By Simon Messingham
One of the things that really struck me about The Writer's Tale was what Russell T Davies said about dream sequences. He doesn't see the point of them; he even skips them in novels. I try not to skip things, alas, but otherwise I feel the same. Yes, you can be creative with a dream sequence, but you're still pausing your story to take us there, setting aside any semblance of rules just so you can indulge your inner wacky-o-meter. Dream sequences can easily reek of pretension – they're a writer's way of regurgitating their own ideas and showing off their sheer imagination.
Strange England is like a 276-page dream sequence. It is a weird, abstract, unpleasant, doesn't-even-try-to-make-sense intermission during a narrative that never bothers to show up. It isn't even well-written enough to reek of pretension.
There is some promise, to begin with, not including a framing device that opens and – whoops! – never closes. The TARDIS materialises in a lovely glade, moments after a gamekeeper gets eaten alive by the foliage, seen and heard by no one. This feels like the start of a horrifying fantasy, an especially grim fairytale. No reason you can't do that in Doctor Who. And it's followed by something even nastier: a little girl is attacked by a huge, singing insect, which climbs down her throat (euw) and lodges there. There's something... memorable... there? And then our heroes separate (bye Ace, see you in the subplot), and we're introduced to the House, where the little girl is from. It's full of strange people who don't understand emotions. The Doctor describes them as "very dull company", which is apt, as well as a bit of an own goal.
Okay, you say to yourself: this is thoroughly unpleasant and a bit aimlessly weird, but let's play it out. Where's it going? So the little girl dies. Other members of the house staff die or vanish, mostly where they aren't seen or heard by anyone. Charlotte, the other little girl, begins ageing at an alarming rate. The nearby forest starts burning and/or suddenly changing season. The remaining House-folk state over and over, outwardly and inwardly, that they don't recognise emotions or know very many words. The Doctor just sort of ponders it all; at one point, he makes breakfast. Possibly out of boredom, Bernice and Charlotte (now 30-ish) go to investigate a mysterious man they saw. He turns out to be The Quack, a weirdo who speaks mostly in not-actually-profound nonsense, then turns into a giant... thing, chasing them. Monsters turn up and interchange, usually with a bare minimum of description, lending them an unhelpfully random and, I suppose, dreamlike quality. So, there's that.
Fun fact: Strange England is another New Adventures first novel. As an aspiring writer, I have nothing but admiration for their policy of embracing new talent, and I doff my cap to those authors. But it can be very obvious when it's their first rodeo. Most of Strange England is Simon Messingham marking time. Nothingy characters making inane observations; monsters coming and going; vaguely weird things happening to people. That initial sense of promise is never fulfilled, and at no point does it feel like you're delving further into a cohesive story. It's a "then this happened, then that happened" fest. A.k.a. tedious.
And those characters are a serious problem. It's not enough for us to find the Doctor and his companions compelling. (It's equally not something to take for granted.) If you're going to populate your book with new people, we need to care about them as well. Messingham's vacuous drones are deliberately stilted, because (spoiler) most of this is really a holodeck-esque simulation, but that doesn't stop them looking and sounding exactly like a bunch of poorly written characters. For the most part they're just names: two of the maids literally just sit in chairs facing a wall. Sometimes they push the boat out and indulge in a cliché, like an older man saying he's "getting too old for this sort of thing," and Charlotte randomly turning into Arnold Schwazennegger for her heroic moment: "Rest in pieces." Yes, that seems like something this Victorian woman would say.
It's not impossible to write a creepy story about curiously repetitive and "empty" people in a scary old house. Robert Shearman did just that with the classic Chimes Of Midnight. But that was Robert Shearman at the peak of his powers; meanwhile, in the first-draft-ish Strange England, "His expression was a mixture of despair and anger. She could sympathise with him. She felt sad and angry too."
Coldly denoting a character's emotions from their behaviour (otherwise known as stating the obvious) is a bad sign. You'll be seeing a lot of it in this one. It can have awkwardly weird and funny results, and sometimes you can tell he's trying to be funny, which in either instance provides a much-needed (if haphazard/unintentional) respite:
"She twisted about, expressing a physical revulsion at his touch."
"His head was casting about like he was blind or something."
"Approaching her was something like a huge steam locomotive. It was doing its approaching very quickly."
"His mouth was twisted in a rictus of agony. He did not seem to be having a very pleasant time."
"Aickland moaned, praying he was not going to be stabbed to death ... If he was not to be stabbed then he wondered what was going to happen."
