Nowadays horror fiction spends a lot of time pretending to be other genres. We’ve all seen those bookshop Crime Fiction shelves groaning with books full of occult, weird and even outright supernatural content, but which are being marketed as “noir” or “thrillers” to avoid alienating the horror-phobic modern reader. Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo is one such book. It does have a conventional crime plot, with a disabled ex-policeman, Sean Ward, hired to investigate a miscarriage of justice surrounding Corinne, a woman who was found guilty of murder back in the 80s and is still in a psychiatric facility. However, it has a distinctly gothic flavour – witchcraft and Goth culture are the major themes, and some passages are very hard to explain away without resorting to the supernatural.
The book is set in the little Norfolk coastal town of Ernemouth, and the intrigue skips between the 80s and the present day, as Ward visits the town to dig up old skeletons. I like this kind of structure, but in this case the 80s section was a lot more compelling than the modern, more crime-y part. On the plus side the descriptions of Ward’s physical and mental suffering relating to his disability are convincing, and I liked the social worker character.
I was more interested in the parts set in the 80s, though even here I didn’t find the book worthy of the exorbitant praise heaped on it by the mainstream media. The evocations of Goth culture are disappointing, and I say that as a Goth myself, who grew up dowsed in the post-punk music of my older sibilings’ record collections. As I had feared from this music-themed interview with the author, the type of Goth she is selling is the dour, politically preoccupied, borderline punk end of the spectrum. The bands that loom the largest here (apart from the ineluctable Sisters of Mercy) are New Model Army, Killing Joke and, yes, Echo and the f*cking Bunnymen. None of these are actually bad bands – some are very good – but together they form a rather narrow slice of Goth culture, a slice that, in this book at least, is so studiously devoid of humour, playful imagination or flamboyance that it almost beggars belief. The camp side of things is only represented by a very brief nod to Soft Cell, and Heaven help you if Unsworth catches you approving of Madonna, who she views as a perverter of youthful innocence. I am prepared to accept that this anarcho-punk-by-another-name was the reality of what the Goth scene was like in places like the fictional (but all-too-recognizable) Ernemouth back in the 80s, but it doesn’t make for entertaining reading on the whole.
Generally speaking, I do love a good East Anglian setting. Unsworth’s version, however, only scores averagely in terms of vividness and originality. Having been personally scarred by the almost Lovecraftian horror of Cromer I had been bracing myself for something a lot more piquant. ( My dentist saw me reading this book in the waiting-room and, seeing the darkening wasteland on the cover, asked me if it was post-apocalyptic. No, I replied, it’s just set in Norfolk.) I can’t comment on the representation of small-town Norfolk language (my mother, who comes from that world, didn’t find the dialogue convincing, but she’s quite a bit older than Unsworth so that might account for it.)
Now for the strong points. The 80s parts of the book are enlivened by a couple of good characters among the many uninteresting ones drifting blackly around the godforsaken seaside town. Corinne herself is a really likable character with a decent amount of depth and some believable flaws, and her mother, a damaged, abusive, leather-knickered proto-Goth biker tart, is definitely a memorable depiction of female evil. In this book the female characters are more convincing than the men – even the clique of corrupt townsmen that constitutes the Bad Guys are very standard and forgettable. So if you like strong (though not necessarily nice, or sane) women characters, you will be well-served here, and Unsworth’s heart is in the right place with regard to social justice issues.
As a whole, the novel is certainly not what you’d call badly written, but it felt vague and aimless, and scores poorly as a whodunnit. It feels like a missed opportunity, and strangely, provides no real insight at all into something that non-Goths are often curious about: what makes teenagers become Goths? Corinne’s fondness for a New Model Army song is described in terms of a desire to hit back at the bastards in her life, but that’s hardly saying much, and you could have written the same scene using the music of almost any punk band. Still, I will probably give Unsworth at least one more go before writing her off, since she’s written a lot of noirish books of various kinds, some with paranormal themes.