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Reaping the Dark by Gary McMahon

April 8, 2014 5 comments

reaping the dark by gary mcmahon

Reaping the Dark by Gary McMahon (Dark Fuse, 2014), 2014) is a masterclass in taut, economical writing. The prose is cut-down and efficient. The plot clicks together like clockwork. And the subject matter is pleasingly dark. We’re in the world of noir crime where organised gangs rob and steal. Let’s start with the methodology of the driver. Perhaps this is not the most glamorous member of the criminal team but, when the robbery has gone down, and you run for the car, you remember the need for someone who can get you away. This does not, of course, mean drive like a stuntman holidaying from Fast and Furious. Not only do you want to arrive at your destination in one piece, you also want to do it without police cars hot on your trail. That means the driver must be able to get away without attracting too much attention. The mark of the true professional is never to be noticed. At least that’s the way Driver Z has built his career. He’s considered one of the best.

Gary McMahon

Gary McMahon

Of course, he should not have been tempted. When he ended up with the money in the car and no passengers, he should have gone quietly home and just waited for any survivors to contact him. The decision to disappear with the money was a mistake. But perhaps he can recover the situation. Now he has a gun, he may be able to return the money and get away with the woman he loves. Yes, it’s unfortunate the others have her. If they had stayed together. If he had not gone for the gun. . . There are always ifs.

The art of the good novella is to conceive of a plot that’s inherently limited. That way, you can set up the plot and run like Hell with it until you reach the end without having to draw breath. In this case, our driver gets into a situation not of his choosing. But when he makes the wrong decision, he gets to run, hide from enemies and, when it’s unavoidable, fight. Of course, he’s spent his life developing the power to stay calm under pressure. He’s a head over heart person. Except where his lady’s involved, of course. If he had not a care for her in the world, he would have taken the money and disappeared. But she’s pregnant and he’s committed. In a way, this relationship has come as something of a revelation to him. He didn’t have the best of childhoods. But as parenthood beckons, he begins to look on the idea of being a father as something desirable. So now he has to make a stand. No more the quick getaway. Now he needs his steady nerves in defence then attack.

The dangers he faces and whether he succeeds are waiting for you to find out. Reaping the Dark is one of the best supernatural horror novellas of the year so far. You should read it.

For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
The Concrete Grove
Dead Bad Things
Silent Voices

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon

November 20, 2012 1 comment

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.

Gary McMahon packed and ready go go in search of the nothingness

 

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.

 

For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
The Concrete Grove
Dead Bad Things
Reaping the Dark
Silent Voices.

 

The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon

October 15, 2012 1 comment

With The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon (Solaris Books, 2011), I’m breaking one of my house rules. Usually I start from the first book in a series, but this comes to me out of sequence. I was caught out by the serendipity of reviewing the second in a series by an author unknown to me. So here’s me catching up on the first, all the better to enjoy the third when it arrives on my doorstep (hopefully later this month). You should read the review of Silent Voices first because it discusses my thoughts both on how to classify the series as fantasy or horror, and on a series set more or less on my home turf. As a Geordie, I admit to having some passing acquaintance with Northumberland — it’s a kind of vassal state to Newcastle.

 

So here I find myself back on this strange sink housing estate, supposedly set somewhere between Newcastle and Morpeth, this time with a different cast of characters but with the same theme. Namely, that in and around the Needle — an abandoned tower block — there’s a link to a locus through which human dreams can be externalised and an ancient power persists. Let’s pause for a moment. When do we consider a living area a sink estate? It’s not simply a loss of physical integrity with buildings dilapidated and covered with graffiti. It’s also a kind of moral blight where the residents have given up hope for a better life and no longer respect themselves or their environment. The first signs are fly tipping and regular fires where the rubbish is torched by bored kids. There’s vandalism, drug abuse and muggings, and even the authorities think the best way forward would be to pull it down and start again from scratch — a kind of redemption through destruction. Put another way, the police think it too dangerous to enter unless in numbers and the residents cannot act in their own defence: that would require something to galvanise them, to unite them so that common action became possible. In most cases, the place sinks into despair and often violent lawlessness.

