Lustmord: Anatomy of a Serial Butcher Vol. 1 Review

The Horror Hothouse

In the suburban Los Angeles is the church of Vietnam vet the Reverend Cecil Omar Biggs. It’s not a normal church by any means, locked up in the basement are the board of governors and you really don’t want to know what’s kept in the freezer. When the Reverend and his Deacon Marvin ‘Freebase’ Muck go hunting for their next victim in LA’s strip joints some very nasty stuff happens.

To be honest Lustmord isn’t really my chalice of industrial strength hemlock. This is the horror of Dennis Nilson and Jeffrey Dahmer, rather than that of Clive Barker or Bram Stoker. There is no comforting air of fantasy in Lustmord, there are no supernatural monsters here – oh no they are all too human! Nothing is left to the imagination and the brutal scenes of murder, violence and rape are all extremely graphic. That being said there is something…

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A Bit of Holiday Reading – The Isis Covenant

My best laid plans to improve my reading habits went spectacularly awry in Rhodes. The copy of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers that I thought I had stuffed into my bag turned out to be the very same copy of Great Expectations (damn those uniform Vintage editions) that I had read in the Cape Verde Islands earlier this year.

So having demolished my copies of Empire, Mojo and Uncut I borrowed this off one of my travelling companions.

This is yet another of those ancient artefact coveted by the Nazis mysteries. In this case it’s the Crown of Isis, which is looted from the Soviet siege of Berlin. The crown is reputed to confer eternal life on the possessor when sacrifices are made at auspicious moments. Problem is during the crown’s liberation at the hands of two of Himmler’s SS art thieves, the Eye of Isis (a diamond bigger than the Koh-i-noor) becomes separated from the crown rendering it ineffectual. Back in the present ritualistic murders are carried out on relatives of one of the looters, with the eye of Isis carved into the victim’s foreheads. Someone is trying to reunite the two parts of artefact.

Enough of that,the bulk of the story concerns the efforts of a New York detective to solve the murders, with the aid of London art dealer (and like Rankin’s Inspector Rebus a failed SAS recruit) Jaime Saintclair. Along the way we meet Nazis, Neo-Nazis, Latvian War criminals, a secret order of martial arts fighting nuns dedicated to Isis and the Russian mafia. While a lot of these concepts are common to various Indiana Jones movies (Hell the Nazis just make such good villains, don’t they?), I’m sure I have come across the jewel separated from artefact idea in an old Fu Manchu story I read many years ago. Bearing in mind that it’s virtually impossible for any writer to be completely original, I could forgive all this if the book was well written, but in my opinion, it really isn’t. The characters are completely one-dimensional, many of the twists and turns in the plot were completely pointless and the denouement highly predictable. There’s also a bit too much concentration on sadistic and gruesome violence.

Apparently this is the second Saintclair mystery with a Nazi occult object, but I don’t think I will be seeking the other out.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations and Stuff

I recently wrote a feature on Charles Dickens as the author celebrated his 200th birthday on 7 February 1812. Now I ‘m not an expert on the man who is frequently described as the UK’s second best writer (Shakespeare darlings), but researching and writing about such a great Victorian was a really interesting experience.

Broadstairs Dickens Festival Parade

Like many people my own relationship with Charles Dickens didn’t really get off to a great start. At age 11 we were given Oliver Twist as an English set book by a unispiring English teacher with a fondness for knuckle rapping. Thinking about the prose we were reading was just not encouraged and the (seemingly) hours spent reading the book out loud passed with the rapidity of a mogodon laced snail doing a marathon. I imagine many people of my vintage have shared the experience.

My Dickens epiphany was when I read Hard Times as part of an Open University course. Of course I was a bit older by then and had developed a taste for 19th and early 20th century genre fiction authors like MR James and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so the denser nature of Dickens’ Victorian prose wasn’t quite so daunting. Gaining an insight into how books were consumed at the time they were written, as magazine serials much like modern soap operas and having a fuller understanding of both the period and the social conditions Dickens was highlighting made me realise how important he was as both an author and a social campaigner.

Over the years I have read a number of Dickens’ novels and short stories with varying degrees of pleasure. After writing my piece for the Philatelic Bulletin to coincide with Royal Mail’s recent stamp issue my interest in reading more Dickens was piqued so I took Great Expectations to the Cape Verde Islands, instead of my usual Swedish noir or historic romp.

I won’t spoil anything by giving the plot away, but I was immediately struck by the very dark Gothic opening as Pip encounters the convict Magwitch in the graveyard where Pip’s parents are buried. David Lean really nailed this in the opening of his 1946 film adaptation.

