Paperback:

Published: Lightning Books (May 2021)

ISBN: 9781785632327

The Atomics

Paul Maunder

£8.99

LONGLISTED: Caledonia Novel Award

You cannot run away from what haunts you

Midsummer, 1968. When Frank Banner and his wife Gail move to the Suffolk coast to work at a newly built nuclear power station, they are hoping to leave violence and pain behind them.

Gail wants a baby but Frank is only concerned with spending time in the gleaming reactor core of the Seton One power station. Their new neighbours are also ‘Atomics’ – part of the power station community. But Frank takes a dislike to the boorish, predatory Maynard. And when the other man begins to pursue a young woman who works in the power station’s medical centre, Frank decides to intervene.  

As the sun beats relentlessly upon this bleak landscape, his demons return. A vicious and merciless voice tells him he has an obligation to protect the young woman and Frank knows just how to do it. Radiation will make him stronger, radiation will turn him into a hero...

The Atomics is a gothic story of madness, revenge and Uranium-235.

Extracts

Oxford, March 1968

Since the trial Frank had been on a leave of absence. Pending further psychological evaluation, the letter from the Authority said. So instead of driving the familiar route past wintry fields to the facility at Barton Hall, he went for a walk. Every day, shortly after Gail left for work, he swung on an old waxed jacket, filled his pockets with lemon sherbets, and set out into the sharp spring mornings. Their flat was at one end of a street which, at first glance, may have seemed respectable, lined as it was by Victorian villas and expansive trees whose roots ruptured the paving stones. Look again, however, and there was a mattress dumped in a front garden, a car on bricks, windows boarded up.

On this last day of March the sun sliced low over the chimneys. A soft wind carried the clang of barrels being unloaded at the pub on the corner. Frank thought of his street as representing a border, a transition between the nice roads to the north, where academics and wealthy students lived, and the not-so-nice roads to the south, crowded by workers from the Cowley car plants. Frank liked to be perverse, walking east along this imaginary borderline, as if reserving his loyalty. He had no allegiances. Not to town, not to gown. His line of work was cold and hard and unforgiving, like a steel blade. He saw the physical world around him – the brick walls, the parked cars, the overgrown front gardens – as bloated. Beneath the surface hummed the true layers of existence: the atoms and molecules too tiny for humans to crush.

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Extracts

Oxford, March 1968

Since the trial Frank had been on a leave of absence. Pending further psychological evaluation, the letter from the Authority said. So instead of driving the familiar route past wintry fields to the facility at Barton Hall, he went for a walk. Every day, shortly after Gail left for work, he swung on an old waxed jacket, filled his pockets with lemon sherbets, and set out into the sharp spring mornings. Their flat was at one end of a street which, at first glance, may have seemed respectable, lined as it was by Victorian villas and expansive trees whose roots ruptured the paving stones. Look again, however, and there was a mattress dumped in a front garden, a car on bricks, windows boarded up.

On this last day of March the sun sliced low over the chimneys. A soft wind carried the clang of barrels being unloaded at the pub on the corner. Frank thought of his street as representing a border, a transition between the nice roads to the north, where academics and wealthy students lived, and the not-so-nice roads to the south, crowded by workers from the Cowley car plants. Frank liked to be perverse, walking east along this imaginary borderline, as if reserving his loyalty. He had no allegiances. Not to town, not to gown. His line of work was cold and hard and unforgiving, like a steel blade. He saw the physical world around him – the brick walls, the parked cars, the overgrown front gardens – as bloated. Beneath the surface hummed the true layers of existence: the atoms and molecules too tiny for humans to crush.

This was his truth. His secret universe, invisible to all but a lucky few. Only a handful of men in the world did what Frank did. He was an expert in instability. His days, at least before all this nonsense, were spent bent over a microscope, examining radioactive material for signs of degradation.

And now… Now he just walked.

Past the little parade of shops. A decrepit old woman pushing a shopping trolley, a younger woman staring at her toddler. The mother as pale as a cadaver. Children did that to you. Beyond the shops was a metal gate, giving onto a small park, just a scrap of green hemmed in by ramshackle gardens. On its other side was an alleyway that led to the canal.

A very serious criminal incident…the letter had gone on to say. We need to ensure that you are wholly fit to return to work and do not pose a threat to yourself, your colleagues or the wider community. Was this to be another trial? Hadn’t the police done their job to everyone’s satisfaction? Would he have to become a monkey in the Authority’s laboratory just to get back to work? He missed his work. Away from it he was getting weaker, mentally and physically. Yes he’d been found guilty. There were too many witnesses to realistically expect any other outcome. But a suspended sentence meant he should be able to return to work immediately. He was a good man. He’d acted to protect the girl, in her interests.

When the letter came he composed a reply, informing the Authority that the only way they would get inside his head would be to split it open with an axe. Of course, Gail had opened and read the letter before he’d had a chance to post it, immediately ripping it to shreds. Idiot, was the only word she’d said to him that evening.

