Pocket, 1994, 311 pages, £4.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-85242-6
It takes some skill in which to write a satisfying horror novel in which no one dies.
(This isn’t a spoiler as long as you remember that there are fates worse that death.)
Most people, after all, entertain a vague idea of karmic retribution: Do good, and good things will happen to you. But what if, through supernatural intervention, this wasn’t true? What if the persecution of a specific person could ensure success and happiness? If you’re intrigued by the idea, mull on this: What if you were the persecuted person?
Such is the Faustian bargain at the heart of The Quorum, a wholly unconventional and unnerving horror novel from Kim Newman. At times, it looks as if the unpredictable Newman excels at everything he does, and it’s not The Quorum that will diminish his consistently brilliant reputation. It works as a horror novel, as a time-capsule of Britain between the sixties and the nineties, as social satire and as a mesmerizing page-turner.
From the second chapter (past a creepy prologue introducing Derek Leech, the game-player behind the scenes of this novel), we understand that things aren’t right. As three childhood friends spend their time talking about a schoolmate’s bad luck, we’re led to understand that there is a connection between all of them. And so the first section of The Quorum describes how four friends meet at a boarding school, go through the usual trials of an English education, and end up splitting up on a winter night. One of them is left in a car; the three others as seduced in making a chilling deal with Leech: success against misery. Their success, their friend’s misery.
There are rules, but the intent is horrifyingly simple: As long as their friend suffers, the three other men will succeed. As the book begins, one’s a comic-book artist, another is a television star and the third one is a well-regarded novelist. (Some resemblance with Newman’s contemporaries may not be accidental, but is definitely not mean-spirited.) Meanwhile, their victim struggles through life after disastrous romantic affairs, a series of mysteriously terminated jobs and a higher-than-average run of bad luck.
One of The Quorum‘s best aspects is how it naturally leads to a contemplation of luck and the flow of lives. The little accident that lead to big decisions, the small inflexion points where someone could play dirty tricks. The ways in which another person’s life can be made unbearably miserable.
This having been established, The Quorum moves into another phase as the more supernatural elements of the tale are revealed. Derek Leech is a devil with a purpose, and his victim-by-proxy has a specific place in his plans. But is it possible to torture someone eternally? What happens when there’s no more suffering to extract?
The last section of The Quorum is dramatically weaker than the other ones: The conflicts have been more or less settled, all that’s left is retribution. How quickly can success turn sour? And yet, through this triple descent into madness (literally, in most cases), it’s Newman’s wit that holds the novel together. It’s seldom been more fun to see deserving people fall from grace. In fact, Newman does it so well that we can’t help but feel a bit of compassion for the new victims, regardless of their absolute cruelty in the first sections of the book.
While the English cultural references can fly thickly, The Quorum remains a deceptively smooth read, with a surprising amount of narrative momentum given that the dramatic apex of the book takes place two-third of the way through. After an initial muddle of “M”s, all characters are clearly defined and go through their own dramatic arc. There’s even a solid romance to sweeten the whole book, and a happy ending for some.
This isn’t your typical horror novel, and it’s definitely more successful because of it. At time vertiginous in the way it deals with lives and luck, The Quorum is yet another example why Kim Newman remains a solid choice despite a body of work that seems to sprawl everywhere.
(Sharp-eyed readers will even spot that Derek Leech narrates another of Newman’s book, Life’s Lottery. The links between the two novels aren’t accidental, although Life’s Lottery places the reader in the position of the torturer who makes the choices manipulating the book’s protagonist for simple entertainment.)