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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

THINK YOURSELF LUCKY by Ramsey Campbell -- a review


THINK YOURSELF LUCKY by Ramsey Campbell

Review by Gary Fry

 

Many more years ago than I care to remember, I was interviewed about my thoughts concerning the horror genre and its relevance to the world in which we live today. I can’t remember the exact words I used in my response, but it went something like this:

We live in an increasingly complex world, and I think it’s at least one of horror’s jobs to reflect that. Let’s consider, say, Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson was writing at a time when social restrictions were becoming crucial to the functioning of the modern state, and people, newly subject to internal monitoring of behaviour, had begun to feel repressed. It’s little surprise, therefore, that this novella found its energy and appeal in such a period of history.

I believe that more recently this duality of identity has been replaced by a multiplicity of selfhood, embedded in a social world in which our personalities can easily transcend their previously limited locations. The Internet, for instance, allows for greater and wider engagement with a vast number of people right across the world. The potential for personal expansion, but also fragmentation, has never been more prevalent, and I guess it’s horror’s role to explore the darker reaches of these new possibilities.

Step forward Ramsey Campbell, and more particularly, his latest novel Think Yourself Lucky. Campbell has, especially in the last ten years or so, been exploring the “way we live now” in a series of novels, novellas and short stories which elucidate the vicissitudes and complications of a society shot through with (among many other issues) political correctness, bastardised language, regular verbal misunderstandings, illiterate thuggery, social-role strain, dogmatic certainty, and – perhaps most importantly here – sublimated personalities.

It’s Campbell’s sternly held conviction that the Internet offers identity options to those who’d otherwise remain on the margins of contemporary life, both voiceless and needful. Now, this may indeed be a positive thing for many hitherto silenced groups, but for those excluded from conventional society for an uncomplicatedly honourable reason – they’re little more than disrespectful, intolerant shits – it leaves them grinning in the dark.

And so here we have Think Yourself Lucky which, on the surface at least, appears to occupy exactly this territory. There’s a killer loose in Liverpool, one who narrates his crimes in the form of a gloating blog available to any and all. However, the twist is that all the victims appear to be linked to another person, the aptly named David Botham (both am – geddit?), who grows increasingly concerned and then desperate as more and more people with whom he engages during his complex everyday life (holding down a job; trying to ensure that his girlfriend does well at hers) come a cropper at the hands of some savage entity.

The nature of this “thing” – who gradually assumes the name Lucky Newless – is brilliantly depicted by Campbell. The first-person prose in the many sections taking the form of blog entries are incredibly unsettling, completely leftfield in terms of their word-choices and descriptive passages (for example, the way a man falling from a roof is described as a bag of litter dropping and its contents breaking the way his skull obviously has; there’s also a vicious section near the end in which a driver is hit along a fast road – the last snatch of dialogue from our killer is almost painfully poetic), and also hilariously funny.

Witness, for instance, the killer’s tendency to name everybody according to some negative characteristic: Mr Bladderblob, Eegore, Blushpuss, et al. This writing grows increasingly threatening and suggestive as the book progresses, until this narrator is rendered almost unbearably disturbing – for example, his / its capacity to commit crimes without being detected by security cameras, passing through immovable barriers like walls and doors, etc. Campbell keeps us guessing about the nature of this thing, throwing in at least one cunning red-herring along the way, and eventually leaves us with no choice but to charge on to the final chapters to discover its actual origin.

Indeed, I can’t think of a Campbell novel with a greater narrative drive. It’s a fast-moving thriller, but far from lacking in depth and nuance. Everything a good novel should have is tautly incorporated: the cast of characters with their oh-so-true idiosyncrasies; un-preachy social commentary concerning the impoverishment of culture (one character seriously claims that grammar is an elite conspiracy to hold back the masses from personal expression; another chap joyfully reveals the plot of his latest novel, failing to realise it’s lifted from a rather more famous source [which was itself lifted from a previous one!] ); the latter-day inadequacy of language as a way of accurately reflecting inner life, becoming instead little more than a consumerist plaything intended to sell more products.

