Feather And Bone by Gus Smith (book review).
In the heyday of horror, the scenarios that often worked well were in the closed society. It was a technique pioneered in crime novels where there were a limited number of suspects unable to get help or leave and in which the killer picked off victims seemingly at random until no-one trusted anyone else. These evolved into the horror novel with the fear and suspicion centred not necessarily on a person but around a supernatural force that, for its own mysterious purposes, wanted to kill everyone. Nowadays, with mobile phones and the decline of isolated places, it is harder to set up such a scenario. There are, though, some places even within the UK where getting a mobile phone signal is impossible. Gus Smith has found one.
Despite the ‘dark-fantasy’ label in the cover, this has the hallmarks of a traditional horror novel format but set within the context of contemporary issues.
Northumberland is an under-populated county where it is still possible to find isolated communities where the inhabitants are sceptical about the benefits of modern rules and regulations. Farming in the hills can be tough and subsistence level and interference from outside is looked on with suspicion. When a cow lacking its ear-tags is found on a military range, curiosity is aroused, but when the beast is found to be suffering from BSE, alarm bells ring. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) sends Alison Rigg up from London to investigate. Her first suspicion is that the local inspector, Colin Fenwick, has been lax in his job of checking the livestock registered on farms in the area. His behaviour does nothing to allay her fears.
Alison, as the outsider, should be the focus of subsequent events and, to a certain degree, she is. There are, however a number of other viewpoint characters. Much of the malignant activity in the area is centred around the farmstead of one particular family. Angus has never been very successful with his endeavours, subsisting on casual jobs for neighbours and supplementing the pot with rabbits. As the novel opens, he is worrying that he may be sick as he is having problems with his sight and co-ordination. He is also having problems with his wife, Bessie. She has changed from the sweet woman he married into a harridan. She is an obsessive but ineffectual cleaner and frequently loses her temper, not just with Angus but with the children as well. While the younger child is a normal, boisterous boy his older sister, Isobel, is regarded as strange. She voluntarily stopped speaking to people when her brother was born. She will, however, talk to animals when no-one else is around.
The other key character is Rose Ellis. She was an incomer but has lived and farmed in the valley long enough to be accepted. She also has some mystic abilities and is able to astral project, a useful skill when Alison’s spirit is lured from her body and trapped inside Bessie’s kitchen.
There are dark forces at work in the valley. An ancient evil spirit, locally called the Duergar, is intent on causing havoc. It wants Rose’s life force and is willing to go to any lengths to get it.
The idea of fusing modern ills such as BSE with the supernatural is an interesting one. In this case, it doesn’t quite work. The main reason is that for most of the novel, the two aspects are entirely separated, with the source of the infected cattle only being revealed towards the end of the novel and the perpetrators of the BSE crisis only getting a minor walk-on part in the final round-up. They should have been more prominent.
The other problem with the novel is the number of viewpoint characters. The plethora distracts from the real focus and thrust of the action. Some, like the snooping journalist looking for a juicy story, are actually redundant. Their presence neither enhances the story structure nor changes the outcome of the plot. That is down to Rose and Isobel.
While it is good to see the traditional tropes of horror re-emerging from the miasma, it is a shame that the plot was not more tightly focused here as Gus Smith is actually a very capable writer and is able to portray character very effectively. It will be interesting to see how his career progresses.
(pub: Monico, London. 321 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-909016-23-1)
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