“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde (1891)

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“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”

An obsession with looking youthful seems to pervade society, and has done for a long time. I’m fortunate that I don’t quite look my age and can get away with being thought of as a few years younger, but the grey hairs are coming through with increasing regularity and I already make noises when I get out of low chairs and complain about a sore back. But if you could find a way to ensure you never aged, would you take it?

Basil Hallward is an artist who has stumbled upon his greatest muse – the young and handsome Dorian Gray. It is clear he is smitten, although Dorian just sees it as a friendship. While Dorian is sitting for a portrait, he is entertained by the opinions of Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton who shares his belief that hedonism and beauty are the only things worth dealing with in life. By the time the painting is finished, Dorian is horrified by how he will age and wither but the portrait will retain his youth. Now convinced that there is nothing more important than beauty, he wishes that his portrait ages instead of himself.

He falls in love with an actress, Sibyl Vane, but Basil and Henry are both unconvinced by her ability, and when Dorian finds that her poor performance renders him uninterested in her, he cruelly leaves her. When he gets home, however, he notices that the portrait has developed a cruel sneer. When he learns that Sibyl has killed herself in grief, he sees where his life is leading and locks away the portrait. Over the next two decades, he indulges in every vice and immoral activity he can, never aging or losing one iota of his beauty. The painting, meanwhile, has not been so lucky, as every foul act and passing day makes the portrait ever more hideous, taunting Dorian from its hiding place, leading him to wonder if it was all worth it after all.

This is one of those classic novels that has seeped into the public consciousness so we all think we know the story but, like Frankenstein, it turns out some of the details have got lost or been altered by adaptations along the way. I was under the impression that the portrait just held back the years, not that it also took hold of any debauchery and evilness in Dorian’s soul, although I suppose I should’ve twigged given how terrible the portrait looks in visual adaptations. I also could not have named a single other character, but Basil and Henry are both great inventions.

The opening pages dragged a little, I felt, and I didn’t think it sounded much like Oscar Wilde was behind it at all. That is, until the dialogue begins, and then it’s unmistakable, as all his characters sound like him. He has such a great way with dialogue, capturing both deep wisdom and silly witticisms with equal talent. No one else could make a duchess declare, “If I am late he is sure to be furious, and I couldn’t have a scene in this bonnet. It is far too fragile. A harsh word would ruin it.” His people are hilarious, which makes what’s happening in the plot seem all the darker. In The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, the stakes are lower and we can revel in the jokes. Here, they are interspersed with the horrors that Dorian and, to some extent, Basil are dealing with. There are other less interesting passages however, including a whole chapter dedicated to Dorian’s obsession with beauty as he collects gems and tapestries, with great long lists regarding his collection blurring in to one.

Above all, it’s a novel about beauty, youth and obsession, and perhaps contains a warning on overindulging in life’s temptations. It also brings up the Victorian belief that evil makes someone ugly, whereas we all know that appearance can have little effect on your morality. Beauty is so aspired to by many in society, and always has been (even if what is considered beautiful has changed) but the novel shows the obsession that can come from this desire, and how ugly that can be. Hedonism, also, is fine in small doses, but one must be responsible for one’s actions, and as Dorian remains untouched by his cruel and unusual habits, he begins to care less about how he affects other people.

It was Wilde’s only novel, and I do think he writes better for the stage, but also you can see this as him dealing with his own demons. Interestingly, he has apparently written himself into the novel three times over, saying of the primary characters: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” All in all, it’s worth a read and is genuinely quite spooky at times.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

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“Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero (2018)

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“It starts when you pull the lamp chain and light doesn’t come.”

Didn’t we all want to solve crimes as a child? Television and literature alike have always been full of precocious children and teenagers who are able to solve mysteries that leave those who are meant to be solving them stumped. The villains always get their comeuppance and time and again spooky and supernatural premises are shown to have entirely mundane backgrounds. In Edgar Cantero’s second novel, he takes on the genre and wonders: what if it wasn’t quite that easy?

