Thursday, 23 October 2014

Ahh, the Lake District - so lovely, so lethal!

Writers are often asked where they get their inspiration from. It's a time-honoured question which crops up again and again. And yet there is never an easy answer. In my own case, there are lots of different sources: other works of literature, movies, plays, historical events, myths, people I know, incidents that befell them, incidents that have befallen me.

But also … places. We all have our own special place, I think. Somewhere we can kick back and relax, but by the same token where the creative juices really flow (every writer I know will tell you that he/she is never really off duty), where the influence of the environment is hugely beneficial to your thought processes.

In my case, if you haven’t already guessed – it’s the Lake District in northwest England.

This is not just the place where my wife, Cathy was born, or the venue for countless happy family holidays going back to my earliest years, it’s also one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth and one of England’s wildest. In addition it is riddled with folklore and legend (hence this very famous old book on the right, by Gerald Findler).

All my tick-boxes can be found in the Lake District.

So perhaps it was only a matter of time before Mark Heckenburg found his way there. For anyone who doesn’t know, DS Heckenburg, or Heck, is my current police hero, and the star character in four novels: STALKERS, SACRIFICE, THE KILLING CLUB and due out next month, DEAD MAN WALKING (the imaginative press package for which is pictured at the top of this column). 

And it’s the latter of these that concerns us today, because though it starts out in Devon, on Dartmoor – another idyllic National Park here in England – DEAD MAN WALKING very quickly transports us north to the Lake District, 885 square miles of mountains, lakes, windswept moors and fathomless forests.

While the Lakes can literally be a paradise on Earth in summer, in the deep autumn, particularly a late-November thick with frost and murky with mist, the endless woods and fells can suddenly feel lonely, desolate, cold; even life-threatening. 

And let’s make no bones about it; lives will be under threat in this book, because Heck, now marooned in the Lake District after the tumultuous events at the end of THE KILLING CLUB, finds himself isolated by these conditions and at the same time grappling with a series of ghastly murders, which may be the work of a truly monstrous killer long thought dead …

But enough of that, the purpose of this blogpost is not to snitch spoilers about the new book. It’s to introduce some of the real life locations I use in it, even though in the actual text they are transported to other corners of the Lake District and are given fictional names.

Above, you see one of my favourite places on the entire planet, the Lodore Falls, which pour down from the dizzy heights of the Shepherd’s Crag into Derwentwater, and in full flood, as shown here, are one of the most spectacular sights in the north of England.

Think you could take a boat down there?

Would you fancy trying it if your life depended on it?

In DEAD MAN WALKING we have the Cragwood Race. If you ever need to picture what it looks like, or where the idea came from, look no further than the image overhead.

Witch Cradle Tarn doesn’t exist in real life, even though in DEAD MAN WALKING it is high in the Langdale Pikes: a small, secluded lake popular with walkers and climbers but quiet for much of the year. It is very deep and very dark, and hemmed on its east side by the rugged scree-cluttered skirts of Fiend’s Fell and a few sparse fringes of pinewood. Check out Buttermere here, the original model for this fictional place, a famously pristine and yet eerily still and mysterious body of water.

The shot below is one which sadly I can’t claim as my own. I’ve no idea who took this atmospheric pic. I found it floating around on the internet. If the original photographer would like to get in touch, I’ll happily credit him/her, or if he/she is so inclined, will take it down. I think it depicts one of the quarry paths above the colossal Honister Pass. 

But whatever it is, here is the origin of the ominous Cradle Track, which hopefully will loom large and menacing in your mind before you’re halfway through DEAD MAN WALKING.

… for some reason Hazel could never fathom, climbers and fell-walkers traversing this route in the past had chosen particularly hefty shards of slate, some of them three or four feet in length, and had then used smaller pieces to prop them upright on both sides of the path – usually every hundred yards or so. What they were supposed to be – distance-markers, or even some variety of crude outdoor art – she never knew, but the illusion they created was of gravestones. Or, if one of the largest ones, some were maybe as tall as five or six feet, suddenly loomed from the fog, of malformed figures standing close by.

On the subject of the Honister Pass, I did shoot this next one, which portrays the road leading down from the top of the pass to Gatesgarth. It’s not the kind of road you’d like to drive hell for leather along, particularly if you were chasing someone, but that never usually stops Heck. Here’s a tip, if you read the book think of this one when you think of Cragwood Road.

That said, the new book isn’t all high melodrama; we aren’t constantly concerned here with soaring rocks and tumbling whitewater. Cragwood Vale, otherwise known as ‘the Cradle’, is like so many locations in the Lake District: danger may lurk in its vicinity but it’s never less than stunningly picturesque. In real life, the Lake District valley I based it on was this one, Borrowdale, a place of dreams.

Of course, a holiday is only ever as good as your billet. The preferred option for my family has often been the LODORE HOTEL (pictured left). I first stayed here as a child in 1967, and we’ve been going back ever since. No, I’m not going to tell you The Lodore appears in DEAD MAN WALKING; Cragwood Vale isn’t quite so grand (though it has a belting pub in The Witch’s Kettle, and I'm sure that boat club looks familiar), but this hotel has influenced me in other writerly ways.

