Book review: The Visitors by Catherine Burns

Horror fiction takes many forms. Good horror is an art form, one that requires considerable mastery and imagination. Psychological horror shades into dark fiction – bleak, gothic at times, often literary – and as ever, books can be hard to categorise. Catherine Burn’s The Visitors is one of those books.


I’m only sharing some of the blurb as I think the rest is a spoiler.

“Marion Zetland lives with her domineering older brother, John in a decaying Georgian townhouse on the edge of a northern seaside resort. A timid spinster in her fifties who still sleeps with teddy bears, Marion does her best to shut out the shocking secret that John keeps in the cellar.”

The Visitors is a grim read, more disturbing as the story unfolds, the narrative devoid of humour but not wit. The is novel driven by its backstory, and amounts to a acutely observed character study of the protagonist, Marion Zetland, as she observes her brother, John, and his deviant habits. Burns makes a study of dark passion, but not the brooding malevolence of a serial killer, more the banal evil referred to by Hannah Arendt, one laced with pathetic and inane self-justifications. For Miriam, a sad-sack of a woman in her fifties, is as drab, anxious and miserable as they come.

What ensues is a slow unfolding, a game of seek with no hiding, the reader allowed to peak first here, then there, as the narrator reveals Marion’s foibles, and those of her brother, their mother and father. The collective past of the Zetland family is not pleasant. And neither is Marion. She is impossible to like. She is irritating, repellant and frustrating. She has no willpower, no ambition, instead she is a hopeless figure stripped of her will, immobilised by indecision, her morality compromised by the voices in her head. Existing on a diet of biscuits and tinned food, she loses herself in imagination and fantasy, her escape from a lacklustre existence inside the only home she’s ever known.

Then there is the small matter of the visitors in the cellar.

What begin as justifications for Miriam’s inertia eventually turn into justifications for why she acts the way she does when she finally exercises her will. And it is only then that explanations of certain little mysteries emerge. Burns exercises perfect narrative control, in command of her plot and her characters at every turn, her premise a powerful one and demanding to execute. I can only imagine what it must have taken to write this book.

Not for everyone, but for those who do enjoy dark fiction, this novel is superb.



Book Review: No Rest For The Wicked by Pamela Morris

Continuing my series of horror novel reviews, I am delighted to share my reflections on Pamela Morris’ No Rest For The Wicked.

“Every ghost has a story. Not all of them want it told.

From beyond the grave, a murderous wife seeks to complete her revenge on those who betrayed her in life; a powerless domestic still fears for her immortal soul while trying to scare off anyone who comes too close; and the former plantation master – a sadistic doctor who puts more faith in the teachings of de Sade than the Bible – battle amongst themselves and with the living to reveal or keep hidden the dark secrets that prevent any of them from resting in peace.

When Eric and Grace McLaughlin purchase Greenbrier Plantation, their dreams are just as big as those who have tried to tame the place before them. But, the doctor has learned a thing or two over his many years in the afterlife, is putting those new skills to the test, and will go to great lengths in order to gain the upper hand. While Grace digs into the death-filled history of her new home, Eric soon becomes a pawn of the doctor’s unsavory desires and rapidly growing power, and is hell-bent on stopping her.

Enter the Winchester Society of Paranormal Research; could the solution lie within the humble ranks of this group of investigators? It seems unlikely, but the crew is eager to try. Is there any force powerful enough to put to rest the wickedness that demands complete control, not just over its ghostly adversaries, but the body and soul of Eric McLaughlin?”


No Rest For The Wicked is a haunted-house tale laced with Gothic imagery and filled with suspense and erotic interludes. A spooky house in need of renovating, a couple in love with the passion to do the repairs, a horrific backstory filled with terror, it’s a delicious mix that cannot fail to hit the mark. There is enough originality in themes and characterisation to hold the attention of every gothic horror fan.

In the historical backstory, Morris combines the issue of slavery with a malevolent doctor come funeral director – the house replete with its own embalming room – and a macabre tale of intrigue, betrayal and murder that explains the nature of the spirits haunting Grace and Eric’s home.

Dread infuses the story from the first page, and a steady build unfolds as Morris deploys good plotting and pacing along with some satisfying twists. Thick descriptions in combination with light touches of foreshadowing serve to cloak the reader in the story.

