Most surprising of all is the way the story is written. The language McMahon uses is very descriptive, and he imbues the story with a kind of dark animism which relentlessly erodes any definite boundaries between this world and the other, the living and the dead.
The latter first make an appearance in the life of Usher following a tragic car accident in which both his wife and child are killed. While he is in hospital recovering from his injuries, he sees an apparition of a young man who died in a motorcycle accident, thus beginning his initiation into what he comes to believe is both his duty and a curse: a role as a psychopomp - a guide to the spirits of the departed. This was fifteen years ago, and the effect of those events still resound in his life. The ensuing narrative moves between the past and the present to show how the two are related.
In the present he still sees dead people, although never his wife or daughter, and he uses his skills to help investigations where the normal methods of enquiry are thought unsuitable. In the latest, Usher is hired by a local gangster to keep an eye on his wayward daughter, Karenna. She is soon found dead by Usher - hanged. Three other women have died recently in similar circumstances, and the police inspector assigned to the case calls in Usher, a friend of sorts, to seek out hidden clues. Usher is also retained in employment by the girl's father. Later an old flame returns from America and asks for Usher's help in the search for a missing relative, a young girl feared abducted from a local housing estate. Somehow all these things are related, his past and these crimes.
Pretty Little Dead Things is a kind of crime/horror hybrid, it reads a lot like an investigative crime novel, but the horror elements of the story dominate. In fact this is a largely unrelenting book. It's grim in just about every way imaginable, and really quite nasty especially towards the end. Thematically there is an occult aspect to this tale that goes beyond the obvious actions mentioned in the story. The suggestion that consensus reality masks many others, a common theme found in mystical and occult traditions worldwide.
Thomas Usher himself is not always the most likeable protagonist. The book is told in the first person, and I found him annoyingly despondent at times. I get that having lost your family and with dead people refusing to leave you alone, most people would be friggin despondent too, if not insane. But his languid and florid rumination that finds misery in the most mundane things, does at times detract a little from the pace of the story.
That said, and as mentioned previously, McMahon uses language in a way which creates a very nebulous sense of reality, and here Usher's observations work well to create an ever-present sense of looming darkness. This also combines well with his description of grey urban landscapes in Northern England. McMahon draws out the darkness of contemporary urban life and gives it form and substance. Boring though comparisons are, I feel I should mention that there is a touch of Clive Barker, and even a whiff of H.P. Lovecraft about this book. For those who know who he is, I was also reminded occasionally of Stephen Gallagher. Comparisons are tedious though, especially in the case of McMahon, who I think has an authorial voice that is one of the most interesting I've read in British Horror for some time.
Despite the fact that Usher is a relentlessly miserable git, I think I'm going to like his exploits. Beyond the main story there is an additional short Thomas Usher tale included at the end of the book which I enjoyed. Pretty Little Dead Things itself wraps up to a solid conclusion and I think it does an admirable job of establishing the background and character of Usher. I loved the sense of the liminal, and the way this is brought to bear in a modern context. Usher's tingling and warding tattoos for example, or the Nazgûl in a hoodie occult hoodlums. Overall this is a strong debut for Usher, and a striking read from McMahon. I have no doubt his is a voice that will be unsettling our perception of reality with dark musings for a good while to come.
Pretty Little Dead Things
By Gary McMahon
332pp, Published by Angry Robot, UK Paperback £7.99
Also available as an e-book.