Book Review: Maniac Gods by Rich Hawkins

“Another sterling example of Hawkins’ talent and continuing evidence that he deserves a place amongst the very best of horror writers.”

It could be argued—and argued well—that horror is in something of a boom period just now. Movies are plentiful in the theatres and streaming platforms. More horror-themed TV shows are available or in the works. And in fiction, there are possibly more works of diverse variety available than ever before. In addition to the bigger, traditional publishers, small presses and self-publishing have allowed voices to be heard that might not normally receive a platform. One of the best presses currently operating in the UK are The Sinister Horror Company. Since their inception only three years ago in 2015, they have striven to produce excellent books to rival those by far bigger companies. They are dedicated to bringing a wide variety of talent and styles to the reading public. And one of their biggest stars is Rich Hawkins. Hawkins should need little introduction to This is Horror readers. He is one of the best of the newer wave of British horror writers, with a singular vision that pursues absolute dread and bleakness, with carefully placed scenes of highly-affecting violence amid the all too ordinary domestic lives of his characters. Currently, he has three novels under his belt (the so-called Plague trilogy), numerous novellas (including the terrifying King Carrion, also from The Sinister Horror Company), and various short stories. His latest novella is Maniac Gods, a deft mix of pagan, cosmic, and extreme horror, with a touch of the literary.

Opening with a section that essentially serves as a very long prologue, we are dropped right into the midst of strange and terrifying events. Albie Samways receives a disturbing call from his wife, Kathleen, from whom he is separated. In the face of her strange words, “ ‘It is open. It is all open in the thin places…’ ”, he drives to the village she lives in with their daughter, Milly. There, Albie encounters a variety of nightmarish scenes: Monstrous creatures hidden by darkness; people seemingly possessed or hypnotised, scarred and insane; and a figure in a bronze mask who seems to be the epicentre of this madness. Following his encounter with this person, Albie loses much of his memory, and we jump forward five years to find him living in a squalid bedsit, traumatised and broken and alone. He is plagued with visions of his experience, fragments of memory, and the disappearance of Kathleen and Milly, along with the entire village. But when Milly returns, seemingly unaged, Albie will have to confront the terrors of his past.

Hawkins just seems to get better and better with every release (and considering how good he was to start with, this is no mean feat). No stranger to the grim and desolate, he really piles on the misery in this one. Right at the outset, we know we’re not going to get a comfortable ride, and Hawkins really delivers. From the sense of futility and cosmic indifference, to the mental, emotional, and physical pain wrought upon the players, the book feels like a pure distillation of Hawkins’ literary talents. With only a few polished sentences, he is capable of showing the reader the most horrific of visions. With just a handful of well-placed words, he creates three-dimensional imagery far more affecting than reams and reams of clumsily detailed violence. And the atmosphere is pervasive, inescapable. An ever-present tone in the majority of his work, here it is dense, cloying, invading every page of the book. In fact, it might have been overwhelming were it not for the incisive writing. This is Hawkins’ gift and skill; the ability to pen clear-cut, immersive prose that pulls the reader in immediately, yet is also rhythmic and poetic. The novella is peppered with such wonderful examples of his writing. Here is just one quote:

“A dream followed, in which a chorus of tortured voices bayed and wailed from abyssal depths. Sheer agony in the cries of the lost ones within the void. Their pain was beyond comprehension.

In those black depths between worlds, they were hunted by gods and abominations.”

Hawkins also wastes little time on superfluous scene-setting. Every word, every sentence is in service of his vision and the tale’s intent. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for quieter moments, for less fantastical events. As Albie and Milly go on the run, to escape the acolytes of Doctor Ridings (the man in the bronze mask), they visit the parents of Kathleen. They attempt to give Milly a small taste of normal family life, even in the midst of her impossible reappearance at the same age she was when she disappeared. These small moments of domesticity serve to enhance the peril, to make the tragic occurrences all the more devastating. We come to believe in these people and feel for their plight, all while knowing every action and move is pointless. In this, the story could be read as a metaphor for the most cynical of outlooks on life; that we have no control over our existence, that any choices we make have little consequence on the world. That we can be swept away in a moment, forgotten, un-mourned. In Hawkins’ world, hope is a fairy-tale, a child’s toy only held onto by the most naïve or desperate. Of course, these themes are woven into the narrative, as opposed to laid bare, stark and obvious. Though it could be argued that most horror examines similar topics, only differing in intent and outcomes.

But it’s not all misery. There is much more here, from the inventive monsters and twisted humans to the tender moments between father and daughter. Then there is the original mythology, something Hawkins endeavours to create in every story he writes. Even when he is tackling a well-worn trope such as vampires (King Carrion), he puts his own unique spin on it. And here, he is creating it wholly from scratch. Wonderful stuff from the author and all beautifully presented by The Sinister Horror Company. The whole package proves that small presses are more than capable of competing with the bigger publishers. From the striking cover design by Vincent Hunt, to the solid layout of the interior, to, of course, the fantastic story itself, it’s a lovely, well-made book. Another sterling example of Hawkins’ talent and continuing evidence that he deserves a place amongst the very best of horror writers. And another fantastic release by The Sinister Horror Company, who are racking up an impressive back catalogue in genre fiction.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: The Sinister Horror Company
Paperback: 200 (pps)
Release Date: 14 July 2018

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