Childmare (1980) by Nick Sharman

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The kids are not alright in Childmare, a 1980 Hamlyn original paperback from Nick Sharman, a pseudonym for one Scott Grønmark (1952-2020). A harmless food poisoning triggers a murderous rampage in the students of Britain’s inner city schools, turning thousands of ordinary children into robotic but surprisingly imaginative killing machines. Pretty soon all of England is in chaos because of homicidal teenagers.

The formula is familiar from fellow Brit James Herbert’s novels Rats (1974) or The Fog (1975), with an everyday element that suddenly creates an existential threat to mankind. Beginning with one kid bashing in his parents’ heads with a cricket bat, the acts quickly escalate to widespread torture, rape, decapitations and just good mayhem. Nobody can withstand the kids’ assault, except of course a manly hero can, in this case one Max Donnelly, an ex-everything security guard at a mid-London school. The kids begin their killing spree at the school and soon spread out all over London, taking over the streets.

While the contents might be bloodshed mostly as usual, Sharman’s style is anything but. The tone of the novel is oddly cold and unfeeling, especially as things escalate towards the end. The kids are quickly depicted as incurable, inhuman zombies, which gives the good guys license to mow them down with guns, cars, helicopter blades and so on. The final operation to get rid of the kids is named “Operation Herod”, an apt name if there ever was one, and perhaps an indication of the mindset in Thatcher’s Britain. No kid-glove treatment for these troublemakers! Also trying very hard not to read anything into the fact that only state schools are affected, but not private schools. Strangely enough, after the initial killings there are no parents in the novel, so apparently none of them were all that worried about their offspring.

The usual criticisms apply, for this is not a character-driven novel, all characters both teenage and adult are as thin as tissue paper. The writing in general feels rushed towards the end, probably because Sharman had a deadline and got a little bored with a book he must’ve known was very, very silly indeed. The action, however, delivers throughout, with barely any lulls between the first bashed-in heads and the final fire-bombing of the Thames. Politically correct Childmare obviously and empathically is not, everyone from a bullied fat kid to a black West-Indian is firmly stuck in their worst stereotypes. Childmare is trash, it’s nasty, it’s very dated, but in the end, that’s just how we like ’em.

**** (4/5)

Night-Train (1984) by Thomas F. Monteleone

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The UK cover seems to be a bad copy of the original.

New York subways are invaded by all manner of transdimensional creatures from shiny fog to pale dwarves to carnivorous starfish in Night-Train, a 1984 urban horror novel from Thomas F. Monteleone of Borderlands anthology fame.

It begins enticingly enough with a subway train that disappeared in mysterious circumstances one hundred years ago. Hot newscaster Lya feels there’s a story and begins to investigate, while manly cop Michael is on the trail of a subway slasher. Soon enough they’re hooking up, and together with a nerdy professor Lane they descend into the tunnels. And then it all derails somehow, with the professor throwing around star-stones to ward off evil or something.

Borrowing from everyone and everything, Monteleone completely forgets realism and throws all other ingredients into the mix. The result is a hot mess. There’s stuff from Lovecraft, with even Cthulhu getting a shout-out at one point. The far too knowledgeable professor seems to be a stock character from Derleth, while the nonsensical theories about the city are from Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness. Sure, there’s some straightforward gore, with the starfish feasting on several workers and other unfortunates, but as a whole it never comes together and never makes any goddamned sense.

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US cover by Lisa Falkenstern. Much better!

The novel isn’t helped by the paper-thin characters and the extremely cheesy eighties vibe throughout. The city, which is supposedly the main thing here, feels more like a straight-to-VHS version of itself. There are scenes where the reader might actually hear a tiny saxophone playing in the background…

Night-Train is a disappointment, and more so because it could’ve been so much better. The subway tunnels as a setting are always great, the beginning is alright, the mystery of the train is good stuff, and the serial killer angle for the most part works. But they are all solved by the middle of the novel and afterwards Monteleone gets lost in the tunnels, makes all the dumbest choices, and the novel dives head first into the deep end, never to recover. A lost opportunity.

** (2/5)

Incubus (1976) by Ray Russell

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Death by penis is the name of the game in this 1976 novel from Ray Russell. Galen, a cozy little New England town somehow located in California is beset by a series of violet rapes, committed by an inhuman but clearly male creature with a particularly large and lethal member.

