Review: “The Deep” by Nick Cutter (Novel)

Several weeks before I wrote this review, I happened to see something online mentioning a sci-fi horror novel from 2015 called “The Deep” by Nick Cutter. If I remember rightly, “The Deep” was likened to a modern version of H.P.Lovecraft. So, naturally, I was curious enough to look for a second-hand copy of it. To my delight, the author quote on the cover was from none of than Clive Barker too 🙂

Then, I got distracted by other books. But, since I was in the mood for horror fiction, I thought that I’d finally read “The Deep”.

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

This is the 2015 Headline (UK) paperback edition of “The Deep” that I read.

The novel is set in the near future, where the world has been reduced to a semi-apocalyptic state by a mysterious epidemic called “the ‘gets”. This disease makes people forget things, turning them into listless zombies before they eventually forget how to breathe or eat or drink.

A veterinarian called Luke arrives on the island of Guam. The night before, he got a phone call from the US military asking him to hurry over there. His genius brother, Clay, has been working in a deep-sea research station at the base of the Mariana Trench. The military has lost contact with the base. Clay’s last message to the surface was a strange phone call asking for his brother.

When Luke arrives at the surface station, one of the scientists shows him a mysterious substance dredged from the deepest point of the ocean called ambrosia. It has the potential to both cure diseases and heal horrific injuries. So, it seems like the most promising avenue for a cure for the ‘gets. However, before Luke descends below the surface, he sees what happened to the last scientist to surface from the research base.

Despite the grisly terror of what he has seen, Luke is eager to check on his brother. So, along with an experienced naval officer called Alice (or “Al” for short), they begin their descent into the deep….

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that it is probably one of the most unnerving, disturbing and terrifying books I’ve ever read. Imagine a cross between horror movies like “The Thing”, “Event Horizon“, “Hellraiser” and “Triangle” and survival horror games like “Silent Hill 3“, but about twice as disturbing. Usually, I tend to take author quotes on book covers with a pinch of salt, but the Clive Barker quote on the cover is as much a genuine warning as it is praise for the novel.

So, I suppose that I should probably start talking about this novel’s horror elements. This novel is what would happen if H.P.Lovecraft, Clive Barker and David Cronenburg decided to write a book together.

There is an insidious, unnerving and downright petrifying mixture of psychological horror (lots and lots of it!), body horror, paranormal horror, character-based horror, phobia-based horror (insects, clowns, darkness etc..), realistic horror, cruel horror, monster horror, claustrophobic horror, ominous horror, suspenseful horror, scientific horror, gory horror, bleak post-apocalyptic horror and types of horror that probably don’t even have names.

Although the earlier parts of this book, when you don’t know the characters and don’t know what to expect, are slightly scarier than the later parts – the novel’s horror is fairly evenly-distributed throughout the story. Just when you think that you’ve got a handle on this book and think that it can’t do anything more shocking or disturbing than it already has, it will come up with something.

This is also one of those incredibly rare horror stories where reality itself cannot be trusted. Although this incredibly disturbing type of horror is more common in film and television, this is one of the relatively few written examples of it that I’ve seen. And, yes, whilst you’ll eventually be able to guess what is and isn’t a nightmarish hallucination, don’t be too certain about this. As I said, this novel can surprise you. It can lull you into a false sense of security and then get you.

As for the novel’s characters, they are brilliantly chilling. We are shown more than enough of Luke’s disturbing past to really care for him and to dread what other traumatic memories will be dredged from his psyche by the malevolent forces lurking in the underwater station. This is the kind of novel where the most terrifying character, Luke’s mother, never directly appears in the story outside of flashbacks, thoughts and hallucinations. Yet, she is in many ways a more terrifying evil than the malevolent forces at work in the depths of the ocean…

The other characters are fairly well-written and some of them have a real Lovecraftian flavour. Whether it is Luke’s brother, a brilliant but coldly emotionless scientist, or a segment of the novel showing the final journal of one of the doomed scientists, this novel can be very Lovecraftian at times. In addition to these Lovecraftian characters, there is also an interesting variety of other characters such as a courageous navy officer called Al and an adorable dog called LB too.

And, yes, I should talk about this novel’s sci-fi elements too, since it is a sci-fi horror novel. Although this novel explores the traditional Lovecraftian theme of scientists meddling with things they shouldn’t, the sci-fi horror elements are made even more chilling due to their realism.

