Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven

We now return to the "Supernatural Horror" category of the KEW list. Here is what Wagner had to say about Simon Raven (1927-2001) and his Doctors Wear Scarlet:

"Is it vampirism of is it a neurotic obsession? Ask the dead. Superb modern vampire novel was filmed as Incense for the Damned (AKA Bloodsuckers)"

The author had quite a colorful life. A great novelist and essay writer, he was regarded up there with Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. A notorious party animal, he also manged to spend just about every shilling he made. Education at British public school and service in the army gave him plenty of material for Doctors.
The plot of Doctors follows the career of Richard Fountain, a college graduate destined for great things. We are told about his life in first-person via his good friend Anthony Seymour. Seymour has attended both private school and college with Fountain and observed the rise to prominence. Both have had distinguished careers in the field of ancient history.
However, the book opens with the visit of a policeman to Seymour's office. It appears Fountain has put himself in a spot of trouble while researching religious cults in the Aegean islands. The Greek police want him for questioning. But Fountain has been away for months and no one knows how to find him, although it's assumed he's living in somewhere in Greece. After telling Fountain's life story to the policeman, Seymour and some close friends decide to travel to Greece to find him.
A lot of the book deals with the back story on Fountain. He's from a modest family and rides through school on scholarships. But his success has brought him to the attention of a professor at his college who wishes to manipulate the younger man's career. Worse, the professor has a daughter in need of a suitable husband and poor Richard fits the bill.
When Fountain's friends do find him, the man is a mess and close to death. He's become involved with a seductress named Chriseis who initiates him into some sort of blood cult. The two form a bizarre relationship and it's implied Richard may not have been her first victim.
The book is also wise not even to use the word "vampire" until well after the half-way mark. The author never does say wether or not the vampirism is the product of a disease, dillusion, or the supernatural. All three possibilities are hinted at. Even the conclusion doesn't answer this question. However, precautions are taken which tend to favour the last possibility.
Doctors gives the reader a detailed glimpse in the college life of Cambridge and other of the established British university. The title is take from an invitation to a college banquet where those holding a doctorate must wear scarlet robes. The conclusion of the book even takes place during the annual Michaelmass dinner, a centuries-old tradition.
This is a well-written and very literate book. Not an easy read, but worth the time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Land Under England by Joseph O'Neil

"Another lost-race sort of thing. Remnants of Roman civilization exist underground in a rigidly telepathically controlled society. The protagonist seeks them out as destiny and finds nightmare instead."

It's been a few weeks since I posted anything on this blog and one of the reasons is the difficulty I had getting through Land Under England. Written by Irishman Joseph O'Neil, this was one of the forgotten masterpieces on KEW's essential list. The author had a job in the Irish ministry of education, not hard to believe because he did like his wordage. Not that being a verbose author is such a bad thing; look what Will Shakespeare was able to accomplish. But all the narrative does make for a tiring read.
The book is narrated from the POV of a man searching underground for his father. The narrator is descended from a long line of Roman settlers of England and matures near the remnants of the Hadrian wall. In his family there is a tradition of finding an underground entrance to a subterranean world. Here, an entire company of Romans descended below the earth around the time of the Empire's fall. The narrator's father, after returning from WW1 shell-shocked, became obsessed with finding the entrance and disappeared. The narrator eventually follows in the footsteps of his father, although it is never precisely said how he finds the entrance.
After traveling through caves illuminated by phosphorescent glow, and battles with savage reptiles, he eventually finds an underground Roman civilization. But the civilization has become fused into a group mind. Somehow in the far past, telepathic humans were born who used their abilities to control the rest of the tribe. Known as "Masters of Knowledge", they see to it that ordinary humans are trained as tools in service of the Roman state. In fact, these Romans have no need of slaves since every human being is in service to the state.
The average Romans are described as "automatons", show no emotion, don't speak, and exist to do whatever task is needed for the maintenance of society. Consequently, the underground cities have no houses, just hedges to separate the workers into divisions of labor. Beneath the "Masters of Knowledge" are the Commanders, who supervise work gangs via their telepathic abilities. When the narrator first encounters the Romans, his mind is probed by a Commander who is shocked to discover there are some people immune to his abilities.
Eventually, the Roman Masters decide the narrator must be "absorbed" into the state. They decide to do this by showing him how the state functions, hoping he will see the error of his will. The narrator, on the other hand keeps insisting he get to see his father. Finally, the Romans force him from their civilization, as they figure he'll willingly come back to them, rather than try to find his way around in the darkness.
Where Land soars is in it's description of the underground world. Hollow Earth theory was always a guilty pleasure of mine and I delighted in all the literature it spawned. Give me a DVD of Attack of the Mole Men, the soundtrack to Journey to the Center of the Earth and I am one happy geek. This book has the most vivid imagery of what an underground world might be like I've ever encountered. He shows us vast seas illuminated by ionic displays. The seas are surrounded by swamps populated by predatory toads and spiders the size of lions. Everywhere, the phosphorescent glow of giant mushrooms illuminate the landscape.
But there's not a lot of dialogue here. Since the Romans communicate by thought, they place ideas in the narrators head to describe themselves. At least half of the book is his impressions of the subterranean world. All of this can make for a hard verbal slog.
I can see why KEW put it on his list, since it has the best visual concept of what an underground world might be like. But it's not an easy read by any means.