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New Release: Servants of the Dark Gods!

The silhouette of the king on his knees, he holds two whips for self-flagellation in the middle of a Gothic cathedral with bright sunny stained glass windows , his back is wounded and bleeding 2d art

Hello everyone,

I am pleased to announce my new book SERVANTS OF THE DARK GODS will be released in May! See below the cover reveal!

This collection, set in The Book of Thrice Dead multiverse, pulls together six of my best and most horrifying short stories, three of my most popular dark novellas (including The Meaning of the Dark), and includes a new original short story entitled “Spring Offensive”.

Many of these stories have been out of print for several years, so it is a delight to see them in print again! These stories contribute to the wider lore and origin stories of the principle cast of The Book of Thrice Dead, so those familiar with this series will meet some old friends—and learn some surprising truths.

The stunning cover design was done by dear friend and awesome writer Dan Soule. The art is Warm Tail.

Furthermore, I am delighted to announce that the incredible Lezlie Smith, of The Nerdy Narrative booktube channel, has written a stunning Foreword for the collection. Honestly, it might be better than the stories themselves!

Here is a short extract:

For those familiar with Sale's work, this collection offers a tantalizing glimpse into the origins of characters, tracing their paths through the web of existence to the precipice of villainy. For newcomers, it serves as a portal to worlds beyond imagination, where every story is a gateway to discovery and self introspection.”

You can view the Amazon pre-order page for more information:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amazon CA

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BEST IN SHOW: THE TOP FANTASY & HORROR WRITERS OF OUR TIME

There are lots of articles ranking the very best books in a particular genre, and there are also lists ranking the best writers and books of all time. Whilst a sense of hierarchy (this thing is more perfectly executed than that thing) is important in criticism, it should never come at the sacrifice of palette. The old-fashioned saying “Different horses for different courses” rings true: we go to certain genres and writers for specific experiences, whether we know this consciously or not. And so, I wanted this ranking list to work a little differently to most. Instead of saying who is the “best” (because of course we will all have different definitions of what constitutes “the best”), I wanted to showcase writers who excel at delivering particular experiences. Picture it like this: rather than looking at who is sitting on the biggest pile of gold, I instead wanted to point you towards the writers who possess very niche, gleaming treasures… I also exclusively wanted to feature living writers. I love the classics, but there are so many hugely talented authors working today.

Of course, this list—like all lists—is entirely subjective, but it might just help you to find the right writer to scratch a particular itch, a particular artefact you’ve long sought in the paradoxical desert of over-saturation. In addition, there are a good number of phenomenal authors who did not make this list, authors like John Durgin, Richard Thomas, Iseult Murphy, Brian Barr, Eric LaRocca, Anna Smith Spark, and more... The reason they did not make this list is no aspersion upon their literary abilities, and simply a reflection on the aesthetic focus of this article and the limitation of space!

So, without further ado, here are the best in show, my choice fantasy and horror writers and the particular delights they offer up. They have such sights to show you!

The best to make me believe in the supernatural… Lee Mountford

I had the privilege of meeting Lee Mountford in 2022 at the Self Publishing Show in London, a conference for independent authors run by Mark Dawson and James Blatch. He is one of the most kind-hearted and humble souls writing today. However, not only that, but his fiction is truly unique. He has taken the “haunted house” formula to another level of intensity, combining gothic verisimilitude with supernatural intensity. Lee Mountford’s Perron Manor, which is part of his Haunted series, will immerse you in the dark history of the eponymous house, a history so intricately interwoven with real history that you will find yourself Googling “Perron Manor” to see if such a place really exists. The mantle of reality cloaking Mountford’s work is, quite frankly, terrifying. With a torturer’s artistry, he makes you believe one small thing after another, until finally we reach a crescendo and come face to face with supernatural horror in its purest form—and are forced to believe that too.

It is shocking to see how quickly esteem can turn into infamy.”

