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ReviewsReviews

White Darkness

Doctor Who: The Virgin New Adventures #15
Finn Clark

One of the messier stories I've seen in a while, dabbling in various unrelated genres before wrapping up with a big gunfight in which most of the cast conveniently dies. Many individual sections impressed me... but then the book would shift gears into a completely different story and I'd have to put on another reading head. I had fun with it, but I can see why I remembered nothing about its plot.

It starts out as a historical in 1915 Haiti. The locals are killing each other, there's black magic in the air and the U.S. marines are about to invade. I rather like McIntee's early historicals, which seem to suit his heavy prose style. It's good to be immersed in bygone worlds and this feels very Caribbean, with rum, bougainvillea and card-playing in the moonlight. There's social commentary (the Americans in 1915 may be nominally the good guys, but they're racist as hell), plenty of detail and a reassuring confidence that the author knows what he's talking about. By the time McIntee reached The Wages of Sin (his ninth book) it all felt rather thin and unsatisfactory, but this is good, solid work.

[As an aside, McIntee has probably done more than any other author to drag Doctor Who away from its default white European setting - and he started here. Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman have also made strides in this direction, but since his debut McIntee has also written three Oriental novels, one in Imperial Russia and one on a 24th-century Hindu colony as an antidote to the usual all-white alien planets. Unless you want to quibble about ancient Egypt, Aaronovitch's work and So Vile a Sin are still the only Who books with roots in Africa. Even ten years later, this setting still feels unexplored and fresh.]

So White Darkness is a historical? Nope, it's also a horror story, drawing on influences both cinematic and literary. The Author's Notes observe that McIntee tried to give a more accurate portrayal than usual of Haiti and vodoun society and for the most part he succeeds in this laudable aim, but at times White Darkness shows the clear influence of post-1968 zombie movies. Romero, Fulci, O'Bannon, etc. made their mark on the genre and inevitably this book plays with their legacy a little. There's an allusion to Hammer (I'll return to that later), but the biggest influence is Lovecraft.

This was the first Virgin NA to shoehorn the Cthulhu mythos into the Whoniverse. The Taking of Planet 5 since kiboshed that one, but there's lots of HPL in here - Great Old Ones, the Necronomicon, a creditable attempt at a Lovecraftian short story on pp56-62 and even a starring role for the man himself. Okay, it's not really him. To the best of my knowledge in 1915 HPL wasn't working as a doctor in Haiti. However when we meet a man called Howard Phillips with a New England accent who meets travellers out of time, hears talk of Great Old Ones and reads fiendish tomes of occult knowledge... well, it's a surprise when we never get an L-name appended to the HP.

So when it's not being a historical, White Darkness is a horror novel with extra-dimensional Great Ones trying to force their way through to our plane of reality? Well, guess what! It also stars World War One Germans, popping over the Atlantic for a spot of villainy. Sometimes Benny's sections of this book feel like an Indiana Jones movie.

Finally there's James Bond! McIntee is a 007 fan who knows that no matter how much historical verisimilitude he includes, our mental images will be of Live and Let Die. Some authors would have fought against this, but here both Benny and New Ace make Bond references and the book's ending is so Bond it's not true. The U.S. marines turn up for a huge gun battle. You can tell McIntee's going with the flow when General Froebe tells Richmann on p188 that the Doctor is "on his way to the cemetery. Make sure he gets the maximum use out of it." It's a great line, but it practically screams 'Bond villain'.

Any of these ideas could have been great. As it is, it's as if McIntee wrote four separate books and then cut-and-pasted together random chapters from each. There's much to like here, but you'll get whiplash from all the changes in direction.

I haven't even mentioned the red herrings yet. In case we didn't have enough to confuse us, this book's cast includes:

(a) Howard Phillips, albeit never revealed to be Lovecraft.

(b) Dr Ingrid Karnstein, whose name combines the vampires from Hammer's Carmilla trilogy with Ingrid Pitt, the most iconic screen vampiress of all time. (She played the first Karnstein vampire in The Vampire Lovers, opposite Kate O'Mara.) Yet more horror archetypes! It's possible that this conjunction of names was accidental, but in practice it's another red herring in a book that's full of them.

(c) LeMaitre, whose knowledge and age are far beyond those of the humans of 1915. (If that doesn't remind you of anyone, you either haven't long been a Doctor Who fan or you failed French.) His Christian name is Gilles, by the way, as in The King's Demons.

The regulars are a bit iffy. McIntee doesn't always seem comfortable with the 7th Doctor but at least makes him impressive and gives him Doctorish things to do. Benny also has uncharacteristic moments, but mostly she's as writer-proof as she's always been. No, the weak link is New Ace. In her first book after Deceit and Lucifer Rising, she gets some character development that would have been great for TV Ace but doesn't fit the Darvill-Evans rebooted version. "Will I become a savage killer?" Ace wonders, not realising that her question's already been answered by the other NAs. And elsewhere: "Killing someone was one thing, but this was worse; there was no honour or morality in it at all." What the hell? The New Ace of White Darkness feels wrong, both in concept and execution. By turns she's squeamish and ultra-violent. I actually prefer McIntee's notion of the character to the one we saw in other books, but it doesn't fit.

Regrettably this was written back when fandom thought continuity was cool. I could swallow most of the references, but every so often the Doctor spends half a page waffling on about The Aztecs, The Moonbase or the Master for no reason whatsoever. And the point of that is...? (However there's also a mention of Veltroch, home of McIntee's Veltrochni, complete with its galactic location on p110.)

White Darkness suffers from First Novel Syndrome, i.e. enough material for several books, bundled into an incoherent whole. However I admire its ambition. Some of its plot threads were even getting interesting when the book drops them all for a "dunno how to wrap this up so let's kill everyone" ending. Sad to say, its status as one of the forgotten NAs is probably deserved; most of the books since have been better, but it's full of praiseworthy elements and not without charm. I enjoyed rereading it, anyway.

Andrew McCaffrey

I found WHITE DARKNESS to be an unambitious but fun adventure that makes great use of its historical setting. The atmosphere of WWI-era Haiti enhances the narrative, and makes the background come alive. It adds tension and depth to a story that would otherwise be fairly standard. There were only a handful of passages that didn't work for me, and while it had some relatively significant flaws they weren't quite enough to disrupt the entirety.

The setting is evoked quite effectively; the more historical aspects of the story really shine. McIntee makes good use of the location, so that it, the people, and the culture are vital to the plot. Not all of the individual historical figures seem as three-dimensional as they could be, but the surrounding details more than make up for this. At certain points, I just wanted to soak up the historical facts and ignore the science-fiction story that seemed to be intruding into this nice drama. The book does a great job of balancing the history with the fiction.

A few things pulled WHITE DARKNESS down for me. Some portions of the prose are extremely awkward, and could have been greatly helped by the editor's red pen. There are a few sections that don't really have any impact at all upon anything else, and could probably have been removed. The nature of the enemy was fairly ill-defined, and while this did have certain advantages (it added a bit of mystery and menace) the end result was that it was difficult to feel that this adversary had much strength behind it. Quite a few pieces suffered from the flaw of telling rather than showing, but to the book's credit, I didn't find that particular shortcoming to be overly disruptive in this case.

It's a pity that a scant few problems nearly manage to wreck the rest, as with some mindful editing this could easily have been a much stronger novel. As it is now, it's still quite entertaining, and I'd recommend it for the setting and the atmosphere alone. The plot is straightforward, but not simplistic, and works well in its action/adventure dressing. An enjoyable way of spending a few hours.