Review: “Cold Warriors” By Rebecca Levene (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for the macabre. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel that I’d meant to read several months ago – namely Rebecca Levene’s 2010 novel “Cold Warriors”. If I remember rightly, I ended up finding a second-hand copy of this book online shortly after I’d finished reading the sequel, but it ended up languishing on one of my book piles after I got distracted by other books.

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

This is the 2010 Abaddon Books (UK) paperback edition of “Cold Warriors” that I read.

The novel begins in a graveyard in June 1988, with a secret agent called Tomas climbing into a coffin in preparation for burial alive and resurrection several days later as part of a Voodoo ritual, presided over by his boss Nicholson. As he lies in the grave, Tomas thinks about his beloved, Kate, who has been declared KIA after a mission to Russia. The ritual begins and, as the grave begins the be filled, darkness slowly overtakes Tomas.

Shortly afterwards, a recently-married man called Geraint is getting ready to spend the night with his wife. He sneaks into the bathroom and daubs evil symbols onto his body with blood, keeping them hidden under a T-shirt before joining his wife in bed. Needless to say, it isn’t a very happy honeymoon.

Then we flash forwards to 2009. Two MI6 agents, a younger sniper called Morgan and a more experienced agent called John, are in Yemen surveilling a terrorist base with orders to assassinate their leader. Although Morgan makes a perfect shot, the terrorist’s henchmen spot the two agents shortly afterwards and a fight breaks out. During the chaos, Morgan accidentally stabs John.

Back in London, Morgan’s boss is furious. This is hardly the first time someone working with Morgan had died in strange circumstances. But, Morgan is in luck. Instead of being drummed out of the service, a newly-reopened branch – the Heremetic Division – have expressed an interest in him. Their leader, Nicholson, says that he needs Morgan to travel to Budapest to intercept an ancient artefact that has found its way into the hands of a wealthy oligarch. Not only that, he’ll also be partnered with an agent who even his lifelong string of bad luck can’t kill…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel was that it was a hell of a lot of fun to read πŸ™‚ It’s a really cool blend of both the horror and the thriller genres, which manages to combine the best elements of both in a way that doesn’t dilute either of them πŸ™‚

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s excellent horror elements. This novel contains a really creepy mixture of occult horror, psychological horror, gory horror, tragic horror, the macabre, claustrophobic horror, paranormal horror, hideous crimes, apocalyptic horror, character-based horror, creature horror, ghost horror and an inventive version of the zombie genre too πŸ™‚

These horror elements are handled in a brilliantly unsettling way, with a really good mixture of more subtle moments of horror and some splendidly grotesque set-pieces. Seriously, is so good to see a horror thriller novel that pays just as much attention (if not more) to its horror elements as it does to its thriller elements πŸ™‚

The best way to describe the horror of this novel is that it has the gritty and grisly atmosphere of something like a Shaun Hutson or James Herbert novel, with the mysterious occult terror of something like an older episode of “Supernatural” (or possibly a novel by Clive Barker or Mike Carey), with maybe a little bit of the unsettling psychological dread of a film like “The Ring” too πŸ™‚

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re a really good mixture of suspense, spy thriller stuff, plot twists, mystery and fast-paced action sequences. All of these elements are handled really well, with the balance between suspense and action meaning that neither element dominates the story in a way that becomes monotonous. This is also one of those good thriller novels that also feels consistently gripping throughout, whilst also slowly increasing in scale and intensity as the story progresses πŸ™‚

Plus, as mentioned earlier, both the horror and thriller elements are blended in a brilliantly seamless way that doesn’t dilute either of them. For example, the drama of the novel’s action sequences is heightened by the fact that they are often as brutal and gruesome as something from a horror novel. Likewise, the novel’s moments of horror benefit a lot from the nail-biting thriller-style writing and suspense that often accompanies them. In short, the spy thriller elements add something new to the horror genre and the occult horror elements add something new to the thriller genre. Seriously, this is a really cool novel πŸ™‚

In terms of the characters, they’re really good πŸ™‚ Morgan comes across as a young man with a tragic past who is out of his depth – yet just experienced/clever enough to get out of danger whilst also being inexperienced/impulsive enough to put himself in it just as often. This is kind of difficult to describe, but it really adds a lot of extra drama to the novel whilst also making him feel like a realistic and complex character too.

Tomas is a really fascinating character too, since he’s basically a man from the 1980s who has been dropped into the late 2000s – with this element of his character being handled in a subtle, but realistic way. The main cast also includes a German agent called Anya, who initially just seems like a generic “serious” character, but becomes a lot more interesting and complex as the story progresses and a really eerie CIA agent called Belle too (who is a powerful psychic who is several decades old, yet has not physically aged since the age of eleven).

And, as you would expect from a horror story, there are some really creepy villains too πŸ™‚ I’m wary about spoiling too much, but the villains in this novel somehow manage to be absolute pure evil without ever really descending into unintentional comedy or moustache-twirling cartoonishness. This is probably because, like the main characters, they actually have (rather dark/grim) backstories and fairly realistic motivations for most of their evil deeds.

As for the writing, this novel is really good πŸ™‚ The novel’s third-person narration is a really good hybrid of the kind of gritty, fast-paced and informal “matter of fact” narration you’d expect from an action-thriller novel and the kind of slower, formal descriptive narration you’d expect from a horror novel. These two elements are blended seamlessly, resulting in an intense and atmospheric story that also moves along at a decent speed too πŸ™‚

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is good too. At a fairly efficient 295 pages in length, it is one of those novels that is able to remain focused and consistently gripping πŸ™‚ I cannot praise the pacing in this novel highly enough. Not only does it make excellent use of mini-cliffhangers to keep up the suspense, but it is also one of those cool novels that starts in a gripping way and then becomes more and more gripping as it goes along πŸ™‚ Yes, the novel leaves the ending open for the sequel, but there is still enough resolution to make the conclusion feel satisfying πŸ™‚

All in all, this is a really fun novel that blends the horror and thriller genres in a way that will give you the best of both worlds πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Alan Wake” By Rick Burroughs (Novel)

Although the “Alan Wake” videogame was very slightly too modern to run on any tech that I owned at the time of preparing this review, everything I’d heard about it intrigued me (Edit: Although I got a more modern PC several months after preparing the first draft of this review, I still haven’t got round to buying or playing “Alan Wake” yet).

So, when I happened to find an online list of novels based on videogames, I was pleased to notice that “Alan Wake” was on there. And, a while later, I ended up getting a second-hand copy of Rick Burroughs’ 2010 novelisation of “Alan Wake”.

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

This is the 2010 Tor (US) paperback edition of “Alan Wake” that I read.

The novel begins with famous horror writer Alan Wake having a nightmare. When he wakes up, he is travelling to a rural town called Bright Falls with his wife Alice. Alan has had writer’s block for the past two years and Alice thinks that a holiday in a cabin in the woods might help him out.

