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J. M. Morris (Mark Morris)

Macmillan / Pan Macmillan

UK Hardcover first

ISBN 0-333-90629-2

328 Pages; £10.00

Date Reviewed: 05-13-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel



Mystery, Horror

05-09-02, 12-13-02

Genre fiction is certainly the biggest blessing/curse to blight the publishing landscape. Readers often like genre classification, because it usually gives them a pretty solid clue as to how the book will read. Publishers like it as well, since it's easier to sell hamburgers and hamburgers, as opposed to hamburgers, chopped steak sandwiches and every other variation on the block. Writers tend to rightfully resent being pigeonholed -- they just want to writer their books and have them find sympathetic readers, not check off plot points from a must-have list. The end result is something of a muddle, and writers often take pseudonyms to divorce one set of books from another. The latest writer to do so is Mark Morris, the talented author of such horror novels as 'Toady' and 'The Secret of Anatomy'. As J. M. Morris, he's written 'Fiddleback', which the front cover announces is 'A Novel of Mystery'. The front cover illustration, however, announces something rather different. The spider's web superimposed over the blurry picture of some androgen looking in the mirror is pretty damn spooky. And what's within is no straightforward mystery. The novel itself is androgynous, staking out territory in a no-man's land between genres. There's the signpost up ahead. Your next stop -- a Mark Morris novel.

'Fiddleback' is about first person narrator Ruth Gemmill's search for her brother who has gone missing in the rather rural and forbidding town of Greenwell. But before she starts out, she lets the reader in on a few of her own problems. Her ex-boyfriend, Matt, developed a habit of beating her viscously. The relationship ended in hospital stays and restraining orders. She's better now, but still a bit wobbly. Morris' prose is seamless, seductive. He writes beautifully, his descriptions flow into the reader's mind. Be prepared to give up a couple of days when you pick this one up. But Morris' prose doesn't lie easily over his subject matter. From the get-go, he plunges the reader into haunting, terrifying first-person accounts of brutal violence. And there's not much repetition here, either. You get the full spectrum from child assaults to graphic rape and beating scenarios. If Morris weren't such a good prose writer, the whole thing would get too ugly to read real fast.

But Morris is a great prose writer, and he knows when to back off as well as when to come on strong. 'Fiddleback' has no overt, in-your-face supernatural events of monsters. It is, in one sense, simply a 'Novel of Mystery', as billed on the front cover. Ruth pursues her investigations of her brother's disappearance with the passion of an amateur detective searching for a missing family member. But Morris wraps those real world, flat foot investigations in some of the spookiest, most surreal prose you'll find this side of a Philip K. Dick novel. The prose is a real standout here, creating a very tense mood, and sharpening the mystery to the point of almost unbearable suspense. Find a good chair to glue your butt to.

It doesn't really have the feel of a mystery however, and as the surreal events start to pile up, you enter Hitchcock territory. Yes, the reader wants to know what's going on here, but the feeling that Morris evokes is more one of primal terror, not primal ignorance. And he keeps up this terror effectively, with great disorienting prose and actions right up until the end of the novel.

The end of the novel was a sticking point for this reader. Given the absolute fever pitch that Morris has whipped up, I wanted more than what was on offer. Morris fans are likely to enjoy this novel because it offers up Morris at his finest writing style, though his subject may be a bit too unpleasant for some. Ruth Rendell and Mo Hayder fans may also find something of interest here as well. Readers who enjoy a good bit of surreal, psychological horror will also find quite a lot to like in 'Fiddleback'. On the other hand, it does seem to suggest that although Morris may want to escape the horror genre, he can't escape the Mark Morris genre. There may be no pinning that one down, but it seems to include a healthy dose of terror and excellent prose. That's enough to float many a boat.