Favourite 20 Horror Books

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Thanks to David Wilbanks for publishing my Top 20 Horror list on his blog a couple of months ago. They aren’t what I necessarily consider the best of the genre, just my personal favourites, so I thought I’d briefly explain why each book made the list.

The MonkMatthew Lewis – The Monk (1796)

This powerful gothic took me by surprise. It has all the brooding struggle and mood I’d expect from an 18th century piece, but also shoehorns in as much devilry, depravity, treachery and torture as I could possibly have hoped for. Hooray!

The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allen Poe (1827- 1849)

I was fascinated by the macabre as a young child, and understandably not allowed the extreme stuff. But Poe was apparently okay, it being with the literary classics and not in the forbidden horror section, so I devoured it. The likes of “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” blew me away, and have never lost that intensity.

Bram Stoker – Dracula (1897)

Ill-advisedly picturing Christopher Lee in a spooky Carpathian castle when I first picked it up, I was unsettled by the atmosphere of grim pestilence, and just how tragic it is. A quintessential vampire novel, and pleasingly, it couldn’t be less sparkly.

I Am LegendRichard Matheson – I Am Legend (1954)

Vampires again, but I enjoy it more as a survivalist apocalypse tale. The infected next-door neighbour trying to cajole the protagonist into leaving his barricaded house gives me a chill just thinking about it.

Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

A faultless haunted house story that absolutely nails the difference between horror and terror. Pure dread and anticipation all the way.

Susan Hill – I’m the King of the Castle (1970)

It’s not a genre book, but this novel about childhood bullying disturbed me as much as the finest horror can, slowly wringing all hope from my soul. This is razor-sharp writing and the first of only two books on this list that I have never read twice. And never will. Once was more than enough.

Stephen King – The Shining (1977)

There are plenty of reasons to adore this King classic, but it also stands out for me in that it’s the only story I’ve ever read that made me physically jump in my seat. A reaction normally reserved for films, I still don’t know how the hell he managed it. Extremely well played, sir.

Different SeasonsStephen King – Different Seasons (1982)

This is more drama than horror – unusual for early King – and it’s a gorgeous collection. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” are superb, and “Apt Pupil” is my single favourite story of all time. It’s the ultimate account of a deteriorating mental state and the Nazi butcher element gives it a palpable, historical reality that frosts the bones. I only have to pick it up and start the first paragraph to end up reading the whole thing again.

James Herbert – Domain (1983)

I was delighted when Jim concluded his giant rats trilogy by throwing in a nuclear holocaust. As well as some gripping and grim adventures in the main story thread, I’ll never forget the claustrophobic vignettes of subterranean survivors about to die. A very formative novel for me.

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984)

Another that isn’t necessarily a genre book, but has all the right elements. And it also parades my favourite opening line of all time, a beautifully wry and ominous teaser that sums up the creepy, dysfunctional ride we’re about to take:

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.

Books bloodClive Barker – Books of Blood (1984/1985)

“The Yattering and Jack”, “In the Hills, In the Cities”, “Son of Celluloid”… there are far too many favourites in this six volume masterpiece to individually name. I’d just end up listing the entire contents. Artful storytelling that’s always head-shakingly imaginative, Barker gets right under the skin where so many others try but fail. He’s never topped them for me. And come to think of it, has anyone else?

Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian (1985)

I love McCarthy, and this brutal western suits his unconventional style perfectly. An onslaught of desert dust, sweat, horrific violence and amorality with one of the finest villains ever created. Nobody forgets the Judge.

Clive Barker – Weaveworld (1987)

Another imaginative tour-de-force from Barker, he really lets the fantasy shine here. Nowhere near as disturbing as his Books of Blood, it still pulls out the trademark darkness when required and deftly avoids whimsy. Certainly his most colourful and fun work.

The Girl Next DoorJack Ketchum – The Girl Next Door (1989)

Abuse at its most harrowing. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever put a book down and took a deep breath, wanting it to stop, wishing I could somehow intervene. Then braced myself, picked it up and immediately had to stop again. As with “I’m the King of the Castle”, once was enough.

The Starry Wisdom – A Tribute to HP Lovecraft (1995)

An indie press publication from the early 90s, it’s one of those eclectic adults-only anthologies that leaves splinters in the brain. Full of original, twisted ideas, it captures that Lovecraftian otherworld atmosphere to a tee. I’ve re-read it several times.

Stephen Laws – Daemonic (1996)

A monster-thriller set in an insane film director’s urban fortress? Sorted. The concept is right up my street, and it’s delivered to the absolute max. A blast.

Poppy Z Brite – Exquisite Corpse (1996)

This hellish serial-killer romance is beautifully told, and as emotional as it is shocking. It made me feel sad and strangely violated for days.

