Category Archives: Horror

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

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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

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Raven Books | 2017 (5 October) | 364p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1865 and Elsie Bainbridge carries the cares of the world on her shoulders. Married just months before, her husband Robert has died and she has little choice but to head to his crumbling country estate, The Bridge, where she will give birth to their child. The villagers are hostile and the servants are suspicious and unfriendly. Fortunately, Elsie has her husband’s cousin Sarah for company. They will come to rely on each other very much in the lonely months ahead. But perhaps they are not as alone as they might think.

When Elsie sets about getting to know her new home, she and Sarah come across a locked garret. Inside they find a diary dating from the 1630s and a wooden figure that looks disturbingly familiar. It is, she learns, a Silent Companion. Soon Elsie’s nights are disturbed by strange sounds. The servants insist there’s a nest of rats hiding in the walls. Elsie isn’t so sure – it sounds like wood being worked, being moved.

Interspersed throughout this wonderfully creepy, superbly Gothic novel are extracts from the diary which take us back in time to 1635 when Anne Bainbridge was mistress of the house. At that time everyone was hugely excited because King Charles I and his Queen were intending to spend a night at The Bridge. Everything was going so well…

I love haunted house stories and The Silent Companions was a book I couldn’t wait to read. I’d been told that it was genuinely frightening and so I settled down to read it late one evening. In fact, I only read this book at night. This isn’t a book for commutes and lunchtime reads – it deserves to be read by lamplight, when every sound seems louder in the quiet night. It’s a hugely atmospheric read. The Bridge is a fine example of a rickety, old and unloved Gothic mansion. It creeks. Its wood feels alive. And in its midst are Elsie and Sarah. We fear for them.

The sections from the 1630s are every bit as engrossing as the Victorian chapters. And the characters are just as intriguing, if not more so. Told in Anne’s own words, during these sections we are immersed in the past and it’s a dangerous and fearful place indeed.

I had two very late nights with The Silent Companions. I didn’t want to put it down and I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It certainly gave me the heebie jeebies and made my spine shiver. I love that feeling! It’s dark, tragic and, at times, deliciously scary, but it never goes overboard. The emphasis here is on Elsie and Anne and what this house, so claustrophobic and dark, does to them, two centuries apart. It’s quite a tale, full of Gothic wonders. I must also say that the hardback is gorgeous inside and out.

The Ghost Line by Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison

Tor | 2017 (11 July) | c.100p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ghost Line by Andrew Neil Gray and JS HerbisonSaga is an explorer of abandoned starships and asteroids, regaling her fans with video of her discoveries. Conveniently, Saga is marriage to Michel, a renowned hacker, just the sort of person who can get Saga inside these ships. But the couple are finally ready to take a break and at last have the children that they long for. And then Wei shows up. Wei offers Saga and Michel (and their pilot, Gregor) a huge amount of money to do one last job. The Martian Queen is a luxurious spacefairing cruise liner that used to carry tourists between Mars and Earth. Twenty years ago she was mothballed but she continues to cruise between the two planets, bookmarking a lucrative tourist route and so, according to the law of space, preventing anyone else from taking it over.

It isn’t clear exactly what Wei wants with the ship but she has some strict rules for her team and the chief one is never, ever to remove their protective suits while on board The Martian Queen. But when Saga, Michel and Gregor roam the beautiful corridors and cabins of this enormous and eerily empty ship, it all feels completely harmless and the air is breathable. What harm can it do to take their helmets off? And yet there are moments when Saga could swear that somebody or something is watching her…

I love spooky tales of ghost ships, whether they’re floating on the seas or soaring through space, and so I was instantly drawn to The Ghost Line. It’s a novella, of about 100 pages, and so it’s a quick read but I soon found it to be immersive and pleasingly creepy. Links are made to the Titanic and in fact The Martian Queen seems modelled on that doomed vessel – only missing the funnels and an anchor. The ship has an elegance to it and an evocative nostalgia. It reminds me just as much of the empty grand hotel in The Shining. You just know that somewhere horror is waiting.

Saga and Michel are great characters, particularly Saga from whose perspective we see much of what happens. The short length of the story did leave me wanting. I would have liked many more pages filling out the characters of Saga, Michel and Wei. They’re such interesting and intriguing people – they deserve a full length novel. That way I might have understood a little more the reasons for the ways in which Saga acts. On one level, I can see why she acts as she does but I’d have liked more about what it meant to her and to her relationship with Michel. I definitely wanted to know more about Wei – there’s a story there very ready for telling.

The mood and the atmosphere is excellent and the setting of The Martian Queen is wonderful. For a short novel, the authors do a fine job of evoking its bygone splendour as well as the chilling isolation and loneliness of space. It’s not a bad thing to be left wanting more and The Ghost Line certainly achieved that. I read it as a late night read – the best time for spooky tales – and it was perfect for that.

Unleashed by Peter Laws

Allison & Busby | 2017 (20 July) | 350p | Review copy | Buy the book

Unleashed by Peter LawsFifteen years ago young Holly Wasson hung herself in her bedroom in 29 Barley Street, Menham in South London, amidst rumours and reports of poltergeist activity in the house. Holly’s older sister Rachel barely recovered from the trauma, leaving her home and mother behind as she made a new life for herself elsewhere. But now she has returned, called back by her childhood friend Jo Finch, and in the worst of circumstances. Their friend Steph Ellis has been killed, horrifically and publicly. The signs are ominous and frightening – has the poltergeist returned to Menham to finish what it began all those years ago? Psychic couple Bob and Joyce Hodges seem to think it has and they’re intent on gathering the original group of friends together to see it off once and for all.

