This is a slightly unusual offering from Spectral Press in their chapbook series of mostly spooky and haunting tales. “Soul Masque” is a stark nightmare of drugs, macabre sexuality and demons, but despite the deviation in both style and content, it still packs a punch.
The story paints a grim picture of London as a battleground between heaven and hell. The main players are a morphine addicted reverend who wields the celestial power of “the Glory”, a powerful dominatrix, a woman who has a divine deal to keep her cancer at bay, and a guilt addled loser trapped by the will of his nefarious masters. They’re tied together by “The Singer”, an angel no less, but one with more of an unholy personality than one would traditionally expect.
The author’s prose is full of frank description that sometimes could be regarded as telling rather than showing, which I found troubling at first, but it works well on the whole. It fosters a traditional feel that collides nicely with the sado-masochism, profanity and blood, and there’s plenty of chilling turns of phrase that galvanise the aura of menace and make things much darker than they seem at face value.
The tale begins unconventionally with an intense epilogue that describes a demonic invasion of a nightclub. I rather enjoyed this, and was urged to venture on and see how that came to be. And what an adventure that is. The London of the story – its warehouses, streets, and grubby bedsits – has tremendous sense of place, and the whole tale seems tainted by the sleazy malevolence.
This is a fast moving story which means that although it’s never dull, it can be disorientating. The plentiful cast of characters meant that sometimes I had to check back to see who was whom, but there’s still empathy to be found which is impressive in a piece of this length and style. The demons are beautifully painted; nasty, spindly creations presented in just the right amount of detail to let your imagination fill out the rest.
Despite its shortcomings, “Soul Masque” is a solid piece. It kept me along for the ride and concludes with a prologue – bookending the bleak epilogue at the outset – that neatly ties it all together. There’s little fun to be had, the vibe being more one of hopelessness, and the overall experience is made memorable not by specific characters or events, but by the supernatural darkness and more importantly the fear. It leaks from the pages, defining many of the characters, settings, and lurking behind every phrase.
Credit goes to Spectral’s editor Simon Marshall-Jones for not being afraid to wander from the beaten path. While perhaps not to everybody’s taste, I enjoyed this sojourn into Terry Grimwood’s urban, shadow-strung hell on earth. And never has the word Glory been so pleasingly deceptive in its application.