What is love?
One evening at the Suicide Club three gentlemen discuss this age-old problem, and thus a wager is made. Dissolute fop Sheremy Pantomile, veteran philosopher Kornukope Wetherbee and down-on-his-luck Velvene Orchardtide all bet their fortunes on finding the answer amidst the dark alleys of a phantasmagorical Edwardian London.
But then, overnight, London Town is covered in hair. How the trio of adventurers cope with this unusual plague, and what conclusions they come to regarding love is the subject of this surreal and fast-paced novel.
And always the East End threatens revolution…
A short film about Hairy London here.
Jonathan Laidlow: “… In the end I was left wanting more. Palmer has written a short story, Xana-La, in the same setting as Hairy London and it is available for a modest sum as an ebook, but I hope he returns to the Suicide Club, perhaps further into the twentieth century, so we can see his funhouse mirror image of that period.”
K O’B: “I suppose the acid test questions are: did I feel I wasted my money buying this book? No.
Would I read another Stephen Palmer novel? Indubitably, my dear chap, indubitably.”
CR: “This is a novel of an alternate-reality London…or a parody of the Victorian era…or a Monty Python-ish lampooning of the people and history of that time and place…or, well, it’s many things–but mainly it is an incredibly clever, and fun novel. I honestly cannot remember the last time I have smiled or laughed so much while reading a book; there are so many funny, clever lines…and settings…and characters. The use of real people from our own history who are skewed into similar, though horribly warped, individuals by Mr. Palmer is brilliant…you will be amazed at how people you thought you knew so well can, by just the slightest twisting of their personal stories, become fiends you never could have imagined them to be (M. Ghandi is the perfect example!). And the wonderfully loopy technology of the world is another lovely bonus.
I learned a lot about London from this book, I think. I learned about the stiff upper lip of the British. I think I even learned a fair bit about Love from the book (the framework of the story involves a search by several individuals for the true meaning of Love). I highly recommend this fun, engaging novel.”
Triple L: “Hairy London was a real page turner and I found it difficult to put down. I really enjoyed how the characters developed in the story and looked forward to the next part of their adventures and journeys. The book had a Steampunkesque setting and the language used, matched that perfectly. I thought the play on words was great when the author described different objects and areas. The story really had all that I look for in a book; adventure, suspense, a bit of romance and philosophy.”
N. Hystad: “Hairy London is a bizarre read, in all the right ways. Picture an Edwardian London, where vehicles fly, men have social clubs, and London is covered in hair. Three men search for the meaning of love as they look to win a wager but none expected the perils they would find on the way there. Enter the Marxist revolutionaries, visit with Freud and fly on the back of a gigantic eagle, this book has everything. I enjoyed every page of this book as the action stayed strong and the individual adventures, although over the top, were just so much fun. I hope anyone reading this will give this a try. And this being the first Palmer I’ve read, I know I’ll be back for more. Sometimes it takes a hair covered city on the brink of civil war, to make people really realize what is important to them.”
Full review from Gary Dalkin in ‘Amazing Stories’: “One evening in the early 20th century three gentlemen meet in their London club. They agree to a wager: “If one season from today, one of us returns to the Suicide Club with an explanation of human love that mankind – from East to West – can accept, they will take the pot.” Fortunes are on the line. It is an opening which recalls Jules Verne’s Around The World in Eighty Days. A great quest and a deadline.
But this is no regular imperial adventure. From the title onwards Hairy London is something stranger. Stephen Palmer’s novel is not set in our past, though it reflects it, and it is not set in an historically plausible alternate or parallel universe. The Suicide Club may be a version of the Royal Geographical Society, but it functions within a surrealist fable in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll; for even before our adventurers set about their search for an explanation as to the nature of love, London itself is subsumed by a plague of hair. Naturally this plunges the capital into crisis, and dire need for an explanation and resolution to the phenomena. And the quests to save the city and the enquiries into the nature of love become entangled as London heads into chaos, revolt and civil war.
That Hairy London isn’t a regular sort of tale of daring do might be gathered from the names of our heroes. Sheremy Pantomile, Velvene Orchardtide and Kornukope Wetherbee – though one might argue they are little more peculiar than Phileas Fogg. Sheremy is the Victorian / Edwardian archetype of a hero, a good-natured young man of independent means. He soon meets the beautiful, capable, and unchaperoned Valantina Moondusst, and not only begins to develop feelings, but to realise with surprise and delight that the female of the species is the equal of any male. Velvene, a somewhat irresponsible young chap has been living comfortably in his parents’ home, his lifestyle entirely funded by the bank of mum and dad. The wager coincides with his parents finally having had enough, leaving him no choice but to make his way in the phantasmagorical city. Kornukope is an older chap, fallen into a comfortable domestic life with his wife of twenty years, Eastachia. He only agrees to join the quest if Eastachia can be his companion, that together they might renew the spark of their marriage as they investigate the nature of love.
