Saturday, July 28, 2012

Retro Review - Escardy Gap (1996) by Peter Crowther and James Lovegrove


Peter Crowther (b. 1949) and James Lovegrove (b. 1965) are two British speculative-fiction authors who set out, according to the article on Escardy Gap by James Lovegrove on his website,

A short-story collaboration that ended up five hundred pages long, Escardy Gap was pure fun from start to finish. Pete and I set out to concoct an affectionate and respectful homage to Something Wicked This Way Comes, but, as the book evolved, we found we were creating something entirely different and altogether darker.

And how did they do?

Synopsis (*SPOILERS*)
The story begins with a framing segment of a New York City based author, apparently in the 1980's or 1990's, who is attempting to overcome his writers' block and write the great horror novel upon which he has been working for a long time.  He's living a rather isolated life, with two friends in his building, and a cat in his apartment. He begins writing, and we read the novel.

The story is set in the small American town of Escardy Gap (pop. 792) sometime in the 1950's.  The exact year is never mentioned, nor is the exact state, but it is somewhere in the deserts of the West.  Escardy Gap is semi-isolated:  it is built around the only spring for many miles around and hence is a fertile oasis in the midst of the desert.  There is, however a railroad which enters the town through a tunnel, and a railroad station, where trains stop every few days.  There is also at least one road out of town.

Escardy Gap is a good and wholesome town, populated by rather innocent and mostly-loveable people.  It is in fact almost absurdly-idealized, and is clearly modelled on Ray Bradbury's rural America at its most nostalgiac.

To this town there comes unscheduled one Saturday a mysterious and sinister train, drawn by a black steam locomotive.  The mere sound of its whistle is able to shatter nearby objects and, on the way into town, it briefly stops and its evil occupants somehow destroy the mind of an old man at an outlying farmhouse, who sees his dead wife as one of the passengers (from later happenings in the story, it becomes fairly obvious how this was done).  Unfortunately for the townsfolk, they do not witness this initial event.

The train pulls into the station and its occupants emerge.  They are a group of freakish people who call themselves "The Company," and pretend to be a traveling circus.  The good people of Escardy Gap invite them to stay in their homes (which is odd even by 1950's small-town American standards, but may be a manifestation of the Company's powers), and the real show commences.

For the Company are in fact an alliance of evil demons, inhumans and mutants, all assembled by the power of The Angel (their train, which is actually a greater demon incarnate as a sort of cyborg vehicle) and led by the Angel's lieutenant, Jeremiah Rackstraw, who is either some sort of lesser demon or a once-human diabolist who decided to serve The Angel in return for power.  Each has a unique power or powers, enough to make him (or her -- at least three are female) able to easily kill any normal unarmed human.  And each is a serial killer, who delights in horribly murdering innocent victims.  The fear, pain and death they cause somehow feed The Angel, making their relationship with their master a symbiosis.

Starting on Saturday night, the Company begin their murders.  Their first killings are done surreptitiously with corpses either hidden or left in states where they no longer appear to be human remains (this is possible due to some of their specific powers), but on Sunday morning one of them leaves a murdered boy wrapped around the biggest and oldest tree in town.

The townsfolk come to the realization that there are murderers among them.  Some fight, some hide, some try to flee, but they are for the most part overmatched.  The phone lines have been cut and some who try to flee discover that there is a force field around the town which gruesomely kills anyone who attempts to pass.  Two people -- the Mayor (an ex-Hollywood actor) and Joshua Knight (a 12-year-old genius) eventually realize that the forcefield only extends to but not under the ground, and thus offers a passage to safety.

This is when the story gets really weird.

Somehow, when the Mayor and Josh escape through the tunnel, they find themselves in the New York City of the writer, coming out of a culvert in Central Park right under the writer's nose.  The writer can apparently create worlds out of his imagination and materialize the inhabitants of these worlds in the "real" world, and the two friends (and the cat) he thought he had were really just more products of his imagination.

But because the Mayor and Josh were only meant to exist in the imaginary world of Escardy Gap, they begin to (painfully and disgustingly) dissolve soon after the writer gets them safely to his apartment.  The writer knows only one way to save them -- to write them back into Escardy Gap and somehow give the story a semi-happy ending.  So he again starts writing ...

