horror

20th Century Ghosts – Joe Hill

51pbfcgwtplTitle – 20th Century Ghosts

Author – Joe Hill

Published – 2005

Genre – Horror

This is is a short story collection and is the first of Joe Hill’s work that I’ve read, despite having seen him on his book tour for The Fireman.

One of the real highlights of the collection is the variety of the stories and the distinctiveness of the different voices. The stories make an interesting  combination,  some like ‘Best New Horror’ are a very conventional approach to horror where others have more of a fantasy feel to them. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) many of the stories have a more poignant and touching aspect to them, and there seems to be a thread running through a number of stories featuring children and childhood.

I particularly enjoyed ‘Pop Art’ which was both funny and moving. ‘Art’ is Arthur Ross, an inflatable Jewish boy. The narrator has a difficult home life with an unpleasant father and Art’s family provides a stark contrast, but Art is inflatable. The author has thought through the disadvantages of being inflatable, for example unable to speak Art has to write his thoughts on a pad, but of course this must be in crayon as a sharpened pencil could be deadly… The story is about the relationship between the two boys but inevitably being inflatable is Art’s defining characteristic.

The last story in the collection, ‘Voluntary Committal’ is a chilling horror without any gore or shocks, but nonetheless gripping and was probably the highlight for me. Was this the author saving the best until last? The story is narrated by Nolan but is about his younger brother Morris, a little boy diagnosed with some mental health problems. But that’s not what makes Morris different. Morris likes to construct things, starting with paper cups he moves on to cardboard boxes, the designs becoming ever more elaborate and complex, but the structures have a sinister side.

On the other hand there were some stories that I just didn’t get. I’m not a reader that likes to be confused  – I like clear resolution and explanation, a direct take on the genre, so more ambiguous stories like ‘My Father’s Mask’ just left me puzzled with more questions than answers.

Collections of short stories make a welcome break from novels and although they don’t make for the same sort of escapism there’s a lot to be said for being able to distill a piece of prose into the length of a train journey. This collection was a bit of a mixed bag for me though.

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The Ice Lands – Steinar Bragi

Title – The Ice Lands

Author – Steinar Bragi (translated by Lorenza Garcia)

Published – Oct 2016 (in English)

Genre – Crime fiction / Thriller / Horror

This came as an unsolicited review copy but I was intrigued by the cover and with an interest in all things Icelandic it pushed its way to the top of my TBR pile.

The story is about four friends and a dog who are on a camping trip in the volcanic wilds of Iceland. There are tensions between the four and they see the trip as away of mending their relationships but things have already become fraught early on in the journey when they crash in the middle of nowhere. They take refuge in an isolated farmhouse occupied by a mysterious elderly couple.

The efforts to resume their journey are thwarted – they fail to leave in their jeep, or in the car they borrow from the couple and even resorting to leaving on foot they end up returning to the dark and menacing house. At the times where they have put some distance between themselves and the house they make further mysterious discoveries in the wilderness – an abandoned car, an abandoned village on a cut-off ‘island’.

The inside of the house, farm and the couple are no less puzzling. They struggle to figure out the relationship between the uncommunicative man and woman, there are animals’ bodies on the doorstep and a hidden room that just adds to the mysteries.

As the story unfolds the backstory of the characters comes out which casts light on them both as individuals and on the relationships between the four of them. In some ways these feel like caricatures – this isn’t a criticism but it feels as if the author was using the four people to highlight some of the issues around the financial crash (the book was published in Iceland in 2011). Their lives and perspectives are quite exaggerated but their reactions to the events after they become stranded seem surprisingly relaxed.

I still don’t know what to make of this book. It was part crime, part thriller, part horror and part, well, just plain weird. I was really taken in by it. I didn’t particularly like the characters, but I wanted to know what happened to them (or what had happened to them). I didn’t have any issues with the writing or translation. There was probably too much of the characters’ backstory for me but the story was atmospheric, tense, dark – it really gripped me. But I just couldn’t figure out what was going on… Since finishing the book and while writing my review I’ve had a look to see what other people make of the book. There is a full synopsis on Wikipedia which tells me that it ‘enjoyed very positive reviews’ although it seems to be struggling to do so in the English translation. Perhaps it just isn’t reaching the right audience.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Cellar – Minette Walters

513Wiwdj7SLTitle – The Cellar

Author – Minette Walters

Published -May 2015

Genre – ?

