Mr Jarvis’ Book of the Dead | Dancing Jax

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In this post we record for posterity and remembrance the names of all those who have fallen to the fatal stroke of Mr Jarvis’ pen. Hero, villain, or neither, we honour their sacrifice for the greater myth of the story.

The deceased of Dancing Jax are as follows: 

THIS ENTRY STANDS IN MEMORY OF THE FORTY-ONE YOUNG PEOPLE INVOLVED IN THE FELIXSTOWE DISASTER, INCLUDING: ASHLEIGH AND KEELEY, DANNY MARLOW, KEVIN STRIPE, BRIAN EASTLAND, AND MANY UNNAMED. FELIXSTOWE WILL FOREVER REMEMBER THEM, AND THE TRAGEDY WHICH COST THEM THEIR LIVES. 

SHAUN PRESTON (Dancing Jax | Ch 16) This well-meaning and unassuming paediatric nurse was the first inhabitant of Felixstowe to witness the evil of Austerly Fellows first hand. He had the misfortune to observe the arrival of the Ismus and his entourage on the ward where some of those children injured in the Disaster were being treated, and so was present at the crossing over of Mauger, the Growly Guardian of the Gate. The Ismus set Mauger upon Shaun when he proved reluctant to submit to Dancing Jacks, but the courageous nurse’s life was claimed by the fall which was meant to save him from the jaws of the beast. His heroism in diverting Mauger from the nearby maternity ward went unrecognised, but he was mourned by his family for a time, before Dancing Jacks claimed them.

GRACE STAPLETHORPE (Dancing Jax | Ch 27) Hated governess of Ezra and Austerly Fellows, this devout and upstanding lady was driven to take her own life following weeks of psychological torture at the whims of her youngest charge. Austerly was but six years of age when he committed his first murder, and the unquiet spirit of Ms. Staplethorpe is still said to haunt the stables of Fellows End.

SHIELA DOYLE (Dancing Jax | Ch 1 – Dancing Jax | Ch 31) A promising student of Martin’s, Shiela was led into a life of delinquency and petty crime by her boyfriend Jezza. When the couple and their associates broke into Fellows End, their lives changed irrevocably, and Shiela embarked upon the terrible journey which would eventually lead to her being murdered in a ritual burning in the name of the Dawn Prince. Her life was tragically cut short before she had the chance to really live, and she is now remembered only by Martin, one of the last to resist the Dancing Jacks.

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The Deptford Mice Almanack | August

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At last the two itinerant rats where discovered skulking in a deserted rabbit hole, and were brought before the Starwife. They were none other than Vinegar Pete and Leering Macky, who where believed to have perished with the rest of Jupiter’s followers more than ten years ago.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: My favourite entry this month is actually the 1st. I hadn’t really considered that the fieldmice and other small fuzzy creatures of the farming countryside would be under threat every summer from the harvest, but of course they would. I can imagine that, it being Robin Jarvis, the ghosts of those who had faced a quick but gory death with their temporary summer homes would probably return to walk the fields in the condition in which they had died. I bet the young mice of Fennywolde scare themselves silly with tales of bloody, manged ghouls roaming among the shorn wheat…

Of greatest note in terms of plot this month is the return of (gasp) Vinegar Pete and Leering Macky. Like everyone else, I had thought them either plagued to death in The Dark Portal, or ice wraithed in The Final Reckoning. It appears however that they are both born under the Wheel of Fortune in the Rat Zodiac, because they seem to have actually lived through the entire Deptford Mice trilogy. What a feat!

Matt’s Thoughts: The world of the Deptford Mice Almanack is a sort of twilight world of remembrance and haunted psyches. The more I read it, I realise that it is somewhat unique in what it achieves: it tells us about aftermath and pain.

Most of Mr Jarvis’ books have tragedy built into them – especially the third book of most of the trilogies, with lots of beloved characters meeting horrible ends. And we assume, of course, that this would continue to be a source of sadness for those who remain as time goes on, but the books often end with just a brief epilogue, so we don’t have to live through the pain too much.

Whereas, month by month, the Almanack chronicles trauma. Thomas still drinking, the shrews remembering Tysle day, William Scuttle looking at a picture of the Starwife and perhaps most vividly of all – Alison Sedge, looking positively ratlike indeed.

The other thing is that I’m starting to connect the dots of Alison’s dire warning and the appearance of Vinegar Pete and Leering Macky. You get the feeling that there was one almighty final showdown going to happen with the original cast of the Mice.

I’m not sure what kind of epic adventure the fourth Deptford Mice book would’ve been, and we’ll possibly never know, but it’s tantalising!

Dancing Jax | Chapter 31

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Shun the Bad Shepherd. Shun all enemies of the Dawn Prince.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now to the chapter that started it all. I have to say, I don’t envy Mr Jarvis his dreams.