The Mayor and Josh return to Escardy Gap.  They decide that they have to stop The Company and save whoever else of the townsfolk have managed to survive so far.

They realize -- due to the nature of a trap which Josh had previously escaped -- that The Company's train is a living being and probably the source of their power.  They decide that to defeat The Company, they must somehow slay this entity.

The Mayor gives his life to distract The Angel's guardians while Josh sneaks under the train.  There, he finds a hatch leading to the (literal) guts of the locomotive.  Josh tears apart The Angel's internal organs, killing (or banishing) the greater demon.  Upon The Angel's death, Jeremiah Rackstraw ages, turns to a skeleton and disintegrates (making it obvious that Rackstraw's life force was tied to that of The Angel).  The other monsters also either die -- or flee, the story doesn't make it obvious which.  Josh walks through the ruined and burning town, of whose folk he is one of the few survivors -- and mourns the death of Escardy Gap.

The writer remembers that there was at least one other character -- a beautiful, intelligent and lonely woman, who was a science fiction and fantasy writer -- who also survived the destruction of the town, though he had forgotten to write what happened to her.

Realizing that she is his ideal woman, he returns to the Central Park portal leading to Escardy Gap and vanishes..

Here the story ends.

The Good

The Angel and its Company are a good enabling concept, providing a logical reason for a large group of disparate monsters to attack a single small town.  The Angel itself, and each individual described member of The Company, are interesting monsters, with imaginatively chosen powers and limitations.  Each of them might, in itself, be the subject of a good short story or novel.

Crowther and Lovegrove remembered that we must first care about a place to care about its destruction.  They make the reader care about Escardy Gap and its inhabitants, so that we care about their destruction, and properly hate The Company for their foul deeds.  This makes the story more horrifying and the eventual defeat of the villains more satisfying.

The Bad

Monsters Without a Cause

The monsters need origin stories and motivations beyond "we're evil and we like killing people."  To begin with, there are strong implications in the story that not all of The Company began as demons:  Rackstraw seems to have begun as some sort of human diabolist or sorceror; Agnes Destiny may be a mutant; and the Changeling is a member of a nonhuman race which secretly evolved (or otherwise appeared) on Earth but the members of which have mostly forgotten their own true natures and powers (it appears to be some sort of small shoggoth, similar in some ways to Michael Shea's "Fat Face").

While it's obvious that only the most evil of people or creatures would be selected by The Angel and Rackstraw to join The Company, and any remaining tendencies toward good would be rather rapidly destroyed by their line of work, there is nothing about being a mutant or a nonhuman which would automatically make one an evil murderous sadist.  There need to be explanations at least hinted at for why the main antagonists are the way that they are, and Crowther and Lovegrove provide none.

Too Nice For Their Own Good

The inhabitants of Escardy Gap are naive and (prove themselves to be) helpless beyond belief, and their utter lack of effective resistance undermines some of the sympathy which the reader might otherwise feel for them.  Specifically, it is foolish for them to take a group of weird outsiders into their own homes, especially when alternatives exist (the town actually has a small hotel).  This is overly-trusting to the point that it makes me wonder if this was some psychic influence exerted by The Angel.

It is believable that the murders of Saturday night go undetected.  One might distrust strangers but one would not logically assume them to be a band of psychopathic brigands; furthermore some of the specific methods of murder are ones possible only for metahumans (for instance, one couple is slain by a man who tricks them into smoking an incredibly-addictive enchanted tobacco which dissolves them down to blobs and them piles of ash).

What is not believable, save by means of mind control, is the way in which the townsfolk act after the discovery of the corpse of Tom Finkelbaum on Sunday morning.  Specifically, no one responds to this as a major crime demanding any sort of police investigation, and it seems to occur to none or very few of them that the obvious suspect in the murder of Tom Finkelbaum would be one of The Company, since the correlation between The Company's arrival and the murder would otherwise have to be an incredible coincidence.. 

I can believe that a town of only 792 people might lack a full-time police department, but in that case (1) there would be someone in or near the town who acted as de facto or part-time constable and (2) standard procedure in the event of a serious crime (such as murder) would be for the town authorities to contact some higher law enforcement agency -- the County Sheriff's office (Escardy Gap does not appear to be a county seat), State Police or even Federal Bureau of Investigation.  And yes, Escardy Gap would in reality have some sort of law enforcement system, some sort of way to report crimes and arrest criminals.  Nice and peaceful a town as it is, there must sometimes be fights, robberies, and other minor offenses.

