Archives for category: Horror

This week I’m recommending a Fantasy novel about pirates. Who doesn’t love pirates? Except real life ones, of course. `On Stranger Tides’ by Tim Powers came out in 1988 and has been reprinted many times since. You can get it in paperback or as an ebook. `Hang on,’ I hear you saying, `isn’t `On Stranger Tides’ the fourth `Pirates of the Caribbean’ film? Well, yes and no. Disney did buy the rights to Tim Powers’ novel but they only used a few elements of its plot in the finished film. It must have been a bizarre experience for Powers to see the irrepressible Captain Jack Sparrow inserted into his original story but if someone offered me a lot of money and Johnny Depp I probably wouldn’t resist very hard either. Be that as it may, please try to forget the film while I summarize the plot of the novel.

It is 1718 and former puppeteer John Chandagnac is sailing to the West Indies to confront the uncle who has stolen his inheritance. During the voyage, John’s fellow passengers are a one-handed retired professor, Benjamin Hurwood, his daughter Beth, and a sinister doctor, Leo Friend. Just as John is getting to know and like Beth, a terrible act of treachery allows magically-protected pirates to take over the ship. John bravely attacks the private captain, Phil Davies and is given a choice between immediate death and joining the pirate crew. John agrees to become a pirate in the hope that he and Beth will find a way to escape. He is renamed Jack Shandy.

Shandy serves as a cook to the pirates and learns to respect Captain Davies. When he does get a chance to escape, he throws it away to save his pirate comrades. Meanwhile, Beth has been taken to Florida by her father and Dr Friend. Professor Hurwood is obsessed with the idea of bringing back his dead wife and he has made a grim bargain with the notorious pirate, Blackbeard. Promoted to quartermaster, Shandy is one of the men chosen to accompany Blackbeard, the Hurwoods and Dr Friend into the swamps to search for the fabled Fountain of Youth discovered centuries before by a Spanish explorer.

On their dangerous journey the group face vindictive vegetation, angry spirits and ghostly visions (but not killer mermaids). The fountain is said to be `a hole in the wall between life and death’. Blackbeard, Friend and the increasingly crazed Professor Hurwood all have their own dark reasons for wanting to reach it. Once blood is shed in this mysterious place, a terrifying chain of events is set in motion. Beth is doomed to suffer a dreadful fate on Christmas Day. Can Shandy use a new kind of magic to save her, and does he have the strength to be Blackbeard’s nemesis?

Pirates and magic are a winning combination, as the huge success of the `Pirates of the Caribbean’ films shows. `On Stranger Tides’ has everything you might hope for in a pirate adventure – a dashing hero, a damsel in distress, memorable villains, exotic settings, sea-battles, shipwrecks, murders, plundering, kidnapping, evil plans and sloshings of rum – plus  a magician who is trying to become God, awe-inspiring bocors (sorcerers who control the indigenous spirits) ghosts, zombies, protective amulets and mummified two-headed dogs. The book opens with a chilling prologue in which spirits of the dead are summoned by a blood sacrifice. Our hero, Shandy, is plunged into danger by a pirate attack only a few pages into Chapter One and his life is changed for ever. After that the action, and the horror, rarely let up.

Personally, I could wish that our heroine, Beth, wasn’t given such a passive role. She is drugged or starved into submission and carried around like a sack of potatoes by the men who want to use her in magical rituals or for their own lusts. Shandy decides to marry Beth because she is `the only woman in whom I can see both a body and a face’ but she doesn’t seem to have much choice in the matter. To be fair, Beth does finally assert herself and use her female magic at a crucial moment. She and Shandy have one of the most dramatic wedding scenes in all fiction, which is typical of Powers’ clever plotting. This is a very well constructed story. Plot elements which you think have fizzled out, such as Shandy being cheated out of his inheritance or the legend of the original discoverer of the Fountain of Youth, suddenly surprise by flaring into life again.

Powers has used a wide range of historical settings in his Fantasy novels and they are always carefully researched and vividly described. If you want to escape from cold and foggy winter days, enter this dazzling world of blue seas, white, palm-fringed beaches, jungles full of jewel-like parrots and steamy mangrove-swamps. I’m no expert but Powers really seems to know how traditional sailing ships worked. He certainly convinced me that he knew his shrouds from his studdingsails. He also makes interesting and unusually sympathetic use of traditional vodon beliefs. One of my favourite characters in `On Stranger Tides’ is Woefully Fat, a deaf bocor from Virginia, who fears that Blackbeard is misusing vodon to put together a `whole nation, it seems like, of badmen’. Woefully Fat calls a death for Blackbeard from out of the Old World and is rewarded with a magnificent death-scene of his own.

Another feature of Powers’ work is his use of historical characters, such as the poets Shelley, Byron and Keats in `The Stress of Her Regard’ or the Rossetti family in `Hide Me Among the Graves’. In this novel he features a number of pirates who actually existed, most notably Edward Teach/Thatch aka Blackbeard. The real Blackbeard doesn’t seem to have been a particularly brutal pirate but he cultivated a fearsome reputation by dressing all in black, wearing a long plaited beard and tying lit-fuses into his hair during battles. You might think it was impossible to make this man more terrifying than he was in real life but Powers manages it. When Blackbeard makes his long-awaited entrance with ghosts clinging to him like leeches, he looks to Shandy `like some three-horned demon newly climbed up from Hell’. This Blackbeard drinks flaming rum mixed with gunpowder, is consecrated to the dreaded Lord of the Cemeteries, Baron Samedi, and is served by zombies. Powers ingeniously provides magical explanations for some puzzling aspects of the real Blackbeard’s story such as that fiery hairdo, the sudden sinking of his base, Port Royal, and the reckless behaviour which led to him being caught and killed in North Carolina.

