Category Archives: Horror

Ararat by Christopher Golden

Headline | 2017 (18 April) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ararat by Christopher GoldenAdam and Meryam live for adventure. A modern couple, newly engaged, they have become well known for the videos they record on their perilous expeditions across the globe. But everything they have done before now is about to fade into insignificance once they take a call from an old friend and trekking guide in Turkey. An earthquake and avalanche has hit Mount Ararat and a huge cavern has been exposed high in the mountain’s side. They aren’t the only explorers who want to know what’s in that cave and the race is on to claim it first. Meryam and Adam win.

The cave is all that anyone could hope for – it is the Ark, trapped in the mountain, astonishingly well-preserved and now exposed for the first time in countless ages. Meryam is project manager but the team that now investigates it is large, including archaeologists, linguists, pathologists and doctors, as well as others whose job it is to watch. There are mysteries hidden in the wreck and governments are interested, particularly here so close to Iraq. And that’s even before the religious connotations of the Ark are considered. Can any one religion lay claim to the Ark?

But all of this goes by the by once Meryam and her team descend further into the body of the vessel and find a mummified corpse encased in an inscribed sarcophagus, covered in pitch. On its head are the remains of horns while its limbs are distorted. It is abundantly clear that this hideous corpse is most definitely not Noah.

Christopher Golden is such a fine writer of horror (and other things) – I loved his earlier novels Snowblind and Dead Ringers, both of which chilled me to the bone (I’ll never forget the ending of Dead Ringers – that book gave me nightmares!). I’m delighted to say that Golden has done it again. Taking us far away from the comforts of modern life into the Godforsaken cold of the remote and lethal wintry mountain, we can expect anything to happen. And it does, almost immediately. How I love horror novels set on cold, isolated mountains and frozen wastelands.

The team find it hard enough to get along as it is, even without the horror that is thrown at them, and the tension is immense. Some characters we get to know better than others (for some rather obvious reasons), but the ones that we do get to know are developed very well, with hints of their past lives beyond the mountain. There are several little groups of people within the larger team and it’s intriguing moving between them. Not that it pays to get close to anyone in Ararat. The rate of attrition is high to put it very mildly indeed.

Ararat is a frightening novel (hooray!) and it is also a very gory and violent one. There are bits you might want to read with your eyes closed. Obviously you have to suspend your powers of disbelief and there is something rather inevitable about much of what happens but Ararat delivers exactly what I wanted from it. It’s a very well-written, satisfying, frightening, chilly and gory horror extravaganza and, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. More, please!

Other reviews
Dead Ringers

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Raven Books | 2017 (12 January) | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

The River at Night by Erica FerencikWin Allen is struggling. After the death of her brother and an unhappy divorce, she wants to keep the world firmly locked outside. She sees danger everywhere and her fear and sadness are almost crippling. But when her old friend Pia proposes a white-water rafting adventure in the Maine wilderness, Win is torn. An adventure, particularly THIS type of adventure, is the last thing she wants but this is a chance to re-bond with Pia and their two dear friends, Rachel and Sandra. Time has flown since they last met up and so much has happened to each of them in the interim. Win can’t help but think that if she doesn’t go she’ll regret it for the rest of her life. She’s wrong about that.

And so begins an adventure of a lifetime for Win, Pia, Rachel and Sandra. A time to chat around campfires and put their worlds to rights, to try something new, maybe flirt a little with their young handsome guide Rory, all within this most stunning Maine scenery. None of them could have imagined it would be so beautifully remote, so far away from the cares of daily life. So far from help.

The River at Night is one of those novels that hooks its claws into you almost immediately. It’s not a long novel, at about 300 pages, and so I would recommend that you try to read it in as few a sittings as possible. I read it in two over twenty-four hours and this really intensified its mood and atmosphere, immersing me not only in the wonderful descriptions of the wilderness and the river but also in the horror and terror of it all. The two complement each other perfectly, with Erica Ferencik doing such a fine job of creating the perfect setting for danger and menace and then fulfilling that promise completely.

