by Reggie Oliver (2018)
Reggie Oliver is one of the most readable and elegant purveyors of supernatural fiction working today, and yet his reputation in that field continues to elude many out there in the wider world. This is a minor tragedy in my view because, on merit alone, Oliver deserves to be a household name. At least he is well-recognised within the genre itself, a cause served admirably by Tartarus Press, who to date have brought out seven collections of his stories.
The Ballet of Dr Caligari is the most recent on the list, but is something of an oddity in that it incorporates the best of Madder Mysteries, a much earlier Oliver collection, put out in 2009 in fact but which for various reasons was read by almost nobody. The opportunity to get hold of older material that almost sank without trace through no fault of the author gives added value to this particular collection, of course, though there are many more recent stories in here as well, these congregated in the second half of the book, which makes for a most satisfying whole.
When Reggie Oliver first burst onto the ghost story scene in the early 2000s, he was viewed by many as the heir to MR James, his preferred subject the traditional English supernatural tale though with more than a hint of danger in it. Since then, however, and this is excellently illustrated in The Ballet of Dr Caligari, his style has moved more towards the realms of Arthur Machen and Robert Aickman in that he favours strangeness over the straightforwardly ghostly. And yet Oliver’s work is just as frightening now as it ever was, even if he does tend to tackle slightly more complex subject-matter.
Things that have never changed, however, include his eloquent writing style, his scholarly tone, his mordant wit, his effortless evocation of different times and places and his skilled creation of sad, lost characters, all of it coming neatly packaged in deceptively gentle prose.
Another trademark of Oliver’s are his regular trips down memory lane where his own theatrical career was concerned. Oliver was a successful actor, theatre director, playwright and biographer before he moved into a darker literary world, his supernatural canon subsequently making many visits to Britain’s provincial theatre-land of former decades, the majority of these stories steeped in melancholy, though not always because the author is bemoaning the loss of something wonderful. Oliver never skimps on detail when it comes to the tawdriness of some of the experiences he had back then, be it damp dressing rooms, dingy backstage corridors, unpleasant and even predatory fellow professionals, or maybe just second rate accommodation in seaside towns that time forgot.
The Final Stage is a perfect example in this particular collection. It sees an arrogant young actor injured during rehearsal, knocked unconscious and plunged into a theatrical hell of his own making. Another powerful tale of this ilk, less disturbing but dark and foggy nonetheless, is The Vampyre Trap, an atmospheric murder mystery set in Bradford’s Victorian era theatre district, complete with ghosts, arson and multiple deaths by strychnine poisoning. Though by far the most intriguing and yet repellent study of theatre life in times gone by is Baskerville’s Midgets. Read in the age of diversity, it walks the line somewhat, but like many of these stories, it comes to us from another era, when sensibilities were significantly different. I consider this one quite a special piece as low-key horror stories go, so more about this one later.
Reggie Oliver could never really be regarded as an experimental author, but there are three particular stories in The Ballet of Dr Caligari that are fascinatingly off-the-wall compared to his normal output. The first of these, Tawny, you probably would have to classify as experimental fiction, because the story is told entirely in dialogue between characters who are never formally introduced. Such is Oliver’s skill, however, that this never becomes a problem. It concerns an upper class christening, which is interrupted by the arrival of a huge, shaggy animal, which might be a local farm dog gone astray, or something much more sinister.
The two other stories in the trio, while not what I’d regard as experimental, certainly belong in the school of weird fiction rather than the overtly supernatural, though both are deeply macabre. Probably the more lauded of the two, and probably the most Aickmanesque tale in the whole of this collection, if not the most Aickmanesque tale that Oliver has ever written, is A Donkey at the Mysteries, which tells the story of an adventurous undergraduate who makes a one-man tour of Ancient Greek sites, only to arrive on the island of Thrakonisos, where his investigation of the mysterious Sanctuary of the Great Gods invokes an ancient and malignant power. The third story in this small group, The Head, is equally difficult to categorise, but no less unnerving and no less morbidly chilling. In this one, an eccentric art-dealer receives a terminal diagnosis, and so plans to commit suicide with the assistance of an amoral young taxi driver he takes a fancy to, though it won’t be as easy as either of them expects.
Oliver aficionados may consider that more familiar territory is to be found in Love and Death. In this one we’re firmly back in the world of the recognisably supernatural, but it’s a slower burn than usual, and laced with academic interest. It takes place in Victorian London, where it sees Martin Isaacs, an unsuccessful artist, commissioned to recover a missing work of genius, Love and Death, as painted by Basil Hallward, his former mentor, who has now mysteriously disappeared. But the painting, a classical image in the Renaissance style, is misleadingly beautiful. In reality, it destroys all that it touches. A similar tone is struck by Lady With a Rose, in which a young British artist sets up shop in Rome of the 1960s, where he struggles to make a living until he is summoned to the grand home of Prince Valerio Grandoni, who has an unusual and potentially very dangerous commission for him.
Both of these arts-themed tales are intriguing rather than out-and-out frightening, but they hint at extreme darkness and will keep you glued to the page.
Possibly the dreamiest (and perhaps most meaningful) story in the book, and certainly the most folk-horrorish (if such a word exists), is Porson’s Piece, another deceptively gentle fable. It centres on Jane, an Oxford scholar, who seeks an interview with Bernard Wilkes, a former professor of philosophy now in his 80s. She finds him living in a quaint Cotswolds village, but though he’s still an avowed atheist, he now lives in fear of a nearby strip of land called Porson’s Piece, on which the dead are said to dance.
Of course, no Reggie Oliver collection would ever be worthy of the name if it didn’t contain at least a bunch of Gothic horror stories penned with the sole intention of instilling terror in the reader. This, for me, is where the great man really excels, and The Ballet of Dr Caligari is no exception.
First up is The Game of Bear, co-written with MR James himself, though obviously Oliver added his bit long after Dr James had died, the story at that point incomplete.
It centres on Henry Pardue, fortunate heir to a vast country estate, though endless problems are caused for him by his cousin, Caroline, who feels that with her own small inheritance, she has been ill-treated. When Caroline dies, Pardue hopes the matter is over, but it isn’t … as he will learn for himself that following Christmas Day, during the infamous Game of Bear.
Three other tales, owing purely to the imagination of Reggie Oliver, are worthy to stand alongside this one in terms of how genuinely hair-raising they become: The Devil’s Funeral, which I seriously believe is one of the best and eeriest horror stories of modern times, even though it’s set in a distinctly Jamesian past; The Endless Corridor, an uber-Gothic terror tale reminiscent of the great horror writers of earlier eras, Poe, Shelley, Stevenson and so on; and the titular story, The Ballet of Dr Caligari, a phenomenal piece of dark fiction, which though it draws heavily on the original classic tale, is possibly even more crammed with madness and obsession and certainly no less chilling.
I’ve not even hinted at the synopses behind these three final stories simply because I’ll deal with those in the next section. In the meantime, all fans of short eerie fiction should get hold of The Ballet of Dr Caligari. It’s a mixed bag for sure, but the writing is of the highest quality (as are the illustrations, which are provided by the author himself), and it amply demonstrates what a fine and versatile writer Reggie Oliver is.
And now …
THE BALLET OF DR CALIGARI – the movie.
Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware). So as always, part of this review will involve me non-too-seriously casting this beast before someone with enough development money comes along and does it for real. Here are my thoughts.
Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances that require them to relate spooky stories.It could be that they are trapped in a cellar by a broken lift and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of
Horror), or maybe they find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (al la Dead of Night).
Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:
(It may look like I’ve spent a fortune on these actors, but remember, for portmanteau horrors they only usually have to work for one day each 😉).
Baskerville’s Midgets: A professional actor stays regularly at a theatrical guest-house in a drab seaside resort. One year, however, he is progressively more disturbed by an unruly band of performing midgets who have finished up in the same lodgings …The Actor – Peter Capaldi
The Devil’s Funeral: In an age when Darwinian theories are capturing the public imagination, idealistic Canon Simms of Morchester Cathedral is tormented by nightmarish visions, which he feels are predicting disaster for the Church of England. The older, sturdier Dean Bennett is helpful but dismisses his fears as dreams. Neither link the young man’s terrors with the impending arrival of the strangely secretive Bishop Hartley …
Simms – Arthur Darvill
Bennett – Robert Pugh
Hartley – Michael Sheen
The Endless Corridor: A lady academic researches a romantic poet of the Regency period, William Sotherham, and in so doing, uncovers a terrifying tale concerning a trip he made across Spain, which saw him call at an isolated and long-abandoned monastery …
Academic – Kate Winslet
Sotherham – Robert Pattinson
The Ballet of Dr Caligari: When Charles May, a young London composer, is commissioned to write a ballet for Sir Daniel Vernon, one of the most acclaimed choreographers at the British National Ballet, he jumps at the chance. But when he learns the ballet must tell the famous horror story of ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, he wonders if he is doing the right thing …
Charles May – Kit Harington
Daniel Vernon – Anthony Sher
Jane ‘Marda’ Fisher – Elizabeth Olsen
For example, despite a straightforward appointment to school rival princes Vlad and Mircea, Bellorious soon earns the enmity of the ambitious chamberlain, Alexander of Glem, who constantly puts dangers and difficulties in his path, he learns unsavoury things about Queen Eupraxia – things which could easily get him killed, he discovers that Xantho is more interested in acquiring wealth and in mocking his gibbering courtiers than he is in organising matters of state, and he struggles to educate Prince Mircea, whose main interests are guzzling wine and ravishing servant girls.
by James Oswald (2012)
ed by Rosemary Pardoe (2018)
– the movie.
Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. It could be that they’re all held in separate cells in a mental hospital, eager to tell their individual tales to the new house-man (a la Asylum), or find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (as in Dead of Night) – but basically, it’s up to you.
Rodney – Mark Addy
Blake – Matt Ryan
John Wilson – Tobias Menzies
James – James McArdle
by Alan Parks (2017)
When old lag, Howie Nairn summons him to the famous ‘special unit’ in the hellhole that is Barlinnie Prison of the early ’70s, he is told that a certain waitress in the city, a girl known only as Lorna, will be subject to a gangland hit the following day. Little additional info is available regarding this. McCoy doesn’t know why this particular waitress will supposedly be killed, when it will happen, or how, and as such he only looks for her half-heartedly. But no sooner has he found her than she is indeed killed, shot dead right in front of him, in the middle of the street, by a seemingly crazed gunman, who also shoots at the police and then turns the weapon on himself.
by Tony Parsons (2016)
Under the steady leadership of his quietly-spoken but firmly authoritative boss, Detective Chief Inspector Pat Whitestone, he divides his time between caring for his beloved young daughter, Scout, and investigating bizarre and disturbing murder cases. The Hanging Club will be the third such case that we readers have joined him on, and it will see him tested to his absolute limits.
In rapid succession, a cashed-up boy-racer from the City gets off lightly after mowing down the grandson of ex-gangster, Paul Warboys, and so he too is strung up at an unknown location and the film of it played to the nation. Ditto a junk-head idiot who beat an octogenarian war-veteran into paralysis in order to get drugs money; he too walked away untouched and so also gets the rope.
But there is a little bit more to it than this.
Some of the bodies are dumped at Marble Arch, near the site of the old Tyburn gallows, while on each of the hanging videos, a sonorous voice speaks beforehand, asking the victim if he knows why he has been ‘brought to this place of execution’. These guys take themselves very seriously; in their eyes, they aren’t just a gang, they are the new face of law-enforcement in 21st century Britain, an alternative to the official but jaded legal system which even Wolfe thinks has been hijacked by clever lawyers and judges dwelling in ivory towers. (Right at the beginning of the narrative, Wolfe himself is infuriated when one of his own cases fails, the Central Criminal Court going easy on three hooligans who kicked a householder to death and filmed it on their iPhones).
