(2023) Owen King, Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, trdpbk, 469pp, ISBN 978-1-399-7143-8
At first glance, the world has not changed: the trams on the boulevards, the grand hotels, the cafes abuzz with conversation. The street kids still play on the two great bridges that divide the city, and the smart set still venture down to the Morgue Ship for an evening's entertainment.
Yet it only takes a spark to ignite a revolution.
For young Dora, a maid at the university, the moment brings liberation. She finds herself walking out with one of the student radicals, Robert, free to investigate what her brother Ambrose may have seen at the Institute for Psykical Research before he died. But it is another establishment that Dora is given to look after, The Museum of the Worker. This strange, forgotten edifice is occupied by waxwork tableaux of miners, nurses, shopkeepers and other disturbingly lifelike figures. As the revolution and counter-revolution outside unleash forces of love, betrayal, magic and terrifying darkness, Dora's search for the truth behind a mystery that she has long concealed will unravel a monstrous conspiracy and bring her to the very edge of worlds.
Owen King is the author of the novella We Are all in this Together, the novel Double Feature and he’s also edited several anthologies and his stories and have appeared in anthologies and magazines, but he is probably known more as the co-author of the best-selling novel Sleeping Beauties with his father, Stephen King, however I think that is going to change with the publication of The Curator. Someone once said that the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was his blueprint to stardom, I think the same can be said of The Curator and Owen King.
Way back in 2014, King had a story called “The Curator” published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a magazine produced by Small Beer Press which he has expanded greatly into this novel. Small Beer Press is run by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, and Link provides a quote on the back cover of my edition likening the novel to Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, and I get her point for King’s novel is both puzzling and labyrinthine.
Puzzling, because as we progress through the novel we have entered a world slightly like our own. There is a struggle between classes, there is revolution and counter-revolution, there is almost a mini-Reign of Terror going on and there is mention of mysterious far-away places like London and Russia. How far? Who knows, but there are differences in the city where The Curator takes place. Fabulous differences. There is a Morgue Ship filled with mistreated souls cruising the waterways, there are several moons in the sky, and cats, lots of cats. Cats which are loved, revered and worshipped.
There are also two buildings, or rather there used to be. One was the home of the Society for Psykical Research, where Ambrose worked, possibly on saving other worlds, but he is dead, some fifteen years of cholera. Now, his sister, Dora, wants to find out the truth about what happened to her brother and his work. by becoming curator of that building, but it is burned to the ground, and with the help of her lover, Robert the revolutionary, she ends up curator of the building next door, the National Museum of the Worder, a decaying tribute to those who worked in different occupations, and full of wax figures that she begins to restore with new clothes and glass eyes. As she investigates, she begins to discover the truth behind her brother’s words and work, and finds that everything is not as it seems, and there are dastardly deeds behind the scenes and an evil plot that she has to try to stop, if she can.
One of the powers of the novel is the scene-setting, namely the city which King never names, though it has a nickname of “The Fairest” and rather like his father’s Jerusalem’s Lot, and Peter Straub’s Milburn (which featured in his novel Ghost Story) there is a real sense of place, or places within the city from the rich suburbs to the slums; and while King has invested a lot of time and effort into creating his city, his characters are also wonderful creations, particularly Dora, but there are memorable supporting characters like Robert, and the scamp Ike, and some dastardly villains like Captain Anthony, with intriguing back stories, so perhaps one day, we might get a sequel, of sorts, maybe even a prequel. I would certainly sign up for either of those.
The novel itself unfolds through three parts – “New People”, “City of Cats” and “The Curator”, and these parts are divided into various chapters, with sub-sections. Some of these chapter titles reflect an event, situation, character, or location, and we even have an extract from a play as a chapter. Dotted throughout the novel are black and white illustrations by Kathleen Jennings, that are old-fashioned, almost like wood carvings that would have complimented old editions of fairy tales.
If Owen King wasn’t a name to look out for, he certainly is now. Recommended.
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