This is real virtuoso stuff, and although Campbell, as always, draws upon a range of strategies and tricks he’s acquired from other dark masters – there’s a lovely M R Jamesian moment when a security guard thinks two people enter a store, but only one has: all runes cast gracefully – he offers quite enough his own, perhaps setting out a stall of techniques which future horror practitioners may well want to “borrow”, just as Campbell has borrowed from his predecessors.

One example is a linguistic trick relating to dialogue, which Campbell first developed (I think) in The Grin of the Dark. This involves having a character speak using conventional punctuation (speech-marks), but then snatching back the comment and stating that it never happened that way at all. Only then does Campbell tell us what was actually said. This tricksy method has the effect of destabilising readers’ grasp of events, of what’s inside or outside the central character’s mind at any one time. Indeed, that’s Campbell’s milieu, his stalker’s territory: the overlapping arenas of both inner and outer life; the aching gaps not only between thought and language, but also between speaker and listener; and the inherent ambiguity of perception.

Which brings me back to the point with which I opened this review: where Stevenson, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, focused on a horizontal split in the psyche, an irascible id seeking selfish expression in a respectable, superego-governed social realm, Campbell’s conception of duality lays in other areas – quite specifically, in the person’s social interactions in an increasingly un-negotiable world. The “monster” here is not an asocial force, a limbic creature seeking gratification (as in Stevenson’s Freudian conception of the beast within); it’s actually a censored aspect of consciousness pressed into retreat on the basis of newly established cultural codes.

Let’s be precise here: Campbell is not writing about a world which has always been difficult to navigate (and yes, it has; hell, getting up and going to work are heroic enough); he’s writing about our modern world, which is even more difficult to deal with, with all its Frugo-decreed mores and lawyer-imposed rules. And this is why I believe that Campbell’s novel is such an important and worthy contribution to the horror genre, ably demonstrating (and then some) its capacity to address new forms of life and offer readers a firmer grasp on them.

The book’s flyleaf reads: “Think Yourself Lucky finds new demons online. But perhaps they are ourselves…” That’s true, for sure, but Campbell does himself a disservice here. Without the careful and ruthless depiction of a society corroded by recently developed dehumanising norms, his monster wouldn’t have the power it has; indeed, it wouldn’t exist in any original sense. It would be just another rendition of Stevenson’s animal Mr Hyde, and in the early Twentieth First Century, who needs that? As it stands, however, Campbell’s creature may well become the first archetypal entity of its kind, one talked about in the future, when reflecting on e-culture, the way we now discuss honourably Victorian Henry and his considerably darker brother Edward.

If I had one problem with any aspect of the book, it was the ostensible source of the thing called Lucky Newless. I can’t say much more without giving away an important plot detail, but I did feel that Stephens King and Volk had, in other high profile work, done something similar. Now, that’s not a fault as such, but in terms of Campbell’s often beguiling inventiveness, it just felt a little short of the achievements of the rest of the novel. As I suggest, this is a relatively minor matter, but I feel, having praised this book so highly and with absolutely sincerity, it would be disingenuous of me not to mention it.

In short, I loved Think Yourself Lucky, believing it to be Campbell’s most artful statement to date on the perils of the Internet and one I found as compelling to read as anything I’ve ever read by the man: terse, punchy, true, essential, and genuinely nasty. And that mood-shifting last chapter drives the points bone-deep. You’ll wish it was satire, but dear God, it’s not.

Finally, on a more peripheral matter, I have to say that the book’s artwork is magnificent. Unlike almost every other cover he’s ever had in such a long, distinguished career, I now realise that – with a little help from Peter Von Sholly – Campbell’s responsible for that, too. Check it out below, and then buy the book. Just don’t stop at any blogs on your way over there; you never know what secret wish you might discover, let alone realise you ever had.

Friday, September 19, 2014

MUTATOR (DarkFuse, Sept 23rd, 2014): chapter 1 sample


1

James had just finished mowing his new lawn when he met his neighbor for the first time. It was a fine autumn evening, the sky full of strange cloud. A cool breeze swept across the Yorkshire Dales, bringing with it a scent of moist vegetation and pungent tree bark. For the first time in many years—maybe even decades—James felt relaxed, no longer harried by student grading deadlines or research project responsibilities. And he’d been considering a proposal he’d received from a Central American university—a visiting professorship, six months in Costa Rica—when a voice summoned him from behind…a rather stilted voice at that.

