The Harm, by Gary McMahon

The best species of horror story-writing is that which preys on primal fears, especially if it’s something which could happen only too easily in real-life. Gary McMahon’s novelette, the first entry in a projected series of ‘longer’ short stories issued in a mini-book format by TTA Press (the publishers of Black Static and Interzone magazines), does just that: it touches on one of THE darkest and most appalling of horrors, a true blight that appears to form an increasingly grim narrative of daily life – child abuse. However, before anyone thinks it inappropriate to fictionalise such grim events (especially for ‘entertainment’), McMahon gets around that objection cleverly: the focus isn’t on the event itself, which is only referred to in passing, but on what comes after – its effects on, and the consequences for, the victims in later life.

Tyler, Roarke and Potter were the best of friends, and only eight years old when they were brutally sundered from their childhoods, by a group of shadowy perpetrators who are only hazily alluded to and never specifically outlined (and beyond them, there are hints of something darker, something inhuman). The three of them were held captive in a derelict warehouse, where they were subjected to repeated beatings, torture and rape over a period of twelve hours. The novelette is divided into four shorter stories, outlining the subsequent lives of each of the victims (now aged 34) and Audrey, the sister of Potter: each of these tales delineates the hand the event has had in shaping them, and their individual responses to it. The men (and those around them) have been swathed in an inexpressible darkness, felt but not fully realised, certainly never come to terms with, and filling them with a chilling, psychic emptiness. If you want happy endings, then look elsewhere.

These four tales are grimly, uncomfortably, stiflingly claustrophobic, neatly summarising the repression, the guilt, the fear and the metaphysical isolation that the men’s shared past represents. The abandoned, fire-blackened warehouse, where the event took place, becomes an apt metaphor for the hollow shells they subsequently become. Their worlds have tight little orbits, never appearing to stray outside prescribed bounds, which is but another form of claustrophobia, adding an additional layer. Parallel to that, lines defining their everyday relationships have been fractured: that of Tyler’s with his wife, Roarke’s with the people he terrorises and Potter’s with himself. Concomitantly, resolutions can only come a fine point of tragedy, thus compounding and deepening the darkness. There are no easy ways out here.

McMahon does grim preternaturally well: he achieves in 64 pages what many struggle to do in ten times that amount. He doesn’t waste words either: the bleak, uncompromising pictures McMahon paints of the character’s lives, and their psychic malaise, are done quickly, precisely, and without preamble. The milieu against which these stories are told is joyless, airless, suffocating, perfectly reflecting the characters’ dislocation socially, as well as temporally and spatially. The characters appear oddly distant, neither particularly likeable nor particularly unlikeable, no doubt simply for the reason that what happened to them is just so far outside normal experience. However, it’s just that very sense of narrative displacement which helps to render the scenario that much more horrific and unsettling.

As horror writer Simon Kurt Unsworth aptly, and perspicaciously, noted in a recent blog – “We are the monsters”. McMahon’s The Harm drives home this truism with the force of a steam-powered hammer blow, emphasising, quite correctly, that the monsters we imagine capable of perpetrating such atrocities are not those creatures armed with sharp teeth or raking talons, or are covered in scales and spikes, but those who are clothed in flesh and the trappings of civilisation. In other words, they are US. Masterful stuff, indeed.

(Special mention must be made of the excellent cover by Ben Baldwin – atmospheric and superbly rendering McMahon’s particular brand of grim)

Original review posted here.

2 Responses to “The Harm, by Gary McMahon”

  1. Riju Ganguly Says:

    It may be a purely irrelevant thought, but as I went through Simon Marshall Jones’ review of this work quite spontaneously it came to my mind that: what might the reaction of the author of “The Child is the father of man” have been to this grim reality of child-abuse? Would he have succeeded in capturing the profoundness of this depravity in a similar statement? Could he have even believed in the happening of such things? I don’t know, I can only guess, and shiver.

  2. […] is masterful storytelling, nothing less than is expected from the man who brought us the superb The Harm, and is an absolute delight to read. More importantly, it leaves us hungry for more. Without a […]

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