The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? (Review of Henry Franks by Peter Adam Salomon)

Henry Franks
Peter Adam Salomon
Flux 2012

Henry Franks is neither here nor there.  Sleep-walking through his present and unable to remember his past he is a haunted by non-memories, living in a limbo that seems unlikely to change.  Held together by 4000 stitches, he’s recovering from the accident that left him irreparably changed and his mother dead but of course he remembers none of this.  In fact, all Henry does remember is life as he now knows it.  He gets up, drifts through his dark house, occasionally running into his father – a man who is largely absent, clearly tormented by some unspoken grief and preoccupied with searching for a mysterious figure – before heading to a school where barely anyone notices him.  Until someone does and his life becomes entwined with that of the irrepressible Justine, who seems able to see past his scars and into his past.  Perhaps Justine should represent some light at the end of Henry’s dark tunnel but he has other things on his mind not least a host of local killings, his slowly numbing limbs and the nightmares that plague which seem to belong to someone else…

Henry is an interesting character.  At once attractive and likable while also being an object of horror.  As we get to know him, so we get to know his damaged body with its many itching scars and strange and disturbing patchwork of skin.  His physical appearance is dripped down to the reader throughout the course of the book with each almost careless fact introduced without warning.  It’s a clever technique which runs side by side with his developing character.  There is nothing not to like about Henry, yet his slight disconnect with the world around him again adds to the sense that he is somewhat other.  He truly has no memory of his past and this clearly torments him – he literally doesn't know who he is.  His horrific nightmares confuse him further, as does his father’s secretive behaviour.  Henry is convinced that something isn't quite right with the information that he’s being fed and as he starts moving towards the dark truth at the heart of his story he starts to claim ownership of himself once more, regardless of who that true self may end up being.

Cleverly, while the reader is constantly reminded of Henry’s injuries, those around him rarely mention them.  While he experiences some fairly mild teasing at school, he seems to have gained the ability to melt into the background.  Justine, however, seems unfazed by his stand-offish manner and strange appearance and slowly draws him out of his shell.  She’s kind and giving and incredibly trusting, allowing Henry to creep out of his self-imposed shell.  Her characterisation may seem slight, yet the author throws in some surprising aspects to her personality later in the novel that, in retrospect, were possibly there throughout.   The other main character, in a story that has only a small cast, is Henry’s father.  William is a character in conflict, driven almost mad with confusion, guilt and grief.  The small sections of the book from his point of view are both disturbing and oddly moving as he struggles to come to terms with the stranger that his is son and the torment that is his past.  He’s extremely well written, engendering both sympathy and disgust in equal measure.

The story line of Henry Franks is based around Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  It is not a direct re-telling, nor entirely a re-imagining, but rather takes the core premise of the original and plays with it in a modern setting.  Like Frankenstein, though, it asks readers to consider what is more monstrous – the idea or the result?  And if it is the idea then could the true horror lie in whatever drove that idea in the first place?  Peter Salomon explores these questions artfully and takes them a step further asking, eventually, about the lengths it is possible to go in order to survive or enable those we love to survive.  While this all sounds terribly existential, Salomon has surrounded these ideas with a sharp, bone-chilling horror story.  His writing is stark and compelling and the structure of the book itself works very well.  Switching viewpoints from Henry, to his father, to his psychiatrist allows readers a three dimensional view of what is going on while the newspaper reports concerning local murders and weather reports on a coming hurricane add to the already screaming tension.  Additionally, while the original Frankenstein brings to mind damp, foggy climes, Salomon has set Henry Franks in Georgia where the suffocating heat seems to bring to the connotations of wetness, rot and decay.

This is the second Frankenstein influenced title we've reviewed in the last week and while the first (Broken, review here) was successful and sometimes chilling, it focused largely on a teen romance.  Henry Franks, while featuring a young couple, is no romantic tale of sad monsters and redeeming love.  It is out and out horror, stomach-curdling without being gory and deeply disturbing without every being overt.   The last line will stay with this reader for a long time to come, sending shivers down the spine.  An excellent choice for an All Hallow’s Read, this is a title that anyone looking for thought provoking, clever and terrifying writing should be adding to their wish list straight away.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird.  Henry Franks is available now and is highly recommended as an All Hallow's Read. Thank you to the publisher, via NetGalley for providing us with this title to review.

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