Some reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #36:-
THREE OF THE BEST: GARY MCMAHON
The novella NIGHTSIDERS (DarkFuse eBook, 104pp, $3.10) is a slight departure for Gary McMahon. It’s the story of writer Robert Mitchell, who returns from holiday with his family – wife Sarah, daughter Molly, son Connor – to find that their house has been occupied by Nathan Corbeau and his brood, and that Corbeau has legal documents that prove the property belongs to him, despite Robert’s lawyer insisting otherwise. The Mitchells retire to a hotel to recoup and plan their next move, but as the narrative progresses doubts are raised about the existence of Nathan Corbeau, the idea mooted that he may actually be a fictional construct. In practical terms it doesn’t really matter, as the effect Corbeau and his clan have on the Mitchells is self-evidently detrimental, threatening to tear the family unit apart, reinforcing doubts that Robert harbours – about himself, about his wife and his own manhood – until finally he decides that they have to fight back and reclaim what is theirs.
As McMahon acknowledges in the afterword, this story is a tribute of sorts to the home invasion sub-genre, the kind of story in which ordinary, decent folk confronted by those who do not adhere to social mores are forced to adopt the methods of their attackers, to kill or be killed, to get in touch with their inner savage simply as a means to survive. And on that level it works very well indeed, with plenty of bang for your buck and some suitably garish set pieces. Where McMahon strikes off into unknown or little explored territory is with the introduction of a meta-fictional element, inviting an interpretation of the text in which Nathan Corbeau and his destructive family are the negative image of the Mitchells, the ‘nightside’ representation of all the things that they fear, the social tides that threaten their hold on the good life, so that in a sense, when they finally strike out intent on bringing the battle to the enemy, they fight themselves, an aspect of their own personalities.
The ambiguity of the ending seems to imply that this is a battle which ultimately can never be won or satisfactorily resolved, that people can only do the best they can and then move on with their lives, whatever shape those lives now take. On those terms the novella offers an interesting variation on a theme, one that plays games with and explores the tropes of this sub-genre, questioning our knee jerk identification with the victims when we indulge in such fictional and cinematic fare, suggesting that we share a destructive potential with the tribes of cannibals and rapists, torturers and bullies, those without restraint. As such Nightsiders becomes a fiction about fiction, with a subtext potentially more disturbing than the wet work that splatters its pages, that we are the monsters we seek to overcome, and conceding that sometimes, just sometimes, the monsters win.
The nature of the monsters is more overt in McMahon’s short novel THE BONES OF YOU (Earthling Publications hb, 200pp, $45), the ninth and latest volume in Earthling’s series of books celebrating publisher Paul Miller’s favourite holiday of Halloween.
Adam Morris moves into a cheap rental property in the suburbs. Divorced from junkie wife Holly, he does his best to be a good father to daughter Jessica when she comes to stay, but there’s a serpent hiding in this cut price Garden of Eden. The derelict house next door was once the home of occultist and child killer Katharine Moffat, who marked Halloween in a somewhat less benign manner than Mr Miller, sacrificing those referred to as ‘radiant children’ in her cellar. And, with the season for tricks and treats fast approaching, Adam comes to fear that somebody is trying to revive Moffat, and his daughter Jessica could be part of their plan.
There’s nothing experimental about this book; it’s just an old fashioned horror story, with a plot considerably more complicated than my précis might suggest, albeit conforming to the tried and true schemata of beginning, middle and end, with wall to wall thrills and chills, the whole executed with considerable skill by a writer at the top of his game.
Adam Morris is the archetypal McMahon protagonist, a loner with a terrible secret in his past, somebody who has done bad things and is seeking to atone through doing right by others. As ever, McMahon is pitch perfect in his depiction of the character, totally convincing in the way he shows both Adam’s great anger and the unconditional love he feels for his child, so that you can easily believe and accept his willingness to die for Jessica, to kill those who threaten her. There are numerous red herrings, as with sometime lover Carole, who has her own connection to Moffat, and the young girl who comes to visit him late at night, claiming that her father wrote a book about Moffat and she shares his obsession. With plenty of grace notes along the way, all this leads effortlessly into the showdown in the cellar, with the spirits of Moffat’s victims materialising to bear witness to the fate of their tormentor, and her helpmates on hand to thwart Adam’s attempts to save his daughter, culminating in a firecracker of a ghoulish grand finale.
