Sunday, 25 February 2018

Hunter (2017) by John D. Ashton Review

By Sam Graham

About a year ago, Yorkshire expat, John D. Ashton wrote a novel. Enough people must have dug it, because he’s cranked out another, and that’s no easy feat, believe me. I happened to buy a copy, seeing as I thought his first outing, Crystal Castle was pretty decent. I was intrigued to see what the man had next and, considering how you’ve already read this far, you might as well carry on and find out what I thought.

To begin with, the most obvious point, the fantasy adventure romp of Crystal Castle has been swapped out for the ‘small town terrorised by the unknown’ affair. It reminded me of the 80’s pulp stuff that James Herbert and Shaun Hutson made a name for themselves off, but with more thought put into it than ‘giant [insert insect] eats people’. To that extent, Hunter classes itself as ‘a thriller with a supernatural twist’, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the twist is some out of nowhere, final act lark. The supernatural elements are peppered throughout the story from the beginning.

So one day, the eponymous Jack Hunter toddles into the unplaced town of Akesfeld. He makes friends with many of the townsfolk, or rather, he talks cryptically to them, doles out his opinions on the Human condition, then leaves the scene, allowing for some intrigued reactions from both the townsfolk and the reader. It’s pretty obvious from the start that Mr Hunter is the baddie. It’s so obvious in fact, he doesn’t even need a moustache to point it out, though I’m sure he himself would argue that he’s not evil; he’s just watering the seeds that are already planted. It’s the sort of defence someone like Charles Manson would go for. Hell, I’d try it. Why not?

Through Jack we meet the roster of townsfolk. Dean Naysmith, local scumbag who inexorably does better off than anyone else in town, gaslighter to his wife and all-round shithead. Sandy, who runs the type of independent nick-nack shop that never stays open for long thanks to the doomed economy and people’s penchant for mass-production. She has two employees who don’t get on also, which allows for some childish banter between the two. Then there’s James: pub landlord extraordinaire. Tom: My Dad local pisshead. Claire: local artist and old friend of the story’s second main protagonist, John Fowler: freelance susser-of-outs, caught up in the right place at the wrong time. He reminds me somewhat of Tom Atkins’ character in Halloween 3. He’s the everyman hero of 70’s and 80’s pulp fiction. He knows what’s going on but nobody believes him until it’s too late. The kind of guy who can down a pint in one, make love like none other, and punch out those snivelling government pencil pushers all in an afternoon’s work.

Here, have a picture of Tom Atkins in Halloween 3.

The story takes a few chapters to get going as we’re introduced to the roster one by one, then people start turning up dead. Thankfully, it doesn’t mess around. All the characters that die had recently been in contact with Hunter. Coincidence? Well, no not really. I pretty much told you a few paragraphs ago. But I don’t want to tell you any more of the story than that, or what would be the point in you reading it?

Straight away you can tell this story was a larger task for Ashton than that of Crystal Castle. It has more characters that don’t always share the same scenes in a more complex geography. With Crystal Castle, the main characters were rarely apart, all travelling on the same path. Separating characters makes it harder to keep continuity between them, especially when they all interact with each other separately, but Ashton did a good job of staging them and managing them.

As for the supernatural element Ashton talks about, it’s handled pretty well. It’s not so vague that you wonder if you really saw it, and it doesn’t go full blown paranormal at the end either. It litters in bits here and there, giving you just enough to pique your interest without blue balling you.

The story paces well. It doesn’t rush, but doesn’t slouch either. The tension and the chaos ramps up at a steady rate and even the ending is pretty satisfying. I say this specifically, because if there’s one thing I hate in any story, it’s an ending where everything is hunky-dory and the whole plot is wrapped up in a nice little bow. Endings are best when they’re either bittersweet, open to interpretation, or when everything is screwed.

Story and pacing aside, there are a few issues I had with the narrative. All in all it’s an improvement on Crystal Castle, but there are some points that are a bit jarring and take you out of the scene. At one point a guy is walking through a corridor and looking at the mysterious paintings. That’s fine in itself, but the whole scene before it already built up a sense of mystery, so I didn’t need to be told that these paintings were mysterious. I already felt it, because I was already shown it. There’s also a part where a woman looks at herself, at her frumpy clothes, and thinks she has that ‘old fashioned, stereotypical librarian’ look about her.

This might be a personal thing, but I don’t like the use of the word ‘stereotype’. Reason being, the stereotyping is done automatically. If I say “Do you know that guy who always dresses like an English teacher?”, then you already have an image in your head. You’ll picture a lanky guy, maybe with glasses, tweed blazer, leather elbow patches, probably reads The Guardian. The stereotype is already there. People think in stereotypes (regardless how oh-so open-minded they tell you they are). And thirdly there’s a long section towards the end when the characters are racing against time and Fowler stops to preach his opinions on religion. While I do mostly agree with every word he said, it was a bit out of the blue. It took me right out of the story. I’m fine with artists using their work as vehicles for their opinions, it’s inherent in the very nature of art, but this was a bit jarring, because the story isn’t centred on this topic.

These are just small instances however and didn’t put me off from the story and the narrative as a whole. If I had to sum up the narrative I’d say it was refreshingly simple. Ashton doesn’t include any fancy, thesaurus-born words just to make him sound clever. He just tells you the story, which is a trait I appreciate.

As in Crystal Castle, where Gabriel turned out to be the stand-out character, so too is Jack Hunter in this one. He’s the abnormal in a room full of normal. He’s outspoken and will say what he pleases, regardless of the consequences. In real life there are lots of people like this who just say things to raise ire in people, then, when people get mad at their inflammatory statements, claim that there are too many snowflakes in the world that can’t handle them being a massive tosser.

This trait is usually reserved for bitter old men and edgy teenagers on 4Chan who like to tout crap like the Holocaust didn’t happen and that the EU it evil, because it make companies shell out for ladders with 3 legs rather than two to better function in this 3-dimensional world we live in. Hunter isn’t one of these people though. He’s the person those social pariahs believe themselves to be. Hunter actually has something to say. He sees the hypocrisy in people and he points it out to them with the grace of a mallet. He’s eloquent and has a certain charisma, and while his musings on the Human condition don’t go the full Lord Henry Wotton (The Picture of Dorian Gray), they’re entertaining enough to read. He drops some gems without letting himself get too pompous.

All in all, Hunter is a solid story with an ending that I never saw coming. The characters are all well-rounded, the setting is good, it keeps you guessing about Hunter’s true intentions, and when the action does get going, it's balls to the wall hot poker to the tit (read the book).

John D. Ashton.
Buy the book here

Enjoyed this piece? Then 'like' The Crusades of A Critic on Facebook. Sam also has a novel which can currently be viewed here, and features ten times the swears, snarc, and rage of the above piece.