The last tale I read by this author was in one of the Black Books of Horror, and it seemed as though he’d toned down his trademark dry humour and aimed further under the skin. I was therefore keen to read his new novella from Horrific Tales. Touted as a nocturnal battle for survival in a hospital beset by trans-dimensional monstrosities, I was pleased to discover that it contains everything that’s great about a classic John Llewellyn Probert story: characters we can root for, muscular dialogue, wit, a pervading sense of Britishness, and – of course – an onslaught of outrageous and grisly horror.
First we meet Arthur Lipscomb – a man addled by cancer – who has assumed ownership of an occult book. After being discovered halfway through a bloodletting ritual in a derelict block of flats, he’s rushed to Northcote Hospital still clinging to his tome, but the awakened forces refuse to be dissuaded by medical intervention.
As the night shift begins, we meet Dr Richard Dearden – a consultant diligently staying late after his shift in the Accident and Emergency Department – and his friend Dev Choudry: a wisecracking pathologist who’s similarly snowed under with work. But when Arthur Lipscomb’s blood test results show that he’s actually clinically dead and a body rises in the mortuary to attack them, the two colleagues realise that the stuff of nightmares has been unleashed. Toothsome tentacles start to burst from operating theatre walls, staff are ferociously slaughtered, and virulent spores infest the patients and wards. Something cosmic is trying to change the very fabric of the hospital, and those who survive the bloody violence may well be in for a fate worse than being disassembled and strewn about the corridors. Teaming up with Sandra Harris – a resourceful orthopaedic registrar – our staunch but slightly reluctant heroes must tool up and fight for their own lives, perhaps even for the future of the world.
The book opens with an evocative scene of urban decay. I think starting off with several pages of traditional description can be a brave move, but I’d happily listen to this author describe my garden shed with his wry observation and the way he exposes potential story layers in everything. “Like a whipped puppy fearful of yet another beating, light shied away from Northcote Park housing estate.” I think it works as an introduction, and doesn’t outstay its welcome before the characters step up to drive the rest of the tale.
And while making an example of the dreaded simile – a terrible tool in the hands of the amateur or over-enthusiastic writer – I must point out that Mr Probert saves them for when they really count. This can be to amuse as well as to unsettle, and lines such as “A sound, not unlike a large balloon being slowly deflated between two slices of wet liver, suddenly came from cubicle one” betrays a scatological irreverence that frankly, I find rather life-affirming.
Richard is a pleasant lead and naturally inclined towards common sense which allows him to cope. He makes logical decisions based on what his eyes tell him, and thus avoids being stuck in a spiral of increasing disbelief and terror at the hellish shenanigans. He’s actually quite brave, and this stems from his pragmatism rather than any desire for gung-ho heroics. Dev the pathologist is somewhat subversive and weird, like anyone who works with dead bodies for a living should be, and takes gallows humour to expert levels while keeping his heart in the right place. He’s a solid foil for Richard, especially when they’re shoulder to shoulder in battle, but even their camaraderie can’t lighten everything that Northcote Hospital has in store.
I also liked Sandra Harris, the surgeon. She’s pleasingly hard but compassionate, and her snappy impatience when it all kicks off is endearing. Like the author, I work in critical care, and can vouch that these character types are exactly the kind that populate the corridors of hospitals at night, so if you’re in the business, you might get a few extra smiles from the fond familiarity. The remaining cast of support workers, nurses and porters are also fully rounded and shine through their interaction. And their horrendous deaths.
At times, this story is pure, ghastly fun. One scene involves Richard and Dev attempting to keep the occult book away from a reanimated corpse, and they throw it between themselves as the creature lurches back and forth, holding it up out of reach as though teasing a grasping child.
But while plenty of chuckles are provided by the droll prose, there are visceral shocks. Some of the most cinematic images in this story involve gallons of blood, and there are magnificently ominous moments too. I do like the “tipping point” in fiction such as this, in which after a gradual build-up of menace, hell finally boils over. Here, it occurs while Richard is on the phone to Sandra who is in the middle of an operation. Their conversation is interrupted with background crashes, screams, and Sandra’s panicked pleas for help, and it’s so well written that we could almost be there with Richard, the phone helplessly glued to our ear.
Another foreboding scene I particularly enjoyed was when the trio manage to contact a professor of occult studies via the internet. Having explained their exact predicament of rituals and releasing such terrors, they ask him what they can do. The expert’s reply is succinct and perfectly portentous.
All great stuff, but it’s the characters themselves that really power this piece, made relatable by being convincing and ordinary. Their professional knowledge of anatomy is put to imaginative and darkly comedic use, and social interaction grounds everything firmly as the reality wanders. There’s a nice moment when a mildly embarrassing gaffe (Richard shakes Dev’s hand when he was holding it out for another reason) consumes Richard with shame, despite the doom facing him and possibly the rest of the world. What it is to be human.
The plentiful dialogue is natural and often warm, comforting us through the extreme moments. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the hope, humour and compassion that is part of the human soul even when trapped in a world that makes it all seem pointless. And on the subject of metaphors, a clever one is revealed later on which brings a structure to the cosmic madness and keeps it all on track. This neatly ties into the conclusion which in addition to providing some gruesome spectacle, also brings refreshing pathos to counter the carnage and japes.
As I’ve said in reviews before, John Llewellyn Probert is a master of blending the classic and modern. He presents contemporary characters and sensibilities, but stirs in ancient horrors and an erudite prose style to ensure we get the best of both worlds. And while there are no huge surprises here for fans of this author – or indeed horror fiction overall – there’s certainly no shortage of imagination or pace.
With “Dead Shift”, our genre’s treasured mischief-maker has served up a macabre and humorous treat. Whether you prefer the supernatural menace of Wheatley or Lovecraft, or the gleeful noise of zombies, monsters and siege-style action thrillers, there’s plenty in this novella to give your inner ghoul a smile.