‘Black Bottle Man: A Fable’

black-bottle-manAuthor Craig Russell offered to send me a copy of his book, Black Bottle Man, in March. I agreed to read and review it if he did.

Why? I’m not sure. I get more than my share of such pitches, I have too much on my plate as it is with respect to reading and writing, and I wasn’t hungry for new projects this Spring. I think it was probably the book description on its Amazon page and back cover:

Forced to move every twelve days, what would happen to your life? 1927. Rembrandt is the only child in the tiny community of Three Farms. Soon his two aunts grow desperate for babies of their own. A man wearing a black top—coat and a ’glad—ta—meet—ya’ smile arrives with a magic bottle and a deadly deal is made. Determined to undo the wager, Rembrandt, Pa, and Uncle Thompson embark on the journey of their lives, for if they stay in one place for more than twelve days terrible things happen. But where and when will they find a champion capable of defeating the Black Bottle Man? Time ticks. Lives change. Every twelve days. . .

The book arrived, I read it in one long-into-the-night sitting, and put it aside. It’s good, very good, and I’ve thought about it almost every day at least once or twice since. Not just because the story is that good, though it is. Whenever I opened my email, the author’s original note to me was there. I’m fairly religious about clearing my inbox at least once a week but I never got to file this one. Russell has even sent me Black Bottle Man reviews others have done (see here and here for their thoughts) as gentle reminders of my pledge.

I guess I have neglected the task so long because I’ve wondered why he sent this book to me for my take on it. I read it again today, enjoyed it as much as I had months ago, and think I finally see why the author thought I of all readers in the blogosphere could write an appreciative note about his book. Gilderoy gets it at last.

f36931046First, I’m the guy who argued first that there was significant Christian content in Harry Potter and that it was this content that was responsible in large part for Potter Mania, whatever the Harry Haters were saying. Yes, the Christian symbolism and meaning of the Hogwarts Saga was not in your face like conversational catechism and confession with Aslan at Narniad book’s end, but the alchemy, the triptych, the logos epistemology, the tokens of Christ, the resurrection at every finish, the sacrificial love, it added up. Objections to the magic a la Leviticus did not.

Black Bottle Man is a mythic piece set in our day. Rembrandt travels Canada and the United States for eight decades in search of a champion who can defeat the devil and win back the souls sold to him by his two aunts so they might conceive children. It has a touch of The Devil and Daniel Webster about it in its Faustian bargain (the story is mentioned) but none of that piece’s patriotism or cardboard operatic eloquence.

Is it a Christian story? Implicitly, because of the devil, the fall, and the play of souls, of course it is. The profound part is in the resolution that is wonderfully explicit and yet cloaked sufficiently in the telling that there is no feeling of stained glass, prayer books behind pews, or altar calls. Russell smuggles the gospel deftly and surely. The magic of the book, almost black magic at least relative to the incantational spells of the Wizarding World, do not obscure that accomplishment.

bookshelfSecond, I have worked for the last fifteen years for the serious reading of popular fiction, especially so-called YA titles such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.

Black Bottle Man  was published under the banner of ‘Great Plains Teen Fiction.’ I suppose that was inevitable given its fable-not-quite-fairy-tale qualities, what you could pigeon hole as magic or otherworldliness. It remains an unfortunate tag because it is the same mythic aspects of the story which shine through the realistic details of Rembrandt’s exodus and pilgrimage in search of a savior that make it “worthy of adult attention” and reward serious reading and re-reading. The sub-title to the book is “A Fable” and the author reasserts this in the dedication — and ‘fabulous’ the story is in the original sense of that word. Wonder -full.

ringThird and last, I’m the ring composition critic who looks for effective story-turns and traditional story-telling patterns like ‘turtlebacks.’

Russell has two story lines going at once: Rembrandt’s odyssey told in the past and present and the narrative of a homeless woman who has largely given up on life to do magical, psychotic penance for her failings when taken hostage years ago in her elementary school classroom. Is it a strict ring structure? It has a distinct story turn in the central chapters that point to the beginning and end, the point in which Rembrandt and Gail meet and his heartache in Sugar City, Colorado.

I won’t vouch for a strict turtleback structure with consistent parallels because I haven’t broken down and charted the short book chapter to chapter yet, but I can say the ring effect is there. The jumping in time from the past to the present and from Rembrandt to Gail and her family is wonderfully done through the resolution of the complementary, contrary narratives in the strong finish.

So I get it at last. The author sent me his book because he hoped I would use the tools I own to open up his work and encourage others to read the story. Mission accomplished? I hope so; I’m looking forward to emptying my inbox at last.

And I’m glad that I put off this review as long as I have for at least one other reason. In the author’s notes at book’s end, he thanks those responsible for adapting the story for the stage soon after its publication. Unlike Cursed Child, reading Black Bottle Man makes me want to see the stage production for a fresh appreciation of the story, especially its climactic conflict with the devil in a coffee shop.

Please do give Black Bottle Man the long airplane flight or lazy afternoon it requires to read and savor. I suspect like me you’ll revisit it and wish your friends had already read it so you could talk about Rembrandt, the power of long-suffering love, the devil, and our souls.


  1. Patricia Kintz says

    Bravo! Thanks for the link to my review. Blessings; I must follow you.

  2. Great review! I was one of the cast members of the first reading version of the play (as Old Rmbrandt), and it was a wonderful experience.

  3. Gregg Gleason says

    I just finished Black Bottle Man and thoroughly enjoyed the strong story lines and fine writing. This novel should appeal to people of all ages, not just those enjoying the “young adult” years of life. A well-deserved “Well Done” to Mr. Russell.

  4. What a wonderful fable!!! Thank you John and the hogwartsprofesor website for the recommendation!! Gregg, I agree…it would appeal to people of all ages.

  5. Craig Russell says

    Gregg and Dave, thanks so much for giving BBM a try, and for your comments.
    It’s been a thrill to read John’s insights and a pleasure to hear that you also enjoyed the story.
    I have another novel that’s just been released called Fragment (published by Thistledown Press and available through Amazon, etc.).
    It different from BBM, but what author can pass up the chance to promote their work? 🙂
    Best wishes in writing & reading.
    Craig Russell

  6. I hope it’s alright to add an update:

    National Catholic Register columnist, Sarah Reinhard calls Black Bottle Man “A Novel for Nearly Everyone”.

    Charles de Lint for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction said: “I loved the writing and characters… I read the book in pretty much one gulp, then went back to savor some of my favorite parts… this is a fine bit of writing. Highly recommended.” https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/2016/cdl1609.htm

    Dr. Marek Oziewicz (U. of Minnesota) included Black Bottle Man in his graduate course on speculative fiction for Spring 2017.

    Author, Tanya Huff tweeted: “Canadians, why didn’t you rave to me about Craig Russell’s amazing BLACK BOTTLE MAN when it appeared!? (BTW, his FRAGMENT is excellent too.)” https://twitter.com/TanyaHuff

Speak Your Mind