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 – “Pretty Little Dead Things” by Gary McMahon

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During the last year, I’ve enjoyed watching Gary McMahon rise from a champion of the small press to the bigger leagues, and his lastest mass market release perfectly demonstrates why this is so. This novel is a very tight combination of noir, horror and character drama.

In Pretty Little Dead Things, we meet Thomas Usher, a man who loses his wife and young child in a traffic accident, but develops a supernatural talent to keep him busy through the years of bitter grief. He can see the recently deceased, and they want to tell him things. As the story progresses, and he investigates the murder of a gangster’s daughter and the kidnapping of a local child, it becomes clear that his gift is the only thing that keeps him trudging through life. He yearns for redemption, yet refuses to let go and punishes himself with tattoos to commemorate those he has failed.

Pretty

As with all Gary’s previous publications, the characters are strong right down to the cameos. I expected to become weary of Usher’s grief-stricken self-flagellation, but the pathos is such that I discovered myself right in his corner, and the other characters – including an old romantic interest and a cancer-addled police colleague – also force your investment. And you won’t forget the menacing figure of Mr. Shiloh and his plastic, soulless smile.

The author’s attention to detail is as sharp as ever. He has a neat trick of  allowing the subconscious to notice little things that you only fully acknowledge later on when they turn out to be important. Perhaps his prose is slightly less rich than before, but this isn’t a complaint. Far from it: silent narration takes real writing skill.

This book has a very bleak atmosphere at times, and some segments are nightmarish in their lucidity. A scene involving some recently deceased corpses dangling from the protagonist’s landing is an image so clear that I might as well have seen a photograph of it. This makes it very difficult to forget. And after Usher is menaced by faceless hoodies, walking through the city at night after reading this isn’t quite the same.

There are creepy layers of reality throughout – some ghostly, others concrete – but even with the latter, everything seems slightly off-kilter and wrong: the essence of any quality piece of ghost/horror fiction.

It’s a less “noisy” novel than Hungry Hearts – his 2010 zombie novel from Abaddon books – and feels more like old-school Gary McMahon. Here, he relies more on mood and atmosphere rather than action. But that’s not to say Pretty Little Dead Things doesn’t slam its foot on the accelerator when required. The first part of the book has a gentle, more literary flavour, but it has all pleasingly kicked off by the end.

As usual, I can do nothing but recommend this book. The follow-up Dead Bad Things is due later this year, and I’ll be at the front of the queue, rubbing my hands like a hungry ghoul at the kicked-in doors of a city morgue.

Angry Robot

Gary McMahon

Review – “The Harm” by Gary McMahon

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The decision to get comfortable with a big mug of tea and no impending commitments before beginning this novella turned out to be only half correct. I was right in suspecting “The Harm: A Polyptych” would be devoured in one sitting. I should, however, have had a mug of neat whisky for the chill that now curls around my insides.

The HarmGary’s latest novella from TTA press is a thought-provoking, gripping tale. The plot revolves around three young men – Tyler, Roarke and Potter – who were horrifically abused as young boys in a disused warehouse on the bank of a canal (a location beautifully rendered for the cover by Ben Baldwin).

It commences with a traditional, narrated introduction to the scenario – similar perhaps to one of Clive Barker’s more whimsical works – which is an unusual and pleasant surprise. But once the story begins, any such fond familarities are swiftly demolished.

We first meet Tyler, a moderately successful family man, on a dismal night out with his colleagues from work. The depiction of bland, urban life is tremendous – in which even a birthday visit to a nightclub is depressing – and it soon begins to curdle into something nasty. Strangers and family begin to treat Tyler with violence, unprovoked, and the scene is set for a classic McMahon spiral into his damaged past.

Next is Roarke, a violent criminal who rules his deprived neighbourhood with fear. His nightmare begins when he falls asleep half-drunk on a night bus, and finds himself in a silent and unfamiliar part of town.

Last of the trio is Potter, a very lonely man with sexual issues and an unhealthy affection for illegal execution videos. He discovers, just like his old friends, that the ghosts of his childhood experience will not relent. The Harm… almost a literal beast of despair in this book.

The terrors that befall our haunted protagonists seem disjointed and random at first, but by the claustrophobic conclusion, it has all fallen into place. This one of those rare treats that inspires reflection, both upon the themes and mechanics of the story itself, and also the world around us.

