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Books of 2015

I haven’t posted in a while. For that I’m sorry. There are numerous reasons but none are particularly interesting and far too personal to post here.

Boo-hoo, let’s talk fiction instead, eh?

I’ve read some magnificent books published during 2015 (52 in all) but want to soliloquise about just three stand outs. To be honest, there’s not a lot of books I’ve actively disliked bar the odd one or two; most books I read, I stay with for the duration, some I’ll put down, already cracking  the spine of the next without much of a look back, however, these are the ones that have stayed, that invoke a warm feeling just by thinking of them; these are the ones I know I’ll read again.

The Loney‘ by Andrew Michael Hurley. This was one that I genuinely can’t wait to read again, one that as soon as I’d finished, wanted more by the same author and bugged everyone I knew to read it.

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Its setting is almost a place close to where I called home for 10 years of my life, between Morecambe Bay and the City of Lancaster (I like to think of it as set in a fictionalised version of Heysham). Only those who’ve lived on that stretch of the North West coast know how bleak it can get out there; almost Lovecraftian in its desolation and sense of brooding menace. Hurley has captured the very essence of the place with a stark beauty which he deserves every one of you reading right now to go pick up a copy for yourselves.

A nameless narrator is looking back at a sort of family pilgrimage in the late 70s to this part of Lancashire, specifically a shrine near a stretch of beach known as ‘The Loney’ to cure his older sibling ‘Hanny’ of some form of learning difficulties. The brothers stay at a house known as Moorings, with its sinister hidden room, accompanied by his parents, another two couples and the replacement parish priest for their old parishioner Father Wilfred, Father Bernard, who, in the narrator’s mother’s eyes will never be able to live up to his predecessor . Already the dynamic of the group is tumultuous, its saving grace being the inseparable bond between the narrator and his brother.

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(*Pic – Heysham ‘Barrows’)

We know, as readers that Hanny’s miracle cure is simply not going to happen and we are caught in the quintessential and archaic Englishness of acting ‘proper’ and in times of grief and loss, leaving things unsaid.

The Catholic tunnel-vision of the narrator’s parents and the awkwardness of the gentle outsider, Father Bernard in contrast to the narrator’s burgeoning puberty, builds in you a terrible inevitability that nothing of this is going to end well. (Indeed, the Church group where the visitors to the Loney have come from is that of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes!)

The darkness of the novel increases as the two brothers meet the child of a nearby couple, the same age as the brothers, but pregnant. There is something terrible going on here.

The Loney’s power is its subject matter; it  is about the things left unsaid, blind faith, hope, the secrets; why Hanny’s mother cannot come to terms with the fact her son is the way he is, why the locals insist on playing grim pranks on the pilgrims and the terrible reason why Father Wilfred changed so dramatically and was eventually replaced.

The horror in The Loney is a brooding, silent one; the horror of loss, of faith and of hope. The writing itself is exquisite and fully deserves its plaudits as ‘a Gothic masterpiece’ and Costa début novel of the year award.

 

We Are Not Ourselves‘ by Matthew Thomas

This one, I was not expecting to like as much as I did; 10 years in the writing, it is the life saga of Irish-American Eileen Tumulty, set in Queens, New York; her childhood, her marriage, the birth of her son and her husband’s steady descent into the horror of Alzheimer’s.

I found myself telling myself I was not particularly enamoured with this novel and that I would put it down soon. Suddenly I was half way through and could not put it down. I found the hours dissolved in what seemed like moments as I joined the Tumulty family’s journey through their mostly ordinary life. This is perhaps what coaxed me in; the struggles of the Tumultys are authentic and believable and that’s what I think makes this such an endearing novel. Rather than great life-affirming leaps, the life of the Tumultys is about real struggles; the financial struggles, the pursuit of a better life and  slow burn realization of the Alzheimer’s that, before you know it, buckles the family beyond repair.

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I would draw comparison to We Are Not Ourselves with John Williams’ obscure 1965 novel ‘Stoner’ which I was given as a present and changed intrinsically me as both a reader and a writer. We Are Not Ourselves shares in much with Stoner in its unassuming prose, its steady pace thematically; the daily grind of disappointment, the treatment of hope as a rare and fleeting creature and a life where victories are few.

I stepped outside my comfort zone to read both of these novels and feel like I have learned more for doing so.

 

A Head Full of Ghosts‘ by Paul Tremblay

Lastly, I want to heap praise on a horror that deals with one of the genre’s more unconquerable tropes – demon possession. To my limited knowledge, there are few novels that have done the subject justice and I would be so bold to say that nothing, that I’ve read anyway, comes close to Blatty’s The Exorcist, a book that I am actually too scared of to read again.

Tremblay’s novel plays the theme in a smart and contemporary way- using the retrospective narrative of a reality television show ‘Posession’ that dealt with the apparent demon possession of a 14 year old girl.

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The story is told from several narrative perspectives ;  posess-ee (Merry)’s younger sibling, fifteen years later and from her POV as a child. The final part as blog posts from a horror blogger known as ‘The Last Girl Online’ who offers a critique of the ‘Possession’ reality show.

This book wears its influences  unashamedly on its sleeve and all the better for it; the presence of the film crew in the Barrett family’s home cast me back to Playfair’s ‘This House is Haunted‘  and there are huge references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic tale of insanity ‘The Yellow Wallpaper‘. For me, I like an author to give salutations and there are several mentions of other books that the Tremblay clearly admires, such as Sara Gran’s magnificent ‘Come Closer‘ and Mark Z Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves‘ – two of my personal favourites. Aside from this, there are real scares to be had in the novel. The posession of Marjorie Barrett manifests itself with an overt crawling horror that gets under your skin, using suspense in place of gore or schlock.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, Merry. Only my bones want to grow through my skin like the growing things and pierce the world.”

