February 6, 2018

THE DRACULA FILE

by Gerry Finley-Day, Eric Bradbury et al
98 pages, Rebellio

Review by Pat Black

In 1984, a horror comic called Scream! hit the UK market. This was the height of the video nasties era in Britain, when hype and hysteria helped create something of a sub-cultural boom in all things scary and bloody.

The pattern typically went like this: tabloids hate thing; thing makes money. IPC magazines saw its chance.

I was seven years old. A 10-second TV advert transmitted on a Saturday morning showed Dracula and other horrors hiding behind a sofa, waiting to pounce on a boy reading the comic.

“Don’t buy Scream!” shrieked adverts in other funny pages. “You have been warned!”

Did I fall for it? You betcha.

It was brilliant – aiming for something between a period Hammer Horror and 1950s B-movies, with a few Addams family-style comic cuts thrown in. It had Victorian cryptkeepers, one-off Twilight Zone-style shockers, killer cats, psychic investigators, mutant sea beasts, monsters in the attic, giant spiders, bats, werewolves – and what a werewolf! - graveyards, skulls, cobwebs, tombs, ghosts and ghouls… And who could forget Max the Computer and his 13th Floor? (That’s coming in October… cackle!)

It hit right home - bullseye. I absolutely adored it. If you want a more detailed precis, I’ve extolled its virtues in some depth already, right here

The comic sold very well, but lasted just 15 issues before mysteriously disappearing from Britain’s newsagents. Theories persist that it was a little too near-the-knuckle for a children’s paper, and it had been cancelled as a result of the furore over video nasties then prevalent in the tabloids. Memories of Action! comic’s death-by-media experience were still relatively fresh in the public eye; IPC editorial staff wouldn’t have wanted to take chances.

Other commentators point to a more prosaic fate, with a printer’s strike having caused production on Scream! to stop for two weeks, after which the decision was taken to cancel. Although if that’s the case, why weren’t Roy of the Rovers, Eagle, Whoopee, Whizzer and Chips and all the rest from the IPC stable cancelled, too? Even temporarily? Why did it only kill Scream?

Wherever the truth lies, Scream! was not long for this mortal coil (its top strips ran for a bit longer after they were absorbed into the Eagle), but its black star burned very brightly. In the 34 years since it has enjoyed a charmed afterlife, being very well regarded by serious collectors and casual fans alike. The prices certainly creep up and up on eBay; seeing this, I curse myself for having had the entire collection in my hands before sending them to the cowpp one dark afternoon 15 years ago. Some of those summer specials are going for silly money now.

That said, I would never have sold my copies. If you read Scream! as a child, you never, ever forgot it.

Having bought IPC’s rich back catalogue from Egmont, 2000AD publisher Rebellion is reprinting its Treasure Trove Of British comics in collected form. This means Scream! can look forward to a joyful resurrection.

The Dracula File is a complete collection of strips from all 15 issues of Scream! as well as four holiday specials. It features Scream!’s cover star and its lead story in each issue… Yes, it’s Dracula. The Count sports a timeless look, borrowing from classic screen incarnations, and yet with a style all of his own - hair swept back from his skull, widow’s peak, dark hair, fangs, a cape, a medallion… and scary eyes.

The Dracula File brought the Count into present day England in 1984. It starts with someone defecting from the East German side in Berlin, somehow surviving being zapped with a machine gun as he makes a break for it in no-man’s land.

It soon becomes clear that the defector isn’t your regular Soviet spy come in from the cold. We don’t get into the reasons why Dracula doesn’t just change into a bat or a dog and try to get across that way, or even why he bothers with stealing a uniform when he has a spooky supernatural costume of his own. Logic is dispensed with many times in these stories.

The Count has used his defection as the perfect cover to get back to England and take up residence in the streets he knew 100 years before. After turning two humans into his servants, he is soon out for blood on those 1980s mean streets…

I’ll make a confession. Although I loved Dracula as a kid, I didn’t love The Dracula File. It wasn’t what I really looked forward to every issue. This is because Dracula wasn’t scary to me, the same was as Bruce the Shark or Darth Vader weren’t scary to me either – I saw them as heroes (anti-heroes might be a better term, although they were proper heroes to me). I’d have been happy with posters of them above my bed – and I was.

I’m not saying I identified with Dracula or anything, although I do recall lying in a cardboard box at my folks’ and pretending it was my coffin. Should I admit to that in public? Shit, I just have.

So, as I loved Dracula rather than feared him, I was more intrigued by the things which I did find scary about Scream! - such as the Library of Death anthology series, or The 13th Floor.

Looking at it with fresh eyes but an older head, I’m struck by how fantastic The Dracula File was – particularly Eric Bradbury’s artwork. Scripted by Rogue Trooper creator Gerry Finley-Day, this is a cheesy old Dracula, but he wasn’t rendered cheesily. In the front covers – in particular the unforgettable image snarling at you from the 1986 Holiday Special – he could be horrific, with greenish skin and blood smeared over his fangs. Bradbury paid particularly close attention to Drac’s eyes – his scariest feature. In these stories, you’ll see Drac morph into a bat or wolf, you’ll see him stalking people in the dark, and you’ll see him turn into smoke and choke people.

