Rohan Quine is a champion of literary fiction, speaking and writing passionately and eloquently about its importance in an age dominated by more commercial fiction. As far as I'm aware, he's not yet published vignettes, but his meticulously phrased longer fiction is the vignette's natural bedfellow.
The Host in the Attic is one of four novellas which are available as stand-alone ebooks and also in a single printed volume as a quartet. A gripping horror story for the twenty-first century, it draws on the Faustian tradition, but more specifically echoes Oscar Wilde's classic novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. (I confess I haven't read Wilde's book for decades, but the parallels are clear.)
A cautionary tale of the potential corrupting power both of vanity and of the internet plays out in modern London's high-tech dockland offices and luxury apartments, with brief forays to lavish West End hotels and country houses.
The novella reunites characters from Quine's full-length novel, The Imagination Thief, set in and around New York, which also has a high-tech theme. Coquettishly, that book becomes a novel within this novella, written by one of the characters.
The key character of both that novel and this novella is Jaymi Peek, chosen for his good looks to become the face of an internet service that is the brainchild of a powerful IT company called Mainframe. Just as Dorian Gray's image is captured in a painting, Jaymi's is harnessed in a hologram that hovers beside any computer using the HOST service. Quickly seduced by his position and his subsequent global fame, and supremely wealthy, Jaymi becomes ever more decadent under the tutelage of Mainframe's boss, Champagne Marc.
Meanwhile, just as for Dorian Gray, Jaymi's physical beauty remains flawless, while within he descends in a one-way vortext to corruption. He stores the unique, unfiltered version of his HOST hologram programme in his attic, allowing him to engage with the Dark Web, and that hologram degenerates as he becomes more depraved.
As the story becomes ever darker, gentle touches of humour provide a little light relief. I particularly enjoyed the characterisation of the women, especially the wonderfully petulant Angel Dion, whose face becomes the female equivalent of Jaymi's hologram, but without the complication of having her own HOST in her attic to lead her astray.
While at first this parable's main purpose may seem to rage against the principles of a high tech, monopolistic, capitalist world that enable individuals to lead unspeakably privileged lives above the law, it is at the same time a cautionary tale against narcissism and the abandonment of love and compassion for others. This broader theme gives the story its true heart and depth.
Idiosyncratic Richness of Style
Quine is renowned for his rich, inventive and original prose, and he is skilled at blending contemporary and ancient icons and themes. In this novella, I noted another distinguishing mark that I don't remember from The Imagination Thief (though to be fair it is a couple of years since I read it): an interesting approach to dialogue, blending idiom and phraseology from different eras, from Victorian times through 20th century popular film culture to the modern day. There were moments when Marc seems to channel Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady: "By George!" The odd phrase might even have sat comfortably in a Carry On film, as his dialogue uses cliches and idioms entirely absent from the descriptive passages. For me, this gave the dialogue a stagey surrealism which at first struck me as a little stilted, but then I realised it gave the conversations a timeless universality. I don't know whether that was Quine's intention, but once I had attuned to it, the dialogue added to the book's idiosyncratic charm.
There are some classic moments of horror that are very filmic, including one on a par with the Psycho shower scene. Without giving too much away, I can imagine this book might put readers off accessing their own attics for a while. I know of which I speak - my own loft hatch with spring ladder just like Jaymi's is on the landing outside my study where I'm typing this review. I may have to hasten my step as I pass by...