By Keri O’Shea
The idea of a presence – something powerful and knowing hidden in the darkness of the woods – is undoubtedly hardwired into us on a primal level; for thousands upon thousands upon years before human culture spawned the horror genre, it was an instinctual fear which allowed our DNA to survive, and it’s stayed with us ever since, though perhaps becoming convoluted and complicated, a source of unease and terror which often borders on the supernatural. What horror author Frazer Lee has done with his newest novel The Skintaker is to take that fear and play with its setting and its time-frame; going back to the early twentieth century, and into the Amazon rainforest with his new book’s host of characters. The result is rather a slow-burn offering in the first instance, but gives way to a finale so elaborate with gore-swathed occultism that it would be worthy of any horror movie.
The story runs thus: a young woman called Rosie, once orphaned by a house fire, now lives with her guardians, the devout, prim Aunt Francesca and her Uncle Gregory, a pastor. Although now a woman of nineteen she is still their dependent, and as such she is summoned to go with them to the Amazon, where her Uncle hopes to convert the ‘heathen’ tribespeople to Christianity as he continues the work started by generations of past religious migrants. Although initially daunted by the prospect, Rosie soon begins to see the trek into unknown terrain as liberating, particularly when she finds friendship in the sparky, knowledgeable Professor Cecil, a man who is also travelling to the Amazon – in his case, to document and record all he can about the flora, fauna and peoples there. However, the trials of the remote location and isolation from other Europeans is not the only thing which has the power to trouble Rosie, when they finally arrive at their destination of the Mission House. Her dreams are becoming more and more uneasy, and in them, she begins to see a dark, statuesque figure, whose eyes are shielded with obsidian. A figment of her imagination? Or is there something there in the jungle, watching them?
I must say that the early phases of this book are rather slower to take hold of the imagination than The Jack in the Green, the last of Lee’s books which I reviewed. Rosie, our central character, at first comes across as repressed to the point of two-dimensionality, hemmed in on all sides as she is by the rather turgid Gregory & Francesca; it takes a while to begin to see Rosie as something more than this. The good thing here is that when she really begins to blossom as a character, which (no doubt intentionally) happens the further the travelling party gets away from home, the easier and easier it becomes to invest something in her until, when she has been completely removed from the structures and rules which governed her upbringing, she really is a fascinating prospect, who develops into something wholly (and literally) unexpected.
All of this is due to the unfolding story of the ‘Skintaker’ which gives us our title. Lee operates a fairly complex structure in order to do this: firstly, with something of a prologue, taking us into the lives of a tribe who know all too well what the ‘Skintaker’ is and can do, then on occasion into the internal monologue of the creature/man itself (and the ambiguity here about how physical or how metaphysical the creature/man is, well, that is used to full effect as the story moves towards its close.) The intermeshing of Rosie’s story with the events which enfold her become increasingly evocative and repellent by turns, and accordingly what we get in the Skintaker is an interesting and bold villainous being, because there is space for interpretation in how you read him/it.
Lee is at his best in two key respects here which serve the book overall very well. Firstly, the author has evident glee in the defence of pagan beliefs, happily pointing out the relatively short tenure of Christianity and throughout the book revelling in the internal balance, even if bloody, enjoyed by non-Christian peoples. He’s a friend to the ‘old gods’, and there’s a real robust energy to his words when he’s speaking in their interests. Furthermore, although we’d call it ‘jungle’ rather than ‘woodland’ here, when Lee’s writing gets into the description of the sylvan, it evidences real reverence and pleasure. That in turn is passed on to the readership. I’d say that Lee is broadly far less comfortable with writing about the tribes and practices of the Amazon – and there are some mistakes (Amazonians using peyote?) – but credit where credit’s due, one can’t always stick to one’s comfort zones, and it’s certainly all readable and enjoyable. The upshot of this setting eventually boils down to the intricacies of belief in any case, and so the story still sustains the ideas of fate, risk, and (unconventional) redemption which are integral to this author’s work.
I have a couple of gripes with the book however which, happily, aren’t my overarching impression now that I’ve finished reading: in some places though, the use of cliche risks derailing the author’s efforts (such as the rope bridge which of course breaks during crossing) and the overuse of simile can be distracting. There are usually several on every page, and I found it distracting at times, mainly because I started to count them! Sometimes, less is more. That said, my love for the body-horror-meets-altered-states conclusion of The Skintaker gives the lie to that statement. Perhaps it’s all about measures and degrees. Still, we have here an ending which seems to leave the way open for more chapters, and that would certainly be welcome, as the book improves and improves as it drives towards its close.
An overall engaging and innovative slab of pagan horror, The Skintaker is available from Samhain Publishing here.