Dark Heart – The Purgatory of Leo Stamp
By Darren J Guest
Published by Snowbooks, 2011
Darren J Guest’s debut novel is an enthralling, if sometimes frustrating mix of dark fantasy and psychological horror.
It’s the story of Leo, a man with a troubled past, haunted by memories of his brother Davey’s childhood murder and by his complex relationships with friends and family. With few people to turn to he finds himself getting most of his advice from a photograph of Sean Connery as James Bond.
But that’s only the start of his problems, a fight with friend John has tragic consequences and leaves Leo trapped in another body while someone else has taken over his. It transpires that Leo is a “dark heart, neither good nor bad, yet both” leaving him unable to reach either heaven or hell. What follows is Leo’s attempts to resolve the situation against a background of more child abductions painfully similar to that of his brother.
If that sounds a bit confusing, it is. This is a complex story full of dips and weaves, light and dark. Full of deliberate ambiguity, it does not give up it’s secrets easily and the reader has to wait for resolution right until the final chapters, for that reason it’s a book you probably need to read twice to really understand.
I did have a few problems with this novel. Although the aforementioned complexity is to be applauded it does leave the reader with lots of questions most of which don’t get answered until that final flurry of revelations. This can make the book hard to engage with as plot strands are left hanging. I also had an issue with the protagonist Leo, he is a character of light and shade, deliberately so, that’s what makes him a Dark Heart but it also leaves us with a main character who isn’t particularly likable and difficult to relate to for the reader. Finally the pacing of the novel was rather problematic, after a sprint to the start and a positive gallop to the finish the middle section felt a bit more like an endurance event. This problem was partly down to that previous lack of plot resolution but also to some relatively action free periods.
Let’s not forget that this is a debut novel though and one which shows plenty of potential from the author. On the whole it definitely succeeds as an entertaining, thoughtful and intelligent story. The author aims for a tale full of complex themes and, in the main, he hits those targets. A powerful debut, albeit one with faults, it certainly shows that Darren J Guest is a name we should be watching out for in the future.
Rating 3.5 out of 5