Filler content with added bleak

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #44:-

GARY McMAHON

The never named first person narrator of novelette THE NIGHT JUST GOT DARKER (Knight Watch Press chapbook, 19pp) is in many ways a typical Gary McMahon protagonist, insofar as there is such a thing. He’s an unhappily married man who seems to regard every act he takes as pointless, somebody who is wary of the way the world is going and dissatisfied with his own place in it, though he can see no reason for this or way to change things. He is simply killing time until time kills him. Against the run of play, he makes a connection with neighbour Erik, who sits in front of his computer every night making up stories, and regards this activity as a way to contain the terrors of the world, to neutralise their horror by capturing it in words on the page. Our protagonist thinks he’s a nutter, until he receives evidence that Erik has intervened in his own life.

As a miserablist memoir it’s a fine example of the type. McMahon is good at showing the world from a nihilistic perspective, describing how empty modern life is and how sterile the things that we claim to value have become. He depicts his protagonist in terms that many of us will be able to identify with, giving his dissatisfaction a very human dimension, while deftly avoiding the cardinal sin of having him feel sorry for himself, which would alienate the reader. However it is the figure of the writer, here given a shamanic quality, that for most will linger in the mind once the story is done. What makes the story stand out from the crowd is the way in which the act of writing is given a metaphysical quality, how it is seen as a means to directly affect and control the real world. The central conceit here is, I think, a metaphor for the way in which writing can take us inside the heads of others, creating empathy and compassion, and thus at its finest can be regarded as a kind of sympathetic magic. But when writing goes wrong, when we substitute reality TV for literature and confuse money shots with love, when we cease to want to understand how others think, then the magic goes away and those who attempt to invoke it pay a terrible price.

The chapbook is dedicated to Joel Lane (1963 – 2013) and according to the publisher’s website has already sold out, but an electronic version will be along shortly, so keep watching the internet as it’s a tale you won’t want to miss.

McMahon’s novel THE END (NewCon Press hc/pb, 194pp, £24/£10.99) is similarly bleak and casts an equally jaundiced eye over the human condition, though it uses more familiar horror tropes to do so. Mack and Mitch are in London on a business trip when they are witness to a suicide bid in Regent’s Park. It’s only the start and in the next few hours a wave of suicides grip the capital and then the rest of the country, while Mack and others watch events unfold with a growing sense of horror and disbelief. Armed soldiers patrol the streets and civilisation seems to be in freefall. Mack can think of only one thing, getting back up north to the isolated cottage where he lives with his blind and pregnant wife Kay. Joining forces with other survivors he takes to the road, but the trip won’t be an easy one. The great majority of people have killed themselves, with those who remain divided into two groups, survivors and the so called leftovers, those who still wish to die but are determined to take others with them, no matter the cost.

The label is never used, but for all intents and purposes this is a zombie apocalypse novel. It’s also a book that wears its influences on its sleeve, with echoes of 28 Days Later and Session 9 thrown into the mix. McMahon is his own man though, and this is a peculiarly personal apocalypse, with the suicide plague foreshadowed by events in Mack’s own life, as if the whole thing could be read as a metaphor for how the world is lost with the tragic death of a loved one. That’s only one possibility though, and a bit of a reach. It’s probably wiser to take the thing at face value.

And when we do take it at face value, what we get is a thrilling and mostly convincing account of society unravelling, all wrapped round an action packed fight to survive. The only aspect that gave me pause was the encounter Mack and his fellow travellers have with Doctor Thwaite and his militia. Yes, it was a glorious exercise in showing madness and the pretext for some grand old firefights, with a subtext about misogyny and related shit, but it also felt a bit too much like the similar narrative development in 28 Days Later and I had a hard time, given the chronology of the book, crediting the militia’s ability to get organised so quickly. It didn’t detract from the story in any significant way, but for me personally it did give events a stamp of over familiarity. Conversely when McMahon steps onto terra that’s more incognito, as with the cryptic messages that appear on television screens and in text messages, all hinting at some agency responsible for the apocalypse, the apocryphal them, it all gets more interesting and very disturbing.

Handled as well as it is, the action is only part of the story. As ever with McMahon, there are the engaging dramatis personae, with some well-rounded, gritty and convincing characters, not least the women Becky and Manisa, who more than hold their own when the shit hits the fan and bullets are flying, yet are allowed to have flaws as well as virtues. And the stand out is Mack, whose devotion to his wife is initially a big part of what makes him so compelling, only to then be shown as rather more compromised than it originally appeared, and finally undone completely with a terrible revelation that forces us to re-evaluate the book in its entirety.

All quibbles and nit picking aside, The End pretty much does what it says on the tin. It presents us with a grim and persuasive tale of the end of days that is thoroughly entertaining on one level, but with another side to it in which personal concerns and those of society serve to illuminate each other, and the book is all the better for that.

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