In one brilliant frame, Dracula waits inside a postbox, his eyes blazing forth from the slot when a luckless blood donor passes by one night.

I should have been more scared than I was, if that makes sense. And although you’ll never see Drac with his mouth fixed on anyone’s throat (there’s nothing remotely sensual in his blood-sucking, an understandably puritanical rendering of the vampire mythology), you’ll see him do some surprisingly nasty things. The worst graphic death by a mile is the punishment he metes out to a street hooligan he finds bullying a young boy in an alley – instant death with one swipe of his clawed hands.   

Of course, Drac is no white knight. After killing or scattering the bullies, he gluts himself on the boy they were picking on.

See? It’s nasty. You remember these things.

That aside, it’s pleasingly tongue-in-cheek. Let loose in London, Dracula stalks victims in a cinema, as they watch a horror movie entitled Dracula’s Death. Drac pounces at the same moment his on-screen depiction does the same to a victim in the film, with the very real screams drowned out by the audience. Then, even more deliciously, Dracula is invited to a Hallowe’en costume party by people impressed by his get-up. People offer him a drink, and he smiles sardonically. You almost don’t want this episode to end.

The prince of darkness is stalked by a man called Stakis (har de har), a tough KGB defector with a briefcase full of vampire-killing goodies… but you’re never quite on his side. He gets close to Dracula – at more than one point his stake is poised, waiting for the hammer to fall - but never close enough. A few flashback episodes show you an English vampire hunter who succeeds in making a killing stroke on his undead quarry back in Transylvania… but if Hammer Horror has shown us anything, it is that Dracula always comes back.

This handsome hardback collection is a bargain, and I treasure it already. It has the full bhoona (the full black pudding might be a better description) – absolutely everything Dracula-related from Scream!, including the full serial, all the one-off holiday special strips from 1985-88, a Dracula quiz, Dracula readers’ letters and artwork, all the front cover images and a quick essay detailing IPC’s horror output. If you were in the same sweet spot as me, a comics fan aged 7-12 in 1984, then you probably have this already. If you don’t, you should.

Creature feature Ant Wars from 2000AD (I encountered it in a 1980s reprint in Eagle) is out now from Rebellion; Scream! stalwart The 13th Floor is coming in October, and I cannot wait for that.

If anyone out there is listening, can we please, please have Bloodfang the tyrannosaur?

I dunno how successful this relaunch is, but I can tell you that it’s got my money safe. HookJaw the shark, another reprint from Action!, will be reviewed soon… after that, we’ll check out fellow Scream! alumni Uncle Terry, from Monster. Do tune in…

If you dare…  

January 25, 2018

DAY FOUR

by Sarah Lotz
352 pages, Hodder & Stoughton

Review by Pat Black

Ever wondered about those cruise ships? I love the sea, and I love boats, but cruise ships? Not sure. We’ve all heard horror stories. Here’s another one.

Day Four is Sarah Lotz’s loose follow-up to The Three, the kind of airport novel that you shouldn’t read at an airport, far less on a plane. I’d hesitate to call it a sequel as it works perfectly well on its own, but it references the Black Thursday plane crash events of the previous book and, maybe, takes place in the same universe.

Our setting is The Beautiful Dreamer, a liner that loses power and then its bearings in the Caribbean. It seems impossible that a ship could get lost in the modern age, with satellites, wi-fi, mobile phone technology, spotter planes or just plain old compasses, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s something a bit weirder going on in the wider world. Meanwhile, the food starts to run out, the sanitation turns into something out of Clive Barker, and the behaviour of the passengers follows suit, possibly even down to the demons.

As the crisis escalates, we move through the viewpoint of several characters. These include an assistant to a professional psychic, a diligent, dutiful security officer, a cynical cleaner who works hard but is only in it for the money, the ship’s doctor, who has a secret addiction to pethidine, a woman who is one half of a suicide pact, and a lunatic who has killed a fellow passenger. Through their eyes we experience all manner of weirdness as ghosts haunt the reeking lower levels of the ship.

Lotz gives good creepy. First of all, the sole resident of the ship’s morgue won’t stay quiet; then the psychic, a fairly obvious charlatan, seems to develop real powers, knowing things about the people she encounters that can’t be accounted for by cold reading alone. The characters see and hear odd things, but rarely directly – it’s more that maddening corner-of-your-eye syndrome, the sort of apparitions that might cause you to reach for the light switch if you wake up during the night. The ones that have the cheek to linger for a split second, just before you scream.

The sense of escalation and societal breakdown could have turned into pure schlock in many other writers’ hands, but Lotz addresses this chaos in a cannier, more confident way. Although you’ll see order break down and episodes of violence, we never quite engage full atavistic end-of-days mode, with people slaughtering each other. That was a plus point for me. Things get just horrible enough. People form little tribes, with their own territories. But we don’t travel all the way back to the Stone Age. It’d have been so easy to turn this book into a Lord of the Flies-style essay on how savage we all are at heart, but people remain, for the most part, civilised. Ultimately, people want to survive, rather than triumph. During moments of crisis, particularly near the end when the ship’s masters completely relinquish control, people make mistakes rather than become evil (with one or two notable exceptions). There are a couple of fights in the food queue, but at least there’s still a queue.

