Friday 10 February 2023

A TV slot, Heck latest and bloody battles

Something pretty exciting will be happening this evening, so I’m going to be parping on about that today, giving you all the details available. I’ll also be talking about my Heck series, and will be discussing USURPER, my first historical novel, due out in April. And to round all that off, to ensure that I’ve covered the entire spectrum of my literary interests – crime thrillers and historical adventures thus far – I’m also going to dive into the world of supernatural horror, by offering my usual detailed review of Steve Duffy’s latest collection, THE FACES AT YOUR SHOULDER.

As usual, you’ll find that review in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s post. So, don’t hesitate to get down there straight away, if that’s all you’re here for.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in my work too, perhaps you might first want to check out …

Local TV

Those who follow this blog, or read my books, will already know that my most recent crime novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, was recently made the subject of a high-profile arts competition in the West Midlands, when the challenge was issued by the much-lauded Birmingham Art Zone to a group of local painters, requiring them each to condense and convert that 130,000-word crime thriller into a single canvas.

It was my suggestion originally, but it was still an enormous thing to ask of them.

How do you convey an entire book in one painting?

However, three of them undertook the challenge; they each creating their own interpretation of NEVER SEEN AGAIN, and last November, I, as the original author, was asked to attend a special ceremony at the Velvet Music Rooms on Broad Street, Birmingham, to select the winner.

It was a high pressure situation, as I’m sure you can appreciate, especially given that the three artists – Helen Owen, Helen Roberts and Paula Gabb – were standing there smiling at me at the time. But it had to be done, and it was.

The picture topside depicts myself and Mike Olley, Westside Bid boss, who organised this whole thing, standing with three finalist paintings, while on the right here, Lorraine Olley, Birmingham singer and media personality, presents me with the difficult choice.

For the full skinny on this story, just scroll back through these blogposts to last November, and you’ll find it all there. I do need to add though, that what even those who are regulars on here may not know is that the entire process, more or less from conception of the idea to the unveiling and judging ceremony several months later, was filmed by West Midlands TV journalist, Nick Duffy. Multiple interviews were also held, all captured on Nick’s trusty camera, and trips were even made to our home towns, to assess the inspirations behind our various artistic endeavours. The final result, a 20-minute-long documentary, called Paul Finch - Never Seen Again: A Novel Imagined Through Art, which I’ve already had the privilege of viewing, and which frankly amazed me with how well shot and edited it was, not to mention the way it managed to catch the whole of this quite dramatic event (in my life, at least) in such a brief time without leaving out a moment of tension or suspense, is a remarkable piece of TV art in its own right from Nick.

That’s the good news.
The really good news is that everyone else will now get a chance to see it too. 

This evening, Friday Feb 10, at 6.15pm, a three minute and 25 second highlight programme will air on the Local TV Network with repeats across Saturday and Sunday. You will find it on Freeview 7 and Virgin 159 (Leeds TV, Yorkshire TV, North Wales TV, South Wales TV, Tees TV, Tyne TV, North East TV, Birmingham TV, West Midlands TV, Bristol TV, Cardiff TV, Liverpool TV). I’m assuming, though it seems a safe bet, that these highlights will also carry links to wherever online you can view the whole thing, should you be so inclined.

Heck latest

On a not unrelated subject, I now want to talk about some of my earlier crime novels.

The Heck series is pretty well what put me on the thriller-writing map. I commenced penning these novels around 2012, having, prior to that, spread myself a little more widely, covering horror, sci-fi, Dr Who and so on. But the Heck novels, published by Avon at HarperCollins, which in some ways, I suppose, took the hardboiled thriller about as far as it could go in terms of gritty realism, brutal violence and uber-dark subject matter (if I do say so myself), became a big success for me.

I’m continually asked by fans whether or not the series will continue, as with the seventh Heck book, KISS OF DEATH, I left them all on something of a cliff-hanger.

Well, in answer to that, I firstly should apologise. It wasn’t my intention to let this huge period of time intervene in the series, but the end of Heck 7 coincided with a change of publisher and with the Covid outbreak, both of which contrived to send my writing schedule haywire. Even at the time, I didn’t just write Heck; I had many other fictional irons in the fire, which I wanted to get out there. So, it all ended up being a bit of a muddle.

But I can guarantee for any fans reading this that Heck is very far from finished. Since the last book was published in 2018, I’ve written two more Mark Heckenburg novels, picking up directly from where the last one ended. When people ask – and that seems to happen, even now, at a rate of about three and four times a day, I can only reply that publishing these novels is not within my control (unless I opt to publish them myself, of course); it’s down to whoever my publisher happens to be at the time, and many of them have their own schedule chaos to contend with, even now, a couple of years after Covid ‘ended’.

So, it’s not at all straightforward, but I reiterate to all the Heck readers that, whatever happens, however beyond my control it may seem to be at present, I absolutely and firmly assure you that the Heck series has NOT finished. More Heck novels are already written and just waiting to be published, and more are forthcoming. I just beg you all to be patient a little bit longer.

