Killing Christmas, by Mark Parker [Review]

I suppose I’d better get the disclaimer bit out of the way. Mark is soon to be published by Dark Chapter Press, my firm – I have a story soon to be published by Scarlet Galleon, Mark’s firm. Along with a host of other small horror press publishers and horror writers, I interact with Mark on social media, particularly Facebook, from time to time. However, as always, I review as a reader based on my own personal taste and preferences.

Still here? Then let’s get into it! I read this story at the perfect time – the run up to Christmas, of course. I very much enjoyed the story, but for me, it fell short of 5 stars because I wish it had been longer. With additional length, I feel there could have been a bit more mystery and more red herrings along the way, and Mark’s excellent cast of characters would then have really come up to their full potential.

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As things stand, I feel it’s a book of two halves, with the opening half being an absolute master class in building tension, setting the scene – it’s really heart in the mouth stuff, and in my opinion, it works because with the few characters in those early scenes, the author takes his time, teases the information and action along, so you get this completely immersive experience.

The second half, our main protagonist shares ‘screen time’ with more characters, and some of the strokes of the story aren’t as intricate as in the first half. I wanted to get to know some of the characters better, learn more of the crimes that have been occurring around the town of Bethlehem, so we get to guess and try to fit the horrific puzzle together before charging in at the end.

Overall, though, a cool Christmas short, just right for those who love a good festive thriller. 4 stars outta 5.

Review of The Dichotomy of Christmas

Review of The Dichotomy of Christmas

First things first: the Disclaimer. I am the Jack Rollins who has a story in this book, and since contributing my story to the anthology, MBLA, who published this piece, are now my literary agents. So, this anthology presented a great opportunity to me as a writer. However… my reviews are based on what I read and how much I enjoyed it, pure and simple.

Still here? Okay, let’s crack on.

The book opens with information on International Animal Rescue, the charity to whom the proceeds of the book sales will be donated. We then get into the introduction from Keith Chawgo, which goes into the darker Christmas traditions. I really liked the introduction, it reminded me of some things I had forgotten, and introduced me to some aspects of the holiday with which I was previously unfamiliar.

Cassandra Swan‘s poetry is threaded throughout the anthology. I’m no fan of poetry and have seen some poor examples in horror anthologies. I really enjoyed Cassandra’s contributions to this volume and in particular Pocket-Sized Wreath and Christmas Disease made an impression on me.

Next up, Fiona Dodwell‘s story The Wassail takes back the idea of the stranger knocking at your door at Christmas, as a disturbance, a wassail, as opposed to our more modern dilution of the tradition – Christmas caroling. This is the first story I’ve read by Fiona and it won’t be the last. She sets the scene perfectly – a wonderful period piece, of a wintry night interrupted by a panicking stranger. The story plays out to a chilling climax, involving a story within the story. I don’t do spoilers, so you’ll just have to find out all the details for yourself!

Then, Kealan Patrick Burke brings things up to a more contemporary setting with Visitation Rights. This is the story of an estranged father granted… well… visitation rights with his children, drawing up bitter memories. The agony of the estranged father is captured with painful, acidic realism as he tries to please these children who have spent so much time without him – they seem like strangers to him, unresponsive to his efforts. The direction the story takes will sting your eyes, as it did mine, I feel certain of it. Excellent.

Matt Hickman is an author I have enjoyed some authorly social networking and discussion with in recent months. The Naughty List was the second story I’ve read by him and he brought great atmosphere, tension and plays out like a modern day cautionary fairy tale.

Andrew Lennon brings us Killing Christmas… a Christmas story set in October! A grumpy office worker makes it on Santa’s naughtiest list by basically being a miserable bastard as the world around him prepares for the festive season. His name is marked, and old St Nick is NOT happy with him! Short, punchy and vicious. Like a psychotic elf.

Next comes Marjorie, by Brooke Lerma, one of the more thought-provoking stories in the book and, in some ways a neat companion to my own entry. By that I mean, the central characters are dealing with a real-life problem represented in as accurate a manner as possible, but whereas my story sees the horror intermingled with the real-life problem (dementia, in my case), Marjorie lives in a world where horrific things are playing out around her, and she is blissfully unaware, isolated in her own tragedy. There is a literary quality to the story and the protagonist that non-horror fans probably wouldn’t expect from a horror tale (or any genre fiction, for that matter). I guess what I’m saying is that without the horror, there is a story here that would work as literary fiction, too. This one caught me off-guard and surprised me.

