Sunday, October 19, 2014

Barcelona Shadows - Marc Pastor

Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem

Marc Pastor works as a CSI in Barcelona as well as writing, this is his first book to be published in English and is a belting price of gothic horror. Set mostly in the slums and back streets of Barcelona in 1911 it recreates a nightmarish world of over crowded, stinking buildings, grinding poverty, prostitution, crime, violence, and any number of other horrors.

The city is uneasy, the streets feel volatile, and to many people have seen to many unpleasant things to be anything other than damaged by the experience - morals are a little lax. Even so rumours that the children of prostitutes are disappearing into the hands of some monster are troubling the detective Moises Corvo. When he starts to investigate it gets even more troubling, his bosses aren't keen for him to look into the matter - the disappearances aren't being reported and there are more pressing matters at hand, and then when Corvo pokes his nose into some of the more upmarket brothels and casinos there are very clear warnings to drop it. Warnings it's dangerous to ignore.

Meanwhile Corvo isn't the only one investigating, our narrator is Death, who takes an understandably unemotional view of the whole situation, but who also has enough curiosity to untangle the story for us as Corvo tries to find his monster.

The discovery of a body drained of blood gives rise to rumours that a vampire may be stalking the streets, and the discovery of another body, decapitated and robbed from a grave doesn't make it any easier for the police to piece together what's going on. Death leads us to Enriqueta Marti who is leading the oddest of double lives. She has been a prostitute, a herbalist, a procuress, she turns up in the mist unexpected places, and she's stealing children for truly unspeakable purposes.

It wasn't until I finished 'Barcelona Shadows' that I realised it might be based on actual events. A couple of minutes research online reveal the whole story of the 'Vampire of Barcelona', so basically spoilers for the book - finding out at the end how much was true certainly added a layer of horror to the whole narrative. Facts about Enriqueta are hazy, the remains of her victims don't truly reveal her motivations, which gives Pastor plenty of room to weave fiction with history.

He opts for the blackest of humour and a straight up horror story, which is a definite strength of the book. Sometimes we need monsters, or at least the explanation that there are monsters out there because the idea that people can do these things is to much to really accept. Pastor's Enriqueta with her claw like hands, mesmeric presence, and the sense of disquiet that she arouses in people isn't quite human, turning her into something a bit more mythical (and not unlike the witch from Hansel and Gretel or even Baba Yaga) doesn't diminish the horror of what she did but maybe it makes it easier to assimilate.

Either way this is a terrific book. Very dark, never gratuitous in it's details, and clever enough to lay out social injustice and then leave the reader to draw their own conclusions - there is more than one sort of monster here. It's very much a story for lengthening nights and a cosy sofa, it will probably also make you check that your door is locked.

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