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Book Review: Jago

jagoAuthor: Kim Newman
Publisher: Titan Books £8.99
Review by: David Stonehouse

To accompany the publication of Kim Newman’s excellent Anno Dracula books Titan have given a re-issue to his much-admired 1991 novel Jago. If you aren’t already familiar with it then this very attractive edition is well worth a look.

Alder is a tiny Somerset village within sight of Glastonbury Tor. It is a powerfully magical place with a dark and chequered history. The startling prologue shows the village a hundred years earlier. Visions of a burning angel have been witnessed and the place is being whipped up into a religious frenzy that ends with the usually upstanding populace losing their minds in a violent orgy, possessed by powers they don’t understand.

Newman then moves us to the present day. Memories of the past hang over the place and have given Alder a sort of grim fascination that draws people to it. The locals are protective of their home and resentful of newcomers. The manor house has been taken over by Anthony William Jago, an ex-priest who has established himself as a cult religious leader, known to his followers as the Beloved. He calls his commune the Agapemone to reflect the love of his adoring flock. On top of everything else a music festival is drawing people to Alder from far and wide. The problem is that Jago has astonishing mental powers and these combined with the latent magic of the village may well make it possible for him to bring about the apocalypse.

It all starts sedately enough with Alder locals protesting against the festival. The event divides loyalties and there is tension between those who don’t want the annual invasion with all the disruption it brings and those who benefit from the trade brought by all the extra people. There are local characters, the none-too-bright brothers Teddy and Terry, the teen nut-case Allyson and the eccentric Maskell farming family. You can add to that Jago’s followers at the Agapemone, police drafted in to help control the festival and the influx of visitors, hippies, musicians and so on. There are also some undercover operatives from IPSIT, a top secret psychic taskforce who have infiltrated Jago’s cult. Finally we also have Hazel and Paul, young newcomers to the village, who are as close as the novel gets to central characters.

Be warned, the opening of the novel is where you really need to pay attention. Newman’s cast of characters is huge and the narrative jumps between them continually, often several times in a chapter. If you don’t keep track this giant tangle of plot threads can quickly become bewildering and confused. It’s a bit of a headache to begin with but it stick with it because the astonishing payoff at the end is well worth it. Adding to the complex tapestry are the ‘Interlude’ chapters that end each part of the book. These give snapshots of crucial events and characters from Alder’s past, and count down towards the apocalyptic climax of the main plot.

With the prologue firmly indicating that things in Alder are going to go badly wrong again it is no surprise that strange things begin to happen. They’re small at first. Farmer Maskell’s behaviour becomes a little odd and begins to frighten his family, particularly his nervous son Jeremy. Hazel’s pottery becomes more beautiful and accomplished without her knowing where the inspiration comes from. More sinister is the arrival of the biker, Badmouth Ben, who people thought had been burned to death years earlier in retaliation for his violence and rapes in another religious commune. He’s horribly scarred and becomes an unhealthy influence on disturbed teenage Allyson.

Before long things have escalated with many characters behaving strangely and a series of bizarre apparitions that seem to be drawn from the imaginations of the witnesses. These include religious and magical visions but also things straight out of popular culture, HG Wells’ Martian war machines, creatures from horror films and even, genuinely frighteningly, Disney cartoons.

When it all kicks off, and Jago’s psychic influence is at full force, the novel becomes a surreal and terrifying melting pot of nightmarish imagery. It is in these later sections that the sheer scale of Newman’s imagination becomes apparent. Characters stumble from one hellish nightmare to another, all described in vivid and astonishing prose. Newman’s control of language and imagery is frequently startling and he doesn’t hold back any gruesome detail or grim excess as the plot builds towards its logical and brutal finale.

As always, with Kim Newman, the author’s vast knowledge of niche popular culture, literature and film brings an impressive depth and richness to his writing. No matter how mental it all gets there is an accuracy of tone and authenticity based on genre codes that makes it all ring true.

Also included in this edition are the short stories Ratting, Great Western and The Man on the Clapham Omnibus which are all connected to Jago through character or setting. None of them are indispensable but they are all fun and interesting additions to the world of the main novel.

Jago certainly isn’t an easy read. The sheer number of characters and frequent changes in point of view mean that the reader can’t afford to let their concentration lapse for a moment. However, for sheer creativity and imagination there is very little out there to match the scale and ambition of Jago. There is plenty here to both challenge and entertain the reader and one thing is certain, you’re very unlikely to have come across anything like it before.

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