“Jago” was the third horror novel by film critic and genre writer Kim Newman published under the author’s own name, and was originally issued back in 1991. Recently it became the latest work of his to receive some quality attention from Titan Books, following hot on the heels of their expanded re-issued editions of all three volumes in his “Anno Dracula” trilogy, and soon to be joined by a brand new fourth entry in that much admired series of alternative world Dracula-inspired novels. This particular work takes Newman into an area of horror fiction that seems, on the face of things, a long way removed from his natural stomping ground; which is to say that this is not ostensibly a novel whose appeal lies in it being another one of the author’s familiar mash-ups of genre styles, with characters appropriated from the works of others to form an alternate universe in which historical persons and fictional heroes from film and literature past co-exist side-by-side in an intricate hybrid pastiche of classic fiction and historical circumstance, remodelled to Newman’s own design. This is not to say, though, that the reader won’t occasionally be reminded of the writings of others during their immersion in this piece of work; it’s just that this time the themes and general motifs are being mined because they constitute seams usually deemed integral to the genre landscape which the author has consciously set out to exploit, rather than being merely an quintessential exercise in Newman’s habitual brand of postmodernist referencing.
Even the actual physical appearance of the novel itself (assuming you’re not reading it in an eBook format) confirms the fact that “Jago” is intended to be seen as (as well as read as) Newman’s stab at authoring the big, Stephen King-style blockbuster horror novel opus: it’s a walloping great doorstop of a book -- 700 pages plus and counting -- and like much of the literature occupying this popular genre, introduces the reader to a lengthy roll call of characters, gradually inking in their individual situations, emotional lives and back stories before finally unleashing a central nightmare scenario that is only at first hinted at in the opening sections, but which comes to form the nucleus around which the rest of the narrative eventually revolves. Soon the various disparate protagonists -- each with little in common on the surface aside from the unfortunate coincidence of their being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- are thrust together in an increasingly dreadful apocalypse that comes to befall their community, and which cataclysmically rends the apparently idyllic setting into shards of an hallucinogenic, Hieronymus Bosch-style vision of Hell on Earth.
This is an immaculately written species of that specific small town-community-meets-supernatural-disturbance subgenre that Stephen King made particularly potent in bestsellers such as “Salem’s Lot”, and there’s more than a hint in it, too, of some of the older works which also conform to this template and which at some point in the past probably also influenced King himself, such as Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, for instance. The fascinating wrinkle in this particular literary iteration of the form comes as a result of the obvious fact that Newman is a British writer, transferring recognisable tropes and some standard plot devices found in the world of small town-set American horror novels into a quintessentially English environment -- more specifically a rural landscape that conjures for Newman’s purposes a fictional version of the village of Alder in Somerset. The evocative backdrop suggests all sorts of cultural bric-a-brac generally associated with this sort of location: rock festivals, New Age mysticism, bilious small town politics, ancient folklore and fringe religious communities-cum-weirdo free love sects … we’re in “The Wicker Man”, “Children of the Stones” and “The Owl Service” territory, but Newman’s primary inspiration has its roots in the story of a real-life local 19th century religious cult, first founded in Somerset in 1846 by the Reverend Henry Price, and which survived in the region well into the 1950s.
In Newman’s contemporary set story, the ‘Agapemone’ community (a Greek phrase meaning ‘abode of love’) is the name of the novel’s modern day version of this sect, instigated by an ex-priest with a dubious past. Anthony William Jago lives in a vast mansion on the extensive grounds of an estate in the village of Alder, surrounded by his chosen ‘brethren’, which is mostly made up of slightly damaged or vulnerable young women and men who don’t find it easy to get by in mainstream society for a variety of reasons; pretty much your standard cult commune devotees in other words. Newman’s portrait of the lifestyle and day to day routine at the Agapemone sounds like it’s been part gleaned from the Moonies and part filched from the Scientologists, but with a smidge of the twisted devotions of the Manson Family added for good measure. Most of all though, Jago and his followers feel like they're a skewed Somerset version of several of the more apocalyptic ‘90s cults, such as the Heaven’s Gate UFO doomsday sect led by Marshall Applewhite, or the Texas Waco Branch Davidians after the group fell under the fatal leadership of David Koresh and came to a prematurely fiery end at the hands of the FBI in 1993 … which makes the Agapemone a scarily perspicacious millenarian invention of Newman’s, seeing as how this novel was originally published several years before most people came to hear of any of these isolated groups of religious doomsday seekers. Jago follows the usual procedure for self-appointed messiahs and gets to have the pick of sleeping partners from among his willing female worshippers while the rest of Alder put up with the occupants of the mansion on the hill because of the vital commerce they bring to the area during a time of extensive drought, by way of the annual rock festival Jago’s people organise on his estate. Crops are dying in the sizzling heat of an unforgiving summer and farm animals dropping in their droves from a mystery illness, meaning Maurice Maskell, the local farmer, is only too pleased to have an alternative source of income on stand-by, much to the annoyance of local campaigner and professional right-wing busybody Danny Keough.
The imminent staging of this year’s Alder festival becomes the main focal point of Newman’s character-rich narrative, bringing together a diverse collection of people who each come to be embroiled in the fevered goings on, bringing their vastly differing perspectives with them. Initially the reader experiences the action through the outsider’s eyes of visiting academic Paul Forrestier, who’s working on a thesis about representations of the Apocalypse in turn-of-the-century literature. Together with his potter girlfriend Hazel, Paul is renting a friend’s cottage in the area and hoping for rural quietude while each of them pursue their various work projects separately. It soon becomes all too obvious that the relationship is crumbling fast, though – a fact which is explicitly dramatized by Hazel’s increasing fascination with the religious commune on the hill, which draws her more and more closely into the orbit of Anthony Jago, who is obviously targeting her as his next potential Sister-Love convert, forcing buttoned-up reasonable Paul to fight to hang onto everything that’s dear to him.
But, unfortunately for everyone involved, Jago is not just your ordinary, everyday would-be messiah with brainwash-powers of charisma: he’s also an extremely powerful (and therefore dangerous) psychic, with the ability to project his toxic, sex-fuelled apocalyptic fantasies into the real world, unleashing psychic hallucinations built out of the combined fears of every single person living in Alder, and thus creating a consensus reality out of their escalating derangements and sense of horror! All the while, Jago’s plot to unleash ‘The Great Manifestation’ is being monitored from inside his own movement by a group called IPSIT – an off-the-books secret outfit that practises psychic espionage and tries to control those whose ‘talent’ is too dangerous to be left unsupervised. Susan Ames is herself a possessor of these mental abilities and has been embedded by IPSIT as an undercover member of the Agapemone community; while James Lytton, the on-site festival organiser in Jago’s close-knit group, is also a Government secret agent, living in deep cover until the moment Jago makes his ultimate aims finally known. Various other groupings are also unwittingly destined to find themselves at the centre of increasingly bizarre and outlandish events: a Scooby Do-style van-load of hippy stoners and their female hangers on find trouble with the local yokels in the village watering hole, The Valiant Solder, after arriving for the festival; and oafish twin brothers Terry and Teddy Gilpin get involved with the sociopathic village delinquent Allison, who ends up leading them on a Manson family-like home invasion serial killing spree while under Jago’s rapidly escalating influence.
