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The Cosmic Puppets
Philip K. Dick
Gollancz paperback £6.99

review by Mike Philbin

What are Ted and Peggy Barton doing in Millgate, VA? Does the place even exist? Well, it exists in some half-forgotten form; it certainly doesn't exist in the form that Ted Barton remembers. On his arrival in Millgate, he spends the first few hours looking for shops that no longer exist on streets that no longer exist, parks that no longer exist and people who no longer exist - not people who have died, but people who have never lived. There's strong speculation from the inhabitants of Millgate that Ted Barton has actually arrived in the wrong town.

What is theme of The Cosmic Puppets? Is it really about the magical power of children to invent (and perpetuate) worlds of their own creation? Is it resurrection of a childhood innocence destroyed by the rigors (and prejudices) of adult life? Early on throughout the narrative, misdirection from the horror that lies ahead take shape in the form of innocent children sculpting clay into figures, annoying flies and bees on one side, malevolent spider webs on the other. How these are relevant to the later narrative is truly nauseating. Rats, remember those little beauties for when you're reading the book, they play a pivotal (and truly gruesome) role. Gruesome? But isn't Philip K. Dick the proverbial soft sci-fi writer? A theoretical thinker of a writer, who explores alternative realities that are flavoured with drug-induced imagery, and overladen with deistic investigation? Not in this one, it's a nasty book in many ways.

There are five key figures in this book:
  • The town of Millgate:

  • It took a long and convoluted series of mishaps to enable Ted Barton's entry into Millgate and it will take a lot more concerted efforts before he is ever allowed to leave. Millgate is a place Ted Barton remembers so well because he was born there, spending the first nine years of his life in this sleepy backwater. It holds many memories for him, and this is the key to later narrative unravellings. No one in Millgate believes Barton's implausible story, and the more he gets the layout of the town wrong (like where is the park he remembers playing on as a kid but the inhabitants of Millgate swear never existed?) the less likely his Prodigal Son of Millgate scenario becomes. Ted Barton resorts to archival research of Millgate at the local newspaper where he discovers that a child bearing his name died at the age of nine of scarlet fever on the date the real Ted Barton left the town.

  • The children of Millgate:

  • Mary Meade controls the moths and bees. Peter Schilling controls the spiders and the golems. Are they really two sides of an intergalactic civil war?

  • Doctor Meade, Mary's father:

  • Doctor Meade looks after the health of the Millgatians - because this is such a weird and invented alien town, I feel justified with my invention of Millgatians to describe the 'sleeping' inhabitants of this wild-ride town. It's not that they're really sleeping, either, it's more like their covered in dust, ripe for a Spring clean, like the whole town. Like there's a realer town underneath the old crumbled unreal one. It's Dr Meade who, in the dying throes of the novel, brings Millgate to the edge of oblivion or salvation, an intergalactic relevance neither he nor the children nor Ted Barton himself could have possibly imagined.

  • The Wanderers:

  • The Wanderers, spectral entities who wander through the walls and doors of Millgate, their eyes squeezed shut, are the old inhabitants of Millgate who have been struggling to in vain for 18 years to map out the old town as it was before 'the change'.

  • The valley of Millgate:

  • The valley, in which Millgate resides, is formed by two enormous galactic beings, the bright and the dark, the yin and the yang of universal power. This revelation in the later stages of the novel is not something many readers will be able to comprehend - it's just too out there, too outlandish, too cosmic. Even the rays of the Millgate sun shudder away in shame. But it proves the genius of Dick that he gets away with it and the narrative concludes intact.

    The Cosmic Puppets is a throwback to happier times, for Dick, whose childhood clearly holds fonder memories for him than the drug-addled gutter-existence of the writer's life he was living at the time and for the next 20 years, rejected by the mainstream (his non sci-fi novels were published posthumously), ripped off by publishers who could have offered ten times the advances had they seen the genius of Dick earlier on.

    It would be an injustice to even suggest that Philip K. Dick's writing was blatantly paedophiliac in nature but a hell of a lot of pert, young girls in inhabit Dick's invented worlds. He clearly had a thing for the young girls. Looking back at even a mainstream a novel like Mary And The Giant, we see the Joe Schilling character leering over the schoolgirls in their uniforms. And however unjustified the observation, there's a specific scene in The Cosmic Puppets where Mary strips off and smears oil over her naked girl body to 'appease a captured golem and not freak it out' that is so over-the-top voyeuristic as to be the closest Dick has ever come to pushing beyond the veil of good taste. There are those reading this who'd say that to suggest Philip K. Dick was a paedo was tantamount to blasphemy, and may be even libellous, but if you think that, you may just be in denial of the evidence there lurking within his body of work.

    Of course Dick's not a paedo, any sane reviewer would have to come to that conclusion. But clearly, Dick was creating invented worlds where 'normal' 1950s' morality was stretched to the theoretical limit. And not only in matters of morality does Dick try to stretch out the boundaries of the acceptable. His representation of the schizophrenic night-and-day of the nature beast that haunts the valley of Millgate is another of his great attempts to universe-straddling entities with atoms the size of stars. Plus, I'm not sure of the actual connection but Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke's roaming night/ day nature beast seems to be a direct lift from the mid section of this book, it's stunningly accurate visual translation of the imagery in The Cosmic Puppets. Maybe it's just a latent Gaia vibe, but personally, as I read the Dick words, I saw the Miyazaki scene of the grotesque beast flopping greasily over the hills, destroying and decaying the landscape as it moved. Maybe (as in all this subjective analysis, it's just me)...

    I love Philip K. Dick's earlier books - the more domestic, Twilight Zone or harmlessly sci-fi works. I loved Solar Lottery, I loved The Game Players Of Titan, and I now love The Cosmic Puppets (late 1950s' copyright, all three). It's a short novel (140 pages - approximately 40- to 50,000 words) but one that every lover of horror should read, yeah, I did say horror. This is a proper small-town horror novel with some good bits of quite spaced out sci-fi in it. There are some scenes in the book that are just too gruesome and the revelatory finalé is perfect PKD at his best. It is recommended reading for all lovers of such genre-straddling goodness.
    Cosmic Puppets





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