You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann

Spooky but short…

😀 😀 😀

Our narrator is a screenwriter who had a big success with his last film – a light buddy movie. Now he’s under pressure to come up with a script for a follow-up and he’s struggling. So he takes his wife and young daughter to an isolated house in the mountains of Germany where he hopes he’ll be able to write. But the house seems to have been built on some kind of nexus that distorts space and reality, and people have disappeared from it before…

This is a pretty standard scary story, made fun by the quality of the writing and the elements of humour. Our narrator is not exactly likeable – he likes to think of himself pretentiously as an artist although his successful screenplay seems to have been nothing more than a bit of fluff, as his wife is kind enough to point out. He might also not be reliable – he’s under stress, his marriage is rocky and it’s possible these things are causing him to imagine things. But it’s also possible that strange things really are happening – he believes they are anyway. And as the book progresses, the strange things become increasingly spooky, creating a real spine-tingling atmosphere of mild horror. It’s entirely gore and violence free, and largely incomprehensible being loosely based on quantum thingamajigs or something, but there are some lovely moments of real suspense. Kehlmann also plays with many of the clichés of horror – the isolated house, strange villagers giving omens of doom in curious dialects, and so on.

Daniel Kehlmann

Overall it’s a highly entertaining horror story, but no more than that. It’s also very short – by my reckoning probably 80 pages or so (I was reading on Kindle). I’d think of it more as a longish short story than even a novella. And yet it’s being marketed and priced as if it were a novel. If I read this in an anthology I’d be giving it 5 stars for sure. But if I’d paid full book price for it, I’d be feeling extremely short-changed round about now. I’m not sure what the publisher is thinking of really. So I enjoyed it, but can’t recommend it as one to purchase until it’s priced as what it is – a single short story. However, if you stumble across it on offer anywhere, then it’s well worth a read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 2 of 20

Tuesday Terror! Death in December by Victor Gunn

Don’t go into the Death Room!!

crimson-snow

Each time I’ve reviewed one of the British Library anthologies of vintage crime stories, I’ve commented that several of the stories have a touch of horror. The latest collection, Crimson Snow, is no exception. This story is taken from the collection and would be perfectly suitable for a Tuesday ‘Tec post, but instead I’ve decided that it should be this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2Death in December by Victor Gunn

Victor Gunn
Victor Gunn

“Christmas Eve, now, and sundry log fires awaiting us,” said Johnny gaily, as he turned the Alvis’s long nose into the lane. “Ironsides, old sourpuss, we’re going to have the time of our lives. No routine – no murders – no crooks. Nothing but jollity and laughter.”

Johnny Lister and his boss, Chief Inspector Bill Cromwell, affectionately known as Ironsides, are on their way to a Christmas house party at Johnny’s father’s place. General Lister has only recently inherited Cloon Castle to add to his existing collection of mansions, so this is Johnny’s first visit there. Johnny’s high spirits aren’t shared by grumpy old Ironsides…

“The name’s enough to give you a fit of depression,” growled the Chief Inspector. “It’s a wonder they didn’t call it Gloom Castle, and have done with it.”

ironsides-sees-red

There’s snow on the ground and the look of the sky says there’s more on the way as they drive along the entrance road to the castle. Suddenly, a strange figure appears out of the gloom – a man in a “queer, old-fashioned cape, and a high-crowned wide-brimmed hat”. He is staggering and Johnny thinks he must be ill, but by the time the car gets to where the man was standing, he has gone. Johnny shrugs and drives on, but Ironsides growls at him to stop and go back. Johnny protests, but Ironsides insists…

“I don’t know what I think,” interrupted Bill Cromwell. “Either I’m mad, or blind – but I’ll swear that there were no footprints in the snow. Didn’t you notice?”

Back they go, but find no trace of the man nor any footprints. They shrug it off because they are stout Englishmen, but secretly they’re both a little spooked. And the spookery gets worse when, after dinner on the first night, General Lister is persuaded by the assembled guests to tell the story of the Death Room, prompting his guests to ask who’s been given that room…

“Nobody is sleeping in the Death Room,” interrupted the general, almost curtly. “The Death Room is downstairs, and it is always kept heavily locked, so there’s no sense in discussing it at all. It has been locked for over a hundred years.”

the-dead-man-laughs

Naturally, this is too tempting to resist. Although the general is unwilling, one of his guests, a rather obnoxious young man, Ronnie Charton, becomes determined to spend the night in the Death Room and eventually the general is forced to give way. A decision Ronnie soon begins to regret, when he is wakened in the middle of the night by a horrible cry. By the light of the moon he sees a dreadful sight…

Panic seized him – an awful, crazy, nightmare panic. He flung himself round towards the door, his shoes slipping and slithering on the floor, so that he lost his balance and crashed into the end of the heavy table. Rebounding from this, he tottered to the door, and managed to turn the key in the lock. He was breathing in great sobbing gulps, his face turned over his shoulder, staring… staring…

* * * * * * *

Despite the fact that this is actually a crime mystery, it has some brilliantly atmospheric horror writing in it, and Ronnie’s experiences in the Death Room genuinely raised the hair on the back of my neck! The castle is a great setting – only parts of it have been modernised, so there are long unlit cobwebby passages, dark gloomy corners and a family crypt complete with disturbed coffins, not to mention the legend of the Death Room itself. It’s up to Ironsides, with Johnny’s help, to find a rational explanation of events, in which they get no help from poor Ronnie, whose nerves are so badly affected that, after incoherently babbling out his story, he collapses into a state of shock and semi-consciousness. And you remember the snow? Well, it fell… and it fell… and it fell… so no hope of assistance from the outside world for a while…

three-dates-with-death

Johnny’s general air of lightheartedness is a nice foil for Ironsides’ grumpiness, and provides plenty of humour to offset against the horror. Together they make an excellent team. The whodunit part is perhaps easier to work out than the fiendishly plotted howdunit of the ghostly goings-on, and the eventual solution depends on a nice bit of detection. I’d love to read more of the adventures of Johnny and Ironsides – I may have to start a petition to force the British Library to bring some back from the bookish Death Room…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Mezzotint by MR James

An artistic haunting…

the-mezzotint

Last week I featured Rosy Thornton’s deliciously spooky story Mad Maudlin, and to my great pleasure she popped in to the comments afterwards. She confirmed that the pub in the story is indeed The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, as I had surmised, but she then went on to tell me that “At the risk of sounding pretentious, I wrote the story as a sort of homage to M.R. James’s ghost story The Mezzotint in which figures mysteriously appear and disappear from an engraving.” So that seemed like the natural choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Mezzotint by MR James

MR James
MR James

Mr Williams is the curator of the art department of a university and is responsible for acquiring new items. He often does business with a reliable dealer, Mr Britnell. One day he receives the new catalogue from Mr Britnell, together with an accompanying note…

Dear Sir,

We beg to call your attention to No. 978 in our accompanying catalogue, which we shall be glad to send on approval.

Yours faithfully,

J. W. Britnell.

Trusting the man’s judgement, Mr Williams asks him to send the item on approval. When it arrives, it turns out it is a mezzotint of a house…

It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known. It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre.

There is a torn off label on the back which was clearly once the address, but now shows only — ngley Hall,ssex. Disappointed at the ordinariness of the mezzotint, not to mention the ridiculously high price Mr Britnell is asking for it, Mr Williams lays the picture aside, meaning to return it the following day. But that evening Mr Williams has a visit from a friend who, during the course of the conversation, picks up the picture. Mr Williams confirms it’s from Mr Britnell and remarks on the poor quality of it, and the lack of any figures to give it some interest…

‘It’s not worth two guineas, I should think,’ said Binks; ‘but I don’t think it’s so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I should have thought there were figures, or at least a figure, just on the edge in front.’

ghost-stories-of-an-antiquary

Mr Williams looks again, and sure enough…

…indeed there was — hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving — the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.

Assuming he had simply missed the small figure earlier, Mr Williams agrees it makes the mezzotint a little more interesting, and again lays it aside. Later that evening, after dinner, Mr Williams (clearly a sociable creature) has a few more friends in for drinks. He casually hands the picture to a colleague who is also interested in art, without looking at it again himself. So he’s a little surprised when his friend comments…

It’s really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me, and the figure, though it’s rather too grotesque, is somehow very impressive.’

But he thinks no more about it, till he’s later preparing for bed by the light of a single candle…

The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen, he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

Image by mcsorley
Image by mcsorley

* * * * * * *

Well, this is a good little story with some spooky moments! The picture continues to change, gradually revealing a rather horrific story, and when Mr Williams manages to track down the history of the house, he finds that it tells of a tragic crime that took place there some years earlier. It’s well written, with quite a lot of humour as well as the spooky stuff.

