The turn of the last century and Theodore Stubbs’ manor house resides in the quirky village of Muchmarsh. A renowned entomologist, he is often within the attic adding another exotic specimen to his extensive collection of insects. But Theodore is also a master hypnotist, holding the household in thrall to his every whim. Theodore’s daughter-in-law Eleanor returned from the sanatorium two months before is a haunted figure, believing that her stillborn child Alastair lives and hides in the shadows. Then she falls pregnant again, but this time by the hypnotic coercion and wicked ravishment of Theodore. A dreadful act begets terrible secrets, and thirteen years later the boy Alastair Stubb begins to lose his identity. It is not long before mystery, intrigue and murder follow gleefully in his wake. The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb is a gothic terror of the highest order, delivering a dream-like and hallucinatory reading experience that promises to reveal secrets both disturbing and astonishing. Do you dare meet the Stubbs?
Thanks to Matthew from Urbane Publications for sending me a review copy of this elegantly Gothic tale, one that feels familiar in all the right places – in a good way – but also has a fresh sort of rampant fiendishness running through it that kept me engrossed right to the end, with its thoroughly entertaining denouement.
The precisely constructed plot is chock full of seduction, blackmail, murder, depravity, madness and secrets aplenty which can’t fail but to appeal to any reader. What makes it more pleasurable is the interspersing of dark comedy from a supporting cast that sound like they are the offspring of characters from a Dickens novel, it’s a fine balance but the comic aspects never ruin the brooding feeling of the novel, if anything it makes the sinister more effective.
The first half feels very reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, the protagonists live almost separate lives in a big, aged house, yet they contrive to make their shared endurance feel like a claustrophobic and uncomfortable existence. This works well with the slow build up, that takes its time to reach a memorable boiling point.
Part two is set thirteen years later and feels the most fluid of the two, plenty has happened in the intervening years and the injection of pace is refreshing, little needs to be set up now and whilst there is no less drama, plot threads seem to be pulled tautly as the conclusion races towards the reader. I was perplexed by one thread, introduced late on and then quickly shunted to the side after one set piece, when I expected more from it. This isn’t a major problem though and I can see why the author did it,
There is plenty of style as well to compliment the substance, the settings are wonderful, all seem to be old and decaying, suggesting impenetrable mysteries and the villagers are fascinating as they seem to rarely meet and when they do, to not form much in the way of relationships, Muchmarsh is an odd place but I like it for its peculiarity and its abiding enigmatic atmosphere.
The book almost feels like one of those stories that is a curiosity but stands up better than most of those types of books, this is one to relish, outside of the norm and satisfying. I found the twists were not always what I was expecting and that engaged me more to this strange town, grounded in the customary way but beneath the surface a chaotic mix of ambiguities and conundrums.