by Will Storr
Marble Arch Press/Simon & Schuster
367 pp. $16 (trade paperback)
Publication date: March 11, 2014
Killian Lone had a childhood that even a Dickens orphan would find nightmarish. Punished cruelly with burning cigarettes and beatings by his man–hating mother who taught him to withstand pain and not cry out in order to toughen up, subjected to a humiliating attack by a teenage thug that nearly blinds him, it’s no wonder he finds it necessary to escape to his Aunt Dorothy’s Gothic retreat in the Sussex countryside. There, with his Aunt as teacher and mentor, he learns to cook mouthwatering meals filled with tantalizing exotic ingredients Under his aunt’s patient instruction coupled with the only kindness he ever receives Killian blossoms into a chef of enviable skill and invention. He decides to pursue his love of cooking at a culinary school where his talent does not go unnoticed by the headmaster. Soon Killian finds himself apprenticed to his hero, the brilliant celebrity chef Max Mann whose restaurant “King” is one of the best in London. But the world of the professional chef is no better than a military boot camp with its grueling exercises and initiation rituals for the grunts. Killian once again finds himself the target of sadism and cruelty on the scale of a Grand Guignol production.
When Aunt Dorothy dies she promises Killian will be rewarded. To his parent’s horror that reward is the family estate. His mother is enraged, his ineffectual father merely disappointed, when Killian refuses to sign over the property so that his parents can sell the place and use the money to start their lives afresh. He leaves his parents and takes up residence in Dor Cottage. In his exploration of the foreboding house he comes across a library of cook books in a locked attic. Among those books he finds a few apparently written by his ancestors who were known to indulge in witchcraft. One of the books, an eerily illustrated volume of herbs, discusses strange plants he has never heard of and their culinary and medicinal properties. He later discovers these very same mysterious plants are growing wild on the estate in a forbidden garden that has been walled up for centuries. And just like those curious characters in fairy tales temptation gets the better of him. Killian breaks down the walls and gathers some of those herbs for his own cooking experiments with some surprising results.
Will Storr, an award winning investigative journalist, has crafted a modern tale of horror that capitalizes on the popularity of celebrity chefs, gourmet cooking and the egos at war in the professional kitchens of Michelin rated restaurants. Storr has a gift for unusual metaphor, evocative descriptions, and well thought turns of phrase ("It was a flavour that took ordinary beauty and violently challenged it; that took perfection and humiliated it.") His obvious love for Gothic settings are both homages to traditional supernatural tales of the past and excitingly contemporary with original details and imaginative spins. Dor Cottage and its creepy gardens might well be at home in the stories of Lefanu, Machen and Blackwood, yet the plants Storr invents are monstrous things with horrifying traits; so life-like they seem like supporting characters not just leaves and stems. The book is most effective when Killian is alone at his aunt's home cooking, exploring the house and grounds, and experimenting with the plants. When confined to the brilliantly realized Dor Cottage where Killian is under the influence of century old powers he cannot comprehend the story is genuinely thrilling and filled with mystery.
The bulk of the story takes place in the restaurant world, however, where Storr indulges in the modern trend in horror to repulse and nauseate with gore and torture. The intensity of the cruelty, the relentless troment and humiliation of Killian and his co-workers at the hands of the sadistic head chefs had this reader longing for a scene of violent revenge and role reversal in victims and tormenters. Yet when it comes there is no true catharsis for either reader or victimized characters.
Killian begins as a figure of pity but in his hunger to become London’s – if not the world’s – best chef we see him metamorphose from anguished victim to ambition crazed, loyalty obsessed madman. Though Killian begins to show his natural talent in food preparation and a desire to transcend the tired nouvelle cuisine of his icon Max Mann the reader soon discovers that Killian’s dependence on the powerful herbs and their near magical properties are the true cause of his success. It is therefore difficult to side with Killian as he skyrockets from apprentice to master chef eclipsing the fame of Max Mann to become the new darling of the restaurant scene.
Hunger and ambition, interestingly, are used interchangeably throughout the book. The howling is done both in pain and in longing. Killian refers to himself as a "turnspit dog", he constantly talks of the loyalty dogs have for their masters, and is obsessed with the idea of loyalty. The title's metaphors recur and morph as the story inexorably makes its way to a tragedy hinted at in the opening pages. Storr's novel in the end is a cautionary tale of blind ambition and an unquenchable thirst for stardom. But Killian doesn’t ever seem to learn anything. Beaten, burned, scarred both physically and emotionally, one hopes for an epiphany that will redeem Killian in his quest for love and acceptance.
Further frustrating the reader is the knowledge that Killian is a fraud. All his declamatory talk of loyalty is just so much hot air. He traps himself and becomes enslaved to a success based on lies, lies that he continues to tell his friends, co-workers and even himself. His ultimate sacrifice in the final pages seems more like a writer’s cop out than a real deserved catharsis for a character who seemed paradoxically to live and long for pain and not the love and attention he so fervently craved.