Tag Archives: Horror

The Corset by Laura Purcell

Raven Books | 2018 (20 September) | 395p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Corset by Laura PurcellDorothea Truelove, a young and beautiful heiress, feels that she has little control over her own life, that she is in danger of just sitting around while her father arranges a marriage to a suitably grand personage she will be tied to for the rest of her life. She finds an escape in charitable work, particularly visiting women in prisons that she herself helps to fund. This also gives her the chance to practice her passion – phrenology. Dorothea believes that the disposition of a character to commit crimes can be seen in the shape of the perpetrator’s skull and that their moral improvement will be reflected in the skull’s changing shape. She now has another young woman on which to test her theories – the teenage seamstress Ruth Butterham, imprisoned and awaiting trial for murder.

Ruth couldn’t be any more different from Dorothea. Having begun her life in gentile poverty, tragic, terrible circumstances forced Ruth and her mother to the very depths of what they can survive. Ruth has much to feel bitter about but she also feels guilt – not because she murdered anyone but because she believes that she inadvertently killed with her needle and thread, that some supernatural power had turned every stitch into a weapon, driven by Ruth’s grief and fury.

The Corset tells the story of these two young women, one barely more than a child, in alternate sections as Ruth tells her life to Dorothea who then reflects on what she has learned and how this must affect her own beliefs and life. Ruth’s story challenges everything Dorothea believes, that crime can be explained rationally by the dimensions of a skull. There is little that is rational in what Ruth describes. Can she be believed? Can this murderous supernatural power really be true? But, whether it’s true or not, the brutality and cruelty that Ruth has suffered has much to teach Dorothea about the nature of evil and much of it is very much the work of real men and women.

Ruth’s tale is extraordinary and I was engrossed by it. Laura Purcell demonstrated her fine storytelling powers in The Silent Companions, a truly frightening and chilly ghost story. These are on show again although now the dark powers are much more ambiguous while the evil of man is thrown much more into the light. As a result, this isn’t so much a frightening story as a disturbing one. Ruth’s experiences are horrific and they are explored in detail from the very beginning. There is a shocking scene early on that I must admit was too much for me and it proved to be a stumbling block that I had to overcome. I’m glad that I did overcome it because the rest of the novel kept me in its grip. But this is undoubtedly a very dark tale for much of the time and Ruth’s words, as she describes what has happened, are powerfully descriptive.

Ruth forms the heart of the novel and it’s her sections which I enjoyed the most. Dorothea did little to win me over at the beginning, not least because of her dubious preoccupation with phrenology. She is also privileged and aware that she is. Money is important to her, as is her status. And, although she fancies herself in love with a lowly policeman, one can’t help wondering if that is all a childlike romantic dream. But as her story progresses and she becomes more self-aware, as well as more aware of the horror that society is inflicting on its poorest members, I warmed to her a little more. And Dorothea’s story does develop in a quite surprising if possibly not entirely unexpected way. But the Ruth sections are superb.

The mood of the novel, its menace and evil force, loom so large over the novel, making it such an appropriate read during these long dark evenings. This is the perfect time of year for a Gothic novel and The Corset hits the spot so well. I love Laura Purcell’s writing as well as her eye for historical detail. The Corset isn’t fixed to a particular time, it’s set in a past in which evil flourishes. There’s a kind of dark fairy tale feel to it, an unreal world in which the relationship between mothers and daughters, between fathers and daughters can take on a frightening, shadowy quality. Dorothea’s surname of Truelove contributes to the symbolism as she worries before the looming possibility of an evil stepmother. There are demons and angels in this novel, whether or not the supernatural haunts Ruth’s stitches.

Other review
The Silent Companions

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Someone Like Me by M.R. Carey

Orbit | 2018 (8 November) | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book

Someone Like Me by MR CareyLiz Kendall has to work all the hours that she can to make ends meet but it’s worth it – she’s making a life for her teenage son Zac and little daughter Molly and everything is better now that she’s finally left her husband Marc because he is a bully of a man. Then one day, after he drops the children off late, he and Liz have a fight and it gets vicious. Marc’s fingers are around her neck. And then suddenly Liz fights back. She doesn’t know how she does it. It’s as if she’s not moving her own hands, that her thoughts aren’t even her own. But it works. Only after that Liz can’t shake off the horrible dread that she now has another side within her, one that will not let go.

Not too far away in the same small American town lives teenager Fran. This young girl is deeply troubled. It’s hardly surprising. She was the victim of a terrible, famous kidnapping when she was a small child. She barely escaped with her life. Fran’s doing her best to live a normal life, supported by a wonderful father, and regularly receiving psychiatric support. But there’s something a little different about Fran – sometimes she can see things changing around her. It’s frightening. She finds friends, though, in the most unlikely of ways and they will protect her to the death.

I am going to find it very difficult indeed to express here just how much I fell in love with Someone Like Me and some of the truly fabulous people within it. M.R. Carey is nothing less than a genius, not least for his imagination which creates such believably unusual dark yet hopeful worlds and populates them with characters we adore. Who can ever forget Melanie in The Girl With All the Gifts? I’ve loved all of Carey’s books (including those written under other names) but I must declare that Someone Like Me is my favourite.

I’m going to give very little away because part of the great pleasure of reading Someone Like Me is unravelling its layers for yourself. It is full of surprises. In fact, during the second third of the novel I rather thought I knew where it was heading and became a little complacent. I was wrong. And that’s when I fell so deeply for this book and for some of its lives – most particularly Fran, Lady Jinx and Molly. I have no words to describe how much I love Molly and Jinx. The love we feel for them makes sections of this novel heart wrenching. It’s impossible not to feel completely involved. And with the pain we feel comes the huge reward of reading a novel that is so utterly captivating.

I’m not usually one for comparisons but I can understand those that have been made with Stephen King. The American small town setting is similar but so too is its sense of horror which can be found in the everyday and in the extraordinary. The line between the two is blurred. There is both terror and hope as innocence is attacked. It also demonstrates the horror that can be found in normal lives, particularly for those who suffer domestic violence or abuse of any kind. How some people can survive these things is a strong theme of this wonderful novel.

Someone Like Me is a substantial novel but every one of its 500 pages is a pleasure. I read this book so quickly. It kept me company late into the night. I couldn’t let these characters go and they haunt me still. What an exciting writer M.R. Carey is. He astounds with each novel. Where on earth (or beyond) will he take us next? This is a real contender for my book of 2018.

Other reviews
The Girl with All the Gifts
The Boy on the Bridge
Fellside

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

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.