Freax and Rejex | Chapter 21

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Three fat, boneless tentacles of pallid, pink, worm-like muscle punched up from the bottom of the pit.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This chapter legitimately made me shed tears. Between Charm’s kindness, Spencer’s despair, and Marcus’s change of heart followed by his sudden death, we’ve got a veritable rollercoaster of emotions.

I think you should all be able to see now how Charm is my favourite of the teens. Her arc is not so much character growth as character reveal; she has always been this lovely, but has been forced to build walls around herself. Now the life-or-death reality of the camp has swept all her false pride and internalised self-reproach away, showing the compassionate and gentle-hearted person beneath.

What really touches me is how she goes out of her way to be kind to the girls in her cabin in this chapter, naming them sweet things and doing their nails as if it were all just a big girly sleepover rather than an interminable imprisonment from which they might never escape alive. It’s very powerful that she is allowed to retain the femininity she takes so much pride in, while also having more backbone than any of the others in the main cast. Charm is a sparkling pink star of strength and kindness in the fetid black swamp of a world ruled by Dancing Jax, and I’m proud of her.

Matt’s Thoughts: No need to go into endless detail, but here we go again. We get a personal breakthrough for our characters – in this case, the beautiful solidarity that Charm shows with Maggie by drawing a moustache on her face – that leads to a bit of healing.

Only to be wiped out by some giant tentacled thing that takes out Marcus. Who expected him to be the next one?? I certainly didn’t the first time I read it. And even then, it caught me by surprise this time around how quick and sudden the Marshwyrm’s appearance actually is.

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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’.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 10

Scan_20180613Warning: Contains Spoilers!

And so Shiela witnessed the arising of the Ismus, and her mind reeled. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: If Jezza arising as the Ismus on the third day after undergoing his Great Ordeal in the name of the Dawn Prince then appearing before his followers with his arms extended in a cruciform doesn’t practically loudspeaker from the rooftops what this series is going for, then honestly I don’t know what does. It’s all out in the open now, folks, even if neither the book, nor I, will be explicitly putting it into words quite yet.

Matt’s Thoughts: Yep, it’s pretty messed up. We’re not even entirely sure what the full extent of the book’s powers are, but we can clearly see that people are identifying with characters in the book and turning into pod people. But it’s the random ‘Oh no!’ nature of who picks the book up at the book fair that is the terrifying part. Conor Westlake, all right, if he picks it up, a bit unfortunate. Sandra – we’re concerned. Paul? NOOOOO!!!

Also worth a mention is the brief tragic interaction between Shiela and Martin. The fact that she was one of his brightest and went off to uni, only to now not be in uni is really sad. Especially because we don’t know what happened. Did she bump into Jezza, and he led her down a bad path? Did something else go on, she dropped out and Jezza was part of her plummet to the bottom? I don’t think we ever find out, but it ties into the wasted potential of England’s youth, all ripe to be sucked into the vortex of something like Dancing Jacks.

Actually, that’s one other great mystery, which I forgot on the way through. Why is the book called Dancing Jax with an X, when the book in the story is Jacks with a C-K-S? As with everything in this story, none of the details are in there by accident, so we’ll have to wait and see on that question as well.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 9

Scan_20180613Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Peasant coins are all we seek!’ he said with a crooked grin. ‘Just thirty of your shiny new pennies.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: In come the hounds of the press, and the commentary aspect of this series really gets going. I hate to think how many distressing news channels, radio shows, and tabloids Mr Jarvis had to tune in to in researching this – from the glib reporters delivering ‘pieces to camera’ to the journalist photographers ambushing crying Felixstowe pupils for close-ups of ‘raw emotion’, it’s all very, very on-the-nose.

As for the teen characters, well, they are salaciously unpleasant reality TV caricatures, and that (unfortunately) also means moments of ‘camera confessional’ into their personal thoughts and feelings following the disaster.

The thing is, however, that even though we’re seeing into Conor and Emma’s heads, we’re not really empathising or engaging properly. At least to my mind, there is a rehearsed remoteness to Conor’s guilt over the car crash, and nothing about Emma’s obvious repressed trauma really redeems her for us as readers. It’s uncomfortable and voyeuristic, but not truly moving, to see the teen’s reactions; a ‘camera confessional’ filmed long after a staged event, again, more ‘real’ than real.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: It’s a really interesting chapter this one, again, because Mr Jarvis is engaging with the real world in a way that is totally unprecedented in anything of his we’ve read before.

You’ll notice that the social commentary has now moved from being just monologues by Jezza to being part of the fabric of the novel itself. My favourite line – and it’s almost a throwaway – is the cut back to the news anchor, displaying the legs that had served her so well in Strictly Come Dancing.

It’s brutal, but it gets the point across – these characters live in a world (and I’m not sure it’s much better today) where celebrity is everything. And I suspect the reason for the coldness of Emma and the spinelessness of Conor is simply because there is nothing going on in their life. There is a yawning emptiness and emotional disengagement from life that no amount of TV, music or even trauma is going to wake up.

