Dead Bad Things is a fierce and primal supernatural novel. Brutalist horror writer Gary McMahon has succeeded not only in gestating further the furtive world he seeded in its prequel, Pretty Little Dead Things, but has also excelled in exuding a sense of menace and threat rarely seen in paranormal fiction.
But be under no illusion, this is bleak stuff. Black stuff. Chose a metaphor: chiselled from onyx, painted on pitch canvas, cut from darkest cloth; any are suitable. I don’t normally care for my horror to be so perpetually gnashing, unless it really is doing something special. Books from the dread literature canon that have awed others with their decadent flourish, such as Exquisite Corpse or The Seven Days of Peter Crumb, left me fairly ambivalent as I felt they over-played their more traumatic aspects to their detriment.
Dead Bad Things is no such novel however. It shocks, but balances its desire to meet its horror obligations with superb utilisation of the moodiest aspects of the genre toolset in order to tell its tale. There’s nothing unnecessary here, and definitely nothing mediocre; McMahon is a tidy writer, and highly effective in his choice of words and language.
From the very start of the book there’s no messing around. It’s straight back to black. Evil entities, bad people, malaise and decay all feature prominently as Thomas Usher is pulled from a self-imposed exile in London. Hiding away in one of the most effective literary haunted houses of recent memory, a phantom telephone call from a ‘clockwork’ voice hooks him up with a most unusual medium. From here his trajectory is spasmodic, his past tainting his co-ordinates in ways he doesn’t comprehend.
Also in play, and sharing much of, if not more of the book, is a character from Pretty Little Dead Things. PC Sarah Doherty made only a minor appearance in the first book, but here shares far more prominence, and is given a great deal of attention. It’s an interesting angle, as one might expect for this book to be pretty much pure Usher. Her character makes the novel stand out more strongly as a stand-alone, as opposed to just another in a series. Further effective bucking of conventions then.
McMahon has stated that his writing often leads him, and his characters and plots, to places he hadn’t planned. I feel this organic writing methodology really has allowed the Usher books to blossom into something unusual and unexpected; the portions allocated to different characters alone is so very different for what one might expect from such a book, and makes it that much more original and less prone to the sequel clichés that can be too often derived when there’s such a series.
The journeys his characters, be they mainstream, minor, behemoth or supporting, undertake are genuinely compelling. Be it Usher’s continued movement on a path (be it indifferently or otherwise) to find out why his life has been so tragi-ruinous, or that of the police officer seeking information on her deceased, abusive father figure, you can’t help but get sucked in here. Then the small morsels of delightful lore and mythos that he lets slip, dripping between paragraphs, dangle on your taste buds, and have you craving more. Even the mundane aspects of his characters lives are so damn interesting – how does he do it? Effectively, is the only answer I have to that question.
I’ve yet to be disappointed by anything of Gary McMahon’s that I’ve read, and thus far everything of his that I consume just seems to keep building a stronger impression of his being a brilliant author. Horror fans – be glad we’ve got someone like McMahon to write for us. His prose packs condensed shock and awe scare methods, whilst staying steeped in a unique gothic-dread atmosphere in which he casts his story. In Dead Bad Things the result is an awesome book that you just cannot miss.