Review: Jim Beard’s Sgt. Janus, Spirit-Breaker

present-tensionsNo, Jim Beard’s Sgt. Janus, Spirit-Breaker (Airship 27, 2012) isn’t about a tough military officer at boot camp and the miserable grunts who serve under him.

Instead, Roman Janus is an occult detective whose military background remains a bit foggy, implying he might be part of the war to keep the border between the physical world and the spirit one relatively solid. In a curious way, though, the title character isn’t exactly the main character in this collection of sequential short stories. I say “sequential” because they should be read in order, since toward the end, the stories begin to build on what’s come before. Sure, Janus, his mysterious assistant, and his even mysteriouser house are the tendrils that hold the book together. But the spotlight shines more on the clients who, in one way or another, turn to Janus for help.

And this is what especially impressed me about Beard’s book. Each story is told by the client, giving a variety of viewpoints — a prism, if you will — on Janus and on ghosts. This narrative move isn’t especially modernist, as it is in, say, Stephen King’s Carrie (1974), where multi-perspective reports of the main events don’t always jive with each other. Rather, the prismatic narrators allow Beard to spin one of the basic conventions of detective stories. Typically, a detective story involves constructing a story that took place in the past, finding out who did what where that led up to Colonel Mustard’s tragic demise. Though told in hindsight, Beard’s stories lean toward starting at the beginning and following through to the end. Sgt. Janus, as a result, tends to come in maybe halfway through or later to set things right.

sgt-janus-spirit-breakerStill, Beard also varies this pattern. The creative manipulation of the storytelling is just one of the things that make this book enjoyable.

Having the clients tell their own stories also means that characterization and narrative voice are central to the collection, and Beard takes full advantage of this to create a series of sharp, distinctive personalities. All of the stories are strong in this regard with a single exception: “When the Rain Comes.” The narrator here leans toward being little more than a damsel-in-distress. (She does lash out when driven to the breaking point, but that comes and goes quickly with little connection to the rest of the story.) Two things made the flatness of this character stand out. First, the well-developed textures of Bread’s other characters. Second, she’s a farm wife, and farm wives tend to be as tough as, oh, military officers at boot camp. At least here in Oklahoma, a farm wife confronting an daily parade of creepy and malicious ghosts would have had those spirits lassoed, bridled, and pulling a plow by Day Three. To be sure, the phantoms would be decently treated: barbeque every Sabbath and time off for watching football . . .

Sorry. This is what happens when a writer reviews another writer.

Having written my own collection of sequential short stories about a ghost-buster, one set in the early decades of the 1900s — which is about when Sgt. Janus, Spirit-Breaker is set — I know I’m terribly biased in saying that I wish Beard’s book had a touch more historical specificity. He only gives an approximation of when it’s set, and such things can be signaled through details. For instance, when a character says that she had been reading “a rather scandalous novel that had been recently making the rounds,” I wanted to know what novel that was. That said, Beard does wonderfully at mimicking the “sound” of early-twentieth century British language.

Of course, it might be a mistake to expect too much historical detail in Sgt. Janus, Spirit-Breaker. As Beard explains in a postscript, he hoped to give his book a feel similar to William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (1913). He’s certainly rivaled Hodgson in terms of imagining unique hauntings. I’d argue that Beard has surpassed his inspiration in having added a prism of perspectives and characterizations that, to my mind, make the stories far more about human beings than one finds in that earlier work.

In the end, my only real quibble is one every writer should like to hear: it’s too short. The first collection of Janus stories is only about 150 pages long, but there’s a sequel titled Sgt. Janus Returns. I haven’t read the second in the series, but I highly recommend the first.

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