Book Review: Annul Domini by Ingrid Pitt
Review by Keri O’Shea
Ingrid Pitt seemed to live several lives in her seventy-three years; with regards her career, she’s of course best known for her roles in classic horror cinema like Hammer’s Countess Dracula and The Wicker Man, but she was also an accomplished writer. Her ‘Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers’ was no second-rate book trading off her name and pretty face – it was a well-researched, well-structured piece of non-fiction. And, judging by the evidence of Annul Domini: The Jesus Factor, Ms. Pitt was equally adept at writing novels. The only sadness about this is that it comes to us posthumously.
In terms of scope, Ms. Pitt grapples with some hefty historical and philosophical perspectives here; rather than horror (although certain horrors come to the fore during the book’s course) what we are dealing with here is the potential ramifications of time travel. Specifically; what if you could deliberately alter the course of significant past events? In the alternate universe of Annul Domini, we’re invited to consider this. The idea of altering the past to effect changes in the present is an imaginative boon for writers, but it can all get out of hand so easily. In a lesser grasp, this non-linear story could have collapsed under its own weight – but it does not, and although on first glance the topic didn’t seem to be one I’d enjoy reading, I was gripped by it.
We start with what appears to be a personality crisis: Robin Firth awakes to find he isn’t…himself, anymore. He’s sharing a body and a mind with a village idiot called Haddaq, and trying to wrest control from the madman. Oh, and he’s no longer in modern-day Britain, but in the Middle East, around two thousand years before the time Robin was born. Gradually, his story is revealed. The modern world to which Robin belongs has been riven with political extremism and religious totalitarianism – to the extent that, using a technological process, Robin has sent his ‘self’ back two millennia, to try and influence the story of Jesus Christ. The story is split between different points in time and different characters, as various outcomes play out in the present. However, it is what Pitt does with the very familiar story of Jesus – or, what we consider the story – which is really engaging, and actually very brave.
I am not a religious person, but I am familiar with stories of Christ’s life and death, to the point that the finer details are not something to which I’ve given much thought. Utilising the sizeable gaps in what the Bible has to say and playing with what even many self-professed Christians take for granted, Pitt develops an intriguing spin on the characters which are so well-known, but so weakly-delineated. The chief result of this is that Pitt invigorates and humanises these people. Being bold with physical description is a large part of this – giving the main players ages, appearances, height and weight, touch, taste, even ailments, makes them believable as men and women. Allowing space to think about their motivations is also important here. She spins an ingenious web around them of supporting characters, even inventing new apostles as a way of demonstrating that what gets left in and what gets left out of stories has its importance.
There is some nicely-handled prose, with elements of black humour woven throughout and a good balance between description and descriptive economy. You get the impression throughout Annul Domini that Ingrid Pitt knew a great deal about the history of the Middle East, thanks the the ease of the discussions of politics and society of the time. The potential chink in the armour for me was always going to be the science fiction parts, which provide the possibility for action to be taken in the past. Baffling or unbelievable science can always trip up an otherwise solid story – can even be laughable, which you definitely don’t want in a story like this, black humour in some of its aspects or not. Here, there were moments where I began to feel incredulous, but luckily, lengthy descriptions of the time-travel process usually give way to more philosophical points permitted by the premise, rather than getting too bogged down in the sci-fi aspects. The book never gets too preachy, too prescriptive, or too technical.
Conceiving a world which could have been alongside worlds which might have resulted, Ingrid Pitt has crafted a compelling, thoughtful novel, making bold decisions and playing fast and loose with established dogma to create something new. I’m not sure whether the devout would be mortified or intrigued by what she’s done; for my part, and within the context of the story, it’s just very interesting to consider her ideas. Ultimately, the thread which runs through the novel is of the huge importance of mythologies, and Pitt does a fine job of making this very point.
The book itself is a neat volume with a colour cover, nicely laid out with clear font and font size. There is a foreword from Ingrid Pitt’s husband Tony Rudlin – the man who rediscovered all of these unpublished manuscripts after her death – followed by thirty-eight chapters and an epilogue. If you are curious to see what the legendary horror icon could do with her creative abilities, then this is a fine place to start looking.