Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

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The strap line for this anthology reads ‘all-new masterpieces of urban terror’ and with an impressive list of authors to boot, it’s a collection I’ve been keen to read. Premised on the idea of the city, each writer has scraped back the veneer of metropolitan living to reveal the horror lying beneath.

First up and making an immediate impression was Scott Smith’s The Dogs. A mix of supernatural and bizzare properties, it’s the kind of tale where once it’s stall has been laid out you kind of know where it’s going. But, that doesn’t diminish its power or ability to unsettle. A young women who enjoys meeting men on Craigslist, suddenly finds herself in a situation that is
only ever going to end badly. However, it’s not the normal ‘met a guy who turned out to be a serial killer’ type bad; somehow it’s worse yet also pleasantly mundane. A mysteriously magical flat; murderous, talking canines; and the choice between killing or being killed. Superbly written and brilliantly paced, The Dogs is understated horror at its finest.

In Stone by Tim Lebbon definitely added some welcome chills to this week’s epic heatwave. It’s a story that manages to do so much with mere suggestions and hints rather than outright horror but the effect is exceptional. An insomniac narrator, troubled by the death of his closest friend, begins walking the streets of his home city in the early morning hours. During these meandering wanderings, he sees a woman strolling down alleyways and sidestreets, and he follows her. Curiosity peeked because she seems so out of place, so elsewhere, the woman disappears.

It’s a mystery that leaves the narrator unsettled and he investigates the spot again the next day. However, what he finds inexplicably intrigues yet deeply frightens him. Soon he begins seeing signs of further offkilter happenings around the city and can’t help but look for more. In Stone never explicitly shocks but the creeping sensation it produces is impressive.

Both stories have found intriguing interpretations of the brief for this anthology and I’m definitely hooked. Featuring so many good writers, such as Jonathon Maberry, Paul Tremblay, Ramsey Campbell and others, I’ll be posting up more reviews soon.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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Following on from his slick opening gambit with The Hatching, Ezekiel Boone continues the arachnid apocalypse in Skitter and never lets go of the creepy-crawly tension. Though the majority of his cast survived the first book in the series, things haven’t got any better. In fact, this whole novel is all about just how bad things are going to get.

The spiders have wrought havoc and, though it seems the plague of flesh eating eight-legged freaks are dying off, it’s just the beginning. Country after country has suffered outbreaks of attacks and the world’s governments and armies are trying their best to destroy and burn out the egg nests left by the first wave. However, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a mathematical (and physical) impossibility to contain the situation using conventional military tactics.

That is the issue at the heart of Skitter. President Stephenie Pilgrim knows it; scientist Melanie Gruyer has realised it and the boots on the ground are seeing it – no matter what they do, someone infected or some nest will have been missed and is about to restart the avalanche of killer arachnids. Skitter is the calm before the storm and, as the second book in the series, sets up what will clearly be a catastrophic ending. Because, what was, at first, a tidal wave of death is actually something else. It was a first wave. Therefore, what is coming next?

Clues and conjecture, fragmented information and intuition start to form a picture as humanity is given a brief respite from the spiders. Huge caccoon eggs are discovered whilst a different type of spider appears; one that seems to nurse the gigantic egg sacks. Amidst all this, the US president is forced to make harder and harder choices. With China already a nuclear wasteland and parts of Europe and Indian crumbling under the arachnid threat, Stephanie Pilgrim must do the unthinkable to save her country.

Skitter is all about those tough choices. The tension and terror is present throughout the book but this second instalment is really concerned with what is to come and how to try and stop it. The ensemble cast of characters continue to impress, some coming in to contact with others, while some try their best to survive. It’s a real strength of the author that no matter who is in the spotlight, you’re made to care about them, for however brief a moment. If The Hatching was a summer blockbuster then Skitter is its tense, page turning counterpart setting the tone for a brutal, all out apocalyptic conclusion.

Review copy
Publish by Gollancz

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Ubo is an unsettling book; from its impressive yet disturbing cover art to its complex and relentless exploration of humanity’s capacity for violence. Though there is some quite visceral horror throughout, it is that sense of disturbance, pervading the entire text and constantly scratching away in the background, that powers the story and captures the imagination.

Daniel doesn’t know where he is nor why he is being subjected to the terrifying mind experiments he is forced to experience. The only thing he has in common with the other prisoners is a shared nightmare, or hallucination, of being abducted by a large cockroach like creature, borne away from his life to a ruined, crumbling world. The discombobulating nature of the protagonist’s situation mirrors the reader’s own perturbed understanding of the story. Like Daniel, we are trying to work out what these experiments mean and why he and the other captives have been chosen. Yet, we are also tasked with understanding the place Daniel has found himself in, the giant insects guarding him and the worrying decay surrounding everything.

It’s a dark and terrifying world where Daniel is used daily as a vessel of consciousness to experience some of the most depraved and psychotic people in history. Via some strange technology, Daniel rides inside the minds of these killers and dictators, sharing and almost becoming them as they carry out awful acts. The horror of witnessing Jack the Ripper’s murders, for example, is compounded by being caught up in the mind of the madman. The unhinged hunger for violence, the crazed, incomprehensible desires are relentlessly disturbing. Yet, what is more unsettling? The narratives of these criminals or the mental violence perpetuated against Daniel and his fellows as they are forced to be conduits for understanding hatred and aggression on such an unprecedented, unfiltered scale?

