First Stone by Gary Ballard

Front cover of First Stone by Gary BallardBallard fuses the viscerality of serial killer investigation with the mentality of Lovecraftian cosmology to create a gestalt that captures the shattering of mind and body without becoming tedious rubbery spatterpunk or abstract statements of indescribability.

Forensic psychologist Jack Carter awakens in a mental hospital suffering from amnesia and prime suspect in his wife’s disappearance. Well enough not to be a danger to himself and not provably a murderer, he is released to put what he can of his life back together. So, when one of Jack’s contacts tells him an alleged serial serial killer claims to have knowledge of Jack’s wife, Jack leaps at the chance to interview him. Unfortunately, the killer denies ever having mentioned Jack’s wife or having killed anyone—and his behaviour doesn’t fit any serial killer Jack’s studied.

While other authors have mixed cosmic horror and police procedurals, Ballard’s use of a lead character with amnesia provides a freshness to the battle between human reason and the incomprehensible cosmos: Jack’s emotional drive to fit the pieces together without having a firm footing of memory allow everything to take on a resonance of vast significance, increasing that sense of a greater truth beneath what is seen which pervades cosmic horror while also weakening the division between the mundane and the mystical that can make revelation of the actual cosmic feel either too early or too late depending on a reader’s perspective.

This effect is further strengthened by Ballard’s choice to have the psychological evidence be odd while the physical evidence seems clear. Although criminal psychology is in reality reliable and physical evidence can be very unreliable, most readers will instinctively consider fingerprints, receipts, and such as proof, and thus feel Jack’s doubts about the accused’s mindset is evidence the accused is involved in something odd rather than a mundane killer.

Where this novella is, unfortunately, less immersive is in the opening paragraphs. While they are from the perspective of a person coming out of a catatonic state, so objectively should not be natural prose, there are some conflicts of tense and extended sentences that create an impression the book is less accessible than it really is.

This novella is the first in a series. As such, Ballard does leave much of the broader cosmicism and plot unresolved. However, the investigation of the alleged serial killer is brought to a proper conclusion, providing a satisfying ending that offers a entry point into larger matters rather than leaving the reader mid-plot.

Jack is a sympathetic protagonist. While he is both traumatised by his wife’s disappearance and self-aware enough to accept he might have been involved, he uses this as a goad to investigate harder rather than withdraw inward; thus, although the dynamic tension between his profession and his desires creates obstacles, his issues are caused by him being active or sensible rather than passive.

The supporting cast are similarly nuanced, creating a world where truth is realistically obfuscated by a mix of prejudices and attempts at helpfulness.

Overall, I enjoyed this novella greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking cosmic horror that is driven more by the fallibility of the human mind than ancient cultists or subterranean creatures.

I received a free copy of this novella via a group offering books in exchange for fair reviews.

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