Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Terror Tales of Cornwall hits the shelves

And here we are at last. After much frantic scampering about, I can announce that TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL is done, dusted and ready to buy. And yes, it does exactly what it says on the tin. 

It takes you down to England’s quaintest, most beautiful, most mysterious, and often wildest coastal region, and then hits you with many aspects of the terrors to be found there.

On a similar ‘homely horror’ subject, this week I’ll also be reviewing Dan Simmons’s seminal story of rural darkness, SUMMER OF NIGHTAs usual with my novel reviews, you can find that one at the lower end of today’s post, and as always, it’s a detailed and in-depth discussion.

But first, we’re going to talk about my new anthology of regionally-flavoured chillers, TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL.

Oh, I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to say that.

I guess everyone who follows this blog is well aware that the TERROR TALES series, which has now been running since 2011, was interrupted about a year ago when Gray Friar Press sadly had to withdraw from the game. But the gauntlet has been passed, and is now firmly in the grasp of TELOS PUBLISHING, who have done a masterly job with this, their first contribution.

In case anyone is concerned, fear not – the book looks much like the previous volumes (why fix something that isn’t broken?). It has the same style and layout, ghoulish fact interspersing with ghastly fiction, and it follows the same ethos, offering (mostly) new supernatural horror stories based on the mythology, folklore, history and geography of the region. In other words, these aren’t just stories that happen to be set in Cornwall, they are stories about Cornwall.

So, without further ado, here is the artwork for the book in all its glory, the back-cover blurb, and the full table of contents:

Cornwall, England’s most scenic county: windswept moors; rugged cliffs; and wild, foaming seas. But smugglers and wreckers once haunted its hidden coves, mermaid myths abound, pixie lore lingers, henges signal a pagan past, and fanged beasts stalk the ancient, overgrown lanes …

The serpent woman of Pengersick
The screaming demon of Land’s End
The nightmare masquerade at Padstow
The feathered horror of Mawnan
The terrible voice at St Agnes
The ritual slaughter at Crantock
The hoof-footed fetch of Bodmin Moor

And many more chilling tales by Mark Morris, Ray Cluley, Reggie Oliver, Sarah Singleton, Mark Samuels, Thana Niveau and other award-winning masters and mistresses of the macabre.

CONTENTS

We Who Sing Beneath the Ground by Mark Morris
Golden Days of Terror
In the Light of St Ives by Ray Cluley
Morgawr Rising
Trouble at Botathan by Reggie Oliver
From the Lady Downs
Mebyon versus Suna by John Whitbourn
The Serpent of Pengersick
The Unseen by Paul Edwards
Finned Angels, Fish-Tailed Devils
Dragon Path by Jacqueline Simpson
Jamaica Inn
The Old Traditions Are Best by Paul Finch
Guardians of the Castle
The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things by Mark Valentine
The Hooper
His Anger Was Kindled by Kate Farrell
The Bodmin Fetch
Four Windows and a Door by DP Watt
Owlman
Claws by Steve Jordan
The Cursing Psalm
A Beast by Any Other Name by Adrian Cole
Of the Demon, Tregeagle
Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning by Mark Samuels
Slaughter at Penryn
The Memory of Stone by Sarah Singleton
Queen of the Wind
Shelter from the Storm by Ian Hunter
The Voice in the Tunnels
Losing Its Identity by Thana Niveau


Just to whet your whistles even more, here are three snippets from the stories contained herein:

They came for him, the white children. They dragged him out of the house, like a rag doll. Rocks scored his skin and bruised his bones. At the edge of the sea, they peeled off his clothes and sank their hands through his pouched skin into his body, marvelling at his viscera, taking him to pieces, playfully.
The Memory of Stone 
Sarah Singleton

No more than two metres away was a circular pit that, as far as she could tell, stretched from one wall of the barn to the other. She thought of animal traps, in the bottom of which might be sharpened stakes designed to pierce the animal’s body as it fell. Oh God, oh God. Was that what this was? She tilted her phone down, shining it into the hole.
     It wasn’t black down there, as she had expected. It was red.
     Blood red.
We Who Sing Beneath the Ground
Mark Morris

The masked man yanked the chainsaw’s cord, and Lee shrunk towards the door, then whirled when he heard hoof falls and the creaking of floorboards behind him.
     There was that flashing again – a tiny red dot – and Lee realised that he was looking straight into the lens of a video camera.
The Unseen
 Paul Edwards


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.

