Archive for review

New Spectral Press review…

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on December 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Before I get onto the main blog of the day, here’s a short but sweet review of What They Hear in the Dark by Nick Cato, posted on his Antibacterial Pope blog:


The first release from this new small press is an emotional look at a couple coping with the death of their son. During the renovation of their home, they discover a hidden room where there’s no sound…although Rob can sense a disturbing presence within, Becky seems to be a bit comforted by being in it, believing their son is close…

Being a short chapbook, that’s all I can reveal, but suffice it to say McMahon’s tale has a similar tone to some of Gary Braunbeck’s stories, i.e. simultaneously chilling and depressing. This is short and sweet “quiet horror” done right.


TV REVIEW: Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, BBC2, 24th December 2010, 9pm

Posted in Reviews, TV with tags , , , , , on December 27, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Starring John Hurt, Gemma Jones, Lesley Jones and Sophie Thompson

Updating a classic of any kind is a somewhat hazardous undertaking – some adaptations work, others fall flat on their faces. Anthony de Emmony’s take on MR James’ Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, shown on BBC2 on Christmas Eve, falls somewhere between the two. In other words, it was neither a bad stab at it, nor was it a great one.

John Hurt plays James Parkin, an astronomy professor, who leaves his wife Alice in a nursing home while he visits one of their favourite rambling haunts – a seaside village in the off-season. While there he chances upon a ring on the beach, and from that point on his world is turned upside down as inexplicable events start happening, events which upset the foundations of his self-assurance and beliefs.

This is, indeed, the core of MR James’ story – a Cambridge professor (without a wife in this instance) going off on a golfing holiday to improve his game and, during a brisk walk on the coast, he finds the ruins of a Templar preceptory. Digging around he comes across a small cavity in which he finds a whistle. When he gets back to the hotel he scrutinises the object, including blowing it – the trigger for the events that follow.

Necessarily, with the updating come changes to the elements of the story to make it more contemporary to today’s audience. The cloistered world of Cambridge professors and dons, archaeologists and scholars is long gone and, whilst academia is still a mysterious world to some, the class divisions which ruled social hierarchies in James’ day no longer pertains to the same degree. In fact, James wrote about the threats, as he perceived them, to the world in which lived and whih gave such force to his tales: the ghosts in his stories can be seen to be emblematic of the social forces battening against the class system, and the slow crumbling of the Victorian and Edwardian order. In that respect, I think that some of the power derived from the tension between the social stratiufication has been slightly dissipated in the BBC version. In de Emmony’s adaptation, however, the missing element is replaced by the main character’s reluctance at having to put his wife in a nursing home – throughout the programme he frets at the decision, calling the home regularly to make sure she’s okay, indicating that at conscious level he’s dealing with his own ghosts.

Hurt’s character came across as a very confused, lonely and somewhat pedantic man, trying to find solace and perhaps reassurance and justification for his actions regarding his wife. By going back to the seaside resort, he hopes to find pleasant memories to assuage his fears with – naturally, what he actually found (it being a ghost story) was far more than he bargained for. His pedantic corrections of the hotel receptionist’s misconceptions of astronomy (mistaking him for an astrologer – again perhaps a reference harking back to the fin de siècle Victorian era – this was also the time of the Golden Dawn and the revival of the esoteric sciences in general) were inevitably intended to establish his credentials as a man of rationality – however, this rationality was subsumed by his confused emotions, thereby leaving me with an impression of fussiness and lack of connection. Compared to the same character as portrayed by Michael Hordern in Jonathan Miller’s 1968 Play for Today production, I felt that Hurt was a little flat in the role –I didn’t really empathise with James Parkin as strongly as I would have liked. For my money, Hordern’s slightly bumbling, somewhat comical and bookish, insular Parkins was much closer to the man in James’ story.