It was here in the early 1970s, where I spent one particular family holiday that has become a landmark in my life. You see that comfortable lounge on the right? Well, it was once the Lodore shop.

I know … astonishing, isn’t it? That’s the kind of quirky thing country hotels did back in those days; they offered quality stuff for sale on their own premises. This particular shop sold Lakeland crafts (obviously), but also books. And not just map-books or guides to the fells. It sold anthologies, and wait for this because it gets even better … it sold horror anthologies.

I know what you’re thinking. Was this place real, or a glimpse of Heaven?

Anyway, it was in this very shop where I bought my first Pan Horror (vols 8-16, if my faded memory serves). But not only that, it sold all 10 volumes of the original TALES OF TERROR series, as edited by the late great R. Chetwynd-Hayes for Mary Danby at Fontana.

Again, memory fades a little, but I think the four I was able to afford at the time were Welsh Tales of Wales, Scottish Tales of Terror, Irish Tales of Terror and Cornish Tales of Terror. With their distinctive artwork, their high quality and yet unbelievably scary stories penned by such master and mistresses of dark fiction as Arthur Machen, Sean O’Casey, Dorothy K. Haynes and Daphne du Maurier, and their insistence on interspersing these fictional tales with snippets of real, genuinely spooky folklore – all with an aggressively local flavour, these books made an indelible impression on me.

There and then, long before I knew I wanted to be an author, I knew I had to do something like this. Evening after evening rolled past during that best holiday ever, and while the older members of my extensive family all got uproariously drunk in the hotel’s excellent restaurant, and then the bar and lounge, I was quite content to sit by the fireplace in that little nook next to the shop, and read my Tales Of Terror, absolutely convinced (though uncertain why) that at some point in the future I was going to revisit this theme, but not confine it to 10 titles, in fact to do as many as possible, covering the whole of the British Isles and maybe beyond.

Thanks to GRAY FRIAR PRESS, I’ve now edited seven volumes in my own TERROR TALES series, but it’s surely no surprise that the very first, published in 2011, was TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Waiting for another Deep, Dark December

Here's something that may be of interest to fans of festive ghost and horror stories. IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER will be my Christmas e-offering later this year. This is just an early heads-up because though the book is finished, it isn't available even for pre-order at this stage. It's a collection of five festive chillers, all reprints though most will be new to many readers, all with a strong flavour of Christmas (but not too much good cheer, I hasten to add). We're aiming to have this one available for download via Amazon hopefully from mid-November onwards, but keep checking this space, where I'll post regular progress reports. The awesome cover is by the ever reliable NEIL WILLIAMS. For those interested, the stories contained therein comprise the following:

The Christmas Toys: Two Christmas Eve burglars discover the dark side of the festive spirit …

Midnight Service: A marooned Christmas traveller seeks refuge in the town’s old workhouse …

The Mummers: A seasonal revenge plot doesn’t take account of a mysterious Yuletide troupe …

The Faerie: Fleeing his tyrannical wife, a nervous man gets lost in a fearsome December blizzard …

The Killing Ground: Man and wife PIs take a Christmas break to protect a movie star and his family from the cannibal fiend believed to haunt their new country estate …

On the subject of short, scary stories, I can happily announce that the latest paperback in our TERROR TALES range, TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE is now available for order. You can have it for £8.99 either from AMAZON or from GRAY FRIAR PRESS themselves.

For those new to this series, chilling and inexplicable real-life incidents are interspersed with original works of terrifying Yorkshire fiction from such horror luminaries as Mark Morris, Stephen Laws, Alison Littlewood, Simon Clark and Mark Chadbourn.

And as a little extra treat in the midst of another drab, grey October, here is a quick appetiser for the next book in the Terror Tales series, TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, which will be out next spring. Again, keep checking in.


Now for something slightly different. My next Heck novel, DEAD MAN WALKING, is due for publication next month, and there is quite a bit of chat online about it. Therefore, this might be an appropriate time to resurrect another guest-blog I wrote at the time of the last Heck novel's publication - which was THE KILLING CLUB, last May. 

The piece below originally appeared on the blog, CRIME THRILLER GIRL, and was penned in response to questions about the influences in my career to date and my favourite other authors, novels etc. Hope you find it an interesting read: 


It would be very easy, I suppose, to respond to the question which books have you read that were most influential on your career, and, given that my own most successful novels are intense murder investigations, simply reel off all the great thriller writers. 

It would of course be untrue to say that I haven’t been influenced by other thriller novelists. Stuart MacBride, Mark Billingham, Peter James, Kathy Reichs and Katia Lief are all staggeringly high in my estimation. But I don’t just read within my own genre, and I think it would be an interesting exercise to perhaps consider those other types of books that have blown me away, set me on my current career path, whatever you want to call it.