SUMMER OF NIGHT 
by Dan Simmons (1991)

It is 1960 and the start of summer in the Illinois farming town of Elm Haven. For a bunch of local school-leavers, a tightknit group of adventurous 11-year-olds self-defined as the ‘Bike Patrol’, long months of vacation lie ahead. The sun is high, the corn ripening in the encircling fields, and while the adults have their own issues to deal with – the new decade is already presenting different political challenges! – for the youngsters it’s just another extended playtime.

But then something goes wrong. One of their former classmates, a hillbilly kid called Tubby Cooke, disappears, and the Patrol – level-headed leader Dale Stewart and his younger brother, Lawrence, brave and good-hearted Mike O’Rourke, troublesome roughneck Jim Harlen, super-intelligent Duane McBride and loyal team-player Kevin Grumbacher – take it on themselves to investigate.

And very soon, they wish they hadn’t.

At the heart of Elm Haven stands Old Central, the large, ornate and crumbling schoolhouse they’ve just left, which is now condemned and will shortly be torn down. The guys can’t help but feel there was always something wrong about Old Central – not just the school itself, but its staff too, who behaved increasingly oddly as the end of the semester approached. The kids especially become suspicious when they learn that Tubby was last seen alive in the school toilets.

But it’s a hot summer and there is lots of other fun to be had, and so the investigation is undertaken half-heartedly. Surely there was nothing really wrong with their old school?, and none of them much liked Tubby Cooke anyway, nor his oddball sister, Cortie. Within a few days, the whole thing is put to bed … but now it seems their inquisitiveness has aroused a latent hostile force, which they’d never previously noticed in Elm Haven.

The Rendering Truck, a ramshackle vehicle full of rotting animal carcasses, takes to following them around town and trying to run them off the road, while a weird WWI era soldier begins popping up in their peripheral vision and even chases them when he catches them out in the fields.

Something weird is indeed going on here, and Old Central seems to lie at the heart of it.

However, it is only when Duane researches the history of the school and learns that as well as a legacy to the town from the wealthy and mysterious Ashley family, it was also used to house an arcane artefact shipped over to the States from Europe and associated throughout its long history with sorcery and devil-worship, that Hell is really unleashed.

Nightmare faces appear at the boys’ windows, shadow shapes emerge from under their beds, axe-wielding figures attack their tents, and horrible things stir in the corn.

Amid many other distractions that the Bike Patrol never anticipated this summer – sexual awakenings and the like – they now must battle for their lives against this dark and intangible foe, which can assume a multitude of forms and soon seems to infest every corner of Elm Haven …

So many US horror writers appear to owe it to themselves to at some point produce at least one novel steeped in the Americana of their small-town youth. This furrow has been successfully ploughed by such major names in the genre as Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and Robert McCammon – to name but a few, so it was no surprise to learn that Dan Simmons had done it too, producing in Summer of Night a semi-autobiographical account of his boyhood in the agricultural Midwest, recollecting it as a fun romp for the most-part, but at the same time striving to capture the complexity of that last summer of childhood, that confusing moment in life when we willingly or unwillingly trade everything that went before, even the good stuff, for a completely different mode of existence (and so often find it a raw deal), and then pumping the adventure levels up dramatically with lashings of supernatural terror.

In the hands of all these great writers, this has proved a potent mix, an unashamed juxtaposing of that cosy age of boy-scout camps and Mickey Mantle baseball cards with the looming subliminal fear of something monstrous and unexplainable. Psychoanalysts would no doubt have a field-day, talking about the remorseless approach of adulthood, the end of play and the commencement of work, and maybe even, with the advantage of hindsight, the transition of that relatively comfortable post-WWII era in America to the more unstable 1960s with its social discord and the horrors of Vietnam.

There is probably something in that, though I suspect it’s actually a lot simpler. Summer of Night is clearly a very personal work for Dan Simmons, but its greatest strength lies in the rollicking and hair-raising tale it tells, and its straightforward pitting of good against evil in such easily understandable fashion that it wouldn’t be out of place on the YA shelves were it not for the juicy language and its frank discussion of adolescent sexuality.

