings and lashings of Halloween.

It was all there. All I had to do was sit back and enjoy the procession of ever-more brutal murders. But that’s not how it played out.

Quite rightly, Dark Harvest won the Bram Stoker Award in 2006 and was named one of the Best 100 Books of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly. You don’t need to be a horror aficionado to know that wouldn’t happen with everyday slasher fare.

First of all, the style of the writing is Norman Partridge at his concise but visual best. It’s got energy, it’s got drive, rattling us at speed through one nerve-tingling situation after another, but always hitting us with rich if macabre poetry. So yes, there are incredibly gory deaths and some smash-bang action sequences, but the unique atmosphere of Halloween – ‘the smell of cinnamon, gunpowder and melted wax’ – emanates from the pages.

At the same time, there’s a genuinely warm heart under all this carnage.

The monster is not an unthinking killing-machine, the evil is nothing to do with the scariest night of the year, or a witch’s curse, or any kind of devil or demon. I don’t want to say too much more here, because I don’t want to give away any serious spoilers, but suffice to say that, as our two heroes dig deeper and deeper into the complex mystery (because this is not just another night when half-crazed individuals run a gauntlet of ultra-violence), they uncover very human reasons for the perversion of this once homely community.

It might seem ridiculous at first glance, this annual nightmare that visits a town in the middle of nowhere, but ultimately you’ll recognise a familiar story here: a few bad apples souring things for everyone else; human self-interest running without restraint, leading in the end to complete societal breakdown. There is definitely a meaning to all this madness.

The other thing that really caught my eye about Dark Harvest is that we’re not in a world of stereotypes. Again, from the cover blurb, you might be tempted to think it’s good guys, bad guys and a monster. But no, it isn’t that simple. Even the monster has a multi-levelled personality and evokes much pathos, while the heroes, Pete McCormick and Kelly Haines, could easily fall into the ‘Loser Club’ bracket where so many ‘small town horror’ outcasts have dwelled in the past. But they don’t. They’re just ordinary teenagers, with the same strengths and weaknesses that we all share. Even the villains have a purpose in Dark Harvest; they’re not just evil for the sake of it. I particularly liked Mitch Crenshaw in this regard, the coolest kid in town and the candidate most likely to take the Halloween Boy down this year, as he’s on it's trail in his souped-up Chrysler. A slick badass, tunnel-visioned, violent tempered and seemingly dismissive of his doofus buddies, and yet, when they’re in real danger, he shows concern for them.

Again, I’ve probably said too much about Dark Harvest. The idea of this is to sell it, not tell it. So go and check it out. It’s justifiably earned its reputation as one of the best Halloween-flavoured horror novellas on the market. It’s a wild ride for sure, but there are very deep tracts here that will satisfy you far, far more than the average ‘pitchfork and hatchet’ job.

And now …

Trio of Terror 1 – the TV show

Though of course, that title won’t do. So, with regard to this occasional feature, I’m even going to be impudent enough to give it a title. How about, on this occasion, The Monsters Inside.

Check out these possible casts (all for fun, of course – which is why I have an unlimited budget)

Dolly
Edward – Alex Pettyfer
Leonora – Emilia Clarke
Aunt Kestrel – Judi Dench

The Devil’s Own Work
Edward – Aaron Taylor-Johnson
The Teacher – Will Poulter
Eudoxie – Cara Gee
Tyrrel – Anthony Hopkins

Dark Harvest
(Out of my hands, this one, as a movie’s just been made and is very shortly for release. So, this is an actual cast):
Richie Shepherd (standing in for Pete McCormick) – Casey Likes
Kelly Hines - E’myri Crutchfield
Jerry Ricks – Luke Kirby

Thursday, 11 August 2022

When swords were mightier than words


This week (as loosely promised last week), I’ve got a big announcement to make. But first, once again, I must apologise for the tardiness of recent posts. Lots of readers have been sending me messages to ask me stuff, and I haven’t been able to tell them anything solid, mostly because of circumstances beyond my control, but at last the dam is starting to break.

To begin with, I can today tell the world about a new contract I’ve signed to write a whole new series of books for Canelo. It’s a very different venture, this one, and a radical new direction for me!

So new in fact – in professional terms, that is – that once I embark on it, you might call me a stranger in a strange land. And entirely by coincidence (honest!), that happens to be the name of the book I’ll be reviewing today, Robert Heinlein’s astonishing work of high concept science-fiction, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.


