Review: “The Afterblight Chronicles: Kill Or Cure” By Rebecca Levene (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from horror fiction and read some post-apocalyptic fiction instead 🙂 I’d originally planned to read an urban fantasy novel but I found that I wasn’t really in the mood for it. So, I needed to find another book.

A few months earlier, I’d read Rebecca Levene’s amazing “Anno Mortis” and was delighted to find that she’d had another novel published by the one and only Abaddon Books in 2007 called “The Afterblight Chronicles: Kill Or Cure”. So, I bought a second-hand copy of it back then… and then somehow forgot about it until now.

Although “Kill Or Cure” is part of a multi-author series called “The Afterblight Chronicles”, this novel can be read as a stand-alone novel. From what I can gather about the series, it seems to consist of several authors writing separate stories that all follow the same post-apocalyptic backstory/premise.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “The Afterblight Chronicles: Kill Or Cure”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 Abaddon Books (UK) paperback edition of “The Afterblight Chronices: Kill Or Cure” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief scene showing the narrator, Jasmine, shooting an un-named man. Then the story flashes back to several weeks earlier. With most of the world’s population wiped out by a plague called “The Cull” that kills anyone who doesn’t have O- blood, Jasmine has spent the past five years living in the ruins of the underground research facility that she’d once worked at. The experimental plague vaccine she took back then has also had lingering psychotic side-effects and, in order to quiet the voices in her head, Jasmine has spent the past five years working her way through the facility’s large stocks of morphine.

Then, one day, she hears people breaking into the facility. Although she tries to hide and send out a distress call, the mysterious henchmen catch her and take her to a stolen cruise ship in the Carribbean. The ship is run by a woman called Queen M who orders Jasmine to work as a medic for her, or else. Although life under Queen M’s rule initially seems like the closest thing to a normal life in this post-apocalyptic world, Jasmine is ordered to accompany some of the group’s henchmen on a “recruiting” trip to Paris. The atrocities she witnesses during the trip convince Jasmine that she needs to find some way to escape from Queen M’s headquarters, or die trying…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, to my surprise, it was more of a thriller novel than I’d expected 🙂 Although it certainly contains a fair amount of horror and grim post-apocalyptic “edginess”, it’s actually more like a really awesome 1990s late-night B movie in novel form 🙂 In other words, although this novel includes some fairly grim subject matter, it isn’t really that bleak or miserable to read 🙂 It’s a wonderfully fun and gloriously over-the-top rollercoaster ride of a novel 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s thriller elements, which are excellent 🙂 In addition to fast-paced narration and quite a few intense gunfights, some parts of this novel also read like a mixture of a heist thriller and a prison escape thriller 🙂 Not only are these genres always fun to see but the mixture between fast-paced action and tense, suspenseful thinking and planning really helps to add some variety to this novel too. Plus, the fact that the story has an unreliable narrator also helps to add some extra drama and suspense as well.

This novel also takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of several intriguingly dystopian post-apocalyptic locations too and the addition of a few horror elements (eg: zombie-like people, evil experiments, gory injuries, creepy characters, psychological horror etc…) also helps to keep the story’s thrilling plot compellingly unpredictable. Plus, although the novel’s grim elements sometimes veer more towards 1990s-style “edginess”, this actually sort of works here since it balances out some of the more stylised, cheesy and over-the-top elements of the story and helps to maintain the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

All of this adds up to, as I mentioned earlier, something like a really fun late-night B-movie from the 1990s 🙂 Seriously, if you like your post-apocalypses filled with evil armed gangs, fast vehicles, anti-heroes and the kind of over-the-top story where, if you weren’t so eager to see what will happen next, you’d be laughing affectionately at it, then you’ll really enjoy this novel 🙂

Interestingly, this novel also contains a few interesting sci-fi elements too 🙂 Not only are some remnants of modern technology still working in the post-apocalyptic world, but the explanation behind the apocalypse is both mysterious enough to be dramatic whilst well-explained enough to be plausible. Not to mention that quite a bit of the story revolves around the topic of medical research too. Yes, the sci-fi elements are more of a background thing, but they help to add an extra layer of depth to the novel.

