|Reviews of Recent Publications|
THE VICAR OF MORBING VYLE
Cover by Richard Harland
(Karl Evans Publishing, $8.95, 305pp, pb, 1993)
Reviewed by Martin J. Livings
Morbing Vyle. Morbing Vyle. The name alone sends a shudder down my spine.
Oh come on! It's not that bad!
Richard Harland opens his novel, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, with the above quote. This first-person retrospective style, along with some bizarre comments on the back cover, immediately made me think that what I held in my hands was a Lovecraftian tale of madness, murder and bizarre monsters from other dimensions of time and space. I turned each page flinchingly, expecting "the creature was so horrific, so monstrous, that I was driven completely insane by merely glancing at its big toe", or "it was so disgusting and vile (Vyle?) that I couldn't even begin to describe it, so I won't even try". Being a jaded horror reader, I expected no surprises.
That was my first surprise. It wasn't the last.
Admittedly, the first sixty or so pages of the novel are slow, dull and unwieldy, paced like a poorly-run game of Call of Cthulhu and with almost as much action and intrigue. This could put less perseverent readers off; it certainly deterred me for a few weeks. I actually started to compare this book to Lovecraft's mythical Necronomicon - that is, neither book can be read for long without driving you irrevocably insane. But, being the stalwart Eidolon reviewer I am (and receiving desperate phone calls from certain editors, screaming "By the 30th! For God's sake, by the 30th!"), I girded my loins (don't laugh - they're my loins, and I can gird them if I want to) and plunged back into the township of Morbing Vyle.
Martin Smythe is an Australian studying in England. In the process of researching a thesis on religious opposition to evolutionary theories, he comes across a number of references to a town called Morbing Vyle. Being the standard horror novel hero (i.e. supposedly intelligent and rational, but in fact strangely curious and stupid), he sets out to find this town. However, it appears on no maps, and - surprise, surprise - nobody has heard of it, or, at least, no-one will admit to having heard of it (and who can blame them; imagine being the village next to a village called Morbing Vyle. Great for tourism, I don't think). Of course, Smythe finds the enigmatic village of Morbing Vyle, although all that is left of it is the vicarage, inhabited by a quartet (at first) of bizarre people, the last worshippers of the "true faith", who are awaiting "the Great Return", which Smythe presumes to be the Second Coming. But far more is going on in Morbing Vyle than is readily apparent, a fact which Martin Smythe learns, rapidly and unpleasantly.
Although the basic idea behind the book is rather hackneyed and unoriginal, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle does have more than a few redeeming features. The descriptions, although overlong and tedious early on, do set the scene superbly for later in the novel. From my reading, I could describe the vicarage, the surrounding landscape, and the half-constructed church (oops: don't want to give too much away!) The pacing, once the story gets going, is fast and steady, never really letting up until the last few pages, where everything settles down and the obligatory explanation is given, along with a happy ending (no huge giveaway there, since the opening of the book immediately lets you know the narrator survives intact and sane). The characters, particularly the antagonists (I, for one, never found myself empathizing with Smythe - he was supposedly the most normal of the characters in the book, and subsequently the least believable in terms of motivation. Some of the things this guy does . . . sheesh!), were distinct and . . . err, unusual probably isn't a strong enough word for it. Indeed, when first described, they all seemed a little too distinct and unusual, as if the author was trying to make each character easily distinguishable for a less-than-sharp readership. However, like the geographic descriptions, these characterizations turned out to be both effective and appropriate - each character has his or her own personal specialized field of perversion, and the characters stay true to that to the end. Where Harland excelled in this book, however, was in building a sense of fear, unease, even dread. The style was almost Gothic, similar to that of Edgar Allen Poe in the construction of a situation which starts strange, and gets plain weird and nasty, culminating in a frenzied night where . . . no, I won't go into details - read it for yourself. But it disturbed me - me, the jaded horror reader!
