Other Authors A-M

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and fantasy novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed, authors A-M. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (in the case of novels, I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

MEG by Steve Alten (1997)

Former US Navy deep-sea diver, Jonas Taylor, is still haunted by the day he plumbed the bottom of the Mariana Trench and thought he glimpsed the long-extinct Megalodon. Few people took him seriously at the time, including Maggie, his ambitious TV reporter wife. Even though Taylor is now a civilian scientist, reasonably respected for his palaeontology work, Maggie knows that people still smirk behind his back and that this is no good for her career. As such, she embarks on a non-too-discreet affair with Bud Harris, Taylor’s former college buddy, who now leads a wealthy playboy lifestyle.

Taylor is thus at his lowest ebb when he is contacted by old friend Masao Tanaka, who runs a marine science operation. Tanaka has lost an earthquake-detecting submersible deep in the Mariana and wants Taylor to retrieve it for him with the aid of his two hotshot aquanaut kids, the adventurous, self-assured DJ and his sister, the uber-cool Terry.

Taylor is not enthusiastic about returning to the Trench, and his proposed assistants give him little confidence, DJ treating the whole Megalodon thing as a joke, Terry jealous and mistrustful that a non-family member is being brought into such a complex and costly enterprise.

Initially the recovery mission goes well. Though the descent into the Trench is horrific, Taylor starts to rediscover his old deep-sea diving touch. But then disaster strikes – DJ is attacked and killed by a colossal bioluminescent fish. The Megalodon …

It comes as no surprise to me that Steve Alten’s famous deep sea action/horror has been under option in Hollywood since 1997, or that it spawned a hatful of successful sequels. Because this is pure escapism at its best. Okay, even though the science sounds good I’m sure it doesn’t add up to much in reality – but who cares about that? Because this book has got everything that Jaws had, and more: clearly defined goodie and baddie characters, a hero with vulnerabilities, an exotic location (endless acres of cobalt-blue water!), and a gargantuan, near-indestructible monster, which according to cryptozoologists the world over could still very likely exist.

It’s also written in that wonderfully slick American style, especially the bone-jarring action sequences, which come thick and fast and at times seem to explode off the page.

A creature feature for sure, an ocean-borne Godzilla in which an ancient beast proves too mighty for all of man’s weapons, meaning that only a truly ingenious solution will fix it (and that solution turns out to be an absolute eye-popper). But great fun and another easy, rapid-fire read. One that anyone can happily get their teeth into (sorry).

As always, and it’s just a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Meg someday makes it to the screen (it’s allegedly been stuck in Development Hell for the last 18 years, somewhat uncharitably referred to as ‘Jurasssic Shark’ – but it’s too good a basic concept not to make it at some point):

Jonas Taylor – Jeremy Renner
Masao Tanaka – George Takei
Terry Tanaka – Anna Nagata
Maggie Taylor – Alice Eve
Bud Harris – Dustin Clare

by MJ Arlidge (2019)

It’s an ordinary day in the life of Justin Lanning, a successful South Coast businessman. Until, out of the blue, he receives a phone call telling him that he has one hour to live. Unnerved, but treating it as a cruel joke, Lanning goes about his business … and the next morning is found strangled.

Detective Inspector Helen Grace, the Southampton Major Incident Team’s on-call SIO, cops for the assignment, and immediately takes charge with her usual efficiency.

All Fall Down is the ninth novel to date in MJ Arlidge’s popular detective series, but almost immediately in this tale, the motorbike-riding heroine finds that things aren’t running quite as smoothly as they normally would.

To start with, her best friend and very able deputy, DS Charlene ‘Charlie’ Brooks, is heavily pregnant and not quite the force of nature she normally is. At the same time, Grace, though famous for forging her own somewhat bull-headed path in life (despite suffering occasional bouts of depression) has recently entered a relationship with another of her underlings, tough guy DS Joe Hudson, whom not everyone else on the team trusts, and which puts a slight distance between herself and the others.

As if that isn’t problem enough, the case quickly becomes more complex and disturbing than she anticipated. To start with, this isn’t the first time Lanning has been attacked. Eight years earlier, he was one of a group of five teenagers abducted and tortured by a weird, sadistic loner called Alan King, who, even though it all happened in King’s bleak moorland cottage, has never been brought to book for the crime.

The incident, which saw the youngsters get lost while orienteering for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, and then be imprisoned and brutally mistreated in the reclusive nutcase’s filthy cellar, one of them dying in the process, was a major story at the time, and yet never resolved. King is still believed to be at liberty somewhere, and, when other members of the group are also murdered, once again after having been informed beforehand that they have only one hour to live, the obvious assumption is that the madman has returned from his self-imposed anonymity to finish off the rest. This horrifying possibility attracts wholesale media attention, one journalist in particular, Emilia Garanita, determined to find a big scoop and constantly dogging Helen Grace’s heels.

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.

The increasingly stressed DI doesn’t want to admit it, and continues to keep an open mind (when she isn’t being distracted by the progressively more troubling changes in her private life – there are certainly things about Hudson that are starting to bother her!) but it seems increasingly possible that Pryce’s forthcoming book might well have provoked a response from King and that he has indeed re-emerged, firstly to torment his chosen group of victims by telephone, and then to kill each one of them at their appointed time … 

On reflection, there were three specific things about All Fall Down that I found most satisfying.

The lead character, Helen Grace, is very far from being a cliché. As a motorbike-riding female cop, who has attained dominant status in what is still largely a man’s world, it would be too easy to portray her as a kind of non-superpowered Jessica Jones, leather-clad, effing and jeffing with the best of them, crime-fighting as an escape from a car crash lovelife and, of course, kicking ass everywhere she goes.

But MJ Arlidge’s police heroine, for whom, as already mentioned, this is the ninth outing, has always been far more grounded in reality. Yes, she’s had to tough her way to DI, and it has cost her. She’s long been a loner, especially when it comes to romance, but she’s where she is because she’s a skilled and thorough investigator, not because she fights like a man, takes terrifying risks that no police force in real life would reward, or because she has endless public spats with the boss despite the pair of them being secret best buddies.

And the realism goes even further than that. Grace’s lonely lifestyle is not a tale of drunken self-pity in some grotty flat that no one in the right mind would ever want to visit, eating hotdogs for breakfast, lunch and tea, with a phone that never rings unless it’s work. There are one or two slight abnormalities, granted, but these are rather personal and don’t really manifest in All Fall Down. Otherwise, it’s a normal, lower-middle class existence, Grace still working lots of hours, but taking time for herself and getting on well enough with her team to socialise when they’re off duty.

What’s more, Grace’s ‘ordinary person’ persona works particularly well in the context of this book. She’s facing an unknown psychopath, who is organised and efficient and, within a couple of pages of the narrative commencing, looks highly likely to become the English South Coast’s next serial killer.

This is a superior kind of enemy – what you might call ‘serious opposition’ – though in the world of Helen Grace, he/she must still be tackled the proper way. So, you know you’re not going to get exhausting and implausible action sequences. You know that this case, no matter how hellish it becomes, no matter how desirous of revenge our protagonists feel, will be investigated steadily and methodically and always within the confines of the law, because that’s the way it would happen in real life. But that doesn’t mean that this procedure-based response won’t be stretched to its ultimate extremes by the horrific nature of the killer, not to mention the mystery that surrounds him or her, which makes it all the more compelling a story.

This brings me to the second thing that I really liked about All Fall Down: the nature of the foe.

MJ Arlidge’s tenth book is a crime novel through and through, but the premise at its heart skates along the edge of horror. The main story here is dark enough: the idea that your killer will call to warn you exactly one hour before he/she strikes, and still manage to pull it off. But the back-story is darker still.

The kidnapping of a gang of children while alone on a wintry moorland, while striving for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, strikes a nightmarish note. If it were to happen in real life, it would be the headline of the month in most countries. The fact that one of the kids is then mercilessly killed, the abductor seemingly intent on doing the same to all the others as well, makes it even more chilling.

Grace, as a realist, doesn’t automatically leap to the conclusion that the terrible events of today are an encore to this savage melodrama of the past, but as the evidence leans increasingly towards that, the full potential of what this would actually mean becomes evident. Namely, that a deranged murderer – a vicious ambush-predator who up until a decade ago had somehow managed to hide his dark light under a bushel – launched a murderous attack on a bunch of the most vulnerable without any provocation, and then evaded justice and was able to lie low for years, watching those who got away (maybe from a distance, maybe from close up, who knows?), just waiting for the spark that would reignite his mania all over again.

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? 

This is way more than a routine mystery, the grim back-story as good a nail on which to hang a taut police thriller as any I’ve come across. It’s high concept from start to finish, Arlidge working it for everything he can, but at the same time cleverly making it appear that something which surely could only occur in a movie is genuinely happening in this very authentic world.

This is wonderful stuff, edge-of-the-seat scariness abutting constantly with the frustrations and uncertainties that bedevil real life major investigations, and all the while, of course, with the ticking clock factor in the background. Whoever our antagonist is, they are determined to work their way through the entire gang of survivors, and yet remain confident enough to warn them all in advance. I’ve certainly never seen that done before in a thriller. The thought alone makes your skin crawl and adds a whole new level of horror to the proceedings.

The third thing that really won me over to All Fall Down was the presence in Helen Grace’s life of Joseph Hudson, a rugged, handsome DS, not necessarily an old-school brawler, but an impulsive door-kicker all the same, and an energised, athletic guy who you can imagine would make the perfect foil for our heroine in matters of love as well as work.

Has she at last found the ideal partner? It would seem so. Except that something isn’t quite right about this relationship, and it takes close friends to start picking up on this before Grace does. Isn’t this bloke a bit too good to be true? Why doesn’t he talk much about his past? He likes taking the lead and yet it doesn’t always pan out. Are his instincts good, or totally awry?

Again, Arlidge uses subtlety to introduce these doubts, gradually but steadily creating a whole new battlefront for Grace to engage on, which in a case like this is the last thing she needs.

All Fall Down is another great piece of work from MJ Arlidge, proper cop stuff alternating with an unfolding nightmare of ruthless and ingenious criminality. The gripping plot, clean and concise writing style, and very short chapters only help make this one of those perfect poolside page-flippers (here’s hoping we all manage to get to a pool some time this summer).

As always now, in my own inimitable and ridiculous fashion, I’m going to try and cast All Fall Down in the event it attracts TV attention. Just a bit of fun, of course. Were we to be fortunate enough to see Helen Grace hit the screen, any series would most likely start with the first book in the series, Eeny Meeny, instead. But hell, let’s give it a go anyway.

DI Helen Grace – Michelle Dockery
DS Joseph Hudson – Brian Gleeson
DS Charlie Brooks – Lashana Lynch
Emilia Garanita – Romola Garai
Maxine Pryce – Elizabeth Debicki
DSU Grace Simmons – Amanda Ryan
Fran Ward – Emma Rigby

by Jason Arnopp (2016)

Gonzo journalist and pop culture author, Jack Sparks, is the ultimate embodiment of the Me Generation. Self-important, narcissistic, hugely opinionated, convinced to a self-delusional degree that he’s intellectually superior to everyone he meets, arrogant, rude, you name it, he’s there, only occasionally taking time off from thinking about himself to socialise with roommate and buddy, Rebecca ‘Bex’ Lawson, though he desires her sexually as much as he wants to be her friend, so it’s not a genuine platonic relationship even then.  

However, the big difference between Jack Sparks and many others of his ilk is that he is genuinely talented. A good writer, especially under pressure, scathingly witty, more than prepared to put in torturous hours to complete his assignments, and a powerpack in terms of youthful energy, he should have all the tools to go far.

Jack certainly thinks this. In fact, to Jack Sparks, success is inevitable; it’s his destiny, his entitlement. But what he is not allowing for are the two serious chinks in his armour.

First of all, he lacks discipline; so, for example, when writing the book Jack Sparks on Drugs – which needed to be completed by a ghost-writer! – he became addicted to cocaine, a habit that he’s never really thrown off. Secondly, he lacks objectivity. In many ways, Jack Sparks is not a real journalist. He goes looking for stories with preconceived notions and a determination to find the outcome that he wants, so when he settles on his comeback project, Jack Sparks on the Supernatural, it won’t be an even-handed investigation of the unknown, it will be a thorough debunking of it, a complete trashing of all those who believe.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Jack’s agent and editor are no more than lukewarm about it. But Jack is adamant that he and his hipster audience are going to have a lot of laughs at the expense of the world’s gullible fools. 

As he likes to travel, his first port of call is rural Italy, where he attends the exorcism of a village girl, Maria Corvi, by humourless Catholic priest, Father Primo di Stefano. Jack just about manages to keep a lid on it while the ancient rite unfolds. He’s already on the lookout for fakery, as he continually informs his fans via Twitter, but then, when the seeming heap of mumbo-jumbo becomes too much for him, he bursts out laughing.

As you can imagine, this doesn’t go down too well with those others involved, including the malevolent intelligence allegedly possessing Maria. But Jack isn’t fazed. Warnings from beyond mean nothing to him. But then someone posts an Mpeg on his YouTube account, depicting a curious and disturbing video. On the face of it, it’s the sort of thing that is commonplace online: an amateurish snippet of film depicting an alleged paranormal event – but there is something about this one that upsets everyone who sees it. People think it looks real, including Jack Sparks. The main problem, though, is that he isn’t the one who uploaded it; he doesn’t know what it’s even supposed to be. At the same time, he comes into possession of a mysterious book, which is such a shock to him that he barely mentions it in his notes – not initially.

Jack continues writing, even though he suspects that he’s being scammed by someone. But Jack is no longer quite himself. The unexplained video has unnerved him, and when his quest takes him next to Hong Kong, where, despite the guidance of eccentric Aussie medium, Sherilyn Chastain, he is even further alarmed by some of the things he experiences, an angst compounded by his determination not to accept the supernatrural. He even keeps a list of reasons why people profess belief in ghosts – THE SPOOKS LIST (Sparks’ Permanently Ongoing Overview of Kooky Shit) – and even though he continually finds himself extending it, until at one point it reads:

1) They’re trying to deceive others.
2) They’ve been deceived by others.
3) They’ve deceived themselves.

… while it may appear to represent modern analytical truth dressed in irreverent terms, it mainly perpetuates his narrative of scorn.

We know from the outset that none of this is going to end well. We are told from the start that ‘Jack Sparks died while writing this book’, but what we don’t know is how and why he died (or how horribly).

But neither we nor he could possibly expect it to occur in Los Angeles, where he eventually goes to meet the fat-bellied, woolly-headed Astral Way and his group of total believers, the Hollywood Paranormals, who want to him to document their attempts to create a thought-form. From the outset, and again Jack is almost pre-programmed to scoff, this feels like the biggest load of bunkum yet, but already a nervous wreck, he can’t imagine the mind-bending terror that awaits him …

The first thing to say about The Last Days of Jack Sparks is that it’s not a straightforward novel.

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.

For example, there are actually two Jacks. The one he and his juvenile audience believe in: the cool, smart intellect who is always ahead of the game, who can drink his rivals under the table and take out tough guys if he needs to. And the real one, a coked-out, alcoholic wreck, who fails to impress almost everyone he meets.

Okay, so Jack’s an unreliable narrator, but this device doesn’t just represent some bravura and highly original character-work by Jason Arnopp, it also plays a key role in the development of the story, because it is only gradually and through these secondary communications that we come to understand exactly how much more is going on than Jack will admit to, and how much more frightened he is than his own narrative would have us believe.

For all these reasons, I found The Last Days of Jack Sparks a completely compelling read. It turns and twists mercilessly; you literally never know what you’re going to encounter in the next chapter, and it isn’t as if stuff comes at you totally from left field, because if you read the book carefully, almost every surprise has been flagged beforehand, albeit in subtle, semi-concealed ways. In that regard, it’s an absolute romp of a thriller, but it’s also wildly, unexpectedly funny.

Some reviewers have described The Last Days of Jack Sparks as a comedy rather than a horror novel, but I think it’s probably about half-and-half. Jack’s acerbic asides are uproarious, often to the point where you briefly forget what a jerk he is. Again, this is hugely to the credit of the author, who doesn’t just use it to entertain us, but to keep us on our subconscious toes, because when we’re laughing we’re briefly distracted from what’s going on and are less ready for the next dollop of bad stuff just around the corner (and the scares eventually come thick and fast).

There is a slightly po-faced side to it as well, because in some ways The Last Days of Jack Sparks is an essay on the politics of self, with plenty of acid observations passed on the modern habit of living one’s life in the glare of social media, (or perhaps living a lie that passes for one’s life).

A terrific, highly entertaining new novel from an author who has gone out of his way to do something different with the genre and has comfortably succeeded.  

And now, as always, I’m going to try and come up with a cast that might do a film or TV adaptation of The Last Days of Jack Sparks justice. Just a bit of fun, of course. I have no expertise or authority in this field, and I have no idea whether or not the novel has been optioned, but it’s always an enjoyable exercise. So, here we go …

Jack Sparks – Taron Egerton
Rebecca ‘Bex’ Lawson – Elva Trill
Alistair Sparks – Ben Whishaw
Maria Corvi – Siena Agudong
Sherilyn Chastain – Rachel Griffiths
Astral Way – Haley Joel Osment
Father Primo di Stefano – Tony Sirico

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.

Inconsolable, Charles and his wife, Laura, will never be the same again. They must now eke out a miserable, blame-filled existence in their once handsome townhouse, their formerly close relationship doomed, their careers on hold. But is Naomi really gone? Because the next thing they know, a haunting has commenced – initially little more than bumps in the night, though it soon escalates into far more terrifying phenomena: footsteps in the attic; strange faces peering from windows when no-one is supposed to be home; Naomi’s toys moving around apparently of their own volition. However, it is only when a troubled press photographer called Lewis presents Hillenbrand with a series of snapshots in which curious half-seen figures are visible in constant attendance on the family that it becomes apparent something more is at work here than the spirit of a happy child who doesn’t yet realise she is dead …

As a lifelong fan of supernatural fiction, I always knew that at some point I’d have to check out Jonathan Aycliffe, aka Denis MacEoin’s spine-chilling classic, Naomi’s Room, and for some inexplicable reason it’s taken me this long to do it. However, I got there in the end and I was not disappointed.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot, because basically there is a mystery to be solved here, and a very frightening one – which Hillenbrand, our tortured protagonist, must get to the bottom of (and then survive the horror of its shocking revelation!), or he’ll never find peace of mind again. Okay, that may sound familiar in a cosy ‘English ghost story’ sort of way. But it all really worked for me. The tone of Naomi’s Room is exactly the sort I like when it comes to spooky fiction. There is something of the Gothic about it, something of M.R. James. Hip young academics though they are, the Hillenbrands still live apart from the rest of us, cosseted in the elitist, hermetically-sealed world of Cambridge academia. But as with M.R. James’s best stories, ultimately that provides no protection against the insidious threat of some decidedly malevolent spirits, whose cruel intent becomes more and more apparent the further on you read.

Unlike many stories in this traditional vein, there is quite a bit of gore in this one, while the basic premise concerns the torture and murder of children – and the author makes no effort to conceal those details from us – so it’s a bit more disturbing than the norm. But don’t let that put you off, because if you’re here to be scared, you’re in the right place. By the latter stages of this novel, the atmosphere of dread is immense, the sense of helplessness in the face of the maleficent ‘other world’ overpowering.

Even with its dollops of grue, it may still sound a tad safe and conventional to some of you. I wouldn’t totally deny that, but it’s really an excellent chiller with full potential to keep you awake at night, and so is well deserving of the fine reputation it has gained for itself over the many years of its publication.

Once again, purely as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Naomi’s Room were ever to make it to the screen. I think it would make a particularly good 'ghost story for Christmas' type drama, if the Beeb ever get around to doing more of them. (I believe it is currently under option somewhere, but then what isn’t?):

Charles Hillenbrand – David Tennant
Laura Hillenbrand – Lenora Crichlow
Lewis – Rhys Ifans
Detective Superintendent Ruthven – Sean Harris

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.

And then something astonishing and horrible happens.

With swift, commando-like precision, an early morning attack is launched on Pangbourne, and all the adults – not just the residents, but their staff and security guards as well (32 in total!) – are brutally murdered, and all the children (13) are kidnapped. No ransom demands follow, and there is minimum definitive evidence to indicate any obvious explanation.

After a massive police enquiry fails, the Home Office appoints top criminal psychologist Richard Greville to investigate, in company with the dour but very experienced Detective Sergeant Payne.

This ‘chalk and cheese’ and yet unexpectedly like-minded duo launch a very thorough assessment of the crime, both in terms of the forensics and the psychology. Note is taken of the many murder methods employed, which are varied and gruesome – from shooting, to bludgeoning, to electrocution, strangulation and crushing by car – and yet bewilderment prevails that such a swathe of horrendous crimes could all occur in such a short time-frame. How many murderers would it have taken to inflict such intense and targeted and yet widespread violence? What kind of mental state must they have been in? And just how organised and proficient at their craft would they need to be to pull it off so efficiently? And in God’s name, why did it happen?

Greville and Payne pursue all kinds of potential leads: a Hungerford Massacre-type ‘lone wolf’ killer; a crime syndicate assassination team; a terrorist group; a spec ops unit from a nearby army camp gone postal; and even the possibility of enemy agents acting on behalf of a malign foreign power. But none of these increasingly improbable possibilities pan out. The murdered residents of Pangbourne were model citizens in every sense of the word. Deep analysis of their lives uncovers no shady secrets, no hidden agendas.

The baffling case is almost broken when one of the children is found alive, though she is deranged and remains incoherent through shock. But at the same time, several rather curious facts finally start to emerge about Pangbourne Village itself. In many ways, the life its population led – particularly the children – was too good to be true. Everything they wanted they had. Their hermetically sealed world was perfectly ordered and protected by their moneyed parents. They knew nothing in their lives – literally nothing – but love and adoration, and as such, children from neighbouring communities thought them rather closeted and odd. And could it also be relevant that this idyllic little nirvana was imminently to feature in a BBC TV documentary about new modes of living? There was certainly a strange atmosphere in the village as this date approached, as if some kind of countdown had been activated.

Greville, something of a hard-headed calculating machine when it comes to putting facts together, starts to wonder if the secrets of these murders actually lie much closer to the victims’ homes than anyone had previously thought – unthinkably close as far as the previous investigation teams were concerned.

And then, very unexpectedly but with equal violence and ferocity, the killers strike again …

The first thing to say about Running Wild, this famously prophetic mystery from the pen of one of the UK’s most visionary writers, is that it’s no straightforward thriller. Or indeed a straightforward mystery.

Presented in the form of a dry, detailed, almost bullet-pointed account of the investigation from Greville to his Home Office paymasters, this not a traditional novel, nor a particularly long one – more a long novella really – and it doesn’t bother going greatly into character, preferring to concentrate on the means and motivation behind the crime, and of course, as always with Ballard, the subtext.

In truth, it is difficult saying a great deal about that without giving away too much of the plot, but it’s worth adding that the eventual explanation behind the horrific incident is more than a little bit unlikely, though this doesn’t matter because what the author is really addressing here are issues of isolation, elitism, collapse from within, identity loss, social engineering, social decay, neglect of reality by the chattering classes and so forth, and of course addressing them with great eloquence and his trademark touches of sardonic ‘Middle England’ humour.

Without doubt, Running Wild is a modern minor classic, deeply intriguing, easy-to-read and in many ways, if you’ve never read him before, an ideal introduction to the strange, disturbing and yet always coolly-appraised world of JG Ballard.

As usual – just for the fun of it – here are my selections for who should play the leads if Running Wild ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (and I’m amazed it hasn’t already, if I’m honest).

Dr. Richard Greville – Hugh Bonneville
DS Payne – Gwendoline Christie 
(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)

In an industrial city in the Northeast of England in the early 1980s, not long after the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper, another serial killer is on the loose, a faceless assailant who is slowly working his way through the town’s prostitutes, beating and strangling them, and then hacking them to death with a butcher’s knife.

There is a degree of panic on the streets, but it’s probably not as great as it would be were the victims not sex-workers. Likewise, while the police flood the district with detectives and undercover officers, they make little headway and adopt a distinctly unimaginative approach, waiting and watching from cars on the off-chance the killer will strike again, in other words using the street-walkers as living bait.

In the midst of this horror, a young mother in the neighbourhood, Brenda, is gradually descending into prostitution.

Abandoned by her waster husband with three children to feed and colossal debts to pay, she tries at first to get herself an honest job at what is referred to as the ‘Chicken Factory’, a hideous relic of the industrial past, where the birds, which come in alive, are killed, plucked, gutted and packed for sale (a fairly blunt simile for the working-girls themselves). The work is hard, slimy and sickening, grease covering everything, even getting into the tea, the floors swimming with blood and feathers.  

Brenda tries to stick it out but can’t, especially when she learns that the child-minder looking after her children is abusing them, which means that she must care for them herself during the day (so there goes the job, whether she likes it or not). With nothing else for it – the charity and assistance of neighours will only go so far – she finally takes to the streets.

This, of course, brings whole new degree of grimness to her life: not just the terror of standing in the shadows under the viaduct, knowing that other girls have died nearby, but also having to engage in lewd acts with all kinds of brutish, boorish men, learning to loath both them and herself in the process. It doesn’t even end when a more experienced fellow-prostitute, Kath, offers to show her the ropes. Kath is kind but has many problems of her own, including alcoholism and terrible judgement. Part One of the narrative ends in the most horrific circumstances, Kath falling foul of the prowling killer, being lured into a derelict house and there dying in the most graphic, ghastly and sexually explicit way, but only after the murderer – who remains anonymous in the cloying darkness of the nighttime backstreets – reveals himself to be an impotent nonentity.

Despite this, life for the other prostitutes goes on. Brenda is now part of a close-knit clique, who find comfort in each other’s company, especially when they’re in the pub together, and do the best they can to look out for each other when they’re on the street – even if there is now a new air of fear and despair, the sad face of Kath looking down at them all from billboards and posters.

One of them, Jean, responds slightly differently. Another of the killer’s recent victims, Carol, was her part-time lover, and she takes this loss so personally that she determines to get even with the madman herself. She thus goes out, working the streets alone, hoping that she’ll encounter him, and as she’s secretly armed, fully intending to kill him when he attacks her.

But Blow Your House Down is not a crime novel in the traditional sense, and Pat Barker did not write it to be a melodramatic revenge thriller. It’s very much a slice of brutal authenticity, strongly influenced by the dark tragedy that was the real-life Yorkshire Ripper case, in which the victims turned out to be tired and weary mothers, often struggling for money, rather than the tawdry glamour-pusses we see in the movies, and the villain a pathetic, inadequate nobody rather than some monstrous murdering devil like Hannibal Lecter or Leatherface (and in which, as also happens later in this novel, women were struck down who were not sex-workers, and whose lives and the lives of whose families are devastated as a result). 

As such, for all Jean’s courage, attempting to take the law into her own hands is never going to end well. Blood may well flow, but whose is it likely to be? …

Blow Your House Down was Pat Parker’s second novel, published ten years after the very successful Union Street, which also examined the difficult lives of working-class women in the industrial North of England. Inevitably, the fact that there’s a maniac on the loose changes the tone of this second book, but it’s important to reiterate that Blow Your House Down is not a murder mystery. It’s not a story about a serial killer, and it’s certainly not about those charged with catching him. Even Jean, the prostitute determined to get vengeance, is a sad, forlorn figure, who displays little heroism and almost no common sense at all as she undertakes her dangerous quest.

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 PsychoFrenzy 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.

What an existence, you may think.

And you’re right. Because even in the more cheerful scenes, when the women gather to joke and drown their sorrows in The Palmerston, a pub in the heart of the red-light district, it’s always undermined by a sense of slow-burning dread, because – though there is a degree of bravado about it – both we and they know that they’re going to have to go out again shortly, and the fear factor is high.

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.

The prostitutes' sorority is strong. They have to look out for each other, because nobody else will. These are people who have nothing, except their kids and each other, and all the while a killer is relentlessly hunting them. But this sisterly closeness is their group response to the crisis. Individually, they’re ghosts. They almost blend into one. You could assume that this is because all uniqueness has been hammered out of them by hardship. However, some readers have criticised Blow Your House Down for not stamping the women with stronger personalities. It’s possible to see them as having been individuals once, even if they aren’t any longer. But whatever the author’s aim, it’s undeniable that none of the characters really shows much depth.

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.

The murder of Kath, as already mentioned, is one of the most distressing that I’ve ever seen on the written page and is purposely prolonged so that the reader isn’t spared one half-second, and because we are in the murderer’s mind while it happens, we are completely unmoved by any of that. It’s a simple, brutal act, which we perform for our own gratification, and the object of our rage might as well be a lifeless mannequin.

If none of this is enough, Pat Barker reflects the localties where these things happen in vivid detail. The Chicken Factory is a blood-spattered hellhole; the pub – The Palmerston – though noisy and crowded, is a classic example of those dingy street-corner boozers, filled with smoke and often volatile in mood; even the streets themselves are unforgiving. I served as a copper in the Manchester badlands in the 1980s, and lived all through the Yorkshire Ripper rampage, and can honestly say that Pat Barker completely captures the atmosphere of that dreary, post-industrial time when mills were empty shells, houses stood in boarded-up in rows, and everything looked as if it was shortly to be demolished.

Not everything about Blow Your House Down is considered to be perfect. The final sequence, which follows the fortunes of Maggie, a local factory-worker rather than a prostitute, who survives a savage attack that could conceivably be the work of the same killer, has been described as ‘odd’ and ‘out of place’. Though it is clearly intended to bridge the gap between the nocturnal world of sex-workers and the ordinary life of everyday folk, implying that the threat of random violence is to be dreaded across the board, especially when the victims are only chosen out of convenience, it maybe jars a little, and I can understand how it doesn’t provide a satisfactory conclusion to the narrative for everyone (especially if they were expecting the killer to be caught in a definitive, clear-cut way).

However, Blow Your House Down remains a remarkable and thought-provoking little book – it only clocks in at 176 pages – and provides an affecting, highly authentic and at times completely shocking read. Okay, it doesn’t really constitute a traditional thriller, but that was never the intention, and even though I’m a thriller fan, I found myself thinking about it for days and days after I’d finished reading. That makes it a winner for me and one that I have no hesitation in recommending to all fans of uber-dark fiction.  

As always, I’m now going to chip in with my recommendations for a cast should Blow Your House Down ever make it onto TV or film. Who knows whether this will ever happen? I’d love it to, though it would make for tough viewing, let me tell you. Anyway, even though I doubt any casting director would ever listen to me, here we go:

Brenda – Joanne Froggatt
Jean – Eve Myles
Kath – Claire Foy
Maggie – Helen McCrory
Bill – Ian Beattie

by Lindsey Barraclough (2012)

It is 1958, and Limehouse resident, Harry Drumm, decides that he can no longer look after his two daughters. His wife has been confined to an asylum thanks to an ever worsening mental condition, and he is struggling to hold down a job. Hoping, for the time being at least, that his girls will have a better life in the countryside, he sends them to live with their great Aunt Ida, who occupies Guerdon Hall, a moated manor house in the Essex village of Bryers Guerdon.

The children, 14-year old Cora, and her 10-year-younger sister, Mimi, are already disoriented when they arrive in the the remote spot, and this isn’t helped by the state of the Hall, which is a rotted, Gothic pile encircled by overgrown marshland, by the village itself, which is very poor, and especially by Aunt Ida, who is cold, mean-spirited, unflinchingly strict and seemingly determined to send them back to London at the first opportunity. On the few occasions she deigns to explain this, she simply says that Bryers Guerdon is no place for youngsters and promises to write to their father, demanding that he take them back.

This is fine by Cora and Mimi, who find the house dreary, damp and stuffy because all its windows are nailed shut, and filled with frightening paintings which take on new dimensions of terror at night. However, Harry does not come back to retrieve his daughters, and the lonely duo are forced to adapt to life in this mysterious village, making friends with two brothers, Roger and Peter Jotman, who come from a rumbustious but friendly household, and advise her that their aunt has a bad reputation locally. Rumours hold that she is a witch and that she murdered members of her own family, which is why she rarely leaves her home except for necessities, and hardly ever interacts with any of her neighbours.

To fill the long, hot days of summer holiday that lie ahead, the youngsters opt to investigate these rumours for themselves, exploring the village and its surrounding localities, and finally coming to All Hallows church, a shunned, semi-abandoned edifice in the woods, its grounds overhung by the ‘Gypsy Tree,’ where dolls and shoes hang from the branches, and accessible only by a locked lychgate, carved over the top of which are the words, Cave Bestiam, which they soon learn are Latin for the ominous phrase, ‘Beware the Beast’.

The more the children put themselves around and the more people they get to know, the more discomforted Cora becomes. Aunt Ida still hasn’t accepted them, and constantly scolds her for meddling in things that don’t concern her, but in addition to this, there are odd, unexplained events. Both girls feel as if some strange, frightening presence is drawing ever closer, while at the same time they hear whispered voices at night, seemingly trying to warn them, and even spot what look like the ghosts of children in the derelict churchyard.

Piece by piece, through a succession of interviews with garrulous local folk, and their examination of old documents and relics from a troubled past – in which Cora and Ida’s family in particular, the Guerdons, were helplessly entrapped – the story emerges that an age-old curse has awakened; something ancient and evil, which lurks in the encircling marshes, and over the the centuries has stolen away numerous of the Guerdon children. At one time, his name was Cain Lankin. He was a real person who lived hereabouts, albeit hideous to look upon and whose deeds were horrific, consorting with witches not the least of them. Inevitably, centuries later, decayed and foul, as carnivorous as ever, and known by the final name they gave him, ‘Long Lankin’ because he barely even fitted into the gibbet cage, he is now more terrible than ever, and he drools with hunger for four-year-old Mimi … 

As some may already know, the novel, Long Lankin, is based on an Old English ballad of approximately the same name (though there are various names, it has to be said: Long LankynLammikinBalankin, etc), the original author of which is unnamed and the date of composition, though unknown, thought to date back to Elizabethan times at least. It tells the story of a wealthy woman and her baby who are murdered by a malign being, which emerges from the marshy woodland surrounding their country home and is admitted to the residence by an untrustworthy female servant. One version of it is fully quoted at the start of the book, the sinister opening verse reading as follows:

Says milord to milady, as he mounted his horse:
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.”
Says milord to milady, as he went on his way:
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the hay.”

In some versions of the song, particularly the older ones, Lankin is a mason who has not been paid for work he performed on the property and is seeking to recompense himself with aristocratic blood. But in others, he is a bogeyman or monster – a Grendel-like figure, though a more modern, internet-age analogy might be with Slenderman – who is evil merely for the sake of it and sustains himself on the life-force of infant children.

Suffice to say that in the novel, Long Lankin, Lindsey Barraclough opts for the second of these explanations, casting Lankin as a dangerous, malevolent villain of supernatural origin. Though she details where he comes from, giving him a near-human backstory, it is flavoured with witchcraft and village superstition. And indeed, rural folklore is very much to the fore in this tale.

As I write, there is something of a renaissance in folk-themed horror stories, wherein the focus lies with mysterious rituals and customs, eerie fables, scary myths and half-told tales that may possess a kernel of unedifying truth. This is an area where I personally have an interest, much of my own written horror leaning towards the mythologies of old Britain, so as Long Lankin satisfies almost all of these criteria, it was hugely attractive to me from the outset.

That said, I initially hesitated because it is marked as a YA novel. It’s not for children by any means, but it is certainly aimed at a slightly younger readership than me. But in the end, I dived in, and I wasn’t at all disappointed. There isn’t much in the way of sex and violence, as you’d expect, but this is one exquisitely creepy tale, its setting beautifully realised.

It’s not just rural England in the 1950s, we’re in the marshlands of eastern Essex, at the height of a hot, sleepy summer, but Great Britain is not a happy land. The destructive impact of two world wars can be felt everywhere: back in smoky London, where city girls Cora and Mimi Drumm hail from, and out here in the swampy greenwood, where villages are poverty-stricken, roads impassable, cottages run down, and most of the adult population tired and cranky. There is also a prominent sense of loss. Many local men died in the wars that have only recently passed, and there is scarcely a family of any class that hasn’t been bereaved to a greater or lesser extent. For a so-called YA novel, this is a painful and grown-up portrayal of a society that has triumphed over Hitler, but as would always be the case after such massive conflict, has paid a terrible price.

Of course, all this embitterment contrasts neatly with the book’s younger cast, who, in the way of children the world over, breeze their way through the summer holidays, oblivious to adult woes, playing and generally having fun (until the nightmare figure of Lankin arrives, of course). This enables Barraclough to indulge in some outstanding character work.

In Cora, Roger, Mimi and Peter, but in the older two children particularly, she creates a bunch of believable, happy-go-lucky youngsters, who, despite the hardships and privations of their everyday lives, are inquisitive, excitable and eager to ramble around the sun-drenched countryside, never letting anything so mundane as low-quality food, hand-me-down clothes, a clip round the ear or even a spooky old graveyard get them down. But these aren’t just the scampering, barefoot urchins of Enid Blyton. There’s a work ethic among these post-war brats, and a sense of duty: they do as they’re told, helping their parents out where they can and taking responsibility for their younger siblings because they live in a real but damaged world, which they know must be rebuilt. At the same time, each one is clearly an individual, with habits and traits specifically designed for them by the different lifestyles they up until now have led; Roger carefree for example, Cora sadder and more serious.

It’s the same with the adults. They are colourful but often multi-layered: Mrs Jotman, the ever-tired country housewife, who nevertheless is more of a mum to Cora and Mimi than their own mother has ever been; Harry Drumm, the Jack-the-lad Eastender, a chirpy character who, despite endless promises, never seems able to live up to his kids’ expectations; Gussie, the mad old cat-lady with her stumpy teeth and foul-smelling home, and a deep knowledge of rural lore forced upon her by terrible experiences during her girlhood; Mr Thorston, the scholarly, university-educated cottager who had so much to offer the world and gave it up so that he could look after his ailing wife; and Ida Eastfield, the stern auntie figure, but also the most complex person in this tale, and the one around whom most pathos is woven – because though she is unfriendly to the children and loses her temper easily, deep down this is through fear and guilt rather than dislike, and because she knows what lurks beyond the manor moat, her own tragic history intricately entwined with it, the horror of which is more than she can stand.

Which brings us at last to Cain Lankin, also a tragic figure, an outcast, a leper, a person so reviled in his day that his apparent death went unlamented. Yes, all the best monsters are able to touch some nerve inside us, to make us feel sorry for them, even if in this case it is only brief. Cain Lankin, we feel, was destined to do evil from his earliest days, and when he appears to us now in the 20th century, he’s adopted that mantle to its fullest extent. Whatever cruelties he and his lady-friend suffered, he has now repaid them a hundred times more often than necessary, and he continues to do so with obsessive, vampire-like relish.

Inevitably, it is Lankin who provides some of the most frightening moments in this book. And, YA or not, they are genuinely hair-raising. There is more than a touch of MR James when his hideous, emaciated form comes creeping in the night, crawling through the undergrowth on all-fours as he closes silently on his unsuspecting prey. But to say any more about that would be the ultimate spoiler. 

If I have any criticism at all, it’s that I’m not massively sold on the novel’s division into three separate and regularly changing, POVs – Cora’s, Roger’s and Ida’s. I’m not sure it adds anything to the narrative, which proceeds at its own stately pace and is all the more compelling because of it, layer upon layer of mystery being added as the story unfolds. But ultimately, it doesn’t spoil anything either, so I’m not really complaining.

The main thing is – don’t be put off by Long Lankin’s YA status. This is an effective and atmospheric horror novel, not exactly pacy, but richly evocative of rural England in the old days, with its long, hot summers, its village spells, its carven lychgates and its ancient, ancestral curses.

If that’s the stuff you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed.

Usually, as you probably know by now, I like to complete my book reviews with a bit of fantasy casting, should the project ever make it to the screen. On this occasion, though, I’m going to pass for two reasons. Firstly, Long Lankin is constructed around its child cast, and I don’t know enough about the current best child actors, so it would be a pointless effort. Secondly, because it has already been optioned for development by a British company … so, here’s hoping for a TV production as good (and as scary) as the source material.

by Lou Berney (2018)

November, 1963. President John F Kennedy is shot and killed by a sniper while travelling through Dallas, Texas, in his open-topped motorcade. The whole of the US convulses with shock, but half a continent away, in New Orleans, the only things that matter to handsome, smooth-talking fixer, Frank Guidry, is drinking, enjoying life, getting laid, and staying tight with Carlos Marcello, the local Mafia don, for whom he hustles, grifts and evens scores on a daily basis, as a result of which he earns very nicely.

In the first few pages of November Road, we see Guidry at full power but deep in his own world, working both sides of Bourbon Street, watching the comings and goings, having sex with a drunken bar girl whose name he doesn’t even catch, turning over a fellow mob guy to his boss for fouling up (via the ever-cool and untrustworthy Seraphine, Carlos’s able and delectable lieutenant) and finally noticing that the President is dead.

It’s a national disaster, which is also having massive repercussions on the world stage, but even though the authorities already have the shooter in custody, an oddball nobody called Lee Harvey Oswald, Guidry, who has a personal-safety radar second to none, starts to wonder if it might become a problem for him in particular

He knows that his boss had a particular beef with the Kennedy brothers, both Jack and Bobby, for their crackdown on organised crime activities up and down the East Coast, and is now wondering about the blue Cadillac he was instructed to leave in Dallas only a couple of days ago. Even at the time, he assumed that it would be utilised by a hitman making a getaway after whatever job he was there to perform, but of course he could never have assumed that said job would be JFK himself.

Suddenly, this is ultra-serious stuff. If the FBI decide that this guy, Oswald, is a patsy, they might throw their net much wider. They’re already going to investigate far more robustly than if this was a regular hit. In addition, if Carlos was the man who gave the order, he won’t want any trails snaking back to him.

Was this the reason why Mackey Pagano, the fellow soldier  recently served up to Carlos, has now met his end? Was Pagano what might be considered a loose end? Is it possible that Guidry, whose connection to the blue Cadillac may yet be discovered, could also be considered a loose end?

Suddenly, Frank Guidry decides that the Big Easy is about to get a mite too hot for him. But where can he flee to when the South’s boss of bosses is hot on his trail? Who can he trust to offer him cover when his role in the crime of the century is so plainly evident?

Meanwhile, in smalltown Oklahoma, spirited Charlotte Roy has finally had enough of her husband, Dooley. He doesn’t beat or abuse her, but he’s a chronic alcoholic who struggles through life, rarely achieves anything, and has no real hope of ever creating the future she seeks for her two young daughters, Joan and Rosemary. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Charlotte packs the youngsters into the car, and leaves her hapless hubby, heading west, hoping to find refuge, at least temporarily, with a distant aunt who lives out in California and who she barely even remembers speaking to. Of course, it’s never as simple as that, and in due course, car trouble maroons Charlotte and her girls in Nowhereville (aka Santa Maria), New Mexico. Mired in a depressing motel and unsure where she’s going next, if anywhere, Charlotte then meets a good-natured and generous travelling man, who calls himself ‘Frank’ and who is apparently on his way to Los Angeles, and when all other alternatives are exhausted, who offers them a ride in his own car.

Guidry isn’t simply being generous by doing this. Nor is he looking to exploit the pretty young mother, even though he is attracted to her. But he can see the advantage of making the remainder of his journey (which will only be to Las Vegas, where an old underworld acquaintance may help him out) disguised as a homely husband and father. Carlos has eyes and ears everywhere after all, nearly all of which are looking out for Guidry the enforcer, Guidry the unmarried loner.

And it’s even more important to do this now. Because just to make matters much worse, just to raise the stakes dramatically, Paul Barone, the New Orleans’ boss’s deadliest assassin, is close behind him …

November Road has been widely praised since it was published in 2018, and rightly so in my opinion, though that doesn’t mean that it’s been without its naysayers. A couple of reviewers have called it clichéd, the hardbitten gangster who only realises that he’s got a heart of gold when he’s finally smitten by a smalltown girl who believes in honesty and integrity. Others have said that novels about Kennedy’s assassination and the aftermath are ten-a-penny, others that, as conspiracy theories go, this one isn’t particularly inspiring, yet others that the plot is simplicity itself, the book nothing more than a road trip.

Well … strangely, I’d agree with many of those verdicts, but at the same time I’d add that it’s also a whole lot more.

First of all, I always know I’m reading a good book, when, no matter how chunky it feels in my hand, I find that I’ve finished it in a couple of days, having rarely taken a break other than to put it down and say to myself: ‘Wow!’

November Road is slickly and succinctly written, Lou Berney never using a paragraph if a single sentence will do instead, though as sentences go, these are pretty special. Check out this description of Charlotte Foy, which completely illustrates her character in a few short words:

… a smalltown girl, as wholesome and dull as a field of corn, with a dog-eared New Testament in her purse and uncomplicated notions about right and wrong …

And then this portrayal of Nevada’s Lake Mead, as first seen by Charlotte:

Lake Mead was something of a shock, a rude and beautiful slash of iridescent blue in the middle of the dry desert, ringed by chocolate and cinnamon canyons.

And it’s pretty much like that all the way through. Simple, lyrical and lovely. Almost from beginning to end, November Road is economically but immersively written, every person and place vivid and real. It’s also a masterpiece of crisp, punchy character-work. The perfect example of this is Seraphine, who, for most of the narrative we only encounter as a voice on the telephone, but in each case she is silky smooth and deliciously deadly with her husky Creole tone and French Quarter accent.

It’s also a case that less is more with Paul Barone, the hitman, a character possibly based on real-life Mafia enforcer, George Barone (much as Carlos Marcello is the actual Carlos Marcello, a New Orleans kingpin who was genuinely suspected to have masterminded the Kennedy assassination). Berney consciously refrains from describing Barone in any real detail, presenting him to us as an ordinary looking man, who says very little (and rarely, if ever, issues anything so vulgar as a threat) but renders him a terrifying presence all the same, primarily by reputation but also because, somehow or other, the guy’s aura commands instant respect.

Of course, the real stars of the show are Guidry and Charlotte, both of whom embark as much on a voyage of self-discovery as they do a trip from east to west.

Guidry, who had a hellish childhood, has only ever been around mob people. But his natural wits and razor intellect have raised him above the general underworld herd. Additionally, they’ve left him wondering about that ‘other life’, the regular world of private citizens, which he’s always looked down on as something for suckers, though when he glimpses it through the prism of Charlotte’s safe and simple ambitions, looks for the first time as if it might be worth trying out. Of course, Guidry is still a killer. He thinks nothing of sending former buddy, Mackey Pagano, for the chop, and later on, when he makes dire threats to a couple of corrupt deputies in a hick town, you know that he absolutely means it.

So, it would indeed be a cliché if he then fell so head-over-heels in love with Charlotte and her children that his next move was to change sides, but of course life is never that simple. Not in reality and not in November Road. So no, what happens here isn’t a cliché at all. Very far from it.

Charlotte meanwhile goes on an even more complex journey, and like Frank Guidry, her direction changes half way through, and more than once. Yes, she is a hometown girl at heart, but the home she knows is boring, her husband unambitious, her opportunities limited. If she was just to take off and leave all that behind on her own, you might consider her selfish. But she does it with her children, specifically taking them to California, because in all the old stories of pioneers headed west, and in so many tales of drifters seeking the American Dream, California, the so-called Golden State, is their planned destination (even if most of them never make it). Ironically, though she gets to like Guidry a lot, is even smitten by him, the mother instinct will always come first with Charlotte. She’s not really looking for an adventure or romance. She’s looking for a new life for her two girls.

In this regard, the developing relationship between these two characters isn’t just beautifully written, it’s a powerful story all on its own, the intersection of their two roads a life-changing experience for the pair of them, and it’s all done so neatly and concisely that it’d be engrossing even without the underworld factor.

However, the underworld factor is there. And it’s there all the way through, and when you look at November Road simply as a hard-assed thriller, it’s pretty good on that level too.

The assassination of President Kennedy is really only the backstory, but it still unleashes a web of violence and intrigue all across the Southern States. There is tense drama as Frank Guidry makes slow but steady progress but is forever glancing over his shoulder, always wondering if the next person he meets on the trail will be someone looking to whack him.

Charlotte, of course, sails blithely through most of this, which makes you fear for her all the more, especially when she’s hooked up with Frank and yet remains unaware of his real past. And later on, when she’s in Vegas, her future dependent, it seems, on the whim of crazy gangster, Ed Zingle, your heart is in your mouth for her. There is one particularly chilling scene, which I won’t give to you in too much detail, but which sees the Vegas overlord and his minions making a half-hearted pretence of normality even though it is just sufficiently off-kilter to set all of Charlotte’s alarm bells ringing at once. Not to mention ours, the readers, because it’s scary stuff and for at least a couple of pages you really don’t know where it’s going to end.

The ‘live fast, die young’ Mafia lifestyle is nicely encapsulated in November Road. It’s set in the 1960s, when the Italian mob still dominated organised crime in North America, and there are strong reflections all the way through of gangster epics like Goodfellas and Casino: regular references to the bosses back home, constant awareness that in this world murderers come with smiles on their faces (either that, or they’re people you’ve known for thirty years), the idea that to rat out your friends is the worst thing you can do even though it’s painfully apparent that everyone has their price and no one can be trusted.

I’ll round off by saying that November Road is another of these crime thrillers that you just have to read to fully appreciate it. Lou Berney does a remarkable job here. The tone is perfect, the mood, the pace, everything is right on song. It’s much more than a thriller, but it’s taut and exciting and filled with characters you can easily relate to. Though deceptively simple, it’s written in accessible but poetic prose strongly reminiscent of some of the truly great American authors. You will not be disappointed.

As usual, I’m now going to attempt to cast this wonderful tale before a real casting director does it for an actual TV show or movie (one of which, I understand, is already in the works). Just a bit of fun, of course. Who would really listen to me?

Frank Guidry – Matthew Rhys
Charlotte Roy – Kerry Bishé
Paul Barone – Sebastian Stan
Ed Zingel – Val Kilmer
Seraphine – Emayatzy Corinealdi
Carlos Marcello – Chris Bauer

by Alfred Bester (1956)

In the 25th century, humanity has developed the power to jaunt, most individuals now able to transport themselves up to 1,000 miles simply by the power of thought. However, life has not improved greatly. Earth society is going through constant social and economic flux as a result, and though the solar system is fully colonised, the Inner Planets (Earth, Mars, and Venus) are in ongoing conflict with the Outer Satellites (the moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune).

One casualty of this is the deep space cargo vessel, Nomad, which belongs to the influential Presteign corporation. Damaged by rocket fire, Nomad is now a drifting, incommunicado wreck with only one survivor on board, crewman Gulliver ‘Gully’ Foyle, an ignorant, uneducated man, who nevertheless stays alive against all the odds. He even manages to signal for help to passing sister-ship, Vorga, also a Presteign vessel, but is astonished when it deliberately ignores him, abandoning him to a terrible fate.

Infuriated beyond reason, Foyle manages to steer the floating scrapheap into the Asteroid Belt, where a little-known tribe called the Scientific People, a cargo cult who have long cut their ties with Earth, imprison him and tattoo his face with tiger stripes.

Still bent on revenge – and now looking the part as well – Foyle steals a ship to escape, and makes it back to Earth, where, in a barbaric state, he rapes a gentle, telepathic woman called Robin Wednesbury, and launches a one-man terrorist attack on Vorga, which fails and puts him in the grasp of the company’s all-powerful CEO, a man simply called ‘the Presteign’, someone who suddenly wants to know all about this errant crewman. It seems that Nomad was carrying a newly-discovered mineral, PyrE, which could change the course of the war – but Nomad is now lost, and only Foyle knows its coordinates.

Foyle is interrogated by a fearsome private security officer, the radioactive Saul Dagenham, but even Dagenham cannot break him, so he is condemned to life imprisonment in the hellish subterranean jail, Gouffre Martel. Here he befriends another convict, the resourceful Jisbella ‘Jiz’ McQueen, who educates him, advises him that it isn’t Nomad he should seek to destroy, but whoever gave the order to ignore him, and finally helps him escape.

Through Jiz’s criminal contacts, Foyle manages to remove the tiger-stripes from his face – though in times of anger they show again – educates himself further and augments his body so that he becomes a lethal fighting-machine. He then treacherously cuts Jiz loose and reappears as the dapper dandy, Geoffrey Fourmyle, bullying the unwilling Robin into helping him penetrate Presteign high society.

Everything is going to plan, but there are still problems. Those Vorga officers he tracks down involuntarily self-destruct before they can tell him anything, while his determination to ruin Presteign is hampered by his growing affection for the CEO’s beautiful daughter, the blind but infrared-sensitive Olivia. Meanwhile, Robin hates and fears him, Jiz is plotting something, and Foyle is troubled by an apparition he sees increasingly often: himself wrapped in flames. At the same time, the Outer Satellites are planning a massive attack, which they hope will win the war for them in one overwhelming blow.

If things have been difficult for Foyle so far, vastly more terrible days lie ahead …  

On first reading The Stars My Destination, it would be quite simple to write it off as straightforward space opera. The incredible adventures of Gully Foyle and the personal changes he undergoes as, through endless stress and suffering, he transcends the status of brute underling, becoming first a wealthy, scheming sophisticate, and finally a godlike intellectual, is more than a little bit reminiscent of Alexander Dumas’ classic adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo. But if, after some protracted pondering, that remains your sole assessment of this visionary sci-fi novel, you need to read it again.

Comparisons between The Stars My Destination and The Count of Monte Cristo are not wrong, and there’s a specific reason for that, Alfred Bester, by his own admission, seeking to snare his audience with what initially seems like a simple, exciting plot-line over which he can lay some complex but wondrous notions.

Though initially an editor and script-writer for comics, by the mid-1950s Bester was regarded as one of the world’s leading science fiction writers (he ‘invented’ it, according to Harry Harrison), and if you need further proof of that, just consider when reading The Stars My Destination that he penned this astonishing story when the vast bulk of the public drew their knowledge of the genre from movies concerned with insects grown to giant size through atom bomb testing and threats posed to Earth by bulb-headed men who spoke in senatorial US voices. That any serious sci-fi prophesying was done by authors writing in that era is quite remarkable, but plenty of them did, and yet Alfred Bester was ahead of the game even by those standards.

The concepts he presents us with in The Stars My Destination were mind-boggling in their day, and in many ways still are, and yet the book is also threaded with mindfulness of what these developments for mankind would actually mean.

