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The Haunted Air: A Repairman Jack Novel
F Paul Wilson
(Gauntlet Press, $50, 462 pages, hardback, limited to 475 signed copies; May 2002.)

F. Paul Wilson should listen a bit more carefully to the cover scanmusic of Meat Loaf. On page 124 of this novel he significantly misjudges the performances of the excellent interpreter and the accomplishments of his primary songwriter, Jim Steinman; in particular, Wilson clearly hasn't paid proper attention to the wit of Steinman's lyrics. Pshaw, I say. And pshaw again.

Repairman Jack and his girlfriend Gia are dragged along by a ditzy friend to see the psychic Ifasen in Astoria, NYC. As soon as Gia steps in the doorway of Ifasen's house there is a minor earthquake, and soon it is discovered that a gaping crack has opened up in the floor of the house's cellar. Ifasen himself is clearly terrified, and Jack spots a bullet hole in the window.

Soon a story emerges. Ifasen is in reality Lyle Kenton from Detroit, and he and his brother Charlie are running a bogus psychic operation. Because of their growing success they're taking customers from other, much more predatory bogus psychics, one of whom is attempting to terrorize them out of business. In an entertaining major subplot of the novel, Jack "repairs" this situation for the two brothers, whom he and Gia come much to like.

The two other, more major strands of the novel are much more sombre.

That crack in the cellar heralds the full-scale poltergeist haunting of the house, and Gia sees the ghost of a sweet little girl whose heart has been plucked out. The main protagonists -- Jack, Gia, Lyle, Charlie -- are obviously keen to bring peace to this pitiful wandering spirit.

Independently, Jack is hired by an enigmatic Irishman to keep watch over the Irishman's "brother" for the few days around the new moon in case the "brother" does someone harm. The brother, Eli Bellitto, proves utterly dissimilar from Jack's employer, but Jack carries out the commission nevertheless. Catching Bellitto and gorilla-like henchman Adrian Minkin snatching a small boy from the sidewalk, Jack, assuming they're paedophiles, rescues the child, beats up Minkin and stabs Bellitto privily.

The two strands in due course coalesce. The ghost-child, Tara Portman, is only one of a long, long succession of children murdered so that a thirteen-strong group, the Circle, can attain immortality through periodically eating the still-beating hearts of the "lambs" they seize.

This, the sixth in Wilson's series of novels about Repairman Jack, is at one level a tremendously enjoyable ghost story. It bears a few superficial similarities -- mere coincidental details -- to Clive Barker's recently published Coldheart Canyon, but as a ghost story is far more successful.

It is arguably far more successful as a novel as well. Although the plot presents plenty of opportunities for gratuitous gore, Wilson wisely eschews them, instead concentrating on the action and the fun. And there some pleasing ideas floating around as well, among them one that Wilson has been developing over the series. There is no such thing as a good God or an evil Satan each trying to gain dominion over the world, according to this notion. Instead, there are two competing entities in creation, neither of which is more good or more evil than the other -- neither of which, in fact, gives a tinker's cuss about humanity. The one that would like to take over Earth as its territory is called, in Jack's terminology, the Otherness. He has no real name for the entity who currently "owns" us, calling it by default the anti-Otherness.

Through his earlier adventures, Jack has come to be regarded by the anti-Otherness as a useful tool. One could regard him as one of the anti-Otherness's field agents were it not that this term would imply that Jack was promoting the anti-Otherness's cause of his own volition. In fact, Jack is emotionally not really on either side in this unseen, unimaginable contest; his allegiance is to human beings and, even more narrowly, to those human beings close to him. That the Otherness's behaviour is generally so destructive and disgusting does mean that it generally suits Jack to act in accordance with the wishes of the anti-Otherness to counter the efforts of the Otherness. The possibility remains open, however, that one day Jack will find himself in a situation where it is the anti-Otherness he wishes to fight against; should Wilson decide to explore that possibility it will make for an extremely interesting piece of fiction-writing.

One side-effect of Jack's having become the anti-Otherness's catspaw is that there is no longer any such thing in his life as coincidence. A detractor might scoff that this facilitates Wilson's plotting no end -- it is, after all, a diminishingly small probability that the person whom Jack is hired to watch over, among the millions of people in NYC, should be the very villain whose deeds explain the haunting of the Kentons' house. But such a gibe would ignore the elegance of the notion that both Otherness and anti-Otherness are engaged in what is fundamentally, as it were, a contest of storytelling. Each is trying to carve out stories that will be to its own advantage; we are merely characters in those stories, largely subject to the authors' whim. Jack, of course, is again the wild card in this conceit: he is the character all fiction-writers talk about who takes on a life of his own, who is conscious of the author and who may or may not do what he's told. At the moment, as noted, he does largely what he's told; much of the dynamic arises from that possibility that this may not always be so.

There is some laziness in The Haunted Air's characterization. Jack and especially Gia never become particularly clear as real people, although this doesn't matter much in an action tale. Gia's daughter Vicky is a complete cypher. Where it grates a little is in the Identikit characterization of Jack's pal Abe, who is so stereotypically Jewish that you keep expecting him to burst into one of the songs from Fiddler on the Roof just to make sure the reader really does realize he's, you know, Jewish; and the similar treatment of the Kenton brothers, who are by far the most fully rounded and likeable characters in the book despite, rather than because of, Charlie's constant and ever so self-conscious use of supposed African-American street slang. (Lyle occasionally lapses into it as well, although he has educated himself to speak quasi-instinctively as an East African, that image being better for business.) It is as if Charlie, every time he gets to the end of a sentence and realizes to his horror that nowhere in it has there appeared an item of identificatory black idiom, tacks on an extra clause just to make absolutely bloody sure we know he's not a honky. Much of this unnecessary, artificial verbiage disappears from his speech during the book's most dramatic sequence, when Charlie and Gia are fighting for their lives against supernatural malice; one wishes the same could have been the case throughout.

Wilson is no high stylist, but his prose in this novel performs its function well, keeping the pages eagerly turning. The overkill present in some of his other novels -- where it can seem that, whenever stuck for a new plot development, he defaults to extreme cataclysm -- is absent here, and that is much to the novel's benefit. Indeed, I would recommend this brisk and lively novel to anyone who has tried Wilson before and been at best so-so about the prospect of trying him again: The Haunted Air is very good entertainment.

One can even forgive the author his silly remarks about Meat Loaf.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 13 July 2002