Luckily for Galen, a flashy know-it-all anthropologist called Julian Trask arrives with a grimoire and some arcane knowledge, and soon figures out that the perpetrator is an incubus, a man who involuntarily shapeshifs into a creature endowed with king-size goods. The creature’s only instinct is to breed in order to continue its ancient bloodline, like an animal in heat, so it’s not really murderous, just unusually horny. There are of course some suspects, mainly Tim, a descendant of the town’s founders who happens to have some connection to witchcraft by blood.

The novel was written in the seventies, which fortunately makes it closer to silly than sordid. There’s a heavy dosage of pulp in the mix, especially towards the end when even the elements (Earth, Wind and Fire or some other nonsense) begin attacking the good people of Galen. Trask’s interest in the supernatural is almost cartoonish, and I’m guessing the whisky-sipping, curmudgeonly town doctor is the last call when all other medical professionals have declined to accept your health insurance.

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Poster for the 1982 film hits all the right notes

The rapes, of course, are very nasty, especially in the second part, and there’s mercifully nothing silly or cartoonish about them. One can only imagine how bad it would be if the novel was written by some horn-dog like Richard Laymon. As it is, Incubus is a strange mix of gruesome and cozy. It’s far too boyish to really register as something more than a fast-paced adventure novel – even if it does have a monster with a big dick. Incubus is alright, but that’s all.

The novel got an unmemorable Canadian film adaptation of the same name in 1982. The California location was changed to a town in Wisconsin and the Trask character was combined with that of the town doctor (played by John Cassavetes). The New York Times said the incubus of the film resembled “a large, shaggy, extremely mean E.T. with bad teeth”, so I’m guessing it won all the Academy Awards that year.

*** (3/5)

Houses without Doors (1990) by Peter Straub

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Houses without Doors is Peter Straub’s first collection of short stories from 1990 and also my first dip into the author’s bibliography. Sure, I have the classic novels like Floating Dragon or Ghost Story on the shelves, but somehow I never got around to them. Straub always felt slightly too literary, too good a writer, and that intimidated me, perhaps a remnant in my memory of all those reading assignments at school. Reading Straub, I thought, would be a chore.

How wrong I was. Houses without Doors is for the most part horror, really well-written, enjoyable horror. The collection consists of five longer stories as well as one shorter piece, along with short interludes between the stories. The first proper cut, “Blue Rose”, is a story about young Harry and his little brother Eddie in the 1950s. Harry learns hypnotism from a book and soon enough he’s experimenting with his brother in the attic. The tension the reader feels just keeps escalating, until it spills over well beyond the confines of the short novel. “Blue Rose” is a nasty, uncomfortable story, and its effect lingers.

The second piece, “The Juniper Tree”, is a story about a boy who gets molested at a movie theatre. It’s more subtle than “Blue Rose”, and certainly more realistic, but easily as effective. The third story, “A Short Guide to the City” is told by an omniscient narrator describing a midwestern city where some murders have recently been committed by a so-called viaduct-killer. There’s no plot, simply observations, sometimes snarky, about the city and its inhabitants in an almost Ligottian tone.

“The Buffalo Hunter” and “Mrs. God” are novella-length pieces that complete the collection. Both are excellent works that really cement Straub’s quality in my mind. “The Buffalo Hunter” describes the life of a hapless computer worker named Bob Bunting who discovers a way to disappear into the paperback novels he’s reading. He’s a fantastic, well-developed character, who feeds his elderly parents lies about an imaginary Swiss girlfriend and collects baby bottles, which he uses to decorate his apartment and drink vodka in bed without spilling the liquid. He’s kind of a horror version of Walter Mitty, who gets lost in imaginary worlds with tragic consequences.

“Mrs. God” is Straub’s tribute to Robert Aickman, and tells the story of William Standish, a researcher who receives a stipend to work at a prestigious but mysterious Esswood manor in merry old England, inhabited only by its unseen elderly owners and strange caretakers who come and go. It’s almost a classic haunted house novel, with Standish wandering alone around the old, crumbling estate and its grounds and putting together the pieces of the story of his ancestor, who also stayed and mysteriously died in the house.

In addition to the longer stories there are short interludes or vignettes between them, as well as a short, experimental story “Something About a Death, Something About a Fire” – which I assume was about a death and a fire…? But it’s the long pieces which are the winners here. If there’s a common thread running through these stories it’s that most of the protagonists are unlikable people, some of them completely unhinged. While the stories aren’t all that action-packed, they are never boring, always digging away at some psychological insight that feels both new and just right. Some of the stories are fairly straightforward and should please any reader of horror, while some are more subtle and their effect is slightly more insidious. Based on this collection’s offerings, from now on I’ll happily and confidently look forward to Straub’s other works.

