Book Review: Before by Paul Kane

“If you enjoy losing yourself in a well-written supernatural thriller with strong elements of horror, curling up in your favourite reading spot with this book may well be the perfect way to spend a long winter evening or two.”

A fan of horror, science fiction and fantasy from a young age, it should come as no surprise that Paul Kane has a strong love for speculative fiction. He has carried this passion into his own work, from his first mass market novel, Arrowhead (Abaddon/Rebellion, 2008), a post-apocalyptic retelling of the Robin Hood legend which spawned two further novels, to the bestselling Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell (Solaris, 2016), pitting Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective against Clive Barker’s Cenobites (Barker himself is quoted as naming Kane “the resident Hellraiser expert”, which is quite the accolade). He is also the author of numerous other novels, novellas and collections, as well as contributing to many anthologies. His latest novel, Before, has been described as an epic fantasy, but it certainly has its fair share of horror, with Barker’s influence evident in a few scenes.

Before we get into the main story of the here-and-now, Kane adds a little backstory to the mystery beginning with a couple of chapters set in the 1970s. The first takes place in a psychiatric hospital in Germany where English doctor Patrick Vaughn is treating an enigmatic patient in a state of catatonia. Then Vaughn is summoned urgently to the hospital. The patient, Johann, is showing signs of life. Then, in the next chapter, a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam jungle are seemingly on a mission to rescue some POWs. But one of their number knows their true objective. For the Infinity feeds on war and devastation, and it will stop at nothing to maintain its power source. Readers may feel that these two chapters have little or nothing in common, but they lay the groundwork for the epic story that is to unfold. A story that, for the reader, begins in the 1970s in Germany and Vietnam, doesn’t find resolve until present-day England. These opening chapters also show us something about the style of the book; it is a story intended to draw the reader in, to be immersive. While the story is told in a contemporary setting, Kane must build up his dark fantasy framework, hinting at the history of the Infinity and those who oppose it,

Bringing the story into the present day, we meet university lecturer, Alex Webber, a deeply unhappy man who seems to be in the midst of a dark depression. It is his birthday, and he is miserable. Not least because he feels that he is growing distant from his wife, Beverly. They appear to have very little, if anything, in common and the spark seems to have vanished from their relationship. At first, it is difficult to feel any kind of sympathy for this human doormat. But the reader’s interest is piqued by the terrible visions he experiences with increasing frequency. The world around him begins to blur and transform until he sees people dressed in clothes from hundreds of years ago. And the scenes are usually from a battlefield or some other bloody altercation. Eventually, the visions become so vivid that Alex hurts himself, and finds himself referred to a psychiatrist, Dr. Ellen Hayward. At first, Alex’s case seems to be one of depression and self-harm. But as Hayward digs deeper and witnesses his reaction to the visions, they are forced together in a quest for the truth.

Unfortunately, it is not only Dr. Hayward that shows an interest in Alex’s visions. The Infinity can sense Alex by the visions, suggesting that there is an underlying power of which Alex is unaware. Accompanied by his psychotic sidekick, Lucas Peck, the Infinity tracks Alex like a homing signal every time he has one of his episodes, gradually narrowing the search area until the inevitable climax. While it may seem like we are simplifying the plot of this near 500-page book, this is only to steer clear of spoilers. As well as taking time to introduce the elements of dark fantasy to what is best described as a good old-fashioned adventure story, Kane also does a wonderful job of developing his characters, to the point where Alex, seemingly undeserving of our compassion at the beginning of the story, quickly grows into a sympathetic character before developing into a formidable leading man. Similarly, Dr. Hayward never comes across as a stereotypical psychiatrist; with a complex backstory and unorthodox medical style, she soon proves to be an integral component of Alex’s story. And the villains are no less interesting. The Infinity is truly iconic, reminiscent of King’s Randall Flagg (a comparison that has been noted elsewhere) or even Sauron, given his ability to influence men in power to feed his own. Peck presents as a stereotypical psychopath sidekick, yet Kane conveys the true extent of his vicious and heinous character, especially the scene in Alex and Beverly’s living room. The description of that particular scene is especially chilling, and vivid.

Before is epic in scale, building steadily towards a thrilling finale. The characters all evolve organically, and the descriptive language employed by Kane, especially in the action scenes, is quite cinematic. If you like your horror fiction short and to the point, this may not be the book for you. If you enjoy losing yourself in a well-written supernatural thriller with strong elements of horror, curling up in your favourite reading spot with this book may well be the perfect way to spend a long winter evening or two.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Grey Matter Press
Paperback: (510pp)
Release Date: 4 September 2017

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