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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “Ring” By Koji Suzuki (Novel)

Well, after a moment of nostalgia about seeing the Hollywood adaptation of “The Ring” at the cinema during my teenage years, I remembered that the “Ring” films were based on a book.

And, although I’d seen copies of Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel “Ring” in the shops during the mid-late 2000s, I couldn’t remember whether or not I read it back then. So, I decided to look for a second-hand copy of it online and found an edition translated by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley.

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

This is the 2005 Harper Collins (UK) paperback edition of “Ring” that I read.

The novel begins in Yokohama in 1990. It is the last night of the summer holidays and seventeen year-old Tomoko Oishi is doing some urgent last-minute revision for her university entrance exams. Her parents are out. She hears a noise. But, when she looks around and calls out, there is no-one there. Then, as she goes into the kitchen to get a glass of cola, she has the nervous feeling that something is right behind her. She turns around.

Meanwhile, a taxi driver called Kimura is annoyed by a motorcylist that has just pulled up beside his cab. Things get worse when the motorcyclist falls off of his bike and dents the taxi’s door. But, when Kimura goes to remonstrate with the biker, he notices that the biker is convulsing and trying to remove his helmet. Kimura rushes to a phone box to call an ambulance. A crowd gathers around the motorcyclist and, when Kimura returns, he quickly learns that the motorcyclist has died – his face frozen in a look of abject terror.

A month later, a journalist called Asakawa is returning home after a busy couple of days. Since he’s recently been paid and because he really can’t be bothered to take three trains, he decides to hail a taxi. It is Kimura’s taxi and, during the journey, Kimura tells Asakawa about the motorcyclist’s bizarre death. The details of the death sound unusually similar to that of his wife’s niece, Tomoko, who died a month earlier. So, Asakawa decides to investigate….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it is initially a bit on the slow-paced side of things and takes a while to really become gripping, it is one hell of a creepy horror novel! Even if you’ve seen the Hollywood film and already know the broad strokes of the story, then the original novel still somehow manages to be unnerving. It’s also a really interesting blend of the detective and horror genres too 🙂

Still, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements. This novel contains an unsettling and disturbing mixture of implied horror, paranormal/ghostly horror, psychological horror, tragic horror, a couple of startling plot twists, some repulsive crimes, claustrophobic horror, the fear of death, suspense, a few well-placed gruesome moments, disease horror, unsettling characters and maybe even a few small hints of Lovecraftian horror.

Although this novel won’t startle you in the way that the US film adaptation does, it instead builds a wonderfully ominous atmosphere of slowly-creeping dread, complemented by some absolutely excellent suspense. In short, after accidentally watching a cursed videotape, Asakawa learns that he only has one week left to live. His only hope is to find a way to break the curse before then. This threat of certain death is one of the most chilling parts of this novel’s horror elements – and it is a subtle background thing that gradually rises in intensity as time slowly and inevitably ticks away.

In addition to this, the novel also makes expert use of uncertainty and ambiguity to create a feeling of unease. Whether it is Asakawa’s initial uncertainty about how real the curse is, the incredulity of several other characters, moral ambiguity, difficult choices, conflicting information about a character’s past (where the reader is left to work out what they consider to be the truth), the fact that we never see exactly what kills those cursed by the video and also some (fairly dated/awkward when read today) later parts of the novel.

However, a lot of this creepily mysterious ambiguity is lost in the parts of the story where the “scientific” aspects of the curse are spelled out in perhaps too much detail, to the point where it almost borders on “Warehouse 13” levels of silliness. Still, this is made up for by the brilliant ending – which is ambiguous on the surface, yet relies on the reader’s knowledge of human nature to hint at what will happen next.

The novel also contains some really interesting detective elements too. Most of the novel is spent following Asakawa and his best friend Ryuji investigating the videotape in order to find out how to break the curse. These segments play out a lot like something from a traditional detective novel – with the two characters studying the evidence, talking to people, making deductions, following up on leads etc…

Although this slows the pacing of the story slightly, it adds an extra level of realism to the story’s paranormal events and also serves as a brilliant plot device for building suspense and carefully drip-feeding the reader more clues about the truth behind the mysterious deadly curse. Seriously, this is just as much – if not more – of a chillingly suspenseful detective novel as it is a traditional paranormal horror novel.

In terms of how it compares to the later Hollywood adaptation, the only real similarity between the two things is the basic premise. This means that if you’ve seen the US film, then the novel can still surprise and shock you even if you already know the basic mechanics of how the curse works. As mentioned earlier, the book also favours slowly-creeping dread over the sudden startling “jump” moments in the US film remake.

Plus, since it is a book, don’t expect any of the iconic visual moments from the Hollywood film (since they’re replaced with creepy stuff that works better on the page). Another interesting thing about this novel is that, since it is from 1991, the VHS-based scenes would have felt a bit more “modern” and “high tech” than they did in the 2002 Hollywood adaptation (yes, VHS tapes were still very much a thing in 2002, but they were seen as a bit “old school” compared to DVDs).

