EVEN DOGS COULD TALK by DF Lewis and David Price
I could remember more readily the books I once read as a child better than those I read only last week. Not that I read much these days. Characters don’t seem able to live any more, somehow. In those early days, even dogs could talk.
A case in point is the book I have in my hand. Talk about resonances. I can really believe it’s all happening, even now, as I hold its shuddering shape. Yes, happening between the covers, like moving from page to page as bookworms would.
It takes a lot of reading. You see, when I was a child, I found Rupert annuals difficult, especially those blocks of text at the foot of the strip which most other kids (or even nostalgic grown-ups) cannot be bothered to read through. The pictures, in primary colours (except for the tints of sky melting into each other), were enough for most of us, I guess. Or, at most, the little couplets of print beneath each box. But those horrible expanses of unbroken text, only the likes of me could skate over them as deeply as I did, making grooves amid the letters with my eyesight. And, now, today, I have this new book, one that the grown-up in me feels is the ultimate page-turner of a potboiler. It’s as if the dust-wrapper has a hold on my hands. Sucking at the pores.
I’ve managed to put it down, although the blurb did say it was unputdownable. It has much critical acclaim quoted on its back, some of which really goes over the top, like a landmark in popular literature and it’ll scare the pants off you and a book that can captivate souls sooner than the end of the first chapter and what’s in a plot, when it means so much? and there are characters that will move you more than you have ever been moved before and simultaneously nerve-shattering and
soporific with gently tidal dreams and many more such choice phrases which I cannot bear to repeat for fear of playing the book’s own game and foisting its cloying machinations of chutzpah and froth and heist and nerve and fanfare and hype upon the likes of you.
Well, there it sits, just like my favourite Enid Blyton or Biggles book from my barely memorable youth. It’s as static as the next book. As thick or thin as the most average hardback. As neatly stitched, glued and guillotined as the best of them. Only reading it does the damage. Simply seeing it or even daring to look at the printed words within without putting meanings to them cannot possibly give you more than eyestrain or outright boredom.
Still, in the old days, when I was young, Rupert and the Famous Five jumped out at me from under cover of the words that masqueraded as meaning. They lived and breathed and literally touched me. I followed the characters’ adventures, alongside them most of the times, but sometimes faster or slower so as to savour the action from in front or behind. They humoured me, of course, ignoring my presence, not even blinking an eyelid when I (rarely) intervened. They did not even talk about me, out of hearing of the omniscient writer who had created them on the page. Sometimes I became one of the characters, unnoticed, even by the reader. When I was the villain, though, that was the time to withdraw and leave the natural progression of the plot to unfold in camera.
Will draw you into a world you would not want to enter given the choice.
I shook my head. It was generating its own blurbs. I cringed to avoid its grippingness. The print was cut into the page with tiny blades, perfect perforations pulling me along in search of a whole thesaurus of trenchant treasure. A quest that Frodo wouldn’t have countenanced, given even Gandalf’s help.
So much sheer pleasure for the discerning and the bookish. A stunning stunt beating hype into a cocked hat. A self¬ perpetuating plot that uses its readers as bait to feed its protagonists. A tale that wags the dog.
The title of the book? MISCREANT IN MOONSTREAM are the words gold-tooled into the spine. I will not trouble you with the machinations of the plot, suffice it to say that I needed to get involved, for only by doing that could I get to the heart of the writer.
Speaks from the bottom of her heart.
Better than from the heart of her bottom, say I.
So I dressed in the clothes of a Victorian gentleman - frock coat, top hat; nothing less than the full bib and tucker -and settled into my most comfortable armchair. On the back of the dust cover, Dee F. Lewis smiled like a benign aunt. You’d certainly trust her to lead your children across the road ... ah, but whither will her mind lead you?
I flipped back to chapter 3 and stared at the words, waiting to be drawn into the action like a tree into a twister. Sometimes it would take a while, other times...
So I stared, waiting for my mind to translate words into actions and actions into events.
Beau Loches pulled up at the roadside, tired and cold after a three-day ride. The horse needed resting again, but the road sign signalled the climax of his journey:
AGRA ASKA -3 MILES
He took the flask out of his pocket, undid the top
and drank the last of my whiskey.
“Forward Old Codger,” I said, speaking more to myself than my steed. “Not much further. We’ll both have a roof over our heads tonight.” And I once again urged him on. A quest on request; this was nothing new. But I wasn’t getting any younger. Could this be my last adventure? Bounty hunting had been my life, the thrill of the chase exciting me to the core of my very being.
“Ah, but your being has become rotten to the heart!”
These words, uttered by a drunken whore in a tavern, had seen me taking stock of my life. Hence I was now doing something free of charge, ‘because it was the right thing to do’.
