James P Blaylock is one of the finest writers of ‘American magical realism’ (a genre which he virtually invented single-handedly), and is noted for a distinctive, humorous style, as well as being one of the pioneers of the steampunk sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy. The diversity of his writing is impressive, as I’ll go on to hopefully illustrate, but the best words to use to describe a typical Blaylock novel include ‘thoughtful’, ‘moving’, ‘unsettling’ and, of course, ‘unique’. Blaylock lives in California, which provides the setting for much of his work – including the fine novels Land of Dreams, The Last Coin, The Paper Grail, Night Relics, The Rainy Season and Winter Tides – all highly recommended. Notwithstanding the title of this post, although he is the author of several steampunk novels, Blaylock’s output is by no means limited to this sub-genre and he has also written straight fantasy, children’s fiction and short stories published in a variety of magazines and small press editions. As mentioned above, many of Blaylock’s books can specifically be termed magic realism – a genre where magical elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment. He and his friends, fellow steampunk luminaries Tim Powers and K W Jeter were mentored by none other than Philip K Dick himself and it is arguable that Blaylock has already left behind a body of work that is comparable to Dick’s in its quality and influence.
My first exposure to the weird and wonderful world of Blaylock was reading the delightful Land of Dreams back in the eighties, although in my view the novel hasn’t dated a bit in all the time since. Just looking at the cover alone, even today, gives me a shiver, with its depiction of a gigantic shoe, tortoise and skull washed up on an otherwise normal beach. The book tells the story of the coming of the Solstice, an event that occurs just once every twelve years, and how it brings with it a sinister carnival that brings a sense of terror and wonder to a small coastal town. Three curious adventurers discover the gateway to the mysterious Land of Dreams – a place where you may not always get what you want but you definitely get what you deserve, whether you like it or not! Land of Dreams is by turns beautiful, threatening, and exhilarating – a book for lovers of language, life and dreams, by an author who understands all three. Blaylock’s novel hit me like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky and no sooner had I finished it than I went looking for more books by him. What follows is just a selection of what I found.
The Rainy Season is a very different book from Land of Dreams, almost devoid of the latter novel’s largely humorous tone. It tells of a young man, Phil, deeply shaken by the sudden death of his wife and the eerie sensations he gets as he roams around the big, old house he inherits from his mother. He’s sure that he’s seen people snooping around his property, by the old well that, in the Californian rainy season, always seems ready to overflow. How much, though, is real and how much is in his head? That’s the question. When Phil’s sensitive young niece Betsy comes to live with him she begins to sense the powerful emotions of the past, to hear the voices of the dead, and to see the uncanny powers that are closing in around the house. The Rainy Season is not only a brilliant contemporary ghost story, it is also a superb blend of psychological insight and unearthly phenomena. The book blurs the lines between the past and the present, the living and the dead, fantasy and reality. The Rainy Season also forms part of a loose trilogy of present-day Californian ghost stories, along with Night Relics and Winter Tides, the latter of which won the World Fantasy Award.
The Paper Grail is also part of another trilogy of books which each put a modern spin on Christian themes, without being overtly or self-consciously religious. In it, Howard Barton comes to Mendocino on the remote northern coast of California in search of a folded scrap of paper rumoured to bear a sketch by the legendary Japanese artist Hokusai. Unfortunately for him, there are plenty of others in search of this Paper Grail, including Mrs Lamey, who waters her garden with blood, among other strange and noxious substances; the enigmatic Mr Jimmers whose garden shed conceals a bizarre invention designed to raise the dead; and Uncle Roy, founder of The Museum of Modern Mysteries and builder of haunted houses. In Mendocino, nothing is what it first appears but everything is connected, and Howard will have to work out whose side he’s on, as he is led into a vicious battle between mysterious underground societies. The Last Coin shares The Paper Grail‘s Christian inspiration by positing that the coins earned by Judas in return for betraying Jesus still exist – and still hold an elusive power over all who claim them. Lastly there is All the Bells on Earth, which is just a very strange book about Christmas, full of family tensions, festive decorations, strange gifts and demonic presences.
Probably Blaylock’s most famous series of books, however, is the Narbondo series, which all share the character of the villainous Ignacio Narbondo and the trappings of steampunk. This is also the series to which Blaylock has made the most recent contribution in the form of The Aylesford Skull, which was published just last month. This book, which I’m delighted to say shows that Blaylock is back to his very best, tells of Professor Langdon St. Ives. A brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer, he is at home in Aylesford with his family when, not far away, a steam launch is taken by pirates, the crew murdered, and a grave is possibly robbed of the titular skull, which has all sorts of useful properties. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of St. Ives. When Narbondo kidnaps his son Eddie, St. Ives races into London in pursuit. The Aylesford Skull shows off Blaylock’s trademark pacy style, neverending imagination and narrative verve in a way that will surely suck you in even if you have never read one of his books before (bear in mind that this is the seventh instalment in the series). The menacing, though never cartoonish, figure of the hunchbacked Dr Narbondo, in particular, stays in the mind long after you’ve read the final page of the novel – the mark, surely, of a skilled writer. Oh, and if I sound slightly jealous of Blaylock’s writing skills – that’s because I am!
There are so many other fine works by Blaylock – including the whimsical fantasy of the Balumnia trilogy (inspired, according to the author, by Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit) and the terrific short stories Thirteen Phantasms and Paper Dragons (each of which also won the World Fantasy Award). Rather than hearing more from me, though, if you’re intrigued by what you’ve heard so far about the world of James P Blaylock, I’d hugely recommend that you seek out his books for yourself. I’m normally wary of giving guarantees but Blaylock’s oeuvre is so fascinating and diverse that I for one am convinced there must be something for almost everyone in his writings. Give him a go and see!