McCrae stalks the streets of his city in a creepy beaked mask and a hooded cloak, looking for all the damned world like a demonic crow. The downtrodden denizens call him ‘Doctor Death’, but instead of taking lives he is actually trying to save them, for he is a plague doctor. His lover Katrein is a nurse, tending to the sick and the dying. Her cousin and his friend is Hamish, who transports the dead to the mass grave in his horse-drawn cart and also sees ghosts.
This colourful trio are the heart and soul of this brutal novel, The Malignant Dead, the setting of which is the plague-ravaged Edinburgh of 1645, when infection meant death and all hope seemed lost. McCrae has been tasked with finding a cure for the dreaded disease, or at the very least containing it, before it wipes the city clean of human life. However, the city ‘council’, whose principals could generously be described as dubious, have banked on him dying before they have to pay him his promised fee.
But McCrae is not only stubbornly refusing to die but also seems to be making headway against the epidemic. What the council don’t know is that he has a secret weapon; his friend James, with whom he has a highly flirtatious relationship. James is a scientist and is convinced he can concoct a potion that will cure the dastardly disease, or perhaps even death itself.
And so the stage is set, and what a gruesome stage it is. The horrors of plague-ridden Scotland are vividly evoked by the authors, with not a single ghoulish detail spared, from McCrae lancing and then cauterising patients’ ‘buboes’ to householders hurling human waste from their windows.
But there’s something else going on here, another layer of perspective that has been thrown into the noxious mix, courtesy of recent events. The Malignant Dead takes place in a city under viral siege, with people confined to their homes lest they should spread it to their friends, families and neighbours, and punishments waiting for any who dare venture out without good reason.
Yes, it’s impossible to read this book now without digesting it through the prism of the coronavirus pandemic. And while we weren’t locked down in houses full of rats and fleas, with our dead relatives laid out on the dining table awaiting collection, it certainly does all sound uncomfortably familiar. This is a unique, compelling and immersive novel, so immersive in fact that I could feel my flesh itching while reading it. By the time I finished it I felt like I needed to be deloused. On the strength of this tome I will be gleefully seeking out others by CL Raven.
And on the subject of CL Raven, you may have noticed that I earlier referred to ‘them’ in the plural, and that’s because CL Raven is not a single unit. Cat and Lynx are animal loving, pole dancing, ghost hunting, horror fixated identical twins from Cardiff with an impressive track record of literary accomplishments to their shared name.
They write as one, and the results are stupendous.
If you’d like to get to know them better, then they will most likely be appearing at a comic con near you sometime soon. That’s how I met them, and like most weavers of the macabre, they’re very nice indeed. So, do yourself a favour and give The Malignant Dead a shot. If you dig all things macabre and supernatural, then you won’t be sorry.
The Malignant Dead by CL Raven is available from Amazon, obvs.