NYCTOPHOBIA by Christopher Fowler

Hyperion House, standing high in the hills of Southern Spain, seems like an ideal home for Callie and Meteo, an architectural student and her wine importer husband. The grand old house has been designed to ensure that it is filled with light for as much time as possible, which is perfect for Callie, who suffers from nyctophobia (an extreme fear of the dark). It also comes complete with a mute gardener and a sinister housekeeper. Oh, and a section of the rear of the house that is locked, and appears to be permanently steeped in darkness…

I’ve been a fan of Chris Fowler’s work for many years. More recently he’s been writing the Bryant and May strange detective novels, of which I read the first few (and enjoyed them) but for some reason have lapsed (too many books, too little time!) but I’d like to pick them up again at some point.

I read Nyctophobia because it was a standalone novel, self contained and instantly accessible. The pacing of the book is great. Read the first paragraph and you’re hooked. By the time I had finished the first chapter I was expecting a fairly standard haunted house novel, but was entirely happy to journey on, as Fowler’s writing is so strong. However, as the story progressed I realised that there was so much more to the novel than a haunted house story. The half-light, half-dark aspect of the house is particularly fascinating. Fowler includes a couple of scenes where the characters venture into the ‘other realms’ of the house and the action is unbelievably creepy. The description of the souls that inhabit the dark side (originally the servants’ quarters) are horrific and nightmarish. And there’s a sequence involving a hornet’s nest that feels brutal and heart-breaking.

Nyctophobia is an unpretentious, fast-paced slice of horror. Whilst it’s difficult to say it reinvents the haunted house novel, it does at least attempt to try something different with the trope, and undoubtedly pulls it off. The Spanish location is evocative and interesting – Fowler clearly knows Spain and the Spanish ways – and there’s the perfect balance between scary scenes and Callie’s fascinating research into the mysterious history of Hyperion House. I really enjoyed reading this, and it has given me fresh impetus to return to the Bryant and May series. Fowler is a natural writer. You really feel you’re in good hands when reading one of his books. Definitely recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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THE SLEEPING DEAD by Richard Farren Barber

Jackson Smith is attending a job interview at a high-rise business building in the city when he sees a man take his own life. Further horrific events take place, challenging Smith’s sanity, and drawing on his last self-preservation as he fights to escape the building and the ensuing madness.

The Sleeping Dead is a fast-paced, real-time novella set in a recognisably British town. I read the book in an entire setting, something I very rarely do nowadays. From the start, Barber manages to wring every ounce of tension from the punchy, clean prose to deliver something greater than its parts. It’s fair to say the story isn’t ever going to win awards for its originality, but to dismiss it as derivative is to do the novella a massive disservice. To that degree, reading the synopsis tells nowhere near the real story. There’s a wonderful thrill to the set-pieces, a couple of which I’m sure will stay with me for a long time. Barber writes with verve, and his descriptive prose has an economy which allows the pace to never let up, all of which befit the story. The length of the piece exactly fits the story he’s telling; any more and I feel the tension would have been stretched, any less and it would have felt incomplete.
All in all, if you don’t mind something quite dark and unrelenting, this is a novella I’d definitely recommend.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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A TEST OF WILLS by Charles Todd

When Colonel Harris is murdered in Warwickshire, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard is dispatched north to investigate his murder. It is 1919 and the country is still reeling from the after-effects of the Great War. Rutledge, himself a veteran of the conflict, has his own demons to contend with, alongside the pressure of having to bring the guilty to justice. He is a broken man, damaged by what he experienced in the war, an imaginary companion constantly dogging him – the voice in his head of a young Scottish soldier called Hamish that Rutledge condemned to the firing squad. Piecing together the clues and puzzles of the mystery takes a great deal of conviction on the Inspector’s part.

