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.

Review: “Death Walkers” By Gary Brandner (Novel)

Well, since I was in the mood for a 1980s horror novel, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting second-hand one that I found online several weeks earlier. I am, of course, talking about Gary Brandner’s 1980 novel “Death Walkers”. Interestingly, looking online, this novel was originally titled “Walkers” (which seems to be the most well-known title) and the edition I read was retitled for some reason.

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

This is the 1980s Hamlyn (UK) paperback edition of “Death Walkers” that I read.

The novel begins at a pool party in Los Angeles, attended by a woman called Joana Raitt and her boyfriend Glen Early. During the party, a trained disco dancer called Peter Landau tries to ask Joana out but, when he realises that he won’t get anywhere, he gives her his business card instead. After all, he has a nice side-job as a psychic counsellor. The party continues and Joana decides to take a dip in the pool.

However, she has eaten less than an hour before swimming and her whole body is seized by painful, paralysing muscle cramps that cause her to drown. She sees a tunnel with a white light and a benevolent figure at the end of it. But, as she floats down the tunnel, something seems to be pulling her back. So, she decides to try going back. The tunnel turns fierce and menacing in an instant, as the souls of the dead begin to emerge from the walls. Shortly before she leaves, they give her a cryptic warning that they will keep coming for her and that she will return to the afterlife by the Eve of St. John.

Joana returns to life beside the pool, resuscitated by Glen. A doctor living nearby, Dr. Hovde, checks Joana over and, although she is still haunted by the ominous warning, she is fine. A couple of days later, she goes into the city to do some shopping and is almost run over by a car that crashes into some nearby shrubbery. When the bystanders rush to the crashed car, they find that the driver is dead. Curious about this strange turn of events, Dr. Hovde decides to ask the local pathologist to show him the autopsy results. To his surprise, the driver died a day before the crash…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it has a slightly silly/contrived opening segment, it’s a really cool horror thriller novel that also does some innovative things with the zombie genre too. But, if you’re expecting a typical “1980s video nasty”-style horror story, then I should probably point out that whilst this novel was published in 1980, it was very clearly written during the mid-late 1970s.

Which brings me on to the novel’s horror elements. Unlike the typical zombie novels of the 1980s, such as Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus“, this novel is very much a 1970s-style horror story, where there is a lot more focus on things like suspense, the paranormal/occult (and, yes, both ouija boards and the “Death” tarot card make an appearance) and traditional old-school macabre/death-based horror that the kind of intense gory horror that you’d typically associate with the zombie genre. Yes, there are a few slightly gruesome moments, but this focus on relatively bloodless traditional horror actually lends the story much more of an ominous and “realistic” tone (that is also vaguely reminiscent of old 1950s horror comics).

Likewise, the focus on death and near-death experiences gives the novel a timelessly creepy feel that is reminiscent of horror films like “Flatliners”, “Final Destination” etc… or novels like Kaaron Warren’s “Slights” or Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s “Inferno”. Plus, the ominous warning from the realm of the dead casts a dark shadow over the story, whilst also allowing for all sorts of brilliantly suspenseful moments and other cool horror movie style stuff. Whilst this novel isn’t outright scary, it is certainly gothic, suspenseful and creepy at times 🙂

It’s also a refreshingly different take on the zombie genre too. In addition to the fact that the zombie-based scenes are relatively bloodless and have more of a focus on the macabre, suspense and the paranormal, this novel is also notable in the fact that it doesn’t feature a zombie apocalypse.

Instead, the only reason that invididual zombies occasionally return from the dead is to chase Joana and drag her back to the afterlife – so, not only are there relatively few zombies (which actually makes them scarier), but they are a bit more intelligent/agile, they follow a different set of “rules” to typical Hollywood zombies and the fact that only one appears at any one time gives the story much more of a suspenseful slasher movie-style atmosphere too. Seriously, if you want an innovative zombie story, read this one.

Likewise, thanks to all of the suspense, this novel is also a bit like a traditional thriller novel too – something also helped with the classic thriller technique of having several different plot threads that focus on different characters (eg: Joana & Glen, Dr. Hovde and Peter Landau). Whilst this novel is still very much a horror novel, these thriller elements really help to keep the story compelling and to make the rest of it feel a bit more “serious” after the hilariously silly opening segment.

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably ok. Whilst you shouldn’t expect a huge amount of in-depth characterisation here, they are realistic/interesting enough to make you care about what happens to them. Even so, they’re probably a little bit on the “stock characters” side of things. Still, the story remains fairly compelling nonetheless.

