Friday, February 26, 2016

Melissa by Jonathan Taylor - A Quite Extraordinary Novel!

The Spark Close Phenomenon

The real tragedy, of course, happened before the story begins - seconds before. At 2:35 p.m. on Wednesday 9th June 1999, in Number 4, Spark Close, Hanford, Stoke-on-Trent, Miss Melissa Comb, a seven-year-old girl, died of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia in her own bed, surrounded by family and nurses.
What followed has been floridly described by Stoke-on-Trent's Poet Laureat as a 'musical efflorenscence of grief' for the dead girl. This 'musical efflorescence' has been raked over endlessly, by poets, journalists, priests, neurologists, psychologists and parapsychologists. Some have called the "Spark Close Phenomenon" a musical form of mass hysteria, others a kind of telepathic psychosis, others a millennial judgment on our modern way of life. If none agreed in their interpretations or conclusions, a general consensus has emerged about the actual events of that strange afternoon.
Moments after Melissa's family watched her die next door...a ringing, humming headache... Suddenly, or perhaps it was gradually, the air-raid siren noise stopped, and instead came this music - like what they play at the Cenotaph, you know. Kind of beautiful, slowish saddish, yet...stirring. Brought a tear or two to my eyes, I don't mind admitting...
There is an extant tape of the 999 call, recorded at precisely 2:39 p.m. in which Miss Adler is heard whimpering: "Make it stop, make it stop, please please make it stop, do something, it's here, Spark Close, it's in my head and everywhere, sschnell, makeitstopmakeitstopmakeitstop..."


By Jonathan Taylor

According to the author, this book is based on true events...perhaps... There are other reportings of strange noises coming out of the sky around the world. However I didn't take the time to research further...Whether based upon true events or not, the story presented is quite extraordinary--even strange. Yet what happens following the phenomenon is not unique--sad, but true.

You see, a young girl, Melissa, died after a long, terrible fight against the cancer that had invaded her tiny 7-year-old body.

Nor, it seemed, was it a matter of worry that they found Leukaemic cells in Melissa's cerebro-spinal fluid. Admittedly, this was "unlucky" on Melissa's part, but the intrathecal injections and, later, cranial irradiation seemed to "do the trick," as one consultant put it...
Through the musical webs, past the linear accelerators, Melissa went straight into the second phase, delayed intensification therapy - hairless, a bit tottery on her feet, but surely getting there. "She will get her hair back, won't she?" asked Lizzie, to half a dozen passing doctors, always on their way to somewhere else, somewhere more urgent. "She had that lovely hair. I was so jealous--much better than my land stuff. I don't want the other children laughing at her. I'd hate that. ...She will get her hair back, won't she? Won't she?"
"All you worry about is her hair," complained Harry.
Lizzie looked at him with narrowed, incredulous eyes. "Of course, darling. Of course that's all I worry about. All I spend every sleepless hour of every single bloody night worrying about is her hair. All I never stop crying about, all I never stop shaking  with horrible terror about, all I ever want inside to scream and scream and scream about is her hair. That's all, nothing else. Nothing bloody else. After all, the doctors, nurses and everybody are always telling me not to worry about anything else..."

 Immediately after she died, neighbors heard strange noises coming from what seemed to be outside, coming from the sky. There were all types of descriptions--whether each heard something different or whether they used different words to try to describe it--there were no neighbors in the community who did not hear the noises and were compelled to go outside. That screeching noise evolved into some soothing music that nobody could identify... (I chose a relevant classical song given the rest of the book).

All of the neighbors said they felt a peace, good feelings when the music started--some even hugging each other, smiling and loving the people in the community, who were previously not close friends. Everybody at home that day had left their homes and joined others outside.  All except the Comb family, who heard nothing, and who stayed in their home, grieving, during the entire time period.

As with many individuals who are caught in some sort of celebrity, soon all types of spectators and news staff were crowding into the neighborhood. I'm not going to go into that except to say that it was very hard on the grieving family to have that kind of turmoil that not even the police could eliminate.

So it was natural that the grieving period of the family continued much longer than could normally be expected...perhaps... Readers do not really learn that from the book.

Those who came wanted, of course, to understand the phenomenon and learn what caused it. Me? I thought it was supernatural. You know, the heavens crying out over the pain of the child... Perhaps...but that's really not what the book is about...

The parents and a step-sister to Melissa are the survivors. What happens to them is really the story.... Initially, they could not help but be caught up in the search for an explanation. Finally, they were trying to identify the music...
...In this paradoxical context, my colleague and I came to the conclusion that the Combs - Harry and Serena - might somehow hold the key to the puzzle; that is, they might be able to help the residents (and, indeed ourselves) discover what exactly the music was which people had heard...Harry Comb, however, refused to help in this regard so I turned to his first daughter, Serena...
We subsequently played the Hutchinsons an LP...of the Enigma Variations. Given that the piece is all about friendship and community...Nevertheless, none of the variations seemed "quite right" to the Hutchinsons.
Finally, Serena Comb tentatively put forward a suggestion which we found rather compelling; that perhaps Spark Street's hallucinatory music was - and we quote - the "Enigma" in the Enigma. There's supposed to be some kind of hidden meaning or mystery or, well, tune which isn't said by the orchestra out loud, but which kind of hangs over the whole piece..."

