When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom (1985)

When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom is a bind-up of two novellas, the titular and “Love is…”. Re-published under Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell imprint, this classic ’80s double feature is a tour de force of emotionally harrowing horror. Engstrom stands out among a lot of ’80s horror writers as one whose horrors are predicated on themes of grief, betrayal, abandonment, and other resonant ideas, as opposed to tropes and ultraviolence. She deserves more recognition, on the basis of When Darkness…, as one of the more original and powerful voices of the age.

The novella titled “When Darkness Loves Us” is the shorter of the two at around seventy pages, and while it’s hard to decide which story is the more ultimately devastating, “When Darkness…” harrows in a deep and intimate way. It’s about a teenage girl, a farmer’s daughter engaged to a local boy and pregnant, who’s messing about on her parents’ property one day when she walks into a tunnel and falls asleep on the steps. Her father unwittingly seals the entrance and she finds herself trapped, still pregnant, in an underground network of dank tunnels. For years.

Inspired by a thought Engstrom had while riding an underground attraction at Disneyland while pregnant herself, “When Darkness…” is one of the more haunting horror pieces you’re likely to read. It’s not just the pain and terror of the immediate situation that the author evokes. Her masterstroke is to expand it into an appalling tragedy of lost youth, grief, resentment, jealously, and how, when darkness loves us, we end up loving it back…

The tale is simply told, deceptively so, as it sprawls out over years, even decades. The main character’s survival might not be totally believable, but more so than you think it would be because of the emotional truth to the characterisation and development. If it was possible for a teenage girl to survive for such a long time in an underground network of dank tunnels, in pitch darkness, you get the feeling that she’d probably turn into the person that our heroine does. The story’s final twist is cruel, devastating, and painfully inevitable. It’ll haunt you.

The story of “Beauty Is…”, the longer and more narratively complex of the novellas, was inspired by an incident Engstrom read about wherein a mentally challenged woman found employment at a KFC, but was then befriended and taken advantage of by a group of men who exploited her for sex. Once again, the setting is Heartland, USA, and the main characters are a woman and her deformed, mentally challenged daughter, born with a hole where her nose should be. (Hence the cover illustration below.) The woman’s husband, a farmer, is disgusted and alienated by his daughter’s condition, and though he does terrible things in the story, Engstrom doesn’t make him a cartoon villain.

In the wake of her inheritance of her parents’ farm, the adult daughter trundles along with assistance from her local community, from which her mother largely protected her, but came to realise would be necessary in keeping the woman safe once she was alone. The woman is befriended by several young people, with varying degrees of ulterior motive, and the story builds towards a tragic conclusion.

The narrative structure of “Beauty Is…” is so ambitious that the novella deserves recognition alongside mainstream fiction, though is unlikely to ever receive it, given the critical establishment’s frequent dismissal of horror. The story alternates between the mother’s and the daughter’s, exploring the mother’s dotage as she plans for her child’s adulthood alone in scenes that are touching, sad, and imbued with love. The daughter’s story follows her adjustment to life lived independently, and how she copes with the challenges of managing her own affairs. Perspective switches between the two characters and also the townspeople, including the ne’er-do-well who will eventually be everyone’s undoing.

The horror elements are most pronounced in a supernatural tinge concerning the mother’s gifts as a healer, as well as dark and vivid dreamscapes as she arrives at the realisation of why her daughter is stuck in her condition, what she could have been if the right people had shown her the right support, and the dark secret at the heart of her father’s cruel neglect.

It’s anything but an easily forgettable story, and the book as a whole is a neglected classic of both general and women’s horror writing.

The Blood Beast Mutations (2020) and Horror House of Perversion (2021) by Carl John Lee

A double whammy review this time, courtesy of a fresh face on my reading list, Carl John Lee. A former screenwriter for ‘70s exploitation films, in recent years he’s switched to prose fiction, adapting old script ideas. The Blood Beast Mutations and Horror House of Perversion are his first books, both brought in at under a hundred pages, benefitting from a screenwriter’s sense of pace and structure.

