Top critical review
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on 12 October 2010
The last time I read a book by Shaun Hutson I was eighteen years old. The book was called Victims, and I remember that at the time I loved it. It was gory and brutal, but thoroughly entertaining. Of course I was eighteen, and a lot of things we like in our teens, make us wince when revisited in later years. Would Hutson's morbid pessimism, and brutal no-nonsense style, still have anything to offer me? Honestly, I had my doubts that it would. To an extent these doubts have turned out to be valid, but not as completely as I suspected.
Epitaph is still very clearly the work of the same writer I remember from my days of feasting on Literary Horror's 1980's excesses. It's stark, grim and very fast paced. In fact this story of grief, despair and retribution is really easy to read. Not comfortable to read, or even necessarily entertaining, but the chapters are short, and the writing to the point. As I remembered, there's nothing verbose about Hutson's writing style, that's for sure.
The first character we are introduced to - in what we soon learn is a past narrative - is Laura Hackett, an 8 year old school girl, who we know is going to die, because of the jacket blurb. Then we meet a chap called Paul Crane, just as he's been informed he's lost his job in an advertising agency. Finally we are introduced to the parents of Laura Hackett, Frank and Gina, and we are quickly made aware that Gina is cheating on her hardworking, but poorly paid husband. These four characters, basically make up the whole cast. For part of the book, I was left wondering what connected the Hacketts to Paul. Then when Paul wakes up - after a night of drinking away his woes - trapped in a coffin, and we learn that Gina and Frank Hackett have placed him there, thinking he murdered their daughter, I began to get a sense of where it was going.
The story that unfolds is really depressing. It deals with a very unpleasant subject matter, namely, child abuse, and the desire for revenge from a family torn apart by devestating loss. Paul's story is also depressing. What depressed me more, however, is that it uses its themes in a way that I found almost voyeuristic. That is to say, there is a sense of entertainment being derived from the fact that the lives of each of the characters is truly screwed up. The book feeds off human misery, and revels in it. What it doesn't do is offer any insight or humanity in the face of darkness. It's just entertainment based on misery, despair and human failing. I'm not suggesting it should have some uplifting Disney ending, but some discernible meaning behind the narrative other than, life is really terrible and people do messed up things, might have made for a more substantive tale. Without giving anything away, the ending didn't really conclude in a way I found entirely satisfying either.
Despite these gripes, I read this really quickly, and I was hooked for part of it. So I cannot say it's a terrible book. It's rather like a Torture Porn Horror Film. As you watch it, you're gripped by the desire to see if anyone escapes. Knowing it unlikely, you wonder what horror the next victim will suffer. You know the story doesn't really have much substance. You know there are better films you could choose to watch. At the end you leave feeling a little bit grubbier for the experience, but when the next one comes around, there's a chance you'll go through it all again.