Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #32:-
THE FACELESS (Solaris pb, 415pp, £7.99), Simon Bestwick’s second novel, is set in the Lancashire town of Kempforth, where people are inexplicably vanishing and the Spindly Men, a local legend, are rumoured to have been seen in the mist cloaked streets. TV psychic Allen Cowell and his sister Vera return to their childhood home at the behest of his spirit guides, three boys that he abandoned to the mercies of a child killer. Local historian Anna Mason, who also has a psychic gift, makes discoveries that suggest events are somehow focused on Ash Fell, a hospital set up to house the worst victims of World War One, but closed after a variety of scandals and now an isolated and derelict site, unknown to most of the town’s people. Detective Chief Inspector Renwick is convinced to lead a police raid on the hospital, but things go disastrously wrong, and a much greater evil is unleashed.
There are echoes here of Bestwick’s previous novel Tide of Souls, but without the backdrop/prime mover that, for me at least, made it slightly risible and also, in the chequered history of Ash Fell, of his short story ‘The Slashed Menagerie’, an account of atrocities at an asylum. The latter concept is reprised here in descriptions of the abuse of WWI survivors at Ash Fell, but with a somewhat more purposeful intent to what took place, instead of simply presenting us with schlock horror and class warfare. Further fleshing out the plight of the WWI soldiers are the excerpts credited as the first person accounts of the dead, poignant material that brings alive on the page the horrors and heartbreak of that most futile of conflicts, while the descriptions of the wounded are appalling beyond measure.
The supernatural aspects of the novel are handled with great aplomb. Ash Fell itself is turned into a vast psychic trap, a key the turning of which will plunge the world into chaos, even though the motives behind its creation were altruistic, while the final chapters reminded me of nothing so much as Carpenter’s The Fog, only presented on a national stage and with the vengeful dead of WWI in lieu of ghost pirates. This interweaving of past and present, which is one of the book’s greatest strengths, is also seen at the personal level, particularly in the case of Allen Cowell, with his memories of childhood abuse and the way his abandonment of his friends has haunted him. At the end he does what he believes is the right thing, but is betrayed by others whose thirst for vengeance is such that they will sacrifice everyone else on the altar of retribution. Central here, and to the book itself, is lack of forgiveness and what it can lead to, a theme that comes powerfully into its own as the dreadful machinery at the heart of Ash Fell fulfils its purpose. Another pleasure is the way in which Bestwick handles characterisation and relationships, adding yet further strands and complications to his narrative, as with Anna’s hesitant attraction to Vera, the unspoken love of another officer for Inspector Renwick, the anguish and depression experienced by Anna’s brother Martyn at losing both his wife and his job.
Bleakness is woven into the texture of the narrative courtesy of the horrors of past and present, and the way they seem to play off of each other, and nobody is spared, with several of the main characters, including children, suffering agonising deaths. The grimness of all that happens is embodied in the dilemma confronting Anna at the novel’s end, when she has the chance to put things right but at a terrible cost. This uncompromising situation, the implications of which Bestwick has the courage not to shirk, elevate The Faceless above most horror fare, turning it into a book of true moral dimensions, and the final twist of the screw, which all too often seems like a step too far, here adds a coda that chills to the bone. This is Simon Bestwick’s finest work to date, the one in which he harnesses the sense of anger at social injustice that permeates so much of his work and uses it to a greater end, and it is among the very best of what the horror genre in the UK had to offer in 2012.
SILENT VOICES (Solaris pb, 384pp, £7.99) is the second novel in Gary McMahon’s Concrete Grove trilogy, and like its predecessor it seems to rework old material, in this case the novella ‘The Harm’ (copies of which are still available from TTA Press). Three boys disappear for a number of days, emerging from The Needle, an abandoned block of flats at the centre of the urban jungle known as the Concrete Grove, with no memory of what has happened to them, other than vague, inchoate images of torture and an earlier episode where they followed the monster known as Captain Clickety. Twenty years later Simon has moved away to become a millionaire property developer, Brendan is a night guard at The Needle and Marty has gained notoriety as a bare knuckle fighter and local hard man. Each though is tormented by dreams of what happened and drawn back by circumstances, joining together again for a visit to The Needle, where they cross over into the place of dreams known as Loculus, encounter its guardian and must fight against the Underthing’s avatar, Captain Clickety.
This is a powerful book, one in which McMahon carries on with the construction of a new mythology begun in the previous volume, adding depth to the mix and bringing to his work an invention reminiscent of the work of Clive Barker and Stephen King, particularly the latter. In parenthesis, obviously any horror novel in which adults return to confront the monster first encountered in childhood is going to conjure up thoughts of It, while the way in which McMahon uses hummingbirds as avatars here made me think of King’s psychopompic sparrows in The Dark Half. The book wears its status as middle volume in a trilogy lightly: there’s the feeling that the important work was done in the first volume, and now this title is moving the pieces on the board for the resolution in the third volume, an impression reinforced by the shocks of the final pages, with events that surprise when they occur but seem perfectly rational with hindsight, and yet none of that detracts from the work, there is no sense in which it is simply marking time. Silent Voices stands perfectly well alone, though those who have read what went before will benefit more from all it has to offer.
