“Time of the Beast”: The Hermit Guthlac Revised

“Time of the Beast” by Geoff Smith review – monks, monsters and mouldy bread
An impressive debut in which the Fens make the perfect eerie backdrop for a dark ages whodunnit based on a true story.
Time of the beast
Geoff Smith “The Time of the Beast” [Dedalus, 2014]

“Sometimes, as a critic, it is wise to remember the words of William Burroughs, who said that the book reviewer had two jobs: to ask what is this book trying to do? And does it succeed? And so to “Time of the Beast”. What it is trying to do is (a) give you the willies and (b) imagine, plausibly, what life was like in Britain in the dark ages. And it does these things very well. Remarkably so, considering that this is Smith’s first novel. He is interested in Anglo-Saxon history and horror stories, and these interests have entwined themselves together mesmerisingly.

The narrator is a monk called Athwold, who, troubled by internal conflicts, goes off to the remotest part of the Fens that he can reach in order to become a hermit and reconcile himself to God. You should bear in mind that at that time the Fens were a long way from civilisation, a barely passable wilderness where ancient pagan beliefs still held sway. They were the abode of outlaws, a liminal place of fetid swamps and will-o’the-wisps – then a phenomenon that could not be explained rationally. The Fens had not been drained – the Romans had tried in vain – and were considerably bigger than they are now. They were the armpit of the country, to put it politely. Wherein, of course, lies their appeal for the self-denying monk.
Athwold, though, has other problems: not only is there a comely British lass who tempts him by swimming in a creek by his hovel, but he also discovers that there is a monster abroad – possibly a demon – who doesn’t just kill his victims, he savagely crushes them and gouges out their flesh. Oh, and did I mention the year? It’s 666 AD.
So far, I can count two approaches to the dark ages that have attracted my attention. One is to do what Umberto Eco did in “The Name of the Rose”, and use them as the backdrop to a clever, gussied-up detective story.
The other is not to gussy it up at all. (Think of Brother Cadfael.) This – the urge to use the times as a backdrop to death – seems like a natural impulse: we know instinctively that the dark ages were grim, and that death stalked the land rather more energetically than it does today. There’s some excellent gallows humour at one point in the book when a group of travellers comes across a grotesquely crow-pecked corpse hanging from a tree, and one of them beams (“beam” is the verb used): “Ah! Civilisation!”

Smith’s twist is that he has chosen to set his tale at a time when Christianity and paganism were still battling it out; and, just as the Fens themselves ambiguously have the characteristics of both land and sea, so the people here are subject to the tidal pulls of both the ancient and the modern religions. Athwold, who goes on a quest with a warrior monk called Cadroc to find the monster terrorising the region, would like to assure people that pagan beliefs are superstitions; and yet all too often has to confront his own real terror of that which his church cannot explain or account for.

You might think that all this is laid on a bit thick, but the book is based on the true story of Saint Guthlac, who at around this time went off to the Fens to be a hermit himself.
Like Athwold, he was assailed by demonic visions; Smith, following one plausible historical interpretation, puts these down to ergot-derived hallucinations from eating mouldy bread.
It’s Smith’s knowledge of the time that makes his story so believable, so immersive; there isn’t anything here that seems out of kilter. The concept of native British shamans is beguiling (be prepared for a bit of church-bashing as the ministers of the new religion shudder at the notion of people enjoying themselves: every pleasure is a temptation from Satan), as is the notion of pockets of the country where its original inhabitants still lurk – along with people who are even more weird and ancient than them (the last Neanderthals, it is hinted at). In short, you’re transported back in time, and it’s the kind of book you might find yourself wishing were longer.”
Nicholas Lezard in “The Guardian”, Tuesday 19 August 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/19/time-of-the-beast-geoff-smith-review-monks-monsters-mouldy-bread


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