Inside: Perron Manor

The best to make me care about f*cked up people… Christa Wojciechowski

Christa Wojciechowski is one of the most original writers working today. Her work is equal parts psychological horror, erotic thriller, and something altogether more mythopoeic. There were therefore a number of reasons to include Christa Wojciechowski on this list, from her startling and dark eroticism (which is so much more than pornographic, but almost spiritually harrowing) to her scalpel-sharp command of prose, but ultimately I settled on what may be her greatest gift: making me care about objectively awful people. Christa Wojciechowski has a unique gift for creating characters of rich psychological depth, and rendering those psychological interiors in ways that don’t feel expositional. Her characters are often broken, wrestling with addiction and vice, and many of them do terrible things in the name of love or in an attempt to survive, but somehow we still love them, forgive them, and care about them. Christa Wojciechowski has made me weep for abominable people, people who—were I in my right mind—I might wish were locked up. This is her dark genius, and I hope more people get to experience it.

If he only knew how good I was at tapping into veins, every one except the one of truth.”

Oblivion Black

The best to make me peer into the abyss… S. C. Mendes

I first encountered S. C. Mendes by chance. I was a big fan of the publisher Blood Bound Books and therefore monitored the books they released. They had put put a novel entitled The City, authored by Mendes. I confess, I did not pay it much attention at first, but then I heard online rumours in the form of cryptic reviews, rumours that the novel was not entirely what it appeared to be. One rumour used the phrase “lizard people”. Needless to say, my curiosity got the better of me. Nothing could have prepared me for The City. It is elegantly written and terrifyingly brutal, a vision of total horror that yet conceals in its gory excrescences a pearl of wondrous hope. It is a book of psychological layers, of Dantean ingenuity and spirituality, and not for the faint of heart. In short, The City was and is a totally life-changing book. There are many “extreme” horror authors out there, but I find much of their work lacks the spiritual power that a true hell descent mandates. Mendes will make you peer into the abyss, but not because he is a fetishist or likes violence or depraved sexuality, he will make you peer into the abyss because he has been to hell and returned to the land of the living to share with us its dark lessons.

The City seemed cold this time, but it no longer felt foreign. The carnival atmosphere was like a discarded lover: the terrain was familiar, but its company was unwanted.”

The City

The best to make me care about a relationship under duress… Dan Soule

Dan Soule is the literary James Herbert you did not know you needed in your life. His books take classic horror concepts, such as a mummy or an alien invasion, and transform them into heartfelt, modern, and epic narratives. His greatest talent, however, is his ability to describe relationships—whether a friendship, family relationship, or a romantic entanglement—that you immediately become invested in. Dan Soule understands that “no man is an island” and every individual is bidirectionally entangled in a network of relationships that continuously modify and define them. Balancing Dan Soule’s elegant relationship work, however, is the horror itself, which often threatens to tear the relationship apart, or else to warp it so out of shape that it is no longer recognisable or wholesome. The stakes of Dan Soule’s books are therefore always higher than high because we care so much about a particular bond. Dan Soule uses this tension to grip his readers by the throat. 

Dawn was still a distant shore for all those souls cast adrift on the night.”

Savage

The best to make me afraid of the woods… Steve Stred

I’ve been a fan of Steve Stred for a long time. There are so many things I love about his work, from his brutal, direct prose-craft, to his grounded and believable characters, to his interesting takes on religious and occult themes. However, there is one thing Steve Stred is becoming known for above all others, and with good reason: making people shit-scared of the woods. Many of his stories take place in the forests and wilds, yet the theme never seems worn out. As a competent outdoorsman, Steve Stred knows his way through the wilds, and he uses that knowledge to create terrifyingly believable works of horror that make me never want to see a tree or go for a night-stroll through the forest ever again. I may sound like I am being flippant, here, but we all know it takes consummate skill to imbue a familiar and beloved location with a sense of dread. Spielberg’s iconic film Jaws made an entire generation of people, multiple generations in fact, terrified of the water, and is rightly praised for this incredible feat to this day. Steve Stred is to the forest what Spielberg is to the sea, a maestro who can tap into our deepest fears.

