Dead Bad Things by Gary McMahon
When I was growing up, running around the streets of my seaside suburb with the “gang” that was made up of the children living in our road, we used slang terms like “dead good” and “dead bad” to mean really good or bad. I suppose the nearest current equivalent is the use of “wicked” in the same rather perverse spirit. This came to mind as I picked up Dead Bad Things by Gary McMahon (Angry Robot, 2011). It’s a sequel to Pretty Little Dead Things which introduced us to Thomas Usher, a man who considers himself cursed. But my first impression from the title was strangely appropriate. It’s almost a dead good book.
This is what may loosely be labelled violent or, even, brutal horror. It’s always been around in one form or another. In earlier times, it was hived off into a grey area where it might be considered slightly pornographic. But following on the increasing willingness of the film-censors to allow graphically violent films to be shown as mainstream entertainment — as in Martyrs, The Hills Have Eyes, the Saw franchise, Hostel, and so on — where the boundaries of taste have been tested with the depiction of both physical and psychological torture becoming increasingly acceptable, the written form has slowly moved out of the shadows. It’s not really my thing, but I read through this to discover whether the graphic bits and what goes in between add up to a good story. I can forgive a lot if there are interesting ideas and a strong narrative.
The cosmology of this universe and its associated realities is rigorously deterministic. A group whom we shall call the Architects writes scripts for us, mapping out the highs and lows of life, and time and manner of death. This is a modern version of the Moirae where Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures it and allots an amount of time to each individual, and Atropos choses the way in which we shall die. Gary McMahon tweaks the classical model by having his hero, Thomas Usher born with a nonstandard script giving him a role not unlike the psychopomps whose task it is to guide the spirits of the newly dead to whichever version of their afterlife seems appropriate given their behaviour during life. This is not supposed to happen on our Earth and there’s some degree of conflict between the Architects as to how to respond to this unique event. One faction wants to leave well alone. The other wants to exploit this power.
While these factions manipulate the world to get into the right position to intervene, our Earth continues to spin. During his life, Emerson Doherty was a top Yorkshire detective. He caught a lot of bad people. Most he handed over for trial and punishment. When the evidence was thin, he had other solutions. He led a small group with vigilante options. They had a guide who may be an angel. Surprisingly, this angel gives Doherty a baby girl to look after. He names her Sarah. Her life is difficult but she grows up tough. She follows him into the police force and then he dies of a heart attack. Slowly, she will go through all his papers. He was a collector, hoarding the minutiae of every case, both official and unofficial. She will come to understand what kind of man her foster father was. This knowledge will put her in danger.
After the events of the first book, Thomas Usher has fled to London but there are forces working to pull him back to Yorkshire. As he is more than aware, nothing is as it seems. He’s deeply suspicious of the circumstances conspiring to move him back up North but, in the end, he goes. Later he will meet up with Sarah and, between them, they will reach an understanding with the forces trying to manipulate them.
Having arrived at the end, the question I asked myself was whether the story would have been better or worse told straight. What, if anything, did the brutality add? The basis on which people gained some sensitivity to different realities including the ability to see and interact with ghosts was personal tragedy. So, for example, if you were a woman and a group of men raped you, cut off your arms and left you to die, you would speak with the dead. Hence, there has to be some level of description to establish the credibility of this mechanism. But there’s also some violence that I feel is somewhat gratuitous. I’m not saying Dead Bad Things would be improved with the violence restricted to passages that would shock simply because they were unexpected, but there’s a slight numbing effect as you read through the book. I can’t say I was shocked. I’ve read and seen worse. But some of the dramatic edge is lost if a device is overused.
So there you have it. Dead Bad Things by Gary McMahon can be read as a stand-alone although, as always, you gain depth if you know what happened in the first book. I think it’s a good story but it will not be to everyone’s taste. So, having read this review, it comes down to a personal decision on whether you are sufficiently interested in violence to want to read a somewhat gratuitously violent take on determinism, with a detour through Revelations as an early interpretation of what sensitive people might see if there’s a personal tragedy in their lives.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.