You are also shown how people would simply muddle through in a situation like that. You’d think, right up until the end: well, things can’t be that bad. Someone would come and help us, if things were that bad. You might even sit there in your cabin, and watch the waves lap against the porthole. Then creep into the room.

Lotz also show us that things are a bit wrong, all over. Those bobbing plastic bags crowding the stricken ship like jellyfish; people throwing themselves into a cult as a substitute for good order and certainty in life; the smug drone of the bleached-out cruise director, chirping away while everything else on board heads for the flusher; it all felt relevant. Day Four is a work of fantasy but – much like The Three - it plays in the same key as what we see in the news.

Something’s just a bit off. Maybe it smells funny. Or perhaps, as my father would tell me, my nose is too close to my own arse.

Or maybe it’s just January. Maybe I need to get away somewhere warm, with a nice beach. But not necessarily on board a ship.

Day Four is an excellent modern horror story.   

January 11, 2018

READING WITH THE ENEMY:

by Jeffrey Archer
324 pages, HarperCollins

Review by Pat Black

A long time ago, I was staying at the house of some people I didn’t like. Having a nosey at their bookshelves, I noticed Jeffrey Archer’s The Eleventh Commandment.  

To date, they are the only people I know who have given Jeffrey Archer houseroom. It figured; join the dots to connect the smirk on my face. 

Out of curiosity, I had a look at page one, and upgraded my smirk to a sneer. The novel opened with a burglar making a mistake (is the Eleventh Commandment “thou shalt not get caught”? Oof, irony). This is a guy who doesn’t make mistakes, we’re told, because “he was the professional’s professional”.

I thought this sounded cheesy. It had the tone of a cover blurb, a buzzword, a cliché. I mentioned this to a friend, later. What constitutes “good writing” is an unending argument, usually between arseholes. But we were in agreement for once: this wasn’t good writing.

We were prejudiced, of course. Bigoted, even.

Over the years, I’ve wondered about the literary career of Jeffrey Archer. Politically we are opposites, so I won’t waste anyone’s time examining his record as a Conservative MP and peer, his stunning downfall and perjury conviction, or any number of controversies he was involved in during his, let’s say, colourful life as a public servant.  

In terms of his books, I wondered why he was so successful – and he is un-f***ing-believably successful. His sales are bigger than just about anyone’s. It’s hard to reconcile these numbers with any other living writer. They make Stephen King’s figures look modest. Every single book has sold millions of copies. What’s the secret? I wondered.

One night, I saw a Kindle offer, and cracked.

Twelve Red Herrings is a short story collection. The breathless testimonials tell you that Archer is “the master of the twist in the tale”. So, I was expecting something along the same lines as Roald Dahl’s short stories, but perhaps not as deftly penned; that’s exactly what I got.

Curiously, Archer asterisks some of his stories on the contents page – denoting tales he has adapted from real-life situations he’s heard about. I couldn’t decide if this was ultra-honest, or very odd. I can’t think of any fiction writer in history who didn’t draw upon real life in some way for their work. Why make the distinction?

My first proper dip into the fictional world of Jeffrey Archer was “Trial and Error”, running to some 80 pages. Here, a British businessman lines up a deal potentially worth millions after entering an arrangement with a partner. Things go off the rails somewhat when he gets home early one night, to discover his would-be business partner entering his wife.

One trusty British right cross later, and his rival is on the floor, unconscious. The cuckold (conservatard cuck?) spins on his heels, and makes a stiff-upper-lipped exit.

To his surprise, he is subsequently arrested for murder. There’s no body, but the scene of his earlier confrontation looks very like a crime of passion has taken place there. The businessman is sent down, but of course, he’s been set up – made to look like he killed his wife’s lover in a jealous rage, before hiding the corpse. All the while, the conspirators wait to collect his share of the money from the original deal.

So, he gets a private investigator to track down his rival-in-hiding, hires top lawyers to challenge his conviction, and seeks revenge on both his duplicitous business partner and his money-grabbing spouse. Naturally, there’s a wee twist in store before the final curtain falls.

In “Trial and Error” we are introduced to elements which will repeat in the rest of the stories. This book was first published in 1994, but it arrived at the marketplace post-mortem; its stories have all died and gone to Yuppie Heaven.

They feature people pocketing incredible sums of money in the world of big business, city trading and the law. They also have a very stiff spine of conservatism – families, property, titles, Oxbridge degrees, inherited money. There are a lot of illicit affairs, with women usually seen as part of some elemental horse-trading between powerful men. And usually, a con is involved - rip-offs, double-crosses, tables turned.

