Filler content with wet pooches

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #5:-

Humdrumming hardback, 224pp, £20

Fate and circumstance bring Guy Renford and Rosie Crouch back to their Yorkshire hometown of Stonegrave. He has just been released from prison after serving a three year sentence for the ‘murder’ of seventeen year old Billy Crouch (Rosie’s relative), who broke into his home. Estranged from his family – wife Bella was shocked by the violence and decided to break from him for the sake of their daughter Kay – Guy is a changed man and wants to put things right. As a child Rosie was ‘killed’ by Uncle Tommy, her mother’s lover, who murdered seven other young girls, and since then she has been able to see dead people, and now, after many years in America, the girl victims seem to be encouraging her to leave her abusive husband and return to Stonegrave. But waiting for the returnees is an ancient evil: the rain falls constantly and prowling in the downpour are terrible creatures, the rain dogs of the title, who prey on humankind, and as the deluge continues they kill ever more freely and grow in strength.

This is the first novel by Gary McMahon, a young writer who is beginning to make a name for himself, and it delivers on the promise of his short stories and novellas, the plot rendered with an enviable skill. Guy and Rosie are two sides of the same coin; each is released from an institution at the start of the book, a prison for him and a hospital for her; a violent act of self-defence is pivotal in the life of each, the impetus for so much that follows, and each of them must return to Stonegrave. McMahon uses this ‘mirroring’ to reinforce the individual plot strands so that resonances are set up in anticipation of the moment when he brings them together for the first time.

McMahon gives weight to the supernatural elements of the tale by creating a convincing back story, fleshed out by local legends, one that stretches back to druidic times. The omnipresent drumming of the rain permeates every page of the book, a soundtrack to all the rest and providing a climate for the hideous creatures it contains, things at first seen only out of the corner of the eye, or hinted at in events, but gaining strength as the narrative progresses, while the writer deftly keeps his options open by laying in another plot strand with revenge on the agenda for the spirit of Billy Crouch and his somewhat more tangible family. The monsters, when they finally materialise, are chilling in their simple ‘otherness’, the suggestion that they are only playing and its implications for our standing in the great cosmic scheme of things.

There are occasional slips, the odd phrase that comes over as slightly stilted, and moments when the writing seems a little flat, but overall McMahon’s prose is lovingly crafted, with similes and metaphors that stand out for their quirkiness as well as aptness. He is equally adept at describing events in the real world and the interior lives of his characters, with the ‘action’ scenes as his monsters cut loose holding the attention and generating genuine tension, while incidents such as Rosie’s flashback to her time with Uncle Tommy are written to repel but at the same elicit our sympathy for the child victim, this in turn undercut by a final revelation.

Characterisation is another strong point. Guy Renford comes across convincingly as a man who is just a little too prone to violence, but has learned this about himself and is painfully aware of what it has cost him. His love for his family, the feelings he has for Bella and Kay, seem totally genuine, heartfelt and real. Rosie is similarly well drawn, the runaway returning home, somebody who has allowed herself to be beaten down by others and must now make a stand. There are other memorable characters too, as for instance Bella, a woman who wants to do the right thing for everybody, but aware that she cannot put herself first; precocious daughter Kay, the innocent who has to be protected at all cost; the boy Kieran Crouch, a cat’s paw for others; Helen Crouch, so desperate for the return of her dead son that she will do anything, the Renford family ensemble, mum and dad and brother, each of them with distinctive traits and insignia.

I do have some slight misgivings. I think the novel would have benefited from some more background to Guy’s imprisonment – as is, it sounds rather like a case of perfectly justifiable self-defence. And the monsters, the suggestion of something even worse that could follow them through, have a certain familiarity about them (Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers comes to mind, as do certain episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), though McMahon makes them his own. All quibbles aside, this is a compelling first novel, a book that stands firmly rooted in the traditions of supernatural horror, but is also an original work written with skill and fuelled by anger at the shit life rains down on the undeserving. It bodes well for McMahon’s future.

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