Review: “Accursed” By Guy N. Smith (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a short break from sci-fi novels and read a 1980s horror novel 🙂 In particular, I thought that I’d take a look at Guy N. Smith’s 1983 novel “Accursed”.

And, yes, as soon as I saw this novel’s wonderfully melodramatic title and noticed that it had an ancient Egypt theme to it, I just had to get a second-hand copy of it. Plus, although my reaction to the other Smith novels I’ve read over the years (like “The Undead) was fairly lukewarm, this one seemed to show a bit more promise 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Accursed”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1988 Arrow (UK) paperback edition of “Accursed” that I read.

The novel begins in Egypt during the early 1920s. An English vicar and archaeologist called Mason is arguing with a local guide called Suma. To Mason’s arrogant dismay, Suma also refuses to have anything to do with the latest tomb that he has discovered. Most of the local workers leave too. Undeterred by this, Mason breaks into the tomb and discovers two mummies and a mysterious serpent amulet. Ghostly voices speak to him, begging him to remove them from this place.

Mason ends up taking both the mummies and the amulet back to England for further study. However, in our humid climate, the mummies begin to rot and – after some complaints about the smell from his housekeeper – he decides to bury them near the river. However, in the middle of this, the serpent amulet glows and speaks. Frightened by this diabolical turn of events, Mason throws it into the open grave. The mummies howl with anguish and betrayal. Mason flees to the house and begins to write a letter before suddenly dying of a heart attack.

Then we flash forwards to the 1980s. In the midlands, a grumpy and unemployed middle-aged man called George Brownlow lives in a posh part of town with his wife Emily, who has become a snob ever since she won enough money to buy the house. They argue regularly. But, after seeing a story on the news about nuclear tensions in Libya, George decides to build a fallout shelter in the garden, regardless of what Emily might think about it. But, when he starts digging, he quickly finds buried treasure! An amulet…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel was that it was a lot creepier than I’d expected. Yes, it can be amusingly melodramatic at times, but if you’re expecting a gloriously cheesy and gleefully fun 1980s cursed amulet splatterpunk novel like Shaun Hutson’s “Deathday“, then you might be in for a frightening surprise. Seriously, this was a much more effective horror novel than I’d thought it would be 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s excellent horror elements. Although it contains a few infrequent moments of 1980s-style gory horror, this surprisingly isn’t the main focus of the story. Instead, this novel contains a wonderfully disturbing mixture of claustrophobic horror, psychological horror, disease horror, death-based/macabre horror, suspense, apocalyptic horror, tragic horror, paranormal horror, ghostly horror, insect horror, character-based horror and religious/mythological horror.

Guy N. Smith is a much better horror author than I’d previously thought. Although this novel will rarely shock you, it is filled with a creepy, uneasy and oppressive atmosphere of dread that will weigh heavily on you. It will unsettle and disturb you with bizarre occurences and the slow spectacle of a dysfunctional family becoming more and more dysfunctional. Plus, even though they shouldn’t “work”, the scenes that transplant the Biblical plagues of Egypt to 1980s Britain not only work well but are actually more scary if you already know this old story.

And, yes, the parallels between Ancient Egypt and Christian mythology in this novel are fairly interesting – with the ancient Egyptian god Set taking the role that the devil would typically take in more traditional horror stories. And what a monster he is. Although you don’t really see him directly, he speaks to the characters in a wonderfully creepy – yet melodramatic – way, not to mention that the eyes of his serpent amulet also glow bright red at almost every opportunity. Although all of this stuff should be hilariously silly, the novel is written in a way that actually makes it scary (well, most of the time at least).

The novel is also made more unsettling through the theme of ancient tragedy too, with the events of the story paralleling the tragic fates of an ancient Egpytian priestess and a commoner – whose doomed love is forced to play out again through the possessed bodies of the Brownlow family. Far from ruining the suspense, this sense of knowing what has happened and what will happen again actually adds to it – and this novel is almost like watching a horrific tragedy in slow-motion and feeling powerless to prevent it. This gut-clenching feeling of inevitable doom is also enhanced by the cold war nuclear paranoia in the background of the story too.

