[Please note that the publisher sent me a review copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review]
I’ve only recently discovered author Jon Black, but he’s rapidly become one of my favourite writers in the Horror genre as I’ve read more and more of his work. He specialises in Supernatural and Cosmic Horror, and I’ve been deeply impressed by his command of language, his ability to generate incredibly detailed and engaging period atmospheres, and the way in which he so effortlessly creates a low-key but overbearing sense of wrongness in his stories. His novellas Totmann’s Curve (In 18thWall Productions’ excellent Sockhops and Seances anthology) and The Green Muse (published in The Chromatic Court, also by 18thWall) captivated me each time that I read them, generating feelings of unease and quiet, unsettled horror while also being completely engrossing in terms of the stories being told within their pages. Mr Black has therefore been high on my list of authors to follow when new titles are published, and I was pleased to see that he had a new supernatural thriller/mystery title coming out from 18thWall Productions. An expansion of a previous award-winning short story, Gabriel’s Trumpet is set in late 1920s America, and follows an investigator for the Boston Society for Psychical Research as he investigates the case of the titular Gabriel, an incredibly-talented Jazz Trumpet player who has seemingly come back from the dead with even greater musical abilities than he possessed prior to this death. The back-cover blurb intrigued me – followers of this blog will know I have a soft spot for Occult Detective stories, such as the brilliant Royal Occultist series by Josh Reynolds – and the gorgeously ethereal cover art by Barbara Sobczynska only drew me in further.
As with his other works, the first thing that struck me upon opening up Gabriel’s Trumpetis Mr Black’s inherent ability to create an atmosphere contemporary to the period he’s writing about; you instantly feel like you’re in 1920’s New York, listening to soul-electrifying Jazz music in a dance hall. Black has a real knack for writing and portraying music, giving it a presence and solidity that I don’t know I’ve come across before in any fiction I’ve read – Horror genre or otherwise. It laces the entire novel, a vital strand of the plot and always propelling the narrative forward in one way or another, and it’s obvious that the author has a real passion for the music of the period, especially in regards to Jazz. It contributes to the ethereal, dream-like quality that forms the base of the novel, and is part of what makes Gabriel’s Trumpet such a triumph. The rich, textured atmosphere that Black invokes just makes the opening chapter that much more shocking when someone is violently and suddenly gunned down while performing, and we’re then pulled back in time a few months to see how this all unfolded.
While Gabriel Gibbs – the titular Trumpeter – is the key focus of the plot, the protagonist is Dr Marcus Roads, physician and part-time investigator for the Boston Society for Psychical Research, who ask him to investigate whether Gibbs really did come back as a revenant with even greater musical skills. It’s a standard hook of the occult detective subgenre, but I was certain that Black would do more with it than the usual genre tropes; and he immediately proved me right by portraying the world of psychic research societies, celebrity investigators, East-Coast patrician snobbery and layers of class and racial prejudice. Although Roads works for the BSPR, he – and the society – once worked as part of the American Society for Psychical Research before there was a factional split over whether science or faith should be the basis for investigation. Roads and his colleagues in the BSPR fervently believe in the need for rational, scientific-based investigation of supposed psychic events, and are therefore constantly in conflict with the ASPR, who have also set their own investigator on the trail of the resurrected Trumpeter. Not only does it add an element of conflict to the overarching plot of the novel, the Cold War/Civil War between the two societies gives Black another way to delve into the core of American society just on the cusp of the Great Depression and explore the conflicts bubbling just below the surface
Although one element of the plot of Gabriel’s Trumpet is about the journey Roads physically makes through the Deep South investigating the mysterious musicians past, a key part of the plot is the journey that Roads himself makes as he is forced to confront the uncomfortable truths and realities that Gabriel Gibb’s life, death and apparent resurrection tells us about the state of America in the 1920s. Marcus is a well-educated, intelligent and fairly accomplished white physician who acts as a psychic investigator, but there’s a subtext that until the Gibbs case comes along, he’s been fairly isolated in an East-Coast society ‘bubble’; and although there are significant class-based biases at work in the ASPR that lead to him being sneered at and condescended to, it isn’t until he travels to distant Mississippi that he comes to understand the deep divisions that cut through the United States.
Smartly, Black doesn’t have Marcus travel to New York immediately to confront Gibbs and determine who he actually is. Instead Black has the tension slowly but surely ramp up, and that fantastic period atmosphere further strengthened, by having Marcus travel to Mississippi and New Orleans to investigate the player’s childhood and early career, and especially where he was murdered. Here, Black deftly and confidently evokes the atmosphere of early 20th Century Mississippi, deep in the American South: the intense heat, the racism and segregation, the landed gentry and money that enforces the racism, and the black sharecroppers and families struggling to survive and prosper in these conditions. The chapters set in Mississippi and then New Orleans are the best parts of the novel, as Roads investigates and comes to understand the complex, layered social structures that exist in this part of the country.
Music again plays a key part in these structures, as we see how ‘Church music’ plays a crucial role in supporting African-American society but also constricting it; and then how the new, secular, ‘Worldly music’ that Gibbs becomes fascinated by threatens to break that role and provide a form of liberation outside of organised religion centred around the church and preacher. The atmosphere in Gabriel’s Trumpet really is amazing, with subtle and engaging details on nearly every page; for example, the contents of the copy of Journal of the American Medical Association that Marcus reads on his train journey, giving us an insight into the latest medical theories of the day, and thereby drawing us further into the time period itself. Or the digressions into the rapidly-evolving musical scene, with Jazz expanding to become a major form of music, and becoming something that liberates people in a different way to the music of the Church.
As to the mystery of Gibbs itself, Black smoothly roles it out, with clues and pieces of evidence appearing organically as his investigation progresses through the Deep South and then northwards. There are never any instances where something is crowbarred in for the sake of moving the plot forward, which I appreciated. The central mystery is aided by the fact that while Roads is a skeptic, his medical career has allowed him to see enough things that he can’t quite explain; which in turn makes him more eager to explore occult and supernatural events such as Gibbs apparently coming back from the dead. There are indeed things that Roads witnesses – and even participates in – that he cannot very well explain, or which strain the credulity of this educated man, and supernatural and even covertly Lovecraftian elements make their appearance. But for the latter, I appreciated that they remained teasers and not a major plot point, as there are enough back-water cliched Lovecraftian tales to be getting on with in the genre. There’s just enough ambiguity to make events seem vaguely plausible as earth-bound, human events, avoiding trope-y pitfalls while cunningly keeping it open for the possibility of a future story or setting. Things are hinted at, rather than confirmed, and that ambiguity makes the central story often sinister and distinctly unsettling.
There is a huge amount that I’ve cut out of this review, and in the future I think I’d like to do a more detailed examination of Gabriel’s Trumpet because there’s so much I haven’t been able to talk about – the rich characterisation, the true history behind the ASPR-BSPR conflict that snakes through the plot, and the way that the settings themselves come to life as distinctive characters themselves. But to keep from rambling on for too long, I’ll come to a close by stating that Gabriel’s Trumpet is an incredibly polished and deeply accomplished supernatural mystery novel that I had an absolute blast reading, finishing it in just a few days. It features rich, smooth, Jazz-like language that engages and captivates, appealing protagonists and antagonists, and a central mystery that is deeply and often gleefully ambiguous about its central tenets; and not to forget the racially and class-charged atmosphere of America on the cusp of the Great Depression, intertwining supernatural chills with the far more horrifying and very human atrocities and discrimination taking place in the USA at the time. All of this – and far, far more – make Gabriel’s Trumpet a triumph for both Jon Black and 18thWall Productions.