Grace herself, a hard-headed realist, might not be inclined to believe the sensationalist theory, except that another of the survivors, Maxine Pryce, has since become a writer and is soon to publish her own literary account of the original atrocity.
And yet, all the way through, we are reminded that this is only one of several possibilities. Suppose the killer is someone else? Even then, surely it must be connected to the events of the past? But what if it isn’t? What if the twisted motivations here are something else entirely?
by Jason Arnopp (2016)
A lot of it is presented to us in linear format as written by Jack while he travels around the world, seeking to expose phonies. But it also contains letters, emails and footnotes written by others, his concerned but disapproving older brother, Alistair, for one. And this throws up some interesting dymanics.
by Jonathan Aycliffe (1991)
Cambridge professor, Charles Hillenbrand’s life comes to a crashing halt one snowy Christmas Eve when his four-year-old daughter, Naomi, is abducted during a shopping trip to Hamleys. When her mutilated body turns up a few days later in Spitalfields, his world ends.
by JG Ballard (1988)
Pangbourne Village is classic ‘stockbroker belt’ suburbia, a gated community in the heart of the English Home Counties; green, clean and exclusively inhabited by wealthy, well-heeled couples on whose pampered, expensively-educated children all the gifts that money can buy are bestowed. In Pangbourne, privilege is an inalienable right but ‘merited’ by the liberal attitudes enforced there. It is a model society for a new middle class and politically correct Britain. And similar purpose-built communities are now springing up all along the Thames Valley. This is the future for those who can afford it.
(Okay, I know that in the book Payne is a bloke, but that isn’t necessary, and Ms. Christie would still be ideal in the role).
by Pat Barker (1983)
What’s it really about is the women themselves, the victims and the would-be victims, and when you think about it, that’s incredibly refreshing as, so often in books like this we walk with the killer and wallow in his madness, or focus on the cops, feeling every inch of their stress as they struggle to bring in their man, while the victims are treated like faceless slabs of meat.
Blow Your House Down turns all that on its head.
The police, on the few occasions they appear, are shadowy, ambiguous figures, who offer no comfort or reassurance to the street-women, while, though on occasion we do see things from the killer’s perspective – in that scene, for example, which comes straight out of such gritty cinema classics as Psycho, Frenzy or The Boston Strangler – most of the time he’s in the background, little more than a rumour, an urban myth. Instead, for much of the narrative, the fear is caused by other men; not just the layabout boyfriends and drunken, violent husbands (though they do their bit to make the women’s lives even more arduous, one husband, Bill, becoming a police suspect for a time, which destroys his wife’s life in a way that the terrible injuries she survives never could), but the other guys who approach them in the darkness under the viaduct, or behind billboards bearing pictures of the dead, to offer money for sordid encounters – at least, the women hope they’re going to be sordid encounters, and not something a thousand times worse.
So far so good. In fact, so far so excellent. The book makes for an intense and compelling read. But in character terms, the critics have been more circumspect.
However, if Pat Barker stints on deep character development, one thing she never holds back on is grimness. It would be easier, for the sake of taste and decency, for the author to gloss over the dirty details of this seedy world, but that is not what she’s about here. The dialogue is thick with vernacular and four-letter words. The sex scenes are strictly ‘wham slam thank-you, mam!’, minus romance or even eroticism, while, more often or not, the men are so nervous and embarrassed that they can’t even manage to make them about lust. The sites of these trysts are always backstreets and factory yards, amid filth, beer cans and used condoms.
by Alfred Bester (1956)
by Lauren Beukes (2014)
Detective Gabi Versado – Salma Hayek
Layla – Amandla Stenburg
Thomas 'TK' Keen – Chris Chalk
Jonna Haim – Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Clayton Broom – Peter Stormare
by Mark Billingham (2013)
by James Carlos Blake (2013)
However, Nick Hood is not a happy man. Convinced that his work is worth more than he manages to earn from it, wondering if his chosen subject-matter – murder – is what puts the big buyers off, but determined to stick with this as it totally obsesses him, he waits impatiently for the day when his talent will be trumpeted from the rooftops.
Nothing about Hood is immediately attractive. He is cool and unaffectionate with his wife, he flirts continually with beautiful life model, Valerie Vale, he is unimpressed by Leo’s stolid approach to art, figuring that his friend will always be a journeyman painter because he has no real ambition, and he is belligerently jealous of the other artists he shares space with in the gallery, especially those who do well, certain that they have simply been lucky while he has not.
Hood’s attitude is even reflected in his style of work. It is remarked on by various characters in Cold Eye that he is too dispassionate about his controversial subject, displaying more interest in the architecture filling up the backgrounds than the personal tragedy playing out in the foreground (where someone is invariably being violently killed or committing suicide). But he peevishly dismisses such viewpoints. As far as Hood is concerned, he is a genius and it’s only a matter of time before others realise this – but when will his moment arrive?
Most creatives could probably identify with this yearning to be discovered. Many who produce art are often their own worst critics and may be irrationally in love with their output, thus failing to recognise its flaws. Nick Hood is one such. In fact, so narcissistic is he that when his work features in a high-profile exhibition, and the arts correspondent for the New York Times reviews every piece of work positively save those of Hood’s, which (out of kindness, in his view) he doesn’t mention at all, the young painter is almost driven out of his mind.
Drunk and despairing, he is on the verge of suicide when he encounters one Andre Bellisle, a stunted and disfigured dwarf who is also staggeringly wealthy. Bellisle claims to be an admirer of Hood’s work and makes the astonishing claim that if Hood will come under his wing, he can guarantee success. Hood has no idea what this means and at first is repulsed by the grotesque little man, but then Bellisle gives several demonstrations of his influence: getting Hood into the Rockefeller Centre Rainbow Room when it is closed; even more mysteriously, predicting the imminent death of a bar-room reveller, which duly happens; and then, in a display of power that really swings it, anonymously arranging for several of Hood’s pre-existing paintings to be sold to overseas collectors for outrageous sums, which catapults the struggling painter’s name into a much higher category.
In no doubt that his ship has come in, Hood puts himself in Bellisle’s charge. What follows, however, is a series of terrible incidents on the streets of New York, which somehow or other, Bellisle is able to predict, and which Hood is there to mentally photograph and thus recreate on canvas, creating some of the most astonishingly vivid and horrific paintings of his career. Fame and fortune follow, but of course it isn’t going to be that easy.
If Hood’s own personality changes (for the worse!) don’t indicate to him that something is unnatural and wrong about this arrangement, Andre Bellisle’s gradual physical transformation into an angel-like being ought to. And yet that doesn’t either, and Nick Hood is now on the fast-track to some truly terrifying events …Review
The pros and cons of the Faustian pact is a common subtext in horror, but rarely have I seen it as effectively and chillingly investigated as in Cold Eye.
Remarkably, this was Canadian author Giles Blunt’s first book, so I must give him every kind of accolade for presenting me with a story that is easily one of the most disturbing I’ve ever read, and which finally reaches such a crescendo of horror that it kept me awake that night (genuinely – and I don’t make that claim lightly).
Blunt is probably better known these days for his superb John Cardinal series, which are hardcase crime thrillers, but in Cold Eye he started out with a stand-alone and unashamedly, almost from the word ‘go’, wove it with the supernatural. Whether or not this is a genre he intends to revisit in the future I have no idea, but I sincerely hope he does.
Not everything about the book is perfect. I found Nick and Susan’s relationship a trifle odd, Susan perhaps a bit too good to be true (and yet someone who’s judgement clearly lapsed badly when she chose the man in her life), while in the character of cop, Gary Lauzon, Blunt makes a big assumption that inner-city Homicide detectives would have the time to play cat-and-mouse games with unlikely suspects in deaths that might not even be suspicious. But it would be churlish to make too much of this. It’s all good fun, and Nick and Lauzon’s continued not-so-accidental meetings work well to raise both the tension and the stakes.
We’ve already touched on the flawed character that is Nick Hood – he’s much more antihero than hero – every one of his unlikeable traits ramping itself up as Bellisle’s baleful hold on him strengthens. But one thing I particularly liked about Cold Eye, and Nick Hood’s place in it, is the way his slide into wickedness happens with incremental slowness, neither he nor we really noticing it. To me, that’s a vivid and authentic depiction of the way human corruption works. There is an event late on in the book, which I won’t comment on in detail for fear of spoiling, except to remark that it really shocked me, I mean literally jolted me out of my seat … and yet when I sat back and thought about it, I realised that it shouldn’t have shocked me at all. Nick Hood has become so dangerously self-centred by this point that he’s lost all grasp of real life and the cost and consequence of not living it like a normal citizen.
This leads us to the other main villain of the piece, Andre Bellisle himself. Giles Blunt doesn’t spend too much time detailing this character other than in describing his astonishing physical changes. But that’s because he doesn’t really need to. It won’t be much of a spoiler if I point out that Bellisle is much more than an ordinary man. As I mentioned before, we all know the story of Faust, and have seen it done umpteen times, the demonic force at the heart of it coming in all shapes and sizes.
That said, Bellisle is an interesting example. His name isn’t hugely dissimilar to ‘Belial’, a demon-prince who in Milton’s Paradise Lost epitomises self-indulgence. And indeed, while much of Cold Eye runs like a contemporary thriller, its modern-day Manhattan setting and superficially mundane focus on the greed and potential ruthlessness of humans unhappy in their everyday lives, he could easily have been imported into it from a Gothic horror novel: the hunched and twisted dwarf with the raddled face, and yet who is cultured in his manners and speech and limitlessly wealthy and influential
A couple of reviewers have taken issue with this, arguing that Bellisle’s presence in Cold Eye is a little too on the nose. But not me. I found him the perfect complement this very grim tale of envy and ambition.
Cold Eye is a must-read for all fans of dark fiction. It was first published in 1989, which means that by now it may be flying under quite a few radars, but don’t let that stop you. It’ll chill you to the bone and punch you in the gut. So, don’t mess around. Read it. And weep.
Cold Eye has already been made into a movie once, the French film, Les Couleurs du Diable, in 1997, but it’s yet to hit the screen in English, So, as always, I’m being ill-advised enough here to suggest a cast in case this ever comes to pass. I mean, they’d obviously come to me first.Nick Hood – Antony Starr (older than in the book, but he does flawed characters so well)
Susan Hood – Rebecca Ferguson
Andre Bellisle – Antony Sher
Gary Lauzon – Nick Offerman
Leo Forstadt – Thomas Kretschmann
Valerie Vale – Alice Englert
THE ICE LANDS
by James Lee Burke (2009)
One of those participating in the atrocity is scar-faced Iraq veteran and full-time loser, Pete Flores – but Pete genuinely thought this would be nothing more than an illegal immigration job and is so horrified when the shooting starts that he flees town, taking level-headed bar-singer girlfriend, Vicki Gaddis, with him. Inadvertently, this puts both of them on the hit-list of whoever it was ordered and/or perpetrated the horrendous crime, and Pete – a kid who never seems to plan anything in advance – has no clue where they can go to find sanctuary, as he strongly suspects that if he calls the cops, he’s already so involved that he’ll finish up on Death Row.
by Ramsey Campbell (2007)
He almost managed it once before when he found himself working for the controversial movie magazine, Cineassed – though all of that went belly-up when Simon and his reckless editor, Colin Vernon, got the mag sued for libel. Since then, Simon’s been employed at a petrol station, with nothing to offer his pragmatic fiancée, Natalie Halloran, other than vague guarantees that all will be well eventually.
by James Carol (2014)
by Michael Connelly (1992)
(Today’s images come to us as follows: Empty Westminster is courtesy of award-winning photographer, Robert Tinothy, the gloomy cobbled street is from Sai Krishan's blog, The Resplendent Life, the dark wood is by Rosie Fraser, the abandoned swimming pool by Freistellen).
by John Connolly (2017)
by Tom Cox (2018)
Helen – Claire Foy
(It’s up to the screenwriter to come up with a cast-list for this one, as no individual of significance stands out in the original short story).
Jeff – Ben Whishaw
by MW Craven (2018)
Needless to say, the deeper the twosome dig into the case, the more horrible revelations they uncover, the more extensive the apparent conspiracy at the root of it, and the closer and closer to home the enquiry seems to bring them …
In short, The Puppet Show is a compelling crime novel, very upbeat in its outlook, very modern, and very entertaining. It needs to sit on each and every bookshelf.
Hilary Swift - Maria Doyle Kennedy
Deep in the central Antarctic, in the face of a fast-approaching winter, the US research base, Kharkhov Station, where scientific tests are underway across a wide range of disciplines, makes an incredible discovery. At Medusa Drift, a deep excavation camp some distance from HQ, maverick paleobiologist, Professor Robert Gates, has uncovered several inhuman mummies encased in the ice. Quite clearly, these horrific specimens belong to an unknown species, and so Gates feels they are worthy of detailed examination.
Isolated in a storage unit separated from the main camp, the extinct life-forms, which appear to be weird composites of fish, reptile and insect, are slowly thawed out. Chief engineer, Jim Hayes, is unsure whether this is a good idea as they know nothing about these bizarre creatures, while station hand, Lind, becomes disoriented, insisting that his mind is being invaded by unknown intellects, and finally suffering a spectacular nervous breakdown and being confined to Biomed by the deeply concerned Doctor Elaine Sharkey. Only oddly unemotional station chief, LaHune, seems unmoved by these chilling events.
The crew has no real idea what they have found, but as more and more members of staff are beset by weird dreams concerning lost civilisations, fantastical cities constructed in Antarctica at the dawn of time, and hordes of winged monstrosities sweeping aggressively overhead, Gates develops an incredible theory that an ancient, non-human race settled this region before it froze over, and that their relics still remain buried under the ice sheet.
The weather worsens meanwhile, further isolating the base, and back at Medusa Drift one of the scientists disappears. When all communications are cut, Hayes realises that they are in serious trouble. Gates, meanwhile, returns to Medusa Drift. He is intent on finding his missing colleague, but in the process, in company with other scientists, descends through a complex series of ice caves, finally discovering the terrifying primordial city that so many of the others have been dreaming about. It soon becomes clear that whatever beings dwelled here, they were immensely powerful and malign. What’s more, though dormant, they are not necessarily dead.
While all this is happening, the story intersects with (though some readers have said ‘is interrupted by’) two additional but separate narratives in the form of journals from the 1920s.
Firstly, when British academic, Arthur Blackburn, had a nightmarish experience as he too ventured into this forbidden realm and in the process aroused the ire of a truly horrific beast. And secondly, when a fearless explorer called Fox set out with his own team to find out what happened to Blackburn, and also uncovered evidence that an alien civilisation once called the South Pole home, a civilisation so heartlessly cruel that it is all but inimical to the survival of mankind …Review
It’s impossible to talk about Hive without mentioning the many influences that are clearly on show here. The first and most obvious one is HP Lovecraft’s original short novel of Antarctic terror, At the Mountains of Madness. Whether Hive was ever intended to be an actual sequel to that, I’m unsure, but it fulfils that role completely, unofficially maybe, though in so many ways it’s a re-run of the same story. We have the archaeological expedition marooned in the frozen waste; we have the discovery of a city sunken beneath the ice; we have the re-emergence of a prehistoric evil long thought dormant in the depths of that city, and so forth.
There are some key differences which I’ll talk about in due course, but the similarities are many, even down to the atmosphere of the setting, and the tone of the language, which, while not quite as grandiose as Lovecraft’s, is florid and descriptive.
Then there are strong hints of the John Carpenter film, The Thing, itself an adaptation of John W Campbell’s Who Goes There? (written in 1938, interestingly, only four years after At the Mountains of Madness) though it’s the film that Hive most resembles, dealing mainly with a contemporary polar base, the discovery by accident of an extra-terrestrial horror buried beneath ice caps millions of years old, and its explosion back to life amid fountains of spraying blood, bursting brains and other liquified human tissue, not to mention the arrival of demonic human husks now horrifically possessed.
The third piece of work it reminds me of is Nigel Kneale’s era-defining Quatermass and the Pit (1958), though in terms of this comparison it’s more to do with human race-memories of a wicked, winged species, who, having cultivated and culled one civilisation after another, crossed the vastness of space to Earth, where they fell into a dreamless state, only to wake up several billennia later when disturbed by human excavation.
All of these similarities with Hive are very obviously there, but while many sci-fi/horror/fantasy purists object to that on principle, I can’t say that it bothered me a great deal.
Everything’s derivative of other things. As I implied earlier, Who Goes There? provided the basis for The Thing but might itself have been influenced by At the Mountains of Madness. And none of this has prevented Tim Curran from telling a rattling good yarn. That said, I did have one or two problems with it.
For example, the jury still seems to be out on whether the additional 150 pages of 1920s expeditionary detail, apparently absent from some earlier versions of Hive, were worth including. This may be unfashionable, but it’s my personal view that, while they don’t add massively to the whole, they are better written, more intriguing and, in truth, a lot more frightening than much of the 21st century section. Everything about them is raw, more visceral, more brutal. The prose is leaner, the characters more satisfying (perhaps because both Blackburn and Fox are instantly recognisable as stiff-upper-lip Brits, different from each other in personality, but still the types of guys who even in that end-of-Empire era, still thought it their duty to go out and conquer unknown places).