After meeting several of the eccentric locals and being given the key to a house in the middle of the local lake called Bird Leg Cabin by a mysterious woman that Alan meets in a diner bathroom, they settle into the cabin for the night.

However, much to Alan’s dismay, Alice has brought his old typewriter along with them. After an argument, Alan storms out of the cabin – only for the lights to suddenly go out. When Alan rushes back to the cabin, something pulls Alice into the lake. Alan has a mysterious vision and then wakes up in a crashed car a week later…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a fairly compelling horror thriller novel. It’s kind of like a mixture of Twin Peaks, a Stephen King novel/film and a zombie movie. And, although this novel is a little bit mysterious/confusing at first (especially if, like me, you haven’t played the game it’s based on), it gradually makes more and more sense as the story progresses.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re reasonably good. There’s a fairly decent mixture of paranormal horror, psychological horror, ominous locations, mythological horror, gory horror and suspense. There’s also a really good mixture between fast-paced zombie movie style action scenes and slightly weirder psychological horror scenes too. Even so, this novel feels a lot like a horror videogame at times – with dramatic set pieces, mysterious visions etc.. and stuff that probably works slightly better on the screen than on the page.

The novel’s thriller elements are fairly interesting too. In addition to quite a few fast-paced action scenes, this novel also makes good use of mystery and suspense throughout the story too. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of those stories that doesn’t entirely make sense at the beginning, but gradually makes more and more sense as the story progresses.

Although I haven’t played the game this book is based on, it’s not hard to imagine what it is like. Not only does Alan find a glowing tutorial message at one point, but the novel also includes things like a videogame-like weapon progression, a level-like progression from location to location, consistent game-like rules when Alan fights the zombie-like monsters (eg: they are invincible, except when exposed to light) and game-like pacing.

Even so, the story’s meta-fictional elements work really well on the page. Since this is a story about writers and the power of stories, this works excellently in novel form. For example, throughout the story, Alan finds mysterious manuscript pages and several of these are included at the end of various chapters. Not only do they provide intriguing fragments of backstory, but they also occasionally describe later scenes in the story in an intriguingly incomplete way.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough here to make you care about what happens to the characters. In essence, the characterisation in this novel is like a slightly deeper version of the characterisation you’d find in a movie or a well-written videogame.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is fairly good too. It’s a little bit like the kind of fast-paced “matter of fact” narration that you’d expect to see in a thriller novel and it works really well here. Likewise, thanks to the horror elements, the narration also includes a few descriptive elements too that help to add atmosphere to the story.

As for length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 305 pages in length, it never really feels bloated. Likewise, the story is reasonably fast-paced too. However, the pacing is very videogame-like in many parts of the story. In other words, there are lots of mysterious and/or dramatic set-pieces that almost feel like in-game cutscenes. Likewise, there is a level-like progression between different locations. Even so, when you get used to seeing stuff like this in a novel, it works fairly well.

All in all, this is a compelling horror thriller novel. Yes, it feels like you’re reading a videogame at times, but it’s a fairly good one (not to mention that, unlike an actual game, this novel doesn’t have system requirements πŸ™‚ ). It’s also a good mixture of Stephen King-inspired horror fiction, “Twin Peaks”-style small town weirdness and thrilling zombie-movie style monster action too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “Ghost Dance” By Rebecca Levene (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at another one of the interesting books I found when I was sorting through one of my book piles a week or two ago. I am, of course, talking about Rebecca Levene’s 2010 novel “Ghost Dance”.

If I remember rightly, I bought this book from Waterstones in Aberystwyth back in 2010, mostly because of the wonderfully badass cover art (and the fact that the shop actually had a “horror” shelf too πŸ™‚ ). However, I only got round to reading the first couple of chapters at the time. So, it seemed like the right time to read the entire book.

Interestingly, although “Ghost Dance” seems to be the sequel to another novel, it worked reasonably well as a stand-alone novel when I read it. Yes, there are a few random references to an over-arching backstory (that didn’t 100% make sense to me), but the novel pretty much tells its own self-contained story.

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

This is the 2010 Abaddon Books (UK) paperback edition of “Ghost Dance” that I read.

The novel begins with a disturbing description of a mass shooting in rural America. In another state, a rich teenage girl called Alex is picked up by the CIA, who want to talk to her because of a phone call – predicting the shooting – that she placed whilst under the influence of drugs at a party. Reluctantly, Alex agrees to start a training regime and a series of experiments to determine if she has psychic abilities.

Several years later, an ex-soldier called Morgan is having a pint in London when he is called by a member of MI6’s Hermetic Division. A professor has been murdered at University College London and, since Morgan has the ability to use mirrors to see death, they want him to witness the crime and describe the killer. After this, it quickly becomes obvious that the professor was killed due to her research into the Elizabethan alchemist Dr. John Dee.

Meanwhile, in America, Alex is now a rookie member of the CIA’s equivalent to Hermetic Division. Whenever she takes hallucinogenic drugs, she enters a spirit world that allows her to see the truth of things, to time travel, to talk to a mysterious raven and to walk through walls. Although Alex is still reluctant to work for the CIA, she has a case to investigate. There is mysterious cult in San Francisco who claim that their members can separate their souls from their bodies and travel anywhere at will……

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a brilliantly gripping paranormal thriller novel πŸ™‚ Imagine the TV show “Supernatural“, mixed with Mike Carey’s “Felix Castor” novels, mixed with Lee Child’s thriller novels and this should give you a vague idea of what kind of book this is πŸ™‚ In addition to this, it also contains a few intriguing elements from the spy, detective and horror genres too πŸ™‚

The novel’s paranormal elements are fairly interesting and they draw heavily from both Judeo-Christian mythology and Native American mythology. This focus on religious mythologies means that this novel feels a little bit different from the average “gritty” urban fantasy novel too. Thankfully, the novel doesn’t preach at the reader and it contains enough ambiguity for all of this stuff to seem interestingly complex.

This novel also focuses on the awkwardness between European Americans and Native Americans with regard to things like mythology, symbols etc…. too, with the novel’s cult exploiting Native American symbolism for nefarious purposes and a couple of scenes showing a Native American CIA agent feeling a little bit peeved that Alex, of all people, has the ability to spirit walk.

Interestingly, the majority of the novel’s creepiest and most disturbing horror elements come from human evil rather than the paranormal. Yes, there is still some paranormal horror, but most of this novel’s horror elements are creepy because they tap into more realistic fears such as cult indoctrination/brainwashing, serial killers, mortality etc…. Even so, this novel is probably more of a gritty thriller than a horror novel.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, they’re really good too πŸ™‚ This novel contains a good mixture between suspenseful moments, mysterious detective segments, plot twists, spy-based segments and fast-paced fight scenes. The frequent jumps between the storylines set in Britain and America not only allow for lots of mini-cliffhangers but also help to add some variety to the atmosphere of the story (with the scenes set in Britain feeling a bit more detailed, gloomy and understated) too. Plus, like in all good thrillers, these two storylines end up joining together in a rather gripping way too.

