Fellside by M.R. Carey

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I’ve been waiting forever for this to come out in paperback and I devoured it in two evenings! A shame that it was over so soon, but wow, what an experience.

Carey’s word-of-mouth bestseller, The Girl With All The Gifts, is about to released as a film (please read the book first!) and definitely has ranked him as one of my favourite, must-read authors in the horror genre. Fellside initially feels so different to The Girl, but the same strengths are there – vivid, corporeal characters who you really care for, a strong plot that won’t let you go, and a perceptive, subtle subversion of the genre. Fellside

Jess Moulson is a nice person with a bad, bad habit. It leaves her amnesiac, with half her face burnt off, and one of Britain’s most notorious female criminals, sentenced to Fellside, a grim women’s prison in Yorkshire. Devastated by what she’s done, she goes on hunger strike, wanting to end it all – but the ghost of a young boy won’t let her die. He needs her to find out the truth about his death- which means delving into the minds of her fellow inmates. Cue surreal sequences in the other world, which could be dreams, the afterlife, insanity, or even hell. But unknown to Jess, the staff and inmates of Fellside have their own vested interests in whether she lives or dies, and she’s caught in a violent web of corruption and manipulation; trapped between two worlds, Jess must fight for survival in both.

Like Miss Justineau in The Girl, Jess is a very sympathetic character, and her journey really hooked me in to the narrative. The thing about Jess is that she just wants to keep her head down, not to get involved; but both before and during her incarceration, she is no bystander. The conflict between selfishness and doing the right thing is very finely observed and this is the recognisable flaw that makes her such an empathic and real character. Carey’s are all strong female characters (the cast in Fellside is largely female!) and a delight to meet, even those who are truly evil like Harriet Grace, the lifer who controls Goodall block and directs the violence. And the male characters are similarly believable – like the Sergeant in The Girl, whose story evolves from villain to hero, deliciously vile prison officer Devlin (the Devil) and poor lost Dr Salazar (Sally) have their own tragic and poignant trajectories which grip you. tgwatg

The supernatural elements in some ways form the subplot of Fellside, and can almost be a matter of interpretation; is the other place to be taken at face value, or is this the effect of drug addiction, or mass delusion? The psychology of incarceration is at the forefront, and this is where it differs from The Girl With All The Gifts, which is very firmly in established horror territory; Fellside is much more internal, a state of mind.

I loved it – compelling drama, characters that punch their way off the page, a touch of genuine spookiness and twists and turns that will floor you as effectively as Big Carol herself.

Rating: ****

Orbit Books, 2016, ISBN 9780356503608

The Girl With All The Gifts – Official Trailer

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

When I was eighteen, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it blew the bloody doors off my intellectual and emotional prison and opened up a whole new world of feminist consciousness. It changed my life. Only Ever Yours is the only book since that has repeated that moment in time in my personal history – and I think every young woman should read it. It’s searing, brutal and undeniably honest, and whilst set in a future dystopia, just like Atwood’s novel it’s so woven from real events and behaviours it lays all society’s current failings bare for all to see.

OnlyEverYours

frieda is sixteen, and has spent her entire life in the School, run by the chastities. All the girls are obsessed by their appearance – but in this future, the School enforces that obsession, by daily weigh-ins, a ranking system and lessons where the girls’ bodies are ruthlessly compared to those of their peers. Brainwashed since birth, the girls face a future either as companions – wives to rich men – or concubines. As the day of the Ceremony inexorably draws near, the day when their future role will be assigned to them, their competitiveness reaches fever pitch. But frieda is slowly failing, knocked out of orbit as one of the most highly ranked girls, by her former best friend isabel. Formerly #1, or queen bee, isabel seems to be on self-destruct, and as frieda tries to both help isabel and simultaneously distance herself from her, she’s making mistakes and getting noticed in the wrong ways. The consequences will be shattering.

This novel is brutal from the first page, and while the true horrors of their adult lives are only suggested, never fully revealed, O’Neill creates a very visceral sense of a claustrophobic community where there is truly no way out. Chickens get a taste of your meat girl… Atwood’s heroines were often passively complicit in their oppression, and in O’Neill’s novel, the ways in which women betray each other on a daily basis, thus enabling the power of the patriarchy to be maintained, are searingly dissected. frieda is not your average heroine either, not always sympathetic, not always likeable. And where other novels may have taken the romantic option (i.e. your knight in shining armour will rescue you), O’Neill plays it true to the end, in a truly haunting, terrible climax.

There is so much texture to this book, so much to devour and debate, so many clever allusions, all within a compelling plot populated by vivid characters. It’s one of the most challenging Young Adult books I’ve read and certainly has the power to awaken feminist consciousness in teenage girls (and women), changing lives in the process. I actually think it’s better than The Handmaid’s Tale – more cutting, more graphic, and more unflinching in it’s exposure of female relationships. Terrifying and compulsive, Only Ever Yours takes it’s place on my shelf of books that change your life. Superb.

Rating: *****

riverrun, 2015, ISBN 9781784294007

 

The Stopped Heart by Julie Myerson

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This is a novel I’d been eagerly anticipating reading and it didn’t disappoint! In fact, I would say that this is Myerson’s best novel so far. It’s a harrowing, but beautifully told, tale of loss, grief and evil.

Mary and her husband Graham buy an old farmhouse in rural Suffolk – it’s a new start, an attempt to save their marriage, after the tragic deaths of their daughters. But making space in their lives for new friends is not easy – even when they are so easy-going and understanding as Eddie and Deborah. And for Mary, there’s a strange undercurrent in their new home, an awareness of something other. Could it be a ghost?

