BOOK REVIEW / Blood, chains and a verray parfit knight: An ancient evil - P C Doherty: Headline, pounds 15.99

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The Independent Culture
SPRING is on the way. Any minute now, sweet April showers will pierce droughty March and from every shire's end, novelists are off on pilgrimage. They head, of course, for the Tabard at Southwark, there to rake over the innocent dust of Geoffrey Chaucer, in search of fool's gold. An Ancient Evil is the latest example of this ludicrous sport.

Bring on Mine Host Harry, whose jovial oath, we shall be oft reminded, is 'by the cock'; wheel in the gap-toothed Wife of Bath and have her shift her broad bottom flirtatiously along the bench in response to Harry's compliment; make room for the loud-mouthed Miller and the yellow-haired Pardoner. Invite the solemn Knight to tell another story, not the soppy one about Palamon and Arcite, but a nighttime creepy, a 'tale of mystery that will chill the blood, halt the heart and curl the locks upon our heads'.

Are you sitting comfortably? Off we go.

On the outskirts of Oxford was a large and gloomy keep. In the labyrinth of passages beneath it, in a coffin bound with chains, slept the Dark Lord of the Strigoi, a vampire whom some men call Dracul. Above his dismal tomb was built a friary.

The curiosity of successive priors has disturbed the coffin, and evil has leaked out, but only when fresh blood is poured over it can the Dark Lord break free in this story. That is just what happens.

P C Doherty is quite at home in medieval Oxford. He knows that whenever an old friar is mentioned, his eyes are rheumy; when our hero catches sight of the comely damsel, he will, every single time, feel like a lovelorn squire; that the city streets are filled with priests mumbling prayers, slatterns in gaudy attire and beggars covered in rotting sores. Through this stinking sewer ride three avenging goodies - the knight, the anchoress and the clerk.

The knight is almost verray parfit, save for his infuriating habit of swearing by the Rood. The blind anchoress rides a sweet-natured palfrey but, like a Dalek, screeches 'Exterminate]' when arriving downwind of a Strigoi.

The clerk has physical reactions to the gruesome corpses and bloodfilled vats that litter his path. He gags a lot, he nearly faints - he nearly falls apart, only just 'catching his mouth in his hand'. It's quite a relief when, a page or two later, he 'pulls his face straight'.

But it's more than a reader can do. To read this with a straight face would be harder than eating a doughnut without licking your lips. However deep the gore splashes around the knees, however many corpses decorate ancient druidic oaks, however desperately Doherty piles on the runic curses, it's not frightening, not even momentarily convincing, just absurd.

Poor Chaucer. That master of subtlety, that genius who could create a character in two or three brilliant lines, is disgracefully abused, but that's not the worst of it. This dreadful tale is, we are told, only the first in a projected series. Buckle on your besmuttered habergeons. There is doubtless worse to come. By the cock.