I'd never read any of William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki ghost stories, so before I checked out the main story, I decided to skip to the extra feature that this book contains -- an appendix featuring "The Whistling Room", an original short story from 1910 starring the early ghostbuster. I really enjoyed it. So much so that I definitely plan to seek out some more from Hodgson.
In any event, after getting a brief introduction to this character and his universe, I started reading the main story of the novella itself, a neat crossover of sorts between the Doctor Who world and the Carnacki world. Cartmel's story doesn't have the same creepy, oppressive atmosphere of the Hodgson work, but I found it good on its own merits.
It's always interesting to see how an author attempts the notoriously difficult task of rendering the Second Doctor in print. I've caught a few broadcasts of the Troughton serials on MPT recently, so I had his Doctor fresh in my mind. I think Cartmel did a decent, if not quite wonderful, job of capturing him. He doesn't exactly leap off the page, but I think if you have a good image of the character in your head, Cartmel's prose will just manage to coax him to the forefront.
For Jamie, Cartmel amusingly just removes him from the story and focuses his attention on Zoe. This was a really good idea. I don't know if his Jamie could possibly have been as entertaining as his Zoe. Her stint as a Victorian maid is quite amusing. It's a cliche to have the futuristic (or modern) character(s) complaining about conditions for women and/or the lower classes when in historical settings, but Zoe's grumblings and the situation she gets herself into was too funny for words.
As for the story itself, it felt to me much more like a supernatural-tinged detective tale than the chilling, disturbing ghost story of "The Whistling Room" (however, I have no idea if "The Whistling Room" is typical). But I appreciated its pace as the mystery was slowly revealed. As a whole, it doesn't quite hold together completely at the end. The individual set pieces are good, but the ending doesn't have the full impact that it should.
Still, while FOREIGN DEVILS isn't a great book, it is a good one. It's absorbing and well written. As a crossover, I'm not sure it's a complete success. Carnacki doesn't seem to have the same impact on the story as, say, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson do in Andy Lane's ALL-CONSUMING FIRE. Still, he makes for a decent addition to the cast, and his inclusion gives me a series of stories to track down. FOREIGN DEVILS isn't as good as Cartmel's best work, but it is better than his worst.
“[William Hope Hodgson] would be even more delighted at the idea of an adventure involving Carnacki and the ubiquitous Time Lord.” -- from the foreword by Mike Ashley
Not to question Telos’ design choices but this looks like a hardcover novel sans dust jacket... perhaps the deluxe edition is more pleasing to the eye.
That, however, was my only serious problem with Foreign Devils.
Mike Ashley’s foreword seems to miss the point of the novella. I understand that Ashley is an anthologist and literary historian, but his foreword dwells entirely on the presence of Carnacki in the story. Carnacki’s involvement is hardly crucial - it’s certainly not influential - and his inclusion seems more of an admiring nod on Cartmel’s part rather than any strong desire to involve the character in proceedings.
It’s curious to see Andrew Cartmel writing Troughton - Cartmel, of course, being best known for his work with the McCoy Doctor and his development of the “dark Doctor” narrative landscape. His New Adventures were uniformly excellent, sweeping epics with evocative set pieces and stellar characterization of the regulars. Yet for Foreign Devils he confines himself to one (relatively small) location, and as it’s a locale often visited by Doctor Who, the plot needs to be stronger to compensate. The murder mystery offered up is relatively straightforward, but it serves as a strong enough framework for Cartmel to construct his story.
The prologue is nothing short of brilliant. It’s fairly obvious from about halfway through what, precisely, is cooking in the oven, but it’s a testament to Cartmel’s skill that the revelation remains horrifying, seen as it is through Upcott’s eyes. The first chapter is, meanwhile, a fine scene-setter - Cartmel clearly has the characters down. The careless revelation of the better viewscreen is very Troughton - but it does beg the question of why it was never seen on television.
