A claustrophobic scream through the dark recesses of human behaviour, Allan Guthrie’s Slammer is a worthy read for those with a sense of grim curiosity as to the bestial cunning residing within the civilised mind. This morbid Scotsman presents an ugly exploration of what goes on when the lights go out, the hideous cruelty that occurs when ordinary decent respect is dispensed with and the law of the jungle prevails. Reminiscent of that sick guilty terror that accompanies schoolyard victimisation, that anarchic excitement that becomes all too real with no responsible adult present, this is a knife-edge thriller of considerable panache and skill. Yet in the world of schoolyard horrors, a teacher always comes running, someone’s parents usually find out and nobody wants to go to the principal’s office. When the sanity of everyday adult life is suspended, when the rules-of-engagement go out the window… what happens?
Slammer revolves around Nicholas Glass, a young prison officer, detailing his descent as he proves unable to cope with the stresses of the job. Guthrie treads a fine line between sympathy and ridicule, allowing his reader to empathise with our antihero’s disintegrating family life, his disarmingly pathetic sense of selfhood. Essentially though, Glass is a sap. A walkover, an out-and-out softy, an utter wuss, with his heart in exactly the wrong place. Struggling time and again to deal with the circumstances of which he’s a victim, you’ll find yourself in constant disbelief at his poor decision-making, concurrently hoping against hope that he’ll somehow come out on top. Meanwhile there’s an element of trainwreck-fascination to the plot development, a disbelief that poor old Glass can fall so far, so fast, so hard. Guthrie wields considerable skill in convincing us to suspend our disbelief throughout the novel, an admirable feat that leads to a sense of culpability, a gnawing paranoia that we too are somehow responsible.
The escalating manic desperation is rabid, almost psychedelic in its unreality, yet all the more terrifying for its utterly convincing delivery. Guthrie carefully constructs a panopticon of paranoid terror, a hideous state of constant fear. The author is economical with his prose, leaving just enough to the imagination and ensuring that a hint is enough to let his reader’s imagination plummet into ever-darkening pits of misery. Brutally engaging similes and chilling metaphors continually build the oppressive static tension of the Hilton, as its denizens call the modern Scottish prison in which the novel is set. The descent is relentless, Glass’ nightmare ever worsening. Crucially, the madness remains entertaining without being ridiculous, fun though chilling, such elements being reminiscent of the novels of Thomas Harris (The Silence Of The Lambs, etc).
As Glass slips into addiction and paranoid schizophrenia, matters steadily become more nebulous and the author does an excellent job of imparting to his reader the psychotic terror of a drug-splintered mind. The feckless protagonist backs himself into a series of corners, attempting to play the various criminals and prison guards off against each other in a manner far too sophisticated for his addled semi-consciousness. Yet the convoluted series of events leading to the climax becomes so detailed that it’s hard to maintain credibility, and to a certain extent the novel begins to run out of steam towards the end. A deft hand ultimately wins out, and Guthrie reels the wayward elements back in to tie things up with a stylish climax reminiscent of dark modern cinema, a vivid and uncomfortable joyride recalling psychedelic crime thrillers The Machinist or Memento.
Clever and engaging, complicated but undemanding, with a primitive sophistication in its scope, Slammer is a great read and one which never cheapens itself by taking the easy way out. Concurrently making some valid (if grisly) points about memory, guilt and psychosis, Guthrie transcends the rigid dichotomies which all too often cast our heroes and villains in easily dismissed shades of black and white; I for one will be eager to see where the future takes this talented author.