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 Perfect Time for Night Terrors

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It’s a chilly, dark friday the 13th, and a most appropriate day to release a horror anthology, which is exactly what the folks at Blood Bound Books have done. Night Terrors II is available as of now, and contains my story “The Wager” which is kind of a stab at nasty but wry Pan Book of Horror style of writing. It was fun, anyway. And also has a splendid cover.

It’s available here and soon from Amazon and the like. All things considered, I feel a lurid horror film beckoning. In fact, that cover kinda reminds me of Creepshow. Sorted.

Review – “The Harm” by Gary McMahon

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The decision to get comfortable with a big mug of tea and no impending commitments before beginning this novella turned out to be only half correct. I was right in suspecting “The Harm: A Polyptych” would be devoured in one sitting. I should, however, have had a mug of neat whisky for the chill that now curls around my insides.

The HarmGary’s latest novella from TTA press is a thought-provoking, gripping tale. The plot revolves around three young men – Tyler, Roarke and Potter – who were horrifically abused as young boys in a disused warehouse on the bank of a canal (a location beautifully rendered for the cover by Ben Baldwin).

It commences with a traditional, narrated introduction to the scenario – similar perhaps to one of Clive Barker’s more whimsical works – which is an unusual and pleasant surprise. But once the story begins, any such fond familarities are swiftly demolished.

We first meet Tyler, a moderately successful family man, on a dismal night out with his colleagues from work. The depiction of bland, urban life is tremendous – in which even a birthday visit to a nightclub is depressing – and it soon begins to curdle into something nasty. Strangers and family begin to treat Tyler with violence, unprovoked, and the scene is set for a classic McMahon spiral into his damaged past.

Next is Roarke, a violent criminal who rules his deprived neighbourhood with fear. His nightmare begins when he falls asleep half-drunk on a night bus, and finds himself in a silent and unfamiliar part of town.

Last of the trio is Potter, a very lonely man with sexual issues and an unhealthy affection for illegal execution videos. He discovers, just like his old friends, that the ghosts of his childhood experience will not relent. The Harm… almost a literal beast of despair in this book.

The terrors that befall our haunted protagonists seem disjointed and random at first, but by the claustrophobic conclusion, it has all fallen into place. This one of those rare treats that inspires reflection, both upon the themes and mechanics of the story itself, and also the world around us.

There’s a real sense of the ephemeral nature of life, and just how fragile it is. Gary uses this to bring humanity and frailty to the characters, whether they be sympathetic or odious. It hammers home the sickening power of abuse, and the insidious ways in which the legacy of damage spreads, while at the same time being a very tight and grimly entertaining horror tale.

I highly recommend this book. Gary’s prose is as rich as ever, evoking atmosphere in every detail, without drifting into excess. Along with the flowing snippets of dialogue, it brings colour to the bleakest of horror landscapes. There are a few surprises, but rather than being a story that relies on shocks, The Harm delivers ice-cold realisation.

Excellent.

Gary McMahon

TTA Press

Tide of Souls – Simon Bestwick

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A recent addition to Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead line, I expected this to be a zombie horror-thriller. And while indeed it is, there’s far more to Simon’s novel than necrotic innards and masticated brains.

Britain is being consumed by floods, and as the terrified population attempt to climb away from the creeping waters to safety, it becomes clear that drowning or starvation are the least of their worries. The murky depths are home to an army of green-eyed undead. Control and hope is soon lost, the semi-devoured victims rising from where they fall to replenish the ranks of their slayers.

The story follows the plight of three characters. The first is Katya Wencewska, an educated and tough Polish immigrant whom we meet imprisoned in the Manchester brothel where she is forced to work as a sex slave. The pace begins at a breathless rate, as Katya breaks out of her flooded vice cell to the rooftops to fight off the watery horde.

Robbie McTarn is an ex-soldier, steeped in alcohol and post-traumatic-stress, who finds himself called back into service to embark on a dangerous mission across the bleak, drowned Lancashire countryside. His orders are to find Ben Stiles, a brilliant but damaged scientist who may have some answers regarding the rotting scourge that is consuming the world.

