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First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

First Novel A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle (Jonathan Cape, 2013) is a slightly challenging but ultimately fascinating book. Think binary: to read a printed book or digital characters on a Kindle screen, read only the first novel or read all the novels by one author, turn left or right, stay or move on. Individually, each decision is insignificant, but significance comes in the accumulation of such decisions, particularly if the choices are skewed by external factors or prejudices. Indeed, the more “ordered” the mind, the greater the potential for obsessional behaviour. A possible example would be placing dummies in a bedroom. This could be Sylvia Plath translated into the real world or the representation of a surrogate family. Talking about obsessional, there’s Grace, a young student on the university course our “hero” teaches on first novels. She’s interested in our first-person narrator, maybe even following him to a bookstore he frequents. And just who is this man who teaches creative writing at a place of higher learning in Manchester? And how reliable a narrator is he, he who sometimes claims to be unable to distinguish between being alive and being dead? Or to know whether to be unfaithful to his wife? And if she finds out, whether the marriage will survive — barring suicide, of course.

If we want to get technical, this is a work of metafiction with a very precise interest in the creative processes that go into writing. The question most pertinent is whose responsibility it is to tell the story and whether it should be told in a linear structure. As an example, there’s the elegant short horror story about salt that wraps up the first section in this book. Reading the main body of the text in order, our narrator instructs his class to write a piece about a recent experience. After hearing the readings, he may independently verify the substance of one or two pieces written. This intertextual story, set in a different font, may be about one of these students visiting his house except the protagonist does not mention it or comment on it. This may be evidence of his unreliability as a narrator. He’s protective of his privacy, particularly when it comes to his own first novel. If one of his students read this story out in class, he would not fail to mention it. So it may be the student who wrote it did not hand it to another to read in or no-one read it out in class, or it may prove to be something else entirely like a story written by Helen, one of his MA students, and taken out of context.

Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

Image by Julian Baker showing Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

This signals the novel as a work of intertextuality. As one very obvious example, the text of one of Nicholas Royle’s short stories, “Very Low-Flying Aircraft”, which was first published in Exotic Gothic 3 and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One is scattered through the first sections of this novel. The authorship is later attributed to Grace. In other words, the format of this novel is like a jigsaw and, as the title suggests, it’s for the reader to reassemble pieces like a puzzle and, thereby, to solve the mystery of who this protagonist is. Nicholas Royle is reflecting on the craft of the novelist which is usually to take his or her own experiences and to recast them as fiction. This is not to say the writing of fiction is essentially autobiographical. But we readers expect events to match our own experiences of the world. The test of credibility is whether we’ve seen the same thing ourselves. To fictionalise and get the best results, it may be necessary for the author to change the point of view so the readers get a different understanding of the events described. So if a wife and children leave home in one version, they may be killed in another. Either way the marriage ends. The fact of its ending will feel emotionally credible. We’ve all known marriages that fail, often because of infidelity. The surviving husband will be devastated, particularly if he’s to lose custody of the children. So for the readers, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth of what happened. All that maters is whether the fictional version reads as if it is true. It may also benefit to switch from first- to third-person. After all, omniscient authors know what’s happening.

The implicit question posed in the title of this book is, I suppose, why some authors only write one novel or later deny it. That singular excursion into text can be wonderful yet it’s never followed up, or the author does keep writing, but every time a new novel appears and the backlist is mined for titles to rerelease, the first novel never seems to reappear. It’s as if the author or the publisher is somehow embarrassed by it. An example of a brilliant first novel would be The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt which is a study in female identity suggesting that our culture objectifies and denigrates women. Initially the female protagonist is lost and confused as if trying to navigate social relationships while wearing a blindfold. Then she experiments by assuming the role of a young man. In the end, her fragile ego is overwhelmed by the stronger men around her. There’s no happy ending. In this novel, we have multiple views of a male character who’s fundamentally uncertain who he wants to be or where he wants his life to go. Were it not for the odd episodes of sex in cars, you might think him entirely passive, living helplessly if not arbitrarily on the basis of binary decisions: to do or not to do, that is the question.

Taken overall, First Novel: A Mystery is a fascinating piece of writing, exploring the nature of identity and how to capture it on the page. As in the real world, we can often only build up an idea of who a person is by assembling facts and impressions from multiple sources spread over time. Not everyone can afford a private inquiry agent to put together a comprehensive dossier on a person with everything neatly set out in chronological order. So Nicholas Royle here reflects the fractured nature of a personality. We might see different aspects of a character at different times in different circumstances. Only in retrospect can we piece together the most coherent view of the person, lifting the blindfold and looking back with more perfect vision. Sadly, it’s often the case that the most chameleon-like of individuals have something to hide.

For a review of another novel by Nicholas Royle, see Regicide.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Terminal Island by Walter Greatshell

February 2, 2013 Leave a comment

Terminal Island greatshell

As is sometimes the way with these reviews, I’m going to begin with a small autobiographical note to explain why I have never consumed anything hallucinogenic. Being born into the world before antibiotics were generally available to the public, I contrived to catch several diseases which produced very high temperatures. Having experienced hallucinations the “natural” way, I’ve never felt the need to induce one by taking anything pharmacological. This is not to say I’m prejudiced against people who disable their senses by chemical means. Whether advertently or inadvertently, people are free to do what they like to their own bodies and minds. But I’ve no sympathy for such people if they injure themselves or others while voluntarily under the influence.

