These Demented Lands is a sequel to Morvern Callar (reviewed here), although Morvern’s name is not revealed until the last page. Alan Warner’s people are the essentially unnameable. As in Morvern Callar, few if any, are known by their “real” names – thus The Aircrash Investigator is also known as The One Who Walked the Skylines of Dusk with Debris Held Aloft Above His Head, Houlihan, Warmer, Failed Screenwriter, The Coated One Who Walked the Skylines and Monsieur Debris Man
Morvern is on a night ferry to the island on which her foster mother is buried. This may be the ferry across the Styx, to an island of the dead, generally the drowned. When the ferry sinks (this time), Ferryman bawls, “If it’s the return tickets yous have got, best swim for it”. At various points on her journey Morvern says, “I’ve kicked myself free the earth long ago…I don’t count”, “If you come ashore in that darkness, and I’ve done it; it crosses your mind you’re back from the dead…Free to vanish” and “‘He goes I was already dead,’ I goes, ‘Drowned. I’m in netherworld; purgatory.'”. On this island the hotel summer ferry is called The Charon and the dining room is decorated with a frieze of a sinking Armada ship. Just offshore there’s a sunken barge, The Lusitanos. Whether Morvern, as “another who wanders these demented lands in days of the end” is already dead or not, she is going to a psychedelically surreal island not of this world.
When Morvern jumps out of the ferry into the dark water, “I opened my eyes in the static and rumble. A landscape of colours was glissanding on the lunar seabeds way below; my black legs slowly kicking so thin in silhouette…A constellation of pinkish bubbles rose up under my feet then drifted, swole, each bubble’s angle reflecting a diamond nova from both its north and south pole, In the furthest distances of this universe the rising planets and blue stars from seabed geysers, a huge surface of tiny bubbles, wobbled under us lit by deepest flarings below; a coral reef gone insane in the colours of these killing seas” then “Just when I was getting the All Dramatic…” she rises.
As you can see, Morvern’s vocabulary has improved since she left the Scottish village in which she grew up to visit the raves of Europe. She has even read books, and refers to Pincher Martin,” the book of drowning”. She’s stopped smoking and “getting mortal” – for a while. The book ends with her nastily elegant letters to her stepfather, a former friend Orla and Mr Grainger, father of the one-eyed girl Morvern saves from the ferry. (‘It was her who saved me but she’s not nice”). This type of thought and expression is far beyond the capabilities of the “Thanks for bumpin us” Morvern we knew previously.
There are nods to Morvern’s former life in the mainland village – the steerhide jacket, now old and tatty, “all tears and fatherings”, the Walkman and the novel which HE from the first book left her. But it was her time “Down There” (apparently Europe) “and the things that happened to me, walking in moonlight with dark sunglasses among forest fires and shooting stars” which has given her the sensitivity to describe feelings at last – even, occasionally, other peoples’. But Movern is Morvern and she tells us that she has made a deal to tell us this story using “The Indifferent Feeling”. Probably a better choice for the reader than “The Cheese Sandwich in the Back of the Car Feeling.” If Morvern has begun to use what brain she has, sadly, there still isn’t much of it. She likes to tell people about her peculiarly shrewd observational talent –“I have the skill of noticing things, that much you can make a song and dance about: like on a rainy day in the city when you have enough for a taxi you wonder why the wetness on the vehicle floor is only on the left-hand side, til it dawns on you: that’s the pavement side where almost all are going to be getting in through.”
Morvern arrives looking for The Drome Hotel, although we don’t know why, and she is warned against it many a time. She elects not to take the Disco Bus, which seems a wise choice. She treks across the island to The Drome Hotel:-
“Bended double like the clans at Culloden stepping into the end, I traversed bensides ever upwards. I climbed straight through steady blackout – the sodden Levi’s going stiff on both thighs with the perishingness – knowing always, hung up in some place of aboveness like a cyan-coloured censer swinging in the wind, snugged up in the clam of a scree-clagged corrie, was the campfire: the campfire with its angle of floor that had let me see it when I swam out in the Sound but hid from view deep down at the sole bulb of Ferry Slipway below
This is geographically a small island – fifteen miles across as the crow files. But eschatologically, whether it is the afterlife or not, it is boundless and unknowable – as the place names tell us, – Outer Rim, Inaccessible Point, the Mist Anvils, the Far Places, Sorrowless Rigs Burn. Although the island is apparently one of several, neither named nor on any map, it seems to be Scottish and could be somewhere in the vicinity of those pleasant lands, Royston Vasey, Craggy Island and the frigid desert in “Dead Man“.
All is steeped in the cold, the wet, the mist. Warner is good at the closely observed landscape and watery atmosphere of the rainy, tufty, mossy, stoney island in the gloaming, the frosty sun and the “nightimeness“. “[T]he hillsides that were leaping up all round us with white gashes of new-filled streams striping the glen among the wet, green nobbles and blackened spreads of tan.” . Fire or light on, or in, the water appears again and again throughout the story.
