Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what made me buy Dark Sleeper (1998), the first volume of Jeffrey E. Barlough’s ongoing Western Lights series. Perhaps it was the Tim Powers blurb on the front cover, but I’m thinking it was more the Jeff Barson painting of woolly mammoths pulling a coach across a dark, snow swept landscape. Whatever the reason, I’m happy I did, as the book turned out to be a very strange and often funny trip through a weird and fantastical post-apocalyptic alternate reality.
In Barlough’s fictional world the Ice Age never fully ended. With much of its north covered by ice and snow, medieval England sent its ships out around the world looking for new lands. Some of the most successful colonies were planted on the west coast of what we call North America. Devoid of people, it is instead home to great megafauna such as smilodons, megatheres, teratorns, and mammoths.
With great cities such as Salthead and Foghampton (located around the same places as Seattle and San Francisco), the western colonies flourished and expanded. Then, in 1839, terror struck from the heavens: “Then it was a great disaster struck, a tragedy of near-incomprehensible proportions.” Something crashed into the Earth, and almost instantly, all life except in the western colonies, was obliterated and the Ice Age intensified. Now, one hundred and fifty years later, the “the sole place on earth where lights still shine at night is in the west.” For a fuller, more detailed explanation, just go here.
Dark Sleeper opens on a very foggy night; a deliberate homage, I suspect, to the equally mist-shrouded opening of Bleak House.
Fog adrift in the night air above the river, creeping in through the estuary where the river glides to the sea. Fog curling and puffing about the headlands and high places, the lofty crags and wild soaring pinnacles, fog smothering the old university town in cold gray smoke. Fog squeezing itself into the steep narrow streets and byways, the roads and cart-tracks, into the gutters and shadowy back-alleys. Fog groping at the ancient timbered walls of the houses — the wondrous, secret, familiar old houses — and at their darkened doors and windows, filling the chinks and cracks in the masonry and coaxing the tightly fastened surfaces to open, open.
Not your common ordinary fog but a genuine Salthead fog, drippy and louring…
Out of the chilling dampness come haunting figures which presage greater events soon to plague the old university town of Salthead and its inhabitants. Ancient powers, long forgotten, have been inadvertently awakened, and soon danger is rising from the murky depths of the ocean and soaring down out of the skies.
The main plot concerns the actions of certain characters to uncover the nature of the threat against Salthead and how to thwart it. Most notable among them are Professor Titus Tiggs, his assistant Mr. Kibble, and Doctor Daniel Dampe (“a learned but nonetheless good-natured doctor”). Together they investigate ghostly sightings, scour old books, and even put themselves at risk crossing dangerous country to visit the distant scene of more supernatural events. They are an amiable and amenable trio, cut from the same cloth as any number of kind-hearted fictional academics, and fun to travel beside as they try to unravel the mystery of the reappearance of one Miss Nina Jack’s drowned suitor.
That, though, is but the smallest mite of the contents of Dark Sleeper. Barlough presents us with four hundred-plus pages extolling his love for discursive, sardonic prose, eccentric characters, and madcap shenanigans. Seemingly unrelated plots weave back and forth, around and about each other, until they weave together. What is the secret of Miss Laura Dale’s hideous scars, and what exactly is her relationship with the mute clerk, Richard Scribbler? Why have Mr. Hilltop and Mr. Hunter come to Salthead, and what is the source of their enmity? Will Hatch Hoakum and his nephew, Blaster, survive the loss of their livelihood? Why was the blue statue shackled to the floor of the chapel at Eaton Wafers?
