Thursday, 31 March 2022

Abandoned flats, scary shadows, killer kids

Okay, well this week we’re still on the publicity trail for NEVER SEEN AGAIN. But don’t switch off too soon. Because I’ve got some new and exciting info on that front.

In addition, as a delectable treat (I’m sure you’ll agree), I’ve included a video of me reading a selected extract. It’s not a long piece, but something that I hope will capture the mood and suspense of the book.

On top of all that, on the topic of creepiness, eeriness, the chills to be had in the midst of everyday society and so forth, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing William Trevor’s very disturbing short novel, THE CHILDREN OF DYNMOUTH, which, if you have any appetite at all for truly dark fiction, I suspect you’ll gobble down in one sitting.

If you’re only here for the William Trevor review, no problem. As always, you’ll find it at the bottom end of today’s blogpost in the Thrillers, Chillers section. But before then …

In my own words

NEVER SEEN AGAIN is my latest novel. It was published earlier this month by Orion, and it falls firmly into the urban thriller category. It follows the fortunes of one David Kelman, a washed-up journalist, who, repentant though he is of the rapacious approach he brought to crime reporting in his junior days, now ekes out a lesser living by writing dirty stories about wayward celebrities. And then, suddenly, literally out of the blue, he gets a sniff of a story that could dramatically change his fortunes. Not just because it might well catapult him back into the big time, but because it could save the life of an heiress who was kidnapped six years ago and has long been thought dead, but whom David now knows is still alive and being held somewhere against her will.

The question is, does he do the good citizen thing and get the cops involved? Or does he do what David Kelman always does best, go it alone and bring home the goods entirely off his own bat, hogging all the glory and the kudos in the process. It was this latter method that got him in trouble in the past. But on other occasions it worked spectacularly. Why wouldn’t it work this time?

All right, enough with the sales pitch.

If you like what you’ve heard so far, you might be interested to know that, as of today, NEVER SEEN AGAIN has hit the ASDA charts today (not sure what number at, but I think 8 or possibly 7), which is something I’m inclined to shout about from the rooftops. It also seems to be hitting the sweet spot with Amazon, as two weeks since publication it can now boast 54 online reviews, the majority of them carrying 5-star ratings.

In the meantime, as promised, here’s a short extract from NEVER SEEN AGAIN, with yours truly in the reading chair. It focusses on a point in the narrative when David Kelman has followed a trail of clues to an abandoned apartment block in a bleak coastal town. Someone related to the investigation committed suicide here. David doesn’t know why, but it’s essential that he finds out ...


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 William Trevor (1976)

It’s the mid-1970s, and the Dorset town of Dynmouth is typical of the UK’s drab seaside resorts. It’s not a big place, and it isn’t one of those holiday hotspots for the working class like Blackpool or Margate, which are still thriving. The entertainments here have seen better days, there is little for the town’s youngsters to do and, aside from the sandpaper factory, nowhere for them to work when they grow up.

The town looks pretty enough, but it has its fair share of social problems, particularly at Cornerways, the local sink estate. However, there are also issues outside of Dynmouth’s poor quarter. Many local families have split in recent years and there is a general air of dissatisfaction. People don’t want to live here anymore, but they don’t know where else to go. They are distressed by the sight of local yobbos, the so-called ‘Dynmouth hards’, riding around on motorbikes in black leather jackets, but are too apathetic to report them to the police.

Weary Reverend Quentin Featherston considers it all a sign of the times. Society is changing dramatically, not necessarily for the better in his view, and even though the Easter fête is shortly due to occur, he fears that old traditions are disappearing and that the half-empty church on Sundays indicates people are no longer content with the promise of a happy afterlife. He also worries that he is not the man to deal with this, and that he looks ridiculous cycling about the town in his clerical collar and bicycle clips, trying to counsel people to whom he is irrelevant. He even suspects that his own family think him a fool, his twin daughters constantly playing up, his morose wife, Lavinia, not having fully recovered from a recent miscarriage, unimpressed by his belief in a benevolent God.

For the most part the vicar soldiers on, though there is one problem in Dynmouth that even the Rev. Featherston is flummoxed by. And that is the creepy 15-year-old, Timothy Gedge.

And when I say ‘creepy’, I choose my words carefully.

A strange-looking blond-haired boy from Cornerways, Timothy Gedge is the product of a home that is well and truly broken, his father having abandoned it years ago, his self-interested mother and promiscuous older sister persistently chasing their own pleasures, having completely neglected him during his most formative years. But Gedge is not an archetypal troubled youth. Though he’s in the habit of accosting people and engaging them in meaningless and meandering conversations, and perhaps more worryingly, is an habitual thief who will steal anything regardless of its value (and who in true predator fashion, mainly targets for theft the people involved around the church as they tend to be naïve and trusting), he doesn’t shout or swear or show any violent tendencies. He cross-dresses in private, in clothes he of course has stolen. But while none of these traits are endearing, they are not necessarily unusual.