The novel brings together a range of styles – travel, adventure, buddies, crime, thriller and horror – and it’s a recipe that works very well. Win narrates the story and seeing its developments through her eyes adds so much to the mood. She is an intriguing character – flawed, timid, scared, suspicious – and that’s even before they set foot on the boat. But Win is capable of surprising herself and us. We also learn about the other characters through Win and it’s like peeling an onion of its layers of skin. Sandra, in particular, is fascinating. There are surprises through the book and some take the breath away, they are so unexpected.

It’s clear from the outset that something is going to go badly wrong and the tension builds page by page. I did not want to put it down. As much horror as thriller, this tense, fast and very well-written novel has put me off camping and rivers for a long, long time!

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of The River at Night on 12 January.

River at Night blog tour poster

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Thin Air | Michelle Paver | 2016 (6 October) | Orion | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Thin Air by Michelle PaverIt is 1935 and Dr Stephen Pearce is medic on a five-man expedition that aims to climb and conquer the Himalayan mountain of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. He is the last-minute replacement doctor, doing his older brother Kits, also on the expedition, a favour. Shortly before they set off, the team attend a party at the home of Charles Tennant, one of only two survivors of another expedition that tried and failed, so spectacularly, to claim the mountain’s peak in 1906. Tennant, now old, his feet amputated after that awful climb, refuses to see anyone – but Pearce stumbles by mistake into his rooms and hears more than enough to fill his heart with dread at the thought of the trial to come.

And so we venture onto the mountain in the last few days before the monsoon season closes it to all climbers. The men, along with their small army of porters, follow the trail of that earlier Lyell expedition up the mountain, pitching camps where they had also pitched, Kangchenjunga looming above them, the ice closing in. At first all goes well, spirits kept high not least because of the dog that adopted Pearce in the foothills and has now become a member of the team in his own right. But the discovery of cairns, the final resting places for the Lyell’s expedition dead, changes the mood, especially when Pearce realises that not all of the dead were given a grave in which to rest in peace.

Michelle Paver’s earlier novel Dark Matter continues to be one of my favourite horror novels, a ghost story set in the frozen Arctic which terrified me. It takes quite a lot for a novel to frighten me, generally only ghost stories succeed and then not all of the time, but Michelle Paver knows just which way to do it. There are similarities between the two novels. Thin Air also takes place in a frozen, perilous environment and is set in the 1930s. Only a few characters are involved, adding to the mood of isolation, lonely dread, even the fear of madness. But Thin Air is no imitation. It is every bit as good as Dark Matter, every bit as frightening. I read the second half late at night by lamplight. Perfect.

The story is told to us by Stephen Pearce himself, a man of science but filled with curiosity about the doomed Lyell expedition – although not as much as his brother Kits who is almost obsessed by it. In a way, Stephen is the last man on the expedition that you’d expect to become so haunted during those days and long nights on the avalanche-swept mountain but this is an environment that promises the unexpected.

There is another side to the novel that is also fascinating – the relationship between the British climbers and the sherpas and porters that do their bidding. Barefooted, the Sherpas are only offered boots when they are too far up the mountain to disappear. There is ingrained racism, suspicion and utter dependence. But there is a religious side to it as well. Pearce hates the mythology and superstition with which the locals have surrounded this mountain but Pearce is a man about to change.

The relationships between the five-man team, plus the dog, are beautifully treated by Michelle Paver. The brotherly relationship between Stephen and Kits is just one part of this.

Thin Air is a short novel – I read it in two sittings over one day – but it is long enough for the reader to wallow in its chilly darkness. It is rich in atmosphere, the environment stunningly described. Kangchenjunga is a formidable character in its own right and it is a deadly one. But it is also such a satisfying ghost story, so perfect for these darker evenings, and it is wrapped within a beautifully told and sad tale. Thin Air succeeds as an excellent ghost story and horror novel but it is also a wonderful piece of historical fiction and I thoroughly recommend it.

