Sunday 2 April 2023

Marc Joan on Hangdog Souls

UK-based Marc Joan spent the early part of his life in India, and the early part of his career in biomedical research. He draws on this and other experience for his fiction, which has been widely published. His novelette, The Speckled God, was published by Unsung Stories in Feb 2017; he is a contributor to three forthcoming anthologies: Comma Press’s Mirror in the Mirror; Ceci n’est pas une histoire d’horreur, from Night Terror Novels; Ghost Stories for Starless Nights from DBND publishing. His first novel, Hangdog Souls, was published last year.

Kingdom of Mysore, 1799. A guilt-racked British Army deserter tries to win safety for those he loves — but his reckless bargaining only leaves him trapped between destinies, condemned to facilitate centuries of suicide and murder. Death after death, each death diminishes him, until — a quarter of a millennium later — a Keralan astrophysicist has the chance to annul the soldier’s Faustian bargain. But Chandy John is weakened by his own burden of grief. Will this twenty-first century scientist become just another helpless nexus between undeserved death and undeserved life?

Hangdog Souls is set in the Dravidian heartlands of South India — and in a blurred edgeland where alternative realities elide. Through linked narratives of guilt, shame and the search for absolution, this book takes readers from the arid Tamil plains to the highest peaks of the Nilgiris, and from occult horrors in Tipu Sultan’s kingdom to creeping madness in the world of particle physics.

Spanning three hundred years, the stories in Hangdog Souls weave together the fates and fortunes of multiple characters — individuals that echo through the generations, asking always the same question: What weight can balance the death of an innocent?

Here Marc talks to Asian Books Blog…

What kind of book is Hangdog Souls?

It’s a little hard to categorise – reviewers tend to use expressions like ‘idiosyncratic’ and ‘highly original’ (in a good way, I hope!). If I had to pigeonhole it, I would call it literary Gothic or literary horror, probably with the emphasis on ‘literary’. Briefly, it is a novel-in-stories set in South India over a period of nearly three hundred years from the past to the near future (late 1700s to ~2070). It can be read on different levels, according to what kind of reader you are or what mood you are in. On one level, it is a set of more-or-less standalone stories and novellas that one can dip into at will. On another level, readers may enjoy the links between the stories; some of these echoes are rather subtle, others more obvious. And finally, some readers may appreciate the higher-level narrative that runs through the entire set of stories, and which deals with themes such as guilt, shame and, eventually, absolution, of a sort. Readers unfamiliar with India may not catch all of the allusions in Hangdog Souls, but even so I hope there is something here for everyone who likes a little literary Gothic. It is a dark book, but offers some light in suggesting that the blackest memories may eventually be buried and a new life embraced.

How did you come to write it?

I was brought up in South India; I was there fairly continuously from about two weeks of age to about twelve years old. Thereafter I returned to India during holidays until the age of twenty-one. Thus, India was the backdrop and intimate milieu for my most formative years. It was therefore inevitable that Indian themes and settings would emerge in some of my writing. But even if this had not spontaneously happened - as it did - I think I would have consciously decided to use South Indian settings for Gothic-influenced stories, because I believe such settings remain insufficiently appreciated. The sub-continent’s geography, architecture, history and fauna and flora are extraordinary and can combine to support equally extraordinary imagery and flights of the imagination; and South India in particular is crying out to be represented in sophisticated, ‘arty’ films and literature with a dark edge. One reviewer of Hangdog Souls, Prashanth Gopalan, put it like this: ‘To someone of South Indian descent raised at the intersection of Indian and Western cultures, it was refreshing to see elements of my cultural background expressed with verve, nuance, and inventiveness, without a heavy imprint of colonial moralism —and to encounter Lovecraftian-style horror expressed through a culture that has yet to be more widely explored by mainstream speculative fiction and fantasy writers’. In any case, I hope I’ve done my bit to nudge some readers towards an overdue recognition of this part of the world. 

What style did you go for? 

As the stories progress through time from the 1700s to ~2070, the style and English usage – and narrator – also change. For example, the opening story is written in the English of the late eighteenth century. 

And what's the substance of the book?

I will defer to Jerry Hogle, Professor Emeritus of English, University Distinguished Professor, University of Arizona, USA, who has said some lovely things about the book, including: “ [these stories] combine historical fiction, rooted in little-known (but genuine) facts, with the symbolic force of Gothic situations and atmospheres. This combination in Hangdog Souls bears comparison with the writings of Sir Walter Scott, albeit with a haunted and haunting series of visions quite different from his that finally reach towards an imagined future almost as much as a still-lurking past. While always connected to southern India, the settings, structures, and character mind-sets in all these tales are profoundly shadowy spaces drawn back towards a still-hovering antiquity that threatens to engulf them in darkness.”

The cover is interesting – what does it mean?

I wanted the cover to reflect key elements of the book and have an unmistakably South Indian flavour, and I was very fortunate that my publisher was open to this. The central feature of the cover, the dramatic face, is inspired by the kirtimukha of South Indian temples, not least the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. Briefly, the kirtimukha is a grotesque that occupies a niche similar to that of the gargoyle on European churches, being often placed high up, and sometimes being believed to ward off evil spirits. However, the kirtimukha has more of a mythological basis than the gargoyle; the story is that it represents an all-powerful, unstoppable fundamental force summoned by a god to battle a demon. The demon is utterly consumed by this elemental force; similarly, in Hangdog Souls, one of the characters tries to steal elemental energies for his own selfish ends, and ends up being annihilated. The two plants at the bottom of the cover are, respectively, Datura (moonflower, or thorn-apple) and eucalyptus. The former is well-known for its poisonous and hallucinogenic properties. The latter is widely grown as a commercial crop in South India, including in the Nilgiri Hills, which is where Hangdog Souls is mostly set. Eucalyptus is a particularly significant feature of the story — one of the protagonists steals eucalyptus seeds from Cook’s Endeavour on its return from Botany Bay and brings them to the Kingdom of Mysore in India, hoping thereby to make his fortune. Finally, the moon cycle in the cover art symbolises both astronomy and astrology, which surface repeatedly throughout the narrative; the parakeets also are intimately linked to astrology. 

What next?

There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, but if all goes to plan my second novel, set in Switzerland, should be published this year. 

Details: Hangdog Souls is published by Deixis Press (UK) in hardback, paperback and eBook, priced in local currencies.