Hollow (Coronet, £17.99), the latest novel from artist and film-maker B Catling, is set in a weird, hallucinogenic version of 16th-century Europe. The Monastery of the Eastern Gate, built on the side of a mountain that was once the Tower of Babel, guards one of the world’s darkest secrets: a walled enclosure where a perpetual war is fought between the living and the dead, a vision of cruelty and torture that the Church considers a manifestation of the mind of God, calling it the Gland of Mercy. The Monastery’s Oracle – a helpless, mad, limbless creature walled up alive – has recently died, so a gang of violent mercenaries make the difficult winter journey with a new Oracle, keeping it alive on a diet of human bone marrow steeped in shameful confessions spoken over the bones. As one might expect from the author of the Vorrh trilogy, this is far from standard fantasy – a disturbing miniature epic, like the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch come to life.
Final Girls, as devotees of horror films will know, are the women who fought back and won – those solitary survivors who managed to defeat the monster that wiped out all the others at their summer camp, slumber party, college dorm or household in the slasher movies of the 1970s to the 90s. In The Final Girl Support Group (Titan, £17.99), Grady Hendrix has reimagined these memorable but usually undercharacterised figures as real women who have survived horrific mass murders that were subsequently turned into cheap entertainments. The book opens in 2010, the 10th anniversary of the group. Then the shooting starts – and it becomes clear that someone wants all the final girls dead, and there’s no one they can rely on except themselves. Hendrix’s cinematic knowledge is deployed with skill, and it’s not necessary to be a fan of slasher movies to enjoy this very clever, gleefully violent, self-aware deconstruction of the genre – film rights already acquired.
Sara Flannery Murphy’s Girl One (Raven, £14.99) is set in 1994, when Josephine, “Girl One” from a 1970s experiment in human parthenogenesis, is a 24-year-old grad student determined to replicate the work of Dr Joseph Bellanger, the scientist credited with making nine “miracle babies”. He died in a fire that consumed all records of the experiment, so it was never repeated. But when her mother goes missing, Josephine’s search uncovers new information. Bellanger did not recruit subjects for his experiment, but had been approached by a group of women to help them conceive. Interest in parthenogenesis was genuinely a thing in the 70s, mainly among lesbians and radical feminists eager to escape male domination, but there’s scarcely a hint of feminist motivation here. Once Josephine has reunited with two of the other offspring they find that, separated from their mothers, they have superpowers: one can heal; the other can kill with a touch; and with a look, Josephine can force men to obey. In this superhero origins story, the concept of parthenogenesis might as well have been a radioactive spider bite.
P Djèlí Clark’s debut novel A Master of Djinn (Orbit, £8.99) is set in an alternative-history version of Egypt. In 1912, half a century after the mystic al-Jahiz made an opening into the realm of spirits, Cairo is a modern, multicultural city running on a combination of magical, alchemical and steam-powered technology. Muslims and Copts co-exist with devotees of Hathor; djinn and humans work together; even women have won the right to vote, and are employed in jobs formerly given only to men. Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities has already saved the universe from destruction once and is sure she can handle the little problem of an imposter in a gold mask, claiming to be al-Jahiz and stirring unrest in the rougher neighbourhoods. This fantasy is refreshingly different; a well-plotted mystery filled with engaging characters, presented with a lightly humorous touch.
In Helen Grant’s Too Near the Dead (Fledgling, £9.99), Fen Munro is happy to be engaged to James and living in their beautiful new house in the Perthshire countryside – so why is she having nightmares about being dead? And why is the owner of the local bridal shop so disturbed by her request for a lavender dress? Can a new house be haunted? Mingling past and present, ghosts and gothic, this is a very British blend (Fen’s response to any upset is a cup of strong, sweet tea). It’s an excellent example of what MR James, the master of the form, called “a pleasing terror”.