Wednesday, 26 April 2023

It's always a battle, but our books make it


I’m delighted to announce that today, my novel, USURPER, is published in paperback, on Kindle and on Audible. I’ve done a lot of talking about this over the last few weeks, and I’ve probably bored people to death with the endless numbers of excerpts and snippets that I’ve been posting on Twitter and Facebook, so today I’m going to let the book itself do most of the talking.

I’ll say one or two minor things, and then I’ll be posting a short video of me reading what I hope is a brief but juicy extract from the book (yeah, you’ll be getting the glory of me in person as well), so you can actually hear how it sounds and won’t just have to take my word for it.

There’s other book news to share today too, and that will move us away from the historical adventure milieu where USURPER dwells, back into the realm of suspense/horror, which I know is close to the hearts of a lot of people who check in here. That also means it’s okay for me to review another dark thriller this week, which I will be doing, though this one has got a bit of history (of a sort) attached to it as well (see what I did there?).

It’s THE GIRLS by Emma Cline, a very compelling study of a murderous cult. It’s a work of grim fiction but based closely on infamous real-life incidents.


If you’re only here for the Cline chat, that’s fine as always. Just nip straight down to the lower end of today’s column, the Thrillers, Chillers section, where all my book reviews dwell.

In the meantime though, if you want to hear USURPER, read by moi, let’s roll with …

A dark and terrible past

I’m obviously chuffed to bits that USURPER is hitting the bookshelves today. As I’ve already said, you can get it either in paperback, Kindle or on Audible. I’m not going to say much more than that, though, because it’s time to let the book speak for itself. I’ll just quickly reiterate that it’s my first ever historical novel that doesn’t feature fantasy elements (it does feature horror, though it’s horror of the human variety rather than anything supernatural).

It’s set during the autumn of 1066, at the commencement of the Norman Conquest of England, and tells the story of Cerdic, a young Saxon noble, who loses everything during the firestorm that soon engulfs his country, including his home and family. Left lost and wandering in a once-happy, prosperous realm, which has now been reduced to a corpse-strewn wilderness, he must somehow find it inside himself to win back his birthright. But he’s had no training for that. He was destined for the Church rather than warriorhood. He hasn’t even got a sword. 

All he possesses is his will to survive, and to succeed, and he’s going to need both of these, because the alternative is a quick death courtesy of foreign steel, or the lingering torture of enslavement, starvation, mutilation, maybe even castration. With slaughters and massacres at every turn, there’s no hope of reversing this terrible tide of history, but Cerdic is determined that he won’t be a victim of it. He’s going to live, and reclaim what once was his, and if a further lake of blood must be shed in the process, he’s adamant that his own won’t be mingled with it.


As a footnote to this tale, you might be interested to know, especially if you live in the Lake District area, that I’ll be discussing USURPER with top crime novelist M.W. Craven at Waterstones, Kendal, on the evening of July 4. 

Mike will be presenting his new action thriller, FEARLESS, so we’ll have plenty to talk about and lots of blood and thunder notes to compare. The previous event Mike and I did together was a sell-out, so, if you’re interested, my advice is to get your tickets early. Get more info HERE (or pop into the store itself and enquire at the counter).

When fiction becomes myth

Here’s the other book stuff I promised to chat about today.

We all of us dream that there’s a place, somewhere out there, just out of sight, where, if we could only reach it, all our problems would be solved, and all our worries would whisper away like summer mist. It’s so close that we can smell it. But we just can’t get to it, and we know to our deep sadness and regret that we likely never will, not in this life.

Call it Heaven, call it Eden, call it the Blue Remembered Hills … or call it Neverland.

Because that is the theme, at least of my story, in the imminent new Titan anthology, edited by Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane, THE OTHER SIDE OF NEVER. I may have mentioned this in previous blogposts, but at last I can give a little more detail, as the editors have finally, officially released the Table of Contents. As you may have guessed, THE OTHER SIDE OF NEVER is a collection of short stories based on or drawing inspiration from the adventures of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.

All the tales are new and exclusively fantastical and/or horrific and/or thrilling in nature (yep, I told you we were back into the world of dark fiction with this one). Here, for your delectation, is the full list of contributors.

