Friday 30 September 2022


Well ... October just around the corner, eh?

The season of mist is definitely upon us. So, it’s probably a very good time to talk about the next volume in the TERROR TALES series, which, as you can see here, is TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY.

Okay, I know you’ve all been waiting for this one. And don’t worry; if you always associate the West Country with sunshine, hay riggs and the green fields of summer, and now, all of a sudden, we’re into the realm of darkness, falling leaves and jack-o-lanterns, be assured that facades can be deceptive. There is an awful lot of spookiness going on in the West Country, and especially in this new anthology.

Just keep reading for the full Table of Contents, the back-cover blurb, a few choice snippets from selected stories, and full details of how you can pre-order HERE.

In addition to that treat, and fully in keeping with the fact that Lisa Tuttle, that British queen of the mysterious macabre, makes her debut in this volume in the series, I’ll also be reviewing her exceptional novel, THE MYSTERIES, a wonderful work of folk-horror in its own right.

If you’re only here for the review of Lisa’s book, you’ll find that, as always, in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s blogpost.

Before that though, let’s get into …

This is of course the latest in a long line of regional folklore-inspired horror anthologies that I’ve edited (firstly for Gray Friar Press, but this time and for the last several in fact with TELOS PUBLISHING), all stemming from my lifelong fascination with ghost and horror stories, regional lore and folk-mysteries, and the most ancient and unexplained aspects of Britain’s landscape and culture.

If you want to check out the other books in the series so far, go HERE. If you want to proceed with this one, let’s get on with this …

The West Country. England’s mystical heart. Hill-forts, ancient circles. Blessed by age-old powers, sanctified in blood. Where woods and pools stir to whispered summonings, forbidden names are carved in rock, and rebels died en masse, hanged and butchered, their gore-dabbled ghosts wandering vengeful in the rural night …

The drumming demon of Tedworth
The ocean predator at Ilfracombe
The sleeping bones at Wilcot
The creep-about killer on Burgh Island
The hateful entity in Cheddar Gorge
The flesh-rotting curse at Blackdown
The stalking spectres on Dartmoor

Includes terrifying stories by AK Benedict, Andy Briggs, Mike Chinn, Adrian Cole, Dan Coxon, Steve Duffy, Paul Finch, Lizzy Fry, John Linwood Grant, SL Howe, Thana Niveau, John Llewellyn Probert, Sarah Singleton, Lisa Tuttle and Stephen Volk.


The Darkness Below by Dan Coxon

Unto These Ancient Stones
Objects in Dreams May Be Closer Than They Appear by Lisa Tuttle
The Horror at Littlecote
The Woden Jug by John Lindwood Grant
And Then There Was One
Chalk and Flint by Sarah Singleton
When Evil Walked Among Them
Epiphyte by Thana Niveau
The Hangman’s Pleasure
In the Land of Thunder by Adrian Cole
The Thing in the Water
Unrecovered by Stephen Volk
Priests of Good and Evil
Gwen by SL Howe
The Pixie’s Curse
Watcher of the Skies by Mike Chinn
Bullbeggar Walk by Paul Finch
The Tedworth Drummer
The Pale Man by Andy Briggs
By the Axe, He Lived
Little Down Barton by Lizzie Fry
Hounds of Hell
Certain Death for a Known Person by Steve Duffy
The Blood Price
Knyfesmyths’ Steps by AK Benedict
Lonesome Roads
Soon, the Darkness by John Llewellyn Probert

And if that didn’t wet your whistles sufficiently, here are several uber-discomforting excerpts.

The old moss woman stepped out from the side of the lane and stood in front of her. Still in threadbare wintery apparel, she was all rotten wood bones beneath the lush moss cloak. Her hair was long and white, bedraggled strands of last year’s grass around a face of dark, yawning gaps and hollows …
Sarah Singleton – Chalk and Flint

‘What are you getting at?’ For the first time since my arrival at High Thornhays I was on the defensive. Old habits born of inadequacy coming to the fore; truculence, sullenness … and just the beginnings of fear. The man with no face there in the armchair: I was already afraid of him. Not nearly as afraid as I ought to have been, not yet. But soon; very soon.
Steve Duffy – Certain Death for a Known Person

Holes had been poked for eye sockets. The blackened lumps of something moist that had been pushed deep within the ragged cavities now regarded him soullessly. It was the kind of weird nonsensical thing that under normal circumstances would be funny but here, in this desolate place, with the chill and the damp worming their way between the folds of his clothes, the idea of some mutant horse-thing hobbling across the landscape on its hind legs wasn’t remotely amusing.
John Llewellyn Probert – Soon, the Darkness

The TERROR TALES series is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me throughout my time in dark fiction. I’ve derived limitless pleasure from working alongside and becoming very friendly with a vast number of immensely talented authors from a range of disciplines (crime, thriller and historical as well as horror and fantasy), almost all of whom (with only one or two rare exceptions), have totally bought into what I’ve tried to do with these books, and have given it their very best shot. With luck, there are lots more titles in the barrel yet, and many, many more writers for me to invite to participate.