Powers’ Blackbeard is shrewd enough to know that the great age of bucaneering is nearly over as more and more pirates accept the `King’s Pardon’ and turn respectable. `On Stranger Tides’ shows wild magic and anarchic lifestyles giving way to cold iron, reason and order. The most touching relationship in the book is the one between Shandy and his mentor, the Navy officer turned pirate, Phil Davies. Disgusted by the corrupt and brutal authority figures he encounters, Shandy believes that he could fit in among the pirates – `there was a part of him that responded to the nearly innocent savagery of it all, the freedom, the abdication of all guilts…’ Davies warns Shandy not to think of his fellow pirates as heroes but he does and so do we. Reading or watching a pirate adventure is like taking a holiday from everyday morality. Everyone needs a holiday now and then but next week we’ll be back on the straight and narrow…



Have you noticed that there are still a lot of vampires around? In Fantasy fiction, TV series and films that is; not real life (I hope). So, it’s rather refreashing to read a novel which opens with an intelligent woman arguing very convincingly that vampires cannot exist. She’s wrong though… `The Rhesus Chart’ by Charles Stross is the latest in a series of novels, novellas and short stories about computer-scientist turned necromancer, Bob Howard. They are collectively known as `The Laundry Files’. Currently, `The Rhesus Chart’ (2014) is only available in hardback or as an ebook. For the last few weeks I’ve been recommending books that are suitable for both children and adults, but this series (with its high levels of violence, sex and strong language) is definitely `Adults only’.

You don’t need to have read any of the previous Laundry Files to understand the background to `The Rhesus Chart’.  Stross’s cynical narrator Bob will soon bring you up to speed on Computational Demonology for Dummies-`the summoning and binding to service of unspeakable horrors from other dimensions, by means of mathematical tools’. Bob discovered the hard way that `Magic is a branch of applied mathematics’  when his master’s thesis `nearly summoned up an undead alien god in Wolverhampton’. Bob was co-opted to work for `the Laundry’ a very secret department of the British government which deals with occult and magical threats. He learned that we are all living in a hostile multiverse and that the time is coming (Codename – Case Nightmare Green) when alien beings are likely to break through and destroy our world – unless the Laundry, and its American equivalent the Black Chamber, can stop them.

After getting bored with fixing people’s computers, Bob made the mistake of volunteering for active service. One scary thing led to another and now Bob is an apprentice Eater of Souls, working for combat-sorcerer Angleton. He’s also married to a part-time occult assassin and thinking of getting a cat. `The Rhesus Chart’ starts with a typical evening at the Laundry when an IT manager accidentally summons up a tentacled horror. To deal with it, Bob and Angleton have to sacrifice some of the Residual Human Resources (zombies) who work the nightshift. Bob is glad to get back to his current research project but that research leads him to discover a nest of vampires working for a merchant bank (just when you thought that bankers couldn’t get any worse). Embarrassingly, one of the vampires is Bob’s toxic ex-girlfriend, Mhari. It should be the Laundry’s job to deal with these vampires but hardly anyone in the organization is willing to believe that such creatures exist. Bob realizes that something is very wrong and starts to look for`a blood-sucking mole’ at the heart of the Laundry…

The Laundry Files are hard to pin down to just one genre. Are they Computer-Science Fiction, Horror or Spy Thrillers? All of the above but I’m going with `if it has magic in, it counts as Fantasy’. Mainly Urban Fantasy. When Bob does venture into the countryside there is usually something very nasty indeed in the woodshed. In an interesting afterword to the first Laundry Files novel (`The Atrocity Archives’, 2001) Stross names his two main influences as the Horror stories of H.P.Lovecraft (whose purple prose he mimics to perfection in `Equoid ‘) and the Cold War spy novels of Len Deighton. He also throws in some spot-on satire on the idiocies of traditional bureaucracy and modern management fads.  Think `At the Mountains of Madness’ meets `The Office’ and you’ll get the picture.

I don’t usually like books that are spattered with swear-words but if I worked for the Laundry I would probably swear a lot too. Bob gets to use a bizarre mix of ancient magic and new technology but his life as a spook is far from glamorous. `The Laundry is about procedures and teamwork and protocols.’ Too much of Bob’s time is spent filling in forms in triplicate, dealing with daft Health and Safety Directives and sitting in pointless committee meetings. Fighting eldritch horrors with a basilisk-gun may be dangerous but being harrassed about his time-sheets and expenses claims is even worse. Think your boss is bad? Bob has to cope with lethal team-leaders, Senior Auditors who can compel him to speak the exact truth, and a demonic line-boss who is `an equal opportunities executioner’ prone to turning his enemies into executive toys. Someone I know who works in a department not entirely dissimilar to the Laundry says that Stross has an uncanny grasp of how such organizations function – or misfunction.

