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Habit by Stephen McGeagh

Habit by Stephen McGeaghPublisher: Salt Publishing
Paperback (176 pages)

Like many great novels Habit cannot be easily placed into a neat genre box. It’s horror, it’s crime, it’s a portrait of urban decay and seedy subcultures, it’s black comedy and its unrelenting grim. It’s not often that a publisher’s blurb will reflect the tone so accurately – after all bigging up your own release is part of the publishing game – but Salt Publishing have got it spot on when they describe Habit as “Bret Easton Ellis. On a writing break in the north of England. And all he packed was Fight Club and some early Stephen King novels.”

McGeagh’s debut follows unemployed antihero Michael who spends most of his time boozing, visiting the job centre and people watching. The opening paragraph provides a brilliant insight into Michael’s ‘people watching’ and also manages to set the colloquial tone which will see readers through the next almost 200 pages:

When she gets on I’ll be able to scope her out again. Well nice. Fit as.

As the story progresses readers are introduced to “a massage place” known as 7th Heaven. From the off, it’s clear there’s something not quite right about 7th Heaven, yet on the first read through it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact problem. Yet, re-read Habit and you’ll see the trappings and groundwork which McGeagh has put in place to direct you towards the unnatural goings on in the Northern Quarter’s massage parlour. It’s also worth noting Habit‘s brilliant depiction of place. It is unmistakably set in the seedy underbelly of the North with nods towards shops and landmarks for those familiar with Manchester and its Northern Quarter.

A minimalist writing style and short chapters ensure that this is a quick read – the strength of the hooks and turns in the narrative guarantee that you’ll breeze through this as you long to uncover what happens next. Habit‘s cast is similarly minimalist ensuring no stock characters or filler. Joining Michael are the staff at 7th Heaven – including possible love interest Lee – his best mate Dig, his sister – and sobering influence – Mandy, and the ‘you best not fuck with me’ owner of 7th Heaven, Ian.

When the major reveal is unveiled you may well find yourself in such a state of empathetic revulsion that you wretch up yesterday’s dinner – a sure sign of masterful writing. The ambiguous ending and constant blurring of morality could have so easily backfired and made for a sloppy climax. But with craftsmanship like this and a keen sense of place the only ‘slop’ is in the delightfully dirt-drenched finale which bloodies the pages. You might need to wash your hands and disinfect your soul after this one. This is horror.

MICHAEL WILSON

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