In addition to this, it’s also a dystopian novel about the contrast between anarchy and dictatorship too, with creepy examples of both appearing within the story. Although the story is a bit of a warning about how chaos allows the most evil people to take charge (in addition to being a criticism of things like colonialism etc.. too), this message is undercut somewhat by the fact that the main characters briefly end up in a nuclear-armed city state that is run by a cultured, benevolent dictator who helps them out. Even so, all of this dystopian stuff helps to add extra drama and suspense to the story, since Jasmine finds herself in a world where nowhere is truly safe and almost no-one can be trusted.

In terms of the characters, this novel is reasonably good. Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, Jasmine is a really interesting morally-ambiguous anti-hero/unreliable narrator who helps to add a bit of intensity and personality to the story. Plus, the story’s dystopian villains are all suitably creepy and the characters that Jasmine teams up with during her escape are a really interesting bunch of people, whose backstories also give us a brief glimpse at the ways that the apocalypse has affected several other parts of the world too.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s first-person narration is written in the kind of informal, “matter of fact” way that you’d expect from a fast-paced thriller and it works really well 🙂 Not only does the first-person perspective add a bit of extra intensity to the novel but the fact that the reader gets to see inside Jasmine’s mind means that the “anti-hero” parts of the novel are a bit more dramatic, understandable and less cheesy than they would probably be in a novel with third-person narration.

As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 272 pages in length, not a single page is wasted 🙂 And, as you’d expect from a good thriller novel, this one is rather fast-paced too 🙂 However, it is perhaps slightly too fast-paced in some parts – with the novel occasionally moving just a little bit too fast to build the maximum amount of atmosphere or suspense in a few segments. Even so, given that the previous two novels I’ve read have been fairly slow-paced, it was still refreshing to read something a bit more fast-paced 🙂

All in all, even though I preferred Levene’s “Anno Mortis” to this novel, it’s still a really enjoyable one 🙂 If you want a fun fast-paced post-apocalyptic thriller that reminds you of the best late-night B movies from the 1990s, but with a bit of extra grittiness/edginess, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “Aliens: Cauldron” By Diane Carey (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for horror fiction and, since it’s been quite a while since I last read an “Aliens” novel, I thought that I’d check out a second-hand novel I found online a few weeks earlier called “Aliens: Cauldron” (2007) by Diane Carey.

Although this novel tells a self-contained “Aliens” story and can probably be enjoyed without having seen any of the films, it’s probably worth watching at least one or two of the first four “Alien” films before reading this just so that you have a better idea of what the alien monsters look like. Even so, they are described in this novel.

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

This is the 2007 Dark Horse Books (US) paperback edition of “Aliens: Cauldron” that I read.

The novel begins in space, on the cargo ship Virginia which is caught in a moon’s gravity and close to spiralling out of control. Directed by their charismatic captain, Nick Alley, the crew barely manage to keep the ship under control and, after a small crash with the ship they are meeting to exchange cargo with, both crews breathe a sigh of relief.

Later, in the cargo hold of the Virginia, a couple of crew members carefully doctor the ship’s records to disguise a rogue cargo container containing several dead alien specimens that they’ve been paid a lot to smuggle. However, due to a bizarre series of coincidences, the container gets opened and it turns out that the alien specimens aren’t quite as dead as they had been led to believe.

Meanwhile, on the cargo vessel Umiak, several space cadets are getting ready for a tour of duty before being dropped off at university on the terraformed planet Zone Emerald. The ship’s harsh captain, Pangborn, hates the cadets – not to mention that the cadets don’t exactly get along well with each other either. Still, the tour of duty promises to be a boring one – with the highlight being an upcoming automated cargo transfer with a ship carrying stasis-frozen livestock to Zone Emerald. That ship is, of course, the Virginia….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I both loved and hated it. In short, this novel was one that slowly grew on me when I was reading it. Even so, when it is good it is good and when it isn’t, then it really isn’t.