Then there is Tara Jones, a beautiful but profoundly deaf woman who, ironically, is an expert at voice biometrics. By conducting computer analysis of the audio tracks on the video feeds, she is more useful to the team, who need to crack the location of the kill-site, by focussing on the sound of heavy building work nearby – though all this really tells them is that the subterranean location is somewhere in central London.
7, Ocean Drive is a seafront mansion in a wealthy neighbourhood of the Hamptons, Long Island. In appearance, it is a gorgeous ‘olde worlde’ residence with a white sand beach out front and extensive wooded grounds to the rear. It’s a holiday idyll; East Coast America doesn’t get more upscale than this. There is one problem, though – and not a small one. 7, Ocean Drive is also a shunned and abandoned ruin, known locally as ‘the Murder House’ due to it once having sheltered the deranged Dahlquist family, who, generation after generation, terrorised the district with their depraved and homicidal ways. The Dahlquists are now extinct, but their shadow lingers – even in recent years, unsolved violent crimes have been associated with 7, Ocean Drive and its overgrown environs.
Man up, Jack!
Perhaps inevitably, mountaineering scores high on this agenda.
On this particular occasion, the object of the exercise is Mount Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas. At 28,169 feet, it’s the third highest mountain in the world, but easily the most difficult climb, and the worst killer of climbers by a long chalk. Even experienced teams are wary of it as so many who have attempted the peak previously have met with disaster.
We follow the story of this latest attempt through the journal-type memoirs of Dr Stephen Pearce, who is very much a part of that fearless set, though a likeable and unassuming man who is privately tormented by self-doubt. Pearce wasn’t originally supposed to be part of this expedition; he was shortly due to marry into a respected and well-connected family, though uncertainty about the future of ‘domestic bliss’ that apparently faced him led him to break things off, which overnight has made him the talk of London society.
Eager to get away from this febrile atmosphere, Pearce, an accomplished mountaineer already – though he’s never tackled anything like Kangchenjunga – eagerly accepts when his older brother, Christopher, or Kits, offers him the role of chief medical officer on the forthcoming trip.
Kits, though outwardly he is all things to all men, has not acted entirely out of generosity. The Pearce brothers have existed in a state of sibling rivalry for many years now, which on occasion has threatened to get out of hand. Kits, who is constantly out for personal glory, is particularly domineering in his manner, and inclined to sulk and shamelessly complain if he ever imagines that his ‘little brother’ (or anyone, in fact) has beaten him to the prize. However, the expedition needs a medic.
Despite this, the mission’s team-leader, Major Cotterell, a World War One veteran, hell-bent on beating the Germans to the summit of Kangchenjunga, is an affable man, who is more than welcoming, even if the others are much more ambivalent.
From the beginning, however, there is an ominous air about the coming trip, which Pearce, who is prone to nightmares, seems to sense more than the others.
He is not at all sure how he feels about Cotterell’s plan to follow the exact same path taken by the Edwardian adventurer, Edmund Lyell, whose 1905 expedition was a catastrophe, five members of his party dying, the remainder all critically injured. And his misgivings about this are in no way allayed when the team finally convenes in Darjeeling, and Pearce inadvertently meets Captain Charles Tennant, the sole crippled survivor of the Lyell ascent, and a man seemingly so deranged by his experiences on Mount Kangchenjunga that his warnings about the dangers facing them, while mostly incoherent, are apocalyptically dire.
Even when the expedition gets under way, the men initially traversing a dreamy landscape of lush rainforest, deep gorges and gliding jade rivers, the coolies are also uneasy about attempting to climb the sacred mountain in the footsteps of Lyell, and this includes Nima, the Sherpa who becomes Pearce’s personal manservant and is easily one of the sturdiest and most reliable men on the expedition.
In due course, the lower valleys fall behind, and the team commences the arduous climb. Even in the foothills there are problems, but Pearce is steadily more oppressed about what lies further ahead. And that isn’t just the sub-zero temperatures and paper-thin air, it is the unmistakeable feeling that something terrible is watching from far above, just waiting for them to stray into its forbidden territory …
Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, which was published in 2011, was a hypnotically frightening ghost story about an ill-fated expedition to the High Arctic made back during the days of exploration by a well-heeled bunch of chaps looking to make their mark in a world still dominated by Great Britain. Horrors befell them from every side, both of the natural variety, the sort you’d expect during a trip to the ends of the Earth armed with little more than pluck, and of the infinitely more awful supernatural variety.
I was hugely impressed by the tale; not just by how unashamedly scary it was, but by how it captured a unique moment in time: the vast complexities of the undertaking and the personal makeup of those individuals actually taking part, the class system that had created them, the imperialist outlook and so forth. For all these reasons, Dark Matter was a roaring success.
And now Michelle Paver has done it again.Thin Air may not sound massively different, and it certainly isn’t in terms of its tone. It’s not even especially different in terms of the actual story. But though most of the characters are cut from the same cloth as those in Dark Matter, they are all new, and each one of them, in his own right, is vivid and real. Also, while there are clear similarities between the narratives (I really can’t pretend that there aren’t!), I never felt that I was reading the same thing all over again.
Okay, that’s a personal viewpoint, which others have disagreed with, but I can only tell you what I myself thought.
At the forefront of the novel, of course, lies a terrifying ghost story.
It features an arduous journey into an unknown realm, which even the locals are wary of, a place abounding with creatures from both reality, even if semi-mythical, like the snow leopard and the blue sheep, and from mythology, such as the yeti and the mountain spirits that the Sherpa people are so enthralled by. Almost from the beginning, though, there is an aura of impending but unknowable doom. And this doesn’t just stem from Captain Tennant’s demented rantings, alarming though that scene in the book is. So many previous missions have met catastrophe on this mountain that expecting the worst is perhaps the wisest course.
Both Stephen Pearce and his brother knew all about the Lyell expedition from childhood, from reading about it in books and sitting at their aunt’s knee as she regaled them with the story, sparing no lurid detail. And yet Stephen in particular is convinced that they’ve never been given the full terrible facts. Of course, when they finally get up there, the more fanciful legends concerning Kangchenjunga seem a world away for the majority of the party. Initially, it’s just about survival. And yet, still those unspecified concerns that something lurks up here, something malevolent, race through Stephen Pearce’s mind, and through the reader’s.
The tension grows steadily as, in the best fashion of MR James, we think we start to glimpse whatever it is, always just ahead of them, or sometimes behind, or maybe off to the side, but never far away.
It’s certainly the case that fans of classic ghost stories should gobble this one up. It satisfies every requirement of that genre. It’s also impeccably researched. Michelle Paver has visited the Himalayas in real life, but she’s clearly immersed herself in the climbing lore of an earlier age too, because this book really takes you back to the 1930s, and the much rougher and readier methods used to undertake what were genuinely heroic endeavours.
But again, I reiterate, that this isn’t just a ghost story. I don’t want to give much more away but the subtext to Thin Air, as with Dark Matter, is much concerned with the class system of that era and what was a routinely colonialist outlook, a mindset so cast in stone that it even extends into the frozen Hell at the top of Mount Kangchenjunga.
But it’s all done subtly. This isn’t a book about villainous Brits and the poor, put-upon natives. It isn’t even a story about the self-perceived masters of the world proving themselves to be anything but, though it does illustrate, in the most succinct way, how attitudes of superiority can often come with a price … much more of a price than even its hardiest practitioners might be willing to pay. Not that they’ll have much choice.
This brings me onto the characters in Thin Air, at which Michelle Paver yet again excels herself. Even the lesser personalities, McLellan and Garrard, the former a pompous, upper-class Scot, the latter Kits’s eager-to-please ‘yes’ man, while typical examples of the sorts you’d find out there in the Empire in those days, both are clearly and individually drawn.
Again, Michelle Paver does not club her subject-matter here. Cotterell, for example, is a war hero and a true gentleman. Stephen Pearce himself, though very much a product of his time, is a sympathetic figure: the overlooked younger son, the batman to his betters even though he’s a fully qualified doctor (years of derogation by his ‘hero’ older brother have reduced him to this status even in his own eyes). Kits himself, while he’s an archetypical public school brat, a man whose brash over-confidence owes to his having everything he’s ever wanted laid on for him on a plate, does not consider that he’s doing evil. He’s top-dog, and that’s just the way it is; his constant belittling of Stephen is nothing more, in his mind at least, than gentle ribbing.
Thin Air, while it might be a nice metaphor for the unhealthily rarefied atmosphere that certain types of imperialists inhabited back in those days, is not an anti-British polemic. The innate jingoism is presented to us as an everyday thing back then, even the Sherpas, expert mountaineers, accepting their subservient place as part of the natural order. The message that this was all terribly wrong (and highly likely to backfire) seeps through gradually, via the interactions of the characters and the emergence of ghastly revelations.
For all these reasons, Thin Air’s appeal should reach far beyond ghost fiction fandom. But whoever you are, however deep and non-genre you prefer your literature to be, be prepared to be scared. The terror builds slowly but from the very first page, and it doesn’t let up.
And now the fun bit. Or rather, the bit where I embarrass myself by trying to cast this work as if it was about to be translated to film or TV and I had the job of choosing the actors. Here we go:
Stephen Pearce – George MacKay
Christopher ‘Kits’ Pearce – Charlie Hunnam
Major Cotterell – Ralph Ineson
Charles Tennant – David Bradley
Nima – Rajesh Hamal
by Chris Petit (2016)
In a world where only the callous and vicious seem to prosper, Gersten is one of the worst people Sybil has ever met. But she isn’t alone in that assessment. Gersten’s name increasingly crops up in Schlegel and Morgen’s enquiry, neither of the investigators liking him, though both are wary of the power he wields.
Not everyone has taken to this, some reviewers commenting that it isn’t so much a wartime thriller as a horror novel, others calling it insensitive to the real atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. My response to this would be that if you’re writing seriously about this time and place, then sugar-coating any aspect of it would be doing a disservice to history. If you don’t think it should be written about at all, that’s a different argument, but we’ve seen action-adventures set during wartime, as well as serious dramas, we’ve seen romances, comedies, musicals – is it really so outrageous to set a murder-mystery in the same milieu? And if it is, does that mean we shouldn’t set fiction and/or drama in Northern Ireland during the Troubles or in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, or even during the plague years of the Middle Ages. All these disasters are part of real human experience which we can’t simply ignore, so the argument doesn’t hold water for me.
by Oliver Potzsch (2015)
by Laura Purcell (2017)
by Andrew Pyper (2013)
by Danielle Ramsay (2017)
by Rod Reynolds (2015)
We commence proceedings in the newsroom of the The Examiner newspaper, New York, in 1946, where we meet long-serving newshound, Charlie Yates. At first glance, Yates is an unimpressive specimen, who, though he has fifteen years experience investigating and writing about crime, was injured out of the armed forces by a road accident before he could be sent overseas (which some folk feel worked out rather well for him), and now has anger-management issues that have put paid to his marriage and regularly enrage his equally ill-tempered boss.
After one particular incident in the office, Yates, his career hanging by a thread, is sent south to Texarkana, the twin cities that straddle the Texas-Arkansas border, where a series of gruesome fatal attacks are underway, young couples accosted by a hooded gunman in remote areas and shot, the women then sexually mutilated.
It’s a lurid case, the killer referred to locally as ‘the Phantom Slayer’, but Yates still considers it small potatoes and is infuriated both to have been landed with such a story in the first place and to have been sent out here to what he considers the boondocks, to cover it.
Ironically, the boondocks are equally unhappy to have him.
Though he puts up in the Mason Hotel, along with the rest of the press pack (because despite Yates’ frustration, this is fast turning into a big story!), he isn’t received well at the Chronicle, the local newspaper, which is owned by the same company as the Examiner and thus somewhere he’d expected to find allies. Neighbourhood crime reporter, Jimmy Robinson, something of an unstable character himself, views their guest as an arrogant interloper, while Chronicle editor, McGaffney, is less overtly hostile but evidently discomforted to have a big-city crime writer on the patch.
