The Faceless is the new novel from Simon Bestwick, published by Solaris Books and is proof that Simon is one of the best writers of horror fiction currently plying their trade. In fact scrap that, it's proof that Simon is one of the best writers - of any genre - currently plying their trade. This is a great book, one that I thoroughly enjoyed (if that's the right word) reading. It has everything, a great - and, it has to be said, fairly intricate - plot, wonderfully drawn characters - not all of whom are sympathetic, or even likeable, and dialogue that seems natural and uncontrived even when the inevitable spectre of exposition rears its ugly head. Simon is a classy writer with wonderful style, something I first appreciated when I read his collection Pictures of the Dark, where the intense nature of many of the stories was leavened by beautiful, almost poetic prose. It's no mean achievement to maintain stylish writing over the course of a novel but he does, The Faceless is a perfect combination of style and substance.
The plot is multi-layered and told from the viewpoints of a variety of characters, including a psychic only slightly more sympathetic than Gary McMahon's Trevor Pumpkiss. When mist settles on the Lancashire town of Kempforth, people start disappearing whilst at the same time there are sightings of the local bogey-men known as the Spindly Men. The police investigation into the disappearances creates the main narrative thrust of the story but gradually the supernatural elements are added to the mix, culminating in a climax in an abandoned sanitarium.
The book is beautifully written, yes. It has a great plot, yes. Most importantly though, it's scary as hell. Some of the images created in this book will stay with you long after you've finished reading it. The Spindly Men are brilliant creations, drifting through mist-shrouded streets and deserted hospital corridors... The book's title refers to these creatures (who wear masks to disguise their lack of features) but it also sums up the main underlying source of unease and horror generated by the novel. The abandoned hospital - Ash Fell - was used to treat the wounded of World War One, in particular those with facial disfigurement. The fear we feel at seeing someone with such disfigurements - either as a result of injury or disease - is real but is not based on anything so crass as "they look a bit scary". It goes deeper than that, our face is how we communicate with one another, anything that affects that ability causes us unease, we can't interact fully with someone if we can't read their expressions. This is why clowns (or evil bastards as I call them) are so troubling. They could be wearing the hugest of grins, painted all over their faces, whilst at the same time plotting to kill and eat you.
Anyway, I digress... Anyone who's read Simon's story The Slashed Menagerie will find echoes of it in some of what actually went on at Ash Fell. Suffice to say, it's the sanitarium that is at the heart of the story, the source of all the strangeness affecting the town of Kempforth.
Scattered throughout the text are testaments from soldiers wounded in the Great War, later to become residents at Ash Fell. I thought these interludes were brilliant, written in a disjointed, rambling way to reflect the pain, confusion and bitterness of the men involved, adding to the story and providing some sort of rationale for the events that unfold. (My one criticism of the book is that this device is used in the book's coda in a way that took away some of the impact of the earlier entries). The theme of sacrifice runs throughout the book - most profoundly in the testaments of the soldiers who question whether the sacrifice they made was worth anything - and it's fitting that the end of the book is a contemplation of that same theme.
I loved this book, and I thoroughly recommend it - go and buy it now! There's a resurgence in horror at the moment which is to be relished and Simon Bestwick is at the forefront of that. To digress slightly (again!) I wonder if a lot of my appreciation of this book comes from the fact that many years ago I wrote a novel (this in the days when everything was saved on a floppy disk!) about evil deeds performed just after World War One and involving an abandoned sanitarium. Strange but true... I still have the rejection slips but now I know why I got them - The Faceless is a much, much better book than the one I wrote. Damn you Bestwick...