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The Restraint of Beasts

Magnus Mills


ISBN 1-55970-437-3

$22.95; US Trade hardcover; 213 pages

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 1999



General Fiction, Horror

03-18-02, 04-29-02, 12-13-02, 01-07-03, 04-30-03

Thanks to the movies, dark comedy is still a thriving trade. 'Pulp Fiction' officially energized the form and gave it scholarly acceptance it had not seen since Catch-22, and now, it seems anything goes. Magnus Mills, a bus driver in London, very nearly won the Booker Prize for 'The Restraint of Beasts', a nasty little joke about three itinerant fence builders who have a dark secret and an almost earth-shattering ineptitude. It's one of those wonderful novels that lives in the netherworld between respectable fiction and those lurid books with lots of foil and blood-dripping knives on their covers. If brevity is the essence of wit, 'The Restraint of Beasts' is a Mozart awash in a sea of Salieri's. At 213 pages, it barely gets past the midpoint of the average horror novel, yet within, while almost nothing seemingly happens, everything happens, and it's a bad-ass world it happens in. This delightful novel reads like a collaboration between Mr. Bean and Hannibal Lecter.

Mills is dry and to the point. An Englishman is given charge of two morose Scottish headbangers, and sent to build high-tensile fences. Tam and Ritchie, the two Scottish louts, are sullen, lazy men who specialize in smoking cigarettes and finding a pub to sit in. Their first assignment under the unnamed narrator is to repair Mr. McCrindle's fence, which has gone slack. While doing so, there's a horrible accident. They clean up and move on to the next site, which is in England. Our boys are not keen on the English. Trouble ensues.

Mills' matter-of-fact rendering of these absurd situations is excellent, filled with dry-as-dirt wit. He creates a world that is so confined to the character's perceptions as to seem slightly unreal. Then, he escalates the situations and the world, successfully creating a world that is truly unreal and even more threatening than a life of pounding fenceposts into the ground. In England, the crew encounters competition: The Hall Brothers. But the Hall brothers aren't just fence builders. They're butchers. They make sausages. They need the boys to build some pens.

Mills is very skillful at sliding from a world of tedium into a world of terror. By restricting his point-of-view to that of his brainless headbangers, he uses a very literary device to create a very horrific world that is simultaneously laced with humor. The horrors he hints at are vast and beyond the comprehension of the characters who perceive it. He successfully creates a sort of blue-collar Lovecraftian feel. 'The Restraint of Beasts' is an excellent first novel, and a real change of pace that will delight a large segment of horror readers looking for a laugh.