As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is mostly fairly good. The narration uses a reasonably informal (by mid-late 1970s/early 1980s standards) and “matter of fact” style that also includes a decent number of descriptive moments and, for the most part, is very readable. However, the very beginning of the novel isn’t as well-written as the rest, with the first few pages being written in a slightly stodgier way (eg: “telling” narration, slower-paced descriptions etc..) than the rest of the book. So, don’t judge the writing by the first few pages.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent 🙂 Not only is it a lean and efficient 222 pages long, but the novel makes brilliant use of suspense and thriller genre techniques to keep the plot compelling throughout. Not only that, although you’ll probably see at least one plot twist coming a mile away (if you’re paying attention to the story) and might guess the nature of another one (if you’ve seen enough horror movies and are paying attention to the page numbers), this novel has one of the most gripping endings that I’ve seen in a horror novel during the past few weeks.

In terms of how this forty-year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Although the novel has a wonderfully retro 1970s-style atmosphere (similar to an early episode of “Columbo”), the scenes of suspense and macabre horror are still very compelling. Plus, for the time it was written, this novel was also a fairly progressive one, and although a few moments may seem mildly “politically incorrect” by modern standards, the novel as a whole has aged surprisingly well.

All in all, this is a really compelling 1970s-style horror novel that also does some innovative stuff with the zombie genre too 🙂 Yes, the beginning is a bit silly and the characters can feel a little like stock characters at times, but this novel is still a really good retro horror novel.

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

Review: “Monolith” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read a Shaun Hutson novel. And, although I’d thought about reading another one of his classic 1980s novels, I thought that I’d check out a second-hand copy of one of his more modern novels (one from 2015 called “Monolith”) that I’ve been meaning to read for a while.

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

This is the 2015 Caffeine Nights Publishing (UK) paperback edition of “Monolith” that I read.

The novel begins in London in 1933. An elderly shopkeeper is woken by the sound of shattering glass and, when he walks downstairs, he sees that nothing has been stolen. The vandalism is, as he suspects, another act of hatred towards him. And, as he begins to sweep up the broken glass, he suddenly thinks of a way to get revenge.

Then we flash forwards to London in 2015. A giant high-rise luxury flat/office complex called the Crystal Tower is being built near the Thames. Funded by a mysterious Russian billionaire, the hulking glass and steel tower has caused no end of controversy, with many wondering how the hell it got planning permission. On the building site, two workers are trying to find out what is wrong with one of the lifts. There seems to be no obvious fault with it, but it won’t budge. But, when they investigate further, the lift suddenly falls, killing both of them.

Local journalist Jessica Anderson gets a tip and heads to the scene of the accident to investigate. After all, this freak accident is merely one of a suspiciously large number that have happened since construction began on the tower….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a reasonably compelling suspense thriller/ horror novel that, whilst it isn’t Hutson’s best novel, was still quite a bit of fun to read. It’s also very much a modern Shaun Hutson novel and, if you’ve read novels like Hutson’s “Last Rites“, then the general style and tone of this novel will probably be familiar to you.

Still, I should start by talking about this novel’s horror elements – which are a mixture of suspenseful horror, psychological horror, bleak horror, monster horror, paranormal horror and gory horror. Unlike Hutson’s older novels, this novel focuses a lot more heavily on suspense rather than gory horror. Whilst there are certainly some gruesome moments, they are a bit more infrequent/short/less detailed and they often tend to focus more on the suspenseful build-up and the characters’ reactions than anything else. Surprisingly, this actually works quite well and helps these scenes to retain a lot of dramatic impact despite their slightly toned-down gory descriptions.

The story’s monster-based scenes are a bit hit and miss though. Although the novel does the classic horror movie thing of keeping the monster mysterious for most of the story, you will probably be able to guess what it is fairly quickly. Even so, this mystery helps to drive the plot and build suspense. Not to mention that – as monsters go – it’s a suitably fearsome (and cool-looking) one.

However, the story’s best monster-based element is just kind of introduced and then forgotten about. I’m wary of spoiling too much, but the novel also gives you a lot of very strong hints that it’s going to include a much larger-scale and more innovative version of this monster (possibly even setting the reader up for the type of memorably dramatic ending that appeared in Hutson’s “Relics) and then…. nothing much.

Don’t get me wrong, the scenes with the “ordinary” monster are certainly dramatic and the ending has a bit of a cool twist to it, but this story could have been so much more if this particular background element had actually been expanded upon a bit more (rather than just being an excuse for a few suspenseful accident scenes and some mysteriously disappearing blood).

