(NB this is a review of an eBook so all you Luddites might as well go and play with an abacus, card some wool, or buy a new spokeshave, whatever that is...)
'The heart's the trouble...'
Gemma Farrow's novella begins with a burial. Thomas digs a grave for Keziah, his beautiful girlfriend. She has asked him to bury her under the willow where they liked to picnic together. In eight days Keziah will rise from the dead, and they can be reunited. She told him this herself, and stressed that her grave should be shallow.
This is a remarkable vampire novella (one that scores coolness points because it never actually mentions the v-word) by one of the rising stars of British horror. It's a simple story, but carries a lot of emotional weight. Thomas and Keziah are a happy young couple and very much in love when Keziah has a nasty encounter while out clubbing. Thomas can't at first believe that the wound inflicted on his girlfriend was from anything more(!) disturbing than an assault by a possibly deranged thug. But, as we learn is a series of flashbacks, Keziah has fallen victim to one of the undead, and must be buried in a shallow grave if she is to rise again. If not... Suffice to say, the consequences for Thomas will be appalling.
For a straighforward tale, this one can be interpreted in more than one way. The attack on Keziah that poisons her blood can be seen as a horror on the concept of rape as a 'fate worse than death', for instance. Arguably, there's even a touch of the sitcom, given the hapless Thomas' inability to follow his forceful girlfriend's quite simple instructions. But there is precious little lightness here, even in scenes involving Thomas and his good natured workmate Jonathan. The overall mood is darkly Gothic, the setting a pared-down and dangerous urban Britain, the characters largely sympathetic but fated to damage or - in the case of Thomas' sensible older sister - fail to understand and help one another.
Gemma Farrow writes with great emotional intensity, imbuing her characters with life (and afterlife) in only a few pages. Lesser writers have spent far more time struggling to convey the essential horror of losing someone you love to something evil and incomprehensible. Here the author delivers the goods by showing that love is at once unique and commonplace, familiar and yet always deeply strange. Above all, it 'makes you do the wacky', as Buffy remarked somewhere.
A poet once observed that we instinctively want to believe that love will survive death. Farrow shows the likely consequences if that should turn out to be true - the needs of the dead can never neatly dovetail with those of the living. As Keziah's transformation begins Thomas' reactions are all too credible - driven by a combination of love and fear, he can never be sure he is acting for the best, that he can 'save' Keziah or indeed himself. The conclusion takes the story full circle, as Thomas is confronted by his own failings as much as by Keziah's transformed self.
It's not perfect, of course. At times the prose is a little clunky or purplish for my taste, but I find that that is often the approved horror style. (And at least there is none of the 'gore porn' that some writers think is wondrously clever, but which in fact tends to be boring, repetative, and immature.) And - inevitably - the vampire lover theme will be too clichéd for some readers. My reply is, give this one a chance. I think the author avoids the latter problem by showing how brutal, inhuman and generally non-sparkly vampires are in her world - a neat corrective to all the Twilight stuff. All in all, this is a good read from a writer to watch.
Beneath the Willow is available for Amazon Kindle at a very reasonable price.