Four reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #6:-
CHEMICAL WEDDING by JULIAN DOYLE and BRUCE DICKINSON
Matador paperback, 230pp, £7.99
Chaos mathematician Joshua Mathers arrives in Cambridge to pursue his research at the university there, bringing with him an interactive suit to be linked up to one of the world’s most advanced computers, but his discoveries are usurped by disciples of Aleister Crowley to enable the spirit of the Great Beast to possess the body of literature professor Oliver Haddo. To make this chemical wedding stick, Crowley must sacrifice student Leah Robinson, with whom Mathers has fallen in love, and to save her the mathematician must risk everything.
And that is about all there is to it, a genre standard plot of possession from beyond the grave, with a scientific gloss thrown over everything and the only real difference being that this time the interloper is Crowley. There are moments when it comes to life, such as when Haddo/Crowley is behaving outrageously, but overall it is poorly written and predictable, the text padded with a wealth of info dumps about Crowley, quantum mechanics, the occult and sundry matters, all of which suggests the authors know their stuff but not how to wear that research lightly.
The book was written to coincide with the release of director Doyle’s film of the same name, starring Simon Callow and co-scripted by Iron Maiden singer Dickinson. To be fair, there is a lot of interesting stuff here, but it’s in the details that back up the story rather than the story itself, and that could be deliberate on the part of the authors who describe Chemical Wedding as ‘the first Science Faction novel’. If so, then it’s a risk that hasn’t paid off, with the end result a somewhat unwieldy narrative that doesn’t stay on message for very long, which in a way is a pity. Crowley was a fascinating character and eminently suitable to be fictionalised, but this book doesn’t serve him well.
CHARLES FORT by JIM STEINMEYER
Heinemann hardback, 332pp, £16.99
Reviewing The Book of the Damned in 1919, Ben Hecht described Charles Fort (1874 – 1932) as ‘the man who invented the supernatural’. Steinmeyer’s eloquent and concisely written account of Fort’s life comes with that phrase as its tag line though, as Steinmeyer is at pains to inform us, Fort himself would have eschewed such a label. In his philosophy there was no such thing as the supernatural, nor any possibility of it.
Like most people I know of Fort mainly through the adjective ‘Fortean’, that catch all term for those inexplicable phenomena he delighted in cataloguing and throwing in the face of conventional scientific thinking. With a wealth of quotes from a man who never seemed unwilling to record the minutiae of his life, Steinmeyer sets about fleshing out the story of this remarkable individual. It’s a tale of childhood bullying, of an early career as a journalist and determination to succeed as a writer, of two years spent travelling as a way to pile up vital experience, of marriage and critical success, but never commercial. Friendship with Theodore Dreiser, who was to become his greatest champion, was a turning point for Fort, though he was still to suffer crushing poverty and a hand to mouth existence, until a timely inheritance freed him to pursue scholastic pursuits. With the publication of The Book of the Damned and its successors Fort’s reputation was assured, with modest recognition and cult status for his writings on the unexplained during his lifetime, followed by a posthumous career as standard bearer for sceptics everywhere, with various journals and societies devoted to keeping his legacy alive.
Steinmeyer’s book is a well written and engrossing story of one man’s dogged persistence and eventual triumph over adversity, though for the wannabe writers in our ranks the subtext won’t be encouraging (get an inheritance or deal with the idea of sleeping on park benches). Steinmeyer never loses sight of the importance of Fort’s work, the fact that he was neither dogmatic or a proponent of the supernatural as such (he thought it was all supernatural). Instead, Fort comes over as a rigorous opponent of dogma and orthodoxy, whether rooted in faith or science, his books composed with a cheery wit and thoroughgoing scepticism. Agree with him or not, it was a valuable role for somebody to play, particularly with such good humour and perseverance in the face of all the odds.
By way of a coda, some may also appreciate this book for its portrait of America in the 1920s, the era of changes in the national psyche that made Fort’s ideas appealing, and for all the sketches of the various literary worthies of the day, most especially Dreiser. Recommended, and not just to people who read biographies.
