Review: “The Hellbound Heart” By Clive Barker (Novella)

Well, although I’d originally planned to read a different horror novel for the next book in this month’s horror marathon, I was having a terrible day and needed to read something that was both short and familiar. So, I found my copy of Clive Barker’s 1986 novella “The Hellbound Heart” and decided to re-read it.

If I remember rightly, this was a novella that I first read when I was about eighteen or nineteen after realising that the movie “Hellraiser” (directed by Barker himself) was based on it. I was going through a bit of a Clive Barker phase at the time and I remembered enjoying this book, even if it was slightly different to what I’d expected. So, naturally, I was curious to see whether it was similar to what I remembered of it.

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

—-
I read the 1997 Voyager (UK) paperback edition of “The Hellbound Heart”. Unfortunately, I probably can’t show the book cover here since one small part of it is very much “not safe for work” and would probably fall foul of some content rule or another.
——

The story begins with a man called Frank trying to solve a puzzle box called the Lemarchand Configuration. Jaded by a life of hedonism, he has heard that this box is a gateway to realms of even greater pleasure than anyone can even imagine. However, when he solves the box, a bell tolls and a gateway to another world appears.

From this gateway, hideous beings called Cenobites emerge and drag Frank into their realm – where pain and pleasure are considered to be one and the same thing.

Several months later, Frank’s brother Rory and his wife Julia show up at his house. Since the inherited house is technically also owned by Rory and because Frank hasn’t been there in months, Rory decides to move in. Initially, things seem fairly mundane as they go through the rigmarole of moving in. Julia is unhappy with her life with Rory and Rory’s friend, Kirsty, secretly has a crush on Rory too.

But, after Rory injures himself with a chisel and spills blood on the floor of one of the house’s abandoned rooms, Julia notices that the blood mysteriously disappears from the floor several hours later. Not only that, Frank’s spirit starts calling to her. In order to take physical form, Frank needs more blood….

One of the first things that I will say about this novella is that, although it takes a while for the story to really get going, it definitely improved with a second reading. In short, I noticed a lot of hidden depths that I missed the first time round. But, if you want an intense fast-paced splatterpunk horror thriller, then you’re better off reading the excellent sequel “The Scarlet Gospels” instead. Even so, this novella is fairly impressive- if more understated than I remembered.

In terms of the novella’s horror elements, they mostly consist of a combination of suspenseful horror, body horror/gory horror, claustrophobic horror, cosmic horror, monster horror and character-based horror. In a lot of ways, this novella is more of a slow burn, with the level of horror gradually increasing as the story progresses.

Interestingly, upon re-reading this novella, I realised that it is also a vampire novel in disguise. If you’ve ever read Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger“, then you’ll probably notice this. Frank’s jaded hedonism, his predatory attitude, his need to drain the life from other people and the fact that he is awakened by spilled blood are all very vampiric qualities. And, like with Strieber’s “The Hunger”, this novel offers a much grittier and more claustrophobic take on the vampire genre too.

One of the major themes in this novella is passion and hedonism. In addition to a lot of the novel’s main events being motivated by desire (which might explain the title of the novel), the fact that the Cenobites have gone so far into hedonistic excess that they cannot distinguish pain from pleasure is one of the things that makes them such compelling antagonists. Likewise, the fact that Frank first encounters them because he has become so jaded by a life of hedonism that he cannot take joy from it any more also seems to be a critique of hedonism too.

Like H.P.Lovecraft’s horror fiction, this is also a story about curiosity and forbidden knowledge too. It is a story about strange, nightmarish worlds existing a mere fraction of an inch from reality. It is a story where the miserable banality of the ordinary world can seem like heaven compared to the horrors that lurk just behind it. Yet, at the same time, this novella is pretty much the opposite of Lovecraft. The characters aren’t motivated by cold scientific curiosity or menaced by indifferent cosmic horrors – both the characters and the cosmic horrors are motivated by very carnal desires.

In terms of the characters, they’re very well-written. All of the main characters come across as realistic people with compelling motivations and imperfections, which the events of the story flow from. This is one of those stories where the plot really seems to emerge from the characters, rather than the characters merely following a plot.

