Book Review: Banquet for the Damned - a character-driven horror novel (Newfoundland folklore’s ‘The Hag’ contributes to the basis)

The horror of sleep visitations is at the centre of this fine contribution to supernatural horror fiction – the gripping and atmospheric contemporary gothic novel Banquet for the Damned by British author Adam L.G. Nevill.

Among its themes is mentorship -- gone horribly, supernaturally wrong.

Dante, a young heavy metal guitarist, is steadily approaching thirty; he’s between bands and between girls, feeling dry creatively – and getting increasingly uncomfortable with his lack of future direction in the industrial city of Birmingham. Used to living one day at a time, even he’s finding it hard to fight sensations of failure.

Enter Eliot Coldwell, professor in the Department of Theology at St. Andrews University in Scotland’s oldest university town. Dante’s always admired “Banquet for the Damned,” a controversial work of dark mysticism Coldwell wrote many decades before, and which Dante credits with inspiring and influencing his life. When Coldwell invites him to St. Andrew’s University to take up a position as his new research assistant, all expenses paid, Dante thinks he’s gotten the break of a lifetime.

But things turn out far differently for Dante as students at the university start dying in horrible ways after suffering terrifying and paralyzing sleep disturbances.

These deaths soon catch the attention of Hart Miller, a visiting academic, dealing with personal demons of his own. As Miller starts investigating, he crosses paths with Dante -- and Nevill's story becomes that of this mismatched pair as they try to confront and overcome a force of ancient evil.

Nevill’s writing is controlled – descriptive without ever becoming excessive or overwrought. He creates atmosphere very well:
“it is a night empty of cloud and as still as space",
The old university town of St. Andrews provides the perfect setting. In his descriptions of its buildings and its architecture, Nevill has a keen eye for grim, stark detail which he uses skillfully in creating dark tone and mood. The violence and cruelty of St. Andrews’s witch-burning past weighs heavily on its present.

Nevill also put an impressive amount of research into his book, and he mentions he read heavily on the topics of witchcraft, the occult, and nightmares in preparing his story. One of these books was David J. Hufford’s “The Terror That Comes in the Night: Experience-centred Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions,” which explains “The Hag” or “The Old Hag” Newfoundland folk belief. In Hufford’s book, the Old Hag is described in this way:
“You are dreaming and you feel as if someone is holding you down. You can do nothing, only cry out. People believe that you will die if you are not awakened.”

Nevill uses this concept, mentioning Newfoundland in the process, but expands on it to create a tale exponentially frightening. At essence it is a story of supernatural revenge, with a realistic and convincing edge.

Book Review: The Séance - ghostly visitations, dark and stormy nights, a creepy mansion...and murder.

The quasi-religion and social movement Spiritualism enjoyed a period of particular popularity from roughly 1840 through to the 1920s. One of its central beliefs was that specially gifted or trained “mediums” could glean knowledge of the afterlife by communicating with the dead.

The popularity of Spiritualism wasn’t so much a rejection of traditional Christianity as an expression of a yearning for certain evidence of life after death. Naturally, this led the bereaved to seek out mediums and mesmerists to intercede with deceased loved ones.

It’s against this backdrop in Victorian England that novelist John Harwood sets his creepy, atmospheric story The Séance. It’s recommended for anyone who might enjoy somber period fiction with decidedly dark and moody tone replete with a spooky old house.

Death is ever-present in the novel. At the beginning, young Constance Langford tries to ease the suffering of her mother – grieving for years over the loss of Constance’s younger sister Alma to scarlet fever. Constance’s attempt at bringing comfort to her mother through a séance has an unexpected result.

Shortly after that, Constance learns that she has inherited Wraxford Hall, a remote mansion in the English countryside. It is a dark and desolate place, the scene of numerous mysterious deaths and disappearances. “Never live there” is the urgent advice of John Montague, the solicitor in charge of the estate.

