Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



HORRORSTÖR by Grady Hendrix

Horrorstor_final_300dpi HORRORSTÖR

Grady Hendrix (

Quirk Books (


It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming toward the massive beige box at the other end.

The Cleveland, Ohio Orsk store has been losing money since it opened, sales a fraction of those in the furniture giant’s other stores, and staff are coming in to work every morning to broken, damaged and soiled products on the shop floor. The day before a consultancy team are due from Head Office, the store’s deputy manager, Basil, recruits Amy and Ruth Anne to do a special overnight shift, a security measure to ensure that nothing is amiss when the consultants arrive. It isn’t long before strange things start happening – graffiti appearing on the walls of the women’s bathroom, strange noises on the shop floor and a distinctly unpleasant smell pervading the whole building – and before the night is out, there will be worse horrors to come and this small group will learn what it truly means to be stuck in a dead end job.

You will be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that Grady Hendrix’s exceptional novel is an Ikea catalogue (the splendid front cover gives way to a map of the store, and a home delivery order form before the story begins). Nor is it a zombie novel, despite the opening sentence, above. The novel’s setting is an Ikea rip-off, “the all-American furniture superstore in Scandanavian drag”, and anyone who has ever set foot inside one of Swedish colossus’s shops will recognise it instantly, from the guided shopping experience (“the Bright and Shining Path”), to the Market Floor and the self-service warehouse. Hendrix’s attention to detail is second-to-none here, and he has even gone as far as naming his own product lines (some, admittedly, with questionable names: the Tossurs treamill desk; Balsak candles; Magog bunk beds).

It’s a difficult book to categorise: part satire on modern working life – and, indeed, modern shopping life – part turn-on-all-the-lights horror, Hendrix never lets the reader get too comfortable with one emotion or the other, flitting from laugh-out-loud (really!) to spine-chilling horror with an ease that is difficult not to admire, even as you’re looking over your shoulder to make sure that wasn’t someone breathing on your neck. The unique narrative style helps to keep the reader engaged in what might, in the hands of a less humorous author, have been a sustained and bleak journey into madness with no redeeming features.

The bulk of Horrorstör covers a relatively short period of time – the fateful overnight shift – so the small cast, and the fact that we see everything exclusively through the eyes of Amy, help to make it a more intimate, engaging read. While the plot might sound like something from a second-rate teen slasher flick, this is far from the cast you might expect in such a film: Basil, a man who has worked his way out of a bad neighbourhood into a life dedicated to the company; Amy, slacker twenty-something who is fooling no-one with her claims that she won’t be working retail for the rest of her life; Ruth Anne, fifty-something bubbly blonde who lives for Orsk and whose only wish is to send her customers out the door with a smile on their faces. These three, and the other uninvited employees who find themselves in the store – Matt and Trinity – are beautifully-drawn, each of them someone we know, someone we’ve probably worked with at some point in our careers, caricatures that nevertheless feel comfortably real, despite the extraordinary situation in which they find themselves.

The backstory that comes to light as we progress through the story – and the night – is by no means original to Horrorstör, nor is it meant to be. This is an old-fashioned haunted house story with a twist in the location, so it’s no surprise when we learn that the land on which this Orsk store was built has something of a past.

“But ghosts only haunt houses[…]”

“This is a building with bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms,” Matt said. “If that’s your definition of a house, then Orsk is a house. ‘A Home for the Everyone.’”

Which is not to say that you’ve seen Horrorstör before. Sure, there are elements of The Office here; a tip of the hat to the opening sequence of Shaun of the Dead, and a building that exhibits some of the same properties – and exudes some of the same ice-cold chill – as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but Grady Hendrix has produced something fresh, something original, something that will frighten even the most hardened fan of horror while, at the same time, making them laugh. If you’ve seen Ikea’s The Shining advertisement, you’ll begin to get some idea of just how creepy giant empty furniture shops can be; Horrorstör builds on this sense of wrongness to produce a haunting and disturbing masterpiece.

