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The Wolves of London: Obsidian Heart

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Author: 
Mark Morris
Genre: 
Horror
Publication Date: 
2014
Publisher: 
Titan
Bottom Line: 
4

Mark Morris is a British genre writer whose work you will almost certainly at some point have encountered before. At least if you have even the slightest interest in science fiction, horror or fantasy. Having launched his career as a horror author in the late ‘80s – since then producing over twenty-five novels -- Morris has gone on to edit various award-winning essay collections and short story anthologies relating to the genre, and has recently written several film novelisations, one of them an update of the classic 1970s Hammer flick “Vampire Circus” and the other the official movie tie-in for Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical blockbuster “Noah”. Even if you weren’t consciously aware of the name before now, you may well have been exposed to some of Morris’s work without realising it. He has penned four novels in BBC Books’ popular Doctor Who range, written another based on the now-defunct BBC spin-off series “Torchwood”, and contributed to the recent WHO short story collection, “Tales of Trenzalore”. His involvement in the world of The Doctor extends even further to his having authored scripts for several plays in the much-loved “Jago and Litefoot” Big Finish audio collection series … and he’s written a “Hell Boy” novel to boot!

This is an author who is, then, quite simply steeped in modern horror and science fiction in all its literary, cinematic and televised forms – a fact one gradually gleans from browsing his newest offering, unleashed in paperback by Titan Books this October: “The Wolves of London” is Book One of an original horror fantasy trilogy called “Obsidian Heart”, created by Morris, and that Titan will be publishing over the course of the next three years. Initially mostly set in some of the less salubrious regions of modern day London, the story appears at first glance to be more a gritty tale of urban crime and inner city survival than the compellingly outlandish nightmare fantasy it eventually ends up developing into. But there’s a little bit of something to satisfy every genre fan’s particular tastes included here somewhere, it seems -- from grotesque bizarro steampunk and macabre SF fantasy, to tricksy time travelling mystery; the book reads at times like a contemporary update of the plot from “The Man Who Knew Too Much” filtered through the imaginative worlds of Clive Barker’s early horror fiction or Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” film series.

But “The Wolves of London” mainly sees Morris introducing us to his main character (and the book’s narrator): one Alex Locke --a reformed convict turned psychology lecturer -- while setting in motion and delineating the very raw emotional dilemma that will continue to motivate Alex’s actions throughout all the stranger episodes that come to transpire during this first tense instalment, propelling him through all sorts of unearthly and previously undreamt of realms of horror. Being the first book in a trilogy, this one is of course also the instalment that sets all the main plot-related plates spinning, although we will be required to stick with the trilogy and stay tuned for forthcoming volumes in order to find out where those plates eventually end up falling … for this is very much the first entry in what is going to be a resolutely episodic story split across three volumes, rather than a stand-alone novel that kicks off a related series -- so be warned: you are going to find yourself intrigued enough by the end of this first volume to want to know what comes next, but frustrated that you’re going to have to wait at least another twelve months to find out!    

The story begins in 1996, when Alex is just nineteen-years-old and sick of being confined to Bedsit Land, where he merely scrapes an existence in order to keep up the welfare payments on his three-year-old daughter, Candice (the result of a drunken teenage encounter in a pub toilet). Alex recalls how his younger self was first tempted to enter the sordid, amoral world of armed robbery by one of his deadbeat mates: he and this 'friend' of his soon found themselves in over their heads when they become involved in a plot to ambush a wages van belonging to the owner of a chain of small supermarkets in the Hackney area. The hold-up gets predictably violent due to the involvement of a hardened criminal in the small gang behind the heist. And it doesn’t take too long for the perpetrators to be rounded up and for Alex to find himself doing time in Pentonville.

