The Paradise Engine
NeWest Press, 2013
Softcover, 268 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
A First Novel from an Interesting New Voice in Canadian Fiction
As all of us who lived through the Y2K craziness at the advent of our new millennium are aware, dates that end in zeros tend to bring out the apocalyptic in us all. And, the more zeros, apparently, the farther from everyday reality we are willing to explore. Fin de siecle phenomena, which often manifest for several decades on either side of the significant turn of the calendar, include chartable rises in interest in the esoteric, spirituality, the occult, and death, a general malaise and sense of the end of times, impending doom, and a fascination with decadence and decay. Such an atmosphere has always proven to be a fertile time for cults and gurus. The flip side, of course, once the milestone is safely passed, is a feeling of rebirth, rejuvenation and new possibilities. Rebecca Campbell’s moody first novel, The Paradise Engine, explores, with some subtlety and perception, this peculiar zeitgeist, linking (through a young historian’s lineage and academic interests) a bizarre quasi-utopian cult leader with ties to the small town in which she grew up to a strange and disturbing incident in modern day Vancouver, the events separated by roughly a century and occurring in their respective fin de siecle eras. The links are more atmospheric than factual, growing out of a sense of cyclic nature of history, and the way in which the present emerges from the detritus of the past.
Rebecca Campbell, a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario, grew up in Duncan, British Columbia (which figures significantly in the novel) and currently resides in London, Ontario. Her fiction has appeared, notably, in The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire and Geist. The Paradise Engine is her first novel.
Anthea Brooke is a “fresh and average history MA” living in downtown Vancouver, who is hired by the Kilgour Institute, a well-funded organization dedicated to the preservation of the Kilgour Legacy, to help with the digitization of their archives. She is, initially, assigned to the domestic papers of Mrs. Leticia Kilgour, a wealthy patroness and society lady who, a century earlier, was, as they say, a legend in her own mind, and possessed the means to support her delusions.
Self-absorbed and capricious, Leticia was prone to ephemeral enthusiasms. One, which occupied her for a time, was the idea that exposure to music was an ennobling experience, and that it was her fate and her calling to bring music to the ignoble masses. Hence her unlikely (but financially welcome) intrusion into the life of Liam Manley, a tenor, probably consumptive, eking out an existence in the dying days of the vaudeville era, whose career was built more on his brooding good looks than his voice, and whom Leticia enlisted as a performance partner and suitable backdrop to her talents. Unfortunately for everyone, a rather churlish universe declined to equip Leticia appropriately. She had an execrable soprano voice, and no talent whatsoever. Even more unfortunately, the myopia of class and privilege blinded her to this reality. And so, Liam in tow, she set off on a performance tour through a series small towns associated with the Kilgour empire, setting teeth on edge wherever she went.
Although Anthea’s work is initially limited to cataloging the domestic minutiae of Mrs. Kilgour’s household, circumstances and her own curiosity conspire to expand her area of interest, and she becomes drawn into the wider story, of which Liam is a part. Liam’s interaction with Mrs. Kilgour, entertaining in itself, also provides a link to a far darker and more mysterious character, Simon Reid, a shadowy enigma engaged in the construction of a vaguely utopian alternative community in Duncan’s Crossing, who, briefly, tries to recruit Liam to his cultish enterprise. The encounter leaves Liam badly shaken and uncertain as to his own state of mind. The workings of Simon Reid’s community, eventually, it seems, descended into madness, culminating in the construction of the “paradise engine” of the title, the employment of which resulted in the fiery destruction of portions of his estate. As the intertwined stories of the past and present progress, connections between Anthea’s own family history and memories, the history of the town, and Liam, are revealed, reaching back through diverse tendrils to the alarming Simon Reid himself.
In a parallel, present-day story, Jasmine, a fellow student and friend of Anthea’s who might politely be described as a “seeker,” or more prosaically, flaky, has fallen under the influence of “the Prophet,” a sort of new age street messiah who plies his trade clarifying the auras of passers by on Vancouver’s east side, and, as the skeptical Anthea notes, seems to favour nubile blonde acolytes. He is tenuously connected to the new agey “Aquarian Centre” in downtown Vancouver, and might or might not be one of “Those Who Are.” One night, in an attempt to amuse her friend, Anthea tells Jasmine the story of another, apocalyptic prophet who had built an alternative community on an estate in Duncan’s Crossing. The story was part of her family’s lore because Anthea’s grandparents had eventually come to own a piece of the original estate. Intrigued, Jasmine insists that they attempt to communicate with the dead cultist, aka, Simon Reid, and, somewhat in the spirit of a slumber party seance, the two girls make their way back to the ruins of the Reid estate for this purpose. The results are decidedly inconclusive, but Anthea, like Liam before her, is spooked by the experience. Something from the past may have been unleashed into the present. Later, Jasmine disappears in the company of her prophet, the two last seen hitchhiking on the highway north of the city. Only the prophet later returns and Jasmine is never seen again.