Stephen Fry once remarked that screenwriting is much harder than writing novels, because screenplays demand an adherence to structure which in prose can be distracted from with literary flair. Although, John Lee deserves credit for his descriptive and scene-setting work. Because these are self-published novellas, there are grammatical and spelling mistakes which an industry editor may have tidied up, but less than you’d think. John Lee gives self-publishing a good name.

A brisk read and a fun one as well, The Blood Beast Mutations is both a gross-out horror and a nifty satire of Trump-era politics, and American society in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plot sees Dan Lewis travel across New York to rescue his wife from a hospital, when she’s taken in with the coronavirus and subsequently exposed to its latest mutation: carnivorous gremlins which burst out of their host bodies, Alien-style, and sink their teeth into whichever warm bodies are nearby. On the way, he’s forced into a confrontation with an equally implacable foe: anti-maskers in MAGA caps, roaming the streets and gunning down anyone outside their tribe.

If you enjoy smart and self-aware B-movies with a high gore quotient, you’ll probably like The Blood Beast Mutations. Its author’s exploitation roots are evident in its crisp and almost constant action, and humorous sexuality. (The hero’s wife is a classic grindhouse babe, stalking the battlefield in a revealing hospital gown, waving a gun.) The evocation of pandemic-stricken New York is pretty great as well. You don’t see any landmarks like the Statue of Liberty or Radio City Music Hall, but the neighbourhood of endless apartment blocks and sad little convenience stores is effectively drawn, and no doubt familiar to many city-dwellers these past few years.

The book’s recurring motif (beyond the grindhouse gore) is presidential addresses by Donald Trump, not named in the text but obviously him. His blind narcissism is pitch-perfectly rendered by Lee, although the hero’s frequent aggrieved insulting of Trump threatens to become wearisome. It stays just on the right side of that, however, and even as bodies are torn apart, drained of innards, and shot-gunned, the writer gets in laughs. The anti-maskers are deliciously parodied as clattering morons, meatheads stunted by fear and ignorance to such a degree that they become murderous.

The Blood Beast Mutations goes down smoother than a plate of ice cream, and is just as naughty.

If Blood Beast is a post-COVID take on the monster/post-apocalypse genres, Horror House of Perversion is rooted in the rape-revenge thriller. I normally don’t read books with covers like the one you see below, and “extreme horror” isn’t a sub-genre that appeals to me. It often feels like an excuse to show female suffering and assorted acts of sadomasochism, saying that it’s “just a story” or “presenting the world as it is”. HHoP is one of the more viscerally disgusting books I’ve read. It comes with a trigger warning by the author for sex, violence, sexual violence, and implied child abuse. However, it rejiggers the tropes of the rape-revenge genre with refreshing style. It’s not a masterpiece, but for a “published by Amazon” job with a title like Horror House of Perversion, it’s pretty good.

Based on a screenplay written in the ‘70s but left un-filmed, as related in a hilarious afterword that’s worth the price of the book by itself, HHoP follows a group of old college friends as they travel to – where else? – a cabin in the woods. Now paunchy and middle-aged, these guys are the type you wouldn’t want to sit near in a movie theatre, let alone spend a weekend with.

Narcissistic, homophobic, deeply misogynistic, utterly selfish, performatively macho in the most pathetic and toxic fashion, you’re unlikely to meet a cast of characters you want to die more outside of a Netflix documentary about millionaire rapists. The ‘70s origins of this story are somewhat evident in how they’re characterised, but John Lee updates the references to a degree where any dated feeling isn’t egregious.

Tagging along are Lucy and Anya, the former the wife of one man, and Anya the girlfriend of our protagonist, Lee. After a well-staged and shocking prologue lets you know what you’re in for, the characters make their way to the cabin, stopping off at the requisite hillbilly gas station. An accident halts their journey, and they seek refuge at an eerie, plantation-style house overseen by Mrs Marcus and her daughters, Patricia and Brianna. The house and its occupants feel misplaced in time, and it seems unlikely that our travellers will be leaving come sunrise.