            “I say, we’ve yet to be introduced. I’m Barnes, the fellow who lives in the next house along.”

            At that moment, Damian, James’s aging beagle, who had a tendency to follow him everywhere, started barking at the newcomer, and as James turned quickly to look, he realized why. The man appeared to be defying conventional rules of physics. He was levitating above the fence separating James’s garden from all the rich countryside flanking his detached new home. But then, as a sound of bestial breathing accompanied the man’s presence—a nasally pant from deep lungs—James realized what was afoot. The man was on horseback and his steed was just out of view behind the fence.

            “Be quiet, Damian,” James snapped at the dog, relinquishing the handles of his lawnmower, which was now switched off. Perhaps its raucous sound earlier had drawn his neighbor’s attention. Then for a few awkward seconds he observed the man, whose smile was thin and half concealed by a thin scribble of moustache. As he appeared to want to keep their engagement formal by using only surnames, James replied, “Hi, I’m Parry. Just moved in.”

            “Ah yes, the wife thought she’d spotted activity at the old place. Nice to see it occupied again after…well, you know.”

            James turned to observe his property, a fine country cottage in a magnificent setting. He’d loved visiting the Yorkshire Dales as a child, on the few occasions each year when his undereducated parents had decided to do anything other than watch TV or frequent pubs. But he was over all that, thirty years a professor and now at emeritus status. Only a fool clung to regrets.

            “Thanks. I’m slowly making it my own.”

            Even though James had continued to ham up his working-class accent for anarchic effect, the posh guy went on with communal grace. “You must visit us soon—that is, the family and our menagerie. We have two children, an Angora rabbit, my fine horse, and a couple of house-loving cats.”

            Damian disapproved of either this announcement or the man’s pride, barking loudly again as he spoke. James, privately amused, found it difficult not to reflect on the man’s description of one of the family’s pets: an Angora rabbit. Clearly the common breed James had owned as a child—he vividly recalled mucking out its hutch in his cramped backyard—wasn’t good enough for the Barnes clan.

            “Perhaps once I’m properly settled in, I may take you up on that offer,” he replied, glancing beyond the man perched on his horse, at a much larger property in the middle distance, all brick chimneypots and sash windows. James’s own property had cost nearly a quarter of a million, but Lord knew what the market value of this place might be—a full million? More, perhaps? “Maybe a glass of the fine stuff and a chat about our relative occupations would be nice.”

            “That sounds grand, sir,” said Barnes, responding more enthusiastically to James’s crisper accent on this occasion. Or maybe he was eager to explain how he’d made his obvious fortune. Whatever the truth was, his expression took on a less bullish look and his cocksure voice wavered slightly as he added, “And of course we’ll all look forward to meeting your—”

            “I live alone.” James had already second-guessed the man’s comment but wasn’t about to elaborate on why he had no wife or other relatives living with him. Let the Barnes clan speculate at their leisure; if he ever showed up at their home with a bottle of single malt, it would show James what kind of people they were. But for now, it was good to keep them guessing: Widowed? Divorced? Bachelor? Gay?

            “Ah, I see,” Barnes replied, keeping his tone as neutral as possible. James imagined the man putting such a poker face to good service in a profession that involved bluffing and blagging, the insurance game maybe, or possibly market investment. But James was determined not to be difficult; he’d just moved in and the last thing he wanted to do was sour relations with his new neighbors.

            “Well, I’ll say good-bye,” James announced, keen to put his gardening equipment back in the shed so that he could settle down for the evening with minimum fuss. “I’ll see you soon, I hope.”

            “The feeling’s mutual,” the man replied, and with that was on his way, bouncing up the lane that ran alongside James’s new home and then along a pathway leading to Barnes’s larger property. His horse appeared to be a fine, dark-haired breed with supple musculature and a strong stride. But that was when James glanced away, summoning Damian to his heels.