I'm not saying this book is without it's negative aspects, God forbid. Some of the writing is clumsy and repetitive, and the plot is pretty darn poor in places. But the major drawback is that the beautifully-built sense of dread is quite often destroyed by an ineffectual finale, like a long, well-told joke with a weak punchline. Wandering underpants, bizarrely-powered mechanisms, farm animals from Hell, leather beanbags just the right size for a human body . . . all get the reader's imagination firing on as many cylinders as can be mustered (and, let's face it, if you're reading a book called The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, that's probably not a V8 up there), only to be let down with an almost audible "thunk" and a muttered "hey, what happened dude?" However, these problems are more than made up for by some very effective scenes, both horrific and comedic, plus the impression that at no stage was the author even slightly serious about what he was writing. There are no messages, no morals. It doesn't get bogged down in the rampant morbidity and sexual repression of Lovecraft or Poe, instead combining Gothic atmosphere with splatterpunk devil-may-care mentality to produce . . . well, something rather unique and, despite all logic, very entertaining.
Conclusion? Although far from perfect, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle is a brave experiment, and is certainly the most enjoyable Australian novel I've read in some time (of course, the last Australian novel I read was My Brilliant Career, so that's not saying much . . .) Pick it up for a couple of hours of easy reading, but don't expect a novel of much depth or, for that matter, width. The length, however, is fun, as long as you can wade through the early chapters. It's a Lovecraftian, lunatic lunge through lurid landscapes (don't you practice your alliteration on me!), and I look forward to seeing more Australian horror on the shelves. Oh, and check out the publisher's warning at the start of the book - I ignored it, and was consequently driven barking mad. You have been warned. Woof!
THE SEA'S FURTHEST END
Cover by Timothy Ide
(Aphelion Publications, $12.95, [x +] 193pp, pb, 1993)
Reviewed by Michael J. Tolley
Damien Broderick's new title has a beginning (The), a middle (SF), and an end. The end is also its beginning, or rather its fourth beginning, or, if you like, our fourth beginning. As he wakes into life, the hero's far future flashes behind his eyes, and so does his immediate past. The narrative is, accordingly, divided into streams which run concurrently for the reader until they merge into a final understanding which, for the hero, is a new beginning.
As the story opens, one of the confluent streams is the "NOW" of young Dayton recovering consciousness on a hospital bed after some overwhelming event, not yet recovered by his consciousness. This NOW (which seems to be a little bit ahead of our own present) incorporates flashbacks to the THEN behind it. However, the far future, set on distant planets, is presented at first as an independent narrative, but itself divided into "flashback" ("year 19 of the Empire") and "real time" ("year 20 of the Empire"). Thus we read through two double narratives as we progress through the book and we are bound to intuit a connection between the NOW and the AFTER, perhaps trans-biographical, whereas we know that there is a biographical and historical link between years 19 and 20 of the Empire, which share the same characters, and an autobiographical link between Dayton's NOW and Dayton's earlier life. To make the connection a lot clearer and to confuse it, at first, just a little, there is also a further narrative stream, called "hyperdream". The hyperdream is in dialogue form, the NOW mostly in first-person singular, self-addressed, with external voices intruding, the Empire narratives in third-person sympathetic. The third-person narratives are vivid and lyrical; the NOW in contemporary adolescent vernacular; the hyperdream in a deliberately depersonalized, heightened but stilted, formal style. The intercutting of each strand is frequent, so that none is allowed to overflow and become so extensive that an awareness of the others is forgotten; each strand is cut, typically, just before the reader's curiosity is satisfied.
Take four samples, from the beginnings of each:
CAN YOU HEAR ME, DAYTON? CAN YOU SEE THIS LIGHT WHEN I SHINE IT IN YOUR EYE?
Oh man, is this the weirdest shit that ever happened or what?
I THINK HE'S AWAKE. DAYTON, EVERYTHING'S ALL RIGHT, FELLA. NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED ABOUT.
Oh sure. Nothing to be scared about. Good one. So why's his voice gone like that, all scrunched up and freaky and terrified? They always lie to you. Adults always lie, especially when they're scared. Talking to themselves, eh.
