Childgrave (1982) by Ken Greenhall

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As placenames go, Childgrave is a pretty ominous one. That however doesn’t deter Jonathan the single-parent photographer as he tracks down Sara the honestly a bit dull harpist in his quest to win her heart. The price of passion, oh, just your daughter for the town’s annual cannibalistic sacrifice.

Ken Greenhall, occasionally writing as Jessica Hamilton, cornered the smart narrator market pretty well between this and his novel Elizabeth, the one about the unhinged witch-child in training. Here, the narrator is a smartass newyorker, something like a less nebbish seventies’ Woody Allen (and without the accusations). Yes, there’s humour in a horror novel, although the horror side of things is pretty mild for the first two thirds of the novel.

This is a slow burn, with things beginning to get out of whack only when photographs of Sara and Jonathan’s daughter Joanne reveal spectral apparitions of people who Joanne has been talking to since meeting Sara for the first time. The pace quickens more when Jonathan travels to the titular town and reaches its peak when the history behind the town’s naming is revealed. It’s good stuff, although Jonathan’s jocular manner does begin to grate just a little bit before it fades away in favour of some old-timey horrors.

Some of the character motivations are also a bit dodgy, with Jonathan’s quest for love feeling just a little bit silly for a supposedly adult character. And curiously Sara, the object of his desire, is barely elevated above just that, an object. The tiny cast is rounded up by Jonathan’s agent, a lifelong bachelor who finds love in Sara’s female agent. Yes, it’s a lot like a Woody Allen film, with birds of a feather flocking together in old New York and so on.

Greenhall’s writing is entertaining and above par for sure, but it does become a little much. Occasionally, he seems more interested in showing off rather than telling the story. For Elizabeth, a more contained and effective one-two punch, it worked. Here, it begins to feel inauthentic. Whatever Childgrave’s flaws may be, there is enough suspense here to last the whole novel, and the payoff is as nice as a cupful of child’s blood served with slices of tender meat.

**** (4/5)

The Survivor (1977) James Herbert

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A 747 crashes down near Eton and all passengers and crew are lost. All, except for Keller the co-pilot, who miraculously walks away from the crash site unharmed with no recollection of what caused the crash. In his quest to remember he turns to priests and psychics while the ghosts of the dead roam the village green. Soon enough the townspeople are caught in James Herbert’s familiar episodic format where every death scene is a minor biography of the victim.

The Survivor was Herbert’s third offering and he was clearly trying to extricate himself from the effective but limited format that made his first two novels a success. Does he manage it? Not entirely, since he keeps slipping into the old habit every other chapter. The chapters with Keller trying to find out what happened work very well until the very end, but the episodic death scenes feel forced, with the spirits of the dead lashing out at random people who have nothing to do with anything. There’s some undeniably neat horror there, such as a wife slowly poisoning her gay husband, but the scenes are so disparate with all the fat school kids and the vicars that they barely stick together.

But whenever Herbert breaks free of the format, he’s doing a good job. The crash, the introduction of Keller and some of the horror, such as when Hobbs the psychic mauls himself, are a long way from The Rats. The Survivor isn’t quite the departure Herbert probably hoped it would be; his next one, Fluke, about a man reincarnated as a dog, on the other hand, would probably be a step too far.

Generally speaking The Survivor is vintage 70s Herbert, quick-paced, well-written horror that introduces supernatural elements to his oeuvre (The Rats and The Fog having derived from science fiction). That transition is seamless, with Herbert getting the mood and the atmosphere spot on. It’s also still a slim volume, the bloat would come later. The resolution of the story, the mundane reason for the crash, is, however, a major letdown, a dull explanation that shouldn’t possibly have taken so long for the investigators to figure out.

The Survivor is a noble attempt, but whereas The Rats and The Fog were direct, merciless double punches on the reader’s nose, The Survivor is confused about itself, what it wants to be and where it wants to go, much like Keller the titular protagonist. There is progress, however, and the novel does loudly declare that Herbert would later be much more than just a one-trick-pony.

*** (3/5)

The House on Cold Hill (2015) Peter James

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It’s the familiar plot with the usual protagonists: a curiously unsuspecting family moves into a long-abandoned house and discovers there’s more amiss with their new home than the common problems with mould and moisture. An old lady in a blue dress soon appears in FaceTime, a bed impossibly turns itself 180 degrees in the night, and Ollie the dad loses his business becomes someone sends nasty e-mails to his clients. What we’re dealing here is the worst: an 18th century ghost that’s somehow computer-literate.

During the days the ghost probably hangs around message boards complaing about how bad things have got since, I don’t know, indoor plumbing. Which incidentally is one of the first things the ghost wrecks. Incidents accumulate, people who try to help the family are suddenly killed, but somehow the family stays put like the rational idiots they are.

