Like its predecessor, The English Monster, Lloyd Shepherd's The Poisoned Island takes the unusual step of blending the historical mystery with the Gothic. In the first novel, Shepherd "solved" the Ratcliffe Highway Murders by making the criminal a man cursed to immortality (and emotional emptiness) while on a slave-taking expedition. The second novel, set in 1812, follows constable Charles Horton and his magistrate, John Harriott, as they attempt to untangle the murders of several crewmen who sailed to Tahiti on a botanical expedition for Sir Joseph Banks. This time, the murders themselves are committed by mortal hands. One of the plants that comes back with the expedition is something very different, however...
Although these novels aren't set in the Victorian period, they should be of interest to Victorianists. Both The English Monster and The Poisoned Island trace how English imperial expansion and international commerce produces a deadly circuit, as men and goods leave the British isles, despoil the countries with which they come in contact, and then bring that destruction back home; in the case of The Poisoned Island, the title has a double meaning, for while the English "poison" Tahiti (through disease and other methods), Tahiti in turn poisons England through a magical tree that produces a horribly addictive drug. The tree in question emerges, Ovid-like, from the metamorphosis (real or figurative) of a young woman raped by a very young Joseph Banks--a quite obvious figure both for imperial exploitation and for its disowned fruits. (The parallel to the tree is the abandoned and betrayed Peter Nott, the son of Peter Heywood--yes, Captain Bligh gets a name-check--and a Tahitian woman.)
The "leave it where you found it, you idiot" trope is familiar to anyone who has read Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, but the novels' plots more generally offer a revisionist twist on what Patrick Brantlinger has dubbed "imperial gothic"--fictions of encounter with racial and religious Others that "expre[ss] anxieties about the ease with which civilization can revert to barbarism or savagery and thus about the weakening of Britain's imperial hegemony."1 In Shepherd's novels, English travels abroad in search of wealth, power, and land do lead to terrifying confrontations with racial and religious Others, which are then reenacted within the confines of English domestic space. However, Shepherd's England, far from being a safe haven of civilized tranquility, is riddled with crime, class resentments, and sexual inequality. England, being impure, cannot export purity. Although the English certainly read Tahiti as a Edenic space of sinless pleasure, in a textbook example of primitivist romanticism, the chapters from the young Tahitian prince's POV establish that the island has its own political infighting that is frequently invisible to its European visitors. Moreover, the novel sharply undercuts the narratives of free native sexuality perpetuated by the Europeans: when faced with the princess' rejection, Banks "refus[es] to accept no as her answer" (5), convincing himself that her body says yes when her mind says no; similarly, the prince later watches while men sell their daughters to the visiting sailors, the girls facing their fate "with their eyes empty, their smiles rehearsed" (175). In the first instance, Banks' preconceptions about Tahitian desire overwrite his momentary awareness that she is reacting as an Englishwoman would under the same circumstances; in the second, Tahitian men draw on those same preconceptions in order to exploit their daughters for profit (especially iron). The "poisons" that enter the English bloodstream--both the magical poison born of the rape and the venereal diseases that circulate between Europeans and Tahitians--originate not from the "savagery" of the Tahitians, but from European violations of Tahitian bodies and social structures. Indeed, what poisons the English is merely comforting to the Tahitians; the horror, that is, is not the only thing innate to the magic tree (and, as we eventually discover, even European women may experience the drug very differently). In other words, Shepherd's anti-imperial Gothic posits that the horror emerges because the imperialist brought it there: the darkness does not wait to be found.
However, Shepherd's fiction has intriguing affinities with one Gothic novel in particular--Dracula. By which I do not mean that vampires abound, although some of the horrors exhibit the occasional vampire-like quality. Rather, both The English Monster and The Poisoned Island share Dracula's oft-noted habit of linking relics of the past (the vampire) to a rapidly transforming present (in Dracula's case, new technologies). Shepherd's detective, Charles Horton, is supposed to be the first modern detective, trying out new methods of evidence-collection, interviewing, and pursuit. Moreover, Shepherd sets The Poisoned Island against a background of massive upheaval in the botanical sciences, as "[t]heories tumbled over questions in a great rush as the old century ended" (186-87), and the growth of the Empire. But what Shepherd does not do is "solve" the mysteries perfectly: although the horrors are temporarily squashed, Horton never has more than partial knowledge of what he is stopping (although other characters do), and there is no way of eradicating the real root of the evil--the drives at the heart of the Empire itself. Shepherd further underlines this problem by refusing to make his characters "modern" in their racial, religious, or sexual self-awareness: although they certainly have moments of graciousness (being horrified, for example, at Heywood's treatment of his abandoned son) and historically-accurate doubts about the usefulness of missionary work, not one of them, the heroes included, qualifies as anti-imperialist or egalitarian. The "heroes" are not, in other words, outside the problem.
1 Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988), 229.