A hundred years ago, the farmhouse was home to Eliza and her large family. One night, during a terrible storm, a stranger arrives seeking help and the family take him in. It’s not long before James has his feet well under the table and his relationship with teenage Eliza evolves into something sinister. Just who is he really, and what does he want?

Sometimes in novels that are split between two different times or narrators, you end up favoring one over the other. But not so in this case – the two stories are woven together so assuredly they are like the two sides of the heart in question, and that it will be stopped is painfully evident as the narrative progresses. What Myerson does is surprise you – this is not just a story about evil acts and the grief they beget, but also about the hope that comes in the wake of the storm. She tells you that it is possible to heal, and that healing might come about in a totally unexpected way. The story is harrowing; she does not flinch from tackling very painful and disturbing subjects, but her prose is so beautiful, so insightful, she carries you along the darkest path always with a glimmer of light.

StoppedHeart

This  is a stunning read. My Mum has just returned my copy and said she couldn’t put it down; we had both been affected by the same particular moments in the narrative, and the story will stay with us both for a very long time.

Jonathan Cape, 2016, ISBN 9780224102490

Rating: *****

The Bookshop: Part 3

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Sergeant Thomas arrived within half an hour, and Fay was so relieved to see him. He dealt firmly with Auntie Jean’s panicking and set them to work searching the house, in case Ivan was playing a joke on them. They’d already looked, but the Sergeant insisted they check every cupboard, every possible hiding place both inside and outside. Meanwhile he talked to other police officers on his radio. Then he asked Uncle Gwynne to check the camera footage for the day.

The footage showed Fay and Ivan leaving the house at ten o’clock. Customers came and went, and then at two o’clock, after coming back for one of Auntie Jean’s sandwiches, Ivan snook back into the shop. Fay watched the footage with the sense of dread intensifying. She knew where he was going.

And it happened again.

She saw it this time, they all did. Ivan crept up to the attic, and went over to the dolls. He picked up the Ugly Doll from the chair first, then slung it down, carelessly, on the floor. Fay gasped – she wouldn’t have dared go near it. Then he rooted through the dolls in the pram, picking up Fay’s policeman and smiling. Fay hated him in that second. Then he picked up a book from a pile on the floor.

The screen fuzzed over. When it cleared, he was gone.

Fay felt sick. Physically sick. There was no way Ivan could just disappear –he wasn’t in the other attic room, and he wasn’t on the first floor. He’d have had no time to get to the ground floor. Uncle Gwynne and Sergeant Thomas were confused. “That’s what happened before,” said Uncle Gwynne slowly, “with the other lad.”

Fay staggered backwards, away from them and the screen. She could hear it in her head – that whisper. As I was climbing up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.

“Have they found….” Auntie Jean hesitantly asked.

“We’re still looking for George Dunn,” said Thomas in a neutral tone. He was looking uncomfortable. There was something odd occurring in this bookshop. Fay felt like at any moment, he might arrest Uncle Gwynne.

“I’d like to search this property, please Mr Tasker,” Thomas said eventually. “Starting with the cellar.”

Fay was confused. Why the cellar? It’s the attic where they’ve disappeared. They, she thought – both the other boy and now her brother Ivan. They’ve disappeared, from here.

But not taken. Not taken.

*

Thomas locked the front door and methodically went through every room in the bookshop. He made Fay stay with Auntie Jean, and they both watched his progress live on the monitor.

The cellar held lots of her Uncle’s junk. She watched Thomas rifling through boxes of paperwork, and sniffing some dusty old clothes. She wondered how long the police had searched for her cousin Artie. She could feel Auntie Jean trembling beside her. Uncle Gwynne had a face like stone, and wouldn’t look at either of them. Did they still hope that Artie would one day just walk back into the shop? Or was his body mouldering by some rock somewhere, waiting for some unfortunate hiker to discover it?

Fay felt cold, and desperately wished that her Mam would come. This wasn’t her home after all.

Thomas checked behind bookshelves in the other rooms, searching, presumably, for hidden doors. Fay was glad this was not her dream where doors could appear willy nilly. He checked the yard, nothing there but the bins. He moved up to the first floor. Nothing in history or archaeology, geography or travel. He stuck his head in the old cupboards and stamped loudly on the floorboards. Nothing.

Then he went up to the attic rooms. He had to stoop to enter through the four-and-a-half-foot door. Fay peered more closely at the screen.

She watched as he bent over the dolls. He picked one up to examine it more closely, and then turned his attention to the books, just as Ivan had done. There was one book lying on top of the others and he picked it up.

The screen fuzzed, and he was gone.

Fay bolted back from the monitor in horror. “No, no, no,” she moaned. She felt a scream try to force its way up from her stomach through her spine, and thumped her belly to stop it escaping. “That can’t happen!”

She had to know. Had to. This was worse than her dreams but it was real and it was here. Ivan was her brother, and her responsibility. She darted away from Auntie Jean, and evaded Uncle Gwynne as he went to catch her. She thought she heard him shouting after her, “My book! Don’t look at my book!” but she wasn’t sure and she wasn’t going to stop for anything.

She ran up the narrow, winding stairs to the attic, counting as she went. Sergeant Thomas was nowhere to be seen.

She entered the room slowly, warily. She no longer trusted her dolls – she wasn’t even sure about her policeman doll. He was lying on the floor, where Ivan had dropped him.

There were two dolls in the pram that she didn’t remember. A boy doll, in a blue jacket. His cheeks were ruddy, and he had yellow wool for hair, and crooked wire glasses stuck to his front, and orange shoes. And another boy doll, soft-bodied like the sailor doll with a painted smile – but he was wearing a white t-shirt, and with brown wool for hair, brown like Ivan’s hair. It can’t be Ivan, she thought wildly. He’s not a doll, he’s a human boy! But she gripped him tightly and tears started to roll down her face. She sank to her knees, gripping the policeman doll too. Whose face, she could see through her tears, was no longer smiling, but grimacing, mouth wide, like a scream.

