This Just In...News from The Agony Column

Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

 This Just In...News from the Agony Column

12-14-05: Mark Gatiss Joins 'The Vesuvius Club'

Lucifer Box Esquire Commands Your Attention

Box, Lucifer Box. Click here to see a gallery of large-size images.
Ahem. Ladies and gentlemen, step right up. It's time to enjoy that most delectable of pleasures. No, not that -- save that for later. I'm talking about buying a book, and not just any book, but the kind of book you generally dont hear about until years after its publication, the kind of book that carelessly breaks the rules and gets away with it on the wings of genial invention and flawless execution.

Yes, I'll admit that it took me two months to get the UK-only hardcover of 'The Vesuvius Club' by Mark Gatiss (Simon & Schuster UK ; November 1, 2004 ; £15). But some things are worth the wait and this is clearly one of them. For readers who loved Mark Frost's 'The List of 7', for readers who loved 'The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases', for readers who loved '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea', or for readers who simply would enjoy sitting reading any of the previous titles in a stuffy English gentleman's club -- this is the book for you. And not only does the text itself look deliriously entertaining, the book is spectacularly produced. From stem to stern, from cover to cover, S&S have allowed Gatiss and his illustrator Ian Bass to create a wonderfully oddball illustrated novel that you can't get in the United States, and you wont hear about from the genre journals because it doesn't hail from an author previously associated with genre fiction. A year from now, count on it, that won't be the case.

The cloth cover design. Click here to see a gallery of large-size images.
Mark Gatiss is currently best known for being one of the men to write, produce and star in the UK's hit TV comedy The League of Gentlemen. Perhaps one of the most bizarre comedic television shows ever produced, The League of Gentlemen centers on the town of Royston Vasey, where tetchiness, paranoia and psychosis are the norms that bond the citizens. Author Mark Gatiss is one of the three actors who portray over sixty characters in an archly surreal and silly series of stories. Murderers, toad-breeders, a transsexual taxi driver and an inept veterinarian strut the stage. The League of Gentlemen offers the kind and level of weirdness that rarely gets exposure in any art form, let alone television.

Gatiss and his illustrator Ian Bass have actually ratcheted back the weirdness for this spectacular debut. Lucifer Box, portrait painter, Edwardian dandy and his majesty's most daring secret agent is the man who is called when Britain's most prominent vulcanologists start showing up dead. Before you can say "secret base in an extinct volcano", Box has killed a customer and taken on the assignment. And lest you think this is only the tale of an Edwardian secret agent, the illustrations clue you in that this book is chock-a-block full of science fiction, horror and fantasy staples. Ghosts, monsters, madmen and mad women haunt the pages and peek out from them.

Quirky endpapers. Click here to see a gallery of large-size images.
Gatiss writes with a very dry wit and sense of humor, but have no fear other than fear itself. If you're the kind of person who laughs at phrases like "I have a peculiar horror of artichokes" or when, describing London, "it smelled of roasting excrement," why then, I believe that you've found your next purchase. Gatiss is clearly having too much fun with a plot that includes giant insects, helmeted monsters and active volcanoes. Here's a guy who blows up a lot of shit but does so in high style.

Of course, all this would be quite excellent served up in standard book format, but the illustrations and design touches provided by Ian Bass take this book to another level. Stylish and numerous, the illustrations in 'The Vesuvius Club' are the kind of extra that move this book from the want-it to the must-have-it column. The faux aging of the dust jacket, the design imprinted on the cover of the book itself, the quirky endpapers with their old-timey advertisements all add substantially to the appeal of this title.

Illustration by Ian Bass. Click here to see a gallery of large-size images.
While I mentioned that Gatiss is not presently known for genre work, you can be assured that he will become known. He's one of the writers for the upcoming new episodes of 'Doctor Who', and the only books of his you'll find in the US version of *.com are novelizations of the scripts he wrote. But the science fiction world is not exactly inhospitable to writers of episodic science fiction. The late great James Blish, one of the first professional critics of the science fiction genre fictionalized episodes of the original 'Star Trek' TV series. And David Gerrold, who wrote the Star Trek episode 'The Trouble with Tribbles' went on to a very respectable career writing science fiction novels. Douglas Adams managed to turn un-filmed 'Doctor Who' episodes into bestselling novels like 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe' and 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency'. It's not as if there is no precedent.

No matter what the precedent, it's the present that matters. And in the present, we have a present in the form of 'The Vesuvius Club'. Step right up! There's a new book in town, and it looks damn well worth buying. Tell the butler to bring it here, please. With a martini. Shaken, not stirred.