Dark tales from a neglected master

The Sinister Cabaret

by John Herdman

Black Ace, 9.95

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Review by John Burnside

FOR a long time, a small group of devotees has been complaining about the neglect which John Herdman’s writing has had to endure. In a small country, with a lively, combative literary scene, they find it difficult to understand why this one writer, whose style, wit and erudition are beyond question, should be so unjustly overlooked.

Or is it? These days, reviews of Herdman’s work almost always begin with a reference to this neglect, but it should come as no surprise to discover that he is under-appreciated. A highly perceptive critic, whose subjects range from Bob Dylan to Dostoevsky and Hogg, a fiction writer of skill and ingenuity whose constant shifts and turns perplex and beguile his readers as he weaves prose narratives of surreal power and sharp satirical bite, a cultural historian and playwright who eschews the fashionable language of current theory for the pursuit of what he unashamedly calls "truth", Herdman is out of step with his time, or at least with those contemporaries who require the ludic - and leaden - qualities we have come to expect from fiction.

In short, Herdman is as unfashionable as it is possible to be. To understand his work we have to understand the great tradition in which Dostoevsky, Gogol, Poe, Hogg and Stevenson worked (and there is no better approach to understanding these writers than to read Herdman’s own study, The Double in 19th-Century Fiction). In earlier works, such as Imelda and Other Stories, or the masterly Ghostwriting, he not only continues that tradition, but enhances it; at the same time, the body of his work reminds us that Scottish writing has always been European in its outlook, wider-ranging and more adventurous, often, than its stay-at-home English cousin.

In this age of the dumbed-down and the hyped, it is not only a mistake to neglect work like Herdman’s, it is also dangerous. So we are fortunate that, in spite of being so often overlooked, this author, who once concluded an interview with the hope "that my fictional career is not quite ended", has created another of the delicious studies of paranoia which have become his trademark. The Sinister Cabaret is an intelligent, disturbing, quietly compelling novel: if you have yet to discover Herdman’s world, pick up a copy, and treat yourself to something a little different on a cold winter’s night.