Book Review – Captives by Shaun Hutson

 

CaptivesMy Horror heritage as an intro…

I used to read a lot of horror and a good portion of that was Shaun Hutson books. This is because I used to be scared of the dark and the 15 year old me decided to take the problem head on by turning a love of fantasy into q quite an intense period of reading horror. Many, many classic films and books later and hey presto; I barely bat an eyelid if I see a witch decapitate one of the neighbours. This does happen in the particular part of rural England that I call home! Anyway, my horror days are a long way behind me. After Phantasm, Hellraiser and Scanners all did their jobs I decided that  horror can get quite repetitive (or it was in the early 90′s.) Either that or I over consumed? I went right through acclimatisation and into boredom! These days I have a nostalgic love for horror and that is what I was expecting to tap into when Captives by Shaun Hutson came up on my TBR.

That beautiful slug of back story simply served to bring us to the point when I started reading Captives. I hadn’t read “proper” horror for a while;

  • Dracula didn’t count as it wasn’t written in the last hundred years
  • I read The Fog back at the start of my book blogging journey didn’t really cut the mustard.
  • The Woman in Black did a good job, but that was a different genre.

I have done quite a bit of thinking about what makes us frightened recently for a story I would like to write. There is a definite separation between the gore of a horror book’s and the ghost story’s jump/scare. Even a jump/scare is not the frightful thing; it’s the build up that gets you. It’s your back to an open space, finding out something safe is not, the teeth snapping at your heals. But I digress (as per usual,) we are here to talk about Horror…

The Captives review

Dating is good

I dove into Captives with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. The first thing I noticed was a lot of references that dated the text. People were tearing around in Sierras and Cortinas. The Police gave chase in Rovers. It was all very much of a specific time. All of the references to money also take you back. Not that I would know, but apparently it cost £60 for a wank in a seedy club and “a couple of pound coins” for some new stockings!! Lastly, technology is not there. No one knows who is calling them on the phone!

At the start this did not sit well with me, but dating is good for this book! I started off feeling that the references got in the way, that they detracted from the story. By the end I found it gave the book a perfectly acceptable stage that forgave it some of its roughness. A grand backdrop to a horror; Psycho murder in Ashes to Ashes. Southern Comfort, hookers and fast cars. Murders and gangsters. Blood, dark coppery blood. Blood.

Writing, Grammar and editing

My notes on this subject start with “Trashy writing and grammar.” On finishing the book I don’t think that this is completely fair. Essentially if a good slug more editing had taken place, this could have been a well polished book (couldn’t they all,) but that editing didn’t happen and although the book is not as strong because of it, I think it fits the genre quite well. I suppose I got what I needed from the book. 

There are various examples of poor editing, or missed editing. The book has two speeds. The stuff that links horror sections together and the turbo charged horror itself. These could have been blended more subtly, and dare I say it, a little less gore would have rounded the whole book off. BUT, I fall into my own trap of correctness. If this book was wonderfully crafted, if it stopped to allow you to take the last gory step yourself it would not be horror and it would not be Shaun Hutson. You are forced to look at every single detail. Head forced round firmly to stop you from looking away.

“Oh no, Shaun isn’t going to take us there is he?”

“Yes he is. Definitely he is. That’s the point, didn’t you know that?”

Shaun clips speech to keep it snappy, this is good, especially with edgy, hard characters. Unfortunately there is too much description to back it up, too much internal retrospective. The book could have been tightened greatly if the two types of writing had been reversed. Some dramatic dialogue to replace padded background thought. *note to self, go and re-edit your book. It is full of this!*

To bring the writing review up to the macro level, there are some story devices that just don’t make sense. Two police men just go and dig up a body at night without any reference to that being a bad idea. The alternative, more realistic, solution of doing it the official way would have been just as compelling. Later in the book the chief of Police doesn’t want to exhume bodies because of the trouble it would cause if the police were correct in their theory of what was going on! On the other hand, this could be an accurate observation of the state of policing in the 70’s. No idea!!

This slightly random trend follows through to the book’s characters. They occasionally act out of, well, character. This issue should also have been resolved in the edit. Jim Scott, the main character, goes from a beginning as a gentle giant, quite mild mannered and caring to suddenly become very violent in a short space of time. This violence is required for the plot, so the change should have been blended better or the earlier parts of the book just plain changed.

You know what you get and get what you know

Captives is horror kitsch. Maybe Horror is the kitsch of genres? It is unapologetic, content in its own existence. This is true for other horror I have read, not just Shaun Hutson and there is nothing wrong it. A little honesty does us all good. 

So what are you getting when you pick up a horror book? What do you expect?  Realism shot through with too much violence. A good story augmented with blood and guts and pain and vindictiveness and graphic descriptions of horrid things. If that’s what you expect, then you will like Shaun Hutson as I did all those years ago, and you will like Captives.

