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Author: Nick Marsh

Publisher: Immanion Press

ISBN: 9781904853756

Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” – H.P. Lovecraft.

Like all great speculative fiction writers, Lovecraft knew the real source of delight – and terror (he learned it from Poe, after all): what is experienced as the `here and now’ is but a shadow, a veil for what has always been. The phenomenal world we inhabit – this desk, that chair, the man sleeping on the subway – are merely markers of a larger, darker, less ephemeral existence. The genius of most great horror writers has frequently resided in taking the Platonic idea of “forms” and investing it with sinister overtones. This world is a simulation – all the REAL action is taking place somewhere “out there.”

Most contemporary writers of horror and sci-fi, however, are content to build a story on the monster-of-the-moment: vampires, werewolves, aliens, and their ilk, but every so often a writer comes along who seems to really get what Lovecraft was selling. Such a writer is Nick Marsh, and his novel Past Tense – the second in what he calls his “Conduit Sequence” – is a fitting heir to the Lovecraftian tradition.

Though not as consistently dark as Lovecraft, there are obvious similarities in their work – a fact Marsh acknowledges in his book, with his characters referencing Lovecraft’s mythic elder god Cthulhu. And though Marsh leavens his work with dollops of Douglas Adams-type farce, he never imperils the genuine threat of menace that animates this page-turning novel.

This is the second book in a series, but I think I can say with some confidence that it stands alone as a good read (I haven’t yet read the first book, Soul Purpose, though I intend to). Marsh gives enough back story to acquaint readers with the characters, chief of which is Alan Reece, a veterinarian from England’s “West Country.” Reece’s real claim to fame – make that immortality – is his role as a “conduit,” a sort of link between the present world and a phantasmal world of “soul spheres” and time travel.

In this case, his travels take him to Ancient Rome, where a good deal of the novel takes place. Reece and a woman acquaintance from the present find themselves thrown back in time, navigating the unfamiliar world of Empire, centurions, and slaves, all the while both hiding from and seeking a shape-shifting mythic beast that’s intent on ravaging the past to disrupt the present and rule in the future.

The novel’s long middle section, “Pax Romana.” Is filled with enlightening – and nauseating – glimpses into life during the Empire. Though the narrative enumerates the pedestrian activities of everyday life, from the ruling class to the lowliest slaves, Marsh keeps a steady eye on the main plot, and builds in enough suspense to keep the reader on the hook.

Will our heroes make it back to the present? Will this shape-shifting creature disrupt the historical timeline? Can our mild-mannered protagonists simply survive the grueling regimen of life as a cog in the annihilating machine of Empire? And how do you destroy an enemy who, like the devil, has a mortal form but an eternal soul? As the tension mounts and the challenges begin to seem insurmountable, Alan Reece comes to think of what’s happening to him as a cruel joke: “Once more, he berated the vagaries of fate that had turned him into a spiritual super-hero, with powers that were precisely no help whatsoever…” As Lovecraft once famously noted: “The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.” Readers of this engaging and well-wrought novel will certainly find themselves nodding in affirmation.

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