Whether it is a mysterious pandemic or the fact that the scientists don’t know what the mysterious substance at the bottom of the trench is or the fact that the technology isn’t that much more advanced than current technology, this isn’t some distant fantasy set in outer space. It is chilling “it could happen” near future sci-fi horror!

In terms of the writing, this novel is brilliant. The novel’s third-person narration contains just the right mixture of fast-paced “matter of fact” narration and slow, creeping descriptive narration. Seriously, a lot of the horror in this novel comes from the way that scenes of the story are written. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story would be a hilarious dark comedy rather than fear in book form.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. Although, at 394 pages, it is a little on the longer side of things, it is partially structured like a modern thriller novel. In other words, there are lots of shorter chapters that lend the story a slightly staccato and fast-paced rhythm. But, unlike a modern thriller, there is only one plot thread and the novel isn’t afraid to slow down slightly at times to drench the reader in slow, creeping dread.

All in all, this is an extremely scary horror novel 🙂 For all of the people who worry that the horror genre has declined in recent years, this novel will prove you wrong. The horror genre may not be as prominent as it was in the 1980s, but it has been festering in the darkness of obscurity and slowly gathering its strength. Seriously, this novel is scary. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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

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Review: “Butcher” (WAD for “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”)

[Well, due to a scheduling mishap, enjoy this bonus review today. Apologies in advance if there’s an article/review missing on any day in the future (and I’m still not sure why there were two scheduled for today).]
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Well, since I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“The Deep” by Nick Cutter), I thought that I’d take the chance to look at another “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD. After all, it’s been about three weeks or so since my last WAD review.

And, after clicking the “Random File” button on the /Idgames Archive, I found myself looking at a WAD from 1995 called “Butcher” by none other than Milo Casali, of “Final Doom” fame 🙂

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD. However, given the level’s age, it will probably run on pretty much any source port. In fact, it’ll probably run on the original DOS version of “Doom II” too.

So, let’s take a look at “Butcher”:

As you may have already guessed, this is an earlier “work in progress” version of level nine from Final Doom’s “The Plutonia Experiment” episode. Given that this is my favourite ‘official’ Doom II episode (especially the twenty-ninth level, “Odyssey Of Noises”) and it is an episode that I’ll replay every now and then, it was really cool to see an earlier version of part of it 🙂

For the most part, the level is pretty much identical to level nine of “The Plutonia Experiment”. In other words, it is a reasonably challenging and slightly non-linear medium-length level that contains a few small arena-style battles, some well-placed monster closets and a few moments of more claustrophobic combat.

So, yes, it’s the same traditional – but challenging – type of “Doom II” level that you would expect 🙂

Given how amazingly fun, well-designed and re-playable “The Plutonia Experiment” is, playing this level was an absolute joy – even if I already knew where everything was and how to complete it. But, I suppose that I should probably talk about the differences between this level and the final commercial version of it.

In short, there aren’t many. Although the comments on the web page for the level tipped me off to the fact that the very final room of the level is smaller, easier and more primitive than the final version, the only other difference I was able to spot was the fact that the items in the secret area in the blue key room were slightly different.

Yes, the level is a lot more generous here, compared to the finished version.

The most noticeable difference is this final room. Not only is it smaller and less complex, but there are also far fewer monsters too.

All in all, there isn’t that much to say about this level. If you’re a fan of “The Plutonia Experiment”, then it is an interesting curio. If you’ve never played “Final Doom”, then this level will give you a taste of what to expect from the best official “Doom” game. Yes, the official version of this level is marginally better than this earlier “work in progress” version, but it is still an incredibly fun level 🙂

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

Review: “Operation Goodwood” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read one of Sara Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” historical detective novels. Although I read the first two books in 2017 (but only got round to reviewing the first one), I didn’t get round to reading any more of them, since I was going through a phase of not reading much back then.

When I remembered the series, I looked for my copies of the third and fourth books, but couldn’t remember where I’d put them (Edit: I finally found them shortly after finishing the first draft of this review). So, instead, I ended up buying a cheap second-hand hardback copy of the fifth novel “Operation Goodwood” (2016) online. And, since this is a series where each novel tells a self-contained story, I thought that I’d read it next.

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

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) hardback edition of “Operation Goodwood” that I read.

