Sunday, December 21, 2014

Horror Suspense: THE VOICES, F. R. Tallis

Psychologist and long-time author Frank Tallis crafts suspense crime fiction in which the twists and power of the mind compel both the characters and the plots -- and he does it well. His list of award nominations overflows the space allocated. Because he is British, it's almost irresistible to compare his work with that other British expert in psychological suspense, Ruth Rendell, who writes this genre under her other name, Barbara Vine.

In the same way, Tallis sets his horror fiction, with its strong thread of the paranormal, under the nom de plume F. R. Tallis. Dark, frightening, and with maximum risk of life and sanity, his new book THE VOICES proposes a classic haunted house frame, this time for a young composer of film soundtracks, Christopher Norton, and his wife and toddler daughter. And the first sign of something "extra" in their newly rehabilitated Victorian home is the added sounds persisting on the baby monitor, as if something were in the bedroom with young Faye. And Christopher, being a sound engineer, records them on his studio equipment and, sensibly, shares his newly made tape with a friend:
 "What are you suggesting?" Christopher asked.

The engineer studied the smoke rising from his cigarette. "I don't think these voices are radio transmissions."

"Then what are they?"

"I don't know, but ..."

"But what?"

"You'll just say I smoke too much Mary Jane."

"If you think you know what's going on, say."

"I don't know what's going on. Not really. It's just a thought."

"Tell me."

"I don't think they're transmissions. I think they're communications."

The two men looked at each other and the quiet seemed to congeal around them.
Cleverly, Tallis sets this tale of increasing terror in 1975-1976, well before widespread digital technology can take on a role in the exploration of what's taking place. The changes that push the book's horror side are internal: Christopher's growing obsession with recording what he believes are spirit voices -- his wife Laura's crumbling personality -- and the reader's painful awareness that little Faye is increasingly unsafe in the house and with these parents.

I'm a mom and have a couple of wee grandsons who now occupy the "worry zone" of my mind and heart; this book terrified me. That said, Tallis is a master of his craft, and every twist, every drawn-out moment of risk and threat, every terrible unavoidable step toward disaster is immaculately scripted.

If you can't get enough Stephen King or Dave Zeltserman to feed your taste for psychological suspense, THE VOICES (and the two earlier F. R. Tallis titles) should zip onto your shelf this season. And if you're collecting Barbara Vine among your British crime fiction, THE VOICES should set right next to her books. We all have a sense of what's creepy; Tallis grabs it, pins it to the pages, and provides the dread and clenched stomach that mark a gifted work of crime horror.

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