High John the Conqueror, the latest novel by Tariq Goddard – author, founder of Zero Books and Publisher at Repeater Books, is a strange brew – in large part a gritty British police procedural, partfolk horror / urban wyrd, political commentary and psychedelic trip-literature.
Set in Wessex in 2016, the book follows a team of detectives as they investigate a series of teenagers going missing from council estates in a provincial city and pursue a rumour that wealthy individuals are kidnapping the youths as sex-slaves and perhaps even sacrifices for orgiastic rituals. This premise is fed by Goddard’s political reflections as is a factor of numerous Zero and Repeater books. The debate of class divide and exploitation of the poor by the privileged is pertinent to the book’s plot and for the most part, the political message is delivered without preachiness, but I do question whether the prolonged discussion between a police investigator and a wealthy, powerful suspect is a realistic conversation but it does serve a purpose of exposition. Otherwise the book, which is led by a lot of dialogue paints believable characters. One issue I had with it, which may not bother most readers is the names of the police officers. Though I think it’s fine to pay tribute to inspirations in naming characters, for me the nomenclature of the individual coppers was too much. I visualise books strongly, and once a worm has burrowed into my brain I find it difficult to dislodge and as the officers were named after cult musicians – in one scene featuring a number of cops I pictured members of Coil, Psychic TV and the Banshees all dressed up as police officers. It does add to the surreal aspect of the book I guess, but alas for me was difficult to dislodge the image from my mind which distanced me a little from the story.
The combination of neo-noir police procedural and folk horror evokes thoughts of The Wicker Man and David Pinner’s Ritual, and other elements of the book reminded me of the Ben Wheatley films Kill List and IN THE EⱯRTH, but High John the Conqueror is also its own beast. The High John of the title referring to a natural psychoactive substance that only grows at lengthy intervals and when it does demands attention. This powerful drug is deeply entwined with the disappearance of the teens, but is far more strange and sinister than any recreational drug being peddled on the streets and across county lines.
Hallucinatory yet gritty, Goddard’s novel is a genuine portrait of Britain’s shadowy underworld but intensified to a psychogenic peak. Scattered throughout are scratchy, flowing line drawings which have a feel of automatic art to them. As a big appreciator of books featuring illustrations, I approve of this – actually I’d have liked it to feature more drawings, but kudos to the inclusion of book art.
When I read fiction, my mind’s eye tends to play out the unfolding narrative as a film. In the case of Lucie McKnight Hardy’s novel ‘Water Shall Refuse Them’ the setting and style adapted itself on the cinema screen behind my eyelids in the manner of a 1970s Play For Today or similar. That is far from a criticism – BBC plays such as Nuts in May, Brimstone and Treacle, Our Day Out, Blue Remembered Hills, Red Shift, Abigail’s Party and Penda’s Fen are high water-marks of British telly.
Anyway like Ronnie Corbett, I digress. Hardy’s debut novel concerns itself with a married couple, their teenage daughter and their mentally impaired infant son taking a holiday at a rural Welsh cottage in the bid to try and deal with the aftermath and trauma of a family tragedy. They discover that the locals are not exactly the most welcoming or friendliest bunch and instead find solidarity with a teenage boy and his mother, who also being incomers to the village are not held on the best terms by the parochial families either. Indeed the mother Janet is regarded as a witch by the villagers; an accusation she does little to dispel.
Her son Mally develops a close and strangely bonded relationship with Nif, the 16 year old daughter of the troubled family vacationing in the Welsh valley and protagonist of the book. Nif is an individualist who is governed by her own rituals and way of seeing. In discussion about the book on a Twitter post, the author Dr Miranda Corcoran drew a comparison between Hardy’s debut and Shirley Jackson’s classic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. For me these are big footsteps for it to walk in as We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favourite novels. I can see the parallels between the works and furthermore without giving too much of the plot away, I think comparisons could also be drawn with that other fine example of Dark Americana /American Wyrd – Thomas Tryon’s The Other. Water Shall Refuse Them does however have a very British personality.
One of the points of comparison between Hardy’s and Jackson’s novels is the presence of an unconventional and troubled young woman as narrator and therein lies a personal feeling and also intriguing topic of thought in that whilst I like Jackson’s protagonist Merricat Blackwood, I just don’t like Nif. Yes she is an intriguing well-written character but I don’t warm to her at all. But do I need to like the main personality to read the book and enjoy it? Or any book? I think personally the answer is sometimes. For instance, I gave up on reading Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game quite soon into it as I disliked the protagonist and her husband so much. In the realm of film really disliking the central family in Hereditary and the child in The Babbadook are part (not the whole) of the reason I don’t like those films much at all. But then again I did not like the principal characters in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Blair Witch Project, Eyes Wide Shut or Misery (book and film) yet I appreciate those works overall more. Does it matter if you don’t like the characters who you will spend much time with? They don’t have to be likeable for a work to be a success – Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is a prime example of that.
As Water Shall Refuse Them progresses I like Nif less and less. I don’t know if that is a matter of concern with Hardy, whether it is of any importance to her whether the reader likes her main character as a person. And it could just be me – other readers may feel sympathy or empathy towards Nif, but she leaves me cold from the offset. It could be the case that that she is meant to. As the story develops, without saying too much, Nif (and in some instances Mally, whom I never warmed to either) do some rather unpleasant things; so it is perhaps an intention of Hardy for the reader to question how they feel about chief characters instead of just easily slipping into a comfortable synch with them.
