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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

WHAT THEY FIND IN THE WOODS: chapter 1 sample


WHAT THEY FIND IN THE WOODS

 Gary Fry

 

Chapter 1
 

Chloe arrived for our meeting half-an-hour late.

          Following all that happened afterwards, this unpredictable element was hardly surprising, but at the time I knew nothing much about her. Of course I’d taught her during her first two years on the psychology degree, along with a few hundred other undergraduates half my age. And yes, I was aware of the brighter students – Chloe had maintained an average A-minus coming into her final academic term and was well-positioned to gain first-class honours – but as I wasn’t her personal tutor, other contact had been minimal.

          This was why I was surprised when she’d put in a request for me to supervise her dissertation. As far as I was aware, having checked out her latest module choices, she was interested in psychodynamic aspects of our subject – Freud and his devout followers – while I specialised more in the social realms of experience. But I realised that other issues were important when youngsters chose who they’d like to support them through this critical aspect of their courses, and that perceived compatibility was often uppermost among them.

          When she entered my office that day, she looked a bit nervous, but, despite her good looks – long blonde hair, slender figure, fresh face which needed no makeup; in her early twenties, she’d surely never lacked others’ attention – I didn’t attach much significance to that. Indeed, I could remember my own first meeting with my supervisor twenty years earlier as an undergraduate. I realised this could sometimes become an intimate relationship, but, when conducted professionally, it remained only an intellectual engagement, a coming together of jaded old master and bright young thing. I’d been doing this kind of work for over a decade now – nearly as long as my solid marriage – and had never felt a need to tackle it in any other way.

          At my invitation, Chloe sat in a chair opposite my own, a few yards from my paper-stacked desk under the only window in the room, which looked right across the city. At the heart of this informal meeting area was a small table bearing drink-making facilities – powdered milk, a bag of sugar, assorted herbal teabags my wife had bought in an attempt to wean me off my beloved brain-stimulating coke – but I rarely used them. Nevertheless, they’d always offered me an effective way of putting newcomers at their ease, using a little self-disparagement to lighten the tone.

          “I’d make you a drink,” I said, lifting one of several cups from the table whose interior bore many brown stains. Then, smiling as warmly as I could, I showed this to my visitor. “But as you can see, hygiene isn’t exactly my forte.”

          The young woman – as pretty as some flower yet to fully blossom, as if she’d grown up in the shade – eventually smiled back, raising one hand from a notebook, which, after sitting, she’d removed from a pocket of her serviceably smart dress.

“That’s okay. I’m not thirsty anyway,” she said, her first words to me tender and strained, the way I imagined someone easily hurt might communicate. But other than my experiences of growing up in a very different era, what did I know about youths? I had no children of my own, despite recent activity at home on my wife’s part to alter that crucial fact.

Distracted only briefly by non-work-related issues, I soon got down to business with Chloe, asking her about her research interests and whether she’d settled yet on a topic for her dissertation. During all my years as a lecturer, I’d always found this the best way to get to know a supervisee: simply stick to the reason she or he was here. If things clicked and it looked like the relationship was likely to work, everything else – private issues concerning personal lives – would be addressed if they needed to be. Sometimes they did, other times they didn’t. As far as I was concerned, I was happy to maintain respectful boundaries but also cool if students wanted to get a little closer.

Following a brief preamble about Chloe’s academic interests – despite finding his work difficult to read, she was a fan of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan – she started outlining a potential project, simultaneously consulting notes she’d clearly made before today’s first session. I was impressed – ordinarily students rolled up with a sheepish shrug but little else – and yet also surprised by her choice of subject matter.

“I live in a small village called Pasturn, just north of Leeds,” she explained, her former reticence lifting and her voice becoming enthusiastic – almost passionate. “My mum and I moved there about four years ago, after…well, after my parents’ messy divorce. Anyway, the point is that on one side of this place is some dense woodland, which appears to have attracted what we might call a…rural legend.”

I was intrigued, but not necessarily in my role as a tutor seeking to keep a student’s dissertation plans focused and realistic. There’s just something about such material – folklore, myths, and the like – that instantly grabs our attention, isn’t there? With no lectures to deliver that morning and extra time to spare, I leaned back in my chair and asked Chloe to continue.

“Well, it’s about a man who once lived in the woods and had all these weird children,” she went on, clearly now in her element. “He got them by seducing passersby – young women, I mean – and then snatching their infants once they’d given birth. He was supposed to have lived – oh, centuries ago, I think, but I’m not sure; I need to look into that yet. But what’s significant is the way he did it: brewed special potions and got the victims to drink them, which always made him look, instead of just a strange old man, like some kind of handsome prince.

