The Witches of Chiswick by Robert Rankin
Gollancz HCVR: ISBN 0575073144 PubDate: 08/01/03
Review by John Berlyne
368 pgs. List price £9.99
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There has been something missing in my life and I finally know what it is! It’s the work of Robert Rankin. I’ve long been aware of Rankin’s presence on the British genre scene – with twenty-five novels under his belt, his name is a familiar one on bookstore shelves and publishing schedules. I was aware too that Rankin’s work slots neatly into the pigeon hole labelled “comic” – but for all this, until now I’d never picked up a Rankin novel and thus I admit to being hitherto blissfully ignorant of what delicious delights his absurd and bizarre imagination offer the reader. The latest from Rankin is The Witches of Chiswick. It’s a hugely enjoyable time traveling romp that serves to confirm that the author is as bonkers as he is prolific.
In a very strange twenty-third century, young Will Starling is a clerk at the Tate Gallery. Whilst carrying out routine survey work on the collection, Will is studying Richard Dadd’s painting, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke (Dadd, of course, was quite staggeringly bonkers) when he notices that one of the characters happens to be wearing a digital watch. That can’t be right! (You should, at this point, check out my review of Mark Chadbourn’s PS Novella which also concerned this painting and, in fact used it’s title). Will is further put out when he discovers that this anomaly means that the painting must be destroyed and so he determines to save it for posterity. However before he gets very far, he stumbles into a plot that, quite frankly, defies any further summary.
The Witches of Chiswick takes the reader back to an alternative and hilariously twisted Victorian London, one peopled by characters far richer than Mayhew ever catalogued. Rankin fearlessly throws everything he can into the pot – as well as his own eccentric characters (who are often found conversing with time travelling duplicates of themselves), there are historical and fictional figures of all kinds synonymous with the period – Joseph Merrick, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Sherlock Holmes to name but a few and, of course, Barry, aka Elvis Presley’s Holy Guardian Sprout!
This is avant-garde comic Steampunk at the very top end of the spectrum – there is simply nothing to compare it to. Even Jim Blaylock’s Langdon St. Ives stories seem positively calm next to this. The Witches of Chiswick is a playful and warped imagining where Victorian conventions are steam-rolled, kicked about, torn up, stamped on and finally burnt on an alter of Rankin’s own making. It is irreverent, often silly, packed full of some truly terrible jokes and thus very, very funny. Rankin, if this makes any sense at all, “out-Lewis Carrolls Lewis Carroll!” – there is a court scene that makes the one in Alice in Wonderland read more like Jude the Obscure. It is now obvious that it was Robert Rankin who stole the tarts! And that the tarts were chock full of hallucinogens!
I loved The Witches of Chiswick. For all its insane tomfoolery, it works like a dream and I am sure this is typical for all the works in Rankin’s canon. I’d like to write more about it here, but I won’t. I’ve got twenty-four Robert Rankin novels to read! Highly recommended.