Category Archives: Horror

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Bantam Press | 2018 (5 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Hunger by Alma KatsuIt is the summer of 1846 and a wagon train of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, has left it late to cross the Sierra mountains on their way to the promised lands of California. After weeks of crossing hot and dusty prairie, they must make a decision but may well be perilous. They can either take a well-documented and trusted path or they can take the Hastings Cutoff, a route believed to be shorter. Donner makes the decision and it is one that will have devastating consequences for this wagon train of men, women and children – lots of children. The winter of 1846 and 1847 brings hell on earth to the Donner Party.

As the weather closes in and the terrain gets too tough for these heavily laden wagons, tempers fray but that’s the least of their problems. There isn’t enough food to get them through the winter, there are frightening rumours about fierce Indians stalking them from the hills, and then members of the group begin to disappear. Now and again they find what’s left of them. People have different ideas about the best way to survive. It’s clear not all of them will make it. And some of them can hear things from the forest. They know they are being watched.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu is a fine meld of historical fiction and horror. It’s based on a true story that lends itself so well to both (see also my review of October Skies by Alex Scarrow). The Donner Party did indeed get trapped by the weather and mountains and many of them died in circumstances that horrified society – how far did these poor souls go to survive? Alma Katsu delves deeper and she presents a tale as gripping as it is utterly horrifying. This is a novel that made me want to sleep with the lights on.

What makes this novel stand out for me, though, isn’t the horror (although it is delicious), it’s the depiction of the wide range of people that made up this wagon train. Probably close to a hundred in number, we’re made familiar with a fair few of them and for some we’re given tasters of their previous history – we’re given flashbacks of a time when life was normal and this trip to California seemed so exciting and worthwhile. I particularly loved the portraits of the women, most of whom had no say in the decision to travel west and some of them barely knew their husbands. Some women, or girls I should say, married along the way, regardless of their own desires. The wives and daughters are chattels, every bit as much as the cattle they drive across the plains. If any women do make a stand then they are viewed with suspicion as having loose morals, perhaps even witches. Tamsen Donner is presented as one such woman. But there are other girls and women here who also grab our attention – there are so many. I loved reading about them.

It’s the men who have destiny in their hands – or so they believe – and so we also meet some of them. Stanton is arguably our main character, a young man yet to marry due to tragic circumstances. He’s not alone in being haunted by the past. Stanton is torn between fighting to survive by going off alone or staying with the group to protect the women and children. I did like the character of James Reeve especially and some of the finest writing is preserved for his fate. If I have any complaint at all it is perhaps that there are too many characters here to follow. I don’t have the best of memories and so I had to keep flicking through the pages to remember who was who. But this is such a minor point because each of the characters is drawn so well. And then there are the monsters…. You must discover those for yourself.

The Hunger is a beautifully written novel. It conjures up the plains, mountains and forest of this seemingly endless and perilous journey. We experience the heat and then the cold, the effort to remain clean, the hunger and thirst, the dust, the chill. It’s all described so well, and so too are the reactions of the pioneers to their surroundings. They fear it. Everything is an obstacle to where they want to be. And I loved hearing about all of the different reasons for this tremendous journey.

This is, I’m pleased to say as this is a horror novel after all, a frightening story and it’s told so well. It’s rich in historical detail and vivid in its horror. I found The Hunger extremely hard to put down. It’s one of those books where you think that you’ll read just one more chapter but end up reading half the book. The shifting between characters and the movement from the present to the past and back again in flashbacks, as well as the insertion of letters, is done very effectively. This is an accomplished, confident and memorable novel. I read most of it very late at night by low lamplight. I can recommend that.

Other feature
‘History and The Hunger’ – guest post by Alma Katsu, author of The Hunger

Advertisements

Zero Day by Ezekiel Boone

Gollancz/Atria Books | 2018 (UK: 1 March/US: 27 February) | 315p | Review copy (UK and US editions) | Buy the book: UK/US

Zero Day by Ezekiel BooneZero Day is the final part of Ezekiel Boone’s skin-crawlingly brilliant Hatching trilogy, which means that if you haven’t already read The Hatching and Skitter then you must tread no further, certainly not without looking where you’re walking because this is the Spiderpocalypse! This review assumes that you know what’s happened before, although I’ll do my best to give nothing away about any of the people (otherwise known as spider food) within.

