Book Review: Hammers on Bone
I bang on about “genre” authors using “literary” techniques all of the time without ever mentioning that genre has its own unique uses of language that characterise it. When you read a hardboiled detective novel, it isn’t just the monologues and the tone that make the experience unique, there is also the lingo; the broads and dames, the slightly overwrought similes used to describe damned near everything almost to the point of decontextualization. Likewise, you are unlikely to pick up many romance novels and find words like “squamous” appearing prominently, unless you happen to have picked up the work of a very different Lovecraft.
In “Hammers On Bone” Cassandra Khaw combines the purple prose of Lovecraftian horror with the slang and sourness of a hardboiled detective novel. While she blends the two of them beautifully in terms of style, the real highlight for me was the way that Khaw blended the unique story elements of the two genres in completely unexpected ways. Her treatment of the hardboiled detective investigating supernatural threat is played fairly straight but the way that she has interpreted Lovecraft’s creatures leaves you uncertain how much of what you are dealing with is entirely new. Despite all of the overwrought description of Lovecraft’s work it was always detached and held at a safe distance to promote the idea that what was being witnessed was beyond the human observer’s ability to describe. Khaw defies this convention, she doesn’t just ascribe the creatures a gruesome and visceral body horror, she uses the hardboiled first-person perspective to make the reader live through it. To experience it first-hand.
In Lovecraftian fiction the monsters are often insidious, with some capable of forcing control over human bodies, but Khaw imagines this oppression as a literal infection, expressing itself in mutations and gorgeously detail. When the main character of a story is an infection and they have an intuitive grasp of manipulating flesh it opens up the reader to a whole new world of descriptive possibilities that are explored thoroughly.
The central character of the story, John Persons, is one of the monsters and you discover that within the first few words of the story, so I am not spoiling much, but it is the traces of his humanity that remain despite all of the horror that the world is built from that provide the emotional core to this world. Humanity is the backdrop on which this tale plays out, but it is also the scoring card by which the heroic monster measures himself. He doesn’t idolise or even particularly like the human race, if anything he is more aware of their faults than most humans seem to be, but he does have some sort of attachment to them. An attachment that is more powerful than his ties to his own species.
Like most hardboiled crime stories this story only deals with a single case and a little of the fallout, but there is such intensity to the writing that it overcomes the limitations of it length to linger in your imagination for days after you have read it. The two component genres are some of my favourites, but the way that they are brought together and brought into a modern setting really serves to highlight the strangeness inherent to both of them and makes this story more than the sum of its parts.