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“This novel has been cast within the gothic genre . . .” writes Richard T Kelly in the acknowledgments. It certainly has. Dr Forrest is a cosmetic surgeon with a north London clinic. Handsome and promiscuous in his youth, he is now feeling the multiple saggings of middle age, and he hates them – hates them so much he would give anything to avoid them. Anything . . .
If you’re looking for a yarn about making a dodgy deal with the devil, a fast-paced pitch-black romp through some familiar spooky locations and situations, you won’t be disappointed. People who bought this (as I’m sure Amazon will soon say) also bought Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y. Much of the fun of a romp is its familiarity. We’ve all certainly been here before: “It was a cemetery north of Muswell Hill, evidently abandoned to the wild, densely tree-lined. I hopped a wall and found myself in a relic of the 19th century. Graves were overgrown, stone crosses protruding from tall grasses as though some essence of decay had condensed in them. Certain tombs were adorned by carved figures, spider-webbed by creeping vines . . . I passed a decapitated angel with calmly crossed hands; a gravestone with a carved skull atop it.”
But there’s something revealingly ambiguous about Kelly’s phrasing when he says The Possessions of Doctor Forrest is “cast within” the gothic genre. Does he mean that the genre is a pre-existent mould, into which he’s poured some molten contemporary metal? Or does he mean it’s an area of ground, perhaps an abandoned cemetery, into which his already formed story has been chucked? Or does he mean that it’s deep hell into which his book has been pitched, never to return?
The gothic genre itself is constantly returning. It was back in 1992 that The Picador Book of the New Gothic was published. Some of the most vital writers of that time, among them Angela Carter and Kathy Acker, developed their own reckless, headlong takes on the high rhetorical style the genre requires.
And style is where The Possessions of Doctor Forrest begins, by holding too tightly together, to come slightly apart. It is a novel told by multiple narrators – seven in total – and all of them write in what you might call a gothically appropriate way. None of them, in other words, is out of sync with the overall thrust of the story. And so, it starts to appear as if, rather than living in ignorance both of the big picture and of one another, they are collaborating in creating a stonking old-fashioned yarn. The novel is supposedly set in the present day, yet it’s a present day where everyone is keeping secret journals – page after page of descriptive prose – and writing letters, and no one is social networking or sending emails or recording their life in a non-anachronistic way.
David Peace claims that The Possessions of Doctor Forrest “drags the gothic novel kicking and screaming into this new century”, but it’s the opposite that’s true – this novel drags the new century kicking and screaming back into the gothic. Forrest himself is described as “rather a nineteenth-century boy”.
For the most part, the book is very much an old-fashioned moral treatise on vanity. Mess with the body and you mess with the soul. But at points there are glimpses of a much more contemporary might-have-been. Kelly’s medical research has been turned to good use, and there are moments of genuine body horror. One false trail, laid early, is that Dr Forrest has been experimenting with full-face transplants. Probably the most horrific prop in the whole book is his patented “cold-therapy surgical recovery mask” – a piece of high-tech fetishwear with which various characters obliterate their own features. And there is something truly creepy in the way Forrest dismisses pre-op transsexuals. “Jesus wept, those creatures depress me when I see them . . . That straggly hair down their backs, and the wee totter they do like they’re practising to manage with heels and a handbag . . .” Now this, if pursued to the end, is a proper attempt not just at casting within but recasting the gothic genre. Dr Forrest gets halfway, then hops the wall back into the 19th century.
Toby Litt’s King Death is published by Penguin.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Possessions of Doctor Forrest by Richard T Kelly – review | Fiction