Review – “Dead Shift” by John Llewellyn Probert


The last tale I read by this author was in one of the Black Books of Horror, and it seemed as though he’d toned down his trademark dry humour and aimed further under the skin. I was therefore keen to read his new novella from Horrific Tales. Touted as a nocturnal battle for survival in a hospital beset by trans-dimensional monstrosities, I was pleased to discover that it contains everything that’s great about a classic John Llewellyn Probert story: characters we can root for, muscular dialogue, wit, a pervading sense of Britishness, and – of course – an onslaught of outrageous and grisly horror.

Dead shiftFirst we meet Arthur Lipscomb – a man addled by cancer – who has assumed ownership of an occult book. After being discovered halfway through a bloodletting ritual in a derelict block of flats, he’s rushed to Northcote Hospital still clinging to his tome, but the awakened forces refuse to be dissuaded by medical intervention.

As the night shift begins, we meet Dr Richard Dearden – a consultant diligently staying late after his shift in the Accident and Emergency Department –  and his friend Dev Choudry: a wisecracking pathologist who’s similarly snowed under with work. But when Arthur Lipscomb’s blood test results show that he’s actually clinically dead and a body rises in the mortuary to attack them, the two colleagues realise that the stuff of nightmares has been unleashed. Toothsome tentacles start to burst from operating theatre walls, staff are ferociously slaughtered, and virulent spores infest the patients and wards. Something cosmic is trying to change the very fabric of the hospital, and those who survive the bloody violence may well be in for a fate worse than being disassembled and strewn about the corridors. Teaming up with Sandra Harris – a resourceful orthopaedic registrar – our staunch but slightly reluctant heroes must tool up and fight for their own lives, perhaps even for the future of the world.

The book opens with an evocative scene of urban decay. I think starting off with several pages of traditional description can be a brave move, but I’d happily listen to this author describe my garden shed with his wry observation and the way he exposes potential story layers in everything. “Like a whipped puppy fearful of yet another beating, light shied away from Northcote Park housing estate.” I think it works as an introduction, and doesn’t outstay its welcome before the characters step up to drive the rest of the tale.

And while making an example of the dreaded simile – a terrible tool in the hands of the amateur or over-enthusiastic writer – I must point out that Mr Probert saves them for when they really count. This can be to amuse as well as to unsettle, and lines such as “A sound, not unlike a large balloon being slowly deflated between two slices of wet liver, suddenly came from cubicle one” betrays a scatological irreverence that frankly, I find rather life-affirming.

Richard is a pleasant lead and naturally inclined towards common sense which allows him to cope. He makes logical decisions based on what his eyes tell him, and thus avoids being stuck in a spiral of increasing disbelief and terror at the hellish shenanigans. He’s actually quite brave, and this stems from his pragmatism rather than any desire for gung-ho heroics. Dev the pathologist is somewhat subversive and weird, like anyone who works with dead bodies for a living should be, and takes gallows humour to expert levels while keeping his heart in the right place. He’s a solid foil for Richard, especially when they’re shoulder to shoulder in battle, but even their camaraderie can’t lighten everything that Northcote Hospital has in store.

I also liked Sandra Harris, the surgeon. She’s pleasingly hard but compassionate, and her snappy impatience when it all kicks off is endearing. Like the author, I work in critical care, and can vouch that these character types are exactly the kind that populate the corridors of hospitals at night, so if you’re in the business, you might get a few extra smiles from the fond familiarity. The remaining cast of support workers, nurses and porters are also fully rounded and shine through their interaction. And their horrendous deaths.

At times, this story is pure, ghastly fun. One scene involves Richard and Dev attempting to keep the occult book away from a reanimated corpse, and they throw it between themselves as the creature lurches back and forth, holding it up out of reach as though teasing a grasping child.

But while plenty of chuckles are provided by the droll prose, there are visceral shocks. Some of the most cinematic images in this story involve gallons of blood, and there are magnificently ominous moments too. I do like the “tipping point” in fiction such as this, in which after a gradual build-up of menace, hell finally boils over. Here, it occurs while Richard is on the phone to Sandra who is in the middle of an operation. Their conversation is interrupted with background crashes, screams, and Sandra’s panicked pleas for help, and it’s so well written that we could almost be there with Richard, the phone helplessly glued to our ear.

Another foreboding scene I particularly enjoyed was when the trio manage to contact a professor of occult studies via the internet. Having explained their exact predicament of rituals and releasing such terrors, they ask him what they can do. The expert’s reply is succinct and perfectly portentous.


All great stuff, but it’s the characters themselves that really power this piece, made relatable by being convincing and ordinary. Their professional knowledge of anatomy is put to imaginative and darkly comedic use, and social interaction grounds everything firmly as the reality wanders. There’s a nice moment when a mildly embarrassing gaffe (Richard shakes Dev’s hand when he was holding it out for another reason) consumes Richard with shame, despite the doom facing him and possibly the rest of the world. What it is to be human.

The plentiful dialogue is natural and often warm, comforting us through the extreme moments. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the hope, humour and compassion that is part of the human soul even when trapped in a world that makes it all seem pointless. And on the subject of metaphors, a clever one is revealed later on which brings a structure to the cosmic madness and keeps it all on track. This neatly ties into the conclusion which in addition to providing some gruesome spectacle, also brings refreshing pathos to counter the carnage and japes.