“And the most important thing is,” Chloe said, with an air of finality, of driving home her points, “some residents think he still lives there, in those woods, along with all his ill-gotten offspring. The children’s spirits, I guess they mean. Their ghosts.”

“Okay, hold on a moment,” I said, raising a forefinger to mark the pause. Then, once I had her attention – she looked at me with large blue eyes, sheens of fragile moisture occupying both – I added, “While I admit that all this sounds interesting, I guess I’m struggling to see how it might lend itself to a project drawing upon psychological theory and methods.”

She hesitated, looking at her notes, or maybe even through the pad on her lap. I didn’t get the impression that she was seeking further assistance from earlier thoughts, rather that she was trying to evade my gaze altogether. But then, after a brief twitch of her head like some kind of nervous affliction, she spoke again.

“I suppose I’m interested in why the community has chosen this particular person as its bogeyman. I mean, what is it about the village that makes that specific issue…” – she paused again, as if needing to draw in a breath, but only for as long as it took to take one – “…what is it that makes young women being exploited like this such a concern that it needs codifying in the form of a legend?”

I nodded slowly, now seeing how a project might emerge from this issue, but also realising how fraught with ethical considerations it could be. Chloe was possibly proposing a survey or even a series of interviews with Pasturn’s residents about this rural legend and how it played out in their daily lives. It could certainly be interesting, if tending towards the sociological side of academia.

But in truth just then, I was more intrigued by the reason for Chloe’s interest in this topic. In my experience, enthusiastic students, the ones who exhibited an engagement with their work similar to what she’d just demonstrated, usually had some personal reason for investigating particular topics. And I wondered what hers was here.

I didn’t ask her directly, however; it was much too soon for that, and perhaps always would be. We were tutor and undergraduate, and not therapist and patient, let alone father and daughter. Instead, I simply continued playing Devil’s advocate, putting up barriers for her to knock down. The brightest, most eager students always managed to do so.

“Okay, let’s say for a moment that you chose to carry out your crucial final-year project on the psychology of communal legends.” I looked at her fixedly, refusing to let her gaze stray from mine. “What sources of data would you plan to draw upon?”

Now Chloe seemed to be on firmer ground. “I’ve already spoken to several people in my street,” she said, the smile I’d spotted earlier resurfacing. “It seems that lots of folk living in the village are aware of this man, who’s called…uh, I mean, who was called Donald Deere.”

Something about the man’s moniker – those solemnly alliterative D-sounds, that ostensibly inappropriate term-of-endearment surname – made me feel uncomfortable for a moment, despite early autumn sunlight cutting in through my window. Perhaps it was the way my new supervisee now held my gaze, as if the power relation between us – if indeed this had been the basis of her previous reserve – had just been subtly inverted.

“Okay, so you have evidence from a number of neighbours,” I said, trying to regain control of the episode by using a lecture-toughened voice. “But you’ll need much more than a few anecdotal accounts to inform a solid study.”

“That’s only true of statistical survey-based work, isn’t it?” She looked at me some more, clearly knowing exactly what she was talking about, which was knowledge I’d been fishing for anyway. “With interview and documentary type research, don’t we go for depth rather than quantity?”

This was all good enough for me; having admirably defended her methodological approach – she clearly planned to conduct interviews with people carefully selected for inclusion in the project, as well as performing a review of associated materials – I decided that her idea might actually result in an original project. Indeed, allowing her to pursue what she was obviously enthused about would be a positive move. In the past, scorers of high grades under my tutelage had been those not only with ability but also with some stake in their research, a private agenda that made the work so much more enjoyable and compulsive for them – for me, too, if I’m being honest.

“Right, you’ve sold me,” I said, now dropping the interrogatory routine and becoming something like a normal human again. Toying with intellectually insecure youngsters was always quite wicked, but I was also here to nurture them. “It’s early days yet. Why don’t you go away and see what else you can find out about this topic, maybe pull together a few documents for us to review at our next meetings. Then we can think about how we might proceed.”

The prospect of further one-to-one supervision seemed to appeal to Chloe, whose face brightened as soon as I’d mentioned future sessions. During the first and second years of a degree, university was much like a school for adults, with many lectures and group discussions, but little personal tuition. This was why smart students tended to come on stronger in their last years: because they received the kind of individual attention from which every young person could benefit, if only they showed sufficient interest.