In terms of the characters, this novel is reasonably good. Most of the main characters are cynical misfits who have bizarre backstories and find themselves in situations that they are reluctant to be in. Likewise, this is one of these stories where most of the characters are morally ambiguous in one way or another, which really helps to keep the story unpredictable. Even so, this is also a novel with a clear (and very chilling) villain for the main characters to fight too. So, it’s kind of like the best of both worlds πŸ™‚

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is really good. It is informal and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story grippingly readable, whilst also being descriptive enough to give the story some atmosphere too. The narration is also fairly character-focused too, which helps to add some depth to the story too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a fairly efficient 277 pages in length, it never really feels long or bloated. Likewise, this novel has a good balance between compellingly mysterious, dramatic and/or suspenseful slower-paced segments and more fast-paced action scenes too. Even so, this is a novel that becomes more fast-paced as it goes along, so the earlier parts are sometimes a little bit slower than you might expect.

All in all, this is a really gripping paranormal thriller novel that blends both of these elements in a really interesting way πŸ™‚ If you’re a fan of TV shows like “Supernatural” and authors like Lee Child, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Heresy” By S. J. Parris (Novel)

Well, it has been quite a while since I last read a historical novel. And, after seeing the name Giordano Bruno mentioned in the previous novel I read, I remembered a really brilliant historical thriller I read a couple of months earlier called “Sacrilege” by S. J. Parris.

A few weeks after I’d read that novel, I ended up returning to the charity shop in Petersfield where I bought it and found two other Parris novels there. So, I thought that it was finally time to take a look at one of them – Parris’ 2010 novel “Heresy”.

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

This is the 2011 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Heresy” that I read.

The novel begins with a short scene set in Naples in 1576. A monk called Giordano Bruno is reading a banned manuscript in the monastery’s privy when he is interrupted by the suspicious abbot. Barely having time to flush the manuscript, Bruno is placed under suspicion and ordered to wait for the inquisition. Luckily for Bruno, his room-mate gives him a dagger and tells him to flee out of the window before it is too late.

The story then flashes forwards to London in 1583. By now, Bruno is a friend of Sir Philip Sidney – nephew of Sir Francis Walshingham, the Queen’s spymaster. Sidney is about to take a trip to Oxford University to entertain an obnoxious nobleman from Poland and Bruno is invited too. Although Bruno originally plans to attend a debate and look for a lost Greek manuscript in Oxford, Walshingham orders Bruno to be on the look out for religious plots too.

Of course, a couple of days after Bruno arrives at the university, there is a brutal murder in the grounds and he is tasked with investigating it….

One of the first things I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a bit more slow-paced than Parris’ “Sacrilege”, it’s a very atmospheric and compelling detective story that could easily rival some of C. J. Sansom’s earlier “Shardlake” novels. In addition to the traditional detective story thing of setting most of the story in one claustrophobic location (eg: Oxford), this novel also includes some suspsenful and gripping spy thriller elements too. Even so, this is slightly more of a detective story than a thriller.

The novel’s detective elements are pretty interesting too, with Bruno finding himself on the trail of a serial killer who kills their victims in ways reminiscent of the famous religious martyrs of the time. The investigation itself remains a fairly constant thing throughout the novel and, although some of the clues that Bruno finds seem a little bit contrived, there is usually a logical explanation for them and they help to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace. Plus, of course, the gloomy, rainy spires of Oxford are the perfect setting for a detective story too πŸ™‚

Likewise, whilst the novel’s spy thriller elements aren’t emphasised to the same extent that they are in Parris’ “Sacrilege”, they still help to add a bit of thrillingly suspenseful drama to the story. In addition to a few secret codes, clandestine meetings and suspenseful scenes of snooping, there are also some quite literal “cloak and dagger” moments later in the story that really help to keep the denouement fairly gripping. Even so, this novel is more of a detective story than a thriller.

Like in a lot of novels set in Elizabethan times, the fractious religious politics of the time play a rather large part in this story and also help to add a rather ominous atmosphere to the story too. In a genius move, Parris ensures that Bruno doesn’t really take too much of a side in these religious disputes, which allows for both of the major Christian denominations of the time to be depicted in an equally critical way.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only is Bruno a fairly interesting protagonist, but he often finds himself in situations where he is unsure of who he can trust, which helps to add suspense to the story. The novel’s cast of background characters all come across as reasonably realistic people, who almost all have some kind of tragedy or secret in their lives. This really helps to emphasise the harsh nature of the time the story is set in, in addition to adding a bit of extra mystery to the story too.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is very well-written. Like in C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, most of the story’s narration is kept fairly “timeless”, with only a few olde-worlde phrases added occasionally to give the story flavour. This allows the story to remain readable and move at a decent pace. Plus, like with a lot of historical novels, there’s also a fair amount of emphasis on atmospheric descriptions and dialogue too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. Although, at 474 pages long, it could have possibly been trimmed a bit, it never really felt too long. Likewise, although the story remains fairly moderately-paced until some of the more fast-paced scenes later in the story, the story’s underlying mystery and the general atmosphere of the story really help to keep these slower parts of the story compelling.

All in all, this is a really intriguing and atmospheric detective novel. Yes, it isn’t as fast-paced as Parris’ “Sacrilege”, but it is still a reasonably compelling historical mystery story that fans of C.J.Sansom will probably enjoy πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Heartstone” By C.J.Sansom (Novel)

Although I reviewed C. J. Sansom’s “Lamentation” about two months ago, I hadn’t expected to review another one of his novels so soon. But, a family member found a copy of Sansom’s 2010 novel “Heartstone” in a charity shop and thought that I might like it. And, since this was one of the few Shardlake novels that I haven’t read, I was eager to read it.

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

This is the 2010 Mantle (UK) hardback edition of “Heartstone” that I read.

The year is 1545 and England is under threat from the French fleet. In London, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake finds himself involved in several cases. A random descripton from a friend of his from a previous case, Ellen Fettiplace, makes him curious about the dark secrets that have caused her to become agoraphobic.

Not only that, the Queen has summoned Shardlake. The son of one of her servants has hanged himself. Shortly before his death, he was investigating an adopted boy – Hugh Curteys- in Hampshire who he had tutored several years ago before being mysteriously dismissed from service. After returning from Hampshire, he believed that something terrible was going on inside the household and wished to lodge a legal complaint. The Queen wants Shardlake to take over this case and see if it has any merit.

So, with war looming, Shardlake and his faithful assistant Barak set off for Hampshire and Sussex in order to unravel these mysteries….