Bob is a likeable everyman character who tells his own story with self-deprecating humour. He starts as an irresponsible young hacker but has to grow up fast when he learns that his most paranoid nightmares are true. The universe really is out to get him – and everyone else. Bob is absorbed by the establishment but retains enough of his trickster personality to kick against authority. He doesn’t, in the words of a famous slogan spoofed in this novel, `Keep Calm and Carry On’. He usually becomes very upset indeed and then carries on and gets the dangerous jobs done. In `The Rhesus Chart’, Bob is paired-up with a nice moped-riding vicar who has just been conscripted by the Laundry. Yes, Stross is capable of setting up an entire subplot so that he can use the classic line `More tea, vicar’ to maximum comic effect. Yet in this same novel there are poignant passages about Bob and his wife trying to cling on to a normal home life, even though they know that people who constantly deal with the monstrous are liable to become  monsters themselves.

Stross is a very funny writer but he deserves to be taken as seriously as more obviously `literary’ SF authors, such as David Mitchell or the late great Iain M.Banks. His high-tech magic is convincing because few people have a better grasp of the culture of computer-programming and hacking. Stross also knows a great deal about 20th century politics and the history of the British and American intelligence services and he’s very well read in Folklore and Horror. All these things are sucked into the fictional world of the Laundry Files and come out strangely transformed. Underlying Bob’s amusing narrative are rage and anguish about the dreadful things that humans do to each other in the real world. The price of laughing at Bob’s jokes is to feel a little of that anguish. Until two weeks time…




This week’s recommendation is a `Sword and Sorcery’ classic from Fritz Leiber, the man who virtually invented this sub-genre. `Swords and Deviltry’, which was first published in 1970, is one of six volumes of  stories about two of Fantasy fiction’s most enduring and endearing  characters – Fafhrd (pronounced Faf-erd) and the Gray Mouser. Leiber and his college friend H.O. Fischer invented these `two dubious heroes and whimsical scoundrels’ in the 1930s and Leiber went on publishing stories about them until the late 1980s. `Swords and Deviltry’ opens Leiber’s `Lankhmar’ sequence. It describes key episodes in the early lives of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, including their first meeting, and the bizarre circumstances in which they became a fighting duo. Scandalously, most of Leiber’s work is not currently in print but you can get ebook versions of `Swords and Deviltry’ and two of its successors – `Swords Against Death’ and `Swords in the Mist’. Old paperback editions of `Swords and Deviltry’ are easy to find and you may be able to track down a hardback copy of an omnibus volume `Three of Swords’, which contains all three collections.

`Swords and Deviltry’ consists of a brief `Induction’, followed by three novellas : `The Snow Women’, `The Unholy Grail’ and `Ill-Met in Lankhmar’.  The opening pages introduce the varied realms of the world of Nehwon and the sinister metropolis of Lankhmar. According to the `runic books of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face’, this was the city where `two long-sundered matching fragments of a greater hero’ first met. A statement which `The Snow Women’ shows to be not quite accurate. At the start of this story, eighteen-year old barbarian Fafhrd is living in the Cold Waste with his mother Mor, the leader of the Snow Clan. Fafhrd is uncertain what role his sorceress mother played in the death of his father and he’s beginning to rebel against the life Mor has planned for him. While taking part in his first raid, Fafhrd met a scawny youth with `a legend-breaking mind’ and became interested in the civilized world. Now he longs to travel to its great cities. When the Clan are in their southernmost Winter Camp they are visited by traders and a troupe of actors. The women of the Snow Clan disapprove of their menfolk ogling scantily clad actresses, so they inflict all kinds of magical punishments on them. Fafhrd has a girlfriend within the Clan, but he becomes infatuated with an actress called Vlana after rescuing her from a spiteful attack by the Snow Women. Vlana is looking for a champion to help her gain vengeance on her enemies and young Fafhrd isn’t her first choice. He’s soon struggling to preserve Vlana from kidnappers and his mother’s ice magic but can he trust the wily actress?

`The Unholy Grail’ introduces a young magician’s apprentice who is nicknamed Mouse because he’s so small. After completing a dangerous quest to win an amulet, Mouse is eager to be reunited with his gentle master, the white magician Glavas Rho, and his fellow apprentice, the sweet and timid Ivrian. Instead, he finds that Glavas Rho has been murdered by Ivrian’s magic-hating father, Duke Janarrl.  Fearing that he has been betrayed by Ivrian and in danger from her cruel father, will Mouse give in to his dark side and become a Mouser? In the Hugo and Nebula-winning story `Ill-Met in Lankhmar’, Fafhrd and the young man now known as`the Gray Mouser’ meet for the second time when they both ambush members of the powerful Thieves’ Guild in a Lankhmar street. The two swordsmen are delighted with each other’s company and get very drunk together. Egged on by their girlfriends, they set out on a rash mission to penetrate the headquarters of the Thieves’ Guild. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are about to face a horror that will change their lives for ever.

