“The Harm” by Gary McMahon – A Review

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(TTA Press, paperback, 64pp, £5)

The first thought that struck me when Gary McMahon’s new novella slid through the letterbox was how pretty it looks. I know the old adage says don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but with Ben Baldwin’s cover art it’s extremely hard not to. And the size of it seems perfect for a bit of light reading (even though it’s immediately apparent that the subject matter will be anything but light). At 64 pages, it’s perfect for a quick dip into McMahon’s disturbing imagination, and as a fan of the novella, I hope that this marks the beginning of a new series of similarly sized publications from TTA (and Andy Cox has given every indication that such was his intention).

The novella itself is divided into four sections, focusing on the three victims of sexual abuse, and the sister of one of them, and the introduction immediately indicates the tone that the novella will take. I’m going to try to avoid giving away too much in this review, but anyone who is familiar with McMahon’s work will understand his tone. For those who aren’t, he managed to capture the psychological tone of such masterpieces as the old Silent Hill games. McMahon effortlessly blends the psychological traumas of his characters with a genuinely frightening supernatural force that stalks them. Such is the level of McMahon’s skill that the overwhelming sense of mystery leaves the reader unsure whether what befalls the characters is some supernatural force, or just the manifestation of the abuse they suffered.

The message of the fiction is probably the most important thing here. Certainly McMahon’s afterword indicates such, explaining his motivation and intentions with the story, and yet still leaving a modicum of mystery over the whole thing. And that is the most impressive part, from my perspective. Although what happens and what it means is stated with perfect clarity, the reader remains unsettled and curious as to the nuances of meaning.

But the plot, and the bizarre things which happen to the characters, are the unsettling part. As the novella states at the beginning, it is concerned with “the results of the harm“, and I’m quite sure that much of the novella is subject to the interpretation, and as with the finest traditions of psychological horror, the meaning will rearrange itself within McMahon’s clearly defined parameters, to touch the particular exposed nerves and fears of the reader.

Overall, this novella is triumph of genre fiction, demonstrating precisely how complex and effective such literature can be. It uses the fear that horror specialises in as a vehicle for commentary on the human condition, and in particular the very current issue of pedophilia. In terms of editing, it was up to TTA’s usual high standards, with the only fault I could find being a missing period at the end of the first sentence of the second part, a stumble, but not enough to trip the story up. If I have to criticise it, my only grounds can be the first thing I praised; the length. I read it on the train from Brighton to London, in just over an hour, which is a perfect length for a quick read, but does leave the reader wanting more. So if you’re unfamiliar with McMahon’s fiction, with it’s bargain price and easy length, this is a perfect read. And if you are familiar with him, this whole bloody spiel was probably completely unnecessary.
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