Book Review: The Atomics

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“He knew he was feeling terrible because he wasn’t getting enough radiation. If he wanted to feel strong again, to have that same energy as when he had pummelled that stupid boy, he would have to replenish his supply. Top himself up, as it were.”

The world’s first nuclear power station to generate electricity for its nation’s grid started operations in 1954 at Obninsk in the Soviet Union. Other countries soon followed suit. The UK opened Calder Hall at Windscale in 1956. By 1968, when this story is set, there were ten operational nuclear power plants connected to the UK’s commercial grid.

The Atomics focuses on a community of scientists, engineers and supporting staff brought in to operate and manage a newly built power station on the Suffolk coast. The protagonist, Frank Banner, is a talented Chemistry graduate – educated at Cambridge – who believes nuclear energy is the future of clean and efficient power. Unlike many of his co-workers, he has no fear of contamination. Indeed, he believes low levels of radiation can be beneficial.

Frank has a troubled past. His father was a farmer and a brutal man who regularly beat his wife and only child. Frank’s mother had psychiatric issues and committed suicide when he was eighteen years old. The boy idolised her and hated his father. Frank believes young women deserve protection from self-entitled and predatory men.

The story opens in Oxford where Frank has narrowly escaped a prison sentence for savagely attacking a boy. The boy’s mother retaliates, leaving Frank with mental as well as physical scars. His employers, in an attempt to avoid further bad publicity, suggest redeployment to the isolated Seton One power station. Frank understands he has little choice if he wishes to continue working in a field he enjoys. Although at times she has considered leaving her husband, Frank’s wife, Gail, agrees to accompany him. She wants a child and hopes the move will be a fresh start for them all.

Gail and Frank move into a new-build bungalow by the sea, one of many identikit residences provided for the workers at the new power station. Across the road live Maynard and Judy Scott, and their two young children. Maynard is an engineer at the plant – a lecherous buffoon whose wife drinks to forget what her life has become. When not sunning herself on the beach, Gail spends gin-soaked afternoons with Judy. Meanwhile, Frank nurses his dislike of everything Maynard says and does.

Another work colleague, Anthony, is dating Alice, a pretty young nurse at Seton One’s health centre. Alice is a local girl whose father works at a boatyard – necessary for the fishing industry that provided the region’s main employment before the power plant was imposed on them. The looming and secretive building is treated with suspicion, as are its associated incomers. Alice views Anthony as a possible route out of what she regards as a tedious backwater that expects little of its women beyond housekeeping and motherhood.

“In the village, the men were really just boys. No – worse than that – they were just fools. They believed you had to stand up for yourself or be emasculated. But it was utter bollocks. In that single loving look from Gail, Alice had sensed a world outside the village, a world of more complicated thought patterns, of people who did not accept that life was simple. That was where she belonged.”

Frank is a fascinating, terrifying creation. He regards himself as a protector, a saviour, but must always tamp down the angry turbulence of his true thoughts and desires. When his past starts to haunt him, what self-control he can muster becomes ever more unravelled. To the women he appears better and more interesting than the Maynards of their world. Only Gail knows what her husband is capable of, although not how unstable his core has recently become. Like the fuel rods he works with, Frank requires cool containment and careful handling. With Gail’s thoughts focused on getting pregnant, she fails to notice her husband spiralling away.

A chain reaction is sparked when Maynard shows an interest in Alice. Frank, with his delusions of saving defenceless young women, sets out on a mission of protection that requires an act of destruction.

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law. True in physics, true in life. If you sin, you will be punished. It was one of the undeniable rhythms to life. And if you are the one delivering the punishment, you will be rewarded.”

The insights into the history of nuclear power, especially early attitudes to safety and the risks of wider contamination, add interest to what is a tense and evocative unpeeling of the male psyche. The female characters may be granted greater emotional intelligence but are complicit in their acceptance of certain behaviours – perhaps typical for the time period.

The pacing is not that of a thriller but the plot contains many thrilling aspects. The author delves deep into dark character traits, how they are often downplayed to make daily life easier. Much could have been made of Frank’s upbringing but the reader is trusted to note connections. A deliciously chilling denouement provides an effective rounding off.

