Review: “The Haunting Of Hill House” By Shirley Jackson (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a horror novel that I’d been meaning to read for a while.

After hearing about a modern TV (well, streaming rather than broadcast television) adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel “The Haunting Of Hill House”, I mistakenly thought that it was connected to the excellent 1990s remake of “House On Haunted Hill“.

Even though I soon learnt that it had nothing to do with this film (and that this other 1990s movie that I vaguely remembered was based on it), I was still intrigued enough to put this novel on my “to read” list.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “The Haunting Of Hill House”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “The Haunting Of Hill House” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief description of an old mansion called Hill House. Paranormal investigator Dr John Montague has heard stories about this house and wants to conduct research into it. So, he rents the house for three months before writing to several people who have had psychic experiences. Out of the many letters he sends, only two people reply – a lonely woman with an unhappy family life called Eleanor Vance and a bohemian artist called Theodora. Not only that, the owner of the house, Mrs. Sanderson, insists that her ne’er do well nephew Luke also accompanies the party on their investigation.

After “borrowing” her sister’s car after an argument, Eleanor takes the long drive to Hill House. But, when she arrives, the only people there are a spiteful caretaker and his creepily robotic wife. Not only that, the house itself looks wrong, mean and evil. Luckily for Eleanor, the other guests arrive a little while later and – although the house is a bit odd – they settle in and have a good laugh about the place. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it deserves it’s reputation as a horror classic 🙂 It is a really brilliant blend of genuinely creepy horror and genuinely funny comedy. It is the kind of book where, when reading some parts of it, I thought “Yes! This is my kind of novel 🙂 ” and, in other parts, was surprised that a horror novel of this vintage could be so scary. In other words, it’s a surprisingly timeless horror story.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re a genuinely chilling mixture of ominous horror, gothic horror, bleak horror, paranormal horror, tragic horror, jump scares, implied horror and, most of all, psychological horror. Although this novel has all of the trappings of a “cosy” Victorian-style ghost story, it is much more akin to the claustrophobic psychological drama of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper“, the suspense of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” and maybe the ominous dread and character-based tension of a more modern novel like Adam Nevill’s “The Ritual“.

This horror is also helped by several of the novel’s bleak themes, which include evil, loss, loneliness and the weight of the past. This is also a novel about the gaps between dreams and reality, about despair so deep that even a haunted house filled with untrustworthy strangers seems positively heavenly in comparison to the world outside. Where the ghostly horrors of Hill House pale in comparision to the horrors of bleak, everyday reality.

Seriously, this novel has one of the best – and creepiest – opening sentences I’ve read in a while: ‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.‘ and it really helps to set the tone for the rest of the story. This is a novel where you are never entirely sure what is imagined and what is real, or whether one is better than the other.

Yet, despite all of this grimness, the novel is also a lot funnier than I’d expected 🙂 In addition to lots of amusingly irreverent dialogue, some excellent dark humour, some brilliantly quirky characters and even an obscure joke about how sleep-inducingly dull Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela” is , this novel also has the kind of knowing humour of more modern horror movies (with references to things like Dracula etc..).

Not only does this unexpected comedy fit in really well with the rest of the story but it also expertly walks a line between giving the story the wonderfully fun atmosphere of a 1980s/90s horror comedy movie and also gradually deepening the story’s horror when you start to realise that the characters are cracking so many jokes in order to keep their sanity intact. Serously, if you want a great example of how to blend horror and comedy, then read this novel.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is excellent. Yes, it is a bit on the formal side of things, sometimes reading like a Victorian novel and sometimes reading more like a story from the 1920s-30s, but this allows for a lot of really atmospheric descriptions, brilliant sentences and excellent characterisation too. Interestingly, although the novel is set in America, the writing style almost made me feel like this novel was set in Britain at times.

This novel also walks a very fine line between reliable and unreliable narration, with the third-person narrator sometimes focusing on Eleanor’s thoughts and sometimes narrating in a more traditional way. Not only does this lend the novel a sense of personality, but it also deepens the story’s unsettling horror too.

As for the characters, this novel is also excellent 🙂 Good horror relies on good characterisation and nowhere is this more evident than in this novel. The main characters are a wonderfully quirky group of misfits and eccentrics who really feel like they are real people.

Not only are Eleanor’s thoughts and anxieties a major part of the novel, but the complicated and gradually fraying friendship between the characters is also a major part of what makes this novel so creepy. Not only that, several of the background characters (eg: Mrs. Dudley, Arthur and Mrs. Montague) manage to be both hilarious and creepy at the same time too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 246 pages in length, it never feels like a single page is wasted. Likewise, although this novel is a bit on the slow-paced side of things, this actually works in the story’s favour, allowing it to gradually build atmosphere and to lull the reader into a false sense of security before things start to get creepier and creepier…

As for how this sixty year old novel has aged, it is timeless. Yes, the writing style is fairly formal (almost to the point of being Victorian at times), but this really fits in with the style and atmosphere of the story. It is a story where the characters still feel realistic, where the comedy is still amusing and – most importantly- where the horror is still scary too. Not only that, the irreverent humour and the “band of misfits” main characters also lend this vintage novel a surprisingly modern atmosphere at times.

