The Sign of Glaaki by Steven Savile and Steve Lockley

sign_of_glaakiYoung Dennis Wheatley, later known for his occult novels such as The Devil Rides Out, arrives in the United States to consult on a film shoot together with renowned escape artist Harry Houdini. It’s all very pleasant, with carnival freaks (cf. Tod Browning’s 1932 film) and all, but then actresses get murdered and various hijinks ensue, culminating at a lake that serves as a center of worship for local loonies. Or something.

It’s all very confusing. The plot lacks purpose; after the somewhat clever beginning the novel seems to implode into a series of incoherent scenes, with the characters rambling around Dunwich (now a major city, apparently) until a strange whimper of an ending. The choice of characters is clever, and combining silent film with a Great Old One created by Ramsey Campbell just screams perfection; but there’s no progression, no sense of menace, no plot to follow. It’s all padding, with a few neat names thrown in the mix.

Oddly, the association with the Arkham Horror board game is the least of the novel’s problems; the only glaring sign of the game seems to be the appearance of PI Joe Diamond, who naturally comes across as that much cardboard. Diamond seems almost glued-on to the novel, perhaps a late editorial addition to beef up the already far-stretched contents?

Some of the novels in the Arkham Horror line have been quite good fun; unfortunately, The Sign of Glaaki, despite having possibly the best premise, falls flat.

* (1/5)

Published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2013. Available in paperback.

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Menace by Gary Fry

menaceJane, a professional model, learns she’s pregnant by a B-list television star. She soldiers on alone, but while on an assignment posing for a cover of a book by a Yorkshire author her life begins to unravel: she glimpses a group of children in old-fashioned clothes who then disappear into thin air. Later, a nurse taking an ultrasound of Jane’s fetus is shaken by something she sees. And on top of it all Jane, a native Londoner, begins to affect a Yorkshire accent.

It’s a difficult pregnancy alright. But Jane’s a resourceful character; she does the research, and finds out the story behind the cover shoot that seemingly started the events, and learns her role in it all.

When there’s a baby on the way, it’s not too much of a leap to think of Rosemary’s Baby. A similar scenario plays out in Menace, but here it’s a rather convoluted scheme, even if it is solidly based on folklore (or, as I like to think, Iron Maiden‘s brilliant 1988 concept album). Nevertheless, the story starts out well – Jane, an admirably fleshed out character, is like a protagonist in a Ramsey Campbell novel, holding up bravely as her life gets increasingly weirder. It’s all good, with good characters, great atmosphere, an intriguing mystery, and a strong sense of, well, menace.

Sadly the ending doesn’t match; the subtlety is gone, far too much is explicitly spelled out, and the reveal proves to be both predictable and slightly over the top. But until then, it’s a good read.

***½ (3½/5)

An ebook novella, available now from DarkFuse. Visit the author’s site!

Lurker by Gary Fry

lurkerAn ebook novella from DarkFuse, Lurker (2013) is a Lovecraftian story in the tradition of Ramsey Campbell; elegantly understated, intensely atmospheric and superbly horrific. Set in Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, the story follows Meg, a woman who has just moved into the area after suffering a tragic miscarriage. While her husband works long hours in the city, Meg is free to roam her new environs.

And roam she does. Discovering the entrance to an abandoned mine, she unknowingly attracts the attention of the titular lurker. The next day, the wall of her house outside her bedroom window is decorated with muddy handprints. A girl is reported to have gone missing near the mine, and Meg thinks she glimpses something in the background of the newspaper photo. A dodgy pamphlet found in the library purports to explain it all, but its talk of some immortal creature from beyond the stars that cut off miners’ hands and heads so it could use them as tools is just crazytalk, right? And all the while Meg is also tormented by suspicions of her husband’s possible infidelity.

Is it all in her mind? There’s a strong psychological aspect to the story, giving room for interpretations. And it’s only Meg who seems to be aware of the creature, not at all unlike the poor narrator of Guy de Maupassant‘s classic story Le Horla. All the events in Lurker are seen and experienced through Meg’s perspective, and who knows how twisted that might be, after all the stress and insecurity the character’s been through.

That, however, doesn’t stop the story from going the tentacular full monty in the glorious finale; imagined or not, it’s all about pure, unadulterated horror of the cosmic variety, blasting away what little sanity poor Meg may have left at that point. As a horror story, Lurker delivers the goods, regardless of the interpretation. Highly recommended.

***** (5/5)

Available 12 Nov 2013 as an ebook from DarkFuse. Visit the author’s site.

The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell

the-kind-folkBack in the old days when there was still magic in the world, the fairy folk used to improve their diminishing bloodline by exchanging their offspring with human children. In The Kind Folk (2012), the fairies are corrupt shadows of their mythological selves, but the practice of changelings continues.

When a DNA test shows his biological parents aren’t somehow his, Luke is understandably mystified. Luke’s uncle, Terry, who was strangely attached to Luke, may know something, but dies before divulging any facts. However, in Terry’s house Luke discovers a semi-incoherent diary tracking the uncle’s travels throughout Britain, as well as a carving of a strange, barely human face.