            “You didn’t like the toffy-nosed bugger from next door, did you, you mangy mutt?” he said, stooping on his aging legs to tickle the dog behind his floppy ears. But after standing again, James was surprised to observe his beloved pet continuing to bark on the lawn. The dog seemed restless in a way that suggested more than relocation from an upper-storey campus apartment to a house out in the remote sticks. Maybe the beagle was troubled by some aspect of the garden James had finally tidied, following the previous owner’s neglect. James looked around, at weedy borders and overgrown hedges, but saw nothing of particular import—certainly nothing that might arouse his pet to such irascible insistence.

            “What’s the matter with you, old boy?” he asked, his words ringing in all the silence that had settled around them. The countryside muttered back, a calming combination of whistling wind and rattling leaves. Trees shook at a distance and the faded engine of a solitary car could be heard, resounding in an unseen valley.

            With some force, James was revisited by his new neighbor’s words: Nice to see the old place occupied again after…well, you know. At the time, he thought Barnes had meant that the property had been vacant for a long time. But now, as Damian continued barking and whirling maniacally on the alopecic grass, James wondered whether that was true.

            After putting away his gear in the shed at the foot of his garden, he turned, crossed the lawn, and then reentered his property, eager only for the sedating influence of tea imported from far corners of the world.

Monday, September 1, 2014

MUTATOR -- prepare for impact

My new novella MUTATOR (DarkFuse) is hurtling through cyberspace as we speak. Expected time of arrival: early September. Prepare for impact...

"At some point during the night, a thunderstorm filled the sky with light and noise, painting g...audy colours into the corners of James’ room, each filtered by the temporary curtains he’d hung at his tall, north-facing window. But all this irascible cosmic activity failed to wake either dog or master, who snoozed on following all their exertions the previous day. Indeed, not even a tremendous thud out on the lawn, like a heavy hand dropping hard upon a tiny insect, did anything more than stir them from their private dreams."
 
 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Spooky music by John Stones

A very old friend of mine -- a composer called John Stones -- recently read my novel CONJURE HOUSE and felt inspired enough to write a short, moody piece of music based on it. I've used this as the basis of an equally moody promo film for the book. We'd both be pleased if you'd take a look.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Spectral Book of Horror Stories -- review by Gary Fry


THE SPECTRAL BOOK OF HORROR STORIES

Edited by Mark Morris

 

Review by Gary Fry
 
We all love a good horror anthology, don’t we? Yeah, sure we do. Those of us old enough to recall the great days of horror – 70s and 80s – will fondly recall thumbing through gaudy paperbacks, seeking tales of decapitation and swimming pools full of acid. Such tales “got there first”, imprinting the genre on our juvenile minds the way goslings follow mother-goose. Flashbulb memories, right? That is, shattering flashbulbs, whose fragments violated our eyes, rendering the world henceforward splintered and edgy.
 
So much for waxing lyrical. All of this is a preamble to a review of an anthology that seeks to reinvest the field with some of this gaudy darkness, those stomach-pit frissons. And who better, I ask you, than Mark Morris to bring it together? More than anyone I know, Morris celebrates the joy of youthful encounters with speculative fiction. He’ll basically kill you if you say a word out of place about Dr Who. And why the hell not? We all have our passions, and what’s a passion if not for singing (screaming?) loudly about?
 
Anyway, this is where this book is coming from, a collection of the great and the good, the new and more senior scribes currently at work in the genre. So let’s see how the editor and his able accomplices did, shall we? Can they give me that peerless rush I experienced while reading so many gruesome tales as a lad? Here goes, one tale at a time…
 
ON THE TOUR - RAMSEY CAMPBELL
It’s no secret that I’m one of Campbell’s biggest fans, but I’m no apologist. I never find his work less than interesting, but have reviewed anthos in the past in which I’ve found stories by other authors as effective. So it goes. But on this form, there’s nobody like him. Another of his tales of “the comedy of paranoia”, this one elucidates the experience of mental disintegration in all its common absurdity. Like the work of R D Laing, it shows how easy it is to lapse into egocentric thinking. There’s a bit of the central character in all of us, I’d wager, and that’s what literature is about: identifying such behaviour, making sense of it. Hilarious and painful, and more importantly, a brilliant start to the book.