All in all, this is an absolutely brilliant horror novel 🙂 It’s timeless, atmospheric, quirky, funny and, above all, genuinely creepy. This is a novel that will make you laugh, fill you with bleak despair and make you at least slightly nervous. Seriously, don’t read it at night.

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

Review: “Breeding Ground” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, since I was in the mood for a retro horror novel, I thought that I’d re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1985 novel “Breeding Ground”. This was one of about four vintage 1980s Shaun Hutson paperbacks that I bought after finding a trove of them in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield a couple of months before preparing this review.

Out of these books, I decided to go for “Breeding Ground” since I’d already re-read “Relics“, since it was the shortest novel in the pile and because I remembered very little about this novel from when I first read a copy of it during my mid-teens. So, I was curious.

Although “Breeding Ground” is the sequel to Hutson’s 1982 novel “Slugs” (which was part of a trend of “giant vermin” monster novels started by James Herbert’s “The Rats” in 1974), it tells a self-contained story and can be enjoyed if you either haven’t read “Slugs” or have read it so long ago that you can’t remember much about it.

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

This is the 1986 Star Books (UK) paperback edition of “Breeding Ground” that I read.

The novel begins with a farmer delivering a load of lettuce to a market stall in London. One of the lettuces looks a bit dodgy, so it is thrown onto a pile of rejects. On the lettuce leaves, baby slugs hatch and slither around unseen.

A homeless man called Tommy is scavenging for food and ends up rifling through the pile of rejected vegetables. Thinking that the lettuce looks vaguely edible, he takes it and eats it. Hours later, he is stricken by extreme cramps and pain. Tommy lurches through the streets in search of help. No one really notices him or tries to help, so he crawls into a nearby public lavatory and dies inside one of the cubicles.

His body is first discovered by a couple of louts who are looking for somewhere to sniff glue. When one of them kicks the body, giant slugs emerge from it. Horrified by this, the louts flee in terror.

The police, led by DI Ray Grogan, find Tommy’s slug-devoured remains a while later and have no clue of who or what could have done such a thing. The next morning, local doctor Alan Finch is making a couple of house calls when he finds that one of his patients, Molly Foster, is covered with strange boils that he can’t seem to diagnose the cause of…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is classic Shaun Hutson 🙂 If you’re a fan of James Herbert’s “The Rats”, then this novel is an awesome tribute (it even briefly references giant rats at one point) in Hutson’s own style. It’s the kind of no-limits retro splatterpunk “Video Nasty” of a novel that reaches the high standards of other Hutson classics like “Erebus” 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it contains a unflinchingly relentless mixture of gross-out horror (of various types), creature horror, suspenseful horror, medical/disease horror, body horror, slasher movie-style horror and sexual horror. This is also an atmospheric novel where you can practically feel the dripping slime and smell the plethora of rancid stenches. Needless to say, it isn’t a novel for the prudish or easily-shocked. Like with Hutson’s “Erebus”, this is also an ultra-gruesome novel that makes even the most “extreme” modern horror movies look like Disney films by comparison.

Interestingly, the novel also shares a few technical and thematic similarities with Herbert’s “The Rats”. In addition to the whole “giant flesh-eating vermin” thing, there are also a surprisingly large number of chapters focusing on ordinary people who die in horrible slug-related ways. Although this technique had become a mainstay of the splatterpunk genre by then, it’s really cool to see it in a “Rats”-like novel and with Hutson’s unique brand of cynicism too 🙂

Likewise, the novel also updates some of the themes of “The Rats” – transplanting it from the bleak, poor and still blitz-damaged 1970s version of London to the equally bleak Thatcher-era 1980s London, where people are made homeless by mine closures, where people sniff glue and where everything is generally a bit crap. Although this novel doesn’t contain a gigantic amount of social commentary, there’s still more than enough here to put the “punk” into “splatterpunk”. Not that this is really a punk novel. If anything, it’s a heavy metal novel – with a really cool Iron Maiden reference about halfway through the book 🙂

The novel also includes some really dramatic disaster movie-style elements, which are also reminscent of “The Rats” too – with doctors, detectives and the military trying to stop the slowly-spreading plague of flesh-eating slugs and all of the accompanying problems caused by it (eg: overflowing sewers, people turned into killers by slug larvae in their blood etc..). Like “The Rats”, it also has a wonderfully dramatic final act set in an evacuated segment of London too 🙂

