July 20, 2015

DARK WAVES

by Simon Kearns
123 pages, Bloodbound Books

Review by Pat Black

Aside from a study in the 1980s (Spengler, Stantz, Venkman, Zeddemore et al), ghost stories and science don't tend to get along. 

Usually, one has to destroy the other - with either vengeful spirits pulling the plug on recording equipment, prior to their all-important reveal, or scientists debunking the phantoms as hoaxes, delusions, unlikely coincidences or odd manifestations of natural phenomena.

Dark Waves by Simon Kearns is an attempt to equalise this natural tension between science and fantasy. 

It sees John Stedman, something of a modern-day ghost hunter, travelling to the sites of notorious British hauntings. In his own way he is a debunker, but not in the sense of exposing fraud. He seeks to unravel the true environmental cause of supernatural experiences. 

John is something of a superhero. After he nearly drowns as a child, he gains a strange ability to detect sound waves which exist below the range of human hearing, called infrasonics (anything below 20Hz). This follows a theory that these undetected sounds can influence humans' nervous systems and mood, prompting negative feelings and physical side-effects. In other words, what people go through when they get a "bad feeling" about a place - or if they think they've seen a ghost.

Being unusually sensitive to infrasound, John can "tune in" to its presence. Then, using computer equipment, he can isolate the source before sealing it off. Thus, the physical source of the "haunting" is gone forever. It's something of a secular exorcism.

As you might expect, things get complicated. John heads to a historic pub, The Dawlish Inn, reportedly haunted by several phantoms in the basement. No-one who works there enjoys going down those stairs. With a local newspaper reporter and a technician in tow, John carries out his investigations. It seems that the infrasonic disruption is far worse than usual in the basement - and the sounds don't seem to have any obvious source. 

First things first: Dark Waves is unsettling. It sets the ground well for the type of modern ghost story British TV producers used to do very well - like Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape, Stephen Volk's Ghostwatch or any number of episodes of anthology series like Out of the Unknown

Things go bump in the dark, as you might expect, but what makes Dark Waves unusual, if not unique, is that it takes spooky experiences as a given. To begin with, the question isn't "is there a ghost there?" but "what's making these sounds?" Of course, as readers we are given to wonder, despite what John repeatedly tells asserts in the story. 

Without showing too much of his hand, Kearns allows plenty of room for us to wonder if there's something truly inexplicable happening in that basement. 

It also eschews a pet hate of mine in ghost stories: "Was there a ghost, or was the person in the story just a bit mad?" But that's not to say the people in the tale aren't worth examination or don't merit suspicion. Just enough is revealed about the principals as well as the bar owners and staff to allow us to wonder if there isn't some more earthly cause of the basement's sinister vibes. 

With Dark Waves, Simon Kearns gives us a neat variation on Charles Dickens' assertion in "The Haunted House" - that the face of the ghost we fear might very well be our own, from the past.  

There's also some very neat sleight-of-hand in the narrative, including one utterly audacious chapter which threw me for a spin. 

So: ghost or not? I can't spoil that for you - it'd be a crime. It's scary, though, and that's all that matters. 

Read the author interview here.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk interviews DarkWaves author Simon Kearns




Interview by Pat Black

Booksquawk: Infrasound is a fascinating topic. What prompted the idea of linking it to people's experience of supernatural phenomena?

Simon Kearns: Years ago, I saw a “Secrets of the Dead” episode wherein they investigated the possibility that megalithic monuments were designed to amplify sound, and perhaps to purposefully create infrasound. It was this programme which introduced me to the work of Vic Tandy – a scientist who discovered the link between subsonic sound waves and the classic symptoms of a haunting.

Booksquawk: I see a lot of parallels between this story and some modern classic ghost stories, such as The Stone Tape. Was it difficult to balance the idea of scientific inquiry with the traditional set-up of a spooky story (the key tension of the narrative)?

Simon: Yes – it was difficult balancing the two. I had initially wanted to write a completely rationalistic narrative, one in which science trumps all other beliefs, but the supernatural aspect of the tale would not allow it. As I progressed I found the disturbances in the cellar infiltrating other areas of the book, and my own thought processes. I think this helped enormously with the arc of the story.

Also, by setting up the protagonist as someone so sure of himself and his scientific method, it was fairly easy to maximise the extent of his “fall”, as it were.

Booksquawk: Like sightings of UFOs, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, advancing technology seems to be killing off popular perceptions of what was once seen as the "unexplained" or "world of the unknown". Where do you see the ghost story going in the future as advancing technology makes it easier to debunk phenomena?

Simon: I see the ghost story adapting to the technology we produce. Take, for instance, the example you mention of UFOs. If one looks at representations of UFOs from before the invention of the airplane, they largely resemble dirigibles. The height of the UFO craze coincided with the Cold War, a time when humanity lived with the fear of mass destruction caused by something that comes from the sky.

It is true that as we understand more and more about the world around us, we are losing elements of its mystery. Then again, science has leapt so far ahead of the common person’s comprehension that it is creating new mysteries. Horror usually dwells on archetypal fears, but I find the most engaging scares come from those stories that play with new technologies and the grey areas that surround them. Frankenstein is a classic example of the how to utilise the anxiety caused by scientific advances. More recently, we have had Stephen King’s Cell, and the stunning Korean horror film (and book) Pulse. My favourites of recent years, Primer and Ex-Machina, are a great melding of sci-fi and horror.

Booksquawk: Were you aware of the British tradition regarding ghost stories when you were writing, or was it something you were consciously trying to avoid, or subvert?

Simon: That British tradition is very much ingrained. I was consciously playing with clichés: the old English inn, the cellar, the denouement with the protagonist alone in the dark. At the same time, I wanted the characters to be thoroughly modern — the almost fetishistic reliance on gadgets, the fact that their first reaction when spooked is not to think of ghosts, but psychological explanations. Also, the narrative is often at pains to explain the neurological processes of fear, as if it too needs to lean on something it considers factual.

Booksquawk: Finally, tell us a bit about your next project.

Simon: I have another science-meets-horror book that I am currently submitting to publishers. It is about recording dreams, and, (a new experience for me), it is written in the first person singular, which I found to be surprisingly liberating.

Other than that, I have tentatively started a book about god and death which will very subtly toy with ghostly goings on. When I get the chance, I would like to write a book about quantum computers, entanglement, and AI — plenty of grey areas there to exploit.

Read the review of Dark Waves here.

July 11, 2015

THREE KINDS OF STUPID

Reviews by Hereward L.M. Proops

It’s easy to appreciate a clever writer. One who is capable of using a few choice words to paint the most vivid of pictures. Or someone who is able to capture the subtle nuances that make up real human personalities. Or a writer whose tight plotting and careful pacing holds you spellbound until the very last page. As keen readers, we’re all able to name at least two or three books that blew our minds the first time we read them.

But what about the silly books? Books whose sole purpose is to be frivolous, mindless pieces of entertainment. Books to be read in one sitting on a wet Sunday afternoon after a few too many glasses of cheeky Cabernet Sauvignon at lunchtime and then forgotten as you drift off into a semi-drunken stupor. The sort of book that you find hugely enjoyable but never openly admit to liking in intelligent company. Books with a cover so idiotic and puerile that you try to hide it in your lap when reading it in a public place. I’m talking about cheap, disposable trash… the sort of book that your Kindle was made for.


