The House of a Hundred Whispers is set in Allhallows Hall, a rambling Tudor mansion on the edge of Dartmoor. After the death of its master, Dartmoor Prison’s former governor Herbert Russell, his estranged children gather to inherit the estate. But within hours of arriving in the spooky old house, five-year-old Timmy has vanished without a trace. A sumptuously designed hardcover with a picture of those desolate moors, anyone picking this book up would expect a haunted-house story in the classic mould, and that’s certainly where it starts. However, Masterton’s tale veers off in a series of smartly and sharply executed swerves, and ends up in a very different place – less The Haunting of Hill House, more The Exorcist or 2018’s Here Comes Hell.
Bird Box depicted the outside world becoming a dangerous place, filled with creatures which drive humans mad when perceived. In this direct sequel, the creatures are still very much here; Malorie and her children, Tom and Olympia, live safely amongst other survivors at a school for the blind. But in Malorie’s visceral opening scene, the madness – and the creatures – break in, and they are forced to flee once more. Ten years on, Malorie has raised the teenaged Tom and Olympia to “live by the fold” (the blindfold) and follow the strict rules which have allowed them to survive so far. The children don’t always agree with her – and neither does the rest of the world.
The Only Good Indians deals – with a dream-like sense of inevitability – with the fall-out from a hunting trip gone wrong. Ricky, Lewis, Cass and Gabe are four very different Blackfeet men, born and raised on the reservation, taking their last opportunity to hunt together that season. But the elk are all in the section of forest reserved for the elders, and they transgress, crossing the boundary and shooting wild-eyed with “buck fever” at an enormous herd. In the frenzy, Lewis kills a yellow-eyed and pregnant female elk who seems to refuse to die; he forms a connection to her. The trip costs them dearly – losing their rights to hunt on reservation land – and, ten years on, Lewis struggles with a profound sense of guilt.
A Cosmology of Monsters takes pains to warn its readers up-front that “happy endings” and other narrative conventions don’t apply to real life. The novel swerves and ducks reader expectations throughout – sometimes in ways that dazzle, sometimes in ways that are profoundly frustrating. While the book’s headers are taken from Lovecraft, and his influence hovers over the work (including a beautifully-realised eldritch location, the City), Hamill wants to explore the way horror fiction, haunted houses and monsters intersect with family life. It’s a bold mission and creates a book which I suspect readers will either love or hate.
Survivor Song was written before the coronavirus pandemic: this feels inconceivable. Within the first few pages, we’re plunged into an all-too-familiar scene from the confusion of lockdown. What does the government’s guidance even mean? Should we listen to everything we hear on Facebook about the virus? There’ll be several hours’ worth of queues at the grocery store, and our protagonist – Natalie – has already stress-eaten all the candy in the house. Tremblay’s novel places us in a nightmare vision of 2020, in which New England is caught up in a 28 Days Later-like “rage virus”, and we’re in the twitchy-curtained first few days of the outbreak.
Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis comes beautifully packaged in a VHS-style slipcover with a faux rating/advisory (“nerve-shredding tension, nail-biting thrills”); the book itself is styled as a VHS cassette. Something of an odd choice for contemporary YA, where – notwithstanding the recent boom in 80s nostalgia – a large part of the target audience may never have played a VHS tape. But with its darkly satisfying tale of a controlling and obsessive horror auteur, a town stuck in its past as a 1920s film set, and the secrets of generational abuse, Harrow Lake is a compulsively readable treat for horror fans of all ages.
Beneath the Rising, Premee Mohamed’s debut novel, sets up its world in the first few pages: one in which the hijacked planes missed the World Trade Centre on 9/11 and Johnny Chambers – a fantastically wealthy science prodigy – has cured HIV and Alzheimer’s and owns a mad Bond villain’s lair of a house with a Pacific giant octopus in a tank. But it’s also an immediately recognisable one, as Nick (our protagonist, Johnny’s childhood friend and Loyal Sidekick) describes the sideways glances he gets as a “brown”-looking Canadian, and his ten-hour shift stacking shelves before falling asleep on the couch. It’s the perfect blend of speculative elements and a carefully grounded examination of privilege, class, gender and race – and that’s before the evil inter-dimensional Ancient Ones show up, woken by Johnny’s infinite energy machine, bent on conquering Earth for a final time.
Eden by Tim Lebbon conjures up what you’d get if you crossed Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation with the lurid “creature feature” paperbacks of the 70s and 80s: a world in which eco-politics and the unchecked powers of nature have created a hostile environment for humans, stalked by blood-thirsty animal predators and the living forest itself.
Francine Toon’s debut novel Pine opens with a young girl and her father driving on a darkened country road in the Scottish Highlands. They’re heading to the nearest settlement – a tiny collection of houses – to go “guising”, or trick-or-treating. Among the surrounding trees, they see a lone figure in a white dressing gown. This apparition haunts the following story, coming as close as young Lauren’s own fireside – where the lady in white is a hideous night-hag, barefoot, moving oddly, incapable of eating, wiping herself from the memory of any adult that encounters her – but otherwise seen in glimpses, as the weird and supernatural hovers over every aspect of Lauren’s childhood.
A Lush and Seething Hell brings together – in The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky and My Heart Struck Sorrow – two very different novellas located within the “found history” tradition.
“I am fucking jealous as fuck of John Hornor Jacobs” – Chuck Wendig, foreword