Despite being advised that Texarkana is not New York and that these murders actually mean something because almost everyone in town has been personally affected by them, Yates goes in feet-first, asking bullish questions of all and sundry, which brings him into near-immediate conflict with lead-investigator Sheriff Horace Bailey and his enforcer-in-chief, the ultra-menacing Lieutenant Jack Sherman, who warns him off subtly but in no uncertain terms.
Yates’ suggestion that the killer may be a deranged ex-GI gains no traction with anyone, even though the town is full of such potential suspects, hordes of demobbed men, many still trigger-happy, filling the town’s bars and flocking to work at nearby Red River Arsenal, a military supply depot where their expertise would be valued, but which is currently in the process of being acquired by the town’s most prominent citizen, millionaire Winfield Calloway, throwing its future into the balance.
As the body-count mounts, the town turning ever more volatile and the dogged Yates’ relationship with both the local press and police becoming so strained that the latter soon go from warning him to making open threats, he inveigles his way into the hospital to speak to 17-year-old Alice Anderson, thus far the only survivor of a Phantom attack. He finds her upset and confused, claiming no real memory of what happened but insisting that the police have been leaning on her, trying to put words into her mouth. Afterwards, when the cops release an official statement that Alice Anderson has described her assailant as a black man, Yates knows it for a lie.
Not long after this, a huge reward is offered, which Yates realises is going to lead to violence and intimidation against the local black community, while the real culprit is not only going unpunished but, for some reason, not even being pursued … maybe is even being protected.
Unsure who to trust, he tries to win the confidence of Lizzie Anderson, Alice’s attractive and adversarial older sister. However, Lizzie’s a woman of secrets too, and initially doesn’t seem to like him, never mind trust him. But then, bewilderingly, Alice disappears from the hospital, apparently without trace.
Against an ever-deepening mystery and in an atmosphere of simmering violence, Lizzie has no option but to turn to Charlie Yates, and Yates to her. Both feel the entire town is now ranged against them, including the killer who strikes by moonlight, the one they call the Phantom …
The ‘Moonlight Murders’ that occurred in Texarkana in 1946 were a dreadful series of actual events, which saw five people killed and three others seriously wounded at the hands of an unknown killer dubbed ‘the Phantom’ because of the terrifying white hood he always wore. It’s one of the the most fascinating aspects of The Dark Inside that Rod Reynolds follows this grim, real-life history very closely indeed, even using the genuine locations of murder scenes like Spring Lake Park and Red River Army Depot. That said, he changes the names of the victims and the law enforcement officials charged with finding justice for them, and of course, purely for dramatic purposes, adds heaps of local corruption, whereas in reality there was no suggestion of such.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the legendary crime spree has been fictionalised.
In 1976, Charles Pierce made the notorious exploitation movie, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, which also told the tale but took liberties with many of the facts, suggesting, for instance, that one of the Phantom’s female victims was killed with a musical instrument, which definitely never happened and yet thanks to the movie became canon among teenagers interested in the case. Despite being vividly done, The Town That Dreaded Sundown barely rates a mention among worldwide horror movie fans these days, but it so plucked at the nerve strings of Texarkana residents that, even now, it regularly receives late-night open air screenings in Spring Lake Park.
The upshot of this (not to mention the fact that sundry other books have been written about the case, both fictional and non-fictional) is that it was never very likely Rod Reynolds would be accused of showing bad taste by dramatising these astonishing events, which I personally am more than happy about because I found The Dark Inside a thoroughly engrossing piece of grown-up thriller fiction, populated by completely convincing characters and speeding through a series of hairpin twists and turns that constantly threw me and left me eager to know what was coming next. To call this one a page-turner is not just hyperbole.
Charlie Yates makes for an excellent lead. He’s now gone on to star in two other novels, Black Night Falling and Cold Desert Sky, but this is his first appearance and it’s a powerful one, though the author set himself no small task birthing a hero who is flawed for all the wrong reasons: a guy deeply embarrassed and self-recriminating about his cowardice during World War Two, frustrated about his failures as a husband and a man, and when he first arrives in Texarkana, self-centred, aimless and drifting. Uninspired and mostly unrepentant, about the only thing Yates has got going for him is his nose for a story, but it is this that will lead him on a path to redemption. And that’s our main narrative arc.
Yes, there is a brutal murderer to unmask, but The Dark Inside is also about a man at his lowest ebb frantically trying to claw his way back to the light. And he only gets there incrementally, continually making bad choices and letting himself down, though that renders Yates all the more interesting to me. He’s the hero, of course, so you never quite give up on him. It’s no surprise that by the end of this book, the reader is one hundred percent behind the guy in his quest to put things right.
His relationship with Lizzie Anderson is a big part of this. Our heroine is hardly a femme fatale, beautiful and spirited, yes, but in her own way flawed as well as being tired and depressed. On top of that, she’s not at all attracted to Yates in the early stages of the narrative, and is eventually only drawn to him because it seems as if he’s the only guy she can trust.
Equally multi-layered is Rod Reynolds’ depiction of the book’s main villains, Horace Bailey and Jack Sherman in particular, both of whom hark back to that earlier age when ‘men were men’, even though in reality, as shown here, that could be quite nasty given the propensity of men like that for explosive violence. Bailey and Sherman are two characters you’re certain would kill you as soon as look at you if it suited their purpose. You only need to read The Dark Inside to be very thankful for the much more answerable law-enforcement agencies that we have today.
Other characters are also clearly drawn, Richard Davis, the town punk, and Winfield Calloway, Texarkana’s overweening patriarch (the sort of character Ed Begley would have played back in the ’50s and ’60s), providing much more than simple window-dressing, while local journalists Robinson and McGaffney are expertly cast as redneck newspaper men at least as concerned about protecting their hick town’s almost non-existent reputation as in breaking good stories.
I’ve never visited Texarkana, so I can’t comment on how authentically Rod Reynolds captures the atmosphere of the place, but in The Dark Inside he gives us a tremendously vivid picture of a functioning but self-absorbed community at a difficult time in the history of the American South: before the Civil Rights movement, with women and blacks still second class citizens, but with poverty and social problems never far from anyone’s door, and now with GIs flooding home from foreign battlefields, many traumatised, and of course all matters of dispute still deferred to the town’s ruling elite no matter how thuggish and inexperienced they may be.
This is even more remarkable because author Rod Reynolds is a Brit. So, all the more credit to him for producing this hardboiled slice of classic Southern Noir, in which the crimes are heinous, the atmosphere crackles and the characters bounce off each other like human ninepins.
The Dark Inside is a pitch-perfect period thriller, tense, claustrophobic and sweaty. It gets my very strongest recommendation.
I’m hoping that, with its taut tone and bad attitude and with the recent repopularisation of the Southern Gothic crime subgenre by such recent TV hits as True Detective and The Devil All the Time, it won’t be long before The Dark Inside hits our screens. So now, as usual, in eager anticipation of such a pleasure, I’m going to try and cast this beast. No one will listen to me, of course, but you must admit, it’s a fun exercise.
Charlie Yates – Adam Scott
Lizzie Anderson – Dakota Johnson
Sheriff Horace Bailey – Robert Patrick
Lieutenant Jack Sherman – Glenn Fleshler
Richard Davis – Jack Quaid
Winfield Calloway – Brett Cullen
Jimmy Robinson – Tommy Flanagan
McGaffney – Rainn Wilson
by Phil Rickman (2011)
by Mark Roberts (2016)
by Craig Robertson (2013)
A seasoned but dysfunctional murder investigation team swings into action, aided and abetted by young crime scene photographer, Tony Winter. But this will be no straightforward enquiry. Retired detective Danny Neilson – Tony’s uncle – is convinced he’s seen this maniac’s hand before. Back in the ’70s, he hunted a Glasgow rape-strangler known as Red Silk, who also picked his victims up in bars and nightclubs. The problem is, the Red Silk murders were eventually pinned on another Scottish serial killer Archibald Atto – and Atto is still inside, serving a full-life sentence.
by LTC Rolt (1948)
A newly-reissued single collection of British ghost stories from an author not primarily associated with the supernatural genre, but a book with a long reputation in the field, particularly among fans of Jamesian-style ghost fiction, for being a forgotten classic.
This powerful collection of stories of the supernatural combines LTC Rolt’s writing talent with his unparalleled knowledge of Britain’s industrial heritage to produce tales of real mystery and imagination. This haunting anthology takes the reader on a journey from Cornwall to Wales and from the hill country of Shropshire to the west coast of Ireland.
‘The House of Vengeance,’ set in the Black Mountains of South Wales, tells what happens when a walker becomes lost and disorientated as the mist falls, while in ‘The Gartside Fell Disaster’ an old railwayman recounts the terrible night when the ‘Mountaineer’ came to grief. Alongside these are twelve other tales of elemental fears and strange and inexplicable happenings.
First published in 1948, this enduring collection will appeal to all those who, like Tom Rolt, are passionate about the backdrop of our industrial landscape and will delight and terrify anyone who loves a good old-fashioned ghost story …
Lionel Thomas Caswell Rolt (1910-1974) was best known during his lifetime as a trained engineer who turned his hand to writing on engineering and industrial matters, and, most famously, to producing well-regarded biographies on the two great pioneers of that field, Thomas Telford and Isembard Kingdom Brunel. He was also renowned for his interest in and knowledge of cars, trains and other vehicles, which manifested itself in his participation in vintage car rallies and the development of heritage railways, as well as for being a narrow boat enthusiast and a major promoter of leisure cruising on Britain’s inland waterways.
What there was no outward sign of was his fascination with ghost stories, particularly the ghost stories of MR James, which were characterised by atmospheric old English (or old European) locations, gentleman scholar protagonists, and malevolent spectral foes invoked through their attachment to mysterious and arcane artefacts or locations. Bearing this in mind, and that Rolt was also a close friend to Robert Aickman, a fellow conservationist and a founder member of the Inland Waterways Association (which restored Britain’s by then semi-derelict canal system) but best known today as an author and very accomplished practitioner of the English weird tale, it may be less of a surprise that in due course the one-time engineer also penned a bunch of ghost stories.
Sleep No More was first published by Constable in 1948, and was immediately well-received. But because Rolt didn’t write any follow-up collections, his standing as a ghost story writer gradually faded until by the turn of the century, for the average man on the street at least, it had more or less vanished. New small-circulation editions have since been produced by enthusiasts: Branch Line (who specialised in publishing railway books) in 1974, and the late much-lamented Ash-Tree Press in 1996 (who added two extra stories to the line-up), but both those versions are now out of print. For that reason alone, this relatively new edition (2010) from The History Press must be regarded as something of a collector’s must, but also because with a new introduction by Susan Hill, it’s a really nice piece of work in its own right.
As to whether the material it contains still works, well … it did for me.
To start with, it’s all beautifully and compellingly written. Tom Rolt couldn’t just paint pretty pictures with his words. He did it succinctly. Considering that much of his output was factual non-fiction, he also had the talent to pace his stories effectively and people them with convincing characters.
In terms of style, there is no doubt that Rolt was strongly influenced by MR James, though Rolt’s world was not that of academia or the cloister, and this is clearly represented in his tales, in many of which, though the central characters are often lonesome scholarly types on missions of discovery through the British back-country, the settings are abandoned industrial sites or places where industry or engineering is in process or has left its mark on the landscape. However, what is very reminiscent of the old master is the malign and even deadly nature of the supernatural threats, while from Robert Aickman, he appears to have inherited an intriguing habit of injecting strangeness into his stories as well, not always providing clean cut explanations for the weird and disturbing events he describes.