Foreword by Jen Williams
A Visit to Kensington Gardens by Lavie Tidhar
Manic Pixie Girl by AC Wise
Fear of the Pan-Child by Robert Shearman
And On ’til Morning by Laura Mauro
The Other Side of Never by Edward Cox
The Lost Boys Monologues by Kirsty Logan
A School for Peters by Claire North
Chasing Shadows by Cavan Scott
Saturday Morning by Anna Smith Spark
The Land Between Her Eyelashes by Rio Youers
Boy by Guy Adams
Never Was Born His Equal by Premee Mohamed
The Shadow Stitcher by AK Benedict
A House the Size of Me by Alison Littlewood
Silver Hook by Gama Ray Martinez
The Reeds Remember by Juliet Marillier
No Such Place by Paul Finch
Far From Home by Muriel Gray

I’m sure you’ll agree that there are some very august names on there. All these years on, I never take it for granted, appearing in rollcalls of this magnitude. I obviously can’t talk about any of the other stories, not having read the book yet, but my own tale, No Such Place, is set in the smoggy ruins of post-war London, and follows the fortunes of a veteran-turned-murder detective, who finds himself on the trail of a very real group of lost boys.

And that’s all I’m going to say about it, except to add that THE OTHER SIDE OF NEVER is published on May 9. Ah yes, it’s only two weeks before you can go and grab it off a bookshelf somewhere (or alternatively, get your pre-orders in right now).

See you soon.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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 Emma Cline (2016)

Outline
Evie Boyd is an uninspired and uninspiring California woman, middle-aged and drifting between jobs and relationships. While house-sitting for a friend, Dan, she meets his teenage son, Julian, who prides himself on being a drugs courier for local dealers, and his sad, rather needy girlfriend, Sasha. 

When Julian remembers that Evie was once part of a notorious hippie cult, whose crimes made national headlines, we are projected back to the summer of 1969, when Evie was only 14 and already something of a lost soul.

The summer vacation has just started, and Evie doesn’t know how she’s going to get through it, especially as she is bound for boarding school when it’s over. Her home life, while wealthy (her late grandma a former Hollywood actress), is unsatisfying, while her parents, who are newly separated, rarely connect with her on an emotional level. Evie is aware that social change is going on elsewhere, but as a young teen has no real interest in any of that. In fact, her mother’s many New Age interests, all very expensive of course, evoke pity in her rather than enthusiasm, because she views them as pointless middle-class fads. As such, she hangs around a lot with her friend, Connie, a typical soon-to-be high school kid, who is mainly interested in gossip magazines and beauty products, and moons after Connie’s older brother, Pete, who already has a girlfriend, the gorgeous Pamela.

Thoroughly bored and annoyed at the way Pete is nice to her because he thinks her a kid, Evie is then fascinated to spot some ragged teenage girls behaving recklessly in the town centre, dumpster-diving for food and exposing their breasts for their own amusement. A black-haired girl in particular, the seeming leader of the group, really catches her eye. A short time later, after Evie and Connie fall out, Pete having left home with the pregnant Pamela, and Connie, somewhat irrationally, blaming her friend, Evie meets the black-haired girl again, and this time buys some toilet paper for her after she is caught trying to shoplift.

The girl, who’s called Suzanne and drives around with the others in a scruffy black bus, enters the narrative a second time after Evie, having fallen out with her mother, rides off on her bike and gets marooned when the chain breaks. This time, Suzanne takes her back to ‘the ranch’ where she and the others, having rejected the phoniness of ordinary life, live in a hippie commune. In truth, the place is a filthy hole, rubbish everywhere, the children unwashed brats, every possession looking as if it was scavenged or stolen. However, the girls, Suzanne included, are captivated by their leader and guru, a wandering musician called Russell Hadrick, who seems to have mesmerising powers of persuasion and espouses numerous revolutionary philosophies. Evie isn’t quite so enthralled by him, especially as almost the first thing he has her do is give him oral sex, but Suzanne is, and Evie is strongly attracted to Suzanne, so she joins the group as a kind of associate member.

She visits regularly throughout the summer, always telling her mother that she’s staying with Connie, and gradually getting to know other members, the oafish Donna, the pretty Helen. Russell remains a mystery to her – he has immense charisma, that is certain, and he can make damaged people feel good about themselves, and more importantly, wanted – but she doesn’t really care about Russell as long as she can be close to Suzanne.

There are many warning signs: the group talks a lot about love, but gets about by using multiple stolen credit cards; there is rampant drug abuse; the children in the commune are being raised in conditions of dirt and neglect; while the girls are all expected to provide either sex, or a waitressing/cleaning service for Russell, his brawny henchman, Guy, the occasional bikers who roll in, and Mitch Lewis, a successful guitarist and singer so besotted by the ‘California myth’ of freedom and irresponsibility that he too has been seduced by the group’s lifestyle. Evie sees all these problems for what they are but ignores them because this unconventional world is different from anything she’s been used to and because, if nothing else, she gets a feeling of belonging here. She even steals money from her own mother to provide for the group’s needs.

