Philip Challinor blogs under the name The Curmudgeon. If you have visited that site you will know that a quick wit, combined with his great mix of sometimes arcane and sometimes garbled newpoliticmanagementspeak result in some sublime moments.
Radical Therapies is one of his several advances into longer format writing and while it doesn’t really use the funny jargonese it combines insight with a dark imagination to make 3 memorable stories.
The first story, The Little Doctor, is the story of a war criminal told from the point of view of the war criminal. You might think this is somewhat unusual but if you do I would remind that Bush and Blair have recently published memoirs and talked (or in the case of one of them, tried to talk) about their roles in the imperial ventures of our time.
At first it seems like the war in question could be current or marginally in the future. As it progresses, the character’s names serve to give the story the parallel world feel that the story needs to make its point; they could all be from anywhere or from nowhere. Similarly, not putting the story in any place we can put our finger on gives the impression that it could be everywhere. The winners or losers could be any state.
Without any kind of anchor for the reader (where is it? when is it?), in the opening pages it takes a little careful reading at the start but very quickly it becomes a page-turner.
The war criminal is in prison and awaiting his execution and recounts events leading up to his current situation. This is interspersed with his dealings with the prison guards and various functionaries representing the victorious powers in the war.
“Why should you be [put on trial] ?” said the Warden. “As I told you, the position is quite clear. Everyone knows what went on in that place, the … the researches you carried out; it was all thoroughly documented, and most of the documentation has survived. There is no doubt as to your actions or the actions of your colleagues – the Anthill business, for instance, and Project Fiat. It only remains to pronounce judgement.”
“I see,” I said.
“I suppose,” he said with a slight, ironical smile, “I suppose to you that sounds like nothing more than victor’s justice.”
“I wasn’t aware that there was any other kind.”
The researches in question were various cloning and DNA experiments carried out at a facility originally designed to solve a food crisis. Originally well-intentioned (if ethically dubious) scientific work is subsumed by the events going on around it and radically altered in its scope. The scientists themselves are more perturbed by the interruption to them doing the work they want to than moral concerns about the work they must now do.
There is also a historical element in the conclusion of The Little Doctor but I will leave that for you to find out.
The second and third stories (Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth and The House of Stairs) make a good job of actually making hospital drama interesting. That said, they are unlike any other hospital dramas you are likely to read.
Both Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth and The House of Stairs are like the worst imaginings between wake and sleep. The former features a man shackled in a bizarre fashion, always unsure of whether he is being cured or tortured. The doctor that he doesn’t know whether to trust or hate flits in and out along with the “nurse-thing”. A surprising beginning finishes with a surprising end. All through it the question “should I be laughing at this?” is swimming in the background.
The final story, The House of Stairs isn’t quite so much like a horror scene as Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth but again, it is eerie and atmospheric and takes place in a fantastic imagined world. It vaguely reminded me of Lanark by Alasdair Gray and also of THX-1138 and I hope he won’t hate me for saying that. The surreality of the setting is dragged back to more corporeal concerns by the action.
An escape from a maze (or in this case a labyrinthine institution) is made much more terrifying if you don’t know how you got in there, or if an exit even exists.
You can buy it here.