For that reason, some of the stories in this collection I’d regard as eerie rather than out-and-out frightening, but that’s a good thing, because that means they were affecting and left me thinking about them long afterwards.
Three of the best stories in the book fall into this category, The Shouting (one of the two later additions), Cwm Garron (which is exceptional) and Hawley Bank Foundry, but because I’m going to be discussing these three a little later on (in the movie adaptation part of this review) I won’t say too much synopsis-wise, except to comment that all three take place in otherworldly semi-rural locations, and that all hit us straight off with an indefinably doom-laden atmosphere, which steadily deepens until reaching a stark, bone-chilling denouement.
Also falling into this category is The Cat Returns, in which a car breaks down on a stormy night and the honeymooning couple inside it fight their way through the rain on foot until encountering an isolated house. A man they suspect is a servant admits them and bids them stay over, but he seems to be terrified of something … and then the phone rings. There’s a bit of a traditional ghost story vibe with this one, but again, the creepiness of the situation, almost from the beginning, is its main asset. Likewise, in World’s End, a traveller on the Pembroke Coast becomes lost in a sea fret and takes refuge in an inn, where he must share a bedroom with a man he doesn’t know and subsequently endures an appalling experience. This is another dreamlike Aickmanesque tale, with much to disturb the reader before we even consider its supernatural message.
Perhaps the most overtly Jamesian story in the book, and another of the best, is Bosworth Summit Pound. Again, I’ll be talking about this one a little more later on, so I’m offering no thumbnail synopsis, but it’s got the personal touch and perhaps the most authentic feel of them all (not that they haven’t all got the air of authenticity when it comes to the industrial heritage of Britain) as it takes the reader deep into Rolt’s beloved inland waterway system.
Also with a Jamesian aura, though in a very different way, is New Corner. This one tells the story of a 1930s land speed trial, which is continually interrupted when the new corner of the racetrack becomes subject to curious phenomena, including disturbing smells and apparitions. As with many a classic Jamesian tale, the stakes are raised drastically when one of the officials has a terrible dream, which seemingly presages an awful disaster.
Even without the shadow of Dr James lying over it, this would be a powerful and frightening ghost story, as is Agony of Flame, which follows the misfortune of two men who, during a fishing holiday in the West of Ireland, are puzzled by the lights shining nightly from a ruined castle on an island in a loch. Against their better judgement, they investigate … and pay the price for the rest of their lives.
Taking us smoothly into the realm of the more traditional non-Jamesian ghost story is A Visitor at Ashcombe, in which a successful industrialist and his wife move to a mansion in the Cotswolds and insist on opening up a forbidden chamber, where once, it is said, a celebrated witch-hunter held court. Almost inevitably, chaos and tragedy result.
Similarly reminiscent of the older, more typical English ghost story (Dickens’s The Signalman being a good example here) is The Garside Fell Disaster, in which a Victorian-era signalman reflects on the events that led to a railway accident in the tunnel where he was stationed in the wilds of Cumbria and his conviction that there’d always been something odd about that mountain. Meanwhile, in Hear Not My Steps, a professional ghost hunter takes it on himself to spend a night in a haunted room. He’s never encountered a real ghost yet, though all that will shortly change.
In Music Hath Charms, a young man inherits a coastal house in Cornwall. When he travels down there with a friend, it is in a semi-dilapidated state. It also boasts an uncanny history, and when they search among its lumber they find a curious musical box, which produces a tune the new owner falls in love with but which his friend is strangely repelled by. In The House of Vengeance (the second of the two later additions), meanwhile, young John gets lost while hiking through the Brecon Beacons to his friend’s cottage. When a fierce storm strikes, he seeks sanctuary in a curious farmhouse that is not on any map.
These more familiar types of ghost stories are perhaps slightly less impressive in terms of originality, featuring, as they do, demonic spirits, possession etc. At least, that’s the case when they’re read today. But overall this is an excellent collection of supernatural tales. It’s a superior standard of writing, often taking place in unusual settings and strange, blighted locations, and if the ambition was to produce something as intensely and lingeringly scary as MR James often was, then it’s a very worthy effort indeed.
We’ve often heard it proclaimed that such and such an author is the next MR James, and while I’ve never read one yet who was, LTC Rolt comes very close.
And now …
SLEEP NO MORE – the movie.
I doubt that any film maker has optioned this book yet, and whether or not it’s ever likely to happen, but as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my opinions just in case some major player decides to put it on the screen.
Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a portmanteau horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to either relate spooky stories or listen to them.
Without further chit-chat, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:
Edwina (no reason why it can’t be a woman) – Ruth Wilson
Bosworth Summit Pound: Fawcett, a man in ailing health, takes a boat trip along one of England’s lesser known waterways, which he doesn’t survive. His journal, however, relates a tale of terror concerning a bone-chilling encounter in a menacing canal tunnel at the journey’s halfway point …
Fawcett – Richard E Grant
Cwm Garron: Carfax embarks on a one-man holiday in the Welsh mountains. He stays at a peaceful inn in a picturesque valley. But a fellow guest, Elphinstone, a noted folklorist, advises him that not everything here is as pleasant as it may seem …
Carfax – Matthew Goode
Elphinstone (another gender change, but no harm done) – Alison Wright
Hawley Bank Foundry: During World War II, an industrialist reopens an abandoned ironworks deep in the Shropshire countryside, and immediately there are strange goings-on: reports of phantom figures and some type of unknown vermin that infest the factory and kill the local cats …
Clegg – Liam Cunningham
Hrad Orlů is a medieval castle built on a towering crag in the mountains of the Czechoslovak Republic. For long centuries, in that archetypical style of indomitable Eastern European bastions, it has lowered over the surrounding villages, casting a dark and ominous shadow, especially as it was once the home of law-unto-himself despot, Jan of the Black Heart, whose cruelty bordered on total madness. Now, in 1935, it remains fully intact and still strikes a note of fear in those who see it, because these days it is used as an asylum for the criminally insane. Local gossip has always held that Hrad Orlů is a bad place, haunted not just by evil memories but by the souls of the dead and even infernal spirits as, supposedly, the castle was built over a system of deep caves that formed one of the entrances to Hell.
So, it’s a surprise to no one among the local peasantry that only their country’s worst murderers are incarcerated there, including the so-called Devil’s Six, a bunch of killers so violent and degenerate that they are considered unfitted for imprisonment anywhere else.
However, things are not quite so bad on the inside. Under the leadership of progressive chief psychiatrist, Professor Ondrej Romarek, the staff are dedicated to treating their inmates rather than punishing them, and all the most modern methods and equipment are in use. It is the ideal environment for young up-and-coming psychiatrist, Viktor Kosárek, who as a student of Jung, is determined to get to the very roots of the mental disturbances that have led his new patients to kill.
He arrives at the asylum at a timely moment, as a new serial predator nicknamed Leather Apron is wreaking havoc in Prague’s poorer districts, where he butchers prostitutes in the manner of Jack the Ripper. Local police chief, Captain Lukáš Smolák, an intelligent, even-handed officer, is leading the hunt but getting nowhere, and increasingly having to balance this duty with controlling disorder on the streets, as, due to the rise of Hitler, stresses are growing between the country’s native Czech and Sudeten German populations. Similar differences are emerging inside Hrad Orlů, where the asylum physician, Doctor Hans Platner and one or two others, approve of Hitler’s philosophies, though for the time being, young idealist, Viktor, is too busy on other fronts to pay much heed to this: firstly, he is slowly falling in love with hospital administrator, Judita Blochova, who, as a Jew, suffers awful nightmares about a dark age looming for her people, and secondly is keen to bring pioneering treatment, a combination of drug therapy and deep hypnosis, to the Devil’s Six.
Viktor believes in the existence of the ‘id’, a deep place inside all of us where our most violent and destructive impulses are stored, our ‘potential for evil’ for want of a more scientific phrase. He argues that when this is triggered, all manner of horrors can be enacted by even the most mild-mannered people. Viktor calls this the ‘Devil Aspect,’ and asserts that everyone possesses one, though he admits that in the case of the Devil’s Six, it has already been given full rein.
These are a dangerous group of individuals by almost any standards.
They comprise: Hedrika ‘the Vegetarian’ Valentova, who killed her husband and fed him to his own sister; Leos ‘the Clown’ Mladek, a roving child-killer who lured his victims by wearing circus makeup; Dominik ‘the Sciomancer’ Bartos, a deranged scientist who murdered people in the midst of fiendish experiments; Pavel ‘the Woodcutter’ Zeleny, who chopped his wife and children to pieces with an axe; Michal ‘the Glass Collector’ Machacek, a sex murderer who kept his female victims’ heads encased in glass; and worst of all, Vojtech ‘the Demon’ Skála, a raging madman who has committed every kind of homicide, and revels in the pain these deeds have caused.
It’s perhaps understandable that Viktor feels he has his hands full inside the asylum. But it’s increasingly looking as if his expertise will be called for on the outside as well, and maybe some proof will be required that his patients are securely locked up. Because Leather Apron continues to hit new levels of depravity as he slaughters, with Captain Smolák increasingly helpless in the face of the violence unleashed and not a little bit bewildered when one of his suspects admits to peripheral involvement but insists that the real culprit was quite literally the Devil himself …
Just from looking at it, you could be forgiven for thinking The Devil Aspect an out-and-out horror novel. All the trappings are there: the Dracula-type castle; the forested, mountainous setting; the fast approach of a terrible mid-European winter; the ongoing horrific slayings (often given to us unstintingly); the plethora of terrifying legends encircling these events.
But while there is no doubt that Craig Russell has written a horror novel here, and a Gothic one to boot, it’s also much, much more than that.
At the heart of it lies the fundamental discussion about whether heinous deeds spring from the damaged psyche of human beings traumatised beyond repair or because there is a force of genuine evil in the world. Both sides of the argument are handled intelligently and accessibly, but no easy answers are forthcoming, even Viktor Kosárek forced to wonder at one point if the mental illness that causes men to murder might actually be contagious, a theory no practitioner in psychiatry has ever taken seriously (despite the mass psychosis clearly on display here), and openly and repeatedly referring to this madness as ‘evil’, a politically incorrect term which, even in the 1930s many in his profession would eschew.
Of course, all the time this is going on, we’re acutely aware that, only next door in Germany and Austria, the Nazis are rising to power, threatening a tide of blood and violence, which we, with our hindsight, already know will be perpetrated and indulged in by so many who previously led law-abiding lives that it will make any such conversation seem almost redundant.
For me, this constant awareness of time and place is a key factor in The Devil Aspect’s success.
Many historians have asked the key questions: how did the Nazis ever attain power?; why did so many non-criminal persons end up collaborating in the Holocaust? And the uniqueness of where and when it happened has often been offered by way of at least partial explanation. In The Devil Aspect, this tiny corner of the First Czechoslovak Republic is almost a microcosm of that. To begin with, it’s an isolated community, cut off by geography in this case though by ideology in the wider context, there is poverty, frustration and urban decay, violence is already commonplace, society divided along racial lines (by picking mainly on the underclass, even Leather Apron is mostly eliminating ‘undesirables’). As well as all that, religious belief is on the wane, the strictures that once forbade men from doing evil fading fast, and yet a new humanist Utopia has not arrived and so mysticism has filled the gap, not just notions of Aryan superiority, but dark legends from Slavic mythology too (I challenge anyone to find a scarier deity than Veles, the Slavic lord of the underworld).
Craig Russell also neatly reflects the ambience of Central Europe in the 1930s. From his depiction of Prague as a foggy realm of arched alleyways, narrow cobbled streets and baroque buildings, he is drawing directly on the German Expressionist movement, while the serial killers who seem to abound here are strongly reminiscent of the real-life Weimar Beasts, the succession of mass murderers, from Peter Kurten (who is referenced in the book) through to Fritz Haarman, who seemingly came from nowhere to terrorise Germany between the wars.