Although I’d normally criticise such a novel as “derivative” or ” a rip-off”, this isn’t the case here. When a story is heavily inspired by a classic like “The Rats” and written by a horror legend like Shaun Hutson, it’s just pure awesome. It’s like an amazing cover version (eg: The Sisters Of Mercy’s cover of “Gimme Shelter”, Hendrix’s cover of “All Along The Watchtower” etc..) that equals or possibly even surpasses the original. Seriously, this novel was so much fun to read 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly decent. The main characters get enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to them, but you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation here. Like in “The Rats”, the bulk of the novel’s characterisation is reserved for the many people who fall victim to the ravenous slugs. These segments of the novel work really well and really help to add a level of scale, humanity and drama to the novel’s large-scale horrors.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is classic Shaun Hutson 🙂 In other words, it’s a wonderfully distinctive mixture of gritty “matter of fact” narration and more formal/detailed narration. Yes, the narration sounds a little cheesy and old-school when read today (and it probably inspired Garth Marenghi), but this is all part of the charm and it’s still extremely readable 🙂 Plus, there are one or two brilliant moments of unintentional comedy too – such as the word “humping” being used in the traditional sense of moving heavy objects around.

Not only that, if you’re a Shaun Hutson fan, then this novel is also crammed with classic Hutsonisms too 🙂 Seriously, I lost count of the number of times that the words “mucoid” and “liquescent” turned up. Likewise, the word “cleft” also makes a couple of appearances, with the only noticeable absences being references to the scapula bone and the “coppery” smell of blood.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent 🙂 At a wonderfully streamlined 220 pages, there isn’t a wasted page here 🙂 Likewise, the novel’s day-based structure (the story is divided into about five segments, each chronicling the events of one day) allows for a suspenseful build-up from a few slug incidents to a full-blown crisis, with the story never really getting dull thanks to the fact that something horrific happens every few pages. It’s the kind of decently-paced story that can be enjoyed in three or four hours.

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. Yes, there are a few “politically incorrect” moments (the worst probably being a “humourous” homophobic T-shirt slogan later in the story) and the novel’s narration is a bit old-school, but the novel’s scenes of horror are timelessly gross and the story’s plot is still very compelling. Not only that, the novel has a wonderfully cynical “’80s” atmosphere to it and is a really fascinating window into the past. Plus, there are some cool ’80s references here such as mentions of Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes To Midnight” and the characters from “The Professionals” too 🙂

All in all, this novel is classic Shaun Hutson 🙂 It isn’t for everyone, but it’s a really brilliant cover version of James Herbert’s “The Rats” that will delight horror hounds who are looking for something a bit more shocking. If you’re a fan of Shaun Hutson, then this novel will also evoke fond memories of when you first read his works during your teenage years (seriously, did anyone first discover them at a later age than this?) It’s a gloriously gross, enjoyably cheesy and just generally fun retro horror novel that is well worth reading… if you’ve got the stomach for it.

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

Review: “The Vampire Armand” By Anne Rice (Novel)

Well, for the next novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d read an Anne Rice novel.

Although I once tried to read Rice’s “Interview With The Vampire” during my early twenties (after seeing the film), I just couldn’t get into it and ended up abandoning it after about a hundred pages. But, about a week before writing this review, I happened to find a copy of Rice’s 1998 novel “The Vampire Armand” in a second-hand bookshop in Emsworth and decided to take a look at it. I’m so glad that I did 🙂

However, I should probably point out that this novel is apparently the sixth novel in a series. Although most of the novel works fairly well as a stand-alone book, the beginning and one recap-heavy segment later in the book can be a little confusing if, like me, you haven’t read the previous five books in the series. But, don’t let this put you off.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “The Vampire Armand”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1999 Arrow (UK) paperback edition of “The Vampire Armand” that I read.

The novel begins in an abandoned church in New Orleans during the late 1990s. A powerful vampire called Lestat lies in some kind of coma and is visited by other vampires. One of those vampires is Armand, a centuries-old vampire who can see ghosts and who still looks like the seventeen year old boy he was when he became a vampire.

After meeting another vampire called Marius and discussing two humans that Armand has taken under his wing, Armand is accosted by a body-swapping man called David Talbot who wants to write a book about Armand’s life story.

After some discussion and a spot of blood-drinking, Armand reluctantly agrees to dictate his life story – an epic tale of cruelty, poverty, opulence, tragedy, delight, despair and spiritual visions.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW 🙂 This novel is magnificent 🙂 Whether it is the atmosphere, the characters or the exquisite writing, this novel is almost transcendent at times 🙂 Yes, there are some pacing problems later in the book, but these flaws are overshadowed by the sheer quality of this novel.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, there aren’t really as many as I’d expected. Yes, there are scenes of gory horror, gothic horror, paranormal horror, character-based horror, cruel horror and tragic horror but this is more of an atmospheric, gothic and sometimes bleak novel about the bittersweet life of a vampire than anything actually frightening.