As a tale of supernatural terror The Bones of You fires successfully on all cylinders, but looking back I believe what makes the book work so well, what takes it to another level, is the portrait of a flawed man and the love that saves him, that enables us to see him as somebody, warts and all, who is worthy of the epithet hero. In McMahon’s oeuvre the heroes inevitably come with dirty hands, and in a way it’s this shop soiled quality that makes them both special and people with whom we can identify, the human frailty and flaws in their own nature that they have to overcome if they are to succeed. There’s no chance that you’ll be tricked if you accept this dark delight in lieu of Halloween candy.
With his editor’s hat on, McMahon’s VISIONS FADING FAST (Pendragon Press pb, 180pp, £9.99) follows the same formula as 2008’s We Fade to Grey, with five writers providing work at novella and novelette length. While it’s shown on the inside cover as ‘Volume 1’, I’ve heard no news as yet on any follow up to this selection of prime cuts.
Leading off is Joel Lane with ‘Blues Before Sunrise’, the story of blues musician Simon, who gets a chance to reform his failed band Blue Away and make it big again. Intercut with a compelling picture of the ups and downs in the career of a professional musician, somebody in love with his craft and who just has to make music, are details of Simon’s troubled personal life, showing how one informs the other. Back of it all there’s the suggestion of a deal similar to that Robert Johnson allegedly made with the Devil at a crossroads, with small details that add an outré feel to this powerful story, and the subtext that in some way all dedicated artists, whatever their medium, make such a bargain, sacrificing so many opportunities for personal happiness to their craft, even if the Devil isn’t involved in the mix.
The Lane was my personal favourite, but ‘Wild Acre’ by Nathan Ballingrud is the story that got the nod from Ellen Datlow for the latest edition of Best Horror of the Year. It opens with a contractor and two of his men standing guard on a building site hit by vandalism, but what comes out of the forest is not entirely human and the two men are killed, while Jeremy is left to deal with his own cowardice. The supernatural element of the story is simply a catalyst, enabling Ballingrud to focus on the perils of the Recession and the very human plight of a man who realises that he is not the person he believes himself to be, that others believe him to be, a man who has fallen short of the standards he expects of himself and others, that malaise colouring all of his subsequent life. As Jeremy self-destructs, in public and in private, emotional and economic currents tearing his psyche apart, Ballingrud’s narrative evolves into a compelling study of a personality fracturing under stress.
With ‘The Dancer in the Dark’ Reggie Oliver returns to the world of theatre, the story focusing on the cast of a new play by a right wing playwright and told from the viewpoint of a Nick Carraway figure, a young actor who joins the troupe and is drawn into events, an observer standing on the periphery of the action and occasionally intervening. The dancer of the title is fading star Billie Beverley, a target for the malice of the writer and other cast members, but the balance of power shifts as the narrative progresses, the old men in the company undone by strange events over which they can exercise no control. Beautifully characterised and paced, with barbed dialogue that conveys so much more than is actually said, this is a story in which sublime and chilling details mount gradually to a crescendo, though looking back on it you can’t quite put a finger on when the line was crossed, the kind of thing that Oliver does so very well.
There’s a touch of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) about ‘The History Thief’ by Kaaron Warren, whose hero Alvin finds that when he becomes a ghost he can steal the memories of other people, and fulfils a lifelong ambition to help the police with their enquiries. Eventually he is undone when he tries to help Mrs Moffat (possibly a relation of the lady in The Bones of You) find the killer of her child. Initially there’s a fun feel to the story, a lightness of touch that Warren brings to Alvin’s discoveries about his spirit state, but it’s undercut by a deep sense of sadness. What adds resonance is the portrait Warren gives us in the naïve but kind hearted Alvin of an overlooked person, somebody who has never really had any life to speak of, never truly connected with anybody else, and who in death finds a kind of satisfaction at second hand, even as his spirit state underlines how truly alone he has become, but only as prelude to a terrible act of betrayal.
By way of coda, we have ‘Night Closures’ by Paul Meloy, a far ranging, borderline stream of consciousness narrative rooted in 1970s England in which memories of events and the events themselves blur together, a mosaic gradually forming in which themes of bullying, neglect and loneliness shine brightly. We patch together the various pieces, details accumulating to suggest something truly macabre is taking place on the page, and finally what emerges is the story of a young boy and what happened to him, or perhaps a ghost story in which everyone appears to be a ghost, all leading up to the final terrible, heartrending denouement.
There’s not a dud here, and I doubt that these visions will quickly fade. I sincerely hope that this really is ‘Volume 1’.