Having got that off my chest, I come to Terminal Island by Walter Greatshell (Night Shade Books, 2013). It reminds me of books like Ritual by David Pinner and The Magus by John Fowles where our “hero” goes to a village or an island and finds his worldview shaken by what he finds. In this case, our hero is Henry Cadmus who returns to Catalina in search of his mother. As a young boy, Henry spent some time on the island but was the proverbial square peg, never seeming to find any degree of acceptance from anyone else on the island, and being relentlessly bullied, particularly by the girls at the school. Those of you who enjoy classical mythology allusions will notice that the original Cadmus was sent off on one of these hopeless quests by his father. Zeus had run off with his sister Europa and he was supposed to persuade the ruler of Olympus to return her. When that proved a little too challenging for a mere mortal, he founded Thebes and became mildly famous. In other words, the original Cadmus was a wanderer who eventually made a home for himself and settled down.

To explain my reaction to this book, I need to offer a definition of “horror” as applied to books and films. No matter what the content, the author’s intention is to induce a fairly specific emotional response. This can range from fear through to disgust. As cultures change and supposedly become more sophisticated, the concept of horror also changes because the innocent reactions of a young society no longer occur in world-weary societies who have seen it all before. This is not to say we cannot find ghosts stories scary and must always have some gore-splattered maniac hacking off limbs or inducing others to hack off their own limbs. This is not a race to ever more extreme descriptive content. But writers need to reflect the contemporary psychology and cultural expectations of their readers when deciding what constitutes horror content.

Walter Greatshell leaning forward toward the light

Walter Greatshell leaning forward toward the light

In many ways, this is a classic horror novel. Structurally, the first part is a twin narrative showing the arrival of our hero, his wife and young child on the island, and recalling the events of his childhood. As is always the case, the childhood sequence plays the unreliable narrator game. By definition, children have limited experience and therefore frequently misinterpret what they see and hear. In high stress situations where the fight or flee instincts strongly favour the latter, it’s easy for the emotions to prevent a clear overview of what’s actually happening. In modern America, we can all discount stories of supernatural events. Even if there are cults practising pagan or other religions, they tend to be rather harmless, hiding their rituals away from sight, ever fearful of discovery. So the first part is full of inconclusive facts and deft hints, setting the scene with considerable skill. Indeed, the construction of the plot is meticulous in the way all the details mesh together in unexpected ways. Of course Henry is reckless. This is expected of heroes in this type of situation. As a result he discovers information of a major criminal conspiracy and infers the death of his mother. In a panic, he tries to get off the island with his wife and child but this proves challenging..

During the course of his increasingly desperate attempts to escape, he becomes an unreliable narrator. This is not really his fault. Some of the food or drink he consumes has been spiked with a hallucinogen. Who can blame him for taking a moment to refuel while trying to plan the escape. Unfortunately, this untethers us from reality. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood but I found a lot of the sequences at the end rather tiresome. Although the way all the plot elements come together is wonderful to behold, some of the revelations are less than credible. To take just two unresolved issues as examples. With the benefit of hindsight, are we to assume the girls would not have maimed or killed Henry as a boy when he was cornered on the pier? In the current situation, why is the cult running the scam and what does it do with the money? When it would be so easy to more positively control Henry, allowing him to discover the secret of the condo is distinctly odd. All the membership needs to do once he’s back on the island is feed him the jungle juice and start working on his mind. Making him run around like this is clearly redundant and could get him injured, i.e. it’s only there to pad out the book. Any excuse that the cult wanted to discover whether there was a mole in their ranks is a red herring. Over time it could have worked out the answer after a particular death had been engineered.

So there you have it. The first two-thirds of the book is a marvellous example of how to create atmospheric horror with little touches and flourishes. Even though I lost some patience towards the end, Terminal Island remains an impressive piece of writing and, so long as you don’t mind the increasingly surreal impressions crowding in on our hero’s mind, you will probably find this an excellent addition to the horror canon.

For a review of another book by Walter Greatshell, see Enormity (written under the pseudonym W G Marshall).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Trouble With Charlie by Merry Jones

January 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Trouble-With-Charlie-3D

The whole point of a narrator is to supply the point of view through which the story is told. This person will pass on all the relevant facts, give opinions, and offer insights. In other words, this well-informed character moves the story on through the plotted situations until we arrive at the end. Except some authors choose to make the narrator unreliable. He or she now fails to pass on all the relevant facts, gives opinions and insights based on misunderstandings, or just flat out lies when it suits him or her. This makes a good game for the author to play against the reader. It all comes down to deciding just how untrustworthy the narrator is. You will notice this distinguishes the literary device from the unfiltered omniscient author who tells us all we need to know. Through the unreliable narrator, the author can deliberately hide information from the reader, or if the narrator gives factually correct reports but misinterprets them, it’s left to the reader to see the narrator’s errors.

 

So here comes The Trouble With Charlie by Merry Jones (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) and a first-person narrator who breaks new ground in unreliability. During the course of the book, she’s diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. This confirmed medical condition gives rise to periods of detachment from surrounding events, i.e. she may be physically present but not paying attention. This means she may not be aware of the fine detail of what people tell her. She’s also likely to suffer amnesia following an emotionally stressing event. In both cases, she’s likely to invent information to hide her inability to accurately remember what happened. This can be very confusing to those who don’t know her. Finally, she’s likely to talk to people who aren’t there.

