Charles Urban’s Brutal Spirits, “edited” by Gary McMahon

Review by Jim Steel

This is the fourth chapbook in Swan River's series of imaginary histories of real buildings. Gary McMahon has taken the multi-storey carpark in Gateshead that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Get Carter (easily recognisable in Meggan Kehrli's artwork) and he has given it a whole new aspect.

In these days of Google, any pastiche will not fool the curious for long. McMahon is well aware of this, and has peppered the copious footnotes with references to Wikipedia and the like. I therefore don’t feel as if I’m betraying him or the reader by treating the chapbook as a work of fiction. However, it is so well executed that the reader will be tempted to check up on some of the facts. Feed Charles Urban into a search engine, for example, and you will come up with an early cinema pioneer. It is obviously a different man from the one in here. But does this mean that references to McMahon’s Urban are buried underneath them?

Anyway, we now turn to the text. Gary McMahon has been made the literary executor for horror writer Charles Urban after his recent suicide. The papers put together here were found in a locked drawer and even McMahon is unsure as to whether they constitute story notes or true accounts. They are all tied in with events that happened at the carpark (and, yes, it includes stuff that happened during the filming of Get Carter). Death and murder haunts the place, and there are sightings of a faceless raggedy man in the stairwells. Urban’s was not the only suicide associated with the building.

Brutal Spirits is constructed with great care. At the start it’s laced with dark humour and it feels as if it’s merely going to be an extended joke. Before long, however, (and so subtly that the change in tone isn’t noticed) a real horror descends upon the reader. This is masterful stuff. Unfortunately it’s a limited print run of 150 signed and numbered copies, so I wouldn’t hang around if I were you. I can only hope that the promise of the Quiet Screams: the short fiction of Charles Urban collection is not another example of metafictional sleight-of-hand. This is a gem.

Charles Urban’s Brutal Spirits edited by Gary McMahon. A5 chapbook, 24pp, Europe £5/International £8. Available from The Swan River Press, 10 Leinster Road, #3 Rathmines, Dublin 6, Republic of Ireland (check website – – for ordering details).

This review was originally published on 27 March 2008, on Whispers of Wickedness. Reproduced here with permission.

About Stephen Theaker (306 Articles)
Stephen Theaker's reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal. Among other work for the BFS, he has been awards administrator, short story competition administrator, Dark Horizons editor, FantasyCon secretary and treasurer, and (briefly) chair.