Monday 25 October 2021

Cunning Folk



Cunning Folk is the new novel from Adam Nevill and the second published by the author’s own imprint Ritual Limited. As with all previous Ritual publications, the book itself is a thing of beauty with another stunning piece of artwork from Samuel Araya gracing the cover. The hardback edition is particularly striking, following the precedent set by 2019’s The Reddening by omitting the title and giving full exposure to a monstrous visage, in this case a terrifying boar with curved tusks and glaring, red eyes.

The book’s protagonists are Tom and Fiona who, along with daughter Gracey and dog Archie, are moving into their new home, a house they’ve bought after years of living in rented accommodation. A new start awaits them all, an escape from unscrupulous landlords and the grim existence of life as tenants…

OK, it’s clear from the start what kind of story this is going to be. Even if it weren’t for the hugely effective prologue to the book, in which the fate of the house’s previous owner is revealed, savvy readers will realise that things “probably” won’t be going to plan for the family, and that their dream of a new life will instead be a nightmare. The trope of the “moving into a new house unaware of its dark and secret past” is far from new but – I have to admit – is a particular favourite of mine, particularly if the properties are in remote, rural locations. To his credit, Adam gives a nod to this early on in the book during a game of I-Spy as the family approach the house. “Something beginning with H” elicits both “home” and “haunted house” as replies.

Sinister dwellings have of course featured in Adam’s books before, most overtly in Apartment 16, House of Small Shadows and the recently screen-adapted No One Gets Out Alive (which expands hugely on the aforementioned horrors of living in rented accommodation). The challenge then, was to see if he could come up with something new on the theme, a challenge I was fairly confident he would rise to given his recent invention of a whole new sub-genre with his amazing Derelictions.

My confidence was not misplaced. After carefully arranging all the pieces to set up readers’ expectations, Adam skilfully pulls the rug from beneath their feet and gives us something else entirely.

The house is in a state of decrepitude, something which gives Tom the opportunity to flex his DIY muscles as he learns the art of being a “home owner”. Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming sense of pride and achievement the act of laying a single piece of lino in a room brings with it (yes, I speak from personal experience), things turn darker for Tom. It soon becomes obvious that the house requires a  huge amount of work – something that will cost money the couple do not have; Tom is freelance but currently with no contracts whilst Fiona works in a bank. This introduces a tension into their relationship, a tension which is exacerbated by the introduction of the book’s other main characters, Tom and Fiona’s next door neighbours the Moots.

The Moots are wonderful creations, and it’s clear from the start that something is decidedly “off” about them. Adam has a real gift for describing the weird and such is the case here. The neighbours not only have a distinctive appearance, their behaviour is also somewhat unsettling; visitors to their property appear to interact with them in a way that suggests obeisance, as if the Moots have some power and control over them. Whilst this is strange enough, it’s their proprietorial attitude to their own property – and the land around it – that brings them into conflict with Tom.

The “that’s not how we do things around here” sentiment is one familiar to anyone moving into a new area, a manifestation of the belief that ownership and control are somehow part of the act of simply living in a place for some time. The Moots, however, take this concept to its extreme – and some of the things they do do are very strange indeed.

The book is mainly told via the viewpoint of Tom but it’s a clever move on the author’s part to describe the first of the truly bizarre set-pieces through the eyes of Gracey who has wandered into the woods behind the house. There, she comes across a clearing and witnesses a strange ritual being performed by the Moots. Through her innocent eyes, the activities on display are strange but in a funny way; to the readers’ eyes of course, they are something else entirely.

Grotesqueries are stock in trade for Adam and the manifestations within Cunning Folk are a fine addition to his monstrous menagerie. Those whose childhoods were traumatised by the TV show Pipkins will have their nightmares rekindled here and there’s  more than a passing reference to the author’s short story Pig Thing.

Conflict, inevitably, arises between the two households and, as the paranoia and tension increase, so Tom’s behaviour becomes ever more extreme. The ratcheting up of hostilities is cleverly done, a contrast being drawn between the seemingly calm and controlled Moots and the increasingly erratic Tom. The narrative raises the possibility that all this is in Tom’s head of course, something that clearly occurs to Fiona whose frustration with her husband further exacerbates the tension that is already there between them.

Whatever the driving force behind the conflict, it culminates in a scene which is possibly one of the most disturbing Adam has ever written. Which is saying something. The scene brings things to a head, and ushers in the third act of the book in which revelations abound and a whole new context is placed on events.

