Richard Kelly's second novel is almost cheekily ambitious. For a good two-thirds of its length, it appears to be mainly a literate contemporary thriller, set in and near London, rich in character portrait, sly social observation and convincing technical detail. Its leading characters are three successful, middle-aged doctors, old college friends and rivals, one of whom who suddenly disappears.
Mysterious deaths and strange encounters abound. Then comes a cunning narrative twist, which displays the earlier events in an entirely new and thoroughly spooky light. The whiff of brimstone grows stronger by the page, and the conclusion is little short of a glimpse into Hell.
For those who know their Gothic fiction, it soon becomes obvious that The Possessions of Doctor Forrest is also a loving tribute to the classics of that school. The missing Dr Forrest is a fashionable plastic surgeon – a Dr Frankenstein for the Botox age. The frightening events of his life also resemble those of another unhappy 19th-century medical man, Dr Jekyll. There are allusions to James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner; and the novel's principal actions are conveyed through documents – diaries, interviews, police reports, exactly in the manner of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
One of those place reports notes that Dr Forrest had become increasingly disillusioned with his profitable but trivial practice: "I think it occurred to him that he had rather lost his soul." As we eventually discover, this is closer to the truth than his friends could guess. Dr Forrest, whose name echoes Faust, truly has sold himself to the Devil.
Literary acts of homage run the risk of being displays of ingenuity first and satisfying entertainment a poor second, but Kelly has managed to produce one of those rare hybrids: a book which has the robust narrative drive of genre fiction but also the thoughtfulness and stylistic flair of good literary fiction. He has done a great deal of homework on the specialist fields of his three main characters – pediatrics, psychiatry and cosmetic surgery - and there is the odd moment when he seems slightly too much in love with his own research. In the diaries of the child surgeon, for example, there are passages which read like a report for the Lancet: "I dissected the ipsilaterallatissimusdorsi off the chest wall, divided the thoracordosal neurovascular bundle..."
But even these slightly over-egged technical digressions serve to add nuance to Kelly's characters – men in their fifties who are comfortable and competent in their own fields but uneasy and at times powerless in their family lives. In the final pages, Kelly's eternally doomed protagonist nods in the direction of Dante's Hell, with its selva oscura, or dark wood, or Forrest. It is the forest in which Dante found himself lost at the mid-point of his life. Not the least of Kelly's achievements is to have used intrigues, brutal murders and the supernatural as a way of sounding the panic terror that underlies any mid-life crisis.