Other review
Dark Matter

Hunters & Collectors by M. Suddain

Hunters & Collectors | M. Suddain | 2016 | Jonathan Cape | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hunters & Collectors by M. SuddainFeared by chefs and restaurant owners across the universe, John Tamberlaine is no ordinary food critic, preferring instead the title of ‘forensic gastronomer’. With the power to rip a career to shreds with a single misquote, Tamberlaine is known to one and all as the Tomahawk, his real identity veiled by intrigue and whispers. Tamberlaine is on a quest to visit and write about the most exquisite restaurants in all the planets, scribbling down his thoughts for his editor, his friends, his fans and his trolls. Especially his trolls. There’s one in particular that Tamberlaine’s rather taken by and he feels the urge to pour out his heart. This might be because he seems to have the knack of saying just the wrong thing to his friends.

Tamberlaine travels in style, astounding us with his itemised luggage, his cornucopia of medicines, his cotton shirts, everything perfectly suited to the luxurious stops on his grand gourmet tour. After several years of this, one place eludes him, a restaurant so exalted and exclusive that nobody is allowed to write about it – the Undersea Restaurant of the Hotel Grand Skies. Getting an invitation to a place that might not exist is no easy task, especially when you need to be unconscious to receive it. But were the Tomahawk to receive such an invitation, his visit – in the company of Gladys his bodyguard and his lawyer the Beast – might not be as he would expect. In fact, it might be the very last thing he would wish for.

How to describe Hunters & Collectors…. It’s an impossible job because this is a book that defies explanation. What it demands instead is that you read it with your powers of imagination wide, wide open, receptive and hungry. They will be fed by something marvellous, as clever as it is hilarious, as macabre and horrifying as it is elegant, as weird as it is odd. I was expecting to find it a challenge. Surreal and I rarely get along but Hunters & Collectors has something of the spirit of Douglas Adams about it, mixed with Sixties and Seventies horror and science fiction. It reminded me of so many things that I love. The problem is I can’t tell you what as that would spoil things. And you do not want this to be spoiled. There are shocks in store, there is verbal sparring on a tremendous level, there is an awful lot of blood, a pleasing display of politeness and decorum, and the senses will be overwhelmed by what it receives.

There is so much going on here. This is a futuristic world that encompasses other planets which could almost be set in the present day only on our home planet – except that it offers glimpses that it isn’t. You have to look out for them. There is beauty in this universe, exemplified here by good shoes and a good meal, but there is great evil. The presence of The Butcher, the greatest dictator, looms over proceedings like the worst case of food poisoning. And the Tomahawk, surely one of the most delightful and refined of narrators, endures and enjoys all kinds of experiences and the way in which he deals with them reveals a great deal about his character and his world.

At times the novel reads like a guidebook, while at others it’s a memoir, scribbled down in his notebooks (with horses on them). We’re taken on all kinds of transportation, most memorably a train, we see all kinds of places. Nothing and nobody, though, are quite what they seem. Sometimes you might find that out, at other times you might not.

Suddain writes beautifully and with such wit and grace. Here is prose and dialogue to feast on. This is a very funny book, without labouring the humour. I wasn’t expecting to be scared but there were times when I was very scared. But the frightening bits are often the funniest. It is very clever. Hunters & Collectors is hugely imaginative and brilliantly accessible while also being hilarious and terrifying. Science fiction, horror, guidebook, memoir – this wonderful, wonderful novel fulfils many roles and without doubt is one of my top three reads of the year so far. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a masterpiece.