The gang have a dark secret in their past, which you can guess upon knowing that we’re in rape-revenge territory. I worried early on at just how unlikeable the characters are, and how unlikely it is that Lee and Anya would want to spend a weekend with them, especially considering Lee’s profound hatred of his man-child ex-friends. But their lack of dimension is made up for with an intriguing plot and creative horror set-pieces. The violence is gory, intense, and on a level which even hardened readers might find a little extreme, but what’s refreshing is how it focuses on the revenge more than the rape.

The “classic” rape-revenge thrillers like I Spit On Your Grave capitalised on a hypocritical pseudo-morality whereby all the stalking, raping, and humiliation were shown, but with the provision that the rapists would get their comeuppance. Though John Lee doesn’t shy away from depicting sexual violence, he tilts the brutality more towards the revenge, saving the most imaginative sadism for the men. I’m not sure if anyone, even the worst of us, deserves what happens to the men in this story, but I’d rather it happen to them than yet another innocent female protagonist.

HHoP ends on a twist which has been done many times before, but logically follows from what we’ve been told and sews up one or two plot holes into the bargain. I’m not certain that it makes much sense. However, since this is a rape-revenge thriller set in a haunted house and based on a B-movie screenplay once offered to Roger Corman, you’d have to be pretty churlish to take much issue with that. Though it doesn’t have either the likeable characters or fun chase elements of The Blood Beast Mutations, for gore-hounds who like their schlock with a little more creativity and a lot less misogyny, it’s a sweet treat. Just be aware of that trigger warning.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix (2021)

I don’t think that there’s been a novel I’ve had more fun with in recent years than The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix. Hendrix is a writer who’s been on my radar for a while. I first heard of him through Will Errickson’s excellent blog “Too Much Horror Fiction”, and thoroughly enjoyed his non-fiction study of the late-20th century, pulp horror boom, Paperbacks from Hell. I’ve also seen his movie Satanic Panic, a slight but amusing riff on the devil worship and slasher sub-genres. Final Girl is my first time with Hendrix the novelist, and it more than makes me want to read his other fiction.

A satirical take on the slasher formula, the story is told from the first-person perspective of Lynette Tarkington, one of six “final girls” who survived a mad slasher some thirty to forty years ago. A final girl, in film criticism, is the last surviving character in a slasher movie, the one who traditionally escapes death and kills the killer, due to her impeccable virtue. (Final girls are generally white, chaste, drug-free, and feminine, though Hendrix has some fun playing with this archetype in a postmodern – dare I say “woke”? – way.)

However, sixteen years of group therapy for these women are about to reach an impasse because of internal conflict, when their strongest link, Adrienne, is murdered. Lynette, whose life has been reduced to a neurotic routine based on survivalist skills, becomes a wanted woman when a mysterious killer sets out to pick off the support group one by one.

The chapters are interspersed with stylised excerpts from fictional, in-universe books, letters, emails, and even VHS tapes, commenting on the genre and revealing character histories. The attention to detail is impressive, including from a visual standpoint, as the look of a battered videotape, reference work, magazine article, etc, is reproduced. Part of the fun of the novel for me was working out which final girl’s backstory corresponded to which real-life slasher franchise. If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll get what it means when you learn that one girl was impaled on a mounted deer head’s antlers, and another found a mummified head in her refrigerator.

Yet the novel is so much more than just references. It uses them to provide commentary on how violence is exploited in popular media, and how pathetic, demented cults spring up around terrible crimes. Hybristophiles – people with an intense or even erotic interest in violent crime – are mercilessly satirised, not least in the form of a curator of a private “murderabilia” museum. Other targets include men’s rights activists (or misogynists posing as such) and unethical, money-grabbing media types.

The Final Girl Support Group also works as an elegantly plotted and engaging mystery thriller. Unlike many of the slasher films that inspired it, its killer’s identity is well-hidden and fairly clued. (No “it was that character who was seen/mentioned once in the first fifteen minutes” nonsense.) Even if you’ve never seen a slasher movie, if you like mysteries and thrillers you’ll probably enjoy it.