We can tell, though, from the articulate and self-aware voice narrating this early episode in the story, that the Alex of the future who goes on to tell the story we are now reading will one day stop being the petty teenage criminal who’s resigned to living out his days in an environment defined only by the general population’s casual acceptance of burglary, shoplifting and drug dealing as everyday facts of life. Indeed, Alex later tells us himself how he went on to use prison as a wake-up call; how he assiduously set about bettering himself during his term behind bars; earning himself a psychology degree and -- after doing his time and leaving prison -- getting a teaching job at an East London college.

His discussion of such live issues as the nature versus nurture debate (how a complex mixture of genetics and social and environmental factors work together to create the psychological makeup of the individual) and whether the route that people’s lives end up taking is all down to a matter of fate or whether it is, in fact, merely the result of an accumulation of chance happenings and randomness, might sound like the kind of subject a psychology lecturer would be expected to be well versed in; but in a story that soon leaves the unglamourous, mundane world of real-life crime far behind it and introduces the possibility of time travel into its fantastical mix, we know such deliberations are probably going to turn out to have even more significance for the trajectory of Alex’s life than at first appears to be the case -- even in this first volume in the trilogy.

In prison, Alex makes the acquaintance of a scary individual called Benny Magee. He’s not the kind of man you would normally wish to be associated with -- but for some reason Benny takes a shine to Alex and does everything possible to ensure the lad's term of Porridge is slightly less traumatic than it might have been without the patronage of this prison hard nut to smooth his way. He also gives Alex a phone number he should ring only as a last resort if he should ever find himself in trouble again when he gets out of prison.

Alex didn’t plan on ever having anything to do with his criminal past after his experience of life in prison; and sixteen-years later he has made a relatively decent life for himself, tinged by tragedy though it may be. Candice has grown into a decent young woman, despite the bad influence of her loutish step-dad; and Alex also now has another child -- a five-year-old bundle of fun called Kate, upon whom her reformed father now dotes. The tragedy in Alex’s life belongs to the fate of his unfortunate wife (and Kate’s mother) Lyn, who suffers from a mental illness which has caused her to self-harm in the past, and to experience extreme delusions. We find out that she has made at least one gruesome suicide attempt,and, subsequently, experienced a complete breakdown, which requires that she now receive round the clock care in a mental hospital, leaving Alex to raise and care for Kate alone.

However, just when he thinks he’s left his past behind for good, the crime world rears its ugly head once again for Alex when Candice reveals she has been threatened by criminal associates of her current boyfriend, who’s gotten himself involved in a drug dealing scam. Alex reluctantly contacts Benny via the phone number given sixteen-years before, and in exchange for the con’s advice is given the address of a strip club in Soho called Incognito, run by a friend of Benny’s -- a woman called Clover -- who requires Alex reacquaint himself with his criminal past as the price of Benny’s patronage.  

Morris does a fine job of sketching a believable criminal underworld of increasingly mysterious goings-on during the first quarter of the novel: we can sense Alex’s rising panic at the prospect of being pulled back into a world he would rather not be a part of again, yet a world which he feels compelled to face out of concern for the welfare of his eldest daughter. His encounter with Clover sees things getting increasingly complicated, since the job she wants him to do for her also involves a shadowy consortium of Japanese businessmen, who work for something called the Ishikawa Corporation. This is where it all starts to get a bit clandestine and strange: Alex is asked to steal a small, ornamental heart carved out of obsidian from the Kensington mansion house of an eccentric elderly millionaire called Barnaby McCallum, where the sought-after item is kept in a glass case in his study. Sensing that things appear to be getting out of control, Alex sensibly attempts to pull out of the deal … but mysterious anonymous forces are revealed to be determined that he -- and only he -- should be forced to obtain the artefact in question at all costs, whatever he may wish; and to make sure he does, they threaten the one person who is most dear to him – his five-year-old daughter, Kate!