As the Freaky Trigger Hauntography blog pointed out, in a post dated 11thDecember 2009, there was a lot of comedy in the original story – which, in a tour de force of storytelling, makes the supernatural elements of the story that much more frightening. The comical figure of Parkins, with his absolute confidence in himself and rigid belief that ghosts just don’t exist, contrasts sharply with two other elements in the story: the other main player, The Colonel, and the ghostly apparition itself. The jolt at the end of the story, contrasted with the jocularity of Parkins, is what produces the shock – that a seismic shift in perspective has occurred in the professor’s outlook, and that there are things that not even science can explain. Remember also that during James’ lifetime interest in all things spiritualist was going on and that serious research was being conducted into psychical phenomena – there was the whole Victorian fin de siécle spiritualist movement, the Society for Psychical Research had been founded in 1882 and even in the early 2oth century the venerable magazine of scientific reporting, Scientific American, regularly devoted its pages to the results of experiments trying to determine the nature of these phenomena.  As the 20th century progressed, belief in these elusive will o’ the wisps faded, and the inherent power of science and empirical evidence asserted itself; even so, there’s a feeling in the stories that MR James believed that there were things, manifesting themselves as ghosts and spectres, that our scientific knowledge was unable to comprehend because we didn’t possess the requisite knowledge.

I also felt that the sequences involving the mysterious figure weren’t particularly effective (unlike the 1968 version, which actually freaked me out slightly) – perhaps in this case, because the figure was revealed in broad daylight, it didn’t have quite the impact. Perhaps it should have been filmed at twilight, because the sheer terror of the figure, as exemplified in the dream sequence in James’ story, isn’t quite pulled off here in my view. In addition, the disturbances were fairly standard happenings, with even a nod to Robert Wise’s The Haunting with the frenzied door-rattling. I also thought that a much more solid connection between the ring and the storm that blew up during his first night’s stay could and should have been made. Plus, as was pointed out by Lee Thompson on a Facebook thread, the denouément was very reminiscent of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu film. Looking at it again, I would have to agree.

Before anyone thinks anything, it wasn’t all bad. For starters, the small cast of characters, just four people, served this production well – the very fact that not many people were around added immensely to the eeriness. The settings were well-used too – the hotel was deserted apart from James Parkin, the receptionist and the implied but never seen chef or other staff. The fabric of the hotel itself felt haunted, a feeling helped enormously by the way it was atmospherically photographed. The scenes in the nursing home, with all the residents sitting and vacantly staring at walls emphasised the soullessness of where his wife had ended up. The beach scenes were also well done – Parkin was the only human being for miles around and a sense of true isolation was telegraphed. In that sense, the intrusion of the ghostly figure was a small shock, but it still remains something that could have been done better, I think.

I think the major problem for me, however, having read the story, is that the connection to James’ tale is tenuous at best. There are elements of the source material in there, but they were so diluted that it made it an entirely different story. I would never pretend to be an expert in these matters, and I am all for people reinterpreting classics, but in this instance perhaps setting it in the Edwardian period might have actually produced a better adaptation, so in effect you would have a double seismic jolt – that of material separation between this world and the unseen one, and also a temporal distance. The Edwardian period is as alien to us as the moon is. Perhaps having someone else to play off against (à la The Colonel) would have been a good prop – while the implication that the receptionist’s implied belief in astrology was meant to highlight the dissonance between the two views, it didn’t quite get emphasised enough.

It was a brave attempt, but one couldn’t help feel that so much more could have been done with the material. I would still hope, however, that the BBC will continue to commission more of this kind of adaptation of classic ghost stories for the small screen, perhaps employing someone who understands the genre on a deeper level, both its dynamics and its motifs. Whatever one thinks of the end product, I for one think that this kind of programme should make an appearance on our TVs a lot more often.

Yet another review for Spectral Volume I…

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Here’s another great review from David Hebblethwaite, as posted on his Follow the Thread blog. Here’s what he had to say about What They Hear in the Dark and Spectral Press (this follows two short reviews of current Nightjar Press titles):


Coincidentally, there’s a couple with a new house and a relationship under strain in Spectral Press’s first title,‘What They Hear in the Dark’ by Gary McMahon. Rob and Becky are renovating a house whilst still coming to terms with the death of their son Eddie, and find a strange room which, according to the plans, shouldn’t be there. They call it the Quiet Room, because it seems to absorb all sound.