For example, in the 25th century (or the 24th, depending on which edition you are reading), Man’s reach might stretch across the solar system, but it isn’t as though Pluto is suddenly in our back yard. The vast distances remain, especially as jaunting between planets is impossible. And so, Earth has lost cultural contact with its colonies. They have become advanced societies in their own right, and barely understand Earthlings, let alone see them as friends, and when war breaks out, there is no empathy between the two sides. Earth and the inner planets aren’t even aware of the outer satellites’ military strength, while the cargo cult that abducts Foyle early in the book is a completely isolated tribe, whose whole world is now the wreckage of ours.

The jaunt itself (named after scientist Charles Fort Jaunte), was an amazing concept to 1950s audiences. Long before Star Trek ever thought of it, the inhabitants of The Stars My Destination jump from A to B via teleportation. But again, Bester ponders the upheavals that stem from this: for instance, valuable high-class women must be kept in jaunt-proof isolation to ‘protect their honour’, while convicts can only be held in jaunt-proof solitary confinement (resulting in hellhole prisons like Gouffre Martel).

More familiar concerns among sci-fi writers of Bester’s era are also on show. Chemically and mechanically enhanced human beings don’t remain human for long. Telepaths are in such demand that they must conceal their talents from almost everyone. The author was also worried about the rise of ultra-powerful corporations, and how in the future they might become empires in their own right. The Presteign, though maintaining an urbane exterior, is utterly ruthless, and has the full cooperation of the government’s own intelligence agency, as represented by Peter Yang-Yeovil.

And yet, despite all this fascination with psi-power and speculative science, the main driving force in the book is that most basic of all human instincts, a yearning for revenge.

It is perhaps a nihilistic concept that the route to godliness may lie with Man’s desire to get even with other men … but you certainly can’t argue with it in The Stars My Destination as it’s given to us so full-bloodedly. It’s illustrated visually in the form of Foyle’s tiger mask, which even after he’s had it superficially removed, blazes to life whenever he’s angry (surely one of the most impressive devices of its sort that I’ve ever encountered in fiction). This vengeful nature is the single thing that constantly drives Foyle, and lies at the heart of his thrilling escapes: from the floating wreckage of Nomad, from the clutches of the asteroid tribe, and even from the jaunt-proof subterranean prison. It is this same motivation which, in due course pushes him to better himself – mainly so that he can infiltrate high society, though unknowingly of course, it also pitches him towards the realm of perfection.

Foyle makes an intriguing anti-hero. Appalling in his behavior at some points – the attack on Robin Wednesbury, for example (which would need to be excised out if ever the book were to make it to film) – but also later on, when he plays the likeable but untrustworthy Fourmyle. But from the outset, he is never intended to be an ordinary person, much less a person of noble character. If anything, he is a metaphor for mankind’s own evolution (and the path that Alfred Bester clearly hoped we would at some point take).

I don’t want to say anything more about The Stars My Destination for fear of giving too much away, except to add that it’s well worth its classic status, and that if some of the concepts seem standard in sci-fi these days, that’s only because forward-gazing writers like Alfred Bester made them so.

Optioned for movie development many times, but never yet made and in fact described more than once as ‘unfilmable’, The Stars My Destination is nevertheless another of those novels I would dearly love to see on celluloid – either the big screen or TV – and so once again, I’m going to pitch in with my own thoughts on a possible cast. (One quick note; it’s currently in the hands of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who gave us Kong: Skull Island, so you never know – anything is possible). In the meantime, though, here are my picks for the leads:

Gulliver Foyle – Paul Bettany
Robin Wednesbury – Tessa Thompson
The Presteign – Ben Kingsley
Olivia Presteign – Lea Seydoux
Jisbella ‘Jiz’ McQueen – Rhona Mitra
Saul Dagenham – Rufus Sewell
Captain Peter Yang-Yeovil – Mathieu Amalric

by Lauren Beukes (2014)

The time is now. The place is Detroit, a city in its post-industrial death throes.

This is a landscape that is not just physically decayed, but morally bereft: where there are more citizens without jobs than with; where the homeless almost outnumber the residents; where over-worldly youngsters drink, take drugs and swear; where underage girls tease online paedophiles just for kicks, and high school kids are more interested in filming their friends being bullied than in helping them out; a place where graffiti and ruin-porn pass for art; where any hipster careerist thinks he/she can be a sculptor, or a musician, or a writer, or a journalist, or a social commentator, and yet somehow all of them finish up being vapid, vacuous wannabes.

In the midst of this urban ooze, cop and single mom Detective Gabi Versado finds herself investigating a particularly distressing case.

The fusing of a dead boy’s torso to the hindquarters of a deer sparks the commencement of a sadistic and gratuitous murder spree – the handiwork of a killer soon known as the ‘Detroit Monster’ because of the grotesque public displays he makes of his victims.

All the monumental complexity of a massive homicide enquiry follows, with various colourful but complex characters getting in on the act. For example, Layla is Gabi’s neglected yet spirited daughter, one of those brattish modern teens who can’t seem to live if she isn’t constantly active on social media, and yet who in this case is irrepressibly likeable; Jonno Haim is a failed New York writer-turned-blogger, a minimally-talented chancer looking to kick-start a career he hasn’t earned by shouldering his way into the Detroit arts scene; Thomas ‘TK’ Keen is an amiable hobo, a father figure to his fellow homeless, but a guy haunted by his own tragic and violent past; and then we have Clayton Broom, another failure – all these lives are broken in this land of broken dreams! – a skilled artist who struggles to support himself when his work doesn’t sell, and as such lives in a slum, absorbedly dwelling on his bizarre visions … which leaves him open to some very pernicious influences.

And this is the point where, for some readers at least, this novel’s wheels have come off.

Fans of Lauren Beukes, particularly those familiar with her stunning tale of magical realism, The Shining Girls, will probably expect Broken Monsters to enter the territory of the unreal at some point, and – well, that’s precisely what it does. Quite unapologetically. So be under no illusion. Despite first appearances, this is NOT a police procedural or even a traditional murder mystery.

At a relatively early stage, the identity of the felon is given away, but he quite literally is not himself. Call it what you will – an alien intelligence, a ghost, a demon, a faerie, an ancient god – but some powerful, unknowable and insane entity has awakened inside this already damaged soul, driving him to commit terrible deeds, each time intensifying the horror and savagery in its vain efforts to create better things, to entrance and heal the suffering public, and usher in a new age of wonder and enlightenment through the chalk doorways it motivates him to inscribe on walls near the scenes of his crimes.

And this is the real narrative, not the internal fantasy of a madman. The closer our various heroes come to resolving this case, the ever more bizarre, lurid and warped the realities they encounter, until we reach a point where you know in your bones that normality can never resume. It builds to such a crescendo of the weird and horrific that the annihilation of some of the good guys – or at least the annihilation of their sanity – seems inevitable …

I hate pigeon-holing in literature, but in this case it serves a valid purpose. Broken Monsters may not be your run-of-the-mill crime thriller. But neither is it your standard urban horror story. In fact, if the vague term ‘dark fantasy’ ever had a living embodiment, this is it. And so what if certain readers were not happy about that? That is down to their own preconceptions – they thought they were reading cops ‘n’ robbers when all the blurbs said otherwise.  

For me, in this case if none other, the quality is more important than the content. Because this is far and away one of the most readable novels I’ve ever picked up. It doesn’t just move at electrifying pace, it is exquisitely written. The loving descriptions of the half-abandoned city are intense and detailed – you can almost smell the oil and filth, the rotted steel, the rain-soaked concrete. The characters are rich and multi-layered, all forlorn, all struggling, all in many ways annoying, and yet on occasion funny and loveable too, and as such, so real that it is easy to form emotional connections with them. Even the killer is the star-turn in one achingly sad scene where, in an unwitting attempt to head off his ghastly future, he tries to reacquaint with the mother of his child, a slatternly ‘roadhouse mom’ – who casually and spitefully rejects him.

For all these reasons, Broken Monsters gets my highest recommendation. Yes, the change of gear (the ‘thriller to horror’ moment) is a bit of a jolt for those who didn’t anticipate it, but this is truly excellent stuff: compelling and fascinating, at the same time both depressing and uplifting. The depth and imagery of the ruined city and the raddled folk living therein is almost seductive; the soullessness of the internet age will horrify you; the constant madness of mass-communication, mass profanity, mass insolence, mass embarrassment – the whole damn thing is amazing and infuriating and scary and intoxicating all at the same time.

You may not love this novel (unlike me – I did, as if you can’t tell!), but I can damn well guarantee that you’ll be totally overwhelmed by it.

And as always – purely for a laugh, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Broken Monsters ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (which is surely very likely given the adaptation clamour that greeted The Shining Girls). 

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)

DI Tom Thorne and girlfriend, DS Helen Weeks, have taken a winter holiday in the Cotswolds, where they intend to spend Valentine’s Day together and enjoy a well-earned rest. But, as you can probably guess, from the commencement of Time of Death, the 13th outing for Mark Billingham’s gruff, no-nonsense hero, it is never going to be quite as easy as that.

Thorne, a veteran of the Murder Squad, is approaching middle-age these days, and still hasn’t entirely worked out his relationship with the relatively new woman in his life, DS Weeks. She is younger than he is, and doesn’t see the world in the same stark terms. However, it is Helen who makes the decision to suddenly interrupt their break and head north into rainy, flood-stricken Warwickshire, where an old school acquaintance, Linda Bates, is in trouble.

It seems that in Polesford, Helen’s rural but far-from-idyllic hometown, two teenage girls have been abducted, and one has now turned up in the woods, brutally murdered. In response, Warwickshire Police have laid their hands on local man, Stephen Bates – Linda’s husband – and look set to charge him with the crime.

Thorne is a little bemused as to why they are getting involved. By her own admission, Helen was not Linda’s best friend when they were kids, though they seem to share some kind of unspoken connection. On top of that, all Helen can really do once they arrive is provide a shoulder for Linda to cry on. And it’s a much-needed shoulder. Linda and her family are distraught and already being ostracised by their neighbours. Moreover, when Thorne looks into the case as an observer, it seems pretty straightforward. Even though Bates maintains his innocence, there is a mass of evidence stacked against him, and his alibi doesn’t stand up – in due course, he is charged with kidnapping and murder.

However, not all in Polesford is exactly as it should be.

Thorne isn’t won over by the loutish townsfolk, by the media who have swamped the place in a search for ever-more sensationalist news angles, or by the local investigation team, who have not been as thorough as he would like and who are increasingly resentful of his presence. When Phil Hendricks, his tattoo-covered but trusty forensics expert, joins him in Polesford, they commence an enquiry of their own – unofficially of course – and quickly start to uncover anomalies in the evidence. 

Pretty soon, Thorne is convinced that Bates is innocent. But the local fuzz will have no truck with that, and in fact complain to his bosses in the Met (who attempt to call him off), while Helen is only marginally more useful. For the moment at least, the level-headed policewoman he knows and loves has vanished, to be replaced by someone who is secretive, snappy and inordinately stressed. Clearly, Helen herself has more than superficial issues with the town of her birth, and there is no guarantee they are unconnected to this enquiry.

But Thorne, the hard-nosed investigator, is now in his element. Amid foul weather and despite a storm of hostility, he battles on determinedly. Because if nothing else, he strongly suspects that the second of the two abducted girls is still in the grasp of the real killer, maybe still alive, and if so, enduring who knows what horrors …

Tom Thorne is an iconic cop character in British crime fiction, and his cases are never less than totally readable. I particularly enjoyed this one, though, because it takes a new approach.

All the usual coolness of Mark Billingham’s crime-writing is there. The slick prose; the polished characterisation; the quickfire, uber-realistic dialogue; the grim tone – yet again the ‘real crime’ feel pervades this book: desolated lives, a non-empathetic public, the countless unsavoury elements that combine to create Broken Britain. This is vintage Thorne territory, but on this occasion the Met’s best bloodhound is not seeking to prove a murder suspect’s guilt, but to establish his innocence.

And it works so well.

Thorne is one of crime fiction’s top good guys, mainly because he’s believable – totally human and fallible – but at the same time he has all the attributes of a hero. He’s no angel, but he knows a dodgy situation when he encounters one, and he doesn’t care whose nose he puts out when he’s on the trail of justice. Hendricks of course – Thorne’s less conservative, happier-go-luckier other self – makes a great sparring partner, but together their combined intellect is a fearsome force. And this is the other thing about Time of Death: it is distinctly NOT a tale of brawn over brain. Don’t get me wrong; Thorne can kick arse if he wants to (and so can Helen Weeks, as this book illustrates), but this time it’s all about the minutiae of forensics, Thorne and Hendricks bouncing ideas back and forth at lightning speed as they strive to save an innocent man and rescue a tormented child.

This is raw, page-turning action, even though much of it is cerebral rather than physical.

And the background to it all is richly atmospheric too, the rain-sodden landscape a last word in winter dreariness, the support-cast almost entirely comprised of gossips and misery-merchants: metal-head taxi-driver Jason Sweeney is particularly odious and a masterwork of slow-building menace; Trevor Hare, the pub landlord and former cop who becomes Thorne’s confidant in the village, is an opinionated know-all; Linda Jackson herself ranges back and forth between sweetness, light and embittered, foul-mouthed shrewiness; even Stephen Bates is a self-centred oddball and someone you wouldn’t ordinarily root for, and yet such is Billingham’s skill that you end up doing precisely that.

This is one of the best and most unusual police novels I’ve read in quite a while, but it’s not just a procedural. Sexual misbehaviour is a key aspect of this story, especially abusive misbehaviour, and not just where extreme examples like homicide are concerned. But Mark Billingham is a serious writer – he doesn’t do pulp fiction – and as such he handles these heart-rending subjects with a deftness of touch and understanding that elevate the entire thing way above the level of routine tawdry suspense thriller.

Time of Death is an intriguing but grown-up mystery, played out at breathless pace and yet never once straying beyond the realms of the completely authentic. An excellent read.

And here again, just for fun, are my selections for who should take the lead roles if Time of Death ever makes it to the screen (Thorne is no stranger to TV of course; Sleepyhead and Scaredycat – Thorne #1 and #2 – both made it in 2010, and for me David Morrissey and Aiden Gillen were perfect in their respective parts, so I’d see no reason to change that now):

DI Tom Thorne – David Morrissey
DS Helen Weeks – Lorraine Burroughs
Phil Hendricks – Aiden Gillen
Linda Bates – Felicity Jones
Stephen Bates – Arthur Darvill
Trevor Hare – Trevor Eve
Jason Sweeney – Cillian Murphy
Aurora Harley – Anya Taylor-Joy

by James Carlos Blake (2013)

One of the deadliest of the Mexican crime syndicates is the Sinaloa Cartel. Though their home-base is located on Mexico’s west coast, the power they wield is felt nationwide, a grip of fear which is enhanced by the influence they exert over government offices, both local and national, and multiple police departments.

Fall out with the Sinas, and you’re in big trouble. Controlled by two uber-ruthless brothers, La Navaja and his younger lieutenant, El Segundo, both of whom rose to prominence on a tide of extreme violence, the Sinas are renowned for the horrific punishments they will visit on anyone who displeases them. From decapitation, to burning, to being drowned in barrels of rum, even the slightest infraction against their rock-solid rules can invoke the most draconian reprisals.

So, it probably isn’t a good time for young Eddie Porter, aka Eddie Gato Wolfe, a handsome young syndicate soldier of Mexican/American descent, to be assigned guard duty at one of the Sinas’ pleasure ranches in the desert. If it isn’t bad enough that it’s out in the middle of nowhere, there are yet more of those damn rules: the guards are occasionally allowed to visit the local villages and let their hair down, but when they’re on duty, which is the bulk of their time, there is a strict no-drinking and no-whoring order.

Eddie almost goes crazy as he stands and watches while flotillas of Sinaloan underbosses and their sexy consorts come and go, carousing all night and indulging in swimming pool parties that turn into orgies. He is particularly agonised when he sets eyes on the beautiful Miranda, who seems aloof from the other girls, and on the few occasions when he makes eye-contact with her, proves to be friendlier than most. This is not a good thing, because Eddie, an inveterate womaniser back home, simply can’t resist a lovely young girl. In due course, he contrives to introduce himself to Miranda. He’s an arch-seducer, but though he doesn’t expect that she’ll be an easy catch, she falls into his arms with remarkable speed – because gorgeous though she is, Miranda has led a life of abuse and exploitation, and desperately seeks affection.

The star-crossed duo sense that they’ll soon mean more to each other than a quick lay, but their first tryst ends in disaster when it is interrupted by El Segundo himself, who regards Miranda as his personal property.

In the ensuing fight – because Eddie has no choice but to fight – the Sinaloan No. 2 is killed.

Knowing there will only be one outcome from this, and that it won’t be over quickly, Eddie and Miranda flee the ranch, and head across the sun-scorched badlands of the Sonora desert, optimistically thinking that they just might make it to the Arizona border before their offence is discovered. Needless to say, they are wrong, and pretty soon the full wrath of the Sinas is unleashed in pursuit, including the lethal bounty-hunter, El Martillo, and his sidekick, El Pico, a top-notch tracker and incurable bar-room philosopher.

The odds are stacked against Eddie and Miranda, who from the get-go travel with a fatalistic air, as if it will only be a matter of time before they are snared. However, they do have one advantage. Eddie is related to the Wolfe clan, a smaller crime syndicate, whose main gig is weapons-smuggling, and who are transnational in nature, which means they contain both Mexican and American personnel, and their activities straddle the Border. As soon as Wolfe clan matriarch, centenarian Aunt Catalina, hears about Eddie’s plight, she sends two of her favourite nephews, Rudy and Frank, to assist. They might be less professional than El Martillo and El Pico, but they too are good at what they do.

The Sinas have their rules, and perhaps the most famous is that when someone defies you, he/she dies. But the Wolfes have strict rules too, not least that when one of theirs is in trouble, they bring him safely home …

There is no doubt that the Mexican crime cartels are among the most frightening in the modern world. With their immensely long reach, and a willingness to use unprecedented levels of grotesque violence – not just to enforce their will on rival mobsters, but to terrorise the civilian population as well – they are a crime author’s dream.

It may be a tad insensitive to put it in those terms, but they really are. As monstrous opponents go in crime fiction, the Mexican cartels are a genuinely terrifying presence even on the written page. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen them as deadly as they are here in The Rules of Wolfe.

And it is this which provides the concrete base for this searingly intense piece of border noir.

You can’t help feeling for young heroes, Eddie and Miranda. Though they’ve undoubtedly been naïve idiots by inviting this disaster into their lives, they are up against monumental opposition. Not just because the Sinas are so powerful, but because they also must escape across Mexico’s sun-baked badlands, and then make it over the border, which in itself is a huge thing. The hardships that befall them know no end: dust storms, heat, thirst, highway robbers, corrupt cops.

Despite all this, they manage to maintain their good humour and their love for each other, and such is the skill of James Carlos Blake’s writing that they don’t to this unconvincingly. They get battered and hurt, they’re constantly frightened. Miranda transforms from seductive beauty into exhausted roadside wastrel. Eddie goes from cocky young buck to responsible (but somewhat grizzled) adult, as he isn’t just physically injured, but tortured by the knowledge that he’s been the instigator of this terror. And yet still they press on, looking out for each other, sharing a quick kiss on those few occasions when they get the chance. This stoical determination to spend the rest of their lives together is genuinely heart-wrenching, too – because all the way through you have an overarching suspicion that it’s unlikely to happen.

In comparison, on the US side of the border, trouble-shooting cousins, Frank and Rudy, are less colourfully drawn, but if this is a weakness, it’s only a minor one. In essence, they too are syndicate operatives, but though they regularly do business with Mexican mobsters, their trade is in guns rather than drugs or people. However, in the fashion of the Old West, because Frank and Rudy, and all the rest of the Wolfes, can trace their roots back to a hard-bitten Tex/Mex family who were here in the bad old days, they are no strangers to lawlessness when it suits them. They keep it low key, but they have their own rules and their own family loyalties – as embodied by Wolfe clan matriarch, Aunt Catalina, who is vividly portrayed by Blake despite making only a couple of appearances. Even so, it’s a big thing to challenge the Sinas. They go about it in workmanlike fashion, dealing professionally with each situation (some of which are pretty visceral, so be warned!), and you certainly get the feeling that if anyone can help Eddie and Miranda, it’s going to be Frank and Rudy – but you can’t imagine that even these two will emerge from this conflict unscathed.

And it’s in this driving, ferocious narrative where the book really comes alive.

Blake rattles the action scenes at us like machine-gun bullets, working each violent encounter tirelessly to create non-stop tension and fear. And even when Eddie and Miranda aren’t involved in blazing gun-battles, when they’re waiting in cantina car parks, for example, or moving in slow, heavy traffic, there is an atmosphere of fast-encroaching evil, a sense that even if the nice-looking family in the next car could be sadistic killers just awaiting their moment. But there is also a darker depth to this book, a strand of undercutting despair, because this kind of thing is all-too-real in modern day Mexico, and this is reflected in the deep seriousness with which Blake treats his subject-matter (Kirkus didn’t refer to him as ‘the poet of the damned, who writes like an angel’ for nothing). The killers are depicted through a near-true crime lens, the manner in which they soullessly go about their terrible business – dismembering and beheading with neither deranged glee nor gut-thumping horror, but emotionlessly, doing what they do simply because they’ve following orders and can’t conceive of anything else – more than hints at real life atrocities.

On which subject, Blake also handles the crossing of the US/Mexican border with real expertise, painting a harrowing picture of the dangers that migrants routinely face, primarily from the criminal classes who encircle this sort of activity like sharks, but also from unsympathetic officialdom. It’s a sobering lesson in this era when so many of us are casually annoyed by the sight of migrants attempting to force illegal entry into other countries without any real clue what they might be fleeing.

I really enjoyed The Rules of Wolfe. I’ve seen it mentioned alongside such classics of the dope wars as Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, and while I wouldn’t perhaps go that far, because yes, this is at heart a rollicking action-thriller, it also has those other dimensions of cruelty and darkness which put it up there among the very meanest of its kind.

As always, I’m now going to attempt to put together my own cast on the off-chance The Rules of Wolfe makes it to the screen (and it’s really got to in this age of no-holds-barred TV; I, for one, would bring new meaning to the term binge-watch, if it did). I doubt anyone will listen to my views on this, of course, but I’m going for it anyway, because it’s fun. Here are my picks:

Eddie Gato Wolfe – Diego Luna
Miranda – Ana de Armas
Rudy – David Giuntioli
Frank – David DeSantos
Aunt Cat – Lois Smith
La Navaja – Demian Bichir
El Martillo – Danny Trejo
El Pico – Carlos Espeljel

by Giles Blunt (1989) 


Thirty-something New York artist, Nicholas Hood, has it all. Married to a beautiful and sensitive wife, Susan, who also happens to be an acclaimed professional musician, he owns a comfortable Manhattan apartment and shares a spacious studio with his best friend, Leo Forstadt. His paintings sell reasonably well; not sufficiently to make him rich, but they are appreciated enough to occupy space in a nearby gallery, where they are regularly viewed by art-lovers and critics alike, which means that his name at least is known.

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 …

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

by Steinar Bragi (2011)

In the aftermath of Iceland’s financial collapse, two young couples and dyed-in-the-wool townies, Hrafn, Vigdis, Anna and Egill, ostensibly friends though there are many strains in their relationships, take a road-trip into their country’s barren, cinder-strewn interior. They have half a mind to check out the unique natural environment, and maybe photograph some glaciers while they are there, though the reality, one suspects, is that they are simply trying to escape from personal pasts that have gone badly awry.

The couples themselves are not entirely happy with each other. They have strong sexual bonds, we come to learn, but the two men, having lost money during the recent crisis, are depressed and struggling, Egill slipping into alcoholism, Hrafn trying to make up his losses by selling drugs. In contrast, the two girls, who perhaps having led worthier professional lives, were less affected by the disaster but now are required to tolerate their menfolk’s misery and cynicism.

If this isn’t difficulty enough, the road-trip itself goes chaotically wrong.

It is out in the middle of nowhere when the travellers are engulfed in an almost unnatural fog, skidding off the road, hitting the outer wall of a crude, rock-built cabin and writing their car off in the process. The cabin’s two occupants, a strange old woman and her even older and infinitely stranger husband, come out to assist and bring the shaken foursome indoors – but there is an air of panic about this, and once everyone is inside, the weird duo promptly sets about barring every door and window.

And from here, the mysteries really begin to flow.

The old couple clearly were not impoverished once but evidently are now. More to the point, their isolated farm is all but a ruin, and surely cannot provide from the arid lands surrounding it. The twosome offers a refuge for their unwilling guests, but are generally non-communicative. For example, they give no explanation for the remains of slaughtered animals which seem to litter the vicinity of their wind-battered stead. Likewise, when Hrafn, Vigdis, Anna and Egill try to get their bearings by exploring the area, they come across the remnants of a village which now lies empty and gutted, with no trace of its former occupants but a palpable air of menace; and as before, no coherent explanation is forthcoming from the elderly couple.

The stranded foursome makes several attempts to get back to civilisation, but events conspire to thwart them. Increasingly, we feel – to our incredulity – they are settling here. And this is despite the legends of the Icelandic interior, which are really quite disturbing, as harsh a terrain as you could find anywhere, nothing but rocks and dirt stretching to every horizon, and some weather from Hell, including a tumultuous and prolonged grit-storm.

Soon, they are treating the farmhouse as their own and virtually ignoring its actual owners, who, oddly, seem to accept this, though deep down, we suspect, they know something our four hapless heroes don’t. It is certainly the case that Hrafn, Vigdis, Anna and Egill spend far too much time waging their own petty wars against each other, brooding on their past failures and taking it on themselves to investigate the deep interior of the cabin – another internal wasteland! – to notice that something very unpleasant is waiting outside …

If books were to be awarded marks for strangeness, then The Ice Lands would be up there with the best of them. Because this is one weird tale, and sorry though I am to admit it, I don’t necessarily mean this in a good way.

To counter that, I wouldn’t say that I found this novel disappointing – it’s an engrossing read, centred around an intriguing mystery – but I did find it dissatisfying. That possibly owes more to the way it was sold, at least in the English language version, than it does to the author’s original intention. In what must be considered a golden age of Nordic crime thrillers, and amid a growing awareness of Nordic horror, it was maybe a bit cheeky of the various blurbsters to pitch The Ice Lands as a tale of darkness and dread. I mean, it is a tale of darkness and dread, but it’s also a lot more than that … we quickly reach the stage, for example, where the narrative itself becomes less important than its subtext.

It’s beautifully written, the awfulness of the desolate locale handsomely described. As you’d expect from a poet, Steinar Bragi can certainly create stark and lasting imagery. But despite this, and despite its enthralling opening, The Ice Lands is not so much a story about four people in peril as much as it is an assessment of Iceland, both the country and the people, and where they stand in the turbulent world of today.

First of all, we have this scenic and yet near-prehistoric landscape, an unforgiving volcanic topography on which only the toughest and most ruthless creatures could ever eke out a living. It is soulless, merciless, a directionless wilderness that seems to go on forever, an illusion (if it is an illusion!), which only intensifies under the horrific Arctic weather, which alternately freezes and fogs the tired foursome stranded in the midst of it.

If that isn’t message enough that this is potentially a bad place, this inner desert is littered with the near-unrecognisable ruins of those who didn’t make it: animals reduced to bones and carrion, human habitations so long abandoned and weather-worn that it’s impossible to tell who once lived here or why they left.

In addition, the undercurrents to all this are those terrible legends of the Scandinavian far north. Trolls, kobolds and other goblin types abound in Icelandic folklore, but you learn at an early stage in The Ice Lands that these are not the cute fairies of English back-garden tradition. Instead, they are malign powers who resent the intrusion of modern man with such venom that they will kill, kidnap and maim in response. (It’s probably worth mentioning that the folkloric references with which Steinar Bragi peppers his book are among its creepiest passages, depicting some extremes of supernatural evil, so it’s scarcely surprising that the country’s bleak interior was a region that travellers sought to avoid in earlier times).

Then, on top of this, we have our main cast, a thirty-something foursome, all of them damaged, distressed and wearied by their experience of modern urban life.

Bragi has been accused of oversimplifying things here, by opting for a crude form of political correctness. I don’t entirely agree, though I can see where the argument has come from.

Hfran and Egill, the men, are basically idiots. Having played the markets in empty-headed fashion during Iceland’s economic boom of the early 2000s, only to crash and burn during the banking collapse of 2008 – to which disaster they have responded in the most boorish way possible, Egill is now a drunk, Hrafn a criminal. It’s almost as if the author is pointing out what he considers to be a characteristic male response to a crisis: i.e. ‘If I personally must fail, then I will damage everything around me en route’. In sharp contrast, the two women, Vigdis and Anna, a journalist and a therapist respectively, are harder workers and more altruistic in their worldview – which of course would be laudable, except that neither of them seems willing or able to separate herself from her worthless other half, plus they each display their own irritating follies, and so they themselves are not beyond criticism.

Overall though, I think the book’s characterisation is the bit where, for me, The Ice Lands loses a little of its power.

Hrafn, Vigdis, Anna and Egill are cyphers or exemplars, stereotypes with a purpose rather than individual personalities. They each come with an awful lot of back-story, though this feels forced, in my view, making them more like fictional characters than real people. It doesn’t help, either, that their dialogue sounds stilted, their arguments are unconvincing, their sex scenes feel contrived and their response – or lack of such – to disturbing weirdness (not to say terrifying threats), jars badly even in a tale which is only superficially a horror story. 

I wouldn’t say this killed my interest in the book, but it was something of a distraction (particularly the latter point).

All this said, it wouldn’t be true to say that there isn’t something genuinely eerie and affecting about The Ice Lands. Okay, it’s not a thriller in the conventional sense, and the events leading towards the end of the book are disconcertingly violent and horrible, even if they are a tad puzzling – I struggled to solve the mystery, unfortunately, but that may just be me – but there is something of Robert Aickman and even MR James in the actual setting. This horrible old farmhouse, with all its hidden depths, which, piece by piece, are uncovered and investigated, is deeply discomforting. Why is it here? What purpose did it ever serve in this drear wasteland? Who exactly are its frail and yet ever-watchful custodians? Why do they bar it at night? What terrible thing killed the animals outside? What about the ruined village, etc …?

You won’t need a vivid imagination to realise at an early stage that none of this is going to culminate in a happy ending.

If you’re like me, you’ll probably feel frustrated by some aspects of The Ice Lands, but you’ll also be sufficiently intrigued by all these many uncanny curiosities to stick with it to the end, and if you’re not put off by the increasing incidents of gore and are not dissuaded by an ever-greater atmosphere of approaching doom – you’ll keep going and will draw something out of it even if you’re not entirely sure what that is.

I don’t think I can confidently recommend The Ice Lands to traditionally-minded thriller or horror fans, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you prefer your fiction to come from the dark side.

It won’t be easy casting this one, as my knowledge of Scandinavian actors is not as broad as it could be, let alone my knowledge of Icelandic-born actors, so it’s fortunate this is just a bit of fun. Anyway, here we go: if The Ice Lands ever makes it to film or TV, and what an interesting project that would be, here are my picks: 

Hrafn - Stefán Karl Stefánsson
Vigdis - Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir
Anna - Anita Briem
Egill - Gísli Örn Garðarsson

by James Lee Burke (2009)

In the dusty southwest Texas town of Chapala Crossing, nine young Thai women, prostitutes by trade but double-hatting as drugs mules, are smuggled across the Mexican border and then machine-gunned to death, their mangled corpses bulldozed into the ground behind an abandoned clapboard church.

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.

Meanwhile, the corpses are uncovered by veteran lawman, Sheriff Hackberry Holland. We’ve met Hack before in James Lee Burke’s writing. A relative of Billy Bob Holland, who stars in a trio of his own novels, Hack was the central character in another Burke novel, Lay Down My Sword and Shield, but that was set an amazing 38 years prior to this one, when he was a vain young lawyer, hard-drinking, self-centred and much more immature than he is today. Now, in Rain Gods, he’s a lean, taciturn old-timer, hard-bitten by his job but also by the demons that continue to haunt him. He can’t get over the loss of his wife, and at the same time is tortured by memories of his POW days during the Korean War, when he was brutalised into betraying his comrades.

Despite all this, aided by his attractive and spirited deputy, Pam Tibbs, hindered by the aggressive and bullish immigration official, Isaac Clawson , and unsure whether or not to trust his semi-indifferent FBI contact, Ethan Riser, Hack slowly starts to make ground on the case. He forms a theory that the trafficked women were hijacked by someone whose main interest was the balloons of heroin in their bellies – and in the process uncovers a nest of viper-like criminality in this quiet, isolated place were previously nothing ever happened.

The problems for Chapala Crossing really began in 2005, it seems, when Hurricane Katrina swept a whole host of organised crime figures westward out of New Orleans. Without doubt the most dangerous of these is Josef Sholokoff, a Russian Mafia boss who now resides in Phoenix, Arizona, but who still exerts life and death control over a whole range of verminous criminals (and who was also probably the ‘owner’ of the murdered Thai women and the drugs they were importing). Not much further down the scale of evil comes rival and big-time Galveston pimp, Artie Rooney, who could easily have organised the hijack, and his hardcase enforcer, Hugo Cistranos. Then there is Nick Dolan, a more complex character – a casino and strip-club owner but also a restaurateur with a ‘family man’ side to him. Dolan is less obviously a gangster; he even has a characterful and law-abiding wife, Esther. The evidence increasingly suggests that Dolan was involved in the massacre too, but Holland isn’t totally buying it. Dolan feels like a classic fall-guy to him.

The real fly in everyone’s ointment, though, is Jack ‘Preacher’ Collins, a religiously inclined serial killer who rents himself out to the highest bidder as an ultra-ruthless hitman. Collins was almost certainly the shooter in the Thai killings – that’s no spoiler as you come to this conclusion early in the narrative – and now he is put on the trail of everyone else threatening to upset the apple-cart. Collins is a particularly difficult guy to deal with, even for those who are supposedly on his side; though he appears sane, he follows his own obscure rules, and there are times when almost any comment – no matter how innocent – may be taken by him as a provocation. Though he’s a Bible reader, this doesn’t prevent him regarding himself as the literal scourge of God, and a guy who, though self-admittedly ruthless, is always correct in his beliefs and actions. To complete the all-round maniac picture, he dons a fedora and a trench-coat when he’s on the job, and wields an old-fashioned Thompson submachine gun, so he looks more like a bootleg era gangster than a modern-day assassin – and the blazing, multi-round overkill of his attacks only reinforces this.

Holland and Tibbs, meanwhile, find themselves in one high-risk situation after another thanks to two of Rooney’s less intelligent but still very dangerous sidekicks – Bobby Lee Motree and Liam Eriksson. As if that’s not enough, their investigation gains no real assistance from FBI chief, Riser, who doesn’t really care what happens in Texas so long as the case eventually shows him a way to snare the really big fish in this pond, Josef Sholokoff.

Add to this dust-laden devil’s brew Holland and Tibbs’ repressed romantic relationship, which is causing them no end of problems because it’s distracting them both from their work, and you have a pair of local – to a certain extent ‘hick’ – cops who feel increasingly out of their depth.

Meanwhile, Flores and Gaddis remain on the run, moving from one so-called safe place to the next, but Jack Collins and his crew are only ever a couple of steps behind. There have been plenty of killings up to this point; the badlands of South Texas have surely never seemed badder or bloodier than this (hence perhaps, several references to the nearby Alamo!) – but we know in our bones that this situation is likely to get a whole lot worse before it gets better …

Rain Gods pulls James Lee Burke out of the Louisiana bayou, where his more regular hero, Detective Dave Robicheaux, pursues trigger-happy criminals of the swampland variety, and pitches him into the no less picturesque environment of another iconic Deep South back-country, the Texas southwest, where the landscape is barren and drifting with tumbleweed and the towns desolate and windblown. 
Despite this, comparisons between Hack – who now features in three novels, this being the second – and Robicheaux are going to be inevitable, though this is mainly in terms of the central character.
Robicheaux is also an alcoholic loner cop with a hell-raising background. And though younger than Hack, he’s not younger by a great deal. In addition, the two cops share a similar laconic air, and are often lost in introspective musings. 

But, you know … I don’t care.

If you pick up a James Lee Burke novel, or indeed any novel by an author you admire greatly, it’s hardly the case that you’ll hope or expect that this time he is going to speak to you in a different voice. And anyway, Rain Gods is an exquisite piece of crime fiction. It’s what you’d call a border noir or a rural noir, rather than a Southern Gothic – if such things actually matter – and it’s subsequently soaked with atmosphere. And as you’d expect, of course, it is beautifully written. In many ways, this has become James Lee Burke’s trademark, and the standout difference between him and so many other crime writers, his descriptive prose flowing deliciously and yet non-intrusively. Some reviewers have complained that maybe there is a little bit too much of this, and that it’s all just a touch too colourful and poetic for a hardboiled crime novel. But judge for yourself; check out this early, scene-setting paragraph at Chapala Crossing:

On the burnt-out end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression and was now home to bats and clusters of tumbleweed. Next to the filling station was a mechanic’s shed whose desiccated boards lay collapsed upon a rusted pickup truck with four flat bald tyres. At the intersection a stoplight hung from a horizontal cable strung between two power poles, its plastic covers shot out by .22 rifles.

Intrusive? Overly poetic?

Not a bit of a it.

For me, it’s perfect, dropping you straight into the time and place, totally capturing the heat, the sweat, the dust, the chirping of the cicadas in the creosote bushes, not to mention the rugged, dangerous aura of a wilderness outpost where the law hangs by a thread.

Character-wise, Burke does his usual amazing job, presenting us with a tough but vulnerable hero. Hackberry Holland is your archetypal seen-it-all oldster, a veteran peace-officer whose been in the job almost as long as he can remember and never seems to be off-duty. The result, he’s now a pillar of plain-spoken morality and a shrewd judge of character, who doesn’t suffer fools. Underlying all this, of course, is sorrow and regret for the many errors and losses of his past. He might be a septuagenarian, but Hack is still damaged goods, someone you might in real life find a little bit scary but at the same time someone you can root for. He’s also a survivor, a modern-day Wyaat Earp, the kind of cool, gruff customer who’s emerged from lots of gunfights because he knows to go into them with his gun already drawn.

Pam Tibbs is a perfect foil. Younger than Hack, but not a young woman, she too has been around, done it, seen it, etc. She is now old enough and wise enough to see past her boss’s craggy exterior, and to empathise with and adore the manly heart that is buried somewhere deep inside. She’s also a career cop, long-serving, authoritative, fearless in confrontation and very handy with a firearm. For all that she’s tough on the outside, though, a very pleasant lady lies within, which, thanks to some skilled writing, we learn about through her interactions with others rather than because we are told about it.

The atmosphere between these two literally crackles. It’s not merely that they are attracted to each other, it’s the fact that they are all each other has got in this harsh desert world, and that they become ever more aware of this as the tide of villainy rises around them. 

On the subject of Rain Gods’ villains … well, once again we are in vintage James Lee Burke territory, dealing not just with amoral scoundrels, but with complex individuals too, men who have no concern whatsoever for the fate of anyone other than themselves, but who are still able to function in the real world, who are much more than just Old West-style desperadoes. Some of them think only of the next pay-cheque, but others want to get out of this – they’re become frightened by the craziness of it all and fancy a taste of ordinary life, even if that’s something they’ve never known.

Nick Dolan is a perfect example. A Jewish guy who grew up on the wrong end of racist abuse, he knows what it’s like to be powerless and picked on, and so, though he’s a pimp by trade (among other stuff), he shies away from cruelty and wants to do good things too. He genuinely loves his family, and for their sake wants to start going straight.

At the opposite end of the hoodlum spectrum sits Josef Sholokoff. To a certain extent in crime fiction, Russian mobsters are the villains of the moment. With an unlimited capacity for violence, revenge and intimidation, they are the ogres and giants of the 21st century, the enemies who there’ll never be any option other than to eliminate. Sholokoff is one of the least well-developed characters in the book; he only appears in one scene, but it’s a nerve-rendingly scary moment, the guy living like a deranged king amid his court of murderous madmen. It’s little wonder that Sholokoff is Ethan Riser’s main target, the slaughter of nine drugs mules seeming irrelevant when stacked against his day-to-day acts of routine evil.

If Sholokoff is an uncharacteristically thinly-drawn character in Rain Gods, that’s not a real problem for me. His role primarily is to be the elemental force, the dark storm in the distance. The more immediate war occurs between law officers Holland and Tibbs and Preacher Jack Collins.

Collins is the criminal we spend most time with in Rain Gods and is therefore the most multi-layered in terms of personality. And what a personality it is. He is utterly insane; that is plain, but he’s not a homicidal maniac. His oblique attitude has evolved over many years of involvement in violence and bloodshed. But he adheres to his odd beliefs rigidly, which leads him to spare some you’d expect him to kill and kill others you’d expect him to spare. His daily reasoning is often impossible to penetrate. You might go out of your way to assist him, but don’t expect thanks. Don’t expect anything, because you could do him a really big favour – and his response might still be to pull the trigger on you. I can’t say too much more about Collins for fear of spoiling the story, but this is one wonderful and genuinely chilling bad guy. From the very outset, Hackberry Holland and Pam Tibbs have a real job on their hands with this character, not to mention Pete Flores and Vicki Gaddis, who you imagine could keep on running to the ends of the Earth and they still wouldn’t be safe.

I found Rain Gods a thumpingly enjoyable thriller, and a very, very fast read. Everything is so visible; you can smell it, you can feel it, you can see it. The people in the book are real, the landscapes dramatic, and the situation as frightening as any you’ll encounter in mystery thrillers. James Lee Burke is widely regarded as a literary lodestone, and with very good reason. When it comes to noir, whether it’s deep in the Louisiana swamps, or out on the sun-scorched badlands, his prose lives and breathes – at least, as much as the heat and dust and flying bullets allow it to. Rain Gods yet again proves that he’s an emperor among his kind.

Of course, Burke has been adapted for screen many times, but on the basis that I don’t think Rain Gods has had that pleasure yet, I’m now going to do my usual thing and nip in first with some suggestions for casting. Only a bit of fun, of course – who would listen to me (even though I think all of these actors would be superb in the respective roles)? It would be an expensive production, mind you. But then, as I always say, I have the advantage of a limitless budget. So, here we go:

Sheriff Hackberry Holland – Jeff Bridges
Deputy Pam Tibbs – Jennifer Connelly
Jack ‘Preacher’ Collins – Johnny Depp
Nick Dolan – Adrien Brody
Esther Dolan – Winona Ryder
Hugo Cistranos – Oscar Isaac
Artie Rooney – Robert Patrick
Pete Flores – Diego Boneta
Vicki Gaddis – Selena Gomez
Ethan Riser – Hugo Weaving
Isaac Clawson – Josh Brolin
Josef Sholokoff – Gary Oldman
Bobby Lee Motree – Joel Edgerton

by Ramsey Campbell (2007)

London-based northerner, Simon Lester, feels that he’s on the verge of making a breakthrough in his chosen career of film journalism.

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.

But yes … now, at last, it seems to have happened.

High-flying academic, and former tutor of Simon’s, Rufus Wall, offers him a commission to write a film studies textbook for London University’s new line, with a £10,000 advance. Simon finally thinks that he’s arrived, but not everyone shares this viewpoint. Natalie will only believe that her beloved’s career is back on track when she sees it, while her parents – Warren and Bebe, who also happen to be Simon’s landlords – remain steadfastly unimpressed, thinking that Simon should get a proper job, and wishing that their daughter was back with her ex, the smooth and moneyed Nicholas (who also happens to be father to her lively young son, Mark).

Of course, Simon, agog with excitement that someone will finally pay him to do what he loves, brushes all this aside in his quest to find a suitable topic for the new book, settling on the career of one Tubby Thackeray, a British music hall clown turned Hollywood silent era comedian, who eventually was blacklisted because his brand of slapstick was so demented that public order situations arose whenever he appeared (some viewers were even said to have lost their minds).

It isn’t perhaps the wisest choice, because Tubby Thackeray really has been expunged from movie history. Encouraged by young Mark, who catches a snippet of Tubby in action and falls in love with the silent era legend – to an inordinate degree, it seems to us, though Simon, typically, doesn’t notice this – he commences his research, but finds it more of a challenge than he expected. Those who allegedly know about Tubby seem reluctant to talk, and the few bits of written information he can find are located at obscure, antiquarian-type events, where he has to leaf through piles of dead newspapers and deal with increasingly strange personalities.

And that’s another thing about this affair … the strangeness.

From the moment, Simon starts looking into Tubby Thackeray, curious events occur. Any useful intel he finds on the internet seems to change from one viewing to the next. He constantly hears deranged cackling from behind apartment doors or on the other sides of bookstacks. In the corners of his vision, he glimpses creepy, grinning, clown-like men, who seem to find his every move – and especially his mistakes – hilarious. When he finally locates some real footage of Tubby, he thinks it radical and inventive for the time, but also dark and disturbing. Was Thackeray really doing comedy, or something much more sinister?

Meanwhile, there are other distractions. Bebe and Warren Halloran are a constant source of discouragement, while the insufferable Nicholas seems to be showing up ever more regularly, which threatens Simon’s relationship with Mark, though even more so his relationship with Natalie, who is turning progressively cooler with him. It’s also an unpleasant development when Rufus Wall foists a new editor on him – Colin Vernon, of Cineassed notoriety – while Simon also makes the mistake of engaging in a chat-room debate with an anonymous but self-proclaimed expert on the silent comedy greats, who goes by the nickname Smilemime. It’s a futile exercise, but Simon finds himself getting drawn in, wasting more and more time arguing with someone he doesn’t even know, and yet who increasingly appears to know him.

At the same time, the people he meets in real life are no less easy to deal with.

Bolshy Manchester man, Charlie Tracy, appears well informed about Tubby Thackeray, but is an awkward and suspicious individual, who no one would want to rely on unless they had to. And when Simon heads to California, to interview Wilhelmina, the granddaughter of Orville Hart, who directed some of Tubby’s movies, he finds her a coked-out porn queen, whose ranch-like home is populated by nubile females of a distinctly weird and predatory nature (and who – and this is Simon’s real concern, given that Natalie is waiting at home – enjoy putting all their conquests on the internet!). 

All this time, meanwhile, Christmas is coming, and Simon feels that a visit home may be necessary, especially when he learns that his native Preston, in Lancashire, once played host to a famous music hall incident, when Tubby Thackeray roused the crowd to much more than laughter. But Simon’s home has a cloying atmosphere all of its own, his mother in the early stages of senility and his father unable to cope, while the derelict theatre where they eventually take him is a horror story in its own right.

And all the while, that background strangeness intensifies, the hapless Simon shifting through altered states as he determinedly tries to ignore the phantoms dogging him during his quest to fully expose Tubby Thackeray, a comic genius and an apparent prince of chaos …

A warning from the outset: if you like your horror stories cruel, garish and filled with blood and violence, then don’t bother with The Grin of the Dark. However, if you’re a cerebral scare fan, and you don’t mind a slow-burn atmosphere, you can’t really afford to miss this one.

Not that Campbell is overly subtle. Make no mistake, there is a real horror at the heart of this tale, and it leaks out through the pores as you work your way along. Much of it is intensely psychological, even though there is no question that we are dealing with supernatural forces, and malevolent ones at that. Simon Lester’s mental disintegration is unrelenting, taking us into a surrealist netherworld of obsession and paranoia, where his seemingly harmless quest to research a long-forgotten comedian doesn’t just see him encounter hostility at every turn, much of it disturbingly irrational, but literally awakens demons.

In many ways, The Grin of the Dark is vintage Ramsey Campbell. We’re in a bleak urban environment where, even though we flit back and forth between London and Northwest England, everything is faded and decayed, which is populated by jobsworths and functionaries so unhelpful as to be almost obstructive, and yet, only thinly disguised by this aura of the depressingly mundane, we sense constant, simmering evil, a near-Lovecraftian presence of the bizarre, which we regularly glimpse – or think we glimpse, because, in classic Campbell style, we can never be absolutely sure.

Simon Lester himself is a typical Campbell hero: an essentially well-meaning guy, a workaday everyman, a little introverted and intellectually absorbed, whose pursuits are innocent if niche, but at the same time someone who doesn’t connect easily with others and is therefore mistrusted (and who, on occasion, needs to man up in his confrontations). But he has a good relationship with Mark, his stepson-to-be, while the strong and personable Natalie has seen something in him that she wants to marry, so we are firmly in ‘good guy’ territory. On top of that, you can’t help but root for the bloke when he encounters so much opposition. His soon-to-be in-laws, Warren and Bebe, for example, are frankly hateful, so hostile to their daughter’s choice of boyfriend, so belittling of almost everything he does that it’s no wonder he appears to lack confidence.

We’re also in traditional Campbell country in terms of several classy horror set-pieces.

It’s an absolute staple of this author’s fiction that low-key creepiness will abound, and The Grin of the Dark is completely true to that. But in addition to these lesser but ongoing tortures, we are also plunged into some epic scare situations, including a head-trip sequence in a run-down circus in the heart of wintry London, and most terrifyingly of all – and this scene is Ramsey Campbell at his very best! – an exploration of the derelict Preston theatre, where a sense of fear is palpable from the moment the investigators force entry, but soon becomes utterly overwhelming.

Ramsey Campbell is not regarded as ‘Britain’s Greatest Living Horror Writer’ for nothing, of course. And even in other scenes, where the terror isn’t as full-on, the air of menace stems from an increasing dislocation of reality. For example, a straightforward presentation that Simon makes to a Tubby Thackeray fan-club becomes a nightmarish ordeal. Likewise, his journey to California to interview the hedonistic Wilhemina Hart, which seems to crash head-on into a follow-up trip to Amsterdam, is a triumph of drug and porn-induced disorientation.

Campbell also makes excellent use of a very new kind of monster, the internet troll.

Simon Lester’s ongoing duel with the creepy madman, Smilemime, which he gets into initially for the right reasons because he’s trying to learn everything he can about the elusive Tubby, soon becomes a hellish narrative in its own right. Not every reviewer has favoured this aspect of the novel, calling it unnecessary and protracted, but for me it works perfectly. The smugly arrogant Smilemime is only one facet of the malignancy Simon seems to have disturbed, and it’s a very potent one. This part of the book also serves as a sobering lesson to the rest of us about the futility of engaging online with shallow, nameless narcissists who may demonstrate countless shortcomings – spelling, grammar, etc – and yet who will always win because they are content to spend all day/week/month (as long as it takes) doing nothing other than trying to get the better of their perceived opponents.

All through the book, of course, and this is perhaps the real success of The Grin of the Dark, the evil Tubby lurks close by, constantly on the verge of breaking loose – even though he only physically appears in snippets of crackly film or sepia-toned newspapers. Needless to say, on those few occasions when we do see him, he is a demon lord, seeming to combine every strange and menacing aspect of those heavily made-up, wildly gesticulating comics of the gaslight age, performing antics so outlandish that you can easily imagine it having a damaging effect on audiences not used to such onscreen anarchy.      

I should add that not all reviews of The Grin of the Dark have been hugely positive. Ramsey Campbell has a unique style. He conceals clues which, if you miss them the first time around, may mean that you have to roll back a few chapters to check again. Certain readers haven’t appreciated this, though I think it’s an acceptable and clever device. Likewise, others have expressed impatience with the clown factor, calling it a cliché, and indeed there are clowns aplenty in this book, not just Tubby himself, though – and I stress this – these are no axe-wielding maniac clowns of the modern-day slasher variety. All their manifestations are connected to that golden age of comedy, and, once again, to those extreme and harrowing lengths so many silent era practitioners went to in order to immortalise themselves.

At the end of the day, in an age when horror suffers almost permanently from bad press – so many writing it off as gory, derivative nastiness, Ramsey Campbell is still one of the genre’s great breaths of fresh air. A skilled and intelligent writer, he has the ability to lay out deep, macabre mysteries and to invoke genuine chills from the most everyday situations, plucking at nerves we scarcely knew we had, all the while shedding barely a drop of blood.

The Grin of the Dark is a great example of this, recounting a complex but genuinely frightening tale and setting it in a world that closely resembles ours and yet is increasingly and distressingly off-kilter. If you’re a horror fan and you haven’t yet read this one, you really need to. 

It’s one of the great puzzles to me that Ramsey Campbell’s work – and it constitutes a vast body – has never (to my knowledge) received any kind of film or TV treatment. I’ve constantly told myself that some kind of adaptation must only be around the corner. His short stories in particular scream to occupy a ‘Christmas chiller’ slot, but in the absence of that, for the moment at least, we can only fantasise – which is what I’m going to do now. Here, as usual at the end of one of my reviews, is a personal take on who should make up the cast-list should The Grin of the Dark ever hit the screen.

Simon Lester – Jack O’Connell
Natalie Halloran – Ellen Page
Warren Halloran – Gabriel Byrne
Bebe Halloran – Veronica Cartwright
Charlie Tracy – Stephen Graham
Rufus Wall – Dexter Fletcher
Colin Vernon – Chris O’Dowd
Wilhelmina Hart – Jennifer Love Hewitt
Tubby Thackeray – Bill Skarsgård

by James Carol (2014)

Consultant behavioural science profiler, Jefferson Winter, has a unique insight into the minds of serial killers … mainly because he himself was fathered by one. When young Jefferson watched his evil genius parent die by lethal injection, he had no idea that his path in life was set.

“We’re the same,” the malevolent old man told his son through the bullet-proof viewing port of the execution chamber seconds before the deadly drugs pitched him into the next world. But this wasn’t entirely true, because, expert though he soon became in the ways of depraved murderers, the adult Jefferson eventually joined the good guys’ team. And though he commenced his career as a profiler with the FBI, he now carries the good fight all over the globe – in short he’s a profiler-for-hire, and a top-gun freelancer when it comes to cracking the psychological makeup of the world’s worst violent offenders.

In Broken Dolls, his very first outing, he’s been summoned to London by an old mate, Detective Inspector Mark Hatcher, who is struggling with a particularly distressing case.

An unknown maniac has been abducting women, shaving their heads, torturing them at his leisure and then lobotomising them, releasing them back onto the streets as wandering relics of the people they once were: broken dolls with no lives left to call their own.

Even Winter, who’d thought he had seen it all, is taken aback by the horror of this enquiry. There are four victims to date – a quartet of truly tragic cases. Obviously none of them are able to help with the details of their abductor. But then another woman goes missing; attractive but bored housewife, Rachel Morris, who disappeared on a blind date with a strange personality she encountered online.