In terms of the writing, it both is and isn’t a good fit with this story. Barker’s third-person narration is fairly formal and, whilst this does add a lot of atmosphere to the story as it progresses, it can also get in the way of the story a bit during some parts of it. Although many of Barker’s other horror novels also use a slightly more literary style, it is a lot more noticeable in this novel than it is in – say – “Cabal” or “Weaveworld“.

In terms of length and pacing, this novella is interesting. At an efficient 128 pages in length, it is the kind of story that can be enjoyed in a couple of hours πŸ™‚ As mentioned earlier, the story starts off in a relatively slow-paced way, with everything gradually building in intensity as the story progresses. So, although some earlier parts of the story might seem a little bit “boring”, stick with it and it will improve.

As for how this thirty-three year old novella has aged, it is pretty much timeless. Yes, the writing style is a little on the formal side of things, but the focus on the timeless elements of the human condition (eg: love, desire, curiosity etc..) and the mixture of timeless mundane life and unearthly horror are as effective today as they probably were in 1986.

All in all, this is an intelligent, compelling and atmospheric horror novella. Yes, the narration is perhaps slightly too formal and the story takes a while to really get going, but this is a timeless novel that improves with each reading of it. Yes, I preferred Barker’s fast-paced sequel, “The Scarlet Gospels”, to this novel – but “The Hellbound Heart” is a surprisingly sophisticated, and refreshingly short, horror story πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Martin Misunderstood” By Karin Slaughter (Novella)

Well, thanks to the weather still being incredibly hot, I was in the mood for a short book. A novella, in fact. Of course, print novellas are as difficult to find as cyberpunk movies and other such awesome things are. I could probably go on for ages about how annoyingly uncommon this awesome book format is, but I should probably get on with the review.

Anyway, whilst visiting a charity shop in Portchester last July, I found a copy of Karin Slaughter’s 2008 dark comedy novella “Martin Misunderstood”. Interestingly, looking online, this novella apparently started life as an audiobook, of all things. So, it’s cool that there’s an actual print edition of it too πŸ™‚

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

This is the 2008 Arrow Books (UK) paperback edition of “Martin Misunderstood” that I read.

The story begins in Georgia, with a thirtysomething man called Martin Reed. Martin has a miserable life. Not only is he living with his cantankerous mother but, when he got a job at Southern Toilet Supply, he found that most of his co-workers are the same people who bullied him when he was at school. Not only that, someone has scrawled an insult onto his car and the local mechanic isn’t exactly in a hurry to repaint the car.

Not only that, when he gets ready to go to work one morning, he finds blood on the bumper of his car. Not only that, the blood also gets onto his briefcase and when he tries to clean it off using one of Southern Toilet Supply’s many cleaning products, the fluid begins to dissolve the leather. Furious with his lot in life, he begins to smash up his briefcase when he is interrupted by his secretary, Unique.

However, before Martin can get any work done, the cops show up. Apparently, he is the prime suspect in a recent murder case…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novella is that it is absolutely hilarious. It’s a brilliantly cynical farce that, whilst not for the easily-shocked, is one of the best comedy stories I’ve read since I read Armistead Maupin’s “More Tales Of The City” a while ago. Not to mention that the fact that the story is a novella also means that it is wonderfully concise and focused too πŸ™‚

The novella includes numerous types of comedy like dark comedy, meta-fiction, farce, slapstick, character-based humour, unlikely romance, moral ambiguity, social awkwardness, “shock value” humour, cynicism, sexual humour and humourous narration. Although some of the humour is slightly subtle, the novel includes quite a few laugh out loud moments too. The novel’s humour is also counterpointed by a few more “serious” and depressing scenes that help to make the comedy funnier by contrast too.

Most interestingly of all, this novella also seems to have taken a lot of influence from classic British comedy too πŸ™‚ Everything from the downtrodden protagonist to the socially awkward situations to the graffiti on Martin’s car initially made me feel a bit puzzled about the fact that the novel was set in America.