The first of the three dumb little books I’m looking at today is Anne Billson’s witty tribute to Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi horror, “Alien”. Regular visitors to the site will be well aware of my undying love for the movie and won’t be surprised to learn that I sought out this little gem as soon as I learned about its existence. Available for 99p on Kindle, this short story retells the story of the final voyage of the Nostromo from the perspective of Jones, the ship’s cat.

Being a cat, Jones is totally egocentric and has little affection for the humans on board the ship (or “tinopeners” as he calls them). As the hideous xenomorph is brought onboard and begins picking off the humans one by one, Jones sits back and watches the proceedings with utter detachment. It is this total lack of empathy for the victims of the alien that makes this book so amusing. There are moments when it seems that the cat holds the humans in such low regard that he actually appears to be rooting for the alien. However, his hunch that the xenomorph is some kind of giant ugly hairless kitten leads him to side with the humans, but only because he worries that there is only enough cat-food onboard the Nostromo for him. His irritation with Ripley when she forces him into the cat-box as she evacuates the doomed ship is marvelous and Jones’ description of the final confrontation between Ripley and the alien is delightfully cynical.

It is clear that Billson took great pleasure in taking the high-tension plot of the movie and turning it into something laugh-out-loud funny. Obviously, those who haven’t seen the original film won’t really understand or appreciate this retelling of the story. At about 12 pages long, it won’t take long to read “My Day by Jones” and some might question whether a single short story is worth 99p. To make up for the short length, Billson bundles the first four chapters of her 1993 vampire novel “Suckers” with the short story. Despite not lasting as long as I would have liked, I found “My Day by Jones” to be a witty, affectionate tribute to one of my all-time favourite films.

How I Created Katie Hopkins by Adolf Hitler translated by Barry Sausages

Now this is one that I can only recommend on two conditions a) you can download it for free and b) you have a strong stomach. Those of you reading this outside of the United Kingdom might wonder who Katie Hopkins is. Think yourself lucky. Don’t bother googling her name or trying to find out more about her. Remain ignorant of her existence, you’ll be happier that way. In fact, if you haven’t heard of Katie Hopkins, just take my word for it that she is a deeply unpleasant person who appears to relish notoriety. Leave it at that and move on to the next section of this review.

Those of us who live in dear old Blighty can’t help but to have heard of Hopkins and have witnessed her somewhat desperate attempts to remain in the public eye. It’s like she decided that if she couldn’t be universally popular, she would rather be universally despised because at least that way she’s been noticed. She’s like an emotionally neglected child who would rather have negative attention from her parents than no attention at all. The flurry of outrage that surrounds this loathsome individual whenever she opens her mouth is, unfortunately, exactly what she wants. Every celebrity condemnation of her ridiculous opinions; every tweet about her, both good and bad - it all boosts her public profile and gives her a wider audience.

Barry Sausages (I’m fairly certain that’s not his real name), seems to have hit on the best way of dealing with Hopkins… if you can’t ignore her, write a short story about her where she engages in a sex-act with the twentieth century’s most loathed figure. Yes, you read that correctly. The book is about twelve pages long, roughly eight of which are devoted to describing Hopkins and Hitler’s frenzied intercourse in eye-watering detail. The remaining four pages involve time-travelling assassins, Eva Braun and Russell Brand.

At £1.99, it is incredibly hard to recommend purchasing this very short ebook. I’d feel cheated had I paid half that price for something that could be read beginning to end in a couple of minutes. I was able to get hold of a free copy and it made me laugh louder and harder than I have for quite some time. It’s filthy, puerile and in the worst possible taste. If you aren’t offended by it, then there is probably something wrong with you. Of course, just like Hopkins herself, that is precisely the author’s intention. I’ve read some pretty dumb things in the five years I’ve reviewed for Booksquawk but this one takes the cake. Approach with extreme caution.

Wolfcop: Fleshmob by Brad Munson

One of last year’s most fun films was the Canadian horror-comedy “Wolfcop”. A B-movie tribute to those dreadful straight-to-video gems that were inexplicably popular in the 1980s, “Wolfcop” told the story of Lou Garou, an alcoholic cop in a small town who transforms into a werewolf after being cursed. Garou’s new lupine powers enable him to become a better cop and uncover a conspiracy instigated by a group of reptilian shape-shifters. The daft storyline was made more palatable by some goofy practical effects and a generous serving of over-the-top gore. “Wolfcop” was never going to win any Oscars, but I found it entertaining enough to purchase a copy of this spin-off ebook as soon as it was released.

“Wolfcop: Fleshmob” is a sequel-of-sorts to the movie and sees Lou Garou investigating an outbreak of strange and incredibly violent flashmob-style dancing in his local mall. Before long, the lycanthropic policeman is caught up in a wild adventure revolving around musical mind-control, sinister corporations and a sexy goth extreme-wiccan who is adept at both hacking computers and tossing magical hexes around. Like the original movie, “Wolfcop: Fleshmob” is not meant to be taken too seriously. At 153 pages, this novella is the longest of the three ebooks reviewed here by quite a long way, but at £4 it is also the most expensive, perhaps even a little over-priced. Just like the film, the story manages to cram in a decent amount of action and gore whilst squeezing in a few knob-gags for good measure. It’s never hilariously funny, nor is it gripping enough to keep you awake all night reading but Munson’s prose is snappy enough and, at a few choice moments, the dialogue is reminiscent of the firecracker exchanges of a Joe R. Lansdale novel. However, this ebook is let down by more than its fair share of clumsy spelling mistakes and one gets the impression that it could have benefitted from a more thorough edit before being unleashed on the world. I’ve seen sloppier ebooks, but not at such a high price.

Despite these minor grumbles, I found it easy to get swept along with the pure unbridled silliness of it all and I will probably read Lou Garou’s next adventure, should it ever happen. The film didn’t get the publicity it deserved and so it remains relatively obscure, not even popular enough to deserve the sobriquet of “cult film”. This novella is even less likely to gain popular acclaim but I have no doubt that fans of “Wolfcop” will find plenty to entertain them here.


Hereward L.M. Proops

July 1, 2015

BENCHLEY BITES:

Non-Shark Thrillers From The Creator of Jaws

Review by Pat Black

It’s the 40th anniversary of the original Jaws movie, but I cannot write anything about either the book or the film which hasn’t been covered here already.

I can, however, write about Peter Benchley’s other watery thrillers. So let’s hold our noses, and jump in.

The Deep (1976)

Following Jaws was a tall order. How do you move on from a book that sold millions of copies and spawned a cultural juggernaut?

The author was wise to focus on underwater menace, though I can imagine he may well have been nudged into more oceanic adventures through the entreaties of his agent and publishers. Although Benchley loved the sea and the creatures that live there, as a writer he might not have liked being lowered into the “sharks guy” or the “ocean thrillers guy” cage.

Commercial logic dictated that he should stick to a winning formula, and so we got The Deep, hitting bookstores a year after Jaws became a monster at the box office. The iron was hot, and Benchley had another hit.

If you say the word “Jaws” to people, you’d assume most people would think of a shark. But you’ll most likely hear any number of associations, from John Williams’ score to the Orca to Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech, to needing a bigger boat, to some bad hat Harry, to the mayor’s extraordinary anchor-pattern sports jacket, to (enough. Enough!!!)…

However, if you mention “The Deep” to people, then you will most likely be given two points of reference, both of which reside underneath Jacqueline Bissett’s wet t-shirt. Thanks to Peter Yates’ movie version which appeared a year later, the English rose provided a cinematic vision of sweaty-palmed male lust arguably on a par with Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain, or Raquel Welch in a furry bikini. It’s a painfully sexist concept, but it did its job, which was to publicise the movie. When asked about this aspect of The Deep years later, Benchley diplomatically and even gallantly described Bisset as “a very brave and game lady” - who was well aware of the attention that her famous wet t-shirt shots would bring her.

