Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews


Michael Marshall Smith

#CarrieAt40: Bringing the Weird Home by MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH


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On Twitter: @ememess

There’s no doubt that horror fiction — and commercial fiction in general — would have been very different without the novel Carrie. Of course there were writers who’d blazed the trail — Richard Matheson and Ira Levin are two obvious examples — but in terms of bringing the weird home to where real people live, into recognisable places and spaces, King has been a game-changer with no equal. Carrie managed a double cultural whammy, too, as Brian de Palma’s engagingly flashy movie version was a striking encapsulation of the times, and the iconic image of the ethereal Sissy Spacek drenched in blood is hard to forget.

Carrie was actually nothing like the first King I read (I joined at The Talisman, and then worked back) but without its runaway success it’s unlikely he’d have written those later works — and without them, I very likely wouldn’t be a writer. One of the truly scary things about life is how your own can be wholly turned around by things outside your control…

Michael Marshall Smith is a novelist and screenwriter, and the only writer ever to win the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story four times. His novel The Intruders is currently in production as a TV series with BBC America, starring John Simm and Mira Sorvino. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife and son.

FEARIE TALES by Stephen Jones


Edited by Stephen Jones (

Illustrated by Alan Lee

Jo Fletcher Books (


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.

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.

KILLER MOVE by Michael Marshall


Michael Marshall (

Orion (


Michael Marshall is something of a cult writer. His first three novels, as well as the vast majority of his short stories, were published under the name Michael Marshall Smith and were mainly classified as science fiction (the novels) and horror (the stories). In 2002 he dropped the “Smith” and published his first piece of “crime fiction” in the form of The Straw Men.

Nine years later, “Marshall” has produced six novels (of which Killer Move is the latest), while “Smith” continues to produce a steady stream of short stories (you’ll go a long way before you’ll find a more disturbing short story than “More Tomorrow”, but that’s another discussion for another day).

Killer Move tells the story of Bill Moore, a Florida-based realtor who has an almost-perfect life: a great job, good standing in his community, a beautiful home in an exclusive gated community, and a perfect marriage to a woman he loves. If there is one blot on this idyllic life, it is that he is currently six and a half years into his five-year plan with no chance of achieving his goals under the current status quo. Moore is a techno-geek: he starts his day by reading positivity blogs, updates his Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and whatever other social networks he happens upon. He’s all about the “Bill Moore brand”, the image of himself that he has built up as the way he wants to be viewed by other people. In short, he’s a bit of an asshole, but a harmless one who most people actually seem to like.

When a small black card with the single word MODIFIED inscribed upon it appears on his desk – and its twin appears later at his house – he pays it very little attention. But then things start happening, things that affect his brand, and make him slightly uneasy: a book of fetish photography arrives from Amazon; an off-colour joke is sent from his email account to a group of friends and acquaintances. Things really take a turn for the worst when his wife discovers on his laptop a set of photographs of his female colleague – naked – taken with a telephoto lens. It doesn’t take long for things to turn violent, and Bill finds himself in the middle of a situation over which he has no control, and which he does not understand.

As with all of Marshall’s crime novels, there is a parallel storyline: the story of John Hunter, a man just released from prison after serving sixteen years for the murder of the woman he loved, a murder he did not commit. Hunter has only one goal: to find the people responsible and kill them, a goal which sets him firmly on a collision course with Bill Moore’s already unstable life. Following a well-established pattern in his books, Marshall tells the story from two viewpoints: Hunter’s story is told in the third person while Moore narrates in first-person for the sections where he is the star.

Killer Move is an unconventional thriller, like the rest of the Marshall back catalogue. Darkly funny at times and disturbing and graphic at others, it treads a fine line between straight crime and straight horror, while never actually fitting exactly into either genre. Bill Moore begins life as a despicable human being, self-centred and worried only about how everyone else views him. But as his story progresses, and we watch his life fall apart, we’re suddenly in his corner, fighting his fight. It’s because the scenario Marshall outlines is so plausible and so topical: what if someone got hold of your various ecommerce and social network passwords and started to change peoples’ perceptions of who you are? Would we even notice before it was too late to do anything about it? The Internet in general and social networking in particular has made the world a very small place. But it is arguably – in Marshall’s mind at least – a darker and much more dangerous place: we never really know exactly who it is we’re talking to or why they might be interested in us.

Fans of Marshall’s earlier trilogy will be pleased to know, without going into any more detail, that there are loose links between those books and this one, a small bonus for long-time readers. That said, it’s a standalone novel and a good jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to read Marshall (although I would personally recommend going back and starting with The Straw Men). Funny, thrilling, violent, the story moves at a cracking pace towards a devastating conclusion that will leave this story rattling around your head – and affecting your every online moment – long after the final page.

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