Pros: Vivid characters; fascinating world; droll sense of humor
Cons: Frequent mild confusions
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
First published 7/11/2001
I enjoyed Brian McNaughton’s “The Throne of Bones,” a World Fantasy Award winner and collection of gruesome short stories. All of them are about some combination of death, murder, necromancy, necrophilia, sex, and of course, ghouls.
McNaughton’s world is a complex one with its own social structures and societies, worthy of any good fantasy novelist’s creation. The fact that so many people in it are necromancers – and ghouls stalk the catacombs – are part of what make it horror as well as fantasy. And it is definitely not fantasy/horror for children, or even teenagers. Ghouls are misshapen once-human monsters who feed on the dead (the longer the corpse has been dead, the better) and quench their insatiable sexual appetites on each other and any humans they can get their hands on. (Yes, Ghouls do have particularly large, umm, attributes.) They can absorb the memories of the dead, and sometimes even take on their appearance. The sex and violence aren’t implied, or even remotely off-screen; this is a very visceral book (often literally).
One of the things I like best about McNaughton’s writing is his characters–they are all insanely flawed and disturbed. You might almost-not-quite like or sympathize with some of them, but that’s about it; yet somehow it doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the book. The characters have quirks and weird habits in abundance, and it’s hard not to find them utterly fascinating. Besides, these are short stories, not a novel, so you aren’t asked to stay in one point of view character long enough to become too uncomfortable with him.
Although these are short stories, they all do take place in the same world. One long one, the title story, unfolds in bits and pieces like a mini-novel. The point of view character of one story will return as a secondary character (or even rumor) in another story, allowing us to see some of the characters through many different sets of eyes – a wonderful and beautifully understated trick.
McNaughton also has a particularly droll sense of humor that pokes frequent fun at his own characters and plots, but not in a self-conscious sort of way. It simply informs his work, seeping into the language of the stories. It makes the humor of other books seem clumsy by comparison. Perhaps this is another reason why the not-entirely-likable characters fail to be problematic – you’re too busy laughing at them to be bothered by them:
I stamped down the stairs, wondering where I could borrow a sword before presenting myself at Weymael’s palace to demand the return of my skeleton. Halfway across the quadrangle it occurred to me that my righteous outrage was compromised: I had, after all, stolen his skull. Worse, I had lost it. A moment’s reflection persuaded me that this was not the sort of argument one should start with a necromancer.
Yet make no mistake, these are terrible people who do awful things, even the good ones. Although I paint this as an amusing, quirky and fun book, it is not for the faint of heart.
Those Pesky Confusions
It’s a shame, then, that I have a complaint to level at the book. It is frequently, in many small ways, confusing – on a couple of levels.
One sort of confusion is actually a sort of a neat stylistic thing, and I’m okay with that one. The wording will often obscure part of what is happening so that it can be more of a surprise a paragraph or two later. It’s a neat verbal gimmick that I think very few authors could pull off well. I liked it; others might not.
The other is the sheer volume of names, cities, locations, old stories, and so on. I think either McNaughton should have simplified just a little, or taken the same amount of information and turned it into a book twice as long. It’s hard to keep the various things straight, and to connect something in one story with something two stories back, even though you know you should remember it.
McNaughton’s style is vaguely reminiscent of authors such as Lovecraft and Ligotti. He doesn’t particularly sound like them, it’s just that there’s this certain sort of quirky wordiness that they all share to varying degrees, and which some readers love and others abhor.
There is one good thing about the level of complexity in this book, however: you’d never mistake it for some of the more formulaic writing out there. Nor does it rely on “twist” endings that you can see from a mile away; it is truly unusual writing.
All in all this is a wonderful book. It’s great for the horror fan with a jaundiced eye, or the fantasy reader who’s gotten too cynical for the typical fantasy novel. It’s like taking a fantasy novel and looking at it backwards, in a warped and twisted mirror, over the charnel scent of rotting meat.