I like a nice bit of gothic now and again. Diane Setterfield’s beautifully polished Bellman & Black was the last gothic novel I read, a subtle tale of fulfilled ambition that comes at a terrible price. The Quick is firmly in vampire territory which seems to have been done to death (sorry) over the past few years but when a book comes lauded by the likes of Kate Atkinson who calls it ‘a suspenseful, gloriously, atmospheric novel’ and Hilary Mantel for whom it’s ‘a sly and glittering addition to the literature of the macabre’, it’s time to cast off the world-weary cynicism and get reading.
It begins with James and Charlotte Norbury, orphaned and living in nineteenth century Yorkshire – a nice little literary nod to Bram Stoker. The rather dull James studies at Oxford then sets up home in London intending to become a writer where he meets Christopher Paige, the rakish friend of some college acquaintances. This unlikely pair become lovers, forced to flee the country when they are recognised as such by Christopher’s brother. First, James must finish his play which Christopher insists he delivers to that fine young playwright Oscar Wilde. In what turns out to be a case of mistaken identity, Christopher is gruesomely murdered by the Temple Church Horror, already the talk of London, while James is transformed into a vampire. The culprit is Michael Bier, the renegade brother of Edmund, head of the Aegolius Club whose membership is in urgent need of replenishment. Edmund and his assistant Augustus Mould are researching ‘exchanging’ the ‘quick’ without consent; before James’s forcible conversion the un-dead were only made so with their own permission. Much to Edmund’s annoyance, James is the first unwilling – and unplanned – victim. When Charlotte visits her brother and finds him missing she becomes caught up in an increasingly desperate bid to rescue him from his horrible fate.
The Quick gets off to something of a slow start but when you have Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel urging you on, you can’t give up and after around 50-odd pages I began to see their point. It takes you from the glittering environs of London’s gentry to the grimy slums of Salmon Street in an increasingly page-turning chase. It’s peopled by vivid characters, pleasing drawn: Augustus Mould’s careful note-taking and scientific interest in the un-dead are worthy of a nineteenth century Mengele while the valiant Angeline Swift, daughter of a tightrope walker, and Shadwell, father of her undead fiancé, brave terrible danger in their attempts to protect the quick. Lauren Owen resists the temptation to make all her un-dead monstrous, giving Edmund a benign motive in his scheme to alleviate the quick’s suffering which goes horribly wrong. There are some wonderful set pieces, excitingly told, and the contrast between the snobbish Club members and the ‘undid’ of Salmon Street is nicely handled – even the un-dead have a class system so it seems. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, and a first one to boot: riveting, inventive, imaginative, with an ending as chilling as you could possibly hope for.