The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson (2020)

The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson is a fast-paced and gruesome sci-fi shocker, which benefits from strong characterisation and a truly haunting threat. The story takes place in a small Oregon town where Lucy, a Peruvian orphan adopted by an American couple, goes to school with “Bucket”, her best friend and a fellow outsider. When another student goes berserk, it looks like the local telecoms company, IMTECH, might be a shade more sinister than they seem. But no-one foresees “the loop”, a cycling patter of brainwave interference which reduces the town’s young people to their most bestial selves.

The Loop has to be one of the most shocking sci-fi thrillers I’ve read or seen in a while. It’s a zombie thriller mixed with conspiracist, apocalypse, and even a touch of alien invasion elements, creating a propulsive race-for-survival story. Possibly its most memorable scene revolves around a girl who’s been experimented on and is desperately fighting against her programming. It’s here that we see the full scale of the antagonist’s cruelty as applied to individuals, and it’ll stay with you for a long time.

The Loop definitely isn’t for readers with weak stomachs, and its apocalyptic vision is something to behold, but where it succeeds is in its evocation of tropes alongside rich themes and character relationships. Lucy is far from a generic “final girl”. She’s a complex and wounded figure, dealing with her own trauma from her parents’ deaths, and abuse from other children in the orphanage which she was rescued from, even before the end of the world comes knocking. The narrative is interspersed with transcripts from a fictional podcast outlining conspiracy theories, giving the novel a fun, X Files-esque atmosphere. But don’t be fooled: its violence is brutal and pace relentless once it gets going, edging closer to David Cronenberg “body horror” than network TV.

It really is a fantastic achievement by Johnson. Themes of classism, racism, poverty, and trauma underlie the mayhem. There’s the uncomfortable idea that as mindlessly savage as the town’s kids become, the loop is just amplifying a privilege and cruelty that the rich ones already possessed. Lucy’s bullies have just been liberated to reach their full potential.

The Resident by David Jackson (2020)

I’ve written on this blog before about the intersection of crime and horror fiction in recent years, and my mixed feelings about this. The Resident by David Jackson is another example of that trend, yet of the hybrids I’ve seen recently it’s possibly the most firmly in the horror camp, at least other than Deity by Matt Wesolowski. At times it feels like one of the lurid slasher stories that used to be a trend in pulp fiction and schlock cinema. The Freudian flavour to the killer’s backstory, sexual frustration/jealousy, and outlandish modus operandi are definitely of that genre, though handled with more sensitivity and psychological complexity here.

The plot is elegantly, deceptively simple. It begins with Thomas Brogan, its pro/antagonist (“antihero” doesn’t seem quite accurate, since there’s nothing remotely heroic about him), leaving his last crime scene and then hiding out in the attic of an empty house, before discovering that the neighbouring three houses can be reached via the attic space. The first house contains an 89-year-old widow visited by carers, the second a middle-aged married couple, and the third newlyweds, whose marriage may be more complex than it seems. Brogan decides to stick around and plot his next atrocity, using psychological tricks to unnerve his prey.

The third-person narrative is entirely from Brogan’s perspective, and interwoven with first-person responses from his inner monologue, which he interprets as a distinct personality. The responses are italicised and are a nifty way of preventing the novel’s limited perspective from becoming suffocating. This is the first David Jackson novel I’ve read, but in this story at least he’s a master of drip-feeding information, an illustration of the great British crime writer Ruth Rendell’s belief that a writer should always have more information than the reader. No development in The Resident is delivered either too early or too late, or clumsily. In that respect, it’s a perfect psychological thriller.

I’d have liked more lyricism and density in the atmosphere than you find here. The writing is elegant and effective without being Gothic, exactly, which isn’t an issue or even a complaint, really, just my own preference. There are still some perfectly judged, evocative descriptive elements, like a destroyed human face compared to a red flower. A wonderful moment comes when Brogan is in the attic of the empty house and shines a torch on a toy cat, which reminds him of a cat he cared for as a neglected child. I’d have liked some more of that, although one of the accomplishments of Jackson’s storytelling is making us, if not sympathise with Brogan, at least appreciate the torment that informed who he is. The novel gets gorier as it goes along, and ends on a shattering series of twists that Agatha Christie would have been proud of. The Resident is a fast-paced, emotionally engaging psycho-horror.