This is a shame, because The Deep is a taut thriller, perfect holiday reading. It follows David and Gail Sanders, a young couple on a Scuba diving honeymoon in Bermuda. They discover a wartime wreck, and inside they find an “ampoule” filled with liquid, which turns out to be weapon-grade morphine. The wreck is filled with these.

Word gets around back on the island, and the couple are menaced by a local gangster, Cloche, who wants to know the location of this underwater drugs gold-mine. Luckily, the couple are helped by local character and wreck salvage expert Romer Treece to vacuum up the ampoules strewn around the wreck. It turns out that there’s something else down there, beneath the 1940s wreck; a sunken galleon, loaded with treasure.

There’s plenty of underwater thrills, including a few shark moments. Benchley had to include a monster, though, and in this story it’s a giant Moray eel which darts out of a hidey-hole in the wreck to snack on unwary divers. The Deep is an enjoyable, fast-paced adventure story and a fine follow-up to Jaws (or at least, as good as Benchley could have hoped).

We have to talk about sex, though.

In Jaws, Hooper and Ellen Brody’s affair is a jarring moment, a curious emasculation of the novel’s hero, Chief Brody. The pair’s bar-room chat in the lead-up to doing the naughty is cringe-worthy stuff, featuring rape fantasies which seem to spool off into the actual sex itself, going by Ellen’s recollection of it. The Deep features a similar sense of the book’s hero being symbolically cuckolded. Two scenes are noteworthy in this regard, both of which made it into the movie. In one part, David and Gail are captured by Cloche’s henchmen and made to strip, ostensibly to make sure they aren’t hiding any magic ampoules in their shorts and sandals. Benchley describes the palpable lust of the men as Gail takes her clothes off, even going so far as to show David becoming involuntarily excited by this scenario, and implanting the phrase “absurd tumescence” into my psyche forevermore.

The pair are subsequently let go, but there’s another scene in which the hero’s wife is stripped and assaulted as part of a weird voodoo ritual. “They didn’t rape me,” is the first thing Gail says when David and Treece find out she’s been attacked, after having been diving at the wreck site.

It’s a bit odd. And rapey.

The Deep is long out of print, but is worth seeking out second-hand. As we saw in Jaws, and as we shall see elsewhere here, Benchley had a talent for the big finish. Although the shark’s death in his novel wasn’t as eye-catching as it was in Steven Spielberg’s film, Jaws had a thrilling finale and a narrow escape for the hero. The same is true in The Deep, which finishes on an exclamation mark.

The Island (1979)

“Okay, we’ve done sharks, we’ve done treasure hunting… What’s next, Peter? Pirates? Guffaw!”

Indeed, pirates.

Finishing the 1970s on the crest of a wave, Benchley’s next book looked to adventure above the surface. The Island’s main character, Blair Maynard, is a journalist on the hunt for his next haaat scooooop. He gets wind of several strange shipping disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. So, of course, he goes on an assignment to see if modern day pirates are behind the mystery which plagues this tropical paradise.

That distant crackling sound you just heard was the derisory laughter of thousands of journalists, for whom the idea of such an “assignment” on their day job really is the stuff of fiction.

Ironically, this may not quite have been the case in the late 1970s, a period which old-timers in journalism refer to as the “golden age”. There was lots of money to be earned, being drunk at work was positively encouraged, you could actually make a living from freelancing and, yes, some people did get sent to strange and exotic places for the sake of a miserable two-page spread on pages 10 and 11. The words “paid sabbatical” were also uttered with the utmost seriousness by some staffers in those days, whereas today they are mentioned in the same context as “Bigfoot”, “Loch Ness Monster” and “trickle-down economics”.

So, Maynard takes his young son on this assignment, only to discover – shiver me timbers! –there are indeed pirates patrolling these waters. They duly get captured by… Well… Now, hold on a minute.

Fantasies of front-line journalism aside, The Island was doing okay up until this point. Benchley was getting away with it. Even in these days of GPS tracking, sophisticated homing devices and improved search and rescue systems, ships can still go missing in remote places, and we all know about the reality of modern-day piracy. So, up until this point, Benchley had a potentially exciting novel on his hands. Editors would have sat up and taken notice; perhaps they’d even have scribbled some notes. Imagine a tense pursuit at sea, with fearsome gun-toting brigands, involving drugs, people-trafficking and simple bloody-mindedness on the high seas, as the goodies have to fight to survive. Not a bad premise at all.

Unfortunately, Benchley takes a wrong turn, at a basic conceptual level. His pirate novel is peopled by… actual pirates.

Not tense, stringy modern-day menaces with Uzis and machetes, but actual, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, ahaaaaarggggh me beauties”, eyepatches, peg legs, parrots and cutlasses pirates.

The gang is a bizarre sect living under the guiding hand of the fearsome Captain Nau, descended from an original 17th century pirate, living by the same customs and rules. As a result they are unwashed, genetically compromised and sexually bizarre, and make Tom Baker’s old sea dog in Blackadder seem like your favourite uncle.

Plus… if The Deep had a little trickle of rape about some of its scenes, then The Island is drenched in it. Women and children? Raped. Blokes? Raped. Animals? Inanimate objects? Fresh air? Probably raped.

Possibly Benchley was aiming to portray the type of rape n’ pillage activities that were all the rage among most seafaring rogues from the Vikings onwards, but this all seems dreadfully unnecessary.

Bizarre scene follows bizarre scene, ranging from a strange albino pilot who accompanies Maynard on the early part of his journey who gets pissed at the helm and crashes his plane, to that crucial “fish oil enema” passage where the whole of Pirate Island defecates for an entire chapter.

You read that right. Fish oil enemas. Freestyle sh*tting. Don’t all rush to eBay at once.

The novel hinges on a strange tug of love between Mayard, his son Justin and Captain Nau, the big baddie. Justin is recruited into the ranks of Nau’s community for the sake of new blood. Rather than being slaughtered like everyone else, Maynard is allowed to live because, for all-too-convenient reasons, Nau discovers he has pirate blood in him, and to kill him would be against the pirate code of conduct, or something.

Maynard consoles himself with a native girl while Justin has a Lord of the Flies style experience with his new pirate buddies, changing his loyalties while Maynard looks on, aggrieved and yet sexually fulfilled with his concubine.

I don’t often say this on Booksquawk, and I’m also saying it about a man whose work has had a big effect on my life: The Island is a dreadful novel.

I first read it when I was 16 after having picked it out from a second-hand bookshop in Partick, and even at that less-than-sensitive age I was scratching my head at its perverse absurdity. Benchley, who comes from American literary aristocracy, including his grandfather, the humourist Robert Benchley, and his father, Nathaniel, and was himself more than capable of turning out a fine sentence, must have known he had written an absolute gobbler.

Maybe it was a lazy hack job written out of contractual obligation; the same scenario as when bands go through the motions to fulfil a restrictive record contract, with a view to getting a better one later on, or splitting up for more lucrative solo careers.

Whatever the reasons for its existence, this book is silly and outright bizarre, with some worrying preoccupations. If it was written as a joke, then it falls flat on its face. The kind of quip you’d make after a few drinks at a party, drawing flat silences and tense faces, following which you simply have to leave.

What strikes me as particularly astonishing about The Island is that, in spite of its patent absurdity, it was quickly optioned for film rights, and was actually made as a movie in 1980, starring Michael Caine.