There’s nothing original here, only familiarity. A haunted house is an institution and they’re filled wall-to-wall with tropes. James doesn’t shy away from any of them, instead he embraces the well-used plotline and somehow makes it his own. A lot of it is due to the writing, which is consistently smart and sharp, with short chapters and a quick-quick-quick pace where something happens every few pages. It keeps the novel going, but also increases the reader’s increduility at how dense the family is about everything happening around them.

The novel also begins to slip when the ghost starts flashing messages to the family directly on their mobile phones and desktop computers. It’s never a good idea to have the monster speak, because it makes them petty and banal. Not to mention the fact that an 18th century ghost let alone an ancient evil couldn’t possibly have any concept of high technology. Yet, here they are, sending lightly racist e-mails like your grandpa.

Thankfully the ending salvages the novel, offering a clever, inventive, timey-wimey twist involving a theory about ghosts introduced earlier in the novel. It was never going to end well for Ollie and his family, and the novel doesn’t offer them any salvation. After being dumbasses for most of the novel they probably deserve everything they get.

Peter James is best known for his crime novels, but he’s dabbled in horror and suspense every now and again. The House on Cold Hill is a novel about a haunted house, pretty much what it says on the tin. It’s good for what it is, and for now, that’s enough.

*** (3/5)

The Secret of Anatomy (1994) by Mark Morris

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A message in a bottle floats its way to David, a troubled family man who stumbles upon it on a beach. The note, written by a kid long ago about how his dad’s going to kill him, prompts David’s sorry self into action and soon he’s uncovering the secret behind the cryptic blast from the past. Little does he know that he himself is being tracked by a secret organisation who want nothing more than to get their hands on the bottle. Because you see, the note is unimportant, but the bottle is magic.

It’s all a bit convoluted, but if Clive Barker had a carpet in Weaveworld then a bottle will do. The organisation is called the Flux, and basically they are people who have superpowers. Every individual has different strengths, for example, Violet the old lady can turn immaterial, Willie the Scot can stop time and Worthington the bad guy can turn into a many-mouthed monster that will devour anything and anyone. Apparently they are all at the beck and call of an oracle, an incorporeal entity, possibly a god or a demon, that possesses little kids as mouthpieces and regularly requires fresh bodies to do so.

Morris’ fourth novel is a mix of horror and fantasy, perhaps set somewhere between Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker, with an invisible war going on between the Flux and the Schism, a reformed offshoot of the former. The marketing folks at HarperCollins wisely plugged into Clive Barker’s popularity with this one, both the curious title and the ill-fitting paperback cover conjuring up more associations with Barker than some of Barker’s own works. The blurb from Barker on the cover probably also helps.

And it’s a nice dark adventure poor David stumbles on here. David is a refreshingly different take on a protagonist, a video editor (there’s a 90s profession for you) whose biggest problem so far seems to be general lebensangst. The other characters also feel solid enough, with even a obsessed Doctor Who fan in the cast. Going forward, however, it becomes clear that Morris isn’t an imaginative powerhouse like Barker. Mostly the action just comes and goes and David’s role always seems to be to grasp at the bottle, thereby producing supernatural beams of light that somehow save the day. But then the origin of the bottle is basically explained as an act of God. When the ball drops, it drops hard.

But what’s good is good. The writing is sharp, and the plot flows well for the duration of a 600-page novel. The slightly drab britishness of it all is also as welcome as ever, a good atmosphere enveloping the novel like an English fog. The escalation in the last quarter is a nice detail, pushing the novel from a provincial adventure towards a a global epic, perhaps not quite making it but at least one cannot blame the novel for not trying.

*** (3/5)

The Attraction (2004) by Douglas Clegg

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The great unspeakable mystery! The dark wonder of the ancient world! The small, mummified corpse of an unknown creature with long sharp nails in the back of a rundown gas station is the Attraction of the title, a roadside display meant to draw hapless tourists and separate them from their nickels. In 1977 a bunch of students on a road trip to California stumble across the venue and in a moment of lunacy steal the withered remains, pop them in the trunk and soon run out of gas in the middle of a desolate stretch of a desert. And then the creature wakes up and begins scraping their flesh off, one by one.

The Leisure edition also includes another novella, The Necromancer, to bulk up the book closer to Leisure’s usual format, but The Attraction is the main attraction here. It’s a short, sharp piece the length of a novella and it’s a good one. Sure, the characters are stock horror figures, familiar from any horror movie, but Clegg infuses them with life, for want of a better word. None of them feel extraneous, everyone plays a part and there are minute details which elevate them from their sordid genre brethren. Their inevitable deaths feel like they count.

Josh the narrator is a lovelorn everyman, destined to become something more, while Tammy the campus floozy just wants to have a little fun before turning into her own mother. Griff the ladies’ man and Bronwyn the cynical smart girl round out the lot with Ziggy the stoner, whose laconic declarations become almost prophetic as the true nature of the unstoppable monster is revealed.

And Scratch, as the little bugger is known, is a marvel, a creature made of layers of skin, the skin of ancient human sacrifices. It’s an enjoyable little fellow with long sharp obsidian nails, doing little rain dances and whispering sweet nothings with the voices of its victims.

