“Many seasoned writers would sell their souls to pen something as well-crafted, as complete and solid as Naming the Bones.”
Though horror fiction in all its guises seems to be currently in a period of gentle and humble ascendancy (as has been mentioned before), much of it still continues to fly under the radar of popular notice. That does not, however, indicate a lack of either quality or quantity. And it is to the small presses which the discerning reader of horror—and the myriad of sub- and overlapping genres—must be eternally grateful. Though the business of the small press can be one of flux and—dare it be said—uncertainty, there are many which seem to put out a steady stream of excellent work. One such press is a tiny UK outfit called Dark Minds Press (run by Ross Warren and Anthony Watson), which has, in its relatively short life, released collections by Benedict J. Jones (Ride the Dark Country) and Frank Duffy (Hungry Celluloid), and novellas by Gary Fry (What They Find in the Woods) and Rich Hawkins (Ruin), amongst others. And the novella series to which the latter two books belong continues with the subject of this review, being the fifth and most recent release. The book is by one of the UK’s rising stars of horror and dark fiction, an author who manages to combine the best elements of both visceral horror and its more literary aspirations, fusing them seamlessly.
It is, of course, Laura Mauro.
Naming the Bones is Laura’s first published long-form work, following a respectable output of short stories. However, one might be forgiven for thinking this novella is the product of someone who has been writing for many years, such is the confidence on display. It begins with an almost literal bang, as we join main character Alessa in the immediate aftermath of some sort of train crash. Accident, terrorist attack, something else? We are as confused as Alessa is, and it’s a wonderful way to open a story, showing fractured detail in kaleidoscopic images, putting us squarely in the mind of the protagonist. Other survivors speak, in broken sentences and confusion, trying to work out what’s happened, while one man wanders off and Alessa wonders where he’s gone.
From there, we jump to Alessa and one of her therapy sessions, as she attempts to rebuild her life in the aftermath. One of her coping mechanisms is to recite the names of bones in the human body (hence the title), on the suggestion of her sister, Shannon. And this simple ‘trick’ reflecting the title is one of the first things to show just how accomplished a writer Mauro is. For she peppers her prose with similes and descriptions which manage to incorporate references to bones without it feeling forced or cheap. It’s a lovely little stylistic flourish, and one of many things to admire here.
Of course, the novella isn’t just about an act of terror and the insightful depiction of post traumatic therapy. There is supernatural horror here, too, and it manifests early on when Alessa sees a dark face reflected in a bus window. At first dismissing it as an hallucination, perhaps the next step in mental deterioration following her constant nightmares, she soon comes to suspect it has more than a foothold in reality. In particular, there is a scene early on where Alessa looks out her flat’s window after feeling she had been followed home. She sees something thin and wreathed in shadow emerge from the deeper shadows, and the passage is as wonderfully skin-crawl inducing as any horror fan could want. In fact, the book as a whole feels steeped in ‘classic’ horror, the kind of thing that might have been popular in the 80s heyday. Yet it also has a modern sensibility, and a strong thread of the literary which weaves throughout the narrative. This can be seen in the way it deals with Alessa’s reactions to her experience, her therapy sessions, her internal workings. Despite its short length, the book manages to explore the psychological effects such an event might have. Even when Alessa’s sightings of strange, dark figures is more or less corroborated by first Casey, a fellow survivor, and then Tom, a sympathetic figure from a support group, she still harbours the possibility that it’s all in her head, evidence of a fragmenting mind. As to those other characters; well, they are well-drawn, fully rounded individuals, with all their own idiosyncrasies, fears and hopes. Even Alessa’s sister Shannon is a three-dimensional presence despite not being in the book all that much. But it is with Alessa we spend all our time with, and she is a beautifully drawn individual; by turns scared, angry, confused, and determined, with a streak of stubbornness which borders on the obsessive. She is a deeply sympathetic character, though not without her very human flaws, and a wonderful study in mental health and recovery. Heady stuff.
But let’s not forget the monsters, for they are here, too. Shades, as Casey dubs them, and they are excellent creations. Superficially similar to Dean Koontz’ Bodachs from his Odd Thomas books (in turn taken from Gaelic mythology), here they are fluid, shadowy, yet able to affect a physical presence, as demonstrated in one particularly terrifying scene of violence. Drawn to human suffering and fear, they are mostly invisible predators, except to those who have been traumatised enough to see them. And though they only appear sporadically through the book, their shadow (pardon the pun) is cast long and wide. They are the metaphor for unexplainable violence, for all the vile and violent things in the world which we struggle to rationalise. For the book is also allegorical; it deals—in its subtle way—with terrorism and how people might be led to such acts. It is an attempt, perhaps, by the author to try and come to an understanding—though never a justification—of random acts of violence. That a short novella can contain so much and yet not feel crammed or rushed is a testament to the talent of the writer. If anything, these themes could have been explored in even greater detail, and no doubt they, and other concerns, will be in future works by Mauro.
As an aside, mention must be made of the wonderful cover which graces the novella. It is by Peter Frain and its deceptive simplicity fully captures the tone and imagery of the story without giving any of the content away. A beautiful design, as is the book as a whole.
An excellent debut novella by a writer who no doubt has a shining career ahead of her. Many seasoned writers would sell their souls to pen something as well-crafted, as complete and solid as Naming the Bones, and we can only wonder at what the future holds for Laura Mauro. Great things, no doubt.
Publisher: Dark Minds Press
Paperback: (224 pp)
Release Date: 12 June 2017
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