Book review: A Shadow on the Lens by Sam Hurcom
Sam Hurcom's debut novel operates in classic UK folk-horror territory, in the countryside, in small villages that have codes of silence, where the natives are superstitious and mistrustful of outsiders, where strange things happen. It's all a little bit dark and a little bit creepy. What is perhaps different about A Shadow on the Lens is how the folk horror setting blends in a murder-mystery investigation that is going to be particularly difficult to resolve if there is a supernatural element to it and if the investigator can't trust his own senses.
That's the problem that Thomas Bexley has when he is called upon to look into the murder of a young woman in Dinas Powys, a small village in the Welsh countryside. Thomas is not an inspector as such, but rather works as a photographer in what in 1904 is a new field of forensic investigation. The body of Betsan Tilney has been found mutilated, chained and burned close to the woods by the village. The local authorities are keen to blame Travellers recently residing in the neighbourhood, but Thomas suspects that the villagers are hiding something. Nor is he willing to give any credence to local talk of the feared monster known as the Calon Farw who supposedly terrorises the region.
Trying to find a rational explanation for what has happened to Betsan is however complicated by the fact that Thomas seems to be afflicted by a fever since arriving in Dinas Powys, a condition that causes frightening hallucinations, seeing and hearing all manner of strange things. Even his photographs taken on the locations where the body was found and removed to can't be trusted, presenting him with images that can't possibly have been there. Underneath however, he knows that the villagers know more than they are letting on, but who can he trust when he can't even rely on the evidence of his own senses and judgements?
Hurcom makes great use of the setting and the period to establish mood. The strange behaviour of the superstitious villagers, the sullen innkeeper, the less than warm welcome he receives from the authorities, not to mention the gruesome treatment of the body of the dead girl all create an environment of horror and suspicion that rapidly descends into close to hallucinatory madness. Thomas Bexley himself appears to be behaving strangely and irrationally - or is what is happening to him irrational? That creates a nice mood of ambiguity between the rational and supernatural, Bexley's first-person recollection and diary entries unable to differentiate between what is objectively observed and what is the result of fevered imagination.
If that were all there was to A Shadow on the Lens it would still be a good classic horror yarn, but Hurcom (and Thomas) persevere with the murder-mystery investigation, never losing sight of the objective, delving deeper into the characters and activities going on in Dinas Powys. The revelations there are just as dark and fascinating, the resolution satisfying, Hurcom - again in classic style - leaving just enough ambiguity for some things to remain open without an entirely rational explanation.