These are just a few of the narrative threads and subplots competing for attention in this huge, sprawling and densely woven tome, but there are also interludes taking us back to various points in the village of Alder's history, including a doomsday cult led by the local vicar in Victorian times and a séance held in the main house during World War II -- all of which have been entwined in a piece of local folklore concerning an angelic apparition known as ‘the burning man’; how exactly all this material comes together at the end is for the reader to discover, though. Newman is very adept at creating richly imaginative and uncanny seeming scenarios, and although this is a worthy entry in the Stephen King genre of big-scale horror writing, once things get going he seems more naturally to incline more towards the sort of areas tackled by Clive Barker or Ramsey Campbell. One of the subplots involves the young boy, Jeremy, the son of farmer Maskell, trying to come to terms with his irrational fear of one of the characters from the animated Disney version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” -- the weird looking Dopey, the Dwarf -- who he’s built up in his mind to be an evil brain-eating monster that can materialise in his room to menace him once the lights are out. The palpable sense of a child’s irrational dread and hatred of the dark, and the upsetting reality of those fears for the young person subject to them is evocatively rendered in Newman’s writing; the episode forms one of the most lastingly memorable subplots in the book. The reader will no doubt anticipate the fact that Jago’s abilities will inevitably lead to Jeremy’s fears taking on a dreadful corporeal reality, but even more disturbing is what happens to the rest of his family -- Jeremy’s sister, his mother and Maurice himself: unsettling insinuations suggesting undercurrents of incest and spousal abuse underpin Maurice’s ravenous desire to consume his entire family and make them all one with the land, when he’s transformed (under Jago’s insane influence) into a Jolly Green Giant-like behemoth, leading one to ponder what the true root of Jeremy's odd fear might have originally been.
The slightly frustrating thing about the novel is that some truly terrifying, beautifully rendered sections of it such as the above, are constantly being interrupted by other narrative threads. Most of the first half of the novel, despite its great length, is composed of very short chapters which alternate vignettes involving the many different characters and their individual storylines. It’s an ambitious attempt to weave a vivid portrait of an entire community, but it means that it seems to take an age for things to happen or for the reader to get to know and recognise any of the characters. The second half of the novel then becomes a sustained exercise in evoking relentless terror and suspense during which a surreal cocktail of escalating madness is unleashed upon the unwitting characters simultaneously. This is where Newman displays his inventive imagination to maximum effect, and most horror writers would kill to be able to create such a delirious, hallucinogenic concatenation of nightmares on the page: once the insanity starts there seems no end to the tortures and terrors inflicted upon the novel's almost powerless protagonists, and the last two-hundred pages or so are a real tour de force of creativity and taut writing combined.
Still, though, I came away feeling I would have liked to have known more about Susan Ames and IPSIT; and even characters like Allison feel like they need more background. It’s odd to think that a novel of this bulk and size could seem like it needs slightly more fleshing out in the detail on some of the characters, but it’s the inevitable result of there being so many of them, and the sheer number of subplots being juggled, which makes this the case. Nevertheless, "Jago" undoubtedly adequately rewards the effort put in by anyone willing to stick with it and Newman’s wit, invention and descriptive powers have never been more vividly stated. Despite its faults, this is an truly impressive achievement.
The re-issued volume also includes three short stories, chosen to sit here because they include alternate versions of some of the characters in “Jago”. Local louts Teddy and Terry Gilpin appear once more in “Ratting”, which is only a couple of pages long and amounts to being a simple light rendering of an urban legend type of tale. The other two stories are more substantial and feel closer to the approach taken in Newman’s “Anno Dracula” universe, except that in this case the alternate world he creates is a steampunk version of post-Civil War 17th Century England in which James Lytton becomes an ex Parliamentarian outlaw who, in the short story “Great Western”, comes to the aid of widow Susan Ames and her daughter Allie when squire Maskell threatens to evict her from her land on Gosmore farm. In “The Man from the Clapham Omnibus”, Lytton gets involved in a plot to unseat the Lord Mayor Elect Dick Whittington, in a story which takes place in the same universe as “Great Western”, but which incorporates the Diogenes Club from “Anno Dracula” and from the Diogenes Club series of short stories (the name originally appropriated from Arthur Conan Doyle, of course) and an alternate 17th Century version of Richard Jeperson, who must be one of Newman’s most frequently re-occurring characters. Originally modelled on Jason King and Jon Pertwee’s dandyish third Doctor, Jeperson is most definitely at home in the sixteen-hundreds, and is here teamed up with a steampunk Batman-like character called Dr Shade, who lives behind the clock-face of Big Ben! Both latter stories showcase Newman’s love of English history and his encyclopaedic knowledge of genre material in general. They make a fitting and entertaining footnote to this ambitious volume which will tide Newman’s many fans over until the publication of “Johnny Alucard” later in the year.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!