Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer

Many of us, I'm sure, enjoyed fairy tales as children, but time has made them so familiar that even the darker original versions can lose their magic.  Retold and original fairy tales, which allow us to recapture some of that sense of wonder, have therefore become a major subgenre of contemporary fantasy and horror.  Famed anthologists Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling edited a six-volume series for adults in the 1990s, and in more recent years have put together several volumes marketed as young adult fiction but smart, dark, and complex enough to appeal to older readers as well.  Names both in and out of the genre "ghetto," from Angela Carter to Margo Lanagan to Angela Slatter, have demonstrated particular mastery of the form.  One of the early writers to do so was the versatile Tanith Lee, whose 1983 volume Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer is an elegant, unsettling collection of nine classic tales re-imagined in ambiguous, adult fashion.

I don't want to match each of these nine stories to its source, as identifying the original is part of the pleasure of the reading experience.  However, I will say that they range from a retelling so faithful that the only new narrative element is a final melancholy twist, to one so different that I can't tell which of several similar originals it might be based on.  Two invert the classic moral schemes by featuring evil versions of famed heroines.  All but one of the nine has a female protagonist.  And eight of the nine are straightforward fantasy, while one has a science fiction edge.

What makes these stories particularly delightful to read is Lee's modern spin on fairy-tale prose.  Her style combines the vivid images and straightforward storytelling of classic fairy tales with deeper psychological elements that give these tales a human as well as a magical edge.  Red as Blood is one of those books where you find quotable paragraphs on every other page, but I'll try to contain myself:
Yes, the great ballroom is filled only with dust now.  The slender columns of white marble and the slender columns of rose-red marble are woven together by cobwebs.  The vivid frescoes, on which the Duke's treasury spent so much, are dimmed by the dust; the faces of the painted goddesses look grey.  And the velvet curtains-- touch them, they will crumble.  Two hundred years now, since anyone danced in this place on the sea-green floor in the candle-gleam.  Two hundred years since the wonderful clock struck for the very last time.
That's the opening of "When the Clock Strikes," a story that goes farther than any of the others in obscuring its fairy-tale source, to great effect when the original is slowly revealed.  And then there's "Thorns," a especially faithful and vivid retelling of a story I won't name, though this quote may well make it obvious:
He was on a marble terrace which rose in marble steps to an incredible garden above.  Dark green trees had been pruned into the shapes of birds and animals, fountains jetted into porphyry vases and a thousand roses bloomed.  Not a leaf moved.  The flowers were like things made of wax, and the water of the fountains stayed quite still like threads of crystal suspended in mid air.  The prince climbed the steps and stood in the garden mystified and troubled, and ahead rose the vast pile of a palace with pointing milk-white towers.  Taking one deep breath, he began to walk toward it.
 This powerful images are balanced by the stories' characterizations.  From a cruel yet beautiful god without followers to an abused wife to an eccentric, lonely daughter, the men, women, and creatures of Red as Blood have problems that will resonate with 21st-century audience.  Magic may be the way to solve their problems... or it may open the gates of hell.  Fairy tales are rooted so deeply in our minds that the best new versions of them stir some deep sensitivity, thrill and terrify us in an almost spiritual manner.  Although the longest of them is only forty pages, these concise and beautiful stories by Tanith Lee have the power of epics, and should not be missed by those for whom fairy tales have never ceased to be wonderful.

A Clash of Kings

This review contains no major spoilers for A Clash of Kings, but it does outline the basic premise of a few characters' storylines, and there are major spoilers for A Game of Thrones as well.

At the end of A Game of Thrones, a red comet appeared in the sky.  Its presence dominates the opening chapters of A Clash of Kings, as every faction in the conflict rippling across the continent of Westeros interprets the comet as a portent of its own victory.  At most one of these interpretations is correct, of course, and the book is silent on what the comet actually means, if it has any significance apart from the astronomical.  That's the way of magic in this series; it's vague, difficult to explain, nothing if not equivocal.

