Review – “The Hammer of Dr. Valentine” by John Llewellyn Probert


Nothing perks my horror soul up more than classic Hammer films and John Llewellyn Probert fiction, so throw the two together and all is very much well with the world.

The Hammer of Dr. ValentineThis novella from Spectral Press is a direct sequel to “The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine”, which was a tribute to Vincent Price. In that first story, we saw Dr. Edward Valentine out for Phibes-esque revenge on those he blamed for the death of his daughter. Naturally, this leaves the Bristol police baffled when he starts offing doctors in the methods of the actor’s more gruesome films, but even when they pick up the scent, the obsessed killer is always one step ahead. Full of twists, dry dialogue, and gleefully complicated death scenes, it was a delightful homage and one of my favourite reads of 2012.

In “The Hammer of Dr Valentine”, two years have passed since our favourite brilliant and deranged surgeon completed his assault on the medical community and escaped with an ostentatious flourish. Now he’s back, and more than a little disgruntled by the way certain journalists reported his rampage. As a man of integrity and refinement, he hates the vulgar tactics and sensationalist lies of the gutter press, so emerges from retirement to embark on another spree of meticulously flamboyant murders. And hurrah for that!

The book’s opening scene is superb, describing a man being launched from a Welsh clifftop by catapult to be impaled – with military precision – on a golden crucifix positioned in the valley below. Showing just how much planning and effort Dr. Valentine puts into his executions, this sets the wry tone and leaves us hungry to see what’s coming next.

It soon becomes apparent that this time around, rather than Vincent Price, the entire Hammer films canon is our killer’s inspiration. Jeffrey Longdon is back, the wonderfully jaded and cantankerous old-school detective who pursued Dr. Valentine through the first book. Pulled from a cosy rural job to take on the case, he’s more weary and irritated than alarmed by the grisly shenanigans, and it’s a joy to see him back. I’d go for a pint with him.

Another major character is John Spalding, a horror film expert and author who’s also on Dr. Valentine’s list. But although the format of this book is similar to the first – switching between the outrageous and imaginative vignettes of murder and the efforts of Detective Longdon and his colleagues – there is a slightly different ambience. Many of the doctors killed in the first book elicited a degree of sympathy. Although flawed, they did not deserve such horrible fates, and their actual guilt of any professional wrongdoing was also debatable. But this time around, the journalists are a much more odious bunch. The author lines up a fine array of unpleasant tabloid hacks and manipulative liars for Dr. Valentine to despatch, and the story almost develops a voyeuristic feel as we eagerly anticipate their sadistic deaths. It’s also fun guessing what ghastly method or film reference might be up next – some are subtle, some in your face – so I won’t spoil your enjoyment by giving any of them away.

John Llewellyn ProbertThe author’s prose is erudite, rich and dripping with wit, and this complements the characters and action. You don’t just the enjoy the story but the very telling of it, and being regaled in this quintessentially British and elegant voice is quite powerful when people are being killed in such abominable ways. While there is plenty of macabre humour, this book isn’t just played for laughs, and the author gauges it with the tension and nastiness just right. Although the mystery is lighter than in the first tale – we now know the killer’s identity, past and true motives – it didn’t make any difference to my enjoyment, and it’s one of those slick, sharp pieces that would only get bogged down by a complex plot.

I loved “The Hammer of Dr. Valentine”.  The sumptuous camp and gothic atmosphere of Hammer is seamlessly fused with an edgy, contemporary setting and it all ends on a perfectly over the top note. It takes an author with consuming passion for classic cinematic horror to write these beautifully crafted homages, and I genuinely can’t imagine a better man for the job than John Llewellyn Probert.

So go ahead and enjoy, and read “The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine” first if you haven’t done so already. Let’s just hope that in the meantime, somebody other than doctors or journalists have managed to get on the wrong side of the fiendish Dr. Edward Valentine. I can’t wait to see where he turns to get his creativity flowing in the next instalment.

Highly recommended.

Review – “Alien: River of Pain” by Christopher Golden


The final book in Titan’s new “Alien” series concludes the trilogy with a bang. Combining new story with established threads, it gives our old friend Ellen Ripley another brief outing and tells the story of Hadley’s Hope: the doomed colony of LV-426 that features in the “Aliens” film. This is a great idea for a novel and Christopher Golden delivers it in style.

Alien River of PainIf you’re reading this, I’m sure you’re familiar with James Cameron’s 1986 classic in which Ellen Ripley – fresh from her nightmare aboard the Nostromo – accompanies a squad of wisecracking marines to a remote colony after communication has been lost. As this was shortly after the investigation of a downed alien ship, it’s pretty obvious what’s happened to everyone, but in the original theatrical cut, we never actually laid eyes on the colony until the military arrive with Ripley in tow.

The “Director’s Cut” added almost 20 minutes to the film, some of which provided a glimpse of life in Hadley’s Hope before it was infested by xenomorphs. The opinion of fans and critics is mixed on this. Some people prefer the faster pace and increased mystery of the original, but I loved these added segments. “River of Pain” takes the next step, and tells the whole brutal story of the colony’s demise from start to finish.