There’s a real sense of the ephemeral nature of life, and just how fragile it is. Gary uses this to bring humanity and frailty to the characters, whether they be sympathetic or odious. It hammers home the sickening power of abuse, and the insidious ways in which the legacy of damage spreads, while at the same time being a very tight and grimly entertaining horror tale.

I highly recommend this book. Gary’s prose is as rich as ever, evoking atmosphere in every detail, without drifting into excess. Along with the flowing snippets of dialogue, it brings colour to the bleakest of horror landscapes. There are a few surprises, but rather than being a story that relies on shocks, The Harm delivers ice-cold realisation.

Excellent.

Gary McMahon

TTA Press

Review – “Different Skins” by Gary McMahon

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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.

We fade to greyThat 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.

Dirty prayersHungry 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.

MonstersWe 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.

SkinsIn “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?

Gary McMahon

Screaming Dreams

(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)

STUNNING COVER ART

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What a gleefully creepy image!

Simon Strantzas is the warped imagination behind it and he tells the interesting story of how the piece was put together here at his blog.

The content is top notch  as well; Gary McMahon is rapidly becoming one of my favourite genre writers.

There’s a glowing review of it at the site of DF Lewis, although perhaps “glowing” is the wrong word for such a bleak and powerful collection of tales.

Review – We Fade To Grey, edited by Gary McMahon

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This anthology of British supernatural horror novelettes from Pendragon Press proves there are some small press publications out there that can go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights of the genre. All 5 stories are beautifully written and slick as a fresh werewolf pelt, yet their shadows envelope you in different ways.

We fade to grey

Paul Finch kicks off the grim proceedings with “The Pumping Station”. This features a trio of young quad-bikers who experience a countryside accident leaving them at the mercy of an unspeakable menace. This story is so vividly evoked that you will feel the rain on your face, the cold mud and hot blood against your skin. The arrival of the aforementioned menace actually sent a shiver down my spine, something that hasn’t happened for some time, and I salute this tale of creeping doom.

While the Pumping Station was an exercise in escalating terror, the strength of Stuart Young’s “Bliss” begins with humour and camaraderie amongst its characters in an uncomfortable atmosphere. We find a young Iraq war veteran, back home and attending his murdered father’s funeral. After the locals start turning nasty, he is drawn deeper into trouble with his brother until the whole situation resembles an ultra-violent, X-rated episode of Doctor Who. Although I detected a Lovecraftian vibe at the end, this is probably the least “horror” of the bunch. But it’s also the most fun.

“Heads”, written by the anthology’s editor, proves Gary McMahon is a writer to watch. It’s back to the full blown horror as we meet the narrator, one half of a middle-aged couple, devastated by several miscarriages in their attempt to start a family. After they discover some creepy folklore artefacts buried in the garden, an unexpected pregnancy arrives and the tale accelerates into nightmare. McMahon’s prose is a rare treat. His attention to detail in human interaction creates characters you can see and feel, and the couple’s grief and fear is quite palpable.  This makes for a very intense descent.

“The Mill” by Mark West is next to rumble out of the darkness. A man who has lost his wife to cancer suffers strange dreams and discovers through a bereavement support group that he is being drawn towards something sinister. Something centred around an old abandoned mill. Dealing with grief, suicide and desperation, this one grabs your heart-strings and twists. Extra kudos to the author for being able to write dream sequences that aren’t dull.

The last tale by Simon Bestwick is a grim slab of post-apocalypse. “The Narrows” is told by a teacher attempting to save himself and a few surviving pupils and fellow staff from a nuclear fall-out. Their journey through a network of flooded subterranean tunnels is intolerably bleak and will remain in your head for good. Breath-squeezingly claustrophobic yet at the same time very poignant and moving, this isn’t one to read to your kids. Or to anyone afraid of the dark. Or scared of the supernatural. Or a nuclear holocaust. Well, anybody in fact. Other than the ne’er-do-wells who actually like  this kind of thing. Like me.

So there it is. We Fade To Grey sets the bar high from the off and doesn’t pause for breath. I normally only like the supernatural in small doses, but this imaginative collection packs such a wallop – both emotional and visceral – that I didn’t care one bit. All five authors weave genuine human pathos with blood and don’t then go and spoil everything with a happy ending. Brilliant. Grab one while you can.

Order here from Pendragon Press