His dreams that night were filled with visions of the trees swaying in the wind.”

The Stranger

The best at world-building… Carlton Mellick III

This might seem like a highly controversial choice. Surely, the title of best world-builder should belong to a classic fantasy author or someone writing alternative history novels. To my mind, however, Carlton Mellick III is simply untouchable when it comes to creating a world that is internally consistent and believable, yet also fantastical and totally surprising. Whether he is exploring the internal anatomy of a fallen kaiju (The Big Meat), a world of modern conveniences and metropolises populated by faeries, elves, and nymphs (Full Metal Octopus), or else a futuristic universe in which the population crisis has been solved by “combining” people (Biomelt), Mellick always delivers. His skill is in making the world-building an integrated part of the storytelling. There are no info-dumps: characters and their actions reveal the world’s mechanics organically. His concepts are outlandish—they don’t call the genre bizarro for nothing—and yet he makes them feel more grounded and realistic than the most pedestrian literary fiction novel. We believe not only that such a place could exist, but that all the people living in it are real too, and are products of this unique (and sometimes disturbing) world. Mellick has so many talents as a writer. He remains one of the only writers capable of making me cry when reading what is ostensibly tentacle porn. Yet, his world-building methodology is worthy of attention for anyone looking to write their own fiction and learn from a master.

At least his wings haven’t been clipped. At least he’s still beautiful, even if his beauty is only allowed to shine when he’s safe behind closed doors.”

Full Metal Octopus

The best to take me on a dark adventure… Rob J. Hayes

Rob J. Hayes is swiftly becoming a favourite author. I bought the first book of his War Eternal series based on the cover alone, but what I found within surprised and delighted me: a compelling, unique fantasy narrative that manages to hit all the fantasy tropes I love so well whilst making them new. The War Eternal is a five-part series (I am currently on the final book) that follows Eskara Helsene, a sourcerer (the spelling is significant) who is imprisoned for being on the losing side of a war. There are so many things to praise about this series: the narrative voice is astounding, the world-building is fascinating and well-handled, and the dialogue between its rogue’s gallery of characters will put a smile on your face and strike to the heart in equal measure. But, what I love most about The War Eternal is the story vivifies a feeling I had not experienced for a long time reading fantasy: that I was on a mythical, dark, but wondrous adventure. Whether we are journeying to the site of a terrible war between magicians, through an underground city of the Djinn, or to the floating city of the Rand, or to the bustling, phantasmagorical cities of Polasia, Rob J. Hayes’s story instills that sense of wonder and adventure that so enchanted me as a child reading every fantasy book I could get my hands on. In my view, this sense of adventure is sorely lacking from so much of fantasy these days, which tends to focus more on battles and politics (for those who enjoy these, however, there is plenty to be found in War Eternal). So, if you’re ready for an adventure, I highly recommend his masterful series.

They had always intended me to be a weapon used against the Terrelan Empire, but what if I was more? What if could be more? What if, instead of being a weapon used by one empire against another, I was a weapon to be used against a God?”

The Lessons Never Learned (Book 2 of The War Eternal)

The best to surprise me… Brian Bowyer

As a student of the five act structure, an editor, and someone who has spent a lifetime working with narrative and fiction, I find that I am rarely surprised these days. This isn’t as bleak a picture as it sounds, as I find a great deal more pleasure in the journey of a story as a result of my studies. For example, if the identity of a killer is going to be revealed, I usually find I’ve worked out who it’s going to be, so instead of focusing on the “surprise” of the reveal, I tend to focus on how the reveal is executed. It’s a different mindset, but yields just as much enjoyment. However, as you've probably gathered, everything I’ve just said gets thrown totally out of the window when we discuss the work of Brian Bowyer. When reading a novel by Brian Bowyer, I can safely say at no point do I ever know what is going to happen in the next paragraph, let alone in the next chapter. This isn’t because his books are full of random and meaningless events. His stories have a dreadful, inexorable logic to them, pulling you towards some moment of revelation or horror—or sometimes even heroism—that is totally unexpected yet hair-raisingly cathartic. Perhaps the greatest example of this is his novel Flesh Rehearsal, where a character on a dark and twisted arc suddenly arrives at a moment of transcendental redemption almost too epic to put into words. Bowyer surprises his readers at every turn—and yet you sense that he is not trying to surprise you. His work isn’t strained, or preposterous, or conceited, simply totally and utterly alive. Be warned, if you want to read Bowyer’s work, you are going to be faced with horror so demented and twisted it will turn the stomach of even a hardened veteran, but the horror is often worth it for the—here’s that word again—surprising glimpses of hope, love, and faith that emerge from the darkness.

