Book Review: Witnesses by Anthony Watson

“The story is one which harks back to those classic novels of the 70s and 80s, with its use of occultism, the impending ‘end of the world’ scenario. There are shades of James Herbert, touches of Graham Masterton, even hints of Clive Barker.”

 

Newly released from Crowded Quarantine Publications (run by Adam Millard, himself a very prolific and capable writer, and his wife Zoë), comes Anthony Watson’s debut novel, Witnesses. Anthony is an active participant in the small press arena having, until recently, been one half of publisher Dark Minds press (alongside Ross Warren). He has also had a number of short stories and novellas published, and now takes his first steps into novel territory.

Witnesses follows a number of disparate characters across various times in history, as each comes into the same strange ability; the gift of perceiving auras around other people. Though not all are able to make full sense of this unsettling new talent. Captain Church, in the battlefields of the First World War recounts his experiences in almost analytical terms, whereas Dilly Chambers—living in mid-40s Virginia—slowly becomes more and more fearful of what’s happening. Then there’s Dave Charlton in the present day, who wonders if he’s going mad. All he wants to do is crack on with his thesis, not be subjected to hallucinations or symptoms of a possible fragmenting mind. Interspersed with these narratives are the atrocities committed by one Carl Dreschler, an officer in the German army, also in the First World War; and a second person account which follows, mainly, a detective investigating a series of atrocities which seem unconnected to the overall story. There is also a hint of impending Armageddon in each timeline.

It’s an unusual way to structure a book; there are no chapter headings to inform the reader of which narrative is taking place at a given time, and only scene breaks are used to split the sections. Initially, this is hugely confusing, a distraction which hampers the reader’s ability to fully immerse themselves in the story. However, a few dozen pages in, the patterns emerge. Most easily identifiable are those parts from the point of view of Captain Church, the only first-person narrative. But even that disappears about halfway through, replaced by third person. Despite the ambition, and whatever reasons the author may have had for doing this, the book should—in this reviewer’s opinion—have had indications as to which narrative was which.

This stylistic decision is also hampered slightly by the fact that the sections are quite short. Barely does the reader have time to get to grips with where they are and what’s happening, than the focus shifts, disorienting them again. It’s a shame, because each thread feels as though it needs more time to breathe, more space to build up intrigue and depth. In addition to this, Watson seems to have a tendency to overwrite in places, hammering home descriptions and actions beyond what’s needed, and slight tendency to overuse such phrases as “he could see”, “she could hear”, detracting from the immediacy of the story. These, coupled with the occasional awkward sentence or word choices, have the effect of pushing the reader away from the story. The book does feel as if it needs another editing pass, to tighten up those places which are a little loose, and expand those which feel rushed over or underdeveloped.

As to the story threads themselves; the varied settings are nicely depicted, though the voice tends not to vary too much. Captain Church’s written accounts have, for the most part, a nice old-fashioned feel to them, but this seems to be the author’s preferred style anyway, as it permeates the other narratives also. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The impression one has reading the book is that the present day tale is the main one, with the others acting as a kind of subtle form of exposition, giving background and flesh to the main narrative. And this works, for the most part, though it does have the disadvantage of some repetition, especially as each goes through similar arcs of confusion and discovery; essentially, we are reading three or four novelettes/novellas following similar patterns. Only the details differ. Perhaps the novel would have benefited from opening up the present-day part, and pushing those others to a more background role?

Yet there is still much to enjoy, here. The story is one which harks back to those horror novels of the 70s and 80s, with its use of occultism, the impending ‘end of the world’ scenario. There are shades of James Herbert, touches of Graham Masterton, even hints of Clive Barker. Certainly, in the first half or so, there is a lot of fun to be had, in the various character moments, in trying to work out—as some of the players are—just what is going on. It lends the story an impetus, a drive to push on. And though there is violence—it is, after all, a horror novel in the ‘classic’ vein—it is surprisingly restrained. Those scenes seem to shy away from depicting gore and brutality in full glory. And as the revelations come, it ramps up the stakes for the various characters.

Unfortunately, the denouements fall just a little short of the epic conclusions they should have been. There is a sense that the book is a little too short for the story it depicts, that there could have been so much more wrought from the concept. Without spoiling the ending(s), it’s actually a very well-conceived idea. With a little more work and space, it could have been truly epic. In this, are the seeds of what Barker used to do; a huge, original, yet achingly familiar, mythology, with resonance and infinite scope. What it feels like is more of a missed opportunity; to really create something huge and intimidating, to dive deep into a whole new mythological creation. It’s certainly not a terrible book by any means, and will no doubt find an enthusiastic readership.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Crowded Quarantine Publications.
Paperback: (258 pps)
Release Date: 31 January 2018.

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