As he neared the entrance to the alleyway, Frank noticed a couple on the other side of the grass, following the other path towards it. They were moving very slowly and seemed to be conversing quietly, their heads leaning together, though not in the manner of lovers. The man was dressed in a dark overcoat and had a rather comical shape – all shoulders and chest, teetering on tiny feet in dainty polished shoes. His companion was slight and walked with a stoop. She too had on a dark coat, beneath which a green dress swished around her knees. A black hat was pulled low over her eyes.

The pair separated, the man darting forward so that he reached the entrance to the alleyway ahead of Frank, who hesitated. But on seeing that the woman had stopped to light a cigarette, he carried on. They were having an argument, or perhaps the man was late for an appointment. Now they were between two fences, brambles and blackberry bushes narrowing the gravel path, their crunching footsteps falling into a rhythm. The man was ahead, his upper body swaying. Then Frank. Then the woman, for she followed him into the alleyway.

And just as Frank realised that the three of them were walking at the same speed, and wasn’t that a bit strange, the man stopped and turned around. Frank was about to say excuse me, but out came a pair of fists like mallets. One hand grabbed Frank’s lapel, the other jabbed him hard enough that he tottered backwards and wound up sitting on his backside.

The man’s coarse, florid face loomed over him, breathing cigarette fumes as he shoved Frank’s shoulders to the ground, then knelt on his ribs. His weight was crushing. The woman in the green dress stooped over them both. Now the smell of cigarettes was overcome with a sickly floral scent. Somewhere above them a crow began to laugh.

Her face was skeletal. White skin stretched over bone. Clownish make-up dragged across her lips and eyes. And those eyes… The fury in them made Frank’s body twist in fear. An icy burning sensation tore across his skin and his mind filled with noise as he made the connection. The woman in the magistrate’s court who’d shouted from the public gallery. Justice, this is not justice.  

Her bruising accomplice backed off and she sank onto her haunches, her knees now on Frank’s chest, though she was no weight at all. And from her fingers flashed a short blade.

‘For my boy,’ she said. Her voice was hoarse and carried a country burr.

There was no pain as she pulled the knife across his face, starting at his temple and cutting diagonally, through an eyebrow, skimming his eyelid, deep into his cheek and down to the corner of his mouth, where she finished with a flick.

Heat spread across his skin, blood climbing out of his new fissure. Blackness. Swimming colours and sounds. A kick in the stomach that he barely felt because now came the pain screaming in.

quotes

‘A dark, creepy, shocking book that reminds me of early Ian McEwan...really very affecting’

Jenn Ashworth

‘A terrifically compulsive slice of post-war domestic noir: a vivid psychological thriller that unfolds into a strange and powerful study of male violence’

Michael Hughes

‘A brilliantly dark and compelling debut novel. Completely drew me in and I suspect it’s going to haunt me for a while’

Susanna Jones

‘If you’re looking for a book which literally crackles with malign energy, you've just found your next read’

Abi Silver

reviews

‘Very, very good’

Jon Wright, BBC Radio Suffolk

‘A tense and evocative unpeeling of the male psyche with a deliciously chilling denouement. Frank Banner is a fascinating, terrifying creation. Thrilling…original…horrific…an unsettling tale I am happy to recommend’

Never Imitate

‘A compulsive study of a mind sliding from troubled to deranged. I really enjoyed the “buzzing hum of radiation” with which the text is infused’

Lizzy Siddal

‘A hugely enjoyable novel that’s not quite like anything else I’ve read. It’s dark and eerie with a delicious hint of Gothic, looking at toxic masculinity and predatory behaviour, with a wonderful twist at the end. Recommended’

Jo’s Book Blog

‘A really interesting book, with a sense of claustrophobia and a sort of incestuousness, about a man slowly unravelling while working at a nuclear reactor’

Rambling Mads

‘Without the nuclear setting, this psychodrama would still be a compulsive piece of domestic noir, but the power station, Frank’s unhealthy obsession with his work and the dynamics of being stuck in the sterile ‘Atomics’ village all add to the sense of horror’

Annabookbel

extras

‘I set out to write a story that would subvert the scientist-turned-superhero narrative. I won’t give away the ending but suffice to say it doesn’t go too well…’ Paul Maunder writes for Female First.

Five unpublished novels, one of them numbering 18 drafts... Paul writes about his long struggle to get a novel into print.

ABOUT

Paul Maunder

Paul Maunder is an author and journalist. His 2018 memoir The Wind at my Back explores the connections between landscape, creativity and the writing process. He was awarded a Faber bursary for his fiction and has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, where he studied with the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion. He regularly publishes features and fiction in cycling magazines Peloton and Rouleur.

He lives in South London with his wife and two children. Follow Paul on Twitter and Instagram.

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