Are there connections at work beyond the established historical links? Are the Aquarians deluded or sensitive to forces that elude the rest of us (“those who aren’t,” in Anthea’s sarcastic words)?” Are the various smells that manifest throughout the story signs of malignant presences, or merely, in Anthea’s case, dead squirrel’s in the attic? If, as Jasmine rather peevishly explains to Anthea, the universe is held together by an invisible web of correspondence, and ideas and entities can be made manifest by a concentration of associations, is not every human action a spell of sorts — involving the manipulation of things which must, inevitably, correspond to, and thus affect, something else? As Anthea so reasonably points out, it’s very hard to know where an omen begins or ends, but reason, Jasmine counters, is exactly her problem.
If there is a criticism to be made of the work it is that it does not quite manage to knit its often quite impressive parts into a completely satisfying, cohesive whole. Liam and Leticia Kilgour’s stories undergo more development than other aspects of the book, yet are not the ultimate focus, and there is a lingering sense of imbalance. Jasmine’s fate is never resolved, and while it is no doubt a deliberate mystery, one is left wondering why Anthea did not think to file a missing persons report. Overall, the story suffers from a certain vagueness, expected connections not quite materializing, and there is a sense that perhaps the diverse elements have not managed to coalesce (subliminally or otherwise) around a strong conceptual core. It is, however, in this respect only, a very near miss.
There is, also, some very fine writing here, Campbell being most effective in her evocation of atmosphere and development of character. Liam Manley, in particular is perceptively rendered — a London, Ontario boy of humble origins but aristocratic ambitions, constantly measuring himself against his own idea of a gentleman, ever cognizant of his dignity, in the way of insecure people, distressed when impoverished circumstances threaten his standards, yet ever (and rather admirably) determined not to be reduced by his situation. The vacuous Mrs. Kilgour is also deftly captured, as is Jasmine in all her irritatingly knowing vagueness. Campbell’s greatest triumph in this story is, however, her manipulation of atmosphere. The past is omnipresent in this work, pervasive, and intrusive, the decaying substrata upon which a thin veneer of the present operates. The past haunts the present rather than informing it, and the sense of invisible, observant, probably malign forces, often invoked through smell, is very convincingly achieved. In one particular example of this, Anthea is attending an institute event intended to showcase progress in the restoration of the Temple Theatre, a project of a different branch of the Kilgour Institute. It’s an old vaudeville theatre, with associations with Mrs. Kilgour and Liam, and of course, the very nature of the event invites contemplation of the past. It is Anthea, however, who, in her informed explorations of the old theatre, amidst the self-congratulatory babble of the occasion, peels back the sleek and elegant surface of things to reveal the physical past, like a body bricked into a wall. It was Anthea who, peering up at the floating ceiling,
sensed what hung above them in the darkness: plaster rosettes in pink and robin’s egg and pale green, up past the galleries that ringed the lobby, rising toward the invisible vault…
and, examining faults in old wallboard, noted a long slit exuding the damp odour of “abandonment.”
She knelt, listened for rats, then reached one hand through the dark tear, and touched the blue and gold mandala on the other side. It was softer than she expected. It would give under her fingernails if she scratched it, and though she didn’t, her hand still came away with grey dust and mildew.
Anthea’s act of listening for rats in the wall provides a convenient entry point into another fascinating aspect of the story, which is an homage of sorts to the work of H. P. Lovecraft, an admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and master (and some would say creator) of “weird fiction,” a style of writing which combines elements of science, mythology, horror and fantasy. The Rats In the Walls is one of Lovecraft’s better-known stories. As well as direct allusions to his work (for example, the Necronomicon, one of the books in Simon Reid’s library of arcana, is actually a fictitious work of esoterica and forbidden knowledge featured in a number of Lovecraft’s stories) what might be termed the Lovecraft sensibility is everywhere evident in the book. Lovecraft is a subject unto himself, but suffice to say that the fascination with the past, and with decline and decay (dust, mould and odours) , the sense of malevolent and omnipotent forces beyond human reckoning, at work in the world, are all Lovecraftian touches.
As a first novel, this effort is impressive, with intimations of great things to come. Rebecca Campbell is definitely a young Canadian author to watch.
It would, I think, be an amusing project to read up on Lovecraft (the Teeming Brain site is quite helpful) before beginning The Paradise Engine, and then track the many Lovecraft references and stylistic influences in the story.
A Very Lovecraftian Moment, For What It’s Worth
I was, until I prepared for this review, only vaguely aware of H. P. Lovecraft and his work. So vaguely, in fact, that I tended to confuse the name with Lovelace, which, of course, is a whole different story. Consequently, I spent an evening researching the writer, his work, his philosophy, and his influence. It was quite a concentrated dose of all things Lovecraft which stretched late into the night. As is my wont, I kept a news feed open as I worked, and checked it from time to time. As I finished reading my last article on Lovecraft and prepared to log off, I gave the news feed a final look. There was, rather uncharacteristically, only a single new entry posted in the interim since I had last checked (an hour or two prior). Check it out! Jasmine, I imagine, would have lots to say about this.
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