Filler content with cats

I’ve decided to change the rules here slightly, and alternate reprised material from recent issues of Black Static with older pieces, in the hope that at some point in the future we will ‘meet in the middle’.

So here are a couple of reviews from the very first issue:-

HERDING CATS: A MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH FEATURETTE 

Michael Marshall Smith is back, with his first new novel in nine years, only don’t go expecting the genre mix ‘n’ match fireworks of Only Forward or Spares. The Servants (Earthling hardback, 224pp, $30) is a quieter work than either of those, and if you need to fit it in any lineage then it’s the precocious child grown to novel length of the MMS who produced all those elegant supernatural and horror stories that sent shivers down our backs.

Precocious child would be an apt description for Mark, the eleven year old protagonist of The Servants, newly moved to Brighton with his mother and stepfather David. Mark is resentful, hurt by his parents’ marriage break up and enforced move away from his old haunts, blaming everything on David. He believes David is trying to keep him from his mother, who is dying of cancer and refuses all treatment (something else Mark blames David for). His only friend is the old lady who lives in the basement flat of David’s house, and it is she who introduces him to its secret, a locked door behind which are the servants’ quarters, a hangover from Victorian days when the house was far more grand than now. To his amazement, Mark is able to see and interact with the servants, soon realising that something has gone very wrong below the stairs, with repercussions in the present day, and that he is the only one who can fix the problem.

This is a short novel that does many things well, with Smith playing his cards close to his chest, so that you are never quite sure if we are dealing with a ghost story or time slip fantasy, or simply Mark’s externalisation of his emotional problems, not that it matters much any way. The bleak atmosphere of a seaside town in the winter months is vividly portrayed, giving Mark a landscape through which to roam that is both pregnant with possibility and tainted with the echo of broken promises. Also handled superbly well is the depiction of life below stairs, each of the servants with his or her allotted role, while the blight that has entered this supposedly idyllic scenario is powerfully delineated, black ash falling ceaselessly from the air and dirt piling up on every side, a malaise that effects them all and curses the life of the house, the ideal metaphor for the cancer that infects Mark’s mother.

The scenes of conflict in the family are seen from Mark’s perspective, each event filtered through his resentment and boredom, so the reader is left to fill in the gaps, to conjecture what is not being said, to grapple with the import of the heavy silences and moments of tenderness that punctuate this ongoing war. For Mark these events are a rite of passage, each a milestone on his road to maturity, as he slowly reaches the conclusion that things are not how he believed and the realisation that there are two sides to every story. In solving the problem of the servants and bringing harmony below stairs he is also reassessing and redefining his own role in the family unit. And lurking back of all this is the concept that the house itself is an entity, which all the people who dwell within its walls, both the living and the dead, must serve in their own way, each part of some great design and only when the parts get out of alignment do things go awry. It’s an intriguing conclusion to a fine short novel by a writer of considerable range and talent.

That range and talent are seen to full advantage in The Intruders (HarperCollins hardback, 404pp, £12.99), the latest book released under Smith’s bestselling Michael Marshall byline, which is separate from The Straw Men trilogy, but addresses many of the same concerns, and with clues in the text that suggest it is set in the same world as those novels, so the future possibility of a crossover cannot be ruled out.

For former LA cop turned author Jack Whalen (perhaps a nod in the direction of Joseph Wambaugh), the mystery starts with a visit from a schoolmate he hasn’t seen in years, Gary Fisher, now a lawyer and seeking his opinion on a double homicide, and then he gets a phone call from a taxi driver who has found his wife’s mobile phone. Amy is supposed to be in Seattle on a business trip, but Jack can’t find her and there are questionable text messages on her phone. Amy has been acting strangely of late and this disappearance brings matters to a head, is something Jack can’t let go of even though she turns up safe and sound, and with an explanation that would sound entirely plausible to a trusting husband, but not to one who fears she is having an affair. As Jack digs deeper he finds the trail leading back to Gary Fisher and the double homicide, but Fisher is not a reliable witness, holding back many things for reasons of his own, while the actual truth of what is going on is far more fantastic than Jack could have suspected. Jack’s book was called The Intruders and consisted of photos of crime scenes, places where intruders have forced their way in, but now he must recognise that there are other kinds of intruders and, as the novel’s tag line has it, they’re already inside.

The Intruders is being marketed as a thriller, but as with the other Michael Marshall novels there are outré elements that should make it of interest to readers of horror and science fiction, the suggestion of more things than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Marshall is a writer who likes to push at the boundaries and my own take is that, with this book and its predecessors, he is reinventing the ‘secret race’ fiction of novels like Williamson’s Darker Than You Think and Farmer’s Wold Newton series (the governing council of the Intruders are called simply the Nine, as are the group of immortals who secretly rule the world in Farmer’s work), has brought it kicking and screaming into the twenty first century, and imbued the form with a hitherto unseen level of sophistication and subtlety.

Marshall is canny in how he handles these fantastical elements, with the narrative entirely realistic at the outset, but gradually setting up plot strands, such as the exploits of nine year old runaway Madison, which can only make sense given one explanation. The reader, like Whalen, is forced to reach conclusions at odds with all we think we know of science. Making Whalen a former cop is another smart move, in that he has the technical abilities and mindset to uncover the evidence, but none of the constraints that go with still wearing a badge, while the conspiracy theories that run through the book further reinforce the reader’s willingness to accept the conclusion Whalen reaches, tying in as they do to our basic human need to believe that things make sense, that there is some guiding intelligence at back of all the madness.

On the personal level, Whalen is a fully rounded character, with flaws to sit alongside his virtues. He takes the law into his own hands and is too quick to reach for the bottle when things are not going his way, and in parenthesis one could understand if his wife was seeing another man, but he is also compassionate, an honest man, a good friend, a husband who loves his wife deeply and is undone completely by the changes she appears to be going through. Also undergoing changes is nine year old Madison, one of the book’s other viewpoint characters, a child who runs away from her family, the internal conflict between the girl’s essential goodness and the evil that is trying to possess her externalised in acts of shocking violence and abuse that, in many ways, are the most unsettling element of the novel, and the Intruder response to Madison suggests that they are not all bad, that there is more going on here than can be rendered in black and white terms.

The Intruders has an open ending, with Jack Whalen’s life and world view turned upside down, and Jack not knowing what to do with the knowledge that has fallen into his lap. I suspect (and hope) that Michael Marshall knows exactly what he’s going to do with it.

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