It was enough to make any self-respecting mercenary curl up and die of shame!
Flakes of snow had started to fall by the time I reached The John Bello Inn. Turning the horse over to the stable-lad -- with suitable remuneration for the grooming of the beast -- I entered the inn anticipating a good meal. After the coldness of the day the heat from the tavern’s fireplace nearly knocked me off my feet.
“By the stars it’s a cold one,” I said. “A meal’d be just what the apothecary ordered.”
I approached the bar and dropped a couple of gold coins before the inn-keeper, an elderly, stooped fellow of advancing years.
“A meal and a bed it is,” said he, scooping up the coins.
Retreating to a table with a goblet of wine, I took a paper and quill out of my travel-bag. To all intents and purposes I was an itinerant poet in search of inspiration. In a world of chaos, poets were virtually the peers of the realm. Within the hour I was shown to my room, tired, but happier after a square meal. As the inn-keeper closed the door, I opened my bag and took out the little green box I had been given at the start of this venture. Small, it would accommodate a man’s hand should he have the misfortune to lose one.
I held it, and looked at it...
...then I wasntt looking at all.
I was looking at the pages of MISCREANT IN MOONSTREAM, the plot temporarily lost.
Placing the book to one side, I went to make coffee. It was tempting to pour a little Bells into the brew, but a clear head was the order of the day. I was now well and truly caught in the web of the plot and, somehow, had a feeling I was going to enjoy every minute of it. Had I got to the heart of the writer, though? Maybe just to her head. Who was the narrator? It seemed to be a man. Old Codger, yes, only a man or his horse could be called an old codger. But Beau Loches may be a woman in disguise, unknown both to the reader (me) and to the writer (who according to the dust wrapper photo was indeed a woman), whilst the plot’s narrative ‘I’ (or eye) did indeed know where his or her own gender truly lay. The spurious period words such as ‘tavern’, ‘apothecary’, ‘inn-keeper’ were merely decoys from a truth that was beginning to hit nearer and nearer to home. I shuddered. The frissons here were not only in my own skin but in the feel of each foxed page of wrinkled paper.
Unaccountably, I grabbed my dog-eared atlas (the one I’d had at school with each ink-blot telling its own story) - and, this book of maps being well out of date concerning the world’s current political geography, I guess that, if MISCREANT’s temporal context was indeed as firmly in the past as the most primary of sources (rather than a latter day period piece tarted up to be just one more whore of lowest common denominator literature) then, surely, I’d find Agra Aska lurking somewhere, even if I had to search high and low for it.
The world then was larger than it is now. Darkest Africa was as mysterious and frightful as the furthest reaches of the tenable universe. Footpads crouched in the shadows. All smells were stenches, except in palaces where perfumes perhaps pervaded, even then. The moon cast uncanny beams for fairies and elves to dance between. Indeed, the moon was a living creature that caused rivulets of golden light to stream through the breeze-laden curtains and then upon my counterpane. Much bad yet to be discovered. Much bad yet to be done.
Beau Loches knew there was a human hand in the green box. But would it be a man’s or a woman’s or an indeterminate child’s? He shook it and felt the thud thud as the contents ricocheted even in that confined space. Space was confined, even with the world being larger. The world was larger but seemed smaller. And the astrological planets were the furthest he could imagine anything being beyond. He shook his head as thoughts lost control, praying for the steadying hand of some force that he called God whilst some others may have named it from within a different system of nomenclature. There was suddenly, without recourse to easy paragraphing, a loud knocking at his door. Ignoring it, then, he opened the box with a spinal creak which, strangely, books often make.
I heard the drunken whore again. This time she was in my head, not my heart.
“Beau,” she said, and, “Beau,” again.
A slap to the face sent me reeling back, eyes snapping open as the atlas fell to the floor. I was back at the tavern, the drunken whore standing before me.
“Impossible,” said I, “I haven’t got the book.”
“True,” said she, “but the plot, like the soup, thickens.”
Strange it was to be confronted by this raven-haired amazon in a flowing red gown. I had not entered this scenario of my own free will.
“Not Beau, madam ... I shall assume this traveller’s identity when I’m good and ready.”
Hands on hips, she threw her head back and laughed.
“Think you’ve got a say in the matter, do you? The plot is up and running. Now pick up your bag, we must away,” and she leaned against the door with folded arms. Realising that she’d brook no further argument, I seized my possessions and followed her out into the night. Was she the narrator or the omniscient story-teller? Did the words flow from her mouth or her pen?
Out on the snow-covered street she clapped her hands, as if in command, and my faithful steed trotted out to greet us.
“Do they call you doctor Doolittle, by any chance?” I asked.
“Not in this book.”