Many of these elements took me back to those people I didn’t like, all those years ago. Their interests and conduct dovetailed with Jeffrey Archer’s fiction so neatly, they might as well have had a framed portrait of him adorning their walls. Or maybe one of Jeffrey and Mary, the perfect couple, big smiles, his hand on her shoulder; cracking haircuts. This would be displayed in the foyer to the Thatcher Annex, of course.  

But I’ll say this: I rattled through “Trial and Error” at pace. There was nothing particularly distinguished about the writing, but perhaps that’s Archer’s secret. These are simple stories, told well. I was sleeping with the enemy.

“Cheap At Half The Price” sees a different type of deception, as a wife sets her sights on very expensive jewellery – but it’s out of her husband’s price range. Luckily, she has a few irons in the fire to help her get what she wants.  

This was a domestic con, centring on a cheating wife who will do pretty much anything to get her hands on the sparklers. This woman ostensibly has no independent power, money or influence barring what her good looks can get her. Some people might see this as a realist reading of her situation.

Even without any erotic content, this tale had sidestepped into the realms of eighties porn – wearing high heels, pearls, big hair, and not much else, unless you’re counting a vast, dense bush; entirely unsurveyed territory, a great blank space in teenage spotters’ guides. It’s funny how that sort of topiary is viewed as a feminist statement nowadays. “Cheap At Half The Price” most certainly cannot be regarded as a feminist statement.

I didn’t like anyone in this story, or their lifestyles. But I still cut through it like number one clippers.

“Dougie Mortimer’s Right Arm” involves another bluff, blustery supper club tradition – rowing for Oxford or Cambridge. It’s Cambridge in this case (although Archer went to Oxford in the 1960s). This story looks at a modern-day student searching for the artefact in the title – a bronze cast of an arm belonging to a rowing legend, someone who died in murky circumstances. I found the subject matter of this tale tedious, but… I read it. Double-time. My cox set a very fast pace, and I kept up.

“Do Not Pass Go” was even more gripping – the story of a former Iraqi minister living in exile, who ends up back in his homeland thanks to some terrible luck on board a diverted plane. There’s a considerable price on his head in Baghdad; a glance at the passenger list sets off an alert among the authorities. Again, this one was all about the con – how is the wanted man going to escape the Iraqi agents, while they search for him? A fair premise for a cheap thrill in a book – but for some interesting real-life tangents regarding Iraq and Jeffrey Archer, I would direct readers towards the story behind the author’s Simple Truth charity, which raised a fortune for the Kurds during their time of persecution by Saddam Hussein.

“Chunnel Vision” featured another con, and one every writer secretly dreads. That great idea you’ve got, that spark which will turn into a surefire bestseller – what if someone else got there with it first? Our twist, facilitated by another vengeful partner, was predictable, but the sadism underpinning it was fun, if you enjoy that sort of thing.

And now we come to the jaw-dropper.  

Set in the seventies, “Shoeshine Boy” sees a British diplomat stationed in one of those colonies it’s possible to forget still flies a Union flag - somewhere remote, and not necessarily tropical. Rather than a reward for a distinguished parliamentary career for our hero, this place seems to be a bit of a two-bob waystation. Still, one must keep buggering on. That’s the British way. One simply can’t get the funds to put on one’s finery in the colonies these days, one finds.  

But then – der-derrr! – it turns out Lord Mountbatten is coming to visit. Every effort must be made to put on a bit of spit and polish for this most esteemed royal visitor and war hero. At 24 hours’ notice, the diplomat and his formidable wife effect a bargain basement makeover in order for the island to pass muster for this uniformed doll in a box. Tasks range from hastily stitching the red carpet Mountbatten’s sainted boots will meet straight off the plane, to laundering and primping his very bedsheets.

This sycophantic carnival includes Dad’s Army-style military volunteers with cobbled-together uniforms and borrowed weapons, a spit n’ sawdust local baker who gets cracking with the catering, a retired butler forced back into service for “one last big job”, a cleaner hired to spruce up the colonial residence, silver service on loan from the scrubby family down the street… you get the idea.

No-one gets paid for this. Such is the deference, you half-expect the diplomat to place his wife at their esteemed guest’s disposal in the bedroom. But it’s a fairly good-natured farce, if you ignore the politics of it - which I cannot.  

If Archer hadn’t already been ennobled at the time of publication, I’d be tempted to speculate that he wrote this in the hope of securing a knighthood. It features brutal subservience and craven kow-towing to someone we are meant to automatically assume is our superior in every single respect; an individual wielding authority on a par with Ming the Merciless, whom you should displease at your peril.  

It is told in the tone of a wuffly after-dinner anecdote at a club that won’t let you in without at least an MBE. Here, at last, I found a fat white whale to prick with my prejudices.

The conclusion to the story made me feel even worse – centring on the act of cleaning Mountbatten’s boots. This honour fell to the diplomat, exhausted after a day’s crazy wheezes, in order to maintain his grand pretence.  Ooh, the irony – a diplomat performing the task of a menial skivvy! Just imagine!

And then we arrive at the “twist”. You see – ha! capital! - Good Old Mountbatten was in on the great deception all along. He found it rather amusing and jolly. Ha! What-what?

“What?”