I must be honest and say that it didn’t tingle my spine much. It’s imaginative and he tells the story well, but there’s no sense of peril – the picture appears to present no threat to Mr Williams. So while the story behind the picture is scary, it’s distanced from the reader by being seen at a remove, if that makes sense. And all the humour and friendly interactions between Mr Williams and his colleagues take away from any build-up of tension. I know lots of people think of MR James as one of the best writers of ghost stories, and admittedly I haven’t read a lot of him, but his style never leaves me quivering although I do enjoy the imagination and the writing. Truthfully, I found Rosy Thornton’s story much spookier, especially the ending where she leaves it beautifully ambiguous, whereas MR James wraps everything up all nice and neat. So, for me, this is a case where the homage works better than the original…

If you’d like to read The Mezzotint (about 4,500 words), here’s a link.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The propentine took a bit of time out from fretting this week...
The porpentine took a bit of time out from fretting this week…

Tuesday Terror! Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

Buffering…please wait…

sandlands

When I reviewed Rosy Thornton’s collection of short stories set in the Suffolk sandlings, I mentioned that there was an air of mild ghostliness about some of them, and that one of them, in fact, is a “proper” ghost story. So I thought it would be perfect for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Mad Maudlin
by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

The unnamed narrator of the story is staying in The Ship, a pub that features more than once in the stories. (Intriguingly, there’s nothing to identify whether the narrator is male or female, but for pretty vague and possibly sexist reasons, I thought of him as male while reading, so for ease I’m going with he/him throughout.)

I’m looking at a piano. That is, I’m looking at the video image of a piano, because I’m in the half-light of a rented bedroom at the back of a pub after closing and it’s just me and the laptop.

That afternoon, the narrator had filmed in the bar of the pub where locals and regulars had been having a folk session, playing and singing centuries-old traditional songs. Later, in his room, he had found two earlier videos of folk nights in the same pub on a local historical website – one from 1954, and the second from 1979. He has been comparing the three, noticing how little has changed over the years in the bar, and that the same songs are still being sung.

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall - I can't be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall – I can’t be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.

Pubs, I’ve always thought, can be divided into two camps according to the stability of their décor. There are those that undergo a complete refit once or twice a decade, reinventing themselves from Haywain kitsch through ebony veneer and mirrors and back again in accordance with the latest fashion (or in spite of it) like the shifting political colours over some volatile town hall. Then there are others, the ones you’ll generally find me drinking in, where change is so incrementally slow as to be almost imperceptible, as gradual as the softening of the contours of a familiar face.

Even the photos on the wall of The Ship have stayed unchanged over the years – the old football team in their baggy shorts and moustaches…

One or two of the eldest players could be grandfather to the youngest, a grinning lad of twelve or thirteen, as if every able-bodied male in the village had to turn out to make up the eleven – and perhaps it was the case, it occurs to me with a bit of a shiver as I spot the date inscribed below the picture: 1919.

Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall - can't find a date.
Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall – can’t find a date.

One of the photos he spots in the 1954 video is of a woman dressed in the clothes of an even earlier era – a woman with a distinctively cleft chin, giving her a heart-shaped face. The face seems familiar to him…

I’m sure I’ve seen it, or an echo of it, very recently. Just this afternoon, in fact. That’s it: a woman with the same chin sat in the corner seat… and sang ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’ in a soft but sure contralto.

A strong family resemblance, he assumes, not unusual in a small village. Clicking through to the 1979 video, he is astonished to see the same face again, sitting in the same corner seat, singing…

For to see poor Tom o’ Bedlam
ten thousand miles I’d travel;
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
for to save her shoes from gravel…

Daughter, mother and grandmother? But the resemblance is so strong. Hastily he opens up the file of the video he took himself that evening and searches for the woman he had listened to singing…

I let the tape roll on. But as the teenagers linger on their final major chord, modulating to a plaintive minor, and applause stutters around the bar, the scraping chairs and rumbling voices are interrupted not by the woman with the cleft chin, but by the piano again…

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.

He runs through the tape again, but the woman isn’t there. Had he stopped recording before she sang for some reason he’s now forgotten? He hastens back to the 1954 video to look again at the photo…

The camera swings round, and my stomach lurches. The corner chair is no longer empty…

There the woman sits, singing…

So drink to Tom o’ Bedlam,
he’ll fill the seas in barrels.
I’ll drink it all, all brewed with gall,
with Mad Maudlin I will travel.

Now trembling, he clicks again to reopen one of the other files, but now the connection is playing up and all he gets is the maddening rotating circle that tells him it’s buffering. And yet, somehow, he can still hear the singing…

buffering* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is a creepy one! It starts out as if it’s simply going to be an interesting look at the three videos, with some musings perhaps on unchanging traditions in small communities where generations of families still live in close proximity. And even just as that, the quality of the writing and observations make it interesting. But then, gradually at first, Thornton sneaks in a couple of things that are a little odd and a gentle air of unease begins to develop. She reminds us subtly that the narrator is alone in unfamiliar surroundings, in a room above the bar that appears in the films.

Then gradually, as the woman begins to shift from photo to video, sometimes appearing, sometimes not; and then when the buffering begins, and the only lights in the room are the laptop screen and the winking bulbs of the router, and the only sound is the singing… and it still goes on even when the screen freezes… ooh, I say! The ending is left beautifully ambiguous, adding much to the spine-tingling feeling of dread.

A first-class ghost story that relies on tension and atmosphere rather than chainsaws and gore. I loved that Thornton managed to use modern technology so effectively in what feels nevertheless like a traditional style of tale. Great stuff! I wonder if she could be persuaded to write an entire collection of ghost stories…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Tuesday Terror! The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

Revenge is a dish best served Gothic…

the-old-nurses-story-cover

I had no idea Mrs Gaskell had written ghost stories till I read about it on Helen’s great blog, She Reads Novels. Helen said “I love Gaskell’s writing and this is an excellent example of a Victorian ghost story.” So of course I had to seek it out, since it sounds perfect for these dark nights and for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Old Nurse’s Story
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell

The old nurse Hester is telling the children in her care a story about their own mother, whom she also nursed back when she herself was a young girl.

There never was such a baby before or since, though you’ve all of you been fine enough in your turns; but for sweet, winning ways, you’ve none of you come up to your mother. She took after her mother, who was a real lady born; a Miss Furnivall, a grand-daughter of Lord Furnivall’s, in Northumberland.

Sadly, little Miss Rosamond was orphaned when she only about four or five. On her death-bed, her mother made Hester promise never to leave the child, to which Hester willingly agreed since she was devoted to Rosamond. Now Rosamond’s guardians have arranged for them to go to live with an elderly relative of Rosamond’s mother, Miss Grace Furnivall, in a rambling old house in Northumberland…

…we saw a great and stately house, with many trees close around it, so close that in some places their branches dragged against the walls when the wind blew, and some hung broken down; for no one seemed to take much charge of the place; – to lop the wood, or to keep the moss-covered carriage-way in order. Only in front of the house all was clear. The great oval drive was without a weed; and neither tree nor creeper was allowed to grow over the long, many-windowed front; at both sides of which a wing projected, which were each the ends of other side fronts; for the house, although it was so desolate, was even grander than I expected.

the-old-nurses-story-house

At first, all is well. Miss Furnivall is old and rather grim and sad, as is her servant and life-long companion Mrs Stark, but they grow to love the child, and the servants of the house are warm and friendly, welcoming both Hester and Rosamond into their lives. But gradually strange things begin to happen…

As winter drew on, and the days grew shorter, I was sometimes almost certain that I heard a noise as if some one was playing on the great organ in the hall. I did not hear it every evening; but, certainly, I did very often, usually when I was sitting with Miss Rosamond, after I had put her to bed, and keeping quite still and silent in the bedroom. Then I used to hear it booming and swelling away in the distance. The first night, when I went down to my supper, I asked Dorothy who had been playing music, and James said very shortly that I was a gowk to take the wind soughing among the trees for music; but I saw Dorothy look at him very fearfully, and Bessy, the kitchen-maid, said something beneath her breath, and went quite white.

The servants keep up the pretence that nothing is wrong, and Hester is young and brave, so she doesn’t let it bother her. But then, one cold, snowy winter’s evening, Hester returns from church to discover that Rosamond is missing, the only clue to where she has gone her little footsteps in the snow.

the-old-nurses-story-snow

When Hester tells Miss Furnivall what has happened, she is shocked and terrified by the old lady’s reaction…

…she threw her arms up – her old and withered arms – and cried aloud, “Oh! Heaven forgive! Have mercy!”

Mrs. Stark took hold of her; roughly enough, I thought; but she was past Mrs. Stark’s management, and spoke to me, in a kind of wild warning and authority.

“Hester! keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child.” Then, Mrs. Stark hurried me out of the room; where, indeed, I was glad enough to go; but Miss Furnivall kept shrieking out, “Oh, have mercy! Wilt Thou never forgive! It is many a long year ago”

Illustration by mgkellermeyer via Deviant Art
Illustration by mgkellermeyer via Deviant Art

* * * * * * *

Another great one this week! As soon as we get the description of the crumbling old mansion, dark and gloomy because of the crowding unkempt trees and with, of course, a wing sealed off, we know we’re in for a Gothic treat. The writing is excellent as you’d expect, perfectly suited to this style of storytelling. The story starts off slow, giving us time to grow to care about Hester and little Rosamond; and then Gaskell starts to build the tension, gradually at first with the mysterious organ playing, then bit by bit getting creepier and scarier till it reaches its dramatic climax. Along the way, it tells a dark story about pride, jealousy, sibling rivalry, guilt… and awful revenge! The moral of the story is clear…

“Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!”