In 1977, the Blyton Summer Detective Club – a group of teenagers made up of Peter, Nate, Andy, Kerri and their dog Sean – stopped the Sleepy Lake monster, who turned out to be yet another greedy, desperate lowlife in a rubber mask who would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. Thirteen years later, the young detectives have grown up but not forgotten their adventures. And the more they try not to think about them, they realise that maybe it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. The events can’t be explained away by a guy in a mask. Something weirder was going on.

The group have changed, however. Tomboy Andy is wanted in two states after she broke out of prison. Kerri was once a child genius but now drinks away her problems in New York, accompanied by Tim, a direct descendant of the original dog. Nate is locked up in an asylum, but still has contact with Peter, which is probably a bit troublesome as he died two years ago. The surviving members of the detective club decide that they can’t hide from their demons any longer and head back to Blyton Hills to finally put to rest the trauma that has haunted them for half their lives. The town has changed and so have they, but the danger remains as real as ever, and they are soon once again meddling in things that no man or beast should ever meddle with.

Although I’m painfully averse to Scooby Doo (it’s entirely irrational, I just never liked the series), I was always a fan of Enid Blyton’s young detectives, and upon reading this you realise who close the two teams were. Both featured two male and two female characters, alongside a dog, and solved crimes that the authorities could never deal with. Here, Cantero updates the concept by throwing the amateur detectives right into an H. P. Lovecraft novel and letting them fight their own way out. The characters are rich and funny, particularly Tim, the dog, who has an enormous amount of personality without ever being overtly anthropomorphised. The humans feel real, despite the unreality of the plot, and are as likeable as they are broken.

Although already very funny despite the horror, the greatest stylistic device is that the book is very self-aware, pointing out its own construction and breaking the fourth wall so naturally that you completely buy into it. Cantero slips in stage directions, title cards, references to the very paragraphs and sentences he’s writing, and at one point even ends a chapter, only to have one of the characters refuse to let it end there and carrying on regardless. He’s also got an absolutely sublime way with words and can turn absolutely anything into a verb or adverb. A character doesn’t “tell” a story, they “once-upon-a-time” it. Jar lids marimba when there’s a tremble underground, and at one point characters see books “lemminging” off the shelf. It’s a masterful grasp of language made all the more impressive when you learn that his first language is Spanish. Like Douglas Adams, he makes you realise what words are actually capable of. I’m jealous.

If you grew up on The Famous Five, Scooby Doo or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is the book for you.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Fog” by James Herbert (1975)

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“The village slowly began to shake off its slumber and come to life.”

Fog is one of the strangest weather formations the planet throws up. Sure, when you get down to basics, it’s pretty much just a low-lying cloud. Nonetheless, fog stirs up the primal fear – that of the unknown. Fog shrouds our view of the world and has led to numerous disasters throughout history, from ships running aground on rocks, to lives being lost in wars when views are suddenly obscured. It’s not alone, as there are also its sisters smog (smoke and fog, creating the infamous peasoupers of London) and vog (volcanic ash and fog). But it’s that primal fear I mentioned that we can’t get away from. Nothing is always scarier than something, and who knows what might be lurking in that dense mist, so close but invisible.

In The Fog, it’s not quite clear what the titular mist is. When a large crack in the ground opens up in a village in Wiltshire, a yellowish vapour rises from the fissure and sets off across the countryside. At first people think nothing much of it, just noting its strange colour, but it soon turns out that anyone who gets caught in the fog … changes. At a school, pupils mutilate one of their teachers. In a church, a priest exposes himself to his parishioners. On a farm, a herd of cows trample their owner. When the fog reaches Bournemouth and manages to convince the entire town to walk down to the sea and drown itself, the police and the government know that whatever they are dealing with is unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

The only hope now, it seems, is John Holman, the only person in the country who has been exposed to the fog and cured of its insanity-inducing properties. Given the unenviable task of getting close enough to the fog to get a sample so that a cure can be manufactured to save everyone else before they kill themselves or one another, Holman sets about doing so with guidance from scientists and politicians. However, he’s also got to deal with his beloved Casey, who has also been infected by the fog, and time may be running out, as the fog now seems to be on its way to London…

The scenario Herbert dreams up here isn’t actually scary in itself, as the chance of a malicious, mind-altering fog coming into existence seems slim. However, what the fog actually is never gets adequately explained, so the sense of unease does hang around. It’s very possible it’s an example of biological warfare that has been accidentally released during a bomb test, but it could so easily be something much more otherworldly and sinister. The true horror here lies in how those who have been affected react. It brings out base animalistic tendencies, some people changing immediately and others taking hours to succumb, and most people immediately want to kill and torture. Many kill themselves, either jumping from windows or throwing themselves into water, but many more set about killing their loved ones and strangers in increasingly gory ways.