Only on one occasion does Evie get physical with Suzanne, and this occurs when Russell, trying to persuade Mitch to secure him a record deal, ‘rewards’ the guy by sending Suzanne and Evie back with him to his expansive seafront property. They indulge in a threesome, which Evie doesn’t enjoy especially, though mainly because of Mitch, who’s pleasant enough but a total stoner. A short time later, still ready to do anything Suzanne asks of her, the two of them break into Evie’s mum’s neighbours house, but Evie is spotted and recognised.

Sent to live with her father as punishment, Evie makes friends with Tamar, his much-younger girlfriend, but eventually realises that Tamar is interested only in getting what she can from her wealthy lover, and so hitchhikes back to the ranch. A nerdy guy from Berkeley, called Tom, drives her the last part of the way, but is appalled at the state of the place and the people who live there, and asks her to come away with him. Evie refuses but recognises that there is now a bad atmosphere in the group. It seems that Mitch has told Russell once and for all that the record company won’t take him on as an artist, and has cut ties. Russell, furious, has been harassing him and talks of nothing but revenge.

That very night, it seems, Suzanne, who still idolises Russell, is setting out with some of the others on a mission, the purpose of which she won’t divulge. When Evie begs to come along, Suzanne reluctantly agrees, but tells her to ‘wear dark clothes’ …

Review
The Charles Manson story has been done to death, but never quite like this. Because this is the version that looks at it from the perspective of his acolytes, or at least from one of them, an adolescent girl coming of age in a tumultuous era, though not really aware of that as the struggle to make the shift from infancy to adulthood is overwhelming enough.

Obviously, in The Girls, we are not talking about the Manson Family per se. But rather, a very similar group of mostly female hippie cultists centred around a highly manipulative male leader, and the path they eventually take, which leads to a horrific mass-murder.

With hindsight, we all know what an imposter Charles Manson was. An intelligent but hardened criminal, he had great powers of persuasion and control, and when he came out of prison in 1967, after serving half his 32 years behind bars, and found himself in California in the Age of Aquarius, it was like unleashing a fox into the henhouse. Within a year, he’d recruited a band of willing followers, many of them young women with emotional difficulties or lost and confused by the rapidly changing times.

Delighted by the ‘free love, free drugs, free everything’ mantra of the hippie movement, Manson, fully adopted the guise of the counterculture and created a commune based on principles of equality, sharing and love. He wasn’t the only one to do that, of course. On every streetcorner in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury there were spaced-out people with flowers in their hair, strumming guitars tunelessly and singing strange songs. The difference was that in Manson’s case, it was a fa├žade from behind which his female acolytes could prostitute themselves, prowl for new recruits, deal drugs, steal, and provide him and his friends with sex on demand. Above all though, the group’s main objective was to secure for their sage, who at heart was a frustrated musician, a lucrative record deal. When that failed, Manson’s coked-out buddy, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, having provided no assistance, the cult leader’s true nature burst through … and the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders were the outcome.

As I say, we are not in this exact territory, but we are very close, Emma Cline, in this, her dazzling debut novel, inventing a near-identical scenario and populating it with imaginary characters, though I reiterate, it’s the women she’s mainly interested in. Two in particular. Evie Boyd, who we’ve already met, an immature and directionless seeker, typical of the sort the real-life Manson preyed on, and the much more ‘together’ Suzanne.

Of all the characters in this novel, Suzanne most closely resembles her real-life 1960s counterpart, Susan Atkins (aka Sexy Sadie). She obviously shares a first name with the original, but her physical description is similar too. Likewise, she is unquestioningly loyal to her leader, (the original Susan Atkins, in a bizarre recreation of Mary Magdalene’s second encounter with Jesus, is said to have fallen down on first meeting Manson and washed his feet with kisses), performs a ‘sergeant-major’-type role within the group itself, and is the one who’ll take the lead when the final bloodbath commences.

Suzanne is the first member of the group whom Evie sees, she is the first one she actually meets, and the first one she converses with. Even when she is finally introduced to Russell Hadrick and he attempts to weave his personal mysticism around her (as well as demanding an immediate act of fellatio), it is Suzanne whom she remains intrigued by, because, while she maybe doesn’t trust Hadrick, Suzanne is the kind of freewheeling, independent spirit that Evie herself desires to be.

Almost from the start, a ‘puppy love’ relationship exists between the two girls, even though Evie is only fourteen and Suzanne not yet twenty, the younger one attracted to the older one sexually as well as intellectually, though she is too inexperienced to work out exactly what this means. One thing Evie does know is that her home-life doesn’t satisfy her. Her mother is a bored rich woman, more interested in getting something – anything! – from her cool new hobbies than in her daughter, while her best friend, Connie’s main ambition is to be a hot chick, who when she’s old enough will appeal to moneyed guys.