Ick.

A Head Full of Ghosts breaks no new boundaries yet it delivers in the sense that it’s a very well written book about a very interesting subject. Tremblay poses the question that is skirted around in many stories of possession, whether it is a religious framing of mental illness?

Why this book stuck with me ultimately is because it took me back to a book that unutterably changed my life and cemented my desire to read and write everything I could concerning the dark side of fiction.

So that’ll be my next blog post (promise it won’t take so long this time, all two of you) and I’ll be back talking about a book that changed my life…

Del-Del by Victor Kelleher.

 

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The Books That Shaped My Life: Guest Post – MR Carey

It gives me great pleasure to introduce the following guest post and give salutation to an undoubted plethora of new visitors to the blog. (Beyond the guest posts, there’s a veritable wasteland of disappointment and mediocrity for you to explore.).

Today’s guest post is from a writer whose novel made my ‘Books of 2014‘ and if that’s not a ringing endorsement of quality, well, I don’t know what is…

Mike Carey is a screenwriter, novelist and comic book writer.  He wrote the movie adaptation for his novel The Girl With All the Gifts, currently in production.  He has worked extensively in the field of comic books, completing long and critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His comic book series The Unwritten has featured repeatedly in the New York Times’ graphic novel bestseller list. He is also the writer of the Felix Castor novels, and (along with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise) of two fantasy novels, The City Of Silk and Steel and The House Of War and Witness, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz.  His next novel, to be published in April 2016, is Fellside, a ghost story set in a women’s prison.

The Books That Shaped My Life: MR Carey

The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

My memories of the first few years of my life are incomplete and jumbled, which I imagine is true for almost everyone, but a few of them stand out.  I remember becoming acquainted with Enid Blyton through a tiny book in landscape format in which some tiny pixies find a shilling that has fallen out of someone’s pocket.  They bring it back to their hedgerow village on a cart pulled by ladybirds, because to them the lost coin is as big as one of the stonehenge trilithons.  Then the pixies have an animated argument about what to do with the treasure trove before deciding that the only honest course of action is to give is back.

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I loved this little story, and I read and re-read the book until it fell apart.  It had the same kind of appeal that many of the Pixar movies have for kids today: it opened up a new world in a place where you didn’t imagine a world could exist, and it led you into it in a way that was immersive and enthralling.

I should explain that books weren’t really a thing in our house.  This was before the net book agreement was abolished, so by and large they were an expensive luxury item.  Children’s books, though, existed in a lot of pocket-money formats, affordable even to us, and of course there were comic books.  I got the fiction habit at a very early age.

But it wasn’t until I went to school that I was exposed to what in my opinion are Blyton’s two masterworks – the Magic Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree.  I read them in that order, and I was a fervent worshipper of the chair until I met the tree.  Then I became a heretic.  The Faraway Tree stories were as good as it could possibly get, and there were of them (four books to the Wishing Chair’s two).

Blyton’s style is penny plain at best.  She doesn’t do description, or realistic dialogue.  She doesn’t even do character, beyond a few superficial strokes so you can keep her child heroes distinct from each other in your head.  What made those stories so compelling for me was the profligate imagination that filled every page.

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The Faraway Tree is a real tree that stands in a wood.  An enchanted wood.  It’s so tall and thick that its top reaches the clouds, and through some magical chicanery the upper branches extend into other worlds.  If you climb the tree you’ll find yourself in a magical land very different from the mundane world you just left.  And these lands are always changing.  There’s a new one every day or every few days.  The Land of Do-As-You-Please will be replaced by the land of Topsy-Turvy.  Then the Land of Giants, or the Land of Know-Alls.

You can explore these weird worlds to your heart’s content, so long as you get back to the tree before the magic kicks in again.  If you’re even a few seconds late the world will have moved on, bringing the next land to the top of the tree.  That means you can’t climb down again until the mysterious cycle completes itself and the land returns to the top of the tree, which might be years.

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That’s already a recipe for some serious juvenile fantasy riffs, but Blyton didn’t stop there.  She also gave the tree a population of its own, a group of weirdos and eccentrics who befriend the child protagonists and sometimes come along on their adventures.  There’s a fairy named Silky; Moonface, whose name describes him with complete accuracy; the Saucepan Man, who wears a vast number of pots and pans tied to his body with strings and has been driven deaf by their clattering; the amnesiac Mr Watzisname, the angry pixie, Dame Wash-a-Lot…  The list goes on.

I’ll say it again, because it bears repeating: these stories are not well written.  But there’s a kind of brilliance to them all the same and they kept me coming back for more for a very long time.  Blyton was a China Miéville for the kids of the 60s, putting a dozen novels’ worth of ideas into a single book.

She was also, for me, a gateway drug.  Her books got me hooked on fantasy before I’d ever even heard that word.  They left me with a life-long hunger for stories that will give me a similar mythopoeic hit.  From Blyton I went on to Moorcock, Zelazny, Peake, Asimov, Brunner and a hundred others.  The vector I’m still on today, as a reader and as a writer, came from those early experiences with her works.

Okay, that’s the encomium all done and dusted.  But I’d feel remiss if I didn’t have a little bitch, while I’m here, about the way Blyton’s literary legacy is being curated.

