STATS: BOOK / PETER ACKROYD / 290pp. / 1985
An 80’s PoMo meets occult historical mystery death march novel in a mode similar to Umberto Eco but grimmer, sludgier, more supremely misanthropic. Though maybe less wondrous in scope, Ackroyd’s a sharper writer and an overall, I’d guess, more serious dude. He’s got the same freaky-erudite meets shaggy-dog-yarn thing going on, but his fiction pulls harder inward, into a more gravitationally potent vortex (not that I haven’t been known to love me some Eco).
You get here an 80’s London detective named Nicholas Hawksmoor in a cynical, Amis-ish mode, but crazy, working on a string of murders on the sites of certain churches designed by a famed fictional 18th century architect and hermetecist named Nicholas Dyer, based on an actual historical architect named Nicholas Hawksmoor (you can visit his actual churches), if that makes sense.
All of which is just an excuse to a) describe some strange and alluring churches and the grisly things that they make happen or that happen near them, and to b) haul the London grime off of a rabbit hole and hurl you along with both versions of Hawksmoor way far down it.
Written in sections that alternate between the 1700’s and the 1980’s, in pretty intense (think Mason & Dixon) period vernacular, Ackroyd builds up an increasingly aggressive and frantic screed against the supposed advances and certainties of the Enlightenment, in effect working to tear open and then furnish a generous-sized space for Evil in the world. Of course all sorts of thematic, tonal, and often surface-level recurrences start to accrue across the two sections (“as if in a Vision I see some one from the dark Mazes of an unknown Futurity who enters Black Step Lane and discovers what is hidden in Silence and Secresy”), making some sort of argument for how the more things change the more they stay the same or how we’re all spinning in the same eternal gyre no matter what changes of fashion we congratulate ourselves for, or what have you, but what’s really remarkable and worthwhile here is just how thick and pungent Ackroyd’s wall of filth and soul-depravity actually is … not unlike the Haxan Cloak album that just came out and that I’m probably thinking about now because I’m listening to it (and it’s trying to convince me, just now, of its undeniable relevance to Hawksmoor).
Either that or it has more in common with some of Scott Walker’s newer stuff. “He did not want to talk out loud, because his mother had always told him that it was the first sign of madness, but he wanted to make sure that he was still alive.”
Here’s 18th century London, where they still capitalized nouns like in German:
“But this Capital City of the World of Affliction is still the Capitol of Darknesse, or the Dungeon of Man’s Desires: still in the Centre are no proper Streets nor Houses but a Wilderness of dirty rotten Sheds, allways tumbling or takeing Fire, with winding crooked passages, lakes of Mire and rills of stinking Mud, as befits the smokey grove of Moloch.”
Down here you can “hear them whispering, the long dead, in Cripplegate, in Farringdon, in Cordwainers Street and in Crutched Fryars: they are pack’d close together like Stones in the Mortar, and I hear them speak of the City that holds them fast … this Thought comes to me: why do the Living still haunt me when I am among the Dead?”
It’s not all bad though, if you feel like building some demon altars in the shape of churches:
“This was indeed a massive Necropolis but it has Power still withinne it, for the ancient Dead emit a certain Material Vertue that will come to inhere in the Fabrick of this new Edifice. By day my House of Lime will catch and intangle all those who come near to it; by Night it will be one vast Mound of Shaddowe and Mistinesse … ”
What people say about the archaic sections being way more compelling than the modern ones is true, though a break every now and then from this voice, short of closing the book, is not unwelcome.
The real beauty and allure, and terror, of Ackroyd’s writing is how much he seems to long for death, how much more repellant he makes the world of the living seem, and thus the pervasive morbidity of his cityscape, and even more so of his stacked, degenerating mindscapes, has a balmy, tonic quality compared to the alternative.
“Do you know that when murderers kill themselves, they try and make it look like another murder?”