A review of Douglas Thompson's Ultrameta

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Douglas Thompson's Ultrameta was published by Eibonvale Press in August 2009.

Information about Douglas Thompson:

Douglas Thompson's short stories have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, most recently Albedo One, Ambit, Postscripts, and New Writing Scotland. He won the Grolsch/Herald Question of Style Award in 1989 and second prize in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition in 2007. His first book, Ultrameta, was published by Eibonvale Press in August 2009, nominated for the Edge Hill Prize, and shortlisted for the BFS Best Newcomer Award, and since then he has published these books: Sylvow (Eibonvale, 2010), Apoidea (The Exaggerated Press, 2011), Mechagnosis (Dog Horn, 2012), Entanglement (Elsewhen Press, 2012),  The Rhymer (Elsewhen Press, 2014), The Brahan Seer (Acair Publishing, 2014) and Volwys & Other Stories (Dog Horn Publishing, 2014).

Click here to visit the author's official website.

Click here to visit the author's blog.

Information about Ultrameta:

Under the biological microscope, fractal geometry reveals itself as the secret structure of Life itself. Like Russian dolls, the closer we zoom in, the more we pass into repeating realms of infinite divisibility. In Ultrameta, Douglas Thompson searches for just such patterns in the confusion and social devastation of modern urban life. Ultrameta is the metropolis of all metropolises. The city we all live in, wherever we happen to be in the world. London, Glasgow, Athens, New York, Tokyo... the 'City of the Soul' that has grown within all of us. The time-span of the text ranges from Ancient Greece to the unnervingly familiar present, leading us to uncomfortable questions about ourselves and the life we live. It encompasses a vast emotional and social spectrum, which we plunge through as we follow the main character, Alexander Stark, through a vivid range of different identities, moving from one time and place to another in a seemingly endless cycle of death and re-emergence.

What is Ultrameta? Visionary horror? Experimental surrealism? Trippy outsider art? Like Danielewski's House of Leaves, this is one of those few books that possess a core of something genuinely unusual, both in its ideas and its approach to storytelling. A tale of 'Serial Suicide' – or perhaps of immortality. A circular novel – or is it a story collection? A four-dimensional shadow of, or an enigma modelled on, Life itself? Ultrameta represents a striking development in Slipstream writing and a unique way of looking at the world.

Ultrameta containes 25 illustrated titleplates and a very unusual contents page!


Ultrameta is an experimental and complex novel for intelligent readers who want something more from their novels than ordinary fiction and easy storytelling. This novel is far from being a conventional novel or a short story collection. It's a novel that consists of different episodes (letters) that are connected to each other. Together, these episodes form a novel that will astound, excite and satisfy the reader.

Ultrameta is a literary and surreal work of art that resonates among readers who want the best from their speculative fiction. I think it will also be of interest to readers who haven't read much speculative fiction, because it's literary speculative fiction and the prose is excellent. It's possible that it may take a while for readers to get used to the different kind of storytelling technique used in this novel, but once they do, it'll be totally impossible for them to stop reading the story.

It's difficult to categorise Ultrameta, because it defies easy categorisation (it contains many different elements that range from literary fiction to speculative fiction). It's in equal parts visionary horror, science fiction, philosophical fiction, literary fiction and surrealism. Perhaps the easiest way to categorise Ultrameta is to say that it's slipstream fiction, because that encompasses all that it is in one term (however, it's also possible to categorise it as experimental surrealism, because it's a surreal novel).

This novel consists of these sections and letters:

- Stark Choices by Allen Ashley
- Preface
- Foreword
- Camera
- Library
- Pitonessa
- Necropolis
- Trafficlight
- Piranesi
- Icarus
- Damonii
- Automan
- Mortadore
- Anatomicasa
- Casamundi
- Ultrameta
- Thanatavista
- Telemura
- Himepora
- Homunculi
- Bedrock
- Paternoster
- Scarabolis
- Messiah
- Zagreus
- Mussolini
- Butterflies
- Switchback
- Afterword
- Appendix
- Ultrameta, an Introduction by Jon Hendry

Some of these letters have been published in different magazines, but most of them are original to this novel.

All of these letters are connected to each other. The narrative flows intriguingly from letter to letter, and each of the letters has been written in first person present tense.

Here's a bit of information about the story:

- Ultrameta is a story about Alexander Stark who is a respected universy professor. He has gone missing, possibly suffering from amnesia. His wife receives letters from him in which he has adopted multiple personas. Years later, he comes back to his wife's house and together they begin to read the collected letters. "Ultrameta" is the name that Alexander Stark gives his private world, his city of the mind. "Ultrameta" is many places: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin, London, Rome, New York. It's a place where human condition is being examined and many different things happen.

- The preface is intriguing, because it contains a quote from Edgar Allan Poe's poem, "A Dream within a Dream". It efficiently sets the mood for the rest of the novel. In this preface, Walter M. Dundas, a formed Detective Inspector writes about the disappearance of Alexander Stark, Stark's wife Charlotte and the reporter Martha Lucy and the connection between them.