Mysterious and strange though magic may be, its power is on the rise in A Clash of Kings.  Whether, as is suggested at one point, its resurgence has to do with the birth of Daenerys Targaryen's dragons is another open question.  What's certain is that magic casts its ominous shadow over the events of this novel, creating at intervals an atmosphere of uncanny threat uncommon in epic fantasy, more reminiscent of classic tales of horror, the supernatural, and the weird.  The locations in which A Game of Thrones took place were largely based on medieval precedents, basically familiar to readers of epic fantasy, though reinvigorated by Martin's use of gritty historical detail.  New settings in A Clash of Kings are less familiar, and more disturbing. 

The book's gem of a prologue introduces readers to Stannis, brother of the late king Robert and a major player in the titular conflict.  Stannis' home, the island fortress of Dragonstone, is a dark, eerie place, made all the more so by the arrival of a priestess from a distant religion.  As an elderly adviser who raised Stannis after the death of his parents tries to curtail the priestess' rising influence, the reader learns of the sad history, grim architecture and melancholy inhabitants of the fortress.  Full of world-building, character development, and hints of the impossible, this thirty-page chapter is a model of fantasy storytelling.  Further chapters in this narrative strand, with a new point-of-view character, are less dazzling, but still excellent, and never without ambiguous aspects.

The second new point-of-view character introduces the reader to the Iron Islands, a harsh environment whose inhabitants live a harsh lifestyle not dissimilar to that of the Vikings.  The bare, stony, sea-swept islands have their own religion, less comforting than that of the mainland; almost Lovecraftian, in fact.  And then there's the city visited by Daenerys, an ornate mecca full of vast buildings, strange beasts, and warlocks.  These chapters have about them something of Jack Vance, whom George R. R. Martin regards as the greatest living fantasist.  Unlike some writers of epic fantasy, whose influences begin and end with Tolkien, Martin has read widely in fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and the vast world he creates reflects all of that reading.

But these new characters and situations are balanced by old ones, by the same mix of courtly intrigue and violent action that characterized A Game of Thrones.  As the book opens, Tyrion Lannister arrives in King's Landing to act in his father's place as Hand of the King.  But enemies and potential enemies are everywhere, from the eunuch spymaster Varys to the calculating treasurer Littlefinger to his own sister, Queen Regent Cersei, and her spoiled, unstable son, King Joffrey.  Tyrion will need his sharp wit to survive, and indeed, he puts it to good use in some of the most entertaining chapters in the entire series.  Although many of the protagonists of A Song of Ice and Fire fancy themselves to be master manipulators, Tyrion is the only point-of-view character who has a real genius for such things, and his fierce sense of humor lends his arc a particular edge.

Meanwhile, Arya Stark, daughter of the executed Eddard, is in disguise as a boy, being led north toward home.  That course takes her through the lands devastated by the conflict the nobles of various houses have so blithely started, and gives her a rapid education in the cruelties of war.  Death and disease are rampant, and only strength, intelligence, and bloody-minded cruelty of one's own offer a chance of survival.  Despite being a young girl, Arya quickly demonstrates her growing mastery of all three.  Like many characters in the series, she's on a dark road, and things seem likely to get much worse before they get better.

These are only some of the protagonists and situations of the novel, and I've barely hinted at the growing moral ambiguity of the series, created by the widening range of point-of-view characters, each with his or her own plans, flaws, histories, and justifications.  A Song of Ice and Fire is truly a mammoth story, combining the best of epic fantasy, historical fiction, sword-and-sorcery, and horror.  The author has described his childhood reading as "all sorts of weird stuff," and that's also a good description for this series: all sorts of weird, wonderful stuff.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Coming in September: Stephen Jones' A Book of Horrors

Maybe this news has been out there for a while, but I've just found out that Stephen Jones, editor of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and all-around great anthologist, has a new antho coming out this fall.  Titled A Book of Horrors, it contains original stories by some of the major writers of a number of different types of horror and dark fantasy.  Stephen King, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Angela Slatter, Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Shearman, Reggie Oliver... well, I could just as well list the entire table of contents.  To see that, and the book's striking cover art, click here.  I don't buy many anthologies anymore-- single-author collections provide a more satisfying experience-- but this one is definitely going on my list.

