Theatre Nights: The Cannon

Sandman Mystery Theatre 57-60. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Matt Wagner (story idea), Michael Lark and Richard Case (artists)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The Cannon marks the end of Matt Wagner’s involvement in the Mystery Theatre, bringing a five year association to an end with one final story idea. The season, the approach, was his own idea, and his name should burn forever as a Patron. Henceforth, until the all too early end, Steven T. Seagle would have the Director’s role to himself.
The Cannon is also the last play to be set decorated by guest designers, the team of Michael Lark (pencils) and Richard Case (inks). Their work is neatly evocative of the era, wthout need of any of the hindering scratchiness of some of their forebears: their delineation of the people and the fashions of the time opens the door in your imagination.
And it’s the second and final appearance of the Reverend Armitage “Bagsy” Hawley, alias the Cannon, smiter of the Ungodly, and converter of tainted money to the good of the poor and weak.
Bagsy’s return is not only a delight in itself (though Seagle favours a slightly less broad portrayal of the Reverend, almost completely eschewing the self-mocking humour that underpinned Bagsy in Sandman Midnight Theatre) but it comes at a crucial junction for Wesley and Dian, who are both in need of a counsellor who can assist them in getting through the effects of the past few days.
Though the Reverend Hawley gives only the messages that his faith dictates must be given – that abortion cannot be acceptable, that Dian must tell her father, and very soon, and that she and Wesley must marry (this latter advice is give to the pair, though otherwise Bagsy’s counsel is for Dian in her needs) – he is nevertheless a comfort to both at a time when the stress of what has had to be done threatens to destabilise their relationship.
That he works out that Wesley is the Sandman and is bold enough to bring it up before Dian and Humphries is just further evidence that here is one smart man.
And boy, is he needed! The play begins literally a couple of days after The Crone. Wesley has come to collect Dian from Sunnyhills, feeling guilt over what has happened, and feeling weak for feeling guilty. Meanwhile, a liner from England, setting off before the Declaration of War, approaches New York harbour, carrying the seemingly empty-headed Percy Russell, excited at his first sight of the colonies, a phrase his shipboard compatriot, Bagsy Hawley, advises him against using.
Though he’s not long for this world, Percy is the reason for the Cannon being himself in the New World. Ostensibly a businessman, the jovial Percy is a cold and calculating crook, not to mention a Nazi sympathiser, who’s gotten himself into a bigger game than he realises and which gets him and his frightful wife killed early on. Because Percy’s trying to cut in on a deal involving Gold: tons of it, a syphoned-off part of what the Nazis have stolen from the Jews in Germany.
There’s a bidding war going on, courtesy of the Gamboni family, for which the entrance fee is the extraordinarily rare 1933 double-headed Eagle gold dollar: a coin withdrawn from circulation before it was even issued, and illegal to even own since the Gold Surrender Act of the same year.
But it’s what’s going on between Weley and Dian that is more important.No sooner is she home than his inability to know what to say leads to a quarrel. Wesley is beginning to realise his own bereavement, the denial of his chance to be a father, to be a better father than was his own. Dian feels that she is being blamed, especially unfairly give that Wesley abdicated any part in the decision to her. And his admission that, with a son, he might have given up the Sandman results in a stony-faced Dian pointing out that it may have been a daughter, and that he has never offered to make that concession for her.
Tears follow, bitter tears and accusations that she is being blamed, that Wesley will batter her with blame. His denials are not impressive, especially when Humphries interrupts to draw Percy Russell’s death to Master Dodds’ attention, in light of the dream he had that morning.
So the investigation begins, with the Sandman at one end and the Cannon at the other. They will cross paths with some suspicion, at least on the Sandman’s part, at first, before agreeing, initially tentatively, then officially, to work together.
And Lieutenant Burke is placed on the case. There’s no appearance by Weaver, nor reference to dinners with Weaver’s wife and sister-in-law, but the Lieutenant is definitely mellowing. He’s been assigned a partner, rookie Detective Dan O’Grady, and he’s noticeably less caustic with him than we’ve seen all along. Hell, he even compliments the kid over his attitude to the captured Tony Gamboni.
Burke even manages to accommodate a joint investigation with Agents Stone and Hart, who come into the matter when their investigations into illegal gold-trading lead them, via the back door, into this nest of murders.
But Bagsy’s true mission, though he never suspected it, is as mediator to Wesley and Dian. From the moment of his first encounter, before the end of the First Act, his presence serves to limit the probability of their quarrel continuing.
Not for long though, and it is the normally placid and composed Wesley who finds things too much for him to bear. Dian produces photographs from London to show Bagsy, of which Wesley was not aware. When she dismisses the idea of his breing interested in them, he not being the sentimental kind, the hurt overwhelms and Wesley rushes out into the garden.
Bagsy’s ability to lend a non-judgemental ear, his gentle understanding of how deeply Wesley has been hurt, and his gentle leading back to the fundamental point that Wesley loves Dian not only soothes his ‘patient’ but, in an unstated manner, gives Dian the space to understad how much she has hurt, and to prepare herself to begin to welcome her love back, intent on what binds rather than divides.
Not so long after, she returns to his bed, though not yet to his embrace. She wants and needs his presence: sex has too much of a visceral connection to life and pregnancy for her just yet.
She’s far from reconciled to what has happened, and to the as yet still implied likelihood that there will never be another time for she and her love to bring forth a child of their union (and she’s right, though she and Wes stay together for life, to the very end of the Twentieth Century). The sight of a child, later on, leaves Dian in floods of tears, attracting the concerns of a passer-by, a Presbyterian Minister.
Faith plays a deep, though not religious role in this play. Dian receives comfort from a stranger who cares not about denominations, merely a person in pain. And even as Dian receives support in one Church, Bagsy enters another to dispense ill-gotten loot for good. Only Wesley, understandably, takes no form of spiritual guidance: the Cannon’s advice is administered in strictly secular conditions and terms.
Incidentally, there is an issue here as to Bagsy’s particular brand of the Faith. When we first met him, in Sandman Midnight Theatre, he was distinctly an Anglican: it was a fundamental aspect of his gently parodistic nature that he be entirely English. In New York, however, he speaks of taking confession, is himself shrived, and the gangsters who plan to kill the Cannon speak in terms of sending him back to his boss, the Pope. Is Bagsy Catholic? No, certainly not. But Seagle didn’t understand that.
Once Bagsy confronts Wesley over being the Sandman, his usefulness becomes merely that as a colleague in justice. Though even here he is of more than practical assistance, as Wesley understands the value in the freedom to to be both his public and private selves.
But Dian needs more. She needs the Reverend Armitage Hawley’s advice about ‘her friend’s pregancy and termination. It’s not easy, but it points her to where she needs to go, to begin to draw together her public and private selves, by speaking to her father.
So it’s over. Bagsy leaves to return to London, never to be seen again. Ironically, he finds himself next to a man who is going to a destination even he does not know, save that it can no longer be Germany: this is the unnamed man who has been behind this failed attempt to rause money for the Third Reich.
The true end, though, is one final dream, a dream by Wesley Dodds. It is not of a crime, at least not in the sense we have been led to expect, nor of any fabulous crook. It is a dream of a baby, born growing and leaving Wesley behind on a New York lake shore he cannot escape.
It’s a sobering moment.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The City.
Break a leg.


