The Countenance Divine - Michael Hughes
The Countenance Divine - Michael Hughes ****
It might look as if western society is heading towards meltdown and that global catastrophe is imminent, but in his highly imaginative first novel, The Countenance Divine, Michael Hughes draws together some figures and events in history that suggest that we've only narrowly avoided a far greater threat at several significant points over the last 300 years - A Second Coming heralding the Final Days. That has all the potential to be a great subject if you can pull it off successfully, and Hughes just about manages to find a good balance between the overwrought gothic horror and the shocking danger of the apparently ordinary and mundane.
The central idea has a compelling symmetry to it, one that feels authentic and not at all arbitrary. The Divine Countenance interweaves four different historical periods, the first starting in 1666 (now there's a year with an interesting number to start the apocalypse) and the last in 1999. In 1666 John Milton is writing his epic poem, Paradise Lost, the blind poet drawing inspiration from another reality, his ideas and beliefs disputed by acquaintances. His assistant Thomas Allgood has been searching for such an understanding all his life, occasionally getting tantalising glimpses of something greater, but he has been hired by some sinister agency that wants to monitor Milton's progress.
The spirit of Milton persists through to the next significant historical date, 1777, where engraver William Blake lives daily with strange visions and apparitions who likewise guide him to a view of a world that lies outside the one seen by ordinary people. Having acquired a rib from the desecrated grave of Milton and directed by an angel in a golden mask, Blake attempts to fashion a living model of Milton that will direct his visions and help bring them to whatever end he is being led towards.
In 1888, a madman prowls the streets of Whitechapel, cutting up prostitutes on the orders of his 'master', recounting his actions and his ultimate purpose in letters written 'From Hell'. In 1999, the danger that could be caused by the Millennium Bug seems comparatively minor, but there has been a confluence of events in the London of each of those previous centuries, and it's starting to weigh heavily on Chris, a young man who has been hired by a small company to update computer systems that are in danger of failing at the end of the millennium.
The blending of different stories with different writing techniques, all of them hinting at a bigger picture with an epic apocalyptic denouement, does have more than a little David Mitchell about it. The search for mystical forces connecting William Blake and Jack the Ripper is also ground that as been covered in From Hell, (the graphic novel is even referenced here), and the grand style of the writing, the ideas and the sheer ambition of the task is closer to that of Alan Moore. The Countenance Divine doesn't perhaps show enough originality of its own in either respect, but the way that Michael Hughes connects everything together is ultimately persuasive and fascinating.
It's the bigger picture that matters, and the way that Hughes interweaves the stories, adopts the different 'voices' and gradually reveals the darker intentions behind each of the main characters, that allows The Countenance Divine to build itself a compelling alternative reality from the one we are familiar with. The visions of apocalypse all clearly indicate where we are headed, but whether it is angels or demons who will prevail is by no means clear until the end, and even then...
There is one clue in the names of two of the characters in what becomes the most significant time period that you would think would be a blindingly obvious clue from early on, and I kicked myself when it only struck me the day after finishing the book. It's a measure of the writing and in how it all comes together however that Hughes manages to get away with hiding the most blatant clue in the commonplace and surrounding it with the Gothic. Which is perhaps why when the last day does come we'll never see it until it is far too late. And that rings true.
The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes is published by John Murray on 10th August 2016.