Reviews of two books by John Llewellyn Probert that originally appeared in Black Static #34:-
NOVELETTE/NOVEL: JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
Novelette WARD 19 (Endeavour Press Ltd eBook, 49pp and currently free in the Amazon Kindle store) is a new departure for writer John Llewellyn Probert. It’s billed as a ‘Parva Corcoran suspense thriller’, Parva being a trainee forensic pathologist whose boss turned out to be a psychopath and the experience left her somewhat traumatised, but now she does therapy by consulting with the police on offbeat murder cases. The current investigation takes her to an isolated hospital where young women are being murdered and patches of flesh cut from their bodies. Parva’s instincts lead her to Ward 19, the old, abandoned mortuary, that is soon to be demolished, and a confrontation with evil.
I’m not quite convinced that an unqualified person would be co-opted to help police with their enquiries simply on the basis that she had been a potential victim, or that she would be unsupervised in the way that Parva appears to be here. Allowing for that, then this is an intriguing and entertaining enough outing, a form of old school horror complete with a mad doctor performing impromptu surgery, and never mind that ‘suspense thriller’ malarkey. Parva is an engaging character and all of the other people in the story come across well, while the final revelations about the villain of the piece add a suitable frisson, albeit it did end rather abruptly and some of the lead in to the denouement felt clichéd (e.g. the bad guy creeping up on Parva). I enjoyed it with reservations.
Probert’s first novel, THE HOUSE THAT DEATH BUILT (Atomic Fez pb, 272pp, £12.00) sees a return to familiar territory with the characters of Massene Henderson and Samantha Jephcott, whose previous adventures were chronicled in the author’s short story collection Against the Darkness.
This time around our two psychic investigators nonpareil are hired by Sir Anthony Calverton to check out the ‘most haunted house in Britain’ and, as a side order to that, they are asked to help TV psychic Jeremy Stokes, a charlatan who has developed the ability to see when others are going to die and isn’t at all pleased about it. Henderson’s solution is to ask him to join the group visiting ‘The Dark Manor’, along with husband and wife team of Helen and Alan Pritchard, a medical doctor and physicist respectively, while making up the numbers is Sir Anthony’s grand-daughter Maddy, who claims to be psychic. The house was built by arms dealer William Marx in the wake of WW2 in the hope of contacting his dead wife and child. It was situated on the site of a stone circle and filled with objects associated with death and the supernatural. Marx disappeared shortly after the house was completed and everyone who has visited since has either gone missing or left, vowing never to return.
Having introduced his dramatis personae to this unhealthy mise en scene, Probert doesn’t waste any time in jeopardising their existence, and in two shakes of a magic wand there are zombies in the garden, ghostly figures on the upstairs landing and a wall around the house that prevents anyone from leaving, and that’s just for starters. The ante keeps getting upped, with a plethora of supernatural effects gradually building to the showstopper finale, complete with fire breathing dragon, enchanted weapon and, almost certainly, a kitchen sink suitably inscribed with runes thrown in for good measure.
There are obvious echoes here of The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House, and probably several other productions with ‘House’ in the title that I can’t bring to mind right now, but Probert is his own man and the emphasis is first and foremost on entertaining the reader. Underlying everything here is the author’s sense of fun, an awareness of the tropes of the haunted house genre and the ability to play them like a virtuoso while bringing his own wit to the proceedings. Yes, there are scares along the way, but in nature they are akin to those of the roller-coaster ride, so that at the end of the book the reader is left slightly breathless and gobsmacked at the writer’s audacity rather than grossed out and/or afraid to turn off the light.
An equally obvious part of the book’s appeal, the relationship between Henderson and Jephcott is a delight to witness as it progresses, with the deft one liners flowing like fine wine and the warm glow of camaraderie thrown over it all. They are eminently engaging people, in love even though they will never admit to such a thing.
The other characters are just as clearly drawn, with the love hate relationship of the Pritchards done well and Stokes growing in stature as the book progresses, with justification given for the way in which he acts and at the end a kind of redemption is achieved, making him far more successful and credible than the one-dimensional spiv that is the norm for such characters.
Bottom line, The House that Death Built is grand entertainment.
Imagine Scooby Doo played straight faced and crossed with the style and panache of the Steed/Peel era Avengers, and you’ll have a good idea of where Probert is coming from. It’s old style horror, harking back to a time before bleak became chic, and if you don’t crack a smile while reading it then the chances are you’ve already bled out.
NB: Also available, an inexpensive electronic edition and a limited edition hardback with all the usual trimmings – check the publisher’s website for details at atomicfez.com