Compared to these two living, breathing examples of utter vacuousness, Suzanne is the real deal.

The common sense side of me would have argued at this point that I didn’t buy it. That even someone like Evie, whose life is so spiritually dysfunctional, would not have been so easily seduced by what this cult appears to be offering, especially as Emma Cline doesn’t stint in describing the filth and degradation that awaits her in and around the ranch, and even more especially as she’s unimpressed by Russell Hadrick himself.

I might have dismissed the whole idea out of hand … if it hadn’t happened in history.

In the actual Manson trial, members of the group like Linda Kasabian, who either gave evidence against the murderers or wrote about it later in books and magazine articles, described various very innocent people, euphoric about the changing times but with judgement fuddled by drug use and the prospect of the hippie Nirvana that Manson and his ilk promised, simply giving up lives of privilege and becoming little better than brainwashed slaves.

You can’t deny facts.

But even if none of this had happened for real, The Girls is written with such intensity of feeling and a narrative drive that makes you want to keep reading even though you kind of know how it’s going to end, that it all feels completely plausible.

On that same note, the lack of the actual ’60s in this book adds genuine authenticity, which is all the more remarkable given that Emma Cline, only 26 when she wrote it, was born in 1989. I, on the other hand, was a youngster in the 1960s. I remember it well, and yet at no stage did I think ‘Wow, this is the ’60s, man!’ Wherever I turned, I didn’t see 1960s-type things happening. For most ordinary folk, it was just everyday life.

Cline gets that completely in The Girls, though of course the turbulent age isn’t that important to Evie Boyd’s reminiscences anyway.

If I’ve any brickbats to throw at The Girls, it’s a minor concern I have with the wraparound narrative, wherein the older, listless and mostly uninteresting person that is the middle-aged Evie, spotting a like-minded lost soul in Sasha, whose boyfriend already thinks it’s cool to be on the edge of serious criminality, needs to make a decision about whether or not to offer words of experience.

The problem with this is that, quite early on in the book, it shows us that Evie will emerge unscathed from the final horror (bear in mind that only one of the real Manson murderers has ever been released from prison, and it wasn’t Susan Atkins, who died while incarcerated way back in 2009).

There are several reasons for Cline’s decision to do it like this, I suspect. Firstly, the way it plays out (but no spoilers here, so don’t ask), to give Suzanne a final shot at redemption. Secondly, to point up the unchanging nature of troubled adolescence and perceived empty futures. And thirdly, to remind us that The Girls isn’t really a mystery-thriller, but more a study of the human condition at that time of life when it’s most vulnerable. But I still think that some element of uncertainty about Evie’s fate might have served it better.

For all that, The Girls gets my strongest recommendation. It’s blisteringly well-written, and completely engrossing, which is a real achievement considering the well-known tale it is based upon. It’s no surprise that Emma Cline’s star is rising so fast. You’ll definitely read it and want more.

A movie adaptation of The Girls is supposedly in the works, but after an (admittedly shallow) dive in search of it, I haven’t been able to find any such project green-lit at this stage. So, on the basis that casting operations have yet to commence, here are my suggestions:

Evie – Millie Bobby Brown
Suzanne – Zendaya
Russell – James Franco
Mitch – Chad Michael Murray


Sunday, 16 April 2023

In a land and time where life had no value


I’m on the verge of breaking into completely new territory, and frankly, it’s leaving me nervous.

My first real historical novel, USURPER, is published in 10 days' time. Yes, I can count it now in days rather than weeks or months. Today, I’m going to be talking a little more about this book – why I wrote it, why I’m nervous about it, and such. I’ll also be hitting you, as I do, with some of the rather splendiferous endorsements I’ve received for it from some of the true masters of the historical novel.

I also want to talk a little bit about two other books of mine, both of them medieval in atmosphere. They now belong firmly in my distant past, though their presence in my back-catalogue may explain why I continually say that USURPER will be my first REAL historical novel.


In addition to all this, and there’s no link to any of the other subjects I’ll be discussing today (except maybe that one of my older medieval books concerned a war against the undead!!!), I’ll be reviewing Edward Lee’s blood-soaked horror novel, BRIDES OF THE IMPALER.

If the Lee review is the only reason you’re here, you must feel free to skip down to the lower end of today’s blogpost, where my reviews usually lurk (in the Thrillers, Chillers section). However, if you want to hear a bit more about USURPER, stick around and let’s …

Mine the past

I’m sure those who follow my fictional output will agree that USURPER, a historical adventure set during the Norman conquest of England, is a complete right-turn on my usual subject matter.

I freely admit that I’m much better known for my crime thrillers. And I should probably even add that, though there’ll be more historical novels to come, this does not signal any kind of permanent changing of the guard. I’ll continue to write thriller novels (and horror stories) hopefully for many years to come, and with luck, readers will see them published concurrently with my all-new period pieces.

