Filler content with six novels – Part 1

Reviews of six novels by women writers that originally appeared in Black Static #59:-


Angela Marsons made her reputation as an eBook bestseller, subsequently moving over into print. EVIL GAMES (Zaffre Publishing pb, 438pp, £7.99) is the second volume in a series dealing with the adventures of D. I. Kim Stone, a police officer in the Black Country. Having just brought an investigation into a paedophile to a successful conclusion, Stone is plunged into another ugly case when a convicted rapist, now out of gaol having served his sentence, is brutally murdered. It appears to be an open and shut case, but Stone isn’t happy with the obvious suspect, at least as regards motivation, and believes that there’s more to it. The trail leads her back to highly respected psychologist Alexandra Thorne, who takes a personal interest in the Detective Inspector. Coincidental with this, the paedophile case, which was supposed to be done and dusted, throws up some uncomfortable complications. Kim Stone finds herself battling on two fronts, and to make it through to the other side she needs to confront the traumatic events of her own childhood.

To deal with my one quibble first, in Thorne the author seems to be attempting to create a female rival to the iconic Hannibal Lecter, albeit her killer works through manipulating others rather than acting directly as Lecter does. The problem is that she lets us inside Thorne’s head, and while outwardly she may seem like a cold and callous killer, one who is supremely in command of her urges, Thorne’s inner life at times seems like that of a petulant child throwing hissy fits whenever she doesn’t get her own way. Of course that may be an accurate reflection (Marsons injects enough criminal psychology references into the story to make us believe she has done her research), but all the same it’s hard to take an arch fiend seriously when the image in your head is Blakey from On the Buses snivelling “I’ll get you, Butler!” (My apologies to younger readers, who probably won’t have a clue what I’m going on about.) The menace of Lecter lies in the fact that his motives are essentially unknowable, but in the case of Thorne, while her actions and agenda might chill, at the same time there is something of the comic figure in her person which slightly undermines the overall effect.

Okay, having dealt with that objection, I’ll gladly admit that there is a lot to like about this book and I thoroughly enjoyed it otherwise. It is a fast paced, undemanding read, with plenty of plot complications and the ability to keep the reader off balance by throwing up unexpected developments. Some of the scenes, particularly those dealing with child abuse and the rape victim reliving her attack, are harrowing and not for the easily offended. And while we may applaud the prospect of both paedophile and rapist getting their just desserts, Marsons reminds us that there is always collateral damage, with her sensitive portrayal of the rapist’s mother and her suffering, and of the mother of the abused girls, who third parties are eager to believe must have known what was going on and facilitated her husband’s behaviour. The best thing about the book though is Kim Stone herself. She is the archetypal crusading police officer, intent on justice at any cost, but with enough embellishments to make her stand out from the crowd. A loner, socially inept, and yet with an easy going camaraderie with the officers under her command; the banter between Stone and her subordinates is one of the book’s delights, introducing an element of light relief in among all the darkness. And what we learn of the character’s past, the terrible things she has gone through, makes us respect Stone and all she has achieved that much more, while Marsons shows the character softening somewhat and allowing others into her private space. As of this moment, DI Kim Stone is my very favourite motorcycle riding police officer.

Catriona Ward’s debut novel RAWBLOOD (W&N pb, 370pp, £7.99) is an inventive Gothic ghost story that won the British Fantasy Award for Best Horror novel in 2016. Spanning some ninety years, it’s the story of the Villarca family, who own the great mansion Rawblood on windswept Dartmoor. We start in 1910 with eleven year old Iris Villarca who lives in Rawblood with her father Alonso. He informs her that the family suffer from a condition known as horror autotoxicus, and members die young unless they follow a set of “rules” that, among other things, eliminate the possibility of love, something Iris will find hard to accept given the feelings she has for local lad Tom Gilmore. And then we learn the true history of the Villarca family, with scenes ranging back and forth in time from 1839 to 1919 and a variety of viewpoint characters, until we arrive at the terrible revelation that explains the curse that haunts the family, the ghost of a bone-white woman with talons to tear the souls of her victims from their bodies.

All the ingredients of the classic Gothic tale are present in this book. We have a madwoman and scenes set in an asylum for the insane that are heartrending in their cruelty. We have forbidden love on the windy moors and all the pangs attendant on that unrequited passion. We have doctors in frock coats performing obscene and hubristic experiments in dark basement rooms. We have Rawblood, the house from which the novel takes its name and that dominates the action; even though Ward never describes the house in any great detail, its brooding presence is felt on every page, with the wind blowing through empty corridors and screams heard in the night. We have echoes of Poe’s Usher brood in the account of the family illness, with Alonso Villarca conjuring up images of Vincent Price in the mind’s eye. We have the bleakness of desolate and storm blasted Dartmoor, and we learn of the superstitions and folklore known to its denizens. We have scenes that take in the gentility of the British abroad and the horrors of World War I.

Ward writes of all this with absolute conviction, capturing perfectly the voice of each member of her disparate cast and bringing them to life on the page in all their gaudy complication, making us care for them. She gives us tragedy and horror, and in the figure of the Villarca family ghost she presents a truly memorable spectre, something to stand up there with the likes of Sadako and Jacob Marley with his clanking chains, or MRJ’s chilling line about a “face of crumpled linen”. Underlying all this is a sense of compassion for the terrible things we put ourselves and each other through, and an awareness of the natural landscape in all its awe and majesty. It is a splendidly inventive book, written with a keen knowledge of the tradition in which it stands and the ambition to push the envelope that bit further. It is just the sort of book that will always seem fresh and throw up new revelations and interpretations on each new reading. I recommend it highly.

I should also mention that the UK paperback contains some bonus material – a short story, an interview with the author, and a list of Catriona Wards “top ten terrifying tales”. I’ve no idea if these made it into the US edition, which was released under the title The Girl from Rawblood.


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1 Response to Filler content with six novels – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Filler content with six novels – Part 2 | Trumpetville

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