WHAT ROUGH BEAST
Author: Dan Simmons
Leisure Books / 268 pages / 1st edition (2005)
If you missed this entertaining novel in its first incarnation, Leisure Books is giving you another chance to get caught up in the ripping tale. Fans of the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, Houdini, and fin de siècle adventure will salivate at the mere description of this blend of fantasy, alternate history, horror, and mystery. And it’s all tied up in a neat, proper package that reads like flashpaper. (Just to add a touch of the magician, there…)
A scoundrel has come to town and he’s just the sort Harry Houdini lived to expose. This Victorian Era John Edwards claims to be able to put the bereaved in touch with their deceased relatives, provided the bereaved can enrich Maxmillian Cairo’s existence on this plane. Debunking such frauds was of special interest to both Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and they expect no problems with exposing this con man’s tricks before he can bilk anymore vulnerable clients.
Unfortunately, there appears to be more to Cairo than they imagine and what they don’t know is about to come back and bite them in the bum… Or bite their heads completely off, more likely. Soon, one person is dead, another is jailed, and a peculiar madness has taken possession of everyone at the Cairo’s private “show.” Worse yet, the madness seems to be spreading, with no end in sight. It looks like it is up to Conan Doyle and Houdini — with help from the magician’s feisty wife Bessie — to rid London of the foul beast that threatens all of their lives.
H.R. Knight does an excellent job of capturing the blustering, indignant, overstuffed ambience of 1906 England. Conan Doyle’s sense of propriety and gallantry balance nicely with his burden of responsibility and manliness. The coiled spring that is Harry (Ehrich Weiss) Houdini is trouble just waiting to happen, and he relishes the challenge. The surprisingly modern Justine Luce is a one-person woman’s liberation movement. (Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising considering the inevitable mental collection to Clare Booth Luce.) In Maximillian Cairo and his creepy henchman Gaylord, Knight has created a pair both fearsome and repugnant. Together, the unique cast sweeps the reader up in this tale of foul murder and even more foul motivations.
For all its British sensibilities, What Rough Beast is oozing with graphic gore and violence. Think twice before reading it aloud to your little ones if you expect them to drift peacefully off to sleep. Even adult readers may want to keeping their reading to the daylight hours, or when they aren’t liable to find themselves suddenly alone with this story.
Occasionally, a word crops up that seems an anachronism in Knight’s carefully constructed world, but this isn’t a history text, after all. What it is is a fast-paced, atmospheric romp through early 20th century London that just possibly could have happened. But, let’s hope it’s all just fiction, for all our sakes.