‘Will Starling’ by Ian Weir

Book Reviews

Will Starling coverReviewed by Brett Josef Grubisic

“The Reckoning of WM. STARLING, Esq., a Foundling, concerning Monstrous Crimes and Infernal Aspirations, with Perpetrators Named and Shrouded Infamies disclosed to Light of Day, as set down by his Own Hand in this year, 1816”: so opens (just beneath the title) “Your Wery Umble” and unreliable narrator Will Starling’s Hair-Raising and Scandalous Account.

Through the stock-taking and impassioned confession-like recollections of “pointed and stunted” but earnest young surgeon’s assistant Will Starling, Ian Weir (author of 2010’s Daniel O’Thunder) crafts a wonderfully, thrillingly fun–if truly smelly and gross–romp, which may nudge readers into remembering a wide assortment of texts, from the antique (Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, Collins’ The Woman in White, and even Swift’s satiric poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” with its notorious final couplet, “Such order from confusion sprung, / Such gaudy tulips raised from dung”) to relatively new warts-and-all revisitations, including Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, Beryl Bainbridge’s According to Queeney, Greg Hollingshead’s Bedlam, and Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin.

In his acknowledgements Weir notes the “early years of the nineteenth century were fraught with controversy over scientific explorations into the essence of life itself,” and that in the summer of 1816, “Mary Shelley sat down at a villa in Switzerland to tell ghost stories with a group of friends and conceived the idea for Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.”

Although Weir states that “my own tale unfolds in the long shadow that Victor Frankenstein and his Creature continue to cast,” for this reader his novel’s philosophical and grave investigation of the “controversy over scientific explorations into the essence of life itself” easily takes a back seat to the sheer creepy fun offered by Will’s proto-detective case as it leads him through London’s filth and locations both big: asylums, prisons, surgical theatres, gin-shops, night-houses; and small: muddy alleyways, messy garrets, libraries tangy with pickling fluid. This enjoyable novel’s far more of a House of Horrors than a sober Disquisition on Historical Explorations into the Essence of Life.

In fact, since he’s aware of “purple supposition,” “penny-blood” novels, and the “Gothick Venture,” Will, Weir’s stand-in, crafts an extraordinary tale—of inquiry, of secrets pried, of love and vengeance—with melodramatic theatrical and literary tropes in play.

In essence, he crafts a Sensation Novel. That genre, which reached its zenith in the 1860s, right after the rise and fall of the Gothic Novel and the Newgate Novel, was popular and cheap but deeply dismaying to the high minded as “preaching to the nerves instead of the judgement.” A Punch magazine issue ridiculed the genre as being “devoted chiefly to the following objects; namely, Harrowing the Mind, Making the Flesh Creep, Causing the Hair to Stand on End, Giving Shocks to the Nervous System, Destroying Conventional Moralities, and generally Unfitting the Public for the Prosaic Avocations of Life.” (thanks to Philip V. Allingham’s article at The Victorian Web for the quoted information.)

For Weir, sensation is highly olfactory: simply, his London stinks.

Yes, it’s a “bold new age of discovery and Science” and there’s a general “mood of seeking and striving and seizing,” but Will’s confession-like Reckoning proclaims that London’s also “a Metropolis full of chisellers,” and his rogue’s gallery of maleficent characters support the claim. And all of them, good and bad, opium-addled or gambling-addicted, scientist and grave robber, wander and skulk and loiter and scheme and get roaring drunk in a city that is (from the point of view of us, a society that has hand sanitizer units in every public toilet) grossly ripe.

Ever-observant and detail-oriented, Will catches sight of a character, for example, with teeth still “largely unrotted” who’s also a “prodigious pisser”; below him, and being pissed on, there’s a splayed guy “half sunk in ooze”; across the way, two midwives curse while “knee-deep in slime”; apprentices pelt an amorous couple “with clods of horse-shit”; “soiled doves” (aka “draggle-tails,” or prostitutes) ply their trade with staggering drunken sailors as they’re assaulted by a “waft of drowned mutton” from across the street; perhaps later they’ll breathe in the “general waft of decrepitude and faeces,” or a “sick-sour waft,” else stop by a gin-shop, “small and dirty and redolent of ancient odours, the most prominent of these being juniper and vomit.” No doubt they’ll eventually run into the man with breath as “foul as a three-day corpse.”

Will’s metropolitan ambling stops by reeking Newgate Prison (which “squats like a vast brown toad at the very heart” of the city) several times but, odour-wise, perhaps, his touring reaches its nadir at the Death House (where unrefrigerated cadavers are stored): “First you are assailed by the stench, which is staggering, even by London standards. A cocktail of rot and pickling alcohol and human putrefaction that worms into the very pores of those who labour in this place and never quite leaves them, ever again, though they should spend a lifetime scrubbing with lye soap and steel bristles.” On his first visit there, Will recalls, he “seized a bucket and shot the cat.”

He passes by dunghills and slop piles, wipes vomit from his boots, smells mildewed walls and soot-streaked windows, and rarely stands far from mucous-filled eyes, putrefying remains, or gangrenous bits. Will’s home, belonging to Alec Comrie, “a growling Scotchman with a bonesaw” whose medical skill in Will’s view is “detailed, meticulous, and appalling,” appears relatively clean, but gets called “that ‘ouse of yours, full of ‘orrors!” by one of Will’s many foul-mouthed urchin friends. In libraries he’s exposed to specimen shelves, “like the pickled preserves of some demented cook”: “bones with bulging non-gummatous lesions indicative of syphilis, and a hydrocephalic skull as bloated as a bladder.” Jane Austen’s decorous Emma [1815] this is not! John Waters released Polyester, his 1981 comedy starring Divine, with Odorama cards for the audience. Considering the peculiar and insistent outlandishness of Weir’s tale, the idea might not be half bad here.

As for the plot, with its “Monstrous Crimes” and “Shrouded Infamies,” there’s an irreducible bounty of it over nearly 500 pages. The cadaver trade, slit throats, stabbings, cudgelings, bodies dangling from nooses, a villainous, hubristic surgeon named Dionysus Atherton, Resurrection Men, Doomsday Men, and the Boggle-Eyed Man, unholy scientific exploration, a could-be zombie, a deranged housekeeper hook on laudanum, and a clockwork of machinations fill Will’s clever and masterfully told “lurid Tale.”

Goose Lane | 484 pages |  $32.95 | cloth | ISBN # 978-0864926470

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Brett Josef Grubisic

Brett Josef Grubisic works at the University of British Columbia’s Department of English. His second novel, This Location of Unknown Possibilities, and fourth editing project, Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature, were published in spring 2014.