I’m aware that was rather a weak link, by the way, but suffice to say that SIASL was Heinlein’s masterwork, a true futuristic epic, and in my new venture, I’m also entering the world of the epic novel (though not the future, the past), so there is a kind of connection between the two.

As always, if you want to go straight to the book review, shoot on down to the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s post. But remember, there’s this other massive development to talk about first …

A new direction

It’s probably a secret to many readers of this blog, mainly because it deals primarily with ‘dark fiction’, but I have an abiding love of historical novels. And by that, I don’t mean historical romance or historical mystery. I mean historical action, preferably set around dramatic true events of the past. Epic adventures from the days when swords spoke louder than words.

The novels of Ben Kane, Bernard Cornwell, David Gilman, Conn Iggulden, Matthew Harffy, Christian Cameron, Angus Donald and many others, fill my shelves. What’s more, my interest covers a huge spectrum, from the Ancient World right up to our most recent international conflicts. 

It’s not just out-and-out military stuff, though. 

I’m equally fascinated by the intrigues of kings and their courtiers, the madness of emperors, the heroism of knights, the untamed spirit of the Vikings … all of these writers I’ve named specialise in these fields, and I’ve long yearned to have a crack at this exhilarating stuff myself. So, in the end, I did.

Throughout the pandemic, I was busy writing on spec. A load of new stuff has poured out of my keyboard, including a big historical actioner called WOLFHEAD, which is set in England at the cross-over point between the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. 

It follows the adventures of Cerdic of Wulfbury, a young English earl who loses everything during the blood-drenched fury of Harald Hardraada’s invasion of Northumbria in 1066, but who’s determined to win it all back despite the chaos and brutality of the ensuing Norman Conquest.

I’m now proud to announce that the book has been bought by Canelo, who’ll be bringing it out in paperback and ebook, as written by ‘PW Finch’, next April.

They’ve also, and this is the really cool bit, commissioned a further two novels from me, not exactly follow-ups but also set in the early medieval period, and occurring during tumultuous but true historical events.

I consider this an unbelievably exciting development in my career, but one minor question remains: whether or not I should include news and updates about this new line of novels on this blog?

WALKING IN THE DARK is primarily concerned with dark fiction, and a lot of my historical writing will be very dark indeed, but it won’t be Dark Fiction per se. So, do I include it on here simply because it’s written by me, or do I start an entirely new blog dedicated to the ages of swords and chivalry?

At present, I genuinely don’t know (so all answers will be given grateful consideration).

Heck

And now onto something radically different. My bread and butter, you might say. The book series that first got me into mass-market publication.

The DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg novels have been by far my most successful book series to date, and back in 2018, with KISS OF DEATH, I left them on something of a cliff-hanger. The intention was always to write and publish a follow-up very quickly, but many things have got in the way, not least Covid, on/off lockdowns, a change of publisher, a new deal to write standalone crime thrillers for Orion, etc. However, while Heck has been nowhere near the bookshelves of late, he’s never been far from my thoughts.

Or my laptop.

I’m happy to announce that the next Heck novel is already written. As I say, I managed to use lockdown to get well ahead on my actual writing, but finding a publication slot for it has proved complex. I’m very hopeful that now at last there are movements on this front too, and that we’ll be able to make an announcement on this as well, very soon in the near future.

All those to whom this comes as welcome news, keep checking in, because I’ll post result news as things progress.


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.

by Robert Heinlein (1961)

Outline
About a century into the future, the manned Earthship Envoy is lost while attempting to land on Mars and all communications from its handpicked crew cease. As World War III is just about to break out on Earth, no further missions to the Red Planet are possible for another 25 years, at the end of which the spacecraft Champion makes the same journey and this time lands successfully. The crew of the Champion, including the Arabic scholar and astronaut, ‘Stinky’ Mahmoud, make contact with the Martian race (who are fantastically indifferent to humanity), and are surprised to learn that a new-born child survived the crash of the Envoy, a child that has now grown to adulthood under the care and governance of the Martians.

For reasons uncertain to the crew of the Champion, the child-turned-man is ordered by his adopted parents to return to Earth with his own people, who name him Valentine Michael Smith.

He arrives on an Earth he doesn’t know, but which is also very different from the one that existed when his own parents set out on the first expedition. Individual countries are now demilitarised, having been replaced by a Federation of Free Nations, and there is a single World Government, which guarantees peace and stability. However, there is also a dark side to this new order. Organised religions now wield huge political power, the most sinister of them the massively influential Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, while the government itself is autocratic and, if necessary, can call on a force of highly trained and ultra ruthless troops, the Special Service, known somewhat appropriately as the SS.

