Winter Tides, by James P. Blaylock

winter-tides-by-james-p-blaylock coverGenre: Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Ace
Published: 1997
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by William D. Gagliani

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This month’s Classic Return is a “quiet” ghost story in what I call the California Gothic tradition. Do hunt this one down if quiet ghosts — or even loud ones — are your thing!

James Blaylock has made a career out of creating real, wonderfully eccentric characters — people you’d want to sit and drink coffee with, hatching crazy schemes, or outlining farfetched strategies to use against strangely demented opponents. Look to novels such as ALL THE BELLS ON EARTH, NIGHT RELICS, HOMUNCULUS, LORD KELVIN’S MACHINE, THE LAST COIN, and THE PAPER GRAIL for as weird a collection of bizarre but amazingly sympathetic characters since Charles Dickens wielded a quill.

He was in fine form with WINTER TIDES, a novel which seems to follow NIGHT RELICS in a loose trilogy where the action is driven by ghostly occurrences. In these books, Blaylock seems to have hardened the antagonists, saving for them the trademark eccentricity usually reserved for the heroes, and making them more savage and less buffoonish than in some of his earlier tales. The harder edge swings the books closer to horror territory.

Fifteen years ago, surfer Dave Quinn saved one 12-year-old girl from drowning, but could not save her hateful, nasty twin. As a result, he has drifted through his life with an ambiguous sense of guilt/relief — yes, relief, because Elinor spoke to him while they fought the waves, spoke just enough to frighten him with her evil, bitter hatred. Now Dave works at the Earl of Gloucester’s, a beachfront theatre and theatrical props warehouse combination owned by a wealthy old eccentric (the Earl) and managed by one of his sons, the bitterly hateful Edmund. The other son is Dave’s best friend, Casey, an alcoholic hippie surfer who is content to let Edmund run the family business, much to Dave’s dismay. Dave has reason to suspect that Edmund is stealing from his father, but no one can imagine what sinister deeds he’s really up to — not until it’s too late. Then, when Anne Morris arrives to start work as resident set artist, momentous events are set into motion, for Anne is the surviving twin from that day long ago, and she has brought her hateful sister along as a particularly spiteful ghost. No one’s life will ever be the same, as Edmund hooks up with the spirit he calls the Night Girl while furthering his thieving ways and deepening his nefarious involvements.

Blaylock hits another one out of the park by again creating an insular world for his eccentric characters — the Earl is a fine old building, where a crazily revisionist King Lear is about to open, if Edmund’s plots within plots don’t come to fruition. Unfortunately, Edmund’s warped outlook now includes “justifiable” arson and murder. If there’s any quibble at all, it might be that the antagonist is onstage more than the hero. But then, when a bad guy is as eerily entertaining as Edmund, it’s hard to cut his lines. James Blaylock understands the subtlety of atmosphere and, like his colleague Tim Powers, uses it well to color the world of his making. In this world, he offers his characters the paths they deserve while still keeping their actions unpredictable. It’s hard to do anything but eagerly await a new Blaylock novel, and then savor each scene slowly, letting the master fantasist’s hand guide one unerringly through the Rube Goldberg mechanism of the story. I really like Blaylock’s work partly because it’s so quirky, and partly because he’s one of several authors who are slowly redrafting California into a place of glittering old and new magic.

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