Sunday, 23 October 2016

My most blood-chilling moments in movies

Well, it’s almost Halloween, and so we’re sticking firmly in horror mode today. 

To start with, for this week’s book review, I’ll be discussing Peter James’s uber-scary haunted house chiller, THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL

As usual with all my book reviews, you can find that at the lower end of this post.

In the meantime, still in the world of spooks, my publishers at Avon Books (HarperCollins), who published my horror e-collection, DARK WINTER TALES, this time last year, have asked me this year if I’d ever consider putting together a list of my five scariest moments in horror films and offering a little synopsis in each case to try and capture the mood. As this is the kind of challenge I’m always up for, I undertook said task with relish, and here, today, are the results.

I should reiterate that these aren’t necessarily what I consider to be the five best horror movies ever made, or even my five personal favourite horror movies; they are the five movies that happen to contain the individual scenes which I consider to be among the most spine-chilling or flesh-creeping, or both, ever put onto celluloid.

It’s a subjective thing, of course. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I hope you’ll all at least agree that it’s a good bit of late-October fun.

So here we go, in no particular order …


After a disturbing sexual encounter with her mysterious new boyfriend, Hugh, Michigan college student, Jay, is relentlessly followed by a shape-shifting demonic entity, which only she can see. It pursues her at walking pace, but will not stop, never tires, and cannot be dissuaded in any way from continuing the pursuit. According to Hugh, when it finally catches up with her, it will brutally murder and mutilate her.

My favourite scene comes relatively early on in the movie, when Jay is still unsure that what Hugh has told her is true, but is sufficiently distressed by her last tryst with him to be concerned in class when she spies a curious figure approaching across the college campus: a gaunt old woman wearing what looks like a hospital gown, but apparently heading straight for her. Jay flees her lecture, only to be confronted by the same figure in the adjacent corridor, and up close it’s a ghastly specimen indeed. The chase is well and truly on. 


A veteran Georgetown police detective is baffled by a series of Satanic murders because they remind him of those committed by the Gemini Killer, who died in the electric chair several years earlier. He is also drawn to a chilling but unavoidable suspicion that there may be a connection between this series of slayings and the case of the possessed child, Regan McNeil, as dealt with in the original Exorcist movie, the events of which happened 15 years earlier.

The most hair-raising scene in the film for me involves an elderly priest in the local Catholic church, who is hearing confessions. An unseen penitent enters the confessional. The priest can’t see who it is, of course, but at first all appears to be normal. The penitent speaks in an odd, creaky voice, but seems harmless enough, until suddenly, while cackling dementedly, he/she confesses to 17 sadistic murders. The priest is terror-stricken, but it’s too late. The scene ends with blood flowing out from under the confessional door.  

SALEM’S LOT (2004)

A 21st century adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel, in which writer, Ben Mears, returns to his home town of Jerusalem’s Lot, in New England, where he intends to write a new novel that will help him shake off the demons of his past. Unfortunately, the town is ailing economically. Not only that, it is gradually being taken over by vampires from Europe, who are using the local residents’ own sins and weaknesses to attack them. 

In discussing Salem’s Lot, either the 1979 version, or this one, most fans nominate the Danny Glick at the window scene as their moment of purest terror, but my scene occurs later on, when Mears and local man, Floyd Tibbits, fight and are jailed for the night in adjoining cells. Tibbits, part vampirised, forces himself along an impossibly narrow ventilation shaft to get at Mears, literally breaking and disjointing his own bones in the process. Mears manages to keep him back, and Tibbits is found dead the next day, having gnawed his own wrists and drunk his own blood.


Holden, an American criminal psychologist, arrives in England to investigate the activities of a so-called devil cult who are suspected of several murders. Holden isn’t buying that there is a supernatural angle to all this, but after he encounters Karswell, the urbane leader of the cult, who threatens him with demonic vengeance if he doesn’t call off the enquiry, a series of chilling events occur which gradually persuades him otherwise.

For me, the most memorable scene in this classic movie comes when Holden drives out to Karswell’s country estate, where a Halloween party is being held for children from the local village. Karswell, a self-proclaimed warlock, is as affable and charming as ever, and dresses as a friendly clown to entertain the youngsters, though once again he makes subtle threats to his adult guest. Holden maintains his air of amused indifference to this – until Karswell casually invokes a massive wind-storm, which destroys the party and sends the children screaming for cover.


