John Whitbourn, “The Two Confessions” (2013) – Dipping once again into the works of “counter-reformation green anarcho-jacobite” fantasy writer John Whitbourn brought me to this, the final installment of the series his first novel, “A Dangerous Energy,” began. The world is one where magic is real and largely controlled by the Catholic Church, which in turn controls vast swathes of the planet, keeping it at a pre-industrial level of technology even into the 1990s. This world’s Britain is staunchly Catholic, ruled by the Stuarts, not at all a United Kingdom, and generally not a great advertisement for what the counter-reformation, magic, or the Jacobites do for a country. Life is squalid, limited, and dark- for characters in Whitbourn’s stories, shading towards pitch black.
Our protagonist, Samuel Trevan, is an orphan turned proto-industrialist struck down by the Church’s strict laws against over-exploiting labor (in one of this alternate universe’s more extreme points of departure, the Church doesn’t generally side with employers). He was going to make a fortune manufacturing rifled muskets (because that’s where they’re at, technologically) and then marry the upper-class girl of his dreams, but no such luck once the Church gets done with him.
Now expendable, Trevan is employed by some of the realm’s deep state fixers to fix a case of spooky mines in rural Devonshire. Trevan wants money, his handlers want discreet elimination of a problem down there. And what a problem it turns out to be- demi-devils, part human part demon, but even worse- heretics! Specifically, Bogomils- for those not versed in heresiology, these were the predecessors to the more famous Cathars, and were dualists who believed the material world was somewhere between irrelevant dross and actively evil. Our word “bugger” comes from “Bogomil” because of their supposed sexual practices (to help reduce reproduction). These Bogomils are in touch with some cask-strength Lovecraftian elder god type thing and aren’t shy about sacrificing people (in a nicely nasty touch, the Bogomils’ friends, those dastardly Unitarians, are too squeamish for it and leave before the rituals get spicy).
Trevan’s whole crew gets sacrificed, but then Trevan is saved by… not quite a deus ex machina. Is there a Latin word for elves? Either way, elves exist in this world, magical and aloof from humanity but not above messing with it (in a way that reminds me of archons from the lore of the dreaded Gnostics). This is where things get fuzzy. The elves say they save Trevan because he’s a massive threat to them. The industrial revolution he could usher in would destroy elfdom- even his touch or proximity is toxic to the fae folk. So they take him, give him all the money he wants, let him marry the girl, and try to hide him. If they’re so indifferent to humanity, why don’t they kill him, or let the Bogomils sacrifice him?
Eventually, Trevan gets doxxed and the Bogomils show up, but not to sacrifice him: to try to recruit him. They want the industrial revolution, for reasons obscure but in tune with Whitbourn’s general vibe- in his world, heresy and “progress” go hand in hand. They harass Trevan so bad he eventually has to hide in a monastery, which is where the novel ends. The end, no moral!
Well, some moral. Whitbourn is as much a horror writer as a fantasy writer, so there’s limits to how sunshine-y his worlds would be in any event, but from a “deep green” perspective the world is probably better off, and some of the filigree in the worldbuilding makes clear settler colonialism didn’t get far, either. More than anything, man is small and mostly knows his place. Whereas, Whitbourn’s antiheroes and villains are small, battened by forces beyond their comprehension, but entertain delusions about steering their own ship… that is to say, they’re moderns. And in Whitbourn’s world, the moderns lose.
They have to, because this is essentially cosmic horror — horror about the universe’s essential cruelty and pointlessness — but with precisely one out: a remote but all-powerful God who, for mysterious reasons, chooses to communicate with man through the Catholic Church. That’s where reactionaries fall apart- man is small and irretrievably corrupt, therefore let’s pick a few of them (or just one!) and give them all the power. In Whitbourn’s world, those people have the direct line to the one bare trickle of cosmic hope, so I guess it makes sense they call the shots. Still and all though- the world as Whitbourn shows it is dark, cramped, and dirty (the writing displays horniness that borders towards the cringeworthy). The Bogomils have some good points about the grossness of the world, even if, in the fine old reactionary genre formula, the more ideas they have the more awful their behavior.
Anyway… a lot going on here. I may have gotten into Whitbourn out of ideological curiosity but I’ve stuck with it because he writes genre fiction with verve and heart (and a high work rate- he has dozens of other books). This one had a pretty good dungeon-crawl and some sinister yokels, even if it also had inexplicable plot points and slow bits. It’s all part of the unique package Whitbourn delivers. And he (or someone pretending to be him for some weird reason) has commented on my blog! I emailed him about doing an interview. Fingers crossed! ****