Review: Nocturnes by John Connolly, pt. 1: "The cancer cowboy rides again," "Mr. Pettinger's Dœmon" and "The Erlking"

Mr. Connolly is an incredible writer. His The Book of Lost Things was a revelation to me. I have every intention of reading as much of Connolly's work as I can. So far, Nocturnes is a vibrant and pulsing collection into which I have endeavored to climb using every limb available. It is very easy to get lost in Connolly's prose, and I have, in the last day, found myself reclining in awkward positions as I come to the end of a story. Just yesterday I found myself frantically attempting to exit the train at my stop because I had managed to wrap my arm around one of the bench's poles, and was holding the book with that hand, while I laid on the bench with my bag between my knees. I tried to get up three times before I realized I had to put the book in my other hand before trying to pull it through the poles again. Silly me.

Nocturnes is a collection of short stories. Since I cannot critically nor analytically examine the entire collection as a whole (yet) and because I do not wish to starve myself of writing, I have chosen to take it apart for the purposes of this blog. My goal in separating the stories from one another is to explore a branch of myself I really haven't touched on in few years. I find, on reading these stories, that I have a wealth of literary opinions and analytical viewpoints that I kept to myself in college. In my English classes I spent a lot of time listening, and learning, but very rarely applying.

In an effort to better myself in something that I take great pride in - my reading - I plan on focusing in on these stories somewhat differently than as I have with the novels I've recently blogged about. Please understand: if you find yourself lost, or that perhaps you're not quite following my take on the work because I have not divulged the details, it's not about you. I am exploring the wealth of this trove for myself. If you have questions, by all means I shall endeavor to answer them. But I am not here to give you Entertainment Weekly's Tell-All Literary Review for January 2010. This blog has always been about me. That being selfishly said, I give you the gritty and undeniably wonderful Nocturnes.

"The cancer cowboy rides again"
 When you find yourself figuratively "touched" by someone, I imagine that refers to a happy motivation, or even a sad pitying sort of feeling. We watch "Extreme Home Makeover" to be touched. We are inspired. But are we ever touched by evil? I imagine an idea like this never really crosses one's mind. Can evil inspire? I suppose. But not in the same way as a happy or sad occasion. But what if it did? What if evil moved us? Connolly takes this idea and moves out of the figurative, making evil a dark, slimy and tangible disease. The parasite seems to have only one true host (at a time) but it can be passed and one can be infected, by a simple touch.

In one of the final scenes - the showdown at the bar - Connolly inverts the happy passion of Christian belief at the last supper, and as Buddy Carson stretches his arms in crucifix-style, he infects everyone within his reach by touching them. Evil does not control him, nor does he control it. Buddy has free will - he acts on it in everything he does, but he seeks to follow the course of evil in order to save himself from the agony it causes within his wreckage of a body when he does not touch anyone. He, like all of us, desires human connection. Many times our own requirements for human contact are not wholly pure. We lust and we crave and we covet. And Buddy's are not wholly malicient. He takes great pleasure in some things, though not enough to stave off the infinite relief of releasing his agony into a new victim.

Buddy, who seems old and young all at once, is only one in an infinite line of hosts that evil provides in this world. The host awakens in the middle of the desert, clad in blue jeans and lizard skin boots, bathed in burning sunlight, but unharmed, knowing nothing of a past, only something of the pain he feels in his gut. A pain that will move him to find the nearest human being and make a connection. Who among us has not had that feeling of emptiness, of being unsure as to where to turn, only knowing that we must turn to someone?

Buddy Carson is, you see, not all that different from the everyman. Within his organs is everything damaging to life - death, greed, power, hunger, anger, murder - he embodies all of this. And just as any one of us may enjoy inspiring someone else, Buddy looks forward to the corruption his touch will cause. Because it is a connection. In reality, the potential for any evil exists in all of us. But not all of us are inspired to keep the disease moving.

"Mr. Pettinger's Dœmon"
One of the key themes in this story is divinity. Who has it? Who is allowed to have it? Does it exist at all? How can we be sure? Pettinger notes for us that perhaps the pipe-smoking bishop is the kind of man who sees the concept of God as a way to tame the masses, and secure and exert his own authority. I believe Mr. Pettinger on this issue very easily, given his description of the bishop's clothing looking as a bloddy dagger. It also explains why he would send Pettinger to check on Mr. Fell.

Mr. Fell, Pettinger speculates, was so determined to believe in the divine that he risked and lost his life trying to prove the existence of its opposite (and therein divinity itself). Mr. Fell digs into what seems to literally be the depths of hell. It seems only right, with Pettinger's having been in the war, that he should follow and put an end to what Fell's been doing. Perhaps the bishop has it planned that the beast shall kill him as well. But I believe that the bishop knew that Pettinger would be able to keep the demon from coming into the light, and that he would be able to exert even more power over Pettinger by granting him the living that Fell had abandoned in his futile and deathly attempt to uncover the truth. He acknowledges the existence of the beast (and knows that Pettinger is too psychologically damaged by the war to bring it up when it will remind him of the trenches) but he knows that if its existence were known, people would turn to their god, instead of to "god"'s liaison.

"The Erlking"
This story has two themes - sense perception, and lies. Our narrator knows the power of a lie. Parents tell their children fairy tales to keep them safe and teach them lessons. But they're often fearful themselves of telling their children the truth. Most parents shelter their children. They keep them from the world. They do not admit impediments when it comes to their version of the world. As a result, children are often in even more danger.

And we know that our narrator believes what he says because he gives us so much sense evidence. He knows what he has seen, smelled, heard, touched, and tasted. He lives in the memory of the Erlking. For this reason, he warns parents not to keep the big secrets from their children. The Erlking exists in many forms, the most fanciful of which is his horned crown and ambiguous mouth. But he could be anyone. Children, heed your parents. Parents, heed your children.


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