“Shoeshine Boy” was near-diabolical… but nowhere near difficult to read. And I did read it all. You’ve got to give the author that, however grudgingly. The person who penned this story has talent, if not quite flair. Archer knows exactly what he’s doing. You’re eating from his hand, like it or not.

“You’ll Never Live To Regret It” sees an insurance con, as a man takes out life policies despite his lover dying of Aids.

“Never Stop On The Motorway” must be one of those asterisked stories, because you’ll have heard urban myths resembling it. After doing what the title tells us she shouldn’t, a woman is tailgated by an aggressive driver on her journey home down a lonely backroad. The radio tells her a rapist and murderer is on the loose. Can she return to the safety of her house before the honking van driver can do her a mischief?

This one was an excellent thriller, though, as I said, most readers will see the twist in the tale coming from a long way off.

“Not For Sale” sees a woman struggling to make her way in the world of high art - an interesting jaunt, albeit with money on its mind.  

“Timeo Danaos” was the most Roald Dahl-esque story in the book, with an unpleasant penny-pincher trying to find himself a bargain on a Greek holiday – with predictable and pleasing results.

The final effort, “One Man’s Meat”, sees Archer at his most playful. It looks at a man struck dumb by a beautiful woman – and going to incredible lengths to win her. It falls into that strange zone beloved of classic romantic comedies, where the protagonists engage in behaviour which we can now identify as morally dubious, at best, under the guise of amorousness. This guy’s painted as a romantic free spirit, but reading him in 2017, he is effectively a stalker.  

However, Archer surprises us with four separate alternative endings to his story, all corresponding to how one likes one’s steak cooked. These cover a variety of scenarios and outcomes, which it’d be a shame to spoil. Not a bad effort at all – even experimental. A fine riposte to the author’s many critics.

So, it’s the morning after. We’ve slipped out before the milkman - perhaps not even bothering to shower first. We’ve all been there. What’s the verdict, as we report back to our friends over coffee and spite?

Good, I have to say. We could feather Lord Archer with arrows all day over elements of character, cliché and plotting, and set up just about any literary pitfall in his path. But there’s no denying Twelve Red Herrings is an engrossing read.  

Every dial on my dashboard is flashing red, but I’ve gone back for more, securing his New Collected Stories for fresh Kindling.

Fair’s fair; the person who wrote this book is a skilled storyteller. 

December 8, 2017

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES:

Inspector Adam Dalgliesh

Cover Her Face, by PD James
288 pages, Faber & Faber

Review by Pat Black

What do the English do better than anyone else? That’s a question for our age.

I’ll start the bidding with “country house murder mysteries”. Cover Her Face, PD James’ debut in the Inspector Adam Dalgliesh series, is a perfect example of the genre. It was first published in the early 1960s, but its spiritual home is England between the wars.

The novel’s basic framing follows an exact template for this type of story. There’s a country manor; there’s a well-to-do family; there are secrets, lies, animosities and jealousies; of course, there is a body; and then, an inspector calls.

A maid for the Maxie family, Sally Jupp, has been murdered in her bed. She was strangled in the night, but it seems she was drugged first. It looks as if the killer could only have gotten in and out via a window. There’s little evidence to go on, but Scotland Yard’s man, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, is sure of one thing: the killer was someone staying at the house that night.

There’s a fair cast of characters to choose from, within and without the Maxie family, all with a motive for killing the young, unmarried mother. There’s number one son Steven Maxie, the doctor, who proposed to the girl the night before she was killed - to everyone’s surprise. There’s his sister, Deborah Riscoe, nee Maxie, who confessed to hating the girl because “she has a child, and I do not”.

There’s Mr Maxie, the family patriarch – confined to his bed, but is he as much of an invalid as he seems? Then there’s Martha, the no-nonsense housekeeper who takes a dislike to the beautiful intruder on her patch. Felix Herne, a rakish, sardonic figure and friend of the family who was tortured by the Gestapo during the war, was also staying there that night. He’s so memorable and stylish, and so involved in the investigation, I imagined that he might have been the detective in an earlier draft of the story. Nigel Havers would have been a good bet to play him on the TV, at any stage of his career; Hugh Grant actually did play him in a radio adaptation.

Beautifully, there’s even a vicar, Mr Hincks. With this addition, you feel as if you’re reading a novelised version of Cluedo. These beats are so familiar that they’re cosy. This is a book to curl up with in your dressing gown as you sup a nice hot cocoa, despite its central subject of foul murder.

However, PD James writes in deadly earnest; this is no pastiche or parody. For the first few chapters she outlines the family and other satellite suspects, establishing motive and opportunity for the crime. The story really catches light when Adam Dalgliesh appears on the scene. He’s tall, dark and handsome, but also douce and somewhat humourless. What the inspector might lose in charisma he makes up for in method. Dalgliesh always has control.

There are sly moments – particularly the part where some of the characters make inquiries of their own, taking on the role of investigator as they try to clear up the various mysteries and sub-plots connected with the crime. Whose ladder was left outside the dead girl’s window? Who was the mysterious man seen hanging around the house during the village fete earlier that day? Why did Steven Maxie propose to a girl he hardly knew? And does the unknown father of Sally’s baby have anything to do with her death?

