What does it take to hunt demons and monsters gone mad? A bigger monster, of course.
John Persons is a private investigator in modern day London. In the way of the best PIs in noir fiction, he’s caustic, bitter and jaded. But even he’s surprised when eleven year old Abel walks into his office with a loaded piggy bank and asks Persons to kill his stepfather, ‘because he’s a monster’. Though Persons a PI, not an assassin for hire, Abel is certain he’s the only man for the job, ‘because you’re a monster too’. What does Abel know about Persons that we don’t? A lot, it seems, because Persons isn’t an ordinary man, he’s something else, something older and much more frightening than man.
McKinsey, the stepfather in question, is a nasty piece of work. He, too, is more than what he seems to be, something Abel has picked up on and something Persons is repulsed by and can’t help but want to remove from the world. Both Persons and McKinsey are cosmic horror monsters living in human bodies, wearing them but barely contained within them. Person’s mostly manages to contain his inner eldritch, but McKinsey’s monstrosities ooze out, tainting those around him, those he abuses or uses or even works for. Even the foreman at his work place is being taken over by something vile when Persons finds him, ‘the thing in his neck is a blasphemy, a mutagenic outrage of flesh, an insult to man and beast and all of us that came crawling out of the ocean before.’
There’s plenty of straight up Lovecraftian nastiness at play here. When Persons reaches out to Abel to find out more about McKinsey, he smells ‘black and animal bile, copper and cold spring water, herbs and life of every dimension, almost enough to hide the stink of cut-open entrails, of muscles split and tethered to unimaginable dreams, a composition of offal and spoor and predator breath’. That, as he tells Abel, is ‘some bad shit’ indeed. But McKinsey isn’t the only horror to contend with—it’s never that easy in noir, never so simple to solve a case without some twisty intrigue to the plot. And the intrigue in Hammers on Bone goes far beyond what Persons imagined, with the presence permeating ‘through the contact, sex-sweat, black woods, cold mountains, and grave soil.’
Hammers on Bone is told entirely from Persons perspective, and Persons is a creature out of time. His entire narrative is akin to that of a classic hardboiled anti-hero. Imagine Sam Spade as the protagonist in “Call of Cthulhu” and set the story in contemporary London where the PI’s mark is watching Downton Abbey, and you’ll get the point. Khaw breaks the fourth wall too, on occasion, with Persons openly referencing of his noir style. He outright says he’s using the language of noir, straight up tells us what he’s aiming to be—it’s all very self-aware and humorous.
You wouldn’t necessarily think to mix noir with Lovecraft—or maybe you would. It works here, though of course it would have been less incongruous if not set in the modern world, but that’s half the charm. It could have worked just as well to have set this in 1930s, but then noir narratives aren’t limited to the golden age of detective fiction. Admittedly, noir Lovecraftian Croydon wasn’t very hard to suspend disbelief for either. The taut, noir narrative works well with Lovecraftian eldritch horror—both genres rage and seethe under the surface.
Ultimately, once Persons realises things are not as simple as he had thought them to be, he has to contend with greater horrors than those McKinsey and he hold. Khaw’s point is made clear by Persons: ‘I don’t remember who said it, but there’s an author out there who once wrote that we don’t need to kill our children’s monsters. Instead, what we need to do is show them that they can be killed.’
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.