Dead Bad Things
by Gary McMahonSome horror makes for uncomfortable reading because it provokes strong feelings of disgust. In Dead Bad Things Gary McMahon deals out great meaty buckets of it with this story of child molestation, murder and urban despair. It's the second Thomas Usher novel, but unlike the first it isn't entirely focused on that character.
It begins with a child killer, a man whose depravity seems bottomless. But he's guided by a creature that calls itself an angel, although its acts seem anything except angelic.
Years later PC Sarah Doherty is working in Leeds when she and her partner Benson come across a child murder bearing the hallmarks of torture and bizarre ritual. Sarah is particularly disturbed by this (and who wouldn't be?) because of her abusive father, who continues to haunt her even though he's dead. People around her remember him as a great copper, but she knows he had a darker side. She wants to find out just how much darker, even though a lot of people would rather such revelations remain hidden.
Meanwhile Thomas Usher has fled Leeds and is staying in one of the most haunted places in London. He is plagued by ghosts and nightmares as usual, and he's tempted to turn to alcohol to cushion his senses. He's contacted by telephone by a mechanical voice that may be a ghost, or something else entirely. The voice seems to be trying to tell him something in a roundabout way, with a series of vague clues and a trail that may lead nowhere.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Dead Bad Things is seeing things from the perspective of Trevor, a disgraced stage psychic. He's a twisted individual on the verge of giving in to his darkest impulses. The novel is full of manipulators and genuinely evil people like him, but what makes him interesting is the conflict between his intense self-loathing and desire. The central characters in this story all seem to have reasons to hate themselves.
The heavy subject matter contributes to an oppressive atmosphere. Gary McMahon depicts the grimness of Leeds, the black in people's hearts and the taint of evil with powerful, blade-sharp descriptions that positively glisten with gruesome.
Sometimes using the supernatural as a metaphor for the darkness within people can soften it, because it tends to suggest that in real life humans aren't capable of such horrors unaided. As though it takes the intervention of demons, ghosts and bad angels to move people to acts of unspeakable evil. But this book is disturbing on several levels, from the shock of artfully horrific blood and guts to its brave and unusual viewpoints of a number of sick, odious characters. The supernatural elements add a weird, alien colour to the story, but in no way do they detract from its horror.
As the second book in a series Dead Bad Things is very closely tied up in the events of the first book. I thought it could use a little more recap: I found myself wanting to re-read Pretty Little Dead Things in order to understand this novel better. However that's a minor point in the context of a story I found intriguing. It's strong stuff, vivid and distinctive and sometimes gross, but always compelling.
14th August 2011
Review © Ros Jackson