In terms of this novel’s thriller elements, they’re fairly good. Not only does this novel use the classic thriller technique of ultra-short chapters (most are about 2-5 pages long), but it also makes heavy use of suspense and mystery too. And, like in several of Hutson’s novels, there are even a few police procedural style scenes involving detectives investigating the events of the story too. Still, if you’re expecting the kind of ultra-fast paced ultra-violent action thriller story found in novels like Hutson’s “Exit Wounds”, “Body Count” etc… then you’re probably going to be disappointed. There are a couple of these type of scenes, but this novel is much more of a traditional suspense thriller than an action-thriller novel. Still, it is a fairly compelling one and is probably slightly more of a gritty and cynical thriller novel than a horror novel.

In terms of the writing, it’s a modern Shaun Hutson novel. In other words, the novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly informal, fast-paced and “matter of fact” way, but with a few formal and/or descriptive flourishes to add atmosphere and suspense (less so than in his older novels, although some moments do have a certain Victorian gothic atmosphere to them).

Plus, the writing also has a bit of personality to it too 🙂 Not only is there are least one Iron Maiden reference (and another possible one with a character called “Adrian Murray”), but there’s also a classic Hutsonism (the “coppery” smell of blood) and, of course, there are a couple of really good cynical moments (eg: a description of social media and a scene involving carrier bags in shops) that made me laugh out loud 🙂

Even so, a lot of the novel’s cynicism is of the serious, bleak variety that was so common in Hutson’s “Last Rites”. Which, of course, brings me on to the characters. As you would expect, many of the main characters have a tragic backstory of one kind or another and are world-weary, cynical people. Still, they are well-written enough for you to care about what happens to them. The novel’s main villain – Voronov – is suitably menacing, but is a little bit of a stylised/two-dimensional villain though.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a reasonably efficient 306 pages in length, it never really feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, thanks to the short chapters and expert use of suspenseful moments, this novel is a reasonably-paced and compelling one that can be enjoyed in a few hours.

All in all, whilst this certainly isn’t Hutson’s best novel (read “Deathday” or “Erebus” if you want to see him at his best), it is still a rather compelling suspense/horror thriller novel.

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

Review: “Lair” By James Herbert (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for an old horror novel. And, although I’d started searching through my older books for a copy of James Herbert’s “Sepulchre” that I vaguely remembered seeing during a previous search, I instead chanced across my copy of Herbert’s 1979 novel “Lair” and decided to re-read it.

This is mostly because although I really enjoyed re-reading Herbert’s “The Rats” a couple of months ago and I am still too scared to re-read the final novel in the trilogy, “Domain” (I read that novel about seventeen years ago and I… still… remember it vividly), I didn’t remember that much about the second novel “Lair” other than my younger self didn’t really find it as impressive as “The Rats”. So, I was curious about what I’d think of it these days.

Although “Lair” is the second novel in a trilogy, it still works as a self-contained story. Not only are there recaps for some of the events of “The Rats”, but I imagine that some plot events will actually be scarier if you don’t already know what sort of thing to expect.

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

This is the 1990 New English Library (UK) paperback edition of “Lair” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief description of several giant mutant rats surviving the events of the previous book thanks to someone not following the government’s advice. Four years later, a farmer in Epping Forest notices that his pet cats have been attacked by something.

Meanwhile, a family is taking a short holiday nearby and one of their children spots what looks like a stray dog in the bushes – but it flees before she can take a close look. In another part of the forest, one of the wardens suddenly finds that his horse bolts in terror at some unseen creature. When the exhausted steed comes to a halt, the warden sees a white deer. A bad omen.

Meanwhile, at the offices of Ratkill, Lucas Pender arrives for work. Following the outbreak in London four years earlier, the company is flush with both private and government funding and has been researching a number of new poisons, ultrasonic technologies and protective suits. And, following new legislation brought in after the outbreak, all possible rat sightings must be reported. So, when Pender arrives at work, it isn’t long before he is sent to Epping Forest to investigate….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a much better book than I remembered 🙂 Although it is overshadowed by both the fame of the first “Rats” book and the deeply unsettling and unforgettable bleakness of the third book, it is still one hell of a good horror novel. Not only is the novel’s pacing even better than “The Rats” but it is also a much more extreme, dramatic and suspenseful horror novel too 🙂 In short, if “The Rats” established the early beginnings of the splatterpunk genre, this novel finishes the blueprint that would later be followed by many 1980s authors, whilst also adding some excellent thriller elements too.

So, naturally, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements – which are a mixture of suspenseful horror, monster horror, ominous horror, disaster horror, sexual horror, fast-paced horror, character-based horror, claustrophobic horror and, of course, gory horror. Unlike “The Rats”, this novel is very much a splatterpunk novel – with a level of uncompromising, grisly, gross-out gore that almost approaches that of the 1980s horror authors who were inspired by Herbert’s novels.

