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William Hjortsberg

Atlantic Monthly Press

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-87113-579-5

289 pages; $21.00

Date Reviewed: 10-27-1994

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002


Horror, Mystery

Horror fiction is divided by a line of belief that is rarely acknowledged by either readers or writers of the genre. On one side, we have the "real world horror" of monsters such as Hannibal Lecter, Cujo and the ebola virus. Whether or not they actually do exist, it is universally acknowledged that such terrors could exist. On the other side of the line of belief, we have Dracula and all of his progeny, Frankenstein and his children, and the countless offspring of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu. These creatures belong to the world of supernatural and science fiction, no matter how convincingly they are portrayed, no matter how vividly their terrors are conjured. Horror novels typically fall completely on one side of this line or the other, but rarely do they discuss the issue of belief in the supernatural, and no one has ever discussed it with the wit and humor found in William Hjortsberg's "Nevermore".

"Nevermore" is the latest novel to mix historical figures into fictional adventures. Hjortsberg's choice of historical characters perfectly sets up his dialectic of disbelief and belief. On the skeptical side, we have Harry Houdini, master stage magician and debunker of spiritual mediums. It's not that Houdini didn't want to believe -- "'To speak once again with my sainted mother is a dream I cherish.'...At heart, he was a sucker. He longed to believe." -- but he knew all the tricks of the mediums from the inside. Representing the spiritualists is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the relentlessly logical Sherlock Holmes, who considers himself a missionary for the cause of spiritualism. Not only do these characters clash with one another, they are models of self-conflict. "'Why, Sir Arthur, I am nothing but a trickster, yet I have always been keenly aware of your interest in me.'" Hjortsberg brings them together in a thoroughly researched New York of the1920's to find a killer who is borrowing his ideas from yet another historical figure, Edgar Allen Poe, recreating the deaths described in Poe's stories with bodies supplied by the unsuspecting populace.

In the hands of a less-skilled writer, this could quickly degenerate into cheesy pastiche, but Hjortsberg's research notches up the narrative into the realm of well-drawn historical fiction. In practically every sentence his research shows, as he captures not only the details of the era but the feelings of those who lived through it. "A suprising number of men still sported this Gay Ninties barbershop quartet look at the start of the Jazz Age, the brave new tommy gun decade when flappers and bathtub gin became as American as apple pie and the G.A.R." He uses this research to create an atmosphere of dread when he describes the murders in the 1920's, based on stories of the 1880's, in the vivid, splattery prose of the 1990's. "The daughter, on the other hand, came and went every day....Lovely young thing, with long golden hair. Not bobbed the way some of them are wearing it....She was a mess. Thick clumps of hair had been yanked free, laying bare a raw, abraded, scalp...'Christ almighty,' he muttered, reaching up to tug a a slender arm down from the chimney. 'I'll be damned...Rue Morgue....Just like the Poe story.'" In a few deft strokes, he turns his novel into a time machine that mixes past, present and future for both the characters and the reader.

But the real fun begins when Hjortsberg gets inside Houdini and Doyle. His invention of their "clash of the cultures" is as much fun as any monster chase this side of Frankstein. When they first meet, Doyle is convinced that Houdini is a powerful psychic, who debunks others only in order to draw attention away from his own vast powers. "'Why, he has performed feats the average man trembles to contemplate. Moreover, it is impossible to think of his many miraculous escapes without imagining some form of dematerialization has taken place.' 'Is he not the greatest medium baiter of the age?' I believe that this serves Houdini a two-fold purpose. First, he has never been adverse to publicity, however lurid. But more importantly, there is no better smoke screen than just such an antispiritualist posture, not if you are trying to conceal being the greatest physical medium of all time.'"

Houdini, on the other hand, finds himself confronted with Isis, a woman who seems to be un-debunkable, an authentic psychic whom he has to frame in order to prove her a fake. "'All right. I admit I made the plant. It was a cheap trick.' The magician cringed inwardly at this confession. Any violation of his strict Boy Scout sense of fair play brought on tidal waves of guilt...'I know you use a gag. They all do.'". Hjortsberg has so much fun with his characters' points-of-view that readers will have a hard time not lauging aloud. In one particularly enjoyable conversation, Houdini and Doyle discuss the ups and downs of fame in the jazz age:"My dear Houdini, I'm sure you recognize that you are one of the brave new breed; a creature concocted of celluloid and newsprint, of radio waves; a twentieth century hero, beloved by millions, all of whom feel that they know you intimately, that you belong to them.' Houdini scowled. 'The curse of fame...' 'Much more than that, dear chap. It's the future. What terrors await in an age wedding mass destruction with mass communications?'"

As the novel progresses, the plot requires more time than the conflict between these two hard-headed characters, and, while it still occupies the same impeccably detailed world, the novel loses some of the conceptual steam that makes it so enjoyable to begin with. To his credit, however, Hjortsberg keeps things things terse and tense, with the culminating chase living up the the title of the next to the last chapter "A Wow Finish". Still, it's not the battle of the braun but the clash of beliefs that lingers on -- evermore.