As for the characters, they’re fairly well-written. Asakawa comes across as a fairly realistic “everyman” character who is in fear for both his life and his family. He’s also contrasted absolutely brilliantly with his best friend Ryuji, who initially seems like an eccentric, charismatic and relaxed comic relief character… until you learn something about him shortly after he’s introduced. After this shocking moment, you’ll feel an unsettling sense of tension, unease and awkwardness during almost every scene featuring him. Seriously, he’s one of the creepiest characters in the entire book!

In contrast, the novel’s main “villain” – Sadako – is someone who you’re probably more likely to feel sympathy towards than anything else, given her tragic backstory and reasons/motivations for wanting revenge against such a cruel world. And, although some elements of her character are handled in a fairly clumsy/dated way, she still remains a surprisingly compelling and mysterious character, especially since she only really appears in flashback scenes, historical documents and/or accounts from unreliable narrators.

In terms of the writing, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Although I can’t comment on the original Japanese text, the English translation I read mostly uses fairly formal and descriptive third-person narration, with occasional “data dumps” of backstory etc…. Whilst this does slow down the pacing of the story quite a bit and some parts of the English narration can seem a little stodgy and/or old-fashioned, the slow and formal narration also allows the story to gradually build suspense and atmosphere 🙂 Likewise, this also lends the investigative scenes a sense of mundane realism too, which heightens the horror slightly. But, again, I cannot comment on the accuracy of the translation.

As for length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 367 pages in length, it never really seems too long. Yet, as mentioned earlier, it is more on the slow-paced side of things. Although plot twists and creepy moments help to keep the story compelling, it is very much a slow burn, which only really seriously starts to become compelling somewhere between a third and halfway through the novel. Even so, given that this is both a detective story and a ghost story, the slow pacing probably works quite well (and fits into the traditions of these genres too).

In terms of how this twenty-nine year old novel has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well. On the one hand, a lot of the novel’s horror is still very creepy when read today and the 1990s settings usually feel reasonably “timeless” (albeit with occasional moments involving nostalgic retro technology like VHS tapes, phone boxes, fax machines etc…). On the other hand, the novel’s narrative style feels a little bit too formal and old-fashioned, not to mention that some other elements of the novel (such as certain plot details about Sadako) are handled in a way that will probably feel awkwardly dated when read today too.

All in all, whilst this novel is a bit of a slow burn that takes some time to really become compelling, it is a very effective horror novel with lots of detective genre elements too. Yes, it hasn’t aged entirely well, but it is still a fairly creepy and atmospheric tale of slowly-building dread. Whilst it probably won’t startle you as much as the Hollywood film adaptation will, it’s the kind of horror novel that will probably leave you feeling unsettled for a while after you’ve read it.

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

Review: “Necessary Evil” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for a fast-paced novel, so I thought that I’d take a look at one I’ve been meaning to re-read for a while. I am, of course, talking about Shaun Hutson’s 2004 horror thriller novel “Necessary Evil”.

Since I had some vague memories of reading this novel around the time when the paperback edition came out (and being amazed that Hutson was moving back towards writing horror again after several years of writing gritty crime thrillers), I was curious to see what I’d think of it a decade and a half later.

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

This is the 2005 Time Warner Paperbacks (UK) paperback edition of “Necessary Evil” that I read.

The novel begins in Iraq in 1990. Several men are being chased through the desert by an unseen foe and eventually find an abandoned town where they think they will be safe. Needless to say, they aren’t. And, after they are killed in various grisly ways, Saddam Hussein shows up with one of his scientists, Dr. Sharafi, to observe the results of this “test”.

Whilst all of this is going on, there are several segments set in London in 2004. A local criminal called Matt Franklin is sitting in a pub with his girlfriend Amy, an aspiring singer, when he realises that he’s got to go off and meet several of his mates. They are planning an armed robbery of an armoured van delivering wages to an army base.

When they put their plan into action some time later, things seem to go fairly well for them until they eventually get the van open and find that it is filled with corpses instead of money. Seconds later, an unseen sniper shoots two of them. Matt and the survivors flee and hole up in a garage. Someone is out to get them. Meanwhile, a detective called D. I. Crane arrives at the crime scene and quickly discovers that this is more than just an ordinary robbery case…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a gripping, gritty and fast-paced novel that only Shaun Hutson could have written 🙂 If you like your thrillers to be a bit less “modern Hollywood”, a bit more morally ambiguous and with a bit of a horror flavour to them, then this novel is worth reading. This is also one of those novels from when Hutson gradually started reintroducing elements of the horror genre to his fiction, but it is still slightly more of a thriller than a horror story – not to mention that it was also a fairly “topical” novel at the time it was released too (which is both a good and a bad thing).