The ancient Egypt-themed elements of the story work fairly well, and really help to add a lot of atmosphere to the novel – especially when they are transplanted to the more familiar setting of 20th Century Britain with, for example, spiders replacing scorpions and the country being stricken by a terrible heatwave that reminded me a lot of the one that happened in 2018 (although, of course, the novel’s heatwave is based on the famous one in 1976).

Smith has obviously done his research, since there are lots of Egyptian terms and little bits of mythology sprinkled throughout the novel, in addition to a few Biblical-style elements too (eg: lots of snake imagery, plagues etc..). My only complaint is that the mummification scene doesn’t involve the most well-known part of the mummification ritual, which (as anyone who has read a “Horrible Histories” book or ten when they were younger will know) involves the removal of the brain with a hook. I was kind of expecting, perhaps even dreading, this… and was a little bit disappointed, for want of a better word.

In terms of the characters, this novel is surprisingly good. The novel’s characters are one of the main sources of horror here, and they all come across as very realistic and normal people, with all of the flaws and emotions that you would expect. Although you shouldn’t expect hyper-detailed backstories, the characters really do feel like real people leading tragic lives. Likewise, the character development sometimes goes in some surprisingly unexpected ways too, such as downtrodden George slowly becoming a possessed fanatic and the tyrannical, snobbish Emily very gradually becoming more of a sympathetic character.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is ’80s horror fiction narration at it’s best 🙂 It is formal and descriptive enough to add atmosphere and weight to the story, whilst being “matter of fact” enough to keep things moving at a decent pace and give the story a more realistic feeling. This novel is also written in a very dramatic way and although this adds extra horror most of the time, it can sometimes veer into hilariously amusing melodrama (with sentences like “Death!” and chapter titles like “Snakes!” and “Horus!”). Still, given the overwhelming and oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere of the story, these moments of unintentional comedy add some much-needed relief 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good too. At an efficient 239 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, although this novel relies on gradually building suspense, it never really feels slow-paced when you’re reading it thanks to lots of exquisitely creepy moments of horror.

As for how well this thirty-seven year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Yes, there are some very ’80s elements here, like the class politics, the cold war nuclear fears etc… and some moments are probably a bit “politically incorrect” by modern standards too. But, the novel’s horror and atmosphere are pretty much timeless. The story itself almost feels like something that could have played out in the 1990s or the 2000s or even the 2010s. And the atmosphere of miserable, mundane suburban life is a surprisingly timeless thing too.

All in all, this is a really good horror novel 🙂 If you like ancient Egypt or want a 1980s horror novel that might actually scare you, then this one is well worth reading 🙂 Seriously, Guy N. Smith really is a better horror writer than I’d previously thought.

If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

Today’s Art (20th February 2020)

Well, due to a combination of writer’s block, being busy and other stuff, I didn’t really feel up to making a full webcomic mini series this month (I’m not sure about future months at the time of writing. Normal daily paintings won’t be affected though).

Anyway, I still felt like making one comic this month (and, if anyone is interested, here’s the “work in progress” line art for it). You can also find lots of other comics on this page too. Enjoy 🙂

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania – Month Off” By C. A. Brown

Horror Fiction And Expectations – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d look at one of the best ways to make your horror fiction a bit creepier or more disturbing. I am, of course, talking about playing with your audience’s expectations. Like how a joke is funny because the punchline is different to what the listener expects to hear, horror fiction tends to be at it’s most frightening when the audience expects one thing but finds something else instead.

This was something that I ended up thinking about whilst reading the horror novel that I plan to review tomorrow. I am, of course, talking about Guy N. Smith’s 1983 novel “Accursed” (mild-moderate SPOILERS ahoy).

If you’ve never read British horror fiction from the 1980s, then it is a gloriously fun genre that is often wonderfully over-the-top (even down to the gloriously melodramatic cover art and titles). This is a type of horror fiction that is gloriously lurid, gleefully cynical, ridiculously ultra-gruesome and often filled with all sorts of melodramatic monsters and other such things.

When it is at it’s best, it is like heavy metal music in book form or some kind of cheesy late-night “video nasty”. It is a really cool and just generally fun genre (see Shaun Hutson’s 1986 novel “Deathday” for a good example) but, to the experienced horror fan, it is very rarely actually scary.

