Well, for the next novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d read a Graham Masterton novel.
But, although I’ve got a few other Masterton novels that I’ve been meaning to read, I ended up stumbling across my old copy of Masterton’s 1991 novel “The Hymn” (which I first read about sixteen or seventeen years ago) and decided to re-read it.
So, let’s take a look at “The Hymn”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
Note: I read the the 2000 Warner Books (UK) paperback reprint of “The Hymn” but I won’t include an image of the book cover here because, although the cover art is probably technically “safe for work”, the combination of implied nudity and a subtle visual allusion to the extremist views of the story’s villains made me err on the side of caution here. Sorry about this.
On a side-note, although the cover art is somewhat “edgy” by modern standards, it is really well-designed. Not only does it make excellent use of attention-grabbing visual contrast, but it also contains enough dramatic-looking visual storytelling to give the reader a general impression of the story whilst also keeping things mysterious enough to make them want to read more. Plus, on a technical level, the quality the of painting is absolutely superb too (seriously, I miss the days when painted cover art was standard for horror novels).
The novel begins in Southern California. A Vietnam veteran called Bob Tuggey is working in a McDonalds when he happens to see a blonde woman carrying a can of petrol across the car park. He has a war flashback about a Buddhist monk immolating himself in protest. He suddenly realises what the woman is about to do. Grabbing a fire extinguisher, he rushes out to the car park. But, he is too late.
A while later, wealthy restaurant owner Lloyd Denman is chatting with his staff and preparing for another day in Denman’s Original Fish Depot when the police show up. They inform Lloyd that his fiancee, Celia, has set herself on fire. Reeling with grief and puzzled by the bizarre circumstances of her death, Lloyd decides to investigate.
Out in the California desert, a group of cops get a call about a mysterious bus fire. When they reach the smouldering bus, they find all of the passengers still sitting in their seats as if they had made no attempt to escape the furious inferno that claimed their lives.
One of the things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t perfect, it’s a really interesting mixture of the horror, detective and thriller genres. It’s a compelling story that can be richly atmospheric, occasionally cringe-worthy, inventively horrific and occasionally unintentionally hilarious.
In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good. In addition to lots of grisly fire-related horror, the novel also includes suspenseful horror, occult/paranormal horror, psychological horror, WW2-related horror, slasher movie style horror, disturbing horror, character-based horror and tragic horror. Whilst this novel isn’t outright frightening, there are enough disturbing moments and macabre scenes to place it firmly in the horror genre.
As you might expect from a horror novel, one of the major themes of the novel is death. Whether it is the many scenes that focus on characters mourning the dead, or the scenes involving the undead, this is a novel about both the after-effects of death and the fear of death. In addition to this, it is also a novel about the dangers of extremist ideologies and how charismatic people can exploit the fears of others for their own ends.
Surprisingly, “The Hymn” is also both a detective and thriller novel too. The novel balances these two elements fairly well, with Lloyd’s investigation into Celia’s death eventually segueing into a slightly more fast-paced game of cat and mouse between the forces of good and evil.
Plus, like in many classic detective novels, the police are very little help to Lloyd (even suspecting him of some of the novel’s macabre murders at one point) and it is up to him and his friends to get to the bottom of what has happened.
These compelling detective/thriller elements also mean that, whilst some of the later parts of the story might come across as a little bit silly, random and/or contrived, you’ll probably be too gripped by the story to care too much about this.
In terms of the characters, they’re fairly well-written. The novel includes enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to Lloyd and the people he teams up with during his investigation. Likewise, there are a lot of scenes of character-based drama where the characters try to deal with and make sense of the events of the story. Plus, many of the background characters also come across as vaguely realistic people too.
On the other hand, the novel’s fascist villains (Otto and Helmwige) walk a very fine line between being genuinely disturbing antagonists and cartoonish sources of unintentional comedy (eg: the scene where Helmwige takes a bath, Otto’s Renfield-like habit of eating insects and his “Indiana Jones villain”-like appearance etc.. ). Surprisingly, the creepiest character in the novel is probably Celia – since her character arc shows how an otherwise good person can be manipulated into performing unspeakably horrific actions.
In terms of the writing, it is really good. Leaving aside infrequent cringe-worthy descriptions, I was genuinely surprised by the sheer quality of the writing in this novel. The novel’s narration is a really good mixture of intelligent, descriptive formal prose and more fast-paced “matter of fact” descriptions. It really helps to add a lot of atmosphere to the story and depth to the characters. However, the novel’s numerous classical music, posh food/wine etc.. references can come across as a little pompous at times.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 346 pages in length, this novel is slightly longer than you might expect but is still the right length for the story it is telling. Likewise, although the story is fairly compelling, the pacing can often be at least slightly slower than you might expect. Even so, this allows for a lot of atmosphere, descriptions and characterisation. Not to mention that the later parts of the novel become a bit more fast-paced too.
As for how this twenty-eight year old novel has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well.
On the one hand, some parts of this novel can come across as either old-fashioned, conservative or “politically incorrect”. For example, in contrast to the punk sensibility of a lot of other 1980s/early 1990s horror novels, the relatively uncritical focus on various story elements (eg: Lloyd’s wealth, classical music etc…) here can feel a little bit conservative or old-fashioned when read today. Plus, although the novel is generally critical of things like discrimination, expect to encounter at least a small number of very “politically incorrect” moments.
But, on the other hand, the novel as a whole still remains very atmospheric, dramatic and compelling to this day. Likewise, the complete lack of mobile phones (the closest thing is a car phone) in the story also helps to add extra suspense and drama to several scenes 🙂 Plus, due to the disturbing events in the US over the past couple of years, the story’s main plot feels even more chilling today than it probably did during the less polarised/politicised early 1990s. So, yes, this novel has both aged well and aged terribly.
All in all, whilst this isn’t a perfect novel, it is a surprisingly atmospheric and compelling one that manages to blend the horror, detective and thriller genres in a fairly interesting way.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably get about a four.