Cunning Folk is adapted from Adam’s own screenplay – something which is reflected in the present tense prose of the novel. (Lines like “Tom picks up the chainsaw” work in both formats). This is something which both benefits and detracts from the narrative. The need to condense the story into what would be ninety minutes on screen (or 120 if there’s a bigger budget…) means that the narrative cracks along at a fair old pace. Short chapters reflect short scenes on film. Whilst this is a positive (“it’s a literal page-turner!”) it also means that there’s some loss of tension. Both The Ritual and No One Gets Out Alive are supreme examples of the author creating – and, more importantly, sustaining – incredible amounts of tension but I felt that was lacking a little in Cunning Folk. Both those books have of course been made into films and whilst The Ritual movie managed to recreate some of the tension of the book, No One Gets Out Alive – whilst being hugely entertaining in its own right – had no chance to do the same, having reduced the original 600 plus page novel into a swift 85 minutes running time.

It could be argued that this “need for speed” sacrifices the time for character development and, indeed, it often seems that Fiona simply acts as a foil for Tom. The story really is Tom’s however, it’s his actions and reactions that drive the narrative - and Adam does have a very good track record for having strong, female lead characters in previous novels.

These are minor quibbles anyway. The characters are still well drawn enough for you to care about them and what happens to them – which makes “that” scene all the more impactful. Whilst I delighted in the longueurs of many of Adam’s previous works, immersing myself in the worlds he’d created, I really enjoyed hurtling through Cunning Folk – in fact the change in pace from previous works is testament to his versatility. And to be left wishing there had been more is no bad thing either…

Cunning Folk is, well, cunning – playing with readers ‘expectations throughout. It’s a potent blend of psychological and folk horror with a hefty dose of violence added to spice things up. The conclusion, reached via an action-packed third act, is deeply satisfying – which is a description I can apply to the book as a whole. It’s further evidence (were it needed) that Adam Nevill remains at the forefront of contemporary horror fiction. Long may that situation continue.

Thursday 30 September 2021



CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve Accidentally Summoned a World-ending Monster. What Now? is the latest offering to spring from the loins of author Duncan P Bradshaw, those same loins which have already produced a number of books with really long titles. Like the best marmalade, the book is thick and chunky, the spine of the paperback alone is an incredible one inch (24mm) wide and the volume weighs in at an impressive 17oz (482g). If these amazing statistics alone aren’t enough to convince you to buy it (bear in mind there’s a kindle version too but it’s difficult to make any kind of anthropometric measurement of a virtual medium - but let’s say it’s 21g which is the weight of a hummingbird or a human soul) then maybe the words inside will be.

There are loads of them, verbs, nouns (some of them proper), adverbs (I know!) and adjectives – all arranged in an order which makes them instantly readable and sometimes hilarious. The most important word in that sentence, of course, was “order” because that’s the key to enjoying this book to its fullest, is indeed the principle upon which it has been created/extruded from loins. The thing is, the reader themselves decide on the order in which the pages within are read!

I know, this is a major dereliction on behalf of the author; reading books is supposed to be relaxing, an activity done for pleasure and here we are having to do ALL the work. There are however, ample instructions as to how this might be achieved; at the end of some sections a choice is presented to the reader as to which page to go to next, each of which will lead the story down a different path. (In the kindle version, this is achieved by the use of hyperlinks like this one). It’s a clever concept and one which – if it hadn’t been for Edward Packard coming up with the idea of the Choose Your Own Adventure books – would be totally unique. Readers who manage to ignore the feelings of paranoia born of wondering if they’ve chosen the right path and stressing over whether they’re going to be lost in a never-ending maze within the book will enjoy themselves greatly, following the eclectic bunch of characters to not one, but TEN different endings. The challenge of course is to find them all, and minimise the number of times you say “bollocks, I’ve been this way before”. As an added bonus, there’s a hidden section which will take the (crafty clue-solving) reader into a completely different realm (not literally) in which they will uncover – shall we say – stories within the story…

As to the plot… well, the title pretty much sums it up and to be honest, I can’t be arsed to review ten different stories. It is hugely entertaining though, with lashings of the trademark Bradshaw humour and surrealism with enough fourth wall breaking to satisfy even the most ardent and critical aficionados of postmodern metafictional mucky jokes.

Joking aside, the book truly is a wonder to behold. It’s mind-boggling to contemplate the amount of work that must have gone into producing it. It’s an amazing achievement and one which has been pulled off with aplomb (see mucky jokes above).