This novel also makes expert use of pacing to increase both the horror and impact of the story’s events. Although I usually wait until later in my reviews to talk about pacing, I need to mention it here because it is an integral part of what makes “Lair” such a compelling horror novel.

In short, the first third or so of the novel is spent building suspense. You know that something horrible is going to happen, and each near-miss or possible rat sighting just ramps up the tension even more. Then, when the novel explodes in a horrific frenzy of fast-paced danger, violence and hungry rats, it almost feels like a relief from the nail-biting suspense and, well, I won’t spoil the later parts. But, I cannot praise this efficiently short (244 pages) novel’s pacing highly enough 🙂

Like with “The Rats”, this novel also contains quite a few thriller elements too. Although it maintains some of the realistic “disaster movie” elements from it’s predecessor (eg: crisis planning meetings, political drama etc..), this novel’s thriller elements feel a lot more fast-paced, spectacular and action-packed than those in “The Rats”. In addition to all of the suspense that I mentioned earlier, the novel also contains a really good mixture between frantic, claustrophobic close-quarters fights for survival and larger-scale pitched battles with the giant rats too. Seriously, this novel is a brilliant example of how to mix the horror and thriller genres well 🙂

In terms of the novel’s characters, they are fairly good. In the classic splatterpunk fashion, several of the background characters actually get slightly better and more detailed characterisation than the main characters do. This is mainly done to both add a sense of scale to the novel and to create a grim atmosphere (since not all of these detailed characters survive).

Still, the novel’s two main characters – Lucas Pender and a teacher/tour guide called Jenny Hanmer – get enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to them. Even so, they’re the typical “understated hero” and “sidekick/love interest” stock characters that you’d expect in a horror/thriller novel of this vintage. Likewise, although the novel’s police and military characters don’t get a giant amount of characterisation, they have the kind of quiet, understated bravery that makes you care about what happens to them.

In terms of the writing, this novel is excellent 🙂 As you’d expect from a horror novel of this vintage, the third-person narration is fairly descriptive and slightly formal but still “matter of fact” enough to be easily readable. Not only does this add a lot of extra atmosphere to the novel, but it also means that the novel can also move at a fairly decent pace too – with the novel’s “slightly formal, but matter of fact” writing style both adding gravitas to the fast-paced moments whilst also flowing well enough to keep the slower moments compellingly suspenseful too. Seriously, it’s a really good all-purpose writing style.

In terms of how this forty-one year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well 🙂 Not only is it still atmospheric, compelling and readable – but both the rural setting and the quality of the writing also lend it a slightly timeless quality too. This is one of those novels that mostly feels enjoyably “retro” rather than dated. Not to mention that the total lack of smartphones etc… also allows some scenes to contain a lot more suspense than they would do in a modern novel. Even so, the scenes involving one rather creepy background character would probably be written in a different way (eg: with less focus on his perspective, thoughts etc..) in a more modern novel, and the same is probably true for a brief reference to domestic violence during one scene involving the local farmer too.

All in all, this is a really compelling horror thriller novel 🙂 Like all good sequels, it takes what made the original great and turns it up to eleven. Yes, it’s less famous than “The Rats” and less scary than “Domain”, but it would be a mistake to overlook this novel. If you aren’t easily shocked and you like your retro horror novels to include a few fast-paced thriller elements too, then this one is well worth reading 🙂

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

Review: “The Damnation Game” By Clive Barker (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for horror fiction, I thought that I’d re-read a novel that I’ve been meaning to re-read for ages. I am, of course, talking about the old second-hand copy of Clive Barker’s 1985 novel “The Damnation Game” that I first read about twelve years ago.

After all, I couldn’t remember a huge amount about “The Damnation Game” other than it was a horror novel that I’d enjoyed at the time. So, I was curious to see what I’d make of it these days.

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

This is the 1991 Sphere (UK) paperback edition of “The Damnation Game” that I read.

The novel begins in Warsaw, shortly after the end of WW2. The city is in ruins, filled with death, poverty and depravity. But, to a war profiteer known simply as “the thief”, it is a paradise. And, on one night in this scarred city, the thief ends up talking to a Russian soldier who has lost to a mysterious gambler who always wins. Even though the thief doesn’t believe the soldier, the story intrigues him. So, he decides to find this man and beat him at cards. When the soldier is later found murdered over his gambling debts, this just makes the thief even more curious. And, eventually, he finds the gambler.