Yet, whilst reading part of Smith’s “Accursed”, I actually found myself feeling – if not scared – then at least slightly disturbed. On the surface, the novel contains all of the things you’d expect from a 1980s horror novel – a melodramatic title, some cynical cold war-era social commentary, a fairly “realistic” setting and even a cursed amulet. Yet, this novel actually evoked feelings of fear in me. But, why?

Well, it’s mostly because the parts I’ve read at the time of writing contained some very different types of horror to the ones that you’d typically expect from a British 1980s horror novel. Instead of buckets of blood or a “scary” monster, the novel instead focuses a lot more on things like psychological horror, ominous paranormal forces, character-based horror, a feeling of claustrophobia, religious/mythical horror etc… (eg: the type of genuinely scary stuff that modern horror novels use all the time). And it is scary because it is something that you wouldn’t typically expect from a horror novel of this type.

But, although this is a fairly large-scale example (requiring background knowledge of one genre, in one place, in one decade) of how playing with audience expectations results in scarier horror fiction, the same thing can work in all sorts of more subtle ways too.

For example, a sudden scene of gory horror can be genuinely shocking in a novel that – up until this point – has focused on more subtle or psychological types of horror. Another example might be a sudden scene of genuinely disturbing tragic horror or character-based horror in a cheesy ultra-gruesome zombie novel. I could go on, but suddenly introducing a new and unexpected type of horror (as long as it fits into the context of your story) can be a great way to frighten more jaded or complacent readers.

Ironically, this sort of thing actually works best in non-horror novels. A great example (moderate SPOILERS ahead) is Lee Child’s 2015 novel “Make Me“.

For the most part, this is a typical suspense/detective/action thriller novel with the only nods to the horror genre seemingly being the gradual introduction of some darker and bleaker subject matter. But, it is mostly just a typical thriller novel… until you reach the ending. There are entire horror novels that are less horrifying than this short part of the novel. And it is such a brilliantly, unforgettably horrifying ending because the reader doesn’t expect to see proper horror fiction in a modern mainstream thriller novel 🙂

But, you can scare your audience by playing with their expectations in other ways too. One good way to do this is through tone and style – for example, a scene of unsettling paranormal dread will actually be scarier in a novel that uses a modern, informal and fast-paced narrative voice than it will be in a novel that uses a very formal, gothic and slow-paced style of writing. With the latter, you actually expect this sort of thing to happen just from the writing style alone. So, it is less surprising than it would be in a novel that uses a more modern style.

Of course, there are lots of other ways you can play with your audience’s expectations (and the best way to learn them is to read lots of horror, and non-horror, fiction etc…) but audience expectations are something that is always worth thinking about if you want to make your horror story a bit scarier.

—————-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo” By Jacqueline Rayner (Novel)

Well, although I’d originally planned to read a crime thriller novel, I was still in the mood for sci-fi. And, during a book-shopping trip to Petersfield a couple of days before preparing this review, I happened to find a couple of slightly older “Doctor Who” spin-off novels in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield.

Since I quite enjoyed reading a more modern novel in this series a few months earlier, I was eager to read one of them as soon as possible. And, since Jacqueline Rayner’s 2007 novel “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo” involved both a dodo and time travel (the very idea brought back very fond memories of reading one of Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St.Mary’s” novels), I ended up choosing it.

Interestingly, although this novel is based on an older version of the “Doctor Who” TV series (the version starring David Tennant and Freema Aygeman), it can still be enjoyed if you haven’t seen the show – since the earlier parts of the novel explain/recap all of the important elements of the TV series.

So, let’s take a look at “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 BBC Books (UK) hardback edition of “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo” that I read.

The novel begins in Mauritius in 1681, with a scene showing a dodo fleeing from hungry sailors who have recently found the island. When the dodo realises that she is the only dodo left on the island, two people in green shirts suddenly appear and rescue her.

