Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

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My wife and I had to take a break in the middle of season 6 for reasons I’ll lay out a bit later, so it took us until a week before the start of chapter seven to catch up. Being slightly obsessed with the show, I felt a proper, continuous rerun was in order for me to fully deal with the fallout from that most shocking openining episode.

Season 6 frustrated me for a number of reasons. Rick and his group came into Alexandria as wild, hardened survivors. The meek residents of the compound knew nothing of the outside world and it’s horrors and Rick was determined to show them that he and his crew were the top dogs. However, a number of mistakes were made, essentially weakening Alexandria and allowing it to come under attack.

Whilst I recognise that many of these ‘mistakes’ are plot devices, in the logic of The Walking Dead world, these errors display a persistent softness in the group. In season 5, Daryl gets caught up in a trap set by the truly feral ‘Wolves’ thereby (accidentally) revealing the location of the compound. Later, he again gets caught by another desperate group on the run from the ‘Saviours’ (who we subsequently meet). Both times he has allowed himself to be tricked and both times it has resulted in dire consequences. As the group’s tracker and most rugged survivor, letting his guard down this often begs the question. Similarly, Ricks weird obsession with Jessie, which ultimately puts his own family in huge danger, displays a serious lack of consideration. As a final example, there is Glenn’s choice to cover for Nicholas and protect him; again this failure to eliminate an issue has seriously bad results (and this is where my wife and I stopped watching as we thought Glenn had been killed, and in such a pointless and frustrating manner).

I could go on. The point is, at the core of Rick and his group is a tendency to help, to try to retain their humanity, to perceive themselves as the good guys and, therefore, able to defeat evil. And I think this is the crux of the matter.

The group has overcome the Governer; they escaped and eliminated Terminus. They are good people who’ve had to do bad things but that’s the problem. They are still holding on to the things that make them vulnerable or that make them hesitate when they should act.

It’s the reason why Carol broke so badly that she felt the need to leave the safety of the group. It’s the reason Morgan sees all life as precious but incessantly puts people in danger due to his personal ethos. The reason Glenn and Daryl hesitate and then pay the consequences. They aren’t as bad or as tough or as hardened as they think they are. It leads to stupid decisions, especially the idea that they can take on the Saviours.

What is so frustrating is the fact that they should be smarter because of everything they’ve done. They should recognise that there are no good guys left; everyone has done necessary evils to stay alive, especially Rick’s group. But they haven’t learned to let go of the things that make them weak. A great example of this is when Carol and Maggie were captured. I thought Carol was faking her fear as a ruse to lure the Saviours into a trap (my wife thought otherwise and she was right). Carol didn’t want to kill anymore because of her own guilt and remorse but she also couldn’t bear to see Maggie hurt – she broke in the worst way because it all became too much. Her tormentor, on the other hand, had given in to the logic of the apocalypse and this counterpoint highlighted a fundamental flaw in our protagonists.

It’s exactly this flaw that continues to see Rick and his group dominated by other survivors. Whilst the idea of the family unit is what makes the group so strong and capable of overcoming hardships, it is also what makes them so vulnerable. Caring for people means that it can be used against you. Similarly, holding on to old ideas mean that you’ve yet to accept the reality of the situation – one which is absolutely brutal.

And, this is none more so portrayed in the gruesomely terrifying opening episode of season 7. I’ve yet to watch the rest of the series but if that was a starter of things to come, it’s going to be rough for our protagonists.

Season 6 is an odd one, basically it sets up the introduction of the Saviours and its impact by allowing us to think that Alexandria is, perhaps, the end of the journey. That, though the apocalypse rages on, the group had survived and found a place to fortify and settle. Yet, much like the prison, threats abound. Once again, it let’s hope in, only to have it smashed to pieces with a barbed wire wrapped baseball bat.

Now, all I need to do is find the time to watch season 7…

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This is quite a difficult book to review, mainly for fear of giving away what makes it so brutal. By that, I mean psychologically brutal because, whilst there is some physical shock value, it’s the emotional terror pervading the novel that makes it so horrifying. Yet, it’s also a complex piece of work, full of dual meanings and self-aware references all told by an unreliable narrator. Her unreliability is cleverly revealed to be more of a factor as the book goes on…and this is where things get complicated.

