Herald of the Hidden and other stories by Mark Valentine. Book review

valentineheraldHERALD OF THE HIDDEN AND OTHER STORIES, by Mark Valentine, Tartarus Press, h/b, £35.00. www.tartaruspress.com/

Reviewed by Stewart Horn

There are many things to like about this book, beginning with the binding, the paper, the dust cover and the little woven bookmark.  This is beautiful thing to have on your bookshelf.  It would have been disappointing had the content failed to meet the same standards, but the stories are as impressive as the book itself.

Most of the stories concern Ralph Tyler, an occult detective with more in common with Sherlock Holmes than Carnacki.  Tyler is a brilliant creation, who would probably be infuriating in real life with his stinking cigarettes and complete lack of regard for most other human beings.  But he is well-drawn, as are his long-suffering friend/ narrator and the assortment of characters who crop up in his cases.  The situations are intriguing, and the relationship between the two leads is convincing.

The language and the style are more or less Edwardian.  I always find this a worry, as few contemporary authors are able to maintain period language convincingly for a whole book, but Valentine has pulled it off very nicely here, largely by not trying too hard.  I get the impression that’s just the way he writes.

After all the Ralph Tyler stuff there are some other supernatural stories, all told with the same elegance and concision.  My favourite from these is probably Tree Worship, which works both as a creepy story and as a barbed satire on the superficiality of suburban life.

None of these are horror stories in the modern sense – there is little violence or bloodshed and any actual death tends to be in the back story.  Nevertheless there is a satisfyingly creepy tone and Valentine is expert at drip-feeding the suspense and keeping the reader off-balance.

I wouldn’t say that this book is at all derivative or unoriginal, but Valentine wears his influences on his sleeve.  There are shades of M. R. James here, of Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, William Hope Hodgson and of course Arthur Conan-Doyle.  But I was most often reminded of Algernon Blackwood.  Valentine’s prose style – simple, efficient but stylish – and the recurring theme of the power of nature and the dangers it can pose, both brought Blackwood to mind.

At the price this is unlikely to be a huge seller, but for those who appreciate a traditional ghost story well-told, this volume can sit proudly on your bookshelf beside the greats.