The Quintessence of August; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Review: The Quintessence of August: A Romance of Possession, Brian Stableford, 2011.

While Stableford’s Auguste Dupin stories are mostly independent of each other, it actually helps to have read the first one, “The Legacy of Erich Zann”, before this one to understand it fully.

Well, maybe not. I’m not sure I understood everything about it after one complete reading and another skimming.

But, then, even our unnamed narrator has to consult his journal from three years earlier to link things.

Unlike a lot of Stableford’s forays into weird fiction (at least the ones I’ve read by this prolific author), there isn’t a purely scientific element here.

The story concerns itself with music and the concept of the egregore.

That’s a concept with multiple meanings. It can be a sort of psychic vampire or a dead person who psychically feeds from the living or a consciousness built from individuals somehow psychically linked.

And this story seems to use all those permutations.

Dupin’s usual foil, Comte St. Germain, opens the book by asking for some help from the detective. An old Italian acquaintance of St. Germain tells him that he’s been hired to kill him. He desists out of gratitude for some past deeds of St. Germain. Not that it matters because the hired killer dies soon after.

Germain thinks that his life threatened because of a bequest an old man, Tommaso Angelotti, left him in Germain’s capacity as president of the Harmonic Society. Besides a sealed box, which he can’t open, St. Germain was left a cello and some music. The cello is unusual enough to have a name, the Guadagnini.

The scores are to be turned over to another composter who collaborated with Angelotti.

But when St. German and the narrator go to pick up the bequest, Angelotti’s housekeeper, Maddalena, supposedly a deaf mute, issues a garbled curse – or warning – about the egrigori, the evil eye.

Shortly after that, both men end up kidnapped and held in Paris’ catacombs. Their captors want two things: Maddalena’s location since she’s disappeared and the Guadagninni.

Their rescue will come in an unexpected form, and a tangle of events ensues that includes sinister musical techniques seemingly controlling minds and time, a secret Italian society, the opera Fra Diavolo, Chopin, the legend of the sirens, spies, and parasites of the mind.

If our limited consciousness shields us from the terror of ultimate reality, what power does music have to alter that consciousness?

We should be grateful, says August, for the “humble fragment of flesh . . . is all that separates every one of us from oblivion.” And here that oblivion is not just physical

It’s a bit like a Tim Powers’ fantasy but less focused on historical characters. And, as usual, I can say no more without spoiling the delights of Stableford’s orchestration.

As usual with Brian Stableford, Sally Startup offers another look at the book.

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