My last review admitted to my lazy habit of choosing a book by the cover. After finishing this excellent short novel, I feel I have moved on a little, because whilst this cover would never tempt me usually I picked it up due to the synopsis anyway. Sorry, Tachyon, but your choice (assuming it was yours) of anonymous young female with harsh font is more suited to a genre of dead-young-woman-evil-murderer kind of crime fiction that leaves me as cold as the corpses it throws on the slab with each lazy, amoral and uninspired airport carousel-infesting back cover blurb. 'A beautiful woman is found in the woods..'. Really? Your brain decided to create, then share, that brain-fart of a plot-starter with the world? Get off my planet.
But wait! A few cracks and marks on the cover's face hints at something odder than the usual bland killer-thriller retreading. And I hope the passing book-buyer can see past the cover because this a story unlike that realm of predictable writing and indeed unlike anything I have read in a while. Gregory (an acclaimed comics and short story writer as well as award-winning novelist) does with his latest what so few writers I go on a journey with manage to achieve - namely, to surprise. More than that, he dances with his plot and wording efficiently and confidently; very rarely in this book did a sentence jar or plot shift not hit home smoothly. It is not, perhaps, a masterpiece, nor a revolution in the art of writing. Some dialogue falters into flat simplicity. A bit more descriptive detail of the environment would have strengthened the narrative's hold. The fire demon is a bit silly. It is, however, clearly the work of someone who knows where they are going and how to get there without falling prey to trappings of genre.
A group of five strangers are persuaded by a mysterious psychologist to take part in group counselling together. All seem to have been through various surreal and fantastical experiences which have left them scarred physically and emotionally. Harrison was a virtual superhero, fighting monsters from beyond. Barbara and Stan were victims of horrific, freakish torture-murders. Greta and Martin are clearly traumatised but slow to participate. Gradually they and their doctor begin the halting process of therapy, but, less peacefully, outside forces propel them into action. Anymore than this brief introduction would probably spoil the journey but, suffice to say, this is not what you would expect. Sensing a dormant superhero plot? Wrong, madam. Anticipating a overly-sincere adult talkathon in a therapy room? Incorrect, sir.
The tension is held pleasingly. Gregory creates mystery and secrets amongst his cast then depicts the frustration and insecurity those barriers create, and illustrates each character in contrast to the other. Much of the tale is about trust, conflict, friendship and loneliness, and he is careful to only shout about the issues when his characters opt to. Their pasts are, similarly, not headlined, but shaded vaguely, in order to hint at what has happened over time, much like in real therapy of trauma. However, one element of his technique initially intrigued, then confused, then annoyed, and then finally pleased me - he writes in the good ol' third person, yet each section and several other moments are written by hovering first person, who describes the group as 'we'. This narrator figure is intriguing because I was waiting to see who that was, but then confusing because they speak about all the characters by name (with never an identifying 'I'), then annoying because it clearly wasn't an additional wallflower of a character, before finally pleasing, for in it I saw what I imagined part of Gregory's humane philosophy to be.
His story seems to be written by someone who values compassion, diversity and individual freedom, and yet also relishes the macabre, the demented, the cartoonish. This range of focus means that over a few pages he traverses from detailing insane, nauseating torture, to wild imagery, to tender friendship or gentle politeness, generally without missing a beat. In this I feel he helps to colour the world of therapy and psychological trauma with the contrast of extremes and shift of gears such experiences create. This may seem too complex or sincere a basis on which to view a book that involves inter-dimensional fire demons and psychopaths who etch drawings on the skeletons of living people. Yet the author does to my mind manage to juggle the emotionally-believable and the downright bat-shit daft very well. In my brief encounters with people who have endured genuine horrors I can thankfully so far not imagine or understand, I felt this dizzy split between belief and detachment. Is the experience of someone who has seen their family murdered or lost a child any less horrific or vertiginously-outlandish than someone here who has been scarred repeatedly to attract the deadly desires of Hidden Ones from a world beyond? Less silly, more 'real'... but no less impossible to grasp clearly, or view directly.
Along with his compassion for his characters, Gregory has clear empathy for us as weary readers, too - the story is perfectly-brief. Indeed, some have complained that it ends before it gets going. I disagree. It goes precisely where it needs to go and no further. A sequel would be welcome, and yet in some ways a shame. By avoiding the action that eventually erupts in the final pages for the bulk of the short book, he shows his interest is more in human interaction, emotional development and the effects of violence on the psyche, not in describing how monsters do cool things in fight scenes (although he has prowess there). Not the usual Nerds fare that I explore perhaps, but I was delighted by this adventure and will now eagerly search out Gregory's earlier novels. And try in future to see past the covers.
Diagnosis : 8/10
Improvement: +1 an empathetic look at counselling and trauma; +1 still keeping the fantasy and horror entertaining but not gratuitous
Regression: -1 some characters get less development than others and one is jettisoned without enough resonance because they remain too enigmatic
Closure: 9/10 'Very high quality / standout in its category'
Written by English Scribbler, in on-going Nerds treatment since 2013