by Jeffrey E. Barlough
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
A horror of manners and mystery aplenty awaits the readers of Strange Cargo, the much-anticipated third novel from author Jeffrey E. Barlough.
Jack Cargo and his devoted yet scheming wife Susan stand to inherit the family fortune and estate at Tiptop Grange–and the extensive lands and tenantries adjoining thereto–provided, of course, that they can find and discredit a mysterious heir unexpectedly named in Grandfather’s will.
Meanwhile, in the heart of old Pinewick, on the outskirts of the great metropolis of Crow’s-end, Miss Jane Wastefield is haunted by an inheritance of her own, so strange and terrible that she keeps it locked in a chest that she never lets out of her sight.
And what of the “wizard notion” struck by tinkerer Malachi Threadneedle and his apprentice Tim Christmas? Might it have anything to do with the reports of a flying house seen hovering past the lighthouse at Paignton Swidges?
Readers can only speculate as the seemingly separate paths of these characters (and a host of others) intersect in the backwater seaside village of Nantle in this, the welcomed third installment of Barlough’s highly entertaining and ever-intriguing Western Lights series.
Like the previous Western Lights books, Strange Cargo is a stand-alone tale set in Barlough’s mysteriously sundered world where a slice of Victorian-era human civilization coexists with a host of prehistoric creatures including mastodons, saber-cats and megatheres, at what appears to be the tail-end of an ice age. It is also a world replete with supernatural occurrences and otherworldly monsters.
Also as in his previous books, Barlough continues his deft use of purposely and perfectly padded prose to lend a decidedly Victorian flavor to his writing. But this isn’t the Victorian fiction you dreaded in English Lit class; gone are the interminably dull passages we suffered through while trolling the works of the sisters Bronte, Wilkie Collins and (let’s be honest with ourselves) Dickens. Not that these authors have nothing to offer us, but you have to wade through a lot of chaff to reach the wheat. This prosy prose was partly a byproduct of the publishing environment of the time; many of the novels of that period debuted as magazine serials that oftentimes would run for a year or more in regular installments before being collected into books. Realizing they were onto a good thing, the writers of the day adopted a more-is-better modality that generated a lot of needless and oftentimes cumbersome details to milk these serial contracts for all they were worth. Hence the overly-florid, drive-you-up-a-wall descriptive passages of the most mundane daily goings-on endemic to the genre. I realize I’m generalizing a lot here; some authors were clearly better than others at moving their stories along in a compelling way, padding and all. But I maintain that most of the era’s writers would have benefited from the services of a good editor.
Barlough, however, has a knack for taking the best aspects of this writing style and making it seem downright… well, fun. He knows what to emulate and, more importantly, what to leave out, with the result of presenting a host of fascinating characters and settings in stories with satisfying and somehow comforting auras of antiquity that nevertheless read like modern page-turners. It is easy to see why he has become a leading light in the fiction movement aptly christened the “New Victoriana” by reviewer Rick Kleffel in The Agony Column, a terrific site for serious readers of genre fiction.
In my own past reviews of Barlough’s work, I’ve dubbed his style as modern day Scientific Romance, an amalgam of Victorian drama, classic horror and fantastical fiction.
However you choose to describe it, Strange Cargo is easily on par with the other books in Barlough’s Western Lights series, a cleaner read than Dark Sleeper and more complex than The House in the High Wood (almost capturing the best aspects of both those books). It offers the dense prose, compelling characters and highly engaging storylines Barlough fans have come to expect.
The only aspect that might disappoint some readers (me among them) is the decidedly Science Fictional turn the story takes at the end, which in large part demystifies the unique universe Barlough has crafted, and puts some pretty deep scratches in its Victorian veneer.
I, for one, would have been perfectly happy as a reader to know only what the inhabitants of Barlough’s world do about what they term “the Sundering,” the world-shattering event that has seemingly killed off the rest of the human race. That he has so concretely spelled out the whys and wherefores of this calamity can only lead me to speculate that this is the last novel he intends to set in the Western Lights universe; why else would he so neatly wrap up the loose ends that made the universe so intriguing to begin with?
Here’s to hoping I’m wrong (hey, it’s been known to happen!), because Barlough has created a fictional setting that I would gladly visit time and again, populated as it is by characters that feel like impeccably mannered old friends with ripping yarns to tell.