**** (4/5)

Elizabeth (1976) by Ken Greenhall

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Elizabeth is a teenage witch, but not the fun kind. Instead she’s a cold, calculating young lady who knows what she wants and how to get it. And she’s the narrator of her tale, which makes this trip into her fourteen-year old mind a somewhat disquieting read.

Elizabeth discovers her inherited talents through Frances, her ancestor and a condemned witch, who appears to her as a ghost in mirrors. For a while it seems Elizabeth might just have an overactive imagination, but as things keep escalating, the novel takes a hard turn towards the supernatural. There’s a reason and a background to Elizabeth’s discoveries, and unlike some of her female relatives, Elizabeth embraces her heritage with relish. Getting her parents killed is only the beginning as she begins to unveil her forbidden talents while living at her grandmother’s house in lower Manhattan.

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Swedish edition

Written by Ken Greenhall under a pseudonym, Elizabeth is a wonderfully written, sharp, short novel of just the perfect length, rich with detail and idea. Elizabeth’s cool voice is pitch-perfect, almost charming, enticing compassion from the reader, but always reminding, in the end, that she’s not really worth it. It’s not that she’s evil, more that she lacks a moral compass. Probably that’s also inherited, since her relatives seem like a questionable bunch as well, especially her married uncle, with whom she regularly engages in sex in the attic of the house. For the unflappable Elizabeth, sex is also just one more tool to make things go her way.

Elizabeth is a classic, although it’s never enjoyed wide recognition. Perhaps if there’d been a movie version back in the day? In any case, Elizabeth is essential reading, a deceptively simple tale so very well told that its impact far exceeds the sum total of its parts.

***** (5/5)

The Cellar (1980) by Richard Laymon

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Let’s get the obvious out of the way: The Cellar is a bad novel. It’s trash, it’s dumb, it has practically no redeeming qualities. Every character in the novel is obsessed with sex (and not in a good way, but in a deeply weird, all-encompassing way) and nobody acts or speaks like a normal, sensible human being.

Of course those were the hallmarks of Richard Laymon’s oeuvre, so you get what you asked for when you grabbed one of his novels. The Cellar from 1980 is, however, his first novel so pretty much everything is still undeveloped. It’s all surface, with no depth to anything. Well, in all honesty, most of Laymon is. Plotwise, The Cellar is very basic: there’s a tourist trap called Beast House, which is said to be stalked by a clawed, murderous beast during the night. Several people eventually congregate at the house, Jud and Larry are there to kill the monster, Donna and Sandy are on the run from her crazed ex-husband, and the ex-husband Roy is on their trail because he wants to rape his daughter. Basically.

Roy does a lot of raping and murdering in the novel, and he actually takes a young girl named Joni along for the trip and casually molests her every chance he gets. The writing of these scenes is remarkably pedestrian, which, to really grasp for some reasonable explanation, does underline how much of a psychopath Roy really is. The other characters aren’t any better, and perhaps after reading about Roy’s exploits one gets slightly nervous when Laymon describes Larry, who is supposed to be a good guy, befriending young Sandy. In any case, for most of the characters their only motivating factor to do anything is sex. This also applies to the monsters, who are insatiable and whose sexual organs are described as having a tongue or something that really makes everyone want to have sex with them. Not that they wouldn’t anyway.

The Cellar is so slim it doesn’t have time to get unbearably dull, and it does instil in the reader a morbid curiosity to find out what Laymon will come up with next. But other than that, there is no enjoyment in entering The Cellar. It’s all just too idiotic. Some points are due, however, for the epilogue, set some time after the finale, which does allow for a quite creepy ending and shows the way for the sequels that nobody really asked for (Beast House, The Midnight Tour and Friday Night in the Beast House).

* (1/5)

Intensity (1995) by Dean Koontz

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Dean Koontz is something of a guilty pleasure. His standard of quality seems to be so reliable that he produces neither turkeys nor masterpieces. He’s not a plagiarist, but he’s not terribly original either. His books are usually very well crafted, and although there are edges, especially his later books feel just… too wholesome.

Of course Koontz himself seems like a nice, well-adjusted guy who loves dogs and has, just based on his production rate, an admirable work ethic. He also seems like a canny businessman who knows to sprinkle his wares with just the right amount of suspense and thrills for his target audience. For hardcore horror fans, that may not be enough.

