Thursday 30 March 2023

When swords and axes ruled the battlefield

For the next few weeks, we – as in Canelo Books and me – will be moving full tilt towards publication of my first ever serious historical novel, USURPER, published on April 27. I don’t want to give too much away, though by now, if you’ve been reading any of the advance material, it’ll be plain that the story is set during the autumn of 1066, against the backdrop of the dual invasion of England by both a Viking army and a Norman army at the same time.

If you’ve been checking things out online, you may have noted that the book has already accrued a number of glowing endorsements by some very respectable authors of historical action-fiction. Several comments I’ve received from these august wordsmiths have mentioned the battle scenes, which they appear to have appreciated greatly.

In honour of that, this week I thought I’d cast an eye over the ten best pre-industrial age battle scenes that Hollywood has thus far attempted. Please feel free to agree with my choices, or disagree, as you see fit, in the comments section or on Facebook, Twitter or wherever. In addition, on the subject of war, and bringing things forward somewhat worryingly close to our modern era, I’ll be reviewing Steve Alten’s sci-fi military epic, GOLIATH.

If you’re only here for the Alten review, that’s no problem. You’ll find it as always at the lower end of today’s column in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Just shoot on down there straight away. For the rest of you though, assuming you’ve got a spare moment or two, why not check out some of …


Again, just a bit of fun, this item. Something we can chat idly about over a brew. Basically, I’ve picked ten pre-gunpowder era battle scenes from movies I admire. But there are certain criteria I’ve imposed on myself. 

To start with, they can only be recreations of named battles that really happened in history. So, that rules out the likes of Lord of the Rings (2001/3), Game of Thrones (2011/19), Excalibur (1981), The Warlord (1966) and even the amazing opening sequence in Gladiator (2000), which was basically an amalgam of many battles and skirmishes fought by Rome’s frontier legions in the Danube region during the 170s AD rather than one single individual action.

I’ve also stipulated for myself that I can only call on battle scenes that made at least an attempt to be realistic. So unfortunately, that also discounts the battle of Thermopylae as portrayed in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), because artistically brilliant though it was, it owed far more to Frank Miller’s original graphic novel than actual history. 

Likewise, it sidelines Anthony Mann’s colossal epic of the Reconquista, El Cid (1961), as the real battle that drove the Berber horde back from the city of Valencia in 1094 was on the inland plains, not the coast, and even Mel Gibson’s multi Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995), which, while it recreated two major historical battles – Stirling Bridge (1297) and Falkirk (1298) – is infamous the world over for its lack of historical correctness (the Stirling Bridge sequence is stupendously blood-soaked, but it doesn’t even include a bridge).

As a final rule, the movies I choose should also have been made in the English language. Please don’t get on my case about that. Though in polite company I always discuss classic motion pictures like Alexander Nevsky (1938), Kagemusha (1980) and Red Cliff (2008) as if I know what I’m talking about, the truth is that I’m no expert on foreign films and it won’t pay to pretend that I am.

Okay … them’s the rules, as they say. In order of preference, let’s get cracking.

Chimes at Midnight, 1965

One of the greatest battles ever committed to celluloid, and all the more impressive because of its shoestring budget. Director/star Orson Welles condensed several of Shakespeare’s plays into this single account of the Northern Earls’ Rebellion, which threatened the stability of the entirety of mainland Britain. Shrewsbury was a bloody affair indeed, an estimated 12,000 dying on the field, Welles recreating it with incredible ingenuity, using swirling mist, flying mud, blood and splintered shields to mask his relatively limited numbers, yet it remains eye-poppingly intense.

Spartacus, 1960

Everyone remembers the ‘I am Spartacus’ moment, but it wouldn’t have been as effective if it hadn’t come directly after the Battle of the River Sele, which in real life was fought upland and saw the heroic leader of the slave army confronted by three of Rome’s most proficient generals, Pompey, Lucullus and Crassus (with Julius Caesar in attendance as a junior officer). Hollywood legend Stanley Kubrick (still only 32) gave us one of cinema’s most realistic ever portrayals of Roman legionary tactics, and got up close and personal with burnings and hackings galore.

Kingdom of Heaven, 2005

Though as a prelude to this massive engagement, the Christian army of Outremer suffered the greatest defeat in its history at the hands of Islam’s ablest general, Sultan Saladin of Egypt, at Hattin, it was the follow-up action at Jerusalem that caught the eye of regular epic film-maker, Ridley Scott. Though much maligned thanks to the incomprehensible truncated version of this movie released by the studio, the director’s cut remains a visual feast, and culminates in one of the most impressively mounted battles against a bastion that Hollywood has ever given us.

