Fiction Reviews

Ghost Virus

(2018) Graham Masterton, Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 424pp, ISBN 978-1-788-54502-0


Graham Masterton was one of horrorís bestselling authors in the 1970ís and 1980ís.  He was right up there with Stephen King, James Herbert, Guy N Smith, etc., The Manitou (1978) was filmed, with Tony Curtis in the lead (trailer here).

A common theme for Masterton was ancient demons and mythical entities attacking modern society. The Manitou features a native American demon taking over a high-tech hospital.  The Devils of D Day centres on a tank battle featuring summoned devils and angels.

The stories featured a great deal of visceral, graphic violence often presented with little subtlety.

After a long spell away from fantasy-horror to write critically, well-received police procedurals, Masterton now returns to his old stamping ground with some style and in many ways it is as if he never went away.  Ghost Virus has a very old fashioned feel despite its setting in a world of cell-phones, the internet and migrants facing brutal degrees of casual racism.

The plot is simple enough.  The police in Tooting, London, try to solve a series of bizarre murders, refusing to believe the fact that they are being committed by demon-possessed second hand clothing. After an Indian girl is driven by her jumper to burn herself to death with acid, the police refuse to accept that she is not the victim of an honour killing. Even with DS Jamilla Patel conducting the case, the Metís finest police canít resist making racist assumptions and jibes.

Masterton rarely has Patel and her fish-out-of-water partner, DC Pardoe, challenge the offensive comments.  He lets the nastiness of the comments speak for itself, making the remarks look as monstrous and destructive as the rampaging clothing itself. Even when the police begrudgingly accept that supernatural forces are at work, they tell the public the danger comes from the ethnic minorities. They excuse this as the easy way out of more demanding but honest explanations.

The killings are incredibly well choreographed. A young girl eats her own pet dog and the clothes form an army to attack the police directly, leading to the bizarre spectacle of the SAS taking chainsaws to empty pairs of killer trousers on the streets. Masterton never lets the absurdity of this detract from the horror.

Many of the Tooting streets, pubs and other locations are genuine, which gives the story an air of realism. The well-envisaged conflict with enemies made of nothing but cloth might just make readers wary of buying second hand ever again.

Less credible is the heavy handed policing before the scale of the pending disaster becomes apparent.  A full scale raid on a man stealing charity donation bags from peopleís doorsteps (as vile as such a crime undoubtedly is), gets treated like an attack on bank robbers from an episode of The Sweeney, circa 1977 (opening credits here).  There are high speed car chases involved on what ought to be a low key operation. It often reads like scenes from Life On Mars (opening credits here).  Perhaps Masterton really is trapped in time?

There is no doubt however that Masterton has not lost his touch for taking the horror story from the traditional haunted house to a very public, wide arena, and he certainly does not spare the gore.

The chemistry between Pardoe & Patel works really well, and their sense of love to one another while each not having the nerve for a mixed race relationship against a backdrop of colleagues with values that belong lost in the 1970ís or earlier lifts the story above the ordinary and I hope Masterton brings them back for future work, hopefully not too far into the future.

Arthur Chappell

See also Ian's take on Ghost Virus.


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