Friday, 4 May 2012

Review: Graeme Reynolds, High Moor (Horrific Tales Publishing, 2011)

High Moor is the debut novel by UK writer Graeme Reynolds. The book – told in three parts – tells the story of John, Michael and Marie (though mostly John), three friends who live in High Moor (near Durham) in the North East of England. Part 1 (set in 1986) begins when the protagonists are children, spending their time making camps and dens in the woods, and being terrorized by Malcolm Harrison and his gang of sadistic little thugs. One night, when Michael and Marie’s older brother David returns alone to their treehouse to retrieve some tools, something awful appears from out of the woods...

That’s right (in case you hadn’t guessed, given my usual material), High Moor is a werewolf novel. And it makes no bones about it. Before we even get to Part 1, the prologue, set in 2008, reveals a man who struggles to keep himself contained during his monthly transformation, an attack on a man out walking his dog, and a news report about the return of the ‘legendary High Moor Beast’, thought to have been killed over twenty years earlier. As we are taken back to 1986, we can’t help but feel a certain sense of fear for the children who play in the woods. And sure enough, it’s not long before one of them falls victim to the ‘High Moor Beast’. As the story unfolds, we find first David, and then Michael and John having to face this lycanthropic foe.

Added to this, High Moor has a policeman who goes against his superiors after realizing they are dealing with werewolf attacks, and the grizzled ‘expert’ he drafts in to help him, but who is haunted by his own past experiences with werewolves. Cue lots of silver weaponry and tethered goats used as bait.

Make no mistake, Reynolds’s werewolves are old-school: good old-fashioned, rip-your-throat-out lycanthropes. These are the creatures we know from The Wolf-Man and An American Werewolf in London, and the book has echoes of both films throughout. Only at a couple of points are we led to feel any sympathy for the attacking werewolves, though we identify with the humans who are turned following a bite.

It’s actually been a while since I’ve read this sort of werewolf story. I think I put that down to the fact that I read more female werewolf fiction, and female werewolves have a tradition of their own (which is a subtle plug for the book I’m putting together on this very subject, of course). But I think I’d also forgotten how much I enjoy this type of story. Don’t get me wrong, I do like a good ‘sympathetic werewolf just wants to find love’ tale. And I’m fascinated by all the stories out there about werewolves living (passing?) amongst humans. But, sometimes, you just want a creepy ‘there’s something lurking in the woods’ book. And Reynolds doesn’t disappoint on this score.

High Moor is a well-written adventure/horror, with a believable cast of characters and a nice dash of local colour. I have to admit, being in my early 30s, I enjoyed the 1980s setting of the first two parts of the book. It was evocative without being cloyingly nostalgic. Some writers do tend to go a bit overboard with presentations of the 80s – loading paragraphs with too many references to TV, technology, celebrities, music. Reynolds is a bit lighter in his touch. I loved the reference to the kids copying Spectrum games onto cassettes for one another, but these little period details didn’t detract from the overall story.

More seriously, Reynolds also includes some details that allow the story to avoid certain genre clichés that can be more problematic. Specifically, this comes in his inclusion of ‘gypsies’ in the narrative. Some people who have read some of my other reviews might know that the ‘gypsy’ in werewolf and vampire fiction is something of a pet peeve of mine. They are often used in a lazy way that panders to certain racial stereotypes. Now, the gypsy characters in High Moor have a lot in common with those in other werewolf fiction – particularly in their role as ‘keepers’ of lycanthropic knowledge. However, Reynolds adds just enough ‘reality’ to offer a bit of a challenge to the cliché. For example, when a character encounters the ‘gypsies’ for the first time, they (specifically the woman he meets) seem to be of the usual sort: ‘Dark, curly hair flowing down her back, curves in all the right places, and amber eyes that looked straight into your soul.’ Nevertheless, the man’s reaction seems more ‘real’, given that he is meeting the woman in 1944: ‘To tell you the truth, I was surprised to see anyone of Romany origin in the area. Most of them had been rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the death camps at Jasenovac.’ Back in the UK, ‘gypsy’ camps are presented more as our familiar ‘travellers’ camps’, rather than a romanticized version common to werewolf/vampire fiction. This causes one character to wonder whether people are suspicious of them because they know there are werewolves around, or because they are just generally suspicious of travellers.

If I had one criticism, it would be that the ‘bad’ werewolf that appears in the third part of the novel is a bit too powerful. In the world that Reynolds has created, werewolves can build up amazing power and skills, but this appears to be the result of years of living with the condition. The final showdown, though, features a newly-made werewolf who comes pretty close to defeating lycanthropes who have had a couple of decades to learn how to fight like a werewolf. I understand that this is necessary for a good climactic showdown (otherwise the fight would have been over pretty quickly!) but it seemed a bit hard to believe that this werewolf had become some a formidable foe so quickly. Nevertheless, perhaps I am being a bit unfair here, as the earlier parts of the novel had definitely set up that this character was pretty nasty as a human, maybe this would account for his brute strength as a werewolf? There’s a line in another werewolf novel (I think it’s Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver, though I could be wrong) that states ‘angry people make bad werewolves’, and I think that certainly holds true in High Moor.

Overall, High Moor is an accomplished first novel. The writing is well-paced and enjoyable, the characters engaging and the ending intriguing (and definitely points to a sequel). This is not the most original take on werewolves. But though the reader is on familiar ground, it is well-loved ground, and this is no bad thing. For a first release from a (very) small press, High Moor is really promising, and I hope to see more from Graeme Reynolds and Horrific Tales Publishing.

Read my interview with Graeme Reynolds here

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