Clegg’s writing has some lovely punch and muscle to it, elevating what’s ultimately a basic storyline of survival into a small epic. The story has some nice heft to it and seems to weigh more than it does. It’s very easy to imagine the same characters and the same story as told by someone like Richard Laymon, lacking all wit and skill and basic understanding of human behaviour. With Clegg, one is in much better hands.

***** (5/5)

Night Stone (1986) by Rick Hautala

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It’s the one with the hologram! Look, it’s a kid! Now it’s a skeleton! It’s a million copy bestseller, that’s what it is. The nearly 600-page novel beneath the small, shiny hologram proves that Zebra probably knew and cared more about marketing than editing.

The Inman family moves into Don the dad’s ancestral home in rural maine, a house which has been abandoned for a long time. Tenants never stay for long and its original owners the Kivinen family met with tragedy and death. Soon Don dreams of giant bleeding stones and finds an ancient severed hand possibly of Native American origin buried in the ground. Meanwhile, Beth the daughter finds and bonds with a creepy doll, always a bad sign, while Jan the wife tries her hand at waitressing and serves as the one normal person in the increasingly dysfunctional family trio.

The atmosphere is king here and Hautala gets it right from the start. The decaying but still habitable house and its sylvanian premises ooze some of that sweet New England backwoods magic, familiar from his other novels. Hautala uses his own Finnish roots as ingredients for the immigrant Kivinen family, adding a word of Finnish here and there for authencity (sadly there are some mistakes in grammar and spelling, but I guess checking stuff out in the pre-Internet age wasn’t as easy as it is today).

There’s something almost Lovecraftian in the way the ancient plot hides ancient secrets, which the increasingly obsessed Don digs out like a Nahum Gardner. University experts swoop in like their colleagues in The Colour Out of Space, and could those scratching sounds underground be Rats in the Walls? It’s a nice touch in a novel that otherwise follows the basic tenets of eighties horror 101, with even a cameo by a sex-obsessed voyeur teen familiar from anything by Richard Laymon.

But the novel meanders a bit and occasionally loses its focus, with the many different elements not quite coming together into an effective whole. At nearly 600 pages there’s a lot of excess, with some plotlines going nowhere and others getting abrupt endings. The finger of blame points accusingly at the editors at Zebra, but maybe they were busy with the hologram nonsense. The events do pick up pace towards the tragic conclusion, but getting there is often slow going.

The ending itself is as unhappy as it gets, with sadness and loneliness turned up to eleven. There’s something unmistakably Finnish and Scandinavian about it, with none of new world optimism at display. In the end Night Stone feels simultaneously too ambitious and not ambitious enough. But there might be the bones of a good novel buried somewhere deep beneath that gleaming, beckoning hologram.

*** (3/5)

Creature (1989) by John Saul

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Welcome to Silverdale, where the All-American dream lives in the hearts of dads who want nothing more than see their wimpy kids turn into football heroes. The tech company which lords over the model town obliges, providing the local team with a sports clinic featuring a mad scientist who injects the slackers and the nerds with experimental growth hormones and vitamins, turning stringy teenagers into burly men and eventually something less human.

While the dads, mid-level managers with such paternal monikers as Chuck or Blake, are all in on it, the moms are smarter and more protective of their offspring. Initially the hormones work, but with great power come violent tempers, less human behaviour and actual changes in bone structure. Creature might be easily considered a satire of the American obsession with football and sports heroics in general, all rooted in violent, animalistic behaviour.

Saul is often derided as a hack, a writer so poor a high school kid could churn out novels like his. And they all have toddlers in peril! Well there’re no young kids here, mostly just teenagers, and the writing is fine. The plot itself is also alright, similar in tone to something Dean Koontz or Bentley Little might’ve produced. Where Saul falters is character development, most adhering to cliches, none more so than Dr. Ames the mad scientist, who is barely more than a cartoon villain. The sexual roles are also quaint, with dads being dads and moms being moms.

On the other hand, the novel takes a fairly tragic turn towards the end. There’s no happy ending here for the main character, Mark the newcomer, who also gets injected with Dr. Ames’ cocktail of instant manhood. As if killing his own dog and trying to murder his mom isn’t enough, Mark ends the novel escaping into the wilderness, not a kid anymore, but neither a man. Just an animal, another victim, wandering the mountains and forlornly looking towards a life that’s now forever lost. Thanks, dad!

*** (3/5)

The Vision (1977) by Dean Koontz

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Southern California according to Koontz is a place infested with serial killers, but happily there’s a clairvoyant-at-large, Mary, using her Dead Zone skills out of the goodness of her blessed heart. Together with Max her manly husband of about six months (it feels like they’ve been married for years and years) she helps the police capture evildoers before they harm any single ladies. But she’s got some heavy history of her own and her subconscious hides the worst killer of them all.

