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IT by Stephen King

IT - Stephen King IT

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£10.99

(he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts)

In May 1985 six people receive a phone call from a friend they have long forgotten reminding them of an oath they swore when they were just eleven years old. The phone call kick-starts the process of remembering the evil they fought in the small town of Derry, Maine, in the summer of 1958. For one, the sudden memories are too much, but for the rest of the Losers Club, the call must be answered – the evil has returned, and they swore, a long time ago, that they would return to Derry to face It again if It ever came back. Now, with the evil being that lives beneath Derry trying to thwart them at every turn, they must remember the events of August 1958, and try to reconnect with the magic that helped them survive that first encounter.

One of King’s bigger tomes, It is also one of the most controversial, dividing the ranks of even Constant Reader into those who love and those who loathe. In the opening scene, King presents us with one of the most enduring images from the book (and, indeed, the small-screen adaptation), as we follow Georgie Denbrough’s paper boat down flooded Witcham Street.

There was a clown in the stormdrain. The clown held a bunch of balloons, all colors, like gorgeous ripe fruit in one hand.

And so, instilling coulrophobia in an entire generation of readers with that single, wonderful image, King launches us into a horror that won’t end for twenty-eight years.

In 1958, we meet the members of the Losers Club as they are brought together by something much bigger than themselves. There are seven, a magic number in anybody’s book, and they take the misnamed Barrens for their own once school lets out for summer. The leader of this small band of misfits is Bill Denbrough, Stuttering Bill, the older brother of the young boy whose death started this current cycle of violence. Constantly on the lookout for Henry Bowers and his band of bullies, the group find themselves facing a much greater danger in the shape of the clown Pennywise, which seems to be the favourite face of the thing that lives beneath the streets of Derry.

In 1985, Mike Hanlon has stayed behind, acting as watchdog, and gathering what information he can on the town’s storied history. When Adrian Mellon meets his gruesome end at the hands of a man – according to witnesses – wearing a clown suit, it’s time to remind the others of their promise, and we meet these same characters in their adult form. They are now only six – the reawakening of memories about that fateful summer of 1958 proves too much for one of the gang – and they have forgotten most of their early lives in Derry – the friends that they are now meeting once again for the first time in over twenty-five years; the town of Derry itself; and, most strikingly, the events that led to their banishment of It.

King intertwines these two strands in a way that allows the reader to “remember” the events of the past at the same time as the members of the reconvened Losers Club. As events tend towards their climax, King evokes in us a sense of “doubling”, as children and adults approach the lair of It in lockstep, the narrative jumping back and forth in time without breaking the flow of action, little more than subtle clues to remind the reader that this is 1958 and that is 1985.

Running parallel to both these strands are a series of Interludes, sections taken from Mike Hanlon’s personal history of Derry, Maine, where we see the pattern begin to emerge, the twenty-seven- or -eight-year silence followed by eighteen months of violence before the cycle starts again. It is through these histories that we get a sense of the town itself, and the people who live there, and we begin to understand the nature of It – not Its origins, which we will learn later through Its own eyes, but how it has attained a king of symbiosis with the town and its inhabitants, so that strange goings-on (Henry Bowers attempting to carve his name in the stomach of Ben Hanscom, for example, or Beverly Marsh’s frantic flight along Lower Main Street, her crazed father in pursuit) go largely unremarked or completely ignored.

I have read It several times before, but this is my first visit as a man in middle age (and if that’s not a phrase to send you screaming to Juniper Hill, then nothing is), a man much closer in age to the 1985 protagonists than to their 1958 counterparts, and this elevated position provides the reader with a much different outlook on the proceedings. We can identify with the problems these people have in their lives; we can even, to a certain extent, identify with the total blank where their memory of their childhood in Derry should be. King’s examination of “magic”, of “faith”, of all the things that we lose as we grow older, and that provided these children with unimaginable power during their first encounter with It, starts to make much more sense, and we find ourselves more deeply invested in the fates of these characters. It’s a whole different experience to the coming-of-age tale that I remember It being on previous reads.

King has always been accused of being overly-verbose and a quick glance at It (the latest UK paperback edition clocks in at a hefty 1,376 pages) might give the prospective reader the idea that these accusations might be right. Trust me: you could not be farther from the truth. Every word in every scene combines to create a world that the reader can inhabit as easily as the characters on the page and a sense of terror that weighs on the reader from that very first glimpse of Pennywise in the drain.

I, Georgie, am Mr Bob Gray, also known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Examinations of bullying, abuse, racism and the cruelty of children to those who are different (the fat one, the one who stutters, the one with asthma) give the story and the town a deep sense of realism and allows each reader to identify with something personal to themselves. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, perfect. There are a couple of missteps as the story progresses (and, no, I’m not one of those people who feel that that pivotal moment in the tunnels under Derry is one of them), the most glaring the short-lived return of Henry Bowers to the town of his childhood after escaping from the Juniper Hill asylum. Like the proverbial deus ex machina, he appears, wreaks havoc, and vanishes in the blink of an eye when he might actually have been a more useful plot device later in the narrative. But let’s not be picky.

It is thirty years old this year, putting us now as far from 1985 as that fabled year was from 1958. This latest re-read proves to me that it’s a novel that continues to stand the test of time: there is little in the 1985 timeline to date the story, so it holds up well. The 1958 timeline is a different matter entirely, but the process of growing up, making friends and having fun in the seemingly endless days of summer is something that never changes, so the pop culture references make little difference. Our own childhoods are as strange to us as Stuttering Bill’s was to him, and that’s all that matters when it comes to the story.

