You know that moment when you hear a new band, read a book or watch a film that strikes a deep chord, and you realise with excitement that you’ve just discovered somebody seriously worth following? It happened to me almost a year ago when I first read a story by Gary McMahon.
That story was “Heads” in We Fade to Grey, an anthology of horror British horror novelettes of which he was also the editor. A supernatural descent of a tale, I was immediately struck by two things.
Firstly, it was the flavour of the prose, conjuring place and atmosphere through tiny details, but never at the expense of story. The second thing was the strength of the characters. So real and genuine, they felt more like people I’d actually met, at once involving me in their plight, however unpleasant this might be.
Hungry for more, I purchased “Dirty Prayers” (Gray Friar Press) and “How to Make Monsters” (Morrigan Books) and demolished them with glee. These are wildly imaginative collections, infused with horror in the purest sense of the word, but also tremendous humanity. We meet broken people, shrouded in guilt, love, anger, rejection and loss, and we feel their fear and pain. As Tim Lebbon has pointed out, Gary’s writing has soul.
The monsters in his stories take all forms. Sometimes, they are small-scale; psychopaths, ghosts and the potential for madness. Other times they’re the vast, metaphorical beasts of cities, societies and governments. This is horror for you: the normal person living a normal life surrounded by the lurking shadows and frustrations of the 21st century that affect your existence, perhaps without recognition.
We live in a world populated by the damaged, and much of Gary McMahon’s world seethes with anger. He is a writer whose patience with ignorance or stupidity has run dry, and his craft has no time for the beaten path. You would think that this would be depressing reading, but the stories have such colour and vibrant life, despite the subject matter and the terrible trials that weigh down our long-suffering protagonists, that the end result almost seems hopeful. But only almost. The author has a refreshing aversion to happy endings.
But anyway, on to Different Skins, his latest release from Screaming Dreams: a short book of two novellas that sports delicious artwork from Vincent Chong.
In “Even the Dead Die”, London is a seething hive of threat, and an early metaphor sums up the metropolis: “overcrowded streets filled with vacant, directionless zombies who see nothing past the bubble that surrounds them”.
We meet the city through Mike, a man boiling with frustration, who begins to encounter old faces (or are they ghosts?) on the city streets, drawing him down into the nightmares of his past. He meets a young tattooist by the name of Sheena, who initially appears to be a pleasant antidote to his lonely madness, but actually has terrible baggage and secrets of her own and will serve him as a guide rather than a distraction.
This excellent story has a sobering concept of the afterlife, and ponders that what may seem like poetic justice in this life could all be rendered cruelly irrelevant. There’s also Lovecraftian vibe, the feeling that reality is just a fragile skin over something infinitely more ghastly.
I thought the second novella “In the Skin” would struggle to scale the bar set by the opener, but I needn’t have worried. This is a stunning piece of writing.
A man returns to his troubled wife and young son after a business trip to New York to discover that things have changed; his world is suddenly askew and sinister, his son is slipping away and morphing into something horribly other.
We all know that feeling of awaking from a nightmare, when the terrifying experience is still fresh and overwhelming. Few writers can capture this helpless, unpleasant place to be on the page. Well, Gary McMahon can. And he can do it very well.
There are similar themes to the first story. His New York is cleaner yet more dishonest than his London, and no less grim, and the claustrophobia is maintained even when the city is forsaken for the English countryside. “In the Skin” also has a poignant family aspect, used in this instance to chilling effect. The tale gathers weight, increasingly intriguing and uncomfortable in equal measures, until we collide with the mindblowing conclusion: absolute horror at its bleakest and most raw.
Different Skins is a succinct summary of a talented writer at the height of his powers, and one that I would use as front-line ammunition against any detractor of our beloved genre who reckons that horror is tired, shallow and contrived.
So what are you waiting for?
(If you can find a copy, I would also recommend “Rain Dogs” from the sadly defunct Humdrumming press, and be sure to bag a copy of the imminent “Hungry Hearts” from Abaddon books, Gary’s first and very well deserved mass market novel release)