Review of Poppet by Mo Hayder

Poppet by Mo HayderTitle: Poppet
Series: Jack Caffery #6
Mo Hayder
review edition published by Atlantic Monthly Press; first published by Bantam
 Atlantic Monthly Press: 14 May 2013; Bantam Press: 28 March 2013
crime thriller
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Something strange is going on at Beechway High Secure Unit. Or rather, something even more bizarre than what usually goes on at a psychiatric hospital “housing patients who are an extreme danger to themselves and others. Killers and rapists and the determinedly suicidal”. The legend of the Maude – the ghost of a dwarf who abused the children in a 1860s workhouse – is setting the wards ablaze with rumours, while a series of mysterious power cuts heightens the tension. The worst part is that a patient has died of a heart attack, shortly after being found with Bible verses cut into her arms, reminiscent of the Maude’s practice of forcing children to write out biblical texts until their fingers bled.

AJ LeGrande, the senior nursing coordinator, finds himself subject to the terror of the Maude as well, but knowing how the insanity in a psychiatric hospital can ‘infect’ the staff, he focuses on finding rational explanations what’s happening. He soon finds sinister connections between the Maude phenomenon and a patient named Isaac Handel, who was recently released. Isaac had a habit of making ‘poppets’ – freaky voodoo dolls representing the people around him. AJ’s investigations suggest that Isaac may have been terrorising the other patients, and the dolls could be connected to the legend of the Maude and nightmares of a small figure sitting on patients’ chests.

AJ discusses his suspicions with Melanie Arrow, the unit’s director, and in doing so he forms a relationship with her that quickly grows from concern for a co-worker to passionate romance. But their new-found happiness is marred by the threat of Isaac and the Maude. When AJ’s conclusions become too disturbing to dismiss, he contacts the talented and dedicated Detective Inspector Jack Caffery.


This is my first Mo Hayder novel. I was only vaguely familiar with her name, but I when I saw Poppet on NetGalley I was immediately drawn to its creepy cover and intrigued by Hayder’s reputation for bringing elements of horror into her crime fiction. The very first chapter demonstrates exactly what I was looking for. It describes a patient’s intense fear of an approaching monster. She believes that she can make herself invisible by unzipping her skin and peeling it off like a wetsuit, a truly gruesome act that is described from her perspective. This is realist fiction not fantasy, but Hayder incorporates the supernatural through the psychoses of mental patients. Combined with bursts of shocking violence, the novel can be quite creepy.

It takes a while to get going though, for several reasons. AJ and Melanie’s relationship plays an important role, and some time is taken to set this up. Then, the relationship impede’s progress when Melanie begs AJ not to contact the police. He repeatedly complies because she’s so beautiful and he’s been single for a long time. AJ’s attitude towards his patients also slows things down a little. He lives “by the maxim that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him” so “he’s never wanted to know what his patients have been in the unit for” because some of the things he’s heard are unbelievably horrific and can interfere with his ability to treat a patient fairly. For the reader, this means that you won’t learn anything useful about Isaac from AJ, who doesn’t even understand the significance of the poppets. You have to wait for Jack to give you the dirty details.

The final and most problematic issue for pacing is Jack Caffery himself. You see, this is the sixth book in the Jack Caffery series. No, you don’t have to read the others, although it might help to know more about Jack, who is stiff and bland. But the real problem is that because this is Jack’s series, he has to have a major role and an ongoing presence. AJ is really the main character, but he can’t be allowed to overshadow Jack. Unfortunately, the main plot doesn’t involve Jack until almost halfway through when AJ contacts Caffery to discuss his suspicions.

I assume it goes against protocol for the main character of your series to play second fiddle in one of the books, so Hayder has a side plot that puts Jack in play from the very start. This plot involves a missing celebrity named Misty Kitson, a case that’s apparently leftover from the previous book (but, again, you don’t need to read that). Jack knows Misty is dead. He wants the police to find the body so that Misty’s mother can have something to bury, but he can’t just reveal what he knows because he’s protecting a pretty young cop named Flea Marley who has covered up the crime. Jack needs her cooperation to retrieve the body and achieve the most favourable outcome – allowing the police to find the body so Misty’s mother can move on, but in a way that won’t implicate Flea or get Jack in trouble for protecting her.

