OR: Different Skins

The first part of a feature on the work of Gary McMahon that originally appeared in a somewhat different form in Black Static #14:-


I read Gary McMahon’s first story ‘Neighbours’ in the taboo breaking 90s horror magazine that was Nasty Piece of Work, and I’ve read much of what he’s produced since, going from short stories in obscure and largely forgotten publications through to books from independent presses, and now he has a novel from out from Abaddon that, to use a clichéd phrase, is available in any good bookshop. McMahon is at that point in his career where he’s straddling the great divide between the world of the talented amateur and that of a professional writer, with one foot planted firmly in the small press and a toe of the other dipped tentatively in the waters of the mainstream. It remains to be seen if he’ll go on to the better things his talent merits, like others before him such as Tim Lebbon and Simon Clark, or fade and fall back into obscurity. Life lessons from the genre of horror – nothing is certain, and the good guys and girls don’t always get what they deserve.

Different Skins (Screaming Dreams paperback, 115pp, £7.99) has an introduction by Tim Lebbon and contains two novellas, a form that seems to hold a compelling attraction for McMahon. It also has an unfortunate choice or two of words in the text and quite a few typos, including one that will probably come back to haunt the author in later years like the porn tapes made by some serious actors and actresses in their youth (‘…through which oozes the rancid puss of society’ – sorry Gary, but it’s too funny not to share). I’m told that these are the result of an oversight prior to printing and that they will be corrected in the next edition, so if you have a copy and don’t see any errors then that will be why.

Errors and all joking aside, these are two very powerful and emotionally grounded works of fiction. Opening novella ‘Even the Dead Die’ is the story of the self-named Mike Angelo, a man whose life course was set in stone by the rape of his sister and her subsequent incarceration in an asylum, an event for which he holds himself in part responsible, because he failed to ‘deal with’ her attacker, leaving the law to take its course. When Jen dies Mike is plunged into an even deeper depression, but at the same time it’s a moment of almost epiphany, a key that unlocks reality and enables him to see the world in an entirely different way. The novella’s mantra, courtesy of The Specials, is ‘This town is coming like a ghost town’. The city of London is populated by spirits of the dead, though they are seldom entities to be feared; just another tribe of street people or the homeless, registering only subliminally, if at all, with the living. Mike’s eyes are opened to this, and with Sheena as his guide he ventures further into this newly revealed underworld, learning of his sister’s terrible fate, forced to work as a sex slave in a specialist brothel by the ghost of the man who raped her in life, so that even death doesn’t bring an end to her suffering, and as a result finding a way to redeem his own past behaviour.

The story has about it the feel of a series in the making, with Mike Angelo ready to step up and become the new John Constantine, and a unique and fascinating backdrop that offers almost limitless opportunity for plot development. It’s also a story with obvious forerunners, each scene bringing to mind past exemplars – a spectral visitation that is straight out of The Eye (the film McMahon names as his initial inspiration for the novella), a trek to a disused underground station that’s reminiscent of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, fallen angels with more than a passing resemblance to Barker’s Cenobites, a scene in a brothel with echoes of Beetlejuice. McMahon wears his influences lightly, but he puts them to his own use, producing work that is firmly rooted in a recognisable tradition, though with new twists and turns that move the genre on. A dialectic if you will, with this novella as the synthesis of McMahon’s imagination and all that has contributed to make him the writer he is today.

Mike Angelo is a difficult and not entirely likable character. Underlying so much of what he does is a disgust for modern life, a rejection of the values of urban living that is couched in almost entirely miserablist terms. His first person account details this disgust, both with the city environment and its denizens, in a language that doesn’t make him seem a sympathetic narrator; it’s only when he realises that there are much worse things abroad in the city than obese and smelly tube travellers that the story moves on, becoming not so much personal revulsion as a critique of inhumanity and the living conditions that promote it. Similarly it’s possible to overlook the hair shirt Angelo’s fashioned for himself out of failure to avenge his sister’s rape, though not so easy to pardon the neglect he has shown her since, but at the same time these sins of omission are the driving force behind his need to put things right. The guy knows he’s made mistakes, and he’s grabbing at the chance for redemption, which contrarily makes him, warts and all, just the right protagonist for this novella. If McMahon does write more about him, I expect the character to grow and the compassion that occasionally flashes through his patina of world weary cynicism to deepen.

