A review that originally appeared in Black Static #26:-
DEAD BAD THINGS (Angry Robot paperback, 352pp, £7.99) by Gary McMahon is billed as ‘A Thomas Usher Novel’, and is also the second volume in a series. Like Charlie Parker*, Usher can see and communicate with the dead, but the reality in which he operates is one in which such things seem far more to be part and parcel of the everyday life compared to the worlds of Parker and Cass Jones*. His antecedents have more to do with the likes of Lumley’s Harry Keogh novels than the thriller genre, as with the scene where we first meet Usher, and he is taking refuge in a ‘haunted’ house, one of the so called ‘grey zones’ which are known to the world’s governments and kept firmly under the radar, with only those like Usher who are immune to their effects venturing inside.
I’m getting ahead of myself, and that would be a pity as the book opens with one of the most shocking and compelling scenes I’ve read all year, a man burying the body of a child and an ‘angel’ offering him a baby with instructions to make sure that it is looked after. With their echoes of the film Frailty, these four pages served as the perfect attention grabber, and I was concerned that McMahon wouldn’t be able to deliver on their promise, but such fears proved groundless and the book that followed was the finest I’ve yet seen from his pen. Again, I’m getting ahead of myself, delivering up a verdict before presenting the evidence. I should know by now that readers, even readers of reviews, need to be kept in suspense.
Sarah Doherty is a police officer involved in the search for a killer of young children, while in her own time she is investigating the past of her despised father, the publicly respected DI Doherty, and finding that he was involved in many activities that went beyond the pale. Meanwhile off in London Usher’s sabbatical from things supernatural is interrupted by a series of outré phone calls that will eventually lead him back to Leeds. Old nemesis Trevor, a disgraced psychic and paedophile, has found a way to bring back The Pilgrim, an entity intent on using Usher’s power for its own ends. Also thrown into the mix are the Architects, engineers of reality with an agenda of their own. The stage is set for a show stopping finale in which both Usher and Sarah learns things about their past and potentials that threaten the very nature of existence.
With its focus on the paedophile underworld this is, in many ways, a brave book for McMahon to write at this stage in his career, one that runs the risk of alienating readers by peering too closely at things most of us would rather ignore, and certainly it’s a far from comfortable read. All of the viewpoint characters are well drawn, with Usher initially the most sympathetic, though I’d put him at the mid-point on any likability scale, the things he’s seen and done having given our hero a somewhat jaundiced view of the human animal. Sarah is, for want of a better term, ‘damaged goods’, a basically decent person but one who has lived too long in the shadow of her father and allowed his influence to distort her personality. The more we learn about her, the way in which she distrusts others and has problems with true intimacy, the more it becomes apparent that she shares quite a few traits with the man she claims to despise, and at the heart of her search for the truth about DI Doherty is the desire to undermine his central position in her life. Time spent inside the head of paedophile Trevor is especially unappetising, though kudos to the writer for not taking the easy route and simply showing the character as a monster, but instead letting us see how Trevor came to be the way he is, an instinct to love and protect a younger brother distorted into a self-deluding pattern of abuse.
The writing is pitch perfect for the material, with enough of the squalid to repel, but never feeling gratuitous, so that we are compelled to read on even as we recoil from what’s being committed to the page. In the Architects we get a convincing picture of the alien, an intelligence that seems strange and yet not incomprehensible, bringing to the plot a vision of different levels of reality and an order to the universe beyond the imaginings of men, though it seems that Usher has a vital role to play. They bring a metaphysical dimension to the story that runs effective counterpoint to the sleaze and seediness of the way in which the human condition is portrayed, the contradiction between the two aspects bringing to mind the work of Clive Barker. McMahon keeps a tight rein on the various plot strands, effortlessly pulling them together for a showstopper finale in which all the powers and principalities come together. It is, of course, fated to end badly for all concerned, but at the end there is the hint of personal redemption for some of the characters, the hope of shelter from the storm. I loved it, from first page to last.
* Characters in books by John Connolly and Sarah Pinborough respectively, which were also reviewed in this issue of Black Static.