Given that there was probably no hope of either of these additional sections of the story seeing the light of publication as stand-alones – they wouldn’t really serve any purpose in that capacity other than to re-tread At the Mountains of Madness even more closely than Hive itself does – they do add to the book because they contain quality writing. That said, this doesn’t mean they don’t feel a bit jemmied in, or that they don’t interrupt the general flow of the narrative.
I also had the feeling that Tim Curran could have wielded his editor’s pen a tad more vigorously. Okay, that was a problem Lovecraft suffered from too, but as the inventor of this mythos, he usually gets a pass. In Curran’s case, admittedly wonderful but also endless descriptions of the Antarctic ice sheet and the many geophysical challenges it presents – the near impassable barriers of the Dominion Mountain Range and the Transantarctics, for example – get wearing as they roll on for page after page. It’s the same with all the technical stuff. It’s all fascinating at first, the complexities of setting up a ‘deep drift camp’, of drilling down to Lake Vordog, of simply surviving through four months of complete darkness and temperatures below –60. The descriptions of the camp, and the instructive technical writing this involves, are all completely believable, and they absolutely place you there, right on the spot. But there’s just too much of it.
It’s the same with the alien city beneath the glaciers. So often we’re told it’s indescribably evil, and yet so often Curran tries to describe it. Yes, this was another problem that Lovecraft suffered from, and in both cases, it gets a little boring.
But everything I’ve said notwithstanding, Tim Curran writes very well. His prose is vivid and powerful, and he handles the overall story excellently, recreating what in real life would be a colossal undertaking in totally authentic detail. At times, it feels as if Curran himself has been involved in the setting up and managing of an Antarctic research station.
And while this is a horror novel, is it frightening?
It was a chilling concept from the beginning, when Lovecraft first hatched it. But as I mentioned a few paragraphs back, Curran has made some interesting changes off his own bat, adding whole new dimensions of cosmic (Quartermass-ian?) horror, inasmuch as the Old Ones are no longer just callous cosmic entities who could destroy mankind or nourish him at a whim, but evil genocidal schemers who, once they’ve been awakened, can finally put into action an almost unimaginably abhorrent plan.
But for all that, the most frightening sequences of all are provided, as is so often the case in Lovecraftian fiction, by the shoggoths, the Old Ones (or Elder Things), mindless but unstoppable servants. I won’t go into too much detail, but on the strength of this book, Curran does the shoggoths excellently well; better than I’ve seen anyone else. One scene in particular, when a blizzard-begirt camp is attacked by one such monstrosity, is literally spine-chilling and gripped me intensely.
In so many ways, Hive is an extraordinary piece of work. As I say, it’s a little dragged out in parts, and the linear narrative, even when not interrupted twice by different storylines, is too repetitious for its own good. But there is all kinds of good stuff here. If you like horror at the ends of the Earth, if you like ancient evils blazing back to life after aeons of slumber, if you like Lovecraft, hell if you only like John Carpenter’s The Thing, this novel should be of very genuine interest.
I’m certain it’d be a pointless exercise wishing to see Hive hit either the TV or the cinema screens, as any movie mogul behind such a wonderful Lovecraftian enterprise would surely want to go back to the source and do At the Mountains of Madness instead, but just on the off-chance, in case some heroic individual with loads and loads of money opts to do Curran’s version first, I’m yet again going to get my oar in early, and recommend the perfect cast:Jim Hayes – Clayne Crawford
Doctor Elaine Sharkey – Jessica Chastain
Professor Robert Gates – Daniel Bruhl
Dennis LaHune – Cory Michael Smith
Cutcheon – Neil Grayston
Fox – Matt Smith
by Nick Cutter (2015)
ed. by Ellen Datlow (2018)
Stranded on a desert island, a young man yearns for objects from his past. A local from a small coastal town in England is found dead as the tide goes out. A Norwegian whaling ship is stranded in the Arctic, its crew threatened by mysterious forces. In the nineteenth century, a ship drifts in becalmed waters in the Indian Ocean, those on it haunted by their evil deeds. A surfer turned diver discovers there are things worse than drowning under the sea. Something from the sea is creating monsters on land.
Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the readers, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories to each other. It could be that they’re all connected to various items available in a seaside trinket shop (as in a nautical version of (From Beyond the Grave) or are marooned on a fogbound cruise-ship and forced to listen to each other’s fortunes as read by a mysterious sea-dog with a pack of cards (in an oceanic version of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors) – but basically, it’s up to you.
by Frank De Felitta (1980)
The latest anthology from British independent press powerhouse, Midnight Street, a small publishing company that has been around for quite some time now and tends to focus on contemporary horror, often with an everyday setting but invariably with strange and unsettling realities lurking just beneath the surface.
In Railroad Tales, which is surely something of a companion piece to the last Midnight Street antho, Roads Less Travelled, editor and Midnight Street owner, Trevor Denyer, takes railway lines, railway travel and railway folklore as his overarching themes, asks questions of his readers such as have they ever travelled on an empty train at night, or stood alone on a eerie platform wondering if their connection is ever going to come in, and generally (and very successfully) evokes the whole spooky culture of our railway networks: the isolated stations, the windswept junctions, the abandoned signal boxes, the level crossings where catastrophes have occurred.
To start with, as you’d probably expect, there is more than a handful of traditional ghostly tales in this collection. Most fans of supernatural fiction will probably be well aware how often railway lines and railway workers have featured in genuinely chilling stories, and not just in the distant past such as with Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man (1866) or Perceval Landon’s Railhead (1908). Modern master of the genre, Ramsey Campbell, contributed to the canon in 1973 with his nightmarish The Companion, and many others have done the same since.
Continuing this tradition of hitting us with something genuinely and unambiguously frightening, Railroad Tales gives us, among other stories, The Hoosac Tunnel Legacy by Norm Vigeant, in which a rickety old cargo train breaks down in a New England mountain tunnel on a little-used track in the dead of winter, the two-man crew, one of them an addict, having no choice but to solve the problem on their own … only to then find that they aren’t alone in the icy darkness.
Similarly scarifying is Caboose by Andrew Hook. In this one, a businesswoman acquires an old railway carriage, intent on turning it into a modern diner. However, at this early stage, she knows nothing about the Edwardian-era passengers who perished inside it due to a disastrous fire.
Then we have The Pier Station by George Jacobs, which takes us to a quiet seaside village where, though the railway no longer runs here, a curious young antiquarian finds an old conductor’s badge and is then haunted nightly by a mysterious ghost train.
Ballyshannon Junction by Jim Mountfield, meanwhile, is an out-and-out ghost story though with serious undercurrents, which could easily make an episode in a spooky British TV anthology (were such programmes ever made these days). It’s one of the best in the book, though, so I’ll leave the synopsis for this until a little later on.
It’s the same thing with The Number Nine by James E Coplin. This might be the best story in the entire book, at least for me. This one would make a movie, never mind an episode of TV. Again, it’s such a treat that I’ll leave its outline until a little later on.
From the in-yer-face ghostly now to stories of a more introspective, perhaps slightly deeper ilk, because Railroad Tales has got several of these too.
The first one to mention has got to be Sparrow’s Flight by Nancy Brewka-Clark, which is set in London several years after the events of Oliver Twist have ended. In this unusual tale, Oliver, now a man of business, is convinced that he sees Nancy’s ghost at a busy London railway station. He follows her onto a train, only to discover that it it isn’t some run-of-the-mill rail service.
Meanwhile, in the sad and thought-provoking tale, The Anniversary, by David Penn, a widow is drawn back by an inexplicable vision to the exact spot on the station platform where her worn-out husband killed himself, while another quite affecting story is Harberry Close by CM Saunders, though I’ll talk a little more about that one later too.
In Where the Train Stops by Susan York, a disturbed woman undergoes a series of psychiatric regressions, a train journey into her past, to get to the root of her night terrors, and uncovers a ghastly experience.
Equally mysterious, and another strong contender for best story in the book, in The Samovar by AJ Lewis, a man tortured by his past agrees to deliver an important package from Moscow to Vladivostok, but finds the journey lonely and difficult, especially as the demons pursuing him are never far behind.
Though perhaps the most overtly psychological tale in this volume is provided by Gary Couzens with Short Platform. In this one, a drunken secretary is marooned overnight at an unmanned railway station. Exhausted and lonely, she regresses back through her unhappy life.
From the scary uncertainties of psychological horror, it’s probably not too much of a leap to the world of the strange and surreal, and Railroad Tales offers several particularly good examples of this.
First up, we have Across the Vale by Catherine Pugh, which is set in an alternative Britain, where two women ride an armoured train north to Edinburgh. To get there, however, they must first cross the dreaded ‘Vale’.
Then we have Steven Pirie’s Not All Trains Crash, in which we turn this entire subgenre on its head by meeting the ghosts created during a frightful multi-fatality railway accident, and feel their fear and pain as they are forced to move on when their decayed relic of a line is finally torn up.
Lastly in this particular category, we have an effective monster story in The Tracks, by Michael Gore, though once again I’m not going to elaborate on this one at this stage, as I want to talk a bit more about it later on.
There are other stories in this collection, of course, but those you’ll need to experience for yourself. Suffice to say that all the tales in this book stand up for themselves and make a significant impact on the reader. Midnight Street have done it again, producing a very neat and contemporary horror anthology, featuring a host of interesting voices and adding a whole glut of chilling new fiction to the ‘scary railway’ pantheon.
And now …
RAILROAD TALES – the movie.
Thus far, no film or TV producer has optioned this book yet (not as I’m aware), and in the current horror-free zone of British TV at least, it seems unlikely. But you never know. And hell, as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my thoughts just in case someone with loads of cash decides that it simply has to be 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 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 easily be something along the lines of Dr Terrors House of Horrors, a group of passengers cooped up together in a distinctly suburban train, but finding themselves travelling endlessly through a terrifying night, or perhaps they’re all marooned in one of those soulless middle-of-nowhere waiting rooms as their connections fail to arrive and the winter mists come down outside, as in The Ghost Train. The choice is, as always, yours.
But without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:
The Number Nine (by James E Coplin): A free-riding hobo is menaced on a night-time freight train by the ghost of a guard once famous for his use of homicidal violence …
The Hobo – Zach Gilford
Henry Hart – Dave Bautista
Harberry Close (by CM Saunders): A tired office-worker catches the wrong train and is ferried out to a strangely deserted railway station, where he immediately notices signs of brutal violence…
Tim – Timothee Chalamet
The Tracks (by Michael Gore): An outcast girl, ugly and overweight, gets an opportunity to avenge herself on her tormentors when she learns that a weird monster, the product of a curse, lives near a remote railway line and dines on rail-kill …
Clarice – Jada Harris
Ballyshannon Junction (by Jim Mountfield): In Ulster of the 1980s, a peripheral IRA figure turns informer for a local police chief, and then flees a posse of vengeful gunmen. Frightened and conscience-stricken, he arrives at derelict Ballyshannon Junction, where the many ghosts he encounters seem strangely familiar…
Marty – Ruairi O’Connor
by Philip K. Dick (1968)
Most of the images used in the column today speak for themselves, but I would like to thank Wikipedia for the original DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? first-edition cover as produced by Doubleday.
Another installment of Sarob Press’s superb series of single-author collections of weird fiction. For those not in the know, Sarob trade exclusively in beautiful hardback editions (their jackets invariably illustrated with great panache by Paul Low), and have now published an extensive list of titles. They have a strong preference for supernatural fiction with a traditional feel, material reminiscent of the British greats of yesteryear, MR James, EF Benson, HR Wakefield and the like, though they are not bound by that, favouring contemporary authors with a generally much wider scope.
Steve Duffy is the perfect example. A writer for today though with a vast appreciation of the many masters and mistresses of ghost story excellence that went before him.
Robes, she decided; robes and an old-fashioned hat. No features were visible beneath the broad lowered brim of the hat, and the long brown mantle shrouded the body. Still, there was a general formlessness about it that went beyond whatever it was wearing. It’s the wrong shape, she thought, quite arbitrarily. Phoebe’s steps began to falter. She forced herself to go on, to get close enough to see what it was that she found so disconcerting. Slowly, the figure seemed to take notice of her, looked up at her approach. Now Phoebe could see what was wrong in its shape. For a head it had only a mask that covered all of its features; a medieval plague mask, the head of a bird or some other beaked creature, stark, grotesque, atavistically cruel. Its eyes, hollow voids in bone whiteness, goggled at her as if daring her to proceed. With a scream, she turned and ran …
Steve Duffy first came to my attention back in the 1990s as a member of the so-called ‘James Gang’, an unofficial bunch of relatively new writers who were strongly influenced by the works of MR James and whose stories came to populate such mainstay ghost fiction magazines of that halcyon age as Ghosts & Scholars and All Hallows. Many of his earlier stories were Jamesian in the extreme. But note that I say ‘many’, not ‘all’, for as a writer learning his trade, Duffy ventured far and wide within the parameters of weird and disturbing fiction, sometimes with straightforward non-Jamesian ghost stories, sometimes with near-comedies, sometimes with raw horror, and sometimes with multi-layered tales that were more concerned with the human condition and the state of contemporary society.
The years have passed since then, of course, and the more Duffy has poured out his fiction, the more of these deeper stories we are seeing. To my mind, his work is now firmly in the category of literary horror, though no doubt Duffy himself would dismiss such pigeon-holing as arrant silliness. In reflection of which, I’m pleased to say that, whatever pretentions he does or doesn’t have, he’s still keen on scaring the pants off his readers, and thus has no hesitation in filling his pages with ghouls, goblins and other eerie and unknowable beings.
Duffy is a versatile writer. Poetic, occasionally mischievous, always compelling. On top of that, his craftsmanship is exquisite. Only those who could really write became regulars in the unofficial club that was the James Gang, and Duffy was outstanding even by those standards. On that basis, imagine how good he is all these years later.
In which spirit, I don’t think I’ve read a single collection by any author as commandingly well written as Finding Yourself in the Dark. There isn’t a single dud here, every one of its twelve stories an exquisite piece of literature in its own right. And though the fine style is consistent, we’ve also got that wide range of subject-matter, the author hitting us alternately with straight-up bone-chillers and deeper, more introspective pieces. In all cases though, these stories cut. That’s the other thing with Steve Duffy. When he does horror, he does horror … and by that I mean it’s either scary or distressing or both. There is nothing ‘vanilla’ about his work, but it’s subtle too. Don’t expect to see an axe-murderer on the first page (though that could easily happen later on).
Here are a few teasers, just to whet your appetites.
Chambers of the Heart: Beautiful Olivia, now ageing somewhat, is bored working the low class Chelsea art gallery, which she fronts for a minor player in the London underworld. Then, one day in 1981, the mysterious, charming and strangely scary Mr Aamon comes to call …
The Other Four O’Clock: Matt and Samiya take a cottage on the East Anglian coastline during a cold and foggy winter. Everything is fine despite this, until they hear the other church bell tolling, the one from the distant past …
The Ice Beneath Us: In a remote, snowbound cabin in northern Alaska, two hardbitten ice fishermen relive a night of fear when they were menaced by a sinister stranger from the deep-frozen forest …
Next up, two particularly special pieces of horror writing …
The Clay Party: In 1846, a wagon train founders in hard country and terrible weather. When starving, the marooned settlers fall on each other, marshalled by the cannibalistic maniac, Hiderick. But spirited widow, Elizabeth, a woman of Eastern European heritage, will do anything she must to protect her child ...
A Day at the Hotel Radium: Jewish academic, Apalkov, has finally escaped Nazi Germany by taking a train to the fairy tale-like European free state of Grenzsental, where he joins an old colleague for an indefinite stay at the truly glorious Hotel Radium. It’s a heavenly location. Almost too good to be true …
And now …
FINDING YOURSELF IN THE DARK – the movie
Well, no film maker has optioned this book yet, and whether or not it’s ever likely to happen I couldn’t say, but seeing as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my thoughts (for what they’re worth) just in case some film-maker opts to get it onto 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 intense, most filmic and therefore 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.
Whatever, and without further blabber, here are the stories and casts I would choose:
The God of Storage Options: On a dreary Christmas Day, a young employee at a large, impersonal storage facility is asked into work to help his recently separated boss, Brough, drown his sorrows. It’s a desultory affair and the youngster gets drunk, only to wake up later alone and in the dark ...