Fay found that she couldn’t breathe. The world seemed to fuzz around her, becoming indistinct, and then inverted black and white like a photographic negative. It was if she were about to faint, but Fay knew she was still conscious. When her vision cleared, the room was smaller. Her head touched the ceiling.

The dolls were huge. Lifesize, grotesque parodies of humans – their faces grinned obscenely as their flaccid limbs splayed on the cot. Dolls they still were, but they were more than that. George Dunn, Ivan and Sergeant Thomas were trapped inside, things of wire and clay and stuffing.

Fay gasped for breath that wouldn’t come. This was her nightmare, come true. She must be sleeping, she must be! But as she gripped the clothes of both dolls, her eyes blurred with tears that would not stop, she heard that whisper again.

As I was walking up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.

It was louder than before. More distinct. Most definitely real.

She wiped furiously at her eyes, forcing breath down her throat. Looking across the room, to the Ugly Doll that Ivan had thrown so casually to the floor.

It was standing up. On legs with no feet, all soft and stuffed, no bones to hold it. It was standing up.

He wasn’t there again today. The whisper, louder. And Fay was sure it came from the Ugly Doll.

Oh how I wish he’d go away!

And Fay finally found her breath, and screamed, and jumped to her feet, desperate to get out, to find those winding stairs, round and round merry go round, to find those stairs and freedom.

But the door, that tiny four-and-a-half-foot door to the attic room, was gone.

 

THE END

The Bookshop: Part 2

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A few days later she was hanging about outside the shop again when a policeman came down the street from the Clock Tower. He smiled at her, and went inside. He didn’t shut the door properly so Fay, with her big ears, slunk into the porch and listened as the policeman talked to Uncle Gwynne. He was Sergeant Thomas of the Dyfed-Powys Police (Fay was thrilled to hear this) and was looking for a boy who had gone missing in Hay (that was less thrilling), and was questioning all the shop owners who may have encountered him.

“Eleven-years-old,” Thomas said, pulling out a photograph to show Uncle, “blond hair and glasses, and last seen wearing a blue hoodie and orange trainers.”

Fay thought that sounded like one of the boys that had chased her and Ivan from the Butter Market. She hoped that Ivan hadn’t done anything stupid. He had a hot head full of lava, her Mam always said.

“Local?” she heard Uncle ask.

Thomas cleared his throat. “No, on holiday from the South with his father. Been staying over in Builth Wells.”

Uncle shook his head. “Not seen him.” The two men talked for a minute or so more and then the Sergeant squeezed out of the door past Fay.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” Fay said quietly. “We hadn’t got it and he wasn’t too happy about it.”

“Excuse me?” Sergeant Thomas turned back to look at her.

“He came in with his Dad,” Fay said. “He was looking for Agatha Christie but Uncle was a little bit rude. He probably didn’t notice that he had a boy with him.” She gave him a wry look. “Uncle doesn’t really notice children.”

“When was this, Miss….” asked Thomas, getting out his notebook.

“I’m Fay. Fay Tasker. Uncle is my Uncle Gwynne and there’s Auntie Jean too. We’re staying here for the summer holidays because my Mam’s in hospital. Me and Ivan that is. It was last week, on Thursday. About three-ish, I think,” Fay replied. “I remember cause that was when Baz finished painting the sign.” She looked upwards and Sergeant Thomas followed her gaze.

“Baz the Brush, is it?” he said. “That’s helpful, Miss. Did you see where they went when they left the shop?”

Fay shook her head. “I went upstairs,” she whispered. And remembering what had happened there, she shot past the policeman and round the corner. No more talking to strange men Fey Fay, she told herself, even if he is in uniform.

That night Auntie Jean made sausages and chips. Ivan smothered his in tomato sauce till it looked like it needed an ambulance. Fay liked that all sat together to eat; her Uncle was friendlier when there was food in front of him, and it felt almost like family.

“Funny thing,” he was saying, and Fay’s big ears pricked up. “I checked the cameras to see if that missing boy had come in the shop.”

Fay’s mouthful of sausage was going nowhere.

“He was in last week, with his Dad,” Uncle Gwynne continued. “But he came in again later, by himself. He looked at transport, mythology and the children’s stuff in the attic.”

Fay tried to chew but found she couldn’t. “In fact, not long after Little Miss Fifi had been up there, playing with the dolls,” he continued. Fay’s eyes went wide.

“And after being banned and all,” he said. “Naughty child!”

Ivan snorted and tomato sauce sprayed out across the table. That earned him a disapproving “Boy!” from Auntie Jean.

“Guess I’d better tell Sergeant Thomas,” continued Uncle, ignoring the tomato splatter. “He can give her a telling off.”

Fay was horrified and felt her eyes brimming with tears. But Uncle Gwynne was only feigning being cross. He winked at her as he stuffed three chips in his mouth at once. Fay could have sworn he swallowed them whole, without chewing.

“Seriously,” he continued, “he was there all right, then the picture went all fuzzy, like static, and when it cleared he were gone.”

Fay felt cold. She remembered the whisper.

As I was walking up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.

Just like the boy. Not there.

*

Fay’s big ears went on operation overdrive over the next few days. From Baz the Brush she learnt that the boy was still missing, and the last sighting of him had been in Hay. She noticed that there were several police cars out and about, and she heard from the lady in the fossil shop that they were going to search the riverbanks, for any sign that he’d fallen  in the water. “Father’s beside himself, poor thing,” she confided, “but you would be, wouldn’t you?”

Fay was only nine but she knew about that. Mam had been beside herself when Dad vanished. But he’d turned up living in Abergavenny with a woman with dyed black hair, so Mam had rolled her sleeves up after finding out and got on with things. It was Auntie Jean that Fay was watching, carefully, a worry ball building in her stomach. Auntie Jean whose boy had gone missing, ten years ago.

Uncle Gwynne seemed not to see any comparison. “Ran off, more like,” he’s said in the kitchen the night before, while Fay’s big ears listened from the hallway. “City lad, thinks he’s hard, row with his father and just takes off. Gets hisself lost on the mountains. He’ll turn up.”

“He’s eleven,” Auntie Jean protested. “Just a child.”

“Aye, but there’s no suggestion that he was taken. Not taken.”

Taken. That word chilled Fay. She’d heard it before – when she was smaller, and Mam and Auntie Jean had been talking. Auntie Jean had been crying over Artie. She never knew Artie – this happened way before she was born – but taken didn’t sound nice. Who would take Artie, and why? And if someone could take Artie, would they take her too? Or Ivan? She looked up to her big brother – surely he could stop anyone from taking him or her?

That night, it took Fay ages to get to sleep. When she finally dropped off she dreamt about the house. At first it was little doors, appearing in odd places – beside the stove, behind the sofa. She crawled through one that appeared in the bathroom, and found herself, as if by magic, in the attic room.

The dolls were there. The posh dolls with their smug expressions, the soft dolls and their raggy smiles. The soldier boy, and her beloved policeman. Thomas, she called him, remembering in her dream the name of the Sergeant who had visited the shop. And another. A boy doll, with yellow wool for hair and a blue jumper. A pair of tiny wire glasses had fallen from his face and become attached to his clothing.

His face was sad.

Fay was confused. “I don’t think you’re supposed to be here,” she said sternly. “They’re looking for you. Sergeant Thomas – the real Sergeant Thomas that is – he’s looking for you.”

And the doll named Sergeant Thomas stood up in the pram, balanced on the china face of one of the posh dolls, and Fay dropped the boy doll and screamed.

*

Auntie Jean was quite kind in the morning, making Fay some hot chocolate for breakfast, although she’s been quite grumpy to be woken up at four in the morning by screaming from her niece’s bedroom. Ivan hadn’t stopped teasing her; she’d explained about the dream, but he was twelve, and thought she was childish.

“Dolls,” he sneered. “You’re such a baby, Fifi!”

“I am not!” she said, cross because she felt it was true. “It was such a horrible dream.”

Auntie Jean tutted at her. “I told you they’s not for kids,” she said, but not roughly. “They’re collectors items. You’ve got your own dolls, Fay.”

Fay had brought her best Barbie doll and several teddies to Hay, but didn’t play with them much. She knew that eventually toys were not for playing with, but for keeping only, but she just wasn’t quite sure when she should make the switch.

Ivan wouldn’t let go though, and dug at Fay by using the pet name she hated. “I’ll show you Fifi,” he taunted. “I’ll go and see the dolls. Prove to you they’re just plastic and tat.”

“Oi,” Auntie Jean admonished. She sent them out to amuse themselves – “You’re not to go upstairs again!” – and they wandered off to look at the market. There were some lovely multicoloured baskets on one stall and Fay wanted one, but didn’t have enough pocket money. Ivan was bored after five minutes, and when he saw some of the local boys, went off to taunt them. Fay let him go; she didn’t want any trouble.

She returned for lunch – Auntie Jean made her a cheese and tomato sandwich and gave a glass of cold milk – then sat by the castle with her writing book. Miss Jessop had set them some homework for the holidays, to write a fairy tale, but she was struggling. It should have a castle and a king, she thought, and a princess too; but she couldn’t think of how to start. She thought that Uncle might help her as he wrote stories, but when she remembered his mouldy book, A Child’s Book of Nightmares, she thought that perhaps it wouldn’t be the kind of fairy tale Miss Jessop would like. Besides, she’d not be brave enough to ask him.

But when she returned for tea at four o’clock, Auntie Jean was cross.

“Ivan’s not back,” she said, “and I told him to not bother the local lads. He’s bound to be in trouble somewhere.”

Fay thought this was probably true, but didn’t like to add that she was sure Mam hadn’t sent them to Hay for the summer to wander the streets. At home there were stricter rules, but more affection.

At six Ivan still hadn’t appeared, and the macaroni cheese was congealing on the table and in Fay’s stomach, turning into a giant worry ball. There was a boy gone missing, and they were searching the riverbank, and what if something had happened to Ivan too?

As the evening drew on, and Auntie and Uncle and Fay waited for Ivan to come home, the house started to morph around Fay. As her worry ball got bigger and bigger, she imagined she was climbing endless stairs that twisted round into ever smaller rooms, so that eventually, like Alice, she was too big to fit through the doors. She tried going downstairs, wanting to escape the house altogether, but she kept returning to the same place. The black beams started to feel oppressive – like the bones of a ribcage squeezing her heart and the feeling of dread got tighter and tighter. By eight o’clock, Auntie Jean’s anxiety had risen to a pitch, and Uncle Gwynne cracked.

He phoned Sergeant Thomas.

To be continued….

Short Story: The Bookshop

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Hurrah, the wet miserable weather has actually made me be productive today, and I’ve written a short story. Here’s the first bit of the first draft: comments (constructive please) welcome! It’s inspired by a short holiday in Hay-on-Wye.

