GORE IN THE STORE
RRP: £8.99 496pp
Released in the UK on the 17th November 2020 in paperback and e-book by Titan Books.
Cannibalism, deformed forest dwelling beasts and the contentious politics of village allotment ownership collide in James Brogden’s thoroughly entertaining folk horror novel, BONE HARVEST, making you question whether there could be an ancient evil greater than Alan Titchmarsh lurking in your vegetable patch.
The century spanning story opens in the midst of World War One when an unscrupulous deserter, Everett, is taken in by a bizarre religious cult (although they don’t like you calling them that) who worship the ancient boar god Moccus. He imbues his followers with unnaturally long lives and rejuvenating powers once they feast on his willingly given flesh, so long as they resurrect him every few years and gift him blood sacrifices. Decades later a rift forces Everett and his companions to find fresh ground for their ceremonial offerings, which brings them to an abandoned allotment plot where a victimised wife once buried the dismembered body of her abusive husband. Their fellow allotment owners, won over by a barbecue of suspiciously delicious meat, soon take to the newcomers. All, however, apart from a no-nonsense widow in her mid-60’s, Dennie Keeling, and her trusty dog Viggo. But unfortunately, Dennie has been suffering the symptoms of potential early onset dementia, so will anyone believe her suspicions and can she even trust herself anymore?
The novel is well paced and I breezed through it in a couple of sittings eager to find out what happened next. It’s also crammed with striking images and ideas throughout such as the opening chapters about the ‘Grey Brigade’, the ghoulish band of cannibalistic deserters living in the trenches of no-man’s land, which could have made a whole novel in its own right.
Having Dennie as our lead, an older and fundamentally decent retired lady whose simple pleasures include gardening and berating her beloved dog on its farting, makes a refreshing change for a horror thriller whose protagonists typically would skew younger and edgier. She’s well drawn and likeable and so subsequently easy to emotionally invest in even if the surreal pagan folk horror loses you.
Everett is a fantastically slimy villain, but also developed well enough in the excellent early chapters that you still manage to retain some sympathy for him, and Gar, the hulking half-man half-boar helper, is a brilliantly fun yet sinister presence who provides occasional comic relief such as his foray in to home brewing.
Brodgen consistently utilises humour well. There’s not so much of it that I’d class this as a comedy horror, and it’s certainly not a parody, but it maintains a dryly comic element throughout. In spite of that there’s still plenty of genuinely gruesome and unsettling moments such as a live burial and the scenes of body horror reminded me of Clive Barker but without so much of his weird sex stuff.
Brogden is an Australian living in England and the novel does feel particularly English with its rural allotment setting and I enjoyed the contrast between this and the grander otherworldly horror elements. It’s always nice when a writer doesn’t settle for a generic American locale, the unexpected setting here gives this its own unique character.
Towards the end of the novel, with emerging psychic powers and a police station raid, it does become a little sillier but I was still completely on board and it basically contains nothing more outlandish than the twists and turns Stephen King would utilise. If you like your horror unrelentingly bleak and po-faced then this perhaps isn’t for you. However, if you enjoy horror with a lighter touch, and which shows genuine affection for its characters, then I imagine you will have as good a time as I did.
Overall, if you want a great piece of horror escapism, gruesome and dark enough to thrill but with an occasional endearing goofiness to stop it ever becoming too bleak, then it’s definitely worth giving BONE HARVEST a read. I hadn’t read anything by Brogden before but certainly will look out for him in the future as he clearly has a great imagination and knows how to tell a fun and gripping story. Also, perhaps most importantly, he has written an excellent dog character (named after Viggo Mortensen no less).
Reviewed by John Upton.