Gary McMahon ready to follow in Hadrian’s footsteps

 

Why focus on this? As a metaphor, think of the rechargeable battery. It absorbs energy and then gives it out according to need. So let’s hypothesise a supernatural phenomenon that exists in a geographical location. In early tribal times, a few individuals might pass by and sense the potential power. One or two might not affect the power significantly because, individually, they do not have much to add to the “battery”. Then along comes the Roman army and, with a ruthless directness, the soldiers take action to suppress local beliefs and any signs of local power. In building the Wall, they plough sacred groves and other sites of worship into the ground. But, as time passes, people begin to live in this one place and their lives pass with the usual balance of happiness and sadness. Such is the human condition. But with the recent accumulation of people in this estate, the “battery” has a larger group from which to charge itself. This should not be a problem except for the balance of negative energy. Now let’s suppose the “battery” is not passive, that it’s capable of directing the process to some extent. Since it experiences both positive and negative emotions, suppose it prefers neutrality if not a positive charge. Might it not decide to interfere in human affairs to collect more of the energy it prefers. The question would therefore become how such an intervention might be made and what price, if any, would be paid by the humans involved.

 

The core of the story is strong without the need for a supernatural element. Structurally, there are two strands. The first concerns a man who feels trapped as a carer. He didn’t ask for his wife to be injured in an accident, yet he now finds himself emotionally locked into the role of a practical nurse for a paraplegic woman. The second concerns a woman and her daughter aged fourteen. She didn’t ask for her husband to get involved in crime and, when it all went wrong, kill himself. When his creditors had finished, she had nothing and was forced to accept a flat in this sink estate. Because she was desperate for money, she borrowed from a loan shark and is now unable to repay. Both are sets of lives full of tragedy yet, perhaps, if the door to access the supernatural power could be opened, even just a touch, they might be saved. After all, life can be beautiful. People don’t have to live in pain. All they need is just a gentle push in the right direction.

 

Perhaps I’m just battle-hardened but I don’t find The Concrete Grove overly violent nor that horrific in the supernatural sense of the word. There’s a reasonably well-developed fantasy rationale which continues into Silent Voices (at least I now have a better understanding of the role of the hummingbirds) but it’s really only a counterpoint to the essentially human drama. As to the prose, this is a fine piece of writing, emotionally involving the reader in the problems of the key characters. There only a minor problem in the repetitiveness in explanation towards the end. Thematically, if you had to capture the question the book answers in a single sentence, it would look this this, “If the only way you could redeem a sink estate is by pulling it down, what would a person have to do to find redemption?” The answer is intriguing and well worth reading. The final book is called Beyond Here Lies Nothing — my copy is on the way.

 

The jacket artwork by Vincent Chong is pleasingly evocative.

 

For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
Dead Bad Things
Reaping the Dark
Silent Voices

 

Silent Voices by Gary McMahon

June 22, 2012 1 comment

 

I need to start by confessing another of my deeply held prejudices. As one born on the north bank and within sight of the Tyne, I’m a Geordie and therefore deeply protective of the way life in that neck of the woods is portrayed in the media. Which brings me to Silent Voices by Gary McMahon (Solaris, 2012) the second book describing events on this housing estate, the first being Concrete Grove. These books are set just north of Newcastle, close to Morpeth, i.e. in spirit they are intended to be Northumbrian and not Geordie so we can approach them with slightly greater latitude. That said, significant parts of this story do take place in Newcastle itself and, depressingly, in Gateshead. This is what you expect of southerners who tend to lump all the north together as if it’s somehow all the same. I see this author is from one of the north London suburbs called West Yorkshire — only joking.

 

This is a fascinating book if you’re into the art of taxonomising. What is it? Perhaps it’s fantasy and, since it takes place in a built-up area, urban fantasy or because bad things happen, dark fantasy. Or maybe it’s horror, whether supernatural or urban. Those of you who are of a more pedantic frame of mind have my permission to retreat into a darkened room. When you’ve reached a decision, feel free to light a fire and put out white smoke to show a consensus and alert the fire brigade of the need for a rescue.

