The Living One
Lewis Gannett
Gay Men's Press, London, 1993, paperback, 380 pp, £7.95 (pbk) (ISBN 0-85449-215-1)

This is the author's first published novel: a tale of red-eyed dogs, black roses, and wholesome youth confronted by imminent extinction in the form of a centuries-old family curse. The ground may be familiar, but it is covered well enough to sustain the reader's interest, and told in the fine tradition of epistolary narrative that runs from Richardson through Wilkie Collins to Bram Stoker.

The book begins with the hero - boyish, clean-living young closet queen, Torrance - receiving a disturbing letter from Baron Malcolm Spoor, his estranged and ill-reputed father. The latter has been living a life of debauchery in Bangkok, with his faithful manservant, Pip, and an harem of fat women, but is now resident in a palatial and electronically secure mansion on the Massachusetts coast. The elder Spoor wishes to see his son: for as he confides in his missive, he will shortly be no more. From the tone and content of the letter, it appears that the Baron is somewhat unbalanced, and the prospect of a meeting does not thrill young Torrance. But he is also very rich, and Torrance is sufficiently respectful of this to conceal his fears (and the letter) from his mother.

Torrance's first impressions of his new home, are not encouraging: it is too big and too isolated for his liking. The Baron owns a dozen dogs of demonic aspect and behaviour; and Pip's cuisine is unwholesomely exotic to one used to an all-American diet. But there are compensations, in the forms of Sheila, a psychologist masquerading as a teacher (for research purposes), and a young Adonis named Erik. Any reader on the lookout for a "steamy" read, however, would be well-advised to look elsewhere, as this reviewer failed to discern the slightest stirrings in his nether regions. As a fair sample of the whole, try this locker room encounter:

   My hand went smack on his chest, and he grunted, quiet: Unnnhh.

   It felt so good. His skin was warm and there was his nipple under my finger, and his breath from the Unnnhh went right in my face! So I had to look in his eyes - my hand was stuck to his chest, no way I could take it off, and he was sort of leaning - his eyes were wide blue frozen. His mouth opened but he could not talk. His tongue came out and wet his lip. This was it. We had to kiss. I felt my dick smashing out of my swimsuit. Erik looked down. I took a look at his. It went out sideways, over his leg, jumping on his thigh, like it was desperate to get away. It was desperate for me. Wow. My hand was still on his muscle. He was leaning, harder. My hand slid. We kind of fell on each other.... [pp.236-67]

Any readers who are aroused by this are advised to buy the book, for it has a long way yet to go before the two boys are glued to each other. Try as I might, I must say - perhaps age and shape have something to do with it - I was unable to repeat that trick with my swimming trunks. Indeed, the role of Erik is distinctly superfluous to the story, and may have more to do with the publishers of the book than artistic integrity, for he is the least-developed character, not excluding the Baron's dogs.

Minor niggles, however, do not change the fact that for the discriminating horror aficionado this is a splendid antidote to the usual gorefest that passes for imaginative fiction. My criticisms are small when balanced against the enjoyment I derived from The Living One. It is a good read: head and shoulders above a much-trumpeted recent novel by one of the "Masters of Modern Horror" that I came across a few weeks back. I hope that Mr Gannet will not content himself with this work, for he clearly has all the makings of an accomplished tale-spinner. The talent shown in this debut novel should be further exercised for the benefit of the Public, and for the benefit of the author. Mr Gannett's fame is unlikely to eclipse that of such luminaries as Stephen King and Peter Straub; but that ought not depress him, other than from financial considerations. Such stars of the best-seller list burn brightly and profitably for quite a time. But their brilliance is too often no more than a slick veneer: all mammoth epics of Armageddon and charismatic psychopaths - with the occasional extra-terrestrial thrown in for padding. For my money there are few producing anything from this to justify their reputations - the only notable exception being Dean R. Koontz, whose comparative failures are superior to most of his rivals' greatest successes, despite a prolific output.

The antecedents of this book will be familiar enough to anyone who has read much in the way of horror or science fiction. The idea of the usurpation of a youthful body by an alien personality is neither new, nor unusual. Notable examples may be found in the short stories of H.G. Wells (The Story of Mr Elvesham, and The Stolen Body) and of H.P.Lovecraft (The Thing on the Doorstep). Longer examples also abound, including Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires (1976) and Stephen Gallagher's Valley of Lights (1987). Mr Gallagher's book is a fine read, and a contrast to his plausibly scientific Chimera, which will be more familiar to many from the television adaptation. The Baron's canine slaves are strikingly similar to the fiends of one of M.R.James' more disquieting tales (The Residence at Whitminster). That elements of The Living One are so familiar is no failing, for their treatment is fresh.

And there is much here too for the libertarian. It is interesting to see that the real villains of the book are not the Baron and his dogs and roses, but the Federal agency that employs Duane Allbright. As soon as these realise what power might be theirs to control, its employees behave with all the disregard for law that the Weaver and Lamplugh families - not to mention the martyrs of Waco - experienced in reality. I will not say too much here: but it is surely significant when fear of the State enters so deeply into popular culture that it upstages even supernatural terrors.

In short, the author of The Living One has succeeded in evoking the strangeness of the unknown, combining this with a reasonably tight plot. He gives us a handful of well-defined characters (and poor Erik!) and a satisfying descriptive ability. His biggest failing is perhaps in his characters' dialogue: despite their differences, they tend to sound remarkably alike - a single individual trying several voices. But they are quite interesting nonetheless. Finally, there is an action-packed finale and a "happy" ending. This resolution may seem a little too good-natured for some - a little too contrived. But not all of us are so cynical. In common with Mr Koontz, Mr Gannett seems concerned with the ultimate value of human relationships. And in the end even monsters - I mean Malcolm, of course, not the Feds - deserve some sympathy.

Mario Huet.

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