Morris has created well-crafted and believable characters in Grace and Eric, and in the ghosts but it is the antagonist, Mr Addams, who steals the show. He is as lecherous, misogynistic and debased as they come and through him, Morris portrays brilliantly outmoded sexist attitudes of men and their view of women as sexual playthings, the sorts of attitudes many today would find medieval. Bringing his bigotry into the 21st century through the lens of Eric is Morris’ masterstroke.

“They’re like so many hens conspiring against us thinking they know best”, sums up Mr Addams’ attitude and underscores the premise of the book. Eric, a man carrying a few prejudices of his own, is brought into a tortuous inner conflict as he acts out the script Mr Addams’ has planned. Will Mr Addams succeed in his wicked objectives, or will a group of paranormal researchers quell his evil soul?

No Rest For The Wicked is a riveting read, perfect for cold winter nights or for relaxing on vacation, although it is probably best not to pick it up if you find yourself in an old run down house somewhere in Virginia.

No Rest For The Wicked  is available on all platforms.

You can buy your copy here.

Find Pamela Morris here. 

Review: Worship Me by Craig Stewart

I’m thrilled to share my review of Worship Me by Canadian author Craig Stewart. Worship Me is a fast-paced horror novel that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Something is listening to the prayers of St. Paul’s United Church, but it’s not the god they asked for; it’s something much, much older.

A quiet Sunday service turns into a living hell when this ancient entity descends upon the house of worship and claims the congregation for its own. The terrified churchgoers must now prove their loyalty to their new god by giving it one of their children or in two days time it will return and destroy them all.

As fear rips the congregation apart, it becomes clear that if they’re to survive this untold horror, the faithful must become the faithless and enter into a battle against God itself. But as time runs out, they discover that true monsters come not from heaven or hell…

…they come from within.


Worship Me is a story of terror and demonic conversion. A foreboding atmosphere greets the reader from the opening paragraph and by the second chapter, when Clara and her minivan collide with a cat, the reader is hooked. Stewart displays the twin talents of superb story telling and excellent pacing, along with satisfyingly rich and evocative descriptions.

Every story is born of an idea, or a premise, and Stewart’s is a strong one; he has the ability to conjure in the mind of the reader that his is a story worthy of being told, a story albeit as old as religion itself. Worship Me satisfies on a literary level, Stewart peppering his narrative with witty turns of phrase, especially in his character descriptions:

“Gary’s wife, Tina, lived on the bright side of things; you could tell she was a permanent resident there by the inexplicable glow that she carried wherever she went.”

All the characters in Worship Me are crafted with a sharp eye; the result is a cast of believable and largely unlikeable church goers of varying degrees of devotion; the congregation of a typically small-minded tight knit and remote community.  Enough complexity in the early part of the story holds the attention, the pace quickening about a third of the way in, when a preternatural wind gathers pace “like a bulldozer careening through a supermarket.”

From then, the story becomes a gripping, heart-palpitating read, the reader turning this way and that, maybe even away from the page, certainly feeling as frantic as the characters, who each display their unique traits, for better or worse, as they battle to make sense of and handle the situation they are in.

For anyone familiar with Nick Cave, think a book length O’Malley’s Bar. The terror is unrelenting.

Worship Me by Craig Stewart is available on all platforms.

Or grab your copy here

Catch up with the author here.

Review: Stripped to the Bone: portraits of Syrian women by Ghada Alatrash

I’ve taken a short break from horror to review Stripped to the Bone: portraits of Syrian Women by Ghada Alatrash, a short story collection peppered with beautiful poetry, and set for the most part in Syria.

“Set between war-torn Syria and the West, Stripped to the Bone explores issues of identity, love, strife, courage and resilience in seven fictional portraits of Syrian women. Syrian-Canadian author and translator Ghada Alatrash is a Doctoral Student at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. One of her goals is to amplify the voices of the marginalized through her writings. She translated and published a collection of Arabic poems in English, entitled So that the Poem Remains.”


Stripped to the Bone  opens with the natural yearnings of Zahrah, a single woman ageing and in need of a husband, who fills her heart with Hollywood movies to escape her edge of survival existence in a war zone. Then there’s the story of Reem and Mayyada, two women both unjustly imprisoned and forced to endure torture and rape. Here the abuse of a zealot brother is juxtaposed with the almost faceless and arbitrary violence of the prison officers, Alatrash making observations relevant to all women everywhere.