The exotic and perilous world of Nehwon seems to owe much to the wonderful Fantasy tales of Lord Dunsany (if you don’t know about these, see my post of June 2012) and sly acknowledgements of this, such as the little cough that introduces the character of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes,  are scattered throughout the Lankhmar series. Leiber’s work is full of dark humour. He delighted in inventing grotesque fates for many of his characters (don’t read this book if you’re afraid of rats) and ghastly places, such as Lankhmar, a city so polluted by sooty fogs that the rich wear black togas. The stories in `Swords and Deviltry’ are packed with droll detail, such as the `sessions of chanting and ominous moaning’ during which the Snow Women inflict `sniveling, nose-dripping colds’ on their husbands; or the glimpses of the Thieves’ Guild where `instruction was going on in slipping, dodging, ducking, tumbling, tripping and otherwise foiling pursuit’.  Good as the writing is, you may still feel that this is the kind of Fantasy world you’ve read about before. What makes the `Lankhmar’ series stand out is the unpredictability of much of the plotting. Leiber wasn’t afraid to mix comedy and tragedy and the good guys don’t always win. In `Ill-Met in Lankhmar’ there are startling shifts from hilarity to horror and in the first two stories it’s genuinely hard to guess which way the central characters will jump. This is partly because Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are more complex people than you might expect to encounter in this genre.

The two heroes have an outstandingly strong physical presence. It’s hard to forget a seven-foot tall, green-eyed, copper-haired Northern barbarian who hangs out with a diminuitive dark-haired Southern `slum boy’ who dresses all in grey. Opposites attract and complement each other but this isn’t a simple case of a tall strong one and a small brainy one. Fafhrd may look and sometimes act like the sort of jovial barbarian that Arnold Schwarzenegger used to play but he has a cold analytical `schemy self’, while clever cat-like Mouser is impulsive and over-confident but formidable in a fight. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have been used as characters in Fantasy War Games but in spite of being great swordsmen, they are not professional warriors. As Mouser says, `Killing is murder, no matter what nice names you give it.’ In the course of the Lankhmar series, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser make a living as bodyguards and couriers, thieves and confidence tricksters, treasure-seekers and entertainers but `never, never, never enlisted as mercenary soldiers’ (`Swords Against Death’). No-one is better at describing fights and chases than Leiber, so our heroes’ progress through the danger-spots of Nehwon is highly entertaining but if you’ve only encountered Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in some of their lighter-hearted adventures, you may be surprised by how dark their `origin stories’ are.

In `The Snow Women’, Fafhrd is haunted by his father’s ghost, cursed by his mother and feels (like many young men) trapped by a clingy girlfriend. He condemns the `shut-mindedness’  of his clan and has an over-romantic view of the `civilized world’. People try to warn him about `the stinks and snares of civilization’ but of course he doesn’t listen. Fafhrd is said to be based on Leiber himself but it isn’t always a complimentary portrait. The young barbarian behaves very badly to his pregnant girlfriend and to a rival in love and allows `the White Spider of Death’ into his soul. In `The Unholy Grail’, orphan Mouser is driven to use `the magic which stemmed from death, hate and pain’ to avenge the loss of the magician who has treated him like a son. Yet the story makes it clear that even if there had been no tragedy, Mouser was always likely to stray into the excitements of a life of crime. In `Ill-Met in Lankhmar’,  the two young men recognize each other as kindred spirits but also perceive each other’s faults, especially when it comes to their dealings with women. Fafhrd has failed to take Vlana’s overwhelming need for vengeance seriously while over-protective Mouser is treating a `potentially brave and realistic girl’ as if she was a fragile doll. This leads to disaster and so the partnership between Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is forged by grief and guilt. The Lankhmar series may be full of laughs but melancholy is never far from the surface. In the last stories he wrote about them, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser become the noble leaders they always had the potential to be. Leiber clearly loved the two characters he lived with for so long. This is Dark Fantasy with heart. Until next week…


When J.R.R.Tolkien wrote, `There are many heroes but very few good dragons’ he was referring to the dragon who appears in the Anglo-Saxon poem known as `Beowulf’, which is this week’s recommendation. We’re lucky to have this epic about one hero’s fights with three monsters, since it only survived into modern times in a single, badly burned, manuscript. `Beowulf’ is set in Dark Age Denmark and Sweden but it was composed in England around 1200 years ago. I’ll suggest some translations in prose or verse at the end of this post, so don’t let the strange language or the great age put you off.  `Beowulf’  may not be an easy read but this poem has inspired many modern writers of Fantasy and there is plenty in it for Horror-buffs and lovers of Heroic Fantasy to enjoy.

The original poem doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative but here is the main storyline – After ruling in Denmark for many years the aged King Hrothgar builds a splendid banqueting hall which he names Heorot. All the feasting and music-making in this hall arouses the envy and anger of Grendel, a semi-human creature who lives in a nearby lake. Under cover of darkness, Grendel comes to Heorot and slaughters and eats many of Hrothgar’s warriors. He returns night after night and no weapon is able to stop him. News of the curse on Heorot spreads throughout Scandinavia.