They spoke of him on the radio again—he who was currently between names—and he didn’t like it. He turned the radio off. Much better. Now, the only sounds in his car were the rumble of the engine and the music of his tires on the road… He drove out of the hills into the city. With a couple of hours to kill, he decided to look for someone to sacrifice to the ancient gods of death.”

Flesh Rehearsal

The best to make me afraid of having sex… Nikki Noir

Nikki Noir is a truly original voice in dark fiction, combining eroticism, the occult, cosmic horror, and more besides. Her Black Planet series is a powerful coming of age story that plunges us into the depths of human depravity and supernatural evil, a tale of innocence in the face of cataclysmic corruption. One of the most brilliant aspects of her writing is the way she uses the erotic elements of her stories to cloak the dagger she is about to drive into your heart. She lulls us expertly into a false sense of security, titillating us with scenarios that are all too believable perhaps because they mirror the darkest human yearnings, only to then ambush us with scenes so horrifying they seem to have leapt from a John Carpenter movie. Nikki Noir is the sadomasochistic seductress of the written word who has frankly traumatised me into periods of abstinence.

Riley rose from Jordan’s crotch, letting the gore drip from her mouth, still praying to the dark quarters of the universe. Hopefully, the watchers were as satisfied as she was.”

Black Planet

The best to make me feel awe… Clive Barker

Most of the authors on this list are independently published. That’s because I genuinely read more independently published fiction these days. I find indie fiction is where the really interesting writing is happening, where authors are experimenting, taking risks, and painting unique landscapes upon the canvas of the human mind. However, that is not to say I only read independently published fiction, and credit has to be given where credit is due, such as to the great master Clive Barker. For many horror and fantasy writers, Clive Barker is where a love of the genre began, and it’s easy to see why: his prose is angelic, his imagination one of the most fecund to have ever found expression via the pen, and his ability to challenge preconceived notions of desire, morality, and beauty are frankly, to quote the great man himself, “legendary even in hell”. However, if I had to pick one faculty of Barker’s writing which most draws me to him, I would say it is his capacity to instil awe. In our modern world of cynicism, scepticism, and desensitisation, awe is a rare and beautiful thing. Yet, Clive Barker’s stories, whether short or long, almost unfailing evoke it. Barker writes like one who has tasted the magic of the world, fully imbibing it, so that it has become a part of his very being. Reading his work, we can taste a little bit of this magic too.

All his adult life, he’d asked why. Why God? Why meaning? Why love? Now he realized his error. The question was not why; it was why not?”

Everville

Thank you for taking the time to read this (very lengthy) article! I hope you enjoyed reading about these amazing writers, and that it played havoc with your TBR pile. Please do share this so others can discover the amazing work these writers are doing, and maybe find their new favourite author in the process! And lastly, if you have a particular author who offers up a particularly rare gem of experience you would like to suggest, please do leave a comment and let everyone know! 

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11 MAGICAL BOOKS TO READ THIS HALLOWEEN

Hello my dear friends,

I’ve been silent for a while, but mindflayers never sleep, we simply dream in our dark labyrinths to wait out the aeons until it’s time for us to reclaim the surface world.

