Sunday, 4 November 2012

Review: The Forbidden

Frank Tallis tends to write crime novels, of which my boyfriend and I are huge fans. His Liebermann series, set in Freud's turn-of-the-century Vienna, is a highly comforting mixture of cake and death in which 99% of the scenes proceed in the following manner:

"We have just discovered the body of a prostitute with her stomach ripped out lying on the steps of the Opera House!" said Inspector Reinhardt in his distinctive baritone voice.

"That is terrrible!" said his friend and ally Doctor Liebermann. "In my expert opinion, you are looking for a killer with mother issues and an oral fixation."

"What deduction, my friend!" Reinhardt's stomach rumbled and he chuckled musically. "All this thinking has made me hungry. Shall we repair to Demels for some Palatschinken?"

"An excellent idea!" cried Liebermann.

Both men thought of the sweet, spicy pancake parcels, with scented vanilla cream and tender apricot jam oozing from their delicate golden folds in a way that was almost erotic. Reinhardt licked his lips eagerly. "Come along, my friend!" he cried. "That eviscerated prostitute can wait."

There is so much cake in the Liebermann novels that you can put on six pounds just by thinking about them.

Anyway, they're pretty great, but pretty silly, so it's not entirely surprising that Tallis has decided to try his hand at something a bit darker. Writing as F. R. Tallis (not a supremely cunning pseudonym as they go, I rumbled him immediately) he is now reinventing himself as a horror writer, and his first novel in his new genre is The Forbidden.

The Forbidden is a tale of supernatural possession that moves from voodoo on the island of Saint-Sebastien to the depths of nineteenth century Paris, a Paris where Charcot 'cures' hysterics in Salpetriere, doctors investigate electrical resuscitation and the possibility of life after death, dissolute prostitutes shoot up every night and Notre Dame cathedral is a portal into Hell.

Remember I mentioned Tallis's penchant for eviscerated prostitutes? Well, it's clear he's been keeping the full extent of his interest in the subject under wraps until now. The Forbidden pulsates with flayed women, oozing blood from all manner of unpleasant incisions. I had extremely uncomfortable moments while reading it, and though I assume that Tallis just enjoys horror and all its trappings conceptually, the way I love murder (Tallis is a clinical psychologist, after all, so he's probably had access to a lot of dark ramblings from which to draw his material), this is certainly not a book for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached.

I do think, oddly enough, that Tallis is displaying a more controlled and objectively better writing style in this dramatically-themed book than he ever has before. Gone are the odd over-descriptions that the Liebermann novels are so full of (tears becoming dilutions of sodium choloride and so on). What's left is vivid but simple prose that manages to evoke his highly-coloured material well. Unfortunately, though, what he's writing about, although undeniably a lot of (extremely twisted) fun, isn't as unique as the Liebermann mysteries. In fact, it's pretty much a mash-up of every supernatural horror film and book ever written. Island voodoo? Check. Fin-de-siecle French depravity, complete with crack and whores? Check. Priests battling satanic forces with bell, book and candle? Check. Youthful virgins spewing profanities and bodily fluids while their heads spin round like manic owls? Check.

There is a basic story running through it all (overreaching young doctor goes to hell and brings back an ancient evil which he must then exorcise) but the plot still feels bitty, broken up into sections that don't seem to bear much of a relation to each other. You can tell, for example, where the Huysmans bit ends and The Exorcist begins. In fact, the different parts of the book could almost be read as a series of linked short stories - but they're being presented as a single narrative, and that's the book's biggest problem. Tallis tells us in an end-note that The Forbidden is a homage to a lot of his major horror influences, which is great for fans of the genre, but at times I felt like the balance between affectionate recycling and innovation was a little off.

To call The Forbidden good fun would be... a bit creepy of me. But I did like it (though sometimes in a disturbed sort of way). It isn't innovative, but it's exuberant and skin-crawlingly dark, and as a first foray into the genre by someone who is obviously a long-time fan, I think fellow horror buffs will find it enjoyable.

Tallis's next outing (The Sleep Room, published by Macmillan in 2013) looks like it will benefit from a tighter focus, and I'm looking forward to it a lot. There's a big part of me, though, that misses the comfort of those Viennese cakes.

3 stars.

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