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

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 – Bleeker Hill by Russell Mardell

I’ve been itching to read this book since I got it back in the summer. I met Russell in a pub with some other writing types (you know who you are!) and was enthusiastically recommended his book by one of my friends. It was hurriedly procured from the local Waterstones and I quickly added it close to the top of my reading list. I’m sure I had a good excuse to buy it, but the date in August is not near any special dates like birthdays or fathers day? I think Bleeker Hill may have the dubious honour of being the first book that I have added to my list without excuse since I started the blog! (Good grief, that’s rule 10 broken for the first time!)

There have been quite a few distractions from reading over the last few months, most of which I have already mentioned. Not least, finally writing some fiction! I succeeded at NaNoWriMo and it felt great. The downside is that writing doesn’t let you get many books read! I also got a bit stuck with Anna Karenina; not as stuck as Vronsky, and in a totally different way, but stuck none the less. I am glad to say that I am now unstuck; in more ways than you can imagine dear reader, in more ways…

Bleeker Hill, the actual review

bleekerhillBleeker Hill’s main storyline builds wonderfully from the first pages of the prologue right through to the finale. The book takes you on a journey with a set of well realised characters into a vision of the future that is shrouded in confusion. The central character has been out of touch with the world for some time, and his lack of knowledge is followed through the book. This provides a back story that leaves you wanting to know more about what has happened, while giving enough to support the main story. I would love other books to be written in this world so that they can elaborate on it’s interesting version of the future…

All of the story arcs come together well to support the main event. At it’s heart, Bleeker Hill is a ghost story with realism to give it credence; a broken vision of the future.

Bleeker Hill bought various films and books to mind and I give some examples below. I need to be very clear that there is no relationship between the book and any of these references. I hold all in high regard and it is the feeling of the environments that Russell Mardell has built that evoked memories of the other stories for me. When I am talking about some of my favourite films and books, this can only be a great thing:-

The distopian future depicted in the story echoed “Children of Men” (the film) to me. Political parties struggling to keep order in the face of disaster. There is no dictatorship in place, but there are a lot of people trying to make sense of a broken society.

V for Vendetta also popped up in my mind. This time for the human experiments back story. There are again no real story parallels here. Bleeker Hill is the setting for experiments so much more profound than an attempt to create a super human. Trying to solve the human condition? Maybe.

Lastly, Woman in Black. Now, Bleeker Hill is not as jumpy as Woman in Black, but it definitely has the good old ghost story at it’s heart. If you were to take the Children of Men setting and play out a ghost story in it, then you would get somewhere close to Bleeker Hill.

To conclude, Bleeker Hill delivered exactly what I needed from this type of book. A well paced ghost story in a realistic and viable setting augmented with great characters.

Read it ASAP.

Rating: 9/10

 

 

Book review – The Damned by Tarn Richardson

TheDamnedCoverI’m going to start this review with some up-front honesty; I know Tarn Richardson, I know some of the proof readers and, lastly, I know that Tarn will read this review. BUT to induce “squeaky bum time” for him, this is my completely 100% honest review of The Damned

I suppose I should start the review of The Damned with a mention of it’s prequel The Hunted. I read this back in February and my review can be found here. The prequel managed to do some very good things in a short story, but mainly it introduced Poldek Tacit in all his rock hard glory. If I had one resounding wish when I started to read The Damned, it was that Tacit would remain a strong and viable character. I was not disappointed. Poldek is most definitely built on extremes, but although violence and alcoholism are the two that dominate; a strong religious conviction, love and tenderness also filter in competently throughout the book. This leaves Tacit as quite a well rounded character (considering the genre we are dealing with!) I wouldn’t go as far as to say well adjusted, but where would the fun be in that? Tacit, although the main character throughout the book, is not the only strong personality. There is quite a wide range of characters and this variety successfully provides a required undertone of realism to the otherwise extreme events of the horror/Gothic/war/religious turmoil/death and love story lines! (I’ve probably still missed a few there?)

The catholic church features heavily throughout the book. It is nigh on impossible to write any book with the catholic church in it these days without there being shadows of Dan Brown lingering around. It’s also hard to write a fast paced story set partly in the Vatican without getting a little closer. Parts of the story did remind me of Brown a bit, especially the occasional mention of a servant called Silas! [1] The catholic storyline was however a strong part of the book, being the basis of the creation of werewolf and in being one of the few links between the wolf and war arcs.

The Damned is a horror romp made to be extreme, it is completely it’s own story and Poldek Tacit fits this world perfectly. The idiosyncrasies of the style suit the character and therefore the book well. I would be lying if I said that The Damned is not first and foremost a horror story about werewolves and the catholic church. There are numerous scenes that are nothing but well realised, full tilt gore. However, if I concluded my description there I would also be doing the book a great dis-service. Tarn originally wrote a much straighter World War One novel. You can see the detail of the locations and scenes bleed through (for once in the figurative sense and not the claret!) In fact, all of the story arcs come together well and the balance of the whole story grew on me the more I progressed through the book, continuing after I had finished as I thought about it. There is a lot of story packed into the book. The pace is tuned well, but I know I missed some subtleties of the setting and the war as I raced past. I did notice some distinct war details that I did not know about e.g. marching band at the front of the German line. In a trench based scene the description of a sound I didn’t expect added depth.

I found it interesting to see the backdrop of World War One used because there is a wonderful synergy between the two story arcs of War and Wolves. In one there is a question about good and evil; which is which in a world where the Catholic Church has gone to such great lengths to eradicate heresy and the werewolves who are a product of that work. In the other arc evil rises in the world; man against man in what we all know was the largest, darkest war in the history of the planet. Good and evil, men in trenches acting on orders, a very real history with a parallel story superimposed over it. These two stories wind into each other almost just by proximity; a few key characters link the two theatres of carnage and that is all. Now, I was going to say that I didn’t identify with the WW1 story line as much as the others. I have never been overly interested in war, just one of those things I suppose. That said, I just did quite a good job of describing the emotion of the situation above! Go figure?

The various threads of the story are laid out in just over 100 chapters and this gives the book a very particular, frenetic quality. I have read other books that are laid out in a similar way, but I did find the story line in The Damned whipped about quite a bit at the start. Ultimately I got used to it, and the device worked to greater and greater effect as the various story lines came together. This knitting together of the book really did work well as I progressed through it.

I noted down quite early on that Tarn had managed to create some insightful and strong descriptions. I love this type of writing; where a scene, a concept or an emotion is evoked. The relevance of the rest of the book can drop away from these passages, they define good writing whether in fiction, non-fiction, horror, fantasy or the newspaper. A writer’s task is to evoke reactions; to paint the story in all its sensory glory. Tarn manages this on numerous occasions. Unfortunately balanced against this quality, there were a few typos dotted throughout the book. They did detract slightly, but not enough to make me give them more than a passing mention.

In conclusion, it is pretty obvious that I really liked The Damned. The whole thing built towards a well integrated conclusion. I lament not being able to follow the characters further down their various paths, but hey, that’s what books 2 and 3 are all about 🙂

Rating 8.5/10

[1] Hello, this is my first ever foot note. I edited this bit out but still really want to mention it. There is absolutely no relevance to the book review, so I couldn’t leave it where it was! I was talking about a Catholic servant called Silas… The character is hardly ever mentioned in the book and as far as I could tell looked nothing like Paul Bettany. More to the point, he doesn’t get his bum out at all! (for those who aren’t aware, this reference is made as Paul B played Silas in the Dan Brown Film and usually does get his bum out whenever he has the opportunity. Significantly he didn’t manage it in Avengers: Age of Ultron which was probably a good thing…)