I found the Misty case to be pretty boring. There’s no action, and very little suspense. There’s nothing for us to discover except the details of her death and the cover-up (nothing special). The narrative is driven by Jack’s attempts to persuade Flea to cooperate. But who cares when there’s a violent psychopath on the loose?

The Misty saga has absolutely nothing to do with the Beechway/Isaac story. The only links are two or three minor similarities between the plots. For example Jack’s relationship with Flea mirrors AJ’s relationship with Melanie: both men protect the women out of some overblown sense of chivalry inspired by the women’s beauty. In AJ’s case, it’s stupid but understandable – he’s sleeping with Melanie and falling in love. He doesn’t want to hurt her by jeopardising her career or hurt his chances of a long-term relationship.

Jack, however, is taking a greater personal risk for something more abstract:

Whenever he looks at Flea the animal part of his brain lights up. His limbic system goes into overdrive. Sometimes it screams sex. Sometimes, like now, it screams protect. Kill anything that threatens her.

Ah, there’s nothing like a bit of old-fashioned sexism to make a character really, really boring. The book at least exposes this kind of patronising male behaviour as a mistake – denying women their agency and relieving them of responsibility for their actions turns out to be pointless, humiliating or dangerous.

An excellent point, but the book is still full of traditional femininity, with women typically defined by their relationships with men &/or wholesome domesticity. Flea is a morally questionable victim who needs a man like Jack to protect her, chastise her for taking the wrong moral path, and set her straight. Melanie, a woman in a position of power, is seen as an ice queen, while the men – AJ included – perv over her beauty. She describes having lost lovers because she preferred having a career to being domesticated. AJ’s Aunt Patience almost never leaves the house, spending most of the novel cooking for and feeding AJ. She’s a grumpy old matron who grows all her own fruit and vegetables, makes preserves, and disapproves of any woman AJ brings home. Monster Mother, an insightful patient on one of the wards, cut off her own arm in response to her husband’s constant infidelity and now imagines that she gave birth to all the patients and staff. Penny, a character whose presence in the book feels seriously neglected, has been living alone and isolated with her dog for years after several failed relationships. She is very beautiful and makes preserves for a living.

The resolutions at the end of the novel don’t make any improvements on the portrayal of women; if anything, it gets worse, but I can’t have that discussion without major spoilers.

At least the novel doesn’t disappoint as thriller, especially once Caffery gets involved and a serious investigation begins. The Misty stuff is backgrounded, and we finally get into the dark and twisted details of Isaac’s insanity. Isaac is incredibly creepy, partly because he remains hidden for a long time, while we learn more about what he’s done and what’s going on at Beechway. He’s set up as a monster, unhindered by reality so that you’re left holding your breath for what he’s going to do when he finally does appear. As far as I’m concerned, the more messed up a villain is the better, and Poppet has no shortage of craziness.

I’d like to read some of the earlier thrillers that established Hayder’s reputations and where, hopefully, the plot isn’t complicated by the importance of Jack’s role. Without the Misty case holding Poppet up, the novel could have been so much more taught and impressive. I wasn’t too happy with the way the female characters are written, but I can’t deny that Hayder delivers an entertaining story.

Review of Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches

Me and the Devil by Nick ToschesTitle: Me and the Devil
Author: Nick Tosches
4 December 2012
Little, Brown
literary fiction
arc from the publisher via NetGalley

Nick is a bitter, alcoholic writer in his early sixties. “I looked like a man but I was not” he laments, complaining that he has become “a toothless wraith of a man that once had been” without even the inspiration to write (“I felt that there was nothing left to write. I was a poet without pen or drum.”). He scrapes by on a diet of booze, coffee and cigarettes, but as he crawls further from youth and closer to death he becomes “desperate to cling to another” even though human contact often repulses him. Despite his complaints though, he has no trouble picking up young women in bars and one day he meets Sandrine, who “liked to be raped after bathing in warm water and milk and brushing out her hair” (Nick repeats this description multiple times). Sandrine is the first of a series of women who Nick beds, bites, and drinks. He finds their young blood invigorating, as if drinking it restores his youth. He begins a relationship with a beautiful young student named Melissa, who entertains his sexual fantasies and new-found blood lust.

