A lovely little noirish Lovecraft/Chandler mash-up set, hilariously, in early 21st century Croyden. Well, I say 'lovely'…
Now, I like sushi, and I like curry, but putting two very good things together like this does not automatically make one very, very good thing. There is an only too real chance that, as evidenced in the picture above, it may make one very bad thing instead: a dreadful thing, a wicked thing, an unholy abomination that offends mine eyes and those of God himself. Hammers on Bone is not like that. There's also a chance that the two good things cancel each other out, that you end up with a disparate collection of parts that sounds decent enough, but when push comes to shove doesn't work together to any effect at all. Hammers on Bone is not like that, either (though I recently read another novella that is, which is probably why I'm dwelling on this point a bit too much).
Hammers on Bone, is, instead, one of those rare mash-ups where it all clicks: dark and gnarly and funny while, and this is crucial, playing it all completely straight. It even manages to do some particularly effective work contrasting the fantastical terrors of n-dimensional monsters with the sadly prosaic horror of domestic abuse, without ever coming across as exploitative. It takes a seriously impressive level of authorial deftness to make that work.
John Persons is, somehow, a 1940’s gumshoe in a lovecraftian monstrosity in the body of a regular Joe in south London. His manner of speaking is anachronistic in every sense, and yet works pretty much flawlessly—one of the more impressive narrative tricks here is how the subconscious voice of the body Persons is wearing functions as both his conscience and an audience surrogate, which is a damn sight more imaginative than yer average Donna Moss, at any rate. Persons is persuaded to investigate a stepdad who turns out to be more than averagely wicked, and he does. The plot’s probably best described as slimline (which is fair enough in a book of barely 100 pages), but this is all about tone and, a touch improbably given who/what our narrator is, character. Both are adroitly realised: the book’s stygian darkness is leavened by just enough rays of, if not light then at least lightness; there’s an (un)healthy dollop of body horror applied sparingly enough not to get dulled through repetition; and Persons is fleshed out (for want of a better phrase) fully enough to have impact, yet with enough space for the reader to inhabit his skin (for want of etc etc) for themselves.
My only real complaint is over the length, in that it's too short. I don't just mean that in the gushing fanboy "I want more of this" sense. I mean that’s true, and I realise that what follows will sound slightly contradictory given what I’ve just said, but there's clearly more story here, and while obvious cliffhanger is obvious, it unfortunately serves to underline the partial nature of this story as much as it tantalises for the next instalment. The denouement doesn’t really, er... denoue. Happily there is a next instalment, however, and I hope many more after that, but I can’t help feeling they’ll eventually work better as a single volume with the story whole, than as sections parcelled out in slightly (slightly) frustrating instalments. Though of course this may say more about my reading preferences than the book itself, and if it was good enough for Dickens and King and so on and so forth. Khaw’s on many people’s lists as one to watch, and on the evidence here the hype may well be justified.