Lie of the Land
Michael F. Russell
Polygon, 304 pages
Review by Ian Hunter
I suppose horror movies have a set of rules that are there to be broken, a list that would be don’ts for people who don’t live on the big screen or on the printed page or tablet screen. Don’t go down into the cellar, don’t go up into the attic, don’t answer the phone, don’t investigate that noise. One of the good things about Michael F. Russell’s Lie of the Land is that his hero, investigative journalist Carl Shewan, has doggedly followed a lead and managed to get out of Glasgow to reach the sleepy little coastal fishing village of Inverlair, a place as far removed from the typical horror destinations as you can imagine; a place he really did want to get to, and that very action has saved his life. That’s one of two major good things, the other is the poor mobile phone reception in Inverlair, which also saves his life. This was something that I read with a wry smile as I holiday on the East Coast of Scotland every year and know first hand how difficult it is to get a signal.
Lie of the Land gives us a slightly Orwellian alternative future where the State watches all and surveillance is everywhere. All for our good, of course, for this is a world where the ecological disaster known as ‘white rust’ has happened and people have to be controlled—where they can go is restricted, and when they can do things is also restricted thanks to curfews. For Carl Shewan it can’t get any worse, or so it seems, but State control is about to up a gear with the introduction of the new SCOPE super-surveillance system. Carl has heard things, snippets of bad news that are being concealed and the only way to find out for sure is to travel north out of Glasgow—which will be no mean feat in itself. To meet his informant he heads north to Inverlair because it is a ‘notspot’—out of range of the mobile phone masts and transmitters.
But disaster strikes, big time (and in a way that slightly reminded me of the nano-technology gone wrong that spells the end of the world in James Lovegrove’s Shall Inherit from the collection Solaris Rising 2) but fortunately Shewan is in the right place at the wrong time because when he is in Inverlair SCOPE gets activated and it has a crucial flaw, creating a brain wave like the one associated with deep sleep. Soon everyone within its range goes into a deep sleep from which they never wake up. Those in Inverlair occupy their own ‘notspot’ and are safe, yet if they head out of the village and start getting a signal on their phone their noses will start to bleed, they will get one killer of a headache and then they will meet that big sleep.
Yes, it’s the end of the world but not as you know it. Perhaps, more like a ‘soft apocalypse’ to borrow a phrase by Will McIntosh, or an ‘uncosy catastrophe’ to warp one by Brian Aldiss. The world ends not by alien invasion, meteor strike, or beneath the clawing hands and tearing teeth of the zombie hordes but by a technological glitch. Carl’s world contracts to a place the size of the village and its beautiful surroundings Seemingly Russell chose the name Inverlair after the real Inverlair Lodge near Inverness where spies were ‘parked’ following the second world war. Who knows, maybe Patrick McGoohan heard about the place and went on to devise another claustrophobic village of his own.
Lie of the Land is greater than the sum of its possible parts, and those parts might be 1984, or Lord of the Flies, even Under the Dome and certainly, with its pace and visual sense of location and landscape I was reminded of the first half of the novel One written by that poet of horror, Conrad Williams. Perhaps, there is no way not to mention the work of Iain Banks, in particular A Song of Stone. For some this will not be an easy read, though it is told in a straightforward style (reminiscent of so many reporters-turned-authors) except when Shewan encounters the natural world—that’s when the prose really comes alive. The story doesn’t unfold in a linear fashion, and there are times when there was a viewpoint switch that was slightly clunky, but Russell keeps us in a ‘need to know’ mode with a couple of cards up his sleeve even when we are following Shewan. He isn’t a particularly likeable character: he’s a bit of a rebel and a bit of a boozer. He’s an old-fashioned journalist fighting against the system who finds himself the outsider—trapped in Inverlair as things break down, become hard and turn sour as a new order is established.
I’ve often wondered what happened to the protagonists in some of my favourite books. To Don Wanderley in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story as he staggers away from a beach with a bloody hand; to Ben Mears and Mark Petrie as they light a fire in Salem’s Lot; and to Carl Marsalis in Richard Calder’s Black Man as he walks into the sun. To that list I can add the characters from Russell’s Lie of the Land who are about to… to what? Well, read the book and like me, wonder what happened next. If a book can make you do that, then it’s done part of its job, hasn’t it?
This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 2.