Gary McMahon – A Review (or two)

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SILENT VOICES by Gary McMahon

Okay, first things first: it was always going to be nigh on impossible for me to not like this book. Like a lot of horror fiction lovers I’m a big fan of McMahon’s work and have most of his published material on my shelves (I’d have it all if he weren’t so prolific and some of his books so expensive). I’d been looking forward to  SILENT VOICES for about a year – ever since I put down THE CONCRETE GROVE, a book I considered to be McMahon’s most accomplished work (up to that point in time). It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn fine read – and judging by the number of positive reviews doing the rounds, I wasn’t the only one who thought so (my review is reprinted below). So SILENT VOICES was always on a pedestal. The only question was: how high?

The answer? Damn high. Damn high indeed!

Okay, let’s get the negatives out of the way first. I always have negative. I’m a negative man. People like McMahon are a ray of sunshine in comparison to me. And besides, I might love the man and his words but if I didn’t write a fair and balanced review he’d never respect me (should he ever read this):

For me, the pace of the novel struggled slightly during the flashbacks. I was relieved when I realised they weren’t too long in length as they were harder to get through than the present day chapters. It wasn’t anything to do with plot or characterisation, it was the one thing I had least expected: the dialogue. I didn’t feel the dialogue between the children felt natural. In one instance, one of the characters tells the others that he “will be back shortly”. Do kids say “shortly” these days? Did they ever? And for kids who had grown up on an estate as rough as a dog’s prolapsed bum hole, I expected them to swear more – they certainly did down my end when I was a nipper! Infant school kids made Sailors squirm! So when I put the characters’ imprints over the memories of those pupils I used to knock around with, I figured there’d be a little more effing and blinding.

My other quibble? I wanted the men to spend more time together as “The Three Amigos”. Why? Because the best character – the adult Marty – gets to spend barely any time with the other two before accompanying them on their journey into hell. A few pints down the depressive local and they’re off: into The Needle, fighting Captain Clickety and his unholy army. I had a real affinity with Marty and wanted to spend more time with him. Is he in the trilogy’s final masterpiece? I can only hope so. Throughout SILENT VOICES McMahon readilybrings old friends back so maybe Marty isn’t gone for ever.

Okay, the positives:

Any pacing and dialogue issues I had during the flashbacks were quickly forgotten when reading the present day scenarios. For a start, the dialogue sizzled. I loved it when the three of them were in The Needle and Simon was convincing the other two to fight. McMahon’s use of reverse psychology as  a means of fighting Clickety was brilliantly used – I’ve seen this method utilized by lesser writers and it has a tendency to come across as desperate but with McMahon you’re in the hands of a pro. Another example of scintillating dialogue occurred earlier in the novel, when Brendan and Simon meet for the first time in 20 years. Here McMahon cleverly uses the dialogue to wrack up the tension between the two, leaving you wondering who is going to throw the first punch.

There are stand-out scenes throughout the book such as those in the boxing ring and The Needle. However the one that will probably induce the strongest reaction is the scene involving a mother who looks in on her son and… well, it’s not good if you’re a parent.

McMahon’s handling of Brendan’s relationship with his wife is sweetly believable. It would be easy to make the relationship paper-thin (it’s on a rough estate so it must be in trouble; he works on night security so they must be poor and hate each other blah, blah, blah) but McMahon fills their world with genuine emotion: they share a deep love towards each other, bitterness at what has happened to them, devotion to their son and regret at how their lives have turned out. In other words, their marriage is similar to 70% of marriages out there. His handling of their relationship is so much better than that I’ve read in supposedly ‘high literature’ novels that it only seems to confirm the snobbery that exists throughout the book world when it comes to horror. Why someone would want to overlook SILENT VOICES for something recommended by a nobody in a broad sheet whose sole interest is getting between the author’s buttocks is beyond me.

