Fiction Reviews

The Charming Man

(2022) C. K. McDonnell, Bantam, £14.99, hrdbk, 499pp, 978-1-787-63337-7


This is not the first book to centre on vampires in Manchester. Paul Cornellís 1994 Virgin Books 5th Doctor Who Missing Adventure, Goth Opera, drew vampires to the city, and also name dropped Morrisey. (The Charming Man is a pun on The Smiths song This Charming Man' ) and there are other digs at the bandís controversial front man in this book too.

Story wise, this is the second 'Stranger Times' novel, after last yearís The Stranger Times. Both books centre on a struggling newspaper covering weird and paranormal news, much in the spirit of Fortean Times and National Enquirer (more the latter) The Charming Man deals with the teamís efforts to investigate apparent vampire attacks in Manchester.

The tone is rather uneven, as the work sets out for absurd humour (closer to the spirit of Tom Sharpe than Pratchett or Douglas Adams. The trouble is that the apparent vampire attacks are quite viscous and serious. There are home invasions, sinister voyeurism, a man burnt to death by his own cursed tattoos and a very brutal assault on a failed reality show contestant trying to relaunch her career as an internet influencer.

There are surprisingly few vampiric incidents involved and hints that the assailants might not actually be true vampires at all (though they are certainly other-worldly or paranormal). This is quite a challenging concept given that the book opens with a man en-vampired without knowing how or when, blunders into sunlight with its inevitable effects. His demise sparks the investigation by Stranger Times in the first place.

Other occult forces are certainly real in this World. The newspaper office has a resident ghost and protective demons. There is also a man on a canal based houseboat who is  a) Unable to tell lies and therefore reveals uncomfortable blunt truths to anyone summoning him.  b) Cursed to never be able to set foot on land without water somehow coming to drown him, and  c) In possession of a talking dog. For most of his appearances he provides convenient cryptic exposition.

A secondary plot involves tracking down whoever sent out cowboy builders who have worked on the bathroom facilities at the offices of the newspaper in order to establish an elaborate booby trap with which to abduct one of the reporters. It seems to involve a great deal of trouble for taking down someone who isnít surrounded by bodyguards.

The voices of characters often seem rather similar, whoever is speaking. The reporters seem rather interchangeable. The exception to this is the extraordinary chief editor of The Stranger Times, Vincent Banecroft, with his cavalier disregard for political correctness and employment rights. The narrative brightens up whenever he is involved.

C M McDonnell (aka Caimh McDonnell) is a former stand-Up comic who has written for topical comedy shows like Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week, which shows well in the narrativeís sense of sleazy conspiracy theory and corruption, but he seems to be struggling not to simply write horror here and it strikes me hard that he ought to give it a go. There is A Stranger Times podcast too, making the series into a British spin on the Welcome To Night Vale horror-humour books and podcasts by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.

By trying to present two approaches in one, horror and comedy, McConnell seems to struggle with the balance and the styles tend to cancel one another out but there is still much here to appreciate.

Arthur Chappell


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