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The Piaculum

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by Richard Gray

It’s probably quite obvious that horror is not my scene. Neither is science fiction, so, whichever of the two (if either) this was intended to be, it was hardly guaranteed that I would find it enjoyable.

Even the afficionado of horror and/or science fiction tends to take his or her chosen bedtime reading with a pinch of salt, but Richard Gray attempts to evade any accusation of absurdity by setting his book, The Piaculum, firmly in an unnamed alien land, where the characters have names like Cearl and Twain and belong to a strange religious cult. (In fact, the whole novel is presented in the style of a myth.) While this can help to make the plot more acceptable, it carries with it the risk of distancing the reader’s sympathies. Such an approach almost dares one to persevere past the first few pages.

Characters in this genre tend not to be fully-drawn, partly for the reasons hinted at above. In Cearl’s case, it is evident from the start that there is something deeply symbolic about the "white-mark" carried by both the boy and his mother, a distinguishing feature that sets them apart from their neighbours. This is no common horror story. For a start, there is virtually no trace of humour. No, this book is written in apparent sincerity.

Regrettably, as with so many of the works published in this way, it did not seem that enough effort had been given to proof-reading; however, this review is based on a proof copy, not the final published edition, which I understand was further revised. I was very pleased to learn this, because errors like misplaced apostrophes, "site" for "sight" and "scaring" for "scarring" can confuse the reader, and detract from a narrative that is smooth, if at times overwritten:

"The Kathe was the name of the cult that had abducted Cearl as a child, and the threat of the Kathe’s violence led many of the Mone to segregation and prejudice."



This sounds more like a history lesson (imaginary history, of course) than a novel; the reader should be able to pick up such background knowledge from the subtext, rather than having it spelled out.

These faults are common to most new writers, and failed to deter me from continuing the story, which I read with a horrified fascination. That’s the thing about horror, of course: you don’t really want to read on, but you can’t help yourself. Cearl’s nightmare is his childhood experience of seeing the "walking crucified", whose number he was saved from joining at the last minute, largely by virtue of his community’s shared faith. In order to maintain the tension, the author switches back and forth in time, sometimes moving on a few years, sometimes delving into Cearl’s memories.

It is hard to say whether the motivation for such a story actually originates from the writer’s own spiritual beliefs. The activities of Cearl’s cult, the Mone, resemble those of some evangelical Christians. Their enemies, the Kathe, are pagans with a primitive code of conduct. The vicissitudes that beset Cearl himself have a parallel in the everyday troubles of the committed believer. When given the opportunity to walk away from his tormentors, he instead offers himself up as a sacrifice, becoming a Messiah figure. As with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, as much attention is focused on the suffering as on the redemption, albeit in distinct and separate episodes, so that the reader is not overwhelmed by the effect. We are left with something akin to C.S.Lewis’s works: an updating of the Christian gospel, but with the difference that a very human being stands at its centre.

The fact that I don’t know whether Richard Gray is a Christian should not really matter, and I made no effort to find out before completing the review, for fear it might influence my reading of the text. I still don’t know. In hindsight, and with the proviso that this was never a book I would have picked up from choice, I can’t deny The Piaculum’s very real merits.


ISBN 0 595 30301 3
iUniverse, 2003
212pp, paperback
Retail price $


Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

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