Winter, in company with the beautiful and spirited DS Sophie Templeton, finds himself racing against the clock to prevent the zombification of another innocent victim, though on this occasion it’s entirely possible that the kidnapper may have bitten off more than he can chew – because Morris is the estranged daughter of London mob boss Donald Cole, who is desperate to assist in the search for her any way he can. This certainly interests Winter, but whether it will prove to be a help or a hindrance remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Rachel Morris finds herself imprisoned in a purpose-built torture chamber. The debonair chap she was secretly on her date with, the aptly-named ‘Cutting Jack’ – who has a penchant for unfaithful wives – is determined to put her through a living hell before finally taking her mind and her memories away …

Broken Dolls is a different kind of crime thriller from the norm in that we see things through the educated eyes of a criminal profiler rather than the instincts and street-smarts of a hard-assed detective. Some British reviewers have commented negatively on this; Jefferson Winter – a rather smug character, it has to be said, who doesn’t even carry a badge any more – popping over to the UK and showing Scotland Yard’s best how the job should really be done. But I didn’t get that feeling (and James Carol is a British writer, so I suspect his use of an American hero is more about gaining his books an international profile than about teaching the Brits what’s what). In any case, it all works. Quantico was the birthplace of modern-day offender profiling, and the FBI are still recognised as world-leaders in the field, so in that regard nothing jars for me. Plus, as I intimated previously, the approach in this novel is all quite original.

Instead of seeing doors kicked down, suspects leaned on and forensic clues painstakingly gathered, we see Winter dashing around at breakneck pace but also constructing a gradual and detailed psychological portrait of his anonymous opponent. The author has clearly done his research here – it all feels very authentic as he slowly and convincingly gets into the mind of his demented antagonist.

Which brings me onto the book’s personnel.

Jefferson Winter is an unusual kind of good guy. He’s affable, a straight-talker and driven to do the right thing – all stuff we like. But there are oddities too. Though he’s only young, thanks to a physiological anomaly he has a full head of snow-white hair – and yet he’s no white knight. It is hinted all the way through the book that Jefferson has inherited some of his father’s genes, and he constantly needs to battle against baser instincts. He particularly lusts after Sophie Templeton, though thankfully keeps most of that in check.

Needless to say, this is an aspect of the book that hasn’t been to every reader’s taste – some have even labelled it ‘misogynistic’. But I disagree with that. Winter is a single guy who likes gorgeous girls, which I don’t consider to be particularly offensive. He also admires Templeton greatly for her detective skills, so it isn’t purely a physical attraction between them. However, his horrific start in life has affected him in other ways too. Winter is good enough at what he does to make a lucrative living as he hires himself out to one police force after another, yet deep down he is still frightened and uneasy about the state of his own mind, and his Sam Spade-esque bravado is primarily a disguise. He is nowhere near as self-assured as he may appear.

Templeton meanwhile is so sexily described (it’s a little overdone, if I’m absolutely honest) that you’re tempted to picture one of those impossibly well-coiffured lady cops you get in American TV dramas, but this is offset by her feisty nature and upper class tone, which juxtaposes nicely with the hardboiled Winter, and helps create a cool if somewhat unlikely crime-fighting duo.

As for the villain, Cutting Jack … he is without doubt one of the most twisted criminal lunatics I’ve yet come across in crime fiction, though this does lead me to one slight criticism: there is an awful lot of torture in this novel.

Protracted scenes of cruelty and pain don’t do a great deal for me, but by the same token I don’t think they’re completely unnecessary here. Broken Dolls is essentially a race against time – the killer already has his next victim in chains and is currently playing with her; at some point soon he’s going to hammer his orbitoclast through her eye-socket and it’ll all be over. If we were purely to watch Winter and Templeton as they race about the snowy London streets doing everything they can to close ground on a faceless madman, it wouldn’t be half as effective. As things are, though it isn’t pleasant dwelling on the pain of doomed captives, the terror and tension in these scenes is almost tangible – every time the maniac enters through the dungeon door, you wonder if this is going to be it for housewife Rachel. And it isn’t just torture that Cutting Jack indulges in. Once you’re in his grasp, all kinds of unexplainable weirdness occurs – but I won’t say any more about that for fear of spoiling things. Put it this way, there are surprises galore in this narrative, and very few of them are nice.

I strongly recommend Broken Dolls to lovers of hard, dark crime fiction. It’s no comfortable read – not by any means, but even so I rattled through the pages, all the time hearing an imaginary clock ticking down to what might be yet another ghastly incident. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s quite a rush.

I’m reliably informed that a US TV show following Jefferson Winter’s various exploits is already in development, but maybe, if I’m bold enough, I can get in early with some casting suggestions. As usual just for the fun of it, here are my personal picks for the lead roles in Broken Dolls:

Jefferson Winter – Damien Lewis
DS Sophie Templeton – Jenna Louise Coleman
DI Mark Hatcher – Shane Ritchie
Rachel Morris – Katy Cavanagh
Donald Cole – Ray Winston
Cutting Jack – James Frain

by Michael Connelly (1992)

Hieronymous ‘Harry’ Bosch is an astute, hard-working detective with a sharp eye and a mean-as-sin attitude, not just with the crims, but even with his fellow cops if they aren’t doing the job properly. On top of that he’s well known in his native Los Angeles, having closed some high profile cases and even seeing some of his exploits fictionalised in a pacy TV show (as a result of which he was able to acquire himself an enviable pad high in the Hollywood hills). He ought to be one of the stars of the LAPD’s elite Robbery-Homicide Division, but there are more than a few strikes against him.

First of all, he speaks his mind, even to the brass. Secondly, he likes to go it alone, taking chances and following leads even if the rest of the team aren’t up to speed, his personal safety a secondary consideration. Thirdly, and most recently, he uncharacteristically used excessive force in his pursuit of ‘the Dollmaker’, a serial killer whose grotesque, crypto-artistic depredations had the whole city terrified. Having shot the guy dead while he was unarmed, Bosch was bound to come under the microscope, but in the highly politicised world of the LAPD’s higher ranks – where the unashamed jockeying for position is an embarrassing art-form all of its own – it was the perfect opportunity to divest the department of a loose cannon, hence Harry was busted down to Hollywood Homicide, where he would be safely out of the public eye.

Bosch is a professional, though, and gets on with the job, and when sent to check out a body found in a drainage pipe near the Mulholland Dam, he doesn’t share everyone else’s casual assumption that this is just another junkie who’s OD’d, even though the body is that of Billy Meadows, a known heroin addict who has died with a hypo in his arm. Harry doesn’t merely call on his basic detective skills to deduce that Meadows was murdered, he also recognises the victim personally.

A Vietnam vet, Bosch was once part of an infantry unit whose speciality was underground infiltration, pursuing the Viet Cong through their limitless networks of tunnels. Meadows was part of the same outfit, which, given that his corpse was dumped in a tunnel, is surely no coincidence.

This is not a comfortable time for Bosch, evoking memories of the Vietnam War, which he’s never really been able to bury deep enough, but more worrying still, the so-called ‘Black Echo’. This was the coronary-inducing terror the ‘tunnel rats’ used to suffer when crawling on all fours in pursuit of their foes through the midnight labyrinth of the jungle underworld. Its return to the forefront of his memory makes everything a lot harder, not just for Bosch, but for all those in his company.

Inevitably though, he elicits little sympathy from the top floor, Lieutenant Harvey ‘Ninety-Eight’ Pounds supportive but only to a superficial degree, Deputy-Chief Irvin Irving uninterested in anything that doesn’t make him look good and particularly untrusting of a non-team-player like Bosch. The net-result is that two ambitious but highly prejudiced IA officers, Detectives Lewis and Clarke, are put on Bosche’s tail, and even when his enquiry leads him to a 10-month-old bank heist pulled off by a team who tunnelled into the vault, which sees him hooking up with a specialist anti-robbery FBI unit, these bloodhounds won’t give him a minute’s rest.

Even the FBI alliance proves problematic. LA Bureau boss, John Rourke, is okay man-to-man but irritatingly by-the-book where Harry is concerned, while Special Agent Eleanor Wish, whom he’s partnered with, while initially antagonistic to him for his solitary attitude (and habitual chain-smoking!), eventually comes to like him, but remains an enigma (and a beautiful one to boot!), and it doesn’t at all help that Bosch finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.

Needless to say, nothing about this investigation is going to be anything like as straightforward, routine or danger-free as was initially imagined …

It may seem vaguely ridiculous to be reviewing The Black Echo now, when, over the 28 years since its first publication, it’s grown exponentially into a world-famous 21-book series. But in case you were wondering where the whole Harry Bosch saga started, this might be of interest.

To begin with, Bosch is in so many ways the quintessential loner cop, though he wasn’t the first. Even back in 1992, Dirty Harry predated him by over 20 years. But the most interesting thing about the Harry Bosch story is that it’s all set within a convincing LAPD environment. He doesn’t go around remorselessly shooting people anyway, so there was never a chance he’d come to match Harry Callahan’s scorecard, but even if he was inclined to, in this carefully structured, very authentic world he wouldn’t be allowed to get anywhere close to it.

The one or two shootings he is responsible for see all kinds of departmental and disciplinary fallout, and even though one of the victims is a proven serial killer, it complicates Bosch’s life and career no end.

Former Los Angeles Times crime reporter, Michael Connelly is quite determined from the outset that his hardboiled hero is going to wend his ‘lone wolf’ path through as realistic a law enforcement world as possible, with all the attendant difficulties that will create. Near enough every unit in the Los Angeles police is thus brought to our attention. Reconstructed in intricate detail, not just in terms of its function, personnel and position in the pyramid of power, but also in terms of how it feels and looks. The stresses and strains between these departments are made crystal clear, while all protocols and procedures are outlined in depth and there is a whole load of cop lingo, including an exhaustive range of abbreviations, which not every reader has appreciated, though again I personally feel that it adds to the novel’s credibility.

It’s pretty much the same with the way Connelly, a native Philadelphian, treats Los Angeles, running us around the city a lot, using real streets and neighbourhoods, and completely catching the mood and atmosphere of this sun-soaked but schizophrenic metropolis. In this regard alone, there is much superb descriptive writing on show, scenic LA sunsets over streets buzzing with disorderly nightlife, high, heat-hazed views of Universal Studios alternating with claustrophobic journeys through a maze-like underworld where junkies sleep amid spent needles and the city’s shit flows in rivers.

So, okay. We’ve thus far got a warts-and-all police guidebook and a picturesque LA travelogue. But does it work as a thriller?

Well, don’t worry. No one’s going to mistake The Black Echo for anything else, or for not being a genuine classic of its kind.

In addition to the realistic backdrop, there is all sorts here that you’d expect to find in any and every fictionalised account of American crime-fighting. For example, no maverick cop would be complete if he didn’t have a terrible family background (orphanned in Bosch’s case, after his prostitute mother was murdered!), if he didn’t give lip to his supervisors, if the top brass didn’t mistrust him and subsequently if there wasn’t a posse of incompetent IA guys constantly trying to find ways to bring him down. We’ve got all that, as well as the high-falutin ambitions of the LAPD upper echelons, who are constantly seeking to outwit each other in their quest to be Mayor. The Feds, meanwhile, as is also often the case, are portrayed as well-resourced but unwelcome interlopers who are never really rated by real cops because they haven’t worked the streets.

It could be argued, and indeed has been, that this is a whole clutch of modern-day cop thriller cliches, which, no matter how well it all hangs together, hits us with nothing new. But none of this spoiled it for me. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if it did spoil it for you, what else were you expecting?

So bureaucratic is the real-world law enforcement machine in the West, especially with prosecutors (the DA’s Office in Bosch, another group of slick individuals who’ve rarely, if ever, been close to the action) now so deeply embedded in it that you can’t imagine there’d be much to get excited about day-to-day. Everything’s a team effort and by the book, the whole thing cloaked in health and safety considerations and politically correct minutiae.

Seriously, guys, where’s the fun in that when you’re looking at fiction?

Bosch himself is a more intriguing character than usual. Yes, he’s the hero, but he’s also pretty spiky. And he really doesn’t suffer fools lightly, not even allowing for junior cops’ inexperience. At times, he’s not even remotely likeable, even aggravating the reader (especially when he cuts so much slack to his partner, Jerry Edgar, who, double-hatting as a real estate man, is mostly more interested in selling houses than in making cases against villains). But again, for me this is a hint of the real. Nobody’s perfect, Bosch least of all.

His background as a Vietnam ‘tunnel rat’, though you know it’s going to play into the story, certainly adds to his character, giving him a grim and fatalistic air, but also a dogged attitude to work, which only complements his street-knowledge and well-honed analytical skills. Detective is one of the most difficult and demanding roles in police-work, but Harry Bosch feels like he was made-to-measure for the part; an outsider, yes, but just the kind of humourless and sharply observant guy you’d want investigating when complex and dangerous scenarios like this one come along. 

All in all, Harry Bosch was, and still is, one of the most compelling characters in police fiction. Yes, he may in some ways be an archetype – hardbitten to the core, deeply misunderstood and completely unconcerned by it – but he’s still one of the best realised and makes for an excellent morally upstanding hero.

It’s difficult to advise this now, the Harry Bosch series being as old and well-established as it is. But if you’re about to start on it, go back first to the pre-high tech world of The Black Echo. It combines action, intelligence and frank, hardcore cop stuff, and though tightly and tautly written, is readable to the nth degree. It’s easily one of the best of its kind. 

There’ll be no amateur casting session for an imaginary movie version this week, as Prime’s Bosch TV series has been running since 2014, cutting and rewriting many narratives to suit a new era, but maintaining the Neo-noir tone and atmosphere all the way through, its star, Titus Welliver (pictured right), inhabiting the lead’s hoary old mantle like a second skin.

(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)

Now is definitely not the ideal time for ex-NYPD cop and Maine-based private eye, Charlie Parker, to find himself embroiled in family-related legal matters, though I suppose there is never a good time for this kind of sadness.

Egged on by her domineering father, ex-partner Rachel has finally decided that Parker’s career is far too dangerous for their young daughter, Sam, and so is looking to the courts to restrict his access to her. Already denied one daughter, Jennifer – who was murdered along with her mother, Susan, (Parker’s wife) in a previous book, and yet whose ghost continually and very tenderly watches over him – the wearied investigator is left horrified by the prospect of this, and yet is helpless to resist. At the same time, he finds himself dragged into a particularly mystifying investigation, when his ever-secretive FBI handler, Edgar Ross, puts him on the trail of another PI, Jaycob Eklund, who dropped out of sight while looking into a series of historic murders and disappearances which have occurred all over the US.

Distracted by these big problems at home, but with his usual thorough professionalism, and assisted by ex-mob associates, Louis and Angel, Parker gets on the case, and almost immediately makes an unusual discovery – all the unsolved crimes that Eklund was investigating appear to be connected to reported hauntings. And that would be ‘hauntings’ in the traditional sense of the word, as in involving ghosts, spectres and the like.

This curious development then draws to his attention to the so-called Brethren, a cult-like group of the 19th century, whose leader, Peter Magus’s determination to live away from society, to rule his clan the way he saw fit, and to provide for them by murdering and robbing any outsiders who wandered too near, ensured their eventual destruction in a Waco-type apocalypse, and their immortalisation by romanticists as the Capstead Martyrs.

Except that the Brethren didn’t totally die out.

Before their final destruction, Magus had invoked what he believed were ‘angelic’ powers to ensure that his people would find the strength to resist punishment in the afterlife, though it isn’t long before Parker starts suspecting that, in actual fact, these powers have originated from somewhere else entirely (and what a moment that gives us, later on in the book). Either way, the Brethren not only still survive in American society today – secretly but murderously, as exemplified by the deadly and incestuous Kirk and Sally Buckner, whose phoney suburban lifestyle masks a truly venomous reality – but also on the ethereal plane, where their tortured spirits remain a real force to be reckoned with, and where they have used their psychic energies to zone in on Parker as a potential threat to their existence.

While all this is going on, Parker meets a pair of more earthly foes in the shape of Mother, the weird but scary matriarch of a declining New England crime family, and her odious son, Philip, who are also determinedly investigating the case and keen to know everything the PI knows. As if this isn’t enough, several villains whom Parker has encountered in previous novels also make an appearance. The Hollow Men, another vicious group of disembodied souls (he first met them in The Unquiet, Charlie Parker 6) and an obsessive serial killer, the Collector, (who first appeared in The Wrath of Angels, Charlie Parker 11) are drawn steadily into the case, piling on the pressure at a time when he really doesn’t need it.    

It isn’t often that Parker feels the odds are stacked against him in a way that may prove insurmountable, but perhaps it was always bound to happen at some point …

Once again, John Connolly disproves the oft-aired maxim that you can’t mingle the modern-day crime thriller with supernatural horror. By my reckoning, A Game of Ghosts is now the 15th outing for super-intuitive private eye, Charlie Parker, and once again he’s walking a narrow line between the real world of organised crime and professional killers and the more nebulous realm of cults, covens and ghosts – but as always, the author pulls off the resulting complexity with his usual aplomb.

If there is any weakness to A Game of Ghosts, I think it’s probably that, 15 books in, the author no longer feels as much of a need to ease the genres together, and so newcomers to Charlie Parker may find it a curious blend.

What’s this? It’s got the air and tone of a hardboiled noir, and yet suddenly we’re talking about the undead!

If that’s the case, the only suggestion I can make is that you’d have been better starting at the beginning of the series rather than coming in so late (so go back to the first book; it’s not like you won’t enjoy it!).

Of course, those already familiar with Charlie Parker’s exploits will feel right at home. It’s not just the intriguing and never-less-than pacey story-telling that makes these novels such a delight, nor the endless right-angle turns in the narrative, which feel purpose-designed to throw you off kilter – it’s the style and verve with which they are written.

John Connolly’s slick prose and crackling dialogue are among the very best in the business, and I don’t say that lightly. In addition, the Parker books are liberally laced with the author’s signature mordant wit, which, certainly in the case of A Game of Ghosts, had me laughing out loud on several occasions, sometimes only a page or so after the hair on my scalp had prickled.

And yet, for all these light-hearted undercurrents, and despite the presence of beings from beyond –which in this one includes some real in-yer-face horrors (just wait till the finale!) – Connolly never loses sight of the fact that he’s writing a serious novel which also concerns itself with vile criminality. Various kinds of human barbarity are on show here, or at least are referred to. At times, the book almost switches into gritty ‘True Crime’ mode, taking us from gangland enforcement and torture (on occasion unstintingly described!) to rape, serial murder and so forth – in all cases, the casual disposal of human beings by creatures who are beyond amoral, and yet dealt with so matter-of-factly that it sets your skin-crawling.

Of course, such starkness hugely underscores the heroism of Parker and his trusty sidekicks, Angel and Louis, all three of whom, despite their many flaws (the latter two comprising a former hit-man and a thief), fearlessly tread these paths in their ongoing war against evil. And yet – and it’s particularly the case in this book – we focus too on the trio’s many vulnerabilities, which endears them to us even more: in A Game of Ghosts, for example, Angel is suffering health problems, which become an increasing cause of concern as the book goes on, both for Parker and Louis, and for the readers (some of these scenes are genuine tear-jerkers), while Parker himself is in the midst of his drawn-out domestic car-crash.

Isolated even more than usual from his estranged family, thanks to the legal shenanigans of his in-laws, and missing his two daughters (one living, one dead) desperately, as well as finally starting to feel the bumps, bangs and sprains of his chosen career, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the tough, two-fisted hero as tired and forlorn. It leaves you rooting for him more than ever, obviously, but the author handles these sequences with great pathos, never once straying into schmaltz.

Connolly is on equally great form when it comes to the secondary characters, especially the villains, who come in all shapes and sizes, though I do think that Mother and Philip, a demonic duo of heirs-apparent to a once-successful but now failing crime faction, are particularly abhorrent. Mother is a monster in almost every sense of the word, except that she’s clear-sighted and has no issue with doing the right thing if it suits her purposes, whereas Philip, equally a monster – a truly weird one – has the added disadvantage of being stupid, which means that he can’t even guess what’s around the next corner, let alone prepare for it: we suspect from the outset, with more than a little eager anticipation, that things aren’t going to go well for Philip.

But all this makes for a wonderful page-turner of a book. Assuming you like a touch of the darker stuff, A Game of Ghosts is John Connolly’s usual – a classy, expertly written thriller, spine-chilling and compelling in equal parts, pitching the reader into a world of supernatural make-believe but pumping up the hard-edged crime factor to a point where you’re absolutely convinced that it’s possible.

And now, as always, I’m going to round things off by trying to cast the book, should it ever make the screen. Frankly, given the success of the Charlie Parker series, I’m amazed this hasn’t happened already, though the last time I heard John Connolly opining on the subject, he didn’t feel that anyone serious had made a viable offer yet (things may have changed since then, of course). On top of that, there’d be the not inconsiderable issue that this is no. 15 in the series, so we must suspend belief and assume that all of the previous books, or some of them at least, have already been adapted, using the same essential cast that we have here. That may be a big ask, but hey! … this is my blog, so I can do what I want, yeah? 

Charlie Parker – Hugh Jackman (surely looking for a new introspective hard-man role now that Logan is finished)
Rachel – Vera Farmiga
Sam – Mia Talerico
Sally Buckner – Reese Witherspoon
Louis – Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Angel – John Leguizamo
Mother – Judi Dench
Philip – Marc Warren
Edgar Ross – Sam Neill
Don Routh – Mark Pellegrino
The Collector – Jared Leto

by Tom Cox (2018)

The debut collection of stories from a highly accomplished novelist, journalist and essay writer, who previously has written profoundly and entertainingly about animals and the countryside, but also about music and sport. This is his first collection of supernatural(ish) fiction, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s strongly flavoured with folklore.

Initially, rather than simply list all the stories contained here and tell you what happens in each one of them, I’ll let Unbound’s official online blurb do the talking as it strongly hints at the spooky stuff lurking inside:

Inspired by our native landscapes, saturated by the shadows beneath trees and behind doors, listening to the run of water and half-heard voices, Tom Cox’s first collection of short stories is a series of evocative and unsettling trips into worlds previously visited by the likes of M. R. James and E. F. Benson.

Railway tunnels, the lanes and hills of the Peak District, family homes, old stones, shreds fluttering on barbed wire, night drawing in, something that might be an animal shifting on the other side of a hedge: Tom has drawn on his life-long love of weird fiction, folklore and nature s unregarded corners to write a collection of stories that will delight fans old and new and leave them very uneasy about turning the reading lamp off.

After all that, the main problem with Help the Witch is going to come if readers tune in expecting a bunch of traditional rural or folk-themed horror stories, because if they do that, they are almost certain to be disappointed. The blurb above describes Tom Cox as a kind of heir-apparent to MR James and EF Benson, but in my opinion that’s a little misleading.

Of course, both James and Benson were a lot more than simple ghost story writers, the former a medievalist scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, the latter a famed novelist, biographer and archaeologist. But everything about Help the Witch, from its jacket art, to the splendid illustrations inside, to the blurb on the book’s inner sleeve implies that what we’re in for here is a collection of stories cut from the cloth of the uncanny.

That isn’t solely the case, though I don’t mean to say that Cox – who’s a truly excellent writer – doesn’t delve more than a little bit into that eerie world. Two stories in particular, the titular Help the Witch and Just Good Friends (of which more about later), are both exquisite chillers centred around real characters with complex emotions, and hauntings (of a kind) which come at us very subtly and genuinely frighteningly (even though Cox is not aiming for anything like the degree of terror that James and Benson routinely achieved).

Also classifiable as ghost and/or horror stories are Listings, an account of a weird haunting as relayed through a succession of news reports, magazine items etc running far into the future, and The Pool, wherein the turning seasons cause the malignant energy lurking beneath a woodland pool – an intriguingly unknowable entity – to wax and wane in terms of its power. Both comprise top quality wordsmithery by Cox, though the first tale is almost experimental in terms of its narrative style, while the second is a detailed and very lyrical study of the natural environment of the English woodlands rather than an actual scary story. (Again, more about these two later).

Beyond that, though, I’m not sure that every piece in Help the Witch did it for me. Perhaps I just didn’t think deeply enough, but contributions like Seance and Nine Tiny Stories About Houses seemed like existential oddities, even though the former is quite amusing, while another one, Robot, had the air of something that had been penned quickly and without a great deal of purpose.

I reiterate, however, that Tom Cox is a fine writer. Even those stories that didn’t endear themselves to me as chillers are skilled and poetic in their execution. But overall, it wasn’t quite what I felt I’d been led to expect. Folk-horror is a subgenre of supernatural fiction already well populated by established masters and mistresses of the form – Reggie Oliver, Steve Duffy, Helen Grant, Adam Nevill, Sarah Singleton, to name but a few – and that would be stiff competition for anyone.

But ultimately, it’s in the eye of the beholder. I can only say what I personally felt, and even I, who am not 100% sold on Help the Witch, consider that at least half the book, if not more, is well worth the price I paid for it. So, go on … grab a copy, yourself, and see what you think. There is a bit of something here for everyone.

 And now …

HELP THE WITCH – the movie.

Just a bit of fun, this. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but they are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for 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 which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that all find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (al la Dead of Night) or are the subjects of unsolved paranormal cases handed by one retired and decrepit investigator to a young up-n-comer (al la Ghost Stories) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Just Good Friends: Helen, a beautiful 30-something, is unlucky in love until she meets the gentle, enigmatic Peter, who she is strongly attracted to despite their relationship remaining platonic. Things are finally warming up between them when Peter inexplicably claims that he’s always known her and has been following her since she was young. Unnerved by such weirdness, Helen breaks the relationship off and gets a new boyfriend, only to develop an urge to return to her native Cornwall to see her ailing mother, Alice, and investigate the mysterious old seaside house that she increasingly remembers from childhood …

Helen – Claire Foy
Peter – William Moseley

Listings: The story of a bad place on the edge of the Somerset marshes. A human habitation, but a spot where various houses, pubs and the like have all been troubled by a mysterious, malevolent entity who may or may not be Tunk, the fearsome, sheep-headed goblin of local West Country myth …

(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).

The Pool: A scenic woodland pool with a mysterious, anonymous something lurking in its opaque depths exerts a subtle evil influence over all those who venture near it, no matter how fun-loving they are or innocent their motives. ...

(Again, it’s up to the screenwriter to come up with a cast-list for this one, as no specific character provides a focus for the tale).

Help the Witch: Jeff, an academic on the run from an irrevocably broken relationship, heads north into the Derbyshire Peaks, where he takes a primitive cottage high on a valley edge just in time to get snowed in by a terrible winter. It is probably not the best time to discover that the cottage is haunted by a spirit still lingering after the ghastly carnage of the plague era …

Jeff – Ben Whishaw
Catherine (voice only) – Lena Headey

ed by Dan Coxon (2018)

One of several recent anthologies of short stories brought out to celebrate the current and expanding interest in British folk-horror and the British folk-weird, though I think in this case the emphasis is more on the latter than the former despite editor Dan Coxon’s selection of stories by some very familiar and much-lauded horror writers. This Dreaming Isle comes to us from Unsung Stories, an independent, London-based imprint already responsible for a range of intriguing titles from a host of up-and-coming authors.

Before we get into the meat of the anthology, here’s what the publishers themselves have to say about it in their back-cover blurb:

Britain’s long history of folk tales, ghost stories and other uncanny fictions shimmers beneath the surface of this green and pleasant land. Every few generations the strangeness crawls out from the dark places of the British imagination, along literary ley lines, seeping into our art and culture. We are living through such a time.

This collection of seventeen new horror stories and weird fictions draws upon the landscape and history of the British Isles. They walk the realms of folklore and legend but are firmly rooted in the present, calling to the country’s forgotten spaces. The ghostly figures half-hidden by mist, the shadows in city corners, and the violence of the sea, battering the coastline relentlessly. The land dreams them all.

Featuring exclusive stories from Ramsey Campbell and Tim Lebbon, Jenn Ashworth and Andrew Michael Hurley, join us as we reclaim the dark heart of Britain’s literary legacy.

Unsung Stories have a self-stated aim to focus on literary fiction, and there’s no doubt with The Dreaming Isle that they’ve hit that target from the start. There is some immensely high quality writing on show here along with some very subtle story-telling. Whether the tales themselves will all be to everyone’s taste is another matter, but the technical skills of the authors Dan Coxon has brought together are beyond doubt. There isn’t a clunker in the book, every contribution a smooth and well-crafted piece of speculative fiction and a pleasure to read.

The folk aspect is also heavily to the fore, the book set now, in contemporary Britain, with all the bleak ugliness that sometimes entails, and yet is richly atmospheric of an ancient land steeped in mystery and tradition, so much of it drawn from the landscape itself and the seasons and customs that continuously transform it.

Whether it’s classifiable as ‘horror’ is, as I say, up for debate. But we are firmly in the realm of the weird, and there is much here that will disturb and unnerve the average reader even if it doesn’t necessarily terrify them.

Rather oddly, I thought, the book is divided up along geographic lines. We have a rural section, an urban section and then a coastal section. To me, though I wouldn’t be so bold as to try to establish the criteria for what folk-horror is or must be, I’ve always thought that one aspect of it at least is a concern about what lies just below the surface of modern society. Therefore, cities and towns are not special cases. Just because all the henges, holy wells and green ways that once occupied their sites have now been swept away by conurbation, that doesn’t mean the latent powers aren’t still there. But this is really a minor quibble. It’s the editor’s choice and it doesn’t really spoil anything, so I’m probably being pedantic just mentioning it.

Of the stories themselves, several from all these sections I can comfortably categorise as traditional spook stories, albeit spook stories written with panache … and though the horrors aren’t always subtle, they don’t bludgeon the reader either.

Possibly the best example of this is the first story in the book, The Pier at Ardentinny by Catriona Ward. This is an excellent piece all-round and ticks every box for me personally. It’s also the most typically horrorish in the book (for want of a better term) in that it features a disturbed central character being taken away from a terrible past to an apparent place of safety, only to be confronted by something even worse. (More about this one later).

Even more traditional than this in that it’s immersed in a more familiar legend, Alison Littlewood hits us with The Headland of Black Rock, in which a past-it actor who has used and abused women all his life takes a solo holiday on the Cornish coast and is immediately bewitched by a beautiful girl he sees strolling in the surf. It’s a well-trodden horror path, but as always with Littlewood, the quality of the prose carries you through at speed.

A similar theme of deserved comeuppance lurks in James Miller’s Not All Right, the first story in the book to take us into the city. In this one, a right-wing agitator and general layabout comes to London to look for a top job and while he does, stays in his powerbroker uncle’s posh flat. But the building is eerie as well as swish, and he never feels quite alone while he’s there. A slick, exquisite tale of creeping paranoia.

Back to the countryside again, and two more tales displaying classic supernatural tropes.

The ever-reliable Stephen Volk’s Cold Ashton is laced with righteous fury about bigotry and ignorance, but it doesn’t forget that it’s a horror story either, so it doesn’t completely dismiss the worries and concerns of the uneducated past, and ends on an intensely televisual (and rather spine-chilling) note. (More about this one later too). Then we have Kirsty Logan’s Domestic Magic, which gives us our second Scottish Highlands setting of the anthology, and evokes another ancient and unnerving piece of local mythology, the gradual emergence of which becomes progressively scarier. (More about this one later as well).

Over to the coast now, where one of the true masters of modern horror, Ramsey Campbell spins another of his unapologetically terrifying psychological yarns, The Devil in the Details. As always with Campbell, though there are snippets of local folklore embedded in this tale, the nightmarish qualities owe more to the inner demons of its disturbed and isolated characters, but the quality of the work, as ever, is supreme. (Yes … more about this one later too).

On the subject of damaged psychology, speculative fiction, by its very nature, is an art form made-to-measure for addressing the human condition, and This Dreaming Isle doesn’t let us down on that score.

Jenn Ashworth’s Old Trash maintains a semblance of the classic mythological horror story, but is ultimately more interested in the interplay of its juxtaposed characters as a tired but concerned mother struggles to get her wayward daughter out of an inappropriate relationship by treating her to a camping trip in the wilds around Pendle Hill, at the same time trying to ignore the local myths about roaming devil dog, Old Trash. You’ll never look at a tent the same way again.

Another dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship is on show in Alison Moore’s The Stone Dead, which sees recently separated mum, Lesley, living in an isolated coastal house where she is regularly visited and tormented by her own disapproving mother. It’s a truly agonising scenario, and something, you feel certain, is eventually going to give. 

Perhaps the subtlest tale in the book, though, comes from Aliya Whiteley. In Dark Shells, she takes the guise of an OAP whose mind is now drifting, and yet who is able to relate disjointed stories from her past to an interested researcher. There are eerie secrets buried in these tales of course, but the story’s greatest strength, for me at least, stems from its completely authentic portrayal of an aged person struggling to recollect, link and articulate the key events in her life.

Now, from the personal canvas of the inner self to the much broader canvas of the land.

It’s surprised me in recent years how much the folk-horror subgenre has become fixated on ‘the land’. But that is just me being unimaginative. The notion that everything about us is written there, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, is increasingly a subject of analysis in this field. And let’s be honest, the idea that the land itself – the rock forms, the forest, the marsh, the windswept coastline – is the key to our existence is hardly new. Throughout all of human history, we’ve worshipped it, we’ve fought over it, we’ve ruined it, we’ve regenerated it, we’ve played out every drama in our lives across every part of it. No wonder it’s fuelled so many of our fantasies and dreams. While we’ve changed as the millennia have rolled by, the land itself hasn’t, apart from superficially. We shouldn’t be surprised if everything about us, including everything we’ve ever believed, is somehow recorded there, layer upon layer. Not all of it, of course, good.

Inevitably, this key note is hit several times in This Dreaming Isle, though always in different, imaginative ways. The most startling example for me is surely Gareth E Rees’s very clever The Knucker, which sees different strands of history entwine to create the legend of the Knucker, a terrifying sea-dragon said to have terrorised England’s South Coast during the Dark Ages, and at the same time provide a ‘locked room’ mystery for 21st century cops when two travellers are found drowned miles from the nearest water-source. Meanwhile, another master of the lyrical horror story, Tim Lebbon, brings us his own unique take in Land of Many Seasons. Here, a lonely artist paints various aspects of a rugged Welsh mountainside at different times of year. Increasingly though, a strange figure keeps appearing on the canvas, which he has no memory of painting. The only explanation may lie in the eerie local legend of ‘the walker’.

Less spooky but no less disturbing, top-stylist Andrew Michael Hurley chips in with In My Father’s House, which also presents us with some very neat character work. In this one, Lancashire lad, Mike, isn’t keen to build bridges with his grumpy old dad, but after the aged parent gets a beating from someone, they reluctantly try to reconnect. Dad is a strange one, these days, though, as Mike discovers one night just before Christmas, on the wide, snowy moors.

Perhaps the most land-oriented of them all, however, comes in the shape of Gary Budden’s melancholy Hovering, in which the central character, Iain, while struggling to recover after the end of a long-term relationship, moves to Pegwell Bay in Kent, a deceptively dreary place, where the ghosts of many different pasts are soon congregating around him.

Of course, none of these affecting stories would pack an nth of the power they do if it wasn’t also for that inner landscape of the human mind, which they each evoke and examine in just as much detail as they do the wild spaces of forgotten Britain.

I haven’t talked about every story in This Dreaming Isle. That’s not because they didn’t all work for me, though inevitably one or two didn’t, but simply because I have to leave some of it to the imagination. But it would remiss of me not to at least mention in passing Robert Shearman’s astonishing contribution, The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand.

Shearman is nothing if not an expert surrealist, and in this tale takes it to new extremes, the central plank of it seeing a male escort hired to lie naked on the floor as a human rug during a decadent Kensington cocktail party, though at no stage is he given a firm answer as to when the ordeal will end. My initial thought after this was that it wasn’t folk-horror, and yet, in truth, I’d never be so bold as to proclaim that. There are multiple meanings to Shearman’s crisply-written and never-less-than-disturbing urban fiction – it’s down to all of us to get what we can out of it. Be warned, though: this tale is more distressing than most.  

And now …


Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware). But you never know. Until that happy time comes, here – purely in the spirit of having a bit of fun – are my thoughts on how it should look and feel were it ever to finish up on the big 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 movie 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 strange and eerie tales (with more of an emphasis on strangeness and dreaminess than usual, in this one, I think). 

It could be that each segment is an unsolved paranormal case, as handed by one retired and decrepit investigator to a young up-n-comer (al la Ghost Stories, right), or maybe their stories are all connected to various items available in a backstreet trinket shop (such as in From Beyond the Grave).

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

The Pier at Ardentinny (by Catriona Ward): Irene’s beauty protected her during her abusive childhood, but she still did bad things. Later, as a repressed adult, she potentially finds love with elderly and respectable Anthony, who takes her home to Scotland. But she’s worried, because rumour holds that if you look into the loch at Ardentinny, the reflection in the waters will reveal your true self …

Irene – Anya Taylor Joy
Anthony – Dougray Scott

Cold Ashton (by Stephen Volk): A Cotswolds scholar investigates a bunch of village documents detailing a 16th century witch trial. He is appalled by the injustice and cruelty meted out to the suspect, Joan Goodchyld, but chilled by the suggestion that whatever dark magic was woven all those centuries ago, the terrible results might still be in the village…

The Investigator– Jason Watkins
Joan Goodchyld – Katheryn Winnick

Domestic Magic (by Kirsty Logan): Same sex couple, Rain and Alison, inherit a tumbledown cottage in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a mess and needs much work, but more worrying than this are the many clues they find seemingly proving the family fable that Alison’s ambitious and ruthless grandma once trapped a kelpie here, and killed it …

Alison – Rose Leslie
Rain – Betty Gabriel

The Devil in the Details (by Ramsey Campbell): Young Brian and his family take newly divorced Aunt Leonie to a drab seaside town on the Northwest coast. But after witnessing a fatal accident, Brian becomes terrified of the mysteriously angelic murals, painted by a renownedly evil man, that seem to cover the interiors of the local stately buildings ...

Aunt Leonie – Annabel Scholey
Brian – All suggestions welcome. I don’t know too many child actors.

by MW Craven (2018)

England’s beautiful Lake District is not the sort of place where you’d expect a serial killer to start claiming victims. But when it does, given the small local police force and restricted road infrastructure in such a wild and mountainous part of the country, it’s a real nightmare.

The Immolation Man, as he has soon been dubbed, has embarked on a reign of terror, during which he kidnaps seemingly random victims (though all of them are older men), holds them prisoner for weeks in some out-of-reach place, and then brings them to their chosen place of execution – each time a different circle of standing stones on Cumbria’s wind-scoured hills – where he douses them with a cocktail of highly flammable chemicals, and burns them alive.

The last person who ever thought he’d be asked to participate in the resulting enquiry is Lake District native and ex-Black Watch squaddie, Washington Poe, even though he is currently living in embittered, self-imposed exile in a rundown farm on Shap, one of the higher, more remote Cumbrian fells. Until recently, Poe was a detective inspector in Scotland Yard’s National Crime Agency, and a highly regarded investigator whose rough and ready methods have often been overlooked because he gets results. However, even Poe can go too far sometimes, and he is currently suspended and basically disgraced after acting on principle in a previous investigation rather than following procedure, the pending outcome of which may see him discharged from the police force altogether.

Poe, furious with all his former colleagues, probably wouldn’t assist in the enquiry even if he was asked, but then the NCA’s Detective Insepctor Stephanie Flynn turns up and advises him that yet another victim has been found, and even though, like all the rest, this one is middle-aged and male, there is a big difference this time as a name was branded into his chest before he was burned – and that name is ‘Washington Poe’. 

Realising he has no option but to get involved, Poe accepts reinstatement into the NCA (even though not all of its top brass approve), and even takes a demotion in rank from DI to DS (though this latter is because Poe rarely works within the normal structures of high-level police investigations anyway, usually preferring to develop his own leads and run them down under his own steam).

Straight away, however, he finds himself up to his neck in unforseen complexity. To start with, this is no ordinary serial murder case. There is more than just cruelty and sadism on show; ritual elements are in evidence too, while the offender is highly organised and efficient. Given that the most recent victim was a local councillor, Michael James, there may even be a political dimension. It’s therefore quite a relief when he is partnered with NCA civilian intelligence analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, an expert computer programmer and online researcher, though whatever she possesses in intellect is balanced out by her astonishing naivety and distinct lack of people skills. In short, Bradshaw is something of an oddball and, as such, is shunned and/or mocked by her civie colleagues while other police officers, even the kinder ones, would rather not work with her.

However, thrown together in this whether they like it or not, and both of them outsiders to a greater or lesser extent, Poe and Bradshaw find that they are natural allies, and, mainly thanks to Poe’s perceptive approach when it comes to dealing with his curious new partner, they quickly form an effective if somewhat eccentric working relationship. And this, of course, can only be a good thing, because the Immolation Man is clearly not going to stop killing.

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 …  

There are three main things that I really liked about The Puppet Show, I mean apart from it being an intriguing, suspenseful and excellently written thriller.

First of all, its setting is marvellously realised. Bleak, rugged locations are not uncommon in crime fiction, especially since the arrival of the Nordic Noir subgenre, but the Lake District, while rugged, is not bleak. It’s astonishing in its Alpine grandeur, its pristine lakes, its enormous skies and awesome weather (sun, snow or rain, you know when you’re in the Lakes). In addition, it’s atmospheric in its ancientness (megaliths, stone circles and prehistoric tumuli are only part of the story), and also in its quaintness; Cumbria’s lakeside towns, in sharp contrast to the fortified farms (a legacy of the reiver clans of old) and tumbledown crofts on its high fells, are ultra civilised, filled with libraries, theatres, art galleries, craft markets, museums, cosy pub/hotels and first-class dining.

And all of this, every aspect of it, is captured in The Puppet Show.

We shouldn’t be too surprised, of course. MW ‘Mike’ Craven hails from that part of the world, and he clearly knows his homeland intricately. And yet, he doesn’t go heavy on all this. The Puppet Show is not a Lake District National Park tour-guide. We do manage to travel all over it during its action-packed 342 pages, but it’s all relevant, and it informs the plot. We’re not just sightseeing here. This is a cop-thriller first and foremost, and yet Lakeland is always there, an extra character, if you like, but an important one too. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve read any book that it is as wrapped quite so effectively and at the same time so non-intrusively in its environment.

The second thing I really liked is The Puppet Show’s authenticity.

Mike Craven was a probation officer before he became a full-time author, so you’d expect him to know his stuff. And he really does.

In this novel, though the Lake District is a remote region, modern policing is to the fore. This is the National Crime Agency after all, possibly the most modern outfit, in every sense of the word, in the whole of the British police service. But again, Craven doesn’t overdo this. All the procedures are there, all the latest methods and the brand-new technical back-up are duly referenced, but none of it gets in the way.

In fact, if anything, through the proxy of Washington Poe, Craven vents his frustration at this. Electronic form-filling, divisional protocols, legal minutiae and other types of 21st century officialdom all feel like unnecessary jobsworthisms to Poe, who’s the kind of cop who just wants to get out there and investigate, to use boot-leather and common sense. He particularly despises the kind of bureaucratic red tape that prohibits officers from exercising judgement and discretion.

Yes, it’s all here in The Puppet Show, the complete present-day police experience. On one hand you have the super-efficient, super hi-tech and yet hidebound world of the National Crime Agency, as exemplified by patrician Director Edward van Zyl and even more so by Deputy Director Justin Hanson. And on the other, you have the lone-wolf detective, Poe, who’s not a maverick – he’ll happily play by most of the rules – but who is so eager to get the job done that he’s as frustrated by the etiquette of modern policing as he is by the villains.

I say it again, Mike Craven was a probation officer, not a cop, but he clearly worked with the cops. Because from this debut novel, he knows his stuff inside-out.

And this, I guess, brings us neatly to the characters, which are the third aspect of this novel that I really enjoyed.

There are two main personalities here, Poe and Bradshaw, and what a unique pairing they are.

Indicrectly, we’ve already assessed some of the most appealing aspects of Washington Poe. He’s basically a man’s man, gruff; self-reliant, a little taciturn, but affable too in the right company. A fairly typical male character, I suppose, in the world of cop writing, but that’s only half of the story.

Because while Poe is the primal creature, the elemental force, the instinct-over-analysis, Tilly Bradshaw is the cerebral side of the equation. And together, they make a near-perfect whole.

But Bradshaw has her own personality, too, and it was a fascinating decision by the author to place at the heart of a story like this, which has the potential to be hugely distressing (to the readers, yes, but also to the characters in the tale, particularly those with some political acumen), a character who is introverted and overly sensitive, who is untrusing of others, has very little self-awareness and is even slightly autistic. And she’s not been brought in purely to be a victim. Far from it. I mean, she is victimised on occasion, as anyone in that situation would be in real-life, but Poe, though he at one point strong-arms someone who’s been relentlessly bullying her, does not fall into the role of permanent bodyguard. Bradshaw does not need that. She is incredibly smart, possessing great deductive powers, and is very computer-literate. In the modern age of policing, these are vital assets.

In purely technical terms, of course, this is a clever device by Craven. In future books, I can easily envisage Poe coming to rely heavily on Bradshaw, not just as his quick hook-up to the internet and personal mine of information, but also as his thinker and adviser. But that’s not all it is. The relationship is charming and works very well at a narrative level, the bullish Poe disarmed by Bradshaw’s innocence, the nervous Bradshaw reassured by Poe’s strength and energy. They’re hardly peas in a pod, but such is the skill of the writing that their relationship develops throughout The Puppet Show in a pleasing and completely convincing way.

Overall, this novel is a long way from being your average serial killer thriller. It’s never what it seems, twisting and turning continually, and moving at great pace. And of course, you’ve got that wonderful backdrop too, and that feeling that this is the real deal – that this could happen exactly as Craven relates it Then you’ve got those characters, whom you empathise with from the word ‘go’.

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.  

And now, as always, in anticipation of its inevitable development for film or TV (the Lake District is begging for its own cop show), I’m going to be a cheeky sod and try to cast the main parts in this beast. You never now, at some point, some producer or casting director may take heed of this column. Anyway, just for laughts, here we go:

DS Washington Poe – Nick Blood
Tilly Bradshaw – Ella Purnell
DI Stephanie Flynn – Joanne Froggatt
DS Kylian Reid – Harry Lloyd
Gamble – Ron Donachie
Hanson – Adrian Rawlins
Van Zyl – Mark Gatiss
Bishop Nicolas Oldwinter – Richard Wilson 
Hilary Swift - Maria Doyle Kennedy   

HIVE by Tim Curran (2012) 

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 … 

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?

Yes. Undeniably.

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)

When the world’s population is decimated by an incurable and rapidly expanding plague, mankind’s last hope rests with maverick scientist Clayton Nelson and his team as they test a possible solution at the foot of the Challenger Deep (40,000 feet below the ocean’s surface). But when all contact with the submarine base is suddenly cut – seemingly at Clayton’s own whim – the only remaining option is to send down his brother, Luke, to try and talk the nortoriously erratic genius around.

But Luke and Clayton, having shared a nightmarish childhood, don’t get on very well, and in any case there are things lurking down there that are beyond the normal comprehension of most human beings.

Make no mistake, the events that follow comprise pure horror – for all sorts of reasons ...

Never has the terror of deep sea exploration been as fully and vividly realised as it is here. Nick Cutter takes us down through untold lightless fathoms to a realm that is alien in every sense of the word; an environment where oxygen itself turns toxic, where the tiniest chink in the hull could create an incoming jet of water so intense it will slice a man in half, and yet where native creatures exist that have no place in any sane creation. But it isn’t just the twisting of physics and biology that bedevils the reader’s mind here, it is Man’s helplessness in the face of it. With Hell triumphant on the outside, on the inside of the claustrophobic sea-base the foulness and disarray is horrendous; the sense of besiegement under millions of tonnes of crushing black water is overpowering. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book to which my most overriding response was “thank God I’m not there”.

And if all that isn’t bad enough, then there is the actual enemy – a force of evil crueller and more terrible than anything ever encountered on the ocean floor before (and just imagine what that actually means). A sentient something that will play catastrophic havoc with human minds, not to mention their anatomy, purely for reasons of its own fascination. To say more about this would be a real spoiler, but put it this way, there are some occasions when wickedness knows no bounds – quite literally; neither intellectual, spiritual, nor even physical. There are points in this novel where you must be prepared to be very disgusted indeed.

At the same time, Luke Nelson, a likeable hero in every possible way, is no more than an everyman. A veterinary surgeon, who by pure luck – pure bad luck in this case – happens to know the egomaniac scientist well. He has no skills of his own that he can bring to bear in this demonic zone, no specialist knowledge. His battle-scarred military sidekick, Lieutenant Alice Sykes, aside from being a submersible pilot, is in a similar position. The desperate twosome find themselves completely at the mercy of forces beyond their imagining, and yet somehow they must not just endure, but must save the world with their actions.

This an amazing piece of fiction. Another against-all-odds ordeal for the characters involved,  which races along at whipcrack speed and yet is written with great visual elan, including the complex technical stuff, which Cutter never shirks, but presents to us in quick, slick, easy-to-understand fashion. It is is also both horrifying and terrifying – in that numbing, near-nihilistic way that always seems to earmark those ‘adventures’ occurring on the very edge of human reality. An oceanic horror classic.

As always, and just for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if we ever get to see The Deep transferred to the screen:

Dr. Luke Nelson – David Franco
Lt Cdr. Alice Sykes – Charlise Theron
Prof. Clayton Nelson – James Franco

ed. by Ellen Datlow (2018)

Widely esteemed editor, Ellen Datlow, the creator of innumerable top-class horror anthologies, finally turns her informed gaze to the ocean. The result is this hugely imaginative and varied collection of chilling tales set around and beneath the sea. 

First of all, rather than outline each contribution on a blow-by-blow basis, I’ll let the official Night Shade blurb prepare the ground, as that nicely hints at the salt-scented horrors you can expect.

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.

In The Devil and the Deep, award-winning editor Ellen Datlow shares an all-original anthology of horror that covers the depths of the deep blue sea, with brand new stories from New York Times bestsellers and award-winning authors such as Seanan McGuire, Christopher Golden, Stephen Graham Jones, and more.

I’ve always been a lover of the sea. I sail it whenever I can, I poke around its edges, I delve beneath the surface. Its legends, of course, are utterly fascinating, not to mention chilling. Even without them, it would be easy to imagine unspeakable horrors lurking in the fathomless gloom of the deep. No wonder the ocean has hit us with so many tales of ghosts, monsters, mermaids, lost cities, sunken wrecks. With all that in mind, how could I resist this particular anthology, especially as it had been put together by one of my favourite editors?

So … did it live up to my expectations?

In so many ways, yes. That said, its diversity of non-conventional themes also caught me a little by surprise, though it really shouldn’t have done. Ellen Datlow is a horror editor of eclectic tastes. I should have expected from the outset that she’d be less interested in Hodgson-type tales of krakens and gillmen, or sci-fiey trips into the abyss to uncover lost extraterrestrial artefacts, instead preferring much more intellectual and thought-provoking concepts.

Such as Siobhan Carroll’s Haunt, wherein an 18th century cargo ship is damaged by a monsoon and then haunted by the spectral form of a slaver, its crew picked off one by one, even those who regret their former involvement in the infamous trade. Or Ray Cluley’s The Whalers Song, in which a Norwegian whaling vessel is holed below the waterline and its crew washed up on a desolate, mysterious shore, which is strewn as far as the eye can see with the bones of sea-going mammals.

I think it could be argued that not all the stories are essentially connected to the sea. Simon Bestwick’s straightforward and very well-written Deadwater, which follows the fortunes of a habour-side waitress and her determination to investigate the drowning death of her depressed friend, is more about people than the ocean, though the author’s neat prose and ever-perceptive analysis of damaged relationships (not to mention his mischievous and highly effective use of unreliable narrative) creates a fine opening entry for the book.

Even more removed from the roaring reefs and abyssal depths is Bradley Denton’s A Ship of the South Wind, which at first glance is a bit of a cheat as it’s set amid the oceans of grass on America’s great plains of the 19th century and derives from frontier tales about so-called ‘wind wagons’, which allegedly saw pioneers of the Old West attach sails to their wheeled rigs in order to enable swifter travel across the prairie (though there was a real ocean there once too, we are also reminded). Though perhaps the most ambiguous of all the stories in The Devil and the Deep, and the one least concerned with the physical reality of our oceans, is Stephen Graham Jones’ entertaining curiosity Broken Record, in which a shipwrecked traveller is stranded on a comic-strip desert island, and the only ten things he is able to salvage are the ten essential items he was asked to make a list of when he was a child. There isn’t a great deal of horror in this one, but it’s certainly a head-trip.

All that said, this antho is not entirely po-faced and deadly serious. Michael Marshall Smith plays it for laughs (a little of the schoolboy variety, it has to be said) in Shit Happens, the tale of an executive jamboree on the Queen Mary, which finds itself disrupted by a zombie/cannibal outbreak.

At the same time, other stories lean more towards the traditional. Fodder’s Jig by Lee Thomas and What My Mother Left Me by Alyssa Wong concern themselves with monsters, though in unexpected, atypical ways, even though the former touches a little on the Chthuhlu mythos and the latter is a rumination on the legend of the selkie.

There are ghosts too, of a sort. Not just in Haunt, but in Terry Dowling’s The Tryal Attract, which sees an Aussie suburbanite learn a terrible truth from a sea-scoured skull in the upstairs back room of a neighbour’s house, and much more subtly in Steve Rasnic Tem’s achingly sad Saudade, wherein a recently-made widower takes a sea-cruise for senior singles, but, though he initially can’t overcome his grief and longing for the life he has lost, then meets a dangerously alluring woman.

But is there much in the way of real terror to be found here? Is this anthology deserving of the horror shelf? This is a question I need to answer, because some online critics have made the accusation that The Devil and the Deep simply isn’t scary enough.

Well … horror is often in the eye of the beholder when it comes to fiction. As I stated earlier, Ellen Datlow hasn’t opted to include anything too obviously of the schlock school, but that doesn’t mean the nerves don’t jangle now and then.

The Curious Allure of the SeaThe Deep Sea Swell and He Sings of Salt and Wormwood, by Christopher Golden, John Langan and Brian Hodge respectively (and more about these three later), are all built on very disturbing notions, while Seanan McGuire’s Sister, Dearest SisterLet Me Show You Down to the Sea and AC Wise’s A Moment Before Breaking both concern vengeance from the depths, and are distinctly dark at heart, so you don’t get an easy ride from either of those.

At the end of the day, those who read short horror fiction widely, will know Ellen Datlow’s work well, and can be assured that The Devil and the Deep is exactly the sort of book they would probably expect from her, filled with high quality fiction, and boasting a wide range of subjects and a compelling line-up of very accomplished authors, each doing their bit to ensure that you’ll never run blithely into the waves again.

And now …


Just a bit of fun, this part. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

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 a compendium horror. 