If you’re a fan of horror, you should read this novel. In my limited experience, Paul Tremblay is a great exponent of the genre but, beyond that, he’s also a clearly talented writer. This is a very smart book for a number of reasons (many of which deserve discussion but – spoilers!).

A Head Full of Ghosts refers both to the idea of supernatural possession central to the plot but also to our narrator, Merry, and how pop culture affects her perspective. Within the book there are numerous references to horror fiction and film and A Head Full of Ghosts takes on the sense of a meta-fiction.

The book explores how Merry and her family deal with the ‘apparent’ possession of her elder sister Marjorie. Dad had lost his job and begins to rely heavily on his Catholic faith; Mum seems at a loss, seeking solace in wine and cigarettes. Merry is relating all of this fifteen years after the fact (the first sense of unreliability) and was only 8-years old at the time (the second). Somehow, and for financial reasons, a reality show producer makes an unrefusable offer to the floundering parents and so begins a shocking TV series.

Questions of exploitation aside, there is also the larger problem of whether 14-year old Marjorie is ‘possessed’ or just descending into schizophrenic madness. The interplay within the narration between memory and re-remembered fact from the TV show (the third idea of unreliability) begins to break to the surface as Merry relates her story to a writer tasked with producing a book on what actually happened. Fact and fiction blur, mingled with cultural references and other creative works.

The tension at play is palpable throughout the novel as each family member is seen slowly unraveling under the pressure of the cameras, their own position toward Marjorie and to how it is affecting each in turn. It’s a bizarre and scary feedback loop where the truth has no solid ground on which to stand.

The conclusion of A Head Full of Ghosts is shocking. It’s there all the time, creeping around in the narrative and you know something is going to happen. There’s so many unsettling properties to the characters and such clever storytelling that this is truly a great horror novel. That fact that Paul Tremblay has added bonus essays and reading list addendum only makes him a better author in my opinion.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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Book reviews had to take a back seat for a while as life conspired to get in the way of reading. However, an annoying injury (thanks to my other hobby – grappling) has seen me with a bit more free time recently. It’s been filled with an awesome zombie serialised story as well as MudMan by James A Hunter.

Levi, the eponymous “MudMan” is a golem made of clay, mud and the dead souls of countless murdered Jews. It’s a heavy origin story for an unlikely hero, one who spends his time hunting down and destroying Nazis, killers and supernatural monsters with unadulterated glee. However, it is exactly that murky and horrendous story of his creation which sets Levi on a collision course with a vile, centuries old homicidal maniac intent on resurrecting a god of death.

While the blurb reads like a pulp fiction action fest, there’s more to MudMan. It’s a mash of styles and creative ideas, blending religious mythology from Jewish and Christian beliefs alongside Nazi atrocities and supernatural ghouls. The plot is solid and characters, especially Levi, are interestingly detailed. For me, the story did read a little slow (and perhaps that’s my fault for being distracted) but the digressions of the actor’s thought processes sometimes took away from the helter-skelter action driving things forward.

The author has stated in his acknowledgements that this is a one off but the huge, dangling thread at the end of the book deserves his attention as his world building and inventiveness are definitely praise worthy.

Review copy
Published by Shadow Alley Press, Inc.

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Claire Dean’s Is-And is a wonderful example of how well the prompt for this collection can work. Nestled within a fantastical tale of a visit to an un-named island, Dean controls the pace of the creeping undercurrent at play. What begins as a supposedly romantic adventure to a place permeated with fairy tales becomes stranger and stranger. The conclusion is stark, foreshadowed by clues but no less chilling for it.

Buyer’s Remorse is, according to the author Andrew Lane, based on the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P Lovecraft. Whilst I’ve never read any Lovecraft, the sense of horror and dread that Lane brings to his story makes me want to.