Edit: and Jones also has a ghost story anthology forthcoming. It looks like a mix of reprints and originals, and has an equally distinguished TOC.  This time, click here.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Mask and Other Stories

This review is based on an incomplete advance copy supplied by the editor/publisher.

Herbert van Thal is best known as an anthologist, particularly for his work on the Pan Book of Horror Stories series, twenty-five volumes of which he edited between the late 1950s and his death in 1983.  But van Thal's career in publishing, and his knowledge of the world of literature, were greater than many horror aficionados might suspect.  For full information on that, you'd have to read van Thal's biography, Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares, written by Johnny Mains and due to appear in a revised edition later this year.  Before that, though, Mains is also releasing The Mask and Other Stories, a collection of four stories written by van Thal in the 1930s, when he was still in his 20s.  These stories, while not a distinctive body of work in their own right, have certain interesting features, and, coupled with some interesting supplementary material, will certainly be a worthwhile item for those interested in van Thal or Pan Horror, as well as collectors of unique horror ephemera in general.

"The Mask" is a very short story, more a mood piece than a full narrative.  Unfortunately, its style, while more than competent considering van Thal's age and inexperience as a writer, isn't quite consistent enough to make for a fully-realized atmosphere.  "Variations on a Theme" collects two stories, "Child Performer" and "Summer Idyll," both of which feature an unhappy divorced protagonist having an unsatisfactory encounter with a female: in one case a, well, child performer, in the other case a beautiful rural maid.  At times the dual protagonist's world-weariness is too broadly drawn, but there is also some commendable language, and the endings manage a certain depressive mood.  Finally, the best and best-written of the four stories, "The Old Lady Makes a Cup of Tea," is a dark social comedy about a solitary man who's sick of his persistent circle of friends, and what happens when he tries to get away from there.  As with the other stories, there's nothing terribly original here, but there are a few funny lines, enough to make the story a successful diversion.

It seems likely that, had he pursued fiction writing, van Thal might have surpassed the uneven style of these stories and developed an interesting voice of his own.  Certainly the essay "Recipe for Reading: A Letter to My Godsons," which is appended to this volume and was written in the 1940s, about a decade on from the stories, is a fine piece of writing.  This erudite, drily witty, and succinct piece surveys fiction, essays, letters, diaries, poetry, plays, and other pieces outside the major classics that his godsons might find worth reading.  It's quite fascinating to see which writers van Thal recommends are remembered nowadays and which are not, and I've made a few notes on things I might want to check out myself.  I understand that a couple other essays by van Thal will appear in the final version of the book.  At £12 for a limited hardcover, that's good value for the interested reader.  The Mask and Other Stories is a slight but enjoyable slice of horror history.

Lesser Demons

As I've mentioned in the past, I'm not a particular fan of crime and suspense fiction.  Under the right circumstances it, like horror fiction, can explore aspects of our existence no other type of fiction can, but only the few finest examples of that exploration are apt to interest me.  When crime and suspense are crossed with horror, however, that's another matter.  Supernatural Noir was such a book, and Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge is another.  These ten stories offer the hard-boiled characters and lean prose of detective novels, westerns, and other gritty fiction, but in addition to human monsters, they showcase giants, werewolves, and even odder beasts.  The hells the characters face are not only personal and psychological but, all too often, literal and deadly.

Partridge's heroes (mostly men) are the strong, silent type.  They aren't much on book-learning or other ruminations.  They've seen terrible things and prefer not to dwell on them.  They're survivors.  Frankly, they get a little monotonous, as neither their personalities nor their situations are always well-rounded enough to make them come alive.  The bare prose style of these stories likewise begins to wear on the nerves at times, particularly the short, stark paragraphs, which are presumably intended to achieve dramatic-weight but instead have an unintentionally self-parodic effect.  The grim imagery, usually effective, is always on a tightrope over the ridiculous, and sometimes falls off:
Kale smiled.  Though he stood in darkness, that same moonlight crept up his spines like a dozen furious scorpions in a hurry to plant stings at the base of his brain.  In his world, that wasn't unfamiliar feeling, and it dug down to his core like a grave robber's shovel, churning up secrets buried in the deepest, darkest corners of the shriveled black hunk he called his soul.
Mostly, though, this style, which is nominally cold-hearted but actually wears its heart on its sleeve (holy mixed metaphor, Batman!), succeeds at propelling the reader through the stories, which often feature inventive twists on classic scenarios.  The title story is a Lovecraftian affair, with ghouls and other eldritch beasties, but instead of reading about them and going gibbering mad, the narrator disposes of them neatly with guns.  This is thematically quite different from HPL, but, in its own way, equally satisfying.  Then there's "The House Inside," a post-apocalyptic story with a difference, in which the price of exposure to the light of the sun is ghastly to contemplate.  Or "The Iron Dead," an original novella where creatures that combine the worst aspects of the supernatural and the mechanical menace an isolated town.

