The “subterranean night beneath the world”: a review of Sean Cregan’s The Levels and Steve Mosby’s Still Bleeding
Kate Horsley & Lee Horsley, Lancaster University
It was Newport’s dirty little secret. A nightmare spawned by a fifties urban planning dream. A square mile of land reclaimed from the swamps from which most of the city had arisen in the early days, built, occupied and left to rot as soon as its problems began. Thousands of poor families crammed into high-rise hovels poured from substandard concrete…There were so many suicides from the four crossings between the Levels and the rest of the city that they’d installed nets half a mile downstream from the confluence of the two rivers just to collect the bodies. (The Levels)
Set in the outskirts of Newport, on the US East Coast, The Levels opens with ex-CIA operative Turner “watching his own death play out on the TV news”. As he sits in a cheap motel with a carton of Vietnamese take-out going rancid by his side, he muses over who was really left “cooling in a sluggish pool of blood”, before intuiting that those two bullets his body double took to the back of the head are still meant for him. That he must find some answers about who murdered him before he gets killed for real.
The black comic opening to Sean Cregan’s edgy, frenetic thriller establishes a crucial part of the premise: that all three protagonists are in one sense already dead. Ghost, a teenage assassin, made ethereal by her drug addiction is, as her name suggests, barely a living human being. Tough-talking suspended cop Kate, who strides into the story “with a head full of black feelings and four months of bad luck and worse choices trailing her like smoke”, has been infected by a vicious serial killer and has only days to live.
Ex-cop, ex-operative and ex-assassin – all three must overcome limited life spans and dead-end roles. Their only way out is to journey into the Dante-like world of The Levels, a hyper-modern hell in which dead ends are a design feature. This Purgatory of a failed housing development is vivid and original, from the grotesque “birthing halls” in the tower and the sinister “Great Pool”, to the hive dwellings in which Newport’s horribly exploited homeless population huddle in fear of the all powerful Sorrow. One of Cregan’s great strengths is his unerring gift for architectural description that forces the reader to visualize the sheer horror of it all, “the insane web of bare, dripping pipework that covered the ceiling, and, in some places, the floor. Copper gone green with verdigris, mouldy plastic and bare steel.”
Cregan’s evocation of The Levels is filmic, the location intensely realized, as much a character as the protagonists themselves, who, as they near the denouement are dwarfed by propagandistic murals of Sorrow, “By different hands, in different styles. In some he was a colossal silhouette fronting a burning cityscape. In others, his face was etched Soviet-style, staring out into the middle distance like Lenin. Faint orange bulbs caged in wire were screwed into the ceiling above each, casting them in a fiery glow.”
The closer Turner, Kate and Ghost get to the answers they desperately need, the more Sorrow, the untouchable villain of the piece becomes inseparable from The Levels. Another mural shows “Sorrow a grotesque naked giant with the same flaming eyes as the Tower itself.” It’s a third act reminiscent of both Dante’s Inferno and Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira, where the outcast and the damned are crowded like a microcosm of social ills; where body horror fuses with hard-nosed social critique.
The novel’s body horror works both on the level of individual scenes and as a larger metaphor for the breakdown of society. The rollercoaster plot is shot through with themes of insidious infection, incurable disease and poisoned hypodermic needles. These motifs are so pervasive that they’ve transmuted into parts of landscape, such as “the Needle”, a boarded up ex-church where Sorrow’s slaves congregate. Other victims have “burrowed into the broken concrete like termites”, becoming an infestation, a disease, at the same time that they are grotesquely entrapped. Cregan thrusts us down there with them. Down into the “subterranean night beneath the world” and his taut prose propels us through to the explosive ending of this gothic-punk thriller.
In contrast to The Levels, Steve Mosby’s Still Bleeding is set in the apparent normality of a Leeds-like contemporary city, but the images of pervasive evil are no less insistent. From the electrifying opening chapter, the writing is heartfelt and characters are created with a sense of emotional engagement. Like Cregan, Mosby creates a world inhabited by the living dead and returns repeatedly to the idea of moral corruption as something that can be “caught like a disease”. There would seem to be no natural immunity, and even his most sympathetic characters aren’t free of the contagion. Mosby steers us through the intricacies of this thriller with a steady hand, and the narrative skillfully constructs a series of reversals in which apparent victims are shown to be perpetrators. Almost everyone has deceived themselves or others, hiding damaging truths and concealing crimes. In this darkly gothic vision, even the purest victims are, in death, assimilated by evil: the female victims of vampiric serial murders are killed by exsanguination, their blood consumed by a man who boasts that he has “imprisoned them inside him”.