Merry Jones looking completely reliable

Merry Jones looking completely reliable

 

How does this relate to the plot? Well, the Charlie in question is both the husband who has separated from her and lives elsewhere, and the unfortunately dead body in her home. He has a kitchen knife rather prominently displayed in his back and she has a cut on her hand that was almost certainly caused by that knife. She finds the dead body when she returns from from her first time at a bar after her breakup. Although there are plenty of witnesses to show her at the bar, the ME gives a window of opportunity for her to have killed him before leaving home. Worse, she also inherits a tidy sum on life insurance policies (so long as she did not kill him, of course). That gives her motive and opportunity, and makes her the prime suspect. Normally people can explain events, but she has no memory of what she did before going to the bar. Naturally, the police think she’s faking the amnesia and is therefore guilty. She therefore chats to Charlie on a regular basis which would be useful if he knew who killed him. You’ll remember the blow was struck from behind. So he can’t help her fill in the gaps in her memory. Perhaps hypnotism would help.

 

Then she finds herself in danger and attacked by rather a strong man. She’s able to fight him off and kills him in the process but, of course she can’t clearly remember killing him. She has concussion and obvious wounds. It looks like a clear case of self-defence, but she can’t remember killing him. That could be a major problem if, in fact, someone else killed him while she was unconscious. Why would anyone do that anyway? So now the police are looking at one woman and two dead bodies. They begin to see the beginning of a pattern. Like the narrator, we’re just watching events unfold with not a clue what’s really going on. Fortunately, she has some very loyal friends to give her support and, while she was at that bar, she met an attractive man. Perhaps if she went out on a date with him, they could really hit it off and be happy together (so long as she manages to avoid going to jail for murder, of course).

 

The first part of this book is actually quite spooky. For a while, I was unsure whether this was a straight mystery or there was a supernatural element. In its own way, this makes for a very successful introduction to our narrator because it immediately highlights the problems she has in interpreting what she sees. Once we get past that, the book settles down into a pleasing rhythm as new evidence comes to light which shakes her confidence in her husband. She had always seen him as somewhat dishonest but basically nice. This information might suggest he was involved with a very unsavory crowd. When she asks him, he’s not completely convincing in his denials. Some men! You just can’t rely on them to tell you things, even when they’re dead. From this you will understand there’s quite a lot of pleasing hokum going on. I found the whole book great fun even though there’s quite a high body count and obvious danger to our amnesiac heroine.

 

With the one caveat that I think the end is slightly over the top — I understand why it ends this way but. . . — The Trouble With Charlie is very entertaining and the structured revelations as odd pieces of memory return are elegantly handled. Overall, I conclude the book is well worth picking up as a mystery shading into a thriller when the mood takes it that way.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas

January 15, 2013 1 comment

Beautiful Hell

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Regions Press, published as a standalone in 2011 with the novella first appearing in 2007). It follows on from the admirable collection Voices From Hades, but it represents quite a radical shift in the narrative approach. We’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, let’s confirm the theme in this book remains consistent, so this is not something Christians might feel comfortable reading. As an atheist, I have no problem in accepting the notion that God might feel he hadn’t exactly covered himself in glory when creating the whole Heaven/Hell binary situation. As secularism spreads, it’s hardly fair to blame folk like me for not realising God is real and condemning us to Hell because we “denied” him. So there were churches. Well, try telling that to the Buddhists and all the other folk who honestly worshipped some other deities or held other apparently legitimate belief systems. Just because it turns out there’s only the one true God is no reason to stick us all in Hell for eternity. Once we have the epiphany of arrival at the Pearly Gates only to be turned away, we should be able to redeem ourselves by good works. Yes, I appreciate that may be a little tricky in Hell, but it’s the thought that counts and, as God has been only too keen to tell us, He’s omniscient and therefore knows when we’ve turned over a new leaf and understood the error in our previous ways. I’m sure the same goes for the Buddhists, Scientologists and anyone else prepared to do the whole humility schtick and grovel in apology.

Anyway, having got the question of the theme out of the way, we can come to the story itself and its metafictional form. Here we’re presented with an atheist author who, to his surprise, finds himself in Hell and decides to write a book about his experiences. We therefore get an autobiographical account of how the book we read comes to be written. This meets all the primary criteria to be considered a work of metafiction since the author is drawing our attention to the creative work of capturing “reality” in words. The idea of Hell being treated as real for the purposes of writing a work of fiction is rather elegant with our first-person narrator as the author commentating on the events as they occur and indicating how they will appear in the finished book. For the record, our author names himself Frank Lyre (a homophone of liar making the point that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator). As is required since he’s writing either a sequel or a work in the same universe as the original author, he’s familiar with Voices From Hades. Indeed a copy of the book appears in this story with at least one character reading it with great attention.