IKEA’s 2014 Halloween advertisement

Horrorstör is a beautifully-presented piece, from the Ikea catalogue-like front cover to the detailed illustrations of the various furniture items that you’re likely to find on the Orsk Showroom floor, it is, like Reif Larsen’s The Select Works of T. S. Spivet, a complete package that works best when story and design are combined. A wonderfully-written haunted house story, it will keep you up late into the night, and make you think twice about nipping to the local Swedish furniture superstore for meatballs or another Billy bookcase. Approach with caution, but do not miss at any cost.



Anthony Quinn (

No Exit Press (


In the dying days of 1917, the body of young woman is washed ashore on the west coast of Ireland, near Sligo. She is in an old and decomposing coffin. Before her death, she sent a letter to London, to the poet William Butler Yeats and his Order of the Golden Dawn, foretelling her own death, and asking him to seek out her murderer should it come to pass. A noted spiritualist and supernatural investigator, Yeats charges his young apprentice, the ghost-catcher Charles Adams, with travelling to Sligo to find her ghost, and find out how she met her end. Met by suspicion and loathing, Adams finds himself in a country torn apart by political and religious sectarianism, where the English are less than welcome, and where the supernatural will be the least of his worries.

Taking a break from his Inspector Celsius Daly novels, Anthony Quinn takes the reader back to Ireland in the early part of 1918. Europe and much of the rest of the world is at war, but it seems to have little effect on this part of western Ireland – Sligo and its surrounding areas – which is dealing with its own troubles. It is almost two years since the events of the Easter Rising and many of the rich people who call this part of the country their home – ex-patriot Englishmen, for the most part – have been hounded from their manors and estates and sent on their merry way back to whence they came. This is the heart of Irish nationalism, the domain of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the Daughters of Erin.

It is into this politically-charged environment that Charles Adams arrives at the behest of his mentor, the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, an Englishman with no concept of the history of this place, or the current mind-set of the people he is likely to encounter. Charged with finding the ghost of Rosemary O’Grady, it quickly becomes clear that a more natural course of investigation is likely to yield more results. Adams begins asking questions that see him viewed with suspicion by the locals, and brings him into contact with both the local constabulary, and with the Daughters of Erin, in the guise of Yeats’ old lover, Maud Gonne. Adams also finds himself plagued by Wolfe Marley, an Irishman who is employed as a spy by the British Admiralty.

Despite the supernatural elements – or the suggestion of supernatural elements – the mystery at the heart of The Blood Dimmed Tide has a wholly natural explanation, something mundane yet very cleverly constructed to allow the user to catch glimpses of the truth as the novel progresses, while still withholding enough to surprise us in the final act. What is most interesting is how each of the two central characters – Yeats and Adams – approach the question of how and why young Rosemary O’Grady died. Yeats, obsessed with the supernatural, has become an investigator of sorts, a debunker of fake mystics and psychics in much the same way that Houdini was. For him, there is no other way to determine the cause of death than by finding and asking the dead girl’s ghost. Adams, on the other hand, takes a more grounded approach, despite his reputation as a ghost-catcher of some talent. For him, the political environment in which he finds himself when he arrives in Sligo raises more questions about the girl’s death and sends him on his inevitable collision course with the locals, and the local powers-that-be.

The Blood Dimmed Tide is a wonderful character-driven mystery that is defined in large part by place and time. Nowhere else could the story have taken place than the tumultuous west coast of Ireland in the dying days of the Great War: the environment in which Charles Adams – and, later, W.B. Yeats himself – finds himself, and the atmosphere that Quinn generates for the reader are as important to the story as the murder victim herself. Along our journey, Quinn introduces us to secret occult societies, Irish rebels, the last remnants of the British Empire in Sligo and smugglers. All this plays out as war rages in mainland Europe, and German U-boats lurk off the coastline, an ever-present threat for some, and a potential ally for others.

