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The Late Review: Time of the Beast

30th Aug, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Published in trade paperback by Dedalus in 2014, Time of the Beast is the first and, so far as I can discover, only novel by Geoff Smith, inspired by the author's 'longstanding interest in Anglo-Saxon history and literature, along with a fondness for classic horror stories'.

The year is 666AD and after a dispute with the other monks Athwold leaves his monastery to live as a hermit in the Fens and meditate on his spiritual relationship to God in the hope of resolving doubts that he has. No sooner has he set up house on an isolated island than the maid Ailisa befriends him and Athwold feels compelled to tell her to stay away as he feels a burgeoning attraction to her, only before he can do so he is attacked by a group of bandits, but a monster comes to save him. He is found by Brother Cadroc, a warrior monk who has been sent to slay a monster terrorising the people of the Fens and thus reaffirm the superiority of the Church over pagan beliefs. Athwold feels that God wants him to join Cadroc and his guide Aelfric in pursuit of the monster. Along the way they are joined by the outcast warrior Cynewulf, who has had a previous encounter with both Cadroc and the monster, and who believes the latter to be the spirit of his cursed brother. The final member of this rag tag fellowship is the shaman Taeppa.

Time of the Beast is a horror story, but one with a lot of depth and related concerns to which the fright elements mostly play second fiddle. There are several stories within stories here, with Cadroc, Aelfric, and Cynewulf all giving their own version of encounters with the monster. Cynewulf's in particular is an elaborate, several chapters long biography, which tells of how prophesy can become a curse and give rise to hatred between parent and child. Athwold also has his own stories to tell, of how his support for the Irish church led him to conflict in the monastery and of an encounter with a dying noblewoman who laments the passing of pagan beliefs. Athwold is, in a sense, the Candide of the story, a man who always wants to accept the best in other people and who is fair minded, with a touch of reality needed to bring him to a realisation of how the world actually works. Smith's vivid prose, verging on the breathless at times, brings the story and setting to life. The desolate atmosphere of the Fens, with brooding horizons and stinking, miasmic air, endless mud sinks and sparse vegetation is brilliantly realised on the page. Similarly the religious conflicts of the time, with paganism in retreat from the implacable Catholic church, are put over well. This crisis of faith is embodied in Athwold, who from a staunch believer in Christ comes to see that there is value in the old ways, while repelled by the militant nature of the Church, its unwillingness to brook any kind of resistance or disagreement. The other side of the equation is represented by Taeppa, with his belief that there is a guiding spirit in nature and the land itself. The scenes with the monster are handled well with appropriate bloodletting and scares, while aspects of the story reminded me of The Brotherhood of the Wolf and laid the groundwork for an end twist that I didn't see coming and which I found extremely gratifying. Time of the Beast is a book that entertains while at the same time giving the reader much to think about. I recommend it.





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