Now, I'm not saying that a law enforcement response would have worked.  The Company would not have submitted to being rounded up and questioned, and the moment that any attempt was made to call for outside help, the cut phone lines and force field would have been discovered.

What I am saying is that the discovery of Finkelbaum's corpse should logically have precipitated the climax.  The town authorities should have confronted Rackstraw, and The Company then manifested their full power in defiance of Escardy Gap.  At this point, the masks would have gone down, and the large-scale death and destruction begun.

No, instead the townspeople just scream in panic and then mostly try to ignore what just happened.   The climax actually comes when many of the townsfolk go to the movies that Sunday afternoon, attending them with The Company among them.  There is some implicit mind control here, for instance The Company is able to get in without paying (why they care to do this isn't clear, as they could obviously just pick up the till on the way out and thus get back their money, assuming that cash money really matters all that much to supernatural metahuman brigands who sack whole towns).

This ends in the predictable manner, when The Company simply slaughters everyone else in the movie theatre.  After that, there is still no grand moment of realization:  instead, The Company simply disperses and begins finishing off everyone else in the town one at a time.

The Mayor fails his town completely.  It is not until hours after the Finkelbaum murder that he realizes that the phone lines have been cut, and he makes no real effort to recuit any assistance.  The Mayor winds up with Josh and (for a while) Doc Wheeler as an unofficial resistance group more or less by accident.  Each individual inhabitant of Escardy Gap is left to flee, fight and (mostly) die alone, or with no aid save that of his own family.

The ineffectiveness of this response implicitly comes from two factors, which I think derive from the limitations of either Crowther and Lovegrove's, or The Writer's, knowledge of real 1950's America.

Tougher Than They Looked

You may remember that the adult characters in 1950's TV and movie rural America were really nice folks.  Sweet.  Kind.  Even innocent.

This is horsefeathers.

In fact, the adults of the 1950's had been through Hell, and to the extent that they really did act that nice, did so because they had seen enough nastiness already to suit them for the rest of their lives, thank you.   These were people who had already survived some rather seriously-dangerous events.

Take "adults" c. 1955 as being around 25-65 years old, which means that they were born around 1890 through 1930.  If you were born around 1890, you lived through, in succession:

1. The Panic of 1893, a recession roughly as bad as the one we're in right now, which lasted five years and saw unemployment rates reaching as high as 12-18 percent (at a time when there was no unemployment insurance!!!), and which probably caused hundreds of thousands of excess deaths in America;

2.  World War One, which should require no introduction but which we should note included the killer flu pandemic of 1918 (inspiration for Lovecraft's "The Last Test" and hence indirectly for King's The Stand), which between them shattered Old Europe and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in America;

3. The Great Depression, which lasted over a decade and saw unemployment rates as high as 25 percent (resultiing in hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of excess deaths due to malnutrition, exposure and related causes), followed almost immediately by

4. World War Two, in which America came close to defeat at points, and in which America lost almost half a million dead and suffered millions of severely wounded, ended by our invention of the atomic bomb which introduced a new deadly peril into the world, and recently

5.  The Korean War, which claimed over 33 thousand American lives with over a hundred thousand severely wounded.

Someone who survived any or all of these events (and even someone born in 1930 would have lived through the last three of them) may have been nice (because they were very, very happy that they were now living in pece and prosperity), but they also tended to be rather tough, and were not entirely unaware of the existence of evil in the world -- to put it mildly.

To Arms?

The three wars on that list remind us of something else, which is that the early to mid 20th century was not exactly what one would call a time of overall peace.  Americans, particularly rural Americans, would in any case have owned and become fairly good shots with a variety of firearms ranging from pistols up to bolt-action rifles.  The warlike nature of the era meant that a significant minority of Americans, even in small towns, were also veterans, and furthermore that it was considered not merely acceptable but even patriotic to own and practice with firearmes.

