(2013) Charlie Human, Arrow Books, £8.99 pbk, 295pp, ISBN 978-0-099-58077-5
Well, I suppose comparisons with Harry Potter were inevitable, given the initial schoolyard setting and schoolboy hero in the shape of Baxter Zevcenko in Charlie Human's (surely that can't be his real name, can it?) novel Apocalypse Now Now, and it isn't helped by the illustration of Baxter rendered by Joey Hifi that adorns the cover featuring a harassed-looking Baxter complete with school blazer, loose tie, glasses, and something that might be a scar on his forehead, not a lightning bolt this time, but perhaps an all-seeing eye, or the single eye of a Cyclops? No wonder Baxter looks harassed, if not a little shaken as he is surrounded by a whole host of strange-looking characters, some of them clearly not human, while others might have been human once, that is, back when they were alive. Throw in several tentacles and the odd crow and a quote from Lauren Beukes: 'Mad, dark and wonderfully twisted' and there you have the front cover of Apocalypse Now Now while on the back cover Wired calls this 'Lauren Beukes Meets Neil Gaiman', but they're wrong this is pure 100% undiluted barking mad Human.
Baxter is not particularly nice, he is a teenager, after all, and a pretty realistic one at that, a conflicting mess of emotions and hormones and not really likeable – think of a slightly extreme younger version of Flashman and you are getting there. He has got it all, or so he thinks, as he runs a porn syndicate called the Spider at Westridge High in Cape Town, managing to keep a delicate peace with other rival gangs, and while there is peace there is money to be made, loads of money, like someone used to say. He's even got a hot babe, Esme, the girl of his dreams by his side, so the only way, obviously, is onwards and upwards, more dosh, more power and another step up the ladder of world domination, or so Baxter thinks, until Esme is cruelly snatched away from him by the Mountain Killer who has killed twelve victims so far and carved an all-seeing eye on to their foreheads, a design that Baxter knows well as he has been having dreams about it. Is Baxter linking with the killer in these dreams or is he (cue dramatic music) – da, da, da - actually the Mountain Killer himself? Surely not, but he is connected to some of the victims, and given that “bad mental health” runs in the family, and the fact that our boy is already seeing a psychiatrist, and has sort of confessed to being a serial killer of 'things', not necessarily people, it is no wonder the police are interested in him.
There's only one thing Baxter can do to prove his innocence and save Esme before times runs out for her, and that's obviously to catch the killer, and hopefully the Mountain Killer won't turn out to be himself, but in order to do that he will have to engage the service of one Jackie Ronin, bearded bounty hunter who likes the odd drink or ten - think of John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and you are only beginning to scratch the surface of the Han Solo-like character who steals the book from under Baxter's nose with his antics, connections and reminiscences. I'm sure I don't need to tell Human what he has probably gleamed from reaction to this novel already, namely that we want more Ronin – a spin-off series would do nicely, thank you.
With his sidekick sort of in tow, it is time to save Esme, a quest which takes our two heroes into the dark side of Cape Town populated by the strange-looking people and birds and tentacle-owners from the front cover as well as a whole host of nasties from African folklore plus ancient gods and family secrets, and all the while Human walks the tightrope of his narrative in a story that offers, thrills and spills and humour and horror to fine effect. Expect to laugh, expect to shudder, expect to be grossed out, perhaps in the very same sentence, but above all, expect to be entertained.
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