Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales

The line between homage and pastiche is a tricky one for any contemporary horror writer to walk.  From the major figures of the 19th and early 20th centuries-- Poe, Machen, Lovecraft-- to equally admired and influential moderns like Thomas Ligotti, there are many worthy names from whom the writer can draw inspiration, but the question is how to show one's respect for tradition without producing tales that are stale and uninspired, or sublimating one's own voice to a poor imitation of a dead master.  Fortunately for fans of the classically-inspired weird tale, Mark Samuels has figured out how to strike the balance.  As Reggie Oliver, himself possessed of that gift, said in a review, "Like most writers who are confident of their abilities Samuels is not afraid to acknowledge influences... but the dominant figure is always Samuels."  The Man Who Collected Machen, Samuels' fourth collection, is a slim one, containing only eleven relatively brief stories in the new Chomu Press edition, but that's more than enough to demonstrate the truth of Oliver's statement.  Both readers interested in the history of the weird tale and those who appreciate its modern evolution cannot afford to miss this first mass-market-priced edition of Samuels' work.

Although I'd read bits and pieces of Samuels' fiction in various anthologies, The Man Who Collected Machen was my first full-length exposure to his work.  (I should be reading his early collection The White Hands before too much longer, but my copy is apparently still in the post.)  As I read the first story, "Losenef Express," I was uneasy.  The ending of the story wasn't terribly difficult to see coming, and while that isn't always a problem in a weird tale, in this case it made me impatient.  It was also distracting to have the protagonist, an overweight horror writer from Tennessee, described and thinking in the clipped, formal rhythms of Samuels' prose.  Despite this, the story did offer some striking images, particularly an unexpected, gruesome tableau near the end, and as I turned the final page I remained hopeful for a decent, if not spectacular, reading experience.

I got so much more than that.  I hadn't known quite what to expect from the second, title story.  Although I have read Robert Bloch's "The Man Who Collected Poe," which I assumed to be a loose inspiration, I haven't read much Machen, and what little I do know has made, I regret to say, very little impression.  It was a good thing for me, then, that "The Man Who Collected Machen" doesn't require any familiarity with that author, though there may well be little touches to reward those who know his work.  This is a traditional tale of a young bibliophile and a mysterious old man, told in a simple but powerful descriptive language, with a visionary conclusion that is, I think, very reminiscent of Machen himself.  It's also a meditation on what it means to collect, and to appreciate, the works of a particular author.

The next story, "THYXXOLQU," is the first of several stories to treat language as a virus, and has, I think, a touch of Thomas Ligotti about it, although it's by no means a pastiche.  It also reminds me of Robert Aickman, not so much in terms of superficial content as in the ambiguous nature of its supernaturalism.  The mysterious language that is infecting London may disfigure the very mouths of its speakers, but it also suggests new and greater realms of understanding than those offered by ordinary speech.  The story's ending, in which the terror and the promise of Thyxxolqu come together, is unsettling on the higher philosophical level of the best weird fiction.

"The Black Mould" is a work of faintly Lovecraftian cosmicism, but it turns that notion on its head by treating humanity as insignificant even with the perspective of the story, which is about, and from the perspective of, the alien menace that in Lovecraft is only ever glancingly seen.  The result is a six-page story of truly universal horror that inspired in me both a chill and a morbid chuckle.  By this point I had well and truly realized what a marvelous little collection this was going to be.

And the remaining stories largely lived up to that expectation.  There was one more that didn't do too much for me, the intriguing but underdeveloped "A Question of Obeying Orders," but the rest were uniformly excellent, from "Xapalpa," a grim tale of unusual pinatas, to "Nor Unto Death Utterly," a Poe homage that (as Poe himself only sometimes did) thoroughly lives up to its narrator's histrionic tone, to "The Age of Decayed Futurity," a story whose intensity and ingenious frame narrative elevate it about the cheap anti-Hollywood satire it might have been.  Too often when one reads that a weird writer has been inspired by "the classics," it means that he produces pastiches of his one idol, be that idol Lovecraft or James or Machen, and so his work has no variety.  This is not the case with Samuels, who can write about London or Mexico or "a crater on a dead world at the rim of the universe," about nineteenth-century resurrections or twenty-first century telepathy.

That last comes in during "Glickman the Bibliophile," one of my personal favorites from the collection and another language-as-virus story.  This one links philosophical pessimism with contemporary literary theory via an anti-book cult of shocking vehemence.  (The name of its leader, Janus Yaanek, is perhaps one of those rare cases where Samuels' acknowledgment of the past comes close to overegging the pudding.)  The third such story, "A Contaminated Text," is even better.  It begins like an encyclopedia article, takes in a secret society of delightful absurdity, and then takes several more viscerally and intellectually startling turns, including this eerie nightmare:
Those who loaned books from the library suffered from horrible, fragmentary dreams.  They dreamt of a decayed city of inverted steeples shrouded in a fog, of black stars in a blood-red sky, of being dead-but-alive, and of searching after a cryptic symbol of no human origin, a symbol which alone brought oblivion.  They were tormented by a voice seeming to call from a great distance, a voice muttering unintelligible words, a voice that bubbled and spat like hot tar.
The first ten stories in this collection also appeared in the first edition of The Man Who Collected Machen, an expensive hardcover from Ex Occidente Press.  The eleventh and final one, "The Tower," is new to this edition, and makes a fitting conclusion and summation for this visionary, literate volume.  Its concept-- an isolated thinker's philosophical journey, and the mysterious tower that appears to him, is a simple one, but Samuels' prose is pitch perfect, and the story's final page, although it may mean nothing at all in crude literal terms, means everything to the life of the mind.  And, though Samuels has a gift for strange and disturbing images, it is that life that is the true focus of The Man Who Collected Machen.  Mark Samuels, like the writers who have inspired him, is literate, unexpected, challenging, and, once you've made the effort, infinitely rewarding.  Like many distinctive voices, his is best encountered at length, in this or another of his collections.  Allow his simple yet hypnotic style to draw you in.  You won't be sorry you did.
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The Man Who Collected Machen is in print in an inexpensive edition from Chomu Press; you can also search secondhand booksellers for the slightly different Ex Occidente edition, but I shudder to think what prices it's fetching. The earlier collection Glyphotech is in print from PS Publishing at a decent price, while the paperback edition of The White Hands is also fairly cheap from Tartarus Press.

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