Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #3:-
MISTER B. GONE BY CLIVE BARKER
(Harper Voyager hardback, 248pp, £15)
The title is suggestive, in that having read the book you wonder if the Mister B who has gone is in fact Barker himself. According to the publishers this book is ‘the long awaited return of the great master of horror’, but that’s debatable. If you come to this expecting a return to the gory glory days of The Books of Blood, The Hellbound Heart or even Coldheart Canyon, then you are going to be disappointed.
The plot is the old chestnut about a genie trapped in a bottle and cajoling, threatening, bribing somebody to break him out, only here reinvented as a demon trapped in a book, this book actually, the one that you’re reading, and if that constitutes a plot spoiler then so does telling you that tomorrow the sun is going to rise. The demon, a Jakabok Botch, or Mister B. for short, tells his story to the reader, all the while beseeching him to burn the book, and what a story it is. Snatched out of Hell at an early age. Wandering the earth with the older demon Quitoon. Committing the requisite atrocities. Ending up in Mainz, just as Gutenberg invents the printing press. Learning the great secret that Heaven and Hell share in common. Getting imprisoned as a result. Cut.
The rot sets in from the outset. For any horror aficionado the thought of Clive Barker writing about Hell should be a cause for glee, but in the event what we get from the awesome imagination that spawned the Cenobites, the Iad Ouroboros and the Abarat, is something as mundane as a Ken Loach film; the father who spends a hard day at the sulphur pits, gets drunk and comes home to beat the wife and kids. It’s a caricature of the dysfunctional family, and giving the head of the family a forked tail doesn’t make it any more interesting or real. Once we get ‘upstairs’ all the book seems to be doing is marking time until the big revelation about the accord between Heaven and Hell, which again is not exactly great shakes, rather something most readers will guess before it is revealed and probably be able to reference previous examples of, while the demon’s ‘burn the book’ refrain soon gets tiresome and is a gift horse for reviewers more churlish than me.
I think my biggest problem with the book is that it is cartoon horror. Yes, Mister B. tortures people, gets horrifically burned, bathes in the blood of slaughtered babies, and so on and so forth, but none of it counts for anything much. It’s as inconsequential as the cat running full tilt into the wall, getting smashed flat, sliding to the ground and lying there in a puddle, only to get up five seconds later ready to do it all over again. There’s nothing here that actually hurts, that makes the reader feel for the characters and care about what they’re going through. Even the names are cartoon comedy. Can you read Quitoon without thinking ‘spittoon’ or hear Jakabok Botch without being reminded of the immensely irritating Jar Jar Binks?
Okay, let’s pause a moment and put some salve on those burns. Mister B. Gone is competently written and an easy, undemanding read. As a piece of horror whimsy it works fine and anyone unfamiliar with Barker’s oeuvre is probably going to have a good time. It’s only those of us with expectations who are going to feel short changed and wonder if the man once hailed as ‘the future of horror’ has forgotten how to write the stuff in any way that matters.
Now burn this review. Seriously. Burn it. Go on.
BLACK MAGIC WOMAN BY JUSTIN GUSTIANIS
(Solaris paperback, 432pp, $15)
This is billed as “A Quincey Morris Supernatural Investigation” and shame on you, if you don’t instantly surmise that the character is somehow related to one of the three musketeers who helped Van Helsing end the career of Dracula.
Quincey shares his ancestor’s penchant for vampire slaying, as witness the scene setting prologue in which he ingeniously wipes out a nest of the varmints in a Texas town. Moving quickly on, we get to the main story in which Quincey goes to help a man whose family home appears to be under magic attack, calling in the aid of white witch Libby Chastain. At first they think they are dealing with a poltergeist, but in the event it appears they have stumbled onto the latest episode in a black magic vendetta stretching back to the Salem witchcraft trials, and have to dig deep into their resources, magical and human, to track down the culprit. In another plot strand that neatly dovetails with this, the FBI call in Van Dreenan, a South African policeman with experience of ritual slayings, to help them track down a killer leaving a trail of mutilated children’s bodies in his or her wake.
Gustainis does rather like to have too much of a good thing. Quincey Morris is the tip of a name dropping iceberg, with Amityville, The X-Files and The Exorcist all getting a look in, so that eventually you end up trying to find a connection for every single name (is detective Barry Love derived from Barker’s Harry D’Amour, and could Libby Chastain be descended from Paul Sheldon’s Misery?) and it becomes a distraction. Similarly, he lays it on thick with the supernatural menaces – vampires, werewolf, zombies, demons, succubus/incubus – introducing a new threat with almost every other chapter, so that you’re left wondering what’s been kept in reserve for any future investigation (the smart money is on Great Cthulhu)?