Then we flash forwards to 1980s London. Marty Strauss is a prisoner in Wandsworth, six years into his sentence for an armed robbery gone wrong. Although the day starts out like any other, he is summoned to a parole hearing. A man called Mr.Toy is interviewing prisoners on behalf of a reclusive millionaire called Mr.Whitehead who, as a philanthropic gesture, wants to give a prisoner a honest job as his bodyguard. Although Marty thinks that he has failed the interview, he is paroled a few weeks later and ordered to report to Whitehead’s estate. However, he slowly realises that he has stepped out of the fire and into the frying pan…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it is a bit more slow-paced than I remember, it is a brilliantly atmospheric and exquisitely creepy horror novel of the type that only Clive Barker can write. If you enjoyed Barker’s “Cabal“, “The Hellbound Heart” or his short story “Dread”, then you’ll be on familiar ground here 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements. Although the novel might seem a bit tame for a Clive Barker novel at first, stick with it. This is one of those horror novels that gradually builds in intensity as it progresses. Although it isn’t exactly frightening, it is unsettling and disturbing in a way that really creeps up on you. This is achieved through a well-crafted blend of psychological horror, suspenseful horror, claustrophobic horror, bleak horror, cruel horror, character-based horror, sexual horror, paranormal horror, death/decay-based horror, war horror, taboo-based horror and, of course, gory horror.

Interestingly, like with Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and “Deathday“, this novel also blends the vampire and zombie genres in an innovative way. But, whilst Hutson takes more of a “cool late-night zombie movie” approach to this, Barker’s novel reads more like a vampire novel with zombies in it. The undead in this novel are either sentient beings who are slowly decaying (without realising that they are zombies) or are cruel life-stealing immortals warped by centuries of undying loneliness. And, as you might imagine, this is about ten times creepier.

As you might expect from a Clive Barker novel, there’s a lot of thematic depth here. Not only is “The Damnation Game” a novel about how power corrupts, but it is also a story about chance, fate and free will too.

It’s a novel about the darker side of the human psyche – summed up brilliantly with the line: “Every man is his own Mephistophilis, don’t you think?” And, as the title suggests, it is a novel about damnation – not in the religious sense of the word, but in the feeling of impending doom that hangs over many of the story’s characters.

For all of this novel’s unsettling horrors, it also contains a surprising amount of humour too. In addition to some brilliantly bizarre moments of dark comedy (such as Marty talking to a fly he finds near a corpse), the novel also contains the kind of impishly subversive satire that you’d expect from a 1980s Clive Barker novel (eg: a convicted criminal being more moral than a respected aristocrat, two religious missionaries who gleefully commit acts of evil in the mistaken belief that they are doing “God’s work” etc…).

The novel’s writing is absolutely brilliant, but something of an acquired taste. As you might expect from a 1980s Clive Barker novel, this novel’s third-person narration is very much on the formal and “literary” side of things and can be quite slow-paced until you get used to it. But, this style really works here. Not only does it add a lot of atmosphere and personality to the story, but this “old school” formal writing style is also expertly contrasted with the events of the story for horrific and/or comedic effect on numerous occasions too.

Likewise, the characters are also really well-written too. All of the main characters have realistic motivations, desires, personalities, flaws etc… Not only does this novel have a certain gritty realism to it, but the novel’s characters are often a brilliant source of horror too. Whether it is an undead serial killer called Breer or his immortal master, Mamoulian, Clive Barker certainly knows how to write disturbing villains.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel works reasonably well. At 374 pages in the older edition I read (and probably more in modern reprints with larger type), it’s a little on the longer side of things. Likewise, the novel’s pacing is slow to medium throughout most of the novel. Yet, somehow, this really works. It allows the novel to gradually build atmosphere and suspense, not to mention that the slightly slower pacing also makes the novel’s more grotesque moments a bit more intense too. Plus, whilst this novel becomes a bit more understated after the spectacular opening chapter, it gradually becomes more and more compelling (and creepy) as it progresses.

In terms of how this thirty-five year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. On the one hand, the novel’s atmosphere, horror, humour, themes, locations, characters and story seem almost timeless and it is still a very effective horror novel when read these days. On the other hand, the novel’s formal writing style will seem noticeably old-fashioned and slow-paced if you’re used to more modern novels, not to mention that this novel also includes a few descriptions or moments that would probably be considered dated or “politically incorrect” these days too.