The police are not quite sure what to make of it and so they call in Matt Hunter, a former minister and now a professor of sociology. Matt has had some success in the past with this sort of thing and he is determined to get to the truth of it all and put the idea of a poltergeist to rest. But what if it’s real?

Earlier this year Peter Laws introduced us to Matt Hunter in the sensational novel Purged and how brilliant it is to have the follow-up novel, Unleashed, so soon. Matt has done well from the success of his earlier case but otherwise the two novels aren’t connected and so you can read one without the other. I’d suggest you do, though, for the background information Purged provides about Matt and his family. Unleashed builds on the mood of Purged and takes us even deeper into the darkness of poltergeists, restless spirits, paranormal beliefs and, above all else, fear.

Unleashed presents a deliciously creepy portrait of fear and it grips completely from start to finish. The intensity is increased by the narrative which moves between Matt and other characters, especially Rachel, the young woman drawn back to the house that terrified her years before and killed her sister. 29 Barley Road is a chillingly modern interpretation of the Haunted House and it’s just as scary when viewed from the outside. What did people see on the rooftops? And what is wrong with the pets? But this novel isn’t a conventional horror story – it’s a clever thriller and the terror doesn’t always lie where expected. Although, having said that, there is a fantastic seance scene in Unleashed that scared the heebie jeebies out of me! I love to be scared by a book and this did a great job of it.

I love the character of Matt Hunter and I hope we enjoy many more books with Matt and his family. But in Unleashed Matt has to share the limelight with some great personalities, notably the Hodges and Rachel. Knowing who to trust here is as much a problem as pinning down a poltergeist and it makes for a great thriller with just the right amount of creepy chills.

Other review
Purged

The White Road by Sarah Lotz

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (4 May) | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

The White Road by Sarah LotzPeople love to be shocked and Simon Newman loves to shock them. He does it through the website he runs with his friend Thierry – ‘Journey to the Dark Side’. And while it’s Thierry who puts up the money, it’s Simon who makes the journeys. The latest trip is dark indeed. It takes him into the depths of the Cwm Pot caves in Wales where years before a number of cavers had died. Their bodies were never retrieved. Perfectly ghoulish material for the website if Simon can get down to them and film them. But it isn’t easy. Following a nasty climbing accident, Simon needs to get his nerve back and he’s not sure that this is the way to do it, especially when he meets the guide who will take him into the underworld. Ed reminds Simon of Quint, the demonic shark catcher of Jaws. It doesn’t bode well. But what happens is far worse that even Simon could have imagined.

It’s all a huge success on the website, of course, so Thierry is keen to send Simon off on the trail of new corpses – this time scattered on the highest slopes of Mount Everest. This will be the ultimate challenge. But Simon did not come out the caves the same man who went in. Terror is now his constant companion.

A new book by Sarah Lotz is always a grand occasion to celebrate. I love her sense of horror. It takes us out of the life we know but not completely. There’s enough of the real about this horror to scare me very much indeed, while it also carries me to places where anything can and will happen – whether it’s on a crashed plane or a stranded cruise ship. Now it’s a mountain, Everest, that is already deadly in itself, just for being there, the goal that climbers aspire to quite literally. But there are horrors on that mountain, and truths that cannot be escaped. I’m getting shivers just thinking about it.

Ghostly tales of terror on mountains are among my favourites and I can think of a few that I’ve read over the last year or two (thinking of Ararat most recently, as well as Michelle Paver’s Thin Air and Dan Simmons’ The Abominable). The White Road fits well into this tradition and has confirmed my determination never to set foot on a mountain again. It’s a miracle I’ve been in a plane since reading Sarah Lotz’s The Three and I’ve certainly not gone near a boat since Day Four. I just hope she doesn’t turn her attention next to sun-soaked palm-treed white sandy beaches.

The White Road‘s opening section in the caves is absolutely superb and one of the most claustrophobic and utterly terrifying tales that I’ve ever read. Told by Simon in his own words, the foreboding oppresses from the very first line. We know something dreadful is going to happen and we know it will never leave Simon. The character of Ed the guide is extraordinary – fully repulsive and yet strangely vulnerable. Sarah Lotz must be congratulated for this portrait. I’ve not read anyone like Ed before. This section is so powerful and memorable. The mountain sections have a lot to do to follow these cave scenes and, while they almost equal it, they don’t quite.

I love the descriptions of Everest’s devastating cold and lack of air. It’s clearly out to kill those who have the audacity to ascend it and survival isn’t assumed by any of the people in the novel. They each have their own stories and they have an impact on Simon, whose voice continues to describe what happens. He changes, and not just through fear. Everest can take people to the edge of death but the horror can push them over it. Whether the terror comes from within or without is up to the reader to judge but it is most certainly oppressive and very frightening.

Although Simon isn’t the most likeable of people – as I’m sure he’d admit – he is worth getting to know and our feelings towards him do change as he changes. He surprises us at times, just as the story surprises. It takes us in all kinds of directions, lulling us into a false sense of security, shocking us once again, moving to and from the mountain, reminding us of the cave. This is a very well-structured story and Simon’s narration, always catchy, is very compelling indeed. At just over 300 pages, this is a short novel and I’d suggest you read it in one go – at night, in the dark.

The mind boggles as I think what Sarah Lotz will do to us next, where she will take us. I’ll be there every step of the way, maybe with my hands in front of my eyes and never making the mistake of looking down.

Other reviews
The Three
Day Four