Interestingly, Charles Todd – the pseudonym of a mother-and-son writing team from the United States – has written 26 of the Ian Rutledge mysteries so far, starting with this one in 1994. I had never heard of them before, although it does seem like they are far more popular in the US. I picked up this novel on the basis of the interesting premise – the central investigator’s sidekick as the imaginary Hamish as opposed to a faithful sergeant or Doctor Watson character – and the fact that I enjoy a good old murder mystery set during the golden age of crime fiction. Initially I was sceptical of an American being able to make the English characters and settings ‘authentically’ British, but I needn’t have worried. For the most part there is barely anything to betray that this wasn’t written by a Brit. There’s a level of detail to the book that indicates the writers have researched well or are keen history enthusiasts.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward, with the murderer’s reveal a decent enough twist. The story hangs together well, with just enough suspects to keep you guessing. It wasn’t the most intricate plot, but the characters are well fleshed out and there are several scenes that stuck in my mind after closing the book. A big criticism of murder mysteries is that the plot comes at the expense of characterisation; I’d say this is quite the reverse. Not the best, or most exciting mystery I’ve recently read, but an interesting one nonetheless. I think it’s fair to say that it’s clearly a first novel, but one that has enough quality about it to say I’ll definitely be seeking out further books in the series, and seeing how the character of Inspector Rutledge develops. Worth reading if you like this kind of thing.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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Widower Malcolm Kershaw manages a book store in Boston. One snowy morning he is contacted by an FBI agent, Gwen Mulvey, who wants to talk to him about a blog post he wrote years before, where he detailed his favourite eight perfect murders from fiction. These were The Red House Mystery by A A Milne, Malice Aforethought by Anthony Berkley Cox, The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie, Double Indemnity by James M Cain, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, The Drowner by John D MacDonald, Deathtrap by Ira Levin, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Now it looks like someone is committing murders in a way that imitates the deaths in these stories. What follows is a cat and mouse game of murder, suspects, and twists as several of the characters tries to outmanoeuvre one another, with murderous consequences.

I’ve always been a sucker for stories featuring real writers or novels, and this book was right up my street. Swanson is one of my favourite contemporary authors, who acknowledges the history of the thriller genre, but at the same time adding something new to it. I’ve read all of his books – and heartily recommend them – and whilst it’s true that none of them quite reach the excellence of The Kind Worth Killing, the rest are still better than most suspense books being published currently.

There’s an element of meta-fiction to Rules For Perfect Murders, being a mystery novel that was written specifically referencing other mystery novels – and all that comes with that. Swanson has great fun riffing off plot-points made in the aforementioned titles. It’s obvious he has a huge affection for the genre, and what’s great about this novel is how much fun it is to read. The pages just zip by. It’s so accessible. There’s a wonderful pace to the proceedings, and several clever twists along the way, to keep the plot fresh and intriguing. If I had to be critical, there’s one chapter towards the end that feels slightly clunky in its heavy use of exposition; however that is itself is acknowledged by Swanson when he references a similar chapter in another famous mystery novel, so I’d say he 100% manages to pull it off.

If you haven’t read any books by Peter Swanson before, I’d say this one was a great one to start with. He’s one of those writers whom I find myself recommending to anyone who likes reading thrilling, suspenseful, page-turning mysteries. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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The Cutting Room – Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen edited by Ellen Datlow

The editor Ellen Datlow has long been an indicator that the anthology you are about to read is going to be a good one. She has been editing in the speculative fiction industry for many years. The Cutting Room is a great example of why she is so good at her job.
Not only does this book contain a great array of stories, it’s the way the stories fit together that also complements the overall reading experience. I’m one of those readers who prefer to start at the beginning with an anthology or a collection and work my way through from front to back. I do this because I think there is usually some thought about which stories go in which order and I want to take advantage of the editor’s thought process behind this.
The theme of The Cutting Room is film. It’s a rather tenuous theme, but that’s to the advantage of the book, as it means there’s a variety to the stories that prevents them being too similar. This anthology contains some of my favourite writers – Dennis Etchison, Peter Straub, David Morrell, Gemma Files, Nicholas Royle, Joel Lane, Gary McMahon – so it was not likely to disappoint.
It’s fair to say that there are some great tales included (not all of them horror). This is one I could recommended without a second’s hesitation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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The Girls by Emma Cline

Emma Cline’s The Girls is a fascinating coming of age story set in Los Angeles of the late 1960’s. It details the almost-obsessional relationship between a young girl, Evie, and a group of girls whose paths cross one fateful day.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this novel is a fictitious account surrounding a very real and infamous event – the Charles Manson killings.