All in all, this is a really creepy and atmospheric horror novel 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit more slow-paced than I remember and it can be a bit more understated and small-scale than something like Barker’s “Cabal” or “The Scarlet Gospels“, but if you stick with this novel, then you’ll find it to be classic Clive Barker 🙂

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

Review: “Deathday” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, although I hadn’t planned to re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1986 horror novel “Deathday”, I found that the other book I’d planned to read just wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped. So, worried about losing interest in reading altogether, I needed to read something I knew that I’d enjoy. And quick!

Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to find the small pile of vintage Shaun Hutson paperbacks I’d found in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield a few months earlier.

Although I first read a 1990s/early 2000s reprint of “Deathday” when I was about fifteen or so, I couldn’t remember a huge amount about the story other than I’d enjoyed it. So, I was curious to see what I’d think of it these days. Plus, after reading a slightly more modern 1980s-influenced horror novel recently, I was in the mood for more of this awesome genre 🙂

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

This is the 1987 Star Books (UK) paperback edition of “Deathday” that I read.

The novel begins in the year 1596, with a horrifying scene showing the church authorities cruelly interrogating someone they suspect of witchcraft about a mysterious amulet. Eventually, they learn that only the first person to touch the amulet will be tainted by whatever lurks within it.

Then we flash forward to the 1980s. In the small Derbyshire village of Medworth, Detective Inspector Tom Lambert is standing in front of his brother’s grave, racked by survivor’s guilt about the car accident that he escaped from unharmed. In another part of the graveyard, two gardeners are getting ready to clear a patch of overgrown land. The work is gruelling and is made worse by a stubborn tree stump that refuses to budge.

But, one of the gardeners – Ray Mackenzie – isn’t going to give up without a fight and insists that they continue. Fetching axes and crowbars, the gardeners give the tree stump everything they’ve got and it finally gives way. In the pit below the stump, a giant slug sits atop a wooden box. Summoning all of his strength, Ray kills the slug and prises the box open. It contains a skeleton wearing a golden medallion. Feeling like he deserves a reward for his efforts, Ray grabs the medallion. Needless to say, things don’t go well…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is even better than I remembered 🙂 Seriously, this is the kind of gloriously fun ’80s horror novel that shows the genre at it’s absolute best 🙂 By the end of it, I was reading with the kind of huge grin that is usually reserved for things like cherished old computer games, corny late-night horror movies and the best heavy metal music. This novel is classic Shaun Hutson and, if you enjoyed Hutson’s “Erebus” or “Relics“, then this novel will absolutely knock your socks off 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements. It contains a brilliantly unpredictable, and yet reassuringly traditional, mixture of paranormal horror, suspense, a theme of mourning/death, ominous horror, gothic horror, vampire/zombie/demon horror, slasher movie style horror, jump scare-like moments (plus a few playful fake-outs) and, of course, lots of the ultra-gruesome gory horror that you’d expect from a splatterpunk novel. Although experienced horror hounds probably won’t find this novel that frightening, it is still a brilliantly enjoyable horror novel nonetheless 🙂

Shaun Hutson’s 1984 classic “Erebus” blended the vampire and zombie genres in a really cool way and “Deathday” takes this a step further by adding slasher movie-style elements and “glowing eyes” evil sorcery to the mix 🙂 This keeps the scenes of horror in “Deathday” excitingly unpredictable, whilst also allowing Hutson to add the most dramatic elements of each genre to the mix. Seriously, if you like any of these four genres of horror, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this novel.

Not only that, like “Erebus”, this novel is also something of a thriller too 🙂 This is handled extremely well, with lots of tense ominous moments gradually giving way to more intense scenes of frantic suspense before climaxing in a spectacularly dramatic, grippingly fast-paced and action-packed final segment 🙂 In addition to this excellent pacing, there are also detective/police procedural elements, some gloriously cheesy “80s action movie” one liners – with the best probably being ‘I am the law’ – and a good number of dramatic set pieces sprinkled throughout the novel.

Seriously, I love how this novel blends it’s horror and thriller elements 🙂 Unlike most horror thriller novels, the emphasis is firmly on the story’s horror elements – with the thriller elements taking a slight back seat for most of the novel. Then, when the thriller elements finally take centre stage in a furious blaze of gunfire, there are still enough horror elements remaining to give these grippingly fast-paced scenes a level of drama and impact that you wouldn’t usually find in a typical action-thriller novel.

I’ve said it before, but this novel is pure, unadulterated fun to read 🙂 In addition to the expert blend of horror and thriller fiction, this novel takes itself seriously enough to be dramatic whilst also being knowingly cheesy enough to bring a smile to any reader’s face.

