The horror genre has always sat well with the Doctor Who format, but as with any genre the sheer mass of stories already told has given rise to a large number of clichés, and ultimately Grave Matter does little more than repeat such clichés with a Doctor Who spin. The main inspiration for Grave Matter is George Romero’s Night Of the Living Dead (and the hundreds of other zombie films that followed in it’s wake), with the remote island of Dorsill being overrun by the undead. Of course, this being Doctor Who, the actual cause of the zombi-fication (is that a word?) turns out to be extraterrestrial in nature…
If Grave Matter has one thing in its favour it is that it is eminently readable. The characters are small in number and well defined, the plot is simple and reasonably fast paced – this is one of those novels that will disappear in a couple of hours of page-turning. All the horror story clichés are present and correct – the islands are perpetually fogbound, there’s a pub where everyone stops and stares at strangers when they enter, there’s a dilapidated old mansion where foul experiments are being carried out – but Richards just about manages to stop the novel turning into a parody. The only real problem that stops Grave Matter being a wholly enjoyable piece of tosh is that the novel seems to run out of steam about three-quarters through. There’s a terribly protracted ‘house under siege’ climax that goes on for so long that some characters can row from one island to another and back while it’s still in progress, and the Doctor’s ultimate solution to the zombie ‘infection’ is a massive anti-climax.
Nevertheless, if you want an uncomplicated, unchallenging runaround, you can certainly do worse than Grave Matter. The 6th Doctor and Peri are well captured, and the story has enough mystery and action sequences to keep the pages turning to the end. By no means an ambitious novel, but fairly successful at what it attempts, Grave Matter is a simple but readable horror story.
Essentially Grave Matter is the sort of thing the PDAs should be doing all the time but--well don’t. It is an extremely good story that in the traditional Doctor Who fashion goes round the houses to reach its conclusion but in doing so manages to tell an exciting adventure. It takes a not always liked Doctor and companion and repairs some of the damage by planting them in a story that has them come out favourably and tells the type of story that the particular era they come from never really tried. As a result even when the ingredients to the story seem old fashioned they come across as spanking new, polished by an author who knows how to play about with his audience. Grave Matter is a top ranking PDA in my book and further proof that dear old Justin Richards could tackle any genre if he put his mind to it.
Finn Clark is so right he points out that the BBC books range is far more likely to play about with the horror genre, since they have been on the scene we have seen more and more spine-chilling adventures. These come in all shapes and sizes, Vampire Science (a modern tale of Vampires in the US), Tomb of Valdemar (an SF tale with lashing of traditional gothic atmosphere), The Bodysnatchers (a Victorian grave robbing tale with shape changing aliens) and so on. Most of these attempts have been successful (except maybe Deep Blue which piles on the cliches but adds nothing to its seaside drama) and Grave Matter is probably the ultimate exploration of the genre yet. Just look at that cover, ghostly apparitions of the Doctor and Peri, a hand crawling out of a grave, a church silhouetted by a foggy moon--by far the most spine chilling part of this fulsome cover is Colin Baker and his mad, staring eyes--brrr--
It almost feels as though Justin sat down and wrote a checklist of things to include in his horror story. An isolated town. Foggy moorland. A burial. Grave robbing. Bizarre local behaviour connected to the ‘evil’. Zombies. Mad scientists. Mutilated corpses. Savage animals. Viscous fight scenes. It sounds like a huge whipping bowl of various horror novels/movies doesn’t it? And it is to Justin’s credit that he manages to take on these hoary old cliches and whip them into something fresh and exciting. And just how does he manage this magical transformation? By adding a few modern touches like mobile phones and genetic experiments? No. By isolating the action to one small island and playing about with what year it is taking place in? No (although that was a nice bit of mis-direction). The real trick is (and this is where people may stop reading) is to use the sixth Doctor and Peri.
Honestly! It is a trick worth repeating! It doesn’t always work to put recognisable characters in an unrecognisable situation but the real charm of this story is seeing sassy Peri and the ‘fat, shouty multicoloured one’ (courtesy of my mother) in a Hinchiffe adventure, cliches and all! Seeing this story through their eyes, a story that on screen would have rocked with JNTs eye for atmosphere is like having a dream come true. Their dynamic friendship is put to good use, for once it appears there is nobody to trust but each other and the opportunity for arguing is practically nil when the plot thickens at every stage and they have use their wits to escape it alive.
