Thursday 17 November 2022

A first - and a fantastic 'fusion of the arts'

All I can really talk about today is what happened to me yesterday. Because it was, without doubt, the best day of my working life. It was a day in which three very talented artists each presented to me their own interpretation of my latest novel.

Yes, that’s correct. Three remarkable ladies had each taken the trouble to condense my 130,000-word thriller, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, into a single canvas. The only role I had yesterday was to attend this presentation in Birmingham and choose the winner, but believe you me, that was no small thing.

So, today’s blog will tell the story of how all of this came to pass.

In addition today, on the subject of solid mystery-thrillers (sorry, blatant bit of self-glorification there), I’ll be reviewing Ruth Ware’s compelling novel, THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10. Anyone who’s only here for that and isn’t particularly bothered about the book-to-painting story, scoot straight down to the lower end of today’s column, the Thrillers/Chillers section, where you’ll find that review.

In the meantime though, why don’t we discuss …

A fusion of the arts

That’s the way this incredible new idea was first pitched to me by Mike Olley (left), boss of Birmingham’s Westside BID, and his wife, Lorraine Olley (below), a popular singer, businesswoman and media personality down in the West Midlands, while we were all sitting in The Brasshouse pub in Birmingham last summer, talking generally about our careers and interests. 

I’d just happened to mention that I was an amateur art collector, and was toying with the idea of commissioning an artist to produce a painting about the life and (often dirty) work of my main cop character, DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg, for when I recommence the Heck series next year.

What I’d been looking for, I said, was an actual painting. Not just a new book cover that would work for retailers, and not an advertising poster. But an original piece of art, condensing many aspects of Heck’s life and investigations into a single image that we could then use as part of the promotional campaign in 2023, but which would mainly be for hanging on the wall in our lounge.

Mike and Lorraine seemed fascinated by this concept. ‘A fusion of two art-forms,’ they called it. ‘That would be something different and new.’

On reflection, I had to agree. The creation of book covers is an art in itself of course, while high quality illustrations have been used inside books throughout the entire history of publishing. But this would be slightly different. This challenge would require an artist who was not an illustrator or a book jacket designer to interpret an entire novel in one image.

The more we discussed it, the more it became evident to me that Mike and Lorraine were seriously interested in the subject. In the end, Mike suggested that, while my plan to commission an artistic portrayal of Heck was something I already had in hand, he would be interested in doing something similar with my more recent non-Heck thriller, NEVER SEEN AGAIN.

Birmingham Art Zone

Mike put the concept to the Birmingham Art Zone, a group of highly talented artists dedicated to bringing artistic endeavour to the whole community of the West Midlands. Only then – certainly in my case – did it become apparent just what an enormous challenge this was going to be.

NEVER SEEN AGAIN is a 400 pages long thriller, concerning a violent kidnapping that has now become a cold case, a burned-out reporter trying to revive his career, corruption in the City of London, organised crime, a serial murderer called the Medway Slasher, a whole nest of dirty cops and the disgraceful scandal of international sex-trafficking.

How do you ask an artist to depict all of that in a single frame?

Well, that wasn’t for me to say. I only wrote the book. The three intrepid artists who undertook the challenge – Paula Gabb, Helen Owen and Helen Roberts – would need to decide for themselves what went into their pictures and what was left out. And thus they embarked on ‘this massive task’ as one of them described it to me, beavering away in their respective studios, with only a couple of months realistically available in which to create.

A difficult choice

Roll forward to this week, and we come to the grand unveiling – Judgement Day, as Lorraine cheerily called it – held on November 16, down at the Velvet Music Rooms on Broad Street, the artery at the beating heart of Birmingham’s cultural life.

The press were in attendance, which was lovely to see, alongside some very special guests indeed, not least Tony Iommi, legendary lead guitarist of rock/metal pioneers Black Sabbath. That made it even more unbelievable for me, having been a heavy rock fan since I was at junior school, so the moment when Tony asked me to sign a copy of NEVER SEEN AGAIN for him (see right) was almost more than I could handle.

When the paintings were revealed one by one, each one then presented to me by the artist responsible, I was actually very unnerved. I’ve had no formal training as an art critic, I just know what I like. But on this occasion, quite frankly, I liked all of them.

At no stage had I prescribed what I wanted the artists to paint (who would I be, to tell an artist how to do their job?). But secretly I’d hoped, as I’ve already hinted, that I wouldn’t just get an alternative piece of jacket art or what you might describe as a screen-grab, i.e. a single moment from the novel represented in oils. I was looking for an interpretation of the whole thing, if that was possible.

And as it turned out, it was … because that is exactly what I got in all three cases.