Wounded Vietnam veteran, Jake Singer, tries to rebuild his life in New York, but is increasingly plagued by bizarre dreams, flashbacks and chilling hallucinations, which slowly begin ripping his life apart. He seeks answers with other members of his old detachment, only to find that they are similarly tortured. Now, however, there are new dangers: a secret group is apparently hunting the vets down, while reality itself appears to be changing, much for the worse. 

Easily my favourite scene in this twisting, turning head-trip of a thriller, and perhaps one of the most frightening scenes in any scary movie ever, occurs when Jake is abducted by unknown assailants and, after injuring himself while escaping a speeding car, is taken to a grimy hospital, and then transferred down to a lower section, which is a scene of utter horror, with corpses and body-parts strewing the filthy hallways, and raving mental patients caged or trapped in torture devices. Only now does Jake suspect that he might actually be dead and newly arrived in Hell.


An ongoing 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, 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.

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, with 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: the science it employs.

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 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’s 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 very 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 with unbearable terror, 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

Sunday, 9 October 2016

A tale of two Lucys - and both are shockers

I’m offering a big thank you this week to everyone who’s bought my new girl-cop novel, STRANGERS, because thus far at least, in the 18 days since publication, it’s been a runaway success. We’re sticking with lady detectives in the review section this week as well, as I’ll also be talking about Nicola Upson’s rather marvellous THE DEATH OF LUCY KYTE, (though on this occasion it’s a very different kind of female investigator). As usual, if you’re impatient to get there, you’ll find a full review and discussion of that fine novel at the lower end of today’s column.

In the meantime, thanks again to everyone who forked out to buy a copy of STRANGERS. We’ve had some rather spiffing reviews, and as you can probably see from the above image, sales have been so good that in the third week of publication, we made the Sunday Times Top Ten best-sellers list. It’s also been flying in the ebook charts, and is currently sitting somewhere just outside the top 20 (you can get it for only 99p on Kindle as part of the Amazon autumn promotion, though I think that deal runs out at the end of October).

STRANGERS has been an amazing journey for me thus far. I may have mentioned in previous blogposts that I originally evolved the character, Detective Constable Lucy Clayburn, way back in 1993 for a TV series that never was, and resurrected her only last year when my publishers, Avon Books (HarperCollins) asked me to interrupt my Heck series with a new police character, this time a woman.

There’s quite a bit more back-story to it than that, of course, some of which I’ve recently given in more detail in several radio interviews. The first was with the lovely Becky Want (right) at BBC Radio Manchester (Lucy’s cases are all set in my native Greater Manchester). I don’t know how long they keep interviews on the BBC site, but if you act reasonably quickly, you can listen to it HERE (you'll find my bit at around 2.34pm-ish). The second was with the equally lovely Hannah Murray at The Book Show on Talk Radio Europe, which you can access HERE (from 7pm onwards).

You may also be interested in a HarperCollins podcast I recently did with fellow author and ex-cop ASH CAMERON. One of the big challenges to writing STRANGERS came with having to relate the day-to-day experiences of a policewoman working undercover as a Manchester prostitute in order to catch a serial murderer of men. Even though I’m ex-job myself, this was a role I never played, though Ash did it on a number of occasions and several times was put through hell in her efforts to nail the bad guys.

If you tune in HERE, you can catch the podcast, which she and I did together and in which we discuss these experiences of hers and relate them to my new novel. 

I was also very happy to make the Book of the Month in The Sun. I've posted that snippet just below.

Sorry if all this seems like excessive self-pimpery, but I’m on Cloud 9 at the present with regard to the book and where it’s currently sitting. I promise I’ll start behaving in a more grown-up fashion as the year moves on and work commences on my next project, which at this moment in time may well – could be, who knows? – a horror novel / movie tie-in, though I genuinely can’t say any more about that at present. Let’s just see how things pan out.

(PS: If that latter disappoints you because you were hoping to hear about the next Heck, never fear. the manuscript for ASHES TO ASHES, formerly THE BURNING MAN, formerly RIGHTEOUS FIRE, has now been delivered to my publishers and we ought to be starting work on those edits very soon, with a view to seeing it on the shelves in March next year).  


