Sunday, 12 November 2017

Rogues to gather in dark, dangerous north


One event of this year which I have been anticipating more than many others is now almost upon us.

It is HULL NOIR, a celebration of northern crime writing, which I’m delighted and flattered to be participating in as chair of one of the panels. There have been Hull Noir events throughout this month, but it really gets going on the weekend of November 17-19. More about that in a few paragraphs, though it sets the tone for this week’s post overall, because today I am going to be discussing crime fiction that is both written and set right here in what used to be considered the Dark Half of England ... for which reason I probably couldn’t pick a better novel to review and discuss this week (in my usual forensic detail, I think you’ll find) than one of the original slices of urban Brit grit, Ted Lewis’s seminal JACK’S RETURN HOME, aka GET CARTER.

Again, more about that shortly – as always, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s post.

Before we get to any of that, but still on the subject of northern crime, I’m very happy to reveal that SHADOWS, the second installment in my series of Lucy Clayburn novels, will only be 99p in ebook form from now until the end of this month.

SHADOWS is every inch a northern crime novel, because, whereas my other main crime-fighting character, Mark Heckenburg, though a northerner by origin (born in the fictional Lancashire town of Bradburn, 17 miles outside Manchester) has a remit as a homicide detective to travel the whole of England and Wales, Lucy Clayburn (STRANGERS was her first outing) is an inner-Manchester girl, and her home borough and workplace (the again fictional Crowley) is located somewhere between Wigan, Bolton and Salford, which makes it the absolute epitome of the industrial Northwest.

In the last book, as a uniformed officer, Lucy went undercover as a prostitute to try and catch a female sex killer of men, and in this new one, as part of the elite Manchester Robbery Squad, she embarks on the pursuit of a band of gun-toting robbers, who aren’t just causing horror and fear because of their crazy cowboy antics – they will shoot anyone for the slightest reason – but who, as they are mainly targeting the underworld, look likely to cause a major gangland war.

So there we are, if you’ve got an e-reader, and you haven’t yet got on the Lucy Clayburn train, now is your chance … and for the bargain basement price of 99p.

I’ll say no more on that subject, because now onto HULL NOIR.

From Craphouse to Powerhouse

Associated with the Hull 2017 UK City of Culture event, HULL NOIR looks set to be one of the major crime literature festivals of this year, so it was a real honour to be asked to get involved. The stars of the show are undoubtedly Martina Cole, Mark Billingham and John Connolly – and they’ll all be playing significant roles. Martina will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of her first published novel, Dangerous Lady, in the company of top crime critic, author and aficianado, Barry Forshaw, while Mark and John will be contemplating the worst and best of their careers with Daily Telegraph crime critic, Jake Kerridge. But in addition, there some amazing panels lined up for next weekend.

Check these out, just as a sample (because there are many others too):

On Sleeping with the Fishes, Nick Quantrill, David Mark, Lilja Sigurdardottir and Quentin Bates will be discussing the style and influence of Hull and Iceland as locations and inspirations for crime writing.

On Getting Carter, Ted Lewis and the Hard Boiling of British Crime Fiction, Howard Linskey, Russel McLean, Sean O’Brien, Andrew Spicer and Nick Triplow will chat about the influence of American-style hardboiled crime writing on the British school.

In Brawlers & Bastards, Steph Broadribb, Craig Robertson, Mick Herron and Harry Brett will debate the genre’s hardmen, and look at how crime writers have made antiheroes from some of the most reprehensible characters.

But the panel I’m most looking forward (me being biased, this being my own), is From Craphouse to Powerhouse, on which I’ll be joined by northern crime luminaries, Liverpool’s Luca Veste, Newcastle’s Danielle Ramsay and Glasgow’s Jay Stringer, to kick around the subject of crime fiction along the M62, the noisy but straight-as-an-arrow motorway which, running as it does from Merseyside on the west coast, through Manchester, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and finally arriving in Humberside on the east coast, is often seen as drawing a straight line through the very heart of the old smoky, sooty north.

We’ll be talking about all kinds of crime-related northern stuff, I imagine, from industrial might to post-industrial decay, from the numerous terrible murder cases in this part of the world that might have influenced us, to the development of organised crime in our vast inner city areas now rendered dark and desperate by unemployment, and to the emergence from this chaos of hard-bitten northern heroes, like Veste’s Murphy and Rossi, like Ramsay’s Harri Jacobs, like Stringer’s Sam Ireland, and, if I say so myself, like my own Lucy Clayburn and Mark Heckenburg, all of whom, though they’re not gangsters per se, (Hell,  some of them are actually cops!), whether intentionally on our part, or subliminally, have taken a leaf out of Jack Carter’s ‘Don’t Argue’ playbook.

As I say, HULL NOIR officially gets going this weekend, at the Britannia Royal Hotel, Hull. From Powerhouse to Craphouse starts at 11:30am on Saturday, November 18.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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.

JACK’S RETURN HOME 
by Ted Lewis (1970)

It’s the late 1960s in Scunthorpe, and Jack Carter is coming home.

Jack, born and raised in the northern steel town, left home quite some time ago to make his fortune in London, and, being a handy lad and inclined towards pitiless immorality, he eventually found his place as a mob enforcer. Since then, Jack has done all kinds of awful things at the behest of his employers, East End racketeers, Les and Gerald Fletcher, and in so doing, has earned himself a real reputation. Quite often, though, he lets his heart rule his head. For example, the clandestine affair he is conducting with Gerald’s wife, Audrey, is very ill-advised. But even more so is this return to Scunthorpe.

