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Burying Brian

The website of author Steven Pirie
Way back in March 2011, Peter Tennant wrote a full review of Burying Brian for the UK's leading Horror magazine, Black Static (issue 22).

Always generous, Peter and Black Static owner Andy Cox have given me permission to reproduce the review in full here.

This is what Peter had to say:

Steven Pirie's first novel, Digging Up Donald, appeared way back in 2004 and I reviewed it rather enthusiastically in The Third Alternative, and now here we all are seven years later, all of us seven years older and wiser, and Steven Pirie's second novel, Burying Brian (Immanion Press paperback, 260pp, £12.99) is out and about, bigging it up in the world, and I'm reviewing it rather enthusiastically for Black Static, or at least I will be in a moment if I can ever get to the end of this horribly convoluted first sentence. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the French say, but it sounds so much more profound in French.

There's a raven bearing a message by way of a prologue, providing a casual nod in the direction of Edgar Allen Poe, after which we're back in the quaintly anachronistic northern town of Mudcaster, where the ladies play bingo and the men have potting sheds, and nobody wants anything much to do with newfangled stuff like television and sex, except Maureen, but we'll get to her later. Things are not going well in Mudcaster, and that's not a good sign for any of us-the Mother has lost contact with the Grandmother (passed over, but still organising everyone for their own good, at least she was), while the bingo game has to be stopped as it seems to be hinting at the coming of the apocalypse. In fact things are not going well anywhere, not even in Heaven where the demon Belial has managed to get his hands on God's power and trapped the Almighty in the body of an old lady on Earth, bringing to mind the film Dogma.

Events take a turn for the worse when Belial and his allies seize control of the Town Hall and enforce their own idea of a coalition, which involves setting local bigwigs from all sides of the political fence to digging a tunnel down to Hell, while elsewhere the four horsemen have taken to mount, though actually two of them are horsewomen. The fight back begins with the Mother and the Father venturing into the afterlife to rescue the grandmother, while Maureen is left to take on the mantle of Mother, something she doesn't fell she is entirely ready for yet. But the real hero of the hour (and there's a big clue in the book's title as to who that is) is her lacklustre husband Brian, who has to give up his dream of being the local darts champion when he gets shoved through a portal in an outhouse by a garden gnome and ends up having to endure the ordeal of the seven deadly sins before gaining an audience with the as yet undecided Lucifer, who holds the balance of power in the coming conflict.

This is the apocalypse, but not as we know it. For starters, I don't recall mention of any zombies. Though Pirie stuffs his books with so many events and characters that one might have slipped past my radar. Come to think of it, some of the bits and bobs of people blundering about in the afterlife might pass muster as zombies, though I'd compare them more with the Harryhausen animated skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. We digress, but digression is in the spirit of this book, where as you read on the feeling grows that nothing here is going to make any sense if you look at it with a cold, clear and analytical eye, only you're having so much fun that such concerns get shoved on the back burner for the duration and are forgotten completely by the time you're done (unless you're a reviewer making notes, that is-probably doesn't make sense-it says so right here in my new Moleskin notebook). Actually, it might make sense. He's a tricky beggar, that Steven Pirie, and I'm going to hedge my bets on matters of comprehensibility.

As with Donald, to which I guess you'd call this a sequel, the plot is not the thing with which Pirie piques the interest of the reader, and pardon my tortured metaphor. Rather it's the framework around which he builds all his strange effects, the wonderful characters and mind boggling events that make up the mulch of his narrative, the wordplay and gentle humour with which it is imbued, sweeping you up in the flow of events and an unending series of memorably comedic set pieces.

Imagine a book in which the Four Horsemen are beset by sibling rivalry, and stop off at a pub on the way to the end of the world for a pint and pork scratchings, with Famine complaining about how hungry he is and Pestilence seeping into his beer. Imagine Brian and his gnome sidekick having to deal with such things as Hell's very own eat as much as you want buffet, even if you don't want it, and a non-stop orgy that his, admittedly varied, experiences with a rampant Maureen and her friend Gary won't have equipped him to deal with (and if you want to know who Gary is you'll have to read the book, as Black Static is a family magazine, albeit the family might be called Addams). Imagine Mr Grim beating himself up about how badly he raised the children in between pursuing an elderly femme fatale, who just happens to have God imprisoned inside of her not so frail fleshy form, the tow of them bickering to beat the band. Imagine the Mother resolutely traipsing through Limbo with one missing foot followed by a conga line of skeletons. Imagine…

What's that, you say? Can't imagine any of those things? Well you don't have to because Steven Pirie has done it all for you, and a whole lot else besides.

One of the peculiar delights of this book is the dichotomy of the sexes, with the difference between the men and the women along rather similar lines to that between children and adults. The men get to potter about in potting sheds and play in darts tournaments, do all the things that men are meant to do, while the women observe from a distance and cast an indulgent eye over proceedings, with the occasional good-natured rebuke. Women's work is more serious stuff altogether, nothing less than the maintenance of reality itself, with a number of matriarchal figures serving as the genii loci of this novel, and never mind what that upstart God tells you to the contrary. Pirie's females share a similar lineage to the fearsome aunts in Wodehouse's oeuvre, albeit written on a cosmic scale, and somewhat more benign in the exercise of their influence. While some, like the lustful Maureen, might be inordinately interested in sex stuff and the like, it's just part of the process of growing into their divinity, and nothing more than that.

Only things aren't quite that simple, because when the chips are down it's the men who swing things; the likes of the Mother and Maureen might have the power, but the role of the Father as helpmate is a vital one, while the holy innocence of Brian is the saving grace for us all. Moral: if you need a fool to set things right in Pirieverse, send for a man. Ah, wait a minute, maybe that plot device wasn't quite as pro-gender equality as I first thought.

But I've kept the best bit for last, and the best bit is the gentle humour that informs this work, the self mocking way the characters have about them and the beguiling prose with which Pirie captures their actions and attitudes. As for instance, the Mother and Father puttering about Hell like Darby and Joan on a day trip and complaining that none of the relatives have shown up to meet them. After all, as the Mother observes, she went all the way to Cleethorpes for Cousin Doris' funeral. Or Pestilence's wish for 'half a bottle of TCP and some foot rub', or the two ladies who are 'taking turns hiding the Bishop of Barnsley's mitre' (yes, there's innuendo here too), or War being told by a traffic warden exactly where she can park her horse, or lines like 'a winding chute fell away to Hell's depths, manned by demons who handed out little cork mats for the damned to ride upon', or…

There's stuff like this on every page, so that you marvel at Pirie's ingenuity and his ability to continually find some phrasing that will put a smile on the most curmudgeonly of faces, whether it be mine or that of old Mr Grim. I won't argue that this is the best apocalyptic novel ever, but it is the most consistently inventive and funniest one that I've read, the ideal pick me up when all those doom and gloom merchants , whether fictional or real, get to be just a little bit much to be doing with, as the Mother herself might put it while curling an eyebrow in an appropriately disapproving manner.

Black Static

Peter Tennant

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