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.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

The Deep Sea Swell (by John Langan): American tourist, Susan, visits Scotland, her husband’s homeland, but is terrified when the ferry they take for a trip across the Hebridean seas hits a winter storm, and even more so when the water-filled suit of a long dead deep-range diver is washed aboard, animated by an eerie life of its own …
Susan – Emma Stone

Fodder’s Jig (by Lee Thomas): In Galveston, a wealthy man comes out of the closet and, to the chagrin of his family, announces his love for a younger guy. At the same time, a series of globsters, hideous lumps of rotting flesh, float inshore, infecting people with a bizarre virus, which causes them first to dance and then to march down to the sea, where a ghastly date with destiny awaits them …
George Caldwell – Colm Meaney
George’s Beau – Sean Faris

He Sings of Salt and Wormwood (by Brian Hodge): Competitive surfer and free-diver Danny is recuperating from injury with artist girlfriend, Gail, in a clifftop cottage on the Oregon coast; it’s an idyllic existence until the serenity is broken by the arrival onshore of carved wooden effigies. They appear to resemble Gail, and have clearly been created deep under the waves …
Danny – Daniel Dae Kim
Gail – Carey Mulligan

The Curious Allure of the Sea (by Christopher Golden): Jenny is left grief-stricken when her father is lost at sea. But when she finds a curiously-marked stone in his empty boat and has its oceanic spiral pattern tattooed on her flesh as a memento, she becomes an object of weird unexplained fascination to all around her. Birds, animals, people, fishes. Even the dead …
Jenny – Natalie Alyn Lind

by Frank De Felitta (1980)

When adulterous businessman, Phil Sobel, and his married mistress, Tracey, embark on a secret boat trip to the Caribbean, they anticipate it will be the holiday of a lifetime. But they have no concept of the horrors ahead.

Rather than taking an official cruise, Phil and Tracey opt for a private charter run by a Florida couple, Captain Jack McCracken and his almost impossibly hospitable wife, Penny, who, as well as their luxurious motor-yacht (the amusingly named Penny Dreadful) also guarantee excellent seamanship and gourmet cooking.

Everything seems perfect. Captain Jack is a slightly odd fish – a bit distant, a bit philosophical, and he plays up outrageously to his self-image as a salty seadog. But Penny is very capable and can’t do enough for her guests, the sun is blazing and the sea that shimmering ‘swimming pool’ blue, so there’s no reason at all to assume this’ll be anything other than a luxurious experience.

Phil and Tracey feel they’ve finally got away from the stresses and strains of their deceitful life in New York

But only a couple of days in, things start going wrong: minor accidents and malfunctions, which gradually impinge on the couple’s enjoyment. In addition, the further they draw from land, the more their relationship with their hosts subtly changes. At first this is driven by necessity, the yacht’s systems failing and everyone having to pull their weight. But in a short time, Phil and Tracey are being treated less like paying customers on the boat and more like employees, and underpaid, ill-treated employees at that.

And of course by now there is no sign of land, and the two lubbers don’t have the first clue where they are …

If you’re a fan of both sea horrors and psycho thrillers, you can’t do much better than Sea Trial. Okay, it’s an old novel, one that’s been swimming around in the back of my awareness for several decades, and which for some unfathomable reason (alright, enough puns!) I’d failed to take a chance on. Well, now I have – and I’m very glad.

It’s a simple enough yarn, following a very basic premise – innocent couple get lured far from their comfort zone by the falsely charming, and are then plunged into a web of insanity. But it’s written in absorbing fashion, relying initially on brief but ominous hints that things may not be all they seem, and once the downward tilt towards disaster finally begins, accelerating to a rollicking pace, the fear and agony poured on unrelentingly.

De Felitta also achieves the near impossible by transforming the beautiful and serene Carribean Sea – and it never changes from that, there’s rarely a cloud in the sky – into a metamophorical desert where all hopes of rescue and salvation are repeatedly dashed.

This book is also a masterclass in the creation of understated villainy. Fictional baddies who roar and bellow don’t impress me much. Likewise, baddies who scream abuse as they brutalise, or baddies who cackle insanely. You don’t get any of that here. Nontheless, this is terrorising ordeal for the hapless victims caught up in it. How frail we ordinary humans sometimes are when confronted by monsters of the realistic variety. How weak we appear when straying only a few nautical miles from our orderly world and finding ourselves in the realm of savages …  

As always, just for a bit of a laugh, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Sea Trial someday makes it to the screen (I believe Tom Selleck was once lined up for a TV movie version, but whether that ever happened, I’m not sure):

Phil Sobel – John Hamm
Tracey Hansen – Holliday Grainger
Jack McCracken – Iain Glen
Penny McCracken – Rachel McAdams

edited by Trevor Denyer (2021)

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.

Railroad Tales contains 23 stories in that vein, most of them supplied by relatively new or unknown authors, but all of them serving the Midnight Street ethos by creating an eclectic range of subject-matter (though that all important detail that it must be eerie and disturbing is never neglected).

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.

Of course, whatever its basic schematic, no horror anthology would be doing its job if it didn’t hit us with at least a few dollops of psychological terror. And Railroad Tales doesn’t disappoint on that front either.

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)

The world of 1992 (or 2021 in later reprints) is a nightmare of ruined cities and desolate wildernesses. In the wake of World War Terminus, Earth has largely been depopulated. Those who weren’t killed in the conflict have either abandoned their homes for colonies off-world or are now slowly dying from the toxic dust that permeates the atmosphere. A parody of the human consumer lifestyle continues, those remaining working normal jobs (though very few of these are high-powered), living in apartment buildings (which otherwise are largely empty) and watching television (even though there is only one channel, run by the megalomaniac oddball, Buster Friendly). Everyone is so depressed that they need their ‘Penfield mood organs’ to try and uplift their spirits.

It is a blighted, despair-laden scene, in which the only light is ‘Mercerism’, the worship of Wilbur Mercer, a semi-mythical Christ-like figure, who when humans commune telepathically by means of their ‘empathy boxes’, they envision ascending a steep, rugged slope, at the top of which he is martyred by being stoned to death, leading all those tuned-in to reach a transcendental state.

Even the ‘specials’ and the ‘chickenheads’ find hope in Mercerism, the former because, having been sterilised by the radioactive fall-out, they are considered useless to the human race and thus are prohibited from emigrating off-world, and the latter because, having suffered brain damage, they can perform only the most menial tasks and are subsequently treated with contempt.

Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter employed by the San Francisco police, often wonders why he hasn’t left Earth by now. His wife, Iran, is more depressed than most – so much so that she can barely even rise in the morning, while Deckard himself struggles with his conscience. The police mainly use him to ‘retire andys’, which in a nutshell means hunt down and, by use of a controversial empathy test, the Voigt-Kampff, identify rogue members of the android slave race developed to aid human expansion into the off-world colonies, and then kill them.

Deckard’s problem is that the androids are in many ways like humans; they were biologically-grown rather than constructed, and though they are short-lived (designed to cease functioning after four years), they are excellent physical specimens, particularly the new, improved model, the Nexus-6. When androids go ‘rogue’ it basically means they have come to Earth, which is strictly forbidden; they don’t necessarily need to have committed a crime. Increasingly Deckard finds it difficult to retire these thinking, reasoning beings, though he does agree that they lack the all-important empathy, which means they have no concept of human kindness, even if they are increasingly adept at concealing this. 

Despite his doubts, Deckard is good at his job and earns decent money. One day he hopes to be able to dispense with his pet electric sheep, and buy a real animal. Because one other aspect of the tragicomic existence mankind has descended into is that, with animals so rare, their ownership has now become a status symbol. Anyone who is anyone owns an animal of some sort, and zealously shows it off, though only at immense cost. In this regard, Deckard’s lucky day finally seems to arrive when he is summoned to police HQ and advised that a senior bounty hunter has been badly injured by a particularly dangerous group of Nexus-6 androids, who are newly arrived on Earth. Their leader is the ruthlessly intelligent Roy Baty, who, unable to stand his servile status any longer, has led a miniature rebellion on Mars, which has cost several human lives. If Deckard can retire all six, it will earn him a fortune. But it soon becomes apparent that this won’t be easy.

To start with, enquiries at the central offices of the Rosen Association in Seattle, the corporation responsible for manufacture of the androids, brings him into contact with the alluring Rachael Rosen, whom he finds incredibly attractive – only for him to apply the empathy test to her, and discover that she too is an andy, which confuses him even more with his chosen role.

Meanwhile, the fugitive Nexus-6 have been blending in on Earth. Some successfully impersonate humans, even Deckard’s fellow cops, while another becomes a beautiful opera singer and gains immediate respectability. At the same time, several of those Deckard has targeted, Roy Baty included, are given refuge by the deluded chickenhead, John Isidore, who is both in awe of their perfection and terrified of their heartlessness.
If this doesn’t make it difficult enough for Deckard, he is further hampered by Rachael, who, in a mysterious gesture (though she seems to be genuinely attracted to the lonely, world-weary bounty hunter), offers to help him catch the renegade band. Despite being one herself, Rachael expresses a conviction that there is no place for the Nexus-6 on Earth. But Deckard has been an investigator for a long time, and even though he eventually falls into bed with her – because she is the ultimate femme fatale! – he is never sure that he can trust her …

Almost everyone thinks they know the story of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because they have seen the epic movie version, Blade Runner, made by Ridley Scott in 1983. In truth, there are significant differences between the two narratives, though overall, the subtexts themselves are not hugely dissimilar.

But first things first; the book.

The late Philip K. Dick, while never a great literary stylist, was regarded throughout his life as one of sci-fi’s great visionaries. Famous for his obsessions with decaying worlds at the mercy of dictatorships and corporations, for the human metaphysical experience, for altered states, theology, drug abuse and insanity, the post-apocalyptic hell-scape he creates in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is really one of the most vivid and terrifying ever envisaged simply because it is literally a land without hope. Everything alive is slowly dying; everything that isn’t alive is turning to ‘kipple’ (rubbish). Even off-world in the colonies, we are told that things are only marginally better.

For all these reasons, this book is a hard read. There are moments of wild comedy, for instance Deckard’s burning aspiration to ascend to a level in society wherein he can actually be the proud owner of a goat. But the tone is always bitter-sweet, and ultimately that’s the atmosphere all the way through. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a tale of loss rather than a cop-thriller. Fans of the movie who have never read the book may be expecting a neo-noir, with the weary, overcoated Deckard working his way along the seamy streets like a latter-day Philip Marlowe, and indulging in regular, furious gun-battles with his bear-invincible foes. There is a touch of that, particularly towards the end of the novel, but it isn’t a keystone of the story; for example, at no stage in the book do we encounter the term ‘Blade Runner police’.

Even the androids, who are never referred to as ‘replicants’ or ‘skinjobs’ are nowhere near as deadly as they were in the film. They are not a military caste. Roy Baty, the most dangerous of them, trained as a chemist while on Mars. Though this isn’t to say the menace isn’t present. It very much is, particularly as we approach the climax of the novel – especially when the seductive and intriguing Rachael Rosen injects herself more fully into the story – but again, it was never Dick’s overarching purpose to create an actioner.

Throughout the book, he is more interested in examining issues of individuality, self-perception and what it actually means to be empathetic. For example, the remnants of humanity we encounter all value their individuality, but though it eases their misery, the more they commune with Wilbur Mercer (and each other of course), the less individual they become; they even use technology to impose fake emotions on themselves. At the same time, it doesn’t escape Deckard’s notice that, by the end of the novel, the supposedly soulless androids are empathising with each other, and that he himself has begun to empathise with one of them.

Other issues, which back in 1968 were certainly relevant but must also have seemed like pure science-fiction, are now glaringly current in the 21st century: two examples being Man’s irrational stewardship of the Earth – it’s a deep irony that the bounty hunters are hired to kill relentlessly in a time and place when the real problem is that everything is already dying; and then the whole argument surrounding artificial life, its purpose and development, and the moral (not to mention potentially real-world) ramifications of enslaving it.

While it’s no great piece of literature, this deluge of thought-provoking ideas means that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is these days regarded as a sci-fi masterwork. Some of its essential ingredients are visible in the movie of course, but anyone picking this book up and looking for a ‘novelisation of the film’ is likely to be disappointed.

We regularly end these book reviews with me rather presumptuously selecting the cast I would recruit if the narrative was ever to make it to the TV or cinema. Well … it’s all been done already. Blade Runner may be a very different beast from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it’s close enough (and a great enough movie, in my view – whichever version of it you prefer) to render any further remakes obsolete. 

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.

by Steve Duffy (2021)

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.

Finding Yourself in the Dark is his fifth collection to date, and, surprisingly, his first for Sarob Press. Here’s the blurb from it’s dust-jacket.

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 …


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. 

Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to either relate spooky stories or listen to them. It could be that they find themselves in an eerie old wax museum, where each one of them finds his/her reflection in one of several grotesque effigies (Waxwork, anyone?), or maybe each story is a nervous offering made by some prospective new member to the merciless Club of the Damned (a la Supernatural).

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 ...

The Youngster – Michael Socha
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 …

Charlie, Ted, Ivor, Morrie, Titch – A bunch of Cockney urchins. Name ’em if you know ’em.

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 …

Rae – Nathalie Emmanuel
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 …

Phoebe – Jodie Comer

by Mark Edwards (2013)

Love-birds Jamie and Kirsty think they’re living the suburban dream when they acquire a spacious London flat at a knock-down price. The neighbourhood is genteel, the neighbours themselves welcoming. On top of that, both Jamie and Kirsty have good jobs, he a software engineer, she a paediatric nurse. A comfortable middle-class life together beckons.

Until – slowly and subtly – things start to go wrong.

The arrival of dead rats on their doorstep could be the work of an overly industrious local cat, but why does someone keep sending the Fire Brigade to their address, who keeps ordering fast food deliveries they don’t want, and why are they deluged with peculiar and sometimes downright offensive junk-mail? It isn’t long before they start to suspect they may somehow have offended their downstairs neighbours, Chris and Lucy Newton, a slightly older and curiously unsophisticated couple. Initially, there are scant clues that the Newtons are behind this campaign of unprovoked harassment, though they do complain to Jamie and Kirsty rather a lot and often about the most innocuous things.

In the first instance there is no obvious sense of danger, but author Mark Edwards is nothing if not an expert when it comes to slowly and mercilessly turning the psychological screw.

In its most basic sense, the situation the young couple have found themselves in is the stuff of nightmares. These are pleasant, conscientious people looking only to get on with their lives. One thing they are not is adversarial. Jamie is no macho man, and neither he nor Kirsty are streetwise – if anything they are naïve. Quite clearly they’d be easy victims for a determined sociopath, particularly if this warped person decided to make them his/her new ‘hobby’ – and this is the raw and terrible nerve that Mark Edwards now relentlessly plucks.

The violations against Jamie and Kirsty’s happy world become steadily more vicious and personal, soon invading every aspect of their lives, leaving our heroes increasingly frightened and disoriented, especially as the Newtons, whenever they are encountered face-to-face, remain affable and polite, which even puts doubt in the reader’s mind that they may be guilty. But a whole new level of horror is reached when Paul, Jamie’s best friend and sole ally, is terribly injured in a go-carting accident, which again looks as if it might have been engineered by Chris Newton.

This has a devastating effect on Jamie and Kirsty, whose own relationship finally starts to suffer. Isolated and friendless, feeling besieged, the couple try to struggle on, but even this isn’t the end of it. Each new day brings ever more elaborately sadistic outrages, until soon, driven beyond despair, having lost everything, Jamie opts to take drastic action to fight back.

But his invisible opponents are no ordinary neighbours from Hell.

Up until now, civilised man Jamie has only been able to guess at the degree of wickedness that faces him here …

The Magpies is a fascinating and highly intelligent psycho thriller written by an expert in low-key terror, but genuine spice is added to this hair-raising brew because the author himself experienced similar persecution in his earlier life, and that harrowing authenticity is written all the way through. It certainly explains why the torment is piled on so ruthlessly, layer after layer, each ghastly new development superseded by the next – if it isn’t rats it is spiders, if it isn’t damaging computer viruses, it is stage-managed fatal accidents – until it literally becomes overwhelming, until you, the reader, are ready to rip your own hair out, never mind the novel's hapless heroes.

However, there is more to this than mere mental torture. The mystery and suspense run deep. We are never totally convinced that Jamie and Kirsty are correct about the identity of their anonymous foes – there are several other neighbours aside from the Newtons, and some of their normal friends are less than helpful. Their increasing air of paranoia only adds to the mix; they become confused and irrational; so cleverly is the book written that at times you even wonder if anything malicious is actually going on at all.

On top of that, The Magpies is a finely-observed study of a strong relationship cracking under outside pressure. The slow deterioration of Jamie and Kirsty’s partnership is as tragic as it is frightening, and completely compelling because it is so believable. Be warned, the pain and desolation that soon fill the central characters’ lives in this book feel very real indeed. Of course, that also intensifies the reader’s desire to see justice done – or should that be revenge?

By the time you get to the end of this intense and absorbing novel, you won’t really care.

As always, purely as a bit of fun fantasy-casting, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Magpies ever makes it to the screen:

Jamie – Ben Whishaw
Kirsty – Sophie Turner
Paul – Rupert Grint
Chris – Neil Maskell
Lucy – MyAnna Buring

by Kate Ellis (2017)

It’s 1919, and Britain is still reeling from the horrors of the trenches. But the village of Wenfield in Derbyshire appears to have suffered more than most. Numerous of its young men failed to return, while others have only done so after being horribly wounded or shellshocked, many of their families broken as a result. As if this isn’t difficult enough for the grief-stricken local population, a bizarre series of crimes now commences.

It begins with Myrtle Bligh, a young woman who volunteered at the wartime hospital set up in the nearby stately home, Tarnhey Court. Though she believes her fiancé, Stanley, killed on the Somme, she is stunned to suddenly receive a letter from him explaining that he is alive but in trouble, and that he needs to have a secret meeting with her out in nearby Pooley Woods. Excited beyond belief, Myrtle rushes out there, but when Stanley confronts her in the shadow of the trees, he is nothing like the man she remembers. He is nothing like any man at all.

A short time later, Myrtle is found murdered, ripped apart by a military bayonet, her mouth slit to the ears, with a dead dove shoved inside it.

The investigation is initially undertaken by the local constabulary, led by the stolid but unimaginative Sergeant Teague, while the medical examination is spearheaded by local GP, the cold and rather reserved Dr Winsmore. Fascinated by this ghoulish turn of events is Winsmore’s daughter, Flora, who served alongside the deceased Myrtle as a nurse at Tarnhey Court, and thanks to this experience, is disturbed neither by gruesome injuries nor the fast-spreading rumour that a ghostly soldier with a nightmarish face has been seen lurking on the outskirts of the village.

Flora’s father disapproves of his daughter’s involvement. In fact, even though she helps out at his surgery, he even tries to dissuade her from applying to nursing college so that she can take up the profession full-time, seemingly determined to maintain her sheltered existence in the village and keep her under his benign but firm control.

However, this becomes increasingly difficult for him when there is another identical murder, Annie Dryden, whose son went missing in action years ago, summoned to meet him by anonymous letter, her butchered body subsequently found off an overgrown country lane.

Flora – despite being affected by her own personal loss, her brother having died in Flanders (or maybe because of this!) – determines to be useful and continues to attempt to inject herself into the investigation, though nothing about the case is simple. Wenfield is not just a village of gossip and backbiting, it’s also a village of secrets. Most people here resent someone or other among their neighbours, and almost everyone has something to hide. Even Flora’s own father has a murky past; his wife (Flora’s mother) supposedly ran off with a ‘fancy man’ some time ago, leaving him to enter into an unspecified relationship with his beautiful housekeeper, Edith, who became like a second mother to the young Flora until she left the family’s service during the war. Even the local landowner, Sir William Cartwright, and his son, Roderick – an old friend of Flora’s – have secrets, and not of the edifying kind. It isn’t even as if there aren’t other potential culprits. For example, Winsmore’s colleague, Dr Bone, is a handsome but superficially charming man, though Flora happens to know from personal experience that has an unhealthy appetite for young girls.

As such, it all seems too simple to Flora when the murder spree is blamed on a local simpleton, Jack Blemthwaite (mainly because he is the one who discovered Myrtle’s body). Inevitably, the charges don’t stick, but even then it takes a third murder, while Jack is in prison, for the case against him to be dropped.

Flora is mightily relieved when an experienced murder detective, Inspector Albert Lincoln, is at last sent up from Scotland Yard. Though battle-scarred himself and, thanks to great unhappiness at home, something of an introverted character, Lincoln is a clear-headed, analytical investigator, who immediately brings in a more professional approach, an aspect of his character that Flora finds instantly attractive.

She is also fascinated by his observations that, though all the female victims here were brutally murdered, there was never a sexual assault, suggesting that this isn’t just a rampaging lust killer. The so-called phantom soldier roaming the village outskirts is also significant, he feels, as is the symbolic insertion of a white dove – normally a sign of peace – into each of the corpses.

Gradually, under Lincoln’s (ever closer) guidance, Flora comes to realise that the killings in Wenfield, which are not necessarily over yet, are part of a complex web of malice and deceit, and that there are actually a great number of very viable suspects … 

When I first commenced reading A High Mortality of Doves, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The promotional material was intriguing, describing a series of murders occurring in a small rural community immediately following World War One, the chief suspect a phantom soldier with a painted, doll-like face. It promised all kinds of interest, hinting at everything from the historical novel to the village green murder mystery, from a spine-chilling MR James-type ghost story to the suspense-laden tale of a serial predator.

And indeed, in due course, the book ticks all of these boxes.

The immediate thing that struck me is how well Kate Ellis goes about recreating the immediate post-war atmosphere of small-town England in 1919, by which point, of course, the country hasn’t had anything like enough time to recover. Disproportionate numbers of young men never came home from the Front, while the ones who did carry hideous scars, either physically or mentally, or both.

This part of the book is particularly vividly done (without being heavy-handed), bringing it home to the reader with a bump just what it would have meant to live in a community like this, where the numbers of menfolk have been so cruelly depleted, where so many of the womenfolk, young and old alike, are bereaved. Inevitably, Wenfield is not a happy place, though concerted efforts are made by all to be ‘stiff upper lip’ about it, put on a brave face and get on with their lives (though already there are hints of the terrible Spanish Flu scourge that followed so quickly after World War One and also killed millions).

That’s the backdrop to the narrative, which is unique enough, though the story itself is more than a little bit compelling.

With Wenfield in mourning, and hardly a prosperous village anyway (this is industrial Derbyshire, not the leafy Home Counties), the mood is already very different from anything you’d find in the more typical cosy murder mystery, and yet now we have a brutal slayer and mutilator on the loose rather than a straightforward murderer, and if that isn’t horrific enough, evidence that he may or may not be supernatural in origin. It’s no spoiler to reveal that early on in the text, we see the killer for ourselves as he approaches his victims in lonely places, and he is indeed frightening, a ghastly apparition – ‘human yet not human,’ as the author describes him – someone you’d run a mile from even if he wasn’t about to carve you up with his bayonet. That doesn’t mean that A High Mortality of Doves is a horror story, but it certainly adds more than a frisson of fear to proceedings, particularly whenever another poor woman receives an anonymous message to go and meet a relative she’d thought lost in the mud and blood of the trenches.

Ultimately, of course, despite all these extra trappings, A High Mortality of Doves is still a whodunnit, Kate Ellis cleverly sprinkling her plot with a host of potential suspects … like Sydney Pepper and David Eames, who came back from war disfigured and possibly demented, or Roderick Cartwright, who signed up willingly but was kept out of harm’s way and now resents the hostility of the town’s widows, or like Dr Winsmore, who still can’t (or won’t) account for his wife’s absence, or, more than anyone else, like Dr Bone, who already has a history of sexual predation against women and girls (even though no one knows about this, or at least they don’t dare repeat the rumour because after all, it’s still the Age of Men).

In classic Midsomer Murders fashion, all of these individuals, and others like them, become feasible suspects, the focus of the investigation shifting back and forth between them as the plot twists and loops, the tide of suspicion turning constantly, Kate Ellis keeping the reader guessing right to its final pages, maintaining the satisfaction level throughout (though by the end, it feels like a very different story from the one you started, and I mean that in in a good way).

Another of the book’s strengths is its characters. Flora Winsmore makes for a spirited and likeable lead, and is nicely illustrative of the young women of that era, when World War One changed society and enabled the rise of the suffragette movement. The preceding years have allowed Flora to prove that she is as good and conscientious a worker as any of her male colleagues, having enjoyed the useful independence she found while nursing the wounded, and now keen to take it on full-time. The deep frustration she feels about her father’s refusal to accept this is understandable, and if she at times seems a little eager to thrust herself into the investigation, it’s forgivable given her proactive nature and the relationship she embarks on with Albert Lincoln.

Lincoln himself is an equally complex character, though he owes a little more to that golden age of fictional but sharp-eyed detectives who are invariably imported from outside the murder-stricken community to resolve a case quickly and with minimum fuss while all the locals remain flummoxed. Okay, it isn’t quite that simple, but Lincoln is a familiar figure to us, despite his various scars, though that doesn’t make him any the less reassuring a presence at the heart of this dark tale.

I will admit to having some doubts about the burgeoning romance between Lincoln and Flora, and couldn’t help wondering if it felt a little bit forced. Both characters at least appear to have solid moral centres, and while Flora’s desire to make a new life for herself in the modern world naturally leads her into the arms of a city man with real-life experience, Lincoln’s response appears to be rather callous considering that he’s already married and, though it’s a loveless match, the deep depression that his wife is entrapped in. Lincoln is a sad, rather noble figure, and his dalliance with the feisty Flora feels like a bit of a misstep to me, but that’s only one viewpoint, and lots of others have disagreed.

A High Mortality of Doves remains an engaging and atmospheric mystery, set against the authentically turbulent background of a nation in mourning and in flux. Scary and intriguing in equal parts, while the final devastating denouement is worth the price alone. 

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. My attempt to cast A High Mortality of Doves. Don’t worry, I’ve not been given that actual task. Should we ever be fortunate enough to see this novel be adapted for film or TV, someone who knows what they’re doing will get the gig. This is just a bit of fun (as you’ll realise when you see how much money I’ve spent on the actors).

Flora Winsmore – Lucy Boynton
DI Albert Lincoln – Dominic Cooper
Roderick Cartwright – Aneurin Barnard
Dr Winsmore – Ian Hart
Dr Bone – Rory Kinnear
Sir William Cartwright – Guy Pearce
Edith Barton – Alison Pargeter
Sydney Pepper – Adrian Bower
David Eames – Jamie Bell

by James Ellroy (1990)

Los Angeles in the early 1950s, where three cops are following very different routes in their efforts to rise through the ranks.

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.

Clearly, none of this unethical threesome are shining examples of LA’s finest, and from the start they seem unlikely ever to be bedfellows when it comes to investigating crime. In fact, early on in the book there is active loathing between them.

Exley, who’s duty-officer at the division’s headquarters one booze-soaked Christmas Eve, when dozens of officers participate in the brutal and continuous beating of several Hispanic youths being held for assaulting a couple of patrolmen (a reflection of the real life ‘Bloody Christmas’ event in LA in 1951), regards it as his duty to report the incident. The chain-reaction this ignites sees Vincennes, who was only peripherally involved, transferred to Vice, and White, also an unwilling participant, severely censured, but more importantly, White’s partner, Dick Stensland, who was the main instigator, dismissed from the force and sent into a downward spiral of drunkenness and crime, which finally sees him executed in the gas chamber.   

The three men duly settle into new routines, hating each other from a distance, and time moves on, a sense of which we readers mainly glean from a torrent of official police reports and newspaper articles, including plenty from the ever irreverent Hush-Hush.

Vincennes and White wallow along at reduced pace, the former, now a drug-user himself, disgusted to be investigating such uninteresting villains as pimps and pornographers, the latter making a bit on the side by strong-arming gangsters under the affable but manipulative control of Captain Dudley Smith, whose secretive unit enjoys almost free license in its use of violence, blackmail and bribery. Exley, meanwhile, the only one whose chances of promotion have improved since the Bloody Christmas outrage, is still looking for the big case that will make his career.

Ed’s father, Preston Exley, though he made his real wealth building freeways and the gigantic amusement park, Dream-a-Dreamland (a thinly veiled Disneyland), became an overnight sensation as a cop when he captured a serial killer who didn’t just abduct and butcher children, including a popular child star of the 1930s, but who then stitched their severed parts together to create his very own Frankenstein monster. Ed, now a detective in his own right, has never had a case that even approaches this one, until the ‘Nite Owl Massacre’ occurs; what looks like an armed robbery at an overnight diner, which spins out of control and sees three members of staff and three customers shot dead. 

Dubbed the ‘Southland’s Crime of the Century’, Exley is determined that this will be the enquiry that defines his career, but as the demand for results from Chief William Parker grow louder and louder, he closes in too speedily on three black hoodlums who actually have a solid alibi: at the same time as the Nite Owl murders were happening, this sordid trio had abducted a young Latino woman, raped and beaten her and were then in the process of pimping her out to various of their lowlife friends. Despite increasing evidence to the contrary, Exley persuades himself that the threesome are guilty of the Nite Owl attack too and winds up gunning them down when they attempt to go on the run, even though he is armed at the time and they aren’t.

What follows from this shocking miscarriage of ‘absolute justice’ is a bewildering explosion of plot and counter-plot, each more complex and brutal than the last, all cross-cutting each other and played out at breakneck pace, involving yet more serial murders (recent ones as well as the older ones), gangland hit after gangland hit, mutilation of prostitutes, the distribution of progressively weirder and more gruesome pornography, heroin trafficking (in rivers), racketeering and conspiracy among public officials, senior cops behaving like mob bosses, junior cops acting like crazy gunmen (even our three police antiheroes, who repeatedly fail to step up and do the right thing), the whole narrative finally descending into a maelstrom of violence and corruption in the perfectly inappropriately named City of the Angels, which in this book is more like Pandemonium itself.

Somehow or other, Exley, White and Vincennes are going to get to the incredible truth behind the Nite Owl slaughter, and sundry other horrific crimes, but they’ll literally play Hell getting it done, and will then find themselves confronting a cadre of deadly villains who are surely among the most evil ever committed to paper. Well before the end, the chances that all three of them will make it through seem remarkably slim …

What can you say about a novel like LA Confidential, which is so well-known already and so widely revered that it makes any kind of review in 2020 incidental?

I hesitated to put pen to paper regarding this because all I could think was that no one would care about my view. The book has already sold millions of copies, it was made into a massively successful Hollywood movie some 22 years ago, it is volume three in the hugely influential LA Quartet series, which, again, the vast majority of the reading public already knows about. There’s no obvious reason why I should have my say so late in the day, but you know, when you finally get around to reading a book like this, you just have to comment.

And after that intro, I imagine you’ll expect me to be controversial. Well … not as controversial as the novel itself, put it that way.

First, I suppose I should discuss the aspects of LA Confidential that are likely to cause ‘issues’ for people. To start with, it’s not woke. And that’s a serious understatement.

The book was written in 1990, which though that is relatively recent in terms of Noir, was still long before authors were expected to show any real degree of racial or gender sensitivity. On top of that, it’s set in the 1950s, when machismo was the order of things in male society, women were viewed either as ornaments or homemakers (or both), and ethnic minorities were openly considered to be second-class citizens.

And then there is the author factor.

James Ellroy is famous for his cynical and subversive public persona, and while there is doubt as to how much of that is genuine, it’s certain that he could not have set out to write a book like LA Confidential without willfully seeking to stun his audience, without purposely reinventing Los Angeles as a vile underbelly peopled by deviants of every sort – pimps, hookers, hopheads, high-level criminals, bent officials and cops themselves who are little more than drunken, corrupt brutes – without consciously seeking to offend almost every corner of society.

There is almost no one in this book – white, black, Hispanic, straight, gay etc – that you can actually sympathise with, no one who doesn’t deserve the many slurs and insults that would cause uproar in any novel published today but which are thrown about like confetti in this one. And quite often, this decidedly tough language doesn’t just occur in the dialogue. The author himself is equally guilty, frequently dropping the N and Q words, and yet somehow, in mysterious Tarantino fashion, getting a free pass from the critics. Is LA Confidential such unimpeachable art that this can be tolerated? Well, no I wouldn’t say so. But then I wouldn’t say that about Tarantino’s movies either. But things are as they are. No one seems to mind.

On top of the juicy language here, there is a whole ream of social and criminal horror for the average reader to digest. As I say, almost no one is redeemable in LA Confidential. From arch real-life gangsters and former Bugsy Siegel sidekicks, Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato, right down to verminous tabloid scumbag, Sid Hudgens, everyone in this book is ruthless, deceitful and treacherous. They’ve all got an angle, they’ve all got their own interests at heart, they all do each other down with a narcissistic glee that owes nothing to necessity. And in many cases, they all have hideous secrets. For example, musician Burt ‘Deuce’ Perkins did time on a chain gang for ‘unnatural acts against dogs’! Ray Dieterling, cartoon animator turned movie millionaire (Walt Disney, anyone?), had his own son murdered!

Even our three heroes – Exley, White and Vincennes – are so deeply flawed that in normal circumstances you’d expect to view them as villains. Exley is the best of the bunch, except that he lives a lie where his war record is concerned, and is obsessively, ruthlessly ambitious, a personal weakness that actually starts to make a physical impression on him. The fact that he killed the wrong people after the Nite Owl Massacre bothers him a little, but it doesn’t on its own ruin his life.

Jack Vincennes also regrets shooting innocent people, but his response is to keep self-medicating with ever heavier narcotics, even though he’ll still happily bust pushers and users, all the time fantasising about his beautiful girlfriend, Karen, getting down and dirty in full-on porn movie orgies.

Bud White also has a girlfriend that he doesn’t really deserve, in Lyn Bracken, a former prostitute from a high-class stable, where all the girls were surgically modified to look like film stars, in her case Veronica Lake. She sees something in the apelike White, though Heaven knows what, especially as his innate loathing of wife-batterers doesn’t prevent him beating her when he learns that she’s been unfaithful.

Then we have the actual horror with which this book is deeply layered.

As I’ve already intimated, James Ellroy’s LA is a nightmarish netherworld, liberally strewn with horrific murders, gang rapes and ghastly dismemberments. Most of the victims, male or female, adult or child, are killed in the most barbarous ways imaginable. Sid Hudgens for example is hacked apart while he is still alive, while others are tortured to death with caustic chemicals, including acid. In a way, of course, this emboldens the reader to keep going, because it makes him/her realise that as bad as Exley, White and Vincennes are, there are always worst beasts lurking just beyond the next page, and that maybe only a bunch of human wolves like these will be able to take them down.

But seriously, be prepared for the gruesomeness of this book. The scene of the Nite Owl Massacre is described as though it’s an abattoir, the condition of the Frankenstein killer’s prepubescent victims, when finally discovered by Preston Exley, has to be read to be believed. In another staggeringly violent moment, Bud White shoves a suspect’s hand down a garbage disposal, churning it to mush … and remember, White is supposed to be one of the good guys.

The final brickbat, if it is such a thing (and this is entirely subjective), is the manner in which the novel is written.

According to the stories, when James Ellroy delivered the first draft of LA Confidential to his publishers, it clocked in at 900,000 words. Even in the States, they balked at publishing something so enormous. The author was ordered to cut it back significantly, which he didn’t consider possible unless he literally stripped out half of almost every sentence he’d written, glueing many of the remnants back together in what almost looks like haphazard fashion. The result is a literary style that at first read is so startling you really don’t think you’re going to get used to it. This chunk of text, for example, comes from the very first page of Chapter One:

Bud White in an unmarked, watching the ‘1951’ on the City Hall Christmas tree blink. The back seat was packed with liquor for the station party; he’d scrounged merchants all day, avoiding Parker’s dictate: married men had the 24th and Christmas off, all duty rosters were bachelors only; the Central detective squad was despatched to round up vagrants: the chief wanted local stumblebums chilled so they wouldn’t crash Mayor Bowron’s lawn party for underprivileged kids and scarf all the cookies …

It’s a similar story all the way through. It’s almost as though you’re reading a genuine cop’s abbreviated notes. It’s more like a stream of consciousness than actual literature.

Bud packed up, got out, brainstormed some more – pimp war clicks, clickouts – Duke Cathcart had two skags in his stable, no stomach for pushing a 14-year-old nymphet – he was a pimp disaster area. He tried to click Duke’s pad tossed to the Nite Owl – no gears meshed, odds on the (blacks) remained high. If the tossing played, tie it to Cathcart’s ‘new’ gig – Feather Royko talked it up – she came off clean as Sinful Cindy came off hinky . . .

However, I urge you all to stick with it. My initial reaction was negative, but within a page I’d adjusted. Not only that, it had taken nothing away from the epic sweep of the story, or any of the author’s multiple overlaying subplots.

And yes, as you’ve probably guessed, we’re now onto the positives about LA Confidential, which are frankly overwhelming.

If you can make the mental leap into the world of exaggerated darkness that this novel occupies, few of the negatives I’ve already mentioned will bother you. Because, taken as a whole, this really is one of the greatest Noir novels ever written. Yes, it’s appallingly brutal and rude and crass, but it works so damn well. It’s trio of antiheroes appeal for the simple reason that, though a disgrace to their profession, they are much the lesser of various competing evils. Certainly, their many opponents, both criminals and cops, are among the most dangerous I’ve encountered on the written page. The pace and jeopardy never relent, even though the narrative straddles the best part of a decade. And for all the punchiness of the prose, it is full of the most remarkable and yet disturbing imagery: two buddies getting uproariously drunk together in the death cell on the night before one of them is executed; a stable of high-class call girls, already beautiful but expensively re-cut into movie goddess lookalikes; a serial killer so deranged that he turns his child victims into mismatched puppets.

Of course, it’s not just a horror story or a fast-moving crime caper. James Ellroy is nothing if not a serious writer. On one hand he might like to shock, but on the other he likes to inform, and his main interest in LA Confidential, it rapidly becomes clear, is his detailed examination of three damaged souls who eventually manage to rise above the rampant lawlessness of their lives even though it ultimately demands astonishing sacrifices of them.

Not that this is a tale of redemption or salvation. No one gets forgiven here, or excused – but they may, possibly, escape. Which is surely the most that any of them can expect. But however unlikely that may seem, it’s all carried through at speed and with panache by the author, and it’s completely believably done. This book is a multifaceted deluge of ideas, a perplexing number of threads dangling as we reach the final quarter, but Ellroy ties them all up smoothly and neatly in the closing pages, leaving no questions unanswered.

You may have realised it by now, but you can’t just watch the 1997 movie version of LA Confidential and claim that you’re au fait with this most fulsome chapter in Ellroy’s LA story. However you regard the movie, it condenses only a handful of threads from the novel, and not even, in my view, the most important ones. It roughly tells the same tale but in a very quick, accessible and clean-cut way, which doesn’t even share the same atmosphere. I like the movie, incidentally, but will state for the record that, even though I saw it first, it did not spoil my reading of the novel, and nor will it for you. So, even if you’ve only seen the film, I urge you to read the book as well; it’s easily one of the most challenging and yet exhilarating police thrillers on the market. It’s a true epic and a cop classic.

You will NOT be disappointed.

Everything I’ve just said about the movie version notwithstanding, it’s a fine viewing experience in its own right, and it’s probably close enough to the original in terms of its main characters to render one of my customary casting sessions pointless. I could certainly never improve on the actors they signed up back in 1997. So, on this occasion, I won’t bother trying.

In 1942, officer and gentleman, Charles ‘Champ’ Bradwin, takes leave from his unit and heads home to Arkansas to attend his younger brother, cadet officer Clipper’s wedding. It is a grand occasion. Everyone who is anyone is present; most members of the aristocratic Bradwin family, including demagogic patriarch, Boss, though not oldest brother, Beau, who left the district many years earlier. But it still ends in disaster, because when the church bell inexplicably tolls of its own accord, Clipper goes mad, attacking the congregation with his dress sabre, slaughtering, among others, his wife-to-be and his father, before killing himself.

Stunned and helpless, the family retreat to Dasheroons, their vast rural estate, but there is no solace to be found there. Both Champ and Nhora, Boss’s young and beautiful French wife (his third, in fact), are lost for an explanation, while Champ’s wife, Nancy – whom Clipper particularly tried to slay, but who survived – is left almost comatose by the experience. The staff on the estate, Boss’s loyal, longstanding man-servant, Hackaliah, and his educated but surly son, Tyrone, are equally horrified and bemused. Detailed examination of Clipper’s background reveals a hitherto concealed lifestyle of predatory sexual behaviour, but there is no indication of the homicidal personality that revealed itself during the wedding.

With no option, but shell-shocked before he even gets to the battlefield, Champ must now return to his unit and fight the war, while Nhora takes charge of the palatial estate despite a strange undercurrent of hostility towards her.

Needless to say, the terror and the misery go on. Champ is dispatched to the Pacific, where his company is decimated in heavy fighting with the Japanese, and he himself suffers an horrific throat-wound (though this happens in weird, dreamlike circumstances, during which his assailant looks remarkably like a decayed version of his dead brother, Clipper). When Champ finally returns home, a shadow of the man he was, he is in the company of a doctor the Bradwin family have never met before, an Englishman called Jackson Holley, whose credentials are very good, at least on paper – but who in actual fact has a fabricated pedigree because he never completed his medical training and is now on the run from his own peculiar demons.

But this is actually a big event, because with the arrival of Holley, two cursed families have finally come together.

It seems that the wedding butchery is only one tragedy in the history of the Bradwin family; there have been others in the past, dating back to an even more savage occasion when Boss, not exactly a white supremacist but still an icon of southern gentry entitlement, led violent retaliation against a protest by local black farmers, which turned into a massacre (as one character comments, Dasheroons “is built on the bodies and blood of Africans”) – but the Holleys too have stumbled from one misfortune to the next.

Jackson Holley is lucky to be alive, as his youth, spent at a Congo mission hospital where his father was a voluntary medic, brought him face to face with all kinds of hardships and horrors: heat, illness, bizarre apparitions, and a cannibalistic tribe so in thrall to the aggressive snake goddess, Ai-da Wedo, that they were prepared to sew the seeds of their own eventual destruction by following her warlike path rather than living in peace with the ever-more covetous colonial powers.

A major coincidence now occurs in the story (at least, it seems that way at first, though all will be revealed in due course). Because beautiful widow, Nhora, also spent her youth in that steamy jungle realm – at the time classified as French Equatorial Africa – where she was kidnapped as a child by the same ferocious tribesmen. Perhaps inevitably, she and Holley hit it off when they meet – in fact, it is virtually love (and lust!) at first sight – but even though the Englishman has brought the family’s last surviving son safe home again, he doesn’t feel entirely safe; there are many menacing mysteries on the great southern estate.

What happened to Beau Bradwin?; did he really leave because he fell out with his father over the brutal methods Boss displayed in his younger days? And if so, where did he leave to? Is it possible that Tyrone, who clearly does not get on with his own father, Hackaliah, might actually have been sired by Boss, and in which case does he have his own agenda? Why is a grizzled outlaw known only as Early Boy hanging around on the plantation’s fringes? What dark power keeps so many of the family’s black servants in such a state of fear? Could the secret of all this evil lie in the apparent voodoo temple that Holley and Nhora discover in a nearby bayou?  

The answers to all these questions, and others, will only be provided if Holley hangs around for once, and tries to work his way through the layers of mystery. Nhora may help him, or she may hinder him. But one thing is certain, when the truth finally emerges it will neither be palatable nor edifying. If we thought there was horror in the Bradwins’ and Holleys’ lives previously, we ain’t seen anything yet …

There are all kinds of questions surrounding the epic supernatural saga that is All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By. First of all, the most obvious one is where the book’s ultra-oblique title came from. There has been much debate about this, with theories ranging from the eclectic to the fantastical, the author himself adding nothing to the mix by never explaining it and making nothing obvious in the narrative.

The other big mystery is why this classic horror novel and its author are not better known.

Back in the 1970s, John Farris was writing alongside such future luminaries of the genre as Stephen King, Peter Straub and Dean R. Koontz, all of whom would go on to become household names while he remained obscure. It can’t just be the case that Farris’s writing wasn’t as good as that of his contemporaries, because All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By is excellently penned, comprising beautiful prose, multi-layered characters, and richly evoked atmospheres, be they the disciplined world of the US military, as embodied by Champ, the dreamy, semi-aristocratic lifestyle found on the southern plantations, as personified by the Dasheroons estate, or the hellish environment of an isolated jungle-mission deep in the African rain forest, where superstition abounds and almost everything there can kill you. So deeply felt are these sequences that you’d swear you were actually there. You can visualise the scenery and smell the plant-life, you can feel the heat on your skin.

The same applies to Farris’s characters, who are vastly more complex than anything you will usually encounter in supernatural fiction. In some ways, he almost overdoes this, always avoiding info dump but describing them through a procession of chapters in such minute detail – physically, mentally, spiritually – noting their every movement, their every adjustment of posture, their every change of tone, mood, expression, that it leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination. It’s very fulsome, overly so to be frank, but that’s typical of its era; it’s hardly a chore to read it because it’s so well-done, but it won’t be popular across the board with modern readers.

In terms of these same characters, there is no question that we are dealing with living, breathing people, and each one, in his/her own way is fascinating, in addition to being realistically flawed.

Leading man, Jackson Holley, is basically a conman – polite and well-bred admittedly, but he should not be telling people that he’s a doctor and he most certainly should not be practising medicine. An unreliable sort, he flits here and there, breaking hearts, skipping his responsibilities and occasionally lowering himself to deal with criminals like Early Boy. But as the book’s hero, he works. He hardly had the best start in life, but managed to rise above it, he’s usually well-intentioned, he’s undoubtedly brave and you get the strong feeling that he’s owed a better life, even if that doesn’t necessarily justify his attempts to embezzle one: a typical charming rogue from the end-days of the British Empire.

Meanwhile, the Bradwin brothers are also products of their time and place: American power-elite as opposed to British. The long-departed Beau was the square-jawed guy with the conscience, and a liberal-minded friend to the local black farmers, who though the days of slavery were behind them, had still to taste the fruits of Civil Rights, which put him at odds with everything his family had come from, and soon saw him relegated to the lowest rung of Depression-era society. Champ, on the other hand, is the good soldier, the unquestioning hero who answered his country’s call, the one in whom all hope is invested for the future. Meanwhile, Clipper is the youngest and most spoiled, the one who’s been able to do whatever he wants because his declining father never saw anything more harmful in him than youthful exuberance (and maybe even recognised his gross appetites as a direct inheritance). Lastly, there is Tyrone, the mixed-race half-brother, the one who had to fight for everything, and as is such the most cynical, the most cunning and by far the most dangerous.

Then, of course, we have Nhora, the French-born widow whose apparent innocence of the world (not to mention her own overwhelming allure) may conceal a calculating schemer, because after all, more so even than Holley, Nhora is a stranger in a strange land here, and once Boss is dead, scheming may be the only way she is going to survive.

But it isn’t just the leads that this degree of detail applies to. There are many characters in All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, an entire support-cast of secondaries and walk-ons, almost all of whom have crucial roles to play and as such are drawn in unforgettable detail.

And yet this depth of writing doesn’t just extend to characterisation. The entire narrative unravels in a cascade of steady and vivid exposition, which at the same time is wry, humorous, sensual, every scene exquisitely written and presented – the undercurrents as much as the surface stuff – every page (even when nothing important is happening) shimmering with tension and atmosphere. John Farris’s ‘Southern Gothic’ background shines through repeatedly and intoxicatingly.

The only real trade-off with regard to this – but it is a trade-off – is the loss of pace.

Without any doubt, this novel is a slow burn. That’s not always a bad thing. I have no concerns about an author who takes his time to set the tone, to evoke mood, time and place, to build the world in which his story will explode. But I do worry that in this particular case it may go a little too far. It doesn’t help that various characters, including those of lesser importance, don’t just commence their journeys on separate continents but in different time-zones, chapter after chapter rolling by as they follow their individual paths and still none of them meeting up, but that was very much the style of the ‘holiday horror novels’ so popular in the days when this book was written, with huge amounts of what might now be seen as extraneous detail cheerfully shovelled in. But no matter how picturesque the prose, it may be a little bit too much for most modern tastes.

But at the end of the day, I’d argue that this is still a great book and a valid horror read, especially as quality supernatural fiction – particularly in that traditional demonic / voodoo / mythological vein – is so thin on the ground in the 21st century.

The other big plus with All Heads Turn When the Hunts Goes By is that it’s meaningful.

This is no lightweight gore-and-sex fest, as specialised in by certain horror authors of the 1970s. I mean, it’s dark and disturbing stuff (because, trust me, literally everyone suffers in this book), but that’s only because Farris doesn’t stint on exploring his numerous mature themes in the most visceral and unforgiving way: class, caste, race, heroes and villains, historical guilt, sexual politics, cultural imperialism, the repercussions of revenge, obsession, desire, lust and so on. But it’s not a lecture either. Everything is woven into the run of events so that, in the fashion of true high-quality fiction, you absorb it subliminally as you read.

For all these reasons, this book is a forgotten classic. Anyone who enjoys an uncompromisingly dark and intriguing read and is willing to exercise a little bit of patience, you need to rediscover it right now.

As always, I’m now going to cast what I think would be an ideal TV horror series in this age of no-holds-barred adult television, were anyone (HBO?) to take a chance on it. Only a bit of fun, of course (no casting director has ever listened to me with my own stuff, so why would they start here?), but anyway, here are my picks for the leads in All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, the TV show:

Jackson Holley – Henry Cavill
Nhora Bradwin – Audrey Tautou
Charles ‘Champ’ Bradwin – Misha Collins
Hackaliah – Danny Glover
Tyrone – Michael Ealy
Nancy Bradwin – Katheryn Winnick
Early Boy – Anson Mount

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 wasnt 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)

An open cart is wheeled into a small backwoods town. Not an unusual occurrence, you may think – except that this cart is carrying the bloodied, butchered remains of a family who were apparently murdered alongside each other out in the terrible and mysterious tract of overgrown wasteland called the Harrikin. Weirder still, there is a dead dog alongside the corpses, a dog wearing diamond studs in its pierced ears. The townsfolk are shocked, if at the same time a little blasé. Because this, it would seem, is the sort of thing that happens out in the twilight zone that is the Harrikin.

And this is the opening to Twilight, William Gay’s superb piece of back-country noir, a more than unsettling tale about amoral madness in the depths of the impoverished American South.

We’re in rural Tennessee in 1951, and two young people – Corrie Tyler, and her younger brother, Kenneth – are suspicious that well-to-do local undertaker, Fenton Breece, has cheated their family. On seeing the expensive casket purchased for their late bootlegger father being used elsewhere, they dig up his grave and discover the corpse of their parent not just entombed in a cheap box but sexually violated. Further investigations of other recent burials – in other words, more grave-robbing, performed secretly and by night – uncovers additional evidence that Breece is a fetishist and necrophile. But Breece is a leading citizen who no-one would think the worse of without hard evidence. Kenneth thus breaks into his house, seeking this out, and discovers, among other purloined and highly inappropriate possessions, a whole package of photographs depicting the well-groomed undertaker having sex with a variety of dead women – deceased citizens recently entrusted to him – all now dressed and made-up to look like glamour queens.

Uncertain about the loyalties of local law enforcement, the Tylers attempt to blackmail Breece, thinking that, if nothing else, they can at least escape to a better life. But Breece, who is influential at many levels locally, has already turned to hoodlum-for-hire, Granville Sutter, a skilled and callous killer, to retrieve the evidence. In the ensuing first clash between the vying parties, Corrie dies, and 
Tyler flees into the countryside, Sutter close behind.

Tyler is no expert at this sort of thing, whereas Sutter has done it several times at least. The youngster’s only option, or so it seems, is to head into the Harrikin, that vast and dreamy wilderness, trackless, tangled, littered with eerie buildings and rusted, overgrown machinery, and populated by the strangest, most reclusive people – witches, weirdoes, lost souls, forgotten families – all of whom are more than capable of impeding Tyler in his race against death, as well as in shielding and protecting him. It depends how the mood takes them, it depends on the worsening winter weather, it depends on a great many things beyond Tyler’s control, whether he lives and gains justice, or dies a lonely death and finishes up another plaything in Fenton Breece’s squalid funeral parlour vault …      

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.

However, to indicate how broad a church this is, countless authors are named as practitioners, some of whom, at first glance at least, seem poles apart from each other.

Joe R Lansdale and Harper Lee? Cormac McCarthy and Tennesee Williams?

But there is one thing that firmly unites them. All are supreme wordsmiths, who write richly and lovingly about their native Deep South. Not always approvingly, often damningly, but always colourfully, evocatively and intriguingly.

Very much at home in this diverse but hyper-talented crowd is the late, great William Gay, who sits firmly at the darker end of what is already a pretty dark spectrum – his work usually characterised by ordinary, everyday folk facing desperate moral dilemmas thanks to frightening encounters with evil – with Twilight among the very darkest of his endeavours. 

To start with, it’s exquisitely written. It almost seems like a contradiction in terms when we’re talking about murder and necrophilia and an horrendous journey through a jungle of twisted vegetation and skeletal industrial ruins, but William Gay goes at it in his customary poetic fashion, describing it lusciously and hitting us with one startling visual after another. Never let it be said that beauty can’t be found in waste and decay. Again it seems like a paradox, but we’re almost in the realm of fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz invoked at the same time as The Blair Witch Project, every Germanic woodland fable you can think of (we even have the brother and sister heroes pursued by an ogre!) sitting side-by-side with modern tales of perversion, crime and ruin.

And yet, William Gay does it all with a smile on his face. Though he has much to say about outcasts, loners, the lost and disenfranchised, those who’ve fallen through the cracks even in a depressed economy like rural Tennessee in the early ’50s, and though he is patently disgusted that life is still cheap some fifty years after the Wild West has ended, and sickened by small-town corruption and selfishness, his touch is light. He gives us plenty of laughs along with the screams.

As usual though, none of this would work without characters we quickly get involved with.

Kenny Tyler starts out as the archetypical uneducated country-boy, but inevitably grows in stature during his fight for life out in the world-apart that is the Harrikin, hatching both wisdom and courage, and so giving us a coming-of-age vibe along with everything else.

Fenton Breece, meanwhile, represents a quintessential villain of the Old South, being a snake oil salesman of the most blatant kind, charming, civilised and plausible, all of which nevertheless conceals a truly degenerate soul. The moment he confesses to Granville Sutter that he killed a woman once, and may even – though he doesn’t totally remember it – have killed other women, is quite 
chilling in its shrugged-off matter-of-factness.

