I am a huge fan of Christopher Priestley, having read all three volumes of his Tales of Terror Series, and as part of RIP VI his excellent ghost story Dead of Winter (reviewed here), a real gem. So as soon as I found out that Mister Creecher was being issued I had to get a copy and it hasn’t lingered long on the TBR pile.
So it is 1818, and we meet Billy, on the streets, ill, and turned into a pickpocket after running away from the chimney sweeper who treated him cruelly. He stumbles across an enormous man, apparently dead, lying in a side street, but as he is about to rob the body he is accosted by members of a street gang. But before they can beat him, the mysterious body rises from the ground and does them serious damage. And so we meet Mister Creecher, and his relationship with Billy begins.
Mr C looks after Billy during his illness and they form something of a bond, though Billy is very aware of the strangeness of his new companion and in exchange for food, shelter and some assistance in frightening potential robbery victims into parting with their valuables, Billy simply has to follow one man around London. But that man happens to be Victor Frankenstein.
This is a wonderfully different telling of part of the Frankenstein story. The creature is a compelling character, a mix of intelligence, brawn and childish desires, especially for the mate that Frankenstein has promised him. His recognition of his otherness is both touching and sad, and his desire to not be the only one of his kind, while filling Billy with horror, is the driver that moves him on.
But it is Billy who is really the heart of the story, as he works his way from street urchin to more sophisticated criminal before the events that will turn him into a character that some of us will know from another famous 19th century novel. There are clues to Billy’s identity for those that want to see them, but I’m not going to give it away here as it is part of the impact of the novel.
There are some lovely literary references and in-jokes which I found really enjoyable, and some real historical figures popping up here and there, most notably the Shelleys. Priestley paints a really effective picture of London at the time and what it was like to be an outcast child with no hope other than the workhouse or the type of hard manual labour which we would consider abuse today.
I have to confess that I haven’t read either of the novels from which the main characters are drawn, a bit surprising in relation to Frankenstein given my love of things gothic but I tried once when I was a teenager, and found it really hard going in comparison to Dracula.
But this is an excellent, creepy, atmospheric story which has made me consider giving Frankenstein another chance.