If I tell you now that none of the three were losers and that I loved them all equally, and only in the end chose one because that was the purpose of the exercise, you might consider it a cliché tossed out casually to prevent anyone feeling bad. But actually it would be 99.9% true.

I couldn’t believe the standard of the three images I was confronted with. 

All three artists had taken a deep, deep dive into the novel, producing wondrous and tumultuous depictions, any of which, even taken out of context, would immediately have spoken to me about my book.

Of course, none of this made it any easier, choosing, but though Helen, Helen and Paula were all standing watching at the time, to their everlasting credit they remained bright-eyed and happy all the way through. They’d all bought fully into the concept and were delightful with me both before and after the final decision was made.


The two runners-up, in no specific order, were Paula Gabb’s and Helen Owen’s paintings.

Paula’s piece, as seen above, took a ‘journalistic’ angle on the book, recreating all the salient moments in the narrative visually, throwing them together as though they were photographs on a storyboard, connecting them with concise but crucial notations. 

Her attention to detail was astonishing: nothing relevant from any of those key moments was absent from her painting. It told near enough the whole story, very succinctly.

Helen Owen’s piece, meanwhile, on the right, offered what I considered to be a very (perhaps the most) ‘artistic’ interpretation. 

Not entirely abstract but strongly leaning that way. 

Very effectively stylised, areas of light and colour interspersing with darker, more menacing imagery to indicate the many highs and lows the characters in the novel undergo, semi-subliminal gravestones in the background hinting at the fate of so many.

And through the middle of it all, a road leading not so much to redemption as to uncertainty, which I felt nicely underlined the conclusion to the novel, wherein the evil, while it is certainly evaded, is not necessarily defeated, which in its turn then poses the questions: when will it reappear, and what form will it take next time ... and will we be ready for it?

The winner

The winner – and I’m not kidding when I repeat that this was a photo-finish – was Helen Roberts’ version of NEVER SEEN AGAIN.

The first thing that struck me about this particular piece of work was the face of Jodie Martindale in its very centre, staring out at me with the most hauntingly beautiful pair of eyes. Those who’ve read the novel will recollect that Jodie was kidnapped six years before the narrative really commences, and though her boyfriend, who was also taken, was found zip-tied and shot through the back of the neck only a couple of days later, Jodie herself has never been heard from since.

Jodie is thus the central character in NEVER SEEN AGAIN even though she barely appears in it. She is the person whom our flawed heroes finally unite in order to try and find, putting everything on the line, including their lives. Her beauty and intellect, and her reputation as a good person, pervade the entire story, intensifying the tragedy of her unsolved abduction – and to suddenly see her looking out at me like that, literally locking gazes with me, was a near mesmerising moment.

The rest of the painting is also filled with meaningful symbols, so many that I suspect I’d need to dedicate a different blogpost to assessing them all, along with many other key moments and personalities from the book. Anyway, here I am below, presenting the winning artist, Helen Roberts, with her prize.

I don’t want to talk too much more now about this event for fear of getting self-indulgent, but I will add that a video telling the whole story of the ‘paint-off’ competition, which was filmed up here in my home town, Wigan, as well as down in Birmingham, is now in production and will be launched at a Birmingham venue in the New Year.

Because I obviously haven’t posted enough pictures of this major event in my life, here are one or two more. In addition, if you feel I haven’t written enough about it either, you can read a lot more 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 Ruth Ware (2016)

Laura ‘Lo’ Blacklock is an ambitious and talented travel journalist, who on the surface has it all. A glamorous job with uber-cool mag, Velocity, great talent, a hunky American boyfriend, Judah, who also happens to be a successful reporter (and who absolutely adores her), and now an opportunity to travel on the Aurora, one of the world’s most luxurious holiday yachts, which will shortly be making its maiden voyage to the Norwegian fjords to check out the Northern Lights.

But Lo, who has a more fragile personality than many might realise, was recently terrorised in her London flat when a masked burglar broke in and helped himself to her valuables while she was present. Though she was physically unhurt, the result is nightmares, insomnia, a series of terrifying flashbacks and an increasing reliance on alcohol and prescription pills to get her through each day. This stew of self-medication ends up clouding her judgement badly, which leads to a fall-out with Judah, who has turned down a massive job offer in New York in order to stay with her, a huge sacrifice that she is almost indifferent to.

When she finally arrives on the Aurora, which is owned by British business mogul, the effortlessly smooth Lord Richard Bullmer, she experiences a degree of lavishness she never knew existed, and finds herself in the company of a range of wealthy and eccentric socialites, none of whom, in Lo’s distressed and crotchety state, seem entirely ‘right’.