Childlike and disoriented, the seemingly helpless Smith is at first incarcerated in the military medical facility, Bethesda Hospital, in Maryland. As he understands nothing about gender, because it doesn’t exist on Mars, Smith is treated only by male staff. But an independent-minded nurse, Jill Boardman, considers this a challenge and when she tricks her way into his private apartment, shares a glass of water with him, unaware at the time that this makes her his ‘water brother’, a deep and important relationship on Mars where water is a rare but crucial resource.

Strangely affected by the meeting with Smith, Jill later describes it to her on/off boyfriend, Ben Caxton, an investigative journalist, who advises her that, as sole heir to the crew of the Envoy, Smith is already extraordinarily rich, but thanks to some legal precedents set during Earth’s colonisation of the Moon, he might also be the lawful owner of Mars, which would not just make him the wealthiest man in the world by some margin, it would put him at the centre of a political storm of epic proportions, which could likely endanger his life. Jill is worried enough by this to bug Smith’s hospital room, while Caxton writes news stories designed to embarrass the World Government into releasing the captive.

However, Caxton is arrested by the SS, and in a panic, Jill attempts to smuggle Smith out of the hospital. When the SS catch up with her too, Smith, with a curious sleight of hand, makes them all disappear. Jill is horrified to have witnessed what she assumes is mass murder, which in its turn sends Smith into a self-induced catatonic trance. With no other option, Jill takes Smith to Pennsylvania and the rural retreat of Jubal Harshaw, an old friend of Caxton’s and a retired physician and lawyer, who now makes his living as a writer and is regarded as one of the foremost thinkers of the age.

While staying at Harshaw’s pleasant but chaotic enclave, which he shares with various tough handymen and a trio of beautiful, super-intelligent secretaries, Anne, Miriam and Dorcas, Smith becomes more attuned to the patterns of life on Earth, and demonstrates genius-level intelligence and advanced telekinetic powers, all of which fascinate Harshaw but alarm him as well. In return, Smith is particularly intrigued by the human concepts of religion and God. Neither exist in the minds of Martians, but they are not impossible for him to understand as, on Mars, the afterlife is populated by the Old Ones, the souls of Martians who have died, or ‘discorporated’ as he refers to it, and who then adopt deity-like status. To Smith, the term ‘to grok’ means to be completely familiar with something in a deep and profound way, and so to him, God is ‘one who groks all things’, which means that God is all things. This leads him to coin the phrase whenever greeting friends, ‘thou art God,’ though he remains oblivious to the possibility that this may be misunderstood in a world where religious fanatics exert strenuous authority.

While Smith familiarises himself with (and becomes an expert in) all things human, and slowly but surely wins the hearts of Jill, Anne, Miriam and Dorcas, Harshaw fends off an assault by an SS snatch squad by contacting Joseph Douglas, Secretary General of the Federation of Free States, in the process managing to secure the release of Ben Caxton and establish that Smith is not the heir-apparent to Mars itself, making him politically unimportant and therefore much safer. As a final protective measure, Harshaw persuades Douglas to make himself the hugely wealthy Man from Mars’s official business advisor, a very lucrative position, which will render Smith all but untouchable.

Now a VIP, Smith is celebrated worldwide, and even invited to visit the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, the appeal of which is easy to see given that it encourages sex, drunkenness and gambling so long as they all occur on church premises and any money spent goes to the church itself. Despite the Fosterites’ obvious hypocrisy (their temples are more like casinos or brothels than places of worship), no one ever challenges them because bribery of politicians and policemen, and violence against dissenters, are also within church policy.

Unimpressed by this farrago, Smith, now with Jill as his adoring acolyte, goes on the road, performing tricks in a carnival, where he meets tattooed snake-handler and Fosterite loyalist, Patty Paiwonski (who after a steamy night of sex, also becomes his disciple), and visiting ‘girlie’ shows in which he convinces Jill to participate so that he might try and fathom the mystery of human lust. But none of this satisfies Smith as he looks for a way to make Martian sense of the strange world that is Earth. Eventually, still enthralled by the concepts of religion and faith, he uses his limitless wealth to create the Church of All Worlds, with himself, now much deluded about his own status, as the guru and messiah at its heart.

