A review that originally appeared in Black Static #16:-
TWISTHORN BELLOW by Rhys Hughes
Atomic Fez paperback, 304pp, £11.99
Rhys Hughes describes this book as ‘the maddest thing I’ve ever written’, and although I haven’t read all of Hughes’ work I’ve read enough to know that he probably isn’t blowing smoke.
Twisthorn Bellow is a golem, the creation of mad genius Cherlomsky, the founder and head of a top secret organisation set up to keep the nation safe from the wiles of the evil French and the enticements of prog rock music. To this end he has assembled a team of ‘monsters’, most of whom are detached body parts – a hand, a foot, a foetus – with special abilities, but Bellow is the star player, handicapped only by the fact that, shortly after creation, he was dipped in nitro-glycerine, and so at any moment could go kaboom!!! (Tagline – ‘He’s dynamite – and he has a short fuse!’ – and I’m sure the possible double entendre is intended.) In what amounts to a series of interconnected stories rather than a novel, each with a title that references Greek mythology, Bellow and team indulge in adventures that are so far over the top having an oxygen tank on hand as you read them might well be a suitable precaution.
Hughes has claimed the book is his tribute to Philip Jose Farmer, with whom Bellow has a Riverworld rendezvous, but he is a writer who wears his influences lightly and the spirits of other literary worthies gleefully flit in and out of the text (Jules Verne, William Hope Hodgson – a descendant of Carnacki puts in an appearance – Charles Addams, Stanislaus Lem), each contributing something to the tasty brew that ultimately is all Hughes’ own. For the reader, part of the fun to be had is in picking up these references, but contrarily it doesn’t really matter if every single one goes over your head (and I’m sure I missed plenty). The most obvious inspiration is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, with whom Bellow has an off the page encounter at one point in the book, losing his horn in the affray, the prompt for a running joke about changing his name. The difference is that with Hellboy, while certainly a vital element in its appeal, the comedy is incidental to the adventures, but for Hughes I suspect that the latter is true. A case could be made for his work being ‘comedy driven’, the plot simply the device that transports the reader to the next joke, sets us up for the next pun, the latest prat fall by a character. We are all Rhys Hughes’ straight men, Wise to his Morecambe, colluding in an attempt to make the next trick even more preposterous than the last.
Yes, there are serious matters addressed in the text, a richness of ideas, literary and philosophical concerns, but the comedy is the thing, within which the writer will trap the soul of the reader. Hughes is always willing to go that one step further, just when you think that you have his measure and he won’t be able to come up with anything more outlandish than what’s gone before. There are running jokes, such as the thing already mentioned with Bellow’s name, and others such as nobody noticing that the postman is French, and the one female member of the team being constantly treated as a skivvy. There are sight jokes (e.g. one involving the interaction between an umbrella and a sewing machine) and wordplay (e.g. a character called Hapi Daze), and just about everything else that you’d expect from Hughes, if you’re at all familiar with his back catalogue, with the reader not given a second in which to catch his or her breath. And then there’s the jaw dropping audacity of events like having the Eiffel Tower narrate one section and soliciting the reader’s help in destroying the monsters. With Hughes, anything seems to go. In fact, trying to keep up with his mercurial wit and invention gets slightly tiring on occasion (Hughes has moved onto his next gag, while you’re still chortling over the last one), but against that there’s the desire to read the book again, this time with pen and paper close at hand to make notes on all the stuff you missed the first time around.
If I have a reservation, it’s that the brand of absurdity Hughes has made his own, doesn’t engage the reader emotionally. Prog rockers Jethro Tull sang, ‘I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think’. For me, the reverse is true of Hughes. I laugh at his characters, but don’t care what happens to them. It’s the difference between witnessing genuine magic and sitting in the audience as a master conjuror goes through his routine. Of course, as Asimov and Silverberg demonstrated in a couple of stories, sometimes the only way to get people to appreciate real magic is by pretending that it’s all a trick. I’m not quite sure what point I’m making any more, other than that Rhys Hughes is more fun than one of those barrels of monkeys people talk about, and you’re probably going to have a good time with his book.