When Chloe rose to leave, she looked a lot happier than she had just after her arrival, as if I’d endorsed a furtive wish she harboured or maybe even shared one of her secrets. At any rate, that’s certainly my impression now, and you know, I even think it might have been back then, too. Within the space of twenty minutes, she’d moved from being guardedly glum and to being radiantly hopeful. Indeed, in light of what happened so soon afterwards, I’m sure her wide smile was based on more than what she added before exiting my office that day, leaving me alone with unusually disrupted thoughts.

“I’ve already made a start,” she said, snapping shut her notebook and clearly alluding to my previous comment about beginning to look into the case of the centuries-old philanderer Donald Deere. “In fact, I’m aware of somebody in the village who claims to have met him.”
 
 
*****
 
If you enjoyed this opening chapter, you can read more by grabbing the whole novella here:
 
 
 
 

Monday, March 7, 2016

MY NEW BOOK: BEWARE THE DEEP, DARK WOODS...

Today my new book, a 30,000-word novella called WHAT THEY FIND IN THE WOODS, is officially released. If you're a fan of Blair Witch-style horror fiction, I hope you'll enjoy this. Its principal focus, a warlock named Donald Deere who lived in the 1500s, still possesses the power to menace the inquisitive in our own era. Whether he's real or otherwise, I'll leave for readers to judge.

All I can tell you is that I've faithfully presented the facts as they came to me, after discovering an undeleted manuscript on a former colleague's PC. I've tried to contact this fellow since, an effort to corroborate his account, but I've had no success. I needn't read anything sinister into this failure, need I?

Perhaps you might tell me. All you have to do is click on one of the options pasted below, whether your preference is for paperback or ebook, or you're in the UK or the USA.

This is the only way you'll find what others found recently in those deep, dark woods. Oh God.

 
 
 

 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Dead Shift by John Llewellyn Probert – a review


Dead Shift by John Llewellyn Probert – a review by Gary Fry

We come to horror fiction for many reasons. To have our sensibilities affronted, our metaphysical assumptions challenged, and to experience Aristotelian catharsis. But sometimes, amid all the Ligotti grumps and Aickman enigmas, it’s good simply to hang loose, have a blast, and consume something unapologetically fun.

So it goes with Probert’s latest novella, a work whose tone and approach, if you’re a fan like me, you’ll recognise from the first page. It starts with a lyrical reflection, much like something Lovecraft might have penned, but we’re soon pitched into more earthly territory, as a guy seeks to conduct magic rites in a rundown part of town.

Near this area is a hospital, and it’s here to which the action soon shifts. Our centre of focus, a doctor on the wards, carries the tale forwards, with many a wry hint about things not being quite right, and then rather more than that as all hell breaks loose.

Probert’s depiction of an entity trying to break through this tattered part of the veil between worlds is full of dripping detail and vibrant colour, as a group of medics ward off a full frontal attack on their place of work. There’s a particularly effective scene staged in the autopsy room, which builds later to a nasty set-piece involving many a revived corpse.

Probert is having fun here, that’s sure enough. His characters are self-aware enough to realise that they’re capable of hacking out genre clichés (to paraphrase, “it’s a Sumerian document with Aztec variations!”) with tongue firmly in cheek.

There’s really nothing to fault at all. Yes, the plot is simply a vehicle for gaudy imagery, the characters are broadly drawn, and the pay-off is consistent with plenty of other horror tales, but that’s all as it should be.

Probert’s depiction of Lovecraftian foes blundering through into our world, and the price which must be paid to prevent them, is never less than entertaining and a real pleasure. Solid work from our field’s mischievous jester.


You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dead-Shift-John-Llewellyn-Probert-ebook/dp/B01BWU8DP0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1456338324&sr=8-1&keywords=probert+dead+shift

Thursday, January 21, 2016

13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough – a review


13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough – a review by Gary Fry

Call me naïve. I haven’t read much Young Adult fiction. I think I expected material a lot more sanitised than similar stuff for adults. You know what I mean: swearwords replaced by “damn” and “bloody”; violence supplanted by mere shoves and pushes; and as for “scenes of a sexual nature” – well, forget about that.

Then I read 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough.

By the end of only the first few chapters, I’d readjusted my expectations. Pinborough depicts modern school life, with teenage girls at its heart, with social realism-like accuracy. There are cattish calls in corridors, their unmasked subplots on social media, experimentation with drugs, high-tailed parties, and genuinely erotic encounters in the backseats of that nostalgia-baiting “first car”.