So true! Thank goodness I was perfect in every way in my youth, but the rest of you must be so worried!

If you’d like to read it, (about 10,000 words), here’s a link. And thanks, Helen, for pointing me in this direction!

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

FictionFan Awards 2016 – Genre Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

The FF definition of ‘genre fiction’ for the purpose of these awards is basically anything that doesn’t quite fit into one of the other categories. I’ve read very little genre fiction this year – in fact, my reading in general is way down due to the depressing effect of world events combined with an excess of tennis watching. Fortunately the comparatively little I have read has had plenty of good stuff in it. This year I’ve also decided to include genre films in this category, since I’ve been reviewing films on the blog a little more, and genre films are often as good or better than the books (a thing I wouldn’t generally say about adaptations of literary or crime fiction). Most of the genre fiction I’ve read have been classics with just one or two new releases.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

fear is the riderFear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook

It’s 50 degrees centigrade outside as John Shaw is driving over one of the most dangerous roads in the Australian outback, and there isn’t a house within two hundred kilometres. A terrified girl has run out in front of his vehicle, running for her life. Now they’re racing along the track, but someone is behind them, and he’s catching up…

This thriller with a horror element is pure action from beginning to end. Cook doesn’t give us any explanations or much character development, either of which would just serve to slow the pace. Neither of the main characters is a superhero – just two ordinary people caught up in an insane terror. The pacing is great – it never lets up! It’s novella length and definitely one to be read in one sitting – no chapters, just a heart-pounding race with a new peril thrown in every few pages, leading up to a truly fab climax. A thriller that’s actually thrilling and isn’t trying to be anything else – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

Danger sign

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the machine stopsThe Machine Stops by EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. But one man is convinced that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing.

Click to see the full review

the machine stops art

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the children's homeThe Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

Morgan was a beautiful young man but a terrible incident has left him so horribly disfigured he can no longer face the world. So he stays holed up in the house his grandfather built while his sister runs the family business that keeps them both wealthy. The only person Morgan lets see him is his housekeeper, Engel. But one day Engel finds a baby left outside the house. The two of them agree not to tell the authorities and so the child becomes part of the household. Shortly after, another child arrives, then another, until before long there are seven of them… and more keep coming. No-one knows where they’re coming from and the children never say, but Morgan is becoming convinced that these children have the power to appear and disappear at will. And soon it seems as if they’ve come for a purpose…

The quality of imagination in this book is matched by the quality of the writing. It reads like a corrupted fairytale, reminding me of Shirley Jackson, with elements of John Wyndham thrown in to the mix. But these references don’t take away from the book’s own originality. There is an unsettling tone of horror under the seemingly bright surface, and the story gets progressively darker as it proceeds. There are parts that are truly shocking and the writing is of such quality as to create some images that stay long after the last page has been turned. Is it sci-fi? Horror? Fantasy? Lit-fic? Yes, to all of the above. It’s the first book for a long time that has had me gasping aloud in shock…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

2001 both1

2001: A Space Odyssey – book and film

The first ever joint winner! The book and film were created jointly and intended to complement each other, and each adds hugely to the enjoyment and understanding of the other, so they can’t be separated.

A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Arthur C Clarke and  Stanley Kubrick developed the basic idea together based on some earlier stories of Clarke’s, although the film does diverge somewhat from the book, especially around the mystical ending. The book, while still leaving much open to interpretation, tells the story much more clearly, while the film concentrates on visuals and effects to create a kind of mystical experience that, in Kubrick’s words, “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

Apparently Clarke said “I always used to tell people, ‘Read the book, see the film, and repeat the dose as often as necessary’”. I heartily concur. Reading the book first turned watching the film into an fantastic experience, and next time I read the book, I’ll have the fabulous images and music from the film running in my head. Two parts that are differently great but which, together, become something uniquely wonderful.

Click to see the book review

Click to see the film review

2001 poster

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Next week: Best Factual Award

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Horror in the Himalayas…

😀 😀 😀 😀

thin airIt’s 1935. When the medic for a Himalayan expedition is injured, Dr Stephen Pearce is asked to stand in. His elder brother Kits is already part of the expedition. There’s always been a sibling rivalry between the two brothers and, although acknowledging that Kits is the better climber, Stephen determines that he too will make it to the summit of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world and as yet unconquered. The team of five men proposes to tackle the South-West Face, a route taken by the earlier Lyell expedition which ended in tragedy after they were struck by an avalanche. Only two survived – Lyell himself, and Charles Tennant who has been haunted ever since by his experiences on the mountain. And so they set off… but Stephen soon begins to feel haunted himself…

After Michelle Paver’s fabulous Dark Matter, my expectations for this chilly ghost story were high indeed. Perhaps that’s why I found this one a little disappointing. I know this is becoming one of my most regular rants, so I’m going to give it a scientific name – FF’s First Law: The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story. This is a short book in comparison to most, coming in at 240 pages, but nonetheless it is too long for the story it tells. The result is that the first half, more or less, is simply a long description of the trek to the mountain and the setting up of the first camps, with a narrator who finds everything either disappointing or horrible. (“Well, I never expected this. The glacier’s horrible.” “More bloody cairns. I do wish they’d use flags.” “I don’t care for the knoll.” “I can’t get used to how cramped it is in my tent.” “Just now, he called me over to admire a giant ‘flower’, its trumpet head a blotched greenish purple, and bowed, like a cobra about to strike. He says it’s a snake lily. I think it’s revolting.”) I assume all this negativity is designed to show us, firstly, that the environment is harsh and unwelcoming and, secondly, that his mental state is already precarious, but I quickly found I had an overwhelming urge to shove him off the mountain.

kangchenjunga south-eest face

It’s very well-written and gives a real feel for what a climbing expedition of that era would have been like, so in that sense it’s interesting but, although there is some foreshadowing of events to come, the anticipated atmosphere of impending horror doesn’t really take off until past the halfway point. Then, after the main events which really only fill about a third of the book, there is a long and unnecessary wrap-up in which we learn more than we need to about what happens to some of the characters in their future.

The bit in the middle where the horror actually happens, though, is excellent, right up there with Dark Matter. This is not gore-fest horror – it’s all done with things half-glimpsed and subject to interpretation. As we learn more about the history of the previous expedition, the story turns dark and cold indeed, and Paver feeds us the information bit by bit, creating a rising feeling of dread that tingles the spine nicely. By this stage the expedition has reached about 22,000 feet and each of the men is feeling the effects of altitude, so that even the narrator is not sure if what he is experiencing might be a result of hallucination. Paver is excellent at using the extreme weather and physical danger to add to the psychological terror and paranoia that have taken hold of Stephen’s mind.

Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver

Thinking about it, the book might actually have worked better without the horror element though. The story of the dynamics within the group and their patronising air of superiority to the Sherpas and “coolies” who accompanied them is very well done, as is the description of the practicalities and difficulties of the climb. Kits’ and Stephen’s relationship is an interesting and credible picture of the rivalries that can happen between brothers, especially when, as in this case, the elder brother inherits enough wealth to allow him to pursue his dreams while the younger brother must earn a living. Paver is very strong on the nuances of class, as she was also in Dark Matter. But, for me at any rate, the anticipation of horror to come meant that much of this seemed extraneous in the context and merely served to slow things down.

I’m struggling to rate it. Somehow it falls between two genres and as a result doesn’t quite work as well as it might have done had it concentrated on either. But both writing and characterisation are excellent, it has an authentic feel to the descriptions of the expedition, and the horror when it comes is skilfully done. So, while it didn’t quite meet my hopes for it, I enjoyed it overall and would happily recommend it, especially to people who don’t mind a slow build-up to their fix of horror.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Oh, ye of little faith…

young-goodman-brown-cover

For this spookiest week of the year, where best to head but to that town whose name will be forever associated with witchcraft and devil-worship. Salem! Birthplace to Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself descended from one of the men who interrogated the Salem witches and helped send them to their death. So this story seems like a perfect choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Young Goodman Brown
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Dearest heart,” whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, “prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeard of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year.”

Young Goodman Brown resists this pathetic plea from Faith, his pretty, loving young wife, and heads off into the forest just outside the town. We soon learn that evil is afoot…

“Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night. But, no, no! ‘twould kill her to think it.”

He begins his journey through the dark and gloomy trees…

It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.

spooky woods

Suddenly he sees a man sitting beneath a tree. They recognise each other, and it transpires the meeting is not by chance. They are both going to a meeting in the middle of the forest in the dead of night. (It doesn’t really bode well, does it? And it gets worse…) The older man, it appears, is the Devil himself, in human form…

But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.

…and Goodman Brown is on his way to be taken into communion with those who worship him. But the Goodman is doubtful. He thinks of all the good people of the town and how hard it will be to look them in the eye on the morrow – and he thinks of his Faith, sweet, gentle creature, waiting anxiously for him to come home.

