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Stairway To Hell
Charlie Williams
Serpent's Tail paperback £7.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

Who is Rik Suntan? Is he merely a warehouse-man-turned-pub-singer with delusions of grandeur? Or is he - as his manager, Ted Regis, believes - harbouring the soul of David Bowie? Charlie Williams' premise in Stairway To Hell (his fourth novel) is that, back in the 1970s, Jimmy Page's interest in the occult led him to discover a way of exchanging the souls of certain talented individuals with those of 'hosts', to be harvested later as a means of obtaining cosmic power. Ted Regis has gathered together a group of hosts and aims to reverse the process.

But this is all nonsense, right? Besides, Rik has just lost, in short order, his regular gig, his girlfriend, and his home. He needs to make a living somehow, and a music svengali from the big city wants to make him an offer that's just so much more tempting than any of Ted's ideas...

Stairway To Hell is a comic novel so, first of all, is it funny? Yes, it is... but not hilariously so. A good deal of the humour comes at the expense of Rik himself, who has a tendency to unwittingly show himself up when he tries to talk seriously about his 'art'; for example: "There was one thing I cared about and that was my audience. If the audience makes the effort to turn up on time, you've got to show them the same respect." Rik also writes wonderfully inept lyrics, though those are best discovered in context.

But the book's funniest moments, in my view, are those concerning Zak Bremner, the latest (fictional) pop sensation, with his stupidly self-referential album titles; banal songs; and cynical, image-obsessed publicity. The thing is, though, that most of the jokes in Stairway To Hell raise only a chuckle or smile - which is fine as far as it goes, but not enough to make the novel a truly great work of humour.

Beyond the laughs, Stairway To Hell's success is similarly mixed. Williams uses his idea of 'soul-shifting' cleverly, making it an explanation for key shifts in its victims' careers (so, for example, a perceived drop in David Bowie's creativity during the 1980s is construed as a result of his body's becoming the home for someone else's soul). The plot rattles along nicely, twisting and turning in unexpected ways - but the ending seems to come too abruptly, and not to flow all that elegantly from what comes before.

In the end, then, Stairway To Hell is fun, but not much more. It's not going to go on my list of recommended essential books - but, if you're after a fast, amiable read, it will serve you well.

Stairway to Hell by Charlie Williams



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