Thin Men with Yellow Faces, by Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick, is a premium chapbook from This Is Horror, the UK website that serves as “a constantly evolving portal for horror in all its guises” (the site’s own hype). Their chapbooks are reasonably priced and attractively produced. Based on this sample of what’s between the covers, they’re decent reading, too.
I’m not a book collector. Stuff annoys me. Objects annoy me. Sometimes corporeality itself annoys me. I live with my husband, daughter, and two cats in a flat approximately the size of your downstairs bathroom. So you can bet I didn’t pick up Thin Men with Yellow Faces because I wanted to have it around, pretty as the cover is. No, I picked it up because the title immediately reminded me of one of my favorite Stephen King stories, Low Men in Yellow Coats. I was kind of hoping to read Low Men in Yellow Coats all over again, set in Britain this time! But I knew that wasn’t really likely. More prosaically, I was interested to see if the McMahon/Bestwick story had any resonances that would suggest the authors had read the King story and chosen their title as a deliberate homage to it.
The answer to that one appears to be a big fat No. In fact, the two stories have very little in common. Low Men in Yellow Coats is a coming-of-age story that builds from suburban sunniness to balls-out horror with the measured turns of the screw that King has pretty much patented.(1) I’m not gonna say any more about it here, because if you haven’t read it and the rest of Hearts in Atlantis, the collection in which it appears, what are you waiting for? Anyway you get the idea, and so you will understand that Thin Men, which stars a social worker on a modern British housing estate, is a totally different kettle of fish. As well as being a sixth of the length.
About the only horror trick Thin Men borrows from King–and it’s not one King originated, either, he just perfected it–is the gliding descent from normality into nightmare.
McMahon and Bestwick bring the reader in through a cozy, familiar-looking front door with a welcome mat and a decorative fanlight … and lure him through a trapdoor that goes down. And down, and down.
“It starts when a young girl wakes in the night and sees them – thin men with yellow faces, standing at the foot of her bed. When social worker Gabby is called in to investigate, she begins to suspect that the girl’s wild stories might just be true.
Battling unbelieving superiors, mocking police officers, and her own inner demons, Gabby finds herself drawn into the uncharted reaches of a society she always thought she understood.”
My only quibble with the authors’ craftsmanship is that the transition from normality to horror is a tad jerky, and hinges on Gabby’s decision to Explore the Evil Lair, which I found … how to say … hmmm … a bit improbable. As in, if it was me, I’d have been down the police station having a nice mug of vending-machine tea while other, braver people did the exploring for me.
But the Evil Lair itself … oh, it makes the price of admission worthwhile.
A hallmark of good fiction is that it takes a stance. You, the reader, are free to agree or disagree, but the story should have a clear political valence, a world-view. It should have something to say. Well, Thin Men with Yellow Faces has something to say that has been said a million times before: The capitalist city is built on the bones of the exploited weak. Whether true or not, this hardly counts as a startling insight. But the authors say it in this story with a vehemence that does come across as deeply felt, and leaves the reader’s emotions raw. They accomplish this by means of a blatant appeal to pity (think of the children!) but, again, the button-pushing is so in-your-face–and the descriptions so effective–that it works as a narrative tactic. Attitude will get you everywhere.
In one interesting passage, the authors seem to recognize that their world-view has passed its sell-by date. It can be reproduced without spoiling the story. Here it is:
“They all helped make Britain great and powerful. Certain sacrifices are necessary to keep her that way.”
[…] “Great? Powerful? In case you hadn’t noticed, those words don’t apply anymore. This country is a shit-hole. Christ, the whole world’s falling apart.”
[…] “You think it’s bad now, Ms Holmes? Without [REDACTED], it would be a hundred, a thousand times worse …”
McMahon/Bestwick’s world-view is encapsulated in the implied dichotomy of “great and powerful” / “sacrifices.” This is of course begging the question on multiple levels. But this passage also reveals what George Orwell called the “mental atmosphere” of this story.(2) This is captured in the phrase “the whole world’s falling apart.” McMahon and Bestwick take it utterly for granted that this is the case. Their depiction of the Loudon Estate, where the story takes place, reflects and reinforces that assumption. But it is a tendentious assumption and one shouldn’t really let them get away with it. The problem is that without that assumption, their story–er–falls apart.
There are two broad strains of horror fiction. One assumes that the world is falling apart, and depicts that process. The other assumes that the world is eternal, and depicts it falling apart. Stephen King is the foremost exponent of the latter school. That’s why his books are so popular. He sustains tension at a high pitch by pitting fiction (the horror bits) against reality (the normal bits), reflecting a real tension we all experience in our llives. The former school of horror tends to produce stories that are relentless downers. They are an acquired taste that is acquired by comparatively few, not including me. Thin Men with Yellow Faces almost falls into that category, but is redeemed by its last line. I think.
Read it and let me know whether you agree.
1. Low Men in Yellow Coats also happens to be a Dark Tower tie-in. I didn’t know that when I first read it, because for some odd reason, the Dark Tower series is the one King production that I just cannot get into. Tried. Repeatedly. No good. Bored out of wits.
2. Mental atmosphere and world-view–not the same thing. I’m following Orwell’s usage. He drew a distinction between the latter, a question of political valence, and the former, which is self-explanatory.