Well, it’s been a little while since I last read anything horror-related. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Vivian Shaw’s 2017 novel “Strange Practice”. This is a novel I found a couple of months earlier when shopping online for second-hand books. Intrigued by the plot summary, I ordered a copy there and then. Then, I got distracted by other books for a couple of months. So, this review has been a while in the making.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Strange Practice”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in modern London with Dr. Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead, visiting her vampire friend Edmund Ruthven. He has called her over because another friend of his, Sir Francis Varney (of “Varney The Vampire” fame), is in trouble. Fanatical garlic-spraying monks have broken into Varney’s house and stabbed him with a cross-shaped blade. He barely managed to escape alive.
Greta treats Varney’s injuries before extracting a mysterious substance from the stab wound. Thinking that it is probably poison of some kind, she decides to get it analysed. Meanwhile, London is reeling in fear from a series of Jack The Ripper-style murders and, in a dark chamber somewhere, a badly-burned man goes through a strange initiation ritual…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it has a really cool premise and is probably one of the most original novels I’ve read recently. It’s this really interesting blend between the horror, urban fantasy, detective, thriller and medical drama genres that not only contains a good mixture between chills and comedy, but is also absolutely crammed with old-school horror fiction references too 🙂 Yes, it wasn’t quite as much of a fast-paced thriller as I’d hoped, but I really loved the style and concept behind this novel 🙂
In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it is a little on the old-school side of things. In addition to a bit of gothic horror, it also contains suspense, paranormal horror, horrifying injuries, grisly murders, religious horror, character-based horror, psychological horror, gothic horror and even a few subtle hints of Lovecraftian sci-fi horror/ weird fiction too 🙂 Although this novel isn’t outright scary, the horror elements really help to add atmosphere, depth and creepiness to the story 🙂
In the classic urban fantasy fashion, the novel’s “monsters” (vampires, ghouls, demons, mummies etc..) aren’t actually the villains in this novel. Instead, Greta has to help protect them from a group of fanatical monks with glowing blue eyes. If you’ve ever played an old computer game called “Blood“, you’ll know that evil monks are one of the funniest and most gloriously melodramatic types of horror villains out there – and it is an absolute joy to see them here 🙂 Seriously, I bought this book purely on the basis that it contained evil monks 🙂 Plus, this novel also contains an adorable baby ghoul called a “ghoullet” too 🙂
And, in the classic urban fantasy fashion, this novel also has a little bit of a mythos too. Although this is slightly more of a background detail, the fact that the story makes a distinction between “vampires” and “vampyres” and also comes up with a rather clever twist on the classic “heaven and hell” thing really helps to add a bit of uniqueness, depth and atmosphere to the story 🙂
The novel’s detective and thriller elements are a little bit understated, but work reasonably well. Most of the novel is structured more like a drama and a detective story, with suspenseful thriller elements in the background. Although this suspense works well and the novel has a suitably dramatic climax, the fact that a lot of the novel takes place in Ruthven’s house means that the thriller elements weren’t always as fast-paced as I’d expected.
Even so, the fact that the house is presented as a bunker-like refuge from danger helps to build suspense and add realism to the novel, plus it makes the novel’s relatively few action-packed moments stand out more in contrast. These are reasonably good and mostly work well. However, despite being set in London, one fight scene has a very US-style moment where Greta fends off an attacker with pepper spray. Although this scene is very suspenseful and dramatic, it will probably seem a bit incongruous (given that the only people allowed to carry or use this particular weapon in the UK are the police).
The novel’s detective elements are fairly good too, with a strong focus on both scientific/library research and old-fashioned investigation. Likewise, the solution to the mystery of the monks is one of the most inventive that I’ve seen a while – containing a good mixture between psychological, paranormal and scientific horror that makes the novel feel a little bit like a Lovecraftian episode of “Doctor Who” at times 🙂
In terms of the characters, they’re really good 🙂 Not only do Greta and her supernatural friends come across as complex, realistic people – but their friendship not only allows for quite a few “feel good” moments that leaven the story’s gothic gloom, but also for a few moments of drama and subtle comedy too 🙂 The villains also get a decent amount of characterisation too, which really helps to add to the horror. My only criticism of the characters is that there is slightly too much emphasis on Varney’s melancholic brooding. Yes, it adds depth to his character and even allows for a few obscure Victorian literature references too, but it happens just slightly too often.
As for the writing, it is excellent 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is written in a formal enough way to add a gothic, Victorian-style flavour to the story whilst also being informal and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a decent pace. Not only does this writing style emphasise the glorious strangeness of Victorian vampires living in modern London, but it also helps to add a lot of atmosphere and personality to the story that really helps to set it apart from the crowd too 🙂
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 353 pages in length, it doesn’t feel too long. Likewise, although you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced thriller, the novel still moves at a reasonable speed (and never really felt “slow-paced”). Likewise, the mixture of suspense, drama and mystery helps to keep the story reasonably compelling. Even so, at least half of the novel is spent inside Ruthven’s house – and, although these scenes can sometimes feel a little less thrilling than the rest of the novel, the novel as a whole is still fairly compelling.
All in all, whilst this novel isn’t always perfect, I really loved the concept behind it 🙂 Not only is it one of the most original horror/urban fantasy novels that I’ve read in a while, but it is a must-read for anyone who loves stories that revolve around gothic vampires or evil monks too 🙂 Yes, you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced thriller, but if you like suspense, horror, urban fantasy, Victorian literature and/or detective fiction, then this novel is worth reading.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.