A group of 80s teenage freaks and geeks suffer the daily torments of bullies and parents, until one of them decides to summon a demon from beyond. As is often the case, the amateur occultist soon finds that the entity is impossible to control, leaving bodies in its wake, sometimes headless, sometimes in smaller pieces. Instead of schoolyard bullies the kids now have to deal with a homicidal otherwordly monster as well. Ain’t middle school a bitch.
Set in a drowsy seaside resort town that’s seen its glory days pass by long ago, Mark Morris’ debut novel is a distinctly British affair with a large cast of lifelike characters. The kids of the Horror Club, a group of four kids who are all into horror movies, take the center stage, with Richard the bespectacled nerd leading the way, with shy Nigel and zit-faced Robin forming the core of the team. The newcomer is Adrian, also known as Toady, a Cartmanesque character who displays a similar lack of morals in summoning the evil entity. It’s notable he manages to do this with books loaned from the local library, so hooray for the library system!
The second-tier characters, the parents, the neighbours, a local pensioner psychic, the local bullies and the surprisingly understanding policemen aren’t discount versions of their archetypes, instead they all come across as well rounded individuals with desires and ambitions and lives beyond their purpose in the novel. Many of them, of course, end up as entertainment for the creature, whose motivations are harder to pinpoint due to its limited understanding of human concepts.
It’s awfully interested in gore though, manifesting itself in a variety of monstrous forms. Here Morris displays an affinity well beyond the confines of classic horror favoured by the Horror Club and closer to the modern, bloodier style of Clive Barker, a frequent comparison. It’s an interesting match that works well, bridging the tone of classic horror with the edgier contemporary flair. The more everyday human horror also works well, with the bullies and their switchblades perhaps proving even more disconcerting than the deeply alien horror.
Alas, Toady does drone on for 700 pages, which is about a third longer than is necessary. The final section, with a comatose dreamworld dilutes the tension and squanders the ingredients. The events get murkier while the plot starts to repeat itself and there is no real buildup to the ending, the novel simply seems to run out of fuel. It should be mentioned that Toady was the young author’s first novel, so some uneven quality is expected. However, the good outweighs the negative, with the first half of the novel delivering a well-developed world populated with believable characters facing interesting monsters both human and inhuman.