This is the creepiest book I've read in a long time. It has fastened into me like no other book of recent memory. Like smoke through my fingers, I have read and re-read through its cryptic passages, studied its twisted, narrative paths, and puzzled over its pronouncements of "facts" and "visions". It is hauntingly transculent, unpredictable, quite terrifying in its conduct and assumptions of so-called reality. It is either a transcendental insight or insanity substantiated.
Its bearing is on a line with Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Thomas Ligotti. For a Gorrorfest, look elsewhere. This is that skulking terror of hearing footsteps behind you when there's nobody there but your shadow, or that amphorous horror lurking in the slightly-opened closet from your childhood's bedtime. Unfortunately, this is going to be a hard book to find after its 300 printed copies are sold out.
It starts out serendipitously enough. Our first-person narrator discovers an unposted letter in a book he's perusing at some dusty bookstore. Mr. Fetch, a disseminator of automatism—"automatic drawing and writing and their interpretation used as auguries"(p.17)—plus spooking up the occasional seance, finds no correlation with this event, yet after reading its scrawl, arranges to deliver it in person as if he was Alice mumbling "curiouser and curiouser"(1) heading off into Wonderland.
The letter, which is dated two years back, attests to an incident that happened just as WWII "seemed to fizzle out in [a] small idyllic town in Czechoslovakia"(p.13). Four soldiers witnessed the townfolk in a cellar of an old ruin exchange masks and evoke "something else" initiating "strange games" and "demanded sacrifices." The letter writer—a Mr. Eyles—refers to the beauty, the "boundless intimacy" of the ongoing experience, concluding "that we must find that ecstasy again at all costs"(p.15).
Mr. Fetch is understandably intrigued and heads off for bombed-out Newcastle to meet the letter's recipient, Miss Norfoot, who turns out to be the researcher and chronicler of a small and very exclusive sect who are overwhelmed yet diligent upon uncovering an immeasurable world hidden amongst our own.
That's the plot hook, which sounds reasonably cliche these days. Hell, even master novelist Peter Straub's latest—A Dark Matter, c. 2010(2)—looks into a similar horrorscope; however, since author Clark appears unshackled from a publisher with more mainstream interests of a larger, target audience, the story's undulations between sanity and madness, trust and betrayal, human or extrinsic to humanity, furthers its separateness from the contemporary banalities and engenders genuine disquietude, in this reader, anyway.
Clark uses a technique more favored from the past to entangle his audience. Epistolatory like Stoker's Dracula plus entries from Circle members' notebooks while being stitched together with the victim hero's 1st-person narration, we begin at the end, similar to many H.P. Lovecraft's tales. It's an intriguing device playing to the audience's accepted disbelief, because when you reach the end, you know your fictional guide is going to be as disappeared as this book is inanimate. From the beginning hope is lost, your conformities become chew toys for deviance; you are going to sleep ascertaining the possibility that those unmanageable dreams are curtains hiding a far hideous sensibility.
Are these merely the mad ravings of a man sitting at his writing desk given over to the phantasmagorical while he loses purchase with our familiar, agreed-upon reality? That is an easy solution judiciously rebuffed with characters met, artifacts bandied, unaltered photographs seen, transmutations witnessed. If Mr. Fetch is truly delusional, he has imprisoned himself in a devilishly-persuasive labyrinth. No, his denouement is far more unnerving as, one by one, Circle members just, ah, disappear. It becomes questionable—especially with Mr. Eyles—if their identities were ever unfeigned representations. One character alligns their steadily-nearing misfortune as anxious children who improvidently "knocked on a door . . . and now they were . . . hiding around the corner, awaiting the answer"(p.180) Another, unwitted, suspects he is "leaking out . . . like some hideous telepathic infection"(p.177). For another, the answer has come closer as his "long, lost you . . . that part of you that has learned to speak through your dreams and wakes in your madness. . . The assassin awakes. Having been instructed in sleep, he enters a world that is no longer divided from dreaming"(p.226). Further, another diarist within the novel, a Mr. Cutler writes,
Originally campaigned as discovering the "lineaments of the unconscious emerging from the furrows and lacunae of everyday life"(p.99) as evidence of a deeper reality, a world of energy, thought, and unknown corporeality. The "poetry of dreams" is the language, the key; it is the visage of intersections, of byways, where the earthly leaves hints of the ethereal. The world we know is a mask and it takes putting on a different mask of other arrangements to see beyond it. The methodology becomes a kind of "wandering somnambulism"(p.56), a state of delirium likened to sleep deprivation where the neophyte wanders the city, usually surrounded by a fog "along the cobbles like a blind man on his belly"(p.178), and experiences the dream phantoms' clues and rumors among the ruins, usually around bombsites from the recent war.
Mr. Fetch begins his initiation into the Circle by agreeing to stay in a large, somewhat vacant house, where, by roaming through its bric-a-brac and debris, he becomes further estranged from the life he's left. Members of the Circle take him out for excursions to find these "totemic assemblages"(p.58) as proof of their prodigious conclusions. During these explorations Mr. Fetch has his moment of penetration:
But this wonderment of discovery soon turns into anxious recession when another furtive voice—even using the same methods of communication through letters dropboxed in an untended bookstore—threateningly emerges. Known as The House of Sleep, the hunters suddenly become the hunted as a Mr. Stejskal solicits the group—in their calamitous ignorance—to become "the breaches and abysses of common understanding. . . The messengers of nightmares"(p.187). Mr Eyles as the Circle's director by default, confesses to prior awareness and alludes to inescapable absorbtion into its "promise of untold knowledge in the form of ecstasy and fear"(p.189). Already members Mowbray and Malone have become Mr. Stejskal's provocateurs, or, more likely, his unrelenting doppelgangers.
In the end, all are vacated from this waking yet visionless world except Mr. Fetch, our narrator; however, it is made clear he will soon follow the others as "ghosts of the living"(p.245), but in a different semblance. What is revealed are more doors, more theater stages, more cracks in the multi-layered edifice for the Circle's imminent mastication. Proving to be the true emissary from that shadowed reach, Miss Fretwell, shamming as Mr. Elyes' nursemaid, delivers the next atrocity for merging into the next befogged carapace by revealing a vision of a man "violently spinning like a top. . . He remained conscious as he span on, threads of frayed flesh . . . seeking to be weaved into another fabric"(p.244), and, presumably, on to another realm of abomination(3).
But for Mr. Fetch, there's another scenario. He becomes the King-killer, unconsciously tumbling Mr. Stejskal from his ferris wheel of supervision and himself into a "sacred yet unwelcome confidence"(p.246) he has yet to fully realize. Before his demise, Mr. Stejskal gives the final portentous yet poignant soliloquy, puzzling out the completion of the circle into further ambiguities while solidifying the reality contained in dreams over the waking world.
The assassin therefore becomes king of his own narrative as Mr. Fetch—congruous with his own dreams and fears—trembles in his blind corner, waiting to "become something else, something monstrous"(p.254).
Now, I often wonder if I'll find a manuscript like this in some dingy bookstore, its homemade covers molded and worm-chewed, its pages yellowed and mysteriously stained. And will I open its spine, my nostrils filling with the stench of decay as I recognize my own signature on its title page?
2) I am not hinting at plagiarism, as Straub's version of reality compromised is on an entirely different path and full of novelistic embellishments that plasticize the read, as compared to this work.
3) Other than our narrator's sweeping, psychotic terror, there is little evidence to assume these tramsformative layers are necessarily evil. Succumbing to the novel's main disbelief—that of acceptance past agreed reality—why stop there? No one's been murdered; death and valueless vapors ascend from the bombsites created by man, not demons. Fear comes from unknowing, from ignorance of alien methods and beliefs deemed extraneous and therefore suspect and dangerous. The buried irony is that this is the real delirium's circle. It is our fabrication set upon the world, not visa versa.
All illustrations rendered by the author, Stephen J. Clark.