But the Devil tells him he will not be alone in the town, and reveals the sins of many of those Goodman Brown has looked up to all his life…

“…here are they all, in my worshipping assembly! This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youth have made haste to inherit their father’s wealth; and how fair damsels – blush not, sweet ones – have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral.”

young-goodman-brown
Illustration by Micah Clegg

Still Goodman Brown holds out, the thought of Faith holding him firm in his resolve. But the Devil has more to tempt him with yet…

* * * * * * *

Well! This is a great little story, very well written and full of wickedness and evil. But the message! What exactly is the message? It appears that if one goes over to the dark-side one might be damned for eternity but otherwise everything will be quite jolly. But if one rejects the Devil and all his works, one is destined to be a miserable old so-and-so for the rest of one’s life and die in gloom and despondency! I was expecting it all to end either horrifically or with a big dose of uplift. Instead it’s totally depressing! Oh dear!

“Lo, there ye stand, my children,” said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. “Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”

Yeah, fine, Hawthorne, but you could have put up a bit of an argument, surely! I mean, he’s the Devil, for goodness sake! He’s bound to have a slightly skewed outlook on life!

Illustration by Corinna Roberts
Illustration by Corinna Roberts

Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do a bit of sinning. No point wasting any more time trying to be good…

(Having got that off my chest, actually I think it’s a great story – but have some medicinal chocolate on hand to aid recovery. That’s where I made my mistake!)

If you’d like to read it (about 5000 words), here’s a link.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

No wonder the porpentine's praying!
No wonder the porpentine’s praying!

Tuesday Terror! Doom of the House of Duryea by Earl Peirce Jr

Get out the garlic…

weird-tales-october-1936

Vampires have been done to death in recent years – it turns out it’s not a stake that kills them after all, it’s over-exposure. However they have been a mainstay of horror more or less since the genre began, so time to don a thick scarf and go off to meet some, in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Doom of the House of Duryea
by Earl Peirce Jr

Can't find an author pic this week, so this'll have to do...
Can’t find an author pic this week, so this’ll have to do…

Young Arthur Duryea has come to a hotel to meet his father for the first time in twenty years. He has been living with his Aunt Cecilia, who has filled his head with tales of horror concerning his father, but now Cecilia is dead, and Arthur has come to believe her stories weren’t true.

“Ever since I was twelve years old I have disbelieved Cecilia’s stories. I have known that those horrible things were impossible, that they belonged to the ancient category of mythology and tradition. How, then, can I be indignant, and how can I hate you? How can I do anything but recognize Cecilia for what she was—a mean, frustrated woman, cursed with an insane grudge against you and your family? I tell you, Dad, that nothing she has ever said can possibly come between us again.”

His father Henry wants them to spend some time together in an isolated lodge in Maine to get to know each other again. But first he wants to be sure Arthur truly understands the events of twenty years earlier, and still trusts his father, so he tells him what happened…

“You must know that true basis to your aunt’s hatred. You must know of that curse—that curse of vampirism which is supposed to have followed the Duryeas through five centuries of French history, but which we can dispel as pure superstition, so often connected with ancient families. But I must tell you that this part of the legend is true:

“Your two young brothers actually died in their cradles, bloodless. And I stood trial in France for their murder, and my name was smirched throughout all of Europe with such an inhuman damnation that it drove your aunt and you to America, and has left me childless, hated, and ostracized from society the world over.”

No other explanation was ever found for the death of the two boys. Arthur had also been in the house that night, but in a locked room (hmm) so he survived. Despite this tale of horror, Arthur feels his father could not have done such a thing, so agrees to the trip.

Nothing to do with this story but... well... who cares?!
Nothing to do with this story but… well… who cares?!

However, once in their lodge far from other humans, when the night is dark and a storm is raging outside, things look rather different. Arthur is feeling tense and headachy and his throat hurts, all symptoms he puts down to his father’s stew (hmm) until he comes across a book in his father’s belongings which tells the legend of the curse of the Duryeas…

But this vrykolakas cannot act according to its demoniacal possession unless it is in the presence of a second member of the same family, who acts as a medium between the man and its demon. This medium has none of the traits of the vampire, but it senses the being of this creature (when the metamorphosis is about to occur) by reason of intense pains in the head and throat. Both the vampire and the medium undergo similar reactions, involving nausea, nocturnal visions, and physical disquietude.

Oh-oh!

* * * * * * *

Well, this is quite fun! It was originally published in the Weird Tales magazine in October 1936. In truth, it’s not the best written story in the world, with quite a lot of unexplained things stuck in to make the story work – like why one baby would have been sleeping in a room barred from the inside, for example, while the other two were in a different nursery, nicely accessible to any hungry bloodsucker who might be passing. The twist is fairly obvious from early on too. It’s important not to overthink it, really… 😉

Original spoilerish illustration from Weird Tales
Original spoilerish illustration from Weird Tales

But nonetheless it’s quite an enjoyable read, with an original feature (to me, at least) of the vampire only succumbing to his worst nature when a “medium” is present, who must be another member of his family, and only feeding on members of his own family too. (One tries hard not to feel it’s miraculous the family has managed to survive this long…) And the climax is quite well done, using the storm and Arthur’s growing fear to get a nice bit of horror going.

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀

The porpentine is fairly relaxed about his one...
The porpentine is fairly relaxed about this one…

Tuesday Terror! The Other Wing by Algernon Blackwood

Wandering along the Nightmare Passage…

spooky-corridor

I have a recurring dream that happens whenever I’m feeling particularly stressed, which fortunately is quite rare. It’s not a nightmare exactly but it feels unsettling. I believe it’s quite a common stress dream. It varies, but the fundamentals are always the same. I am in a big house, which I know in my dream though I don’t think it’s based on a real place. It’s not a spooky house, but it’s full of long corridors and odd corners that lead to rooms that are never used. Someone is lost, and I am looking for them – usually a cat or dog, but sometimes a relative or friend. That’s it – I look for them and I can’t find them. Nothing bad happens and there’s no reason in the dream to think it will. Still, the wandering, looking and not finding leaves me uneasy…

So when I tell you this story made the hair on the back of my neck rise, you’ll understand why…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Other Wing
by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood
Algernon Blackwood

It used to puzzle him that, after dark, someone would look in round the edge of the bedroom door, and withdraw again too rapidly for him to see the face.

Young Tim is a boy of about eight or nine years old, living with his loving family and servants in a big old Elizabethan mansion. Since his older brother went off to boarding school, Tim has slept alone. He’s not exactly scared of his mysterious nighttime visitor – in fact, if anything he thinks of it quite affectionately. Even though some strange things happen at night…

When the coals settled with a soft and powdery crash, he turned his eyes from the curtains to the grate, trying to discover exactly which bits had fallen. So long as the glow was there the sound seemed pleasant enough, but sometimes he awoke later in the night, the room huge with darkness, the fire almost out — and the sound was not so pleasant then. It startled him. The coals did not fall of themselves. It seemed that someone poked them cautiously. The shadows were very thick before the bars.

Tim often wonders where his night visitors come from – where they spend their days. One day, after a conversation with his mother, he decides that they must live in the Other Wing – a wing of the great mansion long closed off, and forbidden to the children. So, of course, Tim has imagined all kinds of things about the Other Wing…

He believed it was inhabited. Who occupied the immense series of empty rooms, who trod the spacious corridors, who passed to and fro behind the shuttered windows, he had not known exactly. He had called these occupants, “they”, and the most important among them was “The Ruler.” The Ruler of the Other Wing was a kind of deity, powerful, far away, ever present yet never seen. And about this Ruler he had a wonderful conception for a little boy; he connected her, somehow, with deep thoughts of his own, the deepest of all. When he made up adventures to the moon, to the stars, or to the bottom of the sea, adventures that he lived inside himself, as it were — to reach them he must invariably pass through the chambers of the Other Wing. Those corridors and halls, the Nightmare Passage among them, lay along the route; they were the first stage of the journey.