It’s no secret that, before I began writing my DS Heckenburg thrillers, I dabbled widely in the fields of horror and fantasy. And this wasn’t just during my formative years as a writer, my kindergarten if you like; I wrote lots of this kind of stuff, and still do. I also read in this field enormously. But it’s fascinating now, on reflection, how much these apparently unrelated interests have influenced my DS Heckenburg novels.

For example, THE WOLFEN by Whitley Strieber (pub. 1978) presents us with two tired New York detectives, a man and a woman, investigating the murder and apparent cannibalisation of hobos in the city’s underbelly, and soon reaching the conclusion the perpetrators are not humans, but a highly intelligent werewolf pack.

Now, I suppose there are obvious links here with ‘Heck’: a gang of vicious and relentless killers, a lovelorn boy and girl cop team, and so on. But I think it’s the seamy side of the average detective’s working day that most caught my eye about this striking novel. Strieber really takes us to the backside of New York, the subways and ghettos and derelict lots, and peoples them with hookers, winos and druggies. My own experience as a real life cop taught me these are the places you need to go if you want to catch some bad guys, but here we go way beyond the everyday grim, delving into the world of the true urban gothic: it’s a nightmare landscape, beautifully and poetically described, and yet at the same time filled with such palpable menace that even hardboiled detectives are unnerved.

I make a point of never taking my own crime thrillers into such realms of overt fantasy, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try to invoke similar feelings of dread and weirdness in the dark heart of the city.

Another relevant horror novel is surely LEGION by William Peter Blatty (pub. 1983). This is a totally different kind of police story. Again, it follows a time-served detective investigating a series of sadistic murders, though in this case he’s dealing with Satanic ritual. It’s a much subtler tale, ripe with a sense of ancient mystery and slow-burning evil (and that would be real evil, of the distinctly inhuman variety). Yet for all this, the point where LEGION really kicks in is the deep assessment the hero, Lt. Kinderman, constantly makes of himself, examining his own beliefs or unbeliefs, puzzling as to why he exposes himself to this depravity time and again, bleeding inside for the victims. Not exactly Heck, who’s never been much of a philosopher, but the longer you work as a homicide cop, the more you’re going to confront yourself with these issues. There is some really deep character work here by Blatty, which you can’t help but admire.

Moving from horror into science fiction and fantasy, there are two other titles I’d like to mention. 

The first of these contains the most obvious link to those matters I’ve mentioned previously. It is Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi masterwork, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP (pub. 1968). Most folk will know this as the movie, BLADE RUNNER, but though there are some similarities, the book goes way beyond the limited scope of a Hollywood adaptation. In Rick Deckard, another dogged man-hunter and, thanks to his wife’s depression, a sad loner, working his way through a world gone mad and yet adding to it with his own role, which conflicts him deeply, there is genuine pathos. The movie, of course, had a strong noirish feel – it was almost Chandleresque – which is not prevalent in the book, but the strong central character is still a great blueprint for the fictional lone-wolf detective. For me, heroes always need to be vulnerable: stricken by self-doubt, and with enemies on all sides, some of whom they thought were friends. I’ve never had much time for men of steel, undefeatable icons of hunky machismo, like Superman or Batman. If I took anything from DO ANDROIDS DREAM … it had to be that deep introspection, that guilt, that conscience. It makes our heroes so much more interesting. 

On that same subject, the fantasy novel I’d like to nominate is GRENDEL by John Gardner (pub. 1971). I guess we’re all familiar with the tale of Beowulf, the Viking warrior, and his defence of the hall of Heorot against the ravages of the faceless devil, Grendel, who for no reason other than twisted pleasure, came nightly to slaughter the innocent.

As I say, I’m not big on superhero stories. I loved BEOWULF as a kid – it was probably the first spooky tale my late father told me – but as I grew up, I found the monster more interesting. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves, Grendel is the prototype serial killer. So in many ways, GRENDEL the novel takes us to the other end of the crime thriller spectrum, Gardner depicting his antihero first as an abused and lonely child, later showing him suffer rejection by those he sought to befriend, and finally having him retaliate with homicidal fury, which at last introduces him to a lifestyle of his liking – if he can’t have everyone’s love, he’ll have their terror. There isn’t as much Norse myth woven into this novel as you might expect. Instead Gardner gives us philosophy, social commentary and, a decade before the FBI commenced offender profiling, the psychology of the reviled. Talk about streets ahead of the game. Of course, we all know what happens at the end of BEOWULF, and it’s the same in GRENDEL, so don’t expect any surprises – apart from the dark joy this narrative will elicit as it works its way through the tormented mind and hideous satisfactions of a creature driven solely to hate.