Amongst these dual mysteries, the plot unfolds in ever more bizarre and scary ways. As ever in my reviews, I don’t like to give too much away or spoil the impact of the book. Suffice it to say that, with the theme of violence at its heart, it isn’t surprising that the world Daniel finds himself in is as equally unbalanced as the experiments. As a meditation on aggression, brutality and psychotic hatred, Ubo is a savage, relentless look into how violence pervades human history, even (or especially) when those perpetuating it are doing it for the greater good. Steve Rasnic Tem has created a sci-fi horror of impressive proportions with an ending that is horrific, uplifting, apocalyptic and optimistic, all in equal measure. A brutal book that is impossible to put down.

Review copy
Published by Solaris Books

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I felt the need to scratch that post-apocalypse zombie itch (again) and remembered I had Monster Island sitting on my bookshelves. Unread. Published in 2006, David Wellington was definitely one of those authors at the forefront of the zombie resurgence but I was happily surprised by what I discovered as I read this fantastic novel.

Kicking off by introducing one of the main protagonists, Dekalb, a UN worker caught up by the apocalypse in East Africa, Monster Island continues to make interesting and inventive turns and twists throughout. Under the ‘protection’ of a Somali warlord, Dekalb is offered the opportunity to keep his daughter safe; all he need do is find enough HIV/AIDS medication to keep the warlord alive. Unfortunately, it’s a far from easy task and, along with a squad of teenage girl soldiers, Dekalb is soon expanding his search all the way to New York.

Here, things truly turn. Dekalb meets our main antagonist Gary. A former medical student and self-made undead, Gary realised that zombification was inevitable but, if done on purpose and with some thought, might result in reanimation without total brain damage and, therefore, loss of personality. However, Gary is still a zombie and his hunger, and situation, can’t be overcome. New York is now the battleground as Dekalb and his girl warriors strive to survive and complete their mission against teeming odds.

What I found interesting is that David Wellington uses the zombie genre as a fantasy setting. It allows him to introduce ideas and characters way outside of the accepted apocalypse tropes. Whilst we still have armed survivors making a stand, military assets being deployed and zombie hordes, others join the fray including a long-dead Scottish Druid with magical powers. It’s a heady mix of fantastical undead proportions and makes for a tumultuous landscape against which Dekalb tries to do the right thing whilst trying to get back to his own daughter.

In the end, Monster Island retains its brutality. It is both fantasy and zombie apocalypse and though there are sparks of humour and touches of character introspection, the conclusion is quite terrible in its honesty. Like all good zombie fiction, Monster Island isn’t just about cracking skulls and drinking toilet water to stay alive; it’s about the cost of the choices made in the desperation to survive that reveals so much about humanity.

My copy
Published by Snowbooks Ltd

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If you’ve ever read any of Gavin G. Smith’s work before, you’ll understand why his latest offering jumped to the top of the reading pile. First, I’m going to give you the blurb that hooked me and then try to review the book without giving too much away..

1987, THE HEIGHT OF THE COLD WAR. For Captain Vadim Scorlenski and the rest of the 15th Spetsnaz Brigade, being scrambled to unfamiliar territory at no notice, without a brief or proper equipment, is more or less expected; but even by his standards, their mission to one of the United States’ busiest cities stinks…

World War III was over in a matter of hours, and Vadim and most of his squad are dead, but not done. What’s happened to them, and to millions of civilians around the world, goes beyond any war crime; and Vadim and his team – Skull, Mongol, Farm Boy, Princess, Gulag, the Fräulein and New Boy – won’t rest until they’ve seen justice done.

Reading the synopsis reminded me of all those 1980s survivalist/post-apocalyptic pulp novels I read as a kid. I’m not going to lie, it excited me and the opening gambit certainly lived up to expectations. Gavin G. Smith knows his way around the fast paced, ballet of violence that an action novel requires. Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon is wild. Adrenaline fuelled fire fights against gut wrenching odds are packed into a story that manages to remain grounded and considered despite the full-bore craziness of a post-apocalyptic background.

The squad led by the protagonist Vadim are a fantastic cast and the banter and comraderie is brilliantly wrought. The fact that Smith is able to include some moral philosophising amongst the blood bath battles is impressive, adding yet another layer. It’s the best of survivalist pulp fiction added to a strong plot and exceptional writing.

Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon is pure, unapologetic, full-throttle, action packed awesomeness. Beginning to end, the atmospheric ride is an absolute firestorm. There’s so much more to say but I don’t want to spoil anything too much. Safe to say, Vadim and his squad end up as both enemy and protector in a world gone mad. Plus, there’s the all out slaughter of a group of racist, neo-nazi, war re-enactors which is just the icing on a brutal cake of an exceptional book. Obviously, the author had too much fun and I hope, somehow, he revisits this world again.

Review copy
Published by Abaddon Books

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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