My review for the British Fantasy society of an excellent new book aimed at horror writers.
So I’ve just read Neil Williamson’s debut novel, The Moon King. As quite often happens when I read great stuff I feel under-qualified to comment on it as he is (probably) cleverer than me and (definitely) a better writer than me. But that’s never stopped me before from spouting opinions so what the hell.
There is an island city ruled by immortal benevolent dictator The Lunane. When he founded the city he captured the moon and set it permanently above the city – a symbol of the city’s greatness and of his own power.
As a consequence, the moon is the dominant factor in the life of Glassholm (It’s essentially Glasgow and the Glassholmers are Glaswegians). At full moon, everybody is happy and Glassholm is one big party; as the moon wanes architecture crumbles, mechanical things fail and the mood of the populace sinks until at full dark all the lights go out and there is depression and violence.
This is how things have been for centuries, but suddenly things start to go awry: there is a murder at full; the luck monkeys deliver only bad luck; children made of water haunt the city, and the moon’s behaviour no longer correlates with the palace mathematicians’ calculations.
I won’t go into any more details of the story because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone intending to read the book. And everyone should read this book. It’s a rip-roaring adventure, a pacy crime thriller, an inventive alternate reality fantasy, and most of all a modern fable. The prose is sweet enough to be almost invisible and the characters all genuinely breathe.
All of that is enough to make it a worthwhile read, but where it gets really interesting, and where this reviewer starts to feel out of his depth, is in the subtext.
The city, in order to cope with the monthly cycle of decay and repair, is sturdy and solid, the people pragmatic and stoical, surviving the dark days with a mix of bleak humour and bloody-mindedness. They are exactly like Glaswegians, and perhaps because of that I kept feeling correlations, noticing the other ways it reflected the city that spawned me.
A major theme of the novel is the cyclical nature of life, though in The Moon King the only cycle that counts is the lunar one. His description of the full moon revels sound not much different from Sauchiehall street on a Saturday night: lots of loud drunk happy people, uninhibited and doing and saying things they’ll regret tomorrow. And the undercurrent of unease in this party atmosphere, the feeling that failing to join in might mark you as an outsider or a target, is portrayed perfectly in the novel. Glasgow on a Tuesday night is a very different place.
The cycle of decay and repair happens in Glasgow too, but over a year rather than a month. Our winters are harsh, but not so cold that the temperature stays below freezing for weeks at a time. Water seeps into cracks in walls or roads, freezes and widens them, again and again over the winter. Then the January storms come and roof tiles, trees and trampolines fly around causing more damage. With the spring sunshine come the workies repairing potholes and rebuilding architecture.
Another major theme is conservatism, linked with complacency and fear of change, even when the status quo is deeply flawed and a bit sinister. In a way it could be taken as a comment on the current Scottish independence debate, if he hadn’t told me he’d started writing it nine years ago.
And finally, perhaps its most blatantly fabulist theme is the danger of trying to interfere with nature. We might think we’re in charge but she will have her way in the end – even a thousand years of the illusion of control can crumble when nature retakes the reins.
Some of it is still spinning around in my head and I’ll quite possibly change my mind about everything I just wrote in the coming weeks.
Overall, this is a highly rewarding reading experience that works on as many levels as you want it to. He leaves a lot of the details vague, giving us room to fill in our own ideas, showing the reader some respect. Extra marks just for that Neil.
I’ve read several of Nathan Robinson’s short stories, including his excellent collection Devil Let Me Go and I’ve generally enjoyed them, but Starers is the first substantial piece of his I’ve encountered. And I was impressed.
He starts by introducing us to a normal family: a married couple, their teenage daughter and his drunken brother. He doesn’t rush the first part of the book, but it doesn’t drag – we get involved and interested in the kind of problems that any family might encounter. The relationships are handled sensitively and I got a feel very quickly for the family dynamic.
The first strange thing we see is an old man standing at a bus stop, then a neighbour standing naked in her garden just staring at the family’s house. More people join the crowd and nobody does anything – they just stand there and stare. And it’s the creepiest and most effective thing I’ve read this year.
The build of tension and the strain on the already fragile familial relationships are beautifully portrayed, and the implied, non-specific threat of the ever-growing horde of starers makes for a claustrophobic and volatile atmosphere, which inevitably escalates.
I’m reluctant to tell you more for fear of spoiling your enjoyment if you read it, but a crowd of people standing watching a house is only the appetizer – much more stuff happens as the story progresses.
This is self-published, and there are a few small slips in grammar or style, but nothing that will stop you having a great time with this book. I hope that one day soon Mr. Robinson can land a proper publishing deal and get a professional editor to work with to give his work that final polish. As it stands though, it’s a more satisfying and certainly a scarier book than several things I’ve received from mainstream publishing houses in the last few months.
It was the wood-burning stove in my living room that got me thinking about this. It’s a small black cast iron box with a glass front and you burn logs in it. People ooh and ah when they see it, and think of it as an extravagance on my part. It’s true that it’s not necessary – I’ve got central heating – but it’s really nice on those cold winter nights to see the flames dance, smell the woodsmoke and feel the heat.
Yet, not long ago, everyone had either open fires or stoves – my Granny had a range in her Glasgow council flat in the 1950s. Central heating is better: cleaner, less hassle and warmer. The fire, once essential, has become a luxury for the privileged.
Electric light is great – we can work and play and read into the night and it’s so easy to switch on and off. So why is it that everyone I visit these days has candles lit? Candles don’t replace the light bulbs – they’re only there for atmosphere. Again, a once-essential item has become a luxury.
There are several more examples: riding horses, travelling by ship, even having a bath are less convenient than the modern equivalents – cars, showers and aeroplanes. But people love them, and they’re seen as demonstrations of wealth.
The ultimate in poshness these days is probably sitting in a cast iron bath by candlelight in front of a roaring fire, having just come from a day’s riding and about to pack for your ocean cruise. Yet all of these things are all from the past.
The next thing that may be relegated to the same status of luxury item for the wealthy might be the book. I have lots of books in my house – three big bookcases just in the living room and a few more dotted round the house, and although I’ve read most of them I mainly like them for some more subtle reason. There is something comforting in being surrounded by things that have value and nobility. Individual books might not survive the centuries but the work will; my life seems transient by comparison. It adds to the atmosphere of my old Victorian house – that too will still be here when I’m dust.
But the quickest and easiest way to read a book now is on a Kindle or similar device. My pal might tell me in the pub that the new book by Blah DeBlahblah is brilliant and I can be reading it that night on the way home on the train if it takes my fancy. People like such simplicity and convenience, so I see a future in which the ebook is the norm, and a bookcase is less a repository for knowledge and more a display of social standing.
And I’m ambivalent about the whole idea – who’s to say whether it’s a good thing for books to be cheaper and easier to get in a virtual form? – surely it’s the words that are important and not the medium. Yet my emotional attachment to bound pages remains.