Alexander, 2004

Though poorly received overall, Oliver Stone’s Alexander rises to some memorable battles, and it’s fitting that one of the most important in the Ancient World is given such prominence. Briefly at least, the unending tussle between Greece and Persia was settled when Alexander pitted his numerically inferior but better trained army against the vast but mostly indentured forces of Darius III. The outcome was in doubt to the end, and Stone sticks to that narrative, emphasising the Macedonian king’s ability to make key strategic changes even in the midst of mayhem.

Henry V, 1988

The scale of England’s victory over France in this most famous battle of the Hundred Years War is staggering even now. Henry’s hungry, dysentery-ridden 8,000 overcame the flower of French chivalry, who were closer to 30,000, laying 10,000 of them dead in the mud of that bitter October day, losing only a few hundred in return. It was a triumph for discipline over enthusiasm, for the longbow over plate armour. But Ken Branagh’s version doesn’t glorify any of it, those left alive on the corpse-strewn field at the end shattered husks of the men they’d been.

The Last Kingdom, 2015

Though much of The Last Kingdom owes mainly to Bernard Cornwell’s imagination, in which most of the early English state’s best wins over the Vikings are attributed to his semi-fictional hero, Uhtred, rather than the real leaders, at least this TV adaptation’s version of Alfred the Great’s mightiest victory is as close as damn it to the true event. The hideous meat-grinder of two hefty shield-walls clashing repeatedly over piles of butchered corpses, so characteristic of Saxon and Viking age warfare, is captured perfectly in this brutal bloodbath of attrition.

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, 1999

Some may argue that Joan of Arc’s greatest triumph lay in her personal martyrdom for what she considered a holy cause, but in purely tactical terms, it was her defeat of the English forces entrenched in the fortified city of Orleans, which turned the tide of the Hundred Years War, so it’s perhaps no surprise that it took a French director, Luc Besson, to give us a committed and realistically workmanlike portrayal of this crucial military enterprise, in which all manner of medieval artillery is used, the English defences falling section by section as a direct result.

Exodus: Gods and Kings, 2014

One of the earliest battles we have a written record of, Kadesh saw the celebrated pharaoh, Ramesses II, strike a heavy blow against Egypt’s great rivals of that era, the Hittites. Whether it belongs in a movie about Moses is another matter, but both Ramesses and Kadesh are referred to repeatedly in non-Biblical texts, and it seems entirely fair that Ridley Scott should have featured this epic struggle in his most religious movie. To add authenticity, he gives the Egyptian chariot force a leading role, for it was this mobile arm that swung the battle in Ramesses’ favour.

Outlaw King, 2018

Often overlooked for its bigger, noisier cousin, Braveheart, Outlaw King shows us the early days of Robert the Bruce, focussing on one of his first successes. Director David Mackenzie makes much more effort than Mel Gibson did to depict the era as it was, dispensing with any notion of Bronze Age face-paint and 16th century tartan, to tell a more emotionally and factually complex story, the whole thing culminating at Loudoun Hill, where the fighting, while it borrows some detail from the later victory at Bannockburn, is tactically accurate and appropriately grim and desperate.

Alfred the Great, 1969

The first major victory for an English army over the seemingly unstoppable Viking horde that invaded Britain in the mid-9th century. Alfred the Great, then only a prince, won the day by luring the overconfident Danes into an ambush, which was very neatly depicted in Clive Donner’s ‘warts and all’ 1969 account. And while the presence on the battle site of the Uffington White Horse is ahistorical – no one knows for sure whether the colossal figure was cut into the hillside before or after this war – it makes for a truly atmospheric location.


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.

GOLIATH by Steve Alten (2002)

Tough and efficient female naval officer, Commander Rochelle ‘Rocky’ Jackson, is participating in ocean manoeuvres on board the USS Ronald Reagan when something unprecedented happens. Without warning, the US fleet, one of the most well-equipped and professionally managed fighting forces in the world, is attacked from below by Goliath, a US-developed, manta ray-shaped super-sub, a gigantic, futuristic undersea battle-platform armed with every kind of missile and torpedo, including multiple nuclear warheads.

