Pretty Little Dead Things
By Gary McMahon
Published by Angry Robot, 2010
You will be seeing a lot more of Gary McMahon over the next few years. With a number of publishing deals already signed and no doubt more on the way he is fast becoming one of the most prolific writers around, thankfully he is also one of the most talented. Much of his previous work has been nominated for awards and has gathered widespread critical acclaim so his star is certainly in the ascendancy. Now comes the possibility of that tough transition from successful genre writer to mass market bestseller can this book take him there?
Pretty Little Dead Things is the first in a proposed series of books featuring Thomas Usher. We first meet a happy and content Thomas before a tragic accident, which he blames himself for, sees his wife and daughter killed in a car crash. The scars of the accident leave Thomas, not only psychologically damaged but also with a strange psychic ability. He is able to see and receive messages from ghosts, lots of them and they all seem to be trying to tell him something.
After being hired by a local businessman to watch over his daughter, Thomas becomes embroiled in a murder investigation and the search for a missing child. So far, so psychic cop show you may think but what this short outline fails to deliver is the sheer dark intensity of Thomas’s journey. McMahon’s books are generally quite bleak but here he excels in creating a darkness which penetrates everything and everyone that Thomas comes into contact with, in the word of Nigel Tufnel there’s “none more black”.
Thomas’ gift is a curse but he feels compelled to use it, if only out of remorse. So his world is a loveless, dark and dangerous place until he meets Mr Shiloh then things get a whole lot worse. The book moves into overdrive as we descend into a nightmare world inhabited by beings and scenes straight from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. This gives the book a real edge and is reminiscent of early Clive Barker, being powerful, compelling and deeply emotional.
It’s not perfect, there are a couple of scenes where the dialogue seems a bit overblown, “…peoples expectations and the limitations of the authorities rarely correlate” doesn’t sound like the kind of thing people usually say over dinner. Also amidst the powerful descriptive metaphors there can be a tendency to lapse into Merenghian “Blood; her blood. Penny’s blood. They were all lathered in it. Blood. Blood. Blood” altogether now… “and bits of sick”. Of course this may just be Gary McMahon winking at the horror community but there are odd occasions when the fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous is not quite crossed but definitely straddled.
These are minor criticisms, however, of what is a terrific book. It takes a standard crime plot and applies a fine horror mentality to raise it above the norm. It’s the universal message portrayed in the recurring phrase “Memento Mori”, remember you will die, that resonates so deeply. The scenes in the otherworld are horrifically bleak and will stay with you for a long time. Whether it has mass market appeal remains to be seen but genre fans should rejoice that Gary McMahon has not sold out or dumbed down. His writing remains powerful, bleak, shocking..oh and brilliant.