Beginning as a kind of autobiographical exploration of a lost letter and it’s address, Buyer’s Remorse soon finds the author caught up in a weird sale-and-swap scenario in an lost village of the damned. Horrifying creatures, bizarre bargaining and a vicar’s sacrifice are just part of the terrifying texture of this story. Lane’s produced the feel of a classic horror story with some quality touches.

Muriel Gray’s contribution is an engrossing story that leaves the horror just out of sight but expertly present. Gone Away, narrated by a British aristocrat who is afforded a life of luxury living on her estate, has such a powerful and believable voice, it’s hard not to get sucked into her narrative.

Her grandfather, a clever man with enough connections to maintain their elite economical and social status, holds a party every summer. This gathering is just as exclusive but a stray letter sets off a series of events that reveals a secret which eventually picks at the threads of this charmed life. Brilliantly written and wonderfully characterful.

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Joe Hill’s The Fireman is a real-world apocalyptic adventure. By ‘real-world’, I mean that it references pop culture and celebrities just as much as it builds up the fantastical disease (dragonscale) that is ravaging humankind and driving it to extinction. Reading about JK Rowling being executed by firing squad whilst the protagonist finds inspiration from Mary Poppins gives the novel an interesting grounding that only adds to the engrossing story.

Revolving around a dysfunctional ‘family’ of Harper Willowes, John Rookwood, and siblings Nick and elder sister Allie, The Fireman, hits a number of peaks along it’s way. Detailing the start of the dragonscale disease, Harper, our central character in this ensemble, is a school nurse enlisted to help those infected. Eventually she catches the disease and the true nature of both the dragonscale and her husband are slowly revealed.

Affected by the illness that causes it’s victims to combust, Harper’s husband shows his true colours and tries to kill her. In a way he symbolises the fear and hatred of the disease – spontaneously combusting and burning down swathes of civilisation will do that, I suppose. But, Harper doesn’t combust and soon meets others who can control the dragonscale as well.

Yet, here, another type of conflict arises within the camp of the affected between those embracing the illness with an almost religious zeal and those with a more practical outlook. Amongst those is John Rookwood, the eponymous Fireman; able to control and manipulate the fire, he helps the affected escape vigilante forces and murderous cremation crews.

Adding more friction to the plot, Harper is pregnant and as she comes to term so does the tension in camp. It’s a storm of antagonists as ex-husband, cremation crews and camp zealots all combine in a self-destructive showdown. Whilst the final part of the novel was a taut, gripping read, I was expecting a more brutal conclusion.

That’s not to say that the novel wasn’t both fantastic and satisfying because it definitely was. The characters are brilliantly written and highly relatable and the story flows along at a vibrant pace, whilst the dragonscale is cleverly developed. Featuring a number of conflicts, each of which could have made a story in itself, The Fireman is an exemplary apocalyptic thriller.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

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A manic week of DIY has left no time to read, or do anything else beyond a bleary-eyed half hour brain drain in front of the TV. But, a relaxing Sunday meant that a quick journey into the weird world of dead letters was in order.

Cancer Dancer by Pat Cadigan is another quality short story, epitomising the feeling of this collection yet adding the very heavy hearted emotion of cancer diagnosis. The letter in this tale contains a cryptic message, an address and an odd bank-like swipe card. What starts out as a distraction from the crushing news of a cancer prognosis soon escalates.

As the protagonist begins to investigate the note she soon discovers that the letter’s original recipient has died and that his supposed daughter is aggressively keen to get her hands on that weird bank card. Her enquiries lead her to a strange building with an even stranger meaning behind it. Heartfelt and engaging, Cancer Dancer is a clever, cathartic tale.

I’ve been wanting to read more horror lately yet know little about where to start in the genre. Apart from the Stephen King and James Herbert stuff I enjoyed in my youth, I’ve been looking at who to read and Ramsey Campbell is clearly a good beginning.

The Wrong Game is meta-fiction at it’s finest. Referring to the editor of this anthology, Campbell relates how the letter he received, thinking it the prompt, was something else entirely. A spiralling sense of dread fuels the author’s investigation into the contents of the letter until a memory surfaces that sets in motion a visit to a creepy, abandoned hotel. Campbell acknowledges his own place in the story as fact and fiction merge and flow. However it is the gritty, grimy conclusion which gives this story it’s true worth.

