Abacus, Australia, Author, Book review, Douglas Kennedy, dystopian, Fiction, horror, Publisher, Setting

‘The Dead Heart’ by Douglas Kennedy

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 199 pages; 1994.

Don’t be fooled by the cheesy, romantic-looking cover on Douglas Kennedy’s debut novel, The Dead Heart, for this is a tale that is as shocking as it is terrifying.

Set in the Australian outback and narrated in the first person by an American tourist, it’s a bit like the bastard love child of Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright and the 2005 horror film Wolf Creek. There’s a thriller element to it, but it would best be described as dystopian horror — with an emphasis on the horror.

The story will stay with me for quite some time — and not necessarily in a good way. If you’re planning an outback adventure soon, then steer clear. Honestly, I reckon the Australian Tourist Board should probably ban this book.

A foreigner in a foreign land

When The Dead Heart opens we meet newspaper journalist Nick Hawthorne, a confirmed bachelor who’s so enamoured with a second-hand map he bought in a Boston bookstore that he has headed to Darwin for a holiday, taking his $10,000 life savings with him. It’s supposed to be a chance to blow off some steam in a foreign land before starting a new job in Akron, Ohio.

But no sooner has Nick arrived than he has second thoughts. Darwin is a bit too “wild west” for him. Perhaps if he bought an old Volkswagen microbus and drove himself to Perth, more than 4,000km away, he might have more fun.

Two hours out of Darwin — and driving in the dark (despite being advised to avoid the roads at night) — he hits a kangaroo. He spends the night on the side of the road and in the morning is greeted by:

…a world rendered red. An arid red, like the colour of dried blood. A non-stop vista of red clay and red scrubby bush. It stretched across a plateau of incalculable dimensions. I walked away from the van, stood in the middle of the road and turned north, south, east, west. No houses, no telephone poles, no billboards, no roadsigns…no hints whatsoever (bar the strip of tarmacadam I was standing on) that man had ever been acquainted with this territory. Just hard barren country under a hard blue sky. Measureless in its dimensons, hypnotic in its monotony.

He manages to nurse his already worn out (128,000 miles on the clock) VW to the next biggest town, Kununurra — “a prefabricated collection of shops and greasy spoons and bars:  a scruffy little gasoline alley in the middle of the bush” — more than 600km away! After a 10-day layover, he heads out on the road again, where a chance encounter with a woman called Angie changes his life forever.

No escape

Saying much more about the plot will spoil the enjoyment for first-time readers, but let’s just say Angie uses her feminine wiles to entrap Nick in a situation from which there is no escape — except death.

Stuck in Angie’s home town of Wollanup, an old desert mining town (population 53 and, I suspect, based on Wittenoom, the deadly blue asbestos town that was abandoned in the late 1960s), 1,400km from the nearest village, Nick becomes subservient to a society that is backward, cruel and horrifying, with its own archaic rules and way of life. Everything about it challenges his own morality and world view.

The story is propelled forward by Nick’s attempt to flee the clutches of Angie and her demented family. As a reader, you cheer him on, hoping he’ll be able to survive the heat, the isolation, the torturous rituals and never-ending sex (there’s a lot of sex in this book, it has to be said) and somehow get himself back home to the States out of harm’s way.

Let’s face it: The Dead Heart is rather silly. It’s a romp, a fun and sometimes scary one. It’s preposterous on so many levels and every time I picked it up it made me feel dirty. I’m not sure there’s any message to the story other than to be careful when travelling in a foreign land and to be very wary of the outback and the people who live in it.

That said, it’s a very “white” book and has a colonialist’s mindset, but it’s a rip-roaring read and nothing quite like I expected from the cover art alone. It really does tap into the fear one experiences when out on the open road, surrounded by nothing except desert terrain, isolated and alone. Read it if you dare.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Fiction, horror, literary fiction, Lois Murphy, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Soon’ by Lois Murphy


Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 246 pages; 2017.

It might only be two months into 2018, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that Lois Murphy’s Soon will be the strangest — and most intriguing — book I read all year.

This deliciously creepy debut novel defies categorisation: is it dystopian? literary fiction? horror? The answer, I suspect, is a combination of all three.

I’m not much of a one for fantastical, supernatural tales, but there was something about this story, which compelled me to keep turning the pages long into the night. (Lisa, at ANZLitLovers, who reviewed this book last year, felt the same way.)