- The foreword is an interesting letter from Martha to Charlotte. Martha writes about Alexander Stark and how he died, and encloses and returns the complete journal of Alexander Stark to Charlotte.

- Then the focus shifts to the protagonist and his many letters...

This is the beginning of a highly original and different kind of a novel.

It's truly amazing that Douglas Thompson has managed to write a novel which consists of the protagonist's letters and the multiple personas he has adopted. The author has written this novel extremely well, because it's fascinatingly weird and absorbing - when you begin to read it, you simply can't stop reading it until you've reached the end.

The police investigation that the author writes about is an important part of the story. The inserts that can be found after some of the letters are interesting, because Dundas and Martha discuss things about the letters.

Ultrameta feeds the reader's consciousness and subconsciousness and deeply stimulates the reader's imagination with different kind of images, feelings and occurrences that are at times gloriously surreal yet deeply humane and amazing.

This novel is like a big puzzle and the author assumes that his readers have enough intelligence to put the pieces together. Each of the different pieces gives readers a glimpse into the protagonist's state of mind (each of the letters has a different meaning and purpose). These disjointed pieces reveal hidden truths and unsettling things that are brought vividly to life by means of beautiful prose.

The protagonist's different personas reveal quite a lot about him and human condition. It's intriguing how the protagonist seems to appear and disappear at different places at different times. There's a hauntingly efficient cycle of death and re-emergence in this novel that kept me spellbound all the way to the end.

There are many layers in Ultrameta, because the protagonist is many people, and he's in many places. He's an alcoholic, a commuter, a mysterious chanteuse etc, and he lives in Scotland, Greek, Rome etc. Reading about who was (and where he was) was genuinely interesting.

I was intrigued by Douglas Thompson's use of elements and imagery from Greek mythology. He's one of those rare speculative fiction authors who use these elements in an excellent way, because his references to minotaurs, centaur etc. feel natural in the context of the story. The world that he describes becomes real, because the protagonist lives in that reality.

The descriptions of the protagonist's state of mind, his feelings and his surroundings are vivid and atmospheric. When the focus shifts to a new persona, the surroundings also change and the reader gets to see a whole new side of the protagonist. The protagonist seems to be both sane and insane when you think about the contents of the letters, but if he happens to be insane, there's quite a lot of sanity in some of his letters.

Reading this novel is almost like peeling an onion, because there are many layers beneath the top layer. The further you read it, the more amazement and depth you'll find and you'll start to question and wonder certain things about life. The author offers his readers such a unique look at the world, life and humanity that you'll find plenty of depth in the story.

I think that - depending on the reader - Ultrameta can be analysed and understood in different ways. That's the beauty of this novel, because each reader will experience it personally and will make his/her own conclusions about its contents. It can be seen as a story about serial suicide or a story about immortality, but there are also other explanations for it.

This novel is one of those novels that should be re-read in order to fully appreciate its beauty and strangeness, because during the first reading you mostly marvel at its strangeness, astounding story and good prose. When you re-read it, you begin to understand how beautifully surreal and magnificent it truly is and how much depth it has, because it touches and thrills you on so many levels that you realise that you've read a true masterpiece.

Douglas Thompson's prose is beautiful and he writes excellent fiction. Everyone who has ever read literary fiction will love his prose. He blends speculative fiction and literary fiction with such an ease that's you can't help but be impressed by his skillful writing.

There was a beautifully crafted atmosphere in this novel that I found compelling. It highlighted several elements of the story in a good way. The author had also managed add a sense of mystery to the novel.

I'm sure that this novel alone is enough to convince everyone of Douglas Thompson's writing skills and literary talents. I think that even critics who normally tend to avoid reading speculative fiction will be impressed by it. In my opinion, it's a shame that many critics tend to avoid or belittle this kind of beautifully written and stunningly original speculative fiction just because it's speculative fiction. I honestly wish that critics would pay more attention to this kind of fiction and stop promoting mainstream fiction, because beautifully written literary speculative fiction is much better than mediocre mainstream fiction that can be found in every bookshop around the world (I'm not saying that all mainstream fiction is bad or mediocre, but sadly most of it is often of poor quality and doesn't deserve much attention from quality oriented readers who want only the best from their fiction).

The contents page is one of the most original contents pages I've ever seen in novels. It's a stylistic work of art. I'll also mention that the cover image and the illustrated titleplates by David Rix are beautiful.

If there are readers out there who are still unfamiliar with Douglas Thompson and his works, please do yourself a big favour and read Ultrameta. It's unlike anything you've ever read and it'll keep you mesmerised all the way to the beautifully and tragically disquieting end.

Ultrameta is a unique reading experience that should not be missed by any readers who love strange stories and beautifully written literary prose. It's one of the most rewarding and complex novels available for readers who are not afraid to read something different. To be short, it's slipstream fiction at its best and most original.

Highly recommended!