Okay, well that’s all very clever, but does it work as a thriller?
Well, I feel there are one or two incongruities. Dare I say it, there may be a couple too many serial killers on show, though my main concern there is that several of them felt a little like window-dressing rather than real characters, and their presence in the plot soon seemed superfluous. I also felt that of the two lead good guys, Captain Smolák was by far the more engaging, an ordinary man doing his level best to hold it all together in the midst of murder and chaos, even though he suffers a personal loss as well, while Viktor is a little wrapped up in his own intellect (though to be fair to the latter, he does become more proactive when he starts to suspect that he knows the main killer’s identity).
These are minor quibbles, though. The Devil Aspect is a majestically written and superbly atmospheric thriller, which though it condenses quite a lot of food for thought into its 475 pages, most of this is so fascinating that you just keep reading. The action sequences, of which there are several, are also damn good, while the mystery itself continues to twist and turn in that time-honoured fashion. All-round, a brooding Gothic chiller that should grace the shelves of anyone interested in truly dark fiction.
And now, as ill-advisedly as ever, I’m going to take it on myself to try and cast this thing in the event that some very smart film-maker decides to put it on the big screen. As usual, only a bit of fun, but you never know, at some point someone with big cash may take the leap. (As I’m pretty short of knowledge re. Czech-born actors, I’m here going for English speakers; you’ll just have to imagine them putting on convincing accents).
Dr Viktor Kosárek – Rami Malek
Capt Lukáš Smolák – Joaquin Phoenix
Prof Ondrej Romanek – Michael McElhatton
Judita Blochova – Emmy Rossum
Vojtech Skála – Jamie Foreman
Filip Starosta – Danila Kozlovsky
by Leigh Russell (2015)
In this regard, we readers are one or two steps ahead of Peterson, because we at least have the ‘pleasure’ of witnessing these graphic crimes, on each occasion slipping into the mind of a complete lunatic, who prowls the city’s byways after dark acting out an insane Viking fantasy in which murder and pillage are the only items of interest and where every stranger on the street is fair game. And no, just in case you’ve got a weak stomach, we are not spared the actual destruction that inevitably follows: the swinging of the mighty axe, the sundering of skulls, the lopping of limbs.
by Ahmed Saadawi (2013)
Iraq, 2003. A shell of a country in every sense of the word, but nowhere does that apply more visibly than in Baghdad itself, where the social and architectural fabric of the city has been near-enough destroyed even though the war is still raging. Saddam and his forces have gone, while the Americans and their allies have retreated into fortified enclaves, from which they only occasionally emerge in armoured columns, making swift and futile patrols. But now a range of replacement killers, not just the Sunni and Shiite militias and the Iraqi National Guard, but armed gangs of seemingly every persuasion, shoot it out daily on the shell-ravaged streets, and bombings are a common occurrence, the resulting indiscriminate explosions killing dozens each time and annihilating more and more of the city’s infrastructure, doing so much damage that what remains of the Iraqi government are completely unable to repair it.
The ordinary citizens eke out an appalling existence amid corpses and bullet-scarred ruins, and yet somehow they survive. One of these, an eccentric, happy-go-lucky junk dealer called Hadi, prowls the rubble looking for things to sell, and occasionally entertains his neighbours in the time-honoured tradition of Scheherazade with his tall stories.
Hadi, we realise, like so many of his fellow Iraqis, is in a state of ongoing traumatic stress, so much so that he barely knows it anymore. His grasp of reality is so tenuous that one day, instead of collecting rubbish and trying to sell it in his shop, he collects disparate human body parts, thinking that if he can stitch them all together and give them a proper burial, it will soothe a great number of aggrieved souls.
At the same time, in a particularly effective, near hallucinatory sequence, Hasib Mohamed Jaafar, a conscientious security guard, is killed in yet another suicide truck-bomb attack, his body almost vapourised in the blast, his spirit cast to the four winds.
Though it doesn’t remain there.
Deeply affronted by its own murder, Hasib’s spirit comes in search of a new host, and discovers the sewn-together travesty in Hadi’s outhouse. It duly possesses the homemade corpse, bringing it to a monstrous kind of life.
The patchwork horror has no initial purpose other than to wander the devastation of its former home city, though of course it can’t do this by daytime, for it is so hideous to look upon. Instead, it travels by night … and starts to commit murders.
These are not carried out for their own sake, for the hybrid thing, utterly deranged, is a mix of personalities, and having heard the prayers of those slain from whom it is comprised, now seeks vengeance on all their behalf. There is thus a rhyme and reason behind its crimewave, though few initially notice this thanks to the surplus of criminal violence already in progress. Nevertheless, urban legends spread that a monster, the Whatsitsname, as they call it, is on a non-stop nocturnal rampage, and soon the population are as terrorised by this as they are by any of the insurgent militia.
No one can locate the Whatsitsname during daytime because it has found a place to lie low. Elishva, an Assyrian Christian widow, who lives in the district of Bataween at the very heart of the guerrilla war being waged in the city, has long been in mourning for a son who never came home from the Iran/Iraq conflict of the early 1980s. When the Whatsitsname breaks into her house, the disturbed woman confronts it, and immediately decides that this is her disfigured son, returned at last.
Her home and the motherly care she provides prove convenient for the Whatsitsname, which is far from done in its quest for vengeance. It has now expanded its search, hunting down anyone it considers to be a criminal, though its righteousness is increasingly compromised because as the body parts it seeks vengeance for rot and fall away, it replaces them with new chunks of humanity, and some of these, inevitably, come from slaughtered men who were once criminals themselves.
Meanwhile, determined to investigate the ongoing bloodbath are two very different characters.
Mahmoud al-Sawadi is a local journalist who is working on the story, though his life is complicated by his Machievellian editor, Ali Bahir al-Saidi, whose mistress, Nawal al-Wadir, Mahmoud happens to be in love with, and whose intrigues look increasingly likely to get the magazine closed. Mahmoud’s direct opposite in terms of temperament and intellect is Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid, head of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, and a brutal, autocratic man drawn from the old regime but now charged with finding the Whatsitsname. Denuded of all his old methods, his spies and informers, Majid relies increasingly – and this is another nod, I suspect, to the magical days of The Arabian Nights and The Thief of Baghdad – on astrologers, soothsayers and other mystics, who attempt to collect intelligence by contacting the djinn.
Meanwhile, our main antagonist continues to scour the benighted backstreets, killling with a free hand, and at the same time, amassing a band of fanatical followers, creating, in effect, yet another insurgent group with which to torment the tragic city …
It’s perhaps an obvious point to make that Frankenstein in Baghdad was published in English in 2018, 200 years to the year after the first publication of Frankenstein (or, as it was alternatively titled, The Modern Prometheus), but that is largely it in terms of similarities. Though both novels share a murderous, sewn-together monstrosity as their central antagonist, in the latter book there is no real concept of good v evil, minimal debate between science and religion, and no musing at all on the folly of Man playing God. In any case, Frankenstein in Baghdad was first published in Arabic in 2013, so it was never intended to be an anniversary reboot.
In truth, it’s a whole different animal from the original but it’s also a hugely affecting read, and no surprise to me that Iraqi author, Ahmed Saadawi, won the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (an Arab-speaking world version of our own Booker Prize, for which it was also later shortlisted).
On its first publication here, Frankenstein in Baghdad was rightly marketed as a horror novel. It contains so much death and brutality that it couldn’t really be anything else, apart from an anti-war novel, which it also is, but ultimately it’s much more than either or both of those things.
Throughout his intense narrative, Ahmed Saadawi muses movingly on the nature of his home country, and not just as the hellhole it became during the violence-stricken years immediately following the Allied invasion, but as a relatively new country in the midst of an ancient land, on its hugely diverse and cosmopolitan citizenship (the multipart creature referring to itself as ‘the first true Iraqi citizen’), and on how problematic all this appears to have become in modern times in the absence of effective leadership.
It’s all portrayed through the metaphor of the meaningfully-titled Whatsitsname, a composite creature progressively more at war with itself than those around it, the outcome of which confusion is a blood-trail that goes on and on, seemingly without end.
However, Ahmed Saadawi isn’t talking completely in riddles and parables. He also gives us a very stark account of life in a teeming city defeated in war and crushed by its enemies, and where the worst kind of lawless anarchy is an ongoing reality. Much of this darkness is lightened by sardonic humour, though it’s a poignant tale too, perhaps the saddest aspect of which is Saadawi’s eyewitness testimony to the resilience of his own people, who have had no option but to adapt their daily lives to a world where bombers and gunmen are running amok, to a cityscape that’s been physically devastated, to blocked roads and endless half-demolished houses, and to a government once famous for its ruthlessness but now more notable for near-comical ineptitude.
He paints a vivid but what we must also assume is an accurate picture of a broken society in which hope lies in short supply. The western powers who overthrew Saddam are nothing more by this time than omnipotent, uninterested figures who have no real stake in the country they destroyed, and yet Frankenstein in Baghdad, while a hard-hitting satire, is not a polemic or even politically slanted (it’s curious but maybe telling that among the many and varied individuals the Whatsitsname seeks to punish, there are no members of the Allied military, even though they are still present in the city). Much like the journalist version of himself, who briefly appears in the novel later on, Saadawi seems to be more interested in reporting the plain facts than offering colourful opinions. Even his monster occupies a strange twilight place between good and evil, the author simply describing the things it does and why it believes it does them (even though the creature itself is a confused mess by the end), along with the myths that are soon woven around it: a reflection perhaps of many societies’ inability to face the results of their own failings as seen in their creation of imaginary evil-doers.
It’s also a tale well-told. Originally written in Arabic, this translation of Frankenstein in Baghdad was provided by Jonathan Wright, and while it doesn’t comprise mercurial prose, it is solidly and enjoyably readable, packing in great descriptive work and much clarity of time, place and character.
As a non-Arabic speaker, I can never know what kind of impact the original text would have had on me, but I concur with the general opinion that this must be a superb rendition simply because it’s so damn good. Despite being sold as a horror novel, it was clearly never intended to be just that, and in that regard the translation’s tone is pitch-perfect, the horrors of war balanced nicely with Saadawi’s waspish humour (the monster frustrated at having to continually replace its decaying constituent parts, Brigadier Majid’s cruel but amateurish security service, who all look exactly the same as each other, and so on). And again – and I mention this again because I enjoyed it so much – we are repeatedly but subtly reminded about Iraq’s long tradition of mystery and legend, journalist Mahmoud al-Sawadi creating his own One Thousand and One Nights in the form of a scrapbook he is putting together containing his country’s strangest stories, Majid surrounding himself by buffoonish mystics and fake magicians.
I strongly recommend Frankenstein in Baghdad to fans of all literary disciplines. It’s a detailed study of present-day Iraq as well as a rattling good thriller. It’s also the Middle East as you’ll never have seen it before, and that can only be a good thing.
And now, as usual, I’m going to try and cast this saga in the event that it gets made into a film or TV series. It’s only a bit of fun of course (not least because my knowledge of Middle Eastern actors and actresses is not exactly encyclopaedic), but the authors always seem to like this part of the review, so I’m doing it anyway.
Mahmoud al-Sawadi – Malek Rahbani
Elishva – Nour Bitar
Hasib Mohamed Jaafar / the Whatsitsname – Oded Fehr
Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid – Hamzah Saman
Hadi – Omid Djalili
Ali Bahir al-Saidi – Anouar H. Smaine
Nawal al-Wadir – Sandra Saad
by C.J. Sansom (2003)
The year is 1537, and the Protestant Reformation is picking up pace. England is now a land of informers, interrogation by rack, falsified evidence, and the handing down of death sentences for the simple crime of holding an opinion.