The blood changes Nick’s life – he feels like he’s getting younger and healthier; he stops drinking alcohol; he eats the finest foods money can buy. Soon, the changes become grandiose – he believes that he is turning into a god, and Melissa is a goddess; his exquisite meals are viewed as “Eucharistic”; and his habits become “rituals”.

If this were a fantasy novel, I would have accepted this as perfectly normal. However, the novel has the distinct feel of literary fiction that would never admit to being pure fantasy, leaving me with the suspicion that it’s Nick who simply can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. After all, this is a man who binge-drinks his way into blackouts and hallucinations. The ease with which he finds a string of beautiful young women who are willing to let him bite their thighs and drink their blood seems even less plausible than the idea that their blood restores his youth, and I became even more sceptical as Nick engaged in increasingly weird and violent sex scenes with women who actually wanted to be abused by a dirty old man. It’s too convenient, too much in tune with Nick’s desires. The fact that the story is narrated in the first person throws further doubt on Nick’s credibility. Although he has stopped writing, he finds a strange new piece that he can’t remember penning, giving us one of the first signs that his mind is not to be trusted.

Even if it weren’t already mentioned in the blurb, Nick’s eventual descent into madness and destruction would seem inevitable. As with his apotheosis, we never know how much of it is real or imagined, and Tosches has no interest in clarifying the matter. He simply offers this portrait of a mind in turmoil, and the reader cannot escape its subjectivity. And since Nick and Tosches have the same name, profession and age, you’re constantly, disturbingly aware that this is a kind of fictionalised autobiography, that Tosches is using Nick as a kind of puppet, or that he is at least toying with you by making you think so.

For the most part, I liked this aspect of the novel, which exists mostly in Nick’s interactions with the other characters. Unfortunately, he is a grumpy old asshole who spends most of his time alone, pontificating about all sorts of random crap.

Nick takes us through his day-to-day activities – cooking meals and eating them, taking medication, shopping, going to the bar, going to the doctor, having dinner with his good friend Keith Richards (yes, that Keith Richards), etc. He doesn’t drive, so he walks, giving him plenty of opportunity to comment on what he sees. Mostly, he complains about how much he hates modern-day New York and its inhabitants:

I looked down across the street at those who scurried to their daily servitude, with their Styrofoam cups of bitter watery coffee, their dupe’s containers of treacly Starbucks swill, their industrially dyed and flavored sugarwater “energy drinks,” their assembly line donuts, their stale rubbery bagels, their tasteless doughy croissants.

They were a funny lot, these white slaves of ignoble careers of lucrative indolence. To say that they were deserving of death would be to demean death. It would be without meaning as well, for they were in a way already dead. The jogging dead. Carbohydrate-conscious cadavers with frozen smiles of chilling insensate fake vibrancy on their dull scrubbed pampered faces.

I passed a new store, on Hudson Street, a sort of day care resort for yuppie mutts called Biscuits & Bath. It offered grooming, transportation, natural foods, puppy kindergarten, classes in basic manners, exercise programs, and socialization services. This neighborhood really was fucking going to hell. It was getting embarrassing just to live around here.

Ok, that last one is funny, and those quotes aren’t entirely unfair, but you see what I mean about Nick being bitter and ranting a lot. I did enjoy some of his meanderings, especially his descriptions of exquisite things – the luxurious pantihose and designer high heels he buys for Melissa to indulge one of his fantasies; the sublime food he enjoys at the heights of his experience; sets of beautiful hand-crafted knives with handles made from rare materials. I also learned a few things about pronunciation and grammar, but for the most part Nick is a boring, insufferable snob, and this novel is far too self-indulgent (whether the ‘self’ is just Nick or both Nick and Tosches, I’m not sure).

To the book’s credit (perhaps) it actually admits to these flaws. Nick, has several disparaging comments about his writing, and writing in general, and these actually fit my feelings about this novel:

George Orwell said, all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy. “Writing a book,” he said, “is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”

The words that pursued these words did not speak to any of my questions, nor did they make anything more clear or less clear. I knew only that they sang to me, that their song was mine, and that they must be given form, metered to and arranged on the page in a way that captured and conveyed the sound and colors of their spell.

