Filler content with reality fractured

A review of The Night Clock that originally appeared in Black Static #52 as part of a feature on Paul Meloy:-

FRACTURED REALITY: PAUL MELOY

A history lesson – 1997 was an important year for TTA Press. With its first issue of the year, #12, the company’s flagship magazine The Third Alternative went to A4 from its previous A5 incarnation, and with #14 it was graced with a full colour cover for the first time. That landmark issue contained fiction by Mark Morris, David Langford, Jeff Vandermeer, and a story with the rather wonderful title ‘The Last Great Paladin of Idle Conceit’, the first appearance by a young writer named Paul Meloy. Meloy was to become a regular contributor to TTA publications, and when Alternative segued into Black Static the new arrival took its name from his 2005 British Fantasy Award winning story. In 2008 TTA published his first and as yet only collection of short stories, Islington Crocodiles – now going for anything between £30.19 and £214.99 on Amazon (but there’s a 2013 edition from American publisher Bad Moon Books for those whose budget doesn’t stretch as far as it used to pre-austerity).

Most of Meloy’s stories are set in a reality where a war is raging between a group known as the Firmament Surgeons and their mortal enemies the Autoscopes, with an underlying mythos or cosmology that is constantly evolving as more fictional building blocks are added to the grand design. In a sense Meloy’s whole oeuvre is a work in progress, and the latest step along the literary path he is treading comes in the form of a novel, his first, THE NIGHT CLOCK (Solaris pb, 256pp, £7.99).

It is a work that eludes easy categorisation, a patchwork quilt of a book arising out of many diverse influences. The science fiction element is obvious, with the Quays that the Firmament Surgeons create reminiscent of the pocket universes found in Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers series and elsewhere, while in some ways the structure of the book resembles the archetypal quest narrative of much fantasy fiction. You could even make a case for it borrowing from the superhero genre, with the Firmament Surgeons as the super team supreme (Robert Downey Jr gets to play protagonist Phil Trevena when the film is made), assembled to take on a motley crew of bad guys and gals, beefed up on steroids and rogue DNA, and armed to the teeth with weaponry and gadgets that Heath Robinson conceived of only in his worst nightmares, while lurking at back of it all and only showing his face in the final reel is an evil mastermind come arch-nemesis.

The book starts though with horror. A man whose arm has been amputated, blood still streaming from the stump, enters a house where a woman and her child are residing, and is then led away by another man armed with a pitchfork, after which it appears that he is burnt alive. And next up there’s a man going on a shooting spree in the children’s play area of a community centre, with two have a go heroes given their chance at making it big on the evening news. It’s shock (schlock) tactics, traumatic events intended to grab the reader’s attention and draw us into the story, to make us wonder what’s going on.

Enter from stage left the novel’s main protagonist, psychiatric nurse Phil Trevena, a member of the Crisis Team, helping those with mental health issues who are coping in the community. Except Phil’s patients are not coping at all. Several commit suicide even though all his training and intuition tell Phil that none of them were at risk. With his career on the skids and a supervisor willing to sacrifice him to cover his own arse, with his marriage dead and buried and his teenage daughter acting out, life is not exactly a box of chocolates for Phil Trevena, and then he gets a phone call from a man who is dead, and that man tells him he has to make contact with Daniel, which is when things start to get really, really weird.

Daniel is a Hypnopomp and the novel’s second main protagonist, and he turns up on cue to offer Phil an explanation for what’s going on with his patients, one that lets him off the hook as regards personal culpability for their deaths. He tells Phil of the Firmament Surgeons and their Paladins, charged with the responsibility for the preservation of all the good things in creation. He tells Phil of the-devil-in-dreams and the Autoscopes, Surgeons who have embraced darkness and now thrive on despair. These forces have targeted Phil “because you’re good at what you do and give hope where there should be none”. He tells Phil about the Dark Time and The Quays, oases of hope in a universe under threat from despair. He tells him about the imminent birth of another Firmament Surgeon, and the quest to take control of the fabled Night Clock, a cosmic timepiece that will enable them to put a spanner in the works of the Autoscopes, and pave the way for an eventual victory. He warns Phil about the entity Cade, a ruthless killer who will seek to use him.

With Daniel’s back story told, we go off to check in on some of the other characters, including the girl Chloe, who bonds with the talking dog Bix in some alternate reality while she waits to be born into our world. Bix reads to her from a book, the adventures of Alex and Sandy, another Firmament Surgeon and his Paladin. And finally we’re up to speed, with the various forces gathering for the climactic final battle for control of the Night Clock.

Cue alarums and excursions.

It’s a skilled exercise in world building, one in which events now begin to make sense, have a purpose to them no matter how terrible they might have appeared at first blush. A work that doesn’t offer instant gratification, but requires attention to detail and rewards careful reading. You don’t need to be familiar with the author’s oeuvre to enjoy the book, as it stands alone, but for those who have read the Islington Crocodiles collection and other stories in this cycle, many of the characters and events will resonate more strongly, with past occurrences seen from another perspective.