The imagery that struck me the most on reread was the moment where Martin enters the Ismus’ ‘court’ and is greeted with what sounds like a farmer’s market by way of Hieronymus Bosch. Already in recent chapters we’ve had several characters mention that the minchet will be used to feed the ‘other things’ Austerly will be welcoming to the unhappy world, but it’s intriguing to discover that michet was not the only produce being grown in the diabolical conservatory at Fellows End. The odorous, fibrous question here, however, is where, exactly, are these plants native to? Where did the seeds come from, and where, by extension, do Austerly’s magickal little friends hail from? (I think we all know who they hail, but I refuse to say it until we’ve all read it on the page.)

Then, of course, there’s the part everybody remembers with the sales director from the London publishing house. Oh boy. Being a publishing student myself I could write an essay on the ways this scene is hilarious (I can’t believe Robin actually name-dropped The Bookseller, but then, I can) but really the most important part is the in-universe change from Dancing Jacks to Dancing Jax. In one pithy sentence, the fourth wall is broken, and the book that we, in our real lives, are reading, takes on a new and forbidding air.

Look at those long paragraphs of text describing Felixstowe landmarks in meticulous detail for no apparent reason. Consider the strangely flat characters we’ve been introduced to, all of whom are either too real or not quite real enough. Think about the way the relentless plot pulls you in and keeps you turning the pages until you look up and realise you’ve been reading for hours (don’t lie, you know you read this one in about two days the first time around). Examine the map at the start of chapters 5 and 20 (spoiler: it’s one image), or the Dancing Jacks cavorting their way across the header of Chapter 29. Try to keep the exact positions of their heads and limbs in your memory (spoiler: you can’t). Is that Terry Johnson’s favourite embossing and foil on the cover? And is it Mauger’s face leering out at us, crowned with horns, or a lurid, demonic distortion of Austerly Fellows, himself?

Hang on a second, there’s a weird spot in the corner of my screen…

Matt’s Thoughts: Of all Jarvis finales, this one is possibly the bleakest. While we only one lose character to death at the end of all this – what a horrific ending for Shiela! – that brutal finale, where Carol, Paul and Barry go to join the Ismus, just leaves the whole thing hanging bleakly.

Where was the big showdown with Mauger or some other baddy of horrific description? Why wasn’t there a massive foiling of the Ismus’ plot, so that he would have to come back with something even nastier for Book 2?

But Mr Jarvis – as with everything else about this book – has changed up the formula on us. There’s no brave, heroic showdown here. Just Martin Baxter, too late to save the loved ones in his life. There is a glimpse of hope in his rescue by Gerald and at least he gets away. But that’s it.

At least in the short term, Austerly Fellows has won. The city of Felixstowe has pretty much entirely fallen, and if the slimy book sales director, Terry Johnson, has anything to do with it, the rest of the world is on the way out as well. I will admit, I do think there was a bit more cynical Jarvis humour in the portrayal of the agent, especially his lines: ‘You wouldn’t believe the power we sales guys have in there now. The editors can’t do anything if we turn our noses up at the pretentious stuff they try to show us. They have to publish what we want to sell and if we don’t like it, they effing well have to change it till we do.’

One can only wonder if there is a story behind that quote!

Finally, those who are a bit more knowledgeable in some of the references thrown in here may have had their suspicions about the identities of things like the Bad Shepherd and the Dawn Prince and had a bad feeling about where all this is headed. For the rest of you, the answers are all coming and we’ll see you shortly for Book 2.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 30

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

There had to be several thousand – each hungry for a copy of Dancing Jacks.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: It’s such an emotive moment when Martin’s equation brings Shiela back. The description of her taking joy in solving the puzzle and of colour coming back into the world is reminiscent of the kind of language sometimes used by people recovering from mental illness, and it’s made all the better plotwise because Shiela was one of the very first to resist the evil of Austerly Fellows.

It also poses a fascinating idea, which Martin himself considers, that there is an antidote to Dancing Jacks. It would be difficult and time consuming, as he says, but the thought that everyone has something that would pull them out of Mooncaster is a tiny glimmer of hope for the aberrant cause. So, assuming you were taken in, dear rereaders, what do you think would be the thing that would make you remember who you are?

Matt’s Thoughts: And in our penultimate chapter, we realise that Dancing Jacks has got nearly everyone in Felixstowe. Every secondary character – e.g. Trudy Bishop – that appears makes you realise the reach of the Austerly Fellows plot.

As an old maths nerd, I did appreciate that Martin resorted to an equation to rouse Shiela from the spell. It’s a moment of short-lived beauty and exhilaration that it managed to work, but as the chapter closing makes clear, it comes at a great personal cost to her.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 29

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘I am responsible for all of this. I – Emma Taylor! Blessed be!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: We took a little break from the parody in recent chapters to focus on Martin and Paul, but the characteristic vitriol of this series comes back in full force here. Mr Jarvis proceeds to gleefully tear into various news casting conventions with his hyper-real side characters and their avaricious exploits, and nobody is exempt. From Tara with her pen-stabbing, to Lyndsay using expressions like ‘for BAFTA’s sake’ and ‘what the flaming Panorama’ with a straight face, it’s one big send-up of the British press, and it’s, well, pretty funny.