The novel frequently leaves Holman and his associates to show us how “normal” people are being affected, and Herbert does this well by fully fleshing out each character with a few pages of backstory before the fog interrupts their lives. This is never invasive, and makes us care about the characters we’re seeing die, even if they’re not all pleasant. One man, for example, is shown as being a drunk and a terrible husband but it’s still a shock when his racing pigeons, returning home through the fog, gang up and kill him. Another man, in one of the book’s lighter moments, feels no compulsion stronger in his insanity than a desire to kick everyone’s backsides.

A chilling and very dark novel that explores how quickly society can fall, what measure any of us are sane, and how we must deal with death.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“What The Hell Did I Just Read” by David Wong (2017)

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“It rained like we were a splatter of bird shit God was trying to hose off his deck.”

Not for the first time, I’ve stumbled into a series in progress, but it didn’t seem to matter so much here. David Wong has been on my radar for years thanks to his novel John Dies at the End, which I’ve always found an intriguing title but I’ve never got round to reading. Instead, assuming this was a standalone, I’ve somehow skipped ahead to the third book in the series, crashing headfirst into a world that would terrify Stephen King and greatly amuse Douglas Adams. Strap yourself in.

John, Dave and Amy have just fled from Them. They’re not entirely sure what it is They wanted, but at a guess it’s the vial Amy has just tossed into the river. Not long after, John and Dave receive a call about a missing child, but the circumstances surrounding it are above the pay grade of any of the police and seem much more in the line of these two, who specialise in the unusual, the supernatural and the downright weird. The child, Maggie, appears to have been abducted by a seedy character, but no one can agree on what he looked like or if he even existed.

As the three seek out the missing girl, they learn that another child has gone missing too, this time from a trailer park. When the boy turns up in Dave’s apartment, claiming that it was Dave who abducted him, things are only going to get worse. Our heroes find themselves dealing with a collection of creatures that can alter memory and perception, allowing them to hide in plain sight and causing you to forget they even exist a split second after you were looking directly at them. More children disappear, but there’s some debate as to where they’ve gone, and John and Dave are convinced they need another sample of their special “Soy Sauce” that helps them to see the supernatural. It’s a shame they threw their last vial into the river. As the body count rises, shady organisations close in on the town, and a creature dubbed the BATMANTIS??? goes from being an urban legend to a terrifying reality, the story heads down a very dark path indeed…

I can only assume the previous books in the series are of a similar vein, and perhaps I’d have got more from it had I read them, but it doesn’t seem to need much in the way of backstory. The characters are introduced with enough detail to give you an idea of who they are, and the narration shifts from Dave’s first person tale to events in the third person from Amy and John. All three characters have distinctive voices. Amy’s parts focus on the feelings and emotions of the characters, are much more empathetic and contain no swearing, while John’s are hyperbolic, over-exaggerated and frequently laced with sex and gratuitous violence. As such, it helps add to the confusion of the story. We’re never totally sure what’s going on, who we’re meant to believe, or if anyone is worth believing at all.

Wong’s imagination is quite something. There are some creatures straight out of the darkest pits of horror here, and I do have to worry a little about his sanity. While the book is genuinely hilarious and full of great one-liners and stupid gags, it’s also scary as all hell. It’s laced not only with supernatural creatures with uncanny abilities and too many teeth, but also with genuine horrors of human child-snatchers, and the terror of losing your mind. It’s a world that’s easy to immerse yourself in thanks to the conversational style and constant action, but afterwards you just feel like you immersed yourself in a tepid swamp rather than a bubble bath.

Wong weaves plot points together neatly, too, with things that seem trivial and inserted just for a cheap gag later becoming pivotal. It does all tie up pretty neatly by the end – although the gaps I have might, again, just be because I’ve not read the earlier ones – but it’s the sort of book that you allow some things to keep hanging. After all, we still don’t really know what happened…

I don’t know what the hell I just read, but it was very good nonetheless.

