“The Paper Grail” by James P. Blaylock

I’ve been wanting to read something by Blaylock for a while — he’s often mentioned in the same breath as Tim Powers, and I loved The Anubis Gates and (somewhat less) Declare — but sadly I’m a bit disappointed in “The Paper Grail.”  It’s really not bad; I just think that my expectations were too high.  My main complaint is that there is a lot of “weirdness” just for the sake of being weird.

Howard Barton, a small museum curator in Orange County, California, travels up north to Mendocino County, where he spent some time as a youth with his aunt and uncle.  He comes in order to secure for the museum a rare Hokusai sketch owned by one of the aged residents he knew back then.  Quickly it becomes apparent that the sketch is more than it seems, and Howard becomes swept up the struggle to keep it away from the forces of evil.

The main draw in the story is the clash between the normal everyday and the supernatural weirdness that lurks just under the surface, just about everywhere and in everyone.  As an example, my favorite character is Uncle Roy.  He’s always got a money-making scheme cooking, whether it be a ghost museum, selling scrap redwood lumber, or setting up a haunted house for Halloween.  His planning and scheming is pretty hilarious sometimes.  These business endeavors inevitably fail due to lack of planning and pie-in-the-sky thinking, but Roy remains perennially optimistic.  The other side to Roy is that he apparently leads the loose-knit band committed to protecting the grail.  His army of allies always comes through and saves the day.  Turns out he’s got success where it really counts.  Perhaps his bumbling persona is a bit of a facade?

Like I said, there is a lot of weirdness for the sake of being weird.  I wouldn’t mind it if it all made some sense and were explained in the end, but it isn’t.  I guess that might be the point though – can’t explain the supernatural, that’s why it’s not natural.  😉  Specifically these aspects of the story were not explained enough to my liking:

  • What’s up with the Gluers – commune hippies who glue small objects to cars – and the recurring Humpty Dumpty images?  Late in the book someone says how the grail causes those nearby to compulsively “put things back together” a la all the king’s men, but that’s just about the only clue I saw to explain it.
  • Jimmers’ machine conjures up the ghost of John Ruskin … why him?  The machine is somewhat a source of interest and driver of mystery throughout the story, but it turns out it doesn’t really serve a very important purpose, IMHO.
  • Two things about the grail don’t really jive with the traditionally powers and description of The Holy Grail.  For one, it is a paper origami cup – did they even have paper back then?  And the grail’s sole power seems to be weather control and the ability to call up great storms … why?  What happened to the whole King Arthur / Indiana Jones immortality bit?
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