Monday, 23 March 2015

The Eternal Fires of Ally Shields

 Crows are intelligent birds. Recent tests at the University of Auckland have revealed that they possess a similar level of intelligence to a seven year old child. Maybe that is one reason they appear to not only watch, but also learn from their observations. They work things out with almost uncanny accuracy - such as how to get water out of a tube by dropping stones into it to raise the water level.

A crow is, in avian terms, one smart cookie. Put a few of them together and you have a potentially deadly combination. Why else would a flock of them be called a 'murder'? Is it merely urban myth that they are capable of joining forces and working together against one of their number who has transgressed in some way? It is said that the very origin of the group term 'a murder of crows' stems from their habit of gathering in a sort of 'Star Chamber' court to decide the capital fate of one of their number.

Crows in their many forms - from jays and jackdaws through American, hooded and carrion crows to magpies and ravens - feature in almost every culture's mythology. Indeed, the only place members of the crow family are not to be found is Antartica. They are associated with death in Irish mythology and are carriers of information to the gods in Norse legends. Ravens 'protect' the Tower of London. Many cultures fear them for their black feathers and sinister expressions - borne, no doubt, of that sharp brain and quick mind we now know they possess.

In Ally Shields' latest (and last) in the seven volume Guardian Witch series of Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance novels, crows play an intrinsic part. To give you a taste of what to expect, here's the blurb:

It started with the murder of a stranger. Then the crows appeared…

Ari and Andreas know the O-Seven will never leave them alone. Ari is carrying Andreas's mortal child, but the vampire elders are convinced the child will be the first vampire baby and are out to posses it. Or kill it. Either way, Ari and Andreas will do anything to keep their unborn child safe, even if it means Ari has to go into hiding and leave Andreas exposed to the O-Seven alone.

But then the O-Seven call on the Mahmo magic that can turn an elder into a winged killer, and each time Ari runs, they find her again. The only way to protect their child's future is to defeat the O-Seven, once and for all. And to do that, Ari will have to face the elders head-on in their castle stronghold deep in Germany’s Black Forest…

Here's an excerpt:

“A super crow,” Doc Onway muttered, sounding exasperated. “What’s next?”

Exactly. Ari disconnected. During her conversation with the doctor, the bird hadn’t moved from its position on the fence. It was at least as large as a condor, and the murky haze around it wasn’t put there by nature. The creature cocked its head and stared at her. Witch fire tingled in her fingertips, but she calmed the magic and tightened her grip on her handgun.

Unless forced by circumstances, she wouldn’t use magical fire out in the open like this, where she might burn the farmer’s fields. And where motorists might observe her. Magic still caused a big stir—and a lot of fear—among humans.

“It’s not coming after us.” Ryan turned to look at her. “What did you mean by ‘a normal bird wouldn’t?’”

“It isn’t a coincidence that a flock of crows is called a murder of crows,” she said darkly. “They have a bad reputation. Their minds can be bent to evil by someone with the ability to call and control them—a werewolf, a witch or wizard, even a vampire. There are stories of powerful magic users who can morph into the creature’s form. Just look at it, Ryan. You can’t see the dark aura, but how do you explain that size?”

“Are you telling me that bird might be someone else? Someone supernatural?” Ryan’s hand moved to hover over his own pistol.

“Let’s find out.” Ari took off running, vaulted the fence, and headed straight for the crow. The creature stretched its head high before spreading its wings to their full span and lifting into the air. It released a loud caw and streaked away at astonishing speed. Ari came to a halt in the middle of the field. By the time Ryan caught up, she’d already put her gun away.

“Guess it wasn’t in the mood for a fight.” She shaded her eyes and watched the black object disappear into the horizon.

“How can a bird move that fast?”

Ordinary birds couldn’t. Ari didn’t bother to answer him. She started toward the fence line where the creature had perched.

“Now what?”

“The residual magic might tell me what it is or who’s controlling it.”

Ryan didn’t comment, but she heard the cornstalks swish against his denim jeans as he followed her. He acted skeptical, which kind of surprised her after all the things he’d seen in the last three years. But Ryan had never been completely comfortable with the Otherworld. He’d rather believe the bird was genetically altered by some mad scientist than a magical manifestation.

