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Saturday, 19 March 2016

Book Review: 'The Watchers' by Neil Spring

Warning – while I have tried to avoid major plot details, it is impossible to discuss my thoughts on this book properly without some spoilers.

Cold war paranoia, a remote Welsh village, mysterious objects in the sky and potential military conspiracy. These were the ingredients which attracted me to The Watchers by Neil Spring as I looked around the Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy section of Waterstone’s for the ‘genre’ book of my current reading challenge. I was also attracted by the fact that it did not appear to be part of one of the sprawling, multi-book sagas which are so common in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Not that there is anything wrong with long series, but they do not suit my current purpose of reading a wider range of different books.

The term genre is controversial; I could (and might) fill another blog post with my thoughts on the matter, but for this reading challenge, I am considering novels which are given their own section in bookshops to be ‘genre’ and everything in the general fiction section to be ‘non-genre’.

The Watchers tells the story of Robert Wilding, a parliamentary researcher who is sent on a secretive mission to investigate a series of UFO sightings in the Havens, the coastal Welsh village where he grew up. Along the way, he will re-unite with his grandfather – a religious fanatic – and uncover the details of his parents’ mysterious deaths many years before.

Spring makes good use of frame narratives to tell the story, hinting at wider ranging implications of the events on which the novel centres, and eventually setting the scene for a sequel (so much for my choice of a ‘stand-alone’ novel). Particularly interesting is Spring’s use of extracts from parliamentary reports, interviews with survivors and other in-world texts to allow us a range of perspectives and to build tension towards the novel’s climax. This is a much more successful technique than the ‘I thought it couldn’t get worse, but then it did’ style of foreshadowing which Spring somewhat overuses.

The Watchers hits all of the right beats for a thrilling super-natural mystery with a satisfying, action-movie set-piece at the end. It also incorporates a number of elements which I found to be potentially interesting. I like it when books have range of reference points and this one manages to take in noted occultist Aleister Crowley, the Egryn Lights, Ley lines and secret military experiments. The book’s title, The Watchers, refers to the angelic beings mentioned in the apocryphal books of Enoch, who are credited with the promethean act of imparting forbidden knowledge to mankind in the era before the flood. Unfortunately, this aspect of the Watchers is not really explored in the novel, and they become more generic fallen angels.

There is an irony in this, as the idea that knowledge should be shared freely rather than hidden away by those in power is introduced early in the novel: the protagonist’s mother is blinded during a protest about secret American nuclear weapons on British soil, and Robert Wilding is driven in part by his desire to find out the truth of these circumstance and to force the Americans to be more open about their actions in Britain. Wilding’s search for truth is set up in opposition to many of the other characters in the book, from the scared villagers, to the military, to his own grandfather, who are all withholding information from him. The Watchers mythos, which is sometimes associated with ancient alien conspiracy theories, would fit nicely with the story that Spring initially seems to be telling.

Perhaps one reason why Spring ignores the stories of the Watchers teaching mankind skills like writing, astrology, magic and blacksmithing, is that they are simply on the wrong side. While truth, and freedom of information appear at first to be among the books main themes, the power of Christian faith later becomes more prominent. This is an aspect of the book that worked less well for me. I do not know whether Spring is a Christian, or whether he merely found that Christian mythology allowed him the best framework for the story he wanted to tell, but I found this aspect of the book to be annoyingly preachy. One possible reading of the book would be that it tells the story of a character who has is unsuccessfully searching for truth and meaning in his life through secular institutions, but eventually finds it when he casts aside his scepticism and embraces the Christian faith which allows him to combat the power of evil. In this interpretation, it is also noteworthy that (spoiler alert) the local Catholic priest, who had allowed his doubts about Christianity to steer him towards Communist sympathies, ultimately finds that his weakened faith is not enough to protect him, and sacrifices himself in his attempts to save others. However, although I was not carried along by this aspect of the novel, I did find myself rooting for Wilding’s reconciliation with his grandfather, Randall Llewellyn Pritchard, whose apparent fanaticism is justified by the novel’s conclusion.

Despite my (non-militant) atheism, I do not, in theory, have a problem with religious art. The Exorcist (film, not book – which I haven’t read), for example is able to deal with the idea of evil in a clearly Christian context in a way which is both powerful and haunting. I do, however, think that making the ancient evil derive clearly and straightforwardly from Judeo-Christian tradition lessons its impact a little, in that it gives it makes it explainable. Once your eldritch abomination has a clearly definable origin story (complete with a kryptonite as simple as ‘believing really hard’) it ceases to be scary. I also wonder if one reason I did not get along with the novel’s Christian aspects was that I felt a little tricked into it – there were few clues set out for us to pick on, and it felt less like a plot twist, and more like a sudden realisation that I wasn’t reading the book I thought it was. This would, perhaps, have been forgivable if it weren’t for some other plot features which failed to convince. For example (Spoiler alert), the local ‘rotary club which doubles as an evil cult’ reminded me a little too much of the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost film Hot Fuzz for me to take it as seriously as The Watchers wants us to.

This is not to say that there is nothing to enjoy here. If you are looking for a straightforward supernatural thriller, and can stomach the evangelism, The Watchers provides a decent Dr Who style mystery combined with a high-stakes ending which, if it had taken place over New York, would not have seemed out of place at the climax of an Avengers movie. I enjoyed Spring’s innovative use of different texts, and he makes good use of classic Gothic tropes such as isolated villages, creepy hotels, ruined castles and pertinent warnings from seemingly crazy old men. I rarely found the novel to be genuinely unnerving – something I think is a key marker of success in a horror novel – but on a human level, Robert Wilding is a relatable and sympathetic narrator and many of the other characters are similarly well-drawn. Unfortunately, these successes did not, for me, outweigh the novel’s failures. I doubt I’ll be looking for the sequel.

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