Caine has had an amazing career, but it was never more interesting than in the 1980s. Although this decade saw him win his first Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters and also appear in great films like Mona Lisa, Educating Rita and even Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he didn’t half make some dreadful shite to pay the bills. The Island, which bellyflopped at the box office, qualifies on this front.

Of course, there’s another Benchley link to consider, as Jaws: The Revenge lurks on Caine’s CV. Indeed, he famously couldn’t turn up to receive his Academy Award in 1987 because he was shooting that great white turkey in the Bahamas at the time. There’s an oft-repeated quote attached to Caine, in which the actor reportedly said that he had never seen Jaws: The Revenge, but he had seen the house he built thanks to his salary.

It’s alright for some, me old china.

One thing I will say in its favour: like Jaws and The Deep, The Island has an abrupt, thrilling and unexpected climax as Maynard goes toe-to-stump with Captain Nau. It’s not worth the journey, though, unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys looking at photos of crime scenes.

Beast (1991)

Maybe as a result of the brain-quaking stupidity of The Island, Peter Benchley didn’t return to oceanic thrillers for another 12 years. He put out The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (more on that later), a watery modern-day fable, and then went on dry land for Rummies, aka Lush (although there’s a lot of wet stuff in that book), as well as the political novel Q Clearance. Although it appears that these books get closer to the heart of Peter Benchley as the writer he wanted to be, they didn’t sell very well.

I guess he’d been badgered… wrong animal; let’s say piranhaed… for years to write “something like Jaws”. He duly delivered in 1991 with the story of another sea monster, the giant squid, in Beast.

Beast (later renamed The Beast, for whatever reason), takes place in Bermuda, and sees a monster filling its suckers with hapless Scuba divers and pleasure boaters. Benchley, who often seemed afflicted by guilt or regret over the effect Jaws supposedly had on demonising sharks, was careful to lay the blame for his latest monster mash on environmental concerns. The harmony of the sea has been unbalanced by over-fishing, which leads creatures like Architeuthis Dux - usually found loitering in the deep sea to give sperm whales nookie badges - into changing its habits. The monster creeps ever closer to the surface, and finally butts mantles with humanity.

There’s even a little meta-commentary, as the characters discuss Jaws as the fiction it is, and debate its effect on how sharks are viewed. If Benchley was trying to distance himself from Jaws – in a book about a man-eating sea beast, no less - then he might at least have tried to do the same with his plot, which is in some cases near-identical to its piscine predecessor.

The marauding cephalopod won’t go away, and thusly needs to be hunted and killed. Whip Darling (Benchley had a way with names) is our hero, a grizzled fishing boat captain with money worries who is paid, and then blackmailed, to take part in the search for the monster after it eats a millionaire’s children. Darling is grumpy like Quint, but less psychotic. Also on hand is a shifty marine biologist who sees a chance to make a name for himself in the scientific journals, as well as Darling’s military mate, and the Ahab-esque millionaire, hell-bent on killing the monster. Wonder how that’s going to pan out?

Things lead, rather predictably, to a hunter-becomes-the-hunted scenario at sea, with yet another unexpected, sudden, memorable climax.

It isn’t Jaws, but it’s very like Jaws, with easily recognisable beats and well-written scenes of seagoing peril. Also, Benchley had finally learned his lesson, and there’s no bad sex waiting to pounce on unwary doggie-paddlers. You know exactly what to expect with Beast, but I liked it for that, and fans of Jaws should check it out.

White Shark/Creature (1994)

Benchley had the very devil of a time with titles. Rummies, a strange blend of alcoholism memoir and murder mystery, is also known as Lush; even Beast got a “The” added to it in later editions.

Famously, Jaws was almost never Jaws at all - Benchley came up with a load of titles which didn't quite cut it, such as Leviathan Rising, The Stillness In The Water, and Aaargh Big Fishie Stop Biting Me! One of these may be a lie.

Creature, as I know it, was originally entitled White Shark. This book does not primarily concern a white shark (although one appears, called, er, Jaws). The title was changed to tie in with the TV movie adaptation of 1997, but it also helped gentle down some people who may have bought the book when it came out and complained, expecting it to be about, you know, the thing in the title.

It's a B-movie homage, featuring a genetically-spliced human/shark hybrid monster, created by those pesky Nazis. The Third Reich is a good stand-by if you need a villain everyone can get their teeth into without any political awkwardness. Hell, we were even friends with the Russians in 1994, so they were out - though around about this time Michael Crichton decided to take a pop at the Japanese for their business practises (?!!?).

The creature is a secret underwater weapon put together during some Josef Mengele-style experiments, with steel claws for hands and the jaws of a great white shark. This Nazi science uber-carnage programme was called “Der Weisse Hai”, which is why Benchley, or more likely his publishers, went for the original title. Obviously. 

How about The Bullshi*t In The Water, or Jobbies Rising

It's a fun beach read. Research scientists; Long Island setting; bit of ecology focusing on cute seals, a pregnant shark, a bit of romance... Curiously, the father-son bonding dynamic of The Island is explored again, though thankfully we dispense with pirate craziness and rape this time out. People do die but it's a decent family drama, with added monster - a nice sea change from Benchley's earlier dark, adult storylines. 

The book keeps its monster well hidden, with the author perhaps taking his cue from Spielberg, only revealing it to us at the end. I must confess I had to be reminded of how the story concludes. It’s confectionery, but I recall it was a serviceable enough thriller that merrily swims in the same pool as its better-known peers. 

This was Benchley's last piece of fiction. He spent the rest of his life pursuing his conservation interests, and although he did turn out a few more books on sharks, they're true-life pieces, mostly focusing on how to keep the critters alive in a world which seems intent on finning the lot of them. He died in 2006, aged 65.

Just the other day I read a piece on how Benchley supposedly helped make the world unnecessarily frightened of sharks. That article got on my wick, and prompted this one.

This isn't said enough about Peter Benchley: he was neither responsible for the demonisation of sharks, nor is he the reason why many species are endangered. We've been frightened of sharks forever, so it's disingenuous to suggest this was something that began in 1975. They were not regarded as cute and cuddly prior to Jaws. They were also well-known symbols of menace and fear throughout mainstream fictions, long before Our Bruce ever thrashed popular culture into bloody foam. Just read Jules Verne, or Herman Melville, if you don’t believe me.

The reason is simple: sharks are dangerous animals. We know that attacks are very rare and that they don't really want to eat humans - but sometimes, they do. That’s the juice.

We are fascinated by our great predators. Like the eagle or the tiger, a shark is an instantly recognisable creature, a thing of fearful symmetry. We love it for that. Jaws has a very rare, inter-generational cultural cache, tapping into our very psyche. The idea of being eaten alive by a fish is something out of our nightmares. But I'd argue the story’s influence on sharks has been, ultimately, positive.

The environmental obscenity of finning and over-fishing has nothing to do with Jaws. The white shark may well have been more prized by sports anglers in the immediate aftermath of Jaws, and certainly its gnashers would have been seen by some dullards as a trophy worth putting on the mantelpiece. But these folk are in a small minority compared to people like me, who grew up in the teeth of Jaws, and were awestruck by the creature portrayed.

I became more interested in sharks not as dumb brutes to be slaughtered, but as things worthy of respect, even affection. I grew up obsessed by sharks, and I’ll still clear my schedule for a spot of shark porn any time nature documentaries are screened. Jaws is the reason for this.

As Jaws continues to enjoy what Benchley described as “a strange cultural resonance”, so its positive influence grows. People young and old love sharks, and we don't want to see them wiped out. After fascination, came education; we know so much more about these creatures now than we did in 1975.

