The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Teabag Leaves

Larry Teabag has tamped his last pax and KO'd his last text. He's tied up his phooey and peed away his gee. His weblog has been languishing for a while, and rather than leave it lying around for incautious netizens to tread in, he has decided to terminate it altogether. Sic transit gloria blogi. Larry has, however, been considerate enough (from my point of view) or otherwise (from everyone else's) to send me the text of the very generous review of my novel Beelzebub which he posted in 2007. I don't get so many reviews that I can afford to see one lost to posterity, so here, whether you like it or not, it is.

The tone of Philip Challinor's debut novel Beelzebub is set from the flyleaf:

"The quotations attributed to Jesus are taken from the New English Bible. Those attributed to Vlad Dracula are taken from Dracula: Prince of Many Faces by Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally."

The only other real person quoted in the book is Adolf Hitler.

Beelzebub is set four thousand years after The Rapture - the event at which (we assume) all good Christians were freed from death and reunited with their saviour, while the rest of humanity was, well, not. The novel is set within The Redoubt: a vast metal box enclosing a society of satanists, isolated from the outside world under the terms of their Pact with their master Beelzebub. The story is narrated by Vadol, a troubled (like everyone) but brilliant (unlike most) young sorcerer.

As the details of his life are fleshed out, we are treated to a succession of spectacular (and spectacularly nasty) psychedelic sequences involving familiars, prophetic dreams, homunculi, magical rites, and the doings of satanic sects. But it seems that in many ways life in the Redoubt is not so different from that in contemporary Britain:

"The pattern of lifetimes, even now, is to become conscious, grow dissatisfied, cast around at random for solutions, get nowhere, and die."

Beelzebub's author is of course best known around these parts for his blog The Curmudgeon. And despite the plentiful supply of phantasmagoria, the overwhelming atmosphere is indeed one of grouchy discontentment. Damnation, it seems, is neither fire nor brimstone but being trapped in a dysfunctional society of cynical individuals with nothing to do but indulge their meaningless political ambitions. To this extent, Beelzebub can certainly be read as social satire. (The idea of The Rapture as historical reality - particularly as penned by the author of blog-posts such as this - also had me smiling.)

A consequence of this is a curious juxtaposition between the events which befall Vadol, which become ever more imaginative in their outlandishness, and his reaction to them which, for the most part, is one of eyeball-rolling irritation.

The agent responsible for the decay of everything in The Redoubt is The Syndrome: over time and for reasons unknown, the food loses its nutrition, and the people become ever more apathetic and incapable of anything very much. But there might be an answer, if the biological schemers of the Genesis Faculty are to be believed, and Vadol may be more closely involved than he realises. He gradually discovers his true identity through a series of dreams and events which are weird even by the high local standard.

Of course it's hard in such a context to fully appreciate which of the occult occurrences are important and which incidental; if I have a negative criticism of Beelzebub, it's that it's slowed down (especially towards the beginning) by dwelling on insignificant details, while the narrator insists on how tiresome it all is.

The picture that is painted of a magical but pathological society is wonderfully effective; despite the prominence of the Devil's spine, the occasional demon, and the numerous cloaked rituals, the magic is for the most part psychological in nature, and limited in scope, not of the near-omnipotent wands and broomsticks variety. Though the mind-probing and magical seals and so on are miraculous, they're nevertheless intuitive and require physical effort. Especially pleasing is the relationship between Vadol and his familiar Wheatley; they are mutually psychically dependent, but it's altogether a more bitter affair than the cosy symbiosis of (for instance) His Dark Materials:

"There was only raw pain, raw fear, raw servitude, and raw confusion at the condition of being half-alive; the so-called familiar condition."

This is a closed society constructed around evil, and Challinor doesn't shy away from addressing this head-on, without romanticising. Life is cheap in The Redoubt, and hence a general ambience of nastiness and distrust. Plus, of course, there are the references to Vlad and Adolf and their bloodbaths. Most of the characters have (and deserve) a fairly unpleasant time, at the hands of their self-centered peers.

Beyond any satire, this is a fictional account of a satanist society, whose priorities one does not and should not share. But this is no morality tale, the central character is intelligent and likeable, and his motives more or less understandable. So, as it nears its conclusion you may fail to notice that the triumphant meeting with destiny, for which the book's heroes ultimately wish, is not one which civilised people should welcome. Indeed, by taking the story slowly, and telling it from the perspective of a sympathetic character, Beelzebub left this reader, at least, cheering wholeheartedly for the Antichrist.

Beelzebub by Philip Challinor is published by Lulu, and can be bought online here. An extract can be found here.


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