The Devil in Detail, An Odyssey in the Surreal by Brian Stableford. Wildside Press 2016.
Review by Sally Startup
Here is a writer having fun. This book is wonderful, although it did make my head spin. It shows what can be done when a writer follows patterns of his own devising rather than conforming to convention. He even tells the reader exactly which conventions he is steering away from.
The narrative voice is that of Brian Stableford, writer of science fiction. He is relating events set in 1997. At that time, he taught creative writing on the MA course ‘Writing for Children’ at the University of Winchester, where I was later to become one of his students. Distinguishing the author from the narrator becomes part of the game.
Not only a thought-provoking read, this book is poetic and often humorous. Where, exactly, the narrative crosses and re-crosses boundaries between fact and fiction, imagination and material reality, only the author himself can possibly know.
Brian Stableford the narrator, tells of visiting a haunted bookshop in the company of Lionel Fanthorpe, who was then the presenter on Fortean TV. Brian’s obsession with rare books leads him into an encounter with the Devil. The possibility of a pact, or a bet, is discussed. Brian is far too sensible to risk betting his heart, but he is willing to use his head.
Much of the action takes place in Wales, and the circumstances of the Devil’s arrival have a plausibly welsh flavour. The Devil wears a red cravat, which gives Brian some clues as to his nature.
Meanwhile, some scientists have designed an experiment to measure and record the presence of the Cosmic Mind. Brian is invited to volunteer as an experimental subject, but perhaps he is not really the kind of participant they are looking for.
Layered within the book are ruminations on many interrelating subjects. There is the nature of the Devil and the Cosmic Mind. Why do non-existent things exist? There is the past, present and future of books. What makes them valuable, or not? There is the biology of infectious disease, and much more. And there is the process of constructing stories.
Brian the narrator (and possibly also the author) even manages to insert various story ideas he had previously deemed ‘far too silly ever to see print’. Brian the author has managed to fit all of this together, including such magnificent sentences as: ‘What sort of coal, I wondered, might magic mushrooms make after a few tens of millions of years of patient squeezing?’; and ‘The extent to which one can be caught by surprise by a figment of one’s own imagination is really quite surprising.’
Overall, a dizzying read, but most definitely worthwhile.