Review: Island Life, William Meikle, 2013.
A Meikle tale about an ancient horror stalking a Scottish island, its inhabitants fending off cannibals with the few weapons at hand … didn’t I just review that?
Yes, I did. But while Ramskull from 2017 has a similar set up, a similar structure (contemporary chapters alternating with historical ones), and, if you squint your eyes just right and ignore a lot of detail, a similar theme and end, Island Life is not the same story. Like Ramskull, it’s not boring or predictable. Originally published in 2001 (though this edition has a copyright of 2013), this is Meikle’s first novel and not inferior to his latest work.
Meikle is fairly casual about introducing his many viewpoint characters. There’s Duncan McKenzie, a biologist doing research on declining fishing in the area. There’s Anne and Jim McTaggart, a couple of hippies who came to the island decades ago and who live with their daughter Meg. There’s Dick, a young assistant lighthouse keeper. There’s the obstreperous and abusive John Jefferies, local sheep rancher. Even his dog Sam gets some chapters.
They’ve all got their things going on at story’s beginning. Duncan finally gets to take Meg out on a date. Dick is very interested in the girls at the local archaeology dig. Anne is faced with suddenly being pregnant again at age 44. Jefferies is, as always, angry about something, this time some of his sheep being found dead.
Fear not, though, Meikle doesn’t make you sit through 100 or 80 or even 30 pages before the monster shows up. People start dying on page three. Despite the multiple viewpoint characters, this novel moves as fast as Ramskull with Meikle clever stitching a story together from multiple viewpoints that don’t describe the same events.
Meikle knows that there are other ways of using history in a horror story besides old books and haunted houses and curses. Sometimes you need something visceral, something with bone and blood.
Because it’s an early work, there are no bits of Meikle’s later mythology lying about – no Seton clan, none of his references to an ensnaring dance that can take you to another place, none of his Sigil and Totem ideas. There is a bit of Lovecraft at the end though.
In the islanders’ fight against Calent, an immortal Atlantean priest exiled to the island, and his degenerate tribe, we again have a Meikle story of people overcoming fear to protect those they love or have sworn to protect.
The fog shrouded island with its danger out of the depths of time actually put me in mind of a couple of movies also featuring old, hidden tribes threatening an isolated group: The 13th Warrior (and its source, Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead) and Bone Tomahawk. However, I have no idea if Meikle has ever read Crichton or seen the film from it, and the latter movie came after this novel.
Additional Thoughts with Spoilers
Unlike Ramskull’s surprising third act which moves from the island of Leita to the Scottish city of Oban, all the action here stays on the island. However, both novels end with the similar theme of familial love breaking the mental hold evil has over their loved ones. Here, Anna and Meg fuse into sort of the embodiment of the Neolithic goddess cult that opposes Calent’s Sky Father cult.
Christianity plays a role in this novel starting with St. Columba visiting the island once to put Calent down. But it is clear that Christianity only has power in so far as it draws from pagan roots.
Besides the deliberate evocation of Cthulhu by Calent, we see that he also shares the ability of that “god” to enter people’s dreams – here to demoralize them.
There is a great deal of affection between characters in this book. Duncan will risk his life – and battle his phobias – to save Meg and rescue Anne. Dick develops a great deal of love for his boss Tom who he comes to look on as a surrogate father. (Tom here plays the role of the wise old guy who warns people about impending danger on the island.) There’s Tom’s friends, a priest and policeman, who each, in their own way, try to deal with the murders of the island’s residents and visiting students. There’s even attempts to look out for the difficult Jefferies whom no one really likes.
The body count in this book may not surpass Ramskull, but the scenes where we come across the dead victims of Calent and his tribe are horrible and more memorable.