Benchley's big fish story should start to take some credit for all of this. Certainly he was a tireless advocate of marine conservation for much of his life, and he deserves recognition for that, too.

There’s one more sea-themed book which Benchley released, but it was a bit of a departure: The Girl Of The Sea of Cortez. It’s a gentle love letter to the ocean, and many people have told me it’s his best book. I’ll have to investigate. 

June 19, 2015

THE BEST OF LIBRARY OF DEATH

by Steve Dillon, Dave Gibbons, Brendan McCarthy et al
90 pages, Hibernia

Review by Pat Black

You can see how influential a children’s comic is by tracking how expensive it is on eBay. Scream! issues aren’t difficult to find, but they go for a few quid, depending on their condition. Compare and contrast with copies of Roy of the Rovers or the Eagle from the same era.

Issue one, dating from early 1984 – if complete with its original free gift of plastic Dracula fangs – is going for as much as £50 now. The summer specials are so rare that you hardly see them listed at all.

I’m always on the lookout. The tragedy is… and some collectors out there might actually scream when they read this… I used to have the complete Scream! collection. Every issue. And all the summer specials. Even the 1989 Spinechillers spin-off.

I don’t know whether to kick myself for having thrown them all away in a brutal cull when we cleared out the old family home many years ago, or to kick myself because I am generally tapped.

“Comics? What age are you? Can’t you grow up? Leave your childhood alone?”

Not 100%, no. I can’t.

Scream! was a horror comic for children. It made a big impression on me as a youngster. I already liked ghosties and ghoulies thanks to Scooby Doo, but this peculiarly nasty little publication was a step into a more macabre world.

I was seven when it came out, and I read it every week, utterly goggle-eyed. This was the era of video nasties; indeed, Mrs Thatcher’s government brought in legislation to curb what people could choose to watch that very same year, with the Video Recordings Act. Some mischievous soul at IPC publications - which brought the world “the sevenpenny nightmare” Action! as well as the one-time punky young upstart turned grand old lady of UK comics, 2000AD - sought to cash in on the craze for all things horrible at this time.

Of course, Scream! was missing the adult preoccupations and sexual morality of the old EC comics in the US, but it was grim enough. The hooded, twinkly-eyed Ghastly McNasty was our sardonic editor, penning snarky introductions to stories at his desk “from the Depths” of Kings Reach Towers in London.

You couldn’t see Ghastly’s face. One of the early hooks was a competition for children to draw what they thought he looked like, with prizes for anyone who got close. Which I did, taking my cue from the clues they gave you every week (though I wasn’t brave enough to send my efforts in).

Dracula was the cover star. The Dracula File placed the count in modern-day Britain, pursued by the KGB agent Stakis (you see what they did, there?). Monster was a modern-day gothic horror, focusing on an English family home in the country with a drunken father, a neglected son and a mysterious, murderous creature kept locked in the attic. Its first episode - which I remember very clearly, one of the first comic episodes where I could not wait to see what happened next - was written by Alan Moore.

Then there was The Thirteenth Floor, narrated by Max the computer, a square screen with an electronic squiggle for features. Max was the multi-purpose caretaker of a modern tower block. For superstitious reasons, the building was missing a 13th floor… except it wasn’t. Whenever teenage yobs, loan sharks or other immoral beings who threatened his tenants got into Max’s lift, the computer would deposit them into a mysterious zone where their crimes were visited upon them, plus plenty of interest.

In the first two issues, a debt collector is chased around a 1980s arcade game-style maze by bankers in bowler hats, distributing electric shocks via their umbrellas. Later, members of the teenage gang The Spiders are chased by thousands of scampering tarantulas, leading to a swarm of eight-legged beasties so horrible that committed arachnophobes like my missus would struggle to look at it.

Graffiti artists, crooked pest controllers and – most controversially – a nosey police officer all fall foul of Max’s ironic punishment nightmare zone, their scared-to-death bodies found dumped in the lift the next day.

Other strips included The Nightcomers, featuring a brother-and-sister team of paranormal investigators, and Terror of the Cats, a James Herbert-themed take on feline furry fury, the concept and title of which I ripped off for the first bad novel I attempted, aged 14. This was one of those efforts that you fantasise about appearing from your filing cabinet to embarrass you after you’re dead, following your successful career as a serious novelist. 

Scream! also made an impression on my brother, seven years my elder, who was going through a long hair, biker jackets and heavy metal phase at the time. I once embarrassed him as we walked home from school – me trailing about 10 yards behind, as we’d agreed – when he started telling his mates this story he’d heard about a computer taking over a tower block and killing people.

“That’s from The Thirteenth Floor!” I blurted out, excitedly. “You’ve been reading my comics!”

It was worth the beating.

Scream! ran for 15 issues before stopping its run abruptly, entirely unannounced. This was unusual in UK comics at the time. Usually when a title closed, you’d see that dreaded announcement splattered across the front cover: “Great news for readers inside!” This meant that your favourite comic was going to “merge” with another – shutting down, in other words, with one or two stories cherry-picked for the bigger title to help any faithful readers to “cross the floor”. Both IPC and DC Thomson (Britain’s versions of Marvel and DC, and everything that implies) were regular offenders here. There’s a part of me still aggrieved that Spike was swallowed up by Champ.

But Scream! didn’t advertise its demise. It simply reappeared a little bit later, attached as junior partner to the action/adventure/sci-fi warhorse Eagle. I remember my dear old mum – who probably spent more than the family could afford on my beloved comics - asking at RS McColl’s about why the comic simply vanished from the racks. They didn’t know, either.

Scream!’s abrupt closure helped foster its legendary status. There were rumours it was shut down thanks to its grim content – which, looking at it today (you can do so right here, at http://www.backfromthedepths.co.uk/), was quite graphic considering it was aimed at children.

There is a more prosaic explanation, with an industrial dispute leading to the publication simply not being printed for a couple of weeks. Another thing to blame Mrs Thatcher for, then.

Scream! was memorable, grisly stuff. It was skulls, spiders, snakes, cobwebs, tombs and graveyards. It was Dracula, werewolves, skeletons, mummies, zombies and ghosts. There was a little blood… not a lot, but more than enough. I loved it, and still do. But it wasn’t just cheesy. There was a good thick streak of black humour in the stories – a sardonic glee in unfair fates and malevolent agency which the nasty little creature I was thoroughly enjoyed.

Stephen King said that most horror stories have a sense of morality that outstrips that of a puritan. This could be seen in many of the stories in Scream!, where the greedy, the brutal and the vain are punished… But not always. Sometimes, as I knew all too well from real life, the innocent got punished, too. That’s where the Library of Death comes in…

If there was a sinister hand at work in the demise of Scream!, then Library of Death might be a key reason why it got involved. It was a series of one-off shockers, and easily my favourite part of the comic. For years, I’ve been hoping Scream! would get the reprint treatment, so I was delighted to discover that The Best of Library of Death has been resurrected in all its glory by Hibernia Comics.

