Tag Archives: Horror

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

The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey

Orbit | 2017 (4 May) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Boy on the Bridge by MR CareyBritain is no more. The Breakdown destroyed it. The land now belongs to the Hungries – altered, infected and no longer human, these lost souls live only to feed. A few enclaves of uninfected humans survive, but not many and they’re under constant threat. Only two outcomes are possible. Either the Hungries will devour the last of the uninfected or an antidote will be found. The first is far more likely than the second. But hope persists.

The Rosalind Frankie, or Rosie, is an armoured vehicle that has embarked on an epic, perilous journey from the south of England to the Highlands. Aboard is a group of soldiers and scientists, existing side by side in the most limited of space. Their mission is to recover biological samples placed across the country. Whether they will live to return with them is another matter entirely. But their responsibility is immense. Time has run out. They know they have to succeed. Six soldiers and six scientists live and work aboard Rosie and each has their own personal tale of survival and hope. Each has something to live for and they all have everything to fear. The pressure on them is so immense that it’s only a matter of time before the cracks appear and then each must look deep within themselves for the strength to cope.

Among the scientists is Stephen Greaves, an autistic boy, and Dr Samrina Kahn, who has more reason than most to fear for her future. These two find themselves drawn together while everyone else wonders what on earth Stephen is doing there. But Stephen is very special indeed. When he looks outside he can recognise something else that hides out there among the Hungries and he can look it in the eyes.

The Boy on the Bridge is the follow up novel to the enormously successful (and now filmed) The Girl With All of the Gifts. It’s been a while coming but it is most certainly worth the wait. It isn’t a straightforward sequel. It doesn’t pick up on Melanie’s story but in her place is another fine set of characters to enjoy as they develop through the pages, continuing the tension between the military and scientists, and also within these groups. There is good and bad in both. So you could read The Boy on the Bridge without having read The Girl with All the Gifts first without any trouble at all, but I do think you’d be missing out on the development of this shattered world, as well as the emotional power of a couple of key scenes.

The writing is as brilliant as ever, loaded with personality and opinion, sharp and incisive. There is horror, so much of it, and you can’t look away from it, it’s so gripping and thrilling, but there are moments of peace and calm as well. Rosie really feels like a refuge despite its claustrophobic spaces. Outside, by contrast, is such a scary place. You wouldn’t want to go outside. But Stephen does.

I’m no fan of zombies, whether in novels or movies, but there’s something about the Hungries that fascinates me, especially those that we meet in The Boy on the Bridge. We’re asked to re-examine what they are and, although this means confronting deep fears, it is so compelling, as well as tragic, sad and gory. There are moments in this novel when I shed a tear, that’s how much I cared for these characters (especially Kahn) and for how well this story (and world) has been developed through both novels.

M.R. Carey is a great storyteller with a fantastic imagination, bringing apocalypse and hope together in the best of ways. I loved this portrait of a devastated Britain, with the mix of the familiar and the irrevocably altered. The descriptions are wonderful. At its heart, though, are its people, non-Hungry or otherwise, and they power this unusual horror novel on. Will there be more? I really hope so.

Other reviews
The Girl With All of the Gifts

Skitter by Ezekiel Boone

Gollancz (Atria in the US) | 2007 (UK: 27 April; US: 2 May) | 329p | Review copy| Buy the book: UK; US

Skitter by Ezekiel BooneSkitter is the follow up novel to The Hatching so please make no attempt to read Skitter until you’ve read The Hatching first! This review assumes you’ve done just that and you are ready to have your skin creep and crawl in the most deliciously terrifying way once more. As one of the characters puts it, welcome back to the Spiderpocalypse!

The first wave of spider attacks has ended in the withdrawal and deaths of billions of spiders. Unfortunately, they took with them the lives of many millions of people from around the globe. China is a nuclear wasteland and many of the world’s greatest cities lie in ruins. But any hopes that the desperate might have that the attack is over, that the world can rebuild and repopulate, are soon dashed. Scientist Melanie Gruyer’s continued work at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland has revealed a terrible fact. The first wave of spiders was simply paving the way for the second – feeding it, preparing the ground. And this second wave could take mankind to the very brink of extinction. The US President Stephanie Pilgrim is prepared to do the unthinkable to safeguard the nation’s future. But is it too late? Around the world, something unbelievably terrible is beginning to stir.

To say that I adored The Hatching is a ridiculous understatement. I love apocalyptic thrillers and I especially enjoy these novels when they focus on weather disasters (have you read The Tsunami Countdown by Boyd Morrison yet? Why not?) or beasts, particularly the creepy crawly kind (such as Invasive by Chuck Wendig). If ever there was an animal that lends itself brilliantly to wholescale mass panic and annihilation, it’s the spider. Personally, I don’t mind spiders at all. But as for these spiders…. these spiders scare me to death.

Skitter continues the fabulous formula of The Hatching. The novel’s focus is on the US, and most (but not all) of the principal characters are based there, but it also includes many stories from across the planet, including France, Germany, India and, especially, Scotland. We move between a cast of many characters, some of whom we meet just once (for obvious reasons) but there are others that we return to time after time as they either fight to survive or to overcome. We met a fair few of these in The Hatching and it is a joy to return to them, not to mention a relief that some have survived this far. I don’t want to mention who, just in case you’re reading this with the intention of going back to The Hatching.

Skitter might be the middle novel of a trilogy but it is a fantastic disaster thriller in its own right. The novel copes with the aftermath of The Hatching while preparing us for the showdown of the finale, setting it up absolutely perfectly. But Skitter oozes tension, horror, panic, dread, disgusting deaths, hideous spiders, shocking pain and stunned outrage – not only aimed at the spiders but also at the lengths governments will go to for the longterm survival of the human race. All well and good in theory but a lot less noble when you’re running for your life.

We’re thrown into the action from the outset and it never lets up until the very last page when we’re left longing for the concluding novel. Skitter is such a fast read and it is so well written, each page contributing to the overall story. It’s not the sort of thriller you want to put down unread and its pace is pushed along even faster by its brilliant structure that moves us from one state of tension to another and then back again, time after time.

Prepare to get the shivers, prepare to never look at a spider in quite the same way again. Remember what Jaws did for sharks – this time the sharks are tiny, have legs and there are billions of them. Fantastic!

Other review
The Hatching

Ararat by Christopher Golden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews
Dead Ringers

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

River at Night blog tour poster

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other review
Dark Matter

Hunters & Collectors by M. Suddain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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