As I’ve said in reviews before, John Llewellyn Probert is a master of blending the classic and modern. He presents contemporary characters and sensibilities, but stirs in ancient horrors and an erudite prose style to ensure we get the best of both worlds. And while there are no huge surprises here for fans of this author – or indeed horror fiction overall – there’s certainly no shortage of imagination or pace.

With “Dead Shift”, our genre’s treasured mischief-maker has served up a macabre and humorous treat. Whether you prefer the supernatural menace of Wheatley or Lovecraft, or the gleeful noise of zombies, monsters and siege-style action thrillers, there’s plenty in this novella to give your inner ghoul a smile.

Review – “The Hyde Hotel” Proprietors: James Everington & Dan Howarth


Everybody has stayed at the Hyde Hotel. You too. Remember?

It was that nondescript, faded building that seemed to blend with the concrete surroundings. You almost walked right past. It was the one with the magnolia walls and laminated fire-drill posters. The window didn’t open properly, your view was a brick-walled alleyway, and a previous guest had left something disconcerting in a drawer.

HydeSuch is the setting of this themed anthology from Black Shuck Books. Proprietors James Everington and Dan Howarth welcome a selection of unfortunate guests to the Hyde: a plain but serviceable budget hotel geared towards the single traveller, just the same as any other. At least that’s how it appears at first. But whether the new guests are on personal jaunts, business, or up to no good, they’ll soon discover that it’s the last place you want to prop your toothbrush for the night.

This book succeeds on both premise and delivery. It plays on the fact that inner-city hotels are a functional if soulless segment of many people’s lives, and uses this familiarity as a canvas for horror. Anything could be hiding in all those empty rooms or behind the gaze of that waitress or obsequious manager. These kind of hotels are places where nobody feels at home, somehow faceless and entombed, sealed away from the hubbub of whatever city they inhabit. And as the anthology guidelines were clearly grounded in the urban mundane, there’s no picturesque castle retreats, breath-taking architecture or honeymooning couples to be found. Rather, we visit a range of Hyde Hotels that may be different buildings in varying locales, but all have interchangeable rooms with dreary views in which people drink alone with too much time to think.

But on to the individual stories. The first (and last) piece is by James Everington, bookending our stay with perfect use of 2nd person. “Checking In” is exactly that, using superb attention to detail to convey the accustomed banality, but also a playfully ominous tone that prepares us for what’s to come.

Next is “The View from the Basement” by Alison Littlewood. We meet Leslie, visiting his particular Hyde on a city break without his wife for reasons that are initially mysterious. But she seems to have followed him in spirit, and when suggestions of her start to materialise in situation and dialogue, the stage is set for an elegiac finale. The author is magnificent at this kind of haunting mood, commanding succinct observational skills and a keen eye for the subtly macabre.

Next, Iain Rowan introduces us to Wilson in “Night Porters”. He’s an unadventurous man working away for a week to meet clients, and this tale instantly nails the life of the travelling businessman. Wilson repeatedly props up the hotel bar with the night porter, but something isn’t quite right about the fellow. Or the manager, for the matter, whose lingering grin makes Wilson feel uneasy. This is a well-written, Twilight-Zone-esque short with some spine-tingling flourishes in the prose that really stick.

Things take a noir turn in “Tick Box” by Dan Howarth. Here we find Edwards, a hitman getting back into the game and checking in as part of a job. His return to work is meticulously planned, but things unravel when he gets drunk in the bar and starts a scene. The crime vibe makes for a nice change after the creepy horror thus far, and it’s a pleasingly gruesome story that concludes with a deft teaser.

“The Edifice of Dust” by Amelia Mangan stars Phaedra: an architect hiding from the world after a building she designed collapsed. While staying at the Hyde, the dust in the old building takes her on a historical journey, and the architectural theme ties in cleverly with the story’s structure. The ethereal dust becomes as much a character as Phaedra, and although the pace lagged slightly for me towards the end, there’s a beauty to this enjoyably brooding cosmic tale.

S.P. Miskowski presents the journal of an American tourist in “Lost and Found”. We learn that the author of the journal is a huge fan of Muriel Watson: a now-deceased writer who found limited success during her troubled life. The author plans to visit the school where Muriel taught, her beloved bookshop, and is sure to request the very same rooms at the hotel where Muriel did much of her writing. But these plans are interrupted by an unexplained exhaustion, and some kind of haunting essence in the building itself. Tackling the ephemeral nature of art, lost talent, and the repetition of history, this is an elegant and powerful piece cemented together with chills.

A scene of grim death has already occurred when we join “Housekeeping” by Ray Cluley. Debbie, a member of hotel staff, is cleaning rooms when she discovers a bloody suicide in a shower cubicle. But she’s lured by her ghoulish curiosity (Hurrah!) and instead of running for management, she decides to explore the grisly scene herself. A razor sharp short – the shortest in the book I think – it has more going on than meets the eye and begs to be re-read, which is easily done given the crisp length. It boasts a splendid double-reveal of a finale and is one of my two favourite stories in this collection.

A layered tale follows with “Something Like Blood” by Alex Davis. We find Michael – an apparently successful man – on the run for reasons which are saved until later. After checking in and deciding that the Hyde’s deep red and black colour scheme isn’t the warmest of welcomes, he’s also perturbed by the deserted bar and restaurant, not to mention the staff themselves. A young waitress starts to remind him of the woman he left behind, and blood becomes an uncomfortable reoccurring theme in his stay. This author has great voice and the metaphorical threads are particularly well-observed. I found that it got bogged down slightly towards the end, but concludes with a satisfying and nightmarish finale.