At that moment a crack of thunder rent the night, shaking the ground and kicking up clumps of snow.
“What the .. ?”
And the world seemed to break apart, a huge chasm opening up just yards from where we stood. Smoke began rising out of the maw, a dark mist at first, but swirling ever faster and ever darker, rising above Agra Aska like a steaming Olympus. And as I looked at that towering behemoth, a form began to take shape; a torso, I thought, and a head. Then a Daemon’s horns seemed to burgeon from that head. This was madness, illusion ... but then glowing red eyes appeared!
“The box, Beau, open the box.”
I obeyed, not taking my eyes from that mountain-sized Daemon. Springing the lid, I glanced inside. Two bands, I thought, but curiously misshapen. I nearly dropped the box in fright when they started flapping like broken butterfly wings. Indeed, as they rose out of the box, I realised that they were wings. Wings with ribs like webbed fingers. Flittering across the ground, they attached themselves to Old Codger’s legs. In a second he was transformed from a tired old mare into a magnificent stallion, white and powerful.
“Jump on,” he shouted, “We must go.”
And at this, I really was taken aback.
“You spoke,” I cried.
“In these days, even dogs could talk,” he replied.
The raven-haired one leapt on his back and I did the same, almost as though caught in her wake. Old Codger leapt forward ... then soared into the air like a bird. I was aware of the Smoke-Daemon billowing towards us and I closed my eyes as the choking cloud engulfed us. But smoke was all that assailed us, and Old Codger was soon clear of that.
I stole a glance behind and saw that the smoke was drifting harmlessly away. In anticipation of a dissipation, I turned back to my companion.
“An excellent trick. Where to now?”
“Onward,” she replied. “There’ll be more substantial Daemons after us now. We must head for Heartland. Old Codger knows the way.”
Below us, a miniature landscape hurtled by. Arms tight about the lady’s waist, I started to relax. These terrors were but words on a page. I assured myself no harm could come of such purple prose.
In minutes we were flying towards Heartland; indeed, I could not mistake it, for it was a fantastic hamlet of golden cottages atop a plinth of rock - shaped, not surprisingly, like a heart.
“Heartland,” Old Codger needlessly remarked, and began a swift descent upon those glowing denizens.
I recalled the old Rupert books with superfluous text. Surely the same mistake wasn‘t being made here. I tried to visualise the rest, rather than depend on some more dry old words from the wizened crone that lived inside a rather smart and benign looking lady called Dee F. Lewis or into which selfsame crone Dee F. Lewis herself may soon grow by dint of the ravages of age. My actual eyesight scored gooves into the panoply before me as the shining heartlanders stumbled acoss the furrows thus caused. I was destroying their peaceful haven with the carelessness of imperfect narration Oh, My God! I was powerless to act, to bend the pen the ways I wanted…
The funnelling Daemon trod the thermals of my imagination as if they were its own. The vast pulsing twister - having turned bruised and blackened with the choking soot that constituted it - churned through the flailing limbs of the best and most rounded people I had ever managed to create. All my previous exercises had, by comparison, been tantamount to cutting out cardboard characters from cereal boxes with childhood’s blunt-ended scissors.
These sweet-souled heartlanders, then, screeched and blistered as they stumbled further into the deepening troughs my vision could do nothing now to make more shallow. My were-horse, too, trotted free in an orgy of stampeding and brainstorming, forgetting it was once my dear Old Codger - now, not even neighing or braying as a good wholesome, if wild, steed would have done in the natural course of events, but barking inarticulately like a rabid mongrel, then thunderously baying as if a hound from hell.
I crammed my ears with fists.
Terrified, I then tugged my pants down to prove some point I could no longer fathom. Or was it merely to see if my hindlegs were sprouting a devilish pelt or mane?
Omniscience is escaping like liquid words into a river of impossible dreams...
I then squeezed my eyelids so that I could only see the tentacles and floaters that ever lived within the optic juices. And my two hands began to flail of their own free will. Unputdownable hands. Struggling to strangle the first whore’s neck they could find...
In many ways, I had imagined death to be simultaneously nerve-shattering and soporific with gently tidal dreams. In reality, thank goodness, it was more a gentling down, gentling down of my rabid heart. I could hear a little boy’s flute and I knew I had returned whence I came: twilit Agra Aska. I watched five children playing at being smugglers. One gingerly carried a green box of what 1 guessed would be childhood’s treaures. Another wielded a huge school atlas. Somehow 1 knew these children’s names: Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timothy the dog
I shook my head. The book was not only generating its own blurbs but also its own happy ending.
Agra Aska’s river - which colourful royal barges, fresh back from a victorious war, plied - flowed like a moonstream. I gently gazed into the heartland of its waters
and saw the miscreant reader.