Among others, there is Cole Lederer, a handsome, vaguely predatory photographer; Alexander Belhome, a pompous, corpulent hedonist; Chloe Jenssen, a beautiful model, and her wealthy investor husband, Lars; and Archer Fenlon, a rugged, Yorkshire-born outdoorsman, who seems very out of place here. Lord Bullmer himself is the dominant character, though his life isn’t entirely perfect, as his wife, Anne, is also present, a sad, frail woman who is vastly wealthy in her own right but currently in the middle of a losing battle with cancer (not that Bullmer seems to be especially affected by this).

If nothing else, Lo is glad to see a couple of fellow journalists, though Tina West is a waspish rival whom she doesn’t trust, while Ben Howard, though a former lover of Lo’s, is a confident swaggerer even in this society, which galls her, and, because he once shared Lo’s bed, is now inclined to take liberties with her, which she also doesn’t like.

For all that she feels out of her depth, Lo is determined that her trip on the Aurora, and the write-up she will give it, will be her big break in travel-writing. But on the first night of the cruise, things take a turn for the totally surreal.

Lo, still emotionally exhausted and already on her way to being drunk, is preparing for her first real evening in the company of the rich and famous, and so pops next door, to Cabin 10, to borrow some mascara. A young woman she hasn’t seen before, who appears very flustered to have suddenly come face-to-face with one of her fellow travellers, provides the missing cosmetic and then slams the cabin door in Lo’s face.

Lo gets through the evening by continually dosing herself with alcohol, though she notices that the young woman from Cabin 10 doesn’t appear. Later, back in her own cabin, very drunk, Lo is just dozing off when she is disturbed by the sound of a scream next door, and then a loud splash, as if something hefty has been tossed overboard. Staggering out onto her veranda, Lo is appalled to see what looks like a body submerging between the dark, foam-covered waves. She also spots what looks like a smear of blood on the glass partition separating her from the veranda attached to Cabin 10.

Convinced the young woman she saw there has been murdered, and equating it with her own experience during the London burglary, Lo makes a big fuss, but when the yacht’s security chief, Johann Nilsson, takes charge, she is startled to learn that Cabin 10 is unoccupied. It was booked, but the expected guest was unable to attend, and no one has been in there since. They check the cabin out together, and it is stripped and bare. In addition, there is no trace of any blood.

The next day, Lo and Nilsson make a tour of the vessel, but nowhere does she see anyone who resembles the woman from Cabin 10. Instead, she is introduced one by one to the helpful and improbably good-looking Scandinavian crew, though none of them are able to assist her. Everyone who is supposed to be on board is present and correct; no one is missing.

If nothing else, Lo still possesses the mascara she borrowed from the woman, which, to her mind at least, is proof of what she thinks happened. But Nilsson is not impressed, arguing that the mascara could have belonged to anyone. When, later on, the mascara goes missing too, Lo demands an explanation, and Nilsson finally gets frustrated with her, pointing out that her combined diet of drugs and alcohol is hardly making her a reliable witness, and that her constant questioning of people is becoming a nuisance.

Still convinced that she met someone in Cabin 10, but also aware that she has skewed her own sense of reality in recent times (now suspecting that everyone on board is watching her and whispering), Lo wonders if there might be something in Nilsson’s assertion that she has basically made a huge and embarrassing faux pas. Helpless to do anything else, she tries to relax in the yacht’s spa, hoping to get it together, only to fall asleep and then wake up and see a message written on the steamy mirror: STOP DIGGING …

The Woman in Cabin 10 first appeared in the wake of The Girl on the Train, and obvious analogies were drawn, the main heroine’s struggles with alcoholism fuddling her attempts to work out whether she is genuinely a witness to criminal activity or simply imagining it and bamboozling her efforts to call on the assistance of others.

The really big difference with The Woman in Cabin 10, though, is that Ruth Ware takes her story out of the suburbs, where so much modern day psychological noir is located, and plonks it down in one of the most isolated spots you can imagine: a small cruise-liner, far out in the North Sea, where, once the internet has gone down, contact with the outside world is all but impossible.

This is a very neat idea, but Ware intensifies the tale all the more by moving it away from the normal ‘blue sea / blue sky’ cruise ship experience, plunging us into the far north, a realm of cloud, bitter rain and dark, cold seas. On the few occasions Blacklock is able to go ashore, she’s on the rugged Norwegian coast, where spume explodes from the rocks, and any footpath or road invariably leads steeply uphill in its attempts to navigate the dizzying slopes of the fjords.

So, once Lo Blacklock reaches a solid conclusion that she’s onto something – not just that she witnessed a murder but that she herself is now in peril – the sense of discomfort becomes overwhelming. Especially as she still has no way to identify the killer (or killers). Ruth Ware, like all good thriller writers, now works this scenario for everything she can. In scenes as tense as a hangman’s rope, Lo moves among her fellow passengers and the yacht’s highly efficient staff, watching every one of them carefully, and seeing (or imagining) all kinds of oddities and idiosyncrasies that might lead her to suspect them.

