November 23, 2014
Humour and horror might seem unlikely bedfellows, but it’s a combination that can be scarily effective in the right hands. Lynne Truss is best known for her comic forays into grammar though she used to write novels. Cat Out of Hell, her first in 15 years, is the latest entry in the Hammer imprint series and it’s a hoot, as well as being genuinely eerie. Alec is grieving for his wife, a fellow librarian, when he’s drawn into a feline conspiracy connected to their library’s collection of occult material belonging to the sinister John Seeward. He committed suicide in the Sixties in the grounds of his stately home, but this diabolist’s power in the mastery of moggies lives on with his disciples.
What might seem silly ends up as a minor comic masterpiece thanks to the tricksy, self-aware structure of Alec’s story, Truss’s imaginative and grisly mythology for felines, and a talking cat called Roger. We know Roger’s smart – he even got to grips with Greek ferry timetables – but he might also be dangerous. Then there’s the threat from a shadowy black cat known as The Captain, who mentored Roger in the art of immortality, and the Grand Cat Master himself (appointed by Beelzebub). Fortunately, Alec has his faithful companion Watson, a dog he addresses with dialogue from the Sherlock Holmes stories. (“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” he says when the dirty dog returns from digging in the garden). The showdown at Harville Manor is straight out of Dennis Wheatley – with a dash of PG Wodehouse. For anyone who’s wondered what their cat is actually thinking, Lynne Truss has come up with some hilarious and horrible speculation.
June 14, 2014
Robert Aickman is another contender for the best writer you’ve never heard of, so his centenary (on 27 June) is a perfect moment to sample his ‘strange stories’. Tartarus Press has done valiant work in keeping Aickman in print by publishing handsome hardback editions, and now Faber & Faber is reissuing several paperback collections this summer and a couple of rare novels. His debut collection, Dark Entries, is available now and includes an insightful biographical essay from Ramsey Campbell, Britain’s premier horror author and a friend of Aickman.
Cold Hand in Mine, re-published on 3 July, is the 1975 collection that made his name and includes the award-winning Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal. This cultish author’s admirers include Neil Gaiman; The League of Gentleman’s Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson and Reece Shearsmith; and bibliophile Barry Humphries, who wrote that Aickman’s fiction “…captures the very texture of a bad dream which may start, as such dreams do, beguilingly; until the dreamer (and reader) feels the first presentiment of encroaching nightmare – and cannot wake.” Look out for further collections The Wine-Dark Sea (August) and The Unsettled Dust (September) as well as novels The Model and The Late Breakfasters this month in the Faber Finds series.
February 20, 2014
40th anniversary – spring 2014
The nation’s bookshops have been infested with literary rodents for four decades. The Rats was a horrible hit for James Herbert (read our tribute to the master of modern British horror here) in 1974 and beyond. The book has remained in print and publisher Pan Macmillian will issue a 40th anniversary edition in the spring.
When Herbert’s story about giant, murderous rodents with razor-sharp teeth first appeared, its detractors included a young Martin Amis, who reviewed it for The Observer. Admittedly, The Rats is a fundamentally silly and under-developed novel, but when you read it today its anger at complacent authority feels genuine. Herbert was an East End boy made good (he became the art director of an advertising agency), so he knew the appalling post-war conditions that had never really been addressed: poor housing, dystopian tower blocks, casual violence – and vermin.
Herbert’s horror was a gory rejection of the ghost story and the snobbish novels of satanic terror by Dennis Wheatley, as well as being admirably unsentimental: his rodents nibbled at everyone regardless of class, gender, age or colour. (Stephen King also shook up the genre with his debut, Carrie, in 1974). The popularity of The Rats dovetailed with the rise of punk and they both provided a small shock to the establishment. There’s a strong sense of discontent, industrial unrest and government incompetence in Herbert’s depiction of the Seventies. He went on to write better books (Fluke, The Magic Cottage, Sepulchre), but The Rats still packs a punch. Once you’ve read the horrific scene in the Underground, you won’t be able to descend into London Bridge again without looking out for a dirty rat.