There’s also something I’ve noticed in many detective novels – a part where one or more of the characters dismiss some theory or other as being unrealistic, as if it was part of a whodunnit. “This isn’t some silly crime novel,” they say – resisting the urge to turn and wink at the camera, no doubt.

At the top I asked what the English could do better than most. Ironically, Dalgliesh has a very similar name to a Scottish footballer who was arguably the most famous of them all in the 1970s and 80s: Kenny Dalglish. Just as with the spaceman Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dundee United’s tough-tackling midfielder of the 1980s and 90s, it’s hard to resist drawing parallels between the two similarly-named heroes. So I won’t.

Like his near-namesake, who was famous in the shirts of Celtic and Liverpool, Dalgliesh shields the play well, before spinning and dispatching his finish with lethal accuracy. But unlike Kenny Dalglish, the inspector is a bit of a tart – calling all the suspects into the manor house’s drawing room, at eight o’clock sharp, perfectly punctual and precise, in order to outline exactly who killed Sally Jupp, and how.

The full cast list of suspects awaits judgement on plush cushions, with Dalgliesh orchestrating great tension, shifting suspicion several times before providing the answer. It’s so cute, like how a kid would stage the final act of a murder mystery. This is precisely how I’d have executed the denouement when I was 11.

Dalgliesh calmly throws back all red herrings, exposing and discounting motives and alternative theories. By the time he finally identifies the killer, we are made to understand that they are the only person who could have done it. Logically, there was no other conclusion. If you’ve paid close attention and filtered out the extraneous noise, you’ll know this. I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the killer, but I’ve come to understand that to dedicate serious thinking time to a mystery story is to spoil it a little, even to risk disappointment, like peeking at your Christmas presents.

Cover Her Face is as much of a machine as it is a story – a perfectly planned and constructed engine, making for a very smooth ride indeed. In a sporty little MG, I imagine, brand new, racing green, buffed to a glassy sheen. For a debut novel, PD James’s command of her craft is enviable.   

November 25, 2017

FIELD NOTES:

Country Matters on Booksquawk

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
304 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

The Outrun is a patch of land on the sheep farm where Amy Liptrot grew up on the Orkney islands - a wild, wind-blasted archipelago off the north-east coast of Scotland.

When the author’s mother goes into labour and has to be airlifted to hospital, her father is carted off in the other direction to a psychiatric unit. They pass each other on the landing pad. Drama seems seeded in Amy Liptrot from day one.

The Orkney and Shetland Islands are so remote, they used to be represented in their own inset boxes on TV weather reports when I was a kid – as if they had tried to escape, and needed dragging back to mother. The Orcadian archipelago is an apostrophe to the mainland, and Orcadians feel a sense of detachment from the rest of Scotland; islanders, themselves excised from an island.

Perhaps the most famous Orcadian is the actor Robert Shaw, who lived there between the ages of seven and 12. He referred to being bullied on account of his English accent, or maybe just his plain Englishness. I’ve never been to Orkney, but it has an ends-of-the-Earth feel to it, and a strong Scandinavian influence clashes with the salt and flint of Scottish rural life. Every single photo could be a screensaver; every crashing wave wants to reach out and shake your bones.

People move there to escape. But you can imagine a teenager being desperate to go the other way, to the bright lights and big crowds. This is what Amy Liptrot does, heading – inevitably – for London and a party lifestyle, aged 20. After a full-blown descent into alcoholism, she bobs back, 10 years later, completely lost.

The Outrun is the story of Amy Liptrot’s ongoing recovery, and how she managed to transfer her love of alcohol’s brittle euphoria to a passion for the natural world.

The book clobbers you with metaphors for “the edge”. The Outrun is on the very edge of the planet, it seems, rocky and high above the sea, blasted with rain, seawater and high winds even on good days. Anything not securely fastened to earth has a good chance of leaving it when the conditions get really bad. They have to make sure the kindergarten children don’t get blown away. The sheep are, frequently. I imagine a handful of fluffy snowflakes being scattered off a cliff during the gale force winds. Liptrot makes an obvious connection with her mental state.  

She drinks. She has a talent for it. Tellingly, she reveals that when she experimented as a teenager, she was over-the-top from the very first, the one who always went from nought to noxious faster than anyone else. Her default position is “a bit much”. 

I have to confess to twinges of dislike for the author when she describes her proto-hipster lifestyle in London’s up-and-coming boroughs in her twenties. Although this charts her descent into an abject, bottom-of-the-fish-tank lifestyle, I can sense her relish for her crazy days. The language becomes flowery and a little bit pleased with itself. It reminded me of an open letter I read in a newspaper from a London scenester who was friends with Amy Winehouse, lamenting her passing. His attempts to turn the singer’s appalling tragedy into some sort of Byronic romance, both in his prose style and his recall of events, made me want to punch him in the head, more than once. I should stress, I never want to go there with Amy Liptrot, but her salad days chapters jarred.

