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October 2002
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke  by Mark Chadbourn
Introduction by Neil Gaiman
PS Publishing
: 2002

Signed, limited edition Trade PB  £8.00 ISBN 1902880323
HC £25.00 ISBN 1902880331
Review by John Berlyne
Order online directly from PS Publishing -

Peter Crowther's superb PS Publishing outfit further extends its hugely impressive list this month with the publication of this fascinating new novella by Mark Chadbourn.

Taking its title from the extraordinary painting by the Victorian artist Richard Dadd (which is gloriously reproduced on the cover,) Chadbourn's story of madness and obsession cleverly draws many parallels with Dadd's eventful, if tragic, life.

Such source material is a gift for a writer and kudos to Chadbourn for his vision in recognizing this fact. Born in 1817, Dadd was gifted painter who was admitted into the Royal Academy at 20. He made his living, as Neil Gaiman puts it in his introduction, painting "forgettable chocolate box cover concoctions of fairy scenes from Shakespeare." In 1842, Dadd took up with - as was the fashion for young artists in those days - a patron with whom he undertook a grand tour of Europe and the Middle East. Then, as Gaiman so brilliantly tells us, ". he went mad. Not just a little bit mad, but quite spectacularly mad: a murderous patricidal madness of demons and Egyptian gods." Neil - as always - is right on the button here. Dadd, on returning to England, brutally slaughtered his own father in a frenzied razor attack and thus spent the rest of his days in the various asylums that are now synonymous with our sense of Victorian gothic. And yet for all this drama, this clearly raving and dangerous lunatic went on during his incarceration to produce some breathtaking paintings, including his masterpiece, The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke.

This is, of course, all grist to Chadbourn's story-telling mill and he exploits it all wonderfully, showing both deep insight and great dexterity in creating a tale that parallels and contemporizes Dadd's own. Our protagonist, Danny, was a gifted child, one whose talents were rightly nurtured by his mother. She takes him as an infant to see Dadd's painting in the Tate and like many visitors before him, he is instantly enchanted and mesmerized by it. As he grows up, his fascination grows too, until it spills over into something dark and dangerous and Chadbourn's narrative becomes and exploration of Danny's mounting obsession and of the blurry penumbra that is the boundary between genius and madness.

It is curious that there are so many examples of this phenomenon surrounding our most brilliant artists - albeit with varying degrees of the dramatic - and Chadbourn gave me much pause for thought on the subject. Van Gogh is perhaps the first to spring to mind and Dali's eccentricities have him not far behind. Having recently visited the Von Hagan's "Body Worlds" exhibition in London, it was clear to me that the topic is still a current one.

For more information on Richard Dadd visit:  

And for the "Bodyworks" exhibition go to:  

sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes)© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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