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The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts by Gary William Murning

The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts by Gary MurningI actually read an earlier draft of Gary William Murning’s latest novel The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts last year (earning myself a kind mention in the acknowledgements into the bargain, cheers Gary!) and have been looking forward to getting my hands on the final published version ever since.

This marks another departure from the tone and subject matter of his previous novels, and perhaps straddles the boundary between Literary Fiction and Horror (but more on that matter below). It is certainly one more piece of evidence which demonstrates this writer’s breadth and adaptability.

Read on for a full review…

-- The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts by Gary Murning a Review by Des Greene --

Gary William Murning’s previous novels, although not always easy to categorise, do tend toward the Literary Fiction, rather than the genre, end of the spectrum. So on the face of it, The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts might stand out from his previous work a little, as it does take a rather big leap into the supernatural. I read an interesting article recently on this very subject. It rather eloquently argued the case, that those of us who tend towards reading Literary Fiction are often very snooty when it comes to genre fiction. Also, at the same time as proclaiming anything of any quality in genre fiction as “Crossover” or under the nebulous term “Classic” we conveniently neglect to highlight just how much of Literary Fiction has, not to put too fine a point on it, very little to recommend it. Now, at times, I have found myself as guilty of this as the next man — I typically dislike Science Fiction, but claim Kurt Vonnegut as “one of ours”, for example — but more recently, and partly as a result of reviewing books for this blog, I have found myself adopting a much more open mind, and so, would like to humbly apologise in advance for labelling this novel as neither Crossover, Horror or anything else at all other than a thoroughly engaging, and at times chilling, read.

So, now that we have that little matter resolved and agreed, what of the story itself? Our lead character is one Sonuel “Sonny” Moore, who shares the house he inherited from his parents, with his wife Ashley and their one little daughter Nadine Verity, aged three. Sonny is a writer of fiction, and from the evidence provided, some of it labours vainly to match the quality of that of his best friend Oliver, also a writer. As Sonny struggles with his latest novel, the journal of a mysterious woman is un-earthed from their back garden. This discovery appears to trigger the start of a series of increasingly bizarre events which begin to unfold around him, leaving both himself, and the reader, wondering what is in the mind, what is actually fiction, and what might be occurring that is altogether of a much more sinister nature. Whatever the truth of the matter — and to some extent it is left up to the reader to decide — the eventual outcome is undoubtedly deeply tragic and touching. I certainly found that it was the way in which Murning slowly developed this shifting and intangible smokescreen, around his backdrop of familial and extended familial relationships, that was at the core of this novel’s suspense and also, I believe, at the foundation of its real underlying quality.

To prove my earlier boast of keeping an open mind in my current reading selections, this is actually the second novel I’ve read recently with a ghostly element (the other, written by John Harding, is reviewed here), but whilst the first of these was a light and almost mischievous affair, The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts is altogether the darker and much more disturbing of the two. It also has an undeniably earthy and, at times, rather graphic sexual undercurrent, that may not prove to be to the taste of all of his existing reader-base. On the other hand, you certainly can’t be expected to please everyone, and it may well earn him a whole new band of loyal readers. Either way, you have been warned! Strong and inventive characterisation is usually at the forefront, driving Gary Murning’s fiction — he doesn’t really do cardboard cutout characters — and in that respect, this novel most definitely maintains his previous standards. It is hard not to smile at the playfulness of names such as Wee Mark for a friend’s little boy, or the equally apt Old Man Ned, but it is the character of Sonny that is central to the book. His writer’s mind is introspective and analytical, sometimes to an almost obsessive degree, and this leads the reader to wonder whether it was perhaps, in part, something of his character or mindset that actually unleashes the evil and allows it a medium for existence, whilst more practical and down to earth types might possibly be afflicted with lesser degrees of heartache and suffering. A slightly self-indulgent theme for a writer? Possibly, but in these hands, thought provoking and well executed nevertheless.

I’m more than a little tempted to say that this is Gary Murning’s best novel to date, but I always find myself saying that about each and every book he releases —  his best always seems to be the one I happen to be reading at the time. Perhaps it is simply enough to say that this is inescapably powerful and gripping stuff, and that Murning continues to challenge both himself and his readers and consistently succeeds in coming up with the goods. Readers who relish the ghostly and supernatural will find much to enjoy in this book, as will those of more literary preferences who are brave enough not to shy away from its subject matter. After all, a little of the other world never did the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or Mary Shelley any harm, did it?


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