Few, if any, cities have featured more prominently in fantastical fiction than London. And not merely as neutral setting, innocuous mimetic background or colorful venue for action, but rather as practically a character in its own quasi-sentient architectonic right: a hulking, huffing, churning, ancient entity, malign or benign, sprawling its obscure or blatant tentacles across the landscape of entire novels. As critic David Langford observes in the “London” entry in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia: “As the city at the heart of the British Empire, London was long seen by UK speculative authors as bearing the brunt of whatever disaster the future might bring.” John Clute, in the corresponding entry in the SFE‘s sister volume, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, notes: “For fantasy writers, to evoke London is to conjure a set of icons and legends of unparalleled depth in time, all set within a frame whose complex, theatrical immensity seems inexhaustible.”
Interested readers would do well to consult those two essays for exhaustive lists of relevant books, by majestic figures such as Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Michael Moorcock and Iain Sinclair. Here, as my segue to the newest entry in the secret occult biography of London, I’ll mention only two recent outstanding works: China Miéville’s Kraken and Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker.
Paul Cornell arrives at the gates of his own haunted London via a complex and broad career path featuring novels, comics, and television scripts (a CV remarkably similar, in tone and scope, to that of his fellow Brits, Clive Barker and Warren Ellis). All of his work has been marked with wit, invention and a fondness for historical subject matter, topicality and the juggling of genre tropes. So it’s no surprise that his supernatural take on the modern city should prove both mimetically vibrant, eldritchally immemorial, and savvy in the lineage of such tales.
We start on the sharply rendered level of a police procedural, full of gritty suspense and dramatic juice. In medias res weedrop in on “Operation Goodfellow,” the undercover pursuit of a middling London gangster named Rob Toshack. Now, please note Cornell’s subtle allusiveness, evident from the get-go. “Rob” + “Goodfellow” = “Robin Goodfellow,” another name for the uncanny fellow we know as Puck, a token of the mythos just offstage at this point. Hidden in Toshack’s gang are the cops Costain and Sefton, limned swiftly in their sour dead-endedness and survivor’s cunning. (First names are hardly used in the book, and indeed the curt relations at the outset among the protagonists make such amenities seem frivolous.) With equal crispness, we get to know the head of the operation, Detective Inspector Quill; his boss, a woman, Detective Superintendant Lofthouse; and, finally, an affiliated “intelligence analyst” named Lisa Ross.
Having assembled his cast, Cornell quickly moves to undercut all their — and our — expectations for a normal bust. In custody, Toshack dies in a most gruesome and inexplicable manner. This death starts our quartet of Costain, Sefton, Quill and Ross (Lofthouse hovers meaningfully at the edges of the investigation) onto the trail of the assumed killer. A strange token found nearby the murder leads to a record of many overlooked similar deaths, and the seeming perp: an elderly woman named Mora Losley. In confronting her, the foursome are accidentally endowed with some heavy psychic talents that enable them to start seeing just what’s truly involved in this case, “the hidden culture of London.” Is Mora Losley “merely” a serial killer, or is she something much more dreadful and unnatural? Those answers will come only at great mortal peril.
Cornell’s skill in developing his story from simple cop thriller to a paradigm-upsetting, conceptual breakthrough dark fantasy novel is commendable. It’s a pleasure to watch him allow the quartet to move incrementally from one realization to another — reluctantly, quizzically — until it’s finally undeniable to them and us that they are confronting the occult. But Cornell never has them betray their rational, problem-solving natures. The investigation must go on, albeit with magical warding circles and some hastily requisitioned holy water and salt from the commissary. Instead of freaking out, they merely incorporate the new and disturbing knowledge into their bobby academy modus operandi, setting up operations corkboards with partitions for witches and ghosts. Along the way, the four crusaders gradually bond — in gruffly authentic fashion — and we grow to learn more about them, a process abetted by Cornell’s occasional jumps to different narrative viewpoints, such as that of Quill’s wife or a coroner. The harrowing they experience — looking like “junkies” who can never go off the clock — is ameliorated by their wry humor. As Quill remarks at one point: “It’s as if we scratched the lottery card of reality and this is what was bloody underneath. Not a big win, really.”
Mora Losley as antagonist assumes full-blown creepy reality as well. Her backstory fascinates, her thought and speech patterns are diabolically alien, and her supernatural identification with a tunnel-rotten London makes her and the city emblems of each other. Her brand of non-Euclidian horrors, to quote Lovecraft’s favorite phrase, seems inspired by that master’s story, “The Dreams in the Witch House,” and Mora indeed becomes known to the public as “The Witch of West Ham.”
This merger of institutional sleuthing and spooks has of course been seen before, in such productions as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and its associated B.P.R.D. spinoffs. (The detectives even jokingly cite Ghostbusters.) Liz Williams’s series of books featuring Detective Inspector Chen comes to mind as well. But Cornell’s fusion of metropolitan coppers with ancient horrors feels fresh and real in its own unique fashion.
Cornell’s contribution to the mythology and esoteric matter of London is not scanty either. When Costain drives out to the burbs and looks back to see London as a glowing epicenter of bad magic, the city takes on that numinous aura which we demand of any London-centric fantasy. Mora Losley’s technology of magic, so to speak, is bound intrinsically to the city, which becomes her infernal engine of power. In many scenes, such as the one set in “the most haunted place in London,” a bookstore, or on a ghost bus, true fearsome eeriness prevails.
Along these very lines, non-British readers should be prepared for the mildly disorienting sensation consequent upon a fair amount of UK slang and cultural touchstones. “To grass” and “the filth” are fairly well-known terms, but I must confess to needing to look up “spod.” And the centrality of soccer to the outré shennanigans — (as an American I refuse to call it “football”) — naturally has less resonance in the USA. Combined with Cornell’s penchant for elliptical dialogue and ultra-compressed narrative strategies, the result is, however, nothing but bracing, a heady reading experience that goes a long way toward creating in the reader the deracination and estrangement being experienced by our heroes.
Fans of this type of story certainly hold in high esteem the DC comic Hellblazer, the history of louche, amoral streetwise mage John Constantine, a character birthed by Alan Moore. When that long-running series was recently cancelled, Paul Cornell could be heard to tweet mournfully: “I guess I always sort of assumed that one day I would write Hellblazer.” Although this big and bold novel was surely conceived and written long before Hellblazer‘s demise, it reads as a fulfillment of Cornell’s dream: to set some shabby yet heroic types, gumshoes with hearts of brass and feet of clay, loose in an urban hell. With a sequel already underway, Cornell might just have invented the next franchise to satisfy Constantine’s fans.