There are elements of horror within these pages that could induce nightmares. More horrific though is the recognisable willingness of the characters to ignore what they know to be damaging in order to keep their own lives secure. The power station setting adds originality to a portrayal of the dangers posed by damaged people. An unsettling tale I am happy to recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

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Book Review: Judderman

From the publisher’s website:

“Established in 1919, The Eden Book Society was a private publisher of horror for nearly 100 years. Presided over by the Eden family, the press passed through the generations publishing short horror novellas to a private list of subscribers. Eden books were always published under pseudonyms and, until now, have never been available to the public.

Dead Ink Books is pleased to announce that it has secured the rights to the entire Eden Book Society backlist and archives. For the first time, these books, nearly a century of unseen British horror, will be available to the public. The original authors are lost to time, but their work remains and Dead Ink will be faithfully reproducing the publications by reprinting them one year at a time.

Dead Ink hopes that you will join us as we explore the evolving fears of British society as it moved through the 20th Century and eventually entered the 21st. We will begin our reproduction with 1972, a year of exciting and original horror for the Society.

We invite you to join us as we look to unearth who wrote for the society and what connected those writings to the family itself.”

 

The Judderman is a shadowy creature, a liminality between cautious fear and nihilistic despair. The protagonists of this story, Gary Eider and his older brother, Danny, have spent many years seeking out the darker elements of London that go unseen by those who prefer to focus their lives on more mundane concerns. Now Danny is missing, and Gary is reading his journals looking for clues as to where his brother could be. The two men love their city but recognise the horrors that exist in the cracks, under the radar, and on the hills where the wealthy live.

“The important things to see are there and were always there, but you need the tools to see them.”

Gary’s concern for his brother is not shared by their parents, his girlfriend, Lisa, nor the cousin who bears the scars of a war that is still waging. They have never shown interest in the topics that piqued the brothers’ curiosity – London Incognita.

“Gary became fascinated – obsessed, Lisa would say – by how two people could be looking at the very same thing and have totally different experiences. If that was the case, what was reality?”

Gary goes searching for tidings of Danny amongst the mudlarks and burned-out hippies. London is changing, as has always been the case.

Clearances: “A people and a culture, told that it was no longer of any value. Fled, were pushed”

Months pass with no news from Danny or clues as to his whereabouts. Gary finds himself alone in his search, increasingly ostracised, sinking.

“Why wouldn’t they look? I figured if they chose to truly see, then they may have to do something. To act, and to change.”

The refrain of a children’s song haunts Gary. Could his brother have found the Judderman? Did the Judderman find him?

The underlying horror of the tale is not only what could lurk in the shadows but all that is ignored in plain sight. Wars have left scars that go unspoken. Racism and violence are rife. The wealthy satisfy their appetites with impunity. Some things never change.

The author turns over the rock that is London and enables the creatures festering beneath to scuttle away from the unexpected exposure. In that brief glimpse, the reader may understand how the Judderman survives. It is a warning about the risks of revealing that which few wish to see.

A story for fans of horror and contemporary folklore. A dark and compelling read.

Judderman is published by Dead Ink Books.

Book Review: Traction City / The Teacher’s Tales of Terror

2017 is the first year since I became aware of the event’s existence that my children did not return from school on World Book Day eagerly clutching either their choice of book or a voucher to be exchanged at a bookshop. My youngest is now in sixth form and is presumably no longer a part of the target demographic.

Recently, however, he has urged me to read a series of books that the rest of my family have already enjoyed – the Predator Cities Quartet by Philip Reeve. Having posted the reviews for these over the past few weeks I decided to pick up an associated, former World Book Day publication to see how it slotted into the fantasy world.

Traction City is a short story set in a time shortly before the first book in the quartet. London is on the move and a young boy, Smiff, is creeping through the city’s bowels searching for dropped or discarded items that may be saleable. Instead he finds a dead body. Smiff then witnesses a violent attack on the outlaw men who roam this abandoned area. A tall, human like figure with glowing green eyes allows the boy to escape. Despite his aversion to the police, a terrified Smiff reports what he has seen. He finds a sympathetic ear in Sergeant Anders.

Anders rarely has much to do during his shifts at the lower level police station where he was assigned when his home town was eaten by London. This evening, however, he has a prisoner to process. A young girl has flown in and been apprehended carrying a small amount of explosive. Her shabby airship is named the Jenny Haniver.

There follows a chase, the discovery of body parts, and a run-in with the Guild of Engineers. As ever in this series, where a potential weapon exists, all sides vie to harness its power for their cause, whatever the cost to the wider population.