What is unusual, and disturbing, is Gedge’s favourite hobby, which is following people around the town, learning all there is to know, and then, at some opportune time in the future, blackmailing them. And he’s obsessive when he does this. These people, often chosen at random, become his firm projects and their exploitation his raison d’être, and he won’t be thrown off-track, no matter what happens.

But even this isn’t the creepiest aspect of Timothy Gedge’s behaviour.

While he’s amassed quite a collection of nasty secrets that he knows he’ll be able to use in the future – pub-owner Plant’s affairs with married women in the town, war-hero Commander Abigail’s predeliction for boyscouts, and respectable married couple the Dasses’ heartbreaking fall-out with their neurotic and foolish son – he also has a fascination with death. He attends all the town’s funerals, and if anyone asks him, remarks that the best place for the people of Dynmouth is in coffins. As an extension of this morbidity (and this hints at an even darker side to his character), he plans to enter the Easter fête talent contest (having convinced himself that Hughie Green of Opportunity Knocks fame will be in attendance), where he intends to put on a one-man pantomime based on the ‘Brides in the Bath’ murders. It seems that 1900s wife-slayer, George Joseph Smith, once stayed at Dynmouth, and Gedge wishes to celebrate this by performing comedy routines about his trio of horrific crimes. For this he needs props: a bath for example, the type of suit the murderer wore, a wedding dress for when he’s impersonating the doomed brides. To obtain all these, his blackmail schemes go into overdrive.

But as so often happens with cool and confident villains, Timothy Gedge has finally reached the point where he’s about to overplay his hand …

The first thing to say here is that, even though The Children of Dynmouth is one of the most subtle horror stories I have ever read, I doubt that Irish author William Trevor, widely regarded as one of the best short story writers of his age (and no stranger to the horror and supernatural genres), intended it to be anything of the sort. It’s more a two-pronged character study: both of a declining seaside town in a soulless age and the negative impact it has on the children trapped there, and of the most extreme case of this, Timothy Gedge.

But don’t assume that this is still, at heart, the simple tale of an underrage maniac terrorising a town. It isn’t anything like so straightforward. It’s much more the study of an unloved youngster from a deeply dysfunctional background, whose prurient interests have been allowed to fester, and whose alarming lack of self-awareness has turned him into a car crash just waiting to happen … but it’s also about those he preys upon, and what they should (or maybe must) do in their own defence.

Ultimately, Gedge is a narcissist, and malicious with it. The horrendous mental torture he puts his victims through is not to be sniffed at, nor diminished by sociological explanation. While we might feel sympathy for the youngster he was when all this started, he is already beyond recall, and the issue now is what to do with him. Other children in the town feel that he needs to be exorcised, most of the adults simply wish that he wasn’t there anymore (in other words dead or disappeared; they don’t care which), while the most enlightened character in the book, the Rev. Featherston, is lost for ideas but expects, as do we, that at some point in the not too distant future, Gedge will finish up in prison.

And yet none of these intricate complexities of thought and situation, or any of the book’s very rich character-work, is conveyed to us through simple exposition. Trevor sets the scene with delicious prose, but his descriptive method, while powerful, is succinct. He hits us with occasional introspective moments as various townsfolk try to process their latest experience of Timothy Gedge, regarding him as an irritant, an oddball, a nuisance, but the true depths of the boy’s bizarre villainy, and the nightmarish predicaments he routinely foists onto his neighbours, only really emerge during his unnerving encounters with these other characters, particularly the fast flowing dialogue in which Gedge’s glib tongue, unfunny jokes, disingenuous viewpoints and weird philosophies hit us like machine-gun rounds.

Despite William Trevor’s already unimpeachable reputation, I found all this remarkably well done and completely engrossing. I also found much of it chilling, hence my firm conviction that though a literary novel, The Children of Dynmouth is firmly classifiable as ‘dark fiction’. The scene in which Gedge makes a phone-call attempting to impersonate the female concierge at the local cinema in an effort to lure out 12-year-old half-siblings, Stephen and Kate Fleming (perhaps his most cruelly abused victims) and even though he is quickly rumbled, persists with the charade, unwilling to acknowledge defeat, is suggestive of a true psychopath and genuinely disturbing.

But I reiterate: this isn’t a straightforward thriller.

Towards the end of the book, when the jig is basically up, and we identify the root cause of Timothy Gedge’s behaviour and it’s heartbreakingly sad, it comes as a massive wrench because up until now we’ve hated the boy.

Call this book a thriller if you want, or a mystery, but there’s so much more going on. It’s dark stuff, for sure, by turns distressing and frightening, but also sad and thought-provoking. It would be too easy to write Timothy Gedge off as evil or insane (as so many here do), but he’s also a human being, albeit badly damaged.

He is every inch one of The Children of Dynmouth.

Here we go, I’m now, yet again, going to embarrass myself by trying to cast this tale in advance of some imaginary film or TV production. (If there already has been one, you’ll have to forgive me, as I’m unaware of it at present).

Featherston – Richard E Grant
Gedge – Noah Jupe

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