This is unfair of me. It’s not really her fault. Perhaps it’s a little bit close to home. I recognise this impulse to turn partying into art. It isn’t. My lifestyle in my twenties seems hellish now – it probably seemed hellish at the time, in fact, but there were few other options available, and not much in the way of role models. My memories of squeezing into overcrowded nightclubs with sweat rolling down the walls are a vision from Bosch – something I can’t quite believe that I did voluntarily; that I paid to do. In my biggest highs, outside of my own head, I was an irritation at best, a menace at worst.  

Though her antics are refracted by the death of a relationship, Liptrot is honest enough to admit her behaviour was unacceptable. Her fella must have been a saint to tolerate her for as long as he did. This abandonment leads her into deeper water, ever more depressing and dangerous situations.

First of all – the dead giveaway for any out-of-control boozer – she starts losing jobs, turning up to work still drunk, having drinks on her lunch breaks, getting into high gear on the bus home, and then starting all over again the next day, escaping the shame of whatever mess she was in the night before.

She’s swimming in seas striped with shark fins. One drunken night she takes off on a bike ride through the dead city, and ends up in a canal. She goes to house parties and strips naked – about the most basic attention grab you can make, short of soiling yourself, or simply screaming. Finally, she encounters a psychopath and is seriously assaulted. This is rock-bottom, the classic point where substance abusers must decide whether to stay sunk, or start swimming. From here, she gets involved in rehab, takes the Twelve Steps, and sorts herself out.

It’s only when she arrives back in Orkney – single, sober, fragile – that the book finally takes wing. She finds a job counting rare birds for the RSPB, and gets herself the nickname of The Corncrake Widow (surely a strong contender for the book title). She drives around the island in the pitch dark, hoping to find nesting sites for the bird, one of many species which use the archipelago as a stop-off point. It’s weird, but thrilling work.

She joins the dots in the night sky, taking an interest in the constellations instead of igniting them at the bottom of a glass. She studies the landscape, considers how old the rocks are, and examines the wildlife surrounding them. And she heads into the dark sea itself, thrilling to the cold shock of wild swimming with a group of like-minded maniacs. She isolates herself in a cottage on an even more remote island, and writes – another addiction, perhaps even more deep-rooted than her drinking. She figures herself out, putting it all on paper. She reaches out to people through the internet, and begins to enjoy human company divorced from the bottle.

In the middle of this, there’s an inch-perfect examination of what it is that drives us to destroy ourselves with drink – the blessed relief, the initial rush of well-being, and deeper still, the love of mania, the craving of excitement. Liptrot likens mania to a wave, in its construction, its movement, its crowning glory, and its spectacular breakdown.

The Outrun is a natural history book, though it also serves just as well as a survival memoir. Every addict who’s lucky enough to break the chains has to play it cool, every single day of their lives, from that moment on. I can only wish them well. Liptrot is sceptical about the higher powers invoked during her time in AA – by that I mean the idea of a god – but the natural world is certainly a higher power she recognises. She does accept the things she cannot change.

But she must have realised, as the waves go to work every day on the cliffs buttressing the Outrun, that given time and effort, everything can change - and eventually does.

October 28, 2017

HEX

by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
400 pages, Hodder

Review by Pat Black

Vampires do well out of books. They’re comfortably top of the monsters leaderboard. In browsing for books online, you’d go into a hall of mirrors just to avoid seeing the buggers for a while.

Werewolves don’t do quite as well, but there’s still plenty of interest in our not-so-friendly four-legged friends. I didn’t realise this until I punted out a werewolf novella on Amazon. It was like a junior school wolfie kid, in its wee uniform. I was a big wolfie mama, tearfully watching the little one scamper in on its first day.

I also discovered you could trip up on sexy werewolves/shapeshifter scud stories. They’re like a great big shaggy doormat.

But you don’t see so many witches. I’m surprised by this. They lend themselves so well to all facets of the horror genre. They can be scary; they can be sexy; they can summon demons and dish out curses. Most importantly, they’ve got some kind of grudge. In this, they’re relatable. But away from fairy tales, there aren’t too many in literature.

On the big screen there’s the Blair Witch, but of course, we never really saw her. The closer we get to that movie’s 20th anniversary, the more I see it for the con it was - and I applaud its makers all the more for that.

There was The Craft and Charmed, but one was a high school Mean Girls-style revenge drama (a very good one), and the other packaged witchcraft as a lifestyle choice. I’m looking at witches as Big Bads, here, not Buffies.

Step forward Dutch novelist Thomas Olde Heuvelt with Hex. Rewritten for an American market from the original Dutch version, this book is set in Black Rock, a modern-day town in upstate New York suffering a great big hangover from the days of the founding fathers: it is cursed by a witch.

Katherine Van Wyler was tortured and executed for perceived witchcraft in 1664, and her children perished, too. But she never really died. Now, Katherine – an undead physical entity, wrapped in chains with her eyes and mouth stitched up – dots around the town as she pleases, appearing and disappearing in seemingly random places.