The book begins with plot-lines and scenes of dialogue lifted from the first two films: Ripley on the Nostromo, being rescued from hypersleep, and meeting the slimy “Company” mouthpiece Carter Burke. These are perfectly realised on to the page, and act as both a plot refresher and a bit of ominous, nostalgic fun.

The action soon focuses on LV-426 and Rebecca “Newt” Jorden, one of the few survivors of “Aliens”. She lives with her brother, Tim, and parents Russell and Anne who work as wildcatters: colonists who scavenge the planet’s surface with certain rights of salvage. They’re a typical and perfectly credible family, troubled by domestic issues yet bonded by the circumstance of their tough colonial existance on this storm-lashed slab of rock.

As well as the colonists, there are marines stationed at Hadley’s Hope, and these are led by new arrival Captain Demian Brackett. He’s a fair and likeable bloke, but despite being a hardened and experienced soldier, he struggles to assert himself with some of his new squad. His gruff marines are made up of some honourable, professional types, but also those who spell nothing but trouble and don’t like this new boy turning up and telling them what to do. Some of them are just there to be future alien fodder, naturally, but the marines we get to know stand out by their strong voices and the true colour of their hearts.

Demian also has an old love interest in Anne Jorden, with whom he had a relationship many years ago, and also develops a friendship with young Newt. Despite the deep-space setting of this book, the issues these people face – family and relationship troubles, hassles at work – are so normal that it’s very easy to invest and empathise.

The Company (Weyland-Yutani) are represented in the form of a science team who – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – are determined to secure their alien research and specimens at any cost. And we wouldn’t want it any other way. The scientists frequently lock horns with Captain Brackett, who regards them with the suspicion they deserve, yet one of them – Dr Hidalgo – lacks the usual ruthlessness of most company employees. She possesses a conscience that cannot dismiss people as expendable which adds a nice element of ambivalence to the Company’s presence this time around.

I really enjoyed “River of Pain”. The pace is gentle with anticipation at first but the tension soon builds, and once Newt and her family take a heavy crawler to the remote coordinates of the crashed alien vessel (as featured in the Director’s Cut) things really start to crank up. There’s a numbing inevitability as it spirals out of control and it makes for a tense read as the marines and colonists attempt to protect themselves from the horde. We’re treated to some very tight action in the vein of the film and at times, the chaos of plasma gunfire, panic and shrieking xenomorphs becomes quite breathless.

One of the best things about Titan’s new trilogy is that they’re all very well written. Whether creating tension, mood or horror, Christopher Fowler is a craftsman and his dialogue rolls off the page. The short scenes lifted directly from the film nail character dynamics and mannerisms, allowing us to truly enjoy revisiting, and there are also superb turns of phrase that conjure a cinematic feel. This seems entirely appropriate given that this novel is essentially one big DVD extra of the film. As an example, this simple line painted such a stark picture it made me smile and gave a chill at the same time.

“The alien stalked towards him, bouncing with every step, its motion vaguely birdlike in a way that sickened her.”

One thing that could have been a problem with this book is that by telling the tale of Hadley’s Hope, the story is snared with an already-prescribed downbeat conclusion. We all know that Newt survives the infestation, but surely everybody else dies. After all, in the film, Ripley and the marines’ visit to LV-426 is an aftermath in which everyone seems to have been killed, or impregnated and cocooned in the “goddamn town meeting” of the aliens’ nest. But as I turned the pages, I started to wonder if other people in addition to Newt might somehow escape or manage to hole up. Of course I won’t spoil how “River of Pain” pans out with regard to this, but the conclusion is a neat bookend, and the final paragraph itself is a very deft and pleasing bridge into where “Aliens” takes over and picks up the action. The author weaves brand new material into the old story with aplomb, and although it sees this trilogy complete, I sincerely hope there will be more somewhere down the line.

The previous two books in this series (“Out of the Shadows” by Tim Lebbon and “Sea of Sorrows” by James A Moore) are also very much worth the time to any alien fan, but are not required pre-reading. This is a stand-alone novel in a very “loose” trilogy and is more geared towards the films, especially “Aliens”. The references, cameos and subtle nods flow like acid blood, and if you love both the mythos and the quote-packed rollercoaster of Cameron’s 80s classic, then this book is very much for you.


Favourite Horror Reads of 2014


Thanks to all the writers, readers, publishers and reviewers who’ve kept horror thriving in 2014. Thinking back over the year, here are the stories that stuck with me.

Best of 2014 1

Top of the pile was “No One Gets Out Alive” by Adam Neville. A bleak haunted house story, it concerns a woman trapped in her grubby lodgings by a vicious landlord and other forces beyond his control. Deeply psychological and harrowing, it’s an unforgettable study of cruelty that has plenty of surprises up its sleeve and drags you right to hell and back with it.