All this soap opera detail is a vital context for the story which rapidly emerges. A girl has died after falling in a river and was resuscitated after 13 minutes. What were the causes of her death? Who was involved? And how will it all end?

These are all intriguing questions and genuinely haul the reader by the collar right the way through the book. But I want to say that the novel is much more than a “good story, well told”, an unfailingly twisting plot with enough red herrings to fill the river in which the victim fell. It is all these things, but as I say, it’s a lot more, too.

Essentially, the psychological tone of the book feels real. The characters are early twenty-first century teens with all their premature cynicism, concerns about the “playground pecking order”, eagerness for highs (friendship, love, intoxication), and a genuine interest in things that matter (especially the drama woven intertextually through the novel, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible).

These convincing depictions of bright young things on the fringe of emergence into the world at large allows for some authentic observations about being that age and all the confusing emotions involved:

Adults being grateful to teenagers was weird. And a little bit scary. Like they were all becoming equals and there was no safety left in the world. Their childhoods were over. They were in a waiting room at the cusp of adulthood. No-man’s-land, neither one thing nor the other. Sometimes it was brilliant. Sometimes it totally sucked.

On other occasions, Pinborough, writing principally about girls here, reflects specifically about being female:

We’re all strangers. Circling each other. I see the same thing with my mum and her ‘ladies’ lunch’ group. They laugh and joke and say how much they love each other, but as true as that might be, they still watch each other for weakness. For chinks in the armour. I don’t think boys are the same. Boys are dogs. Women are like cats. Individuals by nature. We are not pack animals.  

It’s touches like these (and there are plenty) which elevate the narrative above mere soap opera. The voice feels grounded in its world and the insights are unstrained. They’re not merely the objective observations of an older, all-knowing novelist; they’re written by someone who knows how these characters think and feel. And I believe that this is fiction at its best.

Another major strength is the book’s structure. Pinborough employs a wide range of narrative strategies to convey her story with tricksy verisimilitude. Here we have straightforward third-person prose, diary entries, newspaper clippings, cell-phone text exchanges, and verbatim transcriptions of interviews with police and psychotherapists. Collectively these techniques not only enhance the realism of events depicted, but also allow the author to play with the reader’s understanding of developments. Which of these sources should we believe? Who’s telling us the truth here? It’s all cunningly and seamlessly done.

OK, so all praise so far. But did I have any issues with the novel? I think for me there is a very minor problem with the plot. It’s all very ingeniously mapped out and paced, with Pinborough keeping innumerable plates spinning for extensive periods. However, given the socially realistic nature of the whole work, there’s one scene (I’ll struggle to describe it without dropping in a spoiler) which felt a bit too “Agatha Christie”. Let’s just say it involves a stage device and how it was used in an unintended way.

But that is a relatively minor matter. What we have here is an absolutely gripping book with likeable/detestable characters (and sometimes the reader’s perceptions shift in this regard relating to the same person); an ingenious and hard-to-guess plot; a beguilingly clever structure (which actually contributes something to the story and isn’t just smart-arse for its own sake); some genuinely erotic scenes; a documentary-accurate depiction of latter-day yoof’s social and private lives; and a highly satisfying conclusion.

The book is being described as a YA novel for marketing purposes. But if you’re as old, jaded and out of touch as me, don’t let that put you off. I haven’t had this much fun back at school since I reread Stephen King’s Christine.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What I read in 2015

Here's are the books I read in 2015 and the rating out of 10 I assigned each (r stands for a reread).



