Monday 21 November 2016

Craze, by Steve Byrne - (book review with Q&A)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
A wave of terrifying paranormal phenomena has swept the UK. A virulent plague known as the Red Death has decimated the population. Law and order has broken down.
The Crisis Powers Government, operating from the fortified heart of London, is attempting to regain control, whilst a shadowy terrorist organisation is rumoured to be harnessing the power of darkness for its own ends.
To escape a riot-torn inner city, a group of survivors must band together, but their flight will force a harrowing confrontation with the demonic forces at the heart of society’s collapse.

Steve Byrne cannot tell a story badly.  His previous novel, Phoenix (which I reviewed here), was a stunning and immersive tale about supernatural entities in war-torn Vietnam that I thoroughly enjoyed and the same applies to Craze too, even though they are quite different beasts.  Craze is a near-future pulp shocker, following a handful of characters as they try to make sense of a UK decimated by plague and attacked by various supernatural elements and beasts that nobody quite understands and I do love novels that are - by the author’s own admission - a loving homage to 80s pulp horror.

The novel has two main threads which run in parallel (and occasionally cross) throughout the novel, effectively telling the story from different sides.  On the one hand, we have Hartman, a ruthless (and highly religious) US government operative, kept in this country by the Crisis Powers Government and not adverse to doling out eye-for-an-eye style justice.  He’s trouble-shooting an operation to have the Prime Minister crowned King of England (the present Royal family having been wiped out by the plague) but doesn’t realise that there are darker forces afoot around him.  The other story centres around Jon Raven who returns from a job in Newcastle only to find his wife has been kidnapped and killed.  On his way to exact revenge, he saves Penny Foster who is being assaulted by police and they are then joined by Aamir, a soldier who helps them get away.  When they rescue Ria York, a witch (and the girl on the cover), a chase leads them to a sealed-off Birmingham where, in the central library, they meet Professor Fayemi who knows enough about witchcraft to help Ria put together a plan that might help them all.

As with all pulp, the characters are introduced with the briefest of brushstrokes and even though that’s true here (and I would have preferred a bit more depth), you come to genuinely care for them and their interactions are always lifelike, their dialogue ringing true even in the heightened circumstances.  Byrne uses his locations well - desolate and ruined city streets, unspoilt countryside, the over-protected London, the ruins of Birmingham and the rejuvenated castle in Wales where the coronation is due to take place - and the book fairly drips with atmosphere.  Violence is a constant - sometimes what the characters see, sometimes what they experience - and nobody is apparently safe, with some people I really liked meeting brisk, sticky endings that shock all the more in their simple brutality (and it really is brutal - mention of a dog in the dungeon gave me pause).  Byrne handles the supernatural well too - things are half-seen and partly witnessed but we never get to see anything clearly and there’s no explanation, leaving us as much in the dark as the confused survivors, which works a treat.

Written with a brisk pace (the story doesn’t flag at all), I found myself racing through the last third as the plotlines came together with things looking ever bleaker for our heroes and I wasn’t disappointed.  Told with some wit and style, whilst I agree with Byrne that this is a pulp novel I think he sells himself short with that, because it’s as well-written, atmospheric and expertly paced as I’ve come to expect from the writer.  Wearing its heart on its sleeve, Craze is a novel that delivers not just what you want it to, but that little bit extra which tips it towards being a great work.  Very much recommended.

Steve Byrne, photographed on London's Southbank, April 2015
I've known Steve Harris (the man behind Mr Byrne) for years, since we started corresponding back in the late 90s when he produced a newsheet called The Inner Circle.  A great Convention-buddy (we could stand and talk for hours - and often do), he's also a member of The Crusty Exterior (the picture above came from our London meet).  I thought it'd be fun to ask him some questions about the book and he was kind enough to answer them...

MW:   Where did the story come from?
SB:   Where do I start on that? The premise had been brewing for a long time, and in another incarnation was actually the first novel I wrote, many moons ago. A bunch of disparate elements all came together over time.  I’ve always been interested in the supernatural, particularly in those purportedly ‘true’ anecdotes from friends and relatives.  Although I wouldn’t call myself a believer, I’ve always been fascinated by what exactly is going on in these cases—whether they’re psychological phenomena, wishful thinking, or something more sinister. My story ideas always begin with ‘what if?’ and build from there. What if all these stories were actually real? What if science was wrong, and there was some supernatural force beyond our current understanding? What if demons, ghosts and witchcraft were demonstrably real?

