Last Updated on Monday, 02 April 2012 15:37 Written by Jeffrey Thomas Thursday, 17 November 2011 02:19
|Jeffrey Thomas Reviews Joseph S. Pulver Sr.'s "The Orphan Palace"|
"Killing. Running. You can’t get away from you. You can cry, but when you’re done you’re still you." -- From The Orphan Palace.
We know him only as Cardigan (this name no doubt taken from the novel CARDIGAN by Robert W. Chambers, a literary hero of Pulver's). Cardigan is on a road trip across the country. Like a shark he must keep swimming; to stop might be the end of him. And like a shark, he is liable to tear into those who cross his path. Is Cardigan a serial killer, or a dark avenger? For he has been wounded, has Cardigan. Long ago he escaped the orphanage called Zimms, where he was tortured by a mysterious Dr. Archer and his staff. And so Cardigan is on the road back to Zimms, to right past wrongs. Having once run away from Zimms, and now running toward it, has he only traced one great zero?
On the road, Cardigan weirdly seems to encounter the same hotel again and again, with one of a series of oddly identical pulp fiction books in his hotel room in place of a Bible, furthering the sense that he has only been running in a circle -- an Ouroboros swallowing its own tale. Running like a rat in a treadmill, really going nowhere…except deeper into his own madness.
Speaking of rats -- Cardigan has a friend named D’if: a talking rat. Is D’if some kind of spirit, like the infamous Gef the Talking Mongoose, or an externalization of Cardigan’s insanity? And along his journey, Cardigan encounters much more malevolent entities: ghouls from the universe of H. P. Lovecraft, and cultists of Frank Belknap Long’s Hounds of Tindalos. Again, are these creatures real, or only further manifestations of his paranoia? The people Cardigan kills along his journey -- often women -- to his eyes are filled with BLACK (and has there ever been a novel so filled with the word black -- always written BLACK -- like some kind of repetitive chant?), but once more, are his victims truly vessels of evil or merely a madman’s justification for venting his own monumental rage?
I prefer to think of these supernatural elements as merely delusion, so effective is the novel in immersing us in the mind of a dangerous, tormented man. Cardigan is Travis Bickle without a taxi; not since AMERICAN PSYCHO have I felt so thoroughly, and uncomfortably, forced into the skin of a deranged person.
Pulver’s style -- however poetic and often outright hallucinatory -- keeps the forward movement unrelenting, the novel’s momentum hurtling us through page after page. It is a trippy road trip indeed, more a gigantic sustained prose poem than anything else. Its repetitive imagery, the nonstop barrage of violence, certain phrases and flashback sequences appearing again and again, put us in an almost hypnotic state as the pages turn. The book could easily have been a hundred pages shorter, or a hundred pages longer; within those pages we seem to charge blindly with Cardigan through distorted time and space. Tenses change from line to line -- something that normally, as with even the great Thomas Harris, sends me into fits, but here it just seems fitting. You are not a passive reader of this book; it pulls you into a greater engagement than that, whether you like it or not. THE ORPHAN PALACE is light years beyond Pulver’s first book, the entertaining Cthulhu Mythos novel NIGHTMARE’S DISCIPLE. It is a literary experience quite unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.
But don’t get me wrong. This is not a sunny journey you’re about to take, by any means.
It is black. With a capital BLACK.
(Note: the striking cover art, which perfectly captures the feel of the novel and makes for one of my favorite book covers in years, is by Peter Diamond.)