It is a remarkably one-sided fight. The US fleet is totally destroyed, with Rocky Jackson one of the few survivors. Some 8,000 men go to watery graves.

Naturally, the world convulses in shock. Initially, the US military think the Chinese responsible, as it was the Chinese who acquired the blueprint for Goliath at an early stage due to the actions of senior engineer and former spec ops hero, Gunnar Wolfe. Wolfe, fearing an imbalance of power in the world, committed treason by handing over state secrets, and was subsequently sent to Leavenworth. But it actually isn’t the Chinese. They went ahead and built the Goliath prototype, at phenomenal cost, even installing ‘Sorceress’, a highly advanced biomechanical nano-brain – only for the vehicle then to get stolen from right under their noses by Simon Covah, a former Soviet sub-commander and a military and mechanical genius.

Driven mad by the murder of his family at the hands of Kosovan terrorists, and the general state of a world riven apart by tyranny and fear, Covah, now aided by a cohort of physically and emotionally disfigured partisans, is in possession of the deadliest weapon on Earth, and takes refuge with it at the bottom of the ocean. A stealth-craft, Goliath is undetectable even near the surface and so is completely invisible down in the abyss, from where its new controller attempts to blackmail humanity, threatening nuclear devastation if his long list of terms is not met.

As these terms include the public executions of known despots, the dismantling of various police states and the disassembly of everyone else’s nuclear arsenals, the US realises that it can’t bargain with Covah. But neither can it defeat him in a straight fight. The US also knows that he’s as good as his word; it isn’t long before atomic destruction is raining down on certain selected targets.

A team of experts is swiftly put together to try and countermand the madman. Rocky Jackson, who worked on Goliath during its early stages, is one of them. Another is her ex-boyfriend now turned reviled traitor, Gunnar Wolfe, as he too was involved in the development programme. Naturally, they are antagonistic to each other, though for the time-being at least they must put their differences aside.

It still seems like the tallest order imaginable, and things are only going to get worse. Because the real problem on board Goliath is not the deranged Covah, but Sorceress. The hi-tech computer has finally developed AI and is quietly hatching its own coldly logical and vastly more terrifying strategy …

At best, Goliath is a high-octane techno-thriller with some lightweight political stuff woven in, a few warnings about the dangers of state-of-the-art computer science, and numerous of Steve Alten’s trademark gripping action sequences. It’s basically a load of fun. The reason you’ve probably not heard about it though is because, with almost indecent speed after publication, it was overtaken by real-life world events.

It first hit the shelves in 2002, a time when, though there was constant trouble in the world, particularly in the Middle East, it hadn’t reached anything like the catastrophic state of affairs that exists today. This doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the book, especially if you view it as a kind of alternate history, though the unfolding events of the 2000s in Goliath take a very different direction from those in our own experience, so it jars quite hard on first reading. That said, in some ways, the book is worryingly prophetic. Both Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi die violently during the course of it (though probably less horribly than they did in reality in 2003 and 2011 respectively).

Another slight problem – and this perhaps is being picky – is that in Goliath the US is once again the hero nation, the team of good guys that sets out to save the planet and ultimately succeeds in bringing down this most monstrous manmade threat with minimal help from anyone else. Okay, it’s not quite as simplistic as that. For the most part, Alten adopts a mature approach, and incorporates lots of Machiavellian intrigue, with various senior politicians and military men putting their own interests first, failing to see the bigger picture – all that kind of thing. But ultimately in this day and age, whether rightly or wrongly, not everyone on Earth views the US as their inevitable friend and saviour.

That’s hardly Steve Alten’s fault, of course. He’s an American writer and he writes about his own people first. No quibbles there. But this may be one other reason why the book is not widely regarded as a classic action romp. Because I’ll be absolutely honest … Alten has a prodigious talent for writing about modern-day technology, weaponry, military uniforms, military procedures and the like, and I don’t think he’s ever done it as well as he does it here. It’s all incredibly vivid and accessible. On top of that, it’s a lightning read. You can see and hear everything that’s happening easily and coherently, and yet Alten sacrifices none of his narrative’s pace or energy to achieve this. It’s almost like a well-written movie script, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Goliath had perhaps commenced its life in that format. It’s got ‘blockbuster action film’ written all over it, though as I say, real historic events suddenly ran way ahead.

