Monday 17 July 2023

Sun, sea, sex ... and horrors that defy myth

A bit of a taster blogpost today. A few thoughts in advance of any real announcements concerning TERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, which hopefully will be published by TELOS in the autumn. From my point of view, the book is almost now complete, so in this installment I thought I’d throw out some crumbs to whet your appetites.

The TERROR TALES books are for the most part folk horror anthologies, so I thought it would also be appropriate today if I offered a detailed review of a short novel that is often considered to be one of the quintessential forays into folk horror from that first wave of interest in the subgenre at the end of the 1960s: John Gordon’s THE HOUSE ON THE BRINK.

If you’re only here for the John Gordon review, that’s absolutely fine. Scroll down to the lower end of today’s blogpost and you’ll find it, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Do it straight away. I won’t mind. On the other hand, you might first be interested in, especially as so many of you will likely be going here in the next few weeks …

Terrors of 
the Med

To quickly recap on the TERROR TALES anthology series, it’s mainly focussed to date on the British Isles. So, for example, we’ve had TERROR TALES OF THE COTSWOLDS, the WEST COUNTRY, the SCOTTISH LOWLANDS, CORNWALL, and so forth. There are 14 volumes in total to date, each one containing original horror fiction relevant to the geographic region, interspersed with snippets of real-life terror, folklore, mythology, unexplained mysteries and the like.

With TERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN (check out the various pics scattered throughout this post to give clues about what’s coming - see how many you can identify), I’m obviously no longer just focussing on my British homeland, but starting to look a little farther afield. Hopefully readers will enjoy this one just as much as those that have gone before.

I should hasten to point out that, even though for this 15th volume in the series I’ll be throwing my net over most of the Mediterranean Sea and its adjoining lands, I’ll purposely be ignoring the culturally very different region we call the ‘Middle East’ – Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Libya, Egypt and so forth – but that’s only because they will hopefully be the subject of a book planned for later in the series called ‘Terror Tales of the Middle East’.

Even then, the Mediterranean will easily be the largest specific geographic region that we have covered in this series to date, comprising much of the south shore of Europe and the north shore of Africa. But it’s a region that is familiar to the majority of us, boasting a benign climate characterised by low rainfall, hot, dry summers and mild winters. As such, its lovely landscapes and flora are instantly recognisable: rocky hills covered in scrub and cacti, arid plains, rich pine and cedar forests, cypress trees, olive groves. ‘The Med’, as we call it, has become the go-to place for the traditional summer holiday, but you won’t need me to tell you there is so much more to this fabled realm than sun, sea and sex.

Its esoteric history is beyond compare with almost anywhere else.

It is commonly regarded as the Cradle of Western Civilisation. David Attenborough called it the ‘First Eden.’ Colossal empires have risen and fallen in this place. Epic wars have been waged. The most ancient cultures flourished here, leading to astonishing advances in human thought, language and artistry. Inevitably though, there is a darker side too.

In the ancient Mediterranean past, fact is much interwoven with fiction, truth with mythology, a confusion of beliefs and certainties that has spawned some of mankind’s most terrifying tales, bequeathing us generations of monsters so unimaginably foul that it took the mightiest heroes to conquer them: everything from Talos to the Minotaur, from the sea-dragon, Cetus, to multi-limbed Geryon, one-eyed Polyphemus and Typhon, surely the most ferocious creature that ever stalked the Earth. The gods themselves were rarely better, unleashing curses and scourges on peoples they deemed to have failed them, sending earthquakes and typhoons to destroy entire cities.

Even lesser deities like nymphs and satyrs were maleficent, playing callous games with humanity, delighting in trickery and deceit, putting their own pleasure (and their lust) first.

There’ve been dark times in real history too: nations enslaved, vast libraries torched, innocents thrown to lions, free-thinkers burned at the stake. Both politics and religion have led to astonishing acts of cruelty in the supposed name of progress. It is little wonder that so many of the Mediterranean’s grand but crumbling ruins echo to the savagery of the past and are now the haunt of tragic ghosts and spirits relentlessly re-enduring their torments.

