Book review: The Posessions of Doctor Forrest

Gothic tale ticks all the dark boxes...

The Posessions of Doctor Forrest

BY Richard T Kelly

Faber & Faber, 320pp, 12.99

FILM buffs will know the name Richard T Kelly. As a regular fixture at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in the late Nineties and early Noughties, he was recognised for his on-stage presentations.

It may have been these visits to the Capital that inspired Kelly to create the three Edinburgh doctors who are the main characters for his new novel, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest. Equally, it could have been Edinburgh itself, home of Stevenson and cradle of dualism, that inspired Kelly's modern-gothic second novel.

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Grey Lochran, Steve Hartford and Robert Forrest are three boyhood friends from their time at Kilmuir College, a private school outside Edinburgh. They remain almost inseparable throughout their lives, moving south to join the prosperous Metro-Scot community in London, even as their paths as doctors take three clearly differing directions.

Lochran, the surgeon, is clinical, reliable, upstanding; Hartford, the psychologist, is altruistic, empathetic and aware of the potency that is found in the dark side in everyone's character, including his own. And Forrest, the whisky-swigging Lothario who mortgages his principles when he discovers the treasure chest that is private, cosmetic surgery, is the boy who never grew up.

The story begins with Forrest being reported missing. As Lochran and Hartford pursue the mystery of his disappearance, the comfort, security and certainty of their affluent professional lives begins to unravel, impacting dramatically and fatally on those around them.

Spine-chilling terror and the complex supernatural are key components in the gothic novel but a key ingredient is a strong sense of place, here locating Hartford's clinic in the former family seat of a notorious 18th century rake – cue rattling eaves in isolated turreted homes, clattering footsteps echoing through dark narrow streets and alleyways, and fog billowing over blasted moors.

Forrest's home is a converted mansion, but Hartford and Lochran regularly meet up for early morning jogs around Hampstead Heath affording limitless opportunities to set the scene for the horrors that pursue them.

The story is told principally through the chronological journal entries of Lochran and Hartford, with additional contributions from Lochran's wife, Forrest's ex-partner, and the detective charged with solving the mystery of Forrest's disappearance.

Lochran is convinced that Forrest's new girlfriend, a mysterious, enigmatic beauty of eastern European antecedents, has something to do with his friend's disappearance and tracks her to an empty apartment in Harley Street. Those familiar with the genre will by this time be screaming, "Don't go in that empty apartment", but Lochran must follow his own path.

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As evidence mounts to suggest that although there may be no sign of Forrest, he's not very far away, his friends are forced to confront the emerging picture of a very different man from the one they call a friend.

Lochran struggles to engage with his adolescent son – who worshipped his godfather Forrest – and Hartford watches, almost helpless, as his marriage and relationship with his two young children unravels before his eyes.

The emerging picture of Forrest's obsession with money, sex and power is reflected in that of his friends, which explains why they maintain their close association with such a singularly unlikeable man, and against all rational logic search ceaselessly for the answer to his disappearance.

The baffling mystery is resolved in the final section of the book, when Forrest himself chronicles his own demonic downfall, and as a clearer picture emerges, the horrific conclusion to the story begins to take shape and the reader can only watch the inevitable conclusion either in helpless frustration or smug satisfaction.

How successful Kelly has been in creating a modern gothic horror novel will be judged on personal taste. The characters seem at times thinly sketched, but the sharply observed dialogue between them more than compensates.

In retrospect, given Kelly's credits as a screenwriter, what we may be reading is a potential first draft for a television drama series and when transferred to screen with the addition of special effects and haunting incidental music, this would certainly be one to watch from behind the sofa cushions.