A lingeringly strange atmosphere hangs about Benjamin Wood’s third novel, in which the settings and paraphernalia of a new wave of British weird fiction — old children’s TV series, rustic bloodletting, the starkness of the northern landscape — encroach steadily on a retrospective story of childhood murder and deceit.
The setting is northern England in the early 1990s, as the young Daniel Hardesty, a bookish 12-year-old, embarks on a road trip to Yorkshire with his estranged dad Francis, a jobbing stage carpenter, philanderer and liar. They’re on their way to the set of The Artifex, the sci-fi TV drama on which Francis works and with which his son is obsessed. Fictional, of Wood’s own creation, and with fragments interspersed throughout the text, the series comes across as a weird-science British crossbreed of Catweazle and The X-Files. Since Daniel’s narrative begins by enumerating ‘the items that were in my father’s glove box, catalogued the day his car was found by the police’, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that father and son end up somewhere much darker than the studios of Yorkshire Television.
For Daniel, the trip involves a shattering loss of innocence; for his father, a terrible gain in experience. The unevenness in Francis’s character is noted at the outset, when Daniel’s long-suffering mother remarks on the ‘two weathers’ in his personality, between which ‘he could switch without warning, without reason’. As the road trip sours and Francis’s frustrations mount, he graduates from easy, boastful, mendacious charm to a new and chilly psychopathy. As the extent of his criminality grows, he seems to become more himself, acquiring, according to Daniel, a ‘strange repose’, in which ‘nothing he had done appeared to shock him. Nothing he’d resolved to do was weighing on him, either’.
Much of the book’s effect will depend on whether the reader buys this transformation, which drives an escalating sequence of threat, torture and murder in the second half. The voice that Wood cultivates for his narrator does a lot to sell it. As he probes the site of his childhood trauma, Daniel offers a pitiless forensic monologue that tests the moral weight of every scene, taking the measure of a man he loved ‘though everything he claimed to feel for me was just an affectation or a gesture of persuasion’ as he regresses to what seems to be ‘his resting state, his factory setting, to be unburdened of the people he was meant to care about’.
In the end I couldn’t follow him quite that far; after the fearsome suspense and weird set-dressing of its first half, full of interjected fragments from The Artifex and agonised narrative foreshadowing, the book’s second half seemed to take a deliberate twist towards more familiar (if horrifying) ground. But it’s still an impressive exercise in mood and narrative command, with a freezing chill that takes some time to depart from the mind.