Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon

Exactly why Gary McMahon’s profile has managed to avoid my radar until now remains a small mystery, but I imagine the reason is overly simple: a persistent talent has now come more sharply into focus among the mainstream. With a rich and solid publication history in the small press, it was only a matter of time before Gary's longer works gained more mass-market appeal. Whatever the reason, I am glad this initiation has taken place. With The Concrete Grove, Gary McMahon has placed himself at the forefront of innovative dark fiction. Not just for this reviewer personally, but to the greater tribe as a whole.

In the aftermath of a failed marriage resulting in her husband’s suicide, Lana and her fourteen year old daughter Hailey have moved into a large housing estate in a decrepit and crime-addled part of England. Here, poverty reigns king. And so do human beings like Monty Bright, who take advantage of the projects most vulnerable, ruling residents with an iron-clad fist as though the outside world simply does not exist. Drab and soulless, The Concrete Grove is like a physical representation of modern man: a structure reflecting our ultimate failings. When Hailey is rescued by local jogger Tom after a small accident, his introduction into her small family might just be the catalyst needed for hope to return.

But Tom has problems of his own, and his newfound attraction to Lana will not only hamper his efforts to care for his paraplegic wife Helen; it will also be the tipping point that will see him question his own sanity. For The Grove is like a dark amplifier, taking an individuals most potent desires and deforming them. For Hailey, it’s a fascination with the adjacent Needle, a towering and vacant monolith that might just be crux of their mutual foreboding.  Something that could spell either salvation or doom. And for Monty Bright and his lackey’s, it’s like a doorway into a darker realm … one that just needs a little push to open all the way.

One thing that needs to be stated right off the bat: the beautiful way in which Gary handles prose. Regardless of how appealing a reader finds the plot, the syntax in The Concrete Grove is like sublime poetry or dark, elegant music – lines of verse that just screamed to be read out loud because mute they go to waste. At times the dialogue is so sparse as to be non-existent, but I’ve always favored this type of style as a whole. It’s gothic, it’s industrial, and throughout the many scenes neon lights stutter and flicker with the grand maul reckoning of fly-races on an ancient black and white screen.

With many reviews now floating around appraising this desolate excursion, I’ve found it somewhat hard here to accurately describe what makes this novel stand out. If you need optimism in your horror, latch onto something else. But if you’re looking for that species of the genre between antipathy and desire, where the borders between worlds can be narrow, then The Concrete Grove is place you’ll want to visit again and again.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dead of Night by Jonathan Maberry

Few writers over the past decade have made quite the triumphant impact on dark fiction than one Jonathan Maberry. In a relatively short space of time, he has cut a gigantic swath through the zombie sub-genre, setting up quarantine to make it his official home and having something new to say each time. As a purveyor of horror fiction for most of my remembered life, I am now at pains to divulge the sad fact Dead of Night is my first incursion into his world.

But what a world it is.

Of course, his epic profile has not escaped my attention; Jonathan seems to be from a league of extraordinary gentleman (a clique including authors such as Kevin J Anderson and Scott Nicholson), who work tirelessly behind the scenes of the publishing frontier. A writer’s writer … but also a fanboy who will take the time out of a brutal schedule to speak to the masses on social media and at programmed events. So when the call came through that a stand-alone zombie extravaganza was in the offing, it seemed like the perfect time to put my hand up and survey the dark places of Jonathan's world. 

A retired Russian spy now working covertly as a penitentiary doctor, Dr. Herman Volker has devised the ultimate vengeance on humanity’s greatest human monsters by concocting a substance that prolongs life even while the body rots. Using his position in the prison hierarchy he injects this serum into condemned serial killer Homer Gibbon with the sure knowledge his body will see burial on prison grounds. But the body does not. Leading Homer Gibbon to awaken in a state that defies comprehension: dead, hungry, and utterly contagious …

Desmodia Fox is a loose canon. A proper small town cop but lacking essential people skills that have seen her labeled a ‘bitch’ by anyone unlucky enough to brush past even her peripheral awareness. Only her partner J.T can see the diamond in the rough ... and when the Zombie apocalypse finally breaks out in Stebbins County, Desmodia’s willful moxie will be the ultimate fighting weapon in a clash to keep everyone they know human.

Right off the bat this is a slick ride, the tone of the author effortless and full of humor. Chapters are even interspersed with the svelte voice of a radio announcer (making me think of Pontypool), as a ferocious storm bears down on the community. The action is jumped up and hot-wired, the language bursting with the textured grain of an exploitation flick. A second plot-strand featuring news reporter Billy Trout (an ex-flame of Dezmodia’s), and his co-worker is where the reader will find the most interesting character development with keen, witty dialogue reminiscent of those who walk among us.

But all of this would be meaningless without our main power-players: the dead. Here they stroll through the pages with every vital ingredient to make the gut churn. It’s the reaction of our humans that make them truthful: in their genuine loathing of the parasites we encounter a species of zombie original in conception as the primary concoction of Dr. Volker continues to do its work. A mass metamorphosis then ensues bringing about a different species … but it’s the original that remains the most terrifying: being trapped within a prison of undead flesh while still aware of everything that was once you and praying for a second, more secure embrace of the afterlife.

For me, there is only one pet peeve here, and it’s a quirk pertinent to dozens of books and movies in the genre: for our character's to embrace the word ‘zombie’ only within the final stage … as if all the literature and celluloid to have come before has never existed. However, I'm hardly the Zombiephile on these Australian shores, so lore isn't exactly my sticking point.

With Dead of Night, Jonathan Maberry gives us a stand alone Zombie novel exceeding expectations. This is how the world ends. Not with a bang … but a bite.