“Yet again, Baxter has delivered an exciting story with his enigmatic protagonist at the centre, and has succeeded in whetting our appetite for more supernatural thrills in the company of Eli Carver.”
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes horror, supernatural thrillers, and dark fantasy, liberally mixed with crime and noir. His debut collection, Crow Shine (Ticonderoga Publications, 2016) won the 2016 Australian Shadows Award for Best Collection and was a finalist for both the 2016 Aurealis Award for Best Collection and the 2016 Ditmar Award for Best Collected Work and, just last year, he won the Australian Shadows Award for Best Collected Work for Served Cold (Grey Matter Press, 2019). He also won the adoration of the horror community when he took an image by fellow author Kealan Patrick Burke and penned a novella The Roo (self-published, 2020), a book he refers to as his “gonzo Ozploitation creature feature” and is beloved by many who have read it.
The story opens with protagonist Eli Carver briefly recounting the events of Manifest Recall (Grey Matter Press, 2018), the first novella in his series. Without giving too much away, he doesn’t consider himself a good man. He lost his wife and child because of his role as an enforcer in an organised crime gang, and has the blood of many, many people on his hands. Some he would consider undeserving, while others he has come to the conclusion had it coming. As such, following the explosive finale to book one, he has been laying low in Canada, following the news reports about his former gang’s tussles with the law in the U.S. But he isn’t alone; he has his constant posse of spectral followers, ghosts of those he has dispatched in the course of his role. It’s a great way to open the book, meaning readers don’t need to be familiar with Manifest Recall, or just if it has been a while since they read the first book.
In many ways it is a great continuation of the character from the first book. He is just as pragmatic as ever, never more evident than when he finds himself in confrontation with a man or group of men. When he is cornered and has no other way out, he will kill without hesitation. It is easy to like Eli as a character, with his newly discovered moral code and his dedication to protecting the innocent and only harming those who he deems deserve it. But he is very much a cold-bloodied killer, something his ghostly entourage never fail to remind him about. They offer a modicum of levity that provides a balance with the dark moments of violence to great effect. But, more than that, they prove to be useful when Carver is in a tight spot, giving him a warning when an unseen attacker is ready to strike, seemingly disproving one of the theories regarding their appearance, that they are a manifestation of his guilt and pain over the loss of his family.
Upon Carver’s return to the U.S., he quickly becomes embroiled in a dispute between two New York crime organisations, thanks to a chance encounter with a female passenger on the train. Bridget Carlson is a professional gambler, eager to get away from the clutches of her criminal boss. But first she must pay a large gambling debt, and she needs some back-up. This is where Carver, in his new role as rōnin, comes in. Indeed, with the two warring crime gangs in a small part of New York and the entrance of Carver as an unknown gun-for-hire, and with him adopting this new persona, it is possible that classic Japanese samurai movie Yojimbo was an inspiration, if only slightly. And Baxter’s background as both competitor and teacher of martial arts comes into play when Carver is forced to fight unarmed. The choreography of the action sequences is described with just the right amount of detail, where we are never bogged down with needless descriptions of where Carver’s fist connects with his enemy, or overly descriptive macho language about injuries.
The appearance of mysterious and menacing voodoo practitioner Papa Night and sinister Cora Lombardi, wife of one of the crime bosses and more than just a gangster’s moll, add an extra dimension to the story. While book one and much of book two focus predominantly on the noir and action aspects of the story, these characters open the door to a supernatural, even cosmic, level of horror that adds more depth to the world of Eli Carver and his story. The true nature of his ghosts has been open to debate to this point, serving as both a reminder of the terrible crimes he has committed in the past, and foils for witty banter. But now we begin to wonder to the magnitude of the supernatural in the Eli Carver series, something that will hopefully be explored in future instalments, providing we are fortunate enough to see those books come to fruition.
In Grey Matter Press, Baxter seems to have found the perfect fit for this particular brand of his work. With authors such as John Foster, John F.D. Taff and Karen Runge also on their roster, they excel when publishing books with a thriller, supernatural or horror flavour. Or, indeed, a great mix of all of the above. And they have certainly scored another hit with Recall Night. Baxter and Grey Matter Press continue to prove a potent combination. Would an Eli Carver story work in a longer format? Possibly, but there is something to be said for presenting this storytelling style in a fast-paced, action-packed novella, especially with the promise of further Eli Carver adventures. Yet again, Baxter has delivered an exciting story with his enigmatic protagonist at the centre, and has succeeded in whetting our appetite for more supernatural thrills in the company of Eli Carver.
Publisher: Grey Matter Press
eBook: 107 (pps.)
Release Date: 25 August 2020
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