The Vision is all business from the beginning and proceeds at a breakneck pace helped along by the fact that a large part of the novel is told through dialogue. Backstory is given drop by measured drop, because otherwise the reader would probably figure out what takes the seer a lifetime to piece together. Not that the small retinue of characters doesn’t make it far too easy from the start.

There’s nothing wrong with the plot, it’s a thriller by the numbers, with some surprisingly nasty details from the man who is pretty much a human equivalent of a golden retriever. The plot point involving bats is the one that sticks to mind, and it’s probably going to be at the top of my mind every time I as much as glance at a Koontz book. There are also supernatural attacks by glass trinkets and seagulls, because killers alone wouldn’t cut it.

The Vision is a lesser novel. The writing and the pacing are alright, but all characters, most importantly Mary herself, are thrown in front of the reader fully formed and all that’s left is to count all the clues. She may have been on a journey, but the readers aren’t invited to participate. It’s the writer’s choice and it does serve a thriller format very well, but it does detract from the horror and the mystery of it all.

*** (3/5)

Pin (1981) by Andrew Neiderman

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Two kids form a strange bond with a partly see-through anatomical doll, discovering sex and violence in the process. It’s a deeply odd and gothic story and Neiderman hits it out of the park.

Brought up by a well-meaning but profoundly misguided father and a remote, slightly unhinged mom, the kids get to know Pin the doll, short for Pinocchio, when their dad the doctor uses his skills for ventriloquism to make him speak at his office. At first it’s a bit of harmless fun, but it soon gets increasingly cringeworthy. For the son, Leon, the lines of reality and imagination begin to blur and soon he’s having conversations with Pin on his own. After the now teenage kids’ parents die in an accident, they’re left on their own devices and Leon’s obsession with Pin escalates.

Neiderman is probably best known as the ghost writer for V.C. Andrews and her gothic family sagas featuring mansions and kids having incestual sex. The same ingredients can be found here, with the doctor regaling the kids with his theories about “the Need” that needs to be fulfilled. The kids are soon having sex left and right, and occasionally have some questionable experiences with each other as well. And sometimes Leon wants Pin to participate.

Being the more balanced sibling, Ursula the older daughter later forms a relationship with an affable outsider, Stan, which of course triggers murderous jealousy in Leon. Pin, meanwhile, remains cool and collected, an emotionless, slightly psychotic piece of plastic with opinions to match.

The same coolness permeates the whole novel, despite the gothic overtones ripe for excess. The subject matter might be sensational, but it’s told in a calm, detached manner befitting Pin’s mental landscape, a mindset increasingly shared by Leon the obviously unreliable narrator. Why are the kids so twisted, why are Leon’s emotions so stilted? Probably because they were brought up in a weird home by unfeeling parents, and one of the kids had a touch of (probably inherited) mental illness to begin with. Although a piece of plastic will speak, there’s nothing supernatural here, it’s all a bit creepier and a lot more unwholesome.

Needless to say Pin is a fantastic novel, with subject matter so original it seems both completely modern and classic at the same time. A novel of the eighties with a timeless sense of horror.

***** (5/5)

Lisey’s Story (2006) by Stephen King

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Scott the great American author is dead and Lisey the widow needs to clean up the house while looking after her sister Manda-bunny the crazy person. A professor and his former drinking buddy are after the author’s archives and manuscripts and a cat is stuffed into a mailbox. Lisey’s memory comes bit by bit and there’s hereditary madness and a weird moon or something and… I have absolutely no idea what the novel was about.

Except loss, although none of it really registers through the full throttle nonsense. King himself rates Lisey’s Story as his favourite, although most fans disagree. To be honest, the premise of the book never attracted me and the only reason I picked it up is the upcoming TV series.

The plot is thin and it’s very hard to connect with the characters. Scott the great and magnificent author is so universally admired it seems almost a parody, and his ha-ha funny personality and affection for wordplay are borderline insane. The repetition of invented words (babyluv, what the smucking smuck is a bool?) is grating to say the least, and punching your fist through a greenhouse glass is a deeply odd way to court a lady. While Lisey, whose literary taste peaks at Shirley Conran, and who doesn’t immediately run from a self-harming nutcase that is Scott, feels just… boring. She’s a devoted widow and a sister and… and…? Nothing. The threat, such as it is, comes mostly from a professor and an unhinged student, something that feels like a petty swipe.

King has earned some leeway, but Lisey’s Story spends it all. There’s nothing here, just an empty void, a rumination on how great a guy some fictional author was, even when he really was just getting on everyone’s nerves, with some forced supernatural elements thrown in just because. Even as a non-horror, non-thriller novel Lisey’s Story seems cheap and pointless, with its childish storyline and vacuum-packed emotions. A novel about an author directed mostly at people who know and love authors personally, the novel’s exhaustive navel-gazing offers very little to the rest of us poor schmucks.