The second Doctor seen here is very much the “manipulator” version mostly seen in now-missing stories; in Foreign Devils, the Doctor spends much of the story prodding events along toward their eventual conclusion. His use of Carnacki is particularly entertaining, the Doctor allowing their partnership to appear equal while serving as the sole effective mind in the operation. This is why I question the motivation behind Carnacki’s inclusion - is showing him up before the Doctor’s superior intellect really a flattering use of a supposedly time-honored character? (Then again, it worked for Andy Lane and Sherlock Holmes in All-Consuming Fire.) Small details really set apart Cartmel’s characters - the description of the Doctor’s tie as “soup-stained” is perfect: enlightening yet not intrusive. Furthermore, his description of the TARDIS dematerializing on p.33 is one of the best I’ve ever read.
Zoe, on the other hand, fares less well. This is a rather more extreme characterization than that seen on television - this Zoe is very prim, very straight-laced, and prudish to the point of being uppity. Curiously, this leads to a frank examination of Victorian sexual values - Zoe’s encounters with Thor Upcott are disturbing, not because they’re out of character but because it’s surprising to see strong sexual desires being directed at Troughton-era characters. This seems to be a conflation of New Adventures and Troughton-era storytelling and it’s.. unusual, to say the least. Cartmel is, furthermore, rather fixated on the female form - he drools over Zoe’s catsuit early on before discussing Celandine’s (albeit metamorphosing) body in great detail later on. I should repeat that I do not find this to be poor storytelling - merely bizarre for this era of the program.
Jamie’s barely in this, but I’m not going to begrudge the decision to write him out. The story works perfectly with the Doctor and Zoe, and there’s no reason to stand between an author and the story he wants to tell.
Carnacki, for his part, is mostly useless. He leaps to errant theories, running about the mansion and generally making a fool of himself, save for those times when he examines corpses with the Doctor. Though the conclusions drawn are usually correct, we do not see the thought processes that lead to them, and it’s therefore unclear how much of the detecting was actually performed by Carnacki. I wasn’t at all impressed with Hodgson’s character, though it was nice to see a Victorian able to cope with the more extreme effects of the Doctor’s travels.
This is, from what I can tell, a Carnacki-style story, however. There is no rational, scientific explanation to proceedings, unless Chinese mysticism leading to extradimensional movement and mutation counts as rational and scientific. Yet the Doctor’s in the middle of all of it, unsurprised by events and greeting the climactic revelation with obvious foreknowledge. I’ve read that this story appears to have been a rewritten McCoy tale, but I’d disagree - the Doctor’s presence throughout the novel is much more Troughton than McCoy. This is the “dark Troughton” we read about - not so much uncaring but certainly manipulative, allowing his companion to endure an uncomfortable situation in order to gather information. But he’s still involved, donning a metaphorical detective’s hat and joining in the investigations. McCoy, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t have shown up in the house until halfway through the novella.
The Carnacki story included at the back end of the novella is an entertaining little addition, very bizarre and a little creepy to boot. The foreword does ruin it, yes, but only if you’re really paying attention - and I’d argue that the Hodgson story is there not for entertainment purposes but rather for referential purposes.
After two misfires, the Telos range gets right back on track with an excellent piece of Doctor Who. Cartmel’s characters are wonderful, his prose stellar, and his plot adequate - and it’s all bound together in a neat little package that doubles as exposure to a lesser-known example of literary horror.
But did it have to be sky blue?
In brief: The set pieces are fabulous and the writing is to die for... but the plot holding them together is decidedly shaky. This'll be an Andrew Cartmel novella, then.
Letting Andrew Cartmel loose on the second Doctor is surprisingly effective. It's an unlikely combination, but it works. Despite the fact that it makes the book lurch oddly, I really like the bald-faced way he disposes of Jamie for the majority of the book, because he simply isn't interested in writing for two companions.