The tension mounts as the vessel encroaches on its first scheduled stop, Trondheim, where the journalist knows she’ll be able to get ashore and speak to the police, meaning that, if she’s going to become a victim herself, it will need to happen before then.

The extra layer of oppression that Ware adds through the device of Lo’s booze-fuelled anxieties only worsens her predicament, mainly because it means that other characters don’t believe her. On the other hand, we the readers know that she’s onto something. For all Lo’s acute paranoia and pernicious self-doubt, we shared the incident involving Cabin 10 with her. Despite her wibbly-wobbly recollections, we saw it happen for ourselves.

In that regard, the ‘unreliable narration’ technique didn’t entirely work for me.

On a not dissimilar subject, if there’s a weakness in The Woman in Cabin 10, I think it’s rooted in the character of Lo Blacklock herself. She is both physically and mentally enfeebled by her bad experiences. Which is fair enough. But it’s turned her into someone rather unpleasant. While you might agree with her assessment that the Aurora is all about rich people enjoying a holiday at the expense of poor people, you can’t help cringing at her whiny snappiness. Yes, she’s had a hard time, but she’s supposed to be a professional journalist, someone whose grand plan is to travel the world, reporting on all kinds of troublesome situations, so you can’t help feeling that she could make a bit more of an effort to get back in the saddle.

Aside from that, I had one other complaint, and that lies with the rollcall of secondary characters, many of whom are little more than background figures throughout, potential suspects initially but so undeveloped as to gradually disappear from view as the story proceeds. This serves to reduce the mystery factor in The Woman in Cabin 10 until we reach the point where, when we finally uncover the culprit, it’s a bit of a ‘ho-hum’ moment.

But as someone who enjoyed this book and read it quickly, I’d argue that its mystery elements purposely end up playing second-fiddle to the slowly mounting air of fear and distrust, and above all, to the suspense. It’s relatively early in the story when we learn that Lo Blacklock isn’t losing her mind but has uncovered vicious criminality, and once that is established, the tension ratchets up unnervingly quickly.

Who is the guilty party here? Which of these pleasant and gregarious people is actually a scheming murderer? But much more pertinently, especially in the final third of the narrative, surely they’ve now decided that they can’t let Lo live? So, at which point will they strike? How will they do it?

I have to say that there’s no particular gut-thump at any stage in The Woman in Cabin 10, no horrifying shock that completely knocks you off kilter, but all these minuscule criticisms aside, I found this a smart and satisfying thriller. Claustrophobic, twisty and very pacy in the second half (with a steadily mounting sense of jeopardy), and written in Ruth Ware’s usual spare and easily accessible style, I tore through it in a couple of days.

Just don’t take this book with you on an ocean cruise. Or, who knows … maybe to get the most out of it, you should.

And now, in my usual ill-advised fashion, I’ll attempt to cast this property in the hope some big noise in film or TV is looking to put it on the screen and comes calling for my advice. Unlikely, I know, but it’s all in fun.

Lo Blacklock – Millie Brady
Lord Richard Bullmer – Richard Armitage
Ben Howard – William Moseley
Tina West – Naomie Harris
Carrie – Thomasin McKenzie
Cole Lederer – Mark Strong
Johann Nilsson – Joel Kinnaman

Tuesday 8 November 2022

West Country ghouls ride out into world

Well … both Halloween and Bonfire Night have been and gone, and I haven’t posted anything about either of them. Yes, a whole month has passed since I last blogged. I can only apologise about that. In particular, I had a huge October blog lined up. I was going to talk about horror movies, picking five of my favourites from each decade between 1930 and 2020. Ninety years of celluloid horror. How much fun would that have been? Not that everyone else doesn’t seem to have had a similar idea.

Unfortunately though, in my case the time just ran out. I’ve just been too busy bringing TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY along the final furlong into publication, which has now happened, I’m delighted to say, and making vital edits to my first medieval epic for Canelo Books (the title has now been settled on, but I can’t reveal that until we reveal the cover also, which hopefully will be soon).

It is still the season of mist and horror though, so if nothing else, at least today’s book review can match the mood. It’s Clay McLeod Chapman’s compelling account of Satanic horror breaking out in the heart of suburban America, WHISPER DOWN THE LANE.

If you’re only here for the Chapman review, no problem. You’ll find it, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s column.

