Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
There are authors that you read to strike out on bold new literary roads. And then there are writers whose books feel like coming home. For me, Jeffrey E. Barlough is in the latter category. And his Western Lights series has been a one of my most pleasant literary abodes for two decades now.
Set in a world where the Ice Age never ended, a cataclysmic event known as The Sundering has cut a remnant of Victorian-era settlers off from the rest of the world. In the ensuing centuries, their society has endured on the North American West Coast — replete with a host of prehistoric creatures and supernatural occurrences.
It’s a fun and fascinating setting in which Barlough continues to find humor and horror aplety. But the latest Western Lights novel The Thing in the Close brings something entirely new to the sundered realm…
The crack of the bat! The roar of the crowd! For the series’ 10th entry, Barlough winds up and pitches us a baseball novel.
Or more specifically, batball, as it has been dubbed by Father Seamus Maconchey, who has brought the sport to the remote hamlet of Bogminster, in the foggy northern reaches of Slopshire — after having invented it with his old chum Tom Bentloe in the neighboring province of Lingonshire. Now Bogminster is hosting a grand exhibition of the new pastime with a series of matches between the Slopshire Nines and the Lingonshie Poachers.
But strange occurrences are afoot that threaten to derail the spectacle — not the least of which is the ghoulish black figure that has been seen of late haunting the cathedral grounds of St. Dunstan’s. And then there’s the titular thing in the close, which has stirred up an entirely different sort of buzz.
I won’t spoil what that thing is, but I will tell you that it’s straight out of a Scientific Romance and dovetails nicely with Barlough’s pseudo-Victorian setting. And for those of you who are wondering (like I was), a “close” is the land immediately surrounding a cathedral, which makes sense given the story’s primary setting.
As for that story, it’s a much smaller affair when set against the bigger happenings of the Western Lights Universe that longtime readers have been privy to. But it’s a wonderful showcase for Barlough’s trademark mix of fantasy and droll humor. My one small quibble with the book is that one of its major plot twists will be immediately evident to those aforementioned longtime readers. But it doesn’t detract from the story overall, and the novel works on almost every level.
I’m happy for that because the last Western Lights novel — Where The Time Goes — was a real outlier for the series. And while I’m not against shaking things up a bit, I found it especially jarring after 2014’s exemplary The Cobbler of Ridingham which embodied everything I enjoy most about the Western Lights books. And while The Thing in the Close doesn’t dethrone Cobbler as my favorite, it is one of the best of what I’ve dubbed Barlough’s “shire” novels.
Suffice it to say that as a long-time fan I bring a lot of baggage and expectations to Barlough’s works. But first time readers, don’t let my mania scare you off. You don’t have to start at square one. Like the majority of the Western Lights books, The Thing in the Close is a stand-alone tale that first-time readers can readily enjoy, and is a fine gateway into Barlough’s unique style of storytelling.
But for my fellow fans, The Thing in the Close continues to add to the richness of the Western Lights tapestry, with a broader look at the Sundered Realm and featuring a few returning characters — including the aforementioned Tom Bentloe and a certain Mrs. Nan Chugwell with her team of shoveltusker Mastodons. There’s even a shout out to Long Island!
Western Lights is now entering its third decade, and I’m happy to see that Barlough is still rounding the bases with no signs of flagging. Batter up, book lovers!