As we, Constant Reader, have come to expect, the story is littered with self-references and sly winks designed to check that we’re paying attention. Take Henry’s magical ride as prime example.

…it was the car he recognised first – it was the one his father always swore he would own someday, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. It was red and white and Henry knew that the engine rumbling under the hood was V-8 327.

It is one of King’s early masterpieces, taking over four years to complete. Suffused with horror, it’s something of a slow-burner that will hold you until the final page, and will play on your mind for a long time afterwards. A haunted house tale on an epic scale, it’s a prime example of King at the height of his early powers, and a book that will ensure you never look at Ronald McDonald in quite the same way ever again.

pennywise

GUEST POST: Thriller vs Horror by TIM LEBBON

Hunt Front Cover hi-res NEW Name: TIM LEBBON (writing as T.J. Lebbon)

Author of: WHITE (1999)
                 BERSERK (2006)
                 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)
                 COLDBROOK (2012)
                 THE HUNT (2015)

On the web: www.timlebbon.net

On Twitter: @timlebbon

Tim Lebbon, best known for his horror novels, is releasing his first thriller (under the name T.J. Lebbon) on 16th July. It’s a fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat beauty, and I will be reviewing it here on Reader Dad next week. For now, I’m very pleased – not to mention excited – to welcome Tim to the blog, to talk about the differences between writing in the two genres.

They say you should write about what you know. That’s interesting advice when you’re a horror and dark fantasy writer. I’ve never met zombies and have never seen a ghost, but the advice is not literal. I know about fear and loss, love and grief, and it’s this aspect of what you know that you try to inject into a story to bring it to life.

If you have seen a ghost, all the better.

Until I wrote The Hunt, everything I ever wrote had some element of the supernatural or fantastic about it. This includes over thirty novels (seven in collaboration with Christopher Golden), over twenty novellas, and hundreds of shorts stories, as well as several screenplays. I’ve often been asked why I write horror, and my answers vary quite a bit. Mostly, I just say that it’s the way my parents put my hat on. I don’t like to analyse why I write what I do, in the same why I don’t think too much about why I prefer red wine over white, rock and punk instead of pop, or red meat instead of fish. It’s a matter of taste, and taste is part of what makes us unique.

And then I wrote a thriller.

I’ve been wanting to write a thriller for some time. Part of it was wanting to stretch my writer’s wings a little and see if I could write something that has no supernatural elements. I’ve stopped and started a few thrillers over the years, and one or two of these have changed into horror or even fantasy novels. But with The Hunt I knew what it was right from the beginning.

And it really was writing about what I knew.

I got into endurance sports a little over four years ago. I went from a standing start––overweight and unfit, I found a sport I loved, and it really changed my life. I’ve written elsewhere about the process, what I went through, and how it all happened. Suffice to say, a little over two years after starting to exercise seriously (at the age of 41) I raced my first Ironman. That’s a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a marathon, all in under seventeen hours.

I started to learn about effort and pain, the physiology of exercise, the feeling of being up in the hills tired and thirsty and hurting, and still have a few miles to go until home. I loved it. I enjoyed being alone, and discovering a sport which is all about yourself, not teammates.

Being a writer, I knew that I’d write about this one day.

The Hunt is the result, a novel written with no contract in place, and definitely one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had.

So what was the difference between writing The Hunt and any of the horror/fantasy novels I’ve written? In truth, very little difference. The process was the same, and perhaps the greatest change was the amount of research involved in this book over others.

Firstly, I wanted to really use my new experiences as an endurance sports competitor. That was writing about what I knew (or what I was still learning a lot about, at least). Secondly, I had to get the landscape right. Set in the mountains of Wales, I needed to know the nature of the hills and valleys, their ruggedness and beauty, the weather, flora and fauna. Whereas in my fantasy novels I’d been able to make this all up (the sentient tumbleweed in Dusk being a particular favourite), in The Hunt I had to get it right. Although I did take geographical liberties, I like to think I got the feel of the mountains and wilderness just right.

I also had to research trophy hunting. That wasn’t very nice, and perhaps that’s the closest I got to horror with this novel.

Other aspects of writing remained the same. My characters were still thrust into shocking and dangerous situations, the only difference being that the main threat was from other people, not something supernatural (and aren’t we the scariest monsters anyway?).

I suppose the biggest difference about writing The Hunt has been since I’ve actually finished the writing process. After selling it to the very wonderful Avon, I soon came to realise that here I was, over thirty novels into my career, and now I was a debut novelist again! It was a strange feeling, but a strangely liberating one, too. I’m sure a few people will see through the cunning pseudonym of T. J. Lebbon, but working with Avon and their splendid PR company The Light Brigade has been a unique experience for me. I have features and interviews upcoming in the national press, and next week when the paperback is released I’ll see it on supermarket shelves. These are both new experiences for me.

As a debut novelist, these are exciting times!

REVIVAL by Stephen King

REVIVAL - Stephen King REVIVAL

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons, even death may die.