I haven’t read Theatre of the Gods yet. That’s something I shall fix.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

The Last Days of Jack Sparks | Jason Arnopp | 2016 (28 July) | Orbit | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason ArnoppWhen Jack Sparks decides to write a book on something he certainly throws himself into it, as his books on pogo sticking across the UK and drugs attest. Writing these he did a lot of both. Perhaps not surprisingly, his agent is less than happy when Jack announces that his next book is to be on the supernatural. But Jack is not to be persuaded especially after he’s attended an exorcism deep in rural Italy. And then there’s the video that has suddenly appeared on his own YouTube account. If only he hadn’t watched the video… But it’s too late. Jack Sparks died during the writing of this book.

Jack Sparks’ last book gathers together his unpolished draft and his rough notes, annotated on occasion by his brother Alistair who has given himself the job of publishing the book, along with transcripts and reports from some of the people that Jack consulted during his research. What we’re given is an investigation into the supernatural that makes you want to hang on for dear life as our narrator takes us deeper and deeper into something that he cannot let go of, even if he wanted to, and the result is horrifying and hysterical by turn.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks is a fantastically original ghost story. Dominated by the manic personality of Jack Sparks and annotated by the brother that Jack could barely stand, it is also a fine example of the ‘Unreliable Narrator’. We hear more than one version of an event time after time and sometimes the contradiction is quite shocking – Jack mentions something almost in passing and then another character will reveal what actually happened. But are they speaking the truth? And clearly Alistair the brother is after some redemption – but at what cost to the truth?

This is a spectacularly fun novel to read and Jason Arnopp is to be congratulated on how he’s written such an imaginative and creative reworking on one of the familiar themes of ghost horror fiction – the exorcism. Not only is it really terrifying in places but it is also extremely funny and wonderfully ridiculous as Jack Sparks spirals further and further out of control into something he tries to understand, to explain, but he can’t. And how cross, frustrated and exasperated this makes Jack. His personality pours out of the novel while at the same time we are scared out of our wits by events. It is such a funny book despite the scares. It also makes great use of social media. Even that is turned into an agent of horror.

There are so many shocks in this clever, clever novel and they lead up to the most brilliant conclusion. What an ending! You know that Jack Sparks is going to die, that’s made clear from the very first page, but it still doesn’t prepare you for what actually happens. I lapped up this hugely enjoyable, spooky, creepy pageturner, reading it late into the night, loving all the varied emotions it made me feel, sometimes all at the same time – frightened, amused, shocked, saddened, thoroughly entertained. Just the thought of some of it still makes me shiver…

The Fireman by Joe Hill

The Fireman | Joe Hill | 2016 (7 June) | Gollancz | 768p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Fireman by Joe HillHarper Grayson used to be a school nurse in Concord, Massachusetts, and it was there, just outside the school, that she saw a man spontaneously burst into flames and burn to death. Harper had much to do, calming the hysterical children and their teachers, all herded into the gym, hiding from the sight. But, looking back, those were the normal days. Far too soon others from the school would themselves burn, leading to the school’s closure, the movement of many of the population to the local hospital and everywhere the smell of burnt human flesh. The hospital itself, houses, towns, all catching fire from their inhabitants, society reduced to ashes.

Harper isn’t immune. One day she finds on herself the beautiful golden trail of the fiery virus known as the Dragonscale. Her husband turns against her, one of the many determined to destroy the carriers of the disease as the world goes mad. She has no choice but to flee, following the promise offered by the Fireman and others like him who appear to be able to control the Dragonscale, using the power of the Bright to rise above the elements of nature in the most extraordinary of ways.

The Fireman is without doubt a remarkable novel. It is epic and monumental in size, theme and wonder. In some ways it reads as a homage to The Stand by Stephen King (Joe Hill’s father). The Stand is one of my favourite novels of all time and reading The Fireman filled me with the same feelings – horror at the affliction scouring mankind but also wonder at the potential meaning of this apocalypse and its transformation of its victims and survivors into something else, the growth of new religion. Both feature journeys, a quest, damnation and hope, character types, but The Fireman stands tall as a fantastic achievement in its own right, moving the story on to the present day, filling it with so many fabulous pop culture references, bringing us the stories of unforgettable men, women and children, as they cope with the dread that at any moment they too will burn.

