Dancing Jax | Chapter 20

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

It was like a swiftly spreading disease.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: A moment of silence for the eight kids who went to the counsellor and came out brainwashed, and for Debbie, Sandra’s childhood friend. Deeply depressing to think that she, too, will soon be another moony Mooncastrian.

This chapter really brings home what I mentioned at the start of the book about the evil of Dancing Jacks beginning with some of society’s most vulnerable individuals. It’s pretty chilling to read lines like ‘Paul was only eleven years old. He had no idea how to make anyone listen and take him seriously’, and, ‘He preferred when they were shouting than when they attempted to empathise and got it so very wrong’.

Usually, when a young protagonist knows about something supernatural and is ignored by every adult they try to tell, it’s either played for laughs, or ends in concrete visual proof forcing the adults to ‘believe’, leading to them helping the young hero win the day. No such thing is happening here, however. Far from ruefully yelling ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!’, there’s a sense of real and immediate peril in Paul’s desperation for someone, anyone, to listen.

The worst part is that Trudy is completely right – there really is nothing she, or anyone, can do against Austerly Fellows. In her rejection, we see the end of Paul’s faith in his elders. Martin and his mum, his teachers, his friends, and now the one person who believes him about Dancing Jacks, have all abandoned him when he most needed their support. Even the law can’t stop what’s going on in Felixstowe. (Were this book set a few decades earlier, I can’t help but wonder if the church might have been included in that list of ineffectual adults, or whether, as we saw in the Whitby Witches, there might’ve been a Sister Frances character to pull through for Paul. This book is very much in the vein of traditional British horror, after all.)

Matt’s Thoughts: I don’t remember this chapter from the first time I read it, but it’s somewhat terrifying to think of the mass grown-up failure that is happening here. The grief counsellor that’s supposed to help everyone is making converts to the Jacks. Martin still doesn’t see. Trudy doesn’t want to go back to an event that changed her life forever.

So there’s a lot of weight to that line near the end of the chapter: ‘one small lad against forces he couldn’t begin to imagine or comprehend’.

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Dancing Jax | Chapter 19

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘He who braves fire and water to rescue maidens , he whom the beasts and birds adore. You are the Jack of Clubs.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The very unnerving scene with Sandra at the start of this chapter was where my brief infatuation with the Ismus came to a stark and chilly end. I was suddenly made aware that had this book been published just a few years previously, I would’ve been reading it at Sandra’s age, and probably would have identified quite strongly with her.

Reading it 2013, I still felt protective big-sister feelings toward her, and her pitiable, self-endangering actions in this chapter helped to strip some of the glamour from Mooncaster for me. I realised that this was not going to be a Robiny revel of the sort I was used to – I was not going to get away with liking the villains this time, nor had I any business imagining that Mooncaster was anything other than rot of the most stubborn and destructive kind. I had felt the little tingle on the back of my neck and heard the words of ol’ Austerly, and happily, I wasn’t that bothered (even if it meant I had to miss out on a cameo from the best character in the Mooncaster segments – the fox with the gift of human speech).

My newfound aberrant sentiment didn’t stop me worrying for the fates of the young people in this book, however. No matter how lurid or unreal their characters might’ve been, I was sure that none of them deserved to be caught up in the festering evil of the Dancing Jacks. Sadly, none of Robin’s young protagonists ever really get what they deserve.

Matt’s Thoughts:  This chapter might not have been as interesting to me, if it wasn’t for coming across this blog interview with Robin a few years back which threw it into a different light.

In it, he mentions that he quite likes Conor as a character because he has no dreams left and yet, in the space of a week, he saves three people’s lives. But then no one ever knows, because he gets taken over by the book. Once you look at it in that light, it is quite tragic, isn’t it?

Final thing to note is that its never quite explained but there is clearly a relationship between the characters in real life and the characters they become in Mooncaster. Clearly, the Jack of Clubs, with his kindness and heroism is an amplified version of Conor and makes perfect sense.

Which, of course, leaves us assuming that the spot of the miserably cruel Jill of Spades can only be waiting for Emma Taylor, right? But the Jill of Spades is already a full-formed character with cruelty, even without having a real-life counterpart yet. So is she like that because it’s Emma’s destiny to become her? Or is Emma just a good match for this character?

Dancing Jax | Chapter 18

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

If you poke into dark corners, eventually something is going to be disturbed and jump out at you.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The chapter header here is of considerable interest when we reread this series, already knowing how it all ends. So it’s now part of Mooncaster lore that there are books and writings ‘too deadly and dangerous for the Court and Kingdom’. This implies that only the Ismus knows what might be written in them, which in turn suggests that he knows what’s going on beyond the thirteen hills, so to speak. What exactly is Mooncaster? An alternate dimension? Some kind of perverse, Narnia-like mixture of afterlife and fantasy land? Its victims don’t physically go there, but evidently a part of them does. The question is, which part?

