Review by James K. Nelson
May 22, 2017
Hammers on Bone is a remarkably skillful balancing act between genre-fiction playfulness and pit-of-the-stomach horror. This starts to become clear right away; the cover presents a terrifically cool retro image that embodies the pulpy influences, but soon you hit that devastating dedication from the author, which starts: “To all the monsters hiding in this world, I hope the children will skin you alive…”
The book adopts the form and (mostly) the tone of a good old-fashioned hardboiled pulp story, and if you’re interested in a quick, fun, hardboiled-Lovecraftian horror genre mashup, you’ll find plenty to like here. I found myself smiling a great deal, and the fact that this tough-talking, idiom spewing, private dick is actually wandering around today’s London lends a nicely absurd air to the entire proceedings.
But that’s not at all the whole story. For all the fun Khaw is having, the deadly serious subject matter is nonetheless treated as something real and raw, and if this realness is sometimes backgrounded, it’s never completely absent, and the emotional rawness comes through powerfully in several key passages.
The book sets the story in motion right away with a meeting between the first-person protagonist, John Persons, P.I., and his prospective client, a young boy who wants Mr. Persons’ services to be protected from his stepfather, an abusive...monster? It’s clear right away that “monster” is only partially metaphorical here. Less clear to the reader is what exactly is going on with this private investigator - why is this boy so certain he’s the right person for this case? What are these voices that are bubbling up in his head? Why is his manner and vocabulary so out of place, and out of time, with the setting? Persons somewhat reluctantly takes up the case, and we follow his narration through many of the usual motions of the hardboiled detective genre, meeting dames and confronting toughs and sitting through late-night stake outs, but it isn’t long before we know we’re in much deeper trouble than your usual domestic turmoil.
Khaw certainly has a lot of fun working within genre tropes (I admit to looking up some of the narrator’s more colorful and obscure lingo), but she never lets this become merely a clever exercise in genre mash-up. She also throws in clever and abrupt stylistic flourishes that keep the reader more than a little unsettled in the strange flow of events, and she never lets the situation’s true horrors (of both the cosmic and personal varieties) be forgotten.
This is my first exposure to Khaw’s writing, and this novella certainly suggests that she’s a terrific young voice in weird fiction. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of her work, and I’m glad to see that a second book centered on John Persons, P.I. is on the way. Hammers on Bone is highly recommended.