“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.

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“Don’t Let Go” by Michel Bussi (2017)

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“I’m just going up to the room for a second.”

I’ve never been one for travel or holidays where one sits by the pool or on the beach for hours at a time. If I’m somewhere new, I like to explore the museums and landscape. Some reading time is, of course, essential, but there’s only so much time you can spend laying in the sun in my opinion. However, despite the heatwave that ravaged the northern hemisphere for much of the last few months, the last week or so has been wet and chilly, so a beach might be a decent idea. Without the time or funds to take off to one, however, I instead hid myself inside a novel set on the sunny shores of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. However, this is a book, so there’s naturally trouble in paradise.

While enjoying a family holiday on the beautiful resort of Saint-Gilles, Liane Bellion goes to her hotel room for a moment leaving her husband Martial and daughter Sopha by the pool. When she hasn’t returned after an hour, Martial goes to find her, but all he finds is a locked room. When it’s opened, there’s no one inside, but no one ever saw her leave. The police are called and Martial is initially worried about the incident, but after a couple of days when Liane hasn’t returned, he grabs Sopha and the pair go on the run across the island, evading the police at every turn.

Things look worse when another body shows up, and Martial’s fingerprints are all over the weapon. Who is he, and what is he running from?

Honestly, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the story. The premise is great – a locked room mystery is always good fun – but I never properly clicked with any of the characters or their motives. Martial Bellion is a confusing character, at times a terrified husband but simultaneously a master criminal with the ability to outrun an entire police force. While some characters have motives that make sense, Martial’s aren’t always clear and even when everything is explained at the end, it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense. Sopha, the six-year-old daughter, too, is irritating, as her narration is entirely unconvincing and makes her seem much older than she is.

The novel is unfortunately also heavily reliable on deus ex machina, with particular clues being revealed or unlikely coincidences happening on at least four occasions that I can think of. Being surrounded by police just as thick fog envelops you and allows you to escape? Please. It’s all a shame really, because my friend was hugely positive about the novel, but for me none of it stacked up. It is interesting to learn more about the culture and people of Réunion, however, as it’s an island I’m unlikely to ever visit, and some of the descriptions of the landscape are fascinating and give the reader an image of a land that seems almost otherworldly.

The book had such potential, but there were threads left hanging, a somewhat hurried denouement, and a cast of characters none of whom ever really sparkled for me. Nice to spend a bit of time in the sun, but my TripAdvisor review would leave a lot to be desired.

“The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon (2014)

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“On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.”

Genuinely, I can’t remember the last time I used a paper dictionary. I’m just about old enough to recall them still being used occasionally in schools, but already it seems all children are issued with computers or tablets at school and so the entire of human knowledge is at their fingertips and they don’t need a separate dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and so on. For years now there’s long been a fear that the printed word will cease to be a thing as we all move into a world dominated by screens. Hell, I wrote an essay at university about the impending death of the novel, but it’s been ten years and it’s not gone anywhere yet. (To my credit, my essay argued strongly that the novel wasn’t dying, so I think I win and I’d like my grade revised, please.) However, one cannot deny the extraordinary rise of technology and how it has affected us, and Alena Graedon’s novel The Word Exchange takes the concept to the logical conclusion.

Sometime in the near future, books, libraries and newspapers are all but wiped out. No one sends letters or hand writes anything now, mostly due to the Meme, a handheld device that, while never accurately described, seems to serve all the functions of an iPad and Alexa combined. A Meme can hail taxis, place your order in a restaurant, phone your friends, and interact with external technologies all at the touch of a button – or something, the twitch of a synapse. Most importantly, you can now read everything you’d ever need on it, and if you’ve forgotten what a word means, you can buy a definition for just two cents a time. People are beginning to forget words, and they don’t even realise.

In New York, the final edition of the English dictionary is being printed, with Douglas Johnson, his daughter Anana, and the shy lexicographer Bartleby Tate hard at work. But then Doug goes missing, and Anana is left to find out what’s happened to him, with only a single clue to guide her: the handwritten word, ALICE. Determined to prove that her father is still alive and that something dreadful hasn’t happened, she sets out to find him through his friends. But things are not going so well. The new upgrade to the Meme, the Nautilus, is due to be released and it seems that many people coming into contact with the new technology is becoming sick. A computer virus has become organic and people begin to forget words and replace them with neologisms that until recently never existed. As language breaks down, the virus spreads, and the United States begins to collapse, Anana is on a race against time to find her father, but first she has to deal with shady secret organisations, a hidden code, underground passages and a conspiracy that threatens the thing she’s worked for her whole life. The dictionary is dying – and Anana doesn’t want to follow it.

