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Ellis Sharp: To Wetumpka

Clifford Tollinger is running on empty. He has broken up with his girlfriend. He has been doing drugs. He has been having weird dreams. It is time to go. So he is off to Lowestoft, a dingy seaside town in the East of England of which he says Lowestoft was the kind of place that dreamed of being somewhere else. Indeed, he has chosen Lowestoft because he knows he is not going to meet anyone he knows there (No one he knew would ever be seen dead in Lowestoft.). He sells much of his stuff and off he goes. He seems to like Lowestoft. It was the end of something. However, wandering around the town, it seems distinctly seedy. For example, there seem to be a lot of dead birds. He soon gets tired of the town and decides to take a bus to go elsewhere. He arrives in Kessingland, a town noted for the fact that H Rider Haggard was born nearby and that W G Sebald mentions it in his Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt (The Rings of Saturn). Indeed, Tollinger mention this to someone later in the book. Finally, he decides to go for a walk on the beach.

The beach is virtually deserted. He sees a seal and a sea fern. Then, in a rock pool, he sees what he thinks is an eel. He has a bit of fun throwing stones at it and it seems to disappear. Then, suddenly, it comes out of the pool and starts approaching him. It looks like a sea-snake. He is stunned and, initially, stands there, petrified. As it gets nearer, he decides to beat a hasty retreat. However, it continues to follow him. He runs off but, when he looks back, it has kept pace with him. He runs faster but it does, too. Suddenly, he realises that he is trapped. Either he goes into the rough sea or has to confront it. At that point a woman appears with a dog and they exchange greetings. He realises the sea-snake has disappeared. He moves away and seems to be safe. However, when the woman and dog disappear, the sea-snake reappears. This time it comes near, and makes a strange noise. Suddenly, it attacks him, winding round his leg and tripping him up. It climbs up his body and then goes into his mouth, sliding its whole body down his throat. He faints. When he comes to, he is still on the beach, sure that the snake is inside him. He manages to get to a hotel and then, the next day, to a doctor. He is immediately sent to a hospital. When they X-Ray him, they realise it is serious. He is taken off in a helicopter by two military personnel to a mysterious bunker, where there seems to be, underground, a medical facility. He is taken to the operating theatre and operated in.

But when he awakes, there is no-one there. More importantly, he has clearly been operated on but equally clearly not sewn up again, as there is a hole in his stomach. He manages to struggle up and staunch the bleeding with some cotton wool. He searches the facility but can find no-one. With great difficulty, he manages to get to the dock, where a boatman, thinking he has missed the ferry, rows him across to the mainland, where he is met by an ambulance and taken to another hospital. This appears to be some sort of Ministry of Defence hospital, where he is detained and where the doctor recognises him. It turns out that she is the first person he had a sexual relationship with (aged ten!) which, indirectly led to his father’s death. If, at this point, we were looking for a fairly conventional explanation of what the snake was, what happened to it after it was removed from him, what happened in the first hospital and what exactly the current hospital is, we have come to the wrong book. This is not a conventional or even unconventional science fiction novel, but an Ellis Sharp novel. Tollinger’s adventure is far from over and things take a decidedly strange turn. Indeed, he ends up in Alabama, specifically Wetumpka, apparently on holiday, where he examines the meteor crater.

We do not read Ellis Sharp for plot, characterisation or any of the usual reasons for reading standard novels. We read him because he gives us a vision, usually bleak but often with a touch of humour, of the contemporary world as he sees it. It is a dark vision but a thoroughly original vision and one that may be a more accurate representation of the world, at least as it looks to many people, than, say the vision of the standard English novelists, like Amis, Coe, McEwan, Swift et al. He is offering no solutions nor any easy way out. The world is grim and that is that. After a four year gap since his last novel, it is good to see that he is still writing and that this is one of three books he has published this year. I can thoroughly recommend this book if you are prepared to read something a bit different.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Zoilus Press