This is Gary McMahon’s most ambitious book to date. It is known that McMahon can create dirty slabs of bleak fiction like few others. He could have played it safe and continued this theme but in The Concrete Grove he mixes things up with elements of fantasy. Riskier still, he sets the story up in a deprived, poverty sweating area where crime, violence, and intense fear are part of the make-up of every day life. If ever there was enough horror packed into a story without the need for a spiritual offshoot it was this one, yet you don’t get to the top in life without putting your neck on the line and when you do the payoff is immeasurable, as is the case here.
Imagine a grim council estate, the one you drive through at full speed with the doors locked because the pre-teen children scare you. You breathe in the air and smell a concoction of stale alcohol, urine and marijuana. Now multiply that by itself, empty your bowels on top of this concoction of malnutrition, broken promises and exploitation, and square it once more. Welcome to The Concrete Grove – an estate so devoid of compassion and humanity that you’d think it couldn’t get any worse, but guess what? This is Gary McMahon not Stephenie fucking Meyer, so it does get worse, much worse.
Centring around the lives of a couple of unfortunates that live in this fruitless area, McMahon provides a snapshot into the every day fears that residents experience. Take teenage girl Hailey Fraser, she recently moved to the area after her Dad’s suicide. Her struggling Mum, Lana, is desperate to do her best for Hailey even at the expense of her own pride and self-respect. The two are wrapped up in a war with dangerous loan shark Monty Bright who will capitalise on the girl’s fears and naivety to extract much more than the money owed to him. Meanwhile Tom, who is trapped in a relationship with his once adulterous and now disabled wife, runs into the two and plays the role of the protector despite being unable to protect himself from his own unravelling darkness.
The bleak housing project is a gateway for monsters both human and spiritual. Echoing similarities to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, McMahon manages to blend the fantastical with the real to create a wholly plausible landscape. As the story progresses so too do the fantasy elements, yet we are eased into this experience and they complement rather than detract from the very real human horrors that we so easily relate to.
Gary McMahon knows when to and when not to show harrowing scenes of gore and misery. One of the most powerful scenes in The Concrete Grove depicts Lana both before and after a life-changing ordeal. The stark contrast will leave even the most hardened horror fans affected because McMahon deals in reality, and the horrors of our world are far more deplorable than the horrors of pure fantasy. The author’s note at the end is perhaps the most terrifying of all, a confession that ‘the real-life counterparts were more outlandish than the versions I’ve created for the story’.
Rarely in McMahon’s work does he move away from utter despair, but one can’t help but feel that there is a glimpse, albeit warped and covered in decay, of hope.
Read The Concrete Grove because McMahon depicts precise details succinctly without compromising on the unrelenting pace or quality of his prose. Read The Concrete Grove because this is a story that he had to tell and has told it with skill, beauty and sincerity. Read The Concrete Grove because it deals in horror that cuts deeper than beasts, monsters, zombies and werewolves. Read The Concrete Grove because it combines fantasy and horror without skimping on realism. Read The Concrete Grove.