Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Grim tales from the darker end of the year

Okay ... it's THAT time of year again. Summer is finally over. The vibrant greens and yellows of the August leafage transform to red and orange. The mornings turns fresher and cooler, the nights arrive earlier and earlier - soon they are intruding into the very afternoon. Mist starts to linger on our woodland paths. And our thoughts turn slowly but surely to the darker side of the human experience ...

It's amazing how many tellers of sinister tales have taken inspiration from the autumn months. I'm sure this harks back to those centuries-old traditions, our Norse, Saxon and Celtic ancestors having gathered the harvest and, finding themselves with nothing else to do for the next few months, crowding around the longhouse hearth, drinking ale and mead and filling each other's heads with lurid tales about the evil beings cavorting in the icy darkness outside.

The waning of the year has always exerted an eerie fascination on the minds of men. It's quite understandable given that we were once exclusively an agrarian society. In those days, the return of autumn to our land, with its cold nights, tumbling leaves and grey fogs, foreshadowing the onset of winter, during which time everything seemed to die, was in itself a terrifying prospect. In an age minus gas fires and electric lighting, when no medication was available with which to treat those innumerable cold weather ailments, just surviving the season could be a real challenge. For a superstitious people, it was easy to believe that this new harsh regime was the natural abode of goblins, ghouls and other evil spirits.

This folk memory clearly lingers in our modern tradition for autumn and winter spook stories.

Some of the best scary fiction I've ever read has mined this exact seam. One little-known tale, Hannah of the Fields by Carey Curtis Smith, made a lasting impression on me; after I'd read it, I knew I'd never look at the Harvest Festival the same way again. Meanwhile, one of the truly best horror stories ever written, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, pits young Jim Nightshade against the 'Autumn People', who, under the guidance of the malevolent Mr. Dark, seem to encompass everything magical, mysterious and menacing about those shortening, gloomy days at the end of the year.

At the same time, Ramsey Campbell's exquisite little suburban horror story, The Guy, perfectly captures the haunting atmosphere on November 5, when British kids, for some reason never completely understood abroad, are permitted to make effigies of human beings and gleefully burn them on bonfires (though this version of the annual event is augmented with several of Campbell's own typically grotesque innovations). Likewise, Halloween - the big daddy of all autumn festivals - has provided the backdrop to some nightmarish stories, not least another of the finest ever written, Casting The Runes by M.R. James, which was eventually adapted as an equally memorable Halloween-set movie, Night of the Demon.

Of course, as these twin-subjects of Bonfire Night and Halloween testify, autumn wouldn't be autum without its special days and customs.

And yet, how many of these twisted occasions actually are there?

A couple of years ago, to mark the publication of my novel SACRIFICE, in which DS Mark Heckenburg pursues a gang of killers who are 'honouring' special days and customs with sadistic and yet very appropriate human sacrifices, I wrote a piece for this blog about the rites of spring, and how there were so many strange and uncanny traditions during March, April and May that that was by far the best time of year in which to set such a book. Consquently, it didn't come as a complete surprise to me to discover that the atumn - which gets most people's vote as the spookiest time of year - is not quite so well-endowed.

In actual fact, I'd first realised this back in 2009, when writing my novella, Season of Mist, which at this time is no longer in print, though it may still be possible to find copies of WALKERS IN THE DARK - the ASH-TREE PRESS collection in which it first appeared - available online (I do intend to put this right, by the way - hopefully there'll be an e-release sometime soon). Season of Mist concerned a bunch of school-age children in the industrial North of England, and how they became convinced that the crimes of a local serial killer were the work of a demon inadvertantly released from a derelict coalmine. It was set during the September, October and November of 1974, and my original intent was to utilise as many eerie autumn customs as I could. But ultimately, with the exception of one or two curiosties - Braughing Old Man's Day on October 2, Old Michaelmas Day (or Dog-Whipping Day!!!) on October 10, and a few modern inventions like Punkie Night, Mischief Night and Devil's Night, all in late October - I ended up falling back on the the main two occasions, which, as you'd expect, were Halloween on October 31 and Bonfire Night (or Guy Fawkes Night) on November 5.

Halloween, of course, speaks for itself. Though it's a misunderstood festival, owing mainly to the Eve of Hallowtime, a medieval Christian feast on which the dead were religiously honoured, rather than a witches' sabbath, it did coincide with Samhain, an ancient Irish feast marking the end of the Harvest season and one which most likely had pre-Christian roots, so it still deserves its esoteric reputation. When the customs of these feasts are brought together - the lighting of jack-o-lanterns, the bobbing for apples, the ghoulish masquerade, the trick or treat, the telling of ghost stories - you have an event that has rightly served as an inspiration to thriller and horror writers since time immemorial, A well as those tales already mentioned, and just off the top of my head, The Samhain Feis by Peter Tremayne, The Black Pumpkin by Dean Koontz, Boo by Richard Laymon, Hollow Eyes by Guy N. Smith, The Candle In The Skull by Basil Copper, and All Souls' by Edith Wharton are all among my favourite ghost and horror stories, while Hollywood indulges itself too, seemingly every year, recent movies like Sleepy Hollow and Trick 'r' Treat going overboard in their efforts to recreate the Halloween horror experience.

And yet, Bonfire Night, which is only really celebrated here in the UK, has more recent origins and is in several ways a much darker and crueller occasion. At one time it was illegal in England not to commemorate the capture of Guy Fawkes and the Catholic gunpowder plotters on November 5 1605 and the subsequent foiling of their plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament and murder King James I. None of those convicted were executed by burning - they were hanged, drawn and quartered instead, but the immolation of Guy Fawkes effigies all over the UK each November 5 still invokes memories of a sectarian British Isles in which religious and political differences could incur draconian punishments. That said, it's largely a fun and harmless occasion these days, sadly diminishing in my view, as health and safety regulations prohibit the impromptu lighting of bonfires outside private premises, and the use of fireworks has become quite common on special occasions all year round. However, as well as Ramsey Campbell's great tale, I can easily think of several other Bonfire Night-themed short stories: Funeral March Of A Marionette by John Metcalfe, and at least three that first appeared in the legendary Pan Horror series - Guy Fawkes Night by Richard Davis, Bonfire by C.A. Cooper, and Firework Night by St. John Bird. so clearly the spirit of the occasion still lingers in those darker imaginations.

But for all these quirky traditions - wearing pumpkin heads for God's sake, burning mannequins at the stake - it's still the ambience of this time of year that does it for me. We've no sooner got used to the light and warmth of summer when suddenly it's turned cold and dark again. All at once there's a smell of fungus and mildew in the air; rich pastures become desokate wastes; trees wither before our eyes. This is surely the ideal season in which to write and set scary stories - and you don't even have to use the meaning of the special dates. Look at the iconic movie,  Halloween. It's actually nothing to do with the festival of All Hallows Eve - it's a tale of a mass murder which just happens to be set on October 31, and yet it works so well. Hey, it doesn't even have to be genuinely scary. Check out that comedy/horror masterpiece of stage and screen, Arsensic and Old Lace. I swear, you'll be screaming with laughter, not terror, but it's another Halloween classic all the same.

So go on, take the darkening of the year on the chin. Immerse yourself in its dreariness and gloom, and in the eeriness and downright weirdness of its customs, and let it carry you away on a tide of imaginary menace. And get bloody writing.



A new and ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I've recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, 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 … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then this part of the blog may not be for you. You have been warned.

THE TERROR by Dan Simmons (2007)

In 1845, the Franklin Expedition set sail from England to forge the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. It wasn’t the first expedition to attempt this, and it wouldn’t be the last. But few better equipped vessels under the control of more reliable and experienced crews would ever undertake the task. It is all the more baffling then that the Franklin Expedition wasn’t just a failure but a catastrophe. Both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, vanished without trace – it was 2014 before the remnants of one of the vessels, the Erebus, were found underwater in Baffin Bay, and though a few pathetic graves were also discovered onshore, the majority of the 200-strong crew were never accounted for.