So one day, when his parents are away, he sneaks past the servants and in through the green baize door that is usually closed, but on this day is mysteriously open, to search for the Ruler who, he now believes, is his midnight friend. And to his surprise, the Other Wing is exactly how he had imagined it… and he finds himself walking along the Nightmare Passage, carrying his grandfather’s old walking stick, until suddenly a door opens…

For the door opened with instant swiftness half an inch, a hand emerged, caught the stick and tried to draw it in. Tim sprang back as if he had been struck. He pulled at the ivory handle with all his strength, but his strength was less than nothing. He tried to shout, but his voice had gone. A terror of the moon came over him, for he was unable to loosen his hold of the handle; his fingers had become a part of it. An appalling weakness turned him helpless. He was dragged inch by inch towards the fearful door. The end of the stick was already through the narrow crack. He could not see the hand that pulled, but he knew it was gigantic. He understood now why the world was strange, why horses galloped furiously, and why trains whistled as they raced through stations…

* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is good! It’s brilliantly written to get just that sense of unease of things half-glimpsed and not fully seen or understood. Tim’s youth means he’s beautifully unscared of things that leave the adult reader shivering deliciously. It’s not at all horrible or gory – fear not for little Tim, he will survive unscathed! In fact, one could almost think the whole thing had been a nightmare, if it were not for the… but no, that would spoil the story! You shall just have to imagine the ending…

Or perhaps you’d like to read it for yourself – here’s a link. It’s a bit longer than usual – about 7,500 words, but it’s worth it. Genuinely spooky, but also quite fun, and Tim is a great little hero, full of courage and goodwill. One for those of us who prefer our spookiness to come with a feel-good ending…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯😯😯😯

Overall story rating:           😀😀😀😀😀

terrified porpentine

 

Tuesday Terror! Poor Old Bill by Lord Dunsany

The Captain’s curse…

a-dreamers-tale

Now the nights are drawing in and the spooks are stirring in readiness for their annual shindig, it’s time to indulge in some soul-harrowing, blood-freezing and raising of hair like quills upon the fretful porpentine. So to start the season nicely, here’s one you might not want to read while eating, for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Poor Old Bill
by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany
Lord Dunsany

 

On an antique haunt of sailors, a tavern of the sea, the light of day was fading… Talk was low and seldom, and I was about to leave, when a sailor, wearing ear-rings of pure gold, lifted up his head from his wine, and looking straight before him at the wall, told his tale loudly…

The sailor tells of how he and his companions were on a sailing ship in exotic, far distant seas. Their captain was a cruel man, and a strange one…

We all hated the captain, and he hated us. He hated us all alike, there was no favouritism about him. And he never would talk a word with any of us, except sometimes in the evening when it was getting dark he would stop and look up and talk a bit to the men he had hanged at the yard-arm.

One day, the ship arrived at some low nasty-looking islands, on which were little cottages with thatch reaching almost to the ground and small, queer dark windows…

And no one, man or beast, was walking about, so that you could not know what kind of people lived there. But Captain knew. And he went ashore and into one of the cottages, and someone lit lights inside, and the little windows wore an evil look.

poor-old-bill-cottages

The night after he returned to the ship, the men became aware that the Captain had acquired a new skill…

Next night we found that he had learned to curse, for he came on a lot of us asleep in our bunks, and among them poor old Bill, and he pointed at us with a finger, and made a curse that our souls should stay all night at the top of the masts. And suddenly there was the soul of poor old Bill sitting like a monkey at the top of the mast, and looking at the stars, and freezing through and through.

From then on, the cruel Captain made the men ever more miserable, casting their souls into the green water or to the top of the masts, or even to the cold, cold Moon…

It was quite dark when we got back, and we were very respectful to Captain all the next day, but he cursed several of us again very soon. What we all feared most was that he would curse our souls to Hell, and none of us mentioned Hell above a whisper for fear that it should remind him.

At last the men decided to mutiny, but poor old Bill talked them into partial mercy – rather than killing the Captain, they would leave him on a desert island with enough supplies to last him for a year. Poor old Bill! Little did they know that, even at a distance, the Captain would still have the power to curse them, preventing them from making landfall on any shore. And the Captain’s food would last longer than theirs…

It was horrible to us to think what a frugal man Captain really was, he that used to get drunk every other day whenever he was at sea, and here he was still alive, and sober too, for his curse still kept us out of every port, and our provisions were gone.

Well, it came to drawing lots, and Jim was the unlucky one. Jim only kept us about three days, and then we drew lots again…

Jim may have been unlucky, but not as unlucky as poor old Bill…

26_sime_1910_dreamerstale_birdofriver

* * * * * * *

This is a great little story to bring the porpentine out of hibernation! Despite the hanged men and the cannibalism, it’s actually quite humorous because of the way Dunsany tells it. “Poor old Bill” becomes like a refrain running through it, just to keep you aware that however bad things seem, they’re going to get much, much worse. The language is perfect for this kind of tale, ornate and a little overblown. I understand he was a major influence on the porpentine’s old pal, HP Lovecraft, and there are certainly some similarities in style; but, in this one at least, Dunsany keeps to the point better than HPL usually does, and keeps his descriptions brief, though they’re no less effective for that.

I could imagine it as a campfire story, read aloud to bloodthirsty children, with them all gradually joining in each time poor old Bill gets a mention. In the story, the teller of the tale’s “wild eyes shone” the darker it got. I can imagine that Dunsany’s eyes may have had more of a twinkle while he wrote it – or perhaps a wicked glint. My first introduction to Dunsany – won’t be my last!

If you’d like to read it (approx 2000 words), here’s a link.

porpentine-5

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday Terror! The Secret of the Growing Gold by Bram Stoker

Wages of sin…

 

Having been kept awake all winter, the fretful porpentine is now off for a relaxing summer break in a spa hole-in-a-tree.

sleepy porpentine

But before he goes, one last chance for his quills to stand on end, with another Irish entry for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror

The Secret of the Growing Gold

 

by Bram Stoker

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Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker

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Two families live side by side, each once proud but now fallen, both in wealth and honour. The Brents are of high stock, while the Delandres are of yeoman class. When Margaret Delandre suddenly goes to live at Brent’s Rock, now home to Geoffrey, the last direct descendant of the family line, the scandal is great, for it is unclear if they have married. Margaret is a wild, evil woman and frankly Geoffrey is no great prize either.

He was almost a type of a worn-out race, manifesting in some ways its most brilliant qualities, and in others its utter degradation. He might be fairly compared with some of those antique Italian nobles whom the painters have preserved to us with their courage, their unscrupulousness, their refinement of lust and cruelty – the voluptuary actual with the fiend potential. He was certainly handsome, with that dark, aquiline, commanding beauty which women so generally recognise as dominant.

We do?? I mean, yes, of course, we do!

 

Well, such a combination is always likely to lead to the occasional tiff…

One thing would lead to another, and wine flowed freely at Brent’s Rock. Now and again the quarrels would assume a bitter aspect, and threats would be exchanged in uncompromising language that fairly awed the listening servants.

But during a trip abroad, Margaret meets with an accident when her carriage, conveniently being led by the exceedingly trustworthy Geoffrey, falls over a cliff. Her body is never recovered.

Some time later, Geoffrey meets a nice young Spanish lady and this time falls genuinely in love. They marry and he brings her to Brent’s Rock, and for a time all seems well. Until one day, Margaret’s brother Wykham Delandre…

…suddenly awoke to see standing before him some one or something like a battered, ghostly edition of his sister. For a few moments there came upon him a sort of fear. The woman before him, with distorted features and burning eyes seemed hardly human, and the only thing that seemed a reality of his sister, as she had been, was her wealth of golden hair…

begorrathon 2016

This vision tells him that she has come for revenge, not against Wykham (even though they had a severe case of sibling rivalry taken to extremes) but against ANOTHER! Later that night, Geoffrey’s bride is awakened as if by the sound of a latch opening. She does what any sensible woman would do in such circumstances – sends her husband down to investigate while she stays in bed…

…trembling, too frightened to cry, and listened to every sound. There was a long pause of silence, and then the sound of some iron implement striking muffled blows! Then there came a clang of a heavy stone falling, followed by a muffled curse.

Suffice to say, things are never quite the same again in the happy household…

* * * * *

This is a good little story, full of nasty people who deserve all they get – well, except for the new bride, who should probably have resisted feeling dominated by those dark, aquiline good looks. (Let that be a warning to us all, ladies! From now on, we should only go for blonds).

It’s in the gothic tradition of walled-up bodies and corpses that simply will not stay dead! But it has an original scare factor, which I must admit I found genuinely creepy. The moral of the story is that you should never argue with a man while he’s guiding your carriage along a cliff-path – or possibly that you should never go down to investigate strange noises in the middle of the night – or maybe that, when burying a body, you should take special care to do it thoroughly…

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

* * * * *

Wondering who the gorgeous mystery man is in the top gallery? Prepare to be even more scared…

Tuesday Terror! The White Cat of Drumgunniol by J Sheridan Le Fanu

Who’s afraid of the big, bad cat?

 

Since it is Reading Ireland Month, it seems only appropriate that we should have a bit of Irish horror before the nights lighten and the porpentine goes into hibernation. And any story with “White Cat” in the title already chills me to the marrow – my Tommy may have the occasional black blobby bit, but I suspect that’s just to lull people into a false sense of security. But he’d never harm me… would he?