Dissolution is a multi-faceted tale of great depth and interest. In some ways, it is only superficially a murder-mystery (though as I say, it works compellingly on that level too), because there is so much more to it. But all that notwithstanding, it remains an absolute must for the reading collections of any fans of crime, thriller and/or historical fiction.
Brother Gabriel - Phil Davis
edited by Steve J Shaw (2016)
Black Shuck Books is one of the most exciting publishers of homegrown horror to have emerged onto the British scene in the last few years. The Great British Horror series is only one of several that owner, publisher and senior commissioning editor, Steve J Shaw, currently has underway, but it’s already proving to be hugely productive. Five titles have been launched under the banner to date in both paperback and hardback, and this one, Green and Pleasant Land, was the first.
Before digging into it story by story, let’s allow the publishers themselves to make an introduction. Here is the back cover blurb:
Great British Horror 1 is the first in an annual series showcasing the best in modern British horror. Every year, the series will feature ten British authors, plus one international guest contributor, telling tales of this sceptred isle.
The 2016 edition, Green and Pleasant Land, features eleven original stories of small town, rural and folk horror from eleven authors at the very top of their game.
I suppose it’s easily possible these days to conflate folk-horror fiction with all things British. Okay, people still dispute what actually constitutes folk-horror, even now, a decade after it suddenly reappeared and elbowed out some space for itself in what was already a much pigeon-holed market. But if you consider that in its most basic sense, it involves witchcraft, remote rural locations, stone circles and ancient cults, you won’t go far wrong.
After all, the three horror movies (all British of course) that celeb horror aficionado Mark Gatiss originally nominated as the unholy trinity from which folk-horror was born – Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man – are all exactly that. But, judging from his editorial decisions on show here, Black Shuck head honcho, Steve J Shaw, might give you an argument that traditional British horror isn’t solely drawn from folklore, and in fact that the ‘British horror’ label could also be attached to several other very identifiable subgenres.
Traditional ghost stories, for example, are still a staple of it, and have been for a long time. MR James, EF Benson and even Charles Dickens got out into the British back-country and told chilling supernatural tales decades before the term folk-horror was coined. Visionaries like Arthur Machen added strangeness to the mix. In later years, the 1960s and 1970s, the Pan Horror anthologies became notorious for the violence and sleaziness of their stories, many of which focussed on madness and murder rather than ghosts and goblins but invariably took place in mundane and yet recognisably British locations.
Around the same time, the Amicus portmanteau movies, while drawing so much inspiration (and sometimes a whole lot more) from American horror comics, were almost entirely located in the UK and thoroughly flavoured by British culture. On top of that, this was the age of Hammer, who, though they set almost everything they did in the past and in semi-mythical central European locations, produced the majority of their films on the same sets in and around Bray Studios in Berkshire, using familiar all-British casts, and could not have been more British in tone.
All of these influences, and others, are on show in the Great British Horror series, though perhaps it was always going to be inevitable that Volume 1, Green and Pleasant Land, in which the emphasis lies on the British countryside, was going to lean most strongly towards folklore.
Like all the other volumes that would follow in this series (to date), Green and Pleasant Land contains eleven stories, ten written by British authors, one extra contribution sourced from overseas.
The folk-horror stories themselves are an eclectic mix.
For example, very traditionally, in Rich Hawkins’s Meat for the Field, a young man tortured by guilt decides that he can no longer stand the human sacrifices committed by the cult that dominates his poor rural village, and resolves to do something about it. It’s an interesting twist on the secretive village witchcraft tale that we’ve become so used to on film and TV in that it’s an insider confronting the evil rather than an outsider, but all the comforting tropes are there.
In contrast, VE Leslie’s Hermaness has a gentler tone, but leans towards the psychological. It focusses on a young couple who, despite their crumbling relationship, go on holiday to Shetland. While there, Brian dismisses Nell’s knowledge of the local seabirds and her fascination for the mythology of the region, showing much more interest in a sexy American tourist. And then the mysterious fog comes down …
There are even darker forces at work in the three other folk-horror contributions.
Ray Cluley’s The Castellmarch Man takes us on a round-trip of ancient sites, many of them in Wales, and delves deeply into Arthurian legend, but as this is the strongest story in the collection in my opinion, I’ll save the synopsis for this one until later; just trust me, it’s ultra-creepy. Another powerful folk-tale is AK Benedict’s Misericord, in which an academic and her fiancé visit a marshland church, which for centuries has somehow withstood the local floodwaters. According to the vicar, this is down to the power of prayer. But could it be something else?
But perhaps the most folk-horrorish (is there such a phrase?) story here is Jasper Bark’s complex but compelling Scottish Highlands novella, Quiet Places. There are many ideas and concepts wrapped up in this one, so it’s no surprise that it runs to 70 plus pages (I understand that a new, revised and lengthier version has since been released as a stand-alone), but none of them are wasted. More about this one later too.
But as I said, Green and Pleasant Land doesn’t lurk solely in the realms of folk-horror.
We get more than a dollop of Machenesque weirdness (with some extra nasty stuff added) from Laura Mauro in Strange as Angels, though this is another strong entry, so I’ll be talking a little more about this one later too, while the aforementioned Pan Horror series would not have turned its nose up at Adam Millard’s sad and ultimately horrifying She Waits on the Upland (more about this one later as well), or David Moody’s Ostrich, in which a pleasant country cottage becomes a prison when it dawns on a middle-aged housewife that all her controlling husband wants her to do is keep the place spick and span. Inevitably, she soon reaches breaking point …
Less pulpy in tone and in some ways more relevant to the here and now – this one certainly enshrines the darker side of England’s green and pleasant land! – the ever-reliable James Everington hits us with A Glimpse of Red, the story of a foreign woman living in Britain under Witness Protection, but going slowly mad on the streets of an English market town that seems hopelessly alien to her.
Less ‘real world’ and in fact a whole lot more bizarre, we should also mention two unearthly tales that simply take possession of the word ‘horror’ and run with it like mad.
In Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Mr Denning Sings, we centre on an eager churchgoer, who loves singing hymns during services at his local country church. But one week, the celebration is repeatedly disrupted by an ugly coughing sound, which no one else in the congregation seems to hear, though that doesn’t stop the hideous entity causing it to finally materialise. Even eerier, we have Blue Eyes by Barbie Wilde, in which a homeless alcoholic discovers the corpse of a beautiful woman in the woods, and returns to it repeatedly to use it as his personal sex toy. But how dead is this woman? And is she even a woman?
All round, Green and Pleasant Land is an excellent start to the Great British Horror series. As I say, it’s a diverse but entertaining mix of dark fiction, richly flavoursome of the British countryside but not hidebound by the more typical conventions of ‘rural horror’. More important still (to me at least), all the stories selected are of the highest quality, expertly written and paced, and in many cases, deeply unsettling. It gets my strongest recommendation.
And now …
GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND – the movie
I doubt that any film maker has optioned this book yet, or even that it’s ever likely to happen, but as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my opinions just in case some major player decides to put it on the screen.
Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a portmanteau horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in.
Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to either relate spooky stories or listen to them. An eerie village pub might suffice in this case, or a bus stop out on lonely moorland, or even an endlessly winding woodland path as a bunch of progressively less-cheery hillwalkers tramp sturdily along it.
Without further waffle, here are the stories and the (very expensive) casts I would choose:
The Castellmarch Man (by Ray Cluley): Charley and Lynsey enjoy ‘geo-caching’ around the UK, visiting ancient or sacred sites and leaving evidence of their visits in specially provided boxes. On a trip to rural Wales, however, they meet the mysterious and scary ‘Castellmarch Man’, and their lives will never be the same again …
Charley – Andrew Scott
Lynsey – Jodie Turner-Smith
He Waits on the Upland (by Adam Millard): Embittered old farmer, Graham, is struggling on many fronts. His wife, Jenny, is slowly succumbing to dementia, and he is convinced that his rude and coarse neighbour’s pack of dangerous dogs are damaging his sheep. One night, he decides to take firm action …
Graham – Brian Cox
Jenny – Gemma Jones
Strange as Angels (by Laura Mauro): Two recovering drug addicts discover a small winged creature, which they christen an ‘angel’. They feed it meat and it grows, but when Frankie, the girl, starts to become overly fond of it, Jimmy, the boy, is increasingly jealous …
Frankie – Anya Taylor-Joy
Jimmy – Jack O‘Connell
Quiet Places (by Jasper Bark): A mysterious feline beast stalks a remote community in the Scottish Highlands, holding the local laird, David, enthralled by its mere presence. But his spirited lover, Sally, is determined to free him whatever it takes, despite the warnings of local librarian, Jane…
Sally – Natalie Dormer
David – David Tennant
Jane – Kelly Macdonald
by Stav Sherez (2013)
When a small convent burns down in a quiet corner of West London and the ten nuns who lived there are incinerated alive, there is shock and horror – even more so when it becomes apparent the fire was started deliberately. However, this is not just a tragic case of arson. When DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller are ordered to investigate, they quickly uncover a number of bewildering mysteries. Why did the nuns just accept their terrible fate, seemingly making no effort to escape? Why was there an unidentified 11th corpse in the ashes; as it transpires, the corpse of Emily Maxted, an angry and rebellious young woman who normally would never be seen anywhere near a church? And where is the mysterious Father McCarthy, the priest who supposedly tended to the nuns’ spiritual needs and a man with a shadowy past?
by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (2015)
by Georges Simenon (1948)
Well … I say occupied Europe, but in truth none of that is actually specified. All we know – all we ever know – is that we are in a Northern European city somewhere, living under the heel of a brutal military power. We could be somewhere in France or Belgium under the Nazi yoke, or perhaps the author is pre-empting the events shortly due in East Germany, where the Soviet Bloc would establish the German Democratic Republic (Frank Friedmaier is certainly a German-sounding name, as are several others in here, while the Gestapo-like methods employed by the occupiers would be just as believable in the hands of the Soviets and their lackeys).
by Dan Simmons (1991)
by Dan Simmons (2007)
In 1845, the Franklin Expedition set sail from England to forge the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. It wasn’t the first expedition to attempt this, and it wouldn’t be the last. But few better equipped vessels under the control of more reliable and experienced crews would ever undertake the task. It is all the more baffling then that the Franklin Expedition wasn’t just a failure but a catastrophe. Both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, vanished without trace – it was 2014 before the remnants of one of the vessels, the Erebus, were found underwater in Baffin Bay, and though a few pathetic graves were also discovered onshore, the majority of the 200-strong crew were never accounted for.
by Michael Stanley (2016)
edited by Simon Strantzas (2015)
It could be that they’ve all got lost in an underground catacomb and are then confronted by a mysterious monk (a la Tales from the Crypt) or are the subjects of memoirs related by a vampire to a famous horror author in an elusive and Gothic London club (al la The Monster Club) – but basically, it’s up to you.
by Whitley Strieber (1978)
How to start discussing this superior and extraordinary horror novel of the 1970s without saying that I’m completely bamboozled it ever dropped from sight the way it has? This is partly, I suspect, due to the rather poor movie adaptation made in 1981, which, though it had its moments, strayed a long way from the original, preferring to talk politics and Native American mysticism, and starring Albert Finny as Wilson and Diane Venora as Neff, two good actors but sadly miscast here.
Detective George Wilson – David Duchovny
Dr. Carl Ferguson – Chiwetel Ejiofor
by Andrew Taylor (2017)
by C.L. Taylor (2017)
Death Valley. The Salton Sea. El Centro. Evocative names from the sun-scorched badlands of California’s deepest south, a picture postcard landscape of barren cliffs, dry scrub-thorn, parched desert and windblown clapboard towns, and, in this novel, weird drifters, gun-toting drug dealers and roving Satanist death-cults who scatter corpses behind them the way the rest of us leave litter.