* (1/5)

The Totem (1979) by David Morrell

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There are frostbitten hippies in the mountains and they’ve got rabies? Or so goes the plot in David Morrell’s The Totem, a story about a remote Wyoming town plagued by animal attacks. Told in a vague manner so concise it makes Hemingway seem loquacious, Morrell’s first horror novel is a good idea wrapped in a far too tight packaging.

Slaughter the improbably named ex-cop from Detroit is the lawman in these here parts, and the designated main character, accompanied by a borderline necrophiliac coroner and a drunk reporter. A corpse disappears from the morgue, animals attack, something stalks the shadows between the chapters, and the reporter keeps wondering about a red Corvette. The hippies are almost an afterthought, as in oh yeah, those guys, whatever happened to them? I wonder indeed.

The novel was apparently significantly altered according to the publisher’s wishes, prompting Morrell to replace all future editions with his author’s cut in the mid-1990s. The version I have at hand is, however, the first version, which is all muscle and no fat, and so lean it hurts. The chapters are short, the action fast and precise, with very little room for anything else. Even the language is drained of anything extra. Great choice for an action novel, but in horror mood and description count for a lot. Ask that Lovecraft chap, he knows.

Morrell is best known for his 1972 novel First Blood, featuring Rambo the disturbed Vietnam vet, who in later movie instalments grew a lot bigger and became something else entirely. Morrell’s horror output has been slim, but it notably features the excellent short story “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity”, about a genius painter much like Van Gogh whose paintings happen to hide a sinister explanation. It’s truly a masterpiece of horror and well worth seeking out.

Meanwhile in The Totem the epic, semi-Lovecraftian ending gets it right, but getting there is a bit of a chore, at least for someone who never bothers with action novels. Some sections are good, and the idea is great, but in general the execution doesn’t quite fit the contents. While I haven’t seen the author’s preferred edition, it probably exists for a very good reason. Go with that one, find and read “Orange”, and skip this first version.

** (2/5)

Kane (1990) by Douglas Borton

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A man walks out of the Mojave desert and into a small town of Tuskett, California, a remote place with a population of 23 and already on palliative care since forever. The locals spy the newcomer, named biblically enough as Kane, with well-founded suspicion, and as night falls he starts to help them with guns and knives and bombs to move on from their sad little lives to kingdom come.

As Kane’s nocturnal carnage gets underway, Bill the mechanic, Rile the geriatric man and Jenny the single mom, among others, figure out Kane means business and begin to fight back. But Kane always seems to be several steps ahead.

Kane, our mean, tall, blue-eyed main man here, is something of a cousin of Flagg, Stephen King’s the man in black, and not only because of similar wardrobe habits or the western milieu. His reasons are mysterious, he’s just there to kill and kill again and he does it with great pleasure and skill. Is he Cain as told about in the bible, or something else supernatural, or someone avenging an event in the town’s history, or maybe even a federal worker sent to clean up an already disappearing dot on the map? Theories abound but nothing really sticks, the mystery holds.

Borton, also writing thrillers as Michael Prescott, began as a writer of horror, so Kane is one of his earlier works. The writing doesn’t show it. The action is tense and taut, and when things get nasty, oh boy, they drip with the good stuff, they are drenched to the core. Some of the kills are noticeably mean, but the writing never becomes callous or uncaring. Notably, all characters are also very well written; there’s a degree of difference here between Kane and something like James Herbert’s Rats, where the victims were basically triggers for the readers’ sympathy. In Kane, every character pushes several buttons at once, like real people might.

The spring-loaded first half, with the mysterious, blink-and-he’ll-pounce Kane is the best part, with some of the steam going out towards the end, when the story is reduced to a chase of kill or be killed. Kane’s not quite a lost masterpiece, but it’s a confident novel which knows and uses its strengths to a great effect. The smart, sharp writing elevates it to a level close to something by the aforementioned Stephen King, in glowing contrast to many of its paperback horror peers. A good one, this.

**** (4/5)

Darkness, Tell Us (1991) by Richard Laymon

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Greetings from Laymonland, where all men dream of women’s tits and women get raped as a matter of course. A bunch of students fool around with an Ouija board and make contact with a supernatural entity named Butler, who guides them to a treasure hidden somewhere in the mountains. Road trip!

After the promising seance that begins this bloated nonsense, the novel careers off to a discount slasher on a remote camping ground and stays there until the end, with the kids swimming and goofing around and doing very little of any interest. Meanwhile a muscular half-nude man with a machete stalks the forest because it’s a thing that happens, apparently. There might’ve been a back story to the killer but honestly, by that time I’d already checked out.

Laymon’s prose and dialogue are dull beyond dull, a constant diarrhea of inane language. The characters of Howard and Angela are (horny) outsiders, the teacher and her beau are the (horny) adult characters and the rest are just names on a page. The plot is idiotic, with the final rapey twists bending the structure of the novel so hard the book can probably rape itself.

