Review: “The Damnation Game” By Clive Barker (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for horror fiction, I thought that I’d re-read a novel that I’ve been meaning to re-read for ages. I am, of course, talking about the old second-hand copy of Clive Barker’s 1985 novel “The Damnation Game” that I first read about twelve years ago.

After all, I couldn’t remember a huge amount about “The Damnation Game” other than it was a horror novel that I’d enjoyed at the time. So, I was curious to see what I’d make of it these days.

So, let’s take a look at “The Damnation Game”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1991 Sphere (UK) paperback edition of “The Damnation Game” that I read.

The novel begins in Warsaw, shortly after the end of WW2. The city is in ruins, filled with death, poverty and depravity. But, to a war profiteer known simply as “the thief”, it is a paradise. And, on one night in this scarred city, the thief ends up talking to a Russian soldier who has lost to a mysterious gambler who always wins. Even though the thief doesn’t believe the soldier, the story intrigues him. So, he decides to find this man and beat him at cards. When the soldier is later found murdered over his gambling debts, this just makes the thief even more curious. And, eventually, he finds the gambler.

Then we flash forwards to 1980s London. Marty Strauss is a prisoner in Wandsworth, six years into his sentence for an armed robbery gone wrong. Although the day starts out like any other, he is summoned to a parole hearing. A man called Mr.Toy is interviewing prisoners on behalf of a reclusive millionaire called Mr.Whitehead who, as a philanthropic gesture, wants to give a prisoner a honest job as his bodyguard. Although Marty thinks that he has failed the interview, he is paroled a few weeks later and ordered to report to Whitehead’s estate. However, he slowly realises that he has stepped out of the fire and into the frying pan…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it is a bit more slow-paced than I remember, it is a brilliantly atmospheric and exquisitely creepy horror novel of the type that only Clive Barker can write. If you enjoyed Barker’s “Cabal“, “The Hellbound Heart” or his short story “Dread”, then you’ll be on familiar ground here πŸ™‚

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements. Although the novel might seem a bit tame for a Clive Barker novel at first, stick with it. This is one of those horror novels that gradually builds in intensity as it progresses. Although it isn’t exactly frightening, it is unsettling and disturbing in a way that really creeps up on you. This is achieved through a well-crafted blend of psychological horror, suspenseful horror, claustrophobic horror, bleak horror, cruel horror, character-based horror, sexual horror, paranormal horror, death/decay-based horror, war horror, taboo-based horror and, of course, gory horror.

Interestingly, like with Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and “Deathday“, this novel also blends the vampire and zombie genres in an innovative way. But, whilst Hutson takes more of a “cool late-night zombie movie” approach to this, Barker’s novel reads more like a vampire novel with zombies in it. The undead in this novel are either sentient beings who are slowly decaying (without realising that they are zombies) or are cruel life-stealing immortals warped by centuries of undying loneliness. And, as you might imagine, this is about ten times creepier.

As you might expect from a Clive Barker novel, there’s a lot of thematic depth here. Not only is “The Damnation Game” a novel about how power corrupts, but it is also a story about chance, fate and free will too.

It’s a novel about the darker side of the human psyche – summed up brilliantly with the line: “Every man is his own Mephistophilis, don’t you think?” And, as the title suggests, it is a novel about damnation – not in the religious sense of the word, but in the feeling of impending doom that hangs over many of the story’s characters.

For all of this novel’s unsettling horrors, it also contains a surprising amount of humour too. In addition to some brilliantly bizarre moments of dark comedy (such as Marty talking to a fly he finds near a corpse), the novel also contains the kind of impishly subversive satire that you’d expect from a 1980s Clive Barker novel (eg: a convicted criminal being more moral than a respected aristocrat, two religious missionaries who gleefully commit acts of evil in the mistaken belief that they are doing “God’s work” etc…).

The novel’s writing is absolutely brilliant, but something of an acquired taste. As you might expect from a 1980s Clive Barker novel, this novel’s third-person narration is very much on the formal and “literary” side of things and can be quite slow-paced until you get used to it. But, this style really works here. Not only does it add a lot of atmosphere and personality to the story, but this “old school” formal writing style is also expertly contrasted with the events of the story for horrific and/or comedic effect on numerous occasions too.