THE FINAL MURDER by ANNE HOLT
Sphere paperback, 352pp, £7.99
The first victim is a talk show host who is found dead, with her tongue removed and cleaved in two. The second victim is a right wing politician, the leader of one of Norway’s most prominent parties. She is crucified to her bed, with a Koran pushed between her legs. Somebody is murdering celebrities and in an especially horrific manner. The case is handed over to Superintendent Adam Stubo, but it is his wife Johanne Vik, a former FBI profiler, who stumbles across the thread that links these killings and reaches the conclusion that her husband will be the final victim.
This is a book that works on several levels. The gore quotient is high, catching the reader’s attention from the start and shocking, but a red herring of sorts, as really what we have here is a puzzle story, with the criminal playing a game against the police, showing who is the smarter. It’s a cleverly concocted story, with each brick of the plot slotting neatly into the previous one to produce a solid edifice regardless of how contrived any element might seem in isolation. While serial killers with an overly complicated modus operandi have been the undoing of many a crime novel, in this case it is fiction itself being transformed into reality.
Characterisation is another plus, with Stubo and Johanne brought to life on the page as the paradigm married couple, with children left over from past relationships and a whole history that they carry around with them. Their interplay has a lived in feel to it, that of people who are comfortable with each other but still have no go areas. In isolation Stubo comes over as a hard bitten detective, someone from whom much is expected and conscious of pressure to deliver the goods.
But of course the most intriguing creation here is the villain, a ruthless and calculating psychopath who always manages to stay one step ahead of the police, though it is really Johanne who is being challenged, her reputation acting as a goad to the other. The final scene in which the killer confronts Johanne is simply chilling, on the surface nothing more than a simple exchange of pleasantries between two people in a park, but with a subtext that is pure menace.
This is the second volume in an ongoing series by Norwegian writer Holt, and on the evidence so far English language readers have some dark delicacies waiting for them.
SAY GOODBYE by LISA GARDNER
Orion hardback, 368pp, £12.99
FBI Special Agent Kimberly Quincy is approached by a young woman who believes a man she knows, called Dinchara (an anagram of ‘arachnid’), is dangerous, but there is nothing Quincy can do without corroborating evidence even though she sympathises with Delilah Rose, who is pregnant just like her. Special Agent Sal Martignetti is receiving anonymous tips about missing girls and feels the two ‘cases’ may be connected, with a serial killer on the loose. As the evidence mounts, albeit all circumstantial, they gain a picture of a deadly killer, a man unhealthily obsessed with arachnids and who chooses his next victim from the loved ones of the last person he killed. Kimberley starts to receive late night phone calls from somebody needing her help, and in one of them a murder appears to be happening in the background. As she digs deeper Kimberly realises that she may very well be the next victim
This is a complicated book, one with a plot that seems to be shooting off in several directions, but Gardner neatly ties up all the loose strands before the end (perhaps a bit too neatly, as one big plot twist was completely transparent to me). Along the way she feeds the reader enough titbits to maintain interest and keep us gripped right through to the last page. Verisimilitude is added by virtue of a wealth of convincing detail about FBI and police procedure, and Gardner deftly incorporates personal details, such as Kimberly’s arguments with her husband who wants her to be a stay at home mother, that will strike a chord with many readers who are not employed by the FBI.
The main appeal for horror fans will be Dinchara, a memorable and utterly chilling monster, Gardner detailing his habits and way of life with a grim but compelling rigour. She also provides a convincing back story for this monster, showing how his character was forged in the crucible of abuse, and by doing this Gardner further muddies the cloudy waters of the plot, conflating the roles of victim and victimiser so that, despite everything, there is an element of sadness, tragedy even, about the figure of this killer, reminding us that the greatest monster may once have been a frightened child willing to do anything to survive.
Each chapter is introduced with a factual snippet about spiders, which is a nice touch but possibly more disturbing than what’s going on with the main story: few of us are ever likely to meet a serial killer, but those pesky spiders are everywhere.