The novel begins in summer 1955 at Goodwood. Debt collector and ex-SOE agent Mirabelle Bevan is watching a motor race with her partner Superintendent McGregor. After catching a pickpocket sneaking through the crowd, Mirabelle returns the stolen money just in time to see a racer called Dougie Beaumont beat Stirling Moss to the finish line.

Several weeks later, Mirabelle wakes up in the middle of the night in her flat in Brighton. The flat is on fire! After a narrow escape from the burning building, she watches the fire service stretcher a dead body out of the flat above. To her shock, the body is none other than Dougie Beaumont. Although the injuries on his neck suggest that he took his own life, something doesn’t quite add up about this. So, Mirabelle decides to investigate…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly solid historical detective novel. Although it didn’t have quite the same gloomy “film noir”-like atmosphere as the earlier books in the series that I’ve read, it is still a rather compelling mystery that is kind of a bit like a cross between a formal Agatha Christie-style detective story and a more modern/gritty historical detective novel.

The novel’s detective elements are reasonably good, with the story taking more of an Agatha Christie-style emphasis on interviewing people and finding out the motive for the crime (as opposed to Sherlock Holmes-style deductions from physical evidence). Even so, there’s a fair amount of hidden clues, red herrings, sneaking around and clever ruses here too.

As you would expect from a detective story, there is also a second murder that is linked to the first one. But, whilst this second murder is solved, the culprit for the first one isn’t explicitly stated. However, the novel gives enough background information, hints etc… for astute readers to guess who was probably responsible for it. Given the motive, this implied conclusion seems somewhat realistic and also helps to add a slightly chilling tone to this part of the story.

In terms of the historical setting, it is reasonably well written. In addition to a good variety of locations (eg: Brighton, Goodwood, London, Chichester, Tangmere etc..), the novel also does the usual thing of contrasting the genteel popular image of 1950s Britain with all of the stifling repression, prejudices, conservatism etc.. that lurked beneath the surface of it.

There are also quite a few references to major events and historical figures of the time, with some major elements of the plot also revolving around a less well-known (and very disturbing) part of 1950s history. But, if you’ve read about these colonial atrocities before, then the fact that references to them are somewhat understated during the early-middle parts of the novel might tip you off about the ending though. Even so, the novel does use the reader’s knowledge of 1950s history to plant a few clever red herrings too.

In terms of the characters, they are fairly well-written. In addition to a few familiar faces from earlier books in the series (eg: Vesta, Charlie etc..), Mirabelle is the same confident, realistic and resourceful detective as usual too. McGregor is, in the classic fashion, an official detective who is always a few steps behind Mirabelle (in addition to being the source of a few scenes of relationship-based drama too). Most of the other characters are either ordinary people who help Mirabelle or aristocrats who have secrets and/or possible motives for murder.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third person narration is formal and descriptive enough to emphasise the 1950s setting, but “matter of fact” enough to seem both modern and easily-readable. As you would expect from a classic-style detective story, the third-person narrator always follows Mirabelle and she is present during pretty much every scene of the novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At a fairly efficient 272 pages in length (plus several pages of historical notes, reading group questions etc..), this novel never really feels bloated or over-extended. Likewise, whilst the story moves along at a fairly moderate pace, it is compelling enough for it not to seem too slow-paced.

All in all, this is a reasonably good detective novel. Whilst it doesn’t really have the same gloomy atmosphere as the earlier books in the series, and the focus on aristocratic characters/suspects gives the novel a slightly old-school Agatha Christie-like tone which means that it doesn’t stand out from the crowd as much as I’d have liked, it is still a fairly solid detective story.

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

Review: “Urban Prey” By Peter Beere (Novel)

A few days before I wrote this review, I happened to discover an utterly amazing second-hand bookshop in Petersfield – with a horror/sci-fi/fantasy section crammed with old books from the 1980s/90s 🙂

Anyway, although most of the books I bought were alternate editions etc.. of books I’ve read before, one of the other novels that caught my eye was Peter Beere’s 1984 novel “Urban Prey”. What can I say? The cover art looked like a cross between “Blade Runner” and an Iron Maiden album cover 🙂

Interestingly, this book is the first novel in a trilogy. Even so, this novel can pretty much be enjoyed on it’s own (although I’ll talk more about the ending in the later parts of this review).

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

This is the 1984 Arrow (UK) edition of “Urban Prey” that I read.