No one will ever see this. I am the you to whom I write. I am you. The only you.

What I took from this is the idea that he’s writing under a kind of compulsion that may well be as pathetic as the a screaming of a baby. His writing doesn’t have a message or theme (“these words did not speak to any of my questions, nor did they make anything more clear or less clear”); he just needs to express himself, and he does so without expecting anyone else to read it.

That could be an excuse for why the story is so self-indulgent, why it’s sometimes so boring and mundane, but also has so many graphic, increasingly violent sex scenes (actually, there isn’t always sex per se, but I should warn you that this book is not for sensitive readers). Nick can say things that he might not be able to say to others, and admit to doing horrible things. It could also explain why Nick feels at liberty to speak about women the way he does, referring to them as “galmeat”, casually throwing the word ‘rape’ around and saying things like

There was a lot of good-looking leg passing by out there. What a drag it was that rape involved so much exertion. Just to get some broad to be still while you jerked off on her calf or had her suck your cock without being properly introduced.

Me and the Devil is very much the narrative of an angry, arrogant, aging man saying what he wants and indulging his fantasies, the greatest of which is desire to reclaim his youth. A major part of that is his struggle with that titular devil, which could be an evil being or – more likely – Nick himself.

I can admire all this, to an extent. There’s some great writing here, along with the exploration of an interesting kind of psyche. I don’t like Nick at all, but sometimes it was interesting to be inside his head, and I like the idea of him expressing himself so freely, even though I’m often repulsed by what he says. I also like that the novel seems to admit to its flaws of self-expression, but at the same time those flaws make it pretty tedious to read, and for me that’s far worse than all the perversion. I think Nick is someone who has to resonate with you on a personal level, and if he doesn’t you’re unlikely to enjoy this novel very much. I didn’t.

Review of The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

Title: The Devil in Silver
Author: Victor LaValle
Published: 21 August 2012
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Genre: literary fiction, horror
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Pepper was just trying to be someone’s hero when he got arrested and sent to New Hyde, a budget-strapped mental institution in Queens, New York. He’s not mentally ill, but that doesn’t matter. On his second night, a monster breaks into his room – a beast with the head of a bison and the body of an old man. Its eyes are white and veined with red, its matted fur reeks, and its feet have hardened heels that clop like hooves. Pepper and his roommate are paralysed with fear, and saved only when angry staff members burst into the room with tranquilizers to put an end to their screaming.

Pepper wishes he could blame it all on his drug-addled mind, but everyone on the ward knows about the monster and some believe it to be the Devil himself. Worse, the beast is actually a patient, protected by the staff no matter what it does. It’s kept on an isolated ward behind a massive silver door, but at night it breaks out and preys on the other patients. Trapped in New Hyde and terrified, Pepper rallies some of his companions in a plot to kill the beast. There’s Dorry, an octogenarian who’s been on the ward for decades; Loochie, a 19-year-old girl with anger-management issues; and Coffee, a Ugandan immigrant who spends every cent he can find making calls to the government to warn them about the Devil in New Hyde.

To carry out their plan, the group must deal with the staff, their meds, their own fears, and the mental institution itself. What follows is not a conventional horror novel. It’s not particularly scary in the way we typically understand horror to be scary – giving you gut-clenching scares and making you nervous about being alone in the dark, often using a story splattered with gore. The Devil in Silver has a bit of that, but rather than call it literary horror, I’d call it a literary novel about horror and fear. It is scary, but in the way that the unbelievably twisted realities of modern life are scary.

For example, The Devil in Silver is partly a novel about appallingly inefficient public service systems (as I write, I realise this sounds dreadfully boring, but rest assured, LaValle is a better writer than that). Pepper doesn’t end up at New Hyde because anyone thinks he’s crazy; no one does. He was trying to be a hero by helping a neighbour with her troublesome ex-husband. He got into a fight, and when the cops intervened, he punched one of them. It was an honest mistake – the officers were in plainclothes and Pepper had no way of knowing who they were. Not that they care. They arrested him, but doing the paperwork would mean working overtime without pay. Instead of taking him to the station, they took Pepper to New Hyde and make him someone else’s problem, as they’ve done many times before.