I love an apocalyptic thriller and “The End” by Gary McMahon stands above the many others. Following a small group of survivors after the outbreak of a suicide plague, this is an exciting, intense and poignant book from a writer at his sobering best. As in Mr Nevill’s novel, humanity’s darkness is laid bare to the bone and it’s difficult to switch off once you’ve finished.

I’d hardly read any Jasper Bark before, and was absolutely delighted when I tucked into his collection “Stuck On You & Other Prime Cuts”. A real mixed bag of the brooding and the gleefully appalling, it contains two of my favourite stories of the year, “Stuck On You” and “Taking The Piss”. This is superb storytelling on every level, combining ugly violence with black humour to a level that made me feel ashamed for liking it so much.

I love a novella length story, especially in horror, and it’s been a good year for those. But these 3 still linger.

Best of 2014 2

You can’t beat reading a novella in one sitting, especially when it doesn’t give you any choice, and that’s exactly what happens with Mark West’s “Drive”. Heavy with threat, this is a genuinely scary journey of urban terror that follows a young couple in their car being pursued by some hoodies across the city. A true edge-of-your-seat cinematic experience that doesn’t let you pause for breath.

A particularly pleasant discovery was “The Black Land” by M.J. Wesolowski. A modern ghost tale written in a somewhat classical style, it concerns a baleful coastal castle and the family menaced by the Viking slayers that haunt it. It makes this list for the insidious, malevolent atmosphere that enveloped me while reading it, and still delivers a subtle chill when I think about it now.

I also couldn’t forget “Water For Drowning” by Ray Cluley. A tragic tale of longing, it’s narrated by a brash minor rock star who falls for a groupie who’s dangerously obsessed with mermaids. I was absorbed into their journey of warmth and sadness.

Alien Titan

Finally, as a huge fan of our toothsome, acid-blooded pals, special mention goes to the new Alien novels from Titan Books (“Out of the Shadows” by Tim Lebbon, “Sea of Sorrows” by James A Moore and “River of Pain” by Christopher Golden). It’s been too long since the mythos saw some satisfying spin-offs, and this muscular and well-written trilogy brings plenty of fan-pleasing familiarity along with fresh ideas.

Hope you all had a good new year, and keep reading the ghastly stuff in 2015.


Review – “No One Gets Out Alive” by Adam Nevill


Adam Nevill writes a mean “haunted house” story, as demonstrated by last year’s “House of Small Shadows”. His brilliant new novel from Pan builds on that foundation (sorry) and combines ugly violence with spooky chills for an engrossing read that sits in your psyche long after reading.

No One Gets Out AliveAfter a failed relationship and a grim family circumstance in Stoke, Stephanie Booth is making a new start. Strapped for cash and temping in central Birmingham, she rents a cheap room in what is advertised as “girls-only” accommodation on the rough side of town. But she soon realises that her house-sharing dream of chatting with similar young women over a communal stir fry and a bottle of wine is pretty far from reality. The neglected and cold house at 82 Edgehill Road seems strangely deserted, despite the creepy noises that emerge from beneath grimy beds and behind fireplaces, not to mention the silent figures that seem to stalk the corridors and bedrooms during the night.

But the danger also comes from a tangible presence in the form of her landlord, Knacker McGuire. An odious fashion-hooligan whose disturbing behaviour sets Steph on edge from the moment she moves in, he is determined to talk her out of leaving, and we know his intentions can be nothing but nefarious. When his even more unpleasant cousin Fergal turns up, Steph’s life soon descends into nightmare.

This novel dives straight in. I enjoyed the single point of view that immerses us into Steph’s plight and the slow-burning menace that pervades every chapter from the outset. There’s a Rosemary’s Baby feel of having nowhere to turn, and Steph seems trapped even when she could still physically leave. We are teased by her resolve to escape and also by the potential for outside help in the form of her old friends and ex-boyfriend back in Stoke. When she does briefly leave the house for work or other errands, our relief is palpable, but she keeps getting drawn back into its baleful atmosphere through no fault of her own. It’s to the author’s credit that this requires no suspension of disbelief and it’s a horribly believable pickle in which Steph finds herself.

All this would only work with a stout protagonist, and Steph is a perfectly investable character. She’s sensible, likeable, and possesses an inner strength that is soon tested to the max. Her fear is so real that it makes us want to intervene, especially when she’s being bullied by her landlord.

Regarding the other characters, Knacker Macguire is an obnoxious and unpredictable liar. In fact, he’s so devoid of positive personality traits that you might think he would be a bland cliche, but far from it. As Steph describes: “It was the kind of face that nutted and spat and bit; she recognised it from around the bad pubs in Stoke.” He’s the epitome of every sneering bully you’ve seen causing trouble after a beer, and only the arrival of his cousin manages to relegate him to being a secondary concern. Fergal brings a terrifying physical presence and an even bigger cruel streak than Knacker, but without any of the hesitation or insecurity. This makes him a truly vile presence, and the dynamic between the two men is an awkward and depressing phenomenon itself.