Brough – Lennie James
The Last House on Mullible Street: A London council worker uncovers a tape on which a bunch of East End workmen recall an incident from their shared youth. How during the Blitz, they broke into the house of an old Jewish neighbour and encountered a hulking creature, a man made entirely from mud …
Even Clean Hands Do Damage: After losing her little daughter, heartbroken Rae begins to have visions of the dead trying to contact her. In an effort to lay these ghosts, she passes comforting messages to their loved ones. But then one day a mysterious and persistent spirit calls to her from far across the country, and she has no option but to travel …
Mrs Bayliss – Eve Myles
No Passage Landward: Phoebe seeks solitude on a private Welsh headland, but when a spiteful gatekeeper locks her into the parking area for the night, she learns that it was once the site of a leper colony. And very quickly, as the darkness falls, she begins to suspect that she isn’t alone …
by Mark Edwards (2013)
by James Ellroy (1990)
First off, Ed Exley, son of legendary ace-detective now turned top businessman and successful civic engineer, Preston Exley, is a one-time college boy and supposed war hero (though in truth, his wartime heroics are a fake, which only he knows about), who is determined to go far in this toughest of professions, primarily because he yearns to emulate if not improve upon his father’s achievements. Secondly, there is Wendel ‘Bud’ White, a pitiless hardcase who, thanks to a nightmarish childhood during which he was chained up by his psychotic father and made to watch his mother suffer a fatal beating with a tyre iron, has a particular bone to pick with every domestic bully he meets. Lastly, there is ‘Trashcan’ Jack ‘the Big V’ Vincennes, a superficially ultra-cool character, who works the narco desk, earns big bucks advising for the hit TV show, Badge of Honour, and busts celebrity drug-users after first setting up photo ops for scandal mag, Hush-Hush, with its scoop-hound in chief, Sid Hudgens, for which he is also very well-paid.
by John Farris (1977)
by Helen Fields (2017)
When ex-Parisian police detective and Interpol agent, Luc Callanach, transfers to Police Scotland, taking up a detective inspector post with the Major Investigations Team in Edinburgh, he isn’t completely a fish out of water. To begin with, Callanach is half-Scottish as well as half-French. He’s also a real bloodhound of a cop, with great analytical skills and a fearless dedication to the cases he is assigned – though on first arriving, it wouldn’t be true to say that he’s completely comfortable with his new environment.
After his sun-drenched days in the Interpol office at Lyon, he finds the Scottish capital windy, wet and dour, and quickly learns that certain officers at his command – the truculent DS Lively in particular – are irritated by his presence because they perceive him to be an outsider who’s been fast-tracked into a plum job.
Moreover, Callanach doesn’t help himself, because rather than attempting to win friends and influence people, he fights back domineeringly against those who seek to undermine him.
The reason for this is simple. Even without his sudden change-of-world, Luc Callanach is a man under astonishingly intense pressure. Back home, he was accused of raping a petulant beauty called Astrid Borde, whose main objection to Callanach was that he showed no interest in her. He wasn’t even charged, never mind convicted – but of course this meant that neither was he able to clear his name, so he left France under such a cloud of suspicion that even his family have now disassociated themselves from him.
He is a good cop who focusses intensely on his job, but even now he agonises over whether he could have handled things better, and as such he is filled with self-doubt, and to a degree, self-loathing.
Ironically, because he needs to be distracted from all this, it’s the perfect time for him to be handed a particularly difficult investigation – on his very first day no less, when what appears to be the burned remnants of an eminent Edinburgh solicitor are found on a Cairngorm hillside. There isn’t much left of the unfortunate woman, but it’s sufficient to reveal who she was and that she died very violently. Callanach throws himself into the case speedily and professionally, but then another prominent local woman – a vicar, no less – is also kidnapped, her tell-tale relics duly found in a drum of chemicals in a dockside warehouse.
Callanach is a by-the-book man. He doesn’t want to look at potential patterns just yet, but it seems increasingly likely that a serial abductor and murderer is at large, his sights fixed squarely on the successful women of the city. Callanach’s methodical approach then faces a serious challenge from within, when DS Lively – badly affected by the second abduction because he knew the victim personally – takes it on himself to call in renowned profiler Edwin Harris, an expert for sure, but a man more interested in promoting his own theories than in catching the actual killer.
Callanach’s protest that this is a breach of protocol falls on deaf ears, because head of the Major Investigations Team, DCI George Begbie, though sympathetic, is currently cash-strapped and has no option but to accept Harris’s assistance as it is being privately funded.
All of this hampers Callanach massively, both in terms of the enquiry and in terms of his personal recovery. He doesn’t feel quite so isolated when his friendship grows with fellow DI, Ava Turner, who, though she is currently investigating a different case, is very open – not just to cross-enquiry consultation, but also to afterhours socialising.
Meanwhile, in a parallel thread – and it’s no spoiler to mention this because we are hit hard with this intelligence very early in the novel – a certain Reginald King is hatching a truly heinous scheme. King, a sociopathic loner who work as a lowly admin officer in the Department of Philosophy at Edinburgh University, considers that he’s been at the beck and call of Professor Natasha Forge, Head of School, for quite long enough. In short, King regards himself as a genius and feels that Forge only doesn’t recognise this because she’s a stuck-up bitch. In the long run, he’s going to punish her, but he’s also going to punish lots of other women too. Hence the kidnapping, the imprisonment, the terrible torture and of course the murders.
Problematically for Luc Callanach, Reginald King, despite his lowly status, is a genuinely clever man, whose plan does not just involve a series of revenge killings, but is much, much more wickedly ingenious and twisted than that, and in terms of cruelty, is almost off-the-scale.
There’s one other problem here too, not just for Callanach, but all those who work with him. It’s a coincidence but of course hugely advantageous to the murderer that Natasha Forge’s best friend happens to be DI Ava Turner, another strong, independent woman. So this isn’t going to be any ordinary murder investigation, which all members of the enquiry team can go home from in the evening and relax; as King steadily advances his gruesome grand-plan, things start to get very, very nasty indeed, but also very, very personal …
There are plenty of psycho-thrillers set in contemporary Scotland, and Edinburgh seems to suffer from more than its fair share of fictional serial killers. But Perfect Remains is a very different kind of novel from the norm. Perhaps its most outstanding features are how well constructed it is as a story and how well written as a piece of crime literature. I don’t mean to say that other books of this ilk are not well written, but this one is truly of an exceptional calibre.
As a former barrister, Helen Fields clearly knows her legalities and her procedures inside-out, and yet she weaves them all into this complex and lurid mystery with an effortless, non-fussy style, which informs as much as it entertains, creating a real feel of authenticity but never once cluttering the quick-fire plotline with extraneous detail. In addition to that, her quality descriptive work fully conveys both the time and the place, not to mention the people embroiled in the saga, again without sacrificing any of the novel’s pace. Take one particular scene, for example, when DI Callanach, while stressed out of his mind, finds himself in an amorous clinch with an incidental character called Penny. Penny is little more than a walk-on, and as such could easily be a stock character whom we never think about again, and yet in the space of a page and a half, Fields brings her vividly and sympathetically to life – you almost want to cry for her, she is so unfairly treated by our emotionally distraught hero.
And that was only a member of the supporting cast, so imagine how it is with the leads.
The first thing that strikes me about these more prominent characters is that they are, none of them, free of foibles.
It’s not unusual in crime fiction for our star detective to be damaged, but Luc Callanach takes this to a whole new level. We are told that he is a good-looking guy and at one time he even worked as a male model, and yet none of this info is used to win our favour. If anything, it paints a picture in the reader’s mind of a man who, perhaps back home in his beloved France – which he endlessly and pointlessly yearns for – was rather spoiled. On arrival in Scotland, his initially brusque and rather snippy attitude only adds to this. It’s also the case that what he’s actually on the run from – a rape accusation, for Heaven’s sake! – is the sort of thing that would blemish any police officer’s record for the rest of his career. And after all that, he doesn’t help himself much – at least from the reader’s POV – with a constant, dogged self-analysis which borders on self-obsessiveness. But again, what we’ve got here is a realistically flawed character who needs to work very hard to win his audience over – and, as you might expect, he eventually does so. Firstly, because he’s willing to learn from his errors in order to correct his behaviour, particularly his people skills, and secondly because he’s an excellent detective who doesn’t miss a trick – it is Callanach’s instinct, and his instinct alone, that manage to refocus the enquiry after Lively and Harris send it barking down a blind alley.
In contrast, DI Ava Turner, though another stranger in a strange land (she’s Scottish, but an English-sounding accent born of a private education puts her at a disadvantage), is much savvier in her day-to-day management style, and in the way she handles suspects. She’s an equally tough cop to Callanach, but she’s never less than even-handed: for instance, when she zealously closes down an extremist Catholic sect for brutalising the underage mothers supposedly in their care, her comment to the press that there is “nothing godly about what was happening here” indicates that it isn’t organised religion she has a problem with, but those who abuse it.
Like Callanach, Turner is also single and, under the surface, maybe a little lonely, but she’s learned to ride with the blows and during her downtime is able to relax with friends – as such, she leads a happier, more fulfilled life. That said, her bosom buddy, Natasha Forge, is perhaps not quite so generous a spirit, and this provides us with a key link in the story.
Another confident, professional woman, Forge is pleasant and companionable if she decides she likes you, but terse to the point of being discourteous with office administrator, Reginald King, and okay, while King is without doubt a tad pompous and someone whose academic credentials are at the least dubious, there are times when we as the readers feel that his boss could perhaps be a little warmer towards him.
This leads me to King himself, and what I consider to be one of the most powerful pieces of characterisation in the whole novel. For me, Reginald King is so neatly observed and multi-layered an individual that he underpins the entire narrative, and on top of that he must rate as one of the most believable psychopaths I’ve ever encountered in fiction – primarily because, like so many real-life killers, his greatest defence is his total anonymity. King is no drooling Mr. Hyde-type madman, nor is he suave and calculating like Hannibal Lecter. Yes, he is secretly and monstrously narcissistic; he is convinced he is a genius and that the only reason he hasn’t advanced further in life is because those around him are hateful and jealous, and are conspiring in his downfall. But apart from this, he is so, so ordinary. He possesses neither Hyde’s brutish physicality nor Lecter’s sparkly-eyed gaze. He is a simple everyman you could pass in a corridor without batting an eyelid. Incredible though it may sound, there is even an element of pathos in King’s makeup. Because for all the awful things he does – and at times they are truly and torturously awful (and the reader is spared almost none of it) – there are other times when we recognise what a lost soul he is, a guy who, despite attempting civility, can’t even seem to earn the most basic degree of respect from his peers.
Helen Fields has done an all-round amazing job with Perfect Remains. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that it’s her debut novel. A terrific premise is executed to full unforgiving effect in a complex yet pacy procedural, which is peopled by living, breathing characters whom you can easily empathise with (both the heroes and the villains), and which is not only adult in tone but also adult in subtext – there is far more on show here than a simple crime/actioner – but which accelerates during its final quarter to an exhilarating, slam-bang climax.
In short, this is superb stuff – not a whodunit exactly, but an intense and deeply intriguing ‘good vs evil’ thriller, which once you’ve started it is quite impossible to put down. But don’t take my word for it. Just read it. You will not be disappointed – and make a note of the author too, because Helen Fields is a name we’ll be hearing about again and again.
And now, as always, here are my personal thoughts re. casting should Perfect Remains make it to celluloid. It’s just for laughs of course – no-one would listen to me anyway – but this could be a very cool cop series indeed, so it’s got to happen at some point. In the meantime, here are my picks for the leads (as always, with no expense spared):
DI Luc Callanach – Pio Marmai
DI Ava Turner – Gemma Whelan
Reginald King – Gray O’Brien
Natasha Forge – Ruth Millar
DCI George Begbie – Gary Lewis
Astrid Borde – Melanie Laurent
DS Lively – Tommy Flanagan
Edwin Harris – Graham McTavish
by William Gay (2007)
ReviewThere is considerable debate about how the ‘Southern Gothic’ school of literature can actually be defined, though most advocates of the genre would agree that it originated in the American South, having emerged from the chaos and poverty following the defeat of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and that as such it weaves dark, macabre tales about the damaged human condition with bizarre, often grotesque imagery (much of this concerned with waste, decay and violence), and yet, though often Noirish in tone, tends to lean away from the traditional mystery-thriller into the realms of magic realism, where we’re living in a recognisable world but such is the madness and strangeness of it all that an unearthly atmosphere pervades.
As usual though, none of this would work without characters we quickly get involved with.
by Tess Gerritsen (2006)
OutlineAs usual, on/off partners in crime-fighting, Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner, Doctor Maura Isles, are having difficulties in their personal lives.
At the start of The Mephisto Club, Isles’s yearning for handsome Catholic priest, Father Daniel Brophy, remains unrequited, but as he is equally attracted to her, how long that status will last is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile Jane Rizzoli, an experienced homicide investigator with the Boston PD, has a happily-married life, but a car-wreck of a family, her brothers useless and her mom and dad increasingly quarrelsome with each other.
It seems that it isn’t just Joyce O’Donnell who’s the object of interest, but the whole of the mysterious Mephisto Club, of which she is only one member.
We don’t dwell too much on that first summer of young Dominic’s residence at the Saul home in rural New England, but instead flit forward in time to find Lily, now an adult (with no family left to call her own!), on the run in Rome, leading a hippie-like existence, moving from one temporary accommodation to the next, doing things she would never normally have dreamt of in order to make money, and constantly looking over her shoulder for fear that he – or should that be ‘it’ – won’t be far behind …
It’s an amusingly old-fashioned concept, consisting entirely of enigmatic scholars and wealthy intellectuals, who spend their time tracing the movements of the world’s most malign beings, attempting to track their ancestry back to mythological days when fallen angels known as the Watchers spawned monstrous offspring, the so-called Nephilim, who dedicated their existence to the death and misery of mankind. Their tireless research has uncovered all manner of eldritch information: references not just to the Watchers and the Nephilim, but to the Book of Enoch (which is real and in which many of these disturbing legends were first written down) and to Lillith – Adam’s first wife, a wanton temptress who walked the Earth long before Eve (and who modern-day feminists regard as the quintessential demonization of women by a patriarchal church).
In 2013, airborne companies from the French Foreign Legion attack Al-Qaeda bases dug into the mountains of Mali in West Africa. It’s a ferocious battle, which sees the terrorists destroyed. But along the way, paratrooper Dan Raglan, an Englishman – but only one of many non-French nationals in the Legion – is wounded both physically and mentally.
Many years later, in London, Jeremy Carter, a successful banker, is car-jacked by Russian gunmen, who kill his driver and take him hostage, though his adopted son, Steven, manages to escape. A whirlwind of events follows, the Metropolitan Police swinging into action but, having deduced that this is not a terrorist incident, opting to keep the investigation in-house.
MI6, however, are not so easily fobbed off. Ultra-cool section boss, Maguire, is convinced that Carter has not been abducted because he’s a wealthy banker but because he’s an undercover intelligence officer who’s been working several highly classified missions focussed on the Russian state. Maguire is content to let the police believe they are dealing with organised crime – in fact, in some ways it is organised crime, Russian spy chiefs having learned that using gangsters to carry out their hits means they have more deniability – but to maintain his low profile, he officially keeps his own people out of it while unofficially putting into play a single secret asset from outside the fold.
This asset is ‘the Englishman’, ex-Legionnaire Dan Raglan, now living in a rural enclave in central France with other retired members of his regiment. Raglan wouldn’t otherwise take the job, but when the request is delivered to him by junior MI6 operative, Abash ‘Abbie’ Khalsa, and he hears that Jeremy Carter and his family, old friends, are involved, he knows that he must participate.
Raglan is a complex character. A battle-scarred veteran who is now a man of peace, he has never really questioned the role he played in many clandestine wars, but he’s still haunted by that day in Mali, when he had no option but to kill a child terrorist. Even his knowledge that the Carters are the victims of the London attack might not have been adequate to bring him back fully into action, but when he learns that young Steven, twelve years old, is still lost somewhere in the city, also with a target on his back, there is no chance that he won’t respond.
With the assistance of Abbie, a spook so low in the pecking order that no one will even notice she’s absent from her desk, Raglan searches the capital. Thanks to protocols Carter put in place in the event of his family ever being targetted, the young boy, Steven, has survived. Though he is mentally devastated by what happened, the knowledge he possesses assists in the investigation massively.
It isn’t long before Raglan uncovers the presence of someone he knows of old, a Russian ex-special forces soldier turned lethal assassin, Yegor ‘JD’ Kutznetzov, who evidently is here in London with his gang of handpicked killers not just to kidnap Jeremy Carter, but to extract every ounce of information from him they can. That will mean prolonged, brutal torture, and hardened though he is to the dark side of international espionage, even Carter will be hard-put to withstand this for long.
At least Raglan is no longer alone in the hunt. Alongside the spirited but inexperienced Abbie, he is also assisted by Major Elena Sorokina, a senior Moscow police detective, who has arrived in London because JD murdered four Russian cops. She is a cold, gorgeous presence, but she knows her stuff and is almost feral when it comes to combat.
Though it’s been marketed as a Cold War-type thriller of the Len Deighton / John le Carré school, The Englishman, in my opinion at least, owes more to Lee Child or Tom Clancy. Our main protagonist here is highly intelligent and expertly trained, but he’s a roughneck too, who can smash down doors with a single kick and won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on any number of opponents.
All that said, he isn’t 007. As I intimated earlier, Raglan is a realistically complex character.
Like Bond, he was orphaned as a child and taken in by a caring foster family. Also like Bond, this still meant that he had a dysfunctional childhood, which as an adult made him an ideal candidate for a career in the world of cloaks and daggers. But unlike Bond, in Raglan’s case this was the commando arm of the French Foreign Legion, a notoriously tough training regime and a combat force that would send him into action time and again, often in wars that were never even declared.
