In Delirium's Circle by Stephen J. Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
On the surface of it, this is merely a very creepy tale, extremely well told. But, like the plot itself, this is a multilayered artifact. The cover itself has a beautiful burgundy floral design embossed with a sinuous abstraction of theatrical masks that swirls in a . . . well, a delirious circle. In fact, the novel is illustrated throughout with sinister, ghostly drawings by the author himself, making the artifact a lavish affair worth the high asking-price. The cover is indicative of the story itself - a whirlwind of shadows that leaves the reader wondering who is good and who is evil, or even what is "good" and what is "evil", in the philosophical sense of the words. The effect on me has had one benefit: I've been studying existentialism lately, and this book makes it *really* easy to slip right into existential mode.
But this is so much more than just another straight-faced Ligotti-esque foray into darkness. Stephen J. Clark has crafted some dark playfulness into the text. Take this sentence, for instance:
"In short, the author playfully alluded to the identifiable characteristics of the lives of bookish people as though in essence all are monsters, pariah and exiles."
Clark here gives a sharp elbow to the reader, breaking the fourth wall, while maintaining the character of the book. This sort of metafictional playfulness is not something you'll find in most horror literature, at least not done with this kind of subtlety.
As the borders between dream and reality fray, it's easy to go into a kind of opiate slumber as one is reading. Then, all of a sudden, Clark pulls out a chase scene worthy of Alfred Hitchcock that grabs the reader by the shirt collars and shakes one into wakefulness. It's a sharp slap in the face, but rather than throwing the reader out of their suspension of disbelief, it draws the reader further in, enveloping one just as Mr. Fetch, the main character (or is he, really?) is folded into layers of uncertainty and psychic vertigo.
As Fetch is thrust under the dark, roiling waters of doubt and deceit, he, along with the reader, becomes aware that he is being used by The House of Sleep, a mysterious cabal of . . . well, that is a mystery.
"I was entering another circle, where the world seemed suddenly caught in amber, where the inhabitants of nightmares lingered just out of sight in the wings."
And later . . .
"I had acted as if hypnotized, finding the paint and brush, following the instructions to the letter, all the while with a sense that I was completing an inevitable action. The game played me."
One of the tropes that is hinted at throughout, but never made explicit (nothing is made explicit In Delirium's Circle, which is part of the awful wonder of it all), is the idea that doppelgangers may or may not have replaced one's friends, one's enemies, or one's self, at any time.
"Sooner or later your own shadow will rise up and join you as a guest at your table."
In context, this is one of the most horrifying lines of the book. But I can't, unfortunately, contextualize it without relating the book in its entirety. The haunting effect of this novel is far more than the sum of its parts. Clark and Egaeus Press has created one for the ages, the dark, unsure ages when even solipsism itself must be questioned. Is there really a "self" at all? Mr. Fetch, for one, has his doubts . . . and these doubts are about all that he can claim as his own. All else is distorted by the gyrations of delirium's circle.
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