Category Archives: Horror

A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan

Zaffre | 2018 (4 October) | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

A House of Ghosts by WC RyanThe winter solstice of 1917 is approaching and Lord Highmount has arranged a meeting of spiritualists and friends at his old and creaking house, Blackwater Abbey, located on a small island off the Devon coast. Lord Highmount and his wife Lady Elizabeth recently lost both of their sons in the war. The boys disappeared from their lives and they’re missed desperately. Lady Elizabeth believes that mediums Madame Feda and Count Orlov will unite her with their spirits. There are other visitors to the house, including a doctor who believes that his patient, a traumatised soldier, is in touch with the dead due to his own traumatic near-death experience. They have come to the right place.

And then there are Kate Cartwright and Robert Donovan. Kate and Donavon are at the house on a mission from Britain’s secret service. Lord Highmount is a successful industrialist contributing to the war effort. There are reasons to believe some of his plans have ended up on German desks and this ‘house party’ will provide the perfect opportunity to trap a spy. But there is far more to Kate than meets the eye.

A House of Ghosts is a stunning novel, a thoroughly absorbing read that combines a chilling ghost story – because it is indeed set within a house of ghosts – with a tale of war. The First World War overshadows everything in this novel. Almost everyone in the house has either lost someone to the war or has fought in it themselves and is recovering from its nightmare. It’s hardly surprising that the dead are restless.

Blackwater Abbey provides the perfect location, especially as it is cut off from the land by a mid winter storm. The house itself might be frightening but the outside is no less deadly. There is no escape for our small group of suspects when one of their number is found murdered. This classic murder mystery scenario, so well executed here, is reason enough to enjoy A House of Ghosts but it is enhanced by its melancholic mood, the result of war and loss, and by the very real chill of its ghosts for this is a house where the dead far outnumber the living.

Kate Cartwright and Donovan are the characters we grow closest to and they’re an enigmatic pair. I particularly enjoyed Kate’s attitude to the spiritual world around her, which contrasts so vividly to the attitude of Madame Feda. Kate is enduring her own loss. There is someone she too would like to contact. But all are distracted by the murderer stalking the house – is this person real?

As the evenings draw in, A House of Ghosts is the perfect read. It’s so easy to lose yourself in it. It’s beautifully written – as you’d expect from the author of The Constant Soldier – and richly evocative of its time and setting. It’s frightening in places but also, rather unexpectedly, I found it comforting and warm, despite the chill of its winter storm. It provides food for thought, particularly on the devastating harm of war, and is impossible to put down.

Other reviews
The Constant Soldier

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The Break Line by James Brabazon

Michael Joseph | 2018 (26 July) | 374p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Break Line by James BrabazonMax McLean is a man who lives in shadows. Officially he doesn’t exist. He works for British Intelligence but, if he were caught, they would deny him. After a career in the army, Max is now an assassin with a reputation for always being able to take the perfect shot. But years have passed and now Max is discovering something that he thought he’d lost a long time ago – a conscience. And so, one day, in a hotel in Caracas, Max fails to take the shot. Called in by his masters, Max is given one last chance to redeem himself in their eyes.

Max is sent to a secret military research facility to interview one of his former comrades, a man who is about as close to a good friend as Max would allow. This fearless, brave soldier is locked up. He has been driven mad by something that he saw in Sierra Leone – he has been terrified out of his mind. Max must find out why. The hunt will take Max deep into western Africa, a place divided by years of civil war, its people still scarred by what they suffered. But however terrible those years might have been, they are nothing compared to what Max will find in the jungle, what he must face.

I love a good action thriller, especially when splashes of techno thriller and horror are thrown in for good measure, and The Break Line hit the spot perfectly. It is thoroughly exciting from its opening tense chapters all the way through to its exhilarating climax, via the page-turning blood and gore fest in the middle. It is a violent book. Some bits are so gory that I had to read them with my eyes closed. But these moments serve their purpose, which is to throw light on this dark world of Max Mclean – it’s only by knowing how bad things can get that we realise how much Max needs to escape it all.

Max is such an intriguing character. He’s not likeable. He’s a killer and most of the time the killing hasn’t bothered him but it’s fascinating watching this man of stone question who he is. Most of the other characters in the novel aren’t particularly developed, although Sonny Boy certainly makes his presence felt in a horribly memorable way, but I think this is largely because the novel is told by Max in his own words. He’s not the best reader of character, although he is surprised to learn that he is becoming attached to people.

I also really enjoyed the Sierra Leone setting. It’s both a frightening and beautiful place and it’s among its people that Max experiences the most kindness. But it’s also here that Max sees the worst and it’s in this place that the elements of horror and science fiction influence the action thriller. The pages flew through my fingers.

The style of writing is a little stilted at time but this all fits with Max’s character. My only complaint would be the number of military acronyms thrown in with no explanation. I had no idea what Max was on about at times. Also, there are some large coincidences to be overcome. Nevertheless, The Break Line ticked most of the boxes for me. I really can’t get enough of thrillers like this one and so, if you don’t mind a bit of gore, I heartily recommend it.

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!

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

Zaffre | 2018 (ebook: 12 July; Hb: 23 August) | 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