Long estranged from his family, Jack has only two close relatives remaining: his older brother, Frank, and Frank’s daughter, 15-year-old Doreen. But now Frank is dead, killed in an apparent drink-driving accident. The police, or ‘scuffers’, as they are known locally, see nothing suspicious in this. Frank was a barman, after all, and he worked in a particularly rough part of a particularly rough town. However, he was not known to be an unstable character, and in fact, compared to his brother, was a clean-living citizen – and this is the point where Jack becomes curious, refusing to believe that Frank would have climbed into his car having consumed an entire bottle of whiskey.

Though he came north ostensibly for his brother’s funeral, he now begins snooping around, asking questions, and it soon arouses the attention and eventually the ire of a number of local underworld figures.

Chief among these is Scunthorpe’s own godfather, Cyril Kinnear, but there are others who are no less dangerous in their own way: overly ambitious rival gang-boss, Cliff Brumby, for example; not-so-tough-but-well-connected loanshark, ‘Steelworks Thorpey’; ex-teddy boy and pool-room bully, Albert Swift, who became an underworld go’fer; and the ultra sinister Eric Paice, an old enemy of Jack’s, who, though he works superficially as a chauffeur, is mainly valuable to the mob for his ability to seduce and/or snatch young girls from lives of respectability for futures in pornography and prostitution – and Jack soon suspects that this latter is the key to the mystery.

It is only 1968, and blue movies are still taboo, but there is a voracious demand for them on the underground circuit, particularly among those interested in the sex adventures of very, very young females.

Increasingly firm attempts are made to dissuade Jack from continuing his investigation, gentle persuasion gradually giving way to violence, initially directed against those around him, such as Frank’s old mate and fellow barman, Keith Lacey, and Jack’s attractive if earthy landlady, Edna Garfoot, but finally against Jack himself – by which time it is verging on the lethal.

Jack continues to resist, even when he receives direct orders from Gerald and Les, as delivered by a pair of London hitmen, the brutal Con McCarty and camp-as-hell Peter the Dutchman ... and this latter makes him even more suspicious. How is his own firm involved in Frank’s death? And what role does Doreen play? – she may only be 15 and an orphan to boot, but her name crops up increasingly and in ever more lurid circumstances.

The more Jack evades attempts on his life, the more unedifying truths he uncovers, and the more personal this becomes. Soon, it is one man against the combined forces of both the London and the Scunthorpe syndicates, from which point there is no going back …  
     
It’s very difficult to disassociate the novel, Jack’s Return Home, from the seminal Michael Caine and Mike Hodges movie adaptation of 1971, Get Carter. In fact, later editions of the novel were republished under that very title.

In truth, there are a lot of similarities, even down to certain lines of dialogue, but there are some differences too.

To start with, Caine, though a mesmerising screen presence in his heyday, was ‘ethnically wrong’ to play Jack Carter, who in the book is a displaced northerner rather than a Cockney. In addition to that, perhaps the most famous liberty the movie took was in its transposition of the story from Scunthorpe to the even more grimily picturesque Newcastle. That said, none of these are really major issues. Where both the novel and the movie are united is in their warts-and-all portrayal of an unforgiving British gangland, setting their narratives against dingy working-class backdrops, and underscoring them with a level of sleaze that has shocking power even today.

In regard to all that, Jack’s Return Home is the original slice of Brit grit, the novel that opened the door to countless generations of Brit-Noir fiction to follow, while Get Carter, the movie, in taking the X certificate as far as it could go, presented us with a serious, grown-up thriller that would usher in a new age of UK-set hard-as-nails crime movies, much the way The French Connection did in the States (without Get Carter, it is doubtful we’d have had Villain, The Squeeze, Sitting Target, The Sweeney or The Long Good Friday).

But back to the novel.

In terms of negatives (and there aren’t many of these), Jack’s Return Home may have lost a bit of its authority in the 21st century simply because time and society have moved on. It’s probably true to say that Ted Lewis was never a wizard with words. He could create atmosphere for sure, but he was no poet. Most of the impact his book originally made stemmed from it’s in-yer-face style. And even today, everything I’ve just said notwithstanding, it’s a bit of an eye-opener to see such a stark, matter-of-fact depiction of a rough, tough town, with its depressing rows of terraced houses, its fiery backcloth of factories and steel mills, its backstreet pubs full of drunks and strippers, and its smoke-filled billiards halls where a single wrong word can get you into serious trouble.

I can only imagine the strength of this narrative back in 1968.

That said, Ted Lewis wasn’t ploughing a completely lone furrow even then. Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) had already blazed a trail for blue-collar fiction, with its energised tale of a resentful tough-nut and the lives he either ruins or enriches (but mainly the former!) as he crashes selfishly through post-war Nottingham, while Barry Hines’s wonderful A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) focussed on an unwanted boy from a Barnsley council estate, and his doomed friendship with a hunting bird he rescued as an orphanned chick. In this regard, Ted Lewis’s great innovation was to take the ‘kitchen sink’ template, and pile on the villainy, creating a very difficult reality where near enough everyone is corrupt, including the police and local dignitaries, where eff-words are the norm, where heavy drinking and the use of casual violence are the mark of manliness, and women in particular are treated like dirt.

This latter is perhaps the part where Jack’s Return Home is really at odds with modern thinking. Because at the heart of this tale lies the underworld’s all new money-spinner: hardcore porn. And it’s porn of the sordid, seedy, homegrown variety, in which desperate, cash-strapped actors participate for peanuts, especially the women, and in which almost no age restriction is put on them – in fact, the younger the better.

An accurate depiction of a squalid world, perhaps, but the novel has dated generally in the context of its female cast, almost all of whom are tarts of a sort: Frank’s ex-wife, Murial (who had sex with Jack after getting drunk); Frank’s former girlfriend, Margaret; good-time girl, Glenda; and even middle-aged landlady, Edna, who happily sits across the room from her lodger, with legs apart so that he can see her stocking-tops (and later on gets brutally beaten, to which Jack is stingingly unsympathetic).