On to the chapter, and we’re right in the present with Paul’s dilemma over whether to ‘unfriend’ Anthony and Graeme. I like that this extra dimension to friendships in the digital age is included and remains relevant even now, especially for young people. In the 21st century, Paul can’t just go home from school and forget about his feelings of betrayal, he still has to see his friend’s internet profiles and read their texts and instant messages.

I also quite enjoy Robin’s comments on internet fandom during Paul’s ‘Dancing Jacks’ google search. When I set up my first blog to celebrate his books in 2013, I deliberately named it ‘Beyond the Silvering Sea’ and covered the background in a repeating tile of Mauger’s head, to echo the kind of thing that Paul might’ve come across in his search. At the time I thought it’d be terribly droll to bring the nightmare of a Jacks-infested blog to life, and though Silvering Sea is now archived and the Dancing Jax trilogy is not one I often focus on these days, I can’t say I have any regrets about my choice of blog name.

Finally, there’s Paul’s confrontation with Austerly Fellows’ diabolical work itself, which confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’re dealing with evil magic here. I love the image of the horned figure in the fire – a bit like Nathaniel Crozier’s sorcery, I feel it deserves an 80s direct-to-VHS lighting effect and a screeching synth chord to bring it to life, but in the interim, the cliffhanger ending of this chapter does the job of giving us all chills just fine.

Matt’s Thoughts: Mr Jarvis demonstrates that he’s well and truly up with the times he’s writing for with Wikipedia entries, Facebook unfriendings, blogs, etc. (I could be wrong, but I feel like back when I read this, there actually was an Austerly Fellows Wikipedia page, complete with a creepy photo. Does anyone else remember this? It would certainly have been a nice touch.)

One thing I’ve wondered about this book – because it is so very much of its time, what with mentions of Wikipedia, Ant and Dec, etc. – will this make the book more confusing for future readers? I don’t know. For me, one thing that I feel about it being so firmly rooted in 2010 is that it forces an urgency upon the whole thing, as if is meant to be a message to that particular generation. The message, in short, is that if we don’t wake up from the vacuous life we’re living and try to give it some real meaning, much more sinister forces might step into the vacuum and try to give meaning to us.

Finally, on a musical note, I stumbled across this particular piece of ambient electronic music while reading the previous chapter and the slightly unsettling nature of the whole thing (with the relentless beat underneath driving it forward) made me think of this book. It certainly provides a good soundtrack to listening to the book, especially as we hit this stretch of the tale where things are ramping up.

 

Up Next | Freax and Rejex

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And a reminder to chase down Book 2 of the Dancing Jax series, Freax and Rejex, to see how the saga continues. If you’re reading the series for the first time, I don’t want to spoil the rest of Book 1, but needless to say, Book 2 contains further details on the evil children’s book with even higher stakes and – most adventurous of all – nearly a whole new cast of characters.

In this second book, Mr Jarvis has had a crack at creating a dystopian YA universe, and the results are bloody terrifying. It’s also a nod to that great stalwart of British stiff-upper-lipness, the POW tale.

And, in my opinion, it’s his greatest feat of storytelling ever. The characters, the plot, the emotions. This book has everything. It’s not going to be a pleasant ride, but it will be brilliant. Get your copy now to join us in September!

Dancing Jax | Chapter 17

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The might of language must never be underestimated. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: It’s pleasantly new, in a Robin Jarvis book, for the young protagonist to be happy about family change. Domestic drama is something Mr Jarvis writes really well, and as we’ve seen on this project, his books are littered with dysfunctional families. We’ve had our share of orphans (Piccadilly, Ben and Jennet, Nelda, Finnen, Adam o’ the Cogs), neglectful or downright abusive parents (too many to list), and the occasional unpleasant step-parent or guardian, for example Lauren’s stepmother in The Raven’s Knot.

Therefore, to have Paul actually pleased at the news that his mum is marrying Martin and that he might have a new brother or sister is really heartening to see. It makes us think there might yet be hope for this little family in the hell-world the Ismus is slowly creating. But of course, we probably shouldn’t be getting ahead of ourselves and being too positive at this early stage.

The rest of this chapter is a classic horror manoeuvre – a series of slowly escalating incidents ending in shocking violence. It does a fantastic job of stirring the pot of menace which started with Sandra Dixon a few chapters previously, making school an unsafe place for Paul and those not yet under the Ismus’ spell, and revealing more about the effects of Dancing Jacks upon its readers. For me, the creepiest scene has to be the one where Paul comes to the library to escape his brainwashed friends, only to discover the unnerving circles of reading children. It hit me on reread that they must’ve started reading aloud at some point in the afternoon, dooming the librarian too.

Matt’s Thoughts: Love that creepy schematic with the pentagram, which might be more tied to the events of the previous chapter and the Bakelite radios, but nonetheless keeps up the sinister hint-dropping which continues throughout the book.

Reading this chapter and knowing where the trilogy is going to go, it did make me think that if this book were written for adults, you could make a pretty entertaining plot-line out of the teachers all banding together. While I’m not sure how effective they would be against the darkness of the Ismus, I feel like Miss Smyth, Barry, and Martin would make a formidable team of opponents. And Mrs Early, with her belief in the power of words, might prove to be a strong force to be reckoned with as well if she was pushed.