An isolated town

The setting is Nebulah, a fictional town in outback Western Australia. Woodford, the nearest town, is more than two hours drive away and that town is a long way from anywhere else, too.

One winter’s evening in 1998 a ghostly mist descends on Nebulah. This mist, swirling with apparitions and evil spirits, has the power to kill anyone caught in its path. The only way to escape it is to hide indoors, with all the doors and windows locked, until the sun arrives the next morning to burn it off.

We’d run for the house as the mist around us started to transform itself into figures, howling faces and reaching arms, elongated grasping fingers snatching at us, gleeful. Thankfully it was still hazy enough to evade — we wrenched ourselves through it and I slammed the door as it streamed after us up the porch steps, screeching with delight at this unexpected opportunity. As I flicked the locks it was pressed against the windows, a chilling kaleidoscope of bones and teeth against the glass.

This nightmarish situation has confounded all the scientists. No one seems to know where the mist came from and what its purpose is. But now a once humble community of 500 or so people has dwindled to just a handful — and the only reason these people have stayed behind is that they have nowhere else to go.

The story is narrated by Pete Macintosh, a tough character, who has a soft spot for two women who have remained in town: Li, a Cambodian refugee, who has a successful business growing organic fruit; and Milly, a widow still grieving for her husband who died more than a decade ago.

Pete is a former policeman, cancer survivor and widower with an  estranged adult daughter. In other words, he’s a bit of a loner. But he has a community spirit and he cares deeply for his neighbours.

A menacing mist

The story charts a year in the life of the town and shows how the mist — perhaps a metaphor for pollution or changing economic circumstances — affects the stalwarts who stay behind.

The characterisation is superb. We get a real insight into the fears (and hopes) of not just Pete and Li and Milly, but we meet well drawn subsidiary characters along the way, including Denham, the disbelieving policeman from Woodford; Alex, the clairvoyant from out-of-town who warns Pete to leave by winter solstice; and Anne, the visiting student, who is bewitched by the mist and wants to examine it more closely, putting her life and the life of her friends in mortal danger.

The story, as I am describing it, probably sounds ludicrous, but there’s something about Murphy’s literary prose style that makes the whole idea of a menacing mist, alive with the town’s dead people, seem totally authentic. I never once felt I had to suspend belief.

And the tension and suspense that builds up is almost unbearable, as the taut narrative races towards a heart-palpitating climax that had me wanting to bolt my front door and draw all the curtains against the night. The denouement is powerful, memorable — and as near to perfect an ending as one could expect.

If you haven’t guessed already, Soon is a terrifying tale that will make your heart race. It’s atmospheric, spine-chilling, dark and twisted, and probably the most original novel I’ve read in a long while. But it’s more than just a macabre horror story: there’s commentary here about what happens to country towns when industry comes to an end, how society treats those without money to fall back on, and the importance of friendship and a shared purpose as the glue that holds communities together.

Note that Soon hasn’t yet been published in the UK, though you can buy a Kindle version from Amazon. I ordered my copy direct from the Australian book store Readings.com.au

This is my 2nd book for #AWW2018.

Author, Book review, Canada, crime/thriller, Fiction, horror, Iain Reid, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ by Iain Reid

I'm thinking of ending things by Iain Reid

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 214 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Earlier this week, about 40 pages into this debut novel by Canadian Iain Reid, I had to put it aside. It was creeping me out and I was home alone. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I kept reading.

That’s the kind of effect I’m Thinking of Ending Things had on me. Normally, when it comes to reading, not much scares or frightens me. But there was something about this story that got under the skin and made me feel deeply unnerved.

When I picked it up again several days later — during daylight hours, I hasten to add — I felt the same unease. The tension, the palpable fear and the suspense continued to build. And then, as abruptly as it started, it fizzled out. The ending — oh, the ending — was a serious disappointment. I wanted to throw the book across the room!

A scary road trip

The story is narrated by a young woman who has a relatively new boyfriend called Jake, but she’s not convinced their relationship is worth hanging onto and she’s thinking about ending it (hence the title).

This thought doesn’t really hit her until the pair go on a road trip to visit his parents who live on a remote farm. It’s a long drive, much of it taken in the dark while a snowstorm blows in, and there’s a lot of thinking time.

