First published back in September of 1992, British horror author Shaun Hutson’s novel ‘Heathen’ was written a good way into the author’s career.
When twenty-eight-year-old Donna Ward was informed that her husband, writer Christopher Ward, had been killed in a tragic car crash, her life started to fall apart. However, after the investigating officers informed Donna that her husband wasn’t alone in the car at the time of the car crash in Central London, Donna Ward’s suffering becomes so much worse. It appears that a young woman named Suzanne Regan, who Donna knew worked for Chris’s publishers ,was also in his car at the time of the crash. A crash which it now looks like was down to a failing with the brakes. The first question that comes to Donna’s mind is why on Earth was this young woman in the car with her husband? Furthermore, upon identifying the two bodies, the officers find Chris Ward’s cheque book and credit cards in Suzanne’s handbag along with a photo of Chris alongside two letters from him.
Distraught by the findings, Donna’s instant reaction is that her late husband was very possibly involved in an affair with this woman. Furthermore, Chris still had his wallet on him. A wallet that contained a blank business card with just the initial ‘S’ and a phone number inscribed upon it.
Alone in their home, Donna Ward tries to take in this whole string of horrifying revelations. And as if that wasn’t hard enough, the distraught widow starts to receive worrying phonecalls from a silent heavy-breather.
In need of some moral support, Donna’s twenty-six-year-old sister, Julie Craig, comes to stay with Donna at her house, whilst the young widow tries to cope with this life-shattering ordeal. And it’s whilst her sister is with her that Donna starts to uncover more puzzling aspects surrounding Chris’s secretive life up until the moment he was tragically killed. Whilst searching through her late-husband’s things, Donna comes across some photos loose within an attaché case. Photographs of Chris with five unknown men, all of which Donna notices, are wearing large heavy gold signet rings on their left index fingers.
Further searching through Chris’s office reveals the name ‘James Worsdale’ along with the mention of the Dublin National Gallery within Chris’s diary. Knowing that she will need to get to the bottom of this troubling mystery if she is going to have any sort of closure over the death of her husband, Donna decides that she needs to travel to Dublin to find out what exactly her late husband was working on prior to his untimely death.
However, first she must attend Chris’s funeral. And with the added attendance of three men dressed in dark suits who she doesn’t know or recognise, it only goes to further Donna’s suspicions that there’s something a lot deeper behind Chris Ward’s death. Suspicions that escalate significantly upon discovering a man going through her husband’s office during the post-funeral wake. Caught off guard, the man introduces himself as Peter Farrell, explaining that he was just trying to reclaim some books about paintings that he had lent to Chris prior to his death. But after Peter Farrell leaves Donna realises she recognises his face. He was one of the men within the photos that she had found earlier on.
The situation escalates further when Donna and Julie are woken in the dead of night by intruders ransacking Chris’s office. This whole situation is turning out to be far more serious than she first thought. The question that keeps returning to the now very frightened Donna is “What on earth had Chris been researching prior to his death?”
At the Dublin National Gallery, Donna learns from an employee by the name of Gordon Mahoney that the five men in the photo are in fact five of the founding members of the Dublin Hell Fire Club. A club with the motto “Fay ce Que Voudras” – “Do as you will”. A secret club for the elite, who indulge in whatever they wish through the luxury afforded to them by their collective power and wealth.
A secret organisation for which it is beginning to look like Chris Ward had discovered a modern-day equivalent of. A lethal underground cabal who call themselves the Sons of Midnight. And they will stop at nothing to keep their secret society safe. Donna is about to come face to face with an evil power whose corrupt influence goes way beyond that of mere political sway. The Sons of Midnight have a far darker ambition behind them, and it’s one which Donna Ward is about to fight for her very life against...
Starting out more as a curious thriller than a horror novel per se, Hutson sets off the tale with a more reserved pace than can safely be said is the splatterpunk author’s norm. Indeed much of the first quarter of the novel is devoted to setting down our principal character’s deeply distressing news. And throughout this Hutson continues to introduce numerous characters that will barely have any bearing on the course of the tale whatsoever. Veritable handfuls of characters are brought into these early chapters, only to be forgotten within fewer pages than their appearance covered.
However, Hutson keeps tight leash on the escalating events that are taking place, keeping a finger permanently on the rising pulse of the novel’s mounting tension. And it has to be said that these early chapters hold a certain intriguing interest that does keep the reader somewhat gripped to the unfolding plot.
The gradual introduction of the Hellfire Club and indeed the Sons of Midnight is where the real energy starts to get injected into the storyline. From here the threat level becomes much more solid, much more immediate and much more intense. By now we’re a good proportion of the way through the novel, and along with a pretty compelling gunfight, Hutson starts to don his well-worn horror hat, with the sudden inclusion of a ‘darker supernatural element’ to the whole underground-cult shenanigans.
And suddenly it’s “step aside any ounce of realism...it’s time to bring in the unbelievably farfetched horror”. From here on expect the worst of Hutson’s clichéd and often badly-executed ideas of horror. Admittedly the pace has picked up a fair old notch or two, but the tale has instead plummeted into an abyss of ludicrous comic-book-horror nonsense.
Where the Sons of Midnight should be casting an oppressively dark cloud over Donna and her investigations, instead the novel feels far too apprehensive in engaging with the cult to achieve any successful degree of horror. Indeed, for the vast majority of the book, the action and unravelling drama feels diluted and just plain weak (other than the country home shootout it must be said).
The supposedly ‘creepy wax museum’ scene is nauseatingly clichéd and horrendously dated, with what should have been a nightmarish sequence becoming nothing more than a suspense-destroying laughing point.
Hutson tries his hand at a bit of twist ending, but like with much of the preceding storyline, the impact of this is severely reduced with an altogether lacklustre attempt at pouncing on the reader one last time. Once again, such woeful misfiring ultimately damages the tale more than it could ever have added to it, making the storyline almost laughable in its unfulfilled delivery. Quite frankly, ‘Care Bears The Movie’ (1985) managed a more intense storyline than this badly executed drivel.
Yeah, we were never expecting a particularly realistic novel from Hutson. You’ll always need a hefty level of willing suspension of disbelief if you’re going to enjoy a Hutson tale. But there’s only so much a reader can forgive to keep the tale rich and exciting before it’s deemed just too ridiculous. And sadly in ‘Heathen’ Hutson crosses this line and continues ambling off into boredom-ville.
A very strong contender for Hutson’s weakest ever novel...
The tale runs for a total of 403 pages.
© DLS Reviews