Friday, 16 September 2016

Review: Spoiled Children by Philip Hemplow

Yikes. I'm well behind on these...

Continuing on my horror bender, next up was Spoiled Children, three eldritch novellas - also available independently as Sarcophagus, The Innsmouth Syndrome and Ashes.

So, I never actually found Lovecraft's own work scary - well, apart from 'The Rats in the Walls', and that was less "cringing in terror" than "dry-heaving for an hour". Other than that, it was all just a bit meh. I mean, they're great stories, but I'm not going to wigged out by some massive monster just because its name doesn't have a quite enough vowels and it's so godawfully terrifying that, to solace yourself, you decided to abuse a thesaurus.

As studies of loneliness and paranoia they are glorious, as twisty tales of atmosphere and pleasant frisson, I really enjoy them, but they aren't enough to get me starting at shadows, or send my mind pulling itself apart in genuine disturbance. Yeah, the universe is big and scary and uncaring, but there's only so many times you can read about a genteely destitute, neurasthenic young white man stumbling upon unspeakable horrors and realising this before you stop really caring. If I were to imagine the kind of person most likely to be driven mad by the horrors of the abyss, it would be precisely the sort of people Lovecraft's protagonists tend to be. The rest of us have more pressing worries.
In that way, Lovecraft's fiction lacks a human element. With no point of empathy between us and the person experiencing the described horrors, there is no fear.

With this in mind, Spoiled Children is fucking terrifying.

Hemplow writes well, at times strikingly so - acid rain leaving brickwork "as pockmarked and powdery as a Renaissance syphilitic" - and his stories are relentelessly modern, embracing 21st century strangeness and conflict. We go to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, deal with the corruption of post-Communist Russia. We see a Centre for Disease Control and Prevention rep sent to a recession struck Innsmouth, or big money transforming the rural English landscape. These settings, jobs and proceedures are fantastically realised, giving a sense of rigorous research without ever info-dumping. The world is not a vague, Gothic backdrop - it is our world, with all its safety nets and preoccupations.But this is not the Spoiled Children's real strength.

No, its real strength is in his characters. Hemplow's protagonists are vivid, alive. These are not ciphers who are so obviously going to fall prey to entities from beyond the abyss that you don't bother to get attached. They involve you, from the first page, with their struggles, ambitions and goals. These are people with relationships, jobs, priorities and failing relationships. They have friends and money worries and interests. Their survival is important to you, the threats to them upsetting.

More than that, by bringing in this human dimension Hemplow brings the horror of Lovecraft's heartless universe right in to your own life. It all seems horribly plausible, raising the possibility that - outside your own, warm bubble - there are dreadful things, resting in uneasy sleep.

My favourite story in the collection, for several reasons, is Ashes, a grand culmination of both character work and creation of terror. With a main character who is both pathetic and unlikable it would be a compelling study of desperation and betrayal, even without the supernatural elements. But it's all the better for having a cracking weird fiction plot. For a further kick of vicarious dread, it had a scene which horrified the medievalist in me, just as the more conventional horror aspects delivered their kick. (Put the fish slice down, woman. Put the fish slice down.)

Brilliant as the book is, I cannot say that it's flawless - some of the 'action' scenes feel a little rushed, and the endings, although earned and convincing, feel rather abrupt. However, these are minor complaints against what is an altogether fresh and immensely satisfying collection of stories.  

Spoiled Children engages your heart and your brain, not merely your pessimism. In all honestly, it's one of the best things I've read in the genre. Give it a go.

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