Before that though, a quick reminder that we’re finally …

Out in the world

Yes, TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY is finally out there, it’s an actual thing, it is moving around in the hands of readers and reviewers alike (for proof of the latter, check out the unfolding response on the excellent VAULT OF EVIL, truly one of the best horror anthology review sites in the world). It’s also, as you can see from this pic, a solid chunk of a volume, easily the fattest of the series to date (primarily because it contains several truly wonderful but longer-than-usual stories).

Hopefully, people will enjoy this one as much as they’ve enjoyed the others.

TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY is the 14th volume in the series thus far. Those who’ve followed them from the beginning will know that I first began editing these books in 2011, when they were published by Gray Friar Press. 

However, five years ago, with TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL, the operation was taken over by TELOS PUBLISHING.

The original intention behind the series was to make a whistle-stop tour of the UK, each anthology focussed on a different geographic area, the stories all linked to that region’s unique folklore, mythology and history. 

And to date, the writers have done me very proud indeed, with numerous stories chosen for Year’s Best type editions and so forth. The books have also boasted a succession of truly wonderful covers, provided at first by Steve Upham, but later on, for the nine most recent editions, by Neil Williams, all of which have caught the eye far and wide.

The idea first came to me, believe it or not, back in the 1970s, when I was on holiday in the Lake District, where I acquired several volumes of the Fontana series, Tales of Terror, most of which were edited by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, and even though I was only a teenager at the time, I was so impressed that I just knew I had to do something similar when I was older.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY is now out in the world. So … come on, you guys. Go and get it.

When crime meets art

I’ve also been busy this last couple of weeks with a project I can’t talk about too much yet, though I hope to be very voluble about it indeed later this month.

Anyone who follows me online generally will know that NEVER SEEN AGAIN, my most recent crime thriller, has been chosen as the subject for an arts competition in Birmingham, the painters participating each charged with producing their own interpretation of the novel. As I say, I can’t be too vociferous about this yet, but you can read a little bit more about it HERE and HERE if you want to.

Suffice to say that a film crew came up to my home town of Wigan at the end of October, to interview me about it, to talk about the inspiration behind NEVER SEEN AGAIN, and behind my writing in general, and of course, the fusion of two very different art forms, painting and writing as part of a process, which ultimately must see 130,000 words of text condensed down into a single canvas (some challenge, when you consider it).

Anyway, above is a shot of me being interviewed on the matter by West Midlands media personality, the lovely Lorraine Olley. It was a great day when we did this. I can’t wait to tell you folks all about it. Stay tuned.


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 Clay McLeod Chapman (2022)

We enter this dark drama, which of course, is inspired by true-life incidents, in two different time streams. First of all, we join contemporary art teacher, Richard Bellamy, at a cute suburban school in Danvers, Massachusetts, where not only does he command the affection of his pre-teen pupils and the respect of most of the other staff, he’s recently entered into a relationship with another teacher, the slightly punky Tamara, and is now in the process of winning the trust of her son from a previous marriage, Elijah.

However it’s not all peachy. We open with Richard coming into work on his birthday, and finding one of the school’s pets, a rabbit called Professor Howdy, dead on the sports field, having been mutilated in gruesome, near-ritual fashion. Not only that, a birthday card has been inserted into its stomach cavity, which, when Richard opens it, says simply ‘Circle Time’, which he assumes refers to the team-building exercise the school’s staff usually indulge in each time before commencing work, though the incident remains horrible and baffling.

Richard is a relatively new teacher in Danvers, but apart from the endless scrutiny he inexplicably receives from beady-eyed principal, Mrs Condrey, he is very happy. The school is hardly a challenge; Danvers, which was once solid rustbelt, has been ‘Disneyfied’ in keeping with the modern politically-correct age. He thus tries to focus on his work and his relationship with Tamara and Elijah, but the rabbit incident won’t leave his mind, especially as there has recently been an uptick in the amount of graffiti appearing on the school’s toilet walls, including Satanic images like ‘666’.

The next moment of unpleasantness is more mundane. Elijah gets in trouble for hitting another kid, supposedly in defence of a pretty but withdrawn pupil called Sandy. It’s not a big deal, but while Richard is sorting it out, he receives a curious phone-call, someone breathing at the other end of the line but refusing to speak …

Switching back to 1983, we meet a nervous young child called Sean Crenshaw, who, in company with his highly-stressed mother, is fleeing their family home and starting a completely different life in a town they’ve never been to before. Greenfield, Virginia.

We quickly gauge that Sean’s mother is seeking to escape an awful relationship back home, and determined to make a clean break. At first it looks as though she’s succeeded, working more than one job to get herself and her son afloat again, Sean enrolled at the local school, Greenfield Academy, and when school is out, being minded by kindly neighbours. One of these in particular, Miss Betty, is especially helpful. While he’s in her house one day, Sean sees a faded photograph of a little boy who he’s never met in real life. Miss Betty tells Sean that this is her son who died, but because of the poor quality image, Sean comes to think of him as the ‘Grey Boy’ and finds the picture disturbing.