What actually happened will never be known, but in his blockbusting horror opus, The Terror, US author Dan Simmons gives us his own unique version of events – and it is one of the most enthralling and chilling stories you are ever likely to read.

As if the ravages of hypothermia, frostbite, scurvy and lead poisoning aren’t enough, the ships’ crews, who are already icebound when we join them, must also deal with a ferocious and unstoppable monster drawn straight from the darkest corner of Inuit mythology and now intent upon hunting them to the last man …

But, whatever you do, don’t come at this book under the impression that it’s simply a creature feature. Yes, the monster is relentless and terrifying and one of the main characters in the book – and its attacks are truly horrific, but there is so much more to The Terror than this.

To begin with, Simmons gives us a detail-crammed account of a hugely complex and heroic undertaking, leaving nothing out as he constructs in our mind’s eye the image of an invincible force, the best the Royal Navy’s Discovery Service can offer – the cream of its officers, the pick of its men, and the finest two ships in the fleet, both driven by new-fangled steam engines and ploughing the ice with their armour plated hulls – and then, slowly and sadistically deconstructs it, hitting us blow by blow with its gradual deteoriation in the White Hell of the Arctic wilderness, one thing after another going wrong from the mundane to the unbelievably disastrous … until all that remains is annihilation. Even without the monster, this would be an orgy of hardship, the participants constantly called on to use every scrap of strength and ingenuity they have just to survive for one day more, and so often failing.

It’s an epic of endurance, a saga of suffering. And as such, the book is massive – its prodigious length (an amazing 944 pages!) has supposedly put some punters off. But it’s so well-written and so readable that – for all its colossal length there is scarely no padding, and despite the fact so much of it is spent on the desolate ice-floes or deep in the nauseating dungeons below decks – its pace just bounces along. 

And as I say, it’s more than just a litany of horrors. Before its huge cast of characters gets whittled down, Dan Simmons creates a vivid cross-section of 19th century sea-faring life, from tough, professional seamen to damned rankers, from captains courageous to traitors and mutineers. The life-and-death intricacies of Arctic navigation are also laid out in minute and fascinating detail. It’s a wonder of research. You’d almost believe Simmons had been there himself and experienced it.

And then we have the set-pieces, which are among the best and most savage I’ve ever read. The battles with the ice-beast, the brutal flogging of the seditious, the cannibalisation of slain comrades, and most startling of all, a grand and crazy masquerade on the ice – men driven mad by cold and starvation cavorting in lurid costmes, performing profane rituals from the world of Grand Guignol in temperatures of a hundred below …

I can’t say anymore, except that The Terror is a historical horror masterpiece and must be read to be believed. Whatever you do, don’t let its size put you off. This is a page-turner of the first order.

And now, as usual just for fun, a bit of fantasy casting. My picks for who should play the leads if The Terror were ever to make it to the screen (my latest understanding is that a TV series is in development – probably not enough masked superheroes for it to get the big screen treatment):

Captain Francis Crozier – Michael Fassbender
Doctor Harry Goodsir – Timothy Spall
Lieutenant John Irving – Eddie Redmayne
Cornelius Hickey – Andy Serkis
Thomas Blanky – Robson Green
Lady Silence – Roseanne Supernault
Sir John Franklin – Anthony Hopkins

(This week's pictures, are, from the top down: Autumn Woods by 221 Bbakerbabe; the original cover for Something Wicked This Way Comes, Niall McGuinness in Night of the Demon; Sacrifice; Walkers In The Dark; a still from Trick 'r' Treat Bonfire Night at Billiecray by William Warby, Cary Grant in Arsenic And Old Lace, and The Terror.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Madness, murder, mayhem - Glasgow style

First up, the all-important news that I'll be appearing at the Bellshill Cultural Centre, just outside Glasgow, on Tuesday October 13 this year, to chat about my Heck novels and anything else the audience is interested in. It starts at 7pm and it's free. But I've been told that booking is advised. Here's the number: 01698 346770/346771, while the actual online details are HERE. For those interested, the address is John Street, Bellshill, ML4 1RJ.

In keeping with the Glasgow theme, this week's Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers focusses on Craig Robertson's tough crime caper, WITNESS THE DEAD, which is set in the very heart of that great city. You can find that towards the bottom of this post. But first, on a slightly different note, it gives me great pleasure to announce that a couple more stories first published in my Terror Tales series have come to global attention by being selected for inclusion various in 'Year's Best' anthologies.

Followers of this blog may recall that earlier this year, my two Terror Tales anthologies of 2014, TERROR TALES OF WALES and TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE, were duly honoured when four stories appearing there were chosen by editor Johnny Mains for reprint in his excellent BEST BRITISH HORROR series. They were Learning The Language by John Llewellyn Probert and The Rising Tide by Priya Sharma, both from TERROR TALES OF WALES, and Random Flight by Rosalie Parker and On Ilkley Moor by Alison Littlewood, both from TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE.

Now, I'm glad to say, the latest batch of Year's Bests have come out, and both WALES and YORKSHIRE have again been granted recognition.

In TERROR TALES OF WALES, Stephen Volk's masterly novella, Matilda of the Night, invokes a real nightmare when an academic studying local folklore is inexorably drawn into the apparently senile ramblings of a hospitalised woman on the verge of death ... I knew from the moment I first received this tale that it had 'Year's Best' written all over it, it's sharply drawn characters interracting on the bleak stage of modern urban life, and yet the whole thing underwritten by the myths and magic of a dark, mysterious world that is not as far from us as we may like to think. It's no surprise, but a great joy nontheless to see it selected by Stephen Jones for BEST NEW HORROR 26.

Meanwhile, in TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE, Keris McDondald's disturbing fable, The Coat Off His Back, sees a museum employee charged with cleaning and preserving the artefact of a lifetime, an 18th century 'Innocent coat' - a form of magical protection - apparently dating back to the days of the highwaymen. But there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially where ancient and malevolent powers are concerned ... This was another tale that I knew was destined to go far when I first received it, beautifully written and intensely frightening, and yet very redolent of the grand old city of York, in which it all takes place. I'm delighted that American editor, Ellen Datlow, chose it for inclusion in BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR 7.

It's great news for both Stephen Volk and Keris McDonald (aka Janine Ashbless), and another big thumbs-up for the Terror Tales, series, which has done very well so far in terms of Year's Best selections. For the record, the totals thus far stand as follows; LONDON leads the field with four, YORKSHIRE and WALES are in joint-second place with three each, while SEASIDE, EAST ANGLIACOTSWOLDS and LAKE DISTRICT make up the chasing pack with one apiece.



A new and ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I've recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, 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 … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then this part of the blog may not be for you. You have been warned.

WITNESS THE DEAD by Craig Robertson (2013)

A brand new sex killer is terrorising Glasgow, dumping and displaying his ‘party girl’ victims in ritualistic fashion in the city’s various Gothic cemeteries. 

A seasoned but dysfunctional murder investigation team swings into action, aided and abetted by young crime scene photographer, Tony Winter. But this will be no straightforward enquiry. Retired detective Danny Neilson – Tony’s uncle – is convinced he’s seen this maniac’s hand before. Back in the ’70s, he hunted a Glasgow rape-strangler known as Red Silk, who also picked his victims up in bars and nightclubs. The problem is, the Red Silk murders were eventually pinned on another Scottish serial killer Archibald Atto – and Atto is still inside, serving a full-life sentence.