Even so, this novel can certainly be disturbing sometimes! For example, it is implied that Armand is only in his early-mid teens during certain story events set in Venice. But, because Armand is narrating and has very rose-tinted memories of this part of his life, these events aren’t always described in the “disturbing” way you would expect them to be. This contrast between narration and story is incredibly unsettling – and I was actually going to criticise the novel for it before I suddenly realised that it was very much an intentional horror effect.

This is a novel that is about as different from a traditional horror novel as you can get, yet it is a horror novel nonetheless.

There are so many fascinating themes in this novel. Whether it is loneliness, religion, memory, identity, the nature of stories, history etc… this is a novel that certainly doesn’t shy away from intellectual and emotional depth.

It is a powerful, resplendent tale that runs the gamut from delight to despair. It is the kind of book which, when it is at it’s best, will seem like more than just a book. It is a complex novel that will require effort to read, but will reward you for putting in this effort.

In terms of the characters, they are really well-written. Although the novel mostly focuses on Armand’s long and complicated life, many of the other characters also get a fairly decent amount of characterisation too. Still, Armand is very much the centre of this novel and he’s such a fascinating guy. He is, at the same time, someone who wants to enjoy life, a monk-like scholar, a pompous aristocrat, a lonely man, a bitter cynic and a petulant questioner. Seriously, as vampire characters go, he’s one of the best that I’ve ever seen 🙂

The writing in this novel is absolutely excellent too. The novel’s first-person narration (from Armand’s perspective) is written in the kind of opulent, complex, beautiful and formal style that you would expect from a centuries-old vampire. Yes, this ultra-formal 19th century-like writing style takes a little while to get used to and it slows the story down a bit, but it adds so much depth and atmosphere to the novel 🙂 Plus, the novel also includes a few fourth wall breaking moments and even a couple of 1990s pop culture references (eg: the “Romeo and Juliet” film, the X-Files etc..) too.

Seriously, I cannot praise the atmosphere of this novel enough. Whether it is the gloomy, snowy scenes set in 1990s America or the opulent splendour of Renaissance Venice, this novel is one of the most atmospheric books that I’ve read in a while 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 520 pages in length, it is a fairly long novel and yet it pretty much justifies it’s length. Likewise, although the story is fairly slow-paced, a lot of it is so atmospheric and compelling that you probably won’t mind.

The only real criticism I have of the pacing is how the book will sometimes gloss over whole centuries and/or recap previous books in the space of a few pages, which can feel a bit abrupt, glib, dull or confusing. Still, these parts only make up a relatively small portion of the book (eg: the segment between half and three-quarters of the way through the book).

In terms of how this twenty-one year old book has aged, it has aged really well. In a lot of ways, this is due to the historical setting of most of the story and the fact that the 19th century style narration is a really good fit with the narrator. Yes, the writing style is probably more formal and “slow-paced” than you’d expect in a modern novel, but it is still pretty much timeless.

All in all, this novel is amazing 🙂 Yes, the pacing isn’t always perfect, but there are so many amazing moments, beautiful descriptions, atmospheric locations, fascinating characters, intellectual moments, gothic moments etc.. here that this novel is still worth reading. If you enjoy atmospheric vampire fiction or just want an epic, sumptuous gothic tale, then I can’t recommend this book highly enough 🙂

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

Review: “The Hymn” By Graham Masterton (Novel)

Well, for the next novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d read a Graham Masterton novel.

But, although I’ve got a few other Masterton novels that I’ve been meaning to read, I ended up stumbling across my old copy of Masterton’s 1991 novel “The Hymn” (which I first read about sixteen or seventeen years ago) and decided to re-read it.

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

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Note: I read the the 2000 Warner Books (UK) paperback reprint of “The Hymn” but I won’t include an image of the book cover here because, although the cover art is probably technically “safe for work”, the combination of implied nudity and a subtle visual allusion to the extremist views of the story’s villains made me err on the side of caution here. Sorry about this.

On a side-note, although the cover art is somewhat “edgy” by modern standards, it is really well-designed. Not only does it make excellent use of attention-grabbing visual contrast, but it also contains enough dramatic-looking visual storytelling to give the reader a general impression of the story whilst also keeping things mysterious enough to make them want to read more. Plus, on a technical level, the quality the of painting is absolutely superb too (seriously, I miss the days when painted cover art was standard for horror novels).
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The novel begins in Southern California. A Vietnam veteran called Bob Tuggey is working in a McDonalds when he happens to see a blonde woman carrying a can of petrol across the car park. He has a war flashback about a Buddhist monk immolating himself in protest. He suddenly realises what the woman is about to do. Grabbing a fire extinguisher, he rushes out to the car park. But, he is too late.

