Review – “Dead Shift” by John Llewellyn Probert

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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.

“Nothing.”

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 Hammer of Dr. Valentine” by John Llewellyn Probert

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Nothing perks my horror soul up more than classic Hammer films and John Llewellyn Probert fiction, so throw the two together and all is very much well with the world.

The Hammer of Dr. ValentineThis novella from Spectral Press is a direct sequel to “The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine”, which was a tribute to Vincent Price. In that first story, we saw Dr. Edward Valentine out for Phibes-esque revenge on those he blamed for the death of his daughter. Naturally, this leaves the Bristol police baffled when he starts offing doctors in the methods of the actor’s more gruesome films, but even when they pick up the scent, the obsessed killer is always one step ahead. Full of twists, dry dialogue, and gleefully complicated death scenes, it was a delightful homage and one of my favourite reads of 2012.

In “The Hammer of Dr Valentine”, two years have passed since our favourite brilliant and deranged surgeon completed his assault on the medical community and escaped with an ostentatious flourish. Now he’s back, and more than a little disgruntled by the way certain journalists reported his rampage. As a man of integrity and refinement, he hates the vulgar tactics and sensationalist lies of the gutter press, so emerges from retirement to embark on another spree of meticulously flamboyant murders. And hurrah for that!

The book’s opening scene is superb, describing a man being launched from a Welsh clifftop by catapult to be impaled – with military precision – on a golden crucifix positioned in the valley below. Showing just how much planning and effort Dr. Valentine puts into his executions, this sets the wry tone and leaves us hungry to see what’s coming next.

It soon becomes apparent that this time around, rather than Vincent Price, the entire Hammer films canon is our killer’s inspiration. Jeffrey Longdon is back, the wonderfully jaded and cantankerous old-school detective who pursued Dr. Valentine through the first book. Pulled from a cosy rural job to take on the case, he’s more weary and irritated than alarmed by the grisly shenanigans, and it’s a joy to see him back. I’d go for a pint with him.

Another major character is John Spalding, a horror film expert and author who’s also on Dr. Valentine’s list. But although the format of this book is similar to the first – switching between the outrageous and imaginative vignettes of murder and the efforts of Detective Longdon and his colleagues – there is a slightly different ambience. Many of the doctors killed in the first book elicited a degree of sympathy. Although flawed, they did not deserve such horrible fates, and their actual guilt of any professional wrongdoing was also debatable. But this time around, the journalists are a much more odious bunch. The author lines up a fine array of unpleasant tabloid hacks and manipulative liars for Dr. Valentine to despatch, and the story almost develops a voyeuristic feel as we eagerly anticipate their sadistic deaths. It’s also fun guessing what ghastly method or film reference might be up next – some are subtle, some in your face – so I won’t spoil your enjoyment by giving any of them away.

John Llewellyn ProbertThe author’s prose is erudite, rich and dripping with wit, and this complements the characters and action. You don’t just the enjoy the story but the very telling of it, and being regaled in this quintessentially British and elegant voice is quite powerful when people are being killed in such abominable ways. While there is plenty of macabre humour, this book isn’t just played for laughs, and the author gauges it with the tension and nastiness just right. Although the mystery is lighter than in the first tale – we now know the killer’s identity, past and true motives – it didn’t make any difference to my enjoyment, and it’s one of those slick, sharp pieces that would only get bogged down by a complex plot.

I loved “The Hammer of Dr. Valentine”.  The sumptuous camp and gothic atmosphere of Hammer is seamlessly fused with an edgy, contemporary setting and it all ends on a perfectly over the top note. It takes an author with consuming passion for classic cinematic horror to write these beautifully crafted homages, and I genuinely can’t imagine a better man for the job than John Llewellyn Probert.

So go ahead and enjoy, and read “The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine” first if you haven’t done so already. Let’s just hope that in the meantime, somebody other than doctors or journalists have managed to get on the wrong side of the fiendish Dr. Edward Valentine. I can’t wait to see where he turns to get his creativity flowing in the next instalment.

Highly recommended.

Review – “Demons & Devilry” edited by Stuart Young

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Everyone has things that stoke a warm familiarity, and the cover (and title) of this book from Hersham Horror made me nostalgic.

D&DNot only does a similar image adorn many a beloved metal album, but it also reminds me of big white smocks, suspicious chanting and Peter Cushing looking terribly serious.