So what’s going on? Did the original Murder Squad get it wrong? Is this a copycat murderer? Or a student of Atto perhaps? One question definitely needs answering – how is it that Atto, all but incommunicado in the isolation block, knows so much about this latest batch of heinous crimes? …

I have all kinds of reasons to recommend his novel. A Glasgow native, Craig Robertson (pictured) brings the wintry city to life in glorious, gritty form, using lots of real locations, and painting a vivid picture of its lively and street-smart population – both as it is now, and as it was in the sectarian early ’70s. He also knows his local history, because this fictional case is clearly influenced by the unsolved Bible John murders of the 1960s, a dark chapter in Glasgow’s history, which continues to haunt many of those who remember it.

The police enquiry itself is excellently handled and worryingly authentic – there are lots of stresses and strains in the team, not to mention inopportune moments of realistic error-making, while the sheer griminess of its members’ daily experience has had a brutalising effect on them. There is little love lost here, and almost no political correctness, especially where hard knut boss DI Derek Addison is concerned, but none of this matters because this is not the nice, safe world so many of us inhabit – it is dark, bleak, dangerous, and at the risk of sounding clichéd, the wolves that scour it will only be brought down by wolves of a similar nature.

Robertson is also known for his character work, and it’s never been better exemplified than it is here. Winter himself is a flawed hero, his fascination with the artistry of violent death leaving him open to the wiles of Atto, who, during the course of several tense interviews, starts to recognise a like mind in the young snapper. This makes it all the more difficult for Winter’s on-off girlfiend, DS Rachel Nary, who might once have been the warm heart of this investigation unit had she too not been battered by life. For me though, the star of this show is Danny Neilson, who we see in two parallel narratives, as he was when still a carefree lad-about-town copper back in 1972, and as he is now, old, overweight, grouchy, constantly trying to patch up his many failed relationships, and at the same time obsessed with the case he never managed to solve.

So yeah … this is a bit of an ensemble job, with several lead characters, all of whom go on dark if fascinating journeys. And all the time of course, in the background, the clock ticks down to yet another vile murder.

I’ll say no more except that it’s a tour-de-force. If you like your urban crime fiction grimy, and you enjoy looking a little more deeply into the lives and loves and hates and fears of those caught up in it, then this one is definitely for you.

As usual, just for the fun of it, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Witness The Dead were ever to make it to the screen:

Tony Winter – James McAvoy
DS Rachel Nary – Karen Gillan
Danny Neilson – Brian Cox
Archibald Atto, Red Silk – Ciaran Hinds
DI Derek Addison – Dougray Scott

Monday, 31 August 2015

Thrillers, chillers, shockers and killers ...

A new series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail in this column, 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 … 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.

DEVIL’S PEAK by Deon Meyer (2005)

Devil’s Peak takes us into the heart of Cape Town’s Serious and Violent Crimes Unit, where one of the lead investigators, now a recovering alcoholic, finds himself pitted against the most dangerous opponent of his career.

DI Benny Griessel is an instinctively brilliant detective, a natural hunter of criminals. But hard drinking has destroyed his family life and made him a laughing stock in the department where once he was a legend. Not a good time for him to come up against ‘Artemis’, a vigilante serial-killer targetting child-abusers, who doesn’t just enjoy what appears to be advanced military training but is operating with the tacit approval of many of Griessel’s fellow cops.

One of the most startling thing about this crime masterwork from South African author, Deon Meyer, is that it was originally penned in Afrikaans. All the more credit, then, to translater KL Seegers for producing such a beautifully written and yet blood-pumpingly readable English language version.

But it isn’t just about the action. A far, far cry from your basic ‘cops and robbers’ or blow-by-blow ‘good guys v bad guys’, Devil’s Peak is a grown-up and multi-faceted tale, tough and visceral in tone, but also rich in flawed characters and deeply redolent of both urban and rural South Africa; not just the geographic landscape, but the political and social scene as well.

The three central personalities: drunken cop, Griessel, high class call-girl, Christine van Rooyen, and vigilante avenger, Thobela Mpayipheli, are so well-drawn that you can literally see them in front of you. Griessel in particular is a wonderful creation. You might be tempted to say, “okay, another alcoholic antihero … big deal”, but in this case it’s for real. By this I mean that Griessel’s recuperation from his alcoholism is every bit as gruelling as you’d expect it to be in reality. The reader isn’t spared a single torturous moment of his DTs, or allowed to forget for one minute the devastation his drinking has caused in both his private and public life. It makes him a hugely sympathetic if very conflicted hero, but hardly equips him to face the floodtide of heinous crimes exploding around him.

And yet this is all very serious stuff. The painful realities of an understaffed police force trying to function in the face of corruption, cynicism and spiralling crime rates, and in a society still divided and impoverished in so many ways, are never skimped on. There are times in Devil’s Peak when you really do wonder if there is any hope that good can overcome evil.

Anyway, I’ll say no more, because this novel has to be read cover to cover to be fully appreciated, and once you start you won’t be able to stop. I managed it in only two sittings, if I recall correctly.

A taut but very human crime thriller, which rises to a spectacularly brutal and exciting finale. No wonder Meyer is so highly rated. It’s my first one of his and won’t be my last. He deserves all the accolades.

Just as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if we’re ever fortunate enough to see Devil’s Peak transferred to the screen (I think an adaptation may possibly be in development):

DI Benny Griessel – Arnold Vosloo
Thobela Mpayipheli, ‘Artemis’ – Idris Elba
Christine van Rooyen – Jessica Marais

THE DEEP 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

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Full fathom five, true terror lies ... soon!!!

Can anyone think of a scarier place on Earth than the deepest regions of the sea? You know, that endless unlit realm of mud, sand and rock, silent except for those eerie, inhuman calls echoing through the void, empty apart from those immense, amorphous shapes gliding past you in the gloom.

Can anyone think of a worse predicament to be in than marooned on the sea's surface with no food, no water and no land in sight, and maybe with a few fins cutting the waves in a circle around you, or perhaps even worse, with some great glistening tentacle waving at you from a few yards distant?

It is one of the great unknowable forces, of course - the ocean.

It surrounds us all. We've sailed it, we've swum in it, we've fished it, mapped it, mined it, holidayed on it. We've trawled many of its hidden vaults, photographed its weirdest denizens. And yet it remains enigmatic.

One of the greatest elemental powers in our world, it can decimate fleets, swallow towns, annihilate civilisations. Vast, moody, mysterious and completely unfeeling, it could and would snuff out each of our lives in the blink of an eye, without a moment's hestitation.

Anyway, we'll talk a bit more about that in a minute.

When I commenced editing my TERROR TALES series for GRAY FRIAR PRESS, I was following in the footsteps of the charming MARY DANBY and the late, great R. CHETWYND-HAYES at Fontana Books, whose TALES OF TERROR series in the 1970s first introduced the concept of intermingling horror fiction with horror fact and presenting it in a procession of regionalised anthologies. Just as Mary and Ron did, my initial plan was to tour the UK, interspersing spooky folklore with original horror fiction from some very distinctive localities - WALESLONDONCORNWALL - though sensitive to accusations (none of which have materialised, by the way) that I might just be copying my forerunners, I was derermined to introduce some slight variations, dare I say it - go into a little more detail. So, while Ron and Mary did SCOTTISH TALES OF TERROR, my intent was to do TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS and TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS. Where Ron and Mary did EUROPEAN TALES OF TERROR, my ambition is to do TERROR TALES OF WESTERN  EUROPETERROR TALES OF EASTERN EUROPETERROR TALES OF SCANDINAVIATERROR TALES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, etc (though that's all for the future - there's only so much time in the present, you know).

But all along I knew that one subject I couldn't prevaticate about, that I simply had to plunge straight into (pun fully intended), just as Ron and Mary did all those years ago, was the SEA, or, as it will be called in my case, the OCEAN. 

As we speak, TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN (pictured topside, mi hearties!), is still in production, so don't go looking for it yet.

