Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon
Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon (Solaris, 2012) is the third and concluding volume in the Concrete Grove Trilogy and represents a genuine triumph of the imagination to capture some quite profound ideas in what’s ostensibly a supernatural horror story. While I was growing up into my present role as cynical old man, I developed a slightly more than passing interest in Jean Paul Satre and his ideas about existential phenomenology. He attempts to focus interest on the existence experienced by human beings rather than on the context of the world in which humans live. In other words, Satre was interested in the “human condition”, essentially seeing the world as indifferent to the lifestyle choices made by each individual. This is perhaps best caught in his foremost book, Being and Nothingness. He proposes that there are two different types of reality. The first is what we might call “identity”. It emerges from our consciousness and enables us to establish self-awareness and, perhaps more importantly, to understand the existence of “nothing”, i.e. we define the limits of ourselves by comparing ourselves to the world. The second allows the creation of the formation of transcendent moral principles that could apply to everyone in comparable situations.
So let’s say we live in a small urban area called Concrete Grove. By way of defining our individual identity, we learn about the place and the others who live there. If we come into the area one day expecting to meet Harry Rose but find he has died, this creates an absence. Indeed, we could talk of this absence as haunting us. This is not merely a psychological reaction. This is also a physical reality. There is literally nothing in the spaces he used to occupy. But it takes a human mind to comprehend that absence and give it meaning. Let’s change from death to something different but equally destructive. Suppose four young girls are taken from this area. This is like an earthquake. It changes the human landscape through the sudden loss of four individuals in inexplicable circumstances. Those who are involved are changed. The parents, relatives and close friends are devastated. At an intermediate level, the police officers like Craig Royle who devote their time and energy are defined by the scale of their efforts and commitment. They are judged by their failure to find the girls. Even those not directly involved like Harry Rose are caught up in the moment and its aftermath.
One of the characteristics that we say represents the higher aspects of our intelligence is the ability to frame meaningful questions. When we ask what happened to the girls (or to others who have disappeared at other times and other places), we hope for positive answers, but also accept we may never know. To that extent, we float in a state of uncertainty, between what we know and do not know, between something and nothing. In such a position, we have freedom of choice. Ignoring the social constraints of the law or conventions, we have the physical ability to do whatever we want (ignoring the thought of whatever consequences may follow). So Marc may decide to sleep with Abby even though he has been warned not to, or Erik may kill even though he knows it is morally and legally wrong. Such spontaneous expressions of freedom are what defines each individual as human with a consciousness of his or her own existence. Yet beyond us lies nothing (or something we do not yet understand).
Marc Price is in Concrete Grove to investigate what may have been a supernatural event some years ago. His identity and the fact he was haunted proves pivotal. He finds Harry Rose, an old man, prepared to talk with him about the local myths and legends. Yet before he can get to the real heart of local mysteries, Harry dies. Except that death opens a literal and metaphorical door in the attic to the house the old man occupied. He also finds himself drawn to Abby, the mother of one of the four girls who disappeared. This displeases the father of the missing girl, Erik Best, who pays him a visit and leaves him in no doubt of the dire consequences if he should repeat this adventure. Meanwhile DS Royle is still investigating the strangeness of his patch. He’s never completely abandoned the idea of finding the girls and stays in touch with all the families. When the first of the uncanny scarecrows appears, he finds his world growing rapidly more frightening. The results of this combination of circumstances are wonderfully spooky in their own right, but gain must greater resonance because of what has gone before in The Concrete Grove and Silent Voices. There have probably been better supernatural horror books written. If I put my mind to it, I could come up with a list of contenders. But that would rather miss the point. These reviews are written in the heat of the moment. They express my feelings in a stream of consciousness and, for now, Beyond Here Lies Nothing is the best for a long time. In no small way, this is because of the first two volumes. Seeing the whole now creates a sense of wonder. Put aside all my opening thoughts about Satre and nothingness. Forget my musings in the earlier reviews on the relationship between dreams and reality. A climactic conclusion is no good unless it follows a credible build-up. As a coherent plot spread over three volumes, this is in a class of its own. If you want to see beyond the superficial words on the page, there’s real philosophical weight available on the relationship between existentialism and nihilism. Otherwise just wait to see what Captain Clickety is aiming for and whether, through the sacrifices we make, there can ever be a real balance between the something and the nothing.