“Arthur Charles Manfred Edwards, resting against the hotel room door, handle poking into his back and fire emergency poster affixing itself to his bald patch, clutched the bomb to his chest.”

Thus begins “The Coyote Corporation’s Misplaced Song” by Cate Gardner, a very colourful experience about a suicide bomber who is irrationally terrified of children. Which is a big problem for him, because his bomb happens to be a six year old boy. Despite that pitch-perfect opener, I didn’t warm to this story at first. I think it was because I found it so unexpectedly surreal, it caught me off-guard. So I cleared my brain of any preconceptions, started again, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Well-crafted and intriguing, it’s a wild ride that keeps us guessing until the end.

The Hyde Hotels of this anthology attract plenty of ne’er-do-wells, and that is certainly the case with Simon Bestwick’s “Wrath of the Deep”. Here we meet Kellett – another hitman – who is lying low and dodging the police. He’s been promised a healthy retirement package from his boss, on one condition. He must carry out one last execution: a professor who has stolen an ancient amulet, and who happens to be the only other guest of the hotel. This is smooth and instantly enjoyable storytelling. Kellett is quite investable for a murderer and the plot has plenty of tricks, starting off as crime before turning outrageously weird when the amulet comes into play. So much so, that I found it alarmingly comical at first and this is quite effective, whether it was the intention of the author or not. There’s a Lovecraftian tinge as it teases with the inevitable kick-off, and well-scribed action builds to a spectacular finale. Full of nuance and muscular dialogue, this is a fine fantastique that tackles allegiance and the nature of the monster.

Bang on theme is “The Sealed Window” by Mark West which concerns a chap named Hoffman. He loathes the oppressive heat and crowds of the city, and his journey begins with him already hot and bothered as he travels to the Hyde. Once there, the weird corridor design messes with his head, his room is too stuffy, and the window won’t open. When his peace is wrecked by a couple noisily abusing the headboard next door, his irritation and claustrophobia boils over. Tackling how an environment can truly disorientate, this piece stands out in evocation. It’s littered with great dialogue and sidesteps any expectations of cliché before finishing with a cracking punchline.

The other of my two overall favourites is “The Blue Room” by V.H. Leslie. A spooky and lush tale, it tells of Gwen, away from home without her husband for reasons of which we aren’t yet aware. Keen to settle in, she discovers that her room – and everything single thing in it – is a beautiful shade of blue. But while this provides a relaxing ambience at first, focussing on a Picasso painting on the wall, it soon turns sour. Strangers stare at her at breakfast, the waiter makes cryptic references to hell, and Gwen sees a ghostly woman flit past the door whilst drifting in the bath. She’s a likeable, fully realised character and I wondered if she was becoming ill, or if the hotel or painting itself was the cause. The prose brings an exquisite melancholy through the blueness, weaved into the very fabric of the story, and a sobering and very clever pay-off puts everything in place. I also love the way it works in Picasso’s wonderful “blue period” and this story is a favourite of mine partly for the sublime, art-infused mood. But it’s also for the conclusion, which is the finest the anthology has to offer and makes it a faultless choice for the last regular piece.

After that, we just have James Everington’s “Checking Out” to neatly complete the whole experience. His unnerving voice guides us  back out into the world following our time as a guest of the Hyde, alive but irretrievably altered, and a wry final paragraph ensures that we put the book down with a mischievous smile.

The Hyde Hotel is a solid mix of character-driven horror that captures the lot of the lone traveller. It’s one of the few situations in which we formally share breakfast with complete strangers – something that several of the stories here evoke with aplomb – and we’re often left skulking in our rooms, restless and out of sorts, yet simultaneously bestowed with a sense of freedom from domestic routine. But although a bland city hotel allows this liberation, it also forces reflection through the lack of much else to do. I think that’s the perfect time for something hellish to burst into anyone’s life.

I’ve seen themed compilations like this suffer from heavy overlap, but the fiction here is sufficiently varied. Even when there is repetition, this familiarity is part of the very concept so it doesn’t become a negative. In fact, it actually adds an overall insidious tone. The contributors create plenty of malevolence, sadness and terror through their thoughtful stories, and there’s something in this book for everyone.

So fill up your tiny kettle, open a complimentary sachet of instant coffee, and enjoy. Just don’t bother hanging the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.

Review – “The Eleventh Black Book of Horror” selected by Charles Black


The latest volume from Mortbury Press shows exactly why this series is still going strong, full of polished tales that rejuvenate the kind of classic and lurid horror we love. I only need to glimpse that familiar red font on some new Paul Mudie artwork before starting to resemble the harpies preparing for dinner on the cover, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Selected as ever by Charles Black, the eleventh book maintains the standard we’ve come to expect and brings sharp imagination to the tropes without losing any of the nasty fun.

BB11The curtain rises with “Two Five Seven” by Thana Niveau. A short piece that serves well as a taster, it’s narrated by a young girl visiting her grandfather’s rural cottage. She starts to hear the voice of another girl coming from inside his enormous old radio, and the menace swiftly mounts as her grandfather’s behaviour also takes a turn for the strange. Intriguing and effortless to read, it establishes the dark, dry tone that the series demands and treats us to an appropriately ghastly pay-off.