As such, he has run a gauntlet of battlefront ordeals. This has left him older and wiser than his years, with contacts across the secretive military world and a wealth of frontline knowledge, an experience gleaned from theatres as varied as deserts, jungles and bullet-riddled inner city backstreets. But Raglan has suffered too. He has a dark inner self and difficulties forming meaningful relationships. His only real friends are fellow ex-Legionnaires, most of whom live like he does: off the grid. When he goes back into action, he slips into it effortlessly, as though that is now his real purpose and trying to live like a civilian a waste of time.
If Dan Raglan isn’t tailor-made to be the focal point of a whole series of novels to follow, then I’ve never encountered another character who is (and indeed, this very week I’ve learned that a timely sequel, Betrayal, is scheduled for publication in January). But do you root for him? Do you feel his pain? Do you shudder with genuine horror at the unimaginably difficult mission this novel confronts him with?
I’m not sure that Raglan is ultra-sympathetic. He’s too hard and too adept at what he does to ever be considered vulnerable. But there is sufficient depth here for him to be interesting. There is certainly much more to him than the average Hollywood action man, easily enough to keep you hooked even in the unlikely event the skilfully-choreographed action scenes don’t.
The other characters may lean a little towards stock: Maguire the MI6 chief who, while ostensibly affable, is not entirely trustworthy; Abbie the feisty, spirited underling with lots of guts but so much to learn; Sorokina a wintry Russian beauty of the classical sort. But that said, it all works. Everyone involved has enough about them to make The Englishman an intense and immersive experience.
It helps, of course, that David Gilman writes with such authority. Formerly a creator of historical novels, he’s also an ex-soldier who knows his military procedures, his weapons and combat strategies, while his battle-scenes, most of which are up close and personal in the confined spaces of urban dereliction or the cramped, frozen forests of the Russian taiga, are fast, brutal affairs, in which you feel every gut-thumping impact of bullet striking body, every bone-crunching punch, kick or karate chop. Yes, there are deaths aplenty in The Englishman, so be warned: some of them are protracted and gruesome (Gilman certainly makes you realise what it would take to kill someone hand-to-hand, and what kind of person you’d need to be, and it’s not edifying).
This is a full-on thriller all-round, so even when we aren’t involved in physical confrontation, the pace is unrelenting, a subliminal clock ticking as the good guys race from one vital clue to the next, the tension cranking up constantly through awareness that at any moment our heroes could stray into the crosshairs of a bunch of antagonists who are genuinely among the worst of the worst.
The plot in some ways might not ring true. It’s an incredible assignment that Raglan finishes up undertaking. To call it ‘daunting’ would be an understatement even for the toughest undercover agent. But when it’s as speedy and exhilarating a read as The Englishman, I’m not sure that matters. I should point out, though, that David Gilman is not just an action writer. As a wordsmith in general, his talent is prodigious, his prose descriptive but never fulsome, and easily accessible. He carries you through this huge story with deceptive ease, remaining clear and concise at all times.
It may not be the most original concept, but for those who enjoy their international thrillers, The Englishman is as good as any of the rest and better than most. First-rate fun.
And now my usual folly as I attempt to cast this beast in the event that a film or TV company gets interested and drops me a line to ask my opinion. (Obviously the latter won’t happen, but I’d be surprised if the former doesn’t; this one is made for the big screen).
Dan Raglan – Michael Fassbender
Major Elena Sorokina – Yuliya Snigir
Yegor ‘JD’ Kutznetzov - Danila Kozlovsky
Abash Khalsa – Hazel Keech
Jeremy Carter – Mark Strong
Maguire – Owen Teale
Yefimov – Konstantin Lavronenko
by Geoffrey Girard (2014)
OutlineDSTI is an ultra-secret biotech division working almost exclusively for the US military, so when things go disastrously wrong there, the problem is kept inhouse, with special operations chief, Colonel Stanforth, sending in one of his best men.
At first, ex-commando Shawn Castillo doesn’t know why he’s been given the job. A combat veteran with much experience in the Middle East (where he was captured by jihadis and viciously tortured), his normal field is counter-insurgency and espionage. On this occasion, as far as he knows, a group of six teenage delinquents being held in an educational facility attached to DSTI have absconded, committing several murders in the process. It sounds more like a job for the police. However, when Castillo arrives, it’s a scene of utter carnage, both institute staff and inmates alike lying slaughtered and dismembered.
But if that’s not enough, an even more terrifying revelation awaits him.
These so-called young offenders are actually cloned replicants of infamous serial killers – the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Albert Fish, Henry Lee Lucas et al – who have finally broken loose, and are now on a rampage, seemingly determined to fulfil the legacies of their genetic predecessors.
Prepared to chase and retrieve these burgeoning maniacs, Castillo is nevertheless suspicious of DSTI, unable to believe that any responsible group of scientists would indulge in such experiments. Though the plan was allegedly to isolate the predisposition towards violence in an effort to eliminate it from our world, he knows that the likes of Stanforth wouldn’t be involved if there wasn’t going to be some military application as well.
Feeling that he isn’t learning as much as he can from DSTI’s reticent Dr Erdman, Castillo pursues his own enquiries, forcing entry to the home of senior geneticist, Dr Gregory Jacobson, who has also gone missing, and there uncovering clues that knock him sick. It seems that, under Jacboson’s direction, certain of the clones were being purposely abused and neglected by their foster parents (mostly redneck DSTI stooges) in order to encourage the development of vengeful and sadistic compulsions. At the same time, he locates Jacobson’s own adopted son, Jeff – who it soon turns out is the clone of mass-slayer, Jeffrey Dahmer, but who has been raised in a loving, caring environment, and so appears to be manifesting no violent urges. In his own way, Jeff – a bright, pleasant young guy – is another example of one of Jacobson’s callous experiments; in this case he’s the positive outcome of careful manipulation, though Castillo isn’t sure that he can trust him.
Aware, that Jeff Jacobson will be ‘neutralised’ – either killer or lobotomised – if handed back to DSTI, Castillo opts to take the youngster with him, though he knows that getting emotionally involved in this way is the last thing he should be doing.
Meanwhile, he starts gathering useful intel. Advised by his old army buddy, Ox, who is a mine of information on the US’s numerous secret human-experimentation projects, Castillo begins to suspect that the real purpose of the cloning programme was to breed a race of testtube supersoldiers who will kill mercilessly when instructed to. He also learns that Gregory Jacobson, who appears to have deliberately released this select bunch of ultra-dangerous subjects, is leaning towards insanity himself, having developed a firm conviction that he’s a descendent of Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the original Jack the Ripper enquiry. At the same time, he gets curious about a mysterious place called SharDhara, where something horrible seems to have happened.
Meanwhile, the pack of young killers roams from state to state, commiting a string of ever-more horrendous crimes (explicitly raping, torturing and killing men, women and children alike). At least this enables Castillo to track them, but it also makes things easier for something else on their tail, something infinitely more savage than Castillo, but at least as efficient when it comes to clandestine soldiering. Only when it’s almost too late, does Castillo begin to wonder if the DSTI supersoldier programme was much more advanced than he realised …
ReviewThe first thing to say about Cain’s Blood is that, as ‘high concept’ goes, it’s up there with the best of them. I personally have no idea whether it’s even remotely possible to distill the evil from a bunch of notorious killers into the specially-grown bodies of a new race of synthetic assassins, but it’s a zinger of an idea for a sci-fi thriller.
Geoff Girard attempts to make it sound feasible by literally burying us under a welter of pseudo-scientific detail, not just catching us with it on the hoof while the story unfolds, but hitting us with the occasional lecture about historic advances in the field of genetics, everything from the Austrian monk, Brother Mendel’s experiments with peas during the 1850s, to the ground-breaking ‘nuclear transfer’ that led to the creation of Dolly the Sheep at Edinburgh Univerity in the mid-1990s. Again, I’ve no idea how credible it all is, but the idea alone is so wonderfully twisted that you can’t help but plunge in.
Of course, even then it requires a conspiracy theorist mentality to fully get on board with it. The character of Ox is a walking, talking device in this regard, a paranoid war veteran, one of whose few purposes in the book is to voice suspicion about the US Government’s role in biological experiments that have caused untold damage to countless test subjects, many of whom weren’t even aware that they were participating. It makes for an astounding read, but whether it’s based on provable truth is another matter. If it was, I’d have thought that Cain’s Blood would have been a far more controversial publication. But again, I reiterate that none of this detracted from my enjoyment. And that’s partly because once we get through that quite considerable wall of shock revelation, we are firmly into pursuit-thriller territory, and we remain there for most of the rest of the novel.
Shawn Castillo is a type of hero very popular with modern American audiences: a former spec-ops guy so badly damaged, both physically and mentally, by the many wars he has recently fought for his country that, while he’s not exactly conscience-stricken, it has left him an out-and-out sceptic regarding his commanding officers, and yet, through his innate loyalty to the US flag, taking on new missions anyway (though you get the feeling early on that this could be the final one – Castillo really is that close to the edge). But in the meantime, he does all the things you’d expect from one of these former ‘shadow company’ types: closing down his targets with effortless ease; keeping his emotions in check but suffering constantly from combat nightmares; playing it cool when some barroom brawler is causing hassle, until he absolutely has no option but to go into action, at which point the baddies get strewn across whichever car park happens to be nearest; and finding it difficult to express his true feelings even to the one female in his life, Doctor Kristin, a beautiful, intelligent, empathetic woman, who is the only thing, until now, that has prevented Castillo from slipping into madness.
So far so familiar, I know … but it’s all done very well. Kristin has been criticised by some reviewers for embodying the sexy mother/wife archetype on whom these damaged heroes so often lean. And she does play that role to an extent, but it’s not by any means certain that she and Castillo are meant for each other. Castillo is only one of a number of traumatised vets she’s managed to bring back to normality – and in that regard, their relationship also serves to examine the immoral complexity of a situation where soldiers are trained and conditioned to go out and kill the enemies of their country (enemies, they personally know nothing about), and then are expected to return to society without any kind of hiccup.
Jeff Jacobson comes over as a great kid. It’s a bit mind-boggling for the reader when you consider that he’s the mirror-image of a young Jeffrey Dahmer, but he’s also affable, clever and helpful. Though Castillo is initially wary of him – who wouldn’t be, given his patronage? – the twosome gradually become friends, and in fact go further than that, forming a bond in their efforts to track down their devilish prey. Jeff’s not just the living proof that nurture is more important than nature but ends up providing the heart and soul of this otherwise dark novel.
As a final thought, I’ve now learned that Cain’s Blood was published in tandem with a YA version of these same events: Project Cain, told from the POV of one of the youngsters. That does surprise me, because this is one gory outing. Be advised, there is some seriously cruel and brutal stuff in here, which more than captures the horror of the original crimes committed by the likes of Dahmer, Bundy etc. But if you don’t mind that, then Cain’s Blood is a very satisfying thriller, maybe a little far-fetched, but enjoyable nevertheless.
As always, I’m now going to be bold (stupid) enough to try and cast Cain’s Blood should it ever be adapted for the screen. Just a laugh of course. I doubt anyone who matters would listen to me anyway. But here we go:
Shawn Castillo – Ryan Eggold
by Christopher Golden (2017)
edited by Christopher Golden (2018)
That there is darkness at the heart of the Yuletide season should not surprise. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is filled with scenes that are unsettling. Marley untying the bandage that holds his jaws together. The hideous children - Want and Ignorance - beneath the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The heavy ledgers Marley drags by his chains. In the finest versions of this story, the best parts are the terrifying parts.
I was particularly delighted to acquire this one towards the end of last year, because its table of contents alone promises so much. Editor Christopher Golden is one of the most respected voices in horror writing and editing on the world stage today, and here he’s in pulled contributions from some of the most popular and successful novelists currently lurking at the darker end of the spectrum: Scott Smith, Josh Malerman, Joe R Lansdale, Sarah Langan, Sarah Lotz, Elizabeth hand, Tim Lebbon and Sarah Pinborough, to name but a few.
Did it hit my Christmas horror spot, though?
Golden clearly made the decision early on that with Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, he was going to forego some of the more tediously familiar festive horror fixtures. For example, axe-wielding Santas make regular appearances in low-budget Christmas horror movies, and even their somewhat more exotic and infinitely scarier cousin, Krampus, is starting to show up with wearying regularity. Likewise, reunions of relatives so appalling that they verge on the deranged are becoming a bit of a cliché, as are horrific presents and Christmas trees decorated with human body-parts. Thankfully, none of those caricatures figure here very much.
Perhaps inevitably, we do have ghosts. Ghosts are such a staple of Christmas fiction that it would be near enough impossible for any editor of a book like this to ignore them. But even here, Golden has opted to select very few of what you might call drawing-room ghost stories.
Anyway, enough of what there isn’t, and now onto what there is.
As I hope I’ve already intimated, this is an eclectic mix of tales, with a refreshingly diverse range of Christmas subjects touched upon. Tim Lebbon’s Home, for example, which shows us Christmas after the apocalypse, is something I for one have never seen before (and which will last long and dark in the memory).
That said, there are a couple of stories here at least that tweak the traditional nerve-string.
Sarah Pinborough, a long-established mistress of the dark fairy tale, spins an elegant yarn in The Hangman’s Bride, which is set in early-Victorian London, and follows the fortunes of a sweep’s boy who climbs the chimney in a big townhouse belonging to a gentleman executioner and finds himself in a labyrinth of brick passages, blinded and choking on soot, and with something horrible lurking just out of sight. At the same time, Seanan McGuire’s Fresh as the New-Fallen Snow lifts us from the realm of the mundane, a suburban family on Christmas Eve, into the dreamy world of Eastern European mythology (managing to be both frightening and sad at the same time). While Joe R Lansdale steps back from his more recognisable ‘Southern Noir’ territory to hit us with The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel, a spine-chilling tale of vengeance from beyond in the decayed environment of an abandoned inn.
Of course, the book isn’t all about ghosts. Golden also finds room for some harder-edged, more typically American-style thrillers, Kelley Armstrong’s Absinthe & Angels telling the tale of a loving twosome cooped up in a snowbound log cabin one wintry Christmas Eve, only to be terrorised by a couple of weirdoes who show up outside, while John McIlveen, in Yankee Swap, depicts a Christmas kidnapping in which a psycho dressed as an elf subjects his hostages to a festive version of Saw.
These two aren’t the most effective stories in the book, for my money, though they’re all a taut read. More intriguing, and perhaps a little more cerebral, are two surrealist contributions from Scott Smith and Elizabeth Hand, both stories – Christmas in Barcelona and Farrow Street, respectively – taking their protagonists to distant cities, Barcelona and London, where adventures in foreign climes rapidly become chilling dislocations from reality.
Equally serious in terms of its undertone, though solidly back on US turf, is Chris Golden’s own story, It’s a Wonderful Knife, which isn’t just a play on the title of the famous movie, but in its telling of a budding actress’s trip to a bigshot Hollywood producer’s Christmas house-party and his subsequent request that she come upstairs so that he can show her a grim relic from one of his early films, casts more than a quick, approving nod in the direction of the #MeToo movement’s campaign against sexual harassment in high places.
In stark contrast, other stories in the book are played almost exclusively for laughs.
Jeff Strand’s Good Deeds introduces us to a guy down on his luck who uncharacteristically does a good deed one Christmas Eve when he buys shoes for a ragamuffin child and afterwards is so startled by the feelings this stirs that he writes a song about the spirit of the season, said song proving so moving that everyone who hears it commits suicide. In Thomas E Sniegoski’s Love Me, meanwhile, a professional burglar comes out of jail looking to fix things with his family in time for Christmas, but, unable to get a job, switches his attention to an old woman who allegedly lives in a nearby apartment full of valuable antiques, and well … as you’ve probably guessed, he should just have tried harder to get a job.
If there’s any brickbat to throw at Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, I’d say that not all the stories in it are specifically about Christmas. Most are, but one or two, such as The Hangman’s Bride and Michael Koryta’s Hiking Through, which concerns itself with a haunted hiking trail in the snowy New England woods, could be set at any time of the winter, but both these stories, and all the others herein are so excellently written, and make for such an enjoyable read overall that no serious editor could refuse them and only the most churlish reader would complain about them.
As with all anthologies, not everything in Hark! The Herald Angels Scream will delight every reader. Like Christmas itself, a season of mixed blessings for so many, the tone won’t always feel right, some won’t get what they’re hoping for, while others won’t buy into any of it from the start. But Hark! The Herald Angels Scream is another very worthy attempt to take a horror angle on the festive time of year, to lighten our mid-winter darkness with plenty of screams and laughs. As such, it gets my strong recommendation.
And now …
It could be that they’re all going about their business one eerie and deep-frozen Christmas Eve, while a local DJ – Bill Shatner perhaps – regales his listeners with tales of their progress (as in A Christmas Horror Story); or maybe they first appear as comic-book characters, as read about by young Billy in an eerily quiet New England town (a festive editon of Creepshow, anyone?) – but basically, it’s up to you.
