Once a regular reviewer for both Shots magazine and Page Horrific, Matt also wrote a monthly column for the weekly Hellnotes newsletter under the editorship of Judi Rohrig. He now runs an irregular blogspot at www.readerdad.co.uk
In 1979 Charles Meredith meets Nicole Dubois, a Frenchwoman on the run from what he at first takes to be a fantasy: a man over 100 years old that Nicole claims has been hunting her family for most of the past century, a man with the uncanny ability to take on the form and mannerisms of anyone, thus insinuating himself into the lives of those he hunts.
As Charles reads the evidence – a stack of old notebooks bound together with string that form the diaries of Nicole’s ancestors – he becomes less convinced that this is fantasy. Almost thirty-five years later, Hannah Wilde, Charles and Nicole’s only daughter, arrives at a remote house in the wilds of Snowdonia with her seriously injured husband and her own nine-year-old daughter. The hunter has found them, and Hannah no longer knows who she can trust. With the words of the string diaries her only guidance, Hannah sets out to save her family and hopefully destroy the monster that is chasing them in the process.
When Stephen Lloyd Jones’ debut novel opens, we find ourselves thrown immediately into the middle of the action. Hannah Wilde in on the run, her husband badly injured and bleeding to death on the seat next to her, and her young daughter asleep in the back of the car. At this point, we know nothing about what is going on, or why Hannah is fleeing for her life. As the novel progresses, and we learn of the history of Hannah’s family – Charles Meredith and Nicole Dubois most recently, and the generations whose histories are recorded in the string-bound diaries – we discover that what is chasing Hannah and her family is something very sinister indeed.
It is early in the novel when we realise that this is not your average “thriller”, but something of a more supernatural bent. The main protagonist, Balázs Lukács, is hosszú életek, a member of an ancient race of shapeshifters who have lived peacefully alongside humanity – and with the blessing of the kings and leaders of Europe – for many years. Lukács is different, deformed in a way only recognisable by other members of his race; he is shunned during the courtship rituals, and sets out on his own, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Stripped of his name and status, he is now known only as Jakab, and so begins his obsession with the women who have come before Hannah Wilde.
The story is an intriguing one, made more so by the characters that inhabit it, and the mythology that surrounds it. Jumping between different time periods – from present day, to the late ‘70s and early 80s, to Hungary at the tail end of the nineteenth century – Jones’ narrative structure is designed to only give us the information we need when it becomes important to the story. In this way, he keeps us turning pages, always eager to find out what is happening with each of the various plots’ central characters. The idea of the diaries themselves is inspired – a written history of the persecution of generations of a single family by a man who is clearly mad – and the author uses them to examine how history affects the lives of those forced to relive it. Perhaps the story’s biggest hook is the concept of validation. The fact that Jakab can take any form he wishes, down to the person’s voice and mannerisms, means that the only way these characters have of knowing to whom they’re speaking is through the process of validation: asking personal questions to which Jakab is unlikely to know the answer. It adds an extra dimension of uncertainty, leaving the reader unsure of who to trust, instilling a sense of frustration when characters forget to follow the rules, keeping the reader in the dark as much as possible.
The central plot leads, ultimately, to the inevitable showdown, but Jones manages to keep a few surprises up his sleeve. The final twist may be a twist too far for this reader; surprising though it is, it seems like a much too easy way to wrap up such a complex storyline. But it doesn’t detract from everything that goes before, which is a solidly-plotted tale in the vein of Tim Lebbon or Simon Clark.
Short on outright scares, The String Diaries fits neatly into the supernatural thriller genre, where the emphasis is on thriller, and the supernatural elements are designed more to drive the story than frighten the reader. Fast-paced and gripping, the biggest selling point of Stephen Lloyd Jones’ first novel is its original concept. Couple that with engaging characters, a well-founded history and a trip around Europe like you’ve never seen before, and you’re onto a winning formula. Thankfully, despite the vibe that the cover might give off, there is nothing special about the diaries of the title: they don’t hold the secret to life eternal, or the identity of the thirteenth Apostle. They’re not, in short, the goal of some mythical quest. They’re a set of old notebooks held together with a piece of string. The story they contain, much like the story Jones presents here, is pure gold.
This review first appeared at www.readerdad.co.uk – reprinted with acknowledgement to Matt Craig.