Pursuing Christopher Priest: Afterword

A couple of years ago, I received, read and enthusiastically reviewed Alan Garner’s last novel, Boneland. I called it his last novel, because Garner himself had described it as such: between his age, the time that writing takes, and the absence finally of an idea to inspire him, he did not expect another. And the book itself presented that conclusion. It was the culmination, the drawing together, the resolution of all Garner’s work. It was complete.

On 14 July this year, Christopher Priest will be 71. I have no reason to doubt that both his physical constitution and his mental acuity are strong. And as for his age alone, the world’s greatest writer, Gene Wolfe, is 88 and shows no signs of retiring. There’s no reason to think that there won’t be more thoughtful, perceptive, imaginative books from Priest. The Dream Archipelago has surely not been exhausted.

Yet I can’t help viewing The Adjacent in a similar light to Boneland. If it were to be Priest’s swansong, then it would prove to be a most apt book for that role. In it, many of Priest’s theme come together, forming parts of a disparate but absorbing whole, and the underlying theme of his career, Uncertainty, comes into its own, embodied in every page, every thought, every action. Reality expands beyond alternates into an infinity of worlds. I find it impossible to think where Priest can take this central obsession that goes beyond The Adjacent.

But then I’m not writing his books, only reading them and forming impressions and beliefs from them. I would be extremely happy if there are more works to come, works that can spread yet further outwards. That doesn’t deny, however, the feeling I have of culmination about this book. If it were to be the last, I would not feel cheated, or denied. And I would be spared the risk of the disappointment that comes from reading Robert Neill’s last two, weak, novels.

The Adjacent is a tremendous achievement. By the same token, it is an enormous hostage to fortune.

Thank you all for following my thoughts in this extensive re-reading of Christopher Priest’s work. Needless to say, I am already turning in my mind to another favourite author, and a protracted re-read and exposition of someone who ought to be better known. We shall convene again, shortly.

The Revenge of the Purple Puffin – new publication

Purple PuffinThose of you with long memories may recall that, during November 2011, I took part for the first time in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). My book was entitled The Return of the Purple Puffin and my daily drafts were published on this blog, and are still available in the Archives, under Novels.

Well, it’s taken a long time, including a pretty expansive re-write and a slight change in title, but I am proud to announce that The Revenge of the Purple Puffin has finally been published through, and that details can be had – and purchases made, hint, hint – on the following link:

I usually include an extract at this point, so you can see what the book’s like, but instead let’s share another link, to Day 1. Don’t think you can just go back and read those blogs, that was the First Draft and things have moved on since then, however slowly.

The Revenge of the Purple Puffin is my seventh published novel, all of which can be bought through The preceding six can all be bought for the Kindle as well, and I’ll be preparing a Kindle version of Puffin shortly, and will announce its availability as soon as that’s done. With links.


A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (Vol. 3) #13

I might have known.

After a year of blogging the new series of Astro City, I gave up last month, tired of continually saying one or other variation of ‘it’s good – bit it’s not satisfying’. I promised not to blog the series again unless the gang came out with something worth talking about.

So, here we are with issue 13…

It’s called ‘Waltz of the Hours’ and it covers twenty hours in the life of Astro City, one hour for each of twenty four pages. And those hours are all jumbled up, chronologically, so that we experience this day is a disconcerting, kaleidosopic manner, effect preceding cause. And this deliberate fracturing of the story is not some desperate gimmick on the part of Busiek, but rather an intentional turning of the story inside out. We cut from hour to hour, back and forth, between the seven principal characters, three civilians, four super-characters.

That the story is about time is apt for our three civilians, Zvi, Laura and an un-named man, who we eventually learn is the unintentional precipitator of events. I’ve named them (so to speak) in the order in which we are introduced to them: Zvi a part of an NRGistics project, working through the N-field to operate a robot on the surface of Io, a moon of Jupiter, Laura a bank clerk in a humdrum, dead-end job, frustrated that she never gets to see her so-called boyfriend because his job/career is so demanding on his time, and the unknown man, also committed to a time-consuming scientific project at Fox-Broome University. Zvi and the unknown man also feel guilty and deprived at not spending enough time with their partner.

Three people, civilians all, with the common problem of time.

And the unknown man falls asleep, monitoring a carefully calibrated experiment, as a result of which an ancient, puissant being finds a way into this world. He has had many names in many times and places, but the one he holds for himself is The Dancing Master, and he it is who begins the dance, the dance that lies in everybody. The dance of life, of possibility, of love, of romance.

And for most of a day, the Dancing Master turns Astro City into an unpredictable, unstable stew of different possibilities, lighting flames, until he is confronted by the Hanged Man. For the first time, we see a glimpse into who and what the Hanged Man might be or have been (whether Busiek should reveal the origin/nature of this mysterious protector has been debated for several months, the majority opinion being that he should not).

The Hanged Man persuades the Dancing Master that this is not his place or time, and that he should return to the Older Lands, despite their emptiness and coldness. But the Dancing Master must perform the task for which he was summoned before he leaves, knowing the way to return.

There are three civilians in need and two more superhumans. The first of these is Jack-in-the-Box, fighting to bring down Gundog. The villain traps the Harlequin Hero in a Ryman Sphere, that slows down time, and continues on his self-imposed task of robbing five banks in a day. But he’s bored: bored of the black leather and the fake southern accent and the whole thing. His second bank is the one where Laura works, by which time the Dancing Master’s influence is starting to take effect. The two fall for each other across a bank counter.

So much so that, after robbing the branch, he leaves Laura with the guns to cover everyone, and she, giddy and delighted, does so. But after the third bank, he comes back, chucks down all the money, tells them to tell the Police he’s retired, and he sweeps Laura off to Maine, where his Great-Uncle’s been wanting him to come in on this lobster joint. Laura’s from Iowa, but she’s always wanted to live by the sea.

It’s greatly improbable, but in a few short words and smiles (thanks, Brent), Busiek persuades you that this giddy liaison will work.

Where does that leave Laura’s so-called boyfriend, we wonder, with his demanding career and conflicting schedules. Mr unknown gets home to an empty apartment, cooking for himself again, but Busiek’s kaleidoscopic handling has concealed what at least one reader with his heterosexual assumptions hadn’t twigged – that the un-named man’s partner is Zvi, not Laura. A Zvi who’s home earl;y despite his brilliant, intuitively successful day at NRGistics, when abruptly he lost his concentration. At the interference of the Dancing Master.

A beautifully told, compulsively woven tale, and a genuine reminder that Astro City can still be as good as it used to be. There’s even a magical final page, as the robot dog continues its collection of samples on distant Io. Only it too remembers the dance. It knows itself as Rover, and it is lonely for the voices of Zvi and his fellow operatives…

Lovely, intriguing, individual story. I am so glad to have ‘my’ Astro City back.

Two final points: I’m intrigued that Busiek so resolutely keeps the unknown man’s name out of it. It’s uncharacteristic, and therefore significant, at least to me. I mean, I can see the plot point notion of initial anonimity, so that we may think of him as Laura’s unnamed boyfriend, even as we are also offered the possibility that the boyfriend may be Zvi. But the revelation that Zvi and the man are partners comes after Laura’s flying car elopement with the former – and equally unnamed – Gundog, and it would have been entirely natural for Zvi to call his man by name at some point. Interesting, and I wonder/hope there may be more to this.

