Book Review: The Three Books by Paul StJohn Mackintosh

“The first in Black Shuck’s Signature Novella series, it’s a fine start to the run. And as an introduction to Mackintosh’s work, it’s an excellent showcase for his obvious talents.”

 

Paul StJohn Mackintosh is one of those writers who just seems to quietly get on with the business of producing great fiction. Though he may not be a name immediately recognisable by those who enjoy genre, he is nevertheless a prolific and widely published author. With a career spanning quite a few years, he has produced shorts, novellas, and poems in a wide array of styles and venues and is also a translator and reviewer. If you haven’t yet read any of his work, then you really must rectify that; and where better to start than his most recent release, The Three Books through Black Shuck Books.

Firmly situated in the literary/quiet end of the horror pool, this novella is a subtly affecting look at a variety of themes. Some of these include the cult of celebrity, the hypnotic power many famous—and infamous—people have over others, and the often pathological and sociopathic mindset displayed by driven, gifted individuals. It is also a love letter of sorts to books, writing, and the process of creativity itself.

Beginning with our protagonist, Sophia Amory, we meet her as she is preparing to examine the legend of one Desmond Carvill, a mysterious poet, for her university post-grad assignment. Carvill has been incognito for years, and a shroud of nebulous rumour and speculation hangs over his whereabouts and activities. He is the author of two highly-acclaimed volumes of poetry, and a disappointing third which many regard as not even having been produced by his genius. Sophia’s searches and investigations throw up ever more mysterious and strange myths surrounding the poet; and then, she is suddenly offered the chance to actually meet him. In agreeing to the stringent and binding terms of a contract, she puts herself on a journey which takes her into the very heart of dark desire and creativity.

Straight off, the story is beautifully written. The prose, the clean and measured writing draws the reader in with ease. We are introduced to Sophia via a quick few paragraphs of back-story and exposition, before a number of key scenes flesh out her character. She is someone who is deeply in love with the world of fiction, a substitute for a lonely childhood. It is inevitable that an individual like her would be drawn to the charismatic figure of Carvill. There is the sense that she is searching for meaning and purpose in her literary endeavours, and in life, and is possibly prone to hanging her needs on less than stable pegs. And where Carvill is concerned, she starts to display what amounts to obsessional behaviour. No-one can dissuade her from her task; not her friends, not the dissertation committee.

Mackintosh ensures the story never veers too far from Carvill, even before he takes the stage. Right from the start, his enigmatic presence haunts and infuses the book. In fact, he doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through the story. In the build up to this anticipated meeting, we follow Sophia and her amateur investigation. An investigation which uncovers far more than anyone else has ever been able. It might almost seem contrived except there is the lingering sense Sophia was meant to find this man. Not in any predestined way, but, without spoiling the latter part of the book, in that she is the type of ‘muse’ he goes for. This sense of subtle suggestion and ambiguity permeates the novella. Nothing is necessarily straightforward; there are layers and layers of meaning to be had, as long as the reader is prepared to dig a little. Beneath the skin, one might say…

For example, on the surface, the relationship between Carvill and Sophia—once they meet—might seem, at first glance, to lie in the realms of gothic romance. Erotic fantasy, only far better written than most. Yet as the finale slowly looms, and the final outcome begins to coalesce, it is clear Carvill is a predator. He is charismatic, yes, but he is also narcissistic, serving only his own needs and desires like any true psychopath. It soon becomes clear—to those readers who are sharp of eye—that Carvill is a most dangerous manipulator. Deadly, in fact. It gives the story a weighty amount of the psychological thriller. Yet it is also definitively a horror story. Perhaps this is another example of its multi-layered aspect; it can be read by a wide variety of reader who might see different things from others. And though it shifts into very dark territory towards the end—recalling the finale of the film Martyrs to similar great effect—it doesn’t feel jarring or shoehorned in. It works in context and from what has preceded it. But regardless of how it is read, it is a story which remains in the mind long after it’s finished. Yes, the themes and content could easily be examined on a far larger canvas (hopefully not one like those in the book), and there is enough here for a novel-length work. But equally, this version of the story as presented is perfect for its aims. And that, ultimately, is the hallmark of a great story; no matter how dark or unpleasant it gets, if it is well-written and conceived, the reader will always want more.

The first in Black Shuck’s Signature Novella series, it’s a fine start to the run. And as an introduction to Mackintosh’s work, it’s an excellent showcase for his obvious talents. His writing, his imagination, his ability to lay out a well-paced and intricate story in only 100 pages is a great testament to his skills. Here’s to more from this writer, and—hopefully—to longer works.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Black Shuck Books (Great British Horror)
eBook: (108 pps)
Release Date: 9 April 2018

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