Prismatic (2006)

Author Edwina Grey
Publisher Lothian Books
Length 362 pages
Genre Plague
Blurb A Contagious Thriller

Talk us through it

In 1789 New South Wales a patch of mangrove swamp on the Lane Cove river is avoided by the local Aboriginal tribes. Naturally Solomon Pendle, a convict, escapes into the bush and runs across a certain patch of ground. He returns to the colony due to the harsh conditions in the bush, and for his troubles is hung by the Governor. At least Pendle got to pass a surprise on to his fellow inmates and their keepers. Sickness and madness start to take control of the colonial and it seems to revolve around the mad witch Mattias.

Sydney 1919, an influenza pandemic rages through the city putting pressure on the hospitals trying to cope with those affected. A convalescent home for returned servicemen just so happens to be have been built on the banks of the Lane Cover river, people forgot to mention the human remains that were discovered as the foundations for the home were being laid. A different type of disease is about to break out, with only Dr Adam Waters standing in the way of what he the Mycosis infecting the entire city.

Modern day Sydney and student Jacqueline Cooper, an ex drug addict, is researching occult occurrences in the city. Naturally she has come across stories of strange events surrounding the Lane Cover River, and naturally she unearths something she shouldn't have. Can Jackie Cooper piece it together like Adam Waters did before her and stop a full on George R Romero event going down?

Ready to test the waters for a virus called prism?


"I am drawn back into contemplation of the fates of the myriad people whose lives are tied to this place." - Doctor Adam Waters

Man do I ever have some stuff to get through before charging full on into a review of one of the best horror novels it's been my pleasure to read this year. And you can blame it all on a graphic novel I've ordered, sorry folks I'm in full on Sherlock Holmes mode due to having never heard of the author of this book.

A quick check of various published book lists elicited the information that Prismatic is the only novel ever published by Edwina Grey. A further check of the Australian Horror Writers Association's archives could inform me there was no record for a horror writer by the name of Edwina Grey. Very strange, my spider sense was tingling, and the game was a foot. The copyright notice in the novel didn't attribute it to Edwina Grey either, but it did present me with the names David Carroll, Evan Paliatseas, and Kyla Ward. All renowned Australian writers of dark speculative fiction. I think I singled out David Carroll for his excellent short story contribution to the anthology Southern Blood. If that wasn't enough to give the game away on page 31 of Prismatic I read "Yes, that was it. Tabula rasa. Blank slate". David Carroll and Kyla Ward are of course responsible for an excellent web site of the same name. Fair cop, case proven, the cat is screeching to be let back into the bag. Actually this is all just a round about way of giving credit where credit is due, but figured I should nail this particular coffin shut before something creeps out into the night. Actually thinking about it, three writers, three separate time lines, must hit Dave Carroll up for the gossip there. Having unmasked our very own Richard Bachman, lets review the book and clobber that cat.

The narrative structure of Prismatic may at first confuse some readers, but stick with it as you need all three time lines in order to understand the story. So, for example, you may read a chapter set in the present, then jumped back to 1789 for some exposť, and then forward to 1919 to continue with the adventures of Doc Waters. This approach turns the novel into almost a serialised adventure where you have to wait a while for further developments in a story line you are following, generally just when it is getting nice and juicy. If you have ever followed a novel being released in parts you'll know how frustrating this can be, Stephen King's The Green Mile immediately leaps to mind. Luckily for the reader of Prismatic each of the three separate stories is strong enough to avoid undue stress in the reader while waiting for the resolution in a particular thread he/she may be following. The advantage of the approach is of course that you are up with the play in the current time frame without "Ms Grey" having to explain why something is important. An added bonus for mine was that the language and speech patterns used were true to the various time periods the novel covers. I hate it when I'm reading a novel that flips back a couple of hundred years and the Author drops a clanger of a modern expression into a character statement. Talk about taking you right out of the book and throwing you off the reading bus!

I actually spent some time trying to work out which genre to place Prismatic in. There's definitely a virus involved, hence the decision to run with "plague" as it covers a multitude of sins. But, and this is a big but, some reviewers might opt for the zombie word, there's certainly some Romero like zombie stuff going down. Zombie here would be in the wider Stephen King Cell or 28 Days Later frame, rather than the narrower exact usage that Robert Hood would champion. Hey it's a bone and I'm still gnawing away at that definition. Not entirely sure if there isn't a sub genre for intelligent viruses either as Prismatic could infect there as well. I'm just pointing out here that the novel doesn't fit within the dreaded structures of any set genre that restricts some often times good fiction.

If I had to use one word to describe Prismatic that word would be "dense". There's a whole lot going down in the narrative, with the ideas and themes coming at you thick and fast. One of those books where you have to keep your wits about you else you will miss a major plot development while drifting along to the next page. On a couple of occasions I had to back up the buggy as I had become so mesmerised by the writing style that I had completely missed a plot turn. I'm not saying the book is a hard read, on the contrary the language used is very accessible, just that the old Edwina doesn't waste time describing the pattern on the curtains if there's movement at the station plot wise. So yes it's a fast moving page turning roller coaster to the dark side of town.

Characterisation is a strength of Prismatic without the book fully endorsing the notion of the reader learning something about the human experience from it. None of the protagonists are overly heroic, and for sure they have some fault lines in their backgrounds, and the antagonists aren't presented as wearing black hats, twirling their moustaches, and dropping damsels onto the nearest train lines. Each character has their own motivations and works in terms of their character flaws. I love characters that are slightly gray rather than being perfect white or despicable black.

I was left wondering if whoever came up with the character Jacqueline Cooper wasn't winking at the reader. Cooper restricts herself to one Guinness per evening, due to former drug intact, and on occasion fastens onto that notion as things are heading for the apocalypse and the four riders are saddling up. This reminds me of a character out of a Dean Koontz novel who also focused on the Irish beer when the going got tough, though I can't remember who the character was or which Koontz novel he/she appeared in.

I'm starting to run out of the old space here, and am in danger of boring the hell out of the readership so will try and wrap in an orderly fashion.

Another aspect to Prismatic that strengthens the novel yet may not be readily apparent to anyone not immersed in Australian movies, novels, and general culture, is the differing views of the country from the three time frames used. Way back in 1789, when Sydney was just another far flung colony at the arse end of the world, the environment was viewed as entirely alien and threatening. By 1919 the environment around Sydney had been pretty much brought under control, but the locals still viewed themselves as almost "English" rather than Australian. Then in modern times, and in the film adaptation of the book you would have urban rock music blaring on the soundtrack at this stage, it's a total immersion into the environment with a distinct culture, note the pop references littered throughout the "now" sections of the novel.

Okay a few regular readers are taking me to task for not commenting on the blood and guts elements when reviewing a novel. Well hello, we're talking the horror genre here, not the Stephenie Meyer glee club for abnormal sex. But to appease the one or two loyal followers of the site, there's plenty of claret being splashed about on the pages of Prismatic. If the concept of cannibals chowing down on the brains of cadavers isn't your cup of tea then you may want to try something else for your bedtime reading material. This isn't to say the writers are rubbing the reader's face in the viscera, just that no punches are being pulled during descriptions of madness.

Prismatic may prove hard to find due to the novel being another of the victims of the demise of Lothian Books. I scored the last copy available at the Tuggerah Borders store, but am informed that most Borders stores have copies available or can order in. Failing that you could try Tabla Rasa, which is worth visiting anywise, or throw the dice on one of the online auction sites.

ScaryMinds Rates this read as ...

The perfect horror novel in terms of pacing, content, and bangs for your buck. Go get infected today!