Several stories have a psychological element.  In some cases, it doesn't work; prose that's good at describing characters who shun their traumas works less well at generating sympathy; its spareness is too obviously a front, and can feel as manipulative as sentimental fiction.  "The Big Man" in particular doesn't manage the subtlety it's trying to achieve with its story of an orphan, his cruel foster father, and the giant they're hunting.  In other cases, the stories do become emotionally as well as viscerally harrowing.  "And What Did You See in the World?" takes a married couple's sensitivity and protectiveness to disturbing extremes, while "The Fourth Stair Up from the Second Landing" is so subtle that it might not be a ghost story at all merely, merely a meditation on loneliness, regret, and the long shadows cast by the dead.  "Carrion" offers a vivid metaphor for the secrets we keep bottled up, and the ways in which different people can and can't survive them.  In an entertaining afterword with story notes, the author suggests he'll have more to say about the milieu of this story in the future, and I look forward to that continuation in whatever form it takes.

That same afterword notes the substantial range of Partridge's reading, from Ray Bradbury and Stephen King to The Twilight Zone to crime films,spaghetti westerns, and comic books.  The result of that range of influences is obvious in his fiction.  For all that the prose style becomes repetitive and some of the characterization is limited, Partridge offers quite a variety of situations and story types.  There's pulse-pounding monster-killing action, yes, but also quieter reflection on the darker corners of our lives.  It's not quite "something for everything," but Lesser Demons is definitely a worthwhile read for those who like the interaction of suspense and horror.

The Sacrifice and Other Stories

Because of the eccentric but logical way I buy books, I am coming at the works of Sarban in reverse.  After Discovery of Heretics, a collection of unfinished stories and excerpts from unpublished novels, I've now arrived at The Sacrifice and Other Stories.  Like Discovery of Heretics, this is a posthumous volume issued by Tartarus Press; unlike it, this contains complete, polished work that could easily have been published in its own right, had Sarban been a slightly more ambitious and assertive writer.  As it was, however, he left them among his papers, and it is only through Tartarus' interest in the author and the efforts of his daughter, the late Jocelyn Leighton, that these four novellas are available at all.  Not yet having read the short novels and stories published during Sarban's lifetime, I can't compare the contents of The Sacrifice to those works, but taken on their own terms these pieces are well-crafted, quietly atmospheric tales of the supernatural that compare favorably with other examples of mid-twentieth century supernaturalism.

The title story is perhaps the finest.  I found its tale of an artist on holiday who becomes fascinated with a woodland pool in the village where she's staying, and with the unusual statue that watches over the pool, pleasantly similar to Robert Aickman's "The Unsettled Dust," although the relative dates of publication mean that neither story could have influenced the other.  In both stories, a visiting narrator becomes privy to a tragic story from a family's past that has left an eerie, inscrutable pall hanging over the present.  Both also have a strong psychological element, as those past tragedies lead to present instabilities.  One thing that sets the two apart is that "The Sacrifice" is more straightforward, more coherent on first reading than most of Aickman.  Indeed, its final image brings on a terrible clarity.