One of the first things that I will say about “Heartstone” is that, although it is fairly slow to start, it is one of the most gripping Shardlake novels that I’ve read. Not only does this book have a rather ominous atmosphere, but there is a complex network of intriguing mysteries and plot twists that will have you turning the pages in morbid fascination to find out more. Seriously, despite the slow-paced beginning, this is as much of a thriller novel as it is a detective novel.

Another thing that I will say about this novel is that, being from Hampshire myself, it was absolutely amazing to see so many familiar place names in this book (eg: Portsmouth, Portsdown Hill, Petersfield, Gosport, Horndean, Cosham, Portchester, Southsea Castle etc..).

Seriously, I don’t think that I’ve ever read a novel set around here before – and it was such a cool experience. Then again, as soon as the Mary Rose was mentioned, I instantly knew what was going to happen to it (after all, I’ve seen what’s left of it in a museum. Plus it is mentioned in Sansom’s 2014 novel “Lamentation” too).

In terms of the detective elements of this story, they are utterly brilliant. Not only is there an intriguing network of mysteries (seriously, at one point, Shardlake is investigating at least three different deaths that happened in three different places), but they are all connected to each other in all sorts of clever ways too.

As you would expect from a C. J. Sansom novel, the detective elements of the story are also tinged with a grim sense of horror that will keep you reading out of morbid fascination. And, this is where this novel really excels. For example, Shardlake spends quite a bit of time in a manor house that teems with dark secrets and hidden threats. To call these parts of the novel suspenseful and atmospheric would be an understatement. Seriously, if you can get through the slow-paced beginning of the story, then you’ll be utterly gripped for the rest of it.

The novel’s settings and background are really interesting too. Not only is there a tangible sense of threat from the French fleet (even if you already know how the history plays out), but the novel also focuses on things like the horrors of conscription and war, the poverty of the time and the religious politics of the 16th century too. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, large parts of this novel are set in Hampshire too πŸ™‚ Although the main location in Hampshire (Hoyland Priory) is fictional, there are enough mentions and descriptions of real places to make this element of the story absolutely fascinating.

The characters in this novel are absolutely stellar too. In addition to quite a few familiar faces (eg: Shardlake, Barak, Guy, Tamasin etc..), the novel has a fairly large cast of well-written background characters too.

One of the things that both Sansom’s Shardlake series and G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels do really well is to show how people are realistically affected by events and live complicated lives, even when living in a more ignorant age. Likewise, since Shardlake finds himself embroiled in several mysteries, there are lots of dramatic and suspenseful dialogue exchanges too.

In terms of the writing, it is also brilliant. Like in the other novels in the series that I’ve read, Shardlake’s first-person narration is written in a way that has a bit of a historical flavour but is “matter of fact” enough to be extremely readable. In other words, it is a really good balance between modern-style and old fashioned-style narration. Not only does this lend the novel a lot of atmosphere, but it also means that the narration never gets in the way of the gripping story.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel isn’t quite perfect but is still good. Although, as mentioned earlier, the first part of the novel (at least the first 100 pages, if not more) is far too slow-paced, the rest of the novel is an absolutely gripping, suspenseful and expertly-paced detective thriller story. And, the rest of the novel is quite long. The main story is a gargantuan 626 pages in length, with a few pages of historical notes afterwards. Yes, the story is atmospheric and most of it is fairly gripping, but I wish that it had been trimmed down to at least 500-550 pages.

All in all, this is a brilliant novel. If you like dark, suspenseful and gripping detective stories, then you’ll love this one. If you want to read a novel set in Hampshire, then you’ll love this one. If you like historical fiction, then you’ll enjoy this novel too. Yes, the beginning of this novel is rather slow-paced and the story goes on for a long time but, these flaws aside, this novel is astonishingly good πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Empire Of Salt” By Weston Ochse (Novel)

A week or so before I wrote this review, I was in the mood for a zombie novel. I had originally planned to buy another one but, after seeing mixed reviews of it online, I instead remembered the excellent “Tomes Of The Dead” series by Abaddon Books (that I first discovered at some point during the late 2000s).

Since the last time I read one of these novels was in 2013 (Toby Venables’ “Viking Dead“, if anyone is interested), I decided to take a look at them again. And, after looking at a few of them, I ended up buying a second-hand copy of Weston Ochse’s 2010 novel “Empire Of Salt”.

So, let’s take a look at “Empire Of Salt”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2010 Abaddon Books (UK) paperback edition of “Empire Of Salt” that I read.

The novel begins in a diner in the run-down Californian town of Bombay Beach, next to a stagnant inland sea that is full of nothing but rotting fish. After shooing away the local drunk, the diner’s owner – an old man called Lazlo- goes out onto the beach to observe and document the mysterious green lights that flicker under the water at night. However, something is lurking nearby and he is quickly attacked by it.

Some time later, Lazlo’s remaining family travel to Bombay Beach and decide to keep the diner open. Although Lazlo’s son Patrick has had a tragic life that has driven him to drink, Lazlo’s teenage grandchildren – Natasha and Derrick – seem to fit into the strange, dilapidated town fairly well once they meet a local teenager called Veronica. She gives them a tour of the town, including the homes of the town’s more eccentric residents and a mysterious “desalination plant” further along the coast.

But, then, the child of a local Amish family goes missing. An old woman is trapped inside her trailer by a mysterious intruder. Natasha spots a retired scientist in one of the trailers dissecting a decaying hand. A disabled Korean War veteran has some kind of creature chained up in his garage. Needless to say, things quickly get a lot stranger and creepier….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… Wow πŸ™‚ Not only is this a zombie novel that is actually scary, but it is also one of the most atmospheric, unique, vivid and creative books that I’ve read in a while.

The best way to describe it would be that it’s like a cross between the Simpsons episode “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2“, the TV show “Twin Peaks“, the “Return Of The Living Dead” movies, “Creepshow” , possibly some kind of suspenseful Hitchcock film and so much more….

In other words, this book is like a more intelligent version of a 1980s horror movie, but set in the present day. And it is awesome πŸ™‚ Normally when reviewing a horror novel, I start by talking about the horror elements of it but I’ll start by talking about the atmosphere of this book because it is brilliant.

Not only does this book vividly describe the strange town of Bombay Beach in a way that makes it actually seem like a physical place but it also is the kind of intriguingly strange place that will haunt your daydreams after you put the book down. Seriously, the novel’s setting alone is a masterpiece – it is fascinating, depressing, welcoming, hostile, unique and humdrum at the same time.

My comparison with the 1980s wasn’t made frivolously either. Since the town is so remote and so poor, it is basically stuck in the 1980s. Mobile phone reception is zero and, since most of the richer people moved out when the nearby sea started rotting, the only people left are too poor, too drunk and/or too eccentric to leave. So, this novel has a real 80s-style vibe to it, whilst still being a very modern novel. Which brings me on to the horror elements of the story.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a zombie novel that is actually scary. I didn’t think that this was possible, but it is. For the first half of the novel, a lot of the horror comes from ominous suspense. This novel has an eerily mysterious, ominously fascinating and creepily claustrophobic atmosphere that will haunt you between reading sessions. When the zombies do appear in the earlier parts of the book, they aren’t shuffling skeletal things – but ominous green, slimy, ichor-filled Lovecraftian creatures of the deep.