Next up, Edward Pearce takes us on a sinister visit to “East Wickenden”: a small, rural village with a secret history. We meet Paul, staying at the local pub and hoping to find out about heathen practices with the ultimate goal of getting his covetous hands on some ancient treasure. Although it doesn’t pack any huge surprises, it’s written with great style and brimming with unease.

One of the most raw experiences in this volume, and certainly the most memorable, is “Slaughtered Lamb” by Tom Johnstone. It’s related by a man named Robert in the form of an anecdote in a smoky gentleman’s club – a wraparound which is just as well painted as the main story itself – and concerns a travelling theatre company. Robert was a member as a teenager, and he tells of how they used to spice up a controversial political play about the Northern Irish bombings by using a real lamb carcass on stage. But things take a chilling turn when they arrive to perform in Belfast and Robert goes into a loyalist pub to try and source a carcass for the show. The tale is pitch perfect, and the grim political realism of that time makes it an unforgettably macabre – and ultimately terrifying – experience.

John Llewellyn Probert introduces us to Laura in “Forgive Us Not Our Trespasses”. A young woman discontented with life, she and her husband Alex embark on a retreat to the Somerset countryside. He desperately wants to conceive, but Laura doesn’t share his desire to start a family, and the supposedly romantic setting of the huge, isolated hotel doesn’t help. Her misery is soon compounded by the rain, an argument, and before long, nocturnal figures in the corridors and the discovery of a derelict church that bears the misquoted and baleful title of the piece. This is a well-crafted story, and very much driven by our protagonist. I particularly like how the palpable domestic situation grounds it so firmly in reality that when things get peculiar, we’re already strapped in for the ride and can’t escape before the bone-curdling showdown. One of John Llewellyn Probert’s less humorous and more viscerally disturbing works overall, it still has his trademark atmosphere, splendid prose and exuberance for all things gruesome.

“Without Facebook, it never would’ve happened.”

Thus begins the convincing and impeccably researched “Lord of the Sand” by Stephen Bacon: an immediately engaging account of an Iraq war veteran. He attends a Desert Storm reunion arranged through social media, and the intrigue thickens when we realise that the organiser – a nervous, restless chap nicknamed Beaky – has also invited Sergeant Hoggard. An alpha male who used to bully Beaky without mercy back in the day, we share our narrator’s unease when he turns up at the party, and also his suspicions. This author’s finest achievements are often of the quiet and haunting variety, but don’t let your guard down here. While it still has the Bacon mood and foreboding, this muscular piece of fiction wants to bite you in the face.

Kate Farrell takes us back in time for “Alma Mater”. We meet a group of four 12 year old girls: pupils at a strict boarding school run by nuns and full of the forbidden glee that comes so naturally to the young. They sneak off during breaks to regale each other with scary stories in the shadows of the pipe-threaded “Drying Room”, but it’s only a matter of time before malevolent forces come into play. I enjoyed the matter of fact style and realistic characters, and although the conclusion was a little straight forward, it succeeds as the old school chiller it set out to be and captures the delight of simple storytelling.

“Keeping The Romance Alive” by Stuart Young introduces us to Malcolm and Wendy. Having read 50 Shades of Grey, Wendy decides they need to spice up their sex lives, and Malcolm eventually confesses that his erotic fantasy would resemble a Hammer film including vampire costumes, sacrifice and special effects. Of course things don’t go as planned, but like a Final Destination film, it keeps us guessing about where death is lurking and what form it will take. Malcolm’s awkwardness and irritation at Wendy’s casual approach to his fantasy provides realism and humour, and it finishes with a punchline and a grisly picture for you to savour.

Turning the lights right down is “Teatime” by Anna Taborska, which bravely presents a negative protagonist in the form of Victor. He’s an intelligent, misogynistic, tea-drinking psychopath who soon progresses from tormenting rats in his university laboratory to killing women he meets in public. Razor keen and always one step ahead, the plot drags us helplessly along as Victor deftly stalks through life, charming his way into his future victim’s attentions. It nails the social niceties and manners we observe with strangers, even when they start being weird, and the tale is very well structured as a whole, especially regarding the use of perspective. Although it seemed to end a little quickly, the finale packs a wallop and left a sour taste in the mouth. As is the case with some of Anna Taborska’s past characters, Victor has decided to stay in my head, indifferent to whether I want him there or not.

“Lem” by David A. Riley is a deft, short piece about a couple of desperate ne’er-do-wells attempting an armed robbery on an elderly Jewish man. Although a fairly stock pay-off, it’s subtly monstrous in tone, and merges the unsavoury and satisfying elements of genre fiction to good effect.

Another shorter contribution, the excellent “Flies” by Tony Earnshaw could almost be the prologue of something much bigger. We meet Jim, a retired gentleman, walking his trusty dog Rufus down by a quiet cemetery and railway embankment. But he soon makes a grim discovery in the foliage, and the whole thing blossoms into a frenzied horror vignette as the title comes in to play. This is another that stayed with me, superb in evocation, and I loved the quiet, ominous teaser at the end.