Set in London in the dystopian future of 2020, the story focuses on a man called B.K.Howard (or “Beekay”). Beekay is having a terrible week. Short on cash, he agrees to help his uncle out with a trip to Essex to pick up some smuggled goods arriving from the war-torn mess of mainland Europe. Unfortunately, the plod catch on and send a heavily-armed squad of riot-armoured auxiliaries to the port. Beekay barely escapes the grisly carnage that follows.

When he finally limps back to his run-down flat, there is a letter waiting for him. Call-up papers! As part of the ultra-conservative government’s drive to get the unemployment numbers down, those on long-term benefits are conscripted into the military and sent on a one-way trip to the worst battlefields the world has to offer. After Beekay goes to his aunt to inform her of his uncle’s death, he visits his long-term girlfriend and, after learning something about her, breaks up with her.

Miserable and drunk, Beekay tries to find a way to dodge the draft. But, the bank won’t let him withdraw any money from his account. Not only that, after deciding to make up with his girlfriend several days later, he finds out that she’s been arrested after stabbing a member of the city’s dystopian police after being threatened by him. When Beekay gets home, two men are waiting for him. They are terrorists who will help him and his girlfriend get out of the country if Beekay carries out an assassination for them.

Since the target is the policeman who threatened his girlfriend, Beekay agrees. But, whilst hiding out and planning the crime, he gets a threatening note from a man called Homer. Homer is an official “hunter” who tracks down draft dodgers….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it shares some very vague thematic similarities with “Blade Runner”, it is much more of a dystopian crime thriller than a sci-fi story. It is more like the gritty “it could happen!” dystopian classics like “V For Vendetta” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” than anything else. Still, it’s a surprisingly compelling and atmospheric thriller.

Although the novel’s thriller elements are at their absolute best during the nail-bitingly suspenseful conclusion, there is a palpable feeling of suspense and danger throughout the novel. Beekay is living in a hostile, grim world that is indifferent to him at best.

In addition to the morbid fascination of watching Beekay get dragged into a life of crime, the relatively few scenes involving Homer chasing Beekay help to add extra suspense to the novel (and are a bit like “Blade Runner” in some respects). Likewise, the novel’s grisly and unglamourous portrayal of violence is similar to both “Blade Runner” and the splatterpunk horror fiction of the 1980s too.

The novel’s dystopian elements are a mixture of some classic dystopian stuff (eg: an endless war abroad, violent policemen, forced labour in prisons etc..) and a scathing satire of 1980s Britain. This gives the novel a feeling of gritty realism that you wouldn’t find in more stylised dystopian fiction. In the novel’s version of 2020, there is little to no advanced technology – just poverty, urban decay and an indifferent authoritarian regime. In other words, this novel is a satire of Margaret Thatcher’s time in government.

However, the novel’s dystopian elements do sometimes feel a little bit overdone – to the point where they almost stray into the realm of unintentional parody/dark comedy. I mean, if you’ve ever played dystopian comedy games like “Beneath A Steel Sky” or “Normality“, if you’ve read the hilariously earnest 1980s anarchist parody of “Tintin” or watched an old sitcom called “The Young Ones“, then the tone of parts of this novel will probably feel amusingly familiar.

In terms of the characters, they’re ok. Most of the novel’s characterisation focuses on Beekay – who is a self-pitying, unlucky, poor and nervous “underdog” character. He’s also a somewhat morally-ambiguous character (leaving aside his criminal activities, he’s also hypocritical and prejudiced at times) who seems like a product of the grim world that he has grown up in. Although the other main characters have just enough characterisation to make you care about what happens them, don’t expect lots of in-depth characterisation.

In terms of the writing, it’s interesting. The novel is narrated from Beekay’s perspective and the first-person narration is this weird mixture of informal narration and slightly more formal/descriptive narration. It fits well with Beekay’s character and helps to immerse the reader, but it is the kind of narration that will probably be a little bit annoying before you get used to it.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 198 pages in length, this novel is just the right length for the story it is telling. Likewise, the novel’s pacing is a fairly good mixture of moderately-paced segments that build atmosphere (and show the grinding boredom/grimness of Beekay’s life) and some surprisingly gripping and suspenseful fast-paced segments. Seriously, the later parts of this novel are real edge-of-your-seat stuff!

Plus, although there is room for a sequel at the end of the story, there is enough resolution to the main plot for the ending not to feel like too much of a cliffhanger. Even so, it is at least a mild-moderate cliffhanger in some regards.