On the downside, the characters are perhaps a little clichéd. Rocky Jackson, an archetypical GI Jane, and Gunnar Wolfe, the tough guy with a conscience, are made-to-measure heroes: handsome, athletic, highly qualified, unfeasibly skilled in a massive range of disciplines. The back-story about Wolfe’s betrayal is interesting in terms of setting up their fire-and-water relationship, but it starts to intrude after a while, and, being frank, he did commit treason. It’s difficult not to empathise a little bit with those former colleagues who don’t trust him enough to bring him back on board, and I couldn’t help wondering why certain others, including Rocky’s dad, General ‘Bear’ Jackson, who at one time nearly became Gunnar’s father-in-law, would.

It would also be wrong not to mention that a sentient but crazed computer is not a new concept. Just off the top of my head, I can think of two earlier examples: Colossus by DF Jones (1966) and of course 2001 by Arthur C. Clarke (1968); so, while Alten gets plaudits for exploring our increasing paranoia about advanced AI, it isn’t monumentally original.

But hey … this is sci-fi fantasy, and it’s tackled by the author with an immense, contagious gusto. I freely admit that I found myself devouring Goliath, racing through the pages as we progressed from one high point to the next, a succession of huge, thunder-flashing, hull-crunching, metal-splintering action sequences, not a single one of which disappointed me.

Just treat it as the rip-roaring undersea (and oversea) yarn that it is, and it should keep your attention until the very last page.

As always – purely for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Goliath is ever adapted for film or TV (though it would need some significant rewriting in terms of its plot first – and that never happens in Hollywood, does it!):

Rocky Jackson – Zoe Saldana
Gunnar Wolfe – Jensen Ackles
Simon Corvah – Mark Rylance
General ‘Bear’ Jackson – Ving Rhames

Sunday 12 March 2023

Twenty high points of horror in British TV

Well, I’m still in a holding pattern at present with regard to blogposts. There are several announcements I want to make, but simply can’t. So, perhaps you can indulge me and we’ll just have a fun post this week. 

Today therefore, purely for a laugh, I thought I’d give you My TOP 20 SCARIEST BRITISH TV HORROR MOMENTS.

Note that I said ‘TV’, not cinema. However, we’ll also be venturing into the world of literary horror today, because in addition to that, I’ll be reviewing THE DEVIL TAKES YOU HOME by Gabino Iglesias, a fascinating and terrifying crime novel, which ranges much further into the darkness than almost any other thriller I’ve read to date.

If you’re only here for the Iglesias review, that’s no problem. Just do the usual thing. Scoot down to the bottom end of today’s post, to the Thrillers, Chillers section, and you’ll find it there.

But, before we crack on with Brit TV’s best ever terror, check this out.

Why 1066?

I’m not going to spend too much time on this, because the podcast does most of the talking, but my new novel, a historical adventure called USURPER, is out in just over one month’s time. There’ll probably be quite a bit of promotional stuff appearing on this over the next few months, and last week I was pleased to get the ball rolling by being interviewed by Dick Newman for the Australian-based podcast, ENGLISH HISTORY, FACT AND FICTION, a chat in which we focussed on that most apocalyptic year in the history of England, why I chose it and how I sought to milk the most darkness and drama out of it that I possibly could. And, well, here it is now. Those interested, please feel free to check it out. The interview kicks in at around 45.


A quick update on the Heck series, primarily because people keep tweeting me and asking, which I massively appreciate, by the way (I love it that the books made such an impact). All I can do is reiterate that the series is not finished. Two new Heck novels have been written, the first one picking up exactly where the last one left off, and I am as eager as anyone else to see them on the shelves. But I am NOT in full control of publishing schedules. There are other people involved in the process, and it’s always a matter of all our interests falling into line. But I ASSURE those of you to whom this matters, that the series is NOT done, and at some point soon, the next Heck novel will be published.

And now …


(As strongly influenced by HORRIFIED MAGAZINE 

It seems bizarre in this day and age, when many of our network broadcasters seem convinced that fly-on-the-wall docu-soaps are vastly more captivating for British TV audiences than original drama or comedy, but television in the UK was once a seedbed of genuinely frightening horror.

The golden era of this was probably the 1970s and 1980s, when a plethora of horror anthology shows, aimed both at adults and younger viewers, darkened our screens. But you could go way further back than that, with Nigel Kneale’s ground-breaking Quatermass series (pictured at the top), which ran throughout the 1950s, and Dr Who of course, which kicked off in 1963, a so-called children’s TV show that would go on to scare the pants of viewers of all ages on umpteen occasions. 