Quinn has done an excellent job evoking the spirit of Ireland in the years following the Easter Rising, and examines the politics of the time by placing an Englishman – and an Englishman with no clue as to what he’s letting himself in for, at that – into the middle of this powder keg of emotions and barely-restrained violence. His characters are well-drawn, his use of the first person allowing us to see inside the mind of young Charles Adams as he undertakes his mission. These sections are interspersed with third-person narratives, which give the reader some insight into the other characters we encounter. The inclusion of Yeats seems superfluous, and indeed he is a character who spends much of the time on the side lines, but it does leave this reader wondering if there are deeper themes at play here, things I might have picked up on had I read any of Yeats’ work in the past (shameful, I know!), or if he’s just a vehicle to introduce the supernatural aspect of the tale. Either way, it’s interesting to see this side of one of Ireland’s most famous sons.

The Blood Dimmed Tide is a dark and gripping tale that takes the reader to Ireland’s very own Wild West. Beautifully written, with a cleverly-constructed mystery at its core, the story blends crime fiction, politics and occultism in a way that keeps the reader interested in every aspect of the story: the political situation as much as Rosemary O’Grady’s cause of death or the insight into the various rebel factions. The book is likely to appeal to fans of Sherlock Holmes, or those interested in the work on the occult carried out by Houdini around the same time period as the novel’s setting, and introduces Anthony Quinn as a fascinating new voice in the latest wave of Irish crime fiction writers, and one that I’ll be watching closely in the future.

WE ARE HERE by Michael Marshall

WE ARE HERE - Michael Marshall WE ARE HERE

Michael Marshall (

Orion Books (


On a visit to New York to meet his publisher, David bumps into a man on the street – the sort of innocent collision that happens all the time on busy city pavements – who follows him back to Penn Station and confronts him. He utters two words, part question, part command, before disappearing again: “Remember me”. When John Henderson’s girlfriend introduces him to Catherine Warren, it is because she believes he can help her. Catherine is being stalked, and when John investigates he discovers that it’s not quite as straightforward as an ex-lover or shunned suitor. As David and John become entangled in this strange new world, a man named Reinhart is rallying troops for a push that could ultimately lead to death and destruction on an epic scale.

There is something comforting, despite the subject matter, about cracking open a new Michael Marshall novel. Perhaps it’s the sense that you’re in a safe pair of hands, or maybe it’s just the knowledge that you have no way of anticipating what’s in store next from one of the most original storytellers of recent years. Like his previous novels, We Are Here straddles the boundary between straight crime/thriller and straight horror as Marshall introduces us to a world that exists just on the periphery of our own, a group of people who live in the shadows and who are largely forgotten, or ignored, by the people around them.

In much the same way that Die Hard 2 is a sequel to Die Hard (the same central character finding himself in yet another, unrelated, but equally dangerous situation), We Are Here is a sequel to Marshall’s 2009 novel, Bad Things. John Henderson, who we last saw in the wilds of Washington state has moved to New York with Kristina and is now living and working in the East Village. Beyond that, there are no other major connections between the two novels, though long-time readers will have a better understanding of John’s background than people using We Are Here as a jumping-on point (if you haven’t read Marshall before, though, you should by no means allow this to deter you from starting here). In a move that now seems to be traditional for the author, Henderson’s sections are told in the first person, while the rest of the characters get chapters of their own, narrated in a third-person voice.

The voice itself is engaging and down-to-earth, and much of the story is told in a conversational tone that is sometimes at odds with what’s actually going on. Contrary to what you might expect, this works very well, and serves to tie the different elements of the story (often off-the-wall) neatly together into a coherent whole.

They made their way toward the platform via which they’d arrived at the station that morning. This turned out not to be where the train was departing from, however, and all at once they were in a hurry and lost and oh-my-god-we’re-screwed. David figured out where they were supposed to be and pointed at Dawn to lead the way. She forged the way with the brio of someone having a fine old time in the city, emboldened by a bucketful of wine, clattering down the steps to the platform and starting to trot when she saw their train in preparation for departure.

The nature of these shadowy people referenced by the novel’s title is never fully explained. A number of theories are presented to the reader, in the form of theories held by various characters (are they imaginary friends long since forgotten by the people who dreamed them up? Are they ghosts? Are they something else entirely?), and the reader is left to decide for themselves which they prefer, or which makes the most sense. Regardless of which theory is correct, Marshall has created a complex societal structure and set of rules which govern the actions of the group, giving these people some substance and background that is woven neatly into the fabric of the story.

