Category Archives: Horror


Maplecroft by Cherie PriestReview: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Roc Trade, 2014)

Apparently Lizzie Borden took an ax (it was missing an ‘e’, I’m trying to track it down) and gave her mother forty whacks. Really? Whacks with an axe (hey, the ‘e’ came back!)? Surely one chops with an axe? You whack someone with a blunt instrument like a club or the lid of a piano. Or did she do it with the axe handle? Or the flat of the blade? Anyway, she went on to give her dad much the same treatment, with an extra whack/chop for measure. Daddy issues. To be honest that was about the extent of my knowledge of Miss Lizzie Andrew Borden and her alleged pursuits. While a staple of American legend it always seemed a bit ho-hum to a European. I mean, who needs the Bordens when you already have the Borgias? Well thankfully Cherie Priest’s latest novel, Maplecroft, has set me straight on the history of America’s most notoriously (allegedly) wayward woman.

Well, only for exceedingly twisted values of ‘straight’. The story opens with Lizzie (hereon known as Lisbeth) caring for her sickly sister Emma in Maplecroft, the mansion they procured for themselves following the deaths of their parents. Being mostly unaware of the details behind the Borden story I did a little research into the affair prior to reading. Priest has done an amazing job of gathering up all the strands of the real-life incident and investigation and weaving them into her re-telling: a violent sickness had befallen the household for a few days; the maid was alerted by cries from Lisbeth; the bodies of the parents, Abby and Andrew were discovered, bearing 19 and 11 axe wounds respectively (40 and 41? Pfft…). Lizzie was the chief suspect but later acquitted by a jury, the real killer remaining undiscovered.

And it’s here that Maplecroft begins its delightful divergence from reality. For you see, Lisbeth did indeed take the axe to her parents. But she did it to protect not only herself and frail Emma but to save her town and perhaps the world.  Dark, nameless horrors lurk in the shadows of Fall River, slimy boneless fiends, denizens of the deep and disciples of the dark gods which lurk beneath the roiling waves. Yes folks, we’re deep in Lovecraft territory here and it’s one of the most enjoyable excursions I’ve had there in a good long time. Starting with an innocent mailing of a slime mold sample to a distant professor, Maplecroft slowly builds the tension until all and sundry are losing their minds and their lives and the world is on the brink of disaster.

On the one hand we have an awakening god making its murderous way across America to find the woman who unwittingly brought him to life. And back at the ranch we have Lisbeth struggling to contain her wildly intelligent sibling while dealing with her increasingly curious girlfriend and the unwanted attentions of a private investigator. Juggling these two strands together, Cherie Priest turns Maplecroft into an unexpected winner on a number of levels. The narrative voice she adopts is utterly beautiful, telling the story primarily through the eyes of Lisbeth and Emma yet doing so in a manner very firmly rooted in the period. Such is the thickness of the nineteenth century atmosphere that you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were indeed reading an undiscovered Lovecraft novel. Priest has had plenty of practice with her forays into steampunk and now it just feels so natural, not at all forced, unlike the caricatures of older literary styles which usually crop up when an author attempts to imitate literature of an earlier era.

But it’s the attention to detail which really grabbed me. There’s not a single element of Lisbeth’s world which goes unexamined and it serves to pull you right in and keep a hold of you, immersing you in the antiquated horror all around. From the trusty axe with which she dispatches her unwordly foes to the wonderful acid bath under the floorboards of her basement, this is a world painted in deep, rich colours. You’re going to hear the creatures scratching against the door, you’ll see the stress take its toll on beleaguered Lisbeth and you will smell, the unimaginable stench of the elder gods at work. In marked contrast to the master whose works inspired Maplecroft, Cherie Priest has no qualms at all when it comes to describing the indescribable and it simply works.

I’d venture so far as to say that if you have no experience of HP Lovecraft then Maplecroft would actually be a wonderful place to commence your addiction. It’s not truly related to his works but the similarities in tone and subject are simply incredible and Priest’s work is a great deal more accessible. If you’re already a fan of unnameable horrors then you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s Lovecraft for a new generation, written with an obvious love for the source material and doesn’t sully the name in the slightest. Cthulhu would be proud.

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Newsflesh Trilogy

Feed by Mira GrantReview: Newsflesh Trilogy (Feed, Deadline, Blackout) by Mira Grant (Orbit, 2011-2012)

Sometimes a book comes along that makes you wish the entire rest of the world would just disappear and leave you to get on with the important business of reading. A book that you’re picking up in your breaks between teaching classes, caring not one whit that you’re already a couple of minutes into class time and still haven’t left the teachers’ room. One which has you cursing every pedestrian distraction which takes you away from it’s pages – “Dinner??? Who needs food these days?”. Mira Grant’s Feed is one such book, one I had dismissed as a potential rainy day time-passer and left neglected on the bottom of the virtual pile. I am so, so glad I randomly decided to give it a shot. So glad.

