Flesh and Blood
(Puffin, £4.99, 211 pages, paperback, 8 January 2004.)
A masterly command of character ... immense 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.
of imagination waiting to be plumbed ... sheer, naked storytelling power
... these were just some of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I started
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
(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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