In short, it’s the void into which the accursed book is going to pour itself.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 8

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘You should be grovelling on your faces to be here, to witness the contract.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: When I first researched the word ‘ismus’, I was amused and confused by the fact that the closest approximation was ‘isthmus’, a slender strip of land connecting two larger land-masses over the sea. Once I’d finished the whole series, however, I understood perfectly.

This chapter, like the entire trilogy, is a classic Robin Jarvis set-piece given a new and modern twist. Just as his class and religious commentary has been modernised and sharpened for an older, 2011 audience, the ‘sea of cranes’ setting is a clever contrast to, say, the ruins of Whitby Abbey or the slopes of Glastonbury Tor. The future of grandiose Robiny occult doings is here, in a shabby industrial estate, and it is literally electrifying.

Matt’s Thoughts: Ah, thanks for that, Aufwader! I too had done a fair share of searching for Ismus and where it might have come from and was always somewhat puzzled. But your explanation makes sense. (And will hopefully make sense to all the rest of the readers when they reach the end of the trilogy!)

I don’ have much more to add to the description of this chapter. It is a classic Jarvis occult set-piece with spectacular lighting and sound effects. However, I think what makes this one worse is that the last few chapters have set up a particularly realistic ecosystem of grotty teenagers, down-and-outs, pop culture and general British realism. So in other words, unlike others of his books, where I have very much felt like I’m in an escapist fantasy reality, the setting of this story feels so authentic that it feels as if the occult magic has broken through into the real world. There’s just an increased sense of plausibility here that makes the whole thing darker.

To be honest, after reading this, I would be fascinated to see what would happen if Robin wrote a book for adults, with no constraints at all. One can only imagine what that might be like!

Dancing Jax | Chapter 5

 

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘The Dancing Jacks are with you.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Underneath the commentary on books as collector’s items (all that ‘second-hand kid’s book’ stuff is hilarious from an author who at the time was most recognised for out-of-print middle grade – we see you, Robin) this chapter is setting up for a big, bombastic set-piece of old. Now that Jezza’s cronies have eyeballed Dancing Jacks for real, there is no turning back from the doom (or, well, doooooom) already writ and recited. The stinger is that, this time around, we the readers are not looking forward to it.

Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter might be Jezza’s best rant yet, this time on that old marketing chestnut, Big Data, and all the paranoia that goes along with that. I would love to know the inspiration for these rants, because while there are many YA books that try to obliquely hint at big themes that young people should think about, I’ve never seen a book chuck in so many explicitly complex ideas as if it’s a Reddit thread, and then just leave readers to think about whether they agree with them.

Part of me suspects that Mr Jarvis starts each rant with a topic he might have some genuine concern over, writes it out, then ratchets it up to conspiracy-website levels, with a hint of YouTube comment section troll thrown in. Then he gets Jezza to say it in his voice and sees how it comes out.

What is somewhat fascinating is that somewhere later in the trilogy, someone refers to Jezza as a ‘Russell Brand clone’. This, while being an amusing insult, also raises a fascinating idea and a paradox. I’m not sure if Robin always had Russell Brand in mind when he created the character, but actually if you wanted someone who could walk right in and bring a character like Jezza to life, Mr Brand would pretty much just have to play himself and it would all work. The man even had a ranty YouTube series for several years!

However – and this is the paradox – given that Dancing Jax was written in 2010, when Brand was really only known for his comedy side, it’s far less likely that Jezza is a take-off of him. It seems instead to be more the case of real life imitating art!

That said, I do have fantasies that someone slips this book to Brand after a show, he reads it, gets enthusiastic about playing Jezza, pulls some strings, it becomes a Netflix series, and then it gets touted as the British answer to Stranger Things

Dancing Jax | Chapter 1

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Some books are harmful, even dangerous.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The Mooncaster Trilogy, as I long ago began to call the Dancing Jax books in the absence of an official series title, is many things at once. As Matt said in the Up Next post, it is confrontational. It was at the time of publication, and still is, widely misunderstood by readers and critics alike. It goes where no Robin Jarvis series has gone before, or indeed, many young adult series’ on the bookshop shelves of today. Whatever you’ve heard about these books, whatever conclusions you’ve come to if you’ve read them, there’s one thing I think everybody will agree on: this trilogy has a strong personality.

This was the first series in Robin Jarvis canon that I had the opportunity of reading more or less as it came out. Dancing Jax was published in early 2011 – I didn’t catch wind of it until it appeared in my local library about a year later, but I ended up following the release of the next two books closely, which, if you know about Robin’s publication history, you will guess was an adventure in itself. To this day I find it darkly comedic that the one Robin Jarvis book to turn up when I wasn’t looking for Jarvis offerings at all was the one which would signal the greatest departure from ‘Robin Jarvis canon’ as a whole. Dancing Jax was, and still is, a revelation.

Let’s dive right in, then. Oh boy.