She stopped at the wooden fence and ran her hands over the rails until she found a spot that tingled…and filled her with an unreasonable sense of dread. She lifted her hands and the oppressive feeling receded. Bad mojo.

“Hey, look.” Ryan pointed toward a black feather sticking out of the grass. He pulled a set of crime scene gloves from his pocket and handed them to Ari. “I suppose you need to handle it first.”

“You know me.” She snapped the gloves in place and picked up the glossy object. Scorching heat, devouring flames. “Yikes!” She dropped it from sheer reflex, the heat vanished, and her fingers had no sign of injury. An illusion. A strong one.

“What happened?” Ryan demanded, staring at the shiny quill as if it might come to life. “You act like it bit you.”

She eyed the feather, not eager to repeat the experience. “Try touching it.”

His brows shot up. 
“Carefully,” she added. “See if you get the same vivid sensation of heat.”

“Why am I always the guinea pig?” But he pulled out a second pair of gloves, crouched, and extended a tentative finger. “Nope. I feel nothing.” He picked it up. “What’s that tell you?”

“It has a defensive shield that reacts to magic.”

“So you were right. It wasn’t a real crow.”

She gave a terse nod. “I couldn’t get past its shields to identify the magic user. Maybe the lab can do better.” She took off her gloves and stuffed them in a pocket. Ryan could carry the damned thing.

They headed back to the car. Ari kept a vigilant eye on the sky and trees around them, extending her senses to avoid a surprise attack. Although the nymph hadn’t died from the visible injuries of a crow’s attack, Ari believed they’d just seen the killer—or some form of the killer—and the cause of the nymph’s death was dark magic.

You can find Eternal Fires and the entire Guardian Witch series here: 

  You can connect with Ally here:
And here is the Trailer for Eternal Fires:

There will be more from Ally in Autumn-Winter of this year, with the release of novel II in the Elvenrude series - Cross Keys: Revelation

Thursday, 19 March 2015

My Greatest (Literary) Influences - Susan Hill
When asked about my influences/favourite authors, Susan Hill is always high on my list. These days she is probably best known (certainly in some quarters) as the author of the original story, The Woman in Black, whose eerie dark horror spawned a long running West End play and a highly profitable film starring Daniel Radcliffe (the sequel is, I understand, nothing to do with her).

Susan Hill is one of those rare authors who regularly cross genres. Apart from ghostly, Gothic horror, her other major claim to fame lies in Crime Fiction where her creation, Detective Inspector Simon Serailler, has hunted down almost as many killers as Poirot. You’d better add the apparently peaceful English village of Lafferton to Cabot Cove, St Mary Mead and anything beginning with Midsomer to your list of places you would never want to live for fear of turning up dead.

Ms Hill doesn’t stop at just two main genres though. Her backlist spans children’ fiction, literary, women’s and memoirs. Some years ago, she wrote Mrs de Winter – her excellent and highly credible sequel to Rebecca. Many of her books feature the sea and coastline, as she herself was born and brought up in Scarborough on England’s windswept and often stormy east coast. As much her inspiration as Cornwall’s equally rugged coastline was for Daphne du Maurier. She has won the Whitbread, Somerset Maugham and John Llewelyn Rhys awards, as well as having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has written something like 56 books to date. She writes short stories, novellas and full length novels but is one of the few authors whose shorter works are published in hardback and/or paperback, as well as in digital formats.

It will come as little surprise that I am most drawn to her ghost stories. Her style is unique, as is the time in which her stories are set. She never specifies year, decade or even century and I believe it was her publisher who coined the term ‘Hill-time’ by way of definition, if not explanation. It is up to the reader to make up their own minds, and whenever I read her ghostly tales, an immediate image of a world of around 1895-1905 pops into my mind. The Gothic darkness spreads itself around me like a cloak and I invariably find myself devouring her latest in one sitting (they are mainly novella length). There are echoes of du Maurier (at her darkest and most sinister) in a number of Susan Hill’s stories and that may be another factor that draws me to them. There are further echoes of classics such as The Turn of The Screw.

As writers, I believe we are all influenced by someone. The trick is to embrace those influences, absorb them and learn from them - but then produce something entirely your own. Something unique. While I can certainly detect some of this fine author’s own influences, I can say categorically that no one writes quite like Susan Hill - and I know that my writing is all the better for her influence.

