The Weeks that Were
Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Underground Reading: The Leaping by Tom Fletcher

The LeapingThe Leaping (2010) by Tom Fletcher is centered about a group of five unlikely friends - their hopes, fears, unlikely romances and petty internal politics. The story begins in the oppressive sprawl of Manchester and later moves to a remote corner of the Lake District. While in the city, there's a grim sort of security that comes with their surroundings. But once they're out on their own, evil (both internal and external) finds them easier prey.

The book has two viewpoint characters: Jack and Francis. Jack is your genre reader's everybloke. Pretty good looking. Pretty nice. Pretty well-spoken. And, for fun, pretty obsessed with mythology and the occult. He's always interested in seeing if there's more to the world, a not-so-secret romantic spirit. Francis, his friend and flatmate, has an inverted perspective. Francis is terrified of everything - car accidents, earthquakes, commitment, lack of commitment - the list goes on. His biggest fear? Cancer. Like Jack, he's not fully adapted to the modern world. But while Jack seeks higher meaning, Francis recoils in fear. He sees the world as a (literally) poisonous place.

Their flatmates are Graham (big beardy internet-freak and sex pest), Taylor and Erin (the oh-so-cutesy couple). The five of them form an unwieldy but functional social unit in Manchester. They work at a call centre all day then visit the same bars every night. There's a routine - birthday presents, unrequited love, Mario Kart... a sad sort of status quo that keeps everything ticking along.

The grimy clockwork of their lives is disrupted by two new factors. First, Jack spies their line manager at the call centre, Kenny, being... weird. Like really weird. Kenny was always creepy, but his behaviour suddenly leaps up to the aggressive. Second, Jack falls in love. Jennifer works at the call centre as well, but she and Jack meet right as she's handed in her notice (she's inherited money and is off to do artsy-stuff). Jennifer's a bit of a free spirit - in to her art and free love - but Jack falls head over heels (as does Francis, against his better judgement).

Love and fear do their work. By the end of the first part of the book, the atmosphere of Manchester is poisonous to Jack, and he moves to the Lake District with Jennifer. They purchase the (ominous sounding) Fell House and set about building their neo-romantic lives.

But, of course, it never works out like that, does it? The Leaping contains two types of evil: the pressures that consume modern day ordinary Folks Like Us and a horrible timeless horror that eats faces. Unsurprisingly, the twain do meet. Despite the remote location of Fell House, the creepiness and the politics of Manchester both follow.

The first part of the part sets up the internal dynamics and the characters in Manchester. The second moves the cast to Fell House and demonstrates how the new location changes them. The final third is when everything flies into action. As the cork flies off the six-some's tensions, the face-eating evil crashes through the window. There are axes involved and huge horrible monsters and piles of corpses and even the titular Leaping.

Mr. Fletcher has a gift for pacing, and the novel builds up to an explosive crescendo. The author shifts his style appropriately for each section, a bit of literary cleverness that reinforces the accelerating shift from the banal to the Weird. Whereas the Manchester scenes are all staccato dialogue and clipped scenes of bar-hopping and sofa-crashing, the time in Fell House dilates to a less defined, more languorous pace. By the final chapters, Mr. Fletcher's language has shifted into the poetic - fragments of action and long, sprawling sentences of sensation. At no point does the novel bog down in description, everything is filtered through Jack or Francis' awareness, which, more often than not, is utterly self-absorbed.

Where The Leaping falls to earth is with Jennifer, who is simply the Gothic equivalent of the manic pixie dream girl. Jack and Francis both fall for her instantly - blind, wild love at first sight. She's beautiful, which, in most genre books, is already enough to qualify as a dream girl. But Jennifer needs to be more than that. She's at the center of the group's tension and the focal point for the great face-eating evil. But aside from being an airy-fairy foxy lady who believes in free love and likes to sew her own clothes, there's nothing else to her. In Jennifer's defense, Jack does want her to be something she isn't - that is, committed and dedicated. In Jack's defense, Jennifer's treatment of him is abhorrent. Her behaviour ranges from the belittling to the cruel. To put it bluntly, she's lucky she's hot.

And even then, that's not enough. Once the action of the book kicks off, the characters are all called upon to test their resolve, evaluate relationships, plunge bravely into the night (all your horror staples). Jennifer is still at the center of everything and - frankly - she doesn't deserve it. The good guys and the bad guys are both obsessed with her, a devotion that overshadows many of the book's more convincing relationships (Taylor/Erin, for example). 

However, that's the only major flaw. Overall, The Leaping is a cunningly-written and stylish work of horror, in which Mr. Fletcher uses the blinkered view of the first person perspective to create an atmosphere of increasing unease. It has a cleverly-moderated pace and a prowling horde of nasties. Mr. Fletcher skilfully writes a bridge that spans from the painfully real to the fuzzy-edged fantastic, a rare and notable trick.