I had so such a lot to do today, but have been dogged by a pounding headache since I first opened my eyes.
I blame the government – those naughty little boys and girls have been getting up to so much bad stuff this week that it’s just doing my head in.
Anyway here’s a review that appeared in Black Static #15, and probably read something like this when it did so:-
After that The Darkening (Sphere paperback, 396pp, £6.99), a first novel by Brisbane based writer Stephen M. Irwin (‘a massive new talent in supernatural suspense’ according to the blurb), comes as almost light relief, and is a more conventional narrative. The PR people at Sphere are really getting behind the book, with comparisons being drawn to last year’s big success for them, The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom, and there are references to the supernatural thriller as a ‘newly thriving area of the market with huge demand’. Let’s hope they’re correct.
But as to the book itself…
Nicholas Close blames himself for the death of wife Cate, who fell from a ladder she was descending to answer his phone call. Worse, he has started to see dead people, ghosts playing out the moment of their death in endless loops. Nicholas decides to return to Australia and the family home in the small town of Tallong, where his mother Katharine lives alone, but his timing could have been better, as a young boy has just gone missing, reminding Nicholas of an incident from his childhood. Like Nicholas’ friend Tristam, Dylan Thomas turns up dead, and there are other resemblances – in each case a man confesses to the crime, then commits suicide before any trial can be held. Nicholas digs into the past of Tallong and finds that similar slayings of children have occurred many times during the town’s history. Also somehow connected is Mrs Quill, the ancient seamstress spinster who frightened him as a child, now either gone away to some retirement home or deceased. A health food shop run by the enticing Rowena occupies her former premises, but there is a curious and minatory rune carved into the wooden frame of the shop’s door. Tallong is threatened by something terrible, and yet more children are devoured, with everything pointing to the woods that border the town and where Nicholas’ young friend was taken, a place that leaves him almost paralysed with fear even now.
For some reason I found the opening pages of this book rather hard going, with too much happening a little too quickly, but after a false start I soon got caught up in Irwin’s story, the plot of which reads like the protagonist of Sixth Sense as a grown up tackling Australia’s version of the Blair Witch. Nicholas’ psychic gift is more of a curse and is harrowingly portrayed, as he is forced to bear witness to the deaths of other people, with terrible things playing out before his eyes on an almost hourly basis, and nothing he can do to prevent any of it, no way to make matters right. In fact, so deftly is this device incorporated into the story that on occasion you forget what is happening and pause to wonder why a man has just killed himself in front of Nicholas, who makes no effort to prevent the death.
It is this gift that makes him suitable prey for the machinations of Quill, the book’s genius loci, living alone in her hidden cottage at the heart of the dark woods, and the more Nicholas tries to escape the firmer he is drawn into her net. The way in which Quill’s back story is filled in, through memory and documentation, is done with skill and panache, so that the reader, at first as reluctant to believe as those around Nicholas, is convinced by the sheer weight of the evidence. Quill is a memorable monster, outwardly beautiful but actually a wizened crone, with a giant spider familiar and a host of lesser arachnids to do her bidding. The woman’s evil and madness crackle off the page, with scenes such as the one in which she confronts Nicholas and tries to have sex with him sending a shiver down the spine. And yet, back of all her madness, there is a certain nobility of purpose, a determination that makes us almost respect the woman even as we are repelled by the things she does to forward her plans.
While Nicholas and Quill are the main protagonists in this story, that doesn’t mean Irwin has stinted on the rest of his dramatis personae. The other characters are equally well drawn, from Katharine, who is in denial about the past and her unhappy marriage, through to Nicholas’ wiccan sister Suzette, who is brave and determined, from Laine, the widow of one of Quill’s victims, through to the Reverend Pritnam, who refuses to believe at first but then must. Each of these adds something to the mix, little moments that help make the story real, such as Pritnam’s gleefully un-PC banter with his minister, or Suzette’s concern when her son is attacked, and the hint of a possible romance between Nicholas and Laine.
Irwin has the audacity to introduce a major character after the halfway point in his novel, the precocious Hannah, whose sister was abducted in the night by a horde of spiders sent by Quill. Hannah is determined to avenge her sister, knowing that the adults will never accept what she knows as fact and that she must take matters into her own hands. I wasn’t convinced by her at first, but Hannah grew on me, her actions veering close to the edge but never quite toppling over into incredibility. She becomes a mainstay of the story, her presence evoking memories of all those old fairy stories about children in witches’ cottages, and with a pivotal role to play in its end game.
The climax is powerfully evoked, with Quill’s plans in danger of unravelling and the balance of power shifting first one way and then the other. There is a convulsive feel to the denouement, with destruction raining down on them all as if Nature itself is revolted by human actions, though that’s far from the truth. And Irwin is not yet done with us, adding a chilling coda to one of the best works of supernatural fiction to see print in 2009.