In terms of how this thirty-five year old novel has aged, it hasn’t aged well. In addition to the fact that the dystopian future of 2020 looks almost exactly like an exaggerated version of 1980s Britain, this is also a novel where the main character holds a few prejudiced attitudes and/or uses some fairly “politically incorrect” language. Still, despite this, the underlying story of the novel is still surprisingly compelling, suspenseful and atmospheric.

All in all, if you want a cheesy 1980s dystopian thriller, then it might be worth taking a look at this novel. Although it isn’t perfect, some parts of it are really gripping and it has a wonderfully gloomy and grim atmosphere that will make the dystopian present of 2019 look positively cheerful by comparison. But, despite the cover art, don’t go into this novel expecting it to be like “Blade Runner”. It’s more “punk” than “cyberpunk”.

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

Review: “Day Four” By Sarah Lotz (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for another horror novel. So, I thought that I’d check out one that I’ve been meaning to read for weeks. I am, of course, talking about Sarah Lotz’s 2015 novel “Day Four”.

I can’t remember how I first heard about this novel, but the concept behind it intrigued me enough to look for a second-hand copy of it online. Interestingly, whilst “Day Four” works well as a stand-alone novel, it is also apparently the sequel to another novel called “The Three”.

So, let’s take a look at “Day Four”. This review may contain mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 (?) Hodder & Stoughton (UK) paperback edition of “Day Four” that I read.

The cruise ship Beautiful Dreamer is on the fourth day of its voyage around the Gulf Of Mexico. In the ship’s theatre, a phony medium called Celine is performing a seance for her cult-like inner circle of fans whilst her assistant Maddie watches from the back of the crowd. The seance is briefly interrupted by an online journalist who tries to question Celine about a fraud lawsuit in America, before fleeing when one of Celine’s henchmen approaches him.

After the seance, Celine returns to her room and falls into a catatonic state. The lights start to flicker and then go out. To Maddie’s bewilderment, Celine suddenly starts talking in the voice of one of her “spirit guides”.

Meanwhile, a passenger called Gary is taking a long shower. He’s trying to scrub his body clean of DNA evidence. After his creepy plan to spike the drink of a lonely woman resulted in deadly complications, he knows that it is only a matter of time before the crew find the body.

With the power failure leaving the ship stranded at sea, crew member Althea is checking up on her assigned passengers when she happens to see a mysterious child wandering the corridors. She follows him and he disappears, but not before pointing the way to a grisly discovery in one of the cabins. Although chief security officer Ram is keen to write it off as an accidental death, his second-in-command Devi thinks that foul play was involved and decides to investigate…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really atmospheric, well-written and creepy ghost story that is both compelling and creative 🙂 Imagine J.G.Ballard’s “High-Rise” mixed with an episode of “The X-Files” mixed with a Japanese-style horror movie and this might give you a vague idea of what to expect.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re surprisingly creepy. Seriously, this novel actually scared me at times. There’s a really unsettling mixture of psychological horror, paranormal horror, macabre/death-based horror, medical horror, suspenseful horror, disaster-based/post-apocalyptic horror, bleak horror and character-based horror.

The novel’s horror elements are handled in a really interesting way, with the first third or so of the novel including a chillingly suspenseful and menacing mixture of character-based horror and creepy paranormal horror. The paranormal elements become less threatening during the middle parts of the story, with more focus placed on the bleak, squalid and dystopian horror of being stranded at sea instead. Then, the later parts of the novel venture into unsettlingly bizarre and brain-twistingly weird territory – with a brilliantly chilling stinger on the final page too. Seriously, this is a horror novel 🙂

All of this horror is also balanced out with a few carefully-placed moments of humour, such as some of the PA announcements from the cruise director, the character nicknames in the chapter titles, some of the dialogue and a few cynical mentions of the older and less PC parts of Celine’s psychic act. These moments of comedy help to prevent the bleak setting of the novel from becoming too depressing, whilst also contrasting well with the novel’s more serious and/or disturbing moments.

The novel is also an extremely cynical satire about cruises in general. Whether it is the fact that we rarely actually see the captain or cruise director, scenes involving the chaotic and boorish hordes of passengers that the crew have to deal with, the cruise company caring more about publicity than anything else etc.. this novel really pulls no punches.

The novel also works surprisingly well as a thriller too. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra fast-paced story, this novel remains compelling throughout. In addition to the suspenseful scenes near the beginning showing a killer trying to cover up his crime (and the security guard trying to catch him), there’s also a lot of intriguing mystery about why the ship has stopped, a lot of drama and some mysterious paranormal stuff too.