The Bookshop

When she was very little, Fay had a recurring dream that her house would change when she wasn’t looking. She would turn away for a second, only to find that a door had appeared where there wasn’t one before, sometimes tiny in the skirting board like in Alice in Wonderland, or a staircase that wound up, round and round merry go round, to an otherwise unknown attic. She would clamber up the tight corkscrew steps, eager to explore, to find out if there were fairies or goblins playing, if magic was happening, if an adventure were to be had.

But sometimes in her dream, doors disappeared, leaving her trapped, flailing against solid cold walls. She would wake up sweating and gasping for breath, crying out for her Mam.

It occurred to her now, being all of nine-years-old and much more grown-up than her silly younger self, that her new home much resembled the higgledy piggledy, fairytale house of her dreams.

It was only her home for the summer though, she reminded herself, and gripped her fingers just that little bit tighter.

She was watching Baz the Brush put the finishing touches on the new sign; he wobbled a bit on the ladder as he finished the “S” on the end, but his lines, unlike hers, were straight and sure. She hoped when she was older she’d be able to write so neatly; Miss Jessop was always criticising her handwriting, “like a spider’s had a rave on the page”. Baz climbed down to cross the road and stand with her.

“That’ll do,” he said, “neat and tidy, like.”

Fay grinned. The sign now proudly proclaimed “Tasker’s Books and Antiques” in brilliant white, and not a flake of the old crumbling yellow could be seen. It did make the shop front look much better. When she and Ivan had first arrived, they’d stared in dismay at the rickety old building with its peeling paint and grimy windows. How could Mam send them here? It was dirty! But now, not a ghost of the previous letters could be seen. Rather like her cousin, but she wasn’t supposed to know about that. She knew she had big ears for a girl of nine.

“It looks nice,” Fay said, and was pleased when the man gave her a big smile. He patted her on the head (leaving, she worried for a second, blobs of white in her brown hair). Since she’d arrived a week ago, affection from grown-ups had been a rare thing. Ivan didn’t mind so much as he was twelve and shrugged off hugs and kisses; he just played in the yard with his football and picked fights with the local boys, but Fay was a born worrier, and she worried that her Auntie Jean and Uncle Gwynne didn’t really want them around.

And last night she had the dream again, the bad one, for the first time in ages.

There’s no point moping about it, Fey Fay, she told herself; Mam would say roll up your sleeves and get stuck in, best cure for a worry pain. It’s just that – oh! – there isn’t much to do in Hay if you’re nine-years-old.

She and Ivan had explored the castle but so much of it was cordoned off – unsafe. They’d heard there was a King in the Castle but they hadn’t seen him, despite peering in windows until they were shooed away by a big loud woman. They’d gone down to the river to look for fish but Auntie Jean had shouted at them about that – they might fall in, and then what would their dear Mam do? They’d explored the nooks and crannies of the streets and camped in the Butter Market, until chased off by bigger boys, starting Ivan’s feud. And the shops… well, they were all the same. And Auntie and Uncle’s shop was out of bounds since Ivan pretended to be a ghost and scared the customers. So it was their cramped room or the yard.

Fay was bored. So much so watching Baz re-paint the shop sign was exciting.

Inside the shop however, Baz’s magic had little effect. It was full of piles of clutter in every dingy corner. Ramshackle bookshelves crammed with mildewed old books, chipped crockery and some of the ugliest ornaments Fay had ever seen.  But it was busy; always full of tourists, who browsed in silence and ignored any children pulling gargoyle faces at them from around the shelves. The attic was the best room – up in the eaves it had sloping ceilings and tiny doors, and that’s where Aunt and Uncle had put the childrens’ books and toys. But Fay and Ivan had been banned from there.“These ain’t for playing with,” Aunt Jean had told them sternly. “They’s collectable – you know – for adults. Not for kids.”

Her Uncle had been a children’s author. That’s what her Mam had said. Back when he was younger, when cousin Artie was little. He’d written a children’s book which was nominated for some award but now it was out-of-print and no one read it, and he hadn’t written any others since Artie went. Fay had met children’s authors at school and so thought they were all jolly and fun, so was disappointed that Uncle Gwynne was not. Fay had looked for a copy of his book in the shop but there wasn’t one. She had, however, found a copy in Uncle’s room, when she and Ivan had been messing about. The spine was faded away as if it had sat on a shelf, untouched, for a hundred years. She opened it to the title page.

“A Child’s Book of Nightmares” it read, by A.G. Tasker.

Not the kind of book she wanted to read. She shut it quick.

The building itself bothered Fay too. While Ivan thought its maze of small rooms amusing, she found it confusing. The low beams, small doors and lots of steps leading up and down felt more like the houses in her book of fairy tales than her modern two-bed semi back in Hereford. It was as if the house was built for smaller people, and would adjust itself to their needs. Not modern people. Not people like her.

Baz was clearing up his pots and brushes. She snook inside the front door to see if Samantha was on the till; the young assistant worked some days, and was more tolerant of Fay and Ivan, and might just offer a biscuit.

No luck – it was Uncle Gwynne manning the shop, so she darted past Baz and into the murky interior. Uncle was having a discussion with a customer.

“I can’t believe you don’t have it,” a tall man in a red woolly hat and a Barbour jacket was saying. “It’s a classic, you must have it.”

“Ain’t much call for Christie these days,” her Uncle retorted. “All Mankell and Larsson, see, with a bit of Hayder and Rankin. Gore is what people want now, see.”

“But still…”

“You wanna try Murder and Mayhem, see, up the road. Specialises in crime fiction. We’re general. Try them.”