The other is that this is still a one-off. Don’t assume that in four week’s time you’ll be reading me blog about Astro City 14. That’s entirely down to Messrs Busiek, Anderson and Ross.

Set a date…

For those who, like me, are fans of The Big Bang Theory, and who still find it funny even if it’s not still doing everything it did in season 1, there is a date to go on the calendar: Monday, September 22nd.

That’s the date when season 8 starts in America,with a double episode, same as last year.

Monday is not the usual Big Bang night but fret not. For some esoteric reason, the show is broadcasting in the new slot for five weeks, then will return to the regular Thursday night slot on October 30th.

That’s only 87 days away. Bring it on!

24: Live Another Day – 7.00 – 8.00pm

A spoiler?


Ater last week’s dramatic drone attack on Wembley, there were plenty of people on-line convinced that Heller wasn’t dead: that Chloe had doctored the feed, fed in a cloned loop and that Jack had spirited the President away from the centre spot in the nick of time. I hoped they were wrong. I’d rather admired Heller’s quiet dignity in going to his death and this kind of convoluted, oh so clever trickery was, in dramatic terms, flat and banal. Needless to say, the internet got it right, despite 24‘s usual trick of leaving William DeVane’s credit out of the opening titles.

At first, it looked like a success: everyone hung around in mourning, Stephen Fry paid tribute to the late President (I’m sorry, I cannot give credence to Stephen Fry as anyone except Stephen Fry, which is why he just doesn’t work as Prime Minister Alistair thingy), Audrey refused to be consoled by Creepy Mark and, most importantly, things started crashing into the sea off Dover. Yes, Mama Terrorist Margot was keeping her side of the bargain, despite Smartarse son Ian’s fanatical reservations. Five down, one to go, until Smartarse sussed out the trick. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, so the wrathful Mama Margot sent the last drone to bomb Waterloo Station, where people were desperately trying to get out of London in the wake of the Wembley bomb.

Fair enough, thinks I, at least it’ll get Sky’s poisonous Kay Burley, who’s down there lending her own special branch of ignorance to the scene.

But we are failing to take into account Jack Bauer. Browbeating the still pub-bound Chloe into tracking Mama Margot to an otherwise deserted office block in Hackney, Jack calls in the Cavalry in the form of Barbie Doll Kate and the much-chastened Eric (plus an entire truck of guys with tommy guns) to clean out the guards whilst Jack inflitrates from the roof, climbinmg down the outside of the building on a makeshift rope of cables. Envisaging his making the traditional dramatic entrance, shattering glass as heswings into the room, I could think of nothing more than the legendary Stan Freberg in ‘The Banana Boat Song (Day-Oh)’ and that lovely line ‘I come through the window’.

However, Smartarse Ian, having shot the windows to buggery on sight, makes the mistake of leaning out, whereupon Jack grabs his hand and hauls him out for the fall (fifth floor). Time being tight, he shoots Mama Margot through the shoulder and, with the Waterloo bound missile already in flight, uses the override machine to divery it into a nearby lake at the literal last second.

Then, with Mama Margot screaming at him about all the deaths today that have been at his hands, he wraps up the plot by throwung her out the window too! Eight and a half hours, a new World Record!

But this show is called 24 (and there’s something like a twelve hour leap between episodes scheduled yet), so there’s time to kill (heh heh, poor choice of words there, sorry). This is not, however, to be three and a half hours of mopping up operations, do not fear, action lovers. First there is a suspiciously timely call to Barbie Kate from her Police contact, who’s just found the body of the late Jordan Reed, plus dead assailant, over in Camden.

Consternation spreads. She and Eric head over there where the total lack of any identification on the killer makes them suspect a Pro (and what was Jordan doing in Camden anyway?). Jack, who is securing the override device to bring in to CIA, suspects a connection to the now obliterated El-Harasi family (incidentally, the late Mahmoud, in whose name dear Mama has been working, turns out to have been only a second husband, stepfather only to Smartarse and Baby, in case anyone had been worrying about their genetic purity). And Mole Steve Navarro is shitting bricks over his eventual exposure.

Monotonous Adrian offers him a way out: escape, money, safety, on condition Navarro brings him the override device. This means getting it off Jack, not to mention out of lockdown in a secure CIA facility with the DoD already there to remove it for analysis. Navarro is sweating, knowing that Jack’s back-channel detection of the dead Pro’s fingerprints is going to lead to him. So what ingenious plan does he deploy? In a glass-panelled office, under the view of staff starting to look at him strangely because he’s being a bit wierd over Jordan’s death, he knocks out the DoD man with a sleeper hold, stuffs the override device into a holdall and – Station Chief that he is amd constantly in emand – walks unnoticed out of a back door. A back door in a secure, lockdown room. A back door in a secure, lockdown room that leads to deserted corridors, the basement and a fire exit (with no apparent security) into the back streets.

There are people who are taking this show seriously, who think it’s actually exciting.

Jack, of course, is hot on his heels, but just not quite hot enough. He was decoyed out of the way by a phonecall from Audrey, thanking him for saving her pa. There is an old flame seriously a-kindling there, possibly timely since Chloe, who has gotten out of that pub unmolested, after about three hours saving the world without apparently drinking even half a shandy, has finally brushed him off. Jack wants her to come in to CIA HQ to analyse the override device (a magical weapon, it transpires, that can override anything military, not just drones): that’s CIA HQ where, nine hours ago remember, Chloe was being tortured. No, Chloe’s done her bit and she’s not doing any more. Chloe’s going back to Monotnous Adrian.

Who, as the clock ticks, is driving her to Finsbury Square, to meet the runaway Steve Navarro…

Before we go, let us not forget (since the split screen reminds us in timely manner), that the President’s Lazarus-like reappearance spells all sorts of shit for Creepy Mark, in the shape of a forged Executive Order handing the now pardoned Bauer over to the Russkie’s.

And let us also not forget, since the scripters obviously have, that James Heller is no longer President of the United States of America: he resigned the post as of 7.00pm this evening. It will be interesting to see if anyone remembers that little wrinkle…

Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Adjacent

The Adjacent brings us up to date. It is Christopher Priest’s most recent novel, published in 2013, astonishingly only two years after his previous book. Priest has, however, referred in interviews to having had both projects in mind for several years, sometimes almost working on them both simultaneously.
This is only the second time I have read this book, having treated myself to a copy as a late Xmas self-present, and having ignored it since then whilst I continued this project. Much of the story had stuck with me, but a second reading, without the element of surprise, has helped me get a proper grip on the book as a whole.
More than any of Priest’s previous works, I think The Adjacent cannot be approached without a lineal account of the book, which is divided into eight parts, crossing a number of realities, and in which vivid elements familiar from other books in Priest’s career play substantial roles: to a degree, The Adjacent is something of a Christopher Priest’s Greatest Hits!
The book is divided into eight parts, each of which represents a change in reality. The danger, as always, with Priest is in picking a ‘parent’ or primary reality, and treating all diversions from that state as, in one form or another, illusions. Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming urge to take Tibor Tarent’s story as our baseline. His account takes up four of the eight Parts, tops and tails the novel, is the constant thread to which the book keeps returning. But as we know, that is a dangerous assumption to make.
Tarent, in his late thirties, is a photographer, born in England of Hungarian and American parents. His story takes place an indeterminate amount of time in the future, in a Great Britain that is now an long-established Islamic Republic, which is fighting a losing war with advanced terrorism and which is slowly being devastated by Climate Change, in the form of excessive storms sweeping across the country every few days.
Tarent has been overseas for some time, posted to a Turkish refugee hospital camp where his wife, Melanie, worked as a nurse. The pair still loved each other, but the situation they were in was imposing severe strains on their marriage, which were ended abruptly by Melanie’s sudden death in a mysterious terrorist attack. Tarent has been summoned back to a Dictatorship style Britain, which takes the form of an authoritarian but incompetent bureaucracy, to be debriefed.
In Part 1, Priest introduces Tarent and his near future (‘fifty’ years later?). Tarent is recently widowed, the loss of Melanie still raw. As we gradually learn more details, from what he both tells and doesn’t tell her parents, we realise that her death stems from a highly localised Adjacency attack, even though we do not, as yet, understand Adjacency in this reality.
Tarent is travelling, under Government direction and control, to a base in Lincolnshire, at Warne’s Farm, where he is to be debriefed. After visiting his parents-in-law, he is taken to London. In West London (specifically Notting Hill, we later learn), the car’s windows are darkened, preventing him from seeing out, except for a few, brief seconds in which he sees a flattened, blackened area of total destruction. This, we later learn, is the scene of a much wider Adjacency attack.
From London, he travels north, slowly, in a Mebsher, a military transport vehicle, heavily armoured, with confined space inside. His travelling companions are officials of the Muslim regime, and ignore him throughout. The journey is dull and tedious, and Tarent’s only relief is in the photographs he continues to take, an obsession with documenting what he sees around him.
One of the officials is a woman whose head is concealed with a headscarf. She is sat in front of him, allowing him to see that she frequently fiddles with an area of skin just behind her left ear, where she has some form of information implant. En route, she surprises him utterly by pressing a small, folded square of paper into his hand as they disembark. It’s a very schoolroom form of messaging, especially in this future, and – perhaps fittingly – it is a proposition. The woman wants him to travel with her to her ultimate destination in Hull: she can override his instructions to report to Warne’s Farm.
Tarent is disturbed by the contact from an absolute stranger. The situation is further exacerbated when she visits him in his room that night. The woman, who will not give her name, but eventually instructs him to call her by a family name of Flo, is a senior official with great powers. She also has physical needs that she must indulge discretely. She wants Tarent for sex, both here and in Hull (sex in Hull: a romantic proposition indeed!).
Flo is also interested in Tarent because he has had a past association with Professor Thijs Rietvald, known as the inventor of Adjacency. The name is meaningless to Tarent, who disavows any connection with the man.
Though he makes love with Flo, Tarent is indecisive about what to do, and afterwards feels guilty about betraying Melanie, so soon after her death. In the end, despite Flo’s persuasions, he decides to go to Warne’s farm.
Tarent’s story has been, and will continue to be told in the third person.
In Part 2, the scene shifts back over a century. This section is told, in the first person, by Thomas “Tommy” Trent, better known as Mysterioso, or the Lord of Mystery. Trent is a stage magician, an illusionist. Recently, after a performance during which he made his girl assistant disappear, he was approached by a young airman, eager to learn the secret, which Trent refused to disclose. Now, he is on his way to France, temporarily commissioned, and summoned to a camp near the Front.
Trent has no idea why he has been thus summoned, or what is expected from him. On a crowded troop train, he is summoned to relative luxury in the Guard’s van, which he shares with another commissioned civilian who gives his name as Bert, though it comes out that he is actually H G Wells, on a similar mission, albeit to test an idea he has already submitted to the authorities.
Trent arrives at his destination to be welcomed by the young airman, Simeon Bartlett. When he arrives at his base, he discovers that his sponsor is a spotter pilot. To survey the German lines, the planes have to fly quite low, making them vulnerable to enemy fire.
To his horror, Trent realises that Bartlett wants him to come up with a way of making the planes invisible! Away from the carefully designed stage, this illusion is impossible, but Trent does apply his mind to whether there are any techniques that can give some sort of cover. He muses up Adjacency, the magician’s art of placing distracting objects near to whatever he intends to manipulate, relying upon those to hold the audience’s attention.
In the morning, when being shown the aircraft by Bartlett, Trent is approached by the Station Commander. He does not approve of Trent, accusing him of being some jumped-up amateur with delusions of saving his country, and ordering him to stay out of the way of the pilots. Trent is rattled, but there is worse to come: Bartlett’s plane stalls and crashes, burning him and his observer to death in front of Trent. Sickened by what he has seen, Trent loses all confidence and, based on the Commander’s orders, leaves the base to return to England, technically deserting.
On his return to England, he bumps into Wells again, also returning in disgust, but for a different reason: his idea has been adopted, been out in use, but not only is he not acknowledged, the Army refuses to admit the device exists, even with it there in front of them. The two part, and never meet again.
Part 3 returns to Tarent. He decides to leave the Mebsher at Warne’s Farm in accordance with his orders. He is dropped off on a ridge within walking distance, whilst the Mebsher circles round to return to the road. Almost immediately he changes his mind, but before he can signal, the Mebsher is enveloped in a pyramid of light – an Adjacency attack – and is utterly destroyed, along with its passengers. Soldiers come out from Warne’s Farm to investigate, but Tarent avoids them and makes his way there alone.
Inside the camp, he enters a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. The receptionist is a burka-wearing woman who has taken a vow of silence, his reporting officer, Captain Lepuits, does not want to know him, the debriefing officers have been sent away as they were instructed Tarent was going to Hull, not here. He is assigned a room that proves to be occupied already by a woman in her late twenties who, entirely understandably, refuses to let him in. After several, desperate attempts to get something sorted, Tarent takes the advice of the obstructive woman, Louise ‘Lou’ Paladin, to try his electric key on one of the unoccupied rooms, where at least he can sleep.
In the morning, he wakes to find her watching him, a little more friendly than before. His key has given her access to information about Tarent and who he is, and she has called to repay the compliment. That night, the camp is hit by yet another massive storm.
Part 4 is told in the first person by former journalist Jane Flockhart, about an interview that was never published. The interview was with Rietveld, an elderly, retired man. Flockhart asks about Adjacency from the point of view of someone scientifically ignorant. It is here that we get the clearest, most explicit explanation of Adjacency, though this is still couched in vagueness.