Even aside from this, Sean’s life in Greenfield is not all it might be. Once the word gets around school that he and his mother are welfare cases, other kids start to mock and bully him. When a particularly mean specimen called Tommy Dennings leaves bruises on his body, Sean’s mum, who is under pressure herself from the authorities regarding her own parenting skills (presumably owing to events in their former life), demands an explanation, but Sean is too frightened to tell her the truth. At the same time, he speaks a lot about his favourite teacher, Mr Woodhouse, who is young and energetic and disguises many of his lessons as games, and his mother begins to wonder exactly what their relationship is. Sean is equally stressed because though he insists that everything is all right and that he really likes Mr Woodhouse, he suspects that he’s not giving his mother the answer she wants.

Then the word gets out that Mr Woodhouse has been playing a game with the kids called Whisper Down the Lane, a kind of Middle-American version of Chinese whispers. In itself it’s harmless, but then, one of the messages he has his pupils pass from one to the next refers to Lucky Charms, a range of marshmallows currently disapproved of by a local group of watchful mothers, who are concerned about the supposed pagan symbology contained within the branding.

Rumours start spreading that something may be wrong at Greenfield Academy. Some children have been having bizarre nightmares (though they’ve never admitted that these occurred after they’d watched the Michael Jackson video, Thriller), while others talk a lot about the many games Mr Woodhouse likes to play with them. Under heavy pressure from his mum, Sean finally cracks and tells a whopping lie, namely that their teacher likes to play a game called Horsey, in which they are all naked …

Back in the present day, Richard Bellamy’s odd experiences continue. During one lesson, he has the children make pinatas out of papier-mâché. Most create images of animals, but at the end of the lesson, he finds one that seems to represent a young child. It’s also been painted grey. No one in class will admit to having made it, and Richard then notices that someone has signed it ‘Sean’. Of course, there is no one in his class with that name.

Another name now occurs to him, seemingly from nowhere. ‘Mr Yucky’.

Later on, he is cheered up when Tamara offers to let him use her old garage as an art studio. Richard gave up painting some time ago, but now starts over, immediately sketching an image of a beautiful woman with a grey-toned boy in the background. He thinks the picture could represent his mother, who was very pretty, but it might also depict a beautiful woman called Miss Kinderman, a psychiatrist who once introduced him to a doll that was similar in looks to a Cabbage Patch Kid. Its name was Mr Yucky, she told him, and it was called that because he could tell all his yucky stuff to it.

Increasingly wondering what is happening and why these strange half-memories are bombarding him, Richard then loses Elijah at the Fall Harvest Fair. It didn’t help that he was fleetingly mesmerised by the sight of Mr Stitch, the grey-faced scarecrow at the heart of the corn maze. Thankfully, Elijah is located safe and well by Sandy’s mother, Jenna Levin, a handsome but rather humourless woman, who doesn’t seem to like Richard by instinct. Inevitably, Tamara, who gets extremely angry very easily, is unimpressed.

As she drives them home fast, ranting and raving, Richard is reminded of his own mother, when he was a young boy, driving them at dangerous speed away from their old life to a town called Greenfield. When they get home, he finds the cat, Weegee, hanged and gutted. Not wishing to fuel the atmosphere with further anxiety, Richard conceals the carcass in his studio. Then he notices an item of mail that arrived earlier that day. It is addressed to ‘Sean’ and when he opens it, contains a single newspaper clipping. It is at least two decades old, and discusses the fate of a former teacher called Thomas Woodhouse, who, despite having recently been acquitted on appeal of ritually abusing his pre-teen pupils, has still served extensive prison time, and has now committed suicide …

Back in the early ’80s it’s all hands to the pump as the school kids, taking their lead from Sean, and at the coercive behest of their parents, tell lies about Mr Woodhouse. Miss Kinderman is a key instigator, using various eccentric methods to get Sean to open up even more, dressing as a scarecrow on one occasion, but mostly utilising the hideous grey doll, Mr Yucky.

The stories have grown with the telling. Mr Woodhouse wasn’t acting alone. Other members of the faculty were involved too, and sometimes the children were taken out of school to attend Black Masses in derelict graveyards. All kinds of vileness was indulged in. Inevitably, when Mr Woodhouse goes on trial, Sean is the star witness. It hurts him deeply that he’s continuing to tell bare-faced lies. He knows it’s very wrong, but this is what Miss Kinderman, and more importantly, his mother seems to require from him.

