DeFlip Side #85: A Literate Season of Death

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Although we’ve had one of the most beautiful Indian summers in memory here on Long Island, a recent fishing trip upstate reminded me that the chilly air and stunning foliage are marching south—ironically invigorating harbingers of the season of death. So I want to help you embrace this encroaching cold and darkness by recommending some seasonally-suitable books and other literary activities that’ll put you into the right frame of mind.

First, try reading Anchorwick, by Jeffrey E. Barlough.

Only in the hands of a master like Barlough do the appellations “more of the same” and “unpredictable” seamlessly combine to become a cause for celebration. Barlough’s new supernatural page-turner, Anchorwick lives up to the considerable standard set by the author’s previous works, offering more of the unique writing style, enjoyable characters and excellent story telling that Barlough fans have come to expect. On top of that, Anchorwick also manages to take Barlough’s fantastic fictional realm in unexpected new directions.

Anchorwick is Barlough’s latest “Western Lights” novel, the fifth stand-alone tale set in a world where a remnant of Victorian-era society lives in ice-rimed isolation after a mysterious, world-shattering event called the Sundering—a milieu that Barlough augments with his rich pseudo-Victorian prose style.

Anchorwick revisits the setting and some of the characters featured in Barlough’s first novel, Dark Sleeper, returning to the seaside city of Salthead some 30 years before the events of that book. The narrator this time out is Eugene Stanley, a glazier’s son doing some scholarly work for his uncle, Christopher Greenshields, a professor at Antrobus College in Salthead University.

While studying one night, Eugene is visited by a misty apparition crying out for help. Curiosity piqued, Eugene postpones his deliberations about whether or not to become a student and launches an investigation with the aid of his new college chums. But his poking around soon snares him in a web of larger and seemingly unrelated mysteries, including the baffling disappearance of an esteemed Antrobus professor, the seeming reanimation of a recently dead one, and the rediscovery of an ancient magic that is somehow tied to a monstrous old clock that is not really a clock at all.

Anchorwick once again treats readers to the unique blend of elements that make Barlough’s work so hard to classify—occult mystery, allohistory, scientific romance, Victorian horror—all culminating in a sprawling, gas-lit fantasy that should be doubly enjoyable for long-time Barlough readers, as it reunites them with the key characters and settings that turned them on to the “Western Lights” series in the first place.

That’s not to say that Anchorwick offers nothing new; quite the opposite. Just as the novel Strange Cargo was of a decidedly science fictional bent, so Anchorwick plays with the notion of multiple universes and overlapping realities. As for how the characters reach those realities, let’s just say that Lucy Pevensie’s magical wardrobe ain’t got nothing on Eugene Stanley’s sinister clock case.

Classic influences like these demonstrate Barlough’s firm grounding in the staples of the genre. But he never shies away from stretching their boundaries to expand the “Western Lights” universe. The true testament to his writing talent is that he can mesh all these diverse elements into a cohesive and satisfying whole. Every “Western Lights” book plays like a unique scene in a fantastic tapestry that Barlough continues weaving in unexpected directions. It’s what makes you keep coming back to his work, because in one sense you know exactly what you’re going to get, yet you never know how it will manifest itself.

The “Western Lights” series just keeps getting better on every level, as Anchorwick so ably demonstrates. So whether you’re visiting Barlough’s eldritch realm for the first time or you’re a seasoned traveler making a return journey into Salthead’s foggy heart, prepare yourself for a devilishly delightful trip.

Now if you’re looking for something to read with the kids for Halloween, but which you’ll enjoy just as much, look no further than Coraline, a dark, strange and thrillingly creepy young adult novella by the incomparable Neil Gaiman.

Feeling neglected by her busy parents one rainy day, Coraline decides to explore the flat her family just moved into, part of a rambling old house. She stumbles upon a door, a secret passageway to another house that is a strange version of her own, where she finds her other mother, as detailed in this passage from the book:

“A woman stood in the kitchen with her back to Coraline. She looked a little like Coraline’s mother. Only… Only her skin was white as paper. Only she was taller and thinner. Only her fingers were too long, and they never stopped moving, and her dark-red fingernails were curved and sharp.”

I picked up Coraline after reading Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys, and wound up devouring it in a single sitting, completely blown away. To quote author Terry Pratchett, Coraline “is a masterpiece. And you will never think about buttons in quite the same way again.” Once you’ve read it, you’ll understand why, and also why it won the Hugo, Nebula and Stroker awards.

Finally, when you’re ready to ditch the kids all together and steep yourself in old-school horror, do what I plan on doing: head into the city to catch actor Robert Lloyd Parry’s one-man performance of works by pioneering British ghost story writer M.R. James. The show will feature the stories “Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you my Lad”—widely considered to be James’s best, and “The Ash Tree.”

A live reading is an especially appropriate venue for these stories; when James taught in Kings College in Cambridge 100 years ago, he would debut new stories every Christmas by reading them to his students. So Parry’s show should prove an evocative homage of that unique tradition. Shows are running at the 78th Street Theater Lab through November 8.

You’ll find a link for tickets to the show, as well as a more extensive review of Anchorwick, on my website at www.myspace.com/deflipside. Log on and make it a happy Halloween!

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NOTE: Of course the M.R. James show is long over, but you can find a review and sample of Parry’s performance in DeFlip Side#86: The Meaning of Life (November 2008).  And the more extensive review of Anchorwick is featured in our book review section.