A lot of the earlier scenes of horror aren’t the kind of ultra-gory moments you’d expect to see in a zombie novel – they’re more like something from an old 1950s horror comic. In other words, they’re suspenseful, they’re mysterious and they contain a dark and twisted version of America that can only usually appear in a comic book.

And, yes, this novel really does build up the suspense perfectly. From the start, you know that something is wrong with the town and that the mysterious “desalination plant” has something to do with it. So far, so predictable. However, the way that this all plays out is nail-bitingly gripping, creepily unpredictable and ominously fascinating. Then, when the zombies do eventually appear in force, the novel turns into an equally nail-biting action-thriller story that is filled with brutal moments of tragedy and horror.

All of this creepy suspense is also complemented by many other different types of horror too – including economic horror, gory horror, tragic horror, conspiracy theory horror, drug-based horror, war horror, cruel horror, character-based horror and so much more. Seriously, this is a horror novel πŸ™‚

The characters in this novel are, in a word, superb. It would take too long to describe all of them, but they’re all interesting and unique people who might be strange or eccentric, but have been made this way by the circumstances of their lives. This novel, like many great TV shows, has a real sense of community to it – whilst also making no bones about the fact that these poor, eccentric characters are society’s rejects and misfits who have been let down by the grand vision of the American Dream that the town of Bombay Beach once symbolised.

The writing and third-person narration in this novel is also excellent too. The novel is written in a reasonably modern way, which still manages to be as descriptive as an older novel. The narration is also filled with moments of humour, sarcasm, satire and other such things that really help it to feel vivid and alive. Seriously, I absolutely loved the writing in this novel πŸ™‚ At times, it even comes close to the stratospheric standard of Billy Martin‘s writing, whilst also containing subtle hints of writers like Raymond Chandler too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the novel is spent building up suspense and these segments work reasonably well since there’s usually some mystery and/or creepy event that holds the reader’s attention. Likewise, the later segments of the novel are suitably intense and fast-paced too. My only possible criticism is the ending, which almost seems like the vague set-up for a sequel.

As for the length, the novel is about 310 pages long – which is fairly ok for a modern novel. It never really felt too long and, although an actual 1980s horror writer would probably be able to tell the story in 200-250 pages, I didn’t mind spending extra time in the fascinatingly creepy town of Bombay Beach πŸ™‚

In a way, I’d be tempted to call this novel timeless. Although, in a lot of respects, it really isn’t. Not only does a brief pre-tragedy reference to the town of Sandy Hook seem a little eerie when read these days, but this novel is also about the contrast between modern post-credit crunch America and old America.

The novel shows how some things never change (eg: two characters are traumatised, scarred veterans from old and modern wars), but also how a lot of the residents of the town are stuck in the past (eg: an Elvis impersonator, a 1960s-style hippie priestess etc..) because this is the only place they can call home. The town itself is, as I mentioned, is a faded shadow of it’s former 1950s heyday too. Seriously, for a novel about sea zombies, all of this stuff is ridiculously sophisticated πŸ™‚

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. If you like atmospheric, vivid, intelligent stories that are filled with intriguing characters and the kind of locations that linger in your imagination after you stop reading, then read this book. If you want a modern version of a 1980s horror movie, read this book. If you want a zombie story that is actually scary, then read this book. Even if you don’t like the zombie genre, read this book. It is a masterpiece.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.

Review: “Wait For Dusk” By Jocelynn Drake (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d review the fifth book in Jocelynn Drake’s excellent six-novel “Dark Days” series today (you can see my reviews of the previous four novels here, here, here and here). Although I plan to read at least one different novel before reading and reviewing the final book in the series, I’m definitely going to miss this series when it is finished.

Although “Wait For Dusk” begins a couple of minutes after the ending of the fourth novel, it tells a mostly self-contained story with enough recaps for newer readers. However, you’ll get a lot more out of this novel if you read the previous four books first.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Wait For Dusk”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
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I read the 2010 EOS (US) paperback edition of this novel. However, I won’t include a scan of the book cover in this review, since it probably borders on being “Not Safe For Work”. Interestingly, this cover art is also a perfect example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover too. Although the cover art …technically.. isn’t misleading (if anything, it’s a plot spoiler), it doesn’t really represent the overall tone of the majority of this horror/thriller story either. So, don’t judge this book by it’s cover.
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“Wait For Dusk” begins with Mira being threatened by a mysterious man who claims to be her long-lost father. Calling himself Nick, he claims to be the being behind numerous trickster gods (Loki, Anansi etc..) throughout human history. And he has plans for Mira. He’ll grant her a few extra powers, as long as she uses them to gain control of both Danaus and Jabari. If she doesn’t, he’ll turn her into an ordinary human. After giving her this ultimatum, he disappears.

When Danaus and Valerio find Mira, she downplays what has happened. After all, they have more pressing matters to attend to. Not only is Tristan badly-wounded and racked with guilt, but Mira has been ordered before the vampire coven in Venice in order to formally take her seat as an elder.

After going through the grisly formalities, the next session of the coven begins. Vampires from across the world lodge complaints about naturi attacks. After Mira angrily tells the vampires to take care of it themselves, Macaire suggests that an example should be made of the naturi and requests that Mira travels to Budapest. She agrees, but soon realises that she might be walking into a trap…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… wow! Not only is it a gloriously macabre horror novel and an utterly gripping thriller novel, but it is also basically “Game Of Thrones, but with vampires” too πŸ™‚ Albeit, in terms of the story rather than the setting (which, in this novel, is the modern world rather than a medieval-style fantasy world).

This novel is filled with so many clever political machinations and brilliantly witty dialogue exchanges that it makes the second novel in the series seem disappointingly shallow by comparison. And, as the cover art shows, there are also a few romantic/erotic elements too – but these are more of a background element most of the time.

Not only does this novel contain several different types of horror (suspenseful horror, paranormal horror, gothic horror, gory horror, moral horror etc..), but it also contains several different variations on the thriller genre too. In addition to some expertly-directed ultra-violent action thriller scenes, there’s also a lot of thrilling suspense, some emotional conflict between the protagonists and some very well-written political thriller elements too. Seriously, this is how you write a horror thriller novel πŸ™‚

Plus, the horror and thriller elements dovetail very nicely too. For example, Nick’s ultimatum to Mira means that she feels that time is running out (thriller) whilst also feeling conflicted about using her new powers to force Danaus to kill more readily than he ordinarily would (horror). This then causes a lot of friction between Mira and Danaus, which only helps to add to the suspense. And this is just one small example, I haven’t even got onto the story’s intricate political plots and machinations. This novel is almost like a perfect symphony of horror, drama, thrills, suspense and intrigue.

