May 29, 2017

Otherland Speculative Fiction Book Club

The Making of Carolyn


İnci German on Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char

It is not easy to review Library without giving away too much – as is the case with every book that has a major twist. I even hesitated entitling this entry as I wanted to because I am too scared to spoil anyone’s reading experience. I can safely say though, - and folks at the book club (whether they adored or passionately hated the book) unanimously agreed upon this - this is a major page-turner, a horror-fantasy which is hard to compare to anything you’ve read before. Hawkins certainly knows how to keep you reading and he definitely polarized the OBC.

Spoiler alert!

What starts as the story of a group of very weird young adults, later builds up to a quite perplexing twist resulting in a young woman rising to godhood.

These young people are a kind of grotesque family, apprentices to a sort of God (Father) who educates them with, let’s say unusual, often downright brutal methods. See, each of them is trained to study and master a certain “catalogue”: death, languages, animals and so on. One of the apprentices is Carolyn. Carolyn, who quietly but steadily hates Father and his pet David the bully, and secretly plots to avenge the death of her beloved deer-friends. In order to do so, she involves the clueless wannabe-Buddhist Steven and the peculiar veteran Erwin in her plans and breaches the ultimate law of the Library: Do not read outside your own catalogue! And until she succeeds, there are many, absolutely crazy things happening, so much that for about half of the book you have no idea of what’s going on. To tell the truth, I am still asking myself that same old question; WTF did I read?

At first I needed a few runs to get into the story – it was too strange, required too much getting adjusted to. But before I got to finish the first chapter, Library had me completely absorbed. And how could it not? How could I, a lifelong fan of the gore and the odd, not be moved by images like a black toothed cataloguist of the afterlife caressing and playing with a severed head like a little girl playing with her doll; a lion killing the dipshit who captured and caged him and his cub in the most painful way possible; zombies mowing the lawn of their front yard and a tyrannical god punishing his subjects’ disobedience by roasting them in a bronze cast, bull-shaped barbecue grill…

At times Hawkins had me thinking I am watching a slightly milder Rob Zombie movie and at times I felt like I am reading a revenge horror à la Stephen King! OK, I admit – a lighter, more freakish version of King maybe, but still! What is most fascinating though, is that Hawkins breaks trivial structures many times over. For instance he presents us a highly unorthodox storyline where the falling action occupies about one fourth of the book. He fakes a “dénouement”, a resolution, somewhere towards the middle of the book and then overdoes the falling action to the point that the hypothetical detractor of this book, let’s call him Henry, could (maybe even justly) complain that from the climax to the real ending nothing really happens. Well yes, Carolyn overthrows God and takes over Earth and sits subsequently in her library basically doing nothing… Oh yeah, she keeps on resurrecting Steve, who keeps on killing himself in order to save the world (I know how this may sound if you haven’t read the book). But come on! That’s hilarious, isn’t it? Henry then might say it is just lazy, infantile writing. Well, it might be that. But it might also be a fresh take on storytelling, the ultimate anti-cliché! No structure, Henry could then say, the writer has just thrown together all things he thinks are “cool” and “hip” nowadays. Oh Henry, chill out!

The structure and the plot aren’t the only things Hawkins puts his twist on. The whole concept of divinity is twisted and turned in Hawkins’ hands: God choosing his successor by error and trial, God coincidentally landing on Earth, Goddess who simply does not care about humans. I especially love the idea of a god inherently indifferent to humanity. No evil mastermind to reign and ruin; Carolyn just doesn’t care, that’s all.

Finally there’s the revenge element. I think I might have mentioned before how fond I am of revenge stories and The Library at Mount Char just might be one of the finest. Carolyn’s meticulously worked out scheme is just as awry as it is jaw-dropping. I personally like the story of a young girl beating all odds, avenging her friends at the expense of ruining Earth, a rape-revenge story with a satisfying outcome. With a little bitter aftertaste that that too, is all part of another plan. See, I told you there will be twists. It’s quite refined that you don’t know what you’re dealing with for quite some time and that’s all the more reason to re-read this very quirky book.

Henry would disagree, of course.

1 comment:

  1. It's funny, but when reading this, I never noticed the thing about the last quarter of the book being falling action. But I distinctly remember thinking: "Cool! There's more to this book than just the resolution of its central mystery as a revenge plot!" I think the moment when the main story seemed to be over was actually the moment when I was most hooked by this great novel - also, that's when the most radical shit in the book happens to the planet as a whole, like the rise of a black sun ... So how can you not be invested in what happens next?
    I'm still quite impressend by this book. And on a sidenote: At the moment, I'm reading the third edition of Greg Stolze's and Stephen Tynes post-modern horror role-playing game Unknown Armies, and thematically, it feels so strongly related to Mount Char that I wonder if Scott Hawkins might have been familiar with previous editions. Both are about people who wield more power that is good for themselves or anyone else, both are about quite fallible people ascending to goodhood, both are brimming with the weirdest kind of magic ... in short, I adore both of them. I'll have to write an article on Unknown Armies as soon as I have finished reading it, and there, I'll namecheck Mount Char to make this come full circle.