Sunday, 29 April 2012

Review: Simon Bestwick, The Faceless (Solaris, 2012)

The Faceless is a new horror novel by Simon Bestwick, and published by Solaris. Set (mostly) in the Lancashire town on Kempforth, it tells the story of the investigation into a series of missing person cases, and the apparent appearance of the local bogeymen, ‘the Spindly Men’, previously only known as a nursery tale used to scare children. The blurb on the back of the cover promises that it will be ‘a breath-taking tale of the supernatural’.

I must admit, I was a little worried about reading this book and writing a review. Simon Bestwick was one of the writers I contacted in my role as Project Co-ordinator for Hic Dragones, and, as a result, he took part in the Manchester Monster Convention that my company organized. Simon was a great guest speaker – funny, engaging and supportive – and his novel, The Faceless, sounded so fascinating, so I was just a little bit nervous… what if the book was disappointing and I ended up having to write a bad review? That would have been awful!

Fortunately, and I’ll say this upfront, my worries were completely unfounded. The Faceless is well-written, compelling and utterly creepy.

Although the missing persons investigation is an important part of the plot, this is not a police procedural story. Sure, as detectives Joan Renwick and Mike Stakowski (and the rest of their team) begin their search for four people who don’t seem to have much in common – except that the ‘Spindly Men’ were sighted around the time each one disappeared – there are moments that will be recognizable from other crime fiction: the team don’t always trust Renwick’s methods; there’s pressure from a boss desperate for ‘results’; the lead detectives are haunted by the demons of their own pasts. However, Bestwick’s detectives (particularly Renwick and Stakowski) are three-dimensional and sympathetic – much more than simply generic stereotypes.

In addition to this, the police investigation is only one aspect of the story. It is intertwined with two other plotlines. The first involves Anna Mason, her brother Martyn and his child Mary. Anna is a local historian who has moved back to Kempforth to be with her family. Early on in the book, Martyn (recovering from a breakdown) has experienced a serious trauma, and Anna is trying to help him cope. After an early confrontation with the ‘Spindly Men’, Anna and Martyn become dragged into the horror that is beginning to engulf Kempforth.

At the same, celebrity psychic Allen Cowell is called by his apparent ‘spirit guides’ to return to his home town and assist the police investigate the disappearances. Allen and his sister, Vera, escaped their brutal childhood in Kempforth years earlier, and had vowed never to return. However, in order to escape his own personal ghosts, Allen must do as his guides instruct and head back to, as Vera puts it, ‘the bastard North’. I wasn’t expecting to find Allen and Vera particularly interesting – as, on face value, a celebrity psychic involved in a police investigation doesn’t seem to be anything too new – but Vera was, probably, my favourite character of the entire novel. The bleakness of the pair’s lives, and the brutality of their history, was really gripping.

These three main storylines weave around one another, before eventually coming together, as Renwick and Stakowski, Anna and Martyn, and Allen and Vera must team up to work out what exactly is going on. Again, while this might seem like a bit of a cliché, there is a fresh and engaging quality to the way Bestwick constructs it. A lot of this is a result of his ability to create real and believable characters. There are no cardboard cut-outs in this book.

That said, The Faceless is a horror novel. And while my own preference might be for horror that is driven by compelling and well-rounded characters, some of you might be wondering when I’m going to actually say something about the dark stuff…

In this respect as well, Bestwick’s novel does not disappoint. I must admit, I was somewhat skeptical about the return of childhood demons as actually figures of horror – I’ve read that in other books, so was not sure whether the ‘Spindly Men’ could go where other nursery rhyme monsters have not gone before. In fact, these are not the real vehicle of horror. Although they are truly creepy creations, they are far from being the most horrific things the protagonists must face. Readers, like the characters in the novel, might initially blame the deaths and disappearances on these supernatural beings, but the truth (as it is slowly revealed) is much, much more disturbing.

As the novel progresses, the cruelty and brutality (some might say ‘evil’) that runs through Kempforth’s history begins to come to light. As Anna Mason’s historical research is added to Allen’s visions and the detectives’ investigations, the extent of the dangers becomes apparent and the protagonists’ search for answers leads them inextricably to the long-since abandoned hospital at Ash Fell. This hospital is at once a grotesque and a chilling creation. Like all good horror locations, Ash Fell has its ‘real life’ historical basis, but it is taken to its ultimate and terrible conclusion. Perhaps, again, this my own personal preference, but it was the historical basis for Ash Fell that chilled me the most, and it was this that lingered with me after I’d finished reading the book. I won’t say any more, plot-wise, as this book has a lot of twists and I don’t want to stumble into spoiler territory – suffice to say, a lot of things are not what they seem.

There is a lot of plot of in The Faceless, but this is not a bad thing. The main strengths of Bestwick’s writing, for me, lie in his constructions of people and place. (As I said, my own preference is for books where I am genuinely rooting for the characters, but I also like to feel immersed in the ‘world’ of the book.) However, I would say that Bestwick has also created a story that is original and memorable, and it unfolds at just the right pace. His version of ‘ghosts’ and ‘hauntings’ is also unusual, and unlike much recent horror and supernatural fiction.

Overall, I highly recommend The Faceless, as one of the best UK horror novels I have read recently. I always slightly distrust reviews of horror where the writer claims to have been left scared after finishing the book, so I won’t say that. I will say, though, that The Faceless left me distinctly unsettled and disturbed. And what more could you ask from a piece of horror fiction?


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