The chief psychologist is well aware of this habit, but according to the law he has to keep Pepper under observation for three days. However, from the moment Pepper is brought into New Hyde, he’s ensnared in a system that sees him only as a “case history, a new admit awaiting diagnosis; a subject. After an hour, Pepper was, officially at least, a mental patient”. And “mental patient” becomes the category that defines Pepper’s existence, at least to the staff members who now control his life.

To be treated like a patient is to be treated “[w]ith rules that defied all common logic; people employed to help you who are unable, really, to even hear you; the sense that the system’s goal is only to keep trouble contained”. Keeping “trouble contained” means doping patients until they’re little more than shuffling, slurring half-wits, so Pepper is forced to take heavy meds from day one. To refuse medication, is to throw yourself into an illogical loop:

“You have the right to refuse,” [the orderly] said. “But refusal is taken as a sign that you’re illness is in control of you.”
“What if I’m refusing because I’m not ill?”
Miss Chris almost barked. “If you was healthy, you wouldn’t refuse!”

Nurses and orderlies are quick to punish any disobedience. Refusing meds means Pepper doesn’t get to eat, because the staff don’t see why he should resist:

The doctor says you need to take your meds, so why not take them? You can’t leave until the doctors believe you’re improving. They won’t believe that if you’re not dosed up. And maybe the damn things are even helping you act like less of a wackadoo. So why not do it? Why not? Why not? Why not? In this way, not evil, even understandable in a way, Terry justified denying Pepper his dinner.

It’s not that the staff members are sadistic. Rather, they function according to a certain “philosophy of life: certain types of people must be overseen”. And, at a more fundamental level, they fear the patients. Any sign that they’re starting to function like normal human beings is treated with deep suspicion because it means they’re not taking their meds. Pepper’s natural belligerence immediately counts against him, as does his frustration and attempts at resistance. When he makes the stupid but understandable decision to escape, the staff members descend on him with tranquilizers. When he eventually wakes up, his three days of observation have turned into weeks of incarceration, and he’s not allowed to leave because the chief psychologist has decided that he’s mentally unstable. Not only are they ruining his life, but he’s trapped in a hospital with a monster who kills people with impunity.

It’s an unbelievably unfair situation, not only for Pepper but for all the patients. But this kind of injustice is a quintessential feature of horror stories, and of life – the way terrible, painful things happen to people who don’t deserve it. It’s terrifying in its own way, not because of the monster but because most of this isn’t even unrealistic. You will balk at the appalling way New Hyde is run, but there’s no comforting assurance that this is pure fiction.

In fact, LaValle is trying to make a point about the insanity of American society, as he explains in an interview with The Huffington Post:

Well, I do, at one point in the book, have a character say that our country is basically an asylum now, and she calls the place The United States of New Hyde. […] And I’m certainly, in the book, trying to wrestle with the idea that the country feels like it is really going crazy at this moment. Going crazy specifically with fear. The thing that is sort of dogging the characters throughout, is fear. And fear warps our understanding of reality and even our ability to see reality clearly.

The idea that fear warps our sense of reality comes up often. The patients offer several theories of the Devil on the ward, but you don’t know if any of them are true, or if they’re sparked by myths and horror stories. The staff members don’t seem to see the beast that the patients do, but then again they view all the patients as monstrous in some way. And societies at large fear the people they dehumanise, usually foreigners and minorities. But this is a symptom of a larger problem. As one woman says, “Hard times make people scared. And scared people see monsters everywhere.” The fault lies not with the supposed monsters that people see, but with unseen ones, like the unknown owners of New Hyde who earn massive profits at the cost of the people they’re meant to help. As LaValle explains it in his interview

it’s like that old saying: the greatest trick that the Devil ever pulled was to convince people that it didn’t exist. And so there’s two devils in the book: there’s a Monster, and a larger Devil. One who is down on earth, and one who’s actually pulling the strings.

I haven’t said much about the story, but even though it wasn’t what I expected, it’s still a compelling read and the themes do not overwhelm the narrative. If anything, LaValle has balanced them perfectly, so that each enhances the other. There’s a lot of tension, some violence and tragedy, quite a bit of humour, and a dash of feel-good stuff. And yes, there’s a bit of gore, but nothing to get too squeamish about. The way computers are used at New Hyde made me cringe a lot more than the blood did. I mean, consider this:

She had a stack of old files, and she hadn’t logged in one page of the stuff in over an hour. That poor woman was just tapping the Tab key over and over. She planned to do this for six more hours, until her shift ended.