This was an interesting add-on but was not as compelling as the excellent quartet. I will now need to decide if I wish to read the prequel trilogy starting with Fever Crumb. These are set around the time cities first started to move.

As with many of the World Book Day offerings, a second story is included on the flip side of the book. In this case it is an addition to Chris Priestley’s chilling Tales of Terror, not a series I am familiar with.

The Teacher’s Tales of Terror is appropriately set in a school on World Book Day. A supply teacher has been called in to cover for an ill colleague. The head teacher is pleased to note that Mr Munro, the rather austere looking gentleman who presents himself for this role, has got into the spirit of things and dressed for the chosen theme, celebrating a Victorian heritage.

Mr Munro soon takes control of his rather unruly class and informs them that his lesson will be to read them some stories. What follows are a series of deliciously creepy tales. These are short and spine tingling but not too scary.

The denouement was unexpected and added an extra dimension to the overall story arc. This was an engaging, nicely constructed, and satisfying read.

Book Review: Foxlowe

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Foxlowe, by Eleanor Wasserberg, is set in a community removed from the modern world yet unable to escape its draw. It is populated by artists and sculptors, and by three children named October, Green and Blue. The narrator is Green, the only member to have been born within the commune’s confines. She regards the other residents as her family and harbours a fear tinged with curiosity for life outside.

The children’s playground is the large and crumbling house where they live, the gardens where they grow food and keep livestock, and the neighbouring¬†moorland close to standing stones from whence a double sunset may be viewed on the summer solstice. This event is a time of plenty and celebration. It is used to exorcise the bad and to heal.

From the beginning it is clear that a darkness exists within this closed community. There is cold and hunger, secrets and jealousies, ideals they are struggling to make work. Rules exist to insulate the residents from life outside, to drive out the bad they have left behind but which threatens to invade.

Those who choose to leave from time to time may never be talked of again. Personal possessions are discouraged yet desired. The children are being raised to value this way of life, the freedom it offers within self imposed confines. If they break the rules, let the bad in, they are burnt or bled to drive it out.

The story opens with the arrival of a baby girl. She will be named Blue and is looked after by one of the three founders, Freya. Green feels a special bond with Freya and begrudges the attention this invader demands. Thus begins a troubled relationship, sisters who will both love and hate one another.

Green accepts the rules, resenting the punishments but fearing both Freya and change. From an early age Blue refuses to be so compliant. As time passes and her punishments mount, so too does her desire to leave.

The children only have each other to mitigate the boredom of their unstructured days. They do not comprehend the cracks that are growing, threatening all they know. They muse over what the outside world may be like. When Blue seeks it she triggers a reaction that she cannot control.

The writing is masterful. From first page to last the horror of the children’s situation seeps through. By telling this tale from their point of view the reader can understand how such a skewed world could be created. When a situation becomes intolerable an adult may walk away. Children cannot. The scars inflicted run deep.

The dread that pervades leaves the reader in no doubt that the denouement will be shocking. I was still chilled when the detail was revealed. As all that had gone before became clear the author manages a final twist of the knife. It is gloriously unsettling.

There is much to ponder: the evils of the modern world; nature, nurture and spiritual beliefs; allowing parents freedom to raise their children as they see fit. This story may not be for the faint hearted but it is a cracking read. Enter Foxlowe if you dare.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fourth Estate.

 

Book Review: Hex

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Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (translated by Nancy Forest-Flier), is nightmare inducing in the best possible way. Horror is a genre that I have come to late. When I read a book as impressive as this I am eager to discover more.

The small town of Black Spring, situated in the picturesque Hudson Valley close to the United States Military Academy at West Point, has a secret that it hides in plain sight. The town signs welcome visitors to the home of the Black Rock Witch. What they don’t admit, to anyone, ever, on pain of death, is that she actually exists.

In 1664, Katherine van Wyler was sentenced to death for witchcraft. Back then Black Spring was a thriving trapper’s colony populated by Dutch settlers. Katherine was accused of many unnatural practices and was tortured until she confessed to her crimes. Since her death she has haunted the town, walking the streets and appearing within the residents homes. To prevent her casting evil spells former townsfolk sewed up her eyes and mouth, chaining her arms to her body that she may be unable to remove the stitches. There is a deep seated fear of what could happen should her eyes ever be opened.