Let’s get this out of the way first; Feed and it’s sequels are, ostensibly at least, zombie novels. I know that’s going to put some people off but bear with me. There’s a whole hell of a lot more going on in these pages. Set a couple of decades following the event known as The Rising (eerily close to current day), the world is dealing with the aftermath of a series of unfortunate events. A combination of scientific curiosity, medical genius and well-intentioned yet idiotic do-goodery have unleashed a plague upon mankind. The dead walk. And they hunger. I’ll leave the details – and there are many – for when you pick up the book, but suffice to say that the zombie origin story in play here is one of the most plausible (in the loose, fictional sense) and original I’ve stumbled across. In fact the depth and knowledge with which is is suffused carries across every aspect of the book, from character to background to, well, everything.

This post-Rising world has given rise to a new form of information distribution. It transpires that old media really dropped the ball during the disaster, toeing he government line and assuring everyone there’s nothing to see here, even as the undead are breaking down the door. The only ones getting the truth out there were bloggers, not beholden to any corporate or political interests and full of Romero-based advice for dealing with the recently deceased. While newspapers and TV stations remain in business, blogging is suddenly moved far up the pecking order with the best content providers netting hefty salaries, wide audiences and lucrative sponsorship deals. One such blogging team comprises adopted brother and sister Georgia (named for Mr Romero, very common post-Rising) and Shaun as well as a host of accomplices. Opportunity comes knocking in a chance to cover the upcoming US presidential elections, the first time a new media team has ever been invited to accompany a candidate on his tour. It seems like a dream come true but before long the body count starts rising and it’s hard to know whether zombies or humans pose the greater threat.

Now here’s where the genius of Feed, Deadline and Blackout lie. They’re zombie books, right? But there is almost no zombie action. What we are treated to comes in the form of the occasional large-scale set-piece rather than a continuous gruelling onslaught of the undead. Instead the bulk of the books comprise two far more important aspects. The first is the political and cultural, dealing with the campaign trail and the media following it. The analysis of the future of blogging is just wonderful to behold, especially the fracturing of bloggers into Newsies, Irwins and Fictionals (as well as subgroups such as Stewarts), all co-existing with and dependent on the others. Mira Grant sharply picks apart the flaws of old media and the potential benefits of the new, while being careful not to fall victim to her own hype. Her blogosphere is intensely detailed and believable, a world within a world which is all too easy and comfortable to slip into.

And then there are the politics. My god, she totally nails it with her depiction of a society ruled by fear to the extent that the fear is almost welcomed for the security measures it provides. They say the very best science-fiction depicts not the future but our own present and this is no exception. The security theatre surrounding our day-to-day existence in the post-9/11 world is brought to life perfectly by Newsflesh‘s blood testing kits. Not only do they serve to build suspense in a truly beautiful way but they cut right to the heart of the shackles we ignore, if not gladly wear, in real life.

The trilogy’s second beating heart is the characterisation. It’s a long time since I’ve found myself so heavily invested in people within the pages of a novel, found myself feeling so keenly in tune with them, so familiar. And of course, so beaten and bruised when Grant deals one of the literary body-blows at which she seems so adept. The team of Georgia and Shaun are near-perfect protagonists – edgy without seeming arrogant, colourful without being over the top and imbued with some mystical energy which seems to bleed off the page and infect your day-to-day life. The supporting cast is fleshed out (haha) equally well, from secondary players like Becks and Mahir down to bit parts like the wonderfully unhinged Dr Abbey. Hell, even her dog has more personality than a ot of leading fictional characters.

I can do nothing but heartily endorse these books and urge you to get reading right now. A word of warning though – it’s Feed, then Deadline, then Blackout. I steamrolled though Feed at an incredible pace and found myself slavering for more. Unfortunately I was using ebook versions. So I started the next book and wondered why there was so much discussion of seemingly major events following the first installment which were given little more than cursory treatment; disaster, deaths, betrayals, all dealt with in passing sentences. It wasn’t till 300 pages in that I checked. Yup, I was reading book three. Exit stage left, back to Deadline, charge through it then finish Blackout. And it was still one of the best reading experiences I had in 2014. That says it all really.

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Horns by Joe HillReview: Horns by Joe Hill (William Morrow, 2011)

Check me out being all topical! Seeing as the big-screen adaptation of Horns starring Harry ‘Daniel Radcliffe’ Potter is released here this weekend – Halloween no less – I thought I’d best get the novel read so I could act all ‘the book is so much better’ on exiting the auditorium. Joe Hill’s horror debut, Heart-Shaped Box, took bookstores by storm  many moons ago and I was quietly impressed though not overwhelmed. He was a fresh, original voice in a slightly tired genre but wasn’t about to set the world on fire in my opinion. So how does Horns stack up? Was it worthy of the dollars the studio must have parted with? Read on…

Those of you who have read the blurb or seen the trailers will already be familiar with the central conceit of Horns; Ignatius Parrish awakes after a particularly drunken evening to a rude surprise. It seems he has sprouted a pair of horns from his head. Not just any old horns, proper devil horns. Actual horns. In his head. After initially dismissing them as the hallucinogenic detritus of an unusually toxic hangover he goes about his day. But of course, they’re real. And Ig’s problems are just beginning. The horns are visible to others but they tend to seem somewhat nonplussed by them and more concerned with confiding in Ig their darkest, vilest desires and most violent fantasies. And Ig, with a simple “Go for it” or “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” can set them on the path to damnation or salvation.