It’s no surprise that not everyone these days sings the novel’s praises.

Jack Carter’s character is itself ambiguous. Caine’s appearance in the movie caused a stir at the time, everyone’s favourite cheeky chappie turning hard and vicious in his quest for revenge, but in the novel there is barely a hint of a pleasant side to his personality. On occasion, he reminisces about his early youth – the last happy time he knew, we suspect – when he and Frank got on their bikes and explored the woods and wastelands on the outskirts of town. These are moving sequences and poignant reminders that even monsters once were children. However, later on things changed for Jack, possibly in response to Frank’s gentler nature: Jack idolised his older brother, but as they grew older, Jack came to revile Frank’s habit of turning the other cheek, feeling increasingy betrayed by it. As such, for the bulk of this novel, Jack is a coldly merciless figure. He doesn’t go at it shouting and swearing, because he’s got nothing to prove – all the hoods in Scunthorpe know who he is, and most of them fear him. Even in casual conversation, you suspect it’s only the calm before the storm.

A staple of ‘tough guy’ fiction these days, I suppose Jack was one of the very first who you could say ‘didn’t start fights, but certainly finished them’.

So successful was Jack’s Return Home, that Ted Lewis wrote two additional Carter novels afterwards. But with his sad and premature death at the age of 42, the series ended there. Even so, he created an iconic character in the annals of British crime fiction, one who’s been copied many times since but has rarely been equalled, and set him in a world long lost but utterly unforgettable (even if mostly for the wrong reasons).

I’m in the habit of ending these book reviews with some fantasy casting, putting forward a ensemble of actors who I feel would be perfect in the roles. But given the two major movie adaptations that Jack’s Return Home already has in the bank – the totally awesome Get Carter (1971), and the significantly less awesome, Vegas-set Sly Stallone vehicle, Get Carter (2000), I don’t think there’s much point. 

The cracking image topping todays blog was taken in Newcastle during the filming of Get Carter (1971), and depicts Michael Caine and Ted Lewis. It currently graces the cover of GETTING CARTER, Nick Triplow’s new and amazing account of Lewis’s short-lived career. If anyone knows the name of the photographer, please tell me and Ill be delighted to credit him. 

The image at the top of todays book review is the original cover art, as used by Michael Joseph on the first edition of the novel.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

It's here again: darkness, devilry and dread

The horror … the horror …

Yes, we’re in the final run-up to Halloween, and so this week I’m going to take a brief break from talking about my new crime novel, SHADOWS, in order to celebrate the season of ultimate darkness.

I’m going to do this on three fronts: firstly, as a horror story writer myself (in my spare time, these days), by focussing on several scary story collections and anthologies which you need to be getting your teeth into at this time of year; secondly, by presenting a gallery of what I consider to be the 25 BEST HORROR NOVEL COVERS EVER; and thirdly, by reviewing and discussing in my usual forensic detail S.L.Grey’s spine-chilling THE APARTMENT – as always, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s post.

Books to read

One thing I always love about the waning of the year is the inevitable association it brings with eerie stories. I’m not going to prattle too much about how the oncoming cold and darkness and the dying of the land each autumn brought fear and concern to our ancient ancestors, who imagined that this was due to the presence of witches, goblins and other evil entities, and so in turn sought to commune with their own spirits to guarantee the timely return of the sun – but it’s a common belief among anthropologists that we still live with at least one result of this today: an increased awareness of and interest in spooky stories in the period between (and including) Halloween and Christmas.

Anyway, without more ado, if you share that interest and awareness, and you’re so inclined, why not check out some of these books?

Initially, I’m going to do a bit of self-pimpery. As I said, I’m no stranger to writing horror stories, myself. There isn’t enough space here to go back through my entire short story bibliography (and I doubt anyone reading this would have the patience for that anyway, and rightly so), but here are a couple of titles that might be of interest.

DON'T READ ALONE was published in 2013, and features, among other things, an embittered writer who accidentally invokes the spirit of the Green Man, a cop whose determination to locate a missing child takes him into a nightmarish underground complex, and a bunch of marooned holiday-makers who are menaced by an ancient, oceanic beast ...

DARK WINTER TALES is a more recent title, dating to 2016. In this one, again among other stuff, a housing estate is terrorised by a strangler with seeming inhuman powers, students visit a haunted house where, whatever happens, you are never supposed to look behind you, and the mother of the last man hanged in England becomes obsessed with an executioner’s dummy.

I also have a personal interest in GREAT BRITISH HORROR 2: DARK SATANIC MILLS, featured at the top of this column, which is a relatively recent title – September, 2017 – published by the excellent Black Shuck Books and edited by the indefatigable Steve Shaw. You don’t need to look too far beyond the list of contributors on the cover (again, check the top of this blogpost) to know you’ll be getting quality, but with authors like Carole Johnstone, Gary McMahon, John Llewellyn Probert and Angela Slatter, can you really afford to miss it?

On the subject of anthologies, I also want to mention NEW FEARS, another recent publication, as edited by a good friend of mine and a top writer in his own right, the legendary Mark Morris. This title is a particularly important publication for horror fans, as it could well mark the commencement of a new, annual, high quality horror antho series, something we’ve been sorely lacking in recent years. Again, check out some of the stars on the contents list, and just listen to the titles of the stories they’ve written: The Boggle Hole by Alison LittlewoodThe Embarrassment of Dead Grandmothers by Sarah LotzThe House of the Head by Josh Malerman ...

Lastly, here’s a particularly relevant title. Adam Nevill is a another close friend of mine, and another incredible writer – yes, I’m in real name-dropping mode today! – but he’s probably best known at this moment for the current cinema adaptation of his bone-numbing novel, THE RITUAL.