The technology was intended as purely passive, defensive, involving the creation of an Adjacency field that allows any personal attack, of any kind, to be deflected into an adjacent dimension. However, more focussed minds have turned Adjacency into an aggressive tool, seemingly by physically shifting areas into another dimension, leaving behind complete and utter destruction.
Flockhart’s photographer is Tibor Tarent, though not necessarily the Tarent of the ‘parent’ sequence, since his experience is something that it is unlikely he would have ever forgotten. Whilst Flockhart watches from the house, Tarent and the Professor set up in the garden, Rietveld carrying a distinctive pink ball.
The interview is destined never to be used, because Professor Rietveld commits suicide that night. But Tarent still attends Jane at her office, bringing with him the pictures. These, taken over a few moments, show Rietveld’s pink ball moving from hand to hand, appearing and disappearing. But when Tarent was taking the photos, the ball never changed position at all.
Part 5, instead of returning to Tarent, introduces a new setting and character. Mike ‘Floody’ Torrance is an RAF groundcrew member based at Tealby Moor in Lincolnshire. He aspired to being a pilot but was simply too tall to fit a cockpit. Nevertheless, he is an essential member of a close-knit bomber unit, carrying out frequent missions and suffering distressing losses of men.
New aircraft are delivered to Tealby Moor by civilian pilots from the Air Transport Artillery (ATA). One day, when inspecting the cockpit of a new plane, Torrance discovers an ornate wallet, left behind. He forgets to hand it in for return and becomes mildly obsessed with it. Finding a telephone number inside, he makes a call hoping to reach the pilot so he can arrange to return the wallet, and is stunned to find that it is a woman pilot, an escapee from Poland, Krsytina Roszca. She is immensely grateful for news that her wallet has not been lost and, in gratitude, arranges that when she is next posted to Tealby Moor, Torrance is taken off duty to enable her to treat him to a flight.
Both Torrance and Krystina are shocked at their meeting. Torrance simply falls in love with Krystina: for him, the rest of the day he spends with her, flown across country, alone with this woman, talking at great length, is a tragedy as it becomes apparent that she has no interest in him. But for Krystina, the shock is almost more: Torrance is the exact duplicate of her presumed dead Polish fiance, Tomasz Lowicz.
During the day, she tells Torrance her story in great detail. It is embedded in the middle of this Part, in the first person, as written by Torrance from memory, ten years later, in peacetime. Krystina’s account is of being taken from her peasant family when young to be the playmate of Tomasz, the heir to Count Lowicz. Years alter, Krystina is allowed to accompany the clearly fearful Tomasz on flying lessons, discovering her own innate ability and overwhelming love for flight. However, when the two young people declare their love for one another, and their intent to marry, the family turns on her.
Their relationship is torn apart by the German invasion. Tomasz joins a cavalry regiment, Krystina becomes a pilot. She last sees him in the midst of a shelling of their home town: Tomasz disappears, probably killed. Krystina escapes, making her way eventually to England.
Despite Torrance’s hopes, Krystina is still in love with Tomasz. She talks to him of her hopes and fears, describes how she dreams of getting to fly a Spitfire, and the feeling of being able to soar into the sky, above the clouds and fly forever, but the most she will allow is to ask him to call her by her mother’s pet name, Malina.
Torrance returns to duty, still hopeful of contact with Krystina. After several months, he is growing anxious that he has neither seen her return to the airfield, nor can he contact her by phone. Eventually, he beards an older, male pilot from ATA and asks him to make enquiries. The outcome is that he is summoned to a meeting where he is solemnly advised that, about six months earlier, Krystina went missing, presumed dead. She was delivering a Spitfire and apparently went off course crossing the Thames estuary. Torrance thinks of her words about flying into the sky and flying forever.
After the War, Torrance marries, has children, builds a career. In 1955, he writes out Krystina’s story as already given. In later life, he becomes a historian, writing books about the War. Not until his wife dies, when he is in his Seventies, does Torrance consider Krystina as a subject for one of his books. He travels at last to Poland, to research her life as related to him. There is no record of her, or of Count Lowicz and his family, not even in the town where their estates were held.
Part 6 returns to Tarent. In the aftermath of the storm, he develops a fever, and has to be nursed by Lou Paladin for several days. They talk about their backgrounds, and Tarent discovers that she is just as lost and isolated as he is. Her ex-partner lived in Notting Hill before the attack.
At night, Tarent sees a Mebsher brought in. various bodies are unloaded from it, on stretchers, and he can see oxygen masks in use. This is a hopeful sign, although he is convinced that the Mebsher was utterly destroyed.
However, a couple of days later, he is approached by Captain Lepuits, who is seeking his assistance to identify a body. Five corpses are in the refrigeration unit and Tarent is needed to identify that of Flo, or Tebyab (Doctor) Mallinan. As a condition of his aid, without which the corpses cannot be moved on, Tarent compels Lepuits to agree that both he and Lou will leave on the next transport that visits Warne’s Farm. On that basis, he identifies the body of Flo, within the limits of the little he knows of her, and also those of the other four bodies.
In a corner of the room, Tarent sees a sixth coffin, with objects piled in front of it. He volunteers to identify that body, if he can, but is assured by Lepuits that it is not necessary, that it has been satisfactorily identified already.
That afternoon, Tarent goes for a walk around the camp with his cameras. By trial and error he determines what he can and can’t photo without the guards reacting. Eventually, he becomes fascinated by an old and crumbling tower, which he examines at close range. Mysteriously, the tower, despite its height, seems to be visible only from certain places. When he tries to discuss this with Lou, despite her having been longer at Warne’s Farm than he, she cannot seem to picture where it is. More unusually, when Tarent downloads his pictures from online, the tower does not appear in any.
As evening approaches, a Mebsher arrives at the camp. Tarent and Lou packs their things and go out to join the transport. Six coffins are being loaded into its storage. One passenger, a hijab-clad woman who appears to be an important individual, is complaining about delays as she is travelling to an important meeting in Hull. Tarent is shocked to recognise the two drivers as the two Scottish muslims who drove his Mebsher. Neither of them recognise him, or show any sign of knowing him.
The woman in the hijab is Flo. When Tarent approaches her, she too does not recognise him and is completely hostile. She is suspicious of him knowing her official and family names, and, using the equipment lodged behind her left ear, erases various permits Tarent he retains from Turkey.
Lou enters the Mebsher. Tarent is about to follow her when he sees a man standing inside, a man with three cameras dangling from his neck. In horror, he backs away. He now realises who is in the sixth coffin.
So far, though it has moved about in time, the story has taken place on a recognisable future or past Earth. Abruptly, Part 7 removes to the Dream Archipelago, and in particular the Island of Prachous. Three times, gazetteer entries on Prachous, in the form of those in The Islanders are given, focussing on aspects of the island regime that correspond to the meanings of differing patois names. Each is followed by a story.
The first meaning is Fence. Two people, a man and a woman, leave a desert encampment to make a journey. His name is Tomak Tallant and he is a photographer. The woman, his guide, used to the route, is wholly detached, refusing to respond to conversation. She dresses in missionary garb and gives no name, calling herself a Speaker of the Word. They travel together only in body. Tallant takes copious photos of her on their journey.
When they reach a shanty town, and take rooms, they finally have a conversation in a bar, where the woman expounds on her religious duties and beliefs. She tells Tallant that she can only speak her name once in public, and wishes to be known only by her title. As Tallant leaves, she says something that he cannot hear: when he returns, she says it was her name, which she cannot now repeat, ever.
Nevertheless, after Tallant returns to his room, the Speaker joins him, dressed in loose clothing. Her vows do not commit her to chastity, and she has physical needs that she wishes to slake with him. because they are in private, she can tell him her name, Firentsa.
After they make love, Firentsa asks Tallant about his plans and his memories. The shanty town is called Adjacent and it is the biggest city on Prachous, a vast camp of people who arrive, continually, without seeming to travel. She asks if Tallant can remember where he was before beginning his journey across the desert. Save that he believes he was here with his wife, Tallant cannot.
They make love again. Tallant thinks of the journey ahead, of approaching the coast. He wishes he could remember his wife’s name.
