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Silent Voices by Gary McMahon

Silent Voices

by Gary McMahon

Published by Solaris, 2012.

The Concrete Grove, the first book in the Concrete Grove trilogy, delivered and promised so much. It delivered a fantastic piece of urban horror, laced with dark fantasy that led me to describe Gary McMahon as “the outstanding British horror writer of our times” (review here). It promised so much as it gave us, what I thought were ” tantalising glimpses of a much deeper mythology” and left the way clear for the author to fully dive into his dark mythos in the subsequent books. Now we have Silent Voices, the second book in the trilogy and at last we can see if the author has kept his promise.

While the first book largely crept around the edges of the mythology of the Concrete Grove, a deprived urban area in Northumberland, this book gets to the heart of the matter. Here we meet Brendan, Simon and Marty who as young boys ventured in to The Needle, a derelict tower block at the physical and metaphysical centre of the Concrete Grove, where something happened that still reverberates through their lives today. That something haunts the boys, now men and has shaped their lives in different but always difficult ways. Brendan is the only one with a “normal” family life but is stricken by terrible, debilitating acne, Simon is a millionaire businessman but one who has troubled relationships and Marty has turned to violence competing in bare knuckle boxing after the tragic loss of his girlfriend. Simon decides to buy The Needle and get the boys back together to finally face their demons.

The first part of the book explores these troubled characters and the lives of those around them, giving real depth to both them and the area. We meet the boys as youngsters and join them as they first enter The Needle and the horrific events that subsequently haunted them are gradually revealed. But it’s the desperate state of their current lives which leads them to return to the Grove and McMahon’s powerful dark prose is perfect at describing these tragic lives and the desperation to find out what happened.

As more revelations are gained so the darkness at the heart of the Concrete Grove becomes even blacker. The boys are haunted by Captain Clickety, “the damned and damning song of their childhood nightmares” a marvellous concoction of plague doctor (see here for some fine Plague Doctor creepiness) and child catcher who along with the even more terrifying Underthing awaits the boys at The Needle.

And so everything is set for a spectacular finale as the boys re-enter The Needle and face the dark mysteries of the Concrete Grove. Once again, as in the first book, McMahon saves the best for last as he ramps up the nightmare imagery and dark fantasy to new heights. Many of the mysteries of the first book and the revelations in this book are connected as things race to a dark conclusion, only there is no conclusion, instead McMahon introduces further twists to leave this reader desperate for the final book in the trilogy.

With less of a pitch black tone than much of his previous work this book majors instead on rich and engrossing characters. Although I doubt if Gary McMahon is ever going to write a knock about comedy the tone here seems less pervasively dark (although there are certainly some very dark moments) giving the book a wonderful balance. The protagonists are well constructed yet flawed characters but it’s the antagonists who really shine here, Captain Clickety is a character to rival Stephen King’s Pennywise and he isn’t even the worst of the bad guys. So we leave The Concrete Grove again, emotions and senses suitably pummelled, and apocalyptic imagery left seared onto our eyelids and we await the final book and still we know only a few of the dark secrets, only a few of the terrible realities and even more terrible unrealities hiding there.

In conclusion Gary McMahon has kept good on the promises he made the reader in the first book and has successfully delivered another marvellous slice of urban horror while at the same time he has promised us even more to come in the final book (Beyond Here Lies Nothing), bring it on.

Rating 5 out of 5

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The Watcher by Charles Maclean

The Watcher

by Charles Maclean

Published by Penguin Books, 2012.

Originally published in 1982 this is a book I have been meaning to read for a while. It certainly gets some good reviews and was listed among Charlie Higson’s top 10 horror books here so I was delighted to find a copy of the  reissue on the shelves of my local Waterstones.

Martin Gregory is a computer programmer who seemingly lives a happy, normal life with his wife and their two dogs. So far so mundane and to be honest for the first 20 pages I was wondering what all the fuss was about..then “it” happens. For no apparent reason Martin carries out a vicious and brutal act, which author Maclean insists on telling with quite uncomfortable detail and description. Perhaps what makes the act so shocking is the aftermath as Martin carries on quite normally. It’s this schizophrenia that becomes the focus of the book as Martin receives psychoanalytical treatment which reveals a whole slew of past lives each with their own story.

So the plot weaves in and out of past lives as we experience the world through Martin and his psychologist’s eyes and things get ever more complex, demanding that the reader pays attention. There is little more horror, the book becomes a tense psychological thriller as the reader is left to ponder the reality of Martin’s paranoia or if things are simply the result of some deep-seated psychosis. There are a couple of extremely tense scenes towards the end which are very enjoyable but the plot conclusion is somewhat disappointing.

This is a deeply strange book which offers the reader little solace and no solutions. Martin is not a particularly likeable protagonist indeed his initial actions also make him a formidable antagonist so viewing the story through his eyes is a difficult journey for the reader. It’s a sign of the authors skill then that, despite his previous brutality, Martin actually begins to be a character the reader  can relate to, maybe the reader is confronted with some uncomfortable truths about the latent violence in us all.

So this is not an easy book to like, difficult to relate to characters, complex plot, disappointing ending and a stilted prose style which seems much older than it’s 1982 vintage. It’s a measure of the authors skill then that this book does succeed. Perhaps it’s that initial shock that certainly resonates throughout the book, perhaps it’s the complex experimental plot which keeps the readers attention or perhaps it’s simply because this books is “different” but whatever the reason the end result is an enjoyable piece of dark fiction. It certainly wouldn’t make my top ten horror books but it might well make the top 100.

Rating 4 out of 5

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