Afterwards of course, Sean and his mother become the centre of all conversation. People are now sympathetic to them. At last, they seem to have friends. Though not everyone commiserates. When a brick is thrown through Sean’s window, he senses that it’s an unhealthy kind of attention people are paying to them. When the part of the school where Mr Woodhouse used to teach is burned down, he detects the mob mentality lurking beneath the surface of the townsfolk.

Very much against his will, but still playing along, Sean is invited to appear with his mother and Miss Kinderman on a popular television talk-show. During the course of a sensationalist TV circus in which no lurid detail is left unaired, Sean is semi-hypnotised by the sight of the Grey Boy, who sits in the audience and waves at him …

Back in the present, we now know for certain that Richard Bellamy and Sean Crenshaw are one and the same. Richard thought he’d put Sean – the Grey Boy, the Cabbage Patch Kid – away, tucked him into the back of his brain, and had forgotten him along with that whole terrible period of his early life.

But someone else – God only knows who? – clearly hasn’t forgotten, and it seems they are determined to raise the Satanist terror all over again, this time in Danvers, and to put another popular teacher, Richard Bellamy, at the centre of it …

The infamous Satanic Panic originated in 1980 with the now discredited memoir, Michelle Remembers, in which a Canadian psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder, claimed that, while treating a patient called Michelle Smith for depression, he unlocked repressed memories of horrific abuse suffered during childhood in the midst of brutal Satanic ceremonies. The book became a huge seller, mainly through the shocking possibility that ordinary, everyday children might be suffering the most depraved forms of ritual abuse, not just at the hands of perverse and twisted parents, but while in the safekeeping of so-called care-workers. This appalling fear was exacerbated three years later by the McMartin Pre-School trial in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, wherein allegations were made (again, most of which were later refuted) that pre-teen children had been taken to Black Masses by kindergarten staff, where they had suffered torture, rape and been forced to watch animal mutilation and human sacrifice.

Rumours wildfired that such incidents were not isolated and were in fact the work of an organised, international cabal of devil-worshippers, whose very raison d’être was to do the most evil things imaginable, including the murder and molestation of infants. This ‘moral panic’ as it became known, eventually swept the US and much of the rest of the western world, engulfing entire towns, and creating a latter-day witch hunt of terrifying size and scope, which caused the break-up of families and communities, and the jailing of numerous individuals, many of whom, though they were later exonerated, would feel like outcasts for the rest of their lives.

It’s not essential that you know this in order to fully appreciate Whisper Down the Lane, but it can only help if you do. Because what Clay McLeod Chapman has done with this book is create an enthralling mystery-thriller set against that simmering background of fear and paranoia.

It’s a fictionalised version of the real events, of course, but it’s no less powerful for that.

The storyline set in the 1980s sees the Greenfield Academy standing in for the McMartin Pre-School day-care centre, with the fictional teacher, Tom Woodhouse, at the centre of the allegations in place of Ray Buckey, the main member of the accused in real life (who was finally released from prison, all charges against him dismissed, though by this time he’d served five years!). Sean Crenshaw’s mum meanwhile is in place of Judy Johnson, the real-life disturbed mother who first became convinced that her child had been abused and thus kickstarted the McMartin calamity, while one Manuel Cassavetes, a fictional talk-show host, takes the place of Geraldo Rivera and Oprah Winfrey, who both dealt with the issue on their programmes but challenged few, if any, of the claims made by the so-called victims. Other characters in the novel, such as investigating psycho-therapist, Miss Kinderman, are composites of the various clinicians, social workers, detectives and journalists who were later severely criticised for encouraging belief in a nightmarish fantasy.

Though one might accuse the author of tastelessness in his selection of a historic but relatively recent tragedy around which to weave his menacing tale, this is negated in my view by the seriousness with which he takes the subject-matter and by his absolute determination to replicate the injustice of those dark days, but also to investigate how it might have come about.

That isn’t to say that Chapman doesn’t play the odd mischievous prank on us. Several of his characters share names with key characters in famous works of demonic-horror fiction (and even the actors who portrayed them), while certain phrases and figures of speech are also reminiscent. On one reading alone, I singled out The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. Again though, I feel this is more than just a homage to a genre that Chapman obviously loves, the cross-referencing here implying that the Satanic Panic was at least partly rooted in the conviction these very compelling works of fiction had managed to create in certain parts of society that the Devil is real and his demons a powerful force in the world.

However, your belief or unbelief on this matter should be immaterial to your enjoyment of Whisper Down the Lane, because neither the Devil nor any of his minions make an appearance in it.

They don’t need to.