It’s been a pleasure to flick through this collection and re-encounter some images – especially in the stories I’d forgotten about, like “At Death’s Door”, in issue one. Here, a young boy isn’t allowed to go to the Ghost House at a fairground by his curiously detached foster parents. A ghostly visitor takes the boy to where he wanted to that night – but the apparitions are scarier than he could imagine. What could have been a typical it-was-all-just-a-dream caper has a nasty twist, though, where the boy’s foster parents (“It’s because you’re not my real mum and dad!” the boy yells… And that’s a detail you take notice of as a child) are ushered towards a barred door, beyond which death itself lies. The boy has a key in his hand; all he has to do it turn it, and they meet Death…

Then we get to the real classics. “Spiders Can’t Scream” sees a greedy treasure hunter finding a lost city in the South American jungles. He shoots everyone in the expedition party as well as some of the indigenous people of the city in order to get his hands on the riches contained within – but there’s a big, eight-legged problem lurking behind a secret door. I was horrified at the initial sticky situation, but there’s an even more perverse problem for this particular tomb raider once he comes back to consciousness… after the Spider God eats him.

“The Drowning Pond” is perhaps the most nightmarish of all the stories. It sees a young boy nearly dragged to his doom by a skeleton which appears in a pond when he goes to retrieve a football. It turns out a woman died there, having been “ducked” during witch trials hundreds of years before. But not before cursing the place…

The boy’s dad and a local doctor don their swimming trunks and go for a swim in the pond to investigate… and, “Ye gods!” indeed. I’ll never forget that frame where the long-haired skeleton rises from the pond to strangle the boy’s dad. I see this strip cited now and again on nostalgic “what scared you as a child?” internet articles and forum posts, so I know I wasn’t alone.

“Terror of the Tomb” was a fairly straightforward mummy’s curse story. Looking at it now, what’s most memorable isn’t the bandaged goon that creeps out of its sarcophagus after another vainglorious tomb raider, but the skeletons of its previous victims strewn around the floor. There’s one extraordinary frame where the doomed archaeologist finds the remains of a missing friend, lit by a gas lamp – one of the images chosen for the front cover.

I was obsessed with “Beware The Werewolf”. This story coincided almost perfectly with another memorable event from those days when my brother and his heavy metal biker wannabe mates babysat me… and decided to watch The Howling on video, recorded off the telly. Now, I didn’t watch a single frame of this film, as I was told by my brother to cover my eyes with the drawing pad I scribbled in constantly. I could hear the screams, the growls, and my brother and his mates’ excited commentary (which ran to silence when that brazen werewolf lady went full-frontal). The transformation scene seemed to take an age. “Look! It’s amazing! Just look at it!” my brother said.

I didn’t look… but what I imagined, and later drew in that self-same pad, was worse than anything I might have actually seen. Perhaps inspired by that ITV screening of The Howling, “Beware The Werewolf”, drawn by Judge Dredd artist Steve Dillon, saw a brilliantly realised hybrid monster stalking the cities of England, ripping people apart every full moon. A detective gets a strange tip-off about a big game hunter who has pledged to hunt the unidentified animal… Could it be that he’s a werewolf?

The visuals and the denouement were remarkable for the medium and its intended audience, but what’s also unusual is that the story broke a taboo. The opening page shows the werewolf springing off a wall to attack a pretty young woman. Practically nowhere else in Scream!’s pages can you find any images of women in peril. Even Dracula seemed to prefer the necks of men to those of women (maybe after you live a thousand years or so, your tastes change, I dunno). The comic was very careful not to place young, attractive women in dangerous situations. In the only other story I can recall which features a woman killed – the fake-medium-gets-ironic-come-uppance tale “All Done With Wires”, which also appears here – the victim is middle-aged, short-haired and overweight; ie, not sexualised.

“Beware the Werewolf” was different. You don’t see the girl hurt, but it’s clear what’s going to happen. If a censor finally decided to put a red pen through Scream!, this one frame would have been a key example used to help make the decision.

Then there’s the two-part “Sea Beast”, which featured a B-movie style monster created by nuclear pollution. Again, Scream! teased us by hinting at the monster’s form in a cliffhanger (“Ye gods!” again), before revealing it on the front cover of the next issue. I waited patiently for seven days, with a hook stuck right in my gob. When the creature was duly outlined in all its crab-clawed, spiny-backed, Moray eel-mouthed glory, I used tracing paper to try and learn how to draw it perfectly.

This story featured the sea monster picking off tramps – they never get a break in these tales – before lurking in swimming pools at seafront houses, waiting for people to dive in. That was one to bear in mind before I leapt into the public baths, around the corner from our old house.

The roster of talents involved in Scream! is impressive. Alan Moore contributed to the writing side in the Monster serial; although many of the Library of Death writers here are listed as “unknown”, it’s not out of the question that he may have been involved. Was this too early for Neil Gaiman? I think he was featured in 2000AD by this point. Simon Furman wrote most of the memorable stories, though, and he’s fully credited here.

As for art, there are two linked stories featuring Dave Gibbons’ distinctive penmanship, “Tales of the Nightcomer”, which were stock strips held over from the late 1970s according to this book’s introduction. I remember reading both of these in the 1986 Holiday Special (which boasted an extraordinary image of a green-faced, bloody-fanged Dracula), and while I didn’t really like these stories compared to the grungy charm of Library of Death, I do remember thinking that the art was a cut above the normal. Dave Gibbons is the reason why.

Brendan McCarthy’s work is also distinctive, decorating “The Punch and Judy Horror Show” – retrospectively, the scariest story in the book. It sees an end-of-the-pier seaside performer deciding to murder his boss after he’s given the sack, only to be brought to book by his own puppets.

I was slightly disappointed to find that some of the shorter, one-page Ghastly Tales were included here at the expense of others from the Library of Death – I’d been looking forward to seeing “Death Road” again, where a ghostly hitch-hiker haunts a lonely route, but no dice. That was before I read them again...

Returning to these nasty titbits as an adult, it’s clear they were a key part of the charm of Scream! “Green Fingers”, “Aunt Mary, Uncle Sid” and “Goodbye Uncle George” are all tight little shockers with a knowing smirk on their face, but some of the images – particularly the caring mother turned into a stricken-faced weed monster in “Green Fingers” – are disturbing. Most impressive of all is “Unlucky for Some”, originally printed in issue 13. This takes the form of family album snapshots leading up to the narrator’s 13th birthday, when he undergoes a fairly radical change more in step with Michael Landon than Adrian Mole. The notes reveal that the artist is Trevor Goring, who is now a storyboard artist for major films.

Scream! is not for the nervous – or so it warned on you on the cover. “Read if you dare!” Even if you were a bit nervous, you simply couldn’t resist that invitation. This book is a little piece of history - my own, as well as many others’ in my generation. But even if you’ve never experienced Scream! before, this is an important slice of British publishing history, complete with an appropriately mysterious demise. And who knows… if you’re open-minded enough… you might even have a little monster in your life who’ll love it as much as I did.


Hibernia also printed collections of The Thirteenth Floor and The Dracula File. The former is sadly sold out; but the latter is heading for my shelves, soon. Get these fantastic pieces of work while you can… If you dare…

June 11, 2015

IN PLAIN SIGHT:

by Dan Davies
592 pages, Quercus

Review by Pat Black

I suppose, at some point, someone must have liked Jimmy Savile. No-one would admit to it now, of course. He haunts public discourse, and will for years to come, with a great clanking bell round his neck. More than three years after he died, people can hardly bear to look at photographs of him in his heyday. The gurning face, the beady shark-black eyes. He’s a spindly blond spider, forever crouched, ready to spring.

When it emerged a year after his death that the DJ and Jim’ll Fix It host was a predatory paedophile who abused hundreds of vulnerable young girls and boys, as well as hospital patients and disabled people, it was a shock, but not a massive one.

