Unlike John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels, THE GATES is geared towards young adults. But that shouldn’t deter any “old” adults from picking it up, as they almost certainly will enjoy it as much as his other works. The hero of the piece is, indeed, a youngster on the cusp of adolescence. Samuel Johnston lives with his mother in the town of Biddlecombe, England. His dad has recently moved out of the house and traded up, so to speak, on female companions, demonstrating that he is on the cusp of adolescence as well. His mom, understandably, is a bit preoccupied and upset about this state of affairs, leaving young Samuel and his dog, a dachshund named Boswell, on their own.
Two simultaneous events --- one occurring locally, the other far away --- change things for Samuel and Boswell. In Europe, a group of scientists are futzing around with a particle accelerator in the hopes of discovering something that is often referred to as the “God particle.” At the same time, the Abernathys and the Renfields, two couples in Samuel’s neighborhood, are fooling around with a nasty little book that Mrs. Abernathy found in a local bookstore. Neither the scientists nor Samuel’s neighbors really know what they’re doing, and as a result of their tomfoolery, they unleash demons into our world. Only Samuel, two of his friends, and the valiant Boswell know what is going on. Initially, they can’t get anyone to believe them, though that certainly changes once a couple of flying skulls, a reluctant demon named Nurd, and a horrible bishop who has been dead for several hundred years all get into the act. There is, of course, a nasty battle between good and evil, as often happens with such things, but the conclusion to said battle might not be the conclusion you were expecting.
Speaking of the unexpected, there were a few things that I personally didn’t expect from THE GATES. One is that parts of it are funny --- really funny. Though one might not know it from his Parker novels, Connolly is possessed of great humor, and he lets it shine through here. I’m talking laugh-out-loud humor that is doled out in a ration of every page or so. I also did not expect THE GATES to be frightening. It is, in places, similar to the way the original version of Darby O’Gill and the Little People remains frightening no matter how many times you’ve seen the banshee come flying onto the screen in its carriage. It stays with you and chills you to the bone.
But THE GATES is more than your garden-variety literary entertainment. Connolly explains some basic principles of physics very well here, especially for those whose ready knowledge of such things begin and end with apples dropping (hand raised here). He also pulls off a major coup by making his footnotes --- which are quite frequent --- so entertaining that they don’t interfere with the flow of the narrative. You actually come to miss them when they are absent for more than a few pages. It’s amazing.
However, what is really impressive --- and frightening --- is Connolly’s timing. I am given to understand that Connolly had been working on this novel for some eight years, and its publication corresponds eerily with a failed collider experiment, the latest in a series of such. On almost the same day as the book’s release, some scientists theorized, quite seriously, that the otherwise inexplicable failures may be occasioned by an “outside” source as a warning. THE GATES leaves open the possibility that somewhere a young man stands athwart space and time, yelling “Halt!”
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 28, 2010