But Still Bleeding is not just a portrait of the isolated madness of a depraved individual. This grotesque vampiric delusion is only a single, perverse manifestation of a much larger evil, involving the virtual imprisonment of countless victims on internet sites sustained by an apparently insatiable human appetite for the suffering of others: “thousands of users…all of them wanting to see terrible things happening to other people…” Human deaths and torments, sadistic killings and unspeakable terrors are endlessly rewatched. Victims are condemned to an afterlife as the living dead, “As though those people were stuck there in a loop, dying again every time someone pressed play.”
In Still Bleeding, Mosby asks us to confront the connections between representation and reality. The representations of extreme violence range from crudely shot online videos to fashionable, highly regarded works of art. All are seen to exist in a complex relationship to actual crimes, not just as invitations to voyeurism but as part of an appalling causal chain.
This is a novel full of subtle and original twists, and we gradually come to the uncomfortable recognition that we can be culpable both in looking and in not looking. The novel’s hellish subterranean worlds exist unnoticed under the surface of an apparently respectable society, where people walk about in the sunshine “unaware of how easily life could slip and what would be waiting for you when you fell.” Going about our ordinary business, we can easily ignore the “tainted and awful” places that have been hidden or sealed up, whether they are located in run-down estates or locked chambers under apparently respectable houses: “you came down in the lift and entered another world, entirely distinct from the polished, modern sheen of the house above.” Mosby’s point is that horrific things can happen anywhere, but that for most people, when they weren’t “happening directly in front of you, where it was impossible to deny them, the mind turned away from them, embracing the apparent normality.”
But the irresponsibility of averting our eyes is set against the guilt of the voyeur. The novel’s most despicable characters are those who insatiably pursue gruesome spectacles – the affluent and respectable, connoisseurs of the extremities of human suffering and horror. The worst of them, not satisfied with images alone, pay to look at and to touch dead bodies, to possess the remains of victims. They are people who “liked to think of darkness and death, but never with consequences…lived in cocoons and paid for bundles of evil to be left beyond the membrane” – able afterwards to wash their hands, to go back to work, “imagining themselves distinct and powerful”.
None of Mosby’s characters, however, are without guilt, and this is one of the things that makes the novel so moving. At times horrifying, Still Bleeding is at other times touching and melancholy. All of his characters carry painful secrets and are dogged by deep-seated regrets; they cause suffering and destruction they don’t intend but for which they can’t evade responsibility. Ironically, moral responsibility itself can be difficult to distinguish from voyeuristic fascination; personal and professional reasons for obsessive pursuit can be impossible to separate. All three of Mosby’s central characters are compromised, and all at one time or another are complicit in the fascination with horror. Even if they don’t “want to see” they feel they must look. They are partly driven by the conviction that you have to “face up to things” and by the urge to understand, but partly by inexplicable fascination. The experience for all three is encapsulated in the description of Kearney, a deeply sympathetic variant of the detective who must enter into evil in order to comprehend it: “something good had fallen into shadow inside him. Something had fled, and a sense of horror had crawled in to take its place.”
Both of the novels reviewed here – Sean Cregans’ The Levels and Steve Mosby’s Still Bleeding – confront the reader with dark images of social disintegration and individual degradation. Both are condemnations not just of individual violence but of the wider society’s self-satisfied indifference and self-deception. The crumbling drug dens and impoverished ghettos of Cregan’s near-future cityscape and the hidden recesses of Mosby’s contemporary urban sprawl are viscerally realized but also broodingly symbolic. They are, in Cregan’s phrase, “dark, feral, lawless place(s)”, in which individual crimes are symptomatic of a malaise so widespread that it’s almost impossible to remain unaffected.
Copyright © 2010 by Kate Horsley and Lee Horsley