Filler content with Dog-Faced Gods

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #16:-

CROSSING THE LINES WITH SARAH PINBOROUGH

It used to be a phenomenon of the music industry (and still may be for all I know), that certain British bands would make it big in the US before ever they got recognition in their home country. The same could be argued for writer Sarah Pinborough, championed in the US by Leisure but for a long time very much a ‘secret’ over here in dear old Blighty.

Fortunately for the home crowd that situation is changing fast. Last year Pinborough’s novella The Language of Dying was released by PS Publishing and marked a step away from her horror roots and towards the mainstream by way of magic realism. Hard on the heels of this, ‘Do You See’ won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction and Pinborough signed with UK publisher Gollancz to deliver The Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, the first volume of which is set to launch at the World Horror Convention in March of this year.

But before that, Pinborough had some business to take care of involving spiders.

Released in September 2009, Feeding Ground is a sequel to Pinborough’s 2006 Leisure outing Breeding Ground, and picks up where that novel left off, with nearly all the women in the UK (and perhaps the rest of the world also – the global situation is little touched on) giving birth to giant spiders that feast on human flesh. While society collapses around them, his gang break mobster Blane Gentle-King out of gaol and, seeing this as an opportunity for a little empire building, Blane sets about taking over control of a London abandoned by the authorities. With several of the spider creatures addicted to drugs and looking to him for their next fix, Blane has an edge over any possible rivals.

At the top of the crime lord’s ‘to do’ list is dealing with Leke, the teenager who testified against him and was responsible for Blane going to gaol, now hiding out with several of his friends in the building Blane is using as a base. The teenagers join forces with a group of boys who got stuck in London after a school trip went disastrously wrong, but the key to survival for all of them may well be hard man Charlie Nash, Blane’s lieutenant and life long friend, who is beginning to suspect that his boss has lost the plot and the gang’s interests would be better served by fleeing the capital. However, any attempt at flight will involve passing by the main spider stronghold at the Millennium Dome.

This is an apocalypse come monster combo, and if I’m allowed a tiny quibble, it’s that the book seems rather too small scale, with a limited gallery of characters and the world at large significant mostly by virtue of its absence. Pinborough chooses to focus on a small dramatis personae, with Blane somebody for whom the apocalypse is just business as usual, with a side helping of gangster ambition, and that’s fair enough, but there’s no real sense of the greater catastrophe of which events detailed here are simply a small part. It’s the apocalypse on a shoestring budget, with nobody seeming to give much thought to what’s happening off the page.

Of course the ‘cosy apocalypse’ is a peculiarly British affair, with the more visually spectacular end of the world scenarios left to the ingenuity of Hollywood sfx studios, and it’s a tradition to which Pinborough pays tribute. Crime barons carving out fiefdoms for themselves is an echo of plot elements found in the books of people like John Wyndham, while her giant spiders are reminiscent of a wealth of creature feature thrillers, from some of the more improbable offerings courtesy of Amicus Films and the like through to the early oeuvre of Shaun Hutson and James Herbert. There is even a nifty ‘meet the new boss’ moment in which Pinborough’s spiders see off some overgrown rats. And while the characters are busy fighting to survive, the reader is left to contemplate an even grimmer possibility, that if all the women have died giving birth to spiders then humanity is living on borrowed time. In what is perhaps the book’s most poignant moment, a lone woman steps out onto the spider swept streets of night time London and the whole world seems to hold its breath, bringing to mind a similar scene in the film of Children of Men.

As with her previous Leisure novel, Tower Hill, Pinborough is excellent at delineating the buddy-buddy relationship of the two main bad guys, with Charlie Nash and Blane Gentle-King coming over as believable friends and allies, two men who share a history and regard each other with genuine affection, even if it’s a word they would never use. This adds an extra dimension to Charlie’s isolation, as he grows increasingly disillusioned with his friend’s plans, the way in which Blane is using the spiders, and frustrated at his inability to convince Blane of the error of his ways, so that in the end he has to accept that he can only save himself. While Nash is a hard man but one with an abiding sense of loyalty and what is right, somebody who in other circumstances would have dodged his outlaw destiny, there is about Gentle-King a sense of sanity held onto by a thread, a hair trigger temper combined with a propensity for violence and inflated ideas of his own dignity. As the crime lord stakes out his territory like any wild mutt spraying its scent he begins to feel he is infallible, and will brook no disagreement, just the first step on a road to self-destruction, something that always seems to have been in the cards for Blane.

If Blane and Charlie hold centre stage, Pinborough is equally adept at drawing the other members of her cast, such as the teacher who finds his courage at the end, the toff schoolboy with secrets, the various assorted criminals and henchmen, each with their own motives, and even an autistic idiot savant, who is one of the most engaging members of the dramatis personae. She draws the reader in and makes us believe in these people, invest our own emotions in caring what happens to them, so that when the shit hits the fan we root for the good guys to win through and the bad guys to fall at the final hurdle, though with little assurance that this is how things will eventually pan out.