While that investigation was going on, there were unsettling happenings in the Comb's household. Mr. Comb had felt that some of Melissa's favorite music should be played during her funeral... Finally he decided he should be the one... A little past history is important at this time. Mr. Comb had been called a musical child prodigy when he was very young, but when he arrived in his teens and his skills were not expanding, he was no longer called a genius. His interest in practicing fell as he grew older and soon all he did was listen to his daughter play for he and Melissa... On the day of the funeral, after not even opening the piano and playing over the selections after not having played for many years, he was struck "dumb" and unable to move his hands beyond the beginning notes nor to speak...

Thereafter he kept the piano locked and refused to have Serena play... He also quit his job and sat in front of the television, sometimes even when it was not turned on.

Serena was having her own grieving problems. She and Melissa had spent hours together, especially with Melissa listening to her playing the piano. Now being cut off from the piano intensified her loss and memories of Melissa. Especially when she received a note about Melissa's death.

Seri, my dear older sis, I loved you.
Seri, my dear older sis, I am gone.
Seri, my dear older sis, it is your fault.

An interesting side plot was Serena's time in school and with her best friend, together with Serena's crush on the Physics teacher... which leads readers into a Physics lesson on entrophy. Later Serena brings the possible relationship of music to the laws of thermodynamics...

"Okay, I'll try and explain what I mean," said Serena. Mr. Jenkins started to wonder who was the teacher, who the student. Serena continued: "There are lots of examples I can think of to explain. I mean, there're all those musical collapses in Mayler's Ninth Symphony..."
"Musical what?"
"Collapses. Like, the music builds up to these hute great climaxes, then it kind of falls to pieces - and the tunes and the instruments all sound like they're drifing away from each other, and the energy's draining away to nothing, and it feels really...cold. Do you know what I mean?"
...Anyway, there's this other symphony by Shostakovich - the last one, the Fifteenth reckon, is kind of a music picture of entrophy, if you see what I mean...This one, I reckon, is kind of a musical picture of entropy, if you see what I mean... In the second movement, the music ends up really, like, I don't know the word, 'sparse,' I s'pose, and kinda broken. And in the last movement, the music crescendos to this huge climax, and then collapses - I s'pose a physicist might say, 'diffuses' - amd gradually, everything seems to drift away, till all you've got left is this long-held string chord, going on and on...kind of chilling, like everything, all emotions, even the music itself, have diffused and become this one, uniform sound. It's amazing, and it's dead like what you said about heat death and entropy in the lesson..."

There is a depth of intellectual stimulation you do not normally find in fiction. Let me assure you, however, that the author has expertly incorporated both principles from physics together with music appreciation in a totally understandable and exciting fashion. It did not, however, explain the phenomena of the music that suddenly came out of the sky in Spark Close. It remained a mystery, but one unsolved that didn't bother me.  

From this reader's perspective, it is amazing to say, that the phenomena was secondary to the drama that erupted because of it. There is much to ponder and consider over and over as a result of reading the book. Do humans need something startling to happen to us in order to find the person we really are? Or, like those who came and stared at the places, the homes, where the phenomena occurred, are we willing to sit on the sidelines and watch to see what happens? A perplexing, thought-providing book that, I think, won't be for everybody. Classical music, in particular, plays a significant role in the novel. On the other hand, if you'd like to learn more about classical, this is an exciting way to do it by merging the words with the music itself...which I did with many of the pieces...

If this review sounds the least bit intriguing, I urge you to check this quite extraordinary novel out!  I was enthralled with the unique circumstances and characters! Highly recommended...


You can contact me using the form below or by emailing me at or, alternatively, by writing to me c/o School of English, University of Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK
I am author of the novels Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012) and Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007). My poetry collection is Musicolepsy (Shoestring Press, 2013); my short story collection is Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman Books, 2013 and 2014).
Entertaining Strangers was shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award 2013, and longlisted for Not the Booker Prize 2013, run by The Guardian. Kontakte and Other Stories was shortlisted for the Saboteur Best Short Story Collection Award 2014, and longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize 2014 and Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2014.
I am editor of the anthology of short stories Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt, November 2012), winner of the Saboteur Award 2013 for Best Fiction Anthology.
I am also Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in the U.K., and co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators. In this latter role, I am general editor of Hearing Voices Magazine, and the Crystal Pamphletsseries.

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