Sunday 4 October 2009

Rain Dogs, by Gary McMahon

Three years ago Guy Renford found a knife-wielding burglar in his baby daughter’s bedroom. He forced him down the stairs, then out of the house, and smashed his skull to pieces on the road outside (it’s never quite clear why he feels so guilty about this!). He’s now out of the clink and hoping to reconnect with his family, but the family of his “victim” have other plans, plans that get out of hand. Rosie is an ex-stripper, planning to leave her abusive American husband after her latest trip to the hospital. She can see dead people. Chapters generally alternate between Guy and Rosie, eventually bringing them together.

This is a good book, but it lacks a bit of polish, especially in the first half. There are too many wasted words (“for the marriage they’d shared which had been doomed from the outset”, p. 68; “She filled the kettle with water from the cold tap”, p. 123), too many stock phrases (“low moaning sound”), and too many places where a phrase could have done with a bit more work, such as “he’d been moulded by familial abuse into a fractured human being” (p. 68). Worst of all is an early scene where Rosie’s abusive husband rapes and then tries to kill her, with “the tip of his now softening member poking out of his trousers like the moist snout of a curious animal” (p. 66). Inappropriate, trite and gross in a single sentence!

There are other problems: Bella, Guy’s wife, makes an absolutely ridiculous decision towards the end of the book, throwing herself and her child into appalling danger at the least provocation to set up an exciting conclusion. The book features that unwelcome speciality of male horror writers: a woman being killed by something entering her vagina – previous entries in this unlovely series include slugs in the work of Shaun Hutson and stretchy vampire penises from Brian Lumley. It’s also a bit repetitive early on, its flashbacks to the backstories of Rosie and Guy having a tendency to lay out the broad strokes before returning to fill in unnecessary detail. The ending is unsubtly telegraphed three quarters of the way thanks to that old horror canard, the magic professor who knows exactly what you need to know; the only question is who precisely will survive.

Then there are a few plain errors, like “You’ve been watching too many Jennifer Lopez movies-of-the-week” (p. 53) – it should have been someone like Melissa Gilbert, since Jennifer Lopez doesn’t do TV movies. The word “hovel” (p. 79) seems to be used to describe a town. A three or four-year-old girl is said to be “regressing to infancy” (p. 188) which can’t have been a long journey. And there’s a glaring mistake on the contents page. The overall impression is of a book that was rushed to publication.

Nevertheless, I really liked it, and with only Ramsey Campbell’s Thieving Fear to go it was very much in the running for my vote in the British Fantasy Awards.

From the half-way point it becomes much better: basically, once things are happening and the writer has something to describe other than people moping around. The last hundred pages are exceptionally exciting. Every scene featuring the Rain Dogs of the title terrifies, their power and brutality unforgettable. It’s all about the implacability of water, and McMahon conveys this in a way that’ll resonate with anyone who’s suffered a leaky roof or a dripping tap (never mind anything more serious). I was also glad to read a BFA-nominated novel that wasn’t largely set in London. The depiction of a father’s feelings for his child is spot on, something it shares with One, by Conrad Williams, who contributes a foreword to this book.

Though the ultra-modern cover set me up to expect something a bit more edgy, this is a good, traditional horror novel in the vein of early James Herbert. It could have done with a bit of touching up here and there, but most of those issues could be easily fixed and I very much doubt that this will be the last edition we see of this novel. As a £25 limited edition hardback it was maybe a little out of its depth, but as a cheap paperback it would knock your socks off. It would make an absolutely fantastic film.

Note that the best way to get a copy of this book now is direct from Gary McMahon, who bought up the stock when Humdrumming went out of business.

Rain Dogs, by Gary McMahon, Humdrumming, hb, 224pp.

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