Time to grab a book and get tipsy!
Back by popular demand, Books & Booze, originally a mini-series of sorts here on TNBBC challenges participating authors to make up their own drinks, name and all, or create a drink list for their characters and/or readers using drinks that already exist.
Today, Timothy J Jarvis gives a detailed synopsis of the his book The Wanderer, its boozey bi-parts, and ends with a strangely voluptuous drink complete with recipe at the end.
I slightly dread having to give a synopsis of The Wanderer, let alone a terse summary, as it’s a touch sprawling, and I'm not at all sure what's it's all about. But if forced to offer a high-concept précis, it would go something along the lines of this: ‘The Highlander meets Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters, meets M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud. With booze.’ Or, as its somewhat fustian immortal narrator might phrase it: ‘With topery, sottishness, and befuddlement.’ I’ve totted up all the instances of quaffing in the text (see below), and, well, there’s a lot. Many, many libations poured down throats in honour of Bacchus.
The Wanderer is a strange text, and its provenance is weird also. I found it in the flat of an obscure author of strange stories, Simon Peterkin, after he’d vanished in uncanny circumstances. I read it, and something about it persuaded me I should attempt to get it published. And the wonderful folk at Perfect Edge Books have obliged. I’m not quite sure, though, what The Wanderer is. Perhaps a fiction, Peterkin's last novel, or maybe something far stranger? Perhaps more account than story?
Much of it tells of its narrator’s trials in the far-flung future, at the end of the world, of his showdown with an old, old enemy. But another strand of the novel is a portmanteau horror or club story, told in flashback, and set some time in the early twenty-first century. The narrator gathers a group of unfortunate individuals to tell stories of dread, eldritch experiences they’ve undergone. Drink features heavily in these tales, indeed the protagonists of all, including the narrator, are drunk, or half-drunk at least, when they witness the rending of the veil, see the weird world beneath the skin of the mundane. But despite his experience, the narrator choses, as the place where the stories are to be related, a pub in London’s Borough area, just south of the Thames. And despite theirs, the others come.
English pubs are odd places. I came across the following apt quote, from Kate Fox’s Watching the English, in Paul Ewen’s London Pub Reviews (a book in which, for our hapless ‘reviewer’, various old London pubs become loci of disconcerting, and frequently hilarious, surrealism): “Like all drinking places, [the pub] is in some respects a ‘liminal’ zone, an equivocal, marginal, borderline state.” And I would argue that old London pubs have a particularly strange charge, one that arises from their being crucibles in which different social classes, and various historical strata come together, react, meld, transmute – with alcohol as the catalyst.
And the pub in The Wanderer is distinctly an old London pub, a convivial antiquated boozer. Here’s how the narrator describes it:
“On reaching the Nightingale, I saw fitful flickering behind the frosted panes; a fire was burning in its hearth, and I was glad, because of the cold, the gusting wind, and because it would make the place even snugger. The pub’s board, a painting of the songbird it was named for, squalled as it swung restlessly back and forth. I went inside, looked about. Many of the pub’s appointments dated back to when it first opened, the late-Victorian period. The space was partitioned, by wooden screens inset with panels of etched glass, into a public bar and saloon at the rear; the island bar was mahogany with a pine counter, and had a canopy carved with a row of leering heads, Green Men, foliage sprouting from their mouths, wreathing their faces; and the walls were decorated with a lapis-tile dado and hung with fly-spotted mirrors in tarnished gilt frames. Apart from the wavering glow of the fire, the only source of light was a motley array of standard and table lamps, dim bulbs, but the effect was cosy, not dismal.”
So why the link between drinking and the weird vision in The Wanderer? Well, taking the book as a novel, it could be argued this aspect alludes to Poe’s “The Angel of the Odd”, a story that is specifically referenced at one point. It’s one of Poe’s most comical and grotesque tales. It describes the narrator’s encounter, while in a drunken stupor, with the eponymous entity, a creature described as follows:
“Hereupon I bethought me of looking immediately before my nose, and there, sure enough, confronting me at the table sat a personage nondescript, although not altogether indescribable. His body was a wine-pipe, or a rum-puncheon, or something of that character, and had a truly Falstaffian air. In its nether extremity were inserted two kegs, which seemed to answer all the purposes of legs. For arms there dangled from the upper portion of the carcass two tolerably long bottles, with the necks outward for hands. All the head that I saw the monster possessed of was one of those Hessian canteens which resemble a large snuff-box with a hole in the middle of the lid. This canteen (with a funnel on its top, like a cavalier cap slouched over the eyes) was set on edge upon the puncheon, with the hole toward myself; and through this hole, which seemed puckered up like the mouth of a very precise old maid, the creature was emitting certain rumbling and grumbling noises which he evidently intended for intelligible talk.”
