I'm often asked "why do you like horror?" Actually, I'm not. Even within my massive circle of friends, neither of them has ever asked me. However, if anyone did ask, I could confidently answer that it's all my grandmother's fault for it was she who introduced me to the world of horror when she bought me, as a Christmas present, Denis Gifford's A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. Quite why she thought this was a suitable gift for a ten year old I'll never know but I'm so glad she made that slightly controversial choice of gift as it did indeed open up a whole new world for me, one I've lived in for the near-on 40 years since. It's a great book and, being a pictorial history, planted many images in my subconscious that have remained there ever since. The book obviously had a similar effect on John Llewellyn Probert - he mentions it in his notes which accompany the hardback edition of the latest Spectral Visions novella from the consistently reliable and impressive Spectral Press. John mentions too the BBC2 horror double bills, another formative experience I share with him, one which introduced me to one of my favourite films of all time Night of the Demon and also one of the worst films I've ever seen, Night of the Lepus - a terrifying tale of giant rabbits that's every bit as crap as it sounds.
All this inane rambling is by way of introduction to the novella itself, which is a loving homage to those glory days of horror when incredibly complicated, highly contrived on-screen deaths were, well, entertaining rather than just gross and exploitative like today's Saw and Final Destination franchises. (Dear God, I feel so old...)
Having read many of John's short stories previously, The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine appears to me the perfect book for him to have written, an ideal means of displaying the obvious affection he has for a type of horror that has (sadly, I guess) become relegated to little more than nostalgia. The plot - which cracks along at a fair old pace - revolves around a series of murders in Bristol, investigated by the world-weary DI Jeffery Longdon, a brilliantly drawn character who has all the best lines in a book crammed full of dark humour and who provides just the right amount of grounding for the frankly bizarre events described in the book. The tone of the writing is pitch-perfect, it would have been easy to write a pastiche, take the mickey out of the whole thing (a trap I felt Christoper Fowler's Hell Train, enjoyable as it was, fell in to), but John avoids this with consumate ease. His love of the genre shines through the writing and the whole thing is played "straight" as were the original films, this isn't a post-modern revision. I enjoyed this book as much as I enjoyed the films that inspired it.
The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine is another fine addition to the Spectral back catalogue, maintaining absolutely the high standards already set by its other publications. It's the most enjoyable thing I've read in some time. Horror can be fun, there's no shame in admitting that, and if proof were needed of that statement then look no further than this page-turner of a novella. As with all the best stories about deranged killers carrying out incredibly complicated and bizarre murders, the scene is well and truly set for a sequel. Dr Phibes rose again and managed to do so in a way that was more entertaining than his first outing. Here's hoping that Dr Valentine is similarly inclined...