However, before God is a Bullet really kicks off, we roll back the years to 1970, and the brutal murder of an elderly woman in an isolated caravan on the appropriately named Furnace Creek. Investigating cops have nothing much to go on except that signs of cult activity are found in the area, while Cyrus, a strange and troubled homeless boy whom the victim adopted when he was young, and who is now 17 years old, has mysteriously vanished.
Did the disturbed kid do it? If so, why? And will he commit similar crimes elsewhere? Only time will tell.
And it does.
Moving forward now to the Christmas of 1996, we’re in the small California town of Clay, where clean-living desk cop, Bob Hightower, makes a festive call at the semi-rural home of his ex-wife and beloved daughter, and is appalled to find their pleasant house ransacked, his ex and her new husband slaughtered alongside their dogs and horses, and his daughter, Gabi, missing.
Bob hasn’t seen much action in recent years and so can’t get officially involved, but his captain, John Lee Bacon, a seedy and strangely obstructive figure where the resulting investigation is concerned, doesn’t encourage him that they’ll make an arrest any time soon.
Of course, the shellshocked Bob isn’t prepared to give up, and when he gets a lead from a recovering heroin addict, the strung-out but spirited Case ‘Headcase’ Hardin, he opts to take a leave of absence in order to investigate the case himself.
Hardin names the culprits as a band of thrill-killing Devil-worshippers called the Left-Hand Path, who are led by a charismatic, Mansonesque guru known simply as Cyrus, and who finance their operations through control of the desert drug-trade. Hardin, a former member of the cult, who was used by Cyrus for years as his personal sex-slave, explains that the cult are clever, ruthless and elusive, and protected by layers of acolytes, associates and secret Satanist collaborators, and warns Bob that to catch up with them will be the most difficult and dangerous thing he has ever done.
However, when she adds the harrowing addendum that Gabi will by now be part of Cyrus’s harem, and is already likely to have been raped, beaten and forcibly addicted to smack, he determines to pursue them whatever it takes. Hardin, who also yearns to get even with Cyrus but is also very scared of him, reluctantly agrees to guide Bob into that sleazy wilderness of addicts, bikers, trailer park hellholes and ramshackle whorehouses, though the twosome remain antagonistic to each other for all kinds of reasons.
Hardin is totally of that world, a self-proclaimed former lowlife who believed in and worshipped Satan, caring nothing for anyone else, including herself, while Bob is a genuine church-going Christian, though he soon realises that if he’s any hope of infiltrating this marauding pack, he must change every aspect of his life; not just harden his appearance by sporting cheap and nasty tattoos and raggedy facial hair, but also his attitude to his fellow men. He’s a cop, but he’s got too used to the quiet life of the report-writing room.
As Case Hardin says, how long he will last out here if he isn’t prepared to meet his enemies with extreme and repeated violence is entirely open to question …
On first picking up God is a Bullet, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hearing that it was a literary thriller, I wondered if I was about to be exposed to a shedload of philosophising rather than a hi-octane desert actioner in which the good guys and bad guys are poles apart and the bullets fly as thick as dust.
I needn’t have.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some philosophising in here. A few reviewers have complained that there is still too much for them, though from my POV, it was quite tolerable. This is because most of it is to be found in the interplay between Bob Hightower and Case Hardin, which is mostly very compelling, and the dynamic between them hugely enjoyable, the former an honest cop who believes in the rule of law, but a practising Christian too, who finds the mere idea that he’s come to rely on the help of an ex-Satanist junkie freak – in fact, that he’s actually taking orders from her! – utterly abhorrent, Hardin herself going through similar anxieties, at one time hugely enthralled to the mesmeric personality of Cyrus and now appalled by his utter lack of humanity and stunned that she could ever have been fooled by him.
God is a Bullet doesn’t speak too highly of modern Man. For all that we now have education, industry and medicine (all, to one extent or another broken, misused and flipped on their heads in this book), it still boils down to a life-and-death struggle between good and evil fought out amid the sun-bleached bones of a failed society.
In truth, given that this book was sold as an ‘occult thriller’, there are very few ruminations on the nature of either God or the Devil, both these characters taking backseats while their representatives on Earth engage each other, though even then we don’t talk much about the potency of either Satanism or Christianity. These are lifestyles the respective parties have consciously opted for, though there are hints throughout that prayer and meditation is in short supply on either side, Cyrus and his ragtag band paying lip service to ritual and sacrifice though more interested in the success, or otherwise, of their drug distribution network, Hightower driven primarily by a desire to rescue and avenge his daughter rather than some innate wish to take down devilry.
In that regard, God is a Bullet, while literary, is not what you’d call a horror novel, even though it contains some truly graphic violence (in some parts against children, which admittedly is a bit stomach-turning, even though it’s the villains doing it.) But it is unashamedly a thriller, drenching us with menace throughout, and hitting us with some bone-jarring action sequences, all of them vividly depicted on the written page by an author who, given that this was his debut novel, seems to have really hit the ground running.
I don’t know much about Boston Teran, except that this is a pseudonym and that he’s now written thirteen novels centred around moral lassitude and social tumult in American society both past and present, and that they’ve nearly all won acclaim.
In this, his first outing, the standard of his prose is already of the highest order, by turns poetic and hard-bitten, very reminiscent of powerful American stylists like McMurty, Ellroy and Burke, though not 100% in that topmost league at this stage. I certainly can’t pretend that it’s all perfect; this was Teran’s first book, so at times the descriptive work gets a little too fulsome for its own good, though for the most part it’s a darkly picturesque read.
For example, a weird loner known simply as ‘the Ferryman’, lives out of town in a dark tangle of slatboard and tin and cinder blocks stolen from a thousand piles of refuse along the road.
A roadside motel is described as having been a whorehouse that catered to Anglos who preferred their stuff with a little color in it. Now it’s a roach hole for factory workers stacked sixteen to a room.
It’s tight, effective, muscular stuff, a tone ideally suited to the hardscrabble storyline.
In terms of the characters, I’m less blown away.
Hightower makes an interesting lead, a real desk-jockey of a cop who having previously led a peaceful life, is now forced to journey across the plains of Hell and back in order to find justice. This is an odyssey of sorrow and suffering, which at times bleeds off the page. By the end of the book, the Bob Hightower we met at the beginning is no more than a myth. It’s astonishingly well done.
The problem only really arises with Case Hardin, who, while she is easily identifiable in the early stages as a traumatised survivor of repeated sexual assaults, plus a former addict and cult-member desperately struggling to readjust back to normal life, later makes a somewhat unconvincing shift into La Femme Nikita territory, suddenly proving quick with her guns and wits and more than capable of leading ‘ordinary Joe’ (and long-serving cop!) Bob through the twists and turns of a no-holds-barred war against a gang of sadistic killers.
This brings me onto Cyrus and his team. The back-up units – the eerily-named Granny Boy, drug-addled Lena and the cruel psychopath, Wood (among many others) – are all nicely and scarily realised. Be warned, this part of the book is reminiscent of Manson in name only; these antagonists are not some bunch of coked-out hippies, more like the verminous rabble from Mad Max or The Hills Have Eyes. Okay, they aren’t mutant cannibals, but that’s about the only difference. They certainly make for serious opposition when it comes to the book’s gripping shoot-out scenes, and thanks to their proudly tattooing their bodies with the death-dates of their many victims (including women and children, who have usually also been raped) elicit no sympathy at all when they die.
Cyrus himself doesn’t appear ‘on camera’ as much as you might expect. I presume this is deliberate, a purposeful attempt to intensify those few big moments when he actually shows. Does this device work? Not as much as I’d perhaps like, but Cyrus’s twisted shadow lies across the entire narrative, turning him into such an edifice of controlling, narcissistic evil that not many fictional villains would be able to live up to the hype when we finally meet them. All that said, he’s an instantly recognisable figure; we’ve had so many mass-murdering cult leaders in real life, from Manson to Koresh to Jim Jones, that much of the work was already done for Boston Teran before he even started to write God is a Bullet.
This is a tense, highly visual thriller, for the most part exquisitely written, but filled with grot and human debris, and pulling no punches when it comes to the, at times, very nasty violence. Perhaps for all these reasons, it’s flown under a few genre fans’ radars in the past. If so, and you’re up for something dark, I advise you to check this one out. But be warned. This fight is to the death, and Boston Teran doesn’t hold back.
I’m not sure whether this one will ever get made into either a film or TV series, but it certainly should in my view. I’d be first in the queue to watch it, so long as I don’t start manifesting squeamishness before then. Just in case it does, as usual when it comes to one of these reviews, I’ll get my own cast-list suggestions in first. Just a bit of fun, of course. Who would listen to me anyway (and who would be able to afford an ensemble like this? LOL!)?
Case Hardin – Brie Larson
Cyrus – Ed Skrein
John Lee Bacon – Willem Dafoe
by Paul Tremblay (2016)
Or alternatively, is it something genuinely evil?
There is no overt indication that a supernatural force is at work, but then … would a demon that wants to do extensive damage reveal its hand so quickly? And despite at one point assuring Merry that she has pretended to be possessed from the beginning in order to win her family the TV deal, Marjorie continues to give the impression that she is under some kind of malign influence, speaking in different, unrecognisable voices, moving around on all fours, and displaying arcane knowledge.
by Thomas Tryon (1973)
Ned Constantine, for example, is not just handsome, intelligent and talented, he’s really the only moral person present. In contrast, his wife and daughter, Beth and Kate, surrender to their darker impulses far more easily.
Worthy Pettinger is another of the good guys, a kid with common sense, a straightforward all-American boy who yearns to be part of the modern world, which of course he should. And even the rest of the male villagers, while adding muscle to the villainy when it’s needed, are for the most part mulishly indifferent to the wiles of their women, happy to work the fields, drink in the tavern and chat amicably outside the church on Sundays. By comparison, their wives comprise a range of predators, from the happy home-maker, Maggie Dodds, whose everyday exterior conceals a cold-blooded schemer, to village temptress, Tamar Penrose, who is sinfully sexy (Ned Constantine certainly doesn’t hold himself responsible when he finally gives in to her charms – and brutalizes her in the process!), to the Coombe’s crowning evil: Mary ‘the Widow’ Fortune, who embodies all that ancient, forbidden knowledge that witch-hunters were so convinced lay in the grasp of women, and though maintaining a jovial, generous exterior, in actual fact controls and manipulates everyone, particularly the hapless men, who, in truth, she only thinks are good for ‘making the corn’.
Harvest Home is a big novel, and even then, some might argue it takes a long time getting anywhere. But that isn’t to say that it’s not an enjoyable read.
But in truth, none of this is unpleasant. Tryon was a classical actor before he became an author, and clearly harks back to a literary tradition. As such, he produces beautifully-crafted prose, which he allows to flow and flow. It’s sumptuous stuff, particularly his descriptive work, which really transports you to rural New England during the early autumn. Though as I say, it goes on a little longer than it needs to.
by Nicola Upson (2013)
My initial thought on The Death of Lucy Kyte was that it wouldn’t be for me. It had the overall aura of what used to, somewhat condescendingly, be referred to as a ‘woman’s book’. But very quickly I was seduced by Nicola Upson’s expert control of mood, not to mention her exquisite writing. The characters, both living and dead, are vividly drawn, their intricate and complex relationships deftly handled. Hester Larkspur in particular is a wonder. Given that she never appears in the book, we get astonishingly close to her through her property and diaries, and through Josephine’s fond ruminations on her melodramatic life in the Edwardian-era theatre.
by Sarah Waters (2009)
OutlineRural Warwickshire, the late 1940s. A country doctor called Faraday attends Hundreds Hall, a historic local estate, which he has fond memories of as a child. His mother worked there for a time, as a domestic, and Faraday is still moved by memories of an Empire Day party there back in 1919, when his younger self was so entranced by the 18th century grandeur of the place that he performed a minor act of vandalism, breaking off an ornamental acorn to keep as a memento.
