Friday, 2 August 2019

Apocalypse Then. And now...


Getting old has many advantages. To be fair, I’ve yet to experience any of them – the only changes I’ve noticed thus far are a musculo-skeletal system that seems to take a couple of hours longer to wake up than my brain (at which point it does nothing but complain anyway) and an increased desire to wave my fist and shout “gerroff my lawn!” at passers-by. Something else it’s brought however, is a wave of nostalgia which has manifest itself in a longing to revisit the books I read in my youth, to rekindle my love of the horror genre by reading the works that hooked me in the first place.
Joy then, greeted the news that PS Publishing have re-issued a book from one of my literary heroes, Stephen Laws, with a swanky new signed hardback and trade paperback edition of Chasm. First released in 1998, I not only read it then but attended a launch for it in Newcastle. The fact that Stephen hails from Newcastle, and set the majority of his novels in the North East played a big part in my admiration of him but not so much as the skill and imagination he employed in his writing did. Each of his novels – whilst grounded in the familiar tropes of the horror genre – always presented something original with new and entertaining ideas crammed into every intricately constructed plot.
Such is very much the case with Chasm, Stephen’s tenth novel, an epic (in every sense) tale of the aftermath of what appears to be an earthquake which strikes the town of Edmonville. Following the vividly described destruction, the town’s surviving residents find themselves marooned on isolated pillars of rock, the rest of the town having disappeared into what appears to be a huge crevasse.
The crevasse is, of course, the Chasm of the book’s title. And yes, I’ve used a capital C – exactly as the author does throughout the novel, and for good reason. This is no ordinary chasm, is in fact…
To say more would of course be a huge spoiler. Much of the joy of the novel comes from working out exactly what has happened alongside the book’s characters. Alongside the physical dangers faces by the protagonists, a host of supernatural threats are also thrown into the mix, most notably the Vorla, the darkness that dwells within the Chasm. The Vorla is a brilliant creation, a tour de force of imagination, a truly original monster.
The characters facing up to the horrors within Chasm are all skilfully drawn – real people thrown into an unreal situation and reacting in exactly the ways their characters dictate. The book’s protagonist is Jay O’Connor (whose initials – minus the O’ - may or may not be significant) whose journal entries provide a framing device for the novel. Jumping between these journal entries and the narrative itself (told in third person) lends a fragmented nature to the novel, something I loved as someone who appreciates form as much as content in a novel. This effect is further enhanced by introducing what appears to be a completely separate storyline in the early part of the book, the “Ordeal of Juliet Delore” before cleverly bringing the two strands together.
A feature of Stephen’s writing is the cinematic feel he brings to his stories. His prose is so precise and his powers of description so skilful that it really does feel as if you’re watching a film as you read the book. There are some who will throw their hands in the air at this, or possibly wring them theatrically as they cry out, protesting that books and films are different art forms but personally I greatly appreciate any author who has the skill to paint pictures with their words that put images directly into my head. Chasm is a prime example of this skill, with a whole host of brilliantly rendered set-pieces to enjoy.
Chasm is a long book, but so tightly written and with so much action contained within that you’ll fly through it. The fractured structure lends itself to plenty of cliff-hangers (including one thrilling literal example) which keep the reader hooked. The supernatural horrors are a joy to read – a mix of originality and new variations of established tropes – but it’s the introduction of some human monsters in the book’s third act that ushers the reader towards the conclusion.
I vaguely remember a feeling of disappointment when I first read Chasm that the horror had switched tone but on my re-read now see that it was in fact a master-stroke. Throughout, the book is beautifully constructed, edited to maintain pace wonderfully, storylines and characters interacting to brilliant effect and so it is that the introduction of the Caffney family provides the catalyst for the novel’s dénouement, disrupting the tenuous status-quo the narrative had fallen into.
There’s heroism, redemption and action galore in the conclusion of Chasm and, ultimately, the explanation both characters and readers have been searching for. If I have any criticism of the book it’s probably that the huge ideas the events described in the novel are based on are covered relatively quickly. It’s far from an info-dump but perhaps a little more time spent on the revelations may have been better.
I loved re-reading Chasm, enjoyed it more this time round. Given it was written in 1998, I had concerns that it may have felt a little dated given that this is the original text of the book. To be honest, this isn’t the case. True, there are no mentions of the internet or mobile phones – smart or otherwise – but, given the cataclysmic events which occur disable all means of contact with the outside world this isn’t really an issue. At one point a Ford Cortina appears but this only added to the nostalgic glow I was seeking anyway.
I’m so happy that Chasm has been given a new lease of life and is available again to a new generation of readers. It’s a thrilling, terrifying, thought-provoking read – pretty much everything I want from a horror novel.
You can – and should – buy it here.

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