Category Archives: Horror

The Evil Inside – Philip Taffs

The Evil InsideIt seems to me that horror fiction works best when it comes from within us. Haunted houses and possessed dolls and evil videotapes are all very well, but true horror comes from the most dangerous place of all — deep down inside. The Evil Inside by Philip Taffs cranks up the psychodrama to number eleven as it takes us inside the mind of a man who may or may not be losing his shit, big-time.

The blurb isn’t takings its meds:

A new millennium: On 31 December 1999, Guy Russell arrives in New York along with his fragile wife and their young son. A painful tragedy has led them to swap Melbourne for Manhattan, and seek a fresh start.

A new beginning: With a new job secured at a thriving Midtown firm, and temporary residence obtained in the Upper West Side’s Olcott Hotel – a landmark with a morbid history of its own – Guy feels it is finally the time to lay his troubles to rest.

A new nightmare: Yet something will not let him. A sinister evil from Guy’s deep-buried past is scratching its way back into his present, while the behaviour of his son, Callum, is becoming more and more disturbing and chilling. As Guy starts to believe Callum is being possessed by this dark force, those around him fear he is gradually dispossessing himself of his own sanity. And as Guy grapples with whether the evil tormenting him is in his surroundings, his son, or his own mind, he begins to push himself ever closer to the edge.

The Evil Inside is a devilish little book that leaves the reader dangling as to the true nature of the evil that attaches itself to its feckless protagonist and his young son. It’s a terrific exercise in sustained tension. Taffs never unleashes all the full-blown horror tropes, never quite brings them to the boil, so you’re never sure where it’s heading.

There’s something off about Guy from the beginning. Endearingly feckless at first, he is soon revealed to be a dreary self-destructive asshole. It’s a brave writer who makes his protagonist such a world-class shit bag, and Guy is such a monumental fuck-up that he’s almost breathtaking. He’s the kind of man who never knows when the party had come to an end, and even creeping revelations about his upbringing doesn’t really excuse his behaviour. But then, Guy isn’t exactly the first advertising character to let the side down. It’s a fine line, our sympathy for Guy — and Taffs just about manages to keep us onside.

The Evil Inside is a sinister magpie of a book. All kinds of arcane trivia an urban legends are introduced into the narrative — flavouring what is essentially a very simple, very linear narrative, a man and his family going to hell in a handcart -– about Sinatra and the Kennedy Assassination and the Olcott Hotel. And Taffs uses mails and letters and case notes and even a short story in his narrative. And because the story i set at the beginning of this century, it’s imbued with that weird millennial tension.

Taffs doesn’t quite keep all his narrative balls in the air as the story approaches its nasty end, but The Evil Inside is at times genuinely unsettleing. It’s an eccentric, unpredictable and often toe-curling ride. The climax, when all is revealed, is genuinely yuck.

Many thanks for Quercus for the review copy. Ages back — oh my god, it was the start of the year — we did an intel interview with Philip. You can see it right here. Click away, my inquisitive chums.

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Magic – William Goldman

MagicWhen the sad news of Richard Attenborough’s death was announced, I’d just started reading William Goldman’s Magic.

Adapted for the screen in 1979, Magic proved to be an obscure  footnote in Attenborough’s directing career, wedged into the cracks of a CV crammed with sumptuous epics such as Gandhi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom.

I remember some random images from the movie – mostly of the ventriloquist doll Fats, with those bulging dummy eyes, red cheeks and neat centre parting. Anthony Hopkins played the deranged protagonist a full decade before he was launched to stardom thanks to some similar onscreen lunacy.

At the time, William Goldman, the writer of Magic, both the book and the movie, was one of the first screenwriters to stick his head above the parapet. His non-fiction memoir/writing manual Adventures In The Screen Trade was an unlikely bestseller – and remains still one of the best books about the business.