Any potential readers new to the Terror Tales series should know that, as editor, I tend to favour supernatural horror, and by that I’m talking monsters, ghosts, faeries, demons, witches and all kinds of eerie and unexplained mysteries. Note, I’m NOT stating that this book will only contain fiction underpinned by folklore, mythology or the supernatural – there is as much terror to be found in tales of killers, maniacs and other manmade mayhem – just so long as you know beforehand that anything you encounter in TERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN will be as scary and disturbing as possible.

And if you’re looking for specifics – table of contents, artwork, back cover blurb, pre-order details and the like – keep watching this space.


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 John Gordon (1970)

One early summer’s day on the edge of the Wash estuary, the tidal inlet where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire on England’s east coast, a man and a woman are traipsing through the fens when they spy something half-buried in the mud, which looks as though it might be a body. The man investigates and announces that it’s only a rotted old log. The woman is not placated; she feels certain there’s something evil about it.

A few days later, a reserved but smarter-than-average schoolkid, 16-year-old Dick Dodds, attends his Literature Class’s end-of-term party at the lonely riverside house of his wealthy widow teacher, the neurotic Mrs Knowles, who comments that she recently spotted a horrible human-shaped lump of wood on the edge of the fens and concludes that her house has two sides to it, a good side, from which she can often see the distant ‘silver fields,’ and a bad side, the side that faces onto the river, and the mud, where everything is ‘contaminated’.

These are strange comments, which no one present at the party knows how to take, though Mrs Knowles, who is now romantically involved with a local solicitor, Tom Miller, though only a few others are aware of this yet (and even fewer would approve, given that Knowles and Miller are polar opposites) has a reputation for being eccentric, and many put this down either to her unfortunate bereavement so early in life, or her isolated existence in the marsh-side house, or both.

Dick walks home after the party, somewhat cowed by the vast emptiness of the summer holidays stretching ahead of him. Wondering how he’s going to pass his time, he suddenly, in a characteristic impulse, helps himself to a moored rowing boat, and sets off for an impromptu trip down the darkened river. The folly of this quickly becomes apparent. Dick isn’t much of an oarsman, and in any case, he soon loses the oar, and finds himself drifting deep into the fens, beyond which lies only the open sea.

However, the following day, we learn that Dick survived his escapade. The tide pushed him ashore and he had to plough his way back through deep mud. He now returns with close friends, Jim and Pat, insisting that he needs to recover the abandoned boat, but at the same time, he recalls seeing something strange on his way back inland: an unnatural hollow on the water’s edge, almost as if something large had recently dug its way out, and then unidentifiable tracks trailing away through the mire. He says that when he tried to follow the trail, he felt inexplicably frightened. When he locates the trail again, neither Jim nor Pat see anything curious about it, but Dick still feels frightened and disoriented, putting on such a show that his friends decide he’s making it up and trying to scare them.

Dick goes back to the trail on his own later, following it across the marshy land until it passes close by a farmhouse, which he’s never visited before. While he’s there, a girl of his own age comes out, and tells him that her name is Helen.

They aren’t natural allies, Dick, who lives in the town and is firmly middle-class, Helen, who lives out here on the open country and whose father is a farm-labourer, but for some reason Dick confides in her, Helen, in return, admitting that, on the night of his river-adventure, she too saw something strange, the indistinct shape of a hideous limbless figure gliding along the trail.

Dick is inevitably drawn to Helen, and she to him, not just because they find each other attractive, but because both of them can sense the mysteriousness of the trail when apparently no one else can. The other kids still don’t know whether to take them seriously, but Pat suggests they go and speak to a certain Mrs Shepherd, a local water diviner, to see if she can cast light on the matter.

Mrs Shepherd, who is quite elderly and grandmotherly, confirms that both Dick and Helen are also water diviners, in other words they are sensitive to the presence of water sources below ground – which might, Dick supposes, explain their odd feelings when they are following the trail. However, for no obvious reason, the woman takes a seeming dislike to Dick, warning him not to take the path of other folk in the vicinity, who have used divination for the wrong purposes.

