During the last year, I’ve enjoyed watching Gary McMahon rise from a champion of the small press to the bigger leagues, and his lastest mass market release perfectly demonstrates why this is so. This novel is a very tight combination of noir, horror and character drama.
In Pretty Little Dead Things, we meet Thomas Usher, a man who loses his wife and young child in a traffic accident, but develops a supernatural talent to keep him busy through the years of bitter grief. He can see the recently deceased, and they want to tell him things. As the story progresses, and he investigates the murder of a gangster’s daughter and the kidnapping of a local child, it becomes clear that his gift is the only thing that keeps him trudging through life. He yearns for redemption, yet refuses to let go and punishes himself with tattoos to commemorate those he has failed.
As with all Gary’s previous publications, the characters are strong right down to the cameos. I expected to become weary of Usher’s grief-stricken self-flagellation, but the pathos is such that I discovered myself right in his corner, and the other characters – including an old romantic interest and a cancer-addled police colleague – also force your investment. And you won’t forget the menacing figure of Mr. Shiloh and his plastic, soulless smile.
The author’s attention to detail is as sharp as ever. He has a neat trick of allowing the subconscious to notice little things that you only fully acknowledge later on when they turn out to be important. Perhaps his prose is slightly less rich than before, but this isn’t a complaint. Far from it: silent narration takes real writing skill.
This book has a very bleak atmosphere at times, and some segments are nightmarish in their lucidity. A scene involving some recently deceased corpses dangling from the protagonist’s landing is an image so clear that I might as well have seen a photograph of it. This makes it very difficult to forget. And after Usher is menaced by faceless hoodies, walking through the city at night after reading this isn’t quite the same.
There are creepy layers of reality throughout – some ghostly, others concrete – but even with the latter, everything seems slightly off-kilter and wrong: the essence of any quality piece of ghost/horror fiction.
It’s a less “noisy” novel than Hungry Hearts – his 2010 zombie novel from Abaddon books – and feels more like old-school Gary McMahon. Here, he relies more on mood and atmosphere rather than action. But that’s not to say Pretty Little Dead Things doesn’t slam its foot on the accelerator when required. The first part of the book has a gentle, more literary flavour, but it has all pleasingly kicked off by the end.
As usual, I can do nothing but recommend this book. The follow-up Dead Bad Things is due later this year, and I’ll be at the front of the queue, rubbing my hands like a hungry ghoul at the kicked-in doors of a city morgue.