Dancing Jax | Chapter 24

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘I have taken your jools! LMAO!!!!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Barry and Martin both have redeeming moments in this chapter, only for those glimpses of kindness to be quickly blotted out by the overwhelming horror of the situation that they’re in. What makes the business with Dancing Jacks hit so hard is that it’s one more awful thing on top of an already huge pile of awful things. Each of Barry and Martin’s problems would be bad enough individually, but all the terribleness sort of comes at them at once, and in light of the week they’ve already had, it’s no wonder neither of them has the capacity to understand a supernatural threat as well. Maybe on a good day, they might’ve banded together against the evil of Austerly Fellows, but this is far from a good day, and they’re just regular people, not .

For me, the saddest part about Paul wrecking Martin’s memorabilia collection is that it’s proof of how drastically Dancing Jacks has changed Paul, separating him from what should be the most important and positive part of his childhood – his family. He and Martin were close, as we saw, and Dancing Jacks has now robbed them of the bond that they shared. It’s not just that they’ll never build and paint their TARDIS together, it’s that they’ve been denied the chance to create memories as a family.

Still, there’s hope as long as the ‘aberrants’ resist.

Matt’s Thoughts: Another chapter that’s firing on all cylinders.

Barry emerges as a character who deeply cares about the children in his school, despite his political incorrectness. We now feel sorry that his days at the school are over.

Martin thinks he’s discovered a plausible real-world explanation of drugs with the discovery of the minchet jars, which gives him a flicker of hope. But clearly however that particularly noxious plant works, it’s not like any sort of narcotic we know anywhere else. I also feel that he comes into his own in this chapter. The destruction of his man-cave could have tipped him into a spiral of anger and hatred, but instead his good side comes out. But is it too late?

Finally, Emma heads out – into the moment we’ve all been waiting for.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 23

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘And yet everything in that fantasy has its own rationale,’ he said rubbing the back of his neck. ‘It has its own internal logic. In fact, it makes more sense than most orthodox religions.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: A harrowing chapter, as Martin and Carol try to understand the change that has come over Paul and both get it ‘so very wrong’. We see exactly what Paul meant in the previous chapter when he pointed out how Martin is so quick to accept supernatural threat in his sci-fi shows, but is so determined that the real world be rational and explainable, that he has failed to notice the paranormal evil taking place under his nose. And now it’s too late for his own step-son, and soon the whole of Felixstowe will be engulfed. And what then?

Matt’s Thoughts: Mr Jarvis keeps up the steady stream of references to religion, to the state of England, even to the modern encroachment of technology – I quite liked Gerald’s highly quotable line, ‘It’s splendid they’re reading something other than emails, isn’t it?’

But we barely notice this because of the realism with which he paints the trauma of Martin and Carol. They do everything worried parents would do – ring friends for advice, go to the doctor. But there does not seem to be any easy cure for the Jacks addiction. (And it is an addiction – there is something creepily addict-like about Paul’s lamentation about his lack of a copy of Jacks. And when he turns violently on Carol at the end? Heartbreaking.)

Dancing Jax | Chapter 22

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘So many movies about predators coming from outer space,’ he said. ‘But that’s not where the real dangers are. People in the olden days knew, before science told them it was stupid.’ He pointed to the ground. ‘Down there, Martin. Deep down there, that’s where it’s coming from.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Barry’s assertion that ‘phases and crazes’ among the students never last is absolutely chilling. Yes, under normal circumstances, he’s right. But these cards aren’t for trading, and this is no playground fad.

The sense of menace early on in the chapter really pays off when Paul is finally caught, and in class, of all places. Like with Shiela, we have a moment where we thought the reality of Austerly Fellows’ evil might just get through to Martin before it was too late, but of course, that’s not meant to be. However, it’s interesting that Paul actually manages to resist for quite a long time in comparison to some of the other children. Was that because he had taken time to learn about Dancing Jacks, and Fellows’ diabolical plan beforehand? Perhaps most of the power of the book is in surprise attack, making those who are unaware of its true purpose more susceptible to its influence.

Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter is a total rush (but not necessarily a good one), swooping from Martin and Barry missing the point – again, the tragic irony that their ‘aberrancy’ is blinding them to the real danger – through Martin’s maths class (now greatly transformed since we first met him) and finally, the turning of Paul.

Just a few hours, we say, and he would have been fine! Martin might have listened. We haven’t met Gerald yet, but we sense that he certainly wouldn’t have brushed Paul off if he could have got t his place.

But the book got to him first. It’s scenes like the classroom scene here that make me dream about how you would film something like this. It would almost need two directors – one to make sure that Felixstowe felt as real-life and ordinary as possible and another to create a Mooncaster that is totally OTT. It’s the juxtaposition of the fantastic and the ordinary that make this chapter come alive.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 21

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The Royal Hunt had begun.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I recall there was a bit of outrage over certain things the Ismus says at the start of this chapter, particularly about him comparing himself to real-life dictators and suggesting that they were in some way doing the bidding of the Dawn Prince. While I don’t enjoy these comparisons, I feel the need to point out that Robin has been blending real-life evil with fantasy and occult elements since The Woven Path in 1995. This is not new. Actually, the historic elements in The Woven Path were probably more shocking, if you’re in the mood to be shocked, because they took place during the Second World War and involved children younger than Paul both being endangered by wartime events, and in some cases actually losing their lives.

If anything, the Ismus’ grandiose claims come off as a bit tired and cliché. Surely Austerly could stand on his own as an Extremely Evil Character without needing real-world figures to prop up his ego? Or is he so insecure that he feels the need to talk himself up against so-called ‘louder’ figures at every turn? I’m also mildly surprised that he compares himself to Hitler, and not, say, someone who had occult doings at the forefront of their crimes. Wouldn’t Austerly Fellows, ‘the most evil man in England’ (I can feel Nathaniel Crozier frowning jealously from here) have been acquainted with every unsavoury occultist worth running away from? Wouldn’t he be more inclined, with his personal leanings, to make ‘Satanic panic’ comments? But then, maybe Hitler comparisons are the best he can come up with. Everything about the Ismus is a bit Standard Villain(tm), even if he is the ‘realest’ character in Dancing Jacks.

Matt’s Thoughts: Well, it’s really on now, isn’t it? All authority figures, including the police are now falling under the control of Jax.

I saw an unimpressed reader having a fairly solid rant about this chapter on a review site because they weren’t happy with the comparison with Hitler being brought into it. I can understand the concerns, but I don’t feel as if Robin is trivialising the issue at all.

I think whole book is concerned with evil and suffering in the world and our capacity as humans to deal with it. Especially in our superficial age. The Ismus’ rant about ‘no substance, no value, just labels’ and ‘no rescue, no salvation’ – speaks very strongly to our current culture. That’s why I enjoy this series so much, because it is trying to make its readers think about these heavy issues.

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.

 

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.