Spiffing is a fun little cosmic horror novella about Bertram ‘Bertie’ Lexington-Brown, a quirky, rich businessman with a fascination for the macabre. Old cursed necklaces, crystals supposedly housing the imprisoned essence of antediluvian demigods, that sort of thing. His latest acquisition is the sarcophagus of an ancient and, up until now, mythological Egyptian priest who lead a cult dedicated to the worship of the Great Old One, Nyarlathotep, an entity straight out of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. We follow the story through the eyes of Bertie’s assorted mix of friends and associates, who are attending a soiree at the Lexington-Brown estate where Bertie enjoys scaring his friends in elaborate set pieces involving his macabre acquisitions. Except this time something goes horribly wrong and the party is turned upside down when Bertie’s wife finds her husband dead in the room housing the sarcophagus, only for his body to subsequently go missing. A murder mystery ensues as the hapless and drunken guests attempt to locate Bertie’s body and unmask his killer, all while the party gradually morphs into something ever more horrific and surreal.
You know how you get that genre of naff horror films that are kind of objectively not very good but you end up having enough fun with them that you don’t care all that much? I’m thinking stuff like Final Destination and Drag Me To Hell (though to be fair my internal jury is still out on whether that film is utterly terrible or a work of sheer genius). Anyway, that’s a bit what this book was like. I thought it came off quite amateurish in terms of craft and structure, but the story was enjoyable enough that I could mostly put its issues aside. Maybe half the time. Or least some of the time. I dunno, the story was cool but I was left a bit frustrated with the execution.
The stuff I really enjoyed was the interpersonal drama between all the characters. Bertie and his wife Sylvia hated each other cos he cheated on her on their wedding night with Virginia Tailforth, who is attending the party with her on-off again boyfriend David Potter, who she is well known to cheat on regularly with anyone who catches her eye that night. So Sylvia hates Virginia and Potter is jealous of Bertie, who Virginia still harbours feelings for and Susan Sullivan secretly adores Sylvia while Sylvia actually thinks Susan is trash etc etc. It was like reading a high society gossip rag, except the high society types all start getting murdered by an unspeakable eldritch horror. Thumbs up.
There were a few areas where frustrations crept in though. The first thing (and I almost hate myself for bringing this up) was there really was an awful lot of telling the reader stuff instead of showing character through their behaviour or dialogue or whatever. I say I almost hate myself for bringing it up cos I think people can often get a bit swivel-eyed about the whole “DON’T TELL ME IT’S NIGHT TIME SHOW ME MOONLIGHT GLINTING OFF BROKEN GLASS HEY I’M NOT MAD YOU’RE MAD” attitude and that can sometimes be a bit tiresome. That said, I do think Tim Mendees got the balance out of whack here. It’s a split timeline narrative so a good (and recurring) example is how the actual plot keeps getting interrupted, as in full on ground to a halt, to skip back in time to past scenarios to explain some element of a character’s personality. And often I do actually mean explain. Like, we’re told about raucous parties that Bertie and his pals attended and crazy shit they did as youngsters, except we rarely get to see any of it actually happen, we just get these primers about how it definitely happened. And yeah, in the end it still delivers the same information, but how information is conveyed definitely makes a difference to the reading experience and it doesn’t come across smoothly or in a way that’s always satisfying here.
Parts of the narrative rang a bit false as well. It probably classes as a minor spoiler so I’ll not mention specifics, but hints are dropped throughout the story that the nature of the party itself is not quite as it seems, with guests dropping in anachronistic phrases and references in their conversations. It’s not that difficult to work out really, but my problem with it was the story is told through an omniscient third person perspective, and it really makes no sense to me when ‘twists’ are delivered that the omniscient narrator obviously knew about all along but has deliberately framed the story in a way that obscures things and makes no sense once the twist is revealed. The twist in question isn’t even relevant to the story and has no effect on anything, which made it just feel a bit redundant. The omniscient third person perspective was troublesome on multiple levels actually; a lot of the tension and mystery is stripped away regarding the characters’ belief in whether Bertie is really dead or whether the whole thing is just part of an elaborate ruse. We could have been thrown into the thick of the confusion, pulled to and fro between the characters who were genuinely scared and the others, who dismiss it as part of a dark stunt. I mean you’d probably still be like 99% sure he’d been killed by the sarcophagus demon but you’d get to experience the confusion and chaos first hand alongside the characters, not just be a know-all, detached bystander watching from the outside.
One more way the narrative rang a bit false was how it presumed previous knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos in the ways it described aspects of the story, but the way those things functioned in this story actually ran counter to the ways Mendees described them as faithful replicas of the source material. So for example the Necronomicon makes an appearance, and if you had no prior experience with H.P. Lovecraft’s writing or cosmic horror pop culture you’d have no idea what this was. Which is fine, you don’t really need to. Except that in Lovecraft’s writing the Necronomicon was an evil book, and so Tim Mendees describes it as such, saying that the characters thought of it as ‘loathsome’ etc. Except! Except the function of the Necronomicon in this story is actually to act as a potential source of help to the characters, so they actually have no reason to think of it in that way. Quite the opposite in fact, it’s literally the only chance they have of beating the unspeakable evil that’s trying to murder them all. Didn’t work man. It was the reading equivalent of trying to push two magnetic north poles together.
Despite all that though, the story is still fun and there’s lot of genuinely exciting moments and gruesome scenes that would be at home in any good John Carpenter film, described in exquisite face-melting detail. There’s a bunch of dark humour as well and the character’s have some very entertaining back and forths I enjoyed a lot. I would recommend Spiffing as fun, quick read if you’re looking for an entertaining horror story and don’t mind your stories being a bit derivative and clumsily put together. Not everything has to be top tier art to get a good time out of it. Decent little read.
Spiffing is published by small press Red Cape Publishing. Check out their other books at their website redcapepublishing.com and follow them on Twitter at @RedCapePublish. Did you enjoy this review? Find it useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!