It’s a strange thing that we think we know ourselves so well, our thoughts, interests and aspirations. And yet clearly there are many subliminal strata to our thinking. Even as I wrote this blog, it became more apparent to me how relevant to my current writing so many of these themes explored by earlier authors actually are. I won’t go over them again, because I think they speak for themselves – they certainly will, I hope, if you get the chance to read any of my DS Heckenburg thrillers, STALKERS, SACRIFICE or, most recently, THE KILLING CLUB. On which note, I suspect it’s a good time to end this monologue. Whichever way you go, please enjoy your reading and writing. There are no finer pleasures.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

How to create terror, tension and suspense

Here's an item I wrote for my blog tour last spring, in anticipation of THE KILLING CLUB's imminent publication. I can't quite remember now which site it appeared on, but for this article I was specifically asked to offer tips to writers looking to create tension, terror, suspense, etc. A few months have gone since then, but hopefully this advice, such as it is, will still be of some use (plus DEAD MAN WALKING is due to hit the shelves next month, so with luck this will be a timely retread). If anyone hasn't already read this piece, it might be of interest:

One of the things my thriller writing has won most praise for is its creation of terror and suspense. If true, this obviously works in my favour: I’m a career writer, thrillers are my forte, and thrillers wouldn’t be thrillers if they weren’t able to keep their audiences on the edges of their seats.
But how do you go about doing this? How do you make your readers too frightened to turn the page but at the same time desperate to know what happens next?
Well … I can only respond by outlining my own experience and process.
The reality is that, as with any mood a writer is seeking to evoke – be it romance, mystery, comedy – you need to work on it thoughtfully, and construct it with attention to detail. Sometimes of course you get lucky and stumble on scenarios that are tense and frightening simply because they are. But most of the time it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to remember that your readers aren’t privy to your innermost fears and doubts, so a lot of the time situations you happen to find discomforting won’t have the same effect on them; it’s basically about leaving nothing to chance - the masters of the form never do.
Stephen King’s chilling short story, The Ledge, tells the tale of an ordinary man who falls foul of the mob and is forced to walk around the exterior of a skyscraper penthouse along a seven-inch shelf. It’s a nightmare scenario by any standards, but King works it for everything he can, page after page, ensuring we are with this guy each foot of the way, experiencing his every near-slip, his every stab of pain as pigeons peck at his ankles.
For the sheer stress it puts the reader through, this is one of the great pieces of thriller fiction. It is literally exhausting to read it. But what are the ingredients of successful scenes like this? Well, there are four essential boxes I always feel I need to tick.


In terms of character, it’s never going to work if the readers don’t like your protagonist. By that, I don’t mean you have to like them, as in make them someone you’d enjoy going on a dinner date with. You can be repelled by them; they can be thoroughly objectionable. But they’ve got to be real, someone whose personality and motivations are clear and accessible, otherwise it won’t be possible for the reader to invest emotionally in their fate.
Now, if the characters concerned are central figures in your book or script, this is probably going to happen anyway because you’ll have had plenty time to develop them. However, many characters in thriller and horror writing are short-lived. These are the victims, the guys in red shirts who always go down to the planet surface in the Star Trek landing party so they can serve the purpose of being killed while Kirk and Spock get away. Those faceless he-men in red shirts worked fine back in those days because it was all so new. Trust me, it wouldn’t be so effective now – audiences are more sophisticated.
If your character is to be short-lived, a victim just waiting to get the chop, you’ve still got to give him or her a back-story. I don’t mean you should overload it chapter on chapter, but take a little time to give us a glimpse of their humanity. They may have a spouse waiting for them, they may have kids at home, they may be struggling at work, or to find work – above all, they have feelings, they can be hurt.
All this makes them much easier to sympathise with and root for.

And they don’t have to be overtly vulnerable. A confused OAP or a lost child will always win your readers’ vote; it’s easy to fear for them. But look at John Boorman’s movie, Deliverance, in which the heroes were four red-blooded guys on an outdoors adventure, and yet we got to know them so well that we empathised with them hugely as they fought desperately for survival.
(And this is another thing. Don’t be frightened to strip your characters down to their raw emotions. Think of the impact the opening scene in Jaws had, when the poor lass, whilst under attack by the shark, screamed hoarsely for God to help her. It’s a tragic and frightening scene even today, the sight of this modern, free-spirited girl plunged into this nightmare of nightmares from which she instinctively knows there’ll be no escape – don’t be afraid to upset your readers; that’s what they’ve bought your book for).

With regard to threat, this will be the keystone of your thriller anyway.
I’m not here to tell you how to create a great villain; that’s an art-form in itself. And you certainly won’t need me to advise you about scenarios of indescribable horror; they are around us all day, on news bulletins. I will say this – whether your threat be a person, an animal, a supernatural entity, or an everyday predicament – you can’t make it too terrible.
Remember how this works. You’re asking your readers to follow these characters they now know and love, as they walk unwittingly into peril. 