Okay, sure, nothing is explained. We don't know how the magician was able to send people through time, or exact a revenge across the centuries. Nor do we know how he manages to extract a chunk of the earth and send it floating into space. Let alone why. But while this stuff matters, it doesn't matter nearly enough to ruin an otherwise extremely enjoyable book.
The first two chapters feel like padding, which is odd in a novella. It seems odd that the novel didn't start with the TARDIS arriving in 1900. The later reappearance of Roderick Upcott and Jamie's vanishing could have been accomplished just as easily this way, so I'm not really sure what the first two chapters add to the book. They're not terrible, by any means, just a bit displaced.
Once the story gets going, though, it really hits its stride. Cartmel's books live and breathe through their writing and this is no exception. The scene where the guests realise that they've actually been on an isolated chunk of earth floating in space is incredibly shocking. I marvelled nearly as much as I did the first time Cartmel used it, in the DWM comic The Good Soldier. Of course then, there was good reason for the Cybermen to be stealing a chunk of the desert. Here it's just kind of random. But it's very effective nonetheless.
Zoe the maid works surprisingly well, too. Jamie's been a bit overused in the second Doctor books, so it's nice to see her have some fish out of water screentime. And the various sniggering at the idea of she and the Doctor being lovers is thankfully confined to characters who would think that sort of thing.
I did the sensible thing and read the Carnacki story at the end before reading anything else (including the spoiler-laden foreword), which probably gave me a different perspective on the book than most. Carnacki didn't feel quite as consistent as I would have thought, but possibly that's because we're so used to all the Past Doctor books trying to recreate identical characters from source material. The Carnacki in Hodgson's story worked well for that style, whereas Cartmel's take on him worked well enough for this novella, so I'm happy.
On pages 41 and 48 Celandine's surname is Gilbert. On page 114, her surname is Gibson. I guess these things happen, but it's extremely annoying when they stand out like this. It's the literary equivalent of the hand on the cushion.
The ending is also a bit rushed, getting wrapped up in a page or two. On the other hand, I read Cartmel's 400 page Virgin Worlds novel (which is fantastic, BTW) and it got the same treatment. We should probably count our blessings that the ending wasn't proportional, or else everything would have been resolved in about half a paragraph.
There's a lot to gripe about with Foreign Devils, but its faults don't take away from the fact that this is a highly readable and engrossing book. At it's heart, it's a rollicking supernatural mystery that draws you in deliciously. It could have been utterly sublime, which is a bit of a shame, but as it is we'll have to settle with something that's merely very enjoyable.
Foreign Devils is inspired by the work of William Hope Hodgson and stars that author's detective of the supernatural, Carnacki. To most readers I'm sure this will mean next to nothing, so for once the Telos foreword (this time by Hodgson historian, Mike Ashley) is quite welcome and interesting. It contains a massive and ruinous spoiler for the 17-page original Hodgson short story that's been included (at no extra charge) after Cartmel's story, but I suppose you can't have everything. It leads one into the main novella nicely and that's the main thing.
The reproduced Hodgson story is called The Whistling Room, incidentally. I came away from it feeling that Carnacki wasn't a particularly suitable hero for stories about the supernatural, since he's so aggressively scientific about his investigations that any weird atmosphere is bound to suffer. Fortunately Hodgson's wild imagination manages to overcome this sizeable hurdle, but I can't help feeling that I might have been more impressed had the foreword not spoiled the story for me in advance.
As it happens I'm not very familiar with Hodgson, but I've read his The House on the Borderland. The author's undoubted talent for sinister atmosphere impressed me, but after a while it just got weird. There were vistas of eternity, close-up suns, celestial globules, the Sea of Sleep and lots more that I'm afraid had me flicking the pages ever faster. Mike Ashley reckons Hodgson had "a far more exciting imagination and vision" than almost all of his contemporaries; I'd be tempted to describe him instead as a complete nutter.