She could materialise in the bathroom while you’re seated and pre-occupied. She could appear at the bottom of your bed just as you’re putting a move on your partner. She could pop up in the seat behind you at the movies, nudging you every couple of minutes with her big buckled shoes. Why do people do that? Stop it!

“Why don’t they just kill her?” Not so fast. She’s got skills. If anyone tries to harm the witch, horrible things happen. She can trigger aneurysms and heart attacks by remote control, killing people at random in the town if anything happens to her. She’s a cardiovascular killer. She’s a walking fish supper, basically.

Then there’s her most insidious trick: whispering. If you listen closely to what the witch mumbles through her sewn-up lips, you instantly want to kill yourself. Many people have.

“Why don’t they just leave?” They can’t. Anyone who gets too far away from Black Rock wants to kill themselves, too. Once you’re there, you’re stuck. Or you die.

The town of Black Rock copes. Fully backed by the US government, which does not want the menace to escape, or for the rest of the world to find out about her, the town has an elaborate system – HEX – set up to ensure no-one leaves town, and to manage the witch’s appearances as far as possible. Led by Robert Grim and answerable to the mayor, this taskforce cleans up the witch’s messes and makes sure no news of Black Rock’s unique resident leaves town. In the internet and mobile phone era, this is an increasingly difficult prospect.

Hikers are turned away by deputies monitoring the town’s wooded borders, citing various made up public order or health and safety problems. More difficult to persuade to leave are the people looking to buy property in Black Rock. Every effort is made to dissuade folk looking to settle in a seemingly pleasant arboreal town - including harassment. For those really, really stubborn people who can’t take a hint, they have to become Black Rock residents. They are given an induction; they are trained in the ways of this supernatural nightmare which must become part of their life. They become fully immersed in the town, unable to communicate the problem to wider society… and unable to leave.

Welcome to the Hotel California.

The author is about 30, though going by the dust jacket photo, if someone had told me he was 10 years younger I’d have bought it. How god-damn disgusting is that? These young and talented bastards, how dare they? But the main thing that struck me about Olde Heuvelt’s work was that we are now into a third generation of people who grew up under the spell of Stephen King.

Although its original version was set in the Netherlands, Hex is dripping with King’s Big Mac-style secret sauce recipe. It features small town America with all its little kinks and hang-ups - the country in microcosm - which we’ve seen time and again in King’s fiction.  The book focuses on regular families and ordinary Joes battling unearthly forces, the everyday turned horrific. Imagine trundling your trolley around Lidl, and you turn a corner into the “Death Star turret” section where all the booze lives, and oops – that’ll be your 350-year-old witch, blocking aisle four.

There’s a lot of potential for humour in this scenario, and Hex gleefully exploits it. Hallowe’en sees the witch used as a decoration, and people pose for pictures with her. Imagine how annoyed she’d be to come third in the “best witch” contest?

But there’s not too much laughter, as the Black Rock witch isn’t a thing of comedy. She’s terrifying, and her sudden appearances give you something to think about before lights out. The book is not short on scares – there are a load of “well you can shove that up your poky hat!” moments.

Hex is almost a brilliant novel. It has an eye on many of the town’s residents – I particularly liked HEX chief Robert Grim, who seems to be an uptight rule book junkie at first, but turns out to be a decent, principled man doing a difficult job. The story comes into sharp focus with one doctor and his family. The doctor’s son, Tyler, is a senior student at high school. He and his friends find a way to circumvent Black Rock’s internet black-out, and, armed with GoPros and camera phones, they humiliate the witch in a series of escalating pranks, Jack-Ass style.

It looked like the gang were going to use brand new technology – video, blogs, vlogs, whatever – to break an ancient curse. This is a barnstorming idea, setting up a clash between the very old and the ultra-modern, but it doesn’t quite happen. In the service of his plot, Heuvelt abandons this terrific idea. It seems that the boys’ ultimate goal isn’t to destroy the Black Rock Witch, but to be guffawing arseholes. Though this is painfully true to life, it wastes a great concept.

The unfolding drama is triggered by Jaydon, one of the more troubled boys in Tyler’s group, who takes things a little bit too far with Katherine. “Fancy seeing a witch’s tits?” I didn’t need a crystal ball to foresee problems brewing with that one.

Already something of a vindictive soul, we might assume, Katherine’s retribution for the indignity she suffers is terrible. In turn, it triggers something unpleasant in Black Rock’s residents as they look to punish the teenage miscreants.

Another parallel with Stephen King is how convincingly Heuvelt writes young people. (As well he should, as he looks as if he’s still at school... terse grumble.) He captures the teenage boys’ interaction and their casual cruelty with switchblade-sharp precision. You’re having a good time with Hex, getting invested in the characters and family relationships, until Jaydon breaks a taboo.

The story escalates, and increasingly tragic events occur. There’s one death in particular which felt almost too raw, too close to the real thing, for comfort. It makes people lose their minds.

Hell follows, but it seems that Black Rock’s residents – like the good people of Jerusalem’s Lot, or Derry, Maine – might want to look to their own behaviour before they condemn the wicked witch.