Intensity, however, makes a good try. Basically a cat-and-mouse chase where the mouse occasionally goes after the cat, Intensity is the story of psychology major Chyna, who witnesses a sadistic serial killer Edgler Vess attacking the family of a friend she’s staying with. Through some twists of fate, she ends up hiding in Vess’ motor home as he leaves the scene, ultimately arriving at his house, where Vess is holding a 16-year old girl as a prisoner.

Almost entirely a two-person novel, both of the characters are presented in some detail. Chyna, who has been hardened by a tough childhood, is an inventive and brave protagonist, while Vess is a psychopath of exaggerated proportions, a Jack Reacher of serial killers. Chyna’s desperate attempts to hide or to escape or to just not let Vess escape are described in minute details where every second and heartbeat counts. Check the box for suspense and thrills with a big fat marker.

That’s about it. The novel is an entertaining rush, a quick-paced series of thrills, where the good guys eventually win, as they always do. The trick is in how to get to the resolution, and Intensity lives up to its name, never boring, never wavering from its single-minded mission. Intensity doesn’t try to be anything but an exciting ride, and that’s why it works.

***** (5/5)

Dead to the World (1988) by J.N. Williamson

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There’s a jogging skeleton on the cover. A skeleton, jogging. Ah, but let’s not have the silly cover distract us too much. The novel inside is actually… not that bad.

A small phone sales company has been invited to a remote town in Indiana by a local research company to raise funds for a statue they want to put on the main square. Upon arrival the phone company men and women first meet the jogger who never stops (spoiler: he’s not really a skeleton, just creepy) and discover that the town doesn’t have any bars, all the restaurants serve only healthy foods, there are no graves at the cemetery and everywhere there are loudspeakers playing rock and heavy metal. And there are no children or old people, just 20- and 30-somethings.

J.N. Williamson wrote many, many books and most if not all of them came out in mass market paperbacks. It’s not too hard to see why, the man seemed to like his dashes and long sentences, punishing the grammar like it had committed some personal offence towards him. Perhaps a proofreader would’ve straigthened some of the eccentricities (and typos) out, but Leisure Books had probably already spent all of the budget on their garish covers.

The novel has a nice, disconcerting feeling for the early part: everything seems familiar, but nothing is normal. The main characters themselves are, of course, in opposition to all the local health nuts and soon enough the newcomers begin to fall by the wayside. Some leave, or try to leave, but mostly they die. Or something worse. But while they’re around, Williamson manages to make them surprisingly interesting. The main character, Wes, for instance, speaks in a strange Hoosier dialect and cracks some peculiarly bad jokes. He’s also not at all your average hero, but rather a shabby and somewhat shady character with some really bad business ideas. His partner in crime is Kenny, a fun-loving, easygoing communist. Thanks to these oddball rogues the novel manages to stay fun even when the doldrums set in.

The latter part of the novel drags, and the explanations about the marriage of science and magic and the inevitable confrontations with the villains seem forced. Throughout there are elements that don’t make any sense, and the villains’ motivations for their actions remain murky throughout. But there are some scenes which replicate the disconcerting feeling present at the beginning; the secret of the jogger, for example, is deliciously gruesome. As it is, a lot of the good is drowned in the filler. But the bones are solid stuff.

*** (3/5)

Doomflight (1981) by Guy N. Smith

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Ancient druids make modern life surprisingly difficult in Guy N. Smith’s 1981 novel about a doomed airport. Why would they bother? Because they’re druids and as everyone knows, druids are all about doing evil for evil’s sake.

Set in a small English town called Fradley, the novel recounts the efforts by dodgy businessmen to build a modern international airport to compete with Heathrow on the site of an abandoned RAF airfield. Apparently the airfield was beset by accidents and after a while it was abandoned, becoming an overgrown field. Trouble ensues already during construction, with malfunctioning machines, disappearing kids and fires. A mysterious ring of stones is discovered beneath the surface and several people begin hallucinating or dreaming about chanting men in robes. After the airport opens the troubles only escalate further, with plane crashes, hotel fires and deaths, until the finale which goes absolutely gloriously overboard in the best eighties’ style.

Surprisingly, Fradley is an actual place in Staffordshire near where Smith was born. There was an RAF field during the war, so it’s safe to assume some of the background is based on reality. Checking up on some timelines, the late 1970s and early 1980s was also the time when the debate about developing Stansted airport into London’s third airport took place. And of course the airport parody movie Airplane! came out in 1980. It’s not a great leap to deduce that the spark for Doomflight came from one or more of these sources.