The world has endured the first and second waves of spiders but the world is not as it was before. Nucleur missiles have wiped out many of Earth’s biggest cities, in China, the United States and elsewhere. Much of America is now a no go zone, with some politicians advising that everywhere west of New York City should be abandoned to its fate. The scientists know that there is one more wave of spiders to come and this one could mark the end of humanity. But how far should mankind go to fight the spiders? What if man’s extinction comes not from the spiders but from the very actions taken to defend the human race? These are the questions troubling the highest levels of government but meanwhile men, women and children across the globe are trying to survive from one day to the next. Sometimes surrounded by moats of fire or lakes of water – anything to keep the spiders at bay.

This has been a fantastic series from the start and I’m delighted, but not surprised, to say that Zero Day concludes events in fine style. I’m not going to mention any of the people. Not everyone will have made it this far but there are some that have and we are desperate for them to live. We meet survivors across the planet but most of our attention is on the US where politicians, soldiers, scientists and normal families are battling for existence. As we move back and forth between them we are desperate to know how all of this is going to turn out.

While I would have preferred more spiders – and fewer gungho nuclear-missile-waving politicians – in the first half, the second half more than makes up for this and it is thoroughly exciting, spectacularly explosive and deliciously creepy – these spiders are awful! I don’t mind spiders myself but the ones within these pages are enough to fill a lifetime of nightmares.

One of the things that I really love about these books is their humanity. With a very few notable exceptions, most of the people we meet care for each other as much as for themselves, if not more so. Time after time we see people put their own lives in danger to help strangers or those who have become close to them in this time of crisis. There are survivalists who go against all the stereotypes, helping others, risking everything. We have straight and gay relationships, there is a harmony and equality at work here. Society isn’t perfect but I like the world as we see it here. This is good against evil on an almighty scale, with the enemy being not just the spiders but also a few male powerful politicians who belong to an old world that deserves to be eaten by eight-legged monsters.

I read Zero Day in one glorious sitting. I love how frightening and thrilling it is. I knew when I read The Hatching that I was in for a treat with this trilogy and I was so right! And it’s so good to say that the ending is every bit as fabulous as the beginning. I’ll miss these characters but I’m looking forward very much to seeing where Ezekiel Boone takes us next.

Other reviews
The Hatching
Skitter

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

Michael Joseph | 2018 (11 January) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Chalk Man by CJ TudorIn 1986 12-year-old Eddie and his four friends live in the small town of Anderbury. They entertain themselves as best as they can, avoiding the bullies when possible, worrying about their friend Nicky, the daughter of the vicar, who regularly has bruises on her arms. They set up a code – they contact each other with drawings of stick men, each of them using a different coloured chalk. But one day the chalk men lead them into the woods and there they discover a dismembered body.

Thirty years later, Eddie believes that he has left the past behind but when one of his four friends, long estranged from the others, turns up out of the blue, raking up the past, he’s not so sure. And then each of them receives a letter with a chalk man and soon one of them is dead. Eddie realises he has no choice but to face a past that refuses to let him go. He has to find out what really happened all those years ago.

The Chalk Man is a debut novel by C.J. Tudor and it is a fine achievement. As much horror as crime thriller, its atmosphere is second to none. This is a deeply moody and evocative mystery horror, moving between past and present, and filling both with a deep foreboding and chill. You can feel it in the woods, in the river, in the school, in the pub and the houses, in the fairground – everywhere in Anderbury is infused with a fear. It’s very effective indeed.

Eddie is a brilliant character and he is the heart of the novel. We see everything through his eyes and we feel his moods. But he remains elusive. He is trying to deal psychologically with the trauma of the past and with events of the successive years that have changed his relationship to his close childhood friends. At its core, this is a novel about friendship and one young man called Eddie. We learn about him as he learns about himself and it’s such a fascinating tale. And on the sidelines we have the lives of his four school friends and their parents and siblings. At times it is horrifying – there is are moments that shock in this book – and at other times it is desperately tragic. And adding to it is the creepy sense that something is watching.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Chalk Man. It’s a compulsive read. I read it until late into the night and finished it in a couple of days. It’s so hard to put down, the characters so hard to forget. I loved how the mystery developed and welcomed its surprises. Above all else, though, I loved Eddie, Gav and Nicky, and I was haunted by that beautiful girl we glimpse in the fairground through Eddie’s eyes at the beginning of the novel. This is a book that stays in the mind. It’s a fantastic debut novel and I look forward to seeing where C.J. Tudor will take us next.