The readers, of course, will have an idea what’s going to happen because you’ve prepared the ground for them, but shout and scream though they may, the characters can’t hear them. And yet this intense experience is only going to occur if the menace is real and tangible. So for example, in Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black (the British TV version of which is pictured right), if Arthur Kipps was being forced to spend time alone at Eel Marsh House and there was lots of mist around and he felt very isolated – sure, it would be spooky. But how much more spooky is it when the audience know in advance that this house is the abode of a hateful spirit that will seek to destroy him?
Yet, while I say don’t be shy about making your threat monstrous, that doesn’t mean you can’t be subtle as well. In fact, subtlety can raise the stakes dramatically – and this lesson goes back to the earliest days of thriller writing. In the poem Beowulf, which dates to the 6th century, the monster Grendel is never physically described; it is simply an unstoppable something that comes out of the darkness, and on one occasion leaves 30 butchered victims. That you don’t know what it looks like – in other words you can’t mentally quantify the nature of the menace, despite the carnage it leaves behind – is all the more terrifying. And there are myriad examples of this in modern times, from the classic opening 30 minutes of the sci-fi horror Them! in 1954, when we’ve no idea what murdered the family in the camper fan and left the little girl deranged, to the modern serial killer thriller, Se7en (1995) when the detectives battle haplessly with a faceless madman who is always streets ahead of them.
Conversely, in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal novels, we know full well what Hannibal Lector looks like and who he is, but his urbane charm is utterly disorienting – this smiling villain is surely too nice to be capable of such horrors, yet we know from the outset that he isn’t. With a simple look across the dinner table, this guy can freeze the blood.
To sum up, your menace doesn’t have to come in shouting and roaring – you don’t even have to see it – but it has to be immense. Believe me, your readership can take as much as you can give them, and will thank you all the more for it.

The next tick-box is situation.
That may sound as if it speaks for itself. But the important element here is believability. To a certain extent, this may already by driven by one of our previous criteria: character. If the readers empathise with your characters you can get away with almost anything. Dr Who is a great example. The Doctor visits the most outlandish locations and faces scenarios which, even in sci-fi terms, verge on the completely ridiculous, yet the audience has bought so much into his character that even the most unlikely threats seem plausible.
That said, an audience’s familiarity with an environment will never hurt. One of our great crime novels, Jack’s Return Home, by Ted Lewis, is set in Scunthorpe of all places, a working class town with which many British readers were easily able to identify, but in which the gangster-infested pool halls and massage parlours suddenly seemed a public nuisance rather than a common backdrop to urban life. When Mike Hodges adapted it as Get Carter! in 1971, he shifted it to the even more grimly picturesque city of Newcastle, and how effective was that? The land of tower blocks and dark Satanic mills – previously in British cinema the home of kitchen-sink dramas – was suddenly tailor-made for the crime thriller medium. However, it’s equally important that your characters are in these environments for convincing reasons. In Jack’s Return Home, Jack Carter is an underworld figure from the get-go, heading north to investigate the death of his brother, which brings him into direct conflict with the local firms. No British crime reader was going to query that.

In another British crime novel of that era, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (later adapted by Sam Peckinpah as Straw Dogs, left), an intellectual couple in an isolated house on the scenic Cornish moors fall foul of a local mob when they seek to protect a sex-offender – that is a disturbingly realistic scenario, which is even more likely to happen in real life now than it was then. 

Not to labour this point, but I’m going to break one of my own rules now, and tell you something I think you shouldn’t do rather than something you should. Modern thriller narratives are traditionally filled with moments of idiocy by the characters, a device often used to move the plot along. For example, there’s a killer out there, so what do the characters do? – they split up. Or how about they hear strange and terrifying noises – and go and investigate. As I mentioned earlier, modern audiences are a bit too sophisticated for that, and if a situation is too unbelievable or contrived, it will result in sniggers rather than screams.
So, by all means, put them in scary predicaments, but authenticity is, and always will be, the key to making your readers feel the danger themselves.

Lastly, but possibly most important of all, is atmosphere. And in some ways this is the hardest to pin down, because we tend to have preconceived notions about it.
For example, a haunted house is only going to be scary if it has gargoyles on its eaves and cobwebs in its windows. A high crime district is only going to be believable if it has gang tags on its wall and syringes in the gutters. Okay, all that kind of window-dressing may be important, but I don’t think it’s essential. Let me give you two different examples.
A pleasant coastal resort and the open road. Couldn’t be less threatening, right?
In Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Summer Isle is a beautiful Scottish island with a picture postcard village around its harbour. But that doesn’t prevent you suspecting something awful is going to happen as various odd aspects of the place slowly emerge to invoke a sense of evil. 

In Richard Matheson’s breath-taking short story, Duel (as filmed by Stephen Spielberg, left), the setting is a sun-drenched motorway. Normal enough, except that this one is eerily empty – apart from our tired travelling salesman and the dirty old truck that unrelentingly teases and tortures him, in which scenario the sheer monotony of the long, deserted blacktop, the mere appearance of which saps hope and energy, becomes as much a foe as the maniac in the rear.
So it’s not so much the locations, as how they look, feel, and pluck at the nerves of your embattled characters.
A project relying on suspense will only benefit from an atmosphere that makes its protagonists feel vulnerable and oppresses the readers. In purely technical terms, there are lots of ways you can achieve this: geographically (a tiny army base at the North Pole; a beleaguered police station in the riot zone); meteorologically (snow, ice, fog); even architecturally (an urban ghetto full of faceless buildings and derelict subways, where the unseen attack could come from any direction). However you do it, the key is creating a sense of isolation, strangeness and menace, in which your characters feel small and insecure.

