Before the war, Beaumont had dreamed of writing a treatise on the folly of empire that would stun the world. He wondered if the Front had turned him into the kind of man whose hunger might reasonably be satisfied by being the husband of a woman who ran a dress shop on the Kennington Road.
Nina Allan is an author I’ve meant to read for a while now, based on the positive things Megan at From Couch to Moon has said about them. And so I started with her horror novella The Harlequin, since apparently all I’m reading in November are novellas or short-stories, and because it’s still the perfect time of year to read weird tales.
The Great War is over, but its shadows linger, hovering over those who served in its trenches and bled in its fields. Dennis Beaumont drove an ambulance during the war, and while he didn’t see his share of fighting or kill any Germans, he still saw its butchery and carnage up close. He’s now returning to London, with plans to resume his studies at Oxford and reignite the passion he once felt for his fiancée Lucy. But Beaumont is too distant and instead he finds himself slipping into darkness, his mind scarred and fractured by the trauma of war. His memories center around one lonely night in France where he struggled to save an injured soldier named Stephen Lovell—and of the strange traveler Vladek in his patchwork cloak, who appeared out of nowhere and endeavored to assist.
The Harlequin is a realistic portrayal of war’s aftermath, focusing on Beaumont’s damaged psyche and his vivid reminiscences; it’s never overly sentimental or sappy, remaining stark and realistic while dealing with a changing home-front. Allan’s prose is quite good, and she has an uncanny knack for diving into the head of her protagonist: as just one example, the way she touched on Beaumont’s senses (particularly smell) like triggers for his memory and feelings was done quite well. Beaumont’s fiancée wants to open her own shop, and he finds himself lost and apart from his work; he finds solace in another woman, and descends down a dark, lonely road. The horror is built through the novel’s atmosphere, a combination of grim postwar trauma and surreal unease, centered around the mysterious stranger Vladek, whose role is an enigma—perhaps angel, perhaps devil, perhaps death… or merely the ferryman who hovers around the dead and dying.
Allan has written an excellent weird tale; she excels at building atmosphere in the story while withholding any obvious hints and clues. The novella hints at a lot of things, but Allan doesn’t overemphasize or overdo anything, nor does she underestimate the reader’s intelligence by providing clear-cut answers to enigmatic events. It’s a pretty demanding read because of that, but overall I think it’s more than worth it for its strong atmosphere and character. The Harlequin reminds me a bit of Arthur Machen, master of the weird tale, and Robert Aickman, writer of “strange stories.” It’s a rich but subtle novella, but all the better because of it, unsettling not just because of its events but because of its inexplicable mysteries. It feels very much like a long-lost Victorian ghost story or weird tale written by one of the old masters, and that’s about the highest praise I can give this kind of story. And heck, it’s already won The Novella Award based on its strengths.
The Harlequin might be too subtle and insidious for every reader, but I recommend it to anyone with an interest in weird tales or horror stories. And I’m more eager than ever to read some of Allan’s other works (which I can guarantee I will do by the end of the year…).
Title: The Harlequin
Author: Nina Allan
First Published: September 2015
What I Read: Sandstone Press ebook
Price I Paid: $5.99 (MSRP, since decreased)
MSRP: £7.99 pb / $3.99 ebook
ISBN / ASIN: 1910124389 / B016MR456E