November 3, 2013
Given the trend for profitable literary sequels – the oddest of which has to be a follow-up to The Woman in Black that isn’t written by Susan Hill – the watchful reader approaches Doctor Sleep with caution. At least Stephen King’s penned his own sequel to The Shining, his 1977 novel about a booze-soaked family nightmare among the ghostly guests in the Overlook Hotel that is perhaps his most terrifying and affecting book.
Still smarting from the movie version 33 years on, King reclaims the characters for his sequel. Quite right, too, because Stanley Kubrick’s butchery (in every sense) of Dick Hallorann, a key character in the book, was unforgivable. So it was heartening to encounter the Overlook chef, who shared the young Danny Torrance’s psychic abilities, in the first few pages of Doctor Sleep. The familiar King tropes are also present and correct: an astute portrayal of small town America, an old-fashioned notion of good and evil, and the terrors of childhood playing out in grown-ups. For Torrance, that fear is accentuated by the gift of the Shining – he sees ghosts, as well as flies on the faces of those stalked by death – and it’s led him into alcoholism just like his father.
King draws on his own experience of Alcoholics Anonymous and he’s good on the psychological baggage sons inherit from fathers. Most of all, he’s a master of terror – both subtle chills and all-consuming horror – as he pits Dan and a psychic schoolgirl protégé against a community of peripatetic vampires who feed off the essence of dying children touched by the Shining. There are pleasing allusions to another King classic and even his son Joe Hill’s latest novel, NOS4R2; plenty of revelations for fans of the original; and there’s a cat that may have a touch of the Shining too. Every good horror novel needs a cat. And Doctor Sleep is a very good horror novel indeed – perhaps King’s finest work in the genre since Misery.
March 21, 2013
It was just six months ago that I was watching James Herbert talking animatedly with his readers at a bookshop event, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s close at hand and his family enjoying the outing as much as the author, so it’s sad news to hear of his sudden death at home in Sussex at the age of 69. Apart from a curvature of the spine that meant he needed to walk with a stick (he blamed it on decades of writing novels with a pen), he seemed in reasonable health and was relishing the discussion of his latest novel Ash – out in paperback this week – which is as wild and shocking as any of his books from a 40-year career. The audience had to keep shushing Herbert as he excitedly revealed the diabolical plot details involving the royal family (an OBE in 2010 hadn’t made him entirely respectable).
James Herbert – or ‘Jim’ as this working class, East End boy was known – was an unliterary figure; he could hardly be anything else given the subject matter of his gruesome novels. But while the horror genre has faded Herbert’s work endures, in large part because he was a great storyteller rooted in the contemporary who kept you coming back for more with overwhelmingly terrifying visions and truly evil monsters, rather than cheap scares. The grisly scenes from The Rats, The Fog and The Magic Cottage were discussed feverishly by schoolboys; Sepulchre’s outlandish tale of sacrifices to a serpent god was so intoxicating and horrifying, I remember not bothering going to school that day.
From his 1974 debut The Rats, Herbert seemed to have a horrible gift for tapping into our deepest fears with visceral prose, and his advertising background undoubtedly helped him become Britain’s premier horror author. He designed his own book covers and forced his publisher to pulp a print run of one title because he hated the font. Pan Macmillan said his 23 books have been translated into 33 languages and sold 54 million copies; in sales terms, only Stephen King can rival this grand master of horror. Perhaps my favourite Herbert is Fluke: the story of a dog who thinks he’s a man, or a man who thinks he’s a dog. It isn’t horror but it’s as gripping as any of his chillers – and it’s a book with which Herbert will live on as one of our most popular authors.
March 14, 2013
Now in paperback – £7.99
She turned her hand to science fiction in The Stone Gods a few years ago and now Jeanette Winterson has embraced horror in this devastating short novel about the Pendle witch trials. Winterson was commissioned by the publishing imprint of Hammer Films to portray the brutality and bigotry unleashed against women and Catholics in Lancashire in 1612, when witchcraft and popery were twin evils in the eyes of King James I.
