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SHEEP
By
SIMON MAGINN (Corgi; 1994)

Yet another undeservedly obscure classic! This novel, the first by a noted English writer, is widely considered (by the five or so people whoíve read it) one of the finest genre debuts of the nineties. I can understand the adulation, as itís a stunningly written and imagined account of supernatural horror and all-too-natural anxiety. Simon Maginn has fallen silent in recent years (following VIRGINS AND MARTYS, A SICKNESS OF THE SOUL and METHODS OF CONFINEMENT), but SHEEP remains a stand-out entry in the horror field, and is well worth tracking down.

     A simple plot description cannot convey the eccentricity, descriptive brilliance and horrific menace this novel exudes. It may not sound like much, opening as it does with perhaps the most clichťd horror set-up there is: James and Adele, a distraught couple, move with their young son Sam to an isolated country farmhouse--which of course has a sordid history of insanity and murder, as revealed by Lewyn, a neighboring farmer privy to the none-too-savory activities of the farmhouseís previous occupants. As you might guess, James, Adele and Sam are privy to all sorts of scary business, most notably a series of gruesome animal mutilations.

     Itís around the novelís halfway point that things really get strange. James comes to suspect that Lewyn might be harboring unsavory secrets, and Adele, a painter, goes mad. Adeleís increasingly bizarre paintings offer ample evidence of her deteriorating mental state, and she ends up interred in a local asylum. It seems that in her insanity Adele believes young Sam is responsible for the animal murders, which disturbs James to no end. In this novelís irrational universe, however, insanity is a perfectly acceptable and even necessary reaction.

     Simon Maginn proves himself an uncommonly idiosyncratic scribe, and his many quirks--chaotic viewpoint shifts, extremely lengthy descriptions, highly eccentric characterizations (before the end at least one protagonist changes his sexual orientation), an obsessive concentration (literal and metaphoric) on sheep--admittedly take some getting used to. Yet for all its affectations the novel really flows. Itís even, in its own inscrutable way, a page-turner.

     At its heart, however, SHEEP is genuinely dark and unnerving. Maginn has a gift for true-to-life description, lending the proceedings a powerful air of authenticity that makes the later passages, particularly those detailing Adeleís insanity, all the more upsetting. Maginnís descriptive power also lifts the PET SEMATARY-like final pages, in which one of the characters goes batshit psychotic, from the umpteenth BAD SEED redo you might expect into an altogether unique realm of poetic sadness and nail-biting terror. 

     

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