In Stripped to the Bone ancient traditions are portrayed alongside modern values and lifestyles as Syrian women hold on to what is precious and beautiful while adapting to modern ways. In ‘Hanaan and Salaam’ the author tackles homophobia, in ‘Lama’ multicultural relationships, as those Syrians who have fled their homeland adapt to their new lives.

Written in gentle, ironic and often sensual prose, this collection oozes intimacy. Alatrash infuses her stories with pride and anguish, pride in her culture and anguish over the cruelties meted out in the name of God and country. But above all, Alatrash is concerned with the unjust war Syria endures, a civil war with all too powerful interested parties, a proxy war involving America, Russia and Saudi Arabia and their various allies: a bloodbath. In this collection, the geopolitics of Syria forms a translucent backdrop, Alatrash leaving it to the reader to educate themselves if they wish. Of concern for the author is the impact all of the various injustices have had on women’s lives.

In ‘Um Jaad’, a story of a Syrian woman travelling to visit her sister in Homs who has just lost her little boy, Alatrash writes:

“More deafening than the screams was the silence of the world.” It was her sister “Who lived the pain of the atrocities erasing Syrians off the map.”

Interwoven in stories that invite reflection and at times confront the reader with harsh and horrifying realities, is beautiful verse, verse that depicts the Syrian soul, verse to savour and revisit time and again.

Stripped to the Bone is a questioning and intelligent book, at once romantic, poignant and passionate. A huge sadness pervades the collection, a sense of loss of culture, of heritage and of all that is meaningful and valuable and important in women’s lives. The reader will take away the thought that what continues to happen in Syria should never have begun. Timely and significant, Stripped to the Bone is a must read for anyone wanting to understand Syria from within, from the perspective of the everyday domestic lives of its women.

You can purchase a copy here

Review: The Pleasure Hunt by Jacob Floyd

I’m delighted to share my review of Jacob Floyd’s The Pleasure Hunt, a work of paranormal horror.

“After meeting the mysterious Dark Dance on the casual encounters website, The Pleasure Hunters Club, Sexy Cupid finds himself enchanted by an enigmatic seductress – Dark Dance.

After experiencing bizarre, nightmarish visions during their first physical liaison, Cupid awakes on a bench somewhere in Louisville, unable to get the mystifying creature off his mind. As he begins to search both online and through the seedy streets of the city for her, he uncovers harrowing truths about the object of his obsession, truths which fill him with both indomitable dread and inexplicable love for her.

By the time Cupid begins to understand the terror he faces, the shackles on his soul are already too tight as the ancient monster has her talons dug well into his flesh. Every time he is swept away to her world of Theia – the Moon Realm – she extracts and devours yet another piece of his very essence, and despite the merciless torment of his encounters with his obsession – and the warnings of, a menacing stranger – he presses on to find her, dragging himself deeper into her darkened realm.

Cupid soon finds that he may have but one opportunity to escape the demonic Dark Dance, but the bewitchment she has cast upon his heart may deter him from making a stand; with his soul about to slip down the gullet of the beast, Cupid has to make a decision before he is forever wrapped in the wicked thaumaturge’s wings of eternal damnation.”

My thoughts:

The Pleasure Hunt is an intense and horrifying journey through a dark underworld, one propelled by the protagonist, Cupid’s lust. Floyd takes the reader inside the mind of a man dominated by sexual compulsion and insatiable desire, his reasoning, his motives, his justifications all serving to account for his extreme longing. He’s signed up to an online dating club, and fortune seems to be on his side when he meets Dark Dance, a woman who satisfies him in a fashion no woman has managed before. The problem for Cupid is this woman is a demon.

The narrative quickly slips in and out of a paranormal reality inhabited by his consort along with other female predators. Are the otherwordly visitations of Dark Dance real, a series of bizarre hallucinations, or nightmares? Not even Cupid can figure it out at first.

What is clear is Floyd has taken the male dominatrix fantasy and turned it into a morality tale, one in which the entire male gender is doomed to receive its comeuppance through gruesome torture. But The Pleasure Hunt is not simply a novel of gratuitous sex and torture. On one level it is a meditation on the nature of the astral plane and what sorts of human emotions grant access to it. Namely selfish desire, lust and obsession.

Floyd executes his tale with intent and finesse, exploring in considerable depth the basest of archetypes, taking the reader into an alternate reality in which the dark side of that most primal pair of opposites, male and female, is depicted in stark and blood-curdling detail, and where good, if Cupid can be considered in any way good, is pitted against evil.