Rich but unloving parents can do without their kids on Christmas Eve and go out to party, leaving their young threesome in the care of a new babysitter, Raisa, a beautiful but mysterious Russian girl. She proceeds to tell them the strange and terrible story of Snegurochka, the legendary Russian Snow Maiden …
Haunted by the memory of a lovely girl who mysteriously vanished during a Christmas Eve party at a riverside hotel many years ago, middle-aged Robert opts to visit the same hotel on Christmas Eve all over again, even though it is now a ruin, in company with the man he suspects of murdering her …
Unfaithful Jake tries to buy his way back into his wife, Amira’s affections by acquiring a Genpet for the kids for Christmas. The Genpet is a part-cybernetic puppy, which is cuteness itself, and which never poops, never ages, and even talks with its child owners. The problem is that Genpets are very new and there are all kinds of unforeseen quirks in their system. A strange and scary Christmas Eve lies ahead …
Ex-university friends gather at Hank and Anne’s for a Christmas reunion, but their liberal intellectual attitudes fall short when one of their regular crowd, Adam, turns up with an ex-con, Michael, a one-time cult-leader. Michael’s apparent regret about his former life emboldens the other guests to be rude and cruel to him, but little do they know that he isn’t regretful as much as utterly terrified …
by Helen Grant (2013)
I first encountered one-time YA author Helen Grant in the mid-1990s as part of what at the time was referred to in ghost story circles as the ‘James Gang’. This was a particular group of writers, unofficially bracketed together, who were strongly influenced by the writings of MR James. Those unfamiliar with the fiction of Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) – and if there are any, shame on you! – should be advised that he was one of the defining architects of the modern English ghost story, writing in a scholarly tone but with a deadpan wit, and building most of his tales around antiquarian interests: old country churches, archaeological digs and the discovery of ancient objects such as manuscripts, urns and whistles, and yet infusing it all with a sense of creeping dread as some malignant supernatural force invariaby closes on an unwitting and yet nervous protagonist, the eventual outcome often gruesome and violent.
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 to each other.
Fenella ‘Fen’ Munro is a freelance copywriter from London. In all ways, a modern, educated, independent-minded woman. Though at the commencement of this short but progressively more frightening novel, we meet her trapped in a truly terrifying nightmare. She thinks she has just woken up, only to find herself dressed in an oppressively old-fashioned wedding gown and immured inside a solid, body-length box, which, as it’s lined with satin, is quite clearly a coffin. When she actually does wake up, and finds herself safely alive in Barr Dubh, her new house in the Perthshire countryside, which she has recently bought with her author fiancé, James Sinclair, she is badly shaken up by the vividness of the dream, but pushes the whole thing to the back of her mind as she has lots of other things to be getting on with.
James is currently in Madrid, on a promotional tour for his latest novel, leaving Fen to do the heavy lifting back at home. She isn’t too concerned. They have only recently moved in, and life is good. Her job, especially now that she’s gone freelance, doesn’t entirely satisfy her, but it was through the publishing business that she first met the handsome, courteous and very talented James, so she has no complaints.
Not that one or two minor clouds don’t soon appear on the horizon.
For example, she makes friends with Seonaid McBryde, who runs the local wedding shop, but then, quite unintentionally, seems to upset the woman by suggesting that she wouldn’t mind a lavender wedding dress. Only by way of terse explanation, does Seonaid reply that lavender is considered an unlucky colour in this part of Scotland. Despite that, Fen thinks it was an over-the-top reaction, though later on she sees the same thing again when a folk band providing live music in a nearby pub are given the cold shoulder by a whole crowd of locals because they dare to sing a song called Lavender Lady.
From here on, odd and discomforting events become more noticeable, slowly souring Fen’s experience of her exciting new home and life.
When James returns from Spain, for instance, even though it is late at night, she thinks she sees someone standing in the garden, watching the house, though when the two of them investigate, there is no one there. Then, Fen’s best friend and former work colleague, Belle, arrives to stay for a few days, and though the threesome get on famously (Belle considering James to be a real catch), the guest soon becomes uncomfortable in the house. Finally, she confesses to Fen that she woke up in the middle of her second night there, and found herself in a completely different building: a much older, gaunter residence with a colder, less friendly atmosphere, and when she tried to walk around it, she got lost among its countless shabby rooms and passages, only to then hear someone hammering relentlessly on the front door, demanding to be admitted with what sounded like real and even dangerous anger.
Fen tries to dismiss this as another bad dream, but Belle, who claims to have a sensitivity to these things, insists that there’s something wrong with Barr Dubh … if not the house itself, the ground it is built upon.
Once Belle has returned to London, Fen, disappointed by her friend’s reaction, continues to have nightmares of her own. On one occasion, very distressingly, it’s a pair of unsmiling men trying to manhandle her paralysed body into a coffin; on another, two Victorian-era domestic staff, who discover her corpse as she lies dead in a bed and a bedroom that are not her own.
James, who’s writing another book, is understanding though not as helpful as he might be. And now we learn that Fen’s own past is not as trauma-free as her initial appearance might suggest. She’s hidden it well from almost everyone who knows her, but Fen had a very dysfunctional childhood in the home of two brutally strict parents, the memories of which haunt her deeply. So, the obvious next concern is whether the nightmares could be products of her own disturbed imagination?
However, Fen then meets a local historian, who doesn’t know anything about Barr Dubh, which is a relatively new house, but wonders if it occupies the same spot as Barr Buidhe, a much older, much more Gothic building, which was so thoroughly demolished that not a scrap of it remains today … except, supposedly, for a ruined chapel and overgrown graveyard, both of which may still exist in an untended corner of the grounds. Despite the two of them striking up a rapport, even this pleasant individual makes a quick exit when Fen enquires why the colour lavender seems to have evil connotations in this neighbourhood, though not without offering a brief explanation that in these parts it’s regarded as the colour of mourning.
Increasingly uneasy about the house she’s moved to (because her nightmares are not just getting worse, they seem incredibly real, almost as if she is peering into actual history, and on more and more occasions she suspects that someone – or something – is lurking outside at night), Fen becomes strangely convinced that if she can prove Barr Dubh occupies the same site as the much older structure, some answers will be provided.
But that may mean exploring the encircling woods to see if the ruined chapel and graveyard are still standing. Specifically, she now realises, the part of the woods where on her first few days here, she sighted that mysterious figure in lavender …
Helen Grant is another of those well-kept secrets when it comes to ghostly fiction. With a thoroughly deserved reputation as an award-winning author of children’s and YA mysteries – The Glass Demon, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden and Silent Saturday, to name several – the ghost stories she aims at the adult market are perhaps less well-known, primarily because they have mostly been shorter than novel-length and largely published by the independent press.
However, all that may shortly change.
Grant’s supernatural horror novel, Ghost, which was written squarely for mature readers, won considerable acclaim in 2018, not just for its scares but for its believable multi-layered characters and the depth and complexity of their relationship. And now it looks as though Grant has done it again, only this time even more forcefully, with her second full-length novel for the adult market, Too Near the Dead, which yet again pits ordinary but troubled people against forces from beyond that are anything but benign.
That’s probably the thing that strikes you first about Too Near the Dead: there is a real flavour of MR James. Though few of the obvious ‘Jamesian’ tropes are present (there are no learned clergymen here!), Grant demonstrates real literary skill in conjuring an atmosphere of utter dread and the threat of something truly terrible lurking just beyond our perception, and in ways so subtle that you don’t notice them at the time. Okay, the nightmare sequences I’ve referred to in the outline above are gut-thumpingly scary, but they are only nightmares. It’s through the waking experiences of Fen Munro, as she tries to go about her lovely new life and yet, drip by drip, disturbing weirdness intrudes, that we increasingly sense the approaching horror.
Such is the skill with which this is pulled off that you are well into the book, totally engrossed, before you’ve really noticed it.
It helps, of course, that Too Near the Dead is a mystery as well as a traditional ghost story. That’s another Jamesian box ticked, our brave but isolated protagonist increasingly seeking to answer questions from long ago, certain this will be the only way to save herself, but suspecting that there will be more and more of a price to pay for such intrusive enquiry. And all of this only intensifies the book’s pace, the pages flying by as the intrigued reader rushes on, determined to learn as much as possible.
While all this may sound as though it’s a tale exclusively in the vein of past masters of the genre (I’ve already mentioned MR James, but there are hints of Wakefield, Le Fanu and others too), the setting is Britain (and Scotland specifically) in the 2020s. Our main characters are London sophisticates, but the locals they encounter are not bumpkins. Yes, there is a degree of superstition in the area, particularly around the colour lavender, but overall the occupants of the district are modern enough to be embarrassed about this and not to want to talk about it.
On top of that, subtlety remains the order of play. Fen’s initial enquiries into the history of Barr Dubh and whatever building was there before it, do not immediately uncover horrific historical detail. In Too Near the Dead, the distant past is buried and forgotten. Barr Dubh itself is a new-build with no skeletons in any of its own cupboards. It’s distinctly not the case that local taxis won’t drive there after dusk, or anything so melodramatic. In this respect, Too Near the Dead is neatly separated from the main body of the new wave of powerfully-written ‘Gothic romance,’ which is usually set in Victorian or Edwardian times and often has much to do with lunatic asylums and locked upper rooms.
But for all that, one of the most potent aspects of Helen Grant’s new novel is its grasp on the emotional pain of its characters. Even in her shorter fiction, the author rarely gives us tales in which individuals have suffered unfeasible torments in their lives. She mostly writes about real people with everyday hang-ups, though hang-ups that nevertheless are a source of ongoing anguish. And Too Near the Dead is no exception. We don’t learn anything very quickly about Fenella Munro’s early life; it’s almost as though she’s overcome it, put it out of her mind. But gradually, as the narrative unfolds, we start to realise that it’s still there to an extent, a period of teenage suffering, which, while it’s no longer so acute that it bothers her minute-by-minute, manifests itself strongly (if indefinably) when she starts to have doubts about husband James’s private affairs, and therefore subconsciously about the entire viability of her too-good-to-be-true new life.
For me, it’s this psychological subtext that really elevates Too Near the Dead. You could even go as far as to say that the real antagonist in this novel is not so much a revenant from the tragic past but Fen’s desperate fear that, ultimately, happiness will never be hers (a metaphor which the revenant nicely underlines at the book’s big climax)
Superficially a classy chiller of the old school, Too Near the Dead is actually a clever and very contemporary story, dealing with non-extraordinary people, who, despite their work-a-day exteriors, are just as likely to be trapped in the throes of personal hauntings as any of their more visibly harrowed fictional counterparts. Add the lush but succinct descriptive work, Helen Grant completely capturing the green hills, quiet glens and verdant woods of the lower Highlands, and you have an exceptional piece of writing that works on every level.
And now, yet again, I’m going to cast this beast. I’d love to see it adapted for the screen, perhaps in the Ghost Story for Christmas slot. But until that happens, you’re going to have to rely on your (and Helen Grant’s) imagination. Here are the actors I would choose.
Fen – Michelle Ryan
James – Matt Smith
by Mira Grant (2017)
All of this took place in the oceanic sci-fi novella of 2015, Rolling in the Deep, by Mira Grant, aka Seanan McGuire, which went on to see Atagartis fall foul of a horde of genuine sub-aquatic beings, who through sheer hostility alone, seemed a far cry from the sweet-voiced, fish-tailed lovelies of myth and legend.
Now, Into the Drowning Deep, a full-blown sci-fi horror novel (set in our near future), picks up the story, with a new mission getting underway, basically to discover what happened to the last one (the Atagartis having been lost entirely, with all hands).
Keen to get involved is ocean scientist, Victoria ‘Tory’ Stewart, whose older sister, Anne, disappeared along with the original vessel, though she herself doesn’t know what to make of the few messages that made it home, which are mostly incoherent, or the odd snippet of footage, which depicts panicky crewmen and Imagine personnel under attack from some kind of unknown, sea-dwelling species with fins, gills and lots and lots of teeth.
The new ship, the Melusine, is better equipped, with a crew who know what to expect, with chemists, biologists, radar and sonar experts and other technicians, all determined to discover what it is that actually lurks in the deep, and is packed to the brim with TV folk from Imagine who are keen to catch everything on film, and thus create one of the greatest live ‘exploration of the unknown’ documentaries in television history.
As well as Tory Stewart and her research partner, Luis Martines – who both know they’ve only been invited to boost the ratings but are keen to make use of the opportunity – a whole range of oddball characters accompany the expedition.
Theo Blackwell is Imagine’s man on the spot, a textbook company man and official chief organiser of the mission, whose main role is to look after his employers’ interests, even though he once had his own mind, and indeed still carries the injuries that ended his youthful days of eco-warrior rebellion. His ex-wife, Dr Jillian Toth, a renowned marine biologist, is also on board. A spiky individual, her career has to an extent been sidelined as she’s a fervent believer that mermaids exist and has little time for those who don’t, but she still seems to be the one whom those in-the-know nearly always defer to.
Then there’s Olivia Sanderson, a professional YouTube presenter, beautiful and intelligent in equal measure, though inevitably she feels that everyone else regards her as a lightweight and so is here to assert herself as a serious professional and to hopefully make waves in the world of ‘real’ broadcasting.
More respected by far are the three Wilson sisters, the younger two – Holly and Heather – who though profoundly deaf, are an organic chemist and submersible pilot respectively, both at the tops of their respective fields, while their older sister, Hallie, a researcher in her own right, is there mainly to translate for them, as so few other people are able to sign.
Okay, from this point on, I don’t want to say too much more about the actual synopsis of Into the Drowning Deep for fear that it will give away essential spoilers.
Put it this way, the mission goes ahead, the Melusine soon arriving at the Mariana Trench, and the 40,000ft Challenger Deep in particular, where all manner of scientific surveys are soon under way, every key character playing his/her own vital role, employing a wide range of methods and materials, including a trio of highly-trained dolphins, who as aquanauts can surely not be bettered (at least, that’s what their human masters assume).
But aside from a few stresses and strains among the cast, and one or two malfunctions in the ship’s security kit, everything feels as if it’s going well, is in fact hunky dory. The expedition is so well-equipped and so expertly manned that danger is the last thing on anyone’s minds.
But as you’d expect, it isn’t long before something is stirring down below, something that deeply resents this unwarranted intrusion into its private realm, something that intends to respond with extreme violence. Yes, it seems that all those myths about lovelorn mermaids singing plaintively on sea-begirt rocks, yearning for a life on land and for peaceful interaction with human society, are a long way wide of the mark …
I came at this one very unsure what to expect. I love oceanic horror, even though it’s a sub-genre that can be hit-and-miss, and Mira Grant, aka Seanan McGuire, is an author I’m not too familiar with. However, I needn’t have had too many concerns, because right from the word go, Into the Drowning Deep is an easily accessible, reader-friendly adventure thriller, presented very much in the style of a techno/eco action movie.
Okay, I hear one criticism that’s been levelled at it: namely that it takes a little time to get going. Well, the first third of the narrative is pretty well all given over to character development, and there is an entire host of these individuals to get our teeth into, but I’m not sure that’s entirely to the book’s detriment. At no stage, even during these early chapters, does Mira Grant renege on her main duty as a horror author, which is to keep reminding us that the deep sea – the Challenger Deep in particular – is a dark and terrible place, inimical to human survival, and that an awful force is latent there, just waiting to explode upwards at the first provocation. This message is so thoroughly rammed home that you basically can’t wait for the action to commence, speaking of which, when things do start to move – not just on board the ship, but underneath it as well – the author delivers superbly.
Hair-raising chills abound, alternating with enough gore and violence to satisfy even the most hardcore of the genre’s addicts, while memories are stirred of many excellent ‘isolated scientists’ horror movies past, everything from Leviathan to Alien to The Thing.
But of course, no amount of action means a damn thing if you don’t care about the personalities involved, and here I maybe have one or two slight qualms.
I should say to begin with that Into the Drowning Deep is a female-led novel; all the best parts are hogged by women, while the men, for the most part, are secondary characters, if not unmemorable walk-ons. But that’s not a criticism. In fact, it’s quite welcome, as it corrects an imbalance that we’ve had in action/fantasy fiction for years. But ... and here’s the rub, several of these lead individuals are a little less than heroic, often behaving illogically and regularly displaying anger, resentment and a general brattishness rather than courage and wisdom, which seems to me to defeat the object of the exercise.
Jillian Toth and the Wilson twins are good examples, the former permanently angry that other academics won’t buy into her theories about mermaids (which in real life surely wouldn’t be difficult to understand) and thus coming over as an abrasive, self-righteous bully, while the Wilson twins are constantly frustrated that those with full hearing don’t understand what it’s like to be deaf – though my response to that would be ‘how could they’?