The author is an astute observer of the human condition which comes across through nuances of behaviour and faultless dialogue. This adds a grounded realism regardless of what strange occurrences may also be in progress.

Which brings us to the haunted house element. Is the house inhabited by spirits? Or are the spine-chilling nocturnal disturbances trickery on the part of the landlord? Or maybe it’s Steph’s own sanity that’s on the road to ruin. It keeps us guessing, and even as someone not usually impressed by the suggestion of the supernatural, it thoroughly creeped me out.

I love it that the house itself is a presence, almost fulfilling the role of an abusive partner, drawing Steph back for more torment and knowing she has no choice and nowhere else to go. As you read, 82 Edgehill Road also takes on the macabre aura of infamous addresses belonging to real-life serial killers.

Despite its dalliance with classic spookiness, this book is not for the sensitive. The jeopardy becomes truly unpleasant, and the often-misogynistic abuse delivered by Knacker and Fergal is pitch black, even when purely psychological. It also doesn’t hold back with the violence. The author understands the use of sound, and also utilises Steph’s unwavering point of view for scenes that can sicken even when off-camera. An example is this moment when she witnesses a man receiving a beating at Fergal’s hands:

“Even though Stephanie had turned her head away, a sound followed her, a noise similar to a large metal spoon repeatedly striking an open crate of eggs until they were all smashed to liquid.”

The bleakness is tempered by rewarding moments such as brief shifts in the balance of power that put me in mind of Susan Hill’s “I’m the King of the Castle”. We get a few surprises, superb use of the book’s ominous title, and just when you think it can’t sustain the spiral into hell for the whole novel, there’s a satisfying change of direction about two thirds of the way through. It’s unexpected and works perfectly to maintain the threat while keeping it all feeling fresh.

Being picky, my only complaint would be the occasional dreams. They’re well written and serve a purpose, but I found myself restless for a return to the real action. However, as I’m generally allergic to dream sequences in fiction, this may be more of a personal preference than a true criticism.

“No One Gets Out Alive” is a longish novel, but has the keen bite and ease of reading that one normally finds in something half this length. Creaking with desolate mood and menace, it nails its characters and settings through elegant turns of phrase and the intensity can be quite breathless at times. I was gripped by the descent as it kept peeling back its wounds and revealing more darkness, right up until the under-your-skin conclusion.

An intelligent slab of carefully-crafted terror, it made me feel somehow infected as though the malevolent forces at work had somehow leaked from the pages. Although as a reader of this book you actually get out alive, the scars might take some time to heal.

Highly recommended.

Review – “Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts” by Jasper Bark


I adored the earlier single release of “Stuck On You”, so when it became the title story of a new collection from Crystal Lake Publishing, I was at the front of the queue. Jasper Bark has since become one of my favourite writers. As well as being a master of character and stage, he merges extremes of nastiness with dark humour to a degree that made me feel guilty for enjoying it so much. But not enough to stop reading, obviously. No, you never stop because Mr Bark doesn’t let you.

The title piece is up first and concerns the plight of Ricardo, a man assisting a drug mule called Consuela across the border from Mexico. He has a history of cheating on his wife and he falls at this hurdle too, succumbing to his lust with young Consuela in a roadside glade of trees. But a freak occurrence sees him stuck in a vivid nightmare of erotic, physical horror that grips from the opening page and doesn’t let go. It left this reader appalled, impressed, amused and ashamed. A cleverly constructed descent into hell, I would struggle to label it as either extreme horror or black comedy, such a seamless meld it is, and it’s certainly one of my favourite novellas of the year.

(My earlier, longer review of this story can be found here)

On to the short stories, “Taking The Piss” is up next, and maintains the high bar admirably with a brutal portrayal of urban, disenfranchised England. Our narrator is a hardcase you wouldn’t want to upset and despite being no stranger to prison, he has an admirably defining sense of right and wrong. So when a disabled boy is bullied and attacked by some gobshite wanker in his local pub, he decides to take conclusive action. The violence is ugly, the voice is convincing, and also works in the perfect audio version read by Chris Barnes (Available to listen for free here). We get another gleeful suckerpunch of a finale, and I think the price of this book is worth it for these two opening stories alone. But Jasper Bark is far from finished with you.

The tone shifts for “The Castigation Crunch”, a sharp satire about a demon and an oily economist who arrives in hell, full of ideas for organisational reform. The colourful underworld blends wonderfully with the world of management speak, the metaphors are effortless, and the humour much lighter. From PowerPoint presentations to fire and torture, the tale allows you to gather your breath after the brutal realism of the first two stories. Basically, you get to smile at this piece without feeling like you’ve done something wrong.

Up next is “Ill Met By Moonlight”, a sexually charged short about a lothario named Ben, his lover and partner. There are plenty of twists, but I’m not going to give anything away so you can enjoy it blind.

“The scalpels were so sharp Stephanie could almost taste them.”

