Petrushka: Proceedings of a Conference on Severe Epidemic Phytonotic Syndrome (SEPS)

I’ve been following the work of Peter McCarey, the author of this book, since I reviewed his online project The Syllabary ( in 2006. The Syllabary is an attempt to produce a poem for every one-syllable word in the English/Scottish language, and Peter McCarey is best-known as a poet, but he’s also an experimental writer, and Petrushka is a work of experimental horror/science-fiction, somewhat in the tradition of John Wyndham. It purports to be a collection of papers from a conference about the alarming spread of a disease called SEPS, in which human beings find themselves sprouting leaves and thorns as they are taken over from within by plants. It’s a bit like Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, but more documentary in style. This documentary approach does have its drawbacks, particularly in the second half of the book where one or two of the papers presented by ‘contributors’ other than McCarey himself – on subjects such as the impact of SEPS on social organisations, religion and art, its legal and ethical ramifications, and so on – get a little bit dry and theoretical. On the other hand there is a genuinely creepy conviction to the book: by the end of it you feel that this, or something like this, is actually very likely to happen as a result of our constant nibbling-away and tampering with the environment. There are a couple of very striking sections – one where an investigative journalist tracks down the first case of SEPS to a Russian villager who has started sprouting parsley, and another where an interview is presented, purportedly with someone from the future who has come back to set SEPS in motion as a means of stopping the human race in its tracks before it can entirely destroy the planet. The ideas are constantly interesting and provocative. There are moments where the combination of creepiness, intellectual excitement and elegant prose reminded me of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

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