Book Review: ‘Strange Ink’ by Gary Kemble

From Titan Books:

‘When washed-up journalist Harry Hendrick wakes one morning with a hangover and a strange symbol tattooed on his neck, he shrugs it off as a bad night out. But soon more tattoos appear: grisly, violent images which come accompanied by horrific nightmares – so he begins to dig deeper. Harry’s search leads him to a sinister disappearance, torment from beyond the grave, and a web of corruption and violence tangled with his own past. One way or another, he has to right the wrongs.’

     Strange Ink is the first novel from author Gary Kemble.  Set in Australia, this is part ghost story, part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part possession story.

     Somehow, all of these elements are managed with ease, and the story never feels as if there is too much going on.  The genres are blended very well, and I loved the fact that what could have easily been a ghost story or a story about a man possessed by a ghost became its own thing.  The reader never loses sight of Harry’s character, even at those times when the ghost inside him threatens to take over entirely.  He never completely lets go of the reigns, and so the reader is able to stand behind his decisions, even when he heads into some dicey moral territory.

     The characters are believable and sympathetic, and it is obvious within the first few chapters that this is a tale in which the underdogs are the one to watch.  In a story in which the boundaries of genres and sub-genres are stretched and bent, it is refreshing to have clear good guys and bad guys.  The bad guys are killers, plain and simple.  Even the side characters are well-drawn and clear cut; it is immediately obvious what side they are on.  Harry is also able to fly under the radar as he investigates for a good chunk of the book as he is underestimated.  People think that he’s a crackpot, and he works for a teeny local paper that gets no attention.  By incorporating the political thriller into the story, there is a layer of power imbalance that adds to the infuriating nature of the story.  In today’s political climate, stories of corruption are resonating, and the fact that they don’t seem all that unbelievable anymore only adds to the plausible horror of the story.  The mystery is solved early on, and the big question is how will the ghosts demand it be resolved?  What will Harry do about it?

     Great dialogue combined with a lack of flowery vocabulary make this novel a quick but powerful read.  When the ghost comes forward in Harry’s dreams, it isn’t always apparent that he is dreaming right away, which make for a great connection between the character and the reader.  Both feel the disorientation of having two people present in Harry’s mind at any given time, and the author does an impressive job of making it clear that there are two people without losing sight of the main character being the clear narrator and protagonist.

     The tattoos themselves are such a part of the person and work hard to tell a story.  This is itself makes a fascinating story, and I wonder if it was influenced by Ray Bradbury’s story collection, The Illustrated Man.  People have so many motivations for getting tattoos, and they are so personal and individual.  For Harry, this was an interesting part of the story.  He has no attachment to the images until he is shown what they mean.  Once he is shown, he accepts them.  They become almost a body of evidence or a character all on their own.

          If you like a horror story incorporated with a good mystery and solid characters, this one is for you.  Even casual horror readers and mystery readers will find something to appreciate in this story of greed, corruption, and coverups wrapped in a backdrop of ghostly revenge.

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