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She was an incredibly prolific author.  Her bibliography runs to over 700 entries.  Some of these were tiny, of course, with a word count measured in the hundreds.  But they sold in the hundreds of millions, making her one of the most popular and successful children’s authors of all time.  Her work and adapations of her work are still being read, watched and listened to by tens of millions of kids the whole world over.  Noddy is still out there, as are the Famous Five.  The BBC has turned both the Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree into animated series, and so on.

But since her death she’s come in for some criticism from a lot of quarters.  The Noddy books featured gollywogs, who were invariably naughty and unruly.  In another story she wrote about a doll, Sambo, who is hated and shunned because of his “ugly black face”.  Her female characters (for the most part) defer to the boys around them with Stepford-like acquiescence.  The villains in the Famous Five books are often gypsies or foreigners, because we know what those people are like, right?

These criticisms are well grounded.  There’s a lot there for a modern reader to deplore.  But the response of Blyton’s estate and her publishers dismays me.  They’ve subjected the books to endless and relentless bowdlerisation, dismantling and rebuilding them at a cellular level.

The gollywogs are gone, which is perhaps the least controversial change – although replacing them with goblins seems to me to leave the underlying racism intact.  It’s really not hard to see through the metaphor, which still carries the moral that some beings are more human than others.

More disturbingly, the language has been altered.  Sometimes words and phrases are updated so that the obsolete cultural references won’t baffle a modern reader.  “Swotter” becomes “bookworm”, “school tunic” becomes uniform, “tinker” becomes “traveller”.  Adjectives and adverbs get a similar makeover, with “peculiar” and “queer” both being amended to “strange” and “jolly” (as in “jolly lonely” or “jolly decent”) disappearing altogether.

Along with these relics, anything that could provide ammunition for a double entendre goes too.  “Queer” was destined for the chop on both counts, obviously.  When Noddy falls into a thorn bush he no longer complains about the bothersome pricks.  And character names such as Dick, Connie and Fanny are replaced with more anodyne alternatives.

The bowdlerisation doesn’t stop there.  All references to corporal punishment have been seamlessly excised.  Slapping and spanking of children was commplace in Blyton’s time and she included it in many of her stories.  Now it’s thankfully illegal, and nobody sane would want that decision reversed.  But it doesn’t strike me as a good strategy to pretend it never happened.  I mean, bearing in mind that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, et cetera.  So it’s strange and dispiriting to see changes like this one.  In the book Claudine at St Clare’s, Carlotta the wild girl has an altercation with Angela which goes like this:-

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“If I wasn’t in the fourth form I’d give you the hardest spanking you’ve ever had in your life, Angela. A good spanking would be the best thing you could have.” 


“Nobody has ever laid a finger on me in my life.”

Only now it goes like this:-
“If I wasn’t in the fourth form I’d give you the biggest scolding you’ve ever had in your life, Angela. A good scolding would be the best thing you could have.”

“Nobody has ever raised their voice to me in my life.”

The modern version is equal parts banality and bathos.  In taking out the offensive reference the editors have filleted the entire scene.

In the Faraway Tree stories there’s a character named Dame Slap.  She runs a school for naughty pixies, and her name indicates exactly the kind of treatment her errant pupils can expect from her.  In the modame slap 2st recent edition she has mysteriously mutated to Dame Snap, and she only ever administers intense telling-offs.

I can see exactly the kind of commercial imperatives that have led to these decisions being taken.  They keep Blyton’s books alive as profitable franchises, unchallenging and uncontroversial to a fault.

But – to draw a tendentious parallel – nobody would do this to Dickens or Tolstoy.  It’s because Blyton wrote genre fiction, and children’s fiction, that reworking on this scale seemed legitimate rather than outrageous.

Well, and it’s also because there’s a shedload of money to be made here, which makes Blyton a very different proposition from Dickens and Tolstoy (at least in book format).  The books are the property of the estate, the final decision rests with Blyton’s lineal descendants, and they’ve got to eat the same way everyone else has to.  I get all that.

But would it be feasible, at least, to keep in print a faithful facsimile edition of the original versions?  Or (which would presumably be cheaper and easier) make them available online?  There’s a cultural legacy to be curated here as well as a commercial property.  It’s surely not right that the original works are in many cases completely unavailable while the updated and bowdlerised versions are ubiquitous, with no listing or signposting of the changes that have been made.

A tiny corner of history has been rewritten, and it’s a corner where I used to sit sometimes when I was a kid and read some cool stories.

That makes me sad.

Mike Carey, August 2015


The Books That Shaped My Life: Guest Post by JS Collyer

Finding out what makes fellow writers tick is a constant source of fascination. Reading, as writing, is a very solitary process and in its formative years often shares the same innocence, that same lack of conformity and influence.

in this month’s blog – close personal friend and SF author JS Collyer goes completely against what I asked her for and gives a revealing summary of the most important books and authors that shaped her as she grew into word-spitting space creature she is today. (I’m not having a go here, it’s great!)

If you want to learn more about JS Collyer (and by rights you should, she embraces social media with the same enthusiasm that I endure it like an uncomfortable adolescent in a family photograph) her blog is here, her Twitter is here and she also has a Facebook with the highest concentrate of Star Wars memes on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

She also wrote a novel called Zero which has a sequel coming out soon. You can hurl virtual money in exchange for it just here.