The reasons why this is important is that it is actually mentioned in the novel that many if not all of the members of The Company are vulnerable to firearms.  Yet The Company seems not to take the threat of guns into account, until one of their victims, driven crazy by the sight of the forcefield, shows up at The Angel with a gun in hand.  And then he fails to make any effective use of his weapon.

Nor does it occur to the Mayor, Josh or the Doc -- or any sane character in the story -- that it might be wise to bring out some firearms.  They are, of course, unaware that The Company is vulnerable to guns, but then they have no particular reason to believe that they aren't vulnerable to guns either.  The only reason for them to believe this would be that movie monsters are often immune to guns -- though this wasn't usually the case in the movies of the 1950's!!!

Even though the townsfolk, at the point of their final slaughter, are mostly aware of the fact that their town is under attack by ruthless and atrocious murderers, and are mostly at home trying to protect their families, nobody seems to be using guns.  During the final wave of murders, we don't even hear any gunshots.  This is incomprehensibly passive behavior, from an American point of view, and I daresay that even most British towns would by this point have broken out their (smaller) arsenals and decided to sell their lives dearly.

For that matter, even though the Mayor and Josh eventually realize that they have to destroy a steam locomotive, which they have no reason to assume is vulnerable to their unaided human strength, it never occurs to them to get any explosives (dynamite would be available in the general store of any mid-20th-century small American town).  It's possible that the Mayor's death would have been unnecessary had they done that, as we have no reason to assume that The Angel was armored beyond the norm for an ordinary steam locomotive.
Paging Miss Norton ...

There is one character in the book who is both interesting, srongly-drawn and totally wasted.  That is Sara Sienkiewicz, who is an intelligent, imaginative, strong-minded writer of science fiction and fantasy, who one would expect to swiftly grasp the situation (she's been published in and presumably reads Weird Tales) and propose effective action from the first appearance of The Company.  When I saw that she was in the story, I expected her to play a major role in fighting the monsters.

Nope.  Rackstraw considered her an especially delectable treat (she has a truly good soul of exceptional purity) and had one of his minions put her into an enchanted slumber for his own later enjoyment (at the end of which he intends to kill her)  This never comes to pass, since she wakes up toward the end and wanders dazedly out of town to collapse in a house which The Company have already plundered.   Thus, she  is overlooked by the monsters, then The Angel is destroyed, and hence Sara is one of the few known survivors of the townsfolk, availabe to become the object of The Writer's final quest.

Which is to say ...

The whole freaking purpose of this character was to give The Writer a love interest which would tempt him to enter his fictional world at the end of the story!!!

Now, I am very far from being a radical feminist.  The fact that a female character in a story may exist mostly to be endangered by the villain does not bother me as deeply as it does those who have had the misfortune to have been brainwashed by Political Correctness.

However ...

... when a writer introduces an admirable, loveable and obviously-competent character into a story (Seinkiewicz is selling to paying markets including the Saturday Evening Post at a time when there still existed considerable prejudice against female sf/fantasy writers, and come to think of it against science fiction and fantasy themselves) and then just tosses the character aside for the whole story, giving the character absolutely no chance to show any of her skills or use them effectively in the resolution of the plot, and especially when this character is rather obviously based on a writer for whom I have the most profound admiration, and who was famous for stories including strong female characters who were not merely Distressed Damsels (in an era where such damsels were close to the norm) ... well, I cry "foul."

Muggers, Muggers Everywhere

There is a throwaway scene where The Writer, the Mayor and Josh just happen to encounter three punks on the streets of New York, whom The Writer manages to appease by giving $50 and who seem unaccountably unafraid of the three punks, which seems to be in there to demonstrate

(1) - How much more dangerous the streets of a 1990's big city are than Escardy Gap and

(2) - How in the 1950's nobody was scared of teenagers while by the 1990's everybody needs to be.

The writers get everything about this wrong.

To begin with, the streets of New York City are not more dangerous than Escardy Gap, because Escardy Gap has been overrun by demons.  Both the Mayor and Josh have met and been threatened by Rackstraw and others of The Company personally, and having some experience of New York City steet punks, I will categorically state for the benefit of anyone who doubts this that they are not scarier than murderous metahuman monsters!

Secondly, it is fairly improbable that three random punks, who in the story shown no sign of being armed with as much as knives, would attempt to mug a group including two male adults and one male child.  This is especially the case if the environment was in public and by daylight.  And no, Central Park is not overrun with criminals to the point that no one would take notice of such a crime.

