This review first appeared in Horrified magazine in 2021.
The word ‘parochial’ is almost always used pejoratively, but it needn’t be. It’s commonly used to dismiss something as being only of local concern, as if there’s a mythical ‘centre’ which is more relevant or important than the ‘local’. After all, we all live ‘local’ lives. Dan Weatherer’s new novella is entirely parochial, and none the worse for it. ‘The town of Cheslyn Myre is dying’, we are informed in the opening sentence, and through this curious introduction we are given a rundown of the various socio-demographic problems of this moribund Staffordshire mining village. Now, I’m aware I’ve used the work ‘local’ so often that I’ve triggered your League of Gentlemen (UK, 1999-2017) alarm. But Cheslyn Myre is no Royston Vasey. Oh, it’s horrible enough alright, but there’s nothing funny going on here.
The highly atmospheric prologue is set in 1835. Eight year-old Eddison faces his first day in the mine with his father. Surely the spooky stories his Dad has told him about life underground are all there is to fear? No. You can almost feel the mud and grime as the fear mounts during the boy’s first foray into the subterranean world of the pit. For the rest of the book – although Weatherer’s story rips along at a furious pace in highly readable prose – it never again quite evokes the same degree of claustrophobia.
The story is largely set in the hot summer of 1986. Locals are turning on, and murdering, each other in horrible ways. A woman kills her husband with a pair of garden shears, and in a scene reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange (UK, Stanley Kubrick, 1971), an elderly drunk is killed by a gang whose ‘veins [are] greased with alcohol, making them impervious to the cold.’
Our three adolescent heroes – Matthew, Alicia and Tobin – are desperate to alleviate the boredom of the holidays, and unwittingly stumble on the causes of the town’s malaise. They embark on some proto-urbex (urban exploration), investigating the ruins of the local ‘Air Ministry’. As a fan of 20th Century ruins I wanted to know more about this place, and felt it could have been explored further, rather than just as an entranceway to the mine workings beneath. That said, it conforms perfectly to Mark Fisher’s definitions of both ‘Weird’ and ‘Eerie’ (The Weird and the Eerie, 2016). There’s a keen sense of wrongness to this place, devoid of life (‘something in the air was warning him that he didn’t belong there, that his allowed time was ended’), and there’s a fine, creepy image of weird architecture: a door ‘with no more building behind it.’
The central characters are briefly but efficiently sketched out. Matthew is scared of change, and scarred by the memory of his father’s suicide. Alicia has an even darker family secret, and Tobin is haunted by an imaginary sibling, although it transpires that perhaps she isn’t so imaginary after all.
During the exploration, Matthew has an accident which leaves him able to perceive a strange orange mist which seems to gather around the town’s evil deeds. The kids return to the mine to seal off the cause and stop the mist. But things buried or repressed only stay that way for so long, as anyone who’s read IT (Stephen King, 1986) will know. Cheslyn Myre shares with King’s blockbuster the motif of children returning as scarred, flawed adults to inflict a final defeat on a terror they only suppressed as children. In so doing, Cheslyn Myre taps into an area that’s very au courant in British horror: the resurfacing of things long-thought buried.
Cheslyn Myre works well as a novella; extraneous details are kept very vague, which is fine, but for a book named after a town I’d have liked a better sense of that town. As a result, one of the drawbacks – not that it stopped me enjoying this brisk little horror tale – is that, other than isolated incidents, we’re left with no real feel of a community, and don’t get a satisfactory sense of that community tuning on itself in the same way as in, for example, Needful Things (Stephen King, 1991).
I’d happily read an expanded version, perhaps with a subplot: the rush to the climax feels very short and too straightforward. The book also ends very suddenly, with little real sense of the true nature of what lurks beneath the town. That said, Cheslyn Myre is an effective and gripping horror novella, well worth your attention.