In terms of the characters, they’re really well-written and come across as fairly realistic. Even though the story contains a large number of main characters, you learn enough about them to be able to picture them easily and to care about what happens to them. Not only that, many of the characters have fled to the cruise liner due to problems elsewhere, which helps to add tension and ambiguity to the story. In addition to lots of character-based sub-plots, the novel’s characters also satirise things like cults of personality, the greedier elements of new age stuff, authority, conspiracy theories etc… too.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, the characters are sometimes used as a source of horror too (eg: Gary, Celine etc..). Likewise, the decision not to give much characterisation to the captain or cruise director also helps to create a chilling feeling that they don’t care about the passengers or crew.

In terms of the writing, it’s really good 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving, but also descriptive enough to add lots of atmosphere. The story also occasionally includes things like blog entries, news articles and interview transcripts – which allow it all of the advantages of first-person narration, but with none of the confusion that comes from directly including first-person narration in a third-person story 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 340 pages in length, the story feels neither too long nor too short. The novel’s pacing is fairly interesting too, since the novel starts out fairly moderately-paced and then very gradually gets faster and faster, culminating in lots of one-page chapters. But, after this, the novel’s pacing suddenly slows down for the final forty pages. Although this change in pace may be a little annoying at first, it gives the reader time to think about the brain-twisting denouement.

All in all, this is a brilliantly creepy horror novel 🙂 If you want an unsettling, atmospheric and well-written modern ghost story that also includes hints of dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction too, then this one is worth taking a look at.

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

Review: “The Skull” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, since I was still dealing with the tail end of a cold and because I was in a bit of an unsettled mood after the previous horror novel that I read, I thought “What I need is a nice, relaxing Shaun Hutson novel“. And, after looking through my bookshelves, I found my copy of Hutson’s 1982 horror novel “The Skull” and decided to re-read it.

This was a novel that I first read on a summer holiday in Cornwall when I was about fifteen. If I remember rightly, I’d read somewhere that “The Skull” was one of Hutson’s earlier books that wasn’t reprinted very often (when compared to his other horror novels). And, naturally, I was absolutely overjoyed when I randomly stumbled across a second-hand copy of it in a bookshop back then.

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

This is the 1999 Pan Books (UK) paperback reprint of “The Skull” that I read.

The novel is set in the Derbyshire village of Lockston, which has been cut off by ten days of solid rain. Early one morning, chartered surveyor Nick Regan gets a call from the building site and rushes over there. Thanks to the rain, the ground is too waterlogged for work to continue – so, Regan sends the crew home for the day. Needless to say, this doesn’t go down well with Regan’s boss who, from the cosy comfort of his office, decrees that work on the planned luxury hotel must continue.

Meanwhile, Regan’s wife Chrissie takes a school group on an archaeology trip. The children discover a mysterious buried bottle, which Chrissie takes back to the local museum for further study. Chrissie’s boss, Peterson, dates the bottle to 1650 and decides to try opening it. When he does, everyone in the room hears screaming and glimpses a mysterious face.

The next day, there is an accident at the rain-sodden building site. A JCB falls into some kind of sinkhole. When Regan and a couple of the other workers go down to inspect the damage, they find an underground cave system. Regan also finds a strange half-buried skull and decides to take it to the museum to see if they can work out what species it belongs to.

During an inspection of the skull at the museum, it’s jaws suddenly snap shut and injure an assistant called Swan. The wound quickly becomes hideously infected and Swan is rushed to hospital. Meanwhile, skin has started to grow on the skull…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is “so bad that it is good” in the best possible way 🙂 It is a gloriously cheesy, brilliantly silly and thoroughly fun monster story that was an absolute joy to read. If you’re a fan of horror parody TV shows like “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace“, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this novel. This is cheesy low-budget ’80s horror fiction at it’s pulpiest best 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the horror elements of this novel. Although it isn’t that frightening, it contains a really compelling mixture of ominous suspense, scientific/medical horror, occult horror, body horror, monster horror and, of course, Shaun Hutson’s usual ultra-gory splatterpunk horror. Unlike some of Hutson’s other novels, this one actually starts out as a relatively bloodless story and then becomes more and more grisly as it progresses.