LaValle has a slightly odd, punchy, but easy-to-read writing style full of parentheses that he uses to add colour and depth to his characters and set the tone of the culture. Even though the novel is set almost entirely inside one building, we still get an impression of the cultural “all you-can-eat, mix-and-match buffet” that is Queens. There are a lot of comments about race, class and the way people relate to difference. For this, LaValle uses an omniscient narrator, and the focus frequently flicks away from Pepper to give us an understanding of the other characters.

Overall, it’s a well-crafted, socially conscious and entertaining novel with a lot of insight. I’d recommend whether or not you like horror.

Buy a copy of The Devil in Silver at The Book Depository

Up for Review: The Devil in Silver

Oh, “literary horror” – I can’t say no to that…

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

New Hyde Hospital’s psychiatric ward has a new resident. It also has a very,very old one.

Pepper is a rambunctious big man, minor-league troublemaker, working-class hero (in his own mind), and, suddenly, the surprised inmate of a budget-strapped mental institution in Queens, New York. He’s not mentally ill, but that doesn’t seem to matter. He is accused of a crime he can’t quite square with his memory. In the darkness of his room on his first night, he’s visited by a terrifying creature with the body of an old man and the head of a bison who nearly kills him before being hustled away by the hospital staff. It’s no delusion: The other patients confirm that a hungry devil roams the hallways when the sun goes down. Pepper rallies three other inmates in a plot to fight back: Dorry, an octogenarian schizophrenic who’s been on the ward for decades and knows all its secrets; Coffee, an African immigrant with severe OCD, who tries desperately to send alarms to the outside world; and Loochie, a bipolar teenage girl who acts as the group’s enforcer. Battling the pill-pushing staff, one another, and their own minds, they try to kill the monster that’s stalking them. But can theDevil die?

The Devil in Silver brilliantly brings together the compelling themes that spark all of Victor LaValle’s radiant fiction: faith, race, class, madness, and our relationship with the unseen and the uncanny. More than that, it’s a thrillingly suspenseful work of literary horror about friendship, love,and the courage to slay our own demons.

Victor LaValle is the author of the short-story collection Slapboxing with Jesus and the novel The Ecstatic, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

The Devil in Silver will be published on 21 August by Spiegel & Grau. For a taste, you can read an excerpt. To learn more about LaValle, you can check out his website, his Wikipedia page or read his tweets.

Horror that’s too horrible? A review of Shadows by Joan de la Haye

Title: Shadows
Joan de la Haye
Published: 2008
Genre: Horror
eBook purchased on Smashwords
My Rating: 3/10

This review contains some mild spoilers.

Sarah’s father just committed suicide, and she’s having a hard time dealing with it, particularly because a demonic, yellow-eyed man keeps appearing out of nowhere and scaring the hell out of her. No one else can see the man (who she later names Jack), and he plagues Sarah with gory hallucinations in which her loved ones are dead and mutilated. The hallucinations seem far too real to Sarah, but to everyone else it seems like she’s going insane. To make things worse, she gets no sympathy from her selfish boyfriend Kevin who reacts to Sarah’s need for him with anger and disgust. He thinks nothing of cheating on her with the sexy, aloof Denise, who also happens to be his sister Carol’s girlfriend. Kevin, Denise and Carol form a twisted, incestuous threesome with a parallel plot involving some sick plans for taking revenge on the people who have hurt them.

I was in the mood for horror when I picked Shadows up, and I was pretty excited about it because I love the darkly fascinating worlds that you can find in novels about insanity. Unfortunately, I found neither the horror I was hoping for nor the dark world I wanted to explore. In fact I did not like Shadows at all, for several different reasons. Firstly, the writing – it’s not that bad but it’s pedestrian and adds nothing to the story. It’s also riddled with continuity errors, especially when it comes to characters – often characters do or say things that don’t fit their personalities.