The descriptive language of this story, and of the others in the collection, is not as stylized or as vivid as that of some writers; like the prose of M. R. James or Forrest Reid or J.R.R. Tolkien, it tends to be clear, unostentatious, and to allow the images to have their own effect once fully formed in the reader's mind, as in this passage:
Frances crossed the lawn and took at random a mossy path between the beeches.  The air was still, and very warm, for all the shade of the leaves.  Once out of sight of the lawn there was nothing to indicate that she was in the grounds of a private house; the woodland was as rough and wild as it must have been in the days before the Chase was enclosed...  The path Frances followed had been little used.  The undergrowth here and there almost blocked it and so few feet had gone over it that in places the moss was a continuous carpet from verge to verge.  The way sloped down after a while and Frances could hear water running somewhere on her right hand.
If "The Sacrifice" is a story of non-European influence on a bucolic English landscape, "The Sea-Things" is a story of Europeans out of place, and (pardon the pun) out of their depth among the dangers of the Red Sea.  The first line is "'I know an Arab who's seen a Mermaid,' said Stanislaw," but the creatures that give this tale its title are nothing so familiar or pleasant as beautiful half-fish, half-women.  The rough narrative outline of "The Sea-Things" is similar to many tales of its type.  What makes it stand out is the mood generated by its climactic scene, one redolent of the vulnerability that surrounds us at all times, but of which we're only intermittently aware.
It is strange to feel a ship stationary far from land... There's a queer, helpless feeling about the thing... With the engine silent and the water sucking and gurgling with a different note round her still hull, she feels, oddly, more a live thing than she does when she's chugging on: she's held alive, helplessly bound, waiting for what the sea will do to her... I felt for the first time since our grounding that we were in danger.  I felt a danger in the blank elements round us; the ship suddenly felt small and lost and I was aware of the drear, dark waste of hostile waters encompassing us behind and beneath that wan curtain of haze.
The third novella, "Number Fourteen," returns to an English setting encroached upon by the foreign, in this case a crippled girl who belongs an obscure South American sect, and forms a close relationship with a beautiful, talented young dancer.  The only possible ending given the elements in play rapidly becomes obvious, and in general the story is longer than it needs to be; possibly if it had prepared it for final publication Sarban might have trimmed it.  In any case, the strange intensity of the young girl and her taciturn mother is psychologically potent, and the story flows smoothly enough toward its resolution.

To my mind, "The King of the Lake," the longest of the novellas, is also the weakest.  Its structure, in which a great block of largely-plotless description is followed by a long storytelling session, is awkward, and it is only near the end that the fantastic dimension of the story becomes relevant to its thinly-drawn protagonists.  However, the evocation of the unlikely oasis in which two English girls take refuge is well-written if not all that evocative, the mythic narrative of the story-within-a-story is done in briskly effective fairy-tale language and the resolution has a grim cruelty that is no less potent for having been foreseen.  It's also more than a trifle prurient, especially when considered in light of what his life and work suggest about Sarban's psychology and personality.

The Sacrifice and Other Stories is now out of print, but Tartarus Press plans to reissue it in the near future.  (Sarban's three other books, two of which are currently in print from Tartarus with the third also to be reprinted, have recently been made available as e-books.)  Of these four stories, I would say that "The Sacrifice" is a classic of its type, while the others, whatever their minor flaws, are generally quite strong, well worth reading for fans of otherworldly fantasy and subtle horror.  Though he worked at various things for much of his life, in terms of completed fiction Sarban was hardly prolific, and The Sacrifice and Other Stories is a welcome and substantial addition to his oeuvre.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night

Music was a game they played with the truth, it was the tail of a kite, it was a shadow of an ever-changing ultimate that somehow held its shape in the mind, or seemed to; it was a high folly like no other and could therefore drive men and women mad with desire or sorrow.
At the risk of further degrading my intellectual credentials, I should confess that I have very little interest in or knowledge of classical music.  I seem to need lyrics, some kind of narrative on which to hang my attention, which is otherwise all too ready to drift.  That being the case, I might not seem the person to review Adam S. Cantwell's A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night, which collects three stories of European composers briefly exposed to strange and mystical forces at work on the continent.  But, as is often the case, a well-crafted description of something I don't care for is far more interesting than the thing itself.  I am enough of a musical illiterate that I don't know all the terminology in the passage that follows, and can't even identify the sound of the music involved, but I do know gorgeous writing:
A clotted texture was woven by sustained dissonances in the piano’s left hand and muted glissandi from the cello. The palette was unrelievedly dark. Then an uncouth rumble arose from the profoundest notes of the piano and built threateningly. They rang out atop one another in a tightly complaining mass. I bowed ghastly harmonics in a rapid tremolo. Soon there was no shape to the music; the piano’s blocks of sound became the airless fabric of the piece. All ten of the Baroness’ fingers plied unheard-of chords of claustrophobic hemitones; the cello picked a twisting path with whining harmonics, as if tunneling through a solid mass. Portrayals of horror in music were nothing new but this was a refutation of movement and freedom in music, the abolition of the line and the abandonment of development.
At any rate, these stories are about more than music.  They take in the styles of the three composers, yes, but also their biographies, as well as national and continental history at various points in the twentieth century.  In fact, I doubt I'm knowledgeable enough to understand all the subtexts of these stories.  I'd never even heard of the Austrian poet from whose work the collection's title, and its lovely epigraph, derive.  But enough about my limitations.