Likewise, the characters are also really well-written too. All of the main characters have realistic motivations, desires, personalities, flaws etc… Not only does this novel have a certain gritty realism to it, but the novel’s characters are often a brilliant source of horror too. Whether it is an undead serial killer called Breer or his immortal master, Mamoulian, Clive Barker certainly knows how to write disturbing villains.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel works reasonably well. At 374 pages in the older edition I read (and probably more in modern reprints with larger type), it’s a little on the longer side of things. Likewise, the novel’s pacing is slow to medium throughout most of the novel. Yet, somehow, this really works. It allows the novel to gradually build atmosphere and suspense, not to mention that the slightly slower pacing also makes the novel’s more grotesque moments a bit more intense too. Plus, whilst this novel becomes a bit more understated after the spectacular opening chapter, it gradually becomes more and more compelling (and creepy) as it progresses.

In terms of how this thirty-five year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. On the one hand, the novel’s atmosphere, horror, humour, themes, locations, characters and story seem almost timeless and it is still a very effective horror novel when read these days. On the other hand, the novel’s formal writing style will seem noticeably old-fashioned and slow-paced if you’re used to more modern novels, not to mention that this novel also includes a few descriptions or moments that would probably be considered dated or “politically incorrect” these days too.

All in all, this is a really creepy and atmospheric horror novel πŸ™‚ Yes, it’s a bit more slow-paced than I remember and it can be a bit more understated and small-scale than something like Barker’s “Cabal” or “The Scarlet Gospels“, but if you stick with this novel, then you’ll find it to be classic Clive Barker πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Torched!” By James Blackstone (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for reading another 1980s horror novel. So, after a bit of searching through my bookshelves, I found an old novel from 1985 called “Torched!” by James Blackstone. From the stamp on the inside cover, I must have got it from a second-hand book stall in Alnwick during a holiday near there in the early-mid 2000s.

Although I vaguely remember reading it back then, I couldn’t remember that much about the story (other than the fact that I later confused it with Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn). So, it seemed like it might be worth re-reading.

So, let’s take a look at “Torched!”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1986 Grafton Books (UK) paperback edition of “Torched” that I read.

The novel begins in New York. A middle-aged man called Al Andrade is staying at a swanky hotel for a convention and is looking for company. To his surprise, a beautiful – and somewhat nervous- woman approaches him in the hotel restaurant and asks to go to his room. However, a few minutes after they get into bed, she suddenly bursts into flames.

Meanwhile in London, cynical middle-aged insurance investigator Richard Grierson is investigating a warehouse fire that resulted in two deaths. After a bit of snooping around and some examination, he concludes that the fire was started by the owner for the insurance money. But, soon after he’s solved the case, he’s called back into the office.

Following a takeover by an American firm called Insill, Grierson doesn’t really like his trendy new boss too much. Something not helped by the fact that, following a spate of arson attacks, Insill’s main branch has asked for the UK branch’s best investigator to fly over and team up with their lead investigator, Jack Lattimer. With the threat of being fired if he doesn’t, Grierson reluctantly gets on a plane to New York….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is technically a horror novel, it is more like an old thriller/ detective novel than anything else. It’s a fairly enjoyable novel – although, if you’re expecting a splatterpunk novel, then you’ll be disappointed. It’s a little bit like a cross between a Clive Cussler novel, a low-budget 1980s movie, and/or something like James Herbert’s “The Jonah” than anything else.

Even so, the novel’s relatively few horror elements are reasonably effective. There’s suspenseful horror, fire-based horror, sexual horror, scientific horror, cruel horror, character-based horror and maybe one or two moments of gory horror. Even so, this novel probably has slightly more in common with the average 1970s/80s thriller novel than the kind of 1980s splatterpunk novel that the dramatic-looking cover art (seriously, I miss ’80s-style cover art) might lead you to expect.

Still, as a thriller, it is fairly decent. Although you shouldn’t expect an action-packed explosion-fest, this novel makes fairly effective use of suspense, mystery, multiple plot threads and a spectacular set piece or two. In a lot of ways, this novel is a little bit more like a detective/buddy cop novel than anything else – with Grierson and Lattimer investigating the fires whilst another character called Carol also finds herself involved in the case.