Onward…to infinity! (or whatever it is these space-types say)

The Books that Shaped my Life – JS Collyer

I always find it incredibly interesting when writers share the fiction they enjoy as a reader. Translation is one of my favourite aspects of writing fiction: taking that which inspires you or that which you admire and using it to inform your own process. It helps a writer be as engaged to their own work as they are with the fiction they enjoy reading.
Having been a prolific reader all my life, you might think it would be hard for me to narrow down the works that have most impacted on me as both a reader and writer, but far from it. I know very specifically what fiction has left its mark, because it is those books I remember the most and try and consciously emulate in some shape or form whenever I commit words to page.
If we’re going in chronological order, I’d have to say the very first works of fiction that need to be mentioned are the Narnia Chronicles. Whereas, as I’ve grown, I’ve wandered more toward SciFi than fantasy and fairytale, these have to have a mention because they are stories I return to again and again, even know. The magic, the characters and the rich arc of the all the tales continue to stir something childlike in me from a time when I still believed in magic. 200px-ScholasticNarnia
However as a teenager, I discovered Star Wars and a life-long-love was born. (This was before the new prequels I’d like to add) I devoured every novel that was released set in this universe. I knew every character, location and aspect of the political structures of the galaxy. Yes, I was a totally obsessive nerd, but that was because for me the universe was so rich and full of a magic of its own I couldn’t help but be drawn in. Though I’ve grown apart from the novels in recent years, I still love the films and am eagerly anticipating the new one. And even with the distance of time, my love of those books is the yard stick by which I now measure my interest in things. I’m always on the lookout for something that grabs me so tight that I can’t get away and just have to find out more, like they did.
The loved the sheer scale of the story, as well as the well-realised settings and intriguing characters. It was also where my love of character-driven fiction was born. I love experiencing a story through a character or characters, driven along by their decisions and motivations. I like to live the story with them and my enjoyment of this way of storytelling has led me to try and write the same way.
There were dozens of these novels – I had several bookshelves of them – and they all influenced me. But if I had to choose one in particular, I think I would choose the New Rebellion by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, simply because it was the one I went back to again and again.
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I have, in fact, recently re-bought it to revisit it again, 15 years later.
Next I do feel like I need to drop in the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles, particular the first one, Interview with the Vampire. In my world that until this point had been dominated by lightsabers and spaceships, it was thrilling to discover this dark and decadent world of velvet, destruction and blood. I was hooked from the beginning. They showed me that I love a bit of darkness in my fiction and desire richness alongside everything else. The first book in particular with its melancholy and introspective narrator Louis de Point du Lac confirmed for me that it’s all about character-driven fiction. Still now, my favourite story is the sort that lets you get into the characters’ heads and knowing the story and settings as they know them.
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The last two books I feel have to mention because they too have shaped me as a reader and a writer are both Fantasy series. Yes, I’m a SciFi writer, horror writer on occasion, but I simply have yet to find any SciFi books, or series of books, that inspired me as much as these and made me want to write exactly like them. Star Wars I loved as I say, and started off certain trends in my preferences that I still hold dear, but they were not novels that inspired me with their technical abilities. These series did.
The first series is just two books: Point of Hopes and Point of Dreams by Lisa Barnett & Melissa Scott. The series, sadly, never got any further since Lisa Barnett passed away in 2006. Her writing and life partner, Melissa Scott, did bring out another novella in the series, Point of Knives, very recently. However, I have to say, it wasn’t a patch on the novels she wrote alongside Barnett.
I would go so far as to say these are my favourite books ever. They are not for everyone, mind. They are full-on fantasy: magic metals, gargoyles, spells etc. However, I haven’t before or since encountered the genre used in quite this way or written so well, with such a simple yet effective approach. I think this is why they stuck with me the most: the writers are the best I’ve ever found for use of exposition. They have created the most amazing world in these books, rich in history and magic, but write about every aspect as if it were commonplace, with very little out-and-out explanation. It means to begin with you sometimes have to make a couple of passes to follow what’s going but, but this gives it such a real feel, no matter how far-fetched the object, context or motivation, that the reader is sucked right in to experience it all right alongside the characters.
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Plus, the actual stories are basically whodunnits, the main character being what passes for a police detective in that world, and they are one of my favourite types of story when done well.
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My list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies by Robin Hobb. Hobb is a wonderful writer. She, like Barnett and Scott, creates a world that has magic and dragons but makes it feel real. The stories are character-driven again (sensing a theme here?) so, even though there are magic powers and mystical beasts crawling through the stories, the primary driving force of the plot is the narrator, FitzChivalry Farseer. We live his tumultuous but adventurous as a bastard son of the royal family alongside him and feel his pain and share his victories. It is all about fate and free will, decisions and love, heartbreak and power. The books are, without a doubt, magical, but with a really generous helping of grit and realism, my ultimately favourite combo.
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I have Robin Hobb to thank more than any other author for wanting to become and author myself and for showing me the sort of author I wanted to be. I wanted to take people on a journey like she did with me. She also replied when I wrote to her in Canada (in days before the internet) encouraging me to follow my dream.
Hobb has also just begun releasing a third trilogy in this series too, the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, the first novel of which, Fool’s Assassin is out now and waiting in my book pile for when I am through the half-dozen other novels I am reading at the moment. It pleases me immensely that she is still releasing these novels I love so much and her writing still continues to inspire me.
Narnia birthed my love of stories. Star Wars my love of Scifi. Lisa Barnett, Melissa Scott & Robin Hobb my love of wonderfully written fiction. They are all the reason I am the reader, the writer and probably the person I am today.