Uncle sat down and picked up his book, signalling that the conversation was done. The man grunted unhappily, and made a show of rifling through the local authors books showcased on Uncle’s desk – Erskines and Rickmans mainly. Uncle ignored him, and after a few moments the man shouted “George!”, and a young lad appeared from the shelves. They both left, letting the door swing shut behind them, rattling the bookcases.

Fay shrank back into the shelves. Her Uncle was sometimes bad-tempered, and while not nasty to her and Ivan, he had a manner that frightened her. She wondered, somewhat cruelly, if that was why cousin Artie had run away.

Then she remembered that seven-year-olds didn’t run away for real. At least, not very far.

Fay felt rebellious, born of boredom. She crept up the stairs, round and round merry go round, till she reached the forbidden attic room. She wanted to look at the dolls again.

There was an old pram stuffed full of them. All old, not Barbies or Bratz or even Tiny Tears (a baby doll her Mam had had when she was a little girl). There were several that looked like miniature children, all prettified in frilly dresses, with hard faces and red lips. There were soft raggy dolls with the stuffing coming out, grubby and worn. There was a tiny sailor doll, and a policeman doll, but not dressed like a modern policeman. He was her favourite – he had a nice face.

The doll she really didn’t like sat in its own little chair in the corner of the room. Ugly Doll. Naked and bald, it wore a painted smile and had rouged cheeks, but had no hands or feet; it was grotesque, and Fay ignored it.

She didn’t much like the posh dolls either – they reminded her of the Louises at school, the trio of girls that laughed at her wild hair and hand-me-down clothes, and wouldn’t let her play in the playground, but made her stand on one edge and watch all the other children have fun. The soft raggy dolls had funny faces, almost as if they were drawn on; they were loved, she thought, and that’s why they’re scruffy. But it was the policeman she liked best – he made her feel safe. She imagined that he stopped the posh dolls bullying the raggy dolls, when it was quiet and dark after closing time. He kept order, and did the right thing.

Perhaps he’d belonged to Artie.

It was quiet in the attic room; Fay could hear people shuffling about downstairs, and the slight murmur of voices, but because the stairs were steep and tight and the door only four-and-a-half-feet high (Auntie had told them that), not many people ventured into the attic room to explore the toys and childrens’ books. She walked her policeman along the edge of the pram, and whispered in his voice, “Allo allo allo, what’s all this then? I hope you’re all behaving yourselves.” She giggled. “I’ll be having no trouble off you lot, or I’ll be off carting you to the station, and you can spend a night in the cells.” She gave the last word a growl to make it sound menacing. “The cells, don’t you know!” She patrolled him back around the edge.

It was then she thought she heard a whisper. She glanced quickly at the door (noting, with some relief, that it was still there and open) but there were no footsteps on the stairs. She held policeman closer to her head and repeated, in the tiniest voice, “What’s all this then?”

The whisper came again.

She stared at the policeman in her hands. His eyes were smiling. She drew him closer to her face, and held her breath.

As I was going…”

The faintest, most tremulous voice, like an exhalation. “… up the stair,” she heard, she most definitely heard it, “I met a man who…”

Fay froze, disbelieving but wanting to believe so much that the policeman could really talk to her. “…wasn’t there,” came the whisper, so, so faint, but she could hear it, clear and real.

A clatter on the stairs – heavy boots ascending. A browser.

Fay dropped the policeman doll back into the pram, and as a woman in a purple headscarf bent her head through the door, she pushed past and ran down the staircase, round and round merry go round, all the way out through the shop and out into the street, crashing into Baz’s neatly stacked paint pots on the pavement.

To be continued…

Demon Road by Derek Landy

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I’ve missed the phenomenon that is Skulduggery Pleasant, so this was a good opportunity to try a Landy novel. This new series is definitely aimed at an older audience, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Amber is a teen with a bad relationship with her parents. She works part-time at a diner, but one night on her way home she is attacked by two men. Yet she not only fights them off – she does them serious damage. Confused, she heads home where her parents reveal to her the shocking truth – she’s a demon, like them. And what’s worse, in order for them to consolidate their powers, they are going to kill her and eat her.

So Amber does the only thing she can – she goes on the run and does a deal with the devil.demonroad

Accompanied on the Demon Road by enigmatic Milo, driver of a charger with a mind of its own, and by Glen, a garrulous Irish boy who is marked for death, fulfilling her side of the bargain is not going to be easy. Tracking serial killers and monsters across America, the trio encounter some truly scary and gory situations – the doll’s house with its miniaturised dead bodies, the tree witches and their zest for human skin… Deliciously gruesome and very, very violent. And always the threat of her parents right behind her, and the Devil calling in his debt.

This is a relentless road trip novel, packed with dark humour and copious amounts of viscera. It’s pacy and full of action, and very, very readable. I loved Glen’s character and was intrigued by Milo’s dark past, and Amber was an engaging heroine, trying to hold onto her humanity while her demon side lusts for blood. Great fun, and I shall definitely be reading others in the series!

Harper Collins Children’s Books, 2015, ISBN 978-0008140816

Monsters by Emerald Fennell

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Sometimes murder is child’s play….

I read this in one sitting last night and my skin is still crawling – my mind feels slightly disconnected, altered somehow. Don’t let the Blyton-esque cover fool you. This is a dark, deeply disturbing portrait of childhood gone wrong, in the vein of The Wasp Factory and We Need to Talk About Kevin – not for the easily perturbed.monsters

The nameless narrator is a twelve-year-old girl whose parents “got smushed to death in a boating accident when I was nine. Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it.” Sent to live with her true-crime-obsessed Grandma, the girl develops an unhealthy interest in serial killers. Spending the summer with her aunt and uncle who run a crappy hotel in Fowey, Cornwall,  that interest will spiral out of control.

