JournalStone (March 11, 2022)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers
Mark Towse was a new writer to me, but I was very happy to bite into his short work here in Nature’s Perfume. This short collection contains the eponymous novella followed by an additional (unrelated) novelette, “The Masterpiece.”
Because the novella Nature’s Perfume comprises the bulk of this short collection, let’s tackle that one first. This is a classic fish-out-of-water story in which four friends, British tourists, take an annual trip to have an outdoors adventure (this set-up worked wonderfully in Adam Neville’s The Ritual and the Descent films, among many others). This year, they’ve decided to travel to the Ecuadorian forest for some wilderness hiking. The main characters are Nathan (the trip’s organizer/instigator), Tom (Nathan’s best friend), Isla (Nathan’s girlfriend), and Loren (Tom’s girlfriend). The characters seem true-to-life and Towse does a good job of showing the dynamics of the friend group rapidly, which is no easy feat for a writer. The night before the forest hike is to begin, the friends party way too hard with the locals in a bar and indulge in some drugs that they don’t fully understand. Lots of great atmosphere and menace throughout, both in town and in the forest, where they promptly wander off the beaten path and get lost. Great set-up for what’s to come. The reader understands that the protagonists are fools in way over their heads, and we’re hanging on to see how out of control things get. I’m not going to spoil the surprise for how the story progresses from there, but I will just note that they encounter some remarkably strange plants as well as some local monkeys that begin engaging in absolutely savage behavior as well as…certain amorous activities. Tragedy, of course, ensues. This was a really nicely suspenseful novella that unfurls with a mixture of bloody violence and uncontrollable lust.
Now let’s tackle the unconnected novelette “The Masterpiece,” also included in this mini-collection. This is a horror story about a writer named Tom (not the same Tom from Nature’s Perfume) who has a problem. (While Stephen King has made something of a career for himself writing novels about novelists, I still very much enjoy these kinds of stories.) Here, Tom—again, not the same person as the character in Nature’s Perfume—is a struggling writer with a bad case of writer’s block. His wife Fiona and family don’t understand what he’s doing, or why he quit his day job to write full-time. They are running out of time and money and Tom hasn’t produced anything. But, fortunately for Tom (and unfortunately for everyone around him), his new antique typewriter begins communicating with him and “helps” him deal with the travails of being a writer in a troubled marriage. Really nice ending on this story, with a great framing device at the end that brings everything together.
Both stories in this short collection are excellent. Towse is a solid writer with a clear sense for bringing the suspense to his writing. Recommended.