An ongoing 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, 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.

by Nicola Upson (2013)

The year is 1936, the place Polestead in Suffolk, where successful Scottish writer, Josephine Tey, has inherited rundown Red Barn Cottage from her deceased godmother, Hester Larkspur, a one-time glamorous actress who, towards the end of her life, came to live as a recluse and was inexplicably shunned by most of her neighbours. One of the conditions in the will is that Josephine, who barely knew Hester, must take possession of the house herself, along with all it contains, but in concert with another benefactor, a certain Lucy Kyte, of whom there is no physical trace and whom no-one locally seems to know anything about. 

However, this is only one of many mysteries that enshroud Josephine’s inheritance. The age-old cottage is crammed with curious artefacts, while one upper room in particular, which has a terrible atmosphere, is marked with disturbing and perplexing graffiti. An infamous atrocity, the Murder in the Red Barn – when, back in 1827, village beauty Maria Marten was butchered by her handsome lover, William Corder – occurred only a few dozen yards away, while an eerie ghost story connected to this crime still seems to haunt the village. Enquiries about Hester’s own death indicate that the elderly lady was hiding from someone or something when she expired from natural causes.

Seemingly, there has been much unpleasantness in and around this melancholy house, though no-one now will speak of it.

Isolated, and increasingly threatened by a nebulous but persistent presence, Josephine attempts to unravel the various puzzles, researching the details of the original crime and at the same time establishing the final movements of her godmother, whose death she is progressively more certain was hastened by foul play.

Josephine is a gentle person rather than a fighter. This makes her an unlikely hero, but she is intellectually superior to almost everyone she meets, and this gives her a big advantage, which is something she’s going to need – because even with the Red Barn a distant memory and Polestead now an idyllic summertime hamlet, there is a constant undercurrent of menace here. No one is really happy in this place. The hostility from certain neighbours is palpable, especially when Josephine starts asking questions, and even some of those who initially appear friendly possess an air of alarming superficiality.

Scratch this benign surface deep enough, it seems, and something very nasty may emerge from underneath …

My initial thought on The Death of Lucy Kyte was that it wouldn’t be for me. It had the overall aura of what used to, somewhat condescendingly, be referred to as a ‘woman’s book’. But very quickly I was seduced by Nicola Upson’s expert control of mood, not to mention her exquisite writing. The characters, both living and dead, are vividly drawn, their intricate and complex relationships deftly handled. Hester Larkspur in particular is a wonder. Given that she never appears in the book, we get astonishingly close to her through her property and diaries, and through Josephine’s fond ruminations on her melodramatic life in the Edwardian-era theatre.

But it is Josephine herself, for whom this is the fifth adventure to be novelised, who’s the real star of the show. Based on the Inverness-born mystery writer, Elizabeth Mackintosh, she is a very reserved person, almost to the point of being stuffy, primarily happy when in her own company or with Marta, her upper class lover, and yet easily frightened and affected emotionally by grief and solitude. And yet this apparent vulnerability is deceptive – Josephine has hidden depths of resilience, not least her absolute determination to get justice for Hester.

The investigation this leads to is fascinating.

To start with, there are actually two narratives interwoven here, both of them sprinkled with clues. The secondary thread, the tale of Maria Marten’s death and the execution of her killer by hanging and dissection, is enthralling, its gruesomeness and the general hardship of that age richly evoked by the author and contrasted sharply with the pastoral landscape of the Suffolk Weald in the 1930s. The ‘current’ narrative meanwhile, has an ambience all of its own, and lightens the dark mystery with some nice touches of gentle comedy, including guest appearances by none other than Tod Slaughter, the famous British star of Grand Guignol cinema, King Edward VIII and even Wallis Simpson.

I won’t go as far as to say that I was blown away by The Death of Lucy Kyte – there are times when it felt a little as if it was meandering, but despite its leisurely pace, it is increasingly fraught with danger and finally culminates in the unmasking of one of the most narcissistically nasty villains I’ve ever come across on the written page.

Overall, this is a high quality psychological/supernatural thriller, very much in the style of one of the slower-burn Hitchcocks. Maybe I’d have liked a slightly more conclusive pay-off, but ultimately it isn’t that kind of novel. Besides, the Josephine Tey story-arc is now five books in and counting, so lots of pay-offs, I suspect, are still easily possible.