Michael Bray‘s With These Hands is a fantastic piece of work. Set at Christmas in a hot, sweaty Tobago, tragedy strikes a couple of holidaymakers who take a trip to get their marriage back on track. Arcane powers reveal that sometimes it’s better that some secrets remain hidden!

Next in the book is Ghosts of Christmas Past, by Jack Rollins– little old me. I’ll let other people tell you if it’s good or not, but I certainly enjoyed writing it, and drew upon my experience of working as a carer to portray the impact of the onset of dementia on the characters as the horror unfolds around them.

Stuart Keane‘s On The First Day of Christmas really gets into the childhood excitement and sleeplessness of Christmas Eve and it’s all as lovely as candyfloss… then you remember this is a Stuart Keane story and we are soon dragged into the realm of childhood fears and wondering if even our parents can take the bad things away…

Then we have Graham Masterton, and I’m having difficulty not saying “who comes along and shows us all how it’s done”, because the stories are all excellent in their own rights, but you know… Graham just sort of turns up in here and shows us all how it’s done. Anti-Clause is incredible. So atmospheric, so cool, so wish I’d written this.

Finally, M.R. Sellars brings the final story of the book, Merry Axemas – A Killer Holiday Tale. What starts as an investigative thriller, which isn’t usually my cup of tea, builds into a compelling horror chiller. I say investigative thrillers aren’t usually my back to read, but I do like some movies in that genre and the character Sheriff Carmichael is absolutely unmissable. He’s like Sam Elliot, merged with Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men, plus Sherlock Holmes. The main character Constance Mandalay is drawn into the mystery of a gruesome series of Christmas-time murders, with Carmichael as her jaded guide. This story is flawless, and I mean that. Characters sit around and talk to each other for most of the time, but everything they say makes everything they do all the more gripping. The closest thing I can liken it to is the TV show True Detective, where it’s about the characters, not the action, but when the action pops up it’s goooooood!

So, okay, I’m writing this after Christmas has faded, and if you’re reading this in late autumn or winter approaching Christmas, pick a copy up. If it’s earlier in the year, stick it on your Christmas list, or buy it now and have it on your shelf or in the kindle, ready for advent. This collection is totally unmissable.

 

My Christmas Special – Behind the scenes of A Christmas Blessing

My Christmas Special – Behind the scenes of A Christmas Blessing

“Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings

The Christmas Special has become a common sight on TV, from Morcombe and Wise and Only Fools and Horses, to Doctor Who and Downton Abbey, but in literature there are some great examples to be found, too. The most obvious of these is the Charles Dickens masterpiece, A Christmas Carol; for many, a Christmas favourite, for others a favourite among all of Dickens’ work or a favourite story of all-time.

Dickens produced other Christmas stories for seasonal editions of All the Year Round and Household Words, but they were never greeted with the same enthusiasm as old Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol carries a timeless message of charity and good cheer, of appreciation of family and friends, while also serving a chilling insight into the huge social inequalities of Dickens’ time. Add to this, the driving force of the story being supernatural in nature, and you have a seasonal ghost story never bettered, and ever likely to be so. His story inspired charity in its day. Today it is certainly as relevant as ever, with social inequality so evident and growing.

After I released the first Dr Blessing story, Dr Blessing’s Curse, and had mapped out the sequel, Dr Blessing’s Rapture, I was struck by an unshakable idea: The third Dr Blessing story was to be a Christmas special!

A Christmas Blessing (written under the working title of Sugar-plums and Bell-Jars) sees London devastated in the wake of the events of the Rapture storyline. Dr Blessing’s little assistant Niamh takes centre stage in the opening scenes, and we find a bored little girl, adjusting to a life of some privilege since the doctor’s flight and subsequent disgrace. Having lived on London’s unforgiving streets, she seeks out an adventure of her own and gets much more than she bargained for.

It took me two years to finally get the piece ready, and happily released A Christmas Blessing last year, about a fortnight before the big day. Being an indie author, with an even lower profile than I have today (yes, that’s actually possible), it didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but it did very much capture the imagination of fellow indie writer Kyle Scott (Devil’s Day, Consumed Vol.1, Carnage: Extreme Horror – where we both contribute). Kyle’s review on Amazon.com is part of his 3-way review of The Cabinet of Dr Blessing, which collected all 3 individual instalments. Here’s what he had to say:

The third book in Jack Rollins fantastic Dr Blessing saga continues to deepen the themes and relationships explored in the previous books, while exploring uncharted emotional territory and delving into the minds and hearts of characters previously dwelling in the background.