(This narrative is not only self-addressed, it is clearly calculated to appeal to a young reader, who is supposed to enjoy the vague naughtiness of words such as "weirdest shit" and identify with the shrewdness of the insight into adults.)
year 19 of the Empire
. . . flashback . . .
"Hai! Aeeii!" She whooped and laughed, falling through the dazzling air with her mouth agape, white teeth gleaming like lights in the brightness of Tiresias Prime.
Adriel of Corydon, human creation of the genetic criminals of Tiresias, rode upon the back of a wildly bucking plimp - a raft of skyweed whose touch was painfully poisonous, even lethal, to any other human being on or off the planet. The transgenic creature might yet prove murderous even to Adriel, protected though she was from its malice, if she lost her precarious grip for an instant and tumbled to the rocks far below.
(This narrative introduces a young heroine figure, not only exotic but uniquely talented, having dangerous fun of a kind you can't get even in the Coke adverts. "Tiresias Prime", its planet's "genetic criminals", the "skyweed" which is biologically a "transgenic creature", all signal the beginning of an exhilarating "sense-of-wonder" generating ride of the kind only that good oil, SF, can provide, while the name, "Adriel of Corydon" suggests that elements of the currently popular fantasy narratives might also be present.)
year 20 of the Empire
. . . real time . . .
Chakravalin lies on his back, chewing the end of a stem of something which is not quite grass. In star-sprayed darkness, in the Imperial garden's hush, he is another lean shadow merely. Eyes closed, he sucks sweet juice into his mouth, swallows it against the knot of bitter anger in his throat.
A kilometre distant, the Palace is very quiet, settling into sleep. All Chakravalin hears in the starry midnight dark are the furtive movements of small creatures foraging among fallen leaves, and the long swell of the river Kashi slapping against the breakwaters and the ghats, where once pilgrims gathered at the edge of the sacred waters.
The boy opens his eyes to the sky, and sobs.
(This narrative introduces the young hero figure, "unhappy though in heaven", presumably a prince, as he is at leisure in "the Imperial garden". His Indian name and the reference to the "sacred waters" of the "river Kashi" with its "ghats" introduce a distinctive cultural element, exotic and mysterious still to the typical modern Australian reader. The anger of Chakravalin will soon be more clearly defined as a cause of the ensuing narrative and its cause may be expected to emerge from the flashbacks to the previous year.)
Tell me it all. I am ravenous for the knowledge of it.
Ah, human! Remember, remember!
I was not there. How may I remember it?
You say you were not there? Very well, let it be so - for now.
It is so, of necessity. And because I cannot remember, I ask you to tell me.
We shall show it to you. For we were there, through all of it, and it is not yet finished, so you must remember, human, remember!
(I have to say that the stilted unidiomatic quality of the first line here seems unfortunate. "I am ravenous for the knowledge of it" is not the way contemporary humans talk or even think. "I am hungry to know everything" might be duller but could not be worse than what we have. Fortunately the style improves and soon becomes lyrical. The introduction of an alien interlocutor - perhaps a group or hive species - with telepathic abilities is intriguing and the parallel with the NOW narrative, in which remembering is also the only way the subject can progress, is mysterious and provocative. Little is understood at this stage, but much portends.)
Reviewers are advised that The Sea's Furthest End (which I suspect misuses "Furthest" when "Farthest" was meant) is meant to be "Suitable for Adult, Young Adult & Teenage Readers". If the implication were that teenagers might go for the NOW story, Young Adults for the Empire story, and Adults be left to chew on the hyperdream, this would be unfortunate. Instead of catering for three markets, the author would fail to satisfy any. My guess as a jaded adult only too happy to have the chance to enjoy a fast read, even if the book is written partly in the regrettable vernacular of modern young people, even if it employs some of the clichés of space opera in the Star Wars mode, is that the author has succeeded in his superficially bold, yet severely limited aim. The book is an entertainment, and not without instruction. I wish I'd known when young what to say to those girls with whom I became so inarticulately infatuated across a crowded schoolroom. At last, the NOW narrative tells me. I also relish, as a comparative novelty, the idea of fighting chaos with chaos.
Originally appeared pp. 88-92, Eidolon 12, April 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.