"What would he write, anyway? I'm killing myself because I didn't get to be King of the World? Ridiculous."
In my line of work, epic novels tend to be a rare thing.
Well, maybe not rare. But when you don't specifically do high fantasy or space SF, they become a rarer thing than most, and since this blog has more of an urban fantasy/strange horror/modern-day SF bent, they tend to be something I don't run across very often. On this blog alone, I can really only think of two actual epics I've done off the top of my head, those being Fool on the Hill and (in its own way) The Neverending Story. And when I find one, it's usually a book I enjoy more than anything in the world, a book I have to buy and re-read over and over again. Which is a nice segue to The Great and Secret Show.
I found The Great and Secret Show in the library's fiction section about a month after reading The Thief of Always. The first time I'd tried to read it, I got disgusted by parts of it* and then bored by the rest, and went on to give Weaveworld a try instead, and Imajica, and then others**. However, later on in life, when I had decided maybe reading a chapter and a half of a book and tearing it down was maybe not giving it a fair enough shake*** and picked it up again. And maybe it was because I was reading it at an older age, or maybe because it was the first book in a proposed trilogy that actually had a second part, but I actually got through it and finished it that time. And wondered why I'd ever hated it in the first place. It intrigued me, drew me deeper, and made me wonder where it was all going to end. It was the rare kind of book that actually made me believe it was a question of if the forces of good would succeed, not how the forces of good would succeed. And it held my interest all the way to the end, too.
The Great and Secret Show starts with a murder and a slow slide into insanity for one Randolph Jaffe, who stumbles upon the true inner workings of the universe while sitting in a dead-letter office at "the crossroads of everywhere". Jaffe becomes obsessed with finding a way to somehow harness these inner workings for himself, being a man of great motivation but little work ethic. After a brutal murder sends him away and off on his quest to harness reality, he meets a drugged-out scientist named Fletcher who, under duress, helps him work on a way to harness "The Art" used to work on the engines that govern our universe.
And then things get weird.
And I mean really weird. You see, in no time at all, two characters in the first section of the book are raised to near-divine status and start fighting it out over the United States for control of the forces that govern our reality, becoming Good Man Fletcher, and The Jaff, able to draw power and minions from dreams and reality. What follows is the stuff of myths as the angel and devil figures of our story fight it out in dreams, in the bodies and minds of the people of Palomo Grove, and finally in a realm beyond reality itself. But the forces of The Jaff and Fletcher may only be a small sample of a larger conflict, and as more and more is revealed, their fight may be a simple petty struggle in a war encompassing all of existence itself.
I think what I like most about the book is the fact that when you get through all the modern-day trappings and some of the horror-movie style tropes, the book is in fact an epic myth in its own way. A crazy epic myth, an epic myth that involves love, death, demonic possession-induced impregnation, demigods, a ghost army, incest, and a scene in which a man is forced to run for his life with a Giger-esque parasite clamped to his spine and eating him, but an epic myth nonetheless. It has tragedy, and heroes, and heroic journeys, and somehow never seems to really lose momentum. Barker has created an entire mythology in a single book, from the creation to the eventual final battle between good and evil, and while it's not tight or claustrophobic or fast-paced, it does the job amazingly well.
The plot moves along, unfolding new ideas about the world as it goes, and working in more and more characters, all of whom seem like they're supposed to be there, from audience-surrogate Nathan Grillo and his slightly better-connected partner Tesla Bombeck to Harry D'amour, a private detective who seems to find his way into and out of Clive Barker's work almost at will, and seems to be at the center of more and more paranormal events because of it****. Somehow, the plot manages to juggle a staggering amount of characters and plot elements without ever feeling too overstuffed, which is also a major plus. Even in its looser, less-together moments, the story still feels like it's in control and going somewhere, even if it's not clear exactly where somewhere is*****.
The descriptions are also intensely detailed, but that's not really a surprise to anyone, especially when Clive Barker is known more for the films he directed (Hellraiser and Nightbreed) than his written work. The Jaff's "army", known as "terata", are fiendishly detailed and disgusting, though one wonders exactly what they have to do with the people themselves. Still, the descriptions are fantastic, allowing you to actually see the action and the horrifying monsters...even if they're repulsive beyond what I'd be able to describe here, and even if some of the events are a little unnerving.
And finally, the voice is also important. While there is more or less an omniscient narrator, he does keep a consistent voice for each character. Jaffe is terse, snappish, and often nasty prose. Fletcher takes a more unhinged, desperate, slightly clinical tone. Grillo's story sounds like the usual beleaguered reporter narrative, and D'amour (as befits a private detective) has a gritter, bleaker, Chandleresque tone (though delivered in the third-person, as the narrator does). The voice serves the narrative well, and when it starts to break apart, it's sad to see that it all sort of falls down the way it does.
And that's the issue with the book. It breaks down. Barker does a great job of handling it all, of course, and the breakdown makes sense within the narrative, but when the last third of the book is wrested back by forces beyond the ones we've seen in the book thus far, leading to an ending that, while it makes sense, does kind of fracture the narrative somewhat, as the idea of "a bigger fish" is brought up, but isn't introduced in full force until then, making the entire struggle between the forces of good and evil seem, well, a little trivial, to be honest. Knowing that these titans are small does push the story into a kind of overdrive, but it completely sidelines the story we'd been following for the whole book.
But that's a trivial point. This is an epic book, and not "epic" in the overused way we use the word now. It's about the forces of Good and Evil clashing over a small California town, it's brilliant in a way books need to be, and it manages to wrap itself up in a way that while having to salvage a breakdown in narrative, manages to tie up as many loose ends as it can while leaving bits here and there open. I own this book, and for a very good reason. Find this book. Read this book. Hell, buy this book. The Great and Secret Show is well worth the price of admission, possibly even more. It outdoes King's epics, it matches Gaiman (it may even outdo him, but that's a matter of opinion), and it's stood the test of the eight years since I've read it. Seriously, read the damn book already.
- The Town that Forgot how to Breathe
And sometime in the near future
- LARP 2012
- Batman Trilogy
- The Demi-Monde: Winter
- A return to Stephen Hunt with Secrets of the Fire Sea
- K.W. Jeter's Noir
And more to come
*In particular, the description of a character's breath as smelling like "a sick man's fart"
**...I'm not sure I actually found a Clive Barker book I could get through until I read Coldheart Canyon, though I could be wrong. His YA books and short stories are a little tighter, usually, from what I know.
***Or maybe I just wanted to read Everville, a mistake I'll get to at some point.
****The Scarlet Gospel, Clive. The Scarlet freaking Gospel! Where the hell is it?! I've only been waiting six bloody years.
*****You will not guess the ending. I'll try to get around it without spoiling it.