When I read this in the Books of Blood omnibus, volumes 1-3, I was a teenager in the eighties. The copy I owned was borrowed from a friend. There were so many great stories but the image at the centre of this story was the one I remembered. Popolac is a giant, composed of the citizens of the self-same city strapped in together to form one body. It roams the hills unwittingly detroying whatever dares cross its path. It is unaware that the bodies which compose it are slowly dying. It too will die. This is one strand of the story narrated in the third person by Vaslav Jelovsek, a citizen of Popolac, in the hills of Yugoslavia.
The other strand which precedes it is narrated in the third person by Mick. Mick and Judd on a romantic vacation in Yugoslavia argue and then just as suddenly reconcile. They will blunder into Popolac’s path. The moment when Judd runs through the wheat field after Judd, the day before the disaster, nicely foreshadows this:
Field-mice ran ahead of him, scurrying through the stalks as the giant came their way, his feet like thunder. Judd saw their panic, and smiled. He meant no harm to them, but then how were they to know that? Maybe he’d put out a hundred lives, mice, beetles, worms, before he reached the spot where Mick was lying, stark bollocked naked, on a bed of trampled grain, still grinning.
Soon the roles will be reversed:
Popolac was within two steps of the cottage. They could see the complexities of its structure quite clearly. The faces of the citizens were becoming detailed: white, sweat-wet, and content in their weariness. Some hung dead from their harnesses, their legs swinging back and forth like the hanged. Others, children particularly, had ceased to obey their training, and had relaxed their position, so that the form of the body was degenerating, beginning to seethe with boils of rebellious cells.
Yet is still walked, each step an incalculable effort of co-ordination and strength.
The step that trod the cottage came sooner than they thought. Mick saw the leg raised; saw the faces of the people in the shin and ankle and foot – they were as big as he was now – all huge men chosen to take the full weight of this giant creation.
The relationship between Mick and Judd is parallelled briefly with that of Metzinger and Vaslav, and that of the two giant cities side by side.
He looked up at twin towers of Popolac and Podujevo. Head in the clouds – well almost. They practically stretched to touch the sky. It was an awesome sight, a breath-stopping sight, sleep-stabbing sight. Two cities swaying and writhing and preparing to take their first steps towards each other in this ritual battle.
The parallels work on a visual level but don’t go beyond that. The motivation that keeps Mickey and Judd from running is the same as that of the citizens in the giant: they lose their minds. Everything moves on. There aren’t any obstacles. Finally, come death, maggots, and the omniscient narrator.
I was in the right mood to read this. I can imagine that many people will see holes in it. Like, what kind of safety checks prevented this disaster from happening on the first year of the event? The story logic is that the main organiser who ran the event for sixty years has died and her daughter is struggling to take her place hence the delays and mistakes. Reading the story again, I find it odd that this event happened sixty times without wholesale death. That really stretches the imagination.
So why the doubts?
The story relies on its effect for a documentary style countdown. We are always grounded in times and places as Mick and Judd travel around Yugoslavia. As they leave Belgrade, we know the details of events in Popolac as the two giants are formed. We even know the exact number of people who form Podujevo – 38,750. The same details that make the fantastic compellingly convincing also beg questions when none are provided.
Though motivation is a weak spot in this story, and it feels like there are gaps in the story, it also offers glimpses of wonder, and that’s why I still love this story, more than twenty years on.