There is, of course, something mysterious about the Quiet Room, but McMahon’s ultimate focus is less that than the characters of Rob  and Becky. What impresses me most about the story is what’s going on beneath the words and imagery, the way that the Quiet Room comes to embody the couple’s different responses to Eddie’s death — for Becky, the silence is comforting, as she feels it brings her closer to Eddie; for Rob, the Quiet Room is a place of fear, caused by his search for a deeper explanation for his son’s death than the one Becky has accepted. These conflicting views come to reflect the wider tensions in the couple’s relationship, making for a nice balance between character and atmosphere. McMahon’s story is a good start for Spectral Press; I’ll be keeping an eye on what they do in the future.


I couldn’t have wished for a better start for the imprint – copies of this are going fast, so secure yours today!

First Spectral Press review…

Posted in Book Reviews, News with tags , , , , on December 17, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This came in last night courtesy of Neil Leckman and posted on his Virtual Cubicle blog – short and sweet, and most definitely very sharp!

“I just read Gary McMahon’s What They Hear in the Dark, a signed and numbered chapbook from Spectral Press, coming out January 2011. Gary has proven that not all silence is golden, and not all rooms are equal. He has a grip on the range of emotion that comes with loss, and how sometimes what you don’t say hurts more than what you can. Be prepared to have him take hold of you, by the throat, and not let go until your vision blurs, and your knees become weak.”

TV REVIEW: “Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women”, Wednesday, October 21st, BBC4, 9pm

Posted in Reviews, TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Tragedy and great art appear to be well-acquainted bedfellows in the history of culture. People seem to harbour a notion that, in order to truly produce immortal prose, poetry or art, artists have to have suffered lives that know no happiness, to experience a deep grief of the soul –  and this is the fire in which that immortality is forged. If that is indeed the case, then the subject of this BBC4 documentary, Edgar Allan Poe, fully deserves his place in the pantheon of literary greats.

There’s absolutely no question that Poe endured a very hard life – in equal measure it was as a result of some events being completely outside of his ability to influence but also there was much where he lost conscious control. Alcoholism was a recurrent feature of his life and, indeed, played a major role in his death – it started in his teens, possibly as a result of his inferiority complex gained through his social circumstances and his relationship with his uncaring adopted father. When his adopted mother died, his father cut him off completely without any means of supporting himself.

In this programme, however, crime-writer Denise Mina explores the relationship that this tortured soul had with the women in his life, namely Eliza Poe (his mother), Virginia Clemm (his first, and only, wife), Frances Sargent Osgood (poet and darling of the New York literary scene), and Sarah Helen Whitman (eccentric poet, essayist, transcendentalist, and Spiritualist). Through his often damaged encounters with these women, his writing took on the dark and malign shapes it did, implying that had he NOT had them the Poe we would know today would have been very different, if we’d have known about him at all.

Mina makes a very strong case here – certainly all these women are separated from Poe either through tragedy or the strict social mores of the day. He first tasted death at just two years old, when his mother Eliza died of tuberculosis: she was an actress, a profession that was considered just a notch above prostitution. Not a great start in life then. To a small child, his mother constantly ‘dying’ on stage and yet miraculously coming back to life afterwards was normal. Consequently, reanimation of the dead is a frequent theme in his work, and it would be fair to say that his early theatrical experiences, tied in as they are with the first woman in his life, is where it all started. This notion appears to have bled into real-life – certainly, according to this programme, he did have trouble understanding why his mother never came back after she died for the final, and very real, time.