In the end, what makes the story truly special and compels us to read on, is the depth of characterisation, emotional acuity and a sure sense of who his characters are allowing McMahon to confer an “everyman” quality on the three friends as they learn to deal with their mixed emotions and the sense of betrayal one of them feels. Simon is unable to relate to women, and manipulates others. Brendan is dealing with both ferocious acne and fear that he will lose wife Jane and his children to her old lover. Marty hides his intelligence beneath a brutish exterior, and inside is terrified of the monster he names Humpty Dumpty. Each man is a flawed human being with personal demons to confront, and it is in how they deal with these, and also the petty jealousies of each other, that the story really strikes home, minor concerns illuminating the major notes of the greater story arc. This juxtaposition of the personal, the all too human in the three men, and the outré forces at play in the Concrete Grove is what gives the book its narrative drive and energy, the former grounding the latter, so that McMahon can venture into strange waters and carry us with him. His greatest achievement with this series so far is bringing something akin to a sense of wonder to the matter of horror, and I look forward to seeing how it will all turn out in the next volume.
MAGIC (Solaris pb, 279pp, £7.99) is critically acclaimed editor Jonathan Oliver’s third anthology for Solaris, and having dealt with horror on the underground and haunted houses, this time he offers us ‘An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane’, though purists may rest assured that there is enough of horror and the weird in among these fifteen tales to make this volume worth their interest.
Leading off is ‘The Wrong Fairy’ by Audrey Niffenegger which is based on the story of Conan Doyle’s artist father, who was committed to an asylum and had visions of fairies, the story deftly raising questions as to whether insanity is, in fact, a superior mental state, or at the least one which confers a certain contentment on its victims, though there is also the possibility that wonder can intrude into the everyday and remake the world in its image.
Sarah Lotz’s ‘If I Die, Kill My Cat’ is set in South Africa and involves the use of magicians in clearing up accident black spots, but the bad juju goes into the sorcerer’s cat subsequently causing havoc in the life of the hazmat worker who takes it in after the owner’s death, the story delighting in the weary, cynical voice of the narrator and details of hazmat life. The protagonist of Will Hill’s ‘Shuffle’ has been gifted a magical ability at cards, but it comes with a terrible price, the joy of the story residing in how we fit the pieces together and decipher what is taking place.
‘Domestic Magic’ by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem depicts the downside of having a witch for a mother, showing how children are neglected thanks to her focus on higher things and ending with a note that implies an ordinary life might be much better after all, the witch shown as almost akin to somebody with mental health problems. Bewitched this ain’t. Dan Abnett’s ‘Party Tricks’ is one of the highlights of the collection, a deliciously tongue in cheek romp of a story dealing with magical machinations in the world of politics, delighting in what it shows us of those in power and how they manoeuvre to maintain their grasp, willing to sacrifice anything. There’s a fable feel to the prose of ‘The Art of Escapology’ by Alison Littlewood, with a distant father possessed by the spirit of Harry Houdini, his son seeing the man’s efforts at escape to be directed at him personally, the whole shot through with a bittersweet mood, so that it could almost stand as a metaphor for the dreamer eschewing family life.
Christopher Fowler’s ‘The Baby’ is perhaps the bleakest of what’s on offer, an under-age girl raped and impregnated by the rock star she idolised and then the situation going from bad to worse as she attempts to get rid of the child, culminating in a horrific birth, and all the way through the victim blaming herself and making excuses for her attacker in a way that is extremely disturbing as regards victim psychology. ‘Do As Thou Wilt…’ by Storm Constantine has a witch serving up poetic justice to the philanderer who dented her self-confidence, the story full of subtle touches of invention and an off the wall ending, one which seems perfectly appropriate with hindsight, even if it somewhat jars when first read. The mob are into magic in Lou Morgan’s ‘Bottom Line’ and a con must use his ability to get out from under, the story a compelling read but not really taking full advantage of its premise so that it feels vaguely unsatisfactory, a snapshot rather than a portrait.
Another highlight, ‘Mailerdaemon’ by Sophia McDougall has an unemployed computer programmer gifted a demon to help with her insomnia, but there are complications and she must devise a solution that allows her to have a normal life, the story wonderfully inventive and with a low key ending, one that hints the trouble is still far from over, the character has won only temporary respite, and it is also very good in dealing with the sloughs and desponds of job seeking and the relief that internet contact offers to socially isolated people. From Gemma Files we have ‘Nanny Grey’, a short and sharp shocker about a spirit that serves a family and what happens to the young man who takes sexual advantage of a young lady, the atmosphere of quiet menace seeping off the page and playing counterpoint to the more overt eroticism of the piece. Last but not least there is ‘Dumb Lucy’ by Robert Shearman, with a magician and his assistant come familiar travelling through a blighted landscape and performing wherever they can, blackness and a war between angels and demons following hard on their heels, and the suspicion that in some way they cause this to happen, the story suggesting far more than is actually conveyed and capturing the spirit of magic in crisis, a time when miracles simply won’t serve any more, with a hint of The Never Ending Story in the text.
Stories by Liz Williams, Thana Niveau and Gail Z. Martin round out a satisfying collection of tales, editor Oliver deftly avoiding the literary world’s equivalent of music’s “difficult third album”.