And yes, there’s a whole lot of raping going on, rape here, rape there, some rapes in the past and some imagined rapes, rape rape rape. At one point, one of the female characters even says she wishes she had been raped, because I guess deep down all the Laymon characters just want to have violent non-consensual sex. My objection here is not out of political correctness: it’s because this stuff is in a profoundly poor taste for cheap shock value and no other reason. It’s something only a truly pathetically bad novelist would do.

There’s no redeeming feature here. Sometimes Laymon’s novels can have a fast plot or just rapid violent action, but here it all feels stilted. The settings are uninspired, the pace is noticeably slow, the villains make no sense at all, the good guys are boring af. I don’t need an Ouija board to tell me that Darkness, Tell us is S-H-I-T.

* (1/5)

The Other Emily (2021) by Dean Koontz

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A dash of mystery, a spoonful of horror, a sprinkling of science fiction on top, bake at 200 degrees celsius for 30 minutes and you’ve got yourself a new Dean Koontz novel. A decade ago Emily of the title went missing without a trace, apparently as a victim of a serial killer who never confessed to killing this particular girl, just many others. The other Emily is Maddison, a woman who is somehow an exact duplicate of the long-lost Emily as she was when she disappeared. David the still grieving widower is immediately smitten, but being the smart protagonist that he is, he’s soon figuring out the origin of this strange doppelgänger. Who also jokingly claims to be an assassin.

The mystery unwinds itself slowly, with David going after clues, interviewing eyewitnesses to different strange events and sneaking into haunted houses and abandoned underground lairs. All of the novel takes place after the fact (Jessup the serial killer is already jailed and condemned to die and most of the violence takes place elsewhere, with David following up news reports), so the emphasis here is firmly on resolving the mystery of Emily/Maddison. The serial killer, often the star attraction in many a Koontz novel, is here relegated into a supporting role, which actually works even better.

Jessup’s homespun mythology of collecting brides to be resurrected is a particularly good one, especially since it has an unexplained connection to what’s taking place elsewhere at the same time. The women, Emily and Maddison, clearly have something resembling parallel lives, with Maddison’s strange modern house on Rock Point Lane mirroring that of Jessup’s rundown house and its subterranean maze.

The novel loses some of its steam in the middle, especially during the many romantic intervals, only to gain traction again when David is on his own and the hunt for clues is on. Struggle through the many California sunsets and you should be ok.

In true Koontz fashion the final explanation for Maddison’s origin involves some acrobatic genrebending, but it’s still a satisfying conclusion. The Other Emily might not upend the Koontz formula in a radical fashion, but it does tweak it subtly, resulting in a well-spun mystery that somehow feels fresh even after all the dozens and dozens of Koontz novels using similar ingredients and characters over the years. But I guess that’s what good craftsmen do.

**** (4/5)

Ghost House (1979) by Clare McNally

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Sometimes you pick up a book you know isn’t very good, but you soldier through just in case. Ghost House, a debut novel from 1979, was never going to be my favourite novel, but based on the reviews I thought hey, it might be cheesy fun. Nope.

The Van Buren family move into an uninhabited but somehow very well preserved mansion on Long Island. Very soon after, Melanie the Mom and Gary the Dad, their relationship already strained, begin to experience all sorts of hauntings. Melanie has sex with the ghost of an 18th century sea captain thinking it’s his estranged husband, while Gary hears angry voices and is strangled and pushed down the stairs and whatnot. Somehow, Gary still thinks there’s a natural explanation, while the corpses of neighbours and policemen start to pile up on their doorstep.

Psychologically Ghost House is a trainwreck. The characters don’t seem to experience any emotions of horror despite everything going on around them, they don’t grab their annoyingly sweet kids and run screaming from the house like any normal person would do. Their light banter is entertaining at first, later it becomes insufferable. Towards the end some of them do scream theatrically “Nnnoooo!!!” but they might just be echoing the reader’s despair.

So things happen, but nothing really matters. Deaths, well, the kids did see a dead wino once, so I guess the corpse of a dead neighbour isn’t going to traumatize them!

The ghost itself is a cartoon character, a see-through sea captain who’s being prancing around his estate for a couple of lifetimes. There’s some kind of nonsense about a vengeance, and apparently he’s very keen on Melanie the MILF because reasons. A silver lining to all this dreck is Melanie’s flashback to an affair with a handsome man who later proves to be a world-class creep and a drug addict, a storyline that might very well be the scariest part of the book.

Ghost House has a very romantic view of ghosts and hauntings, and in its chosen subgenre something like this probably does pass muster with flying colours. For the rest of us poor jaded bastards, Ghost House offers nothing but headache and frustration.

* (1/5)

The Search for Joseph Tully (1974) by William H. Hallahan

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It’s cold in old New York, a Brooklyn neighbourhood is being torn down and Peter Richardson comes to a sudden realisation that he will be murdered. Cue parties where existential discussion dominates and help is sought from sightseers and other dubious professionals of the psychic trade. Meanwhile, Matthew the Brit is running around looking for genealogical traces of one Joseph Tully and his descendants.