Another recurrent theme, which is also played out in real life, is loss. Poe loses his first (and only) wife, his cousin Virginia Clemm, to the same disease that took his mother – tuberculosis – after a long, five-year battle with it.  Her death was hastened, it appears, by revelations (through malicious letters sent to her by the noted poetess and love rival, Elizabeth Ellet) of his dalliance with another fêted poetess Frances Sargent Osgood. Then, after the breaking-off with Osgood and Virginia’s death, there came Sarah Helen Whitman, a writer and poet, who was described as being full of ‘eccentricities and sorrows’, much like her erstwhile suitor himself.  However, bad luck was to dog Poe yet again in this potential match, as Whitman’s mother disapproved of the engagement, even threatening her daughter with disinheritance should she get married to him.

All powerful stuff, which coalesced and was funnelled into a rare literary talent. Poe was, in many ways, caught between the word and his weakness for the bottle – desperate expressions of needing to seek relief from the pressures that life brought with it, in particular his life. The atmosphere of 19th century America is well evoked, and the sense of poverty and struggle, for Poe personally and by extension the greater society around him, is palpable. Writing has never been a secure profession, and it was even less so back then. Effectively, Poe was the first professional Victorian writer, the advent of magazines in the 1830s allowing people to see the possibilities of being authors and getting paid for it. Ironically, despite Poe’s popularity, tapping as he did into the primal fears of his readers, he died penniless and in bizarre circumstances.

Poe has influenced an enormous catalogue of writers since, like Agatha Christie, Walt Whitman, Jules Verne and Denise Mina herself. He was a genuine literary pioneer, mining the veins of rich source material to be found in the deepest, darkest and blackest corners of the human mind. He brought the Gothic to the masses and made it popular. Mina strongly brought out those qualities which elevated him above many others digging in the same seam, and, furthermore, emphasised just why his writing is so powerful, by tying his disatrous relationships into the themes evident in his stories. Death and loss were constant themes in his own life; naturally, he sought to exorcise their influence on the written page. People responded, and shot him to fame. But fame can destroy as well as enrich: additionally one has to be prepared for it, no matter how much one craves it. Poe definitely craved it, but equally I think he was totally unprepared for what it brought him.

My only criticism: the soundtrack, composed mostly of long excerpts from 80s goth bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, The Mission and Fields of the Nephilim. Okay, so I make no bones about being an ex-goth, even to admitting that I saw some of these bands myself – however, I felt that hearing the strains of the songs from my younger days jarred somewhat with the subject matter, in terms of the time period covered. It seemed like whoever edited it heard the word ‘Gothic’ and thought it would be clever idea (or perhaps ironic) to use them. Ultimately though, I guess it’s just a minor quibble, tied to personal taste.

After watching this I ended up wishing that the BBC would commission more of these type of programmes and not just for tHalloween. Horror is, for me and for many like me, a year-round interest, and I for one would love to indulge in watching documentaries about horror in general and horror-writers in particular. The quality of this programme just goes to show what can be done when producer’s and programme commissioner’s minds are put to it. Maybe we should give them a hint by showing our approval for these welcome efforts.

BOOK REVIEW: Last Exit for the Lost, by Tim Lebbon

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on October 21, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Tim Lebbon is that rare writer, an author possessing a deceptively spare way with words yet painting images, themes and atmospheres of infinite detail, colour and nuance, stories that dig themselves beneath the skin and burrow into the bones. These are deeply-felt and envisioned stories, drawn out from the deepest of the pits of human experience. The horrors he assails us with are viscerally raw, the pain and fears screamingly primal, the regrets and losses his characters feel are empathised with completely, and the burden of sins perpetrated weigh heavily on our shoulders in concert.

Before anything else, however, mention should be made of the solidity and size of this volume – it’s a reassuringly massive tome indeed, 557 pages and 150,000 words, and wrapped in a gorgeously atmospheric cover by Les Edwards. That solidity, that substantiality, however, merely reflects the quality and depth of the sixteen stories and two novellas contained herein. Beyond that is the physical quality of the book itself, an aspect that is rarely noted in reviews – kudos to the folks at Cemetery Dance for the care they’ve taken over this, and especial mention should be made here of the attention to details, like the paper quality, the clean clear printing of the text and the general layout.