When the pair arrive at their destination there’s no immediate welcome party. Instead, Jake wants to show her around the farm, to see the sheep in the barn, the pigs in their sty, and to get a sense of the isolation. It’s cold and dark. There doesn’t seem to be any activity going on in the house. Is she ever going to meet the parents?

We walk around behind the house, my chin pressed down against my chest for warmth. We’re off the path now and are making our own way in the unshovelled snow. I don’t normally feel so hungry. I’m famished. I look up and see someone in the house, in the upstairs window. A gaunt figure, standing, looking down at us. A woman with long straight hair. The tip of my nose is frozen.
“Is that your mom?” I wave. No response.
“She probably can’t see you. Too dark out here.”
She stays at the window as we keep walking, plodding through the ankle-deep snow.

Deep unease

Going into further detail means I’ll give away crucial plot spoilers, so I’ll refrain. But let’s just say the tension mounts and there’s a deep feeling of unease. I kept turning the pages waiting for something horrific to happen. I had the feeling that my heart would leap into my mouth at any minute. I just did not know where the story was going, but I did know it wasn’t going to end well for the narrator.

That feeling was exacerbated by the one-page excerpts between chapters that indicate something very bad has happened. These excerpts take the form of an ongoing conversation between two people, but we don’t know who they are or who they’re talking about.

And at precisely that moment you think you know what’s going on, the author turns things on their heads and delivers a twist that — judging by the polarised reviews — you either love or hate. I fell into the latter camp.

And yet, despite the terrible ending,  I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a masterpiece in delivering atmosphere and suspense. Even though it’s written in a stilted style (very much in the vein of the Japanese crime fiction I love so much), it manages to play with the reader’s own fears, so that when the narrator sees two dead sheep on the farm, for instance, you immediately think it’s a foreshadowing of future events.

Perhaps it’s the kind of book that would benefit from two readings — if only to figure out how the “twist” works — but I came away from it feeling slightly cheated. I don’t expect neat resolutions in all that I read, but when you put yourself through 170 pages of tension-filled prose, it would be nice if the last 30 pages didn’t fall so flat.

If you want a psychological horror story that really pays off, I’d recommend reading Kenneth Cook’s Fear is the Rider instead. Or Michel Faber’s Under the Skin for properly rewarding spine-tingling chills.


Author, Book review, Fiction, Grand Central Publishing, horror, Octavia E. Butler, Publisher, science fiction, Setting, USA

‘Fledgling’ by Octavia E. Butler


Fiction – paperback; Grand Central Publishing; 310 pages; 2005.

While I’ve studiously avoided the current Twilight craze, I’ll admit that I’m not averse to reading novels about vampires. I loved Anne Rice’s early work (which I read in my 20s), very much enjoyed Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and thought John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In was a surprisingly intelligent horror story.

But Fledgling, which presents a new twist on the vampire legend, lacks the spine-tingling horror I’ve come to expect from the genre. Instead, this is a book, deeply rooted in science fiction, which examines issues of race and identity, sex and sexuality, biology and genetic engineering. There’s even some law and politics thrown in for good measure.

In this novel Butler portrays vampires as a much-maligned race called Ina. The central character, Shori, looks like a little black girl but she is really a 53-year-old vampire who has been genetically modified so that she has extra melanin in her skin to allow her to walk in sunlight. This is supposed to be a step forward for the Ina, but there are some who think that Shori poses a threat to the purity of the Ina race, and will stop at nothing to destroy her.

When the book begins we find that Shori is recovering from one of those plots to kill her: she awakens in a dark cave, burnt from head to toe, and with no memory of what has happened to her. Indeed she has no knowledge or awareness that she is a vampire. It is only when she is picked up by a young man, as she walks along a deserted road, that her desire to feed off him reminds her that she is an Ina, not a human being.

Much of the book revolves around Shori and her symbionts (the humans she feeds off in a kind of mutually dependent relationship) going on the run from those who want her dead. There’s a lot of gun-slinging before the story morphs into a kind of courtroom drama in which those responsible are held to account for their crimes.

I have to be honest and say that this book didn’t exactly grab me by the throat (pun fully intended). The prose felt a bit pedestrian and the dialogue awfully contrived. There were elements that just made me go ewwww and there were times I wasn’t sure I really wanted to continue. But… there was something about the narrative that sucked me in (another pun, I’m sorry) and I did want to keep reading if only to find out who was after Shori and how she would go about saving herself and those like her.