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Orbit | 2017 (16 November) | 486p | Review copy | Buy the book

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira GrantIn 2015 Imagine Entertainment despatched the vessel Atargatis to the Mirana Trench, deep within the Pacific Ocean, to film a ‘mocumentary’. Its subject would be the sea’s most celebrated of legendary creatures. But not a soul would survive the voyage. The ship was found a few weeks later with nobody aboard. Recovered cameras, though, hint at something terrible but some people refuse to believe what they show, calling it a hoax. But the families of the lost need answers. Now, in 2022, a new expedition is about to begin. The Melusine, a luxurious and state-of-the-art science vessel is to return to the Mirana Trench, again sent by Imagine, and this time it is after answers about the fate of those aboard Atargatis as well as the truth concerning these creatures of myth.

The Melusine sails with a team of scientists and filmmakers who have no idea what they’ll find, but among them is marine scientist Tory, whose sister filmed those infamous shots aboard Atargatis. She isn’t alone in feeling driven to confront her fears. But surely they will be safe aboard the Melusine. Its shutters can protect the ship against anything the sea can throw at it. Can’t they?

Into the Drowning Deep is the type of book I love very much if done well – terror at sea, horror in the depths, the uncertainty of survival, with some thoroughly entertaining science thrown into the mix. And I’m delighted to say that I think Mira Grant has succeeded in her aims. This is a meaty book, for want of a better expression. It’s substantial in length, it’s packed with characters each with their own goals, their relationships complex, and the tension builds as the characters are hunted across the ship.

We’re taken deep into disaster territory with a decent amount of horror thrown in. But the stars of this book aren’t the people – although there were a handful of people that I liked very much indeed and spent a lot of time worrying for – it’s the creatures we’re forewarned about from the very beginning. There can be little more appealing in a novel about the secrets depths of the Mirano Trench than these enigmatic beings and they do not disappoint – the descriptions are fantastic. But there’s so much more to it. There are lots of surprises and shocks. And so much blood. I spent a fair amount of time while reading this novel shuddering. I love that!

There are a couple of predictable characters and sometimes you can look ahead and sense what will happen, but on the whole I was thoroughly satisfied with the way that the novel progresses. It’s the first of a series and so there is room for further development at the end but on the whole I think Into the Drowning Deep stands on its own very well. I really liked the detail in the plotting and most of the characterisation. We’re eased into the horror gradually but the foreboding builds from the very start while we’re also given intriguing bits of sciencespeak. The tension is maintained throughout and the action is thrilling. In some ways, Into the Drowning Deep reminded me of Michael Crichton’s novels. How I love technothrillers.

I’ve previously read Mira Grant’s horror thriller Parasite and, while I enjoyed that, I enjoyed Into the Drowning Deep much more. This book is one of those which I actually felt could have been written for me. I love horror set within the claustrophobic confines of a ship at sea but I also have a thing about mythical sea creatures and have read a fair few novels about them over the years. None of it though was anything like this! I lapped it up and I’m looking forward to book 2 very much indeed.

Other review
Parasite

Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Gollancz | 2017 (7 November) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Strange Weather by Joe HillIn four novellas, loosely linked by the weather, Joe Hill presents a chilling portrait of present-day American society. The effects of global warming are more and more apparent with almost each passing day but this is a little too obvious for Joe Hill to focus upon. After all, to any sane person this should be taken as read, and in fact weather plays less of a role in these stories than the title of the collection suggests, with the clear exception of Rain. Instead, Hill takes us inside our nightmares, to a place that’s almost real. The things that take place there are most certainly real – illness, gun violence, grief, prejudice, fear. Some stories contain more elements of horror than others but they’re all disturbing.

