Review – “The Bones Of You” by Gary McMahon

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It had been a while since I last read a Gary McMahon tale, but this new ebook novel from DarkFuse reacquainted me with a raw-knuckled punch. “The Bones Of You” takes his trademark urban bleak to an angry, psychological high.

Gary McMahon The Bones Of YouAdam Morris is recently divorced and hoping to make a new start. A troubled, tightly-wound man, he rents a cheap house and focuses on his daughter Jessica – who visits him occasionally at weekends – to try and rebuild his life.

But as Halloween approaches, the mood switches from rough-edged suburbia to haunted house territory: strange voices are heard, objects move, nightmares invade his sleep. Adam learns that the empty house next door was home to a dead killer called Katherine “Little Miss” Moffat, who murdered children in her cellar.

Before long, Adam realises that the supernatural menace – clearly linked to the house next door’s horrific past – is an actual, tangible threat. Not just to himself, but also to his other acquaintances and most importantly, his daughter.

This short novel is told in the first person, and it’s the narrator that carries it. Gary McMahon presents a perfectly realistic and listenable voice with Adam. The prose is muscular, sometimes chirpy, but always honest and addictive. This makes it very easy to pick up and fall into his world.

Adam himself is an obsessive and generally intense man, fond of pressure-outlet hobbies such as karate and running. He is also driven by a consuming love and concern for his child, so you can’t fault his efforts and focus. Whilst he might be cold in some ways, he pours himself into the emotions he does feel and his flawed humanity put me very much in his corner. I think this book has a degree of semi-autobiography, and it’s clearly a very personal piece of work.

Adam’s ex-wife and her shambolic new partner are addicts, so Adam is naturally concerned for young Jessica’s welfare. And when any element of jeopardy – supernatural or otherwise – threatens his daughter, he becomes a man you would not want to fuck with. The reader is also teased for a while with the fact that Adam harbours a very dark secret, and with Mr McMahon at the helm, you know that the reveal will be a good one.

Adam doesn’t have a busy social life, due to circumstance as much as character, but he strikes up a natural friendship with Pru. She’s a goth girl he discovers one night staring at the abandoned murder house next door, and I found it endearing that he tackles this somewhat stand-offish but vulnerable child of the night with frankness yet warmth. There’s also a romantic interest at the factory where he works in the form of Carole, and she unwittingly provides another way for the malevolent forces to get their hooks into him. But ultimately, his daughter Jessica is his all. And the evil forces know that too…

“The Bones Of You” is a superb tale and ticks all the boxes for a horror fan. There are some wonderfully spine-tingling moments – especially in Adam’s cellar and an underpass near his house – a couple of breath-taking shocks, and the finale is appropriate and pleasingly grisly.

But while the atmosphere of lurking threat is thick throughout, it isn’t just a yarn of serial killers and ghostly terror. This is a story of determination, of a personal struggle against circumstance whilst dealing with consequence, of responsibility, rage and love. I don’t know how the author does it, but there’s a real visceral energy bottled in these pages, and the result is a rare treat.

Highly recommended.

Review – “The Sleeping Dead” by Richard Farren Barber

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Despite what the title and cover suggests, this novella from DarkFuse isn’t a zombie story. It has a similar anticipatory aura at the outset, but rather than delivering adrenaline and the undead, this tale brings a haunting and disturbed take on the apocalypse.

The Sleeping DeadJackson Smith has a job interview, but notices during his bus journey into the city that something is askew. People seem distracted or silently adrift, and upon a bridge that becomes the scene of a suicide, Jackson finds himself succumbing to the dreamlike haze, entranced by the dark river that claimed the body.

He makes it to his interview up on the 8th floor of an office building, but after a series of increasingly gruesome deaths – and a sinister and enticing voice that has begun in his head – he realises that the city is gripped by some kind of suicide plague.

Trying to ignore the suggestions of his subconscious, Jackson latches on to the vague hope of finding his girlfriend Donna and ventures out into the burning city to find her.

This novella is superbly written, snaring us immediately with the author’s vision of an ordinary day turned to hell. Richard Farren Barber never tells us anything but simply lets us realise, and it’s always nice to be seamlessly informed yet unpatronised by an author.

Jackson himself is a normal and generally decent fellow, perhaps even rather bland, but this only accentuates the horror that intrudes into the urban mundanity. His reactions to the unpleasant events are very human, as is the way he grasps at a tangible goal – his girlfriend waiting for him – to try and bring cohesion and focus to the madness.

I particularly liked the novella’s pervading sense of nightmare. It begins subtly with a rocking man on the bus whom Jackson believes to be mentally ill, cranks up the unease through the silent witnessing of the suicide, and then really puts us on edge during the interview when one of the panel starts rocking and angrily mumbling to himself. I actually enjoyed this rollercoaster hill-climb more than when the city finally capsized.

But that’s not to say the apocalypse is a disappointment. It’s beautifully painted, full of grim and heartbreaking images of the oddly gentle carnage. Some people kill themselves, others slip into catatonia where they sit, presumably lost to their own whispering psyches. Jackson is left to battle himself as he wanders the city with Susan, a woman whose suicide he managed to avert, and they’re a pleasingly awkward team. Bound by circumstance and clinging to rationality, their relationship is suitably strained and soporific as both struggle to stay afloat.

I did find the second half slightly overlong and a more fleshed-out conclusion or an extra plot device or two might have assuaged its length for me. But this might also have distracted from the mood, not to mention Jackson’s internal voice. This is the essence of the scourge, and the most effective of villains: inescapable, parasitic and very creepy.

There’s little action, so if the cover had you hoping for scrabbling hordes and white-knuckle bloodshed, then you’ll be disappointed. Nor is it for those who prefer neat concrete packages with all their questions answered. But I loved the lingering menace of “The Sleeping Dead” and was left restless and bothered without quite being able to say why. Which is exactly how Jackson Smith’s day began…