Category Archives: Horror

The Meg by Steve Alten

Head of Zeus | 1997, this edn 2018 (12 July) | 382p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Meg by Steve AltenSeven years ago, when exploring the deepest part of the Pacific’s deepest trench, Jonas Tyler came eyeball to eyeball with the largest and deadliest predator ever to swim the Earth’s seas – the Megalodon, the 60 foot long albino monster and ancestor of the Great White Shark. Believed extinct with the dinosaurs, it has lived on in the ocean’s unexplored depths. Jonas was the only man from the mission to survive but nobody believed him and his naval career ended in disgrace. But now, after years of study and research, he has the chance to overcome his fears and return to the depths.

Billionaire Masao Tanaka wants to build an enormous lagoon through which the ocean’s largest animals can come and go at will. Rumours about the Megalodon are continuing to resurface. Masao offers Jonas the chance to prove everyone wrong and dive in a state-of-the-art submarine deeper than he’s ever been before, right into the Mariana Trench. Unfortunately, Jonas will not re-emerge to the surface alone…

First published in 1997, Steve Alten’s The Meg has been reissued in this ‘new and improved’ edition to celebrate the new Meg movie which is released this summer. It’s clear reading this fun novel that it’s made for the big screen, especially now that time has gone by since Jaws. This is not really a Jaws-like story, though. The Meg takes us straight out into the terrifying waters of monsters, of prehistoric dinosaurs. The Meg might be a big fish but she is no ordinary shark. Imagine a beast that can fit a bus in its mouth. Ouch.

Gigantic fish as big as a plane, death-defying acts of stupidity (why do people always hand over the camera first before they try and get out of the water?!) and heroism, tempestuous relationships, fascinated tourists putting themselves in peril just to get a good look – this is hard to resist! I’m a huge fan of horrible creature books and movies and so
The Meg had my name on it.

It is very true that you have to leave your sense of disbelief at the front cover. You must resist asking all those questions about how an animal of this size could survive for millions of years in the Mariana Trench. You must get behind Jonas and his Megalodon-induced PTSD and sympathise with him for his complicated lovelife, while enjoying his charm and rugged good looks. I managed all that and more and so The Meg proved to be perfect holiday reading for me last week – when I was by the sea and most definitely not in it.

The afterword declares that this edition is not the same as the one first published in 1997 but it is true that the style and language of the book is very much of its time. The main women characters of the book are occasionally lumped together with the Meg as if there is some monstrous female conspiracy against men going on, but it’s all fun and it did make me laugh.

The final 80 pages of this edition actually reads like another book, even though it’s called part two. This is The Meg: Origins, which goes back to the first encounter between Jonas and the Meg seven years before. This is a good bonus, although it does mean that the book proper is shorter than I expected (at about 300 pages), and I didn’t think it was necessary reading.

I now can’t wait to see The Meg movie, which I hope will be just as much fun as the book!

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The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

Zaffre | 2018 (12 July) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Anomaly by Michael RutgerNolan Moore, an amateur archaeologist and adventurer, is the presenter of a YouTube series called The Anomaly. Known for his billowing white shirt, Nolan is ready to make it big as a modern-day, real life Indiana Jones. He’s been waiting for the right adventure to come along and now, thanks to a generous funder, his day may have come. Nolan and his team – producer Ken, general fixer Molly, cameraman Pierre and assistant Feather – are heading into the Grand Canyon to search for the Kincaid Cavern, a mysterious cave rumoured to contain ancient carvings and wonders. Its existence could alter our understanding of the human settlement of the Americas. And with them is Gemma, a reporter on the trail of a story. Surely, after this Nolan will be given a primetime TV slot? All he has to do first is find the cavern and look good doing it. They’ll be back in civilisation to time for dinner.

As soon as I heard about The Anomaly, I was desperate to read it. I love archaeological thrillers and this one has a fantastic mystery at its heart but there’s also something of the science technothriller about it – Indiana Jones with a touch of Michael Crichton as it’s been described. I wouldn’t argue with any of that and it’s an irresistible mix.

I’m not going to reveal anything about what happens after our team find the cavern except to say that all of our thriller and horror expectations are fulfilled. By the bucketload. And also that its ending is fantastic, which is important as you wouldn’t want to become as caught up in events as you will with this book and then feel let down by an implausible ending.

I loved everything about The Anomaly but if I had to pick a few things that particularly appealed – except for the brilliant plot – it would be these. The atmosphere is so frightening, claustrophobic and intense. Thriller and horror co-exist here and I found myself longing for fresh air, light and space. Caverns are scary things at the best of times. And this is not the best of times for Nolan and his gang. The cavern is so well described. There’s a lot of detail. A lot of darkness.

The characterisation is fabulous. You might expect Nolan to be one type of character from the way in which the novel begins but he isn’t like that at all. He constantly surprises and it’s impossible not to warm to him. And the same for Ken. The relationship between Nolan and Ken is one of my very favourite things about this novel. One of the reasons why it succeeds so well is because of Michael Rutger’s clever, fantastic writing, especially the sharp and witty dialogue. With a couple of exceptions, the characters all feel very real and because of that so too does the horror that they will face.

The Anomaly delivers on every level from start to finish and is extremely well-written, brilliantly imagined and such fun to read. I love this kind of book so much and it’s one of the best I’ve read.

