Of all the Paradise Lost-inspired fantasy novels ever written, so few sport an inside cover featuring a stern-looking author in full pink rabbit costume holding high an occultist encyclopaedia. From such an image you might conclude that Mark Teppo is something between confident and a touch unstable. At a second glance there's also a distinct note of unruly self-parody, Teppo being framed against austere looking bookshelves of "serious" literature. This mischievousness runs throughout Teppo's debut novel, Lightbreaker.
Written in five "Works," Lightbreaker follows lone wolf occultist-sorcerer Markham in his quest through present day Seattle. As a name resurfaces from Markham's dark past, he is forced to track a cult of magical body-snatching fanatics as they wreak havoc across town. Along the way he teams up with a suspended police officer, Nichols, sheds light on the corruption of an ancient organisation, and foils an evil scheme to take over the world, all the while heckling burnt out philosophers and questioning the nature of his own reluctant morality. Central to the gritty, noir narrative, Markham teases the reader with a number of titillating questions before plunging them headfirst into revelations of murder, conspiracy, and all-out action. Who is he chasing? Who are the Watchers? Why can people summon forth their own souls to possess other human beings? Teppo leaves no stone unturned as he systematically disenchants his own work, leaving behind skeletons of impenetrable philosophy and one or two unresolved mysteries.
Markham has all the makings of a badass satanic antihero, conscious of his own flaws only insofar as his blunt ethos of pragmatism allows. His personal vendetta against the Watchers, an organisation from which he is "fallen," allows Lightbreaker to echo and parallel some of the major themes of Milton's Paradise Lost, especially those of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Rather than create a straight up allegorical imitation of the myth, however, Lightbreaker introduces a number of contemporary problems into the equation. Heaven, Hell, Pandaemonium, and Chaos all find their place in the text, though they are recast as locations where the distinctions between good and evil are blurred, forced to either co-exist or suffer. Demonic entities are coerced to achieve positive ends while God-like figures such as Markham's nemesis Antoine find that their supposed omniscience leads only to hubris. Paradise Lost may have sought to "justify the ways of God to men," but Lightbreaker is concerned only with interrogating these ways, questioning the existence of absolute wisdom and poking fun at its own subject matter. Markham comes across as a figure of uncertainty, challenging his own personal Gods as they recast him as the villain of the piece. At times he resembles the figure of Adam, crossed with a little Satan and a pinch of Faust, except instead of the devious, moustache twirling Mephistopheles, Markham wields the Chorus: a metaphysical representation of temptation which practically sweats awesomeness.
Teppo's choice to place the events of Lightbreaker in an alternate modern society is possibly the book's greatest strength, allowing it to draw on an inexhaustible well of occultist mythology as well as the raw inspiration of Paradise Lost. Some of the references are exotic enough to beggar belief, adding to the fantastical feel of the novel and giving the impression of artificiality, a world at once alien, yet unsettlingly familiar. Teppo not only bases his masquerade in a host of theological concepts, he also actively combines them to form a singular and fully fleshed worldview. Hermeticism, alchemy, theism, and epistemology are all poured into the same melting pot, creating a solid, diverse, and original discourse. Dualism is constantly cross-examined, providing the basis of the novel's magick ("The too cool for school spelling") which relies on a separation of soul and body (p. 50). Seventeenth Century math-magician Descartes pops up now and again to make sure you're paying attention, and it's all done with enough confidence to let Markham get away with some snazzy lines like, "Let's see what you can do without your flesh" (p. 201).
With all the navel gazing, it's miraculous that there is any room left for progression. Thankfully, Markham's inner struggles are balanced with a steady forward motion, and even the more psychedelic moments—babbling about giant, phallic dream-cherubs which don't really have anything to do with anything, despite being glossed as metaphorical reflections of the book's villain, "raping the world in order to remake it in his own image" (p. 242)—can provide breathing space between reams of heavy-going introspection.
At times the novel's half-seriousness becomes strained; most of the time, however, Lightbreaker manages to send itself up before anyone else gets the chance:
The basic rule when seeking information from an oracle [ . . . ] bring a gift.
I put the bag on the table near his half finished card game.