The story’s detective elements are more of a background detail and they serve as a way to add some extra farce to the story, in addition to introducing one of the main characters (a fortysomething detective called An, who Martin finds himself attracted to). Even so, the mystery is resolved in an utterly hilarious way and the initial uncertainty about whether Martin is actually guilty or not also helps to keep the story compelling too. Likewise, since Martin is a fan of detective novels, the story also contains references to numerous detective and thriller authors too.

In terms of the characters, they’re the source of much of the story’s comedy. All of them get a decent amount of characterisation too, which really helps to add atmosphere and humanity to the story. And, being a comedy novel, some of the characters are fairly stylised too (although one character- Unique – may possibly be slightly stereotypical though).

As for the writing, like many of the best comedy stories, the novel’s third-person narrator is pretty much a character in their own right. This novel is written in a slightly informal (but also formal, if this makes sense) and observational style that also includes the occasional aside from the narrator, which also helps to add even more comedy to the story. The narration flows really well and helps to add a bit of atmosphere to the story too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novella is superb πŸ™‚ At a wonderfully efficient 147 pages in length, it is always great to read a novella πŸ™‚ Likewise, the story’s humour and farce-like plot also ensures that the story keeps moving at a reasonably decent pace too. Whilst you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced thriller, this novel is the kind of compelling story that you’ll probably devour in a couple of hours at most.

All in all, I really enjoyed this novella πŸ™‚ Although it isn’t for the easily shocked and the novel’s cynical sense of humour might not work for everyone, it is certainly one of the funniest novels that I’ve read in recent months. Not to mention that, in a world where books seem to keep getting longer, it is so refreshing to read a lean and efficient story too πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Bound To Me” By Jocelynn Drake (Novella)

Fairly soon after I had finished reading Jocelynn Drake’s amazing “Dark Days” series (you can find my reviews of it here, here, here, here, here and here ), I was in a rather melancholy mood. This amazing series was at an end and I missed it.

And then I remembered that there was a prequel novella called “Bound To Me” – and, after looking online, I realised that there was actually a paperback edition of it out there πŸ™‚ So, no prizes for guessing what I’ll be reviewing today.

However, although “Bound To Me” is a prequel to the ‘Dark Days’ series and can be read as a (mostly) self-contained story, it’s worth reading the entire “Dark Days” series before you read this novella. This is because a lot of references, character cameos etc.. will make more sense if you’ve read the other novels first.

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

This is the 2012 Harper Voyager (US/Can ?) paperback edition of “Bound To Me” that I read.

The novella begins in London during some unspecified period of history (implied to be the 19th century). The red-haired vampire Mira and her beloved, Valerio, are having an entertaining evening causing scandal at an aristocratic dinner party. Afterwards, they return home to spend some quality time together. However, they are soon interrupted by a mysterious visitor who carries a message from the vampire coven.

According to the messenger, both Mira and Valerio have been summoned to Venice because the coven has an important mission for them……

One of the first things that I will say about this novella is… wow! It is quite literally a miniature “Dark Days” novel πŸ™‚ There’s a good mixture of Machiavellian vampire politics, steamy romance, interesting locations and even a couple of brief action-thriller moments too. It is literally a small “Dark Days” novel and reading it felt just like returning to something warm and familiar again.

And, yes, there’s a lot of wonderfully familiar stuff here. Not only do we get to see more of Mira and Valerio’s backstory, but a few other familiar faces turn up too. We get to see Jabari, Elizabeth, Sadira and Macaire. We also get to visit the vampire coven in Venice again too πŸ™‚ Plus, to my surprised delight, Tabor and (what is implied to be) a younger version of Ryan also show up too πŸ™‚ Alas, no Danaus though – even though he would have, technically, been alive at the time the novel’s story takes place.

