OR: Still Bleeding

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #11:-

STILL BLEEDING

Steve Mosby has things to show us: there is about his work the feel of something terrible taking place, an event unfolding before our eyes at which we stare and are unable to look away. In the new world where all the lines have blurred, in publishing as much as in life, and all the old genre labels don’t hold up to close examination, his work straddles the boundary between crime fiction and horror, catering to the one’s hope of resolution and appeal to rationality, while at the same time offering up all the atrocities and gore streaked nihilism we associate with the other.

The typical Mosby protagonist is a lovelorn and guilt haunted male, with Alex Connor, the (anti)hero of his fifth and latest novel Still Bleeding (Orion hardback/tpb, 336pp, £18.99/£10.99), a perfect example of the breed. In the wake of his wife’s suicidal jump from a bridge, for which he blamed himself, Connor fled to Europe, hoping to outrun the memories, but now his friend Sarah, the one who helped him hold onto his sanity in that darkest hour, has been killed. Alex returns home to find his brother charged with her murder, a domestic dispute having escalated into violence, but Sarah’s body was not found where James left it and is still missing, suggesting the involvement of some third party with an agenda of their own. Alex decides to investigate and his starting point is the files Sarah compiled in the pursuit of her job as a journalist, and in them he discovers a link to a website where atrocities are shown, which to his horror introduces a very personal element.

In the second main plot strand, Detective Paul Kearney is in charge of the hunt for a serial killer who exsanguinates his victims before dumping their bodies, and this in turn leads him to an artist who works in the medium of human blood, recording his victims’ deaths on canvas. With the artist dead the case appears to be solved, but the last victim still has to be found and Kearney’s focus on a promise he made to the woman’s husband leads him to act unwisely.

Alex meanwhile has stuck his nose in places where it is not welcome and brought serious trouble down on his own head, and those of friends who aided him. Hunted by unknown parties, he believes his life to be in deadly danger and seeks help from Kearney, who is now operating outside the law and pursuing a maverick path of his own. The two men learn that they have got on the radar of a powerful criminal organisation, one with a decided aversion to loose ends, and for each of them there is closure of a kind, though to use the term ‘happy ending’ would be stretching it a bit.

While marketed as crime fiction come thriller, Mosby’s book has many of the trappings of horror – a shadowy organisation that will do anything to further its ends, a mad artist and aesthetes whose voyeurism feeds his creativity, an archetypal killer who haunts the dreams of one of the characters, in Garland a larger than life monster who will linger in the memory once the book is done. There’s even a vampire of sorts. What makes the book so unnerving though is how firmly Mosby has his finger on the pulse of the times, his awareness and understanding of the ever new ways in which we human animals torture and torment each other, our endless capacity for causing harm and the justifications we concoct for doing so.

Take the mad artist in Mosby’s book as an example. Roger Timms commits to canvas hellish scenes of torture and depravity, using his female victims as models and painting them in their own blood. Regardless of how obviously wrong this is, there are patrons of the arts who admire his work, even collectors who know and are prepared to overlook its means of production, who will pay lavish prices to own a Timms original and actually have a secret hankering for some ‘wet work’ of their own. On the surface it sounds patently absurd, something that is obviously a fictional creation and could never take place in reality. And yet Timms is not so far removed from real world exemplars, such as the Chapman brothers, with their distorted sculptures; Marc Quinn, who has worked with his own blood; Gunther von Hagens and his exhibitions of plastinated bodies. I don’t mean to suggest that the works of these artists are synonymous with those of somebody who kills his subjects, but rather to show that while Timms remains within the pages of a book his methods are seen in the art world in a diluted form. That knowledge informs our reading, while begging the question of how far can art go before reaching some moral tipping point, before becoming the thing Mosby writes about.

As with his previous book Cry For Help, the potential of technology is an important part of Still Bleeding. Alex Connor stumbles across a website on which scenes of atrocity are shown, www.doyouwanttosee.com, and again this seems like something which could only occur in a book, but Mosby places the site in a list of other sites that includes the very real www.rotten.com where similar, albeit not as extreme, material is posted. In all this he seems to be implying that we are only a short stretch from the world of Still Bleeding. Or perhaps we’ve already arrived, just don’t know it as yet. Alex finds a clip on the site that shows the suicide of his wife, recorded on the camera of a mobile phone by a bystander, a man who was more interested in capturing the moment of Marie’s death to share with his online friends than he was in attempting to save a human life. One reads this and thinks of real world stories of violence and bullying recorded on mobile phones and passed round by interested parties, the whole happy slapping phenomenon, and suddenly it all seems horribly plausible. Concerns like these are not are central to Mosby’s story – he is, first and foremost, writing a thriller, crime fiction, horror story, call it what you will – but the way in which they are touched on bestows a little more gravitas and verisimilitude on a narrative that is intent on pushing the envelope, gives you pause to stop and think.

Of course, the plot is the thing, and as far as that goes Mosby gives us a wonderfully twisty and tricky story, one with developments that come as a complete surprise but seem perfectly obvious with hindsight. Mosby appears in total command of his story, so that tangled as the web in which Alex Connor finds himself may become, the reader has no doubt that everything will add up at the end. Back of it all is a never named organisation that, like the Sodality of Sade’s novels, caters to the needs of the depraved and amoral, making a handsome profit by doing so. Their agent Garland is the main bad guy and prime mover behind events, an efficient and ruthless merchant of death who is indifferent to pleas for mercy, but might be swayed from his course if you can put a little coin his way. Garland’s attitude of ‘it’s only business’ chills completely in its indifference, the total estrangement from common humanity it marks. He is the accountant as serial killer and in his world life or death is simply a matter of best business practice and profit margins. Garland’s henchman, Banyard, is in many ways his antithesis, a monster whose brutishness is obvious from his outward appearance, and yet grotesque as Banyard is, it is Garland who disturbs more, perhaps because of that indifference, his very reasonableness as he negotiates the end of a woman’s life.

Paul Kearney and Alex Connor are two sides of the same coin, men haunted by the memories of their past. In the case of Kearney it is an incident from childhood that drives him and shapes the man who he is, gives him the overwhelming desire to save someone else even if he cannot save himself. The skill and depth Mosby brings to the character, adds yet another horrific twist to the story, with a man whose actions initially repel and then ultimately move the reader, the composite portrait of a troubled soul. For Connor it is the death of his wife that dogs his footsteps, the feeling that he was somehow to blame, that he should have done something different, and he’s been running from that ever since, no other point to all his wandering. Like Kearney he needs to save another, in the hope that by doing so he can redeem the omissions of his past and thus save himself also. Both men’s wishes are granted by the novel’s bittersweet ending, though in entirely different ways. Only Garland, the purveyor of illicit delights, is allowed to feel he has accomplished something, the bleakness of the final pages more than anything establishing the book’s horror genre credentials.

Still Bleeding is a narrative that is unrelenting in the dark and grim picture it gives us of lives that have been spoiled and tainted by past events, and compelling in its depiction of a vast organisation with tentacles in every level of society, including the police, and against which it is useless to fight, survival and an accommodation of sorts the best that can be hoped for. The novel offers us a glimpse into a terrible world of chaos and crime, where a new aesthetic is evolving, and it plugs into our own desire to see the unthinkable. It is the best yet I have seen from Steve Mosby, a writer who is growing in stature with each book that I read.

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