It won't be published until later this year. But, as always, what an absolute joy it's been to work on it. The cover art was provided by the ever-incredible NEIL WILLIAMS, and in this volume I'll be honoured to include stories by such luminaries of the horror and thriller genres as PETER JAMES, ROBERT SHEARMAN, STEPHEN LAWS, ADAM NEVILL, LYNDA E. RUCKER and CONRAD WILLIAMS.

Suffice to say that every aspect of oceanic terror has been investigated by this erstwhile crew: from ghost ships to devils of the deep, from hideous curses to haunted islands, from hellish storms to murderous mariners, from sunken cities to ghastly eco-monstrosities.

It's exhausting stuff, just listing it all. But I think this will be one of the best TERROR TALES titles to date, and I can't wait to release it. So keep watching this space for publication dates, table of contents, back-cover blurb, etc. And if you've yet to go on holiday this August, be careful where you swim, or surf, or float on your air-bed.

You never know what might be underneath you, or approaching you from behind, or waiting on shore, hidden below the innocent looking sand - just biding its time.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Masterclass melding of crime and horror

Dark tales, sinister tales, thrillers, chillers, horrors, crime and suspense - whatever you want to call them, multimillion book-selling heavyright PETER JAMES excells at them. But you won't need to analyse his sales figures to know this.

Just check out A TWIST OF THE KNIFE, his short story collection published by Macmillan in 2014. In an age when short tales tend to be seen as non-viable by mainstream publishers, especially on the printed page (in ebook terms it's increasingly a different story, of course), the fact that Peter James's collection came out both in hardback and softback, and now adorns the top shelves in all the best high street bookstores is a very good sign for the great man. It indicates that he long ago passed into that highest echelon of literary endeavour, wherein format, labelling, pigeon-holing etc doesn't matter one jot. The quality of the work is all.

And quality is the bottom line here.

Regular followers of this blog will know that I'm not in the habit of reviewing books. Whenever I come across a piece of work that really does it for me, I tend to either tweet my approval or slam a few sentences onto Facebook. But I'm going to make a big exception for A TWIST OF THE KNIFE, because not only does it comprise 30 (yes, you read that correctly - 30!) amazingly tense, mysterious and sublimely well-written short stories, it also blends my two real literary loves - crime and horror.

Fans of Peter James will know that he's long had a foot in both camps, though his worldwide fame
undoubtedly stems from the soaring success he's had with the Roy Grace novels. These are hard-edged but massively readable crime thrillers following the investigations of a Brighton-based detective superintendent as he pursues badmen of every ilk.

But A TWIST OF THE KNIFE is somewhat different. Yes, it contains several wickedly-plotted murder-mysteries - Roy Grace himself pops up in one story - but overall there is a slightly different feel to this book. To call it 'otherworldly' would not be completely accurate. There is nothing overtly weird or fantastical about these tales; all are firmly grounded in the contemporary here and now - and yet you never feel as if the supernatural is very far away.

Take Dream Holiday, for example. An urbane couple - there is surely no-one else working in thrillers today who writes the sophisticated middle-class better than Peter James! - are planning a luxurious holiday in Switzerland, though wife Annie, instead of looking forward to it, is increasingly bewildered and frightened by a recurring dream that seems to promise disaster. Well ... you won't need me to tell you that disaster does duly come, but in the very last way the reader expects. Trust me, this tome is well named, because horrendous twists in the tale are fully the order of play, as perfectly exemplified in this contribution.

Even those tales without an outré edge skate along the boundaries of purest nightmare. Sun Over The Yard Arm, a satsifyingly lengthy piece, which tells the story of a husband and wife team's ill-fated yachting trip across the Indian Ocean, is spook-free but would not be out of place in one of those big, chunky anthologies of the world's greatest horror stories. I won't say anything else for fear of providing spoilers, but it's a spellbinding and ghoulish read.

At the same time, two other chillers, Venice Aphrodisiac and A Christmas Tradition are what you might once have called twisted tales (no pun intended, I'm sure): short but erotically charged chillers, again with deceptively simple but, when you think about it, astonishingly transgressive concepts at their heart.

All in all, this a supreme collection of dark tales. Scary, mysterious, suspense-filled, and yes, at times rather sexy. If you read crime, it's a must for your collection. If you read horror, it's exactly the same. A TWIST OF THE KNIFE gets my strongest recommendation.  

Monday, 15 June 2015

Terror strikes in the Scottish Highlands

I'm very pleased indeed to announce volume eight in the TERROR TALES series that I edit for GRAY FRIAR PRESS: TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS. You can order it now though it is officially published on June 18.

The basic premise of this series is to do a round-tour of the British Isles (and maybe beyond), publishing brand new scary fiction from a plethora of top quality writers, and in each book interspersing the works of fiction with true tales of terror appertaining to the region in question. As you can imagine, the Highlands of Scotland loaned themselves very nicely indeed to this scheme. With a bloody and bitter history and some incredibly spooky folklore, the wildest and most northerly realm of mainland Britain (though we get out to the islands too!) gifted us a vast range of horrors to have fun with.

Anyway, I'll shut my mouth now and let the book itself do the talking. Here's the official front cover artwork (courtesy of the never-less-than-amazing Neil Williams) and back-cover blurb. Below that sits the full table of contents, and under that a few choice excerpts to hopefully whet your appetites:

The Scottish Highlands, picturesque home to grand mountains and plunging glens. But also a land of bitterness, betrayal and blood-feud, where phantom pipers lament callous slaughters, evil spirits haunt crag and loch, and ancient monsters roam the fogbound moors …

The Black Wolf of Badenoch
The deformed horror at Glamis
The witch coven of Auldearn
The faceless giant of Ben Macdui
The shrieking voices on Skye
The feathered fiend of Glen Etive
The headless killer at Arisaig

And many more chilling tales by William Meikle, Helen Grant, Barbara Roden, Carole Johnstone, DP Watt and other award-winning masters and mistresses of the macabre. 


Skye’s Skary Places – Ian Hunter
Phantoms in the Mist
The Dove – Helen Grant
Prey of the Fin-Folk
Strone House - Barbara Roden
The Well of Heads
Face Down In The Earth – Tom Johnstone
The Vanishing
The Dreaming God Is Singing Where She Lies - William Meikle
The Curse of Scotland
The Housekeeper – Rosie Seymour
From Out The Hollow Hills
The Executioner - Peter Bell
Saurians of the Deep
You Must Be Cold - John Whitbourn
Glamis Castle
The Fellow Travellers Sheila Hodgson
Shelleycoat – Graeme Hurry
Evil Monsters
The Other House, The Other Voice – Craig Herbertson
The Mull Plane Mystery
Myself/Thyself - DP Watt
The Bauchan
Broken Spectres - Carl Barker
The Big Grey Man
Jack Knife – Gary Fry
Tristicloke the Wolf
The Foul Mass At Tongue House - Johnny Mains
The Drummer of Cortachy
There You’ll Be – Carole Johnstone 

A person must be a brute if he can sit of an evening warming his hands over the fire and know that under the stone upon which his buckled shoe rests is the mouldering body of his own child. How could he stand the evil scent that must have seeped from under it, rising on the warm air?
The Dove
Helen Grant

Oh, there are all sorts of vague tales about weird voices, climbers’ ghosts, and so on – the winds make peculiar sounds howling round the crags. But the only creature linked specifically with the Cuillin is the Uraisg. There’s a corrie and a pass named after it. It’s supposed to look like a goat in a man’s shape, all shaggy, with sharp teeth and claws. Very frightening to behold.”
The Executioner
Peter Bell

The collectivised farms were famine factories. It wasn’t just sheepdogs who worked seven days a week all their short lives. In the hamlets there were scaffolds: they sagged with examples bearing placards strung round stretched necks. From Lochgilphead I heard the crackle of a distant firing squad.
You Must Be Cold
John Whitbourn

If you guys can forgive me a personal indulgence, I really feel as if the TERROR TALES series is going from strength to strength at present. It's certainly my intention, if we manage to sustain the series for long enough, to take it way beyond the British Isles. But of course it's all about time and patience. To date, we've done eight in the series. In addition to HIGHLANDS, we've done LAKE DISTRICT, COTSWOLDS, EAST ANGLIA, LONDON, SEASIDE, WALES and YORKSHIRE. But rather than blab on about those here, I recommend you follow the 'Edited Anthologies' link at the top of this page. There is a lot more detail over there.