As it’s Halloween, which is my favourite day of the year, a magical time of year in which anything is possible, I have 11 magical and horrifying book recommendations for you! Some of these are recently-reads, and some are oldie-goldies. Either way, they’ll ensure you have a spooktacular Autumn and Winter. These are not in a particular order, so without further ado, here they are…

1. Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti

Okay, I’ll admit I’m quite late to the Ligotti party, but I’m so glad I’ve arrived. Ligotti combines psychological insight, impressionistic and poetic prose, and cosmic horror in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft to produce his own unique brand of darkness that is as addictive as it is unsettling. Songs of a Dead Dreamer is a collection of short stories—each one allowing the reader a glimpse into the blackest of unknowns, exploring existential questions of love and being. If you’re not a regular reader of short stories (in which case you’re not alone as I prefer longer mediums) I’d still recommend this compelling collection. Venture to the further reaches of the human psyche, to places where alchemy is not merely about the transubstantiation of matter but also of spirit. Glimpse the darkest worlds where only the truly mad can find their home. Songs of a Dead Dreamer is like an acid trip into the heart of darkness, one that cannot leave you unchanged.

SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER

2. Witchopper by Dan Soule

Dan Soule has written many books, all of which I love, but Witchopper is a very special tome. This story explores the relationship between father and son, between light and dark, between faith and chaos, between atavism and restraint, and explores what it means to grow up. It’s a story of post-Edenic loss of innocence told with tremendous passion, fierce intelligence, and fearless honesty. It’s a book not afraid to challenge social mores, sensibilities, or traditional ideas of morality. But at the same time it’s a hopeful story of redemption and love conquering all. The scope of this book is such that no brief review can do it justice, you’ll simply have to travel to the rural town of Southwell, and find out for yourself…

WITCHOPPER

3. All of Me by Iseult Murphy

I’ve reviewed All of Me previously on this site: it’s probably one of the best novellas I’ve ever read. This is a story of Faustian pacts, body-image, and the near-impossibility of self-love. It’s a harrowing and surprising tale that had me riveted from page one to its emotional, moving finale. Whilst it bills itself as body-horror, and there’s plenty of that to go around, the aspect of the book that will stay with me is the powerful psychology explored through its principle characters, a psychology which is as believable and sympathetic as it is unnerving.

ALL OF ME

4. Petite Mort by Nikki Noir and S. C. Mendes

Over the last year or two I’ve reviewed several works, both long-form and short-form, by Nikki Noir and S. C. Mendes, including a novella they wrote together called Algorithm of the Gods and the short story #DeadSealChallenge. Mendes and Noir are an awesome writing team—their styles blend effortlessly—and some of the ideas they come up with would make a bizarro author jealous. What I truly love about their work is how rich it is with symbolism, so that each sentence, image, or event feels loaded with meaning and purpose. While there is plenty of gross-out for even the most diehard fan of gore, and sex to satisfy the porn addict, the guts and orifices are never pointless titillation but a mechanism to explore deeper themes. Petite Mort is a collection of Mendes and Noirs’ shorter collaborative fiction, including Cucumbers and Comforters (which I reviewed here) and other horrifying wonders. If you’re curious about Mendes and Noir, this is the place to start.

PETITE MORT

5. We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

Those who know me knows how much I adore Grady Hendrix. He is an incredible writer who manages to combine the humour and humanity of life with a rich texture of darkness. Of his many books, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is undoubtedly my favourite. However, one book by Grady Hendrix that is often overlooked when I see discussions about his body of work is We Sold Out Souls. This is a fundamentally occult tale that explores conspiracy theories, Faustian bargains, and the intimate connection between rock ‘n’ roll and the dark powers. Balanced against feisty heroines is the ever-present malignancy of the dark eye, which is at once Sauron-like but also something altogether less fantastical and more disturbing. Several scenes in this book are so vividly described they will never leave you (if you’re claustrophobic, then you’ll probably want to tap out of this one), and the plotting is elegant and cunning in how it dovetails. This is a story of the pitfalls of success, the injustice of the world, and the timeless struggle between good and evil.