2014-01-08 00.02.09

Anyway. Let’s find out what his doppelganger is up to in this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror

The White Cat of Drumgunniol
by J Sheridan Le Fanu

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J Sheridan Le Fanu (source: wikipedia)
J Sheridan Le Fanu

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The story is told to the narrator by Daniel Donovan, a teacher, a simple, honest man with a “dreamy mind”. Dan tells first of an experience he had as a boy, while sitting reading by the little lough on the property, a deep pool. He saw approach a woman wearing an out-dated long grey dress…

When she came near I could see that her feet were bare, and that she seemed to be looking steadfastly upon some remote object for guidance. Her route would have crossed me—had the tarn not interposed—about ten or twelve yards below the point at which I was sitting. But instead of arresting her course at the margin of the lough, as I had expected, she went on without seeming conscious of its existence, and I saw her, as plainly as I see you, sir, walk across the surface of the water, and pass, without seeming to see me…

Dan still finds the memory of that day terrifying as he connects it in his mind with a curse that has afflicted his family for over eighty years. He explains by telling of one day long ago, when his father, having attended the local market, returned late in the evening. His face drawn and pale, he sat by the fire, unable to face the meal his wife had prepared. She berated him for having eaten elsewhere, until eventually he told her what had happened on the way home…

‘There’s something happened that leaves me that I can’t ate a mouthful, and I’ll not be dark with you, Molly, for, maybe, it ain’t very long I have to be here, an’ I’ll tell you what it was. It’s what I’ve seen, the white cat…pushin’ out o’ the long grass at the side o’ the path, an’ it walked across it, in front of me, an’ then back again, before me, the same way, an’ sometimes at one side, an’ then at the other, lookin’ at me wid them shinin’ eyes; and I consayted I heard it growlin’ as it kep’ beside me—as close as ever you see—till I kem up to the doore, here, an’ knocked an’ called, as ye heerd me.’

Mother and son were both horrified, for they knew the meaning of the appearance of the white cat. And sure enough, within a month, the father had taken a fever and died.

lady in white

Dan then tells the story of why the family seems to live under this curse. It all dates back to the time when his grand-uncle, Connor Donovan, betrayed Ellen, a young woman to whom he had made promises, by marrying another woman for money. Poor Ellen died of a broken heart (pre-feminism, obviously). Connor continued on his selfish rather cruel way, until one evening…

As he approached the ‘gap’ he saw, or thought he saw, with a slow motion, gliding along the ground toward the same point, and now and then with a soft bound, a white object, which he described as being no bigger than his hat, but what it was he could not see, as it moved along the hedge and disappeared at the point to which he was himself tending…

‘Twas not long after this that Connor met his death. But as he lay in his coffin, it became clear the white cat had not finished with him yet…

* * * * *

This is a good little story, though not overly scary. Le Fanu builds up the atmosphere with some beautifully Gothic descriptive writing…

I have looked round on the peculiar landscape; the roofless, ivied tower, that two hundred years before had afforded a refuge from raid and rapparee, and which still occupies its old place in the angle of the haggard; the bush-grown ‘liss,’ that scarcely a hundred and fifty steps away records the labours of a bygone race; the dark and towering outline of old Keeper in the background; and the lonely range of furze and heath-clad hills that form a nearer barrier, with many a line of grey rock and clump of dwarf oak or birch. The pervading sense of loneliness made it a scene not unsuited for a wild and unearthly story.

And his use of dialect within the speech adds interest without making it difficult to follow, even if a few of the words are unfamiliar. It’s a straightforward tale, told as if true, and although the narrator (who I assume is Le Fanu himself) hints that the surroundings are such as may turn a man’s mind towards superstition and fancy, he describes Dan in such a way as to make him seem a level-headed and truthful man. So it’s very much left up to the reader to decide…

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link…

Now if you’ll excuse me, Tommy wants his tummy tickled, and I think I’d best obey…

2010-11-23 20.57.23

 

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

begorrathon 2016

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This post is part of Reading Ireland Month 2016 – #begorrathon16 – being jointly hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hydeThe eternal battle of Good v Evil…

A man and a child accidentally bump into each other at a street corner – a normal everyday incident. But when the child falls down, the man deliberately tramples over her, ignoring her screams of pain. When he is stopped by passers-by, he shows no remorse. This is the reader’s first introduction to Mr Hyde, a man who has no obvious deformity but gives off an air so repellent that strangers passing him in the street shudder without knowing why. But this man has some kind of hold over the eminently respectable and well-known scientist, Dr Jekyll, who not only pays compensation for Hyde’s actions, but also gives him the run of his own house, and has made out his will in Hyde’s favour, leaving him everything should Jekyll die… or disappear. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer is at a loss to understand, but feels it his duty to discover more about the mysterious Mr Hyde…

Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him.

Because the story has become so phenomenally well-known, the reader is way ahead of Mr Utterson, the lawyer. In the novella, it’s not till near the end that it’s revealed that Mr Hyde is the result of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. But it’s so well written that knowing the story doesn’t hamper enjoyment in any way. Stevenson builds up the tension and horror beautifully, with one of the best uses of London fog I’ve come across, both as providing a cloak for wickedness and vice, and as a metaphor for the darkness within each human soul. Darkness features throughout, with fog rolling into houses, and Mr Utterson having to face the terrifying climax with only the feeble flicker of a candle to light his way.

The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm... no obvious deformity?
The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm… no obvious deformity?

A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare.

Dr Jekyll refuses to tell Mr Utterson anything about his strange friend, but assures him that he could get rid of Hyde any time he chose. Mr Utterson has to accept that and let the matter rest. But one day, months later, a woman looking out of a window sees a horrifically brutal murder take place. The description she gives of the murderer could only be of Hyde. Mr Utterson races to Hyde’s address in sleazy Soho, but too late! He has vanished! Dr Jekyll seems nervy and upset, but after a while begins to get back into his old routines. Then some weeks later, Mr Utterson receives a visit from Dr Jekyll’s servant – it appears that Mr Hyde is back…

The Spencer Tracy version from 1941
The Spencer Tracy version from 1941. Ah, much better!

I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two… If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path… no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

There is more than an element of morality tale about the story. Dr Jekyll has always liked to indulge his vices – mostly left, incidentally, to the reader’s imagination, which works so much better than lengthy graphic descriptions would have done. But now that he has become a well-known figure, he has to think about his reputation. So he decides the solution is to split his personality between good and evil. But the experiment doesn’t work the way he hopes – the Hyde side is indeed purely evil, but the Jekyll side doesn’t change – he still retains all his vices and weaknesses even when in that guise, and gradually the Hyde side begins to take control. The suggestion is that, if one gives in to one’s evil side, it will always become dominant, so we must guard against it at all times. It’s not nearly as preachy as I’ve probably just made it sound, though. First and foremost, it’s a thrilling, chilling tale of horror!

Great stuff! I hereby forgive Stevenson for boring me in Kidnapped! And now to watch the film…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Tuesday Terror! Not for the faint of heart…

The stuff of nightmares…

 

Normally I stick to short stories for the horror slot, but many of our greatest poets have also turned their hand to curdling the blood from time to time. So here, from the pen of one of the most prolific poets of all time, Mr Anonymous, comes a tale so dreadful it’s not surprising cruel parents use it to torture their children into fits. If you’re brave enough, read on for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror

A tale of horror by Anonymous

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Mr Anonymous's nicer brother...
Mr Anonymous’s nicer brother…

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Three blind mice! Three blind mice!

Already Anonymous tears at the reader’s gentle heart with this pathetic depiction of our main protagonists. What happened to them, we wonder? What dreadful event left them in this sorry condition? Anonymous leaves the backstory unfilled, leaving the reader palpitating with dread…

three mice

See how they run! See how they run!

Poor little things! What are they running from? What terrible pursuer do they fear? The repetition acts to drum home to us the dire awfulness of their situation…

tom chasing jerry

They all ran after the farmer’s wife

Ah! The reader is overwhelmed by a sense of relief! Thank goodness there’s someone there who can save them, protect them, nurture them! But Anonymous is playing dark, disturbing tricks with the poor reader’s sensibilities. (You may want to get out a tissue before you read on…)

three blind mice 3

She cut off their tails with a carving knife

Whaaaaaaaaaattttttttt?!? She did what?!? What is she, some kind of monster?? Now the poor little things are not only blind but tail-less!

three blind mice

Did ever you see such a thing in your life?

No, Anonymous, I did not! Not until you put the horrible idea into the middle of my nightmares anyway. You sick person, you! I hope someone chops your tail off!!!

three blind mice 2

As three blind mice!

Oh, that’s right, you sadistic creep! Rub it in, why don’t you? I hope the Pied Piper of Hamelin brings the rats round your way…

Rat 4

* * * * * * *

Oh, I’m ever so sorry! I don’t know what came over me there! Do forgive me!

* * * * * * *

Certainly the poem wins on rhythm and rhyming structure, but it’s far too graphic and gruesome for my taste, and Anonymous fails to give adequate insight into the motivation of the farmer’s wife. While it would be hard to forgive her under any circumstances, perhaps she had some terrible childhood experience that would go some way towards at least explaining her actions…

mickey mouse

Anonymous, too, one feels, must have had a traumatic childhood, when one considers some of his other works…

Humpty Dumpty – the tragic, gruesome death of an egg.

humpty dumpty

Sing a Song of Sixpence – four and twenty blackbirds are thrust live into a baking oven. One feels that when the maid’s nose was pecked off it was a form of just revenge.

pecked off her nose

Rock-A-Bye Baby – a child is first abandoned and then hurled to its almost certain death.

rock a bye baby

Now I think about, the mice got off fairly lightly…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀

* * * * * * *

(Some people think that the farmer’s wife represents Mary Tudor – Bloody Mary – and the mice are three Protestant bishops she burned at the stake. Somehow I don’t find this explanation much more comforting than the mouse version…)

three blind mice bishops

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Tuesday Terror! The Well by WW Jacobs

Ding, dong, bell…

 

murder at the manorWW Jacobs is best known for the truly terrifying tale of The Monkey’s Paw. When his name cropped up in Murder at the Manor, another of the British Library’s anthologies of classic crime, I assumed he must also have written detective stories. However the collection’s editor, Martin Edwards, explains that, though Jacobs is primarily a writer of macabre stories, this story has been included because it is a study of the consequences of crime.