I loved the time I spent wandering around aimlessly in the dark corridors of this book. In the best traditions of GoreCom, it will have you laughing out loud one moment and stifling a gag reflex the next (sometimes simultaneously actually). It could well be the author’s finest hour (or minute if you choose ending seven).

By way of homage to the book and its central theme of “be careful playing word-based games, you never know what might happen” and also to a key character who – despite only warranting a couple of sentences – provides the beating heart of the novel, here’s a wordsearch puzzle containing a number of key themes from CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve Accidentally Summoned a World-Ending Monster. Which you should buy. Now.


Monday 17 May 2021

Wings in the Darkness


This Friday, (21st May) sees the release of Wings in the Darkness, a novella set in the world of The Damocles Files; a series of novels created by Benedict J Jones and myself which are a mixture of military action and supernatural horror set during World War Two featuring the exploits of the eponymous organisation.

The novella is actually an expansion of one of the stories featured in Ragnarok Rising, the first novel in the series which will be released in the summer. It was written by way of an introduction to Damocles and features many of the characters who populate the world we created and, whilst it works perfectly as a standalone read, also drops a few teasers and hints to events in the novel.

Wings in the Darkness tells of the search, by Damocles, for a vitally important artefact and a such involved a humongous amount of research in order to create a realistic scenario for where, and how, it was hidden in the first place. We both knew where it was of course, but the trick lay in getting our characters to do their own research in order that they could track it down, laying down a trail of clues for them to follow. Enter some warring Iron Age tribes, ancient Norse kings, an expert on the Icelandic sagas and a folklorist with a specialised interest in the “hidden people” and the scene was set.

As with writing the novel itself, I hugely enjoyed co-writing Wings in the Darkness. I can’t wait to invite people into the world we’ve created and the novella is the fist step in that process. It will be available as an ebook for Kindle only and is the bargain price of only 99p. It can be pre-ordered here.

Thursday 6 May 2021

The Damocles Files Volume One: Ragnarok Rising.

 Just over three years ago, my very good friend Benedict J Jones approached me with an offer to co-write some stories with him based on the exploits of a secret government organisation during World War Two whose remit was to investigate and combat the occult machinations of the Axis powers. I, of course, leapt at the chance. We’d already collaborated on the Dark Frontiers series of horror western novellas and know each other’s writing inside out, it was a real no-brainer for me.

So we began writing. As usual, Ben already had a huge array of characters ready formed to throw into action along with tons of background information on the organisation he had called Damocles. Using that as my starting point I launched myself into the writing, creating my own characters (and appropriating one I’d already used in some short stories).

It was soon after we’d started writing that the idea came to create an overarching storyline and present the stories as a novel with a fractured narrative rather than a straightforward collection. Which only made the project more exciting as far as I was concerned. And more of a challenge, it has to be said. There was a degree of retro-fitting going on once the stories were finished and one story in particular was re-written four times to adapt to the evolving narrative.

I loved every moment of it. I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed a writing process as much as I have creating The Damocles Files. The solitary nature of writing appeals to my hermit-in-training lifestyle and outlook on life but the whole process of co-authoring was amazing, with ideas sparking back and forth between us and, I have to admit, generating a sense of competition - seeing who could come up with the next plot twist or development in the narrative.

On the whole, we would write the individual stories on our own but on a couple of occasions we co-wrote a story. Most notably we did this for the novella that concludes the novel which has four different timelines running simultaneously. From what began as an idea for a collection of shorts, a 110,000 word epic has emerged and I couldn’t be prouder of the final product. I think it contains some of Ben’s best writing (and one of his darkest, most compelling characters), and I’m really pleased with what I contributed too.

The history has been meticulously researched and a number of real life events (and people) are featured in the storyline. It’s an unabashedly pulp novel full of derring-do, grand heroic gestures and noble sacrifice. It also has werewolves, undead Vikings, ancient mariners and ghost ships. There are twenty two stories in total, plus an epilogue, which range in length from a few hundred words to the aforementioned novella and cover the entirety (almost) of the war.

The artwork which graces the cover of the book is provided by Peter Frain of 77Studios, the creative genius responsible for (amongst many others) the covers of the Dark Minds novellas. His idea knocked the hugely unimaginative ones I’d had into a cocked hat and what he’s come up with is a perfect encapsulation of the feel of the book. The nods towards the design of a famous comic are done with love and respect as well as a huge amount of skill.

The novel will be available this summer. By way of whetting people’s appetites, and introducing Damocles and some of its employees, we decided to write a short story which we’d make available prior to release. As these things do, the short story became an 18,000 word novella… Wings in the Darkness is an expansion of one of the stories in the novel and will be released on May 21st. It’s available for pre-order now at the bargain price of 99p.

