Filler content: Joseph D’Lacey

For today’s filler content we have reviews of the first two novels by Joseph D’Lacey, which appeared in Black Static #4 and #11 respectively (the latter as part of a cluster of reviews, which should explain any apparent non sequiturs in the review).

And the reason for this surprise scheduling is simple opportunism, in that Meat and Garbage Man are to be reissued in time for Halloween by Oak Tree Press who hopefully, as well as giving the books splendid new covers, will have dealt with the typos I mention in the second review (so you can probably ignore that comment), and I’ll also be interviewing Joseph D’Lacey over on the TTA website later this week, all being well.

(And ‘later this week’ appears to be now, so here’s that interview with Joseph D’Lacey.)

Here are the reviews, exactly as they appeared back in the day minus any editorial interventions that I forgot to incorporate at the time:-

MEAT BY JOSEPH D’LACEY

(Bloody Books paperback, 320pp, £7.99)

The town of Abyrne sits at the heart of a wasteland, its people beset by poverty and hunger. Local legends tell that the town was created by God, who also provided the Chosen as cattle for his people to feed on. Abyrne is ruled by an uneasy alliance of the meat baron Rory Magnus and the Parsons of The Welfare. Family man Richard Shanti works at the Magnus Meat Products factory, stunning the Chosen before they are processed for consumption, a job at which he is consummately skilled, but Rick has always felt uneasy about what he does and is secretly a vegetarian. He finds himself at the centre of events when tension between the meat baron and The Welfare is brought to boiling point by John Collins, a renegade preacher who teaches that the Chosen are human just like the townsfolk, and that it is wrong to feed on them, there is a better way.

Despite its provocative title and the cover image of a bloody hook, suggestive of so many straight to DVD slash for cash outings, Meat is every bit as much rooted in the science fiction genre as it is horror, at least as regards the story’s backdrop. D’Lacey makes no attempt to explain the existence of Abyrne, an ambiguity that strengthens his story, but he does an excellent job of delineating this enclosed eco-system, showing how something so patently ridiculous might be made to work. The delicate balance of economic and social forces, the contrasts of poverty and lavish wealth, the various hierarchies, the severely curtailed lives of the Chosen are convincingly portrayed, and underlying it all is the religion that gives Abyrne’s leaders their authority, with its sacred texts, the Gut Psalter and Book of Giving. And, as if to show that the hook on the cover wasn’t entirely misplaced, there are scenes of horror aplenty, as meat is processed and the victims, Chosen and townsfolk alike, the eaters and the eaten, are dehumanised by the brutal system they live under, with torture inflicted at the whim of tyrannical Rory Magnus and his henchmen.

If D’Lacey impresses with the care and attention to detail he invests in the story’s backdrop he is equally adept in dealing with his characters. Rick Shanti is especially convincing as a man who questions his role in life, a good man trying to do the right thing for himself and his family, even though it isn’t always easy, a man who carries a terrible burden of guilt. Similarly, John Collins (I suspect the initials are significant) proves an inspirational preacher and compelling exemplar of a better way of life, D’Lacey pulling off the difficult trick of making him seem holy but without any attendant sanctimony. The other characters are every bit as well realised, from Rick’s wife, who feels that he is remiss in his duties to the family, through Parson Mary who starts by toeing the party line but exercises her conscience to find a better way to serve her God. The only fly in the ointment is Rory Magnus, who is a bit too much the stereotypical bad guy, painted as black as can be and with no redeeming features whatever, becoming almost a comic cut out monster, like Sade’s cannibal giant Minski. In a way his one-dimensionality is necessary and drives the plot, but it also informs any assessment of the arguments in favour of Abyrne’s status quo. It’s a minor point though and doesn’t detract from D’Lacey’s achievement here, with the final scenes of collapse as the various factions in the town engage in open warfare bringing the curtain down in a memorable and thoroughly satisfying manner. The book didn’t however, turn me into a vegetarian.

                                     ***   ***   ***   ****   ***

I thoroughly enjoyed Joseph D’Lacey’s debut novel Meat, but follow-up Garbage Man (Bloody Books paperback, 346, £7.99) didn’t impress me quite as much. I’m probably totally wrong here, but I couldn’t get past the idea that it was an earlier novel, revised and rewritten on the back of its predecessor’s publication.