So, at the end of the day … is that it? Is that how do you evoke tension, fear, suspense?
Sadly, no.
These can only be basic guidelines. To write effective suspense, you’ve still got to tauten your narrative and bring pace to your prose. This is equally important to any of the above, if not more so. One quick way to achieve this is to read your finished scenes onto tape, and play them back. If they sound laborious and slow, that’s probably because they are – in which case don’t be frightened to wield the hatchet, slicing out every bit of text that doesn’t serve the purpose of creating tension. Save your lovely descriptions and your characters’ thought processes for parts of the book that don’t rely on nerve-shredding terror, because the last thing you want to do at that stage is slow it all down.

Just a few thoughts here. Not by any means the whole story, but one or two ideas which, on the whole, seem to work for me, and which others, with luck, will find useful and interesting.

Happy writing.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Witchcraft, woodland devils and a big loss

Quite a few bits and bobs to chat about this week.

I’m very happy to report that THE POPPET, a short story of mine, first published in 2012, has now been given the audio treatment by WHOLE STORY AUDIOBOOKS, as read by Jonathan Keeble, and can be purchased from Amazon, either as a freestanding CD (running time approx. one hour), or by download.

Anyway, here’s the official blurb from the back of it:

The story of the Cumbrian witches in the small village of Bleaberry Beck, is told in hushed tones and with a quiet reverence that speaks of superstition and fear. Richard Henderson, Medieval Studies student at Oxford University, couldn't be less intrigued. Picking up a 'poppet' from the village shop, he happily sets off home with this birthday present for his little sister. But the faceless wooden doll holds the secret to a chilling curse.

And here, for your delectation, is a quick snippet from the story itself:

Not a single doll in that shop-window – and I scanned it from top to bottom – had a face. And I don’t just mean that a face hadn’t been carved; I mean that it hadn’t even been drawn. Where their faces ought to be there were blank patches of shiny, varnished wood. Perhaps if I’d passed something like this in a city shop-window – maybe one or two such objects among a variety of other, friendlier-looking toys – it wouldn’t have struck me as strange. But on this occasion, because it was the whole story, I’d been quite taken aback – at least on first seeing it. But as I say, I’d had other things on my mind since then.
“Maybe I won’t bother,” I said. “To be frank, they look a bit weird, these things.”
“They’re supposed to be weird,” he replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Surely you’ve heard of ‘Poppets’ before?”
“Funnily enough, I don’t buy dolls very often.”
Purlock didn’t laugh, just pursed his lips. I got the feeling he’d been about to tell me something a little out of the ordinary, but suddenly lacked the heart for it. “That’s all it is really. A doll shop.”
Doll shop or not, there was something unsettling about those flat, emotionless visages regarding me through the mullioned glass.
“How can something that doesn’t have a face make you feel like it’s watching you?” I wondered.
“It’s part of the superstition,” he said. “There’s a witchcraft angle, if you’re interested.”

WHOLE STORY are now perusing my back-catalogue of short stories and novellas, so hopefully other titles will follow in this range. This blog is most definitely the place to tune in if you want more info on that. I’ll upload it as and when.

In other news this week, I’ve recently been interviewed by Robert McNeil of THE GOTHIC IMAGINATION, which is part of the Stirling University website. It was a lengthy, wide-ranging chat, covering lots of subjects, from my film work to my HECK novels to my TERROR TALES anthology series. Those interested, please feel free to pop along and have a read.

On the subject of movies, I was excited to see that WAR WOLF, the historical horror movie I’ve written for AMBER ENTERTAINMENT, has now been moved onto their pre-production schedule. We’re still at the finance-raising stage as we speak, but the signs are all good, and some exceptional people are now involved. Check out the link for further info – WAR WOLF is the fifth title down on the slate – but for what it’s worth, it is set during the Hundred Years War, and concerns a band of semi-lawless English knights who arouse the ire of an unspeakable foe in the wild forested regions of central southern France.

I’ve also been a bit more active on the short story front of late. As you’re probably sick of hearing me say, I love writing short fiction, but there isn’t much time for it at present. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no time, and thankfully I’ve managed to crank out a couple of short stories recently.

KRAMPUS is a Christmas-themed horror story, which has appeared in issue #10 of the Kindle genre magazine, K ZINE. No spoilers on that one, but if you buy you won't be disappointed. There is some exceptional speculative fiction in there.

The second bit of short story news concerns my new Sherlock Holmes novella, THE MONSTER OF HELL-GATE, which will be included in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES ABROAD, due to be published by Robinson next year (just be warned - the cover art posted here may not be the finished version, or even the same one that ends up being used). I must admit I had great fun with that one. Grisly murder mysteries on the wild, sun-bleached fringes of the Empire. What more could you ask for?