Also in the ’60s, and perhaps in terms of harder core horror, we had Mystery and Imagination (1966-1970), Late Night Horror (1968) and Journey to the Unknown (1968/69), not all of which, sadly, remain intact in the television archive.

As I say, it was really the 1970s when British TV genuinely picked up the horror torch and ran with it. The tone was set, weirdly enough, with a whole range of public information films, many of them again aimed at children, warning the UK populace about the dangers of everyday life. No one, but no one, forgets Lonely Water (1973), in which horror veteran Donald Pleasence played a menacing hooded figure who haunted the banks of isolated rivers, canals and millponds, just waiting to drown unwary youngsters. 

But that was only the start of it. Even British TV’s exponents of higher culture got in on the act, Play for Today hitting the nation with Robin Redbreast in 1970 and Penda’s Fen in 1974.

In terms of actual horror shows, the ’70s and ‘80s produced some bona fide classics, Doom Watch, Dead of Night, Thriller, Ghost Story for Christmas, Beasts, Shadows, Supernatural, Hammer House of Horror, Tales of the Unexpected, Shades of Darkness, among many others.

Shows like these became thinner on the ground in later decades, but there are still one or two highlights post-1989 that are worth mentioning. Stephen Gallagher’s Chimera, a chilling adaptation of his own highly intelligent 1982 sci-fi/horror novel, hit our screens in 1992, while Ghosts in 1995 successfully revived the spirit of those earlier supernatural portmanteau dramas.

But enough of all this. You didn’t come here today to get a TV history lesson. If you want one of those, you can easily learn more on the subject from far more scholarly websites than this. As I’ve already mentioned, HORRIFIED MAGAZINE is a great place to start, and SCARRED FOR LIFE vols 1 and 2 would help as well. But perhaps if you’re keen to zero in on a few high points, this list below will be of interest.

As I say, it’s my personal Top 20 Scariest Moments in British TV Horror. I’m sure there’ll be many arguments about absentees. No Warning to the Curious? No Robin Redbreast? No reference at all to the legendary younger viewers’ series, Children of the Stones? Surely that one’s worthy of a mention?

Well … yes, they all are. But there is insufficient time and room here for an encyclopaedic account. So, you’ll just have to make do with the really good moments I remember best, though by all means feel free to point out any particularly shocking absences in the Comments section. The more the merrier.

Anyway, let’s get on with it …

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror was much given over to dystopian futures, but this one hits us with a sneaky double-bluff, its bedraggled heroine staggering through a protracted but corny succession of sci-fi/horror twists and turns, only for it to turn out that she’s the main actor in a popular but horrific game-show. A slick comment on our modern habit of filming torture rather than trying to stop it.

2. BABY – BEASTS (1976)

Nigel Kneale’s first appearance on this list but far from his last. Perhaps it seems a little talkie by modern standards, but not a word is really wasted as the doomed young couple at the heart of it eagerly renovate their olde worlde country cottage, only to find something very nasty embedded in the wall. At this stage, of course, they don’t know the real meaning of ‘nasty’, but they soon will.


An amazingly atmospheric adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story masterclass. The directing, the acting, the writing (of course Mr Kneale again!), everything is pitch-perfect. The location is dreariness personified, and yet possesses an atmosphere of strangeness and dread that owes nothing to cinematic trickery. It also contains one of the scariest spectres in TV history.


Something of an arthouse effort for the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas slot, perhaps because it was part of the Omnibus series. It amounts to a very faithful recreation of one of Sheridan Le Fanu’s most frightening short stories. Beautifully dressed, impressively underplayed, directed as though it’s actually a succession of Flemish School paintings, and boasting a truly terrifying denouement.


Another of Black Mirror’s dystopian parables, as penned by Charlie Brooker, this time following the fortunes of a military unit, and one soldier in particular, as they track down and wipe out nests of so-called ‘roaches’, savage humanoid insurgents who are ruining the land. The real horror, of course, is the mind control by which the troopers are persuaded to view these innocent intruders as a threat.


Cosy crime meets full-on horror in a TV series that simply refused to pull its punches when it came to scaring its audience. Antonia Fraser wrote the original novel as part of her Jemima Shore series, in which there was much to do with big inheritances, country houses and murder, but this one is worth including simply for episode 3 and the bone-chilling appearance of the infamous Black Nun.


