Burning Bright Jay Russell (Raven Books - Robinson Publishing, £5.99, 280 pages, paperback; ISBN 1-85487-467-5). Published October 1997.
I wouldn't be surprised if, several years from now, Jay Russell is revealed as a pseudonym for a collection of contemporary authors - one plucked from each genre - expert in weaving their various visions together. Burning Bright is listed as Crime/Fantasy, but it would rest just as easily in the horror or science fiction category. Indeed, I would be surprised to see it stocked anywhere else in a high street bookshop than beside the likes of Campbell, Koontz, Straub, et al.
However, in my opinion the most appropriate tag should include the word Adventure. Both the plot and main character evoke an atmosphere not a million miles distant from Indiana Jones, except with nastier villains, more down-to-earth - and adult! - wisecracks, and no (or hardly any) romantic involvement. Oh, and he doesn't carry a whip.
The aforementioned main character is one Marty Burns, an American TV star currently on the second wave of his career having featured in dozens of bad Tits and Ass movies in his younger years, who arrives on English soil intending to record a 'Jack the Ripper Unveiled' special. Whilst in London he gets caught up in a racial attack on an Asian shopkeeper, and is subsequently propelled to stardom as a sort of 'have a go hero'. From there on the plot spirals, and Burns uncovers a neo-Nazi cult called the Ultima Thule, intent on bringing dark times indeed to the shores of Blighty. Pretty soon, along with a didgeridoo-playing New Age traveller called Pahoo (the subject of many personal hygiene jokes), an Asian lady with mystical leanings, and an Irish ex-IRA lesbian terrorist by the name of Siobahn, Marty is dashing up and down the country in a desperate attempt to save places of natural power from being used by Hitler's modern day fan club.
It all sounds a tad 'cartoonish'; distanced from reality. But it isn't. Because just when you think you're in the land of George Lucas, where Nazis are bumbling fools who never ever shovel ethnically inferior bodies into incinerators, Russell throws in something that brings you slamming back down to the real world. An example is when Burns encounters the ghost of Oswald Mosley; a chilling passage if ever I read one.
Russell's greatest talent, however, is dialogue. It's always witty, always fast, and only very rarely too clever for its own good. Burns scores points off the subculture characters (mainly Pahoo and Siobahn) with alarming regularity, and they give as good as they get. There are numerous classic lines, and I won't spoil it by quoting them here. Suffice to say you'll know them when you read them.
My only criticism is that a Marty Burns type of character inevitably carries with it a less than serious attitude, and as a consequence the portrayal of the far right is somewhat trivialised. I don't believe anyone coming away from this book would think any differently about race relations in the UK today. Partly, it's down to the above, but also because the issue gets tangled up with the occult angle and is therefore perceived as other-worldly. Kim Newman got round this problem, in his 1990 story The Original Dr Shade, by quoting from actual fascist propaganda collected at football matches. Perhaps a similar technique could have been used here?
In all, though, this is satisfying and solid entertainment. Also, at a time when it seems that publishers are more dogmatic than ever about demarcating fiction into rigid genres, it is refreshing to read a book which dips into many, and illustrates beyond a doubt that multi-genre novels do in fact work.
Unfortunately, to a lot of publishers horror is still horror, science fiction is science fiction, and fantasy is fantasy.
Why not buy this book and prove them wrong?
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© Jason Gould 24 January 1998