To judge by the majority of its Amazon reviews, one book of mine seems to be pretty universally loathed: Summon Up the Blood. It’s fair to say that there are people who hate it. They hate it so much that they feel compelled, more than with any of my other books, to go on Amazon and leave a one- or two-star review. That takes time and effort. You have to get your thoughts in order and find the right words to express them. It’s writing. And writing is work.
They could, at any point, have just laid the book to one side and said to themselves, “Well, that wasn’t very good”. Or “That didn’t do it for me”. Or simply “Yeurgh!” (A constant refrain of my one-star reviewers seems to be how they persevered to the end, despite the fact that it was so awful.)
But no. They were so worked up by this book that they felt it was their duty to take time out of their otherwise busy lives to warn other readers against buying Summon Up the Blood in the strongest possible terms. And people are still at it. The latest one-star review appeared just a few days ago.
I suppose that’s what’s prompted me to write this. As you can imagine, that fresh savaging sent me into a downward spiral. The book is clearly doomed. And the reason it is doomed may well because it is everything that my most vicious critics say it is. A terrible book.
I don’t rule out the possibility that that is the case.
Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And it is exceedingly bad form for a writer to respond to negative reviews. So I am not going to go through them and answer any of the points they make. I get the gist.
I have variously thought, “if only I had never written it”, or “if only Severn House [my publisher] had rejected it, they would have saved me and them from all this shame and humiliation”, or “if only there was some way to take it down or unpublish it, to wipe it from the slate of Amazon”. I have also thought “I am a terrible writer and a terrible person and I am never going to write anything again, or even do anything again. I will just stay in this room staring at the wall until I die.” Or something like that. Downward spiral, as I said.
But I have also thought, “You know what, I am not sure it is as bad as these people say it is,” though I accept that it is definitely not to their taste. And that it has prompted a very strong reaction in them.
I go back to what I was trying to do with that book. I was trying to write a serial killer novel, which drew thematically on the so-called Jack the Ripper murders. But I did not want the victims to be women. So I set it in the world of early 20th century male sex workers. The victims are rent boys. This is at a time, not so long after the Oscar Wilde affair, when homosexuality was still a crime. And certainly when attitudes to homosexuality were not as enlightened as they are today.
I accept that at times it makes for uncomfortable reading. I tried not to make my characters anachronistic. So they often say things that would sound appalling coming out of the mouths of modern day characters.
Another thing I was trying to do was to explore the surrealistic aspects of crime fiction. I had been very struck by the fact that the Dadaists and Surrealists who were active at around this time had been huge fans of the Fantômas series of novels by Allain and Souvestre, and the silent films that came from them. I wanted to tap into some of that. So some of the scenes are a little strange. And perhaps that has led to the overall effect being outlandish. At least to some readers.
But there were others who, I think it’s fair to say, got what I was trying to do. The book was not widely reviewed. But it did get a trio of coveted starred reviews, in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal. I think it’s the only one of my Silas Quinn novels that has hit the jackpot with all three. Even the notoriously hard to please Kirkus favoured me with “his sense of the historical moment is strong”, while Booklist provided me with my favourite quote of all time, for any of my books: “Mesmerizing, repellent, bizarre, intelligent, dark, provocative… utterly fascinating…”
And I think there you have it summed up. Both the problem with the book and what makes it interesting.
I am not writing this post to persuade people to buy Summon Up the Blood. These days I try to put people off. “You won’t like it.” I am just trying to make my peace with a book that still, after all these years, has the power to make even me uncomfortable.
I was recently contacted via a private message on twitter by someone offering to pay me $20 a pop to write 5-star amazon reviews for their clients’ books. That’s the other elephant in the amazon room, I suppose. Needless to say, I wasn’t interested.