Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Pretty Little Dead Things

by Gary McMahon


I'm not convinced a ghost story can ever have too much atmosphere. Certainly the mood in Gary McMahon's Pretty Little Dead Things is heavy with grief, foreboding, and the taint of weird magic, and it's so thick you can stir it with a spoon. It's the taste of ash in your mouth, and it's absolutely delicious.

Thomas Usher was a normal, everyday kind of guy before he lost his family in a car crash. Fifteen years on the grief still hasn't left him, and nor has the sense of guilt over what happened. However the accident also awakened in him an ability to see ghosts. The dead are drawn to him, and this has defined his life ever since.

Usher works as a kind of paranormal private investigator, although at the start of the story he's trying hard to ignore the voices of the dead because he's come to regard his talent as a curse as much as a gift. A shady local businessman has asked him to watch over his wayward daughter because he's worried about the company she's keeping. But a series of murders put Usher on the track of something more sinister going on in run-down parts of Leeds amongst urban decay and squalor. A young girl goes missing, and Usher sets out to find out where she's gone before she becomes yet another name on the list of people he's failed.

Usher is a complicated person, and he gets even more conflicted when Ellen Lang comes back into his life. He has a history with her, and his relationship with her is as knotty as everything else about him. As a fairly gentle man who doesn't like killing, or even driving a car, Usher is likeable and believable, although sometimes he's perhaps a touch over-sensitive. He's an antidote to all of the testosterone-overloaded hard men of the Chuck Norris school of characterisation.

This isn't a book I would recommend to anyone getting over a bereavement. It's intense. A sense of loss underpins the action, and as the mystery deepens the reader is left wondering how much Usher really wants to survive his ordeals.

As the story goes on things get stranger, and the plot touches on the idea of consensus reality, and the gaps between worlds. The murder mystery with ghosts gets a surreal twist with shades of Russian folklore and magical rites. There are also some sickly graphic images of death. But it's not the oddness of what happens or the vivid, bloody scenes that make this novel so very powerful. It's the graveyard atmosphere and the strong, credible emotions of the main character that will leave Thomas Usher indelibly inked on your consciousness.

16th November 2010

Book Details

Year: 2010

Categories: Books

  Male Protagonist  
  Not For The Squeamish  

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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson