COLUMN: The Name’s Normal, Para Normal, But You Can Just Call Me Strange…

Ali B and the Forty Spaceships — Part the Seventh [March 2015]

“Crystal Ball. You look into one of these and see vapours swirling like clouds. These shortly clear away to show a sort of video without sound or something that is going to happen to you too soon. It is seldom good news.”

                See also CRYSTAL and PROPHECY.

—The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones

MENTION THE TERM ‘paranormal’ in polite company and nine times out of ten you’ll be presented with a multitude of strange goings on that happened once to such-and-such’s third cousin’s brother’s daughter’s pigeon, or failing that, someone somewhere will pipe up with a memorable episode of The X Files they once saw. And if they’re of a somewhat more sprightly age, maybe you’ll get lucky and hear about a particular episode of Sleepy Hollow or Supernatural. Really memorable, quality paranormal fiction tends to be a tad harder to nail down and titles don’t trip off the tongue quite so easily, mainly because there have already been so many stories, trilogies, quintologies, etc. written… although arguably you could pick any number of standalone Stephen King and James Herbert novels to plug that gap.

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall by Vaughn EntwistleThat said, it’s with great delight that I present to you a rather intriguing new series written by Vaughn Entwistle, subtitled The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — the first of which is called The Revenant of Thraxton Hall (Titan Books, March 2014). Now I know a name like Entwistle isn’t the easiest to forget (or remember, depending which way you’re inclined), but if I also told you the main stars of this series are Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, both of whom make up an unlikely duo of detectives intent on investigating all things strange and perplexing, you might consider this either boldly daring or utter madness — either way, it’s a memorable pairing! The author has done a wonderful job of injecting humour into this rather remarkable tale which is chock-full of thrills, action, suspense and derring-do, with Oscar Wilde brilliantly characterised as a dashing and arrogant ladies-man akin to DiCaprio’s Great Gatsby and Wolf of Wall Street combined. Meanwhile, the character of Conan Doyle is running away from his own creation, the Great Detective, determined to kill Sherlock off and start afresh, but filled with all the angst and insolence one might expect through long-term association with the Great Detective. The plot? Oh, it’s one of those ‘please can you investigate this murder which hasn’t actually happened yet?’-type things, starring mysterious strangers, levitating magicians, an animal familiar, the ghostly apparition of Holmes himself and a handful of mediums and charlatans from the Society for Psychical Research — it is, rest assured, a rather spiffing yarn and well worth your time.

The Wolves of London by Mark MorrisVery different to Revenant, is Mark Morris’ The Wolves Of London (Titan Books, Oct 2014), the first book in the ‘Obsidian Heart’ trilogy: a gripping slice-of-reality story about a reformed ex-con whose ‘one last job’ predictably turns into a horrible ugly mess, involving by turns theft, violence, dodgy dealings, a kidnapping, some strange and bizarre chase sequences, even stranger pursuers, and there’s even a wee bit of time travel adventure thrown in for good measure, to add to an already very weird mix – all interplayed against a solidly rich criminal underworld set of course, in good ol’ London town…

The Society of Blood by Mark Morris The language is a bit gritty and in-yer-face but that tends to be par for the course in first-person narratives nowadays, and the whole caboodle is themed around the mysterious dark forces at work inside the heart-shaped black stone from which the trilogy takes its name. It’s good stuff, though, and again, well worth a read — I am looking forward to the next one, which is always a good sign…

And now for something completely different…

The Office of Lost and Found (Anarchy books, 2011) is Vincent Holland-Keen’s debut novel, and is a book about opposites — Thomas Locke may be able to find anything, but his business partner, Lafarge, happens to be rather good at losing stuff, and between the two of them, we have what is positively one of the most messed up, crazy and outright weird but darkly funny novels I’ve come across in a long time. And the opposites theme does persist, because readers will either love or hate this book (and yes, to the point of not actually finishing it!) — Uniquely crazy, it’s told as a series of vignettes both in the past and future, with an array of kooky characters that range from talking toasters, roadwork-obsessed kids, and monsters under the bed, to the eponymous Office itself, which randomly appears in any room behind any door and slowly amasses a number of items that simply weren’t there a moment ago.

The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert Absolutely bonkers but wickedly amusing and observant, too!

And finally, the talented Frank Herbert is best known for his astounding multi-levelled Dune books, but he wrote so much more, including The Dosadi Experiment, the last in a trilogy of tales also known as the ‘ConSentiency Sequence’ — herein can be found a very involved plot in which an alien species creates the ultimate Darwinist experiment whilst laying waste to a brutally overpopulated prison-type planet all in the name of experimentation. It’s deep meaningful stuff and throws up a lot of challenging questions –both legal and moral— about the origins and nature of mind-control drugs and mind transference. Seek and enjoy, glorious reader!

* This column originally appeared in the
May/June 2015 issue of BTS Book Reviews