The Angel of the Odd announces to the narrator, in heavy-accented tones, that he’s the “the genius who preside[s] over the contretemps of mankind, and whose business it [is] to bring about the odd accidents which are continually astonishing the skeptic.” The Angel has manifested before the narrator because he’s scoffed at the likelihood of such strange and terrible coincidences after reading a report in a newspaper of a bizarre death which he believes “a poor hoax.” The protagonist pays scant attention to the Angel, his contempt, after a time, driving the odd creature away. As a punishment, the avatar of chance then subjects the narrator to an increasingly absurd series of trials. The Wanderer, if fiction, could be running with Poe’s conceit.
And if it’s not fiction? Well, you can draw your own conclusions, I guess.
And what tipple to suggest, should you read The Wanderer (which I can’t necessarily recommend – I’ve not slept easily since I did)? I’d say it has to be a punch, partly because a diabolical Punch puppet is one of the forms the book’s major antagonist takes, and partly to honour probably the finest description of the concoction of a beverage in all weird literature – the following scene from Arthur Machen’s strange tale, ‘N’:
“‘What chops they were!’ sighed Perrott. And he began to make the punch, grating first of all the lumps of sugar against the lemons; drawing forth thereby the delicate, aromatic oils from the rind of the Mediterranean fruit.
“Matters were brought forth from cupboards at the dark end of the room: rum from the Jamaica Coffee House in the City, spices in blue china boxes, one or two old bottles containing secret essences. The kettle boiled, the ingredients were dusted in and poured into the red-brown jar, which was then muffled and set to digest on the hearth, in the heat of the fire.
“‘Misc, fiat mistura,’ said Harliss.
“‘Very well,’ answered Arnold. ‘But remember that all the true matters of the work are invisible.’
“Nobody minded him or his alchemy; and after a due interval, the glasses were held over the fragrant steam of the jar, and then filled. The three sat round the fire, drinking and sipping with grateful hearts.”
I’ll call my punch “Tartarean”, after Tartarus, the name used in The Wanderer for a dread eldritch realm that abuts this world and which the occultist can enter, and the unfortunate stray into, at certain liminal sites. It is a place, “never the same twice, sometimes lurid, grotesque, sometimes seemingly ordinary, but seething with menace.” As, I think, this drink rightly should be.
So, therefore, what should our punch’s ingredients be? I reckon every intoxicating drink drunk (and all the coffees and teas, to keep us alert) in The Wanderer, plus a measure of absinthe, with genuine wormwood, for that authentic decadent weirdness, and, for spice, some of the dust that lies thickly over all in The Wanderer’s depiction of a desolated far-future world.
So here goes:
To a large pan add:
A pint of lager
A pewter tankard of ale
More beer (it doesn’t really matter what kind)
Milky tea, two sugars
More lager and ale
A vodka and lemonade
A gin and tonic
Two bottles of red wine
More wine (this is where refined drinking happens)
Hipflask of vodka
Yet more coffee (starting to get the shakes here)
Good quality cognac (another classy bit)
Firewater, one gourd
Rotgut (whatever that might be)
Several slugs of la fée verte (sod it, just glug the whole bottle in)
A handful of dust (with apologies to Thomas Stearns Eliot)
Heat gently, stirring the while. Remove from the flame when a pungent steam begins to rise. Leave to stand, for neither too little a time, nor too long. Ladle into punch cups. Settle back with a pipe of the finest aromatic flake. Savour. And await what may come.
Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His short-fiction has appeared in 'Caledonia Dreamin': Strange Fiction of Scottish Descent', 'Pandemonium: Ash', ‘3:AM Magazine’, 'New Writing 13', 'Prospect Magazine', and 'Leviathan 4: Cities', and he writes criticism for the WeirdFictionReview.com and Civilian Global. In 2012, he was shortlisted for the Lightship International Short Fiction Prize. He lives in North East London. 'The Wanderer' is his first novel.