Sutter, though a blunt instrument in comparison, is equally complex, because while Breece is rotten to the core, Sutter has no core at all – at least, none that is recognisably human. He initially appears as a typical town bully, another violent brute where women are concerned, but also a confident disposer of men. So, he’s a boor, yes, but he’s also an out-and-out predator, who’s not just good at what he does because he has a streak of innate cunning that goes a mile deep, but because nothing matters to him. He simply doesn’t care about anyone and was probably born with this deficiency; the way some may come into this world lacking an arm or leg, Granville Sutter did so lacking conscience and charity. A madman, then, a psychopath – but as I’ve already said, and as we see through his dreams and reminiscences, a complex one too.

So how do I sum this novel up quickly? Well, in truth, you can’t.

Suffice to say that Twilight is an engrossing, elegiac study of the human darkness at the heart of what once might have been thought chocolate box America. Be warned, it’s not one of those garish hillbilly horror stories, but there is horror here along with humour and intellect, all of it wrapped up in sumptuous southern prose.

So, horror fans … read it. Thriller fans … read it. Literary fiction aficionados … read it. And surrealists and fabulists … you must read it too. This is Southern Gothic at its most haunting.   

Twilight hasn’t, to my knowledge, been adapted for film or TV just yet, and so I’m going to do my usual thing and stick my oar in early, advising any potential movie company who they should be casting when they finally get around to putting this great piece of work on film. Just a bit of fun, of course (like they’d listen to me in real life).

Kenneth Tyler – Ansel Elgort (probably a little older than he is in the book, though not by much)
Fenton Breece – Domhnall Gleeson
Granville Sutter – Michael Chiklis

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.

With all this going on, and in the depths of a bitterly cold Boston winter, it’s hardly the right time for the twosome to find themselves confronted by a particularly ghoulish ritual murder, the body horribly dismembered and the Latin word PECCAVI scrawled at the scene.

An apparent explanation suggests itself soon enough, the slaying seemingly linked to one of Isles’s former sparring partners, criminal psychologist, Dr Joyce O’Donnell, a woman with whom she has never seen eye-to-eye. It seems possible that the perp is one of O’Donnell’s more disturbed patients, either trying to spook her or leave her some kind of message. But O’Donnell can’t (or won’t) help examine this particular theory, and then more murders follow, with similar mutilations and similar cryptic characters inscribed on and around the corpses. 

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.

A group of scholarly individuals headed up by the wealthy ex-college professor, Anthony Sansone, and the bullish Englishwoman, Edwina Felway, the Mephisto Club – or ‘Mephisto Foundation’, to use their preferred title – dedicate themselves to a profound and scientific analysis of evil; not just in its obvious form, as in the violent psychosis displayed by damaged individuals, but also the religious and metaphysical elements of it, i.e. its devilish origins, as described in the earliest archaeological records.

To the ever-cynical Rizzoli, all of this feels like hokum, but she’s frustrated to find that, owing to their fantastical wealth, the Mephisto Club exert huge influence over the authorities, even the FBI, and when they insist on helping with the investigation, tacit permission is given.

They don’t exactly interfere, but Rizzoli soon feels that she’s lost her leadership role, and is particularly frustrated by Isles, who is gradually won over by them, especially by Sansone, a descendent of cruel Italian nobility, and yet a man whose good looks are striking, and whose urbane style and intellectual depths make him a real force to be reckoned with.

In a parallel thread, meanwhile, we follow the fortunes of one Lily Saul, a girl whose family, many years ago, had the misfortune to take into their care her abandoned cousin, Dominic. Dominic was a curious boy with peculiar interests, an unnerving manner and a strange knowledge of ‘forbidden’ things.

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 …

Tess Gerritsen’s blood-spattered crime thrillers have often been said to skate along the edge of the horror genre, and while that may not always be true, I don’t think it can be denied on this occasion. But that’s not because The Mephisto Club is a gore-fest. To start with, it’s not. Oh, there are gruesome murders a-plenty, and the author/doctor, as always, demonstrates her medical knowledge with some unstintingly detailed autopsy sequences, but the real horror in this novel – and the title itself is a bit of a give-away – actually comes to us from a more much traditional direction: its aura of Satanic evil.

The surprising implication in The Mephisto Club, namely that a truly malevolent force walks the Earth, an ancient power traceable right back to the Fall of Man, is not the kind of twist we’d expect in a routine crime thriller, but in this novel we get it full-on.

Lily’s flight to Rome serves to underline this almost in itself; Italy, the land of esoteric antiquity, Rome the capital of the Catholic Church.

And then there is the Mephisto Club itself.

For the uninitiated, Mephisto (better known as Mephistopheles) was an arch-demon, a close servant of Satan, who most famously claimed the soul of 15th century occultist, Faust. So once again in this novel we’re working on the basis that evil is not some intangible aspect of corrupted human nature, but a personalised entity, something with a form and a face, which actively seeks the destruction of our world.

The Club, itself, is equally reminiscent of the classic age of horror. 

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).

With all this in mind, it’s very easy to picture the Mephisto Club in a Hammer Horror movie, perhaps with Peter Cushing chairing the meetings.

The big question is … does it work in the context of a crime thriller?

My view – and I’m aware that it’s not shared by all crime fans – is that it does.

Okay, I will admit to having one or two minor problems with it. I didn’t buy totally into the idea that the Mephisto Club, even through the combined expertise of its members, could wield such influence over government organisations like the FBI. I’m sure these secret societies exist, but I’d imagine more as hobbies for the rich and the bored, whom the police would simply treat as well-meaning amateurs. I also thought that one or two moments were a little bit rushed; for example, after effectively and atmospherically building up the circumstances of Lily’s flight to Rome, not to mention the fear she feels at every turn, and the desperate (ugly-desperate at one point!) measures she takes to protect herself there, this whole part of the book seems to end rather mundanely and abruptly, within a page or so in fact. Compare and contrast that to the protracted and ultimately irrelevant break-up of Rizzoli’s parents’ marriage, and you have a quite noticeable imbalance.

But hell, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this novel.

Whether I’m reading crime or horror, I’m a sucker for ancient puzzles, and The Mephisto Club is riddled with them. From eerie Latin inscriptions to ritually mutilated corpses, from chalk symbols to assailants who move like shadows, this narrative is chocka with arcane symbolism and olde worlde weirdness. It’s also pretty damn thrilling: Rizzoli and Isles, two independent, modern-minded women, talented practitioners of their respective crafts and domineering forces in their personal lives, find themselves eyebrow-deep in a gory and distressing murder case for which no contemporary textbook could have prepared them.

For all these reasons, The Mephisto Club is a fast, riveting read. But then you have Tess Gerritsen’s skilled penmanship, as well – a great sense of time and place (Boston in mid-winter, brrr), fizzling dialogue, rapid-fire action, a range of extreme and even grotesque characters for us to get our teeth into, though none of them are OTT – and you’ve got everything you really need for an enjoyable thriller.

I can understand why certain crime fiction traditionalists found this one hard to take. The concept of evil as a sentient force, embodied by a single devilish being, or even a group of such beings, may on one hand seem naïve of the author, but on the other hand you’ve got to remember that this is fiction, and fun fiction at that. And it’s not as if the supernatural elements hit us on the nose. Like most good authors in this field, Gerritsen basically leaves it open at the end, leaves certain questions unanswered, and leaves her readers – this one at least – wanting more.

An intriguing thriller with an unusual, challenging and never less than uber-dark premise, The Mephisto Club ticked all of my boxes.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for – when I cast this beast. Of course, in the case of Rizzoli and Isles, if their adventures were to be adapted in the correct order, The Mephisto Club would be the fourth in the series, but just suspend belief for a minute or two (which you’ll need to do anyway, if you want to get your head round the idea that someone like me will be picking the actors):

Det. Jane Rizzoli – Jaimie Alexander
Dr. Maura Isles – Julia Stiles
Lily Saul – Emma Stone
Anthony Sansone – Mads Mikkelson
Dr. Joyce O’Donnell – Glenne Headly
Edwina Felway – Emma Thompson

by David Gilman (2020)

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.

The enlarged band continue the pursuit of their elusive enemy, and increasingly make ground. But they are unaware at this stage that the trail won’t just take them back and forth across the city, through one blazing shootout after another, but into Europe, and finally into Russia, specifically to a gulag hellhole in the frozen wilderness of the Ural Mountains, the end of the line for Russia’s worst criminals, a place of the damned that is infamously impossible to break out of …

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.

But the character who’s probably got more depth than most of the others put together is young Jeff Jacobson, the genetic offspring of a savage serial killer. You might not have thought there’d be much down for this kid, certainly not when so many other of the ‘prodigals’ have immediately begun replicating the worst atrocities of the originals. And yet Jeff Jacobson has a large role to play in this narrative, because, in the end, it is he who’s the living proof that genetic deviance is not unconquerable. It is young Jeff who serves to illustrate that, for all their research into genes, chromosomes, embryology, X&Y and so on, the ‘playing at God’ scientists of DSTI are taking a blind alley in their efforts to isolate wickedness in the lab – and in fact, in their casual mistreatment of anyone and everyone for the supposed betterment of mankind, are themselves exemplifying a far more insidious form of evil.

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
Kristin – Keira Knightley
Jeff Jacobson – Garrett Ryan
Gregory Jacobson – David Morse
Colonel Stanforth – Gerard Butler
Ox – Barkhad Abdi
Erdman – William Sanderson

by Christopher Golden (2017)

Life-partners and professional adventurers, Meryam Karga and Adam Holzer, think they may have stumbled on the find of a lifetime when an avalanche at the top of Turkey’s Mount Ararat exposes a cave in which an ancient timber craft is lodged. Ararat, of course, is one of the most famous mountains on Earth for reasons that date back almost to the dawn of human history – long has it been rumoured that this was the last resting place of Noah’s Ark.

Determined to claim this incredible prize for their own, Meryam and Adam make the arduous trek to the upper slopes of the wintry mountain in company with a handpicked team of assistants. But inevitably, they aren’t going to have things all their own way.

Of their two guides, Feyiz is fine, but the older one, Hakan, is an awkward, aggressive bully who openly dislikes Meryam because he considers her to be a lapsed Moslem. Then we have the rest of the team, a hotchpotch of scholars, archaeologists and student film-makers, and these don’t make for easy bedfellows either. Catholic priest and ancient languages expert, Father Hughes, does not get on with Professor Olivieri; it’s mainly a case of professional rivalry, but it still threatens the work. The Turkish authorities are present too, and though on the whole cooperative, they are suspicious of Father Hughes, who they worry will try to turn this into a ‘Christian achievement’.

A quieter presence is the mission’s action-man, Ben Walker. He arrives in company with UN observer, Kim Seong, and though he ostensibly represents the US National Science Foundation, in fact he is an American defence operative whose main role is to establish if there is anything on top of Mount Ararat that might be useful to his government. Walker is experienced at this sort of thing (very experienced, it soon transpires), but he knows when to play it low-key; at first, he is all things to all men, but it isn’t long before he too has identified weaknesses in the chain of command which he might be able to exploit.

As if all these vying interests don’t cause enough problems, the weather up there in the high peaks is extremely hazardous, bitterly cold wind and intense snowstorms sweeping the desolate ridges. But initially, the find makes all the hardships and complexities of reaching it worthwhile. The Ark, for that is what it appears to be, has all but burrowed its way into the mountain, its interior accessible only by a relatively small opening. But once you get inside there, it’s a wondrous structure, a vast ocean-going vessel of a sort that no-one thought the pre-Biblical world was capable of producing. It also dates correctly and is a virtual treasure trove in terms of the human bones, pottery and ancient writings adorning its lower decks.

The question as to whether this vast object could actually be Noah’s Ark is the key. No one on the mission believes the Noah story word-for-word, but there is a general acceptance that some tribal elder, possibly named Noah, took his family and some livestock and embarked on a hastily-built craft to ride out a sudden flood. But what kind of cataclysm might have left the boat high and dry at the top of a 16,000-foot mountain?

And then an even bigger and much more unsettling question arises.

Whose is the mummified cadaver the team discover in an eerie, glyph-covered coffin deep in the heart of the fossilised craft?

And why does it apparently have horns on its head?

A gawing fear grips the intrepid band. No one seriously wants to contemplate that this might be the relic of an ancient demon, but then stories of the Great Flood concern a race of evil beings who, in Genesis, were spawned on the Earth by fallen angels, and who in due course became the targets of God’s wrath, hence the fast-rising water.

Could there be a kernel of truth in that myth? Could this be the desiccated remnant of one such creature, which somehow sneaked aboard?

Only when the killings start, individual members of the team butchered with climbing tools, and/or thrown down the mountainside to freeze, does this fear morph into utter terror.

Debates rage on as to the nature of the thing in the sarcophagus. Is it what they suspect? Could it be wielding a malign influence? Or do they simply have a madman in their midst?

The obvious solution is to get the hell out of there, abandon the Ark and the sarcophagus, and stumble back down the mountainside to civilisation. But the weather is getting worse. The worn-out archaeologists are now trapped in this hellish place, and a very real malevolence is spreading among them … 

All kinds of influences are visible in this fascinating and intense chiller from US author, Chris Golden, quite a few of them filmic. There is certainly a bit of The Thing in there, hints of The Exorcist, and more than a dollop of Raiders of the Lost Ark (a different Ark this time, of course). But there is nothing unusual in this in the modern age.

Certain book genres seem to have blended together in recent times, to give us a whole new range of thriller/horror/adventure novels, invariably set in exotic locations and underwritten by mysteries from the ancient religious world.

It often makes for an intriguing mix, but I’m particularly impressed on this occasion that Golden has taken it all a step further by upgrading the fear factor to an extreme degree.

We readers are left in no doubt that the Ark discovered here is an amazing thing, venerable and mystifying beyond imagining, and very possibly an indicator that cosmic powers have controlled the events on Earth from time immemorial, and that good and evil once held sentient forms, and maybe still do. But while these huge metaphysical issues pervade Ararat, the author doesn’t forget to entertain us as well.

From the moment, the terrible husk is discovered inside the dank, fire-lit interior of this long-forgotten hulk, the atmosphere changes. Everything that once seemed miraculous now seems deeply ominous. What formerly felt like a hidden door which, should our heroes open it, would shed light upon a distant, semi-mythical past, is a door they must at all costs keep closed for fear of what it might admit.

The author channels these big concepts through his characters, amplifying them in the process without hitting us over the head with them.

Meryam and Adam’s team are robust sorts, outdoor types who’ve managed to make it to the top of the world despite inconceivable obstacles. For the most part, they are scientists and cultured intellectuals, who don’t believe in angels and demons, but not long after you get into this novel, lack of spiritual belief starts to feel like a weakness rather than a strength. If you’re purely a rationalist, how can you cope mentally with supernatural revelations like these?

And it’s not as if all is hunky dory in the group anyway. For various reasons, Adam and Meryam have found themselves drawing apart during this expedition. For one thing, Adam resents that Meryam often confides in the handsome young guide, Feyiz, while he himself is drawn to the beautiful camera-girl, Calliope Shaw. Then there are the religious differences; Golden handles these particularly well, not overdoing the issues that arise when Jews, Moslems and Christians are required to work together, but not pretending that basic mistrust doesn’t exist – and of course allowing it to become a major problem when the horror in the casket is found.

How do you tackle such a being? Whose religious explanation do you believe? Whose religious weaponry do you invoke?

There is a political dimension too. The Turks are paranoid about the American, Ben Walker’s presence, which you can hardly blame them for as he’s so secretive about his real purpose here, while Hakan the hardliner – and he’s not the only one! – increasingly feels that all foreigners, particularly irreligious modernists like these, should be barred from what is clearly a sacred site.

In short, everything that could be going wrong is soon going wrong, and at a time when this small microcosm of humanity is pitted against what is potentially the deadliest foe mankind has faced in millennia – and this time, it’s safe to say, God won’t be intervening to save everyone with a cataclysmic flood.

Ararat is a rousing 21st century thriller, an intense action-horror both claustrophobic in tone and epic in scale. At the same time, it’s disconcertingly grown-up in terms of the questions it raises … mainly because there are no easy answers (if any). A thoroughly compelling read.

And now, I’ll embarrass myself again by attempting to cast Ararat should Hollywood or HBO come knocking at Chris Golden’s door. It’s often drawn to my attention that in playing this game with each review, I sometimes overlook the fact that adaptations are already in the works. Apologies if that is the case here – in truth, I’d be disappointed and surprised if it wasn’t – but I’m still having a go. Remember, the big difference between my casting sessions and those of the big studios is that in my case money is no object (heh heh heh).

Ben Walker – Adrien Brody
Meryam Karga – Ahu Turkpence
Adam Holzer – David Schwimmer
Kim Seong – Dianne Doan
Feyiz – Cansel Elkin
Hakan – Serhan Yavas
Fr. Cornelius Hughes – Michael Gambon
Prof. Armando Olivieri – Giancarlo Giannini
Calliope Shaw – Hayley Atwell

edited by Christopher Golden (2018)

A Blumhouse Original horror anthology put together specially for the Christmas season last year, but packed with festive-themed chillers, several of which I can safely predict will go on to be reprinted many times throughout the Christmasses yet to come.

Rather than simply hit you with a succession of brief short story outlines, I’ll let the publishers give you their own official blurb, which pleasingly hints at the seasonal shivers lying in wait.

Eighteen stories of Christmas horror from bestselling, acclaimed authors including Scott Smith, Seanan McGuire, Josh Malerman, Michael Koryta, Sarah Pinborough, and many more.

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.

Bestselling author and editor Christopher Golden shares his love for Christmas horror stories with this anthology of all-new short fiction from some of the most talented and original writers of horror today.

Christmas-themed horror stories are nothing new these days. In fact, you have to go back quite a few centuries to find a time when they were new, if such a time ever existed at all. Regulars on this blog will know that I’ve waxed lyrical about the festive chiller many times before, dredging up examples from the distant past, not just Dickensian delights, but ancient tales of sprites and goblins as referred to in Shakespeare, and even earlier than that, from the Middle Ages. We won’t get into the history of it again now but suffice to say that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see Christmas-themed anthologies appear on our bookshelves as regular as clockwork when the autumn of each year approaches.

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?

Undoubtedly, yes.

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 …


Just a bit of fun, this part. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed if they do.

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 Yuletide circumstances, which require them to relate spooky stories. 

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.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Fresh as the New-Fallen Snow (by Seanan McGuire)

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 …

Raisa – Yuliya Snigir

The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel (by Joe R Lansdale)

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 …

Robert – Steve Buscemi
Kastengate – Hugo Weaving

Not Just for Christmas (by Sarah Lotz)

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 …

Jake – James Marsden
Amira – Sarah Michelle Gellar

Tenets (by Josh Malerman)

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 …

Michael – Robert Carlyle

by Helen Grant (2013)

A collection of contemporary and enigmatic ghost stories, strongly reminiscent of MR James, but though thoroughly British in tone, comprising a diverse range of times and places.

Firstly, rather than go through the outlines for the seven tales contained herein, I’ll let the official Swan River Press blurb do the talking, as that more than hints at the spooky pleasures to come: 

In her first collection, award-winning author Helen Grant plumbs the depths of the uncanny: Ten fathoms down, where the light filtering through the salt water turns everything grey-green, something awaits unwary divers. A self-aggrandising art critic travelling in rural Slovakia finds love with a beauty half his age – and pays the price. In a small, German town, a nocturnal visitor preys upon children; there is a way to keep it off – but the ritual must be perfect. A rock climber dares to scale a local crag with a diabolical reputation and makes a shocking discovery at the top. In each of these seven tales, unpleasantries and grotesqueries abound – and Grant reminds us with each one that there can be fates even worse than death. 

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.

Again, for the uninitiated, classic MR James tales include Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My LadA Warning to the Curious and Casting the Runes (later filmed as Night of the Demon).

Though clearly immersed in this signal ghost story culture, Helen Grant was nevertheless one of the subtlest of the James Gang’s practitioners, serving up a succession of scary tales rich in Jamesian atmosphere but quite often with endings where an Aickmanesque degree of ambiguity left the reader thinking long and hard rather than flipping straight on to the next tale.

The Sea Change, her sole collection of weird tales to date, is a perfect illustration of this.

As I mentioned previously, there is a range of interesting locations here. The title story itself takes us scuba-diving off the Dorset Coast, The Calvary at Banska Bystrica to an eerie village in the Balkans and Alberic de Mauleon to a beautiful medieval town in the heart of rural France, while Grauer Hans moves back and forth between Cologne and Birmingham.

We also jump about amid the time zones. Some of the stories are set now, but Nathair Dhubh is set between the wars, while Alberic de Mauleon occurs in the 1680s and The Game of Bear takes us back to James’s own era, the early days of the 20th century.

Despite this, the spirit of MR James is palpable throughout, the stories often drawing on local folklore, and in each case the sense of terror slowly deepening for reasons that may prove elusive (though it’s usually because the writing is so clever). In Nathair Dhubh, for example, a lone climber ascends a pinnacle of rock through veils of unnatural fog, desperate to get to the top and safety, despite his growing conviction, which we readers share, that he’s going to find something deeply unpleasant when he does. In Self Catering, though on the surface it’s light-hearted, we’re left in no doubt from the start that oddball travel agent Cornelius von Teufel will prove to be more than just a comedy walk-on, and that ‘hero’ Edward Larkin is walking blindly towards complete disaster.

All of this is due in no small part to the atmosphere Helen Grant manages to evoke with a few, well-chosen words, because these stories are nothing if not crisp and succinct. And at no stage does she hit us with anything ‘on the nose’. For example, I doubt that British coastal waters have ever been murkier or more menacing than in The Sea Change, when a pair of sports divers chance them in order to explore a previously uncharted wreck. Grant doesn’t bother to tell us that this is a really bad idea; we can feel it in our bones as they descend through the salty gloom. While in The Calvary at Banska Bystrica, one of the strongest stories in the book, in my opinion (though they are all strong), a lone traveller climbs a steep, overgrown hillside in searingly hot sunshine, passing a series of empty display cases where the Stations of the Cross once stood, determined to reach the mysteriously abandoned church at the top. Once again, the author’s understated style is so effective that the atmosphere of evil becomes overwhelming long before he reaches his target, and yet it’s difficult to pin down exactly why.

But it’s not just about the scares.

Helen Grant is a genuinely intelligent writer. Two of the stories in the book do more than pay homage to MR James. The Game of Bear, for example, is an official continuation of a half-written story by James himself, which was only discovered in relatively recent times by James expert, Rosemary Pardoe. This particular job has been tackled before by two other writers of considerable note, Reggie Oliver and CE Ward, but in The Sea Change, it is Helen Grant’s interpretation of what might have happened in the second half of the story, which proves beyond doubt that she was a student of the old master as well as a fan.

In addition, in Alberic de Mauleon, Grant give us a prequel to another original James story, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook. Despite this, it works as a perfect stand-alone, though I’m not saying you won’t be sufficiently fascinated to go and look for the ‘follow-up’ (if you haven’t already read it).

It’s also worth noting that Helen Grant is not the kind of writer who simply delights in making us jump. I suspect that none of the stories in the The Sea Change would ever have been written if she hadn’t been using them, perhaps subliminally, to work out some intriguing subtexts.

Grauer Hans, for example, another very accomplished story, is on the surface the tale of a personal haunting, but is also a meditation on the effects of age as our youthful hopes and dreams are gradually eroded by bitter reality, The Sea Change examines the destructive power of obsession, while The Calvary at Banska Bystrica doesn’t just sermonise about personal responsibility, but warns about the dangers of getting too absorbed in one’s work (and there’s a bit of an in-joke there, I think).

Anyway, enough of my longwinded blather. Suffice to say that The Sea Change is a superb collection of concise and thought-provoking tales. They also happen to be deeply chilling and possess an intellectual appeal that goes beyond the Jamesian school in which they were spawned. Seriously, what more could you ask from a bunch of ghost stories? 

And now …

THE SEA CHANGE – the movie.

Just a bit of fun, this part. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

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 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 which require them to relate spooky stories to each other. 

It could be that they’re all marooned on a fogbound train and forced to listen to each other’s fortunes as read by a mysterious man with a pack of cards (al la Dr Terror’s House of Horrors), or trapped in a cellar by a broken lift and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of Horror) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Grauer Hans: A poor single mother and her baby daughter are terrorised nightly by a Germanic goblin who comes knocking at their window …
Christa – Mina Tander

Self Catering: A bored office-worker seeks out a special kind of holiday in a genuine haunted house. No one seems to offer such a service until he finds the curious travel agents in the dim backstreet …
Edward Larkin – Rupert Gint
Cornelius von Teufel – Derek Jacobi

The Sea Change: A dive-team breaks up when obsessive Daffy develops a compulsion to visit the same eerie, offshore wreck again and again, at a strange and terrible cost …
Daffy – Tom Felton
Helen – Eleanor Tomlinson 

The Calvary at Banksa Bystrica: When a snobbish art critic vanishes during a trip to Slovakia, his penniless brother’s quest to find him leads to a dingy town and an even dingier church on a lonesome hilltop ...
Montague – Michael C Hall

by Helen Grant (2021)

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.

A couple of times while awaiting his return, she thinks she spies someone in a lavender gown walking along the edge of the nearby woodland, but aside from that the house is nicely secluded and the surrounding countryside peaceful and quiet. Fen is at last starting to think that she’s living the dream.

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 DemonThe 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 
Belle – Rebecca Hall

by Mira Grant (2017)

When the good ship Atagartis set sail for the Mariana Trench, hopes were high that the team aboard would uncover evidence of mermaids – real ones. And if that didn’t happen, at least the massive TV audience at home would be royally entertained, because the Atagartis had been chartered by global media company, Imagine Entertainment, whose main aim was to film a successful mockumentary in the style of real-life TV ‘hoaxes’ like Mermaids, The Body Found, and Megalodon, The Monster Shark Lives.

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.

Most eccentric of all, Jacques and Michi Abney – a husband and wife big game hunting team – are also on hand, with an arsenal of hi-tech weapons just in case the mer-people turn nasty again. This handsome but menacing twosome present a potentially quite serious problem as there is no certainty that they’ll be easy to control in the event of a confrontation, especially if some kind of ‘diplomatic initiative’ is favoured by the rest of the team. They are deadliness personified, living only for the hunt, unashamedly besotted with each other’s ruthlessness and openly disrespectful of the non-predatory humans around them.

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’?

All this said, I’m not sure these are major issues, as eventually all the characters – most of whom, Tory in particular, are well-drawn and believable (though I could have done without the ‘male stripper’ security staff, which felt very odd) – end up thrown together and fighting for their lives against a previously unknown and apparently unstoppable foe.

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 S.L. Grey (2017)

Cape Town residents, Mark and Steph Sebastian, are not the most happily married couple.

To start with, there is an age gap between them, Mark considerably older than his pretty young wife, and though this doesn’t trouble them superficially, deep down we suspect it’s been an issue of sorts from early in their relationship. Add to that the trauma Mark suffered in a previous marriage when his first daughter, Zoe, died a terrible death, and the poor wage he earns as an uninspiring lecturer in one of South Africa’s lesser universities, and you can understand why he is so troubled.

Steph is not the perfect spouse, either. A stay-at-home mum with their new baby-daughter, Hayden (when the family so clearly needs a second wage), and attractive enough to catch the eye of, and even flirt with hunky young guys in the neighbourhood, she inevitably wonders if she chose the wrong man to spend the rest of her life with – her parents certainly think she did! – and yet she remains pathologically suspicious of Carla, a sophisticated woman from Mark’s past, whom he never took to bed but is still friendly with.

If all this isn’t bad enough, the couple’s suburban home is then violently burgled while they are present, the trio tied up and terrorised by a gang of knife-wielding bandits. They are not physically injured, but Mark feels unmanned by the incident because he did nothing to defend his wife and child (even though there was patently nothing he could do), while, Steph, we suspect, though she won’t say it in as many words, now thinks even less of him than she did before.

The visceral horror of the episode lingers long afterwards, the couple no longer feeling safe in their home and spending what little cash they have on an updated security system.

When the suggestion is made that they need a holiday to try and rediscover the affection they once held for each other, the Sebastians dismiss it as unaffordable nonsense. But then, a house-swap website is drawn to their attention, and they learn about a French couple, the Petits, who are looking for a place in Cape Town, for which they will temporarily exchange their own luxury apartment in Paris.

It all looks fantastic online, and of course Mark and Steph have always wanted to visit the City of Light. The deal is signed, and things finally seem to be looking up. With Hayden left in the capable hands of Steph’s parents, the duo fly to Europe, eagerly anticipating a much-needed vacation in the cradle of culture and romance.

What they actually find, however, is the exact opposite.

The apartment, when they manage to locate it in the backstreets of the Pigalle, is a seedy dump in what feels like a semi-derelict building. It is gloomy, damp and filled with all kinds of unsavoury mementoes, including items which seem to have relevance to Mark’s own unhappy past (though he won’t admit this to Steph), and there is only one other resident, an eccentric artist called Mireille, who lives in a garret on the top floor. This might at least hint at the old Bohemian Paris we all know and love, except that Mireille appears to be deranged, and lives in such squalor that they soon come to suspect she’s squatting in the building rather than paying rent.

Add to this the terrible weather – it’s a bitterly cold February – the Sebastians being financially unequipped for a holiday in France, and an increasing mystery about the Petits themselves, who never showed up to claim the house in Cape Town and now appear to be out of contact, and we have a rapidly unfolding nightmare.

But this is only the start of it.  

Weird and unexplained incidents in the apartment hint at a supernatural, even malevolent presence, and when Mark finds himself grappling with some ghastly hallucinations, at times losing track of where he is and what he’s doing here, they decide it’s time to head home. But leaving this apartment is not as easy as it sounds, and even if the Sebastians manage it, Steph, for one, fears that they haven’t seen the last of the subliminal evil they’ve encountered here …

The first thing to say is that I’m a bit staggered by the number of negative reviews that this book has received online. Some readers appear to have come at it expecting full-blown horror, as in demons and gore on every page, while others sound resentful that the publicity material accompanying its release – describing it as “a terrifying tour de force,” for example – has misrepresented a book that they clearly expected to leave them quaking under the bedclothes.

Well, the advice I would give to these folks comes in two parts.

1)      Never read too much into publicity material – its job is to entice you, not inform you.

2)      Instead, read what it says on the tin – that’s a more tested method for finding out what’s inside.

If you did the latter, you’d have no problem at all with The Apartment, because, as it says in the blurb, this is a disturbing little psychological thriller, which, no, may not have you screaming in fear by bombarding you with ghost-train effects, but yes, will unsettle you no end by immersing you in an intensely creepy predicament, which gets steadily worse for the main protagonists the deeper into the novel you penetrate.

I safely predict that any readers who are even vaguely sensitive to unpleasant situations will be bemused and unnerved in equal measure, as lead-characters, Mark and Steph Sebastian, first try to fathom out how it is they come to be stuck in this awful place, and then try to establish an escape route, both of which missions are fraught with difficulty.

There are some odious elements in the book too; some real hair-curlers, in fact.

The seaminess of the just-about habitable apartment is wonderfully evoked by joint-authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg (who share the pseudonym, SL Grey), even if it remains largely intangible, deriving mostly from its air of inexplicable abandonment, from its unspoken aura of dread, from the decayed left-overs of nameless former occupants still to be found there even years later. All of this is so well realised by the authors, who at no stage hit you in the face with it, that you couldn’t imagine wanting to spend even a single day and night there, let alone a week-long vacation. The term ‘shudder-inducing’ is often over-used, but it would be perfectly fitting in this circumstance.

In this regard, any resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Parisian-set horror flick of 1976, The Tenant, (itself an adaptation of Roland Topor’s psychological chiller of 1964, Le Locataire Chimérique), owes mainly to the Grand Guignol setting, but The Apartment shares a similarly haunting and claustrophobic atmosphere, and that is no bad thing.

The city itself is used to great effect. Lotz and Greenberg take us all over the place, showing us the sights and immersing us in the magic of this great European capital, and yet it’s a two-edged sword, Mark and Steph remaining distanced from it all because they are so short of money, looking at the glitz through panes of rain-streaked glass, shivering in a wintry wind from which they can’t find shelter.

The impoverishment of the two heroes has drawn criticism from certain reviewers, who’ve expressed annoyance with the Sebastians and have doubted that this could happen, pointing out that they’re an educated couple, who surely have sufficient experience between them to avoid being marooned in a foreign city so short of cash that they can barely sustain themselves let alone buy a ticket home. But I’d argue that they are damaged goods, neither Mark nor Steph functioning at a full-on adult level.

This is given full effect by a clever device wherein the narrative is relayed to us in alternate chapters, one from Mark’s perspective, the next from Steph’s, the next from Mark’s, and so on. Not only does it ram home the message that these guys may be married but are certainly not allies, it also illustrates how unreliable they both are as narrators. Mark is still traumatised by terrible events in his early life; they occupy much of his day-to-day thinking, allowing him no enthusiasm for his job and only a little bit for his new wife and child. Little wonder, the apartment comes to embody all this, leaving him to suspect (or should that be ‘imagine’?) that there’s a malign presence in the desolate building. At the same time, Steph simply thinks the place is horrible and unsafe, for which she mainly blames Mark – somewhat unfairly, I feel, because it ought to be plain to a perceptive wife that her husband is struggling with his mental health – and obsesses constantly about her child, who she didn’t want to leave at home.

On top of that, they are both tortured by memories of the burglary, Mark riddled with regret that he didn’t do more to defend his family (as if that would have been remotely possible for a middle-aged man, though that, of course, exacerbates the main bone of contention between the couple), while Steph, feeling that she came very close to being raped and murdered, now finds the night-time an ordeal, feeling safe nowhere and seeing no protection in her husband.

In fact, so much of the narrative occurs inside the characters’ heads that this is definitely NOT your run-of-the-mill horror story. The gainsayers have got that much right, but I still found it hugely effective. It’s also been written in a readable, paired-down style – never fear, it’s still wonderfully descriptive and richly flavoursome of Paris ‘behind the scenes’ – but it rattles along at pace to an especially chilling climax (which, contrary to some of the more nonsensical reviews I’ve read, wraps the whole thing up both coherently and satisfyingly).

It can’t say that I had nightmares after reading The Apartment, but my skin crept, and I brooded on it long after I’d finished, which has got to be proof of a very worthwhile horror story.

I’ve no clue whether or not The Apartment is destined for any kind of film or TV development, but if not, it ought to be. As such, I’m going to display my usual conceit and nominate the cast I personally would opt for were it ever to get the adaptation treatment. Just for laughs of course – no-one would listen to me anyway – but here we go: 

Steph – Tanya van Graan
Mark – Sharlto Copley
Carla – Antoinette Louw
Mireille – Nathalie Baye

by Elly Griffiths (2017)

Professor Ruth Galloway is Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. She also works regularly for the local Serious Crimes Unit (and its rugged, adversarial boss, DCI Harry Nelson) as a forensic investigator, but this is rural East Anglia, and as the largest nearby towns are Norwich and King’s Lynn, no one would expect Galloway to find herself on regular secondment to the police. However, that isn’t the case. Over the years, she’s had enough involvement in murder enquiries to consider the cops her colleagues, but on this occasion, it is Galloway herself who sets the ball rolling when she is summoned into the chalk workings underneath Norwich to examine some recently discovered bones.

Ordinarily, she’d expect these to be ancient and therefore of greater interest to the university than the local homicide team, only for her initial examination to show that not only are they relatively recent, but that they’ve been boiled clean – which might indicate that the unfortunate victim was cooked and eaten after he/she was killed.

This is hardly music to the ears of handsome architect Quentin Swan, who, though he is the one who called Galloway in, is looking to develop a subterranean shopping mall and food court, and now realises that he must put his obsessive dream on hold. Harry Nelson, meanwhile, is looking into the disappearance of a homeless woman called Babs. It isn’t a high priority, especially as other members of the local homeless community are proving unwilling to talk. But then he gets word – from an unreliable source, admittedly, but it’s unnerving nonetheless – that Babs has been ‘taken underground’.

No one really knows what this means, but further investigation uncovers rumours that a nameless group is dwelling in the labyrinthine passages beneath the city streets, not just the sewers, cellars and crypts, but in the same chalk workings that Ruth Galloway is investigating.

Galloway and Nelson are unsure what to make of this. It could be just a myth, but these stories won’t go away – and now there is the potential cannibal angle. Is it conceivable, as the scholarly Dr Martin Kellerman suggests, that some mysterious branch of the homeless community have not just become troglodytes, but are now hunting humans as food?

It’s almost too horrible to contemplate, but there are other sinister developments that seem to confirm this suspicion. Two of the homeless men who’ve admitted to knowing Babs and who seem to possess knowledge about what happened to her are found brutally murdered, one on the police station steps. In response, the whole machinery of the law swings into action, the division’s very correct Superintendent Jo Archer, determined that, at the very least, they have a serial killer on their patch who must be stopped.

Of course, fear that it may even be worse than that – namely that the killer is protecting a cannibal clan – preys on all their minds, and this is the kind of distraction that no one in The Chalk Pit needs. Because despite all outward appearances, this is quite a dysfunctional unit.

To start with, Galloway and Nelson once had a fling, during the course of which Galloway became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. This is particularly awkward for Nelson, as he already has a wife, Michelle, who now knows about the affair and its illegitimate offspring, and resignedly accepts it, and two older legitimate daughters as well, who are still unaware that they have a half-sister. Nelson finds himself walking this tightrope every time he and Galloway work together, while his most able underlings – Detective Sergeants Judy Johnson and David ‘Cloughie’ Clough – are the opposite ends of the spectrum politically (Judy’s boyfriend, Michael ‘Cathbad’ Malone, is a practising druid while Cloughie likes beer and football!) and are often like fire and water with each other.

And then, as if all this means they haven’t already got enough to deal with, the stakes are raised dramatically, when a young, well-to-do mother vanishes from her own home, and once again rumours start circulating that she has been ‘taken underground’ …

My first thoughts on reading The Chalk Pit was that it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin. It’s difficult to elaborate on that point without revealing too much of the synopsis. But I’ve said it now, so I’m going to have to offer some kind of explanation.

The blurb for this book provides us with a real hook:

Boiled human bones have been found in Norwich’s web of underground tunnels. When forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway discovers the bones aren’t as old as originally thought, it’s time for DCI Nelson to launch a murder inquiry. What was initially just a medieval curiosity has taken a much more sinister nature …

Local academic Martin Kellerman knows all about the tunnels and their history – but can his assertions of cannibalism and ritual killing possibly be true?

On this basis, it would be very easy to get stuck into this book expecting to find a cannibal tribe lurking under the streets of Norwich. But suffice to say that there isn’t anything like the blood and thunder this might lead you to anticipate. 

Does that mean the book is disappointing?

Well … it all depends on what you were hoping for. Regular readers of the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, and The Chalk Pit comes ninth in that series, will know that they aren’t for the squeamish, but that there is still a degree of cosiness about them. They are solid procedurals, even though the main protagonist is not a copper. And the crimes that Galloway and her police allies investigate, while often grisly, are rarely OTT.

It’s true that the books often come wrapped in jackets adorned with Gothic imagery, which could easily make you think that we’re in supernatural territory. But we aren’t; Elly Griffiths writes crime fiction, not horror. But such imagery isn’t totally misplaced as her books bounce joyously around ancient borough towns like Norwich and King’s Lynn, which are rich in East Anglian history and can boast their fair share of dramatic and violent events – everything from Celtic resistance to the Romans, to Saxon resistance to the Normans, and on into the witch-hunting era (which saw one poor wretch not hanged or burned, but boiled alive!). All of this gives her novels a richly esoteric flavour, and The Chalk Pit is particularly good in this regard. It concerns itself with many contemporary issues, such as child protection, class distinction, homelessness, but there are also hints of the Grand Guignol, with much to do concerning medieval buildings like churches and guildhalls, and of course that eerie network of long-forgotten tunnels snaking beneath the city streets.

Galloway herself is an archaeologist, whose main interest is antiquity and for whom the discovery of a pile of human bones is usually a source of delight rather than despair. Then there are characters like Cathbad, who harks back to the beliefs of those eldritch days predating Christianity. Oh yes, The Chalk Pit, like all of Elly Griffiths’ work, is rammed with local colour and local lore. Just don’t expect it to be gory or terrifying.

That said, the novel’s criminal investigation is deeply intriguing, and a genuine page-turner, particularly after Cloughie’s girlfriend, Cassandra, is kidnapped. I reckon I flew through the final third of the book. But at least half the jeopardy in this narrative doesn’t stem from the police enquiry, so much as from the tense relationships between characters.

This is particularly effective where Galloway and Nelson are concerned, their unrequited love providing the book’s emotional core. The irony here, of course, is that Galloway is a very modern woman. Independent-minded and successful, she doesn’t need a man in her life, but she wants Nelson. He, already married and with two grown-up daughters, is equally tortured, because while he loves Galloway, he dotes on his existing family too. And it’s all nicely understated. There are no outbursts here, no hysterical tears. The duo just gets on with it, working together quietly in that staid, stiff-upper-lip British way, but secretly enjoying the contacts they have with each other.

The rest of the cops – and The Chalk Pit is very much an ensemble piece, rather than exclusively a ‘Ruth Galloway adventure’ – are instantly recognisable as the sort of people you’d meet in any real-life police station.

Judy Johnson, another modern female, is confident, terse, leaning a little towards authoritarianism, and yet somehow just right for the off-the-wall man in her life, Cathbad. Then there is Cloughie, who is much more ‘old school’, and yet whose working-class origins ensure that he gets a rapport going with the many homeless characters they encounter. (On the subject of the homeless, and there are plenty in this book, I feel the author delivers an idealised picture of them. While they are all clearly damaged, few appear deeply troubled, instead spreading good will and happiness wherever they go – which I’m sorry to say I didn’t buy).

That only leaves us with the villains, though I don’t want to talk too much about them for fear of giving vital stuff away. But put it this way: we have an entire array of suspects by the end of this book. They’re all totally believable – none are slotted in as obvious red herrings, and all emerge under their own steam, Griffiths gradually persuading us without actually needing to say it that any one of them could be the killer.

But no more about that now; as I say, no further spoilers here.

Like all good novels, The Chalk Pit is not just about what’s happening on the surface. All through the book there is an interesting if subliminal discussion about the absence of faith in the modern day. Quite a few of the characters are hostile to religion, but as the case progresses, more and more are drawn to reminisce about their religious upbringing when they were young, and while there isn’t any obvious regret that it’s all gone, some of them start to recognise an emptiness in their lives, and increasingly as they suspect they’re up against a horrific evil, they feel less and less equipped to deal with it. It didn’t escape my notice that two of the most contented characters in the book are Cathbad, the druid, and Paul Pritchard, the born again ex-bank robber. And it won’t go unnoticed by anyone that, towards the end of the book, two characters who previously were planning to get hitched in a registry office, change their plans and opt for a church wedding instead.

The Chalk Pit is a great example of a fast, multi-layered (literally) and very well-written British police thriller, the sort you could easily imagine being put on television. A straightforward murder case, but believably presented and built around characters you care about. As long as you aren’t led by the blurb to expect gaudy displays of Dark Ages carnage, you should enjoy this one thoroughly.

As usual now, in the event that Ruth Galloway does end up on TV sometime, I’m going to try and pre-empt everyone by nominating my own cast. Just a bit of fun of course, but here are my picks for who ought to play the leads should The Chalk Pit ever make it to the screen:

Dr Ruth Galloway – Emily Watson
DCI Harry Nelson – Christopher Eccleston
Michelle Nelson – Jessica Hynes
DS Judy Johnson – Katie McGrath
Michael ‘Cathbad’ Malone – Kevin Doyle
Supt. Jo Archer – Helen Baxendale
DS David Clough – Kevin Fletcher
Cassandra Blackstock – Sophia Jayne Myles
Quentin Swan – Jason Hughes
Paul Pritchard – Patrick Baladi
Dr David Kellerman – Jeff Rawle

by Tom Harper (2015)

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.

 Later, Kel learns that Anton and Drew are professional adventurers, the former forever seeking funds to make new exploratory missions into remote and dangerous corners of the world, many of them as yet undiscovered. Their next trip, which is already past the planning stage, will take them far into the Peruvian Amazon, where they hope to locate Paititi, the fabled lost city of the Incas. Often referred to mistakenly as ‘El Dorado’, Paititi is believed to be a real location, the Incas’ last redoubt as they fled from the Conquistadors, and the final resting place of their nation’s vast wealth. Though abandoned now and overgrown for centuries by the jungle, it is sought continually by the world’s treasure-hunters, but still, in the whole of history, has only ever been seen by one or two westerners.

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.

 When the voyage upriver gets underway, the conditions in the boat are extremely primitive, but Kel remains excited. This is everything he’s ever dreamed of, the rainforest exactly the way he imagined it: dense, steamy, filled with the cries of mysterious animals and birds. For all the very real dangers that he is continually reminded lie just ahead, he considers that at last he is really living.

 Kel MacDonald is a doctor, of course. So, he’s seen death and agony up close many times. Which is a good thing. Because in due course he’s going to be seeing it all over again, this time in abundance …

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.

 I’ve seen other reviews that have taken issue with the lesser characters, calling them a mixed bag, not convinced they’re all as well-drawn as they might be. It’s certainly the case that nearly all of them lack the depth of Kel MacDonald (who is not just a hero; he makes some bad mistakes and shows very poor judgement at times!), but none of that mattered to me because as the narrative progresses, it picks up so much pace and plunges its participants through so many horrors, pitting them against each other constantly, that it literally flowed by. In addition to that, I never felt that any of the other characters were invisible to me, and this is especially the case later on when their individual agendas are laid bare.

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)

Ciudad Juárez is a Mexican border-town where something akin to a national disaster is being played out.

Since the early 1990s (in real life as well as in this powerful work of fiction), at least 5,000 young women, mostly prostitutes, students or assembly line employees in the maquiladoras – US-owned car-making plants where sweatshop conditions are the norm – have vanished. In many cases they have never been seen again, but a significant number have reappeared in shallow graves or on city dumps, murdered and displaying signs of extreme sexual torture.

Whether it’s the work of a serial killer, or multiple serial killers, or dope gangs, or sex tourists, or who knows what, it’s a hideous mystery which endures right to this day.

It’s difficult to understand how something like this can go on unchecked in the 21st century, but Juárez is a town with all kinds of problems, not least the cartels who fight each other daily up and down its bullet-scarred streets, the persistence of corruption in institutions like the police and local government, the prevalence of drugs and drug addicts, and the hordes of reckless American turistas who flood across the border every evening to drink and whore themselves senseless.

It is against this tragic but hellish backdrop that Texas author, Sam Hawken, tells his tale of two deeply-flawed men: Kelly Courter, an American boxer now long past his best, and Detective Rafael Sevilla, an alcoholic narcotics cop who is close to retirement after a career (and a lifetime!) during which he feels he’s achieved nothing.

Courter and Sevilla are as unlikely a pair of heroes as you could meet.

The former fled the States to evade a likely lengthy jail sentence, and now has a heroin dependency, which, though he’s only in his 30s, long ago ruined his boxing career. These days, just to be able to support himself (and buy smack!), Courter rents himself out as a human punchbag to unscrupulous backstreet boxing promoters like the verminous Ortiz – who put him in the ring against eager up-and-comers, where he suffers the unbridled hatred of the crowd and takes some bone-crunching beatings. The one light in his life is Paloma, his girlfriend, a fearless activist with Mujeres Sin Voces, a self-help organisation seeking justice for the legions of murdered women, and whose drugs-dealing brother, Estéban, he occasionally helps by providing a white face by which to lure nervous American customers.

It is through this connection that we first meet the honest but drink-enfeebled cop, Sevilla, who is constantly leaning on Courter to get him to give up his and Estéban’s supplier. Courter resists, of course, and there isn’t much Sevilla can do about that, or even is motivated to do, if he’s honest – because his life too has been irreparably damaged by the plague of ‘feminicide’, which, among so many others, has claimed both his daughter and his granddaughter.

As such, neither Courter nor Sevilla, nor even Estéban lead happy and fulfilled lives, but things get a whole lot worse when Paloma, who on several occasions has stood up to the menacing gangland figures constantly circling Mujeres Sin Voces, also disappears. If this isn’t enough, as neither Courter nor Estéban have adequate alibis – Courter was on yet another drugs binge at the time! – they are taken into custody as suspects by the monstrously violent Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia, who, while he’s pretty incompetent when it comes to collaring gangsters and sex-murderers, likes nothing better than to brutalise confessions out of the little fish who drop his way.

Even Sevilla, who by now has developed a reasonably amicable relationship with Courter, can do nothing to help. When he turns to Adriana Quintero, the almost impossibly well-groomed prosecutor attached to the Special Task Force for the Investigation of Crimes Against Women, and pleads Courter’s innocence, he is greeted with utter indifference; Quintero’s real job, it seems, is to make it look as if Juárez is being served by the law.

Sevilla realises that only one route is open to him. Somehow or other, he must do the unfeasible, and bring the real perpetrators of the Juárez ‘feminicides’ to justice …

The first thing that struck me about The Dead Women of Juárez, Sam Hawken’s debut novel, is that it isn’t your typical crime-thriller. I’ve seen it described variously as ‘hard-boiled’, as ‘a border noir’, as ‘a classic murder-mystery’, and while there are aspects of all those in there – hard-drinking detective, Sevilla, and battered boxer, Courter, wouldn’t be out of place in any Chandler or Mickey Spillane – the overwhelming catastrophe that is actually occurring in Juárez basically takes centre-stage.

And that’s the main point. Because this relentless spate of unsolved murders is a real thing, and because the real city in which the novel takes place is every bit as dusty and down-at-heel as Sam Hawken describes it here, it would seem indelicate, if not downright trite, to classify this novel as anything resembling pulp fiction. It’s a rattling good story – there’s no question about that, and Hawken’s lean, mean prose keeps it bouncing along at pace. But the whole narrative aches with a deep-felt sadness, which can only stem from the real life horrors of that woe-begotten burg.

And it’s quite clear that Hawken wrote his book fully mindful of this issue.

His approach is observational rather than judgemental. Whether it be the extreme inequality of wealth on display here (some folk living in ‘cartons’, while super-powered businessmen like Rafa Madrigal, and his vile son, Sebastian, own ranches and private golf courses), the rash crowds of American kids who flock across the border to party and get high, or the armies of dealers, hookers and hustlers who cater to them, he simply describes things the way they are, rather than calling down fire and brimstone on it. Even the ongoing murder spree is brought to us subtly, Hawken not sitting us down to lecture us, but gradually drawing it to our attention via the clusters of wooden crosses we see standing on wasteland now and then, or the flyblown ‘missing’ posters adorning streetlights and telegraph poles.

This, he shows us – without really needing to say it – is the tragedy of modern Mexico.

Poverty and crime are the norm. Murder is so common that people are no longer shocked; they simply live their lives around it, getting on any way they can. Even Mexico’s crime-lords and their roaming gangs of gunmen are regarded as an everyday occupational hazard.

But while that’s the way of normality in Ciudad Juárez, for the rest of us it’s seismically terrifying. You find yourself shuddering more with each page turned, appalled that such injustice and exploitation could ever exist in the modern world. The desolation of all the main characters’ lives is palpable. It extends to the lesser characters too: the scores of bereaved parents and siblings protesting futilely on barren street-corners; the dead-eyed workers trudging in for yet another long shift in hot, dirty factories; those people who live in cartons.

In all these respects, The Dead Women of Juárez is an unforgettable read. It is dispiriting and distressing – just when you think one awful thing too many has happened, another, even worse thing comes along. The violence and cruelty is more visceral and in-your-face than almost any reader could be comfortable with. However, none of this means that there isn’t going to be a reckoning of sorts. It certainly doesn’t mean that Rafael Sevilla, finally galvanised to take a long-overdue revenge on the enemies of his town, won’t get his act together.

To say more on that would be a spoiler, but The Dead Women of Juárez isn’t just a warts-and-all study of modern-day despair; it’s a multi-layered, fast-moving piece of docu-fiction, superbly written and while not exactly entertaining, ultimately very, very satisfying. Okay, it may not be true to call this book a typical crime-thriller, but that certainly does not mean that it doesn’t reach a very thrilling conclusion.

Another one I highly recommend, though with the caveat that it’s more an existentialist nightmare than a murder mystery, and that even in that brutal guise, it pulls absolutely no punches. 

And now, as usual, I’m going to be bold enough to try and cast this one in advance of it ever coming to the movie or TV screen. I’m not sure whether it’s been optioned or not, but hey … this is only an exercise. Like anyone would listen to me, anyway. Here are my picks for the leads:

Detective Rafael Sevilla – Antonio Banderas
Kelly Courter – Wentworth Miller (older than in the book, but he doesn’t look it)
Ortiz – Sergi Lopez
Esteban – Pablo Cruz
Paloma – Angelique Boyer
Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia – Alberto Estrella
Adriana Quintero – Blanca Soto
Rafa Madrigal – Miguel Sandoval
Sebastian Madrigal – Gael Garcia Bernal

by Terry Hayes (2014)

‘Pilgrim’, aka ‘Jude Garrett’, ‘Scott Murdoch’, ‘Pete Campbell’ and in inner spy circles, the ‘Rider of the Blue’, is the enigmatic man who wrote the ultimate manual on forensic analysis. He’s also the offspring of a murder victim and the adopted son and heir to a New England multi-billionaire, while, career-wise, he’s a US intelligence agent, who, even though he’s still very young, is so formidably skilled and experienced, and boasts such an exemplary track record (which included his termination of a powerful and highly dangerous double-agent based in Moscow) that it has earned him the ear of US presidents.

Technically speaking, however, it’s all over for Pilgrim. He’s done, retired, looking forward to a life of bohemian anonymity in the garrets and backstreets of Paris.

But then, over in Manhattan, Detective Ben Bradley, locates the body of a murdered woman whose corpse has been completely depersonalised by the very same CIA-inspired methods that Pilgrim specified in his seminal book, her teeth removed, her fingerprints and facial features erased with acid, and all traces of the killer’s DNA obliterated by judicious use of antiseptic.

Pilgrim – though he isn’t going by that moniker at this early stage – is a lonely and tortured individual, whose empathetic nature was at the root of his seeking an alternative career, and who yearns to forget his past, though now he is inevitably forced back onto the job to assist Bradley’s investigation. After that, it isn’t long before he finds himself embroiled in a connected but much larger and potentially massively more devastating case … which takes us neatly onto I Am Pilgrim’s other main thread, the personal and political development of an ambitious and determined terrorist, who will also go by a conveniently simple nickname: ‘Saracen’.

After a deprived boyhood in the repressed police state that is Saudi Arabia, which culminates in his having to watch the public decapitation of his father for the unforgivable offence of criticising his nation’s rulers, Saracen finds himself growing up with a fierce hatred for the Saudi royal family, and perhaps inevitably (and far more zealously), for their most committed western ally, the United States of America.