However, of equal interest to dark fiction fans should be his first collection of short stories, SOME WILL NOT SLEEP, which, trust me, contains some true fictional nightmares. I defy anyone to read stories like Where Angels Come In, The Original Occupant, Yellow Teeth and Pig Thing, and to sleep easily for the next few nights.

But don’t take my word for it … investigate these titles for yourself.  

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One of the joys (or agonies) of being an author is that first moment when you get to see the cover allocated to your latest book. You don’t always like them; appreciation of art is a subjective thing, of course. But just because you don’t like your latest jacket, that doesn’t mean others won’t, or that it isn’t actually fantastic. However, throughout the history of published fiction there have occasionally been book-covers so jaw-dropping that no serious person could ever do anything other than take a big, awe-stricken step backwards on first seeing them.

And the horror genre is no exception.

So here, in no particular order, are THE BEST 25 HORROR NOVEL COVERS EVER (including one or two short story collections, because this is horror, and in horror, the short form really counts):


1. THE LURKER AT THE THRESHOLD
H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth (Panther, 1970)


Familiar Lovecraft territory from the start as Ambrose Dewart returns to his ancient ancestral pile in the heart of rural Massachusetts, only to uncover horrific revelations about his family’s past and their connections to ancient evil. Mostly written by August Derleth from scraps of original HP text (first published in 1945), this reprint cover still conveys the intense cosmic horror better than all others ... 


2. KRONOS 
Jeremy Robinson (Variance, 2009)


Can’t really comment on the book as I haven’t read it yet, but anyone who’s even vaguely uncomfortable swimming with deep water beneath them, or who gets nervy thinking about the ocean abyss, how does this one look to you? It concerns a former Navy Seal who is determined to avenge the loss of his daughter by destroying a mysterious, colossal sea-creature ...


3. THE RITUAL
Adam Nevill (Pan, 2012)


Originally published in 2011, the reprint cover of this modern folk-horror classic still captures the atmosphere of the book better than any other. When four middle-aged English guys hit the wild backwoods of northern Sweden, they find themselves lost in a depthless primeval forest, filled with ancient mysteries and hideous relics, and with something ghastly in pursuit. Totally terrifying ... 


4. THE OCTOBER COUNTRY
Ray Bradbury (Ballantine, 1955)


A superb jacket to one of the ultimate horror collections, its otherworldly elements perfectly complementing the 1950s Avant-garde style to indicate that what you’re going to get here won’t just consist of the chilling and macabre, but will be liberally laced with weirdness and typical Ray Bradbury fantastica ...     


5. MR. HANDS 
Gary A. Braunbeck (Leisure, 2007)


This paperback edition put an unforgettable but very to-the-point cover on Gary Braunbeck’s third novel in the Cedar Hill series. For the uninitiated, Cedar Hill is a fictional blue-collar town in Ohio, where mysterious secrets are kept and unexplained forces wreak havoc. In this installment, Braunbeck gives his own unique take on the legend of the golem, as the jacket clearly shows ... 


6. JAWS
Peter Benchley (Doubleday, 1974)


The original simple-and-yet-so-effective Doubleday cover to the book that emptied seaside bathing areas across the Northern Hemisphere during one of the hottest summers on record. There’s not much more you can say, except that this perfectly judged image - along with all those others derived from it - has become one of the most distinctive and iconic in horror novel history ...


7. DRACULA
Bram Stoker (Penguin Classics, 2004)


Since its first publication by Archibald Constable in 1897, Dracula has had every kind of cover conceivable, from the garish to the subtle, from the saucy to the romantic. For me, this is the best of them all, because it perfectly addresses the problem of how to re-jacket a story that so many artists have already tackled in so many different styles, and pulls it off with modernist aplomb ... 


8. KIN
Kealn Patrick Burke (Cemetery Dance, 2011)


A deceptively simple and seemingly non-horrific cover, and yet when it’s combined with the strangely menacing title, you won’t need anyone to tell you that here is a tale of rural cannibalism and depravity, which draws heavily on the backwoods mythology that fuelled such onscreen horrors as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Strong stomachs required ...


9. THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND
William Hope Hodsgon (Sphere, 1980)


First published in 1908, this superior supernatural chiller went on to influence such later luminaries of the horror and fantasy genres as H.P. Lovecraft and Terry Pratchett. It tells the tale of a distressed recluse who seeks refuge in an isolated house in the Irish hinterland, only to find that he has attracted the attention of an evil subterranean race; like this incredible jacket doesn’'t tell you that already ...  


10. I AM LEGEND
Richard Matheson (Orb, 1997)


First published in 1954, what initially seemed like a pulp horror dime-novel soon emerged as one of the seminal horror stories of all time in that it kick-started the zombie-plague genre and was one of the first to moot the possibility of a worldwide Apocalypse caused by germ warfare. The Orb cover completely embodies the nightmare scenario of mankind reduced to living-dead monsterdom ... 


11. IT
Stephen King (New English Library, 1987)


How do you illustrate a horror novel in which the main monster presents different terrifying facets of itself to different characters? This original classic does the job perfectly, because though the balloon is there and even though we know it was the clown lurking in the sewer on the day young Georgie died, it wasn’t one of these new-fangled killer clowns. It was something much, much worse ...


12. SECRET OF VENTRILOQUISM
Jon Padgett (Dunhams Manor, 2016)


Another book on this list which I haven’t yet finished, but which simply screams to be read thanks to its unique and unsettling cover. Jon Padgett’s much-lauded debut collection presents us with a series of interlinked stories which most reviewers have praised for invoking fear through a consistent atmosphere of the weird and uncanny rather than gross-out horror. The cover strongly hints at this ... 