Foremost among his creations is the miser and money lender, Mr. Josiah Tusk, a man who could give Scrooge and Marley combined a run for their money. He describes himself to everyone as a “conscientious man,” yet he chatters on about not being given to chatter. This most unpleasant man has invented a terrible game to play on the people of Salthead:
And those long nimble legs. with which Mr. Josiah Tusk often condescended to sport with members of the populace. On many an occasion he would amuse himself by singling out some deserving citizen — an old washerwoman, a crippled boy, a broken-down beggar, or some such easy mark — approaching from the opposite direction. Then striding that bold superior stride he would make directly for his victim, swiftly and unerringly, as if to run him down — only to veer off sharply at the very last moment, and with a final deceptive movement of the leg or ankle drive his startled opponent into the street. To observe this towering white-headed potentate, this sultan of superiority, bearing down at full flank speed on some poor innocent among the crowd — how could it, I say, be otherwise?
From his mean-spirited calling of the debt of mastodon-driver Mr. Hoakum to his utter contempt for anyone beneath him (which is everyone), Tusk is one of the most splendidly cold-hearted villains I’ve encountered. While Prof. Tiggs and Co. become involved in the mysteries of Dark Sleeper out of a genuine interest in solving them, Tusk’s insertion into them is sparked only by his greed. He never wastes a jot of his time on calculating anything other than what his monetary gain will be, having no interest in ghosts and their like. His singleminded greediness is a wonder to behold, and more frightening than any demon or ghost.
There are operators, scalawags, and cads of lesser caliber as well. Eyes hidden behind smoked lenses, there is Mr. Samson Icks who, while in service to Tusk’s corrupt lawyer, Mr. Winch, strives to bring a measure of honor to his actions. Beside him are his compatriots, Cast-Iron Billy and Nicholas Crabshawe, “universally known as Busket.” Most dangerous of all is the deplorable Bob Nightingale, whose only fear is of Mrs. Nightingale.
Foremost among the host of secondary characters is Charles Earhart, known as the Sheephead for his great shaggy head. Gervaise Balliol, proprietor of the Cutting Duck, watering hole for Icks and his crew, is completely mad and speaks in ALL CAPITALS ALL THE TIME. Miss Honeywood, owner of the Blue Pelican tavern, rules her realm with an imperious hand, cutting off all debate with the words, “End of conversation!”
Barlough gives as much attention and color to his world as he does to its citizens. There is the town of Crow’s-end, so named for “the common notion that all crows end up there.” Josiah Tusk’s great house is called Shadwinkle Old House and is covered with “menacing gables, twisted chimneys, and sullen stone angels glaring from its roof.” Nearly every street name, village name, or place of business brought a smile to this reader’s face.
The plot builds gradually. Characters are drawn into the maelstrom that threatens Salthead, sometimes willingly, sometimes not so much. Dark Sleeper is at its heart a mystery and Barlough makes a good game of it. Solutions are as apt to lead to more questions as answers, and only late in the book do we really understand what is going on. That Barlough stretches it out so long and well makes the final chapters a bit disappointing. Over the course of a trio of chapters titled, “Going…,” “Still Going…,” and “Gone,” events rush to a close. A few things happen and then it’s all done. After so much fun, I felt a bit let down. Still, it’s an insufficient misstep to seriously mar such a good book.
Dark Sleeper is only a little bit like anything else. You could say rambling novels, where characters are given over to roundabout conversations and discourses on their hobby-horses and crotchets, so maybe this book does have its antecedents. Dickens’ novels, though, lack in all things prehistoric, his books featuring no mastodons or glyptodons.
For nearly twenty years now Barlough has been creating a truly unique series that has seems to have escaped too many readers’ attention. As of now there are eight novels with a ninth, Where The Time Goes, coming out this fall. Despite the efforts of Black Gate (click here to read various articles about Barlough and his work), he isn’t as well known as he deserves to be. If you have the slightest affinity for the works of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, or the steampunk works of Tim Powers and James Blaylock, then I highly recommend Dark Sleeper. Sadly, it is out of print, and there appears to be no new version on the horizon. You can get a used copy for under a quarter plus shipping on Amazon, though.
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Swords & Sorcery: A Blog when his muse hits him.