And now, sadly, I must depress the mood at little by reporting the death of that very fine author, Graham Joyce, who though he was only 59, passed away earlier this month after battling a long illness.

Graham, pictured right, was a personal friend of mine and something of a mentor. The very first time I attended a British Fantasy Society event in 1996, Graham was the first big name author to actually speak to me, and even though we’d only just met, he continued to chat with me throughout that weekend on the friendliest and most informal terms, a relationship we enjoyed ever after. Graham was an exquisite wordsmith, who though described as a fantasy author, always defied easy classification. He certainly wrote fantasy, but his gently philosophical work delved through the realms of mystery, science-fiction, magical realism and so forth, and was always instructive as well as hugely entertaining.

Together with Joel Lane, another Midlands-based author (and another good friend of mine), who we lost last year, Graham elevated genre fiction into the literary zone. He also produced a massive body of work, which if any of you haven’t yet discovered, you’d be well advised to go and look for. In fact, two masterly pieces of work, very illustrative of the talents that produced them, and perfect memorials in both cases, are Graham’s 25 YEARS IN THE WORD MINES, and Joel’s WHERE FURNACES BURN. If you don’t know the writing of Joel Lane and Graham Joyce, I urge you to seek these titles out as a start-point.

Both Joel and Graham will be massively missed, but at least, their talents live on in their amazing work, and that has to be something. 

Friday, 29 August 2014

A stranger stalks the night with evil intent

Here, for your delectation, is an exclusive first peek at the cover for the next Heck novel, DEAD MAN WALKING, which is published on November 20 this year.

In a nutshell, after the tumultuous events of the previous novel, THE KILLING CLUB, Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is living in a kind of self-imposed exile in the quiet Lake District village of Cragwood Keld. He’s still a cop, he still investigates crime, now in the company of spirited sidekick PC Mary-Ellen O’Rourke. But life moves at a slower pace up here. Heck spends more time rounding up stray sheep than he does feeling the collars of violent criminals.

And then something terrible happens. One misty autumn night, two female hikers go missing on the nearby fells.

Not only that, they go missing in frightening and peculiar circumstances … circumstances that remind Heck discomfortingly of a serial murder case from many years ago, when a nameless, faceless phantom known as ‘the Stranger’ preyed on courting couples late at night, leaving a trail of 13 brutalised corpses.

But the Stranger is dead. Heck is sure about this. He even contacts Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper down at the Serial Crimes Unit at Scotland Yard, and she confirms it. The Stranger died over 10 years ago. Someone else must be responsible for this mysterious double-crime.  

Heck can’t help wondering, though ...

After all, they never actually found the Stranger’s body.

Suddenly Cragwood Keld and other high Lakeland villages feel very isolated and remote. And right on cue, the thickest, coldest fog in living memory descends on the Cumbrian mountains and valleys, bringing life to a standstill. DSU Piper, sufficiently concerned by Heck’s report that she makes the trip north, is one of the last people to arrive in the region before everything grinds to an abrupt halt.

And still this case won’t break. And increasingly, despite all logic to the contrary, Heck becomes convinced that the Stranger is back.


Okay, that’s the nitty-gritty of it. Here, for your further delectation, is an excerpt from the novel:

With such fears in the forefront of his mind, it was probably not the ideal time for him to spot the writing on the far wall of the boathouse interior. This only happened slowly, as his eyes adjusted to the deep gloom, but once the piece of crude graffiti had swum properly into view, he jumped to his feet.
     Now that he was fully out of the water, it was bitterly cold. Ice felt as if it was forming inside his clothes, but fleetingly Heck was too distracted to notice that. He limped around the interior to the far pier, so he could examine it up close.


     There was no question about who’d written it or what it meant, though had Heck not been so cold already it would still have been numbing to see it in front of his face like this. In the dimness he was colour-blind, so though he didn’t immediately realise the sentence had been inscribed in blood, the idea struck him hard when he dabbed at it with a fingertip, and felt it both slimy and congealed …

Hopefully that will whet a few whistles. In case it didn’t, and completely gratuitously, let’s finish off now with the actual blurb from the back of the book:

Beware the stranger in the night…

Consigned to a remote valley in the Lake District, DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is getting used to a quieter life – a far cry from the bloodbath of his former division, the Serial Crimes Unit. But wherever Heck goes, trouble is never far behind.

Unknown to Heck, ‘the Stranger’ has returned. Last seen on Dartmoor ten years earlier, this prolific serial killer has found a new home. As a dense, frozen mist descends on the Lakes, the Stranger returns to his old ways, starting with two young women lost high on the hills. Only one girl is ever found – barely alive – but able to confirm Heck’s worst fears.

As the Stranger lays siege to the remote community, Heck helplessly watches as the killer plays his cruel game, letting off his trademark call before viciously picking off his victims.

And with no way to get word out of the valley, Heck has no choice but to play ball…

Lock your doors and bar your windows. This is a thrilling, spine-chilling, nail-shredding book that will leave you scared to turn the lights out. Because when the mist descends, you never know who’s watching you …

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Yorkshire blood and Green Men - all here!