Now so far this is what I was expecting and settled back for a horror-comedic cavalcade of unsuspecting souls being tempted to their doom by demonic Ig. Bzzt, wrong. Horns is so much more than the pulpy joyride I was expecting and instead ventures far darker and meatier territory than I could have hoped for. It transpires that Ig is a man with his own demons stalking him. Just a year prior to the story’s opening his girlfriend, Merrin, was found raped and murdered following a loud and public break-up between the two of them. Needless to say Ig was the main suspect but also was not to blame. Unfortunately for him his own memory of the evening is an alcoholic haze and any evidence which could have either fingered him or cleared his name went up in smoke along with the rest of the locker, a cruel and suspicious twist of fate. Since that date he has lived in hell, guilty in the eyes of all around him and unable to even begin to find Merrin’s killer.

Now however, everyone who crosses his path seems to be revealing their innermost secrets. Skeletons are bounding out of closets and Ig is homing in on his nemesis. But those horns are getting hotter and the real Hell seems to be creeping ever closer.

Joe Hill manages to totally confound expectations by turning Horns into a seriously dark psychological-cum-theological thriller, a horrific tale of betrayal, anguish and revenge which seems increasingly biblical with every page turn. By the time the climax rolls around you swear you can feel the flames lapping at your feet, rooting for Ig every step of the way while becoming all too aware of the demon he is becoming. The structure of the book lends it a near-perfect sense of pace. With every encounter a little more of the fateful evening’s details are coloured in, each reveal becoming more painful and poignant, until the flood becomes almost too much. The fire-and-brimstone crescendo hits with exactly the right mix of tragedy and vengeance, providing an endpoint to the tale which satisfies without pandering to the reader’s expectations.

By the time you read this review you may have already caught the movie but don’t let that put you off. Horns is a twisted, vile little read and I mean that in the best possible way. Its darkness seeps through your skin and you’ll feel your own little horns sprouting before long. If that’s not a glowing recommendation I’m not sure what is.

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Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters by Lauren BeukesReview: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (Harper Collins, 2014)

It’s easy to gush praise for Lauren Beukes. Sounds sycophantic but it’s just plain true. First she gave us the wonderfully grim and gritty broken slab of cyberpunk that was Moxyland. Then she went all weird animal spirit and missing persons with Zoo City. Then, just to show off, she went and wrote Shining Girls, one of my favourite urban fantasy/horror/crime stories ever. In fact my girlfriend just finished reading the Mandarin translation, taking a good while to complete it due to it being “too exciting to read before sleeping”. So when I heard her latest, Broken Monsters, had hit the bookshelves I was into the virtual library like a shot and racing to my ebook reader with a brand new bundle of 1s and 0s.

And my first thought was, “Why am I reading a police procedural novel?”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of crime fiction done well. It’s just that based on past form I was expecting something altogether more fantastic than what seemed to be on offer here. Broken Monsters kicks off in heavy disguise, looking for all the world like a more artistic Silence Of The Lambs. A twisted killer with a penchant for animals and art is stalking the streets of abandoned and broken Detroit. Earnestly trying to both track down the culprit while caring for an increasingly wayward teenage daughter is Detective Versado and a wonderfully fleshed-out assortment of Detroit’s finest.

If there was nothing more to Broken Monsters than a cat-and-mouse then there would be little to lift it above the ranks of airport crime novels but this is Lauren Beukes. The narrative is fragmented into a handful of different viewpoints. Not only do we get to ride along with Versado, her daughter and the killer but we get to experience the viewpoint of some other spanners in the works. First there is the washed-up journalist/author trying to get his career back on track after burning every bridge he could lay his hands on. Thanks to his newly-acquired and ever-so-hip and young DJ girlfriend he’s soon tuned into ‘new media’ and the horde of eyeballs waiting on the other side of a YouTube channel. And then there is the human wreckage of Detroit, represented by a band of homeless friends scraping a living by scouring abandoned buildings for anything salvageable. Inevitably their paths collide in a rather spectacular manner.

