by Huck Walker
I was totally unprepared when I began reading this novel. From the title I could guess that it involved some kind of mass destruction but that was about it. It was great to be propelled into such a wildly original book. So if you like being surprised and unprepared then please ignore the rest of this review and get into The Griefing without finding out too much about it. However if you like reviews, read on. (There's some serious spoilers that follow).
The first thing to say is that this is a very hefty tome (696 pages according to amazon). It's long enough to cover some pretty diverse territory. The novel focusses on four characters. The first is Tommy - a young molecular biologist who is a genius in his field. His quest is to unlock the relationship between the human cell and the organelles inside it. At least that seems to be his main objective. There's also a lot of other stuff he gets up to. The effort to explain the science is commendable and it all feels a lot more plausible than the typical horror fantasy. There's mention of reprogrammed retroviruses for example.
Stayshia is the next character we get close to - she's a hardcore science nerd who accidentally discovers something supernatural. She has a very human reaction to something which she considers impossible, but then goes on to become possessed by her discovery. Including a character like Stayshia who has extrasensory powers reminded me vaguely of Stephen King (he often throws a telepathic character or something into the mix to spice things up).
Mark is a spectacularly rich young man with some dubious morals. He's looking for something dodgy to fund and comes across both Tommy and Stayshia. The fourth character is Graham. He's a likeable fellow who chops down feral trees for a living, but later on mutates into a big red killing machine.
There's a long section near the beginning of the book which obviously pays homage to the Newcastle underground scene of the late 1990s. Combining the "Bloody Fists" with all the weird science going on was seriously fresh and probably my favourite part of the book. The other section that deserves a special mention is the last twenty percent or so of the book. There is a real pay off for horror fans here. Yes there is a plague of zombies but this is about as original as a zombie plague can be. It reminded me vaguely of "the Thing", "Akira" and maybe "the Fly". There's a lot of gore and a couple of scenes especially are about as scary as horror novels get.
I feel reluctant to criticize this book at all since I don't read a lot of genre fiction - what I liked least here is quite typical of genre fiction - and quite probably the very elements that other readers will particularly appreciate. The Griefing is very long for example, and there are some very lavish descriptive passages. There's also a total lack of comedy which I guess is something you don't expect in a horror novel anyway but I felt it might have helped smooth the ride a little. Also sometimes the characters are remarkably deadpan about the sheer impossibility of things happening around them. For example, Julie doesn't show a lot of concern when her patient slowly mutates into a three metre monster. Then again, stuff like this happens in horror all the time.
All up an amazing novel and good head-trashing material. It's great to find Australian fiction with imagination for a change. Highly recommended.