Okay so maybe there is a little character adjustment going on. The Doctor is hardly as nasty as he was on screen and in this tale of horrors roaming a peaceful island his beaming face and outrageous personality shines all the brighter. He gets to play about with children and gossip with the locals and face the enemy with a song in his heart. Justin is not above mocking this triumphant character (particularly his weight when he cannot escape through the ducting because of his girth) and gives him the opportunity to unravel the mystery of the story at a steady pace and face all the monsters with a defiant outlook. He gets to play hero without any of the questionable violence his character is pinned down for getting in the way. If only all the PDA writers could put so much effort into capturing the Doctor so well we would probably be in better shape right now.
But Peri is even better. Peri is a person! No seriously, she isn’t just a whinging bratty American whose sole purpose in life is to make the Doctor’s life miserable--she is a genuine, three dimensional character with aspirations and feelings. Who knew? Written with a sense of independence and intelligence Perpiguliam Brown comes across really well. Her scenes with the Doctor are still icy at times but now are laced with good humour. She gets to do lots of clever stuff, diving into action chasing grave robbers, facing off mad locals, rushing off to save the day by contacting the police and being attacked by zombies, sharks and foxes. Seeing the island turn nasty through Peri’s innocent eyes is shocking and urgent, you genuinely feel for her as she is fighting for her life (surely a first for some of you Peri-haters?).
There is a rumour that this story isn’t really a horror story at all but just dips into the genre for further Richards misdirection. True in the end the horror of the situation turns out to be extra-terrestrial manipulated by science (silly humans attempting to prolong their frail lives by injecting powerful alien DNA) but the idea of using an entire island of innocent people to test this theory on is HORRIFYING in the extreme. And seeing the story through the eyes of these everyday people, infected without realising, the horror of the story emerges.
Personally my scariest moment has nothing to do with savage animals or lumbering corpses but a far more intimate moment. Dave Madsen’s realisation that he has been infected might seem like poetic justice (after all he is responsible for everybody else infection) but when he returns home and attempts to slit his wrists the story suddenly touches on some real life nastiness. Of course infected he cannot die but that doesn’t stop him trying and this time he attempts to blow his brains out. But still he gets up--its just HORRIBLE! Ugh! The sheer desperation of this man trying to die is scary enough but the dawning realisation that no matter how much he mutilates himself he will still survive is horrifying. All this is frightening build up for his spectacular attack on the Doctor and Peri, brains exposed and all.
The pace of the story is lovely; Justin slowly builds his story on firm foundations, affecting a disquiet atmosphere from the first half and twisting it into an action nightmare for the second half. We get just close enough to the people on Dorsill to care when the action moves over to Sheldon’s Folly and we discover why they all behave so strangely. From then on it is constant attacks right up until the climax, a page turning mix of horror and comedy (trust me there are some really funny moments in the climax) that sees the Doctor and Peri at their improvisational best.
Chapter Thirteen is a standout for the book; it has long remained one of my favourite chapters in any Doctor Who book. It consists mostly of Peri, desperate and alone attempting to escape the folly and find a boat so she can reach Dorsill and send out a message of help. It violent and horrific, she is attacked by owls, foxes, Liz, Madsen and even a bloody shark! The action is non-stop and it climaxes on the best twist of the book, one that might seem obvious in retrospect (like all good Justin Richards books) but strikes you round the face at the time. This chapter shows determined Peri at her frightened best. If only she had material like this on the telly!
Go read Grave Matter, for such a traditional story it will surprise you how very enjoyable it is. It might take a while to get going, action wise but its clear Justin is building a clever tale that is out surprise you later. The setting is ideal, sunny in the daytime and foggy at night, perfect to tip you off balance and hide all sorts of horrors.
I found it riveting and was pleased at how well my favourite Doctor was captured. Oh and Peri proves she is more than a pair of breasts too!
Page turning stuff.
It is worth remembering that much of Grave Matters' straightforward and, at times, pedestrian plotting is the product of the time in which the author had to write it. The prospect of writing a PDA in a matter of weeks is daunting and it is unfortunate that Richard's was forced by circumstance to bring his novel forward. The author deserves credit for producing a standard, nicely entertaining read within the said constraints. This also makes Grave Matter difficult to criticise in any conventional - indeed meaningful -way.
