Stanley Donwood - Catacombs Of Terror! (Hedonist Books, 2002)
Illustrations by Sophie Harrison-Knibbs
Blurb: "WE WERE RUNNING, SHOOTING, SCREAMING WITH FEAR. PIGS WERE EVERYWHERE..."
Drugs, sex, hideous flesh-eating pigs, adultery, corrupt CCTV operatives, conspiracies, liquor, foul language, cliché... Catacombs of Terror! has them all - and more!
Martin Valpolicella is a hardboiled tough-talking Private Investigator, down on his luck and out of pocket.
He doesn't have a clue that he's about to be plunged into a never-ending nightmare that may destroy his very soul... until a mysterious note sends him on a mission so completely fucked-up that he can't believe it. And neither will you.
"At no point did I think 'I can't be bothered to read this"' - the author's father.
Stanley Donwood's work includes the short story collections 'Slowly Downward' and 'Tachistoscope'; artwork for Radiohead's records; the now-notorious 'NO DATA' exhibition at Bristol's Watershed; the now-forgotten international cyberconference 'Digital Chaos'; and much now-painted-over graffitti in Plymouth. He once lived in Essex, but not any more.
Another week, another novel concerning a power-crazed cabal bent on entire world domination. Whereas Satan's Manor is a convoluted mess of random popular horror movie steals, Catacombs Of Terror! is an insane conspiracy-horror-noir pulp encompassing the dark occult, alchemy, mind control, time travel, human cloning, ritual murder, King Bladud of the Britons, Dr. John Dee, and the Somerset chapter of the man-eating Fleet Pigs.
Martin Valpolicella, Bath's seedy answer to Philip Marlowe, receives an anonymous tip-off that he will be set up for a grisly murder scheduled to take place in 48 hours. Sender "jeans with a hole at each knee" suggests he visit The Star public house for further info. With even the bog standard "I want you to spy on my husband/ wife" commissions all dried up, it's not as he has anything better to do. Miss knee-flasher strongly advises he checks out the link between Scrytech surveillance and Kelley Historical Services, both council funded to the tune of several £ million. KHS are currently engaged in a archaeological excavation at Charlcombe, purportedly seeking evidence of "further pre-Roman activity in the area," even though their previous digs have discovered nothing whatsoever. Finally, it's imperative that he visit The Old Green Tree and seek out a scruffy guy wearing a Stonehenge t-shirt.
Valpolicella suffers all this nonsense purely because he knows of an avowed enemy who just might be capable of framing him. Two weeks ago, Barry Eliot, big shot property developer and top level golf bore, caught the 'dick in bed with his wife, Karen, and threatened to kill him and - far worse - revoke his licence should it happen again. It has, and most likely will again. For the first time in his life, Valpolicella thinks he's in love.
One weird experience in the Charlcombe tunnels later, Valpolicella calls in a favour from Colin Kafka, an investigative journalist who the PI once saved from a murder rap. Kafka grudgingly digs the dirt on KHS, Valpolicella borrows his press card to arrange an interview with Scrytech's PR man. Murnau, A happy clappy suit, cheerfully arranges for him to enjoy the guided tour after which the PI is abducted by security goons, driven to wasteland, and beaten to a pulp. Worst of it is, Valpolicella realises they could have killed him there and then without anyone being the wiser. He makes for The Old Green Tree to find Stonehenge t-shirt awaiting him. Stonehenge, a local academic, recites sinister tales of the AFFA, or 'the nothing,' a twenty-three strong organisation of Bath's most affluent and influential who control the city from their subterranean stronghold. That's it for the plausible content. The AFFI are the spiritual descendents of King Bladud, the tyrannical if entirely fictitious King of the Ancient Britons, whose killer guard comprised a herd of swine he'd cured of leprosy. Things have moved on since Bladud's day, and the modern day AFFI have been increasingly powerful since the 1950's when they conquered time travel.
Despite his low tolerance level for advanced ultra-bollocks, Valpolicella's rendezvous with Stonehenge semi-persuades him that this local version of the Illuminati have something fiendishly unpleasant planned for him. The choker is, according to this new informant, it's not Barry Eliot pulling the strings. It's Karen.
With the clock ticking down, there's little for it but that Valpolicella and the hapless Kafka explore the Charlcombe tunnels .....
Am tempted to award this one honorary 'when animals attack' status for the inspired episode in the catacombs, but in truth the pigs are almost incidental to the quasi-Black Sorcery meets Generic Engineering core of the thing. Author Donwood gets his story told in a brisk 140 pages, and still somehow it all holds together. Terrific ending, too.
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty. - Christine Campbell Thomson