Once again it’s easy to see McMahon’s influences in this novel. Stephen King’s IT is obvious with the three kids fighting an evil from their childhood and the only successful one being Simon who just happened to be the only one of the three to move away from The Concrete Grove. But there’s also a hint of THE DARK HALF with the hummingbirds and Brendan’s body horror (not saying the cause; read both books to find out for yourself). There’s also Holdstock and McMahon’s go-to-guy, Clive Barker in there. SILENT VOICES also feels as though it could be edited into a YA novel, which is possibly why I found the book to be anything but dark. Okay, the last chapter – and certainly the last page – is bleak, but prior to that there is a sense that these men who still feel as boys will win the day. That they are going into battle together, determined to not give up until the evil is destroyed. Hope walks hand-in-hand with despair throughout this novel and when you consider this, it’s easy to see how this isn’t McMahon’s darkest novel and how it might suit a mature YA market. There are many superlatives I could continue to bestow upon SILENT VOICES but I’ll leave that to better reviewers.

In closing this review, I want to just add something that will no doubt lead some readers to believe I’m not quite all there (I’m not – genuinely – but that has no impact on what I’m about to say). It seems to me that THE CONCRETE GROVE TRILOGY will one day prove to be one of the most important pieces of literature in our period of modern British horror. McMahon has shown in the past how clever he is as a writer. He has a unique quality for scaring with both visceral and psychological horrors, but TCG shows the world that there is more to horror literature than just, well, horror. There is deep, raw emotion. There is love. There is longing and loneliness and desire. There is happiness and relief and hope. There is also fine writing and waving-your-naked-balls-over-a-burning-petrol-tank bravery. McMahon is either very courageous or very arrogant to say to the paying public that he is not only going to you a story, but he is going to tell it to you over three books and it is going to be so brilliant you are going to insist on sticking with him. It is difficult enough for young writers to get people interested in just one of their books. McMahon is now two thirds through a trilogy. Now that’s special.

THE CONCRETE GROVE TRILOGY will, I am sure, go on to become a highly-respected series of books that shall firmly cement McMahon’s place as one of the most important writers of a generation (and if there’s an ill wind and TCG fails in its mission, then his Thomas Usher books will easily make up for any shortfall).

THE CONCRETE GROVE by Gary McMahon

This review contains minor spoilers. If you don’t want to know, don’t read on.

I recently stated that I believe Gary McMahon is fast becoming the master of urban horror – and with THE CONCRETE GROVE, he again proves my point.

Unlike his previous effort, PRETTY LITTLE DEAD THING, which is a disturbing crime novel with horror elements – much in the same way as John Connolly and his ilk – THE CONCRETE GROVE is a traditional horror involving a world within a world, a psycho trying to get from one to the other, an innocent child and a distraught mother – oh, and a carer who cannot abide the woman in his charge (aka, his wife). So all in all it contains most of the elements required to make an intriguing story. Some characters are despicable, others you want to slap while there are those you want to care and protect – which is ideal because you want to have a reaction to the characters. Like them or not, the worst thing a writer can do is produce a character no-one cares anything for. The plot is relatively simple – but then, surely the best ones are? – and handled with the appropriate care and attention. The only time I felt a slip up (for me personally) was the manner in which the mother (Lana) decided to wipe her debt. This monumental decision was made very quickly and just after she’d started a new relationship. Why someone would be willing to let themselves be gang-raped when on the cusp of a new love life is beyond me but then, I’ve never been in that situation and so I was willing to suspend my disbelief. And perhaps that’s why this is a slight moan because Gary has this amazing ability of making fantasy horror seem real. Suddenly you believe there is another world just out of reach; you do think about the things you see in your peripheral vision. This willingness to be a lamb to the slaughter just seemed a little far-fetched (and yet is probably the closest thing to genuine fact). But it is a minor quibble and besides, once you find yourself reading the woman’s treatment you find your heart quickening, your sweat seeping and your anger rising. So in that respect, it’s job done!

My only other issue is that I would have enjoyed the thoughts of the ‘sea cow’ as she battled with her guilt for making her husband give up living his life to care for her after the fallout of the sins enjoyed with her lover. But I can understand why that wasn’t included because it would affect the book’s perfect pace.

Speaking of pace, Gary’s work has been accused in the past of being too dark and too bleak. Well, THE CONCRETE GROVE is a fast read. A couple of days at most. If his novels were so dark and so bleak, surely it would be harder work to get through? A couple of days for each chapter perhaps? Not the case.

This is horror writing at its near best. There are only a few horror writers out there writing with Gary’s skill – and Clive Barker and Stephen King (Gary’s heroes) are not among them. I’m looking forward to the follow-up, SILENT VOICES, which I believe will genuinely cement his status as the top urban horror writer working today.