After twelve terrible years a group of Geats from Sweden visit Hrothgar’s court. They are led by Beowulf, the strongest man alive, who vows to kill Grendel or die trying. A Dane called Unferth is sceptical of Beowulf’s claims to be an experienced monster-slayer but King Hrothgar allows the Geats to spend the night in Heorot. When Grendel comes, he and Beowulf wrestle. Grendel flees after Beowulf rips his arm off. Everyone assumes that the monster will soon be dead but their joy is short-lived. The next night Grendel’s equally monstrous mother attacks Heorot and carries off Hrothgar’s favourite adviser. Borrowing a famous sword from the treacherous Unferth, Beowulf tracks the monsters to their underwater lair. He endures a terrible battle with the water-witch but it is not the most dangerous fight of his life.  Many years later, when Beowulf is King of the Geats, a runaway slave is foolish enough to steal a cup from a dragon’s hoard. The fiery dragon wakes and Beowulf finds that he must face it alone…

You can tell from this summary  that `Beowulf’ features early examples of story-elements that have become standard in Horror fiction, such as the outsider who becomes a serial killer, the creatures who can’t be kept out by locks and bars or killed by ordinary methods, and the group of people who dare to spend a night in a haunted house. Nobody in the poem actually says, `There’s a monster around somewhere so let’s split up…’ but most of the Geats are daft enough to fall asleep in Heorot. What happens next is as gruesome as anything in contemporary Horror films. Grendel tears open the door with his talons, seizes one of the sleepers, rips him apart, drinks the blood and then devours the body `even the hands and the feet.’ Most film adaptations of `Beowulf’ add unnecessary complications to the plot and fail to replicate the tension and doom-ridden atmosphere of the original (`Outlander’, which is only loosely based on `Beowulf’,  is probably the best of the bunch). The scene in the poem in which Beowulf finds the severed head of Hrothgar’s friend beside a lake boiling with blood and swarming with reptiles is one of the creepiest in all Fantasy.

Grendel is particularly scary because he doesn’t belong to any of the standard types of mythical beast. We’re only told that this `unhappy being’ was forced to live in a fog-shrouded marsh because he is descended from Cain, the first murderer. Thereafter, the reader must put together a picture of Grendel from his victims’ horrified glimpses. The `Beowulf’  poet (we don’t know his name) seems to get under the skin of his villain and shows the pain Grendel feels at being excluded from the joys of human life. Besides, you have to feel sorry for an adult monster who is still living with his mother (There is a powerful novel, `Grendel’ by John Gardner, which retells the `Beowulf’ story entirely from the monster’s point of view).  The sudden appearance of Grendel’s mother is a brilliant `second monster’ twist and her anguish at the fate of her son is treated as very real. This `enormous water-hag’ proves a formidable opponent for Beowulf. Contrary to the daft 2007 film, she doesn’t go in for seducing heroes and looks nothing like Angelina Jolie. Beowulf seems to win a stunning victory over the monsters but we are told right at the start of the poem that Heorot is still doomed. Throughout `Beowulf’ the characters tell stories about contests, quarrels and wars that have taken place in the past or which may happen in the future. These `digressions’ all emphasize human pride, greed and treachery. A savage family feud is destined to destroy Hrothgar’s hall. Ultimately, the people in the poem are more destructive than the monsters.

Anglo-Saxon poetry is all about courage in the face of inevitable defeat. At the peak of Beowulf’s success, Hrothgar warns him that even the greatest of heroes grow old and that one day Beowulf’s great strength will fail him.  It does. The gloomy and cautious Beowulf who struggles to save his people from a rampaging dragon is very different from the boastful and confident young warrior we meet at the start of the poem. The actual dragon-fight is brilliantly done. If you’ve read `The Hobbit’ or seen the films, you’ll notice several borrowings from Beowulf, but it’s typical of Tolkien’s inventive use of his source material, that he chose to centre his story on the lowly `burglar’ who steals from the dragon, rather than on the aristocratic dragon-fighters.

I hope I’ve given you enough reasons to read `Beowulf’, or at least skim through it to find the best bits. If you fancy  a verse translation, why not go for the one by Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of recent times? You can get this as an ordinary paperback but there is also an illustrated edition with splendid photographs of Dark Age treasures and an essay on `Visualizing Beowulf’. It’s easy to find cheap paperback copies of the excellent prose translation of `Beowulf’ by David Wright, which has a helpful introduction and notes. Just out in hardback is `Beowulf  A Translation and Commentary’ by J.R.R.Tolkien. This volume (edited by Christopher Tolkien) contains the prose translation of `Beowulf’ which Tolkien produced as a young man and highly specialized notes put together from his lectures on Anglo-Saxon poetry. As a charming bonus there is a previously unpublished `Tolkien poem – `Beowulf and the Monsters’ – and `Sellic Spell’ – a story he wrote to `reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in Beowulf‘. If you want to learn more about this extraordinary poem , I suggest that you look at Tolkien’s famous essay `Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ which includes a defence of Fantasy literature in general. Until next week…


This week I’m recommending `The Golem and the Djinni’, a  warm-hearted first novel by Helene Wecker. The title makes this sound like some awful mash-up Horror movie along the lines of `Godzilla versus Mothra’ or `Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man’. In fact, it’s a sensitive story about an impossible friendship between a creature of earth and a creature of fire. `The Golem and the Djinni’ (or `The Golem and the Jinni’ as it is in America) came out in 2013 and is now available in paperback and as an ebook or an audio download. It is historical Urban Fantasy, largely set in late 19th century New York.