Lebbon ranges widely here, dipping into and mixing genres with practised ease. The title story, Last Exit for the Lost (and yes, before you ask, Tim IS a big fan of Fields of the Nephilim), is a story which reminds us that not all ghosts are those of the dead. A mysterious set of related of paintings, ultimately creating a triptych, arrives at the door of a man who has let both himself and his family go. The ghosts of relationships, regrets and of what might have been, all conspire to provide the catalyst for transformation. Another ghost of the living, emerging from out of the past, also features in the next tale, The Cutting, when a young boy’s grandfather, a war veteran, is visited by someone from decades before to whom he made a promise and he’s here to collect. Even the passage of time is incapable of denuding honour and dignity.

There is also fantasy here, too, in the form of Forever, the tale of Nox, a Krote warrior, part of an island army that is always preparing for war (a war that never actually comes), who is seeking a means of escape from his perpetually frozen home. Steampunk of a kind makes itself known here in Old Light: a mysterious old man bequeathes an ancient torch to an ascendant of a character from a Jules Verne novel. The item holds the power to show people how they are going to die if the beam is played upon them. Then there’s a wonderfulhomage to the creation of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle in the form of The Horror of the Many Faces (originally published in 2003’s Shadows over Baker Street), wherein Holmes’ intrepid assistant Watson is faced with the ultimate dilemma: is the great detective a murderer, or is there something deeper going on here? Lebbon artfully combines the classic detective story with elements of horror, to very satisfying ends.

However, it is the unalloyed horror story where Lebbon excels. From the Lovecraftian The Stuff of the Stars, Leaking, where a widower finds the rotting corpse of an unknown deep-sea creature on the beach near his home, the discovery of which is bound up with disturbing dreams of his drowning wife: to Black, the tale of a murderous soldier, whose encounter with a woman obsessed with witnessing a murder perpetrated during enigmatic blackouts leads her right to him. From Skins, where sometimes it is better that the deep, secret horrors of the world, lying just beneath its thin crust, remain where they are, out of the purview of mankind and the light; to the novella In Perpetuity, a powerful meditation on the strength of familial bonds and the lengths we will go to just to secure the safety and future of our offspring. Any parent will empathise with the father in this tale, the despair, the frustration and the desperation he experiences as he tries to find a way to save his son.

The best, and most powerful, tale in the book by far, in my estimation, is the last one, the novella Nothing Heavenly. It’s a deceptively complex story, on one level simply about a woman being kidnapped by an unseen agent and on another being confronted by truths about both herself and the greater forces that weave about the world, forces that have been forgotten by the human species. Her journey of self-discovery is set against the End of Times, and the great battles that ensue. Who or, more accurately, what is she? It’s a treatise, told in fiction, on the nature of belief and fate, and one woman’s struggle to rediscover herself, her legacy and ultimately, her role in shaping outcomes of the many. It’s a harrowing and emotional story, expertly told. The excruciating pain and cruelty, the atrocities and bloodshed, linger in the mind long after the last word has been read and the cover closed. Nothing Heavenly possesses an extraordinary cinematic quality, the imagery readily springing, fully formed, to the imagination and pitching us in the midst of unearthly battle.

As was pointed out in the opening paragraph, Lebbon writes in a very lean, spare style. For all that, however, along with the sparse description, the reader still comes away with vividly-realised tableaux playing in technicolour on the screen of the mind. There’s also an ease with which Lebbon’s writing worms its way into our emotional centres, pulling and teasing them at will. Above all, his stories manage to convey the essential bleakness of existence, that the hopes that we carry with us in life are, in the end, hollow, and that even when a resolution has been brought about there is still a trace of malignancy besmirching it. There are very few writers out there, I feel, who can achieve the same with such facility and power. For that reason, I very much look forward to reading more of this man’s work.

This review originally appeared at Bookgeeks.


Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Cemetery Dance

Publication date: May 2010

ISBN: 978-1-58767-170-8

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

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

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!


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!)


Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Angry Robot

Publication date: 4th November 2010

ISBN: 978 0 85766 069 5