Thomas Usher sees dead people; for the more cynical out there this could mean any number of things. It could mean an author scraping the barrel of ideas, it could mean a clichéd ghost book that brings nothing new to the game, or it could be a writer daring to engage an oft-used and familiar genre topic in a unique and involved manner.
Luckily for the reader, Gary McMahon’s Pretty Little Dead Things is an exercise in tackling what might be well-covered territory, in both screen and paper-based fiction, but it’s one that’s pulled off with some accomplishment. The result is a chilling, sometimes thrilling, but often reflective and rewarding delve into the arena of supernatural horror fiction.
Following the death of his wife and young child in a tragic car accident fifteen-years prior to the events of the book, Usher found himself with his unwanted gift; he emerged from his hospital bed with the ability to see the dead. The connection he has with them is not a clear one, however; Usher finds he must infer as much as possible from these sightings, as the communication channels are more than a little muddied.
He had been trying to dampen said link also, and moving into more conventional employment as a private investigator. It’s whilst on a conventional follow and observe task for a local shady figure that he finds his old ability kicked into gear. In the immediate run-up to the discovery of the woman he’s supposed to be tailing, murdered just moments before he finds the body, he starts to feel something strange. More crucially, after this incident, he starts to see dead people again.
These ghosts aren’t usual, not in any traditionally interpreted means anyway. They’re like violent waxworks, lurking furtively on the periphery of his existence. Whilst there is definitely something of the chain rattling about them, that representation is more in their persistent and fixed nature than any calamitous interactions.
Nonetheless, he is forced into emerging from his passive-inactive state, to becoming more actively involved in the case investigating the dead person who cropped up on his recon watch. So we’re introduced to DI Tebbit, Usher’s link to the force, and luckily something of a fan. Tebbit appreciates Usher’s gift and knows he is no fool, despite what others might think.
And that’s a factor that’s always in play: Usher’s knowledge and ability often appear as much a liability as anything, especially in the toll they take upon the investigator’s mental and physical well being. Then there are more malevolent manifestations that crop up, and these are physically threatening, uncanny and yet persistently and scarily-well written by McMahon. These play upon our fears with a common social pariah made real by supernatural powers, and is one of several very foreboding parts of the book.
Then there are the visions. These psychic emanations guide and steer him, but he’s unsure of the destination at which he might arrive. There’s a definite link between these visions and the ghosts he sees, he’s sure. Soon more deaths occur, and more surreal events crop up; Usher begins to realise the emerging picture being formed is quite horrific indeed. And the reader is made assure of this in no light fashion.
Inspired by the likes of Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, Pretty Little Dead Things is a strong contemporary horror novel in the chilling paranormal and supernatural vein. Like some of his other urban-localised fiction, it’s painted by McMahon upon a brutal canvas. As its protagonist navigates the streets of Leeds, and the paths of the psycho-spiritual realm, he does so in a believable, sympathetic manner. His character is flawed and damaged, but not in a trite manner, and carries the story well. He is an effective prop, and channel, to the greater spooky goings on around him.
McMahon’s output, that which I’ve had the fortune to read thus far, is moody and steeped in some of the headiest atmosphere of that thing we call dread literature. Pretty Little Dead Things itself has secured a nomination for a BFS Fantasy Award, and a recent interview with the author revealed his plans for further Thomas Usher books in the pipeline. Here’s hoping future Usher books deliver the goods as well as this one has. If they do then we’re in for a treat.
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