Bleak History

By John Shirley
Pocket Books
ISBN: 978-1416584124
2009; 384 Pages; $15.00

John Shirley’s latest novel, Bleak History , is a supernatural thriller set “a little ways into the future… just far enough.” Although Urban in setting, this novel isn’t as cynical and gritty as Shirley’s earlier works. Towards the middle of the set up, it takes on a superhero feel when the characters meet and show off their “especialities”. John Shirley posted on Facebook recently about a “surreal horror” in facing visitors for the holidays. An hour later, as I was following Shirley’s character, Gabriel Bleak, the phrase “surreal horror”took on a deeper meaner. Shirley further explained in his post “[that kind of] horror is found in others”. For Bleak, those “others” could be people, ghosts, or other-worldly entities.

Like most of Shirley’s protagonists, Bleak is an outsider – a misunderstood loner with special abilities. He is an Iraq and Afghanistan War vet, being pursued by the CCA, a secret government agency that wants to tap into his powers for their own nefarious ends. Bleak is an outcast, preferring to work alone in typical crime-fighter fashion as a bounty hunter – until a cute Goth CCA agent, Loraine Sarikosca, shows up to “recruit” him. However, Bleak isn’t alone in having abilities: he must team up with ShadowComm, a group of allied practitioners, and discovers that darker beings are springing up, one in particular from his own past:

“…Bleak had a brother… who vanished when he was a kid. When he was a toddler, according to this.”

“Vanished?”

“What it says. There’s nothing more about that. Says material was redacted for the file.”

The ensuing love triangle and adventure take place against Shirley’s amazing ability to define and describe “The Hidden”, a universe culled from multiple beliefs. Shirley synthesizes a sort of String Theory for the supernatural and paranormal, borrowing heavily from Gurdjieff, Colin Wilson, and New Age philosophy. The Lovecraftian central theme – keeping out the mysterious creatures of strange and cruel dimensions – is freshly presented with a modern believability.

“Bleak climbed the ladder, feeling them more clearly, up there, with every rung, their presences altering the ambient field of mind like fourteen iron spikes driven into the ground near an electromagnet. Only it wasn’t a magnetic field; it was the apeiron field, as the Greek philosopher Anaximander had called it: the field of boundless essence that subtly took part in the other energy fields and gave birth to them; the pattern of undifferentiated consciousness from which all consciousness sprang. The apeiron was subtle yet endlessly powerful. It was the Hidden, the field traversed by planetary ghosts and other spirit beings; the energy which natural conjurers such as Bleak and the other member of the ShadowComm used as their medium of expression…”

The action picks up when Bleak descends from an alternate world created by Magick and storms CCA hideout, Facility 23, to save his love interest and destroy the bad guys. Some plot twists and character arcs are reminiscent of Star Wars and propel the story towards a climactic ending. I found myself unable to put the book down once I reached the last few chapters.

The story is well-written and doesn’t disappoint. I like the book and recommend it. The characters have complexity and I was able to empathize with them, even the villains. If I could change one element, I would have rather dropped the evil twin and combined the villain with the Loraine character (Bleak’s soul mate). This would have given equality to the characters and a more compelling redemption. In the end, Shirley leaves some relationships and situations unresolved, as the main characters almost literally walk off into the sunset. Hopefully, that means there will be a Bleak future.

– Reviewed by Sunni K Brock

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~ by darkdiscoveries on December 8, 2009.

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