Archives for posts with tag: Horror

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 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…