REVIEW-ESSAY: Pretty Little Dead Things, by Gary McMahon

Below is the first in what I hope will be some reviews I have written that will appear exclusively in this blog, either because they’ve already been reviewed on either of the other websites I write for or they could be seen as inappropriate for whatever reason. Hope you enjoy this first one – let me know what you think!

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I often spend my time wondering just what makes one author (or artist or musician) better than another. Perhaps quirkily, being a book reviewer, I happen to consider this an important part of the whole process. Also, being a proto-publisher, I am interested in what ‘makes’ a good story, those ungraspable aspects of the literary pursuit that marks something out as ‘good’ and something else as ‘rubbish’; it’s an essential pre-requisite for someone just about to embark on launching a new publishing imprint, I would think. Just what makes that particular tale or painting or piece of music lock into the intangible quality we call personal taste, that esoteric conglomeration of synaptic connections and sparking neurons in our brains that persuades us to say either yea or nay, when assessing something creative?

It’s a tricky business, you know. By its very nature, trying to pin down something so utterly elusive and unwilling to be concretely formulated is like searching for hen’s teeth or looking for pots of gold at the end of those rainbows. So, I thought I would attempt to explore the slippery little concepts involved in a definition of taste and what is to be considered either good or bad by writing a sideways review of Gary McMahon’s first novel for Angry Robot, due to published on November 4th 2010 – Pretty Little Dead Things.

I love this author’s work: let’s get that straight from the off. To stave off accusations of conflicts of interest that will inevitably be snapping at the heels of a review on somewhere like Beyond Fiction (considering that I’ll be publishing one of his stories next year in the very first Spectral Press chapbook), I’ll tackle this from the angle of why I like Gary’s work, using his latest novel as a way of looking at things – what it is about his storytelling that grabs me in particular, and why it gets my brain sparking so affirmatively.

Pretty Little Dead Things (or PLDT for short) introduces us to Thomas Usher, a man who sees the dead, a singular skill gained after he’s involved in an accident which takes the lives of his wife and daughter. More to the point, the dead are drawn to him, those that are lost and lonely, deliberately seeking him out, to help them to move on to wherever it is they’re meant to go. The thing is, he’s just as lost as the silent ghosts who appear to him and he is also unable to find a strong enough anchoring point in the world to tether himself to. He’s pathologically wracked by guilt: for being responsible for the deaths of Rebecca and Ally (his wife and daughter, respectively), for his amorous transgression with Ellen, and also for the ghosts he was unable to help. And now there’s a missing girl and he’s being drawn into something that could result in him heaping an even heavier weight of guilt upon his own shoulders, more than even he is capable of bearing.

One word I come across often in other reviews of Gary’s work is ‘dark’. There’s no doubting that this novel does plumb the depths of the deepest abyss and goes to cancerous places that few writers dare to venture, but readers should note that other word I used there – depth (singular). It’s not just about the darkness that dwells within the rotten core of the world, but also how those of us who live within this reality cope with that darkness. Most glide through life without ever really encountering it, and so they’re never really aware of its existence. If they are, it’s only because they see it in the newspapers or on the nightly television news broadcasts. Others quite simply lose themselves in one of the multifarious shades of that metaphorical darkness: alcohol, sex, drugs, or violence, or any combination thereof. Here, however, Gary paints a picture of a man, a very human man, who still struggles after fifteen years to get a handle on his unique ability (is it a gift or a curse?), and who also struggles to find ways of peeling away the layers of guilt that lie over his physical self. Gary pulls us into Usher’s unlit gulf with practised ease, as he also does with all the supporting cast of characters: Baz Singh, the businessman/gangster who hires Usher to keep tabs on his wayward daughter, Kareena; Detective Inspector Tebbit, a grouchy, put-upon man who is unknowingly suffering from a terminal brain tumour, who regularly calls upon Usher to bring clues to light that cannot be found by any other means; Ellen, the woman with whom Usher had the illicit liaison and who re-enters his life, and comes to symbolise his most realistic shot at redemption; and, most chillingly, the mysterious figure of Mr. Shiloh, a someone or something who appears to share the same inner darkness as Usher – and the latter is both intrigued and repelled by the man.

The gift that Gary has is to make his characters entirely believable – even those who share nothing of the reality of this world. Usher himself is a likeable and multilayered individual, complete with doubts, neuroses and the normal little worries of the everyday. The only difference between him and someone we might know is that he possesses that ‘talent’ of his – and yet, despite that, it’s easy to identify with him. Even Mr. Shiloh, an obviously supernatural creation, carries with him echoes of what we have come to think of as the epitome of the ‘evil’ man; hollow, empty, incapable of feeling any connection to the world and full of darkness. The same can also be said of the ‘hoodies’ (members of a notorious street gang, the MT), who are themselves not of this world – their mindless violence and their chosen attire is a commentary on the social disconnection of those we label ‘chavs’ and thugs, the disenfranchised and dispossessed of society. These particular characters are all-too-representative of that so-called ‘underclass’.

