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I gain a great deal of pleasure from reading and frequently get through three to four books a week. Poor health, a need to rest and yet keep my mind active is another reason to read and finding things that interest me can be time-consuming. So when I came across the work of F.G.Cottam I knew I was on to another winner. As a writer he's got a solid background in men's magazines and has turned his talents to the genre of horror, bringing something very special to the subject- an open mind, a keen sense of what makes people afraid and like all good horror writers he tells a great story. Dark Echo is the second of three books I've read and each one is a winner.
Dark Echo is an unlucky boat, some might say it's a cursed boat but to self-made man Magnus Stanning, it's the ideal way to celebrate his imminent retirement from the business of making money. It's also a way to bond with his son Martin, who work as a freelance programmer and a game that made him enough money to live comfortably enables him to take time out and sail the old schooner on a dream trip from England to it's original home in America.
Naturally Martin has some reservations. The boat is very old, having been built in the 1916's and since then has suffered plenty of misuse and is presently in dry dock awaiting a complete overhaul. But it's not the age but the first owner of the boat that spooks everyone except Magnus, for the Dark Echo was built for a legend of a man, a cruel American soldier with a past that could come straight from the Devil. Even looking at his picture spooks both Martin and his girlfriend, Suzanne, who decides to look into the history of the man and his crew after she returns from a trip to Dublin to write about the great Irish Patriot, Michael Collins.
Meanwhile Martin has already discovered some of the stories surrounding Harry Spalding, an American playboy type who sparred with Ernest Hemingway, won terrible victories in the war and made a name for himself before his unlikely suicide in 1927. As head of the infamous Jericho Crew grown men still shudder at the mere mention of his name, so what will it be like to sail in his boat? That's if the Boat can even be rebuilt since Frank Hadley's boatyard is under a spell of misfortune that leads to bloody accidents and death.
However, where there's a will there's a way and the boat does have beautiful lines!
Building On A Background.
A book can rise or fall on the work that goes into making a convincing background and Cottam is excellent at every task he undertakes. His research is flawless and where there's a legend he uses it to great effect. So far all his books have a flavor of war at the start but it's never the main story, rather the evil starts with a war and either changes a character or uncovers the evil in the man. In this book he gives us a Hero as well as a devil, for Harry Spalding is no hero, no matter what his crew achieved in the trenches of France. Even his own men were terrified of him.
He moved in circles of wealthy playboys and the great heroes that made names for themselves in those years. So it's easy enough to believe that there could have been such a character as Harry Spalding. The author has to have a strong man to pitch against Spalding and with both Magnus and his son Martin; he has two, although the book concentrates mostly on Martin. In parts of the book when Martin is following Suzanne's research about Michael Collins, he dreams that Collins is fighting Spalding and losing. This is an Irish hero, who was afraid of no one, but Martin is transferring real fears into his dreams, or so it would seem. This clever background writing adds the fear bit by bit so at no point does the reader notice quite how terrifying the atmosphere has built up. It's the sort of horror that niggles into the conscious mind like a dripping tap.
Without spoiling the plot it's difficult to say how the horror builds to unbearable heights and a finish that's nail biting to say the least. Things do happen in the early parts of the book while the boat has just been purchased and Martin's first visit has the hallmarks of a waking nightmare. This is no vampire dripping blood, but real evil that threatens both body and soul. There's a short chapter where Suzanne visits the barn in France that was the headquarters of the Jericho Crew and it's so fearful that even the weather conspires to add a misty threat. Everything is seen from the corner of the eye in the beginning until nerves screech raw fear. The technique is powerful and each layer of understanding piles on the terror to come.
One might imagine I'd covered the characters, but I've merely skimmed the surface. Harry Spalding is the embodiment of evil and despite being dead his manic laughter haunts both waking and sleeping moments. His character is a triumph for a horror writer the insidious threat creeps into every passage with his name in it. The deeds done by him are nasty and spiteful as well as brutal. It makes him seem unbeatable.
Martin is a nice guy, the son of a man who is selfish to the point where he tried to turn his son into a clone of him by hiring a typical sparring Irish priest to make a boxer of him. Martin nearly became a champion, but turned his back on it, but he's no wimp. His relationship with Suzanne is for life and when her life is endangered Martin springs to her aid. He's very masculine but a nice person with a good education smart and loyal to his father.
Magnus has his heart set on sailing the Atlantic with his son but he does have an unhealthy obsession with Spalding's reputation. In fact he hopes to meet the undead playboy in the hopes that he will learn how to contact his late wife, Martin's mother. Someone should have told him that playing with the Devil is a loser's game.
The real character for me was Suzanne, and to a lesser degree her double, the late Jane Boyte, a friend of the Irishman Collins, the daughter of a boat builder where she meets Spalding and a woman of the era who flew a plane and sailed the seas. Despite being targeted by Spalding and his friends, Jane almost had him arrested but he escaped in time, leaving an unsettled ghost for Suzanne to find. It's a ploy that's been used by Cottam before but I have to say it added so much to the story I forgave him the duplication.
There are sundry characters that add to the story but lengthen the review. Suffice to say that once again, the author uses every single character to great effect and adds an interest to the plot.
From beginning to end this is a story that captures the readers attention and keeps that midnight oil burning until the early hours. In trying to describe the book I've considered the target audience and have failed to find anything obvious. I'd say a reader would have to like the genre, not be put off by a ghost story and able to suspend belief long enough to discover the strength of writing this author produces.
In balancing the target readership it's possibly slightly more aimed to men than women but with a heroine as strong as Suzanne this would appeal to most woman who can stand some horror and quite a bit of blood and gore.
It's not a book that makes a lot of war but there's that persistent mention which I hope the author will step back from, having used as much as I feel necessary. Set mainly in the 'Flapper' era would have done much the same job without the war mention and might bring in some more readers. Overall it's definitely a five star book with a possibility of the author setting a new standard in intelligent horror. A worthy contemporary of such writers as James Herbert and Ramsey Campbell, he is one to watch.
Thanks for reading and I hope I've persuaded you to give it a try.
Published by Hodder & Stoughton.
357 pages in medium type.
Hardback RRP :£17.99
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