Canadian police detective by day…. Horror author by night….
Unsung Heroes of Horror Fiction #2: John Hunt
By: Tony Jones
Ink Heist’s primary goal is to support and spotlight great fiction and promote literature through reading and writing. One of my favourite ways of doing this is to highlight great authors I enjoy who don’t receive much internet attention and often fly under the radar. In my first Unsung Heroes of Horror Fiction article I tapped into the fiction of the underrated British writer Richard Farren Barber and this time I’m heading to the city of Guelph in Ontario, Canada and exploring the work of John Hunt who is three novels into a very promising horror career. By day, John is a police detective who took up writing later in life after his in-laws signed him up for a creative writing course back in 2009.
I randomly stumbled upon John’s work in 2018 and was completely knocked out by The Tracker which was one of my outstanding novels of the year and featured in my ‘Top 10 of 2018’ on the Horror Talk site (now called Horror DNA), which is no mean feat considering the wide range of dark fiction which comes my way. I then quickly backtracked and was equally impressed by his debut Doll House, which was an entirely different kind of horror and deeply psychological.
Recently, out of the blue, I was delighted to hear from John who offered me his next novel to read, Off the Grid, which is released in November and I also got a major kick out of another innovative change of direction. This article will review all three novels and pick up on some of John’s novella and shorter fiction. In conversation I was delighted to find out that John has “solid foundations for four more novels and weak foundations for two more after that” who then noted “I’m always waking up at night and typing into my notes on my phone an idea that came to me. In the morning, I’ll look at it and think, hey, that could work or hey, was I drunk when I typed this?” Who knows how John finds the time for all of this! One can imagine him busting the heads of criminals who might later end up in his fiction…
All three novels provide rather unique experiences, with only The Tracker being dominated by a supernatural story. The others are more based upon the horrors of man, with Off the Grid having a very subtle blend of both. If you’re in the market for fast-paced page turners, these books are hard to beat and I devoured his latest, about a disfigured man trying to live ‘off the grid’, in a couple of days. This guy can really tell a story with the minimum of fuss, but with maximum impact and is well worth investigating further if you’re looking to check out an author you might not have come across before.
Off the Grid (2019)
John Hunt’s latest (next) novel Off the Grid is as much thriller as it is horror and cleverly shrouds the main direction of the story which plays out in several stages. It opens with a shocking scene; Graham Richards is out shopping with his family in the local mall when a man enters and starts shooting indiscriminately. Graham is shot in his face and his family is killed. Picking up the story several years later Graham lives in the woods and has dropped out of society, just wanting to be left alone. He is horribly disfigured and self-sufficiently grows his own food, and around this time a little girl disappears and Graham ends up being the principal suspect. This is only the opening salve of a much more complex plot of which I am not going to go into to avoid spoilers.
Like Doll House, this new novel is littered with deeply unpleasant characters which on the surface are very ordinary, even boring, but when scratched slightly deeper real darkness lurks. Another standout feature of the novel is the police detective Jodie Reyes, an outstanding character which links the first and second parts of the novel together. After meeting Graham Richards, she looks beyond the horrible disfigurement and sees the man who lost his family and as a black policewoman has to continually prove herself in a white man’s world. Interestingly, Richards drops out of the novel for long spells and you may begin to question whether he is a major character at all. The story does have a strange supernatural element, but it does not dominate it like in The Tracker, and make sure you read the plot closely to pick up on the subtle nuances the author drops along the way, as they could easily be missed.
I did not find out John Hunt was a police detective until after the completion of this great novel and as this is the first of his books to have a police officer as a major character, you cannot help wondering what ‘inside’ information he brings to his writing. The brilliant Michael Connelly frequently refers back to his days covering crime journalism as the backbone to creating the realistic and vivid world which surrounds Harry Bosch, so perhaps this author will do the same? In his other long fiction, the police have key roles in both Doll House and The Tracker, so you never know. Like those two earlier books, I also devoured Off the Grid in a couple of days and highly recommend this blend of dark fiction and horror. It is published next November.
