Category Archives: Horror

Bloody Scotland – the anthology

Bloody Scotland. What a – bloody – fantastic collection of crime stories! And what a gorgeous cover! It’s like blood dripping…

Bloody Scotland - the book

Although I have to admit to doubting the wisdom of going to bed so soon after finishing the last stories. How was I going to sleep after what Denise Mina put me through? Or Louise Welsh? She’d seemed like such a pleasant person when I got my book signed at the weekend. How could she?

Whereas Stuart MacBride, who usually is too dark for my general wellbeing, just entertained me, and almost made me laugh. Almost. I would like to see his crazy romp at Kinnaird Head Lighthouse with his insane characters made into a short film. I think. I might not be able to watch it, though. Crying out to be filmed, whether or not I am witch enough to view it.

This crime story collection with stories by twelve of Scotland’s best, was the brainchild of Historic Environment Scotland, or HES for short, in collaboration with Bloody Scotland. Why not have our professional killers write a story each, set in one or other of the many HES buildings or sites? Why not? Well, maybe in order not to scare people.

For those less feeble-minded than your witch, this is a marvellous memento of your visit to a HES site. It’s marvellous even if you never go, and after you’ve waded through some bloodbaths you might have second thoughts. So visit first, then buy, and read last. After which you either go back to look at the place again (I know your type..!), or your next visit will be to a place where Bloody Scotland has not murdered anyone.

Yet. I feel there should be more of these. Obviously not to be read at bedtime.

It’s not all blood and gore and devastation however. Chris Brookmyre is suitably fun and lighthearted, and Gordon Brown’s character has a lesson to learn. A couple of authors have gone for revenge, which was most satisfying. Or history, such as Lin Anderson’s visit to the distant past, or E S Thomson’s industrial history drama.

I’ve already mentioned how pleased Doug Johnstone was about my reaction to his tale about the Forth Bridge. And if I don’t mention Val McDermid, Sara Sheridan, Craig Robertson or Ann Cleeves next to their stories, it’s to avoid spoilers.

You don’t want to know when to beware the narrator/main character, or when they are as innocent as you want/expect them to be. Or people close to them. There’s a lot of bad people out there.

But as I said, once the sleep problems have been dealt with, I can’t but want more of this. I can think of authors not yet asked to kill for HES, or places to visit that have not yet been, well, ‘visited.’

Let the blood flow and your nerves take a beating. Won’t be the only thing to take a beating, I can promise you.

Bloody Scotland blog tour

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Thrilling Fiction

They fought about who would sit on the middle chair, Michelle Paver or Peter Høeg, and while they did, their chair Daniel Hahn quickly sat down on the shiny red chair on the far side. In the end Michelle won, and Peter’s fame got him the chair between her and Danny.

I’d never thought about this before, but when Son pointed out earlier this summer that Peter Høeg hardly ever does events, it sort of made sense. So we made sure we were there to hear him speak, sparingly, about his new book The Susan Effect. (Everyone knows him for Miss Smilla.) And as I said last week in my review, I loved Michelle’s Thin Air.

Daniel began by saying they’d discovered they had one scientist and one mountaineer between them, and one book about science and one on climbing. But the trouble was that the ‘wrong’ person wrote the books; with Michelle covering the climbing and Peter the physics.

Describing Thin Air as a ‘thrilling, intense, really scary book’ that he shouldn’t have read alone late at night, Daniel asked Michelle how it came about. This story about the frozen world of Kangchenjunga began with her suffering from a frozen shoulder and when she couldn’t sleep, she got up and read something from her shelf of mountaineering books. Originally it was to be set in South America (she fancied making a research trip there), but in the end it had to be Kangchenjunga, with God at the top and the abominable snowman further down. And ghosts.

Peter Høeg and Michelle Paver

Peter usually gets his ideas during a ‘fleeting short moment’ in the middle of another book; this time about a woman who makes people speak the truth. He’s got a couple of such people in his own family, so knows what it’s like. It’s important how the character speaks. It has to be someone the reader can spend a week with, and the author maybe two years.

Like many Scandinavians, Peter speaks English well, slowly and with a marked Danish accent, but quite competently. He said Michelle ruined his reading of Thin Air, but Danny pointed out that this is what book festivals are for; having your illusions destroyed.

For her children’s series Wolf Brother she felt it important that children could like the characters, but for her adult books she’s quite happy to ‘be’ her new character, however unpleasant, or racist, they might be.