As someone who thrives on words and language and considers them possibly our greatest invention, the ideas presented here are shocking and bleak. You can see the beginnings of this world happening today, but here it’s all turned up to eleven and we see what happens when we become too reliant on emerging technology, which some could say we already have. The novel’s key gimmick is the inclusion of word aphasia, which is a genuine condition that leads to an inability to comprehend and use language. Here, an addictive game on everyone’s devices allows them to make new words and give them definitions. These are then voted on by the public and the ones with most “likes” enter the vocabulary. As more and more arrive, people begin to get more stupid, and then they don’t realise that they’re even using nonsense words. Bart suffers quite badly from it, and so the chapters that come from his journal are often a struggle to get through due to the continued replacement of ordinary words with new ones. By the time his aphasia is at its peak, almost every sentence contains at least one example: “When I stood zyot, he’d come closer and was blasking a light in my face”, or “A zast under my door a little more than a week ago while I shwade in the bedroom in a mase, trippy, fever-sleep, vistish I was hearing things.” You get the gist of what he’s saying, but it isn’t half disconcerting.

In general, it’s vastly unnerving. As I said, we never get a clear idea of what this technology is or how it came into existence. This works to great effect, as nothing is always scarier than something. It’s also implied to not very far into the future, but there’s also the suggestion that this is an alternative timeline to ours, otherwise things went off the rails really quickly. Compelling, but written by someone who loves words and isn’t afraid to use six long ones when two short ones will do, it’s a horrifying insight into a future we may be stumbling into, showing what happens when we start messing with technology that we don’t understand.

“The Place That Didn’t Exist” by Mark Watson (2016)

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“They had left Heathrow on a morning so gloomy it could have passed for dusk, and now ten hours later it was the opposite: a blue-purple night that felt like day.”

For both the reasons that I don’t care much for travel anyway, and that my Scottish ancestry means my tan is a lovely shade of tomato ketchup, Dubai has never much appealed to me as a destination. Building a city in the desert may have worked for Las Vegas, but the UAE is undoubtedly a more conservative country, and there doesn’t seem to be a year go by without a Westerner being thrown in jail or threatened with execution for doing something that goes against the moral standards of Dubai. It feels like an odd place, and Mark Watson emphasises that enormously in his novel, The Place That Didn’t Exist.

Tim Callaghan is a junior creative at an advertising company who has been flown out to Dubai to assist in the filming of a new ad campaign for poverty charity, WorldWise. He is hypnotised by the city with perma-blue skies, the world’s best customer service, and buildings that look like they’ve been dropped from the future into the early 21st century. He, like many visitors, comes to believe that everything here runs so perfectly that nothing could possibly go wrong.

However, this belief is quickly removed when a few days later one of the crew is found dead in his hot tub, and the surrounding circumstances are more than a little mysterious. In fact, Tim suddenly realises that he doesn’t know anything that’s going on. He keeps hearing snatches of conversation that suggest there are secrets hidden that he doesn’t know about, and absolutely everyone is on edge, even before the death. Soon, Tim feels Dubai is turning against him, and he comes to the slow realisation that everything seems too good to be true because it is.

I’m familiar with Watson’s work as a comedian, and I suppose I expected something in a similar tone with his novels. As it is, this feels a very different beast indeed, which is by no means a complaint, merely a lovely realisation that he’s even more talented than I first thought. It’s not a particularly funny book, although there are some amusing scenes, particularly featuring the sweet but slightly hapless Tim trying to deal with conflicting slang and people who treat advertising like they’re curing cancer, but it is very engaging. The world gets under your skin, tickling that part of your reptile brain that knows something is wrong, but you can’t work out what it is. It’s set in 2008, during the global financial crash, so things in Dubai are even more precarious, as the people and money that all flooded in are beginning to seep away again.

The charity Tim is working for is one that is trying to expose the vast gulf of inequality that separates the rich from the poor, and this is a theme that appears throughout the novel. The world created for tourists and the very wealthy Emirati is being serviced, cleaned and kept afloat by society’s poorest, some of whom are technically not even apparently considered human under UAE law due to their nationality. Dubai has created a “perfect world” that is eerie in its perfection, where nothing is quite what it seems and once you scratch the surface, you discover it’s just a veneer. The setting, plot and characters all reflect one another in these terms, and you can never be fully sure how you’re meant to feel about anything or anyone.

Creepy, insidious and unreal, but very, very good.

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 80% of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“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.

“The Escape” by C. L. Taylor (2017)

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“Someone is walking directly behind me, matching me pace for pace.”

I got through my two festive books this year long before Christmas had even begun, which put me in the strange position of reading a tense psychological thriller on Christmas Day – the moods didn’t match in the least. Did it contribute to Boxing Day melancholy? Or is that just tiredness and the inability to move after doubling my body weight in chocolate? Maybe we’ll never know. Anyway, C. L. Taylor was a new one on me, and it’d been a while since I read a book like this, so always good to shake things up.

Jo Blackmore is walking back to her car after work one night when she realises there is someone behind her. This woman, Paula, catches up to her and asks for a lift home, but she seems to know far more about Jo and her family than is normal. She knows her husband, where they live, and she has a glove belonging to Jo’s two-year-old, Elise. Paula gives a subtle threat and Jo is terrified, rushing to pick Elise up from nursery and getting her back home safe.