Having previously read only Smith’s classic but somewhat uneven debut novel Night of the Crabs I had some reservations, but Doomflight proved to be a quick, fun, well-written read. It’s silly, everything is exaggerated and the rotating group of characters (developers, local activists, hotel magnates, pilots and stewardesses) are mostly there for fodder, but that’s what great eighties’ horror is all about. There is a fantastic Englishness to the novel throughout, and admittedly the basic plot of something modern invading the quaint rural idyll of old England could easily pass off as a Wallace and Gromit movie, perhaps sans the multiple murders. Some of the violent scenes are in fact very effective, especially towards the profoundly nihilistic ending, with one local activist ending up in a pigsty and the main couple left facing a certain and excruciatingly slow death. One also cannot discount the effect of nostalgia; after reading Doomflight, an eighties kid like myself wanted to go read Zzap!64 magazine or play something like Doomdark’s Revenge on the Commodore, with Iron Maiden blasting out of the speakers. That feeling alone is worth full five stars. Thank you, Guy N. Smith (1939-2020) and rest in peace.

Smith’s novels are available as ebooks on his site at guynsmith.com.

***** (5/5)

Moondeath (1980) by Rick Hautala

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The Finnish-American Maine-born author Rick Hautala, whose last name in the Finnish language actually has a grave in it, wrote many horror paperbacks for Zebra beginning this one, a werewolves in New Hampshire setup that subtly emulates that other horror author’s somewhat more successful “vampires in New England” premise. Still, that other author, one Stephen King, must’ve liked what he read since he provided a nice blurb for the cover and helped Hautala kickstart his career as a novelist.

Moondeath is drenched in smalltown atmosphere, with the main character, Bob the teacher, entering the community after a scandal drummed him out of Massachusetts. There’re the rednecks with their guns and their cars, a school with the bullies and the bullied, a librarian stuck in a marriage with a drunken lout and a promiscuous woman who moonlights as a witch. It’s through this witchcraft that the small hamlet begins to experience brutal killings attributed to a particularly large dog. Or a wolf.

The rate at which the bodies accumulate should probably shut down the town, but these New Hampshire folks were made of sterner stuff. Unlike in Jaws, they keep their town open for business and tourism. It’s not necessarily even a bad idea, since the dog/wolf/quadruped only seems to hunt and kill local people and Bob soon figures out who the culprit is.

a696d5c9-70fd-4da6-8051-c9295513944b.d33fb876a8ab6a8cf4e7d5056b97f0ddThe best part of Moondeath is its atmosphere. The beginning is solid stuff, the town and its inhabitants have a nice heft to them. Once the killings start the writing becomes more formulaic, especially dialogue. Hautala himself commented on his low self-esteem in his autobiography, and sadly it often shows, the writing isn’t nowhere near the gregariousness of early King, for example. The words and expressions feel tentative and at worst Hautala seems to resort to a sort of simplified moviespeak. Many of the characters also seem to lose their personalities to the overall narrative.

Despite its failings Moondeath is a passable debut novel. Although Hautala often seems timid and unsure as a writer, he does possess an admirable amount of enthusiasm, and that alone helps keep the story afloat for the duration; many scenes are filled with an almost childlike glee. Hautala doesn’t contribute anything radically new to the literary character of the werewolf, but as B-movie storylines go, this is as good as any.

*** (3/5)

Hands of Lucifer (1987) by John Tigges

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A woman gets dumped by her boyfriend, so she casts a satanic spell to get him back. Unfortunately for her, the demon sent to assist her in the endeavour is also somewhat clingy. Enter a succession of hapless priests, until one of them does what any good priest should in this situation: an exorcism.

The name of John Tigges decorates many a lurid cover from Leisure Books, and most seem to deal with satanic themes. Hands of Lucifer is obviously no exception, but surprisingly it’s nowhere near the hackshow one might expect. This is not a serious novel about demonic forces, rather almost a parody of one – William Friedkin’s 1973 movie The Exorcist is referenced several times in a joking manner, and there’s even a scene where Myles the boyfriend browses Tigges’ previous paperbacks at a drugstore and asks aloud who would write such stuff, never mind what kind of people might read them. And the manifestations of the demonic forces are hilarious. A special shout out must go out to the scene where the invisible demon’s helping hands grab on to Myles’ butt during sex.

