A Different Kind of Light
Horrified’s Ally Wilkes reviews A Different Kind of Light by Simon Bestwick, a genuinely scary novella from Black Shuck Signature.
I’m a big fan of the novella form, particularly in horror. A state of creeping dread can be difficult to sustain over a longer work, where the need to introduce multiple characters and sub-plots often takes the reader away from the central spine-chilling element of the tale. Not so the novella (which can be loosely defined, it seems, as anything between 10,000 to 40,000 words), which allows the writer to focus all their energies on the promise of the premise. In A Different Kind of Light, Simon Bestwick takes the idea of haunted (or even cursed) found footage, and develops it to include a fully-fledged supernatural mythos – full of dark wizards and threatening entities – within a delightfully short and scary little book.
I’m similarly a fan of the ‘found footage’ trope depicted in written form: think House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, The Red Tree by Caitlin R Kiernan, or Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories. In film we can be told that the footage we’re about to see is haunted or the source of terror: in text, we have to use our imagination to ‘generate’ the footage for ourselves, which is often scarier. So I’m perhaps the ideal target audience for Bestwick’s story, which starts as Ash – still pining over his university friend-with-benefits Danie – is contacted by her to assist with authenticating a piece of film. She’s sourced it to sell to a wealthy client, for horrible reasons, and its contents are the stuff of nightmare: it’s footage of the 1955 Le Mans motorsports disaster, so appalling it never saw daylight (fascinating to hear from Bestwick on the back cover that such footage exists).
However, the film also shows something else, and this is where things get even more chilling. The cinematographer has managed to capture entities which appear to feed off the dying. These entities, as you’d expect, don’t want to stay inside the film.
The book makes for compulsive reading: if you were so minded, you might be able to finish it in a single sitting, and I’d strongly recommend it. I found myself extremely creeped out as the daylight slipped away and the shadows on the hallway stairs became more prominent. Bestwick’s mythology builds up piece by piece, from Ash and Danie’s first encounter with the entities on film – transparent shapes hovering over headless children, round pallid eyes and tapering bodies – to their quest to discover exactly what it is that’s latched onto them. It’s neatly done, and the schakalgeier become more and more terrifying on each appearance, clawing their way into the world and menacing our protagonists. They’re genuinely dread-inducing, playing on all our fears of the dark and the idea of a felt presence which you just can’t shake.
Bestwick pulls us along with a very likeable, chatty, and engaging narrator: Ash is full of little asides and wry observations. You find yourself wishing he’d get over Danie, but – at the same time – absolutely understanding that he can’t. We meet a series of subsidiary narrators, too: the book deliciously contains nested diary entries and letters, in true found footage style. And the secondary characters are an absolute delight, from a lizard-like antique shop owner to the matter-of-fact Paddy, a movie historian who insists on pronouncing it ‘fillum’.
If there’s one thing about the book which didn’t quite land for me, it was the use of a mild dystopian setting. We’re told in the first few pages about a brownout (electricity outage), and ‘unrest’; Ash emerges into a Euston filled with stinking rubbish, addicts, and sex workers (the description of those sex workers, ‘haggard-looking and feral’, in my view struck a jarring – and unnecessary – note). While the back cover copy references ‘a world that [is] falling apart’, it took me a few more clues over the course of the narrative to realise that things in Ash and Danie’s world might be dystopian, rather than a particularly gritty depiction of our own world. Perhaps that’s the point: our perceptions continually shift, after all, and it’s been a trying couple of years. But I found that whenever I heard about the unrest, general decay and filth of the nation, I wanted either to hear more about it (by way of a different book) or skim over it on my way to those outrageously frightening schakalgeier.
That aside, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend A Different Kind of Light as a short, extremely well-crafted exercise in dread. Found footage and ‘snuff’ films are the ideal subject for ghouls, and there was a neat voyeuristic effect in how the book invited us to linger – as the cinematographer did – on the awful aspects of that Le Mans footage. The characters and their relationship were sympathetically and poignantly drawn, making it more than a series of supernatural scares, and the ending deeply satisfying. I’m definitely going to be looking out for more from this author and this imprint.
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