I'm very pleased to announce the imminent arrival of the next volume in our TERROR TALES anthology series. This, as you can see from the image, is TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE. Okay, those among you with Lancastrian origins, like me, won't need reminding about that nightmarish land on t'uther side 'ut Pennines, but mysteriously not everyone will share that view, so I have now taken the responsibility on myself to show the rest of the country in no uncertain terms what we in the real God's country already know.

And what a joy it's been, as always ... working with some amazing writers, with the amazing artist, NEIL WILLIAMS, and the amazing publisher/author GARY FRY at GRAY FRIAR PRESS.

TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE (which can't be pre-ordered just yet, hence there's no link - but watch this space constantly), is the seventh in the TERROR TALES series to date. I find that incredible given we only started this ball rolling in 2011, and it's being brought out, as you'll probably realise, to coincide with this year's FANTASYCON, which is being held in York on September 5,6 and 7.

Anyway, enough of my gibberish for the moment. The front-cover image is above, while the full wrap is posted a few paragraphs down. So from here on, why don't I let the actual blurb do the talking:

Yorkshire – a rolling landscape of verdant dales and quaint country towns. But where industrial fires left hideous scars, forlorn ruins echo the shrieks of forgotten wars, and depraved killers evoke nightmare tales of ogres, trolls and wild moorland boggarts...

 The stalking devil of Boroughbridge
The murder machine at Halifax
The hooded horror of Pontefract
The bloody meadow at Towton
The black tunnel of Renfield
The evil trickster of Spaldington
The shadow forms at Silverwood
And many more chilling tales by Alison Littlewood, Mark Morris, Stephen Laws, Simon Clark, Mark Chadbourn, and other award-winning masters and mistresses of the macabre.

If that doesn't whet your appetites sufficiently, hopefully the following Table of Contents will (as usual, the smaller non-fictional items are interspersed between the actual stories):

In October We Buried The Monsters by Simon Avery; The Decapitation Device; The Coat Off His Back by Keris McDonald; Haunting Memories of the Past; They Walk As Men by Mark Morris; The Yorkshire Witches; On Ilkley Moor by Alison Littlewood; The Black Monk of Pontefract; The Crawl by Stephen Laws; The Woman in the Rain; Ragged by Gary McMahon; The Hobman; A True Yorkshireman by Christopher Harman; The Town Where Darkness Was Born; All Things Considered, I’d Rather Be In Hell by Mark Chadbourn; A Feast For Crows; The Demon of Flowers by Chico Kidd; City of the Dead; The Summer of Bradbury by Stephen Bacon; Radiant Beings; Random Flight by Rosalie Parker; Death in the Harrying; The Rhubarb Festival by Simon Clark; The Alien; The Crack by Gary Fry; The Boggart of Bunting Nook; A Story From When We Had Nothing by Jason Gould.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, you can't yet order TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE (all retail outlets, online and otherwise, will be posted everywhere, as soon as you can). It's still in production as we speak, but we're very hopeful that it will be available at the Fantasy Convention in York, probably from the PENDRAGON PRESS table in the book room, along with other titles, such as our last one in the series TERROR TALES OF WALES.

On the subject of Yorkshire, and York in particular, I was recently very impressed to hear the superbly rendered audio version of my International Horror Guild Award-winning short story of 2007, THE OLD NORTH ROAD, as read by Jonathan Keeble of The Archers fame, published by WHOLE STORY AUDIO.

This story, first published in Alone on the Darkside in 2006 (for which, as I said earlier, it won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Medium Length Story in 2007), and republished in One Monster Is Not Enough in 2010, is hopefully the first of quite a few of mine to get the glossy WHOLE STORY AUDIO treatment, but it's very timely, as York - or more specifically, York Minster - is the location that originally inspired it.

THE OLD NORTH ROAD, which is about 10,000 words long and comes to roughly an hour's listening time, is a horror story describing a quest to find the origins of the mystical Green Man. Prior to my first visit to York Minster, the Green Man was no more to me than a background character I'd grown up with but had never really noticed: a figure on pub signs, or a clown at country fairs. What I certainly hadn't realised was just how much he figures in the architecture of our old and venerable religious buildings, York Minster being a classic example. And that's a curious thing given so many of us assume the Green Man to be a pagan icon - a fertility symbol or the representation of an ancient, long forgotten god.

But the fact is, he isn't ... at least, not according to the researches I made following my last trip to York. The real origins of the Green Man, are far stranger, and lie in ...

Well, perhaps that would be telling. Maybe it's better if you guys download the audio version, or buy the CD, and find out for yourself. (Sorry to be so mercenary ... but I've got to make a living, you know).

Of course, you don't have to go to all that trouble if you happen to be paying a visit to FANTASYCON in York in September. If so, just pop across to the Minster and check it all out for yourself. I'll be doing that for sure. It's now ten years since I was last there, and the mysteries of the Green Man, among many others, are calling ever louder.