And now let’s go way back into the …

Mists of time

It’s been both a fascinating and a harrowing experience writing my new historical adventure novel, USURPERBOOK ONE OF THE WULFBURY CHRONICLES, which will be published by Canelo on April 27 this year.

I can say this safely now, because I’ve put the final touches to it, and it’s left my desk never to return.

The reason I say ‘harrowing’ is because it’s very much new territory for me. I like to think that I know the Middle Ages, particularly the early Middle Ages, very well. I studied it at degree level, and I’ve been obsessed with historical adventure literature all my life. But finally put pen to paper and writing one of my own was a very new experience and a challenge.

(I have written in the pre-mechanised era before, long ago now, when I wrote STRONGHOLD and DARK NORTH, but if you follow those links, you’ll see that they were fantasy novels rather than actual history).

With USURPER, there were so many more details I had to take care of than I was used to, so much more research to carry out. And when it came to the actual writing, it was vital, I felt, to pace it correctly. Now, you may think that for a professional author, that ability ought to be baked in, and or course, whether you’re writing about the 21st century or the 11th, it shouldn’t make a lot of difference. You don’t want to bog your readers down with extraneous material. You want to keep them hooked. You want the narrative to keep bouncing along. But there are things you simply must take into account, if for no other reason than authenticity. The pace of life was slower then, long-range communications were almost nonexistent, educated folk were few and far between, it was an age of unquestioning faith and acceptance of status (or lack of it). What did all this mean for the progress of the plot, for the dialogue, for intellectual discourse between characters, even for the way individuals thought when going about their everyday business?

As I say, a challenge. And only you guys, the readers, will be able to judge whether I rose to it or not.

In the meantime, I’m happy to report that the final proof-read is done – again, it’s something very new in my writing experience, having to deal, not just with Latin, but with Ancient Greek as well! – and the book has now gone into production, complete with its snazzy new cover and some amazing quotes from some very esteemed historical fiction writers, all of whom have been fulsome in their praise.

The next time we see it, it will be for sale, which is not a nerve-wracking thought at all, is it?


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 Steve Duffy (2023)

Okay, I’m going to say it out loud: Steve Duffy is one of the very best purveyors of ghost and horror fiction working in the English language today. The fact that he is criminally under-published in the wider mass-market is the mass-market’s own fault, and it’s a big one. Those who specialise in reading supernatural fiction will of course know about him already, as his short stories and novellas have appeared prolifically in numerous magazines and anthologies for the best part of the last 30 years, but the wider reading public don’t and that is definitely their loss.

It may be partly through Duffy’s own choice that he hasn’t yet conquered the literary world. He clearly prefers to work in the short form, and we all know the disdain that so many of the big publishing houses hold for that. But I still consider it a tragedy that works as exquisitely penned as these are denied to so many readers of spooky (or even wider mainstream) fiction, not least because in some of even his shortest stories, the ideas behind then are mind-blowingly massive. At least Duffy now seems to have found a reliable and high-quality home at Sarob Press, who to date have published two of his six short story collections, this one, The Faces at Your Shoulder being the second.

Before I say anything else, I’ll let Sarob introduce this one themselves, with their own promotional blurb:

Where are the monsters? Sometimes they’re right behind you.

In this new collection of six novelettes – three are wholly original to this volume – Steve Duffy invites us to look over our shoulders, and asks us whether we recognise the faces that we see. Some of them are all too human, some are animals, and some are like nothing we’ve ever seen – yet.

In the snowy wastes of the Yukon and the mining country of Appalachia an age-old terror is unwittingly unleashed…

After-hours at the Pacific View diner, meet a glamorous, mysterious film star and uncover a monstrous bargain…

In Streatham or in Ethiopia, you must be careful what you wish for – very careful – or anything might happen…

Christmas is a time for family, and that means dark secrets, desperate desires and occult constructs…

Down at the zoo something is stirring: the animals know, but the warders won’t realise until it’s already too late…

Young love blossoms at the New York World’s Fair, but the future has its own agenda…

Steve Duffy’s subject-matter of choice is eclectic to say the least. He writes accessibly and entertainingly in almost any environment, the backgrounds in this collection alone ranging from a drab suburban zoo in present-day Britain to Hollywood in the age of the casting couch and gangland moll. In days gone by, he was a master of the Jamesian school of ghost story, both in terms of period and place, though at the same time he produced socially cutting tales of modern-day anguish and urban society gone mad, many of our contemporary ills wrapped up as unique kinds of monsters or revenants. Quite often, he likes to invoke a prosaic atmosphere, but this is invariably to lull his readers into a false sense of security, because one thing you also always get with Mr Duffy is a big supernatural twist, though it will never be something obvious.

The Faces at Your Shoulder, which contains three original pieces alongside three cherry-picked reprints, is a perfect case in point. If anything, this book has a distinctly 20th century American flavour, but the menace flowing through it, which, though it’s always so clever that you never see it coming (even if it several times hints at Armageddon!), arrives in a wide variety of shapes and forms, few of which you’ll have encountered before.