The residents accept the presence of this supernatural being because they have no choice. Once they have lived in the town they are unable to leave. Those who try, die.

None resent the limitations this imposes on their lives and prospects more than the town’s teenagers whose access to the outside world is strictly monitored and curtailed. When a group of them decide that they will break the rules and post details of the witch on line they set in motion a terrifying series of events. Katherine has been provoked and the outcome is worse than any of these supposedly good, American citizens could have imagined possible.

The sinister undercurrents of the tale emanate from each page yet it is more than a simple horror story. It offers insights into the power struggles within a closed community, the bullying, mob mentality that simmers just below the surface of those who live in fear. The atmosphere evoked is one of darkness and brooding resentment. Add to this a dose of teenage rebellion and the explosive, terrifying denouement is inevitable in all but the detail. That this still had the power to shock to the core shows the strength of the writing.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book but recommend approaching with caution. It is classed as horror for a reason.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

Book Review: Snowblind

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Snowblind, by Christopher Golden, is disturbing in a way that all horror stories must aspire to be. The tension throughout is palpable. Within a few chapters the reader is drawn into a world with an undercurrent of fear. Deaths go unexplained because the given explanation is impossible to accept, a threat that is dismissed as implausible.

The story is set in Coventry, Massachusetts, a place where winters are harsh and snow storms expected. A particularly brutal storm claims the lives of eighteen people overnight, many in unusual circumstances. The brother of one of the young victims witnesses what has caused the deaths but his account is regarded as the nightmare imaginings of a child.

Twelve years later, with another big storm pending, some of the residents of the town are behaving strangely. They seek out those most closely affected by that terrible night long ago, recounting details that they should not have known. The bereaved may have moved on with their lives but they still bear the scars of their loss. Is it memory alone that is now haunting them?

As the plot accelerates towards its climax the reader is pulled into the vortex of the storm, its cold tendrils wrapping themselves around and making every creak in the house a concern. The writing is gripping, the denouement unexpected and chilling.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. Just like the residents of the town, the rational may dismiss it as impossible, but the next time something moves out of the corner of the eye or knocks against a darkened window, some readers may wonder what is out there…

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Brood

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Brood, by Chase Novak, is a powerful, chilling horror story which explores the emotive subject of fertility and what could go wrong if desperate, would be parents used wealth to buy experimental treatments abroad. If all that were wanted was a baby then these treatments would be considered a success. However, the side effects prove terrifying as the new parents discover the cost of their induced parenthood, and it is not just they who are affected. As the children grow and the condition of their parents deteriorates it becomes clear that what they have become is deadly and cannot be controlled.

As well as the questions this book raises about how far infertile couples will go in order to conceive, there is a sub plot that explores man’s desire to copulate when natural libido fails. There is a lucrative market in drugs that claim to improve sex life with little regard for the side effects these can have. The mutant children play a crucial role in this trade which puts them in danger as pharmaceutical companies seek them out, eager to discover their secrets in order to replicate it in a lab.

The story explores society’s need for outward conformity. Children are routinely drugged if their behaviour is deemed unacceptable. The pharmaceutical companies push drugs that offer a normality dictated by a culture that demands ideals. Children should do as they are told and outperform their peers. Adults view a sex life as a right.

These story-lines ebb and flow around the individual tales of the brood, a group of feral children who have escaped the horrors of their parents but now find themselves developing similar appetites. These children recognise that they will never find a place within approved society and seek to create a place for themselves.

Alongside there is one woman, Cynthia, who is trying to cure two of the children with love. She watched as her sister took the fertility treatments which ultimately drove her to suicide, saw first hand the effects the drugs had on behaviour. Now Cynthia is determined to become a mother to the resulting children, a task that she longed for yet which tests her to her limits and endangers her life.

The book is stylishly written. Although gruesome in places the detail is needed to fully appreciate both the pathos of the mutant offspring and the world where the wealthy can buy drugs which override nature in a way that has nothing to do with curing illness. The undercurrents are about, money, power, control and self entitlement.

The author has created a compelling tale that asks deep questions yet is written with the lightest of touches. It may be read more simply as a story of self engrossed adults and wild children, or it may be taken as a parable for a world we are not so far away from.

These are emotive subjects presented in a macabre light. This is one of the best horror stories I have read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mulholland Books.