Though I do feel Lean’s vision has been slightly influenced by the grave robbing scene in James Whale’s  1931 Frankenstein, you can see how Lean must have influenced Terence Fisher’s Hammer Horrors. Of course the other great Gothic set- piece is Miss Haversham’s house with the rotting remnants of her aborted wedding breakfast. This clip from Lean’s adaptation features the divine Jean Simmons as Estella and some amazingly dark and atmospheric lighting.

I’m glad I re-aquainted myself with the world of Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham, not least because it gave me the opportunity to revisit Lean’s splendid film adaptation, so I might take Mr Pickwick and his Papers to Rhodes, lets see.

Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem – Nick S Thomas

Being interested in both Horror movies and Sherlock Holmes I end up reading all kinds of pastiches. Some of them are very competent like Loren D Estleman’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes, but an awful lot of them are a bit rubbish.

Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem falls somewhere in the middle, even if it does veer more towards the rubbish end of the spectrum than the competent. Thomas conflates Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem, where Holmes tracks down Moriarty to Switzerland and apparently perishes as he tumbles from Reichanbach Falls, with yet more flesh-eating zombies derived from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Apparently Moriarty has discovered how to create an army of the living dead, although how is never revealed, and has charged them with preventing Holmes from tracking him down to his Swiss lair. Along the way Holmes is aided by a young Winston Churchill, intrepid traveller Phileas Fogg and explorer Sir Richard Burton, who has somehow faked his own death to fit in with the chronology.

While the writing isn’t too bad, there really isn’t much of an opportunity for Holmes to indulge in any detection. Much of the story is a series of set battles as Holmes and Watson despatch legions of flesh-eating zombies and the conclusion is rather unsatisfactory. As Watson ponders his friend’s apparent death we never discover what happens to the legions of living dead rampaging around Europe.  I have to say that I’m bored with zombies, they don’t really do much other than eat people and don’t offer any intellectual challenge to either the protagonists or the reader.

In common with a lot of self-published books Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem has not been edited much beyond a spell check and it is littered with random paragraph breaks and words used in the wrong context.

MR James – Night of the Demon

I have been reading the Collected Ghost Stories of MR James this week, as research for a feature I’m writing about the old boys 150th birthday this year. I have read many of these stories before in those paperback collections of Horror stories from the 1970s like Christopher Lee’s Archive of Evil, that I used to scour charity shops for, while others are familiar from those TV adaptations that used to turn up every Christmas.

Despite the predictability of hindsight, in print these stories can still do the business, every now and then there is a little twist, say where Dr Haynes’s hand idly touches the carving of the cat on the archdeacon’s stall in The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral only to discover instead of polished wood, living breathing fur, that has the power to shock and surprise. The power of James’s writing is in the ability to suggest and let the reader’s imagination do the rest, for my money a skill far greater than that of churning out gruesome violence and mutilation.

One of the things that did surprise me was how much of MR James’s material had been plundered by HP Lovecraft. I know Lovecraft admired James, he confessed as much in his essay on supernatural literature, but some of Lovecraft’s short stories have borrowed quite extensively from James tales like Lost Hearts and despite Lovecraft’s phenomenally fertile pantheon of horrors he is not the technician that James is when it comes down to atmosphere and plot.

Surprisingly few of James’s works have been filmed for the big screen, but in 1957 the French-American director Jacques Tourneur (him of the very stylish RKO B features Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie) crossed the Atlantic to film the story Casting the Runes. Moving the story on from 1911 to the 1950s Night of the Demon was remarkably faithful to the orignal story.

OK the fight with the stuffed cat looks a bit lame but the movie scared the pants off me when I first saw it on late night TV in the 1960s. It’s still one of my favourite horror films to this day. (Curse of the Demon was the US release title)

The Bloody Red Baron – Kim Newman

If you have been in a bookshop in the last year or so, you can’t have missed the creaking shelves of what we used to call the horror section. Vampires, zombies, demons, ghosts and werewolves are seemingly up for anything, whether it’s romancing teeny Americans or munching their way through Regency England. If you want my opinion most of it is pretty dire.

Having grown up on a diet of Hammer Horror, Pan and Fontana books of Horror, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and MR James Christmas chillers on the BBC, I liked the world of properly defined evil supernatural monsters so imagine my joy on discovering Kim Newman’s alternate Anno Dracula reality.

My old original Bloody Red Baron with the super new expanded edition

In the world of Anno Dracula, the blood sucking Count has married Queen Victoria, vampires are an accepted, even fashionable part of society and characters from history and literature interact with each other as the story unfolds.

These books used to be really hard to find, but last year Titan books republished the first Anno Dracula novel in an expanded format with new material. The sequel The Bloody Red Baron was republished this week again with extra material including a new full length novella. The action has moved on from late Victorian England to the trenches of the Western Front in 1918 and the forces of Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary are under the command of Graf von Dracula. In the skies the aces of the Royal Flying Corps are under attack from the shapeshifting vampire squadron headed up by the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen. I won’t give away any more other than to say that like Anno Dracula there are real people like Richthofen, Mata Hari  and the British fighter ace Albert Ball (no relation) and there are characters from sources as diverse as DH Lawrence, Jules Verne and Captain WE Johns. Part of the fun is seeing who you recognise!