The return of John Henderson gives us a sense of familiarity and I, for one, enjoy the various interconnections between his books that define the strange world that Marshall began creating with his Straw Men novels. We Are Here also introduces a huge cast of new characters, which is a departure from the small, controlled groups of central characters that we’re used to seeing in the author’s works. With Marshall’s deft touch, though, each stands out as an individual and it is easy to keep track as the story progresses. In Reinhart, Marshall has created one of the most sinister and evil characters you’re likely to encounter in a piece of fiction. Despite the fact that he spends much of the story lurking in the background, his brief appearances are memorable and shiver-inducing.

Another winner from a master of his game, We Are Here is a welcome addition to Michael Marshall’s growing catalogue. Part crime, part horror, part urban fantasy, it should appeal to new and old readers alike with its mixture of dark comedy, horror, mystery and abrupt violence. Fast-paced, tightly-plotted and beautifully-written, We Are Here packs thrills and chills into an intelligent story that, despite its fantastical elements, never loses its plausibility or sense of realism. If you’re already a fan of Michael Marshall then you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t read the man’s books before, then We Are Here is an excellent place to start. Either way, you’re in for a treat.

THE AYLESFORD SKULL by James P. Blaylock

Ayelsford Skull - Blaylock THE AYLESFORD SKULL

James P. Blaylock (

Titan Books (


A girl is murdered in a cemetery in the quiet English town of Aylesford. She is found beside an open grave from which the skull appears to have been taken. The culprit is none other than Dr. Ignacio Narbondo; the Aylesford Skull – and more importantly, the modifications that have been made to it – are central to his latest plan. Kidnapping the four-year-old son of his old nemesis, Professor Langdon St. Ives, he flees to London and finds himself hunted not only by St. Ives, but by the headstrong young Finn Conrad, and old Mother Laswell, who has motives of her own. Narbondo and his associates are planning something big, and it’s up to Langdon St. Ives to stop him, and save his son in the process.

What at first glance may appear to be a clichéd and formulaic Victorian fable – the good guy and his nemesis fight a battle of wits with the world, or the Empire at least, at stake – gains much more depth the further we read. Langdon St. Ives may once have been an adventurer of some note, but he is now happy to have settled in rural England with his family. The upheaval caused by the return of Narbondo is unexpected and unwanted. When he learns the truth behind the missing skull, his scientific brain takes over and refuses to let him believe what he is being told, but he is not so close-minded that he is unable to accept the fact of magic when everything points to a supernatural explanation. Narbondo, the perfect foil for St. Ives’ character, is a larger-than-life, almost comical villain, the Joker to the Professor’s Batman. A man of few scruples, pure profit is his only motivation and there are no limits to what he will do to achieve his goals.

Around these two central characters, Blaylock has constructed a solid supporting cast, seeing the return of many characters from the earlier novels – Tubby Frobisher, Jack Owlesby, Bill Kraken and Hasbro, St. Ives’ factotum – as well as a few new faces – Finn Conrad, Mother Laswell and a certain young Scottish doctor by the name of Arthur Doyle. Blaylock admits to an enthusiasm for 18th and 19th Century literature, and his love of the form shines through here, both in the narrative structure of the novel, and the dialogue itself. This authentic writing style only adds to the experience, and makes the book’s steampunk and supernatural elements more palatable for the reader.

One of the strengths of the novel is the world that Blaylock has created around his characters. The action takes place in the summer of 1883 in a world much like our own, with some technological advances. This is a world of dirigible airships, steam-powered church organs and miniaturised-clockwork gadgets, but for the most part the steampunk is subtle, much less in-your-face than, say, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, or Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine (both fine examples of the genre, don’t get me wrong). Blaylock weaves real-world history into the plot, setting the story against the politically charged background of 1880s London: a series of bombings blamed on Fenians and anarchists provide cover for Narbondo’s preparations. The result is a realistic and believable world not too far removed from our own.