The true strength and appeal, if that’s the right word, of ‘Even the Dead Die’ is in McMahon’s unusual and compelling vision of the afterlife. Ghosts are not scary monsters in white sheets and clanking chains, but just another species of despairing outcast, metaphors for the lost and lonely of society – the beggar on the street corner we ignore, the wage slave who serves up our burger and fries but barely registers as human, the prostitute we fuck but want to know nothing about other than the price. There are harsh echoes here of the depiction of coloured people in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and also of a story I once read (by Kim Newman I think, but I’m not 100% sure) in which the poor gaze longingly in through the windows of an exclusive restaurant but are dismissed as ghosts by the wealthy diners within. The dead in McMahon’s story are simply not on the living’s radar, condemned to inhabit the places and perform the tasks that we shun, to do anything for a simple contact, to not be ignored, and an even more terrifying prospect awaits them, because as the novella’s title declares, ‘Even the Dead Die’, and what happens after that is unknown and inconceivable. As far as that goes they’re not so different from us, just pale shadows of those left behind.

‘In the Skin’, the second novella from Different Skins, is pitch black in tone, as bleak as a loveless marriage and probably the best thing yet I’ve seen from the pen of Gary McMahon.

It’s a case of the cuckoo in the nest, as first person narrator Dan returns from a business trip to New York to find that his son Max is a different person, a feeling he can’t shake off even though his wife assures him that it’s only the changes you get with any fast growing boy. But Dan is an unreliable narrator, and his trip to New York didn’t go quite as he remembers it, while the idea in his head that his wife was attacked, necessitating their move to the countryside, leaves out the small detail of the identity of her assailant. Dan’s world appears to be falling apart, and central to it all is the malicious dwarf who visits him at night and when confronted taunts him with threats of taking away all that he holds dear. As things unravel the plot moves ever closer to a horrific act of violence, one which is both shocking and tragic.

This story doesn’t have the scope of ‘Even the Dead Die’. There are no despairing visions of the afterlife, none of the sound and fury of a society in collapse. Instead ‘In the Skin’ offers the reader a minimalist drama, a painfully intimate account of a man’s life unravelling, with Dan as the monster at the heart of his own labyrinth.

McMahon is superb at showing us the signs and portents of mental illness – the hardcore material on his computer of which Dan has no memory, the meetings in New York which turn out to be false memories, begging the question of where he really was – infused with an element that, if not actually the supernatural itself, hints at something truly outré and monstrous. There’s a Lynchian feel to it all, a sense that nothing is truly comprehensible here, that understanding will always remain just beyond our, and Dan’s, grasp. At back of it all is the oedipal, with the dwarf possibly representing son Max and the embodiment of Dan’s fear that he is being replaced – in his home, in his workplace, in his wife’s heart and bed – by his own offspring.

The ending when it comes is rendered in blood red hues, and takes the breath away, with the violence all the more keenly felt because we have come to know these people, learned to care about them, and in getting under our skin they have brought with them the knowledge that we could be monsters too, that Dan is just a distorted reflection of our own lives, a path not taken thanks to lucky breaks or the proper medication. This is a difficult story to read, and one that must have been even harder to write, and at its heart is the message that we are all human and all fallible, and for such as us happiness may not last and love might not endure, but the real horror is in the possibility that the pain and suffering is something we inflict on ourselves.


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1 Response to OR: Different Skins

  1. Pingback: OR: Hungry Hearts | Trumpetville

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