Monday, 18 May 2015

Damned Rite: Melt

When I was a lad a seismic shift occurred in British horror fiction. For years the only living author of horror stories everyone heard of was Dennis Wheatley. Then, as the mid-Seventies became the late-Seventies, James Herbert burst onto the scene.

It's not easy for anyone under fifty to grasp how important Herbert was - he wrote horror that was not encumbered by the paraphernalia of snobbery. While Wheatley's world was aristocratic, replete with country houses and titled savants Herbert's was democratic, inhabited by career journalists, photographers, detectives - regular blokes, more or less.

Herbert also created a new format for the horror novel, one in which multiple perspectives are offered to the reader as a series of (usually very violent) events unfold. Wheatley's approach had been that of the old-school ghost story writ large, in which a small group of upper-crust characters navigate the dark waters of the occult. Herbert routinely produced a cast of characters, some important, some mere walk-ons, who gave his novels the impression of social breadth.

The 'Herbertian' approach is still very much with us, as Damned Rite: Melt demonstrates. Janine-Langley Wood's debut novel is set in contemporary Yorkshire on a run-down council estate where gangs are running amok. Indeed, the opening scene is a powerful description of a harmless young man who has been so callously bullied by teen thugs that he commits suicide in a way as improbable as it is unpleasant.

Things become significantly worse when the demolition of the local Catholic church leads to the release of an evil entity that's been entombed for centuries. Violence on the estate escalates and vigilante justice of a particularly grisly kind is meted out by a kind of supernatural avenger. Cue a series of set pieces in which baddies get their comeuppance in imaginatively nasty ways that are very reminiscent of scenes in Herbert's early novels, especially The Survivor and Shrine. No spoilers from me, but suffice to say that the monstrous entity that enjoys killing is well-realised and its methods are gory enough to satisfy the keenest splatter movie fan.

What the entity is gradually becomes apparent as the history of Rokerville is explored by the main character, a decent Catholic priest who has some problems with violence in his own past. Father Molloy is a sympathetic, well-rounded character who is confronted by what seems, at first, to be an angel in his church. The truth is more complex and problematic. It seems that during the Reformation a typically unpleasant bit of religious persecution took place in what is now Rokerville. The historical flashback is not especially convincing, it must said, as the author's strength lies in describing modern characters - scenes set in the grubby world of drug-dealing gang bosses and young thugs have the whiff of authenticity, and are leavened with some fairly dark humour.

Overall, Damned Rite: Melt is a strong debut which packs an old-fashioned punch, while tackling very modern issues. James Herbert, wherever he is, might well be pleased that his legacy is still very much alive. 

1 comment:

A K Petterson said...

By Jove! I am definitely going to read this morbidly attractive production! A very fine introduction to this most presumedly delightful masterpiece, I must say! How ghastly exciting to make the acquaintance of a malevolent entity which has been entombed for centuries! Smashing! With love from André