The characters are obviously idiots, especially the lovelorn woman who brings about the whole situation on herself and all around her. Myles the man is hardly any better, and it’s somewhat interesting how he doesn’t seem to care too much about the lover who gets pulverized by the demon summoned by his jealous ex. And most of the priests are apparently in competition for America’s Worst Clergyman. All this, however, seems to be done on purpose and serves to accentuate the ridiculousness of the story, not only in this novel but also in others of the genre. John Tigges was a competent storyteller who clearly didn’t take himself or his lurid subject matter too seriously, and he must’ve had fun writing Hands of Lucifer. The humour is still there, between the lines.

**** (4/5)

The Scream (1987) by John Skipp and Craig Spector

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All the 80s kids are going crazy about rock music and the band of the moment is The Scream, an enigmatic and openly diabolical outfit that nobody really knows nothing about. Their debut album soon becomes a soundtrack to murder and mayhem as the band’s hardcore fans, the Screamers, sort of zombies with their eyes gouged out, begin their slaughter-spree and suburban homes and concert venues become killing grounds. EEYAAOW! as them kids say.

Splatterpunk, which is basically a synonym for excess, was all the rage in the 80s and Skipp and Spector were the horror subgenre’s best examples. The Scream has a good base to it – rock music is the Devil’s music, after all – but as Manowar sang it, “all men play on ten”, and so do Skipp and Spector. Sometimes the results are admittedly nice, but often they feel cartoonish, because everything that can go over the limit inevitably does. Especially problematic is the finale at a stadium concert, with one fictional band led by Jacob Hamer going after the by-gum-they-are-truly-evil The Scream with guns and grenades and what not. Seeing as the final concert takes place after The Scream’s previous concert caused a massacre makes one wonder about the competence of the municipal authorities as well.

The subplot about the Christian right’s crusade against rock music is a sign of the times, as are the references to Vietnam. Everyone and their uncle seems to be a veteran, probably because First Blood part 2 came out in 1985 and they all suddenly remembered. Getting the music right is the hardest part of any book dealing with music and while The Scream doesn’t fumble it too badly it hasn’t aged too well either, mainly because the music that came after makes these fictional mid-80s bands pale in comparison. Sure, some of The Scream’s lyrics are clearly evil invocations (the Screamers would probably have their minds blown by Morbid Angel, whose debut LP came in 1989), but mostly the lyrics spell generic mid-80s hard rock.

The Scream would be a quick fun read if not for its slightly bloated length, with too many secondary (or tertiary) characters one barely even remembers by name. There’s simply too much filler here for an effective impact, and the impact is all one cares about in splatterpunk.

*** (3/5)

Live Girls (1987) by Ray Garton

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Sleazy sex vampires in 80’s New York! All vampire fiction alludes to sex in one way or another, so it makes perfect sense that these 80’s bloodsuckers have set up a strip club or two. They offer full service to discerning clientele and in return receive a ready and willing supply of the red stuff.

Hapless magazine editor Davey Owen stumbles into the nondescript Live Girls venue and is immediately smitten by the alluring featured performer who goes way further than is legal. While the bitemarks on his penis and continued bleeding cause him some worry, Davey is well and truly hooked and keeps coming back for more. Meanwhile Walter Benedek, a reporter, is investigating his sister’s gruesome murder which somehow also ties into the same sex joint. Soon Benedek and Owen are figuring out how to fight vampires. Crosses don’t work, garlic does.

Like most good horror fiction, Live Girls uses a (more or less) realistic background to root the supernatural horrors in a certain time and place. It works beautifully and gives the novel a certain degree of believability. Indeed, the modus operandi of the vampires in Live Girls actually makes a lot of sense: an industry which already operates in the shadows and involves close contact with random strangers is a perfect opportunity for someone who needs to feed on humans. The traditional method of biting the neck also seems somewhat old-fashioned after the methods employed by the Live Girls.

And how about that title? It’s perfect.

**** (4/5)

Pimeän arkkitehti (2020) by Marko Hautala

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Joni moves into an apartment block built in the 1960s, a sentence that alone evokes existential horror. However, the building in question hides something worse than the usual problems with mould and pipe leaks, and slowly Joni learns from his new neighbours about the deaths that have taken place in the house during its existence. And all of them seem to point to one person, an eccentric architect who happened to live in Joni’s apartment. Joni’s own mental issues aren’t really helping him. 