This new religion borrows heavily from the Fosterite cult, particularly the freedom to sexually experiment, but it is not interested in making money and proves hugely attractive to the masses because Smith calls on his psychic abilities to perform what appear to be real-life miracles. In due course all those he has met, including Miriam, Dorcas, Anne and even Ben Caxton, have been drawn in and become followers.

Only the arch-cynic Jubal Harshaw keeps one eye on the monolithic Fosterite power from which adherents are now defecting en masse, and worries that established leaders rarely appreciate it when newcomers chip away at their base …

Review
It seems to me that fiction is filled with Christ allegories. What’s more, they range widely, from CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (to name two very obvious examples), and from The Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix to The Who’s rock opera, Tommy (to name two that are less so). But I doubt there’ve been any that are quite as in your face as Robert Heinlein’s philosophical sci-fi masterwork, Stranger in a Strange Land.

And yet, it isn’t a straightforward analogy.

You might consider that Heinlein, who by the norms of speculative authordom at the time was considered to be culturally and politically conservative, would be the obvious one to preach the Jesus story through the prism of science fiction. And at first glance, it looks as if he did just that, with Valentine Michael Smith the miracle-working prophet, Earth the desert in which he comes to realise his purpose, the SS the Romans, the Fosterite Chuch the Sanhedrin and Jubal Harshaw the Judas-like face of mankind, who later yearns to believe that he was in touch with the divine but will always be tortured by doubt.

So yes, when Robert Heinlein first penned his 220,000-word epic, it genuinely must have looked to many as if he was giving us a blow-by-blow re-run of the New Testament.

But as I say, there are problems with this thesis.

First of all, the society that Smith eventually creates is as unAmerican as you could have imagined at the time of the book’s publication, promoting communal living, nudism, free love and shared ownership of everything. It would certainly interest and influence the hippie movement (and indeed it did, including the Manson sect!), but the hippies weren’t around in 1961. What Heinlein was espousing was at the time a very revolutionary creed, so much so that if it had been allowed to, it would undoubtedly have caused offence to the real-life religious authorities of the era. It might even have been deemed sacrilegious and, despite it winning the Hugo Award and taking sci-fi for the first time ever into the New York Times best-seller lists, it was cut by 60,000 words before hitting the high street bookshops, and even then was quickly removed from schools, colleges and libraries.

Heinlein’s response to this was, first of all, that Stranger in a Strange Land had never been intended as a religious text, but that the idea had sprung originally from The Jungle Book, and secondly, that he wasn’t in the business of teaching anyone anything, but was simply posing a hatful of new ideas, which his readers could judge for themselves. “It’s an invitation to think,” he famously said, “not believe”. At no stage, did he state that Valentine Michael’s Smith’s proposed Heaven on Earth was possible or even desirable.

And maybe there are hints of this in the actual narrative. For much of the book, Smith remains an innocent, trying to learn his way through the complications and absurdities of a society that he had no notion even existed before his 25th birthday. But he has latent psychic powers, vastly more than the average human, and as he gradually becomes aware, has no hesitation in using them. Making members of the SS ‘disappear’, in other words killing them, might seem forgivable. But they aren’t the only group he reserves this punishment for. In other cases, he doesn’t always go the whole hog, but simply makes his opponents’ clothing disappear in public. He also spends time as a carney, where he learns cheap tricks and gimmicks, and later on during his ministry, retains something of the same aura: namely that he is a conjuror putting on a show, the superficial wonders of which mask his empty message and power-seeking nature.

Other reviewers have wondered if this is a flaw in the writing. Myself, I consider it deliberate.

For example, while it’s true that Smith’s lack of interest in monetary gain would definitely have rung a bell with ascetic Christians everywhere, in Stranger in a Strange Land it only comes about because he’s already flush with inexhaustible amounts of cash. So, it’s hardly laudable. And while he identifies the Fosterite Church as a glaring case of evangelical phoniness, he borrows several of its most popular elements – the cathartic use of group-sex being one – as a means to boost his own operation. It might be relevant that Heinlein’s original title for this novel was The Heretic.

For all these reasons, though Stranger in a Strange Land is regarded widely as a sci-fi classic, it remains divisive even now, 60 years after first publication. But that’s its strength. There is so much in this book to discuss that it cannot fail to stimulate lively minds.

It’s not perfect, though.

It was the unabridged version I read, which at 220,000 words is simply too long and drawn out, but I’ve heard similar said of the 160,000-word version. This is primarily because much of the run-time is occupied by philosophical discussion, usually when Jubal’s on the page, rather than actual action. Heinlein even had problems with this on publication. Puttnam, the book’s original publisher, considered that it was too much of a mammoth read for what it actually contained, and this also was given as a reason for the huge cuts the author was required to make.