But in the meantime, everything is focussed on TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY, which will be published around Halloween but which you can pre-order RIGHT NOW.


Before we get to today’s book review, a quick reminder about THE DEAD TIME

This is an all-in-one collection of four of my books, each one related to a different scary aspect of the waning year, and it can be purchased now on Kindle or Audible RIGHT HERE.



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 Lisa Tuttle (2005)

We open with Ian Kennedy, an ex-pat American living in London who just about earns a living as a private eye, his speciality pursuing and finding missing persons. A tricky way to make ends meet, you might think, but this vocation is pretty much hardwired into him thanks to a series of incidents in his past during which loved ones dropped out of sight.

For example, one day when he was a child, during a family daytrip, Kennedy’s father disappeared right in front of his eyes. In later years, when he was living happily with girl-of-his-dreams, Jenny, she too vanished, simply winked out of existence just when he thought they couldn’t have been happier together. In both cases, these seemingly unaccountable mysteries were resolved by Kennedy when he finally got his investigator head on, and in truth, and perhaps sadly, there were no extraordinary circumstances: it was all very mundane and centred around selfishness and sex.

However, both disappearances made such an impression on Kennedy that they set him on a course in life he has never rejected since, so much so that he’s become very good at finding missing people. He’s also become very open-minded, because one of his earliest commissions sent him up into the Scottish Highlands, where, amid the mist and pine-trees, he found himself on the trail of a young woman who might have been abducted into the ‘Other World’ … and that would be the real Otherworld, the hidden land of mysterious spirits once known as faeries.

It all may sound implausible, as fantastical a memory as the delusion Kennedy lived under that his father had dropped out of this world through some kind of dimension door when in reality all he’d done was move in with his mistress, but rushing back to the present day, we now find Kennedy recruited by another American living in London, the attractive and wealthy Laura Lensky, whose daughter, Peri, also vanished during a bizarre and inexplicable occurrence.

This was two years ago, and the police have never really been interested. To them, Peri was an adult and adults can drop out of sight if they wish, and this seems especially likely when there is no evidence at all of foul play. However, Peri’s posh ex-boyfriend, Hugh Bell-Rivers, a guy who, to all intents and purposes, has now moved on with his life and even has another girlfriend, tells a different story.

He struggles to recollect criminal activity, but still recalls a chilling event, explaining how he and Peri attended an eerie nightclub in the heart of London (in a tremendously skin-prickling scene), where they met a handsome, charismatic stranger called Mider, who seemed to be particularly taken by Peri, while she, in turn, was semi-entranced by him, and how, even though Peri was later delivered safely home by Hugh, she went missing the following day, and when he went back to the nightclub, it was no longer there.

Any ordinary PI might take such a story with a pinch of salt, working on the basis of drugs or too much drink, and respond in the same indifferent way the police did. But Kennedy has been around. He’s heard about Mider before, too. The guy is a legend. Literally. A renowned seducer and abductor of women, but he is only supposed to exist in Celtic mythology …

Lisa Tuttle’s The Mysteries is a strange kind of beast. Sitting triangulated somewhere between horror, thriller and fantasy, it packs a unique punch, asking all sorts of questions about the human condition, how our hopes and fears can affect our perceptions of reality, how loss and betrayal can permeate through the rest of our lives, changing us completely, sending us in totally different directions, but at the same time it hits us with an intriguing and suspense-filled mystery, which, from the very beginning has a possible supernatural explanation (which I personally thought made it all the more enthralling).

Of course, mystery lies at the core of this story. Even between chapters, Lisa Tuttle treats us to short, skillfully-told anecdotes about famous disappearances in history, some of which were later resolved, but many of which, most of them in fact, are rumoured to have been the work of the faeries, a race of enigmatic beings who, in mythology, had nothing to do with Victorian nursery books but were the occupants of an alternate world to ours, whose moods and motivations were completely unknowable to humans, and yet who were so fascinated by mortals that they would regularly cross over and take them captive.

