First published back in February of 1997, Simon Clark’s fourth novel to see publication entitled ‘King Blood’ saw a return to another imaginatively savage post-apocalyptic premise.
It all started to happen on the night of Ben Cavellero’s party. For nineteen-year-old Rick Kennedy, the night just kept on getting crazier. Having lost an hour of his life without any recollection of what happened, he is then confronted with the return of his older brother Stephen who he hasn’t seen for years. With the party in full swing, Rick decides that perhaps tonight is also the prime time to finally try his luck with the one girl that’s has been consuming his mind since the first time he laid eyes on her – Kate Robinson.
But the following day is when it all came to a head and suddenly became frighteningly real. Looking out of his bedroom window, Ricky is confronted with the sight of 30,000 refugees all congregated in the nearby fields. A vast cloud of poisonous gas has engulfed the whole of the city of Leeds, forcing its inhabitants to flee in the middle of the night to the higher ground of Fairburn village. And as the days pass by, the refugees begin to become hungry and restless, with still no sign of any aid on its way.
Before long anarchy is breaking out within the crammed environment dominated by the hungry and desperate refugees. With news that that this is not just an isolated local incidence, but a worldwide epidemic caused by a massive geological shift in the Earth’s core temperature, Ben Cavellero calls a meeting for the young residents of Fairburn. With matters no doubt only going to get a whole lot worse once starvation properly kicks in for the hordes of refuges, a plan is set in motion for sixty of this younger generation to leave the village with what little food they have left and find some relative safety in the isolated wilderness of Fountains Moor.
Meanwhile the Earth’s crust continues to heat up causing volcanoes to erupt, underground pockets of deadly gas to explode, geysers of scorching hot water to come showering down and crushing tidal waves to engulf entire cities. What was once a prosperous and peaceful landscape has now turned quite literally into hell on Earth.
Throngs of desperately starving people turn to savagery and cannibalism. Madness, rape and murder is everywhere. Mere survival is nothing short of a daily miracle. And amongst this savage and ruthless environment emerges a new horrifying fret. Sightings of mysterious Grey Men, with thick grey skin and burning blood red eyes are beginning to appear.
Under the guidance of Stephen Kennedy, the group of sixty survivors will have to trek through hell in order to survive. Life threatening danger is everywhere they look. The world is suddenly a very hostile place to reside...
From the outset the reader is flung into a disorientating and incredibly violent new world, where brutal rape, tribalistic cannibalism and savage murder are common place. With the rivers running blood red, the scorched and unforgiving landscape littered with human remains, and the few remaining survivors close (if not already fully succumbed) to madness – Clark begins by setting the precedence for what is to be a monstrously brutal piece of post-apocalyptic fiction.
Loosely written in the first-person perspective of our lead character and principal protagonist – Rick Kennedy, the reader quickly latches on to the underlying storyline of a journey of self-discovery for the character. With this constantly developing sub-story, the tale progresses on at full speed with not only the impactful action of the world erupting into chaos, but also an increasing eagerness to see how Rick Kennedy will undoubtedly rise to the challenge of it all.
The Kate Robinson love interest is somewhat surprisingly suppressed quite early on, instead with the odd addition of a lustful relationship developing between Rick and a thirty-nine-year-old refugee mother named Caroline Lucas. Clark (perhaps unintentionally) layers the character of Caroline with questionable morals from their first meeting, with her deplorable willingness at offering out her young daughter for sex in order to secure somewhere to stay. This challenging situation is never really tackled head-on, but instead quietly swept under the carpet to never be mentioned again.
Likewise, with the atmospherically supernatural discovery and rescue of the young girl Victoria, the ever-present mysterious oddity that surrounds this character is never really addressed or satisfyingly resolved. Indeed, throughout the length of the novel, Clark throws in heavy character defining traits and impactful character histories that are quickly forgotten by the author and somehow never really taken fully on-board. None more so than with the atrocities performed at the hands of a band of survivors who the group encounter during an expedition for food. They quickly learn that this group of fellow survivors perform ritual torture and murder on anyone who happens to stubble their way. The lack of any serious comeuppance for many of these characters is staggeringly surreal in itself. However at the same time it does somewhat starkly emphasise and boldly reinforce the sheer unrepentant harshness of this new dog-eat-dog world.
Characterisation is strong, plot defining, involved and utterly compelling. With intricate back stories injected into most of the principle characters’ lives, strong bonds are quickly established between the reader and these characters, uniting the two within this powerfully gripping tale.
Scenes of sex and violence are graphic and strong throughout the length of the tale. Like with Clark’s earlier post-apocalyptic novel ‘Blood Crazy’ (1995), the gut-churning violence depicted within the tale is incredibly strong, provocative, visceral and often downright disturbing. Furthermore, at times the author seems to relish in the atrocities depicted, with vivid details of the haunting violence carving a lasting image into the readers mind.
Yes this is a powerfully oppressive and thought provoking tale. Yes it seems almost unrelenting with its onslaught on humanity. And yes it hits the reader square in the face with the sheer desperation of the characters as the battle for survival against all odds. For those qualities alone this novel is a must read.
However, it does have its weak points. None more so predominant and disappointing than that of the Grey Men – particularly with the twist discovery of what these surreal beings really are. Without ruining this element of the tale for any potential readers, I will say that the unveiling of the truth behind these lurking beasts is staggeringly weak and farfetched. Farfetched you cry.....what compared with the rest of the plot? In a word – yes! It’s wildly elaborate and annoyingly contrived, with hardly any real plausibility to support the extent of the laughable concept behind it.
Pushing the Grey Men to the side for a moment, all in all the novel is still a fast-paced, engrossing rollercoaster of a ride through a vivid and vicious hell on Earth. With the mayhem and violence escalating within an almost biblical premise, the tale soon becomes a monstrously engrossing mission of near epic proportions.
Clark has ingeniously expanded and further built upon the very backbone of the natural ecological disaster style of post-apocalyptic premise that had been set down in the likes of J G Ballard’s ‘The Drowned World’ (1962), and instead, puts more weight towards unashamedly exaggerating humanities reaction (in particular the sudden turn to savage violence) to this monstrous change in environment in a similar fashion to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s novel ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ (1977) . This is done in a much more exaggerated extent (but not ultimately dissimilar) to how John Christopher explored his characters’ swift adaptation to their new surroundings by way of becoming uncaring, uncompromising and ultimately selfish to the survival of their own grouping, in his classic post-apocalyptic novel ‘The Death Of Grass’ (1956). Indeed, the relentless journey across the now incredibly hostile landscape of Britain that John Custance and his band endured through the length of the novel is quickly remembered with the similar desperate treks depicted in Clark’s novel. The ecological devastation with explosive human repercussions was again later echoed (but to a far less exaggerated degree) just one year later in Walter J. Williams’ novel ‘The Rift’ (1998).
It’s true that the novel is thoroughly over-the-top and veering further and further towards splatterpunk than a standard post-apocalyptic horror novel. This is in no ways a bad thing, and one that when embraced for what it is, proves to be an altogether intense and truly compelling read.
The novel runs for a total of 534 pages.
© DLS Reviews