Aficionados of the horror genre will instantly recognise this couplet as the work of H.P. Lovecraft, an excerpt from his fictional Book of the Dead, the Necronomicon. Referenced in Stephen King’s latest work, it forms one of the story’s central themes and provides a clue that Revival, the second King novel to appear in this, his fortieth year as a published author, is a return to the genre in which he made his name during the late seventies and most of the eighties. There is a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour to this story, though with a twist that is very much King’s own.

At the age of six, Jamie Morton, the youngest member of a large family living in small-town Maine, meets Charlie Jacobs, the town’s new minister and a man with a strange obsession with electricity. Following a tragic accident, Jacobs denounces God from the pulpit and disappears from Jamie’s life. But their paths are destined to cross again, and over the course of the next fifty years or so, they meet several times, each time Jacobs running a different scam, more obsessed by what he calls “the secret electricity”, and slightly more unhinged than the time before. Jamie has problems of his own and by the time he is in his early fifties he finds that he is in great debt to his old minister, and agrees to help him in one final experiment, the culmination of almost fifty years of research and experimentation.

For most of this hugely engrossing novel, King concentrates on the human aspect of the story. We watch as Jamie Morton grows from childhood to early adulthood and beyond to late middle age. What we know of Charlie Jacobs we learn through those time periods when the two men’s paths cross. While the scam is always different – Portraits in Lightning; the healing ministry – the subject of electricity remains a constant, and it quickly becomes clear that Jacobs has something planned, something related to the tragic accident that deprived him of his family when Jamie was still counting his age in single figures.

There are themes here that we have come to expect from Stephen King stories over the years: the question of faith plays an important part, here examined with a small twist that plays faith in the unknown (God) against faith in science (electricity) yet never manages to definitively separate the two; there is personal tragedy; examinations of the dynamics of family, and how they change over the years as the glue that holds them together first stretches, then, often, breaks altogether; the battle against addiction. Most importantly, as the Lovecraft quote that forms Revival’s core might suggest, is the question of death and what awaits us on the other side.

King never portrays Jacobs as a villain, yet the reader comes away with the distinct impression that if there is a villain in this piece, Jacobs would be it. There are parallels here with Rupert Angier from Christopher Priest’s excellent The Prestige (the obsession with electricity, and the attempts to turn it to one’s own will), and with King’s own Leland Gaunt; in this instance, rather than providing things, Jacobs provides cures, but the ultimate price that the buyer pays is no less substantial, and no less dangerous. As Mr Gaunt himself might advise: caveat emptor. There are also echoes of Pet Sematary: Jamie receives visits from the dead that feel very similar to the visits Louis Creed receives from Victor Pascow in that earlier novel. Through misdirection and clever plotting, King leads us to believe that we understand what Jacobs is trying to achieve, pulling the rug out from under us at the last minute and presenting us with something even more horrifying than we might have guessed.

There are, as always, links to King’s other works scattered throughout his latest novel. The most obvious is with last year’s Joyland, a place where Charlie Jacobs has set out his stall at some point during his career as a showman and charlatan. Once again, King immerses the reader in the world of “carny”, tying the two novels inextricably together, despite their widely different subject matters.

In the closing act, the tone of the novel changes completely, as King leaves his examination of the human aspect behind and presents us with a brief, but extremely disturbing, glimpse of balls-to-the-wall horror in a perfectly-judged tribute to the greats of the genre, people like Lovecraft and Machen, Ashton Smith and Derleth, the giants upon whose shoulders King has built his own career. You thought Pennywise was frightening? Or Kurt Barlow? Or the concept of Dreamcatcher’s “shit-weasels”? They all pale in comparison to the vision King presents in the closing pages of Revival, a vision that will make us re-examine all of the questions King has asked us to answer during the reading of this novel: that of faith, of family, of death. Abrupt and shocking, it shows that, even after forty years at the coalface, King still has the power to frighten and unnerve the reader, in ways that will stay with us long after we’ve finished the book and moved on to something else. Despite the Lovecraftian connotations, King presents a vision that is entirely of his own devising, and which asks us to reconsider any beliefs that we hold about who we are, where we come from and to where we are ultimately heading.

Revival is the perfect example of the long, slow build to a barely-glimpsed horror that is no less frightening for its brevity. Intensely personal, the book invites the reader to consider their own beliefs in order to understand the beliefs of the novel’s central characters, Jamie and Charlie. One of the finest novels King has produced in his long career, it is a welcome return to the pure horror that made his name, while still retaining the deep insight into the human condition that has defined much of his later work. Stephen King continues at the top of his game, one of our finest living writers. Revival is likely to become a firm favourite for many Constant Readers, an excellent example of the breadth of King’s abilities as a storyteller.

HORNS by Joe Hill

horns HORNS

Joe Hill (joehillfiction.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£8.99

Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache…when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.

Ig Perrish may not remember what he did the previous night, but he does remember the previous year, the year since the woman he had loved since they were fourteen had been brutally raped and murdered, a hideous crime for which Ig was the prime suspect. But these new additions, these horns growing from his temples, are game changers: when people see them they feel compelled to tell Ig their deepest darkest secrets, and it isn’t long before he discovers the true identity of Merrin’s killer. After that, it’s a matter of letting human nature take its course, unleashing the demon that so desperately wants to get out and sending Merrin’s killer to the hell in which he belongs.