Octavia E. Butler was a highly regarded prize-winning author of science fiction. Fledgling, published in 2005, was her last book before she died, aged 58, in 2006.

Author, Book review, Fiction, horror, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Shirley Jackson, USA

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson


Paperback – fiction; Penguin Modern Classics; 246 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reviewing two Shirley Jackson novels in the space of a week might border on overkill, but having very much enjoyed We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was anxious to try The Haunting of Hill House, which was originally published in 1959.

First and foremost, unlike We Have Always Lived in the Castle, this is a horror story. Of course, the title itself should give you an inkling of the subject matter, which is essentially a rather creepy tale about a haunted house.

Now this is where I put up my hand and declare that I’m not much into the horror genre. I read so many of these types of books (think Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, James Herbert and Anne Rice) in my teens and early 20s that I eventually became bored with their formulaic style. And since then I can count on one hand the number of horror stories I’ve read (Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

There’s no doubt that The Haunting of Hill House is a creepy, look-under-the-bed-and-check-the-closet type reads. But in Jackson’s capable hands it also has a smattering of humour throughout, so it’s not overly claustrophobic and is far less spine-chilling than, say Stephen King’s The Shining, which this book brought to mind quite a few times. But Jackson ratchets up the suspense by playing with the minds of the characters, so you’re never entirely sure whether the terrifying events she depicts happen physically or psychologically.

The book opens with a rather ominous description of the house.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and some of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Into this secluded mansion come four main characters: Dr John Montague, a doctor of philosophy, who thinks himself something of a “ghost hunter” and has rented the house for three months in order to find scientific evidence of the supernatural; Eleanor Vance, a 32-year-old loner, who has spent the past 12 years looking after her (now dead) invalid mother; Theodora, a Girl Scout type with psychic abilities; and Luke Sanderson, a liar, thief and heir to the house.

The house has two dour-faced caretakers, Mr and Mrs Dudley, who live in the closest town, six miles away.

“I don’t stay after I set out dinner,” Mrs Dudley went on. “Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes.”
“I know,” Eleanor said.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.”
“I understand.”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night.”
“I don’t suppose–”
“No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“I know,” Eleanor said tiredly.
“In the night,” Mrs Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

It doesn’t take long before creepy things begin to occur inside Hill House, but I’m not going to divulge them here. You’ll just have to read the book yourself. But make sure you do it in daylight. And preferably not while you’re alone.

Author, Book review, Fiction, horror, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Shirley Jackson, USA

‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 176 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Put the kettle on, grab yourself some snacks and make sure you’ve got no other plans when you curl up to read this book, because We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of those delicious, atmospheric reads from which you will not want to be disturbed.

I was caught in the sway of this mesmirising novel, Shirley Jackson‘s last (it was first published in 1962 and she died in 1965), from its opening lines:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

How could you not be intrigued by that?

Sadly, it’s difficult to properly review this novel without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so I’ll refrain from telling you too much about the story. (A cursory glance at the blurb on this newly published Penguin Modern Classic edition does reveal one of the “secrets” but it doesn’t ruin the suspense.)

Basically, Mary Katherine, also known as Merricat, lives a secluded life with her sister and their bumbling, eccentric Uncle Julian, in Blackwood House, a Gothic-like mansion surrounded by woods on the outskirts of a village. Every Tuesday and Friday Merricat braves the wrath and scorn of the villagers (“The people of the village have always hated us”), who stare and gossip, to buy food and borrow library books. When she enters the grocery store the owner rushes to serve her before anyone else, while other shoppers stop what they’re doing…

holding a can or a half-filled bag of cookies or a head of lettuce, not willing to move until I had gone out the door again…

This sense of creepiness builds further when she has coffee in the local coffee shop, because

If anyone else came in and sat down at the counter I would leave my coffee without seeming hurried, and leave.

It’s almost like whichever way Merricat turns, there’s an insidious, nasty reminder that she, and her family, are not wanted. But what did they do to earn this hate? The answer to this is the nub of the novel, so I’m not going to tell you here.

