Spectral Press, paperback, eBook, www.spectralpress.wordpress.com
Reviewed by Richard Webb @RaW_writing
We are in Bristol in the present day, but also in the world of Hammer House and horror â€˜Bâ€™ movies of the 60s/70s for this novella by accomplished practitioner John Llewellyn Probert. A spate of bizarre and grisly murders hits the city, seemingly unrelated but surely too contrived to be coincidence. DI Longdon leads the investigations, aided by Sergeant Jenny Newham and pathologist Dr. Richard Patterson. The task at hand seems beyond their resources â€“ the killer is smarter, better organized and leaves nothing but the scantest of facts for them to grasp at. As the corpses â€“ or rather, their remains â€“ pile up, a pattern begins to emerge.
The atmosphere alternates between prosaic procedural, deliciously dark preludes to the killings and a gleeful mania as the executions are depicted. Stylistically everything is crisp in detail and pace, with lean prose when required whilst at other times a more pungent narrative prevails which relishes in the horror of the scenes unfolding.
Without spoiling it (although the storyâ€™s Dedication is a major clue), the degree of enjoyment a reader might glean from reading this depends on the extent to which the reader recognizes the source of this pattern; if youâ€™re a fan of old-school Brit-horror then you are in great company with Probert. Even if you are not [ie. this reviewer], it is a well-paced, gleefully gruesome read punctuated with some moments of humour: the author is clearly enjoying himself and his enthusiasm for the source material is infectious.
Many of the movies from which this tale takes its cue manage to juggle potentially contradictory qualities â€“ a hammy humour that winks to the camera as well as moments that genuinely shock. Once you start watching them, you are drawn in and compelled to stay. â€˜The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentineâ€™ evokes them perfectly — similarly portraying the macabre without taking itself or the genre it loves too seriously; and once you start reading you too will be pulled along for the ride.
This is a short read (some 80 or so pages in eBook format) so it is not realistic to expect fully-fledged characters that evolve and grow etc. but the author gives us well-realized sketches in the lugubrious Longdon and his dogged sidekick. I would be happy to spend more time in their company and the ending here leaves open that possibility.
I devoured this in one sitting and like the best of tasty snacks, it whets the appetite for a full banquet. Itâ€™s a must for kitschy horror-film buffs as well as any readers that take a delight in well-told tall tales of terror. Kudos should also go to Spectral Press for a nicely produced edition including cover art in keeping with the key reference point â€“ a quality product all-round.
Two other things I learned:
- The meaning of â€˜oedematous.â€™ (Who says horror canâ€™t be educational?)
- Mr. Probert could probably kill someone in many inventive ways â€“ Iâ€™m very glad I was (honestly) able to give this story a positive reviewâ€¦