In regard to Nif’s actions, as someone who has immersed themselves in ‘horror’ fiction since a child it is possible to become numbed or desensitized to all manner of fiendish happenings, but there are scenes in the novel that did leave me feeling disturbed. This is a credit to Hardy’s writing as these scenes are generally quite underplayed, there is no great crescendo of gore but subtlety delivered, small yet in their way powerfully resonant occurrences that get under the skin. These traits do foreshadow the great reveal, which is not the most unexpected (though I do tend whilst reading fiction or watching films automatically ponder how I would end the narrative were I the writer of it , so do quite frequently see the ‘twist’ coming and wonder if my mind were wired differently would more fiction catch me off-guard) but the resolution of the end happenings does however throw in another swerve ball.
It is not my place nor intention to issue ‘trigger warnings’, but it must be noted that some scenes may especially upset some readers and perhaps provoke them to ask whether they were necessary or at least whether they needed to have occurred several times. That is not a question for me to answer but perhaps for the author to address and certainly for individual readers to make their own judgement upon.
So these points have caused me to mull over the book and would have even if I were not writing a review of it, so it did get under my skin and that is a credit to it. Did I like it? That I need to think over more – I didn’t dislike it, of that I’m sure. I would read it again and I don’t say that of all novels. But it is one that I will need to contemplate more as to my deeper, long-lasting impression of it. Is it a good book either way? Yes I think it is; it is a intriguing debut that makes me curious to investigate Hardy’s future works, so that’s a job well done there. It is a book that reminds me somewhat of some of Benjamin Myer’s novels – scenarios which are simple but effective and hold some moments of strong, sometimes brutal or harrowing but not overworked significance. aving grief, loss and trauma at its heart it also is reminiscent of Will McClean’s The Apparition Phase (recently reviewed on this website Here ). The themes unearthed in Water Shall Refuse them are pertinent to the bucolic uncanny and it is a worthy addition to the folk horror fiction shelf, though because of events described within may indeed be contentious with some readers.
Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy is available to purchase from HERE and other book stores.
To discover more about the writing of Lucie McKnight Hardy visit HERE
The ‘X’ in Generation X (those born roughly between the early 1960s and late 70s/ early 80s) must surely refer to the X certificate formerly bestowed upon horror movies or ‘X’ as in X Files in relating to spooky paranormal mysteries. The other title bestowed by writer and broadcaster Bob Fischer upon the folk born of these times – ‘The Haunted Generation’ would seemingly confirm this. Maclean’s novel, ‘The Apparition Phase’ is set in the 1970s and pays homage to the creepy things that deliciously traumatised those of us of a certain age. Told from the viewpoint of Tim Smith, reminiscing on his teenage years in that era, we see that as with the title of Dave Lawrence and Stephen Brotherton’s excellent encyclopedic work about those times, our narrator is indeed ‘Scarred For Life’. The tale begins with Tim and his twin sister Abi plotting to fake a photograph of a ghost. Their inspirations for this experiment / prank are the photos that I would flick past fast and then slowly sneak back to look at in Usborne’s ‘Mysteries of the Unknown: Monsters, Ghosts and UFOs’ (despite my Catholic education and unbeknownst to the nuns, the true bible of my youth) – those being the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (a semi transparent figure descending some stairs), the Spectre of Newby Church (a tall, skull faced monk near an altar) and the one that possibly freaked me the most, the Chinnery car (the dead mother-in law in the back seat). In creating this hoax, they stir up more than they can ever expect when they show their creation to a girl at their school who, unknowingly to them, is sensitive to otherworldly happenings.
As the story progresses (through events I will not spoil for you) we are taken to a paranormal investigation conducted in an old large house in the countryside. This aspect of the book is very reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and Richard Matheson’s ‘Hell House’ novel and subsequent cinematic adaptations. But despite this familiarity, Will Maclean does mark the proceedings with his own voice and creates a page-turning tale that will evoke nostalgia in many of us Generation Xers but would also likely appeal to young adult readers now as its themes of ghosts, grief, haunted minds, mystery and coming of age are timeless.
The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean Publisher : William Heinemann (29 Oct. 2020) Language : English Hardcover : 416 pages ISBN-10 : 1785152378 ISBN-13 : 978-1785152375
The Snow Witch is both a haunted and haunting book. Though not a ghost story as such, it is swarming with ghosts – the ghosts of the past, the ghosts of winter, breath ghosts. From the bleak frosty shore to the black, black sea, Wingett tells the tale of a lonely, insular refugee from the east of Europe who finds herself in the cold season days of a British seaside town. There she encounters strange kindness but also becomes the victim of a harrowing experience.
The tale is infused with humanity at its rawest, its nastiness but also its generosity. Like a favourite author of mine – Ray Bradbury, Wingett skilfully paints a scene in words with painterly strokes; in my mind when reading I could see the twinkling of the model village lights in the darkness of the drawn in evenings and feel the bite of frost upon my fingers. I found myself immersed with the events playing out in my mind like images upon a cinema screen; for me that is the mark of a skilled writer. Also adept and engaging are the characterisations of the figures prevelant in the narrative – from the enigmatic otherworldliness of Donzita, the enduring grief of Celia, the shy awkwardness of Eddy, the wilful desperation of Vee and the low, selfish cruelty of Riley.
At times The Snow Witch is raw, unafraid to confront the unkindness of life but it also shines the beacon of hope and illuminates magic and maintains its air of cold, ethereal beauty throughout.
The Snow Witch is available to pre-order from here and here