Stephen Palmer is a British writer. He is not well known in America. If you search for him on Amazon.com you will find that Amazon has a Stephen Palmer page which will tell you that Stephen Palmer is the ‘co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, a freelance book writer, and the author of “Uncommon Sense: A Common Citizen’s Guide to Rebuilding America.”’ – this is not the Stephen Palmer you are looking for.
Our Stephen Palmer is a lot more interesting. His fiction tends to focus on societies and worlds undergoing radical transformation, often botanical or biochemical in nature. His writing can blur the boundaries between the biochemical, the technological and the computational. See for instance his first two novels, the remarkable Memory Seed and Glass, or his lengthy story ‘Palestinian Sweets’ in the new anthology, La Femme (which I recently reviewed). This blurring can make Palmer’s work is a little difficult to access, plunging the reader directly into a world radically different to ours where everything must be decoded from context. But Hairy London is strange even by Palmer’s standards. Certainly it is another of his tales of a city transformed, but this time the city is already of the most fantastical nature even before the oddest of transformations begins.
What Palmer has done is craft a gonzo homage to the late Victorian / Edwardian British adventure yarn, with an added dash of left-leaning commentary. Think of Dickens, Wells, Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (complete with that novel’s concern for society’s exploited and an escape sequence through a chimney). But then add dashes of Spike Milligan and The Goons, Monty Python and The Goodies. Indeed, the Goodies might be the perfect template; three London chaps each bring their own approach to a mad quest and various threats facing the city. Or if you are not familiar with The Goodies, imagine Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ Ripping Yarns doing a Steampunk episode with a large helping of early 70s British prog-rock psychedelia, some very peculiar flying machinora, and a chocolate train.
Amid the madness Palmer gives the reader a solid structure to anchor everything, following each of his heroes in turn as they get in and out of sticky situations. Nevertheless, what happens is rather freeform. There is little conventional story development. This is a book in which one suspects anything can happen, and by the end probably will. The tale unfolds through variously inventive and sometimes amusing set-pieces and is essentially episodic, and again to that degree reflects Swift and Carroll, Gulliver’s and Alice’s adventures. The anything can happen sensibility does also lead to a feeling that it doesn’t really matter what does. To which end, depending on taste, at 354 pages Hairy London might outstay its welcome. I do wonder if it would work better were a bit shorter.
And yet within this Ripping Yarns-on-acid lunacy there is a serious exploration of themes of racism and exploitation, a dissection of attitudes which simply took prejudice as the default. There is a boldness echoing the New Wave experimentalism of British SF of the 1960s. Bold to the extent that elements of the depiction of racism may prove controversial, not least some historically accurate language, but in the monstrous character of Gandy, Gandhi distorted through the worst fears of white upper-class early 20th century inhabitants of the British Empire.
All that said, Hairy London is an entertainment rather than a tract, a playful romp through the icons of a century past. Along with ‘Gandy’, Freud, Jung, Marx and others are co-opted in supporting roles, and the darker depictions of exploitation and prejudice are ultimately counterbalanced by three different understandings of the nature of love.
Stephen Palmer is a writer you should read. His work is unique, original, sometimes challenging, always fresh and sometimes barking. I’m not necessarily going to suggest you should start reading him with Hairy London. It is a novel which may prove an acquired taste. Some readers will love it, some hate it. I suspect the majority won’t quite know what to think, and I admit that I’m somewhere in that group. Not that I suggest you don’t read it. Make up your own mind. Hairy London is a strange, mad, subversive and possibly just a little bit dangerous. You won’t have encountered a vision of London like it.”
CinnamonHopes at Goodreads: “Silly steampunk fun! This novel follows a group of erstwhile adventurers as they attempt to win a bet revolving around the solution of what love is. In the meantime. London has grown literal hair, and hijinx abound.”
Tim James at Goodreads: “On the face of it then, it could be a ridiculous book, but Palmer is a much more talented author than that, and it is filled with thought provoking ideas, and themes. It looks at politics, the nature of war, of peace, of parenthood, of rich and poor, of self discovery and. of course the nature of love.
He is also able to draw in religion and faith, psychology and political movements and the battle for independence not to mention a rather vicious Gandhi and Jack the Ripper, all without making the book seem crammed.
Thought-provoking and a lot of fun, it has everything a solid, different novel should have.”
Canadabookguy at amazon.com: “Hairy London is a bizarre read, in all the right ways. Picture an Edwardian London, where vehicles fly, men have social clubs, and London is covered in hair. Three men search for the meaning of love as they look to win a wager but none expected the perils they would find on the way there. Enter the Marxist revolutionaries, visit with Freud and fly on the back of a gigantic eagle, this book has everything.
I enjoyed every page of this book as the action stayed strong and the individual adventures, although over the top, were just so much fun.
I hope anyone reading this will give this a try. And this being the first Palmer I’ve read, I know I’ll be back for more.
Sometimes it takes a hair covered city on the brink of civil war, to make people really realize what is important to them.”
So… they made a podcast of this novel.