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Cape Wrath

by Paul Finch

(Telos Publishing Ltd, £8, 121 pages, paperback; published 31 October 2002; ISBN: 190388960X.)

Cape Wrath by Paul Finch marks the beginning of a new line of original Horror / Dark Fantasy fiction from Telos Publishing. This is a very welcome move by cover scanTelos, who have previously published a line of Doctor Who novellas. Cape Wrath does not quite receive the same ultra-deluxe production values enjoyed by the Who line, but it is a nicely produced paperback and it has a slightly more affordable price tag.

Cape Wrath's word-count is just about high enough for it to qualify as a novel, so Finch has room to manoeuvre in terms of developing characters and plot, and the result is a superior short horror tale. It begins with an archaeological unit's arrival by boat at Craeghatir, an uninhabited rock close to Cape Wrath, the northernmost tip of Britain. The team lands in difficult weather conditions, and is abandoned on the rock. Finch does a terrific job here in establishing the remoteness and wildness of the location.

The team have come to Craeghatir to investigate a newly-discovered barrow on the island, which might contain the remains of Ivar Ragnarsson, "probably the most famous Viking of his or any other age." Naturally, disturbing the grave of an infamous Viking warrior is bound to end badly. But Finch wisely holds off on the bloodshed for a good while, letting the suspense build while we get to know the cast of characters. There are numerous emotional entanglements within the group--jealousy between ex-lovers, for example--and plenty of scope for them to turn on each other with fear and suspicion when things start to go wrong.

The deaths seem to be textbook examples of Viking ritual murders. But can this really be because Ragnarsson has risen from the grave? Or is it more likely that someone in the group is responsible? After all, they are all familiar with the relevant Viking history. Finch keeps his characters guessing, and the reader too.

Cape Wrath is a fine piece of work, with believable characters, intriguing plot and some particularly effective descriptions of the remote landscape. For the most part, the story is told with admirable restraint, though Finch does rather abandon this in the end, with an action-packed finale.

I did notice a few uncharacteristic lapses in Finch's prose--an unexpectedly clumsy sentence (such as on page 17, the first sentence of the last full paragraph), or an occasional split infinitive. It's a slight shame that these weren't spotted and excised as they rather break the spell that Finch, for the most part, casts so effectively.

Whether or not you will enjoy Cape Wrath depends largely on your ideas of what good horror is. In terms of the level of gore, well there is a lot of it in the second half of the book. But on the whole we get to see the grim aftermath of the violence rather than its perpetration, and this is an approach that works well for me.

One thing the story is not, is postmodern. There is absolutely none of the wise-ass smugness of some recent movie horror, where characters seem to know they're in a horror movie. For some, Cape Wrath might therefore be considered old-fashioned in its approach, but I found the back-to-basics approach refreshing. Finch concentrates on telling a good story with believable characters who behave realistically when confronted with the inexplicable deaths of their friends and colleagues.

Review by Chris Butler.

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