One of the key thread in Broken Monsters, alongside the ode to Detroit and the countless other magnificent living ruins in our midst, is the exploration of media sensationalism and the potential for our fascination and hunger to fuel the darker sides of our natures. This isn’t meant in the sense of the patently ridiculous ‘video games and horror movies will turn your children psycho’ trope. Rather it’s about the very real violence we gorge ourselves on every time we turn on the news or open a paper. Living in Taiwan this strikes a very real chord, being surrounded by news stories of teens and young adults going on knife-wielding rampages. Every murder is pored over in sickening detail by every news channel. The pictures run constantly: the bodies; the wailing family; the scornful politicians; the shocked friends. And yet the carnage continues at an ever greater pace. Makes you think…

And of course it wouldn’t be Lauren Beukes unless there was something going on behind the scenes. As soon as you get the sense that this is no ordinary killer, not just a man with a simple screw loose, the novel is elevated from a particularly gripping thriller to an unnerving almost-ghost story, one which refuses to allow simple categories to pin it down. It’s tempting to label it as horror but it is so much more because the horror comes from revealing what is worst about the world around us rather than relying on the unreal elements to bring the dread. Elements from her previous two books are very obvious here (indeed she admitted that she was originally worried that she was just re-writing Shining Girls) but they are melded together with crucial new strands which make this book a logical progression from what she has accomplished before. Shining Girls managed to gather her a pretty sizeable following but hopefully this will be the title which will lead to the acclaim she deserves.

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Filed under Crime, Horror, Supernatural, Thriller, Urban Fantasy

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

The Rhesus Chart by Charles StrossReview: The Rhesus Chart (Laundry Files Book 5) by Charles Stross (Ace, 2014)

Oh mama, sometimes there’s a perfect storm of books all landing at once, a cosmic alignment which compels all of your favourite authors to complete their latest offerings within days of each other. Right now is one such blue moon occasion. Right after discovering that Ben H. Winters had completed his Last Policeman trilogy I discover there’s a new Laundry Files novel available (the one I’m reviewing here), followed immediately by the latest in Richard Kadrey’s insanely fun Sandman Slim series and the concluding chapter of Jeff VanderMeer’s thoroughly unsettling Southern Reach trilogy. Not to mention Robin Sloan sneaking in a prequel to one of my favourite books of last year, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Happy is me. First up is Charlie Stross because, well, he’s just overall awesome and this may be the finest Laundry Files novel to date.

So, to bring you up to speed in case you’re unfamiliar with this particular universe, Bob Howard was just a lonely computing science geek pottering around with algorithms in his flat. Unbeknownst to Bob it turns out that maths just happens to hold the key to accessing other dimensions and inviting their many-toothed and -tentacled denizens for dinner in our neck of the woods. Having been saved from unleashing screaming terror on suburban England he is inducted into The Laundry, a beyond-top-secret government organisation tasked with protecting the realm from threats unknowable, unnameable and indescribable. Think MI5 meets HP Lovecraft.

Many (mis)adventures and near-death incidents later, Bob finds himself discreetly climbing the organisation’s ladder, secretly enlisted as the apprentice to the Eater Of Souls and attempting to maintain a steady relationship with his wife Mo, a one-woman supernatural heavy-weapons unit armed with a cursed violin. For all Bob’s dealings with terrors from beyond the imagination it is the laundry’s stultifying and suffocating bureaucratic culture which causes him most nightmares this time around. The powers that be have decided to encourage motivation and creativity through the time-honoured tradition of whip-cracking, forcing employees to devote and extra 10% of their time to personal projects, selected from a pre-approved list of course. Unfortunately Bob’s colleague Andy succeeds in summoning a rather large and peckish entity into his office, requiring the intervention of his boss Angleton (current Eater Of Souls) and very nearly causing a departmental collapse. This sets Bob off on his own course and before you know it there’s a pack of mathemagically-created vampires roaming London, pawns in a deadly game which will soon have The Laundry at its knees.

The Rhesus Chart, despite being the fifth full-length novel in the series, is an excellent jumping-off point for new readers. It seems Charlie wrote it with accessibility in mind, providing plenty backstory to established characters and concepts without ever coming across as dull or repetitive for seasoned fans. Not to get too spoilery but the plot leads to some dark places and the story ends with events which leave the series open to an almost fresh start and with the ever-approaching Case Nightmare Green as an increasingly palpable destination. If you don’t know what to expect already then you’re going to find nerdy references, horror, humour, fantasy, sci-fi and a healthy dose of well-read snark on display. Stross revels in his contempt for the excesses of the banking institutions which recently caused so much hardship for so many millions as well as his distaste for corporate and bureaucratic culture in general. The barbs he sends that way are always well-aimed, never excessive and invariably having you involuntarily chuckling on the bus as you read.