But, whilst the premise of the novel is ripe for horror (and I was expecting something like Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn”), this novel goes down the cheesy ’80s thriller route of having a sleazy criminal mastermind villain instead. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a suitably chilling antagonist (although his villainy gets a little cartoonish at times) and this allows the novel to have a suitably dramatic and suspenseful conclusion at his villa. But, still, it’s impossible not to think of something like this during a couple of moments involving him. Seriously, this novel is a lot more ’80s than I’d expected.

As for the characters, they’re reasonably decent. Both Grierson and Lattimer are weary middle-aged men who have lost their families (either through divorce or arson) and, in typical buddy cop fashion, don’t get along that well initially but become a better team as the story progresses. Interestingly, although Lattimer is described as looking like an American cop, the mild-mannered Grierson is actually the “loose cannon” of the pair. The other characters are also given enough characterisation to make them sympathetic or creepy, but you shouldn’t expect gigantic amounts of characterisation here.

In terms of the writing, it’s fairly standard old-school thriller stuff. In other words, it is “matter of fact” enough to move at a decent pace but is a little bit more formal than you might expect from a modern novel. Still, the novel has a fairly decent atmosphere and sense of place to it – with the brief scenes set in London being reminiscent of James Herbert and the US-based scenes looking like something from a 1980s movie. Even so, the novel’s settings are the clichΓ©d triumvirate of London, New York and Los Angeles.

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At an efficient 223 pages in length, it makes me pine for the days when even thriller novels could be short if they needed to be. Likewise, although the novel is fairly moderately-paced and/or mildly-fast paced, this is one of those stories that becomes a bit more suspenseful and dramatic as it goes along. Even so, a few moments later in the novel seem a little bit contrived/coincidental, although they help to make the ending a bit more dramatic.

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it probably hasn’t aged that well. Leaving aside a few “politically incorrect” moments and the general roughness of many of the novel’s sleazier moments, this novel is very ’80s. Normally, this is a good thing – since old novels usually provide a much more nuanced, realistic and immersive window into the past than films or TV do. However, aside from maybe the segments set in London, the rest of this novel has slightly more of a stylised movie/TV show-like tone to it. Still, this adds a certain cheesy charm to the story and the plot itself is reasonably compelling.

All in all, if you want a cheesy ’80s buddy cop-style thriller novel with a few horror elements, then this novel might be worth reading. It isn’t anything spectacular, but it’s a reasonably compelling (if a little silly) story. But, if you want a better old-school pyrotechnic horror thriller novel, then read Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn” instead.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and a half.

Review: “Breeding Ground” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, since I was in the mood for a retro horror novel, I thought that I’d re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1985 novel “Breeding Ground”. This was one of about four vintage 1980s Shaun Hutson paperbacks that I bought after finding a trove of them in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield a couple of months before preparing this review.

Out of these books, I decided to go for “Breeding Ground” since I’d already re-read “Relics“, since it was the shortest novel in the pile and because I remembered very little about this novel from when I first read a copy of it during my mid-teens. So, I was curious.

Although “Breeding Ground” is the sequel to Hutson’s 1982 novel “Slugs” (which was part of a trend of “giant vermin” monster novels started by James Herbert’s “The Rats” in 1974), it tells a self-contained story and can be enjoyed if you either haven’t read “Slugs” or have read it so long ago that you can’t remember much about it.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Breeding Ground”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1986 Star Books (UK) paperback edition of “Breeding Ground” that I read.

The novel begins with a farmer delivering a load of lettuce to a market stall in London. One of the lettuces looks a bit dodgy, so it is thrown onto a pile of rejects. On the lettuce leaves, baby slugs hatch and slither around unseen.

A homeless man called Tommy is scavenging for food and ends up rifling through the pile of rejected vegetables. Thinking that the lettuce looks vaguely edible, he takes it and eats it. Hours later, he is stricken by extreme cramps and pain. Tommy lurches through the streets in search of help. No one really notices him or tries to help, so he crawls into a nearby public lavatory and dies inside one of the cubicles.

His body is first discovered by a couple of louts who are looking for somewhere to sniff glue. When one of them kicks the body, giant slugs emerge from it. Horrified by this, the louts flee in terror.

