There's a strong tradition within fantasy literature of the timeslip romance, in which an individual from one era falls so profoundly in love with an individual from another that somehow that love conquers the intervening decades and the pair are united. To cite an obvious example of the form, there's Richard Matheson's Bid Time Return (1975), whose pleasant but rather lacklustre filmed version was Somewhere in Time (1980).
Nick Mamatas's short novel Northern Gothic can be viewed as an obverse take on the timeslip romance, with the potent emotion in question being not love but hate.
In 1863 New York unskilled Irish labourer William Patten is caught up in the Draft Riots; sparked by the iniquitous ordinance of Lincoln's whereby those who could pay $300 towards the North's war effort were released from the risk of being drafted, these righteous demonstrations swiftly degenerated into an orgy of mob looting, pillage, arson, mayhem and lynch-murder of, primarily, blacks, who were blamed for all evils. Patten plays a full murderous role in these, culminating in his playing a part in the most nauseating incident of the whole nauseating episode, the assault on the Colored Orphans' Asylum in which the mob aimed to burn alive scores of black children. Finally, as the Army takes back the streets, he is given summary justice and executed.
In 1998 New York gay, broke, wannabee actor, black country boy Ahmadi Jenkins, newly arrived in the big city and still finding his feet, is tormented by intermittent full-sensory hallucinations of fire and rapine that he is completely unable, during his lucid periods, to comprehend or relate to anything in his own life. Progressively more disastrous events occur, climaxing in the burning down of the building that houses his crummy apartment and, shortly afterwards, his incarceration in the mental hospital Bellevue. There, as he drifts in and out of reality, the temporal gateways are opened for Patten's blind racist hatred to reach him across the decades...
This book has many fine qualities, not the least of which is its portrayal of the hellish emotional atmosphere of the Draft Riots; Mamatas cites as source Iver Bernstein's The New York City Draft Riots (1990) in his Acknowledgements, but his depiction accords with other historical accounts I have myself read and thus must be reckoned to be as historically accurate as any century-and-a-half-later depiction can ever hope to be. From the pages of Northern Gothic there drifts the stench of smoke and burning and blood and shit and piss and, most of all, fear -- not just the fear of the hapless blacks who were hunted down, mutilated and slaughtered by the mobs but also, more centre-stage, the fear of the mobs themselves, particularized by Patten, that their own individual worlds were ending, that they would starve while the fatcats and the blacks prospered. I stress this historical veracity because it is unusual in the modern ghost story or horror story to find such an integrity: there is a story beyond the front-of-stage story, and Mamatas is not afraid to draw us into it.
That aside, the real protagonist of this short novel is neither Patten nor Jenkins -- Patten's polar opposite -- but the city of New York itself, a city that is, then as now, robust with vitality precisely because it is also a melting pot of violence and tensions not just between races and communities but also, on an astonishingly widespread scale, between individuals. If a spark analogous to Lincoln's War Draft Act were offered to the tinder that is New York today, then there is every chance there'd be an outbreak of something all too terrifyingly like the Draft Riots as the city -- personified by its inhabitants -- responded in the only way she knows how. Seen in this context, the interaction between Patten and Jenkins is less of a timeslip, more a sort of Aristotelian identification between like and like.
Despite its short span -- Northern Gothic can't be more than about 25-30,000 words long -- this story, with the fresh perspectives it skilfully offers on both a historical episode that is widely forgotten and on the nature of New York, delivers more of interest than many a novel five times as thick. The telling is absorbing; you will not feel short-changed through having read the book at a sitting, because reading at a sitting is what it demands. All in all, Northern Gothic can be highly recommended.
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© John Grant 18 May 2002