If you’re already familiar with The Laundry Files then you need to read The Rhesus Chart as soon as possible. The characters and settings are that bit more fleshed-out and you can feel that Charles Stross is much more comfortable in creating the stories. There’s just such a natural feel about the whole thing and everything feels more substantial. What started as a jokey ‘Lovecraft-meets-the-civil-service’ tale has matured into a genuinely accomplished series and this is without a doubt the cream of the crop. If you’re a newb and don’t fancy trawling through the four previous installments (although you should) then you can happily pick up here without feeling you’re missing out. Given the almost Empire Strikes Back feeling to the ending I hope to the Elder Gods that Charlie’s already writing number six.
(An addendum here. I would have copied and pasted some choice quotes from my legally purchased ebook version but I couldn’t because, well, Amazon are a pack of bastards. Evil bastards who hate consumers and content creators in equal measure. I use a Kobo ebook reader but their store is inevitably less well stocked and more pricey than their behemoth of a competitor. So I occasionally resort to Amazon for new titles. However, Amazon only want you to be able to read their releases on their own Kindle devices so they format them and seal them with DRM intended to make them as inaccessible and user-unfriendly as possible. No problem, I can use ebook management tool Calibre to strip the protection and reformat the titles, breaking the law in the process just to access the book I purchased (although don’t ‘own’ because under Amacunt’s T’s & C’s you only license content from them). Normally this proceeds without a hitch but on converting The Rhesus Chart to an epub it decided to interpret every line break as a page break. Every single one. Reading a 2,500 page book was not my plan. So I converted to a mobi instead and while it started fine it also inserted a few characters of random gibberish every page or so and rendered the last half of the book in italics – very distracting and for some reason preventing me from highlighting or annotating. It just so happens that Charlie delivered a couple of small anti-Amazon rants during the course of The Rhesus Chart, helping to make up my mind never to ever use Amazon again. I urge you to do the same. Support authors and support the future of digital reading and publishing by buying direct from the publisher when possible and from alternative outlets when not. End PSA.)

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Filed under Fantasy, Horror, Mathematics, Science Fiction, Supernatural

North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud

North American Lake Monsters by Nathan BallingrudReview: North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud (Small Beer Press, 2013)

‘Apparently it was a beautiful day.’

But in truth, beautiful days are scarce in Ballingrud’s world. North American Lake Monsters is a small collection of his short fiction but a volume which packs a deceptively large punch for its size. Ostensibly horror stories, these hover at the fringes of the genre and eschew the typical gore and ghosts for something altogether more unsettling.

Well okay, maybe some of them veer towards the more conventional horror narratives. Wild Acre for example opens with three construction worker buddies enjoying a moonlight beer together. Their task of protecting the latest project from vandals has turned into more of a big boys camping trip. At least until the boss returns from answering a call of nature to find his friends sprayed across the interior of the half-finished house, some kind of wolf-like creature muzzle-deep in their guts. So far, so werewolf, but rather than follow this into hackneyed hunting/vengeance territory Ballingrud instead documents the mental decline of this struggling foreman. Following the attack his health, career and relationship all fall to pieces around him until there’s nothing but a husk left, in its own way far more terrifying than the initial carnage.

The rest of the tales take similarly skewed angles on what initially seem to be more traditional premises. There’s a wonderfully vicious vampire story in here, a stark warning not to be too greedy and never to trust strangers. The Way Station is a ghost story of sorts, a beautifully crafted tale of a man who lost everything he had to Hurricane Katrina and is now haunted by the ghost of New Orleans. Sometimes Ballingrud’s tales almost lull you into a false sense of security as with You Go Where It Takes You, an almost normal take on two lost souls meeting by chance, the sense of unease simmering away unnoticed in the background before the bubble finally bursts and everything falls apart.

Perhaps creepiest in my mind was The Good Husband, the only previously unpublished tale to be included here. It tackles the issue of depression and suicide in the most unnerving manner, raising the curtain to a scene of a husband witnessing the aftermath of his wife’s most recent and final suicide attempt. Suddenly reconciling himself to her mental state he divests himself of the urge to call for help and simply leaves her to find peace. The last thing he expects is to wake up to find her beside him in bed. What follows is so grim and bleak that it was simultaneously a struggle to continue but impossible to stop reading.

North American Lake Monsters succeeds largely on account of Ballingrud’s unique narrative style, twisting stories every which way and transforming the grotesque into the mundane and vice versa. His New Orleans background is dripping off every page and lends his work a gothic feel with a claustrophobic, sweltering atmosphere. It’s a quick read but one which will leave you wanting much more.

Buy North American Lake Monsters from Small Beer Press here.


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Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

Pandaemonium by Christopher BrookmyreReview: Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre (Abacus, 2010)

Pandaemonium, n. the capital city of Hell, any very disorderly or noisy place of assembly, tumultuous uproar.

Christopher Brookmyre is probably best known for his caustic Scots detective Jack Parlabane but he’s not all about sticking it to gangsters and corrupt politicians. Oh no, he’s got a wide-reaching range of influences and a pretty impressive store of knowledge, something he proudly parades in the wonderful Pandaemonium. I first read this title years ago back in Scotland, having exhausted his Parlabane series and thirsting for more of the same sarcasm and wit. At the time it made a good impression, I remember thoroughly enjoying it, but on a recent second outing I discovered just how enthralling, enlightening and entertaining a read it really was.