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements and these are really good, if somewhat different to what I’d expected. Although there are a few well-written moments of gory horror, cruel horror, tragic horror and/or monster horror, the bulk of this novel’s horror comes from suspense, tension, claustrophobia and the characters. And this is handled expertly – whether it is several creepily unsympathetic characters who are trapped in space together, the inexperienced cadets facing danger, the constant feeling of fractious tension between the Umiak‘s crew or the many moments of claustrophobic suspense. Although this novel probably won’t frighten you, it’ll certainly make you feel nervous or uneasy at times.

The novel’s sci-fi elements are also fairly complex too, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, all of the futuristic technology etc… in the story feels well thought-out and very “real”. On the downside, this is achieved through lots of slow-paced descriptive segments (especially in the earlier parts of the novel) that almost seem more at home in a more sedate “Star Trek” novel than a thrilling “Aliens” novel. In other words, all of the cool sci-fi stuff actually tends to weigh the story down a bit too much at times. Even so, all of this meticulous description does pave the way for some brilliant set-pieces during a few later parts of the story.

Talking of “Star Trek”, one of the interesting things about this novel is how it is a bit like a more cynical version of “Star Trek”. The novel does this by focusing a lot on nautical traditions and by making several of the characters a bit more morally-ambiguous than the upstanding spacefarers you’d expect to see in “Star Trek”. On the one hand, this adds a satirical edge, a slight dose of realism and a bleak, tense atmosphere to the story. On the other hand, this also results in a few yawn-inducing nautical lectures, too many characters (2-3 crews, plus some space pirates) and a few cartoonish characters (eg: the harsh captain, the arrogant cadet etc..). So, this element of the story is kind of a mixed bag.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re reasonably good most of the time. There’s a good mixture between fast-paced action scenes and slower moments of suspense. However, although this novel includes thriller novel-like moments throughout, it only really seems to become the kind of grippingly streamlined thriller novel that you’d expect during the later parts. Even so, the novel’s story remains intriguingly unpredictable throughout and it contains many moments that might catch you off-guard or make you curious about what will happen next. Even the story’s ending is, for an “Aliens” novel, something that might catch you by surprise.

In terms of the characters, they aren’t really one of this novel’s strengths. One of the problems is that there are almost too many of them to keep track of, or become invested in, during some parts of the novel (the slightly confusing opening scene is especially annoying in this respect). Whilst there is a core group of characters that you’ll get to know and will probably end up caring about, they can sometimes be a little on the corny and/or stylised side of things. On the plus side, this novel includes some suspenseful “villain vs villain” scenes between Captain Pangborn and one of the cadets, which are almost cartoonish enough to be amusing but just about understated enough to be creepily menacing.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is also a bit of a mixed bag. In the later parts of the novel, where the narration becomes a bit more streamlined and “matter of fact”, it really helps to carry the story and bring it to life. However, the earlier and middle parts of the novel often tend to use a slightly more formal, slow-paced and description/exposition-heavy style which, whilst it does add some depth and atmosphere to the story, isn’t really a good fit with the kind of thrillingly fast-paced story you’d expect to see in an “Aliens” novel and it can make these parts of the story a bit of a chore to read at times. Still, once you get used to the writing style, then this becomes less of an issue.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is also a mixed bag. At 284 pages, this novel may seem reasonably short but the small print and passages of formal narration can make it feel slightly more like 400. As for the pacing, the novel’s early-middle parts can be a bit slow-paced (which works well during some suspenseful moments, but can make other moments a bit boring), although the middle-late parts of the novel are the kind of confident, streamlined and grippingly fast-paced thriller that you’d expect from an “Aliens” novel.

All in all, this novel is a mixed bag. Although it isn’t perfect, there is a good story in here. This is one of those books that will grow on you if you keep reading it and, although it can be a bit too slow-paced and/or corny at times, it is also a fairly unpredictable, suspenseful and creepy sci-fi/horror thriller novel.

