As if getting your head around the scale and complexity of one universe wasn’t enough this cosmic thriller is set in two, with a grey tunnel of a portal that appears in such places as the CERN particle accelerator linking both ‘verses. And if you find the idea that the Earth might be a farm and that we are someone else’s property – or indeed food items – a tad unsettling then this novel might keep you up at nights, pondering such dread and unpalatable possibilities.
Brilliant French scientist Céline Dubois is one of a group of top scientists who take the extraordinary journey – which is prefaced by the appearance of ‘ghosts’ and spinning balls of lightning in the underground tunnels and laboratory space – but in her case, she takes a detour into an ‘Arizony’ that isn’t quite Arizona. Things are out of kilter and a new primitive order of life seems to prevail. Here she encounters the brutal, predatory and deformed Frank and his leather-skinned and grubby harem of wives – Inez, Mary Lou and Justina. This weird commune, stranded in parched lands, seemingly survive on a diet of desert lizards and dead antelopes – so she doesn’t exactly want to stay for the food she escapes their collective clutches by becoming herself a murderer, following an appalling attack on her.
As the strapline of the cover proclaims ‘Discover unimaginable horror behind the shadow play of supposed reality.’ In this section of the book, at least the reality itself is bloody and bloodily awful.
Tracked across desert wastes by one or more of Frank’s feral women, not to mention Frank’s dog Carlo with its bear-trap jaws, Céline is finally rescued in the nick of time by a search party that transports her to a future-age San Francisco, where the Golden Gate bridge is a welcome sight but turns out to be a tattered affair:
“She stared for a few moments and then realised – the coating of International Orange was patchy. In various places there were areas where the grey undercoat, or perhaps the metal itself, was showing through. Great leprous patches. Patches like an awful skin disease.”
The city streets, meanwhile are full of deformed beggars and penitents. Here Céline meets the first of a race of hybrid organisms – part biological, part organic – and is told about the presiding presence of Kewfor, the commanding intelligence which has brought her here. Her task, it transpires is to defeat the mysterious hran, who enjoy nothing more than feasting on a good human. And so this hugely ambitious scientist who dreams of prizes and star turns at conferences finds herself dreaming about simply staying alive.
In another, or the other universe Céline is re-united with her scientist colleagues, including her lover Hilda Krause and they begin to follow Kewfor’s orders which in the main consist of taking measurements so that he can shunt ginormous amounts of energy down the portal, thus annihilating the dreaded hran.
But this wouldn’t be a thriller if there weren’t a few extra and serious obstacles to surmount, not least a small legion of three-eyed creatures called Fighters, some armed with massive, sickle-shaped claws like something straight out of video-game central casting. So plenty of fights ensue, complete with whirling blades and gouts of blood. A group of cerebral physicists – equipped for working out long equations about very small things – seem like no match for the Fighters, and soon there are some loose limbs lying around the place and the amputee count begins to rack up.
Céline finds herself unexpectedly teamed up with Marius, a lascivious and outsize Norwegian, who adds some Viking strength to her intellectual cunning and together they take on not only the Fighters but also the Thinkers who are clearly more cerebral opponents, not to mention having to traverse dark pits filled with innumerable phosphorescent worms and avoid the power surges of rolling gravity waves, even as the clock ticks inexorably down to the book’s explosive denouement.
‘Hideous Night’ is a madcap, helter-skelter of a trans-universal adventure, full of comic-book pace and a vivid sense of outrageous possibilities. Mixing plausible futures with the implausible physics of quantum computers, excimer lasers, thorium fission reactors and xenobots (to my mind, at least, but then I was thrown out of ‘O’ level physics for misbehaviour.) This latest novel describing an end-of-days scenario is another solid, entertaining and engaging attempt by Martyn Vaughan to push at boundaries, tilt at windmills and take his own writing a little bit further, if the width of a second universe can in any sense be considered as a little bit further. If ever you thought scientists were sedate and dry and completely averse to adventure think again.
Hideous Night is published by Cambria Books and can be bought here.