The Books That Shaped My Life #2 ‘The Deptford Mice’

‘When a mouse is born, he must fight to survive. There are many enemies…’

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A lot of my formative reading, I remember doing when I was ill in bed. This is probably common for many people and if, like me, you were a kid in the late 80s you didn’t have a TV in your room. (I wasn’t allowed computer games either…I know, right? Dry your tears for me and do carry on…)

My dad had read me both the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings over a year of bedtimes and whilst I immersed myself completely in the plight of the story, I don’t think I was old enough to really appreciate the depth of Tolkien’s world-building.

Reading alone had become default escapism from other children and difficult maths questions at school and I longed for something that I could vanish into, something less huge than middle earth but something more than the confines of The Witches (A huge favourite and monumental milestone in my journey to horror in its own right!).

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Again, like many kids in the 80s, I spent a lot of my time playing the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ Series – single player game books that were incredibly addictive and often disarmingly frustrating (eg. If you want to follow the goblin, turn to page 244 *turns to page 244* You have fallen into a trap hidden in the road and your body is impaled on a cluster of spikes, you are dead.).

Exhausted with the effort of mainly cheating my way through these books, I fell upon something else; a book that a friend of mine at school wouldn’t stop going on about and spent many playtimes regaling me in its finer and most gruesome points. I had been given this one for Christmas or a birthday fairly recently ,the first in Robin Jarvis’ Deptford Mice series ‘The Dark Portal’.

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The Dark Portal is a magnificent introduction to world-building for younger readers. The real skill Jarvis has is his ability to reach out from the very first sentence and pull his reader into his world without dumbing-down, patronising or over-complicating. I think this was the first book I ever finished in one sitting – writhing about between the sheets, back aching, throat parched but unable to stop.

The power of this story is its simplicity; set in Deptford amongst a community of mice, The ‘Brown’ family who live in ‘The Skirtings’ – an abandoned old house. The mice are complete with their own customs and deity – Bringer of spring – The Green Mouse. It is clear that mice, the world over, share in the same beliefs, thanks to the smart inclusion of the streetwise city mouse character – Picadilly and his opposite, simple country-mouse ‘Twit’.

Life is not all harvest festivals  though – below the Skirtings,through a leaf-shaped grate daubed with strange occult symbols lies the sewers, a dank underworld teeming with the brutal and vicious rats – slaves to an even darker entity, a bloated tyrant revered by the rats and known only as ‘Jupiter’.

Of course, these two opposite world must collide; father of the mouse family, Albert Brown has already been lost to the pull of the malevolent sorcery that emanates from the sewers. Piccadilly,his companion, survived and flees to The Skirtings whereupon the Brown family and friends return to finish what their father started and rid the world of the foul rat-god.

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Since the reading Richard Adams’ Watership Down, The Plague Dogs and Shardik, I enjoyed the idea of stories from the animals’ point of view. These animal books, however,  always filled me with a frustrated contempt for the human elements; the hunters, scientists and persecutors. I gained from these books, and still maintain a sense of sorrow for the way our race treats our animal friends and this sometimes put me off reading such stories. The Deptford Mice, however, overlooks the malign influence of us in their world, instead, shrinking the reader to the size of a rodent and absorbing them completely. We are right there, in the sweat-ridden dank of the terrible rat mines, with Oswald, the sickly albino runt; we stand, trembling before the presence of the Green Mouse with Audrey Brown.

Like all of these posts, I don’t want to include too many spoilers about the plot. Whatever your age, The Dark Portal does not compromise its depth or richness of its atmosphere. There are two more in the Deptford Mice Trilogy ‘The Crystal Prison’ and ‘the Final Reckoning’ along with a three prequels named The Deptford Histories. I am confident that those unfamiliar with Jarvis’ seminal work will not be long hankering to read the lot.

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As for how The Deptford Mice shaped me – I find myself striving to make my work as convincing as the world of the Deptford Mice. The very idea of anthropomorphism is huge turn-off for many readers, but Robin Jarvis’ skill is that the idea of walking, talking rodents is largely irrelevant, what matters is them and their world. These books are not afraid of the dark either – I find much of my own writing draws upon the idea of murky dark gods which owes more to Jarvis than Lovecraft if I’m honest.

Anyway, who cares about me, right, what matters here is these books. I would safely say The Deptford Mice trilogy can be enjoyed by all ages and are a perfect bridge between young and adult readers.  I certainly felt more confident in my ability to enter completely the world of a good book after reading these gems. Even now, just looking at the covers brings back the evening shadows dancing over the cornfields, the cosy wooden corners of the Skirtings and the musty reek of Jupiter’s domain.

Writing not to be sniffed at. (sorry…sorry…)


The Books That Shaped My Life – #1

Not long ago I did an interview for The Gingernuts of Horror, a wonderful site for those of a horror persuasion with book reviews added almost daily. There is also a plethora of interviews with various horror authors (I provide them with a dip in quality here).

But this isn’t some self-aggrandising vanity post, imploring you to read things I have said (well, actually it is but seeing as you’re here you might as well keep on, eh?)

No, what intrigued me about doing this interview was another feature of the Gingernuts site called ‘The Books That Matter‘; a section of the website where authors and others wax lyrical about the books that ‘made’ them, the books that wedged themselves between the folds of the brain, carved out their own little nest and laid their young. It is the cry of these young that you never really stop hearing all your life, if the book mattered that much.

It was difficult for me to choose one, but I wrote about a book that was pivotal in my development as a reader as well as a writer (you can find it here). But, as is the case with these things, the moment after I had submitted the piece, the writhing young inside eggs laid long ago inside my brain began clamouring.

What about me? What about me?

