Published by Perfect Edge
Review by Tom Breen
In his introduction to the recent New York Review of Books edition of two horror novels by William Sloane, Stephen King writes that the books are “actual works of literature,” in that slightly embarrassed way fans of genre fiction have of explaining themselves to others.
“Actual literature” is code for things like “well-developed characters” and “non-formulaic plots,” and as much as genre fans may bridle at such distinctions, few of them have not experienced the rush of joy that accompanies the discovery of a book that can be safely recommended to one’s non-genre-reading friends. Look – characters! Accomplished prose! Literature!
This is approximately the sensation one feels when reading The Wanderer, Timothy J. Jarvis’ debut novel. A tricky, postmodern work that can function as a collection of short stories as easily as a science fiction novel, and is best received as both at the same time, it’s the sort of weird fiction that you’d give to someone to convert them to weird fiction.
Bracketed by a formidable critical apparatus including foreword, note on the text, afterword, end notes, and two appendices, the bulk of The Wanderer is purportedly a manuscript left behind by the mysteriously vanished British horror writer Simon Peterkin, which may be a final work of fiction or may be something much more terrifying than that.
The framing device within this framing device is the memoir of an immortal man in the far distant future, but the narrative takes long detours that practically function as standalone tales. The overall effect is something like a modern, weird fiction version of The Decameron or, perhaps more appropriately given the book’s British setting, a horribly inverted Canterbury Tales, with the pilgrims relating experiences that have severed them irrevocably from the possibility of normal life.
One of the distinguishing features of “actual literature” is that it doesn’t rely on its readers to fill in narrative gaps with previously acquired knowledge about genre conventions, and in The Wanderer, Jarvis eschews the familiar tropes of supernatural fiction to craft a series of increasingly bizarre and memorable encounters with the inexplicable.
A (literally) underground society of elderly aficionados of graphic Punch & Judy shows; ordinary Londoners, somehow in the company of medieval knights, chasing dragons on Hampstead Heath; a pedestrian tunnel that leads to a tower containing a gruesome parody of family life; and the terrible secrets of Glasgow’s (quite real) Necropolis are just some of the elements Jarvis deploys in the course of his tale.
Throughout, the book conjures an atmosphere of estrangement: characters in contemporary London have experiences they can’t explain, but which are enough to sever them from the possibility of the kind of normal lives they once lived; the narrator, living far in the future, is isolated not only by his immunity to death, but by a longevity so extreme no one on earth has spoken his native English for millennia. This alienation is at the heart of great weird fiction, from the cosmic horror of Lovecraft to the Freudian torments of Aickman, a revelation that obliterates understanding rather than increasing it. The tree of knowledge is not that of life, as the poet observed, and this is more or less what Jarvis’ characters come to learn. If the purpose of genre fiction is to entertain, this is not genre fiction; it is, as Kafka said stories should be, “an axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Not that The Wanderer is dull. Jarvis can write a fight scene as well as anyone, and his scares are genuinely scary. Even better, a wry humor glints in many places (Peterkin’s career as a mostly obscure horror writer is deftly handled, with story titles like “The Glass Eye of the Stuffed and Mounted Bream that Hangs Over the Mantelpiece in the Old Stainer Place” tossed off casually), and Jarvis has a way with genuinely lovely, beautiful prose, as when one character rides a bus across London Bridge at night, “the lights of waterfront buildings reflected in the river below, gemstones strewn on a jeweller’s blackcloth.”
This is an extraordinarily accomplished first novel, and readers of weird fiction have much cause for celebration at the prospect of a second. In a corner of the literary world where “actual literature” is all too rare, Timothy Jarvis’ The Wanderer is the real thing.