13. DARK HARVEST
Norman Partridge (Tor, 2006) 


American authors, as a whole, tend to utilise Halloween in their writing more than their British counterparts, and this has led to some startlingly atmospheric, autumnal US covers over the years, but this one, and this book, encapsulate the aura more than most. Master of the folklore chiller, Norman Partridge hits us hard with his tale of an isolated country town and its annual Halloween nightmare ...


14. THE PILO FAMILY CIRCUS 
Will Elliott (Underland, 2009)


You won’t need a fear of clowns to be disturbed by this one, but that generations-old phobia is clearly plucked at by this excellent cover. Wildly funny and darkly macabre, it tells of a guy who is recruited to join the circus by a trio of psychopathic clowns, and finds himself in an hellish netherworld of  weird fortune-tellers, maniac freaks, crazy dwarfs, and of course clowns, lots of mad, bad clowns ... 


15. SEED
Ania Ahlborn (47North, 2012)


The Southern Gothic genre goes full-on mythic horror in this pacy tale of a country boy on the run from his own personal demon. The scary cartoon-style cover only gives you one part of the story but it’s more than enough for me. You’ve got the rural folklore element, the demonic element, you’ve got the idea that this is one pursuit that isn’t going to end easily. A hell-ride of a horror novel ...


16. AMERICAN PSYCHO
Bret Easton Ellis (Picador, 1991)


This seminal indictment of yuppie culture and high-end capitalism as seen through the prism of a Wall Street madman so obsessed with superficial gain that he views people as mere commodities which he can brutalise for fun, has divided opinions all its life. Amazingly perceptive, but sexually ultra-violent, it could only ever see the light of day in a cool, ambiguous jacket like this ...   


17. BRITISH INVASION
Chris Golden, Tim Lebbon, James A Moore 
(Cemetery Dance, 2008)


A cover that completely speaks for itself. Cemetery Dance are a specialist and powerhouse publisher of horror novels, collections, anthologies (and, of course, a very successful monthly magazine of the same name) based in the US, and understandably focussing for the most part on American talent. That isn’t a house rule, however, and this specially commissioned antho took CD to the UK ...    


18. HEX
Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Hodder, 2016)


The rather marvellous, movie-style jacket to Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s first English-language novel, which nicely underscores the notion of a rural town entrapped by a 17th century curse. Of course, it’s not so simple. Much of the tension stems from the hi-tech app the townsfolk use to track their nemesis, the hideous Black Rock Witch, though this soon brings its own horrors ...


19. FRANKENSTEIN
Mary Shelley 
(Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818)


If anyone knows who is responsible for this fascinating cover to the age-old horror classic, and/or when it was put it out, I’d be interested to know. I found it floating around online with no notice of provenance attached. If it isn’t actually the cover to an edition of Mary Shelley’s seminal monster saga of 1818 (which had no illustration on its very first cover), then it really should be ...


20. SHUTTER
Courtney Alameda (Square Fish, 2016)


Another book on the list which I haven’t read, but which strongly begs you to take it down from the bookshop shelf. It’s a YA work, so it may not be to every horror reader’s taste, but this is one hell of a great jacket, which more than sells the story inside. In a nutshell, a trainee monster-hunter identifies her potential targets by tracking the auras of the undead through the prismatic spectrum ...


21. THE EXORCIST
William Peter Blatty (Harper & Row, 1971)


The book cover that struck terror into the world in the early 1970s, and certainly one that you had to ensure your parents or teachers never caught you with if you were a kid (like me). Everyone knows the story thanks to the movie version, which was very faithful to the novel. Suggestive of evil for sure, but mainly powerful because of the novel’s fearsome reputation, a spell that hasn’t yet broken ... 


22. HARVEST HOME
Thomas Tryon (Alfred A. Knopf, 1973)


Published in the early days of the small town/village horror cycle that would become so popular, this harrowing tale of a urban couple’s relocation to a seemingly idyllic world of country life and time-honoured tradition will seem very familiar now, though it’s still one of the best of its kind. The simple yet clearly explicit illustration on this, its original cover, tells us exactly what to expect ...   


23. TOYBOX
Al Sarrantonio (Leisure, 2003)


An absolutely perfect cover for the US horror master’s first collection of short stories, because childhood toys and childhood fears are a subtle but ongoing theme here, though the tales themselves, even if linked by a central framing device, are all stand-alones. If you haven’t encountered Al previously, you’re in for a treat. Contains 18 short but beautifully-written chillers ... 


24. THE HOUSE OF DEAD MAIDS
Clare B. Dunkle (Square Fish, 2011)


Another YA inclusion in the list, but another novel excellently illustrated by its jacket, because in this case, supernatural creepiness is to the fore rather than extreme horror or grue. It tells the tale of a young woman who takes a job in a dismal mansion, only to find that most of the time she’s expected to entertain a vicious, sociopathic child. And that isn’t even close to being the worst of it ...


25. WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE
Shirley Jackson (Penguin, 2006)


Saving one of the most literary entries for last, we have Shirley Jackson’s last novel (first pub in 1962), which is more a Gothic mystery than a full-on horror tale, but which nevertheless evokes deep psychological fear as it focusses on a wealthy but oddball family whose presence in a traditionalist small town invites hostility, jealousy and greed, as this wonderful reprint cover amply indicates ...  


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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 S.L. Grey (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this is only the start of it.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

'Tough guy' girls - who are our favourites?


I’m going to be talking about heroines in thrillers this week, particularly the hotshot types, those who are young enough, tough enough and crazy enough to embrace the action full-on. 

This is partly because tomorrow - after a month-long countdown during which I’ve been putting out various whistle-wetters on social media (as you can see a few paras down), the second novel in my Lucy Clayburn series, SHADOWS, will be published … Lucy being an action girl in every sense of the word.