The Pleasure Hunt is strong on setting, carrying a rich flavour of dark urban fantasy with its typical grit and sleaze. The back blocks, the side alleys and run-down streets, and the cheap diners and derelict buildings of Louisville are portrayed in all of their inglorious detail.

Floyd has an impressive ability to sustain a voice, one wracked by fear and desire; the result a well-written, passionate and vivid novel that never misses a beat. The sentiment in The Pleasure Hunt is raw and real, the narrative soaring on the wings of Floyd’s formidable imagination. I recommend this book to all lovers of paranormal horror.

BUY your copy here

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Unnerving and The Cabin Sessions

It’s been a big week for The Cabin Sessions. First I received a warm and thoughtful review in Unnerving Magazine…









…and I was then invited to be interviewed.


To read the full review, and so much more click on the link.

Click for more on The Cabin Sessions 

Dead Again by Sandi Wallace

The second in Wallace’s rural crime series, Dead Again is a fast-paced thriller set in the fictitious town of Bullock in the Yarra ranges east of Melbourne, and in the historic spa town, Daylesford.

“It is almost two years since wildfires ravaged the tiny town of Bullock, and Melbourne journalist, Georgie Harvey, is on assignment in the recovering town to write a feature story on the anniversary of the tragedy.

In nearby Daylesford, police officer, John Franklin, is investigating a spree of vandalism and burglaries, while champing to trade his uniform for the plain clothes of a detective.

When Georgie’s story and Franklin’s cases collide, she not only finds herself back in conflict with the man she’s been trying to forget since their first encounter, but she uncovers the truth about how the fires started – a truth no-one is wanting to believe.”

My Review (first appeared on the website of Sisters in Crime)

Dead Again opens with a perpetrator consumed by guilt for a crime he doesn’t reveal. From the first, the reader knows a little more than city journalist Georgie Harvey and Daylesford cop John Franklin. What unfolds is a flawlessly plotted unravelling of a heinous truth. The plot, jump cutting between the two protagonists, never stumbles. The story architecture that leads to a dramatic conclusion is convincing and plausible. Sub plots provide pleasing texture, driving the story forward, affording the necessary complications and frustrations. The result is a rich and satisfying tale.

Catch up on the novel’s predecessor is deftly handled. Georgie and Franklin have history, one that is unresolved. Franklin is consumed by an unwavering passion. Georgie is conflicted, her relationship with hot shot lawyer AJ, on the rocks. Wallace develops her characters with considerable finesse. It isn’t easy creating emotional character arcs in a novel heavy with plot. It appears Wallace has a hunger for Wallander in rural Victoria. Both Georgie and Franklin are introspective, troubled, frustrated and hurt. They are mirrors of each other, yet distinct. Wallace applies the same character-developing care in her antagonist. The reader will be forgiven for feeling some initial sympathy for a figure who has plainly committed some terrible act.

Dead Again is a brave book. The theme, termed Red Victoria in the narrative, concerns the Black Saturday bush fires of 2009. The horrors of that day cannot be erased from collective memory. The trauma lives on. Stepping into this terrain is dangerous, the author will inevitably be accused by some as cannibalising the tragedy of others for personal gain, a vulture, picking over trauma as though it were carrion. Worse, misconstruing or trivialising real events. These are unfair accusations. Authors travel where their muse takes them. Besides, Wallace is well aware of the dangers. The author treads lightly, defensively, tentatively, as does her protagonist, Georgie, the city-dwelling outsider on an assignment to write a magazine feature.

“’It’s impossible to describe. It’s a unique sound. Terrifying. And I hear the death screams of humans and animals.’ Gravelly, she added, ‘Ever heard that?’

Not trusting her voice, Georgie shook her head.

‘I feel the ghosts of my friends. This is stuff that I wouldn’t believe if it hadn’t happened to me. It keeps me awake at night.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Hour upon hour, every single night. And the smells…’ Kelly shuddered.

It felt cruel to want more, but Georgie hung on each word.”

In this fashion, the wildfire theme is handled with respect and consideration, like an artefact held in the hand and turned over, sensitively scrutinised.

All the incidentals in the story are carefully researched, adding to the social realism that the author strives for. With wit and a sharp eye for the essentials, Wallace has built a story world that feels real. A page turner with much to savour, Dead Again is a moving and highly engaging read.

Find out more about Sandi Wallace here.

Buy Dead Again here.