Fortunately though, Foreign Devils is more palatable. I'd say it's the best Telos novella since Time and Relative - and it's even quite good too! It's not perfect, but it's an atmospheric page-turner.
The Chinese chapters is fabulous. The setting feels fresh and interesting, while the characters are lots of fun. Unfortunately there's also an English Victorian setting, which is efficiently portrayed but inevitably feels more well-worn than China, 1800. There's heavy-handed comment on the sexism of the era, which may be accurate but inevitably brings a certain "been there, done that". They aren't even particularly good scenes; the lecherous Victorian men are credible enough, but Zoe feels wooden and out-of-character.
Sadly, the TARDIS crew is probably the story's weakest link. Even when given dialogue that should have been funny, they don't sparkle. The Doctor isn't actually bad, but he doesn't have Troughton's sense of fun and mischief. Zoe, surprisingly, fares the worst. I know we've never seen her in a historical before (if you don't count The War Games) but she still felt too stuck-up and priggish to me. The story's material is aggressively un-Troughtonish too, which was more of a problem for me than in Combat Rock because there I was so taken with Mick Lewis's portrayal of the regulars. Ah well. We've seen worse.
For the second Telos novella in a row, there's a murder mystery in an Edwardian-like setting. I suppose it worked, but I'm not wild about this plot device in novellas. Even in full-length novels, murder mysteries can feel a little dry and Agatha Christie. In the confines of a novella, it becomes almost impossible to give appropriate weight and emotion to all the murders. Nevertheless this is merely one aspect of a plot that goes in all kinds of unusual directions and has some nifty surprises.
I've spent a good few paragraphs nitpicking Foreign Devils, but actually I enjoyed it. I like the original characters, I like their worlds, I like the story that's being told and I like the imaginative plot twists. Basing the novella on William Hope Hodgson's work gives it an interesting flavour and Carnacki works better than he did in The Whistling Room. A nice little story.
Having been instrumental in laying the seeds for a radical new style of Who with the New Adventures, Andrew Cartmel's eventual return to the fold with Big Finish's Winter for the Adept was something of a letdown. Foreign Devils is an improvement on Winter for the Adept, but in its own way is still slightly less than I was expecting.
The tale gets off to a pleasing start, with the1800 material introducing a Fu Manchu-esque magician with a dash of Grand Guignol humour. Unfortunately we are then whisked 100 years into the future, for a decidedly humdrum murder mystery tale. With its country house setting and stock characters, this section reads as no more than a game of Cluedo. The inclusion of Carnacki may please William Hope Hodgson readers, but as someone encountering the character for the first time I found him a little bland, and adding little to the plot.
The author will forever be associated with the team of the Seventh Doctor and Ace, and the line-up choice here seems a little forced. With the Doctor brooding throughout, and an undercover Zoe railing against sexism, it feels as though the story is perfectly geared to the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Jamie's presence here is completely redundant, and he is unceremoniously written out of the plot. I may be wrong but, as with BBC Books Dying in the Sun, this certainly has the feel of a Seventh Doctor story re-cast by editorial dictate simply in order to get a Second Doctor book in the schedules.
Things do improve when Jamie returns at the finale, with some wonderfully over the top weirdness, but the story as a whole has an odd feel. The novella's 'bad guy' is never seen again beyond the tales introduction, what we are presented with are the effects of his curse 100 years later. The Doctor and Zoe turn up and witness events, but are totally powerless to prevent the curse running its course. The fact that the Doctor features heavily throughout seems to make this a Doctor-centric book, but beyond saving their skins at the stories close he has no influence on events whatsoever, appearing as a mere bystander commenting on the action and explaining events to the reader.
Foreign Devils isn't a bad book, but while there are some fine scenes, as a whole it's curiously insubstantial.
