MERCILESS PACT

Last night at 4:05am I turned off the lights. At 4:11am I was out on the balcony, heart pounding, heels not fully inside my shoes, and peered into the pitch-black garden, from where a noise I couldn’t identify had come. Welcome to the side effects of MERCILESS PACT!

This is a minimalist, concentrated horror chiller set somewhere in the Texan woods, and it had an odd, almost warlike effect on me: I felt like being stationed in the wrong place at the wrong time (and in the wrong clothes). MERCILESS PACT made me nervously look around for some camo apparel, made me want to crawl out of the dangerous zone of my own visual imagination.

But Brown’s well-crafted, clever story is not about the miseries of war. No, he comes up with a quite different lethal scheme here, with a supernatural mix that makes for nothing short mutual massacres. MERCILESS PACT preys upon the vulnerable self, upon our fears of losing control. Subconscious yearnings, excesses bordering on exorcisms, the pull and abuse of power and the private terror of the unknown are the substance of this harsh piece of horror. Its mood is 100% macabre. Whadd’ye think, death waits over every single word here.

Greg, a harmless enough guy, has a strange, puke-related encounter with a friend, and starts to feel funny to his stomach: everything he eats happens to taste like steamed socks. Strange in addition, a sinkhole in the woods close to his house suddenly seems to be pervaded by an evil spirit, and thus incarnates the scariest thing at least I can imagine: an entity that infects human souls with sick fantasies of omnipotence, and forces them to sacrifice loved ones. Equipped with calm, daemonic cruelty, this spirit turns human innocence and friendship into a killer machine-like hunger.

To get away from a battered life full of painful memories and boredom, Greg strikes a bizarre bargain with the evil spirit. The bait, just like in Goethe’s ‘Faust’, is immortality, but Greg himself only understands half of the deal. Which is why next thing we find him pick off chance victims, and slaughter them in neat, bloodthirsty rushes: his new, otherworldly hunger must be fed.

MERCILESS PACT shows unblinkingly how people can lose their innocent reflexes and responses; how decency that seemed just dormant for a wee while can turn out to be bone-white dead. OMG did’ya hear that? Came from the garden –

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THE END OF DAYS

A wave of the sea, blown by the wind, foaming, tossed, has unique complexities. Up to a certain point, the same probably goes for pointless TV-shows, collapsing economies, conspiracy theorists, military operations by the US, news channels and the filth they throw up, first signs of class war, politicians, business leaders, financial greed, zombie managers, social trends, the world of media, government authorities, the global free market system – all those modern mind polluters scrambled up together.

Somerset-based author Douglas Lindsay cared enough to submit the latter blend to case study by way of an original, bravura piece of a novella. THE END OF DAYS makes a strong, joke-ridden comment on the horror of where we are now (though I do hope Lindsay also does that book about the beauty of waves sometime before the worse horror of where we are heading is due: we’ll soon be in need of all hues of escapism, and here is an able writer).

THE END OF DAYS. Wrapped in four words lies the world (read Gordon Brown’s 2009 christmas time spitting range for ‘world’). The planet is still in one piece, yet way too fragile an object; frankly, I half expected it to fall into a thousand bits before leading character and humble barber legend Barney Thomson (‘I cut hair’) gets helicoptered in from Port a Mhuilinn to turn the PM’s hairdo into a visual equivalent of some hero’s ticker tape parade.

Not only does Barney have a knack for snipping hair in emergency-like situations, he really is one of a kind fine fellow (cf Lindsay’s Barney Thomson Crime Series). In a way, what we discover here is more frightening than all the razor-sharp tidings from Kabul in a row, because it is so rare: Barney (sincere, mature, an easygoing loner and generally good guy) demonstrates the triumph of values over cynicism, but spares us that annoying lump-in-the-throat goodness bordering on kitsch. Hell, he is just some hairdresser who happens to get tangled up in messy Westminster Abbey affairs, right? Oh, and he is also a ‘biblical fucking plague’, but only if you look at things from odd angles.

Lindsay’s flawless satire set in London, Copenhagen, briefly in Kabul and in the US zooms along towards a smudged christmas (and a sweet WW III scenario)in a thrilling rush. It works like an autonomous zone, however temporary: as bedlam unfolds and British MP’s get the chop to atone for the expenses scandal (knifes with eight-inch blades, swords, c’mon, use your imagination!), this naughty novella grants complete freedom to its audience to stay sane just a bit longer (for the duration of 95 pages, that is). I suggest re-reads. I suggest to stay away from the last page as long as possible, smiling darkly…

Does anyone doubt the huge, healthy power of a proper satire? THE END OF DAYS introduces some unforgettable characters (eg Barney’s supposedly deaf assistant Igor, a killer machine on two legs named Utterson, Lucy the Diary Secretary, Margaret Thatcher looming large on the wall, Detective Chief Inspector Frank Frankenstein and his ‘I’m-like…’ sidekick Luke Hewitt, a woman nicknamed three beards – to name but a few).