On a specific point that is important to horror, Shaun does a very good job at describing the physiology of violence. He resorts to the medical names for things so that in some cases I needed to look up exactly what he was talking about. Once research had been done, I was treated to a wonderfully close up description of exactly how bodies can come apart. One of Shaun’s favourites in the book is the effects of being stabbed in the head and what that does to the inside of one’s mouth!! Tongues are cleaved, teeth are scraped by blades or cut out completely. Within the genre: This is excellent 🙂

Given that I have referred to physiology of the human form, I must correct a common misconception that horror books manage to reveal very well. For your information, human beings are all just bags of blood and gore with bones made of chalk. The slightest touch oozes blood or cracks bones, or just plain makes you pop gore everywhere!

Conclusion

My love of the genre carried me through, I read this book very quickly and enjoyed it. I hope that you get a duality from my review though? It is obvious that there are some pretty serious issues with this book. Issues that would have sunk others, but the good ship Captives still sails the literary seas. The story and the writing is good enough at what it does to concentrate on the important aspects of horror and leave the rest of the text alone. It is unashamed of what it is. Be bold, be proud, be horror!

Captives is compelling. This is a word that I used to describe Lieutenant Hotshot recently too. I use it in a totally different way for Captives. This is the adult horror that I refer to in the Hotshot review. It is allowed to be many things other books are not; you know to expect a concentration on gratuitous violence before you even open the cover. You get what you expect and no excuses if you’re surprised!

In conclusion, two wrongs do sometimes make a right. This is not the best book Hutson has written by as long shot, but I whizzed through it and liked it for what it was, even if it could have really benefited from a good edit. Maybe I’m noticing the editorial requirements of books I read the more as I get into writing myself??

Rating 7/10

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Book Review – Dracula by Bram Stoker

2016-03-16 14.07.36I had been looking forward to reading Dracula by Bram Stoker. It is obviously a very famous story, and after my failed (so far; now on pause) attempt at Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, I was hoping that Dracula would provide some of the classical hooks with a little more oomph in the form of some quality horror. I have to say that I didn’t really get it! 

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the book. On its plus side the first parts as Harker travels to Dracula’s castle and all of the events that happen there was great. It is the remainder of the story (which equates to about 2/3 of the book) that is more of a problem. I have three main issues with the book.

Please note, this whole review has spoilers. I don’t usually do spoiler type reviews, but be warned!

1. Pace

One of the book’s strengths is its format. It is made up of various diary entries and logs of events and these add a realism to the work that I really liked. What I didn’t like was the fact that quite a few parts of the book that should have been urgent and full of excitement were actually crammed with people making sure that their diaries were up to date, or ordered correctly, or that everyone had read everyone else’s accounts or that Mina (see later) had diligently typed everything up. It must have been top of her list even once she became sure she was turning into the undead. Nothing fends off Dracula’s curse like a bit of light admin!

Its also worth mentioning that if I was going through what the group go through in the book, recording everything in my diary would be very low on my list. The book’s concentration on tasks that have no relevance to the main story is aggravating; even when  one character’s wife (Lucy) dies and we find out that there really are undead creatures in the world the fact isn’t driven home by the narrative.

This fascination with recording everything  greatly detracts from the well known, preserved drama of the Dracula story.

To further exacerbate the painful nature of the book’s pace, I come back to a part of the book where Lucy is being munched by Dracula every evening. Each morning Lucy appears to have magically lost blood, and each day the hardy menfolk fill her back up with blood transfusions from anyone who is available, then proceed to bungle the next night’s vigil. This became tedious for me. The book expected me to accept that mysterious things were afoot, but the reasoning for repeated failures was not compelling. It felt like padding.

My final example of the pace issue exposes a rather fundamental problem. There is a lot of buildup towards various events throughout the book which in themselves are fine, maybe a little lengthy, but fine. The problem is that the bang is not worth the wait. Its like queuing for a fireworks show that turns out to be 100 people all stood watching a sparkler. The Finale to the whole book is the best case in point. There is huge amounts of work put in to catching Dracula, then in a little more that a sentence, they cut off Dracula’s head, he disintegrates and that is that. Done deal, don’t know what all the fuss was about. Well, bloody hell. Brilliant. Thanks for that.

2. Dialogue, Grammar and Van Helsing

Van Helsing is one of the main characters in the book. He is not like any other depiction of the character I have seen in other versions or in related genre fiction that uses the name. The original is a great character. Older, wiser, not your stereotypical hero type. I actually like him for his originality when he first appeared. “Oh ho” thinks I, “here comes the action!” And so it does in the books own way (see problem number 1.) But Van Helsing changes over time. His speaking part builds over the course of the book. By the time we get the the long build up to the finale Van Helsing is talking a lot and the problem is, that the dialogue is shite.

Sorry to be so blunt, but I have no idea what Bram or Bram’s editor were thinking. I read a review that said Bram was trying to be funny; if he was, then he failed with me. Van Helsing is from Holland and his sentence structure is wrong. This could be accepted as an endearing quality, except it was not “the little grey cells” of Poirot, but a jumbled narrative that continually kicked you out of the story.

