Fiction Reviews


(2023) Gareth Marenghi, Coronet, £20, hrdbk, xii + 387pp, ISBN 978-1-399-72188-2


A direct follow up to Garth Marenghi’s TerrorTome, and once again centred on his best-selling pulp horror penning alter-ego author, Nick Steen.

Steen’s literary gorefest creations are still spilling into the real World in this second trilogy of connected novellas. Throughout, he appears to be the ‘guest’ of a sinister research team who are messing with his head.

Story One – 'Portentum'.

Nick finds himself inexplicably piloting and crashing passenger jets, in disasters from which he emerges as the only survivor, night after night, in shades of James Herbert’s 1976 novel, The Survivor, a scenario straight from one of Steen’s own numerous novels.

It soon become apparent that this might be a virtual reality brainwashing process, conducted by shady scientists intent on turning him into a deadly super-weapon. They also have two young girls prisoner, one of who can freeze and roll back time, and the other able to heal the dead.

This immediately sets the story’s big get out of jail free card, as every time it looks hopeless, the girls step in and put things right again. One ally, a leek carrying Welshman who pretends to be blind for no really apparent reason, (The ‘Welchman’ as he is called) is constantly decapitated, and resurrected. Similarly, the girls intervene when a fresh jet plane seems close to crashing. Nick might be flying this as well as seeing it from the secret lab, and with his girlfriend/book editor Roz (who also appeared in book one) as a passenger, he is keen to save it. If it seemed saved just in time only once it would be tolerable, but with time looped and the girls frequently temporarily losing power, the cliff-hanger simply duplicates over and over until it all gets rather tedious.

Added to this, Matthew Holness (the real writer behind Marenghi frequently adds footnotes pointing out the repetitive jokes, promising to stop them soon, and spelling out that some point or line or other is foreshadowing and going to have importance later in the narrative and we had best remember it. When the line does pay off more footnotes tell us it was mentioned earlier. This starts to grate more than it comes over as amusing.

Story Two – 'Arabella Mathers' – By far the best story in this trilogy, as it works as pure horror even more than as comedy. It could make for a very creepy chiller indeed.

Roz has discovered that Nick has memories (possibly implanted during his (ongoing) incarceration. He suddenly has custody of Gwendolyn, never previously mentioned and an already emotionally troubled daughter from his broken marriage. When he moves to the quiet town of Cresston (a town where everyone eats cress) and into a deserted and reputedly haunted house to find inspiration during a spell of writer’s block, he finds himself having to take Gwen with him. He tries to keep her occupied by forcing her to act as his editor and secretary, even locking her in her room to make her do the work. He is not generally so callous. He seems to be becoming possessed by forces at work in the house. As Gwen finds an extremely creepy sentient doll, the Arabella of the title, Nick discovers that the villagers have outlawed all written words. (The shops have pictures without name plates and the Sheriff’s police car just has painted handcuffs on it). The villagers seem intent to lynch and execute Nick for even asking where he can buy pens and other stationary.

How these strands knit together for a genuinely tense and actually shocking conclusion is quite masterful. It is a shame the sandwiching book-ending tales don’t live up to this one.

Story Three – 'The Randyman'.

In the lab-prison, Roz finds herself expected to go inside Nick’s head, just as he summons a Candyman (cinematic villain of the 1992 and 2021 horror films) type seΧual predator demon by saying Randyman seventeen times.

Cue lots of jokes about embarrassingly timed erections, as the Randyman, a cruelly murdered toilet attendant, is a vengeful flasher and a streaker. Just about every slang term, and phallic label for male genitalia gets utilised here.

At least Roz gets more to do in this story, having been very marginalized in the previous two-thirds.

Contrasting tales, one going for a never ending chain of cliff-hangers and spectacle, one running like a weak entry in the Carry On film franchise, and a very good central block tale that deserves better company. The bookends are not without some entertainment value but the bright beacon between them only highlights how much better Marenghi / Holness is capable of.

Arthur Chappell


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