And as the time went by their voices were joined by more and more and more…

Well, I thought, I can’t start spamming poor old Gingernuts of Horror with any more of my drivel, this is what I’ve got a blog for, right?  So, with gratitude and a doff of the cap to Gingernuts of Horror, I am going to use this platform for a spot of self-indulgence (not that sort you filthy beast!) and talk about the books that shaped me, that awoke something in me, that inner spark that gave me this need to write, that made me who I am today.

I will do this on a month-by-month basis and attempt to work in some sort of chronological order but will skip early childhood (with massive props to Where the Wild Things Are and everything by Michael Rosen)

So this month’s post without further ado.

The Books That Shaped My Life #1

Nothing to be Afraid of… By Jan Mark

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I was quite a solitary child. My problem was that I didn’t really like other children, they scared me. Other children were unpredictable, they broke stuff, made loud noises, needed your attention when all I really wanted to do was get on with my own thing.

To be fair, I haven’t changed much.

One of my favourite things to do as a child (and this is going to sound a little odd but bear with me) was to sit in my room, listening to audio books and playing board games (yes, me against me, the battle of the great mind…!).

My parents were early pirates of the audio industry and for my 8th or 9th birthday had borrowed a a load of audio books from the local library and copied them onto TDK cassettes.  They also cut out pictures from newspapers and magazines to create their own tape-covers; that sort of budget innovation is something to be admired!

By that age, I was on my way to becoming fully-fledged horror fanatic. My bedroom was filled with skulls and various macabre ornaments I’d acquired from junk shops and jumble sales. ‘Nothing to Be Afraid Of’ was a worthy addition.

I swear to you, though, I have no idea where my father found a drawing of a child tucked up in bed with some sort of demon made from black smog peering out from the corner of the room, but that picture haunted me for years.

The thing is with Mark’s stories, the majority of them aren’t strictly ‘horror’, they are about perception, written with aplomb from a child’s perspective from the sometimes terrifying but very real adult world around them.

A good example of this is ‘The Choice is Yours’ a story about a schoolgirl going back and forth relaying increasingly complicated and hostile messages between two teachers. Whilst in no way a horror story as such,  what is does capture, exquisitely, I may add, is that feeling of powerlessness and confusion that children feel when trapped by the stark and unrelenting rules of school.

Horror enough I’ll say.

Many of the others, however, are immersed in the sometimes baffling world of children themselves

‘How Anthony Made a Friend’ is a crookedly charming story about a strange little boy constructing a strange multi-limbed guy for Guy Fawkes night. Another, whose title escapes me is about a slightly sinister next-door neighbour and her batty little sister who charms warts using potions she makes in her garden shed.. again, not horror in the strictest, but these tales are all about perception, how as children we still have one foot in the imagined world and that there is still magic tingling in our toes.

The title story is a smart piece of perception-tinkering; following  a journey though a park with a small, mollycoddled boy and his older cousin. The cousin mischievously distorts everything around them, to terrify the youngster; they are being tracked by a leopard they can only escape by walking on their heels, they must run down a path called ‘poison alley’ “because that poison will burn right through your hat, right into your brains psssst.” But ultimately the experience opens the child’s eyes to imagination. The last line is the boy’s remark to his distraught mother who has chastisted the cousin for telling him such horrible things.

“I want to go to the park!”

When Mark does full-on horror, that’s when things get dark. ‘Nothing to be Afraid Of’ is remembered by many for ‘Nule’ a genuinely terrifying and clever story where some children personify their new house’s newel post with a hat and coat, gradually allowing their imaginations to take over. The power of this story is what you don’t see, but what the children’s minds conjure up at night when they hear the stairs creak…

I must have listened to these stories hundreds and hundreds of times over because as I am writing this more than twenty years later, having never read or heard them since, I can still recall some of the lines.

Some of the tales may read a little dated nowadays but what Jan Mark has done with this book is what many other authors have tried and failed to do and that is tap right in to the very root of childhood itself.

Whilst writing this, I have ordered the book again to read to my own son when he is old enough (but hopefully less of a strange loner than I was!) but doing a bit of digging i have found something else remarkable about ‘Nothing to be Afraid of’.

According to a comment on a blog post about ‘Nule’ (I found it after a google search of the book to jog my memory), the book was conceived after a long telephone conversation between Jan mark and her brother where they both recalled incidents from their shared childhoods in Ashford, Kent. Apparently all the stories have some basis in reality…including ‘Nule’ – unfortunately the house in which it was et was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a ring road.

But this just goes to show sometimes clichés are correct and the truth is often stranger than fiction.

Submission call (of sorts)

I would like to invite any followers/readers to send me a guest post about the books that made them who they are or influenced them in some profound way. Horror doesn’t have to enter into it and you don’t have to try and find the most high-brow book on your shelf; just give me 1000 words or so about a book, any book that has helped make you who you are. I will post the on the blog with any images you would like.

Drop me an email: bothersomedirtchild@gmail.com and put ‘The Books That Shaped My Life’ in the subject line.


The Legacy of ‘The Doll’

I’ve never been into comics.

I’m sorry, I know, it’s not cool is it?

I’ve tried.  When I was a teenager, I collected Roman Dirge‘s ‘Lenore’ series;  I enjoy the Marvel adaptations of Stephen King’s Dark Tower and Talisman as well as Alan Moore’s ‘From Hell‘ but that’s about it.

Collecting comics should appeal to my slight OCD and hoarding personality (settle down ladies, I’m taken.)  yet for some reason they just…don’t.

I imagine there’s plenty of comics I’d like, I imagine that you’re probably grimacing at the screen thinking ‘you just need to read…so-and-so’, but it’s not going to happen. Sorry.

