Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Orphan Palace

'Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. is a thunderous scribe of dark fiction. His poetry slams into you, cracking through flesh and bone to the real meat beneath.' Simon Strantzas.
The Orphan Palace is an extraordinary novel, or rather a novel-length poem, offering fractured and disturbing glimpses of a dark odyssey across the modern US in search of... something. To be honest, I had a lot of trouble with this one. It reads something like a deranged hybrid of Thomas Ligotti and William Burroughs, and that's tough going for an old gent like myself. However, a few things are clear. 

The protagonist, the intriguingly-named Cardigan (because he's coming unravelled? Because he's leading a charge into the Valley of Death?), sets off on his journey to Zimms, the 'orphan palace' where he was raised to be a far from model citizen. Along the way he encounters various characters, making this a bit of a picaresque adventure. An internal migrant, Cardigan journeys back to confront Dr Archer, the 'Chaos Lord' of the orphanage, whose approach to the care of young minds - we can guess from the start - was distinctly unconventional. Thanks to Archer, Cardigan is a violent nutcase, and he makes for a wildly unreliable narrator. As the blurb puts it:
His odyssey is one of haunting flashbacks and disorientating encounters on the road as he leaves a trail of fire and destruction behind him. In the circles and dead-ends that make the maze of his madness, Cardigan meets bounty hunters, ghosts, ghouls, a talking rat, even a merman, and struggles to decide which will lead him to damnation and which to salvation.
The effect of Pulver's fragmented style is rather like being trapped with a brilliant but aggressive drunk who is in the grip of a fixed idea. Here's a more-or-less typical passage.
Sunday paper. Hadn't looked at one in years. War & Death. Death & War. Shards on the chessboard.
     Altars for PURPOSE.
     Pigeons and vultures.
     Analogue and last year are OUT. Yesterday, top to bottom, too.
     Word of mouth on equal footing with the stock market; GRIM.
     Around the mountain, o'er the plains, down in the valley, BANG, yer DEAD!
     Nightmares by daylight.

If you have a strong head and a stout heart, you can reach the end of Cardigan's journey and find what really lies in Dr Archer's lair, and/or in the dark recesses of Cardigan's mind. I've no doubt that The Orphan Palace is a significant modern horror novel, one that eschews the usual rigmarole of small town horrors, neatly-packaged for undemanding readers, in favour of a portrait of an entire society through the unblinking eyes of a dangerous and damaged individual. Put another way, it's a remarkable book, but not an ideal Christmas gift for your maiden aunt. Longer and much more insightful reviews are here and here.

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