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TerrorTome cover

Garth Marenghi’s TerrorTome by Garth Marenghi

(Hodder & Stoughton, 2022)

Reviewed by Kevan Manwaring

Garth Marenghi is the alter-ego of comedian and actor Matthew Holness, initially created for the titular showcase, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (first broadcast on Channel 4 in 2004). Holness introduced each episode in the guise of Marenghi, channelling the look (black leather jacket and mirror shades) and low voice of 80’s Horror novelists, and satirising the classic hosts of cult anthology series from Alfred Hitchcock to Rod Serling, Elvira to Doctor Terrible. Hilariously conceited and oblivious of his own lack of talent, Marenghi is now given full rein in this deliberately overblown metanarrative (‘the longest and most terrifying epic fictive of my career’), which places the author—or rather a thinly-veiled version of his comedic persona—at the centre of his own narrative: ‘Nick Steen’s the name. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? Yeah, that’s right. The horror guy. The insanely rich, multiple best-selling, dark and dangerous-to-know paperback visionary of the dark arts.’

Through three sections (Type-Face (Dark Lord of the Prolix); Bride of Bone; and The Dark Fractions, Steen disappears up his own plot-hole. Set in the fictional British town of Stalkford (complete with its own map, itself a satire of genre-fiction maps with features such as ‘Ancient Yokel Burial Ground’; ‘Druidic Stones and Pebbles’; ‘Wrym Lake’; ‘Chokewood’; along with ‘Nazi Wrecks’; ‘Victorian Mime Theatre’; and ‘Mannequin Factory’), the story dramatizes a Faustian scenario in which the creatively constipated protagonist, horror writer Steen, makes a deal with his (sentient) typewriter, which turns out to be possessed by an ancient demonic spirit. Having made love to his typewriter during fevered sessions of composition, Steen ends up selling his soul to it.

The ‘masterpieces’ that emerge from this Mephistophelian pact are so potent that they begin to affect the reality of Stalkford and its environs in classic ‘intrusion’ fantasy style. In a lampoon of the likes of The House on the Borderlands and Stranger Things, the ‘upside down’ begins to seep into the everyday. At first, in both the introduction and opening chapters, the deliberately bad writing is amusing to read. The prose is festooned with pleonasms, tautology, and purple passages. The content is a horror trope checklist. Holness is clearly in control of the effect, and the text is the ideal ‘how not to write a horror novel’ book if nothing else, akin to Timothy West’s intentional lampoon of poor radio script writing, ‘This Gun in My Right Hand is Loaded.’ However, the gag-driven nature of the prose, and the continual reliance on the scatological and puerile, creates a nulling effect after a while, and the exhaustive postmodern pulling of rugs (as the fictional Nick Steen meets his fictional alter-ego) creates a law of diminishing returns. Beyond the chuckle factor of the odd one-liner, it is hard to emotionally invest in any of the characters (mainly comprising Steen; his editor Roz, and private detective Capello). The narrative traction is reduced to the punchline of each paragraph.

Holness has toured a stage show of this, and I imagine a lot of this material works better in oral form, delivered in a deadpan way. The intertextuality of the metanarrative premise—the construction and dissemination of genre texts—is done with more elegance and gusto in Jasper Fforde’s ‘Thursday Next’ sequence, but for fans of dark comedy fiction this novel has some entertainment value. It is perhaps better to dip into than read from cover to cover. Holness is clearly a gifted comedy writer, but Garth Marenghi’s TerrorTome (with a strapline of ‘Curl up with this book…and die’) was never going to be more than a joke novel. As a ‘masterclass’ in bad genre writing it has perhaps more value—and should be cautionary reading for any fledgling writer wishing to inflict their magnum opus upon the world.

Review from BSFA Review 22 - Download your copy here.


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