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The Late Review: The Possessions of Doctor Forrest

26th Oct, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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Richard T. Kelly began his writing career with several film related books. Crusaders, his first novel, saw him compared to the likes of Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, but with 2011's The Possessions of Doctor Forrest (Faber & Faber tpb) he's most definitely embraced the dark side.

The book presents the story of three respected Scottish doctors - psychiatrist Steve Hartford, paediatric surgeon Grey Lochran and cosmetic surgeon Robert Forrest. Friends since boyhood, mid-life has brought certain discontents, especially for Forrest, a reformed hell-raiser who broods over his fading looks and the departure of his beautiful girlfriend. When Forrest disappears and the police can find no evidence of foul play, his friends decide to conduct their own investigation. A series of strange events take place, minatory in nature and throwing into focus problems the two men have in their own lives and, with hindsight, had with Forrest. Everything leads back to the mysterious femme fatale that Forrest took up with before his disappearance. Finally we have the exhaustive confession of Forrest himself and an explanation of sorts for what has occurred, though there is still much that remains a mystery.

This is a complex and beautifully constructed story, character driven, with a wealth of detail and incident that my description above can only hint at. In the first three sections of the book the story is mainly told via extracts from the journals of Hartford and Lochran, but there are also notes by investigating officer DI Hagen, a diary entry from Forrest's ex-girlfriend Malena, an extract from the workbook of Hartford's patient Eloise, letters from Lochran's wife Olivia. Kelly stage manages all this diverse material with exceptional skill so that a composite and multi-faceted picture of what has taken place emerges.

All the main participants in the story are well drawn, men and women with feet of clay, and you believe in them as motivators of what happens in the narrative, the use of the various journals throwing a different light on each aspect of the story as well as further fleshing out the characters. While the seasoned horror reader may well have a handle on what is taking place long before more general readers, there is still something of a chill to be had from the central conceit. You could make a strong case for Kelly using the tropes of supernatural horror to explore the nature of the male mid-life crisis, but even if taken only at face value Possessions offers us an intriguing variation on the Faust legend, the good doctor selling his soul for an ersatz immortality, a bargain that he is too weak to resist and yet ultimately too moral to enjoy. Things never work out as Forrest planned. A cosmetic surgeon who believes that transformation is empowerment, he must confront the ironic truth that changing his appearance has changed nothing really - the character flaws that undid him are still present, whatever face they lurk behind.

Arching over the narrative is Her, Dijana Vukovara, a seductive but terrifying plot mover, not so much from what she actually does but owing to the potential for evil that both the doctors and the reader sense in her person. She is the tempter, a Mephistophelean figure, offering what we cannot refuse but then poisoning the chalice with things we do not want. I could have done with a bit more about her, some more hints as to her true nature, and I really did want to know what she said to one of the doctors that horrified him so, though I'm not sure what the author could have come up with that lived up to expectation.

Subtle and enthralling, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest was a superb foray into the realms of the gothic and a book I may very well read again one day, just for the satisfaction of seeing how Kelly works it all out and finding the things I almost undoubtedly missed on this first go round. Heartily recommended.




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