In addition, and this is a point that could be made often about sci-fi writers of the golden age, while Heinlein’s cosmic vision was astonishing, there are many moments in the book that are clearly stuck in the 1950s. For example, his characters still smoke and drink lots of coffee. Crude slurs are used in reference to homosexuality (which otherwise barely rears its head), while the banter between men and women is laden with innuendo.

In fact, it’s this latter aspect of Stranger in a Strange Land that is most glaringly at odds with the author’s concept of a future Earth, especially in his examination of possible routes to a happier society.

Looking back on our own era of sexual liberation, we can see that it was never intended to create an age of objectification (even though it did), but in this novel at least, Robert Heinlein sees no grey area between the two. So, for example, we go from relatively innocuous anachronisms like nurses still wearing stockings under their uniforms and doctors referring to them with saucy nicknames, to the slightly more serious, such as the moment in the story where Jill Boardman opines that most women who are raped have instigated it themselves.

But it’s the continued eroticisation of female characters in this book that seems to jar the most. Though Jill Boardman, a strong, intelligent woman, previously earned her living as a highly-qualified nurse, when she’s on the road with Smith he uncovers a secret exhibitionistic side to her nature and encourages her appearance in strip shows. And though this could be seen as part of her preparation for life as a priestess in Smith’s temple, as her main role then will be to have sex with the new devotees, that itself is surely a questionable destiny. But Heinlein goes even further than this, Smith later using his telekinetic powers to reshape the already-delectable Jill and other female acolytes into literal love goddesses.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t offended by it, but I won’t pretend that I didn’t find all this a bit curious and at odds with the more thoughtful and introspective first half of the book.

Again though, could this have been Heinlein’s intention all along?

We’ve already discussed Valentine Michael Smith’s conman tendencies and when the mob finally descends on his Church of All Worlds, the sort of charges they level at him include running a prostitution racket and corruption of minors … even in the midst of the carnage is the author hitting us with some bitter truths about the glorious sin-free world we’ve been invited to imagine?

I suppose you just have to read it and draw your own conclusions. And despite it’s huge length, and despite what might sound like several reservations on my part, that won’t be a trial.

Heinlein focusses mostly on story and subtext(s), not bothering us with gluts of unnecessary scientific detail, though as usual he almost casually tosses in a variety of wonderful ideas. I especially liked the emergence of a strand of humanity who possess total recall, and who subsequently find employment not just as super-secretaries but as professional legal witnesses, while Smith’s Martian-taught ability to literally shut himself down, slip into voluntary catatonia so that he can take all the time he needs to work stuff out, is something I’ve never seen previously.

The novel is wordy by modern standards, but superbly written, as you’d expect – the author never puts a foot wrong technically – and peopled with characters so vivid that you can feel them in the room with you. Despite the widely ranging philosophy and deep and protracted investigations of human culture and society, it’s never over-heavy. The whole thing flows from the page, at no stage getting away from itself even though it runs to colossal length. But on top of that, there’s something mischievously joyful about it all. Heinlein might not have believed in the ‘free-money free-sex’ society he experiments with here, but he clearly liked the idea. And if he genuinely did, as some reviewers have suggested, set out to purposely slaughter all the sacred cows of 1950s America, he did it with a twinkle in his eye.

Ultimately, you’ve just got to read Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s so vast a project that no single review can cover every base in one go. And for this reason alone, it’s rightly earned its classic status. And if you don’t believe that, how many other sci-fi novels can you name that still cause heated arguments over half a century after publication and even went on to inspire the creation of a real-life religious movement (because the Church of All Worlds is now an actual thing)?

So, there you go. Don’t listen to me. Just read it, and as the late Robert Heinlein would have said, decide for yourself.

I’m not sure if it would ever be possible to do Stranger in a Strange Land justice on film or TV given how prevalent the sex and nudity, but I suppose the less-than-prudish 21st century would be the time to do it. It probably won’t happen, but in case anyone’s talking about it, here’s your cast, fellas:

Valentine Michael Smith – Brant Daugherty
Jill Boardman – Jennifer Lawrence
Ben Caxton – Cillian Murphy
Jubal Harshaw – Jon Voight
Dr ‘Stinky’ Mahmoud – Riz Ahmed
Patty Paiwonski – Rachael Harris
Joseph Douglas – JK Simmons
Anne – Emma Stone
Miriam – Zazie Beetz
Dorcas –Miranda Kerr

Monday, 1 August 2022

Henges, barrows and malicious pixie folk


Humble apologies if I’ve been a less than conscientious poster this last few weeks. That’s not because I’ve been away on holiday. It’s simply that an awful lot has been going on behind the scenes here at Finch Towers, and yet at no stage have I actually been able to report anything solid. However, at last all this is finally changing.