THE DOG’S HOME - ALISON LITTLEWOOD
A canine tale of terror and a cuttingly cruel one. Littlewood taps into the dynamics of familial tensions, involving miserable maiden aunts and their common misanthropic love of dogs. You’ll start out think it’s one character who’s the villain but you’ll be wrong. Quite a nasty ending, but it rings right.
 
FUNERAL RITES - HELEN MARSHALL
A wonderfully aloof tale, with a spinsterish prude taking lodgings in the home of a vulnerable landlady. Again, there is sleight of hand here, with those characters you initially consider harmless taking on sinister undercurrents as things develop. The prose is Rendellian, with many a deft insight into human relations (for instance, being simultaneously drawn to and repulsed from others), and the ending is a Sartrian nightmare. Powerful story.
 
SLAPE - TOM FLETCHER
Sorry, guys, didn’t quite get this one. It’s short and punchy, but I fear its point was lost on me. If I’m missing something, forgive me.
 
THE NIGHT DOCTOR - STEVE RASNIC TEM
A fine depiction of incipient old age. Tem’s slippery prose slips back and forth, from past to present, inside and outside, elucidating a chilling portrait of a “creature” that will surely one day haunt us all. I enjoyed this one a lot.
 
DULL FIRE - GARY McMAHON
One of McMahon’s recurring motifs: punitive parents haunting their offspring way beyond the sell-by-date of childhood. There’s a scene involving two backseat passengers that chills deep down, and I did wonder whether the author might have ended the tale there. There are more passages at the end, which, for me, might have been cut, but that doesn’t mean they should be for you. We’re all different. Overall, though, a pungent piece.
 
THE BOOK AND THE RING - REGGIE OLIVER
A great traditional tale in the Oliver mode, drawing on either actual or convincingly invented history to spin a sinuous yarn. This one involves witches and magic, with the events effectively depicted by the distancing narrative of ye olde English. Maybe the introducer could have returned at the end, to round things up, but a minor matter. Oliver is as witty and arch as ever.
 
EASTMOUTH - ALISON MOORE
Really loved this literary, delicate and insidious story. I can imagine a lot of trad horrorheads asking what it’s doing in a Pan-style book, but they’d be wrong. It has all the tropes of a classic tale of terror and its quietness is a just a scream that never reached the mouth. Chilling last line.
 
CARRY WITHIN SOME SMALL SLIVER OF ME - ROBERT SHEARMAN
Shearman writes so slickly that the reader is carried effortlessly along, whatever the subject matter. In some writers, that can conceal an absence of substance or a deficiency in plot, but I’ve yet to come across a Shearman tale which didn’t interest me or stir me or even shock me. There are some images in this story that get right to the gut, and that’s just the job in such a collection. Good stuff.
 
THE DEVIL’S INTERVAL - CONRAD WILLIAMS
Williams documents the trials of learning a craft with almost obsessive attention to detail. As a musician myself, I understand the complexities of all those fucking chords and how, even though Clapton just stands there smiling, your fingers can end up in spaghetti plaits while fingering only a C. The story itself? Well, it relies on a clever allusiveness that may be lost on some, but I rather enjoyed it. It has the usual busyness of Williams’s prose, the masterful craftsmanship in literary mode he wittily bemoans about music in the tale.
 
STOLEN KISSES - MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH
I felt this was quite a slight offering from Smith, certainly by his usual high standards. There’s nothing here to dislike, but it just didn’t feel weighty to me.
 
CURES FOR A SICKENED WORLD - BRIAN HODGE
Had a lot of fun with this one. Hodge’s depiction of an artist taking a review literally is quite merciless, but then becomes something rather more sinister, as some dark force is unleashed and lingers beyond the final page. The distancing effect achieved by using an on-looking narrator adds impact, a vision of insanity or something worse than that through a lens of logical reason. Solid piece.
 
THE OCTOBER WIDOW - ANGELA SLATTER
This is the kind of story E F Benson might have written for the anthology. The tale of an ambiguously benevolent femme fatale, it raises questions about the personal and the collective, about whether what’s good for the person is good for the world, and vice versa. Compelling.
 
THE SLISTA - STEPHEN LAWS
Another tale I simply “didn’t get”. Its strange language and brief events were kind of lost on me. If I’m missing something, please let me know.
 
