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Cape Wrath
Paul Finch
Telos paperback £8

review by Paul Higson

Prior to the turning of his attentions to feature-length fiction Paul Finch had careers in real policing and in the phoney constabulary, latterly as a regular contributor of scripts to television's The Bill, and the depiction of violence in this his debut novella, does nothing further to reassure me as to the methodology and mindset of the modern bobby. The television past leads the reader into a false expectation of this simple tale simply told, by trick of that pet hate of a chapter opening, that which is heavy on dialogue and banter; many people going as they do by the outset of a novel, Finch plays us like the suckers we are. Interaction and dull first names (David, Barry, Linda, Craig) bode badly for the reader overly expectant and hopeful as ever for something life-altering in their buy. It doesn't matter that the dialogue, drawing on his TV scriptwriting experience, is naturalistic throughout, nor that he almost immediately moves away from the dialogue into a beautifully drawn up environment of a highly descriptive clarity, because that initial scant reliance on interaction hangs in there cursing the novella for several chapters. Yet this is all part of the plan.
   The relay race of expectation continues, this time to positive effect, as we learn more about the characters, but not too much, and Finch with great authority completes the mental mapping of the island and fills the mouths and minds of the cast of archaeologists with convincing conversations, theorising, knowledge and familiarity of ancient British history, all as credible as anything coming from the pages of scholarly reads of the worth of The Lost Gods Of England. The approach is so cool that the first death, though hanging on slender, ugly detail is disturbing without being horrific. That first death, in turn, having followed considerable respect for location and history, falsely puts the benchmark at a faux level, deceiving us once more in the heights that will be attained by the horror. Tricked again, the carnage that follows is shocking. But there is still one more unbelievable phase to this grand Guignol as the horrors have yet to turn from being grisly discoveries of murdered students and lecturers to having the grim tortures of the remaining members of the group played out underneath us in an uncompromising, gory glory.
   A team of archaeologists, under the guidance of the tall and beauteous Professor Mercy venture to the island of Craeghatir, off Cape Wrath hoping to make a name for herself with the first major find of the 21st century. It is the rumoured burial ground of Ivar Ragnarsson, a Viking berserker with a notoriously bloody history. A tomb is uncovered, artefacts are removed and the inscription on the monolith that had sealed his resting place seemingly beats translation by Mercy despite her unmatchable expertise with old Norse idioms. As members of the eight strong party fall prey to an unseen killer, suspicion falls first upon individual members until a supernatural reckoning is the only acceptable deduction, though by then it may already be too late for the dwindling group.
   This is the most brutal, aggressive horror fiction that I personally have read since the early 1980s and that is some going for a book that is only 121 pages long and holds its gore card back for as long as it does. It brought to mind the cruel and vindictive writing of Richard Haigh in The Farm, another British writer with an unflinching mind for unthinkable mutilation and terrible death. There are shades also of Richard Laymon, though the late American author only came to literary life when writing in the savagery in his innumerable unexciting novels. Finch shares with Laymon the formulaic. What Laymon does not have in common with Finch, however, is the Briton's discipline and commitment to technical, geographical and historical detail. Indeed, the only intrinsic detailing they shared were those in the anatomical and pathological areas. A sex scene in the stream between Linda and Alan is successfully pornographic yet attractive, the hottest page encountered in print. It cleverly divides the line on claims of sexually pornographic and that violently pornographic being one and the same for there is attraction in the literary sexual acts and none in the mutilation killings.
   The murders and bodily damage are gruelling and disturbing. It is additionally unsettling the notion that Finch comes from and resides in my county and would that there was a serial killer was on the loose in Lancashire, I might propose his name join the list for investigation. The writing is acutely descriptive and everything is as perfectly transposed without ever crossing the line into prose, and it is this that impresses and assists maintenance of such terrific balance in the work.
   Alas, for all this, the plotting is ordinary and as near as it came at times to having me emetic that does not constitute for any great revelation and life changing observation for the visitor reader. It is written as if ultimately disposable, a shock for one to get over, but a train of disturbing thoughts that might linger in the mind longer than expected. It exceeds any vile content the splatter-punks could affect because of the meditative value of the earlier chapters, whereas the notorious and comedic horror contributors of the American pop-gore phase could none of them resist an early start to both nasty and ridiculous proceedings. It is a smart cookie that allures one most of the way on restraint, leaving us at a point of no return in the midst of a massacre. The only talent with whom Finch is comparable is the underrated Lord of Grim Realities, John Russo. And we live also in days where actual horrors are delivered to us on a daily basis via TV news, broadsheets and loathsomely, in the pages of extreme reality magazines that are available in the local newsagents. When it is described to us in fiction today we find it too easy to see. What more of us require is an escape or some new understanding in any area and Cape Wrath offers neither.
   It seems odd that he should have a horror script accepted by Talisman Films, who made Complicity, a film with its fair share of creative and nasty deaths but filmed so as to tone it down to the point that it is removed from all possibility of being labelled a horror film. If the same fate were to befall a Finch script, I would foresee little remaining. Cape Wrath has a feel of an unmade horror film about it, and like a second feature shocker it knows not to be overlong, outstay its tenancy on a grim estate.
Cape Wrath by Paul Finch
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