There is a fairly common assertion that a work of fiction belongs to a particular genre. When authors try to bend genres or combine styles, some people get a bit jittery. I’ve read a couple of attempts at cross-genrefication that haven’t been successful, in my opinion. They always focus too much on the wrong thing.
So, after a dozen or so pages of Adam Christopher’s Hang Wire, I was getting worried that this would be another one of those failures. Glad to say I was wrong on almost every level.
Ted Hall is worried. He’s been sleepwalking, and his somnambulant travels appear to coincide with murders by the notorious Hang Wire Killer. Meanwhile, the circus has come to town, but the Celtic dancers are taking their pagan act a little too seriously, the manager of the Olde Worlde Funfair has started talking to his vintage machines, and the new acrobat’s frequent absences are causing tension among the performers. Out in the city there are other new arrivals – immortals searching for an ancient power – a primal evil which, if unopposed, could destroy the world!
We begin our story in San Francisco, 1906. We’re in the middle of an earthquake; the earthquake. Robert is caught in it. But he’s not behaving normally. Is he helping? Is he lifting huge slabs of debris? Now it is 1889 and what will become Oklahoma. Joel is travelling west, seeking his fortune. He has a coin and comes across a cave. Something draws him inside. Now we’re in San Francisco again, this time the present. Something odd has just happened to Ted, involving a fortune cookie. He’s also sleepwalking, which is a concern.
And then there’s a circus which has mysterious acts such as Highwire (no-one sees his face) and a tribe of Celtic fire dancers who, when no-one is looking, appear to drag naked, ash-clad women out of the earth. Meanwhile, something is stirring beneath the city. Another big earthquake perhaps? Bob, who dances half-naked on the beach for the pleasure of tourists, knows something is coming. Something like last time. While all this is going on, someone, or something, is murdering young women and tying them up with steel cable: the Hang Wire Killer.
Now that’s a lot of story. We also follow Joel in a series of interludes as he searches out various items on a murderous spree across both time and the USA. We get a sense that this is all being driven by an alien presence. Ah, so this is literary science fiction. A story told through the ordinary lives of its characters.
To be honest, I think Hang Wire could be a little longer. That might seem like an odd criticism. It takes 55 pages (out of more than 350) before a character makes a second appearance: that’s 3 prologues (2 of which almost feel like short stories in their own right) and 3 full chapters before Ted pops up again. There is a lot of story and it needs time, especially during the latter parts of the novel. The first half of the book is fine, better than fine. It slowly reveals itself to be what it really is. My first thought was an attempt at literary superhero fiction. Urgh! Well, it has costumed protagonists with powers looking for a serial killer with impossible strength, all told via character vignettes.
I find literary fiction dull, but Hang Wire, once you get with the characters, is anything but. They start to reveal the truth about themselves, and you can see how all the stories and incidents are connected. Christopher is very adept at bringing these together. It becomes almost Lovecraftian in its menace. It reveals itself to be a fantasy above all else. And yet you can’t work out whether the mythology is a real-world one or Christopher’s invention. I kept wanting to Google the answer, but refrained until I completed the book.
Once the characters are revealed and Joel’s story comes to a conclusion, the climax of the book seems a little rushed. I would have liked more time exploring the mythologies of the characters, and why they were in San Francisco. However, then it might have ended up being unfairly compared to other works of fiction exploring similar ideas.
Christopher has compiled a very interesting and tantalising mythology with some good writing and some interesting characters. The relationships between Ted and Alison, and Ted and Benny could have been fleshed out a little further, however. I’m not sure that giving the mysterious acrobat the name Highwire works. Surely, as he was why people were coming to the circus, he would have been the number 1 suspect to being the Hang Wire killer, but the police don’t pursue that line of enquiry.
The success of Hang Wire, however, is that it feels like an old story, but one told in a fresh and relevant way. Which to me means it is excellent storytelling. It could be read as almost anti-science or anti-science fiction even (anti- as in opposite, not against), reflecting past-times when horrors such as earthquakes and comets were explained by supernatural events.
So, what is Hang Wire? A very good piece of storytelling. A damn fine read. Its label doesn’t matter.
AUTHOR: Adam Christopher
PUBLISHER: Angry Robot
Reviewer: Ian J Simpson