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Our author has found himself a not wholly uncomfortable role as a sex slave. Well, perhaps that’s how it started but he’s actually grown quite fond of this demon and they have regular sex sessions together. While he’s on his own, this life passes with few problems but then God, a few Popes and reliable support staff come down to Hell. Included in this team is his ex-wife who was a staunch believer. Our author now finds himself caught between two females: an increasingly jealous demon and an angel who might just be persuaded to spend serious time with her ex in Hell. Putting his personal feelings to one side, there’s also the question of why God should be making this visit and it soon becomes apparent he’s come to make some changes. As all of you will know, no-one likes change. Everyone gets comfortable with the way things are so, not surprisingly, the demons are soon up in arms to make their feelings absolutely clear. Except there’s this omnipotence thing. The fact the demons are not consulted, that this is the Old Testament unilateral God who just decides and then does, makes the demons even more outraged. The least He could have done is to ask what the demons thought, consulted on what changes might actually improve the situation. So this visit is equivalent to a declaration of war.

Well there you have it. Beautiful Hell is an irreverent return to Hell with the threat of change being the order of the day. On balance, it’s a book I admire rather than find exciting. It makes a good sequel and leaves things nicely poised for another visit should the author (whoever it turns out to be) choose to write it. Those who, like me, are Jeffrey Thomas fans, should acquire a copy.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Good Thief;s Guide to Venice-dec-2011

When we reviewers want to show off, we tend to bandy words like “metafiction” around as if we actually know what they mean. I‘m not entirely sure such academic extravagance is justified but, in this case, it does give me the right starting point to talk about The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan (Minotaur Books, 2012). In many ways I’m always inclined to like books that self-consciously play with the medium of writing. Here we have a first-person narrative exploring the world of a semi-retired thief called Charlie Howard. As someone experienced in dishonest arts, this potentially makes him an unreliable narrator but, only in certain key moments does he actually hide things from the reader. For most of the book, he’s disarmingly honest and not a little confused by the circumstances in which he finds himself. That said, he’s abandoned the life of crime to focus on writing crime fiction. Appropriately, he’s created a burglar as hero who, in fiction, plays out some of the “real” crimes the author has committed. Should he ever be suspected as a very good thief, the police would only need to read his books to identify his methods and some of the crimes he had committed. Such are the minor excitements of an author when he choses to write about what he knows best. More importantly, it also gives Chris Ewan the chance to play with the craft of writing and, for example, discuss how to arrive at those sentences at the end of chapters intended to hook you into turning the page rapidly to find out what happens next.

This would all be wonderful if our author had stopped there. But he has also decided to engage in what’s intended as a slight aping of past prose styles. I would have been happy with a parody of hardboiled pulp. Having grown up surrounded by the detective magazines and adventure/mystery fiction that so dominated the first four decades of the last century, I enjoy an affectionate reprise if it’s done well. Nostalgia for days of innocent fun still runs strong. Unfortunately, instead of aiming high for Chandler or Hammett, we have something rather closer to a poor parody of Leslie Charteris filtered though Wodehouse. Now don’t get me wrong, the tradition of the gentleman as a thief is littered with interesting historical relics. The Saint is paper-thin plots but some morality, while Hornung’s Raffles shows slightly more brio. Perhaps the Maurice Leblanc creation Arsène Lupin is the best both in their originals and all those who followed in his footsteps. He does at least manage to avoid looking foolish. Chris Ewan has similar pretensions with his “good thief” taking on criminals who are at least as bad if not worse than he. That he emerges in one piece speaks loudly of some skill and quite a lot of luck, i.e. he does look foolish some of the time.

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

So where does all this leave us? I like the plot of this novel. There’s a certain elegance on display as we slowly work our way through the revelations to the punchline at the end. There are, however, a number of problems. I prefer to avoid coincidences and the arrival of one figure as we work our way up to the final confrontations is an egregious example of the phenomenon. It’s all a little too convenient in a story that had been moving along comfortably under its own steam. Secondly, there’s a serious problem in the tone of the book. Even at the best of times, it’s very difficult to generate humour out of a thriller scenario. In this instance, the reason for the failure is the metafictional self-consciousness of the first-person voice. When the author is smiling with us, showing us how clever he is in deconstructing the process of writing a page-turner, it’s difficult to make us laugh with or at the narrator when he falls flat on his face or goes through some other experience that might otherwise have raised a smile. This is easier with a third-person show-and-tell. A more omniscient author can expose the mechanism of the prat fall by walking us through the scene, giving us a sense of anticipation, and then laughing as the expected catastrophe befalls the character. In the first-person form, the main feeling is the embarrassment or humiliation of the victim.

Finally we come to the problem of a book wanting to be a caper movie. Although my heart will always belong to Rififi, we’ve all sat through and enjoyed The Italian Job, the Ocean’s series and all the others where the pleasingly criminal show off their skills with a sly but endearing smile. Sadly, this hero could not be played by George Clooney. Worse, the wit and humour, such as it is, comes over as rather more laboured. Earlier in the review, I referred to Wodehouse and the humour of this book has a certain period charm about it, i.e. it is populated by slightly eccentric characters with curious interests and superstitions (our hero feels he can’t write unless he can look up at the first edition of The Maltese Falcon he stole early in his career) with two strong female characters to help and hinder. But the version presented here is too long, the slight jokiness wears thin, and the payoff is not really amusing. It just feels like a reasonably good place to stop. So, on balance, The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice would have been better if a strong-willed editor had persuaded the author to cut out the deadwood and leave us with a faster-paced thriller where we might actually feel our hero was in real danger.