The story works, because most people are very familiar with many of the situations and places. Who hasn’t felt a slight chill when visiting a basement in his or her own apartment block, a basement that somehow manages to look more and more like a tomb in the bleak glow of a single lightbulb. Noisy air conditioners somewhere outside have kept us awake at night. And everyone has met a strange neighbour or two. When this almost banal setting is given a slight push towards the unnatural and the supernatural, it feels like a very logical next step. Hautala also builds up the suspense with a good rhythm, all the way to the slightly sarcastic ending.

Pimeän arkkitehti (literally, “Architect of the Dark”) is some of the best that Finnish horror has to offer. It’s both a modern horror novel but also very well versed with the history of its genre, kind of like the modern apartment block with its ancient roots in the centre of the story. A strong local setting also gains it extra points, although ugly big apartment houses can and do exist anywhere in the world.

***** (5/5)

Available now in Finnish only from Tammi.

The Twisted Ones (2019) by T. Kingfisher

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A woman goes to clean up her dead grandmother’s house and ends up in a tribute of sorts to Arthur Machen’s horror classic The White People. Gone, however, are old Arthur’s Victorian stylings, replaced by a distinctively modern voice and a story that has some genuinely creepy elements.

There’s a lot of humour here, so much so that it could become distracting, if the voice of the narrator wasn’t actually consistently funny. Happily, it is. A true gem here is also the relationship between the narrator and her trusty old dog, Bongo; it’s a truly diabolical device to make even a half-hearted reader go through the book in double-quick time because you really want to know if Bongo the dog survives.

The scares in the novel appear slowly and gradually, and the truly horrific implications aren’t made clear until the final parts of the book. It’s a bit of an uphill climb to get there, especially with the long passages from a journal in the middle and the reader generally being somewhat in the “what the heck is going on here” mode for a lot of the early parts, but well worth the trip. Humour and horror clearly do mix and they mix very well.

**** (4/5)

Available now in multiple formats from Gallery/Saga Press.

The Reddening (2019) by Adam L.G. Nevill

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For some reason Adam Nevill’s latest offering reminds me of Midsomer Murders. Perhaps it’s the English countryside and all the detectives and police officers trying to do their jobs before they are decapitated and disemboweled? I’m sure Barnaby had cases like that all the time.

In any case, The Reddening is about several people stumbling on a crazy cult on the southern coast of England. There’s a lot of promise here, the setting is great, the setpieces excellent, but somehow the execution doesn’t deliver as hard a punch as it should. Nevill’s books have been great when there’s just one person trying to survive an impossible situation, like in No One Gets Out Alive or The House of Small Shadows. In The Reddening, some of the best parts are when, for instance, Steve or Kat is alone in a desperate situation. Here the action is spread out, but the sum total of the different parts seems somehow diluted, lesser.

Apparently painting yourself red is also a thing in the novel, but I’m having hard time figuring out how fast the people are doing it. And don’t they make a terrible mess, for instance, when they sit in a car? In short, it’s a bit different from Nevill’s previous books and the effort is applauded, but it’s not as good as his best, because his best are damn near perfect.

*** (3/5)

Available now in multiple formats from The Ritual Limited.

The Siren and the Spectre (2018) by Jonathan Janz

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A skeptic ghost hunter gets an invitation from an old friend to visit a famous haunted house in Virginia. Spending a month in the house should be business as usual for the jaded protagonist, but of course he’s quickly up to his neck in supernatural events in and around the house.

The story is familiar, but the Southern Gothic milieu with bits of fictional local history is nice and Janz writes with his trademark energy. It’s always nice to meet characters who aren’t stupid, and there are many here who realize that entering a haunted house is not necessarily the best idea. There are some hiccups, the dialogue sometimes feels excessively snappy and the final ghost is perhaps one too many, but as a whole this is an entertaining, atmospheric, fast-paced page-turner.

There are a couple of writers whose work I always enjoy: King, Campbell and Nevill, and it’s beginning to look like Janz is proving to be in the same league. I’ve missed far too many of his books since Dust Devils in 2014 but based on this one I’ll definitely check them out. It’s also good to see Flame Tree Press pick up where Samhain ended.

**** (4/5)

Available now in multiple formats from Flame Tree Press.

The Border (2015) by Robert McCammon

border_10_hcThe Border is Robert McCammon‘s long-anticipated return to the balls-to-the-wall horror of such classics as Swan Song (1987). Unfortunately, the balls are missing, the wall is crumbling and the result is a poor copy of that earlier (far superior) novel.