If The Search for Joseph Tully feels prententious, it’s probably because it kind of is. The bent here is firmly towards literary horror, with atmosphere playing a key role. There is a strong sense of urban decay, with buildings coming down all around and people moving out in droves, until only Richardson alone remains in his crumbling fortress. His impending doom seems as certain as that of the buildings facing a wrecking ball. A popular occult novel in its day, the novel keeps its cards very close to the chest until the end, when the seemingy random plotlines suddenly merge.

Until that fine final turn, the novel’s quality rests on the thick-as-peasoup atmosphere and few assorted scares, such as a brutal prologue about medieval torture and a visit from a police detective who later is said to have died in the line of duty a couple of decades ago. And in a short novel such as this, it’s enough. The mystery is easily sustained for its 160 pages. Add 50 pages and the meandering discussions between lifetime subscribers to the New Yorker and a discount M.R. James character digging in church archives would outstay their welcome.

Hallahan, a former copywriter, has a good grip on the prose and a good ear for dialogue. The chapters are short, sharp and to the point. The Search for Joseph Tully is a concise package of 70s literary horror and proves, once again, that less can be more.

**** (4/5)

The Moorstone Sickness (1982) by Bernard Taylor

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The quiet English countryside beckons once again, luring unwary strangers into an ancient trap. After the loss of their son, Hal and Rowan leave the smog of London and by curious accident end up buying a house in a remote village somewhere in Devon. The real estate is cheap, the people are welcoming and even witnessing the suicide of a disturbed old person isn’t initially enough to ward off these newcomers eager for a new start. And look, aren’t those sprinkles of folk horror floating by in the lovely country air…?

The warning signs keep accumulating, and soon there’s a pattern: people move into town, stay with one of the older locals, who quickly goes crazy and is locked up in a mental asylum while the newcomer gives up his previous profession and takes over the old person’s house and lifestyle entirely. An actor somehow suddenly became a composer, like his benefactor, and an accountant decided he wanted to become a doctor, like his benefactor, and so on. There’s no spoiler here: Taylor telegraphs the situation very early on in this short novel, and still somehow gets away with it.

The Moorstone Sickness is written with beautiful precision and clarity, and there’s a pervading atmosphere of bad things to come hanging over the town and the novel throughout. Taylor makes all the right choices in keeping the suspension turned to 11: a notable moment comes early in chapter 1. After witnessing the aforementioned suicide, Hal doesn’t tell Rowan about it, and for a while things go on as if nothing had happened, only for problems to seethe under Hal’s cool surface.

And the town is so nice it’s too nice, the people somehow far too gentle and caring. But then the cracks begin to show and all the friendly smiles don’t feel that friendly anymore. All the characters are well written, especially the main characters, but even some of the lesser ones, like Tom the gardener, former man of the world reduced to returning home to a town he hates, whose sorrow in the end feels surprisingly touching, considering the circumstances. Of course the strategy of the townspeople is slightly suspect, as in wouldn’t it be easier to lure people who aren’t completely different from themselves, but then again we wouldn’t have a novel if everything was so simple.

It doesn’t really come as a huge surprise that one of the characters in this 1982 novel utters the line “Get out!” at one point, somehow predicting the title of one of the biggest horror films in recent years, which happens to have a fairly similar plot, although both probably share common ancestry in The Stepford Wives (1972). Unlike Jordan Peele and Ira Levin, Taylor opts for a fairly serious approach instead of a satirical one, where the explanation isn’t a crazy scientific experiment, but unexplained ancient mysticism and magic as represented by the looming stone from which the town gets its name. The result is a good old-fashioned horror novel, where the overall delivery is more important than all the bells and whistles. The Moorstone Sickness is an excellent, even if a very short novel, by one of the most underrated authors in the horror genre.

***** (5/5)

Later (2021) by Stephen King

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Horror and crime meet in the middle and slap their genre-stained hands in Stephen King’s third entry in the Hard Case Crime series of short novels. The horror part is young Jamie’s ability to see and talk to dead people (but not like the kid in that Bruce Willis movie), and crime comes in the form of a corrupt cop seeking to use Jamie’s ability for her own benefit. And who would’ve guessed, King makes it all purr like a cat on catnip.

Jamie’s special ability is quickly established – the dead people appear as they were when they died, sometimes disfigured, often unnoticeable from the living, before slowly fading into nothingness. When questioned, they always tell the truth. The only child of a single parent slash literary agent Tia, Jamie’s special abilities come in handy when an eccentric but bestselling author Regis passes away without leaving any notes for the last novel of his epic romantic saga. Eager to turn her fading fortunes, Tia asks her son to find out from the dead author the plot and details of his book so she can complete the book, a sure bestseller. Along for the desperate salvage operation from beyond is Liz, Tia’s girlfriend and a corrupt cop who begins to take note of Jamie’s abilities. Later, Liz asks Jamie to find out from a dead bomber Therriault where his last bomb is located. But somehow, Therriault doesn’t want to answer and (later) doesn’t want to fade away like all the others. He just sticks around, appearing to Jamie like the ghosts of the movie It Follows.

