Hammers on Bone
By Cassandra Khaw
Published by Tor
£6.99 Paperback £1.66 E-Book
Tor have really helped to bring the medium of the novella to a wider audience. There are so many stories that are better suited to that format rather than being pared down to a short story or padded out to a novel. They have also sought to cast their net wide in terms of both authors and genres.
Hammers on Bone is a perfect example of this paying off wonderfully. This is a strong cocktail of genres you rarely see mixed. Written in the style of a hard boiled detective novel but with imagery that is pure H.P. Lovecraft by way of David Cronenberg body horror but there’s also a splash of hard hitting domestic drama and all set in Croydon. Like all the more esoteric cocktails it won’t be to everyone’s taste but those who discover they like it will want more.
Hard smoking P.I. John Persons is hired by a child to kill his stepfather. As it turns out there is much more to the stepfather than meets the eye and the only reason Persons knows this is that there’s much more to him as well. John Persons is an otherworldly creature walking about inside what was once a man. The man that was lurks in the back of his mind as an internal ghost occasionally making its presence felt. Being what he is Persons can see the McKinney, the man he’s been hired to kill, is also not of this parish. He is spreading a physical and spiritual corruption through everyone he comes into contact with and his family is in danger.
The private eye first person conceit allows for particularly florid style of language. The many moments of visceral body horror are made more horrific by the luridly descriptive language that is used to convey them. The passages describing things happening to flesh are positively moist to the point where I half expected the pages to squelch when I turned them.
All of this overt horror is counterbalanced by the much more grounded kind as the results of McKinney’s abuse are seen through his family. There is one violent confrontation that features almost no supernatural elements at all and yet feels like the most brutal moment of story. It is this balance of very different kinds of horror that is deftly woven together. McKinney’s demonic evil feels like nothing compared to the kind of horror his wife and children go through without him calling on any powers.
In all of this John Persons is no white knight. This isn’t a character you root for because he’s the good guy. You root for him because he what he is up against is so much worse. We learn much more about where he is from and why he is in Croydon by the end of the story but there is still more to be revealed about the character and the wider plot.
Hammers on Bone is a violent and dark noir that is unlike anything I have read. It mixes ingredients together that you might not think would work and creates something that feels unique. The next novella in the series, A Song for the Quiet is due out later this year. I’m looking forward to revisiting the world of John Persons, I just wouldn’t want to live there.
Hammers on Bone is available on Amazon.