Guided by an unfailing, melancholy sense of duty, poised with a pair of scissors and firmly embedded in hilarious movie references (the most beautiful, and revealing one: ‘Brazil’), Barney trails around after the PM, who gets his share of hints to wind up invading the US. (Barney appears to be more concerned about tinned pineapples – but hey, why don’t you just find out for yourself!) THE END OF DAYS managed to make me feel like having morphed into one of those chuckling cartoon characters. Accordingly, here’s my thought bubble, glued to this review: *SENTENCED TO LAUGH!*

Published by Blasted Heath, available now http://www.blastedheath.com

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DEAD MONEY

Right, let’s pray for rain to keep Ray Banks inside, burping up some more dark material! The devil knows a good deal, but this rugged writer clearly knows more, and it is this bit of bonus dirt, this extra mud he drags us through: DEAD MONEY should come with a dry cleaning voucher.

The strength of this languidly paced, atmospheric book lies in the relationship between boozy first-person narrator and luckless salesman Alan Slater, a guy trapped in a marriage as cozy as a waxen death mask, and his hardly likable, loudmouthed windbag pal Les Beale. The latter runs up gambling debts and attracts shambles the way wool coats can’t stop picking up fluff. By one of those accidents of so-called fate, homicide enters the picture, and the story is off somewhere sickening.

DEAD MONEY works as a character study, but interestingly enough it’s somehow irrelevant to the story’s power. Here is a noir so sure of its urban setting that Manchester itself constantly overlays the ‘reality’ of Alan and Les: it is this both beautiful and battered city (ok ok, I know it quite a bit) that makes symbolic use of DEAD MONEY’s main characters, and mocks their very social existence.

Throughout DEAD MONEY, Banks treats pop, pulp, quick cuts, all those modern references as ideas to be parodied; if he were a painter, he would come up with nude souls, captured and cannibalized at once in a controlled, cynical way. Despite its strong overtones of funniness, DEAD MONEY is one of the bleakest noirs I have read in a long while. Banks does not sell hope, but he does not make us turn away and weep either: we are wooed (and won) by a clever doubleness, a blend of filth and fun that stirs our empathy with leading character Alan Slater.

So? Let it rain.

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ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS

A fluid police thriller with a post-human feeling: the story knows it can’t win. Set both in a good deal of frost (wintry Minnesota) and within the vastness and unforgiving harshness of a desert environment (Somalia), ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS is about revenge – not just to atone for a crime, but to prove an eerie point. The story appears to be remarkably firm embedded in its locations of choice, and sidesteps any kind of ideology. In doing so it throws our own unease right back into our faces. Its author looks more deeply than we might be willing to bear into cross-cultural tensions, different ways of life in the western and non-western world, and terrorism triggered by religious belief. Close your eyes, count to a hundred, whisper to yourself all you ever knew about heritage, hip-hop fans in baggy trousers hooded 24/7, about cultural awareness and tolerance, about empathy and respect – and still there will be misunderstanding, batshit craziness and plenty of blood to throw you off balance.

Smith writes sober and with so sure a touch that he seems to take us back to a time when cop work wasn’t embalmed in layers of cliched, TV-style killing. ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS does not work like one of those comatose, forcibly cynical stories. Instead, this splintering, cross-cultural nightmare about American-Somali youths recruited for terrorism back in their homeland dares to give us the surprise of metallic sadness, and has our mind going round in a bleak space of perplexity.

Smith’s confident style comes across as a form of eloquent mildew. It is this rotting kind of grace that serves as stark contrast to horrific plot twists, and keeps us in a constant state of imbalance. Evoked pictures stand out clear, almost tangible, and the novelist makes us see through the eyes of very different characters: religion or nihilism, both taken too far have a bad effect on the nerves.

ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS contains some unforgettable, cruel dialog. Lines are clean and uncluttered, stripped bare and sometimes so spare they almost sound like a cold-blooded type of poetry. The story moves boldly beyond wisecracking cops and formalized thriller routine, on to something more true, tired and final.

Early on, the plot accumulates corpses. The fuels that drive main character detective Ray Bleeker are pain and vengeance, although the First Gulf War veteran appears twisted, numb and partly incapable of suffering. When his co-worker girlfriend Cindy, their unborn baby and a friend get shot and killed during what appeared to be a routine twin cities traffic stop, Bleeker’s world crumbles, and he is ready to do whatever it takes in the name of revenge.

His most unlikely ally in this is Mustafa, ex-gangsta and father of one of the Somali suspects. Smith pairs them off by the wicked use of a plot gimmick: they ought to detest each other, but seem to be handcuffed together by working towards a shared goal. Fate joins their plans as they try to track down Mustafa’s son Adem and his friend Jibriil, a quest that leads the two Minnesotan men all the way to Mogadishu. We sense that their connection accomodates enormous tension, even though a dry, timid way of understanding each other’s position is involved.

But this is not a buddy story, nor a chunk of exciting, dusty adventures Lawrence of Arabia-style. It’s a straightforward told, cold story about uncontrolled mobs and violence in one of the poorest states in the world, about an American cop who lost all hope, about two men so trapped in their heritage that one of them must break to find salvation.

Some thrillers keep you entertained. Some shake you up and keep you involved and committed. Once in a while a story comes along that does both things at the same time, and continues to live in your memory.

Published by Blasted Heath, available now http://www.blastedheath.com

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