The police, led by DI Ray Grogan, find Tommy’s slug-devoured remains a while later and have no clue of who or what could have done such a thing. The next morning, local doctor Alan Finch is making a couple of house calls when he finds that one of his patients, Molly Foster, is covered with strange boils that he can’t seem to diagnose the cause of…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is classic Shaun Hutson πŸ™‚ If you’re a fan of James Herbert’s “The Rats”, then this novel is an awesome tribute (it even briefly references giant rats at one point) in Hutson’s own style. It’s the kind of no-limits retro splatterpunk “Video Nasty” of a novel that reaches the high standards of other Hutson classics like “Erebus” πŸ™‚

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it contains a unflinchingly relentless mixture of gross-out horror (of various types), creature horror, suspenseful horror, medical/disease horror, body horror, slasher movie-style horror and sexual horror. This is also an atmospheric novel where you can practically feel the dripping slime and smell the plethora of rancid stenches. Needless to say, it isn’t a novel for the prudish or easily-shocked. Like with Hutson’s “Erebus”, this is also an ultra-gruesome novel that makes even the most “extreme” modern horror movies look like Disney films by comparison.

Interestingly, the novel also shares a few technical and thematic similarities with Herbert’s “The Rats”. In addition to the whole “giant flesh-eating vermin” thing, there are also a surprisingly large number of chapters focusing on ordinary people who die in horrible slug-related ways. Although this technique had become a mainstay of the splatterpunk genre by then, it’s really cool to see it in a “Rats”-like novel and with Hutson’s unique brand of cynicism too πŸ™‚

Likewise, the novel also updates some of the themes of “The Rats” – transplanting it from the bleak, poor and still blitz-damaged 1970s version of London to the equally bleak Thatcher-era 1980s London, where people are made homeless by mine closures, where people sniff glue and where everything is generally a bit crap. Although this novel doesn’t contain a gigantic amount of social commentary, there’s still more than enough here to put the “punk” into “splatterpunk”. Not that this is really a punk novel. If anything, it’s a heavy metal novel – with a really cool Iron Maiden reference about halfway through the book πŸ™‚

The novel also includes some really dramatic disaster movie-style elements, which are also reminscent of “The Rats” too – with doctors, detectives and the military trying to stop the slowly-spreading plague of flesh-eating slugs and all of the accompanying problems caused by it (eg: overflowing sewers, people turned into killers by slug larvae in their blood etc..). Like “The Rats”, it also has a wonderfully dramatic final act set in an evacuated segment of London too πŸ™‚

Although I’d normally criticise such a novel as “derivative” or ” a rip-off”, this isn’t the case here. When a story is heavily inspired by a classic like “The Rats” and written by a horror legend like Shaun Hutson, it’s just pure awesome. It’s like an amazing cover version (eg: The Sisters Of Mercy’s cover of “Gimme Shelter”, Hendrix’s cover of “All Along The Watchtower” etc..) that equals or possibly even surpasses the original. Seriously, this novel was so much fun to read πŸ™‚

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly decent. The main characters get enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to them, but you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation here. Like in “The Rats”, the bulk of the novel’s characterisation is reserved for the many people who fall victim to the ravenous slugs. These segments of the novel work really well and really help to add a level of scale, humanity and drama to the novel’s large-scale horrors.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is classic Shaun Hutson πŸ™‚ In other words, it’s a wonderfully distinctive mixture of gritty “matter of fact” narration and more formal/detailed narration. Yes, the narration sounds a little cheesy and old-school when read today (and it probably inspired Garth Marenghi), but this is all part of the charm and it’s still extremely readable πŸ™‚ Plus, there are one or two brilliant moments of unintentional comedy too – such as the word “humping” being used in the traditional sense of moving heavy objects around.

Not only that, if you’re a Shaun Hutson fan, then this novel is also crammed with classic Hutsonisms too πŸ™‚ Seriously, I lost count of the number of times that the words “mucoid” and “liquescent” turned up. Likewise, the word “cleft” also makes a couple of appearances, with the only noticeable absences being references to the scapula bone and the “coppery” smell of blood.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent πŸ™‚ At a wonderfully streamlined 220 pages, there isn’t a wasted page here πŸ™‚ Likewise, the novel’s day-based structure (the story is divided into about five segments, each chronicling the events of one day) allows for a suspenseful build-up from a few slug incidents to a full-blown crisis, with the story never really getting dull thanks to the fact that something horrific happens every few pages. It’s the kind of decently-paced story that can be enjoyed in three or four hours.