Perhaps inevitably, Into the Drowning Deep is filled with science. You can’t really avoid that when you’re concerned with lifeforms that originated below the Hadean zone and you either want to get down to them or bring them up to you. As such, we’re exposed to all kinds of modern-day techo-speak – not just involving the necessary gadgetry, but chemistry, biology, oceanography etc – while the Melusine itself is a floating battle-platform of state-of-the-art sea-scanning apparatus. Personally, I’ve no idea how accurate or authentic it all is. I’m certain that Mira Grant will have done a considerable amount of research, but one particular scene – in which a mermaid is subjected to an autopsy – is very convincing indeed, organ after organ being laid out for us, and explained in so much authoritative detail that you really believe this is what it would take for a gilled, fish-tailed humanoid to exist in the deepest tracts of the ocean.
As well as the science, we also have dollops of philosophy, the author taking time off from the narrative to discuss such current issues as equality, gender diversity, global warming, pollution, ocean dumping, and so on. I must admit to feeling that some of these occasions interrupted the flow of the plot. There would certainly be room in a book like Into the Drowning Deep for such important ponderings, but perhaps a little bit less time could have been dedicated to it – the overall message is there anyway about our brutal disregard for the natural environment and the disastrous consequences that might follow.
But none of this stopped me enjoying the novel.
I was fortunate enough to read Into the Drowning Deep while sailing the Caribbean, so the endless, sun-kissed blue of the world’s most gorgeous seascape made the perfect backdrop against which to thoroughly enjoy this suspenseful and intelligent maritime adventure, which explores one of the oldest nautical mysteries known to mankind, turning it on its head maybe, but also making it live, breathe and terrify.
Into the Drowning Deep is a great piece of sci-fi/horror, and Mira Grant an author I’ll definitely seek out again.
As always at the end of one my book reviews, I’m now going pre-empt the inevitable (I hope so, at least) TV or movie adaptation, and nominate my own cast. Only a bit of fun, of course. Who’d listen to me, after all?
Tory Stewart – Angélica Celaya
Luis Martines – Gael Garcia Bernal
Theo Blackwell – Neil Patrick Harris
Dr Jillian Toth – Jennifer Garner
Olivia Sanderson – Sarah Hyland
Holly Wilson/Heather Wilson – Cara Delevingne
Hallie Wilson – Poppy Delevingne
by Elly Griffiths (2017)
Middle-class Scottish doctor Kel MacDonald is bored with comfy holidays. Though he has a wife and young daughter to think about and a responsible position as a senior consultant at a London hospital, he increasingly finds trips to luxurious resorts unchallenging, considering everything too safe and pristine. As such, during a visit to Mexico, and a day-trip to an isolated Mayan cave complex, where the bones of sacrificial victims can be viewed at the bottom of a deep underwater grotto, Kel takes it on himself to make a ill-advised dive – and immediately gets into trouble. However, on the verge of drowning, he is saved by an athletic young American called Anton and his beautiful and intelligent girlfriend, Drew.
Kel is desperate to accompany Anton and Drew, but they initially resist his involvement until they learn that he is a doctor. The mission, thus far, is lacking medical expertise, and so, all of a sudden, Kel is invited along. His wife, Cate, doesn’t like the idea, but he is deadset on going.
However, his first reality checks arrive before he even sets off, Cate drawing his attention to several past expeditions to find Paititi that ended in disaster, some of them wiped out by wild Indians, others simply vanishing into the unexplored realm, none of their participants ever heard from again. The most recent, the Menendez Expedition, was a medical mission, but this too disappeared into the depths of the Peruvian jungle, never to re-emerge, and this catastrophe occurred only six months previously.
The next shock to Kel’s ‘wealthy white westerner’ system comes when he actually arrives in South America. The journey in-country from Lima to the expedition’s unofficial base camp of Puerto Tordoya is long, difficult and exhausting, the quality of the facilities deteriorating the further inland he travels. When he arrives at Tordoya, he finds it a tangle of dirt streets and shacks. No one he meets is especially friendly, particularly not the local police, who immediately have the air of violence and corruption about them.
Even his fellow explorers are a motley crew. Drew and Anton are as welcoming as they were before (Drew seems even more alluring now that Cate is not present), but there is also Tillman, Anton’s enforcer and a guy cut from the roughest cloth imaginable, Howie, who’s even more a fish out of water than Kel, but has the air of wealth and possesses several bags that no one may look inside, and Fabio, their official guide, who evidently knows his stuff but is vaguely untrustworthy. Already it is dawning on Kel that he isn’t here for anything that might resemble a holiday, Tillman spending their first night antagonising a gang of local criminals while haggling to buy guns, and Kel and Nolberto, the expedition’s cook, caught up in a drive-by shooting, the latter severely wounded and subsequently needing to be replaced by the taciturn Zia, who is connected in some way to the ill-fated Menendez expedition but says little and displays constant hostility to everyone.
I was first drawn to reading Black River because I’m a sucker for adventure stories, particularly those set in exotic and dangerous locations. As a youngster, growing up on classic movies like Green Hell and reading books like Tarzan of the Apes and The Lost World, I was captivated by tales of derring-do in untamed lands where Europeans had rarely ventured before and were exposed to everything from cannibals to volcanoes to dinosaurs.
Well, Black River doesn’t go quite as far as any of those, set firmly in the 21st century. Tom Harper is a fine exponent of the modern-day adventure novel, but that’s the key phrase here: ‘modern-day’. Though Kel MacDonald and co end up hacking their way through an equatorial jungle in order to find a fabled lost city, the skies overhead are often crisscrossed by American predator drones on the lookout for drugs traffickers. Though we learn at an early stage that wild Indians may pose a threat, we are informed in no uncertain terms that the natives of this gorgeous land are usually the victims when outsiders arrive; there is much illegal logging, deforestation and pollution, while simple and even friendly contact with the outside world can lead to deadly pandemics among tribes who are out of reach of routine health care. In Black River, our bold band are more likely to die from the machine guns of narcos, bandits or terrorist guerrillas than the blowpipe darts of unknown peoples.
There are wild animals of course. Some of the wildest imaginable in this perilous place: jaguars, alligators, 30-foot anacondas. But in Black River, as in the real world, the wild animals are mostly frightened of human intruders (though they do pose a danger, and a memorable one at that in certain parts of this novel). Of course, some things about jungle adventures will never change: the stultifying heat and humidity, the poisonous plants, the swarms of biting insects, the torrential downpours that can cause flash-flooding, the vast, intractable nature of a primeval landscape, which, once you’re out in the middle of it, if you lose your kit – and you can guarantee this will happen at some point – will quickly become the most inhospitable place on Earth, and where rescuers are concerned, the most unreachable.
All that and more is crammed into Black River’s eminently readable 338 pages, as well as an excellent, pulse-pounding storyline, which twists and turns like the Amazon itself as Kel Macdonald, the ultimate innocent abroad, faces ever-mounting (sometimes near impossible) hardships.
The idea of pitching an ordinary man into this crucible of pain and endurance was a stroke of genius by Tom Harper. Kel might be an accomplished doctor, but out there in the impenetrable forest none of that really means anything. He’s a reasonably fit guy, but he’s no athlete and that in itself becomes a problem as he must dig deeper and deeper just to withstand the elements, never mind to keep forging on against soul-destroying odds. None of which is helped by the shifting pattern of alliances within the group itself, Kel never sure whom to trust as the motivations of his colleagues become progressively more mysterious.
The final third of the book is a particularly vivid piece of writing by Harper. I won’t go into the details for fear of spoiling it, but put it this way: it’s a modern man reduced to his most basic level in his battle to survive a primordial world, and it’s all done so intensely and utterly believably that you find yourself hanging on every page. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Tom Harper has visited the Amazon personally, because this novel, while a great feat of action-adventure imagination, is also a lesson in how to perfectly recreate a unique environment on the written page.
Black River is not an old-fashioned novel, even at first glance when it might sound like it: yes, it concerns white westerners hacking through unexplored jungles; yes, they are seeking a lost city of gold; yes, they are mostly greedy and amoral. But this is not the colonial age; this book is very much of the now, its issues and subtext scrupulously updated to the 21st century.
Tom Harper has here given us a thoroughly grown-up actioner, which shouldn’t just entertain those with a specific interest in this kind of adventure fiction, but ought to appeal to all thriller fans in general. As always, Man is the main adversary of Man. Only, on this occasion, it’s happening in one of the most fascinating and farthest flung places on Earth.
And as usual, I’m now going to try and cast this beast. I don’t know if it’s been optioned for movie or TV development, but it definitely should be. In case that happens, but just for a bit of fun, here is my opinion on who should play who.Kel – Hans Matheson
Anton – Daniel Webber
Drew – Dakota Johnson
Tillman – Wes Chatham
Zia – Mia Maestro
Fabio – Yancey Arias
Howie – Domhnall Gleeson
by Sam Hawken (2012)
by Terry Hayes (2014)
by Joe Hill (2013)
by Andrew Michael Hurley (2016)
by Dale Brendan Hyde (2018)
by David Jackson (2014)
by Peter James (2018)
After this, the tragedies in Hunter’s life start to come thick and fast. A few years later, while working as a freelance reporter in Afghanistan, his party are ambushed by the Taliban, and though Hunter survives, he is the only one who does, which leaves him doubly mentally scarred by the experience. On top of that, when he returns home, he discovers his wife, Imogen, in bed with someone else.
If it wasn’t for Cook’s revelations about Ricky, Hunter would likely as not disbelieve him, but his strange experiences have perhaps primed him to undertake this most momentous of investigations. Even then, Cook is unsure whether or not Hunter is the man for the job, and so at this early stage will only direct him to the possible resting place of the Grail. The rest will follow if this first part of the quest is successful. Before departing, however, he gives Hunter a stark warning that, as their ultimate goal is to bring belief back to mankind, and save all our souls, the power of Lucifer will be unleashed in many forms, no matter how foul, to try and intercept them.
In the middle ground, things are different. There is good and evil there too, but it’s by degrees, the vast majority of the middle-grounders at worst frail, frightened and confused. Egyptian sidekick Medhat El-Hadidy seems like a good man but doesn’t offer help when Hunter needs it most. Wife Imogen is untrustworthy from the outset, but that’s because she's self-centred, which is a very human failing. Bishop Carmichael would love to see evidence that God exists but fears the chaos that might ensue.
And then, in sharp contrast, we have the mysterious Michael Henry Delaney, one of the most memorable figures in all of Peter James’ writing. What a character this is, so well-written that his presence and personality literally exude from the pages. I won’t say more about him than that. You’ve simply got to track him down for yourself.
by Peter James (2015)
Detective Superintendent Roy Grace faces one of his toughest ever challenges when, in the midst of moving house one rainy Christmas, at the same time as having to bury and grieve for a beloved colleague, he finds himself with two very serious crimes on his desk: a young woman is abducted from the garage below the flats where she lives, while elsewhere in the city a body is uncovered by workmen – this too belonged to a young woman, though by the looks of it she was killed at least a couple of decades ago. Initially there is no obvious connection, but then another girl disappears, and another, and it dawns on Grace with more than a smattering of horror that he might be investigating Brighton’s first serial murder case in 80 years.
ReviewYou Are Dead is the 11th outing for Peter James’s popular police hero, and for my money one of the best yet.
You Are Dead doesn’t just rattle along at the usual frenetic pace, hitting us with twists and curve-balls at every turn, working its way inevitably to another breakneck climax, but more so than almost any of the previous novels, it amply illustrates one of Peter James’s greatest trademarks – his astonishingly detailed research.
ed. by James D Jenkins and Ryan Cagle (2020)
Valancourt Books are fast becoming the go-to publishers for quality but out-of-print fiction. An American independent firm, they were started by James Jenkins and Ryan Cagle in 2005, their aim to rediscover and republish masterworks from former eras that are now largely forgotten. Thus far, their focus has been divided about equally between gay fiction and Gothic horror fiction, many of the latter titles dating way back into the 1800s, though quite a few were published as recently as the 1980s.
But Valancourt are also increasingly interested in putting out horror anthologies, particularly – and this appears to be very in keeping with their raison d’être – bunches of tales that, for whatever reason, have slipped under the radar of the modern western reader.
No horror anthology that I’ve seen and read in many a year more appropriately meets this ambition than the Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories. But before we discuss it in detail, I’ll let the publishers themselves explain the purpose behind this book in their own official blurb:
What if there were a whole world of great horror fiction out there you didn't know anything about, written by authors in distant lands and in foreign languages, outstanding horror stories you had no access to, written in languages you couldn't read? For an avid horror fan, what could be more horrifying than that?
For this ground-breaking volume, the first of its kind, the editors of Valancourt Books have scoured the world, reading horror stories from dozens of countries in nearly twenty languages, to find some of the best contemporary international horror stories. The stories in this volume come from 19 countries on 5 continents and were originally written in 13 different languages. All 20 foreign language stories in this volume are appearing in English for the first time ever. The book includes stories by some of the world's preeminent horror authors, many of them not yet known in the English-speaking world …
Two things struck me straight away about the Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories 1.
Firstly, that it’s already being billed as Volume One. Well, if that’s not a good sign, nothing is. Valancourt certainly appear to have strong confidence in their titles. And why not, as they’ve been a success story for quite a few years now. Let’s hope that this clear indication they intend the series to run plays out in full.
Secondly, that the quality of the stories in this collection is extraordinarily high. It’s often the case, I think, that when you pick up any kind of anthology, you probably won’t expect much more than half of its contents to really delight you if for no other reason than tastes differ. There’ll always be a few stories that you’re okay with but won’t really remember, probably one or two more that you’re indifferent to, and maybe a couple that you absolutely hate. Either way, it’s a rarity that anyone closes an anthology satisfied that every contribution thrilled and excited them.
I can’t honestly claim that that’s the entire story here, and I’m sure that editors Jenkins and Cagle would not expect that. But the vast majority of the fiction here is simply superb. And even the tiny handful of stories that didn’t blow me away are all excellently written (and translated – we must never forget the various translators, who have done an excellent and enormous job with this particular volume).
One thing that did surprise me is the lack of obvious folk-horror. It’s a current trend in the genre for authors to go rural, digging up ancient tales and arcane customs, and imposing them on the modern world. I expected the Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories to go exactly that way. Folklore is a rich seam to tap if you’re looking to scare people, and there must be many non English-speaking authors who dip regularly into that vast reservoir of world mythology lying beyond the boundaries of the Anglosphere. But aside from a couple of stories, this doesn’t really happen here.
What we’ve got instead is a very eclectic range of material, brought to us from countries as culturally and geographically diverse as Ivory Coast and Sweden, Mexico and Canada. But the bulk of it falls into one of two categories: either traditional horror stories in that they contain ghosts, devils, monsters etc, or the bizarre, leaning towards slipsteam and surrealism. However, without fail, all are eerie, disturbing and ultra-dark.
If we look at the more traditional stories first, they range over a variety of subject matter, but all are frightening in the best possible way.
Take Twin Shadows, penned by Québécois author Ariane Gélinas. It tells the eerie tale of young Floriane, who grows up in a huge spooky old house, but who has a constant companion in the form of a twin sister that no one else cares about or even, if the truth be told, knows about. This one would sit comfortably in any edition of classic ghost stories. A similarly Gothic tale, albeit perhaps even more frightening, is Backstairs, written by Sweden’s Anders Fager, a period piece that takes us to another dismal mansion with a chilling mystery at the heart of it (this is an astonishingly good piece of work, so more about this one later).
More contemporary in tone but still packed with classic tropes we have Dutch writer Christien Boomsma’s The Bones in Her Eyes, a story of witchcraft and dark magic set in the suburbs (though this is another top quality contribution, so more about this one later as well). Less ghostly, but no less mysterious and disturbing, is Senior Ligotti by Mexico’s Bernard Esquinca. In this one, Estaban, a struggling writer with a pregnant wife falls for the charm of Senior Ligotti, an elderly but wealthy reader, who offers him a cheap apartment and access to a major publishing house in return for friendship. Unfortunately, Ligotti’s idea of friendship is not Estaban’s.
From Finland comes a classic monster story. Pale Toes by Marko Hautala is not to be read by anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. It features a married couple, mismatched in age, their relationship clearly failing, but who take a hiking holiday along the Franco-Spanish border and meet a scruffy Englishman who promises to show them subterranean cave drawings that no one else has ever seen. They are wary of accepting, but in the end, unfortunately, they do.
Perhaps the one clear occasion when Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories does stray into the realms of folk-horror is with The White Cormorant by Norwegian writer, Frithjof Spalder, though it is set in Ireland. It concerns a cocky young fisherman who opts to sale single-handed around a deadly mass of ocean rocks, but who is subsequently wrecked in the foam and then saved by a mysterious being, as a result of which encounter his life will never be the same again.
Leaning a little away from traditional themes towards a more surreal form of horror, we have two other pieces that I’ll be pleased to talk a little bit more about later on. Down, in Their World by Romanian writer, Flavius Ardelean, has the typical air of a dark Slavic fairy tale in that it’s instructive as well as terrifying. Perhaps one of the creepiest stories in the entire book, though, is provided by Hungarian author, Attila Veres, The Time Remaining, an apparently gentle study of a child’s attachment to his favourite childhood toy, which rapidly descends into a nightmare.
