In a city of filth, the dead are for sale. Samuel Clow and his partner Mickey Kierney are traders in mortality, spending their nights digging up the freshly dead for the benefit of science and their wallets. One night they get lucky and come across a shallow mass grave of cholera victims — 30 in all.
Clow and Kierney are off to cash in at old Dr. Gray's when they see something strange — and for these blokes to call something "strange" is saying a lot. The mythical Corpse King is rising. The lord of the dead, bane of resurrectionists everywhere, has struck again, laughing its hysterical laugh.
The Corpse King is the twenty-first in Cemetery Dance Publications' popular series of limited-edition hardcover novellas. It has ultra-creepy cover art by Alan Clark and intensely disturbing, almost photo-realistic interior illustrations by Keith Minnion.
Author Tim Curran paints the Irish slums of Edinburgh, Scotland, with a muddy brush, "a mud swimming with the filth of ... seepage from backed-up sewers ... emptied privy pails, offal from the slaughteryards ... a seething organic brew of feces, urine, blood ... a ripe and heady breeding ground for contagious disease." (Must be hard to sell real estate with a ringing endorsement like that.)
In fact, there's so much illness that the cemeteries are overflowing. Bodies just pile up — as hidden from sight as possible (or convenient) — while Clow and Kierney take advantage to get funds for their nightly imbibitions.
At first, the pair take a brave tack: they simply refuse to believe in the Corpse King's existence, diving back into their ghastly work. But a thing that eats corpses cuts into the livelihood of enterprising individuals trafficking in the freshly dead. So, the duo take it upon themselves to bait and destroy the culprit, whatever it may be.
This chase takes up a good portion of the plot of The Corpse King — and it is a frightening, suspenseful ride — but the main draw of the novella is the partnership of Clow and Kierney themselves. They've obviously been working together for some time, as they have an easy-going, mildly competitive manner with one another.
Their verbal jousts over who had the worst childhood — Four Yorkshiremen–style — are a highlight. They're wickedly witty and uproariously rude as they engage in a sort of "one-downmanship":
"Me old man used to beat me severely about the ears with his fists and I think he knocked something loose up there, he did."Curran seems to have a quiver full of remarks, retorts, and ripostes layered with humorous hyperbole and gallows humor (literally, during the hanging of a fellow graverobber) that engenders an affection for these companions that grounds the abnormal goings-on in a relatable reality. One begins to care about the filthy buggers, especially when compared to the people around them.
"Cor, he only used his fists?"
"Unless a fire poker was near, you see."
"Me old man was the same way. Used a barrel stave on me, he did.... The old sod. I used to wake each morning with a stream of his vile piss in me face, except on me birthday when he'd dump the entire chamber pot on me as a gift. It's with great love and respect that I remember me father."
"Aye, enough then, Michael Kierney. If you were to peel an onion beneath me nose I could cry no more."
"You're a kind man, Samuel Clow."
As a result, The Corpse King is more than just a horror tale. It's also a tragic portrait of friendship. When Curran began leading the story toward its inevitable end, I just held on because I knew I was in the hands of a master.