Mason Brand was a famous photographer, the toast of London, but he abandoned it all to go and live in a camper van in the Welsh hills, getting in touch with nature. Now a shaman of sorts, Brand lives in the town of Shreve within sight of the massive landfill that dominates the town’s skyline and fills its air with noxious fumes. Strange creatures are formed from the garbage, a new life form taking shape, the fecalith, and Brand decides to help in its birth, feeding one creature first with his own blood and then going further still. The Garbage Man, a prescient giant, shares its life with a horde of other creatures who launch an attack on the town. Cut off from the outside world, Shreve’s inhabitants must fight to survive, until finally the military intervene, but of course this is far from being the end of the matter, just another ploy in Gaia’s master plan to restore the balance of nature by curtailing the activities of wasteful homo sapiens.

D’Lacey is being touted as a horror writer whose work deals with environmental themes – the evils of factory farming etc. in Meat and the shortcomings of waste disposal in this – and there is something of that about him, though it’s not a quality peculiar to his work. As far as Garbage Man goes, one thinks, for instance, of Troma’s Toxic Avenger, or Swamp Thing (the ‘muck monster’ to friends), or any number of B movies where chemical pollution is a convenient deus ex machina for the monster. Where D’Lacey’s originality is shown is in the very scale of the problem, so that in effect what we are seeing here is a global apocalypse, one instigated by Gaia herself to cleanse the Earth of its most wasteful inhabitants, the modern equivalent of a Biblical flood. But while it is a new twist, for me it also reads very much like a mishmash of past influences. There are echoes of The Wicker Man in Brand’s final fate and of Hellraiser in his feeding of the fecalith in the garden shed, while one character waking alone in a hospital put me in mind of Resident Evil, and touches like this are part of what makes me wonder if this was an earlier novel than the more original Meat. Of course reviewers are fickle beasties and if I liked the novel more then I would probably be applauding these subtle homages to horrors past and present.

So what was my real problem with Garbage Man? Well, as a minor point, there were enough typos to niggle, a problem I didn’t have with The Absence, or D’Lacey’s first novel come to that, so I guess it’s something peculiar to this book, rather than Bloody Books per se. More significantly, I found the characterisation lacking, in that very few of the people in the novel seemed to have any real depth or offer a particular reason for me to care about them. Pivotal to the story and the most credible character is Brand, who reads like a prototype of Meat’s John Collins, the same messianic streak but without the tempering of compassion. He’s very much the Old Testament version, judgemental and unsparing of those he finds wanting, Gaia’s representative and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for what he sees as right. But he’s the only truly memorable character in the book, and someone who casts aside all hope of reader sympathy and identification through his actions. Brand aside, there are no characters to rival the quality of Richard Shanti and others in Meat. Instead there’s the wannabe model and there’s the Goth chick and there’s the nerd who gets to play hero, and so on, and while D’Lacey’s rendering of them was competent none of them really gripped my imagination or caused me to feel sympathy. They never became more to me than people in a story. Elsewhere we get more intriguing characters – a father who is fighting against his liking for kiddie porn, a neighbourhood busybody, a woman who has had her baby aborted and is now besieged by nightmares – but nothing significant is done with any of these, no attempt to use them as much but padding, and they all get used up as cannon fodder when Shreve is overrun.

So what does the book have going for it? Well, the idea is a great one, of Gaia striking back against the planet’s dominant species and showing us the error of our wasteful ways. It has an especial relevance as landfill sites are used up and the need for new ways to dispose of our rubbish becomes ever more urgent, deftly touching on our other fears, of disease and contamination and toxicity in the air and water, and the final twist at the end, with the mutation of mankind, adds a wickedly barbed slice of satire and poetic justice to the mix. The Garbage Man himself is frighteningly realised, a giant creature that towers over Shreve and brings destruction raining down on all and sundry. Equally as unsettling is the horde of monsters it unleashes on the town, creatures made up out of tin cans and animal remains and plastic bags, aborted foetuses and plant waste, all the things mankind has thrown away returning with a vengeance, the chickens coming home to roost. And D’Lacey absolutely delivers with this aspect of the book, drawing a gallery of nightmarish beings, each different and all malevolent to human beings, going from early scenes of creeping horror, as when dogs are attacked by a pile of waste and a young woman has her toe bit off, through to the full frontal attack by a ravening horde made from our cast offs. Early in the book, one of the characters is playing a shoot ‘em up computer game, and there’s something of this in the book’s final third, with various characters struggling to reach safety and fighting for their lives, with twists and turns of fortune to hold the interest. It’s exciting stuff and very visual, and should challenge the ingenuity of many an sfx maestro if ever a film is made which, my reservations aside, this book is crying out for.

In conclusion, perhaps the only thing really wrong with this book is that I didn’t read it before Meat. As a first novel it would have been excellent, but as is Joseph D’Lacey has accustomed me to expect something more.

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