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The Burn Street Haunting coverReading The Burn Street Haunting is like a tour through genre: here is the “ghost story” bit, then suddenly we have a touch of science fiction; a piece of low-life London gangster-thriller arises, and episodes we can only describe as Lovecraftian bubble to the surface. It is a difficult book to describe, because the ending pulls it all together and makes it not the rather frivolous mixture that my opening sentence might imply, but a thought-provoking novel of considerable power. I am tempted to leave it at that; but the way Gadz plays with the reality (or realities) experienced by his hero needs some attention.

The novel’s storying is complex. The novel’s narrator, Tom Markham, presents the novel as an autobiographical narrative of his life—or more than one such account—that he tells after what he calls “Certain Events.” As early as the fifth page, this telling is interrupted by one of a series of “handwritten notes” jeering at the narrator: “You just wait, fuck-face!” snarls the amused and angry interjector. There is clearly a lot going on, some of which is explained early on, but with other elements much further on that take us back to the beginning. As well as its attraction as a dramatic story, this is a novel which entices us into an immediate second reading, to allow us to fully understand and savour the interesting things the author does with structure and the way Markham reveals his story.

Markham himself, we learn in the early pages, is a petty crook (“the kind of lower status scumbag who took part in local post office break-ins at three in the morning”). He possesses an ability to somehow evade the hazards of his trade and is seen as naturally lucky, even something of a good-luck charm, by his fellows. This ability, he explains, is something to do with being able to sense or “read” bits of other peoples’ thoughts or feelings, and it is this itself to which he puts down the “Certain Events” he circles around, as he explains in equally evasive terms how a “golden opportunity” arose to change his life, escape a failed marriage and the death of his father, and move on. At first all we know about this “golden opportunity” is that it is linked to something horrible which involved the death of others. Later, we learn that he has in his possession a holdall containing £100,000, which he took when he inadvertently came across a bank robbery and recognised two of the robbers. In the chaos, an explosion killed thirty-seven people—an explosion for which Markham blames himself. Fleeing to London, to a squalid flat in Burn Street, Markham tries to hide under an assumed name, pretending to Julie, a young teacher to whom he becomes attracted, that he has decided to become a writer, but also finding in the student Andrew Marsh’s research into paranormal conspiracies and belief systems a way of understanding the terrors that have haunted him since the time of these “Certain Events.”

We come to understand that these “Events” date back to Markham’s childhood in the 1950s when, as a bright twelve-year-old, he was selected to participate in a series of experiments in ESP “remote viewing”—and disturbed a supernatural entity, a predatory, monstrous thing which seems to have the ability to enter into and reshape our reality. As we read, Markham discovers—as what seems at first to be the perfectly normal geographical confusion of a new settler in London deepens into an inability to even leave the area around Burn Street, and as fellow-lodgers mentioned earlier to him appear never to have existed—that the “Thing-in-the-dark” has found him. He also discovers that Julie herself has a dark shadow in her past and that, while the metaphysical “Thing-in-the-dark” is at work manipulating the world around him, a viciously physical London gangster, Billy Mills, is as much interested in the holdall with £100,000 as the “Thing” is in the minds and souls of humanity.

So here we are with threads of numerous multi-generic dark and menacing tropes; but this is also a novel that is built upon foundations simultaneously firmer and more complex than simply attracting readers with a taste for the sinister. Markham is himself an intriguing character, a bright child who “went bad” early but retained a taste for literature, especially King Lear. Quotations from Lear are scattered throughout the novel, significantly linking Tom Markham with the anguish of Edgar as “Tom-Fool” and also, for instance, emphasising his fear that he is going mad (“O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!”). But early on, Markham confesses that “I’ve been very good at self-deceit, and I’ve been even better at telling lies to others.” We see both traits in operation throughout, and we also note that this apparent candour might mask other layers of self-deception.

There are also veins of humour running through the narrative. That is to say, there are frequent bursts of hysterical, insane laughter (usually from Markham himself); but there are also aspects of the narrative that are downright comic: often very darkly comic indeed, but laughter-raising nevertheless. On first meeting Julie, Markham secures her attention with two jokes in quick succession; and while he knows his quips to Billy Mills are unwise, he wisecracks anyway. His landlady, Mrs Philpot, is a kind, scatty woman with a gift for malapropisms, and there is a running joke about the non-appearances of Mr Philpot due to a variety of ailments. Andrew March, the “post-gradient student” who is a fellow lodger, claims to be writing a thesis, although he never seems to attend any university activities because of sit-ins against the administrative staff (or, later, in support of the administrative staff.)

But the novel has further twists in store. March’s conspiracy-theory mysticism and rag-tag political philosophies are on the surface typical 1970s post-hippy paranoia, but soon we are far too deeply under their surface for comfort.  Andrew appears to have a book for every situation, and when Markham’s “ability” intuits why, he becomes a tragic rather than a comic character. All these oscillations of tone add to the unsettling nature of the story being told: a story upon which we become convinced the author has a grip as firm as his narrator’s is weak.

But not the least interesting aspect of the novel—for this reader at least—is its detailed picture of semi-Bohemian London in 1973. It is not only Marsh’s underground press, Dark Whimsey, but the culture and scenery. Markham and Julie bond over Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, and films on show during their cinema trips include A Clockwork Orange and Live and Let Die. They go to a gig by fellow-lodger Eve’s folk-rock band. Markham recalls the “Paris Riots” and Neil Armstrong. He witnesses an Asian man being harassed by a group of thugs. Above all, there is the frequent reference to every Londoner’s indispensable (and mostly accurate) guide to getting around, the now obsolete A-Z,  and the difficulty in locating therein some of the smaller streets—a difficulty, as noted above, that becomes for Markham less a “new” Londoner’s irritation and more a clue to the eventual plot development. This “historical” placing is not only an attraction in its own right (at least to those of us who were there at the time); it is also, and more importantly, a springboard to what we are given in the last few pages of the book: an ending which is capable of a number of readings, none of which offer much in the way of comfort.

Andy Sawyer is a retired librarian, researcher, critic, and reviewer of SF. From 1993-2018 he was librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, where he also taught courses on SF, and was reviews editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He was guest curator of the British Library Exhibition “Out of This World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It” (May 20-Sep 25, 2011), and an advisor to the “Into the Unknown” exhibition at the Barbican Centre London (June 3-Sept 1, 2017). He was the 2008 recipient of the Science Fiction Research Association’s Clareson Award for services to science fiction. He is currently researching science fiction of the 1950s, the life and work of Jane Webb Loudon, and how to play “Science Fiction/Double Feature” on the ukulele.
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20 May 2024

Andrew was convinced the writer had been trans. By this point his friends were tired of hearing about it, but he had no one else to tell besides the internet, and he was too smart for that. That would be asking for it.
You can see him / because you imagine reconciliation.
It’s your turn now. / the bombs have come in the same temper— / you in your granny’s frame
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