After loving a number of his short stories & novellas, I've been meaning to read one of Gary McMahon’s novels for a stupidly long time now. So when my goody-bag at Edgelit2 contained the second of his Thomas Usher books, Dead Bad Things, I took it as a sign, and purchased the first in the series – Pretty Little Dead Things. And I'm very glad I did.
(Actually, my goody-bag didn't contain Dead Bad Things but I swapped one of the books I did get for it. "It's still a good sign, by anyone's standards")
Pretty Little Dead Things is an interesting mixture of horror and crime; Thomas Usher is a man who can see the dead, following the deaths of his wife and daughter fifteen years earlier. He is reluctantly caught up in the murder of three young girls as well as the disappearance of a child. The story is told in the first person and Usher is a complex, compelling character. His powers are more a curse than a blessing, causing him to see hideous and gruesome things without actually being able to influence them. The only ghosts he wants to appear – those of his family – he has never seen and this has left Usher unable to move on, still living in the ‘family’ house on his own hoping they return to haunt it. It's a pretty brutal metaphor for grief and guilt, but no less effective for that.
The book is structured like a crime novel, but as it progresses the supernatural elements become more overt and fantastical; there’s some very scary scenes involving the MTs – revenants of delinquent gang members, their hoods now full of nothing but ash. And McMahon isn't the kind of writer to allow his characters easy escapes, or sometimes any escape at all. The tone is downbeat and bleak throughout, and the story moves from deprived housing estates to squalid strip-clubs to anonymous hotel rooms: it’s set in Leeds but it will seem familiar to anyone who knows the UK’s urban landscapes. There’s an oppressive nature to the setting, allowing no sense of escape – even when the action moves to another plane of existence it’s just a twisted version of the same blighted estate Usher has been visiting. Some readers will no doubt find the relentlessly downbeat tone equally oppressive, feel the same lack of escape from the novel’s atmosphere. There’s little light here, little hope. But it’s in this way that the book achieves its unity and totality of effect. There's a certain breathless exhilaration, too, at realising how far the book is prepared to push things; at how bad things can get.
Very hard hitting and one of the most memorable horror novels I've read for a long time. Looks like the goody-bag ruse worked, and I’ll be buying yet more of Gary McMahon’s novels.