Alder is just like any other village, everyone knows everyone else's business and some of the families have lived there for countless generations. To an outsider, life would appear wonderful in this rural idyll, but bubbling just beneath the surface lies a whole host of repressed emotions, violent tendencies and age-old lusts.
Right at the centre of all this pent up frustration and angst is the local manor house, Agapemone, home to Anthony William Jago and his followers. Jago is, as you might expect from the leader of a religious cult, suitably enigmatic. His presence is felt strongly throughout the entire novel, but he doesn't actually utter a single word until around two hundred pages in. Newman really plays up the character's spiritual otherworldliness. He exhibits an eerie stillness, always watching, taking everything in. When he does speak his pronouncements have a hypnotic quality, his loyal flock can't fail to be drawn in by their `Beloved' leader. There's a nicely creepy vibe that permeates his entire being. You can't hope for much better than that when it comes to a villain in a horror novel.
There are a host of other fantastic characters but two really stood out for me.
Jeremy is a young boy whose family suffer thanks to Jago's evil influence. They begin to metamorphose into the stuff of childhood nightmares. I liked the way that the author uses Jeremy's narrative as an opportunity to include subtle references from classic legends and children's fairy tales. Taking the stories of childhood and subverting them into something much darker.
As an aside, it's noticeable that Newman really does love littering his text with as many pop culture references as he can. If you're half as geeky as I am, you'll love it.
The other great character is Badmouth Ben. He is the living embodiment of controlled calculated rage. Ben stomps through the novel dishing out his own unique blend of chaotic vengeance on anyone who gets in his way. Without giving anything away, I think it's fair to say that Ben leaves his mark on everyone that crosses his path. There aren't any hidden depths to Ben he's just out and out nasty.
As the plot progresses things go from bad to far, far worse. Jago and Agapemeone become a divining rod for all the bile, hatred and ill feeling that has built up in the area over many years. Things build to an epic climax as Jago's powers reach their apex when crowds descend on the village for the local music festival.
In many ways, Jago is far more than just a man, he's a metaphor for everything that is wrong with organized religion. Newman's novel explores the nature of belief and how it can control and potentially corrupt.
The horror that takes place in Jago covers the gamut from the psychological, to the physical right on through to the mind-bendingly surreal. Kim Newman certainly doesn't pull any punches with his descriptive imagery. There are a plethora of nasty moments that certainly keeps a reader on their toes. Put it this way, if body horror isn't your thing, there are a couple of chapters that you really will not enjoy. I can't stress strongly enough those lacking a strong constitution need not apply. Be warned there are a handful of moments that some may find unpleasant or even unpalatable. Personally though, I like a little bit of grossness in my horror. There is no denying that Newman takes things right up to the wire on multiple occasions (cannibal sacrifice anyone?), but he still manages to stay just the right side of vomit-inducing ickyness.
How best to summarise Jago then? Well, Newman is pretty sneaky. This is actually a thoughtful exploration of organized religion masquerading as a terribly British apocalypse. The novel was originally published back in the early nineties, I read it back then and I think its aged remarkably well. Though it is very much of its time, the themes that this horror explores are just as relevant today as they were twenty plus years ago. As an added bonus, this new edition also includes some short stories featuring variations of the characters found in the main text. These additional extras are bound to be of interest to any Kim Newman fan.