A wise old Rabbi finds a Golem – a woman made of clay and animated by Jewish magic – wandering the streets of Manhatten. Rabbi Meyer learns that she was created in Europe and bound to a man who was emigrating to America, but her `Master’ happened to die on the voyage just after bringing her to life. Due to their inhuman strength and destructive tendencies, Golems are dangerous creatures. Rabbi Meyer fears that he ought to destroy this Golem but he knows that she isn’t to blame for her existence, so he names her Chava and teaches her to pass for human. As a test, the Rabbi introduces her to his nephew Michael, who runs a refuge for Jewish immigrants who have just arrived in America. Michael is attracted to what he thinks is a shy young widow. To  solve the problem of Chava’s sleepless energy, Rabbi Meyer finds her a job in a Jewish bakery.

Meanwhile, a few streets away in the area known as `Little Syria’, a poor tin-smith called Arbeely is repairing a very old flask that belongs to Maryam, a kindly woman who runs the local coffee shop. With a flash of light, a naked young man appears in his workshop. Arbeely has accidentally released a Djinni who has been imprisoned in the flask for centuries. Djinns are creatures of fire but this one is trapped in human form by an iron band that he cannot get off his wrist. The Djinni guesses that he must have been enslaved by a powerful magician but he can’t remember how this happened. Arbeely finds the Djinni some clothes and gives him a name – Ahmad. As Ahmad proves to have an extraordinary talent for metalworking, Arbeely passes the Djinni off as his apprentice, newly arrived from Syria. Only Saleh, a crazy ice-cream seller who used to be a doctor, can see that Ahmad is not human.

Haunted by memories of his desert palace and his fascination with a Bedouin girl, handsome Ahmad wanders the city each night. He becomes the lover of a wealthy young lady, but their relationship means little to him. When he encounters the Golem, it is obvious that their natures and personalities are very different. Yet Chava is the one person who can understand how difficult Ahmad finds it to live as a human. Their friendship is interrupted when Chava’s instinct to use her strength to protect someone causes a crisis in her life. After Yehudah Schaalman, the old man who created the Golem, arrives in New York in search of the secret to eternal life, it becomes clear that the Golem and the Djinni are linked in an unexpected and dangerous way.  Both of them will have to make terrible sacrifices to stop an ancient evil and save the lives of people they have come to care about.

If you go into this book expecting frequent shocks and gore, you will be disappointed. This is a novel about human nature and the ways in which people can or should connect with each other. The pace of the story seems very slow at first. The Golem and the Djinni don’t even meet until about a third of the way through the book. Wecker takes her time lovingly describing two ethnic groups, the Jews and the Syrians (some Muslim, some Christian) struggling to establish themselves in a new country. These groups are suspicious of each other, but within themselves have an immensely strong sense of community. This is exemplified by Maryam’s many acts of discreet but practical charity, such as persuading local restaurants to buy ice-cream all year round so that Saleh won’t starve in winter. `The Golem and the Djinni’ initially seems to have a collection of case histories instead of a plot. There are no minor characters. The reader gets to hear everyone’s back story. There are detailed accounts of  the mysterious affliction which ruined Saleh’s life, Schaalman’s unsavoury career, the romantic life of one of the bakery assistants,  and the history of a Bedouin family who were able to see the Djinni’s palace. These may seem irrelevant, but rest assured these disparate pieces of the story all come together in the final chapters to create a dramatic climax.

What kept me reading in the early stages of the book was Wecker’s general gift for characterization and her solemn heroine Chava in particular. The Golem is a creature out of Jewish legend, made famous (or infamous) by a series of early German horror films (`Der Golem’ made in 1920 is still pretty scary). Schaalman warns his client, “No golem has ever existed that did not eventually run amok. You must be prepared to destroy her.” Wecker has imagined what it would be like to have a Golem’s powers and limitations. Chava doesn’t need to eat and cannot sleep but she has been warned that she must never tell anyone her true nature. There is a poignant scene in which Chava is so desperate for something to do during a long sleepless night in her tiny boarding-house room that she is reduced to counting the number of boards in the floor. Once she meets the Djinni she begins to spend her nights exploring the rooftops and parks of New York with him. Losing her Master on the voyage to America has left her with a terrifying lack of purpose. She no longer knows what she is for and she is almost overwhelmed by the conflicting needs and desires she can sense in the people around her. Chava lacks experience of the human world but her creator gave her intelligence and curiosity so she’s a remarkably quick learner. This combination of power and vulnerability make Chava one of the most appealing Fantasy heroines I’ve  encountered in long time.

On the surface, Ahmad is a less sympathetic character. He seems ungrateful towards the people who have taken him in and too selfish to comprehend the damage he does to his human lovers. Djinns in bottles have often been used to comic effect in Fantasy fiction or films (such as the wonderful `The Thief of Baghdad’) but Wecker treats the Djinni’s situation with complete seriousness. This freedom loving creature from the empty desert is trapped in a cold, crowded city where water is a constant danger to him. He doesn’t understand the ties of love and friendship, religion and culture that bind people together but he does have the spirit of a true artist. It’s hard not to be touched when Ahmad creates an image of his lost desert on a tin ceiling. Wecker even manages to evoke some sympathy for Schaalman, who abandoned his religious studies after a vision that he was already damned and became an unscrupulous dabbler `in the more dangerous of the Kabbalistic arts’. The reason for this vision is eventually explained but whether it was really impossible for Schaalman to be anything but evil remains an open question.