The story’s romance elements are handled reasonably well too, with both Mira and Danaus forced to examine their relationship when it is put under strain. Of course, as the cover art so blatantly spoils, there’s also a scene that long-time fans of the series have been waiting for too. This scene is surprisingly well-written and it has the level of vivid intensity that you would expect from this series. I would say that it isn’t for the prudish but, if you’re reading this series, then you probably aren’t prudish anyway.

One of the major strengths of this novel is the dialogue. Although the narration is still the kind of gripping first-person perspective thriller novel narration that you would expect, the dialogue is absolutely exquisite. If you like formal dialogue where characters are being superficially polite to each other, whilst trying to sneak in veiled insults, threats, cruel pranks or witty jibes, then you’ll love this story πŸ™‚ Seriously, the dialogue exchanges brought a cynical smile to my face on many occasions. Plus, of course, this is also excellently counterpointed with more “matter of fact” arguments between the characters too.

Earlier, I likened this novel to “Game Of Thrones” and the comparison is a really good one (aside from the fact that this novel is set in the 2010s, rather than the middle ages). Seriously, if you want to see machiavellian power struggles, gripping intrigue and cunning plots, then this novel is well worth reading πŸ™‚ Not only that, this novel also perfectly captures the chillingly brutal attitude towards political power that makes “Game Of Thrones” so morbidly compelling too.

Another strength of this story is the settings. For most of the novel, Mira and her allies find themselves alone in the beautiful – but deadly – city of Budapest. They have to work out who is in charge and then find a way to gain power over the city. Although this is reminiscent of the Venice-based scenes in the second novel in the series (“Dayhunter”), it is handled even more expertly. You really get the sense that the characters are plunged into an unfamiliar and dangerous place that will require them to use all of their wits to survive.

All in all, this is the best novel in the series so far πŸ™‚ It contains a perfect blend of horror, thrills, suspense, sophistication, intrigue and drama. As I said earlier, it is basically “Game Of Thrones”, but with vampires πŸ™‚ Seriously, this novel really amazed me πŸ™‚ But, don’t judge this book by the cover though.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.

Review: “Pray For Dawn” By Jocelynn Drake (Novel)

Well, for my next book review, I thought that I’d review the fourth novel (“Pray For Dawn”) in Jocelynn Drake’s excellent six-novel “Dark Days” series. You can check out my reviews of the previous three books here, here and here. I’ll be reviewing other books in between these, but I really love returning to this series πŸ™‚

As you would expect, this novel is best read after reading the previous three books in the series. However, it is also theoretically possible to jump into the series from this book onwards (since it contains recaps and is also the beginning of a new story arc). But, as you would expect, “Pray For Dawn” is part of a larger story and it also isn’t quite a self-contained novel.

So, let’s take a look at “Pray For Dawn”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2010 EOS (US) paperback edition of “Pray For Dawn” that I read. Needless to say, Danaus doesn’t actually walk the streets shirtless during the book but, well, artistic licence.

The story begins in a nameless city, where Danaus is hunting a vampire who has killed a young woman. However, when he gets close to the vampire, the vampire’s eyes glow red and he exhibits superhuman strength and reflexes. After the fight, Danaus is confronted by a mysterious misty creature called Gaizka who threatens him and everything he holds dear.

After this, Danaus gets a call from Themis headquarters ordering him to Savannah. Not only has there been a mysterious murder but Ryan is in town, Nicolai is suspicious of Danaus and, worst of all, Mira is acting very strangely too…

One of the very first things that I will say about “Pray For Dawn” is that it is slightly different to the previous three books and this can take a bit of getting used to.

It’s a really great novel, but prepare yourself for a shock when you start reading it. For starters, Danaus is the narrator (rather than Mira). Although my first reaction to this was something along the lines of “WTF?!?!“, this change in narrator actually works really well once you get used to it.

Not only does it allow the story to have a bit more of a film noir/thriller atmosphere (since Danaus’ narration is a little bit more “matter of fact” than Mira’s), but it also allows Mira to be a mysterious character for a change. And, although I was getting comfortable with the series before I read this novel, this change gives the series some new life that makes it feel almost as fresh as “Nightwalker” was when I first read it. Plus, of course, we also get to learn a lot more about Danaus, which is never a bad thing πŸ™‚

In addition to this, there’s also a slight genre change which also works really well too. After the thrilling fantastical drama of the previous two books, it’s great to see the series go back to it’s horror genre roots too πŸ™‚ Not only that, this novel also incorporates elements from the detective genre too.

Although the solution to the murder mystery at the beginning of the story is fairly obvious, it’s pretty cool to see Mira and Danaus being detectives. Not only that, the story also contains a couple of smaller mysteries (eg: why is Mira acting strangely?) that are actually more gripping than the main mystery at the heart of the story.

As for the horror elements of this story, they’re absolutely brilliant πŸ™‚ Not only are there a few moments of gory horror, but there is also a really good mixture of gothic horror, supernatural horror, ominous suspense, grim tragedy and psychological horror too. Seriously, if you loved the gothic atmosphere and intriguingly dark mysteriousness of the first novel in the series, then you’ll feel right at home here.

Likewise, this novel also recaptures some of the sensuousness that made the first novel in the series so delicious to read. Although Danaus’ narration is a little bit more gruff, stoic and matter-of-fact, this just serves to make the novel’s moments of sensuality even softer and more vivid by contrast. In addition to some romantic moments between Danaus and Mira, this sensual element of the story is best shown when Danaus vicariously experiences the emotions of a newly-turned vampire who feeds for the first time.

Plus, this novel also works really well as a thriller novel too. Although the action-thriller elements of the story are kept slightly more subtle (although there are still plenty of fights, chases etc..), the story is also a more traditional story-based thriller too and this works really well. The plot is focused and the story moves along at a confident pace. It is neither fast-paced nor slow-paced, but it keeps you reading with lots of intriguing twists, drama and mysteries.

However, as I hinted earlier, this isn’t quite a self-contained novel. Although the story’s main plot is (sort of) resolved within the last few pages, this is the first novel in the series to end on a really major cliffhanger. Luckily, since the series is complete and the other two books are available, this isn’t the major issue that it probably was back when these books were new (seriously, never read an in-progress series! I learnt this lesson with Matthew Reilly’s “Six Sacred Stones” back in 2010. Then foolishly forgot it in 2011 and 2014). Still, it is a bit surprising – but not shocking- to see an ending like this being used in these books.

All in all, “Pray For Dawn” is an absolutely brilliant gothic horror detective thriller novel πŸ™‚ Although the changes from the previous three books can take a bit of getting used to, it is well worth making the effort to do this.

