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The Angels of L19 by Jonathan Walker4 stars
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Robert Fisher is 14 years old, growing up in the Garston district of Liverpool in the early 1980s. He lives with his aunt Rose and uncle Edward, next door to his best friend, Tracey Forester. Both Robert and Tracey have lost their mothers. Robert’s father, who has a drinking problem, nonetheless works offshore as a merchant seaman and sends home what money he can, but Robert feels estranged from him all the same. Like most teens, Robert and Tracey enjoy music, U2 especially, though Tracey, who’s learning the drums, leans more towards New Order and OMD. Robert saw The Smiths on Top of the Pops and thinks Morrissey moans too much.

Both of them are also members of the Brethren Church, an evangelical Christian community without the traditional church hierarchy of other denominations. When Robert was converted at church camp at the age of 13, it was a profoundly transformative experience for him. His mates in the church — Tracey, Kevin and youth minister Mark Strong, a Falklands War veteran — think Robert’s a bit eccentric. After all, the kid is so intensely devout he’ll start a completely serious argument about the theological accuracy of Time Bandits. But they put his occasionally oddball behavior down to the usual adolescent awkwardness, and Tracey is loyal in her friendship to him.

What Robert isn’t telling anyone is that he is visited on the regular by a couple of entities. The first one he calls the Presence, a strange humanoid creature with a completely blank, egg-like head and no face but a thin slit down the middle, like the seam between two sheets of wallpaper. The Presence seems to appear whenever Robert feels like a message from God is about to come in (and ever since his conversion, Robert has been expecting very explicit messages). The second being is much more sinister, taking the form of a small naked girl with a strangely enlarged, bald head and a set of bloodstained teeth. Unlike the Presence, the girl talks up a storm, and her taunting, sarcastic jibes become gradually much more threatening, and anything but angelic.

The Angels of L19 is a horror novel that doesn’t care to act like a horror novel. While religious tropes, images of angels and demons and exorcisms, are common to horror fiction, there’s nothing about the story Jonathan Walker is telling that’s interested in utilizing those tropes in the conventional way. Drawing from his own experiences as an evangelical youth, Walker is, first and foremost, looking to capture a moment in time. The book takes its narrative cues from the popular British storytelling tradition of the kitchen sink drama, tales of the everyday lives of working class people, exemplified by classic movies like A Taste of Honey or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and TV shows like Coronation Street.

As an American reader, I trust the British reviewers who say that Walker’s evocation of life in Liverpool in 1984 is dead-on. The city was the backdrop of a massive miner’s strike that ended up being utterly crushed by Margaret Thatcher. But the interests of young people fall more to music, friendships, school, and in the case of these characters, church life.

Walker portrays the religious lives of his characters with no judgment and no snarky editorializing, and even some nostalgic fondness. These are people to whom God’s role in their daily lives is never in question, but — and this really struck me as an American reader — evangelicalism in the UK seems to have a much less malign character than how it’s evolved into outright militancy in the US. Though I’m sure in real life, the social attitudes of the Brethren could hardly be called progressive, no one in Walker’s novel seems obsessed with making the lives of people they deem sinners miserable. When Robert gives an assembly to his school where he explains his faith through referencing U2 songs, he’s more interested in explaining why he believes, rather than preaching or denouncing those who don’t. Still, there was doubtless American influence on that community, as a major scene takes place at the famous Billy Graham (here renamed Henry Prince) revival tour held at Anfield stadium in July.

Walker’s skill is immediately evident in the role music plays in the story. Typically these kinds of stories — and I’m thinking of, say, Stranger Things — use music as a low-effort way of evoking nostalgia, giving the audience an obvious signpost: “Hello, everyone, we are now in the ’80s! Look at all the pastel outfits and perms! Oh, here comes ‘Like a Virgin’ on the radio!” But Walker uses music to help us get to know his characters. Robert prefers mainstream pop because you have to find God in the music, whereas Christian pop just spells it all out for you. Tracey is a budding musician, and if you’re a Gen Xer, you’ll enjoy the scene where she’s practicing drums and failing to replicate the drum machine intro to “Blue Monday”. There’s enough humor and upbeat spirit winning us over in the book’s opening chapters that when things take a sudden turn towards the dark and supernatural about a hundred pages in, it’s genuinely shocking.

I mentioned that both Robert and Tracey have lost their mothers. The circumstances behind those deaths are revealed as the novel goes on, and we find that neither Robert nor Tracey have processed their grief very well, though Robert is much more far gone. There’s also a long, early scene in which Mark leads the kids in a youth Bible study discussing the story of Abraham and Isaac. It seems like a scene giving us a lot of extraneous detail the plot doesn’t really need, until the moment when the strange girl entity makes a specific demand of Robert in exchange for a promised reward. Then it all makes a grisly kind of sense. What ultimately transpires will devastate the entire community.

We’ve seen so many stories in which the stereotyped religious character has gotten a little too into it and become a certifiable loon, like Mrs. Carmody from Stephen King’s The Mist (or any one of a thousand other examples). But Walker skirts that cliché as well, instead allowing us just enough room to draw conclusions about what’s really happening without laying things out simplistically. The idea that these are deranged visions, hallucinations that Robert is having seems pretty apparent. But when Tracey is quite literally pulled into the bizarre, liminal alternate realities that Robert is experiencing, then something not of this world has got to be taking place. Have these beings come from Robert, or to him, and from where? They probably aren’t Heaven sent, though if they are, then Heaven isn’t going to be the permanent vacation paradise Christians are hoping for.

If the book didn’t fully land for me at any point, it might have been during the extended denouement, when a little more clarity and less magical realism might have been helpful to wrap things up. But I can say that whatever nitpicks I may have, The Angels of L19 is original in a way few books I’ve read have been, horror or otherwise, and written with a powerful degree of emotional conviction and intellectual heft. It earns favorable comparison to works like Gemma Files’ Experimental Film or Micah Dean Hicks’ Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. And while it’s only available from a small-press British publisher for now, it deserves converts well beyond those borders.