I first encountered author Chrissey Harrison when I reviewed the Forgotten Sidekicks anthology that had recently been published by Kristell Ink, and which focused on the stories to be told about the sidelined and unappreciated sidekicks that dutifully fought alongside their better-known superheroes. Harrison provided Henchman, one of the stand-out stories in the collection, giving us the point of view of one of the numerous, generic henchmen employed by supervillains to staff their bases and die pointlessly while fighting the superheroes. It was an excellent story, with an intriguing blend of gritty realism and Silver Age superhero antics that was expertly and imaginatively written. Impressed, I declared that Harrison was on my radar and would happily read anything else published by her; and as such I was delighted to be contacted by the author a few months ago and offered a copy of her upcoming horror novel Mime, which had recently been funded through a highly-successful Kickstarter campaign (which I bitterly regret not seeing in time, as the rewards were most excellent!). The title and the back-cover blurb piqued my interest, especially given the unique and novel nature of the antagonist; Mimes can be highly skilled, and potentially annoying and even obnoxious, but I was genuinely intrigued as to how Harrison would integrate such a character into a horror concept. Added to that was the highly professional, distinctive and eye-catching cover art by Marek Purzycki, which sent chills down my spine just looking at it. Taken all together it was a highly polished and attractive package, and I couldn’t wait to get reading
We’re introduced to protagonist Elliott Cross as he breaks into a crime scene, having failed to elicit any helpful responses from the police officer guarding the main entrance, and determined to investigate the scene of a particularly gruesome murder that’s taken place in Bristol. Veteran journalist, and founder of indie newspaper Weird News, which covers the sort of weird and unusual issues the mainstream news won’t touch, Elliott has two reasons to be breaking and entering. Firstly is professional – the murder involves a man burnt to a crisp, apparently the result of spontaneous combustion, just the sort of thing Weird News likes to report on. But secondly, and far more importantly, is that the unusual nature of the crime seems to link to the death of his brother, just one of a string of brutal murders apparently conducted by no less than a supernatural being. For years he’s been using Weird News as a way to try and keep track of the killer and its victims, and this is his latest attempt to track down more evidence about the strange creature. Accompanied by Sam, his only colleague on the newspaper, Elliott continues his obsessive quest to uncover the truth about his brother’s death, and slowly becomes aware of the horrifying truth about the power and motives of the titular Mime.
A man who burnt to death from flames that were invisible, yet gave off intense heat and couldn’t be extinguished; a university student shot with an invisible bullet that never came out of his body, and with no gun found; a young woman seemingly gored to death in a farmer’s market, yet with no animal nearby and video footage of the death. These are just a few of the victims that Elliott finds himself investigating as time goes on, each hideous death taking him and Sam a step closer to the monster responsible for them, and a step closer to insanity. What begins as a distanced investigation under the aegis of Weird News, allowing a sort of professional distance to mask the worst elements of the murders, becomes far more personal and intense as they draw the attention of the Mime and uncover the reasons for its murder spree. This leads to some incredibly intense and sharply-plotted scenes where they’re hunted by the Mime, tense and tightly-written as the two journalists face something that can turn the very environment – the air around them – into a deadly weapon. Harrison has a knack for these scenes, deftly composing taut set-pieces where death is a very real possibility, and the villain cannot be defeated, only delayed and inconvenienced; there’s a real sense of desperation as Elliott and Sam clash with the Mime while simultaneously trying to uncover its motives and how it can be stopped permanently. Only the intervention of a powerful but enigmatic demon hunter has the possibility of saving them from the relentless hunting of the Mime, and even then the cost in blood and bodies may be too high for either of them to bear.
The novel’s narrative is fast-paced and smoothly plotted, moving from encounter to encounter with the Mime as the two journalists slowly uncover clues about the extent of its powers and how it came to exist, and there’s an underlying atmosphere that becomes tauter and tauter as the chapters progress, and Harrison expertly ratchets up the tension and increases the body count. It becomes clear early on in the novel that Harrison has a mastery of the language needed for effective horror writing, as well as an instinctive eye for characterisation. Mime only has a small cast of characters compared to some titles in the genre, but this means Harrison has far more time to develop them and turn them into three-dimensional people rather than generic characters; by the end of the book, you find yourself invested in them and desperately hoping for their survival against the demonic foe that they have to contend with. Elliott and Sam make for two excellent protagonists, Harrison deftly switching between their viewpoints to give us different angles on the events of the novel as they occur. Elliott’s obsessive, near-fanatical attitude clashes with Sam’s more thoughtful and considered attitude, making an interesting pairing as the story progresses, especially as their relationship threatens to turn into something far more than professional in nature. Both have had deeply scarring lives intersecting with the occult, particularly Sam, and Harrison deftly integrates those elements into the novel to both propel the narrative forward and flesh out their backgrounds and motivations.
The supporting cast is just as skilfully developed, with Gabriel Cushing in particular being a stand-out character – an enigmatic demon hunter with a surprisingly complex and engaging back history. He’s a very cool character with impressive powers, and some intriguing connections to the world of British occultism that are revealed as Harrison does some subtle world-building in the latter half of the novel. However, the true star of the novel is the Mime itself, with Harrison creating one of the most original, unique and genuinely unsettling monsters I’ve come across in my whole time reading in the horror genre; the deaths orchestrated by it are some of the most imaginative and disturbing murders I’ve read in a horror title, regardless of subgenre. Harrison successfully weaponizes the previously innocent powers of the Mime artist, masterfully turning something wonderful into something quietly grotesque and malevolent, in a manner I never thought would be feasible. It’s an incredible achievement, and one that more than any other element of Mime marks Harrison out as a first-rate horror author.
Harrison also excels at atmosphere and world-building, particularly in regards to her clever decision to set much of the novel in Bristol. She brings the post-industrial, slightly battered, urban jungle of Bristol to life in a manner I’ve never seen before, artfully blending together industrial estates and stunning natural features to create a world that seems unique to Mime and really makes the novel stand out when compared to its innumerable competitors that set their tales in and around London. Even when the action moves outside of Bristol and towards the isolated fringes of Devon, Harrison still describes the landscape and surroundings in an effortless and thoroughly engaging manner, making the sparse greenery, valleys and thick early-morning mists work to her advantage as the Mime stalks Elliott and Sam as they desperately seek a way to defeat it once and for all. The world-building is of exactly the same high quality, especially when we get glimpses into the occult world that spawned the Mime and other occult monsters and demons alongside it; without getting into spoilers, there are enough questions left unanswered that I think there’s a huge amount of scope for future sequels and spin-offs, should Harrison wish to write them.
Mime is by far the best horror novel that I have read in 2020, and indeed I would go so far as to say that it is one of the finest horror novels that I have read in quite some time, an achievement that is even more remarkable for the fact that this is Harrison’s first published novel. Brilliantly written, skilfully plotted and imbued with a level of originality and imagination demonstrated by relatively few authors in the horror genre, Mime slowly but relentlessly builds up the tension as the Mime commits its horrifyingly creative murders and the two journalists find themselves constantly pursued by the creature and its fiendish and ever-changing suite of weapons. Harrison’s narrative pulls you along and engrosses you in the story, to the extent that I found myself battling fatigue late at night just to get a few more chapters before sleep claimed me – surely there can be no greater mark of its quality, and the unyielding grip it had on me. Unsettling, disquieting and outright horrifying in equal measures, Mime is a fantastic slice of horror fiction and a clear demonstration of Harrison’s talent both generally as an author, and specifically as a writer of horror fiction; and with more than enough loose ends to warrant a sequel or two, I greatly look forward to seeing what Harrison comes up with next.