One of the major themes of this book is how far any being, whether they are golem, djinni or human, is compelled to act in a particular way because of their nature. Chava is shocked to discover how much of her character appears to be dictated by her original Master’s `grocery list of …desires in a wife’. She wonders if this means that `she can take no credit for her own discoveries, her accomplishments?’ Whether constraints take the form of magical words written on paper or a particular combination of genes, the problem is much the same. Every reader of `The Golem and the Djinni’ will have to make up their own mind about how far Chava and Ahmad are responsible for the consequences of their actions. Until two weeks time…


This  week I’m recommending a short novel that inhabits the shadowy region where Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction meet. `The House on the Borderland’ by  William Hope Hodgson was first published in 1908. Hodgson was a visionary writer who deserves to be better known. After all, this is a man whose stories H.P.Lovecraft found scary. You can download `The House on the Borderland’ for free or there are plenty of paperback editions available. I’d suggest getting ` The House on the Borderland and Other Novels’ in the Orion `Fantasy Masterworks’ series, as this has a provocative introduction to Hodgson’s work by China Miéville. Since no-one reads Hodgson for the beauty of his prose, you could even try the graphic novel version adapted by Simon Revelstoke and illustrated by Richard Corben.

A summary of the story won’t take up too much space because Hodgson rarely went in for complicated, or even coherent, plots. An introduction to `The House on the Borderland’ claims that the author is merely editing a diary found in 1877 in the ruins of an old house in a remote part of Ireland. Most of the book consists of  entries in this diary, kept by an un-named man referred to by the editor as `the recluse’.  This recluse bought the old house, even though the locals claim it was built by the devil, and lived there with his sister, and his dog Pepper for some years before odd things started to happen. He relates how one night he seemed to be snatched from his body and taken as `a fragile flake of soul-dust’ on a long journey to a desolate place where the ancient deities of myth exist in `eternal watchfulness’. At the centre of a vast arena stands a replica of his own house and a huge pig-faced monster lopes around it, trying to find a way in.

Some months after this strange episode, the recluse hears a `half-human, half-pig-like squeal’ coming from the ravine known as the Pit which adjoins his house.  He glimpses hideous white `Swine-Things’ and terrifies his sister by shooting at them. When the Swine-Things attack the house at night, the recluse manages to keep them out. Perilous explorations reveal that the great Pit extends under the house, but he will not leave because of a comforting vision of the woman whose death turned him into a recluse. The next vision he has seems to take him forward in time to the death of our galaxy and shows him a terrifying secret at the centre of the universe. Can the recluse return to his own time and will he escape the evil forces which perpetually threaten the House on the Borderland?

Novels and stories which purport to be based on long-lost manuscripts are common in the genres of Fantasy and Horror, but even during the brief `Introduction to the Manuscript’ Hodgson makes the recluse’s diary seem very real as he describes `the queer, faint pit-water smell of it’ and `the soft “cloggy” feel of the long-damp pages’. As he tells his own story, the recluse doesn’t try to ingratiate himself with his potential readers. He is a bitter man who has selfishly condemned his sister, Mary, to share his solitude and claims that his only friend is his old dog, Pepper. This loyal dog is a major character in the novel. Pepper behaves with courage and good sense throughout, unlike his master. In his role as `editor’ Hodgson describes the diary as a `simple, stiffly given account of weird and extraordinary matters’ but in fact the narrative is far from simple. Right at the beginning, the recluse declares that the locals think him mad. The novel is written ambivalently enough to make madness a strong possibility, especially as Mary doesn’t seem to see the Swine-Things so feared by her brother. Or, and this is a much nastier thought, it could be that the mass of humanity is blind to the horrible truth that the recluse perceives.

The recluse’s narrative consists of two different strands; the first being a relatively standard `peril in a haunted house’ tale, and the second a sequence of spirit-voyages or cosmic visions depending on how you interpret them. The `haunted house’ tale is still one of the best of its kind. I find Hodgson’s pallid and malignant pig creatures far creepier than Lovecraft’s giant luminous penguins (see `To the Mountains of Madness’). At first, the recluse only hears sinister noises in the ominous landscape surrounding the old house. No-one does sinister noises and unbearable silences like Hodgson (one of his Carnacki the Ghost-Finder tales, `The Whistling Room’, may well be the most frightening ghost story ever written). In `The House on the Borderland’ there is the `stealthy pad, pad,pad’ of the monster in the arena, and the Swine-Things’  `half-human grunts’, and `bestial shrieks’ which still  resemble a `glutinous and sticky’ form of human speech. These nightmare creatures can think and plan. The emergence of the Swine-Things from the Pit is horrific but the episode in which they try every possible way of getting into the recluse’s house after nightfall is even more chilling, though we only see them peering in through windows and hear them scratching at doors. It was a big mistake to re-read this novel while I was alone in a dark old house myself. I made very sure that the doors were locked and bolted before I went to bed.