But essentially, the secretive, hermit-like existence that the Blackwood’s lead is disrupted when Charles, a long-lost cousin, makes an unexpected visit and settles in for the duration. Merricat, a wayward, naive and some might say decidedly kooky teenager, feels so threatened by his presence that she goes out of her way to make him feel particularly unwelcome — with intriguing consequences.

As much as I enjoyed this book and the oppressive, Gothic atmosphere it creates — think The Village of the Damned meets The Wicker Man — I did guess the main revelation before the half-way point. But even so, this is a thrilling read, and I can easily see why Shirley Jackson has never been out of print in her native America.

It’s not a horror story per se, because it won’t have you checking underneath the bed for monsters, but it’s a kind of twisted fairytale with a dash of black comedy and a pinch of mystery. Or, as Joyce Carol Oates claims in the Afterword, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle becomes a New England fairy tale of the more wicked variety, in which a ‘happy ending’ is both ironic and literal, the consequences of unrepentant witchcraft and a terrible sacrifice — of others”.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, horror, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Publisher, Quercus, Setting, Sweden

‘Let The Right One In’ by John Ajvide Lindqvist


Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 480 pages; 2008. Translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg.

Let The Right One In is by John Ajvide Lindqvist, a relatively new Swedish author who has made a name for himself as a horror writer.  This, his debut novel, was published under the title Låt den rätte komma in in 2004 and quickly became a bestseller in the author’s homeland. Now translated into English by the independent, London-based publisher Quercus, the book is set to win over an international audience of horror fans.

Like most new horror writers who achieve some measure of commercial success, Lindqvist has been compared to Stephen King. There’s no doubt that there are some similarities. Aside from the subject matter, there’s a complex cast of characters, a small-town setting and a child protagonist, all of which come straight out of the Stephen King school of fiction writing.

But Lindqvist manages to capture something that King doesn’t. There’s an intelligence that resonates off the page. And maybe because it’s Swedish, there’s a sense that the author is making some kind of social commentary about the places and the circumstances in which some people are forced to live. The book, set in a depressing sink estate, is populated by drunks, glue-sniffers and people on disability benefits.

Lindqvist also tackles a specific element of the genre that King, to my knowledge, has never tackled: the vampire.

On the cover of my edition, the Daily Express says that “Lindqvist has reinvented the vampire novel”. Normally I wouldn’t hold much stead in anything a British tabloid newspaper said about a book, but in this case I concur. It’s got a delightfully different twist, one in which you find yourself egging on the vampire to get away with its despicable blood-sucking habits.

The vampire is actually a pretty girl called Eli. She looks 12 but is actually more than 200 years old. She lives with her ‘father’, a teacher turned paedophile, in an apartment in Blackeberg, a fully planned suburb on the western outskirts of Stockholm.

One evening Oskar, a 12-year-old boy who lives next door, befriends her in the playground. She warns him that they can never be friends and that he should stay away from her.  But Oskar, who is bullied at school, wets his trousers and is estranged from his drunken father, is desperate for friends and won’t take no for an answer.

Together, the two of them send Morse code messages through their shared bedroom-wall, and forge an unlikely alliance.

Meanwhile, the residents of Blackeberg and surrounding suburbs are living in a state of fear following a series of strange murders. The paranoia grows when the corpse of a missing man is found in a frozen lake. And then things take on an even more frightening twist when Virginia, a 50-year-old woman, is attacked by a child who drops out of a tree and wounds her neck.

Cue more chills and spooky music when Eli’s father, who murders children to supply her with fresh blood, is caught abusing a young boy in a cubicle at the local swimming pool. He douses his face with acid to ensure he can’t be identified, but manages to survive even though his face has been reduced to a mass of burnt flesh, with just one eye and a black hole for a mouth.

It’s all very creepy, but it does take a long time for the narrative to really take effect, perhaps too long, because Lindqvest seems to take forever to set everything in motion. The reader must reach page 248 before Oskar twigs on to the fact that Eli is not all that she seems:

What’s wrong with her?

The thought had come to him even as he was in the cellar gathering the bottles together and wiping the blood away with a piece of cloth from the garbage: Eli was a vampire. That explained a lot of things.
That she was never out in the daytime.
That she could see in the dark, which he had come to understand she could. […]
That she had needed an invitation to come into his room. […] And he had invited her in. A vampire. A being that lived off other people’s blood.

Once this realisation occurs, the momentum does pick up, and the last 100 or so pages are particularly thrilling as the book reaches its gruesome climax.

