Reviewed: Plague City by Jonathan Morris

‘If these walls could talk…’

It’s a common phrase meant to connote some nefarious deed or unscrupulous behaviour that one strives to keep hidden – although, taken in its simplest form, it serves as a rather handy introduction to the idea of psychogeography.

At the most basic level of meaning, psychogeography is an acknowledgement that we, as human beings, impart our psyche, memories and folklore within the geography around us. Perhaps the most famous example being Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel From Hell, where Moore ties the arcane, architectural history of London – and the satanic patterns that lie beneath – to illustrate what Stephen King called the ‘final solution’ interpretation of Whitechapel serial killer Jack the Ripper. The ‘walls’ of this interpretation become imbibed with the terrible deeds that have occurred near or around them across all of time, forever marking those areas in a way that perhaps only plays on the sub-consciousness of those inhabiting them.

What’s so appealing about this admittedly very simplified view of psychogeography is that it allows us to physically imprint upon time itself. Time becomes a solid object that we chisel away at or add to depending on the nature of the incident and the location. Or as Moore himself put it, it’s the only form of geography that we can inhabit.

If nothing else perhaps it’s the reason why, when we visit what remains of places like Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, where, in 1645, the plague was particularly rife in a city that lost half its population to the infection, there’s still a palpable sense of dread in the air as though the unimaginable suffering had bled into the walls.

And it’s into the ‘streets of sorrow’ that the Doctor, Bill and Nardole must go…

The year is 1645, and Edinburgh is in the grip of the worst plague in its history. Nobody knows who will succumb next – no one except the Night Doctor, a masked figure that stalks the streets, seeking out those who will not live to see another day.

However, death isn’t as permanent as it used to be, as the Doctor discovers that the recently bereaved are being haunted by their lost loved ones – by ghost who don’t know that they are dead. Then there are other creatures, lurking in the shadows, slithering though the streets, looking to satiate an insatiable hunger…

Falling into the category of a modern historical episode with a sci-fi twist, the crowning centrepiece of Plague City is the location itself. Dilapidated houses made of wattle and daub fold in on themselves, blocking out the sunlight down narrow, cobbled streets; the gutters overflow with rainwater, washing a thin layer of oily grime down abandoned lanes; the palpable stench of rotting vegetables and decay fill the air. Its ghastly and evocative in a way a living tragedy might be.

And it’s the living part that provides the most interesting aspect of the novel. While the plot does hew a little too close to The Fires of Pompeii, with Isobel and Thomas, the recently bereaved parents haunted by the ghost of their departed daughter, filling in the role of the Caecilius’ family, the key difference is that the Doctor doesn’t arrive on ‘volcano day’ the metaphorically volcano has already erupted (although there’s a not-quite-as-metaphorical eruption towards the end of the novel). The choice isn’t who to save but how to alleviate the suffering of those who survived the initial infection. The question of why save one family over the other is never really raised, the ethical decision of who the Doctor decides to cure – even when he ‘Time Lords’ it over Bill and declares that there shall be no meddling in the fourth dimension, we know it won’t last – is more an act of instinctive compassion, rather than a drawn-out, handwringing conclusion and the book is better for it.

If psychogeography offers the storyteller anything it’s that ghost stories need not have ghosts to chill the readers blood. The very scene of the crime itself can provide a palpable sense of tension from mere suggestion alone. Somebody died here in a horrific way and, while fiction, with its artificial race-against-the-clock narratives rely upon our eternal hope and optimism to save victims, real life doesn’t always present such convenient ways to prevent anymore suffering.  Plague City, with its ghost of those departed in such a cruel manner (not even the real-life Night Doctor, with the beak of his mask filled with herbs to block out the smells that disturbed the humours, could save you – help was just as bigger a killer as the disease itself), suggests that the plague has disturbed the very city itself, that terror has bled into the walls, and while Nardole may have been more than keen to run back to the TARDIS, the Doctor, even if he knows the rules, cannot help but save one more soul and lessen the suffering of those tormented by the ghosts who return to the scene of their demise.

Due to the timing of the books release and the launch of Series 10, we’re given a great opportunity to see how each companion compares to their on-screen counterpart. Bill, retains a lot of her street smarts and sci-fi knowledge but the banter between her and the Doctor is missing (there are also several references to the canteen bins, which relies on an aspect of her character that doesn’t seem as important now as it did during the time the novel was being written– although it would be mean to mark the book down for a lack of prescience).

Then there’s Nardole who steals entire scenes with his mixture of stoicism and chummy disposition. We still don’t know all that much about Nardole, the de facto manservant of the guardian of the vault, but his no-nonsense attitude and not-exactly- unwavering loyalty towards the Doctor (Nardole is nothing if not honest), really mark him out as a welcome change to the regular companion.

The Twelfth Doctor, whether haranguing his companions for not noticing the obvious or discussing the various merits of the Indiana Jones franchise, retains a lot of the harshness while still feeling very much like the lighter, more at ease Doctor we’ve seen during the early episodes of Series 10.

Then there’s the Scottish accents, here spelt out phonetically in a trait reminiscent of the works of Irvine Welsh (now there’s a Venn diagram I’d like to see). It takes a little getting used to and sometimes feels a little forced but overall, it does enhance the experience.

The plot, while reliant on some familiar twist and turns of nuWho episodes, withholds its central mystery of the Night Doctor, ghosts, and some vividly imagined alien creatures, until every ounce of tension has been rung out of its premise.

Bursting with ideas and well-researched, Plague City overcomes some familiarity and a lack of banter between its leading characters, to tell a thoroughly entertaining, dark, atmospheric story about the nature of time travel and grief.

Doctor Who: Plague City by Jonathan Morris is available to buy now from Amazon for £5.59.