And I did pick up the first installment of Paul Finch’s historical horror stories and read it on my birthday a few months back.
Review: Medi-Evil 1: Historical Horror and Fantasy, Paul Finch, 2011.
There are three tales in this book.
The best, in terms of its inventiveness and plot twists, is “The Blood Month”. It opens in 1030 at the Battle of Stiklestad in which the forces of Christian King Olaf are defeated by pagan Vikings under King Sveyn. Two brothers, Radnar and Ljot, escape the slaughter of their fellow Christians, but there are bounties on their heads, so they find themselves going to remote Greenland where their Uncle Sigfurth has a holding. Radnar, the oldest, has doubts about the wisdom of his conversion to Christianity, but Ljot, having adopted the faith at an earlier age than his older brother, doesn’t.
When reaching Sigfurth’s lands, they find hostility to their faith. But it’s muted because Sigfurth needs every warrior he can get. Something is killing his warriors one by one. The brothers offer to help end the menace whatever it is.
Yes, it does sound rather like Beowulf which Finch freely acknowledges when one of Sigfurth’s men grumbles, as that poem is abouted to be recited, that he doesn’t want to hear some Christian poem from those English dogs. But Finch’s plotting is masterful, and this tale doesn’t end as you would expect whether it’s the nature of the killer stalking the land, the trajectory of a romance between Ljot and a Christian slave-girl, or the course of the brothers’ Christian faith. And Finch ends his tale on a dark joke.
It’s London in the year 1581 in “Flibbertigibbet”. This one is sort of a Jack-the-Ripper story crossed with a spy-who-came-in-from-the-cold story. The story opens with the drawing and quartering of the Jesuit Edward Campion. Our hero, Robert Urmston, watches the event disgusted. Though born a Protestant, he is disgusted that his is a now a country where men can be tortured for their opinions. Subjected to strict military training after failing to meet the standards to become a laywer like his father, he used to work for Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham. But, sickening of his duties, he resigned from his job of hunting down Catholic subversives.
But Walsingham has other ideas, and Urmston finds himself back in the Queen’s employ with a job a little more agreeable to his conscience. Walsingham wants him to track down a killer who has tortured and killed six women in the Southwark section of London. These are divisive times, and Walsingham doesn’t want these crimes to be the spark that ignites the powder keg of the capital city.
Urmston comes to realize there are more than six victims, that their deaths bear a connection to the feast days of Catholic saints, and that a former Tower of London torturer under Catholic Queen Mary may be responsible.
This one is a nice detective story set in a time when official state brutality isn’t that much different than that shown by a homicidal maniac.
It’s the reign of Emperor Hadrian in “The Gods of Green and Grey”, and the Emperor has decided that the soldiers already on his payroll need another job besides building his famous wall. Hadrian wants the fen lands of eastern Britain drained. Livius is an officer desperate to prove himself and volunteers to oversee the job. Helping him will be the 58-year-old Ursus, an experienced engineer and Drusus, a tesserari who, unlike his superior, has plenty of military experience running through his family’s histories – including some of Rome’s biggest defeats. And there’s a local guide from the Isceni tribe that participated in Boudica’s notorious rebellion 70 years ago.
But it’s not going to be an easy task when the troops in a base camp are found slaughtered in grotesque ways, and Livius responds with typical Roman brutality and his own glory-seeking agenda.
It’s the classic setup of an isolated group of soldiers being stalked. Shorter than the other tales, this one is still an effective story of terror in an historical setting.
I liked all three of these tales, and I will be seeking out the second and third book in Finch’s series.