Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Nightfarers

I've already chronicled my difficulties in obtaining a copy of The Nightfarers, Mark Valentine's 2009 collection, so I'll say only that when I finally managed to get my hands on the book I was rather excited.  I was hoping for stories with the same exquisite, perfectly-constructed classical prose and storytelling of The Collected Connoisseur, but with more variety than that series could provide.  I got everything I was hoping for.

Supernatural.  Fantastic.  Decadent.  Visionary.  Weird.  Esoteric.  There are many words that could describe these stories, but perhaps you want sentences rather than words.  Very well.  The mark of a Valentine story is that it derives its worth not so much from incident (which is often slight, suggestive) but from atmosphere, the sense of the strange, numinous, and inexplicable.  As the narrator of "The Axholme Toll," a story that, like many of Valentine's, draws on real history, muses,
After all, perhaps Stevenson had only half of the matter.  It is true there are places that stir the mind to think that a story must be told about them.  But there are also, I believe, places which have their story stored already, and want to tell us this, through whatever powers they can; through our legends and lore, through our rumours, and our rites.  By its whispering fields and its murmuring waters, by the wailing of its winds and the groaning of its stones, by what it chants in darkness and the songs it sings in light, each place must reach out to us, to tell us, tell us what it holds.
The world of The Nighfarers is recondite, antiquarian, concerned with the mysteries of England, of Eastern Europe, of stranger places by far.  "The 1909 Proserpine Prize" imagines an award given for supernatural fiction, and the disturbing events at the conference of the judges in that year.  Books are a frequent theme, from the little-known but haunting Edwardian curio books of "White Pages" to the book collector who gets more than he bargained for in "Undergrowth" to the dying poets of "The Bookshop in NovĂ˝ Svet."  Other stories reach beyond books to address directly the force of language and imagination, as in "Carden in Capaea," a story about the life of the traveler, and about things that cannot be named, or "The Dawn at Tzern," which has no explicit supernatural elements but is nonetheless awe-inspiring in its evocation of a historical moment and the future it portends for individuals and for nations. 

"The Seven Treasures of Bucharest," the longest of these generally brief stories, brings together many of Valentine's obscure interests into a tale that is more than a potent example of supernaturalism, more even than a historical fiction capturing the wonders of a particular city as the ambiguous virtues of modernity begin to overtake it.  The story becomes an invocation of the spiritual so allusive and yet so powerful that even I, not much on the spiritual, was moved.  Taken together, the thirteen works that make up The Nightfarers are an even greater invocation.  Both in terms of rarity and quality, this is not a book for the casual horror reader.  It will only interest, only reward, the reader who seeks a certain atmosphere, rarified perhaps but not delicate, impossible to pin down but all-encompassing.  For those readers, this is a book that must be experienced.

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