Next up, David Williamson takes us to a good old-fashioned séance with “And The Dead Shall Speak”. Open-minded Tina is giving it a chance, unlike her sceptical boyfriend Craig, but the session ends when the medium – the pleasingly named Madam Orloff – scribbles something odd. It appears to be a furious message from a murder victim, and also seems genuine, so the scene is set for some detective work and naturally, another séance. This story only stalled for me when the angry spook apparently gave Tina an address and it took her forever to finally Google it, despite that being an immediately obvious thing to do. But apart from this, Tina is investable as an amateur paranormal sleuth and you’ll still get drawn in even if – like Craig – your opinion of psychic phenomenon is generally one of scorn. It concludes neatly with a riff in the vein of the Pan Books of Horror, and that couldn’t be more appropriate given the subject matter.

In “Every Picture Tells A Story” Marion Pitman tells the succinct tale of Wetherby: a professional artist who produces a cover for a zombie novel. To relieve his frustrations, he includes likenesses of people who’ve upset him as mutilated victims in the picture – his landlord, a council employee, his ex-wife – but then they start to die in similar ways to how his artwork depicted. Although a very familiar concept, it’s nicely set up, and this short piece leaves us guessing if the culprit is a crazed fan, some supernatural force or curse, or even Wetherby himself. Told in great voice, there’s some barbed lines to counter the gore, and at one point it made me laugh out loud.

I particularly savoured “The Weathervane” by Sam Dawson. We learn the plight of Thomas, a 15 year old staying at the ultra-traditional school of St. Abchurch, but only as a charity case rather than one of the gentry. Anxious to endear himself to his noble-blooded peers, he agrees to attempt a dangerous local dare that involves ascending the school’s chapel tower to spin the creepy, black weathervane at the peak. But it’s an escapade tainted with tragic history, and there’s also something the school’s headmaster knows. Not to mention the disabled gardener. This is a gripping journey of escalating doom, there are surprises that catch the reader as well as poor young Thomas, and the finale satisfies whilst leaving some mystery. This story also triumphs in both style and substance. It tackles the miserable cruelty of bullying and its consequences with powerful characterisation, but also injects plenty of exquisite spookiness that wouldn’t be out of place in an M.R. James book. I actually shivered in my chair during one climactic scene. Outstanding.

After that wander through the ivied quadrangles of the country’s elite, “Molli & Julli” by John Forth presents a very different journey, but one no less suffused with threat. In the swansong of the anthology, we meet Tom – a physically attractive but entitled and vain young man – setting off on a Friday night to drink heavily with his friends and meet girls. He meets two deeply unsettling women on the train into the city, and despite finding them ugly, he becomes strangely obsessed – and aroused – until their attentions twist the tone to manic horror. Although the ending wasn’t quite to my taste, I certainly didn’t see it coming, and I applaud the lingering attention to detail. The dizzying evocation of the heaving bars and noisy nightclubs as Tom’s world descends into helpless nightmare is immaculate, and I like it that it rounds off the book on a contemporary note.

The Eleventh Black Book of Horror is another colourful entry in an unflinching series that has carved its niche and knows exactly what we want. All the stories are thoughtfully written, character-driven, and whether they’re ice-cold, droll or have that traditional sting in the tail, they combine to form a distinct flavour of retro elegance and modern shocks. Sprinkle the whole thing with the darkest of humour and drape it in a stark cover by Paul Mudie, and you have the perfect tome for those who like to read with a wicked glint in their eye.

Review – “Hell’s Ditch” by Simon Bestwick


2015 was bang on for apocalyptic fiction – my favourite kind of horror – and this novel from Snowbooks was the last I read. With a pitch-perfect dystopia, plenty of violent action, and a raft of absorbing characters, it was one of my top reads of the year and ensured it finished on a thoughtful and explosive high.

Hell's DitchThe setting of “Hell’s Ditch” is the north of England, 20 years after some kind of holocaust. Civilisation has grown from the ashes but poverty is rife, life expectancy is low, and the country is ruled by a brutal dictatorship. Using a highly trained militia known as the Reapers, they favour public executions for insubordination, genetic experimentation, and use firepower and fear to control.

Naturally, not everyone does as they’re told. There are warrior tribes out in the wastelands who answer to nobody, and also pockets of urban resistance operating in the cities, sick of the Reapers living well as everybody else suffers in a misery of disease and violence. These rebels are grievously short on numbers, weapons and opportunity, but when a presumed-dead heroic figure of the rebellion called Helen Damnation reappears, she brings fresh hope. Especially as she might be able to enlist the help of the hardest man on the planet.

Gevaudan Shoal is a Grendelwolf, and the last of his kind. A huge and modified human being, he was created to be a machine of war with immunity to pain, extraordinary self-healing powers, and an alarming capacity for killing. Helen wants to use both old grudges and morality to entice him from the hermit’s life he’s embraced and help fight the Reapers.

I just fell into this perfectly-paced and very well written book. Only a few pages in, we find Helen Damnation with a young rookie called Danny being pursued through the shanties and grim city streets. This is high-octane writing that Simon Bestwick does so well, and it’s testimony to his subtle skills of characterisation that I invested so immediately.

In fact, it’s the characters that really hold this great story together. From the main players to the bit parts, they’re complicated and realistic with their individual hopes, beefs and baggage. Helen Damnation is deeply damaged after losing her family and being buried in a mass grave, driven by her goals at the expense of rationality. Danny is a cocky but likeable young lad thrown in at the deep end, in possession of both courage yet a sensitive heart. Unlike some of the older characters, he doesn’t mourn for the old world as he knows nothing else. Other resistance characters include Helen’s experienced mentor Darrow, who brings a jaded wisdom, and Alannah, an emotionally-scarred woman who was tortured by the Reapers and for whom Danny begins to develop feelings.

