Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Like some ghastly angel of Death the plague spread its dark wings over the city, moving stealthily from house to house.
Aufwader’s Thoughts: If things were bad for Will before, they are about it get a good deal worse as we move into the ghoulish second act.
The Black Death was not something that I knew a great deal about as a young’un listening to this on tape, but I definitely knew what it was and roughly when it had occurred. What I love about Mr Jarvis’ treatment of history in his books is that he never sugar-coats things or tries to wash out the grisly details, but at the same time it’s not so traumatic that a young, somewhat morbidly-minded reader whose knowledge of the plague amounts to a few history lessons would be deterred from wanting to find out more. The way the plague closes around London like an enormous cruel hand is just so sinister and evocative – we want to look away, and yet, we are compelled to read on.
Despite my dislike for Lingley, the revelation concerning his rather wretched demise did give me a pang of sympathy. His humiliation may have been deserved in some ways, but, if we assume that it was the impetus for his suicide, then Spittle has essentially caused the death of another flawed but essentially innocent person. Sir Francis might’ve been insufferable and callous, but Spittle is a murderer, albeit indirectly, and certainly deserves the downfall I wished upon him last chapter.
It’s testament to how skilled Mr Jarvis is at creating even tertiary characters that the death of the Gobtrots hit me as hard as the death of any major character in his books. I suppose they could never have survived long in a Robin Jarvis book, being awfully nice and disgracefully lovable, but I was upset to see them go all the same.
Finally, as if the catalogue of human suffering in this chapter were not enough, we have Imelza’s doomed bid for freedom. What an absolutely dreadful scene! It mirrors the finale of The Crystal Prison in that it’s really a deeply perspicacious illustration of how any large-scale calamity, in this case the Great Plague, can turn otherwise reasonable people into a murderous mob. Rest ye in the void, O Imelza, Empress of Night and Mother of Calamities. Watch over your children in the dark time ahead.
Matt’s Thoughts: And this is the beginning of the major tonal shift in the story, but the one we’ve known has been coming for awhile – the arrival of the Black Plague. What makes this so particularly bleak and terrible is that none of this comes from the Jarvis imagination. The deaths, the shut-up pest-houses, the randomness of who was going to die from it, the plague doctors – it’s all straight out of history.
I know a lot of people aren’t feeling all that great about our current day and age, but I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend, except through tales like this, what it must have been like living through something on that level. And is it something that could only have happened back in the past? I’m not sure. Our modern medicine is pretty good, but we can’t foresee everything …
We haven’t seen this level of bleakness since The Final Reckoning and even then, that had a fantasy element to it that you could use to detach from it. But this chapter feels much more real (for me, at any rate).
And despite Aufwader and I having a disagreement over whether there was any sympathy due to Lingley, his suicide in this chapter just made me feel for him even more. But that barely had time to register because the Gobtrots are out of the picture as well.
Did I block this part out of my mind as a kid? I’m not sure, but I don’t remember reading this section before and I was utterly horrified. This is grim stuff, Mr Jarvis, really grim.