More firmly in the world of the weird, Spain’s Jose Maria Latorre provides Snapshots, a short quirky chiller in which a young man heads for a city centre photobooth, only to find that each set of images shows him looking older than the time before. Thinking the machine faulty, he determinedly continues, but the pictures now show him ageing fast …
From Italy, and, if anything, even more disturbing is Luigi Musolini’s deeply psychological Uironda, in which a depressed truck-driver, worn out and at the end of his tether, takes on endless long, hard jobs, but hears increasingly about a mysterious turn-off leading to a mythical city (Uironda), which no sane trucker would ever want to visit … so why does our weary hero feel drawn there?
Also from the world of deranged psychology comes Cristina Fernandez Cubas’ much-reprinted Spanish parable, The Angle of Horror. In this tale, which is already famous in the Spanish-speaking world, young Julia is delighted when her beloved older brother, Carlos, returns from a trip to England, only to find that he is behaving strangely. The rest of the family suspect he is in love, but Carlos confides in Julia that he has discovered the ‘horror of the angle’. This is a subtle one by any standards and probably bears a second reading, though much more on the nose is Peruvian writer Tanya Tynjala’s memorable The Collector, which sees a young man, Julian, so desperate for intimate relations with the beautiful Diana, that eventually, on a promise, he arranges to meet her at the rundown café attached to an isolated gas station. Almost immediately, though, it feels as if something isn’t quite right.
More complex, though no less sinister, we have two genuine slices of dark surrealism. Firstly, in Menopause, courtesy of Ivory Coast author, Flore Hazoume, which takes us into the heart of a small community where, for no obvious reason, all the women are young and fair and all the men wise and mature. Secondly, equally concerned with issues of gender and inequality, from Ecuador, Solange Rodriquez Pappe provides Tiny Women, which commences with a woman attempting to clean out her infirm parents’ dirty, trash-filled house, and discovering a colony of tiny women living like insects in the debris. They aren’t easy to disperse, but then her philandering, sexist brother arrives for the night, and all hell will soon be let loose.
I’m not going to talk about every story in the Valancourt Book of World Horror. There are obviously many others, 21 in overall total, so be under no illusions, this is a big chunky anthology with lots more going for it than I have mentioned here. On top of this, editors Jenkins and Cagle introduce each entry in concise but informative fashion, ensuring that we know all we need to in advance of what in many cases may be our first foray into high-quality ‘foreign language’ horror. For that reason alone – never mind that this book features genuinely scary fiction almost all the way through – I urge you to take a chance on it. And at the same time express my fondest hope that this really is only Volume One of what will shortly become an ongoing series.
And now …
WORLD HORROR STORIES – the movie.
I doubt that any film maker has optioned this book yet (thus far, at least), and who knows how likely it is ever to happen, but as this part of the review is always a bit of a laugh, here are my views just in case some major player decides to transfer it to the big screen.
Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:
The Bones in Her Eyes (by Christien Boomsma): Caring Tara runs over a pet cat while driving through the suburbs, and regretfully takes the dying animal to its aged owner, Mrs Gottlieb. But the nice old lady seems strangely unconcerned, while Tara then goes on to suffer a succession of eerie dreams, about a cat that cannot die and a small, neat house filled with necromantic magic ...
Tara – Sylvia Hoeks
Mrs Gottlieb – Willeke van Ammelrooy
Down, in Their World (by Flavius Ardelean): Four poverty-stricken men attempt to steal iron from an abandoned mine in which a paedophile killer once dumped his victims. Increasingly they feel they are not alone down there, and when one of them is critically injured, two go for help, leaving only the casualty and his brother behind …
Stere – Vlad Ivanov
Nicu – Alec Secăreanu
The Time Remaining (by Attila Veres): A distressed child is persuaded by his mother that Villi, his favourite cuddly toy, is sick and dying. The child can’t have this and decides to do everything in his power to keep the ailing Villi alive…
The Child – You’ll have to fill this blank in yourselves, as I know no Hungarian child actors.
Backstairs (by Anders Fager) A psychotherapist investigates the case of a wealthy widow’s daughter, a pretty girl who is constantly beset by the most horrific nightmares and who even manifests cuts and bruises as if these terrifying fantasies are actually real …
Elvira – Alicia Vikander
Dr Lohrman – Stellan Skarsgård
Mrs Wallin – Lena Endre
Instead of collating a bunch of individual stories and putting them out under a single title, Jones commissioned horror writer, John Llewellyn Probert, to create a framework story, Screams in the Dark, much the way the anthology film-makers often did (surely, most horror enthusiasts will remember Peter Cushing as Doctor Shrek in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, or Ralph Richardson as the stone-faced crypt-keeper in Tales from the Crypt?) and then inserted the tales, both old and new, afterwards, but only after ensuring that they fitted the bill.
The result is this massive, rip-roaring horror antho, which takes murderous insanity as its overarching theme, and hits us with a grand line-up of stories, none of which, though they are all tied together at the central point, can’t also be read as thoroughly entertaining standalones.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I’ll let the publishers give you a flavour of it with an extract from their own official back-cover blurb:
When journalist Robert Stanhope arrives at the Crowsmoor asylum for the criminally insane to interview the institute’s enigmatic director, Dr Lionel Parrish, little does he realise that an apparently simple series of tests will lead him into a terrifying world of murder and insanity…
In this chilling new anthology, some of the biggest and brightest names in horror and crime fiction bring you twisted tales of psychos, schizoids and serial killers, many with a supernatural twist.
One thing you can always guarantee with a Stephen Jones anthology is that it will include a wide and eclectic selection of stories. Jones has long proved himself an expert at assembling wide-ranging tales with which to represent every aspect of his chosen theme. He doesn’t hold back from using reprints either, if they suit the tone of the book, though neither does he fall into the trap that other anthologists do of simply cobbling together bunches of well-known tales to provide huge names for inclusion on the cover, and repackage them as something new. When Stephen Jones dips into the past, he does so carefully, ensuring to find rare treasures that many of his readers are unlikely to have read previously.
As such, Psycho-Mania! is underpinned by several forays into the twisted minds of writers of earlier days that still feel as fresh and vital as they ever did, and portray criminal insanity in all its varied and garish forms.
For example, in Basil Copper’s The Recompensing of Albano Pizar, wherein a scheming literary agent humiliates the widow of a deceased best-selling author by selling private letters for publication, moving her to volcanic anger and a terrible revenge. Slightly more familiar perhaps, mainly due to its inclusion in the 1974 Amicus portmanteau horror, From Beyond the Grave, we also have R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s The Gatecrasher, in which a bored young Londoner holds a séance with his friends and unwittingly summons the soul of a mass killer who might even be Jack the Ripper (perhaps inevitably, one of several visits to Ripper territory that this antho makes). It’s a legendary tale, which many will know without possibly ever having realised that it commenced life as a short story.
An author who could never be described as belonging to former days is the inexhaustible Ramsey Campbell, even though he’s been supplying horror stories to the genre for what seems like umpteen generations now. His contribution here, the dark but expertly-written See How They Run, is another oldie (well … 1993, so not too old), and introduces us to Foulsham, a Crown Court juror, who strongly empathises with a suspect on trial for mass murder, though when that suspect is found guilty and commits suicide, he feels increasingly as if the killer is still close.
Two especially well-known stories in horrordom are Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper and The Tell-Tale Heart by Robert Bloch and Edgar Allan Poe respectively, but both merit their inclusion here given their status as two of the world’s stand-out Gothic horror stories, and their shared observation of human descent into madness. The former follows the famous murder case, but casts the killer as an immortal being who commits human sacrifices in the form of atrocious murders throughout the ages in an effort to continually extend his life, while the latter is Poe’s short but notorious study of claustrophobic and ultimately murderous paranoia.
Less well-known maybe, though not to the genre’s purists, is Harlan Ellison’s All the Birds Come Home to Roost. It’s something of an oddity by the standards of the rest of the fare on offer, but it all plays out at manic pace and its denouement completely satisfies (more about this one later).
But Stephen Jones has never been one of those anthologists who relies purely on re-unearthing great classics and dusting them off for new generations. Over the years, he’s given many a fledgling short story-writer a welcome leg-up in career terms, and at the same time has always been keen to summon relative newcomers to whatever anthology he happens to be working on, not just for diversity’s sake, but to bring in fresh, different voices and thereby ensure that every aspect of his chosen subject is explored.
Psycho-Mania! is no exception to that.
Of course, no one would consider a seasoned horror writer like Robert Shearman to be a new kid on the block, but with his edgy surrealism and dark explorations of damaged humanity, he’s certainly a writer for modern times. In That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love, he takes us back to post-WW1 England, where Julian, who was too young to fight, marries Karen, who lost her brother on the front line. But Karen is a strange woman, who lives in a house inhabited mainly by dolls.
Another regular contributor to Stephen Jones anthologies, and very much an author of the now as well as being a master of the subtle chiller is Conrad Williams. In his very effective Manners, a homeless and seemingly harmless countryman ekes out a strange existence by living wild and feasting on roadkill. In this, he’s doing nothing wrong … not in his own mind, at least. These are only animals, which are already dead. Aren’t they?
Scott Edelman is another time-served genre writer who in Psycho-Mania! contributes a brand new story, The Trembling Living Wire, a total gut-punch in terms of psycho horror, while relative newcomer (in comparison), Rio Youers, swoops through the deceptively law-abiding suburbs to give us something equally terrifying in Wide-Shining Light, though both these stories are so powerful that these are two more I intend to discuss in more detail later on.
Psycho-Mania! also contains new stories featuring characters familiar to us from past escapades.
In the richly-written The Green Hour from ghost story maestro, Reggie Oliver, August Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe’s famous detective, is called out of alcoholic retirement to investigate a series of hideous mutilation-murders occurring around the Paris Exposition of 1867.
Meanwhile, in the deeply intriguing Bryant & May and the Seven Points, Christopher Fowler brings back two of his own criminal investigators, elderly and venerable police detectives, Bryant and May, who look into the disappearance of a depressed MI5 agent, their search leading them to an eerie London circus peopled by a whole range of menacing individuals.
Equally popular on the bookshelves today, Michael Marshall (still better known to horror fans by his original moniker, Michael Marshall Smith), revisits his ‘Straw Men’ universe in Failure, hitting us with the story of a quiet man in a pleasant suburban town who is so concerned that his domestically violent son might also be a rapist that he takes extreme action to discover the truth.
But Psycho-Mania! would not be a Stephen Jones anthology if it contained nothing but murder and mayhem. Jones’s many horror anthologies are no strangers to showcasing deeper, introspective material as well.
Take the ever-reliable Steve Rasnic Tem’s poignant The Secret Laws of the Universe, in which a schizophrenic suburbanite is constantly spoken to by his furniture and electrical appliances, all of which urge him to murder his wife. He desperately doesn’t want to, and finally opts to see if killing someone else will make it go away. Meanwhile, in Brian Hodge’s intricately-considered Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella, a disturbed girl makes a cry for help by staging a hunger strike live on the internet, only for an insane killer to commence stalking her, intent on teaching her the error of her narcissistic ways.
Similarly affecting, Michael Kelly’s The Beach tells the story of Elspeth, who lives in a summertime resort, but when autumn and winter come and the tourists depart, is literally driven mad by its air of loneliness and desolation. More alarming but equally personal, Dennis Etchison’s Got To Kill Them All sees a worn-out TV personality head home intent on brutally punishing the wife he is convinced has been cheating. En route, he makes the mistake of giving a ride to a depressed young man going through similar problems.
Another thing you’re always assured of when Stephen Jones occupies the editorial helm is not just the quality of the stories he chooses, but the quality of the writing overall. There’s always a danger in an age when so much fiction is self-published that substandard material will make it onto the market often enough for the reading public to come to accept it as the norm. Well, not on Mr Jones’s watch. In fact, I’d go further and say that, when compiling his anthologies, Jones often looks for writing he deems exceptional rather than simply good. There are two particular examples of this in Psycho-Mania!
The late, great Joel Lane’s prose was never less than exquisite, but in The Long Shift he excels himself. We meet Jim, a drunken loser, who travels to distant Wales to get even with Baxter, his former boss and an unapologetic office bully. Baxter is now retired, but Jim hates him and blames him for so much that he intends to kill him. Baxter’s cottage is isolated, however, and when Jim arrives, certain things inside it indicate that all is not as it should be.
Of course, a book like this can never just be about the publication of clever, compelling and insightful stories. They also have to be scary and horrific. At the end of the day, Psycho-Mania! is a horror anthology, and it wouldn’t be able to wear that tag if Stephen Jones hadn’t included several tales written purely and simply to freeze the blood.
For instance, in Robert Silverberg’s ghoulish The Undertaker’s Sideline, a respected mortician operates a nasty racket in which he exhumes his clients from their graves and sells their meat from a butcher’s shop in the next town. It’s a profitable system until a local youngster works out what he is doing.
The horror of this tale is perhaps topped in Peter Crowther’s seriously chilling Eater, which sees a bunch of cops spending an eerie night in the station house while keeping a cannibal killer in the holding cells, only for one of them to become increasingly certain that the ultra-dangerous suspect can somehow possess the bodies of others.
But perhaps the two most disturbing stories of all owe their icky aura to their sheer plausibility, to the fact that you could easily believe they are accounts of real crime sprees.
In Paul McAuley’s I Spy, an abused child isolates himself as he grows up, imagining that he has developed secret super-powers and abilities to do good deeds, though in reality he is terrorising the whole town. Then we have Mark Morris, who provides possibly the darkest story in the book, Essence, which introduces us to an ordinary married couple who secretly are also serial killers. Hidden behind their genial appearance and apparent respectability, they have raped and murdered dozens of girls. Their secret is an MO that is completely foolproof. Or so they think …
There are many more stories in Psycho-Mania! Some 35 in total, which means that you’re going to get a lot more bang for your buck than this review may imply. I’m not going to mention them all, mainly because there isn’t time or space, but also because I have to leave you wanting something. But put it this way, with authors whose work I haven’t yet mentioned like Lawrence Block, Neil Gaiman, Joe R Lansdale and Brian Lumley, you’re not going to go far wrong with Psycho-Mania! It gets my strongest recommendation as another cracking horror anthology from that master of darkness, Stephen Jones.
And now …
PSYCHO-MANIA! – the movie (not to be confused, of course, with Psychomania, the biker chiller of 1973)
Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), and if they ever do, unavoidable similarities would be drawn with Amicus’s Asylum of 1972, but as this part of the review is always the fun part, I’m proceeding with it anyway. So, here are my thoughts just in case someone possessing that rare combination of brains AND money decides that Psycho-Mania! simply must be a film.
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 inclusion in what would be a more complex compendium horror than usual. On this occasion, we don’t need to look for a mist-begirt railway waiting room or a labyrinth of underground catacombs to provide us with a wraparound story.
Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:
Screams in the Dark (by John Llewellyn Probert): Cynical medical journalist, Robert Stanhope, is invited to attend Crowsmoor, a high-security hospital for the criminally insane. In response to several scurrilous articles he has written concerning the institution, the senior clinician there, Dr Lionel Parrish, offers him access to the hospital files and challenges him to pick through them and declare which of the blood-curdling entries relate to genuine patients and which are entirely fictional …
Robert Stanhope – Harry Lloyd
Lionel Parrish – John Llewellyn Probert himself (I mean, come on ... who could do a better job?)
The Trembling Living Wire (by Scott Edelman): Mr Iz, a deranged choirmaster, makes his prize students’ voices more soulful by secretly doing dreadful things to their families, often depriving them of those they love most. But then Celia comes along with the voice of an angel, and he singles her out for special treatment …
Mr Iz – Peter Capaldi
Celia – Georgie Henley
The Tell-Tale Heart (by Edgar Allan Poe): A nameless but nervous man is gradually driven mad by the filmy blue ‘vulture-like eye’ of the old man whom he lodges with in a grim tenement building, and conceives a plan to murder and dismember him, concealing the gruesome remains under the floorboards. But when the job is done, the killer is increasingly aware of a strange thumping sound …
The lodger – Ben Daniels
The old man – Malcolm McDowell
All the Birds Come Home to Roost (by Harlan Ellison): A successful attorney (and a user and abuser of women) goes slowly insane as some bizarre quirk of fate sees him revisited by one past girlfriend after another, all the time drawing him closer and closer to the strange and frightening Cindy …
Kirxby – David Morrissey
Cindy – Rachel Weisz
Wide Shining Light (by Rio Youers): Two old schoolfriends reunite after many years. One of them, Martin, is going through an acrimonious divorce, but the other, Richard, a thoughtful widower, is able to offer help and advice. The two become firm pals again, but Richard has some fairly dark secrets of his own, and it isn’t long before Martin is drawn into them …
Martin – Martin Freeman
Richard – Mark Gatiss
Lorna – Natalia Tena
by Simon Kernick (2012)
Already preoccupied by a series of diversionary bomb attacks, the authorities are not even there to intervene when a man known only as Fox, an embittered former British soldier and combat veteran, leads a heavily-armed group in a disciplined assault, which captures most of the hotel’s staff and guests almost immediately, closes the building off with booby-traps and explosives, and starts laying down impossible political demands.