I hoped to have quite a bit of interesting stuff to report today – mainly about my novel-writing, both current projects and future plans – but even if any such announcement on that front needs to go on hold for another week or so (I know, I know … frustrating!), at least I can talk freely about some major progress made on the latest installment of my TERROR TALES anthology series, which we’re looking to publish in the autumn and which will be TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY, and I will certainly enjoy dropping a few fun hints about what it will contain.


In keeping with that last item, today’s book review also takes us into the West Country.

It’s the bone-chilling horror novel, CUNNING FOLK, by Adam Nevill. As usual, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s post, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Scoot on down there straight away if you must, but let me remind you that I have other stuff to talk about first.

Mystical England

I’m now in the process of line-editing the stories I’ve compiled for TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY, and it’s proving to be an absolute joy.

The West Country lies at the very heart of mystical England, the spiritual home of what we these days call ‘folk horror’.

Its pastoral landscape is planted thick with rural legends and studded with the relics of ancient civilisations now entirely vanished from history. Avebury, Stonehenge, Silsbury (right) and other time-worn monuments attract thousands of tourists each year, but remain steeped in bewildering mystery. The lore of this place is equally venerable. According to myth, this is the Summer Land, and entrances to the faerie realm still lurk behind the tranquil facades of woodland pools, at the backs of caves or in the gnarled faces of age-old trees. King Arthur, they say, ruled this land from Cadbury Castle, the original Camelot, while Jesus himself walked amid the limestone ridges of the Mendip Hills, his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, later planting the Glastonbury Thorn and watering it from the Holy Grail.

But there are terror tales here too.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle was only mining a long-standing Devonshire tradition that phantom hounds roamed the wilds of Dartmoor, while mysterious hill figures hint at the one-time presence of pagan gods and warlike giants. 

So rich is this region in eerie superstition that it remains the only part of the British Isles to spawn its own supernatural drama series, West Country Tales, screened on BBC2 in the early 1980s.

From the outset, I considered it vital that all the stories I accepted hit this spot precisely, and I had to advise all potential authors of that in the firmest possible terms.

In the end, they haven’t disappointed, and yet we’ve got an astonishing range of material. Everything from the demonic being who stalked the people of Devon to the Somerset farmer driven to physical ruin after trespassing at the pixie fair, from the many-limbed beast lurking among the shoreline rocks to the murderers who tore each other to pieces in the presence of their victim.

But I don’t want to say too much, obviously. The book isn’t due out until the autumn, and if you want to hear more, you’ll need to wait until then (though I will be posting a few more teasers in the weeks between then and now). But just for the fun of it, here’s a gallery of images related to some of the eeriness we’ll explore in this latest anthology.

A circle of cute figurines on a nicely-laid table in a rather majestic coastal residence. But each time one of them gets broken, something truly terrible happens. One by one, a select group of very different people are meeting grisly fates ...

A scenic river flowing through a picturesque realm. Nowhere could be prettier, neither in summer nor winter. But people keep dying here, and rumours persist that something horrible prowls the scenic riverbank ...

A narrow defile in an arty part of town. But the blood that soaked the cobblestones here was very real indeed. So real that even today, the locals still avoid it after dark, while the tourists, who think it sounds amazing, tend to find the inky shadows lurking in its eerie recesses just a little bit too much if they go there alone  ...

People don’t just avoid these woods because of their otherworldly appearance, it’s because of the terrifying predators that supposedly live here, one of them in particular with a reputation for having ripped out throats well into modern times ...


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.

CUNNING FOLK
by Adam LG Nevill (2021)

Outline
No home is heaven with hell next door …

That’s the perfectly apposite tag-line for this tale of dark magic and deadly vindictiveness in the leafy heartlands of England’s West Country.

The narrative opens on a suitably grim note with a nameless householder, clearly in the midst of a complex renovation, suddenly downing tools and, in near robotic fashion, choosing to hang himself from one of his recently-installed light fittings.

