Robert Rankin's fondness for demented conspiracy theories is complicated by time travel in The Witches of Chiswick--which demonstrates again that everything you know is wrong, that Brentford is the true centre of the multiverse, and that nobody is quite as weird as Robert Rankin.
Will Starling lives in a dystopian 23rd century where Brentford Utility Conurbation is crammed with 303-storey tower blocks and synthetic food has made everyone vastly obese. Except for Will, who's mocked for morbid slimness and eccentric tastes--art, for example. When he notices the digital watch in a well-known Victorian painting, a murderous cover-up begins. The sinister Witches of Chiswick are determined to erase all traces of the other past.
Time-travelling Terminator-style automata keep arriving, not from the future but from that lost Victorian age of Babbage supercomputers, flying cabs running on beamed power from Tesla transmitters and the imminent launch of Her Majesty's Moonship Victoria. Thanks to the convenient time machine of a Mr Wells, Will finds himself in that other 19th century, complicating the stories of his own ancestors.
There he's tutored by the flamboyant guru or conman Hugo Rune. He stands in for Sherlock Holmes--called away to a Dartmoor case--and investigates the Jack-the-Ripper murders. As tends to happen in the Rankin universe, he acquires a Holy Guardian Sprout called Barry. Will even meets himself, another Will from a very different future. Even aided by his best friend Tim, by the Brentford Snail Boy (raised like Tarzan by wild animals, not apes but snails), and by the deadly martial art Dimac, can Will hope to foil a witchy plan to reprogram time and send high-tech Britain back to gaslight as midnight strikes on December 31, 1899?
Other walk-ons include Queen Victoria, the Elephant Man, William McGonagall (Poet Laureate), Doctor Watson, the Invisible Man, Oscar Wilde (a notorious womaniser), Wells' Martians, and--in unfamiliar guise--Satan. It's all suitably dotty, larded with running gags and bursts of disarming frankness:
... Perhaps both futures always existed. I don't know. This is very complicated, Tim, and I don't understand it. I'm just making it up as I go along. Like the author," said Tim.
But rather than wrap-up this novel with any of a dozen deus ex machina possibilities, Rankin leaves his hero with a very tough decision indeed. The insane, goonish humour made more effective by a touch of grimness. --David Langford