Unsettled Dust – Robert Aickman 9 r

Cold Hand in Mine – Robert Aickman 9 r

Creatures of the Pool – Ramsey Campbell 9 r

Joyland – Stephen King 8

Dr Sleep – Stephen King 7

Something Wicked this Way Comes – Ray Bradbury 7 r

Talking It Over – Julian Barnes 10 r

Love Etc – Julian Barnes 10 r

Money – Martin Amis 10 r

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy 8

Summer of Night – Dan Simmons 7 r

Slam – Nick Hornby 8

1984 – George Orwell 10

Nothing to be Afraid of – Julian Barnes 7

Mythago Wood – Robert Holdstock 7

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson 9 r

Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury 7 r

The Unlimited Dream Company – J G Ballard 7

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway 8

The Minotaur – Barbara Vine 8

The Establishment – Owen Jones 9

A Week in December – Sebastian Faulks 10

American Pastoral – Philip Roth 10

Stoner – John Williams 8

I Am Legend – Richard Matheson 7 r

White Noise – Don DeLillo 8

Hawksmoor – Peter Ackroyd 6

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison 8

Incarnate – Ramsey Campbell 10 r

The Face That Must Die – Ramsey Campbell 8 r

Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis 10 r

Midnight Sun – Ramsey Campbell 9 r

Ghosts Know – Ramsey Campbell 8 r

The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene 7

The Terror and other novellas – Arthur Machen 9 r

The Darkest Part of the Woods – Ramsey Campbell 9 r

Veronica Decides to Die – Paulo Coelho 7

The House on the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson 9 r

My Work is Not Yet Done – Thomas Ligotti 9

Selected novellas – David Case 6

Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke 9

House of Small Shadows – Adam Nevill 9

Half a Life – V S Naipaul 7

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood 10

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami 8

The Secret History – Donna Tartt 7

Rabbit, Run – John Updike 8

High Rise – J G Ballard 7

The Accidental Tourist – Anne Tyler 7

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth 9

The Human Stain – Philip Roth 10

The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth 8

An American Dream – Norman Mailer 6

The Ascent of Money – Niall Ferguson 6

Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe 8

Shrine – James Herbert 7

The Great Pursuit – Tom Sharpe 7

I Married a Communist – Philip Roth 10

Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami 8

Engleby – Sebastian Faulks 9

The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald 6

Boy Meets Girl – Ali Smith 8

Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson 7

Time and Time Again – Ben Elton 8

World Gone By – Dennis Lehane 7

Seize the Day – Saul Bellow 8 r

A Burnt Out Case – Graham Greene 9

Changing Places – David Lodge 7 r

The Counterlife – Philip Roth 10

Beloved – Toni Morrison 8

An Experiment in Love – Hilary Mantel 8

Nemesis – Philip Roth 8

The Plague – Albert Camus 10

Animal Farm – George Orwell 10 r

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov 8

The Humbling – Philip Roth 8

Exit Ghost – Philip Roth 9

Finders Keepers – Stephen King 7

Lost Girl – Adam Nevill 8

The Hungry Moon –Ramsey Campbell 8 r

Silent Children – Ramsey Campbell 8 r

The Wine-Dark Sea – Robert Aickman 8 r

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh 7

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth 9 r

The Tenants – Bernard Malamud 9

Everyman – Philip Roth 8

Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck 7

13 Days by Sunset Beach—Ramsey Campbell 10

Spectral Book of Horror Stories 2 – ed. Mark Morris 8

Albion Fay – Mark Morris 9

Mammoth Book of Short Horror Novels – various 8

A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay 9

Skein and Bone – V H Leslie 9

Aickman’s Heirs – ed. Simon Strantzas 8

The Nameless Dark – Ted Grau 7

The Moon Will Look Strange – Lynda Rucker 8

The Needing – Thana Niveau 10

The End – Gary McMahon 8

My Name is Mary Sutherland – Kate Farrell 9

Thursday, November 5, 2015

JURASSIC WORLD -- a review

JURASSIC WORLD – a review by Gary Fry
 
Looking for a real-life cartoon? One with absolutely implausible plotting all the way? Well, it’s all here and then some. There’s a cookie-cut gung-ho military bloke with a gut full of stewed Middle East insurgents. There’s an Oriental scientific genius whose skills come without morals. Then we have a vacillating Indian mediator representing all the emerging markets. And, just like the first JP film, there's another fat bloke more interested in coke and crisps than in ensuring the security of a compound housing the world's most lethal, steroid-chocked, flesh-enthused, merciless and cunning killing machine, like, ever. So it goes; despite this terrible recession, you just can't get the staff. But rest assured, the US everyman – a Mr. Pratt, no less! -- and his impromptu moll will save the day: in her case, all in high heels.
 
I have to say that the kids dealt rather well with the super-dinosaur attack -- not a hint of poo or wee in their sealed viewing unit. I additionally admired the way the male lead raced his motorcycle across several miles of perfectly flat woodland, while the beasts he followed leapt and ducked amid fallen tree trunks and viciously entangling vegetation. Dextrous fellow. And tell me, American folk, do aunts in the States have more familial obligations than they do in the UK? The poor lass here was given a very hard time about having a career and various commitments (yeah, we get it: she quantifies rather than empathises, but her transformation is represented by her hair getting curlier as the film progresses), whereas my aunt, unemployed and with all the time in the world, doesn't give a shit about me. I suddenly feel all neglected; I think mine at least owes me a little pocket money in arrears.
 
