Underground Reading: Pageant by Lee E. Wells

Underground Reading: Pretty Little Dead Things by Gary McMahon

Pretty Little Dead Things Pretty Little Dead Things (2010), by Gary McMahon, is none of the above. Except, in the purely definitional sense, "a thing". Perhaps a more accurately eponymous title would be "Savage Gory Bleak Things". The book follows Thomas Usher, a down-on-his-heels private eye with eerie psychic abilities. He's also a mess. After a car accident killed his wife and daughter (15 years ago), he physically recovered, but the rest of him ain't all there. 

Some part of the accident changed Mr. Usher, and now he's able to see through the veil and stare at dead people. Or, more accurately, they can come through and stare at him. They can't talk, but through a series of hand gestures and physical cues, Usher is able to decipher their needs. Desperate for any reason to keep from joining their ranks, he clings to this as a Purpose. Usher sets up shop as a detective and goes to work - putting the dead to rest and the living behind bars. At least, in theory.

What Usher really does for 15 years is a bit of a mystery: this is all background, revealed in flashbacks throughout the book.

By the time the events of Pretty Little Dead Things kick off, Usher's renounced his abilities (don't worry, they haven't renounced him). To make ends meet, he's following the daughter of a local petty criminal, making sure that she doesn't cavort too much with her thuggish boyfriend. She doesn't cavort, but she does get up to something naughty - and Usher is the one stuck walking in on her hanged body. A quick chat to the police and he learns that she's just the most recent victim of a mysterious killer.

The rest of the book is a chronologically-jaunty stride towards a Dunsanian conclusion involving the summoning of Forbidden Entities. Usher does a bit of poking around, then we poke around in the history of Usher. There's a concerted effort on the part of the author to unload the entirety of Usher's past and present within these pages, which makes for a dense kind of horror story. And, as far as the mystery is concerned, Usher's biography matters. As he quicky comes to realize, everything in his life is tied up in this series of crimes. It is a flattering and oddly medieval world view: everything that goes wrong in life is the result of a single, personally-attentive demonic power.

Mr. McMahon's Leeds is a wonderfully awful place - a grimy, cancerous sprawl with a few chain hotels peeking out above a soup of council estates. Usher always feels threatened and his paranoiac mood swings are reflected in his bleak surroundings. There are other artistic touches as well. McMahon's "hoodie" villains are a cheeky representation of the middle-class fear of the nameless hordes of ubiquitious youf. And, better yet, when taken at face (or faceless) value, they're terrifying - slightly squashy minions of evil with real horror lurking beneath the hoods.

More often than not, however, these legitimately scary elements are buried under a flood of angst-ridden prose. Thomas Usher is a man-mountain of melodrama and speaks and thinks in lingering sighs. There are a few whiskey-sodden moments where he's almost Chandlerian, but, for most the time, his relentlessly depressing introspection is straight out of a teenager's secret diary.

Not to say that Usher shouldn't feel sorry for himself - let's be honest, he's had a pretty shitty life. But our hero can't even take a phone call without telling the reader that "the line hummed, as if distant winds were blowing and I had suddenly been connected to their dim wailing" (85). Nor can he enter a room without remarking that "she followed me, leaving the door open - perhaps subconsciously, as an escape route if the emotions held tight within the place became too much for her to bear" (224). Driving downtown to talk to his cop friend? "Just when I was trying to slow things down, the world was spinning faster than ever. None of it made any sense; I felt lost inside someone else's bad dream" (150). Nope, apparently that's just downtown Leeds.

It is too much. Perhaps that's the trick to horror - the text needs to establish some level of banal reality in order to provide contrast as the dark begins to rise. Usher finds "dust and shadow; mourning and memory" just by entering his own home - no wonder he contemplates suicide every ten pages (40). With that as the baseline of the first-person perspective, it is tough for the reader to muster up more despair for the upcoming apocalypse. At least it'll put the protagonist out of his misery.

Pretty Little Dead Things is simply too much of a bad thing; a little bit of it goes a long way. Mr. McMahon has a real talent for creating sinister landscapes and horrible monsters, but they're lost in the book's ceaseless ennui. Similarly, the tide of tragic epigrams shows off Mr. McMahon's ability as a wordsmith, but sowing them in every paragraph turns Usher into a self-conscious and unlikable narrator. The reader is never given a chance to appreciate the pretty little things in Usher's world before they're taken away.