A fully trained doctor by adulthood, but increasingly immersed in the more extremist tenets of Islam, Saracen eventually falls out with what remains of his family (his mother needing to get a job is the final straw!), and he leaves home determined to join the jihadi fight, which he does with a vengeance, soon finding kinship with the Taliban and entering the war in Afghanistan as a soldier of God.

However, Saracen, much like Pilgrim (though this is the only similarity between them), is an obsessive intellectual of his craft, and the winning of minor battles and launching of successful but relatively insignificant terrorist outrages feels like small potatoes. Eager to carry his war into the very heart of his enemy’s domain, and if possible, to destroy it completely, the only solution, as Saracen sees it, is to develop and deploy a bio-weapon of such magnitude that the might of the US will simply collapse beneath its onslaught.

He settles on a new, vaccine-proof and horrendously contagious strain of the smallpox virus (which he unleashes on a batch of human test-subjects in what is surely one of the ghastliest scenes that’s ever been committed to paper).

Back in the States, Pilgrim and his various government informers don’t get wind of this fiendish plot straight away, but when they do, a twisting, turning, continent-hopping duel commences, which ranges from the US to Europe to Asia and the Middle East, taking in a variety of amazing locations en route, including Syria, Switzerland, Bahrain, the bleak, savage mountains of the Hindu Kush, and a hypnotically beautiful Roman ruin on the edge of the glimmering blue Aegean. Ironically, Pilgrim and Saracen don’t meet until near the end of the book, but this doesn’t stop either of them engaging in numerous conflicts on the way, via flashback and subplot and through various proxies, though ultimately we finish up in a shattering, race-against-the-clock, one-on-one climax, which, if I was to say more about it here would be the ultimate spoiler …     

The Guardian said of I Am Pilgrim that it’s ‘the only thriller you need to read this year’. Speaking as a gobbler-up of thrillers, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I do know what they mean. Everything about Terry Hayes’s astonishing debut novel is epic: its size, its concept, its cast of characters, its range of locations, its terrifying and exhilarating action sequences, and even its subtext, which is huge if fairly simple: those with greater power and wisdom than most must shoulder greater responsibility than most, and their not wanting to is basically irrelevant (not that they may necessarily have a choice in the matter).

This is big stuff all the way through, a colossal struggle between two born-to-it masters of their trade, neither of whom will ever take a backward step because they know no other way, and all played out against the majestic canvas of Europe and the Middle East in the age of wide-ranging espionage and terrorism.

On this basis alone, it might be understandable if some readers were put-off exploring this novel any further, perhaps suspecting an all-too-familiar mishmash of James Bond and Jason Bourne. But that would be an error, because I Am Pilgrim is an astonishing, multi-layered tale of conflict and belief, which is vivid, realistic and totally gripping for the entire duration of its 600 plus pages.

It’s no surprise at all that Hollywood has already got its hooks into it.

That isn’t to say that it hasn’t come in for criticism in certain quarters. The sheer length of the book has been described as OTT, while its excessive detail and numerous side-stories have been called self-indulgent and time-wasting. But I take strong issue with that. Despite the length of I Am Pilgrim, the pace never flags, the story never sags, and the suspense is overflowing – Hayes’s writing style is not exactly stripped down, but it makes for a fast, easy read, and I got through the whole novel in three days (in which case, a book can surely be as long as it wants to be).

Likewise, I have no truck with the argument that I Am Pilgrim is a lesson in what might happen if the US isn’t much more interventionist and belligerent in its overseas policies, and more willing to play dirty when it comes to espionage. Unfortunately, we do exist in an age of relentless terrorism, so while it could be argued that this book is alarmist in its tone, it’s a thriller – so it’s supposed to be, and it’s hardly telling us that something terrible could happen which we haven’t already imagined for ourselves. But to call that a demand for much more bullying and rule-breaking by the intelligence services is no more applicable than it would be to Bond movies or superhero comics in which the lead characters ignore almost every rule of law in their pursuit of megalomaniac villains.

Which brings us onto the characters, themselves.  
Pilgrim as an unusually vulnerable hero in the world of secret agents. And by that, I don’t just mean that he’s a guy with a faux conscience, one of these unconvincing characters who even in the midst of hardline law enforcement, is continually moved to remind us that he shares the peace-loving, socio-liberal values of the author. Pilgrim is much more rounded than that. Yes, he is regularly forced to make ruthless decisions, many of which he believes in, but he has genuinely always tried to perform his duty in a way that is least destructive, and much of his day-to-day life is overshadowed by memories of the lives he has taken. When he finds himself working side-by-side with the Saudi secret police, he is fascinated and appalled in equal measure by their casual disregard for human rights. Throughout the book, his desire to take an early retirement, to do something more useful with his life, is all-pervading, even though he strongly doubts that someone of his expertise would ever be allowed to. What this leaves us with is a very believable character, who authentically suffers, both physically and emotionally, and who, even though his ‘trust fund’ background has been knocked by certain picky critics – he’s been disparagingly referred to as ‘Bruce Wayne mark II’ – remains much more complex and intriguing than Batman, Bond or Bourne have ever been.  

Meanwhile, as villain-in-chief (though he’s only one of many, in truth), Saracen is also a marvellous piece of writing. Rarely in western thriller fiction have I encountered a Middle Eastern terrorist, who – while it wouldn’t be true to say we sympathise with – we understand as much in terms of his motivations. Saracen’s transformation into a fanatic is a slow, painful process (and we accompany him much of the way), during which the seeds of fundamentalist hatred are not so much sewn into him, as hammered, by countless cruelties and injustices which any rational person would yearn to put right. It’s very easy in our world to dismiss jihadi grievances as an overblown excuse for out-and-out wickedness, but after reading I Am Pilgrim, you’ll think as the hero does: know your enemy – and know him well, or risk paying a deadly price. 

I have no hesitation in declaring I Am Pilgrim one of the best espionage thrillers I’ve ever read. It’s got everything: action, suspense, intrigue, mystery, villains you love to hate and heroes you are rooting for every inch of their breathless journey. An amazing novel.

As I mentioned before, Hollywood is already developing I Am Pilgrim, and in fact – or so the rumour-mongers insist – may even be planning to launch it as the pilot for a brand-new franchise. Ordinarily, that would render any fantasy casting by me completely pointless, but I’ve looked around online, and I haven’t seen a cast-list yet, so as usual, I’m going to be bold (stupid?) enough to suggest my own:

Pilgrim – Edward Norton
Saracen – Murat Yildirim
Det. Leyla Cumali – Beren Saat
Lt. Ben Bradley – Denzel Washington
Marcie Bradley – Angela Basset
David ‘Whispering Death’ McKinley – James Woods
Ingrid Kohl – Alexandra Daddario
Cameron Dodge – Evan Peters
Battleboi – Eric Stonestreet
President James Grosvenor – Stephen Tobolowsky
Bill Murdoch – Paul Giamatti
Dr Sydney – Bryan Browne

by Joe Hill (2013)

A mesmerising horror novel with an air of urban fairy tale about it, though don’t let that fool you. This is one intensely frightening ride.

In a chilling opening scene, we visit a prison hospital in 2008, where Charles Manx, a suspected child killer who has been lying in a coma for years, apparently revives and terrorises a young nurse with stories about a mysterious and terrible place called Christmasland. However, when other staff check on him, he’s unconscious again, his brain function virtually zero.

In one of many leaps back and forth in time, we now move back to 1986, where a feisty youngster called Vic McQueen uses her Raleigh bike and the mysterious Shorter Way Bridge, a semi-derelict structure in the woods behind her Massachusetts home, to travel to the location of whichever object she happens to be looking for, whatever that object may be, wherever the location may lie. She doesn’t know how this happens, just accepts it as magic, even though the more she uses it, the more physical damage it causes to her, particularly to her eye. Vic thinks she’s the only person who enjoys this bizarre privilege, but when one trip takes her all the way to Iowa, she meets a scatty librarian called Maggie, who routinely uses a special bag of Scrabble tiles to answer questions and find missing items in similar fashion. Whereas Vic suffers with her eye, the Scrabble divination causes Maggie to stutter, though both agree that they feel ill generally whenever they’ve worked one of these miracles.

It is while she’s comparing notes with Maggie, that Vic learns about evil Charlie Manx, an older man, who has similar powers to theirs, which he draws through his classic Rolls-Royce Wraith (the registration number of which you can probably guess) and uses them to abduct children.

When Vic heads for home, the Shorter Way takes such a toll on her that she falls seriously ill, losing her Raleigh in the process. Meanwhile, Charlie Manx – a real person, who does indeed kidnap children in his Rolls-Royce Wraith – enlists burgeoning serial killer, Bing Partridge, to assist in his crimes. Partridge works at a chemical factory and steals several tanks of sevoflurane gas with which to overcome the parents of the child-victims (in the process thinking of the gas as ‘gingerbread smoke’ because of its unique smell, one of many instances in which Christmas joy is turned on its head in this book). Ultimately, Partridge is easily recruited because, though sexually depraved, he is childlike in certain ways, and when Manx tells him that he whisks his abductees away to his wonderful secret refuge, Christmasland, where they can do festive things all day and never grow old, it appeals to him immensely.

Flashing forward ten years, we now find Vic McQueen an unhappy teenager, worn out by her even unhappier parents’ constant fighting. After a bitter row with her mother, she uses the Shorter Way to visit Manx’s house in Colorado – a bizarre place high in the pinewoods, where Christmas music plays all day and Christmas ornaments adorn the surrounding trees whatever month of the year it happens to be. Her plan is to get herself abducted in order to punish her mother, but when she finds another young child locked in Manx’s Wraith, she attempts to free it, only to discover that it has transformed into a horrific, vampire-like travesty of the human being it once was. With the child-thing’s assistance, Manx almost captures Vic, his house burning down in the process, but in a desperately tense and superbly crafted scene, she escapes on the back of a motorbike driven by a tubby but startled motorcyclist called Lou Carmody. Even then, Vic isn’t completely safe. The vengeful Manx follows the pair of them to a mountain diner and general store, where he horrifically kills a soldier on leave before other customers overpower him.
We now return to 2008, and the current narrative, where the adult Vic has had success as a children’s author and is several years into a relationship with Lou but is again unhappy. The one light in her life is her son, Bruce Wayne Carmody – Lou having named him so because, though lovable, he is also a comic-book geek – but she continually receives phone calls from the vampire children of Christmasland (and very chilling they are!) berating her for the imprisonment of their father, Charlie Manx. Having already spent time in therapy, which has persuaded her that her earlier experience of this was all stress-related fantasy, Vic subsequently lives in terror that she is losing her mind.

Because of all this, Vic separates from Lou, but not on unpleasant terms, returning to New England. As Manx falls into a coma in prison, and finally dies, her life stabilises somewhat. But then, one day in 2012, she is visited by a ragged, drug-addicted version of Maggie the librarian, who tells her not to relax, because while it’s been reported that Manx died in custody, in reality he resurrected himself and escaped from the morgue, and now is on the loose again, this time hellbent on punishing Vic, not so much by killing her, but by abducting her son, Bruce Wayne, and taking him away to the unearthly winter paradise, which, though it exists on no recognisable maps, we readers have seen and experienced for ourselves, so we know that it’s real: Christmasland …    

I read a lot of books that purport to be new takes on the vampire theme, but I don’t think I’ve encountered any that are quite as original and different as this one. When Stephen King, Joe Hill’s father, first wrote Salem’s Lot in 1975, it was one of the books that put him on the map as a horror supremo. But the bloodsuckers in that one were pretty traditional in their form and methods. It was the high-quality writing, wonderfully detailed characterisation and the sheer, unadulterated scariness of it that made Salem’s Lot such a gem.

Well, NOS4R2 has all that, plus a genuinely new kind of vampire antagonist. But that’s actually faint praise, because in truth there is so much good stuff in NOS4R2 that it’s difficult to know where to start.

To begin with, the notion of so-called ‘inscapes’ – fantasy realms constructed through sheer thought, which, though unreachable except via trans-dimensional conduits like the Shorter Way Bridge or Charlie Manx’s Wraith, nevertheless exist in a real time and place all of their own – is wondrous.

I admit that, at first glance, it may not work for everyone. The idea that this little girl can travel across the whole of North America in less than a minute by riding her Raleigh bike through a derelict covered bridge in backwoods New England may sound like something from a children’s fantasy novel, but then there’s the not insignificant matter of Charlie Manx, who uses his mysterious and imperious Wraith as his own conduit, though in his case the car also acts as a form of revival system from out of which he can draw life-energy vampirised from the innocent to heal life-threatening injury and illness and even restore himself to youth. It may all sound nutty and implausible, but in the world of inscapes – especially the way Joe Hill writes about them – you buy into it straight away.

Of course, the concept of inscape is not original to NOS4A2. Hill has played with it before in his two earlier novels, Horns and Heart-Shaped Box. But it is here where he thoroughly investigates and exploits the notion, and though, as I say, it may at first sound like a juvenile concept, in NOS4R2 it is rendered utterly believable and very, very frightening.

Charlie Manx is a key part of that, of course, and an amazing creation. He is first brought to our attention, because we know no better at this stage, as a serial child abductor and murderer, though in due course we realise that he is a lot more complex than that. Manx is one of the best modern variants on the Dracula theme that I’ve ever encountered. Yes, he does capture children and he does transform them into eerie, ghoul-like things. And yes, he is capable of using extreme violence against their parents and other guardians. But he is also a fully rounded individual. We learn about his difficult past and the bizarre philosophy for life that he evolved as a result of it, which leads him to believe that in taking children away to Christmasland and granting them immortality (of a sort) he is genuinely doing the right thing. He is thus playful as well as wicked and develops a great rapport with Bruce Wayne Carmody after he kidnaps the little boy. Manx is almost likable in these scenes, displaying good humour and generosity, while reserving his real disdain for semi-demented Renfield-like servant, Bing Partridge.

Which brings us onto villain number two. Setting aside the obvious Christmas allusions in his name, Bing Partridge is also a very real person and represents more bravura character-work by Hill. To start with, though devoid of humanity, he is no slavering madman, but extremely ordinary in appearance, and though he seems like a dumbass, this is really a shield with which he continually fools the parents of his child-targets, the mothers of whom he then singles out for truly appalling treatment. He even lures the enlightened Vic McQueen at one point, in a scene that, because we readers know about Bing from the beginning, literally reeks of evil.

The good guys in NOS4R2 are equally real and visible.

Vic McQueen is an unusual kind of heroine, first appearing as a spirited youngster mired in a violent and unhappy home – so far so good – but then evolving, perhaps inevitably, into a brattish teen delinquent, and finally reaching her adult incarnation as a scrawny, grungy outsider, scrawled with unsightly tattoos and suffering recurring mental problems. That said, she’s still a looker. Of course, she is; our heroes and heroines must always be lookers. But she’s been through the mill emotionally, and it shows. Even now she has minimal contact with her demolition expert father, who she blames for most of the domestic problems when she was young, and when she finally reconciles with her temperamental mother, the woman is dying from cancer. It’s no wonder that Vic struggles to hold things together even as she does brave and admirable things.

She does have an on/off boyfriend, of course: the affable heavyweight, Lou, with whom, once again, we’re in the realms of superb character-work by Joe Hill. Though a quality mechanic, Lou is an underachiever because he spends whole days with his head in the clouds. He’s brave, though, if a tad dim, and he loves Vic and their son, Bruce Wayne. He’s no hero in the traditional mode but has so many minor redeeming features that we like him all the way through the book.

Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, has inherited traits from both his parents: he’s courageous and inquisitive, possessing his mother’s looks and intellect and his father’s starry-eyed amiability. The youngster is a distinctly warm presence in the second half of the novel, which is a good thing because this section sees Vic tortured even more terribly by the fearsome denizens of Christmasland. In contrast to this terror, Bruce Wayne brings great meaning to her life and cheers us all up every time he appears, at one point even managing to win Charlie Manx over (or at least persuading him to buy them some fireworks, so they can have a bit of non-Christmas fun).

The other thing about NOS4R2 is how well-written it is. Joe Hill is clearly following in his father’s footsteps in producing big tomes – this one clocks in at about 700 pages – but it’s all so readable, and the descriptive work is sumptuous, particularly when we get to Christmasland. It initially appears as a kind of Tyrolean Neverland, where it is always December 25, icicles dangling permanently from lintels, Christmas trees shimmering, snow falling, everyone housed in Alpine ‘cuckoo clock’ lodges, where they spend all day (every day!) in front of hot fires, drinking cocoa and opening presents. And yet there is darkness here too, Hill displaying great skill to subtly show us just how mind-numbingly awful this would in due course become (it’s no wonder the children are deranged monsters).

Ultimately, NOS4R2 is far more than just a horror novel. It’s a haunting tale but an exhilarating one too. There is romance here and wild, escapist fantasy, plus it’s funny as well as frightening, it moves at rollicking pace and is filled with nods and winks to Stephen King’s world as well as Joe Hill’s; there is at least one reference to Shawshank Prison, and one to Derry, the New England town at the centre of It – all of which adds an air of family warmth to the saga, though I don’t wish to give the impression that Hill is some kind of crude imitation of his father. Not a bit of it. There are undoubted similarities – blue collar types in heartland America getting to grip with a fantastically cruel form of supernatural evil is a recurring theme in both these authors’ works – but Hill is perhaps more disciplined than his dad in terms of linear narrative, and at the same time has a slightly more poetic air about his prose. He possesses a strong voice of his own, though I’ve no doubt that his father is very proud of it.

In truth, I haven’t only recently discovered Joe Hill. He was good enough to sign his first collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, for me at a British Fantasy event many years ago and we chatted briefly. His short form work was impressive way back then, and though he hadn’t written any of his novels at that stage, it was pretty evident that he was going to. Well, now the first batch of them are here, and what a treat they are. I’ve no doubt that NOS4R2 and others like it will have universal appeal, but if there is anyone out there who, like me, particularly enjoys those big summertime blockbusters, the ones that were so massive and yet so engrossing that you’d take them away on holiday with you and they’d last you the entire fortnight, then Joe Hill and NOS4R2 in particular are definitely for you.

Okay, well … I usually like to end these book reviews with a bit of fantasy casting, nominating those actors I’d love to see take the lead roles when or if the book hits the screen. But the good news in this case is that a TV series has not just been commissioned, it has been written and shot – and Joe Hill himself, according to his tweets, is very happy with it. So, hell – forget the fantasy casting this week. Let’s wait and see what the real thing is like.

by Andrew Michael Hurley (2016)

We open in the present day, when a misanthropic Londoner known simply as Smith becomes concerned about the discovery of a child’s bones on a remote beach in Lancashire. Smith, we suspect, knows more about this than he should – as does his older brother, a much more contented and grounded character called Andrew.

Andrew is a reasonably successful author, and happily married. He even works as a lay pastor in the Catholic Church, and in so many ways has a better life than his younger sibling, who is an unlikable loner. However, it is Smith, not Andrew, whose narration now takes us back 40 years to the actual start of our story.

It’s the mid-1970s, and each year at Eastertime, Smith and Andrew, young teenagers at this point, (Andrew called by his nickname, ‘Hanny’), are part of a small group of devout Roman Catholics who uproot from their London parish of St Jude’s, and under the humourless leadership of the stern Father Wilfred, head north to the bleak Fylde Coast, specifically a stretch of it known locally as ‘the Loney’, where they lodge in a one-time taxidermist’s home-turned-hostel called ‘Moorings’ (which each time they visit has deteriorated even more in the harsh coastal weather). It’s a form of Christian retreat, wherein they make full penance and follow prayerful rituals, but every year the purpose of the trip is the same. Young Hanny, a far cry from the well-rounded adult he will become, is mute and has severe learning difficulties. The highlight of each trip is therefore a visit to the nearby shrine, or holy well, where it is hoped that God will cure the afflicted lad.

In 1976, the group make what will become their final trip to the Loney. It almost doesn’t happen, because Father Wilfred – to everyone’s horror – has died in circumstances that might conceivably have been suicide, and his replacement, the happy-go-lucky Irishman, Father Bernard, has a less muscular approach to religion. However, Esther Smith, or ‘Mummer’, Smith and Hanny’s devout alpha-female mother, manages to persuade the new guy that everyone wants to keep going to the Loney, and so the small group heads north again.

This time, though, things will be different.

From the very beginning, we get the feeling that, somehow or other, time is running out for this small band of pilgrims. Under the unofficial leadership of Mummer (that name alone, not to mention ‘Farther’, which is how Smith’s dad is referred to, suggests they have isolated themselves for too long from modern society), they are determined to stick to the esoterica of older and more robust religious practise, which even Father Bernard tacitly disapproves of. But it isn’t just that. Other things have now changed at the Loney.

An atmosphere of … dare I call it ‘evil’? lurks on the encircling marshes, summoned by a mysterious tolling bell. A locked room is discovered in the house, where it looks as if a child was once held prisoner. They also find jars filled with urine, nail-clippings and other odious bric-a-brac, which quite clearly have been used in protection spells. They are continually menaced by a group of rough-hewn local men, who are never to be seen without their vicious dog.

Mystery piles upon mystery. Smith and Hanny chance the dangerous mudflats – this is clearly Morecambe Bay by another name – crossing to a grim islet called Coldbarrow, on which an austere house, Thessaly, has stood empty for years. Now, however, the house is occupied by a curious nouveau riche couple, who seem to be completely out of place here, and, odder still, who are the guardians of a heavily pregnant girl of about 13. Hanny takes a liking to the girl, who is sweet to him – probably the only person who ever has been – but it’s soon made clear to the boys that they are not welcome.

Back at Moorings, things are going from bad to worse. The nervous caretaker advises the group that there are people in the area who don’t want them here. Rowdiness is then heard in the nearby woods at night, and when a search is made, the men of the group discover evidence of a dark ceremony and a hideous hanging scarecrow that has evidently been used in a mockery of Christ’s crucifixion.

And yet despite these ever-more tangible threats, the group are unable to draw strength from within. Esther Smith has faith but no charity and is now in constant if understated conflict with Father Bernard, who she feels is weak and is thus determined to get rid of once they return to St Jude’s. The others, still devastated by the death of Father Wilfred, and unwilling to confront the possibility that some inner conflict caused him to lose his belief, go meekly along with her, which only adds to the glum atmosphere. Even the old religious fixtures on the coastline feel spiritually abandoned: the local church is filled with terrifying images of the Seven Sins and medieval hellfire but offers little in the way of comfort. The church itself is found inexplicably chained up on Easter Sunday. Could God really have abandoned this place?

And yet still the two youngsters, Smith and Hanny, continue to explore their gloomy playground, oblivious to the sinister undercurrents, innocent, naïve, happy(ish) with their lives, and completely unaware of the dark forces that are rising in this drear place …   

All kinds of claims have been made about The Loney by a whole range of reviewers. That it’s yet another chapter in the fast-evolving world of British folk-horror. That, even though he takes a distinctly modern slant in this his first novel, Andrew Michael Hurley is reviving the tradition of the British weird in a mainstream format and is clearly the heir-apparent in terms of style and substance to MR James. And above all, that it’s an engrossing, thoroughly enjoyable and at times very frightening read.

That latter point I completely concur with. I hurtled through this book, finding it deeply suspenseful and intriguing, and if, while perhaps not thinking it so scary that it rendered sleep impossible, certainly being disturbed and unnerved by its grotesque undertones, and by two scenes in particular: that moment in the midnight forest when the sacrilegious scarecrow is found, and the unexpected arrival at Moorings of a bunch of so-called Pace Eggers, an old Easter tradition which here is loaded with menace as the mysterious masked performers are unwisely invited inside.

But oddly, especially after making grand claims like that, it’s the bit about The Loney advancing the cause of folk-horror that I would quibble with.

First of all, even though the book carries a generous plaudit from Stephen King, I’m not sure that hardcore horror addicts would consider it to be any kind of horror, or even a supernatural thriller. It’s a deeply introspective tale, worryingly so at times, unreliably narrated and full of mystery. It also skates over the surface of some extreme darkness. But it’s structured more like a literary novel than a work of genre, with an emphasis on place and character rather than plot, and though it’s undoubtedly a quick, smooth read, it concerns itself much with the intricacies of faith and devotion, and certainly doesn’t race towards an explosive or chilling climax (not that there aren’t subtle terrors to be found right at the end of the book, if you look closely enough).

As for the folklore bit, well … I’m half and half on that. Okay, The Loney is set on a wild, windswept corner of the Lancashire coast, with lots of old relics dotted around, strong religious customs still in practice, and a steadily increasing suspicion that some kind of power lies latent in the very ground, and though you may say that this is all it takes to tick the folk-horror box, personally, I think this whole pigeon-holing of genre novels is a bit daft given that so many of them overlap boundaries on all sides. However, if pressed on the subject, I’d argue that The Loney is actually less of a folk-horror and more an occult mystery.

It’s fairly evident that when the church group arrives at Moorings, they antagonise certain folk because they are so religious, and this being the ‘New Age’ 1970s rather than the atheistic 21st century, this dislike probably stems from some local people having an alternative belief system – pagans or Wiccans you might think, except that they exude a genuine, overt threat, so perhaps more likely it’s a coven of Satanists. The totem in the woods is near enough proof of this, though Andrew Michael Hurley is a restrained and sensitive writer, and even through the observant character of Father Bernard, he resists making any obvious statement to this effect, though he works some subliminal suggestions into the narrative: for example, after Hanny is cured by this mysterious alternative group (even though his visit to the Christian shrine failed), the priest advises that Smith should not be fooled by the work of ‘tricksters’ whose power will invariably fade, and indeed, towards the end of the book, we get a slight hint – very slight in fact, almost subliminal – that Hanny’s new happy life may lack longevity. 

It may not be an out-and-out horror novel, but The Loney has certainly got that neo-Gothic vibe, and there are some stomach-curdling moments (a baby lamb torn apart by a savage dog, the discovery of a sheep’s skull with the optic nerves still dangling out, etc). Just don’t expect constant blood and thunder, and likewise don’t look for anything as remotely on-the-nose as MR James (despite the witch-bottles with which the old house has been protected by former tenants – those are very effective and chilling moments).

Some, of course, would argue that such subtlety is one of Andrew Michael Hurley’s great strengths. Another is the excellence of his writing. 

In The Loney, every detail of land and sea is delicately observed. You can almost feel the raw salt wind. You can hear the relentless drum of rain on the crabby slate roof. Two particular interiors are astonishingly evocative. Moorings, that strange seaside hostel, which is almost a byword for dreariness, with its dark, dank passages, its stuffed animals, its dismal closed-off rooms still scattered with toys left behind by children doomed to die from TB. And then the nearby shrine: little more than a rank cleft in the earth, the putrid, peaty waters pouring into which are supposed to be sacred, and yet are “black and silky-looking with a smell of autumn deadfall and eggs”.

And this brings me neatly onto the subtext, the culture clash – not just between the small church group and their Devil-worshipping opponents, but between the group and the rest of society.

Even though this is the 1970s, when more British folk had faith than they do now, Esther Smith rules her people with a rod of iron. Taking her lead from the grim if deceased figure of Father Wilfred, she’s way past the stage where a genuine desire to do good has simply clouded her judgement, and has now become a zealot of the worst sort, a mean-spirited bully who displays none of the love that Jesus taught but is so convinced that righteousness stems purely from belief that she tolerates no opposition, no dissent, and lays the law down on every matter.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is Andrew Michael Hurley putting Christianity under the microscope and finding it wanting. More, it’s Hurley putting all extreme versions of belief under the scope, disapproving particularly of that moment when hardline faith, whatever it might be, morphs into harmful superstition (the moment when Esther tries to make Hanny drink the water in the shrine is quite horrible), and when idealism becomes ideology, which of course leads to isolation and echo-chamber. Esther Smith personifies this, but it’s also exemplified in the contrast between Father Wilfred and his replacement, Father Bernard, the former a harsh disciplinarian (and maybe worse), who reflects almost none of the lessons taught in the New Testament, the latter, who, while not necessarily a hip or modern priest, has served in Northern Ireland, and so understands that right and wrong are separated by shades of grey.

I sincerely hope that I’ve not put off any genre fans with this assessment of The Loney.

Okay, I say again that this is not Night of the Demon, and if anything it’s a deep and absorbing study of religious over-insularity, of the problems and complexities that can result, and ironically, of how poorly it may then gird you for that ghastly moment when real evil appears in your midst. But yes, it is unnerving, disturbing, distressing – all those words apply – and it leaves you pondering it long after you’ve finished reading, which is surely proof that this is dark fiction of the highest quality.

Often at the ends of these reviews, I, very foolishly, suggest the cast I would choose should the book in question be translated to film or TV. Not so on this occasion. The young leads, Smith and Hanny, carry the bulk of the plot, and I have no inside info whatsoever about our best juvenile actors. Even so, here’s hoping that this one gets made. In the light of recent subdued but also very macabre horrors like Hereditary or Midsommar, I feel it could work very well.

by Dale Brendan Hyde (2018)

Schoolboy, Otiss, lives a life that is beyond ghastly, trapped in a sordid existence of inner-city squalor and non-stop parental violence. You may think you know about this kind of thing, and that you’ve heard it all before – but if you want my honest opinion, I sincerely doubt it.

Because the story of Otiss Kites takes it way past anything that you’d imagine an ordinary human being could survive. And I suppose one of the big questions from very early on in the novel is … will Otiss survive?

His main problem, from the outset, is not so much his impoverished life in a decayed corner of the post-industrial North in the uncaring 1970s (though that hardly helps), but his father, Stan, who is not just a drunk, a druggie and a bully, but an out-of-control psychopath and calculating sadist, whose pitiless cruelties verge on the utterly deranged.

For example, on one occasion, he makes his son wash up, having deliberately failed to mention that the dirty water in the sink is full of broken glass. On another, he insists on combing his boy’s hair with a cactus plant. On another, he uses the young un’s toothbrush to clean the toilet bowl (and doesn’t tell him, in the hope that he will brush his teeth afterwards). On yet another, he ties the youngster’s genitals tightly with thread, and then forces him to drink jug after jug of water, denying him any relief. And none of this is the worst of it.

But none of these horrors – which are all done casually and often on a whim (and are nearly always accompanied by roaring, mocking laughter) – can compare to the clever but heinous plan that Stan, not quite the unthinking, toothless brute we are initially led to believe, has really got cooking.

Before we move onto that, it’s essential to consider some of the other characters in young Otiss’s terrible life, not all of whom are total negatives.

For example, he isn’t entirely friendless. His pal, Johnny Sand, suspects that Otiss is being brutalized at home, but can’t really guess at the full extent of it, and at the end of the day can only offer a youthful shoulder to cry on and a few books for his long-suffering school-mate to read. Otiss also pays regular but secret visits to his ailing grandfather, a one-time bare-knuckle boxing champion known as Poleaxe Pedley, but again, the old man is limited in how much comfort he can provide. Despite that, these are about the closest experiences Otiss ever has of normal, caring human relationships. He also finds some solace in the construction of a crude raft and the many hours he spends floating on it in the middle of an abandoned mill-pond, slipping through dream-states as he yearns intensely for a better life. But ultimately none of this will protect him day-to-day.

Someone who maybe could, but doesn’t even try, is Tish, his weary, alcoholic mother.

While a key part of the misery he encounters hourly – mainly because she allows it to go on, but also because, though she doesn’t quite abuse her son the way his father does, she also neglects him (in one heart-rending scene stepping without comment over his beaten-up body while heading out to work) – Tish is more of a disappointment than anything else.

Otiss is certain that she’d be less callous and more concerned for him if his father wasn’t there, though I suspect this owes to wishful thinking rather than reality, because while it is Otiss suffering the brunt of the violence, Tish – who’s been thoroughly victimized herself in the past (and can only unburden herself of this by shrieking insanely at the door several minutes after Stan has gone out) – is simply glad that it’s not her, which implies a degree of selfishness that can probably never be reversed. (She also, on one occasion, turns her rings around when slapping Otiss, to cause maximum damage, even Stan moved to compliment her for using their son’s blood on her fingernails rather than polish ... so, some hope of this witch ever finding her maternal side!).

On the subject of Tish, we now come back to Stan’s real plan – and don’t worry, this isn’t a give-away because it happens relatively early in the narrative.

Stan regularly plays around with other women – pretty unimpressively on one occasion, when Otiss gets to spy on him – and, soon deciding that he can do without Tish in his life, opts to plot her demise, a decision fuelled by the desensitising effects of hulk weed, which the guy smokes increasingly regularly, despite it being a much stronger form of cannabis than the norm. An opportunity to finally start this ball rolling arises when Otiss, who, unsurprisingly, among various other mental aberrations, takes to sleep-walking. Stan frog-marches him to the doctor, adding the lie that the lad is showing increased aggression towards his mother. Otiss is bemused by this, but no more than that. Then, in a later incident, when Otiss mistakenly thinks that Stan has bitten Tish’s throat out, he urges a neighbor to call the police, only to find the whole thing a set-up designed to make him look like a liar and trouble-maker.

So, that’s now two authorities – the NHS and the cops – who are starting to earmark the youngster as a dangerous oddball.

Perhaps inevitably, not long after the neighbour who called the fuzz has mysteriously died (murdered by Stan for sure, Otiss decides), Tish also meets her end, thrown down the cellar stairs with such savagery that she breaks her neck. 

And it’s from this point in the book that Otiss’s life, which, if he thought it was bad before, now spirals dramatically downward, literally into Hell itself.

Found hiding in the attic (hiding from Stan, though the police don’t realise this), Otiss – who’s now a teen and therefore can carry the can – is arrested. Stan’s portrayal of a distraught and despairing spouse appalled by the behavior of his wayward son is Oscar-worthy, and completely wins over the investigating officers, who then use various brutish means to coerce Otiss into signing a confession that he murdered his mother, leaving little hope for him. As a countermeasure, his solicitor, Liberace ‘Liberty’ Kerty, work up a defence of ‘diminished responsibility on the grounds of automatism’ – in other words, Otiss did the foul deed while he was actually asleep – which the judge at the special hearing reluctantly accepts.

Otiss is thus ordered to be detained for a decade under the Mental Health Act, and dispatched to the Faberon institute, a place for the criminally insane that would grace any Batman movie. It all looks modern and professional on the outside, but Otiss quickly suspects this is a front, and he’s correct, because on the inside, he finds himself entombed in an even more abusive environment than his home, confined to an austere, dungeon-like cell, surrounded by maniacs – both patients and staff alike, it seems – and subjected to a trial programme of old-fashioned ‘cure-all’ methods.

These include beds with thick straps on them, heavy and constant medication, padded rooms, electro-shock therapy, and even injections behind the eyeballs.

Yet again, we wonder if it’s even remotely possible that Otiss can survive this ongoing cascade of horrific abuse for the next ten years. And if he does, what kind of adult will finally emerge when the hospital doors are slammed behind him. How will he get his jollies back in the ordinary world then, we wonder, and what in particular will all this mean for the one person whom Otiss has sworn to kill before all others, even though it’s someone who, deep down, he still fears greatly: his own dear ‘Da’, Stanley Kites? …

Lots of crime writers describe domestic abuse and the violence and torment suffered by the young and helpless without, in truth, having ever experienced it at first-hand. Dale Brendan Hyde, who by his own admission, had a troubled early life, may not have experienced it either – at least not to this extent (dear God, I hope he didn’t!). But he certainly writes as if he did. Be under no illusion, The Ink Run is savage stuff from beginning to end, one of the darkest – if not the darkest – novel that I’ve ever read.

At least part of that stems from the author’s unwillingness to hide anything. The reader is right there, on the spot, for near enough every minute of Otiss’s agony. Even the sexual torture is unstintingly displayed. It also stems from our awareness that suffering of this sort is all too real in our world, maybe even in the next street to the one where we live, the perpetrators often able to conceal it from prying eyes and to present a façade of decorum in its place, the rest of us helping this along by pretending that it isn’t going on (because, in truth, we can’t even stand to think about it).

In fact, façades – the pretense of cultured normality – are a big issue in The Ink Run.

Stan Kites, the main villain, despite belonging in a lunatic asylum himself, is able to keep on pretending that he’s innocent even when there is glaring evidence that he’s a degenerate, drug-addled bully. Lazy and incompetent police officers pretend that they’re doing their job even though some of them must at least suspect that Otiss is a victim and his father a wrong ’un. A prejudiced legal system pretends that it has a heart – though it doesn’t pretend very hard in the case of Judge Yama! – by sending the mentally unfit for care rather than punishment, even though unaware and uninterested in what that ‘care’ actually entails. The Faberon hospital pretends that it’s a respectable establishment, while behind its grim walls, medieval methods are employed to forcibly drive mad men sane.

Author Dale Brendan Hyde has other subtexts too. He seems to be almost indecently fascinated by the debasement of the human body and soul. But then that is the key to one of the big questions this book asks: what is the correct response to endless, systematic mistreatment? When you are so wronged, and even the state appears to be in on it (thereby offering no hope of justice!), is ‘morality’ a word that even has meaning anymore? Surely you are justified in retaliating violently yourself? Or are you? Doesn’t that make you as bad as them? Or does none of that bloody matter when it’s all about making something right, at least for you personally?

These are difficult questions for the reader to ponder, let alone answer, after protracted immersion in a narrative this grotesque. Many will opt for the easy and obvious response: do it to them before they do it to you. The cover of the book almost encourages this with its stark message:

You can’t escape your DNA

But that’s a little bit tricky in itself.

If it’s in your DNA, it’s inevitable, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what you think. Otiss will do as Stan did, because his genes are quite simply bad. Which means that violent criminality is more about nature than nurture.

Well, I’m not sure Dale Brendan Hyde believes that. Otherwise, I doubt he’d have written this novel. And indeed, though ultimately all semblance of happiness is finally snuffed out for Otiss – ironically, when he’s taken into ‘care’ – throughout his formative years there are rays of hope for him to cling to. The books that Johnny Sand gives him provide occasional enlightened insights into the human condition, which he can’t glean from his normal life. At the same time, his grandfather is the living memory of a very different kind of tough, working class male; a man of violence, yes, but also a man of honour, whose bare-knuckle exploits were conducted in chivalrous fashion. That better life Otiss dreamed about on his raft was out there; he just couldn’t reach it.

So, while The Ink Run is very violent and gruesome, at times almost to a point where you need to put the book down, it has serious, meaningful depths. Be under no illusion. This is not some just some slice of lascivious goreography.

It’s also an amazing read purely because of the sheer quality of the writing.

It’s a big tome, clocking in at nearly 400 pages, and densely written, but it comes at you rapid-fire. And it’s a compelling story, a real page-turner.

I initially had some reservations when I saw that it was written in a kind of vernacular, and littered with purposeful misspellings and grammatical errors, even though I understood that this was to convey young Otiss’s only semi-educated state. But as the narrative gripped me, and that happened very quickly indeed because it thumps along at pace, none of this came to matter anymore.

Dale Brendan Hyde is a talented wordsmith, who has worked tirelessly at his craft. He writes near-hallucinogenic prose, darkly and dingily poetic, and highly visual. He also packs this debut novel of his with harsh detail gleaned from his own background, his days as a young hoodlum and the jail time he served, enriching the whole novel with an air of authenticity that other crime writers can only dream about.

It’s all the more remarkable an achievement, of course, because of that difficult start in life. It doesn’t surprise me that Hyde has given interviews in which he pays tribute to authors like Jimmy Boyle (A Sense of Freedom) and Noel ‘Razor’ Smith (A Rusty Gun), who turned their backs on lives of crime by opting to write instead, citing them as a huge influence on his personal reformation.

He certainly does those guys proud with The Ink Run. It’s a challenging book, make no mistake, and you’ll need to tough it out – at times you’ll think you’re reading horror rather than crime. But again, this is what it’s meant to be. It’s a slap in the face, it’s been purposely written to knock us all out of our comfort and complacency. It deals with real, serious issues. And for that reason alone, it needs to be read widely. But if you take the chance, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. This is an astonishing debut.

At the end of these book reviews, I often like to indulge myself in a bit of fantasy casting, imagining that the book is being adapted for film and TV and nominating those stars who I think would make it live and breathe on screen. I’m not going to do that here for the simple reason that known names would get in the way. If done properly, The Ink Run would be as tough, gritty and unforgiving a piece of cinema as anyone has ever seen, and I suspect that only a cast of unknowns could make that happen effectively (look at Ken Loach’s movies, if you want the living proof). Even so, I hope it gets made at some point. And if it doesn’t hold back, the way Dale Brendan Hyde refuses to hold back on the written page, it would be a major event indeed.    

by David Jackson (2014)

Detective Callum Doyle is one of New York’s finest. But he’s not the most popular guy in the station-house. Wrongly accused of once having an affair with a colleague’s wife, who subsequently died in a shoot-out with a worthless hoodlum, there is a distinct lack of support from his work-mates when a faceless and relentless killer targets him for isolation, eliminating anyone he gets close to in the most cruel and horrific ways.

The book starts at a hundred miles an hour with the slaying of two of Doyle’s fellow-cops, Detectives Parlatti and Alvarez, both of whom at the time of their deaths happen to be partnered with him. Letters are then sent threatening the lives of anyone Doyle has contact with – police personnel, family, friends and even those criminals he happens to be investigating.

Initially, the rest of the Detective Squad reacts the way you’d expect, showing determination to crack the case and bring the mysterious madman to justice. However, it soon becomes apparent that this calculating individual enjoys several big advantages over the NYPD and over Callum Doyle in particular.

To start with, he remains bewilderingly anonymous, carrying out his hits with ultra-professionalism, leaving not a clue for his pursuers to work with. He also – and this is the real butt-kicker for Doyle – seems constantly to be two or three steps ahead. It’s inexplicable, but the guy always appears to know exactly where Doyle is and who he’s interacting with, and as promised, he duly obliterates these unfortunates with extreme and elaborate viciousness.

Even Doyle’s most nefarious contacts, regular Internal Affairs opponent Paulsen, and washed-up former boxing pal-turned-informer, Mickey ‘Spinner’ Spinoza, find themselves in dire peril.

No-one, it seems – literally no-one – is safe.

Doyle is certain the answer lies in his own past. It’s just a matter of going through the files and trying to identify if there’s anyone who bears him this much ill will and who is capable of mounting such a campaign of terror. But increasingly, Doyle’s colleagues – especially those who were iffy about him from the start – are hesitant to assist. They’ve got lives to lead too, not to mention families whose welfare they fear for. In truth, Doyle has only one true friend in the department, Lieutenant Mo Franklin, heir to a wealthy estate and husband to the sexy Nadine, who has become a close pal of Doyle’s homely wife, Rachel – but now even Franklin has become concerned that his top detective is a danger to everyone, and so advises him to take an indefinite period of leave.  

Doyle keeps working the case – of course he does; he’s no intention of playing this crazy game. But things get much tougher when the lunatic switches his attention to Doyle’s family (and in one instance in the most harrowing and heart-rending way).

In some ways, Doyle thinks it might be better if this nameless enemy was simply planning to kill him. Because what happens now is infinitely worse: a living death, permanent and complete separation from his fellow men. Doyle literally must bury himself in a roach-motel and sever all contact with the outside world. And how can he fight back in such a predicament? Even the underworld, having lost some of their own to the killer, hold him at arm’s length – with the exception of low-level Mafia hood, Sonny Rocca, who Doyle has had run-ins with before but whom he basically likes, and far more scarily, the Bartok brothers, two major players on the New York crime scene.

For reasons of their own, Rocca and the Bartoks are ready to help Doyle, though of course this kind of help only comes at the sort of price a good cop will struggle to pay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, Doyle now has this nightmare decision to make: does he give up his life as he knew it previously, or does he give up his soul? …

First and foremost, the most impressive thing about Pariah – at least as far as I’m concerned – is the authenticity with which it is written, especially given that David Jackson is a British writer. It completely captures the world of a busy New York City police precinct, with believable dialogue, convincing use of genuine procedures (some serious research on show there, Mr. Jackson!), non-intrusive but atmospheric use of real locations, and lots of the kind of rugged, hard-bitten grotesques you’d expect to meet on the mean streets of the Big Apple.

It’s to the author’s credit that so few likeable characters populate these pages: pimps, addicts, winos, bang-bangers. Not every punter has reviewed this aspect of the book favourably, arguing that it perhaps wallows a little too much in grimness, and that maybe a few nicer personalities would be refreshing. But it works excellently for me and shows that Jackson is determined to immerse us in a version of NYPD life which is as close as damn it to the real thing.

This brings me fully onto the issue of David Jackson’s characterisation, which in Pariah is razor-sharp from the outset, but also pretty merciless.

Far from the oft-depicted police world of white knights and unbreakable brotherhoods, it feels here as if Callum Doyle’s work-buddies let him down disappointingly quickly. Again, this is an effort by Jackson to reflect real life. Let’s face it, Doyle was a guy with baggage and not too many friends to start with, and this confirmed outsider status was never likely to endear him to his fellow cops when it started to look as if he’d suddenly become a walking bullet-magnet.

Doyle, for whom Pariah is the first of several no-holds-barred outings, makes for a traditional flawed hero, his background in boxing giving him ‘man’s man’ kudos, but the suspicion with which he’s held in by certain colleagues even before he’s become the object of the killer’s hatred understandably steers him towards the friendship of lowlife informers like Spinner, Sonny Rocca and even Mr. Unpopular himself, IA investigator Paulsen. Doyle’s a family man, of course, so his home life is comfortable, almost cosy, but then there is still that lingering doubt in the minds of so many who know him about whether he had an affair or not, and the mere presence of loved ones presents its own kinds of difficulties, especially with a ruthless psycho hanging around. So, it’s never cakes and ale for Callum Doyle, not even on the domestic front.

The rest of the cops are convincingly drawn; even good guys like Parlatti and Alvarez have issues, while one particular member of the Detective Squad, Schneider, is an out-and-out hate mobile, one of those archetypical fat-necked, loudmouthed, aggressively opinionated law enforcement bullies of the old school and very much the opposite number to Doyle’s fearless pursuer of genuine justice.     

I was somewhat less sold on Mo Franklin. Not because he didn’t strike me as the real deal – in the workplace he certainly did, but his home life is perhaps a little too gold-plated. I had trouble buying into the huge inheritance, the big house and the kittenish wife. But that’s probably the only brickbat I’ve got for Pariah, and it certainly didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it.

This is a taut, fast-moving detective thriller, based on a singular and intriguing concept. When a cop is completely ostracised – when he literally has no access to any of his normal support networks, neither cop buddies, non-cop buddies, friends, loved ones, and certainly none of those basic departmental essentials like Forensics, Ballistics etc – how can he even start to track down so sadistic and yet sophisticated a maniac?

This is a truly great idea, very well executed, which screams to be adapted for film or TV. It also features some truly hair-raising moments – check out the scene in the nightclub alley! – which lift it well above the average police procedural, certainly in the action stakes, though it has its cerebral moments too; when Doyle is too weary and battered to keep on hitting the streets, he must fall back on that often most underused tool in detective fiction, his brain – though to talk much more about that would be a spoiler for sure.

Suffice to say that Pariah has my strongest recommendation. It’s a high-octane page-flipper, filled with unforeseen twists, which I defy anyone to get through in more than two or three sittings.   

As always, at the end of these book reviews, I’m now going to be cheeky enough to indulge in some fantasy casting and list those actors I personally would pick were this novel ever to make it to the screen. Here, purely for fun you understand, are my selections for who should play the lead characters in Pariah:

Callum Doyle – Jude Law
Rachel Doyle – Jennifer Esposito
Mickey ‘Spinner’ Spinoza – Micky Rourke
Sonny Rocca – Michael Imperioli
Paulsen – Robin Lord Taylor
Mo Franklin – John Turturro
Nadine Franklin – Sarah Michelle Gellar 

(I know, this cast wouldn’t come cheap, but there’s never any point doing this if I haven’t got limitless funds to work with!!!).

THE RESIDENT by David Jackson (2020)

Schizophrenic serial killer, Brogan, his hands still red with the blood of his latest victims, is on the run from the police in the heart of an urban sprawl. But when all avenues of escape seem to be closed to him, he seeks refuge in the empty end-house of a rather run-down terraced row. Unexpectedly, this doesn’t just give him the ability to lie low, because when he investigates the property thoroughly, forcing his way up into the loft, he finds that the dividing wall between this and the next property is incomplete, along with the next dividing wall after that, and the next one and so on.

In short, Brogan finds that he can access all the houses on this side of the street without the official occupants even knowing that he is there … so long as they don’t come up into their attics.

With a jolt of intoxicating pleasure, it slowly dawns on the killer, who never plans very far ahead, that this empty house can be much more than just a useful hiding place.

The problem is that his mind is divided neatly in two, one half more conciliatory but still unstable, callous and inclined to a sexual enjoyment of violence, the other half clever, scheming and sadistic. Occasionally, these two distinct personalities, who occupy Brogan’s head both at the same time, fall out with each other, but mostly they exist in a state of symbiosis, and they are completely in sync when it comes to the way that Brogan should be spending the next few days.  Because not only can he creep down into the houses when their owners are out, feed himself and rummage around among private possessions in order to steal, he can also learn all there is about his new hosts, and start to play games with them, alternately antagonising them, making fun of them, frightening them, setting them against each other, the outcomes of which he can watch from the safety of the loft space overhead.

And it’s not as if there isn’t plenty of material for him to work with. Eighty-year-old Elsie is one occupant, an elderly lady who lives alone and is now suffering from mild dementia. Carers visit from time to time, but mostly she is vulnerable and very easily played with.

Then there is Jack and Pam, a middle-aged couple who clearly love each other even though they squabble like cat and dog, and blame each other whenever anything goes wrong (and are out a lot of the time, their property left ripe for plundering); they too make easy targets for manipulation.

Last but very far from least, there is Collette and Martyn. This pair are of particular interest to Brogan, because they are only in their twenties, Collette beautiful and sweet and, Brogan suspects, a little sad.

What fun he is going to have with her in particular.

This is certainly one of the shortest synopses I’ve ever written for one of my online book reviews, quite simply because you’ve already got the crux of it, and to say more might give away vital spoilers.

Suffice to say that Brogan, the new unknown resident in the terraced row, is going to enjoy himself a great deal at the expense of his various unwitting hosts. But it isn’t going to go all his way. Anything can happen in the next few days, things he won’t be expecting at all, and while the situation is unlikely to end well for those who officially live here, it could easily go badly for him too …

The Resident is certainly not the first ‘hider in the house’ scenario I’ve encountered in crime and thriller fiction. I’m pretty sure there was even a movie called Hider in the House once. However, there is no idea these days that is original, and in any case, this is without doubt the most intense, dramatic, best-plotted and most enjoyable version of the grand old theme that I have ever read. It’s not a massive tome, coming in at just over 300 pages, but it literally flipped by because almost every one of its short, concise chapters ends on a cliff-hanger as taut as piano wire.

Brogan himself is a fascinating antagonist. We only get to learn about his many terrible crimes through the bizarre conversations that occur inside his head, which we hear in full, and which as well as being subtly informative both about him and his grotesque track-record, are also chilling in their depiction of criminal insanity, and at times wildly if darkly funny.

Yes, there are some comedic elements in this grim tale, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. I even had to stifle a snigger or two at the thought of Brogan, a mad killer, happily making himself at home in others people’s houses, cooking beans, buttering toast, stirring tea, while the actual occupants are out at work, though God knows, it would be an unspeakable invasion of privacy if it were to happen in real life.

You probably wouldn’t care as much for the characters wrapped up in this horror if you didn’t gradually come to see them so clearly, and this is another neat touch by David Jackson. When the killer first arrives in his improvised refuge, neither he nor we know anything at all about the population of this terraced row, but that’s okay, because we learn about them as Brogan does and at exactly the same pace, by listening to their interactions through trapdoors or watching them through peepholes in the ceiling.

While Jack and Pam are perhaps a little bit stock, Elsie is a wonderful creation. I can imagine that a veteran actress would have a lot of fun with this part in any screen adaptation. Her tragic situation, which you might expect to cast her as one of life’s forgotten victims and maybe a constant mope, is enlivened by the return of her maternal instincts (long buried, but always there) and the feistiness with which she treats her carers when she starts to suspect they are humouring her about the ‘return of her deceased son’.

The other stars of the show, though, are the final couple in the terraced row, Collette and Martyn, though Collette is the more important of the two, at least where Brogan is concerned.

In classic ‘beauty and the beast’ fashion, Brogan doesn’t just desire her physically; the more he gets to know about her, the more he subconsciously likes her, and the more he starts to think of her as a potential companion rather than a victim. In concert with this, the more he starts to distrust and finally hate her husband, Martyn, which developing ménage à trois gives us some of the most intense and emotionally dramatic sequences in the book.

But all the thrills and chills aside, in a relatively quickfire piece of writing, David Jackson has created several such exceptional dynamics, which crank the readability of The Resident up to top notch. You really feel for everyone, and really need to know what’s going to happen next.

Of course, getting back to Brogan and the terrible situation he has engineered and soon ends up trapped in – and this is the real heart of the story, the part that works so well for me – he may increasingly take Collette and Elsie’s side, he may view them both (but mainly Collette) as lost, abused and neglected, as a twosome who deserve so much more than life has dealt them, so it’s no wonder he sees himself reflected there. But this isn’t going to be reciprocated, because to the likes of Collette, Brogan will always be a monster. That’s the underlying darkness in this tale, and its cleverness. Though you live inside his head with him and get to know him well, though you even start to empathise a little … you never forget that Brogan is a monster.

Read The Resident. It’s a superb, fast-paced thriller, weaving multi-layered characters into a scenario from Hell that will have you both shuddering and snickering all the way through.

As always, I’m now going to try and cast this saga. Just a bit of fun – who would ask me? – but here are the main actors I would choose, were I putting this cracker on the screen:

Brogan – Max Irons
Collette – Lupita Nyong’o
Elsie – Gemma Jones
Martyn – Samuel Anderson

by Peter James (2018)

Ross Hunter only learned about the accident that claimed his brother, Ricky’s life when he was working out in the gym several miles away and was suddenly beset with a bizarre vision, which he could never afterwards explain in any rational way.

This doesn’t exactly persuade him that there’s an afterlife, but it certainly leaves him thinking.

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. 

Years pass, and though Hunter forgave Imogen’s infidelity, the trust they once shared is no longer quite there, even though she’s now pregnant again. His career, however, is going from strength to strength. Now widely respected as an investigative journalist, he chases only the biggest stories and gets fantastic spreads in the broadsheets. This is the reason why he is one day approached by ex-RAF officer and retired History of Art professor, Harry Cook, who offers him the scoop of a lifetime.

