By Daisy Thomas
You know the books that draw you in and won’t let you leave until you’ve read every page?
I had that feeling with Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series. The series mixes detective work with a science-fiction twist. The “detective”, Castor, is a professional exorcist, operating in an early 21st century London where ghosts, zombies and loup-garous (were-kin) are becoming numerous and active.
Carey seems to have modelled aspects of Castor upon himself. Like Carey in real life, Castor in the books hails from working-class Liverpool. Castor was a teenager there in the 1980s (Carey in the 70s).
Liverpool was rife with turmoil at that time. In 1984-85, Militant (a supposedly revolutionary-socialist group within the Labour Party) gained control of Liverpool’s Labour council and led big demonstrations against the Thatcher government. After shoddy compromises and ignominious retreats, it collapsed, and much of the Liverpool labour movement collapsed around it.
Castor is described as having been a member of the Communist Party when a student at Oxford. Carey has him refer sourly to that time; he seems disillusioned, but his sympathies and roots are with the working class.
Castor is acidly critical of religion. Carey is clever here. Castor’s older brother, Matt Castor, is a Catholic priest, and a sympathetic character, but Castor has no time for religion.
Carey also creates a sympathetic policeman character (Gary Coldwood), but by doing so allows Castor to be scathing about the police, without caricature.
The loup-garous or were-kin are animal bodies that have been possessed by human ghosts. The human ghost tries to make the animal body look human, ending up with a half-animal/half-human monstrosity.
Castor clashes with loup-garous, demons, ghosts — and also with people who are panicked by these supernatural creatures. Some people feel apprehensive about a new race of supernatural beasts and believe that these characters want to wipe out the human race. Castor has started out in trade as an exorcist who just “eradicates” the undead, but he learns to take more care. One of his best friends is a demon who has decided to live as a human instead, another is a zombie, and yet another is a man possessed by a malicious demon.
These “undead” could be a tentative metaphor for the underclass — people who have suffered misfortune (in their case, the extreme misfortune of death), and some of whom are dangerous. But for Castor, not even demons should be unthinkingly demonised.
Mike Carey is not a one-hit wonder. The Felix Castor novels are his latest work of fiction, but he was an acclaimed writer before that. He has produced and collaborated on scores of graphic novels and comics — most notably: Lucifer, Hellblazer, X-Men, Crossing Midnight, and The Unwritten.
I found his writing style fascinating because of the wide vocabulary he uses. I came across several dozens of new and interesting words. It got to the point that I had to have pen and paper with me so I could jot down the words I liked, and consult a dictionary.
Mike Carey seems to have the whole package — an imaginative vocabulary, an engaging writing style, and descriptions that leap off the page. Descriptions like: “Assuming that Peter was the sullen streak of curdled sunlight hovering at her elbow...”, and “The swelling organ chords worked their way through a very impressive diapason that hung in the air like floating furniture” give me reader-bliss.
The stories themselves are (to use two words I learned from Carey) anfractuous and widdershins (or full of twists and turns, and contrary), and the density of nuance and layers in his books calls for a wider vocabulary.
Read the books, appreciate Carey’s writing style, and think about the ideas about the world that he so cleverly weaves into his novels.