The Hammer Horror inspired Gothic atmospherics are still there in full force, and the unique take of vampires is expanded and evolved in fun, frightening ways that will please any horror fan, but it’s the emotional heft that this instalment boasts that will win over the readers.

This is, by far, the most resonant of the three books that exist at present, and is a fast paced, beautiful read for fans of classical literature and horror alike. In A CHRISTMAS BLESSING, The violence and scenes of terror remain as startling as before. This time, though, heart really matches the intellect that Rollins displays. It’s the best of the three books, and will leave the reader hungry for the next instalment.

In our private contact – we’ve become friends and colleagues over the last 6 months or so, when Kyle had it confirmed that I am a father, his response was: “I knew you had family. Only a Dad could have written A Christmas Blessing.”

I think that is one of the nicest and best compliments I have ever received for my work. It’s nice to know that the emotions and relationships burst through the horror – and A Christmas Blessing contains plenty of that!

To make the story a true Christmas special, there were some particular notes I wanted to play. I’ll try to keep it spoiler-free as much as I can, but if you think you’d like to read the actual story first, I’ve included links below. Skip to them, then perhaps come back to this blog after catching up on Dr Blessing, to see how many of these aspects you picked up on.

  1. A Child’s Perspective. As stated earlier, the action follows young Niamh at the outset, as she descends into the hell of a London beset by plague and blood-drinking beasts. A simple desire to purchase a gift for a loved one, coupled with a youthful sense of adventure drive Niamh into some very perilous situations. From preparing decorative items for the arrival of Old Christmas to wishes her family could be reunited, it is a child’s eyes reveal the backdrop of the tale. Love it or loathe it, Home Alone’s entire premise was like Die Hard from the point of view of a child. I think it worked.
  2. Family. Dr Blessing is a series about family and parental responsibilities, beneath all that horror. In this story, Niamh has settled into a new family dynamic, but longs for her absent father-figure to return. Her old street-urchin instincts needle at her, making her restless. To live in luxury is not always a comfort to Niamh. When things turn bad, it is up to members of Niamh’s family to attempt a rescue and the ruddy-cheeked, jolly fat man Giles Burton, leads the efforts to save his adopted grandchild.
  3. Old Friends Reunited. Christmas is the time when we try to get together with friends we haven’t seen for a while. Be it a Christmas party, a family gathering or seasonal catch-up drinks with your pals, it’s a great time to get together. A Christmas Blessing embraces that and includes some great cameo appearances (I do love an Easter Egg – wrong holiday, I know) from the previous two Dr Blessing stories. Some of those appearances will really surprise you, too!
  4. Authentic Victorian Christmas. Fortunately, much has been written (lots of it by you-know-who) of the Victorian Christmas. Judith Flanders featured lots of great insights in Consuming Passions, which might even be where the true roots of the third Dr Blessing story as Christmas Special lie. From burning pines, to Christmas goose and plum pudding, I want you to see, smell and taste it all.
  5. Visitor down the chimney. It wouldn’t be Christmas without surprises from the chimney, now would it?
  6. Miracles and Forgiveness. You’ll have to read the story to know for sure…

Well, those are my top 6 aspects of the Christmas Special, at least the top ones I embedded in my story.

Now that Christmas is upon us, I’m a little disappointed at not writing another Christmas horror special, but I have several ideas of what might appear if the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come allows it.

I thought it fitting to leave you with a sample of A Christmas Blessing. If you haven’t read Dr Blessing’s Curse, and Dr Blessing’s Rapture, though, I recommend that you do first, or better yet, get all 3 parts in The Cabinet of Dr Blessing.

Excerpt from A Christmas Blessing, by Jack Rollins

Niamh looked back at the lights of the warm, comfortable mansion. She thought for a moment of the terrible explosions she and the others of the house had heard the previous night. Grandpa had told her they were mere fireworks, being tested in preparation for a huge New Year celebration, when the city would return to normal. Now that she had heard for a fact that the monsters were real, Niamh realised that the explosions probably had something to do with all of that.

She thought of the explosions and how frightening it had sounded. Thought of the safety of the house. Thought about Mary Brigham, and adventure. She thought about the cannibals or monsters or whatever was meant to be out there. Thought about how worried Mrs Burton would be if she was not back by morning. Thought about the good, bad old days, of slipping into the shadows of the city. She thought about how pleased Mrs Burton would be with a nice present on Christmas morning.