I first read Joe Hill’s sophomore novel when it was published back in 2010; the imminent cinematic release of Alexandre Aja’s film adaptation in British cinemas was good enough reason to revisit Horns, and I’m happy to discover that it holds up well to that second read. At the centre of this dark and often blackly comic novel is Ig Perrish, a young man whose whole life has been pulled out from under him following the murder of his long-term girlfriend, Merrin Williams. Unable to provide a satisfactory alibi, Ig has been the only suspect since the murder took place a year earlier, and the lack of substantial evidence is the only thing keeping him out of prison. His new appendages, and the strange power they have over the people Ig meets, mean that he will quickly get to the bottom of the mystery.

Hill tells the story in a very non-linear form, jumping from one time period to the next, giving us brief glimpses of the relationships between the central characters – Ig, Merrin and Lee Tourneau – at various points between their initial meeting in their early teens, through young adulthood, to the present day. The identity of Merrin’s killer is revealed early in the novel, and is as shocking, at that point, for the reader as it is for Ig himself. As we get further glimpses into the lives of these people, the shock begins to wear off and we begin to see that nothing is quite as it seems or, to be more precise, quite as Ig Perrish believes it to be.

As time passes, Ig grows more and more to resemble the archetypal demon: the horns grow larger; the skin turns a deep red following an incident in a burning car; and Ig takes to carrying a pitchfork to protect himself. But there’s an interesting juxtaposition here: the more demonic Ig becomes, the more it becomes clear that he is the least demonic character in the novel. The revelations forced out of the people he meets by the horns on his head show a dark and unlikeable side to many of the people Ig loves:

“I can’t see any of my friends. I can’t go to church. Everyone stares at me. They all know what you did. It makes me want to die. And then you show up here to take me for walks. I hate when you take me for walks and people see us together. You don’t know how hard it is to pretend I don’t hate you. I always thought there was something wrong with you. The screamy way you’d be breathing after you ran anywhere. You were always breathing through your mouth like a dog, especially around pretty girls.”

This from Ig’s grandmother, Vera, who gets her comeuppance shortly afterwards in one of the novel’s many laugh-out-loud moments. The evil here is of a more human nature than the demonic one the reader might expect; there is a mundane explanation for the rape and murder of Merrin, an all-too-familiar, plucked-from-the-headlines quality that is more frightening than the man with horns around whom the story is constructed.

Hill uses the story to examine the question of faith (Ig and Merrin meet in church and for most of his short life, Ig is the very definition of humanitarian), and the difference between “good” and “evil” as concepts. Bad things happen to good people, he tells us, and sometimes good people need a little help to get their own back. Do the horns and the pitchfork make Ig Perrish a demon, or just a man with a demonic outer shell? Hill leaves it to the reader to decide.

Lacking the bone-chilling scares that he gives us in both Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2, Joe Hill’s Horns is no less frightening for its close examination of the evil things of which mankind is possible. This is a wonderfully dark tale with a very definite sense of humour that often leads the reader to laugh out loud.

Dale sat breathing strenuously in the muck. He looked up the shaft of the pitchfork and squinted into Ig’s face. He shaded his eyes with one hand. “You got rid of your hair.” Paused, then added, almost as an afterthought, “And grew horns. Jesus. What are you?”

“What’s it look like?” Ig asked. “Devil in a blue dress.”

An instant classic, Horns commands the reader’s attention from the first page to the last and serves as an excellent starting point for Joe Hill virgins. I, for one, can’t wait to see the film adaptation, despite the fact that the Ig in my head bears no resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe. This is a must-read, if you haven’t already, and well worth a revisit if you have.

GUEST POST: Once Upon A Time by Sebastian Gregory #Halloween

The Asylum for Fairy Tale Creatures Name: SEBASTIAN GREGORY

Author of: THE GRUESOME ADVENTURES OF ALICE IN UNDEADLAND (2014)
                  THE ASYLUM FOR FAIRY-TALE CREATURES (2014)
                  THE BOY IN THE CEMETERY (2014)

On Twitter: @wordsbyseb

To celebrate the Halloween season, and today’s publication of Sebastian Gregory’s latest book, The Boy in the Cemetery, publishers Carina UK are kicking off a blog tour featuring some of the scary stories from his book, The Asylum for Fairy-Tale Creatures. As big fans of the horror genre, we’re very pleased to host Sebastian and his spooky story.

Once upon a forever more, a long time ago in the dark place where imagination and nightmare met, they built the asylum. Surrounded by a forest of dense thorns and crumbling on a precipice falling to an infested monster sea, the asylum held the most insane in the entire fairy tale kingdom.

To be poor abandon children in the forest, left to the whims of the nearby witch in her gingerbread house – imagine how frail your mind would become. Imagine the trauma of finding a house inhabited by bears who think they are people. How about being a boy made of wood who can think and talk yet is ridiculed and shunned. Or a girl given to a reclusive beast by her own father. It would be enough to drive a person to madness. And so many of the fairy tale creatures went skipping into the comfort of insanity.