Mr Wynn probably would remain a ‘brainless muscle-head’ but hey, he could maybe get heroically killed taking down Mauger in a forest somewhere just like Arnie and the Predator, and redeem himself that way. But, let’s be honest – if it was possible to predict how the book was going to play out this early on, it wouldn’t be by Robin Jarvis.

 

Dancing Jax | Chapter 16

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

It was a demon of the darkness. Night shadows were no hiding place.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I have to admit that on my first read-through, this book was not endearing itself to me. It had a very tough act to follow – we’d already had a long silence after Whortle’s Hope, and for years before that I’d been used to a certain gothic charm, a certain tragic melodrama, in my Robiny reading. I wanted to feel, when I read a Robin Jarvis offering, that I was being waltzed through a grand and surreal masque of history, fantasy, and folklore, rather like Austen Pickering at Miss Celandine’s Tudor ball in The Fatal Strand. I knew what I liked from this particular author, and with the grimy hyper-reality of its setting, its unprepossessing characters, and its sensationalist, soul-crushing plot, Dancing Jax was just not cutting the mildly minchet-flavoured mustard. That is, until this chapter.

The brief window between here and the end of the book was my Mooncaster moment. I discovered Al Bowlly, found a bona fide tragic Robiny hero in Shaun, experienced a demonic summoning so theatrically horrifying it would make Clive Barker shed a proud tear, and was converted. In fact, the ol’ Robin Jarvis magic worked a little too well, and, for a few chapters at least, I abandoned all good taste and common sense and actually began to wonder if the Ismus was really so gross after all. Thankfully I turned out to be an ‘aberrant’ and snapped out of that fairly quickly, but it was fun while it lasted.

Matt’s Thoughts: Things continue to get increasingly surreal in this chapter, in ways that nobody could have predicted. So we have a Bakelite radio that plays 30s music, draws power from nightmares and lets in creatures from another dimension? As we would say Down Under, ‘Creepy as!’

I don’t know what the exact inspiration for this device is, but it’s an interesting idea. Many a doctor or child-reading specialist (and the odd horror film) has put forward the evils of particular types of mass media, whether it be video games, watching too much TV, the dangers of social media, etc.

So it makes sense that Austerly Fellows would disguise some of what he is doing in the guise of the mass media of his day. Demonic radio sets makes sense. It was a fairly new technology, most people would love the idea of having one, and you could see him giving them out to unsuspecting people, or even groups. Donating them to schools, hospitals and orphanages, perhaps? Either way, it’s pretty diabolical.

Final thing of note is Shaun’s heroic attempt to lead Mauger away rather than let him into the maternity ward. It’s another story, like Shiela going to see Martin, of somebody trying to do something brave – but ultimately ineffective – to stand against the Dancing Jacks evil. In some ways, it’s even more depressing. We perhaps wouldn’t care if more of the self-centred mindless crew of Felixstowe got taken over by Mooncaster, but when bad stuff happens to people who have a spark of goodness, it’s much more heartbreaking.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 15

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

He crushed the repulsive vegetable in his fist and a drizzle of sickly-smelling yellow fluid splashed on to her firmly sealed lips.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I’m going to put a little placeholder here regarding a point I’ll be making near the end of this book about how it breaks the fourth wall in a very creative way. For now, make note of the long paragraph of text which describes the military defenses along the Suffolk coast in the present tense. Right, moving along.

In this chapter we are introduced to another bit of Patent Austers Magic (TM) in the form of the minchet fruit (vegetable? plant?), via which those who resist his bland and lumpy first draft of a novel are literally force-fed the story of the oh so wonderful Dancing Jacks. I can’t be the only one who finds Shiela’s ‘conversion’ to be extremely uncomfortable reading. Maybe it’s because we’re already aware that Jezza was a borderline abusive boyfriend to her before the whole business at Fellows End, but there’s something viscerally repellent about the description of her licking the minchet juice off the Ismus’s hand, brainwashed out of her mind. The idea of minchet by itself is bad enough, but that whole scene is just nasty.

As a last note, there’s definitely a comment to be made about the fruit of knowledge and damnation and so forth, but I’ll save that until ol’ Austerly’s motives have been made a bit more explicit.

Matt’s Thoughts: Because the initial set-up of this story is so much rooted in the real world, once it starts to get really bizarre, the setting seems so real, I buy all the twists instantly. So one of the coastal defense spots was set up by occultists in the 1930s? Sure, I’ll accept that. There’s a disgusting vegetable that has been growing for years that speeds up the Dancing Jacks conversion process? Hideous, but seems entirely plausible.

In fact, it’s almost too plausible. I know there are many dark and vile things in the Jax books, but this idea of a gross-looking fruit? vegetable? that infects people, for some reason, really gets under my skin. Maybe it taps into childhood memories of being made to eat my vegetables and the ones I didn’t like. I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s grim, especially since it spells the end of Shiela, the one character on the inside of this circle that might have been able to spill the beans on what was going on.