Unfortunately, it looks as if Lyndsay will never be delivering her lunchtime slot, and the only one laughing by the end of this book will be Austerly the author.

Matt’s Thoughts: While I disagreed earlier with my co-blogger’s assessment that this whole book is a parody, it definitely has a vein of black comedy running through it, of which this chapter is a classic example.

From beginning to end, it is classic British humour: taking something that should be totally tragic, the death of two young people under horrific circumstances, and turns it into a riff on TV and celebrity. I don’t believe any American could write a chapter like this one!

 

Dancing Jax | Chapter 28

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Martin was too terrified to refuse. His spirit was completely quashed. He could not fight this. Nothing in the world could. He reached out a tremulous hand and took the jar.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: As dreadful as the Ismus is, it’s hard not to enjoy the extreme hamminess of his appearance in this chapter. The part where he reveals his true mouldy self to Martin is reminiscent of a fantasy or sci-fi villain transforming into some sort of ferocious monster during a movie finale as the hero looks on in despair. You can practically hear the evil laugh. I’m sure, had he been in less immediate peril, Martin would have been able to appreciate the cinematic drama of the whole thing, but it does make Austerly a little hard to take seriously in the long run.

As for Evelyn turning up at the last minute as getaway driver, I fully appreciate Robin’s apparently unconscious need to have badass elderly ladies in almost everything he writes, and I couldn’t imagine a more Robin Jarvis-like ending to this chapter. The quickly-vetoed idea of Martin and Evelyn being the Last of the Aberrants, teaming up against the Dancing Jacks in a post-apocalyptic Felixstowe, is definitely fun to think about, even if it’s unlikely to go anywhere since of course, Paul is our main concern.

As for the Jockey, I’ve an inkling as to who it might be, but we’ll get to that in a few chapters.

Matt’s Thoughts: And finally, the Jockey arrives on the scene – albeit with the caveat that we’re not sure which human host has become this character.

The Jockey is an interesting one and you could possibly speculate a few things about what role he plays in everything. The paradox you’re trying to solve is that if the whole of Mooncaster is essentially a creation of Austerly Fellows, why invent a character who just aggravates the heck out of everyone? Especially if that aggravation works its way into the real world and the Jockey has no qualms about ruining the Ismus’ schemes in real life.

My own theory as to why the Jockey was created is that Mooncaster was essentially thrown together in a rush without a great deal of care or forethought for characterisation. In other words, if Dancing Jacks were just a book it would – as Martin discovered when he read it – be pretty ordinary.

So I suspect that Fellows wasn’t thinking too hard about what impact the Jockey might have on all of this.

In addition, I get the feeling that Mooncaster is meant to be filled with types of people, so that when someone gets possessed by the book, there is a certain character type that they would naturally meld into. (i.e. Emma’s obnoxiousness lends her to be a great match with the Jill of Spades).

So I suspect the Jockey was always meant to be a holding point for people who don’t play by the rules and don’t really like any kind of hierarchy.

As to whether he would be likely to cause havoc in Mooncaster, the answer is of course yes, but that’s only a problem if the end-game of all of this is to have everyone be part of Mooncaster and live there forever. But if Mooncaster is just a front for something more sinister, well then, who really cares if it’s a bit chaotic in the meantime?

So I suspect it was just a bit of brilliant irony that by making the character of the Jockey so determined to break all the rules, that Martin is saved in this chapter.

But what do you think?

Dancing Jax | Chapter 27

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The person who had answered was not Gerald Benning. It was an elderly-looking woman with austerely coiffed steel-grey hair and horn-rimmed spectacles attached to a fine chain that looped around her neck.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: And so Austerly’s past is revealed to us in even more sordid detail than on his Wikipedia page. What stood out to me the most among the baby farms, the psychological torture, and the suicide, was this: did ol’ Austers seek out Satanism and the occult as a subconscious rebellion against his Bible-bashing governess, or are the rumours about his parentage a cover-up for something a lot more sinister? Was he just a very unpleasant kid who turned to curses and esoterica in later life as an outlet for his horrible ways, or was the Dawn Prince, so to speak, with him all along?

Matt’s Thoughts: In so many ways, it could go wrong having a major piece of exposition delivered by Gerald’s female alter-ego. (I think Mr Jarvis, in his detailed description of Evelyn has ruled out any use of the word ‘drag’.) But it makes perfect sense that Gerald would actually turn to Evelyn – possibly his stronger side? – to tell the tale of Austerly Fellows.

And what a dark tale it is, venturing deep into occult back-story territory. The best moments are those ones where Robin decides to just go to certain places and trust that the readers will love it – like the photograph of the dead nanny!