‘It’s a little work of genius’ – Scorper by Rob Magnusson Smith

scorperJohn Cull, an American, arrives in the small Sussex village of Ditchling to trace his ancestry. As if his accent wasn’t enough to make him stand out in this place of local people and local tradition, Cull happens to be a huge, tall, slightly beastly looking man with a few issues that he struggles to hide. And this sleepy village soon turns out to be less friendly than it first appeared. In the course of his stay he’ll come face to face with violent bigotry, a room full of bird bones, rampant incest, a stay in a chicken coop, and a worrying rumour about a collection a hands buried somewhere below Ditchling’s beautiful surface.

The term scorper refers to a tool used to scoop out broad areas when engraving wood or metal, or to the person who uses that tool to complete the job. But it also refers to a book that Cull finds in the local pub, one which links him to his granddad who worked as a scorper under the artist Eric Gill. Gill was no doubt talented, but his constant sculpting of nudes, often those of his daughters, led to accusations of perversion. So it is interesting that Cull chooses this man to associate with.

The question remains, though, of how it is actually possible for him to associate with Gill. The man has been dead a long time. But as he sits reading the book in the pub, a man called Gill comes and joins him at the table. And this is where the most interesting aspect of the book begins. Because until that point we have believed everything our narrator has told us. Then, just an hour or so into his meeting Gill, we find Cull alone and drunk in the middle of a field and the companion he was just drinking with has completely disappeared. Nobody except him ever actually seems to see Gill at all.

Which makes Cull a wonderfully unreliable narrator. We gradually learn that there are some difficulties in Cull’s life, that he has been receiving treatment for mental health problems, so we soon begin to question everything that happens in the book. Is this actually the story of a disturbingly violent, incestuous, and backwards village? Or is it more of an account of one man’s journey to the depths of his mind?

Any Cop?: Whichever of those things it really is, Scorper is delightful. It’s funny, thought-provoking, and different to anything that’s preceded it. John Cull is a great character in a cast of great characters. This is a bit like League of Gentlemen, a bit like the X-Files, and even a bit like a twisted version of Last of the Summer Wine. It’s a little work of genius.

Fran Slater


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