During all the DIY, I’ve finally begun to unpack the tower of book boxes. There’s lots I’ve yet to read and some great new stuff I’ve been sent recently so expect more posts soon.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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After a Saturday filled with DIY and an obscene amount of burpees, today felt like the right time to delve back into Dead Letters: An Anthology of The Undelivered, The Missing, The Returned.

Joanne Harris’ In Memoriam seemingly starts off as a very literal interpretation of the brief for this collection, detailing the work of one man within the National Returns Centre (aka Dead Letter Office). However, by turns, each pinpointed by a slight yet significant memory, the story becomes increasingly weirder and creepier. The man in question finds a long lost letter addressed to him, containing a data stick. The consequences are unsettling as his memories unravel to reveal a frightening truth.

Ausland by Alison Moore is an odd, short piece of writing. It’s suggestive and speculative, told from the perspective of an elderly lady meeting her childhood friend after so many decades apart. Ausland touches on a fun idea yet does so from afar, from the point of view of someone who just glimpses a moment of a much larger picture. Quirky and clever, it’s an enjoyable and bite sized piece of work.

Wonders to Come by Christopher Fowler is a bizarre story that twists the notion of an alien invasion with a brilliant flourish. Unlike the other pieces I’ve read from this anthology, Fowler gives a mere sideways glance to the Royal Mail, eschewing it in favour of an encroaching and ultimately apocalyptic tale of an arrogation from outer space. An excellent piece of writing that evolves quietly from thriller to alien killer seamlessly, Wonders to Come is a masterful short story. Turning the idea of ‘visitors from space landing in a field’ to ‘weird entities infiltrate a state-of-the-art super hotel and kill everyone’ was inspired yet it is the writer’s ability to hook the interest from the outset that deserves attention.

This compilation of stories continues to entertain and I’ll be back to read more soon. Definitely worth checking out if you like creepy, strange and scary stories.

Review Copy
Published by Titan Books

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The Dead Letters Office: the final repository of the undelivered. Love missives unread, gifts unreceived, lost in postal limbo.

The premise for this anthology is that each author was sent an anonymous letter, all containing an artefact which functioned as the prompt for their story. It’s a fantastic concept with a number of authors I’ve been looking to read (especially as I’ve been seeking out new horror novels of late) such as Joanne Harris, China Miéville, Michael Marshall Smith and Ramsey Campbell.

The opening story by Steven Hall does not disappoint when it comes to capturing the notion and atmosphere of dead and lost letters, finally finding a reader. The Green Letter is a sparse yet riveting account of a letter that has bizarre, and mainly dire consequences for the recipient. Written up as a report of some sort, detailing the letter (or letters, as it has occurred hundreds of times) as well as an experiment gone wrong, this is a wonderfully creepy and brilliantly crafted tale that expresses the dread of the ‘dead letter’.

Michael Marshall Smith’s Over To You continues that sense of dread but lets it meander into a suburban setting. An odd package in the wrong mail box; a weird note and a chess piece contained within. It equates to a small yet uninteresting mystery for the protagonist until his mother calls to let him know his deceased father’s chess set is missing a piece – the exact piece he has found. The jarring occurrences add up and the conclusion to the tale is clever and harsh all at once, making for an enjoyably dark read.

After reading Nod by Adrian Barnes, I’m definitely looking forward to reading more quality horror, and Dead Letters already seems like it’s going to be a great collection of suitably chilling stories.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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A local guide is leading wealthy tourists through a forest in Peru when a strange, black, skittering mass engulfs him and most of the party. FBI Agent Mike Rich is on a routine stake-out in Minneapolis when he’s suddenly called by the Director himself to investigate a mysterious plane crash. A scientist studying earthquakes in India registers an unprecedented pattern in local seismic readings. The Chinese government “accidentally” drops a nuclear bomb in an isolated region of its own country. And all of these events are connected.