With regard to my own short story writing ... well, the demands of the HECK novel series is preventing me throwing myself back into it. But I still try to keep my hand in now and then. It's a great pleasure to me that, thanks largely to Heck, there appears to be much renewed interest in my story and novella back-catalogue. 

The latest one to get the full audio treatment from WHOLE STORY AUDIOBOOKS is my 2009 novella, THE BALEFUL DEAD. It's a lengthy piece - well over 30,000 words, while the narration by Jon Keeble (who is excellent, as always) lasts three hours! - and it tells the tale of an ageing metal band who have all but given up, when their scheming manager hatches a plan to re-ignite their careers by use of an Ancient Roman death-ritual.

It was first published in the collection, GROANING SHADOWS (2009) and later was reissued in my e-collection DON'T READ ALONE (2013). It is still one of my personal favourite novellas, combining, as it does, my love of hard rock, ancient history, British folklore and evil mysticism. Hopefully the flavour is Jamesian with a generous dollop of Le Fanu - but that's for the audience to judge. Anyway, here's a brief snippet:

Beyond the first cover of the trees only more trees were visible: gnarled, mossy stanchions, their lower boughs heavy with bright new leaves. Here and there, rhododendrons had risen up between them, great profusions of glossy, tangled vegetation, which blotted out all vision.
“Are we going back?” Rob wondered.
“No,” I said.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no hero, but I’m fifty-one years old and I’ve been around. I’ve seen and done things, both good and bad, that the average man couldn’t even dream of – I wasn’t going to be spooked by the eerie hush of an English woodland.
So we pressed on. And eventually we came to the Lamuratum.
It emerged through the trees ahead of us in steady, unspectacular fashion.
The Grecian pillars, each one about nine feet tall, were made from marble and arranged in a neat circle. As the picture I’d seen earlier had illustrated, small lintels or roofs connected them. Initially it must have been quite startling; a gleaming white edifice amid all this lush, natural greenery. But over the decades it had accumulated considerable filth: leaf-mould, watermarks, streaks of bird-droppings. The tall stones were now mottled a yukky grey-green and filmed with lichen. I think its phoniness – the fact that it wasn’t really ancient – made it all the more repugnant. It was like a modern building gone to rack and ruin through sheer, bloody-minded neglect.
We approached it reluctantly. I’d expected the structure to be half-buried in undergrowth, but that wasn’t the case. The open space surrounding it was bare earth, beaten flat as though trodden by countless feet. Its interior was equally accessible. No fence or barrier had been put around it. All we needed to do was walk in between the pillars and there we were. The ground inside was also firm and bare. In the very centre was a low marble plinth, squarish, about three feet wide by three, and standing to knee-height. Its upper surface was slightly concave and coated with a greasy, black residue that was odious just to look at.
“I’m liking this place less and less,” Rob said.
     “We were warned not to come here.”

Friday, 22 May 2015

Stranger and far more hideous than fiction

One thing that readers seem to like most about my DS Mark Heckenburg novels is the gallery of maniacs I serve up. 

If nothing else, I can honestly say that I’ve done my best to create a procession of twisted madmen (and women) whose crimes are never less than unspeakable but are also varied and bizarre. 

There is no such thing as 'too crazy' in these novels, because no matter how heinous and deadly these individuals or groups of individuals appear to be, we have a hero in Heck who is always more than a match for them.

Unfortunately though, Heck is an imaginary character. He doesn’t really exist. And insane criminals do.

There’s no getting away from it; despite we writers’ best efforts, the real world – the annals of true crime – are always so much stranger and more terrifying than fiction. You only need to glance at some of history’s weirdest and scariest unsolved murders to see that, and to be badly unnerved by them.

Here, in no particular order, are ten cases I’ve picked at random which are surely among the strangest and most disturbing ever recorded by the world’s police forces.


In the 1980s, a series of vicious crimes on Staten Island, New York, appeared to bring a local urban legend to nightmarish life. 

The story of the escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand and a lust for juvenile blood comes straight from the slasher movie how-to guide. But in Staten Island, it centres on a real place, the Willowbrook State School, an institution for the mentally ill, whose appalling conditions were exposed to the rest of America in 1972 by crusading reporter Geraldo Rivera. The Willowbrook asylum – a ‘snake-pit’, according to Senator Robert Kennedy – was closed in 1986 and for a time it stood in ruins, with rumours slowly spreading that one of its former inmates, a killer called Cropsey, had evaded transfer and still lived in the derelict structure’s labyrinthine underground passages.

But sensationalist fantasy ran smack-bang into ugly reality when it emerged that Staten Island, in particular the district around Willowbrook, had for quite some time been the hunting ground for an unknown but genuine child murderer. 

Between 1972 and 1987, four children and a 22-year-old man with learning difficulties disappeared, and with the exception of one of them, 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger, none were ever seen again. Schweiger’s remains were uncovered in a shallow grave 35 days after she went missing. Police eventually brought charges for this offence against Andre Rand, a local oddball who had a history of mental problems himself, despite having worked at the asylum rather than being incarcerated there, but were only able to convict him of kidnapping Schweiger and, later on, Holly Ann Hughes, who had vanished in 1981. 

Rand is currently serving 50 years to life, and though he must be a prime suspect in the other disappearances, all of which are now regarded as homicides, they remain officially unsolved. Little wonder the legend of Cropsey persists.


In 1946, Texarkana, a twin-city region straddling the border between Texas and Arkansas, was the unlikely venue for a shocking ten-week killing spree by a hooded maniac, whose bloody rampage became known as the ‘Moonlight Murders’, earned him the melodramatic soubriquet ‘Phantom Slayer’, and would go on to spawn two successful horror movies of the same name, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976 and 2014). 

In essence a ‘red-light bandit’, the killer’s modus operandi was to don his mask, a white cloth with eye-slits, and approach couples parked up in lovers’ lanes. At pistol-point, he would beat and rob his victims, rape or sexually assault the women, and then riddle both of them with lead. He attacked four couples in this way, claiming five lives in total and seriously injuring the remainder.

Despite the authorities flooding the city with Texas Rangers, including such living legends as M.T. 'Lone Wolf' Gonzaullas, the madman created a reign of absolute terror. Gun stores ran out of weapons and ammunition, and the streets were empty from dusk till dawn – aside from truckloads of rifle-toting youths who would prowl in impromptu vigilante patrols, which provided another major headache for the police. As often happens in cases of this sort, investigators were swamped with leads, all of which they were obliged to follow, though it was later revealed that a number of these had been provided by members of the public trying to make trouble for personal enemies. 

If there’d been panic in town early on in the case, the fourth attack had the potential to make things a thousand times worse. The Starks were a married couple in their 30s, who were shot through the windows of their own house. If the Phantom was now a home-invader too, there was almost no limit to the numbers of victims he could claim – Texarkana was a big place. But for some reason there were no further incidents. The murders simply ended. 

The police did have a favourite suspect, a prolific car thief called Youell Swinney, but lack of evidence meant that he was never charged. In the years following, other suspects were added to the roster – some having voluntarily confessed – but in none of these cases was there conclusive proof. The Phantom Slayer remains as elusive now as he was in 1946. 