I loved working on The Damocles Files and hope the end product is as enjoyable to read as it was to write. And yes, this is Volume One – we’re 80,000 words into Volume Two which follows the same format but focuses on an entirely different theatre of the war. There'll be standalone short stories and novellas to come too. Exciting times!

Wednesday 5 May 2021

Under A Raven's Wing.


Under A Raven’s Wing
is a new collection of stories by Stephen Volk and is published by PS Publishing. The seven stories contained within this beautifully produced book describe the exploits of a young Sherlock Holmes and his tutelage, in the Paris of the 1870s, by another famous fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin. It’s a marvellous concept bringing together the two men - the veteran and the rookie - with the old master passing on his knowledge and wisdom to the young man at the beginning of his career, and something Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would heartily approve of I’m sure, having acknowledged his own debt to Poe’s detective when creating the character of Holmes.

All of the stories bar one are presented as letters from Holmes himself to Inspector Lestrade, written as the master detective nears the end of his own life; a neat inversion from the original stories in which the narrator was Holmes’ partner in crime(busting) Dr Watson. The final story, the incredibly poignant The Mercy of the Night, is the only one not to follow this format – except it sort of does. The bulk of the narrative is a letter from Dupin to Holmes – which finds its way to Lestrade nonetheless, courtesy of Holmes himself who adds his own correspondence as a coda, giving the whole thing the feeling of a story within a story, a dream within a dream.

I confess, the last sentence of that paragraph was a desperate attempt on my behalf to shoehorn a Poe reference in. And pretty awful it was – unlike those that are distributed about the book itself. There’s much joy to be had at spotting them – some are more obvious than others – and they’re an indication of just how much work has gone into producing these stories. The level of detail is astounding, in particular the recreation of the voices of the two fictional detectives both of which ring absolutely true.

With his wonderful Dark Masters Trilogy, Stephen showed himself a master at placing real people in fictional situations to produce compelling stories and insightful character studies. In Under A Raven’s Wing, he’s flipped that around, placing two fictional creations in real historical settings, populated by real people – including Jules Verne – and set against real events such as the dedication of the Statue of Liberty (a scene in which I believe I spotted an uncharacteristic lapse in the accuracy of Holmes’ recollections…) Jack the Ripper flits through one of the stories but there are nods to famous fictional characters too; the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame also get honourable mentions.

There’s great skill employed then in the creation of this fictional/real world but the key to the success of any crime fiction – which is what this is after all – is in the plots themselves, the crimes which have to be solved. Once again, the author has come up trumps; the mysteries here are ones Poe and Conan Doyle would have been proud of creating themselves – seemingly impossible crimes which are solved by the characteristic application of logic and rationality. Whilst Holmes might be the main subject of the book, the nature of the mysteries he and Dupin solve owe more to the latter’s creator, most strikingly in Father of the Man which involves the plot device of a premature burial (and which is my favourite of the collection).

In truth, the book is an origins story, telling as it does of the apprenticeship of Holmes. As such, it does a marvellous job of inhabiting the character and even provides explanations for, and origins of, many of the great detective’s trademarks; the magnifying glass, the violin – even his drug addiction.

I really can’t express how impressed I was with Under A Raven’s Wing. The stories in here are some of the best to feature the character of Sherlock Holmes that I’ve read – and bear favourable comparison to the originals. It’s proof yet again that Stephen Volk is one of the most creative writers currently plying their trade and also one of the most skilled at his craft. It’s a book I recommend highly.

Monday 15 February 2021

There Goes Pretty


There Goes Pretty
is the latest novella from Dark Minds Press, the eighth in the series. It’s penned by C. C. Adams, an author whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past (and who featured a favourite monster of mine in his earlier novella But Worse Will Come).

It tells the story of the relationship between Denny and Olivia and opens with their wedding at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. As the couple begin their new life together, so the cracks begin to show – more than the to-be-expected frictions of living together though, there is an external agent interfering with their plans.

A feature of all Of C. C.’s writing has been the excellent characterisation he produces and There Goes Pretty is no exception to this. All the characters within are well formed with traits and habits which ring true. The relationships between those characters is another strength of his writing and this is definitely to the fore here. The interplay between Denny and Olivia and the mistakes they make (with the associated over-thinking) will be familiar to anyone in a relationship.