But it’s also because I thought it would be a fun thing to lay out some thoughts regarding MY 10 FAVOURITE FICTIONAL ‘TOUGH GUY GIRLS, and also, even though it is something of a divergence from the main theme, because I’ll be reviewing number three in Phil Rickman’s excellent Merrily Watkins series, A CROWN OF LIGHTS. Merrily is no action hero in the traditional sense, but there’s no question that her criminal investigations are among the most intense and frightening ever put on paper (she also works well for me this month, because the small supernatural element prepares the ground nicely for a more ghostly blog around Halloween).

Anyway, as usual, that review and discussion can be found towards the lower end of today’s post. First, a couple of words about SHADOWS.

Lucy

When Lucy Clayburn first hit the bookshelves in 2016, in the novel, STRANGERS, it was quite a change of pace for me. I’d been writing the Heck series up until then, in which there was plenty of unadulterated action. When I was asked by my publishers, Avon Books at HarperCollins, to consider a parallel series involving a policewoman, I thought it was an opportunity to come back down to Earth a little, and to give my readers a more procedural-style atmosphere and a lead character, who, while tough as nails – because she’s a blue-collar Manchester lass through and through, and in her spare time wears leathers and rides a Ducati motorbike – deals with day-to-day street crime as a divisional police detective, rather than confronting megalomaniac villains whose evil schemes are mind-boggling in their insanity.

Of course, Lucy quite often gets drawn into much more serious cases, so no one needs to think that we’re content to merely do the mundane in the Clayburn books. For example, in STRANGERS, a good pinch following a random attack on a young woman late at night sees Lucy recruited to work plain clothes in the hunt for a serial killer known as Jill the Ripper (a deranged prostitute, who slices and dices her male clients rather than giving them pleasure). Likewise, in SHADOWS, more good work by Lucy, in this case her pursuit of a cash-machine bandit, sees her seconded to the Manchester Robbery Squad, an elite but rough-and-ready outfit who are hot on the heels of the ruthless Red Headed League.

And then there is the other factor, the thing I like to believe really makes Lucy Clayburn distinctive. The child of a single mum, she never knew her estranged father - until she was 30 years old and well into her police career. It was quite a shock, I guess, for her to learn that he is now a major player in the region’s overarching crime syndicate.


SHADOWS hits the shops on October 19.

Okay, and now onto our second business of the day: my love for action girls extended into a gallery of names and faces hailing from all across the fictional world. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts and fancies on …


THE TEN BEST ‘TOUGH GUY’ GIRLS IN THRILLER FICTION


Foxy Brown

Possibly not the way female heroes would prefer to be depicted today, Foxy Brown, as played by the ultra-sexy Pam Grier in the 1974 movie of the same name, nevertheless presented the world with a central female character who didn’t just trade on her looks, but was tough, brave, and had no hesitation in standing up to male violence. The vengeful girlfriend of a murdered government agent, she literally went to war with a major crime syndicate, in the process destroying the heroin scourge that had been devastating her city.

Blaxploitation cinema was always controversial – but with Foxy Brown, it wasn’t just the race question, it was the gender question too. Critics at the time panned it for mistaking extreme violence, nudity and brash sexuality for some kind of feminist message, but it was still massively popular at the box office. On a personal note, I’ve never found Pam Grier anything less than totally watchable – and Foxy Brown is her raunchiest but toughest ever role.


Ellen Ripley

One of only two sci-fi characters to make my final list, Ellen Ripley – as immortalised by Sigourney Weaver – is probably the most immediately recognisable action heroine of all time.

The main protagonist in the first four movies of the Alien franchise (though I personally prefer the first two, as the rest were derivative and repetitive), Ripley first comes to our attention as a flight-officer working deep space cargo missions, which requires her to be a hardass every inch of the way, putting in long hours, subjecting herself to constant discomfort and dealing day-to-day with roughneck crewmen. We also learn that she’s a single mother, who endures all this to provide for her daughter. On top of that, she must battle the horrifying Xenomorph, mostly alone, and yet, often by using brain over brawn, tending to come out on top. A tired but fearless and endlessly resourceful figure, Ripley probably did more than anyone to revolutionise the way women were portrayed in hardcore science fiction. 


Emma Peel

Few female action heroes can seriously have provided hot male fantasy figures on one hand, and on the other won universal applause from women’s groups. But Emma Peel, star of the popular spy series, The Avengers, did just that.

Perhaps superficially, her character didn’t promise much. Named Emma Peel because the show was looking for ‘Man Appeal’, she initially appeared as the kittenish daughter of a prominent industrialist, who spied for a hobby, wore a black catsuit, flirted provocatively with her male counterpart, the older John Steed, and often performed the role of 1960s clothes horse, modelling all the latest fashions. And yet, the character was written so well and played with such bravura by Diana Rigg, who performed her own stunts and fought the bad guys furiously (turning the Bond thing on its head, because it was often she who rescued or defended Steed), that her character is still the main thing most people remember about that legendary show.


Annika Bengtzon

The first Scandi-Noir character to make the list, and a genuine one-off, as, rather than a detective or secret agent or soldier, Annika is a journalist and a responsible wife and mother.

Created by Swedish crime author, Liza Marklund, Annika’s is a hectic world; a nine-till-five crime reporter for Stockholm’s Kvällspressen (‘Evening News’), her career often interweaves with major issues of the day – Marklund has lots to say about current events – but she also pursues particularly heinous cases, such as in The Bomber, when she investigates what appears to be a terrorist attack on Stockholm’s New Olympic Arena, only to find herself on the trail of a maniac with a more personal grudge, in what turns out to be one of the most intense thrillers you’re ever likely to read. A rarity on this list, in that she rarely resolves problems with her fists or a gun, Annika deals with these horrors daily, and then goes home to make tea for her husband and kids – how tough a challenge is that? 