The beautiful heart of rural England has often been the setting for strange and horrible murders. In truth, there is nowhere more likely for unnatural deaths to occur than in shady lanes or quaint, thatch-roofed villages surrounded by green fields and wooded hills. But that is in the world of fiction. Crime writers love their country murder mysteries, possibly because in reality these verdant havens are very safe. The leafy shires of central England are famous for their low crime rates. But there was one hideous murder here that has baffled law enforcement for the last 70 years, and is seemingly no closer to being solved now than it ever was. 

The investigation began in 1943, when four boys from Stourbridge, in what was then Worcestershire, at the heart of the scenic Cotswolds, were poaching near Wychbury Hill. It was early evening when they scaled an old Wych elm in search of birds’ eggs. Half way up, to their horror, they saw that it was hollow and that a human skeleton had been jammed inside. 

The skeleton, which was recovered intact, was all that remained of a woman who had been lodged inside the tree alive some 18 months previously, though she had died from asphyxiation having first had her mouth crammed with taffeta. A police search located the bones of a human hand scattered around the tree, which seemed to have occult significance, though this brought them no nearer to solving the case.

Two years later, connections were made with the death of Charles Walton in neighbouring Warwickwhire. A suspected warlock, Walton died after being slashed with a billhook and pinned to the ground with a pitchfork as part of an apparent satanic ritual. But this case too would go on to confound investigators. 

Thanks to the war, there were numerous missing persons registered in the UK, but police were unable to find any that matched the skeleton in the Wych elm. Was there a wall of silence due to occult activity? Other baffling clues had by this time emerged.

In 1944, a bizarre question was painted on a wall in Birmingham: WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WITCH ELM? Bella? Whether the name was real or a literary device of the graffiti artist was unknown, but from this point on the same message appeared again and again, painted on walls, tombstones and trees in the vicinity of Stourbridge. Incredibly, the last recorded incidence of this was in 1999, when the message was sprayed onto a 200-year-old obelisk. Whoever was responsible was never traced, but the name now given to the unknown victim opened other lines of enquiry. Briefly, there was a possible espionage link when it was considered the bones might belong to a German cabaret singer turned spy called Clara Bauerle (Clarabella?), who could have been eliminated by security forces for reasons of national security. 

Unfortunately, it is impossible to bring a modern eye to the case. Both the remains of ‘Bella’ and the medical records obtained at the time have vanished. But armchair detectives have now moved back to the occult theory, citing the unlikelihood that two such similarly weird murders could remain unsolved for so many decades and not be connected, and arguing that the almost gleefully cryptic graffiti and the apparent unwillingness to talk of folk who in normal circumstances would be among the most law-abiding in the country are strongly suggestive of village witchcraft.


Bryan Bertino's chilling home-invasion horror movie, The Strangers, which hit the cinemas in 2008, features a nightmare scenario in which a young couple in a remote woodland cabin are terrorised by three masked criminals who have seemingly chosen their victims at random and intend to cause them as much suffering as possible for no reason other than the pleasure it gives them.

It makes for a discomforting viewing experience, with (SPOILERS AHEAD!) no happy ending, and implications all the way through that psychopathic killers can live among us unnoticed, ordinary members of society until the urge comes upon them to strike. 

But what many may not know is that though the movie was not an exact account of a real event, it was strongly influenced by a ghastly crime in California's Northern Sierras in 1981.

At the time, Sue Sharp, 36, her five children and a family friend, were vacationing in a log cabin, no. 28, in a campsite attached to the small railroad town of Keddie. This was a wooded location, but it didn't exist in complete isolation. There were other cabins nearby occupied by fellow holidaymakers. And in fact, on the night of April 11, 14-year-old Sheila Sharp had a sleepover with friends in one of these neighbouring properties. It was a hugely fortunate decision on her part, because when she returned to cabin 28 in the morning, she was greeted by the most harrowing scene.

Three of her loved ones, her mother, her brother, John, 15, and his friend Dana, 17, had all been murdered; first bound with wire and electrical tape and then attacked with a variety of household implements until they were unrecognisable. Miraculously, the youngest children were all still alive and unharmed in their bedrooms, though 12-year-old Tina was missing.

Police theories varied. Was this a simple burglary that had gone wrong? If so, it was an astonishingly personal attack. Was it a twisted sex assault? That seemed more likely, especially as in 1984 an anonymous phone-call led officers to a secondary crime scene some 57 miles away, where part of Tina's skull and several other of her bones were located.

Police issued a sketch of two suspects, whose details were obtained from one of the surviving children, but this brought them no closer to a solution. 

The case remains unsolved, but there are countless questions that need answering. Researchers have claimed there were many unsavoury characters in and around Keddie at the time, including drug addicts and dealers, known child molesters and even a couple of disturbed Vietnam vets. The victims themselves had links to unstable individuals. Even some employees at the resort had dubious backgrounds. And yet still no charges were brought. Accusations have since been made that the local sheriff's department badly botched the initial investigation, but as to that we can only speculate.

As a footnote, attempts were made to rent the Keddie cabin out again in later years, but there were no takers. Eventually it became an eyesore, a dilapidated relic of an awful and unexplainable event. It was demolished in 2006.


This case does not, to our knowledge, involve a murder, but it is nevertheless one of the eeriest and most distressing of its kind, not just because of the personal suffering it may well involve, but because of its quite terrible implications.

Amy Lynn Bradley was the all-American girl. Born in 1974 in Virginia, she grew up to be beautiful, intelligent and athletic, and was understandably the apple of her family's eye. In 1998, at the age of 23, with the flower of her young adulthood still ahead of her, she accompanied her parents on a luxurious holiday to the Caribbean aboard the cruise ship, Rhapsody of the Seas. By all accounts she wasn't overly fond of sailing, but soon found herself enjoying the incredible facilities aboard the immense ocean liner - until tragedy struck in a quite unforgettable way.

In the early hours of March 6, Amy's father recalled waking in the family cabin and spotting his daughter sleeping outside on the balcony. This was the last time that he or any other member of his family would see her alive, because later that morning they awoke to find the cabin open and Amy missing. The ship had by this time docked at Curacao in the Antilles, but despite this it was felt that Amy was most likely still on board. It seemed improbable that she'd go ashore alone. However, the ship was searched, and no trace of her was discovered. The search continued on land, but with a similarly negative result. By this time, a witness had come forward, claiming to have seen Amy at around 5.30 am in one of the ship's elevators in company with members of the band Blue Orchid, with whom she'd allegedly been socialising in the on-board nightclub the previous evening. But this lead also drew a blank.

By now, Amy's frantic parents had come to suspect foul play. So the Curacao authorities got involved. Thinking it possible that Amy might have fallen overboard before the ship had reached harbour, or maybe even had jumped, they scoured the sea, but no body was discovered.

And that was more or less the last that anyone heard of Amy Lynn Bradley. 

Until several years had passed, and other unsubstantiated sightings were made public. 

For instance, Amy had supposedly been spotted on a Curacao beach later in 1998, and in a Barbados toilet in 2005. Most alarming of all, however, an American sailor came forward to report that he'd been in a brothel in Curacao during the mid 2000s when he was approached by an American woman working there, who claimed that she was Amy Bradley and begged him to help her, only for two pimps to roughly hustle her away. When the authorities traced the brothel, it was found that it had burned down. There were no physical clues to indicate where any of its workforce might have relocated to. Likewise, its former owners were untraceable.

Amy's family did not leave it there. They continued to hunt for their daughter, making the case a media sensation in the US. It featured on high profile TV shows like Dr Phil and America's Most Wanted. In 2006 there was another disturbing development when a photograph was emailed to the family. It had been downloaded from a website advertising the services of South American prostitutes, and it showed a girl very similar to Amy reclining on a bed. Forensic examination of the image has divided opinion, with some experts claiming the woman is definitely Amy, but with others less sure.