Winterson’s fans and horror aficionados alike will enjoy this humane and at times shocking story, an unflinching portrait of the suffering and indignity meted out to a family whose poverty and disregard for authority make them easy targets. She heightens the horror by depicting the diabolical in a gripping imagined version of events featuring witchcraft, animal familiars and paranormal visions, as well as a love triangle with human souls at stake. Winterson focuses on the strangely youthful widow Alice Nutter, though her short novel has several memorable characters and she boldly works familiar names into the story, including Shakespeare and the occultist and mathematician Dr John Dee. The Daylight Gate is an unremitting, elegantly crafted tale written in a spare prose style that will haunt you – at least until you pick it up and read it again.
February 28, 2013
Novels depicting cities tend towards prolixity – Edward Rutherfurd’s doorstop volumes are intimidating me from the Riverside shelves as I write this – but Sam Thompson’s debut is a perfectly formed narrative that relies on its idiosyncratic characters: you wander the streets in their shoes rather than having to swallow endless descriptions of historical buildings and byways. Thompson’s unnamed, imaginary city (Communion Town is just one of its districts) leaves you both mystified and awestruck over the course of 10 ‘chapters’; it’s not really a novel, though it did make the Man Booker Prize longlist, presumably because the writing was just too good to ignore.
There are loosely connected stories of odd couples, unequal friendships and isolated workers whose frailties are exposed by the city’s indifference. Communion Town is speculative rather than realist fiction and there’s a haunting, recurring image of the flâneur that lends a dream-like quality to the prose. Thompson’s trump card is his magpie approach to genre including Chandler-esque detective fiction, a Sherlock Holmes style adventure with a metaphysical twist, and the sort of visionary horror that Arthur Machen employed to turn London into a sinister dreamscape. Communion Town is a book that will benefit from repeated readings: each time you pick it up, the imaginary streets will feel as alive with possibility and strangeness as our own metropolis.
February 18, 2013
With a 50-year career that takes in novels, short stories, young adult fiction, poetry, reviews, and edited anthologies as well as book-length memoirs and essays ranging from widowhood to boxing, keeping up with the astonishing literary output of Joyce Carol Oates is a job of work. But it’s an occupation that never feels like a chore, such is the emotional pull of her prose and the thrilling sense of dread in her stories.
Her latest collection – though another one will probably turn up any minute – is lyrical, elegant and shocking in a way you might not anticipate from such an admired woman of letters. The novella that gives the book its title is the case of a missing girl told from multiple perspectives in which Oates adroitly pairs adult emotions of guilt, regret and loss with an adolescent rage that threatens to explode into ritual killing. There’s also a brace of tales about evil twins, a devastating story about a jealous sibling and a breathless account of a plastic surgeon losing his grip – literally – that’s just plain nasty. Edgar Allan Poe is clearly a lifelong influence on Oates’s intricate, intoxicating horror. Once you wander in, the temptation to lose yourself in her literary backlist may be hard to resist.
October 19, 2012
Jeremy Dyson’s The Haunted Book – an account of real-life ghost-hunting from the member of the League of Gentleman – is the latest volume out in time for Halloween. Our other flesh-creeping picks include Susan Hill’s new ghost story, Dolly, and a fresh edition of The Mist in the Mirror; an anthology of the macabre compiled by Roald Dahl; and disturbing new novels by Helen Dunmore (The Greatcoat) and Jeanette Winterson (The Daylight Gate) commissioned by the publishing imprint of Hammer Films. There’s also John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Old Dreams Die, a short story collection from this Swedish sensation that includes the moving sequel to his astonishing vampire novel, Let the Right One In. (Ask nicely, and we might even give you a free World Book Night edition of Let the Right One In.)
A perfect ghost story is as much about psychology as the supernatural. From the solitary scholars in M. R. James’s peerless tales (available in a Penguin Classics edition) to Susan Hill’s orphans and widowers, ghost story victims are already haunted by loss or loneliness. By allowing our imagination to complete the nightmare, a ghostly tale is often more effective than a TV or film adaptation. Read James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall and judge for yourself whether the BBC’s new adaptation of the novel – due to air in November – matches the master for sadistic terror.