One of several subtexts here is the danger posed by zealous belief. Whether this stems from religious fundamentalism or a simple inability to understand our vicious and chaotic world doesn’t really matter, because belief on its own – particularly unquestioning belief – can be a very negative force, especially when it leads to an assumption of righteousness. It doesn’t even need to be religious. The 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history, and most of the atrocities committed then were the result of political fanaticism.

But it’s religion we’re dealing with in Whisper Down the Lane, or rather a distortion of it, because that is what happened during the Satanic Panic, and the entirety of that ghastly episode is very neatly encapsulated by Chapman in this relatively short novel, wherein it’s mostly seen through the eyes of a single individual, Richard Bellamy, who, in a very clever move by the author, happens to have been both the perpetrator of such hysteria back when he was an untruthful child, and the victim of it, when, as an adult, he becomes implicated in villainy by a malicious whispering campaign rather than anything concrete.

Which brings us to the other big talking-point in the book: paranoia and mob rule.

Where does it come from? How can it still be a thing in an educated age?

The author doesn’t offer any firm answers, but makes a few suggestions.

The easiest way to engineer widespread paranoia, even in modern times, is to infect the common herd with anxiety that their lifestyle might be under threat. Hence another Danvers teacher, Miss Gordon’s suspicion that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax and all part of a government plan to deprive American gun-owners of their weapons. But it really becomes incendiary when there’s an apparent threat to the young. Even the most liberal-minded parents will argue that they can’t afford to ignore suspicions like those, and that any menace to their children, no matter how seemingly improbable, must be guarded against. All of a sudden, you don’t need to prove that Mr X or Miss Y is a wrong ‘un. You just want them gone … it’s that simple. And once you’re in that state of mind, any vague oddity about this suspicious person will bolster your determination.

Chapman works this idea particularly cleverly by putting us, the readers, into the same frame of mind via the device of Richard’s lover, Tamara, who ostensibly is one of the good guys, but who has a violent temper and a mysterious past in her own right, not to mention something of a counterculture aspect, her body bearing a serpentine tattoo so sinister that she covers it up during the day, plus a tattooed thistle, which she claims is to help her ‘break hexes’ … all of which, at least as far as I was concerned, makes her a potential suspect in the Danvers wave of Satanic outrages.

It’s neat work by the author, showing us that we too can be deceived by appearances and attitudes that differ slightly from the norm.

With all these big issues up for discussion, the actual thriller element of Whisper Down the Lane seems a little inconsequential, but in Chapman’s hands it’s not just a framing device for a polemic. It works very well on its own merits, and is crisply and sparingly written, with many twists and turns, all of them delivered smoothly and perfectly timed. The scarecrow factor, not to mention the Grey Boy, even take us a little way into the world of horror, though the author doesn’t overdo this, keeping us firmly in the real world.

Richard’s gradual breakdown is especially well-done. We know the character inside-out by this time, having travelled in his head on two particularly difficult journeys, and sense his trauma without having it thrust in our face. It’s inevitable around this part of the book, primarily because by now you’ve really pegged Richard for the most unreliable of narrators, that you begin wondering if he isn’t so innocent after all, if he’s perhaps so deranged by his earlier experiences that he’s finally embarked on the crime-spree he only imagined all those decades ago. This loads the narrative with additional tension and suspense, which has you flipping pages like nobody’s business, desperate to find a resolution you can live with.

It was always going to require bravery, writing a novel like this. Many wounds inflicted by the real-life Satanic Panic are still raw, while there are some parts of the world where it hasn’t yet ended (the advent of the Internet and the exposure of organised online paedophilia has led some to wonder if law enforcement was too quick to dismiss the unproven claims that networks of ritual child-abusers existed in the 1980s, and it has certainly increased modern-day parental anxiety about adult acquaintanceships with their kids), but in Clay McLeod Chapman’s hands, it’s all done subtly and intelligently, with minimal sensationalism and a clear understanding that this was, and still is, a massive issue to which there is no painless resolution.

Even the pop culture references to famous novels and movies has a serious side to it: hinting that the Devil – or any other icons of supernatural evil, any monster, demon or ghost – doesn’t necessarily need to exist to become an actual entity in our lives. All it takes is for people to believe that he does.

As usual now, in the event of a TV or movie version of Whisper Down the Lane, I’m going to pre-empt the casting department by nominating some actors of my own. However, I’m under no illusion that, because of the subject-matter alone, this would be a difficult and controversial adaptation to mount, and even though nothing salacious ever happens on the written page, I’m not even going to think about naming any child-actors. As for the adult cast, well, as usual, money is no object.

Richard – Miles Teller
Tamara – Zoë Kravitz
Tom Woodhouse – Ezra Miller
Miss Kinderman – Margot Robbie
Mrs Crenshaw – Melissa George
Manuel Cassavetes – Tom Ellis (see what I did there?)