WE SOLD OUR SOULS

6. Flesh Rehearsal by Brian Bowyer

I reviewed this book fairly recently, but you will have to forgive me for recommending it again, because Brian Bowyer is simply a genius. Flesh Rehearsal shares some similarities with We Sold Our Souls, it’s a book about heavy metal, occultism, powerful women, and the darkness dwelling in human hearts—but it’s also surprisingly a book about love.In many ways it’s a deranged novel, written with feverously intense prose that cuts to the heart of matters with the precise brutality of a sacrificial blade. Flesh Rehearsal embodies the wisdom of John Ruskin, “All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness.”

FLESH REHEARSAL

7. Incarnate by Steve Stred

Almost every single book by Steve Stred would be appropriate for Halloween reading, but I think Incarnate is one of Stred’s most disturbing and accomplished books. Incarnate is particularly potent because it takes on so many horror tropes—holidaying in a remote location, a haunted house, a séance gone wrong—and yet remakes them into new, weird, and wondrous forms. Just when I thought I could predict what was going to happen, Stred throws a curveball. And the unconventional way Stred approaches writing horror scenes—sometimes narrating from bizarre or unexpected perspectives—casts a deeply unsettling spell over the reader. Stred is one of the few authors who can make me feel dread, and Incarnate succeeds in doing just this. If Shirley Jackson had lived to write a sequel to The Haunting of Hill House, this might have been it.

INCARNATE

8. Inside Perron Manor by Lee Mountford

Continuing the theme of haunted houses, Lee Mountford’s introductory novella to his Haunted series is a sublime masterclass in epistolary or “found footage” horror. Written from the perspective of a paranormal investigator obsessed with an ancient, malevolent house, Mountford inveigles us in the occult and disturbing history of Perron Manor to the point where we begin to lose our sense of reality. The aim of all good verisimilitudinous horror tales is to destroy the reader’s perception of the truth and make them believe, against all odds, in the reality of the tale, and Mountford succeeded so well in this I actually googled “Perron Manor”… Do you need any more encouragement?

INSIDE PERRON MANOR

9. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

In recent years, I’ve largely found myself preferring indie and self-published books to traditionally published ones—they take more risks and they explore unchartered territory—but there are exceptions to the rule, and Susanna Clarke is one of them. Piranesi is a phenomenal book that explores occult ideas, including the dissolution of the Self, the presence of other planes of existence, and much, much more. The horror here is subtle—a horror of not knowing one’s own mind, of doubting reality to the utmost extent. The tale is told in a style that is hauntingly imagistic, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. There are a number of surprises in this story, but even if you work out the true nature of things, the journey to get there is so thrilling, so heroic, so mysterious that you will want to re-read it again the moment it finishes.

PIRANESI

10. Oblivion Black by Christa Wojciechowski

This may seem an odd choice, as it is less fantastical and overtly “horror” than the other selections on this list. But likePiranesi, the horror in Oblivion Black is subtle yet no-less present. Oblivion Black is at its heart a novel about addiction and beauty, and how the two interrelate. It explores the story of a recovering heroine addict who takes up a job modelling for a legendary sculptor—erotic tension and unspoken desires ensue. However, beneath the sculptor’s charismatic facade lies darkness and trauma, just as our heroine, Ona, stills feels the draw towards her addictive past. Both are liberated by the creation of art, but even art can be corrupted when it is made with ill-intent. Oblivion Black is shocking, provocative, seductive, beautiful, and horrifying all in equal measure. And it’s sequel, Hierarchy of Needs, which I had the pleasure of beta-reading, is even more so. Don’t miss out.