But the real jewel in the resistance’s crown – and indeed the whole book, for me – is Gevaudan Shoal. Living alone in a derelict district named Deadsbury, the only survivor of his synthetic species is a glorious character. He’s seen pure hell and slaughtered countless people because of what he is, but he has principles, a nobility and stoical dignity. Hilariously droll at times, he’s also fond of manners that seem quaint in such a gritty world and is capable of touching humanity. It’s impossible not to root for him, and his character also paves the way for some satisfying righteous violence when he tunes into “the fury”. This resembles the rampage setting on a video game in which his already devastating killing powers are cranked up to nitro-boost levels. What I also love about Shoal is that despite having the most reasons to be insane, he’s actually one of more level headed and pragmatic of the bunch. Brilliant.

But it’s not all one sided, and we get to know the enemies of the resistance too. We follow Mordake, a chain-smoking scientist who works for the Reapers to create some kind of techno-paranormal super weapon. Named Project Tindalos and shrouded in ominous, Lovecraftian mystery, it’s linked to “ghostlighting” – a phenomenon in which people are visited by members of their dead friends or family. A stressed and desperate man, Mordake’s cosmic experiment is driven by the desire to bring his wife back from the dead, rather than any actual financial reward or allegiance to the Reapers. He’s an intense character who plays with our sympathies, keeps us on our toes, and is also the canvas for a scene of memorably macabre horror.

We also meet Jarrett, a brutal and dedicated Reaper officer determined to bring her nemesis, Helen Damnation, to justice. This is partly due to the threat that Helen and her comrades pose, but Jarrett is also fearful of the repercussions from her boss if she fails. Yes, it wouldn’t be a proper ruling militia without somebody chilling at the helm, and this role is more than filled by Commander Tereus Winterborn.

“His face was smooth and pale, with a red Cupid’s-bow mouth. On another man, it would’ve been called effeminate; on a girl, beautiful. On Winterborn it was neither.”

He’ll stop at nothing for absolute power and Project Tindalos might be his chance to achieve it. I’m not going to say anything else about the man who never blinks, because you’ll have more fun meeting him and his bottled fury yourself. I’ll just leave with you this.

“Winterborn sounded amused, even flirty. He was, Mordake knew, never more dangerous.”

As a reader, we fall on the side of the resistance, but it’s not a simple matter of good versus evil. Everybody’s flawed and afraid of something, and there are moments when sympathies wander and boundaries blur, touching on the importance of perspective, guilt and obedience in any war.

As tensions between the factions escalate and the threat of Project Tindalos gathers steam, the second half of the book takes us on a breathless subterranean adventure. There are some savage and immersive battle scenes as it throws the wastelanders, rebels, Reapers and other surprise elements I won’t spoil into the mix together. We see loyalties and feelings torn, and plenty of adrenaline. In fact, one particularly taut pursuit and fight made me shudder in relief when it was over. The showdown of the novel itself certainly delivers as the whole thing explodes into an epic sf/monster horror, but it never loses its maturity and message.

I applaud Simon’s vision. It’s a menacing and bleak world, made tangible by flourishes and attention to detail. For example, regional language has evolved convincingly through the circumstances of the apocalypse, and the use of old weaponry and cobbled-together technology gives it all a pleasing cyberpunk garnish.

I enjoyed watching the characters evolve, particularly Danny, and we cheer him every step of his journey. Gevaudan Shoal brings fragility despite his immense powers, and point of view is used to great effect in dialogue. Don’t get too comfortable, however, because there are poignant deaths and some incredible sacrifices to be made.

But despite all the heartbreak and bloodshed, there is always hope in both the spirit of the resistance and in people’s capacity to care. The elements of love, humour and friendship make us believe that some things are worth fighting for. And in this book, those fights are exhilarating.

“Hell’s Ditch” is the first in a series called “The Black Road”. It stands alone as a novel, so don’t worry that it might only be a chapter without any resolution: you don’t need to invest in the series. But I bloody well am, and I think you will too. And if you should desire a cliffhanger, there’s the prologue for Book 2 at the end which is a teaser of the best kind.

I highly recommend Simon Bestwick’s energetic, hellish vision of the future. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion with tangible folk, rumbles galore, and is very easy to invest. Like Adam Nevill’s apocalyptic “Lost Girl” released a few months ago, it can be read as a gruesome thriller but also enjoyed for its thoughtful layers and complex moral core, and I can’t wait for the next instalment.

Review – “Lost Girl” by Adam Nevill


With last year’s magnificent “No One Gets Out Alive” still a raw wound in my brain, I couldn’t wait to read Adam Nevill’s latest from Pan. My anticipation was also stoked by the semi-apocalyptic setting – a personal favourite – and I found that the author has thrown everything into this violent, dystopian journey of love and obsession.

Lost Girl by Adam NevillThe world is frying on the brink of an environmental catastrophe that’s been building for years. Starvation and militia violence consumes the third world, and here in the UK, organised crime has flourished as the death toll spirals beneath soaring temperatures. People are forced to grow their own food, public services are stretched to breaking and on top of this, the country reels beneath an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Amid all this, we meet “the father” – only ever referred to by this title – whose young daughter was snatched from his garden two years ago. It’s a scene replayed on a crushing loop in his head, and the story finds him stalking the sweltering streets to gather information from paedophiles who’ve slipped through the net due to cuts in social services.