VI ‘Vic’ Warshawksi

Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski is one of the toughest fictional female characters in the crime-fighting pantheon. The creation of US novelist, Sara Paretsky, Vic is a Chicago PI of the 1980s, who, while she specialises in investigating white-collar crime, often finds herself in fist fights and shootouts with gangsters. A throwback to the Hard-Boiled era, she’s a tough-talker too, and very streetwise. But she couldn’t be anything less, having grown up in a bad neighbourhood, run with gangs after her parents died while she was still at school, got involved with ‘60s radicals during her student years, and later trained to be a lawyer, which honed off her rougher edges.

Kathleen Turner’s portrayal in the 1991 movie presented her as a hardcase, but also as stylish and breathlessly feminine, whereas in Paretsky’s original, Vic liked to dress down and was more of a fitness freak than a sex symbol. A fascinating, complex character, if you haven’t checked out VI Warshawki yet, you need to put that right.


Wai Lin

The first (and only) Bond girl to make the cut, Colonel Wai Lin of the Chinese People’s External Security Force appeared in the 1997 movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, played unforgettably by Malaysian-born Hong Kong action star, Michelle Yeoh.

Her long-standing status as a fully-trained movie martial artist had well equipped Yeoh to play a female character who had to authentically hold her own as an undercover agent and all-out warrior in the macho world of 007. But rather than simply going through the balletic, high-kicking motions, Wai Lin tempered all this with a great sense of humour and playfulness, and at the same time mostly employed skill and subterfuge to get the better of her enemies rather than simply karate-chopping her way to victory. She also stood out among the legions of Bond girls because she firmly and even amusedly resisted 007’s increasingly clumsy attempts to seduce her. One of the stand-out heroines of the Bond mythos, as voted for by most fans.  


Lisbeth Salander

Our second Scandi-Noir heroine, and the only Goth girl on the list, Lisbeth Salander played a significant role in the late Stieg Larsson’s highly influential ‘Millennium’ series (kicking off with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). After horrendous early life experiences, during which she was sexually abused, neglected and abandoned, Salander became a permanent outsider. Strange in appearance – androgynous, introverted, and possibly suffering from Asperger syndrome – she swiftly matured into one of the world’s most lethally efficient computer hackers, working as an investigator for a private security firm, but developed other skills as well, constantly able to second guess and outwit her enemies, and becoming a virtual chameleon when it came to changing her look.

Not exactly a hardcase, these abilities nevertheless enabled her to take on and defeat a range of deadly enemies, including serial killers, crooked security agents, and international crime syndicates.


Furiosa

The main female protagonist in 2015’s post-apocalyptic epic, Mad Max: Fury Road, Imperator Furiosa is the second and final sci-fi heroine to make our list, but without doubt one of the most startling. Too often, sci-fi girls have been comic-book-type superhot babes in the Barbarella mode, but there’s nothing of that sort here, despite the role being taken by the beautiful Charlize Theron. Shaven-headed, battle-scarred and fitted with an ugly mechanical arm, Furiosa appears as a military driver for desert warlord, Immortan Joe, who goes rogue when she gets the chance to save five of his unwilling concubines from a fate worse than death, and plays a leading role in all the high-speed battles that follow.

So much of an impact did Furiosa make in this astonishing, breakneck action thriller that even the titular hero dwindled to secondary status. Her unexpected presence in the movie won huge approval worldwide for what was considered a bold feminist statement.


Modesty Blaise

The only entrant on our list with an out-and-out criminal past, and to have commenced her life in a comic strip rather than a novel or a screenplay. Better known today as a mistress of many talents, an international adventurer, a mercenary, a spy, an investigator, an all-round hero for hire who is as deadly as she is desirable, Modesty Blaise, the glamorous but steely creation of Pete O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway back in 1963, nevertheless has a backstory so harrowing that it’s a miracle she emerged from it sane, let alone as a made-to-measure heroine.

The child survivor of a displaced persons camp at the end of World War II, she wandered the devastated world at first as a nameless refugee, getting involved in more and more scrapes, and learning to survive the hard way, during which process she acquired her name and many rare skills (a lot of which were initially used in crime). Too big a character to live forever in comics, it was no surprise that in due course she made her way into novels, short stories and finally the movies (three to date).


Kinsey Millhone

Another fictional heroine – the creation of top US writer, Sue Grafton – who somehow muddled her way into law-enforcement, following what might in real life have seemed an unlikely path.

Though born of wealthy Californian parents, Kinsey learned about life and death the hard way, when, as a child, she was trapped for hours in the same car wreck that killed her mother and father. Raised from that point on by an eccentric older aunt, she became a dopehead delinquent at university, but in due course found her way onto the Santa Teresa police department, where she learned basic detective-work, before finally branching out as a PI and taking on a succession of tougher-than-tough cases, capturing murderers, protecting the innocent and only evading the vengeance of local gangsters by the skin of her teeth. A smart cookie and street-tough rather than a slinky glamour-puss, she went on to star in Grafton’s much-celebrated Alphabet Mysteries.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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.

A CROWN OF LIGHTS
by Phil Rickman (2011)

When a young pagan couple, Robin and Betty Thorogood, acquire an old farmhouse in rural New Hindwell, they are delighted to discover the relic of an abandoned Christian chapel in the grounds. Immediately, they launch plans to perform rituals there and to reclaim the ancient site for the ‘old religion’ by celebrating the traditional Celtic feast of Imbolc.

But of course, it isn’t going to be that simple.