The social commentary doesn’t end there, however. One of my favourite segments of the novel involves a fake ‘spiritualist’ called Trevor Dove and Usher’s confrontation with him. Gary exposes the hypocrisy, the sham altruism and all the shamelessly cynical exploitation and preying on of the vulnerable. The observation is incisive, and the cutting open of the rotten pus-filled heart of this leech is performed with a lethally-honed precision. You’re left in no doubt as to where Usher stands on this one. Also, there’s a subtle comment on the sex trade: in the foyer of the hotel where Ellen is staying Usher notices a gang of Eastern European girls constantly sitting on the sofas. In one scene, one of them goes off with a hotel guest, implying they’re prostitutes. If you take that thought even further, perhaps these girls had been lured by the promise of a better life in the UK – instead they were sold into sexual slavery.

This is what appeals most here: the intricate nature of the novel (but it’s ‘only’ a horror novel you can just hear the detractors saying). Gary weaves complex webs with all the plot threads, with Mr. Shiloh right at the very centre, patiently waiting for Usher to get himself irreparably entangled. Everything leads back to that one man. This story itself may appear nihilistic, but that’s merely a superficial reading of it; look closely and you’ll discern that there is both humanity and hope in there as well. It’s about the search for personal redemption, a very human act, and Usher’s is the most human one of all. However, one gets the impression that, somehow, Usher has to learn the true meaning of that word redemption; it is isn’t just about seeing the ghosts of his loved ones and asking for their forgiveness – it’s also about forgiving himself before everything else will fall into place. The concept of redemption extends to all his characters, as none of them are ever completely lost; it’s just a question of when the revelation hits and, having done so, whether to act upon it or not.

The above is why I like this man’s writing; it has depth and complexity, as well as a solid heart, and it speaks resonantly to something deep within. It explores the deeper truths in life in just the same was as any of the ‘litfic’ books do; the only difference is that it looks at those aspects from a very primal and infinitely more human level. It continually questions our assumptions about the world around us and our reaction to, and our place, in it. Added to that is a broad imagination that embodies the trials and tribulations of Usher (and by extension those of people in real-life) in devastatingly appropriate metaphors. Plus Gary isn’t afraid of tempering the darkness with light or with the darkly humorous; in fact, his stories, even with the fantastic elements, reflect much of life as it really is. It’s a dangerous, unwelcoming world he delineates, but completely realistically depicted.

It would be fair to say then that my taste in horror leans toward the complex, the superficially horrific but when looked at more closely reveals nuances and subtexts that relate very near to the actualities of life outside the written page. Things are never as black and white as some would like to make out; there are grey no-man’s lands, areas that most of us fear to acknowledge, because to do so would be to remind us of our own human frailties and failings. Additionally, his characters have palpable dimension and are clothed in flesh, and they breathe the very same air we do and possess the very same blood, too. They may not strictly be like us – their acts are strangers to our way of thinking and being, but we have definitely heard of people like these or we may even know some. There is the element of fantasy, in terms of unreal things and situations, but those are there merely to heighten the story’s reality. While I, of necessity, cannot relate those to anything in my life, I can take the rest of it and fully empathise with what’s going on. On a purely superficial level, this was one of those rare books that engrossed me so completely that, on several occasions, I actually let my coffee get cold.

Pretty Little Dead Things is Gary’s first mass-market novel and it’s also the first in a couple of Thomas Usher novels (and yes, there are hints of a continuation at the end). Usher has many battles to fight, not just with the forces surrounding him but also all his inner demons too. It would be a mild understatement to say I am looking forward to the next instalment. On top of that, I am also excitedly anticipating his Concrete Grove series of novels for Solaris Books, the first of which I believe is due next year. And for you, dear readers and McMahon fans, there’s the additional prospect of the publication of What They Hear in the Dark, the first Spectral Press chapbook, which is also due out next year too.

(As an aside: there’s an incident alluded to in the main body of the book, about a screening of a film that Usher was invited to and its aftermath, that made me think ‘that would make a great story…’ – lo and behold, there’s a bonus short story about that very incident included at the end. Bargain!)

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Angry Robot

Publication date: 4th November 2010

ISBN: 978 0 85766 069 5

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