Although the second and third books in the series were a lot of fun to read, this is the first book in the series to recapture the awe-struck feeling I had when I started reading this series a couple of weeks ago. It breathes new life into a series that is great, but was starting to get a little bit too familiar. And I cannot praise this highly enough πŸ™‚

If I had to give “Pray For Dawn” a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Resident Evil: Afterlife” (Film)

Well, after reviewing the first, second and third “Resident Evil” films, I thought that I’d check out the fourth one – “Resident Evil: Afterlife”. Although I have no current plans to review the other two films in the franchise, I’m not ruling anything out in the future.

Surprisingly, I’m not sure if I’ve seen this film before or not. Although some later parts of it looked vaguely familiar, the earlier parts didn’t. So, I’m not sure. Still, it seemed like it would be worth watching, if only to complete the second-hand DVD boxset I’ve been watching.

Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS. Likewise, the film contains some FLICKERING LIGHTS in the background of at least one scene, although they don’t seem to be that intense from what I can remember. Plus, it’s worth watching this film after the previous three films.

So, let’s take a look at “Resident Evil: Afterlife”:

“Resident Evil: Afterlife” is a sci-fi/horror/action movie from 2010 that begins with a rather cool flashback scene, showing the zombie virus beginning to spread through Tokyo. This scene is mysteriously suspenseful, visually brilliant and wonderfully dramatic.

Seriously, the first couple of minutes are like a really cool short horror movie.

A dramatic voice-over from Alice then explains some of the series’ backstory. But, after that, there is a thoroughly silly over-the-top action scene where several of the Alice clones from the end of the previous film blast and slice their way through an underground Umbrella facility in Tokyo.

Well, this is going to be a rather one-sided fight…..

However, Umbella’s boss Albert Wesker manages to escape using a futuristic cargo plane, before nuking the facility. But, the original Alice has snuck aboard the plane for some much-deserved revenge. During the fight, Wesker injects Alice with some kind of antidote that removes her superhuman abilities. But, before Wesker can shoot her, the plane crashes into a mountain.

Several months later, Alice is flying a plane to Alaska in search of the survivors from the previous film.

And keeping a video diary too, because camcorder batteries are unusually abundent in this post-apocalyptic world…

But, after discovering nothing but a field of abandoned planes and a helicopter that contains the journal from the previous film, Alice is attacked by Claire. After a brief scuffle, Alice notices that there’s some kind of mind control device attached to Claire’s chest. Once she removes it, Claire returns to normal – but she cannot remember who Alice is.

Getting back into the plane, they fly down the American coast towards Los Angeles, where they discover that several survivors are holed up in an abandoned prison that is surrounded by thousands of zombies. After a perilous landing on the roof, one of the survivors points out that there is a cargo ship called the Arcadia off of the coast that seems to be safe. The only problem is, of course, finding a way to get to it…..

And, yes, the film actually includes a logical explanation for why they don’t just use the plane.

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is about one-third interesting horror thriller film and about two-thirds utterly silly sci-fi action movie.

Although the mixture of these elements helps to keep the film varied, it also means that the film’s narrative feels a little bit less focused than it should be. In a way, this would have been a much better film if it had focused more on the thrillingly claustrophobic scenes of horror set in the abandoned prison and less on the sci-fi action elements of the film.

Still, the film has a rather interesting three-act structure. The first third of the film focuses on Alice (and is a mixture of silly action movie scenes and more suspenseful slow-paced scenes), the second third is a really cool little horror movie set inside the abandoned prison and the final third is an utterly ludicrous sci-fi action/horror segment set aboard the cargo ship.

What? This isn’t a spaceship?

Seriously? It really isn’t a spaceship?

The middle part of the film is, by far, the best. Not only is there some character-based drama and a decent amount of suspense, but it is also the only part of the film that is actually a proper zombie movie. With the survivors trapped inside a large building, they have to rely on their wits, strength and ingenuity in order to survive. As I said earlier, if the whole film was like this 30 minute segment, it would be an absolutely amazing movie.

Seriously, this is just one-third of the film? Why isn’t it… I don’t know… the entire film?

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably good. Not only is Alice a more interesting character now that she’s marginally less superhuman, but the survivors in the prison are a reasonably interesting mixture of characters too.

The film finally also introduces Chris Redfield, who is reasonably true to his portrayal in the classic Resident Evil games. Surprisingly though, when we first see him, he’s being held prisoner by the survivors (who think he is a dangerous convict). Plus, since Claire has lost her memory, she doesn’t realise that he is her brother too.

It might just be me, but he also reminds me a bit of Dean from β€œSupernatural” too.

The monster designs in this film are somewhat variable. The best monsters are some really creepy mutant zombies who can burrow underground and who have tentacles that emerge from their mouths. These zombies are genuinely disturbing and they really help to add some horror and tension to the film.

Hello there!

However, there’s a random giant executioner monster whose presence is never really explained (and is less scary as a result). Likewise, the zombie dogs near the end of the film seem to have more in common with the zombie dogs from the “Silent Hill” games than the “Resident Evil” games too (eg: since they use their upper body as a giant mouth, like in “Silent Hill 3”).

Yes, this giant executioner is kind of cool, but there’s no real explanation for why he’s there. He’s more like a level boss in a videogame…

Although the film’s action scenes are ridiculously over-the-top, some of them are actually pretty good.

The best one happens after a giant horde of zombies find a way into the abandoned prison, and the survivors are forced to fight them whilst escaping. This scene is filled with suspense, drama, quick thinking, brilliantly theatrical stunt work and a few cool touches (like a shotgun that fires coins).

Yes, the characters actually have to use their brains as well as their guns in this part of the film.

Conversely, the action scene near the beginning of the film is utterly silly. It literally just consists of a group of Alice clones fighting masked henchmen in a variety of acrobatic ways. Unlike the action scene I mentioned earlier, this one just feels like spectacle for the sake of spectacle. It’s just a few minutes of acrobatic fighting, without any real suspense or tension.

Some of them even bring swords to a gunfight…. because it looks cool, I guess.

In terms of set design and special effects, they’re reasonably good. There’s a good mixture of grim post-apocalyptic locations and eerily bright sci-fi locations here. Plus, the Tokyo-based scenes at the very beginning of the film look really cool too. The film’s lighting is at it’s best during the scenes set in the abandoned prison.

Seriously, there’s some really cool lighting in this part of the film πŸ™‚

Likewise, although the film relies more heavily on CGI effects, most of them are reasonably good – with the highlights being the spectacular explosion (or is it an implosion?) in an early part of the film, and some of the monster effects.

Even though it’s clearly CGI, this scene still looks brilliantly spectacular.

Musically, the film is reasonably ok. Although there aren’t really any stand-out moments, the background music fits the events of the film fairly well.