This niche of horror isn’t as popular nowadays, as the focus has shifted and demonic chills are rarely sought from the likes of Dennis Wheatley. But quaint though it may seem, there’s nothing finer than a bit of gleeful devilry (I love that word) whether you have fond memories of it or not. I was pleased to discover that this solid line-up have done diabolism proud and brought plenty of new tricks to keep the concept fresh.

Kicking things off is “The Abhorrent Man” by Peter Mark May. This colourful tale takes us back to the sacking of Carthage in 146BC and a search of the “Eye of Hannibal”, a treasure said to contain a djinn. One that may well cause terrible trouble years later when the site is subject to an ill-advised excavation by Dr Marsden and his supernatural researchers. With exotic locales, powerful talismans and all kinds of hellfire, this is an appropriate opening to such a book, and the theatrical dialogue and knowing pay-off made me smile.

Next up, childhood chills abound in “Little Devils” by Thana Niveau. We meet Arabella and her younger sister Pippa exploring a building site with friends. It’s forbidden fun and scares at first, but things start to get out of hand when they find dead rats and a campfire strewn with bones. And even more so when one of them suddenly starts to speak Latin. The characterisation is crisp, the pecking order and peer politics of children are spot on, and I felt rather sorry for the tag-along Pippa. Very well written, this piece descends into a black magic spectacle, full of all the blood and goat-horns you could wish for.

The relentlessly superb John Llewellyn Probert is up next with the “The Devil in the Details”. This begins with a subtly humorous description of a Welsh coastal house – at midnight naturally – that’s been modified for satanic sacrifice. We then meet our heinous protagonist, Maxwell Chantry, who with the help of an equally nefarious surgeon and torturer, is repeatedly attempting to raise the devil and failing. Or has he failed? This splendid piece brims with ivory-handled sacrificial daggers, naked virgins, and amusing dialogue, but don’t be fooled into relaxing too much by the tone. There’s plenty of nastiness and a definite chill beneath the playful twist.

David Williamson’s “The Scryer” introduces Dan, who lives in a council flat with his low income family. After inheriting a manor house in the countryside from a distant relative, he finds an ornate mirror in the enormous cellar along with some black mass paraphernalia. I love an evil mirror story, and this one is pleasingly Pan-esque and features a great aura of malevolence and nails the corruption of the susceptible. Dan’s not the nicest of people anyway, and his descent into darkness– and the hesitant unease of his previously confrontational wife and daughter – is well presented. Although the tale has a fairly standard finale for this kind of thing, it’s a well crafted and enjoyable piece.

Last up before the black velvet curtain closes is Stuart Young’s “Guardian Angel”. This is the longest tale – a novella no less – involving Becky and Sajid, a shelter and youth worker. Having being led to believe they’re meeting clients to secure funding, they find themslves caught up in some horrific satanic shenanigans in a seedy S&M stripclub. This is a sexually charged piece that doesn’t hold back, featuring some wild and trippy scenes that involve raped angels, airbourne detached septums, and the most ghastly and original use of a scorpion I’ve ever encountered. The scenes of violence are striking and written with flair, and the tension is built through some deft scene-switching between earthly and hellish realities. The characters are tangible, particularly ex-pimp and converted Muslim Sajid, whose internal conflicts ring true. And I loved his prison/street demeanour, especially when confronted with a demon and deciding that the “fucker was all front”. The pace was occasionally dulled by some confusing religious lore, which seemed unnecessarily complex and included details not crucial to the plot. But the story is full of sharp phrases, vivid description and twists, and it concludes the anthology with a flourish.

If Demons and Devilry sounds like your particular chalice of virgin’s blood, then you’ll find plenty to satisfy here. Despite the old-school theme, these tales aren’t dated or stale, they’re contemporary homages to the cause of all things arcane and infernal. And with such a stark appearance and title, it’s also a fun book to brandish in public. Dig out the black candles and enjoy.

Review – “Differently There” by John Llewellyn Probert

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An ordinary hospital side room is the entire stage for this splendid new novella from Gray Friar Press.

We meet Paul Webster, a 41 year old man about to undergo major surgery for a rare and aggressive type of cancer that he may not survive. As night falls upon the eve of his operation, he attempts sleep but it is disturbed by distorted memories from his past. As the night progresses, the dreams become infiltrated with scenes from his lifelong passion for horror and fantastic fiction, and he realises that something very dark is using these memories to pursue him.