The Boy in the CemeteryTheir demented wails carried through barred windows and into a rainstorm to haunt the turbulent air. A raven followed the cries to a break in the highest tower roof. The rain dripped from cracks in the slates. On the rafters the raven shook off the rain and cawed to itself, tipping its head this way and that with dark curiosity, before swooping downwards through the rafters and away amongst stone corridors. Flying between the shadows of the gas lamps, the raven passed the padded cells of the asylum’s inhabitants. All and more locked behind deep oak doors for evermore. The raven explored further, gliding along until it came to a spiral staircase. It landed on the stone steps a moment, hopping and pecking before flying off again, downwards. To another corridor and, if it were not a fool bird, the raven would have noticed something different. There was only one door at the end of a dark hallway of stone, bolts and chains and huge padlocks holding it firmly sealed. The raven did not concern itself with this and settled on the bars of the door; it cawed and pecked at the metal with a rat-tat-tat. For a moment something reflected in its onyx eye; from the gap in the bars a bony finger, unexpected and quick, simply brushed the poor creature with all the force of a breath on a nape. The raven cried its last and disappeared, falling within. There was a momentary sound of bones falling on stone, a kind of rattle before everything was silent again, save for the distant sound of the storm, and the ravings of the insane fairy tale creatures.

From THE ASYLUM OF FAIRY TALE CREATURES, free for a limited time on Amazon, Apple and other retailers.

Sebastian’s latest book THE BOY IN THE CEMETERY is only £0.99 for a limited time on Amazon, Apple and other retailers.

THE GRUESOME ADVENTURES OF ALICE IN UNDEADLAND is also £0.99 for a limited time on Amazon, Apple and other retailers.

Look out for A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY, coming in December.

An Interview with DEN PATRICK

Den Patrick Name: DEN PATRICK

Author of: THE BOY WITH THE PORCELAIN BLADE (2014)

On the web: www.denpatrick.com

On Twitter: @Den_Patrick

Den Blog TourDen Patrick was born in Dorset in 1975 and shares a birthday with Bram Stoker. He has at various times been an editor, burlesque reviewer and Games Workshop staffer. He lives and works in London, and The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is his first novel.

Thank you, Den, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure, thanks for having me on the blog.

First off, I’d like to explore the origins of the world you have created in The Boy With the Porcelain Blade. We get a potted part-history/part-mythology during the novel, but give us some insight into Landfall and the wonderful Demesne, a castle like no other I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

The world really grew around the characters. My agent asked for more world building after she read the draft I submitted to her. I knew there were four great Houses; Contadino for the famers and teamsters, Erudito, a House of scholars and teachers, House Prospero for the artisans and merchants, and lastly House Fontein, the soldiers. I love the idea of feuding Houses, something I enjoyed in Dune. As I re-drafted the novel the secondary characters, the history and the Houses gained depth. It was quite an organic process and Landfall grows each time I sit down to write a new book.

The Orfano (of which Lucien, the book’s protagonist is one) are strange, misshapen foundlings who appear on the steps of the great houses every few years. No one knows where they come from, which causes a lot of unease. The reclusive King has set down an edict where the Orfano are protected, which only adds to the suspicion and distrust.

There’s something very familiar about this world in which we find ourselves: Italian seems to be the language of choice, and the histories seem to be our own (as evidenced by the names of the drakes, and their origins). Was this a deliberate decision, and should we read anything in to it?

I suppose I was attempting a cultural shorthand. The Italian Renaissance is packed with warring city states, vendetta and politics. By using Italian as the old tongue of Landfall I’d hoped to create that sort of atmosphere. Giving the characters Italian names just reinforced that cultural shorthand.

The histories and mythic names are shared with our own, and that’s something I may explore more deeply one day. I’ve always liked the fact you never really know if Gormenghast is set on this world or is a secondary world of it’s own.

The ceramic blades are an interesting concept. What’s the origin?

So, this is a massively geeky answer. I love Star Wars and one of the things about TIE fighters is that they are fragile (no shields) and are reliant on the Star Destroyers that carry them. They have no landing gear and can’t travel between systems like say the X-wing. A TIE fighter creates reliance by the pilot for the officers commanding him, he needs them.

So it goes with ceramic blades. You’re reliant on House Fontein to receive a new blade should you break your own. You’ll reach a fairly short end the moment you come into contact with someone wielding a steel blade should you disobey or openly rebel.

And lastly the literary metaphor, if you’re into that; Lucien is ferocious, but he’s also very young. Teenage years are a strange time when we think we’re indestructible but are often quite fragile.

There is a hugely political element to the story: the four major houses collected together in a single space; the "floating" nature of the Orfano and the adoption process that sees them enter Houses when they come of age. How much of this existed before the story, and how much developed as you progressed through the plot? Is there any pressure, given the popularity of the Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) series, to produce "political fantasy" to keep the readers engaged?

I’ve never read A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t tell anyone, OK? Otherwise people won’t believe I’m a proper Fantasy author. I do love the TV show though.

A lot the Houses really grew as I fleshed out the plot. I surprised myself with how political it became. I do remember watching a lot of West Wing when I wrote the first book, so maybe that bled in subconsciously.

Lord Marino. I’m offering the name without further comment, but I can’t help but think we might begin to see the world outside of Landfall as this series progresses. Can you give us some hints about what might be in the near future for Lucien and friends?

The action stays firmly focused on Demesne for the next two books. Book two has a new point of view character, but I can’t tell you who for reasons of spoileryness. Book three has two female point of view characters. I have two stand alone novels planned, and both take place in the new town of San Marino, but I’ve no idea if I’ll have the chance to write them. Lucien will pop up from time to time as a secondary character, but the new books will all have new lead characters.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I really love Jon Courtney Grimwood’s economy. He does so much with so little and the dynamics he creates between characters is fantastic. Richard Morgan has this bruising swagger to his writing, it’s so hard boiled, so spoiling for a fight, it makes his writing electric. Chris Wooding has this wonderful sense of fun and adventure, the Ketty Jay books are so good. China Miéville is obviously a master craftsman of prose and ideas. Steph Swainston has this incredible world populated with grizzled, often cynical, frequently flawed characters. And then there’s Joe Abercrombie, of course.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I don’t want to write other people’s books, I’m having way too much fun writing my own.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Den Patrick look like?