The Resident: Amazon.co.uk: Jackson, David: 9781788164368: Books

The Others by Sarah Blau (2018)

translated from Hebrew by Daniella Zamir

Horror as a genre is fast becoming indistinguishable from crime, at least in the mainstream of traditional publishing. It could even be argued that it’s become a sub-genre of crime fiction, indicating that a story either has a supernatural tinge or is about a slightly more macabre, uncanny sort of crime. In a way, ‘twas ever thus. Straightforward horror’s always been a hard sell outside its particular audience, and publishers don’t seem all that interested in particular audiences anymore, hence why book covers are far more generic than they were in the Paperbacks from Hell heyday of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

This brings us to The Others by Sarah Blau, an Israeli novel that’s only horror in the sense that horrible things happen, and even then they happen offstage. What it really is is a psychological whodunnit, though as it was included with my latest subscription box from The Abominable Book Club (excellent UK subscription, by the way), I’ll review it here. Not least because, my genre nitpicking aside, it’s just a really good and suspenseful novel.

It may be my favourite of the Abominable selection that I’ve read recently. Narrated by a guide for a Bible museum in Tel Aviv, Sheila Heller, the story is about a murder case concerning her college friend. Dina Kaminer has been tied to a chair and subjected to exsanguination (draining of blood), before MOTHER is written on her forehead and a baby doll glued to her hands. The allusion appears to be to a pact that Sheila, Dina, and two other women made in college, to never have children.

The Others is a portrait of the religious and traditional society in Israel, and about the immense pressure it places on women to have or at least want children. The same pressure exists in most societies, of course, and though Israel with its specific culture might seem a world away to some readers, you’ll notice similarities. Sheila is constantly conscious of how other people, men and women, perceive her, her thoughts frequently expressed in italicised asides. (“Button your goddamn blouse.”/“Here we go again.”)

By presenting this struggle in the context of a not overtly preachy, exciting fictional story, The Others could serve as a good tool for exploring ideas around feminism and what women experience in day to day life. Especially women who don’t conform. To quote a female character on the subject of one of King David’s wives, who happened to be childless, who’d want to learn about her?

I didn’t guess who the killer was, largely because I wasn’t trying to. I was just happy to go with the flow of the story, not picking it apart for clues, although if you are reading it as a mystery you may well guess who the killer is as soon as they’re introduced. It’s fairly obvious, in hindsight. I found that the ending was satisfying, however, even hopeful. The Others is a brisk read, a thematically potent and well-constructed psycho-thriller.

Short Story Circle: “The Cabin in the Woods” by Richard Laymon

I recently read cult writer Richard Laymon’s short story The Cabin in the Woods in a Kindle copy of The Children of Cthulhu, a multi-volume anthology of stories set in the Lovecraft mythos from 2002. As Laymon died in 2001 it would have been one of the last things he wrote.

It’s a good story. It’s narrated by a writer who visits a cabin in the woods with his wife and brother-in-law, only for them to be stalked by a pterodactyl-esque creature.

I bought the book just because I saw Laymon’s name in it and couldn’t see him writing a Cthulhu story, given that Lovecraft stuff tends more towards philosophising and introspection, which isn’t what Laymon is known for. (To put it gently.)

It really worked, though, within the bounds of a Laymon story. There’s not a lot of subtext to the horror, which is typical for him, but I think that his blunt and violent style works well with a story about a weird Lovecraftian monster. Because we never learn anything about what’s really going on beyond what we can infer from the gruesome bits, it adds a haunting mystery to the tale.

It has elements of Laymon’s usual schtick, like the sexy blonde wife whom the narrator is constantly horny for and the explicitly described gore, but these are muted. It’s well worth checking out as an odd slice of 1920s existential science-fiction horror meets late 20th-century pulp schlock.

Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (2019)

Pushkin Press 2020 edition

A simple bit of advice: don’t read this novel while eating a Big Mac, or really any meat dish, fast food or haute cuisine. Tender Is the Flesh, an Argentinan novel about a world where animal meat has been declared inedible and replaced with human, is one of the most disturbing novels I’ve read. This is due as much to how the content is delivered, in spare and clinical prose, as the content itself. It’s a dystopian novel like few others, making some of even the most fearsome fictional futures seem like utopias. I really can’t stress enough that this isn’t a novel you want to read if you’re of a sensitive disposition when it comes to the literature you consume. I’m not sure myself if I could stand it as a film.

The temptation is to describe one of its many horrors as a (pardon the expression) taster, though it’s hard to pick which one, there are so many. Maybe this: at one point we learn that pregnant female “heads” (the name for humans bred as cattle) are de-limbed so as to prevent them from smashing their bellies against the bars of their cages, which they do to save their children from life in a processing plant. If you can take that without vomiting, you might be ready for this book.

The storytelling is simple and direct in the style of dystopian fable, the straightforward linear plot serving as an entry into the world of the book. Through the perspective of a wealthy meat-processor, Marcos, we learn that animals were slaughtered wholesale after the government pronounced that they were infected with a fatal virus. In what became known as the Transition, a populace desperate for meat turned to cannibalism, which was eventually legitimised and turned into a thriving industry. Now it’s illegal to even talk about human chattel in certain ways and with certain words, so enforced is the practice of disassociating them from your friends and family. Illiterate and branded, they become animals.

Marcos is a numb and inwardly broken figure, going about his duties with a secret disgust for them, traumatised by the recent cot-death of his infant son. He continues to work in processing because he needs the money to pay for his elderly father’s care. But then he’s gifted a piece of chattel, a young woman, and grows fond of her…

It’s probably too easy to think of the book as a vegan parable, though that’s one interpretation. What it reminded me of was letters from Nazi administrators at concentration camps, to their loved ones, describing the weather and what they had for lunch while alluding vaguely to the regulated killing of Jewish captives. What the book is about, I think, is the way in which societies and governments can condition their followers to accept any barbarity, any cruelty, so long as it’s happening to someone else and not them. In Tender Is the Flesh, average middle-class people do things that would stand out in a serial killer’s memoirs.

A sketch by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen comes to mind, wherein he convinces a real person that if he touches a spot on an iPad protestors with political views he disagrees with will die. The man never sees the victims, doesn’t hear them groan and fall, and is therefore happy to commit murder based on a political difference.

I’d have liked a little more plot. The growing relationship between Marcos and Jasmine, the name he gives the chattel woman, is spread very thin. The novel is more about giving you a guided tour of the world its author creates, however, so while it is drier on incident than some of the classics of its dystopian genre it earns its place among them. Also, the novel’s last chapter is so hard and cold and shocking, yet such a perfect conclusion to all that’s come before, that it justifies the thinness of plot. It’s an ending on the dark dystopian scale of 1984’s, with Winston weeping over his love for Big Brother, yet more viscerally savage.

Do I recommend Tender Is the Flesh? If you want to read a book about a cannibal dystopia, yes. If you’re even slightly on the fence about such a thing, no. This is a tough read, one to give your nightmares nightmares.

Deity by Matt Wesolowski (2021)

Orenda Books edition

I came across Matt Wesolowski through an interview he gave to Crime Club, a crime fiction newsletter. He was promoting the latest book in his Six Stories series, Deity, and made the revelation that he’d never really read crime fiction. Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, PD James? All new to him. His genre is horror, and he came to crime while listening to true-crime podcasts. The idea for Six Stories was born, a series describing a fictional podcast wherein true crime and the paranormal intersect.

The podcast is hosted by Scott King, who for each subject he covers produces six episodes. I was fascinated by this format, which updates the epistolary novel. This is a style well-served by horror, characterising such milestone classics as Frankenstein and Dracula. More recently, the American writer Thomas Ligotti used it for one of the short stories in My Work Is Not Yet Done, from 2002.