Kim was doing a signing down at London’s Forbidden Planet bookstore yesterday so I went down and got a few books signed for the folks at home.

Kim Newman fortunately not signing in his life's blood

In my previous life as Royal Mail’s stamp product editor, I worked with Kim on a couple of projects including the presentation pack for the Hammer horror stamps in 2008. His encyclopaedic knowledge of film is quite astonishing (he is the go to guy for any BBC documentary as well as writing for Empire and Sight and Sound) and I have no hesitation in recommending his recently revised masterwork Nightmare Movies for an in-depth look at Horror Movies from the 1960s onwards.

By far the best book on the modern monster movie

For me this neatly takes up the story of screen horror from where Dennis Gifford with A Pictorial History of Horror and David Pirie with A Heritage of Horror, left it in the 1970s.

Doors Open – Ian Rankin

If there is one constant in Ian Rankin’s stories it’s the Jekyll and Hyde duality of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. On the one side there is the rarefied middle class intellectual world of the University and cultural elite, on the other the violence and sleaze of the criminal underworld.

Doors Open

Here both world’s collide when a group of art lovers decide to liberate some of the old masters locked away from public view in the National Museum of Scotland’s secure store. Trouble is they need a bit of extra help and that comes in the form of gangland boss Chib Calloway. It isn’t long before things start going wrong especially when a group of Norwegian Hell’s Angels get involved.

As with Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels, this is a great read, the evocation of both high and low Edinburgh is spot on and the twists and turns of the plot keep you teetering on the very edge of your seat until the final chapter.  He even has a wry laugh at Edinburgh’s cultural vultures, take this exchange between the investigating policeman and a fine art auctioneer after the robbery:

‘So do you have any names for me?’

‘Names?’

‘Art-lovers who might put a gang together.’

‘This is Edinburgh, Ransome.’

National Gallery of Scotland

The Nightmare Man – David Wiltshire.

I have just finished this book, which was originally called Child of Vodyanoi.

Lovely Lurid Cover

This edition was published as a tie in to a BBC TV dramatisation in 1981, where the title was changed to give it a bit fright appeal. As you can probably guess from the cover there is a bit of a Sci-Fi Horror thing going on here. I never saw the TV series and only found out about it when I was researching British Sci-Fi shows for a project I was working upon. The premise of a mystery object found on a deserted Scottish beach, with an occupant who immedietely goes on a deranged killing spree, reminded me a lot of 1950s and 60s movies like the original Thing from Another World and Brit horror  The Island of Terror. I just had to read the book. It’s long out of print, so I tracked down a copy from an Amazon reseller.

It’s not high art by any means, but it didn’t disappoint. It really did take me back to the heady days of low-budget British Sci-Fi films and TV shows, before things got spoilt by CGI technology. The writing is well paced, the scene setting atmospheric and it doesn’t overdo the details of the rather nasty killings. The hero is the local dentist, who fortunately turns out to have been in the Paras (That’s the Parachute Regiment of the British Army my non British readers) and if I tell you any more I will spoil it for you. For the same reason, I’m not saying what a Vodyanoi is.

I’d quite like to get my hands on the DVD of the series, which starred one of my favourite actors, Celia Imrie as the dentist’s love interest. How about it Santa?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Jane Austen and Grahame Smith

The idea of transplanting a zombie holocaust into a Jane Austen classic probably sounded like a good idea at after a few drinks.

So in the early 19th century Britain is in the grip of an unexplained zombie plague. Fortunately the Bennet sisters have been trained in martial arts at the Shaolin Temple in China and their zombie slaying antics are here grafted onto the romance of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth.

As if the sub Karate Kid high jinks aren’t irritating enough Smith puts chipmunks and skunks into the British countryside. Now while imagining zombies roaming through 19th century Hertfordshire isn’t a problem for me, North American animals are. Similarly giving Elizabeth Bennet a Brown Bess musket that can fire with the rapidity of an Uzi was a bit rubbish, what’s wrong with an eight barrel volley gun? It worked for Sharpe’s Sergeant Harper, did loads of damage and it was a real piece of Georgian engineering.
This book is a bit of a one trick pony, but somehow has spawned a minor industry of horror/classic mashups, where zombies, werewolves and other creatures are grafted onto existing properties. Personally I have no problem with authors using other author’s characters, so long as they do something interesting with them, in the hands of someone like Kim Newman it can result in a really entertaining and original read. So if you want something that’s a bit more original don’t buy this book buy Kim’s Anno Dracula instead.