“ Genre: Comedy / Author: Gordon Houghton / Kindle Edition / Publication Date: 2010 „
A while back, I read The Dinner Party by Gordon Houghton. I admit that my initial interest stemmed mainly from the fact that the author was one-time editor of the influential computer magazine Zzap64 during my teenage years. Whilst the dark and gritty tone of the book made for difficult reading at times, I nevertheless enjoyed it enough to hunt out a copy of Houghton's other novel, The Apprentice.
The Apprentice in question is a corpse who has been happily residing in his grave for a period of time. When Death comes to him to offer him a trial as his Apprentice he takes the role without thinking. After all, what can he lose? If he fits in, he is granted all the benefits of his position (immortality etc.). If he fails, he can choose the manner of his second death before returning to the comfort and security of his grave.
For a long time, I actually put off reading The Apprentice because I was concerned that it was a little too much like Terry Pratchett's Mort. Both books feature Death taking on an apprentice who is ill-suited to their new role. Fortunately, such fears were unfounded because beyond the basic plot outline, Mort and The Apprentice are two very different animals.
There are certainly some similarities between the two authors, but plenty of differences, too. Whereas Pratchett opts for the fantasy sci-fi novel, Houghton's book is set in the real world. A slightly skewed take on the real world, certainly, but something which all readers will be able to identify with. It has that rare ability to be both funny and to make you think at the same time. Like Pratchett, Houghton has some delightful turns of phrase that highlight the absurdities of everything and make you wonder what the point of life (or, indeed, death) really is. Like Pratchett, he makes little asides or cynical observations - almost throwaway comments - that are very amusing. The change from "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" to "The Four Car Drivers of the Apocalypse" (because even immortal beings need to move with the times and horses are not a viable method of transport in 20th century Britain) particularly tickled me and is a good example of the kind of underplayed humour Houghton employs. The whole story is laced with a delightful black humour which never tips over into outright cynicism, but equally never becomes too silly or over the top.
Of course, the style of humour in The Apprentice is not going to be to everyone's tastes, but you can get a feel for whether this is a book for you or not fairly early on. If the idea of Death (and his co-workers, War, Famine and Pestilence) being downgraded to little more than middle-level administrators appeals to you, then you will get on with The Apprentice famously. A lot of the humour in The Apprentice is deliberately downplayed and mixed with other, darker and more thought-provoking plot elements and if this is your style, then it's a book for you. If, on the other hand, you like out and out laugh-fests, you should probably give it a miss.
The Apprentice is a lot easier to read than The Dinner Party, in almost every sense of the phrase. The Dinner Party had quite a labyrinthine structure which kept flitting between different parts of the past and present. Whilst this made for a multi-layered and enjoyable read, it did mean that you had to concentrate quite hard to keep track of everything.
The Apprentice has a much simpler structure. Essentially, it deals with just two main plotlines: The Apprentice's attempts to come to terms with his new job and his gradual recollection of the events which led up to his original death. There's the occasional slightly clunky transition between the two segments, but for the most part, the different elements are brought together well to tell an intriguing and satisfying tale.
The subject matter of The Apprentice is also a lot easier to deal with. The Dinner Party was very dark at times, leading to some pretty unpleasant descriptions of self-harm. The Apprentice is a world away from this. Whilst discussions of death can make for uncomfortable reading, the fact that Houghton treats it in a slightly skewed, almost off-hand manner removes morbid thoughts. Houghton presents death almost as something of a relief; something to be looked forward to; not feared. This is not in any religions sense of "a better world to come" but just that death brings a respite from the trials, tribulations and worries of life. You could argue that this is a pretty bleak outlook, but mixed with the dark humour, it never seemed that way to me.
The Apprentice himself proves to be a likeable guide as he slowly finds out about (and reveals to us) the world of the Undead and his particular role in the administration of life. Death, Famine, Pestilence and War (along with Skirmish, War's assistant) are also great characters. Whilst War and Famine can get rather lost at times, Death and Pestilence are excellent. All the erstwhile Four Horsemen are essentially portrayed as everyday working stiffs, there to do a job they no longer enjoy. They are all resentful of the other, slightly paranoid and frustrated at being forced to work together. Essentially, the realm of Death & Co. is simply another workplace and the frustrations and limitations that brings will be instantly recognisable to most people.
At the end of the day The Apprentice works mostly because it offers something a little different from the other books that crowd our bookshelves. Houghton has a deeply readable style. He is highly literate and produces some superbly constructed sentences that use just the right words to convey what he wants to say; yet he never has delusions of grandeur, using long, impressive words just to show how clever he is.
The book can be bought in print format for a couple of quid (second hand). It's also available on Kindle for about £2.50. Either price is a bargain for a book which offers something a little different from more mainstream novels.
© copyright SWSt 2012