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Tabula Rasa

809 Jacob Street

by Marty Young, Black Beacon Books, 2013

Reviewed by Kyla Lee Ward

809 Jacob Street coverSo, just what can an author like Marty Young do in a mere 189 pages?

For starters, set up one of those fictive situations that never end well. It's the 1980s and fourteen-year-old Byron James is new in town. A run-down country town, where there's nothing to do except go to school and there, it's like he's invisible. Only the other outcasts pay Byron any attention, and they are obsessed with the so-called Monster House out on Jacob Street. Byron is sceptical of their claims, Sceptical enough to go seeking answers himself.

"He knew then he was on the verge of the magical kingdom, the one he went seeking every time he ventured to the library. If he took another step back to where Joe had been, the old homeless man would come back into view and the shadows all about him would come to life... there'd be monsters in those shadowy vestiges of the world -- there'd be nothing but monsters."

At least Byron retains something of his childish innocence ("Kids who forgot they were growing up, he'd told them"). For all the immediacy of his fears, they can still be cast in terms of ghosts and vampires, entities with recognised limits and remedies. An exhausted remnant such as Joey Blue has no such defence.

The next thing such an author can do is, through Joey, show us the unfamiliar corners and cut-throughs of this terrain. You may think you've been here before. But, like the alleys that thread through sleepy, old Parkton, alleys that do not meet up with the residual centres of light and life, the concepts Young invites us to explore take us somewhere beyond. I can say little about what lies in the Monster House itself, only that this is a destination which lies very much in the journey. It is the way he turns the crossing of a small town into a Dantesque quest, that is the book's delight.

It is a slow build. Although the presence of the supernatural is immediately apparent, the two protagonists slouch towards their destiny at a pace that only slows as the past overtakes them and their fear thickens. But as said, this is a brief book and it is nice, as a reader, to feel that you can take things slowly for once, paying attention to the nuances of character and atmosphere. It's all essential to the climax (and indeed, the epilogue, decades later). The merging of the otherworldly with the mundane is achieved with skill, creating tension out of the most ordinary of actions.

Although their routes are for the most part separate, Joey and Byron share a single quest, and the success of one depends very much upon the other. It is a strange twinning that nonetheless makes sense -- which makes sense of Parkton. In this, Young has realised the potential of the novella form, which is to achieve a subtlety free from both a strict word count and the beats of a standard plot.

But clearly, this wasn't enough. Young takes several further steps to emesh us in his creation. The text is accompanied by greyscale illustrations from the pencil of David Schembri, who also provided the darkly effective cover. His rendering of the characters feels like Byron is sketching in the margins (If you want to see what Joey is capable of creatively, then check out The Blues to Joey's Rescue, although Schembri is again the source). A panorama of the town is evocative, but the one image I would personally consider essential is missing. Parkton's geography, ("He was still trying to discover why Parkton's founder, Charles F. Longworth, had ringed the town with Hazelnut trees") is so obviously of occult significance, that I found myself craving a map.

Amazingly, this is Young's first novella, although he is certainly no stranger to horror fiction. As the co-editor of Macabre: A Journey Through Australia's Darkest Fears (Brimstone Press, 2010), he produced a tour of the past and present that won an Australian Shadows award for Best Edited Publication and was nominated for everything else, including a Stoker. He is also author of an impressive roster of shorts, including "Joey Blue and the Gutterbreed" (Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #48. October 2010) which, he says, was an experiment with the character and his world, not directly related to the present work. However, he is continuing to develop the mythology of Parkton in other works, through the agency of different characters. The hints provided in Jacob Street about the Screaming Death, and the dead heart of the town "where the real urchins lived", confirm that Young has plenty more alleys to explore. This is already an ambitious project and I, for one, can only wish him well.

 

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