In short, Cook tells Hunter that he’s recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence, and that he needs a well-regarded journo to help him tell the story. He reinforces this remarkable claim by adding that he also has a message for Hunter from his deceased brother.

Hunter and Cook meet, and Hunter is startled at some of the personal information the old man imparts to him. This makes him take the stranger much more seriously, though even Hunter, with all that he’s been through, is stunned when Cook presents him with a manuscript, which he says was dictated to him by God during a séance, and which he says contains three sets of coordinates, each one relating to an item or place of incalculable religious significance, but all of which, when finally brought together, will be hugely beneficial to mankind.

The first of these – and this apparently will be the least difficult to locate – is the Holy Grail itself. When Hunter recovers from the shock of hearing this, he learns that the second is a personal but non-specified item connected to Jesus Christ, and that the third will have great relevance to the actual Second Coming.

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.

Hunter still isn’t sure if he buys all this – and Imogen certainly doesn’t – but he commences his enquiry anyway, more in hope than optimism. He doesn’t stay tight-lipped about it either, and though, initially, there is bemusement and scepticism – radio presenter Sally Hughes is certainly interested, but Bishop Benedict Carmichael considers the whole thing too risky and attempts to dissuade Hunter from continuing – some powers follow his progress for entirely covetous reasons.

Dr Ainsley Bloor, the CEO of pharmaceutical giant, Kerr Kluge, a committed and aggressive atheist – a guy so committed to this cause, in fact, that he is literally using monkeys and typewriters to try and prove that pure chance was the origin of all things rather than Intelligent Design – is keen to get hold of whatever religious items Hunter can locate to try and make use of them in his development and sale of new medicines. Then there is Wesley Wenceslas, a British-based multi-millionaire evangelist and full-time conman, who would also love to have possession of such holy relics.

Neither of these very dangerous and determined men, among various others – fanatics drawn from all the world’s major religions! – will easily be dissuaded from attempting to possess whatever Hunter uncovers. As such, the first person to die, and only after considerable torture, is Harry Cook, with a high possibility that others will follow in short order.

The stage is truly set for a deadly, continent-hopping adventure, which, in due course, may even take Ross Hunter beyond the realms of this mortal world …

It’s a good thing it was Peter James who undertook to write this book, and not someone of lesser quality. Because when you think about it, a quest to prove the existence of God would likely be the greatest, most challenging mission in history, its outcome of interest to every single man and woman on Earth because there is probably no-one living today who hasn’t at one time or other pondered the existence of an overarching deity, or who hasn’t hoped and prayed that the human experience isn’t solely about our time on Earth.

The question is ... did Peter James succeed? In Absolute Proof, did he do justice to this phenomenal concept?

My personal view is that he did. Not just because this is the most massive novel he’s ever written, in both size and concept, (though it is, clocking in at nearly 600 pages!), or because he suddenly veers away from his more familiar territory of murder mysteries set on England’s South Coast (though he does, venturing clear across the globe), or even because it’s one of his best-written pieces to date (and when you consider that it’s Peter James we’re talking about here, that’s really saying something), but because I found the experience of reading it deeply emotionally affecting.

Ross Hunter is a bit of a neutral character by normal James standards. He’s obviously good at his job, but he’s not much of a fighter: he’s terrified during his sojourn to Afghanistan, he readily forgives his wife’s faithlessness and wordlessly tolerates a nagging fear that the child she is carrying is not his. He’s tough, though, and durable, and prepared to go to great lengths to reach his goal – and that’s the crux of it. Because Hunter, even though he’s no super cool hero, commences this journey on all our behalf, and what a journey it proves to be, taking him across the UK, to North Africa and eventually to America, throwing all kinds of obstacles into his route – both physical and spiritual – and yet increasingly he feels, as do we, that he’s on the trail of something truly amazing.

Though Absolute Proof is a big, big book, it’s a very smooth read, and I found myself accelerating through it, enjoying every page at the same time as yearning to reach a profound resolution.

Was my soul uplifted?

As I say, it’s an emotionally charged narrative – especially for those who actively seek answers of this sort – and yes, I want to know if God is out there as much as the next man, and as this book gets closer to answering that question than any other work of fiction I’ve ever encountered, I wasn’t exactly discouraged.

I should add that it’s not all completely plausible. The notion that one man could make so much ground so quickly when pursuing the most complex questions of all time stretches credulity a little, though to be fair, he does apparently get help from high places. But to make an issue of this would be to miss the point. The real story in Absolute Proof – as it can only ever be in a quest for God – centres around faith. Both believers and non-believers possess it (the former in His presence, the latter in His absence), and yet both sides struggle with these prescribed positions, because no-one can be certain that they are right, and probably never will be until the day of their death, which is why the search for absolute, undeniable proof is the ultimate human goal.

Inevitably, not all reviewers have approved, some suggesting that Hunter should be much more sceptical in his enquiry, despite his apparent religious experience concerning the death of his brother, some objecting to James focussing mostly on the Christian tradition, some grumbling that they bought Absolute Proof expecting a thriller and found themselves with an Indian Jones-type fantasy. But for me, none of these criticisms carry real weight.

First of all, Ross Hunter is not a zealot; he’s a hard-headed journalist looking for a great story, and so his motives are, initially at least, entirely selfish. It’s only as the immense reality of what he’s doing washes over him that he’s drawn further and further into the complexity of religious belief. No controversy there, I feel.

With regard to the mainly Christian angle, I can only argue that an author must be true to his or herself. Most of us in the West are probably more influenced by Christianity than any other faith (and if anyone tries to deny that, I’ll just ask them what they'll be doing on December 25 this year!), so I don’t think it’s especially outrageous that Absolute Proof relies mainly on the Christian tradition. In any case, the book’s far more inclusive than that may suggest, the theories and philosophies woven into the plot ranging far and wide across the belief systems of the world, strongly implying that all groups pray to the same God, if in different ways (though don’t think that means this book is a sermon; far from it – Absolute Proof abounds with false prophets, the author deeply mistrustful of those who aggressively and mendaciously promote their own holiness).

So ... how does it stand as a novel?

The subtext is all there, but do the characters work? Is it well-written? Is it a rattling good story? It’s packaged as a thriller, so does it thrill? Is it explosive, suspenseful, exciting?

In answer to the first question, Absolute Proof is a Peter James archetype, even if it contains very different subject matter from his norm. It’s highly accessible, the flawless, non-flowery prose moving the plot at pace, the very short chapters – some no more than a page themselves – keeping the reader hooked throughout. The author’s easy, reader-friendly style belies the narrative’s great length, so at no stage did I feel tired or bog-eyed, and in fact I was surprised when I found that I’d reached the end, it was that swift a read.

The plethora of colourful characters, many of whom I haven’t had the time to mention here, helped with this.

While the aptly-named Hunter is well-cast as the inquisitive everyman searching for his own salvation, other characters are also representatives. To start with, at either end of the spectrum there are dangerous individuals – like Bloor and Wenceslas – who in a bid to use faith as a means of domination have completely lost their humanity. The pair of them are perhaps overly flamboyant villains, certainly by Peter James’ normal very realistic standards, but they serve a key purpose.

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.

Absolute Proof is a big change from Peter James’ regular crime-fighting chronicles, but it’s not a nod to his occasional supernatural work either. Readers have likened it to Dan Brown and James Rollins, and yes, it’s that kind of international mystery-thriller, painted on a sweeping canvas and with cosmic undertones. If that’s not your thing, and you try to avoid philosophical or religious thinking – though I say it again, this book does NOT preach – then it won’t be for you. But if you’ve got even half an open mind on these celestial matters, I reckon you’ll find this novel an absolute must.

I’m eagerly anticipating some kind of film or TV adaptation of Absolute Proof at some point, though knowing how long this usually takes, I’m now going to do my usual thing, by sticking my personal oar in on the subject of who should play the leads (just a bit of fun, of course):

Ross Hunter – Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Imogen Hunter – Lucy Griffiths
Dr Harry Cook – Terence Stamp
Dr Ainsley Bloor – Ben Daniels
Pastor Wesley Wenceslas – Michael Sheen
Sally Hughes – Florence Pugh
Michael Henry Delaney – John O’Hurley

by Peter James (2016)

When well-heeled Brighton couple and self-confessed townies, Ollie and Caro Harcourt, move out into the Sussex countryside, leaving their suburban life behind and taking possession of a rambling 18th century mansion, Cold Hill House, they are determined to make this new phase of their life work even though they expect it to be quite a challenge. Caro, a solicitor, is less than entranced by the place, finding it bleak and isolated, while Jade, their 12-year-old daughter, resents having been made to move away from her friends. But Ollie, a self-employed, home-based graphic designer who has always wanted to lead a rural lifestyle, sees it as a dream come true, and when push comes to shove, the whole family will admit that the grand old manor has great potential: it is a little run-down, a tad decrepit, but as long-term investments go it feels like a fairly safe bet.

But of course things are never quite so simple in the ever-menacing world of Peter James.

To start with, the house has many basic problems. There is a seemingly infinite list of structural defects, while time in general has taken its toll on the age-old property; the wear and tear is vastly more immense than the surveyors reported. Ollie, enthusiastic though he is, soon comes to fear that his new home may actually be a money pit.

Then there are those other, more intangible problems.

Within a very short time, the Harcourts start to suspect they are not alone here. Whose is the spectral female form they occasionally glimpse in the house? Who is the rather unpleasant old man Ollie several times encounters in the nearby country lane and yet whom no-one in the nearby village seems to know? Why is there a brooding atmosphere in this place when it should be so idyllic? And if all this isn’t bad enough, the fear stakes are upped dramatically when the family starts to have problems with their social media: strange figures appear on computer screens; bizarre and eerie messages are left via email, the origins of which are untraceable. Whatever the entity is that haunts this place – because it rapidly becomes clear that this is what they are dealing with here, a haunting – it is soon infesting their laptops, iPhones and other electrical devices.

These contacts are increasingly less pleasant, until eventually they become downright hostile, progressively more callous and damaging acts accompanying them.

Whatever walks in Cold Hill House, it is not some dim and distant memory of a life lived long ago, it is a thinking, sentient being, and quite clearly it isn’t interested merely in distressing and alarming the Harcourts so much as in tormenting, torturing and ultimately destroying them …

I love haunted house books. The bar for me was first set with The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson back in 1959, and raised even higher – in terms of pure terror, if not literary merit – by Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror in 1977. Both these books were particularly intriguing as haunted house stories went, because they presented us with nightmarish supernatural entities, mysterious, unknown beings hell-bent not just on scaring the innocents who had fallen into their clutches, but on terrorising them to death and beyond. As such, The House on Cold Hill was a real surprise for me, as I mainly know Peter James as a writer of superb crime thrillers. But this latest novel of his follows in the ‘Hill House’ tradition and adds comfortably to the canon.

All the author’s usual strengths are on display here. It is slickly and expertly written, which makes for a fast and easy read. The scene is set perfectly; you can picture the ornate but crumbling façade of the venerable old structure; you can smell the dank and stagnant air in its secret upper rooms; the rolling Sussex landscape is sumptuously present.

His characters, while not exactly oddballs, are not your regular heroes – they all have flaws (and very quickly and very cleverly the evil force seeks to gain leverage through these). Ollie Harcourt is the main protagonist, though he’s in some ways a rather effete and ineffectual figure – his initial response to the haunting is to try and shrug it off, in effect hoping that it goes away of its own volition. But it’s important to understand his plight. He has sunk every penny he’s got into this project; and when it suddenly seems like a bad idea it’s too late for him to do anything – certain readers’ complaints that he should just have upped sticks and left simply don’t ring true. Likewise, he is dealing with something utterly beyond his ken. Ollie is your archetypical forty-something ‘Middle England’ guy. He’s never encountered anything horrific in his life, let alone anything paranormal. He is completely steeped in the contemporary world with its huge complexity of electronic gadgets and virtual superhighways – and when all this turns against him, in the most unconventional way, his scientific mind is unable to process it.

Which brings me onto another interesting aspect of the book.

Some reviewers have criticised The House on Cold Hill for not doing anything particularly new with the haunted house milieu. But the supernatural infestation of the online media is something I’ve never seen done before, at least not this effectively. It goes even further than that. Despite the overarching supernatural atmosphere, science is never far away in this book. In fact, this is the first horror novel I’ve read in which the author seeks and explores a genuine scientific explanation for the existence of ghosts. And you know, it’s all pretty plausible. I’ll not give anything away, but Peter James has definitely done his homework. There is one scene in which Ollie Harcourt mulls over the situation with a physicist friend of his, and you can easily picture the author himself, a well-known and very thorough researcher, having exactly the same conversation with someone similarly qualified.

It also helps with the mood and authenticity that Peter James is personally experienced in this kind of scenario, as the lonely edifice at Cold Hill is apparently based on a real house he himself lived in once, and where he apparently had a less-than-comfortable time (though presumably he didn’t experience anything like the horrors on show here – I doubt he’d have emerged sane if he had).

All of this adds up to The House on Cold Hill being a neat little ‘old school’ chiller. It’s no ground-breaker in horror terms, but it’s a good, absorbing read, which, being fairly low on gore – certainly compared to the Roy Grace books – is unlikely to make you scream, but is guaranteed to creep you out repeatedly as you rustle through its traditionalist, doom-laden pages.

As usual – just for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The House on Cold Hill ever makes it to the movie or TV screen.

Ollie Harcourt – Rupert Penry-Jones
Caro Harcourt – Anna Friel

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.

You’d think the ace investigator with the ultra-reliable and professional team would be well equipped to deal with this. But these are tough times for all involved, Grace in particular – because suddenly there is fresh information about his first wife, Sandy, who disappeared 10 years earlier and who, for a brief time at least, he was suspected of having murdered. This is more than a little bit distracting for him, but never let it be said that any maniac – no matter how sadistic or deranged – can get the drop easily on Roy Grace …

ReviewYou Are Dead is the 11th outing for Peter James’s popular police hero, and for my money one of the best yet.

Grace is a hugely likable character. Not just a sharp and fearless detective, or the cool hand on the tiller of what is almost always a massive and complex police operation, but an everyman too – life gets in the way for him much as it does for the rest of us mere mortals, he has personal issues and professional issues, things aren’t always great either at home or in the office. As such, we completely empathise with him. (He also has a remarkably warm relationship with his goldfish, Marlon, which I find charming and amusing in equal measure). But despite all this, of course, the killers keep coming – and someone has to catch them. Yes indeed, the Roy Grace novels are a deadly serious business.  

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.

From the beginning with Grace, James set himself a difficult task, focussing on the SIO, the guy in command, and thus, with each book, needing to give us a constant and accurate overview of everything happening with the investigation. That would be a mammoth job even without the need to weave it into a fast and intriguing narrative. But James pulls it off in You Are Dead with his usual effortless aplomb. All the authenticity is there – you actually feel you’re in a real Incident Room, surrounded by the most up-do-date crime investigation technology, in company with coppers who look and sound like real coppers – and yet none of it is intrusive. James’s police protocols and procedures are bang-on, his understanding of even minor legalities is superb, his handling of police relationships as realistic as I’ve ever seen – yet this is background stuff; the narrative itself remains uncluttered, its pace relentless. Like all the others, this at heart is a very human story, one man determinedly pursuing an enemy of society with his wits and his courage, and risking life, limb and love in the process.

Another unforgettable entry in the Roy Grace canon. Absolutely terrific. 

As I usually do, and purely for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if You Are Dead at some point makes it to the screen (there’s been talk for years about a TV series – which I personally would love to see, but I don’t think anything’s imminent, and even if it was, it obviously wouldn’t start with You Are Dead, so this one really is just for fun):

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace – Colin Firth
Cleo – Tamzin Outhwaite
ACC Cassian Pewe – Aiden Gillen


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 …


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.

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 which require them to either relate spooky stories or listen to them. It could be that some doctor must judge the sanity of his patents from them, a la Asylum (pictured), or maybe the tales are spun to bored travellers by a mysterious tarot card-reader on a trans-continental train in an international version of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors.

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

THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF HALLOWEEN STORIES edited by Stephen Jones (2018)

As the title makes clear, a themed Halloween horror anthology, originally published in time for October 31 last year, though in truth it contains enough spooky tales and timeless treats to be readable at the misty, murky tail-end of any year.

Rather than simply hit you with a succession of brief short story outlines, I’ll first let the publishers give you their own official blurb, which neatly lays out the autumnal chills lying ahead:

Treat yourself to some very tricky stories! Halloween … All Hallows’ Eve … Samhain … Día de los Muertos … the Day the Dead Come Back … When the barriers between the worlds are at their weakest – when ghosts, goblins, and grisly things can cross over into our dimension – then for a single night each year the natural becomes the supernatural, the normal becomes the paranormal, and nobody is safe from their most intimate and terrifying fears.

The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories brings you a dark feast of frightening fiction by some of the most successful and respected horror writers working today, including Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Joe R. Lansdale, Helen Marshall, Richard Christian Matheson, Robert Shearman, Robert Silverberg, Angela Slatter, Steve Rasnic Tem, and many more, along with a very special contribution by award-winning poet Jane Yolen.

Here you will encounter witches, ghosts, monsters, psychos, demonic nuns, and even Death himself in this spooky selection of stories set on the night when evil walks the Earth …

Come the waning of the year, Halloween horror anthologies, much like Halloween horror movies, become a fixture on our ‘want lists’. Given that October 31, with its ghost stories and ghoulish pageantry, is easily the scariest night of the year in the western tradition, but also, for many, and for exactly the same reason, the most fun night too, it’s surely no surprise that writers and editors have visited it time and time again. Almost inevitably of course, those working at the darker end of the literary spectrum have colonised it most. But as a Brit, I’ve long had a beef with Halloween fiction, and this centres around the fact that it’s almost invariably hogged by Americans.

Now, don’t get me wrong – the US has produced some of the world’s greatest horror writers, not to mention novels, stories and film scripts, and I have absolutely no complaints about that. But it’s peeved me many times in the past to pick up a collection of new Halloween fiction and find that, almost without exception, every story relates to the American experience. And whenever I’ve expressed these sentiments to fellow Brits, I’ve been told: “Well, that’s because in the US it’s an old festival, while in the UK it’s fairly new.”

Come on, guys!

In the UK Halloween is NOT new. It’s one of our most ancient celebrations; it’s just that it hasn’t been quite as big a party in recent times because the highlight of our autumn, as imposed upon us by royal decree, Bonfire Night, occurs only five days later.

But now, thankfully, we have an anthology that puts all this right … perhaps understandably so, given that Stephen Jones, one of the world’s most respected and hardest working anthologists, is British. Not that he focusses purely on the UK in The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories; far from it. He certainly includes a number of front-running British horror authors – Neil Gaiman, Storm Constantine, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Marshall Smith et al – but there are plenty of Americans in here as well – Richard Christian Matheson, Lisa Morton, Joe R Lansdale and Thana Niveau, among others, not to mention a couple of Aussies in Robert Hood and Angela Slatter, and a Canadian in Nancy Kilpatrick, while at least two of the stories, Memories of Día de los Muertos by the aforementioned Kilpatrick, and the spine-chilling Not Our Brother by the legendary Robert Silverberg, take us to Mexico, where Día de Muertos is not just a holiday but a revered religious fête.

So, rest assured, a wide range of voices and perspectives are on offer in this one, which, as I say, makes a refreshing change, and enables Steve Jones to tackle the many different aspects of this complex, multi-layered festival, and the varied customs wrapped up in it (not all of which, I have to say, are purposely terrifying – the editor himself prewarns us about this in his intro).

But ultimately, of course, for all these different takes, there is a common thread. Halloween is the night on which the realms of the living and the dead are closest to each other, when spirits and other entities, both benign and malignant, can cross over into our world and commune with us. And the late autumn atmosphere of darkness, mist and swirling leaves only adds to this eeriness, and thus provides a backdrop that runs throughout.

It’s all become rather ‘on the nose’ in real life, of course. An interesting essay at the beginning of the book, When Graveyards Yawn, penned by Jones himself, explains how the iconic imagery of Halloween – witches on broomsticks, black cats, jack-o-lanterns – was first popularised in the late Victorian era via the publication in America of spooky postcards. There is little of that to be found in the actual fiction here. Jones is far too astute and eclectic an editor to select anything so obvious (and where it does appear, it is often turned on its head: Lantern Jack by Christopher Fowler, for example, or The Halloween Monster by Alison Littlewood). But the essence of the traditional Halloween remains. In Neil Gaiman’s October in the Chair, for example, a tale redolent of cold, dark autumn nights, the personifications of the months gather at a woodland bonfire to hear October tell the sad story of a lonely boy who runs away from home, befriends a ghost and decides that he never wants to leave its side … ever. While Adrian Cole’s Queen of the Hunt sees a rural cop investigating what looks like an animal-attack fatality but worried by the rapid approach of Halloween, because he knows the weird rituals with which it is celebrated in these parts and fears that the two may be connected. Equally traditional is Marie O’Regan’s Before the Parade Passes By, wherein a recently-made widow and her young daughter move to a new town, the community of which appears to embrace them … except that Halloween is almost upon them, and the child is increasingly scared by the prospect of the mysterious ‘parade’. Perhaps most atmospheric of all, though, is Storm Constantine’s Bone Fire, which takes us into a pre-industrial age British village, where Halloween is lavishly celebrated, and all kinds of strange and interesting guests are anticipated (more about this story later).

Of course, the real test of any horror anthology is whether it’s frightening or not. The stories it contains can be superbly written and clever as Hell – and all these things are to be found in this tome – but if it doesn’t put a few chills up the reader’s spine, then it hasn’t done its job.

Well, I’m glad to say that The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories ticked this box too. Particularly memorable in this regard is Her Face by Ramsey Campbell, in which a young boy regularly buys cigarettes for his single mum in the corner shop across the road, but as Halloween approaches, becomes increasingly afraid of the horror masks it is stocking. We also have Robert Silverberg’s previously mentioned Not Our Brother, an intensely frightening Samhain epic, which sees an American collector of Mexican memorabilia head south of the border to spend the Day of the Dead in a remote village, where he aims to persuade the locals to sell him some valuable tribal masks, unaware of the level of resistance he’ll encounter. And The Folding Man by Joe R Lansdale, a classic pursuit horror in which a unstoppable monster is unleashed on a bunch of irreverent teens (again, more about this story later).

These are chilling tales all, showing scare-meister authors at the top of their game, and they’re not the only ones. Angela Slatter’s The October Widow will also creep you out, as will Cate Gardner’s Dust Upon a Paper Eye and Lisa Morton’s The Ultimate Halloween Party App, to name but a few (yet again, more about the first two of that trio later).

All this said, it isn’t just about being frightened. The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories also contains some serious and thought-provoking fiction. Michael Marshall Smith’ s The Scariest Thing in the World and Alison Littlewood’s The Halloween Monster are both excellent and beautifully written tales, which remind us that man’s deadliest foe, whatever night of the year it is, is man himself. While other contributions, if not exactly head-trips, go way beyond the others in terms of dark, surreal fantasy. A good example is the ever-reliable Steve Rasnic Tem’s strangely affecting Reflections in Black, in which an embittered man travels across the States, looking to hook up with an old girlfriend, and encountering all kinds of Halloween weirdness en route, while Robert Shearman’s Pumpkin Kids is so strange and disturbing that it defies a thumbnail outline – you’ve just got to read it.

And that’s the message for the whole of this book, really. Buy it and read it. It’s not the first Halloween anthology, and it certainly won’t be the last, but I suspect it’ll never have many rivals that can boast such a broad range of story types and Halloween subject-matter.

It was published for Halloween last year, but it’ll work just as well for Halloween this year. So, waste no further time …

And now …


Just a bit of fun, this part. No film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

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. 

It could be that we opt for Neil Gaiman’s concept of October occupying a woodland chair while a bonfire blazes nearby, regaling us with chilling stories of the season; or maybe we just fall back on that old chestnut (see what I did there?), with four strangers thrown together in unusual Halloween circumstances, which require them to relate spooky stories … perhaps a late-October party at The Monster Club, hosted by Erasmus the vampire. But basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

The October Widow (by Angela Slatter): Hedgewitch Mirabel travels from one town to the next each Halloween, seducing and sacrificing handsome young men, both to replenish the land and her own youth – as she has been doing for decades. She thinks she is doing good, but ageing Cecil, who can’t forget the loss of his son, has other ideas …

Mirabel – Miranda Richardson
Henry – Asa Butterfield
Cecil – Nick Brimble

Dust Upon a Paper Eye (by Cate Gardner): A semi-derelict inner-city theatre is the venue for a strange Halloween Night show, the eccentric oddball, Herr Smithson, having promised to entertain a private audience with lifesize, dancing dolls. But when former homeless girl, Henrietta, is brought in to prepare the dolls’ makeup, she notices something rather peculiar about them …

Henrietta – Florence Pugh
Herr Smithson – Phil Davies

Bone Fire (by Storm Constantine): In a pre-industrial age English village, two lasses seek excitement and love as the annual All Hallows celebration approaches. But neither of them are really ready for the mysterious lads they will meet in the Bone Fire smoke …

Emilie – Anya Taylor-Joy
Jenna – Mia Goth

The Folding Man (by Joe R Lansdale): It’s Halloween Night, and Jim and his friends, out for a party, make the mistake of mooning a car full of nuns. But this is no ordinary party night, and these are no ordinary nuns, and when they chase the boys and unleash the terrifying ‘folding man’ on them, Jim realises that this will be a Halloween like no other …

Jim – Freddie Highmore

PSYCHO-MANIA! edited by Stephen Jones (2013)

Stephen Jones is one of a small handful of professional editors who for many years have been flying the flag for the written horror anthology despite all kinds of opposition from mainstream publishing, which, even now, despite an increasing prevalence of horror anthology movies, seems sceptical about the short story collection format. Jones has never let this dissuade him, and has continued to have mass-market hits. This book, Psycho-Mania!, was one of them, though this one adopted a slightly different approach from the norm.

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.

Meanwhile, another fine author, Kim Newman, dips a little into horror movie culture (and proceeds to make hay with it) with The Only Ending We Have, which sees Jayne, a beautiful body-double flee the set of the movie, Psycho, after being groped once too often by the lecherous Alfred Hitchcock, only to drive into a storm and pull off the highway at a gloomy hotel run by a weird mother-and-son double act. Don’t think you already know how this one ends. Trust me, you don’t

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. 

On this occasion, John Llewellyn Probert tells us all we need to know with his overarching tale, Screams in the Dark.

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)

London is a city well-versed in dealing with terrorism, but it’s a sheer impossibility to throw steel around all of its major landmarks. So, when an organised and proficient terrorist outfit launches a military-style attack on the ornate Stanhope Hotel, on Park Lane, the metropolis is taken completely by surprise. 

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.

A lot of people die quickly, in many cases killed merely to make a point. It’s plain from the outset that these terrorists are playing for keeps, and pretty soon almost the entirety of the Metropolitan Police, not to mention a specialist SAS rescue squad, have got them surrounded.

A colossal siege then follows, a wide range of hostages awaiting its outcome fearfully.

Among these, Polish hotel manager, Elena Serenko, is the strongest, a diplomatic but authoritative figure, who never once loses her cool in the midst of the crisis, and becomes their unofficial spokesperson. Martin Dalston is there too, a forlorn character who has come to the hotel to die; recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer, he intended to commit suicide that evening, but now realises that he doesn’t just want to live, he wants to live and help those around him.

And then there is Scope … in his first outing (Simon Kernick has since written at least one more book following his exploits). Another disenfranchised ex-squaddie, Scope came to the Stanhope looking for vengeance regarding matters unconnected to this affair, but soon got caught up in the mayhem. He manages to lie low in one of the upstairs rooms, and is not corralled by the terrorists, but you sense almost from the beginning that he’s going to become their John McClane, their fly in the ointment, their ultimate pain in the ass.

Outside the hotel, meanwhile, it’s equally tense. The police are under the control of the normally efficient Deputy Assistant Commissioner Arley Dale, though her position is far from straightforward. Unbeknown to everyone else, Dale’s own family were kidnapped that morning by the same terrorists, and she is now under orders to assist the gang by providing misinformation to the military and sending the inevitable SAS assault team to its destruction. Naturally, she doesn’t want to do this, but what choice does she have? Things are further complicated for her when news arrives that a senior MI6 officer, possessing vital information, is among the captives, and by Detective Chief Inspector John Cheney of the Counter Terrorist Command, a cool but inscrutable figure (and, inconveniently, a former boyfriend of hers) who constantly hovers in the background.

The strongest card Dale can play is Riz Mohammed, a London cop of Middle Eastern origin and an expert negotiator. He makes many gallant attempts to talk the terrorists ‘down’, but gains little. This is partly because their motives are far from clear. Though two Arabic figures have now emerged from the murderous band to take charge - their overall leader, Wolf, and his fanatical female sidekick, Cat - the rest of the team, like Fox, are westerners at odds with the British establishment, and though they are brutal and violent, we soon get the feeling they are less interested in the Islamist cause than they are the fabulous pay-out they’ve been promised if everything goes to plan.

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.

Scope meanwhile, who initially takes time off to protect an ailing American tourist and her young son, finally decides that he too must take the gloves off. These vicious, arrogant killers are not going to have it all their own way …

Well, this is an absolute corker.

It’s also vintage Simon Kernick, surely one of the UK’s best thriller-writers when it comes to high-level conspiracies, espionage and terrorism.

Make no mistake, this is a big, big story, involving a monstrous and complex crime which has the potential not just to snuff out multiple lives, but to endanger national security as well, and yet as always, the author handles every part of it with astonishing attention to detail, delivering the entire catastrophe in completely authentic and convincing fashion. He deals with the emergency services response in the same way, not putting a foot wrong as he pulls the police and military together, co-ordinating their various assets, including their technical resources (which in Siege are absolutely up-to-the-minute) in the most believable style. It’s almost as if he has personally memorised the section of the Major Incident Manual concerning mass terrorist attacks on London.

As I say, vintage Kernick.

And yet … all this stuff is no more, really, than the backdrop.

The most interesting thrillers are always about people, focussing on their conflicting personalities and relationships no matter what degree of chaos is unfolding around them. And Kernick doesn’t skimp on this. In fact, he gives us an ensemble cast, throwing all kinds of individuals into this maelstrom of gunfire and explosions.

At first, I wondered if this was going to prove to be a mistake; there are so many living, breathing individuals in Siege that I worried it might fall victim to what I call ‘Towering Inferno Syndrome’: in other words, the author gives us a bit of everyone, but not enough of anyone. But no, Simon Kernick is too much of an expert in his field to make that kind of error. Once we’ve met the cast, we quickly close in on the key players, two of the most exciting being Scope and Tina Boyd.

Kernick certainly loves his antiheroes.

Yes, his work is often filled with straight bats like Arley Dale, and procedures and protocols hot from the Scotland Yard press. But quite often – and it’s certainly the case here – things are resolved by the smart thinking and raw courage of wayward individuals who, usually through misfortune, find themselves at the sharp end with minimal backup.

Don’t get me wrong. Earlier in this review, I alluded to Die Hard. And yes, there is more than a hint of that in Siege. But the action here, though fast and tough, is not quite so OTT. There are bombs, machine-gun battles and knife fights galore. But in this book, when people get shot and wounded, they are severely incapacitated at the very least. When they get put down by a heavy punch, they don’t get up quickly. Scope is not a man of iron. He is handy and experienced, but his main strength derives from his dogged nature and moral compass, which he engages regardless of the fine print. Likewise, Tina Boyd. She has had it rough; despite often doing the right thing in the past, she’s been on the wrong end of some politically correct but nevertheless harsh decisions – she is another who’s always prepared to risk it for the right result, and who isn’t just able to take a beating, but who can (and will) dish one out, herself, if necessary. 

In balance to all this, the non-violent characters in the book – Elena Serenko and Martin Dalston – are intriguing creations, nicely representing ordinary people at their best (and so often, of course, it is ordinary people who must navigate these terrible situations). They may not believe in have-a-go-heroism, but they’ll still do everything in their power to make things easier for those around them.

On top of all that, despite its massive canvas and huge rotation of characters, the novel is done slickly and quickly, the narrative bouncing from scene to scene at breakneck pace, allowing the reader almost no room to breathe – and yet still finding time to surprise us with curveballs. That’s another of Simon Kernick’s strengths. You never know the whole story; there is nearly always something shocking held in reserve, and Siege is no exception to that rule.

A terrific action-thriller, completely credible, totally enthralling and sadly, in our turbulent current age, more relevant now even than when it was first published.

It’s a bold man who’d try, at a whim, to cast a novel like this should it ever be adapted for the screen, but ‘boldness’ is my middle name. So, as usual, here I go (just for laughs, of course):

DAC Arley Dale – Naomi Watts
Scope – Robert James-Collier
Elena Serenko – Izabella Miko
Fox – Clive Standen
Tina Boyd – Gemma Arterton
Wolf – Naveen Andrews
Cat – Shiva Negar
DCI John Cheney – Ray Stevenson
Martin Dalston – Hugh Grant
Riz Mohammed – Cas Anvar

by Stephen King (2013)

It is 1973, and New England-born college guy, Devin Jones, is screwing things up educationally. Head over heels in love with classmate, Wendy Keegan, he just can’t focus on his studies – a problem that worsens when reality starts dawning that her increasing coolness is basically because she doesn’t share his ardour.

As the girl is at no stage kind enough to turn around and tell him he’s dumped, Devin continues to delude himself that Wendy is his, even when he flees into a summer job at Joyland, a second-rate amusement part on the North Carolina beachfront.

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.

It’s a long, hot, hardworking summer, during which the tireless Devin wins the approval of nonagenarian park-owner, Bradley Easterbrook, ends up being mothered by firm but fair landlady, Emmalina Shoplaw, and even attracts the attention of fortune-teller, Rozzy Gold, who is disturbed to see something bad in the kid’s future.

And this is the thing about Joyland. Though it does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a great afternoon for young families, it has a dark history. There was a murder here in the 1960s, when a girl had her throat cut on the Horror House ride. If that isn’t enough, the case was never solved, and rumour-mongers hold that the victim, Linda Gray, was only one of several attributable to the same maniac.

This macabre story is of growing interest to Devin, especially when he learns that the Horror House is now supposed to be haunted for real, Linda Gray’s sad ghost lingering in its shadows, looking to make contact with anyone she can, so that she can name her killer.

Devin never sees the ghost, himself, or even senses its presence, and is envious when he learns that Tom Kennedy has done, even though Tom doesn’t think this cool at all, and in fact was so frightened by the experience that, once the summer is over, he plans to get as far from Joyland as he can – and intends to take Erin with him, as the twosome are now an item (despite Erin and Devin’s mutual attraction).

Meanwhile, Devin, who’s grown to accept that he’ll never see Wendy again, is cultivating a relationship with another young woman, though this one is far more complex.

Single mother, Annie Ross, is spending the summer in her wealthy evangelical preacher father’s coastal mansion, and is sole guardian to her crippled, dying and yet permanently cheerful son, Michael. It is Michael who initially makes friends with Devin, a relationship Annie tries to discourage because she thinks it will end in tears – though when she actually gets to know Devin, she realises that he’s an okay guy.

But even this arrangement starts to prove difficult. Young Michael is another who possesses second-sight – and in his case it’s genuine. He doesn’t just get vague impressions like Rozzy Gold, so when he too warns Devin that something bad is looming, it needs to be taken seriously.

From a reader’s perspective, of course, it’s impossible not to form a suspicion that this approaching danger must be connected to story of the Funhouse Killer, with which Devin is increasingly fascinated. In fact, at the end of summer, when Tom and Erin go back to college, but Devin stays on – having decided to take a year out – the girl, at Devin’s behest, starts to research the case, and comes up with some compelling clues, which she duly sends back.

The question is will Devin be able to make use of these, and if he can, will that in itself be a problem? Because, if you’re a soulless, many-times murderer, and you learn that someone’s investigating you, aren’t you going to take action to prevent it? And if you’re really and truly wicked, isn’t it also possible that you won’t just draw the line at dealing with him, but maybe with all those he knows and loves as well? …

My first impression on reading Joyland was that it may have started life as a novella, or even a short story. It’s a fairly slight concept, and a very linear narrative, uncluttered by the usual side-tracks and detours that Stephen King’s larger novels are renowned for. Was it originally a shortie, I wonder, and in that inimitable Steve King style, did it simply grow with the telling? That said, it isn’t padded; there’s no issue there, and it’s a very fast read – so no-one must be concerned that Joyland is a bit of nothing.

The second impression I got is that it’s another classic piece of King’s folksy Americana. Once again, we’re in the US of the author’s younger days, his college years perhaps, which are evoked in completely authentic and loving detail. This is a classic Stephen King retrospective on earlier periods of his life. Not content just to tell you how it looked and sounded and smelled, he gets you right into the mindset, helps you capture the zeitgeist. To start with, this is a politer age; everyone, you feel, has less than they do now, yet they are more genteel. People are adults when they hit their mid-20s, and automatically are treated with respect by juveniles. Students work their way through the vacation, and they work damn hard, because they need the money. Rules at rooming houses are there to be obeyed. Children are less streetwise, and yet intangibly tougher than their counterparts today. The simple pleasures of an amusement park are deemed a worthwhile experience for working class families who take nothing for granted.

As for King’s descriptive powers … well, it’s the usual case of every other writer who reads it going green with envy. Everything about Joyland, the park, is vivid. You can hear the whistles and bells of the rides, you can smell the candy-floss and ketchup, can hear the roar of the nearby surf, and feel the tremors of excitement on first sight of the simp-hoister (Ferris wheel), Zamp rides (children’s attractions) and bang-shies (rifle ranges). 

Is it as terrifying as so many of his other works?

No, not a bit of it.

It’s a thriller. Be under no illusion about that, but it’s a low-key thriller. More important to the author on this occasion is the development of some wonderfully believable characters and relationships, and a deep contemplation of the afterlife.

Devin, for example, is only a young man – he rarely thinks about death; but there’s a killer at large, who preys on women younger even than he is. At the same time, little Michael is terminally ill, a fact he’s accepted with numbing bravery and stoicism. Because Joyland isn’t set now, this isn’t a world of atheists to whom death is oblivion. But this isn’t the long past either, so there’s uncertainty, there’s doubt, there’s fear. Annie Ross cannot disassociate the Jesus she learned about and loved as a little girl from the money-grabbing millionaire phoney that is her father. Even though there’s supposedly a ghost at Joyland, physical proof that we’re all spirits, Devin has never seen it, even though he yearns to (he misses his deceased mom terribly, and would love to hook up with her again).

This is all immensely affecting and moving – but there’s no schmaltz or sugar here; this is not a Disney story. And it makes for a hugely satisfying if very different kind of read.

I didn’t know much about Joyland when I picked it up. I tuned in expecting a typical blood-churning Stephen King chiller. I didn’t get that, but what I did get was yet another remarkable (if slightly shorter than usual) reading experience from one of the 20th and 21st centuries’ great masters of the written word.

Amazingly, given that almost everything Stephen King ever writes ends up on film or TV at some point, Joyland hasn’t – as far as I know – been adapted just yet. So (as usual) I’ll take a chance to nominate my own cast straight away. No-one’s going to listen to me, but hell, these guys would be great:

Devin Jones – Zac Efron
Annie Ross – Sienna Miller
Erin Cook – Saoirse Ronan
Tom Kennedy – Kevin McHale
Emmalina Shoplaw – Kathy Bates
Eddie Parks – Billy Drago
Lane Hardy – Clancy Brown
Bradley Easterbrook – M. Emmet Walsh

As usual, the only one I can’t cast is young Michael Ross; I know so little about child actors of those tender years that it would be a wasted exercise.

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)

John Calvino is a man struggling to reconcile with his past. As a teenager, he was sole survivor when crazed killer, Alton Turner Blackwood, broke into his home and horribly murdered his parents and sisters. In fact, John was the person who brought Blackwood’s reign of terror to an end, returning home just in time to gun the killer down with his father’s pistol.

In all other ways, though, the adult John Calvino now has a good life. It’s 20 years on, and he’s a well-regarded homicide detective (in an unspecified American town), with a beautiful wife, Nicolette, who’s also an excellent and successful artist, and three cute and intelligent kids, Zach, Naomi and Minette. He faces difficult cases daily, but his loving and characterful family are a strong support unit, and in any case, because of the tragedy he suffered in childhood, he sees it as his vocation to bring serious felons to justice.    

However, John’s ordered world starts to unravel when he is drawn to a case that he isn’t officially investigating but which bears worrying similarities to the deaths of his loved ones. Teenager Billy Lucas is in a secure mental ward after slaughtering his own family. He is believed to be schizophrenic, but when John visits him, the cop is alarmed by how much the disturbed youngster seemingly knows about the case two decades ago, and by his behaviour, which seems to veer from predatory and dark-hearted to innocent and frightened in the space of a second.

Afterwards, when John looks more carefully into the Lucas slayings, he finds that they are almost identical to the murders of his own family, even down to the small but significant details of the weird, blood-soaked rituals that Blackwood performed at the crime scene and at three identical crime scenes before it.

Other problems are manifesting too.

Not long after John returns from the asylum, his family begin sensing a presence in their formerly happy home. There are unexplained events: terrifying apparitions and incidents of apparent poltergeist activity, which primarily affect Nicolette and the children, though Nicolette writes her experiences off as a side-effect of the meds she is taking after recent surgery, while the youngsters find their own reasons for keeping quiet about it.

Meanwhile, John himself is badly shaken when he receives a phone-call from Billy Lucas – a guy who supposedly has no access to the outside world – the deranged youngster taunting him about his family’s deaths, even mentioning some of the vile things that Blackwood said to the young version of John Calvino twenty years earlier, which have never been made public.

When John complains to the hospital authorities, he is advised that not only is this impossible because Billy Lucas has no phone, it’s also impossible because the kid has just died from the stress of his condition.

Meanwhile, in a parallel strand to this main thread, and through several entries in a carefully-kept journal, we learn more about the man who would eventually become young John Calvino’s nemesis, the serial killer Alton Turner Blackwood, a deformed giant who came into this world through incest and was raised in the bosom of a patriarchal but amoral and dysfunctional family. It’s no surprise that he soon became a student of evil and a determined destroyer of innocence and beauty (though admittedly it’s a winding, colourful road he takes to get there, filled with all kinds of perverse domestic horror).

Of course, it has long been Calvino’s deepest fear that, somehow or other, this monster would find his way back into the world and return to finish the job he started by eradicating the Calvino seed once and for all. Perhaps inevitably, the cop isn’t far off the mark, though at this early stage he isn’t aware that Blackwood, who has not just been dead but in Hell, has indeed returned, having won brownie points with one particular prince of darkness, the demon, Ruin. But aside from creating a few minor special effects (that wretched poltergeist activity!), the only way Blackwood can really do harm is by possessing the living, and as the particularly sinful are most easily susceptible, we now meet a procession of twisted individuals whom the damned soul – his powers boosted by his infernal benefactor – is literally able to ride and steer as if they are horses.

Reece Salsetto, for example, a drug dealer and small-time gangster, who is driven to attempt to murder his sister’s family. Andy Tane, a corrupt and violent cop, who is galvanised to complete the job (his particular story including one of the scariest and downright most amazing death scenes I’ve witnessed in horror fiction, but no spoilers here). And Melody Lane, an insane child-killer, who is driven to make friends with Naomi, Calvino’s eldest daughter, by pretending to be an emissary from a fantasy fairy-tale world.

While this is happening, John, seeking spiritual guidance, hooks up with a disgraced and defrocked priest and one-time exorcist, Peter Abelard, who though he won’t come to the Calvino’s house because he can’t trust his own appetites for the very young, advises the detective about the terrible foe that he is facing.

Meanwhile, a whole clutch of killers, Melody Lane among them, are closing in on the Calvino family, driven to behave even more murderously than normal because they are being ridden by the Ruin/Blackwood combo. Even with his new-found knowledge, it seems highly unlikely that John will be able to mount an effective defence …

From what I’ve seen thus far, What the Night Knows has been a very divisive book. Hardcore Dean Koontz fans have sung its praises from the rooftops, lauding its tension and terror, and in particular the nightmarish figure of Alton Turner Blackwood as one of the greatest villains in the author’s extensive canon. But others, less impressed, have criticised it for being repetitive of other earlier Koontz novels, unswervingly reinforcing the author’s Christian beliefs (divine intervention is a key element in this narrative), and hitting us with several plot devices that are simply too unbelievable.

In my own view it’s a rattling good read, very scary and disturbing in parts, a real page-turner. But yes, I did have issues with some aspects of the book so perhaps it’s better if we get those out of the way first.

There’s no argument that we’re in familiar Koontz territory with the Calvino family. This is all-America as it should be: the father a noble cop seemingly undamaged by his terrible childhood experience (he has deep fears, but he’s affable, even-tempered and dependable), the mother talented, beautiful and endlessly strong and patient, the children a real bunch of cutie-pies, intelligent, well-mannered and though precocious, not in an unpleasant way. The whole bunch of them live in a large house in a perfect leafy suburb, with servants at their beck and call (servants who they inevitably treat very well, in fact love almost as family in their own right).

I must be honest, I found all this a bit saccharine, plus I didn’t really buy into the kids’ intellects. Their conversations and thought processes seem too advanced for their ages. Zach, for example, is only 13, but wants to join the Marines so he can defend America against the world’s dictators, the thing he fears most (really?). Minnie is only eight, and yet displays complex emotional understanding of her siblings, and is able to rationalise their moods and relationships in a very adult way. And yet, conversely, we are expected to believe that Naomi, the middle child at 11, is so besotted with fairy tale romance that when a mysterious woman, Melody Lane, intrudes into her life, she is so willing to believe that she’s the ambassador from a magic kingdom that she never once mentions it to her parents.

I also found it difficult to accept the Calvinos’ well-heeled lifestyle. John is a homicide cop, Nicolette an artist who’s had success, but we don’t get the impression that she’s a raging success. They’re both only in their mid-thirties, and yet they live in this huge residence and have staff. It’s even the case that the children are home-schooled, which is expensive, and yet it’s never really explained where the family have accrued so much wealth. Reviewers who’ve been hostile to the book have complained that this is typical Koontz, claiming that he automatically equates good with the conservative world of America’s white upper-middle class.

But, you know, this is Dean Koontz’s novel. This is his story. Ultimately, he can do what he wants with it, and he doesn’t have a duty to promote some other person’s vision of how the world is or should be. And, I have to say, none of this really spoiled it for me. The Calvinos may be an improbably handsome, happy family unit, but they also come over as desperately vulnerable. Despite John’s knowledge and skill as a professional crime-fighter (possibly because we never see much evidence of him doing this), they live such a comfortable life that they are totally unprepared for the evil that’s approaching.

As for the complaint that this is an overly muscular Christian story, well, I guess that depends on your personal viewpoint. It certainly doesn’t bother me. I grew up in the western Christian tradition wherein good is represented by God and evil by the Devil. It’s not as if I’m unused to it, though it is hammered home rather strongly in its depiction of a young, modern-minded Catholic priest, who is hip and liberal in his outlook and therefore no use to the family, whereas the wizened, chain-smoking old-schooler, Peter Abelard, a hardline exorcist who believes that evil is a real thing, is a much greater ally (despite being a convicted child-molester!).

The Devil never actually appears in What the Night Knows, but his minions do: a lesser demon called Ruin, the damned soul of Alton Blackwood, and a whole procession of depraved and corrupted individuals, who, though they haven’t exactly sold their souls to Lucifer, have completely given in to his influence. It’s a tad simplistic, yes. But most horror fiction is. At the end of the day it’s entertainment, so I don’t know if it needs to be looked into more deeply than that.

Overall, What the Night Knows is an enjoyable read. Dean Koontz is already famous for his florid and descriptive style and has long been held the master of the metaphor. But to me at least, this book is a very smooth and accessible read, every event vividly portrayed, the pace rarely flagging, and all the way through hitting us with some spectacularly scary climaxes. I’ve already mentioned the hospital scene, but the scene in the asylum will live long in the memory too, as will Zach’s eerie sojourn into the darkened attic of his own home.

All of these moments, and many others like them, will keep you reading avidly. But Koontz is on top of his game when it comes to character-work as well.

What the Night Knows serves up a range of deliciously nasty villains, of which Melody Lane, a genuinely chilling presence in this novel, is only one. Peter Abelard has a foot in both camps. Okay, in his battle to control his own demons, he won’t even attend the Calvinos’ house because they have two young daughters, Even then, and even though he’s not ‘on camera’ very often, he makes for a mesmeric character: hard, embittered, torn up with self-hatred, living in a gaunt, half-derelict house, where he is consciously smoking himself to death. This is the first time I’ve encountered an author attempting to get into the mind of a sexually abusive cleric, though he is of course redeemed by his antipathy to the satanic netherworld, a potential cop-out that you probably wouldn’t get in a more literary account of this kind of vice. But again, its all very effective. I’d go as far as to say that John Calvino’s first meeting with Peter Abelard is one of the most compelling scenes in the entire book.

At the end of the day, What the Night Knows is a mixed bag. It has its drawbacks, but it’s still a gripping, stylishly written thriller. Koontz himself described it as a ghost story rather than a horror novel. I’m not really with him on that. We’re firmly at war with Satan in this one. It’s the world of possession, though not as we’re so used to seeing it. That said, purists might point to Gregory Hoblit’s 1998, movie, Fallen, in which an FBI agent follows a demon, who jumps from one host to the next, provoking them to kill, and maybe even William Peter Blatty’s1983 novel, Legion, wherein an executed serial killer wins kudos in Hell for his gruesome ways and is allowed to return to Earth to possess the innocent, thus continuing his reign of terror. But at least we’re out of that over-familiar world of bell, book and candle.

Yes, there is some schmaltz in What the Night Knows, but I see no reason why both horror and thriller fans alike won’t enjoy this fun and slightly different excursion into a criminal world revved to feverish proportions by occultic darkness.

And now, as always, probably very ill-advisedly, I’m going to attempt to cast What the Night Knows in the event that it may at some point be adapted for film or TV. As far as I’m aware, this hasn’t happened yet, so I’m good to go, even though this is just a bit of fun.

Detective John Calvino – Chris Pine
Nicolette Calvino – Minka Kelly 
Alton Turner Blackwood – Alexander Ludwig
Melody Lane – Lesley-Ann Brandt
Peter Abelard – Mickey Rourke

by Joe R. Lansdale (1987)

It’s Galveston, Texas, in the mid-1980s, and modern-minded, well-heeled couple, Becky and Montgomery Jones, should be living the dream. Professional academics, they both have good quality of life, a steady income, are a well-matched, physically handsome pair and, as lovebirds since their college days, they care for each other deeply. It should be a match made in Heaven, but in actual fact their blissful life has been ruined by a dreadful incident approximately four months prior to this narrative, when their house was broken into while Monty was away, and Becky savagely raped by a former student of hers, Clyde Edson, who wasn’t just a juvenile delinquent but a fledgling serial killer already known locally as the ‘Rapist Ripper’.

Edson was later apprehended and committed suicide while remanded in jail, but of course Becky’s recovery from such an ordeal was never going to rely solely on the hand of justice. The deep psychological wounds have destroyed her pleasant suburban existence. She now lives in fear of the night, endures harrowing nightmares and bizarre premonitions, is completely unable to enjoy sex, and has ambivalent feelings about her husband because of his previous political stance; before this event, Montgomery Jones was a liberal through and through – he believed in tackling the causes of crime rather than cracking down on it, he looked to rehabilitation rather than punishment, he didn’t regard Galveston’s underage hoodlums as thugs and predators so much as disadvantaged kids who need a helping hand rather than a good smack around the head.

All of this has changed now, of course – except that it’s too late.

Even though Monty wasn’t present at the time of the rape and could have done nothing to prevent it, he now regards his former ‘enlightened’ attitude as a kind of moral cowardice, and is inwardly repelled by his previous pretence of intellectual superiority when in reality he suspects that he has always been unnerved by the prospect of taking a tough stand. He particularly agonises about an incident from his childhood, when he was too frightened to intervene as a local bully force-fed his kid-brother a dog turd. What’s even worse from Monty’s point of view is that he suspects Becky thinks this about him too, even if she won’t say it. Just being in his wife’s melancholy presence now unmans him.

It looks as if their relationship, once so strong, has fatally fractured … until late that October, when in a desperate effort to patch things up, Monty takes Becky out to a friend’s cabin, so they can get some peace and quiet. It’s an idyllic, pine-clad location in the East Texas wilderness, and the crisp autumn weather is beautiful. For the first time in a while, the couple begin to relax again in each other’s company, even though there is still much lost ground to make up.

However, this hesitation to resume their former status is actually the least of their problems.

Because unbeknown to the Joneses, several members of Clyde Edson’s gang – all of them complicit in the Rapist Ripper murders – eluded capture, including his psychopathic second-in-command, Brian Blackwood, and their reign of Hell is far from over.

Blackwood still remains in awe of his deceased ex-leader, viewing him as a kind of Nietzchean superman – primarily because he never let human sentiment hamper him when he was out to get whatever he wanted. Despite this, Blackwood has no initial motivation to go back and finish off Becky Jones, their last victim … until, one feverish midnight, when he receives a nightmarish visitation from his former friend, now reduced to the status of demonic ventriloquist dummy seated on the knee of the satanic ‘God of the Razor’, an horrific being who literally wears a coat made from flayed human flesh and shoes made out of guillotined human heads (and who will go on to appear several times more in Lansdale’s work).

Whether this is a genuine supernatural event or simply a figment of Blackwood’s deranged mind is basically irrelevant, as Edson demands a continuation of their previous crime: a full-scale attack on Becky Jones, culminating – after the gang have sexually defiled her for as long as they care to – in the removal of her heart. If anyone gets in the way, like her husband of course, he/they can also be dispatched.

Impressed by this, and by the promise of dominion in a hellish afterlife – and if ever his enthusiasm for this flags, egged on aggressively by Edson’s damned soul, which now seems to possess him – Blackwood gets the gang back together and they go on the prowl in their distinctive black ’66 Chevy, seeking out the Joneses and slaughtering anyone who even threatens to hinder their progress. They are so bent on this mission, and so ruthless with anyone who might have information for them (strewing carnage every which way), that it isn’t long before they learn about the isolated cabin where the injured couple are trying to recuperate …

It probably isn’t going too far to say that The Nightrunners put Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale on the map. This is a very early novel of his, originally written in 1982 as Night of the Goblins, but since then he’s become a literary landmark in his own right in the overlapping fields of horror, crime, Rural Noir, Southern Gothic etc.

It isn’t a particularly long novel, and nor is it likely to educate or edify you if you’re looking for something highbrow. In truth, this is a long way from Lansdale’s best work; he himself has repeatedly reminded folk that it’s an early effort and has voiced surprise that it continues to draw positive reviews. But what I will say is that, even now, three decades after first publication, it’s one headlong thrust of a narrative and a hell of a page-turner.