Two exciting things happen that summer. Firstly, the body of a naked woman is hauled out of the sea. Secondly, a thirteen-year-old boy called Miles comes to stay in the hotel. Completely dominated by his vile mother, Miles is unlike other boys, and the girl becomes Miles’s first friend. They quickly discover they share a passion for the macabre, and deciding to investigate the murder (as the police, they agree, are hopeless), the pair show the reader the underside of Fowey – not so much picturesque fishing village, as Royston Vasey by the sea. They also enjoy passing time playing the “murder game”, in which Miles attempts to strangle or drown the girl – a game which hints at the darker turn the story will inevitably take. As their friendship develops, and it becomes clear that a real serial killer is on the prowl, the pressure builds and builds until the children’s repressed emotions break free.

The narration is superb – the girl’s voice is as clear as crystal and utterly compelling. And through her narration we see the truth of things – yes, the children are monstrous, but so are the adults that surround them, who turn blind eyes to the children’s trauma and saturate them with shame. It is little wonder that things turn out the way they do. This is a portrait of how children turn bad, and how society likes to pretend that it happens in isolation – the children must have been “born evil”. The truth is far more disturbing.

Monsters is not for the faint-hearted – it’s ending is very shocking and the themes that it explores are uncomfortable in the extreme. But it’s brave and original, and lingers long in the mind. I really couldn’t put it down – it’s exceptional.

Aimed at a young adult audience, I would recommend this for 14+ to adult; and I think it’s definitely a novel adults should read, as it raises a dark mirror to the way we raise (or fail to raise) our children.

Hot Key Books, 2015, ISBN 9781471404627

The Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman and Midwinter of the Spirit on TV – a personal reaction

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***Warning: contains spoilers***

I make no bones about it, but I have an obsession. Since accidentally discovering the latest title in this series – The Magus of Hay – I went back to the beginning  (The Wine of Angels) and worked my way through all twelve books. Then I did it again. And again. And I’m not the only one – Phil’s Facebook group currently has 1814 members and we’re all equally enthralled by the ongoing story of single mother, vicar and exorcist Merrily Watkins. They’re supernatural crime dramas – an unusual mix of two genres which somehow mesh perfectly in Phil’s prose, in a world so carefully crafted it’s like a second home.

Set in the borderlands of Herefordshire and Wales, Merrily struggles to balance her duties to her parish, her ambivalent interest in the world of the paranormal, and her relationship with her pagan teenage daughter Jane, all the while walking the tightrope of political machinations in both the Diocese and the media. As a woman in a man’s world, and doing a job many see as frivolous, she tries to retain her integrity as well as develop her spirituality. Called in on occasion to help the police with their more unusual cases, her life is anything but ordinary. She’s utterly believable as a character, and makes the whole concept of an exorcist work for even the most sceptical of readers.

Surrounding her are a large cast who are all drawn with such deftness and vitality that you feel like you really know them. Feisty Jane, Merrily’s daughter and environmental activist, is definitely my alter ego! Lol Robinson, Merrily’s cautious lover, is a man locked in his own tormented past, and his efforts to move beyond this are moving indeed. Huw Owen, her exorcist mentor, is wonderfully irascible and ambivalent. Frannie Bliss is the tame, slightly maverick copper whose blood is 95% caffeine (I confess to being slightly in love with Frannie), and Annie Howe is his ambitious and hard-nosed boss, the antithesis of Merrily’s emotional centre. And Gomer Parry , the wild and wily old Welshman and proprietor of a plant hire company, is a brilliant creation – saving the day on his digger on more than one occasion! Everybody needs a Gomer in their life. When he confronted a killer in Lamp of the Wicked, I nearly had a panic attack.

The plots are labyrinthine with endless depths, which is why you can read them over and over again and find new strands that you didn’t see before. They deal with the depths of human nature in all its perversity, and the thread running through all of them is how belief affects human behaviour. Rickman portrays Christianity and Paganism with a real understanding, showing how belief can be both a strength and a weakness, a temptation to evil and a call to compassion. They are anything but sensationalist, treating religion with respect but at the same time exposing the hypocrisy and corruption that can lurk in the heart of any institution or individual.

Phil Rickman’s stories are intelligent and thought-provoking, as well as gripping, shocking and downright addictive. Both the sense of place and character in this series are so strong, it’s not surprising that his fans are so obsessive. He’s a fantastic writer and this series is exceptional – he’s made the cross-genre of supernatural crime entirely his own, and done it with both seriousness and style.

So – to the adaptation of the second novel in the series, Midwinter of the Spirit, which has just finished on ITV. Did it work? I agree with Phil here – a resounding yes.Midwinter

By its very nature a TV adaptation does adapt – and by that read change – a novel. It becomes the interpretation of a story by a new writer, in this case Stephen Volk. It’s never going to by a scene by scene, line by line, literal transcription of a novel into a visual form. What a good adaptation does, is take the essence of a story, re-work it into a new structure that fits a different, episodic, format, and hopefully give it a new life that can be enjoyed by those who both have read the book, and those who haven’t. There are constraints – of timing, budget – and these will affect how large the cast of characters can be, and which elements of the story are left out or reduced. It becomes a distinct piece of creation in its own right – a scion, related but independent. And in my opinion, Stephen Volk did a fantastic job, moulding Rickman’s original material into a gripping drama that captured the spirit of the novel whilst adding intriguing new layers.

