Tuesday, 2 October 2012

‘The Ward’ – S.L. Grey (Corvus)

Given my innate ability to damage myself in increasingly stupid ways (electrocuted myself on the Christmas lights, dislocated a shoulder getting up to answer the door) I’m a pretty big fan of hospitals and what they do. There’s always a hospital nearby that will patch me up and send me on my way without laughing at me too much :o) At the same time though, hospitals can be pretty scary places (for any number of reasons) and so become an ideal place for writers to base a tale of terror. Abandoned or run down hospitals are favourites here, it’s been years since I watched ‘Session 9’ and I still can’t get that film out of my head…

I was pretty pleased then to see that S.L. Grey was following up ‘The Mall’ (a deliciously weird horror that I thoroughly enjoyed, despite a slightly lacklustre ending) with a sequel set in a hospital. ‘The Mall’ was unsettling, to say the least, so I had high hopes for more of the same.

I got what I was hoping for; not all of it but more than enough to make ‘The Ward’ a read that I couldn’t help but eye nervously, even when the book was closed and on the shelf… If you were a fan of ‘The Mall’ then I think you will find lots to enjoy here. Blurb copied and pasted because, well... It's late in the day and I just want to get this posted!

Lisa is a plastic surgery addict with severe self-esteem issues. The only hospital that will let her go under the knife is New Hope: a grimy, grey-walled facility dubbed 'No Hope' by its patients.
Farrell is a celebrity photographer. His last memory is a fight with his fashion-model girlfriend and now he's woken up in No Hope, alone. Needle marks criss-cross his arms. A sinister nurse keeps tampering with his drip. And he's woken up blind...

Panicked and disorientated, Farrell persuades Lisa to help him escape, but the hospital's dimly lit corridors only take them deeper underground - into a twisted mirror world staffed by dead-eyed nurses and doped-up orderlies. Down here, in the Modification Ward, Lisa can finally have the face she wants... but at a price that will haunt them both forever.

‘The Ward’ isn’t your typical horror novel. Sure, there is not only a hint of the grotesque but also images that are a whole lot more than hints. These include several moments that show the reader that life on the upside can be just as visceral as it is below (although ‘Downside’ adverts occupy a visceral niche all of their own). If I wasn’t exactly jumping at what lay down those dark hospital corridors, things were tense enough for me to silently implore Farrell and Lisa to turn round and go back the way they came. The payoff isn’t what you would expect from a typical horror story though. There isn’t that burst of adrenalin as a monster leaps out and tears someone’s face off. What ‘The Ward’ is all about is that creeping sense of dread you get when you know something is wrong but none of your questions are being answered (and all credit to S.L. Grey stretching this out over the whole novel). The eventual payoff can be seen coming a little too far away but this somehow adds to the dread. You can see what’s coming but, in the meantime, you must watch Farrell and Lisa’s struggles only ensnare them more deeply.

What ‘The Ward’ is also about is that sense of the weird you get when a familiar setting is spun ever so slightly off centre only to show us how weird our own lives can be. Half the reason ‘The Ward’ feels so sinister to the reader (well, this reader) is because we’ve all worked in a similar bureaucracy to that which oversees the Downside. You have no idea what’s going on half the time other than that management has approved it. The beauty of this approach is that the familiarity of these rules fool both the reader and Farrell and Lisa into thinking that it is possible to negotiate with the Downside ‘Administration Board’. This, of course, drives the plot in a terrifying new direction that forces both characters to make some tough decisions.

If the conclusion seems a little too inevitable (and it can do) then the sudden change in dynamic between Farrell and Lisa more than makes up for this. Interesting developments arise as one is forced to confront just what they will do to stay ‘upside’; the other will slowly realise that the place for them has always been below ‘No Hope’ Hospital. Passages veer between the harrowing and the crushing inevitability of what it means when your face literally doesn’t fit; a change in pace that succeeds in keeping you hooked just when it matters the most.

You can see the ending coming and that did take away some of ‘The Ward’s’ tension for me. This was balanced out though by a bleakly atmospheric that forces you down strange corridors and into a nightmarish world that is all too familiar. That and a new found respect for reading the small print before signing a contract…

Nine out of Ten

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