In terms of the story, it’s actually a proper story too. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It includes character development, multiple locations, a plot twist and a (romantic) sub-plot too. Seriously, it’s great to see a full story that is so efficiently concise. It puts many other modern authors (and their bloated 400-600 page novels) to shame. Plus, the story is just as compelling as you would expect a full-length “Dark Days” novel to be too πŸ™‚

My only minor criticisms of this novella are the relative lack of horror elements (there are a few, but not many), the spelling of “Doncaster” as “Duncaster” and the fact that the story contains relatively little suspense. After all, if you’ve read the “Dark Days” novels, you’ll already know who survives and who doesn’t. In a lot of ways, I’d have preferred to see a sequel that dealt with what happens to Mira and Danaus some time after the dramatic ending of “Burn The Night”. But, still, this is an extra “Dark Days” story and this is never a bad thing πŸ™‚

In terms of the narration and writing, it is as good as you would expect. For the most part, Mira’s first-person narration still sounds pretty similar to the rest of the “Dark Days” series, although she’s a slightly more violent and emotional character in this novel (since she’s 100-200 years younger). The narration is very readable and even the bedroom-based scenes (which aren’t for the prudish) are well-written enough to ensure that there are no moments of unintentional comedy.

In terms of length, the novella itself is 94 pages long ( although the book is longer, because there’s a 21-page preview of another novel added to the end). This length is absolutely perfect, since it means that “Bound To Me” can be read in an hour or two in a similar fashion to watching a TV show episode. There’s no need to rush, you can just sit back and savour every page and not have to worry about how long it’ll take you to read the entire thing. Seriously, if publishers want to make reading popular again, then why are print novellas so rare these days? They’re literally the book equivalent of a TV show episode or something.

All in all, this novella is absolutely wonderful πŸ™‚ If you’re a fan of the “Dark Days” series, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. Although the actual story is less than 100 pages long, it still reads a lot like a full novel too – which is amazing πŸ™‚ Seriously, I wish more people would publish novellas. Plus, of course, this novella is something to take the edge off of that miserable “there’s no more “Dark Days” novels left!” feeling when you finish reading “Burn The Night”.

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

Four Unusual Tips For Writing A Novel Very Quickly

WARNING - Writing a novel THIS quickly may melt your brain...

WARNING – Writing a novel THIS quickly may melt your brain…

We’ve all heard stories about authors writing at superhuman speed – Jack Kerouac apparently wrote “On The Road” in just three weeks and I think that Shaun Hutson once apparently wrote a World War Two novel in a single weekend or something like that (I can’t remember where I read about this though).

So, how do they do it?

Well, whilst I’ve never actually written a full-length novel at top speed, I’ve done the next best thing. Twice.

Back in 2009, I was fascinated by a competition called “The 3 Day Novel“. Since I’d missed the start date for it and was kind of impatient, I decided to have a bit of unofficial practice and I ended up producing two 19,000-21,000 word novellas (not at the same time obviously – the first one was in summer 2009 and the second one was in autmun 2009).

Although it actually took me about four days for one of my attempts, it gave me at least a small amount of insight into how to write at ultra-fast speeds.

As the name suggests, “The 3 Day Novel” is a competition where people try to write a “novel” in just three days. I’ve put “novel” in inverted commas because what most people (myself included) can produce in that amount of time is closer in length to a novella (eg: 14,000- 50,000 words) than a full-length novel. Still, writing something of this length in three days is quite an achievement.

Anyway, since “The 3 Day Novel” contest already has a ‘Survival Guide’ page on it’s site which gives you some basic advice about how to achieve this superhuman feat (eg: don’t edit when you’re writing, write in solitude etc…), I thought that I’d give you some more unusual tips about how to write a novel quickly…….

1)Begin well: On my first unofficial attempt at the “3 Day Novel” challenge, I was excited and ready to go. So, on the first day, I ended up writing something like 10,000 words in the space of about eight hours. This was, at the time, the longest thing that I’d ever written and I was amazed!

In fact, I thought that if I kept this up then I’d have a 30,000 word novella by the end of the challenge.

I didn’t.

On the other days, I was only able to produce about 5,000 words a day.

Anyway, why am I mentioning this? Well, the reason I’m mentioning it is because you need to take full advantage of the first day of your project.

This will be the day when you are at your most energetic and enthusiastic because you haven’t been worn out by writing an unnaturally large amount of fiction yet. So, don’t take it easy on the first day.

