Gary McMahon's The Concrete Grove (2011) is disconcerting little standalone - combining the grim reality of urban poverty with the supernatural horror of ageless otherworldly entities. It is, in short, exactly the sort of book you shouldn't read on the tube at night.
"The Concrete Grove" is the accepted nickname for Hailey Fraser's new council estate home. The estate, with the decrepit and towering Needle at the center, is the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder - "the bottom of the pile" as Hailey's mother phrases it. Hailey, 14, is a bright kid and a sensitive one. Although she puts on a brave face, she knows that she and her mother, Lana, are in trouble. At home, Hailey escapes with the television. Outside of her front door, she keeps her head down and walks as softly as possible. Her only real privacy comes when she sneaks into the abandoned rooms of the Needle - a meditative escape under tons of crumbling cement.
Although a pencil sketch of Hailey (smart, pretty, 14 and a bit gothy) makes her sound like the prototypical urban fantasy heroine, she's not actually all that likable. She's strong for her mother's sake - at least, she thinks she's being supportive - but from Lana's viewpoint we see Hailey as distant, uncooperative and very often cruel. The opening chapter concludes dramatically with Hailey blacking out while adventuring in the very darkest part of the Concrete Grove. There are strong inferences of some sort of eldritch possession going on. However sweet she may appear (and honestly, she doesn't seem all that sweet), the book essentially begins with a narrative caveat emptor. This girl is not to be trusted.
Nor are the rest of The Concrete Grove's cast any more trustworthy. Lana is trying desperately to hold things together, but due to her (deceased) husband's foolishness and a few of her own dodgy decisions, she's wound up in debt to a local gangster, Monty Bright. Lana is caught between her nostalgic middle-class pretensions and the awkward (and cruel) reality of her surroundings. When Hailey starts to go... funny... Lana loses her last point of stability. This, of course, leads into the third protagonist - Tom. Tom is a rarity because he's from the outside of the estate. He encounters Hailey at random and then finds himself drawn to her mother. His own marriage is failing and he becomes swiftly obsessed with the beautiful, seemingly-distressed Lana. She's an adventure to him, and he needs an escape.
Tom, like Hailey, is attuned to the supernatural. He sees things where things ought-not-be, and spots bizarrely misshapen figures gallivanting on the edge of the horizon. Even when he's outside of the Concrete Grove, his visions follow him home, and, soon, nowhere is safe from these nightmarish apparitions. If Lana is the only one of the three not plagued by entries from the Dictionnaire Infernal, she's also the one with the most pressing real world problems. Loan shark Monty Bright is a squamous horror in and of himself.
Previously, I struggled with the unlikable protagonist of Mr. McMahon's Pretty Little Dead Things. The Concrete Grove, to some degree, is also populated with unempathetic people (although they generally fall under "confused but struggling" rather than Thomas Usher's "self-loathing"). However, unlike Pretty Little Dead Things, that's a more comfortable fit in this novel. For one, there's no pretense at a recurring, or even heroic, protagonist. Although not quite a morality play, The Concrete Grove is a self-contained drama about a group of lost souls clawing some breathing room at the "bottom of the pile". There's no victory or mission - just survival.
Also, Mr. McMahon has erred wisely on the side of realism instead of immediate engagement. Hailey, Lana and Tom aren't nice, good people that we're supposed to connect with - they're eerily accurate pencil portraits of real people with hyper-real problems. Real people don't need to be nice or good, they merely need to be understandable. In the case of The Concrete Grove, they occasionally achieve "admirable", but that's all that's required.
Like Pretty Little Dead Things, The Concrete Grove is also an adventure in continuous bleakness, but, again, that morbid tone fits this book well. Both the real and the supernatural elements are, in a word, horrifying. The first chapter alone contains enough trauma to last for a series. Mr. McMahon applies more pressure from there, grinding down the characters until they either explode or are crushed. From visions to missing televisions to demons in the woodwork to terrifying gang violence, The Concrete Grove is a series of shambling steps heading towards a cataclysmic conclusion.
Mr. McMahon primarily uses the supernatural as an added layer of horror. A character will enter a room or casually look around and then, like the Layar app of the damned, eeeeevil will swim to the surface. There's a lovely simplicity to the mechanic. Occasionally, unpredictably, someone blinks and monsters come through the television. More often, they don't. The trick falters somewhat at the book's conclusion, when a bit of rationalisation occurs. Fortunately, although the Big Reason becomes (murkily) visible, most of the individual terrors remain pleasantly unknowable. To his credit, Mr. McMahon also doesn't fall into the Needful Things trap of crediting the actions of the characters (white hat or black hat) to the supernatural influences. People, permeated by the all-Horror or not, are held accountable for their own actions.
As Mr. McMahon paints it, the reality of the modern class system has become indistinguishable from the fantasy of Lovecraftian monsters. There are soulless predators, screaming prey and a universe packed with indifferent bystanders. There's no happy ending - only escape. No victory - except survival. No great acts of significance - only individual sacrifice. Overall? The Concrete Grove might be a miserable picture of the world, but that didn't stop me from thoroughly liking it.
The Concrete Grove was released on 14 July from Solaris Books. Cover art by the always-amazing Vincent Chong. If it didn't give me nightmares, I'd buy it as poster.