For a review of the next book in the series, see The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock

November 27, 2012 2 comments

Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock (Subterranean Press, 2012) takes me back to the world of my childhood where I cut my reading teeth on adventure books by Enid Blyton. As a word of explanation to those not lucky enough to have discovered series like the Famous Five when young, the books are about children in danger: the titular five are Julian, Dick, Anne and Georgina (George) and their dog Timothy. They were always having adventures and catching criminals, hopefully always being back home in time for tea. To get this current team changed around so they can participate in this homage to Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Charles Fort and others, picture yourself standing on a sprung wooden floor in a thick fog — I know it’s a challenge to imagine adverse weather conditions inside a building, but bear with me. This is the game being played in this book. You can hear the movements of anyone in the room but cannot see them. You now hear ten pairs of footsteps so, naturally, you assume five people are approaching you. Imagine your surprise when it proves to be three children and a dog. It’s this kind of intensely logical and utterly convincing analysis that appeals to both young and old readers who want to experience a kind of affectionate nostalgia. A view of a past full of gentle wonder as filtered through fantasy rose-tinted spectacles.

James P Blaylock aka Perkins

 

So let’s meet the cast of characters. This is a first-person narrative by Katherine Perkins. She’s twelve and already an expert in everything but most especially in cryptozoology. She has two younger cousins, Brendan and Perry. The dog is called Hasbro (which is presumably a reference to his love of games with the kids or the Langdon St Ives’ valet — your choice). With mother missing in acton, Katherine is in the care of John Toliver Hedgepeth. He’s a genius, a member of the Order of St. George, and an inventor in the Heath Robinson style, being able to make a radio out of the junk laying around in his attic. In distant LA, Aunt Ricketts is convinced this is an unsuitable arrangement: a nutty eccentric man in charge of three children. So she gets Child Services on the job to see whether she can bring the children to a safer, more caring environment. To that end, Ms Henrietta Peckworthy appears on the scene to investigate the quality of care the children are receiving. Unfortunately, her arrival coincides with unusual weirdness so the whole issue of custody has to be shelved while the adventures move into high gear as one or more villains kidnap a mermaid (well, that’s not quite right but close enough for these purposes) and make demands. That gets our team on to the SS Clematis and off through the fog to the rendezvous with one or more of the bad guys. Yes, I know this is confusing but half the fun of all this is not knowing who’s on which side and what their motives are. After all, when you’re observing the world through the eyes of a twelve-year-old cryptozoologist in the making, you can’t expect her to know everything (including how fog gets out of glass jars so quickly even though you put the lids on as fast as you can). So think of her as an unreliable narrator or as a reliable narrator in an unreliable world. In such a story, lacking one for a Blyton full house, we’re off to Morecambe Bay and nearby Lake Windermere (which has a big fan installed to keep the fog away).

 

As a novel, Zeuglodon fits into the same story cycle as The Digging Leviathan with a shared villain Hilario Frosticos, and we’re ultimately in ERB land. As a pair, it fits into a broader set of novels which are called the Narbondo series, featuring Ignatio Narbondo and Langdon St Ives in a steampunk version of history rewriting Victorian events for comic effect. The essence of these stories is that much of what Verne, ERB, Fort and others described is actually real and, using new technology, hero and villain fight over Earth’s future, even travelling through time when necessary. Because of its point of view, Zeuglodon is actually a rather ingenious way of adding to the mythology and showing a different view of how the Victorian inspired future is working out. It’s not quite as steampunkish as earlier books but compensates by trespassing into fantasy dreamscapes where the zeuglodon or basilosaurus might put in an appearance should you be able to penetrate through to the hollow Earth. James Blaylock has managed something rather clever, maintaining a childlike point of view which, by implication, deals with some rather adult issues about relationships and responsibilities, about the difference between the real and the places we see in our dreams, and whether it would ever be right to disturb the world’s understanding of itself by collecting evidence of a different reality.

 

For a review of another book by James P Blaylock, see The Aylesford Skull.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012)

September 17, 2012 2 comments

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012) sees the BBC, through the agency of Gwyneth Hughes, taking on the difficult task of not only adapting a piece of fiction by Charles Dickens, but also finishing it. For, as we all know, the Great Man had the bad grace to die without telling anyone whodunnit. Something that has been deeply annoying to generations of readers every since. By any standards the fragment and this adaptation form a real potboiler. We have the delicate seventeen-year-old flower who’s in line for a good slice of money under her father’s will, a young fiancé who’s not much in love with her — it was one of these childhood engagements and neither is red-hot for carrying through — the jealous uncle who’s role as choirmaster makes him look virtuous, and the orphaned twins from Ceylon who come to this country to complete their education.

John Jasper (Matthew Rhys) showing his dark side

The opening scenes are all done with great visual style as John Jasper (Matthew Rhys), deep in his opium dreams, fantasises about killing his nephew Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox) while the object of his affections, Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant) looks on from the gallery running round the inside of the cathedral. In short order we then have him hurrying back to Cloisterham to conduct the choir, Edwin meets with Rosa, and the Landless twins, Helena (Amber Rose Revah) and the appropriately hot-tempered Neville (Sacha Dhawan), arrive under the protection of the Reverend Septimus Crisparkle (Rory Kinnear). Lurking in the cathedral crypt is the dreary Durdles (Ron Cook). Initially out of sight, the necessary lawyer and Roa’s guardian, Hiram Grewgious (Alun Armstrong) and his clerk Bazzard (David Dawson) stand ready to give advice and support when necessary.