However, things have now changed dramatically. Faraday is shocked to see how badly the house has declined and how overgrown and unkempt its extensive gardens have become, but he keeps this to himself for the time being. He has been called in to treat a maid who has taken a strange dislike to the building and is feigning illness, but he later strikes up a relationship with the widowed aristocratic owner of the property, Mrs Ayres, and her grown-up children, the shabby, eccentric but not unattractive Caroline, and the crippled ex-fighter pilot, Roderick (or Roddie).
A burgeoning friendship follows, as Faraday uses new methods to successfully treat Roddie’s long-lasting war-wounds, but he is unimpressed by the family’s management of the estate, which, even though his own origins are humble, he considers a grand property and a great landmark in the district. In time he learns that the cause of this lies not so much with Roddie’s ineptitude – though that is also a problem – but with the family’s rapidly dwindling finances. A new era is dawning, complete with a determined and belligerent Labour Government, and what remains of the English rural gentry must diversify into successful business ventures in order to generate new income, or it will simply die out. The ageing Mrs Ayres, ‘a true Edwardian at heart’, regards all this with a fatalistic gloom, as though resigned to her fate, Caroline feels the solution is to sell things off (various family heirlooms and considerable portions of the estate have already gone under the hammer), while Roddie becomes ever more cynical and stressed.
Faraday, a relative newcomer, continues to observe these unfolding problems rather than participate in their attempted resolution, but he is present when Caroline’s loveable Labrador, Gyp, unaccountably attacks and mauls a visiting child, and in response to strident demands from the authorities – and in a truly heartbreaking scene – assists in putting the animal down.
The tragedy brings Faraday and Caroline closer together, though romance still feels elusive, but Roddie responds by sinking into a trough of drink and despondency. Faraday suspects this is due to self-loathing stemming from the young man’s inability to reverse the estate’s failing fortunes, only for Roddie to then insist that some malign entity invaded his bedroom on the night of the dog-attack and that, if he allows it to, it will switch its hostility to his mother and sister. The rest of the family are bewildered, but then burn marks are discovered on the walls and ceiling of Roddie’s bedroom, and one night, Caroline detects a smell of smoke and finds the entire room ablaze.
Roddie, so drunk that he didn’t even notice, continues to rant that a mysterious, malevolent being regularly visits their home, and in due course, again with Faraday’s help, is committed to an asylum, where he quickly makes himself at home because he can no longer stand the thought of residing at Hundreds.
Caroline and her mother are left so distraught that they struggle to maintain interest in the state of their house and are unconcerned by how the rest of the county views them – both of which were formerly big issues – so Faraday becomes more and more involved, particularly in regard to Caroline, whom he increasingly suspects he has fallen in love with. Caroline responds in kind, though is less enthusiastic overall, at times seeming confused about her feelings rather than enamoured with the new man in her life.
Meanwhile, the haunting – if that is what it is – appears to intensify. Weird, juvenile writing is discovered on the walls, the maids are summoned by bells rung from the abandoned nursery, phone-calls are received in the early hours of the morning – apparently from no-one, and, most chillingly of all, a weird, malformed voice is heard burbling on the other end of a long-defunct communications tube that still runs through the heart of the house.
Faraday is aggressively dismissive, mocking Caroline’s notion that some kind of curse or taint is affecting the family’s fortunes, and openly worried by Mrs Ayres’ belief that the ghost of her long-dead first daughter, Susan (or Suki), has returned to her family home, which he suspects is a sign of mental disintegration. Things almost come to a head when the elderly matriarch has a particularly terrifying experience in the nursery – a hair-raising scene by almost any standards – and is physically injured in her attempts to escape.
Faraday is frustrated, considering much of this a distraction from his new purpose in life, which is to marry Caroline – who is still only vaguely agreeable to his proposal – and take charge of the crumbling estate in order to rescue it.
But even Faraday cannot ignore the next ghostly event. No-one can. Mrs Ayres, who never really recovered from her ordeal in the nursery, and who has now relapsed into a distant, dreamy state, repeats her conviction that the ghost is Suki, who may be unaware that her visits are causing damage, but who is essentially a good spirit, seeking only the love and companionship of her lost mother.
Mrs Ayres could not be more wrong …
ReviewLet’s get to it directly. The Little Stranger is one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. But it’s actually a lot more than that. No-one could seriously expect a stylish literary writer like Sarah Waters to pen a supernatural novel with no more intent than to frighten her readers.
When you pick up The Little Stranger – though you will be frightened trust me – you’ll also find yourself immersed in the decaying world of the landed gentry as the second half of the 20th century dawns. This isn’t just to be found in the Ayres family, who for all their wartime service are so incapable of living well in the ‘post feudal’ era of the new modern age that we suspect they must perish, but in the nouveau riche Baker-Hydes, who have the money but not the manners, and in Doctor Faraday, the educated commoner from rustic stock, who, though he initially likes the Ayres, gradually finds his power and influence over them growing, and starts to enjoy it. Throughout, the narrative is dominated by the imposing structure of Hundreds Hall, which initially appears to us in happier times as a grand ‘wedding cake’ of a country mansion surrounded by acres of manicured parkland, but later as a gloomy, dilapidated edifice accessible only through a dank, dreary wood. If that isn’t a metaphor for the collapse of the privileged class in postwar England, then I don’t know what is.
First, though, let’s talk about the actual ghost story.
The ability to inflict a genuine chill on your readers is a rare one. Not every horror or thriller writer possesses it, so I took real pleasure in discovering that Sarah Waters, who hasn’t strayed often into this kind of darkness before, does.
Though the author has a much bigger job on here than merely telling a spooky yarn, none of it would have worked if the ghostly elements in The Little Stranger hadn’t been frightening. Thankfully, in seeking to achieve that effect, she emulates one of literature’s great mistresses of the ghost story, Shirley Jackson, by opting for the ‘less is more’ approach.
When eeriness first arises in Hundreds Hall, it is very subtle, very slight, barely detectable even – especially as all the characters have so many more important issues to content with, but one by one, as they fall victim to it, their unease spreads to the reader.
Questions abound, however.
Is there really a supernatural presence in Hundreds Hall? If so, why is it only manifesting now? Even when an explanation of sorts – the ghost of deceased daughter, Suki – is provided by the dazed and confused Mrs Ayres, the question remains: Why is it so malicious?
Even then, for the longest time, this mystery seems almost inconsequential. The deterioration of the family and their property is a much more serious problem. Faraday’s attempted wooing of the stand-offish Caroline occupies centre-stage, and rightly so; she is the only one who can get things back on track, but only, he suspects, if she will accept his courtship, because she too is scatty in many ways. Even after Roddie’s breakdown, which he squarely lays at the door of an evil spirit, it seems more likely to us – because we witness no supernatural occurrences – that the son of the house has finally succumbed to the combined horrors of his wartime ordeal and his abject failure to restore the family’s pride.
After this, of course, things change, genuine haunted house type phenomena occurring more frequently. The curious writing on the wall is reminiscent of the real-life Borley Rectory, which only burned down nine years prior to the commencement of this story. The ringing of the servants’ bells when there is nobody there may take us back to the opening scenes of A Christmas Carol, but there is no good humour to be had here, because the terrible voice on the communications tube, and the growing conviction that a baleful intelligence is coming and going as it wishes, soon takes us into full-on psycho-supernatural territory, reminding us of classic chillers like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. It’s certainly the case that by the last quarter of The Little Stranger, you wouldn’t want to be marooned in Hundreds Hall, a gaunt, dreadful relic of the past, seemingly cut off from modern civilisation. When the ‘Little Stranger’ actually appears, it’s a ghastly and harrowing moment, which leaves everyone sickened with fear.
Everyone except Faraday, that is. Which brings me neatly to the characters, and the main two protagonists, Faraday himself and Caroline Ayres.
While Faraday is our central character, he’s not exactly the hero of the piece. If anything, he is more the yardstick by which the decline of the Ayres family and the dereliction of their once magnificent family home are measured. He was the one who attended Hundreds for that wonderful Empire Day celebration so many years prior to the main narrative. He is the only non-Ayres personality who falls in love with the estate – so much so that he even takes a bit of it away with him (which upsets his mother because, though he’s clearly enamoured by the place, such a deed implies covetousness rather than deference).
All that complexity aside, Faraday is a fascinating and multi-layered character. As a doctor, you’d think him a pillar of the community; a well-spoken, well-regarded chap in whom anyone could confide. But the class factor comes into play here too. Faraday, who is not the Ayres’ first choice doctor, attempts to ape the breeding of his hosts, but innately lacks it. He is also an intemperate man; he carries grudges and when he doesn’t get his own way, resorts to private but heavy drinking. He’s an efficient and reliable doctor, but he is also a hardcore rationalist, and this – a deliberate ploy by the author – becomes tiresome as the tale moves on, the entire family soon living in fear of a supernatural adversary, but Faraday continually and testily dismissing the whole thing as nonsense, finding vapid explanations for some of the most mysterious happenings.
He also lacks self-awareness, blissfully unaware that such an attitude is an implied criticism of the family, at the same time as clumsily courting Caroline Ayres, in his own mind very successfully, though to the readers it’s an evident disaster. When on occasion, his frequent presence at Hundreds Hall is queried, he fails to understand why the family might deem him intrusive.
In contrast, Caroline Ayres, is a more traditional but perhaps more-flawed-than-usual heroine. She is all that remains of the great family, but there is no glamour to her, and little in the way of wisdom or spirit. But she is determined and brave, and even when almost everything else has gone, her common sense remains. Towards the end of the book, Caroline, worn almost to the bone, is literally the last bastion of the Ayres family name. It’s quite a responsibility if you care about these things, as we readers have come to at this stage.
She also goes on a similar if opposite journey to Faraday. Even though her growing fear that something evil is dogging them takes much longer to manifest that it does with her mother and brother, she becomes – in a great twist of irony – progressively more realistic than her suitor. He may mock her eventual conviction that they are somehow cursed, but Caroline handles her problems by whittling down her hopes and expectations, and planning a more frugal future, while Faraday’s ambitions grow steadily more preposterous.
The Little Stranger is an amazing piece of writing, and it’s no surprise to me that it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s hard to classify, for sure. I only tend to cover what I call ‘dark fiction’ on this blog, but it fulfils every aspect of that, even if it is many more things besides.
You just have to read it. Whether you’re a ghost story fan, or not, you won’t be disappointed.
I normally sign off on my book reviews with some fantasy casting, selecting the key characters and telling the world – which obviously will pay scrupulous attention – who I’d choose to play them onscreen. But, as I write, a movie version of The Little Stranger is already doing the rounds on the cinema, so any thoughts from me on the matter would be even more irrelevant than they usually are.
by Kevin Wignall (2015)
For example, we watch his hitmen blend easily into the rest of society when it suits them, we watch them go home at night and relax, we see them try to maintain their own codes of ethics even when they’re out on the job, and yet at the same time we’re acutely aware of the coping mechanisms they’ve needed to develop into order to endure the isolation of this strange, stilted existence; we recognise that they live on a mental knife-edge.
From the sweet child we met at the start of the book, she goes on to do horrible things – and again, Wignall, who remains non-judgemental throughout, wonders where we stand on this. Do we at least understand it, even if we don’t sympathise?
by Don Winslow (2015)
In 2004, former DEA man Art Keller is a burnt-out wreck after decades of war with the Mexican drugs cartels. Having survived to middle age, and having lost his wife on the way and witnessed the torture and murder of his partner, he now lives in self-imposed exile, working as a bee-keeper at a remote monastery. His days of conflict are over. He’s had enough of the rest of the world.
Where to start with The Cartel, except to say that it’s far more than a mere crime novel.
by Don Winslow (2017)
Hardly an ideal scenario, of course. Few of us would actually approve of it. But in The Force you at least see how it happened. In Denny Malone’s own words:
by Simon Wood (2015)