Peter tries to create something new each time, feeling it’s dangerous to repeat yourself. He was surprised by the humour in this new book. It’s warmer and more fun, and that makes him happy. Michelle mentioned that his line about a raisin made her laugh out loud when reading.

Peter Høeg

They both read from their books, with Peter apologising for his bad English as he read a short piece from the beginning of The Susan Effect. Michelle read the bit where her character wakes up in the tent, and how there might be someone out there…

As the middle of three sisters, she felt she had the necessary experience to write about sibling rivalry, and she mentioned the background of ‘beating the Hun’ and the public school ethos, and how men couldn’t admit to things like altitude sickness, which might affect a whole group.

Both authors admired each other’s books, and spoke about different – non-literary – genres, and how you need all kinds of books. The Danes, like other Nordics, read crime in the summer, a bit like porn. Michelle said that YA is good, because it tends to have a plot, and it doesn’t need to be literary.

Peter writes his first draft by hand, from beginning to end, and then he types it up, editing as he goes along. And if a day feels as if it won’t be a writing day, then he doesn’t force it. According to him, there are no books, only reading. We all read differently and there are as many versions of a book as there are readers.

Question time made a slow start, with Danny saying that if this had been a children’s event, all hands would be in the air. He mentioned one very important aspect about Peter’s book, which is that none of the words are his, but those chosen by his English translator (Martin Aitken). Peter said how grateful he is to him, and how all of Denmark relies on people to translate their small language. Daniel described the translating process as the translator first reads the book, then has to become arrogant – in a positive way – in order to rewrite the words so the book reads as though it is English. ‘Little Denmark’ likes this.

Michelle likes MR James, likes ghost stories, and she recognises that it’s unusual with ghosts somewhere empty like Svalbard (Dark Matter). Daniel said first you are scared because you are on your own, and then a stone moves, and you think ‘oh my god, I’m not on my own!’ And that is worse.

She does a fair bit of research, travelling to the places she sets her stories, and looking into things like illnesses and reading up on what others have already written, like the early climbers on Kangchenjunga.

Peter did research the first twenty years. And then the internet happened and he lost interest in old style research. He has a love for both science and music, but neither loves him back.

Peter Høeg and Michelle Paver

At the signing afterwards, I was delighted to discover that Michelle never travels without her paw print stamp for when fans bring copies of Wolf Brother. And she let me have a paw print in Thin Air. After all, we don’t know what’s out there on that mountain. Could be anything.

Thin Air

Michelle Paver has done it again. She’s managed to persuade me that she’s really John Buchan and Erskine Childers in one, blended with a bit of Kipling. In Thin Air the reader is – once more – transported to the 1930s, and this time it’s to climb Kangchenjunga. And as if that’s not enough of an ordeal, the mountain is haunted.

Thin Air is an adult novel, but only just. There is nothing unsuitable for younger readers keen on climbing and adventure, and who don’t mind being scared by the ghost of Kangchenjunga.

Michelle Paver, Thin Air

Dr Stephen Pearce is a last-minute replacement as the medic in the climbing team which consists of his older brother Kits, his brother’s best friend and two military climbers; one of whom is described as ‘a shade off in the vowels’ compared with these rather snobbish sahibs.

They are to follow the same route as a famous – but disastrous – climb almost thirty years earlier.

And, well, maybe they shouldn’t have.

This is such a marvellous tale of adventure, and you feel alternately exhausted by the climb and scared of whatever, whoever, is lurking out there in the snow. You admire the sherpas for their skills and patience with these strangers who call them coolies and yak-wallahs, and look down on the very men there to help them potentially become famous. If they succeed. Maybe even if they don’t.

If they survive.

The period feel is superb. As is the rising tension in the sahib camp.

You’ll not get me up there.

After the First Death

Almost forty years on I’m guessing Robert Cormier couldn’t have imagined that his early YA novel After the First Death would feel so current. Or maybe he would. Perhaps his journalist’s instinct knew that the world wasn’t about to become a better place.

Robert Cormier, After the First Death

He certainly knew how to paint a dark picture of terror back in the 1970s. This was my first book by Robert, whose name I’ve heard mentioned by authors who have strived to write as well as him. And, you know, if someone you admire, admires someone, you need to have a look for yourself.

Reading After the First Death post-Manchester and during the next London terror attack, I couldn’t help but feel it’s always the same. My own mental image of terrorists forty years ago was not that which is in this story, which feels totally up-to-date as far as what we are witnessing today is concerned.