Then we flash forwards to 2007, Martha is standing around inside the TARDIS and trying to make a decision. The Doctor has told her that the TARDIS can take her anywhere in time and space and this has left Martha frozen with indecision. Eventually, she suggests visiting the zoo – which prompts something of a self-righteous lecture from the Doctor about why he doesn’t like zoos. So, after happening to notice that the Doctor is using a dodo feather as a bookmark, Martha suggests going back in time to see the dodos before they became extinct.

Using the feather as a locator, the TARDIS travels through time and space. But, when the doors open, Martha and The Doctor find themselves inside a giant museum. In front of them, the last dodo floats in a box frozen in stasis. But, before Martha or The Doctor can really make sense of it, alarms go off and they are seized by armed guards. The museum’s director, Eve, explains that they are in the Museum Of The Last Ones – a planet-sized collection of the last members of all extinct species. And several specimens have recently been stolen from the “Earth” segment…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t perfect, it certainly has some good moments. It is reasonably compelling and is also generally in keeping with the tone and style of the TV series (which is both a good and a bad thing). So, yes, I have fairly mixed views about this novel.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel contains all of the stuff that you’d expect from “Doctor Who” (eg: time travel, other planets etc…) in addition to some classic sci-fi stuff like teleportation etc.. But the most interesting thing about this novel is how well it both does and doesn’t predict the future.

In at least one part, this novel is startlingly ahead of it’s time – since a running plot point in this novel involves Martha playing a vaguely “Pokemon Go”-style animal-spotting game on a tablet computer/electronic book that looks “a bit like a large iPod”. For reference, this novel was published in 2007 (and probably written a year or two earlier). On the other hand, this novel predicts that a near-future Britain will use the Euro as a currency and also predicts/implies that the Kakapo would become extinct in 2017. So, it’s a rather interesting glimpse into the near-past’s visions of the future.

The novel’s main plot is a rather interesting mixture of a detective and thriller story – with the earlier parts of the novel involving Martha and The Doctor trying to track down who has been stealing animals from the museum and the mid-late parts of the novel being a more traditional-style adventure/ thriller/ caper story.

Both of these parts work reasonably well and are fairly compelling, but are a little on the amusingly cheesy side of things (occasionally veering into “so bad that it’s good” territory). The detective segments have more of a focus on clue-finding and interviewing people and the thriller segments are a mixture of hilariously awesome/silly set pieces (sometimes involving dinosaurs) and classic-style cackling villainy, dramatic plot twists, clever plans, general chaos etc… These later parts are most close in tone to the TV series and, if you stick around for them, then you’ll be rewarded with something like a larger-budget mid-2000s episode of the TV show 🙂

Thematically, this is a novel about environmentalism and conservation. However, like some of the worst episodes of the TV show, this novel can sometimes take a fairly heavy-handed, patronising and/or lecturing approach to these topics. Not only that, whilst The Doctor does have quite a few comedic and eccentric moments, he can often be somewhat self-righteous during several parts of this novel.

Still, leaving this aside, some of the characters in this novel are reasonably well-written. The best characters are probably Martha and a dodo called Dorothea, although many of the background characters feel like fairly realistic characters (even if they don’t get that much characterisation). Likewise, there are at least a couple of surprisingly emotional parts later in the novel (which are in keeping with the best character-based moments in the TV show).

However, although the novel’s main villains do get well-written motivations and backstories, they are very much from the cackling, moustache-twirling “elaborate and almost nonsensical evil schemes” school of villainy. Needless to say, this results in some wonderfully silly moments and other “so bad that it’s good” kind of stuff.

In terms of the writing, this novel is very much a mixed bag. On the plus side, the writing in this novel is informal and fast-paced enough to both make the novel very readable and to give it personality, whilst also being descriptive enough to add atmosphere to the story.

On the downside, the perspective is quite literally all over the place. Expect random jumps from first to third person perspective (or vice versa) to happen in the middle of chapters, with very little consistency (eg: some Martha-based scenes are first-person, some are third-person etc…) and with only the barest minimum of signposting to tell you what is happening. Yes, you’ll get used to this after reading the book for a while, but there never seems to be any real reason or logic for the perspective changes and the novel would have been much better if it had stuck with either first or third-person narration.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good 🙂 At a very efficient 248 pages in length (less if you don’t count the encyclopaedia/game score segments), this is the kind of refreshingly short novel that can easily be enjoyed in a couple of hours or so 🙂 Plus, the pacing is reasonably good too – with a good mixture of suspense, mystery, drama, fast-paced set pieces and location changes that remain compelling throughout the novel. Not to mention that the later parts of the novel almost feel like watching a “lost episode” of the TV show too.

