by Ally Wilkes
Hands up if you would – like me – read absolutely anything pitched as Daisy Johnson’s Sisters meets The Babadook? Yes. I thought so.
It’s pretty well established by now that we’re living in a golden age of horror, in particular horror which prides itself on more subtle themes: the notorious ‘elevated horror’ of modern cinema (see The Babadook (Australia, Kent, 2014), Hereditary (US, Aster, 2018), Relic (Australia, James, 2020)) which re-casts family drama and trauma as the outward manifestation of supernatural forces, and its book-world sibling, ‘literary horror’ (see in particular the works of Catriona Ward, Zoje Stage, Lucie McKnight Hardy) which sketches out those battles in taut, beautiful, dread-inducing prose. Both styles are often preoccupied with the family as a locus for horror: the chasms of understanding between generations, and the overwhelming desire – and crippling burden – which is the need to keep your loved ones safe.
Like the eponymous serpent, William Friend’s Black Mamba is a dark, sinister, and oddly playful descent into a haunting. Its sparse cast focuses on a family in turmoil: there’s Alfie, the father, grieving the sudden death of his wife, Pippa, nine months previously; there are the twin daughters, Cassia and Sylvie, inseparable and not-quite-right (this is a horror novel, after all); and there’s Julia, a psychotherapist and twin to the dead Pippa, dealing with her own maternal issues. The book opens with the twins seeing a man in their room: Black Mamba. More than an imaginary friend, a shape-shifting and subtly controlling presence, he comes to be a rival to Alfie’s paternal authority, with the unspoken – then spoken – risk that he’ll whisk the twins away forever.
This is William Friend’s debut novel, and its restraint speaks of an author who’s utterly in control of his material. The reader jumps into the story with the first sighting of ‘a man’ in the twins’ bedroom at night, and all necessary exposition (there’s a terrific backstory for Pippa and Julia, raised in a family with very unconventional beliefs about life after death) is woven in without losing focus on the central core of characters. There’s something very satisfying about the novel’s resulting tightness: it’s a story about ‘what happens when a mysterious entity starts to visit a bereaved family’, which could be the jumping-off point for any number of modern horror plots, but Black Mamba is more concerned with taking a microscope to the relationships involved: Alfie and Julie’s burgeoning (and incredibly tense) sexual attraction, or the shifting power dynamics between the twins, all pinching and snitching and (shudders) horrible hand-drawn pictures.
As I was reading, I was struck by how imposter syndrome coloured every part of the adults’ lives, from their sense of themselves as parents (or children) to whether they were grieving ‘correctly’. It’s a very insidious form of psychological dread to depict in a novel, and Friend pulls it off brilliantly. The characters are also trapped, so to speak, in Hart House – bought by Alfie and Pippa from Pippa’s manipulative and overly religious mother – which comes to represent a way of life they’re all trying to, variously, bury themselves in – or escape from. In contrast to your archetypical haunted house, maybe, it’s not gloomy at all:
‘The facade of Hart House is white and peeling, and the walls inside are mostly pale. Colour in Hart House never seems to stick; yellow fades quickly into cream and red fades quickly into rose. Not that it matters – no two rooms look alike, even those painted the same chalky grey, for the light inside Hart House is magical: it dapples the paintwork, plays tricks. The living room, on the ground floor, has a large bay window that opens out on the park, and the walls always gleam, like a jug of milk in sunlight.’
It’s that lightness (of touch) which makes Black Mamba a joy to read. Readers looking for unmitigated darkness should look elsewhere, but there are still chills aplenty, and the book builds towards an almost retro series of setpieces with missing children, lights going out, a room which hides ghastly secrets, and a very real sighting of ‘Black Mamba’ himself – or whatever is behind him.
Fans of the ‘literary’ horror (I’m putting that in quotation marks so readers won’t hate me) will be absolutely captivated by Black Mamba, which combines generational drama with a supernatural presence capable of prying open a house – and a family’s – secrets. I found it almost impossible to put down, and will be looking out for more from William Friend (and Atlantic Books) in the future.
Click the image below to buy a copy of Black Mamba.
Ellis Reed reviews The Thing That Ate the Birds – free to watch online through the Alter platform – and interviews the filmmakers, Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham…