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6 of 6 people found this helpful
on 22 November 2013
When the film of the Exorcist was first released to all of the accompanying now well known `who-ha' I went to see what all the fuss was about and came away unimpressed. That night I woke about 3 a.m. and gradually it occurred to me what I'd seen the night before and a feeling of dread increasingly overcame me. Reading this book was a similar experience. The prose style is quite plain, in keeping with a straightforward narrative account of a man who feels compelled to record certain experiences he's had for the benefit of others. The opening scenes are set in Edinburgh and centre on an academic sociologist who is given a contract at the university to conduct research into the prevalence of satanic cults in and around the city. He begins by insinuating himself into various groups in order to learn more about their affairs and to use their libraries. Eventually, he gets `taken up' by one of the city's leading barristers who is a member of one such cult, The Fraternity of the Old Path, who offers to act as a kind of mentor and allow him access to valuable literary resources that would otherwise be `forbidden'. From the outset he senses that his mentor might potentially be a dangerous man to know but he cannot turn down the opportunities he presents. After a fairly prosaic beginning, there is a progressive feeling of dread emanating from the narrative as though the protagonist is being drawn, in spite of his knowledge of the consequences, into a dark shadowy world that is palpably evil and from which there is no turning back.
Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos has been mentioned elsewhere in relation to this novel and I can almost understand why. I'm a fan of Lovecraft and find his stories, for the most part, entertaining. However, when you read him you know it's simply gloriously hyperbolic entertainment; similarly, with Le Fanu, M. R. James, Stephen King etc. Aycliffe's sublime skill, as far as this novel goes, is that when reading it, you forget it's fiction and really come to believe that there do exist those who are in possession of certain arcane knowledge and evil enough to use it with fatal consequences. The closest that anything comes to capturing the same feeling of palpable menace I can think of are Susan Hill's, The Woman in Black (the book not the film!), the BBC's M. R. James productions of a few decades back: A Warning to the Curious and Oh Whistle and I'll Come to Thee. In film I suppose the closest would be the films of Jacques Tourneur; for example, Night of the Demon, itself based upon the James story, Casting of the Runes.
The book's influences are readily visible: nevertheless, it remains a masterpiece of its kind and the author has never quite reached the same heights again although The Lost comes close.