The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb, by David John Griffin, is a surreal mix of love, madness and gothic horror. On finishing I set it down and wondered at what I had just read. The book has been recommended for fans of Mervyn Peake, an author I am unfamiliar with. I was put in mind of how Dickens may write with a dose of the psychedelic.
The story revolves around the Stubb family who live in Muchmarsh village near the towns of Grinding and Smudge. The patriarch, a widower named Theodore, is a former actor who possesses the power to hypnotise. He uses this skill for his own cruel amusement, and to have his wicked way with attractive young women. Theodore lives in a run down manor house, served by a motley crew of staff who each have an important role to play in the unfolding drama.
The book opens with Theodore’s son, William, a recently unemployed coffin maker, collecting his wife from The Grinding Sanatorium for the Delusional. She has spent the past twelve months here, recovering from the death of her baby son, Alastair. Eleanor is beautiful and mentally deranged. She considers herself a queen and others to be mere vapour shadows. She communes telepathically with insects who will alert her to the return of her baby. She believes Alastair is being kept safe in the darkness. In order to escape the sanatorium she tells the vapour shadows whatever they wish to hear and thus seems cured.
William and Eleanor move into the manor house with Theodore. Eleanor spends her days in an abandoned church, bringing Theodore unusual insects which she finds there. Collecting insects has been his life’s work. William hates his father’s collection, believing that Theodore has paid more attention to it than to him.
The first half of the story introduces us to the cast of characters and plays out to a climactic night: a birth, a fire, a death, a disappearance. There is blackmail, coercion and the Stubb family must leave their home. There is drama aplenty but the more perplexing aspects are subdued.
The second half of the book is set thirteen years later. Alastair is living in the village with his father, an unhappy drunk who tries to keep the family secrets from his son. Alastair longs for a mother’s love. He helps out his neighbours, doing jobs to earn a few pennies, but lacks friends.
When the teenage boy starts to act strangely there are those who are not surprised,
“Alastair has lost his brains, though what with his mum round the twist, it must run in the family.”
What they do not realise is that his actions are beyond the boy’s control, and that he is to be the conduit for a series of dreadful acts of revenge.
Alongside the Dickens like names, the over the top personalities, and the supernatural elements of the second half of the book; is a writing style which paints pictures in the mind. The plot is intriguing, the telling evocative, the imagery stunning.
“A pious hush still pervaded the countryside. Alastair felt that somehow it would have been wrong to make any sound; for worry perhaps of a disturbance to the praying bushes that huddled together along the verge. The moisture and frost had rendered them flexible and drooping and they hung their heads in worship.”
Each setting is depicted to make the ordinary appear dark: the sleepy village with its shadows and flawed characters, dirt pervading, secrets oozing; the run down manor house with its creaking staircases, creeping shadows, dust and insects; the abandoned canal with its black glass surface, all around rotting and disintegrating.
The denouement in the catacombs pulled together many of the plot threads although much was left open for interpretation. The red balloon floats by, the insects remain.
This is a book full of curiosities, written with artistry and imagination. I am still not sure how I should define such a creation, but am glad to have read it and would recommend.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane Publications.