Neither Entirely Real Nor Imagined
Night of the Animals
By Bill Broun
In March of 1997, police found thirty-nine corpses in a mansion outside San Diego, all lying in bunk beds and wearing simple black outfits. Purple cloths covered faces that were already decomposing upon discovery. These people had been members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult, led and founded by Marshall Applewhite, who sermonized that the Earth was about to be recycled. Next Level humanity awaited the believers, if they could only escape onto the spacecraft trailing Comet Hale-Bopp as it passed. Applewhite’s “Away Team”—a Star Trek reference emblazoned on their armbands—left us by ingesting applesauce, phenobarbital, and vodka, and then tying bags over their heads.
The King James Bible, which Applewhite studied throughout the 1970s while developing Heaven’s Gate’s fluorescent eschatology, reminds us that, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” With everyone playing Pokemon Go and a Clinton grasping for the White House, 2016 is proving to be a tempestuously nostalgic year.
Among the 1990s icons returning in force, there are more obscure cultural artifacts resurfacing by subtler methods. When I first read the words “Heaven’s Gate” in Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals, I couldn’t be sure he referred to the real life cult. But they are indeed the villains, led by Marshall Applewhite III, in a narrative set in 2052 London, during the approach of Comet Urga-Rampos, and featuring an Indigent protagonist named Cuthbert Handley.
At nearly a century old, Cuthbert’s main goal in life is to free the animals of the Regent’s Park Zoo. He began on this track after his brother Drystan vanished and presumably drowned in a brook inside Worcestershire’s Wyre Forest. The young boys had been playing together, on the lookout for the Boogles that their grandmother Winefrid warned them about, when Drystan dropped from sight. Cuthbert also ended up in the water, where he initially believed his brother to be struggling just below him. He was, however, “gazing upon a fluid face, a being of brown and white and green wearing a momentary smile, then anger, a pale hand—or a paw?— reaching toward him, desperately.”
We learn of this event—as well as the beatings by a loutish father and Cuthbert’s eventual break from reality, where he convinced himself he was Drystan—through a Flôt-soaked lens. Flôt is Cuthbert’s drink of choice, and while high on it,
one could believe that microscopic violet-quiffed visitors from Planet Flôtica kept castles on the tips of every blade of grass. One could believe that the last Tasmanian tiger didn’t actually freeze to death in 1936 because of an incompetent zoo keeper. When Flôt was good, it was hands down the best legal hallucinogenic and sedative on earth. It offered more than intoxication, more than a release: it took you rippling across whole new planets of purple-white euphoria.
It’s partially through Flôt that Cuthbert learns the animals need to be free. More specifically, a fanciful gift called the Wonderments, passed down from Winefrid, helps him understand growling and chittering as requests for freedom. The otters, elephants, and lions (among others) of the Regent’s Park Zoo also happen to be the last animals in captivity, anywhere in the world. Thousands of species of wild animals are extinct—including birds, bears, most marine mammals—and yet clones are possible thanks to “genomic software that the children of the rich used to print miniature cuddle and bath toys as well as living mobiles.” House pets suffer a different fate, as we’ll see.
Like Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman (2014) and Zachary Thomas Dodson’s Bats of the Republic (2015), Night of the Animals is of cataract of weirdness that is bolstered by rewarding human elements and vibrant, I-must-read-this-aloud prose. Here, Broun’s depiction of the Wyre aches with the primacy of childhood as we envision that,
A strand of very old oaks festooned with huge shriveled globes of gray-green mistletoe stood on the forest’s edge. It had been raining hard in recent days, yet there had been no relief from the high temperatures. The flora seemed scorched, raving with energy, subtropical. Yellowish liverwort with designs as filigreed as fine necklaces hung everywhere in strands. Regal stems of pinkish purple betony and Scottish thistle grew at the feet of the ancient trees. The shiny leaves of the oaks, enmeshed in striated sunbeams and swamped in golden light, gave the forest’s boundaries a kind of honeyed radiance.