“Penpal” by Dathan Auerbach (2012)

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“When I was younger, I took a job at a deli that had what the owner called an ‘ice cream buffet’.”

I’ve never been involved in Reddit, and to be honest, I still only have a vague idea of how the website functions, but one aspect that has become well known to me is the area of it dedicated to creepy stories. Some of the best are their “two sentence horror stories”. If you’ve never encountered these, then you can find a selection here, but be warned that they’re pretty good at sending a shiver up the spine. I mention this because it turns out that Penpal was inspired by a horror story on Reddit that Dathan Auerbach converted into a full-length novel. And boy does it retain it’s creepy beginnings. Read on with caution.

Our nameless hero is trying to piece together some memories from his childhood. It all began with a school project that went awry. Every five-year-old in the class had to release a helium balloon into the sky with their name and the address of the school attached to begin a “pen pal” relationship with someone in their community. But as the days go on and he gets no reply, our hero wonders if anyone got it at all. Until one day a response comes, but it’s just a single, blurry Polaroid. Then another one arrives. And another. And almost fifty more. So many, in fact, that he stops looking at them. But then one day he decides to take a look again and notices something shocking.

He’s in all of them.

Revealing all to his mother, she sets about protecting him from a potential threat, but there are more memories coming forward now. He remembers waking up in the woods by his house with no memory of how he got there. He remembers his best friend Josh, and the unfortunate distance that grew between them. He remembers the kitten that used to hide in the crawlspace of their house. And he remembers the terrible accident. Finally confronting his mother about it all now he’s an adult, he learns more and soon the memories begin to make sense, but perhaps it would simply have been better to forget…

This book is utterly chilling. The fact that someone is out there taking photos of a small child – and then sending them to him, no less – is terrifying enough, but all the other things that happen just make it so much worse. It’s more polished and much longer than the usual horror stories like this that gather in the cracks online – and, to be fair, some of those are excellently written already – and Auerbach laces with incredible precision a sense of unease throughout. At times you can see where it’s going, but it doesn’t soften the blow, merely makes it worse when the inevitable finally happens. I can’t even get enraged that the children don’t sound like children, because I was so involved that it didn’t matter. It just works.

For anyone who likes horror or a good thriller, this is definitely one to read, but I don’t recommend reading this one at night or in a forest – and if you decide to read it in a forest at night, then I’ve no option but to have you committed. A brilliantly executed piece of tension.

“Misery” by Stephen King (1987)

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“umber whunnnn”

While hardly the most uplifting novel on my shelf, I found myself drawn to Stephen King. Maybe the title reflected my mood this last week or so, and it certainly hasn’t helped change that. And yet I’m actually not really complaining, because I think even if I’d been the happiest man on the planet, Misery would’ve brought me down a peg or six. When he’s bad, he’s really bad, but when he’s good, there’s no arguing with the fact that King is one of the planet’s finest writers.

Paul Sheldon has been pulled from the wreckage of his car on a lonely, snow-covered mountain road by Annie Wilkes, a woman who lives in an isolated cabin and claims to be his number one fan. She is particularly fond of his Misery series, and the fifth instalment is released while Paul is under her care. However, when she discovers that Paul ended the book by killing Misery off, she’s not happy. In fact, she’s livid.

Paul, however, is reliant on her care, as his legs are broken and it’s clear she hasn’t told anyone else that he’s there. Annie comes up with a plan – Paul must save Misery from the grave and write Annie her very own novel. If he doesn’t, well, Annie will punish him. Soon, Paul learns the truth about Annie’s past, and he realises that he’s in a lot more danger than he first thought. He’s now writing to save his life…

The novel’s real genius comes from the fact that it manages to remain captivating despite having, for the most part, just two characters and a single room as the setting. While not an out-and-out horror, it’s horrifying enough and serves as one of the most interesting thrillers I’ve ever read. Even if you’ve seen the film and think you know what’s going to happen, it’s worth reading because from what I’ve picked up, there are some huge differences. Annie is a stunningly vile creation who appears to have no redeeming features whatsoever, and yet King still ensures you feel some kind of pity for her, or maybe that’s just me being a bit more sociopathic than is normal. Paul’s characterisation flips between him being quite weak and easily cowed, but also determined, and yet it still somehow works. His goal is self-preservation, and he goes about it however he can.