James P. Blaylock is one of the fathers of the steampunk movement, and Langdon St. Ives is one of the genre’s most enduring characters, having first appeared in the early eighties. The Aylesford Skull is my first experience with both author and character: I have been lusting after the small press limited editions of the St. Ives novels for years, since they’ve been the easiest copies to find, despite the high price tag. Fortunately for me, and all those like me who have yet to meet the Professor and his companions, Titan Books are using the publication of this latest novel to re-issue at least some of the older novels, and hopefully in time we’ll see the complete collection as affordable paperbacks.

The Aylesford Skull is an old-fashioned adventure story with a sprinkling of technology and a hint of the supernatural. A fast-paced read, its audience is likely to be confined to fans of steampunk, or long-time readers of Blaylock, even though it deserves a much wider audience (it should appeal to fans of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and all possible stops in between). With a strong cast of characters, an engaging storyline and a writing style that demands the reader’s attention, this novel shows that James P. Blaylock is worthy of the “Steampunk Legend” tag that adorns the book’s front cover. Despite references early in the story to previous adventures, this is an excellent place for the new reader to start. A wonderful addition to the genre, The Aylesford Skull has left this reader looking forward to more tales of Langdon St. Ives, both old and new.

THE CLUMSY GHOST by Alastair Jessiman et al


Alastair Jessiman, Anna Britten, David Blake, Roy McMillan, Edward Ferrie, Margaret Ferrie, David Angus

Read by Sean Barrett, Harry Somerville, Anne-Marie Piazza, Roy McMillan, Thomas Eyre

Naxos Audiobooks (


(Available as a CD audiobook or digital download)

I have, for a long time, been a fan of horror, cutting my teeth back in the ‘80s on anthologies edited together especially for younger readers by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, and the novels of Christopher Pike. From there, I graduated to the novels of Stephen King and the rest, as they say, is history. I still have a fondness for those old novels and anthologies and like to revisit them when I have the chance. I was offered a copy of Naxos Audiobooks’ The Clumsy Ghost and Other Spooky Tales for review and jumped at the offer, seeing a chance to relive those parts of my childhood that cemented in place my love for reading.

The Clumsy Ghost is a collection of seven specially-commissioned short spooky tales written specifically for audio presentation, and to appeal to an audience of 8-13 year-olds. According to publisher Nicholas Soames, the plan was to recreate a genre of ghost stories that appealed to the whole family, in the vein of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

What they have produced is something of a mixed bag; as with all anthologies, some entries are stronger than others. Some of the entries will appeal specifically to the younger members of the family, while others are aimed at the higher end of the 8-13 year-old range, and one or two appealing to the whole family group – mum and dad included. The title story is a comedic tale about a ghost who decides to haunt a local mansion whose owners have fallen upon hard times. The ghost, a clumsy man in life, discovers that he is no less clumsy in death, and ends up causing trouble for the family, rather than helping them. “Unable to Connect” puts a very modern spin on an old-fashioned tale. A teenage girl hears her mobile phone ringing, even though she has left it at home, and discovers shortly afterwards that her mother has died at around the same time.

The strongest stories in the collection are “The Weeping Tree” and “The Book of Imhotep”. Margaret Ferrie’s “The Weeping Tree” is good old-fashioned horror story, with one scene in particular that will send a shiver up the spine of even the most hardened reader of horror. “The Book of Imhotep” takes us back to Egypt and a battle of wits between a cocky young prince and a long-dead sorcerer.

Overall, the stories are good, if not always excellent. With some, it is clear that they have been written specifically for audio presentation, while others have been written with a more traditional slant, and would not be out of place between the covers of a physical book. These stories provide chills aplenty, but are not designed to give nightmares, and in that they should succeed admirably (admittedly, I’m 36 years old, so the intended audience may see things slightly differently).

The two-disc set provides around two and a half hours of family entertainment the old-fashioned way, with nary a television set in sight. The readers are consistently wonderful – Sean Barrett is the stand-out here – and all well-suited to the stories they read. Naxos are best-known for their wonderful recordings of some of the finest classical music out there, and they have managed to incorporate some of this into the production, so expect to hear music from Debussy, Elgar and Rimsky-Korsakov, amongst others. The Clumsy Ghost and Other Spooky Tales  should be essential Hallowe’en or Christmas listening for families who like to spend time reading together, and should provide children with an introduction to the much wider world of horror fiction.