These are no ordinary zombies. I’ve seen genre fiction in which the dead are nothing but a brainless, relentless eating machine. There are also ones that display cunning and intelligence. This, paradoxically, can sometimes make it less scary; you can’t plot or scheme against something that has no capability to learn or any sense of self-preservation. Well, Simon’s undead fall somewhere between the two with a pleasing twist, and the results are fascinating.

The back stories of our protagonists, and the way their lives become entwined, are delivered in snippets with the skill of a practiced writer. The characters themselves are believable, each displaying a realistic voice of experience (the novel is presented as three 1st person accounts) and empathy is never a problem.

Tide of Souls is refreshingly unpredictable, and also quick to resolve threads before they drag on past their welcome; some writers misjudge a reader’s patience with suspense, but here, the timing is always spot on.

This is also an incredibly visual book, packed with images both haunting and loud. To present one example, at the outset of McTarn’s tale, we join a group of military as they watch handheld footage of some soldiers investigating an office block that are beset by the horde. The experience made me feel as though somebody had triggered a strobe-light in my brain, and the memory of this scene is almost as though I’ve actually seen the horrific video myself, bringing similarly unpleasant moments in Aliens and Event Horizon to mind. Excellent stuff.

So any gripes? There’s a military commanding officer who’s a dick, which made me think yeah, yeah, yeah, but as it works so well here, maybe it is the fault of lesser writers for making this a cliché. It did jar that it comes as a shock to one character when he discovers that infection is spread via the undead’s bite. As this story is set in our world, one could presume that their entertainment media is just as full of zombie fiction as ours, so wouldn’t they just assume that if you get bitten, you’re screwed? I’ll concede that while this is a tricky one, it’s an issue that I wish more horror writers would address.

But these are the only complaints, and I had to be pedantic to find them. This is a powerful, entertaining novel written in crisp, addictive prose. The first two segments brim with action – brawls upon precarious boats, melees involving some serious military hardware (which are startling in their realism) and an immense bodycount – while the third favours a creepy rather than explosive tone. The scientist’s account takes us to a very different place, offering some degree of explanation, pathos by the barrel, and ties up this memorable and grisly package.

Based upon Tide of Souls and also Simon’s collection Pictures of the Dark, his name has joined the ranks of those whose future fiction I shall purchase without hesitation.

Simon Bestwick

Abaddon Books

Review – “Conjure” by Mark West

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The cover of this recent offering from Rainfall Books didn’t lure me. While perfectly appropriate for the novel’s setting, and fair play for spurning cliché, it seemed rather bland. But within a couple of pages, I’d immediately warmed to Mark West’s literary world.

Conjure features Beth Hammond and her boyfriend Rob, a newly pregnant and cash-strapped couple from London who win a short break in the cheap, British seaside resort of Heyton. We meet Beth on her way home through the bustle of a London rush hour, and discover that she has a gift. She can see dead people.

The other characters are gradually introduced, their reassuringly average lives drizzled into the mix, which makes a pleasant change from books that bellow from the first paragraph, terrified that you might lose interest. But Mark has the cool confidence of a storyteller who doesn’t have to resort to tricks to snare a reader.

Once Beth and Rob travel to the coast, we soon learn that there is more to Heyton than the pier, the rides and the fish and chips. The town has a chilling history that quite literally won’t stay buried.

Despite the initial lack of action, Conjure fosters suspense from the outset and nudges it up as the novel  progresses. The back story of the malevolent spirit – a wronged and murdered woman – who threatens our pregnant protagonist  is presented in neat, almost teasing little doses, often in the form of visions that come alive from the page.

Mark excels at dialogue and characterisation – real people we come to know – and these unconnected folk slowly merge, at first barely brushing past each other in the plot until they are entwined. The setting is perfect, and reminded me of several faded resorts: old fashioned and hard-up, but soldiering on with a stiff but weary upper lip. I particularly enjoyed the gothic cinema. It’s a wonderful place that I would love to visit, and now actually feel as though I have.

