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Saturday, October 24, 2015

THE END by Gary McMahon -- a review

The End by Gary McMahon – a review by Gary Fry

I’ve read an awful lot of Gary McMahon’s work, either in manuscript form when we were both starting out together as regular writers or, more recently, in its published form. Having reviewed him previously, I’ve described his work as unflinching, inventive and powerful. I think my favourite book of his was the first of the Concrete Grove novels, which contained a sustained passage of horror across multiple scenes that truly got under my skin. And that’s why we read this kind of stuff, isn’t it – to be rattled a little?

So I came to this relatively short novel in the hope of a similar experience. The title boded well – what could be more threatening, more viciously terminal, than the end? And then, suitably apprehensive, I started reading the book.

In many ways, as McMahon states in his afterword, the novel is his homage to those short, sharp shockers from horror’s tawdry boom in the 70s and 80s, whether dog-eared paperbacks or fingerprint-grubby VHS cassettes. It has a similarly furtive feel about it, the opening sequence in London presenting lots of pungent omens as an ostensible suicide cult begins to blight the city while the novel’s central character and colleagues try to continue with their recession-affected lives. These suicidal episodes escalate, spread across the country, and McMahon’s characters end up going on the run – or rather, retreating to where their hearts are: up north to their homes and to those they love.  

What surprised me most was a piece of fiction not mentioned in McMahon’s afterword, though it’s a more recent one than those he does. It seems to me that, as the characters reach a property in which a paramilitary group is being established, the book’s principal influence might be Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later. We have the London opening, a group on the run, the alt-military group occupying the place to which they flee, the focus on breeding, etc.

This is certainly not a negative thing, as McMahon’s source of national menace – suicidees rather than zombies (and these scenes are done extremely well) – is very different, but I did feel as if I was in very familiar territory here, as if the narrative was merely documenting an expected sequence of events.

Nevertheless, the multiple set-pieces which constitute the group’s stay at the refuge is extremely well done (including a particularly effective sex scene, which truly captures the feelings involved in such an act during a period of societal fragmentation), and Thwaite, the cult’s leader, is an intriguing character, with his bizarre dress sense and ridiculous aspirations. I could have done with a lot more of him.

So far, so enjoyable: well-written, tautly structured, conventionally and professionally developed. But all the while I could sense something else going on, a suggestive undercurrent of unease arising from a series of telephone calls the lead character makes during his and his companions’ road trip. Something is not right here; the way these conversational chapters are structured, like a stage-play script, is kind of off-kilter.

This certainly maintains the narrative’s momentum. As I consumed all the expected descriptions of escape, I simultaneously wanted to know what all those calls amounted to, what the guy would find when he got home. And this is where the book comes into its own, where it transcends its many influences and becomes something a bit special. You see, up until this moment, I’d felt as if the book was merely a well-judged piece of homage; but all the while, McMahon had been doing a lot of quietly accumulative work, building up to this gut-punch at the end. Which is not to say the finale is wholly unexpected; I’d kind of anticipated it. It’s just the way it’s done, the prose McMahon summons, which sends a chill deep down.

It’s a marvellous end to a book which is very definitely more than the sum of its parts, an appropriately short novel which starts with a modest grim factor and just elevates that by gradual degrees until the final bleak horror. Like a lot of the best stuff in our field, its impact is artfully choreographed and I think that’s the finest thing to admire here: its Gestalt vision, its unrelenting tone.

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