David Threlfall as Huw Owen: he simply nailed it – took the character and embodied him fully. In the early scenes he was quite ambiguous – is he on Merrily’s side or not? And this reflects the novel, where the reader isn’t sure who is Merrily’s true ally, Huw or the Bishop.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Merrily was brilliant. She came across as nice but with an edge – she fights back, not in fact the “poodle” that others may think her to be. Her distress as the story unfolds is mesmerising – in the fight scene with Jane in episode two, when she falls to the floor moaning in distress, I felt it. Really felt it. A TV programme can’t get inside the heads of the characters in the same way as a novel, but the whole relationship with her daughter, Merrily’s whole back story, was communicated by the intensity of Anna’s performance.

Lol was re-imagined as a social worker, which makes perfect sense – in the book Lol trained in psychotherapy after his own experiences of the psychiatric system, and in Midwinter is looking after the disturbed Katherine Moon at the request of his psychiatrist, Dick Lyden. Making him a social worker meant that this complicated plot line could be simplified, and allowed Lol to be positioned both as someone who cares and tries to help but also has a legitimate role in the action. Random musician, to a new audience, just wouldn’t work in this regard. Lol is the character that I’ve struggled most to visualise in the novels, but Ben Bailey Smith captured his gentleness, his slight awkwardness, and his determination to do the right thing perfectly (and I think I’m just a little bit in love).

Nicholas Pinnock’s performance as Bishop Mick Hunter was intriguing. Knowing how the story pans out, I was disturbed to find myself really liking him in episode one. And the kiss in episode two…. now that made my skin crawl. But it could so easily be the start of a forbidden romance, and Merrily’s reaction – emotionless, numb – was spot on. Is it abusive, or not? Is she attracted to him? So wonderfully ambiguous. And in the finale, as Mick shows his true self, Pinnock was stunning. I don’t think I dared take a breath at all during that scene on the roof….

Cutting out the Katherine Moon / Dinedor Hill storyline allowed Volk to add an interesting touch of his own. Rowenna becomes the daughter of Denzil Joy, abused by the satanic group (there was no child abuse in the novel) and returning to Herefordshire to bear witness to her father’s death. The family dynamic is disturbed indeed, and contrasts with the dynamic of the Watkins’ family. Denzil and Sean are both dead, and both daughters grieve, while both mothers try to protect their daughters. Rowenna’s “grooming” of Jane becomes even more insidious in this scenario – persuading Jane to reject her mother as she has done, but ultimately preparing to kill Jane as a sacrifice to her father (therefore killing the last bit of innocence and love in herself). Psychologically, it’s fascinating. Merrily’s confrontation with Rowenna, preaching love and ultimately comforting her, worked really well for me in this reimagining of Rowenna’s character. Merrily is the mother Rowenna longs for, hates Jane for having and so tries to destroy their relationship (evil is that simple, so everyday); and Merrily’s compassion is real, showing how love is a more powerful force. It says everything about Merrily that she hugs Rowenna at the end. Leila Mimmack (Rowenna) is definitely an actress to keep an eye on – she had just the right amount of fragility.

Siobhan Finneran as Angela Purefoy is great, oozing malevolence through her glamour. You just know she’s up to no good even though she’s so plausible – of course Jane is taken in by her. As the “other mother” she is both nurturing, alluring and deceitful; a contrast to the mothering expressed by Merrily, who is human in her mistakes. Sally Messham as Jane, a character in the novels that I really identify with, was spot on. Her portrayal of teenage rebellion was utterly believable. As Volk foregrounds the mother-daughter relationship, the multiplicity of these relationships, what makes and what breaks them, is what drives the story onwards. It is the mother that is important here – not the father, not Merrily’s God.

The supernatural elements of Rickman’s books are always quite ambiguous – is it really happening, or is it in the characters’ heads? I think this ambiguity translated well to the screen on the whole. The scritch-scratch scene was genuinely disturbing – I actually flinched, and gripped the arm of my chair. Yet as in the book, it’s such a small movement, so unremarkable by itself. That’s very effective horror – something small but with such impact. Is it a psychic attack, or is Merrily imagining the whole thing? Denzil Joy only ever appears to Merrily, and only when she’s praying; however Episode 2’s cliffhanger (perfect at ensuring the audience will be tuning in the following week) is the only time it hits a slightly off note for me, as the point-of-view feels more that of the audience, rather than Merrily. And it isn’t picked up at the start of Episode 3, which I felt may disappoint some viewers.

So is it clichéd view of good versus evil, of Christianity versus Satanism? There isn’t time in the TV series to provide a nuanced view of different belief systems. But it never infers that paganism equates to Satanism – the bad guys are what they are. In the novel Jane’s quest for an alternative spirituality leads her to the Pod – a vague grouping of women who practice alternative spiritual practices, which is how she meets Angela, although Angela is not a member of the group as such. The novel never really explores paganism – that comes in the first novel, Wine of Angels, through the character of Lucy Devenish, and the third novel, A Crown of Lights, with the characters of Betty and Robin Thorogood, whom Merrily comes to defend and befriend. So for me it’s a non-issue; people will assume what they assume.

My only other comments are that I would have loved more scenes with Annie Howe and Frannie Bliss (Kate Dickie and Simon Trinder) as they are such crucial characters in the series, and more exploration of how and why Bishop Mick became one of the bad guys. I felt perhaps that the casual viewer might have been a little confused by the last episode, as so much happened. But Stephen Volk did a fantastic job of creating a spooky, thought-provoking drama and the cast were all superb. It’s not easy adapting a novel of such complexity into two and half hours of TV, and he really captured the spirit of Rickman’s world. Well done to everyone involved.

The DVD of Midwinter is out on 2nd November. Phil Rickman’s new novel, Friends of the Dusk, is published on 3rd December, and he promises some fallout from the events in Midwinter of the Spirit. My phone will be off the hook for that week.

Call Gomer Parry Plant Hire. I’m moving to the Borders as fast as I can!