Mark also has the knack of making relatively trivial things seem important – the way they are in real life – such as when a man driving a JCB accidentally damages an iconic war memorial in the centre of town. By making us care about lesser troubles, the moments of brutal horror that lurk around the corner have infinitely more impact.

Conjure flaunts some genuinely spooky moments. A scene in which Beth is trapped inside a toilet cubicle made me writhe and I could barely wait for her chance to escape. When a spontaneous holiday snapshot captures the ghost on film, it was descibed in such a way that it raised goose-pimples down my arms. The ghost uses mind control and amnesia, and the confusion of its unfortunate puppet – a tough, local family man – is expertly portrayed. It becomes difficult for the reader to judge the perpetrator, despite the depths of his crime. Overall, the supernatural element works so well because the author merges it with fears we understand such as abduction and infanticide.

This is a strong short novel written in sharp prose. The plot is somewhat generic, but it is well executed and avoids cheap twists. The tale builds up to a finale that manages to feel classic yet original at the same time and concludes with a tasty uppercut, just in case you’d forgotten who was in charge.

At only 140 pages, it’s possible to finish in one sitting, which is a good job. Just one more chapter, then it’s time to get some sleep, I kept saying to myself as the night advanced. But Conjure had other ideas.

Mark West

Rainfall Books

Review – “Depraved” by Bryan Smith

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Upon picking up Bryan Smith’s latest Leisure release, I expected the oft-trodden path of innocent folks blundering into the backwoods and falling foul of snaggle-toothed hillbillies. But I discovered very early on that Depraved also has plenty of tricks up its filthy little sleeve.

depravedCentred around the isolated town of Hopkin’s Bend, the hideous inhabitants are preparing for their annual holiday feast, and no prizes for guessing what, or who, is on the menu.

This book has all the genetic mutation, cannibalism, murder, dismemberment, rape and torture that you could hope for, but the impressive bodycount doesn’t stifle a dark sense of humour. The story itself moves at a breathtaking rate. Within minutes of the off, the main characters are all in terrible jeopardy or running for their lives, and it’s very much to Bryan’s credit that I cared, despite having only just met them.

It’s also an extremely visual read – colourful and evocative – as we travel from the dirty, forest shacks and their inbreeding families, to the grim, sound-proofed rooms and glistening flesh of the town’s strip-joint. The Sin Den is an inspired creation, a horrific and lurid gem; think Porky’s meets 8mm.

Like much of Richard Laymon’s work, Depraved strikes upon how normal people, in certain circumstances, are capable of extreme violence and will even stoop to unnecessary atrocity. The transformation of the protagonists did seem to occur a little too quickly here, although I suppose the hook is that we’re all only a gentle push from savagery. However, I prefer this possibility insinuated, and at times the story explains it too clearly. But overall, this is a minor gripe.

The second half is an assault, and never stops twisting as we discover more about Hopkin’s Bend and the corruption, sex slavery and ancient evil in which it is steeped. Yes, there’s a good old-fashioned curse. I found this supernatural angle less interesting at first, but its execution and resolution is fiendish, and it also delivers a snippet of extreme bizarro so debauched that I didn’t know whether to laugh or put the book down in disgust. I suspect that either reaction would have pleased the author.

This book is a genuine page-turner, an overused phrase I don’t particularly like to apply, but one that is too appropriate in this case. There are truly gripping moments and Bryan is a master of edge-of-your-seat chases and escape attempts. It’s also been a while since I’ve read a novel epilogue so satisfying, and I put the book down with a low, slightly nasty chuckle.

Depraved is noisy, sick, and certainly not for all, but if it sounds like your cup of blood, then get ready to clink glasses with the devil. You’re going to have fun.

Review – “Different Skins” by Gary McMahon

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You know that moment when you hear a new band, read a book or watch a film that strikes a deep chord, and you realise with excitement that you’ve just discovered somebody seriously worth following? It happened to me almost a year ago when I first read a story by Gary McMahon.