A second gazetteer entry focusses on the patois name Revenger, and explains how it applies to policing. Punishment, it appears, is carried out by way of a licenced feud, with the victim allowed to respond in kind.
The second story, again in the third person, focusses upon a would-be illusionist, Thom the Thaumaturge. Thom is struggling to get a theatre to give him bookings: magic is old hat, not popular. Meanwhile, he is being followed by a young, dark-haired woman. She does not approach him, or try to speak to him, but every day, when he goes to his open air cafe, she is there at another table, staring at him.
More amused than anything at her persistence, Thom works on developing a major illusion, a disappearing act centred upon the Indian Rope Trick. He advertises for a girl assistant and is approached by the wealthy, well-established Gerres Huun and his daughter Rullebet. Rullebet is a young, intelligent, agile and athletic girl, bound for university in the autumn but eager to participate in this trick. Her widowed father is protective of her. A deal is struck, and Rullebet proves to be a very apt performer. Rehearsals go on every day until the trick is perfected. Thom persuades a theatre to give him a week’s booking, trading on Huun’s name and connections.
The week goes well, despite Thom’s concerns at the backstage staff, who are lazy and disinterested, an unwelcome combination for a magician’s act.
On the final night, Thom’s concerns grow about loose and dangerous wiring that the staff refuse to work on. The theatre is crowded but he gets a very good reception, until the final act. This does not go according to plan. Worse, when Rullebet climbs the rope to its top, there is a coruscating flash and she falls to the stage, killed by the combination of electrocution and the fall.
Numbed at her loss, Thom is aware of what will be his fate. He attempts to defend himself, to lay blame where it is due, on the Theatre’s negligence, but neither the police nor Huun accept this. He is pronounced guilty and sentence left to the crowd. This means that he will be kicked and beaten to death.
To his surprise, two women get onto the stage and try to defend Thom. One is the mysterious woman who has been watching him, the other a tall, strong woman, dressed as a missionary. The crowd does not respect their gender: both are beaten and kicked into unconsciousness. Thom is killed.
The women, neither of whom knew each other, who never met again, and who each assumed the other had died, were badly injured but recovered. One was a Speaker of the Word, the other was named Krystenya. Both subsequently escaped from Prachous.
The third gazetteer story, focussing on the patois name Closure, moves into the first person. It is told by Krystenya Rosscky, though she admits this is not her true name. She is searching for her lost love Tomak, a reservist, who she believes to be on Prachous. Krystenya has arrived by a plane, which is impounded. The Prachous authorities believe her to be a pilot from one of the warring nations of the northern continent, and the Covenant of Neutrality holds strong here.
Krystenya, who legally adapts the protective colouring of an Archipelagan name of Mellanya Ross, searches diligently for Tomak for months, without success thanks to the Prachoit bureaucracy. Gradually, she relaxes into island life though, when a briefly-friendly neighbour, Luce, mentions Adjacent, Krystenya redoubles her efforts to get to it and seek out the probably wounded Tomak.
She adapts to Prachous further, moving home, taking a job, volunteering backstage at a theatre. Then she sees Tomak, or rather Thom the Thaumaturge, his double.
She begins to follow him,unable to decide if it is Tomak or not. He sees her but doesn’t approach, confusing her further. She sees him go off daily with an attractive young woman, though it is not until she is approached by Huun that she finds out the real story. Nevertheless, Krystenya cannot stop following Thom, even after he confronts her and threatens her with the Police, and civic revenge, as a stalker.
Things differ in this story. Huun’s name is Gerred, not Gerres, and the young woman is Ruddebet, not Rullebet. And on the last night at the Theatre, there is no electrocution: Ruddebet falls, but only suffers fractures. Krystenya gets onto the stage, claiming to be a nurse, whilst the tall, strong woman says she is a doctor.
There being no death, there is no civic revenge against Thom. Nevertheless, the two women exchange details. The ‘Doctor’ was once qualified but no longer practices: she is now a missionary, and her name of Firentsa Mallinn.
The incident accelerates Krystnya’s plans to leave in her plane. After a test flight to ensure it is still working, she secures complete refuelling by filing a false flight plan. She then takes the Spitfire into the skies, intent on flying away.
Before leaving Prachous, she heads towards Adjacent. As she quarters the zone where it supposedly exists, the ground is different at each pass: uninhabitable wetlands, a destroyed Adjacency zone, a city appearing and disappearing. Finally, she sets her course above the clouds, at maximum fuel efficiency and flies away into the sky, on the bearing on which she flew in.
After passing through a major stormfront, Krystenya finds herself being menaced by Fokke-Wulf 190s. After evading these, she finds herself over unknown land, running low on fuel, seeking somewhere to land.
The final Part returns to Tarent, as he backs away from the Mebsher. It leaves, and he is stranded at Warne’s Farm, fallen through the system. Unable to understand what has happened, he walks out to the site of the attack on the Mebsher but can find no understanding.
As evening falls, he walks back to Warne’s Farm, but everything has changed. The compound and its fences has disappeared. The tower is visible, but it is sturdy and well-constructed. There are signs proclaiming this to be Tealby Moor. Everyone is in frantic action as bomber planes are readied for take-off. Tarent takes copious photographs, through his online link to his storage is inaccessible. He can go where he wants, get as close to people as he wishes, and they do not see, hear or perceive him. He has returned to 1944 but as a ghost.
Suddenly, a pinpoint of light bursts directly above him. He fears he is about to fall victim to an Adjacency attack, but it seems only to e a Very Light. He follows two airmen across the field. One of them reveals it is his last day here, that he is being transferred tomorrow. The other wishes him, “Good luck, Floody.”
The airmen have mentioned that a lone Spitfire landed an hour earlier. Tarent, unable to process this strangeness, but feeling as if he is in a dream, photographs a raid on the base. Another Very light explodes above him. He seeks out a building, finding the Spitfire in a hangar. It’s female pilot is Melanie.
Both believed the other dead. They hug, astonished at their reunion. A third Very light explodes above them. Perhaps this is an Adjacency attack. They find themselves in the Lincolnshire countryside at early morning, above Warne’s Farm, with its decaying tower. Melanie was to report her for debriefing. They descend to the farm.
Having produced such a lengthy, but nowhere near comprehensive summary of the novel, how then do we interpret it? Certainly, it includes many echoes of previous works by Priest: the dystopian future following Muslim takeover harks back to Fugue for a Darkening Island: the photographer Tibor Tarent is a clear reminder of Richard Grey in The Glamour, especially in the final part, when his ghost-like presence in 1944 is identical to Grey’s performances when calling on the Glamour: Tommy Trent, though twenty years after the Victorian era, draws upon the ambience of the stage magicians in The Prestige: the wartime Tealby Moor returns to the war-time of The Separation (J. L. Sawyer lands at the field, briefly): virtually the whole of Part 7 could have been inserted into The Islanders without any sense of strain.
As I said, in some respects this is a Christopher Priest’s Greatest Hits tour.
But the most pertinent manner in which this reflects Priest’s lifes works is that, to the greatest extent possible, The Adjacent is spun around the central theme of Uncertainty. Every single moment of this book is a demonstration of Uncertainty.
In every Part, lines shift, lives shift. Tarent is Trent, is Torrance, is Tomacz, is Tallant, is Thom. He’s even three Tarent’s at the very least. Melanie is Krystina/Malina, is Krystenya/Mellanya. Flo is Flo twice, is Firentsa twice.
And note that Flo/Firentsa’s surnames, Mallinan/Mallin are themselves closely related to Melanie/Malina/Mellanya, further casting doubt upon whether these two roles are not the same person. The pair only meet as separate bodies only briefly, and in the strange, flexible world of the Dream Archipelago.
Identities shift, adjacencies recapitulate, characters move from world to world, sometimes overtly as in Krystina/Krystenya’s ability to fly into and out of the world of the Dream Archipelago, but most often by a simple change of adjacency. Nowhere do we know who is who, who is which. The book starts with Tibor and Melanie’s marriage torn apart by her death: it ends with a fairy-tale reuniting, but who amongst those who reads this book has any belief that the Tibor and Melanie of the book’s ending are those at its beginning?
It’s not layers of reality, as in the helter-skelter ending of A Dream of Wessex: these worlds through which we slip, almost unnoticed are, of course, Adjacent.
Do we know that our own lives are any more certain than those in this book?

