A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This novel by Jonathan Aycliffe was published when he was already established as a writer of both classic horror novels and political thrillers under his other pseudonym, Daniel Easterman. Its confidence and assurance, always necessary for supernatural fiction, really stand out. The credibility of its setting and the level of scholarship that have gone into producing a narrative that works reflects his influences, particularly that of MR James. For me, this was a re-read and I was surprised that I enjoyed it the second time round more, or at least differently, than I did when I first read it.
Aycliffe’s narrator is a young academic by the name of Andrew McLeod. Andrew has recently lost his wife to cancer at an age when no-one should have to go through so much grief. This, along with his natural introspection, leaves him utterly vulnerable to the forces that take over his life during the course of the narrative. Aycliffe is good at handling the insidious nature of those forces; nothing happens immediately, which makes every event, no matter how small, pregnant with suggestion. As with all first person narratives, there is an issue about reliability, however, Aycliffe doesn’t allow Andrew’s fragile emotional state to become the biggest problem he has. He very effectively convinces us that what is happening to his protagonist is real.
Andrew’s story segues smoothly from his upbringing on Lewis, to his time at university, through to marriage to Catriona and her death. In itself, it’s a tragic event, but not, unfortunately, a rare one. However, in the light of what happens later, it is worth the reader holding it in his or her mind. Catriona’s death leaves her husband bereft and at something of a crossroads. He has an interest in religious cults and applies for a research post at Edinburgh University and gets it, much to the disgust of his new boss, the head of the department of social anthropology. James Fergusson is viscerally hostile to what he sees as ‘half-baked beliefs and mumbo jumbo.’ (Loc 198) The reader might be tempted to wonder how Andrew’s post was approved, given the opposition of such a powerful figure. Suffice to say at this point that Andrew’s appointment coincides with an upsurge in concern about Satanic cults and their activities.
In order to pursue his research into religious cults, Andrew has to make contact with some of them and in classic supernatural fiction style, it starts innocently enough. Nothing could be more harmless and banal than the bunch of occultists, Theophists and crystal readers he encounters. Apart from a vague sense of unease, footsteps in the dark, the occasional shadow, all seems benign enough. The point at which his fragile normalcy begins to unravel isn’t when his nemesis enters the picture, although Duncan Mylne certainly kicks the tension up several degrees. It begins with his discovery of a book, the horrible Matrix Aeternitatis in a private library. For those who are sceptical about the supernatural (I am among them) the notion that an inanimate object can be evil is hard to take seriously but if the reader is to enjoy the story, it has to work. Supernatural fiction can’t be effective if the reader’s incredulity remains in place and it is a measure of Aycliffe’s flair that he strips it away. He does it by building up our sense of the Matrix’s horror and from there on in, Andrew’s life begins its slow spiral downwards, till he and everybody he cares for is in mortal (and immortal) peril. His attempts to find answers only drag him further into a growing nightmare until he is confronted by the ultimate cruelty and betrayal.
Some readers might be unsettled by suggestions of anti-Muslim sentiments in the novel. Key scenes are set in Morocco and one of the antagonists is an elderly and very powerful Sheikh. It would be a spoiler to say too much about him, other than that he is no-one’s idea of a sweet old grandpa. Then there is the Matrix itself which has Arabic origins, although it seems to have little connection with Arab or Muslim societies. The Sheikh has surrounded himself with a coterie of rich American and European followers who are no more innocent than he is and this is maybe a comment on certain expatriate communities. In any event, there are a number of different groups and people who are singled out for the reader’s attention and they all have an agenda.
At a personal level, while the Sheikh is deeply disturbing, he knows how to pick his friends and one of them is Duncan Mylne, Andrew McCleod’s mentor. This complex, intelligent man is one of the most horrifying villains I’ve ever encountered in supernatural fiction. I found him a completely convincing depiction of what can happen if you allow grief to build walls around your heart, mind and conscience.
Although the scenes in Morocco are very well-done, and some are memorably chilling, I found myself more genuinely frightened by those in Edinburgh. This might be because I know the city fairly well and horror tends to be more effective when the reader identifies with the setting. Edinburgh is a very old city, with tall buildings that lower over the streets, shutting out the light and Aycliffe’s depiction of this adds to the atmosphere and tension, while specific locations, such as Ainslie Place and Bruntsfield Place are easy to locate on Google Maps. All this makes it harder for the reader to keep Andrew’s ordeal at a polite remove.
The Matrix fulfils the basic requirement of the classic ghost story form by being creepy and insinuating, rather than visceral. Aycliffe offers the occasional glimpse of physical horror, but it is like something you see out of the corner of your eye rather than full-on, leaving the rest to your imagination. This, along with the narrative’s scholarly tone means that there is not a shred of silliness or hyperbole to lighten the brooding atmosphere and mounting sense of terror. The Matrix lacks the graphic violence of much horror, but also the comedy that often goes with it; Michael Myers may not be on the other side of the door, but something infinitely worse.
First published 1994 by Harper Collins, London. This edition 2013, by Corsair, an imprint of Constable and Robinson.