Matt Hayward and Patrick Lacey
I’m always intrigued by the idea of author collaborations, especially as they seem to take place so rarely, though perhaps slightly more often in the Horror genre. From the few that I’ve read, the best seem to be when I’m not actually able to tell which author wrote which element of the title – whether that’s a chapter, a page or even a paragraph – and instead both contributors have blended together their abilities to create something unique. At their worst, it becomes obvious which author has written which bit, and they often don’t quite flow properly which becomes disorientating for the reader. As such when I do choose a collaborative novel, I’m always carefully to research the authors beforehand and try and guess what I’m in for when I open the book up.
For Practitioners however, I didn’t need to do much research, because I’m familiar with both authors. Matt Hayward is one of my favourite new Horror authors, ably demonstrated a few months ago when I raved about his cult-based horror novel The Faithful, which I rightly described as a “quietly horrifying, emotionally-laden and powerful piece of horror fiction” in my review. As for Patrick Lacey, he’s been on my short-list of authors to review for some time; and while unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to read any of his novels, I have enjoyed some of his short fiction. As such, I had high hopes for this collaborative novel, hopes that were only buoyed by some interesting back-cover blurb, and also the incredibly creepy and memorable cover art by illustrator (and author) Rachel Autumn Deering; bracketed by some gorgeous font work, and a number of eerie occult symbols, a cadaverous man leers out at us from the shadows, bathed in a vaguely-sinister green light that only emphasises his drawn-out veins and paper-thin skin.
I can’t even begin to imagine the trauma of losing a loved one, especially under the deeply traumatic and distressing conditions that lead to protagonist Officer Henry Stapleton losing his wife. She’s gunned down in what appears to be a random shooting, by a man local to Henry’s sleep town – a man who seemed to have little to no motivation to kill anyone, let alone Henry’s wife. Grief-stricken and lost in the world, even gunning the man down and putting him into a permanent medical coma can’t bring him even a sliver of peace.That’s ably demonstrated by the opening scene, where an intense, Special Victims Unit-style interrogation of the criminal culminates in Henry realising that he’s once again had a relapse and imagined the whole interrogation; only the reluctant assistance of his long-suffering partner George Patrick has allowed him to keep his job. It’s a fantastic opening, one of the most memorable I’ve ever come across in a piece of horror fiction; not only does it irresistibly draw the reader into the story, it also deftly sets up some of the key themes of Practitioners and gets us to sympathise with Henry and his situation.
Even though the novel soon descends into outright horror elements, at its heart Practitioners is about agony and grief, and how one deals with one’s place in life when a partner or spouse is suddenly taken away, especially under such violent and traumatic circumstances. Hayward and Lacey don’t draw back from the very human horrors to be found in that process, taking an unflinching and often raw look at Henry’s physical and mental state, and the knock-on effect it has on the few friends he has left. It isn’t a pleasant thing to witness, but it all serves as effective bedrock for what comes next. Because at first it seems like Henry is just going through the understandable and near-rote stages of loss – but demonic, mocking voices whispering in your ears isn’t one of those stages as far as I’m aware. A voice that could have just been a hallucination – but do hallucinations leave physical evidence behind?
That’s just one of the questions that begin to plague Henry, and soon the hallucinations become more than just aural, invading his dreams as well. They’re deeply disturbing, even more so because there seems to be no rhyme or reason to them. In desperation, Henry turns to the New Age Healing place that’s appeared in town, and begins practicing Lucid Dreaming to try and control the hallucinations. Personally, I find the idea of Lucid Dreaming to be immensely creepy, and Hayward and Lacey absolutely justify that fear; while the lucid dreaming starts off simply as innocent, slightly weird dreams, it soon becomes an outright horrifying reality that Henry is forced to navigate in order to uncover an occult plot that threatens not just his local town, but potentially the entire world as well. As the mysterious force behind the dreams – and a series of brutal murders that begin escalating in number and ferocity as the plot moves forward – begins to emerge, Henry finds that things in the dreams can injure and even kill, especially when they’re able to bleed into reality itself. As things get worse the dream landscape itself becomes less and less friendly, and the descriptions Hayward and Lacey use in the latter half of the book are vivid, stomach-churning and often downright disturbing. And that’s not even mentioning the weird, insect-based predators that lurk in the dream landscape, things that seem like they’ve come straight out of H.R. Giger’s worst nightmares and which I still remember days after finishing Practitioners.
The bedrock of the novel is about death of a loved one and the grieving process, and part of that is the effect Henry has on his friends. None are closer than his partner on the police force, George Patrick, and their relationship is one of the best set of character arcs I’ve seen in a long time. Both men are sympathetically and emphatically portrayed, and their relationship is one built on long hours shared together on duty and off the clock; their partners know each other, and neither man spends much time away from the other. It’s a platonic love and a distinct form of brotherhood, and their scenes together were some of the most enjoyable parts of Practitioners. While they’re the focus of the novel, the supporting cast are also well written and fleshed-out, especially the antagonist – the anonymous and blandly-named Paul White. Though he doesn’t directly appear for most of the novel, Henry and his friend are fighting his malign influence, both in and out of the dream landscape, and he always seems to be at least two moves ahead of the men. Combined with the terrifying creatures he unleashes, and his power over lucid dreaming, he makes a suitably powerful and terrifying villain for Henry to clash with, especially during the apocalyptic ending of the novel.
I could go on, but to delve any deeper into the plot of Practitioners risks spoiling so much of it, and this really is a book that you need to know as little about as possible before going into it, to get the most out of it. I think perhaps the best praise I can give to Practitioners is that, at no point throughout the novel, could I tell which bits had been written by Hayward and which by Lacey. They have achieved the near-impossible feat of blending their writing skills and imaginations together into a sort of gestalt entity – a hugely impressive and deeply unsettling tale of psychological and body horror that evokes the creepiest and most chilling aspects of the old 1980’s slasher movies, like Nightmare on Elm Street. I tore through it in just a couple of days, which speaks volumes about it considering how little time I have to read these days, and would really like to see a sequel produced by the two authors before too long; I get the feeling that the Practitioners universe could easily produce some more high-quality horror fiction. Or perhaps something entirely new from the duo of Hayward and Lacey? Either way, I know that I’ll be on the lookout for it, as well as seeking out both author’s individual titles to read and review in the future.