by Kim Newman
published by Pocket Books
386 pages, 2000
Under a Neo-Pulp Star
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Bram Stoker's largely forgotten 1903 novel, The Jewel of Seven Stars, failed to do for mummies what his earlier -- and considerably more successful -- Dracula did for vampires. One accomplishment both of these early horror novels share, however, is to have sparked the clever imagination of postmodernist neo-pulpster Kim Newman, as evidenced by his (so far) three Anno Dracula novels and his new collection of linked stories, Seven Stars.
Following an informative and (deservedly) laudatory introduction by Newman's frequent editor, Stephen Jones, Seven Stars opens with five stories that introduce several of the characters who will play important roles in the collection's closing 170-page episodic title novella. The first three tales center on the adventures of the operatives of the Diogenes Club. Readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories will, with this reference to Mycroft Holmes' famous private club, note that Newman takes considerable enjoyment from mixing and twisting his literary influences. Faithful readers of Kim Newman will further remember the Diogenes Club's prominent role in the Anno Dracula novels. Indeed many characters of that series show up at one point or other in this collection.
However, these stories do not take place in the Anno Dracula timeline (i.e. the world has not been overrun with vampires), hence the Charles Beauregard, Geneviève Dieudonné, Edwin Winthrop, etc. who populate these pages are not quite the same people habitual Newman readers will expect. In Seven Stars (as in Anno Dracula), the Diogenes Club is a front for an ultra-secret organization that handles matters for which other branches of the British government are ill-equipped: haunted piers that threaten to bring back the horrors of the Third Reich, weird changelings who may precipitate the Apocalypse and the recovery of an extraterrestrial gem (the Jewel of Seven Stars) responsible for the biblical plagues of Egypt. Pop-culture aficionados will further detect loud echoes of John Steed and Emma Peel from British TV's The Avengers in the adventurous duos of Edwin Winthrop and Catriona Kaye and Richard Jeperson and Vanessa.
The next two stories are the third and fourth installments in the author's Where the Bodies Are Buried sequence (begun in his previous collection, Famous Monsters). These introduce further ingredients in this book's effervescent concoction: 1980s slasher films (and the political climate that screamed for their creation) and the cyberpunk future of the 2020s.
In addition to featuring characters and settings found in the collection's opening five stories, the novella "Seven Stars" is rife with elements from other previous Newman tales (and, in typical Newman fashion, a few characters from other people's fictions). The tale is told in eight chapters. The first takes place in Ancient Egypt at the time of the plagues and introduces the Jewel of Seven Stars. In this episode, the jewel merges with a court priest. The novella follows the gem's travels through successive hosts and keepers. It next shows up in 1897 in a mummy (the priest from the previous chapter) at the British Museum, in the 1920s it merges with a famous Hollywood actor and so on until it finds its way to a sorceress who, in the 2020s, unleashes a new wave of plagues upon the world. In the course of the tale Newman recaptures the fictional pleasures of Bram Stoker, Holmesian London, silent movies, The Avengers, film noir, Weird Tales, pulp heroes and cyberpunk.
All these elements may sound disparate, but Newman deftly adapts and incorporates the genres and idioms into his own voice. Newman's world is created by mingling history, fictional history and the history of fiction. This book, like most of Newman's work, is a bountiful journey through the heritage of popular fiction. All this is not simple reiteration however. In reintroducing and mingling these elements, Newman also addresses the political and social dynamics behind the emergence of the fictions that he has made his playthings and firmly grounds them in the eras that produced them. When he does transpose a genre from one social context to another, the tension thus created is an integral part of the tale. Seven Stars demonstrates that, in addition to being fun and vivid, the best entertainment is pertinent, engaged, deft and intelligent.
It's not necessary to have read Newman before to enjoy Seven Stars, although knowledge of his past stories certainly gives added depth to the proceedings. The book closes with an informative "Who's Who" that charts the appearances of Seven Stars characters in Newman's previous tales. The implicit invitation to sample his other texts is well worth heeding. Kim Newman is a generous storyteller whose love of fiction is delightfully infectious. | June 2000
Claude Lalumière -- a January Magazine contributing editor -- is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.