OBLIVION BLACK

11. Melmoth The Wanderer by Charles Maturin

Four years ago, I wrote a ridiculously long article about Melmoth The Wanderer. My feelings about the book have not changed since then, I still regard it as the underrated masterpiece of Gothic fiction. What stands out about this novel is the style in which it is written, which is at once poetic and precise yet also labyrinthine and haunting. Maturin ensnares the reader in the runnels of Melmoth’s mind until we begin to think like the deranged anti-hero who threads his way through the complex layers of this book’s framed narrative. Imagine Inception written by Mary Shelly and Christopher Marlowe and you have a sense of the warped genius of Melmoth The Wanderer. Everyone should try reading this book at least once—though be warned those who succeed may end up mad!

MELMOTH THE WANDERER

Well, that’s my 11 recommendations for this spooky occasion. Have a terrifyingly joyous Halloween my dear friends. And stay classy!

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Thanks for reading this epic-sized blog! If you’ve come this far, then I can only profusely thank you for your dedication. If you want to support my work, including the production of more detailed content like this, then you can head on over to my Patreon where I post monthly content, from essays to behind-the-scenes videos to exclusive cover reveals and beta-reading opportunities. 

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CONNECTING THREAT AND CHARACTER: THE SECRETS OF COMPELLING STORY

 

The other day, I finished reading a book called Cold Storage by legendary screenwriter David Koepp, the man behind the original Jurassic Park, among other significant screenplays. It was a good book, but not a great one, and that got me thinking about why, because it wasn’t immediately obvious to me what was out of place with the narrative, or if indeed anything was out of place at all and it wasn’t simply a genre mismatch with me. Cold Storage was certainly more thriller than my usual fare.

To briefly summarise: Cold Storage is about a new genus of fungus, cordyceps novus, a mutating semi-intelligent infection that can take over human bodies the way ophiocordyceps unilateralis can turn ants into “zombies” that harbour fungus-spreading spores. The threat is very real here, and following a few devastating scenes at the start of the novel expertly rendered by Koepp in truly cinematic fashion, we believe just how bad things could get if cordyceps novus got into the wider populace. There is even a whiff of zombie-apocalypse here, albeit subtly toned down; think more The Last Of Us or The Girl With All The Gifts than let’s say, 28 Days Later.

But cool as it was, I didn’t find myself caring very much about it, despite how well researched and inventively conceived cordyceps novus was. The other problem was that I didn’t care much about the characters either, and that really bugged me, because objectively I could say the dialogue was pretty good. Koepp’s screenplay background was showing its worth here, and the characters each had interesting hooks in their backstories that made me want to know more. I couldn’t understand why solidly developed characters and an interesting threat weren’t working in combination, and then of course it became clear. The problem was, the threat and the characters did not meaningfully connect. The characters were intriguing, but they were not characters whom I felt were unique to the story. In other words, these characters could have inhabited any story. I didn’t understand why they were inhabiting this one.

I think to understand this better, we have to look at examples of where this worked well. One recent novel that immediately springs to mind is Dan Soule’s Neolithica. Soule does a brilliant job of connecting the threat, that of an ancient bog body unearthed in the north of England which then comes back to necromantic un-life, with the main through-line of the protagonist Mirin. Mirin has just lost her husband, and is terrified of losing her child, Oran, as well. The bog-body or mummy is also a young boy, though he is warped by his interment in the earth and the dark things that happened to him before he was mummified. The mummy is actually referred to as “the boy” throughout the story. We can immediately see the parallels with Mirin’s fears and that “the boy” almost represents a Freudian return of the repressed. Mirin’s fears of a dead child are embodied in the literal dead child that now comes to ravage her hometown. Because the threat and character through-line connect so strongly, the story takes on a profound and powerful life. We understand why Mirin is the only person who can resolve this problem, why she has been “chosen” to face this ordeal. This is as much about her psychological battle as any supernatural one, and the story is all the stronger as a result.

Steve Stred similarly does a brilliant job of this in his horror novel The Stranger. The main character, Malcolm, is a racist, with an ingrained hatred for Native Americans. However, he and his family end up haunted by a supernatural being known only as The Stranger. This horrifying entity embodies the protagonist’s fear of the “other” perfectly, yet ironically The Stranger is in fact a god and one with the land he protects. It’s the human beings that are the unwelcome “foreigners” or “strangers” to its creation, a commentary on how Americans, and indeed many Western peoples, are all, in some way, strangers to their own land; violent interlopers, if you will.

