Grey Skies: William Becker
Reviewed By Ben Walker
William Becker’s Grey Skies reminded me of the infamously frustrating game series Myst, where you’d try your best to solve mysterious doings on your own, but ultimately had to consult a walkthrough so you could skip to the interesting bits.
The set-up here involves a man called Roman as he finds a dead nun and decides to stuff her in his trunk. After that, he decides to bury her in the back garden, and it’s only then that he tries to work out how he came to this decision, and how to stop weird forces from tormenting him.
Roman isn’t the only person left with things to work out, as throughout this mostly first-person account of his hellish existence, you’re confronted with a bunch of coded messages. As things go on, these puzzles range from simple (a snippet of reversed speech) to absolutely baffling (text strings so random you might think someone’s knocked a tin of alphabetti spaghetti onto your kindle). Eventually, you’re given the key to decipher some of the codes, but for most of them, you’re left guessing. Had the book come with some kind of explanation up front that I’d be solving puzzles then I might have wanted to play along, but the way they’re just thrown at you was pretty off-putting.
Despite those unwelcome conundrums, some interesting scenes pop up along the way. Roman is gradually terrorised by various people/entities including a withered old man with a liking for spiders, a sea monster, and a nasty sack doll. I say gradually because scenes often take way too long to get going, with mundane details over-described and lots of wandering around on Roman’s part. Kind of like playing Silent Hill 2 without ever opening the map. Only where that game was unnerving, the scares here feel laboured and drawn out, with very little tension and a similar amount of shocks.
Keeping that videogame analogy going, Roman goes through several distinct stages of madness/terror, with scenes in a rank sewer, a weird cruise ship and his own home looping around one another. None of it feels cohesive, with random interludes/interview excerpts, letters to Roman and plain old gobbledegook inserted between chapters. Most are given no context, and by the end, you’re left none the wiser about what some of them were meant to be.
It makes for a frustrating read, certainly not a fun one. If there are secrets buried within these pages then it’ll take a far more patient person than me to unearth them. Add to that an ending that confirms most of your suspicions, and there’s not much to motivate you to attempt a second read-through, let alone the time it would take to crack those codes.
After the novel, you’re given two bonus stories – The White Shade and The Black Box. Despite some interesting links between The White Shade and Grey Skies, that first story suffers the same issues of over-description. Much of the plot – deliberately or otherwise – share a lot of scene ideas with the main novel too, with another man trying to cling to sanity as his world goes to hell.
The Black Box shows the most promise, with a decent, ambiguous ending and snappier pacing, as a young man falls victim to a weird group of guys. The only thing letting it down is that first-person style, which takes the sting out of the final scene, along with one final burst of binary code. I caved in here and decided to run that snippet through a translator, only to get a brief paragraph that didn’t add much of anything. If I could slam an e-book closed in frustration, I would have. I don’t mind putting in the effort to get the most out of a story – I’ve read House of Leaves three times – but there has to be a rewarding payoff, and sadly Grey Skies just doesn’t have the goods.
Roman Toguri finds himself burying the body of a nun in Boone, North Carolina. As the skies darken and it begins to storm, he is forced to shove the corpse into his trunk and take it home for the night, unaware of the torment that playing God will bestow upon him.
A horror fan and writer since who knows when. Ben started dabbling in online reviews around 2001. Nowadays he has a booktube channel, which features bizarre book reviews and further nonsense. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably looking at GIFs and eating Mexican food.
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