There were always rumours about Jimmy Savile. For a person who was so closely involved in youth culture, there was always something a bit wrong about him. “You wouldn’t leave him in charge of your kids” was a common pub refrain. He looked grubby. The p*ss-yellow hair appeared toxic, even in black and white, and his sartorial choices might well have triggered that ugly simile, “he was sweating like a rapist in a shell suit”.

The man looked like your idea of a paedophile, and he was – hence the title of Dan Davies’ In Plain Sight. Many used to doubt that Savile was a child abuser, reasoning that the tabloids or the police would have exposed him long ago. That they didn’t, despite lots of allegations being raised against him from the 1970s onwards, is still subject to final reports in official inquiries. A good portion of this book sees Davies ruthlessly exposing the incompetence and cowardice of some who turned away from the Savile story, especially when the bubble finally burst in 2012. 

Dan Davies comes in at some time after Louis Theroux’s watershed documentary on Savile in 2000, which led to the first serious question marks being publicly raised over the DJ’s lifestyle. Davies admits that Savile frightened him as a child, but he went on to spend a lot of his professional life interviewing him, profiling him for magazines and newspapers, and finally writing this book.

Like many, Davies’ instincts were shrieking at him about Jimmy Savile. But In Plain Sight doesn’t just focus on Savile’s crimes. It is an exhaustive biography of the man, focusing on what might have formed his complex character and facilitated his deviant behaviour. It’s also an insight into how he managed to get away with it for a lifetime.

Savile’s offences are too many, too exhausting and simply too depressing to go into. The author wisely dials down the details, but gets into the reasons why Savile managed to hoodwink an entire nation. A highly intelligent man, the DJ was also almost certainly a sociopath with a gift for manipulating and influencing people. After becoming arguably the first superstar DJ (he claimed to have pioneered the twin turntable), he found an intoxicating blend of money and fame as British youth culture exploded in the early 1960s. The obvious corollary of this was access to star-struck girls, and Savile helped himself.

As Savile got older – he was in his thirties when the Beatles started topping the charts – the ages of the girls stayed low. It’s sickening to think of him approaching his fifties while he was presenting Top of the Pops, surrounded by schoolgirls, some of whom he undoubtedly abused.

Davies cherry-picks a telling admission from Savile. When he first dropped the needle on the record, and the dancefloors filled, the DJ recalls being filled with a strange power: the ability to control behaviour through the simple act of spinning a disc. Although he insists it isn’t “power” per se, Savile does a jolly good job of describing exactly that. What a thrill it must have been for someone desperate to have fame, renown and influence. It must be like a hit of the ultimate drug, the motherlode of manipulation.

Soon it wasn’t just young girls hanging around outside BBC dressing room doors that Savile was abusing – he was going into children’s homes, notably Haut de la Garenne in Jersey and Duncroft, the latter a residential school for “troubled girls”. This term could encapsulate a range of youngsters with a galaxy of problems. Savile promised the girls days out in his fancy car, and showered them with gifts and treats, with the full approval of the school’s administrators. What the girls got in return for their company was squalid abuse.

This forms one of the most depressing parts of the book. As some of the girls reveal to Davies, many of Savile’s victims went along with what happened, because, in their misery, it was their only way of escaping Duncroft for an afternoon. They saw a few minutes of molestation from a creepy old man as a price worth paying, so long as they got beyond the walls for a while. You can only hope that some of these people went on to discover that the world is not completely filled with wickedness.

It becomes even more unspeakable. Savile realised that the easiest pickings of all could be found trapped in hospital beds and wheelchairs. He had access to wards at Leeds General Infirmary, Stoke Mandeville spinal injuries unit and Broadmoor high security hospital. He raised millions of pounds for all these facilities, and as a result was often allowed to come and go as he pleased, working as a volunteer porter with access to keys and even accommodation.

Savile’s death obsession was, like all of his other perversions and depravities, something he admitted to with sometimes startling candour in newspaper interviews. This was often a “bait-and-switch” tactic to cover up what he was actually doing: feed out a little bit of truth, to throw off suspicion over the full picture, and make the concealment more compelling. For example, he would openly describe “going for tea” with the parents of young girls he had met.

Savile admits to having stayed with his adored mother’s body in her Scarborough flat for days on end leading up to her funeral, which he described as the “happiest time of his life”. He also spoke, in spiritual terms, of how much he enjoyed looking after the recently deceased in his capacity as a volunteer porter at LGI. He once spoke about the “privilege” of helping to lay out the body of an elderly man who had been burned to death.

With the child abuse rumours turning out to be completely true, the internet forum fodder of Savile’s alleged necrophilia are now all too plausible.

Broadmoor, where Savile had his own flat, and could come and go as he pleased, provides another point of intrigue explored by Davies. Savile met the facility’s most famous inmate, the Yorkshire Ripper, several times. His story and that of Peter Sutcliffe’s mingle in extremely disturbing ways. Savile once offered to act as an “intermediary” for the police if the Ripper was ever caught; why this would be necessary, and why he would choose to interfere in that particular case, is anyone’s guess. It’s possible that being the country’s most famous Yorkshireman might have given Savile some interest, given that this region was the killer’s main hunting ground.

But it turned out Savile was linked to the Ripper case in even more hair-raising ways. When one of Sutcliffe’s victims was found in Roundhay Park, near Savile’s flat, the DJ was pulled in by police to have a cast of his teeth made. The reason Savile’s name appeared on the list of suspects was because he was well-known by the vice squad in the area.

This simple fact explodes the oft-repeated lie that the police didn’t know a thing about Jimmy Savile’s activities. They knew enough to suspect him of being one of the worst sex killers of modern times.

Why did Jimmy Savile attach himself to Broadmoor? What was his fascination with Peter Sutcliffe? Davies theorises more than once that Savile’s mindless sexual urges might have found the ultimate expression in murder. Apart from a tenuous link to a business associate found drowned, Davies finds no suggestion that this might have been the case. It’s a compelling theory, though. My gut instinct agrees with him. Perhaps, in his attachment to Broadmoor, Savile sought to understand himself through the study of people similar to him. I would tend to see Savile doing this for pragmatic reasons. Perhaps he could learn how psychopaths got caught, so that he wouldn’t make the same error himself? Whatever the case, given what we now know, there was probably something other than altruism at the heart of Savile’s motives concerning Broadmoor.

Many people witnessed Savile’s behaviour and, like several of his victims, got in touch with the authorities - but nothing was ever done. Savile’s power and influence was spread far and wide. He regarded himself as untouchable; he even referred to himself as “the Godfather”. One serving police officer caught Savile red-handed, late at night in his car with a teenage girl. “We’re waiting for midnight and her 16th birthday,” the garrulous DJ breezed, when asked what was going on. The young constable did nothing, after Savile warned him he could lose his job.

He could be frightening, even violent as the occasion demanded. Savile did everything he could to stamp down on suspicion, control every situation, insulate himself from inquiries and insure his activities against anyone seeking justice. He openly bragged about having a “policy”, if he was ever confronted with accusations of unsavoury behaviour. When he was finally questioned about complaints raised against him a couple of years before he died, he put his “policy” into place, spewing forth a stream of deceptive nonsense and treating the investigating officers with astounding contempt. That they treated him with deference, and preferred to sweep the complaints under the carpet, should be a matter of shame for everyone involved.

Savile’s carefree attitude to sexual assault and its consequences is jaw-dropping. The book is thankfully light on detail, but one chapter in which a woman gives direct testimony about how Savile raped her on a hospital ward when she was 12, only for nurses and doctors to repeatedly dismiss her story, will haunt anyone who reads it. The man was obscene.

So why would I have you endure this book?