Anyway, the grand finale is fun, where a – [SPOILER] -- T-Rex inadvertently (and yet with remarkable timeliness, given its non-appearance in any other part of the film) saves the day, before running off into the sunset to have a little triumphant, the-natural-order-of-this-modified-world-is-restored roar about it. And let's not forget the help and support of the last-surviving trained -- yes, trained -- velociraptor, which also does its essential pro-human business and then skitters away into woodland, presumably hoping that it's done enough to secure some kind of spin-off show on US TV. Or perhaps the general public will question its loyalty, since -- as my partner observed -- one minute it was in complicit cahoots with the super-raptor, and the next biting the shit out of it. Still, near the end, in a scene which clearly escaped the producer, it exchanged a collegial nod with Mr. Pratt, so maybe he'll put in a good word for it.
 
Anyway, if, on the basis of the above, you think I disliked this film, you're wrong. I thought it was jolly good noisy fun. Just don't do anything ridiculously ambitious like...well, “thinking” while you're watching it.
 

Monday, October 26, 2015

MY NAME IS MARY SUTHERLAND by Kate Farrell - a review


My Name is Mary Sutherland by Kate Farrell – a review by Gary Fry

This lengthy novella (54,000 words) takes the form of a confessional monologue delivered by a late-teenager restricted to a support facility for disturbed children. Mary Sutherland narrates her recent history, from age 12 onwards, documenting a rich passage of time during which her mother dies and her father remarries, to that wicked stepmother of much dark fiction. And that’s essentially the plot. But it’s what Farrell does with this familiar material that sets it well apart from others.

The first thing to admire is the voice: convincingly innocent, slightly bewildered, and decidedly offbeat, Mary’s tale-telling is both starkly honest and patently unreliable. Her habit of having us feel sorry for her plight – and yes, quite enough pitiable episodes occur for us to realise how dire her daily life has become – is frequently undermined by later admissions of some unspeakable act, usually involving animals. Indeed, it’s this simultaneous assault on readers’ impressions – engaging both our sympathy and revulsion – that offers the whole book such a compelling grip.

I’m not about to describe the chilling finale to this novella, but I will say that its causal facts – the stuff that “made” Mary – are explored in a suitably sporadic manner, with a negligent father, absent mother, furtive uncle, cruel friends, superior relatives, and wicked stepmother all among the suspects. The truth is something more than all these things, of course – each one in combination and then some, perhaps – and Farrell does her novelist’s work well, by elucidating the lot without making authoritative judgement. It’s up to us, the readers, to decide on why Mary does what she does.

There is much more I admired here. There’s clever wordplay throughout, with Mary often trying to get to grip with her immediate world through the phrasemaking tendencies of her adult companions. I thought some of the more troubling scenes were well done, too, with Farrell drawing on casual disclosures from Mary to reveal the full horror of her existence. It’s a very M R Jamesian technique and one which works extremely well in this less chaste environment. I won’t give away any of these savage moments, but if I say that one involves a cat, you might realise what you’re in for here.

The characterisation was rich throughout, the father and stepmother suitably negligent without becoming comic-book caricatures. Nevertheless, if I had any issue with the book it was the way the stepmother seemed to agree to Mary becoming a babysitter without at least a little protest. Given the context of her other behaviours – hugely protective of the child whenever Mary is around – I would have preferred a few more scenes of fractious debate here, before the father maybe persuaded his new wife to use Mary as a cost-free resource in this way. This is a relatively minor matter, however, and simply shows how difficult it was to find anything critical to say about this fine, chilling book.

The story builds to a wonderfully macabre conclusion, something which Mary’s possibly delusional visions right the way through (and all are done most effectively) have been preparing us for. In some ways, the book reminded me of a wonderful Ruth Rendell novella called Heartstones in which an elder sister documents the activities of her almost certainly psychotic younger sister. Farrell’s tale had the same sinister, furtive drive, the same convincing delineation of a young girl’s inner and outer worlds. But here the voice is far less plummy, the characters more everyday than Rendell’s solidly middle-class youths, and the events more embedded in the commonplace world of schools, homes and family.

In short, My Name is Mary Sutherland  is a marvellously compelling read – I consumed it in just a day, during two lengthy sittings – and Farrell should be congratulated for her attention to detail, her masterful modulation of voice, and convincing development of mounting psychopathy. This is a truly excellent book.