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The Ancient

Muriel Gray

Harper Collins

UK Trade Paperback Original

ISBN 0-00-225314-3

358 Pages ; £9.99

Date Reviewed: 02-28-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel





Scottish author Muriel Gray jumps to a new location in her latest novel, 'The Ancient'. I've frankly found it rather odd that she's set her first two novels in America, especially when so many Scottish authors are happy to set their novels in Scotland. There's a lot of material for the horror writer in Scotland. Oh well. 'The Ancient' is set on an enormous ship carrying a load of toxic trash from Lima Peru. But Gray effectively infuses a dense, gloomy atmosphere into her tale of Something Bad on a Ship. By virtue of good prose writing, she takes what is traditionally a slight tale and gives it more heft than it might deserve.

As 'The Ancient ' begins, two boys are sacrificing a rat to something they found in a trash heap. Obviously this is a Bad Idea, and things don't work out the way the boys plan. The trash ends up on the Lysicrates, a three-quarter-mile long supertanker whose first mate, Matt Cotton, is a non-recovering alcoholic. Esther Mulholland is a grad student who has missed her boat back home, and is forced to book passage on the Lysicrates. Both of these characters are well drawn, detailed and surprisingly sympathetic. Cotton is an effective gloomster, depressed, hung over, hiding his huge secret shame. Esther's cast in the Ripley mold, a born survivor. Yet she too is drawn with enough details and angst to bring her out of the second dimension and into the third.

Most importantly, Gray handles a large supporting cast very well. The crewmen of the Lysicrates, largely Phillipino, come off much better than the usual 'rag-tag team'. They're scared, lonely, fierce, distracted . Gray uses her excellent prose to shade in each character so that they stand out distinctly. She's clearly done her research on all the South American locations. Everything seems grungy, gritty, realistic.

Of course, none of these fine folks would be of much interest to the reader without the star of the show, the Monster on the Boat. In 'The Ancient', Gray has created her best monster yet. In creating The Ancient, Gray evokes Ramsey Campbell's ominous fears and Clive Barker's vicious monsters. She puts in a page or two from Jack Finney, and the result seems refreshingly unique, and not like a Frankenstein monster made from other people's pieces. Moreover, it's really nasty and there are some great moments both of quiet, creeping terror and monster-stalking horror. It's the kind of book you'd love to see get a 'Deep Rising' style adaptation.

'The Ancient' is clearly Gray's best novel. It includes her best characterizations , her best supernatural menace, and her best prose writing. Now one must grant that 'Monster on a Boat' novels probably aren't going to be up for any Booker prizes. But 'The Ancient' demonstrates that Gray is capable of great writing, great pacing and some satisfying scary moments. For readers looking for a good old-fashioned scary book, 'The Ancient' is an excellent choice.