It pulls no punches and is in places challenging and very, very dark, and it offers no easy answers or cheap payoffs. And in the weeks since I finished reading it, I’ve found my mind returning to the character and voice of Stickles, and his extraordinary, chilling life story.
A Man At War by Johnny Mains
ASIN : B0BKYCZVYS
Publisher : Independently published (27 Oct. 2022)
Language : English
Hardcover : 258 pages
ISBN-13 : 979-8360688655
A Horror Book Review by Kit Power
I’ll start with a disclaimer; I know Johnny Mains personally and consider him a friend. That said, my usual rule of reviewing applies; I don’t review anything that I don’t a) finish and b) enjoy, regardless of how well I like someone, and that policy applies to this book.
A Man At War’s subtitle is a novel in three novellas, and sure enough, the book is a three-part story, taking in The Cut (1957 - 59) Choke (1986), and A Man At War (1941 - 42). All three tales follow Russell Stickles, an English World War II veteran turned author, who, for the first two novellas, lives in Main’s fictional English town of Effingham-on-the-Stour.
I found Stickles to be a compelling character from the off; he initially struck me as cold, with a buttoned-down English quality that evoked such archetypes as George Smiley or even Holmes, and yet Mains swiftly undercuts that perception, or at least complicates it, by some of his early actions and scenes, which quickly make clear we’re in darker and more personal territory. The Cut really comes out swinging, with tough emotional content that’s also sewing seeds that’ll pay off in the third tale. There’s a confidence to the storytelling that, combined with the clarity of the voice, I found compelling.
The structure itself is interesting; as the dates imply, The Cut places us in the middle of Stickles life, as he is trying to make the pivot from his war service to becoming a full-time author, while wrestling with difficult relationships and personal loss, followed by Choke, which feels to be taking place near the end of his life (and has a brilliant ‘one last job’ quality to it), before Man At War takes us back to his origins, in the process shedding light on the proceeding stories. It’s a bold, imaginative narrative choice - start in the middle, skip to the end, end with the beginning - and Mains executes it with real flare and skill; it’s not flashy, but I was incredibly impressed by the end how neatly the piece as a whole tied together, within such an unusual structure.
I was also impressed by the range of genre influences and ideas in play; there’s a strong strain of ‘is-it-supernatural-or-psycological-horror’ that Mains deploys with real skill, alongside some grim, gritty crime/espionage threads and even moments and themes that touch on splatterpunk; and yet it never felt tonally incongruous, to me, in large part because of the power of the voice that Mains establishes in the first novella and then develops throughout the piece as a whole. He even manages to slide in some fascinating commentary on some of the pulp writers of the post-war period, without ever letting it slip into diversion; though there is a lot going on in the first novella in particular, the narrative drive kept me eagerly turning pages.
I also found Mains did an exceptional job in creating a sense of time-as-place; each novella contained enough detail and background colour that I felt the ghost of the relevant era being invoked as part of the storytelling, and this combined with the powerful narrative voice to make each part drip with atmosphere; indeed, at times the era of the story's setting felt almost like a character itself, especially in the first and third parts.
As you can probably tell, I had a really enjoyable time with this book. It manages to combine an intimidating range of genre styles and ideas whilst feeling utterly coherent and whole as a narrative. It pulls no punches and is in places challenging and very, very dark, and it offers no easy answers or cheap payoffs. And in the weeks since I finished reading it, I’ve found my mind returning to the character and voice of Stickles, and his extraordinary, chilling life story. There’s a hell of a lot going on, in other words, and it’s a tribute to Mains talent as a writer that it manages to do all this while remaining not merely readable but deeply compelling. Overall, I found A Man At War to be a very impressive piece of work indeed, and one that really got under my skin.
A Man at War