Where the Time Goes
by Jeffrey E. Barlough
Gresham & Doyle (337 pages, $14.95 trade paperback, October 2016)
If you’ve been looking to jump into Jeffrey Barlough’s Western Lights series, his ninth and latest installment makes a good diving board. The books are set in a post-apocalyptic alternate history where woolly mammoths and monsters from Greek and Etruscan legend rub elbows with ghosts, spirits, and worse, but Where the Time Goes adds a third genre to the cake batter: time travel.
Philip Earnscliff, a junior partner in the firm Bagwash and Bladdergowl, has been summoned to the country estate of the elderly Hugh Calendar to put Calendar’s affairs in order; Calendar has been in a coma for some weeks and appears unlikely to recover. The lawyer spends his hours paging through Calendar’s papers, gazing out the window at a neighboring estate called the Moorings — abandoned and ruined following an accident during Calendar’s youth — and taking nightmare-plagued naps. Earnscliff has no reason to think anything is amiss, at least not until he walks in upon Miss Carswell, Calendar’s young and attractive acquaintance, with a syringe full of sleeping elixir stuck between Calendar’s lips. Soon enough Earnscliff finds himself back in time, trying to repair the tragedies of the past while, as a side quest, solving the mystery of a local serial killer that strikes every six years.
It’s been a long strange trip for Barlough’s Western Lights since their 2000 debut, Dark Sleeper. The early books with Ace were sinister and Gothic, yet since moving to Gresham & Doyle they’ve generally trended toward cozy mysteries with supernatural elements. 2011’s A Tangle in Slops was more Midsummer Night’s comedy than horror; and the last two installments — What I Found at Hoole and The Cobbler of Ridingham — could have been written by the lovechild of Agatha Christie and M.R. James.
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Winter is the best time to appreciate Jeffrey E. Barlough, perhaps none more so than the current brutality we’ve been experiencing in New England. Day after day of snow blowing past the windows makes it easy to imagine oneself in Barlough’s alternate history of an ice age that never fully receded; and a fire in the grate and a cup of hot coffee at hand while the wind howls beyond the lattices blurs the distinction between this reality and living in a separate megafauna-filled America settled by Victorian doomsday survivors swaddled in coats and mufflers.
In Barlough’s latest novel, The Cobbler of Ridingham, Richard Hathaway comes to Haigh Hall to examine some letters penned by Pharnaby Crust, an overlooked composer whom Hathaway intends to rescue from obscurity with a thorough biography. While studying in the Hall’s library, Hathaway observes a lurking shadow without source and is soon immersed in the curse of Crispin Nightshade, the infamous cobbler of nearby Ridingham. Nightshade used something known as haunted leather to fashion shoes which, when placed on the feet of corpses, could make the dead walk again. There are bumps in the night, unexplained footprints, a boot found in a snow bank, and more, all involving Barlough’s typical cast of well-sketched characters from upstairs and down.
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There’s nothing out there on the shelves like Jeffrey Barlough’s Western Lights novels. The series — called such because “the sole place on earth where lights still shine at night is in the west” — is a bouillabaisse of mystery, ghost story, and post-apocalyptic gaslamp fantasy. His seventh and most recent book, What I Found at Hoole, was published in November.
Dr. Barlough, who moonlights as a veterinary physician, kindly spoke to me about the world-building of the Western Lights, his latest project, and which Ice Age animal he’d most like to meet in a dark alley.
An Interview with Jeffrey E. Barlough
Conducted and transcribed by Jackson Kuhl, January 2013
Black Gate: The world of the Western Lights is technically an alternate history — the last glaciation never ended and British civilization has colonized North America’s western coast — and yet the timeline is so divergent — an environmental cataclysm, ghosts and monsters from mythology — that it might as well be a secondary world fantasy. Where did the disparate ideas for the Western Lights come from? What inspired you to write the first book, Dark Sleeper?
Barlough: Dark Sleeper resulted from combining three different projects I was working on at the time. One was a sci-fi story set in Ice Age California, another was a relatively straight-forward “Dickensian” mystery, and the third was a tale of the supernatural concerning an immortal Etruscan who turns up in 1920s Santa Barbara! At one point, I realized that combining these various elements into a single storyline might produce something unique. The backstory of the series was filled in by extrapolation from these differing components. My interest in Victorian fiction and paleontology dates from my childhood, while the Ice Age setting in particular was inspired by my time as a volunteer excavator at the famed Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.
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