Although there are many passages of disturbing, stomach-churning violence, for the most part the narrative is quiet and understated. It’s so quiet and understated that many readers may find it too dull and plodding.

The vast array of characters, many simply introduced for the purposes of a vignette and never to reappear again, also contributes to a mild sense of confusion and an unwarranted complexity. It doesn’t help that some of the major characters, such as the drunks that live on the estate, are very thinly drawn so that you don’t get a proper sense of who they are.

But one of the book’s strengths is its period setting. The year is 1981, and, unlike David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green which is set the year after, the period references are not laboured, but dropped in every now and then just to remind you: Oskar buys a Walkman; he has the double-album Alive by Kiss but thinks Destroyer is better; he plays with a Rubik’s cube and watches The Muppets on TV; the school bullies make him scream the catch-phrase from the movie Deliverance; and a Soviet submarine runs aground on the Swedish coast. It’s subtle but effective.

Of course, the friendship that develops between Eli and Oskar is also another of the book’s strengths. It’s the unexpected tenderness that gives the story its special flavour. Ditto for the terrified schoolboy fascinated by violent acts (Oskar keeps a scrapbook of news stories about serial killers) struggling to reconcile his love for a vampire who carries out such acts.

This is an intelligent, knowing novel, not short on thrills and chills, but one which requires patience and commitment on behalf of the reader. But if you’d rather watch the movie, you shouldn’t have too long to wait. According to wikipedia, it won the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature and collected the Rotten Tomatoes Critical Consensus Award at Edinburgh Film Festival.

Oh, and just for a bit of trivia, the author is a huge fan of the British singer Morrissey, from which he “stole” the name of the book, although the Morrissey song is actually called Let The Right One Slip In. Perhaps an error in translation, then?

Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, England, Fiction, Flamingo, horror, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Fifth Child’ by Doris Lessing


Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 160 pages; 2001.

Doris Lessing is one of those authors you know you ought to read but never do. A case in point: I’ve had both The Golden Notebook and The Good Terrorist in my possession for more than three years and never once cracked them open. The sheer size of the books and the weight of the subjects contained within, combined with Lessing’s awesome literary reputation, have made me doubt my ability to understand and enjoy her work. Easier, then, to leave well alone.

That was until I read John Self’s review of The Fifth Child followed in due course by another review of the same book by Isabel from Books and Other Stuff. Maybe it was time to take the plunge? A slim book — just 160 pages — seemed the perfect introduction to her work.

And so this is how I came to read my first Doris Lessing last week.

The Fifth Child is billed as a horror story but it’s not from the Stephen King school of horror — it’s slightly more subtle but oodles more menacing because of it.

It’s about two people — David and Harriet — who meet at an office party in the 1960s and get married shortly after. Lessing describes them as “freaks and oddballs”, not least because they have old-fashioned views about sex at a time when the sexual revolution was in full swing. But also because in each other they saw what they were looking for:

Someone conservative, old-fashioned, not to say obsolescent; timid, hard to please: this is what other people called them, but there was no end to the unaffectionate adjectives they earned. They defended a stubbornly held view of themselves, which was that they were ordinary and in the right of it, should not be criticised for emotional fastidiousness, abstemiousness, just because these were unfashionable qualities.

With their minds set on living in a big house within commuting distance of London, they purchase a “three-storeyed house, with an attic, full of rooms, corridors, landings… Full of space for children in fact”. And then waste no time filling it with offspring — four children in ready succession — even though they can barely pay the mortgage.

Fortunately, David has a rich father who helps with the bills, while Harriet’s mother, Dorothy, is able to move in on a semi-permanent basis to help with the childcare. This enables the pair to create a welcoming, cosy home visited by a steady stream of relatives. Christmas and Easter become big family events that stretch into week-long parties. It seems an idyllic kind of life on the surface, but underneath there are sores that are beginning to fester: David has to work longer and longer hours in the city to pay for his children’s upkeep; Dorothy finds herself being taken for granted and brands the pair “selfish and irresponsible”; and Harriet becomes more and more exhausted with each pregnancy.

It is only when Harriet falls pregnant for the fifth time that things take a turn for the worse. The unborn baby is a “wrestler”, causing Harriet so much pain and discomfort she starts taking sedatives on the sly.