As always – just for a laugh – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Death of Lucy Kyte ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (though if it ever does, the series would have to start with An Expert in Murder, which is Josephine Tey #1):

Josephine Tey – Ruth Connell
Jane Peck – Lindsay Duncan
Maria Marten – Rosamund Pike
William Corder – Tom Weston-Jones
Lucy Kyte – Daisy Ridley
Marta Fox – Kate Winslet
Tod Slaughter – Brad Dourif (Controversial choice? Naaah … I think he’d be exceptional)

Monday, 26 September 2016

Lethal ladies who chill (and spill) the blood

This week we’re perhaps even more in the realms of crazy killers than usual, though thankfully some of them (but only some of them) are imaginary. Example: I’ve recently read Graham Masterton’s remarkably graphic but enthralling crime novel, WHITE BONES, and offer my detailed review of it today – but as usual, at the lower end of this blogpost. First of all, in light of the recent publication of STRANGERS, I thought this might be an appropriate time to post an article I’ve recently penned focussing on maniacs of a more real world ilk … specifically, on this occasion, those of a feminine persuasion.

So … deadlier than the male? You decide.    

My crime novels to date have followed the fortunes of Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg, a seasoned detective sergeant attached to the Serial Crimes Unit at Scotland Yard, and his pursuits of some truly heinous criminals: mass murderers and serial killers whose violent rampages have shocked the country to its foundations. Almost exclusively, these felons have been male, they have run up scores of victims, and their motives have been so twisted and bizarre that in many cases they’ve defied understanding. However, in my new novel, STRANGERS, we change the scenery a little.

Lucy Clayburn is a brand new character; a feisty young female detective constable in the Greater Manchester Police – ambitious to do well, and eager to bring her own brand of justice to the streets. She’s inexperienced though, and doesn’t fully enjoy the confidence of her superiors. At the same time, somewhat unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your view – she comes up against a particularly deadly opponent. ‘Jill the Ripper’ is a female serial killer, who seduces random male victims, and then purely for her own gratification, murders and mutilates them.

So, in truth, you could say that STRANGERS doesn’t just change the scenery … it completely reverses it.

You see, it had occurred to me that so often in crime fiction the narrative reflects the usual tragedy of real life in that an opportunist male predator hunts down innocent females. But in opting with STRANGERS to turn this cliché on its head, I wasn’t just trying to be politically correct – I was looking to focus on one of those lesser-known but nonetheless very real creatures that inhabit some of the darkest corners of criminality: the female lust-slayer.

We’ve always known that women are just as capable of committing multiple murder as men, but on the whole – certainly in the popular imagination – mass murderesses have tended to fall into several distinct categories: ‘black widow’ types, who poison their loved ones or those they are caring for in order to gain financially; so-called ‘baby farmers’ (again, the perceived motive for this is usually financial); or as the submissive partners in murderous duos, who tend to act under the direction of more dominant males. One thing you tend not to see among women who repeatedly murder is the lone predator, a sadist who prowls for victims and kills purely for the fun of it.

At least, this was what I thought … until I commenced some simple, basic research. With remarkable speed, I began to accrue information which was completely contrary to this assumption. Female serial killers, it seems, can be just as brutal and cruel as any of their male counterparts, and their motives can be just as bizarre.

Here, in no particular order, are five of the most terrifying:

(the Ogress of Paris)
Weber, a small but brutish woman, was similar to many other serial killers in that she enjoyed incredible good fortune during her murderous career. She was an efficient murderer, for sure, but not an intelligent one, regularly leaving clues behind and finding herself in compromising situations with regard to her child victims, and yet somehow she continued to evade capture until she’d accounted for at least ten innocent lives.

An alcoholic from an early age, uneducated and boorish, Weber first arrived in Paris in 1888, worked a succession of poorly-paid jobs and found herself living in a slum. She married in 1893, but her husband was also a drunk and any chance of a normal family life evaporated in 1905 when their two young children mysteriously died.

From this point on, children dying in close proximity to Jeanne Weber would become a regular occurrence. In March 1905, on two different occasions, she was babysitting for her sister-in-law, when fatalities occurred: her two nieces, 18-month-old Georgette and two-year-old Suzanne, were both found dead by their parents, but attendant physicians put the double-tragedy down to ‘convulsions’. When another of Weber’s nieces, seven-year-old Germaine, died later that month, again while her aunt was babysitting, it was written off as diphtheria (despite the clear marks of strangulation on his throat), as was the death of Weber’s own baby son, Marcel, four days later (on which occasion, yet again, the bruising on the victim’s throat was ignored).