Hodgson was a real-life hero who wrote brilliantly about fear, possibly because he had plenty of opportunities to experience fear during his adventurous life. He intrepidly ran away to sea at the age of 13, won a medal for saving a fellow sailor from drowning, and later taught martial arts. He continued to fight during World War One even after being seriously wounded and  was killed in battle in 1918. The states of terror Hodgson describes so convincingly aren’t just caused by things that go bump in the night. His recluse suffers from a kind of metaphysical horror about the nature of existence. There is a real grandeur in his apocalyptic visions of the road to dusty death. Some critics have complained that the recluse’s passion for his dead beloved is the least original part of the story but Hodgson’s depiction of the afterlife, in which souls float in luminous spheres in the `Sea of Sleep,’ is far from conventional. The ambiguous ending of the novel doesn’t suggest that a happy reunion is in prospect. The recluse’s soul seems to be headed for a darker destination as he feels compelled to let in `the Terror that is on the other side of the door’. Hodgson hints that in turning his back on humanity, the recluse has created his own grim version of reality but, as the introduction says, `The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire.’ Be careful what you desire. Until next week….


This week I’m recommending something suitably scary for Halloween – a collection of old-fashioned but far from cosy ghost stories. When I was student at King’s College, Cambridge it was a privilege to eat in the splendid Gothick hall but there was one portrait hanging in the hall that I didn’t like. If I sat facing it, there was something about the intense gaze of the man in the painting which bothered me. If I sat with my back to it, I had the uncomfortable feeling that his fat white fingers might start reaching out for me. It was a portrait of the eminent scholar and former Provost of King’s, Montague Rhodes James, who is now more famous for the ghost stories he wrote in his spare time. James composed his first ghost story in around 1893 and his last in 1935, a year before he died. The collected `Ghost Stories of M.R. James’, which came out in 1931, is still in print and available on Kindle. There are also paperback editions of selected stories published by Wordsworth or Penguin Classics. Audio versions are well worth considering because James wrote most of his stories to be read aloud. The BBC recordings narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi are particularly good.

The thirty tales in `The Ghost Stories of M.R.James’ are set in England or Europe and mainly take place in the 19th or early 20th centuries, though they often go back into earlier periods to explain the hauntings. Collectively, they create a world in which old sins cast long shadows, evil is manifest in terrible forms, and the unwary may meet with `persons walking who should not be walking’. James is my favourite writer of ghost stories, by which I mean that he’s the one who frightens me the most. Film and television adaptations of his work rarely do it justice because they can’t resist adding complications to James’ relatively simple plots. `Night of the Demon’ is an effective horror film but it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the brief story it’s based on (Casting the Runes). Atmosphere is everything  In an M.R. James story, and that atmosphere is created by the slow building-up of convincing detail. He loved to create spurious documentation for his ghosts and demons in the form of old manuscripts, letters, diaries or court records. Reading these may require some patience but if you let yourself become absorbed in the dusty worlds they evoke, the shocks to come will be all the greater. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that many of the stories were written to amuse school boys, the plots often involve the murder of children. There are scenes in these stories as nightmarish, and far more haunting, than anything in a modern horror film.

You won’t find screaming blondes or dashing action heroes in James’ stories. His leading characters tend to be rational, emotionally repressed, middle-aged men. They are not the sort of people who believe in ghosts or demons and that makes their bizarre experiences seem all the more real. James’ greatest talent was for infusing ordinary places and objects with horror. Some of his stories are set in traditionally spooky old libraries, manor houses or churches but, in many of the best tales, terrors are encountered in places you would normally think of as dull and safe, such as a hotel room (Number 13), a commuter train (Casting the Runes), a country inn (Rats) or a rose arbor (The Rose Garden).  He turns woods (A Neighbour’s Landmark) and shingle beaches (A Warning to the Curious) Into landscapes of menace and in  James’ dark imagination a doll’s house (The Haunted Dolls’ House), the puppets in a Punch and Judy show (The Story of a Disappearence and an Appearence), an engraving of a house (The Mezzotint) and even a pair of binoculars (A View from a Hill) become disturbingly sinister objects. He’s the only author I know who can make the pattern on a pair of bedroom curtains terrifying (The Diary of Mr Poynter), while the grotesque behaviour of the linen sheets in `Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ could put you off sleeping alone in a room with two beds for the rest of your life.

James wrote of his own work that, `The ghost should be malevolent or odious: aimiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story’. His apparitions are varied and memorable, including the ghost of a drowned woman singing in a dreadful squalling voice, a feline creature who comes to `fetch away’ a clergyman with blood on his conscience, the toad-like guardian to an ancient treasure, and a `great roll of shabby white flannel’ with an earth-coloured face and dry eyes `as if there was two big spiders in the holes’. James’ ghosts are disturbingly solid. They are not just  ghastly visions, they can sound, smell and feel horrible as well, and are capable of strangling, suffocating or even poisoning their victims.

One of the collections published in James’ lifetime was called `A Warning to the Curious’. It’s a title that might apply to all his work. In a number of stories, scholars are cruelly punished for morbid curiosity, perhaps because they are seeking knowledge for their own selfish ends rather than to share it. In `Count Magnus’, the over-inquisitive Mr Wraxall becomes fascinated by the legend of a wicked Danish Count and the creature he brought back with him from the `Black Pilgrimage’. In spite of warnings about men who’ve had the flesh sucked off their faces, Wraxell lingers near the Count’s tomb while one by one the locks fall off Magnus’ coffin. Wraxell flees to England, but it is inevitable that his doom will catch up with him, just as it is inevitable that I will once again give in to the dark lure of this grim story and go on reading past the point of safety. Have a horrifying Halloween…