All in all, this is a fairly good film that could have been so much better. The middle part of this film is absolutely excellent, and is filled with suspenseful zombie-based horror and post-apocalyptic drama. It’s just a shame that most of the rest of the film is utterly silly. If only the whole film was like the middle part of the film….

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

Review: “Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa” By Cradle Of Filth (Album)

Note: I prepare these articles quite far in advance. So, this title illustration was made before I reviewed Judas Priest’s latest album about a month and a half ago.

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a heavy metal album that I’d meant to get over seven years ago but only finally got round to buying a while before I wrote this review. I am, of course talking about “Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa” by Cradle Of Filth.

This album by the venerable heavy metal/ symphonic black metal/ gothic metal band was originally released in late 2010. I actually remember this quite well since the band took the unusual step of giving out free MP3 copies of the song “Lilith Immaculate” on their website at the time.

This track really bowled me over, although I couldn’t afford to get the full album at the time. I then pretty much forgot about the album (apart from checking out another couple of songs on Youtube) until I noticed that it had come down in price and was able to snap up a second-hand copy on Amazon for about three quid.

One of the first things that I will say about this album is that it is very much it’s own distinctive thing. It mostly eschews the grandiose fire and brimstone drama of 2008’s “Godspeed On The Devil’s Thunder“, but it is also a far cry from the decadent De Sade-ian opulence of 2012’s “The Manticore And Other Horrors“. This album is a lot “colder”, more melodic and more gothic. And, it is probably one of the best Cradle albums that I’ve heard. Seriously, it’s almost up there with classic albums like “Cruelty And The Beast” and “Nymphetamine”.

“Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa” is a concept album about the mythological character Lilith. However, it also focuses on a tragic character called Victoria Varco, a 14th century noblewoman who bears an illegitimate child and suffers unspeakable cruelties at the hands of the church because of this. This eventually leads to her having visions of Lilith (and possibly being possessed by Lilith’s spirit), before being brutally murdered by the church’s torturers.

She is then exhumed by her grief-stricken lover, Isaac, in a scene vaguely reminiscent of Heathcliff and Cathy from Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights“. The later parts of the album focus both on Lilith herself and on Isaac’s memories of meeting her through Victoria.

The final song ends with a mildly Lovecraftian flutter, with Isaac saying: “…These words I speak are gates to hell“, evoking the ‘last words’ narrative device used in many of H.P. Lovecraft‘s short stories. In addition to this, it is also a repetition of an early verse from the first song on the album. This gives the album an intriguingly circular storyline, which also hints strongly at a Lovecraft-style unreliable narrator.

And, yes, this album actually has a continuous story. However, this actually harms the album’s lyrics very slightly. Whilst I’ve written before about how Cradle Of Filth songs are basically old-school poetry in disguise, the lyrics in “Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa” often read more like a historical ballad of some kind.

Whilst the lyrics still contain a fair number of poetic flourishes (eg: “By flights of morbid fancy/ Psychomancy, rites of ancient wrong”), the focus on storytelling means that the lyrics are often a little bit more “functional” and can occasionally lack some of the dark eloquence of Cradle’s other albums.

But, enough literary criticism. What about how this album actually sounds?

Well, for the most part, it sounds like Cradle Of Filth. However, unlike some of their albums, this one has quite a few melodic elements, such as a vaguely harpsichord-like segment at the beginning of the first song in addition to other creepily gothic string and keyboard segments throughout the album. These go really well with the more intense guitar segments, which often sound more like a “heavier” version of traditional heavy metal. Personally, I really love all of these melodic elements, but more “traditionalist” fans of the band might not like them.

Likewise, despite the occasional well-placed death growl from Dani Filth, his fast-paced and guttural singing in this album is considerably more understandable than in some previous albums. As much as I love Dani’s older vocal style, his more modern style certainly has merit too.

Plus, like in many of Cradle’s albums, Dani’s harsh vocals are counterpointed by more elegant female vocals. In “Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa”, these are provided by Lucy Atkins (and Dora Kemp).

Like with some of Sarah Jezebel Deva’s vocal segments in “Cruelty And The Beast”, Atkins speaks rather than sings. This lends the character of Lilith a stern, cold gravitas that goes really well with Dani’s more emotional vocals.

The best songs on the album are probably “The Persecution Song”, “Deceiving Eyes”, “Lilith Immaculate”, “Forgive Me Father (I Have Sinned)” and “Beyond Eleventh Hour”.

“The Persecution Song” begins with a beautifully haunting instrumental segment, which manages to be both creepily cold and reminiscent of the warm lushness of Cradle’s “Nymphetamine” album. Dani’s vocals near the beginning of the song are noticeably slower too, which helps to add to the oppressively gothic atmosphere.

Musically, the song is dark, intense and overwhelmingly powerful. Vocally, Dani alternates between several singing styles (eg: slower singing, emotional growling, ominous whispering etc..) which helps to add to the surprising array of musical variety within this song. Seriously, it is one of the most atmospheric songs on the album.

“Deceiving Eyes” has some really intriguing hints of both thrash metal and traditional heavy metal. Although it is mostly just a fairly solid Cradle Of Filth song, these extra musical elements really help to turn it into something a bit more distinctive.

“Lilith Immaculate” is a fast, powerful, opulent and intense song. The opening instrumental is vaguely reminiscent of something from “Godspeed On The Devil’s Thunder”, but, as soon as Dani begins howling, you’ll remember that this is a very different album. This song is something of a duet between Dani Filth and Lucy Atkins, and it is brilliant! It is filled with dramatic descriptions and powerful emotion. If it wasn’t for the fact that this song tells a later part of the album’s story, it would have been a perfect opening song.

“Forgive Me Father (I Have Sinned)” is a slightly lighter, faster and more “goth”-like song. The opening segments of it are something of a palate cleanser from the heavier and more intense songs earlier in the album. Likewise, the guitars sound a little bit less distorted here, which lends the song a very distinctive sound. Like with “Lilith Immaculate”, it is also something of a duet between Dani Filth and Lucy Atkins – which is always cool to hear.

“Beyond Eleventh Hour” is the stunningly opulent ending to the album. It begins in a creepily understated way, with quiet keyboard music and some poetic vocals from Atkins. But, it quickly builds to a spectacularly dramatic climax soon after Atkins intones the words “…and hell will come with him”.

The lyrics in this intense and dramatic song also contain a few gloriously obscene “classic Cradle Of Filth”-style flourishes too. This song is Cradle at their most eloquent, poetic, debauched, blasphemous best! At one point, there’s even some vaguely horror movie-style cackling in the background too πŸ™‚

All in all, “Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa” is one of Cradle Of Filth’s best albums. It’s a cold, heavily atmospheric, furiously intense and creepily gothic album. Yes, it isn’t quite their best album in purely lyrical terms but – musically – it is absolutely stunning. Like with all great metal bands, this album manages to be both the kind of unique thing that only one band could make whilst also being noticeably different from both previous and subsequent albums.

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