Darkmans by Nicola Barker

When I finished reading Darkmans by Nicola Barker, I couldn’t sleep. Not because it was unsettling and sinister – although it was, almost oppressively so in places, to the point where I physically shuddered – but because my mind was racing, desperately trying to piece together and make connections between its myriad of elements. Tiny details, names, words, incidents, even jokes. A full day later, I’m still obsessed with making sense of it.

In the beginning, Darkmans, which is a hefty read at 800+ pages, seems full of insignificant trivia. Almost every detail seems inconsequential. Entertaining, yes, but pointless.

And then you read on. And you start to realise that every one of those details matters. And not only does it matter; it’s also probably connected to several other details. Sometimes, you can spot the connections. Sometimes you can’t. But you always know they’re there.

I’d like to find something to which I could compare Darkmans, but it’s almost impossible. The awkward, mistrustful characters and the strange coincidences, the sense of the past reflecting and imprinting on the present, had some echoes of Jonathan Coe, of whom I’m a particular fan, but otherwise? Darkmans is very close to being that rare thing in contemporary literature: a real one-off. I fully understand that many people would hate this book, and I can absolutely see why they would – but for me, that was one of the fascinating things about it. I could read it and love it and know at the same time why it could be loathsome too.

Set in the unprepossessing hinterland of Ashford, Kent, a nondescript commuter town which functions mostly as a means of getting to somewhere better (is this, I wonder, why so many things happen in and on roads in the novel?) Darkmans is a complicated web of weirdness, taking place over just a few days, in which the various characters are haunted by John Scogin, the ghost of a court jester from the days of Edward IV. He not only haunts the characters but also possesses them, prompting them to do unsettling things and evoking memories that are not their own. Scogin, we soon learn, was more than a pratfalling prankster in life; his idea of a joke was to trick beggars into a barn, lock them in and set fire to it. And Death hasn’t mellowed him.

As someone who has always hated practical jokes and believes that those who enjoy them are fundamentally sadists, sociopaths or both, I found Scogin – who is barely even defined as a character in the book and yet is one of its most powerful creations – horribly convincing and nerve-janglingly terrifying. I also enjoyed Beede, who is so much more than the middle-aged pedantic bore he might have been in the hands of a lesser writer, and his son Kane, a dealer of prescription drugs who proves to be about half as superficial as we’d been led to believe. Not every character quite worked for me – I was never especially convinced by the loudmouth uber-chav Kelly Broad, for instance. But her cousin, a dead-eyed Goth who chooses to sew up her own mouth, was a brilliantly off-kilter creation. In fact, many of the minor characters, some of whom only appear for a few pages, are exceptionally well-drawn.

Would it be wrong to mention Twin Peaks? Probably, but there were moments when that’s what Darkmans felt like, and in an entirely good way. A sinister man stalks the woods at night with a hunting knife, and is horrified when his dog suddenly starts to give birth. A man digging for bait on a bleak Kent beach makes a startling confession about his gifted and saintly daughter. Outwardly normal people have peculiar fears and fixations that surface in nightmarish ways. A red kite falls from the sky with its eyes gouged out. Pets are stolen and planted in the homes of other people, including the paralysed spaniel Michelle who can only walk by supporting her back legs on a wheeled trolley. Characters stutter for no reason and begin to choke out words from the English language of centuries past, or become suddenly obsessed with etymology – because the language of the past haunts the present just like Scogin does.

There is no point me going on, because there is so much more to Darkmans than I can even begin to indicate here. All I can say is that it’s a staggering novel, one that can be puzzled over and analysed and discussed and dreamed of for an age. Read it or regret it. Then re-read it. In fact, re-read it twice. Make notes in the margins. There are a hundred things to discover on every page.