Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Dead Men Stood Together by Chris Priestley, reviewed by Dennis Hamley

I have three reasons for reproducing a revised version of a review I recently wrote for Armadillo. The first is that The Dead Men Stood Together is a cracking young adult  book. The second is that it's in a genre which I love. The third is that it is a new take on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Some of you will know that I have a special interest in him and my projected novel The Second Man from Porlock is still, on and off, being written. So I was very interested to see how another author would approach the task.

Chris Priestley writes in a great tradition. He is not just a master of horror: he has mastered the authentic Gothic idiom which I have always found so satisfying. For my money he writes in the same school as Poe, Mary Shelley, Stoker, Le Fanu and MR James. He may be from a later century but his stories are not pastiche: they stand on their own merits as serious works.

However, in The Dead Men Stood Together Priestley raises his own bar. True, he has already written what I can only call riffs on existing great works: Mr Creecher, for example, harks back to Frankenstein, with results very different from Simon Cheshire's brilliant The Frankenstein Inheritance, though no less satisfying. But here, he faces up to one of the greatest poems  in the language, a classic of Gothic horror, and takes it head-on. The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A very brave thing even to think of doing. A risk worth taking? Yes, I think he succeeds.

Product Details

The narrator is a boy, never named, who lives alone with his mother. His father, a sailor, was drowned years before. His long-lost uncle arrives and is welcomed by the boy and his mother, even though the pilot’s fey son has told the boy that ‘The devil is coming to your house,’ presaging his final crazy cry of 'The Devil knows how to row.' The uncle’s tales of seafaring adventure cause the boy to resolve to join him on his next voyage. Now the retelling of The Ancient Mariner begins and Priestley’s main problems begin with them.

The concentrated first-person narrative of the poem is now conveyed from a different point of view, the boy's. The atmosphere of doom and horror is beautifully done. The Uncle, the Mariner, is superbly recreated through the boy’s baffled and unreliable account. The surrounding circumstances of the voyage, the crew and the albatross are memorably demonstrated – something only hinted at in the poem because the single-minded concentration of the original narrator doesn’t need to do more as they speak for themselves. So Priestley gives an extra layer  of horror  to the story which the younger reader can grasp more easily than Coleridge’s metaphysics. The difficulty comes when the extraordinary events of the voyage – the calm of 'the painted ocean', the sea crawling with 'slimy things with legs', the ship of Death and the ominous dicing game played on it – are retold. In the poem, these appear almost as fruits of the mariner’s crazed imagination: they have their own logic and are organic within the poem’s form. Told from a different, exterior point of view which watches the mariner's travails but shares them only as an onlooker they become almost arbitrary happenings.

But I don’t see how they could be otherwise. Besides, the poem's closure is unavoidable and can't be tampered with. The price the narrator pays is to be a lost wanderer because the pilot's son was right: the devil was coming to his house. I closed the book feeling I had been given an experience unique in itself. In the external point of view of the boy’s account I found an extra layer of meaning and therefore increased appreciation of a great poem. I missed the mariner's failed attempt at redemption at the end of the poem ('Oh shrive me, shrive me, holy man...'), but it's not possible here because the new narrator has done nothing to need redeeming though he is locked indissolubly to his uncle.

So for me this is an extraordinary book, an attempt almost to do the impossible. Against the odds, it's not a heroic failure but a novel which works on its own terms. A good way for readers unfamiliar with Coleridge to approach a masterpiece and at the same time experience a book which works superbly and compellingly.

The Dead Men Stood Together is published by Bloomsbury. It is also available on Kindle.