Perhaps it’s because I never liked superheroes. I still don’t. In fact, my view of superheroes is mostly indifferent, maybe a little contemptuous. It was the same as when I a kid. Superman, Captain America, Batman; whatever the darkness in their personalities, I just found them smug, slightly self-righteous goody-two-shoes who remind me of the clever, good-looking people I always knew I would never be anything like.

What I liked when I was young was the bad guys – Skeletor and Hordak, General Kael from ‘Willow’ – the guys dressed in bones and skulls, the guys who dwelled in lairs; they were my guys.

I think comics never appealed to me because in them, good always prevailed, my guys were always thwarted in the end. I imagine there are comics where the bad guys win, but when I was seven, I had no idea where to find them and really didn’t have the impetuous to try.

Or I just preferred books.

Then a comic came along and scared me in a way that I had never been scared before. It was a pivotal moment in my development into a fan and a creator of horror.

It was a comic you’ve probably never even heard of, a story by a writer whose name is lost to time (or to my limited detective skills). It was called ‘The Doll’.

Okay, a bit of backstory: In the late 1980s, there was a short-lived series of toys made by the Tonka company called ‘Supernaturals’.

I wont bore you with a lengthy description but in the advert below, you’ll see why they appealed to a seven year old me…

I had a few of them, they were ok, not a patch on Modulock, but pretty cool.

Then came the Supernaturals comic. At seven, i only ever really read the Beano, so the artwork of Dave D’Antiquis and Antony Williams was a welcome change. Plus, it was the Supernatural baddies who hosted the comic. I liked that.

I don’t recall the stories of the Supernaturals in those comics. Alongside them, a letters page and a centre spread poster was a totally unrelated comic strip.

The Doll..

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The Doll was the most terrifying thing I had ever read in my life.

The Doll was a dark story, something that certainly would not be deemed remotely suitable for children today.

Here’s a synopsis:

A boy (Simon Wickham) moves in with foster parents who are still grieving over the death of their own child.

Simon, staying in the dead boy’s bedroom (of course!)  finds an old trunk on top of the wardrobe that contains a creepy old ventriloquist’s doll.

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Simon shows his find to foster parents whereupon dad takes it from him to put in the bin.

Perhaps the most chilling part of the story comes next – dad returns to the house from the dustbin and declares he’s sure the doll scratched him.

I will never forget that final panel in that first episode – an image of thedoll rising from the dustbin (remember this was a year before the first ‘Child’s Play was released)

As the subsequent 40p episodes of the comic was released, I found myself flicking past the Supernaturals strips with a morbid fascination for this terrible story that trilled and terrified me in equal amounts. Simon and his family try many times to destroy the Doll, yet like Michael Myers, always manages to come back.

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As the Doll story progressed the Doll terrorised Simon, strangling him, burning him, biting him and finally taking possession of his brother.

In the final episode of the Supernaturals comic (episode 9 – the only one I still own today)., the Doll made the front cover. This was perhaps testament to its power.

When I tried to sleep, I saw that face. felt the presence of that relentless, indestructible creature. The terror that comic strip induced in me has never truly left me. When I am writing and need to summon something from that bubbling, black pit at the depths of my imagination; it is the Doll’s face that leers up at me from those dark waters. It is that fear that I strive to induce in my readers.

The last episode of The Doll finishes in a suitably horrific way (below), yet there were, to my knowledge, no more ever published.

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Digging about online, even contacting the Egmont Publishing Group has revealed no credit for the writer or even the artist of The Doll. This creates a suitable aura of mystery around it; even today, that thing’s face sends a chill through me. Whoever drew it managed to capture a cruel malevolence, a sneering horror I have never seen replicated in a visual form.

The Doll’s place in the dark recesses of my nightmares will take something monumental to usurp.

Maybe I should read more superheroes?


Books of 2014

In no particular order, the following books published in 2014 are the ones that have moved me, excited me or inspired me in some way. The stand-outs amongst many, so I make apologies for the following notable exceptions (as those authors are going to be desperately upset they didn’t make an arbitrary list on a nobody’s blog.)

The Ice Palace‘ Tarjei Vesaas (1963), ‘Niceville‘ Carsten Stroud (2012) ‘The Silence of the Sea‘, Yrsa Sigurdadottir (2011) ‘Under the Skin‘  Michael Faber (2000) and everything by Gillian Flynn (including the magnificent screenplay of ‘Gone Girl’.

Should my opinion on books mean anything whatsoever to you (why it would is anyone’s guess), please read on…

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The Troop – Nick Cutter

When Stephen King recommends a book, it’s hard for a fan of horror not to be intrigued. I have to also say that without King’s recommendation, I would never have heard of this, so saturated the horror market has become by tired zombie stories and ‘erotic’ vampire novels. Cutter’s story of a scout troop abandoned on an island with something terrible is pleasantly original without being wary of a b-movie style ‘scare’.  The Troop is one of those stories you find yourself drawn instantly into its midst; the characterisation is rich and the guts and gore don’t feel gratuitous or unnecessary. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of what happens to Cutter’s scout troop; but those looking for a contemporary and fresh voice in the genre couldn’t do much better than this.

There have been comparisons drawn with Lord of the Flies and whilst The Troop shares some of the themes of Golding (boys abandoned on an island, power struggles in a group dynamic), this is where the comparison ends. The Troop, as is described by Stephen King is old-school style horror and unashamedly so.

