A Lovely Work of Magic & Mystery: Vinyl Wonderland by Mark Rigney

A Lovely Work of Magic & Mystery: Vinyl Wonderland by Mark Rigney

Vinyl Wonderland (Castle Bridge Media, June 25, 2024). Cover artist unknown

Vinyl Wonderland is Mark Rigney’s new novel. It’s told by an older Brendan Purcell, about some strange happenings back when he was 17, having just dropped out of high school for… reasons. Which will become clear. His life is a mess — his mother died suddenly, his father is drinking terribly, and has lost his job. And Brendan too is drinking constantly, and has also lost his job. But he has a new one — helping out at Vinyl Wonderland, a used record store. This is 1984, when records were still the primary means of buying music. (It’s also a time I was haunting used record stores!)

Shortly before Christmas, Vinyl Wonderland owner Karl asks Brendan to take over for a few days while he tends to his hospitalized mother. And he warns him — have nothing to do with the “Elvis door” — a locked door behind an Elvis cardboard standup in the rear. And for a while, Brendan complies, even though some people, including the town’s mayor, importune him to let them through the door. Meanwhile both Brendan and his dad are drinking even more, and we learn a bit about Brendan’s life — he’s a good soccer player, but other than that not much of a student, and apparently a terrible person. How much of this — the drinking, the bad attitude, the downright mean stuff he admits to — is in reaction to the loss of his mother, and how much was already part of him, isn’t clear.

Then Karl suffers a stroke, and Brendan realizes he’ll be in charge of the store for a while longer. Karl’s mother gives him the Elvis key, and he is induced to let some people, including the mayor, and also a beautiful young woman named Celine Delapp, through the Elvis door. He notices that they always return with something, and often come back again. He learns some of the rules, and eventually (of course) goes through himself. Meanwhile he has developed a major crush on Celine, who is a few years older than him, and married. And Celine has her own problems. As does the mayor. As does anyone who goes through the door.

Behind the door is a passageway to a strange landscape — essentially a desert, guarded by a fierce woman named October Roberta. It’s full of junk — vast piles of junk. But anyone who goes in finds something — or several somethings — that call to them. There’s a price tag on each, and you can only take one thing. And the problem is — do you take what you need? or what you want? Or what someone else needs? And what will the price really be?

The novel follows Brendan, as he makes several trips through the door, as he helps Celine and other people a little bit, as he continues to lust after Celine, and to learn her secrets, and the mayor’s (beyond occasionally wanting a vote), and as he struggles with what he wants — Celine? — or needs — to stop drinking? for his dad to stop drinking?, and as he receives mysterious phone calls from his dead mother. And we learn more about what Brendan has really been like, and the lies he tells himself — and us! And his struggle to grow at least a bit. And his wavering resolution to destroy the Elvis door — but then what about his desires? or Celine’s? or the mayor’s?

It’s a deeply sad novel, in many ways, though there is a path of sorts through the pain. The characters are believable — and there are no real villains, though Brendan and the mayor, at least, are far from perfect. The 1984 timeframe is perfectly captured (I say as one who was there.) There is, thus, an element of nostalgia, but a clear understanding that the past is another time and we have to live in the now. The resolution is truly powerful, with tragedy faced directly, with ambiguous results, terrible mistakes, but redemption and happiness too. I was brought to tears, tears I trusted.

It’s a great example of the kind of novel that uses its magical aspect — imaginatively described — primarily, and very effectively, as a way to tell a purely human story. A lovely work.

Rich Horton’s last article for us was a review of The Man Responsible by Stephen Robinett. His website is Strange at Ecbatan. Rich has written over 200 articles for Black Gate, see them all here.

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