(Versions reviewed – Kindle ebook, 99p each)
Pure Dark Volumes Two and Three continue the idea of an ultimate horror endurance test, set in a world where nothing is really happening. Or is it? Punk rocker Charlie Ferrari is in a drug induced coma, and as doctors race to save his life, the characters in his head are put through increasingly surreal and disgusting ordeals while attempting to escape the confines of Charlie’s fantasy.
The idea of using a shared universe to frame separate stories can be used to great effect, like in John McNee’s excellent Grudge Punk, or The Animatrix. Some, like Josh Malerman’s Goblin, use each story to link together a wider narrative, and Pure Dark does the same, eventually. Only the first volume read more like a standalone piece, so I was surprised to see that 2 more volumes existed. And curious, because Mackay went pretty far down the gross-out hole in Vol 1, so I wanted to see how far he was likely to push things in the rest of the series. Ah, the Howard Stern effect, where you inevitably feel like showering for a month after you put yourself through the grossness.
And make no mistake, these stories will leave you feeling like you’ve been put through something. The whole idea that all these characters are figments of Charlie’s imagination is interesting, as you see them bicker about what Charlie really means to them and use his name in frustration when things go wrong like he’s some kind of God, but it also feels like an excuse sometimes. Things get thoroughly despicable at times, so if you’re meant to be rooting for Charlie in any way, any chance of that gets pissed away pretty fast once you see what his subconscious is capable of.
Vol 2 gets off to a rocky start with the reality-warping Charlie’s Still Under, in which you’re introduced to Charlie Ferrari’s current predicament before seemingly going back in time to when he was a baby. I say seemingly, because who the hell knows how much of this is memory and fantasy? The gory take on Baby’s Day Out that follows offers little in the way on answers, just an increasingly implausible cartoon of an 80’s action movie which finishes up in much the same way as the introductory story from Vol 1.
And this is where I started having a real problem with this “difficult second album” of a concept. Vol 1 was kind of like a concept album, with shared ideas all coming together into one climactic track. Vol 2 does the exact same thing, and it soon feels like a joke that’s been told too many times. Vol 1 had the benefit of being a new idea, with a final twist that while somewhat predictable, was still a twist. There are no such surprises here unless you go in completely cold, which was obviously not Mackay’s intention. The series has an arc, but this middle part is, well, middling.
Babydoll seemed like it was going to a decent take on the possessed doll trope, but it takes a sickening turn at one point that made me put the book down for a while. Yes, ha ha, I guess I failed the endurance test, but it was too unpleasant. The Charlie universe stuff felt shoehorned in, and the ending – a typical “gotcha” – felt like too much. Putting kids through prolonged trauma is hard for me to read about, so this one was a big miss.
Klitschko takes an obvious pun and gives you a splatter-slapstick date gone wrong – to the max. If you’ve read about people getting piercings stuck during sex, this will make you wince until your face implodes. There’s a twist, of course, but it makes what went before feel pointless, so a second read has no value.
Spunx was where I checked out for a while. It’s far too juvenile and unpleasant to make even a moment of it worth checking out, unless you like the idea of a homophobic alien possessing a cat and making it spit poison claws at people while trying to find cheese to eat. It’s random in the same unsatisfying way as The Webcomic That Shall Not Be Named.
Dark’s Palsy is equally unpleasant, as a pair of criminal parents force their child to infect a sperm bank with his own sperm, and you won’t like the way they make him do it. Throw in forced semen drinking and a few jokes at the expense of the mentally handicapped and you’ve got an action movie style story with no redeeming qualities. It feels like this was thrown in just for the punchline, one that serves the overall concept rather than being a story in its own right.
Die in a Fire deals with a high-rise apartment fire, and another I couldn’t finish at first, thanks to Grenfell still fresh in the mind. This was a slog to read through, as by this point you’re well aware that any character appearing in this book is there just to suffer.
The Wank Room is horrid in a number of ways, from the gore to the way it deals with the subject matter. I’m not really sure what you’re meant to get out of reading this, with its twist ending that goes too far and once more, a concept that seems designed to shock and nothing else.
