Category Archives: Horror

Remembering Amritsar

Ten – or a hundred – years on and it’s not as if the world has suddenly got a lot better. On Saturday it was 100 years since the massacre at Amritsar. Ten years ago I read Bali Rai’s historical novel City of Ghosts and was shocked. Because I didn’t know nearly enough about this. I blame my non-UK background, but of course, lots of people here don’t know much either. There was an interesting piece in the Guardian the other day. Seemingly British people don’t realise that what happened that day in 1919 didn’t endear them to the Indian population. Or that they haven’t forgotten.

Bali Rai, City of Ghosts

Below is my review from 2009:

Did you know about all the Indian soldiers fighting for England in World War I? I didn’t, other than knowing that soldiers did come from other countries to fight. The sheer number is horrifying. It’s one thing – just about – to send ‘your own’ to die for your country. To send Indian soldiers to their deaths because you have a quarrel with your German neighbour is awful beyond belief.

This novel has a number of sub-plots, which together build a picture of India in the years before 1920. There is Bissen, the soldier who fought in France. There are Gurdial and Jeevan, two teenagers from the local orphanage in Amritsar.

We learn of what happened to Bissen in Europe, and how it affects his life in India after the war. He is an older and wiser influence on the two boys. Gurdial is in love, and Jeevan picks the wrong friends.

And then we have the time and place; Amritsar in 1919. You can tell it’s not all going to end well.

Bali has written a very Indian story from almost a century ago. You can smell the place, and you can see all the colours. You can taste the food, and you can almost feel what happened on that fateful day in April in Amritsar. There is a ghostly element, which although impossible to explain, fits in perfectly with the plot.

It’s very romantic, and it’s very sad and very violent.

It’s a story that needed telling.

It’s a story you need to read.

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That’s love

The Scots Magazine arrived at Bookwitch Towers courtesy of the goody bag from Bloody Scotland. Twice, I believe. It’s quite a good magazine. Even the Resident IT Consultant shares this opinion, and he is hard to please.

He has been known to buy the odd copy, too. And when Helen Grant mentioned she was in the February one, he was positively ordered to make sure to get it. (I know. I suppose I could have bought it myself.)

It was only as I read the article about Helen, and the other author that month, Noëlle Harrison, that I realised it was romance in books for Valentine’s Day. It’s a lovely idea, and it’s sure to have inspired a few people to get hold of their books.

But as the Resident IT Consultant said, did they realise what kind of book Ghost is? When I told Daughter, she laughed out loud. An interest in gothic stories should always be viewed with some suspicion.

Helen Grant, Ghost

Let’s just say that if I’d not known more and simply read Ghost for the romance, I’d have been in for a shock. Actually, I did know more, and I was still shocked. As were Daughter, and the Resident IT Consultant.

I loved Ghost. I just don’t believe I’d ever suggest it as reading material for Valentine’s. Helen’s fondness for the dramatic Scottish landscape and for atmospheric ruins ought to give the game away.

I wonder if anyone complained? To the Scots Magazine, I mean.

Good Boy

To be honest, I was rather afraid of reading this book. Tempted too, because a new Barrington Stoke story from Mal Peet is a rare treat. But, it’s about a black dog, seemingly stalking young Sandie in her constant nightmares.

Mal Peet, Good Boy

It’s always the same; it’s high up, and the dog ‘smiles’ at her.

In actual fact, it is fine. Unless, possibly, your own nightmares feature a black dog. And heights.

Sandie’s mother helps her overcome the dreams of this black dog, and things are fine. Until they aren’t.

And you just know that this will turn up in real life, too.

As it says on the back, not suitable for younger readers.

Absolutely fantastic illustrations by Emma Shoard.

Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading

I want to be Lucy Mangan. We are so alike in many ways, but I haven’t read all the books she has, nor can I write like she does. I want to [be able to] write like Lucy Mangan!

I don’t expect that will happen.