Strangely, the brevity of the book and the run-around feel is symptomatic of the cavalier attitude of the production team in Colin Baker's first season. Richards' plays out the teasing schlock and shock value whilst at the same time prosaically stretching out what the Doctor and Peri have to do. Whilst this allows us a worldview of the village and Sheldon's folly it also maps expectation. Grave Matter is a comfortable read in that it actively points one toward a finale, but is padded out like a seven part Pertwee story. Richards' tries to put twist and counter-twist, revelation and counter-revelation into the mix to assuage the rot (sic) but what one remembers most is Peri's patently ridiculous search for a mobile, and then Satellite phone (a sequence initially borrowed from a meld of quasi Hitchcock and Stephen King). Another memorable moment is Madsen's protracted suicide which, if it were not for the seriousness of tone, could easily have tumbled into a Monty Python sketch.
Richards has not lost the feel for structuring an adventure that is key to all his novels. Is this a horror remake a la Holmes? No, disappointingly. Is this a village fallen to a strange possession? Sort of. Will there be a whole bunch of Zombies a la Hammer Horror? You bet. Is it all to do with genetic shenanigans with a sample of alien DNA? Possibly. There is a sense of 'Death Becomes Her' in Grave Matter that is giggling under the surface. Blow your head off and it might take a little longer to heal so you will look a tad gruesome for a while, but fret not. If given more time there may have been an opportunity for the author to play off the idea of human regeneration against that of a timelords - but perhaps even that is too much of a leap.
As you would expect the characters are Pertwee villagers grafted onto Baker. One of the main problems with this (as with Baker's tenure) is that much of what occurs does not seem to belong to him, so the character always appears displaced. The PDA's, when written in a normal timeframe, have never truly given a voice to the Sixth Doctor, leaving him floundering in his own lack of televisual distinction. Unfortunately, Richard's fares no better. One recognises this incarnation due to his over-cited arrogance and bombast but not as a character in his own right. Peri is her usual whining and whinging self who will always make good primarily because of fear and because she gets a kick (it seems) of wanting to hang about with the Doctor.
That said, there is nothing particularly wrong with this book. It keeps going even if it doubts its own purpose on occasion. Some of the incidental characters play nicely (i.e. Trefoil and Janet spring to mind). What Grave Matter misses most (apart from time to complete well) is any sense of emotion, of turmoil. Madsen's suicide, the subsuming of the self due to scientific arrogance and folly (sic) never quite leap off the page. Action and event drives all. When this action is time spent in an X-ray room switching the X-Ray machine on or off whilst Peri is directed to a coal chute it becomes almost 'wink wink' in its parody. The central villain (if one can call him that) has his pages of ethical justification as the Doctor stands just waiting to make a run for it. Whilst, for some, this may be what Who is all about, it tends leave one wanting to quicken the end.
The memory of a bunch of herding sheep will always stay with me. As will the sense that some of the characters are just resting from a regular slot on Peak Practice. To restate again, this book only entertains. It is not given the time for the author to flesh out his ideas further and so, naturally, it suffers because of it. That said, with great things just around the corner from the most prolific of Who writers, it is unlikely that Grave Matter will leave much of a negative mark.
In brief: Playful and fun. It runs smoothly, invoking all the DW cliches as appropriate, but with just enough touches to keep it relevant and enjoyable.
A group of typically English villagers, a remote location cut off from the outside world, creeping horror, the re-animation of the dead, science gone horribly wrong, an alien legacy, stern old men and women foretelling doom, distrust of strangers, a possessed companion and a Doctor who immerses himself in wiring, makes bad jokes and solves the problem through a mixture of innovation and chemistry.
Yep, this is a Doctor Who novel, all right.
It's interesting to learn that The Banquo Legacy, released merely one month after this, was Justin's written-in-a-hurry novel for this year. Grave Matter has all the DW cliches so firmly in place, you'd think he could just distill a bunch of former novels together and churn this out in a few days (though for all I know, maybe he did).
Fortunately, Grave Matter is aware that it's veering dangerously close to the Doctor Who potboiler, so it's provided just enough touches to keep it fresh. It feels like someone's dusted off an old Terrance Dicks script, added a few references to email, mobile phones and genetic engineering, and just let it run on its own. Somehow this works, because even though the reader can see the joins showing, the author knows that we know. And we know that he knows that we know. The age of the interactive novel is at hand. Welcome to the twenty-first century.
And, I must admit, it works rather well. I like playing this game and had fun spotting all the touches. The initial setup is a great example of this. We know that the Doctor and Peri aren't in the nineteenth century, so bright and clear are the clues. And yet, when the revelation comes, the joke is still funny, perhaps more so because we've been led enjoyable to its resolution.