However, the origins of USURPER probably need some explanation.

There’s no doubt that most of my thinking-time, the productive part of it anyway, is still wrapped up in worlds of contemporary darkness. What thoroughly unpleasant villainy can I dream up today? What scene of horror can I envisage in this blighted corner of Broken Britain?
 

Usurper is an action-packed, coming-of-age, adventure set against the upheaval and battles of 1066. Finch gives us Cerdic, a troubled hero thrown into the maelstrom of events outside of his control, and we follow him breathlessly as he deals with brutal Vikings, familial rivalries, unrequited love, invading Normans and more!
Matthew Harffy


But USURPER had to come from somewhere, right? It wasn’t just a one-off moment of inspiration.

It may surprise readers to know that, as a novel, it’s actually been a long time in gestation. I’ve been a huge fan of Dark Age and medieval history for ages. It’s always seemed to me that that era, especially here in Britain (that’s inevitable, I suppose, as it’s British history that I know about best), was born and bred for the telling of adventurous stories. I mean, you’re talking a landscape that was still mostly wild, a population that was thinly spread, a relatively ignorant society, much of which lay at the mercy of ruthless criminal elements, most of them fast-moving, many of them well-trained, a significant portion of them members of the ruling class itself.

In all honesty, the Wild West has got nothing on Medieval Britain.


Usurper propels the reader from the very first page through a dark and desperate age when Britons fought for their survival. Fearsome battles, believable characters, uncommon valour. A relentless page turner. 
David Gilman


Then of course, you’ve got the major events of history taking place – the invasions, the civil wars, the rebellions – causing huge political and cultural convulsions, leading to murder, mayhem and the destruction of land and property on a massive scale, with almost zero comeback against the perpetrators. No comeback that was lawful, anyway.

So, how could I, as a writer who enjoys pitting his characters against edificial evil, throwing them headfirst into a land where life seems to have no value at all, not want to get in on an act like this?

Thus was born USURPER.


The grim world of Anglo Saxon England is brought evocatively to life by master storyteller Paul Finch as he thrusts the reader deep into the cold and mud and blood of a country teetering on the brink of a devastating war for survival. Usurper is a must-read for any lover of history, capturing all the rich detail of a turbulent time and stitching it through with powerful emotion. 
Mark Chadbourn / James Wilde


It was almost a decade ago when I first hatched an idea about the teenage son of a great Saxon lord, who has lived an almost cossetted life thanks to the law, order and prosperity his father has brought to a remote corner of Edward the Confessor’s England, suddenly finding himself thrown out with the rubbish because the Norse army of Harald Hardraada has killed everyone he knows and loves and confiscated every last possession he once called his own, while the new Norman hegemony, maleficent in its triumph, has no time at all for the remnants of a culture they now plan to erase from history.


What kind of road back to normality can he find, this inexperienced lad? A kid who was actually training for the clergy and who had never picked a sword up in real combat, and yet now is friendless and lost in a devastated country he can no longer even recognise as his own?

I always knew there had to be a novel in that story. But for years and years, because I had many other commitments, all I could really do was sketch it down in note-form and knock out a few ideas, which I thought I might at some point be able to string together into an exciting narrative.


Finch has written an authentically blood-soaked historical epic to rank with the best.
Anthony Riches


And then came the pandemic, and the world seemed to stop. Now, don’t get me wrong. I had lots of work to do during lockdown. There were still books I was contracted to write, but gradually, because it dragged on for such a tediously long time, and because it had such a mammoth impact on the publishing industry, delaying book launches, delaying the associated publicity drives, delaying responses to even the most simple questions that a writer might routinely pitch to his/her publishers, I found myself with less and less that I actually needed to do.

Throughout this period, though perhaps inevitably, USURPER was on my mind. I began to see the long periods of inertia imposed by lockdown as an opportunity not just to catch up with some reading, but to do some speculative writing. And my proposed Saxon/Norman epic was top of that list.


With all the brutal power of a battle-axe to the head, Finch brings 1066 to life in new and vivid ways. Packed with blistering battle scenes and believable characters, this is a superb historical novel. 
Steven A. McKay


In almost no time – mainly because I’d been thinking about it for so long already – I’d written a 40,000-word chunk. It seemed to flow smoothly, but of course I was unsure. It was new territory for me after all. Not completely new, but I’ll talk about that later. So, I sent it off for a second opinion from my wonderful agent, Kate Burke, at the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, and even though this was an unexpected submission, Kate got back to me amazingly quickly, and seemed delighted with it. Even though it was new ground for us, she said she was impressed enough to send it out … assuming I was happy to take a break from my normal contemporary thrillers and write this novel in full should someone be interested.