OUTSIDE HEAVENLY - RIO YOUERS
A superb story of dark American shenanigans, with witchy, satanic episodes and a descent into uncivilised territory. Of particular note for me was the tale’s clever structure, the way Youers knew exactly how to pace the piece and reveal key confessional material with a variety of narrative techniques. I enjoyed the hell out of this one.
 
THE LIFE INSPECTOR - JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
Another of Probert’s fun tales of officialdom in the form of some door-knocking rep bearing a clipboard and a bunch of unusual requests. I guess this is the book’s token comic tale (you know, like the golfing episode in Dead of Night), but I think Probert has done better elsewhere. I’d have encouraged him to submit one of his usual nasty body-horror delights.
 
SOMETHING SINISTER IN SUNLIGHT - LISA TUTTLE
Tuttle rarely disappoints and this compelling story of truth and reality – a tad Lynchian – certainly entertained me. Its LA setting and wry Britisher bewilderment only added to the appeal. Great last few lines.
 
THIS VIDEO DOES NOT EXIST - NICHOLAS ROYLE
And how about a touch of the enigmatic? Better ask Royle to contribute then. And contribute he has! This is a wonderful story, weirdly comic and then viciously serious. Its domestic scenes, daily events and rooting among a home’s common detritus, are set aside images of…oh God, just read it. It goes bone-deep.
 
NEWSPAPER HEART - STEPHEN VOLK
OK, other than the Marshall, the Moore, the Youers and the Royle, Campbell’s tale reigns supreme here…but what’s this? A novella by Volk, you say? Right let’s give it a go, then... And hell, if the author doesn’t turn in a tale to equal any of those just mentioned. It starts out a tad tame, just a soap opera depiction of domestic life in the 70s, with a nuclear family engaged in all their usual quirks and tensions. But then, with the introduction of the outré element, it deepens into something quite compelling, a story positively thrumming with interpretative possibilities. Volk’s prose here is disarmingly giddy and homely, loaded with common working class phrasing and many a casual cliché. But that’s all deliberate, you see. He’s trying to make this seem like your life, dear reader – the one you enjoyed (if “enjoyed” is the right word) when you were a kid, when daily anxieties induced you to turn to the dark… In short, this is a fitting ending to a book that seeks to recapture the pleasures of that period of life, eight years old (or thereabouts), with all the evils of the world awaiting you…and nothing to save you from the explosive night.
 
And so there we have – the whole book. How did Morris do, in this, his first editorial outing as custodian of dark nostalgia? I’d say it was as good as any antho I’ve read in a while. Of course every book like this has its strong and weaker parts, and hell, some of these can be ascribed to personal taste (some folk might love the Fletcher and Laws, for instance). For me, the collection has six world class stories (Campbell, Marshall, Moore, Youers, Royle and Volk), a bunch of great ones, and the rest are rarely without interest. That makes it a really worthy book, in my view, and no fan of our beloved genre should hesitate to grab a copy.

http://spectralpress.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/sbohs-cover-reveal/
 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Silent Voices by Gary McMahon -- a review

Silent Voices (Concrete Grove part 2) by Gary McMahon            

A review by Gary Fry
 

The first entry in the Concrete Grove series is a pretty strong book, including one multi-strand set-piece that’s among the best things I’ve read in the genre for a long time. So I came to the next of the trilogy with high hopes for more of the harrowingly real stuff.

Silent Voices is, however, quite a different novel from the first. It’s quieter, more restrained, and takes its time to yield its qualities. We’re familiar with the set-up, reminiscent of King’s It. Adults (three guys) revisiting a childhood grief; it’s as much about biographical detail and character development as horror events, of which, in the early stages, there are few. But the three leads are so well-drawn, you won’t worry about that, even if you are a plot-seeker.

I sense McMahon exploring some biographical material in this book, particularly in the character of Marty; his “incandescent” rage has a whiff of lived experience about it, a no-bullshit tone it’s probably impossible to fake. That’s always been the strength of McMahon’s work at its best; it bleeds passionate involvement in life, the powerful and often violent frustration that arises when what should be good times (being rich, dating a model, being a family man, etc) are blighted by corrosive memories which “get in the way”.