Whether it is a scene where the police find an empty coffin with a broken lid (‘As if some powerful force had stove it out… FROM THE INSIDE’) or the brilliantly tongue-in-cheek way that the novel’s action movie-style “lock and load montage” is handled (it goes on for quite a few pages and shows what happens when unarmed policemen try using guns for the first time), this novel walks a brilliantly fine line between grim, shocking horror and gloriously cheesy late-night B-movie schlock that is an absolute joy to behold 🙂

In terms of the characters, they are reasonably ok. Whilst you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there’s enough here to make you care about the characters. Plus, although the main character – D.I. Lambert – is a bit of a stock character (who goes from grizzled, brooding protagonist to loose-cannon cop to badass action hero), this is handled in a slightly more realistic way (eg: he actually has emotions etc…) whilst still giving him the kind of stylised persona that you’d expect from a 1980s thriller protagonist. Likewise, many of the background characters feel like realistic people and even the less realistic characters – such as DCI Baron – are stylised enough to bring a smile to any reader’s face.

In terms of the writing, this is a Shaun Hutson novel 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is this brilliant mixture of atmospheric formal descriptions, fast-paced thriller narration and the kind of personality-filled cynical observations and quirky narrative moments that really make this novel unique 🙂 Yes, the paperback edition of “Deathday” I read had a few typographical errors and the writing can be a little corny at times, but this is all part of the charm. However, long-time fans of Shaun Hutson might be a little disappointed to realise that there aren’t that many classic Hutsonisms here (the only one I spotted was “cleft”, used in the usual context).

As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. Although it is a relatively long 383 pages in length, it never feels bloated or padded. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the novel’s pacing is absolutely stellar 🙂 This is a novel that is compelling from the first page and then gets more and more compelling as the story gradually turns from an ominous gothic horror tale to a suspenseful slasher story to an action-packed zombie thriller 🙂

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it still holds up fairly well. Although it is very ’80s in a lot of ways, this often just adds to the story’s late-night “video nasty” charm – with the grimness of 1980s Britain (eg: crime, loneliness etc..) being contrasted with the kind of moments you’d expect to see in a cheesy late-night TV show (eg: loose-cannon police-work, an evil druid etc..). Not only that, the story’s plot is still as compelling and dramatic as ever. Even so, this novel is probably slightly on the “politically incorrect” side of things these days – but not as much as you might expect.

All in all, this is the most fun that I’ve had with a book in a while 🙂 It’s an expert blend of horror and thriller fiction, which walks a brilliantly fine line between amusing cheesiness and gripping drama. It’s an even better novel than Hutson’s “Erebus”, and I never expected to say that. If you like zombies, vampires, gothic graveyards, slasher movies, heavy metal music, cheesy ’80s movies and/or thriller novels, then this one is well-worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get six hundred and sixty-six.

Review: “Tower Hill” By Sarah Pinborough (Novel)

Happy New Year everyone 🙂 After reading Sarah Pinborough’s “Torchwood: Long Time Dead” a few weeks ago, I decided to look online for other books by the author. And, to my absolute delight, I found that she’d written several horror novels… that were only published over in America during the mid-late 2000s by a publisher that went bust in 2010.

Given how this time period was something of a drought for horror publishing in general (with a few rare exceptions like Abbaddon Books’ “Tomes Of The Dead” series), given how the cover art and titles of these books reminded me a bit of the old 1970s/80s horror novels I used to find in charity shops during the early-mid 2000s and given that they were fairly cheap second-hand, I decided to get a couple of them.

And, although I’d originally planned to read Pinborough’s “Breeding Ground” (if only bcause the title was possibly a homage to this 1980s Shaun Hutson novel), I ended up choosing Pinborough’s 2008 novel “Tower Hill” instead because it didn’t seem to include any giant spiders.

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

This is the 2008 Leisure Books (US) paperback edition of “Tower Hill” that I read.

Set in America, the novel begins forty miles outside the sleepy Maine town of Tower Hill. A Catholic priest called Father O’Brien is driving towards the town, when he stops off at a burger restaurant in order to use the bathroom. However, someone dressed as a priest is waiting for him there. The fake priest, Jack, stabs O’Brien before taking his wallet and returning to the restaurant to see a swathe of dead bodies and his serial-killer friend Grey dousing the building with petrol. Jack and Grey make plans to meet up in Tower Hill before setting the building alight and going their separate ways.

A while later, a fresher called Steve Wharton arrives in Tower Hill ready for his first term at the idyllic town’s small university. When he arrives, he finds that he’s sharing a house with a cool woman called Angela and a slightly more shy woman called Liz, who has come from a sheltered religious background. Still, the three of them get along well and begin settling into university life.