The book also works well as a creature feature thriller, with the bloated spider monsters dominating each scene in which they appear, overpowering the military with little difficulty and turning the capital’s streets into their hunting ground. There are moments of extraordinary and disturbing grotesqueness, such as when the humans visit the spider’s larder or the description of women giving birth to them, the sinister way in which the spiders dance attendance on Blane Gentle-King, and the eventual transmogrification of their supposed lord and master. One of the ideas that makes this book stand out from the crowd is Pinborough’s depiction of junkie spiders, addicted to drugs just like their human counterparts. She puts this conceptual masterstroke to superb use, with those who are in thrall to drugs seen as degenerates and ostracised by the larger spider community, whose extra-terrestrial origin and purpose is hinted at, though never pinned down.

There is an unfinished business feeling about the end of Feeding Ground and it will be interesting to see if Pinborough returns to this world at some future point, but for the moment her ambitions seem to have moved on, with the acquisition of a UK publisher and slight market shift away from horror.

Billed as Volume One of The Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, A MATTER OF BLOOD (Gollancz hardback/paperback, 488pp, £18.99/£12.99) is being marketed as a supernatural thriller, but it’s a label that allows plenty of elbow room for the kind of thrills and spills Pinborough’s readers have grown accustomed to in her Leisure horror releases. The change is, let us say, cosmetic rather than anything more substantive.

The book is set in a near future Britain where economic blight has cast a pall over every aspect of life and the only hope of recovery is offered by the mysterious Bank, an organisation allegedly founded by the world’s richest men. The government can no longer pay the police the going rate, and so officers must supplement their wages with backhanders from organised crime, on the understanding that while a blind eye might be turned to sundry criminal activities any serious offence will not be overlooked. Detective Inspector Cass Jones is investigating such a case now, the murder of two young boys in a drive by shooting thought to be a failed gangland assassination attempt. He is also drawn into another case, when a serial killer calling himself the Man of Flies murders several young women. Viewers of television’s CSI franchise will not be surprised to find that the two cases are linked, but before Cass can pursue this line of enquiry his brother shoots himself, his wife and child, and Cass is implicated in the death. Removed from duty and under suspicion, he digs into the past of his own family finding links with Mr Bright, a grandee of The Bank and somebody apparently above the law, and references to something called the ‘glow’, all of which sets the stage for a showdown of sorts with the Man of Flies.

The Dog-Faced Gods have yet to put in an appearance, at least under that particular nom de guerre, but Pinborough has weaved an incredibly tangled web all the same, one that lays the groundwork for what is to come while at the same time doing sterling service as a standalone novel.

In Cass Jones she has created one of her most memorable and complicated characters, a hero with feet of clay, a man who is suffering and gripped by the knowledge that so much of it is his own fault. Jones loves his wife, but cheats on her all the same and seems incapable of repairing the breeches in their relationship. He takes the regulation backhanders and seems to genuinely enjoy the company of career criminals. He’s had affairs, both with his immediate subordinate in the police force and with his brother’s wife, and dwarfing everything else is the guilt he feels over an undercover operation that went wrong, one where he was forced to kill an innocent to stay in character, an event for which everyone else seems to blame him, even though he wasn’t culpable. With Cass Jones everything at first appears to be grey, and it’s only as we get to know him, as we enter into his mindset, that we come to see he has a solid moral core, that there are things he won’t do and people he will put before his own interests. More sinned against than sinning, he is a man who wants to do the right thing, with a personal code of honour/conduct that he tries to adhere to, even if everybody else finds him suspect.

Moral choices are at the heart of this book, with the most important one that presented to Jones before the story even began, a decision that shaped him, and one mirrored in the choices the Man of Flies offers to his victims. The same hard choices and terrible outcomes are omnipresent, seen in the presiding spirit of the age, where compromises are made on a daily basis, the pragmatism of those who wish to survive. As the Man of Flies and Mr Bright play out their deadly game, people are the pawns they use, with the grisly scenes of death that punctuate the narrative testament to their indifference to human suffering. Cass draws ever closer to the heart of the mystery, with hints in the text of something beyond the pale of earthly existence and a great plan unfolding in which he is pivotal. The events that have the greatest impact though are those that strike closest, the death of a friend, the betrayal of a loved one, the treachery of a colleague, so that Pinborough maintains a human perspective throughout, even though we begin to suspect that humanity’s role is largely that of innocent bystander come foot soldier in some great conflict beyond our ken.

I have my suspicions about where Pinborough is going with this, but such theorising is beyond the scope of this review. What can’t be argued is that A Matter of Blood is a step up for her writing, fusing the emotional sensitivity and compassion of her novella The Language of Dying with the pacing and spectacle of novels such as Feeding Ground to create a compelling hybrid, one that will push her into the forefront of genre writers.

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