Book Review: The House of Blue Light

From the cover page: “Blue is said to be the colour of truth, and Light said to represent goodness, so I put them together and place them in me, their House for the span of the following pages. If truth is good, then this I will speak, in hope of your edification”.

Should a writer’s history…their pedigree if you will, come into play when reviewing their work? Does a tarnished history ensure that the reader or reviewer is going in with a preconceived notion as to what to expect or even a determination NOT to like it?

If someone read the book GATES OF JANUS without knowing it was penned by Moor’s Murderer Ian Brady would it have received more critical acclaim? Conversely, if a 1000 page book was released to little fanfare and no author listed would it be heralded as a bore fest until it’s revealed to have been written by bloated windbag Stephen King?

As Haigh himself states in the introduction “People may think I’m an incorrigible beast, so behold me in my cage. I parade for you to see, so you can measure me against any preconceived ideas”.

Paul Steven Haigh has penned his book behind bars, where he has been serving seven life-sentences for murder since the late 1970s. The book in its entirety has seldom been seen outside of prison walls, save for some sensationalist quotes being used by less stellar examples of the 4th estate, when Haigh quoted from it in court. This obviously doesn’t do the book any justice and ultimately says more about the journalists than it does about the author (“Paul Steven Haigh mocks victims’ loved ones in book The House of the (sic) Blue Light“ (Herald Sun). If they can’t get the TITLE of the book right it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the article!!). These same journalists would have been well-served to read Haigh’s own words on the subject…”I’ve chosen my words carefully in order to convey my experience and sentiment, so make sure that you only read what’s on the pages. What I share here has taken me long years to think of and lay out, so don’t twist and turn what I say so that it suits your prejudice, fears, sensitivity, ignorance, or naivety”. It would be too much to expect them to do anything other than pander to the bloodlust of society.

Haigh’s reason for not widely releasing the book also speaks volumes of the man himself. He strongly believes that he should not profit from his crimes in any way, also believing that he has a great karmic debt to pay for his life of crime. Therefore when the book ultimately becomes available for wider consideration, it’ll more than likely be free to peruse. It probably goes without saying that there would be publishers out there that would snap up the chance to release the book, but one can only imagine how they’d promote it and the subsequent outcry from sectors of the community. People going into it expecting a gore-fest in the vein of KILLER FICTION (Gerard Schaefer) will be disappointed…it’s a far more measured and reasonable tome.

If I had to compare it to another book, it’d be closer to IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST (Jack Henry Abbott) in terms of philosophy and outlook. Haigh has NOTHING in common with writers like Gerard Schaefer, “Chopper” Read, Ian Brady or “Pee Wee” Gaskins, and rightfully even bristles at being called a “serial killer”.  As he pointed out in correspondence to me, he is technically a “spree killer” (defined as someone who kills two or more people over a period of time). His crimes were done out of a sense of necessity and self-preservation, not fantasy and lust. He took no pleasure in the act of killing and regrets his actions to this day.

Upon receiving the book I was instructed by Paul that it should be read from cover to cover IN ORDER. I’m sure the moth’s drawn to the flame of the more sensationalist aspects of his case would be tempted to skip chapters and get to the “juicy” parts, but this would be to miss the chance to enjoy and appreciate the book as it is intended to be read. This instruction might be misconstrued as egotistical and overly-precious of his written words, but that is not the case at all. The reader does indeed benefit from reading the book in chronological order. It washes over you and takes you on a journey and provides life lessons that have taken the writer decades to learn.

The book is unique (to this reviewer) in layout and intent. It is set out as a series of letters written to an anonymous reader with 157 chapters (some only sentences long, some pages) beginning “dear you…” and then following up with Haigh’s life lessons, philosophies and reflections. It’s impressive in many regards, not the least being that Paul left the formal structure of scholastic education at an early age to pursue a life of crime, and is largely self-educated.

Haigh has an incredible grasp of language and its potential impact upon the reader. At times I found myself reading lines over and over, catching my breath at their simplistic power and the potency of his words. And despite what he might say, the book is poetic in nature at times. From letter 98: “If God rips wings from angels to swat man’s buzzing prayers, or scrapes the walls of hell for gobs of madness to give those who need sanity instead, what am I, a mere man, to do?”.

Chapter titles reveal the course of the journey the reader will be steered through. Starting with “Standing my ground”, “The formally educated and me”, “Jail is a dangerous sea”, “Death-part one” and finishing up with “Truth and lies can only be good or evil”,  “Concerns about me committing more crimes” and “Sane”. It is a journey of discovery for both the reader and the writer, self-discovery being the case for the latter.
It is obvious from reading the book and talking on the phone to him, as I am fortunate to do, that Haigh hasn’t held anything back and is embarrassed when given even a modicum of praise for his writing or positive acknowledgement for his very existence. He feels he is a worthless example of humanity, a “fact” that is reiterated whenever his name appears in the press. I wholeheartedly disagree and feel he has many a worthwhile trait. Aside from his enviable writing skills, he is honest to a fault and totally self-aware. Refreshing traits in today’s society where hypocritical self-deceit is embraced by the masses.

Haigh spends a good portion of the book detailing his opinions on “good and evil”, and given all he has been through, the way he is depicted, the way he feels about himself and the people he has met on his travels, it’s not surprising that this is frequently discussed. This is especially the case when you consider the environment in which the book was written.

Considering Haigh has been incarcerated for over thirty years, and been housed in some of the worst and most-violent prisons in Australian history, it’s remarkable that he hasn’t pulled the blanket of insanity over his head or mindlessly dulled his senses and embraced nothingness.  But, to his credit, in THE HOUSE OF BLUE LIGHT Haigh doesn’t wallow is self-pity. It must be refreshing for him to put ALL on the page and have no skeletons rattling around in his closet. It’s hard to imagine what Haigh has left OUT of the book (aside from other prisoner’s names as is the prisoner code of ethics).

Ultimately the book is a success because it is exactly as the author intended it to be. He hasn’t sold out to mollify the society that hates him. He hasn’t lowered himself to the level of journalists. He doesn’t wallow in his crimes. The book will baffle and confound his critics. He has provided food for thought for everyone lucky enough to spy a copy.

And, most importantly, he has proven that no matter what others may think of him..or he may think of himself at times, he IS worthwhile and his life hasn’t been a complete waste. There are multitudes in the free world who have had access to far more in life and done far LESS with it!

Review by Crimson Celluloid