Feeling better now that they have a possible benign explanation for the trail, Dick and Helen relax a little, only to then speak with Mrs Knowles, who, as jumpy as ever, confesses that she fears a local legend about a walking corpse in the fens, the rotted remnant of a medieval warrior who was left behind to guard the site where King John famously lost his jewels in 1216, and was charged with killing anyone who attempts to rediscover them.

Though Dick and Helen now share a budding romance of their own, Dick, who is fond of Mrs Knowles (she was his favourite teacher, after all), is angry and suspects that her mental deterioration is being exacerbated by the presence in her life of Tom Miller, a shrewd but rather cold man whom the boy is convinced is wrong for her. As for her story about the body in the bog, well, Mrs Knowles is clearly going mad.

The boy doesn’t want any more to do with this, except that he feels drawn to investigate further, finally persuading Mrs Shepherd to talk some more. She admits to him that, whatever force lurks in the marshes, guarding the last resting place of the royal gold, there has never been any danger from it previously because the amateur treasure-seekers who hunt through the fens every weekend never get anywhere near. However, she – a genuine dowser – was recently paid by an influential local man to find it, and she got very close before deciding to back off, and it’s this, she fears, that has awakened the guardian of the trove. Mrs Shepherd won’t admit that the guardian is a millennium-old corpse preserved and in fact mummified in the fens, but she tells Dick firmly to stop looking into the case. She also names Tom Miller as her recent employer.

Despite this, Dick and Helen find themselves following the trail again, attempting to dowse with their own homemade rods. Nothing happens and they are ready to chuck it in, when they are led to a gate in a hedgerow out in the middle of nowhere. They’re about to go through but suddenly sense an unhealthy presence.

Any suspicion that this whole thing is down to their overactive imaginations leaves them at this point, when they spy something waiting in the gatepost greenery: ‘a black bald head, faceless’. And ‘a claw, lifted from the gate’.

It’s real after all, the thing from the mud …

The House on the Brink
started life as a YA novel, though interest in the book and the author has expanded far beyond those boundaries in the 50+ years since it was published.

At first glance, it certainly looks as though it belongs in that milieu. In fact, it almost seems to predate the YA era: a bunch of intrepid youngsters – the Famous Five or the Secret Seven – skirting around the edges of the ever-mystifying adult world while spending their school holidays investigating a seemingly supernatural mystery. But in truth there are all kinds of things going on in this novel that are nothing whatsoever to do with that, and which have guaranteed its lasting popularity among much older readers.

To start with, there is undeniably a vibe of MR James.

Montague Rhodes James wrote most of his now near-mythical short stories in the first three decades of the 20th century and focussed primarily on antiquarian scholars searching out age-old artefacts, subsequently triggering curses or awakening terrifying revenants. He is still regarded as one of the world’s foremost ghost story writers, and massively well-read even today, thanks partly to his witty, lyrical and succinct style, but also for his ability to evoke a genuine atmosphere of dread.

The House on the Brink is cut from similar cloth, not just in terms of its subject-matter, but in its style, which is very quick and to-the-point, with scarcely a word wasted, and its setting: the bleak eastern edge of England, an empty, sea-begirt landscape, where the wind sighs constantly through the reeds, and forgotten ruins stand lonesome on the distant mudflats. It’s a richly atmospheric location, and dare I say it, John Gordon works it as effectively as Dr James used to, taking his characters, some of whom live in the town, far out of the normal world into a silent wilderness of wildwood, grassland and black, rippling waterways.

The scene at the gate – ‘a gateway to nowhere,’ as the author himself says (gates, edges and brinks being at least as important in this book as they are in MR James) is particularly frightening, coming upon us unexpectedly and yet written in such concise, matter-of-fact fashion, again as Dr James so often did, that mundane normality and supernatural horror are blended together with shocking effectiveness.

Another reason why The House on the Brink is a must-read today, despite being half a century old (and this may be one of the reasons why Valancourt have brought it back, though whatever the actual reason, I’m glad they have), is our recently rekindled interest in folk horror.