One of the earliest episodes of Thriller, number three in the first series, and one that would cut deeply with anyone who’s ever stayed in a low-rent bedsit. The rickety stairs, the dingy passages, the strange sounds from the other rooms, the increasingly weird fellow occupants, and the occasional moments of 1970s sleaze all place this one firmly in Pan Book of Horror Stories country.


One of the most memorable of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, and the first to be adapted from non-MR James source material. The eerie tunnel mouth location, the enshrouding fog, the constant bleakness of the moors and, of course, Denholm Elliot’s performance as the harrowed and haunted hero of the title all last long in the festive memory.


The one episode of this hit and miss series that everyone remembers. With the case of the Amityville Horror still a talking-point, this tale of an innocent family hounded in their new home by a demonic force that either created or was caused by an act of pure evil, was timely indeed, and incorporated some spectacularly horrible moments. Remember the children’s party that became a bloodbath?


Another ingenious idea from Charlie Brooker, and a concept that could grace either Quatermass or Dr Who, a swarm of bee-bots, developed to help pollinate crops, being hacked and unleashed against a daily target of choice, as chosen by social media users. Not just an ominous vision of things to come, but a nightmare that might become reality even sooner than Brooker realised.


Supernatural was bedevilled by low budget production, sometimes playing the Blue Peter trick of offering simple line-drawings as excuses for exotic landscapes, but though all the stories trod familiar Gothic horror footpaths, this very different spin on Frankenstein added much, much more. Again, it’s too talkie, but the actual festival of the marionettes is a genuine eye-popper.

12. LEAVING LILY (1975)

A little-seen half-hour gem from the pen and director’s chair of Graham Baker. It concerns a young Norfolk farmhand determined to do his bit at the height of World War One, but while he spends his last day before enlistment with his village sweetheart, Lily, a menacing khaki-clad figure is slowly crossing the fens towards them, and with it, a terrible revelation.


The near total studio-bound production somehow fails to reduce the nightmarish quality of this episode from Hell. You never see the verminous antagonists, but the noise they make is mind-numbing, the screams of the dying appallingly real, while the cast give it everything they’ve got, slipping from suburban normality into childlike terror and despair with total conviction.


A vampire tale makes the cut. It’s not perfect, but all the tropes are there: the Grand Tour setting, the journey into the heart of a nameless land, the Gothic castle, the mysterious beauty who only appears at night, and the gleefully demonic nature of the undead, particularly in the guise of TV horror veteran John Justin, who is truly terrifying as the titular anti-heroine’s monstrous father.


An ultra-violent tale of the inner city to contrast sharply with the others on this list. The marvellous East End nightclub where it was mostly filmed, the fun that ‘old lag’ actors Leslie Grantham, Nicholas Ball, Ray Burdis and John Bowler all have in familiar underworld roles, and the story itself – a study of youthful arrogance taken to lethal levels – all conspire to make this a distinct cut above the rest of the series.

16. GHOSTWATCH (1992)

Stephen Volk’s ingenious foray into paranormal mockumentary long before anyone else thought of it. Based on the infamous Enfield haunting, Volk placed TV presenters Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene in a fabricated outside broadcast allegedly coming by live transmission from a suburban cul-de-sac, where a young family are in the grip of supernatural evil. It literally terrified the nation.


An ensemble cast partly perform and partly narrate this neat adaptation of one of Evelyn Waugh’s few horror stories. The genteel author originally intended this as a slice of dark, satirical humour, but it’s actually pretty grim. It tells the tale of an insane murderer and the ghastly thing he does when a naive socialite engineers his release from the asylum where he’s been held for 35 years.


By far one of Roald Dahl’s nastiest and most unnerving horror stories. It’s little wonder that, before it was adapted for TV, it was a mainstay of Pan Horror type anthologies. It concerns a travelling man, who arrives at a small guest house, which initially seems ideal, but from where no guest has ever re-emerged alive. A bit of a one-trick idea, but genuinely horrible.


Another high point in the unfortunately uneven Hammer House of Horror series. In this one, a nice family out on a road trip offer a lift to a mysterious hooded hitchhiker, only to find themselves at the mercy of an evil doppelganger. Ultimately, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s bone-chilling all the same, and it ends with a truly memorable denouement.

20. COUNT DRACULA (1977)

Louis Jourdan and Frank Finlay as the Count and Van Helsing respectively are the heart and soul of this very faithful adaptation of the novel, which is probably more of an heir to the Hammer style than anything committed to celluloid since. Lots of blood, but also lots of sex. Dracula is a lover as well as a monster in this version, which makes him a far more interesting character in his own right.