We hear about Corporal Armando Valdes Garrido of the Chilean Army, who in 1977 disappeared in front of his men, only to reappear fifteen minutes later, unable to explain where he had been and yet sporting a five-day growth of beard. And Eliduras, the 12th century priest who was tortured for the rest of his days by childhood memories of entering a wondrous land through a portal under a tree, which he was never again able to find. And even the famed quartet of lighthouse keepers, Joseph Moore, James Ducat, Donald McArthur and Thomas Marshall, who in 1899 vanished from the remote Eilean Mor lighthouse without explanation or trace.

All of this is counterbalanced to a degree by the prosaic solutions provided for the disappearances of Ian Kennedy’s father and later on his girlfriend, Jenny Macedo. Not that these aren’t also mysterious events in their own way, or compellingly handled by the author (as well as showing great emotional depth). A couple of reviewers have criticised the otherwordly elements in The Mysteries, pointing out that Fairyland, for want of a better term, if it exists at all, is supposed to be unreachable by humans and that Ian Kennedy, though he’s already overcome the immense obstacle of not knowing whether to believe in it or not, makes contact with this curious realm far too easily. My response to that would be that Lisa Tuttle is only reflecting the many myths of Britain and Ireland, wherein ordinary, everyday people unintentionally blunder into this fantastical place, or at least make contact with its denizens by accident (unless those denizens themselves want it to happen, in which case those ‘accidents’ can easily be engineered).

Another argument presented by naysayers is that it’s all too implausible and that, in The Mysteries, we are simply asked to believe the unbelievable, namely that the Otherworld is real, and that magical beings known as the Fae, or the Faerie, or fairies, genuinely exist, and that everyone in this narrative buys into it far too quickly, which is all the more odd given that Ian Kennedy is supposed to be a private investigator, the sort of hardnosed bloodhound who would normally be chasing wanton wives and absentee husbands. But again, there’s an answer. If you want a hardboiled detective story set in the world of Noir, don’t read The Mysteries. Likewise, if you want a police procedural or an actioner, go somewhere else.

As I’ve already said, from its outset, this novel makes it clear that we are on the edge of a fantasy kingdom, and this despite the down-to-Earth elements of Kennedy’s father’s callous abandonment of his family, Jenny Macedo’s unfaithfulness, and even the cold, rain-wet London streets where our hero spends most of his time.

If because of this, you are only half-and-half on whether or not to read The Mysteries, I would urge you to proceed. Because the real joy of this book is Lisa Tuttle’s writing style. It’s very smooth and hugely accessible, everything clipped down to its crisp basics but penned with a real flourish so that it’s a pleasure simply to read it, the pages flipping by effortlessly. In addition to that, though it’s not a complex mystery (not by other PI novel standards), the overarching story that The Mysteries seeks to tell could be overly complex if it wasn’t for the masterful way that Tuttle constructs it. The various events of Ian Kennedy’s life, not just his own odd experiences as a young man back in the States, but his first investigation up in Scotland (the one that persuaded him there are more things in Heaven and Earth), and then the main one, the pursuit of Peri Lensky, run in parallel strands, which are timed to perfection and complement each other marvellously.

All in all, The Mysteries is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining read: a fantasy, yes, but without the extreme aspects of that genre that some readers might find offputting; a thriller too, but without the terror and violence and blood (though this doesn’t mean there aren’t some intense moments of creeping dread – oh yes, there is evil afoot, even in Fairyland).

I stumbled upon this book by accident, and I’m really glad I did. In The Mysteries, Lisa Tuttle has given us a very different, very sophisticated but, above all, very enjoyable kind of mystery. I recommend that you avail yourself of it right away.

I’m now going to commit my usual folly of attempting to cast this piece before someone out there in film or TV land gets smart enough to do it for real. Just a bit of fun, of course, but here’s who I’d use:

Ian Kennedy – Tom Payne
Laura Lensky – Amy Adams
Hugh Bell-Rivers – Dean-Charles Chapman
Mider – Claes Bang
Jenny Macedo – Ruth Negga
Fred Green – Elizabeth Debicki

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 …


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.

(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.


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.

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 …


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)

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 …

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.

by Alan Judd (1991)

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 …

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.

by Norman Partridge (2006)

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 …

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)

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