I made these comments in a review of Barlough's earlier novel The House in the High Wood but, frankly, they bear repeating for Strange Cargo, his third novel. Barlow's very special blend of writing styles is probably unique in today's literature and gives us a novel that defies classification. One can say, I suppose, that it represents a delicious blend of Lovecraft, Collins or Poe's version of tension and horror, Brooks' ideas of a modern, dark, urban fantasy and the very best of Dickensian characterization, complex and intricately described environments with superbly comic dialogue and story-telling. But to say that is to suggest somehow that Barlough's efforts are derivative and that is selling him far too short. Barlough's style is quite clearly his own and he has mastered it completely.
Nantle, a small seacoast town and sailor's haunt in Barlough's special universe in which the Ice Age has never ended and a small Victorian population live side by side with saber tooth tigers, woolly mammoths and mastodons, plays host to two simultaneous story lines.
In the first, Miss Jane Wastefield arrives seeking Gilbert Thistlewood with whom she has corresponded. Wastefield, at her wit's end, needs his promised help in ridding herself of a malevolent mirror, a gift she received on her twenty-first birthday, which she keeps locked inside a traveling trunk. The mirror, reflecting eerie visions of a long dead society reminiscent of a fantastic Greece in which monsters and evil demi-gods hold sway, threatens Miss Wastefield's very sanity and, despite her best efforts, refuses to be parted from its owner.
In the second, the Cargo family and their solicitor, Mr Arthur Liffey, seek out Jerry Squailes, the mysteriously elusive beneficiary of a significant piece of their grandfather's estate. This particular sub-plot is more recognizable as the product of the combined influences of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. We are witness to a superbly crafted detective story involving skullduggery, fraudulent wills and, ultimately, even the appearance of a wonderfully traditional Victorian ghost.
Unfortunately, the two plot lines, while they bump into one another and occasionally interact, never conjoin and become inter-dependent. I finished the novel with the distinct feeling that Barlough had two independent ideas sufficient unto themselves for a novella length story and felt compelled to shoehorn them together in order to produce something with sufficient length to be classed as a novel. This left me with a mystifying and disturbing sense of non-completion even though both stories wound down with nothing that even the most particular reader could classify as a loose end. It somehow just didn't seem quite right!
That said, Barlough's style and his mastery of dialogue, characterization and scene setting is more than enough to justify reading his work and I'll look eagerly for that next novel in this very special world.
A delicious blend of Lovecraft, Collins or Poe's version of tension and horror, Brooks' ideas of a modern, dark, urban fantasy and the very best of Dickensian characterization, complex and intricately described environments with superbly comic dialogue and story-telling.