A cat-and-mouse historical thriller set in Roman times...
Rufus is a slave. Through questionable good fortune, he becomes an animal trainer and respected member of his master’s, Fronto, household. It is via the arena that he meets Cupido, a hitherto prince until he was enslaved and made a gladiator – famed for his swordsmanship and skill at killing both man and beast. It is this friendship that ensnares Rufus and pulls him into the line sight of the Emperor, Caligula – so named for his ruthlessness and love for the blood and gore of the games.
Brought to the Palatine to care for the Emperor’s prized elephant, Rufus is relieved to find he is not alone, that his friend, Cupido, has been placed at the head of the Wolf Praetorian Guard. Life within the Palatine is uneasy, conflicted and all live in constant fear of Caligula’s ever-changing moods, which swing dramatically from compassionate and intelligent to delusional and paranoia-induced hysteria; but it is the political intrigue and ruses that are most dangerous and Rufus finds himself caught up unwittingly in a sinister plot that imbues the Palatine grounds like a festering sore.
Caligula is depicted as psychotic; from the young boy who derived such pleasure from the torturing of innocent animals, to the grown man who oscillates between generous leader and maniacal tyrant. His is a complex personality whose actions confuse and disarm those around him; his unpredictability the cause of dissent and disquiet.
Douglas looks at Roman history from an uncluttered view; not shirking from the more distasteful elements of Roman life and recreational activities – although, curiously, he seems reluctant to expand on any homosexual or sexually deviant actions (although they are strongly hinted at) – but altogether more willing to condescend to give full bodied detail to acts of animal cruelty, human torture and heterosexual antics.
Whilst the overall theme is not unlike that of the acclaimed film Gladiator (a slave being the cause an Emperor’s demise); Caligula is a less glossy, more barbaric account and all the more accurate for it. Unlike Harry Sidebottom, Douglas’ offering is not consumed with battle stratagem, the use of armoury or the intricacies of Roman civilisation; rather, his is a more personal look at the terrifying world of living in the shadows of an all-powerful and unhinged individual with a God-complex and its inevitable impact on the psychological and physiological well-being of those around him. Intensely dark with starkly contrasting moments of inexplicable lightness and humour, Caligula reflects the emotional imbalance of the novel’s namesake in its style; the entire book vacillating between moments of pleasure and pain, insanity and sanguinity.
We interview C J Daugherty about Night School
- 10 January 2012