Love Will Tear Us Apart
(2023) C. K. McDonnell, Bantam, £16.99, hrdbk, 451pp, ISBN 978-1-787-63339-1
The third book in the Stranger Times series of conspiracy and Forteana stories centred on an eccentric team of investigative journalists in Manchester.
The story takes up very soon after the close of events in the second book, This Charming Man. Like its predecessor, the book shares its title with a popular song by a Manchester band, in this case a 1990 hit by Joy Division.
This is a tighter, much more rounded story than its predecessor, though it still separates many narrative threads and leaves a number of built up ideas unresolved. What is covered is terrific though.
Banecroft, the gloriously Charles Laughton-esque, un-PC editor, given to pointing a blunderbuss at his staff to test their loyalty, is treated more sympathetically here, as his long desired need for closure over the loss of his wife, who he refuses to accept being dead, promises to come to a close, but could it be a horrible trap set for him by his enemies, the mysterious, sinister Founders?
Almost as bad for him is the arrival at the offices of the enigmatic Betty, a self appointed and uninvited assistant editor, who seems to have Mary Poppins levels of magical ability and demands a complete financial audit of a publication that has never kept its finances in order in all its years. Betty eats literary scenery whenever she appears and I hope she returns in future Stranger Times books.
In a parallel plot, Hannah, one of the most experienced of the journalists on the team, has been drawn into a mysterious cult running a rehab health clinic initiative, The Winona Pinter Institute. Hannah sees how cynical people sent in for treatment, suddenly become fanatical champions of the cause after their treatment, and fears that she might be next, especially as those seemingly cured go to the opposite extremes. For example, an anorexic has gone on to such an over-eating regime they have died of symptoms brought about by their obesity.
With guidance from outside agents, (one of who communicates with her through a talking seagull) Hannah discovers that something supernatural and deadly might be going on in the basement corridors of the institution. The presence of the talking bird detracts from the uniqueness of the talking dog owned by the man who cannot lie, a recurring character from This Charming Man.
Banecroft is given to disappearing for long periods, and the real clue to him being troubled is that he starts actually being nice and polite to people. His politeness is treated as the most supernatural and freaky experience anyone who knows him encounters in the book.
Some of the reporters trying to prepare for Betty’s audit start to link the mysteries assailing the press office itself to a long since discontinued column of extreme conspiracies that one of the team made up for a time to fill column space. The indication is that one of the ideas he shamelessly hoaxed up might actually be true, but which one?
The narrative runs like a serious story, with genuinely scary powerful entities at work, ghosts, and demons using mirror portals to move between worlds, and quests for immortality at any cost, running parallel to the absurdities of a newspaper trying to reveal the truth of it all despite its often dysfunctional staff. The humour and horror rarely converge, but but often run alongside one another. Both a well handled but they really need to meld. The characters are well created, and seeing Banecroft actually has a heart makes him more credible, though like his staff, I actually found myself wanting to see the return of his appalling, gruff boss from hell, rather than his broken man trapped in a living Hell.
There are real laugh out loud episodes amidst the darker lines the story takes. Loon Day needs to recur in future books. This is an annual day when the Stranger Times opens its doors to the public so they can come in and share their own ghost stories, weird happenings and conspiracy theories. The staff dread the first day of the sales style opening of the doors to the kind of nutters expected to descend on them with good reason. A gag in the previous book about a woman who married a stretch of motorway is expanded on here when another lady turns up on Loon Day accusing the first one of lying because the motorway is in fact married to her and the ladies end up fighting it out in the office until order is restored with great difficulty. Such asides act like lock gates on a canal cruise, taking the reader out of the main generally more serious tale going on, but they are invariable huge fun breaks from the overall narrative.
As with the previous books, some absurdist headlines and stories from the newspaper’s pages are included between chapters, though in the proof copy I got the pages for inserting these into are left blank ready to receive them later.
Laugh out loud hi-jinks, with some genuine horror and dramatic tension too. The second volume is essential reading prior to getting into this one. Hopefully book four will reintroduce the formidable Betty.
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