Renegade, the third volume in the ‘Hell’s Underground’ series, comes in the chunky 16cm x 11cm format familiar to readers of the previous titles, Scared to Death and The Demon Assassin. The black cover is dominated by the gaping eye sockets of a blotchy skull; a small rat explores one orifice. The title is picked out in blood-red.
This time, Paul Rector rides the ghostly tracks through the tunnels of time to the days when the underground was being built – the 1830s. The navvies are coming close to the ancient prison where evil King Lud has been sealed for centuries by the fire priests of the Court of Destiny; if Lud were to be released, the history of London, and so the world itself, would be catastrophically changed. Paul’s ancestor, Samuel Rector, ‘the Satan of Spitalfields’, is one of those in every generation who serve Lud. Samuel has gathered about him The Rat Boys, a group of street boys, training each of them in a deadly skill against the day of Lud’s release. So far, in the prequels, Paul has narrowly defeated Lud’s servants.
Put like that, this may all seem a tad far-fetched. But Alan Gibbons is a skilled spinner of incredible yarns and he has one especially potent device at his disposal; Paul himself has some of the demonic strain of Lud – his weapons are fire and fear and when he deploys them, his urge to destroy runs dangerously strong. The struggle is within as well as without.
If you write about London in the 1830s, it is almost impossible to avoid another, more literary, ghost. Rector trains his gang of young pickpockets and burglars in a crumbling East End tenement, tempering his sudden violence with an ambiguous kindness. Like Fagin, he captures an innocent boy, young Israel Lazarus, in whom he sees another potential, and gifted, servant for his master Lud. He also houses a couple of young, good-hearted women, compelled to work the streets and serve their master’s needs. When Molly steps out of line, she is brutally murdered. There is even a final scene when the defeated Rector, like Fagin, sits reflectively in his cell before the turnkey takes him off to the hangman. And, for good measure, a Mrs Mayhew wanders into the plot too!
There is so much colour, life and pace that readers will surely be caught up in this dark world. At the end of it all, there will be no rest for Paul. Already, in the 21st century, Lud’s latest servant is moving in on Netty, the girl who would become Paul’s girlfriend in our own time, if only he ever stayed around long enough.