Superficially, there is lots of evidence that The House on the Brink was written at the end of the 1960s. The kids are as inquisitive as their predecessors, yet a tad more streetwise. At the same time, though, they are still polite to adults (imagine that!). They do lots of old-fashioned things, like have picnics and ramble around the countryside on pushbikes. They feel bad when they do the wrong thing, rather than object to being reprimanded for it. One of the girls in the group, Pat, still wears a skirt. Jim, the team joker, given to ribbing Dick at every opportunity, does so in a fashion that is almost genteel. But 1970, when this book first hit the shelves, was also the height of the Age of Aquarius. The counterculture of the ’60s was fading fast, but a desire for unorthodox spirituality remained, and with this came a wave of interest in folk horror. You’ll remember the movies of that era, Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). TV shows like Robin Redbreast (1970), Penda’s Fen (1974) and Children of the Stones (1976). Even Dr Who got in on the act with The Daemons (1971). Then there were public safety films like Lonely Water (1973), some of which took place in those spooky locations where town met country, where children were suddenly beyond adult supervision, where threats to life and limb often took the form of grim entities.

But this genre was also a celebration of Britain’s landscape and its forgotten cultures and beliefs, the relics of which were scattered across the deceptively tranquil georama of British folklore, and that’s particularly the case in this novel.

I’ve already mentioned the gate to nowhere, the mysterious trail or ‘track,’ as John Gordon calls it, which ostensibly is the route taken by the mummified single remnant of King John’s army, though it’s not actually visible, and may indeed be an ancient route traversed by many strange energies, a ley line or whatever. Then there are the ‘silver fields’ as referred to by the disturbed Mrs Knowles; when Dick finally travels out to them, they are little more than a floodplain lying ankle-deep in seawater and thus reflecting the sky, but in Mrs Knowles’s mind, what we’re really talking about here is a near-but-distant magical realm, occasionally visible but always unreachable (Faerie Land, if you like). Mrs Knowles’s weather-beaten house serves a similar purpose. To the calculating Tom Miller, it’s nothing more than a refuge for his troubled sweetheart and also, probably, a key part of the lucrative future he plans for himself, but to Mrs Knowles it’s a border stronghold, the first (and last) human habitation before the vast sweep of the unknown.

But perhaps the most obviously grown-up part of The House on the Brink is the coming-of-age story.

So many horror and fantasy writers over the decades have trodden this path, reliving their own experience of the transition from childhood through the prism of the scary story, their adolescent unease about the years ahead dressed up as monsters or demons. This is very much the case in The House on the Brink.

Dick Dodds is 16, and in 1970 that meant that his next step was adulthood. Few people then had time for kids who didn’t really know what they wanted, or who were looking for ‘a year out’ or who just wanted to keep on being students. But because attitudes were different, that didn’t mean it was easier for the youngsters. There are times when Dick feels lost in the mysterious emptiness of the landscape, even though he has grown up here. Is this a metaphor for the uncertainties ahead? It’s the same with his and Helen’s relationship. They are still too young to be proper boyfriend and girlfriend … so much so that they’re embarrassed to admit this is what they are, and don’t like it when adults make that assumption. They kiss but there’s not much amorousness there. They’re stuck at that midway stage, on the edge-land. It’s no wonder everything is confusing, particularly the behaviour of the adults in the book, who they no longer view as distant, omnipotent controllers of all their lives, but as near-equals, flawed and troubled themselves, yet whose moods and motivations they still can’t read properly.

All that said, I don’t want to make The House on the Brink sound as if it’s heavyweight stuff. It actually isn’t. At heart, it’s a gentle if very eerie, but also rather straightforward ghost story. It also only runs to 161 pages, so it’s an easy and accessible read. And yet it’s successful at every level. It has well earned its reputation as a classic slice of supernatural nostalgia, which will frighten and delight in equal measure.

And now, for once, I’m not going to bother trying to cast this beast in the event it ever gets adapted for film or TV. This one is all about the young leads, which means it would need genuine teenage actors, and I don’t know enough about the younger end of the current acting market to offer any kind of valid opinion.