We fade to greyThat story was “Heads” in We Fade to Grey, an anthology of horror British horror novelettes of which he was also the editor. A supernatural descent of a tale, I was immediately struck by two things.

Firstly, it was the flavour of the prose, conjuring place and atmosphere through tiny details, but never at the expense of story. The second thing was the strength of the characters. So real and genuine, they felt more like people I’d actually met, at once involving me in their plight, however unpleasant this might be.

Dirty prayersHungry for more, I purchased “Dirty Prayers” (Gray Friar Press) and “How to Make Monsters” (Morrigan Books) and demolished them with glee. These are wildly imaginative collections, infused with horror in the purest sense of the word, but also tremendous humanity. We meet broken people, shrouded in guilt, love, anger, rejection and loss, and we feel their fear and pain. As Tim Lebbon has pointed out, Gary’s writing has soul.

 

The monsters in his stories take all forms. Sometimes, they are small-scale; psychopaths, ghosts and the potential for madness. Other times they’re the vast, metaphorical beasts of cities, societies and governments. This is horror for you: the normal person living a normal life surrounded by the lurking shadows and frustrations of the 21st century that affect your existence, perhaps without recognition.

MonstersWe live in a world populated by the damaged, and much of Gary McMahon’s world seethes with anger. He is a writer whose patience with ignorance or stupidity has run dry, and his craft has no time for the beaten path. You would think that this would be depressing reading, but the stories have such colour and vibrant life, despite the subject matter and the terrible trials that weigh down our long-suffering protagonists, that the end result almost seems hopeful. But only almost. The author has a refreshing aversion to happy endings.

But anyway, on to Different Skins, his latest release from Screaming Dreams: a short book of two novellas that sports delicious artwork from Vincent Chong.

SkinsIn “Even the Dead Die”, London is a seething hive of threat, and an early metaphor sums up the metropolis: “overcrowded streets filled with vacant, directionless zombies who see nothing past the bubble that surrounds them”.

We meet the city through Mike, a man boiling with frustration, who begins to encounter old faces (or are they ghosts?) on the city streets, drawing him down into the nightmares of his past. He meets a young tattooist by the name of Sheena, who initially appears to be a pleasant antidote to his lonely madness, but actually has terrible baggage and secrets of her own and will serve him as a guide rather than a distraction.

This excellent story has a sobering concept of the afterlife, and ponders that what may seem like poetic justice in this life could all be rendered cruelly irrelevant. There’s also Lovecraftian vibe, the feeling that reality is just a fragile skin over something infinitely more ghastly.

I thought the second novella “In the Skin” would struggle to scale the bar set by the opener, but I needn’t have worried. This is a stunning piece of writing.

A man returns to his troubled wife and young son after a business trip to New York to discover that things have changed; his world is suddenly askew and sinister, his son is slipping away and morphing into something horribly other.

We all know that feeling of awaking from a nightmare, when the terrifying experience is still fresh and overwhelming. Few writers can capture this helpless, unpleasant place to be on the page. Well, Gary McMahon can. And he can do it very well.

There are similar themes to the first story. His New York is cleaner yet more dishonest than his London, and no less grim, and the claustrophobia is maintained even when the city is forsaken for the English countryside. “In the Skin” also has a poignant family aspect, used in this instance to chilling effect. The tale gathers weight, increasingly intriguing and uncomfortable in equal measures, until we collide with the mindblowing conclusion: absolute horror at its bleakest and most raw.

Different Skins is a succinct summary of a talented writer at the height of his powers, and one that I would use as front-line ammunition against any detractor of our beloved genre who reckons that horror is tired, shallow and contrived.

So what are you waiting for?

Gary McMahon

Screaming Dreams

(If you can find a copy, I would also recommend “Rain Dogs” from the sadly defunct Humdrumming press, and be sure to bag a copy of the imminent “Hungry Hearts” from Abaddon books, Gary’s first and very well deserved mass market novel release)