Short controlled bursts, just like the Colonial Marines. I try and write 500 words, then break for a coffee, shower, bacon sandwich or whatever. Then another 500, another break, another 500 and so on. By 13:00 I’m a bit brain dead, so I’ll have lunch and watch an episode of something. In the afternoon I’ll re-read what I wrote that morning and tidy it up.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write everything. Write reviews, write articles, write comic scripts, write outside of your genre of choice. Study storytelling in all it’s forms be it novels, film, comics, television or theatre. The more you write the more you think about words and how to best communicate an idea through that medium.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise. And it’s very much for pleasure, and a lot of fun.

If The Boy With the Porcelain Blade ever makes the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’d like the score to composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I always imagined Duchess Prospero as Monica Bellucci. Gary Oldman would make an astounding Virmyre. Romola Garai for Camelia. In fact everyone who appeared in The Hour is fantastic. I struggle to think of people for the younger characters.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

My tastes are very contemporary, so I’m lucky in that I get to chat to authors I admire at conventions. I forgot to mention Scott Lynch earlier when I listed my influences. So yeah, Scott Lynch, a single malt, and as for what we’d talk about… who knows?

Thank you once again, Den, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

THE BOY WITH THE PORCELAIN BLADE by Den Patrick

Porcelain THE BOY WITH THE PORCELAIN BLADE

Den Patrick (www.denpatrick.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£20.00

On the weather-beaten island of Landfall stands the sprawling Demesne – four great Houses built around a central Keep which houses the reclusive, and reputedly mad, King. Lucien ‘Sinistra’ di Fontein is Orfano, a disfigured foundling taken in by the nobility of Demesne and trained as a swordsman. When he turns eighteen he, like all the Orfano who have come before, and all those who will come after, will face his final test and gain acceptance into one of the major Houses. But there are forces arrayed against Lucien, and against his Orfano brothers and sisters. The political climate in Demesne is shifting and Lucien must shift with it. His very existence depends on his skill with the sword, and his cunning.

Den Patrick’s first novel introduces us to the closed community on the island of Landfall. Centred around the castle-like structure of Demesne, Patrick introduces us to a world that bears remarkable parallels to our own. Using the Italian Renaissance as his model, Landfall is an insular world built around a mad and reclusive King who has created four great Houses – the military Fontein; the agricultural Contadino; the educational Erudito; and the craftsmen of House Prospero – around him to ensure the continued existence of his people. Into this fragile political ecology Patrick introduces the Orfano, rare beasts who normally appear three or four years apart, disfigured foundlings who have the protection of the King and his sinister Majordomo, and who play an important part in the inter-House dynamics.

Lucien, the book’s central character is one such Orfano, a young man about to move into adulthood and the responsibilities that invariably involves. In the background, plans are put in motion, plans to cross the King and his beloved freaks and wrest control of Demesne from the hands of the mad hermit who hasn’t left the central Keep in almost two hundred years. As Lucien finds himself drawn inextricably into this plot, he discovers that it is but a single layer of a more complex web of deceit. As we follow his journey through the political minefield, we are given insight into this young man, and the people who surround him, in a series of flashbacks to various points in his childhood. The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is as intricately-plotted as any novel of intrigue – not a word is out of place, and every scene that plays out in front of our eyes, regardless of how relevant it seems at the time, is key to the ultimate reveal – while still maintaining a pace and sense of action that we’ve come to expect from this type of fantasy fiction.

Patrick surrounds Lucien with an unforgettable cast of characters: the other Orfano, each with their own unique disfigurations and crosses to bear; Superiore of the Maestro di Spada Giancarlo, who has a severe dislike of Lucien; the wise Virmyre, one of the most important influences in Lucien’s education; Camelia, the cook who plays the part of Lucien’s mother as he grows; and, most striking, the sinister, hooded Majordomo, the voice of the King and that madman’s sole representative within Demesne. Demesne and Landfall themselves are locations that stick in the mind of the reader: we get a potted part-history, part-myth about the origins of the island nation (cleverly and naturally told), but Patrick never spends time examining ancient history. There are hints – the Italian language; the histories that the characters read – that Landfall might be related, in some strange way, to our own world, but the novel still maintains the sense of a secondary-world setting, where our own rules don’t necessarily hold true and where, as a result, anything is possible.

There are some deft touches that set The Boy With the Porcelain Blade above the competition: here is political intrigue to put even George R. R. Martin to shame; here a sense of horror that makes this excellent debut a novel that blurs the genre lines quite significantly; here references to technology that show us that this is a world of science rather than magic. The most intriguing aspect is the one that gives the novel its title: the ceramic blades with which the Orfano are issued before they have proven their worth. It’s a strange choice of material for a fighting blade, but Patrick makes us believe it nonetheless.

