The Bedlam Stacks is an engrossing tale that tends to get caught up in its own details, losing sight of the overarching plot and being dazzled by its own fantastical elements.
Many an author has ventured into the darkest reaches of the South American rainforests and found themselves lost in a jungle of cliché and predictable plot devices. Fewer chose to base their narrative in part on factual elements and then add layer upon layer of the fantastical. The closest reference point to Natasha Pulley’s Peruvian jungle adventure, The Bedlam Stacks, is J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World. Both find their protagonists on foreign soil facing the unnatural in nature and a culture far removed from their own. To a lesser degree, The Crystal World also features a character who happens to be a priest (albeit an apostate priest), while The Bedlam Stacks main plot revolves around a mysterious priest who experiences equally mysterious losses of time.
Where Ballard’s characters faced both leprosy and the crystallization of everything in the path of the strange, apocalyptic phenomenon, Pulley’s find themselves in a land of luminescent pollen, explosive pines, glass rocks, living statues and a potentially cautionary dividing line both real and implied between the world of those viewed as defective and deformed and the godlier, more normally formed individuals. It is in this remote Andean village that former opium smuggler Merrick Tremayne finds a world inextricably linked with his own familial lineage. It’s a mystery that has its roots as much in the Peruvian jungle as it does the Cornwall countryside.
Having suffered a debilitating leg wound while working for the East India Company, Tremayne is forced to return to his family’s crumbling estate to live with his disabled and cantankerous older brother. Here he encounters the aforementioned exploding wood in the form of a transplanted tree that lies on the property as well as a statue that gives the impression of having moved under its own power. Out of their cultural context – that being the titular Amazonian village of Bedlam – these occurrences transcend the fantastical and border on the impossible. Yet Tremayne soon finds that, after having been persuaded by his friend, Sir Clements Markham (an actual historical figure, albeit with a drastically different outcome), to steal cuttings of the cinchona trees to aid in the production of quinine, these strange occurrences have a natural, holy element within the community of Bedlam.
It is here that they both meet Raphael, a mysterious priest who may or may not be hundreds of years old and may or may not have been friends with Tremayne’s grandfather several generations prior. Raphael is reticent and reserved, though immediately sees through the pretense of the pair’s barely-concealed coffee finding expedition. Recognizing what it is they are truly after, he warns Tremayne (in English) that he is treading on dangerous ground attempting to reach the cinchona forests. This begins a bond that grows throughout the remainder of the novel, built, we soon find, on the affectionate relationship between Raphael and Tremayne’s grandfather.
As a priest for the area, Raphael was chosen because of his special qualities, qualities that allow him to live for an impossible amount of time, albeit with a rather grave sacrifice. Losing time in the pollen-shrouded woods, Raphael essentially freezes for anywhere from a few minutes to a few decades at a time. It’s all part of the life of a priest in Bedlam, one that ultimately leads to an end in which the priest becomes one with the living rock surrounding the area. Without giving too much of the plot away, Raphael is slowly becoming one of the stone markayuq or statues that serve as guardians of the area. It’s a troubling revelation as much for Tremayne as it is for Raphael as they band together in an attempt to reach the cinchona forests while avoiding another markayuq hell bent on preventing the duo from traversing the forest.
Part Victorian adventure yarn, part weird fiction, The Bedlam Stacks is an engrossing tale that tends to get caught up in its own details, losing sight of the overarching plot and being dazzled by its own fantastical elements. This is a minor quibble with an otherwise enjoyable story of seeing versus believing deep in the heart of the Amazon. Pulley’s lush prose is a joy to read and makes even the more outré, meandering passages captivating. Expertly melding fact, fiction and fantasy, The Bedlam Stacks is as appealing as it is imaginative.