It starts with a strange glowing fog that arrives
at the height of a snowstorm.
A terror from the past has returned, bringing with it death and destruction
If there's one thing I love in fiction, it's a sense of cosmic horror. If there's another, it's the folly of humankind's scientific endeavours and the chaos and monsters they create; think Frankenstein, think H. G. Wells, think Quatermass and all the other wonderful films of the 50s and 60s. And Willie Meikle's recent novel The Dunfield Terror has these elements in spades.
Told predominantly in two alternating first person strands - one in a modern setting related by Frank, the other the diary of a seafaring scientist called Duncan, who tells of the ongoing and escalating experiments of Professor Muir following WWII - the action unfolds thick and fast from page one as Frank is attacked by a mysterious, glowing fog whilst he is trying to clear the thick snow from a growing storm in the wilds of Trinity, Newfoundland. Though he escapes unscathed, the big plough blade is mangled. Far from being a shock to him though, it quickly becomes apparent that Frank is fully aware of the existence of this fog - 'the fucker' as it's dubbed - even if he doesn't know quite what it is or where it comes from. That particular story unfolds in the diary of Duncan, a device which most resembles the occasional epistolary style of Lovecraft (and one of my favourite narrative devices when used well) - you know, the old, 'I must relate this tale ere my sanity is shattered...' - and tells of a British government sanctioned, experimental research team, trying to develop a weapon to aid in any future conflicts.
What impressed me most - and there's a lot to be impressed by here - was that despite the entire story being written in first person by no less than four narrators (there's an older diary entry later in the story, along with a one-off tale told by one of Frank's elderly co-workers), you are never confused with who is talking. I found each voice to be distinct from the others, with subtle word choices and grammar giving each its own inflection. It's an impressive thing to achieve in a story, especially one which moves as fast as this does. And move is an understatement. Even given that it's a relatively short novel, I raced through it in a couple of days. If I'd read it at a time with no other distractions, I'd easily have finished it in one day. Partly, it's the breakneck pace of the writing and the fact that something happens pretty much in every chapter; also, it's the cunning ability of Mr Meikle to end each section on a natural cliff-hanger - it never feels forced, or contrived and serves to push you into the next chapter where you get caught up in that section's action.
As to the story itself; I found the fact that Frank - and most of the rest of Trinity - knows the 'monster' is real to be hugely refreshing. Usually, these kinds of stories follow a similar template; something odd happens, a few people die in mysterious circumstances, and eventually, as the story progresses, the protagonists discover what's going on, and only then do they fight back, if they even do. Flipping this convention on its head means we can get straight into the thick of things, as Frank and his co-workers make their best efforts at alerting and helping the other townsfolk - whilst waiting in hope for military rescue who might or might not get through the storm - in extremely challenging circumstances; not only trying to avoid 'the fucker' but also operating in the extreme and worsening weather conditions without the proper resources. Characterisation is kept to a minimum, yet we still get a feel for the players through their dialogue and actions. Keeping it mostly between four or five individuals - at least in the present day sections - helps in this regard, and the diary entries of Duncan tend to stick with himself and Professor Muir. But even the bit players feel rounded. This also serves the story well when we are presented with the horrific consequences of 'the fucker', that strange glowing green fog. Although the depictions of those who have come into contact with the fog are disturbing and graphic - there were a couple of places I actually winced - they are never gratuitous.
Equally, the story of Duncan and Professor Muir is fascinating, taking place over a few years - starting in the open sea near Dunfield Bay and eventual source of 'the fucker', hence the title - and covering experimental physics, alternate universes and cosmic horror; yet the cosmic horror is also spliced with a sense of awe and wonder, touching on...well, if I tell you that, it would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, there's a lot going on in this novel, yet it never feels crammed or overcrowded. Muir is the quintessential 'mad scientist' but also feels like a sympathetic, tragic character. Duncan becomes, if not his friend, then at least a close acquaintance, and is fated to follow him to the very end of his experiments and increasingly obsessive pursuits. There's a touch of the 'scientists meddling with things they shouldn't' but without that preachy tone, and the increasingly weird events that they both witness and, in many instances, create, is a nice counterpoint to the ongoing tragedy occurring in the present day.
If anything, I could have stood to have had a bit more time in the story. It's not a real criticism, more a sign of how much I enjoyed this. Regardless, it's a cracking tale; the sort of thing you might love if you wished for a story collaboration by H. G. Wells and H. P. Lovecraft, but with Willie Meikle's very own distinct style. Even the mildly ambiguous ending fits, leaving just enough wiggle room for a number of interpretations as to what actually occurred, whilst tying up the narrative.
Another cracking, pulpy tale from William Meikle.
PAUL M. FEENEY