DifferentlyThereI loved this novella. Told in the present tense to great effect, it begins with a thorough but delightful description of the unremarkable hospital room in which the story takes place. The author’s wit and natural storytelling lend this a slightly whimsical tone, but the humour is countered with blunt reminders of the terrible lows that such a room has witnessed as well as the highs.

A few pages in, Paul enters the room – overnight bag in hand – and the tone cools to a stoical, British melancholy. He proves to be a likeable, sensible fellow, so naturally we’re drawn into his world. The inevitable fears, fragilities and hopes of somebody about to undergo a life-threatening operation are perfectly rendered, drawn as they are from the author’s recent experience with major surgery, as explained in a heartfelt afterword.

In most fiction, I find dreams rather irritating, often as distractions from what’s really happening. But here, the altered recollections are both beautifully painted and satisfyingly tangible. This is aided by the intrusion of the supernatural menace and strengthened by our empathy.

I pondered a couple of potential twists half way through, as this author is no stranger to the wry finale, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But I was pleased to discover on this occasion that “Differently There” isn’t that kind of tale. The finale is appropriate and powerful, and functions as a very pleasing bookend to the plot.

While it certainly has its sharp chills, there is not quite the gleeful ghastliness that fans of this author may expect. This is a much more reflective piece where memory and mortal fear collide, which isn’t surprising given the circumstances of its conception. There’s enormous heart and dignity to be found, and John Llewellyn Probert shows that he can take his craft in a slightly different direction and still very much deliver. As Ramsey Campbell said, horror is lucky to have him. “Differently There” shows exactly why.

Review: “Anatomy of Death” edited by Mark West

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Bacon, Mains, Probert, Volk and West. Now there’s five names I’m always happy to see and here they are, lured together to form this ghastly anthology of short stories from Hersham Horror. The binding theme is sleaze, which sounded splendid to me, and is born of editor Mark West’s fondness for the lurid films and gruesome paperbacks that exploded onto the scene during the early 70s.

AODWriting for such a theme unshackles an author from any pesky constraints of morality and reality, so prudes and gentle souls bolt for the exits now. The gents don’t hold back and the pages bleed with sex, violence and all manner of unnatural monstrosities. And hurrah for that! But Anatomy of Death (In Five Sleazy Pieces) has much more to offer, and provides plenty of humour and substance along with the base thrills.

First up is “Pseudonym” by Stephen Bacon. One of the quieter tales, as expected, this concerns a childhood fan of a horror novelist, now grown up, who finally gets the chance to interview his old hero. The visit to the writer’s gothic mansion is a joy – straight out of Hammer – and there’s plenty of mood and a sobering shock. This tale reflects on how the past infiltrates the present, and also the evolution of horror; old school versus the new. Effortless to read, the author’s genre passion shines through, and perhaps we were all terribly wrong in thinking that those books we used to love were just intended to be a bit of fun…

A complete contrast follows, and Johnny Mains – editor, writer and general sage of this niche of horror – delivers with the gloriously titled “The Cannibal Whores of Effingham”. This about sums it up, concerning a brothel where men disappear, staffed as it is by beautiful carnivores. But they might’ve bitten off more than they can chew when somebody visits who’s even better at the art of murder. Shamelessly rude and gory but tongue-in-cheek with it, this tale has little characterisation, but that’s not the point and it’s carried instead by the possibilities of the premise. And although the shock value dwindles as the story progresses, the curiosity of how it will pan out just keeps growing. A cartoon nasty with a twist, the author also has a treat in store for readers familiar with his previous works.

“Out of Fashion” by the inimitable John Llewellyn Probert presents yet another change in tone. A shorter piece, it concerns a Victorian doctor who invents medical devices and is worried about current trends towards aesthetic plastic surgery. One night, he is called upon to perform a terrible operation, and the repercussions of the menace he discovers daren’t even be breathed. I had high hopes for this story and John ticks all the boxes with elegant surroundings, intrigue and monstrous horrors from the depths. His warm, educated style is perfectly suited to the content, and as Mark said in his introduction, it’s impossible not to imagine Peter Cushing as the lead.

Next up is my favourite. I can’t even write this without grinning and shaking my head at the gleefully offensive wedge of unpleasantness that is “The Arse-Licker” by Stephen Volk. It’s narrated by an underwhelming businessman who relies on shallow ingratiation rather than effort to succeed, but one day finds that a new staff member is threatening his carefully crafted web of bullshit. Immediately engaging and cleverly told, the author manipulates our sympathies back and forth to a drawn-out climax of cringe-inducing black comedy. This story is far better than it has any right to be. The ingredients are wrong – a protagonist lacking in investable traits, a plot that relies on its outrageously vulgar showdown – but the author refines it into a very impressive piece of fiction. And I still can’t get the taste out of my mouth. Cracking stuff.

Finally, Mark West neatly rounds of the book with a trip back to the long hot summer of 1976. In “The Glamour Girl Murders”, a London photographer is hunting the right model for a shoot with Penthouse magazine, but accidentally stumbles across a kidnapping that involves some kind of beast. The story opens bravely with a girl being chased, and manages to snare the reader despite not having yet had the opportunity for characterisation. The cast is strong, the dialogue and storytelling tight, and I loved the aura of sleaze that clings to the pages like the sweltering temperature; heat waves can be used to great effect to induce sticky claustrophobia in the reader, and Mark succeeds admirably. To me, it resembles a British version of Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam”: the sweat, the paranoia, the cultural attention to detail. To quote the beast: “Lovely…”

I really enjoyed Anatomy of Death; in fact I demolished it in one sitting. “Just one more, then I’ll get up and do stuff…” was the repeated cry, but this slim, well-ordered volume had other plans. It’s deftly edited, the genre tropes are handled with affection, and there’s plenty of variation despite the specific theme. The stories shine with the quirks and particular strengths of each author, and if you’re not familiar, you could do worse than getting acquainted here.

This is a professional anthology for readers who like their horror sleaze delivered with a wry, self-aware wink.

Recommended.

Review – The Amicus Tributes of John Llewellyn Probert

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Fans of old-school British horror will fondly remember Amicus studios. Popular in the 60s and 70s, Amicus favoured modern portmanteau anthologies such as Asylum, From Beyond the Grave and Tales from the Crypt, providing an alternative to the saucy period gothic of Hammer. If you’re a fan of these movies, or just enjoy intelligent, wry and entertaining horror fiction, then these two books from Gray Friar Press are certainly for you.

Faculty“The Faculty of Terror” and “The Catacombs of Fear” are standalone collections, each bound by a sumptuous framework story. In the former, a young man is invited to dinner at a creepy university building one damp night where storytelling is to be the order of the evening. In the latter, a nervous priest arrives at his new post in a sinister black cathedral, and must learn the shocking experiences of his parishioners.

The tales transport us to a wide array of locales, such as a rain-lashed urban office block, an isolated cottage in the Welsh valleys, and an illegal surgeon’s lair in the back streets of Calcutta. We meet all manner of characters, including a beautiful wheelchair-bound ballerina, a group of murdered asylum seekers, and a ghost in a photo booth. I tried, but couldn’t for the life of me pick a favourite story. Every single one is an expertly-crafted slice of macabre.

The author writes with a crisp, educated prose that moves the tales along at a confident pace towards their final twists. Some of them conclude with dark humour, others with moments of true horror, both poignant and shocking. The twists themselves are in the spirit of the Amicus films, but wonderfully inventive and easily avoid well-trodden horror punchlines.

CatacombsI particularly enjoyed it that music features prominently in several of these stories, be it in the form of composers, musicians or instruments (including the most grisly church organ ever created). As the old Amicus films were beautifully scored, this adds an appropriate element of theatre and also a layer of authenticity to the text.

I can only hope the author pens another installment. John Llewellyn Probert’s imagination is a national treasure, and perfectly suited to this brand of horror. He gets away with lurid and cruel material with his eloquent, delightful tongue – he isn’t afraid to tell a tale right down to the bone – but there are no cheap shots. It’s unusual for such traditional technique and atmosphere to be merged with modern content. It’s even more unusual that it succeeds so mightily.

Complete with genuinely interesting introductions, interviews and story notes, these books are available from the publisher below. Be brave and give your spine a well-deserved tingle. You won’t be disappointed. Just amused, disturbed and very glad that you discovered them.

Gray Friar Press

John Llewellyn Probert