I love Brutalist architecture. Whilst many find the style cold, hard, and aggressive, I’ve always found it comfortingly progressive, exciting and daring to be different from the norm. Encompassing buildings such as the Trellick Tower and Royal Festival Hall, whether or not it’s your cup of tea, you can’t say the Brutalist movement has an inappropriate name.
Gary McMahon’s The Concrete Grove is a Brutalist horror novel. I’m not just referring to Le Corbusier’s terminology for the ‘concrete’ often used in this building style, that forms part of the book’s title. This book is hard, and at times given its subject matter it’s also veering toward the ugly, but it stands out strongly from the pack and grabs your attention.
The Concrete Grove of the title is a housing estate, its concentric circular streets surrounding a derelict tower block of flats, the Needle. It’s to here that teenager Hailey is drawn, as if charmed by some otherworldly influence. Within its walls, and soaking out to the surrounding area, there’s a supernatural junction, teeming with an otherworldly force.
This estate is tough; gangs sell drugs in plain sight, crime is common place, as is rife threatening and anti-social behaviour. Hailey and her mother, Lana, have moved here as her father’s death and collapsed business dealings left them bankrupt. Lana’s serious financial troubles had her turn to the wrong people, and ties with a vicious local loan-shark-cum-gangster Monty Bright threaten her and her daughter’s future.
Enter Tom, a jogger out on an evening run. He encounters Hailey passed out, having had what appears to be a black-out. He returns her home, and meets Lana, and things develop from there in a surreal manner, befitting the manner in which he found Hailey. Tom has his own issues, and agenda, that sees his world colliding with the pair in a chilling series of encounters.
The paranormal forces at work flick between appearing subtle and benign, and then manifesting as quite raw and aggressive, and they seep out relentlessly into an urban environment. This threat is a reflection again of the real gritty human environs of the estate, but it’s also injected with its own blend of weirdness.
This is an in-your face book. It’s hard; it pulls few punches in its aggression and style, and blends traditional aspects of what makes a scary book, with twists and punches of something new. And like much Brutalist architecture, in the UK at least, a key focal point is genuinely cultural; running throughout is a real taint of the tragic aspects of poverty, and hard-hitting criminal undercurrent to eager to exploit it.
These real life problems encountered by the characters are not pleasant. In many cases they’re downright horrible and horrific. Added to this a layer of supernatural horror, and you’ve got a book most befitting of the genre.
There’s also a very interesting natural, wild and untamed edge to some of the supernatural occurrences. I found this to be most interesting, and I do hope it’s something that evolves more in the following books – this is the first what’s set to be a trilogy, and I am keen to read more.
Given the current socio political and economic climes, like the architecture movement, this is definitely a product of its time. It’s grim throughout, but relevant. Style-wise, in many places it’s not far from those similar genre titles that would fly off of shelves in the late 1980s, though stepped up a notch. This isn’t meant as a slur by any means, but of a good grounding (I won’t use further analogies for a building’s foundations for fear of reprisals).
The Concrete Grove serves as a wicked keystone for its sequels. It’s fast paced, its characters grab your attention, and will send your senses reeling as McMahon ramps up the scare factor along the way.