The worrying point was made repeatedly in the American press that young white girls are considered a prime commodity by international sex traffickers. This was also a consideration in 2005 when blonde Alabama-born Natalee Holloway went missing in Aruba, in the Dutch Caribbean. In this case, though, a number of suspects - both local men and tourists - were arrested and re-arrested several times. Eventually, they were all dismissed from the enquiry, but though Natalee was never found, connection between the two cases is considered tenuous. 

Natalee Holloway was declared dead in absentia in 2012, though the quest still goes on to locate Amy Bradley, who has now been missing for 17 years, and if she's still alive will be aged 40. 


Almost inevitably, given the uncanny circumstances surrounding various of the crimes mentioned in this column, the words ‘ritual’ and ‘occult’ are likely to pop up. But in law-enforcement terms these phrases are overused. Many serial murder cases are described as having ‘ritualistic’ elements when in fact the killings are just plain weird, the reason for that being the perpetrators are insane. Cults and other criminal groups who claim to dabble in the occult often know nothing about the ancient art, but use it as a means by which to divide and control their followers, or maybe to gain sexual and financial favours. However, some unexplained cases, though they are few and far between, bear genuine hallmarks of Satanist activity, and perhaps the most infamous of these concerns the murders of Howard Green and Carol Marron in New Jersey. 

It was a cold evening in December 1979, when motorists in West Paterson sighted two figures lying by the roadside. Police were called, and on arrival discovered the sackcloth-wrapped corpses of a man and woman. Their names were Howard Green and Carol Marron, and they had both been beaten to death. But it didn’t end there; both of them clasped knots of black hair in their hands and bore strange but identical mutilations. For example, both their faces had been smashed in from the left side and both had been stabbed through the right eye. In addition, and more bewildering and ghoulish still, both bodies had been completely drained of blood. 

Equally odd, especially in the light of such off-the-wall carnage, was the apparent normality of Green and Marron’s everyday lives. A cab driver and a secretary, aged 53 and 33 respectively, they’d led an seemingly mundane existence in Brooklyn. But when detectives searched their apartment they found extensive black magic paraphernalia. 

Friends of the couple were unable to assist, claiming to have seen them on a New York subway train the day before the murders and detecting nothing strange. But a short time later the journalist Maury Terry received an anonymous letter discussing the incident, apparently directing him to a shadowy group whom it referred to as ‘OTO’, and hinting that more Satanic murders might follow. Attempts have been made to connect the aforementioned ‘OTO’ with the Ordo Templi Orientis, a spiritual and philosophical society which Aleister Crowley was once a leading member of, but if this was ever a genuine clue it led nowhere. 

No additional homicides obviously linked to the double-slaying have followed, and it remains unsolved to this day. 


The mass-killing at the isolated rural community of Hinterkaifeck in the Ingolstadt region of Bavaria in March 1922 is one of the most infamous crimes in German history. It is also the most mysterious. 

In the days leading up to the dread event, 63-year-old Andreas Gruber, owner of the farm in question, complained to neighbours that he thought his home was haunted, having encountered what at the time seemed like unexplained phenomena - footprints in the snow encircling the farm, noises in the attic and missing sets of keys. With the advantage of hindsight, we can now assume that these oddities were down to a very human perpetrator, who was scoping out the property in anticipation of a planned home-invasion – which finally came on the evening of March 31. 

Whatever the purpose behind the attack, Andreas and his family, his wife, Cazilia (72), their daughter, Viktoria Gabriel (35), her two young children, Cazilia and Josef, and the maid, Maria (44), were taken to the barn in twos, where they were all hacked to death with a mattock or pickaxe. The ghastly scene was finally discovered four days later by concerned neighbours, and a massive police investigation, headed up by Munich CID, swung into action. 

Though, rather amazingly, detectives have pursued leads in the case as recently as 1986, no arrests have ever been made because none of the known facts make much sense. It was initially assumed that robbery was the motive, and that either a vagrant or maybe someone living locally was responsible. However, considerable money was then found at the murder scene - there had been no theft. Odder still, evidence suggested that the culprit had remained on the property for several days afterwards, presumably sleeping in the family beds, eating their food, warming himself by their fire and even feeding and milking their cattle. This revelation baffled the Grubers’ neighbours, as it seemed to contradict the disturbing image in the local collective consciousness that some drooling madman had watched the farm for days from the surrounding woods while planning his homicidal attack. 

The most promising line of enquiry involved Karl Gabriel, Viktoria’s husband, who had supposedly died in the trenches in 1914, though his body was never actually accounted for. It seemed vaguely possible that Karl had survived the battle, maybe disfigured, and had finally returned home deranged. But many veterans who’d known Karl personally convinced detectives that they had seen him die. 

The case remains unsolved despite everyone’s best efforts. As recently as 2007, the Police Academy in Furstenfeldbruck re-examined the facts using the most modern techniques, but they too were flummoxed by the lack of evidence and motive in one of Germany’s most enduring and macabre mysteries.


In the age of the internet and viral rumour-mongering, any human tragedy can be turned overnight into an international horror story if it is even remotely quirky, and tastelessness never enters into it. Thus, people with deformities have been blamed on alien insemination, and curious behaviour by the mentally ill is deemed demonic possession. 

But this isn’t to say that there isn’t some genuine unexplained weirdness out there, and if a death is involved, it becomes vital to work out the truth. 

One such, the drowning on top of a Los Angeles hotel in 2013 of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student, became a sensation. Primarily this was because CCTV footage taken in the hotel lift during Elisa’s final hours depicts some very unusual behaviour, but also because four months later the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office issued findings in which there was clear uncertainty about whether or not her death was accidental. 

Even without the lift footage, the circumstances in which Elisa Lam departed this world are curious. In short, her nude body was found in the drinking-water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel in downtown LA, where it had been decaying for several days. The water tank was so constructed – it was raised on concrete blocks, had no fixed ladder for access and was heavily lidded – that it was near enough impossible to fall into it by accident. But simply to get up there Elisa must have negotiated several locked doors and passageways to which only staff had access. Suicide was considered a possibility, though Elisa’s family insisted she’d never shown suicidal tendencies before, while detailed examination of the body found no obvious sign of violence or sexual assault, though the latter wasn’t definitively ruled out. 

In all ways, it was a bewildering mystery.

Elisa’s behaviour in the lift, which involved apparent conversations with somebody no-one else could see, strange hand signals and an apparent attempt to hide, might be explainable by her bipolar condition and the heavy medication she was on, but it is undeniably eerie to watch online. It didn’t help, of course, that the manner of her demise bore similarities to the haunting Japanese horror movie, Dark Water (2002), while the actual location, the Cecil Hotel, was itself a disturbing element. 

A focal point in a rundown district of town, the Cecil had a dark history all of its own. Elizabeth Short, the ‘Black Dahlia’, called there just before her own murder in 1947, there was another rape and murder inside the hotel in 1964, while two notorious serial killers, Jack Unterweger and Richard Ramirez, both lived there for a time. 

In retrospect it seems highly unlikely that Elisa Lam was a victim of foul play, but as long as so many perplexing questions remain, it will figure highly in criminology's list of distressing curiosities.


In normal circumstances, if one followed a trail of unexplained deaths over a period of ten years in a specific area, and more often than not found the same piece of weird graffiti close to each scene, one would soon come to suspect criminality. However, where the so-called 'Smiley Face Murders' are concerned there is much dispute.

The case was first made that an unknown serial killer of men was at large in the northern American states in 2008 by retired New York police detectives, Kevin Gannon and Tony Duarte. They'd been looking into the deaths of 45 young white males, for the most part college students, who since the late 1990s had been found drowned in different bodies of water: canals, brooks, lakes, reservoirs and the like, across 11 different states.

