In something of a September trend—see also Patrick Ness’s phenomenal new novel—Saxon’s Bane begins with the ostensible death of its central character, in this case caused by a combination of dangerous driving and the sudden appearance of a giant stag.
His first reaction was panic. The second was rejection. This isn’t happening, this isn’t real. But the verge still punched them nose-up into the air in a detonation of wheels and suspension, making the CD skip as they launched. Reality was a momentary hiccup in a digital scream. […] His final reaction was acceptance. Just before they hit, Fergus knew that the moment was real, that this was the instant of his extinction. And with that knowledge came three heartbeats of calm in which a great sadness dragged him downwards, a sadness so profound it was beyond weeping.
But Fergus doesn’t die… though he will wish he had in the worst moments of the months to come. Instead, he teeters on the edge of the abyss until rescue arrives an interminable time after the appalling accident. The unspeakable things he sees and hears as his sanity slips will haunt him until the day the reaper does come a-calling.
His mate and colleague Kate isn’t so lucky. As the driver that day she bore the brunt of the awful trauma with which Saxon’s Bane starts, having gone on long before the sirens’ song. But this isn’t news to our shellshocked survivor. He remembers the point at which her screams stopped:
At some deep, unconscious level Fergus knew that Kate was dead, long before they told him, but her death was part of the plot of this fiction world into which he had woken. You go to work one morning and you wake up in a living nightmare of fevered wrongness where you’re weighed down by plaster casts and trapped in a spider’s web of traction weights, a world of ritual indignity where you can’t even piss without help.
When Fergus is finally released from this ritual indignity—complete with crutches and under doctor’s orders to take it easy for a time—he rushes his recovery to return to work; to face the pain, as he puts it. A few disastrous days later, it couldn’t be clearer that Fergus is far from fit.
Nor is his temperament what it was. The hectic pace and take-no-prisoners pressure of his position leaves him feeling lost. The boss’s dismissive description of Kate as “a key sales resource” is the final straw for Fergus. He storms out of his job, and comes—as if called—to the town where the accident happened.
Representative of little Britain at both its best and its worst, Allingley is an pitch-perfect setting for the unsettling tale Geoffrey Gudgion goes on to tell:
The landscape swelled as if some vast subterranean body had inhaled, tightening the earth over its curves. The land was female, fecund, as English as nut-brown ale, and rich with birdsong. No hum of equipment, no engine noise, just the dawn chorus and, at the edge of hearing, a sound that might have been singing.
It’s a beautiful town, to be sure—if a little rough around the edges—and furthermore, Fergus finds a few friendly faces within the close-knit rural community. But though there are those folks who welcome him wholeheartedly, like Eadlin, a witchy young woman who runs the riding school and offers Fergus a gentle job maintaining the stables, others object—some strenuously—to an outsider in their insular midst. Foremost amongst this latter lot is the landlord of the Green Man; Jake Herne also happens to be Eadlin’s ex, and he’s intensely envious of their newfound friendship.
He needn’t be, for Fergus’s affections are developing in a different direction. Claire Harvey is another incomer to Allingley: an archaeologist who during a routine dig discovers what’s called a bog body—in this case a perfectly preserved seventh-century Saxon with a distinctive stag tattoo. Curiously, this happens right around the time of Fergus’s car crash, which was caused, you’ll recall, by the sight of the same unlikely animal. Somehow, the two events seem to be connected, and in the course of exploring these potential parallels, Claire and Fergus—a pair of strangers in a strange land—grow close. But of course.
You mustn’t mistake me: Saxon’s Bane is pretty great—another novel to add to the resurgent British horror genre, excavated of late by the likes of Alison Littlewood, Tom Fletcher and Adam Nevill—but I’m afraid I simply wasn’t convinced by the romantic relationship between its central characters. I guess it gives them a personal stake in the more ancient affairs that figure into Geoffrey Gudgion’s first novel, yet though both Claire and Fergus are independently well rendered, together they just don’t gel well.
My only other notable niggle is with the Allingley idiom. On the one hand I’m glad the author didn’t overdo it; on the other, simply inserting a lot of “likes” into the dialogue doesn’t do justice to the beautiful burr and purr of the local locution I gather Gudgion’s going for.
Fortunately, these problems pale in comparison to all that Gudgion does pull off. The gathering narrative is greatly gripping and the overall atmosphere absolutely harrowing. These elements are both bolstered by a deftly developed sense of threat from the past and the present, which come together to excellent effect in a bona fide worlds-collide conclusion. I’d also like to applaud the author for his refreshingly accepting attitude to the different shades of faith in the modern day, no one of which is singled out for derision or held up as some shining standard.
On his blog, Geoffrey Gudgion describes himself as a writer of contemporary fiction grounded in the traditions of real human history, a self-stated mandate he very much makes good on in this sure-footed debut. Certainly, Saxon’s Bane makes for a damn fine start down that fascinating track. It’s a terrific thriller made singular by its interaction with the past, and I’d recommend it to anyone with a hankering for solid historical horror.
Saxon’s Bane is available now from Solaris.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.