Rosa (Tamzin Merchant) looking suitably virginal

It’s played as a pure drug-fuelled psychodrama as we’re allowed to watch the virtuous choirmaster disintegrate. His life in the cathedral has been one of crushing boredom. For all he loves the music, there’s no prospect of change let alone any advancement. Hence his addiction and his trips to the opium dens of London. His fixation for Rosa is there for all to see and yet, of course, none of the church folk see it. Similarly, his pathological jealousy of Edwin should be obvious, but everyone wants to see only the good in the man. Neville’s arrival is literally Heaven-sent. He’s a natural scapegoat and, if there’s to be suspicion, it will naturally fall on the foreigner.

Neville (Sacha Dhawan) quick to anger

Thus far, it looks as though we’re more or less on track for a routine completion of the hoary old tale, but then something rather remarkable happens. I don’t think I can recall anything quite so radical as a revision or completion of an existing work. This wins a prize for chutzpah not just from the author, but also from the BBC for making it. Let’s start with the reasonable decisions. I approve abandoning the character Dick Datchery and allowing Bazzard to do the on-the-ground sleuthing around Cloisterham. It also seems a better line to make Princess Puffer (Ellie Haddington) into the kind of blackmailer who listens carefully to what her opium addicts say while they dream, prompting them with questions as their words slow. Although, if I wanted to be less forgiving, I would characterise the role as a quack recovered-memory therapist who wants to heal John Jasper by helping him remember what he did. The rest of the plot innovations are, if you’ll forgive the pun, egrewgiously bad. I feel constrained not to engage in spoilers and so will content myself with generalities. Whatever his faults and, by modern standards, they are many, Charles Dickens wrote in a linear narrative style. It has the clear virtue that the reader can follow the action and watch it unroll. He did not seek to emulate the twist endings that made O. Henry (pseudonym of William Sydney Porter) so popular. As rewritten, this version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a nonlinear narrative in which we access the past in non-chronological order through the opium dreams of John Jasper. Needless to say, the fact these dreams are fuelled by opium makes John Jasper a classic example of the unreliable narrator.

Helena Landless (Amber Rose Revah) as the voice of common sense

So Bazzard in Cloisterham begins the process of uncovering previously unsuspected plot elements, while John Jasper is acting like a man afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder and uses the opium to reconnect with past events. Not unnaturally, when John Jasper awakes (thanks to Princess Puffer’s promptings), he has a better view of the past and journeys back to Cloisterham with Rosa for the big climax. The “twist” then comes in two parts. The first has some potential credibility in the culture of the times and it also fits in with the “ghostly shriek” heard in the cathedral a year or so before the main action takes place. The second is one of the worst examples of a deus ex machina I can recall. Sometimes, the unexpected event can at least provide some comic relief as we move into the expected happy ending. But this is simply ludicrous. Whatever value there might have been in this production died when this particular deus stepped out of the machina. That it’s followed by a hopelessly contrived romance compounds the nausea-inducing quality of the ending. So it’s worth watching the first episode of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This is the BBC doing period drama rather well. If you decide to watch the second episode, fortify yourself with a strong drink and keep ready one of those brown paper bags airlines believe will catch projectile vomit.

The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby

September 16, 2012 3 comments

We need to set out on this journey of discovery with a short discussion on how to define a “comic novel”. Historically speaking, it could be judged by criteria of blandness, i.e. that it all turns out well for the good and the bad get their just deserts. This is fiction as seen by the Miss Prisms of this world (as in The Importance of Being Earnest) which, as Cecily Cardew observes, is not the fairest way for things to turn out. The reason? Because it fails to answer the question actually posed for who’s to say how the goodness or badness of the protagonists is to be judged. For example, we might think Malvolio in Twelfth Night gets his just deserts, but he’s rather more narcissistic than bad, an arrogant hypocrite who deserves to be taken down a peg or two. So this makes this Shakespearean humour more as defined by Plato who thought comedy lay in people’s failure to understand themselves and their roles in society. Together with Socrates and Aristotle, he explored the idea that there’s something ugly, if not hateful, about those who demonstrate ignorance of themselves. This does not, of itself, make the characters bad but it can make the humour cruel by exposing their weaknesses. Yet, the fact we may see people’s behaviour and beliefs as delusional and ludicrous does not prevent things from turning out well for them. Indeed, if they learn the extent of their errors and make efforts to reform, they can avoid the bad outcomes. Authors need not be heavy-handed moralists with an agenda to punish all who transgress social boundaries. In the midst of amusement at the expense of these characters, the authors can be asking the reader to think about the social themes woven into the narrative. Indeed, it’s often the case that by framing a novel as an apparent comedy, we can be seduced into thinking constructively about taboo issues — an inherently good outcome.