In Snapshot a young boy takes on a stranger in town, the Phoenician, who uses his polaroid camera to steal memories. This was for me the most harrowing of all four stories and it actually upset me a fair bit. Loss of memory is a terrible thing and Joe Hill portrays the pain of this exquisitely. I loved young Michael. His kindness is so touching and something of an antidote to some of the other characters that we encounter through this collection.

Loaded was inspired by ‘the massacre of twenty children in Newtown, Connecticut. Loaded was my attempt to make sense out of our nation hard-on for The Gun’. It focuses on a mass killing in a shopping centre while the town is threatened by a deadly forest fire. It shows what happens when the bigoted, the ignorant and the aggrieved can get their hands on a gun. The fallout is extraordinary and not quite what you’d expect. I had some issues with the way that this story develops. It’s powerful stuff but its ending was troubling for me. This is the longest story in the collection and also the oldest.

Aloft is another kettle of fish entirely and lifts us out of reality. Aubrey is about to do a parachute jump. The thought alone terrifies him but he’s doing it with friends as a tribute to someone they loved who died young. He also wants to impress Harriet. But when he makes his jump something happens and instead of floating to Earth Aubrey lands on a cloud. And on that cloud what you want may come to pass. I’m not a fantasy reader and so I did struggle with Aloft, which is my fault, not the story’s.

My favourite of the four is Rain, an apocalyptic tale of rain that falls as lethal crystal needles. Thousands are killed, law and society break down. Honeysuckle loses Yolanda, the girl that she loves and her grief compels her to make a hazardous journey to let Yolanda’s father know that his wife and daughter are dead. There are horrors along the way as you can imagine. But there are also bright spots, especially with Hill’s depiction of the young boy that Honeysuckle babysits. Joe Hill says in his afterword that ‘Rain arose from a desire to spoof myself and my own sprawling end-of-the-world novel The Fireman. I’m a big believer in making fun of yourself before anyone else can’.

While I found the stories mixed in their appeal, each shares in common a very important factor – the fine characterisation. It’s impossible not to feel involved with these people’s lives. Some are vulnerable and powerless, prejudiced against, but many make a stand and do the right thing. There are pleasing little digs at certain American presidents, comments on the state of society, especially in regard to its gun laws and tolerance (or lack of), but it’s the characters that give these stories life and there are a few moments that I won’t forget in a hurry.

Other review
The Fireman

The Lost Village by Neil Spring

Quercus | 2017 (19 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Village by Neil SpringAt the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 the army evacuated, forcibly even, the village of Imber on Salisbury Plain. Its manor, houses and church were turned over to battle training, their walls scarred by bullets, the surrounding woodland pitted with bomb shells, everywhere the dangerous remnants of war. But every October, for one single day, the villagers are allowed to return to Imber to have a service in the church and pay their respects to their loved ones who lie buried in the graveyard and who, for every other day of the year, have been abandoned.

It is 1932 and the annual pilgrimage of the villagers to Imber is imminent. But the army has a problem. Its soldiers are terrified of the place and one man in particular has been turned mad by it. The seizure of Imber was a public relations disaster and the army is intent on avoiding any other attention, particularly as the villagers are more then ever set on reclaiming their former homes for good. Whatever it is that is frightening the soldiers must be explained and eradicated immediately. They call on the famous ghost hunter and ghost debunker Harry Price and his assistant Sarah Grey. But the relationship between the two has soured almost irretrievably and both, especially Sarah, have their own ghosts to face. But all of this must be played out in the deserted woods and dark buildings of Imber.

The Lost Village is the second Ghost Hunters novel by Neil Spring. I haven’t read Ghost Hunters and this mattered very little, although I expect it might have provided more information on the breakdown of Sarah’s relationship with Harry. But it was certainly easy to pick up on the mood between them, especially because our narrator is Sarah herself. Sarah begins her tale when she is an old woman looking back, her memories prompted by the discovery of a skeleton in Imber. We are instantly plunged into an atmosphere of fear, secrets and the unexplained. In Imber anything can happen but there is more to Sarah and the novel than just Imber as some of her initial experiences in London are every bit as terrifying to read.

I love a good ghost story and The Lost Village is deliciously teasing and frightening. Sarah is a wonderful narrator. She combines just the right amount of suspicion and superstition to make her seem a reliable yet open witness to these extraordinary events. Harry is another kettle of fish entirely. There is nothing reliable about Harry and yet, as the novel continues, I warmed to him much more than I expected.