It’s also brutal and nasty … and I mean excessively so. Okay, there thankfully isn’t much here in the way of torture-porn. But this is visceral violent crime fiction at its most unforgiving.

The antagonists are beyond the pale in terms of amoral, purposeless depravity, and their main targets almost impossibly innocent and genteel. Other tougher, worldlier characters are introduced on the side of right – streetwise cop, Ted Olsen, and gang-members with a conscience, Jimmy and Angela – but from the very beginning you just know that this southern-fried fury ride is only going to end in one final and massive confrontation between the civilisation-softened Joneses and the walking bunch of disenfranchised aberrations which is all that remains of Clyde Edson’s murder gang.

It’s a dark and horrible atmosphere; I’ll make no bones about that. Even early in the book, when it’s mainly about the Joneses trying to restore their equilibrium in a place that seems beyond danger, the reader’s sense of growing dread is palpable – Blackwood and his boys have commenced the hunt for their prey equipped with nothing more than animal cunning and naked bloodlust, but draw steadily nearer to them with the turn of each page. 

I don’t want to say too much more, certainly not about the explosive finale, which you obviously won’t need me to tell you is not going to end well for any members of our ensemble cast, either the good or the evil. But suffice to say that it hasn’t been likened to the ultra-violent British movie, Straw Dogs, for nothing.

The message of The Nightrunners isn’t an especially complex one. Lansdale isn’t setting out to explore a moral conundrum here. Quite the opposite, in fact. Montgomery Jones’ earlier self – the guy who tried to rationalise the cause and effect of societal breakdown in modern-day America – is soon jettisoned in favour of the raw, frightened and somewhat more dangerous animal he becomes later in the book; and though there are hints that some of these problems are the result of small-town boredom (kids like Jimmy with nothing to do but hang around pool rooms all day) and failure to compromise by those who are supposedly older and wiser (Angela’s mother kicking her out for having pre-marital sex, and thus driving her daughter into the enclave of the gang), the real corruption here is attributed fairly and squarely to an unknowable supernatural force, the Razor God, and though this may be a metaphor for insanity, it is clearly a power beyond Blackwood’s ability to resist and one for which no-one involved can really carry the blame.

The Nightrunners won’t be to everyone’s taste – but it cuts to the quick. With the best intentions in the world, we probably like to believe that violence is not and can never be the only answer to our problems … but, like it or not, there are always going to be occasions when it’s an option, and perhaps, if we are being pushed hard enough at the time, an option we’ll even find desirable.

As usual, here are my thoughts re. casting should The Nightrunners ever get the film or TV treatment. Purely for the fun of it, here are my personal picks for the leading roles:

Becky Jones – Ashley Greene
Montgomery Jones – Jimmi Simpson
Brian Blackwood – Chandler Canterbury
Clyde Edson – Cameron Bright

by L.A. Larkin (2016)

After a high-risk assignment in Afghanistan’s poppy-growing region, on the trail of a terrorist network, energetic investigative-journalist, Olivia Wolfe – who is no stranger to danger, but even by her normal rip-roaring standards only just returns from this trip with her life and limbs intact – is dispatched by her demanding editor, Moz Cohen, to the even more perilous realm of western Antarctica.

At first, she isn’t keen. It doesn’t sound like her normal field: a team from the British Antarctic Survey drilling down through fathoms of concrete-hard ice in a quest to discover samples of prehistoric life that may still be lurking in subglacial Lake Ellsworth … until she learns that her real mission is to investigate the various ‘accidents’ that are befalling the BAS crew at their research station, including an unexplained and rather horrible death, which more than likely was murder.

This is more up Wolfe’s street, but the situation is complicated by an unseen but menacing presence at home, a mysterious stalker, pursuing her both in reality and online, who barely leaves a trace of himself but is always undeniably there. Who this person is, and why he/she may have a beef with Wolfe is a complex thing to ascertain: there are plenty of people with reason to punish a journalist who has uncovered their dirty dealings in the past. At the same time, of course, Wolfe has to head down to the bottom of the world, to find out whatever she can about the problems facing the BAS.

This, in itself, is no picnic. The difficult conditions of the Antarctic and an engineering/scientific team who, though on the surface they seem quite normal, soon start to reveal stresses and strains among their ranks, combine to make Wolfe’s job a real challenge. While team-leader Professor Michael Heatherton is a time-served professional, dedicated to his cause and with no apparent interests other than a pursuit of knowledge, other members of the group are more secretive, in particular the intense and rather introverted Scottish scientist, Toby Sinclair.

On top of that, she learns that a rival Russian expedition to nearby Lake Vostok, whose mission failed when the lake was polluted by inadequate drilling processes, are now trying to bribe and bully their way into the British effort, which, in Wolfe’s eyes, puts them high on the suspect list – not least the most menacing member of the Russian party, Sergey Grankin, who is almost certainly a government agent. It also raises questions, particularly among the rest of the British team, about naturalised Brit but Russian-born engineer, Vitaly Rushkov; he is one of their own colleagues, at least superficially, but though Wolfe finds him attractive, he also frustrates her because he won’t reveal enough about himself to win her trust.

The tension is ramped up even more – to breakneck pace in fact, when the British team succeed in their quest, breaking through into the subterranean lake – an incredible three kilometres below the ice – and discovering something that hasn’t seen the light of day for millions upon millions of years; something so appalling that it has the potential to completely destroy modern society.

Needless to say, in the time-honoured fashion of greedy world-powers both fictional and real, it isn’t long before various shady forces are competing for control of this monstrous thing.

Even from this relatively early stage of the novel, it is difficult to reveal any more of the actual synopsis for fear of giving away spoilers, but suffice to say that, even when Wolfe returns to London, she finds herself in the midst of a deadly conflict, with numerous vying interests turning the city into a war-zone, and even the little she has already discovered making her into a prime target. Wolfe has developed lots of good contacts in her time, but even two of the best on her home turf – former top cop, Jerry Butcher, something of a father to her, and the infinitely shadier DCI Dan Casburn – are of minimal help; they may even be a hindrance as she tries to battle her way through a tangled web of confusing lies and life-threatening deceit, only to uncover a shocking and terrifying truth …  

If you like your thrillers to have an international scope, then this one is definitely for you. Devour is a wide-ranging, continent-spanning adventure played out in tough, no-nonsense fashion against a latter-day Cold War-type atmosphere. But don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re in 007 territory here. There is a high-tech dimension to Devour for sure, but there is also an aura of realism. We’re not talking ridiculous gadgetry, improbable skills and mind-boggling schemes for world-domination. New heroine, Olivia Wolfe, though she herself is a more than competent globe-trotter and thoroughly au fait with all the latest communications devices, is also very human, which is her most appealing aspect.

In fact, Devour’s greatest strength for me – considering that it’s painted on such an immense canvas – is that it’s all very plausible.

I’d go as far as to say that it’s terrifyingly plausible.

To start with, there is a real sense of danger in this book, and I don’t just mean the horrific force lurking in the sub-Antarctic depths (more about that later), but also from our heroine’s various antagonists. Whoever’s on your tail in Devour, whether they be opium lords, terrorists or security service personnel gone rogue (or even not gone rogue – just doing their government’s dirty work at full throttle!) – you soon get to learn that they are experts at what they do; it’ll only ever be a page or so before they catch up with you. It also becomes plain at an early stage that none of these heinous individuals are playing by the rules of chivalry.

Oh yes, there is some real brutality on show here. Everything about Devour is harsh, gritty and real. Its central characters spend much of it in a state of fear, particularly the civilian scientists who never imagined that their ground-breaking research could have caused such chaos, not to mention Wolfe herself, who soon learns that even if she emerges from this adventure unscathed, her life as she knew it will be over. Several times there are references to people who simply disappear, or run the risk of disappearing – in L.A. Larkin’s world, the niceties of international law just don’t apply when such threats as this endanger the planet, and I, for one, am more than prepared to believe that could be true. 

Even routine activities, such as travelling, are given a rugged makeover. We’re talking long plane journeys, soulless waystations, the extreme geophysical conditions of the Arctic, not to mention a drab and wintry London which itself has the potential to endanger life – for example, in one scene, Wolfe gets soaking wet and as it’s December, it isn’t long before she’s struggling with hypothermia. At the same time, death means death; during an early sojourn to Afghanistan, she witnesses the shooting of a young woman, and it haunts her afterwards; she sees it playing through her head again and again.

These are the uber-realistic touches that we simply don’t get in run-of-the-mill thrillers, and Larkin hits us with them repeatedly, as if saying: “This is what it means, this is how it would actually be if you were to genuinely participate in this world”.

And I totally loved it, almost as much as I loved the central character.

Olivia Wolfe is an excellent heroine. She may not be the sort who can take waves of bad guys apart with her bare hands, or jump from plane to train to motorbike and still make it to her favourite restaurant in time for dinner. She may be a martial artist of sorts, but she gets battered, she gets hurt, she gets frightened. However, her main asset is that she is a skilled and highly driven investigative journalist. She hasn’t just got a nose for a great story, no matter how far afield it may lie, she has the determination and wherewithal to get there in time to cover it. But she has a survival instinct too. In anticipation of the dangers she will face, she is technically proficient, and perhaps more importantly, an exceptional judge of character, knowing instinctively who to trust and who to suspect.

In some ways, this may make her a tad unsympathetic. All the way through, she has an on/off romantic relationship with the Russian engineer, Yushkov, and yer she maintains an antipathy towards him too because … well, mainly because he’s Russian, and in this book the Russians are generally up to no good. It reaches a stage where as a reader it almost becomes tiresome, and yet that’s the point. Olivia Wolfe has survived as long as she has because she’s smarter than we are. She has really played this game, whereas we haven’t.

If I’m giving the impression that this is an edgier-than-usual book, that’s probably accurate. It’s no romp, that’s for sure. But this slap-in-the-face factor serves two purposes: it makes you believe it absolutely, and it keeps you glued to the pages – as, of course, does the overarching, and vaguely monstrous – concept. On that subject, it would be easy, if you’d only read the blurbs, to think that what you’ve got here is something akin to John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (filmed as The Thing from Another World). And why not? Something nasty is lurking under the Antarctic ice, a bunch of well-meaning scientists discover it and thaw it out, only to find that it’s a force beyond Man’s experience, which imperils the Earth as a result. And if it sounds like science fiction, there may be an element of that, though I draw your attention to the real attempt by British scientists to drill down to Lake Ellsworth in 2012, which failed (maybe fortuitously, or maybe it was halted – who can say?). But it’s all still incredibly plausible. I’m not going to give out any spoilers concerning the nature of the thing, but it’s truly horrifying because, even if surprises you – which it did me – you can very quickly envisage the colossal destruction that would result.

In addition, the novel is underlined with in-depth research – no B-movie stuff, this. LA Larkin, an Antarctic explorer in her own right, handles the biological and engineering complexities of the mission to the South Pole and the follow-up investigations with the same authority and conviction that she does the political intrigue and secret service chicanery, and yet weaves it all seamlessly into the narrative and the dialogue so that at no point do we feel we’re being hit by a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia.

It all makes for a totally believable and completely enthralling techno/eco thriller, perhaps with a few dollops of psycho horror mixed in for good measure (because let’s not forget that there’s an equally formless, equally dangerous threat to Olivia Wolfe lurking at home).

An all-round, superbly-crafted reading experience, which just screams for your attention.

And now, as usual and just for laughs, I’m going to nominate my own cast should Devour ever make it to the screen (and in this era of conspiracy thrillers and girl heroes, I reckon now would be the perfect time). Anyway, here are my picks:

Olivia Wolfe – Emily Blunt
Michael Heatherton – Tim McInnerny
Vitaly Yushkov – Igor Petrenko
Toby Sinclair – Alan Cumming
DCI Dan Casburn – Mark A. Sheppard
Jerry Butcher – Hugh Laurie
Mozart Cohen – Ian McShane
Sergey Grankin – Vladimir Mashkov

by Ted Lewis (1970)

It’s the late 1960s in Scunthorpe, and Jack Carter is coming home.

Jack, born and raised in the northern steel town, left home quite some time ago to make his fortune in London, and, being a handy lad and inclined towards pitiless immorality, he eventually found his place as a mob enforcer. Since then, Jack has done all kinds of awful things at the behest of his employers, East End racketeers, Les and Gerald Fletcher, and in so doing, has earned himself a real reputation. Quite often, though, he lets his heart rule his head. For example, the clandestine affair he is conducting with Gerald’s wife, Audrey, is very ill-advised. But even more so is this return to Scunthorpe.

Long estranged from his family, Jack has only two close relatives remaining: his older brother, Frank, and Frank’s daughter, 15-year-old Doreen. But now Frank is dead, killed in an apparent drink-driving accident. The police, or ‘scuffers’, as they are known locally, see nothing suspicious in this. Frank was a barman, after all, and he worked in a particularly rough part of a particularly rough town. However, he was not known to be an unstable character, and in fact, compared to his brother, was a clean-living citizen – and this is the point where Jack becomes curious, refusing to believe that Frank would have climbed into his car having consumed an entire bottle of whiskey.

Though he came north ostensibly for his brother’s funeral, he now begins snooping around, asking questions, and it soon arouses the attention and eventually the ire of a number of local underworld figures.

Chief among these is Scunthorpe’s own godfather, Cyril Kinnear, but there are others who are no less dangerous in their own way: overly ambitious rival gang-boss, Cliff Brumby, for example; not-so-tough-but-well-connected loanshark, ‘Steelworks Thorpey’; ex-teddy boy and pool-room bully, Albert Swift, who became an underworld go’fer; and the ultra sinister Eric Paice, an old enemy of Jack’s, who, though he works superficially as a chauffeur, is mainly valuable to the mob for his ability to seduce and/or snatch young girls from lives of respectability for futures in pornography and prostitution – and Jack soon suspects that this latter is the key to the mystery.

It is only 1968, and blue movies are still taboo, but there is a voracious demand for them on the underground circuit, particularly among those interested in the sex adventures of very, very young females.

Increasingly firm attempts are made to dissuade Jack from continuing his investigation, gentle persuasion gradually giving way to violence, initially directed against those around him, such as Frank’s old mate and fellow barman, Keith Lacey, and Jack’s attractive if earthy landlady, Edna Garfoot, but finally against Jack himself – by which time it is verging on the lethal.

Jack continues to resist, even when he receives direct orders from Gerald and Les, as delivered by a pair of London hitmen, the brutal Con McCarty and camp-as-hell Peter the Dutchman ... and this latter makes him even more suspicious. How is his own firm involved in Frank’s death? And what role does Doreen play? – she may only be 15 and an orphan to boot, but her name crops up increasingly and in ever more lurid circumstances.

The more Jack evades attempts on his life, the more unedifying truths he uncovers, and the more personal this becomes. Soon, it is one man against the combined forces of both the London and the Scunthorpe syndicates, from which point there is no going back …  
It’s very difficult to disassociate the novel, Jack’s Return Home, from the seminal Michael Caine and Mike Hodges movie adaptation of 1971, Get Carter. In fact, later editions of the novel were republished under that very title. In truth, there are a lot of similarities, even down to certain lines of dialogue, but there are some differences too.

To start with, Caine, though a mesmerising screen presence in his heyday, was ‘ethnically wrong’ to play Jack Carter, who in the book is a displaced northerner rather than a Cockney. In addition to that, perhaps the most famous liberty the movie took was in its transposition of the story from Scunthorpe to the even more grimily picturesque Newcastle. That said, none of these are really major issues. Where both the novel and the movie are united is in their warts-and-all portrayal of an unforgiving British gangland, setting their narratives against dingy working-class backdrops, and underscoring them with a level of sleaze that has shocking power even today.

In regard to all that, Jack’s Return Home is the original slice of Brit grit, the novel that opened the door to countless generations of Brit-Noir fiction to follow, while Get Carter, the movie, in taking the X certificate as far as it could go, presented us with a serious, grown-up thriller that would usher in a new age of UK-set hard-as-nails crime movies, much the way The French Connection did in the States (without Get Carter, it is doubtful we’d have had VillainThe SqueezeSitting TargetThe Sweeney or The Long Good Friday).

But back to the novel.

In terms of negatives (and there aren’t many of these), Jack’s Return Home may have lost a bit of its authority in the 21st century simply because time and society have moved on. It’s probably true to say that Ted Lewis was never a wizard with words. He could create atmosphere for sure, but he was no poet. Most of the impact his book originally made stemmed from it’s in-yer-face style. And even today, everything I’ve just said notwithstanding, it’s a bit of an eye-opener to see such a stark, matter-of-fact depiction of a rough, tough town, with its depressing rows of terraced houses, its fiery backcloth of factories and steel mills, its backstreet pubs full of drunks and strippers, and its smoke-filled billiards halls where a single wrong word can get you into serious trouble.

I can only imagine the strength of this narrative back in 1968.

That said, Ted Lewis wasn’t ploughing a completely lone furrow even then. Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) had already blazed a trail for blue-collar fiction, with its energised tale of a resentful tough-nut and the lives he either ruins or enriches (but mainly the former!) as he crashes selfishly through post-war Nottingham, while Barry Hines’s wonderful A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) focusses on an unwanted boy from a Barnsley council estate, and his doomed friendship with a hunting bird he rescued as an orphanned chick. In this regard, Ted Lewis’s great innovation was to take the ‘kitchen sink’ template, and pile on the villainy, creating a very difficult reality where near enough everyone is corrupt, including the police and local dignitaries, where eff-words are the norm, where heavy drinking and the use of casual violence are the mark of manliness, and women in particular are treated like dirt.

This latter is perhaps the part where Jack’s Return Home is really at odds with modern thinking. Because at the heart of this tale lies the underworld’s all new money-spinner: hardcore porn. And it’s porn of the sordid, seedy, homegrown variety, in which desperate, cash-strapped actors participate for peanuts, especially the women, and in which almost no age restriction is put on them – in fact, the younger the better.

An accurate depiction of a squalid world, perhaps, but the novel has dated generally in the context of its female cast, almost all of whom are tarts of a sort: Frank’s ex-wife, Murial (who had sex with Jack after getting drunk); Frank’s former girlfriend, Margaret; good-time girl, Glenda; and even middle-aged landlady, Edna, who happily sits across the room from her lodger, with legs apart so that he can see her stocking-tops (and later on gets brutally beaten, to which Jack is stingingly unsympathetic).

It’s no surprise that not everyone these days sings the novel’s praises.

Jack Carter’s character is itself ambiguous. Caine’s appearance in the movie caused a stir at the time, everyone’s favourite cheeky chappie turning hard and vicious in his quest for revenge, but in the novel there is barely a hint of a pleasant side to his personality. On occasion, he reminisces about his early youth – the last happy time he knew, we suspect – when he and Frank got on their bikes and explored the woods and wastelands on the outskirts of town. These are moving sequences and poignant reminders that even monsters once were children. However, later on things changed for Jack, possibly in response to Frank’s gentler nature: Jack idolised his older brother, but as they grew older, Jack came to revile Frank’s habit of turning the other cheek, feeling increasingy betrayed by it. As such, for the bulk of this novel, Jack is a coldly merciless figure. He doesn’t go at it shouting and swearing, because he’s got nothing to prove – all the hoods in Scunthorpe know who he is, and most of them fear him. Even in casual conversation, you suspect it’s only the calm before the storm.

A staple of ‘tough guy’ fiction these days, I suppose Jack was one of the very first who you could say ‘didn’t start fights, but certainly finished them’.

So successful was Jack’s Return Home, that Ted Lewis wrote two additional Carter novels afterwards. But with his sad and premature death at the age of 42, the series ended there. Even so, he created an iconic character in the annals of British crime fiction, one who’s been copied many times since but has rarely been equalled, and set him in a world long lost but utterly unforgettable (even if mostly for the wrong reasons).

I’m in the habit of ending these book reviews with some fantasy casting, putting forward a ensemble of actors who I feel would be perfect in the roles. But given the two major movie adaptations that Jack’s Return Home already has in the bank – the totally awesome Get Carter (1971), and the significantly less awesome, Vegas-set Sly Stallone vehicle, Get Carter (2000), I don’t think there’s much point. 

by Stephen Laws (2007)

Cath Lane is a very talented and successful British author. She is only in her early 30s and seemingly has the world at her feet. Then, one rainy night in New York, in the midst of negotiating another lucrative deal, and just having given birth to her first child, Rynne, Cath and her husband, David, are attacked by a down-and-out, who knifes the latter brutally before fleeing the scene.

Five years later, Cath, now a withdrawn widow, has moved back home to England and lives with her daughter in a remote stone farmhouse on the Northumbrian moors. It’s something of a solitary existence, though Rynne, who has almost no memory of her father, goes to school locally, at Nicolham, and they have the assistance of Faye Roche, a spirited sixty-something, who knows the area well and now acts as their housekeeper and live-in babysitter.

Cath is attempting to get her career back on track, but is lonely and sorrowful, and constantly haunted by nightmares about that terrible night. However, the first hint of normality returns to her life when she makes friends with Drew Hall, a young and rugged local farmer, who is almost knocked down outside her house by a fast-moving car belonging to reckless millionaire businessman and playboy, Kapler Dietersen.

There would perhaps be an immediate attraction between Cath and Drew were it not for the shadow that lies between them. And this is not Dietersen, who, though he’s not popular in the district, is seen as something of a joke rather than a threat; it is Drew himself, who has many demons of his own, some of which might well be real and could even be prowling the dreary moorland at this very moment, combing for their next victim.

Drew also lost his spouse, though in this case his wife was killed in an accident involving a mechanical harvester, which he now keeps locked up in a dilapidated outbuilding and won’t touch, almost in a real-world attempt to keep the ghastly memory at bay. But one way in which he’s managed to genuinely distract himself from this troubling past is with his determined quest to prove that big cats are abroad on his land.

Several times now, Drew has actually encountered these ferocious panther-like beasts, plus he’s seen how depleted his livestock has become, a clear indication that a breeding population of such killers is covertly flourishing in the district, hidden from prying eyes even though it is very evidently at the top of the food-chain. With no natural enemies, this makes it an extremely dangerous entity. Hall is certain that it’ll only be a matter of time before a human is killed by them.

Of course, he isn’t able to prove any of this, and as his obsession has come to fill his entire life, he has allowed his farm business to run down and his home to turn ramshackle, which means that he’s now viewed in the area as a figure of sympathy (other farmers have lost sheep too) but also as something of an eccentric. A knock-on effect of this is that Cath, who, five years after her own loss, is now unconsciously yearning to re-energise her love life, is also slightly wary of him.

And yet, Drew Hall is not the oddest person in the area. The arrogant Kapler Dietersen affects the attitude of lord of the manor, and though he is an awkward and difficult customer, especially as he shares none of the locals’ affection for this wild, rural corner of England, nor respects any of its customs – for which reason he is at daggers drawn with Hall in particular – even he is not the main menace in everyone’s midst.

That honour may belong to a newcomer, an outsider, a mysterious individual called Tully. But then again, perhaps even Tully might have met his match when it comes to those dark, sleek, flesh-eating forms now roaming this district by night with ever-greater confidence …

I was delighted to learn that Ferocity, which was first published in 2007, had received a new lease of life this year, courtesy of The Brooligan Press – in fact, the sensational cover I’ve used to accompany this review is the brand new one. Other Laws masterpieces of yesteryear are also getting a makeover in 2019, Darkfall last March for example, also from Brooligan, and Ghost Train in November from Valancourt Books, among others.

However, if this gives you impression that Stephen Laws is a name from the horror past, you couldn’t really be more wrong. Yes, he has a huge track-record in the industry. But he is still going strong, and the reissue of his earlier novels – like Ferocity, which in truth wasn’t that long ago – is purpose-designed to his bring his work, which is as fresh and vital as ever, to a new generation of horror readers.

And what a worthy ambition that is.

However, in that regard, Ferocity is perhaps an unusual example of his output, because it isn’t strictly a horror novel. Don’t get me wrong. It has a dark, brooding atmosphere, is packed with suspense and features several moments of full-on terror, but such is the surprising route this enjoyable countryside romp takes that I’d classify it as more of – perhaps, possibly, maybe – a thriller, though there are undoubtedly some horror elements.

For example, the quest to uncover England’s big cats comes straight out of the folk-horror playbook. For those not in the know, the UK officially no longer has any native big cat species, and yet sightings continue to be made in the English heartlands, and farm stock continues to be damaged by such semi-mythological entities as the Surrey Puma, the Fen Tiger and most famous of all, the Beast of Bodmin Moor, whom Laws himself wrote interestingly about HERE after he went on a bona fide Beast of Bodmin hunt himself. All of these legends possibly owe to the existence in the British wild of panthers and leopards, which may have formed breeding populations after they were illegally released from captivity on introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976. There is also a story that a number of US regiments based in the UK during World War Two kept big cats as live mascots and were also forced to release them into the wild when they were redeployed to the European battle zone.

Whether there is anything in this or not – whether it’s a rumour based on solid fact, or drawn from credulous imagination – who can say, but it’s one of the great urban legends of modern Britain, though in truth that should read ‘rural legend’. And it’s marvelous to finally see these mysterious creatures finally get ‘their own book’ if you know what I mean.

Needless to say, Laws goes at it full tilt in Ferocity, packing his narrative with as much big cat mythos as he possibly can, and jacking up the tension tremendously when he finally gets it through to his characters, and to us, the readers, what exactly it would mean if a huge predator was lurking in our spinneys and hedgerows, one smart enough to evade humans but savage enough to effortlessly kill them if the situation demands, and fully capable of wreaking blood-soaked havoc on a wide scale if it felt genuinely threatened.

That’s very much the world we’re in with Ferocity, though in truth it’s even more dangerous than that. Because these particular cats have an added advantage over teeth, claws and superpowered strength and aggression. They have camouflage too. This fascinating avenue isn’t fully explored by Laws in my view; I was a little bemused as to how it could actually happen – but in truth, it works very well. Though we get the occasional glimpse of life from the perspective of the predator, how could we possibly expect it to list for us and explain all its unique attributes? This leaves us with no choice but to accept that the deadliest hunters of all are those we don’t yet know about, in which case the reason for their success must remain something of a mystery.

Of course, in Ferocity, the nameless big cats stalking the fells and moors of England’s Northeast aren’t the only danger. They’re not the worst danger either. As usual, that honour is bestowed upon Man himself. I won’t go too much more into the synopsis for fear of spoiling it for you, but suffice to say that, no matter how brutal and merciless Nature can be, it will always find a counterpart in humanity. And that’s all done very believably here.

Of course, for fictional villainy to have impact, it must square off against genuine virtue, and Laws doesn’t let us down on that score either. Cath Lane and Drew Hall appeal to us immediately because they’ve suffered bereavement, as a result of which both are to an extent lost. Lane is a successful novelist, but to meet her you wouldn’t realise that; thanks to her tragic loss, she’s now shrunk back from the limelight and seems bereft of purpose. Moving across the Atlantic and settling in County Durham, with its endless woods and bleak moorland, she has almost personified her desolate state of mind. She doesn’t really know why she’s here; it was a wild flight to who knew where.

Hall, on the other hand, has found greater purpose. Despite the premature death of his wife, he remains the bluff, blunt hill-farmer that he was before, but he now throws most of his energies into uncovering the truth about the big cats that he is sure are stalking his land, a downside of which is the neglect he shows to his everyday means of existence - and at some point this will cost him dear.

Ferocity is a thoroughly exciting and engaging action-thriller of a type you wouldn’t normally expect from a horror maestro like Stephen Laws, though it’s got a dark edge as well, and it steeps us deep in the mystery and tradition of Northern England’s ancient, mist-shrouded landscape. It’s also smoothly and accessibly written, and gambols along with the jaunty energy of the fearsome beasts at the very heart of it. A bouncing page-turner, which I guarantee you’ll enjoy.

And now, as always – and as always, probably unwisely – I will attempt to cast Ferocity just in case those behind any possible film or TV version need some advice beforehand. Just a bit of fun, of course. I mean, who’d ask me?

Cath Lane – Freema Agyeman
Drew Hall – Tom Cullen
Faye Roche  – Celia Imrie
Kapler Dietersen – Hilton McRae
Tully – Phil Daniels

BEST BRITISH HORROR 2018 ed by Johnny Mains (2018)

Contrary to popular opinion, short horror fiction is in a healthy state these days. Okay, it may not appear very regularly from mass-market publishers, and in fact is scattered widely across the independent presses both here in the UK and the US and now even further afield. There is literally a vast number of practitioners. Of varying skill, admittedly, though a lot of them are very good indeed, and their work would sit comfortably back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Pan and Fontana horror series ruled the supermarkets and railway forecourts (in fact, some of them are superior to many of that era’s routinely gruesome offerings, written with much greater care and imagination).

Of course, the quickest way to find these new stars of short-form scarefare is through the plethora of now annual Year’s Best anthologies. Unfortunately, by the nature of the beast, these books can only ever scratch the surface of what’s out there more widely. But whenever you get hold of them, they are still worth studying in detail because invariably their editors have done an awful lot of wide-ranging research before compiling their final tables of contents.

On which subject, step forward editor, Johnny Mains, a man whose knowledge of short horror fiction is surpassed only by his love for that genre and his tireless efforts to bring the very best authors, both old and new, to the attention of the broader public. One of Mains’s most heartfelt quests has been to establish a regular Best British Horror series. Through no fault of his own, and despite valiant efforts, this hasn’t yet become a reality, though he hasn’t given up so far and has brought several such titles out already.

This latest one, Best British Horror 2018, from NewCon Press, clearly shows what the world is currently missing.

Mains certainly has an eclectic taste in horror, which is a good thing, I suppose, when you’re working on a Year’s Best volume, and it’s amply illustrated in this one, the stories ranging far across the chiller spectrum in terms of their subject-matter.

To start with, fans of traditional Gothic horror will be more than satisfied.

Mains’s choices hit this note repeatedly (though not solely). Reggie Oliver, a big favourite in the genre for his ability to elicit genuine terror with the most gentlemanly prose, hits us twice in this anthology, but most impressively with the unnerving Love and Death, which concerns a mysteriously captivating and highly dangerous work of art, while Daniel McGachey, whose reputation in the world of ‘Jamesian’ horror is growing fast, contributes Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling, the story of a magnificent but malevolent old clock, which, whenever it chimes, bodes well for no one (much more about this one and Love and Death later). Then there is Mark Morris’s flat-out horrifying We Who Sing Beneath the Ground, in which Stacy, a young teacher, relocates to Cornwall, but becomes so concerned when one of her pupils at the village school is strangely absent that she makes an ill-advised trip to the remote and dilapidated farm where he lives …

Morris’s soon-to-be-classic Cornish chiller links us nicely into the next subgenre touched on by Mains, which is surely ‘Monsters’. Not everyone goes for this kind of in-yer-face horror. Some readers consider themselves too grown-up or are convinced there should be no place for physical aberrations in modern age scare fiction, when warped psychology is known to be the root of so much fear and despair and Man himself has been exposed as the worst offender in terms of basic cruelty. But as Best British Horror 2018 shows, when done properly, and dare I say it – subtly – there can always be room for tales of nature gone mad.

For example, check out VH Leslie’s Shell Baby, in which something truly awful comes out of the Hebridean Sea (more about this one later), or Laura Mauro’s Sun Dogs, in which young Sadie, the child of misguided survivalists, now lives alone on the edge of the Nevada desert, but then takes in a ragged stranger, June, to whom she is immediately attracted even though June’s arrival seems to coincide with a recent spate of fatal animal attacks.

A different corner of creepy fiction fast-growing in terms of popularity, in fact blooming exponentially at present, is folk-horror. If you discount the Mark Morris story (which sort of fits that bill), Johnny Mains only selects one very folky story on this occasion, but it is more than satisfying, one of the best in the book in my view (not to mention most disturbing), and is probably the first story of this bunch that you may want to read twice just to make sure you haven’t missed any of its nuances. In a nutshell, in Claire Dean’s very clever The Unwish, a dysfunctional family return to their favourite holiday cottage out in the countryside, but sibling rivals, Amy and Sara, don’t get on, Amy’s new boyfriend is late arriving, while Amy herself is increasingly convinced that one time when they were here, even though no one else seems to remember it, she had a little sister …

Of course, no collection of horror stories can possibly exist in modern times without taking a couple of trips at least into the darker recesses of the human mind. Psychological horror is always a challenge to write effectively, authors who prefer it often seeking to unsettle their readers rather than petrify them, though when it’s done successfully, be prepared to be blown out of your comfort zone in a big way.

Three coldly effective examples from Best British Horror 2018 do exactly this.

Ray Cluley gives us In the Light of St Ives, in which eccentric artist, Claire, sets fire to her house in Cornwall, and is badly burned in the process, her older sister, Emily, investigating but unsure whether Claire’s incredible revelations about the light and colour in the house betray an unhinged mind or something much more sinister. Cate Gardner, meanwhile, who can always be relied on to pick at the rawest of nerves, adds Fragments of a Broken Doll, in which we meet demented OAP, Trill, who lives in a slum tenement close to a prison. When a convicted murderer escapes, he hides in her house, constantly protesting his innocence. But the real question is how innocent is Trill?

After that, we have Dispossession, which comes to us from a true master and long-term exponent of the understated psychological chiller, Nicholas Royle. In this one, a disturbed man seeks sanctuary in a new flat, but can’t escape the influence of his old one or the endless memories of his own haunted past. This is another that you might want to read twice just in case you miss something, but even if you don’t, it will still affect you in that intangibly macabre way that Nick Royle stories seem to specialise in.

Psychological horror is often twinned closely with the sort of surreal, fantastical horror that at one time used to be called ‘slipstream’ (especially when it busted the boundaries between genres). I was never the biggest fan, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t recognise the talent so regularly on show, and that is certainly the case with Georgina Bruce’s The Book of Dreems, which introduces us to Kate, who might be a real person, but might also be an android, a doll, a so-called ‘dreemy peep’. Kate herself isn’t sure. But she knows one thing: Fraser, the man who controls her, bosses her, fixes her glitches and then purposely breaks her again, is a tyrant who needs to be stopped. It’s a strange one for sure, an ugly nightmare of a story, but so engrossing that you’ll read it right to the end.

Of course, whereas horror was once seen as second rate pulp, as the naughty child of adult fiction, the bad boy who lots of people liked but wouldn’t admit to it, the reality has always been that dark tales can inform as well as entertain. Sometimes these are difficult roads to take because we don’t always like facing the sad realities of our lives, or the messed-up world we have contributed to creating. Yes, stories like these can be gloomy avenues, but they can be instructive too, even if garish and gory.

The two most serious stories in Best British Horror 2018, aren’t especially gory (or garish, for that matter), but they are grim explorations of human frailty and are thus of high value.

In James Everington’s twisty The Affair, retired middle-aged couple, Neil and Lynda, are haunted by two dopplegangers: younger, more energised versions of themselves, whose youth and virility are a torturous reminder of all they have lost. Then we have The Lies We Tell by Charlotte Bond, in which self-centred realtor, Cathy, lies constantly to her children, who she doesn’t care for anymore, and to her husband, Vikram, who doesn’t yet know about the affair she is having. Someone knows, however. Someone who has been keeping a careful tally of every untruth that Cathy has ever uttered …

So, there we have it. That is Best British Horror 2018. I haven’t mentioned all the stories in this book; I don’t want to spoil everything for you. Suffice to say that this is an ambitious collection of very varied tales, put together with care and loving attention. No doubt there were many other stories published in 2018 that could have been included, but there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, and editor, Johnny Mains, has done us all a great service here in trying to cast as wide a scope as possible on the work being done by Brit horror authors in contemporary times. This is an outstanding collection, which all true fans will delight in.

And now, after all that, we have …

BEST BRITISH HORROR 2018 – the movie

Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware). However, this part of the review is always the fun part, so I’m going to crack on with it anyway. As such, here are my thoughts in anticipation of someone loaded with cash deciding that this lovely little book should immediately 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 be that they are nervous offerings made by prospective new members to the merciless Club of the Damned (a la Supernatural, right) or maybe are related to us in the form of atmospheric fireside readings (a la Spine Chillers) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose (though, timewise, a couple may need updating if they are to work in this context):

Love and Death (by Reggie Oliver): In Victorian London, Martin Isaacs, an unsuccessful artist, is commissioned to recover a missing work of genius, Love and Death, as painted by Basil Hallward, his former mentor, who has now disappeared. But the painting, a classical image in the Renaissance style, is deceptively beautiful. In reality, it destroys all that it touches  

Isaacs – Jordan Patrick Smith
Hallward – Michael Sheen

Shell Baby (by VH Leslie): Tired of life, lonely Elspeth rents an isolated cottage in the Orkneys. She seeks complete isolation, but still yearns for the daughter she never had. On the first night, a weird experience while swimming sees her befriend an unusual baby sea creature. Delighted, Elspeth nurtures it, mothers it even, but it grows at an alarming rate, along with its voracious appetite …

Elspeth – Naomie Harris

Tools of the Trade (by Paul Finch – sorry, guys, but I’m never going to miss a chance to put my own stuff on film): A journalist and amateur medium search a derelict Lancashire hotel, which they believe houses the original knives used in the Jack the Ripper murders. They envisage wealth, but in the process awaken an ancient evil …

Adam Croaker – Robert James Collier
Dick Wetherby – Richard E Grant

Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling (by Daniel McGachey): Just after WWI, an antiques expert is consulted by the agent of a deceased millionaire and hears the chilling tale of a malevolent timepiece, the Awakening Clock, which, whenever it chimes the mysterious 13th hour, brings all manner of darkness upon its owner …

Lawrence – Martin Freeman
Fosdyke – Martin Jarvis
Hinchcliffe – Will Poulter
Shorehouse – Burn Gorman

by Michael Marshall (2011)

When the enigmatic John Hunter is released from prison after serving 16 years for murder, we immediately get the feeling that his crime and its repercussions aren’t over. Hunter isn’t a threatening man; quite the opposite – he’s placid and respectful, to the point where the warden of the US jail in which he’s been incarcerated is almost sorry to see him leave. Apparently, Hunter has been an exemplary prisoner, which explains why he’s had so many years trimmed off his original sentence.

But Hunter’s iron-core strength, not to mention his inner darkness, are more than evident to us readers – thanks mainly to the subtle skill with which he is depicted. And when, as soon as he hits the outside world, he goes looking for a gun, we realise that all our unspoken fears about this man are about to come true.

Meanwhile, in the somewhat less ominous environment of ‘the Breakers’, a luxury condo complex in the Florida Keys, ambitious young realtor, Bill Moore, is doing his best to live the American dream. He has a lovely and successful wife, Steph, he makes good money selling top-quality seafront properties, owns one himself, drives a swish car, and enjoys a promising relationship with his boss, Tony Thompson (despite Thompson’s rather disdainful other-half, Marie).

The Moores aren’t even close to being the wealthiest folk on the block. That status, if it doesn’t lie with the Thompsons, may lie with neighbouring widow, Hazel Wilkins, or one of the upscale neighbourhood’s real movers-and-shakers, business mogul David Warner. But Bill and Steph strongly aspire to be part of this racy set, and feel they are well on the way to getting there. Even if they don’t manage it straight away, life here is good; Bill is friendly with local lawman, Sheriff Frank Barclay, though there is minimal crime for the elderly cop to deal with in this idyllic spot.

And then, one day, quite out of the blue, Bill receives a card printed with a single word: MODIFIED. His first reaction is to assume that it’s a joke, but from this moment on his and Steph’s lives slowly start falling apart.

Initially, it’s almost innocuous. A semi-pornographic book arriving from Amazon, which Bill has no memory of ordering. Then a vaguely racist joke circled from his email account, which, fortunately, most of the recipients are amused by – though Bill would never have sent such a message. He and Steph really stop seeing the funny side of things when voyeuristic images of Bill’s gorgeous co-worker, Karren White, are found on his laptop.

Bill investigates but is hampered by further chilling developments. Steph vanishes – whether that’s because she’s still irritated with him about Karren or because of something more sinister, he doesn’t know. And it isn’t easy asking questions around town when the police are on your case – because, quite bewilderingly, he now finds himself implicated in another disappearance, that of David Warner. Despite this, and with the assistance of a spirited young waitress, Cassie, whom he befriends almost by default, he gradually figures out that he’s the become the object of a cruel and relentless game controlled by powerful but faceless individuals.

Even then it might just be tolerable, a bit of harmless fun which while it is undoubtedly inconveniencing Bill Moore, could all be put right by some financial restitution at the end. But then people start dying. If this is a game, Moore realises – still minus his wife, still with the law on his case – it’s a game that may well result in the end of his life …  

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.

For example, John Hunter is a man whose life has genuinely been ruined. Even though he’s not especially evil, he enters our awareness as a cold, frightening individual, a guy for whom vengeance is the only reason to live – literally. And you know almost from the outset that it’s going to be extreme vengeance, delivered without qualm or hesitation. Even though Hunter is a man grievously wronged, it’s difficult to root for such a person in a novel as well-written as this, because it’s so easy to picture him in real life as someone you’d run a mile to avoid.

But Hunter isn’t the worst of it, because while a powerful presence, he’s not one of the main characters, and if nothing else at least he isn’t a direct threat to the hapless hero of the piece, Bill Moore. But while the overarching concept – that a bunch of bored richies might seek to fill their empty days by playing cruel games with other people’s lives – may seem vaguely fanciful (would you really get off on this kind of thing so much that you’d actually go to the expense of hiring ex-spec ops people to make it happen?), there is a much deeper darkness here.

The utter soullessness required to turn other people into your playthings undoubtedly rings true. And this for me is the real success of Killer Move.

With the exception of Hunter, who’s clearly deranged, and Bill Moore, who’s introduced to us at first as an annoying go-getter of the sort you can easily imagine packing US realty, but who learns through bitter experience how much he loves his wife, Steph, no-one else cares about anyone, even in an affluent community in southern Florida. The wealthy gamers are so absorbed in their own fun – even though it patently isn’t that much fun, as they are still jaded and bored – that feelings for their fellow men don’t even figure on their radar. But this self-interest extends to others too. Moore’s colleague, Karren White, is only superficially his friend; in reality she’s a rival, whose chief interest are the bonuses she can get at his expense. Even lowly office secretary, Janine, harbours secret resentments, which finally emerge in a scene that I found quite stomach-turning, because even though there is no violence used, a rotten human soul is unexpectedly but very plausibly laid bare to us.

And if that’s the whole of Breakers society written off, then I suspect that’s exactly what Michael Marshall intended. Though more likely he’s actually going further than that, and being cynical about the whole of society, because let’s face it, the truly malevolent force in Killer Move, which lies hidden until the very end of the book, can be hugely confident that this whole disaster, even when played out so full-bloodedly, will soon become yesterday’s news because of our modern-day mindset in which nobody else really matters.

For all these reasons, Killer Move makes increasingly uncomfortable reading, but you’ve got to stick with it and you’ve got to pay attention. Because what gradually unfolds here is a compelling but complex saga. Wheels turn within wheels; there is villainy within villainy, and no shortage of suspects. Bill Moore finally reaches a point where he doesn’t know whether to trust anyone else at all, wondering if he’s the only person on stage who’s not an actor – and we, the readers, ask ourselves the same question. More than once.

On top of that, we spend a not insubstantial portion of time philosophising. And because this is Michael Marshall and this is another thing he does so well, this is always interesting and amusing, especially as in this book it’s done through the mind’s eye of Bill Moore, who we soon realise is a much deeper and less confident character than we first thought, which means that it’s all wonderfully acerbic. The trade-off to this is that Killer Move is no quickfire actioner, but it’s still totally engrossing. As the mysteries pile up, and the obstacles cluttering Moore’s life become ever more insurmountable, you’re literally flying through the pages. You must know how it’s all going to resolve itself, even though it’s soon pretty obvious that that isn’t going to happen easily or without casualties.

One quick warning. Killer Move is a kind of unofficial add-on to Marshall’s remarkable ‘Straw Men’ trilogy. Now, if you haven’t read any of the Straw Men books, never fear. That won’t interfere with your enjoyment of Killer Move, as the author explains in more than adequate fashion just who the Straw Men are and how their existence impinges on this completely separate little drama. It all works perfectly well for me, but if you’re someone who really needs every single i dotted and every t crossed before you reach the last page, it might be an idea to check out those other titles first (it’s not like you won’t enjoy them thoroughly). They are, in this order: The Straw MenThe Lonely Dead and Blood of Angels.

The pre-existence of those other three novels also serves to make my habitual casting session even more meaningless than it usually is. But I’m still going to have a go. I’d like nothing better than to assemble the actors that could bring this taut tale to the screen, and how cool would that be, given that I always have a limitless budget (LOL). But for this one to work, you’ll just have to assume that The Straw Men etc have already hit the cinemas, because I can’t imagine that Killer Move would get this treatment first. Anyway, here we go:

Bill Moore – James Marsden
Stephanie Moore - Renee Zellweger
John Hunter - John Cusack
Cassandra - Erin Moriarty
Karren White – Alison Brie
Sheriff Frank Barclay - JK Simmons
Tony Thompson - Sam Elliott
Marie Thompson - Susan Sarandon
Hazel Wilkins - Charlotte Rampling
David Warner – Don Johnson

by Graham Masterton (2003)

When the disassembled skeletons of 11 women are uncovered in a farm field near Cork, in southern Ireland, Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire of the Garda Síochána is put on the case, but initially it seems that there is no panic. The bones, which though marked and laid out as if for ceremonial purposes, are old, possibly relating to the disappearances of a number of women and girls back in 1915. No-one can be prosecuted now, and so there is no great pressure – until a rumour starts to spread among local Republicans that the crime may have been committed by British forces in retaliation against IRA bombings, which causes several jitters at government level.

Maguire, aided by her surly sidekick, DI Liam Fennessy, has her doubts about this. These long-ago killings appear to be steeped in druidic Irish lore; by the looks of it, they were human sacrifices made in an effort to raise Mór-ríoghain, a Celtic goddess of extreme power and malevolence. It seems unlikely that even the most demented British squaddie would have possessed the knowhow to perform such a rite. But then, very unexpectedly, the situation takes a turn for the worse – a hitchhiking American girl is abducted in the neighbourhood, and subjected to the same appalling death: she is literally skinned, gutted and dismembered while still alive, and her constituent parts ranged ritualistically on land belonging to the same farm.

Maguire and her team are perplexed. It can hardly be the same murderer, with 88 years passed. Clearly someone else has picked up the gauntlet. An arrest is duly made – a travelling man with a long record of violent, sexual crime and a deep knowledge of witchcraft. He seems a viable suspect until a second abduction occurs while he’s in custody. This time it’s a local college girl. Maguire suddenly finds herself in a race against time to prevent a further atrocity. As if that isn’t difficult enough, her home-life is a mess. Her father, a former ace detective himself, is old, lonely and occasionally vague, while her wheeler-dealer husband, Paul, is constantly in trouble with the local underworld. On top of that, Fennessy turns ever more truculent, convinced that Maguire was promoted ahead of him simply because she’s a woman.

When the beautiful and elegant Lucy Quinn, an academic specialising in mythology, arrives from the States to advise the Garda, Maguire finds a kindred spirit and a like-mind. But Quinn’s revelations about the case offer no real comfort; these current crimes, she concludes, are a continuation of the 1915 murders, and they aren’t complete yet. Whoever the current culprit is, he only needs one more life and then he’ll be able to summon Mór-ríoghain, and who knows what will happen then?

Maguire doesn’t believe in Mór-ríoghain – she is convinced they are dealing with a madman – but Quinn seems genuinely alarmed by the prospect. Each new day, it seems, there are ever more urgent reasons for bringing this sadistic murderer to book as quickly as possible …

One thing you always know you’ll get when reading a Graham Masterton book – or you ought to know it – is that it’ll pull no punches when it comes to the violence and gore. Masterton traded for years as one of Britain’s most successful horror writers, and it was full-on, unashamed horror, beautifully written and meticulously researched (there has often been a mythological content in Masterton’s work), but also filled with explicit sex and intense, visceral gruesomeness.

If that is your thing, or if you simply don’t mind it – then you’ll thoroughly enjoy White Bones. But if it isn’t, then you’ll need to tread carefully.

Because without doubt, this is one of the grisliest crime novels I’ve ever read, if not the grisliest. In fact, I’m not surprised that quite a few reviewers online have described it as a horror novel rather than a crime thriller. That isn’t true – the viciousness displayed by the villains in this book is beyond the pale and the reader is spared not a single detail of it, while there is more than a whiff of the supernatural, but this is still, at heart, a murder investigation and a police procedural.

That said, the scenes in which protracted and barbaric surgery is performed on living people without any kind of anaesthetic are prolonged and torturous, as much for the reader as for the victims. And a couple of times, even I – who have a foot in both the horror and the thriller camps – found it difficult to read on.

But Masterton’s work has never been for the faint-hearted, and from this evidence, he clearly intends to tackle his crime thrillers with the same head-on gusto that he does his horror work. So we’re talking truly ghastly crimes graphically illustrated, outlandish villains who are both mad and bad at the same time – Eamon Collins is one of the scariest gangsters I’ve encountered in crime fiction to date, and he only has a small role – and all of it taking place on a gloomy, despair-ridden landscape. County Cork is a beautiful corner of Ireland, but it’s also bleak (especially in this book), and it doesn’t half rain there.

Did I enjoy it, though?

You bet I enjoyed it.

The goriness aside – which as I’ve said, did disturb me a little – I found it a compelling read. The gradual interweaving of the two mysteries, the murder case from 1915 and the current one, is excellently managed. The cops’ desperate pursuit of a remorseless but bewildering assailant is all quite believable, especially as they are constantly interfered with by politicians, distracted by other equally violent cases, and struggling with domestic difficulties in their homes.

The backdrop of mysticism is taken much further than other crime novels I’ve read that are based around ritual and sacrifice, but it is deftly handled. Though the author is clearly intoxicated by the idea of ‘the Invisible Kingdom’, and very, very tempted to take us there – on occasion he comes infinitesimally close – ultimately he behaves himself and we never stray from the real world. The magic is all in the mood and the atmosphere, but the vein of dark superstition that runs through this book is both fascinating and shudder-inducing.

Meanwhile, Kate Maguire makes for a very appealing heroine. If I had any criticism it would be that towards the end of the book she seems a little weak; given that she’s risen to the rank of Detective Superintendent – the first in Ireland – you might have expected a more robust personality. But to be fair, she suffers all kinds of personal disasters during the course of this narrative, which by the end have left her a shell of the woman she was.

White Bones (formerly published as A Terrible Beauty and Katie Maguire) gets my strongest recommendation. Sure, it makes grim reading and the ending is a bit of a right-hand turn, but it’s completely soaked in the atmosphere of its locations and peopled with grotesque but wonderful characters, while the dialogue is juicy and fast-moving, and there always seems to be a new menace just around the corner – you can’t afford to relax for one minute.

I wouldn’t say I didn’t guess the main culprit beforehand, but it was late in the day and it didn’t put a dampener on my enjoyment. A greatly entertaining if very, very dark crime thriller.

I often like to end these book reviews with my own picks for who’d play the leads if a film or TV version was ever made. If that was the case here, it would strictly be of the X-rated variety, but hell, I hope that wouldn’t put them off. Anyway, just for fun, here are my casting selections:

Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire – Heather Graham
Detective Inspector Liam Fennessy – Cillian Murphy
Lucy Quinn – Tricia Helfer
Eamon Collins – Gabriel Byrne
Paul Maguire – Damien O’Hare

by Michael McDowell (1981)

The Savages and McCrays are a prosperous pair of families. Born into the Deep South elite, Alabama aristocracy from way back, they lack for absolutely nothing.

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.

Not only that, it tips all expectations on their head. Sun, sea, sand. Hardly scary, you may think. Well, you’d be wrong. An affluent southern family: handsome men, gorgeous women, heated passions – all the ingredients of a domestic melodrama rather than a horror story, right?


Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’s a bit of a culture shock when you first start reading The Elementals. Because the one or two minor macabre details aside – Marian Savage’s funeral, Luker’s utter (and never fully explained) hatred for his ex-wife – it does feel as if you’ve strayed into a Tennessee Williams play. But that doesn’t last long. Because Beldame (which in Old English used to mean ‘witch’, of course), is so well-realised a location that it really is a place apart. Its atmosphere is one of strangeness, dreaminess, and yet all the time, right from the outset, the sinister presence of the third house is there, just on the corner of our vision.

All of this feeds nicely into the plot’s slow-burn development. We certainly have a lengthy period when nothing really seems to happen, the family re-acclimatising to Beldame, sunbathing, sleeping, engaging in idle conversation, and yet odd, unnatural things do happen. At first, they are small, and eerie rather than frightening. But they come more and more regularly, the sense of foreboding gradually growing, until finally the occupants of the third house, disturbed from their slumbers by both India’s curiosity and Lawton’s villainous schemes, explode out in some of the most terrifying ways imaginable.

But I think what works best for me in The Elementals is not so much the increasingly scarier story, but the unknowable nature of the antagonists.

I don’t want to say too much about them because I don’t want to spoil things more than I already have. But as you are likely to guess from an early stage, these aren’t ghosts or even demons in the conventional sense. This is something else entirely. Luker McCray only calls them ‘elementals’ because he can’t think of any other way to describe them, but it’s highly appropriate. Because whatever they are, they are part of this place, and always have been.

It certainly makes for a intriguing conflict: the time-honoured, all-powerful southern clan coming up against an infinitely more ancient and immovable force, something intangible and yet sentient, something that is intricately connected to this lonesome spit of land, so much so that it can control the sand, the air and the water, and yet something that can strike at its opponent in any number of ghastly and horrifying ways – and trust me, these are ghastly.

You may have to wait a little while for them, but the moments of horror, when they come, are literally hair-raising.

As I say, apart from the catastrophe of losing Michael McDowell as a person, we also lost a prodigious talent, and what I imagine would have been a plethora of such clever and spine-tingling tales.

If you’ve not read The Elementals, you must do. It was first published in the 1980s, but it’s a timeless chiller in the best way, and I’m not remotely surprised that Poppy Z Brite referred to it as ‘surely one of the most terrifying novels ever written,’, or that Stephen King described McDowell as ‘the finest writer of paperback originals in America,’ while Peter Straub called him ‘one of the best writers of horror in this or any other country’.

And now, here we go again. I’m going to be bold (or stupid) enough to try and nominate my own cast should this very fine horror story ever hit the screen. If only I had the power to make it happen in reality:

India McCray – Lara Decaro
Odessa Red – Viola Davis
Luker McCray – Joe Kinnaman
Lawton McCray – Woody Harrelson
Big Barbara – Rebecca Front