Monday, April 19, 2021

Bestwick, A Different Kind of Light (2021)

Simon Bestwick, A Different Kind of Light. Black Shuck Books, 2021. Pp. 167. ISBN 978-1-913038-61-8. £7.99.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

If you are at all familiar with automobile racing, you will likely have heard of the Le Mans disaster, considered the worst catastrophe in the history of the sport. On the 11th of June 1955 during the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, driver Pierre Levegh rear-ended the car of fellow competitor, Lance Macklin. Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz flew into the air, over the bern, and smashed into pieces upon hitting the ground. The flaming debris flew into the packed grandstands, killing 84 people and injuring 120 more. The accident resulted in ground-breaking safety measures in the sport, and in Mercedes-Benz withdrawing from racing for the next 34 years. Newsreel footage exists showing both the crash itself and its aftermath, but much of it was too graphic to be released. Considering the available footage includes images of gendarmes extinguishing flames on Levegh’s smouldering corpse, one can only imagine how horrific the lost films might be.

It is upon this framework that Simon Bestwick’s A Different Kind of Light is built.

Old friends and on-and-off lovers Ashok and Danie have hit hard times. Working as freelance researchers and costume designers for films can be a fickle and difficult career even in the best of times. So when a wealthy acquaintance of Danie’s hires her to locate some lost newsreel footage, she jumps at the chance and calls Ash in to help her authenticate what she finds. That footage, of course, is of Le Mans. But what they end up finding, what has been captured on the 60 year old film, is much more than they could ever have anticipated.

Upon reading the blurb on the back cover, I felt an immediate connection with this little novella. I am one of those weird, morbid individuals who is fascinated by disasters. I have books about them, I read Wikipedia articles, I watch documentaries, and I will fully admit to searching YouTube for videos of the Station nightclub fire or the Hillsborough disaster (yes, graphic footage of both those occurrences exist; if you are of a sensitive disposition, please do not look for them). I knew about Le Mans. Even in the bloody and extensive annals of sporting disasters, the horror of it stands out. The hood of the shattered Mercedes-Benz reportedly flew through the air and “decapitated tightly-jammed spectators like a guillotine,” a fact that can make even a jaded sod like me wince. The fascination that footage like this can inspire is something that I understand on a very deep and personal level. And hand-in-hand with that fascination comes guilt; are we being disrespectful to those who suffered and died by continuing to peruse these images? Is there some part of us that gains satisfaction or enjoyment from their suffering? I’ve asked myself these questions before, and it’s refreshing to see Ash and Danie ask themselves the same (though the inclusion of the evil tycoon who literally masturbates to the videos of headless children was a little too on-the-nose).

I think that, at its core, is what A Different Kind of Light is about. When we observe these violent images of pain and death, do we consume them, or do they consume some part of us? Even if our observations are for the purposes of research, or innocent fascination, rather than voyeurism, can we see these things and expect to come away unchanged? By observing them and taking them into our memory, are we giving these ghosts liscence to haunt us?

These are the questions asked by A Different Kind of Light, and that might make it sound like a dry and rather introspective read. However, just as the Le Mans tragedy might make up the bones, the characters of Ash and Danie and their dysfunctional relationship is its beating heart. I don’t think anyone would disagree that this is a love story, and fortunately the characters are compelling enough to carry it. Perhaps my only critique is I feel like Danie can come off as unlikeable sometimes, given how she manipulates and repeatedly rejects Ash, despite obviously knowing his feelings for her. Don’t get me wrong, I liked her, and I feel her inner conflict comes through, but I can see how people could feel otherwise. Given the entire novella is from Ash’s point of view, it’s an easy trap to fall in. I wish we’d gotten a few scenes from her perspective to help balance it out a bit.

So we have an introspective look on the human fascination with the morbid, and a tragic romance. Is there anything I forgot to mention?

Oh, right, this is a horror story. And not just the existential horror of wondering if we are losing part of our humanity through the consumption of violent and disturbing imagery. I don’t want to get too much into the meat of the horror itself, but suffice it to say this is a story that will leave you reluctant to turn off the light. I am a seasoned horror fan, and I found myself jumping at strange shadows on my wall while reading this. The fact that the creatures themselves reminded me very badly of the shadow monsters I used to dream were haunting my room as a small child did not help in any, way, shape or form.

(As a side note, was I the only child who used to dream of shadowy, elongated, amorphous humanoids stalking through their room? This novella suggests I was not, which opens the door to a whole realm of possibilities that I’d rather not be considering at this hour of the night.)

I’m not sure that I’m making it clear, but I loved this book. I read it in the space of a couple of hours because I literally could not put it down. The story is compelling and moves at a swift and natural pace, the characters are compelling, and the descriptions of the disaster are haunting. It is a thematic cousin to stories like Revival and Hell House, stories about our fascination with death and our questions about what lies beyond… and whether we really want those questions to be answered.

This is not a book for the faint of heart, but if you’re anything like me, it is a book you will treasure. Make yourself a hot drink, wrap yourself in a warm blanket, and settle down with Ash and Danie as the movie starts to play.

No comments: