“Scouse Gothic” is a fun, if uneven read, strong on originality, dialogue and characters but sometimes a little under-written in its descriptions and not entirely satisfying in its structure.
The pull of the novel for me was that it was a vampire story set in contemporary Liverpool, a city that I know well. I recognised every building in “Scouse Gothic” and enjoyed seeing Ian McKinney coat them with a plausible gothic veneer.
McKinney makes Liverpool a character in the novel. In an early chapter, two (very) long-term residents try to sum up Liverpool in a way that shows McKinney’s affection for the place (and explains the subtitle of the novel):
‘Carl Jung called Liverpool ‘the pool of life’,’ she said.
´What did he mean by that?’
´Who knows, babe. He was a Swiss psychologist so your guess is as good as mine.’
´What’s your guess then?’
´Well, I think he meant that it’s everything in one place, good, bad, rich and poor. Just like a pan of scouse —throw everything in together, then heat it up, and what you get is something unique.’
One of the vampires lives in a modern apartment building next to Chavasse Park, in the heart of Liverpool One which I’m fairly sure is the one in the picture on the left. The choice of building amused me as I think this is a block that reached for innovation and instead ended up having all the charm of a modern office building in Canary Wharf, so I assume Ian McKinney intended it to a symbol of soulless wealth, especially as the vampire living there decorated everything in beige and magnolia. Unfortunately, the building isn’t described in enough detail for anyone unfamiliar with Liverpool to get the reference.
What Ian McKinney does very well is to describe the people of Liverpool. It isn’t easy to walk the line of accurate depiction without falling into parody because Liverpudlians are aware of their history and their culture and they feel free to take the piss out of it whenever they want. It’s their birthright, a sign of their affection and an irresistible impulse. This is something that gets summed up in a vampire’s description of the use of humour in Liverpool.
“You can’t appreciate it unless you know the rules. It’s sort of a non-contact martial art. It’s like ‘Gob-Judo’.
It’s the great leveller in this city, why no one in Liverpool is allowed to get too ‘up themselves’.
You can be rich and famous, people don’t mind that —‘local boy made good’ etc… But, if you ever act as though you’re better than anyone else, watch out. One day you’ll be out with your mates, bathing in the warm glow of your self-satisfaction, telling anyone who’ll listen that the sun shines out of your arse, when someone will have had enough and just say one line, a stiletto of wit to puncture your ego, and suddenly, there you are, flat on your back, feeling a twat while your friends laugh at you.”
I loved the subtle mournfulness of a long vampire life filled with too many Emmas (women as food, also referred to as takeaways) to remember and too many lost loves to bear and yet surrounded by the life and vitality of Liverpool. Here’s how two of the vampires talk about it:
‘I used to know the people who lived here,’ he said. ‘
They died.’ ‘
They always do, babe. They’re like goldfish, lovely to look at but don’t get too attached because they don’t last long.’
I was touched by the daily visits one vampire, who still looks late teens, makes to her younger sister, now in her eighties and suffering from dementia, When the old woman tells her carers that she’s happy because her big sister is visiting her, none of them believes her.
The book was a little uneven. Some passages, like the one where a very dangerous man returns to his isolated farmhouse and finds four killers waiting for him, are vivid and completely engaging. Other seem too lightly sketched. This is partly a problem of structure. Reading “Scouse Gothic” is like bingeing on the first ten episodes of a bold new TV series and then realising that you’ve only bought Part 1 of a twenty episode set: you find it novel and stimulating, and you’re hungry for more and then, suddenly, it comes to a halt.
There are three Scouse Gothic books in all and I suspect that all three are needed before the relationships between the characters in the first novel are understood. In “Scouse Gothic” their lives overlap, sometimes with violent consequences but the role of some of the characters remains unclear.
We spend the second chapter with a recently widowed man who had a:
“…simple plan: get drunk, buy drugs, take drugs, then more alcohol and commit suicide. But now all that was messed up…”
and he finds himself .talking to a pigeon-shaped angel. I was fascinated but, although the character reappears in some later chapters, why he is in the novel isn’t revealed.
I liked “Scouse Gothic” well enough to want to read the other two books but I wish they’d all been published in one volume.