Which slightly heavy-weight discussion brings me to The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot, 2012) and our first meeting with Marius dos Hellespont and Gerd, his sidekick. Since they live in a time of war, they turn their hands to mining the battlefield dead for their cash and personal valuables. This would be a relatively safe and highly remunerative business opportunity if Gerd had grown to be more than the village idiot who was seduced from the care of his grandmother by the smooth-talking Marius. But, in sidekick terms, he’s as smart as bait. In this case, he attracts the attention of soldiers searching for the body of the King. They don’t take kindly to “graverobbers” and despatch poor Gerd. Although this is a short-term distraction and allows Marius to evade capture, he’s them forcibly invited to join the dead under the battlefield. They’re upset at the prospect of being without a King so, in military terms, task Marius to recruit a King for them. They make the usual threats to encourage him to take the task seriously, even returning Gerd as a factotum.

Lee Battersby, bearded as all good Nottingham-born Australians

Except, of course, once he’s released back into the world, his mission is to get as far away from the dead as possible, and that includes Gerd. But how does someone dead blend back into the human community? And just where in the human world are you far enough away from the dead to be safe? So begins most of the most amusing fantasy journeys of the last few years. I’m not going to stick my neck out and say this is anything like the best fantasy book of the year but, in its own terms, it’s certainly one of the best comic novels I’ve read for many a year. Marius is a man who’s grown comfortable in his own skin as a bilker and hustler. When he dies, the skin shrivels and the marks won’t stand still long enough to hear the pitch. They’re far more interested in running away as quickly as possible. With his style completely cramped, he elects to go on a sea trip, i.e. we get into a picaresque format as our roguish hero tries to get by on his wits but is continually frustrated. This leads to some introspection, triggered by occasional sensations. As a question to chew on, how dead are the dead who are still walking around and able to interact with the living? It’s a tricky question and, courtesy of some backstory and one or two meetings with individuals he’s known in the past, our hero comes to a better view of himself. His self-ignorance shrivels along with his skin. He ponders on whether there’s a way of reversing his condition. Should he actually find a King who can lead the dead, would “death” release him? Could he and Gerd actually return to life? For the entertaining answers to these and other relevant questions, you’ll have to read the book. While doing so, you can be assured that the comic greats, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, would probably have found it hilarious.

The Corpse-Rat King is completely beguiling and genuinely amusing, something you rarely find in a book clearly marketed as fantasy. So kudos to Angry Robot for picking up this delightfully non-standard novel and bringing it to the market. If there’s any justice in the world, it will sell like the proverbial hot cakes.

For a review of the sequel, see The Marching Dead.

Cover by Nick Castle Design.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

No Sale by Patrick Conrad

July 15, 2012 2 comments

Those of you who read these reviews will know that, although there’s never any chance of film or television replacing my love for books, I do in fact enjoy the visual media. It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise to encounter a book where the love of film is intrinsic to the plot. No Sale by Patrick Conrad (translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Lynn) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2012) is a wonderful, not to say magnificent, piece of metafiction dressed up to look like a police procedural and murder mystery. For those you you who like the jargon, the primary devices are intertextuality and the use of an unreliable narrator.

In the world of semiotics, the concept of intertextuality has been rather overdone of late but, if you wanted to find an example of it, this comes as close as it’s possible to get. At more or less every point during the narrative, we get examples of vertical intertextuality with references to films, or to the dialogue within films, or to the real-world identities and lives of those involved in the making of films, or to songs and their lyrics, the lives of the singers and composers, and so on. We also have significant horizontal intertextuality with long quotes from different sources based on separate literary conventions incorporated into the narrative, thereby connecting the reader to different views of the same set of circumstances. Naturally, all the text appearing in the book is written by the same author except where otherwise attributed, but the sense and meaning of the words is being drawn from the work of different creative individuals. So, for example, one character may describe the scene of a murder and, later, a second character may give the synopsis of a film plot which has features matching the initial murder. This is art mirroring cinema with the fictional serial killer meticulously staging the murders to recreate actual film scripts or real-world events associated with film stars. The author is reminding us that we should never see one work in isolation. Our understanding is always enhanced by being able to relate elements of the text being read to other texts and symbols.

Patrick Conrad

Patrick Conrad: thriller writer, poet, screenwriter and film director

I need to note one other semiotics-related irony. The author has gone to much trouble to translate many lines from US noir films into Dutch for his intended readership, only for Jonathan Lynn to translate them back into English for us to read. Presumably the meanings stayed the same even though the languages were different.

There are two narrative tracks through the text. The key figure in the expanding investigation is Professor Victor Cox who teaches the History of Cinema at the Institute of Film and Theatre Studies. He comes to the attention of police when the body of his wife, Shelley “Dixie” Cox, is fished out of one of the docks in Antwerp. The initial signs are that of a hit-and-run with the dead body thrown off a bridge. The second thread features Chief Superintendent Fons “The Sponge” Luyckx, and Detective Inspector Lannoy who assume the responsibility of trying to unravel a number of murders which, at first sight, appear unrelated. The Sponge is the quiet thoughtful one who hates to be beaten by any problem, while Lannoy is quicker to feel the frustration of being unable to make progress through the mass of detailed information that emerges.

At first, the Professor appears entirely normal insofar as anyone so obsessed with the study of any single subject can be considered normal. He’s amazingly encyclopaedic on early American cinema and we’re treated both to excepts from his lectures and memories that suddenly seem relevant given events around him. There’s also a direct link with Lolita by Nabokov in that our “good” Professor seems perpetually drawn to young women, preferring those who resemble the heroines of his favorites films. It’s at this point we encounter a real problem because he’s not proving to be consistent in what he remembers nor how he sees the world. Indeed, there are distinct indications he may be mentally ill — schizophrenia would be a distinct possibility if, in the usual way it’s shown on the screen, this involves twin personalities as in Jekyll and Hyde. The structure of the book is carefully managed so we’re never sure whether the Professor is a retired academic helping the police solve a series of murders or the murderer hiding in plain sight and misdirecting the police.

