We begin with a bizarre death scene: Johnny Knox, a lonely teenager with a talent for drawing, is discovered one morning, dressed in his pyjamas, lying in his driveway, without a mark on him. Suicide, natural causes, or murder? No one knows. Classmate Steve Norton gets the first clue when leafing through Johnny’s art folder, where he discovers a portrait of a humanoid reptilian creature. Nothing strange in that; Johnny had a penchant for fantasy. Except this isn’t the first time Steve has seen the creature. The first time was in reality, when it was on his doorstep trying to get in and kill him. Clearly, Steve isn’t the only one who’s had an encounter with this beast. Where did the creature come from? What’s its purpose? Can it be stopped? Steve’s next move is to photocopy Johnny’s drawing and put it on the school’s noticeboard with his phone number .. and wait to see what happens.
Mind’s Eye is told from the perspective of Steve Norton as an adult looking back on his school days. It begins with a catchy hook: Fifteen years ago, the town of Portstewart was the scene of a series of strange deaths … Only three people knew the whole story of what really happened. I am one of those three. The author does a magnificent job capturing what it felt like to be sixteen, in particular how horny we were! Steve is tossed to and fro between his commitment to his girlfriend and his desire for other girls. At times, he seems like a cheating rat, but he never quite gets as far as actual cheating; it’s all in the intent. Henry handles the character so well that you feel empathy rather than contempt. I remember myself as a boy of semi-integrity, with a fairly noble heart, at the mercy of my sex drive. Steve Norton is like that. He reminds me of myself, and is the sort of friend I would have liked to have had. The sexual content also injects a great deal of light-hearted humour into the book, and never seems in bad taste.
The book is set in the real town of Portstewart, Northern Ireland, circa 1989, which happens to be the very year that I was sixteen. As such, it allowed me to experience a heart-warming time capsule that readers of other ages might miss. Bands like Def Leppard and Bon Jovi get talked about, as well as movies like Rambo, and such fashions as shell suits and headbands. At one point in the novel, a teacher responds to Steve’s headband with the remark, “You look like a bloody Comanche!” For some reason, this cracked me up more than any other line in the book; there was just something so perfectly Northern Irish about it. One slight mis-step that I found funny was the mention of the BBC microcomputer as state-of-the-art. Dude, 1989 was the era of the Commodore Amiga versus Atari ST war!
School life is quite dramatic in Mind’s Eye. There are a lot of sexual shennanigans and bullying going on. Class divisions are quite prevalent, with jocks and cheerleader types at the top, lording it over the common folk. This is the only aspect that didn’t ring true to life in Northern Ireland – at least in my neck of the woods. But I don’t want that to read like a criticism. Henry simply chose to portray school life in a fashion that seems more American (no offense to the Americans!). And it works just fine. If anything, it feels like the literary form of one of those teen horror flicks that emerge from the US every once in a while. In fact, I’ll go further: it feels like everything you wish those teen horror flicks were. Let’s face it, there are a lot of crappy teen flicks out there. Mind’s Eye would make a great one.
I haven’t said a great deal about the supernatural side of the story. That’s on purpose. I don’t want to spoil too much. The book is 233 pages long, divided into ten fairly evenly spaced chapters, each one a month in the life of Steve Norton. I found myself looking forward to each chapter, as each carried the story to somewhere new and unexpected; there was never a dull moment, and pacing was spot-on. What you get is a thoroughly enjoyable B-movie-esque monster mystery that is both serious and funny, filled with believable characters.
The novel has been self-published by the author. Grammar and punctuation (that ol’ self-publishing headache) are close to professional, needing just a little more work. No one but a hawkeye grammar-hound like me will spot anything amiss! I will, however, slap Henry’s wrist on the amateurish cover art. This also affords me an opportunity to ask you, dear reader, to overlook such considerations and get stuck into a great read. Someday, I’ll put together an official top ten list of self-published fiction that I’ve read. I can tell you right now, though, that this one occupies the number two slot. In fact, I had a lot more fun with this than with many a Stephen King novel. And if that doesn’t validate self-publishing, I don’t know what does.
Mind’s Eye is Philip Henry’s second novel. The first is Vampire Dawn, also reviewed here (a sequel, Vampire Twilight, is due later this year). Both books can be purchased through www.philiphenry.com (take note that the book is cheaper at Diggory Press – the author’s POD publisher, than at Amazon).