BLACK LIGHT by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan & Stephen Romano

BLACK LIGHT by Patrick Melton et al BLACK LIGHT

Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan & Stephen Romano

Mulholland Books (


Released: 13th October

When we first meet Buck Carlsbad, at the opening of Black Light, he is hard at work, taking down a mark – a ghost that has latched onto a living person. Buck has a gift, which he calls “The Pull” that allows him to suck these marks into himself and eventually regurgitate them into a silver urn, which he then buries in his back yard, effectively sealing them away forever. These marks, when inside Buck, enhance his ability to see the Blacklight, the world in which the dead live, a sort of layering onto the real world of all past versions of that world. Buck has no idea where his gift came from – orphaned at 7, he suspects that his parents were similarly gifted, but he has been unable to find out where they disappeared to, or why the left him to fend for himself.

When Buck is hired by a billionaire businessman to protect the first journey of a high-speed train between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that runs through an area of desert that Buck calls the Blacklight Triangle – due to the high instance of ghost activity in the area – he jumps at the chance. Buck has history in the Triangle, and suspects that this train journey may be the best bet he has of finding out what happened to his parents. Assembling a team, Buck boards the train along with an assortment of film and music stars, a camera crew, and the man slated to be the next President of the USA – and his Secret Service detail – and finds himself on a high-speed journey into hell with no-one to trust but himself.

“By writers from the SAW franchise”, the book cover tells us, something which excited me until I realised that Messrs Melton and Dunstan were behind four of the later entries to a series that – in my opinion – lost the plot about ten minutes into the third instalment. So, I started Black Light with a certain amount of trepidation. We’re thrown into the middle of the action, and we discover Buck’s Gift as we watch him use it to ensnare the ghost of a child killer who is haunting his wife. Buck is a character of some depth: he’s an orphan with this strange gift, and the only conclusion he can draw is that one or other of his parents has passed it on to him. He has a strange relationship with a young woman who is head-over-heels in love with him, and an even stranger relationship with his local priest, a man who provides him with the silver urns he requires to “store” his marks. He has a long and troubled history with the Blacklight, a history that cost one man his life, and almost cost Buck his own, but for Buck it’s the only way he is ever likely to discover who he is, and where he came from.

The story starts slowly, introducing the characters, and their various abilities, and the concept of the high-speed train that runs between the Lost Angels Plaza in Los Angeles and the Dreamworld resort in Las Vegas. As we see these things spring into life around us, I couldn’t help but be struck by similarities to the third volume of Stephen King’s Dark Tower epic, The Waste Lands: the Lost Angels Plaza as the Cradle of Lud; the Jaeger Laser as Blaine the Mono; the Blacklight Triangle as the waste lands themselves. Like Roland’s story, there’s an overarching sense of doom as the main players move into position, and the train readies for departure.

From that point on, around about the middle of the book, the narrative grabs the reader by the throat, throttles up a few notches, and drags us along for a ride that moves as fast as the train itself. There is no let-up in the action, and I would certainly recommend trying to read this portion of the book in a single sitting for maximum effect. The authors have a fine grasp of how to move a story along at breakneck pace, and how to keep the reader interested. The story is extremely visual, cinematic in its approach and scope. The book cover adds to this illusion, a movie poster that is eye-catching and intriguing. There are times when it seems we’re reading a film script – or a Matthew Reilly novel – but thankfully they’re few and far between. There is no mistaking that these are very talented writers who have done an excellent job of translating their skills of writing for the screen to writing an engaging and extremely entertaining novel.

Dark, gory and brilliantly-plotted, Black Light combines the elements of a good horror novel, with the stylistic tics of a mystery story, and the pace and tone of the best thrillers on the market. Melton, Dunstan and Romano have created, in Buck Carlsbad, a likeable, if somewhat damaged, character that the reader can identify with and root for. They’ve also created a mythology and backstory that is solid and original. The combination make this one to watch, and a dead cert for a series of novels and films charting Buck’s journey. If you’re a fan of Felix Castor or John Constantine, or are looking for a horror story that’s a bit different from the norm, then Black Light is the book for you.

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