Six months later, a happy little quartet of penniless city-folk, father of one and unsuccessful graphic designer, Tom, wife and bank clerk, Fiona, nursery-age daughter, Gracey, and cute-as-a-button puppy, Archie, arrive at the ramshackle rural cottage they’ve recently acquired for a knockdown price (even though it has still drained their life savings).

The location is stunning. Lush countryside runs to every horizon, while the land behind the cottage ascends into scenic hillside and is thickly wooded. The only other habitation is the beautifully kept house next door, the gardens to which are almost improbably well-manicured.

It would be a dream location for any family looking to escape city life (as Tom and Fiona are), except for the not insignificant matter of the new cottage itself.

The place has clearly been in a state of rack and ruin for a long time, and though Fiona has allowed her husband to talk her into abandoning their low-rent flat in a grotty part of town in order to embark on this adventure, she is concerned that restoring the isolated country residence to its former glory may actually lie outside of Tom’s powers, even though he’s a useful handyman. At the same time she’s been left uneasy by the story that the last resident here committed suicide by hanging himself.

Tom is more optimistic, and is convinced that, no matter how much effort is required, he’ll be able to transform the semi-ruin into the ideal home for his little girl, with whom he’s as besotted as any doting father can be, and for whom he envisages a safe, healthy future amid the green woods and rolling meadows of the English countryside.

Needless to say, Fate has different ideas.

An ageing but eccentric couple, Magi and Medea Moot, live next door, and almost from the outset, seem to go out of their way to be unwelcoming to the newcomers. They aren’t friendly when Tom tries to introduce himself and insist on keeping a scruffy old caravan parked in such a spot that it causes inconvenience whenever he or Fiona try to get out of their drive. In addition, there are some disturbing oddities where the neighbours are concerned: from strangers of all sorts calling by to purchase bagged items from the Moots and not leaving without kissing the back of Medea’s dirtily-gloved hand, to their weird ability to notice whenever anyone is observing them from the house next door and always responding to it sharply. They exude an aura of power and menace – they even infiltrate the young family’s dreams – and it isn’t long before Tom starts to feel oppressed by this.

However, open conflict comes dramatically closer when Gracey, eager to investigate her new domain, follows Archie up through the woods at the back of the two properties to a secluded tumulus or barrow, which is ringed with stones and has clearly been prepared for some kind of ritual. After interfering with some of the items used to dress it, she is chased back to the cottage by the Moots. They are not aggressively hostile at this stage, though Tom, who is wearing down under the pressure of the endless repair work he’s engaged in, is angered by his neighbours’ proprietorial attitude to the woodland (which is what he brought Gracey here to experience). And later that night, when he finds his rear fence deliberately smashed to pieces, he retaliates by noisily drilling brackets into the two houses’ shared wall. In response to this, Tom hears strange sounds – animals sounds, in fact – on the other side of the wall, but though he is vaguely disturbed, he still feels as though he’s winning the contest. Until the next day, when the Moots argue with a harassed visitor and cruelly mock him as he leaves. Tom accosts the visitor, trying to find out more about the repellent old couple, only to be advised to leave soon, because if he doesn’t, the Moots will make him leave.

More determined than ever to make this his dream home, Tom, in increasingly belligerent mood, has more altercations with the ageing weirdoes, but then Gracey, drawn into the woods by a compelling voice, sees something so strange that it leaves her dazed and lost. On recovering the child, Tom heads into the woods himself, this time to locate the missing Archie, which he does, but not before spying a mangled fox nailed to a tree. Tom tries to confront his neighbours again, but fails, and the next day finds his garden blighted, everything dying and rotten, and Archie dead, seemingly poisoned, which breaks his daughter’s heart. Enraged beyond reason, Tom takes his chainsaw and cuts down the Moots’ row of ornamental birch trees.

Which is the prelude to the gloves finally coming off.

Only now will the hot-headed townie father come to learn what truly terrifying powers the duo of witches next door can command …

Review
Anyone who’s familiar with the work of Adam Nevill will know that when he does horror, he really does horror. The author of various bone-chilling novels, such as The Ritual and The Reddening, to name but two, along with sundry hair-raising short stories, he can be so unrelenting when he starts to pile on the horror that it becomes stressful just reading it. And when I say ‘the horror’, I’m not talking gore. I’m talking an atmosphere of dread that steadily intensifies until it is difficult to keep turning the pages. I’m talking a succession of nightmarish predicaments, the anticipation of which alone can have you physically shuddering. One of Nevill’s trademarks is the pitting of suburban everymen, day-to-day Brits, usually families, against the most horrifying of supernatural opponents, and then slowly cranking the dial upward until his hapless individuals are enmeshed in a crescendo of otherworldly terror with no route out of it that won’t cost them hugely.