"Caramels," I said. "A couple of different flavors." (p. 110)
Passages such as this assure the reader that older traditions can be integrated within modern society, especially when they are boiled down to "basic rules." Of course you should bring a gift when seeking an oracle: it's just courtesy. The ritual performed is nothing out of the ordinary, so much so that it appears satirical, reminding the reader not to take any of it too seriously. Similarly, while religious and occultist texts are invoked with severity and awe, they are also endowed with the same authority as a certain Lovecraftian grimoire: "the Koran, the Torah, the Bible, the Necronomicon" (p. 50). Again this helpfully reminds the reader that they are reading a fantasy novel rather than a thesis on Enochian philosophy, as at times the two can seem interchangeable. The antagonists of the book, unexcitingly named Bernard and Julian, are basically burned out academics with a taste for evil, ivory tower dwelling scholars convinced of their moral superiority but bewildered by the fact that the rest of the world sees them as disenfranchised sociopaths. This implied anti-dogmatism gradually builds up as both a product and justification of the novel's satirical attitude, at times coming across as delightfully facetious, at others simply hypocritical.
The humour comes to a close as the female characters of the novel are introduced. Alarm bells sound as soon as Kat, the first woman to appear, describes herself as a whore-goddess before having her soul pilfered and her agency stripped away via multiple taserings. Justification: she's been sleeping with the bad guys. Later, macho duo Markham and Nichols are checking out the city, looking for some down to earth advice. They consider cab drivers, bartenders, drug dealers, and doormen before realising that they should be looking for a woman, and that women just don't fit these categories. The obvious answer: strip clubs. Strangely enough this leads them nowhere. Looking elsewhere they end up in a bookstore chatting to an educated, slightly rebellious but otherwise entirely pleasant shopkeeper called Devorah. For a page and a half Devorah is the strongest female character in the novel, naturally suspicious of Markham but willing to do a good deed for a stranger. This makes it all the more abhorrent when Markham takes it upon himself to perform some "spiritual rape," snatching back the novel's redeeming moment and rendering Devorah permanently insane (p. 254). Suave. It may only be psychic violation, but it's enough to tear Devorah's personality away and replace it with endless babblings from Paradise Lost. Justification: the fate of the universe hangs in the balance . . . or something. An argument that this misogyny is part of the self-reflexive parody running through the novel would be far from convincing. Rather than commenting on the representation of women in ancient scripture, instead the book shamelessly reiterates them. There is little sympathy and even less regret shown towards these downtrodden characters. Stopping just short of celebrating the subjugation of all womanhood, these few instances betray an awkward oversight in an otherwise deliberately inoffensive narrative.
Lightbreaker comes across as a book that wants to be taken seriously but cannot get over the fact that much of the occult has come to be associated with paranormal gobbledegook. In contrast to the self-parody, moments of absolute sincerity insist that there is an element of truth to be gleaned from all myths and worldviews, generating meaning in an otherwise inaccessible and arbitrary universe. When Nichols protests that the magick he has witnessed could be part of a shared hallucination, Markham replies that "All existence is a hallucination," a claim which places massive importance on perceptions of a consensus reality (p. 51). The limits and possibilities of human understanding are probed continually, drawing on a startlingly similar set of attitudes to those informing cyberpunk narratives, though expressed in a language far from technological. The quest of the antagonists involves breaking out of the false existence that blinds humanity, into the "real" world that lies just out of reach. Corporeal bodies are regarded with contempt by the majority of the novel's characters. These motifs are questioned vigorously before Markham concludes that subjective experience, flawed though it may be, is still one of the best tools at our disposal.
Any genuine insight the novel has to offer is incredibly apologetic, almost swallowing itself in its own defence. The humour comes across as tentative and even nervous, which is unsurprising considering the bulk of research that has gone into it. Shrugging this off with dialogue from Nichols such as, "It sounds like a very big pile of horseshit to me" (p. 84), the book succeeds in drawing attention to its own inherent weaknesses. Though lighthearted, at times this casual indifference leads its characters into sticky situations, giving an impression that cynicism is as dangerous and bleak as all other dogmas. Those who would read Lightbreaker as fantasy and fantasy alone are presented with a solemn warning: dismissiveness and lack of vigilance can leave a person defenceless. It's almost as if the man in the rabbit suit is grinning and daring you to laugh.
Peter Whitfield is a student living in the Northeast of England.
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