Still, being a Hutson novel, I should start by talking about the horror elements. This novel contains a mixture of scientific horror, suspense, claustrophobia, terrorism-based horror, monster horror, cruel/sadistic horror, bleak nihilism and – of course- ultra-gruesome gory horror. Although this novel isn’t exactly frightening, the horror elements really help to add extra suspense and atmosphere to many scenes and Hutson’s famous gruesome descriptions also add a lot of extra impact, grittiness, realism and/or moral ambiguity to many of the novel’s violent moments too.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, they’re really good 🙂 Although this novel technically fits into the action-thriller genre, this is backed up by expert use of suspense – whether it is various tense and paranoid stand-offs, the scenes where Matt finds himself under threat from an unseen foe, some segments about a mysterious group of terrorists plotting an attack or the moments where Matt is forced into an uneasy alliance with the police, this novel uses suspense really well.

However, some of this suspense is undercut thanks to a few scenes where another group of characters explain some central elements of the story before the main characters discover them. Still, this is compensated for by a few mild political thriller elements featuring a fictional prime minister (who, unlike the actual one at the time, is implied to be more of a conservative), which have a bit of ominous conspiracy thriller atmosphere to them, in addition to a healthy dose of cynical satire.

Of course, there are also some spectacularly cinematic action set-pieces too – including a couple of gripping car chases, a few fight scenes, a military raid and a grippingly fast-paced ending segment that mixes fast-paced action with tense claustrophobia really well (even if the science in the part involving fire extinguishers – emphasis on “extinguishers” – is very shaky). If you’ve read some of Hutson’s thriller novels before, then you’ll probably know what to expect – not only does he have a talent for writing gritty, impactful action sequences but they also include his trademark level of gun geekery and anatomical knowledge too.

As for the atmosphere, this novel is kind of an interesting mixture of a gritty Cockney gangster story, a dark nihilistic horror story and the kind of military/police thrillers that were all the rage in the early-mid 2000s.

This also brings me on to the novel’s historical context. First published two to three years after 9/11 and about a year before the 7/7 attacks (which makes some moments eerily prescient), this novel is very much about the fear of terrorism at the time – and, if you first read it during the mid-2000s (like I did), then it came across as very topical back then. It also examines other issues of the time like the limits of government power (or the lack of limits to it) and the morality of torture too. However, all of this “topical” stuff (and a small amount of “politically incorrect” dialogue etc…) mean that it’ll probably seem a bit dated if you read it for the first time today.

Still, all of this stuff aside, this novel also contains some evocative moments of 1990s and early-mid 2000s nostalgia – such as a poignant scene where Amy sings a few lines from Evanescence’s “My Immortal” or the general atmosphere of some parts of the novel. In addition to this, the novel also takes influence from the “edgier” parts of the 1990s too, such as the very Tarantino-esque scene after the failed robbery or two moments where this novel makes brilliant use of Bill Hicks quotes/references 🙂

In terms of the characters, the main characters are reasonably well-written. Matt has a rather bleak and depressing character arc, where the events of the story turn him into an even more morally ambiguous anti-hero, whose death wish is only tempered by his burning desire for violent revenge. Likewise, although D.I Crane gets slightly less characterisation, the tension between his duty and the practical realities of the case give him some much-needed depth. Not to mention that it is also really cool to see the two of them team up with each other in the later parts of the novel after so much mutual suspicion and criticism.

As for the writing, this novel is modern-style Shaun Hutson 🙂 In other words, like in his crime thrillers from the mid-late 1990s/early 2000s and many of his more recent novels, this one is written in a fast-paced, gritty, “matter of fact” and/or informal way, with the novel still retaining some elements of his classic horror fiction via the use of a more descriptive style during gorier or more dramatic moments. Plus, this novel also contains a few classic Hutsonisms too, such as mention of a scapula bone (which is, of course, shattered), one type of pistol and descriptive words like “mucoid”, “putrescent” etc… 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good 🙂 Although this novel is a slightly lengthy 468 pages, the writing style and pacing mean that it never feels bloated or over-long. Likewise, the novel contains a really good mixture of suspense, set pieces, emotional drama etc… and multiple plot threads that really help to keep the story compelling. It is also paced much more like a thriller than a horror novel, resulting in a more consistent pace throughout (rather than a slower build-up throughout the story, as you’d expect in a horror novel).

All in all, whilst this novel is a little dated, it is still a really gripping, fast-paced and gritty horror-flavoured thriller novel. Yes, it focuses slightly more on the thriller elements than the horror elements, but both still go together really well and result in a rather compelling and atmospheric novel. Yes, you’ll get the most out of it if you have already read it during the mid-2000s, but it is an interesting look back at this time – not to mention that the underlying story elements are still as dramatic, gripping and/or atmospheric as they were back then.

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

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.