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

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