Rob MoranThus begins “How The Dark Bleeds” with a deeply troubled woman in a hospital basement. An impressively harrowing story, and one of the few here in which humour doesn’t get a look in, we slowly learn about whom she is and her fascination with blood and folklore. Neat flashbacks paint Stephanie’s difficult past, which include a miscarriage and her partner leaving her for her own sister. Of course she is damaged, but the more we discover, the more the plot thickens in several directions. A very thoughtful instalment in which folklore combines with intense personal torment, it brings classic tropes to a beautifully sinister hospital setting. Although a few medical procedural things didn’t quite add up, the author delivers another trademark slap of icy realisation towards the end. Brilliant stuff.

Next up, “Mouthful” is a slick flash piece about animal rights and a discredited new age researcher. It lets us realise the punchline JUST before it actually tells us, which is no mean feat, and I applaud the author’s quartz-like timing.

“Haunting The Past” plunges us into the soup with a trapped thief. Whilst trying to burgle properties that had been evacuated due to an impending landslide, our unfortunate anti-hero leaves it too late to scarper and ends up completely entombed in a house beneath an ocean of mud. All he has for company are what appear to be ghosts from the past, watching ethereal snippets of their lives in the rooms of the house. Are these apparitions the product of an unravelling mind, or could they actually be his only hope? This tale throws a different angle on the traditional ghost story, teasing us with a clever ambiguity about who’s actually the ghost, and I found the stout emotional core very satisfying.

I had read “End Of The Line” before in the underground-themed anthology of the same title, and it brings another stark opening line.

“He woke on the platform in a pool of blood.”

So we find an injured man, confused by memory loss on the platform of a disused station. A twisting, dimensional nightmare, this tale pans out like an ultra-adult version of the Twilight Zone. I’ll confess that I got confused when I first read it a couple of years ago in “End of the Line”, but found that it works much better here out of that context, unswamped by all things underground. A neatly bookended and multi-layered piece, I was chuffed to have finally “got” it.

The final story in this collection is another novella and a glorious slab of monster-horror. The previously unpublished “Dead Scalp” clocks in at 70 pages and was well worth saving until last.

It begins with a kangaroo court being held in the saloon of Dead Scalp, a dusty and dangerous Western town that oozes threat, sweat and blood. It’s run by a terrifying thug named Big Bill and populated entirely by outlaws, thanks to a local native called River Flow who brings them to the town via a mystical portal. The story follows a new arrival in town – James Briggs – who is on the run for armed robbery, and soon starts to wonder why everyone has enormous beards and impractically long hair. Not to mention being intrigued as to what “death by ingrowing” might entail.

Naturally, what it entails is hand-rubbing gruesomeness in the Jasper Bark tradition, but there’s the odd sour uppercut here too. A fun scene of monster gore in a graveyard is followed by some horrific violence towards a prostitute, and it’s quite a shock. The abrupt switch to sobering reality reminds us that as well as a B-movie beastie, this town is populated with some really nasty pieces of work.

Blood Meridian meets The Thing, “Dead Scalp” explodes with imagination without ever letting the characterisation slip. The tough guy swagger and dialogue is a delight and some of the blackly comic turns of phrase made me grin as I was swept along by the action. It’s a proud finale to the book and concludes with an evil twinkle in its eye, just like how it all began.

I highly recommend Stuck On You and I’m glad Jasper Bark chose extreme horror to spill his demons. Even if the shocking stuff isn’t normally your bag, these tales are so well written and vivid that it might be the book that converts you to the dark side. The atmosphere permeates the room, characters clamber from the pages, and rarely are offensive horror and humour such filthy – but perfect – bedfellows.

The book also comes with an amusing introduction by Pat Cadigan, plenty of immaculate artwork by Rob Moran, and a pleasing afterword by fellow horror mischief-maker John Llewellyn Probert.

So get reading, folks. I’m off for a bath in industrial bleach and holy water.

Review – “Water For Drowning” by Ray Cluley


I was looking forward to this novella from This Is Horror, having enjoyed a short story of Ray Cluley’s in the “Dark Minds” anthology a couple of years ago. It stuck in the memory for merging a wild concept with heart, and I was pleased to discover that “Water For Drowning” takes this to the next level.

Water for DrowningIt’s narrated by Josh, a young lad in a rock band who lives with his mates near the Isle of Wight. Playing mainly cover songs in pubs and clubs, they enjoy just enough success to pay the bills and Josh cares for little else but gigs, booze and groupies.

But when Genna – a wistful girl with a fascination for mermaids – repeatedly turns up to watch them play, Josh finds himself attracted. She loves it when he puts his own material into the set, particularly those songs about the sea, and Josh is drawn by the mystery as well as his own ego and lust. But as he gets to know her, Josh realises all is not well. Damaged by her past, Genna’s mermaid obsession doesn’t stop at her seaweed tattoos and interest in folklore. She also drinks seawater, self harms and genuinely believes that she can become one.

This is a beautifully written piece. From noisy nightclubs to the cold ocean, this story is haunting in both its evocation of place and also the sheer longing that Genna projects. It drew me in straight away, intrigued as to how this young hedonist was going to deal with someone so fragile, dangerous and unpredictable.