Don’t ease yourself into your project gently. Use that first burst of curiosity and enthusiasm to your advantage and throw yourself into your project whilst you still have the energy to do so.

In other words, see your first day as the day when you can give yourself a giant head-start that will be useful a day or two later when you’re at the point when you can still see words even when you close your eyes.

2) Genre and plot structure: If you are going to pull off the gruelling feat of writing a novel in a shockingly short amount of time, then not only do you need to be enthusiastic (if not obsessed) about it but you also need a plot structure which keeps the risk of getting writer’s block to an absolute minimum.

In order to get enthusiastic about your story, it needs to be in one of your absolute favourite genres. It has to be in a genre that you absolutely love.

Because you’ll be writing at a superhuman speed, you’ll need motivation and the best motivation you can get is to be doing something that you love. So, don’t even attempt to write a novel quickly unless it’s in a genre that you genuinely love.

Secondly, you want to keep your story fairly open-ended in order to keep the risk of both writer’s block and of “writing yourself into a corner” to a minimum.

Whilst I’ve already written another article this subject , your story needs to be something that you can easily “make up as you go along” and it also needs to be the type of story where, if you get stuck, you can just throw something completely random into your story without confusing your readers.

For example, if you’re writing a horror story – then it would be better to write a story about a mysterious monster that attacks unsuspecting people at random (eg: whenever you get writer’s block) or a story about a haunted house where all manner of strange and bizarre things can happen (again, whenever you get writer’s block) than it would be to write an intricately-plotted story with detailed plot twists.

3) Sugar and Caffeine are your friends: Normally, I don’t really like energy drinks. Most of them taste pretty horrible and I don’t really like the whole frat-like culture that surrounds them.

But, if you’re writing a novel at superhuman speed (and it’s safe for you to drink energy drinks), then they’re a much more efficient way to stay awake and motivated than getting up (and away from your computer) and making a cup of coffee.

So, before you start your marathon writing session, make sure that you have some energy drinks handy. But, for obvious safety reasons, just make sure that you don’t drink too many of them though (I think that the general rule is that you should only drink about one can of energy drink per day.)

4) Obsession: If you devote a huge amount of time to doing nothing but writing a novel, then you’re probably going to start to think about it almost all of the time – even when you’re not writing.

On the few occasions that you meet other people during your writing binge, you’re going to want to talk about nothing other than the novel that you’re working on.

Although this might make you fear that you’re losing your mind, it’s actually a good sign. It means that you’re devoting almost all of your mental energy to your novel. As long as you don’t keep it up for more than a few days and you find a way to relax afterwards, then a total and all-consuming obsession about your novel is a good thing.

After all, who would even attempt to write a novel in a ridiculously short amount of time if they weren’t obsessed about it?

——–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚ Again, be sure to check out the “Survival Guide” on the “3 Day Novel” website for some more practical advice.

Three Reasons Why Novellas Are Amazing

2014 Artwork Novella Sketch

In case you’ve never heard of a “novella” before or have forgotten what they are – a novella is a story which is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.

Novellas are usually between about 15,000 to 50,000 words (or 60-200 paperback pages) long. They are also one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated storytelling formats too.

If you don’t believe me, then just ask yourself what was the last professionally published novella that you read. For me, it was probably either “Apt Pupil” by Stephen King or “Sulphuric Acid” by AmΓ©lie Nothomb – and I read both of those books about four or five years ago.

(I also read Camus’ “The Stranger” a few months ago, but this always seems to be referred to as a “novel” rather than a “novella” – even though, in terms of length, it’s much closer to a novella.)

Let’s face it, the novella really doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves.

Yes, publishers are apparently wary of short story collections and the internet now allows anyone to publish fiction of any length but, when was the last time you saw a novella on the bestseller lists? In fact, when was the last time you even saw a novella in a bookshop?

Before I go any further, I should point out that I have something of a personal interest here. I’ve written novellas before – four to be precise (three are unpublished and the other one can be read for free here, although I should warn you that it’s kind of badly-written). Whenever I feel like telling a longer story, it almost always ends up being novella-length.

I’m not a novelist, I’m a novella-ist.

