OR: Hungry Hearts

Following on from Tuesday’s blog entry, here’s the second part of a feature on the work of Gary McMahon that originally appeared in Black Static #14:-


Hungry Hearts (Abaddon paperback, 311pp, £6.99) is the latest in the ongoing ‘Tomes of the Dead’ series, and sees McMahon stretching his wings at novel length and tackling one of the horror genre’s famous monsters, the zombie. It is arguably a more plot/action driven piece than the novellas in Different Skins, but no less well written and with serious themes underlying the surface spills and thrills. The last ‘Tome’ I reviewed had more than its fair share of typos, but I’m happy to report that was only a blip and Abaddon are back up to standard, with only a few mistakes in this volume, and nothing to cast a pall over the reading experience. McMahon’s writing has also benefited greatly from professional editing, with none of awkward phrasing that occurred in the Screaming Dreams book (but may not have transferred to the reprint).

Rick Nutman is a rookie policeman and former member of the armed services, who finds himself on the front line when the city of Leeds erupts in violence. The truth, which the authorities are finding it hard to factor into their planning, is that the zombie apocalypse is here: Nutman and his comrades are fighting the living dead. As their task becomes ever more hopeless he decides to abandon his post and return home to protect his wife Sally. For Daryl the apocalypse is an opportunity to become the ruthless killer he has always known himself to be and so, after meting out some tough love come rough justice to his domineering mother, Daryl goes in search of the woman he has stalked for weeks, Sally Nutman. Returning home to find his wife now a zombie, Rick does the best he can to make Sally harmless, believing that somehow a cure can be found. He knocks out her teeth, stuffs her mouth, binds her arms and sedates her, then sets out to escape the confines of the doomed city. Meanwhile Daryl has reached the conclusion that if killing Sally Nutman the once was not as satisfying as he expected, the only option is to do it again. He sets out on the trail of Rick and Sally, growing in confidence and becoming more ruthless with every step of the journey. The three travel north in search of a fabled island, a place of sanctuary where perhaps a cure for the zombie plague awaits and the final scenes of the drama can be played out.

There’s lots here that seems familiar. For starters, the title comes from a Springsteen song. For seconds, it’s a zombie story and so references to Romero’s oeuvre abound – a besieged shopping mall seen in the distance (Dawn of the Dead), vigilantes who torment zombies before killing them and Daryl’s efforts at capturing his exploits on camcorder (Diary of the Dead) etc. I also caught, in the opening scenes of police action in a tower block, what I believe is an allusion to an earlier McMahon story, ‘State of the Estate’. And then there are some of Rick’s police colleagues who have monikers like Finch and, ahem, Tennant (I’m not going to hazard a guess as to where Nutman* got his name from). These are details that give the reader in the know a tiny thrill of recognition, without in any way detracting from the enjoyment for those not steeped in zombie cinema, small press history or Gary McMahon’s back catalogue.

The one weak spot is Daryl, who at times lumbers perilously close to the land of cliché, given his mummy dear motivation and conscious decision to become a killer simply because he can, with the subsequent determination to off Sally for a second time because he wants to be a trailblazer of sorts. Daryl comes over as somebody who has perhaps watched too much reality TV and is an uncomfortable reminder of the sometimes melodramatic past of horror fiction when silk hatted fops roamed free, doing unspeakable things and twirling their moustaches while muttering about how it’s all down to them being evil (pronounced with a lisp). But if McMahon fails to make the character completely convincing, he also stops short of rendering him risible, and as the book progresses Daryl steadily grows into the role of serial killer, so that by the end it is possible to accept him on his own terms even if doubts remain about how we got to this point.

That objection aside, McMahon has a lot of fun with the tropes of the zombie sub-genre. There’s plenty of excitement to the story as the various parties pursue their own agendas, with the action coming thick and fast from the off and seldom letting up. The opening scenes are especially compelling, with police resources stretched to breaking point and the authorities left wrong footed and helpless by both the scale and nature of the catastrophe. The camaraderie and loyalty of men in uniform is tested to destruction, with the realisation that sometimes nothing can be done, and all that remains is to protect those you care about as best you can, and drag whatever can be saved from the wreckage. The explanation for the zombie apocalypse is satisfyingly vague, – as diffuse and intangible as global warming or economic meltdown – meaning that it can’t be dismissed on any logical or scientific grounds. Daryl aside, the characters are well drawn and believable, even such minor ones as the old man and young girl who help Rick with his quest.

A case could be made for regarding the zombie apocalypse as simply the background for a love triangle, with Sally as the bone over which two alpha males tussle. Rick is the antithesis of Daryl – a family man, a useful member of society, someone who has sacrificed for others. But he is also a man who is seriously in denial, someone who refuses to accept that his great love affair is over, who will do literally anything to keep the dream alive, including endangering others and, in what is perhaps the book’s most squirm inducing moment, a spot of recreational necrophilia. Rick is, in his own way, just as insane as Daryl, only more convincingly so. His actions seem entirely reasonable to him, and at times it’s hard for the reader not to wear the same shoes and wonder where personal lines would get crossed. That Rick eventually works through his issues and finds peace is the whole thrust of the narrative. The subtext of the book seems to be that no matter how bad things become some feelings and concerns endure, even if they sail off into largely uncharted water and don’t manifest in ways that get the rubber stamp approval of polite society.

*Now I’m going to hazard a guess that it came from author Philip Nutman, something I didn’t twig to when I first wrote this review.

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