Theatre Nights: The Crone

Sandman Mystery Theatre 53-56. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Matt Wagner (story idea) and Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Two things before we commence: the change in the dramatic credits signals a further distancing of originator Matt Wagner from the series that he originated. Henceforth, and for a short time, Wagner’s role will be to suggest themes – such as the world of nightly radio drama, and the fierce criticism it inspired – and to provide basic, rough plots. Steven Seagle, who has dialogued each play since The Vamp, ten plays back, now takes over plotting each story.
In the foyer of the letter column in the Final Act, Wagner’s further withdrawal is ascribed to his other commitments, especially the second part of his creator-owned Mage trilogy (as an aside, nearly twenty years on, there is still no sign of Wagner producing Mage 3, which leaves me fearing that the story will never be completed).
The other point is that reading The Crone in its individual issues is a very different experience to reading the graphic novels. What I’ve reviewed so far have been complete performances, page after page, without interruption or distraction, and I’ll always prefer that, but to have to fall back on the original comic, even without the monthly wait between cliffhanger and resolution, gives the story an entirely different feel.
It is more broken down, a thing of interruptions and distractions. Each Act exists as an artefact in itself, a new cover, a new entrance to be made at each stage. Adverts interrupt the flow, breaking down each Act into smaller chunks: four pages, then ads, four pages, then ads, six pages,ads, three pages.
And cliffhangers become real cliffhangers, the story poised in the arc of a leap, even if it takes literally seconds to close and put down an issue, pick up and open another. Even in those few seconds, the story is suspended, and an echo of those post-issue thoughts, the inevitable urge to outguess the creators, is triggered.
The play itself is set against the background of a nightly Radio soap opera, appropriately titled ‘The Coming of Night’ and, yes indeed, sponsored by a Soap Flakes company. The cast are, as may be expected, vastly different from their characters, and there are rivalries, hatreds and all sorts of other undercurrents at work.
And that’s before the programme finds itself subjected to a wave of murders, firstly of several successive leading men, but growing to include executives and the Producer. These murders are all committed by a dumpy, elderly woman using a sharpened hairpin, drawn from the bun and the back of her head, plunged through the victim’s neck to sever the carotid artery and then wiped fastidiously clean in the pages of a classic book which is then left by the victim.
As usual, Burke and the Sandman are rivals in seeking a solution to the latest series of Manhattan murders. But there’s an extraordinary scene in the Third Act where Burke arrives in his office to find the Sandman searching it. Astonishingly, Burke doesn’t make trouble, and it’s not just that he doesn’t want another gassing. He makes his dislike of the Sandman and his methods very plain, but for the first time he seems prepared to accept the Vigilante as an ally, as Larry Belmont has already done.
So Burke shares information, critical information as it turns out, that will lead the Sandman to the villain. And the Sandman promptly gasses him back to loathing: not the smartest of moves and one that the creators, when challenged, suggested was evidence of just how Wesley Dodds was disturbed by events in this play of greater import.
However, Burke’s willingness, however temporary, to deal with his personal demon is the first sign that our resident monster may be capable of change, may have been deeply affected by Gina’s murder in The Blackhawk. His encounter with the Sandman is immediately preceded by an encounter with an old friend/colleague, Detective Weaver, transferred back to Manhattan after a spell in the suburbs.
Weaver represents an older time, when Burke had had a personal life – a social life, even – and he wants to pick it up. After all, there’s Doris, his wife’s sister, who’s free again…
Burke runs away from both these suggestions, straight to his meeting with Sandman. But when Weaver repeats his offer in the Final Act, the case still unsolved, some of the fire seems to leave Burke. Let the case solve itself: he leaves with his colleague.
It’s not long after that the Sandman, with the aid of Wesley Dodds, solves the case. Throughout The Crone, he is his usually single-minded self, caught up in his obsession, expecting Dian to be his eager sidekick, with the same preoccupation, and to an unforgivable extent, turning his head away from what really fills her mind.
It’s a painful progression. An elderly academic, Dr Estelle Beauvedere, is set up as the potential killer. She’s the same size and age and her fervent, indeed ironclad belief that culture exists only in books and is incapable of being transmitted in any other form makes her into an inflexible opponent of other media, especially radio.
Indeed, the good Doctor inveighs against Radio’s jack-booted invasion of the home and its destructive effect on true culture in terms that, very shortly thereafter, would be universally applied to Hitler’s armies (the Declaration of War by Great Britain is announced in the background of the first scene of the play).
Wesley isn’t impressed in the slightest by Dr Beauvedere, but at least in the beginning Dian is, very much so. As is Dian’s old college friend, Nancy Fullbright, a bookshop owner and a junior Beauvedere in her opinions. Wesley’s dissection of the Doctor’s opinion, and his slightly patronising attitude to Nancy, also demonstrate how far he is from what is the central issue of this story.
Again, the crime, though entertaining of itself, is merely a backcloth for what is truly important. The good Doctor – too elderly, too frail – is not the killer, but once Wesley takes over sponsoring ‘The Coming of Night’ and threatens to sack the entire cast unless someone ‘fesses up, it draws out the true culprit, young Frank Bowman. Frank’s the perpetually hopeful but overlooked understudy to the leading man. Frank Bowman is also a stage name. For Francis Beauvedere.
I can’t resist a comparison between Bowman and his opposite number, Linda Rivers, understudy to the leading lady. The eager, unassuming Frank spends the entire play trying to get ahead but philosophically accepting his being passed over time after time. Linda, on the other hand, is a real, slimy shitbag, a poisonous toad willing to lie, slander and malign anyone in her way to get ahead. Nasty piece of work that she is, it’s her compliant counterpart who’s really killing people to get ahead.
I’ve spent more time on the plot than I’d intended, because the true heart of this play is the next stage of the ever-evolving relationship between Dian Belmont and Wesley Dodds. And that little bombshell dropped at the end of Return of the Scarlet Ghost.
Because, though Dian has clearly recovered physically from her injuries, her thoughts now revolve around the life growing inside her. Aside from the medical staff, only Wesley knows of her condition. Her father remains unaware, and Dian intends that to be the case until she decides otherwise.
But what of the future? Dian is by no means thrilled by her pregnancy. She had expected to be so, when the time came, looked forward to it, but that was going to be a planned pregnancy,at a time of her choosing, and that’s not what she’s got.
Everything around her fills her with fear. She doesn’t feel ready. She’s only now beginning to wake up to herself, and her abilities, a process doomed to end if she takes on responsibility for another life, utterly dependent upon her. War is coming, War is here in Europe, her thoughts turn to Annabel and Roddy in England, who have just had a baby son. (There is a continuity issue here: Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten was not even pregnant in Sandman Midnight Theatre, a few months ago, and besides, Roddy was out east with his plantations). But most of all there is Wesley.
It’s not just his dedication to, or rather obsession with his second self, and the risks and danger attendant on that profession. It’s not his love, which is constant, vital and open. It’s certainly not fear that he won’t accept his responsibilities, because he’s as reassuring on that score as anyone could wish.
But he can’t be as reassuring as Dian wants, needs. For Miss Belmont knows, from conversations offstage with Mr. Dodds, that his youth in the Orient, his long years of exposure to Eastern thoughts and philosophies, have given him a set of iron convictions by which he lives.
Because Wesley Dodds has rejected marriage, rejected it as a concept, as a necessity for himself. Though he’s prepared, in every way, to make Dian his wife in every other possible respect, that final step is one that he cannot and will not take: he will not offer her the name and the certificate of marriage.
And Dian is equally the product of her own life, thoughts and convictions. To her, in all the ways that matter, she must have marriage. It’s an impossible impasse.
Stepping outside the story for a moment, I have sympathy with both positions. When the time came, I wanted to be married, but it made no difference: I was as committed without the ring as with. And I didn’t live in an age where marriage was expected. A good friend of mine was with his partner for over twenty years without marrying (though they’ve since gone and done it!). I see both viewpoints, even as I am closer to Dian’s views. And, frankly,Wesley’s behaviour pushes me into her camp.
Because, whilst Wesley does take the pregnancy seriously, and does want to do all the right things, he can only do that when he stops to listen to Dian. And that is only at intervals from what is clearly more important: the Crone.
Too many times, when Dian needs to be at the forefront of his thoughts, Wesley is not only absorbed in the murders, but assumes that this is his lover’s primary concern as well.
Though it is never specifically stated, Seagle and Davis impart the sense that it is this, more than anything, that persuades Dian to seek a termination. And, to be honest, I’m not at all happy with Wesley’s response: he doesn’t want it to take place, but then it’s Dian’s body and Dian’s decision, and it has to be all her choice. Pilate-like, he washes his hands of all responsibility. He’s got more important things to do.
(Needless to say, Dian comes around, rededicates herself to him and his cause, wholeheartedly, which I can’t help but think is very loaded-dice).
No, as at other times in this season, Wesley Dodds does not come out of this with his image enhanced.
The Final Act (and note how much more often I’ve referred to individual Acts in this review than when I have been dealing with a collected play) ends with Dian on her way to her termination, a comfortable and above all discreet journey to a respectable and confidential place where such things are done. It’s a contrast, violently so, to the parallel experience of ‘The Coming of Night’ actress Patricia Honeywell, pregnant by her married Producer and delivered by dodgy, uncaring associates to a back street abortionist from where she emerges in a very different state to how we know Dian Belmont will fare. All courtesy of Wesley’s very discreet doctor, Charles McNider. You know, his future Justice Society comrade, Dr Mid-Nite.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Cannon.
Break a leg.

