The first part of Louise Welsh’s ‘Plague Trilogy’, A Lovely Way To Burn, was the definition of a fast-paced thriller; a breathtaking rush through a plague ridden London as Stevie Flint tries to escape the city before it is too late. After you had caught your breath, you were already starting to think about what happens next.
Well, now you don’t have to wait any longer…sort of. The second part of the trilogy is now published, and for those waiting for news of Steve Flint you will have to show some patience. However, by that time you won’t care as Welsh has decided to look at the plague from another point of view, and in doing so seems to have included a whole new set of influences.
Whereas A Lovely Way To Burn took dystopian television such as Barry Hines’ Threads and Terry Nation’s Survivors as a starting point, this time round there are echoes of cult cinema, specifically cinema about cults, such as The Wicker Man, Race With The Devil, Children of The Corn and even The Crucible. As with all of the above, in Welsh’s book religious belief when allied to fear of disease and death is twisted to provide persuasive arguments for fundamentalism and sacrifice.
The book looks at how the apparent need for order in times of chaos allows the charismatic to take control, and proffers that there are always others wanting to be told what to do, something which history teaches us is all too familiar. But before we reach the false hope of the countryside idyll, Magnus McFall, who is our hero, must first escape from prison and then from London. Arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, this failure of the law sets the tone for the novel as he must fight institutional systems to gain his freedom and survive. If Welsh’s earlier novel read like a TV drama, these early chapters have the feel of a POV shoot-em-up video game as Magnus and his reluctant partner Jeb move from level to level, and the body count rises. If there isn’t yet a game called Contagion, this is the perfect synopsis for it. Never has the term ‘scream if you want to go faster’ been more applicable to a novel.
Amongst all the mayhem Welsh manages to present memorable characters who stay the right side of cliche while fulfilling their role of being hero, villain, or somewhere in between. Magnus is a promising stand up comic who we meet as he prepares to open for an ageing comedian, who if it isn’t based upon the person I’m thinking of I’ll be stunned, but I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about that. Magnus witnesses a death early on which shakes him, but is nought to what he is to experience, and as with many disaster novels and films, the value of an individual life when set against a massive death toll is an interesting question to consider.
Amongst all the action there are social and political points being made. How prepared is a post-industrial population to survive disaster? When most jobs are in the sectors of retail, finance, admin and customer services, how are we expected to adapt to a world where we need to build, feed, heal and defend? I was reminded of the spaceship ‘Ark B’ in The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which contained “telephone sanitisers, hairdressers, and advertising account executives”, who are jettisoned because they will be of no use in a brave new world, while the leaders are in Ark A and the workers are in Ark C. If most of us belong in B, it’s all too believable we are doomed.
If that seems a gloomy prognosis, then you ain’t read nothing yet. You can never shake the feeling that Welsh thinks it not entirely a bad idea that we start from scratch again, and there are definitely anarchist, and perhaps Marxist, sympathies, or at least ideas, in evidence. It may be a stretch too far to suggest that there are points being made about Scotland’s recent political decisions, but I’m sure some people will. The phrase I kept returning to as I read was the famous quote from Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, when he says, “Someday a real rain is going to come and wash all this scum off the streets.”. While I don’t think Welsh is going quite that far, there is no denying that ‘the sweats’, as the plague is commonly known, is washing many people and institutions away. What will be left we have yet to find out, and that is where the real drama lies.
As with all the best series, Welsh ends on a cliff-hanger which will work for those who have been with us from the beginning, but equally for those who have started with Death Is A Welcome Guest. At a time when end of the world narratives and box-set TV series are all the rage, this is a trilogy surely ripe for adaptation. In the meantime, Louise Welsh has written a sequel which satisfies for the time being, but which leaves you desperate for more.