Josh is a convincing character and a great voice for the tale. He and his friends are not the best of folk – brash, crass and in it for the girls – but this gives him plenty of room to evolve. His amusing observations and crude wit also balance the tone, preventing it from becoming too intense.

Despite his laddish attitude, Josh realises that the troubled Genna has massive potential for self-destruction. This forces him to actually think about consequence and their relationship evolves naturally from here. We know he cares about her and desperately don’t want him to mess it up for both their sakes, but even the moments of warmth are tinged with sadness. We want Genna to be okay, to achieve the peace she yearns, but we can’t shake the feeling that this is an inevitable slow spiral into increasingly dark waters.

With regards to the folklore, this novella had me guessing if there were actual supernatural forces at work or if it was purely the portrayal of an unravelling mind. The plot teased both possibilities, though it becomes almost incidental to the emotional resonance as it builds to a powerful conclusion.

And that’s the essence of “Water For Drowning”. A poignant meld of fairy tale and contemporary drama that washes over you like a swell. Ray Cluley is a thoughtful and sublime storyteller and I was surprised at how much I cared. One of those rare tales that left me in a reflective, melancholy mood.

Highly recommended.

Note: This story also comes with an author introduction about the genesis of “Water for Drowning” and a bonus short story “Shark! Shark!”. Concerning the shooting of a B-movie, this clever and darkly humorous horror whodunit won a British Fantasy Award in 2013. It made me grin and ties up this little package nicely.

Review: “Alien: Sea of Sorrows” by James A. Moore


This is the second in a new trilogy of Alien novels from Titan Books, and manages to meet the bar set pleasingly high by the first instalment of “Out Of The Shadows” (My full review of Tim Lebbon’s story here).

sea of sorrowsThis time, we travel to New Galveston – LV-178 – an outer rim planet already terraformed and boasting three cities. But plans for a fourth have been slowed by the “Sea of Sorrows”. This is a vast area of noxious and unstable black sand, threaded with strange silicon nodes, in which nothing will grow. Working on the site we find Alan Decker, a toughened safety commissioner with strong empathic abilities who also happens to be a descendent of our favourite alien-slaying icon, Ellen Ripley.

Of course, Weyland-Yutani (aka The Company) aren’t far away. When an old mining excavation and alien ship is discovered, talk of xenomorphs abound. After Decker is injured on the Sea of Sorrows and seems to have forged some kind of nightmarish link with the alien consciousness, The Company blackmail him. He has to join a crew of heavily-armed, hired mercenaries on an expedition into the mine and bring back a live specimen.

I had a great time reading this book. As you would hope, Weyland-Yutani present the epitome of corporate ruthlessness. Their knack for being one step ahead of the game and playing everyone as pawns is perfectly realised in the form of Andrea Rollins, their ice-cold and sociopathic spokesperson. The Ripley link is a nice idea, and it’s Rollins who uses this family tie to force Decker into compliance. This is with a bit of good old-fashioned extortion, naturally, making him pay for Ripley’s trademark historical talent for blowing up expensive Company installations.

Decker himself is a solid lead, made real by his flaws, and the seasoned roughneck mercs do their job. Some of the characters are a bit stock, and several of them don’t get enough airtime to become distinguishable from the others, but they serve a purpose even if it all feels a little familiar.

That’s one of two problems I have with this book. It’s initially rather samey with regard to setting and devices: The Company wanting to capture live specimens, a consultant thrown in at the deep end with a squad of protective hard-cases, a crashed alien vessel, being stalked in old mine shafts. We’ve seen all of these in the films and previous novels, several tropes of which feature in this book’s direct predecessor “Out of the Shadows”. I suppose I was hoping for some fresh ideas, the kind of which featured in some of the Dark Horse tales of the 90s. There, we had the infestation of earth in “Earth Hive”, a dangerous musician wanting to record an alien’s scream in “Music of the Spears” and the intrigue and mystery of an xeno-detective’s life in “No Exit”. As a result, “Sea of Sorrows” was never going to stand out too far above the crowd. But I was pleased to discover that the author makes the most of the claustrophobic atmosphere for some superb tension and excitement.

My main problem however, lies with the concept of the aliens being out for revenge. They somehow know that Decker is a descendent of Ripley, whom they regard as “The Destroyer”. While I’m all for introducing new developments to the species, I think portraying them as vengeful thinkers makes them somehow less frightening than the instinct-driven killing machines that care for nothing but queen and nest.

That said, the rage and consuming hatred felt by the aliens is used to good effect, especially in a visually stunning encounter with a queen. There are also plenty of dream-like snippets in which Decker’s subconscious connects with the xenomorphs, and we see and feel their point of view. Conveying something so… well, alien, is no easy task but the author gives us a ghastly peek into what it might be like to actually be one.

Overall, there’s plenty to please fans of the mythos and also the casual horror/sf reader. The vicious attacks are cinematic and very easy to follow, despite the subterranean chaos, and the breakneck action is straight out of “Aliens”. One fight in a steep, narrow tunnel lingers in the memory as a horrible bottleneck of screaming, gunfire, corpses and acid blood.

