Book Review: Carnies by Martin Livings

The reader is left firmly within the author’s grasp.’

carniesThe merits, or lack thereof, of utilising a prologue in a novel are a common topic of conversation on writing forums and study courses. However, when used well, as in the case of Carnies by Martin Livings, they can serve both to hook the reader and allow the author time to introduce the main characters gradually without the pressure to engage the reader with forced action.

The prologue here sets up that all is not right in the town of Tillbrook and in particular with the folk from the nearby Dervish Carnival. Livings quickly paints a picture of the environment as he introduces the rowdy clientele of the Tillbrook Pub, a group of bikies settling in for a session, who rub-up some of the locals the wrong way. Expectations are neatly subverted as the prologue reaches its violent conclusion and the reader is left firmly within the author’s grasp.

The accomplished prologue buys the author time to slowly introduce his two main characters without the pressure to force too much action onto them before their personalities and the circumstances of their involvement have been properly established. Paul Hampden is stuck in a rut. Jobless, and with an ever diminishing desire to find one, he spends most of his days on the couch watching trashy movies and hocking his possessions to get from day to day, including his camera, which was the one thing that may have given him scope to earn a wage. He is shaken from his lethargy by the offer of some photography work from his brother David. A seasoned journalist whose career is on a downward spiral, David Hampden is intrigued by a notice he receives imploring him to investigate the Dervish Carnival. He sets off with Paul in tow in the hope of obtaining enough interesting detail to warrant a feature piece and hopefully gain some new traction in his career.

The bickering nature of Paul and David’s relationship is nicely established on their road trip and the author also teases out details of their backstory to give a strong sense of the dynamic and how each regards the other. It’s a very real and believable relationship that goes a long way to grounding the more esoteric events of the story and aiding the establishment of suspension of disbelief in the reader. It is a technique seen in a great deal of the successful horror novels of authors such as Stephen King, Adam Nevill, Alison Littlewood and Gary McMahon amongst others.

Their first visit to the Dervish Carnival ends with them being escorted from the premises, but not before their interests have been piqued in very different ways. David is left intrigued by the Carnies themselves and how they have managed to survive for over a century whilst Paul is left beguiled by a mysterious fortune teller named Rachel. The creepy, mysterious atmosphere of the carnival is masterfully conveyed and leaves the reader likewise intrigued to discover the truth lurking beneath the façade the carnies have carefully constructed through the decades.

Compelled to return later that evening, in the hope of another meeting with Rachel, Paul uncovers some of the secrets of the Carnies and their true nature. The reveal of their Lycanthropic nature is nicely handled with the calm, almost matter-of-fact, way in which the group is introduced to Paul, helping to subtly establish the hierarchy of the pack and the rules they live by without the need for condensed passages of exposition.

Livings utilises some of the familiar features of werewolf stories, such as their aversion to silver and the dominance of the alpha male, whilst also introducing his own elements to the mythology, such as the ability to decide to remain either in a werewolf aspect or the human form. He also rewards the patience of the reader over the slow-build of the opening half with a frantic second, which ratchets up the tension and the action and propels the reader towards the explosive conclusion. The climax is such that it creates a resolution to the narrative that makes this a satisfying self-contained story but also leaves the potential for further stories involving Paul, David and the folk of the Dervish Carnival.

ROSS WARREN

Publisher: Cohesion Press
Ebook (248pp)
Release Date: 14 April 2014

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