Pandaemonium kicks off in a sweltering, top-secret underground lab somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, peopled by scientists (fair enough), soldiers armed with ridiculously high-tech weapons (hmm?) and a small army of priests led by Cardinal Tullian (wtf?). Scientific second-in-command Merrick journeys through the rocky interior to the heart of the installation where the subject of today’s tests has just arrived through the Dodgson Anomaly, a mysterious artifact created by the particle accelerator residing there. The creature – tall, leathery and, erm, horned – seems to him to be nothing more than some new species, perhaps from another dimension. To Tullian and his team however the truth is all too clear. They are dealing with demons, and the Anomaly is nothing less than a doorway to hell.

Meanwhile, on the nearby country roads, a chartered bus is approaching filled with pupils of St Peter’s Catholic School, Glasgow. Following the fatal stabbing of one of their classmates, the students are en route to a Highland hideout, a former fort now re-purposed to help corporate colleagues feel like they hate each other and their jobs that little bit less. The entourage is the usual mish-mash – Kirk Burns, the resident psycho with his able lieutenants in tow; Adnan, Radar and the rest of the geek brigade; new girl and goth loner Marianne; Yvonne, Julie and the motor-mouthed ned girl crew; and a few other John Hughes stereotypes for good measure. Trying to keep control are the overly stern head, Guthrie; Father Blake, whose faith is somewhat less than rock-solid; Miss Ross, retaining something of a crush on the good Father; and Kane, the atheist physics teacher, odd-man-out and best-friend foil to Blake.

So to recap, we have a secret experiment involving mad scientists, soldiers, the Vatican and demons from the pits of hell. En route to the area are bereaved, angered and scared Catholic school students. The area is isolated and hostile. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m sure you’ve guess the answer is ‘everything’ and go wrong it does, in the most spectacular, bloody and outright hilarious fashion possible. The pandaemonium of the title is soon unleashed as conflicts between science and religion lead to some fatal decisions being made and soon the hapless students find themselves involved in an entirely different kind of retreat. Brookmyre seems to be really in his element here, writing as if creating a movie screenplay rather than a novel. The pace never lets up for a second with the viewpoint constantly jumping from Cardinal to physicist, from girly clique to bully-boy. Initially the build-up manages to give us just the right amount of background and cements our empathy with the appropriate characters, never overloading on exposition or dawdling too much. When the shit hits the fan though things go truly into overdrive, and the passage which marks the transition from order to chaos is absolutely bloody masterful, feeding lines of the prose into the pumping dance music of the school disco as terror descends and gore begins to spray.

It’s not all blood, guts and Buckfast though, there is actually a tremendous amount of thoughtful debate in Pandaemonium and it blends into the story so well you’ll barely notice it’s there. For starters there’s the obvious science vs religion angle, tackled by Tullian, Merrick and resident crackpot Steinmeyer. Then there’s the hoary old ‘has science gone too far?’ chestnut, admirably handled. The highlight though is the series of dialogues between Blake and Kane covering the problem of evil, the inconsistencies of Catholicism and religion in general and also the very nature of faith. These are some big ideas and Brookmyre never ones shies away from them or disposes of them with overly simplistic answers.

And on top of that there’s the hidden game of ‘spot the pop culture reference’, and believe me this book is riddled with them. The mentions of and allusions to Doom, the classic first-person shooter also featuring a portal to hell (the Phobos Anomaly) are legion, not only because one main character retains his grip on sanity by pretending to be living out that very game. Then there are the easy ones like the former US Marine who now minds the retreat attended by the school, one Max Sendak. And for the eagle-eyed there are a few gems hidden away; I wonder who else out there knows why he called one part of the book ‘Bonnie Brae’?

Anyway, enough raving. Time to let you rush out and buy it. Any fan of sci-fi and horror is going to get a kick out of this book but really its appeal should be far wider ranging. The cast of all-too-human characters gives it enough grounding to ensure that casual readers won’t be turned off by the flying guts. Not only that but the mix of action-packed nonsense and serious debate makes it a book for many moods. Now, can we have a movie version please?

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Fiend by Peter Stenson

Fiend by Peter StensonReview: Fiend by Peter Stenson (Crown, 2013)

Ask anyone to name the three best TV shows of the past five years and I can pretty much guarantee that Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead are going to occupy two of those slots (with Game Of Thrones in the other). The meth-making exploits of Walter and company as well as the gruelling slog for survival against the undead have both firmly lodged themselves in the popular psyche. It seems then only natural to ask, what would happen if these worlds collided? Meth-heads versus undead? Thanks to Peter Stenson that question no longer resides in the realm of late-night pot-fuelled ramblings.

