My top 5 horror novels

Horror novels are a mixed bunch, and while I tend to enjoy the majority of the ones I read, sometimes you come across that one book that makes you sleep with the lights on. That book that forces you to cast nervous glances over your shoulder even as you tell yourself that you are an adult and this is only fiction. The book that makes you 10 years old again and afraid of the dark. These are those books for me (in no particular order).

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Dark Matter (Michelle Paver). A tour de force of suspense, Dark Matter is a ghost story set in the arctic in the 1930s. Solitude and darkness ramp up the fright factor, and Paver does a great job of adding unease even in the earlier stages of the book, before we ever get close to our arctic destination. Her descriptions of the horror lurking in the unyielding night are terrifyingly efficient, with just enough detail for the terror to creep under your skin. She also does a wonderful job of painting a plausible post-horror epilogue.

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty). Adapted into perhaps the best horror film of all time, the book is nevertheless a different beast than the upside-down crawl of Linda Blair. The thing that hit me when reading The Exorcist (which I didn’t get from the film) was the existential angst that seeps through the pages. This is a novel that stares into the abyss and finds nothing reassuring there. When I turned the final page, I felt grimy with bleakness and shaken to the core.

The Woman in Black (Susan Hill). I’ve read the book, seen the film and seen the play, and this story has terrified me each time. This is a book that lurks in between scares, letting your nerves fray with each page of waiting for the inevitable fright. And it doesn’t let up. The great marvel of this story is how it continues to bring on the terror right up until the final page. I love this story, even though it made me jump at even the tiniest creak after bedtime.

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). Manderley is a place to go mad in this psychological thriller classic. I didn’t know what I was going to when I read that ominous opening “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” for the first time, but for a novel that is arguably as much literary fiction as horror, it certainly left me deeply unsettled. Rebecca is a good example of how some of the best fears are rooted in our own psyche.

The Drugs Don’t Work (Sally Davies). Not a horror novel, but horrific even so. There are dystopian novels out there that highlight what a world without antibiotics looks like, but this is a short non-fiction book by Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, and it is more frightening than any piece of fiction I have come across in recent years.

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Reblog: On Desiring Dragons

There is a great post over at Austin Hackney‘s blog about the fantasy genre and why we read it. I thoroughly recommend it. The post got me thinking about some of the theories on perception, memory formation and storytelling (there is an overlap, I promise), and I might write a small, slightly sciency post on how we all ‘write’ our own realities at a later stage. In the meantime, I suggest you head over to read On Desiring Dragons:

A Fantastic Question Family members, friends, and colleagues have all asked me why I read fantasy. I’ve given different answers in different contexts at different times to the persistent question, “Why read fantasy literature?” This post is a distillation of my current defense of fantasy. But let me…

via On Desiring Dragons: Why Read Fantasy Literature? —

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Podcast recommendation

I don’t listen much to podcasts and I am usually more keen on seeking out stories than advice on writing, but I have made an exception for Writing Excuses for quite a few years now. Writing Excuses is a podcast by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Tayler, and it addresses story structure, genre, plot, pace – everything, really. Each episode is only 15 minutes long, so good for those of us with limited time or attention spans. To me, it is a short burst of no-nonsense, practical advice and suggestions that makes me sit down and write afterwards rather than pulls me away from the keyboard. It is always worth my time. I am particularly excited about 2018, as this will be the Year of Character. Should be very good indeed.

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard 2018 is our Year of Character, and we kick it off with a quick exploration of the differences between heroes, protagonists, and main characters. Beginning with addressing the question “wait, aren’t they all the same person?” Because that’s the elephant in the room. Or maybe it’s three elephants. Or…

via 13.1: Hero, Protagonist, Main Character — Writing Excuses

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Book Review: Empire’s End (Star Wars)

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The war is not over… Below is a short goodreads review of Empire’s End, the final book of the official Star Wars Aftermath trilogy by Chuck Wendig. The books are not required reading before seeing the new films, but might be fun to visit for those wanting a better understanding of the Star Wars universe prior to the Force Awakens.


Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath, #3)Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

Empire’s End is, in my opinion, the best book of the Aftermath trilogy. The three books fill in some of the blanks between the events of the Return of the Jedi and the onset of the Force Awakens. We are treated to the birth of the New Republic, the politics and fighting that shaped it, and hints to the origin of the First Order.

The first two books in the Aftermath trilogy revolved around family (arguably, so does a lot of the Star Wars universe), and Empire’s End is no exception. We follow the rag-tag crew of Norra Wexley chasing revenge for the loss of family as much as justice for the fledgling republic, whilst Leia Organa and Han Solo are anticipating the birth of their son, and the antagonists of the piece: Rae Sloane and Gallius Rax, highlight the impact of loss and absent familiar ties.

Indeed, the villains of the series are given ample room to shine in the final installation of the trilogy, and their tales are just as engaging as the heroes. In Empire’s End, we even get a better understanding of Palpatine’s plans and world view, and emerge with a feeling that he is even worse than the films led us to believe.

