Monday, November 14, 2011

review--the house of lost souls

Picked up The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam at the library. It's a gothic ghost story that could, if you were ashamed to be caught reading a gothic ghost story, be loosely interpreted as a broad allegory for a man fighting his way back from suicidal depression. The ending is so lame from a fantasy/horror point of view, it tends to validate the psychological stance, but the middle parts of the book are a decent ghost story, if you don't mind the flashback-within-a-flashback narrative structure, the abrupt changes in viewpoint, the convenient insertion of epistolary clues at crucial moments, and the endless wanking over 80's London new wave/art culture. We get it, dude--you were there, you don't have to prove it to us.

The gist of it is this: in 1927, a group of Satanists including Aleister Crowley raised a demon to gain themselves fame and fortune; they imprisoned it in the manor house on a northern isle belonging to one of the members. Periodically, over the next 60-odd years, people go into the house--art students, construction workers, researchers--come out crazy, and commit suicide. Apparently the demon enjoys suicides. One guy, Paul Seaton, who is Irish, and you know he's Irish because everyone he meets makes note of the fact he's Irish*, visited the manor house in 1985, while trying to research a photographer who was a reluctant member of the coven. Paul escapes with his life but has a mental breakdown and his life and health promptly go down the crapper.

Now it's 1997 and another group of students has foolishly breached the manor's gates; one of them is dead and the rest are heavily drugged to keep them from offing themselves. The brother of one of the girls, Nick Mason, wants Paul to come and help save his sister. The two men are brought together by a mysterious benefactor who appears to be, variously, a psychiatrist, a paranormal researcher, and possibly the son and/or reincarnation of the original coven leader. All of that would be fine and intriguing except Cottam's idea of concealing clues is to cut away from a scene during important conversations, leaving blank spots in the narrative and thereby drawing attention to the question any normal person would ask. To a savvy reader, that can only mean the answer is exactly what you suppose it to be, and the characters are idiots for not noticing.

It's a complex story, as you may have noticed. To me the most enjoyable parts were the diaries of the photographer from the 1920's; the action is more succinct, the atmosphere of opulence and dread is quite effective. I suspect also that Cottam did some good research on Crowley and his cronies; the description of the banquets and parties had a ring of authenticity.

The writing in the modern scenes is much more weird to my palate; there are several odd sentence constructions that tripped me up while reading and I don't know if they are British/Irishisms, or just pretentious writing. The description in the 80's flashbacks is also heavy-handed and pretentious, in my opinion, since all the visual dissection of Paul's college chums and their local watering holes is largely irrelevant to the story and doesn't contribute much to Paul's character, either.

The action scenes are not badly handled, on the whole. The account of Paul's first visit to the demon's lair is so tense it will stand your hair on end. Unfortunately most of the climactic moments--human sacrifice, demon attacks, the death of a major character--are all handled off-stage, and so much of the air is let out. And as I mentioned, the ending is brief, pat, and completely unearned, in large part to that habit of breaking away from the scene at crucial moments. "And so Paul realized he'd had the power in him all along."

I'm really not paraphrasing, there.

Anyway. It wasn't all bad. I have the feeling the author was making deliberate choices about pacing and scene breaks, and just barely missing the mark.

*One thing that always amuses me about reading British-authored novels is how very class-conscious they still are. William Gibson comments on that quirk of British culture in his excellent novel Pattern Recognition.


Freyalyn said...

Regarding your ps - we don't even see it normally, because society's like that and it's still utterly ingrained in British society, much as we don't wish it.

Holly said...

In all fairness, I think Americans have their own version of it, but it's so racially-charged we pretend we don't. I think it's human nature to rank and grade each other.