Wesolowski intersperses transcripts from different places – interviews and YouTube videos and the like – to create the feeling of a podcast. The impression is bolstered visually with font and other features, like a typewriter font for a script of one video and production data for footage. It’s arguable that such a format, by inevitably setting the story long after everything’s already happened (to quote Scott King, his job is little more than “raking over old graves”), risks any sense of action or urgency getting deflated. But that’s not the case with Deity.

The author’s admission of ignorance regarding detective fiction is surprising when you read Deity because at the heart of it are all the elements you’d find in a classic detective novel. You have a sleuth, podcaster Scott King; a corpse, rock star Zach Crystal; and a circle of six people who may or may not be telling the truth. There’s even a denouement of sorts.

The mystery is who Zach Crystal really was. A reclusive Michael Jackson-esque musician, globally renowned, he lived in his own version of the Neverland Rach, an estate in vast Scottish parkland. He had his own “tree house” kitted out with all the mod-cons, and to which he’d invite scores of troubled young girls… You can see where this is going. Crystal seems modelled on a number of celebrities who’ve been reconstructed in light of recent revelations, both before and following the Me-Too movement.

His child-like qualities and inviting of children to a secluded pleasure palace are clearly modelled on Jackson (and as with Jackson we see a lot of evidence without ever quite knowing the truth). Meanwhile, Crystal’s bizarre museum/shrine to his mother is reminiscent of when Jimmy Savile, posthumously disgraced children’s TV presenter, let Louis Theroux into his home and showed him his mother’s dry-cleaned clothes. Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room for British readers: Ian Watkins, former lead singer of lostprophets, currently serving time for some of the worst child sexual abuse thinkable.

This angle is coupled with a horror plot about a forest god in the form of a skeletal deer, roaming Crystal’s property and with which he and his “special girls” are obsessed. (There’s a wonderful ghost story segment, reminiscent of an MR James or Robert Aickman tale, explaining the origins of the god’s legend.) The six episodes of Deity focus on characters with differing opinions of Zach, allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against him by former special girls, and what was really going on in the forest.

The horror elements are effective, though in the end are overshadowed by the crime angle. This is perhaps unavoidable, given that the real meat of a story like this is its relevance to social issues and the mystery of human motivations. (And, of course, the question of our age: can and should we separate art from artist?) Which isn’t to say that it would be remotely the same novel without the horror elements. These add a richness and a spookiness which only enliven the mystery. That’s the major accomplishment of Deity (and possibly the other Six Stories books, which I haven’t read), that it somehow melds detection and supernatural horror without one side of the plot going limp. It’s that rare novel which diehard genre fans of more than one genre can enjoy.

Dear Laura by Gemma Amor (2019)

Dear Laura is a psychological novella with a cover design by the author, Gemma Amor. It’s of a type where the basic plot is simple, but drawn out with dense and atmospheric writing.

The book alternates between past and present, beginning with Laura as she makes her way through a forest on a mission that’s defined her life for many years. We then go back to when she was thirteen and her best friend Bobby disappeared, after which she started receiving letters. Arriving each year on her birthday, they offer clues as to Bobby’s whereabouts in exchange for intimate objects.

Because the book is independently published there are a few grammatical mistakes, and one or two small plot holes that an editor might have noticed. The story is a little far-fetched – the letter writer evades detection despite acting very unsubtly at times – and though the book benefits from short chapters it’s not pacy, relying instead on a slow accumulation of events.

But the soul of Dear Laura is in its prose, which is thick with descriptive and introspective material. It’s suspenseful and creepy, holding your attention just as the protagonist’s is held by her need to know. The forest is beautifully evoked, and sets the stage for a harrowing climax.

Dear Laura is a story about abuse and abusers, how vulnerable people are isolated by their victimisers, whose thrill is in the power they hold over their victims. Gemma Amor is an emotionally astute writer, and although the events of her story sometimes take some swallowing, the motivations never do.