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. Yes, there are a few “politically incorrect” moments (the worst probably being a “humourous” homophobic T-shirt slogan later in the story) and the novel’s narration is a bit old-school, but the novel’s scenes of horror are timelessly gross and the story’s plot is still very compelling. Not only that, the novel has a wonderfully cynical “’80s” atmosphere to it and is a really fascinating window into the past. Plus, there are some cool ’80s references here such as mentions of Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes To Midnight” and the characters from “The Professionals” too πŸ™‚

All in all, this novel is classic Shaun Hutson πŸ™‚ It isn’t for everyone, but it’s a really brilliant cover version of James Herbert’s “The Rats” that will delight horror hounds who are looking for something a bit more shocking. If you’re a fan of Shaun Hutson, then this novel will also evoke fond memories of when you first read his works during your teenage years (seriously, did anyone first discover them at a later age than this?) It’s a gloriously gross, enjoyably cheesy and just generally fun retro horror novel that is well worth reading… if you’ve got the stomach for it.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, then it would just about get a five.

Review: “Blood Music” By Greg Bear (Novel)

Well, when I was going through a bit of a sci-fi phase a week or two ago, I looked online for sci-fi novels and Greg Bear’s 1985 novel “Blood Music” caught my interest enough for me to order a second-hand copy. And I’m glad that I did πŸ™‚

So, let’s take a look at “Blood Music”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

This is the 2001 Gollancz (UK) paperback edition of “Blood Music” that I read.

The novel begins in California, where a socially-awkward scientific genius called Vergil Ulam is working for a bio-tech company called Genetron. He has been doing some secret research into using blood cells as mini-computers. However, his boss finds out about the research and orders him to destroy it. Infuriated by this, Vergil saves a sample of his altered cells (which he calls “noocytes” – thinking cells) and begins plotting revenge against the company.

Unfortunately for Vergil, his hack into the company’s computer system is discovered and he barely has time to inject himself with the last sample of noocytes before he is thrown out of the building. He isn’t sure what to do next and ends up in a bar, where a beautiful woman called Candice somehow feels attracted to him. To both of their surprise, he is remarkably good in bed.

That isn’t all, Vergil also seems to be getting thinner and healthier too. At first, he considers his experiment a success and tries to get work at another lab in the hope that he can extract and use the noocytes whilst they are still alive. But, after the hack, he has been blacklisted by the industry. Not only that, the noocytes start having strange effects on Vergil’s body and it soon becomes obvious that Vergil has accidentally created a sentient virus. A sentient virus that has already started spreading…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… Wow! Although this novel takes a while to really get started, it is amazing πŸ™‚ It is atmospheric, intelligent, compelling and awe-inspiring πŸ™‚

This is one of those books that almost feels like a trilogy of novels compressed into one. It is a book that, whilst it might challenge you at times, has a surprisingly emotional payoff if you stick with it (seriously, the ending actually made me cry). It’s a novel that I probably didn’t entirely understand, but understood enough about to be amazed by it. Although this novel also contains elements from the horror and thriller genres, it also has all of the wonder and amazement that the best science fiction does.

Despite the reams of scientific jargon throughout the novel, the most interesting sci-fi elements of this novel are the scenes showing the strange world and thought patterns of the noocytes. The scenes of a continent being transformed into some kind of alien landscape, of people being copied and gaining access to lost memories from history, of inner space being as fascinating as outer space. Of reality itself being malleable and questionable. Although the novel takes a while to set all of this stuff up, it is well worth waiting for πŸ™‚

It’s also a novel about the nature of change and innovation too, with the naively optimistic experiments at the beginning of the novel having a bit of an eerie resonance when read in this age of smartphones, social media mega-corporations, fake news and all of the other side-effects of the tech optimism of the 1990s. The focus on large tech companies near the beginning of the book (they are biotech companies, but are trendy in the way that Google, Facebook etc.. are) also helps to make the novel feel eerily prescient too.

It’s also a novel about individuality and community too. Of how a scientific discovery made by one person always involves “standing on the shoulders of giants”, how both individuality and community are important (perhaps a reference to democracy?), how we are all products of many years of human history etc… Seriously, it’s really fascinating.

