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Tabula Rasa

Skin Deep

by Gary Kemble, Echo Publishing, 2015

Reviewed by Kyla Ward, 2013

"But then after the war... ah, I dunno, war just teaches you the real meaning of fear."

Harry Hendricks is a journalist who has never been near a war. The closest he's come was when his expose of corruption in Brisbane city was sabotaged, leaving his career in tatters. But he's getting an education all the same and his own skin is the whiteboard. In this thoroughly contemporary ghost story, you can forget about haunted houses: as Harry soon realises, he's contending with a haunted body.

"Harry moaned. The top third of his back was covered in blood. In some places deep red, in others purple and black as it started to dry. There was a tattoo underneath, but he couldn't see it through the blood...

...He wasn't doing this to himself. He knew that now. So someone or something was doing it to him."

Discovering the who and why is no straightforward task. Harry finds himself tracing a conspiracy from Afghanistan to Canberra, from motorcycle gangs to property developers, and the situation escalates quickly. Harry is no coward, but the tattoos and the alien memories they anchor expose him to a different kind of masculinity than his own, presenting a direct challenge to his already battered ego. In many ways, the real battle is for the journalist to trust in his own skills and cling to his own values in the face of ever-increasing opposition.

Brisbane's body is haunted too. Heritage sites such as the old water tower tattoo the landscape with meanings opportunistic development can only wish to erase. Community groups and local newspapers mount their defence against big money and scurrilous tactics. This battle, familiar to the residents of any Australian city, plays out beside the other, and gives the novel its rich and particular texture. Gary Kemble, once of Brisbane and still a journalist, has constructed his fiction on a foundation of recent events. It's just that, in his universe, things didn't play out in quite the same way. I have it on good authority, for instance, that Mr Kemble is not a near-alcoholic whose girlfriend has just left him.

The washed-up journalist may be a trope of the horror and crime genres, but Harry proves a reliable guide to the terrain. He comes up with practical ideas, like how to find a genuine psychic (one that doesn't do readings) and uses both his credentials and his contacts creatively. He does his research and saves his work in multiple places. As a reader, I found his realisations closely paced my own.

Equally, not many ghost stories have this kind of immediacy, or tactility. No strange frissons or fleeting shadows here! It's all blood, drained batteries and murderous rage, stinking of bourbon in the subtropical humidity. Once Harry discovers Jess, an insurance officer who turns out to be intrinsic to the old horror, there is lust as well. "This magic," an especially creative contact tells him, "is as old as the mountains themselves and, like the mountains, eternal." The mythology Kemble uses is, if not new, then viscerally fresh.

At least Harry and Jess are not alone as the situation spins ever more out of control. Kemble has an eye for characterisation and creates rapid and entertaining portraits of the many and varied people in their orbit. Sandy the psychic; Fred, the septuagenarian conspiracy monger; up-and-coming journalist Christine; even Harry's ex all have their place and their own take on things. I especially enjoyed Harry's time with Chook, sergeant of arms for the Dead Ringers MC, but it's amazing how many of the others have tattoos.

And here, a disclaimer I have never had to make before now. Despite the fact that one of these characters is named "Kyla", I had nothing to do with the writing of this book and have, in addition, no ink. However, I cannot speak as to the unfortunate fate of one John Birmingham.

The crisis evolves rapidly but naturally from Harry's endeavours, and the proactive efforts of Jess. The climax draws everything together, including a wide selection of those other characters. Some were not the ones I was expecting. Harry is surprised himself along the way, at just who turns out to be helpful, a reliable ally, and an utter idiot (although I grant that last was in character, I did think it a little glib). But the vital thing, for both Harry and the book as a whole, is that friendship proves to be as real, at least, as ghosts. Love may also be real, but eternal love? Love that lasts beyond death? That is perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.

All in all, Skin Deep is a stylish, solidly-plotted novel that sets an energetic pace. It is a fine contribution to the ongoing effort to inscribe Australian cities on the dark map of the world.


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