All in all, if you can put up with random perspective changes and a bit of self-righteousness, and if you don’t mind a little “so bad that it’s good” silliness, then there is actually a fairly good story buried in here. When it is at it’s best, this novel is like a really good older episode of the TV show (but with a slightly larger budget) and, when it is at it’s worst, it’s like one of the more annoying episodes of the TV show.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Today’s Art (18th February 2020)

Well, I was in the mood for making a couple of photo-based paintings and this one is based on both this photo and some footage (here’s an animated GIF of part of it) I took of the walled garden in Cowdray Park during a hailstorm last March.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Cowdray Park – Walled Garden” By C. A. Brown

How To Mix First And Third Person Perspective Narration

Although, ideally, you should stick to just one perspective (eg: first-person or third-person) in your story, I’ve read a few modern novels over the past year or so that combine both perspectives in various ways. This is one of those things that is tricky to get right, but can work really well when it is handled properly.

In short, the main thing to remember is that you should clearly signpost the perspective changes. If you are jumping from one perspective to the other, then the reader needs to be able to understand and adapt to this quickly, so that it doesn’t become too confusing. One of the best ways to do this is to use italic text for one of the perspectives and normal text for the other.

For example, both Tess Gerritsen’s 2002 detective thriller novel “The Apprentice” and Dana Fredsti’s 2012 zombie thriller novel “Plague Town” use a variant of this technique, whilst also setting the two types of narration apart via slight changes in the narrative voice too. This makes the jump from one type of narration to the other feel a lot less jarring.

On a side-note, one interesting variant of this that I’ve seen in at least a couple of thriller and/or horror novels is to include short italicised first-person asides (typically no longer than a sentence or two) in the middle of a passage of third-person narration. Since these are fairly brief and are often used for comedic or dramatic effect, they can actually work quite well.

So, italic text is a great way of signposting changes in perspective since it is immediately visible to the reader and allows them to clearly tell which type of narration to expect.

If you don’t want to use italics, then make sure that each chapter of your story only uses one perspective. Not only does a chapter change get the reader ready for something different (so, the perspective change is a bit less jarring), but it also means that the reader has a bit more time to get used to a particular perspective.

You can also use other forms of signposting too – such as in Tade Thompson’s 2019 sci-fi novel “The Rosewater Insurrection“, where each chapter heading contains the name of the character it is focusing on. This means that you’ll soon easily be able to tell which chapters are in first or third person perspective based on which character name appears. Since two characters consistently use first-person narration, and the other characters’ chapters usually use third-person narration, then this is fairly easy to follow after a while.

In addition to all of this, you also need to have a good reason for including perspective changes. For example, Tess Gerritsen’s “The Apprentice” includes first-person perspective segments because they give the reader a chilling glimpse into the twisted mind of one of the serial killers that the detective is trying to catch, adding extra suspense and horror to the story. Likewise, the third-person segments in Dana Fredsti’s “Plague Town” lend an extra sense of size and scale to the novel’s zombie apocalypse. In both of these novels, the perspective changes serve a valid practical purpose that adds something to the story and allow the author to use the best elements of both perspectives.

In Tade Thompson’s “The Rosewater Insurrection”, the reasons for the multiple perspectives are a bit more subtle, but they still have a practical purpose. The first-person narration in the opening chapter is a good way to maintain consistency with the previous novel in the series (which only uses first-person perspective), which makes the transition between the two novels a little bit more seamless. Likewise, one of the extended first-person segments later in the novel allows for some character-based stuff that works slightly better in first-person perspective.

So, in conclusion, if you’re going to use both first and third person narration in your story, then your changes should not only be signposted in a simple and consistent way, but they should also be there for a very good reason. In other words, if your story still “works” with just one perspective, then just use one.

—————

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