That idea stayed with me, but went no further. Some time later, I happened to catch a documentary entitled “The New Middle Ages”, which foresaw a future where money markets collapse, leading to a breakdown in law and order. In this scenario, rogue authorities and criminal factions take control of inner cities and Britain reverts to a feudal system run by these self-imposed lords. Antibiotic resistance and a lack of access to medicine give rise to an epidemic of Black Death proportions. In this uncertain world, there’d be a rise in the belief in superstition.  Linking this idea with the premise the supernatural is real gave me the framework for my fictional world—a vision of society tipping over into a Middle Ages nightmare where demonic forces are both feared and worshipped.
There’s also a reason for the stripped back tone of the book. My previous novel, Phoenix, which is set during the Vietnam War, involved a phenomenal amount of research. When I’d finished it, I didn’t want to plow right in with another ‘heavy’ project on that scale. I needed a change of gear. I’ve always been a fan of the pulp horror of the seventies and eighties, the sort of thing featured over at Trash Fiction. The death of James Herbert left me nostalgic for those fast paced, violent novels.  Wham bam, thank you ma’am, no holds barred.  This was entry level horror for me back in the day, a sort of fucked up YA. Where was this stuff now? I missed it, and wanted to write it.

MW:   How did you choose the locations and what research did you do on them?
SB:   Usually, my projects will be heavy on research, but as I said, I wanted to get away from that for Craze. I live in and grew up in an inner city, and as such, I’m familiar with sink-hole estates and local crime families. I drew on this for inspiration. Many of the characters are based on real people.
When the new library building in Birmingham opened, I visited and loved the place, I thought it would make a great setting, and filed that fact away for future use. Lastly, the castle… Here’s a bit of trivia, one of the ten things you didn’t know about me—I’ve always been fascinated by castles. I was a member of English Heritage/CADW for many years, and I’ve visited most of the castles in England and Wales. When I first saw Ludlow and Conwy castles on school trips, I was really impressed by their scale, and thought how cool it would be to restore and live in one. Fast forward many years later, and what better setting for a novel set in a Britain devolved to Middle Ages values? I had great fun with that.

Although I promised myself I’d bang out a fast paced adventure thriller and back off on research this time, I ended up finding out about the mediaeval witch craze, demonology, Wicca, black magic, the Ebola virus, and the Black Death (Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year was invaluable in learning about life in a plague ridden city). There’s also a great book on the collapse of Western society, called The Coming Anarchy by Robert D. Kaplan—I digested that too. So much for cutting down on the research. Still, it was nothing compared to what went into Phoenix.

MW:   The characters are diverse and believable. Did you do a similar thing to Phoenix, where you imagined actors cast in the roles?
SB:   Not originally, but as I was bringing elements together, and the number of characters grew, I found it helpful—which probably means you’ll want the cast list! Raven: Gerrard Butler, Penny:  Scarlet Johansen,  Aamir: Naveen Andrews, Ria: Fairuza Balk. Hartman I saw as a mix of Clint Eastwood and Daniel Craig.  It’s great fun doing this, and it translates the written word into a movie screened inside your head.

MW:   The book clearly believes in the power of friendship and teamwork, which the brutality of the situation tries its best to destroy - how did you find the process of bumping off characters that had really come alive in the story?
SB:   I find that develops naturally with the plot. Some of the deaths surprised and upset me, but were dictated by the story. I think you described it once better than anyone, Mark—horror is all about what occurs when life turns bad.  Horror can enter our lives at any time without warning. Nasty, brutish things happen. In some ways, reading and writing horror is practise for coping with darkness in our lives. Some of the scenes are pretty brutal. I always work on that premise of ‘what if’, and things for me have to reflect what would really happen in these situations. Violence should sicken us, should make us feel uncomfortable. We need to face reality in order to come to terms with it. Recently, the first episode of The Walking Dead Season 7 tackled this head on (oops, unintended pun there) in spectacular fashion—very difficult to watch, a real gut-punch.

MW:   How much did the end result differ from the original idea?
SB:   Originally, in that first novel (that was consigned to the bottom drawer, and rightly so) it was really gung-ho, proper pulp—sort of like Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist series from the nineties, if you’re ever encountered that. People, mayhem and guns. Fast paced fun. I hope I’ve kept that feel, but as the characters developed  (particularly the female characters, who actually began to take over the novel), it evolved into what you’ve picked up on—a look at how friendship, love and loyalty are our only respite in a world of depravity.

MW:   So what’s next from Steve Byrne?
SB:   I’m working on my next book as we speak. It’ll be a return to the more research heavy, in depth format of Phoenix. But expect action, violence, brutality and darkness too. The book is tentatively entitled “Fire Red Moon” from the line in the blues version of Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix. “The night I was born, I swear the moon turned afire red”.  It’ll mix conjecture about certain unusual incidents in the life and death of Jimi Hendrix, music industry conspiracy theory, the search for a lost Hendrix recording, and a huge dose of Caribbean Obeah thrown in for good measure. I think I’ve found my niche writing plots twisted around historical facts and events. After Fire red Moon, I’ll be writing a novel set during the Irish Civil War...

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