Meanwhile, Jack poses as the town’s new priest and gets ready to use the local church for a different type of mass. Grey, on the other hand, poses as both a history professor and the head of the university’s paranormal investigation society…

One of the first things that I will say about “Tower Hill” is that it is a much better book than it initially appears to be. Seriously, don’t let the slower and more understated earlier parts of this novel put you off. This is a brilliantly creepy horror novel that is also like a really cool updated version of a classic 1980s horror novel. If you like classic horror authors like James Herbert, Shaun Hutson, Graham Masterton and maybe Stephen King, then you’ll probably enjoy “Tower Hill”. Just don’t judge it by the first 100-150 pages though.

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements, which are really creepy 🙂 This novel focuses heavily on both paranormal/religious horror and psychological horror, but also includes some well-placed moments of gory horror, claustrophobic horror, ominous horror, social horror, sexual horror, suspense, character-based horror and even a few hints of both the zombie and vampire genres too 🙂 Although this novel is probably more disturbing and unsettling than outright frightening, it is certainly a bit of a creeper.

One of the novel’s greatest horrors is the horror of conformity and this is handled absolutely brilliantly. The novel shows the “wholesome” town of Tower Hill gradually falling under an evil influence, which succeeds by cloaking itself in the guise of both old and new religions. Not only does this show how easily charisma and authority can turn good people evil, but it also adds a lot of nervous suspense in later parts of the story where only a few people remain untouched by the evil forces.

Interestingly, whilst this novel contains some amusingly cynical satire about religion, the novel is also something of a traditional “Good vs Evil” story with heavily religious undertones. This ambiguity not only keeps the novel unpredictable, but it also helps to add a surprising amount of nuance to the story – whilst still allowing the story’s conformity and religion-based scenes to remain seriously chilling.

Although the premise of “cosy small town turns evil” is nothing new in the horror genre, it is handled really well in this novel – with the story having a creeping sense of unease and claustrophobia that walks a fine line between both dystopian fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction. This, incidentally, is why you shouldn’t judge this novel by the first 100-150 pages or so. In order to show the gradual change from cosy idyll to diabolical dystopia, the early parts of this story will sometimes seem a bit saccharine, cheesy, drab or bland. This is only there to make the later parts more unsettling by contrast.

Earlier, I likened this novel to several classic 1980s horror authors and it is really cool how this novel clearly takes inspiration from them whilst also very much being it’s own thing too. It has the kind of setting that you’d expect from a Stephen King novel, the rural gloom and supernatural chills of one of James Herbert’s paranormal horror novels, the occult drama of Graham Masterton and a few hints of the apocalyptic claustrophobia and macabre spectacle of one of Shaun Hutson’s classic horror novels. Yet, as mentioned before, the novel is also it’s own thing too, with a unique atmosphere and a dramatic ending that wouldn’t look out of place in a late-night 1980s horror movie 🙂

And, yes, this novel is atmospheric 🙂 Even though the earlier parts of the story can be a bit slow and uneventful, the descriptions in these parts really help to make the town of Tower Hill feel like a very real and very old place (with perhaps a few hints of H.P Lovecraft and rural Britain too). Not only does this add extra drama to the subtle changes in the town throughout the novel, but it also means that the novel’s moments of horror have a bit of extra impact too.

In terms of the characters, this novel is also much better than it initially seems. In other words, there is actual character development in this novel. Although the “good” characters will seem a bit bland or boring at first, they gain a lot more depth as the story progresses and, by the end, are really compelling characters 🙂 In addition to this, the novel’s villains – Jack and Grey – remain chillingly fascinating throughout the story and, during the slower-paced earlier parts of the novel, really help to keep the story interesting too.

As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is fairly good. There’s a really good mixture between more atmospheric, descriptive narration and faster-paced “matter of fact” narration. In a lot of ways, this novel’s narration is like a slightly more informal and readable version of the narration you’d expect to see in a classic 1980s horror novel 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At 320 pages in length, this story seems neither too short nor too long. The novel’s pacing also has a fairly good progression, with the story gradually becoming faster, more dramatic, atmospheric, suspenseful, creepy and compelling as it progresses. Even so, as mentioned earlier, this means that the earlier parts of the story might seem a bit slow, uneventful and/or bland at times. Still, these early parts are there to make the later parts of the story more compelling by contrast.

All in all, this is a really cool 1980s-influenced horror novel from the late 2000s 🙂 It’s chilling, atmospheric and compelling. Yes, it takes a while for the story to really become interesting, but it is well worth the wait 🙂 If you like classic ’80s horror authors like James Herbert, Stephen King, Shaun Hutson, Graham Masterton etc.. then this novel is well worth checking out 🙂

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