Awakened by James S. Murray with Darren Wearmouth

Harper Voyager | 2018 (28 June) | 286p | Review copy | Buy the book

Awakened by James S Murray with Darren WearmouthIt should have been a glorious day – the opening of a new subway line for New York City, with none other than the President of the United States in attendance, as well as the Mayor, various Governors and a big bunch of media. But as the VIPs wait for the first of the trains to arrive at the Pavilion station, deep below the Hudson River, they soon learn that the world is about to turn upside down. The train is late to arrive, initially a mere embarrassment, and then it turns up and there is nobody aboard alive. Instead, the windows are smashed and its walls are coated in a flood of blood and gore. But that’s not the end of it. Whatever committed this atrocity enjoyed it. It’s coming back for more.

Awakened is one of those disaster horror novels that I cannot get enough off. The premise of this is absolutely fantastic and I started reading it the day it arrived. Its opening fully lives up to the premise and then we’re thrown headfirst into a gory bloodfest of action, thrills and monsters, all within the claustrophobic confines of the subway system. The surface is so tantalisingly near and yet so horrifyingly far and everybody, whether they’re a President, a train driver or a police officer, is going to have to fight for their lives. And, if they’re a decent human being, for the lives of others around them. Of course, not everybody is a decent human being.

The action doesn’t let up from start to finish. The story pushes along with several strands of plot as we follow more than one group of people through these tunnels of death. Although this does make the novel rather disjointed and jumpy at times, this is thrilling stuff and the book drives on with the power and pace of one of the subway’s devastated trains.

Awakened is one of those horror disaster novels when you have to hold on for dear life. Unfortunately, not all of the characters can do the same and so you never quite know who is going to survive a chapter. The Presidential element adds something extra and I enjoyed that. He and the Mayor are perhaps the two better developed characters of the novel (there are some wooden baddies on display). I’m glad to say that there are plenty of women here who also fight like demons to survive.

The monsters are revolting as you’d expect, although the most horrible thing about them isn’t their appearance but the way that they kill. This is a gory book. It runs with blood and is lumpy with severed limbs. But it never disturbs – this is horror fantasy and anything can happen. The claustrophobic setting is particularly successful, as is the fact that the action takes place over such a short period of time. The atmosphere and pace build from the start.

Awakened ends well but I’m delighted to read that there will be more. I’ll be more than ready to be scared again because I suspect that people are going to be slow to learn their lesson.

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

Trapeze | 2018 (3 May) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Craftsman by Sharon BoltonIt is 10 August 1999, the hottest day of the year, and the people of this small Lancashire town, in the shelter of Pendle Hill, have come together to bury Larry Glassbrook. But this is no traditional, grief-drenched funeral. There is nothing but hate in the hearts of every single one of these people. And with them is Assistant Commissioner Florence Lovelady who, thirty years before, put Larry Glassbrook away for life for the shocking murder of children, including 13-year-old Patsy Wood who was buried alive in a funeral casket.

The crime had been close to young WPC Lovelady. Her lodgings were in the home of the Glassbrooks. She knew them all, including Larry, and for all of these thirty years since she has regularly visited Larry in prison, believing he had something more to tell her about the case. That there was more to be learned. But whatever it was he said nothing, until her very last visit to a dying man. His clue leads her to a terrifying discovery, a direct link with the murders at the close of the 1960s, something that links her to them, signifying great danger. All of Florence’s hopes that she might now find peace with the burial of Larry Glassbrook have been in vain. The ghosts cannot yet be laid to rest.

Sharon Bolton is an extraordinary writer of mysteries. She always brings that extra special certain something into her stories and with The Craftsman she’s done it again. Arguably, this is the most frightening of Sharon Bolton’s novels, it’s certainly steeped in chills, superstitious foreboding and terrifying and sinister menace. The murder of Patsy sets the tone for the novel. Her horrendous death is reimagined on these pages, setting it apart from any other murder that AC Lovelady has encountered during her long and illustrious policing career. And the horror of it sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which more than lives up to the grim menace of its beginning.

The Craftsman moves between the present and the past, with much of the novel presenting the investigations of 1969. This is not only gripping and chilling, it is also absolutely fascinating for its portrayal of the trials and tribulations facing an extremely talented and gifted young police woman at that time

Thoroughly entertaining and distinctly chilly crime fiction with that extra special certain something that we expect from the wonderful Sharon Bolton, this is an engrossing read. Florence, or Flossie as her male colleagues insist on calling her, is a natural born detective and yet she has to work ten times harder than everyone else (in between making the tea) to be treated with any kind of patronising respect. And yet the more right she is proved the less they believe that she could have worked it all out herself. This misogyny and sexism is agonisingly and yet so effectively depicted by Sharon Bolton. It’s all set so perfectly within the spirit of its historical setting. Florence accepts the limitations placed on her, she has little alternative. But how we revel in her position as Assistant Commissioner in the present day part of the novel. Not one of the old and familiar faces in this town’s police force now outranks her.

This is no straightforward police crime novel. I’m saying nothing about what faces Florence when she returns to this town but suffice to say it made my jawdrop. I loved the atmosphere of The Craftsman. I loved how frightened it made me feel. The town and its people are described so vividly and yet this is a place that I saw in my mind as being of different shadows of black. There’s a sense that this is a place cut off from right and wrong. Florence is in a sense returning to her past just as the past has reemerged into the present. This is chilling stuff! And nobody writes this sort of crime fiction as well as Sharon Bolton. I also love how her novels stand alone. They always go immediately to the top of my reading pile and with each one I applaud her even more.

Other reviews
Little Black Lies
Daisy in Chains
Dead Woman Walking

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

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.