Aftermath: Empire’s End is primarily character driven. Some of the characters in the trilogy are new to the Star Wars universe; some we know from before (the additional information on Leia and Mon Mothma is particularly gratifying in Empire’s End); and some have moved on from the trilogy to make an appearance in the new films (Snap Wexley, and I’m still holding out hope of seeing Jas and Sinjir on the silver screen).

Overall, Empire’s End is a fast-paced, excellent end to a fun trilogy, worth reading to bridge the gap between the original films and the new ones! (I assume we all agree that the prequels should be quietly forgotten).

View all my reviews


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Break coming up

So Christmas is coming up, and that means time off work. This year, the day job has been particularly time-consuming, and a large part of the work has been writing articles, grants, abstracts, presentations, more articles… This year, I have more often than not put the pen down at the end of the work day, not able to produce a single extra word. I am, and have always been, an opportunistic writer – one who writes when and if rather than at set times. This approach is particularly vulnerable to other tasks encroaching upon writing time. I have written much less than normal this year, which is annoying and depressing in equal measures. But Christmas is coming up…

Every year, I always hope to spend a part of the Christmas holidays catching up on writing (a futile hope, as the year is long and the Christmas break is short). This year, the hope is more desperate and more important. I know the day job will return in January with just as much, if not more, pressure, and the writing habit will need to be solidly in place by then. So this year’s Christmas writing is not just a band aid on a meagre output, but a tool to get the train back on track. Fingers crossed!

Wishing you all a nice run-up to the holidays, and here is a Christmas tune for the occasion:

(Why, yes, this blog post was partly an excuse to play the Darkness a few times. Thank  you for noticing, and keep those bells ringing.)

The road ill-advisedly taken

I have been given a slot to write a very short creative piece for a small publication as part of the Academic Writing Festival at my University. Exciting stuff, and I am looking forward to getting my teeth in, except… I am not quite sure how to go about doing it.

Not in the sense that I don’t know what to write. I could write the piece in half an hour with time to spare for editing. It would be a quasi-science mock-up poking fun at academia, because I have been in the business long enough to see the foibles and caricatures. Heck, I embody a great deal of the silliness I want to convey. Easy-peasy. No, I’m stuck because I want to write it differently. I want to try on a new hat.

I want to write it to be read as spoken word. Sadly, however, I am not a particularly experienced poet, and I have a strong suspicion that my talents (if any) lie elsewhere. Having read the feeble poetry written by my teenage self, I should possibly know better than to revisit this particular brand of writing. Nevertheless, I think it is useful to try something new every once in a while, if only to explore (and rule out) roads not yet taken, scary though they may look.

So, wish me luck?

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New places, new roads. What could possibly go wrong?

[UPDATE: I got the piece written and submitted. Not sure how well it worked, but am happy to post it here if anyone is interested in giving feedback]

On the worst of villains

There is an interesting post up at ejfrostuk‘s blog, on the implacable villain. If you are interested in the workings of villains and how to write them, I recommend you go read it, as there are some interesting ideas on what makes a villain truly scary. But I also thought I’d add my own thoughts on the matter here.

The question raised on the blog is whether it is realistic with an opponent that simply won’t stop. My answer is, that depends.

For villains such as the Terminator or the vampires from 30 Days of Night, it is absolutely reasonable to go about their business (in these cases, killing the protagonist(s)) with relentless persistence. The Terminators are machines that act as such, and the vampires are predators that behave in their natural way as well. Both operate under rules that do not afford humans a special place, and so there should be no reason for them to hesitate or turn back as long as there is a war to be won or food to be eaten. This, logically, means continuing until the humans in their way are dead or devoured.

But what about a human villain? Is it realistic for a human to be relentless? My gut feeling is that it would take special circumstances. Villains without empathy could be one such circumstance. The psychopath would have no reason to stop. But we don’t always want to write psychopathic villains. What about villains that are empathetic in some ways, maybe even most ways, just not when it comes to the protagonist? That is a harder sell, in my opinion. Still, it is not impossible.

One way in which a ‘normal’ human might fit the bill would be if they have utterly dehumanised the protagonist. Why stop if what you seek to destroy has no inherent value? We find this in real-life crime, where the victim is not afforded human status by the perpetrator. We find this in assaults, in murders, and in war. The victim is not addressed, is not even talked to, and when the victim is discussed by the perpetrator(s), he or she may be referred to as animals, lesser-than, even an ‘it’. This allows the perpetrator to act without hesitation, relentlessly and without apology. This is the villain that won’t stop, that won’t negotiate, that might not even talk to their victim. Is it realistic? Yes, unfortunately. Is it going to work in a story? Yes, in some stories. Is it scary? I honestly can’t think of anything more frightening.

Go read the post over at ejfrostuk. It’s good.