We might also look to Christa Wojciechowski’s genius Sick trilogy to see how threat connects with character. In Sick book one, Susan tries desperately to keep her terribly ill husband, John, well, even resorting to desperate criminal activity to obtain painkillers and other medications, but his sickness is constant and overwhelming. On the surface, sickness itself seems to be the threat, but look a little deeper, and we begin to understand that perhaps Susan needs John to be ill as much as he needs her to look after him, and the two are in a parasitic relationship that is self-reinforcing. The real threat is not sickness, but getting better.

To look to a more classical example, Homer’s Iliad centres around the myopic, arrogant, selfish, narcissistic, brutal Achilles. The threat in the narrative is Hector, Prince of Troy, the greatest of the Trojans and perhaps the only combatant on their side who can match Achilles at arms. Hector is a brilliant threat, because he connects with Achilles on so many levels. The two are mirrors of each other. Both are princes. Both are unwilling participants in the war. Hector only fights because he feels familial obligation to defend his brother Paris (though he daily advises Paris to give up Helen, whom he stole in the first place, and therefore save thousands of lives). Achilles is refusing to fight because he fell in love with a Trojan woman, Briseis. But even before then, he only came along to the war because of the false promises of Odysseus, so was never fully committed to the cause anyhow. Both men have two key people they are passionately devoted to. In Achilles’ case, the young boy Patroklus, his best friend and lover, and Briseis, his other Trojan lover. In Hector’s case, his wife Andromache and his son Astyanax.

Yet the two are not only mirrors but polar opposites. Achilles is thuggish and dishonourable, defiling corpses and throwing tantrums. Hector is noble and spares the defenceless. Achilles’ two “loves” are both sexual in nature (even if we read Patroklus in the crustiest classics professor way as a “best friend” and not homosexual lover, there is still a scene where he and Achilles both share women in the same bed together – so the relationship is sexual, whether or not the two themselves share intercourse). Hector’s loves are familial, however: son and wife.

But perhaps most importantly, Achilles is a demigod, born of Thetis, the Nymph. Hector is mortal. In this way, Hector almost represents Achilles’ own fears of mortality, the fragility of life. Achilles believes himself invulnerable, but he has also been told by Thetis that he will die young if he goes to war. The story of Homer’s Iliad, without the context of other epics in the Trojan saga, is of a man being humanised by confronting death. In the end, after Achilles kills Hector and defiles his corpse for days on end, he finally is moved to tears by the grief of Old Priam, Hector’s father and Lord of Troy. He comes to understand that his own sense of loss for Patroklus is shared by others, who are suffering and have also lost love ones, and indeed, Achilles himself has caused much of this suffering. He returns Hector’s body to Priam, and the gods work a miracle whereby Achilles’ cretinous defacing of Hector’s corpse is undone, so that the hero can be given a proper funeral. It’s perhaps Achilles’ first noble and empathetic act.

Of course, it’s also possible to read The Iliad the other way. Or rather, from the Trojan perspective. Hector is the noble hero, and Achilles is the “threat” or “monster” that waits for him. Achilles represents Hector’s own repressed emotions: rage and sexuality, all of which have been subsumed by endless duty to his father, to his brother, and to Troy. Such deep readings, some might even say falsely anachronistic in their use of psychology to analyse a text that predates Freud by nearly 2,500 years, are only possible because of the way Homer connects the threat and his character.

So, as writers, we need to learn from this. If we want to create meaningful stories, we have to make sure that our characters inhabit a tale that was made specifically for them. The threat has to be not only relevant to the characters or protagonist, but part of them. The threat is self-generated. We each create the horror that we must one day face. In that way, perhaps the most archetypal example of this I can give is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What monster has your protagonist birthed, and how does it return to dog their steps?

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