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Michael Hughes: The Countenance Divine

I am something of a glutton for books on Englishness and this book is certainly that, albeit written by an Irishman. Not only does it feature a host of minor historical and fictional characters, it also features three famous historical Englishmen: the poets William Blake and John Milton, and Jack the Ripper. Yes, Englishness definitely has its dark side, particularly for the Irish. This novel is about our old friend good versus evil (or perhaps to put it more accurately The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as William Blake’s book has it, quoted in this book), but also about religion, hypocrisy and the soul of England.

If we had any doubts about the good versus evil theme, we soon learn it. The novel opens in 1999. Our hero is Chris Davison, who, after a somewhat scattered career, ends up working on the Y2K bug. He is soon joined by a colleague called Lucy. Chris-Lucy – Christ-Lucifer. Get it? Lucy is not an easy person. She is a Goth and into piercing and self-harming. She does not, on the whole, get on with people. Chris is also somewhat of a loner. He has had a few sexual encounters but is adamant that he does not want to live with anyone. He keeps well away from his family and does not seem to have any real friends. He thinks he prefers machines to humans and sometimes doubted that the past was real. He also has strange thoughts. He had been alive for hundreds of years. The city was on fire, and he was hiding underground. He was making a tiny man out of clay. His hands were digging around inside a woman’s belly. The world was about to end, and it was all his fault. He has one strange secret, which he will later share with Lucy. When he was young he thought he was the second coming of Christ. However, he soon abandoned this idea once he started masturbating as, presumably, a Christ figure would not masturbate. However, by the end of the book, he may have to revise this idea.

Lucy also has her strange fantasies, often imagining that she is being murdered Hannibal Lecter/Jack the Ripper Style, i.e. her insides gouged out. Chris nicknames her Dark Satanic Mills (her surname is Mills). For those that do not know, Dark Satanic Mills and the title of the book both come from William Blake’s Jerusalem. Fewer people will know that Jerusalem is, in fact, the Preface to a long poem by Blake called Milton. Indeed, Chris later finds out that Lucy is working on some sort of art project – a vision of London, past, present and future. As part of that Lucy tells Chris about the origin of Blake’s Jerusalem.

It is at this point that we move back in time. The first move is the From Hell letter. This was a letter, allegedly written by Jack the Ripper to George Lusk, head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, a committee who patrolled the streets of Whitechapel during the Jack the Ripper era. The letter contained half a human kidney, the sender claiming to have eaten the other half. Hughes adds a whole series more of such letters, written both to the famous (Lord Salisbury, then Prime Minister, and Queen Victoria) and to the victims of the Jack the Ripper killings. They are all quite gruesome and all seem to indicate that the killer is working for someone else.

We also meet the poet William Blake. We follow some of his activities and his relationship with his wife. He is a devoted fan of John Milton and when he learns of the desecration of Milton’s grave, he manages to track down both one of his ribs and an unpublished manuscript of his last days. With the rib, he endeavours to create a homunculus, which would be a miniature Milton. Initially it does not work but eventually it does, and the homunculus channels Milton.

We also follow Tom Algood, who appears in the book Blake has acquired. He was born a Catholic but, to his father’s horror, renounces the faith. He has a chequered life, before ending up as Milton’s secretary, while he is writing Paradise Lost. He is doing this job, as he is being paid by an unknown person to spy on Milton, as it is thought Milton might be connected to a plot to usurp Charles II and bring back the Commonwealth. The whole section comes to a climax with the Great fire of London, in which Milton’s house and, apparently, his only complete copy of his great poem Paradise Lost.

These sections are all linked. The homunculus, the mysterious man in the metal mask and the Practical Rebus, a sort of seventeenth century Rubik’s Cube, which can be manipulated like Rubik’s Cube and produces a variety of images when manipulated. All stories point to an apocalyptic vision of England, with the apocalyptic chaos being the Great Fire, the Jack the Ripper killings and the Y2K bug. Chris has visions of the end of the world. He saw buildings explode. He saw planes crashing into cities. He saw thousands of people fleeing for their lives. It was all his fault. and London evaporated before his eyes. At the same time, we have to ask, was this all random apocalypse? Was the Great Fire not an accident but set by an anonymous malefactor? Who was controlling Jack the Ripper and why? And was the repair work on the Y2K bug being sabotaged and, if so, by whom and why?

Hughes certainly tells a colourful and imaginative story. If the 1999 section is a bit weak – we know the Y2K bug did not leave to mayhem – the other sections are full of visions, imminent apocalypses and lives lived well beyond the ordinary. Hughes has clearly done his research but he also writes with passion and fervour to produce a highly original novel.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by John Murray