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 Gabino Iglesias (2022)

Life is a massive struggle for Mario, a native Texan of Puerto Rican descent. After a tough upbringing at the skirts of a drug addict mother, he started out with huge disadvantages, but never had much luck as an adult either, or much cash. But then the two true lights in his life are put out. When his beautiful young daughter, Anita, dies from an unusually deadly strain of leukaemia, his wife, Melisa, whom he loves dearly, goes into her shell, turning hostile to Mario, openly calling him a loser and a waste of space, and basically blaming him for all their misfortune, before abruptly leaving him.

Mario is plunged to horrendous depths by this, because in truth he’s already gone out of his way for his family. Having lost his minimal wage job through his constant attendance at the hospital, he eventually resorted to crime to pay Anita’s medical bills, his old mate, a methhead-turned-dealer called Brian securing him work as a small-time hitman. Mario, who’s essentially a moral guy, didn’t want to do it at first, but eventually convinced himself that the people he was killing were also underworld figures, who didn’t really deserve to live.

Ultimately of course, it was all for nothing, because he never earned enough to help his ailing daughter, and now it’s too late. Mario is thus a husk of a man when Brian comes calling again, this time with the offer of a high-paying job. It seems that just over the border, in Mexico, a certain Don Vasquez, a lesser crime lord overall but someone of great ambition, is looking to hire three freelance gunmen to hit a cash delivery for the Sinaloa Cartel. If it’s pulled off successfully, there’ll be huge rewards for all involved.

Brian is certainly taking the deal, along with Juanca, a superstitious ex-Cartel member with a long history of violence. At first, Mario is indifferent, unconcerned what happens to him. But then he begins to figure that with 200 large in his pocket, he might be able to entice Melisa back. Of course, they’ll be taking a staggeringly high risk. The Sinaloans are the kings of crime and vengeance in Mexico, and even beyond those borders. So, the robbers are told they’re going to need ‘special protection’. Again, Mario is okay with this, even if a bit baffled by what it actually means. He just wants to get the job done, reunite with Melisa and disappear.

But he has no comprehension of the Hell he is descending into.

To start with, Don Vasquez has well-earned his sinister reputation. His business partner, maybe his actual partner, is Gloria, a bruja, or witch, and it’s through her auspices that they will be ‘protected’, but they first must endure a series of diabolical, blood-soaked rituals, during which both the innocent and the not so innocent are horrifically tortured and mutilated.

Again, Mario seeks to excuse his presence in this company. The Cartel are the bad guys, so they deserve to be punished. He’s only doing this because he has no choice. All his life, he and his fellow brown-skinned folk have got the short end of the stick, so why should they worry about breaking a few rules themselves? But in truth, he’s starting to have doubts. Not just about himself, but about his co-bandits.

Juanca, it seems, is capable of murderous acts at the drop of a hat, and is mainly in this to get even with his former employers, on whose orders his brother was chopped to pieces while still alive (photographs of which atrocity, Juanca keeps in his car). Even Brian, most of the time a happy-go-lucky junky, continues to give away clues that he’s planning to acquire Mario’s wedge of the pay-off as well as his own. And all this time, they’re in possession of an eviscerated corpse, which they’re under orders to use in some way as a kind of weapon. Even Brian is bemused by this, continually asking what they’ve got it for, Juanca becoming increasingly irate the more often the subject is raised.

And of course, at the end of all this, if they even make it to the proposed ambush site, they’ve got to take on the Sinaloa Cartel, some of whose most experienced sicarios will be guarding the cash truck …

The first thing to say about The Devil Takes You Home is that it’s not your regular crime thriller. It’s not even your regular dope wars actioner. It is full of action, and it is set within the milieu of the dope wars. But it cuts much deeper than any of that.

One of the key subtexts Gabino Iglesias analyses here is evil. Evil as the utter absence of human morality, a vacuum of destructive chaos, and evil as an actual sentient force complete with demons and otherworldly monstrosities. And maybe evil as a combination of both, the pair of them cross-fertilising each other.

