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First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women
Eric McCormack
Penguin Books, 272 pages

First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women
Eric McCormack
Eric McCormack, born in a small Scottish town in 1938, is currently an Associate Professor of English at St. Jerome's University (associated with the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), where he has been since 1970. His specialties are seventeenth century and contemporary literature. His previous works, also published by Penguin, include the novels The Paradise Motel (1989), winner of the Scottish Arts Council Book Prize, The Mysterium (1993), and an anthology, Inspecting the Vaults (1993), which reprints The Paradise Motel and fifteen short stories. His current title First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women is shortlisted for the Canada Council for the Arts Governor General's Literary Awards.

Eric McCormack Info
Eric McCormack Interview
Eric McCormack at Penguin Books

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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The title, First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, is borrowed from a 16th century work against having women in positions of authority, by the Scottish religious leader John Knox (1513-1572). The current novel is the fictional autobiography of one Andrew Halfnight, who has written his memoirs as a form of psychological therapy.

For a horror novel, First Blast begins very innocently. At the baptism of Andrew and his twin sister in a small mining town in the Scottish Highlands, the father asks to hold one of his children. His wife hands him his week-old daughter, and as he passes her on to another woman, the baby slips in his arms and in clutching her tighter, he breaks her back and kills her.

The father is later found dead at the bottom of a gorge. Andrew's mother develops tuberculosis and dies when he is ten, and he is sent to join his aunt Lizzie on a tiny Caribbean island. On board ship, he is befriended by a grizzly old sailor, Harry Greene, whose passion is reading books, including the original First Blast, and works on numerology and other esoteric matters. From him, Andrew hears strange and horrific stories that the sailor has garnered during his many years at sea. Soon after his arrival in his new home, he is again left destitute when his aunt smashes in his uncle's head with a big chunk of lava.

Taken in by a local family, he develops his first amorous and sexual relationship with a local girl, Maria. When the island's population is wiped out by a hurricane, they are separated. He is sent to a bizarre orphanage in England. By this time, not surprisingly, he has developed a sense that doom follows him.

Upon his release from the orphanage he joins Dr. Giffen, his mother's old physician, in Canada, and upon his death some years later, becomes independently wealthy. Worsening nightmares of his sister's funeral procession and a strange black "mote" which seems to parasitize his field of vision lead him into drug abuse, toying with suicide, a sexual relationship with an insane woman, and finally a near-fatal car crash. It takes the return of Harry, the sailor, and then Maria, and a dream in which he is reabsorbed into the womb to start him on the road to redemption. This merely skims the surface of this wonderful assemblage of weird, horrific and sometimes sadistic vignettes and stories within stories that make First Blast one of the most original and engrossing works of horror I have read in many years. First Blast is written in a beautifully rich and evocative English, which in the current horror field is only approached by perhaps one other author, Thomas Ligotti. The following passage describes the layout of the strange orphanage to which Andrew is sent:

"The House was especially designed to keep a large number of orphans under the control of a small number of nuns. It was built in the shape of two wheels connected by a corridor. The wheels were the Boys' Circle and the Girls' Circle. The hub of each wheel was a tower with walls of darkened glass. The circumference of the wheels were four storeys high, and divided into little segments, each of which was an orphan's room. The inside wall -- the one facing the hub -- was made of ordinary glass and had a glass door. The nuns, who worked in pairs, sat invisible in the central towers, and could see into every room just as though they were looking into a doll's house."
From his Scottish heritage McCormack has brought a fine sense of atmosphere and of the uncanny, and from his North American experience, presumably, a sense of graphic violence. This side of his work is reminiscent in some ways of E.F. Benson (1867-1940) who, unlike Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) and M.R. James (1862-1936), interjected far more graphic horror into the usually strictly atmospheric British ghost stories of his era. McCormack's Scottish sense of the uncanny and his somewhat Gothic style harken back to Scotsman James Hogg's (1770-1835) tales of horror.

Besides the richness of this work, First Blast is also interesting in its linkage to some of McCormack's other works. The story of a mad surgeon told around a campfire in Patagonia, which appeared in the short story "Sad Stories in Patagonia" (in Inspecting the Vaults) and is central to the novel The Paradise Motel is retold here by Harry Greene. Similarly, the one-legged Scottish miner present at Andrew's baptism is obviously one of "The One Legged Men" (in The Paradise Motel).

Nonetheless, McCormack's appeal to the readers of today's thousand-page schlock horror-fests, who tend to select quantity over quality, may be somewhat limited. For those so-minded, I would suggest that you make the effort to read this or other works by McCormack and see to what levels horror literature can be taken.

Copyright © 1998 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.


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