With elements that will appeal to a wide range of readers – from fans of The Three Musketeers, to those who love to immerse themselves in the Song of Ice and Fire series – The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is a dark, gritty, horrific piece of fantasy fiction that grabs the reader on the first page and keeps them engaged to the end. The sense that this might not be a secondary world makes some of the horror more immediate than it might otherwise have been, and the character of the Majordomo, with his grating, monotonous voice, is one that will haunt your dreams for some time to come. A stunning introduction to a fascinating world, peopled with characters in whom the reader will be entirely invested, Den Patrick leaves us with only two questions: how long must be wait before we can return to Landfall? And, with a debut this strong, how can the second book in the series possibly stand up to our expectations?

FEARIE TALES by Stephen Jones

FEARIE TALES - Stephen Jones FEARIE TALES: STORIES OF THE GRIMM AND GRUESOME

Edited by Stephen Jones (www.stephenjoneseditor.com)

Illustrated by Alan Lee

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£14.99

For most of us, the fairy tale is one of the staples of growing up. Bedtime stories for young children, it’s only when we reach adulthood that we realise just how disturbing they are, how cruel our parents must have been to send us to bed with these images our final goodnight. Of course, Disney has helped somewhat in that regard, making the frightening seem less so, and often changing the structure of the tale to suit their own ends (see, for example, Disney’s treatment of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid", which bears little resemblance, after a certain point, to the source material.

Most often used as cautionary tales, and used to instil the fear if God (or, at the very least, the Big Bad Wolf) into those more gullible than the teller (children), it’s sometimes difficult to believe that they’ve stood the test of time as well as they have. With Fearie Tales, noted horror anthologist Stephen Jones sets out to return the form to its roots. Using the original tales collected in the early 19th Century by the brothers Grimm as inspiration, Jones presents a collection of modern day fairy tales designed to frighten and unsettle, and written by some of the foremost practitioners of horror and dark fantasy currently working in their respective fields.

Each modern story is prefaced by one of the original Grimm tales, and what follows range from direct translations to more loosely connected stories which, perhaps, share a theme with one if the older tales. Ramsey Campbell presents a modern re-telling of "Rumpelstiltskin", while Neil Gaiman works his magic on the tale of "The Singing Bone". Robert Shearman takes a slightly different approach and puts a sinister twist on the later lives of Hansel and Gretel in a story that will make you reconsider reading the tale of the siblings to your own children. Another re-telling of "Rumpelstiltskin" closes the book, this time by the excellent John Ajvide Lindqvist (and ably translated by the ever-reliable Marlaine Delargy), who introduces the Swedish myth of the tomte, a creature which will likely be unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers.

As with any anthology of fiction, there are always one or two stand-out pieces. With Fearie Tales, the stand-outs are absolute gems, amidst a stellar line-up of authors, from two less likely suspects. The first is Christopher Fowler’s "The Ash-Boy". Fowler is probably best known for his quirky crime novels starring the elderly detective duo Bryant and May, but his roots lie in the horror genre, and it’s one he still frequently visits. In this case, Fowler tells the story of Cinderella with a twist. But it’s the final few paragraphs, where we realise that we’re listening to a father tell this story to his young daughter, that packs the punch and sets this apart from the other stories in the book.

Peter Crowther’s story, "The Artemis Line" is worth the price of admission alone. The titles refers to the physically connected line of bodies that must exist for a troll to move away from a body of water, yet remain connected to it through the connection with its brethren, and the story is a modern-day retelling of the story of the elves who replace a baby with a changeling. One of the longer stories in the book, it grips the reader from the word go and ends all-too-quickly. It is also one of the most frightening tales in the book, Crowther drawing on his vast experience of the genre to live up to the anthology’s title.

It’s a hand, he thought as the scarecrow’s head slowly fell from view, the hat dislodging, pushed up and back by the brim until it fell off completely, exposing a material dome beneath, sprinkled with dry straw.

It’s a hand grasping at my foot, he thought.

The book is illustrated throughout by Alan Lee, best known for his depictions of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Despite the black-and-white nature of these illustrations – or perhaps because of it – they contain a level of detail and a certain gruesome quality that makes them as likely to stick in the mind of the reader as the stories themselves.

Jones has assembled a list of veritable superstars and set them the task of recreating the stories of  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their own inimitable fashion. The result is an excellent collection of dark and thought-provoking tales by the people who do them best: Neil Gaiman, Michael Marshall Smith, Tanith Lee, to name but a few. The inclusion of the original Grimm tales serves as a reminder that those tales we remember so fondly would probably give us nightmares if we were to read them for the first time, in their original form, as adults. This is a must for horror aficionados everywhere, and doubly so for anyone with a penchant for fairy tales in particular. The usual high production values from Jo Fletcher mean this is a book that you’ll want to have displayed on your shelf, and that’s just the icing on the cake. Dark, disturbing but most of all: wonderful.

LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES by John Ajvide Lindqvist

untitled LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES

John Ajvide Lindqvist (johnajvide.com)

Translated by Marlaine Delargy

Quercus (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£16.99

It’s difficult to believe that it has been a mere five years since John Ajvide Lindqvist’s first novel, Let The Right One In, was first published in English by Quercus. It’s a ten-year-old book that has taken the world by storm, spawning not one, but two excellent film versions, and launching the career of a writer who is the epitome of the modern horror genre. His latest English release, again from the excellent Quercus, is the collection of short stories, Let The Old Dreams Die, an amalgamation of his 2006 collection, Paper Walls, and the 2011 short story that gives the collection its new title.