But these are quibbles. Nobody should be in any doubt that Black Magic Woman is a fast paced and highly entertaining work of fiction, one that comes at the reader like a dust devil with ambitions to be a tornado and doesn’t let up on the action for a second. Gustainis is in complete command of his material and he enthrals the reader as completely as any master magician. Nor is it simply a question of this book being a light hearted romp, a route it could so easily have taken. There are scenes involving the killing of children, including Dreenan’s back story, that are harrowing and definitely not for the squeamish, and kudos to Gustainis for telling them so instead of glossing things over for the sake of a PG rating.
It has memorable protagonists too in the form of the affable and eminently likeable Morris and his alluring helpmate, bisexual white witch Libby Chastain, and it’s gratifying for once to have heroes who are middle-aged rather than young bloods, though I’ve no doubt they’ll roll back the years when the film or TV series this book is crying out for is made. In a similar way Dreenan and his FBI companion, Fenton, are an engaging double act, with the one being indoctrinated into the outré world by the other, two men who are at first opposed but learn to respect each other and work together. Equally impressive are the bad guys, the monstrous Christine Abernathy, the evil Cecelia Mbwato and their henchman Snake.
Gustainis’ characters have almost nothing to do with the likes of Carnacki and John Silence, instead coming out of the same stable as John Constantine and Supernatural, with an emphasis on action above all else. He brings to the table a gusto and raw energy that is irresistible, repackaging the genre of the supernatural sleuth for the rock video generation. He won’t change your life or reinvent the tropes of horror fiction, but chances are you’re going to really enjoy what he does.
DEMON EYES BY L. H. MAYNARD & M. P. N. SIMS
(Leisure paperback, 338pp, $7.99)
Emma Porter gets the chance to become personal assistant to Alex, the dynamic and charismatic head of the Keltner organisation, but her promotion is tainted with sadness as Emma’s lover Helen has just been killed in a tragic accident at her riding stables. Still, Emma throws herself into her new job, attending a weekend retreat her boss has organised at an isolated country house for his wealthy friends and business associates and it’s here that she gets the first inkling not everything is kosher, as the guests engage in sexual shenanigans with various members of staff and sinister undercurrents become apparent. Meanwhile Helen’s brother Tony has been looking into her death and finds a connection with Erik Keltner, Alex’s unsavoury younger brother. As he looks closer at the Keltners the more wary Tony becomes, suspecting that they might be involved in the white slave trade, but the Keltner’s secret and the plan they have for Emma is far worse.
This is old style horror, a tale that builds gradually to a crescendo, with dashes of sex and perversion added to the mix for flavour. Beautifully constructed, with Maynard and Sims neatly slotting each piece into place, it delivers its chills and surprises in a quite deliberate way, so that the reader is primed to accept each shock to the system by what has gone before, instead of having to cope with a gore overload from the outset. The back story of a demonic race co-existing with and preying on humans, so cunningly revealed, convinces totally, even allowing for the fact that it does sound slightly like vampires by any other name. The way in which these ‘outsiders’ practice their dark arts is disturbing, with more than a hint of Society in some of the scenes, and the story is further enriched by rivalry between the various demon factions, each resentful and scheming to bring down Keltner patriarch Louis, even his own family, with Emma pivotal to the plot.
Emma is an appealing heroine, both vulnerable and yet capable when pushed, with a climactic worm turning scene at the end. Tony and the parties who come to his aid, including a powerful magician with an agenda of his own concerning Emma and the Keltners, are equally well drawn, bringing to mind Wheatley’s Richelieu and cronies as they prepare to go into battle. The Keltners and their demonic allies are also strongly characterised, evil with a very human face rather than some ancient stereotype, each one of them given individual characteristics, in some cases even an empathy with those who should simply be their victims. In many ways Erik, the least powerful, is the most gripping, in that he is the one with something to prove and this is seen in acts of malice and casual brutality beneath his more assured brothers and sisters.
The only bum note is struck by the inconclusive ending, but I took that as a sign a sequel may well be in the works, and if so it’s very welcome. This is the best of the long works I have seen by this talented duo, a finely crafted novel that hints at their roots in traditional horror while being thoroughly modern, and which can only enhance their growing reputation.