Weber’s luck almost ran out the following month, when she was caught trying to throttle her ten-year-old nephew, Maurice. She was subsequently tried for eight murders of children, including her own, and those of Lucie Aleandre and Marceal Poyatos, who were not related to her but had also died while in her care – and yet thanks to the skilled defence work of lawyer Henri-Robert, Weber was acquitted. History repeated itself in 1907, when Henri-Robert successfully defended her for a second time, this time for the death in her charge of nine-year-old Auguste Bavouzet – on this occasion the famously erudite lawyer managed to convince the court the child had expired from typhoid.

Even when captured attempting to strangle another child while working as an orderly in a care home, Weber was merely sacked from her post rather than charged. And because the incident was hushed up rather than publicised, it left her at liberty to strike again – which she duly did in 1908, when she attacked the ten-year-old son of her landlord. This time the child’s father intervened, and apparently had to hit Weber three times in the face before he could break the grip she had on the child’s throat.

Tried again, this time for ten murders, Weber was certified insane on October 25 1908, and condemned to spend the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum. She lasted ten years before committing her last successful strangulation – this time on herself.

(Countess Dracula)
Elizabeth Bathory is one of the most nightmarish figures in all criminal history, and is regularly likened to a female Vlad the Impaler. Her life story reads like the screenplay for a horror movie, and in fact she’s been the subject of several.

Born into the Hungarian aristocracy in 1560, she initially had everything a woman could realistically hope for in the Middle Ages. Niece to Stephen Bathory, Prince of Transylvania, she led a wealthy, privileged lifestyle, was well-educated, beautiful and the heiress to vast estates. Her marriage to Ferenc Nadasdy, Commander in Chief of the Hungarian army, was attended by 4,500 guests. At the same time, as a wedding gift from her husband, Elizabeth was endowed with the impregnable Csejte Castle in a remote corner of the Carpathian Mountains.

And here is where it all began to go wrong.

As a full-time soldier, Nadasdy was constantly on campaign against the Turks, so Elizabeth was left alone in the castle for long periods, and though she had children of her own and was regarded as an effective governess in the region, managing the estates and administering justice, she came to spend more and more time in the company of a small clique of ultra-loyal servants: Dorotya Semetesz, Ilona Jo, Katarina Benicka and Janus Ujvary. Whether there was sexual activity among this group is unclear, but weird sadism from Elizabeth was increasingly the order of the day, particularly where her younger maid-servants were concerned. And it didn’t end there.

By the time Elizabeth’s husband died in 1604, rumours were already widespread that many young girls who’d innocently attended the castle – usually peasants invited to come there and work – had never been seen again.

The reason for this is simple. They were being murdered by Elizabeth and her four cronies, but only after imprisonment in her dungeons, where they suffered protracted and hideous torture. In some cases, they were even bled to death so that Elizabeth could bathe in their blood, apparently convinced by local vampire legends that it would keep her young and beautiful.

Of course, these activities were only possible when Nadasdy was away at war, but now that he was gone for good, his wife was able to give full rein to her twisted desires. More and more peasant girls were reported missing in the vicinity of the castle, but only when certain daughters of the nobility dropped from sight, having attended Csejte to learn etiquette from the now reclusive countess, were these reports taken seriously.

When Lutheran pastor, Istvan Magyari, openly accused the countess of mass murder at the Royal Court in Vienna, King Matthias of Hungary took personal interest. Royal investigators arrived unannounced at the castle, and found macabre evidence everywhere, including starved and mutilated prisoners, and bloodless, dismembered corpses – Elizabeth herself was present and said to have been drenched in blood. As many as 300 witnesses came forward with damning testimonies, which included tales of murder and torture, not just at Csejte, but at her other properties in Sarvar, Nemetkeresztur and Pozsony. In total, the accusers claimed, some 650 women and girls had been lured to their deaths.

There was no possibility of refuting such a tide of evidence, and at their trial in 1611, all the malefactors were found guilty. On conviction, Semetesz and Jo were mutilated and then burned at the stake, Ujvary was beheaded and Benicka (who was regarded as a simpleton) imprisoned for life. Elizabeth herself was walled into a room in her own castle, where she lingered for four terrible years before dying from unknown causes. 