The art of the short story is alive and well within the horror genre, probably more so than any other literary niche. It is the perfect vehicle for short, sharp shocks and lingering creeps. It is a form that most of the genre’s big names try out at some point – Stephen King, Joe R Lansdale and Tim Lebbon, for example, each has a handful of collections to his name, while Joe Hill’s first published book was his excellent collection 20th Century Ghosts. It is no surprise, then, that John Ajvide Lindqvist should have enough short stories under his belt to warrant a collection.

Most of the eleven stories in Let The Old Dreams Die share the common theme of love. It’s a slightly unexpected theme for a collection of horror stories, but this is where Lindqvist excels: these, for the most part, are not stories of the supernatural; they are stories of every day people getting on with their lives, and the horrors visited upon them, or that they visit upon themselves in the name of love, friendship, a need to belong. Here, we have the customs officer who feels like an outsider: she can sense when people are hiding things, and has made a name for herself throughout Sweden. But she feels alone, unable to form normal attachments to the people around her. Until the day she meets a man that she is convinced is hiding something, a man who makes her feel somehow whole. Here, the man who almost drowned, and who now believes he knows the secret to eternal life, an eternal life with the only woman he loves. But the pursuit of this goal breaks something within him, something between them. And here, the bored housewife who breaks into other peoples’ houses in order to discover who they are; she finds more than she bargains for in one house, the body of a man who has been stabbed to death. He becomes her little secret, a listening ear, a comforting absence; until she discovers that the feelings are not mutual.

As with any collection of stories, some are stronger than others. The very short “To hold you while the music plays” is probably the weakest of the bunch (it’s the one story that none of Lindqvist’s beta-readers liked, according to his afterword), but it’s almost impossible to pick the strongest. Each has a different effect on the reader, some outright frightening (“Village on the hill”), others deeply unsettling (“Substitute”) and yet others designed to leave the reader with a sense of disgust (“Equinox”). But they all share a sense of realism that is down to Lindqvist’s attention to detail: little tics that the characters have, a dislike of body hair, or of watching someone else chewing their food; and details of places that are consistent across the stories, making the firm point that these are real places, populated by everyday people to whom something extraordinary is happening. There is a passage in “Substitute” that perfectly sums up the sense of general weirdness that the stories evoke:

There were no photographs on the walls, just pictures of American Indians and wolves at sunset, that kind of thing. The contents of the bookcase looked as if they had come straight from a Salvation Army shop. The Family Moskat by Singer, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown…the books that are always there. Something in the background of an interior design suggestion from Ikea. Nothing was in alphabetical order, and the impression was reinforced when I found another copy of The Family Moskat on a shelf lower down.

For many of Lindqvist’s long-time readers, there are two main reasons for picking up a copy of Let The Old Dreams Die. The first is the longest story in the book; at just over 100 pages in length, “The final processing” is more novella than short story, and is a direct sequel to Lindqvist’s second novel, Handling the Undead. Using several of the main characters from the novel – Elvy, Flora, Hagar – the story tells of experiments being carried out on the “reliving”, and of Flora’s attempt to help them – her grandfather included – to die a graceful and peaceful death. The story itself provides a wonderful conclusion to the novel, and allows the reader to visit with some of the more entertaining characters once more.

Most exciting of all, though, is the book’s title story. “Let the old dreams die” (incidentally, the next line from the same Morrissey song that provided the title of Lindqvist’s debut novel) gives the reader a brief glimpse of what happened to Oskar and Eli when the book finished. Told by the ticket seller at Blackeberg subway station, it is the story of the love between his two friends: one a police detective assigned to the massacre at the swimming pool, and the disappearance of young Oskar Eriksson; the other a train ticket collector, a man we see briefly at the end of Let The Right One In, and quite possibly the last man to see Oskar and Eli before they disappeared. It’s an excellent story in its own right, a story of friendship, love and obsession, but it has the added benefit of providing closure for the novel, correcting an omission that Lindqvist was unaware of until the novel was already out in the wild.

Lindqvist’s influences are many and wide-ranging. There is a touch of Stephen King here (a man he has been compared favourably to on many occasions), a dash of Michel Faber and, unless I’m very much mistaken, a smidgen of the dark humour of Monty Python. What is most surprising about this collection is that, with the exception of the title story, it was written between 2002 and 2005. The only story that post-dates Handling the Undead is “The final processing” and they were all written before he set pen to paper on his third novel, Harbour. They show a writer of considerable talent, a man who knows how to manipulate the reader to gain maximum effect. His stories are the perfect mix of unsettling horror and black humour and, like any good horror story, their aim is simple: to make the reader feel unsure of their own familiar surroundings so that the light stays on to ward off whatever horrors are lurking nearby. His writing is beautiful, thankfully preserved in Marlaine Delargy’s brilliant translation.

Let The Old Dreams Die proves that John Ajvide Lindqvist is as comfortable and as adept in the short form as the long. A showcase of a writer at the top of his game, it stands alongside Skeleton Crew, 20th Century Ghosts and The Panic Hand as an example of some of the finest short horror fiction you’ll find today. The two afterwords are also worth reading; self-deprecating and very funny, they show a writer who loves what he does and give some insight into his work. With six years since the original publication in Sweden of Paper Walls, we can but hope that it won’t be long before Lindqvist has enough stories to fill a second volume.

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