I was hooked from the outset because I love a good mystery and am a sucker for noir films. There are also some rather pleasing jokes as the book goes along. However, I’m forced to raise one slight caveat. In a way, the book is slightly too clever for its own good. It has to twist the events so that they fit the needs of the immediate plot while staying faithful to the sets of circumstances being replicated. This gives the whole a slightly surreal form. In the more general sense of the word, mysteries need not be credible. If we’ve willingly suspended our disbelief, authors can convince us their murderers can do anything. But it does raise a slight problem when we’re in a police procedural. This subgenre is somewhat more real than reel, i.e. the police should be seen chasing down criminals based on the evidence that emerges. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely anyone could actually commit these murders. That said, No Sale is a masterful piece of writing and creates a genuinely tragic figure in Professor Cox. He’s a man who seems to have the capacity for great suffering and, when reality becomes so unpleasant, who would blame him for retreating into the world of his own imagination and, perhaps, acting out what he finds there.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Immobility by Brian Evenson

June 25, 2012 4 comments

It happens every now again that I feel the urge to slip back into the realms of academic discourse and try vaguely to say something intelligent about the construction of a narrative. This time I’m seduced into walking this rocky road after reading Immobility by Brian Evenson (Tor, 2012). In other circumstances, I might mutter darkly about this being a post-apocalyptic novel, one of these science fiction efforts that places us in a world left in ruins by the unrestricted detonation of nuclear bombs. What is not physically demolished, is substantially extinguished by the radiation. At a stroke, this precipitates an almost complete collapse of civilisation as we know it and, in the best sense of the word, we’re depressed that humanity should have been so cavalier with its own existence. Yet, of course, there are survivors. Such novels would be impossible without a few rats left to crawl out of the rubble. So what makes this book different?

 

Well, here we go with more thoughts about our old friend, the unreliable narrator. Our point of view is a man just being revived from suspended animation. He finds himself unable to remember anything about himself, let alone the circumstances which led to his storage. As his eyes open, it’s therefore for us to view this world as a tabula rasa. We have no way of knowing its history nor who these people are. Literally, we see everything as if for the first time. Although our hero can report his surface interpretation of what he experiences, it’s entirely possible he’s misinterpreting the data. At this point, I need to make a distinction. Because of his lack of knowledge, the guesses he makes could be the best he can make on the basis of the evidence. Hence, some could be correct. Or everything he comes to believe could just be wrong.

Brian Evenson as seen by his wife

 

Let’s take a simple early question. When he recovers some upper-body mobility, our hero’s first instinct is to attack the technician who revived him. He has no idea why he should feel so aggressive. Later, when discussing the situation with Rasmus, the leader of this community, he’s told he was a kind of fixer. A man who would carry out difficult tasks without caring too much about the morality of the means. As someone with a killer’s reflexes, coming out of storage in a confused state, he might mistakenly consider the technician a threat and lash out in self-defence. Rasmus reassures him that he should not feel guilty about the attack. That’s actually his virtue and the reason for his revival. The community needs his fighting reflexes. And the task? Well, they need him to go and recover some stolen property.

 

Unreliability in this instance stems from his complete lack of memory as to who he is or what his moral values are. When asked to judge the truthfulness of those he meets, he has no real basis on which to assess credibility. Perhaps Rasmus is lying but, if so, what would his motives be? Since we as readers know no more than our hero has told us, we’re also rudderless. Although we might have genre expectations about the way narratives of this kind would normally develop, all we can do is observe and reserve judgement until more information is forthcoming. The only comfort we can draw is that our hero is aware of the gaps in his memory and so appreciates his own unreliability. From this, you will understand this is a very clever piece of writing. It deliberately plays with our genre expectations, challenging us to work out what’s actually going on. Except, of course, even that could be a trap. For all we know, our hero has not actually woken up and is simply dreaming all this.

 

For once, I’m not going to say very much more about the way the story develops. All that it’s necessary to do is explain the title. As he wakes, it rapidly becomes apparent that our hero is paralysed from the waist down. His upper body is very strong but, as Rasmus sadly explains, he’s the victim of a disease that will ultimately cause him to lose all his mobility. The only way in which he can move around is literally by being carried. When he sets off on his mission, two large individuals take it in turn to act as beasts of burden. He has a small window of opportunity to recover the stolen property and then get back before the paralysis completely overcomes him. He will then be put back into storage until a cure has been developed.

 

Immobility is very impressive. It’s beautifully written and, most importantly, it nicely reinvents many of the standard tropes, often inverting expectations. I admit to being surprised by the revelations that come at the end. With decades of reading experience in my locker, that’s a neat trick for an author to pull off. I usually keep up with the story and have the situation analysed before the final few pages. Except, I chose to forget the mindset of those who greenlighted the nuclear launches. When you think about the extent of the disaster that has touched every part of this world, the attitudes of the survivors are completely understandable if not very laudable. At every level, this is a must-read, if slightly downbeat, post-apocalyptic novel.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

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