(the Angel of Death)
Some medical murderers regard themselves as mercy killers, the benign hand of God snuffing out the pain of their terminally-ill patients. Others seek to profit from their crimes, talking their ailing and confused charges into leaving them generous bequests before ending their lives prematurely.

But Jane Toppan, who in terms of numbers was surely one of the worst ever, had entirely different motives, seemingly deriving great sexual pleasure from her crimes and the sense of power they endowed her with. 

After a difficult childhood spent in the Boston care home where she was born in 1857, Honora Kelley was eventually taken on as an indentured servant by the kindly Toppan family, who educated her and treated her so well that she renamed herself Jane Toppan. On reaching young womanhood in 1885, she was well-equipped to deal with the world, and commenced a potentially lucrative nursing career at Cambridge Hospital – where she almost immediately began to torture certain selected patients, experimenting on them with deadly cocktails of morphine and atropine, bringing them to the point of death and back again (if she possibly could), at the same time climbing into bed and holding them close as they struggled for their lives.

Amazingly, though numerous of her patients died through this horrible process, her murderous hand remained undetected for years. In fact, as she moved from post and post, her career seemed to flourish. Though occasionally disciplined for prescribing drugs recklessly and even suspected of committing occasional thefts, Jane was an attractive woman and seemingly very competent, and as such was well-regarded by her employers. In due course, she found herself earning good money as a private nurse catering to some of Boston’s wealthiest families (whom she also proceeded to decimate).

If the misuse of prescribed opiates was the means by which Jane Toppan could exert an enjoyable control over life and death, she was also pragmatic when it came to murder, despatching rivals and enemies with a variety of other poisons, but gradually becoming careless in her overconfidence. When, in 1901, she murdered four members of the highly respected Davis family in the space of six weeks, suspicion was finally aroused, and a post mortem revealed masses of poison in the victims’ systems.

Taken into custody, Toppan confessed to 31 murders, claiming that her ambition was “to have killed more people than any other man or woman who ever lived”. And she’d certainly made a good fist of this, as despite her confession, evidence later came to implicate her in at least 70 poisoning deaths.

Judged insane, Toppan was spared the death penalty and incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, where she only died in 1938 at the age of 84.

(the Old Lady Killer)
Juana Barraza is something of an exception on this list as her crimes are contemporary. She is still very much alive and if she was at liberty would be more than capable of continuing her reign of terror.

She also most closely resembles the typical male serial killer in that she actively trawled for her victims along the backstreets and run-down neighbourhoods of dingy inner city districts, focussing on a particularly vulnerable and undefended section of society, planning each attack carefully and then striking with extreme savagery.

The murders first began in the late 1990s, when a succession of elderly ladies in Mexico City, all of whom lived alone, generally in run-down parts of town, were found in their homes, bludgeoned and garrotted, and usually having been robbed.

The subsequent police investigation was hampered from the start by factors that were almost beyond the authorities’ control. Even as built-up urban districts go, Mexico City suffers from inordinately high levels of violent crime. Robbery/homicide is a sadly common occurrence, so there was extreme difficulty establishing which crimes were part of the series and which were unconnected to it. Even as late on as 2005 there was uncertainty about how many victims could accurately be attributed to La Mataviejitas (or ‘the Old Lady Killer’), with estimates varying from as few as 11 to as many as 49.

Another complicating factor came in the many witness statements that detectives gathered, which suggested that on more than one occasion a butch-looking female had been seen running from the premises. This was potentially a good lead, but it was a clear mistake by the police to assume that this meant the murderer was a transvestite. In no case was there evidence of sexual assault, which ought to have lessened the possibility the culprit was male. By the same token, whoever the killer was, he/she had never needed to break into the victims’ homes, but had always been invited, which implied a lack of perceived threat and thus made it even more likely the offender was female. The subsequent city-wide swoop on the crossdressing community was, with hindsight, a colossal waste of time and resources.

The killer’s luck finally changed in 2006, when she was again sighted leaving the scene of a murder, but this time was apprehended nearby. Mexico City’s population celebrated on hearing that a suspect was in custody, but there was universal astonishment when that suspect’s identity was revealed.

