Gus Smith, Feather and Bone (Big Engine, 2001)

Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review with Excellence in Writing Award (EIWA).

It is pleasing when an author provides a single character that can take hostage the reader’s imagination throughout the story. Two or three of those and it’s a book to recommend. Gus Smith peoples Feather and Bone with even more enthralling beings than there are famous musketeers. I found myself guts-turned-inside-out caring about the children of the story, enamoured with a pair of outsiders, terrified by a local inhabitant, and appalled by or fascinated by several of the rest. These people walked off the pages into my study and wouldn’t go away.

Their stories are woven with scintillating prose through a chilling, engrossing tale of a rural community in the Northumbrian hills, caught in a swirling expanding vortex of terror and death. Isabel doesn’t talk to people, only to animals. She is in a world of her own, but when she turns her gaze on her mother Bessie, the hand raised to strike her trembles. Allison has something to hide from the world as she comes from London to investigate an outbreak of BSE which also must be hidden from the public, even if tabloid reporter Preston wants a story. Local inspector Colin Fenwick must have even more to hide, and might be dangerous. Angus can’t understand why he is losing his grip on reality, one of anguish, deprivation, and helplessness. And people are disappearing or meeting unnatural disaster. Rose the expatriate has some idea what the shadow is that is swallowing the farming community — feeding on its spiritual life. The cattle, infected with madness-causing disease, are an icon of the deprivation into which this people are descending and of its incarnate power among them.

I asked to review Feather and Bone after reading a sample chapter. In it a violent, belligerent mother is abusing her young son. I was startled and deeply affected by the authenticity of this aspect of the story. When I got my copy and continued reading, I realized that I’ve read and written at best ‘descriptions’ of such things, but this author actually showed it to me. It was like looking in the clearest mirror, because I was once that little boy. Passage after passage throughout the story sent my heart through the roof. Someone else not only knows, but can describe it. I’ve never been able to, and I’ve laughed grimly at the suggestion that it could be captured in words. Somehow Gus Smith has done it with crystalline clarity. Even were there nothing else to commend Feather and Bone, this authenticity alone makes Feather and Bone one of those unforgetable books that simply can’t go unnoticed.

Something else the author has managed to convey with singular insight: the sense of consuming evil. It’s been something of a passion of mine to collect books which manage it — to show us not simply the evil that Hannah Arendt calls a “banality”, such as the evil of an Eichmann who was ordinary enough to be anybody, but cosmic evil: intractable, devouring, and growing through time. I can almost count on one hand the authors in that collection. Again, Gus Smith has done it. The patient malevolence that swallows his characters and so changes their landscape that it virtually becomes the setting of the book is a chilling masterpiece of the diabolical. This is an author who both grasps such things and can convey them as though they are in the room with you.

One of the strengths of the plot is its matter-of-fact spirituality. The characters do not patronize the reader by trying too hard to explain or justify their use of magic. As a result, we can believe that they believe in what they are doing. A corresponding criticism: Though set in the Northumbrian Hills, its characters appealing to a tradition that is supposed to have been handed down to them (“the old ways”), the story is laden not only with simple highland folk magic but with a blend of New Age practice, Eastern religion, and occult paraphernalia historically more suited to European intellectuals. Trances, auras, an altar, astral projection, black and silver candles, and circles of protection leave the awkward sense of a genre of urban neo-occultism superimposed on rather than indigenous to the setting. This is underscored by multiple upwardly mobile visitors from London who actually share the same practices. Observes a hill resident to an actress, “you’re no stranger to the astral plane.”

Perhaps there are just too many pentagrams. If the story feels burdened at all, it may be because precisely in the author’s attempt at integrating Northumbrian fairy lore with other magic what is lost is some regional cultural integrity and local religious diversity. For example: Given the community-wide crisis of physical disaster and ethereal evil, it is surprising that none of the characters offer an example of the forms of Christianity prevalent in a region where “the roots of British Christianity” are said to be found (St. Cuthbert tended sheep in the Northumbrian hills) or their modes of comprehending and dealing with the demonic. This is a contextual criticism rather than a religious concern; One wishes to believe that the people who inhabit the region indicated in the story resemble as much as possible those who actually live there. Conceptually, the homogeneity of the inhabitants is perhaps stretched too broadly around a syncretic and imported spirituality for the reader to find it a natural and exactly plausible integration.

In all other respects, we are given a brilliantly detailed and convincing setting right down to the advantages of a particular model of stove and fluid descriptions of pastoral work and folk-craftsmanship which, far from being tediously academic or merely ornamental, are integral to the dark and ominous events that keep one rapidly turning the pages and frequently holding one’s breath in anticipation. Nor is the reader tempted to suspect that this setting, lush and exotic as it is ordinary, is merely arbitrary. It becomes part of the atmosphere of settling dread. In the author’s words, “the image of quiet, unstressful country life (is) a myth… as likely to breed distrust as contentment… despair as soon as fulfillment.”

It is this uniquely human range of emotions, so thoroughly comprehended by the author and so carefully portrayed in his characters that is key to his distinction of the diabolical “other” from the particularly human kind of evil that (an evil spirit) “could promote and encourage, but not produce.” It takes us into a psychological darkness that is soul-destroying and into an incarnate malevolence that is physically gruesome. The story does not substitute one for the other, as one might find in a mere spatter-story or pulp supernatural thriller, but amplifies the horror with a nightmarish and sophisticated integration of biological, ecological, and spiritual depravity. It is a rare tale that pulls off this kind of simultaneous distinction and interaction.

Far, too, from being an invitation into dead-end madness and despair (Camus is better for that), the reader is tantalized with a silvery tether of hope. He lets us see into the minds of characters that are genuinely good and holds out the real possibility of their failure without the nihilistic certainty of it. Even Isabel particularly, the most necessarily enigmatic, is a genuine person, genuinely suffering, for whom the reader can feel love in that she shows us the incredibly brave and human– if seemingly monstrous — things we may do to survive: “keeping silent was the only way to stop herself from falling into a deep, dark hole with no bottom.” Nor is hope a saccharine answer to the difficult challenges posed by the story: “light doesn’t banish darkness, it shows a way through.”

The maternal element of the story is intriguing. Both the rural and urban women in the book are strong, whether for good or ill, right down to the little girl, Isabel, “a fey wee thing”. The men, by contrast, when not weak or pathetic or victimized are at least deferential with a tendency to seek the comforting bosoms of significantly older wives. What is striking about this is that it doesn’t seem the least bit out of place. The author clearly understands people, and not as a generality, but in their specific circumstances. As with so much of the characterization and setting, one gets the impression that the writer is drawing deeply on his own experience, and the result is the feeling of an authentic experience for the reader as well.

Deirdre Counihan’s cover achieves a mood perfectly matched to the story. The typeface makes quick reading a snap, which is a plus in so engrossing a tale, and the little feathers which punctuate each section of the book (similar to the one on the cover and significant to the story) are a nice touch. I also like having synopses of other books by the publisher at the end. A book this good makes one want to see their other material.

To that end, the website for Big Engine is here. And certainly I will want to buy the next book from Gus Smith to read and keep alongside Feather and Bone.

Gus Smith’s fiction also appeared in an anthology reviewed by GMR, entitled The Horns of Elfland. For background, information on Northumbria by some enthusiastic inhabitants is here and here.

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