At the end of a track, on the outskirts of an ordinary coastal town, lies a dilapidated house. Once, a group of amateur ghost hunters spent the night there. Two of them don’t like to speak about the experience. The third can’t speak about it. He went into the basement, you see, and afterwards he screamed so hard and so long he tore his vocal cords.
Now, a group of teenagers have decided to hang out in the old haunted house. Dismissing the fears of the others, their leader Jezza goes down into the basement… and comes back up with a children’s book, full of strange and colourful tales of a playing-card world, a fairytale world, full of Jacks, Queens and Kings, unicorns and wolves.
But the book is no fairytale. Written by Austerly Fellows, a mysterious turn-of-the-century occultist, it just might be the gateway to something terrifying…and awfully final. As the children and teenagers of the town are swept up by its terrible power, swept into its seductive world, something has begun that could usher in hell on earth. Soon, the only people standing in its way are a young boy with a sci-fi obsession, and his dad – an unassuming maths teacher called Martin…
If Stephen King were to write a book for young adults then I would imagine it would be something very much like Dancing Jax. Although in an interview that Robin Jarvis has done for The Book Zone (coming tomorrow) he suggests that he doesn't see himself as a horror author, this book is as chilling as anything the great King has published. Reading it certainly made me feel the same as I did when I first read 'Salem's Lot, which was very nervous indeed. I don't scare easily these days, and I totally love horror films, but both of these stories had me feeling on edge pretty much from the first chapter.
I have now been sitting staring at my screen for an hour trying to come up with words that describe this book. The blurb at the top of this post says a lot about the plot, and I feel that saying much more could not so much create spoilers, but in some way diminish reading enjoyment anyway. I think this is because the plot seems unique to me; I certainly don't think that I have come across anything similar in YA literature before. The beginning of the story suggests a fairly standard horror story of ghostly/demonic possession, but Robin Jarvis very quickly dispels any thoughts that his story will be as straightforward as this. And I'm still struggling to work out the best way to describe it. To call it a horror story would, I feel, do it an injustice as it is so much more than that. Similarly, to call it fantasy does not feel right. It is a brilliant hybrid of all the best elements of horror, fantasy, fairy tales, folk lore and even social commentary, and somehow Robin Jarvis has blended all of these ingredients as if he were a master chef cooking a perfect five course meal for a panel of the world's most hard-to-please food critics.
The story revolves around a book, the (almost) titular Dancing Jacks; a book created by a truly evil man - the supposedly long missing and presumed dead Austerly Fellows. This book has the power to 'convert' anybody who reads it into a devotee of the Ismus, but not in the brainwashed cult way that we see occasionally in the media today. These converts start to believe in another world, where the Ismus is lord and master, and each new follower has a specific role to play, based upon a deck of playing cards. Therefore, we have the likes of the Jack of Diamonds, the Jill of Clubs, the Queen of Spades as main characters in this fantasy world, and the lower numbers become serfs with menial tasks. And they genuinely all believe that this world exists, thanks to the malevolent magic that permeates from the book, corrupting all who read or hear its story.
I think the element I found most disturbing is that the first people who are targeted by the Ismus are the children of the secondary school on the fringes of Felixstowe. Like a clever drug dealer, the Ismus gets the book into the hands of a few and this very quickly snowballs, with 'addict' after 'addict' falling under the spell of the evil book. And before too long, so are the adults. Maybe I'm just being overly sensitive as I spend a big part of my life encouraging young people to read, and yet in Dancing Jax it is this very activity that becomes their downfall. How disturbing is that? And possibly slightly unnerving is the fact that Robin Jarvis's Dancing Jax is almost as addictive as its fictional namesake - I just did not want to stop reading it and found myself reading well into the night, and then rushing home very tired from work the next day to get it finished off.
Going back to my earlier assertion that this work is similar to that of Stephen King, I think I feel this way because of the way in which Robin Jarvis builds his story. Like King, he focuses on the minutiae of the day-to-day lives of the people of this part of Felixstowe: their hopes and fears, the way they interact with each other on a daily basis, the way they deal with tragedy. In doing so we 'meet' a huge array of characters and therefore we really do not know who is going to be the hero of the story who will eventually thwart the plans of the villain. Just as I thought it would be one particular character the plot would twist, they would fall foul of the Book's magic and become another one of the ever growing legion of Ismus devotees. This also means that just as you get attached to and start rooting for a character your hopes are violently dashed and your character allegiance has to shift. I remember thinking exactly the same thoughts as I read 'Salem's Lot, as first one member of the town became a vampire, and then another, and another, although because of the way that book opens we always know that Ben Mears is likely to be a survivor.
As I was reading Dancing Jax I couldn't help but feel that at times Robin Jarvis was commenting on how our society has degraded over the last few decades. These thoughts were confirmed by one of my favourite passages in the book, which comes towards the end as the Ismus arrogantly justifies the magic of the book and his actions by preaching:
"There are no children in this world any more. You dress and treat them as mini-adults. You let little girls play with dolls that look like Berlin prostitutes. The morality and hypocrisy I used to find so stomach-churning no longer exists. You foist on to your young people role models whose brains are never as active as their underwear, and whose talents and achievements extend only as far as the bedroom door and the ability to blurt every detail of what happens behind it. You give your precious offspring access to a lightning-fast network of corruption and danger. You immerse them in computer games far more violent than the most savage and dirty war, and target prepubescents with inappropriate music and imagery - giving them a vocabulary that would have revolted sailors back in my day. There are not stigmas, no taboos, no boundaries, no respect and certainly no innocence left. To be pregnant at thirteen is no longer an everlasting shame, merely a career choice."
Perhaps the Ismus is correct, and Dancing Jacks is the only solution to today's social problems? Scary thought.
Confession time: I have never read any of Robin Jarvis's Deptford books. I know I may be missing out on something fantastic (in fact friends have told me that I definitely am), but as I have stated on here before, anthropomorphic animal characters do absolutely nothing for me. I am therefore unable to compare his latest offering, Dancing Jax, with any of the books in that series, although I have a feeling that this book may be more in keeping with the chilling themes he explored in the fantabulous Wyrd Museum trilogy, and the almost as brilliant Deathscent. It is certainly not a book for younger readers, who may be put off by its 535 pages anyway, but I know many teen boys and girls who will totally love Dancing Jax. One word of warning though - I hadn't realised that this is the first book in a series (more to be revealed in the interview with Robin Jarvis), and as such I was expecting it to come to a natural conclusion. I couldn't have been more wrong - cliffhangers don't get much bigger than the one at the end of Dancing Jax.
Dancing Jax is officially released in the UK tomorrow, and my interview with Robin Jarvis will go live to coincide with this. My thanks go to the generous people at Harper Collins, who not only sent me an early proof of the book, but also a signed finished copy with it's stunning book cover design.