Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.
A few years ago, I read Jeffrey Barlough’s House In the High Wood, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Recently, I read his novel Strange Cargo (third in his Western Lights series). It’s a great book, but not quite as good as the former.
Strange Cargo takes place in a frigid alternate Victorian-like world that in the past was rocked by the “great sundering” - a cataclysmic event that leaves mankind clinging to the mild coastal edges of an English-like civilization. The reader is introduced to three main storylines that crisscross one another as the novel goes on.
First, there is the Cargo family, from the town of Cargo, who learn from an attorney, Mr. Liffey, that they are to inherit the estate of Joseph Cargo, the grandfather of the clan. But, not all of the estate; some of it is left to an unknown Mr. Squailes of the town of Nantle. Mrs. Cargo is especially appalled at the Squailes bequest. So, they all book ship passage to Nantle to find and interrogate the “interloper Squailes.” The Cargos don’t know that Mr. Liffey is often haunted by some kind of sinister presence whenever he is alone.
Next is Miss Wastefield, who is plagued by a locked trunk that murmurs strange things to her. She cannot throw it away, because it always comes back. She travels to Nantle with her little monkey Juga after hearing from a Mr. Thistlewood who claims he can help with the trunk.
And then there is Mr. Threadneedle of Smithy Bank who, after buying some strange stones from a trader, discovers they have the power to levitate objects. So, along with his young helper Tim Christmas, he constructs a contraption within his carriage house that allows the building to fly like an airship. During test flights in the fog, a few people around Nantle spot the flying house, but aren’t believed when they report it.
As the three stories are told, the main characters cross paths with each other and numerous other cast members in and around Nantle, including a Mr. Lanthorne who seems to vanish and reappear at will; monsters called Triametes who eat humans; rooming house owner Mrs. Matchless and her other guests, and several lovable street hooligans.
Strange Cargo’s prose has a distinct old English quality that is captivating, but a bit hard to read when it reverts to the dialect of the lower classes. I found the Miss Wastefield storyline particularly unsatisfying in its resolution because it has a damsel-in-distress theme where she isn’t really saved by the hero. She does discover how the sundering occurred, but never tells anyone else (except the reader). The sundered alternate world created by the author is fascinating. His characters have an innocence and charm about them that is appealing. Strange Cargo is a definite recommended read.