Macabre indeed! A perfect story for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror

The Well by WW Jacobs

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WW Jacobs
WW Jacobs

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Two men stood in the billiard-room of an old country house, talking. Play, which had been of a half-hearted nature, was over, and they sat at the open window, looking out over the park stretching away beneath them, conversing idly.

Jem Benson is soon to marry the woman he loves – Olive, a sweet young girl who idolises him. His friend Wilfred Carr is, as usual, short of money and as they chat in the billiard room he asks Jem to give him a loan, as he done often before. But Jem has had enough…

“Seriously, Jem, will you let me have the fifteen hundred?”
“No,” said the other, simply.
Carr went white. “It’s to save me from ruin,” he said, thickly.
“I’ve helped you till I’m tired,” said Benson, turning and regarding him, “and it is all to no good. If you’ve got into a mess, get out of it.”

But Carr won’t give up so easily. He knows something about Jem’s past, something that would make the idealistic Olive see him a new and unflattering light… and he can prove it…

His cousin reached forward suddenly, and catching him by the collar of his coat pinned him down on the table.
“Give me those letters,” he breathed, sticking his face close to Carr’s.
“They’re not here,” said Carr, struggling. “I’m not a fool. Let me go, or I’ll raise the price.”

And Carr walks out into the garden… and disappears. When his absence is noticed, Jem explains by saying they had a row over money and Jem sent him off…

“I don’t think we shall see him again.”

the well 2

* * * * *

The well, which had long ago fallen into disuse, was almost hidden by the thick tangle of undergrowth which ran riot at that corner of the old park. It was partly covered by the shrunken half of a lid, above which a rusty windlass creaked in company with the music of the pines when the wind blew strongly. The full light of the sun never reached it, and the ground surrounding it was moist and green when other parts of the park were gaping with the heat.

The following evening, Jem and Olive are strolling in the grounds when Olive takes it into her head to wander towards the old well. Jem does his best to dissuade her, but she likes to sit there on the edge of the well surveying the wilderness around it…

“I like this place,” said she, breaking a long silence, “it is so dismal –so uncanny. Do you know I wouldn’t dare to sit here alone, Jem. I should imagine that all sorts of dreadful things were hidden behind the bushes and trees, waiting to spring out on me. Ugh!”

(Isn’t she just so sweet and innocent?) As they sit there, canoodling, not to put too fine a point on it, Olive wonders when they will next hear from Wilfred, asking Jem to help him out as usual. She is startled by the bitter way Jem responds…

“You don’t know much about him,” said the other, sharply. “He was not above blackmail; not above ruining the life of a friend to do himself a benefit. A loafer, a cur, and a liar!”

the well 3

At this moment, Olive suddenly leaps up with a cry! Jem asks her what the matter is…

“I was startled,” she said, slowly, putting her hands on his shoulder. “I suppose the words I used just now are ringing in my ears, but I fancied that somebody behind us whispered ‘Jem, help me out.'”

Shivering, Jem pleads with her to come away from the well, but she’s an obstinate little thing. Not content with making Jem stay near the well, she then girlishly proceeds to drop her valuable and irreplaceable bracelet down it…

“The one that was my mother’s,” said Olive. “Oh, we can get it back surely. We must have the water drained off.”
“Your bracelet!” repeated Benson, stupidly.
“Jem,” said the girl in terrified tones, “dear Jem, what is the matter?”
For the man she loved was standing regarding her with horror. The moon which touched it was not responsible for all the whiteness of the distorted face, and she shrank back in fear to the edge of the well.

Desperate, Jem promises he will retrieve the bracelet himself the next day. And sure enough, the next day he has himself lowered into the well…

The_Scream

* * * * *

This is a brilliant little story that had the porpentine and me fairly shrieking with terror! Jacobs knows exactly how to build up atmosphere and tension, and while there’s never any doubt about what happened to Wilfred, he still manages to produce a truly shocking ending! Admittedly, had I been Jem I’d have solved the issue by lending Wilf the money and tossing Olive down the well, but that wouldn’t have made for nearly such a fun story. It’s quite short – only about 4,000 words. Go on, you’re brave enough! If your hair turns white, you can always dye it! Here’s a link…

 

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

It's a fretful porpentine!!
It’s a fretful porpentine!!

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The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

the children's homeSuffer the little children…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Morgan was a beautiful young man but a terrible incident has left him so horribly disfigured he can no longer face the world. So he stays holed up in the house his grandfather built while his sister runs the family business that keeps them both wealthy. The only person Morgan lets see him is his housekeeper, Engel. But one day Engel finds a baby left outside the house. The two of them agree not to tell the authorities and so the child becomes part of the household. Shortly after, another child arrives, then another, until before long there are seven of them… and more keep coming. No-one knows where they’re coming from and the children never say, but Morgan is becoming convinced that these children have the power to appear and disappear at will. And soon it seems as if they’ve come for a purpose…

This book is brilliantly written. Mostly it’s in the third person and past tense, though there is a first person section when Morgan tells the story of his past. It reads like a kind of corrupted fairytale, perhaps Beauty and the Beast, and reminded me strongly of Shirley Jackson’s similar corruption of the old witch stories in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Not because of any similarity in story, but because of the unsettling tone of horror lurking beneath a seemingly bright surface.

Female Austrian Wax Teaching Model 1850. Creepy, isn't she?
Female Austrian Wax Teaching Model 1850.
Creepy, isn’t she?

The house is filled with books and strange curiosities Morgan’s grandfather sent back from his many travels abroad, and the children seem fascinated by these, as if they hope to learn some secret from them. The children are unnaturally well-behaved, even the babies, and unlike adults can accept Morgan’s disfigurement without being repulsed or pitying him. When one of the children becomes ill, the local doctor pays a visit and befriends Morgan, telling him a little of the world outside Morgan’s walls. It’s through this that the reader gets an indication that something terrible has happened to the world – something hugely destructive that has left people in fear and caused the rich to retreat behind heavily guarded walls.

I’m not going to say any more about the story since the not knowing is most of what creates the tension and rising apprehension. There are parts that are truly shocking and the writing is of such quality as to create some images that stay long after the last page has been turned. There are strong shades of John Wyndham here – I was reminded not only of The Midwich Cuckoos, but also of Chocky and The Chrysalids to a degree. Again, that’s not to imply any lack of originality – Lambert takes similar themes as Wyndham but treats them quite differently. It’s unclear whether these children’s purpose is to do good or evil in the world – there is a driven amorality about them. They are here to do what they must do and that’s all. Should they be loved? Or feared? Is it sci-fi? Horror? Fantasy? Lit-fic? Yes, to all of the above. It’s the first book for a long time that has had me gasping aloud in shock…

Charles Lambert
Charles Lambert

Lambert does not tie it all up neatly in the end – he leaves it beautifully vague allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. As a result, I expect it will be a different story for each reader – I was very aware that I was ‘writing’ my own interpretation of events under the author’s subtle guidance. After the horrors, is there any kind of redemption? Perhaps, perhaps not – it’s one that left me pondering and I still haven’t completely decided. Don’t let the horrors or the sci-fi elements put you off. This is a great read that packs a lot into its relatively short length of 224 pages – one of the most imaginative and original books I’ve read in a while. Highly recommended – I shall be looking out for more from this author.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Undesired by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

the undesiredFalling between two stools…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

As the book begins, a man and his young daughter are in the last stages of asphyxiation from exhaust fumes in his car. How did they get there? Who has done this to them? The story takes the reader back into the past to answer these questions. Odinn’s life was turned upside down a few months previously when his ex-wife fell from a window and died, leaving him with the responsibility for his young daughter, Rún. Until then he had been a weekend father, fond of his daughter but leading the life of a single man. As part of his readjustment, he has taken a new job in the State Supervisory Agency, office-based and with regular hours. He has been given the task of preparing a report on a former residential home for boys to check whether there are likely to be any claims from former residents for compensation for abuse or ill-treatment. The book is split between his investigation and the story of what led to the home’s closure, following the death of two of the boys.

This is being billed as a horror novel and does have some aspects of horror, but in reality it’s more of a crime novel with psychological aspects. The horror consists of some unexplained shadows and the occasional bit of spooky giggling, and rarely sent any shivers down my spine. And it really doesn’t add anything to the basic story, leaving me to wonder why it’s in there at all.