What happens next plunges the story down the rabbit hole, so to speak -- and into a universe full of the most bizarre, horrific and surreally absurd entities imaginable, which burst onto the scene in their pursuit of the obsidian artefact, as though conjured from some hideous infernal realm modelled on a madman’s nightmares. After a series of violent and terrifying events, the heart ends up in the possession of Alex and Clover as they desperately flee across London, hoping to keep the object safe long enough to placate whoever still has Alex’s daughter in his/her/its custody. The carved heart is, of course, much more than just a mere object: right from the moment of his first encounter with it in the study of Barnaby McCallum, Alex is made unavoidably aware of the unnatural capabilities and dangerous transformative powers that this strange relic actually possesses. In fact, its surface appearance as a mere inanimate artefact turns out to be grossly misleading, and may actually be just a disguise it wears for something that is far more horribly organic and inscrutably intelligent in nature; perhaps a living entity that exists on some Lovecraftian dark plain that’s far beyond comprehension by the human imagination.

The heart is revealed to something akin to a parasite, encouraging a symbiotic kind of dependence from its host – in this case, Alex. And although it endows its protector with some much-needed powers to wield against the awful designs of the monstrous beings Alex is required to battle, the effort seems to take a uniquely physical toll on him: I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before a main protagonist who spends quite as much of his time vomiting and retching as Alex does in this novel after each instance of making use of the heart’s capabilities! One of those powers turns out to involve the ability to travel back in time, which leads at one point to Alex finding himself drawing on help from a First World War soldier who has come from the past into Alex's present claiming to have died at Ypres during the battle of Passchendaele but then being brought back to life by Alex’s ‘box of tricks’! The latter half of the novel takes place in 1895, after Alex inadvertently discovers the heart’s time hoping powers for the first time, and begins a whole new chapter of the tale which will doubtless be taken up more fully in the next published volume.

In any case, the tantalising glimpse we’re given of what lies in store in the next novel in the trilogy involves an encounter with one of the book’s most disturbing supernatural entities, before he becomes the bizarre being known as The Surgeon, to whom we’ve earlier been so memorably introduced in his guise as a terrifying ogre who commands an army of strange hybrid beings -- part-clockwork, part-steam power and part organic flesh -- made up of a hellish combination of grafted-together human and animal body parts for a lethal part-mechanical menagerie, so bizarre that it feels like the kind of thing you’d encounter in a Czechoslovakian animated film adaptation from the 1970s  – perhaps something by Jan Švankmajer –  of a Clive Barker story.

Mark Morris possesses a fluid, dynamic writing style that smoothly draws the reader into his dark world. He clearly relishes describing some of the enjoyably gory scenes of carnage encountered by Alex, not to mention the diabolical, fabricated zoo of outré creatures that are responsible for unleashing it. The plot flows episodically but smoothly from one strange set-piece to the next, and succeeds in building up quite a degree of suspense and lingering mystery. At the same time, while he manages never to lose the direction or pace of the narrative, Morris layers in some elaborate flashbacks from Alex’s past which relate to his years with his wife Lyn; and he also goes further back to Alex's previous relationship with the woman who was Candice’s mother. An intriguing blend of gory body horror, steam punk oddness and hallucinogenic time-travellingfantasy has been successfully transplanted into a recognisable everyday sort of world with this first novel, in which the venues of London street crime and the contemporary urban sprawl become the playgrounds for a disturbing set of monsters, and are then juxtaposed with the Victorian rookeries and proto-Gothic mad scientists’ basement labs that supposedly once existed on the same sites in the past. 

Ultimately, though, this first volume seems like the nightmare of a desperate father forced into a corner to protect the life of his infant daughter, but subsequently confronted at every turn by unnatural enemies who seem, in the very bizarreness of the horrific, hybridised, semi-human physical forms they adopt, to be the surreal embodiment of any adult parent's deepest darkest fear of the idea of harm befalling an innocent child.

A rich, imaginative combination of chilling nightmare and SF adventure, “The Wolves of London” is a riveting ride through time and across genres – that takes us to a realm where literally anything could happen next.

 

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