Which brings me to my second problem: characterisation. On the whole, Shadows doesn’t have any likeable characters. Sarah initially had my sympathy, but she’s so weak and pathetic I quickly grew tired of her. Kevin is an appalling boyfriend, not only because he cheats on Sarah but because he doesn’t show her one iota of affection during the novel. Denise is an oversexed sociopath. Carol was molested as a child, and the trauma has turned her into a vengeful psychopath.

Unlikeable characters however, are not a flaw in themselves. My problem here is that these characters feel forced. Sarah is too much of a victim, while Kevin, Denise and Carol are too crazy and cruel. Yes, people like Kevin and Denise do exist in the world. And yes, you can look at the evidence and decide that it makes sense for Sarah and Carol to be the way they are. My problem is that you have to take that step back from the novel before you can really accept these characters. While reading, they seem unnatural, overdone.

But my biggest problem with Shadows was the grotesque sexual violence and depravity. Please note that I’m not referring to its sexual content in general: yes, there is a lot of it and while some would complain that it’s gratuitous, I’d argue that there other unnecessary details in the novel, and the sex doesn’t deserve to be singled out. In fact, some of it provides the most exciting content Shadows has to offer. I would also argue that some of the sexual depravity – incest in particular – is part of the characterisation, a means of showing just how messed up Carol has become, and how much of a sex addict Kevin is.

But Shadows goes too far. The following scene in particular was so bad, I almost abandoned the book. The context: Jack the demon tricked Sarah into stabbing Kevin, and he’s now in hospital, venting his anger with Denise and Carol. They’re worried that Sarah won’t get the punishment they think she deserves, in which case Carol suggests they make their own plans for revenge:

“I know a couple of guys who, for a couple of grand, can organise a girl to be gang-raped. They’ll dump her somewhere in Soweto. It’s worse than dying.”

“I don’t know what’s scarier, the fact that you know people like that, or that you even think like that,” Kevin said, looking at his sister with new-found respect.

“I think it’s sexy when you think like that,” Denise said and planted a hot kiss on Carol’s lips.

“Hey, ladies,” Kevin said, trying to get their attention. “I’m the one who was stabbed. I’m the one who should be getting some loving.”

“Sorry baby,” they cooed, cuddled onto the narrow bed and smothered him with kisses.

As they hugged and kissed him, visions of Sarah being raped and left for dead, in some ditch, made him smile.  He made a silent promise to himself, she would pay and the girls would help him take his revenge.

I couldn’t believe how many disgusting things made its way into so few lines – a woman suggests using gang-rape as a means of taking revenge; the suggestion causes her brother to respect her more than he did before; another woman is turned on by the thought of her girlfriend arranging to have someone gang-raped; and then all three start kissing and cuddling each other. What. The. Fuck.

After my knee-jerk revulsion however, I tried to think calmly about it and even asked other horror fans for their opinion as I struggled to decide if this could be considered part of the horror or if it’s just in bad taste. Obviously, the whole thing is supposed to be appalling, and it makes the three villains more despicable. This is also a horror novel and there’s no denying the fact that I was quite horrified when I read this. The thing is, I’ve read novels that have scarier, darker villains than these three but didn’t resort to using gang rape as a shock tactic.

And being shocked just wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to be scared, unnerved and my final problem with Shadows is that it just couldn’t do that to me with either its sexual perversions, Sarah’s personal demon Jack and the hallucinations he makes her suffer, or even its promising aspect – the curse of being considered insane.

The gory visions Jack conjures up are standard blockbuster slasher-movie fare, and they get repetitive without moving the plot along. For first half of the novel, Sarah’s part of the story is largely about hallucinating (at home, at work, at the movies). Later, Sarah has to accept Jack’s presence in her life, and he becomes an almost comical figure. It’s his job as a demon to make her kill herself but she keeps resisting and soon Jack has all the menace of a frustrated cubicle drone.

There is a greater sense of menace towards the end as the novel picks up its pace and the various strands of the plot are drawn together, but by then nothing could have saved it for me. I can at least add a disclaimer by saying that I also disliked The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker for similar reasons. The Hellbound Heart was the basis for the movie Hellraiser (1987) and is considered something of a horror classic, but I just thought it was gross. If being shocked and disgusted is what you want from the horror genre, then you may find Shadows satisfying, but unfortunately for me I was hoping for a lot more.

Buy a copy of Shadows