All through this book, our hero, Mario, who has been driven to the absolute end of his emotional tether, internalises and attempts to rationalise the acts of evil that he himself is either committing or standing by and allowing to happen. We hear much about the racism and prejudice that his people have been subjected to for so many generations. We are thoroughly persuaded that even by the standard of other modern day slums, life in the barrio is unlike any other form of existence. It’s cheap, it’s anonymous, no one on the outside cares about it. Mario is an American citizen, but he hails from a forgotten world where even basic necessities are hard to come by, and which most of the rest of the US does not want to know about, if it’s even aware that it exists.

All of these realities are given to us again and again as reasons for the unfolding nightmare in The Devil Takes You Home, and they are viable in that context. It’s no surprise that in Mario’s world, where there are so few indications that ‘the system’ accepted by the rest of western civilisation actually works, the gun rules and the gang member is king. But, you know, I’m not convinced that even Mario believes it 100%. This is a guy who was raised in the Christian tradition. Even now, he has much to do with saints and prayer. He is severely damaged, that much is evident, his constant failures often wrought on him by powers beyond his control, and then the untimely death of his daughter have all helped reduce him to a shadow of the man he could have been. But he still has a moral core, and he knows that all this is wrong, and deep down, he is shocked at how far he has somehow strayed from the path of the righteous.

In addition to all this, as I’ve already hinted, Gabino Iglesias contemplates evil as the work of an actual dark power, and this is the part that really separates The Devil Takes You Home from other crime thrillers of its ilk, because not only is it filled with scenes of horrific violence, it also contains visions, phantasms, witches, satanic practises and yes, even demons.

Whether that proves to be a problem for the reader is really up to them. It certainly breaks from crime fiction tradition, overlapping very comfortably into the world of horror. Personally, I like both, and combinations thereof are even better, so it worked excellently for me. But prospective buyers should be warned: much horror is also to be found in the graphic descriptions of underworld brutality. And this goes way past the average shoot-’em-up. We’re talking Don Winslow and The Cartel territory here: children systematically dismembered, adults disembowelled by crocodiles, merciless beatings that seem to go on for ages. And all the way through, the terrible looming menace of the Cartel, who are infamous for exercising vengeance the way a child would if granted absolute power, inflicting as much pain, fear and horror on their foes as they possibly can.

This is a real devil’s brew of a book (pun intended) in that regard, and again, it’s up to the individual reader how much he or she can take. Put it this way: I can take a lot, but I squirmed with discomfort on certain occasions.

But, how does it hold together as a novel? Is it more than the sum of all these grotesque parts?

Of all the books I’ve read, the one The Devil Takes You Home reminded me of most was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is also set along the US/Mexico border, and involves a band of desperadoes embarking on an odyssey of crime across the sun-baked badlands at the behest of a villain of such towering evil that he must surely be devilish, none of them able to trust each other let alone their actual enemies. Of course, Blood Meridian didn’t have the fantastical elements (aside from the landscapes), but The Devil Takes You Home is very similar in that it’s a personalised journey into the ultimate heart of human darkness, and a weary attempt to understand why bad men do the things they do.

In equal similarity to that time-honoured classic, Iglesias’s novel is beautifully and concisely written. The sense of place and character are all but tangible. Your skin burns to the touch of the Texas sun. You shudder at the presence of deranged and deformed individuals who scare you just by being on the page. And if at least one purpose of this story is to contrast the visceral, in-yer-face evils of this hellish place with maybe the wider-spread, more subtle evils of the ‘civilised world’, then it succeeds on that level too.

Maybe it’s not the great American novel that Blood Meridian is proclaimed to be, but The Devil Takes You Home lives long in the memory. It’s an ideal read for horror fans, and for thriller fans too if they can accept that certain cruel acts can indeed summon the darkness, but its appeal should go way beyond that, because there is much, much more to it.

And now, as usual, here’s my attempt to pre-empt the cast of this baby, should it end up on the silver screen at some point, which it surely must do. Only a bit of fun, of course.

Mario – Pedro Pascal (who else but the man of the moment?)
Brian – Bill Skarsgård
Juanca – Eugenio Derbez

(I have a little confession to make. The image accompanying the entry for LEAVING LILY in the 20 Top TV Horror Moments section is obviously not a screen-grab from British television. It is a reproduction of STORMTROOPERS ADVANCING UNDER GAS by Otto Dix, a German painter and WW1 veteran who specialised in creating horrific portrayals of that ghastly conflict, so I felt it was a reasonable replacement. LEAVING LILY has almost no footprint on the internet at present, though I understand that a video copy of it still exists in the archive, so it might at some point be re-released).