The Harm by Gary McMahon
TTA Press March 2010
Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk
The Harm by Gary McMahon is described inside as a polyptych—which would be (in art) a painting of several sections. It is, in reality, a novella in four sections; each of which is based on a protagonist of the novella. Possibly the best description of this book may be something said by one of these: “What if hell is a place where all your mistakes are made permanent? Where metaphor becomes truth and harm is just another way of expressing yourself ?”
The novella is based on a purported news story about three eight-year-old Yorkshire boys who were found bound and gagged in a riverfront warehouse, and who had suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of unknown persons over a 12-hour period. The story explores the repercussions of that abuse from a perspective of twenty-six years later.
Section one, “Raise Your Hands,” concerns Tyler, whose father died when he was the same age as Tyler is now—34; it is Tyler’s birthday, and his boss has taken the team out for dinner and drinks to celebrate landing a multi-million-pound contract for corporate publications, brochures and training videos. They have ended up in some seedy, glitzy bar where everything swims in a haze of booze and pheromones. Here’s where it starts. Someone elbows Tyler in the ribs; someone else throws a punch which bruises his cheek. Tyler decides to leave—on the way out, the bouncer gets pugilistic with him; the taxi driver throws a punch as Tyler leaves the taxi.
Tyler is a family man; his wife is asleep by the baby monitor, so Tyler decides to look in on his sleeping four-month-old daughter—who wakes up enough to batter at his face with ineffectual baby fists. Tyler is confused, and goes to sleep on the couch. When he wakes up to take breakfast with his loving wife, she punches him at the kitchen table. Confused, he leaves the house only to find that everyone he meets on the street attacks him.
Even more puzzling things happen to hapless Tyler, who has no idea how to, or concept of, fighting back; and by the end of this section, he has returned, at least mentally, to the warehouse where it had all begun to go wrong for him, so many years before. His life has come full circle.
Section two, “Hush,” is about Roarke, who took a different path from Tyler, becoming the trumped-up little ruler of his section of town by virtue of his size and willing fists. Whatever he wanted he took by force, without thinking of the legality of it; to him it was just how he made his living, and he gave no consideration to the cries of the victims. He fostered a conspiracy of silence against them.
But Roarke, too, has been out on a late night bender, celebrating the release of his colleague Jo-Jo from prison. Jo-Jo has taken the fall for Roarke, spending four years inside for a post-office robbery that Roarke actually committed. But instead of taking a taxi home, Roarke has opted for the bus, and has fallen asleep on said bus. But when he wakes, it is at some unknown time in the early hours (his watch has stopped); Roarke is alone on the bus, which is parked at an unknown terminal in the middle of some unknown streets. Roarke has no idea where he is. But where Tyler has faced (it appears) retribution for being a victim, Roarke will face a different form of retribution for being a victimizer. Though he doesn’t realize at first, Roarke has also made a circle, and we turn our gaze to Potter.
Section three, “Feeling Better,” introduces us to a grown, but not yet mature, Potter—his experiences have affected him both sexually and emotionally. Still a virgin at thirty-four, Potter finds himself interested in images of men—but men in distress. Having become addicted some years earlier to images of pain, beatings, brutality and death acquired mostly on the internet, Potter has discovered that he is both aroused and disgusted, but cannot quit looking at and for these images.
Potter still lives near the warehouse where he himself was brutalized as a child; and lately he’s been feeling as if he’s being watched by those self-same brutalizers—but he can’t bring himself to move. Something is holding him there. Also, he heard, a while before, of the deaths “by suicide” of his old mates Tyler and Roarke—yet he sees them in the crowd of watchers in each grainy film clip of yet another atrocity.
Finally Potter has had enough—he leaves a note for his sister, Audrey, telling her he has gone to face his demons in the old warehouse where it all changed for the three boys.
Part four, “The Only One,” concerns Audrey, Potter’s sister. She drives up from London to attend her brother’s funeral, and meets the man who had married her mother after her father died; the man, “Uncle” Grant, who never believed Greg Potter about what had happened until it was too late for him emotionally.
Audrey attends the funeral, where a minister who barely knew her brother mouthed an entirely inappropriate service that went in one of Audrey’s ears and out the other. The church was full of floral arrangements, which would have annoyed Greg; when the minister attempted to talk to Audrey, she told him Greg’s final words about the church were on the order of “screw God and the horse he rode in on”!
After the funeral Audrey goes to her mother’s house (her mother being in a home for the terminally bewildered) to confront “Uncle” Grant, and realizes at last that he and all the other inhabitants of that village may have had an existence, but no life to speak of. She would be glad to get back to her real life in London; her husband and children awaited her.
These stories, this book, were partially inspired by the original Japanese version of The Grudge, a truly creepy film in either version (but better in the original) in that the author realizes that crimes against children are like The Grudge—they poison and keep on poisoning. The Harm is transmitted from person to person as long as these types of crimes keep on being committed. A very affecting set of stories (except the coda, Audrey’s, possibly being unnecessary) and very well written. Creepy and chilling.