The scene is set at a leisurely but never flagging pace. Possessing a rather contrived name, Jim Todhunter has been reassigned from his death researches in the city to the House of Death at Egremont, a community which was happily adjusted. Adjust to what? you may well ask; this is merely the first of many hooks, compulsive enough to keep you going. At first sight this community seems to be a kind of utopia. The buildings are pyramids; there is a great deal of symbolism, which is never heavy-handed – for example, in dream analysis pyramids may have sexual connotations; to say more would be to give too much away. Very soon, we begin to suspect that the society depicted is a fragile one.
Under the tutelage of an atrocious poet named Norman Harper, people have come to accommodate death in their lives. Fantasies of the soul, of afterlife and reincarnation are virtually taboo; metempsychosis does not exist even as a theory; death is acknowledged to be The End. Once this philosophy is grasped, death can be welcomed rather than feared or held in awe. Euthanasia is enforced at age sixty – or earlier, depending on the volunteer. Valid criticism is raised against armaments: nations thrived on war and the survivors were heroes, having magically cheated or defeated death with a capital ‘D’. Now, the age of the Good Death has dawned; violent deaths are almost non-existent and the news-screens never cover the rare occasions when violence occurs; the populace is cushioned. To believe that one individual could restructure a whole society, let alone along the shake-hands-with-Death lines, is not easy to credit. But suspend that disbelief and read on.
On the day of Harper’s ‘retirement’, when he was due to be guided to Death, he was assassinated. The murder is graphic and believable; worse, it is televised, a riveting tableau, and numbness pervades the shocked onlookers. The murderer, Nathan Weinberger, must adjust before appearing on TV to sooth the upset viewers; then he must be guided to a Good Death, for public consumption. Todhunter is to be his guide, guides being needed to provide ‘Death therapy tailored to suit the clients’, to bring them to the right frame of mind to face oblivion.
Todhunter begins to detect something amiss underlying the atmosphere within the House of Death. Resnick, the Master of the House, and his secretary, Alice, are apparently conspiring against for unknown motives. Weinberger is a retired death guide who believes that Death feeds off the souls of easy deaths, the guided ones, whilst only the accidental, quick dead escape Death’s clutches. In his view, then, he had ‘saved’ Harper. He is of course disbelieved, for if he could provide any proof of an afterlife it would throw the adjusted society into chaos.
According to Weinberger, Death is called to the dying soul by means of ‘corpse-sweat’, a psychochemical, a pheromone of death. Indeed, corpse-sweat is released by the dying body and the dying mind; Death is thus the ‘soul-vulture’, conjuring up many Bosch-like images. And Weinberger is intent on building a cage for Death, with the pheromone as bait…
Word-play, jokes and wit figure in just the right measure. I enjoyed the computer search for a death pheromone resulting in equivocal computer graffiti, and the quip about working on the astral plane: ‘That was grounded years ago.’ Other ingredients include death symbolism with psychological ramifications and a plea against vivisection.
Watson seems to employ symbolism from dream-analysis, which can be interpreted here as symptoms of the unwell unconscious or even of non-consensual perception of the real universe. Creatures flying may point to Death, or the realm of angels and ghosts. Creatures that crawl being transformed into creatures that fly may indicate the moment of death, when the body is transformed into a free-flying spirit. Through out-of-body experiences, Weinberger and Todhunter chase after the Death-creature, a ‘red thing’, a bat-moth. Interesting, a moth, the butterfly of the night, the dark, sinister aspect of the psyche. The subsequent nightmare imagery, wriggling wormlike things, souls perhaps, proves very effective. Eventually escaping this trauma, Todhunter begins to question the accepted truth about Death. Maybe it wasn’t oblivion, after all. Two dramatic and startling, yet fitting, twists bring this remarkable excursion to a close.
Deathhunter is a fast-paced, fascinating book; Watson has more depth than many of his contemporaries. If you’ve never tackled him before, then this is a good beginning. The characters may not have great depth – and Watson has cleverly anticipated comments of this sort – but they are nevertheless convincing within the framework of the novel. Its ideas and imagery remained with me long after reading, which must be a good indication.