With the groundwork done establishing the characters and their relationship (and with only a little foreshadowing), the supernatural elements of the story are introduced about a third of the way into the novella. I have to say that the two main scenes in which this happens are extremely effective, generating a real sense of terror and panic.

They’re effective too in the way they fit into the narrative, happening when the couple are apart, casting an air of ambiguity over them and leading to a situation where trust becomes a major issue for the newly-weds.

As the relationship deteriorates, so the rationale for the strange events is revealed. Whilst I was cool with the reveal I did feel that it could have been done in a more dramatic way than it is here, there’s no real “wow” factor to the revelation.

The book rallies for a strong, and clever, finish though – one that nicely plays with the themes of friendship, loyalty, trust and love which have run through the book.

I liked There Goes Pretty very much; it’s further evidence of an author on the brink of big things and a fine addition to a fine range of novellas. Once again the stunning artwork featuring the characteristic red/black colour scheme is provided by 77Studios.

You can buy There Goes Pretty here.

Thursday 28 January 2021

On the Shoulders of Otava


On the Shoulders of Otava is a novella by Laura Mauro and is published by Absinthe Books, a new imprint of PS Publishing. Its title is taken from a line of the Kalevala, a nineteenth century epic poem which recounts the oral history of Finnish folklore and mythology. Extracts from the poem provide epigraphs for each chapter of the book - appropriately so, given the prominence the mythology has in the narrative of the novella.

The story is set in 1918, during the civil war which raged in Finland as a result of the political vacuum left behind after the end of the First World War. This conflict was a horribly literal class war, fought between the mainly middle and upper class Whites and the Reds of the Socialist Workers’ Republic. The war lasted fifteen weeks but tens of thousands died, many at the hands of death squads and executioners.

The protagonists of On the Shoulders of Otava belong to a unit of the Womens’ Guard -  a division of the Red Guard. Around 2000 women served in such units, some as young as fourteen. The story focuses on the experiences of Siiri, and begins with her glimpsing a shadowy figure in a churchyard, wandering as if in a trance. This figure turns out to be a fellow – male - soldier who, the next day, carries out a violent, seemingly unprovoked, attack on the squad leader.

The scene describing the attack is cleverly written – as are so many within the book – with the action happening at a distance, almost off-camera and only its aftermath being described in any detail. The reader gets to share the shock of the book’s characters as the nature of the wounds which have been inflicted are revealed in the discussion that follows the attack.

This flash of violence also serves to introduce the mystical aspects of the story (although this is kinda foreshadowed with the gothic-tinged shadow in the churchyard scene). The attack was completely out of character for the perpetrator – a “goody-goody” by all accounts – but the possibility is raised that it could be linked to his prior disappearance on a hunting trip in the woods during which he experienced what may have been a supernatural event.

As the narrative progresses, and Sirii and her companions find themselves isolated in those same woods, so the supernatural elements come more into play. The choice of an ancient woodland as location is a perfect one and an incredible sense of atmosphere is generated by some wonderful prose. It’s an inspired choice of location too, given the prevalence of the natural world, and animals in particular, in Finnish folklore. Most notable among these are Otso, the bear - a major player in the creation mythology and Tulikettu the firefox. Amid the established mythology, Laura has added (as far as I can tell) her own invention – that of ghost-lighting. It’s an intriguing concept, and one which lies at the heart of the narrative - so any further discussion here will unavoidably lead to spoilers.

Finnish folklore is possibly less well known to most than other nations’ variations – not least the Norse mythology of their Scandinavian neighbours and therefore necessitates some introduction. This is done skilfully however; the stories are cleverly woven into the narrative, never once feeling bolted on, instead merging into the flow of the story seamlessly.

Ambiguity plays a big part of course. The best weird fiction balances the fantastic with the normal, allowing the reader to arrive at their own decisions as to what is real and what isn’t. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap if being too obtuse, and leaving the reader scratching their head as to what they’ve just read. Such is not the case here. That fine line has been navigated very successfully and the novella is as accomplished at creating a sense of awe and wonder as it is in recording the harsh reality of being at war in a hostile climate.

On the Shoulders of Otava is a wonderful piece of writing. It’s beautifully constructed, the themes it establishes in the opening scenes carried through consummately to the conclusion. It’s a (relatively) short read but manages to pack in some great characters (and their interactions and motivations), social and political comment that doesn’t bludgeon the reader, elegant prose (written in a hugely involving present tense), a brilliantly created sense of atmosphere and a salutary reminder of mankind’s place (i.e. insignificance) in the grand scheme of things. It’s a book I highly recommend.