Sunday, March 29, 2020

Review: BEAST

BEAST by Matt Wesolowski (Orenda Books, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In the wake of the 'Beast from the East' cold snap that ravaged the UK in 2018, a grisly discovery was made in a ruin on the Northumbrian coast. Twenty-four-year-old vlogger, Elizabeth Barton, had been barricaded inside what locals refer to as 'The Vampire Tower', where she was later found frozen to death.

Three young men, part of an alleged 'cult', were convicted of this terrible crime, which they described as a 'prank gone wrong'. However, in the small town of Ergarth, questions have been raised about the nature of Elizabeth Barton's death and whether the three convicted youths were even responsible.

Elusive online journalist Scott King speaks to six witnesses – people who knew both the victim and the three killers – to peer beneath the surface of the case. He uncovers whispers of a shocking online craze that held the young of Ergarth in its thrall and drove them to escalate a series of pranks in the name of internet fame. He hears of an abattoir on the edge of town, which held more than simple slaughter behind its walls, the tragic and chilling legend of the ‘Ergarth Vampire'…

At the tail end of the 2018 winter, the ‘Beast from the East’ storm raged across Great Britain, unleashing freezing winds, icy temperatures, and heavy snowfalls. Newcastle author Matt Wesolowski taps into that frigid setting for this fourth novel in his excellent ‘Six Stories’ series.

Journalist and podcaster Scott King once again (re)investigates a past crime from six different perspectives, interviewing related parties and providing context while leaving the audience to decide the truth. Candidly, a few years ago I thought Wesolowski’s debut Six Stories was terrific but wondered then whether its Rashomon meets Serial structure may better for a standalone than an ongoing series.

I needn’t have worried. Wesolowski has shown an apt hand for keeping the series fresh within its framework, continuing the arc of Scott King’s character, and avoiding the structure overshadowing the story(ies). In Beast, Elizabeth Barton was a vlogger whose popularity grew as she broadcast her attempts at an escalating series of internet challenges, only for her frozen body to be discovered in a decrepit tower on the outskirts of town (skyrocketing her online popularity even more).

While three local boys were convicted of luring Elizabeth to her death, questions remained. Why was Elizabeth targeted and why was her head cut off after she died? What part did local legends about the ‘Ergarth Vampire’ play? Was someone else involved?

Wesolowski does a fine job luring readers in as King meets a variety of people who give varying, self-serving, and contradictory perspectives of what lead to Elizabeth’s death in the abandoned tower. While the format could stumble in lesser hands, Wesolowski shines as he crafts a captivating tale that blends folklore, technology, and modern concerns.

Very good.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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