I think anybody who reads Martin Baxter’s entry will immediately know that something is up with author intent here. Martin’s statement about harmful books is a very bold move to make in the opening pages of what was marketed as a piece of young adult fiction, and has probably contributed to the book being misinterpreted quite regularly.

In an example from my own experience, I can remember handing it to a friend. He read the first page, and was instantly repelled. ‘What point is the author trying to make?’ I can remember him saying, indignantly. ‘You don’t just advocate censorship and not elaborate, it’s completely ham-fisted.’ Right away, Dancing Jax had elicited a strong response, and in that way, it had worked perfectly.

I admit that the intent of this series was lost on me up until the second book came out, so, with the memory of my own sad confusion and my friend’s offended horror uppermost, I feel I owe it to this project to, er, lay all the cards on the table.

The Dancing Jax books are a parody. They are a deconstruction of the trends popular in young adult fiction at the time of writing, of the publishing industry, the British press, the way British history is commodified, celebrity and mass media culture, the New Age movement, and quite a few other things besides.

This series is one giant ‘haw haw haw’ from start to finish, so please, be offended. Be confronted, be aghast, be shocked and awed. Hate the protagonists, loathe the antagonists, groan as the characters make pretentious speeches about the state of society and exchange tired pop culture references. Wince at the tabloid-like portrayal of Felixstowe and its inhabitants, shiver at Austerly Fellows’ way-too-realistic cult leader act. Call it ‘horror’, call it ‘genre-busting’, call it a seething, riotous mess or a new era in writing for young people. The point is that you’re thinking, and engaging, and reacting. The point is that you’ve joined the dance.

 

Matt’s Thoughts:  Where to start with this one? While the details are coming back to me, I still remember clearly the first time I read this, the sense that Robin Jarvis was trying something radically new. First up, there’s that outlandish cover. It’s garish, it’s monstrous, it’s terrifying. What is that creature with the blazing red eyes on the front?

Then the use of language, even before we arrive at the start of Chapter 1, signals that this is going to be a book for an older audience. And once we arrive at chapter 1, there are even more tip-offs that we’ve arrived in an older Jarvis world – the off-colour dialogue (e.g. Tommy’s comment about ‘girly mags’) and the adult concepts (e.g. the insinuation that Shiela, barely 20, is the lover of Jezza, seemingly a lot older).

Which, of course, all sets up an expectation: if Mr Jarvis is pitching the overall story at an older audience, does that mean that the scares and darkness are going to be much worse as well? In other words, if mouse-peeling rats, werewolves, and ginormous serpents were all fair game for 8-12 year-olds, what on earth is he going to do to torment older teenagers?

The answer is – quite a lot. But we shall take that ride together for mutual moral support!

I love the way this book opens with two completely opposite welcomes to the same story. One is a few paragraphs from Martin Baxter, a character we have not yet met, warning us that some books are harmful, even dangerous. They should be banned or destroyed. Then over the next page, we have an old-school introduction from Austerly Fellows written in the 1930s. It invites us to read these ‘rousing pages’ so that we can ‘escape the travails of those earthly measures that daily erode your humble spirit’ and offers a promise that ‘we shall coddle you, safe and close’.

This, of course, sets up a fascinating theme right out of the gate: could something that seems to offer comfort and escape from the cares of life be such a bad thing? Surely that would be good, right?

This paradox of good and bad being mixed together next comes in the form of Jezza’s speech to Shiela about the shallowness of spending your time on the internet, inventing stuff (which is a rather amusing sentiment to be found in a fictional story) and ignoring the evils of real life. But this is paradoxical because Jezza himself is a low-life substance abuser breaking into a house to steal stuff.

The character of Jezza (certainly, as he appears at the beginning of this book) is a fascinating one that has taken on a new resonance for me in the last few months. I was recently watching a film about the Snowtown Murders, one of the word cases of serial killing that Australia has ever seen. The murders themselves, which took place in South Australia over a period of nearly 10 years were horrific both because of the methods of murder employed (which I won’t go into on this blog) but also because there was not just one killer. Instead, the crimes were committed by a gang of three or four men, led by one John Bunting.

Bunting himself was well noted for having a charismatic personality and could be quite charming at times. But the logic that he used to justify the murders, which all took place amongst lower-class Australians in fringe suburbs, was to convince his followers that the people they were targeting were themselves low-lifes that didn’t deserve to live. In short, he put forward a moral justification for one of the most horrific things to happen on Australian soil.

You get a similar feel from Jezza – he gets his followers and lackeys onside because he has a certain amount of wisdom as he analyses society. But the paths he leads them down aren’t ones that make that society any better …

Finally, the other big thing is that Robin firmly dates the book in 2010 by throwing in numerous pop culture references, more than any had that previously been seen in the Jarvis Universe. In this case, it’s the graffiti on the walls being a nod to British pop of the 70s. So what better way to end this post than with the Wombles singing Minuetto Allegretto?