Thirdly, about the worst thing that one can do when confronted by potential muggers is offer them money to go away.  Doing so implies that one has more money and that one is frightened enough that one might be induced to yield these additional funds.  The writers seem to have no clue about the motivations of petty crimianls.

Finally, not only were people in the 1950's not unafraid of teenagers, but in fact this was the period in which the concept of "juvenile crime" as a special and growing problem became of general concern.  Watch any of the movies from this era.  (One could if one were inclined push this back a little to the late 1940's).  Admittedly, it probably isn't normally a problem in Escardy Gap itself.

The Strange

The whole plot where it turns out that not only is Escardy Gap a tertiary world comes across as something of a deus ex machina.  There is no real foreshadowing that The Writer has the ability to bring his imaginary creations to physical reality.

There is no obvious reason given why The Writer is alone or why he is so insanely cynical about the world (though his attitude might be an explanation for his loneliness).  He comes across as a manic-depressive, and when one adds to this that he is unaware that his best friends were created from his own imagination, a psychotically-deluded manic-depressive at that.

I'm also kind of curious how The Writer would handle the inevitable explanation to Sara of his origin.

"Yes, I'm the person who created your whole fictional world, which is identical to my 1950's but has this town called Escardy Gap."

"Wait, you mean you created me, my town, and all the people in it?"


"Which got destroyed and its people horribly slaughtered by monsters?"

"Um ... yeah."

"And was the appearance of these monsters a coincidence?"

"Well, no ... um ... I was writing a horror story, you see ... so, do you love me?"

For that matter, what happens to The Writer when he enters Escardy Gap?  Is he, as the world's Creator, super-powerful there?  As a non-native, does he have to worry about eventual disintegration like his characters in our world?  Or is he just a normal human being there?

Are any of the monsters still in Escardy Gap?  If so, isn't he worried about encountering them?  Even if there are no monsters in Escardy Gap, what happens when the people of that world notice the town's annihilation (it's hardly subtle, Rackstraw set the place on fire) and The Writer is found to be the only stranger alive in town, with absolutely no record of his existence anywhere in that world).

Then again, he brought his typewriter, which seems to be a sort of Word Processor of the Gods, so maybe he can just write himself whatever background suits his needs.  Maybe he can even write Sara as being deeply in love with him from first sight.

Frankly, given how insane The Writer appears (to me) to be, I'm glad I don't live in that secondary world.  And only in part because of the obvious monsters.


Escardy Gap is an enjoyable (I had fun reading it) but logically-flawed horror-fantasy, which left a lot of loose ends.  The motivation of the monsters is pretty much taken for granted, and the townsfolk seem to have a whole bucket full of Idiot Balls (perhaps on loan from the school gym) which they spend most of the story passing around.  The Writer's version of the 1950's is poorly-researched and inconsistent (which may or may not be intentional on the part of the actual writers) which directly drives (or fails to drive) key parts of the plot.

Worth reading, but can't take it very seriously.


  1. Fun review, Jordan!

    It reminds me a little of the last of the Harry Potter books, in that Acceptable Good Guy Behavior sounds like it consists mostly of running, hiding, and hoping the monsters don't show up to kill you before the big finish - when the good guys have just as much ability to posse up and take the fight to their attackers.

    1. Too many people seem to imagine that good people must be completely ineffectual and passive, or even stupid. It was stupid of the people of Escardy Gap to let a whole trainload of weird strangers into their homes, and even stupider of them not to realize that they were in danger when corpses started turning up. And their response was impotent to an unbelievable degree: even given that the Mayor let them down by failing to try to organize a defense, surely individuals would have used their own guns and other weapons to try to protect themselves and their families?

      The only explanation that makes any sense is a psychic power of The Angel, but the story alludes to no such mind-control or submission-inducing field. Which is a notable omission, given that The Angel is powerful enough to generate some sort of dimension-twisting force field large enough to cover the whole town.

      No, I think it's just that the writers assumed that "wholesome small-town folk" are harmless, even when one poses a deadly and gruesome threat to themselves and their loved ones. Which is a false assumption, as any number of local American histories (and dead bank robbers, etc.) demonstrate.