I also like it that the story utilises the fact that readers are familiar with the xenomorphs, but the protagonists are not. For example, the mercenaries find a corpse they assume died by stray gunfire, though it’s clear to us that she was the victim of a chestburster. This fosters a wry but uncomfortable feeling. I also loved their gob-smacked reactions to seeing the aliens for the first time, and the author does well not to unnecessarily overdescribe.

There’s also pure horror moments for those who like their spines thoroughly chilled. A couple of attacks out on the malevolent sands of the Sea of Sorrows produce shivers and a good old-fashioned jump in the seat. While much of this book is in the vein of “Aliens”, these silent stalk-and-kill scenes evoke the anticipatory dread of Ridley Scott’s film.

Of course no story can survive without pathos, and there’s tragedy and humanity here too. One memorable scene sees two close friends cocooned beside each other in the alien’s nest. After realising they’re impregnated and awaiting a horrible death, the ensuing dialogue is refreshingly moving.

Despite my reservations of familiarity, the second half of the book is a blast with a couple of tricks up its sleeve, and of course not everybody is what they seem. I read the last 150 pages in one sitting, and after all that adrenaline, the conclusion is appropriately dark.

“Sea of Sorrows” is very well written. Some of the older Dark Horse mythos books were poorly scribed, to the point where I even bailed on one, but at least with this trilogy Titan have given the job to those who are up to the job. James A. Moore has delivered a robust novel of atmospheric action, treachery and dripping teeth. They can definitely keep them coming for me.

“The Black Land: Matty Dunn’s Story” by MJ Wesolowski


As much as a review, this is a bit of information regarding “The Black Land”: a novella of coastal terror by MJ Wesolowski (My review here). The author has written a short story, available to read on his website, telling the story of one of its minor characters.

Black Land picIt’s been several months, but the baleful atmosphere of “The Black Land” is still very much with me, and that doesn’t let up here.

Matty Dunn is the local fisherman who sails Martin, the troubled protagonist, to the grim island of Blamenholm. We find out about his upbringing, schooldays, and memories of his dying grandfather in his weatherbeaten bungalow. Not to mention the menace of the castle, almost personified in the form of a stone that young Matty stole from school.

“That stone; he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Miss McKay left it on the edge of her desk and it sat there, coiled and grotesquely ready, like a bony fist.”

“Matty’s Story” is a must for those who enjoyed “The Black Land” The change of POV adds authenticity through using local dialect, and the tale ties up neatly with the novella that inspired it. Apparently, this story came to be after a plot device involving a gun became too logistically difficult, and I’m glad. This is a far more elegant and chilling way to deal with it.

Read Matty’s story with authorial introduction here:

Part One

Part Two

Review – “The Sleeping Dead” by Richard Farren Barber


Despite what the title and cover suggests, this novella from DarkFuse isn’t a zombie story. It has a similar anticipatory aura at the outset, but rather than delivering adrenaline and the undead, this tale brings a haunting and disturbed take on the apocalypse.

The Sleeping DeadJackson Smith has a job interview, but notices during his bus journey into the city that something is askew. People seem distracted or silently adrift, and upon a bridge that becomes the scene of a suicide, Jackson finds himself succumbing to the dreamlike haze, entranced by the dark river that claimed the body.

He makes it to his interview up on the 8th floor of an office building, but after a series of increasingly gruesome deaths – and a sinister and enticing voice that has begun in his head – he realises that the city is gripped by some kind of suicide plague.

Trying to ignore the suggestions of his subconscious, Jackson latches on to the vague hope of finding his girlfriend Donna and ventures out into the burning city to find her.

This novella is superbly written, snaring us immediately with the author’s vision of an ordinary day turned to hell. Richard Farren Barber never tells us anything but simply lets us realise, and it’s always nice to be seamlessly informed yet unpatronised by an author.

Jackson himself is a normal and generally decent fellow, perhaps even rather bland, but this only accentuates the horror that intrudes into the urban mundanity. His reactions to the unpleasant events are very human, as is the way he grasps at a tangible goal – his girlfriend waiting for him – to try and bring cohesion and focus to the madness.

I particularly liked the novella’s pervading sense of nightmare. It begins subtly with a rocking man on the bus whom Jackson believes to be mentally ill, cranks up the unease through the silent witnessing of the suicide, and then really puts us on edge during the interview when one of the panel starts rocking and angrily mumbling to himself. I actually enjoyed this rollercoaster hill-climb more than when the city finally capsized.

But that’s not to say the apocalypse is a disappointment. It’s beautifully painted, full of grim and heartbreaking images of the oddly gentle carnage. Some people kill themselves, others slip into catatonia where they sit, presumably lost to their own whispering psyches. Jackson is left to battle himself as he wanders the city with Susan, a woman whose suicide he managed to avert, and they’re a pleasingly awkward team. Bound by circumstance and clinging to rationality, their relationship is suitably strained and soporific as both struggle to stay afloat.