As panic begins to sweep the globe, a mysterious package from South America arrives at Melanie Guyer’s Washington laboratory. The unusual egg inside begins to crack…An ancient species, long dormant, is now very much awake. But this is only the beginning of our end…

Likened by the publisher as a mix between Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Max Brooks’s World War Z, and with film rights already sold at auction, The Hatching has summer blockbuster written all over it. A slick blend of horror and thriller told through an ensemble cast from around the world, many of whom don’t survive, Ezekiel Boone has created a highly polished, action packed novel.

A slow burner that keeps the tension ramped up all the way, once the “hatching” kicks off, it’s all-out, full-on, creepy-crawly time. It’s a sleek and well thought out story that hits all our spider based fears but, more importantly, one that hits all the essential notes a thriller needs. A tough, divorced Special Agent trying to do right by his daughter, an attractive but dedicated expert scientist, her equally smart but hard-nosed political ex-husband, and a pragmatic yet charming American President determined to protect her country over and above her own ambitions, all form the nucleus of the cast attempting to stop the arachnid apocalypse.

The inclusion of events and voices from around the world add to the growing suspense and excitement and, if you aren’t scared of spiders, the idea of a carnivorous swarm of eight-legged homicidal maniacs, is enough to keep you turning the pages. However, for me, it was the conclusion that really nailed The Hatching. It’s a consummate piece of writing and I hope it’s not butchered into something completely different (as happened with World War Z) when it’s made into a film. As I said at the start; it’s a summer blockbuster – exciting, thrilling and with enough edge to make it a unique and somewhat frightening read.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

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Recently, I decided to look around for some horror-esque stories to read and a quick look in the book pile revealed Nod by Adrian Barnes. The back cover blurb sounded promising but it didn’t prepare me for the psychologically terrifying concept nor for the wonderful prose this novel offers.

Nod, much like the rest of the book, is woven with double meanings. Not only is it about sleep and the lack of, it also implies the same place that Cain was sent after being exiled from Adam’s garden in the bible. It’s about the layered meanings of words, sometimes polar opposites; about how words shape reality, and about how quickly meaning and structure, that which anchors are existence in the real, disintegrates so quickly once the thread of language begins to unravel.

I’ve heard Nod referred to as ‘creepy’ but it’s so much more than that. The idea is that one morning the world awakes to find that nearly everyone hasn’t slept whilst those few that did shared a collective dream. This isn’t the insomnia of snatched naps; it’s is the complete lack of sleep – the inability to reboot the brain and flush out all the madness of the day. Soon, the sleepless begin to panic, knowing that within a mere week they will descend into an inescapable psychosis.

It is a descent perfectly portrayed by the author and it is here that the horror sets in. Paul, the protagonist and author behind the journal we are reading, is forced to witness his long term girlfriend’s inevitable end – from the first few days of frustration, panic and resignation into bitterness, hate and finally insanity. It’s a terrifying thing having to watch as your loved one begins to lose themselves bit by bit, day by day as memory and personality and emotion and being are relentlessly stripped away whilst you remain relatively unscathed.

Yet are you? As the world around Paul sinks into a fog of lunacy and dementia, he is equally cast adrift from reality. It is here that the author, Adrian Barnes, considers some very powerful ideas about human nature, social structures and the idea of self. Because Paul is an etymologist, the journal is full of wonderful prose and insightful examinations of words and meanings, imbuing the novel with such frightening realisations.

It’s a personal apocalypse, played out on a small stage ( as I suppose all apocalyptic events are). But, it is the terror of losing all that anchors us to the world; of being witness to the mental and physical decay that is so powerfully written by Barnes. Inevitably though, as the mania abounds, Paul is caught up in a number of people’s psychotic games as he tries to hold on to what was. It is here, in the small details, that the hardest punches are thrown; it is here that Nod struck me so harshly for both it’s beautiful language and for it’s dreadful depictions.

Nod is a fantastic novel (I actually swore out loud in shock and respect as I finished it). It’s a must read for anyone interested in psychological horror, speculative writing, post-apocalypse fiction or just brilliant writing.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books