She hung from the lip of the wall for a second or two, then dropped to the pavement and broke into a run to get across the road. Niamh knew to pick a route past St James Park that would take her close to Buckingham Palace. She reasoned that if anywhere in London would be fortified, it would be there. She wanted to be close to the Palace in case she found trouble, but not so close to the Palace that the authorities guarding the Queen would find her and arrest her. Or worse, find her and take her home to face trouble from Mrs Burton!

The fringe of Hyde Park had been a frightening sight for two reasons. The first, the fence and trees had resembled great black claws and teeth. The second, there was nobody else abroad. This meant that either nobody dared go there, and she was the only person mad enough to pass, or that people had been passing, or attempting to do so, but had been dragged into the shadows, to be roasted and eaten in the park.

She imagined the Serpentine running with blood, and her being able to walk from one side to the other on the backs of the dead who bobbed, swollen and green, in the murky water.

Along her way, Niamh began to notice that some of the Kensington mansions were guarded like the Burton house. When she had passed in daylight this had not been as obvious to her. The guards eyed her suspiciously as she scurried on her way.

Niamh finally saw Londoners on the move when she reached the turnpike at Hyde Park corner. A ragtag group of men had created a wide barricade of carts, crates, barrels and stalls. Through the barricade, they had made a narrow passage – the only way for Niamh to pass into the city proper, in this direction. The men stood by a fire, rifles by their sides. They challenged anybody who approached them from any direction. The only item to pick them out as a uniformed unit was the scruffy bandage of material they each wore around their foreheads.

Niamh observed the small militia, of about a dozen men in total, as they stopped men, women and children. They asked a series of questions, and as one man spoke, two others pointed their rifles. They let the people pass and then turned to the next group, then the next. The scene was one of organised chaos – dozens of men calling orders and instructions, scurrying about the barricade and dozens of travellers trying to pass, chattering with each other as they waited in line. Niamh hoped that in the darkness, her scuffed shoes would not give her away, as she sidled up to the turnpike.

Her keen eyes had spotted a well-dressed couple who were walking into the city, from almost the same direction as her. Their fine clothes marked them as Kensington people. Her fine clothes marked her as a Kensington child – their child, as she hoped to appear.

The first flakes of snow fell as she followed the couple into the opening of the barricade. Extending her fingers, she felt the icy droplets land, melting quickly. The thought of the cold and the snow had caused her, involuntarily, to stand closer to the lady and gentleman, wanting to share the heat of their coats, regretting once again that she had decided to leave her own at home.

“Visiting a sick relative,” the man said.

“Who?” the guard asked.

“My mother in law, if you must know!” the man replied, his tone telling of his impatience. He wrapped an arm around his wife, and drew her closer to his side.

“The little girl with you?” the guard asked.

“Little girl?” the man asked, turning to follow the stained, crooked finger that extended past his shoulder, pointing straight at Niamh.

“Of course not! No child of mine would be out here without a coat! And with those things abroad! The very idea!”

Niamh was about to turn and flee from the barricade, when she heard a screaming whistle from over to her left. The guard’s dirty face turned suddenly in the direction of the sound. He grabbed a whistle from the chain around his neck, placed it between his lips, and blew one loud blast. “Hurry, hurry through!” the guard ushered, patting the couple on their backs as they passed. “Come on, girly! Get yourself through!”

Niamh’s eyes widened in shock as two other guards brushed past her. They grasped two crates and toppled them into the passage, forming a low blockade.

She could not turn back; there was only one way to go.

A guard shouted, “Over there! I saw two of them by the railings!”

A shot roared out into the night. A shiver ran down Niamh’s spine, like cold water. She ran for the boundary of Green Park and could see the opening for Tyburn Lane to her left before she and the others who had fled the turnpike even dared to glance back.

Rifle fire crackled at the turnpike and a cheer rose from the men. Silver speckles of snow drifted lazily to the ground like glitter in the gaslight. Again she caught some flakes in her hand. Some of the speckles melted, but then she noticed that some of the white speckles remained. She rubbed her palms together and noted the grey and black smears left behind. She realised that there was not just snow falling, but ash and soot.

Wondering why it would snow ash, Niamh hurried along Picadilly and saw Constables with their lanterns, moving with great caution among those who lingered on the thoroughfare. They ordered the Londoners to go home and insisted they were mad for even thinking of stepping out.

Amazon UK: http://goo.gl/q63evd

Amazon US: http://goo.gl/MgdKli

With my very best wishes to you and yours this Christmas,

Love,

Jack Rollins