If you enjoy the way that the recent Dracula TV series seamlessly merged gothic horror with modern sensibilities, then Beast is just the book for you. Like the recent reinterpretations of Sherlock and Dracula, this episode of Six Stories sucks the marrow out of the original literary classic – and concocts a potent brew mixed with nasty contemporary issues. There are plenty of tributes to Bram Stoker’s story; Beast is even set in a northern seaside town not entirely unlike Whitby. But this isn’t a simple re-tread of an old tale – it’s an entirely modern slice of malicious mythology.
Nor does author Matt Wesolowski restrict his arch references to a single historical source – rather, with delicious subtlety he evokes the chilling spirit of a certain Hungarian Countess who consumed her servants and ended her days walled up in a tower…
If you haven’t tried any of the Six Stories series before then it’s fine to start here. There are a few references to the previous investigation but you don’t need to know what went before to become uncomfortably mesmerised by what happens here. A popular young woman, a rising star among social media influencers, is lured to her death in an old ruin during a crippling winter storm which blew in from Siberia. When she’s eventually discovered, her head has been hacked away from her body. Why was she decapitated? And why did she have to die?
Told in a series of interviews with people who knew the woman and the young men convicted of her murder, Beast explores the dark secrets of a struggling small town. Never mind ‘six stories’, these books are more like a dance of seven veils in which the author artfully gives us glimpses of a dark truth, obscured by deceit, weakness and outright malice. He has a brilliant ear for local dialogue, for the rhythm and cadence of genuine speech. And he builds an unnerving, oppressive atmosphere through a wonderfully creepy set of encounters with a sinister spirit who stalks the shadows.
But this is far from being a traditional spooky story. Wesolowski has serious comments to make about bullying (online or otherwise), the insidious lure of internet challenges, parental neglect, social exclusion, the lack of welfare provision for people with special needs – and about the cruelty of the herd, the pressure to conform.
There’s always ambiguity in this series, a destabilising dissonance between the supernatural aspects of the story and the ugly reality of the real world. This time the paranormal angle fades from relevance relatively rapidly and it soon becomes clear that the ‘vampire’ isn’t the traditional blood-sucking type. That’s almost a shame, because I’ve enjoyed that aspect of the earlier Six Stories, where you’re never quite sure if something weird is happening or if the evil is entirely what men do. I also felt that after a rip-roaring start, the storytelling lost its finely honed edge in the latter chapters.
Even so, this is a powerful morality tale about the darkness within. Genuinely scary stuff.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Beast by Matt Wesolowski is available at Amazon