Vancouver Gothic

Reviewed by Joel Baetz

The Rule of Stephens is Timothy Taylor’s venture into popular genre fiction. The story is captivating. While in the midst of a thrilling breakthrough in wearable technology, Catherine Bach survives a plane crash off the coast of Ireland. In the aftermath, she struggles to maintain control of her digital start-up—and starts to have a foreboding “sense of something alive in the world, tracking her and betting against.” After a phone call from the only other survivor, Catherine is haunted by nightmarish visions and threatening doppelgängers, even one who seems to lead a charge against her company. Occasionally reminiscent of Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square or anything by Andrew Pyper, The Rule of Stephens is dreadful (in the best way possible) and stands on a foundation of popular Gothic tropes, using them to conceptualize the psychic fragmentation inherent in a grief-stricken/tech-addled world that demands that we be in at least two places at once.

The novel is driven by two impulses—to reveal the world’s mysteries (Stephen King) or confirm its realities (Stephen Hawking)—and the determination to live by these rules is to the novel’s benefit and detriment. As the novel flirts with the conventions of popular Gothic (even recalling at times Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, to name the most obvious), it seems only to fall short of those standards. The result is that, at times, Taylor’s novel seems more grounded in the contemporary moment, and more trustworthy in making pronouncements about the shape and weight of grief, the sublimity of data, or the predatory nature of venture capital. At other times, it seems more tepid than comparable works, less thrilling, less willing to deliver on the promise of its generic investments, less willing to reveal the world to be full of mysterious threats and terrible ghosts and hardened psychic splits.

I’m also struck by the main character’s generally myopic version of Vancouver. The novel begins with Catherine practising street medicine in the Downtown Eastside, but that is quickly forgotten. “What about my social justice causes?” she asks; they disappear. She spends most of her time in pricey apartments, tony lawyers’ offices, and the moneyed (if harried) offices of a start-up. She is generally untroubled by the inequities of her city. Catherine is more Karen Whitney from Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians than, say, Patrick Lewis from Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. She sustains the limits of her city rather than traversing them.

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