I don't know if it was the editor's day off, but this is not good prose. And when it's not weirdly inane, it's trying too hard to be mysterious. The Quack is a whoops-hilarious example, coming out simultaneously with gibberish and gee-whatever-could-he-mean stuff like "I feel like someone in a dream. Somebody else's dream. A doctor's dream.” Doctor? Quack? No, sorry, can you run through it again? (We draw attention to the Doctor/Quack parallel on several occasions. I'm surprised there isn't a diagram.) Hats off to Paul Campbell, who somehow manages to make visual sense of The Quack on the front cover. After the various gobbledegookian transformations, that makes one of us.
Unfortunately, the book has other problems besides its tedious mixture of random happenings, clumsy visuals and no-note characters. Ace's subplot takes her to a village pub where she ends up brawling with local thugs. One of them kills her (!), but a new acquaintance, Arthur, is displaying bizarre magic powers and revives her. Lucky her; she is then dragged off to see the thugs' boss, Doctor Rix, who continues abusing her and her friends, Arthur, and a travelling writer, Aickland. The latter is one of the novel's few "real" people, though you'd need a spotter's guide to tell the difference. His only distinguishing feature is that he's almost as wet and ineffectual as he is boring. (By the way, you may notice a lot of "A" names unwisely stacked next to each other. Guess what: one of the thugs is called Archie., too. First Novel, baby!)
Doctor Rix is a ranting, raving, one-note lunatic who has some kind of influence over the local town (Wychborn), despite being the sort of total psychopath they would have had to lock up years ago. He controls his lackeys with fear, even randomly executing one of them (after which the narrative tells us he has "lost his temper", as he has started kicking things. Oh no, they're for it now, he's kicking things!), and he quite happily breaks Ace's fingers. Reading this stuff was even harder than the aimless, boring bits. It's violent for the sake of it. Who's sitting down to paragraph after paragraph of Ace getting the crap kicked out of her, and random side characters getting shot in the stomach, and saying "Yeah, I liked that bit"? Spoiler alert: while Rix does become involved in the weird stuff going on at the house, he's still a complete wild card up until then. There is just no excusing his behaviour later on. He's a loopy, God-mentioning psycho with thugs that fly into a murderous rage at the drop of a pint. How fascinating. He eventually morphs into the main antagonist, probably because the main plot failed to provide one. (The Quack is... sort of that, in the meantime? The blurb certainly seems to think so, but his motivations are anything but clear. Before long The Quack and Rix are the same thing. Shrug.)
When an explanation finally arrives – the Doctor having grown bored with an impressive-even-for-him run of "Just Don't Tell Anyone Anything Even Though It Would Be Really Helpful" – it's Gallifreyan in origin. Which is sort of a fun coincidence, as Strange England reminded me of Time's Crucible. A world where there are no recognisable rules, a lack of clear story progression, an absence of compelling characters? It's uncanny! Messingham even has Ace point this out: "I've trudged around an inside-out TARDIS. Believe me, it was hard work, complicated and no fun at all.” Which is... ahem... accurate, but I wouldn't go throwing stones. Strange England is every bit as frustrating and tedious, only without that Marc Platt-ian hint of big ideas being imparted underneath it all. I tell myself that Time's Crucible was written just to get some Time Lord folklore on the page; the "plot" wasn't there because it was really more of a theme. That's not much of an excuse for a non-story, and at best it was still the opposite of my type of thing, but at least it added something, I guess? Whereas Messingham has a few random notions about mixing Time Lords with TARDISes, which is all just a convoluted excuse to make random horrible stuff happen in and around a Victorian house, with added random horrible stuff on the side. There's no real reason for any of it, besides the carnivalesque challenge of producing a book that's even less readable than Time's Crucible.
(It's worth noting that this was not Simon Messingham's original ending, which might help explain it. He originally envisaged "the ultimate anti-climax," with the Doctor realising these events were all his fault for showing up in the first place, finding there's nothing he can do to stop it and then buggering off in defeat. Which, well, pee-yew, obviously. But let that sink in: for all the feeble effort made to excuse this random horrible stuff, the original version offered no excuse whatsoever. Thank you, Virgin, for stepping in and throwing that nonsense right out. Where were they the rest of the time? And how does Messingham's "It all started when the TARDIS showed up" idea even stack up when it literally started before that?)
At times, various characters liken their experiences to walking through mud, running through foam and swimming in glue. Setting aside their typically lame descriptive powers, I couldn't agree more. (And how intriguing that such phrases kept occurring to the author.) Strange England is an ugly, interminable mess that I wouldn't wish on anyone.