I certainly was. I didn’t expect the second half of this book to take me very long, because the first half hadn’t. Thankfully, the series of stop-start lockdowns we had to endure at the close of the pandemic was finally coming to an end, so I was hoping that things in the publishing world would speed up again, but I never would have imagined what happened next to happen so quickly.


An authentic and vivid depiction of life in England in 1066, and a brutal, blood-soaked thriller that will be loved by fans of Cornwell's Last Kingdom. 
Alex Gough


The first publisher the manuscript was sent to was Canelo, who accepted USURPER for publication almost by return post, but as two books rather than one, and to add icing to the cake, then commissioned an additional historical adventure series, a second duology, set later on, in the twelfth century, the details of which must at present stay under wraps.

It was a strange feeling, all of these exciting developments coming to fruition so quickly when this idea had been germinating in the back of my mind for so many years, and often was pushed out of memory range entirely by the awful events that were happening in the real world at the time (even on those occasions when I remembered I wanted to write it, it struck me that no one might want to read about an apocalypse in 1066 when we seemed to be going through another in 2020).

Anyway, all that is thankfully now over, and the long and short of it is that the first book in this new series, USURPER, Vol One in the Wulfbury Chronicles is published in paperback and on Kindle and Audible on April 27, and then you good people can judge for yourself whether it was worth all that effort. As I say, I’m a tad nervous because it’s completely new ground for me. But then, as you’ve hopefully already seen in this column, quite a few august names in the historical adventure fiction industry given it the thumbs-up. So, let’s see what the rest of you think.

Early trips back

I mentioned earlier that I’ve written a couple of medieval novels before. Well, I don’t want to waste too much of your time, so I’ll just quickly outline them here.

STRONGHOLD was published by Abaddon Books in 2010, and is a horror / fantasy / alternative history, which sees the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse in the 13th century. It follows the fortunes of a ruthless company of English knights, under the control of a merciless marcher-lord, who commit much repression in Wales in the days following the battle of Maes Moydog in 1295, and then take possession of one of King Edward I’s mighty castles, only for the local druids to make use of the fabled Cauldron of Regeneration, one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, to raise an army from all those slain by the English during recent atrocities. The besieged knights soon find themselves battling relentlessly against an apparently numberless horde of the undead.

Reviewers described it variously as ‘a very gory and bloody book, highly recommended’, as ‘fantasy military zombie porn - page after page of lavish description of the gruesome undead inflicting and receiving gruesome wounds’, and ‘a veritable dictionary of anatomical terms as body parts are skewered, severed, chewed and burnt in increasingly bizarre ways … It's all excellent fun delivered in the worst possible taste.’

So, I think you know what you’re getting with that one.

Then, also from Abaddon, we have DARK NORTH, published in 2012. This one was also a medieval fantasy rather than a medieval novel per se. It is set in Dark Age England, in this version called Albion, and instead of being a real-life scenario of hill forts, long-halls and muddy roads connecting small villages in otherwise trackless realms of forest, is basking in the Arthurian golden age, a landscape more reminiscent of the 14th century, full of lords and ladies, fairy tale castles and lush pageantry. However, the happy kingdom is now under threat from the reinvigorated Roman Empire, which, under the control of an aggressive new ruler, is determined to regain all its lost territories in Western Europe. A major war results, which provides the perfect cover for Sir Lucan, the Black Wolf of the North, one of the darkest characters ever to sit at the Round Table, to set off in pursuit of his wife, Trelawna, who abandoned him for a Roman officer, though he’s unaware that she’s now under the protection of the fearsome Malconi clan, who have the power to raise demons.

Reviewers described this one as ‘a heady mix of violence, intrigue and some good old-fashioned knight-on-a-reckless-mission action, oh and some monsters thrown in too - this is a cracker of a book,’ along with ‘knightly fervour and noble deeds meet ruthless empire-building at full tilt’.

Personally (though I’m admittedly biased) I think these short pitches sound great (and it doesn’t surprise me that STRONGHOLD spent a year or so under option for movie development), but I’ll be the first to admit that they aren’t traditional historical novels, though they’re still available to buy if anyone’s interested.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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.
 
BRIDES OF THE IMPALER
by Edward Lee (2013)

Outline
No-one would know to meet Britt Leibert and Cristina Nicholl that they’d shared a terrible childhood. The former a high-ranking New York social worker, the latter a successful designer of creepy dolls, they are not just firm friends, they are also a pair of beautiful, sophisticated women, cultured, fashion-conscious and well regarded among the Manhattan elite. Even more impressively (to some at least), they are engaged to two partners in a Manhattan law firm specialising in property and real estate, and financially at least, the sky is the limit.