Juana Barraza was known to her friends as a respectable, conservative woman who worked hard and cared for her family. While not exactly a household name, she also enjoyed some degree of fame as a semi-professional wrestler, whose masked persona in the ring was ‘the Silent Lady’. When arrested, she was in possession of fake identity cards variously naming her as a social worker, a nurse and a welfare officer, which explained how she had been able to con her way into the homes of her gullible victims.

Barraza’s own past was a depressing tale. Sold by her own mother as a child to an abusive man for the price of three bottles of beer, she’d grown up despising the memory of her single parent and determined to gain revenge on elderly ladies in whatever depraved way she could.

In custody, she admitted only one of the murders, but was later convicted of 16 and sentenced to a minimum of 60 years in prison.

(the She-Wolf of Royal Street)
Delphine LaLaurie was vaguely similar to Elizabeth Bathory in that for quite some time her eminent position protected her from investigation, and also enabled her to acquire numerous, regular victims without attracting much attention. In her case, because she lived in New Orleans during the French Colonial era, these unfortunates were her own black slaves.

LaLaurie had similar appetites to Elizabeth Bathory, being insatiably cruel and sadistic. However, unlike Countess Dracula, many of the atrocities associated with LaLaurie are unsupported by factual evidence.

This doesn’t mean they didn’t happen or that they have been exaggerated, but some of the ghastly stories we are about to discuss owe as much to myth as to fact. What is indisputably true is that Delphine LaLaurie was a rich New Orleans socialite of the early 19th century, and that in 1832 she built herself a palatial residence on Royal Street in the heart of the city’s stylish French Quarter (it is well preserved today, and can still be visited).

To all intents and purposes, LaLaurie maintained the image of a benevolent woman-about-town, who was ostentatious in terms of her wealth and active on the ball-room circuit, but who was also liberal in her views and a supporter of good causes. However, by about 1832, stories were rife in the neighbourhood that her slaves were in a pitiful condition, looking starved and often displaying signs of severe beatings. When a 12-year-old slave girl apparently preferred jumping to her death from an upper window in the Royal Street mansion than submit to a whipping by her mistress, there was an enquiry. Discovering that the savage and prolonged flogging of chained and underfed slaves was a regular event in LaLaurie’s household, she was cautioned and fined.

But it was only in 1836 when a fire at the house exposed the full horror of what was happening there.

A 70-year-old cook confessed to the police that she had set the flames deliberately to avoid being taken to her mistress’s upper room, from where no-one ever returned. An investigation of this upper room discovered four corpses and at least seven slaves confined in a variety of torture devices, many on the point of death. Some had been lashed to the point where they’d literally been flayed. One had been disembowelled, one had had his eyes gouged out, and another’s lips had been sewn together. Two female captives had suffered particularly awful cruelty; the first had lost all four of her limbs to axe-blows, and the stumps had been cauterised, turning her into a human caterpillar. The other’s limbs had been broken and deliberately re-set at strange angles, so that she resembled a crab.

A full-scale excavation of the property followed, and about 100 corpses – all bearing similar marks of murder and mutilation – were recovered from the courtyard alone.

Again, it’s worth pointing out that much of this gory and sensational detail was reported in later pamphlets rather than at the time – some evidence suggests that only two murder victims were in fact disinterred from the courtyard – but whatever facts escaped into the public domain back in 1836, it caused a riot, a mob sacking LaLaurie’s house and driving the evil woman and her family into headlong flight.

Ultimately, whatever actually happened in New Orleans, Delphine LaLaurie avoided real justice, successfully emigrating to France, where she died in her late 60s … from natural causes.


An ongoing 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, 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.

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 cause for 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 sacrifice, and it isn’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 appears 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 maybe a bit of a right-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

This week's imagery is as follows, top to bottom: Cathy Bates as Delphine LaLaurie in American Horror Story; Strangers by Paul Finch; a masked and armed female figure photographed by a roadside in New Zealand earlier this year (though this wasnt a murder suspect, most likely just a prankster); contemporary newspaper coverge of Jeanne Webers crimes; Ingrid Pitt as Elizabeth Bathory, Hammer style; a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth Bathory; a contemporary portrait of Jane Toppan; a police mugshot of Juana Barraza; a contemporary portrait of Delphine LaLaurie; the LaLaurie mansion today;White Bones by Graham Masterton.