Hangdog Souls, Marc Joan. London: Deixis Press, 2022.
Summary: A fugitive English soldier in southern India makes a Faustian bargain winning endless life at the cost of countless others over three centuries.
John Saunders is a fugitive English soldier in the Dravidian highlands of southern India as the British colonials are invading. He has a beautiful wife and an adorable son, who has captured the eye of the corrupt ruler with a mysterious machine in the dome of his castle complex. John is feigning that he is Portuguese and has brought seeds of eucalyptus trees that he hopes to establish in the highlands, making his fortune. As the British lay siege, he plans an escape for himself and huis family, but is found out by the ruler, who offers him a Faustian bargain, to become the “bridge” for souls, offering them a better world for their lives.
His trees are saved, and recur throughout the succeeding vignettes. But his wife and son are not. But John cannot die, even from a wound that nearly beheads him. He must live with his shame while ushering others to their fate. The story unfolds as a series of vignettes over 300 years. A priest burdened with the death of his wife Emma who encounters John. A butterfly enthusiast seeking the Black Papilio, and finding so much more. A functionary of the Sarpal Tea Company sent to the Kalisholi estates to investigate accounts ends up offering himself to a snake at a time when the local gods demand five garlands, five lives. A tourist glimpsing the mysterious woman in a blue sari, An embalmer who must create images of three gods using human corpses. A boy indentured to an uncle who immolates himself after listening to John’s story.
On it goes until three hundred years later, a Keralan particle physicist, Chandy John, involved in an experiment that has driven the previous scientist mad. Will he succumb to the burden of his own losses and griefs, having lost his wife in a tragic accident or will he break the cycle?
The book revolves around the question: What weight can balance the death of an innocent? How much grief must John bear for the grief he causes, and for how long? When will the scales be balanced? John is able to do what he does because of the griefs others bear. The appeal of escape through death, perhaps atoning for one’s guilt and shame. But the question makes us wonder if in fact whether there is any human counterweight to the death of an innocent?
I’ve seen this book classified in the horror genre. It seemed to me to have elements of horror, historical fiction, and magical realism about it. I’m not sure I know what it is. For the first hundred pages or so, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Yet as story after story unfolded, variations on a theme I found myself wondering how or whether this would all end, and drawn into the storytelling to find out.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.