In all this, the two women have done incredibly well, because as juvenile foster-sisters they were subjected to horrific abuse at the hands of their so-called guardians, a depraved duo who are now serving life prison sentences.

They each handle this awful heritage in their own way, though their methods are to an extent self-evident, Britt working professionally to assist those suffering abuse in the present day, Cristina channelling the horror of her memories into the creation of her cute but macabre toys.

Aside from that, there are few clouds on their horizon. Husbands-to-be, Paul and Jess, are legal carnivores who think nothing of having basically conned the Catholic archdiocese out of a palatial townhouse (which Paul and Cristina now occupy), but that goes with the lawyer territory. Besides, while you don’t get the feeling these two men are instinctively loyal to their women, on the whole they are kind and loving.

At the same time, local Homicide detective, Hal Vernon, has gone from having relatively little to do in this affluent part of town to dealing with a ghastly crime in which a drug addicted prostitute was impaled on a sharpened broomstick mounted in a Christmas tree stand. There is little to go on except that the body has been written on with marker pen, arcane and indecipherable lettering inscribed in black, green and red. He soon comes to suspect a gaggle of homeless women who have been seen around the district, allegedly in the company of a curvacious nun (yes, you heard that right!), though no-one seems able to locate any of these curious characters when the police want to speak with them.

Meanwhile, things are not exactly hunky dory in Cristina’s life. One of her dolls was found in the pocket of the recent murder victim, which in due course will bring her into the police spotlight. But before then, she finds herself increasingly subject to erotic dreams and fantasies, which pumps her sex-drive up to the maximum – to the point where it begins to interfere with her everyday activities. What’s particularly worrying, though, is that many of these fantasies seem to involve a ravishing, sexually aggressive nun, whose vampire-like presence in Cristina’s new house, particularly in the cellar, where up until now she has ignored the strange inscriptions and the odd atmosphere, is increasingly tangible.

It probably isn’t giving too much away to say that this mysterious nun is, in fact, Kanesae, a subcarnate succubus who was formerly the lover of Vlad the Impaler. The homeless women, whom she has mesmerised and who are now committing numerous crimes on her behalf, including desecrating the local church and impaling yet more unsuspecting victims, are her coven – or, as they see it, her ‘convent’, she being their ‘New Mother’. Even the nervous Father Rawlins, a Catholic priest who lives close by, was once custodian of the building in which Cristina now lives, and who knows about the dangerous relics buried underneath it, is unsure what action he can take, if any. Because though it may all seem like a frenzied erotic nightmare – and yes, the priest is also affected by Cristina’s beauty and her increasingly wanton behaviour! – he knows perfectly well that the sum of these horrors, in the very near future, will most likely be the second coming of Dracula …

Review
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up Brides of the Impaler.

Previously, I’ve been familiar with Edward Lee as a writer of extreme horror, a skilled wordsmith whose prose is often a delight and yet who nevertheless takes gruesomeness to new graphic levels which even a hardened horror-hound like me can sometimes find difficult to stomach. I should therefore state straight away that Brides of the Impaler is not like that. From the outset, it has the air of a traditional vampire story, focussing on magic, mystery and esoteric history rather than excessive violence. And Lee maintains that quaint atmosphere almost all the way through; it is strongly redolent of those latter-day Hammer vampire movies of the 1970s (though unfortunately not always in a good way, and a bit more about that shortly).

In this one, the vamps are seductive killers from the past, thoroughly wicked and immoral, regularly communing with the demonic, and now, having been resurrected through arcane rites, imposing their blasphemous, predatory ways on a modern society that has cheerfully done away with religious belief and is therefore completely unprotected. Very thankfully indeed, Lee has jettisoned all those embarrassing teenage notions about vampires being some tragic nobility of the night who want only to be loved.

It’s also a relief to see that we’ve moved away from Bram Stoker’s concept of Dracula. While there are some similarities here, such as the Lord of the Undead hailing from Eastern European aristocracy, having earned his vampire state as a punishment for evil deeds, Edward Lee is much more interested in the history of Vlad Tepes than he is Stoker’s fictional count. While Stoker plundered Wallachian history for little more than the name, Lee goes all out to give us a full-blooded ‘Impaler’ backdrop, weaving myth and fiction with fact (Kanesae, for example, appears in no actual records) to tell the vivid tale of a medieval despot driven to acts of horrific criminality through his perilous circumstances and finally embracing evil for its own sake because by then he’d gone too far to stop.

