Reviewed by Ren Zelen
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It’s all a bit bleak. Not that I’m saying that horror stories should be a walk in the park, of course not, but sometimes a little bit of light might not be a bad idea, just for contrast if nothing else.
McMahon’s depressing tale begins initially as a realistically gritty crime novel. ‘Pretty Little Dead Things’ follows Thomas Usher, a man whose life is both ruined and transformed one night when he is involved in a head-on collision in his car. Tragically, his wife and daughter die in the crash, but Usher survives. He emerges with the ability to see the deceased – all kinds of deceased, except, it seems, his own wife and child. Overwhelmed by grief, guilt and depression, he considers his newly acquired ability as a curse. A sense of sorrow and loss inform all his actions, but gradually, with the help of an old flame, he begins to surface out of his despair and begins working as a kind of paranormal private investigator, hoping to help others that have died, if he cannot help his own wife and child.
He investigates the murder of a shady businessman’s daughter and the abduction of a child – two cases that turn out to be linked. As Usher’s backstory and supernatural abilities begin to take precedence over the storyline, so the more occult `horror’ elements begin to dominate the tale – often rather problematically, as here is a story that touches on demonic possession, life after death, the occult, corruption and contrition – but it insistently eschews any religious belief system. It is a story about the devil written for atheists. Well, that’s fair enough, but almost all aspects of our cultural belief in the origin of evil rest on our long-espoused notions of the polarization of right and wrong, god and the devil, angels and demons, bad spirits and good spirits. Whip those away, and your story begins to teeter on precarious and slender support. Here we find demonic entities who aren’t supposed to be demons, there is a possession of one of the characters by something called ‘legion’ but then who are ‘legion’ and what kind of possession is it? It certainly comes across much the same as those we are familiar with in conventional movies and stories of exorcism. There are monstrous humans and non-human monsters, malevolent pan-dimensional beings, maybe Aliens? Ghosts constantly meander around the protagonist Thomas Usher, but fail to impart any actual message – it’s all about his interpretation of their mute and largely ineffectual actions. He states that they are asking his help to ‘move on’ – move on to where? What for? Why? When one denies the cultural and spiritual underpinning of our traditional notions of good and evil and takes it out of the fictional equation, we are left with something rather nebulous and a little bit pointless. The plot touches on the idea of consensus reality and the gaps between worlds, but the ‘bad guys’ seem woefully underdeveloped, and are closer to some amorphous ‘unnameable’ horror that H.P Lovecraft might invoke than malevolent occult disciples in a gory crime thriller.
Then, this murder-mystery-with-ghosts gets a further surreal twist with the inclusion of Eastern European folklore and magical rites. In the story there is a recurring motif from the legend of the Baba Yaga, the witch – her impossible house, without windows and doors, with only a chimney-pot constantly smoking ash. But her house is perched up on four giant, rickety chicken legs. This recurring image seems to be an appropriate symbol for McMahon’s entire story. He most certainly creates a house of horrors – enclosed, confining, sickly and surreal, containing the most hideous images imaginable, but it the whole thing rests on some rather weak and precarious legs.
Gary McMahon has been touted as one of the several writers leading a resurgence in British horror fiction. ‘Pretty Little Dead Things’ is apparently the first in a series of Thomas Usher stories, and perhaps the gaps in the tale may indicate that further elaboration is due. Certainly McMahon has a compelling writing style and a talent for evoking a graveyard atmosphere amongst urban decay and squalor. His visceral scenes of bloody bodily horror recall Clive Barker, but despite the dark atmosphere and unnerving tension, this particular tale soon loses itself in a morass of dread and misery, ultimately succumbing to an orgy of corruption which no-one survives – evil for the sake of evil, with no motivation or explanation. I left the book feeling not so much a sense of horror, as one of pessimism and hopelessness.
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R. H. Zelen (website | Twitter) is a writer of the sci-fi ‘Hathor Diaries’ (now on Kindle) web serial ‘Pitchfork Red’ & short stories. Literature post-grad, enthusiast of music, movies & science.
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