This novel also has some fairly cool horror elements too, with lots of David Cronenburg-esque body horror involving people melting, merging and transforming in strange ways. Plus, there’s a bit of Richard Matheson-esque post-apocalyptic horror too πŸ™‚

Interestingly though, whilst the scenes of people transforming are a brilliantly grotesque source of body horror during the early and middle parts of the book, this novel then somehow manages to find beauty in all of this (in a way that reminded me a little of Clive Barker’s horror and fantasy fiction).

Likewise, this novel also manages to be quite a compelling thriller too. Although it is a bit slow-paced and filled with formal scientific jargon at times, the quietly suspenseful early scenes where Vergil begins a mysterious transformation eventually morph into a worldwide geo-political storyline, which is also expertly counterpointed with suspenseful scenes of small-scale drama (eg: a young woman called Suzy who is alone in a post-apocalyptic version of Manhattan). Seriously, this story can be more of a thriller than you might expect – but don’t expect a modern-style ultra-fast paced thriller though.

In terms of the characters, this novel is better than it initially seems to be. Although the characters at first seem to be typical sci-fi stock characters (eg: the frustrated scientific genius, the beautiful lover, the charismatic businessman, the ordinary person, the doctor etc..), they gain a bit more depth and complexity as the novel progresses. This is also one of those interesting novels that doesn’t so much have one main character, but has a series of main characters that appear and disappear as the story progresses.

In terms of the writing, it is better than it initially appears to be. Although this novel’s third-person narration is peppered with bewildering scientific jargon and the occasional science lecture, the narrative parts of the story are a really interesting mixture of informal “matter of fact” descriptions and more formal/poetic/experimental narration. The mixture of these two things helps to keep the story comprehensible and compelling, whilst also allowing some parts of it to have a level of awe and wonder that you won’t find in films or TV shows.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At a gloriously efficient 262 pages in length, not a single page is wasted and the novel almost feels like three novels squashed into one πŸ™‚ As for the pacing, although this novel would probably be considered “slow-paced” these days, it is really compelling and the story gradually builds in intensity throughout the novel too.

In terms of how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Yes, this story is very clearly set in the world of the early-mid 1980s (eg: scenes involving West Germany, the USSR, the World Trade Center etc.. and a few mildly dated descriptions), but the actual story itself feels eerily modern in many ways. Not only are many of the novel’s weirder scenes completely timeless, but the story also seems like an eerily prescient metaphor for modern social media etc…. when read today.

All in all, this is a brilliant book πŸ™‚ Yes, it is a little bit slow-paced at times and all of the scientific jargon might be a little confusing but, if you persevere with it, then you will be rewarded with an absolutely brilliant and awe-inspiring story πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

Review: “The Ectoplasmic Man” By Daniel Stashower (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read anything Sherlock Holmes-related. And, after a family member found three modern Sherlock Holmes novels in a charity shop and thought that I might be interested in them, I was spoilt for choice.

Since the weather was still fairly hot, I decided to go for the shortest book in the pile – Daniel Stashower’s 1985 novel “The Ectoplasmic Man”. Although this novel can be enjoyed without reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, you’ll get a lot more out of it if you read at least a few of them first.

So, let’s take a look at “The Ectoplasmic Man”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS (but I won’t give away the solution to the mystery).

This is the 2009 Titan Books (UK) paperback reprint of “The Ectoplasmic Man” that I read.

The novel begins, like most modern Holmes novels, with the author’s account of how he “discovered” a lost manuscript by Doctor Watson, detailing a meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini in 1910.

Then, we are taken to 221b Baker Street, where Inspector Lestrade makes a sudden arrival after dashing across town. Lestrade tells Holmes that he suspects a visiting American escapologist called Harry Houdini of carrying out a terrible crime. Yet, much to Holmes’ annoyance, Lestrade also tells Holmes that he has been ordered not to reveal the details of the crime.

Naturally, Holmes is curious and decides to meet Houdini. The two don’t get along well, and part on angry terms. But, later that evening, Houdini’s wife Bess shows up at Baker Street, imploring Holmes to attend Houdini’s show because Houdini has received a threatening note from an old rival called Kleppini and she fears he may be in danger. Holmes scoffs at this and points out that he is not a praetorian guard. Out of honour, Watson decides to attend the show to keep watch for any danger.