These ideas have been promoted before, of course, mainly by patriotic Transylvanians, who can’t stand the thought of their national hero being defamed as an irredeemable villain, but Lee doesn’t stint in his portrayal of Dracula and his mistress as being themselves despicable, the former a deranged individual ripe for exploitation by the Devil, the latter a scheming demoness with one role only, to create Hell on Earth.

With the actual narrative set in present-day Manhattan, you might think all this a tad anachronistic, but not a bit of it. When the streets are littered with the homeless and addicted, there are acolytes aplenty for the empowering vampire cult. With ruined buildings on every side, many connected by forgotten tunnels, there is a ready-made underworld by which the fiends can pass invisibly among us. With maniacs and weirdoes at large on a daily basis, what are a few impalement murders for the cops to deal with? With voracious, shark-like lawyers on the prowl, can’t New York already boast a ruling class of monsters who are just waiting to take charge?

It’s all very clever, and a fun romp to boot, filled with wonderfully macabre details (Cristina’s creepy line of dolls, for instance, which includes such splendidly ghoulish specimens as Leprosy Linda, Hypothermia Harriet and Gutshot Glen) and some great innovations on the general theme … like the homeless ex-prostitutes forming a convent of vampiresses under the guidance of a devilish Mother Superior, and hero Hal Vernon killing one of them by repeatedly shooting her, but only because his bullet holes form the shape of a cross.

At the same time, Lee pays homage to several of his horror heroes, lawyers Paul and Jess close in name to Spanish cult movie-makers, Paul Naschy and Jess Franco, while the Ketchum Hotel, which also figures in the narrative, reminds us of the late, great US horror author, Jack Ketchum.

Yes, it’s all good fun, but it’s not good clean fun. If there’s a downside to Brides of the Impaler, it’s the sex. Frankly, there’s far too much of it and it’s far too explicit. Admittedly, students of the genre may not consider that a major problem, but in a mainstream horror novel in the 21st century it jars badly. And, dare I say it, at times it almost seems juvenile.

To start with, all the females are heavily sexualised. Granted, our heroes and heroines have to be attractive, but it goes to a whole new level in this one. Cristina and Britt – and bear in mind that these two women were badly abused when they were children! – are a pair of stylish, sensual beauties who are repeatedly depicted having sex with their boyfriends, and regularly described as having cleavage exposed or going out minus panties, and who as Kanesae’s influence spreads – particularly where Cristina is concerned – become ever more sexually insatiable (to a point where it verges on the ridiculous).

Kanesae herself, meanwhile, is the ultimate throwback to 1970s Hammer, as I mentioned previously: a gorgeous, voluptuous succubus, who, just to add to the kink, wears a revealing nun’s outfit and uses sex at every opportunity to overwhelm both friend and foe alike.

And it doesn’t end there. Even the homeless women, though shown as emaciated, gap-toothed harridans with crusty hair and foul body odour, are frequently portrayed in a pseudo-sensual way, and shown to be experts at various sex acts. Even though this is supposed to be the influence of Kanesae, who destroys her victims’ souls as well as their bodies, it still feels tasteless to me. Even a middle-aged kindergarten teacher is referred to by the cops as ‘Bouncing Betty’ because she is so well-endowed, while we also hear repeatedly, for no gain, that a female student and a female security guard, both of whose main role in the book is to die unpleasantly, have similar advantages.

Brides of the Impaler was published in 2013, so Lee doesn’t have the same excuse that the latter-day Hammer horrors did (namely that it was the product of an unashamedly raunchy age) and even for a reader like me, who’s pretty easy-going, this seamy side of the book soon becomes repetitive and boring.

But this is the only real problem with the novel.

Overall, Brides of the Impaler is a time-honoured kind of vampire story given an effective and entertaining modern twist. As always with Lee, it’s excellently written, taking you straight into the heart of the modern city and yet convincingly underwriting it with an evil, supernatural netherworld. Hal Vernon as the affable, middle-aged cop makes a good-natured hero, while Cristina Nicholl, even if she’s completely oblivious to her overt sexiness, makes for an appealing and (relatively) innocent heroine. And I say it again, at least it takes us right away from these Goth/teenage vampire farces in which the dividing lines between good and evil are naively blurred. In that regard, this is a very welcome addition to the vampire fiction cycle.

As usual, I’m now going to attempt some fantasy casting just in case Brides of the Impaler ever gets put on film, though it won’t be easy given that we no longer have an Ingrid Pitt or Susan Denberg to play Kanesae. The only solution is to assume that the sex, or some of it at least, will be toned down a bit. On that basis, here we go:

Cristina Nicholl – Margot Robbie
Britt Leibert – Camille Belle
Paul Nasher – Kyle Gallner
Jess – Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Hal Vernon – Stanley Tucci
Father Rawlins – John Amos
Kanesae – Lena Gercke