Jeffrey E. Barlough
Gresham & Doyle (387 pages, $14.95, October 2008)

Of all the books I’ve reviewed for Black Gate, the one that sticks in my head is Jeffrey Barlough’s Strange Cargo, which I reviewed way back in 2005 for BG #8. Grumpus that I am, of course I dinged it. I still stand by the review years later, though I feel some guilt about it too. Barlough is such a wonderful yet unappreciated fantasist that to judge him on that single novel is like measuring Hemingway by To Have or Have Not or Kerouac by The Subterraneans. Frankly, Strange Cargo isn’t even a bad book; it’s simply a novel where the author’s ambition exceeded the page count and so shortcuts were taken. Literary ambition is hardly a crime and Barlough is, nevertheless, a talent I invite everyone to sample.

With his first three books OOP, Barlough’s fifth, Anchorwick, makes a fine initiation for newcomers (younger versions of the protagonists from Barlough’s debut, Dark Sleeper, appear here in supporting roles). His alternate 20th century, called the Western Lights, has a sophisticated backstory that’s easier to link to than for me to explain, but I’ll try: in a world where the Ice Age never ended, a cataclysm has reduced humanity to a slip of English civilization along North America’s western coastline. It’s neither steampunk nor weird western; the technology is early 19th century. It’s kinda-sorta gaslamp fantasy, except there doesn’t seem to be any natural gas. Barlough’s creation is best described as a Victorian Dying Earth — gothic and claustrophobic yet confronted by its inhabitants with upper lips held stiff.

As the books are fantasy mysteries, the less said about their plots, the better. In Anchorwick, Eugene Stanley has come to the university at Salthead (a parallel Seattle? Vancouver?) to assist his professor uncle in preparing a book manuscript. One night, while working in a deserted turret room at the college — whose previous occupant, a colleague of the uncle, enigmatically vanished two years prior — Stanley is accosted by a phantasmal form. This ignites a definitive search for the missing don as Stanley and friends uncover lost civilizations, ancestral curses, whole companies of ghosts, monsters from Greek myth, and a few red herrings, all told in rich, dryly humorous style. It’s P.G. Wodehouse with woolly mammoths.

My greatest criticism of contemporary fantasy is that so many authors fail to push the boundaries. (This is a complaint I direct toward my own dabblings as well.) To read Fritz Leiber or Jack Vance is to drink optimism and wonder, to ambulate in worlds where alien sorcerers dwell in salt marshes and sinister pelgranes perch on flying beds. But often when I pick up a current mass-market paperback in the bookstore, I nearly fall asleep reading the back-cover copy. If you need examples of what I’m talking about, some lengthy discussions of certain popular authors have recently occurred here at Black Gate. “There’s no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance,” these modern fantasists seem to be saying, “There’s only trouble and desire.” Balderdash. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get weird. Let’s push things. Tea and tweed, mastodons and mylodons mixed with ghosts and gorgons? Yes, please. Waitress, I’ll have what Jeffrey Barlough’s having. You should too.

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John ONeill


A fine alternate review of an alternate history. Embarrassed to admit that I never heard of Jeffrey E. Barlough until your review in BG 8, and it wasn’t until now that I’m intrigued enough to read him.

Thanks for pointing me his way.

John ONeill

Oh! And when was this written? The novel, not the review. 🙂

John ONeill

Excellent! Thanks Jackson. And you can tell us more about Barlough anytime.

Doug R

Hell yes! I realize that I’m late on this one, but I am super excited to see a review, or really any acknowledgment, of John Barlough. I absolutely love his books. He’s talented and entertaining, immensely skilled – I don’t think there’s anyone out there doing what he’s doing, certainly not at the same level. The books are so comfortable without ever falling into pastiche or parody. Barlough is also perhaps the most underread author I can think of – I’ve never known anyone who’d read anything of his. I read his first three books by happenstance after coming across them at the West Portal branch of the San Francisco Library and I’ve never seen them anywhere else.

Anyway, nice to see some Barlough around here, good stuff.

[…] wonderful yet unappreciated fantasist… a talent I invite everyone to sample.” In his review of Anchorwick, the fifth novel in the series, he said: In a world where the Ice Age never ended, a […]

[…] gathering acclaim (and readers) over the last few years. Jackson Kuhl reviewed the fifth volume Anchorwick for us in 2011, calling it “A Victorian Dying Earth —- gothic and claustrophobic yet […]

[…] Western Lights series is unlike anything else on the shelves. In his review of the fifth volume, Anchorwick, Jackson Kuhl sums up events as […]

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