This was the guy who wrote Butch and Sundance, All The President’s Men and Harper for the screen – and many others. But I remember as a kid being absolutely blown away by the first shocking chapter of his novel Control – a thriller which is, mind-bogglingly, out of print these days. He also adapted his own novels Marathon Man and, of course, The Princess Bride.

So I was interested to see what I made of Magic all these years later… and, hell, what a novelist that man was – sadly, Goldman’s last fiction was written in 1986. It’s almost impossible to discuss without giving some of the game away, so here goes…

Corky is a talented but failed magician, whose  career only takes off when he incorporates a dummy called Fats into his act. When he’s offered a TV show, Corky goes on the lam, frightened that executives will discover that it’s Fats who increasingly calls the shots in Corky’s head. He heads back to the Catskills where he meets his old childhood crush Peggy Ann. Throw in Corky’s wizened agent and Peggy Ann’s oafish husband, and things start to get murderous in the woods as Fats’s true nature is revealed.

As you can tell, Magic is a book which is very much in the Psycho mould, a claustrophobic chamber-piece. It takes a couple of chapters to warm up, but when it does it really delivers as a portrait of a damaged personality. Despite his, er, homicidal issues (and some hints that he’s got previous in this area) Corky is a hugely empathetic character in the George Harvey Bone mould.

Fats gives Corky confidence, he gives him a voice, and he give him an act with which to present his beloved Magic. But one part of Corky’s brain is increasingly fighting a disastrous rearguard action against the other half. We root for Corky to pull himself together and yearn for him to find happiness with his lost love even as we know that the worst is yet to come.

As you’d imagine from a screenwriter, Goldman’s dialogue is to die for. It just zings off the page and straight into your brainstem. Magic is tight and focused and would make Ira Levin proud, with some nail-biting set-pieces, including one fabulous scene where Corky’s agent, alarmed by his relationship with the dummy, challenges Corky not to speak as Fats for five minutes, just five minutes…

If this book was written now, or filmed as a movie, the chances are, the publisher would want more shocks, more out-and-out horror moments, but like all the best horrors, Magic is absolutely rooted in character. And the biggest character of them all is Fats, a malevolent little guy with tiny wooden legs. His voice, charismatic and sarcastic, rings fully-formed in your head as you read.

Crime News: Horror, Polish, Dagger

Ask anyone to name a British horror production company and they’re going to say Hammer, right? But for nearly 20 years there was another company on the block, Amicus. Whereas Hammer excelled in its period horror, Amicus specialised in producing contemporary portmanteau movies, short scary stories bundled onto the same film reel, mainly because they were cheaper.

At 11.30am on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday – tomorrow – film historian Matthew Sweet presents one of his terrific screen documentaries, Houses of Horror, which looks at the creative rivalry between the two film companies during the Sixties and Seventies.

It’s curious how the blurb never appears in daylight:

It’s almost a given that the story of British horror movies belongs to Hammer films. The studio, with its lurid combination of sex and death, lashings of blood and gore, has given it a special stake in British hearts. It made over 200 films, such as Dracula and Curse Of Frankenstein with a recurring, legendary cast, including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and its 2007 revival drew heavily on past mystique.

Hammer was the most successful British film company of all time but, throughout its heyday in the 60s and 70s, it did battle with a much smaller, poorer, creative, upstart rival – Amicus films. Amicus was a small British horror studio that pioneered the much loved ‘portmanteau’ picture, such as Tales Of The Crypt and Vault Of Horror – each movie a composite of four or five short stories, whose connection is revealed at the end.

Matthew explores the productive rivalry between the two contenders for the heart and soul of British horror, in a blood-curdling tale of low-budget, gore-spattered one-upmanship that’s full of chilling atmosphere and fun.

If you’re down London way on Thursday – yes, tomorrow – there’s a Polish Crime Night at Belgravia Books. Novelists William Brodrick, Mariusz Czubaj, Anya Lipska, and Joanna Jodełka will chat energetically about Polish crime fiction, which is becoming an increasingly popular territory for readers looking for the next big thing in the genre.