The trek to The Dome recalls Morvern’s long walk in the snow at the end of Morvern Callar. The power station blackout in that, the best part of that book, prefigures the telly-aerial repairers’ mission in its sequel. However, the episodic nature of this later trek is a weaker aspect of “These Demented Lands” Warner tries too hard to surprise us with the bizarre. Morvern meets (inter alia) two men taking their dead father overland to the sea, a group of University filmmakers recreating a fifteenth century cattle drove (fuelled by meals of boiled tadpoles and partly funded by the Arts Council), the Devil’s Advocate in his tent, and a nice forester. In case you think you are imagining that Warner has been influenced by Mad Max when you read about Knifegrinder – “He wheeched his leg sudden over the bike so’s you had to take step back to mind the antlers. With a squat he was down lifting the bike onto its fold-out stand, then he took a belt, like a Hoover belt, attached it to a grooved disc by the centre of the back wheel; from a worn leather pannier he took a black grinding stone with its glistening wee bits, and affixed it near the pedal, pulled on the belt taut, and when he turned the throttle on the handlebar the stone went whizzing round” – don’t fret – later another character is referred to as “Mad Max”. There is a miniature railway, (the Kongo Express) and various unexpected animals including a bear, a kangaroo, gorillas and a prescient horse called Charlie. There’s a ghost who walks. Some of these touches are splendid, but many fail to tie into the overall work.
John Brotherhood took over the Drome Hotel (so-called for the airstrip which brings in honeymoon couples) from his father, who is dying upstairs in a spectacularly ghastly way. The Aircrash Investigator lives in, and drinks a lot of whiskey at, the hotel, and is engaged in a subtle, nasty antagonism with Brotherhood, the meaning of which was lost on this reader. Nor is it clear why Brotherhood is hotile and threatening to Morvern. But then, Brotherhood enjoys misery for its own sake. He plays with the honeymooners, orchestrating “infidelities and orgies” for his amusement. He calls the island, “our little Forbidden Planet where we can play at The Tempest daily”. Accordingly, the Drome Hotel is a fun place. If the newly-weds are not already dead, they might want to drown themselves, rather than attend the compulsory “drag party”, where the only music spun by DJ Cormorant is by Bob Dylan from The Permitted Albums and the decorations include inflated condoms “stuck up around the fakey chandeliers with pale surgical tape from Brotherhood’s father’s skinny wrists where his glucose drips fitted into him”. “Chilli and rice is being served by Nurse Macbeth”. If they need some air though, they can “stroll, arm in arm around the concrete slabs forming two figure 8s in the pine plantation” or attend the mosquito bite competition (actually midges of course, this being a UK kind of island).
The Aircrash Investigator and Morvern alternate the narration. The book seems to be compiled from manuscripts which include insets from the Aircrash Investigator’s report on a crash which happened a decade ago at the airstrip. Apparently this incident is based on a real-life incident in 1975, “the Great Mull Air Mystery”. In the context of the Drome Hotel, it can be no coincidence that the planes’ call signs were Alpha Whiskey and Hotel Charlie – but we don’t know what that signifies, any more than we can be sure what a spaceship has to do with it. The “manuscripts” also include facsimiles of road signs, posters and the Argyll Archipelago Records press release outlining the career of DJ Cormorant in chart form. Interesting touches, but not really necessary in a book which doesn’t quite hang together anyway.
The inhabitants of the island, as poor and depraved as any in Morvern’s home village, tell their own and others’ fantastic and gloomy stories with the same deadpan eloquence. There are some missteps – the Devil’s Advocate’s petrol-fuelled escape from the ferry and the story of the Siamese twins, for instance. There are some flat parts – the rather boring trip out to meet a plane, and the underwater video scenes. Warner insists on hinting mysteriously at things which one person suddenly realises about another – The Devil’s Advocate realises something about Morvern, Morvern realises what the Devil’s Advocate’s wallet holds, the Aircraft Investigator realises that Brotherhood knows something about him and the Aircrash Investigator realises that Morvern is “like him” in some way (by looking at the nailpolish on her toes). We don’t know what these realisations are until much later, and each of them is then something of an anti-climax and an irrelevance, particularly the one of the you-knew-I-had-this-gun-sort from Royston Vasey’s pub scenes. In addition to the episodic incidences of Morvarn’s long trek, there is a narration by the Aircrash Investigator of his journey to “a part of the island, despite my vow to explore every inch of it when I landed, which I had never seen”. This involves a floating drumkit, the Outer Rim Hotel, candles on the roof of a silver Opel Manta, stoned whelk-pickers with halogen lamps on their heads and a motoring accident. Although evocative and effective, it seems to be there for colour and does not quite knit in. Finally, in our list of complaints, does Morvern really have to be “divine”,”fucking gorgeous”,”drop-dead-gorgeous thing a beauty” and such a stunner that conversation stops when she enters a room? Methinks this is a bit silly.
But perhaps these criticisms are misplaced. These Demented Lands is what it is, a picaresque voyage through an afterlife of one sort or another, Morvern’s attendance at “the going under of the evening lands”. It is much richer, if not as coherent as Morvern Callar. Both stand-alone, but we do recommend reading them (yes, do) and in order.
Late in the story there is a kind of ambulant crucifixion, which is also compared to the voyage of Icarus or of Odysseus. The symbolism is not accidental. Morvern arrives at Easter and her story concludes at New Year 2000. D J Cormorant’s millennial New Year’s Eve rave is a big one for Morvern and Warner’s trippy, feverish telling of it is a standout – reminiscent of the ending of “The Children’s Hospital” with its Biblical overtones.This reader is stll no sure quite what happened. Suffice it to say that Morvern leaves the Drome Hotel the next morning in a coffin – a coffin which previously held spaghetti vongole – but she is every bit as alive as she was when she arrived.