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DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

PESTILENCE Wiliam Owen Roberts
Four Walls Eight Windows / 216p. / $19.95 (hardcover) (April 2003)
ISBN: 1-56858-257-9

Cover Thomas Hobbes wrote that without government (preferably an absolutist sovereignty) humankind's natural state would be a war of all against all, each striving only for his own self-interest. Man would live in "continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes is usually pegged as a pessimist, but considering Britain was still in transition from the medieval to the modern in the 17th century, it might have been difficult to be optimistic.

Reading Wiliam Owen Roberts' dark historical fantasy PESTILENCE one is either reminded or informed of just how nasty, brutish, and short life was in the 14th century Europe. Unlike a "horror novel" that might use madness, biomedical disaster, murder, demons, bestiality, self-mutilation, and sex with children to shock, in PESTILENCE Roberts places all these horrors, and more, into the context of daily life.

Roberts tells his story by intertwining two tales. One is that of the student Salah Ibn al Khatib who leaves his world of civilized privilege in Cairo, "of study and contemplation and the serene immutabilities" of the Holy Koran to undertake a mission supposedly placed upon him with his father's last breath. He obediently sets off on a journey to Paris. Naive, a complete alien in the European world, unused to the strange ways of the infidel, oblivious even to irony, the honorable Salah is consistently cheated, tricked, abused, and betrayed. Worse, his footsteps are literally dogged by the Black Plague as it sweeps westward across Europe.

The other story is that of Dolbenmaen, a small Welsh community. Ignorance; suffering; religion full of dark superstition, no enlightenment and little comfort; just enough governing through feudalism to keep life only slightly less poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Life is lived in fear of the coming of the Dark One and the doom he will bring. Desperation and futility reign at this western edge of "civilization," even before the Black Death brings its apocalypse.

There's something supremely subversive about PESTILENCE (including the very fact it was written in Welsh) and its contrariness. Relatively short, it still encompasses an epic panorama and vast ideas. Roberts parodies the parody of the picaresque novel (Salah is the opposite of the rogue of low degree living by his wits in a corrupt society) and substitutes the stinking serfs for the noble heroes of "historic fiction." (Think: anti-Romance with a vengeance.) Is he parodying European literary fascination with Marxist vs. capitalist themes or does he seriously feel that after the plague re-ordered the demographics of Western Europe that capitalism became the heir of feudalism? The specter of infectious disease and pandemic brought an end to the Anglo-French imperialism of the Plantagenets just as it helped end the Roman Empire. Is Roberts drawing a parallel for modern Anglo-American imperialism? Is he just telling a story? Maybe all. Maybe nothing.

The novel was Roberts' second, but first to be translated from the Welsh. Originally published as Y PLA (THE STENCH) in 1987, the English translation (by Elisabeth Roberts) was published in 1991 in the U.K. This Four Wall Eight Windows edition is the first U.S. Why so late? Maybe American publishers were perplexed by characters with Welsh names like Einon Fychan, Chwilen Bwm, Hwch Ddu, Ieuan Ddu, Mato ap Tudur Hen, and Gwythwches. The French, Italians, and Germans were calling it masterpiece a decade ago. I wouldn't go that far, but it's surely a fascinating novel of humanity and the danse macabre.-- Paula Guran (DarkEcho 06.10.03)

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Copyright © 2003 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.