Visions Of Ruins (NP Novella #9) by Mark West (book review).

‘Visions Of Ruin’ by Mark West is the ninth release in the ‘NP Novella’ series from Ian Whates’ NewCon Press. Although I didn’t realise it when I chose to review the title, it’s not the first book of Mark West’s that I’ve read. Some years ago, I got a copy of ‘Drive’, an earlier novella of his that was published by Pendragon Press in 2014 and thoroughly enjoyed its high-octane story of a mysterious red Audi which decides to persecute other drivers late one night. Does ‘Visions Of Ruin’ provide similar levels of excitement?

The story is set in and around a caravan park on the North Norfolk coast in the UK and it takes place over four days in the late summer of 1985. As the story opens, sixteen year-old Sam Parker and his mum, Carol, arrive at The Good Times Holiday Camp. Carol is a divorced single mother who struggles to make ends meet. They have only been able to get away at all because the static caravan they’re going to stay in is owned by a friend of a friend, who is letting them have it for free.

Fresh from passing his O-levels, Sam was hoping for a more exciting holiday. However, he knows his mum is trying her best, so he puts a brave face on it, despite the entire camp looking well past its sell-by-date. Then a miracle happens! A knock on the caravan’s front door reveals Polly, an attractive and self-confident sixteen year-old girl, who is also staying at the camp. Polly is lonely and bored as there are no other teenagers around, so she offers to show Sam the sights of the nearby town, Barton Point. Sam, who is deeply self-conscious around girls, can’t understand why Polly would want to spend time with him, but is happy enough to agree.

Their visit to town starts brilliantly. They play the penny machines on the pier arcade, have fish and chips on the seafront and realise they’ve both got the same sense of humour. When it gets dark, they are about to head back to the camp when they come across two drunken yobs who are busy smashing up the window of a small local museum of curiosities. When Roy, the elderly owner, comes out and asks them to stop, they attack him. Polly has been to the museum and has met Roy, so she feels honour-bound to step in. Sam backs her up and, for his trouble, ends up getting pushed over by one of the drunks. He hits his head on the pavement and briefly loses consciousness.

When Sam wakes up, he’s got a splitting headache. Polly and Roy are concerned he might have concussion and want to take him to the local hospital, but Sam doesn’t want to worry his mum, so insists he’s OK. Polly helps him get back to the camp, then heads off to her caravan. However, as Sam is trying to locate his one, he thinks he sees a figure in the next field, swinging in the wind. But then the faulty street lighting comes on again and there’s no-one there. Was that the effects of concussion or something else?

Sam and Polly spend the following day together and that evening get invited to hang out with some of the camp’s staff, who are off-duty and having a few drinks. While they’re all messing about, Sam suddenly sees what appears to be a visions of something horrific happening to one of the staff members. When he tries to warn them, nobody believes him, except for Polly and even she wonders if it’s just concussion but Sam knows that what he saw was some kind of premonition. How can he stop it coming true?

I’ll start with an admission. Like Sam, I was sixteen years-old in the summer of 1985. I had also just done my O-levels and I certainly shared his inability to speak to girls. So from the get-go, the story appealed to my memories of growing up during the 80s. Mark West is spot-on with the period details and his descriptions of the setting: a dingy caravan park that’s seen better days, along with the failing seaside town down the road make for a story that feels entirely authentic.

On top of that, what stands out for me are West’s characters. Sam comes across as a fundamentally good kid, who wants to do the right thing by both his mum and his new friend, Polly. He’s no tough guy, so when bad things start happening, his immediate thought is about escape but he doesn’t run. Despite his fear, he stands up for himself and for his friends. At the same time, he’s a boiling mass of teenage hormones which he barely understands. The combination seems all too credible to my memory.

Polly is also a strong and fully realised character. She’s self-confident and sassy, but also kind and thoughtful. Yet half-way through the story, we see a completely different side of her when we realise, even if Sam doesn’t at the time, just how lonely she is, left on her own for days or even weeks on end by a father who prioritises himself over her at every single opportunity. The fact that I wanted to smash his face in by the end of the single brief occasion when Sam and Polly finally meet him in town may indicate how well the author manages to depict his characters, both the good ones and the bad.

I love a good ghost story and I’m pleased to say this is much better than just ‘good’. West sneaks subtle clues into the story from an early point, while simultaneously ramping the tension up one notch at a time. When the supernatural does intrude, it’s initially unclear, both to the characters and the reader, what’s going on. This made me eager to read on, to see if I’d work out what was happening before Sam or Polly did.

Many ghost stories have a ‘twist in the tail’ ending and ‘Visions Of Ruin’ falls into that category. The twist is executed brilliantly and I did not see it coming.

I only have one complaint to make about this story and it’s a pretty minor point. In the first chapter, when Polly introduces herself to Sam and his mum, we find out that their surname is Parker. However, in chapter two, Sam introduces himself to Roy, the museum’s owner, as Sam Cooper. Then in chapter six, Polly comes round to Sam’s caravan on the Wednesday morning and says good morning to his mum, whom she refers to as ‘Mrs Taylor’. I’m guessing the family name changed as the novella was being written and the disparity was never noticed. As I say, it’s a pretty trivial complaint.

Name changes aside, ‘Visions Of Ruin’ is a highly effective ghost story which makes me eager to read more of Mark West’s work. It also reinforces my admiration for NewCon Press’s ‘NP Novella’ series, which continues to demonstrate just how effective stories can be when told at the reduced length of a novella rather than a novel.

Patrick Mahon

June 2023

(pub: NewCon Press, 2022. 112 page small enlarged paperback, eBook or signed limited edition hardback. Price: paperback: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-914953-15-6. Ebook: £ 3.25 (UK). Hardback: £19.99 (UK). ISBN 978-1-914953-13-2). 

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