Another cool horror-related element of this book is a sneaky reference to James Herbert’s “The Rats” later in the book: ‘Rush trotted out a story about giant rats being sighted‘. Although, given the rural setting, it could be a reference to Herbert’s 1979 sequel “Lair” instead.

Interestingly, like with Hutson’s “Erebus“, this novel is as much of a thriller novel as a horror novel. It contains lots of mystery and ominous suspense, some dramatic monster encounters and a couple of wonderfully badass moments (Viking battle axe, anyone?). It also has a rather fast-paced thriller-like structure too. Plus, just like “Erebus”, it is set in a wonderfully gloomy and rainy rural village too – seriously, I absolutely love these kinds of atmospheric locations 🙂

Although it isn’t focused on outside of the earlier chapters, one interesting theme in this book is the contrast between the experienced construction workers and their snobbish, upper-class bosses. Yet, unlike the cynical anti-establishment satire in Hutson’s “Erebus”, the police in this novel are actually shown to be sympathetic and vaguely competent characters.

In terms of the characters, there isn’t a giant amount of ultra-deep characterisation but there is enough characterisation and backstory to make you care about the characters. Likewise, Hutson also does the classic splatterpunk thing of introducing a new character, giving them a couple of pages of detailed characterisation and then bumping them off in a grisly way.

In terms of the writing, it is unintentional comedy at it’s best 🙂 This novel was one of Hutson’s earlier novels and it shows. The novel’s third-person narration is this glorious mixture of fast-paced “matter of fact” descriptions and some of the funniest purple prose and most random similes you’ll ever read.

To give you one hilarious example, a 19th century manuscript is described thusly: ‘The writing was jagged like the teeth of a badger‘. Plus, even at this early stage in his career, there are a few classic Hutsonisms like “mucoid”, “putrescent” and blood being described as “coppery” too 🙂 Seriously, if you’re a fan of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”, you need to read this book!

However, I have to criticise the editor/publisher of this edition of the book. Despite being a book by a British author that is both set in Britain and reprinted in Britain, the 1999 UK edition of “The Skull” uses US spellings for some bizarre reason. Whilst I don’t usually care about this sort of thing, the US spellings just seem ridiculously out of place in a Shaun Hutson novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 324 pages (with relatively large print), this novel doesn’t feel too long. Likewise, it is written in a reasonably fast-paced way and structured a bit like a thriller too, which helps to keep the story moving at a decent pace. Whilst it isn’t quite as fast-paced as Hutson’s “Erebus”, it’s still a surprisingly quick and compelling read.

In terms of how this thirty-seven year old book has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well. Although this novel is a bit “politically incorrect” in some places, the general attitude of the book isn’t as dated as you might think (eg: it takes a critical attitude towards various forms of bullying, assault etc.. Albeit in a more subtle way than modern writers would). Likewise, although the settings and characters are very 80s, this just gives the book a wonderfully retro atmosphere. Not to mention that the underlying story is still just as suspenseful and compelling as ever too 🙂

All in all, this is an incredibly fun “so bad that it’s good” 1980s monster novel 🙂 It’s an early work by a writer who, a mere two years later, would release the zombie vampire masterpiece that is “Erebus”. Plus, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, if you’re a fan of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”, then you need to read this book.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four. It’s “so bad that it’s good”.

Review: “Sunglasses After Dark” By Nancy A. Collins (Novel)

Well, after I finished reading Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger” a couple of weeks ago, I was in the mood for another 1980s vampire novel. After a bit of searching online, I ended up learning about a vampire novel from 1989 called “Sunglasses After Dark” by Nancy A. Collins.

Although I’d originally planned to get the hardback version (due to the cool cover art), I happened to find a second-hand omnibus of the first three novels in the series. Although I’m terrible when it comes to actually finishing omnibuses, the cover art had a wonderfully ’90s look to it that reminded me of the cover art for Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics.

However, I should probably point out that I had something of a cold when I read this novel, which slowed me down a bit and put me in a bit of a miserable/cynical mood. So, it is probably worth bearing this in mind when reading this review.

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

This is the 1995 White Wolf (US) paperback omnibus which contained the version of “Sunglasses After Dark” that I read.

The novel begins in a mental hospital called Elysian Fields. An orderly called Claude is guarding the “danger ward”, which has been more chaotic than usual ever since a mysterious new patient arrived. A strange woman who gives the other patients nightmares and has even bitten the neck of another staff member.