It is certainly a lively and worthy addition to the small-town horror cycle. Many familiar motifs are here: the non-too-perfect lives of some of the kids (who even in the midst of cheerful innocence must cope with ill-health at home, low incomes, drunken or absent fathers, etc), the roaming bands of bullies, the grim and rotting building at the heart of town, the aristocratic founding-family now elevated to semi-mythical status, the existence of something ancient and cruel which only was hinted at prior to this book, the adults who stubbornly refuse to believe in it, and of course the endless, sun-soaked landscapes of youthful reminiscence.

One criticism often levelled at Summer of Night is that it’s too similar in tone to Stephen King’s own nostalgic masterpiece, It. I see that, but I don’t consider it a weakness – the two novels are cousins for sure but Summer is in no sense a rip-off, as the narratives diverge noticeably. However, I do think Dan Simmons’s book suffers a little by comparison.

Whereas It bounces back and forth between childhood and adulthood, Summer of Night anchors us in 1960, and to see the whole thing through the eyes of a bunch of 11-year-olds becomes a bit of a strain when you’re hundreds of pages in and yearning for some adult interaction. It also means that you must suspend belief considerably. Even for a supernatural tale, some of the solutions our youthful heroes adopt feel as if they’d be a little beyond the average bunch of youngsters – their proficiency and ruthlessness with firearms for example, their ability to pick clues from distant history, and their overall maturity in the face of a horrific crisis (when at the same time some of them are too frightened of the dark to turn their bedroom lights off, and others are content to step out of the battle to attend birthday parties and dig for bootlegger treasure!!!).

But these are the only real brickbats. The rest of this novel is a whole load of fun.

Typically for Dan Simmons, it’s a lengthy tale, but it’s sweetly written and totally engrossing. Living, breathing characters populate a richly detailed community. An air of the authentic early ’60s sits vividly on the page, and yet the lurking menace, which, while vague in the early stages, never feels out of place – in fact these are the best parts of the book for me: the slow-dawning awareness that something terrible, only glimpsed at first, is coming on apace, threatening to sweep away this idyllic little enclave in a turbulent world.

And of course, when the book finally fires – it fires on all cylinders.

As you’d expect, there is a grand climax at the end, but well before then – throughout most of the second half of the novel – Simmons hits us a with a series of spectacular action set-pieces, each one scarier and more explosive than the one before it. And don’t be lulled into complacency by the extreme youth of our main protagonists – not all these chilling encounters end well for them (though to say any more on that would really spoil things).

Summer of Night is what people used to refer to as an ‘airport novel’ – in other words it’s a big, fat volume, so big that you’d happily buy it on the first day of your holidays and expect it to see you right the way through. That’s most likely what would have happened; at over 500 pages, it’s an absolute whopper. But though reading habits have changed a little since the 1990s, I still recommend this exciting and enjoyable tome. It may transport you back to your own past, it may provide no more than an amusing diversion for an hour each day, but once you get into the meat of it I guarantee you’ll stick with it right to the end.

In normal circumstances with these reviews, I like to close with some fantasy casting, just for fun picking who I’d love to see play the leads if the book in question were ever to make it to the screen. Alas, on this occasion I must stick my hand up and admit to knowing so little about Hollywood’s current A-list of child stars that I couldn’t make any meaningful suggestions. And given that the kids totally dominate the book, it would seem a little crass to try and cast the adult characters when so many of them occupy background roles.

3 comments:

  1. Loved this book when I read it in 1991 or thereabouts. Still have my signed copy with personalised drawing by Mr Simmons. Tremendous book which I actually preferred to It (though not quite up there with McCammon's Boy's Life in my opinion). Scary, fun, extremely well written and involving. And thanks to meeting Simmons for the signing at a World Fantasy Convention in London (in '91 I think), I know I have shared a thought with Stephen King! I remember asking Simmons about a death scene for one of the characters (not giving anything away here) and he told me King had asked the exact same question. Then he drew that character in the book for me!

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    1. Superb story, Matt - many thanks for that. I've heard from other sources that Simmons is a great guy.

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