Here’s some information on her latest ghostly tale – Printer’s Devil Court

One murky November evening after a satisfying meal in their Fleet Street lodgings, a conversation between four medical students takes a curious turn and Hugh is initiated into a dark secret. In the cellar of their narrow lodgings in Printer's Devil Court and a little used mortuary in a subterranean annex of the hospital, they have begun to interfere with death itself, in shadowy experiments beyond the realms of medical ethics. They call on Hugh to witness an event both extraordinary and terrifying. 

Years later, Hugh has occasion to return to his student digs and the familiar surroundings resurrect peculiar and unpleasant memories of these unnatural events, the true horror of which only slowly becomes apparent.

The Woman in Black

 A classic ghost story: the chilling tale of a menacing specter haunting a small English town. Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford--a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway--to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow's house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images--a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child's scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black.

Here she is being interviewed on the set of The Woman in Black

If you haven’t yet discovered Susan Hill’s work, visit her website

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Annabelle and The Babadook

I have been watching a number of horror films recently - some old, some new, some classics and some dire, gratuitous slash-fests with little or no story to redeem them. Out of the newer releases, two have really claimed my attention and respect. Annabelle, and The Babadook.

Firstly, Annabelle. I had seen and enjoyed The Conjuring and I'm not normally a fan of prequels. After all, a prequel is quite often concerned with the back story of the original. There is usually a reason why the back story remains largely untold. It's mostly superfluous, except occasionally as a point of reference to explain the character's reaction and/or behaviour in relation to whatever is going on. It can also help to ensure that certain aspects of the plot make sense and hang together. Once it has accomplished that, its job is done. To attempt to turn the back story into the main story is frequently a recipe for disaster.

Not in this case.

Annabelle makes a brief appearance in The Conjuring and is barely involved in the plot of that film, but there is something sinister in that doll's face, even before she is possessed. The only question I had is why on earth anyone would want to collect a doll that looked like that in the first place. But then, there appears to be a lucrative market for those life-size baby dolls made of some vinyl material which looks and feels like real skin. I don't know about you, but those things creep me out!

From the moment Annabelle makes her first appearance, to the closing credits, the tension and scares kept me riveted. Of course there is nothing new about creepy doll movies and there was nothing intrinsically unique about this one, but it ticked all the boxes for a great evening's horror entertainment and didn't resort to the need for flying dismembered body parts in lieu of a story. I loved the way the tension mounted and the ending left plenty of room for a sequel - with no reason why that shouldn't also be excellent, if handled as well as this one.

As for The Babadook - this Australian film has been quietly accumulating much critical acclaim. Justifiably so, in my opinion. It stars an actress whose performances I have come to enjoy in a distinctly different role and genre. When she's not being terrified out of her wits, Essie Davis is the cool, sophisticated, amoral and unconventional 1920s sleuth, Phryne Fisher in the Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries TV series.

In The Babadook, she is almost unrecognisable as single mother, Amelia,who has never come to terms with the sudden, tragic death of her husband in a car crash as they were on their way to hospital in order for her to give birth to her only child. Noah Wiseman, just seven years old, delivers a stunning performance as the troubled son who finds a sinister picture book - The Babadook. The premise of the film - a creepy and evil presence materializing from the pages of the picture book in order to possess and terrorise the household - is not particularly original, but, as with Annabelle, the pacing, performances and storytelling in this film make it a scary, entertaining experience.  

The Babadook also adds another dimension, as it is essentially two stories. One is the sad story of a woman desperately trying to cope with her life after appalling tragedy, while also dealing with a son who is troubled and prone to violence, and the second being the mounting horror of the entity that has invaded their home. Here again, there is no lazy recourse to slashing or liberal use of Kensington Gore. The story and the characters are strong and make this film look and feel authentic. And scary as hell.

My only criticism is of the ending. I'm giving nothing away but, for me, it was the only part of the film that I found hard to believe. That said, I thoroughly recommend it - along with Annabelle  - for horror fans who prize a great story, with lots of scares, rather than simply a bloody gore fest.

See for yourself. Here are the trailers:

Oh, and if you reaally have to see those creepy dolls I mentioned earlier, here is a link. Don't say I didn't warn you... The Bradford Exchange Baby Dolls