Anything written by Scottish Horror author William Meikle is going to be well worth your time as a reader. That’s certainly my opinion, but it might as well be an objective fact: Meikle is hugely talented and able to turn his skilful writing and prodigious imagination to any number of different scenarios in the Horror genre, from slow, tense and atmospheric stories about people trying to survive supernatural phenomena, to breakneck-speed action thrillers featuring special forces going toe to toe with cryptozoological terrors that have too many tentacles and are far bigger than they should naturally be. I’ve been a fan for years now, and if I find myself at a loss as to what to read, I know that picking up something by Mr Meikle is going to be a sure-fire way to fend off boredom.
I was lucky enough to win a bundle of ebooks from a competition run on Mr Meikle’s website last year, and now I’m back from hiatus I have a chance to dig into them. They all seem intriguing, but as always it’s the book covers that draw a reader’s attention, and the one for the novella Tormentor just wouldn’t let me go once I’d seen it. Crossroads Press covers are always distinctive but this one is particularly engaging; from the ferocious clouds and blue-hued sky looming above a lonely, desolate farmstead to the sinister stick figures at the top of the cover, many of them missing limbs or heads. It’s a fantastic piece of work by Zach McCain that really sets the tone of the novella.
The story itself is classic Meikle – Jim, a tragedy-haunted widower, seeks solace in isolation, hiding himself away in an old house on a remote Scottish island. It seems to suit his needs perfectly, allowing him to try and forget the death of his wife from a fast-acting, aggressive cancer, and at first the calm scenery and friendly locals seem to do the trick. But the solitary nature of his new, rapidly-adopted life is a difficult thing to become used to for a man who until very recently resided in London, one of the busiest cities in the world, and the specter of his wife and all she represented haunts him, her ashes sitting in an urn positioned above the fireplace. And then there’s the reaction of the locals to him; or more specifically the house that he’s just purchased.
What, exactly, happened to the previous owners? Why are mysterious messages being left for him suddenly? Why won’t anyone local talk to him about the house’s history – and does it have anything to do with the weird stick figures that are found in a hole in the ground underneath a ruined cottage? Add to that the paranoia and curiosity brought on by living an hour away from your nearest neighbour, and the spectacular but often bleak scenery, and you have the makings of a classic supernatural mystery that Meikle doesn’t fail to deliver.
Meikle is a master at delivering an intense atmosphere and a sense of suspense and disquiet, and he unleashes it all in full force as the narrative progresses. The strange messages become more and more bizarre, delivered in ways that are literally impossible -both electronic and otherwise – and digging into the history of the house only brings about more unsettling questions that Jim finds he needs to answer. What begins as confusion and suspicion soon escalates into full-blown paranoia and near-obsession, even before it becomes clear an external, supernatural factor is coming into play, and one of the best parts about Tormentor is the way Meikle deftly brings you into Jim’s head and mindset. You see how easy it is to replace grief and depression with obsessive searching and a mystery to solve; his triumphs become your triumphs, and you feel his terror in your body as well when things start to escalate rapidly.
The central mystery is parcelled out in little hints here and there in the plot, and even at the very end Meikle cleverly keeps many elements of it vague or even unknown, allowing you as the reader to fill in the blanks. But the supernatural element is skillfully played out, and becomes genuinely unnerving at times. The little stickmen are a fantastic idea, coming across as a far more sinister version of their fictional cousins in Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, and the code they represent is far more complex as well, taking Jim months to decipher properly. It all builds up to a nerve-wracking ending, perhaps one of Meikle’s best; things become so fast-paced, so fiercely written that it becomes difficult to breath as you read page after page, ghostly drums pounding and Jim frantically trying to figure out what needs to be done to end the demands of the spectre haunting him and the house.
The engaging plot is supported by some great characterisation and immersive atmosphere, both of which are particularly noticeable when it comes to the detail lovingly lavished on Isle of Sky and its scenery. I’ve always felt that some of the best parts of Mr Meikle’s titles are the way he describes natural landscapes, especially where the story is centered in Scotland somewhere, and that obvious passion once again comes through in Tormentor, to the point where the Isle and the area surrounding the house is almost a character in of itself. Bleakness and isolation gradually become more welcoming to Jim and his thoughts, though when things become intense towards the end the scenery can also become sinister and oppressive.
Tormentor is another seminal piece of Scottish Horror from Mr Meikle, not least because of how it consciously goes against the conventions and tropes of the Haunted House scenario so common in the genre. There are supernatural elements involved and they come to exert control over Jim and his actions, but they never come across as malevolent or evil-natured; just deeply insistent that something be achieved. That’s what makes the story so surprising and emotionally effective; the ending is rather poignant, focusing on closure and an end to suffering rather than the usual tropes of vengeance and evil. Tormentor is delicately-paced, atmospheric and wields a hefty and surprising emotional punch throughout its narrative, and should be considered an iconic version of a venerable (and often cliched) Horror fiction scenario; a classic that all future Haunted House titles should be measured against.