Cline’s description of the ranch is artfully done, and Evie’s spiral of descent into darkness is heartbreaking and believable. You can almost feel the LA sun on your face as you read it.

I’ve long-been fascinated by this true crime case – mainly by the overpowering influence that Manson managed to exert upon his followers – so for me the novel worked on both a fictional sense as well as an example of social reportage. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Michelle Paver wrote a superb ghost story in Dark Matter, an incredibly creepy novel set in the Arctic in the 1930s.
This novel, Thin Air, strikes a similar tone, only this time it details a fateful  Himalayan expedition.
Paver beautifully invests the novel with an unsettling sense of isolation. The real strength of the writing – and the way it most succeeds as a ghost story – is the subtle and understated manner of the prose. The disturbing moments benefit from Paver’s lack of melodrama. The writing is incredibly effective and there are scenes that chill the blood, even if read during the day. It isn’t particularly bloody or violent, and, again, this works in the novel’s favour.
If you are looking for a decent period ghost story, offering something very  different, you’d do well to pick this up. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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It’s been a while since I’ve had chance to update my blog (due to my personal life taking a priority for the past year or so) but I jut wanted to update things to reflect that my second short story collection, MURMURED IN DREAMS, was published in 2019 by the lovely people at Luna Press Publishing, based in Edinburgh.

This book collects together 17 of my stories published over the last few years, together with two original tales. Priya Sharma, one of my favourite writers (and a very good friend) was kind enough to provide an introduction, and the wonderful cover art was created by the incredibly talented Ben Baldwin.

You can purchase it from the Luna Press website here.

Cuckoo Spit (originally published in Black Static 27 edited by Andy Cox)

None So Blind (originally published in Shadows & Tall Trees 3 edited by Michael Kelly)

Apports (Black Static 36 edited by Andy Cox, reprinted in Best Horror of the Year 6 edited by Ellen Datlow)

Lord of the Sand (The 11th Black Book of Horror edited by Charles Black, reprinted in Best Horror of the Year 8)

Somewhere On Sebastian Street (Horror For Good edited by Mark C Scioneaux, RJ Cavender and Robert S Wilson)

Bandersnatch (Black Static 48 edited by Andy Cox)

Fear of the Music (Something Remains: A Tribute to Joel Lane edited by Peter Coleborn and Pauline Dungate)

The Summer of Bradbury (Terror Tales of Yorkshire edited by Paul Finch)

The Devil’s Only Friend (Horror Uncut edited by Joel Lane and Tom Johnstone)  

Pennyroyal (original)   

Husks (Murmurations An Anthology of Uncanny Stories About Birds edited by Nicholas Royle)

The Children of Medea (original)

What Grief Can Do (Crimewave edited by Andy Cox)

The Ivory Teat (The First Book of Classical Horror Stories edited by D F Lewis)

Double Helix (Ill at Ease 2 edited by Mark West)

Happy Sands (Postscripts edited by Nick Gevers)  

Rapid Eye Movement (Fear the Reaper edited by Joe Mynhardt)

The Cambion (Cemetery Dance 72 edited by Richard Chizmar)       

It Came From the Ground (Darkest Minds edited by Ross Warren and Anthony Watson)

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Review section added to the site

Just a quick update to say that I have introduced a review section, which links to my Goodreads reviews for books that I have read and reviewed. Occasionally some of these are provided by NetGalley, although I tend in general to post reviews of books that I’ve actually purchased.

I hope you see something that you might want to read yourself.

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The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

An incredibly entertaining slice of retro fun, this novel is essentially a coming of age story that blends many pop-culture references from my childhood.
It’s a strange book – in that it’s difficult to predict what will happen – but it befits the story and adds an exciting overview to events.
It’s quite a fast-paced book and one I’d recommend, especially to readers who remember what life was like in 1987 (moreso if one was a teenager then)

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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