A while later, wealthy restaurant owner Lloyd Denman is chatting with his staff and preparing for another day in Denman’s Original Fish Depot when the police show up. They inform Lloyd that his fiancee, Celia, has set herself on fire. Reeling with grief and puzzled by the bizarre circumstances of her death, Lloyd decides to investigate.

Out in the California desert, a group of cops get a call about a mysterious bus fire. When they reach the smouldering bus, they find all of the passengers still sitting in their seats as if they had made no attempt to escape the furious inferno that claimed their lives.

One of the things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t perfect, it’s a really interesting mixture of the horror, detective and thriller genres. It’s a compelling story that can be richly atmospheric, occasionally cringe-worthy, inventively horrific and occasionally unintentionally hilarious.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good. In addition to lots of grisly fire-related horror, the novel also includes suspenseful horror, occult/paranormal horror, psychological horror, WW2-related horror, slasher movie style horror, disturbing horror, character-based horror and tragic horror. Whilst this novel isn’t outright frightening, there are enough disturbing moments and macabre scenes to place it firmly in the horror genre.

As you might expect from a horror novel, one of the major themes of the novel is death. Whether it is the many scenes that focus on characters mourning the dead, or the scenes involving the undead, this is a novel about both the after-effects of death and the fear of death. In addition to this, it is also a novel about the dangers of extremist ideologies and how charismatic people can exploit the fears of others for their own ends.

Surprisingly, “The Hymn” is also both a detective and thriller novel too. The novel balances these two elements fairly well, with Lloyd’s investigation into Celia’s death eventually segueing into a slightly more fast-paced game of cat and mouse between the forces of good and evil.

Plus, like in many classic detective novels, the police are very little help to Lloyd (even suspecting him of some of the novel’s macabre murders at one point) and it is up to him and his friends to get to the bottom of what has happened.

These compelling detective/thriller elements also mean that, whilst some of the later parts of the story might come across as a little bit silly, random and/or contrived, you’ll probably be too gripped by the story to care too much about this.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly well-written. The novel includes enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to Lloyd and the people he teams up with during his investigation. Likewise, there are a lot of scenes of character-based drama where the characters try to deal with and make sense of the events of the story. Plus, many of the background characters also come across as vaguely realistic people too.

On the other hand, the novel’s fascist villains (Otto and Helmwige) walk a very fine line between being genuinely disturbing antagonists and cartoonish sources of unintentional comedy (eg: the scene where Helmwige takes a bath, Otto’s Renfield-like habit of eating insects and his “Indiana Jones villain”-like appearance etc.. ). Surprisingly, the creepiest character in the novel is probably Celia – since her character arc shows how an otherwise good person can be manipulated into performing unspeakably horrific actions.

In terms of the writing, it is really good. Leaving aside infrequent cringe-worthy descriptions, I was genuinely surprised by the sheer quality of the writing in this novel. The novel’s narration is a really good mixture of intelligent, descriptive formal prose and more fast-paced “matter of fact” descriptions. It really helps to add a lot of atmosphere to the story and depth to the characters. However, the novel’s numerous classical music, posh food/wine etc.. references can come across as a little pompous at times.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 346 pages in length, this novel is slightly longer than you might expect but is still the right length for the story it is telling. Likewise, although the story is fairly compelling, the pacing can often be at least slightly slower than you might expect. Even so, this allows for a lot of atmosphere, descriptions and characterisation. Not to mention that the later parts of the novel become a bit more fast-paced too.

As for how this twenty-eight year old novel has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well.

On the one hand, some parts of this novel can come across as either old-fashioned, conservative or “politically incorrect”. For example, in contrast to the punk sensibility of a lot of other 1980s/early 1990s horror novels, the relatively uncritical focus on various story elements (eg: Lloyd’s wealth, classical music etc…) here can feel a little bit conservative or old-fashioned when read today. Plus, although the novel is generally critical of things like discrimination, expect to encounter at least a small number of very “politically incorrect” moments.

But, on the other hand, the novel as a whole still remains very atmospheric, dramatic and compelling to this day. Likewise, the complete lack of mobile phones (the closest thing is a car phone) in the story also helps to add extra suspense and drama to several scenes 🙂 Plus, due to the disturbing events in the US over the past couple of years, the story’s main plot feels even more chilling today than it probably did during the less polarised/politicised early 1990s. So, yes, this novel has both aged well and aged terribly.

All in all, whilst this isn’t a perfect novel, it is a surprisingly atmospheric and compelling one that manages to blend the horror, detective and thriller genres in a fairly interesting way.

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

Review: “The Ritual” By Adam Nevill (Novel)

Well, for the next novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d take a look at Adam Nevill’s 2011 novel “The Ritual”.