The previous assumption was that the deceased had died by misadventure while stumbling back to their dorms after a heavy night partying. But Gannon and Duarte's research indicated that in at least 12 of these cases, an unusual piece of graffiti, a crudely drawn smiling face, was found either close to the scene where the body was discovered, or close to the point where it had entered the water. They made the argument that for healthy young men, many of them sporty types, death by accidental drowning ought to be quite unusual, even if a lot of them were drunk at the time. They also noted that the vast majority of the victims were white; far fewer black males were found to have drowned by accident in the same time and place. To Gannon and Duarte, this indicated that an agenda was in play.

However, law enforcement tended to dismiss the thesis. They pointed to the fact that none of those drowning victims save two showed any signs of physical trauma (Patrick McNeil was fished from New York's East River in 1997, and Chris Jenkins from the Mississippi in 2002 - both were deemed to have died elsewhere, and were established as unconnected homicides). As for the unlikeliness of so many accidents occurring, the skeptics claimed that many of those named were not just drunk at the time, but inebriated - in other words, much more vulnerable to accident than they would normally be.

Doubtful profilers have also had their say, pointing out a complete lack of identifiable motive. In no case was there any sign of robbery or sexual assault. They reckoned that it was difficult to conceive of a killer, much less a group of killers, who would genuinely find satisfaction in repeatedly drowning strangers who were barely aware of what was happening to them.

Of course, the 'smiley face' imagery was harder to dismiss. There was no trace of it at over 50% of the death scenes, but it was present at many others, and that would seem like quite a coincidence. Skeptics rebutted this by arguing that smiling faces are a common signature of graffiti artists, that they appear in bus shelters and on subway walls throughout America, and that using this tenuous evidence as a hook on which to hang a massive murder enquiry would at best be a poor reason to waste an awful lot of tax-payers' money and at worst a sorry excuse for needlessly and sensationally ripping open the lives of bereaved families all over again.

While that may not in itself be a convincing argument, there hasn't been enough evidence to warrant a full enquiry. To date, the Smiley Face Murders remain a myth. However, as an addendum to this curious tale, there was a not unrelated meeting at the start of 2015 in Manchester, northern England, between senior detectives and Professor of Psychology, Craig Jackson.

Jackson was very concerned that 61 drowning deaths of young men had occurred in Manchester in the last six years, particularly in the vicinity of Canal Street, where the city's gay nightlife is centred. Jackson openly stated that he was fearful a serial killer was at work, whose method, whether or not it involved sex with the victims, culminated in him pushing or throwing them into one of the city centre's many dark, industrial-age waterways.

Whether this could actually be a foolproof method by which to kill someone is debatable, but for the time being Greater Manchester Police are not taking the theory too seriously. However, a total of 61 deaths of young men is a statistic that won't easily fade away, while over in North America, the memory of those primitive grinning faces won't be erased half as easily as the graffiti itself was.


Conventional wisdom holds that Jack the Ripper, the depraved serial killer who terrorised London's East End in 1888, only murdered and mutilated five women, but this is a 'fact' that would not have been recognised by police detectives at the time. 

Only recently, after decades of careful analysis, have crime historians - now equipped with such modern techniques as behavioural science, forensic psychology and geographic profiling - firmly concluded that there were only five Ripper victims - the 'Canonical Five', as they have become known. Some argue there were even less than that. But at the time, the enquiry into the Whitechapel Murders was very wide-ranging, and at one stage at least 11 butchered victims were held to be the Ripper's work. Quite possibly there were even more than that.

In 1888, the London police had never before encountered a relentless and theatrical repeat-killer of this nature. The horrific mutilations, the apparent ritualistic elements, the cryptic letters to the press, the total chaos it caused in the East End's crammed, filthy streets made this an overwhelming investigation. And bear in mind that at this stage forensic science wasn't even in its infancy. The world's police forces wouldn't acquire fingerprint technology for another 14 years.

In light of this, the fact that a large number of homicides were initially clumped together under the umbrella of the same investigation should not surprise us. But were those Victorian detectives so far from the mark? Contrary to popular belief, serial killers do not always use the same modus operandi. The craft of murder - and that is how many of them view it - grows in the practice; it is refined, improved upon; it changes. And it is also dependent on opportunity and the convenience of the moment. Take Long Liz Stride for instance. Of the Canonical Five, she was the least mutilated; she simply had her throat cut. The general opinion there is that the murderer was interrupted and had to slink away before he could damage her further.

That said, the many other unfortunates initially considered to be the madman's victims display so wide a range of physical destruction that it is difficult to identify any kind of psychological pattern, certainly not if you examine them in chronological order. Anyway, judge for yourselves.

The first genuinely possible Ripper killing occurred in April 1888 in Whitechapel, when prostitute Emma Smith suffered a sexual assault so vicious that she died from her wounds the following morning. Then, in August, another local prostitute, Martha Tabram, was attacked and stabbed to death, her body punctured 39 times. The five generally accepted Ripper murders - those of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Long Liz, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly - all follow from this point. But in addition to these there were the deaths of Rose Mylett - a Whitechapel drunk, who was strangled the following December, Alice McKenzie, whose throat was slashed in July 1889, a nameless victim in Pinchin Street in September 1889, who was so dismembered by her assailant that she'd ever afterwards be known as the 'Pinchin Street Torso', and Frances Coles, whose throat was cut in February 1891.

Here, most investigators draw their limit. Even the most ardent advocates of the Canonical Five tend to acknowledge the possibility that Jack the Ripper might conceivably have killed as many as these 11. However, as stated earlier, there were other violent and sexual deaths in the same time and place which also bear examination.

A mysterious Whitechapel prostitute called Fairy Fay was allegedly impaled with an iron spike during the Christmas of 1887, though no records confirm these details. During the spring of 1888, two other local prostitutes, Annie Millwood and Ada Wilson, reported vicious knife-attacks, which they only just survived. In November that year, a third, Annie Farmer, also claimed to have survived the Ripper. Her throat had been cut, but it was only superficial. Additionally, the Ripper has been linked to the 'Thames Torso Case', wherein a headless woman, never to be identified, was found in a cellar in October 1888, and the dismembered body-parts of known prostitute Liz Jackson were fished out of the Thames in June 1889, though these gruesome discoveries were made in Whitehall and Battersea respectively, and were nowhere near Whitechapel.

More outlandishly, the murder and evisceration of a small boy in Bradford in December 1888 was speculatively linked to the case, while the murder of a New York street-woman in April 1891 bore striking similarities.

Ultimately, these additional murders can be no more now than a talking-point. We will never know whether or not they were handiwork of Jack the Ripper. Yet the irony is that perhaps we should hope they were. If there is anything worse than the idea that a crazed sex killer was on the loose in London in that long ago, candle-lit age, never to be apprehended, it is surely the thought that SEVERAL such killers were on the loose, and that they too would go on to evade capture.

Images used. From top to bottom, they are: A face of evil, from the movie, The Exorcist (1973); the advertising poster for the documentary movie, Cropsey (2009); the poster for the movie, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976); an original press photo of the Wych Elm tree in which Bella's body was found; a more recent press shot of the vandalised obelisk; a spooky still from the movie, The Strangers (2008); a police sketch artist's impression of the Keddie Cabin murder suspects; Amy Bradley; Natalee Holloway; Aleister Crowley; part of the carnage at Hinterkaifeck; the DVD cover for the movie Dark Water (2002); a CCTV still of Elisa Lam apparently hiding in the hotel elevator; original 'smiley face' graffiti; one of Manchester's many freight canals (thanks to BriYYZ); a traditional image of Jack the Ripper (thanks to Metro); and the Nemesis of Neglect, a satirical cartoon featuring Jack the Ripper as it appeared in Punch Magazine in 1888.