London in 1903, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle agrees to accompany Harry Houdini on an expedition to reveal occultist Maximillian Cairo as the fraud Houdini believes him to be. Along with a half-dozen or so others, they attend one of Cairo's séances, and Houdini does indeed expose the whole affair as a sham; but Cairo, furious, tells the party to return the following night for a demonstration of his genuine occult powers. This they do, and are treated to a dramatic display which convinces all but Houdini that Cairo has indeed succeeded in calling up the god of excess, Dionysus. The sceptical Houdini breaks the septagram that has been caging the god, and the spirit of Dionysus escapes to infect not just the participants in the rite but, progressively, the whole population of London. Mad crimes and madder orgies proliferate until our friends return Dionysus whence he came, thereby saving humanity ... or maybe not.
Since Sherlock Holmes, having briefly been out of copyright, is now, through changes in copyright law, firmly back in it for another few years, authors wishing to write recursive Holmesian fiction have had to use the stratagem of turning instead to Doyle as a protagonist -- frequently ignoring the fact that if anything Doyle should be a Watson character, to give him Holmesian powers of ratiocination. The best-known of what is now a flourishing minor subgenre of fantasy is probably Mark Frost's The List of 7 (1993), which has Doyle and a purported Holmes prototype battling occult Evil and meeting all sorts of larger-than-life historical personages, such as Helena Blavatsky.
Frost's Doyle books -- there's at least one sequel to The List of 7 -- are very enjoyable romps, but What Rough Beast surpasses them. The pace is fast and furious, the writing is a delight, and the characters are extremely well drawn: while grinning and thrilling, just as one ought to do, one also becomes genuinely involved in the characters' fates -- something quite unusual in romps. There is just enough of a telling subtext to increase the enjoyment without distracting from the action.
Squires also manages his atmospherics well, conjuring up Edwardian London with admirable vividness, a very creditable achievement for an author who is American rather than British. Inevitably there are a few gaffes. The "explanation" of the game of cricket is so excruciating that it's perhaps best simply to draw a veil over it. Holloway Prison is in Parkhurst Road, not Parkurst Road, and I believe it's the case that even by 1903 it was a prison for women, not for men. But such minor cavils are easily ignored in the course of a yarn as ripping as this one.
This tale offers plenty of twists and surprises along the way -- again as a good romp should -- but the biggest surprise of all is that What Rough Beast wasn't snapped up by one of the major commercial publishers, instead appearing from a small e-book and print-on-demand division of Warner Books, iPublish, whose publications are generally regarded (wrongly, in fact) as being only one step up from those of a vanity press. Perhaps it was a casualty of the prevalent, and exceptionally stupid, rule among the larger US publishers that submissions are returned unread unless they come from agents; perhaps there is another reason. Whatever the truth of the matter, What Rough Beast is among the most straightforwardly enjoyable books this reviewer has read all year. It is heartily recommended.
STOP PRESS: Since this review was written, Warner has announced that iPublish is to be closed down before the end of 2001, with the loss of all 29 jobs there. According to Larry Kirshbaum, Chairman of the AOL Time Warner Book Group, it was costing about $50,000 to find each new author through the iPublish online venture, which involved subscriber participation in the rating of submitted texts, whereas a book by a new author could be bought from an agent for an advance of more like $10,000. This of course ignores the point that iPublish was discovering authors who for one reason or another didn't have agents, part of the purpose of the enterprise, but the figures must have seemed compelling to the bean-counters. Kirshbaum added that at least some of the existing 11 iPublish contracts would be honoured by republication under one of the more established Warner imprints. So perhaps What Rough Beast will after all be marketed on a wider scale.
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© John Grant 22 December 2001