This was a novel that I spotted when looking for second-hand books and, since I’d heard that there had been a film adaptation of it (which I’ve only seen the trailer for) and because the title sounded hilariously melodramatic, I decided to get a copy.

So, let’s take a look at “The Ritual”. Needless to say, this review will contain some MAJOR SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition of “The Ritual” that I read.

The novel begins with a short scene showing four hikers discovering a grisly animal carcass dangling from a tree in the middle of a forest, before flashing back to several hours earlier.

Luke, Hutch, Phil and Dom were flatmates at university. About fifteen years later, they decide to have a reunion and go on a hiking holiday in Sweden. Of course, tramping through rain-soaked fields and sleeping in tents isn’t the relaxing break that they had somehow expected it to be. And, with tempers fraying and Dom’s knee acting up, Hutch decides to call the holiday to an early end.

So, after checking the map, he proposes taking a shortcut to the next town through a wild patch of unmanaged forest. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is one of the most compelling, creepy and atmospheric horror novels that I’ve read recently. Imagine a mixture of horror stories by Dennis Wheatley, Shaun Hutson and H.P.Lovecraft and this might give you the vaguest hint of what to expect. It is also one of the very few genuinely scary monster novels I’ve ever read.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it contains a gloriously unsettling mixture of suspenseful horror, location-based horror, atmospheric horror, occult horror, monster horror, claustrophobic horror, camping-based horror, paranormal horror, psychological horror, bleak horror, character-based horror, gory horror, sadistic horror, cosmic horror and survival horror (yes, survival horror, in a novel).

Seriously, whilst this novel might not outright shock or terrify you that often, you’ll probably be in a constant state of nervous unease throughout most of the story.

The novel also manages to make the monster genre scary too. In part, this is because it uses the Hollywood trick of not directly showing the monster that much. But, it is also because of the fact that the novel has such a realistic tone and atmosphere that, for large parts of the story, you aren’t really quite sure whether the monster actually exists or not. The novel also makes sure that the monster isn’t the only source of danger and fear that the main characters encounter. Seriously, it’s a scary monster novel 🙂

Plus, if you believe that tent-based camping is only appropriate for music festivals, then this novel will be a chilling source of realistic horror too. Seriously, the novel’s depiction of the squalor, bleakness and general misery of camping in something other than a caravan is terrifyingly accurate. Likewise, the novel’s woods are a really claustrophobic, creepy and menacingly atmospheric location too.

However, if you’re a fan of heavy metal music, some of the later parts of the novel might either be scarier than you expect and/or might make you roll your eyes. The second half of the novel focuses on something similar to the violence and political extremism that the metal scene in Scandinavia was infamous for during the 1990s, with the novel’s human villains being members of an extreme metal band called Blood Frenzy who wouldn’t exactly be out of place in that context.

Given that this is the scariest and most disturbing part of the metal genre’s history, I can understand why it would inspire part of a horror novel – although it is kind of annoying that the novel doesn’t really contain a more nuanced, modern and/or realistic portrayal of the genre and it’s fans, given how infrequently heavy metal turns up in fiction these days.

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting. This is a novel about alienation, loneliness, time, ageing and death. It’s a mid-life crisis story about how friends drift apart and how there is no right way to grow older. Yet, surprisingly, the story doesn’t drift into nihilism. It is a story about how life is valuable and meaningful, even if it is often harsh and apparently meaningless. This theme is handled well and it really helps to add a lot of extra depth and emotional impact to the story.

In terms of the characters, this novel is brilliant. Not only is the realistically complex, and often antagonistic, friendship between the four hikers a major source of drama, but all of them get more than enough characterisation to make you care about them. Likewise, the main characters also suffer from realistic problems (eg: Luke has depression/anger issues, two of the characters are going through divorces etc..), which add tension and character-based drama to the story too.

Plus, even though the novel’s metal band are caricatures, they still become suitably chilling villains as the story progresses. Likewise, the monster is left mysterious enough to remain frightening, but shown enough to be dramatic 🙂

In terms of the writing, this novel is brilliant 🙂 Whether it is how the novel’s third-person narration sometimes contrasts elaborate formal descriptions of the forest and more informal “matter of fact” descriptions of the characters trying to survive in it, or the disorientating nightmare sequence that somehow uses first, second and third-person perspective within the space of a couple of pages, this novel is really well-written 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 418 pages in length, the novel can feel a little long at times. Seriously, the first half of this book would almost work as a gloriously efficienct short novel 🙂 Likewise, although this novel is a moderately-paced horror story, the consistent use of suspense gives the story more of a thriller-like quality that keeps it compelling. Seriously, I was absolutely riveted during some parts of this story 🙂

All in all, this is a really brilliant horror novel 🙂 Yes it could have been a bit shorter and, if you’re a metalhead, some parts of it will make you roll your eyes. But, this aside, it is a wonderfully atmospheric, well-written, constantly chilling and utterly gripping horror novel 🙂 Seriously, if you want to see a scary example of the monster genre, then read this book!