This is a great story and it kept me guessing right to the end but the main strength of this enjoyable novel is its mood. Imber is the perfect subject for such a book and there is an element of truth behind it. Imber was indeed evacuated for army purposes but during a different war, the second, but by shifting it back to the first, the atmosphere of loss and tragedy is arguably increased.

As with most ghostly tales you have to bring a pinch of salt to them and I was certainly prepared to do that with The Lost Village. Apart from my one issue, that perhaps it is a little long, I thoroughly enjoyed my frightening experience in Imber and among its inhabitants.

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (26 September) | 715p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen KingIn the near and very real future, a virus is sweeping the world. When women fall asleep they do not wake. Their bodies produce a threadlike substance that wraps them up like mummies in cocoons of their own making. If their frightened menfolk disturb the wrapping, they don’t usually live long enough to regret it. Inevitably the virus reaches the small town of Dooling in West Virginia. Dooling is dominated by its women’s prison. Its inmates are stricken one by one but there is one woman, a recent arrival suspected of a terrible crime, who can both sleep and wake up. As the men of the town try and fail to cope without their wives, mothers and daughters, they turn to the prison and this mysterious woman who surely holds the answer and can make life normal again. A few women are doing all they can to stay awake, especially Lila, Dooling’s sheriff, but sooner or later all women must sleep and when they do the men can only wonder where they have gone.

A new Stephen King novel is always a big event but Sleeping Beauties is a book that I was determined to read the day it was published. There’s something about this story that really appealed to me and it reminded me of classic King – the American small town stricken down by something otherworldly and horrifying. And also the impact of such extraordinary events on the ordinary. Often the most terrifying elements of such a novel aren’t the supernatural, ghostly or monstrous, but the men and women whose base characteristics thrive when normality breaks down. This is what we get here and I loved it.

Sleeping Beauties is a tale of two worlds – the sleeping world of the women and the waking world of the men and it is the society of men that breaks down almost completely. That doesn’t mean that all of the men are to be hated. Most are just frightened and lonely. Others are doing the best they can in awful circumstances, like Clint Norcross, the prison psychiatrist who has no choice but to take over the running of the prison. But there are a few who are truly evil. Predators in every sense. And they run wild. Interestingly there are a couple of other men, one in particular, whose morality one feels can still be saved. His acts are motivated by love. He just doesn’t know how how to control the situation. Nor does he know his own strength.

Dooling is so wonderfully described. It feels very real and it is richly populated by many memorable characters who come and go throughout the novel – there’s a handy list at the beginning. It feels as cut off as any other place in a Stephen King novel. There’s that same claustrophobic sense of confinement – quite literally in the prison. But that spreads into the women’s situation. They have been given the chance to escape it. What they see is marvellous, different and beautifully described by the authors. This you must discover for yourselves.

Sleeping Beauties is a father and son production. I’m not familiar with Owen King’s work but I found this novel’s writing and prose seamless and the fact that it was a collaboration did nothing to dispel my initial feeling that this is classic King. This novel felt both disturbing and comforting – a strange combination. I haven’t really got on with Stephen King’s novels since the utterly superb 11.22.63, one of my favourite novels of all time, and so it felt wonderful to immerse myself in a book that reminded me of everything that I have loved about Stephen King. It’s a long book, as all his best books are, and yet I hung on to every page, taking my time, and appreciating where I was being carried.

Sleeping Beauties is rich in people’s lives. There are so many strands to follow. Some end in tragedy while others are almost comical and grotesque. But at its heart is the devastating impact of a world of sleeping women. This affects people in different ways but it strikes at the core of them all, whether they are male or female. And that is just one of the many reasons why Sleeping Beauties feels like a significant book – Stephen and Owen King make us take a good look at the human condition. Whether we like what we see is another matter entirely. But the horror these women feel – their determination to do anything to stay awake for hours and hours and hours. That’s something we can all empathise with and fear.

This is a truly beautiful hardback. Underneath each slipcase hides a drawing of one of the strange creatures that we encounter through Sleeping Beauties. There are several to choose from but all are gorgeous.

Other review
11.22.63