Hinterland by David Barnett
Review by Stephen Blake for the Esoteric Book Review
Hinterland is published by Immanion Press
Unlike most of the books we review on this site, Hinterland is a novel. It is published by Storm Constantine’s ‘Immanion Press’, who produce fantasy, sci-fi and horror fiction but also non-fiction esoteric titles (such as Brandy Williams’ “Ecstatic Ritual” in my previous review).
Hinterland was the first book by Dave Barnett, who has gone on earn great acclaim for Angelglass. This is a reprint, and in the Afterword he says that he was tempted take the opportunity to re-write the whole thing but decided that the rough edges and raw energy of his earlier days were part of what made it special. I’d agree – there are places where this reads like a first novel, but it has a unique energy and power as well.
The title of the book describes the way that Barnett treats city suburbs as a liminal place, where reality is less enforced. He then takes us straight into the grimy streets and no-hope life of protagonist Dave. The main character is a 26 year-old journalist who is sleeping with his co-worker’s girlfriend, and trying to keep the horror of his life at bay with drink and club nights. His adventures quickly take him into much less mundane territory and the vibe of the story becomes dark and eerie.
This atmosphere alone nearly qualifies this as an occult novel, hanging around the story like a dark cloud, rising up and pulling away again periodically. The reader’s assumptions are continually played with: Dave is walking across a frozen lake when the narrative suddenly switches to years earlier when he paddled across it with childhood friends. A pair of Nymphs seem predictably supernatural but turn out to have a bleaker, more mundane explanation. (Or maybe not.)
In fact, Dave’s world is very bleak indeed, and he’s not dealing with it very well. Periods of lost time and forgetfulness bubble up, but sometimes it seems he’s the only one affected by them. Is he going mad, or is it just the copious drugs and drink?
As the story progresses the weirdness becomes less subtle and more threatening, losing its furtiveness and approaching outright bedlam. A host of legendary characters are loosed into the world – The Green Man, a huge black cat on the moors, a mysterious painting which always survives house fires intact… the sense of the occult intruding into everyday life is huge fun for esoteric readers, but there is a bigger question about how Dave will survive the changes. What do these half-seen figures have in mind for him?
I didn’t expect this book to be a professional effort, but it has an urgent atmosphere and gripping pace which stays with you. There are some superb sequences of disconnection from time and reality (check out the time slips during the birthday party) and a real emotional punch. By the end you realise that it’s something very special – a ‘slipping between the cracks’ tale like Neverwhere, but with a much darker, seedier outlook. Definitely an author to watch.