Books

{Book Review} Master of Rods and Strings: An Apotheosis of the Old Art

Master of Rods and Strings is one of the most remarkable horror novels I’ve read in a long time. All the more so, because it’s a debut; first books are notoriously difficult, and many authors stumble on them, only perfecting their craft after a few trials and errors. Here, though, Jason Marc Harris makes things look easy, delivering a twisted tale of puppetry, necromancy, and family secrets that lingers in the mind long after its covers are closed. This review will contain plot spoilers, so if there’s one takeaway, it’s to give the book a read – it’s well worth going in with as little information as possible. 

*Spoilers Below*

At its heart, the Master of Rods and Strings is a classic revenge story. Its protagonist, Elias, is a burgeoning young puppeteer, overshadowed by both his older sister Sonja, and his uncle Pavan, a master in the “Old Art” of bringing dolls and marionettes to life. Theirs is a complex, secretive school of the occult, described in evocative terms by its practitioners:

“The life of puppets, he said, untwisting the strings of his marionette menagerie, “is the dance of the fingers. Puppeteers of old – they say – would connect wires from their veins, feeding lifeblood to puppets to entice the spirits of the earth to enter them. Today, we do this with strings. You move, like so, and he moves. A thing is dead, and it moves. You bring it to life.”

Master of Rods and Strings

But Pavan’s methods come at a cost, and when Elias learns the truth behind his uncle’s mastery, he sets out to destroy him – by any means necessary. The tale that unfolds from there is pitch-dark, as the young obsessive sacrifices more and more of his humanity to the cause of vengeance, and falls – or ascends – into something truly monstrous. 

Master of Rods and Strings wears its literary aspirations on its sleeve, and does an unusually fine job of balancing homage to its influences with originality and innovation. There are echoes of the Faust legend here, and of Dante’s descent into Hell – especially as Elias constructs his comrade and familiar, a patchwork marionette he names “Virgil.”

With the central motif of occult puppetry, there is also a strong comparison to the works of Thomas Ligotti, who offers a blurb in praise of Harris’ “captivating and expert prose.” But where Ligotti is a master of atmosphere and tone, Master of Rods and Strings bears a different focus, more concerned with the pathologies and inner life of its main character. One of its greatest strengths is the way Elias remains completely believable – and even sympathetic – as he commits more and more heinous acts with each chapter, pulling the reader into his devotion to the Art. 

The novel also has one foot planted firmly in the Weird, offering a creeping sense of nameless things just outside the reader’s view. The world it inhabits is both our own – Elias and his family live in France, or something like it – and a secondary one, like Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne, where the occult is a fact of life. The details of Elias and Pavan’s methods are never fully explained, but they seem to blend elements of voodoo, Eastern mysticism, and even vampirism, with puppets feeding on their masters’ life-force. At times, Virgil appears to take on a literal life of his own, and even to whisper in Elias’ ear at night – which could be a real event, or merely a symptom of the young artist’s disturbed mental state.

Other passages hint at darker things, with references to “primeval puppetry” practiced since prehistory by people and things not entirely human. Like any good magician, Harris leaves these deeper mysteries obscured, and his “true masters” linger offstage until the very last second – but their baleful influence is felt, all the more strongly for it. 

The plot also shows a real adeptness in deploying its unexpected twists and revelations, ratcheting up its horror by slow increments. Just when Elias – and by extension, the reader – thinks he understands the unfolding situation, the rug is pulled from beneath him, and a new and more loathsome development is uncovered. Each time, the reader gets a dizzying moment of off-balance, like stepping where you expect there to be a stair, and finding only empty space. It’s a more difficult literary method than it seems, and one that can easily go wrong – the films of M. Night Shyamalan are littered with bad examples (and a few good ones) – but Harris pulls it off at every turn, to great effect. Once again, it’s definitely best to go in unspoiled.   

It should also be mentioned, however, that Master of Rods and Strings contains some intense content. Among other things, the book touches on [SPOILERS] child abuse, mutilation, incest, involuntary organ donation, and various forms of blood sacrifice, some more traumatic than others. None of these are used gratuitously, and Harris has a deft touch, but some moments are genuinely harrowing – the end of Chapter 5, in particular, will stick with me for a while. While some readers will love this deep dive into darkness, others will definitely find it too much for comfort; if this were a film, the Motion Picture Association would have some strong words. 

It’s a rare pleasure – especially nowadays – to find a new author whose horror fiction is truly compelling. But this year, Jason Marc Harris is that author, and Master of Rods and Strings is a morbidly fascinating little book. With its release, Harris joins the pantheon of weird fiction’s modern masters, alongside figures like Laird Barron, Nicole Cushing, and Ligotti himself. It’s exciting – and, appropriately, a little scary – that he’s pulled off something this good, this early in his career. In short, I can’t wait to see what he does next. 

Master of Rods and Strings is available now from bookshop.org, and other less scrupulous companies.