What sets The Troop apart from its contemporaries, however, is its strength in characterisation. When you care about the characters in a book; the implausibility of their situation matters less than how they deal with it. I found myself easily immersed in this novel; allowing myself ‘one more chapter’ before I stopped, as tea remained uncooked and washing remained unfolded. That’s got to be a good sign!

Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes

What can I say? This could possibly be my favourite book of 2014. Lauren Beukes, author of ‘The Shining Girls’, a best-selling crime-noir about a time-shifting serial killer (Dr. Who with an story worth following?) but with Broken Monsters, Beukes takes us to a whole new level of gritty reality. In the exhaust-clogged, shell of Detroit City, Detective Gabriella Versado is called to the scene of  what the police are calling ‘Bambi’, a dead boy whose top half has been fused to the hind quarters of a fawn. This is just the beginning of Versado’s terrible pursuit of a serial killer who believes they can find the thin place between the worlds in the realisation of their dream; carving their victims into hideous parodies of underground art.

Much of the narrative is told through the online world form; Reddit posts, Tumblr, text and social media. It’s an ultra-smart and contemporary way to portray not only the younger generation, but the huge part streaming news and social media plays in our lives that Beukes pulls off with aplomb. If traditionally told stories is your thing, I don’t expect this novel will appeal.

Beukes pulls no punches and there is gore and grimness aplenty but splatterpunk this aint. This is a dark tale told with no glamour yet ultimately one of the most exciting crime publications of 2014. Beukes’ sparse use of the paranormal will, no doubt polarise the opinions of those who like their crime noir ‘pure’, however, this side of the story is sparse, lending just enough to accentuate an already gloomy premise.

The plot itself is an intelligent crime story that’s intrigue does not abate. Reading Broken Monsters, I found myself having to put it down as I was enjoying it that much and didn’t want it to end too quickly.

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The Girl With All the Gifts – MR Carey

If there’s a theme in contemporary fiction that’s been done to death; done so much to death that its bloated corpse is palpably shuddering with every half-hearted thud of a spade blade on its shattered coffin lid, it’s the zombie apocalypse. Even the idea of ‘zombies’ as ruthless and predatory ‘infected’ rather than the shambling figure of Haitian folklore is a weary cliché we’ve all seen a million times.

By all accounts, therefore, The Girl with all the Gifts should be one to avoided like the plague (see what I did there?) but making an assumption like that (which I very nearly did) is a big mistake to make.

M.R. Carey’s 2014 novel, though dealing with the last survivors of a global pandemic, a deadly fungal virus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis –that’s the one that makes ants climb to the top of plants to be eaten by predators, as if you didn’t know!) which turns humans to flesh-eating ‘hungries’, feels fresh, despite itself.

In fact, the concept in essence is remarkably similar to the equally enthralling game, Naughty Dog’s 2013 ‘The Last of Us’. Coincidence? To be honest, it really doesn’t matter and to be fair, this genre has limited options.

The Girl with all the Gifts’ style is immediately accessible and grasps the reader from the start with cold, dead fingers. Rather than extensive exposition and philosophising on the end of the world as we know it; Carey’s narrative  fluctuates between just a few characters – Melanie, a small girl who spends her days (when she is not muzzled and restrained) at school; Melanie’s teacher, Miss Justineau; Sergeant Parks and scientist Caroline Caldwell. It is the relationship between these four that drives the novel forward. Melanie and Miss Justinaeu’s pseudo parent-daughter dynamic is instantly relatable and in such tragic circumstances establishes itself as the heart of the novel from the beginning. The two others by contrast represent the ‘establishment’; they that dehumanise the ‘infected’ and think nothing of destroying them or indeed locking up 10 year old children for scientific research into a cure.

This is a human story rather than a ‘zombie’ one as such. While the scientist would like to literally delve inside Melanie’s brains, the teacher recognises her as a person in her own right. This tension as the four of them escape from Sergeant Parks’ base that the ‘hungries’ have overrun is the crux of the story and such strongly established characterization carries the reader all the way to the superbly bleak ending.

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Bird Box – Josh Malerman

Another fresh voice in the horror genre, Bird Box tells a highly original tale of the end of days; something has happened in the world, people are boarding up their windows, people are wearing blindfolds, people are killing themselves, killing each other.

They have all seen something.

When Malorie’s sister looks out of the window and kills herself, Malorie is alone. Pregnant and desperate, she answers an ad in a newspaper; sanctuary.

The strength of this story is it is largely told in the dark; the characters wear blindfolds at all times; their skin becomes sallow, their only sight is the gloom of the inside of the house. Malerman never makes this darkness seem clunky or awkward; in fact, the tension created by the inability of the characters to see is this story’s strength. The reader is desperate to know what could possibly be out there, yet at the same time you desperately don’t. More often than not, the things that scare us the most are the things we cannot see; an homage to Lovecraft’s idea of sights that are simply too much for the frailty of the human mind.

And there emerges the question of whether an already warped mind can be immune to the terror.

This atmosphere in Bird Box is palpable from beginning to end and that’s before you even consider its originality in terms of story. I found myself having to take breathers from this novel, such was the tension and that’s in no way a criticism. Tension, atmosphere and originality; all welcome elements of a triumphant horror novel.

Horror has never been a ‘cool’ genre but Bird Box is undoubtedly that slick kid with the leather jacket and the brylcreem who you want to offer a light, even though you don’t smoke. There’s a lot to be said for having the brevity to leave the reader to imagine what is too horrible to even imagine and believe me, there’s no ‘Night of the Demon’-esque let down here.

The end of days is a recurrent theme in much dark fiction and a tired one at that. With Bird Box, Josh Malerman managed to make it cool again.