None of Nevill’s protagonists emerge from his stories unscathed. If they emerge at all. This is often because his antagonists are usually so irredeemably strange and evil. They are more like elemental forces than actual thinking-beings.

You may consider this analysis a little OTT so far, but if that’s the case, I challenge you to read Cunning Folk, because it’s as true here as in any of Nevill’s other works.

What might in some hands be nothing more than a simple morality tale about the folly of getting ‘into it’ with a neighbour, especially when it’s a neighbour you don’t really know, in Adam Nevill’s hands becomes a parable of emotional annihilation. And that’s because he recognises that the real horror here lies in the destruction from within of a victimised family unit.

We don’t hear a lot about Tom and Fiona’s life together, except that they’ve been married for 18 years, and so clearly love each other. We also learn that, for whatever reason, Tom’s business has gone belly-up and that for some time now they’ve been living on Fiona’s relatively meagre earnings. This was the spur to the departure from the city to the country. But much of their past remains a mystery. In my view, this is deliberate by the author, as his intent was to present his readers with a situation that many of us have either experienced for ourselves or lived in fear of. We are all of us Tom and Fiona: unremarkable citizens for whom life is mostly a struggle, but whose aspirations have not entirely been blunted just yet.

This makes their abrupt confrontation with a particularly acute form of occult villainy all the more harrowing, but it also explains their diverse reactions. Tom and Fiona, like most real-world partnerships that have endured the test of time, are two halves of the same whole, Tom the energy and exuberance, Fiona the pragmatist and the level head. But this alliance is designed to withstand the ordinary trials of life, not the extraordinary. And here’s where the real tragedy of Cunning Folk kicks in. Tom and Fiona never cease loving each other, but Tom’s reaction when he becomes convinced they’re facing a supernatural evil is to fight it at every turn until he’s literally got nothing left to fight with, while Fiona’s real-world concerns – the collapsing state of the house, their lack of income, her and her daughter’s increased isolation as Tom gets ever more haplessly angry and distracted – eclipses everything else until she’s forced to conclude that she and Gracey simply have to leave (if they’ll be allowed to).

To watch the rapid disintegration of a solid family is a truly terrible thing. You might be tempted to say that they obviously weren’t that solid, but in Cunning Folk I beg to differ, because the opposition here is literally monstrous.

Folk horror is a popular subgenre today, and Adam Nevill is an expert practitioner. He went there with both The Ritual and The Reddening, and he can keep going there again and again as far as I’m concerned because one thing Nevill does that is very different to many other folk horror writers is continually give us a different version of it.

It’s all too easy with folk horror to keep rehashing the ideas behind The Wicker Man, but for my money there’s always been more to it than that. British folklore in particular ranges widely through the myths and fables of a very ancient society. And if we must talk about witchcraft and rural magic, there’s a whole universe right there, because it comes in numerous forms. And in Cunning Folk, as in The Reddening, Adam Nevill digs deep into that multifaceted tradition, pulling out some particularly ghastly scenarios: a duo of semi-transmogrified human/animal hybrids gambolling through the night-time woods in pursuit of prey; their ferocious attacks upon doors and windows with mismatched teeth and claws; the ghastly life-size mannequins crudely built for the sole purpose of destroying innocent lives.

His description of the mound in the forest pre-prepared for some blasphemous ceremony, the haunting voice calling out from it, the horrific physical impact on a human being when one of their most prized possessions is purposely and brutally damaged (truly one of the most nightmarish scenes in the whole book!) will all take you close to the zenith of scary fiction.

As I say, intense horror is one of Nevill’s specialities.

I don’t want to reveal too much more about Cunning Folk for fear of spoiling it. But if you like folk horror, or plain, non specific horror, or if you just like any kind of thriller so long as there is huge tension and terror baked in, then this is definitely one for you.

As usual I’m now going to play my little game of naming a select cast in eager anticipation of Cunning Folk being adapted for film or TV, though in this case I’m going need to be quick off the mark, as it’s an Adam Nevill novel, and these days that means it’s likely to get snapped up pretty damn fast (in addition to which it’s a small canvas tale, which would be music to the ears of most producers I know).

Tom – Jamie Dornan
Fiona – Clare-Hope Ashitey
Medea – Helena Bonham Carter
Magi – Andrew Tiernan
Blackwood – Craig Parkinson