During the show, Houdini spots Watson in the audience and asks him to help out with one of his tricks – an escape from a glass box filled with water. After a bit of a mishap, where Watson takes the act too seriously and smashes the glass box with a fire axe, Lestrade shows up and arrests Houdini for the theft of sensitive royal documents. But, before Lestrade begins to take Houdini to the police station, Holmes emerges from the audience and declares that Houdini is innocent and that he shall prove it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel was that it is brilliantly theatrical πŸ™‚ Although the actual mystery at the heart of the story is fairly compelling, the main attraction of this story is probably the humour, the atmosphere and the characters. If you love the moments in Conan Doyle’s original stories where Holmes indulges in tricks, disguises and witticisms, then you’ll love this novel πŸ™‚ It is delightfully amusing πŸ™‚

Seriously, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that this novel was theatrical. Not only does this novel focus on the themes of magic tricks and escapology, but both Holmes and Houdini also get so many wonderfully theatrical moments too, much to the consternation of poor Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade.

Seriously, if you’re fascinated by things like stage magic, “impossible” feats, escapology, lock-picking, disguises etc… then you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. It has a gleeful theatrical flair to it that perfectly mirrors the themes of the story.

And, as I mentioned earlier, it is also a comedic novel too πŸ™‚ A lot of the novel’s humour is, like in Conan Doyle’s original stories, kept reasonably subtle – with most of it being found within the narration, footnotes, references and dialogue. However, this novel also includes some brilliantly vaudevillian moments of traditional comedy, such as a hilariously over-dramatic phoney seance.

The mystery at the heart of the story is fairly interesting and it includes a couple of dramatic plot twists, an intriguingly “impossible” crime and the drama of Houdini being falsely accused of it. But, even though the reader is given a few clues (which are explained by Holmes at the end) and the case itself is certainly worthy of Sherlock Holmes, this is one of those stories which is slightly more of a thriller than a traditional detective story.

In other words, it is one of those stories where the main focus is on how the crime was carried out, rather than the identity of the criminal. Even so, this allows the novel to include some wonderfully thrilling and gloriously melodramatic (if a little contrived) chase sequences, a daring prison escape and a vaguely “Charles Augustus Milverton“-style scene where Holmes and Watson break into a theatre.

In terms of the characters, they are brilliant. Not only are Holmes and Watson fairly faithful to the original stories (although Holmes’ attitudes towards women are a little bit cartoonish/two-dimensional in this story), but one of the best parts of this story is the interactions between Holmes and Houdini.

At first, the two are very much rivals – with Holmes’ scepticism and Houdini’s brash confidence putting them at odds (and leading to some hilarious dialogue exchanges) but, as the story progresses, they end up becoming quite the team. Seriously, since both Holmes and Houdini are masters of trickery, logic and theatricality, it is an absolute joy to see both of them in the same novel πŸ™‚

Likewise, if you enjoy the definitive ITV adaptation of “Sherlock Holmes” starring Jeremy Brett, then you’ll enjoy this novel even more πŸ™‚ Seriously, the version of Holmes in this novel is more like Brett’s interpretation of the character (eg: disguises, caustic wit, theatricality, eccentricity, Latin quotes, practical jokes etc…) than either Basil Rathbone’s or Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretations of the character.

In terms of the writing and narration, Watson’s first-person narration is reasonably true to the original stories. However, it has been very subtly streamlined for slightly more modern audiences. Even so, expect lots of wonderfully formal and dramatic narration. In other words, this novel uses a reasonably good imitation of Conan Doyle’s style that really helps to add some atmosphere and authenticity to the story πŸ™‚

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At a brilliantly efficient 203 pages in length, this novel stays true to the focused brevity of Conan Doyle’s original novels and short stories πŸ™‚

Likewise, the pacing is mostly good – with the story moving along at a decent pace most of the time, although there’s a slightly slow part (eg: when Watson spends a while describing an aeroplane) during what should be a fast-paced scene. Even so, the pacing of this novel is really good and it is as gripping as the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged really well πŸ™‚ Thanks to the historical setting, the vintage-style narration and the recognisable characters, this is one of those novels that could almost have been written today.

All in all, this is a gloriously theatrical, intriguingly thrilling and wonderfully amusing novel that fans of the great detective will really enjoy πŸ™‚ It was a lot of fun to read πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just about get a five.