So, why should the novella make a comeback? What makes it such an amazing format for stories – regardless of whether you’re reading them or writing them.

1)Time: One of the most satisfying things about reading a novella is that novellas only usually take a couple of hours to read. If you don’t feel like reading a full novel or you don’t feel that you have the time to read a full novel, then you can read a novella.

If you have the time to watch a movie or three episodes of a TV show, then you have time to read a novella. The same thing can’t be said for most modern novels.

Not only that, most novellas contain a far more interesting and detailed storyline than most short stories do – but they only take a fraction of the time it takes to read a novel.

When it comes to time and satisfaction, they’re the best of both worlds.

If you’re writing a novella, then time is less of an issue too. I mean, if you’ve got a really good idea and a few free days, you can even knock out a rough draft of a novella in about three to four days. Hell, some people have even turned this into a competitive sport. Yes, this is a bit extreme, but it’s possible to have a finished novella in your hands in less than a week.

But, even if you’re working at a more sensible pace (eg: about a thousand words a day), then it will probably only take you about a month or two to write the first draft of a novella. You could produce four of them in a year.

Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?

2) Quality: Yes, there are badly-written novellas out there, just like there are badly-written stories in any format. In fact, the only novella that I’ve put online probably falls into this category too. Even so, novellas have a unique quality to them which makes them better than both short stories and novels.

Because there’s only usually room for one main plot and not that much room for distractions, a novella has the intensely-focused storytelling of a short story. But, since there’s more room for things like character development and detailed plots than there is in a short story, a novella also has the depth of a novel.

Depending on how you look at it, a novella is either a short story on steroids or a distilled novel.

Once again, novellas are the best of both worlds.

3) Price: Unfortunately, physical copies of novellas can be just as expensive as physical copies of novels (due to printing costs etc…). And, since there are less published novellas, it’s a lot harder to find cheap second-hand novellas too. So, for people (like me) who only really read physical copies of books, the situation doesn’t really look that hopeful.

Still, with e-books becoming a lot more popular, there’s no real excuse for novellas costing as much or more than novels do. In fact, one encouraging trend that I’ve noticed is that a few well-respected authors are releasing novellas exclusively online (such as Lee Child’s “High Heat” or Chuck Wendig’s “Bad Blood”) for far more sensible prices than they would ever be able to charge if they had been printed.

Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that what I’m going to say is more of a naively optimistic guess than anything else. So, if you are thinking of selling a novella, then you’re probably best doing some real research than reading the next few paragraphs. Even so….

Given that we’re still stuck in a recession, people are probably much more likely to pay Β£1-3 for an electronic copy of a novella than they are to pay Β£5-7 for a physical copy of a novella or a full-length novel. So, although you might make less for each novella, people are probably more likely to buy copies of your novella.

Not only that, since novellas take less time to produce than novels, you can put more of your novellas on the market in the same amount of time that it would take for a novelist to put a single novel on the market. So, although an individual novella may sell fewer copies than a novel, several novellas will probably sell better than a single novel.

——

Anyway, I hope that this has been interesting πŸ™‚

Introducing “Liminal Rites – A Surreal Detective Story”

This image is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

This image is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[Edited 14/7/13]

Well, I am very proud to announce my latest creative project “Liminal Rites – A Surreal Detective Story” [Note: This may end up turning into a horror story. You have been warned…].

Liminal Rites” will be a novella/novel which will be released episodically (probably either daily and/or whenever I write any of it) on it’s own blog, which can be found here. The first four chapters are online right now, with chapters five and six on the way over the next couple of days….

“Liminal Rites” follows Claura Draine, amateur detective and soon-to-be-former university student who is still hanging around in town at the end of term, waiting for the lease on her student house to end. The last thing she expects is a new case which will take her to the very edge of reality and beyond…

I should probably point out that since “Liminal Rites” is a surreal dark comedy/horror/mystery story in the tradition of Warren Ellis, William S.Burroughs, Hunter S.Thompson, Satoshi Kon and David Cronenburg – it will probably contain disturbing imagery, strong language, horror and other things which are more suitable for mature audiences.