Simply put, we have to understand why he got away with it. Victims have to be given a voice, in the face of what was effectively state-sanctioned abuse of children. And we have to understand that institutional corruption still lurks in this country.

Davies’ exposure of how the establishment closed ranks over Savile before and just after he died is razor-sharp. He shows how, from his earliest days in the dance halls, Savile fostered close links with serving police officers in his Leeds power base and elsewhere, links that he continued to enjoy up until his death. Davies gets frisked by retired coppers when he first appears at Savile’s flat, with Savile making clear from the start that they were his minders, and that any behaviour he viewed as untoward would have consequences. This simple intimidation with the support of police, retired or otherwise, was a way of ensuring that Savile could do what he wanted, and that if he should ever get into trouble with a girl, it could be waved away by those charged with upholding the law. After all, who’s going to believe what a child says over the great Jimmy Savile?

Savile worked this ingratiating tactic into how he dealt with other authority figures. Simple toadying and flattery can go a long way, whether it’s with Joe Public or the heir to the throne, and Savile was especially adept at this. It certainly worked with the Prince of Wales, a man you sense was brutalised by the system that spawned him, and someone looking for an approving father figure. Jimmy Savile, of all people, seems to have filled that mentor role. The late Princess Diana certainly described him as such; Savile was even drafted in as a marriage counsellor to the royal couple after their relationship broke down.

Savile’s ultimate authority figure bedfellow was Margaret Thatcher. Stories of them spending several New Year’s days together at Chequers, with their feet up before the fire, are well-known. The grocer’s daughter who became Prime Minister claimed she saw something of the entrepreneurial, can-do spirit she so admired in Jimmy Savile’s journey from the backstreets of Leeds to the heart of British public life. For his own part, Savile – a born hustler - was a man who appreciated pounds in his pocket, and identified with the Conservatives’ drive to make the market the dominant force in British life. Before he was anything, before even the sex crimes, Jimmy Savile was a devoted capitalist.

It was a match made in hell.

It is true that Savile did a lot for charity. Charity did a lot for him, too. Although it can’t be disputed that Savile raised millions of pounds for good causes, he was always on the lookout for kickbacks. His “sponsors” on his various marathon runs, for example, could sometimes be called upon to provide Savile with holiday accommodation, or a berth on a cruise ship here and there, as and when Jimmy felt like it. Nothing was for nothing, in Savile’s world.

Savile’s reinvention as a secular saint, selflessly pounding the streets on sponsored walks and charity runs to help disadvantaged people, has complex behavioural roots. Savile was a devout catholic. Drawing on experience of some questionable authority figures in my own catholic background, I recognise Savile’s peculiar mix of apparent piety and sociopathy. The ostentatious selflessness may have had a redemptive quality – basically: “If I help my local hospital, I might be forgiven for the bad things I’ve done.” In more sinister terms, it may be a simple acceptance from Savile that he must appease an omnipotent, omniscient higher power. The idea of a vindictive and sometimes terrible deity is a deeply seductive one for some nasty people whose chief desire is gaining power and influence over others.

It’s strange. The notion of an angry, patriarchal Old Testament god doesn’t seem quite so silly, illogical or unpleasant when we consider Jimmy Savile being presented in front of him for judgment.

Savile’s efforts in having the national spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville rebuilt on whatever cash the British public and private companies could spare, rather than the state, saved Margaret Thatcher from a red face. Her Conservative government’s cuts would have led to the facility closing down, a black mark for even that most pernicious of administrations. She never forgot this, and repeatedly called for Savile to be knighted in the honours list. Davies uncovers that she was repeatedly turned down, much to her intense, openly stated displeasure, with advisers and senior civil servants warning that Savile was not an appropriate candidate for such a high honour.

Although the reasons for this assessment were never explained, it does provide more evidence that people in authority had knowledge a little firmer than hearsay and office gossip which pointed towards Jimmy Savile being a pervert.

Thatcher got her wish, though, finally clearing the way for Savile to kneel before the Queen in 1990. It was the crowning glory for the working class boy from Leeds. But as he approached his 70th birthday, his career went into decline, with Jim’ll Fix It being axed in 1994 after 19 years. New boss Alan Yentob must take the credit for quickly scalping the man who was still viewed as something of a national treasure. Savile was out.

Although he was finished in terms of the big time, Savile was never far away from the headlines. He continued to appear at charity runs, bobbed around Stoke Mandeville, Broadmoor and Leeds General, and remained a very familiar figure in and around his native Leeds. He made the odd appearance on TV, including a “fairy godfather” stint in Celebrity Big Brother shortly before his death in 2011, aged 84.

Davies came into Savile’s life during this twilight phase. The author acknowledges that he was “groomed” in his own way by Savile, as the decrepit star offered him a berth alongside him on a cruise liner, presumably to guarantee favourable coverage. Davies’ portrait of Savile is memorably grotesque – his “talon-like” teeth, the disgusting eating habits… I may never look at a crabstick the same way again.

Despite his claims that he still “pulled birds”, it would appear that Savile’s offending tailed off as he got older. However, it is worth noting that the final complaint against him stems from 2006, just shy of his 80th birthday, when he allegedly groped a member of the audience on the final commemorative edition of Top of the Pops. Nothing was done about it.

No-one – either in the police, or the BBC – challenged Savile on his outrageous behaviour. The man had a mobile rape wagon parked outside BBC facilities, for god’s sake. It’s true that a mixture of toadying, “favours”, being seen as a modern saint and sheer, glib bullsh*t gave him an aura of invincibility. But we shouldn’t be so naïve to think that all Savile needed was a bit of patter and jangling jewellery to persuade authorities to forgo their responsibility to the public. Subsequent inquiries have shown that there is scant record of Jimmy Savile in police archives, either on index cards or computer files – when we know for a fact that complaints were made about him, and that he “helped police with their inquiries” during the Ripper probe. I’m assuming that computer hacking was not part of Savile’s skillset.

Much as it’s easy to poke fun at the patronage Savile enjoyed from the highest levels of royalty and government, they were duped as much as the rest of the country. They surely didn’t know about his proclivities. But through simple association they were, indirectly and unwittingly, complicit in how he was allowed to carry on with his behaviour. Can you imagine being a child Savile abused and thinking about telling someone, only to see his gurning face alongside the Princess of Wales’ in the newspapers a couple of days later?

The police and the BBC still have questions to answer in this case: why was a blind eye turned to rampant child abuse? Why were suspicions and complaints not acted upon? Like many other disasters, the Jimmy Savile affair must have at least one good outcome: systems and controls must now be put in place to make sure people like Savile never again find safe haven in our public institutions. He must be the example used, the bogeyman, whenever controls get too lax, or if people act suspiciously. His legacy in this regard is bearing fruit, through Operation Yewtree and other historical abuse investigations.

To his victims, I would like to say this: Although nothing can take away that man’s terrible crimes and their effect on you, there is a weapon you have at your disposal to help yourself, and to help others who may be enduring the same horror. You have the truth on your side; you can speak out, you can write about it, you can tell your story, and most importantly you can seek assistance. There is purity to this, a concept that Jimmy Savile could never understand. He feared the truth as a vampire fears the dawn.

If there is one thing creatures like Savile despise, it’s being confronted with what they have done, for their mists of deceit and obfuscation to be blown away with honest testimony. Always, always, speak up against abusers of every kind. Today, there are opportunities to talk to someone, whether that’s a counsellor, a friend, a family member or even the police, online or on the end of a telephone. You do not have to suffer alone and in silence.