The crime aspect is better. Back in the ’70s, the story is seen through the eyes of Aldis, a young girl employed at the home who develops a relationship with one of the older boys. The owners of the home have their own secrets and don’t treat either the boys or the staff well, though thankfully this isn’t yet another child abuse tale. Again, the reader knows from Odinn’s investigation in the present day that two of the boys die, so this part of the story, like the present day one, is more about finding out what led to their deaths. Sometimes knowing what’s going to happen works, but in this case I found that all this foreknowledge led to a serious lack of tension. There is still a mystery, which I won’t detail for fear of spoilers, and I was surprised by the ending, but for most of the book it feels like a fairly long plod to get to a destination we already know.

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Usually I love Sigurdardottir’s books, so my disappointment with this one is partly to do with my high expectations. Although it didn’t quite meet those, there’s still plenty in it to enjoy. The characterisation is good, especially of Aldis, and the part about the home is well done, giving a good feeling of authenticity. Sigurdardottir’s writing is always readable and the translation, by Victoria Cribb, is excellent. The plot is intriguing despite the ending being known, and although it crosses the credibility line it held my interest for the most part.

I think the book is trying to do two things at the same time – have a realistic plot and be a spooky horror story – and as a result neither works as well as it would have alone. It also makes the book overlong. Had the spooky aspects been cut, the whole thing would have been much tighter and would, I feel, actually have achieved a higher level of tension. I’m sure that Sigurdardottir fans like myself will find enough in it to make it a worthwhile read, but it wouldn’t be one that I would necessarily recommend to newcomers to her work. Much better to start with her Thora Gudmundsdottir series.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2015 – Genre Fiction

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

 

The FF definition of ‘genre fiction’ for the purpose of these awards is basically anything that doesn’t quite fit into one of the other categories. I’ve not read nearly as much genre fiction as I intended this year, and a lot of what I did manage to fit in were re-reads of some classic sci-fi. Despite that, I had some great reads during the year… a mix of old and new.

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

dune messiahDune Messiah by Frank Herbert

 

It’s twelve years since we left Paul Muad’dib at the end of Dune – twelve years in which his war against the Harkonnen and the Emperor has grown into a jihad resulting in the deaths of tens of billions and the destruction of several planets. Paul’s beginning to wonder if perhaps things might have gone a little too far. His power of prescience has made him an unwilling Messiah to his people, but the ability to see so many possible futures, none of them good, has left him desperate to find a way out that will stop the killing…

Though this is the sequel to Dune, I think it’s a better book, but it really is necessary to read them in order. Unfortunately the books go badly downhill after this one, so I abandoned the series. But the first two books undoubtedly deserve their status as classics for the quality of the writing and the imagination that created the unforgettable desert world of Arrakis.

Click to see the full review

Art by Henrik Sahlstrom
Art by Henrik Sahlstrom

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the haunting of hill houseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

 

Hill House has a reputation for ghostly goings-on – so much so that even the servants won’t stay around after dark. So it’s the ideal place for Dr John Montague to carry out an investigation into supernatural manifestations. He collects together a little group of strangers – selected because they have had previous experiences of strange happenings, and they all set off to spend the summer living in the house…

Finding Shirley Jackson is one of the many benefits I’ve had from blogging – she’s not nearly so well known on this side of the pond as in the US. This one shows all her skill in playing with expectations, her gothic references always just a little subverted, making the whole thing feeling slightly off-kilter. Though I thought the ending fell away a little, there were plenty of genuinely creepy moments along the way, along with some delicious humour. Another true classic.

Click to see the full review

eleanor

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twenty trillion leagues under the seaTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

 

It’s June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine’s capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on… past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure… and on… and on…

Stylistically this reads like classic sci-fi from the early twentieth century and is filled with references to many of the greats. But the quality of the writing and imagination lifts it from being pastiche and makes it something unique. Again, I felt it fell away a bit towards the end, but for the most part I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror.

Click to see the full review

twenty trillion leagues 1

* * * * * * * * *

dark matterDark Matter by Michelle Paver

 

It’s 1937 and war clouds are gathering over Europe. Jack Miller is poor and struggling in a job he hates, so he jumps at the chance to join an expedition to Gruhuken, an abandoned mining settlement in the Arctic. But the expedition begins to hit trouble even before they leave London, with a couple of the men having to drop out at the last moment. And the troubles don’t end there – once they are in Gruhuken a series of events mean that eventually Jack is left alone to keep the expedition alive…and the long dark Arctic winter is beginning…and Jack begins to feel he may not be as alone as he thinks…

This is a great ghost story – or maybe it isn’t. Is there something out there in the never-ending Arctic night or is it all in Jack’s mind? We only have his own narration to go on and, as with all the best horror, nothing is certain. It’s all done by a brilliantly executed build-up of psychological terror – from ‘don’t go there’ warnings from the captain of the ship to things barely glanced from the corner of the eye, sensations of a presence, and distorted perspectives. The writing is top quality – this book would sit just as well in the literary fiction category as in horror. I dare you to read it…

Click to see the full review

arctic night

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

 

the martian chronicles

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

 

Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars.

Because of the way it developed, the book is very episodic in nature and Bradbury reinvents Martian society anew depending on the story he wants to tell. After reading the first few chapters, I was a little puzzled by the book’s status as an acknowledged sci-fi great  – the stories were good but relatively standard. However as the book progresses Bradbury allows his imagination to take full flight and some of the later stories are beautifully written fantasies with more than a little philosophical edge. Many of the later stories blew me away, leaving indelible images in my mind. As with the best sci-fi, the book is really an examination of what it means to be human and Bradbury approaches the question from many different angles, each as thought-provoking as the one before. And on top of all that, he produces some of the highest quality writing I have come across in sci-fi. I’d hate anyone to be put off this one by the genre label – it’s as stimulating and well written as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do.

Click to see the full review

the martian chronicles 4 les edwards 2009
© Les Edwards 2009.

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Next week: Best Factual Award

Tuesday Terror! The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

Traditional horror…

 

Apparently when Shirley Jackson first published this story in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were so shocked by it that she was sent hate mail. Sound like it ought to be perfect for this week’s…

the lottery

 

Tuesday Terror

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

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Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

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The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

On this beautiful morning, the people of this typical small town American village gather together to celebrate the annual tradition of the lottery. The tradition goes back so far that no-one really remembers why it began, though Old Man Warner suggests it was originally some kind of ritual to ensure a good harvest. Schools are closed for the summer, so all the kids are there, and neighbours chat cheerfully as they gather in the square. But the behaviour of the boys give an early indication that something a little darker might be going on…

Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones…

Illustration by Anita Stevens Rundles
Illustration by Anita Stevens Rundles

Everyone knows exactly what will happen, but Mr Summers takes charge as he does every year to make sure everything is done fairly and according to the rules. There are only three hundred people in the village, including children, so it won’t take long. As they chat, some mention rumours that other towns and villages have decided to stop running the lottery, but the older folk think that’s foolish – why mess with tradition?

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.

Eventually all is ready, and the man at the head of each family draws a slip of paper from the box. As they wait for Mr Summers to give them the signal to look at the paper, the holiday atmosphere changes to one of tension…

For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saying, ‘Who is it?’, ‘Who’s got it?’, ‘Is it the Dunbars?’, ‘Is it the Watsons?’.

It turns out it’s the Hutchinsons. Now the atmosphere changes again, as the mother of the family, Tessie Hutchinson, declares the draw was unfair and should be done again. But she meets with little sympathy from her friends or even her family…

‘Be a good sport, Tessie,’ Mrs Delacroix called, and Mrs Graves said, ‘All of us took the same chance.’
‘Shut up, Tessie.’ Bill Hutchinson said.

The next round of the draw begins, to decide which of the Hutchinson family is to be chosen. The father? Young Nancy? Or maybe the little one, Dave, too young to draw without assistance…

Illustration by Monica Garwood
Illustration by Monica Garwood

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This is a chilling little tale which, even as the first story she published, shows some of the techniques Jackson used to great effect in her later work. No gothic ruins or thunderstorms, Jackson’s stories take place in the full glare of summer sunshine and it’s the contrast of the total normality of the people with the sheer craziness of what they are about to do that creates the feeling of menace – of madness. To be honest, I felt it was pretty obvious what was going to happen from the point in the second paragraph when the boys were gathering stones, but that might be because there have been derivatives of this story over the intervening decades.

What interested me more than the story was the fact that it inspired hate mail from contemporary readers. Partly it seems to have been as a result of confusion – a bit like the Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds thing – with some readers thinking it was a report of real events. But otherwise some of the hate that was hurled at Jackson seems to be wildly over the top for a story which, while well written and effectively horrifying, would be considered relatively mild today. Perhaps in 1948, the horrors of WW2 were too fresh in people’s minds for them to be willing to consider that any group of people can do evil unthinkingly if they blindly follow rules and obey their leaders without question.

The most inappropriate cover ever?
The most inappropriate cover ever?

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Apparently Jackson’s explanation was “I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.” It appears she may have shocked them even more than she intended.

If you’d like to read the story for yourself, here’s a link. It’s very short – about 3500 words.

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Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

porpentine 3

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