Death at One's Elbow: Derek Raymond's Factory Novels | The Nation


Death at One's Elbow: Derek Raymond's Factory Novels

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

The best novel in the Factory sequence is the third, How the Dead Live. That title (later filched, by his own admission, by Will Self) sounds like one of the grim gags Charles Willeford used to name his Hoke Moseley novels--New Hope for the Dead. What's between the covers reads as if Raymond Chandler had collaborated with Mary Shelley. No Name is sent to the village of Thornhill, where a local aristocrat, the French wife of the town's doctor, hasn't been seen in six months. The woman was beloved for voice recitals that everyone came to hear, enjoying the hospitality of having a grand house opened to them. The last memories anyone has of her are of a few appearances in town wearing a mysterious veil. During his sojourn No Name encounters the entire cast of characters needed for the tale of a two-fisted cop uncovering the dirty secrets of a picture-perfect small town.

About the Author

Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

Also by the Author

The life and unvarnished style of Barbara Stanwyck.

In The Expendable Man, the story of an innocent under suspicion is given a racial twist.

Except that nothing is picture-perfect in How the Dead Live. Rot and decay hang over everything, the persistent sense of there never being enough light or heat, of everything marinating in the stench of damp. The doctor's mansion is a mockery of its grandeur. There are rooms of ruined books and mildewed furniture, and one touch that's like a photo negative of Miss Havisham's realm of dust and decay: a grand piano whose keys are choked by the moss that has taken them over.

But it's not appreciably different from what's happening in London. As No Name drives out of the city at night on the way to Thornhill, this is what he sees:

Sickening errors, democratically arrived at of course, lay [on] either side of the road as I drove west out of London. Blocks of semi-abandoned streets made dead ends of effort where people who had tried to start something--anything--had been crushed by the dull triumphant logic of the state.... In further sad, narrow streets...lay ruined three-storey houses that the council neither had the money to restore, nor corruption interest in pulling down. These were all dark--the power, the water cut off in them, life itself cut off there at this wrong end of winter. Yet life still did cling on in them, I knew. Uncivilized, mad life; these rank buildings that had housed self-respecting families once were now occupied by squatters of any kind--the desperate last fugitives of a beaten, abandoned army, their dignity, rights and occupations gone (or never known), their hope gone, tomorrow gone.

Just as the form of this novel seems to travel back in time--it begins as an urban detective novel, then turns into an English country-house mystery, before settling into a tale of mad passion that Poe might have understood--in that long passage England itself seems to recede. Just a page before, No Name had been having a beer in Oxford Circus. Dangerous, semi-abandoned streets give way to ones where the mad life that does exist is hidden behind dark ruined houses. And suddenly it's as if those few lights, the families locked up in their flats, are Druid tribes, huddled round the fire against an impenetrable night wherein lurk things they can't even bring themselves to imagine.

The tale of gothic ardor that is gradually revealed in How the Dead Live might have seemed to belong to another time if Raymond hadn't already painted a portrait of England having been driven back to an earlier age. Only, in this dark age, the country's glory is not ahead of it.

"My work tells me that our history is over," says No Name a few pages earlier in How the Dead Live; "we are all over. I know that in my work I am supposed to represent a future, but I find that impossible when I look back at the past." Or, as Johnny Rotten sang ten years before Raymond wrote those words, "No future for you." But the glee and fury in Rotten's voice, the suggestion that his scourging nihilism might express the possibility of feeling alive, if not good, is quite different from the weary melancholy of the Factory novels. Even the fury that rises in No Name cannot sustain itself, cannot disguise the fact that Raymond has written an elegy. The possibility of the evil that could be given full description in a sequel--an evil made possible when people are loosed from any sense of obligation, empowered by the sense that transgressing imagined limits is the way to self-fulfillment--has already been established here. "Murder happens the whole time in a city like this," Raymond wrote. The corpse on the slab in these books is finally England itself. But Raymond harbored no hope that the killer would be brought to justice.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.