The drugs did not seem to be affecting her much: she was willing them to leave her alone and to reach the foetus — this creature with whom she was locked in a struggle to survive. And for those hours it was quiet, or if it showed signs of coming awake, and fighting her, she took another dose.

When she eventually gives birth to 11-pound baby Ben she notices that he doesn’t look quite right. He had a “heavy-shouldered hunched look” and a strange hairline. “He’s like a troll, or a goblin or something,” she tells David.

This feeling of having produced a non-human baby continues when Ben continually tears at Harriet’s breast, roars and bellows to the point of turning white with rage, and stares at her with cold malevolent eyes.

To say anything more would ruin the plot of the book, but essentially Ben’s mental development stalls, which has consequences for the entire family. Much of the story hinges on Harriet’s relationship to her child and raises that age-old dilemma of whether it is nature or nurture that shapes who we become.

If you are thinking that The Fifth Child sounds like a disturbing read, you’d be right. But it is also a memorable, thought-provoking one. The brevity of this book does not make it less interesting or less controversial than a more page-heavy novel, because within this slim volume there are so many issues worth debating: does class structure affect our family lives? To what extent should a mother take responsiblity for her child’s misbehaviour? Is it responsible to have so many children when you must rely on help to raise them?

Personally, I found the narrative immediately gripping, although the fast pace left me breathless at times. Everything seems to move so quickly, and Lessing is brilliant at hurrying things along with a minimal of detail or explanation — which is a necessity if you are to cover one couple’s life from courtship to raising teenage children in the space of 160 pages. I thought it was a rather effortless read and it has now given me enough courage to delve into Lessing’s rather extensive back catalogue, the first of which is likely to be the sequel to this book, Ben in the World, which looks at how Ben copes with life as a strange, inhuman adult. Fascinating.

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, Bram Stoker, England, Fiction, horror, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Reading Projects, Romania, Setting

‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker

Fiction – paperback; Wordsworth Classics; 352 pages; 2003.

The horror genre isn’t my normal genre of choice. I spent my teenage years working my way through Stephen King’s (then existing) back catalogue, dabbled with some Dean R Koontz and a little James Herbert, before giving Anne Rice a shot. I read Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned and that’s about the sum total of my exposure to horror/vampire fiction.

But Dracula was always one of those books I intended to read at some point, if only because I wanted to understand how one nineteenth-century novel could have such an influence on the popularity of vampires in modern-day literature and films. I put it off for years and years, but during a visit to Whitby, on the northeast coast of England earlier this year, I finally decided it was time to read the book.

I had been to Whitby before, but this time around its connection with Dracula seemed to resonate more, perhaps because I’d seen a BBC TV production and recognised the Abbey and the Yorkshire coastline on the screen. (In truth, during my first visit in 1998, I was more interested in the “Australian connection” — Whitby is where Captain James Cook embarked on his famous Pacific voyages.)

Whitby is, of course, the fishing village where Bram Stoker sets some parts of the novel — where one of the main characters, Lucy, meets Dracula for the first time, in fact. But it’s also the place where Stoker began taking notes for the book while on holiday in 1890. It is a beautiful village nestled by the River Esk — and Stoker’s description, told through the eyes of Mina Murray, remains unchanged more than a century later:

This is a lovely place. The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers, though which the view seems, somehow, further away than it really is. The valley is beautifully green and is so steep that when you are on the high land on either side you look right across it, unless you are near enough to see down. The houses of the old town — the side away from us — are all red-roofed, and seem piled up one over the other anyhow, like the pictures we see of Nuremberg. Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes […] It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.

The story is told as a series of diary entries and letters from a divergent cast of characters — and there are a few “news clippings” thrown in for good measure. The result is a well-rounded and fast-moving narrative that feels incredibly modern, almost as if the book had been penned in recent times and not in 1897.

Transylvanian travels

The storyline is a familiar one, but for those who don’t know it, it begins with Johnathan Harker, a young English solicitor, travelling to Transylvania to meet a client — Count Dracula —  about a property sale he wishes to undertake in England. Despite Dracula acting as a gracious host, Harker soon discovers he is being kept prisoner in Dracula’s remote castle and makes plans for escape.