Here we have a grand battle of good versus evil – the forces against take on a demonic character and there is something holy and beautiful in the Dragonscale that glistens across the skin of the infected. But the nature of the Dragonscale itself is deeply enigmatic and ambiguous. Its place at the centre of a new spirituality is hardly surprising but is it, or the people who live with the Bright, to be trusted? And what is the alternative?

The Fireman is a large book but you hardly notice the pages turning and you certainly wouldn’t want to rush it. There are moments of extreme and violent action, fought by real people, there are other passages that are so evocative, memorable and beautifully written, with characters to match. There are also jawdropping moments. It’s the most atmospheric read I’ve had in a long time. When I think of The Fireman now, I feel wrapped in that atmosphere still. It’s not an easy book to review, it contains so much, not least the extraordinary, wonderful figure of Harper Grayson who will stay with me for such a long time. So, instead of rambling on, I would urge you to read The Fireman and let it carry you away.

Also reviewed at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm and Reader Dad.

The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone

The Hatching | Ezekiel Boone | 2016 (5 July) | Gollancz | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Hatching by Ezekiel BooneIf you have a phobia for anything with eight legs then you might want to close your eyes while you read the review below. If you’re perfectly happy around our little eight-legged friends, you soon won’t be…

A rich man’s expedition into the Peruvian jungle has a less than desirable ending when the party is consumed by a writhing, seething black force of nature. A plane crashes in the US, its survivor surviving not very long at all when the worst thing that’s ever happened to him is swiftly followed by an even worse thing. The world is shocked by news that the Chinese government is dropping nuclear weapons – by accident, apparently – on remote areas of its own country. At the same time, India is shaken by tremors. It’s as if the Earth itself is reeling. It can hardly be a coincidence when scientist Melanie Guyer receives a package containing a pulsating, warm mass. Increasingly concerned by what she discovers, Melanie contacts her ex-husband, who has the ear of the American president. Meanwhile, FBI agent Mike Rich is on a trail of discovery and it’s littered with eight-legged flesh-eating spiders – and they are very hungry indeed.

As soon as I heard about The Hatching I was desperate to read it. The author is called Ezekiel Boone and that made me even more desperate to read it. I love disaster movies and stories and this has it all. It’s fast. We jump constantly and hungrily between characters and disaster hotspots around the world (including the Scottish island) in a crescendo of catastrophe. The focus is on Rich and Melanie – one following the action while the other follows the science, both destined to merge – but there are a host of other people to enjoy here. Not that it pays to get too attached.

I particularly enjoyed the Californian survivalists, who aren’t at all what you’d expect from survivalists, even those who live in a town called Desperation. They have the supplies and weapons stored in their bunkers – nothing unusual there – but these are people who realise that surviving the end of the world isn’t really worth it that much if you do it on your own. They are likeable, and one of the survivalist couples is gay. Stereotypes take a bit of an assault here and elsewhere in the book. Although, when it comes down to it, the critters attack and the people scream – the same way that it’s been done forever and it works.

I do like Ezekiel Boone’s writing. The author is clearly having as much fun as the reader but he also knows how to maintain the tension, the panic levels and the drama as everything spirals out of control. And we are not spared the gore and general unpleasantness of being attacked by ravenous carnivorous spiders. There are a few truly revolting moments mixed up in the thrills. It is extremely hard to put down and, to be honest, I didn’t even bother. I read it in one day.

The Hatching follows in the fine tradition of Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Swarm and others and, when done well as this is, I can’t get enough of such books. I was fortunate enough to read a review copy of this with spiders actually hidden within the pages. Whether this made me screech a bit is open to debate but The Hatching is such a thoroughly entertaining, deliciously skin-crawling horror thriller that you’ll like it with or without the spiders falling on your lap as you read it. The ending is fabulous, setting up the next book perfectly and I cannot wait.