I did find the second half slightly overlong and a more fleshed-out conclusion or an extra plot device or two might have assuaged its length for me. But this might also have distracted from the mood, not to mention Jackson’s internal voice. This is the essence of the scourge, and the most effective of villains: inescapable, parasitic and very creepy.

There’s little action, so if the cover had you hoping for scrabbling hordes and white-knuckle bloodshed, then you’ll be disappointed. Nor is it for those who prefer neat concrete packages with all their questions answered. But I loved the lingering menace of “The Sleeping Dead” and was left restless and bothered without quite being able to say why. Which is exactly how Jackson Smith’s day began…

Review – “Mother’s Boys” by Daniel I Russell


I hadn’t read a novel by Daniel I Russell before, and “Mother’s Boys” from Blood Bound Books was certainly a startling place to start. Full of high-octane horror, this is for those who like a bit of moral ambiguity to keep them on their toes.

Mother's BoysWe meet Nat, a young woman with punk and goth tendencies who strives to be different from the crowd. Despite her subversive attitude, she lives an ordinary life, treading water in a dull restaurant job during which she looks forward to spending time with her boyfriend, Simon.

But one night outside a rough back-street pub, she witnesses some of Simon’s old friends attack a woman and starts to wonder about his past. She’s soon drawn into a battle between her boyfriend’s vicious ex-crew and a dangerous family that live in the sprawling sewer network beneath the streets. But choosing a side is far from easy, and Nat finds both her loyalties and her sense of right and wrong tested, not to mention learning the true nature of the outcast.

Nat is a solid character to drive this tale. She’s pleasant, sharp and generally sensible, but also harbours an impulsive naivety that lands her in trouble from time to time. Her familiar normality also helps to contrast the other main players, who are anything but.

Simon’s old gang are proper bastards. Johan, the leader, is a creatively misogynistic psychopath who has issues with OCD and rage, and you know it’s never going to be boring when him and his croneys turn up. They put me in mind of Alex and his droogs from “A Clockwork Orange” : the charismatic evil leader and his 3 lesser but tempestuous charges.

And as for the family of sewer dwellers, they’re a mixed bag of the monstrous and the humane. After an introduction in which they seem to be genre-conventional cannibalistic predators, we slowly realise that there’s depth to the family too, and become curious regarding the fraternal compassion and intelligence that keeps them alive down in the putrid darkness.

In fact, it’s the layers that make all the characters in this novel work. We learn more about them all through several reveals, and this is how they play with our loyalties. Will Simon fall back into his shadowed ways of yore? How far will Nat and the sewer family go to protect themselves? Whether driven by revenge, survival or love, there’s a pleasing ambivalence all round and any character investment in “Mother’s Boys” is far from clear-cut. Once the boundaries have been blurred, it’s easy to spend much of this book bouncing around and wondering who the monsters really are.

With a knack for atmosphere, this author takes us into the heart of the crumbling alleyways, bars and sewers of the city, and also writes action very well. When you’ve got multiple characters fighting in dark, enclosed spaces, this kind of scenario can get confusing – not to mention dull – but I was with it all the way.

As well as plenty of seamless action, there are nightmarish moments down in the sewers, and some shocking images that linger long after reading. A scene of appalling sexual torture from Johan in the opening chapters made me realise that Mr Russell isn’t scared to throw a screaming taboo in our faces, and ensured I kept my guard up for the rest of the book. This novel should appeal to fans of Richard Laymon and Bryan Smith, carrying a similar vibe in character, theme and the matter-of-fact prose, though perhaps without quite that heady level of violent lust.

There’s a degree of substance here too. The plight and the treatment of the homeless is touched upon, and also what it means to be truly different. Realistic dialogue and complex relationships between the characters – especially Nat and Simon – keep the human drama elements moving along nicely.

Being picky, I have a couple of buts regarding character motivation. Too often, Nat wandered around the menacing streets alone and got herself into terrible trouble. While I understand that she has a spontaneous and headstrong nature, it just didn’t quite add up for somebody generally in possession of common sense.

Another perplexing why? moment occurs when the sewer is being invaded. One of the more astute but physically vulnerable family members reveals himself to the gang for no apparent reason other than theatre, and pointlessly places himself in mortal peril. There’s also a strange lack of respect for the danger of firearms on more than one occassion.

But “Mother’s Boys” is an entertaining read, and once it kicks off, is difficult to put down. Greyzone morality stops us from relaxing too much, and humanity comes from where one might not expect it. The breathless showdown is a whopping 80 pages and I’m not going to let on as to whether it’s happy, bleak or finishes on a wry punchline. I tried to guess and was wrong, so I suggest you have fun doing the same.

Although I wouldn’t classify this book as extreme, the moments of ugly sadism mean it’s not for everybody. I’ll certainly never look at a cheesegrater the same way again. But it’s a tightly crafted story and if you like a bit of internal conflict with your subterranean violence, I think you’ll enjoy it.