The Tracker (2018)
Right from the start I would like to say that I never want to hear mention of bolt-cutters, a live rat and a bucket in the same sentence again. EVER. Once you get to the final 5% of this brutal supernatural horror novel, you will know exactly what I mean. I started this book on a Saturday and finished it on Sunday. Can I give a book higher praise? An absolute stunner.
Once again, I’m going to deliberately limit the plot details as it is too easy to give unnecessary spoilers. The best way forward is to approach it the way I did, and that’s by diving in totally blind. The novel opens with a guy called Taylor walking into a police station to hand himself over to the law, as he knows the police are hunting him. During his interrogation it is revealed he is the chief suspect for four brutal murders. Much of the first half of the book is told via the interrogation between the detective Owen and prime suspect Taylor, who of course, claims he did not commit the killings. He does admit he was present when all four occurred, and to the police, he looks guilty as sin. The book then enters flash-back mode and Taylor’s retelling begins right after the recent death of his mother when a sinister shadow begins to stalk him. Once the shadow takes form, a terrifying game of cat and mouse begins between this supernatural being and Taylor. Of course, nobody believes him.
To say anything more specific about the plot would ruin the surprises, and there are plenty of those on offer. It really is a book of two halves, both of which are equally great. I thought I knew where the second stanza was heading but was completely wrong footed. Although the violence is sporadic, some of the kill scenes were particularly brutal, realistic and handled beautifully by the author without any kind of unnecessary glorification.
The Tracker is a very easy and addictive novel to read, and I’m sure in the right hands could be turned into a terrific low budget film. It’s neither deep, long, or over-complicated and in its 182 pages throws the kitchen sink at the bruised reader with plenty of fun twists along the way. You’re not going to have to think too much, but I still enjoyed the ambiguity on offer as it hurtled towards its conclusion, and that’s the beauty of this type of page-turning entertainment.
Doll House (2017)
After having my eyes opened by The Tracker, I was desperate to see what John Hunt’s other novel Doll House had to offer and I am delighted to say it also blew me away. First up, this is as much thriller as it is horror, as there are no supernatural elements in this story. It has some incredibly powerful chapter jumps right at the start of the novel, one-minute Olivia is moving to a nearby town to start university, having been brought up by her single parent father. Then on her first day, she is snatched by two masked men and held captive. Her father never hearing from her again, descends into alcoholism, until out of the blue, after five years he gets a call from her, screaming down the phone. All this happens very quickly. I don’t really want to say much more about the plot, as it has a lot of clever twists and moves between time sequences.
First up it’s particularly brutal and graphic. I’m not a huge fan of exploitative horror, and although it’s explicit, I never found it glorifying in the rape, violence, toe-snipping and other torture which form a key element of the book. Olivia goes from being a bubbly eighteen year with her life in front of her to a sex slave in the space of a few pages, it’s savage stuff, but incredibly well written. If you’re thinking the whole novel is set in some dungeon, it’s not, half-way through it cleverly heads in another direction and you really will have your fingers, toes and everything else crossed for Olivia. She’s a brilliant character, broken, but trying to survive on her terms. It has so many killer emotional sequences, including my favourite when she buys the dog, if you ever read it, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
The two masked torturers are amongst the most unpleasant characters I’ve come across in a long-time and this novel may be too strong for many tastes, but personally I thought it had a superb balance and was compelling to the end. I don’t want to say too much about the ending, which I was dreading, as I was pretty sure I knew what was going to happen, but hey-ho, I was delighted to be proved wrong, and I wasn’t sure of that until I hit 99% on the Kindle. With this novel John Hunt shows he is as convincing with non-supernatural horror as he is with monsters.