The horror game is just as playful. There are zombies and murderous seagulls and crazy old men in the woods, but they're all presented with a coy smile that teases us into playing along. And we do. Just as surely as we know that the Doctor will get injected with no side effects whatsoever, we're fully aware that the final scene of the book will be a creepy suggestion of more to come, perhaps in next year's book-in-three-weeks middle third of the Grave trilogy. That it happens in four and a half lines (unlike System Shock's whole page epilogue, for example) only shows just how much Justin has been refining his skills.
The Doctor works well enough, although he's the sixth-but-generic Doctor, previously seen in Players, rather than the portrayal we got on TV. That's a little disappointing, but this version works well enough as the Doctor stereotype that's required here. Peri is quite good, though, especially as she fears the growing possession, after climbing up a ventilation shaft and being pursued on a fool's errand by zombies and enhanced animals alike. You could bottle this stuff and inject it into Trevor Baxendale and he could churn out EDAs indefinitely! (On second thoughts, perhaps we shouldn't mention that too loudly, lest anyone get any ideas)
The other characters are all painted with Justin's trademark skill. They don't have to be the deepest of characters to be successful here and yet again Justin comes up with exactly what's necessary and no more. I loved Janet's way of communicating with the Doctor once possessed and the twist with Peri's phone call to Madge actually surprised me. Yet again we see the master plotter at work and we're invited to marvel at the skill.
Grave Matter is fun, in an incredibly cliched way. It plays with those cliches, but it doesn't break them -- and nor should it. It leads the reader along magnificently, toying with us and making us feel far more involved than we could really expect from something as standard as this. It's a PDA in every measurable way, but that's no bad thing. It reminds us why we enjoyed Doctor Who so much in the first place and tells us that sometimes cliches really are cliches because they work. (And yes, I did just paraphrase Terrance Dicks and you're meant to know that!)
Warning, some minor spoilers ahead.
Odd fact: It was sunny the day I picked up 'Grave Matter'. Within two hours of starting however, the whole town was subsumed in fog the like of which Dorsill, the island of this novel, would recognise
The premise is simple to the point of banality. The Doctor and Peri wind up on Dorsill, a series of tiny islands off the coast of England. Arriving at night and sucked into the horror film fog, the two find themselves in a bizarre Victorian community. There are zombies kicking about, and they don't have strangers in the local pub. I really should give its derivative, Hammer arse a sound whupping.
But I can't, because 'Grave Matter' is so much fun.
As usual with a Richards' book nothing is as it seems, and this straightforward setting is subverted from the beginning. After groaning at the tedium of the opening pub scene, I was delighted to see the cliché turned on its head. And it doesn't stop there, because this book is full of wonderful little moments like this. Dorsill's Victorian existence is revealed to be a sham, and we find ourselves in a present day setting, albeit one where the community have denounced technology. Rather wonderfully the reader is set up to expect 'Plague of the Zombies' and gets 'Emmerdale' instead.
But it isn't all grazing cattle and pints at The Dorsill Arms. On the neighbouring isle of Sheldon's Folly something shady is afoot. A group of scientists are carrying out experiments on the local populace, with some very worrying side effects.
As it progresses, 'Grave Matter' grows ever more reminiscent of films such as 'Night of the Big Heat' or some episodes of 'The Avengers'. The horror motif is still present, but it isn't the driving force the cover and awful punning title suggest. There is a nice thematic link to Richards' own Big Finish audio, 'Red Dawn', and the story starts to revolve around recovered alien material from space exploration.
Characterisation is pretty good, with the regulars faring well, though some of the secondary characters are more interesting than others. Of note is a prolonged suicide that makes for extremely uncomfortable reading, but this is let down by the reactions of other characters. His girlfriend is vaguely upset, and that's about it. A bit of a shame as an emotional climax could have deepened the novel. Instead we get the usual all-action finale, a series of enjoyable, but ultimately hollow set pieces as Peri trudges through 'The Birds' and then 'Jaws'.
It slips further into formula as the story continues, and that's a shame. The clever subversion of before is replaced with a climactic gang-show of possessed villagers and save for the age old horror tradition of suggesting the menace is not completely gone, the Doctor wraps everything up as per usual.
'Grave Matter' is an entertaining novel, but the village-under-siege sub genre has been done many times before, and often better than it is here, most recently by Richards himself in 'The Burning' and Steve Emmerson in the sublime 'Casualties of War'.
So it's not Richards' best book, but it is an enjoyable, witty adventure story. And sometimes that's enough.