Sunday, 14 November 2010
Alan Campbell, Scar Night. The Deepgate Codex, Volume 1 (2006)
Good stuff: this is a cleanly- (and sometimes even well-) written piece of fiction, ingenious and fast-paced. My right forefinger kept sliding under the bottom right hand corner of the page, lifting it, and turning it so that I could keep reading. But—but.
It’s a novel with all the Gothic trappings: scenes, characters, props, bloodletting, dark gods, nameless horrors. And as such, whilst I enjoyed it plenty, I couldn’t ignore the way it wholly failed to drag its tentacles of dread over the tender membrane of my imagination. I was never scared; never spooked; never, really, put in any position beyond ‘oh, I wonder what’s going to happen next?’
Campbell, the blurb boasts, came to writing from designing video games. He designs his world with a video-game-designers professionalism, care, detail and flatness. The city of Deepgate has hanged (not hung, whatever the novel says: meat is hung [after checking: nope, I'm wrong and the novel is right ... it's hung]) suspended by massive chains over a bottomless abyss for, with splendidly vague and windy periodicity, a hundred generations. In the abyss is a fallen god, Ulcis, worshipped by the citizens of Deepgate. The characters are manifold, and include Dill, a last-of-his-race winged human 'angel', sexy kick-ass female [yawn] assassin Rachel Hael, sinister priests, mad goddesses, various sorts.
There have been, I’m well aware, video games that aim for the spooky (Silent Hill, say). Yet I have never been spooked by a video game; and I wonder why that is—wonder, indeed, whether my reaction is unusual. It seems to me that the real skin-crawling eeriness of the uncanny depends upon a kind of existential passivity (to put it more precisely: upon an existential passion), an opening of oneself to the appalling strangeness of the Other. But gaming, on the contrary (and the pseudo-gamy, such as the hectic, onward-thrusting narrative of a novel like this one) depend upon a simulacrum of activity. Pushing the buttons, leaning one’s thumb on the joystick, levering the viewpoint onward, exploring, going-on, moving through. All of that is too kinetic for the cultivation of a genuinely creepiness. I could go on, and suggest that the unheimlich requires us to revisit the home in such a way as to understand its unhomeliness. A novel like this is not really interested in the return home. It’s all about the there, none of it is about the back again. Campbell introduces his gnarly, ingenious chained-over-the-abyss city in order that we might explore it, visualise it, get used to it—and once we’ve done that Campbell disposes of it, severing the chains and casting it into the depths. The story must shed it and move on.