But home doesn’t seem to safe anymore. Paula keeps turning up, her threats becoming more blatant. She claims that Jo’s husband, Max, stole something from her and she wants it back. Max says he’s never met Paula in his life – she must be a relative of someone he framed in his role as a crime journalist. Things get worse when the police arrive on Jo’s doorstep with a warrant to search the premises, and find drugs in the toilet cistern. Following her arrest, social services are soon involved, and even Max now doesn’t believe that Jo is capable of looking after Elise. Everyone is against her, so all Jo can do is run. But sometimes you can’t escape…

Like many thrillers, it’s formulaic. Several standard cliches are present, such as the uncertainty of what the antagonist wants, and chapters from their point of view, giving away more information than the protagonist knows. While Jo is the only character who has chapters written in the first person, we do we insights from several other figures, but they’re all written in third person, so we can never really truly know what’s going on inside their head. Jo is painted as an agoraphobic with a supposed drug problem. This feels similar to The Girl on the Train, in which someone’s personal problems mean that they aren’t trusted.

While it’s a zippy plot, and I was caught up in it, I have to admit that the whole thing relies heavily on two things: coincidence and stupidity. The general rule, as I’ve heard (and played with) for writing is that only coincidences that lead to further problems are allowed. Here, people stumble into one another and while it works organically enough, it still feels a little too contrived. I also feel that Jo exacerbates her problems too much. Sure, I get that if she didn’t then there’s no novel, but realistically she over-reacts and simply digs herself deeper. Also, as a supposed agoraphobic, suddenly getting on a ferry and moving to Ireland doesn’t feel particularly fitting. Her personality would suggest that, despite the fear she has of living at home, it would have been far more plausible for her to be too scared to leave, and simply changing the locks.

Good enough as pure entertainment, but very little we haven’t seen before.

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.

“Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea” by Adam Roberts (2014)

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“On the 29th June, 1958, the submarine vessel Plongeur left the French port of Saint-Nazaire under the command of Capitaine de vaisseau Adam Cloche.”

The oceans of the Earth remain the last unexplored frontier of the planet. Humanity has always been sort of captivated by the seas, but also terrified of them, and often reluctant to play around with them too much. We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the ocean floors. What is lurking down there, we can only guess. Every so often a craft descends as deep as possible and brings back photos and videos of alien creatures and whole ecosystems that have never known the sun or the sky. But what if, as Adam Roberts proposes in his book, the ocean is perhaps much deeper than we thought?

It’s 1958, and France and India have teamed up to build France’s first nuclear submarine, Plongeur. Unfortunately, on its maiden voyage, something goes wrong with the vents and the sub begins to sink far deeper than the crew had planned for. And then it keeps going, and going, and going, and going…

Reaching a depth that defies the laws of physics in any number of ways, the crew have many questions. Why haven’t they been crushed by the water pressure? Where are all those breezes coming from? How can they reverse Plongeur‘s direction and head back home? When the sub seems to reach a depth that is even greater than the Earth’s diameter, things become desperate.

Trapped and sinking ever lower, the twelve men on board the ship begin to turn on one another, each with an apparently different motive and idea as to how they should solve this problem. Madness and violence set in, as they wonder if this ocean even has a bottom, and if it does, what they’re going to do once they get there…

The suspense builds nicely, and as the characters begin to turn against one another, it becomes difficult to quite know who to root for, giving us an extra layer of confusion. Only a few of the characters are particularly distinct, with some of the minor sailors merging into one. Alain Lebret, who is a non-military observer becomes quite important and it’s not always clear where his morals lie. I also enjoyed Captain Cloche, who doesn’t want to know what’s going on because his mission is to get home and that’s all he can focus on, and Jean Billiard-Fanon, the ensign, is engaging if entirely mad.

Each chapter is also accompanied by a very beautiful illustration, one of which is on the left, here. They are very simple and really show very little, but the emotion they convey is spot on and very deep. There’s an intensity to them that’s very captivating, and they don’t interfere with the story at all, just give you a better grasp of what’s going on. I like a book with a couple of pictures, and they really help present the weirdness of the situation and the vastness of the oceanscape.

Without giving too much away, there is a resolution and it’s quite a good one too in it’s own way, but as always with these things “nothing is scarier than something”, so as soon as you find out what’s going on, it loses its edge. The greatest scenes are those that focus on the submarine’s descent, as well as the growing madness among the crew. And then it all basically ends on a particularly laboured pun which made me laugh and groan simultaneously like nothing else has for a long time, and I include all the scripted jokes on The Great British Bake Off in that..

But don’t let that put you off. It’s worth reading and a really tense, engaging story of claustrophobia, insanity and fear. One thing’s for sure, you’ll think twice about getting in the water next time you go to the beach, and it won’t just be the cold putting you off.

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.

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