Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive


Stephen Laws

Hodder & Stoughton

ISBN 0-450-60690-2

$37.95; 440 pages

Date Reviewed: 04-03-96

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



It's tempting to conclude that mainstream horror, which fared so well in the 1980's, has been reduced to three bestselling authors in the 1990's -- Koontz, King and Rice, none of whom are doing a particularly bang-up job of it lately. But British writer Stephen Laws is busy proving that this is not the case. His latest novel, 'Macabre', certainly lives up to its title, and more importantly to the horror-starved reader, it re-invents the mainstream horror novel for the 1990's, with a combination of atmospheric prose and tense plotting that will bring back the shivers readers had good reason to fear were gone forever.

The novel begins in a whirlwind when Tony Dandridge, a down-in-his-luck graveyard-shift taxi driver, picks up a woman with a baby and a gun. She demands that he drive her out to the middle of nowhere, then jumps out of the taxi, baby and gun in hand. She is but one of an apparent crowd of homeless people on the streets of London who are about to go missing, people whose disappearance will not be noticed. Laws quickly threads together his protagonists as the forces which threaten them, both natural and supernatural, gather power and prepare to go on the offensive. Part of his skill is the ease with which he breathes life into his nearly destitute cast, from Ranjana, a fifteen year old runaway from an arranged marriage with a despicable older man, to Mac, the confused vagrant who garners the respect of those around for reasons even he can't quite understand. Laws' characters strike true, and assume a life beyond the printed page.

But, most importantly for the horror-starved readers, Laws delivers well-written, truly terrifying scenes of supernatural menace and mystery. The prose and plotting join together seamlessly to create a believable netherworld, contained within our world, where the more-than-human and the human, the supernatural and the everyday, give both the despicable and the endearing the power to change lives -- or end them, slowly.

Laws is a master of carefully revealing the exact nature of his plot, of casting shadows that loom larger than the reader's reality, eventually subsuming it. He's obviously learned from Lovecraft that sometimes, less is more, and from the splatterpunks as well, that sometimes more is more. While not a gore-for-gore's-sake novel, Macabre does contain more than a suggestion of violence and grue. Like most supernatural novels, when you finally do find out every detail of what is happening and why -- as it happens on a huge scale --there's a bit of a let down. But when the mystery is gone, we're still left with the excellent prose and characters we care about. In many ways, this novel might strike the reader as what we all hoped Clive Barker would write after we finished reading 'The Books of Blood" ten years ago. It combines the strengths of well-plotted mainstream horror, the prose of well-written quiet horror, and the shock of brightly-lit entrails in a George Romero movie. Of course each of those elements has built-in weaknesses as well, but Stephen Laws has the skills overcome them, for the most part. Though you won't find the word anywhere in the narrative, Macabre manages to live up to its title, unusual in that it is not directly tied to some plot element or a throw-away one liner uttered in the course of the work, but rather, a simple, evocative and accurate description of the novel.