 

Ignoring the label issue, the important thing to note is the name of this estate. Although this is Concrete Grove in the sense that, like many old council estates, most of the housing units are made of the hard stuff and regimented into a circular formation to avoid the creation of inconvenient cul de sacs, this is actually a reference to the trees that have existing on this loculus since the beginning of time (and then some). Unlike Yggdrasil which props up whole worlds, these trees bridge the gulf between reality and dreams. In this, we’re occupying the same literary territory as the wonderful Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock where the line between fact and myth blurs. Except Gary McMahon takes a more ironic view.

Gary McMahon, prisoner 63

 

Under normal circumstances, the process of urbanisation overlays the natural world, replanting the forests with structures for occupation by humans. To those of us with a sentimental streak, this is inherently melancholic as we destroy the old order in the name of modern civilisation. Robert Holdstock uses his trees as a way of remembering the past, as if they can somehow capture and hold racial memories of fantasy and myth. Yet this magic only works so long as the trees are physically preserved. As in many fantasy novels, the destruction of the trees would signal the final triumph of modernity over the old ways, the sacrifice of the reverence we used to have for nature in the name of progress. There’s only one place where everything can stay the same and that’s in our memories. Yet Gary McMahon demonstrates that real power is never defeated by changes to superficial reality. In this book, the trees are always a part of the landscape whether it’s in the physical world or our dreamscapes. If you were to uproot them and build a small tower block on the site, you could still experience the trees in half-waking, day-dreaming moments just by walking through the doors into the cool, dark concrete interior. At other times, the trees will reach out to those who are more sensitive or of potential use to them. Celtic Druids used wells, sacred trees and sacrificial fires to open the gates to otherworlds. Who knows what sacrifices these trees might demand for maintaining this gateway into dreams.

 

Silent Voices is a wonderfully sustained piece of writing. It creates three memorable individuals. As children, they had the brash courage of innocence that fires the belief nothing bad can ever happen. This leads to recklessness and a missing period of time. They disappear over a weekend, emerging from the empty building in the centre of the grove bearing evidence of physical abuse. They cannot remember what happened. No-one can explain it. Twenty years later, they are drawn back together again — the Three Amigos in their long-awaited sequel. Brendan has spent his entire life on the estate. He’s not exactly a loser because he’s married happily and has two children. He’s still one of the community. Marty has moved into Newcastle’s world of fixers who service the needs of the demimonde. He’s a prize fighter, prepared to dish out punishment beatings when required and offer security services to those with the right connections. Simon breaches the barrier of the Tyne and makes it into the south where he’s a pusher of his own abilities and builds a highly profitable business. Like Marty, he’s never able to settle into stable relationships. They have no real friends. All three have been damaged by their experiences.

 

In terms of narrative construction, there’s a good balance between the development of the characters as they are, and a reconstruction of what they were like when young. Gary McMahon also demonstrates a good insight into the culture of Northumbrian estates. He captures the sense of desperation and crushed hopes among the younger people who remain. Only the older ones still stand for the values that made the North East so strong. Fortunately, they are respected. They retain their dignity. South of the Tyne, the older and more vulnerable members of the community often become targets for abuse by the disaffected young. Many are grateful to give up and die to get some peace. The only thing wrong with this book is the language. Although time has eroded the dialects of my youth and left us with pale remnants of accents, there’a almost no attempt to capture the distinctive speech rhythms of either Northumbrian or Geordie. I can forgive the decision to avoid local vocabulary. Even at the best of time, glossaries are inconvenient additions at the end of books. But this could have been anywhere in the United Kingdom — probably a good idea if this book is to sold into the British and foreign markets. Having tendered my completely unfair criticism, I’m left with the sense of having read a delightful book. This is a remarkable piece of dark fantasy with some elements that draw on horror tropes. Although not everything is original and the significance of one factor is not explained (perhaps that’s in the first book in the series which I have not yet read), none of this matters. As put together, Silent Voices is quite clearly one of the best books of its genre or subgenre, no matter what you may decide that is. If you take my advice that this author is definitely worth following, the third novel set in Concrete Grove is titled Beyond Here Lies Nothing.

 

For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
The Concrete Grove
Dead Bad Things
Reaping the Dark.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Dead Bad Things by Gary McMahon

January 4, 2012 3 comments

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.

Gary McMahon out of context in America

 

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.

 

For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
The Concrete Grove
Reaping the Dark and
Silent Voices.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

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