The novella Balance is another fresh change of direction for Hunt with an apocalyptic tale in which insects attack and kill the majority of the world’s population. The tightly told story, however, focuses upon a man called Jack who discovers a little girl called Claire strapped into the backseat of a car whilst he is fighting off the insects. Her parents have already been killed and are sitting in the front seats. Escaping with Claire, Jack finds a safehouse the insects cannot penetrate and the story then picks up sometime later when they have ventured outside for the first time. They have been going stir-crazy listening to the last short-wave radio broadcasts of impromptu DJs after the internet and electricity goes down for good, whe final discussions dropped the revelation that a small percentage of the population are seemingly ignored by the insects. Are they in some way immune?
Like many apocalyptic stories Balance is a journey; Jack is in email contact with a young man who has found a community of survivors and is invited to join them. Setting out with Claire, a mountain bike and GPS, their journey through the empty, but dangerous landscape begins. Coming in at around ninety pages, this was a brief read but had the usual John Hunt hallmarks of moments of bone crunching violence, both gripping and touching scenes and an outstanding finish. Even though the second half of the story has many elements which will be very familiar to regular readers of apocalyptic fiction, almost clichés, it was still very enjoyable as Jack fight for survival and refuses to give up on the little girl. Cheesy but terrific stuff. Although there were no zombies, the bad guy who materialised in the second half was straight out of the Negan playbook from The Walking Dead and was an incredibly nasty piece of work. Every John Hunt story seems to have an incredibly unpleasant villain.
A selection of John Hunt’s Short Stories
To date John has had nine short stories published in various anthologies, here are three to check out:
The Tunnel (Dark Moon presents: Ghosts!)- Teenage Alex is forced to hang out with his unfriendly bookworm cousin Samson who is both unsociable and very big for his age. Soon a local boy, Quinton, is found murdered close to a tunnel which is used as a short-cut to and from school. After the death all the kids are forbidden from using it, but if Alex has the huge Samson surely using the tunnel will be fine?
A New Suit (Frightmares: A Fistful of Flash Fiction Horror) Charles is a very big guy who likes a fight and wakes up, however, on this occasion with shaky memories of an unpleasant punch-up with a much smaller guy the previous evening. Upon opening his eyes, the tiny dude is standing above him, completely naked, and smiling. Cheerfully, he reveals his need for “a new meat puppet…” you just know something horrible is about to happen. A fine example of flash fiction.
Alicia’s in the Trunk and Boy is She Pissed from (Amok! Short Sharp Shocks Book 1) This fun story opens with Jenkins and Dave driving after “taking Alicia to the Place” with the reader unsure what they are referring to. However, something bad has happened to Alicia, possibly after “taking Alicia to that Place” and although she is very much alive, she is also locked inside the car trunk and trying angrily to escape. The story then flips back to a lost weekend of drink and drugs (and ‘the Place’) revealing how Alicia ended up in the trunk before going full circle.
John’s reading habits:
“I read everything as a kid. I was really into that Dragonlance fantasy series. I got in trouble in school for reading those during class. I read H.P Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Lousia May Alcott, Anne Rice, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein… I read everything. When I turned 11, or maybe it was 12, I started reading up to three books a week. And for the most part, that has never let up. I still read about that much.”
“My favorite authors… I’ll have to winnow this down because the list is huge! Here we go. John Sandford, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Stephen King, Harper Lee, Anne Rice, David Gemmel, Joe Abercrombie, Ray Bradbury, and, I really could go on for a long time, so I’ll end this list with Brian Lumley.”
Twitter podcast: https://twitter.com/DamnedMovies
Blog where John usually posts twice a week: johnhuntfiction.wordpress.com
The podcast episodes are available on iTunes, Spotify, and other platforms and discuss horror movies. He is most easily reached on Twitter. John’s favourite horror films covered on his podcast include Halloween, Hereditary, The Conjuring, The Lost Boys, The Evil Dead, Alien, Aliens, Get Out, The Fly, The Thing, Upgrade, The Cabin in the Woods, Don’t Breathe, and Ex Machina.