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

Review: “The First Days” By Rhiannon Frater (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I read a zombie novel. So, for the next novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d take a look at Rhiannon Frater’s 2008 novel “The First Days”. This was a zombie novel that I found when I was looking online for second-hand horror novels and, after reading the first chapter, I just had to read the rest.

However, I should probably point out that this novel is the first in a series and doesn’t tell an entirely self-contained story. Even so, it still works reasonably well as a stand-alone novel.

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

This is the 2011 Tor (US) paperback edition of “The First Days” that I read.

The novel begins in an unnamed Texan city during a zombie apocalypse. After seeing her husband and sons turn into zombies, Jenni barely manages to escape her house before being rescued by a mysterious woman in a pick-up truck.

The two survivors, Jenni and Katie, decide to leave the city and head to the safety of the surrounding countryside. When they reach a petrol station, the attendant hasn’t heard about the zombies and mistakes them for thieves.

But, soon after they fill up the truck, the zombies begin to arrive at the station. Still shaken by everything that has happened, Jenni remembers that her stepson Jason is at summer camp in the nearby woods. So, they begin to plan a rescue…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a really gripping, atmospheric and innovative zombie novel with excellent characterisation 🙂 It’s a little bit like a cross between Jonathan Maberry’s “Dead Of Night“, Dana Fredsti’s “Plague Town” and Melissa Marr’s “The Arrivals“, whilst also being somewhat different in tone and style to pretty much every other zombie and/or post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it is filled with the kind of fast-paced gruesome horror that you’d expect from a zombie novel, but there is also quite a bit of emphasis on bleak post-apocalyptic horror, suspenseful horror, tragic horror and some moments of character-based horror too. Although there are lots of horrific zombie encounters, this is more of a novel about the emotional toll that the zombie apocalypse takes on those who survive it.

One of the really innovative things about this novel is how the other survivors are presented. Traditionally, zombie novels/films tend to make the other survivors more of a threat to the main characters than the actual zombies are.

However, this novel takes a slightly more realistic approach to the topic – with most of the other survivors Jenni and Katie encounter being friendly and eager to work together to protect themselves against a common threat.

In a similar way to the computer game “Shadowrun: Dragonfall“, this is an anarchist story in the best sense of the word. Whilst it doesn’t gloss over the occasional arguments and problems between the survivors, it is a novel about a group of people organising themselves without outside authority. Yes, some characters do lead the survivors at times, but this leadership is based on competence and consensus rather than official authority. Seriously, I’m surprised that this doesn’t turn up in more zombie novels.

As for the actual zombies, the novel mostly uses modern-style fast moving zombies, who sometimes display limited forms of intelligence. This adds a lot of fast-paced drama and suspense to the story, especially during the earlier parts.

Although the zombies have some traditional elements (eg: a bite turns someone into a zombie, zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain etc…), the novel also does a couple of other innovative things. For example, many of the characters are reluctant to use guns because the noise attracts more zombies and, when a zombie isn’t chasing a person, it just kind of stands there and does nothing.

In terms of the characters, this novel is excellent 🙂 In addition to a lot of well-written characterisation, a lot of the novel’s drama focuses on how the characters handle the zombie apocalypse emotionally, in addition to dealing with their memories of the time before the apocalypse (eg: Jenni is still haunted by memories of her violent husband, Katie spends the novel mourning her wife etc..).

As I mentioned earlier, the relationships between the survivors that Jenni and Katie meet are surprisingly, and realistically, friendly – although there are still arguments and conflicts. Plus, this novel’s romantic elements are also realistically complicated in the way that you’d expect with a group of random strangers meeting each other after an apocalypse too. Seriously, the characters are one of this novel’s major strengths 🙂

In terms of the writing, it’s really good. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly fast-paced and “matter of fact” way, whilst also including plenty of descriptions and characterisation too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a mixed bag. At 331 pages, it is neither too long nor too short. But, although the earlier parts of the novel are a brilliantly fast-paced adrenaline rush, most of the rest of the story has a slightly more moderate pace (with more of an emphasis on drama and/or suspense). Even so, the whole novel is still very compelling. However, perhaps because of the fact that it is the first novel in a series, the ending/epilogue feels somewhat rushed and some plot threads are also left unresolved.

All in all, this is a really well-written and innovative zombie novel with excellent characterisation 🙂 Yes, the pacing was a bit different to what the earlier parts of the story had led me to expect, but this is a very small criticism of a brilliant novel.