Obscure Corners – Miterdale Head

MiterdaleThat in this day and age, almost sixty years since the publication of The Southern Fells, it is still possible to call Miterdale Head an Obscure Corner is a telling comment on the vast majority of Lakeland visitors in that time. Miterdale is a shy, overlooked side valley with no obvious features, save for its unusual dale head, yet it borders upon and is easily accessible from the ever-popular Eskdale, its whole length being possible to walk in little more than an hour, and sweet in every yard. It’s been talked about continually. And still they do not come.
Isn’t that absolutely brilliant?
I first visited the valley in the late Sixties, a brief, evening excursion before the long drive back to Broughton-in-Furness. Wainwright describes there being two ‘roads’ into the valley, neither of them sign-posted. We parked in Eskdale Green, at a corner in the road, where what looked like a private road, between walls, led uphill. In reality, this was a rough track, climbing up and down across the low ridge guarding the valley mouth.
Once in Miterdale, we followed the path about half way down the valley, until the way grew wet underfoot and the sky began to dull.
All my later visits have been under my own steam, by car, using the actual road into the valley, which looks equally private (may it never acquire a signpost or, if it ever does, let it be torn down instantly), which leads to a rough car park at the road end, just short of the first farm.
The path is, initially, a tractor track on the north of the beck – or rather, the River Mite, one of the three rivers coming together to form the Ravenglass Estuary, once the busiest port in England. Further up, the way becomes a track, crossing back to the south of the beck, bordered by a wall, sometimes crossing wet ground, mostly under the shade of trees.
It’s a level walk without difficulties, though there is still an air of sadness about the middle valley, in the form of abandoned farms, working establishments in the most recent century, now empty.
The character of Miterdale changes abruptly at the end of the middle valley. The enclosing fells close in, the Mite is a winding beck carving a bubbling channel through a narrow, grassy divide, impossible to discern ahead for more than twenty yards or so at a time. The path is narrow and sporty, hugging the beck, dancing up and down.
Slowly, a low line of grassy bluffs forms a horizon, growing nearer, until this shy ravine broadens out into the wide, flat cirque of Miterdale Head.
It’s a completely unexpected sight, a grassy bowl, flat and wide, terminating in miniature grass cliffs down which a waterfall really ought to decently tumble. It is silent, even the rush of the wind diminished. There is the immediate urge, even in those who only ever sleep in beds, to start a camp here. It is a place to be alone, where it feels as if you will never be disturbed.
Several people have suggested that Miterdale Head forms part of the inspiration for Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale, in the book of the same name. It’s a romantic notion, and the valley head supports the suggestion, but it is far and away from the Furness features that Ransome built upon to create the fictional landscape of his sailing children, and the honour more properly lies in the environs of Beacon Tarn, on the moorlands west of Coniston Water’s lower reach.
But to find a neat row of tents here, and a very practical 12 year old girl boiling a kettle over a fire between two stones and cutting slices of pemmican would seem very appropriate.
Miterdale Head’s unique structure can be explained by a simple climb out of the valley, up the slopes on the south side of the cirque, to gain the lip of the valley. Ahead, a half mile distant, the flat and uninteresting waters of Burnmoor Tarn lie, invariably looking miserable. Only a low, green swell of land prevents Burnmoor from doing the geographically orthodox thing of draining into Miterdale (instead, its outflow is at the north-eastern end of the tarn, side-by-side with its main infiller).
But if nature had done what it ‘should’ have done, we would not have Miterdale Head, which would be a real loss.
It’s difficult to incorporate Miterdale into a larger expedition, the only feasible approach being to ascend to Whin Rigg from the foot of Miterdale, walk the ridge of the Screes and, descend from Illgill Head, either to the Wasdale Corpse Road or else avoiding the complete circuit of Burnmoor Tarm by taking a short cut across trackless and dull grasses to make your way to the lip of Miterdale and back from its wonderful Head.
May the millions never decide to get out of their cars!