Filler content with salt

A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static ~36:-

SALT PUBLISHING

Salt is a small UK publisher with a penchant for punching well above its weight, as witness the appearance of Alison Moore’s first novel The Lighthouse on the short list for the Man Booker Prize for 2012.

Alice Thompson’s sixth novel, BURNT ISLAND (Salt Publishing pb, 211pp, £8.99) is the story of writer Max Long who, having been critically acclaimed but never commercially successful, decides to produce a horror novel as everybody knows that’s where the money is, and to further this end he applies for a writer’s retreat on isolated Burnt Island. Unfortunately the accommodation is not quite what he expected, but also on the island is bestselling author James Fairfax, who kindly puts him up. As Long stays with Fairfax he becomes involved with the writer’s precocious daughter Rose and intrigued by the mystery of his missing wife, while suspicions are planted in his mind that Fairfax might not actually have written the book on which his reputation rests. Reality and hallucination overlap, as Max finds himself not only writing a horror novel but a character in the work, the plot galloping full forward to the end twist.

Though the bleak and vividly realised setting is a far cry from the Greek islands, this book put me very much in mind of The Magus by John Fowles, with the same sense that psycho-dramas are being enacted to ensure the protagonist behaves in a particular way, but with a soupcon of The Wicker Man to add genre spice. In Max the writer personality dominates the stage, a man obsessed with his craft to the extent that it has cost him his marriage and he is in danger of losing his son, but at the same time he is unable to abandon the idea that he is somehow special, and the inhabitants of Burnt Island reinforce that prejudice, with the local doctor who just happens to have read all his books and the young woman offering sexual favours. As the narrative progresses we come to realise that Max is dangerously unhinged, or perhaps perilously sane might be a better description, and the events that take place push him to the edge, so that he finds it increasingly hard to differentiate between fact and fantasy, fiction and real life, as with Rose who writes him into her sexual fantasies. In the context given Bob Dylan’s comment about letting you be in my dream if I can be in yours seems wholly apposite, only for dream read story.

At the end Thompson seems to be hinting that writing is a parasitic occupation, a form of vampirism even, writers taking the events of others’ lives and using them as raw material, and in the relationship between Fairfax and Long that is taken to an extreme. Exquisitely written, with a real feel for the wide open spaces and the indifference of nature, but at the same time showing how these things are mirrored in the human heart, this is a miniature gem of a book, one that tells us something of the gothic while remaining thoroughly modern in the telling, with a meta-fictional streak that places the practice of writing itself under the microscope.

Stephen McGeagh’s debut novel HABIT (Salt Publishing pb, 167pp, £8.99) is set in Manchester, and gives us as a protagonist unemployed Michael, who at first brush reads like somebody in a wet dream Iain Duncan Smith had one night after reading The Daily Mail as he stumbles between Job Centre and pub, but strip away the veneer, look a bit closer and the picture emerges of somebody who is struggling, an essentially good person in a fix through no fault of his own, a young man who is loyal to his mates and family, who shares what he has with those in need.

The pivotal moment comes when Michael meets Lee, and she takes him to a massage parlour in the Northern Quarter run by her ‘Uncle’ Ian. Michael finds himself strangely drawn to 7th Heaven, despite having carmine coloured dreams inspired by the parlour, and takes a job there. As he learns more about Ian, Lee and the unusual ‘family’ of outsiders attached to parlour, Michael recognises it as a place where he belongs, among people who share the same desires, traits that he never realised he possessed until contact with others of his kind brought these appetites to the surface. But Michael can’t abandon his humanity completely, and this hesitation on his part is the undoing of them all.

This is a grim, bleak novel, written in a spare, every word counts prose style; a story that takes horror genre tropes and brutally subverts them. Michael’s life is so unrelentingly miserable and pointless that he is willing to embrace something that horrifies him, simply because he finds acceptance within the ranks of these outsiders. The prevailing mood here is one of not so quiet desperation, of people who are driven in pursuit of anything that offers a semblance of hope, and in the fate of the punters who come to 7th Heaven in search of sexual gratification we see the worst fears of the would-be exploiters, the rich and self-satisfied realised, that the poor will in some way consume them, drag them down and expunge their existence. What we have here is a variation of the cannibal family/tribe, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre brood, translated to an urban setting, but in such a way that it ties the book into the whole literature of non-human species existing alongside of human beings and just under the radar, though the supernatural aspect is highly ambiguous if not non-existent and what we get here is far grimier and more downbeat than anything to be found in the pages of Charlaine Harris et al. It reminded me of nothing so much as the film Society, but with a far more shocking act of ‘union’ in lieu of the transformative ‘shunt’. The message, if there is one, seems to be that only those at the top and bottom of society’s food chain can abandon conventional morality, those who have nothing to gain by adhering to social mores or lose through abandoning them, though here, for Michael and the others,  ultimately that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Not so much a horror story as misery memoir etched on human flesh and with blood red trim, this is a powerful first appearance from a young writer who will bear watching.

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