He’s helped by an anonymous telephone contact whom he assumes is some kind of frustrated child welfare officer, and his nocturnal strikes become increasingly challenging. This singular vocation in life is breaking the father’s mind, of which he’s aware, but he owes it to his daughter to never stop searching.

Despite his bitter rage and what he is forced to do, the father doesn’t initially consider himself a killer or a bad man, but his search soon leads him to clash with “King Death”. This is an enormous network of chaos-worshipping gangsters who have their fingers in everything including street crime, politics, and of course, human trafficking. They thrive on drugs, corruption, the infiltration of governments and police forces, and possess a fondness for rusty-machete beheadings.

King Death is a genuinely terrifying presence in the book. You truly get that it’s impossible to hide from them, and what awaits can only be the stuff of nightmares and snuff movies. And as they worship death, it also makes it difficult for the father to gather information. Tell a King Death child abductor that you’ll shoot him in the face if he doesn’t spill his guts, and he’ll smile, spout some morbid spirituality, and then cajole you into pulling the trigger. More extreme measures are required to crack these nuts, which is a real test of the father’s limits.

Indeed, one of the triumphs of this book is that as the father is drawn deeper into this hellish world, we wonder how far will he go. If killing becomes the norm, he risks losing not only the shreds of humanity holding him together, but also the few others he holds dear. Messing with King Death means torture and execution for him, but also for anybody else on his radar. This includes his similarly devastated wife, who stays at home during his lengthy missions, and his benevolent faceless contacts. We know he means to do whatever it takes to find his daughter, but will he, can he do it, or will compassion or hesitation be his downfall?

The father is a solid lead, and much of the enjoyment comes from watching him evolve. He’s relentlessly serious from the off, naturally, and leads a joyless existence in which he harbours guilt over his daughter’s abduction. At the time, he was busy sending an inappropriate email to a female colleague rather than watching his child play in the garden, but he regrets and acknowledges his flaws and the consequences. I like his hesitation and reflection, and his humanity, which is one of few beacons of hope that stop this whole reading experience from becoming too bleak. The recollections of his daughter’s abduction are shattering to read, which helps ensure our investment despite his slowly capsizing psyche. And while he may be becoming unstitched, which is perfectly understandable, will he become a monster himself?

“I will reduce them to ash.” The last sentence seemed to emerge from a recently discovered pit inside himself, and it was as if his conscious mind could not catch such utterances from this pit before they left his mouth.

Superb stuff, and it’s paragraphs like this that make us forget it’s just a very ordinary bloke saying and doing all of this, or certainly someone who was normal – and just one of us – a couple of years ago.

I love the world Adam Nevill has created for this ugliest of quests. The state of the country actually helps the father, and his early vigilante-esque encounters are barely investigated by the strained authorities. The heat and fear also conspire to keep people indoors and loathe to intervene. It’s a convincing global meltdown, and I actually think it lightens the tone of the novel as a whole. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but as the main storyline is so grim, it may have been too harrowing with a standard contemporary setting. It might even have eclipsed the pitch blackness of “No One Gets Out Alive”. The apocalypse dilutes the nastiness with an sf tone that takes all this piled-on horror just far enough away from our own lives so that we can enjoy it. And it’s an outstanding story that deserves to be enjoyed, not just endured.

The pace is punchy with truly breathless moments, and it deftly hops from one important scene to another without any cumbersome bridges or links. For me, it only lagged once during a lengthy religious rant by a King Death acolyte. I got that it was all part of conveying the deranged lore of the cult, and the father’s frustration with it, but I was relieved when that particular drug-addled psychopath finally put a sock in it. Apart from that, I found it a refreshingly seamless read.

Like any abduction tale, “Lost Girl” harbours the question of whether the search will meet success. With a transient population, refugee saturation, kidnapping and trafficking on vast international levels, the needle in a haystack metaphor doesn’t even begin to cover it. Not to mention how to shake off King Death when (or if) the father is done. Surely such an average man shouldn’t get anywhere near his goal? Of course I’m not going to give any clues either way, but I found the finale very satisfying with a few pleasing surprises along the way.

This novel is faultless with regard to writing and evocation, and while Adam Nevill understands the power of explicit violence, he’s also master of the unseen shudder. For example, he cajoles the horror reader’s imagination into creating a snapshot of hell that might be the abducted girl’s existence, leaving us to chill ourselves without giving any actual details. Along with the father’s transformation, this element also shows how quality horror writing doesn’t devalue life, as its decriers would have us believe, but quite the opposite.

I couldn’t put “Lost Girl” down. There’s something for anyone who likes their books to grab them by the lapels, and plenty of layers to keep your subconscious busy. It’s a thriller if you want to take it that way, and also a mirror for our times with the pandemics, global warming and refugee crisis. But deep down, it’s an intense and extraordinary tale of human endeavour with a moral core that never completely loses its sense of hope, no matter how low the lights are turned down.

Hell’s waiting for you. Enjoy.

Review – “Albion Fay” by Mark Morris


I like novella-length horror, and this release from Spectral Press is a beautifully written tale. That sublime cover is the perfect reflection of what awaits, and as well as shivers, “Albion Fay” provides a very human descent of loss, guilt and desperation.