Meloy writes exquisitely with delicate and original turns of phrase, but underlying all his descriptive flourishes is a certain earthiness to the language, distinctive phrases mixed with a species of black humour. Nearly every page has memorable lines and images, such as the description of an enraged mother and lollipop lady “charging down the playground, her huge yellow reflective coat billowing and her lollipop dragging behind her, throwing sparks off the hopscotched tarmac”, or this from a description of Quay-Endula – “It sprawled around the bay like all the jewels ever mined poured in profligate adoration about the throat of the most indulged woman in the world”. Equally effective are Meloy’s descriptions of the monsters in the book, the Toyceivers and Autoscopes, with their Outrage Contraptions, the giant spiders and vitreosaurs, the hybrid beast that is the scorpodile (a fusion of crocodile and scorpion) and winged beasts with “scissoring, serrated beaks and each one contained a wick of diffuse light that irritated the back of the eye like a scratch”.

What helps to make these props of arch-weirdness so effective is the deftness and skill Meloy shows in his characterisation. The two leads, Phil and Daniel, are in a way opposite sides of the same coin. Phil is a curer, a mental health professional, while Daniel has spent time as a patient in a psychiatric facility and attempted suicide. Both of them have been undermined by the machinations of the-devil-in dreams and its agents, and both have had to discover a faith in themselves to cope. For Daniel all of that is ancient history, told in flashback, but for Phil it is the current situation, as he tries to make sense of the things that are happening in his life, not least deal with the lust he feels for a young trainee placed in his care, and other acts that the Cade entity tries to coerce him into committing. Phil needs to conquer himself, the flaws in his own nature, before he can truly help others.

The rest of the cast, no matter how small their role, are not given short shrift, with Meloy adept at capturing the essence of each one in a few well-chosen words, words whose truth is confirmed as we learn more of them. In particular he is good at delineating petty bureaucrats, such as the Police Community Support Officer Neil Gollick and Trevena’s immediate boss Stibbs, people who regard themselves as good human beings, and yet through their petty mindedness, moral bankruptcy, and points scoring actually serve the cause of the-devil-in-dreams. Several of the characters have suffered from mental health issues, and Meloy’s experiences as a psychiatric nurse, as well as giving authority to his depiction of Phil Trevena, help him to realise these members of the supporting cast convincingly on the page. He doesn’t appear to condone their behaviour, but his account of such people is illuminated with compassion and understanding of the circumstances that have led them to such extremes, as with the alcoholic Rob Litchin, who is capable of acting decently despite his dependency. They are fully rounded individuals, rather than case studies lifted wholesale from some psychiatric journal.

Playing counterpoint to the all too human aspects of the narrative is the cosmology or metaphysics of the novel, with the-devil-in-dreams as a Luciferian figure (there is a reference to this entity having played a role in the downfall of the angels), the tempter who thrives on despair and wins others over to his side, “the darkness that wants to destroy, to putrefy the dreams of desperate men”. Dreams, according to Daniel, “were given to us as a fulfilment of God’s ultimate gift of life”, the key to a far richer existence, one with the potential for wonder. It’s not specifically stated as far as I can recall, but my suspicion is that the Quays, the idyllic pockets of reality created as havens by the Firmament Surgeons (in context here given a distinctly British flavour, as if heaven is a picturesque seaside town on the Welsh coast where it’s always summer), are in fact dream states, a consensus reality of sorts situated in an equivalent of the aboriginal dreamtime. And it’s in such speculations that Meloy shows his originality, with a reality that appears to be underpinned by positive mental health, a quasi-solipsistic universe that can unravel as a result of sickness and depression.

Meloy offers us a universe of wonders that is in many ways a melange of other fantasies (hints of King’s Dark Tower cycle, Barker’s Abarat), and yet at the same time a unique and distinctive distillation. His God, or whatever passes for God in this iteration, does not have clean hands though. At the end the cause of good can only be achieved through an atrocity that, when seen in isolation, would be regarded by most as an evil act.

The Night Clock is a complicated book, one that turns time back on itself and loads the reader down with a wealth of back story (and you could make a case that there is too much of this if you wanted to nit-pick), with worlds within worlds, but all in their way move the story on, even though we mostly realise how only in hindsight, and it is possible to keep pace without writing notes. In the final analysis the structure of the book seems to mirror the cyclic nature of the Night Clock’s workings, with echoes of the philosophical concept of Eternal Recurrence, so that at the end we are back at the beginning, though whether it is the same beginning is open to question. It is an impressive achievement, a fusion of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, with important things to say about the nature of the modern world and how despair makes us our own worst enemies. I loved it and look forward to seeing where Meloy will take the grander story arc with his future work.

Or, if you want the CliffsNotes version, as I said to the author when asking if he’d be willing to do an interview to complement the review, The Night Clock is “insanely good”.

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