The novel is also in many ways a discussion on the art of writing. Someone wiser than me described it as the book King wrote to stop other people becoming writers, and you can see why. If I was famous to the degree of Paul, I’d definitely be looking over my shoulder for my “number one fans”. There is talk within of the use of deus ex machinas in storytelling, with it all being explained in interesting detail. It’s notable that King has said the book was based around his experiences with drug addiction, with Annie representing his addiction and Paul being himself, struggling with withdrawal and dependence. Many aspects of the novel can be seen as allegorical, such as Annie removed or destroying parts of Paul’s body being a metaphor for writers having to edit their work and cut away bits that they liked.

As I said, maybe this isn’t the right book to read when you’re already not feeling your perkiest, but it’s nonetheless a really good read. Claustrophobic and scary, despite the insanity of the action it somehow remains far too real and none of it actually feels too far fetched, which perhaps makes the whole concept even worse. A fascinating look at mental illness, addiction, and, perhaps oddly, the power that literature has over people. Possibly, despite everything else, I believe that Misery is a love letter to books and writers, although one written in blood on the back of an overdue utility bill.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Breakfast With The Borgias” by D. B. C. Pierre (2014)

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“Technology is the way, the truth and the life.”

I was probably attracted to this book by the title. Although I really don’t know very much about the Borgias, as a family dynasty I find them oddly magnetic, and most of that is due to their bloodthirsty reputation that has passed down through the centuries. A rotten lot; the father bribed his way to become Pope, his son was the real life version of Machiavelli’s Prince, and his daughter was famous as a poisoner. And yet they still all seem to be slightly more pleasant than the characters herein.

Zeva Neely is stood on a train platform in Amsterdam, waiting for the arrival of her teacher and lover, Ariel Panek. When he doesn’t show, and makes no attempt to get in touch with her to explain his lateness, she begins to worry, but has no choice but to make her way to the hotel. Ariel, meanwhile, is stuck in a taxi in Suffolk, on his way to a guesthouse. The fog has enveloped Britain so thickly that planes are all grounded and he’s going to have to spend the night in The Cliffs Hotel, the only place for miles around.

Once there, Ariel is still unable to get any phone signal and has to ask the other residents of the hotel whether he can borrow their phone. But the family present here, the Borders, are there to acknowledge a death in the family, and they make for a very odd bunch. Margot is confined to a wheelchair and has the air of a Hollywood starlet. Leonard is convinced that his plan to turn his pub into a working museum will be a success. Jack is glued to his game console. Olivia is young, beautiful and broken, but seems more sane than anyone else in the building.

But it’s only when Ariel meets Gretchen that he realises something is really wrong about this place. He has to get out, and fast.

Billed as a horror novel as part of the Hammer portfolio of novels to compete with the classic “Hammer horror” films, I’ve first got to say that the book lacks any real sense of what it’s clearly going for. I’ve tagged it appropriately to be kind, but while there are several words I could use to describe it – “creepy”, “claustrophobic”, “commonplace” – I’d never really consider this a horror novel. Actually, truth be told I hadn’t even realised it was until I got to the end.

The twists are signposted so much that when they arrive there’s not so much a sense of shock and release of tense build-up as a shrug which makes you go, “Yeah, obviously.” I wrote a short story myself a couple of years ago (not one that has ever troubled a publisher, mind) which had a weirdly similar premise, involving a man lost in the wilderness and finding himself in the only inhabited place for miles around. Although the endings were starkly different, it wouldn’t have taken much to have given either of these the other ending.

The trouble is that to make a book really ramp up the drama, you have to give a shit about the main characters and feel their jeopardy as you go. As it is, Ariel isn’t an especially engaging protagonist. The first chapter isn’t even from his point of view, and by the end of that I’d already decided I didn’t like him. He’s also partial to declaring what twists are happening, leaving the reader with no chance to work things out for themselves.

It’s an interesting idea, but executed poorly. Sinister environments, creepy characters but lacking any real tension.

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