Chase Daniels was a Twin Cities white boy of privilege who  threw it all away to follow the path of crystal meth, abandoning family, study and work for a life of low-level dealing to support an ever-growing habit. Slumming it with his waste-of-space friend Typewriter (seriously), he wakes from a week-long, housebound trip to oblivion to hear a dog barking in his front yard. Investigating he witnesses a young girl approach the near-rabid beast, only to lunge at it and tear it’s throat out. Convinced he’s hallucinating on account of the drugs, Chase retreats inside the house, only to be pursued by the blood-soaked, giggling monster. Terrified and cornered, Chase and Type end up killing the child, torching the house and fleeing the scene, convinced they’ll soon make the news for murdering some poor family’s daughter while in the throes of meth paranoia.

Hours later and the blood is still on their clothes but something’s wrong. The streets are deserted. Where is everyone? An encounter with a kill-crazy, chuckling, Russian webcam sex operator (deceased) and a conversation with one of her former clients soon confirms the worst. The dog attack was no hallucination and the child was no innocent. The world has descended into a madness far worse than any head trip. Chase and Type are now confronted with two problems. Firstly how to survive the attacks of the giggling zombie hordes, and also how to ensure they can get their increasingly urgent meth fixes in a world apparently without people?

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to give away but Fiend is so much more than that. Of course on the surface the concept is a ridiculous blend of horror and the darkest of humour. And yes, you can take it that way, but I only used the Breaking Bad/Walking Dead references to draw you in. Fiend is not so much a zombie/meth survival comedy as an almost unbearably bleak and intense examination of the nature of addiction and its effect on our psyches. Faced with the end of the world, Chase and his fellow survivors never for a second deviate from their true primary goal – the next fix. All other concerns are sidelined in favour of the pipe or the needle and friendship has value only inasmuch as it will lead to another rock.

This is never portrayed more clearly than in the narration itself. The entire book presents itself from Chase’s viewpoint and the writing moulds itself to his current mindset. Immediately following a fix he’s a hive of mental activity, sentences bursting out rapid-fire, jumping from one idea to the next. As the high recedes and the cravings return his thoughts, and hence the text, become darker, less coherent, more paranoid. This creates a truly unsettling experience for the reader, dragged along by Chase’s neuronal activity and at the mercy of his habit.

Of course there is plentiful humour to alleviate the tension and it is truly necessary. Without the incredibly dark humour splattered throughout Fiend it would be an almost impossible read. As it is Stenson keeps the atmosphere only just light enough to allow the reader to continue without choking on the addiction, violence and betrayal which spill off the pages. At least he does until the climax which will leave you feeling like you’ve just intentionally pounded your skull with a hammer for a couple of hours.

Cards on the table time, Fiend is hands-down one of the best books I’ve read in a couple of years. From the first few pulse-racing pages it snatches you up and proceeds to force you through an emotional grinder before crushing you under its heel like a cigarette butt at the inevitable and cruelly abrupt ending. It’s relentless, violent and horrifyingly real but nonetheless thoughtful, intelligent and beautifully written. It’ll raise your heart rate, crush your faith in your fellow man, make you examine every possible source of addiction in your life and still entertain you. That’s something special.

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The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick CutterReview: The Troop by Nick Cutter (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing an Advance Reading Copy of this title.

Any discerning horror aficionado knows that there are two main sub-types of horror. The first is the classic supernatural ghost story, told in many forms but always having you look over your shoulder and sending chills up your spine. See the recent review of Snowblind for a wonderful modern example. The second is the literary equivalent of a video nasty, tha author’s aim being to have you empty the contents of your stomach over the pages of your book. While reading The Troop on a lunch break I almost had that very experience. Well played Mr Cutter, well played…

The Troop tells the sorry tale of Scout Troop 52. While on a wilderness camp on remote Falstaff Island off Canada’s east coast an unexpected visitor lands in their midst. Bedraggled, starved almost beyond recognition and raving deliriously about insatiable hunger he’s an obvious danger to the small group of teens but Scoutmaster Tim, local GP, can’t just turn an obviously sick man away. He’ll soon wish he had though, as it transpires that he didn’t come alone. Nestling in his belly (and indeed the rest of his walking corpse) are a horde of visitors, all eager to find new hosts no matter what age or species.

What ensues is a gruelling, visceral tale of survival and body horror. The boys – Ephraim, Newton, Max, Kent and Shelley – soon realise that they are stranded on the island. The sole adult is soon incapacitated by the parasites lurking in the gatecrasher’s internal cavities and they must do everything they can to avoid his fate. The insanity of the situation, combined with the natural group dynamic present in pubescent boys everywhere, means they are soon pitched against each other as much as the mysterious, repellent organisms sharing the island. And meanwhile, why is nobody coming to check on them and what are those black helicopters and boats circling the island at a distance?