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

Review: “The Mall” By S. L. Grey (Novel)

Well, for the next book in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel from 2011 called “The Mall” by S.L. Grey. I first found this novel shortly after I’d finished reading Sarah Lotz’s excellent “Day Four” a few weeks earlier and decided to search online for other novels by the author.

And, given my fascination with abandoned shopping centres, this novel (co-written by Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg) intrigued me enough to order a second-hand copy of it.

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

This is the 2012 Corvus (UK) paperback edition of “The Mall” that I read.

The novel begins in Johannesburg. A down-and-out British woman with a coke habit called Rhoda is searching the halls of a large shopping centre for the child that she was supposed to be babysitting for her cousin.

Although the centre’s security guards aren’t exactly helpful, Rhoda eventually gets them to talk to a bookshop assistant called Daniel who she thinks might have seen the lost child. However, the incompetent guards mess this up and give Daniel the wrong description.

With suspicion falling on Rhoda, she flees the guards and lies in wait in a nearby car park for Daniel to emerge from the centre at night. When he does, she threatens him and eventually, at knifepoint, forces him to return to the centre to help her look for the child.

But, soon after they break into the closed shopping centre, they find that they cannot leave. Not only do parts of the centre look slightly different, but they both start receiving creepy text messages from someone who wants to play a game with them….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it the first half of it is one of closest things that I’ve ever seen to a “Silent Hill” novel 🙂 Yes, the story goes in a slightly different direction later in the book, but the first half or so of the book is like an awesome mixture of the shopping centre level from “Silent Hill 3” and the “Saw” movies 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they are a brilliant mixture of suspenseful horror, psychological horror, surreal/paranormal horror, atmospheric horror, creepy locations, dystopian horror, realistic horror, unreliable reality horror, gross out horror and character-based horror.

As I hinted earlier, the novel’s horror elements are at their very best during the first half of the novel – where the characters find themselves trapped in the run-down parts of a deserted shopping centre. Everything from the creepy mannequins, to the “nightmare world” atmosphere to the menacing text messages reminded me a lot of both “Silent Hill” and the “Saw” movies 🙂 Seriously, it’s really cool to see this type of horror in a novel 🙂

The second half of the novel focuses a lot more on surreal satire, dystopian horror, bleak horror and more realistic drama. Although the story does something really clever with it’s twisted nightmare-world (which I won’t spoil) during the late parts of the novel, the second half of the novel is a bit more understated and less visceral than the earlier parts of the novel. These parts of the story are more creepy, bleak and/or disturbing than outright scary, if this makes sense.

I should probably also talk about the novel’s satirical elements too, since this novel is a satire of consumerism. About halfway through the story, the characters find themselves in an uncanny alternate version of the mall, where all of the shop signs are different (eg: parodies of shop names), the adverts are grotesque, everyone speaks a slightly weird version of English and the mall’s inhabitants are sharply divided between homeless people, inhuman robot-like employees and grotesque ultra-rich “shoppers”.

This segment of the novel reads a lot like an updated version of the dystopian fiction of the 1950s-80s and it is surprisingly compelling, not to mention both hilarious and disturbing at the same time too. And, although I’d have liked to have seen slightly more “Silent Hill”-style horror in this part of the story, it’s refreshing to see a modern version of this type of old-school dystopian fiction 🙂

This novel is also more of a thriller than I’d expected too 🙂 Thanks to the way that it is written and the clever use of mystery and suspense, this novel is a surprisingly gripping and fast-paced one. Although, like with the horror elements, this is at it’s best in the first half of the novel, the second half is still very compelling too.

In terms of the characters, they’re really well-written. Not only do both Dan and Rhoda get a lot of characterisation and character development – which turns them from unsympathetic characters into very sympathetic ones – but the weird love-hate relationship between them is also a really compelling part of the story too. In addition to this, the novel is also populated by an unnervingly odd cast of background characters who really help to add a bit of extra unease to the story too 🙂

In terms of the writing, it is better than I’d initially thought. In short, even though this novel uses both present-tense narration and the dreaded multiple-first person narrators, it actually works surprisingly well. Each chapter clearly signposts who is narrating and, once you get used to the slightly weird present-tense narration, it really helps to add some extra intensity to the story.

The writing style in this story is more on the informal and gritty side of things and, although this means that it takes the story a while to really build up some atmosphere, it keeps things moving at a fast pace and really fits in with the general style and tone of the story too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 312 pages in length, this novel doesn’t feel too long and, although the first half is more fast-paced than the second half, both halves of the novel are really compelling 🙂

All in all, this is a really innovative, creepy and compelling horror novel 🙂 If you’re a fan of the classic “Silent Hill” games and/or old-school dystopian fiction, then you’ll really love it 🙂 Yes, the narration is a bit weird and the first half is slightly better than the second half, but it is still one hell of a novel 🙂

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