I also want to know what her house/library/bookshelves look like. I can’t conceive how you can keep that many books – in a findable way – in a normal house. Assuming she lives in a normal house.

Lucy Mangan, Bookworm

After reading Lucy’s Bookworm, I now love her parents, too. I especially feel I’ve got to know Mrs Mangan better – and that’s without the letter to the Guardian stating that the Mangans were happy to have their daughter adopted by some other Guardian letter writer.

A friend of mine often mentions the fear induced in millions of people by the four minute warning so ‘popular’ in the 1980s. I’d almost forgotten about it, and never really worried all that much. Little Lucy was extremely concerned, but was reassured by her mother, who clearly knew what the child needed to hear. Basically, it would be in the news, so they would be prepared. They’d not send her to school if the end seemed imminent, and they would all die together at home. Problem solved.

Bookworm is about what one bookworm has read – so far – in her life of loving children’s books. She is not repentant (I must try harder), and will keep reading what she wants, as well as keep not doing all those ghastly things other people like, if she doesn’t want to. That’s my kind of bookworm!

This reading memoir is full of the same books we have all read, or decided not to read, as well as some real secret gems I’d never heard of and will need to look for. Lucy rereads books regularly, but doesn’t mention how she finds the time for all this.

It’s been such a relief to discover that she dislikes some of the same books I’d never consider reading, and even more of a relief to understand how acceptable, and necessary this is. Lucy even has the right opinions on clothes. Very useful to know there are sensible women in this world.

I had to read Bookworm slowly. I needed to savour what I could sense wouldn’t last forever. Although one can obviously reread Bookworm, just as one can other books. (Where to find the extra time, though?)

Growing up a generation – not to mention a North Sea – apart, we didn’t always read the same books. But by now we sort of meet in the here and now, and Lucy ends her book by listing a number of today’s must-read authors, and her judgement is almost completely spot on and correct.

So to summarise; I can read the same books. I can probably not store as many in my house. But I will never be able to write as well. (And I rather mind that.)

(According to Lucy, she loves her young son more than she loves books. Bookworm was given to me – after some hinting – by Daughter, whom I happen to love more than books too.)

Killing me

I don’t know if you noticed me mentioning Fleshmarket Close last week, and how I avoided walking down it with Helen Grant? It pays to be careful around someone like her. Helen likes horror, and kills quite a few people – characters – in her writing.

Some time last year, I think, I might have moaned a bit on social media. I wasn’t bad, but Helen must have thought I felt worse than I did. Which was kind of her. To notice, I mean. And she then asked if I’d ‘feel better’ if she put me in the short story she was writing just then. Which was kind of her.

Not one to turn down an opportunity to feature in fiction, I agreed. Helen made it quite clear I wasn’t going to survive.

Rosemary Pardoe, A Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror

Well, last week Helen handed me my own copy of the anthology where her story is published. It’s called A Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror, edited by Rosemary Pardoe. That’s why I felt that avoiding dangerous-sounding narrow alleys in the dark might be at least a little sensible. Just in case.

There are many more stories in this anthology, but I dived straight in to read ‘mine’ first. And I feel it needs to be mentioned separately.

The Valley of Achor is of course not about me. It is far more about Helen herself, or someone like her. Someone who likes old ruins and who doesn’t mind crawling about in the cold and the mist, actually touching ancient stones and other weird things.

The only thing I’m sure about is that I have stayed in the B&B where ‘I’ stay in the story. Minus the whisky, of course.

And just like you should never walk up those deserted stairs in that haunted house when you’ve heard an odd sound in the night, then I’d not have…

Oh. No.

Villain

They will have to ‘try and save the world.’ That’s the ‘Rockborn’ who are on the side of good. They might look like monsters, but on the inside they are as normal as they were before they were changed by the strange rock from space. It’s just hard for the rest of the world to see past the monstrous outer skins and shapes of our heroes.