Contrast this paradise against Broun’s future Britain ruled by Henry IX, who uses technology like the WikiNous communication network (adverts flashed on the pupil, anyone?) and the mind-erasing Nexar hoods to maintain a fascistic grip on the populace. Watchmen wear cloaks covered in biologically-derived and cybernetically-enhanced eyeballs, and wield neuralwave pikes that can boil a conscious mind. It’s all for the greater good, though, as “Henry9” (so Indigents like Cuthbert call him) battles the growing influence of death cults like Heaven’s Gate.
Making this future extra frightening is Broun’s idea that civilization will never overcome religious extremism and its tendency to punish the innocent. The beliefs of Heaven’s Gate have evolved to account for animals and the inherent evil of their “demi-souls.” Animals, according to Applewhite III, form the lowest branches of a rotting shrub; they do nothing but compromise humanity’s chances for passage through the Gate, and so with each cultist who commits suicide, he or she kills an animal too. Stolen house pets provide the fodder in this vile enterprise.
Cuthbert’s specious plan is to liberate the prisoners of Regent’s Park that they might somehow be less vulnerable to the death cult’s attack. And yet, if a single determined drunk can break into the zoo with bolt cutters, what’s to stop a phalanx of lunatics?
The closer Broun’s sot gets to freeing them—and of all animals first, he decides upon the jackals—the more suffocating grows the pall of narrative tension. Cuthbert does what he does, however, because he’s madly, irretrievably in love. He believes his brother Drystan is one of the zoo’s otters, which are rendered as sumptuously as an Audubon painting: “The otter’s hair was a rich sludge color, yet iridescent, too, smoothed back by the force of a thousand dives, with light sloping off at all angles.” Further, it was like “all the muddy moisture of England gathered into one supermuscular cat shape… Neither wholly of earth nor of water, neither entirely real nor imagined, the otter occupied an eerie in-betweenness, one of the Sufi dimensions between the Absolute of the Absolute and Cuthbert’s ugly life.”
The depiction is enough to not only make you wonder how many hours Broun has contemplated the creatures, but also hope that he’ll succeed David Attenborough in narrating BBC nature productions. Unfortunately for the squeamish, the author’s skill in executing scenes of horror keeps apace with his zoological poesy. The freed jackals sweep gory chaos across adjacent exhibits, all the while Cuthbert’s mind dips in and out of memories of college, before he starting living rough in a Flôt cloud.
About halfway through the story, once Broun’s arcane tableau begins spiraling toward a Drystan-shaped hole, the focus shifts to a woman named Astrid Sullivan. She’s the Inspector assigned to cover nighttime alarms at the zoo. She’s also a recovering Flôt addict. After being sober for a decade, however, she’s now suffering the substance’s unique second withdrawal, which ravages her with beastly cravings. She’s on site with other security personnel when swarms of media agents arrive, as well as the Heaven’s Gate members themselves. Among them is Marshall Applewhite III, who
wore the same silvery tunic Astrid had seen him wearing when she watched the telly with Sykes at the Seaman’s Rest. It was ridiculously campy garment one might see on some Venusian high priest from an old science fiction B movie. His tall frame and shaved head would have made him seem menacing, but his large blue fawn eyes, his good posture, his expression of barely repressed merriment, offered a sugared charisma. Astrid could almost see why so many followed him to their deaths. Almost.
Broun also arranges a plot contour that would be, in a less gloriously freewheeling finale, cheating: he gives Astrid an obsession with her absent grandfather. This makes it inevitable that two Flôt addicts will collide, and yet the Inspector realizes that “we’re all just the ghosts of one another’s deepest needs.” Once the night of the jackals, lions, and elephants has passed, and once readers have survived Broun’s literary pyrotechnics—which are as hellacious as they are epic—we find the morning quiet that human animals will create.
Cuthbert and Astrid and Drystan enjoy the brief cohesion of a Holy Trinity. And indeed, “there is no new thing under the sun,” which is okay. The cover of night, Broun proves, calls forth our best and strangest.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.