That’s basically what this book is about. The story leads back to the concrete grove, including an episode in the Needle (a venue at the heart of the area) in which lots of metaphysical episodes occur, instinctive depictions of character rendered metaphorical and delineated in tangible symbolism. These are complex intuitions, and I’m not sure a reviewer can rationally unpick them when the author himself seems to be relying on nous, gut feeling, a “feels right” chain of imagery and turns of phrase. All I can say is that it all works well and is memorable, so there’s certainly more to this book than mere horror-y frights. Captain Clickety (those many masks) and the Underthing gain power from such thematic resonance and strong characterisation. It’s all damned good gear.

On a more prosaic level, the book possesses richness in terms of sense of place and minor character. McMahon isn’t content with just sketching in a pencil background for his folk to move through; he adds copious detail, making venues come alive. Although a ruthless, market-oriented editor might have asked him to cut a sequence involving a guy (Simon) going to a café (“Why do we need to know what’s on the table, for God’s sake? Cut those lines about the fucking sugar bowl, for Christ’s sake!”), that editor is a fool. It’s stuff like this which give the book its lived dimension, contributing accumulatively and inexorably to those effective final scenes. Similarly the little observations of people in their daily milieu – the barmaid singing along to a jukebox, the bored-looking waitress with vacant eyes, et al. This is, like, verisimilitude, man, and sets the author apart from those who care merely and more about event.

Event is important, of course, and Silent Voices doesn’t welsh on that. While some may think a lot of the book is set-up (and in a way, it is), it’s the quality of character delineation that shines through, keeps you reading. I had an issue with one character – Brendan’s wife – late on in the book. !!!SPOILER HERE!!! She’d been sending Simon loads of info about the grove, and yet in hospital with her sick son, she wishes he’d never come back there. Well, you know, she was partly responsible for that. !!!SPOILER OVER!!! But on the whole, the people in the novel were its finest quality, especially Marty, whose soul positively stains the book’s paper.

All in all, this is a fine second entry in an ambitious trilogy and I certainly look forward to the third. When McMahon parties in his native north, he’s hard to beat.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Bones of You by Gary McMahon -- a review

The Bones of You by Gary McMahon
Review by Gary Fry


The superb cover of this book reminded me of the recent film Sinister, which is a real favourite of mine, and so I greatly looked forward to something of similar persuasion. Here we have a male narrator, whose life is troubled, and who moves into a new home to start a new life. It’s a familiar narrative technique, allowing us to join him at this existential juncture and see how it all goes. But it isn’t going to go well; we all know that. This is a horror novel.

McMahon spends the opening half of the book lining up all his dominoes, bringing them tumbling down in the second half. There are great descriptions of working, recreational and interpersonal life. The author has a real gift for documenting the minutiae of everyday life, the nuanced tensions arising between people, private concerns conveyed by body language, etc. It lends the outré proceedings a convincing backdrop.

I really liked the way the darker events were hinted at, building slowly and intriguingly. And while the bogeyman (well, in this case, bogeywoman) is kept offstage for much of the book, there’s enough suggestive material to hold the reader’s interest. I guessed at some plot events, but was surprised by others. That’s the way it should be when an experienced reader meets a tricksy writer.

The finale is suitably grisly, involving – NO spoilers here – an abandoned house and folk rather less than dead. If I had one complaint about this, it was that the “purpose” of the “villains” was rather hackneyed, but that’s only a minor issue. McMahon seems less interested with the mechanics of plot and invention of new tropes than with delineating character and their interactions, using horror themes as way of exploring them, like strips of litmus paper dipped in the genre’s acid. And on this point he’s always superb.

This short novel’s greatest strength is the voice of the narrator. Educated, world-weary, by turns poetic, it lends the story a real depth and detail. We get to know every aspect of his troubled life, his hopes, regrets and struggles. McMahon’s prose is addictive. It’s rhythmic, chatty and pared to the bone. I tore through this book in less than a day, and that was why. Coupled with a thoroughly satisfying mystery and a sinister conclusion, we have a fine, lean horror novel, maybe the best kind there are. I enjoyed the hell out of it.