Over the years I’ve found myself naturally drawn to the menacingly foggy, twilight-basked and torpor-mist soaked pages of Victorian-era supernatural literature. That’s the stuff both penned during the period, and also that set in the timeframe but written outside of it. Like a cartoon bear to a unguarded picnic basket, there’s an atavistic pull toward such fictional climes for this horror reader.
There’s good reason for this. Some of the strongest works of dread and gothic fiction came spilling out of this period; from The Beetle to Dracula, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde to Jane Eyre and beyond. And more books than I have space here to mention use the timeframe as one upon which to build a fictional world upon, often to varying degrees of success.
With Sarah Pinborough’s Mayhem, from the very start, I had the strongest sense of an author who had chosen not just this era, but a style of book construction accompanying it, that really did greatest tribute to this category genre of novel. It also empowered the book itself with a most welcome sense of uniqueness. The novel comes from the first and interspersed occasional third-person perspectives of several key parties to the plot-line. Primarily it comes from a character I’ll cautiously label the protagonist, Dr. James Bond. An eminent police surgeon with New Scotland Yard, with a penchant for the opium dens, Dr. Bond is working during the period of the Ripper Murders. That is, given a killer was never caught, there is no definite closure of the case, so every new corpse carries with it a possibility of being one of Jack’s victims.
It’s the possibility of a second killer with a taste for brutality equal to Jack’s that has the doctor and his colleagues on edge. As more gruesome evidence comes to surface, what was hoped would be a sense of clarity as regards the handling of the case actually becomes a sense of greater foreboding.
The focus shifts to other key players in the story, and at times one must pay attention to the dates of each participants contribution to the tale as they vary, and do jump in a logical-to-the-story but non-chronological order from one period to another.
We meet the gaunt and haunted Aaron Kosminski in 1881, at a time several years before the main events which are unravelling under Dr. Bonds oversight. Living in the Pale, that former union of states and provinces compromising a contested area of Eastern Europe, he is shaken to the depths of his soul with horrific visions, sleeping and waking, of an evil that’s stalking the lands.
His seer-like abilities, though repugnant to his family, are also reluctantly trusted. As particularly violent forecast sees them uproot from their home and relocate to London, two years before the murders we see currently unfolding. And it is then the merging of paths between these characters, and a third anti-hero of sorts, that this most interesting tale really fires up.
Pinborough manages to infuse her characters with personality and humanity in a non-patronising manner, which sees you in sympathy with them and their problems, whilst rooting them in a literary world that’s so very well rounded. And one which avoids many of the usual clichés and patronising manner that often accompany use of the Victoria era in writing. Often it can be as though gaslight and fog have been copied and pasted ad infinitum by a writer via a word processor function, but not here in Mayhem.
Whereas some historical fiction can become too focussed upon minutiae of the period, there’s a delicate balance been struck here. The characters themselves, in their emotions, thoughts and functions, belie the very era in which they exist. They are so very alive in that respect, and are used well to tell the story. This device itself is bolstered with a light sprinkling of epistolary fragment in the form of newspaper clippings that serve with an adept manner to cement the surrounding scene with greater clarity (or mystery, as is the purpose to the plot).
I’ve enjoyed previous books I’ve read by Sarah Pinborough, but none of them stood out in the way that Mayhem has done. It is a brilliant supernatural horror novel, served by a sense of delicacy and understatement. Her handling of the period is superb, and whilst it’s no Dan Simmons style incursion into historical tinderbox cataloguing, it is the subtleties here that serve to buoy the plot admirably.