He sucked in a deep breath full of that strange smell he couldn't identify. He trailed his hands across the satin beneath him and to both sides of him and, when he raised his hands, above him too. He knew why it was so dark. He understood why he could see nothing. He realized why he was lying down. He was in a coffin. A distraught couple thinks you've killed their daughter and they want a confession. If you say you did it, they'll kill you. If you say you didn't, they'll leave you to die. It seems hopeless but there is one way out... What would you do?
With the exception of two Hammer adaptations, Hutson seems to have ditched the supernatural elements of his 80s and 90s horror output, focusing more on real-life horror of recent. Or crime, as we call it.
EPITAPH is a crime book through and through.
The catalyst for the story is a particularly heinous crime: 8 year old Laura Hackett’s rape and murder is vividy described from the child’s perspective in some of the most effective writing I’ve ever encountered by Hutson. From there, things go from bad to worse, grieving parents Frank and Gina Hackett doing what many would undoubtedly want to do in their situation, taking the law into their own hands. But is Paul Crane, the man they’ve pinned the murder of their daughter on, definitely guilty?
I’ve read a lot of Hutson over the years and enjoy him a great deal. He gets a bit of stick for being something of a hack: ‘gutter horror’ is a term I’ve heard used when describing his work. For me, his writing is addictive. A kind of neo-noir style, with tight prose and short, sharp chapters.
This is perhaps the most character-driven I’ve read from Hutson, and great for it.
Our main protagonist is Paul Crane, the man the Hacketts believe to have raped and murdered their little girl. Paul wakes after a heavy night’s drinking to find himself in a coffin, presumably buried alive. It’s pitch black and he can’t move an inch. There’s a mic somewhere close from where a voice talks to him, telling him why he’s there.
The main body of the novel is the conversation Paul has with his captors, who we soon discover to be the Hacketts. They want to know all the gory details of their daughter’s rape and murder. This makes for very tough reading at times, and for that reason I wouldn’t say this novel is for everyone. The writing is powerful and emotive, the reader unsure until the heart-stopping climax as to whether Crane is guilty or not.
It’s hard to think of a book this grim as a page-turner, but Hutson nails it. We can empathise with everyone, from the grieving parents, frustrated by the seemingly apathetic justice system, to Crane himself, desperately trying to reason with his captors, claustrophobic and all too aware of his diminishing supply of oxygen. It goes about as dark as you could imagine, and then some, Hutson never holding back.
Yet still we read on.
In short, EPITAPH is a brutal crime novel dealing with heinous subject matter. It’s a cruel reminder, if one is needed, that true horror is what happens around us; a very human affair that has nothing to do with ghosts or zombies or vampires.
Genre Fiction Writer
Genre Fiction Writer