Here at Ink Heist, we are absolute fanatics when it comes to both horror and noir, so when we heard about Alan Baxter’s horror/noir mash-up Manifest Recall, we knew this was a book that we had to cover. Combine our love of those genres with the fact that it was being released by Grey Matter Press – one of our favorite publishers – and Manifest Recall had the potential to be everything we could want in a book.
Baxter makes an interesting choice to open Manifest Recall with a quick, mundane scene in order to set the stage for the events that are about to unfold. While the scene itself is simply Eli’s recollection of buying the car he is currently sitting in, it showcases Baxter’s effortless characterization and serves as a nice transition into the main narrative. Eli purchased the car from a woman with bloodshot eyes, stained teeth and rat-tail hair who was down on her luck. Eli was so sympathetic to the woman’s plight, that memory stands out to him even though his other memories are unreachable, scrubbed from his mind. He has no clue where he is or what he’s doing and when he looks toward the seat next to him, he doesn’t recognize the shivering girl whose wrists are zip-tied together.
As he sits there running through what he can remember, he remembers that he is 28-years-old and that his first hit in New Orleans made him vomit. This scene is one of many that shows how well Baxter is able utilize sensory detail to transport readers into the story.
“It was a hot night, a warm breeze blowing gently across that balcony overlooking Bourbon Street, carrying the aromas of fried food and cigar smoke. My knees were knocking like saplings in a gale. But I did it. I killed him.”
It’s while Eli is scrambling to collect his memories that the girl speaks up and tells him he has been a robot since Vernon’s. One of the first puzzle pieces drops into place when Eli recognizes the name. The “Vernon” the girl mentions is Vernon Sykes, a mobster that has connections throughout New Orleans and a violent streak that strikes fear into anyone who dares to cross him. As Eli and the girl begin to talk about what happened, they realize their lives are in danger and they must work together to have any chance of survival.
Manifest Recall is a gripping noir story with a dose of the supernatural that is largely driven by the characters. Baxter creates a cast of morally complex characters that resemble real people, flaws and all. Don’t get me wrong there is no shortage of action and great scenes that make this a lightning fast read, but everything could easily fall apart if you don’t care about the characters. A bulk of the story focuses on the interactions between Eli and the mysterious woman (who we are introduced to as Carly) in his passenger seat and their interactions seem natural and add to the tension and mystery bubbling beneath the surface.
I like that Baxter has Eli remember his past in fragments to not only lead readers in the direction the story is going, but also to gradually reveal what kind of man Eli is. Readers learn Eli is a mob enforcer early on, and that revelation makes it easy for readers to assume (myself included) what sort of man he is. However, we learn through these fragmented memories that Eli entered the mob life through traumatic circumstances and that there is more to him than just being a killing machine. Eli remembers his first kill and remembers that he never wanted to get used to the killing, but gradually it changes him. That is readily apparent multiple times throughout Manifest Recall as Eli is still able to recall the skills he learned as an enforcer even though he can’t remember portions of his past. He may not have wanted to stick to the criminal path and become a killer, but the fact that he was able to utilize his skills in his fugue state shows that it’s a large part of who he is now. The thing that sets Eli apart is that he knows he’s not a good person, but that he at least had a code that he followed. At least he thought he did, until he realized he had physically assaulted Carly. Also, the fact that he is constantly recounting his past kills – which plays a rather large role in the story – shows that at least his actions weigh on him and he feels some form of remorse.
While Eli is a great character, I found myself becoming more interested in Carly as I made it further into Manifest Recall. At first glance, she appears to be a victim and completely at Eli’s mercy, but she has a satisfying character arc that proves she may be the strongest character in the story. Carly is a bit foul-mouthed and even though she knows Eli is clearly unhinged, she’s not afraid to speak her mind and give him shit when he deserves it. I don’t want to dive to far into Carly’s transformation throughout the story, but it is easily one of the most satisfying parts of the novella and brilliant characterization from Baxter. Despite not knowing each other that well, Carly and Eli have an interesting relationship that is shaped by their dependence on one another for survival and their traumatic pasts.
I sort of touched on Baxter’s ability to blend genres in the opening of my review, but I really can’t stress enough how well Baxter weaves together elements of multiple genres. Sometimes books that are a melting pot of genres can lean more strongly in one direction or sometimes they just don’t work because there are too many ideas vying for prominence and it ends up creating a confusing mess. That issue is nonexistent with Manifest Recall. It works best if you’re a fan of both genres, but horror fans could read this and come away thinking it was a damn good horror book and people who enjoy noir fiction could easily feel the same. The balance is perfect and the supernatural elements work extremely well in the context of the story. It was a brilliant move from Baxter and even though there is some doubt as to whether what Eli encounters is real or the product of the extreme stress he endures, there are definitive answers given by the end of the book.
The mystery of just what sort of mess Eli has found himself in is the immediate and effective hook. As the novella progresses and Eli begins piecing together how he got here, the tension keeps escalating and will keep you glued to the pages. When the full picture becomes clear, it hits like a brass knuckle punch to the gut that keeps the reader off-balance and leaves a lasting impression. As the horrors unfold, you will have a visceral reaction. I remember thinking, “No way is he going to go there..” and he did. It’s terrible and horrific, but a necessary choice that elevates this story. I don’t want to venture into spoiler territory, but this specific scene is just one small example that shows Baxter’s immense talent as a writer. Baxter gets readers to connect easily to Eli and his plight even though there are numerous instances that show Eli isn’t a good man. You connect with him and want him to succeed in his quest for answers, but at the same time you realize he is a flawed man.
Baxter’s writing is sharp and direct and there is not a single lull in the novella’s 160 pages. If you are a fan of dark fiction, this is essential reading and this is definitely in contention for my favorite novella of the year. Manifest Recall was the first book I have read of Baxter’s, but it left such an impression, I will be checking out everything he releases and I have a feeling you will too. He has another release coming this year from Grey Matter Press called Devouring Dark and trust me when I say you that is going to be one book this year you don’t want to miss.