Michael Grant’s Villain, the second book about the Gone world after Perdido Beach, is – if possible – gorier than the first. I found Monster hard to cope with, and it was the same with Villain. Until you get into the swing of things and can unthink the horror, hopefully also unsee it, these are unbelievably horrific books. (Or I’m just innocent, protected until now. Yes, that’s probably it.)

Michael Grant, Villain

Villain has, like Monster, the same spirit that readers found in the Gone series; normal teenagers who suddenly find themselves in impossible situations, and this time it affects the whole world. No one is safe.

After the Golden Gate Bridge and the port of Los Angeles, Michael is now gunning for Las Vegas. And you don’t want to know what he does there.

More monsters have woken up, and everyone’s having a go at the killing and the maiming. But as I believe I have suggested before, you can read with your eyes shut, so you don’t see so much.

In Monster we had various individuals and groups, and they are now gathering to work as a bigger group, doing their world-saving thing.

But it seems as if what made them like this didn’t only come from space, but perhaps they are being controlled from there too? Who wants to destroy Earth? No doubt we will find out, and I hope there will be something left, and that there won’t be more mayhem in another series of books…

As it says on the cover, ‘contains scenes of cruelty and some violence.’ Some violence? Really?

More handsome sitting down

Those were Michael Morpurgo’s words, but we would have loved him whatever he did. He decided he was most comfortable sitting down. His [event]chair, Alex Nye, grew so comfortable that she re-titled Michael’s book which he’d come to talk about, making it In the Mouth of the Lion, until Michael mildly said ‘I thought it was the Wolf..?’

You don’t get much past Michael Morpurgo. He must be a dream to ‘chair’ because he knows quite well what he’s going to be doing and he will go ahead and do it, no matter what. Never mind that he ‘mocked’ his illustrator for his Frenchness; you could tell there was much respect between the two of them, and he told us we must buy Barroux’s In the Line of Fire.

Michael Morpurgo, Alex Nye and Barroux

He began by reading to us, sitting down and being handsome, the first two chapters from In the Mouth of the Wolf. ‘They’re quite short. Don’t worry, it won’t be too boring.’ It wasn’t. And even those early chapters were enough to make us want to cry.

While Michael read, Barroux illustrated, showing us the views from [Michael’s uncle] Francis’s bedroom windows, saying he’s not a good illustrator. He prefers a bad drawing with a lot of emotion in it. Barroux also showed us his three different cover ideas for the book, explaining that it’s the publisher’s choice; not his.

When it was time for questions, the first was about Kensuke’s Kingdom. Michael was a little startled by this, but gave a long, considered answer, and then asked for the remaining questions to be about his new book. Because what authors need is to sell books, so they can have new socks, and J K Rowling has many many cupboards full of socks.

Barroux ‘hates fairies and unicorns’ because he can’t draw them, and he’s only recently learned to do dolphins. As Michael answered a question on freedom for his characters – who, of course, are not characters, but were real people – Barroux stealthily began to draw a dolphin. When discovered in the act, he was told that the whole entente cordiale was just then in danger.

Michael pointed out to his audience that in WWII, and for centuries before that, Britain was never occupied, while Europe was. In fact, not since William the Conqueror a thousand years ago… And we know where he came from.

Barroux

Asked about his passion for books, Michael said he’s more passionate about the reading of books. You should catch fire when reading, to reach those who never read. Currently he is working on several things; translating Le Petit Prince, putting words to The Snowman, and writing a new version of Gulliver’s Travels with Michael Foreman illustrating. He’s portraying Gulliver as a recent refugee, washing up somewhere new.

By then we’d overrun by at least five minutes, but Michael said he was going to sing for Barroux. There is a film being made of Waiting for Anya, and in it there is a song Michael likes very much. He sings it in the bath.

And ignoring his suggestion that we think of him in the bath – or not – or that he pretended the theatre’s doors would have to be locked to prevent us escaping, Michael stood up, still handsome, and he sang to us, and to Barroux.

It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful event, and to our book festival.