“Just Another Day,” my favorite song from the Oingo Boingo album Dead Man’s Party, isn’t about death, but about the uncanny awareness of survival: “There’s life in the ground.” In his debut novel The Gutter Prayer, Irish game designer Gareth Hanrahan takes that sentiment to skin-crawling heights. The catacombs of his city of Guerdon contain two species of scavenger ready to fight over your corpse: the Ghouls (descended from cannibals, according to local mythology) and the Crawling Ones, sentient beings who are libraries unto themselves, each being formed from thousands of memory-preserving worms. Hanrahan claims to have written “more game books than he can readily recall,” and it’s hardly surprising: role players may find themselves desperate to know the stats for antagonists such as Ravellers—who convincingly ape humans by knitting themselves together from aspects of various victims—and Tallowmen, an alchemically-made police force who are half-human and half-melting candle wax. This won’t be a series for the weak of stomach, but Hanrahan’s writhing world manages the rare trick of being dismal without being dreary. It’s as lively and multifaceted as the maggot-infested underside of a dead raccoon.
If you’ve read your share of fantasy you already know the protagonist, a feisty urchin beset by powers she didn’t ask for and prophetic visions she can’t shake. More intriguing are her two companions, who each illustrate terminal illness: Spar, infected with a disease that is inexorably turning him to stone (the pricey medication he injects to keep it at bay can only forestall its progress), and Rat, a ravenous young ghoul (“young” being the operative word; mature ghouls are too far gone in their flesh-cravings to exhibit normal consciousness, lending a new urgency to the old fear of becoming like your parents). If these characters often seem like living inroads to the concepts they represent, the ideas are sufficiently rich to make a meal on their own, particularly given the surprising eloquence of their expression. A particular scene stopped me in my tracks by using a literary device to take Spar’s crisis from conjecture to direct experience on the part of the reader. I hope others will catch the same visceral chill I did. The old story of the untutored wunderkind coming into her own even gets some welcome heft through creative addition. To cut a complicated story short, the “gods” that selected her for their purposes are less abstract, and more oddly situated, than one might expect.
None of this mentions the story itself, which loosely involves the machinations of rival pantheons and more directly has to do with power struggles in Guerdon’s teeming underworld. At times this book can seem like a Crawling One, coming at you with more individual worms of information than you’ll know how to process. Yet its extreme extroversion of scope is tempered by an unusual introversion of style. The characters, and there are many, feel and experience the events around them far more often than they talk about them, and the erosive flow of Hanrahan’s prose is as lovingly crafted as his Lovecraftian setting. Spar’s futile medicine “digs away at the channels of his thought” like “pure rainwater washing away debris in a gutter,” and Rat’s heightened sense of smell shows us a world in which—from the saltwater tang that distinguishes sailors to the chemical smell of factory-soaked locals—“each person is shrouded in their past doings.” If the elaborate setup sometimes swallows up the storyline, it’s still an appropriate starting point for Hanrahan’s Black Iron Legacy series, and those in the market for a dense, disturbing and original entry in the crowded realm of high fantasy will have a hard time getting their minds out of The Gutter Prayer.