Albion FayOur narrator is Frank, a middle-aged, single man attending a family funeral. After drifting home in his grief, he peruses a faded photograph album and begins a journey into memories of the past he shared with his parents and twin sister, Angie. Many years ago, something bad happened to Angie on a childhood holiday at an isolated house named Albion Fay. Frank can pinpoint it to the moment she wandered into a network of deep caves behind the creaking building, and whatever happened left her damaged and lost in life.

“Albion Fay” begins with a great sense of intrigue. It snares us with Frank’s grief, and absolutely nails the crippling, spaced-out unreality of funerals before taking us back to his childhood. The non-linear storytelling works well as Frank pieces together how it all went wrong, and kudos to the author for the seamless seguing between past and present without a jot of confusion.

We learn that the caves are regarded with the same kind of nervous fear and reluctance that Dracula castle’s receives from pub locals in Hammer films. Legend has it they are home to the “Fay”: wicked fairies that bite and don’t like it when you look at them. The aura of malevolence emanating from the caves swells as the story progresses, none more so than when Angie is drawn inside, causing a great sense of helplessness on the part of the reader.

Frank is a solid narrator and investable, along with his sister. This makes Angie’s transformation – the breaking of a confident and vivacious child we’ve come to like – both convincing and tragic, especially as she harbours a sinister sense of knowing within her frightened soul. Frank’s parents also play strong roles, and while his mother provides warmth and stability, his father is a bitter and short-tempered bully. He becomes increasingly nasty the more we see, and the author does a sobering job of conveying the consequences of abuse within a family. This brings a palpable reality that bleeds through into the potentially supernatural elements of the book, making both equally intense.

I would actually have liked to learn more about the parents and their own formative journeys. They’re so well realised that their contrasts make me curious as to what drives them, but then I suppose this may have eroded the slick pace of the tale.

“Albion Fay” has a haunting sense of time and place, and although an old house and some caves inhabited by toothsome folklore may not sound desperately original, it just brings a pleasing familiarity. The story itself has plenty of muscle and the setting also provides a canvas for the pervading sense of Britishness. This is summed up in Adam Nevill’s excellent and thorough introduction, although I was glad that I saved reading this until the end.

And what an end that was, bringing a few sharp shocks before the curtain elegantly falls. We see humanity at both its most tender and acrid – but always utterly fragile – and as much heartbreak is born from the domestic exploits of Frank’s family as from the lurking Fay. The author deftly tackles loss in all its forms, combining the bittersweet nostalgia of childhood with chills and incredible style. I’ll definitely be back for more.

Review – “Slaughter Beach” by Benedict J Jones


I got the impression that this new horror novella from Dark Minds Press was a tribute to the shock cinema and pulp novels of the 1970s and 1980s. I wondered if it would be a re-tread of that era – warts and all – or a contemporary update, and it’s actually a bit of both. Lurking beneath that splendid cover is an exciting story that squeezes out the lesser elements of its source inspiration, and concentrates on the ride.

Slaughter BeachThe story is appropriately simple and familiar. It’s the late 1970s-ish in a non-specific tropical harbour town where we meet Don Curtis: a jaded Vietnam veteran who scrapes together a living with his boat. But Don’s humdrum life changes one day when his boat is chartered by a glamour photographer, Marshall, to take him and his entourage to a remote island for a photoshoot and an excuse for a party. But guess what? The island is already home to a blood-thirsty killer, so it’s not long before gouts of arterial spray and severed heads are ruining the postcard scenery.

While a pseudo-homage requires the cast to be of a certain expected stock, the characters here are 3-dimensional enough to avoid being dull. Don Curtis steps us as the tough, investable hero who can play the killer at his own game, and Marshall assumes the role of coke-snorting rich bellend. The assorted assistants, glamour models and local crew hired for the trip provide plenty of knife fodder for our murderer, but one cliché they don’t observe is the bad dialogue of the old-school shocker. The plentiful conversation is natural rather than absurd which keeps both the story and our interest alive.

This is what I like about “Slaughter Beach”. Given the very nature of its inspiration, there’s little originality, but the author has tweaked it for the contemporary reader. As well as the polished lines, he opts for intelligent and resourceful female characters instead of squealing damsels in distress. In fact, Tammy – the photographer’s personal assistant and potential love interest for Curtis – always looks like being one of the few characters who might make it through by her own steel. While the author sprinkles in pleasing grindhouse tropes, these cause a fond smile rather than a groan and I didn’t experience a single “Oh, please…” moment. It’s a fine line, but Benedict J Jones has gauged it well and also ensured his tweaks don’t kill the gorgeous retro vibe.

For a novella-length thriller, “Slaughter Beach” pretty much ticks all the boxes. It’s well written and the atmosphere of isolation is bang on from the sticky heat of day to the unnerving shadows of night. Once it gathers momentum, the story is a blast as the rapidly-depleting group are hunted down and exterminated in graphic and grisly ways. The menacing aura of the hunt is relentless, death often catching you unaware, and although some of the characters are rather likeable, that doesn’t stop their brutal executions from being enormously macabre fun.

As the story peaks, there are a couple of surprises in wait and I really enjoyed the finale. It wasn’t expected, and rounds off the tale on a suitably gruesome and impending note.

“Slaughter Beach” is the first novella from Dark Minds Press and I hope there are plenty more to follow. This gripping but subtly modernised nod to the lurid, bloody fun of the 70s and 80s is a fine way to spend a couple of hours.