3. The last rant before the conclusion: gender equality!

The book portrays women in an odd way. I can accept that equality of the sexes was not in place (shame it’s still a thing at all!) when the book was written. There are references throughout of the divide that society imposed, yet that isn’t the final problem I want to highlight about the book. I am going to take umbridge at the book’s inconsistency. Mina Harker was involved in so much at the start of the book. She went out alone to a foreign country to find her husband, she nursed him, bought him back and strived to understand his situation. After that, she read and transposed his harrowing diary and subsequently everyone’s diaries. And even after that, she watched her friend be taken by Dracula. Suddenly, when co-incidentally, it would be useful if she remained part of the team and abreast of events, she is rleft out of the action as its “too dangerous” and is relegated to the typing pool because important man work is required! The menfolk dash about being manly and using dogs because they know about hunting and stuff while Mina is systematically and rather quietly munched every night.

And even after that, when the company finally do allow Mina to know everything again, the now munched by Dracula, has drunk his blood herself, might be turning into the undead… is going to be a secretary again!!

Pah.

Conclusion

I really can see where all of the fascination around Dracula came from, but I’m glad that it got adapted and updated. The original didn’t work for me. I got to the end, but it was a struggle. Watch the film instead.

Rating 6/10

Book Review – Lieutenant Hotshot by Julia North

Lieutenant HotshotLieutenant Hotshot is a Young Adult novel from first time author Julia North. When I ventured into the local bookshop and bought a copy, I had heard an excerpt of it in our book group and knew only a little of the story. I can not say that I expected what I read, but it is an amazingly good book. I originally planned to read it then pass it on to my 12 year old son. I will come back to that at the end…

Lieutenant Hotshot is about child soldiers in Uganda, but that doesn’t even start to convey the harsh, gory, grittiness of the novel. It contains violence that at times felt overdone, and language that further draws you to a place that you would probably rather not go. But this is the book’s strength; the picture it paints is hard to read and at the same time utterly compelling.

If I had been reading an adult horror book, then I would expect some of the scenes as an attempt to appal me because of the genre; something to excite the senses. Lieutenant Hotshot contains these same horrific scenes, yet it is a Young Adult novel! The book is not for the faint hearted, but it works perfectly for the simple reason that it is based wholly in fact. Adults and young adults combined will read this book and become consciously aware of what happens all too regularly somewhere on our planet.

People do terrible things to Modetse (the main character), he does terrible things to others, yet ultimately, the book is one filled with hope and love. Positive thoughts are strewn throughout the book and are all the more obvious when set against the horrors. To be dramatic, love and hate are rendered as close together as Yin and Yang; there is very little room for grey to separate the two extremes in this book.

The whole story is written in the first person and this is fundamentally important to it’s success. It is only as you take the journey with Modetse that you fully appreciate how the environment and the actions of others pulled him into a way of life that he didn’t understand. If there had been other perspectives, the spell would have broken and the reality of what was happening would have spoilt the story as soon as it was started.

As I read and experienced some of the harrowing scenes, I could see how something so counter intuitive is able to happen and how the whole awful wheel of manipulation works. There were even very well architected indications that some of the adults who were leading the soldiers had started out as child soldiers themselves and were still under the spell of their conditioning; so well converted that they could know the truth as an adult and still be able to believe themselves to be right. The blinkered way that an individual’s perception can can be warped reminded me of Lord of the Flies, but more extreme, in more depth and based on reality.

There is a quality to the book that I have wanted to capture for some time in my own writing. The articulation of the real world in a magical context. Not really ‘magical realism’, more the realisation that magic exists in our mind, in our intrinsic interpretation of the world (wow, deep man.) Lieutenant Hotshot is essentially a story of war. Not just the physical war that it directly describes, also a theological, nay, magical war for the ‘soul’ of Modetse and others like him. Julia has perfectly balanced the whole storyline of the book to convey both of these battles beautifully.

A final perfectly executed balancing act is that of religion in the book. The book portrays a strong understanding of the power or religion in a very specific way. You can see how Christianity is supremely effective in the battle against real evil in Uganda and I was minded to think how it’s use in that powerful way might have been a reason why the world’s major religions have spread so far and wide from their original countries.

As an agnostic I was concerned that Christianity may sit too heavily on this book. I was wrong. Julia writes in such a way, walking the tightrope perfectly to balance the anger, gore and belief of the first part of the book with love and a different belief at the end. I can imagine that some of the passages would have been extremely powerful if I was Christian, but I can still appreciate the drive and purpose of the mission and it’s positive effect, maybe more now! How else do you fight bad spirits but with good ones??

To start to bring a close to this review and my Yin Yang analogy a, I have created a list of some opposites that I noticed as I read. They are quite a powerful, thought provoking list in themselves. Hopefully they will give you an idea of the places the story goes without giving too much away, even, maybe whetting your appetite?

  • Bad spirits from the witch doctor – Good spirits and Jesus
  • Drinking blood of enemies – Drinking the blood of Christ
  • Cutting as a rite of passage – Baptism

So, there you go. As I said at the start, I found Lieutenant Hotshot to be an amazing and surprising read. Try it for yourself.

My final thought; will I let my 12 year old son read it?

Yes

There is definitely an emotional maturity required to read this book (child or adult!) My son has that, and he knows just about every swear word under the sun to boot. The evil that people do and the good that balances it? It is a reality that we all need to understand, accept and try to resolve. So yes, yes I will let him, if he wants to…