It’s a hellish scenario, the authorities all but paralysed, the armed-to-the-teeth madmen killing at every opportunity, but Arley Dale doesn’t just sit there and accept her fate. Again in secret, she enlists a disgraced former-detective, Tina Boyd (another of Kernick’s very cool recurring characters) and puts her on the case. Boyd, a loose cannon at the best of times, doesn’t understand why she’s been trusted with such a job, until Dale, who expects to go to prison anyway, says that she must do whatever’s necessary to recover her missing family – there are no rules.
by Stephen King (2013)
Deep down, of course, he’s well aware that the relationship has fractured, probably fatally, but instead of facing the fact, he throws himself into the new alliances he makes at the park, specifically with fellow ‘greenies’ (summer-staff), Tom Kennedy and Erin Cook, but also with hardbitten carney regulars, Fred Dean, Lane Hardy, and even grouchy old Eddie Parks, the latter group of whom, though they are civil enough with Devin on his first arrival, only become his firm pals when they discover that he excels at ‘wearing the fur’, i.e. putting on the costume of Howie the Happy Hound, the park’s mascot, and entertaining the kiddies.
SIRENS by Joseph Knox (2017)
Detective Constable Aidan Waits is facing dismissal from the Greater Manchester Police. The product of a horrendous upbringing in care, he was probably unsuited for policework from the start, not least because it has brought him into contact with all kinds of irresistible temptations. You see, Waits may be a cop, but he is also an alcoholic and an amphetamines freak, who has increasingly let down his colleagues and got into more and more trouble with his supervisors.
However, a chance to redeem himself comes along unexpectedly when the hard-bitten Detective Superintendent Parrs of the Drug Squad decides that he’s the ideal person – a permanently semi-inebriated wreck! – to infiltrate the Franchise, the Manchester crime syndicate headed by London-born drugs kingpin, Zain Carver.
The purpose of this is twofold: firstly, to gather vital intelligence on a cartel who, now that their main rivals, the ultra-violent Burnside gang, have fallen apart, are completely dominating the city’s narcotics trade (and in the process flush out whichever corrupt copper is supplying the intel that’s keeping Carver ahead of the game), and secondly, to locate Isabelle Rossiter, the wayward 17-year-old daughter of bigwig politician, David Rossiter, who has run away from home and has been seen hanging around Fairview, the palatial residence where Carver hosts most of his drugs and prostitute parties.
This would be a dangerous mission by any standards, but Waits manages to ingratiate himself with the Manchester mob – mainly by letting Carver know that he’s an out-of-favour copper who may be useful! – only to be tempted again by the drink and the drugs, and this time by the women too. Carver’s world is only a pseudo-glamorous one, superficially glitzy on the outside while on the inside it’s rotten and abusive, but he has in his employ a bunch of beautiful young women, his so-called Sirens – Catherine and Sarah Jane, for example – who dress as party girls in order to traverse Manchester’s pubs and clubs, collecting his illicit earnings, and where necessary, supplying yet more illegal substances to the various dealers. In truth, these are sad, forlorn creatures – who knows what kinds of lives they were escaping to come and work here? – who Waits, in his few lucid moments, feels pity for as well as lust.
All these girls think they’re in love with Carver, though his attitude to them is more ambiguous; he cares about them to a degree, and is apparently keen to know what happened to Joanna Greenlaw – a former siren who vanished a decade earlier – but ultimately, though they affect the air of femmes fatales, they are nothing more to the callous gang-boss than mules.
Less attractive fixtures in Carver’s domain are Danny ‘Grip’ Gripe, his deformed enforcer, and brutal, bullying barman/dealer, Glen Smithson. In addition, as Waits is on the lookout for bent coppers, several shady lawmen also catch his attention: Special Branch’s Alan Kernick hangs around a lot, ostensibly to look after David Rossiter’s interests, but Waits soon starts to suspect that he has a deeper involvement in these nefarious activities, while DS Jim Laskey, though a refined sort on the surface, is another one making regular, unexplained appearances (and whose police methods when you get on the wrong side of him have more in common with the 19th century than the 21st).
I don’t want to say too much more about the synopsis of Sirens, because it’s a twisting, turning path that Waits takes as he works his way deeper and deeper into the city’s slimy underbelly.
Suffice to say that his judgement is not always the best. An ill-advised affair with Catherine leaves him vulnerable in many ways, not least because it means he takes his eye off the ball, infuriating his superiors at police headquarters, whose response is virtually to abandon him. As such, when Isabelle Rossiter, now a siren-in-waiting is found dead, the victim of a tainted batch of heroin, which claims other victims too – in a particularly graphic and horrible scene! – he can only press on with his enquiry by joining forces with Carver, who finally suspects that some mysterious third party is stalking his operation, looking to do a lot more damage than simply closing him down …
I’m sure Joseph Knox will forgive me if I confess that my initial reaction on hearing that he’s the new Raymond Chandler was that I’d believe it when I saw it. Time and again in Noir fiction, we’re advised that a new master or mistress has come onto the scene who’s going to take it by storm. We’re confidently told that London, Liverpool, Birmingham – or in this case, Manchester – will be the next LA, as a new, downtrodden but street-savvy investigator wends his or her way through a world turned dark with corruption and vice.
All these things, and more, have been said about Joseph Knox and his new character, DC Aidan Waits. But the proof is always in the eating, to quote a cliché, and having now eaten, I think I can safely say – as a former Manchester cop and journalist, and as a crime writer who’s also set some of his novels in the northern capital – that a lot of those comments are non-too-wide of the mark.
Sirens is indeed an impressive slice of Manchester Noir.
All the boxes are ticked: it’s a neon-lit and yet gloom-ridden scene, filled with litter-strewn passageways, burned-out warehouses and seedy clubs, the backdoors to which are always lit by lurid red light, and peopled by hookers, addicts, bent cops, corrupt politicians and of course gangsters – lots and lots of gangsters. What’s more impressive is that this sleazy atmosphere doesn’t come at us in dollops of grandiose info-dump, but is threaded throughout Knox’s narrative. Quite simply, it’s always there; this is the world that Aidan Waits moves through constantly, barely noticing it let alone passing judgement. It’s a cynical ploy by the author, really – a frank depiction of a ghastly environment, which, because he totally immerses us in it, we have no option but to accept, but it doesn’t half work.
Some reviewers, rather indignantly, have said that this isn’t Manchester. Others meanwhile have said that it absolutely is. Personally, I’m not sure it matters. It may be accurate in its portrayal of landmark and location, but Sirens is a work of fiction, not a street-guide. In this book, Manchester is as much a character as Waits, and represents a real effort by the author to recreate the kind of urban jungle backdrop that Chandler did so effectively with Los Angeles, and Mickey Spillane with New York.
And of course, at the very heart of it there lies this hugely complex mystery. Ultimately, by crime novel standards, it’s almost something of nothing – no-one’s attempting to unleash a chemical weapon here, or to massacre a record number of the city’s prostitutes. As fictional criminality goes, it’s relatively low-key. But it’s fascinatingly done, and again, very Chandleresque, numerous puzzling threads dangling on every page, the reader haplessly trying to tie them all together as he/she progresses, and yet there’s never a moment when you think ‘this just doesn’t make sense!’, especially as, when you get to the end, it all comes together in the neatest way.
I freely admit to having started Sirens uneasily, wondering how deep and bewildering the case was going to get, and yet pressing on effortlessly because it’s excellently written, and its short-chapter format makes it very readable.
However, there is one way that Knox’s writing does differ significantly from the original masters of Noir, and that’s in terms of his characters.
Okay, as I’ve already said, we’ve got every aspect of the city’s lowlife – not all of which is to be found in low places – though I think there are more extremes here than you’d find back in the golden age. The Bug, for example, is a total horror; a bipolar transsexual addict and whore, who salivates at the prospect of corrupting young people and is more than happy to suckle at the injection wounds of diseased heroin-users. I’m not sure that Chandler, Hammett or any of the other guys ever hit us with anything quite as OTT as that, while Sheldon White and the Burnsiders, the most brutish members of the Manchester gang scene, are more like a tribe of orcs: hideous, uncouth dolts, good only for violence, and happy to inhabit a part of town that lies in darkened, Mordor-like ruins.
Don’t get me wrong; it all makes for a terrific read, but personalities like these represent moments of bleakness so intense that it might put off those readers unequipped with strong stomachs and nerves of steel.
(One other brickbat, while we’re on the subject of such: I could have done without the regular quotes from Joy Division; I guess we all went through a time when we had gurus in the rock world, and a doomy, post-punk Manchester outfit probably seemed very appropriate in these circumstances, but I always worry that this kind of thing borders on pretentiousness. However, that’s a personal gripe, and doesn’t really detract from the overall book).
Now back to the characters: Waits himself, the star of the show, makes for an interesting if very flawed hero.
An alcoholic cop, who is also a chronic pill-head (even though he’s still only young) is, on the face of it, not the most attractive lead. He’s also a bit weedy; though Waits is capable of violence, there is no human brickwork here. He’s no Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. He’s cunning for sure, and he bides his time cleverly, but he’s more a fox than a wolf. Give him a good smack and he’ll definitely go down. And this frailty persists throughout the book; there are several occasions when you feel like telling the guy to get his act together. But highly likely this is exactly what Knox intended. A hero who isn’t a square-jawed cliché might be a big change from the norm, but it’s a refreshing change too (and hell, don’t worry too much if you don’t like Waits; no-one in the book does, either!).
Some of the other characters, and there is a literal plethora to pick from, are sketched more thinly, but they are all clear enough to me; at no stage was I confused about who and what they were, and every single one makes his or her own vital contribution to the story. I’d strongly refute the criticism that there are too many people in this novel, because none of them are extraneous.
I’ve also read some reviews complaining that most of the females in this book are victims, and I think that’s probably true (though several of them are willingly involved in crime), but my considered response to that must be, and it’s a sad observation to make, that even in our modern world most prostitutes are female, most victims of sexual harassment are female, and most of those suffering violence at the hands of wild, dangerous men are also female. In this regard, Joseph Knox is only showing us a hard slice of reality (not that it doesn’t sometimes make you embarrassed to be male).
To round up, Knox is without doubt an exciting new voice in the genre, and Sirens – a genuine piece of Manchester noir, fizzing with tension and menace. It’s as good a debut as I’ve seen in many a year. If you like gritty cop stuff, read it or weep.
And now, as ever, I’m going to try and cast it, in case it at some point gets the green light for film or TV development. Just a bit of fun, of course. No casting-director is likely to listen to me, sadly. Here though, are my picks:
DC Aidan Waits – Warren Brown
Catherine – Talulah Riley
Isabelle Rossiter – Katie Jarvis
Sarah Jane – Romola Garai
Zain Carver – Daniel Kaluuya
DSU Parrs – Angus Macfadyen
Detective Alan Kernick – Geoff Bell
David Rossiter, MP – Vincent Regan
Glen Smithson – Joe Gilgun
DS Jim Laskey – Philip Bulcock
by Dean Koontz (2010)
by Joe R. Lansdale (1987)
by L.A. Larkin (2016)
by Ted Lewis (1970)
by Stephen Laws (2007)
Isaacs – Jordan Patrick Smith
by Michael Marshall (2011)
For years, Michael Marshall has written sci-fi, horror and fantasy under the not-dissimilar pen-name, Michael Marshall Smith, and he’s done so effectively and successfully. So, no-one should be surprised to pick up a thriller like this and find that it's filled with ultra-dark concepts. That isn’t to say that it’s particularly violent. It’s certainly no more violent than the average crime thriller, but there is a dehumanising brutality of purpose to some of the characters in Killer Move, which, when you sit back and think about it, is quite disturbing.
by Michael McDowell (1981)
Head of the Savage household, Dauphin, is a multi-millionaire and still relatively young. He’s known far and wide as a thoroughly nice guy, and is married to former beauty queen, Leigh, ex of the McCrays, which is where the link between the two families comes in. The McCrays, in their turn, live under the shadow of their patriarch, Lawton, a hugely successful businessman who is now standing for Congress, while his son, Luker, who lives in New York, is so well-fixed professionally that, at the drop of a hat, he can afford to take the entire summer off and vacation in the South.
And yet for all this gold-plated privilege, there are deep strains within the two families, equally deep animosities and even deeper divisions.
Lawton McCray, for example, is separated from his wife, Big Barbara, and reviled by Luker, who views him as the worst kind of ruthless capitalist but as a dangerous man too, because in the spirit of the Old South, where he was born, Lawton will stop at nothing, even crime and violence, to get what he wants. Due in no small way to this unhealthy arrangement, Big Barbara is an unreformed alcoholic, which has left her a silly, unthinking woman, who Luker can also barely tolerate, though recognising that there’s no real evil in her, he does his best. All that said, Luker himself has no dealings with his own ex-wife, from whom he is very acrimoniously divorced … to such an extent that his teenage daughter, India, who has lived with him most of her life, has been raised to dread the mere mention of her mother’s name. India, in fact, though a free-spirited, well-educated New York girl, often struggles because of her father’s domestic prejudices, whether they are merited or not, scarcely knowing how to react to her grandparents.
And then there is the infamously bad-tempered Marian Savage, Leigh’s mother-in-law, whom Luker also hates – or perhaps that should be hated, because we open the narrative at Marian’s funeral. Just in case none of what we’ve so far learned is dysfunctional enough, the funeral service, which is very poorly attended, is interrupted halfway through by an age-old Savage tradition, Dauphin opening his mother’s casket and stabbing her in the heart. Apparently, this is now the custom at all Savage funerals on account of a non-too-distant ancestor being unfortunately buried alive.
So far so Southern Gothic, you may think, and yes, we are firmly in that sun-soaked, uber-melodramatic territory. But The Elementals is also a ghost story, and it isn’t long before we arrive at the scene of the haunting.
At the close of the funeral, the two famlies head south to Mobile, on the Gulf Coast, where they are both part-owners of Beldame. This is basically a narrow spit of sand extending far out into the ocean (though often, the high tide renders it an island), the extreme tip of which is occupied by a row of three beautiful Victorian houses. Here, year-round warm weather (gloriously so in summer), blue skies, an even bluer sea, and complete isolation, always provide a relaxing break. The older members of the two families are completely besotted with the place and have been coming here since the 1950s. Even India, who has never been before, doesn’t much care for her relatives and would rather be in New York, is stunned when she first arrives. She can’t believe how lovely it is, even if oddities emerge almost straight away.
The third house in the row, for example, is owned by neither the Savages nor the McCrays (no one seems to know who owns it) and is succumbing to an immense sand dune, which has built up alongside it and is now slowly engulfing the entire structure.
In due course, this third house will start to cause serious problems, though at first all is well.
It’s unusually hot, even for Southern Alabama, and the two families are just glad to have got away from it all, and now unwind in the taciturn but fastidious care of Odessa, the Savages’ black servant, who’s been with the family since before the Civil Rights Movement but who stays with them because she is treated like a relative, even though she herself doesn’t behave this way.
During this languid time (when the livin’ is very easy!) other quirks of Savage/McCray family life emerge in full keeping with the oddball Southern Gothic tradition. Though Luker is well regarded by his family, he swears and profanes freely in front of them all, including his mother, and thinks nothing of sunbathing naked in the presence of his 13-year-old daughter (a liberal approach to life that she returns in full). But none of this seems out of place here at Beldame, where the sun beats down, the sea laps, the sands continually shift, and time literally seems to stop (the families never follow any kind of itinerary when they’re here, they just let the day and the mood take them).
And yet throughout, there is a clear feeling that, despite the summer lassitude, all is not well. The families love Beldame, but it’s soon evident that they are wary of the place too, particularly the third house, though no one seems to be willing to say why, especially Odessa, even though she – or so India suspects – knows most.
The youngster finally starts to wheedle it out of her elders just what the problem is, learning that the third house has been a blot on this picturesque coastline for quite some time. The reasons for this seem to vary. It’s not exactly an eyesore, but it’s been empty and unclaimed for so long that it’s decaying as well as disappearing into the sand. It seems especially weird though that third house is still fully furnished inside, almost as if someone still lives there. And yet neither the McCrays nor the Savages ever go in to look around.
Most interesting to India, though, are the third property’s ghostly aspects.
There are only one or two stories to this effect, and they have the aura of campfire tales. For example, a bunch of school friends once swore blind that they saw a naked fat woman walking around on the third house’s roof.
When India commences her own investigation of the third property, she immediately detects a presence and later learns that Odessa had a little girl once, Martha Ann, who disappeared here but was presumed drowned, India concludes that the third house is haunted by the child’s ghost. Odessa, finally breaking her silence, simply replies that it isn’t so.
Martha Ann is indeed dead, she says, but what occupies the third house is not her ghost. It is something much, much worse …
Michael McDowell wrote several successful novels, but died at the tragically young age of 49, which on the evidence of The Elementals, was a major loss to genre fiction.
Because, in short, this is a very frightening ghost story.
India McCray – Lara Decaro
Odessa Red – Viola Davis
Luker McCray – Joe Kinnaman
Lawton McCray – Woody Harrelson
Big Barbara – Rebecca Front
by Deon Meyer (2005)