Book review: Letters From The Dead by Sam Hurcom
Letters From The Dead - Sam Hurcom
I hadn't realised how much of an impression Sam Hurcom's first dark horror thriller A Shadow on the Lens had made on me until I saw that Sam Hurcom was publishing another book set in the early 1900s featuring photographer and forensic investigator Thomas Bexley. Set in a remote Welsh village, the first novel was a fabulously atmospheric piece of classic folk horror, not so much a ghost story as a genuinely scary work of dread terror, one that crept into your soul and left an indelible impression.
If the events that took place in 1904 in the Welsh village of Dinas Powys make such an impression on the reader, imagine the impact the must have had on Thomas Bexley. Hired by Professor Hawthorn as a special investigator he had been assigned to look into the murder of a 16 year old girl Betsan Tilny, gathering photographic evidence of the crime scene for the new science of forensic investigation. What appeared on the photographs was profoundly disturbing to the investigator, but the whole place seemed to exert an almost hallucinatory effect on the young man, one that it appears has had a long, perhaps permanent, impact.
On an indefinite leave of absence back in London, Bexley hasn't been seen in 10 months at the start of Letters from the Dead, almost drowning himself in alcohol alone in his rooms to escape the images that still haunt him from Dinas Powys. He's abruptly dragged out of his stupor by the police and brought in for questioning about a case of missing persons that not only has taken a disturbing turn, but it also personally affects him. The police are interested in what he knows about his mentor and former boss Elijah Hawthorn, the founder of the Forensic Crime Directorate, who incredibly is now suspected as being responsible for a series of kidnappings across the city of London, a criminal that the press have called the Wraith of London.
Discovering a letter from Hawthorn, Bexley quickly sets out for a remote island in Scotland where he believes Hawthorn is hiding out. Already in a precarious mental state even before he starts on his journey up north, it doesn't take long for Bexley to enter into the same state of anxiety and conspiracy, a restless paranoia this time replacing the nightmarish hallucinations of his previous investigation. Is what he sees and experiences real or a hallucination brought on by psychosis after his previous experience? Is he somehow in touch with ghostly apparitions or can he just not be trusted to be responsible for his own actions? One thing is for sure, death follows in Bexley's steps.
It's difficult to make a ghost story truly scary and Hurcom's writing isn't as effective when he has characters wandering around haunted manors and rat infested cellars, although it certainly contributes to the consistently dark tone of Letters from the Dead. Far more effective is the fact that it appears that it is Bexley himself who is haunted, the ghost of the murdered young woman be encountered in Wales now apparently having opened him up to all kinds of nightmarish visions. It's a blessing as well as a curse, since it makes him susceptible to recognising disturbing situations where evil has taken place, but that inevitably plays havoc with his mind.
If the conventional horror traits of the first half of Letters from the Dead are fairly standard, the development of a vast conspiracy with a potential madman (who may even be Bexley himself for all he knows) really takes flight in the second half. It develops into a breathless account of life in police prisons, opium dens and grim dangerous streets and alleys of the East End of London in the early 20th century. Throw in some ghostly fog and apparitions and you've got a thrilling historical horror adventure in your hands that will find yourself unable to put down. Wonderfully atmospheric, classic old-fashioned horror with a few new spins, Sam Hurcom's second Thomas Bexley nightmare is just as haunting as A Shadow on the Lens, but a much more expansive journey into madness.