Ramsey Campbell – House on Nazareth Hill (1997)

A superb contemporary haunted house novel, my mouth fell open at the unforgettable finale. Whenever I hear the word Hepzibah, a song starts to jangle in my head and causes a shiver. Even on sunny days. And just now.

Dangerous RedMehitobel Wilson – Dangerous Red (2003)

I never get bored of picking up this slick, punky collection and randomly reading a story or two. I love the dystopian feel, and there’s a texture to the writing that has almost become a comfort blanket. Quite an abrasive one, obviously.

Stephen Volk – Whitstable (2013)

An ominous challenge for an author, this fictional tribute to the wonderful Peter Cushing in his darkest hour couldn’t have been better. It was everything I’d hoped for and more, and I hung off every word.

And that’s your lot. As with all lists, this is subject to change on a whim. Thanks for reading, folks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Matty’s story with authorial introduction here:

Part One

Part Two

H.R. Giger: 5 February 1940 – 12 May 2014

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I was saddened to learn that Swiss artist, sculptor and set designer Hans Rudolf Giger has passed away due to injuries from falling down the stairs at his home. He was 74 years old.

HR Giger

Famous for biomechanical vistas and surrealist sexual nightmares, I became familiar – like many others – via his iconic design of the alien creature from Ridley Scott’s 1979 film. It’s safe to say that the whole mythos, of which I’m an enormous fan, would never have been so powerful without his vision.

Personal favourites are tough to choose from a man with such a rich back catalogue, as I discovered when pondering a Giger tattoo. Whittling it down to a couple, I love Satan I: one of his enigmatic but religiously themed peices that graced the cover of a Celtic Frost album. Anti-establishment? Profane? Let all be the judge.

Giger Favourites

I’m also particularly fond of his haunting homage to Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead” which captured my morbid imagination as a kid. The menacing calm and alluring darkness always draws me back, and it has since overlooked my writing desk for the last 15 years, testament to his ability to inspire.

His work not only speaks to visual artists, but also writers, musicians and countless others. Rarely is someone so missed in such a range of fields, and he leaves an amazing legacy. Not to mention the coolest pub in the the entire world (The Museum, Gruyères, Switzerland)

Giger Bar

This is a sad day for the world of the macabre and surreal, and my thoughts go out to his family and friends.

RIP.

A Trove of Dead Horror Digests

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I was rummaging about in a wardrobe in the back bedroom and found myself getting distracted by a large box full of small press publications from the early noughties.

wicked hollowThe indulgent nostalgia was multiplied by the realisation that pretty much of all of them have since folded. Mostly A5, some immaculately printed, others rough bedroom-printer jobs, there’s a huge variation in editorial and authorial talent, but these played a role in what was a very formative time regarding my own writing.

My favourite has to be Wicked Hollow from Blindside Publishing, a card-stock becovered magazine the size of a wallet that could be slipped into the back pocket to be read on the bus or during a quick break at work. Professionally finished and crafted, the last issue was #9 in 2005, and I see that the website still lives but hasn’t been updated since. It’s somewhat sad when a magazine folds without announcement and the site is left to moulder. I just revisited some quality tales from Simon Strantzas and Anderson Prunty, and it was here that I made my first paid sale with “Snuff Club” back in 2002. Reading that email acceptance from editor Jon Hodges was quite a moment, and to describe it as euphoric is no exaggeration. No writer ever forgets their first.

I enjoyed the sf horror of Burning Sky, edited by Greg Gifune, and discovered writers such as Darrell Pitt and Tim Curran. The exceptionally thoughtful Fusing Horizons introduced me to the likes of Gary McMahon and John Llewellyn Probert, both who have since become favourites. Editor Gary Fry very politely rejected me several times, and rightly so given the quality of these earlier scribblings, before he went on to greater things with the fantastic Gray Friar Press. I was also quite fond of the ultra-small press Dark Angel Rising. A monochrome and endearingly wonky zine from Cornwall in England, it had had real heart, editors who were a delight to correspond with and was my first taste of Amy Grech, Eric S. Brown and Rob Dunbar.

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Talebones, run by Patrick Swenson for many years, was one of the more glossy offerings with quality artwork and reader’s letters. Hit and miss was Andrew Hannon’s Thirteen which has the occasional gem and took an early flash story of mine. I never managed to get hold of that final issue unfortunately, and I believe the magazine folded after a flood at the editor’s office.

I have quite a few issues of the Australian pulp-fest Dark Animus, edited by James R. Cain, which aimed to showcase new writers and featured the early tales of many prolific scribes like Michael Arnzen, Cat Sparks and poet Christina Sng. This also taught me that rejection isn’t necessarily the end of the world – and also to aim high – as one of mine that wasn’t to the editor’s taste went on to be sold for a professional rate elsewhere.

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Others include the wonderfully titled Whispers from the Shattered Forum by Cullen Bunn of Undaunted Press, Flesh and Blood, Frothing at the Mouth and Black Satellite, and I’m thankful to them all for fuelling my love of writing. It was a fun time, discovering that there was much more to the genre than what high street bookstores had to offer, and also that it was possible to get my own work published without an agent or approaching the terrifying giants of the industry. And although some of these were token or “4-the-luv” markets, which attract a lot of heat, it’s how a lot of us started out. Born out of passion rather than an expectation of riches, these digests are gone but not forgotten.

James Herbert 1943 – 2013

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I was saddened to read today that James Herbert has passed away, aged 69.

A British horror author who had a huge impact on the whole genre, he doesn’t need lengthy introduction here at the Hellforge. I’m not going to explain the nature and history of his influence as it has been done many times by better scribes than myself. But everyone who has read and loved an author’s novels has a personal journey and for me, James Herbert was a predominantly formative part of my lifelong love of the macabre.

The FogIt began as a kid when merely seeing the cover of “The Fog” in a bookshop gave me a genuine night terror. I was smitten before I’d even read a word and a couple of years later, even when I was a little more seasoned, many a sleepless night would be inflicted by “Moon”.

Well-thumbed copies of “The Dark” and “The Rats” were passed around the playground and you only had to let the paperback fall open to find the most visited and lurid passages. I can’t imagine it happening now, but a small group of 11 year old boys could be reduced to hushed, attentive silence when one of them pulled a copy of “The Fog” and started to read the school gym massacre. Or the lesbian scene, obviously.

Not unreasonably, I wasn’t allowed the extreme ones by my folks at a young age. But I eventually managed to talk my mum into letting me buy “Fluke” and “The Survivor”, explaining that they weren’t really horror (true), “The Magic Cottage” and “Shrine” as they were just about ghosts and not that bad (hmmm… partly true) and “The Spear” because that was just a historical story, like the war films I watched with my dad (an utter lie). The others were easily borrowed and smuggled, naturally enjoyed more by their forbidden nature, and as time went by, the ban was either forgotten or abandoned and my shelf filled with all those glorious black paperbacks with the stark titles and ghastly artwork.

James Herbert AuthorDue to the content of his work and the slightly creepy author photographs, which was all I had to go on, I’d imagined him to be quite a sinister bloke. But one Halloween, I stayed up late to watch a horror special and saw him in interview. From then on, I understood him to be an eloquent, polite and engaging man with a warm twinkle in his eye. The mystery died a little, but the respect grew.

He was also a huge creative inspiration to me at this time, and I churned out many a derivative excercise-book novel, complete with short titles involving the definite article and covers that swiftly depleted my red and black felt tips.

I continued to enjoy his books after school, though mostly lost touch after the excellent “48” in the mid 1990s as his output slowed, and revisited last with “The Secrets of Crickley Hall”. But despite his reputation, I always appreciated the way he strove to improve and expand his craft rather than just treading water with the same-old through the years. The explanations for his graphic beginnings always made perfect sense, but his passion and professional attitude drove him forward.

I recently reread “Domain”, being a fan of apocalyptic fiction and giant rats, and was pleasantly surprised at how well it had aged. I particularly enjoyed the set-piece deaths from briefly introduced survivors: ghastly intermissions from the main action. The first time around, the chapter involving a man trapped in a bunker with the neighbour’s despised cat didn’t even require an appearance from the rats to have a tremendous effect on me. It began a slightly masochistic obsession with entombment that still manifests itself – worryingly often – in my own writing today. Reading it again was an extraordinary combination of nostalgia, therapy and realisation.

I never met James Herbert, and had toyed with the idea of attending FCon last year – at which he was a guest – but it was not to be. There’s more than a few amateur stories in a box in my loft that wouldn’t exist without him, and he is responsible for many good times to which a weathered section of my bookshelf will attest. And as I still have a couple of his later works to read, the journey isn’t over yet.

James Herbert OBE

My thoughts go out to his family and friends, and I’m glad at least that his passing was peaceful. A pioneer, a gentleman and a very fond slab of many a childhood.

RIP, sir.

The Demise of Murky Depths

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Sad news. Murky Depths, the anthology of graphically dark speculative fiction, has closed its doors after an 18 issue run.

It’s always been a favourite of mine, and I was lucky enough to have a story appear in the final issue. But despite great reviews and a British Fantasy Award, it has gone the way of many small press publications before it. Visit the site here for lots of great offers on back issues. Fortunately, the publishing arm of the House of Murky Depths will continue to produce paperbacks and graphic novels.

I salute editor and publisher Terry Martin for his perseverance in such a difficult field.