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

Review: “Deathday” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “Idoru” By William Gibson (Novel)

Well, after the previous book I reviewed, I was still in the mood for some 1990s sci-fi. So, I thought that I’d take a look at William Gibson’s 1996 cyberpunk novel “Idoru”. This novel is the second novel in Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy” (you can see my review of the first one here) and, like the rest of the trilogy, it is a book that I’ve been meaning to read ever since I found it in a second-hand bookshop at least a decade ago.

Interestingly, although this novel is the second novel in a trilogy, it can pretty much be read as a stand-alone story. Yes, a few familiar faces from “Virtual Light” appear as background characters and there are a few brief references to stuff from that novel but, for the most part, this is a self-contained cyberpunk novel that can probably be enjoyed without reading “Virtual Light”.

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

This is the 1997 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “Idoru” that I read.

Set in the near-future, the novel begins with ex-security guard Rydell passing on a job offer from a company called Paragon-Asia Dataflow to a talented data analyst called Colin Laney who is staying at the same hotel as him. When Laney flies out to Tokyo for the interview, he ends up meeting a sociologist called Yamazaki and a burly, scarred Australian man called Blackwell. Moving between various bars and restaurants, Laney tells the two men the story of how he came to be fired from his previous job at an unscrupulous gossip site called Slitscan.

Meanwhile, in cyberspace, several teenage members of the American fan club for ageing rock band Lo/Rez are meeting up to discuss rumours that one member, Rez, has decided to marry a famous A.I. construct called Rei Toei. After some discussion, one of the members steals some of her father’s frequent flier miles and hands them to another member called Chia, who is dispatched to Tokyo to find out more….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a compelling, suspenseful and atmospheric story that is also ridiculously ahead of it’s time too. Plus, it is also more of a cyberpunk novel than “Virtual Light” was, albeit with a slightly more understated and realistic atmosphere than in any of Gibson’s classic 1980s cyberpunk novels (like “Neuromancer”). Seriously, this novel is really cool 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s sci-fi elements. Although there’s all the classic cyberpunk stuff like virtual reality, nanotechnology, A.I. etc.. the most interesting “futuristic” part of this novel is how accurately Gibson predicted a lot of stuff about the modern internet.

Whether it is the novel’s cynical depiction of internet journalism, how the internet has affected fame, the way old music still seems “current” thanks to the internet, scenes involving something similar to the dark web, lots of stuff about privacy and big data or even a scene where a character is blackmailed with something very similar to a modern “deepfake” video, this novel often reads like a brilliantly cynical satire of the modern internet… that was first published in 1996. Just let that sink in for a minute. 1996.

Like with “Virtual Light”, this novel is also something of a thriller too. But, unlike the slightly more action-packed storyline of “Virtual Light”, this is much more of a tense suspenseful thriller that gradually builds up an atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and unease. There are lots of mini-cliffhangers, scenes where characters find themselves “out of their depth” and scenes where characters are followed by ruthless villains. In a lot of ways, this focus on suspense reminded me a little bit of 1990s horror novels by Ryu Murakami like “Piercing” and “In The Miso Soup”.

I cannot praise the atmosphere and locations in this novel highly enough 🙂 If you enjoyed the atmospheric settings of either of the 1990s Ryu Murakami novels I mentioned earlier, then you’ll be on familiar ground here. Although Gibson’s fictional version of Tokyo contains some futuristic elements and is presented from more of a tourist’s perspective, it is a really fascinating and vividly-described location that really helps the novel to come alive.

