We won't get any new Supernatural until Jan. 21 — but luckily, there's an awesome substitute. Longtime Vertigo Comics superstar Mike Carey has been writing supernatural thrillers that are every bit as addictive and tangled, featuring a wise-ass exorcist. Spoilers?
If you've read Vertigo titles like Hellblazer or Lucifer in the past decade or so, you're already a fan of Carey's writing. In particular, his epic run on Lucifer kept the intrigues of Heaven and Hell constantly surprising, with a shifting set of loyalties and fascinating characters. Not to mention, Carey wrote one of my all-time favorite miniseries: My Faith In Frankie, the story of a girl and her personal god.
But for the past few years, he's been putting out a number of novels featuring Felix Castor, a London exorcist who sometimes helps the police untangle particularly baffling murders. He's put out five of them so far, and he seems to be doing a great job of ratcheting up the tension and weirdness. I've read a couple of them, Vicious Circle and Dead Men's Boots, and have found them addictive enough to drag me away from the other books I'm supposed to be reading.
Like Supernatural, they're dark and witty, and feature otherworldly monsters that want to run rampant on Earth. Their mixture of cleverness and heart reminded me of Eric Kripke and Sera Gamble at their cracklingest.
In the books, Felix Castor is an exorcist, someone who can see the ghosts that lurk around London and banish them by playing on his tin whistle. (And yes, the whistle thing does get a bit cheesy at times. But run with it.) There have always been ghosts, and people who could deal with them, but for some reason the 1990s saw a huge surge in the number of dead people refusing to go quietly. (The reasons for this change are a bit mysterious, but apparently relate to something called the Great Project in Hell.)
So now exorcism has become a valid career path, for those who have the talent — but besides ghosts, there are also zombies, loups-garous and demons roaming around causing trouble. Castor, the perpetually down at his luck ghost-hunter, also has to contend with a fringe group that argues that ghosts have human rights and shouldn't simply be exorcised, even if they're going all polter. There's even an ominously pending law that would ratify the legal status of the deceased.
Castor's pretty much your classic sad-sack P.I., as well — he's constantly getting out of his depth and tangling with opponents way beyond his weight class. His cases involve rogue exorcists whose powers are beyond his, or gangsters who've found a way to live forever by transplanting their souls into new bodies after death. There are occasional moments of genuine horror as well as traditional detective work, piecing together odd clues until something comes together.
He survives a lot of scrapes by his wits alone, or through pure luck, and his main superpower seems to be knowing when to tell a clever lie. His allies are rarely terribly reliable, including Gary Coldwood, the cop who often seems to hate his guts, Nicky, a zombie information broker, and Juliet, a former succubus who's just barely reformed thanks to the love of a good woman. His best friend Rafi is possessed by the demon Asmodeus (thanks to Felix's blundering), and his ex-girlfriend Pen won't forgive him for it.
I think the main thing that keeps me obsessively reading these books is Carey's dark, smoky narrative voice. It's very much in line with the Jim Butcher novels, Kadrey's Sandman Slim, and some other vaguely pulpy urban fantasy that's come out lately — I am trying not to overuse the phrase "noir fantasy" but there's definitely a smidgen of noir in the way that Castor's first-person narrator always seems world-weary and a bit of a bastard. But he's less of a bastard than most of the other people he meets, and he has a kind of struggling nobility to him. And there's definitely something a bit noirish about narration like this:
I was starting to get the picture now: it was a bleak and sad one, executed mainly in grays, but then I don't get to see many that are in bright primaries.
Or this, from later in the same book, after a spirit contact goes disastrously wrong:
I fished out my flask of I-can't-believe-it's-not-cognac and unscrewed the lid with shaking hands. The first sip was medicinal: I swilled it around my bitten tongue, trying not to wince, rolled down the window, and spat out the blood. The second sip was for my jangled nerves. So were the third and fourth.
The actual plots of the novels, judging from the two I've read, are insanely complicated and usually involve tons of different strands weaving together. I often found myself having to flip back 100 pages to try and remind myself exactly who a particular character was, when we hadn't seen him or her in a while. There are a lot of random characters, or entities, who show up and do something, then vanish for hundreds of pages only to resurface when the plot(s) needs them. The overall effect is one of whirling corruption and soul-deep chaos, and it's not at all a bad thing that Carey's spiritualist London feels fully populated.
The major supporting characters, though, are quite memorable and a big draw of these books is following Juliet, Pen, Rafi and the others through their evolution. Carey seems fairly determined to keep his status quo from becoming too quo, and all of the major characters seem to have actual arcs planned out, making the books worthwhile just to see how they turn out.
And there are plenty of hints, tossed here and there, about infernal politics. Something bigger seems to be coming down the pike, and every case Castor takes on, especially the ones which seem to be too hot to handle, increases the lingering sense that we're just seeing the tip of the supernatural iceberg. In any case, Castor's the type of fantasy hero we need more of — he's a good man in a bad world that's getting worse, and he defeats evil through a mixture of raw cunning and having friends in low places. Until Sam and Dean come back, it's definitely worth spending some time getting to know Felix Castor.