Suddenly Luke, an up-and-coming comedian known for his skilful mimicry, starts to get gigs around Britain, in places that happen to correspond with the diary. And soon there are strange folk appearing at his shows, always standing in the back, twisting their hands in unnatural positions, as if signalling some secret sign. They seem to want something, and as it happens, Luke’s girlfriend Sophie is pregnant.

The Kind Folk is Campbell at his very best; it’s built on a solid mythological foundation that’s familiar enough to feel real. The silent, elongated shadows are classic Campbell, creatures that always appear in the distance, half-glimpsed, so that they could be just ordinary youths loitering around – at least until they scurry away on all four limbs or some other craziness.

There’s also the humour, as usual, striking a perfect balance with the horror; almost every sentence feels like a wound-up jack-in-the-box, ready to be sprung on the reader with a twist that might turn everything that came before it on its head. The relatively short length of the novel is just right; the narrative is rich, but nothing is overextended. Every chapter is in its right place.

And as Luke’s journey progresses, the atmosphere goes up a notch or two. The dark city streets, the ruins of abandoned houses, the lonely places of the world where something old still lingers – the night is deep and dark and full of scares, but there’s also a lot of beauty in these shadowy, almost wistful passages.

The novel ends with a perfect note of awe and wonder, as another generation steps forward. The fairies might’ve retreated back into the shadows, but with books like The Kind Folk, there’s still plenty of magic left in the world.

***** (5/5)

Banquet for the Damned by Adam Nevill

banquetThe venerable university town of St Andrews, best known as the home of golf, is the place; the characters are struggling Brummie rock musicians Dante and Tom, who relocate to Scotland in search of inspiration. The man they seek is Eliot Coldwell, one of those sixties intellectuals who once wrote a book (bearing the same title as this 2004 novel) full of the usual new age nonsense mixed with the occult.

For Dante, however, the book is a masterpiece; he wants to compose a rock opera based on it. All starry-eyed, he approaches Coldwell – now an aged drunk – and becomes his new assistant. The previous one apparently burned himself alive. Other students at the university also come to bad and bloody ends; there’s a strange creature making rounds among people who attended a study group organized by Coldwell.

The first horror novel by Nevill, The Banquet for the Damned takes off like a bullet, with promises of great things to come. Sadly, it never quite cashes in on those promises. Instead of the roaringly Crowley-like slouch that is Coldwell, his female companion Beth, possibly possessed by something summoned from beyond by Coldwell, becomes the adversary; but the character never really catches on, remaining an (erotic) enigma. In the end, even the creature she controls has more of an emotional impact.

The second half gets progressively murkier, even with the addition of a rather unconvincing American lecturer, Hart Miller, who has some inkling of what’s happening. The characters, and by extension the readers, just stumble around with some ideas about night terrors and occult goings-on, never really figuring out enough to make sense of it all. The end is action-packed, but somehow unfulfilling.

But the mood is good throughout: St Andrews plays its part well, providing a very M.R. Jamesian backdrop for the story that’s perhaps slightly more indebted to the works of Ramsey Campbell. Certainly the murkiness is a rather Campbellian trait. For a first novel, such comparisons aren’t half bad: and Nevill’s later works, such as the brilliant The Ritual and the creepy Last Days, attest to the fact that he’s constantly improving his craft and becoming increasingly more original in the process – more Nevillean, so to speak.

*** (3/5)

Thieving Fear by Ramsey Campbell

thieving_fearA dead occultist makes life complicated for four cousins in Thieving Fear, a 2008 novel by Ramsey Campbell. Like Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark (2006), Thieving Fear also features characters who have their perception of reality severely impaired by a supernatural force.

The story starts with Charlotte, Ellen, Hugh and Rory camping as youngsters at a site they later learn was the location of a house owned by a notorious magician. During the night they have nightmares and Charlotte almost walks off a cliff.

Years later, the four begin exhibiting strange symptoms, alternately ridiculous and horrific, in true Campbell style; Hugh loses his sense of direction, Charlotte gets claustrophobic, Rory loses his vision and Ellen begins to think she’s disgustingly fat. Also, a thin shadow of a man always seems to lurk somewhere near. Ultimately they trace the events back to that one night in their youth, and discover the dark secrets buried inside the cliff.

It’s all about the characters in this one, their experiences as their senses fail and their reality unravels in everyday situations. The downside is that the plot becomes secondary; there isn’t much of a one, and even the adversary is handled as little more than a flitting shadow. As a result Thieving Fear doesn’t quite have the impact of its immediate predecessor; The Grin of the Dark had the mystery of silent film comedian Tubby Thackeray going for it, giving the readers some good, firm plot to grab onto.

The subplots about Ellen’s position at a care home and Hugh’s job at a supermarket are tickly good fun, with some wickedly unpleasant supporting characters. Ellen’s foray into the publishing world with Charlotte as her editor also makes for a fun read, with anecdotes that are possibly drawn from experience.

Campbell’s sharp writing keeps things interesting, but the going does get quite frustrating in the middle, with all the characters suffering from some impediment or other. The end, however, rewards the reader with a nice, weird twist and great imagery. As a whole Thieving Fear is a low key affair, but it does deliver where it counts.

*** (3/5)