Thursday, 16 June 2011

‘The Concrete Grove’ – Gary McMahon (Solaris)

So, there’s me going on about how this week is all about ‘comfort reads’ (and that side of things is going well thanks very much) and all of a sudden horror is rearing its head on the blog once more... What’s going on there? If you’re looking for a comfort read then horror should be the absolute last place that you would look. I’d even go so far as to say that if you’re reading horror as a comfort read then it’s very likely that you’re not reading horror at all. Okay, maybe I’ll let you have Stephen King as I will go back and read ‘The Stand’ every once in a while, nothing else though! ;o)

How did ‘The Concrete Grove’ find its way onto the blog, at this particular time, then? There’s a really simple answer, I haven’t read a lot of Gary McMahon’s work (one novel and maybe a couple of short stories, scared the you know what out of me) but he has still managed to swiftly become an author who has my ears pricking up in anticipation whenever I hear that something new of his is on the horizon. I wasn’t going to hang around with ‘The Concrete Grove’ so here it is, a book that maybe didn’t know quite what it was but still managed to push all the right buttons and left me facing at least one night’s disturbed sleep...

Could there be anything worse than living in a run down council estate where your neighbours are all drug pushers and associated other small time criminals? When the estate is home to something older than recorded history, and just now beginning to wake up (and it is hungry), then the answer is a resounding yes. Schoolgirl Hailey is the only person who can contact this strange entity and she will attempt to use it to help her mother’s struggles with vicious loan shark Monty Bright.
Bright has plans of his own though, along these lines, and his pursuit of Hailey could well solve two of his most pressing problems. When Hailey uncovers what lies at the centre of the estate though... all bets are off.

From what I’ve read of Gary McMahon’s work, he displays a happy knack of being able to set his twisted creations to burrowing into your psyche in no time at all. Not only do you have to finish the book but you then find yourself with the prospect of all that fear and disquiet (and many other, sometimes sickening, things) staying firmly rooted in your head for a long time to come. That’s the deal with ‘The Concrete Grove’, a book that wastes no time in getting its claws into the unsuspecting reader. You’ll be caught before you know it but the plot is so intriguing that you won’t really mind at all. And that’s the point where it’s too late to back out. Prepare yourself for an extended period of thinking, ‘did that really happen to him?’ and ‘he was covered in what...?’

It’s a slight shame then that ‘The Concrete Grove’ can come across as not knowing what it really wants to be. There are strong elements of both fantasy and horror running through the plot and McMahon throws himself into each of these elements with equal fervour. The result is a very intense read (more on that in a bit) but it can also feel like these two themes are fighting against each other when they could really do with working together a little more and giving the reader a book that feels more streamlined. Maybe it’s just me but sometimes I do like to know what I’m reading...

Like I said though, McMahon does throw himself into each of these themes with a real passion and the end result has one hell of a lot going for it.
McMahon mixes two worlds together (the real and the fantastic) to come up with something that is truly haunting and compels you to get more and more into it. Rich and well thought out world building lays firm foundations and McMahon lets the two worlds bleed into each other in such a way that you can’t help but pay real close attention to what’s happening on the page. If you don’t then it’s very likely that you’ll miss something very important going on. The stakes are high for all concerned and you’ll find yourself buying into that very easily indeed. There are two more books planned and I can’t wait to see where McMahon takes things next.

It’s the horror element though where McMahon really comes into his own and shines. I guess I would say that as, like I said, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed McMahon’s horror in the past. It’s no less the case here though.
Here is a book with horror oozing out of its very pores and McMahon lumps it all altogether to give his readers something that is deeply unsettling. McMahon combines the soul destroying horror of living in near poverty, the capacity for evil that lives in the heart of men and the supernatural horror of the Grove itself and gives his readers an unrelenting dose of horror that attacks you from all sides. Just when you think you’ve got your head round one of these three themes then McMahon hits you with something else entirely. You are constantly left unbalanced and that’s just how McMahon wants it. The only time you might get that balance back is when you finish the book.

It goes without saying that if you are squeamish at all then this is probably a book that you should avoid. McMahon doesn’t include anything without a very good reason but when he does he doesn’t pull his punches at all and this shows us all to well that perhaps the true horror in this piece lies in just what us humans can be capable of if we want something enough. It’s not pretty.

‘The Concrete Grove’ is a book that fights against itself when it really shouldn’t have to. More than balancing that out though is the delicious edge of horror that will leave you thinking ‘what the...?’ It’s a vicious read with a delicate beauty about it; if you like your horror fiction then I don’t see any reason why you won’t get a lot out of this.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

1 comment:

Carmen Wing said...

Wow. And wow. Great review - I read a horror book recently (The Well by Peter Labrow) where I also found the most horrifying part to be human nature rather than the 'monster.' Another that leaves you still thinking for a long while after. I did a review about it here if you've not heard of it. Think you might like the book. It's not overly gruesome but it definitely gets the bile up in some places.

Can't wait to finish the book I'm on now and start Concrete Grove!