Editor's Note: I recently reviewed 'It Sustains,' the latest Mark Morris novella from Earthling, then went directly to my shelf of hardcover Morris first editions to relive the glory days of 80's horror with this novel. I revised my original review and offer it here, because if you've not read this book, it's well worth seeking out. 80's-style big-novel horror is making a comeback, with the much anticipated (by me, at least!) 'NOS4A2' by Joe Hill and Stephen King's 'Doctor Sleep.'
Big novels of supernatural horror are no longer guaranteed the instant bestseller status they once were accorded. When 'Toady' was published, twenty-four years ago, the public's thirst for horror had just crested. Released in the US as 'The Horror Club', it never received much notice. However, this novel, while comprised of what may be regarded as the "typical" elements of mainstream horror, is a wonderfully executed and imaginative take on the classic "boys find real horror" scenario. Morris' writing is excellent. His grasp of setting, character and place is firm, and he knows how to take his brain out for a walk when his imagination kicks in. 'Toady' is gripping, entertaining and surprising at every juncture where it needs to be. If supernatural horror has to come in big packages, they should all be this good.
'Toady' starts as Richard, Robin and Nigel, the school's three outcasts, add a new member to The Horror Club. The Horror Club sits about and discusses all the latest incarnations of popular horror in one boy's room or another. Morris captures the UK version of King's, McCammon's, Simmons' and Bradbury's childhood odes to the outsider kids with a darker, chillier, British edge. Things are a bit grimier than the more halcyon American versions of boyhood. The school is crueler, the weather is worse, and the neighborhoods crowd closer. This is a more claustrophobic version than we usually get in these excursions and it's the better for it. Toady, the new kid in the club, definitely comes from the wrong side of the tracks, and brings with him some unpleasant abilities. The boys hold a séance in a house where killings performed with relish have occurred, and the result is an invasion of weirdness into their heretofore stable lives.
Morris is an expert at threading the horrific illusions into the boys' lives. The illusions are matched part and parcel by the unpleasantness that is the boys' lives, as they and the reader experience some of the seedier aspects of life with Toady. Abusive bullies, parents and kitchens that will make the reader gulp with nausea compete with the supernatural terror that works its way into the boys' lives. Morris' gritty take on working class British life has an almost timeless, Dickensian feel. While the supernatural threats loom large, the horror of this life is stark and threatening.
Morris' prose captures this all very nicely. It's easy to read, but not too slick or gross for the sake of grossness. Thus far you have an excellent, low-key version of a novel you've read many times before, and probably enjoyed every time. And if 'Toady' went only this far, it would still be worthy of attention after the horror bubble burst.
But Morris isn't content to let nature takes its course with this novel. It's a novel of the supernatural, and he's willing to take it to a level other writers aren't. 'Toady' takes the boys into a world of the supernatural, a netherworld that J. R. R. Tolkien and three dozen Orcs would feel quite at home in. The boys become the illusion in an unreal reality that threatens to trap them. Morris effortlessly carries the reader away and intertwines the two worlds expertly. He offers a satisfying conclusion to a novel that should be put in amongst the bona fide classics of the Horror Boom. Readers will find a lot to admire in 'Toady,' a novel that manages to capture the timeless horror of being amongst the odd folks out in any social setting.
The world is not as know it. There's a layer of supernatural activity that surrounds us but is invisible to us; it affects our lives intimately and constantly, but most of us are never aware that it exists. Our everyday lives can proceed without incident while the gods prepare for war. Whether we are living in ancient Greece or a 21st century global civilization, our perceptions of the world around us are always tinged with a hint of the unreal. The stories with which we articulate these beliefs tell us quite a bit about ourselves and not a bit about the world.
Danielle Trussoni's 'Angelology' created a world in which angels live among us, mostly unseen, but constantly conniving to rule on earth and perhaps in heaven. 'Angelology' was a dark, revelatory work of world-building, a novel of discovery and self-discovery. Evangeline, a nun at the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Convent in upper New York, receives a letter from Verlaine, an art historian who is working for a shady client. Before you can say a Hail Mary, the two are immersed in Trussoni's baroque underworld, where a journey of discovery ends in self-discovery.
As 'Angelopolis' begins in Trussoni's carefully crafted world with a secret history, Verlaine has been transformed from art historian into an angel hunter. There's one angel in particular he's hoping to kill — Evangeline, whom he thought he might at one time love. But because she has sided with the angels, she's his enemy, and in the interim, Verlaine has become very good at his newly-discovered occupation.
'Angelopolis' picks up where Trussoni's 'Angelology' left off and sprints to a finish before you realize there are no more pages to turn. Where the first book had the feel of a gothic thriller, here we have a full-fledged spy novel with a hero in pursuit of supernatural foes and their all-too-natural allies. Trussoni continues an extends the world-building that made the first book so engaging, but does so while globe-trotting, mostly in Russia. We meet new Nephilim, find out about Rasputin's secret supernatural life and spend some time in the city of the title. Suffice it to day that nothing is what we expect or imagine.
With 'Angelopolis,' Trussoni ups the ante, ups the action and digs deeper into her characters in a lot less space. It's a breathless novel, and a fantastic follow-on to the more contemplative first book. Verlaine and Evangeline reveal new depths and become even more complex than the pair we met in the first novel. Trussoni also introduce a number of new characters who are very appealing even as they're revealing their most evil intentions. She does a great job at making every page count and every character someone we look forward to reading about.
One of the great pleasures of 'Angelology' was Trussoni's alternate / secret history of the world. Even while her characters are practically sprinting from one well-rendered location to the next, she manages to extend and add depth to this world, mostly in Russia, where she pulls in Rasputin and lots of material familiar to readers of Robert K. Massie's 'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.' She brings in the history of the Fabergé Eggs as her characters search for clues. Having already re-worked the world in 'Angelology,' she does not need to spend quite as much time, but she does work a bit more with the science (fiction) elements. Even while her characters engage in rescues and escapes, she manages to evoke a sense of wonder with her revisionary history.
For all the backdrop and character work, 'Angelopolis' is really a highly plotted and very tense chase-thriller, with more than a bit of horrific imagery — never off-putting, but more on the anti-awe side of the scale. This is a very tightly wound and conceived book that gives readers a satisfactory ending even as another book is clearly called for. To a degree, that's really appropriate. Even angels should get an afterlife.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]