Early reviews of The Troop have compared it rather obviously to Lord Of The Flies and to be fair the comparison is entirely justified. But it’s so much more than that. Beside the whole kids-on-an-island trope there are elements from other equally powerful sources. The first which sprang to mind was John Carpenter’s The Thing. You’ve got a small group of people in an isolated environment threatened by a near-invisible, highly contagious and utterly deadly entity which threatens the whole of mankind. That and the buckets of gore, incredibly inventive and wonderfully sickening gore. The second was Battle Royale, mostly for its relentless brutality in its treatment of its adolescent cast. Nick Cutter is utterly merciless in creating an inescapable hell for his characters, playing a cruel god of fate and dashing their hopes on the rocks at every turn.

So we’ve established that it’s a vicious gorefest mixed with a school holiday. But what of the writing itself? I’m pleased to say it’s certainly of a strong enough calibre to hold the story up. While The Troop initially had me wondering whether or not to continue – it felt a little juvenile purely because of the subject matter – it soon picked up the pace, got its grown-up clothes and started delivering gutpunch after gutpunch. Nick Cutter has two prominent strengths as a writer. The first is characterisation, peopling his novel with a broad mix of characters ranging from sympathetic to repellent to outright evil. Despite their young ages these kids are all individuals, on the cusp of adulthood and starting their journey of self-discovery, each choosing distinctly different paths which sets them up for conflict later. Then, having introduced his cast, he introduces the second key tool in his kit as he begins gleefully dismembering them. This man has a talent for depravity, knowing exactly which buttons to push in order to tie your guts in knots. At times it was difficult to discern which was more disgusting, the parasites invading the bodies of the Scouts or the grotesque effect they had upon those very bodies and minds.

Cutter acknowledges a debt to Stephen King in the acknowledgments but it’s clear that The Troop is no mere knock-off. Yes it wears its inspirations on its sleeve but Cutter manages to take these distinct elements and create something entirely new and, to a seasoned horror veteran, remarkably stomach-churning. I almost hope he never sells the movie rights to this book, I don’t know if I could handle it and that is perhaps the highest praise I could offer anyone in this genre.

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Snowblind by Christopher Golden

Snowblind by Christopher GoldenReview: Snowblind by Christopher Golden (St Martin’s Press, 2014)

Note: Thanks to St Martin’s Press for providing an Advance Reading Copy of this title.

Twelve years ago, a blizzard descended on the town of Coventry, New England. Nothing special there, but this storm was different. By the time the snows had cleared, the town was torn apart. People had simply disappeared, vanished into the drifts leaving not a trace behind. Worse, others simply did not survive the night at all, falling prey to the weather as well as forces unexplained. In its wake the disaster deposited desperation and emptiness, changing the lives of those left behind forever. Now the storm is returning and people are acting more than a little strange.

I’ll get this out of the way right off the bat – Snowblind is receiving a snowplow-load of comparisons to early Stephen King and I can’t help but agree. It has all of the ingredients: north-eastern US setting; down-to-earth characters; supernatural forces. Hell, the man himself even gave it a spot of cover blurb. Does it live up to the hype? And does Golden have a distinct enough voice to wrestle free of his obvious inspiration? Well, the answers are both resoundingly positive.

Snowblind features without a doubt one of the most gripping and fraught opening acts I’ve read in years. Comprising of a flashback to the original devastating storm it proceeds to set up a believable and intriguing cast of characters before suddenly turning on them and putting them through hell. By the time I had caught up to the present day I had forgotten that this was just a taster, that the meat of the story was yet to come. There were no guts, no gore, not my usual horror fare at all. Nothing but a creeping sense of unease which reached an eventual crescendo, leaving me glancing at the windows to make sure no unwelcome faces lurked there.

And then… silence. Like the calm following the storm Golden then surveys the damage he has wreaked, taking in the shattered lives, the broken families, the loss of hope. Without lingering too long on the scene you’re left in no doubt about the scale of the emotional damage caused to adult and child alike. But there’s only a short time to catch your breath before Snowblind pulls you back into the eye of the storm for an intense final act.

Christopher Golden does indeed have some stylistic similarities with the master of horror but where King’s older works can occasionally seem dated and a little twee these days, Golden is sharp and thoroughly contemporary. I’ll admit it hurt to see him use the word ‘hipster’ so often, as if it were some kind of virtue, but I’ll let that slide. His words pull you along effortlessly into the story, so much so that it feels more like the book is simply happening to you, rather than you actively reading it. Even though the eventual explanation of the storm’s terrible power seems a bit stretched in hindsight it doesn’t detract from the power of the story at all.

It’s been a long time since I read a good old-fashioned horror yarn and Snowblind has instilled in me a fresh hunger for more. This is exactly the fare I cut my reading teeth on (King, Herbert, Barker, etc) but updated for a modern age, a potent mix of the old and the new. If Christopher Golden has any more like this left in him then I’ll be waiting in line. One to read while curled up in front of a real fire on a cold, windy day, with the curtains closed and door locked of course…

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