Anyway, enough of my hyperbole. As The Faces at Your Shoulder contains only six stories (all fairly lengthy), I won’t do what I usually do with collections, which is select the tales I liked the best and talk about them in extra detail. Instead, I’ll run through them all in chronological order. And as I always enjoy doing some fantasy casting at the end, I’ll do the same here, only will invent a TV series adaptation and pick out a few actors for each episode (all in the spirit of having a laugh of course – I only wish it wasn’t, though with the casts I choose, I’d be pushing my luck even at mega-budget).

Now, time to let the stories do the talking:

The Oram County Whoosit

Virginia of the 1920s. When two journalists are assigned to write about a strange and frightening creature found in a coal mine, they think it just another hoax. After all, this is the golden age of huckster sideshow folk. However, this may be different. The older guy in particular is a little concerned, wondering why the find reminds him of a terrifying experience he had back during the days of the Gold Rush …

A much anthologised slice of ‘HP Lovecraft meets Jack London’, strong characters, an atmospheric backdrop and the author having great fun in a geographic realm where he’s rarely ventured before.

In our imaginary TV show:
Fenwick – Nicholas Hoult
Keith – Tommy Lee Jones

The Soul is a Bird

A dying pensioner relates an incredible tale to his nephew, how, way back in 1933, he offered sanctuary to a famous and beautiful movie star seemingly in trouble with the mob, only to hear that it wasn’t money she owed, but her soul, and that after seven years of fame and fortune, a very dark power was calling in the debt …

The first of the trio of original stories, a 20th century Faustian pact at the heart of the Hollywood dream, some convincingly devilish villains and a grand finale straight out of Weird Tales

In our imaginary TV show:
Norm – Miles Teller
Alice – DeWanda Wise
Eira Lure – Margot Robbie

In the Days Before the Monsters

When a mystical stone falls from the prehistoric sky, it grants free wishes to all those who come in contact with it. In due course, venerated as something celestial, it is kept in an ark in deepest Abyssinia, only to pass eventually into the hands of bandits, then to an international thief, and finally to London, where a youngster who thinks only of dinosaurs gets his hands upon it …

Probably the first ever Steve Duffy tale in which monsters literally abound. Strong hints of Indiana Jones and even Dr Who of the 1970s, and even though it’s done partly with tongue in cheek, the cosmic concept at the heart of it is so convincingly presented, and the setting so ‘everyday’, that it’s really quite unnerving.

In our imaginary TV show:
Ajani – Alexander Siddig
Henry – Djimon Honsou

The Psychomenteum

The Christmas of 1944 is ruined when Baltimore kids, Grayson and Chuck, and their henpecked dad are forced by their strong-willed mom to take a road-trip to Alabama, specifically to visit the remnants of her once aristocratic southern family in their faded palatial home. The reason: mom is convinced something bad has happened to her brother in the Pacific, and for reasons she won’t explain, feels certain that only back home can they make contact with him …

The most Gothic story in the novel, but also the most psychologically twisted in terms of several of its characters. For all the intensity of the genuinely bone-chilling supernatural undercurrent, it’s the level of human corruption on show here that makes the lasting impact.

In our imaginary TV show:
Mom – Jessica Biel

The Lion’s Den

A zookeeper relates the baffling events leading up to the closure of the zoo where he worked, and how it all started with a visitor, behaving like a madman as he climbed into the lions’ enclosure, stripped naked and lectured the angry beasts in a language no one understood, and then vanished. And how afterwards, the animals, seemingly now with minds of their own, set about dismantling of all the park’s safety and security procedures …

Probably the most startling concept in the entire collection, again superbly grafted onto a deceptively mundane scenario. It’s a slow-burn idea, but as it unfolds you’ll literally be gobsmacked at its potential ramifications.

In our imaginary TV show:
The Keeper – Kris Marshall


New York, the late 1930s. Young Zack lands a job at the World’s Fair as a spotter at ‘Futureboro’, the city of the future. However, bizarre acts of vandalism, violence and political extremism start marring the miniaturised cityscape, seemingly reflecting events in Europe. Henny, a Jewish engineer on the project, is concerned that it’s linked to Yoyodyne, who built Futureboro, but who are also developing a hi-tech bomb-delivery system, which they shortly expect to make them very rich …

The most cerebral tale in the book closes out proceedings. The main horror here stems from the hindsight we all now share about the outcome of political zealotry in the first half of the 20th century, but it’s such a well-told tale, so subtle and sophisticated in terms of its conception and execution, that its appeal reaches far beyond the world of the scary story.

In our imaginary TV show:
Zack – Alex Wolff
Henny – Michael Shannon

Okay, that’s The Faces at Your Shoulder, the sixth collection to date from an author whose appeal lies not just in his writing style, which, despite being tight as a corkscrew, nearly always feels fulsome in the best sort of way, but in his concepts, which – and this is especially on show here – travel far beyond the normal conventions of horror fiction, even though they are horrific and scary in every sense of those terms!

Why not check his work out and see for yourself?