Harwood captures the flavour of life in Victorian England very well in the novel, conveying its social mores and mannerisms, how people spoke to each other, and, in particular, the way society treated women in contrast with men.

For instance, the character Eleanor Unwin, a young woman of marriageable age, becomes estranged from her mother when she declares that she will marry artist Edward Ravenscroft. In period and culture where it was of the utmost importance that a young woman secure her future and that of her family by “marrying well,” such a decision would have been regarded as irrational and self-destructive.

Told from shifting points of view through the individual first-person narratives of Constance, John Montague, and Eleanor Unwin, Harwood has total freedom to tell the story – to show how Wraxford Hall is the entity that unites them all.

Eleanor sees spirits in the form of “visitations,” and she is the one character in the novel who can be said to be possess “the gift” of sight into the realm beyond death. She, too, must deal with the threat of ending up bereft through non-marriage, and she exemplifies the cold reality that befell many women – marrying for the sake of security rather than out of love.

The Séance
is a supremely dark and tantalizing murder mystery that bears all the elements of a really creepy ghost story; it’s a murder mystery, ghost story, and gothic tale all in one.

Book Review: The Strain - a bigger, better vampire novel

Forget anything you may have been led to believe about vampires in fiction recently.

Co-authors Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan have produced an intense and violent novel, The Strain, which portrays vampires as anything but attractive, elegant, romantic or "vegetarian" - never-endingly youthful, wistfully searching for the meaning of eternal life.

The Strain is a vampire novel with a contemporary twist, addressing our collective fears.

Currently, Western civilization is in a vulnerable mood. We're in a constant state of high alert over the next natural disaster (post-Katrina, post-tsunami); the next pandemic; the next terrorist attack. With all our present anxieties making us so touchy, the immediacy of a novel about an epidemic of vampirism is bound to boost its emotional effect.

The book begins with an elderly woman relating a rather spooky giant legend to her young grandson in pre-Second Word War Europe. The novel's fast-moving plot soon develops into a confluence between myth and reality.

Shift to the present, and the panic that erupts when a large passenger jet comes to a stop on the runway at JFK airport. No one disembarks, and there is no communication from the darkened craft. Is it a hijacking, a terrorist attack, a publicity stunt of some kind, what?

An investigation by Ephraim Goodweather of the Center for Disease Control leads to terrifying findings that shake him to the core, and force him to gradually accept what contradicts a lifetime of scientific and medical reasoning.

In The Strain, vampirism is a sickness driven by an outside force. Del Toro and Hogan make us consider how it might spread. What might vampires be like if they did actually exist? What might explain them biologically? And what would "changing" physically entail?

Nothing at all nice or good, as it turns out. These vampires are hideous in the extreme. And if a certain creed of the medical community is "fight the disease, not the victim," then the novel captures the confusion and anguish likely to descend upon medical professionals having to struggle with a new and hideously paranormal reality.

Whether our civilization's struggle against terrorism represents a "winnable war," is a matter of vigorous debate in the real world. Faced with a disease of paranormal origin, would the struggle against denial prevail and allow us to fight the disease? The Strain forces this parallel question, and, in its own context, it's a disturbing one.

The Strain, for all its readability (it's practically impossible to put down), reads somewhat like a screenplay - which it very well may be. It's hard not to predict a film version, and Del Toro is an Oscar-winning director after all.

When (not if) the movie version of The Strain is released, it will likely be in some sort of conjunction with adaptations of "Strain" followup novels The Fall and Eternal Night, expected in 2010 and 2011 and completing the trilogy.

I predict a stir that hasn't been seen since release of the Lord of the Rings series, with which comparisons are inevitable.

But, please, no "Strain"-themed value meals at McDonald's or Burger King. And let there be anybody but Tom Hanks in the role of Ephraim Goodweather.

Those hungry for more on "The Strain" and related works will find the website entertaining. Go to for "book trailers" and background.