I’ve just finished digesting Graham Masterton’s Ritual, a riotously fun, horror-adventure tale. This outrageous and gripping book tells the story of restaurant critic-come-absent-father, Charlie McLean, who tries to heal the tears of his strained relationship with teenage son, Martin, by inviting him on a road trip around the Connecticut area whilst sampling the eateries of the isolated, rural region. Martin is soon in trouble, lured into an extreme Christian cult called the Celestines, whose central belief is a literal interpretation of the eating of the body and the drinking of the blood of Christ. Apparently, as we’re all created in the image of God, if we cannibalise ourselves to the maxim, until we are nothing more than a skinless head and torso, such a sacrifice would guarantee a spiritual place by God’s side. Martin, seduced by the camaraderie such actions evoke, and the possibility of obtaining the ultimate father figure, soon leaves his hapless dad behind, forcing Charlie to step-up to the plate, track him down, and hopefully de-programme him. All before Martin gets the knives and forks out.
One of Masterton’s skills is his ability to tease the reader with horror, sparingly but effectively. He uses graphic depictions to elevate a typical missing-child plotline in to a story brimming with tense, nauseating, literary canapés. The scene when Charlie is obligated to butcher and consume his own finger for example, when attempting to stealthily infiltrate the Celestine Order, made me feel quite nauseus…
Charlie said his own silent prayer. Then he adjusted his grip on the scalpel and scratched a hesitant line around the base of his ring finger. He scarcely drew any blood; but it stung, badly. Everybody in the room was watching him in silence.
He clenched his teeth together, and cut more deeply into the top of his finger. Surprisingly, he felt no pain at all, but the sensation of sharp steel touching his bare bone made him shiver in his seat… He picked up the small saw… Charlie drew back the saw, and then rasped it forward over his fingerbone. He didn’t know whether he screamed out loud or not… Mechanically, Charlie sawed at his fingerbone again, and then again. The pain was extreme, but the vibration of the saw teeth all the way through the nerves of his hand and up the lower part of his left arm was even worse. He sawed and sawed and then suddenly felt Xavier’s hand on his shoulder. ‘You should stop now. Your finger is off. We don’t want you to damage the table. It’s antique, you know.’
Page 229 – 230
I’m not ashamed to admit that typing the above quote certainly made me sweat. I’m always amazed by the power of the written word to induce a physical reaction, be it a belly laugh or a sickly regurgitation.
Masterton doesn’t just stir gory graphic imagery. The more overtly creepy scenario is also set-up to grasp the reader’s attention, such as this depiction of Charlie’s restaurant-set nightmare, instilling an early mood of looming danger…
He half dozed for a while, and dreamed that he was eating dinner in a strange high-ceilinged restaurant with a long white napkin tucked into his collar. The waiters were all hooded, like monks, and they came and went in silence, carrying plates and wheeling chafing dishes… He turned. A monk-waiter had brought his meal, concealed beneath a shiny dish cover. The monk-waiter’s face was as black as the inside of a clothes closet. ‘Your dinner, sir,’ he whispered seductively, and raised the dish cover with flourish.
Charlie looked down at his plate and screamed.
The plate was brimming with thin, greyish soup, in which Martin’s face was floating, staring up at him in silent desperation.
Page 58 – 59
It’s the simplicity of Masterton’s narrative that struck me, allowing for the atmosphere of the scenario to permeate ones consciousness. Masterton doesn’t over analyse his set pieces, or bog them down with unnecessary rhetoric. Rather, he constructs just the right amount of verbose scaffolding, allowing his ideas to securely stand proud.
The most striking central theme to the novel is the idea of the community secret and the unspoken truth. With the ever-increasing accusations of sex abuse carried out by high-profile public figures post Jimmy Savile in the UK, the relevancy of such a topic is undeniable. The rabbit-hole goes far deeper though, as once Savile had died, and the truth was finally reported, the general British public have had to listen to a swarm of celebrities, all eager to get another 5 minutes in the spotlight, acknowledging his crimes were well know in media circles. Yet at the time they all did NOTHING! This is not a tenuous link; it demonstrates the power of literature, no matter how pulpy, to symbolically shine a light on real, dark events…
‘Then the police know about this place? They know what you do? And they haven’t taken any action to stop you?’
‘My dear sir, the whole surrounding community is aware that there is something special about Le Reposoir. Many consider us frightening; at least until they have the opportunity to see for themselves the true significance of our rituals. I suppose you could say that there is a parallel with World War Two, when many German citizens living close to concentration camps were aware that there was something of great drama happening in their district, but preferred on the whole not to investigate too closely. Of all creatures, man is the most incurious, believe me.’
Charlie said, ‘Haxalt knows, doesn’t he? The president of the savings bank?’
M. Musette nodded. ‘Almost all of those with senior civic positions in Allen’s Corners are aware of what we are, and what we do.’
‘Then why –?’
‘Because many of their sons and daughters have joined us. Because many of them have joined us.’
A frightening thought yet a too often ignored truth, mans inclination to demonstrate false-ignorance when it benefits them.
It’s not all dark and foreboding, Masterton finds opportunity to plant some nice comic relief (note Xavier’s finishing line in the finger-chopping quote above), such as the scene when Charlie first realises his son is missing and tries to report this to the local police…
‘You were sleeping with a lady and when you returned to your room you found that your son was no longer there?’
‘That’s the nub of it, yes… I’m a restaurant critic, I travel around eating in restaurants and writing reports.’
The lean deputy nodded his head towards the Windsor. ‘What do you think of this place? Stinks, don’t it?’
‘Deputy, I’m interested in finding my son, that’s all.’
Without giving too much of the plot away my aim has been to entice you enough to hunt down a copy of the book for yourself. I’ve purposely ignored David, the self-inlficted dwarf, as well as the thunderous ethereal climax and all of the well-paced action sequences, of which there are plenty. But as always, and I hope I’ve demonstrated this, beauty is in the fine detail.