Some time after a Russian ship runs aground on the Whitby coast, but all on deck — save for a dog, which leaps onshore never to be seen again — are presumed dead. The ship’s log reveals some uncanny experiences on board during the journey, and the hull is found to be carrying a strange cargo of earth from Transylvania.

Harker’s fiance, Mina, and her friend, Lucy, are in Whitby at the time. Lucy is a sleepwalker, and during one of her nocturnal strolls meets a strange man — Dracula — on the cliffs overlooking the town. Shortly after she mysteriously begins to waste away.

Dr John Seward, who has proposed marriage to Lucy, is very concerned by her deteriorating health. He calls in his old teacher, Professor Van Helsing from Amsterdam, who begins administering blood transfusions — all to no avail.

Eventually — and I don’t think this is much of a plot spoiler — Lucy becomes a vampire, and the finger of blame is pointed in Count Dracula’s direction.

The action then moves to London, where the Count has been seen out and about. It turns out — by a strange twist of fate — that his house, on Picadilly, is next to Dr Seward’s. A band of vampire hunters is then brought together, including Harker, Mina, Seward and Van Helsing among others, to put Dracula’s rampage across London and England to an end…

Thrilling tale

The story of Dracula was a familiar one to me, but genuinely thrilling in places. Some of Stoker’s descriptions were also incredibly vivid and chilling, such as this scene in which Harker, trapped in Dracula’s remote castle, sees the Count’s head coming out of a window:

I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards and with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.

The book also poses some interesting questions about science and faith, religion and folklore, topics that were been debated at the time in which it was written.

Interestingly, the role of women in society is another theme, with Lucy representing the “traditional” weak-willed woman who succumbs to Dracula’s charms, and Mina, who is strong enough to fight him off and plays a pivotal role in his eventual destruction, representing the “new” female.

On the whole, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Dracula. The prose style was easy-to-read and apart from some clunky elements — Stoker’s inconsistent depiction of Van Helsing’s Dutch vernacular, for instance, was woeful  — felt incredibly contemporary.

And there was plenty of suspense to keep me turning the pages long into the night. A truly great read and one I’d recommend, even if your tastes don’t usually venture into classic literature or the horror genre.

‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker, first published in 1897, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “true horror novel, as firmly rooted in the reality of the world where it takes place as it is in the forces of the supernatural that invade it”.

Author, Book review, Elizabeth Kostova, Fiction, horror, literary fiction, Little, Brown, Publisher, Romania, Setting

‘The Historian’ by Elizabeth Kostova


Fiction – hardcover; Little Brown; 657 pages; 2005.

The Historian is a lush, richly evocative novel that explores the Dracula legend from an historical perspective.

In this gripping tale the narrator, a 16-year-old girl, discovers an intriguing batch of letters in her father’s library. Unable to resist reading them she unwittingly opens a dark chapter in her family’s past, which takes her on an ominous and dangerous journey, both physically and psychologically, across three decades and several countries. Along the way she learns the truth about her dead mother and how her father’s seemingly benign academic research has put them all at risk.

Essentially The Historian is a story about the quest to find the resting place of Vlad the Impaler, the real Dracula whose tyrannical rule in the mid-15th century resulted in thousands of gruesome deaths by impalement in the Romanian countryside.

Part travelogue, part historical drama, part detective story, this gothic novel is immensely readable. Kostova excels at capturing the details and atmosphere of specific places (her descriptions, whether of Oxford, Amsterdam, Venice, Instanbul or Budapest, are pitch perfect) and time periods (1930s Romania, Cold War Europe and Oxford in the 1970s). She is also a master at writing cliffhangers at the end of almost every chapter, which only serves to keep the reader turning the pages (and reading long past this reviewer’s bedtime).

The narrative is cleverly constructed, deftly switching points of view and periods in history without ever confusing the reader, while the characters are strong, lively and well-rounded.

I particularly liked that this was not a Dracula book full of blood, coffins, murder and mayhem – instead Kostova presents the lore in an almost intellectual way, using the power of imagined historical documents, folk songs and legends to paint a believable, almost authentic, version of the Dracula myth.

My only quibble is that the story seemed to run out of steam at the end, and the conclusion did not seem particularly satisfying after all the suspense and atmosphere that preceded it.  That said, I thought it was a powerful, well written and entertaining novel that deserves the praise already heaped upon it by other reviewers. If only it would knock those Dan Brown books off the bestseller lists!