This is another book that defied me to put it in a neat genre category – but that’s something I will come back to. I am a huge Minette Walters fan, having read all of her previous titles starting with The Ice House in 1992 (which won the CWA John Creasey award). Her books were all standalone stories and a mix of crime fiction and psychological thrillers with a realism akin to the Nicci French books I also love. With the last novel being published in 2007 I was therefore thrilled when The Cellar was published earlier this year. At just shy of 250 pages it’s more of a novella than a novel, but is still longer than the few ‘quick reads’ that she has written in the interim.

The main character in the story is Muna and it soon becomes clear that she is a young African girl being kept as a domestic slave by an African family somewhere in England. When one of the family’s sons goes missing they are unable to prevent strangers (the police) entering the house and so they present Muna as their brain-damaged daughter. Clearly under the control of Yetunde and Ebuka she is unable or unwilling to speak up for herself; her dreams of seeking help seem to be shattered.

What we discover from Muna, however, is that they have underestimated her. Her distressing narrative documents the horrors that have befallen her at the hands of this couple and their sons, but as the story progresses she assumes a greater and greater confidence. As she tells the father ‘I am what you … have made me’. Her mis-treatment has hardened her and removed any chance of affection and it is at a price they will pay.

The book keeps a steady pace, throwing in some unexpected twists and turns and Walters’ writing is faultless. So back to the issue of genre. Buying the book based on the author alone I was expecting something with more of a crime fiction basis, or a psychological thriller. While it has aspects of both, and reminded me of some of the more recent Ruth Rendell titles, the odd page or two at the very end made me think of Stephen King. And then I discover that the book was published by Hammer and all of a sudden it made sense.

Not quite the Minette Walters I remember, but still a topical, thought-provoking and disturbing read. You can see another point of view on the Eurocrime blog.

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I Remember You – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Title – I Remember You

Author – Yrsa Sigurdardottir (translated by Philip Roughton)

Published – 2012

Genre – Horror

It’s hard to believe that this is the first part of my Icelandic reading where the author is actually Icelandic. A featured author at Iceland Noir, Yrsa Sigurdardottir is better known for crime fiction than horror or ghost stories. In fact I hadn’t heard of this book until I saw Yrsa on a panel about writers who wrote books in more than one genre at Crimefest in May. Having enjoyed the books in her Thora Gudmundsdottir series I was curious to read something more scary and with our trip to Iceland just days away it was the perfect time to pick this up.

There are several different plotlines in the story. The main one features three friends who are embarking on a project to renovate a house in an isolated (and seemingly deserted) village in the Westfjords of Iceland. The location is so remote that they have to be ferried to the village by boat leaving them no means of leaving until the boat returns. They’re not really cut out for either the harsh conditions or the task of renovating the building, but their efforts are soon cut short when mysterious things start to happen.

The other main thread is more akin to crime fiction and centres around a psychiatrist, Freyr,  who is based on the mainland across the fjord. He consults for the local police and becomes involved in their investigation into a break-in at a local school, as well as the apparent suicide of an elderly woman. Freyr himself has suffered a tragedy in the past and a chance event means that, with the help of a female police officer, he starts his own investigation.

I did find the book slow to get going. The chapters switch between the different plotlines and perhaps this meant that I wasn’t quickly gripped by either. As this was also the first translated work I’d read in a while the English felt a little stilted, which didn’t help to engage me. But perseverance (and it didn’t take a great deal of effort) paid off.

The characters could be a bit irritating and a little on the dim side (if a small boy said to me “Don’t go to the bad place. You won’t come back.” I would be tempted to take notice). But Freyr and Katrin (one of the women renovating the house) are both sympathetic and strong characters, prepared to face their demons.

I can say for certain that Sigurdardottir knows how to crank up the tension! Most chapters end on something of a cliff-hanger and there were some incredibly tense scenes that I really wouldn’t have wanted to read when I was on my own. There is very little graphic horror but much more the fear of what you can’t see – what’s around the corner or behind the door. The story fits in well with the supernatural elements that often appear in Scandi and Nordic fiction and in an environment so harsh and with such long hours of darkness you can see why the supernatural plays a large part in their traditional and contemporary stories.

A chilling ghost story with real tension and a resolution that is very cleverly written. You can see another review at Crimepieces.

Score – 4/5