Review: “Mothlight” by Adam Scovell

I don’t know where he finds the time.

Adam Scovell is a film-maker, has just completed his PhD, writes articles for the BFI, runs the award-winning Celluloid Wicker Man blog, writes short stories, wrote the definitive book on Folk Horror and has now published his first full-length work of fiction.

The short fictions on his blog have been slowly inching towards a work such as this: stories of academic research, of hauntings and monomania, they owe much to M.R. James, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A collaboration with illustrator Katie Craven led to “A Screaming Breeze“, a ghost story set among the evocative modern desolation of an offshore windfarm.

I have to admit that though I’ve been aware of Mothlight for some months now, the initial blurb didn’t grab me (though the gorgeous cover art by Vince Haig did):

“Phyllis Ewans, a prominent researcher in Lepidoptera and a keen walker, has died of old age. Thomas, a much younger fellow researcher of moths first met Phyllis when he was a child. He became her carer and companion, having rekindled her acquaintance in later life.

Increasingly possessed by thoughts that he somehow actually is Phyllis Ewans, and unable to rid himself of the feeling that she is haunting him, Thomas must discover her secrets through her many possessions and photographs, before he is lost permanently in a labyrinth of memories long past.”

Nonetheless, I knew enough of Scovell’s writing and his interests to hope that in his hands this somewhat underwhelming premise could turn out to be worth reading.

It is.

Thomas the narrator is a 21st century M.R. James protagonist, but one – unlike those Oxbridge dons – with a childhood. It’s this crucial difference that opens up space to explore memory and its role in creating identity.

He meets Phyllis Ewans (her full name is always given, like a latin binomial) and her sister Billie – acquaintances of his grandparents – when he’s a child; even then he can sense unspoken secrets and mysteries in their relationship. Phyllis Ewans is an expert on moths, and her house full of mounted lepidoptera. Thomas finds that his own interest in – or obsession with – moths grows along the same lines, and years later their paths cross once more to the extent that he becomes Phyllis’s de facto carer.

He gradually finds himself haunted by memories which don’t seem to be his own and must, in fact, be Phyllis’s. His identity starts to flake like a desiccated moth: his health and his research job at university suffer. He finds clues to a secret in Phyllis’s past; a secret that if solved and the details confirmed will allow him to break out of the gyre of self-destruction (and self-destruction) he is in. “This was the trapping of an obsessive compulsion, locked into an order that could not be broken.” “Trappings” here can refer to both the outward signs of his haunting, and the traps by which the novella’s moths are captured for posterity.

As Thomas’s obsession grows, he only lives through memories, and whether they are his or Phyllis Ewans’s becomes increasingly irrelevant to him. He knows what’s happening, but is powerless to resist:

“The act of remembering…is the paralysis of our hopes. It lives and thrives upon us, whilst we live with the delusion that we define it, when it really defines us. It hatches, it devours and it destroys us from the inside out”

The prose is written in a dense, slightly archaic style which adds a distancing filter: we’re reading something which, like the past that the memories belong to, is not quite of this century. One or two passages are perhaps over-written, or strive too hard for resonance. But if I’m being generous I can assume this is deliberate, to show the heightened level of perception – paranoia – of the narrator.

The book (like W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn) is punctuated by reproductions of old photographs which, until Scovell’s acknowledgements page, had me wondering as to their provenance. They are too authentically “period” to be modern fakes, yet they’re entirely contiguous with each other. Even after the author’s explanation of their source, the feeling remains that Scovell has done in Mothlight what Alain Robbe-Grillet’s classic In the Labyrinth achieves, where the narrator creates an entire story out of several contingent items around him. Or, to use a more modern example, (spoiler alert!) like Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects.

In a novella about memory, it’s also entirely fitting that Scovell’s treatment of time should be non-linear. Thomas flits from memory to memory: events from different periods overlap and interlink and resonate. Time, as in Proust, is fluid.

Mothlight contains depths which a single reading is not enough to sound. I read a digital copy and will buy a hard copy when it’s published, and I really can’t think of a higher recommendation than that.

My copy of Mothlight was supplied for review by Influx Press.

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