Christopher Barker's The Melancholy Haunting of Nicholas Parkes Reviewed

Sunday, November 14, 2010

For the longest time, specters that are irredeemably malevolent and inhuman have populated weird fiction's ghostly tradition. Now, however, the familiar effectiveness of the demon-like spirit is being challenged by writers like Christopher Barker, a longtime weird fiction commentator and owner of Haunted River Press. In his tale "The Melancholy Haunting of Nicholas Parkes," a selection from Tenebrous Tales, newly published by Ex Occidente, Barker sews an emotionally mesmerizing narrative by introducing a ghost who is equally human, threatening, and eerie. Nicholas Parkes is also exceptionally believable, a product of Barker's decision to base this phantom and the entire tale around the tragic downfall of British musician Nick Drake.

"The Melancholy Haunting of Nicholas Parkes" opens in a typically oppressed office, where a narrator named Chris (possibly based on the author himself) seeks to unravel the troubles of a young colleague, Robert Gulliver. After escaping the "Machiavellian malcontents" who leer over their careers with a grim presence, the two settle in at a bar, where Gulliver relates his febrile obsession with the obscure Parkes and the supernatural consequences it has wrought. From the office to Parkes' home and grave site, Barker brings a colorful cast onstage, but none so convincing and intricately sketched as young Parkes.

Nick Drake's rise from nonentity to cult following seems perfectly mirrored in Parkes, while his downfall at the hands of noncommittal, profiteering managers and misfortune crosses the reality-fiction border as well. Barker recognizes the importance of providing generous background passages, and they are sufficient for making the story easily understandable and interesting for readers with zero knowledge of Drake and his music. There is nothing dry about Parkes' history either. Barker's musician is presented as a sensitive, dreamy man who drifts into a dark and phantasmal mindset before his physical demise. More than anything, Parkes himself becomes haunted by his unrealized talent and perhaps something worse, flinging open the door to his posthumous existence as a stricken and vengeful entity.

Unlike Robert Aickman's work, which Christopher Barker has extensively studied and commented on prior to embarking on his own fiction, the supernatural element in this piece is very clear. However, Barker uses Nicholas Parkes' spectral presence to explore several other themes resonating a nearly Aickmanesque aura and strangeness. For instance, the relationship between the obsessive Gulliver and deceased artist--including physical and psychological traits they uncannily share--is left to the reader's imagination. The same may be said about suicide, which functions as a shadowy demon, a recurring curse throughout the story that seems as otherworldly as Parkes at times, and taints the broken artist, as well as those he comes into contact with. Although the content of his work differs from contemporaries like Reggie Oliver and R.B. Russell, Barker's knack for establishing harrowing mysteries with several possible interpretations is competent and comparable to both Oliver and Russell.

Intellectual mazes aside, the fullest draw of "The Melancholy Haunting of Nicholas Parkes" rests in its ability to form a distinctive, enveloping atmosphere via potent imagery. Barker's alternating excursions through reality and fiction by re-telling Drake's course enlivens certain scenes with a nearly cinematic authenticity. Readers can well imagine Parkes' descent into artistic purgatory and borderline poverty, and sense the immense strain of his fallen hopes. Later, when Parkes' haunting becomes literal, he manifests as a baleful and sad horror, frightening in his lingering humanity and unearthly power. Barker offers truly memorable and disturbing glimpses of Parkes as a distant, mysterious figure, accompanied by cohorts from hell. Even his music is unsettling. Not in the same way as, say, H.P. Lovecraft's Erich Zann, where the chords themselves take on an alien quality. Barker's lyrics, though elegant on the surface, grow increasingly uneasy once the full context and manner of Nicholas Parkes' manifestations are known. Certain phrases become a background score that accents the story's most anxious and phantasmal moments, lending the full narrative a rich and weird atmosphere.

All in all, Christopher Barker's ability to construct, control, and distort the fearful atmosphere so crucial to successful weird fiction, combined with his breach of traditional horror and fiction telling conventions, makes "The Melancholy Haunting of Nicholas Parkes" a necessary target for supernatural literature readers. Regrettably, it may be some time before this piece and the larger Tenebrous Tales collection are accessible. Stock is reportedly low at Ex Occidente, and this publisher's inability to always keep its promises means readers are better suited seeking out a copy from a third party dealer (for some mark up), or waiting for the e-book edition. If all of Tenebrous Tales is half as satisfying as this lengthy tale, however, everyone can rest assured that Barker's fiction will be back in record time. For a substantial review that examines the full collection, see D.F. Lewis' worthwhile Real Time Review. Barker's work shows depth and sincere craftsmanship, and online commentary is sure to be but the tip of the spear in pinning down this newly illuminated author.

-Grim Blogger

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