Ostensibly written by a 20-something Jamie long after the events, Later is similar in tone to Joyland, although not quite as high on nostalgia. King’s writing is as good as usual if not better, the short form fitting Jamie’s testimonial style to a tee. There’s a head-scratching side plot involving Jamie’s background and his uncle Harry, which doesn’t really contribute much to the overall plot. The references to deadlights and the Ritual of Chüd (from It) also draw unnecessary attention to themselves and an earlier fictional world, when something less flashy would’ve easily done the trick and kept the coherence of the story he’s telling now – even if they are nice nods to constant readers.

Later is as good as any latter-day King novels, a near-perfect novel with an excellent ear for language. There’s no reason not to read it, and it has significantly more weight than his recent short novel Elevation, for instance. There’s a lot of plot, but when Later hits that atmospheric sweet spot with the horror, it’s gold. The crime angle feels a lot sketchier and cliched, but I guess that’s the trademark of these tributes to vintage crime paperbacks.

**** (4/5)

The Folly (1978) by David Anne

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Those wascally wabbits are at it again, attacking and devouring people like carrots in the English countryside. Who would’ve thought these furry herbivores were so fond of meat?

Following the tried and true “when animals attack” formula laid down by James Herbert in his seminal debut novel The Rats, The Folly introduces characters and their foibles before letting the rabbits loose on them. There’s the obligatory drunk, an old couple, a young couple making out in the woods, you get the drift, you’ve known the ins and outs of the style since The Rats hit the streets running back in 1974.

Guy the journalist is the protagonist here, with a convoluted back story featuring an American heiress, his botched marriage to the said heiress and a revenge plot against the local lord Sir Mark involving his second wife Anne who is now Guy’s secret lover. Also Guy’s parents were eaten by the rabbits, so business as usual in good old Hampshire. Centering around a folly, a type of useless structure English lords and ladies used to erect in their gardens back in the day simply because they had the money to do so, the novel teases black magic and hereditary madness on the first page or two, only to ditch it all in favour of a hidden lab and a crazy scientist in the tradition of Dr. Moreau.

As expected, the victims of the rabbits share the reader’s disbelief at what is about to happen, even if the writer insists on the rabbits being from hell and at least hideously deformed. Some of the jokes do land with aplomb, such as the one about a would-be victim being a wannabe Playboy “bunny girl”. Unfortunately, in the end, the novel is a very serious affair and not, say, a full-on parody of The Rats. As an honest, purposefully exaggerated send-up of Herbert’s classic the result might’ve been hilarious. The Folly, however, is only tedious.

There’re no original ideas here, just bad science and piss poor plotting, which mercifully come to an end at slim 160 pages. The saving grace here is that the novel isn’t all that terribly written, even when the novel reaches its idiotic crescendo. Perhaps they still had copy editors in merry old England of 1978?

* (1/5)

The Magic Cottage (1986) by James Herbert

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The old, quaint cottage of the title is the opposite of the Money Pit in that it actually repairs itself and heals small animals to boot. Having come far from the quick-paced fireworks of The Rats or The Fog, The Magic Cottage finds Herbert in a more eloquent but no less effective mode.

A couple, guitarist Mike and illustrator Midge, purchase the old Gramarye house out in the country after its previous owner, old Flora, kicks the bucket. The house is in a very bad condition but somehow very appealing to Midge, so money (lack of which is resolved, should we say, magically?) and keys exchange hands. The couple hires renovators to fix the myriad problems, only for the repairmen to discover there’s not much to repair. Small things begin to occur, an injured bird heals overnight, shadows lurk on the outskirts of the house and Mike has hallucinatory experienses in the round room, a large room that happens to be, you guessed it, round. Also, their next door neighbours reveal themselves to be affable cultists led by a nice-mannered American, but of course being cultists they are out for blood, or at least the land the house stands on. The battle for English real estate is on.

Herbert knocks it out of the park with the narrator, Mike. Mike’s voice is smart, but not too smart, his reactions to the events unfolding around him realistic and relatable. He’s not a manly hero, most of the time he’s stumbling around like any of us would, even when he nobly takes on a group of punks accosting some of the younger cultists early in the novel. The cultists aren’t badly drawn either, coming across as sensible folks, as cultists always do, I guess, before their masks fall off.

It’s the narration that keeps the novel going, even when the plot itself stumbles towards the end as it becomes wrapped in theories of what magic is (probably realising this, Herbert has the narrator laugh uncontrollably at some of the mumbojumbo spouted by the head cultist). The Magic Cottage isn’t a major horror novel, there’s barely any horror in it, not to mention Herbert’s trademark gore, but it’s a pleasant, well-written little novel in a wonderful setting that slowly unwraps its secrets and delivers where it counts.

**** (4/5)