Filler content with monsters

And here is a review from Black Static #9, and it may even have read something like this after the editor got through with it:-

How to Make Monsters by Gary McMahon

(Morrigan Books paperback, 175pp, £6.75)

The last collection by McMahon that I reviewed, Dirty Prayers, brought to mind the work of Harlan Ellison, and that’s as true of this latest book, with an author Foreword that has strong echoes of Ellison’s introduction to Deathbird Stories, just substitute ‘monsters’ for ‘gods’. Dirty Prayers was fuelled by a righteous anger, and that’s also the case with How to Make Monsters, but there’s a cold, cold wind blowing through the pages of this book, and that wind is a sense of despair. These stories are a product of their times, with narratives informed by the bleak economic outlook, the sense of social collapse and the absence of anything on the horizon that might be mistaken for hope. And overarching it all, the knowledge that this terrible thing is something we have done to ourselves, nobody else to blame, that we have sold our heritage for whatever passes for a mess of pottage in the Noughties.

Opening story ‘Chill’ sets the tone with its bleak picture of alienation, as Joel tries to reconnect with the life he once had but finds the whole world frozen and the cold seeping into his own bones, becoming the medium in which whatever is left to him of a life will be played out. Similarly, the heroine of ‘Through the Cracks’ gets a disturbing glimpse of how reality works courtesy of an occult inclined boyfriend who shows her the cracks in the world and what may be leaking through. There’s the almost overwhelming suggestion of things falling apart and a centre that will not hold, no point to getting angry, no point to anything.

Even the ghosts are feeling the pinch in McMahon’s oeuvre. The down and out protagonist of ‘The Unseen’ has visions of the ghosts of the living, the parts of us that represent the best in human nature, abandoned and forgotten in our headlong flight into the consumerist future. ‘Why Ghosts Wail: A Brief Memoir’ is almost poignant in its depiction of a dead father/husband, whose ghostly state permits him to see the terrible future that awaits his loved ones. The despair is not for himself, but for those left behind.

Some of McMahon’s protagonists attempt to buck the trend, but in vain. In ‘Nowhere People’ a man tries to fight against the violent racism that has gripped his town, but ultimately it all comes to naught and he can only himself become a victim. Lured on by the cryptic graffiti ‘Something in the Way’, Pierce is sucked into the orbit of an outré cult, one that seems to offer solutions of a kind but delivers only pain and betrayal, as do all charismatics in McMahon’s world. The door knocking cultists of ‘Save Us All’ offer the salvation of conformity, and one man resists their allure only to then find himself rejected, which is the most disturbing thing of all.

Even on a personal level resistance is futile. The protagonist of ‘Pumpkin Night’, the story in the book that comes closest to providing what most of us will recognise as regular horror fare, prepares for the children to come calling on Halloween, but as the tale progresses events take a disturbing turn and we realise that not all traditions are healthy, that he is haunted by his past and fated to repeat its mistakes. ‘Family Fishing’ is a clever variation on Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau, a tale of family secrets and abuse stretching back over the years, with a harsh moral dilemma at its core, and if the protagonist is triumphant at the end there is the strong sense that this is only a temporary victory, that he has still to contend with his own natural proclivities and these will run far deeper than the veneer of civilisation he has chosen to embrace. ‘A Stillness in the Air’ is the story of a man trying to escape his past, a time when he was mistaken for an infamous serial killer, but finding that you always carry who you are with you, and really there is no escape.

And now, just when I’ve probably convinced you that McMahon is the writer to make a miserablist weep, let’s concede that there are occasions when he finds hope of a kind, though it’s not in any of the usual places and won’t conform to any dictionary definition.

‘Owed’ is one of the most powerful pieces in the collection and my personal favourite, the tale of a woman with debts she can’t hope to get out from under and facing a lifetime of sexual servitude to a ruthless loan shark, until she is saved by a supernatural intervention, showing that at times only the macabre and horrific can offer hope. Lana’s plight, that of a good person forced to debase herself and do terrible things, simply so that she and her child can survive, is movingly portrayed, while the alien nature of the creatures who come to her aid, the Slitten, is chillingly realised, with echoes of Barker in the subtext, though of course you’re left wondering if, ultimately, the cure will prove worse than the disease.

The short but chilling ‘Once a Month, Every Month’ is a tale in which a family are required to make the ultimate sacrifice, a demand that is repeated each month, regular as clockwork, like some modern rendition of the scapegoat, or the sacrifice of the Harvest King. In ‘A Bit of the Dark’ a man returns to the scene of his childhood terror, only to find that all the things he was afraid of were real and that now they are reaching out to devour his son. It’s a strong story and the perfect end to the collection, offering hope of a kind in the love of a mother and a father’s willingness to sacrifice himself.

Gary McMahon is a writer who gets better with each collection. He doesn’t write easy stories for happy readers, but has the courage and integrity to stay true to his muse, no matter how sombre the end result. His voice is distinctive and his imagery striking. His stories won’t take you out of yourself for an hour or so or provide distraction from the problems of the world. Instead they will grab you by the scruff of the neck and compel you to look at those very things you want to avoid in new and oblique ways. They are not easy stories, but they may well be necessary stories.


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