A bunch of unidentified terrorists have seized a bus carrying 16 five-year-old children, holding them and the teenage girl driving the bus hostage. One of the terrorists is also a teenager, as is the boy who ends up as a go-between. The naïve reader imagines a bond forming, somehow.

You learn much about how adults groom younger people to help do their dirty work. We discover that the bus driver is a normal human being from her helpless reactions to the situation; none of this fictional hero stuff. The go-between fares not much better. And the children…

The title suggests this won’t be easily solved. You know there has to be at least one death. You just can’t tell how bad it might get.

This excellent but chilling book is one of the recently re-issued classics from Penguin.

Flesh and Blood

‘How scary can it be?’ I asked myself. ‘It’s a book for young children, after all.’ I was looking at the cover of Chris Priestley’s new book for Barrington Stoke, which shows a bandaged head, with just a hole for one eye. It’s an excellent cover. If you want to be scared witless.

Chris Priestley, Flesh and Blood

I took the precaution of not reading it at night, when the Resident IT Consultant was away. But I felt a bright afternoon would be OK. As OK as a book by Chris ever will be, I mean.

It’s really very nicely old-fashioned, in a way. Set during WWII Bill and his sister Jane seem like model children. If it weren’t for the fact that Bill would rather have a brother, which he wishes for during an air raid. And then, he sort of gets one, because they end up ‘adopting’ a young boy his own age who is found severely injured in a deserted and spooky house, and who seems to have no one.

Well, anyway, you know as well as I do that you should be careful what you wish for.

Bill feels uncomfortable, and so does his mother, and his sister. And then, one day those bandages come off…

Yeah, not sure that the bright afternoon was enough.

Bookwitch bites #142

It was nice to find myself in the company of Chris Riddell* and Judith Kerr for breakfast yesterday. Not for real, and it’s not as we were all in Hay or anything, but these two lovely people had dragged themselves into a radio studio ‘early’ on a Sunday morning to share their thoughts about Manchester and Hitler and whether to keep the truth from children.

Judit Kerr, stolen, borrowed from Chris Riddell

The downside to that, as Judith said, is that children think anyway and come up with the oddest ideas. So Hitler wasn’t actually hiding behind the hanging decoration in the toilet. But she sort of believed he might be. And Chris mentioned that his immediate reaction on hearing the Manchester news was to think of his daughter, recently graduated from University there. It’s how we function; we grab something close to ourselves.

In the Guardian Review we could read an extract from Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. It didn’t take more than a few sentences and I was back in Lyra’s world. I already like Malcolm and his suspicious mind.

Jonathan Stroud, The Empty Grave

Another book to look forward to is Jonathan Stroud’s last Lockwood – The Empty Grave – which had a cover reveal this week. I tend to sneer a bit at reveals like this, but I found myself quite taken with it. Lovely to see George at long last. And I’d say that whereas an empty grave could be seen as a positive thing, I don’t think we should have such sweet expectations here (because where is the corpse?).

Awards are good. Especially when given to the right people for the right books. Some favourites of mine have recently managed this. Simon Mason was awarded Best Crime Novel for Young Adults at CrimeFest for Kid Got Shot. Robin Stevens got the award for Best Crime Novel for Children. I’m simply pleased that the younger books are getting attention like this.

Adrian McKinty won the Edgar for Rain Dogs, which is no minor thing, and is well deserved. He seems quite pleased, judging by this blog post. At home in Australia minding the children, Adrian sent his wife to receive the prize.

(*I’m counting on Mr Riddell’s goodwill in not minding having his sketch stolen by me, as usual.)

Tales from Weird Street

Anne Fine, Tales from Weird Street

Anne Fine’s Tales from WeirD Street for Barrington Stoke are a lot scarier than you’d think, but aimed at a youngish age group, not as horrible as they could be. I mean, I was fine. My interest wasn’t lost through the stories being too wimpy, or anything, but neither did they have me kicking and screaming. Much.

Three children – living in WeirD Street – compete to see who can tell the scariest story. Each has a story that purports to come from someone else; a friend or relative or neighbour. So it didn’t happen to them, but to someone close and reliable so obviously this really happened.

Someone tells of the photograph that caused a boy to drown. Another tale tells of a Chinese restaurant and its ‘fortune’ cookies. And then there is a ghost who…

I would say, beware of the fortune cookie!

(Illustrations by Vicki Gausden)