For The Masses tries something different at last, with its use of a Downton Abbey style setting – but then the characters eat a baby. And for all the lengths the story goes to to explain “don’t worry, it’s not a real baby,” that argument comes well after the horrible feast has passed, leaving you with – well, a bad taste in your mouth. Not that you can’t eat a baby in a story, there’s just ways of doing it that aren’t so “hey look, we made people eat a baby! Isn’t that gross?” Then the whole thing gets tied back into the Pure Dark concept, ruining any chance of uniqueness it ever had. Even though the ending sets you up neatly for the final part, it didn’t make me eager to continue. Like The Animatrix, these are stories in a world that didn’t really need to be told for you to enjoy what came before.
So thumbs down for Pure Dark Vol2, unless you’re a completionist. I can’t say I enjoyed any of the stories here, and even though a few of the concepts are decent, that’s not enough to save the book. If you want to make your own mind up, check the description below for book links.
Now, as much as I didn’t like Vol 2, I bought Vol 3 at the same time, and I do like to see things through no matter how long it takes, so after a good long break to get my mind right, I eventually opened up the final volume of the series to see whether Mackay could round things off in a satisfying way.
And it kicks right off with The Church of Charlie Ferrari spelling out its intentions with that one story title. Here we find out that one of Charlie’s imaginary friends is an extension of his subconscious, trying to help him wake up from his heroin induced coma, and his resulting brain surgery. But this wouldn’t be Pure Dark without something more fucked up than that, and if you’re a Stephen King fan let me just say “lady fingers” and leave it at that.
Stun of a Gun feels like You’re Next mixed with Battle Royale and an EC Comic, as a squabbling family are pitted against one another while a sleeping giant tries to rise from the earth beneath them. Sounds cool, and it’s a decent enough gorefest which also provides a proper start to the weirdness that follows.
Unfortunately, Sebastian Sibald’s Suicide Hour slings any hope right out of the window, as it takes too much sadistic glee in the concept of a radio host who wants his listeners to kill themselves on air. When the inevitable comeuppance comes up, it gets ruined by a final twist straight out of the “please don’t do that in a story” handbook.
Damage Limitation is an attempt at a home invasion story that never quite finds its feet, but then the reader gets their own legs swept as this becomes more about the “save Charlie” idea than anything else. There’s some deeply unpleasant violence towards children again before a sustained beating of another character, none of which managed to keep me interested.
Then we start getting into the end game with Lobster Politics parts one and two, in which a politician morphs into a lobster during a thinly veiled attack on Brexit and politics in general, then gets into a boxing match with a brain-damaged zombie opponent. Now, I’m all for a bit of Tory bashing, but this manages to be way too on-the-nose while also thumbing its nose at its targets, and somehow picking its nose and flicking its bogies around at the same time. Both parts come together into a weirdly interesting whole despite their problems. A lot of what came before was horrible, but with these two parts Mackay finally seemed to be putting things together in terms of the the wider narrative.
Mace Kevlar: 50,000 Volts, keeps this same mix of outrageousness and world building going, mixing in older characters from Vol 1 alongside a plot straight out of an 80s horror movie, as the titular character takes weird revenge on his enemies, while serving as a metaphor for what’s happening to Charlie in the real (as we know it) world.
Then, finally, it’s time for Max Dark’s Infinite Cerebellum Spectacular. Everything gets tied up in this last story, after an airplane full of imaginary people gets hijacked by a few stragglers from the previous stories. It feels a lot like a story trying to reach a conclusion, so when it stutters along the way, it feels a little clumsy. When things finally do go sort-of back to normal-ish, there’s one last seed of doubt thrown in which I didn’t much care for.
Overall, it feels like all 3 volumes could have had some parts removed and reworked to make this into a standalone novel. Taken in three chunks, the first part is palatable, the second part vile, and the third part a mixture of the two. If you’re interested in any part of these books, I’d say get Vol 1 and Vol 3, as if you want to follow Charlie’ story, all Vol 2 does is spin its sickening wheels. Vol 1 sets you up and Vol 3 knocks it all down, and as such I’d give Vol 3 a middling thumbs-up.
As always though, feel free to make your own mind up using the link below, and why not check my video review out, too?
Grab a copy of either Pure Dark 2 or 3 for yourself via Andrew Mackay’s author page at amazon.co.uk/Andrew-Mackay/e/B01MDKTJ2Y