There’s not a whole lot of originality in The Border. The plotline is pretty much lifted wholesale from Swan Song, with a supernaturally gifted youngster leading a ragtag pack of survivors to a US president hiding in a mountain base. But instead of a nuclear war, it’s an alien war that has devastated the planet. That ingenious difference probably comes from any number of alien invasion movies, video games and TV shows, with Falling Skies being perhaps the most obvious one.

Even overlooking the secondhand premise it’s hard to enjoy the novel; the storytelling drags, forcefully, like the novel had no literary editor at all (some typos and a constant, annoying use of dot dot dot also imply that some quality control was surrendered in the making of this novel). The beginning is alright, but an overlong alien sex sequence (!) segues into a long, interminable bus ride which takes just forever, with basically no breaks in between. I mean, couldn’t there have been at least some attempt to flesh out the world in which these characters live.

Besides the miracle kid Ethan who finds himself turning into a Silver Surfer, only the television evangelist Jefferson Jericho is sketched out in any significant detail; he’s the only character worthy of the title “character” in the novel, the others being basically cardboard stand-ins. The aliens are alien, and particularly one-note creations at that, with a (not at all surprisingly) silly Terminator-like mandroid Vope being the most memorable one, besides the penis-milking alien queen (really can’t get that alien sex sequence out of my mind, sorry).

The single positive thing about the novel and its remarkably undeveloped world are the mutants, the feral Gray Men, who for some reason or other keep attacking the live ones (one assumes it’s because their kind always do that in movies). There’re some moments approaching horror in these scenes, but it’s all by the numbers with no surprises, and of course they all fizzle out and it’s back to the bloody bus and a deus ex machina ending. One almost wishes someone had pushed the reset button much, much earlier.

The other saving grace of the novel is its relatively short length and some semblance of readibility (meaning it’s not the worst horror novel I’ve read, not by far; but I guess that just says something about how many truly crappy horror novels there are). At 400+ pages The Border is mercifully over fairly quickly – and it’s still hefty enough that it can be used as a doorstop or a paper weight. Small mercies, eh?

Skip this one and pick up Swan Song.

** (2/5)

Available now in multiple formats from Subterranean Press. Visit the author’s site and check out his far superior earlier books! Even the fairly recent I Travel by Night kicks some serious butt.

Slade House by David Mitchell

CBpZPA4XIAEohhRThere’s a small iron door in a narrow alley. Beyond it lies a sumptuous garden that surrounds the titular house – Slade House. Through the years, several people enter the house and none check out.

Slade House is a sequel-in-spirit to David Mitchell‘s previous novel The Bone Clocks; set in the same universe, it tells a smaller story, with smaller villains and in a considerably shorter length, but with a similar fragmented structure. Yet it can also be read on its own, as a haunted house story of sorts.

The chapters, set at 9-year intervals, recount the fates of the house’s victims; first a mother and her child, then a detective, followed by several others over the years. Some of the segments are genuinely creepy, such as the increasingly frantic text messages in the second-to-last chapter, slowly revealing that the character has already become trapped in the house. There’s a slight risk the structure of the book might become repetitive, but Mitchell’s solid writing keeps things moving at a brisk pace, with a slow build-up to the finale, featuring one of the familiar faces from The Bone Clocks, swooping in like a proper paranormal investigator.

At about 150 pages Slade House is more like a novella than a novel, but it’s stacked with ideas. A small book it might be, but it’s significantly bigger on the inside.

***** (5/5) 

Published in October 2015. Available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site!

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

thefirstfifteenHarry August lives and dies and is then born again, always restarting his 20th century lifespan with all his memories intact. Not alone with his predicament, the ouroborans (as they’re known) have created societies (the Cronus Clubs) to help their kind through the first difficult years of their new lives. At the end of one of Harry’s lives, he receives a message from the future (handed down from a child to an old person and so on, in a strange chain of death and rebirth) that the world is going to end.

The culprit, it seems, is a fellow 20th century ouroboran hellbent on changing history beyond its usual course – something that tends to throw things out of whack. For its latter half, the novel switches gears from a scifi/fantasy mix to a sort of spy fiction, a welcome change that keeps the story fresh throughout.

There’s a lot of background to cover in the novel (how does it all work and so on) but all the exposition never feels too cumbersome; the timey-wimey logic of it all can induce headaches, but it’s best not to think too much. The idea has legs and the story runs with them through the 20th century, in a most fantastic fashion, several times over.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014, available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site