What lies on the other side of the beyond? Does The Shadow know? Certainly the Invisible Man does, and therein lies a knot in Palma’s (The Map of the Sky, 2012, etc.) newest delightful puzzler.
Said unseeable person comes into the picture courtesy of H.G. Wells, with whom Palma’s tale opens. Wells is an unflappable model of Victorian Englishness, convinced that “his was the most significant generation to have walked the Earth” inasmuch as—among other things—it possessed the seeds of the knowledge required to end life on the planet. Rational and resolute, Wells must grapple with the unfolding reality that there’s a whole irrational, surreal, irresolute world out there, some of it of his own creation. Palma is happy, it seems, with the idea that writers are pretty significant people at that: in the panoply of heroes he enlists to the cause of humankind’s salvation are Arthur Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll. Then there’s fearless vampire/werewolf/villain hunter Cornelius Clayton, never too busy to appreciate “proud breasts” and baronial manses and for whom things can never get quite weird enough, and his own army of allies, confidants, and informants, including a friendly proto-shrink who helpfully says, “If I devoted myself to treating stupid people I would have a full practice, and I would be a wealthy man.” Palma’s principal players are anything but stupid, but they do have a way of finding themselves in supernatural jams. His shaggy doggish, steampunk-y tale, with many moving parts, threatens to spin off disconnectedly at any moment, but somehow he keeps things straight (and straight-faced, though he is often very dryly funny); in the end it all coheres, however improbable the story he conjures. Though sometimes talky and sometimes didactic (“But more importantly, he was afraid that if he continued writing Sherlock Holmes adventures, his readers would identify him with what he considered not his best writing”), Palma’s yarn is altogether a satisfying, thoroughly entertaining creature feature.
And never mind the loose ends: there’s another volume on the way, and we look forward to it.