From inside a padded cell, Sonja Blue waits for her body to process the sedatives that the doctors have given her. When her body regains its strength, she breaks out of the cell and goes off in search of revenge.

During Sonja’s escape, Claude has a mysterious vision of a woman called Denise Thorne. And, after Claude is fired from the hospital for letting Sonja escape, he decides to search for her…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, despite some structural/pacing problems and a much darker emotional tone than I’d expected, this novel does have some rather cool moments. In essence, this is a short novel that would have been so much better as a novella or even an extended short story. Even so, it’s cool to see a “badass anti-hero” vampire novel from as early as the late 1980s.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they were a lot more extreme than I’d expected. Whilst this novel contains the usual gory horror, suspense and paranormal horror that you would expect from a vampire thriller, there’s also a disturbingly large amount of emphasis on psychological horror, taboo-based horror, sexual horror/violence and sadistic cruelty.

In essence, this novel is perhaps too disturbing for something that looks like a fun gothic vampire thriller at first glance. Seriously, there is a lot of very dark subject matter in this novel and it will catch you by surprise if you were expecting a vampire thriller in the style of Jocelynn Drake, Laurell K. Hamilton etc… Plus, even when compared to the classic splatterpunk authors of the 1980s, this book is still very much on the “edgy” side of things.

In terms of the novel’s paranormal elements and depiction of vampirism, it is fairly innovative. In addition to being partially or wholly possessed by demonic entities, the novel’s vampires can also feed off of negative emotions, they can walk in sunlight/eat garlic/touch crosses, everyone they bite can turn into a vampire, they can use psychic powers and – like zombies- can only be killed by destroying their brains. In fact, there’s an interesting cross-over with the zombie genre here, since if a vampire turns several days after it’s host dies, then it becomes a zombie-like creature.

Likewise, there are a few other paranormal characters in this novel too – including a surprisingly creepy ogre, various types of angels & demons and psychic humans. In addition to this, there is the usual “secret paranormal world” thing in this novel too. But, although this novel is probably slightly more of a horror novel than an urban fantasy novel, these fantastical elements help to add a bit more mystery and drama to the story.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, this novel can be a really good thriller when it wants to be. The story starts out with a really mysterious and gripping plot but, just when it is really starting to get gripping, the novel then suddenly devotes about sixty pages or so to flashbacks showing Sonja’s grim, harsh and depressing backstory.

Although this giant backstory segment contains some fast-paced moments and an interesting range of locations (eg: London, Paris, Japan, Hong Kong etc..), it distracts from the more compelling main plot. Not only that, there is next to no suspense in this segment, since you’ll already know who survives and who doesn’t thanks to the earlier parts of the novel. Still, the later parts of the novel become a lot more thrilling and fast-paced when the story picks up the main plot again.

In terms of the characters, there is a fairly interesting cast of main characters. However, as mentioned earlier, there is perhaps too much characterisation in this story (to the point where it distracts from the main plot). Although Sonja is a pretty dramatic “badass anti-hero” character who also struggles with the demonic creature attached to her soul, this novel’s approach to characterisation/backstory mostly consists of filling the protagonist and antagonist’s backstories with pretty much every depressing real world horror you can think of.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s narration is slightly more fast-paced and “matter of fact” than most other 1980s horror novels I’ve read. Even so, the novel uses a slightly annoying mixture of third and first-person narration (in addition to things like interview transcripts etc..). Although you’ll probably get used to this after a while and it does help to add a feeling of unreliable narration to the story, this novel would have been more readable with a fixed first or third-person perspective.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel isn’t as good as it initially seems. Although this novel is a reassuringly slender 185 pages long in the large omnibus that I read, it seems like the kind of story that would be better as a novella or a short story. As I’ve mentioned before, the giant backstory segment really distracts from what is otherwise a rather gripping and fast-paced thriller novel.

In terms of how this thirty-year old novel has aged, it has aged fairly well. Although there are a few uses of dated language, the novel almost reads like something that could have been written today. The only real clue that this is an older novel is the 1990s-style focus on being as “dark and edgy” as possible. Still, for a novel from the late 1980s, it is at least slightly ahead of it’s time.

All in all, whilst this novel has some cool moments, the story’s pacing would be so much better if it was a novella or a short story. Likewise, don’t go into this story expecting a fun vampire thriller. This is an extremely “dark and edgy” novel that will probably cause even experienced readers of horror fiction to recoil in revulsion at least a few times. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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