Literally my only criticism of the settings is that the novel’s most intriguing location, a hidden virtual reconstruction of Kowloon Walled City, only appears during a few brief scenes and isn’t really described in the level of detail that I’d expected (and it’s probably more there as a metaphor for the benefits and drawbacks of online anarchy). Given how fascinating photos, videos etc… of this demolished city are, it is a bit of a shame that such an intriguing location doesn’t get more time in this story. Still, the very fact that it is there is incredibly cool.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is – like in “Virtual Light” – written in a slightly more understated version of Gibson’s classic writing style. In other words, the narration in this novel is a brilliant mixture of more hardboiled, flowing, fast-paced “matter of fact” narration and lots of vivid, detailed, slow-paced and atmospheric descriptions 🙂 Seriously, I love how Gibson is able to write in a style that is both fast and slow-paced at the same time and which is also both pulpy and intellectual at the same time.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. They all seem like fairly realistic people and the novel also handles characterisation in different ways for several characters too. With Laney, the bulk of his characterisation focuses on his backstory. With Chia, the bulk of her characterisation focuses on her music fandom, her friendships, her impressions of Tokyo and how she handles various dangerous situations. With Blackwell, we get a few tantalising pieces of backstory but most of his characterisation is done via actions, descriptions and dialogue. I could go on for a while, but this variety of characterisation types really helps to add a lot more intrigue to the characters.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At a fairly efficient 292 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted here. As I hinted at earlier, this novel is both fast and slow-paced at the same time, with the suspense, multiple plot threads, writing style and premise keeping this novel gripping, but with lots of slower descriptive moments that really help the story to come alive. On the whole, this novel’s pacing is really good – with the story gradually building in suspense and scale as it progresses.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the novel’s internet-related satire is ridiculously ahead of it’s time and the story also still remains very compelling when read today. Yes, there are a couple of mildly “politically incorrect” moments and some elements of the story do seem a bit ’90s – such as a possible ’90s computer game reference (eg: a rock band called “The Dukes Of Nuke ‘Em”) but, on the whole, this novel is very much ahead of it’s time.

All in all, this is a really cool novel 🙂 It’s an atmospheric, compelling and intelligent cyberpunk thriller that is also very far ahead of it’s time too.

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

Review: “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission” By Susan Wright (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for novelisations and/or spin-off novels, so I thought that I’d take a look through my collection of second-hand “Star Trek” novels for books that I didn’t get round to reading when I went through a “Star Trek” phase in 2011-13. Out of the unread books, the novel I chose was Susan Wright’s 1994 novel “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission”.

Although this novel tells a new self-contained “Star Trek: TNG” story, it is clearly aimed at people who are fairly knowledgeable about the TV series and it contains quite a few references, characters and background events that will only really make sense if you’ve seen episodes like “The Drumhead” and “The Nth Degree” and have a general knowledge of the lore/backstory of the series. In other words, unlike some of the spin-off novels, you pretty much have to be a Trekkie to get the most of out of this one.

So, let’s take a look at “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1994 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission” that I read.

The novel begins with Picard watching a production of “Cyrano De Bergerac” in the holodeck before he is joined by Troi, who is worried about both Worf and a part-Romulan medical technician called Simon Tarses. Both are experiencing emotional problems related to being torn between two cultures.

The USS Enterprise is on a mission to the planet Lessenar in order to provide disaster relief and to begin efforts to clean up the planet’s heavily-polluted atmosphere. However, before they can land on the planet, an old cruise ship called the Prospector shows up in order to take a look at Lessenar’s beautiful green atmosphere. Although Picard wants to shoo the ship away, the Prospector‘s captain is a charismatic man who also knows Worf’s foster parents. So, reluctantly, Picard allows the ship to stay.

However, sometime later, there is an explosion along the Prospector‘s hull. Although Picard’s crew manage to save almost everyone on board, one of a group of five squid/jellyfish-like emotion-broadcasting creatures called Sli is killed in the explosion. The Sli are on the Prospector as entertainment and are managed by a Ferengi called Mon Hartag, who demands a full and urgent investigation into the explosion….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it took a little while to get going and was a little different to what I’d expected, it is a really atmospheric and compelling story that manages to achieve more detail, depth and drama than an episode of the TV show could ever dream of achieving. In other words, although this book is on the slow-paced side of things and might seem a little “boring” at first, it gets a lot better if you stick with it.