The session is chaired by journalist Rosie Goldsmith at Belgravia Books in Ebury Street, Victoria. The event at 7pm is free, but you have to rsvp, so remember to let them know you’re coming.

Some of you may not be able to attend that fine event because you’ll be busy making some last minute adjustments to your Debut Dagger entry. Every year the Crime Writers’ Association encourages unpublished authors with the award, the winner of which is announced at it annual awards dinner in the spring.

The deadline for this year’s competition is this Friday, the 31st. that’s one, no, two days away! Submissions must include the first 3,000 words – or fewer – of your novel, and a synopsis of the rest. The entry fee is £25. All the shortlisted authors will receive a professional assessment of their entries. You can get all the details right here. If your manuscript is sitting in front of you, waiting to transmit its awesomeness to the world, I bid you good luck.

Breed – Chase Novak

UnknownSometimes you can flip along the titles on your kindle and have no idea how some of those books got there. Breed, by Chase Novak, was one of those for me. I suspect I was elated by rereading Ira Levin’s seminal New York horror Rosemary’s Baby and wanted more of the same. One button-press later it was on my device and I immediately forgot about it.

But this week, looking for something different, I stumbled upon Breed, prodded it open and began to read.

The blurb wants to eat you up:

Alex and Leslie Twisden told each other they would do anything to have children. The price didn’t matter. But the experimental procedure they found had costs they couldn’t foresee.

Adam and Alice Twisden’s lives seem perfectly normal. Except that, every night, without fail, their parents lock them into their rooms.

And the twins know that the sounds they can hear are not just their imagination. They’re real. And they’re getting louder…

Breed is a clever little book – too clever, perhaps – an urban fairytale about those most-ferocious of creatures, Manhattan pushy parents.

Alex and Leslie Twisden enjoy a life of wealth and privilege. He’s a partner in a top law firm and she’s in publishing, and they live in a big townhouse by the park. But, try as they might, they can’t have kids. Their obsession leads them to Slovenia and the unethical practice of Dr Slobodan Kis, whose painful treatment involves injecting them both with all manner of animal hormones, including those of the Gobi fish, which has a tendency to eat its young. By the time Alex and Leslie get  back to their hotel room, they’re already beginning to become more animalistic.

Ten years later, jobs gone, their splendid home gone to seed – and with keening noises coming from the basement – Alex and Leslie struggle to hold on to the last vestiges of their humanity. Every night, they lock their children in their rooms so that they can’t eat them. Adam and Alice have had enough of this and go on the run, where they meet a pack of kids who also live in fear of their parents.

I liked the prose in Breed very much. Novak is a classy writer, there’s no doubt about that, and has plenty of satirical fun with the Freudian conceit. The imagery is good – Central Park is packed with feral boys and girls hiding from their dangerous parents – and there are some genuine thrills in the extended chase sequence that powers the middle section of the book.

But the horror in Breed isn’t quite on point. There are one or two narrative twists that make you blink in surprise, but Novak ensures we pity, and even like, the monstrous Alex and Leslie, who never quite live up to their cannibalistic marquee billing. The parents are so self-aware about their own degradation, so forlorn about their lack of humanity, and in a funny way to boot, that the menace is undermined somewhat. There’s little doubt that their escaped kids Adam and Alice will be eaten. And when you sympathise with the antagonists, the danger, the horror of the situation, slips away.

Saying that, Breed is an enjoyable ride, full of sly humour and clever observation. And the characters are enjoyable. Alex and Leslie, both before and after their transformation – are a real treat.

With its upper west side setting, it’s bound to draw comparison with Rosemary’s Baby – hell, I’ve already done it – and any horror book is going to come off poorly in that regard.

It turns out that Chase Novak is a pseudonym of Scott Spencer, a well-regarded literary novelist who wrote, among other books, Endless Love – congratulations, now you’ve got that song going round your head. The word is that Novak is working on another horror, Brood.