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Flesh and Blood

by Nick Gifford

(Puffin, £4.99, 211 pages, paperback, 8 January 2004.)

Review by John Toon

A masterly command of character ... immense cover scanprofundities of imagination waiting to be plumbed ... sheer, naked storytelling power ... these were just some of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I started to reread Dune last week. And then the latest review package arrived, and I had to put the Herbert aside and pick up Flesh and Blood by Nick Gifford, who, as most readers of this website will presumably know, is the alter ego of IP editor Keith Brooke. No pressure for a good review there, then.

If Dante Alighieri had written a horror novel for teenagers ... well, he'd probably have included a few more live quarters roasting on spits, and maybe a cherub or two for ironic effect. He'd also have written it in terza rima rather than prose. Flesh and Blood, on the other hand, is a very modern horror novel for teenagers, and includes absolutely no cherubs whatsoever.

Family troubles and the untimely death of his grandmother leave fifteen-year-old Matt Guilder stranded in a parochial village with his mother's relatives, the Waredens. Matt suffers from terrifying recurring dreams -- a beach washed by blood, a place both familiar and unsettlingly different, murderous ghouls round every corner. It isn't long before he discovers the links between his dreams, Gran's death, and a family secret that could unleash Hell on Earth.

Yes, this is a modern horror yarn, and the nature of the force that threatens Matt (and potentially all humanity) is psychological, not religious. It's a sort of immense evil Id, although it comes across more as the population of Mile End relocated to Worthing and turned up a couple of notches. There's a genuine sense of unease, of sickness and menace in the very air -- just like Mile End. On top of this is a doom-laden atmosphere of constant, meaningless death -- just like Worthing. It's a mundane, human kind of evil, but horrifying in its mundanity.

(In fact, it's tempting to argue that, when you get right down to it, this really is the true horror of Flesh and Blood -- quiet middle-class suburban culture forced eyeball to eyeball with violent working-class urban subculture. Dawn of the Estate Kids, if you like. I can already hear the letters coming in.)

The real world and its inhabitants are rather less bleakly painted, although just as vivid. You can pretty much guess that something's up between Matt's parents in the early chapters of the novel, so what comes later is no great surprise, but it's handled with skilful delicacy. The dysfunctionality of Matt's extended family -- Stepford Aunt Carol, angry young man Vince, psychopathic Tina and introvert Kirsty, and Uncle Mike, who sensibly absconds to the pub whenever possible -- is laid on a bit thick at first, but evens out over the course of the novel. At the start the two girls in particular seem like something out of The League of Gentlemen; by the end we can see what's driven each of these characters to behave the way they do towards each other and towards Matt. Matt himself steps into his hero role with gradually increasing self-assurance, the way heroes of young adult novels generally do, and acquits himself well. Overall, a consistently readable book.

Imagine Stephen King on acid -- the author of Duel and Cujo, huddled in a corner, shivering and afraid. Flesh and Blood is also deeply satisfying, but in a different way.

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