by Mo Hayder
Bantam Press, $195
If you like a bacon sandwich or are a bit partial to pork chops be warned, Pig Island, the fourth thriller by Essex-born author Mo Hayder, doesn't do much for the appetite.
Journalist Joe Oakes doesn't believe in ghosts and other things that go bump in the night, the only spirits he'll ever summon up coming out of a bottle. He's made a living by exposing people's superstitions and, as a young hack under the pseudonym Joe Finn, reveals faith healer Malachi Dove as a fraud after being tricked into thinking he has cancer.
Dove threatens to sue Oakes, but instead promises to 'run rings round him' when he's dead, threatening eventual suicide.
The healer sets up his Psychogenic Healing Ministry on remote Pig Island, off the Scottish coast, and nothing more is heard from him until 20 years later, when a weird half-man, half-beast-like creature is caught on video on the island's beach. Oakes, now 38, is on the case amid rumours of devil worship and satanic rituals and, hoping to come face-to-face with his old nemesis, sets up an interview with the commune.
Hayder (Birdman, The Treatment, Tokyo), who left school at 15, is well into Stephen King territory here. The opening is a gripper with the spectre of evil lurking on every page, threatening both the fragile, hippie-like security of innocents caught up in the community and Oakes himself. But as the plot thickens and the action moves to the Scottish mainland - and more traditional police action - a section where Oakes and his close-to-the-edge girlfriend, Lex, are given chapters in alternating first-person voices tends to drag. Here, the novel threatens to go cross genre as we learn about Lex's fantasies and psychological weaknesses without moving the thriller along. It's a hiccup, though, and the storyline picks up pace once more to an unexpected ending that leaves those of the cast who are still alive seriously reflecting on the nature of evil.
The promotion line on the jacket, 'the most terrifying thriller you'll read all year', may be a bit presumptuous - especially as there's a good portion of the year still to go - but it's definitely not a book you want to read too close to bedtime, with blood and gore dripping from the early pages and graphic descriptions of particularly gruesome murders.
Nasty villains and evil scenarios are Hayder's stock-in-trade, with the ritualistic serial killer of Birdman, the wheelchair-bound gangster of Tokyo or the idea of being forced to have sex with your own children in The Treatment, and Pig Island is no exception with the depiction of crazed pastor Dove. He's a baddie with a difference, however, with the reader given an account of the personal tragedy that's driven him to the edge and thus the chance to empathise with his condition. This seems strange until the plot develops and the lines between good and evil, villain and victim, become blurred.
A thriller with pace and originality, Pig Island spells out the consequences of dangerous, half-baked religious beliefs for those who haven't yet seen the light and come to the same conclusion as Oakes, that evil is human and rationality is the best defence.