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As you may have gathered from my recent review of his retrospective collection Pictures of the Dark, I am a big fan of British horror author Simon Bestwick. So I was pleased to find that he's got a second novel out this year - The Faceless. Bestwick's short fiction just keeps getting better, but is he such a hot-shot when it comes to the long haul?

The Faceless is set in the depressed Lancashire town of Kempforth, where Anna, a thoroughly closeted lesbian, feels forced to live and work as a librarian due to a string of family obligations. The one good thing about leading a life of agonising loneliness and secrecy is that it leaves you with a lot of spare time in which to pursue hobbies, and history graduate Anna has made it her business to learn everything she can about an abandoned local military hospital, Ash Fell. The place was designed as a centre for treating those most severely damaged by war, including extreme cases of shell-shock and "gueules cassees", i.e. men who've returned from the war minus a face. Kempforth residents all seem to treat Ash Fell as a guilty secret, tucked away in a fold of the nearby hills - it's supposed to be the haunt of the "Spindly Men", terrifying figures who come up from Hell at certain times of the year. To make matters worse, a recent rash of abductions and killings in the town has been accompanied by a spike in sightings of the alleged Spindly Men. Meanwhile, Kempforth-born TV psychic Allen Cowell and his sister Vera are plagued by apparitions from their horrific childhood, who order Cowell to return to their home town to help the police wreak justice on the murderers. When all these strands finally come together in the police station there are fireworks!

In many ways, The Faceless is trademark Simon Bestwick. The novel's main themes have all been explored before in Bestwick's short fiction - the horrors of war, the nature of survival, child abuse and racism all feature here (especially the first three.) His short fiction typically goes for the jugular, and he manages to sustain the same level of harrowing horror throughout most of the novel, which is pretty unusual. In these days of cultural escapism Bestwick's blend of supernatural and real terrors is very welcome, and there is just the right balance of grit and fantasy. As someone who has lived in the North for many years, and who has grown somewhat tired of its endless attempts at gentrification, I was pleased to see the spotlight being trained on the sort of town that Lancashire County Council really don't want tourists to know about. Kempforth is one of those incredibly grim north-west towns where no-one even dares to be a goth or a gay for fear of getting stoned to death, and where a few families of incredibly tenacious Muslims and Hindus provide the only evidence of modern-day cultural diversity. But of course, life stopped in the 80s for towns like Kempforth, so you shouldn't expect modernity anyway. Bestwick's fictional town is still intensely realistic (think Dewesbury or Blackburn), and reminded me of how glad I am about swapping Preston for Sheffield!

The first three-quarters of the novel are very entertaining, as we watch the bodycount rising all over Kempforth and then follow a varied and potentially interesting array of characters as they explore the "delights" of the vast dark military hospital complex. In the later stages of the novel, Bestwick zooms out and has the shit hit the fan on a national level. He has done this before (in his novel Tide of Souls and several stories), and it does provide the opportunity for some nice trenchant sideswipes at our Islamophobic government and populace, plus the evocation of an evacuee camp in chaos is well done, but ultimately I think that this focus-pull is a mistake. It's not too jarring - in fact, the spread of Ash Fell's evil feels inevitable - but it does lead Bestwick to eschew deeper character development. He's got a cracking cast of people, so this is a real shame. I would particularly have liked to know more about Anna and Vera. The ending feels hurried and lacking in the sort of detail that would make it convincing, and in the past few pages there is a big leap forward in time and place that really doesn't work at all. A lack of "closure" is certainly realistic - tidy endings don't occur very often in real life, after all - but a good writer should still strive to make their novel artistically satisfying, with a feeling of real conclusion, and Bestwick doesn't really do that. Everything about it screams "sequel", but I'd much rather have a single, slightly longer book that took time to fully explore the characters and themes.

That said, The Faceless is still a good read. If Bestwick seems at times to have bitten off slightly more than he can chew, it's mainly because he has crammed his novel with too much good stuff to fit its length, and not because he's an inept author. His enthusiasm and his lean, casually devastating writing style are a great antidote to the "bloated doorstop" school of horror writing. And not an elf or wizard to be found anywhere! Gritty urban horror is nothing new, and Bestwick may not yet have attained the technical virtuosity of contemporaries like Conrad Williams or Simon Strantzas, but well-written horror novels about war are rare and I'm pretty sure The Faceless will stick in the memory of all its readers.


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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