An abandoned lunatic asylum, a nasty pornographer in a wheelchair, a bizarre glass-ceilinged viewing dome beneath a scummy lake, a vast henchman, a mother who hears angels telling her she must harm her child: these are some of the places and people to be found in James Scudamore’s new novel.
Dickensian excess is the name of the game here. It is as if Mr Murdstone and Steerforth and Magwich (and even the foggy salt-flats which herald his startling arrival in fiction) appeared in the same story as Fagin, together with a couple of lost boys, ripe for criminal exploitation. Scudamore’s relish for names, too, is Dickensian. A dying man who spends his time writing is called Scriven, while the wheelchair-bound villain, reigning over a kingdom of stolen spoils, is called Victor; Wreaking is the name of the former asylum, which brings havoc to the lives of all the characters.
There can be no doubting the remarkable scope of this writer’s imagination, nor the skill of his prose. He has a genius for atmosphere: ‘anterooms that smelled of dust burning off electric fires’; people in their houses at dusk ‘soaking in the blue wash of television’; an old hut heated by sunlight which ‘brings up sweetness from a coil of fly paper that spirals lazily in the window. The walls bleed with resin.’ The section which introduces the crippled criminal and his over-sized helper — and their dark labyrinth hidden beneath London railway arches — is a brilliant tour de force.
But as this long novel progresses some readers may feel impatient at the convolutions of plotting, the revelation of ever more Gothic secrets, the Hammer Horror foibles of almost every character. For if Charles Dickens is one influence, the American television series Breaking Bad is surely another. The series has been much admired for its daring distortions of narrative convention, it’s cartoon-like violence and its searching portrait of moral decay. The imagery employed by Scudamore bears its stamp: a whole herd of cattle electrocuted when lightning strikes the pond they are drinking from, a boy’s eye torn from its socket on an ordinary trip to a leisure centre, the boyfriend who inserts his lover’s glass eye into the tip of his foreskin.
Blindness and madness and an adored but estranged daughter are the themes of Wreaking, King Lear-style. The long decaying corridors of the Victorian asylum bring to mind the similar setting of Will Self’s majestic Umbrella, while the slow uncovering of long-ago sexual infatuation and violence is redolent of early Barbara Vine. In other words, Wreaking is a hotch-potch, overflowing with images and ideas and influences. Like all show-offs James Scudamore loves to shock (if he can mention a fart, he will), and shocks can become wearisome. But the flaws here are flaws of surfeit, never of meanness, for which he is to be applauded.