Foreign Devils is lovely. Melodramatic in parts, of course (that being part of its chosen genre), but told in a quiet, restrained way that makes the menace all the realer. I'm not sure I caught all of it on a single reading, and I'm looking forward to a reread when I get the time, but the images are just fabulous. The spirit gate surrounded by mist, the house and its grounds hovering in the void, the animated cadaver and his monkey, the dragon and its final disintegration... and, of course, the woman-to-poppy-spirit transformation.
With its period setting and young lady medium, the Cartmel work this most readily recalls is Winter for the Adept, but Foreign Devils is a far more accomplished work. The presentation of magic is similar to that in his far more sophisticated non-Who novel The Wise. The prose well-sculpted, smoothed and polished: Cartmel's four novels have made him a real master. Occasional odd turns in the style turn out instead to be subtleties (the handful of one-phrase sentences on p125, for instance, whose staccato rhythm echoes the detonations of the fireworks). The transformation of Celandine into the poppy spirit is one of the most beautiful scenes I've read in a work of Who fiction. Quite astonishing, especially considering that it "ought" to be quite horrifying.
It was intriguing to see the second Doctor paired, for most of the story, with Zoe alone (although it did make me wonder whether the novella had originally been pitched with the seventh Doctor and Ace in mind). Jamie really doesn't do a lot, but Cartmel's second Doctor is a joy to read, likeable and instantly recognisable. Zoe is a little lacking in character, but she always was. At least here she's allowed to be knowledgeable, self-reliant and critical. These charmingly innocent characters are seamlessly integrated with the adult subject matter, so that it barely seems incongruous to hear the second Doctor explain to Zoe that the butler thinks they're shagging. (He doesn't say "shagging", of course.)
The deliberate play with staples of British pulp fiction (the fiendish Chinaman and his fondness for opium, for example) are often used subversively (reminding the reader of how exactly so many Chinese became addicted to opium in the first place). William Hope Hodgson's psychic detective Carnacki, on the other hand, is played straight, and (although unlike the Doctor his theories are allowed to be wrong) comes across as admirable.
The reprint of the Hodgson story "The Whistling Room" is a nice extra -- possibly best read as an introduction to the character of Carnacki (and thus prior to the novella itself). Being new to the character of Carnacki, but aware he was usually a first-person narrator, I did wonder why Cartmel had elected not to tell the story in his voice. I always enjoy first-person narrators giving us new takes on the Doctor, but having read "The Whistling Room" I think Cartmel made the right decision. To imitate that voice -- fine though it is in context, and over the course of a short story -- would have reduced Foreign Devils to rather tedious pastiche piece, over-reliant (as the Hodgson story is) on the overuse of "eerie" names like Aeiirii, Saiitii and Saaamaaa. Carnacki as presented by Cartmel is very consistent with Hodgson's original as seen here, but I think the balance of the novella is better preserved by his use as a secondary character.
The other characters are all well-drawn -- Cartmel does a good job of making both Thor and Roderick Upcott both repellent and sympathetic, yet utterly distinguishable from one another. Elder-Main is appropriately creepy. The way we gradually discover more and more about how unpleasant Pemberton Upcott is is also effective. And the Chief Astrologer is delightful.
Reservations? Just a couple. The first is tiny: there's a terribly jarring proofreading error on p121: a "loose shambling gate" instead of a "loose shambling gait". The second is more nebulous. Foreign Devils is a smashing horror fantasy in the classic British tradition... but so, in their various ways, were Time and Relative, Citadel of Dreams and Ghost Ship. This type of story works well in Who, no question, and it's good that Telos is creating a strong identity for itself, but it's good to see that forthcoming novellas (Cabinet of Light and its sequels perhaps excepted) will be departing from this model. Who is an extremely flexible property, and so is the novella medium.
Those are minor reservations, though. Foreign Devils is a real return to form for Telos, and is most definitely the best of this year's novellas. Time and Relative still beats it by a whisker for Telos' top spot, thanks to the charm of Susan's narrative, but Foreign Devils is something really special.