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Digging up Donald

by Stephen Pirie

(Immanion Press, £17.99, 338 pages, signed hardback, published 2004.)

Review by Christopher Teague

Imagine for a second that you're watching Coronation Street. Even if you can't stand the programme, put yourself on that sofa, for this particular episode is different. Imagine, if you will, an episode written by Spike Milligan and HP Lovecraft, and once you acknowledge that you've grasped how to understand the people that inhabit this novel.

Pirie has crafted a wonderfully funny tale, that also contains a fair amount of genuinely creepy moments, and what is even more remarkable about this book is the fact it is the author's first--I just hope he has more in the works!

Marrying humour with horror invariably means the story becomes a spoof, but how can you spoof a tale that is so original, so undeniably unique? Granted, Pirie draws on many sources in writing this book--including the partnership of Ricardo Montalban and Hervé Villechaize from Fantasy Island transposed to the demonically-possessed Reverend and his verger, Mr Dodds-- but despite Spike, Lovecraft, Coronation Street and the above, I cannot think of anything in print remotely similar. The closest would probably be the works of Robert Rankin, but Pirie's fantasies just eclipse the weirdest that Rankin can imagine.

And this, paradoxically, could be its downfall--the book could be too damn weird! This is an apocalyptic tale where only a boy and his family stand before the Reverend and the forces of darkness from ruling the world, with the help of their dead relatives not to mention just about every other corpse in the graveyard.

A story that will also contain enough double-entendre to make even the late great Frankie Howerd titter-so, especially when the Mother and daughter are discussing the apparent lack of granddchildren:

The Mother sighed. 'Does the train arrive in Nuneaton before Brian becomes excitable?' she said. Maureen winced. 'Sometimes it doesn't even leave the platform at Waterloo, Mother.'

For me, that's a great line, and Stephen Pirie shows a familiar style of wordplay throughout the book. The author bio describes him as a 'playful forty-two year-old' and for once, you actually believe an author's bio.

This is a journey where the boy, Robert, has the task of finding the dearly-departed family members, with the help of Donald (who is not what you expect, trust me); we'll discover what Limbo is really like, and what exactly lies at Death's Door. These sequences in hell display that Pirie is adept at writing horror, aping Dante's La Divine Comedie though incorporating a couple of modern designs, such as a pub.

John Cleese famously remarked that Monty Python would never work outside of the UK... I would say the same about Pirie's humour: it is intrinsically English, and northern English at that. Despite it being set within the city of Mudcaster, you just know it's a thinly disguised Manchester. Of course, Cleese was proved wrong--but would an average American reader understand this?

Digging up Donald is a novel that has to be read by anyone with even the faintest interest in the absurd or the fantastic, and Stephen Pirie is a name to keep an eye on.

Well recommended, chuck.

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