Interestingly, despite the story’s familiar sci-fi trappings, it is actually more of a mixture between a detective story and a psychological drama than a traditional “Star Trek” story. Yes, there is a lot of futuristic technology, lots of Star Trek stuff and a sub-plot about communicating with a mysterious alien species, but the sci-fi stuff here is more to add depth, flavour and intensity to the story’s detective and drama elements – and it does this really well.

In other words, this is a very character-focused novel that also relies heavily on suspense and mystery. In addition to the detective elements, which are handled fairly well (with, for example, several people having possible motives, Troi conducting empathic investigations etc…), the emotions broadcast by the Sli also affect the crew in all sorts of ways, leading to lots of tense moments and a real atmosphere of paranoia during some moments of the story. Needless to say, this really helps to keep the story compelling whilst also making it refreshingly different from a typical “Star Trek: TNG” novel.

And, whilst this novel is still in keeping with the style and tone of the TV series, the increased focus on the personal and psychological lives of several crew members in addition to the fact that they express emotions a bit more freely also makes parts of this novel reminiscent of something like “Babylon 5“, which really adds extra drama, depth, realism and creativty to the story. Even so, if you were expecting a more “traditional” spin-off novel, then this might catch you by surprise. But, if you stick with it, then you’ll be rewarded with something like an enhanced version of the original TV series.

Thematically, this novel is as complex as you’d expect. The novel’s themes include things like being stuck between two cultures, communications, psychology, economic inequality, the environment and repressed emotions. Not only is it cool to see a “Star Trek” novel where the characters aren’t quite as repressed as usual, but the novel also manages to make it’s points about the environment without descending too far into preaching at the reader. In fact, there’s this brilliant moment where Picard actually orders Riker not to deliver a self-righteous lecture to the people on Lessenar. So, it’s good to see a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence.

In terms of the characters, this novel is absolutely stellar. This novel devotes a lot of time to characterisation and, although this does slow the story down quite a bit, it really adds a lot of extra atmosphere, drama and realism to the story. Not only that, because of the novel’s detailed focus on psychology, emotions etc… it can also tell a rich and complex story that probably wouldn’t work on TV (seriously, it’s so good to see a spin-off novel that plays to the unique strengths of the written word).

Although the main characters of this novel are probably Worf and Troi, pretty much every character here gets a level of characterisation that makes them feel like real, complex people. The cumulative effect of this is that you actually feel like you’re there on the Enterprise, seeing the everyday lives of the characters in a way that other sci-fi shows, like “Babylon 5”, do so well. Although the plot is fairly compelling and well-planned, this is one of those novels where the characters are the most important part of the story.

Even so, one slight criticism of the novel’s characters is that Worf comes across as slightly too aggressive during the earlier parts of the story. However, given the various personal stresses he is facing at the time and the novel’s theme of repressed emotions, this change in his character sort of makes sense. Even so, it’s a little surprising if you’re used to the TV series version of Worf.

As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration uses a very slightly more descriptive and formal (but still reasonably “matter of fact”) writing style. Although this slows down the pace of the story a bit, it also allows for a lot more atmosphere, depth etc.. to the story too. Given that this is a slightly more complex, character-based novel, this writing style works really well here.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At a reasonably efficient 277 pages in length, this novel doesn’t look too long. However, as mentioned earlier, this novel is slightly more on the slower-paced side of things and takes a little while to really get going. Even so, as the story progresses, it becomes more and more compelling. Not only that, the slower-paced storytelling also gives the novel time to build atmosphere, suspense etc… that pays off later in the story.

As for how this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Although it might be a little slow-paced or formal by modern standards, the character-based focus of the story, the futuristic setting and the emphasis on things like psychology and emotions mean that this story is pretty much timeless.

All in all, although this novel is a bit more slow-paced than I’d expected and is a little different to a typical TNG spin-off novel, it is really brilliant 🙂 Not only does it leverage the strengths of the written word to tell a story that the TV show would probably have difficulty handling well, but it also contains stellar characterisation, a brilliantly immersive atmosphere and a rather compelling plot too. Even so, this is very much a novel for die-hard fans of the show (and it may be a little confusing if you’ve only seen a few episodes).

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