Mind’s Eye by Philip Henry

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).

Vampire Dawn by Philip Henry

I seem to have a problem with comic novels. I read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and thought, ho-hum. I tried Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind and I yawned. Arguably the latter isn’t Pratchett’s most revered work, but Hitchhiker’s – it’s hailed as a sci-fi humour classic. What’s wrong with me?! The thing is, how can I then pick up Vampire Dawn by Philip Henry (whoever he is!) and get a real kick out of the book’s humour? Go figure. Actually it might have something to do with the fact that both Henry and I are from Northern Ireland; I’m told we’ve got a particular sense of humour over here.

Vampire Dawn is Philip Henry’s first novel. It’s the story of a man called Christian Warke, whose job as a vampire hunter for “The Ministry” ends up putting his wife too much danger. When she gets drained by a vamp, Christian vows to track down and execute the one responsible. Many years later, Christian is a burnt out shell of a man, dependent on copious amounts of alcohol to get him through the day. But he’s finally catching up with Xavier, the vampire he has sworn to kill. Xavier, on the other hand, has his own story to tell about what happened all those years ago.

I like the vampire mythology Henry has created. It has a light-heartedness about it that is probably derived from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without all the ridiculous teen-speak (you know, words like “icky” and “gooey” and “thingy”). There’s even a superpowered female Slayer in the novel, but thankfully she doesn’t take the spotlight. And the similarities end there. The vampire hunters in this novel are not superhuman, but a very ordinary bunch of people who belong to an organisation called The Ministry, something more akin to the FBI than Buffy and her loyal chums.

The first chapter of the novel concerns a young couple parked in a car at night. Before they get predicably bitten, Henry treats us to a series of jokes derived from Queen songs lyrics, as the young man attempts to flatter his girlfriend. Anyone remember “Fat-bottomed girls, they make the rocking world go round”? You can imagine how well that one would go down with a girl. Henry has a genuine talent for telling a good joke, and you’ll find plenty of them scattered throughout the novel. The story also gets very serious in places, particularly near in the end, in a chapter called “Heroes & Monsters,” where there are some jaw-droppingly unpredicatable moments.

Henry’s skill at bringing characters to life is fair – not good enough for me to care greatly about what happened to them, but they’re certainly not cardboard either. At times the good guys acted in such a way as to make me dislike them, e.g. Christian with his drink-driving, toasting his bottle of whisky to a passing police officer and then using his Ministry credentials to bully his way out of a fine. “Well, you see,” he later says to the girl in the passenger seat, “there’s one set of rules for the rest of the world, and one set for me.” It funny and it’s macho-cool, but it harms the reader’s attachment to the character. It’s the same with all the swearing. I can live with it when the author is striving for realism, but not when it just there to sound cool. Much as I enjoyed reading this novel, the characters left me with a slight bad taste in my mouth.

Early on in the novel, Henry introduces a spiritual element: the need to restore a proper “balance of good and evil” to the world. I thought this was illogical and hokey, and I feared it was going to kill the story, but it stays very much in the background, and could even have been snipped right out. Thankfully the story takes some unexpected turns and keeps the reader on his toes, never sure what to expect. Best of all, I found my interest level gaining the further I got into the story. Too often I’ve got halfway through a novel and found myself running out of steam, persevering with a story that has lost its momentum. Henry is a very capable story-teller for a first timer.

The Curse of the Small Publisher unfortunately rears its head with this novel. Maybe it’s too petty to mention but I’ve noticed in general that small publishers do not proof read their books properly. It bugs me because two readers with a red pen each at the pre-press stage is all it would have taken for Black Death Books to catch 99% of the typos. Thankfully there’s aren’t many, and anyone who reads for enjoyment (which is the only way to read) can forgive it.

This one’s definitely for those who prefer Joss Whedon to Bram Stoker. It’s a worthy first novel, and Philip Henry is one to watch.