To start with, Betty Thorogood – the more tuned-in of the two – senses a dark presence in the ruin and an air of foreboding in the encircling Radnor Valley. If this doesn’t worry her enough, the couple’s plans arouse the wrath of Reverend Nick Ellis, the local evangelical minister, who has brought a hellfire message to the UK from his former parish in the American South. Despite Betty’s charm and beauty, Ellis, a man with great charisma but an increasingly sinister fundamentalist agenda, manages to stir up intense local feeling against the duo – to the point where mob violence soon threatens.

Merrily Watkins, local vicar and Diocesan Deliverance Officer, a woman very experienced in tackling the occult, is sent to keep a watch on the volatile situation. But it soon becomes apparent that this is a vastly more complex and frightening problem than even she anticipated. To start with, there are several other bizarre, possibly interconnected issues in New Hindwell: eccentric lawyer JW Weal can’t seem to let go of his recently deceased wife and may well have used nefarious, if not downright evil, methods to hang onto her soul, while at the same time Merrily is disturbed by the rumour that a circle of medieval churches dedicated to St. Michael, originally built to contain a dragon lurking in Radnor Forest, may actually have been located there to entrap a demonic entity.

Above all though, the main threat to peace in this small community stems from the Rev. Ellis, who is much more than just a zealous preacher. Merrily soon comes to doubt his motives and even his beliefs, and finds his followers – who include several local people of note, including the fearsome councillor’s wife, Judith Prosser – a particularly menacing bunch, whose strict loyalty to each other may be concealing a wealth of sins, including murder. In fact, so worried is she by this gathering storm, that she finds herself siding with the pagan newcomers, though they themselves don’t make this easy for her when a whole bunch of them turns up, determined to desecrate the ancient Christian site with their Imbolc rites …

A Crown of Lights is the third outing in the hugely popular Merrily Watkins series, and for my money one of the best. Not that I don’t have a couple of reservations about it.

One key issue I have with the Watkins stories overall is the central heroine’s apparent lack of conviction. It can’t be easy for her; the loss of her husband while she was still young and the hostility she seems to face at almost every turn from her know-all teenage daughter, Jane, must leave her feeling pretty friendless at times. But even so, Merrily, while not exactly beset with doubts about her faith, is hardly the sort of muscular Christian you’d normally expect to occupy the role of exorcist. She doesn’t seem to like anything about her own Church, and nor is she easily convinced that supernatural forces exist (despite much evidence to the contrary in this series).

That said, these apparent weaknesses work in her favour in this particular outing, as the powers soon ranged against her – from all sides, both pagan and Christian – leave her more embattled than we’ve ever seen before, which quickly wins her over to the readers. You always tend to root for the underdog, especially if she gets bullied as often as Merrily does – one scene in particular, when she is unwillingly drawn into a live TV debate with a bunch of militant witches under the control of arch manipulator Ned Bain, has you on her side in no uncertain terms.

Less easy to reconcile is the other issue, which is Phil Rickman’s general reluctance to plunge fully into the world of the weird. There are several ghostly and demonic elements in A Crown of Lights, though it is essentially a clever and absorbing murder mystery, so they remain on the periphery. This is a personal viewpoint of course, but while this subtle combo of thriller and chiller has worked for some, I found the many signposts to the arcane – the ancient churches, the legends, the folklore, the prehistoric monuments with which the wild landscape is littered, the hints of a devilish presence, etc – disappointing, as there is no real fulfilment of that particular promise.   

However, this is still an excellent read.

To start with, the incendiary atmosphere in the village is hugely well handled. You wouldn’t normally expect the wintry Welsh Marches to play host to a furious war of words between fanatical religious groups, but it happens here in completely convincing fashion, the hostility simmering throughout the book until the threat of violence feels so real that you can’t help but shudder – there is surely nothing more frightening in both fiction and non-fiction than lynch-law.

It also helps to drive the narrative along that it’s such a multi-stranded mystery, which you simply have to get to the bottom of. A Crown of Lights is an intricate tale, at times almost overwhelmingly so, but it’s massively intriguing – and the reader can rest assured that it all gets tied up neatly at the end.

As always with Phil Rickman’s books, the writing is of the highest order. The gorgeous rural region is beautifully realised, its ancientness and mystery (my earlier comments notwithstanding) evoked in loving fashion. By the same token, the book is a mastery of research. The complex mythology of the Marches is brought vividly to life, while the pagan belief system is richly detailed and made to feel like so much more than silly superstition.

Most interesting of all, though, is the clash of cultures.

Paganism is portrayed as a free-spirited faith, only loosely based on genuine pre-Christian beliefs but unfettered by modernism, unlike Merrily’s ‘rational’ brand of 21st century Christianity in which the exorcist is expected to know as much about psychiatry as doctrine. And this is another key aspect of the book: the war between the old and the new – some of which rages inside Merrily, and between her vision of a kinder Christianity and Nick Ellis’s fire and brimstone, but also out in the wider village community of New Hindwell, which, though it’s hardly the back of beyond, is beset with tradition and was never likely to welcome changes enforced on it by outsiders.    

A compelling, thought-provoking novel, very, very readable and highly recommended for lovers of both mystery and mysticism.

As usual – purely for fun, you understand – here are my personal selections for who should play the leads if A Crown of Lights ever makes it to the movies or TV. Thanks to that fine writer, Stephen Volk, Merrily Watkins has already bestridden our television screens in Midwinter of the Spirit, but that was then and this is now, and only a couple of those characters play a role in Crown, so, with the exception of Sally Messham, this is a different cast:

Merrily Watkins – Rachel Weisz
Nick Ellis – Billy Bob Thornton
Judith Prosser – Catherine Zeta-Jones
Ned Bain – Hugo Weaving
Jane Watkins – Sally Messham
Betty Thorogood – Sophie Cookson
Robin Thorogood – Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
JW Weal – Robert Pugh

(I know, I know … this would be an expensive line-up, but in my imagination I have limitless funds, so yah!)