Friday, November 24, 2006

"A Fine Prospect of Happiness"

Bride: "A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her" - Ambrose Bierce

Part of what marks Paul Magrs' Doctor Who books out from the tie-in herd is the plethora of ideas which seem to pour out from his head onto the page, with one insanely wonderful concept following the next like a series of bright marbles thudding down a wooden staircase. Glass men and cardboard UNIT captains tumble after mutating gila monsters and time splicing pinking shears; manipulative power-mad poodles bound alongside fantastically-endowed Robins, the Queen of Spring and Baker-shaped sex robots; and a TARDIS in the shape of a double decker bus putters down behind the lot of them, a gin-soaked old harpy at the wheel.

On the other hand, in the non-Who world Magrs started off writing 'traditional' magic realist novels. Interesting and imaginative ones, granted, and as well written as you would expect, but in certain ways deliberately limited by their chosen form. It was only in Who that he appeared to really let rip and in doing so created work which you really can't imagine anyone else doing (compare Iris in Marked for Life and her appearance in the early sections of The Blue Angel in a similar setting, for instance).

With To the Devil - a Diva Magrs began to bring more of the style of his Who novels into his mainstream work, but it's only in Never the Bride that a wholly successful mix has been achieved.

There are obvious similarities between the two novels and in some ways To the Devil can be seen as a rehearsal for Never the Bride* - specifically in that both novels use the tropes and trappings of horror movies in place of Who lore to weave a truly fantastic tale set in contemporary England.

It's an interesting point, actually - for Magrs to write this kind of book, he needs something to play with, something to roll between his fingers, mutate and subvert. In these two novels, Magrs replaces the long history of Doctor Who with that of, respectively, the Hammer and Universal horror film collections and gently tweaks their tails while creating something altogether new from the base material.

There is still a leavening of the grittiness of his early novels, which is all to the good (the depiction of the submerged loneliness of the two leads is particularly well done), but Never the Bride isn't a 'literary' novel in the sense that, say, 'Could it be Magic?' was. This is a piece of work informed by the visual not written media, where the creations of James Whale and Tod Browning, not Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, come flocking to Joss Whedon's Hellmouth - only to be confronted not by the petite Sarah Michelle Gellar, but by Elsa Lanchester as the 'monsterous' Bride of Frankenstein.

Or Brenda the B&B Lady as he's known to her friends in Whitby.

Which is the point at which To the Devil and Never the Bride deviate. To the Devil has been described, pretty unfairly, as a "Harry Potter parody for naughty big boys" - it's a lazy comparison, but it is fair to say that To the Devil could easily be made into a big-screen extravaganza in the Potter mould, filled with visual spectacle and colourful set-pieces. The characters remain true to their reassuringly recognisable roots - Karla is a Hammer queen in the mould of Ingrid Pitt, Lance is the archetypal soap star and so on - and the urban Manchester and flashback evacuee settings are ones which viewers might expect and which they are likely to be comfortable with, and the Wheatley-esque elements provide a cinema-friendly frisson of the occult.

Never the Bride, on the other hand, could only be filmed if Tim Burton or David Lynch wanted to do it as a TV series. It's set in a small old-fashioned town, there's a plethora of monsters, the good guys and bad guys are not who you might initially expect and swap places now and again, the novel ends with a ton of loose ends and the story line is really a set of linked short stories rather than a linear threaded narrative. It's very clear that this is a deliberate ploy by the author - each chapter is a different self-contained episode with the entire novel as a season arc, as Brenda and Effie bustle about town investigating sinister goings-on and bitching about their neighbours, as though Mapp and Lucia had become friends and turned detective. Affectionate nods to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Most Haunted and Twin Peaks serve to cement the feeling of a TV series in prose.

It's beautifully paced and enormously well-written, with some absolute killer lines - and it's got more ideas in it than a dozen JK Rowling books.

I've long lamented the fact that the death of the Doctor Who book range meant that we'd likely never see another book like Mad Dogs and Englishmen from Paul Magrs, but with the announcement of a sequel to Never the Bride it might well be that we now have something better.

Paul Magrs has created his own universe in which to play and, as readers, we can only be happy.

*They're even both obviously set in the Whoniverse - Professor Cleavis from Mad Dogs makes an appearance in to the Devil and MIAOW from the same book and the short story Entertaining Mr O pops up in Never the Bride. The Martians also apparently invaded at the end of the nineteenth century - a reference to War of the Worlds to add to the League of Extraordinarily Monsterous Gentlemen feel to the novel, or a plot point for the sequel?

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Blogger alienvoord said...

I can't wait to read this book.

4:58 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

It's sufficiently good that I'm tempted to read it again straight away. Migth even be Paul's best book, IMO.

5:09 pm  

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