A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #37:-
Writer and co-founder of Savoy Books, David Britton is a controversial figure. His novel Lord Horror was the last book to be banned under the UK’s Obscene Publications Act 1959 and Britton himself served a prison sentence.
None of which appears to have deterred Britton from producing work that will inevitably offend and outrage many readers, dealing with potentially contentious subject matter in a manner that, while overtly satirical and blackly comedic, flings our own bigotry and fascination with the mechanisms of atrocity back in our faces.
Nor should it deter him.
Subtitled “The Black Rose of Auschwitz”, LA SQUAB (Savoy Books hc, 334pp, £25) is a novel that introduces itself as “A Nuggerty Treasure Book for Children of All Ages”, though I suspect the only minor who might make head or tail of it is the eponymous heroine of the narrative, a switchblade wielding nymphet with a wardrobe courtesy of Agent Provocateur and a penchant for discussing philosophy. According to the promotional material accompanying the book, “the primary inspirations of La Squab are The Wind in the Willows – if Grahame’s classic had been re-written by Adolf Hitler – and the ‘Fudge & Speck’ comic strip created by celebrated Beano cartoonist Ken Reid”. I’ve read the former, but have no recollection of encountering the latter, and in any event it was all such a long time ago and I have no faith in my ability to pick up on any resonances.
The stem narrative involves a boat journey, made by La Squab in the company of Lord Horror who she refers to as Uncle Horace, along the River Thames, though this fictional waterway meanders somewhat more than its geographical counterpart, taking us to places both real and imaginary. Along the way the two philosophise and swap banter, have adventures and meet a wealth of interesting people, both fictional and historical (e.g. Tiger Tim and Weary Willie, Alfred Jarry and Sigmund Freud), and inevitably they also bump into characters from Britton’s back catalogue such as Meng and Ecker, creations inspired by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. It’s all mildly pleasurable, with some delicious descriptions of the Thames Valley, witty dialogue and endless invention, the kind of book where you never really know what to expect from one page to the next, and this is a good thing. The best comparison I can think of are the Jerry Cornelius novels of Michael Moorcock, but with the decadence cranked up to eleven. And yet at the same time it’s also vaguely dissatisfying, with the feel that there really isn’t much point to it all and that ultimately the author is simply freewheeling, with no real end in mind, other than being whimsical in his own special way. That, of course, is a valid position for a writer to take, and if it’s what you’re looking for from a novel then possibly La Squab is the book for you.
But Britton’s text isn’t the entire story. Considered as an artefact in its own right, La Squab the book is a thing of beauty, a lavish volume produced to a high standard, with a CD of Fenella Fielding reading from the text, and sumptuous illustrations by artist Kris Guido on just about every other page, so that what we have is a treat for the eye. As a novel it didn’t quite work for me, but as an art book with added words then I’d have to rate it the best thing to come down the pike for years, a work that puts most so called collectibles to shame. And yes, I am a very superficial and shallow person, thank you for asking.
And I could pretty much copy and paste some of the comments above for the epic production that is the graphic novel LORD HORROR: REVERBSTORM (Savoy Books hc, 344pp, £25). Reverbstorm was originally published in serial form, and now the seven issues are collected together in a single volume for the first time with a wealth of supplementary material. Written by David Britton and illustrated by John Coulthart, the book is a treasure trove of cultural references – the literature of Joyce and Eliot, the art of Seurat and Picasso, the music of Sondheim and Leiber & Stoller – all caught between the same covers and polished to a fine gloss intermixed with images of death and destruction, the visual language of splatterpunk chic.
To quote from the promotional material: “Welcome to the nightmare metropolis of Torenbürgen, where New York’s Art Deco architecture has fused with the termination machinery of Auschwitz”. Imagine if you can, the cities of Science Fiction’s golden age, the futuristic architecture of Gibson’s story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, as illustrated by Giger, and then handed over to Tom Savini to chuck a bucket or two of blood and intestines over it all. This work is a tour de force of invention, Britton’s narrative the glue that ostensibly holds it together, but with Coulthart throwing just about every stylistic trick in his considerable artistic repertoire at the page in an effort to dazzle and appal the reader, as what we are seeing veers between subtle eroticism and garish atrocity show, with the line dividing beauty and the grotesque at first blurred and then eliminated altogether, so that we question both the reality and mores of what we are seeing, while interrogating our own response to the work – why does such horrific imagery appeal, what is it in our own natures that it speaks to.
Or maybe not.
It’s also an immensely clever book, using artwork and lyrics to represent the characters in much the same way that people in musical dramas have key note refrains, and as a supplementary to that there are explanations in the back of the book, a glossary of cultural references and influences that is as fascinating as it is substantial. As an example, one technique used in the book and categorised in the glossary, is that of A Humument or “treated novel” in which parts of the text are drawn over leaving only selected words visible, thus creating a new work. In all honesty, I didn’t understand what I was looking at for much of the time, though I guess I could waffle on a bit and lay on the bullshit thick, but that would be to do the creators’ work a disservice, impose a meaning on it that I don’t really believe in myself. In the final analysis, I’m not sure that it all adds up to anything greater than the sum of its parts – for that you should probably ask a philosophy professor with a side line in semiotics, rather than a humble book reviewer – but those parts are quite, quite magnificent. Regardless of things like meaning and authorial intent, I loved Lord Horror: Reverbstorm, every single page of gut wrenching imagery, and expect to spend a lot of time in the future just browsing through the book’s pages and stumbling across yet more to delight and repel.