The first and longest of the three pieces, "Moonpaths of the Departed," features the Austrian composer Anton von Webern.  Recently recovered from a nervous disorder, von Webern takes a commission in Slovenia.  At a castle built into the entrance of a vast cave, among aristocrats, military men, and other influential figures, he finds his belief in music as a high and noble form of artistic expression challenged by events beyond his understanding.  This novelette is rich in elegantly-fashioned scenes of the weird and disturbing, from a seance that calls up the spirits of the distant past, to a claustrophobic journey into the chilly depths of the cave, to a great concert at which the playing of a dissonant music brings forth something unexpected.  All these manifestations contribute to the story's thematic sensibility, in which, as in some of Lovecraft's early tales, lurking primitivism threatens to undermine human sanity.  And, as the ending of the story suggests, more than the individual's survival may be at stake when certain darknesses slither into the open.

Like "Moonpaths of the Departed," "The Kuutar Concerto" features music as mystical invocation.  An embarrassing lapse during a concert leads Jean Sibelius to an evening of carousing, during which he is reminded of an ambitious composition from his youth.  What he hopes to do with a hastily-constructed new version of that destroyed early work is not so different in the broad strokes from what von Webern's music did, but everything else about this story is different.  Sibelius' combination of pride in his reputation and fear over his limitations, rather reminiscent in content though not in style of Joyce Carol Oates' Gothic stories of the famous, is different from Von Webern's anxious erudition, and the drunken joy of his backstreet wanderings is nothing like the fine castle and dank caverns of Slovenia.  Most important of all, the great and terrible powers interested in this music have nothing in common with the horrors of the earlier tale, and offer a different variety of supernatural thrill.

The final piece, "Symphony of Sirens," continues this trend of remarkably diverse variations on a theme.  This report on the interrogation of Alexander Mosolov after an inexplicable malfunction of the plane transporting him to the Gulag includes claims that the doctrinaire interrogator cannot reconcile with her staid materialism.  His vision of men dancing on clouds, and of an orchestra linking the cities of Europe, is as imaginative and delicately rendered as the other stories, but slightly less substantial.  This is no flaw for the story itself, but, after the depth of "Moonpaths of the Departed" and "The Kuutar Concerto," it makes for a weaker conclusion to the volume than I might have hoped for.  But that is, as complaints go, a small one, and A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night is, like The Mascarons of the Late Empire & Other Studies from the same publisher, a slim collection that nonetheless offers a rich feast of diverse yet thematically linked stories for connoisseurs of the fantastic, of classical music, and of European history.

The author provided me with a review copy of this book.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Psychopomps and Others

In my just-published review of Discovery of Heretics: Unseen Writings by Sarban, I wrote: "When you're dealing with a writer of sufficient stature, even early, incomplete, or unsatisfying work becomes worthwhile."  In the inscription for the copy of The Psychopomps and Others he was kind enough to send to me, Quentin S. Crisp wrote of one of its stories, "Crude, but it still has resonance for me."  Between them, these quotes capture the appeal of this out-of-print chapbook, which includes three of the stories from Crisp's likewise out-of-print debut collection The Nightmare Exhibition.  None of the three quite works, but they demonstrate enough imagination and enough fine prose that, if I had been reading the stories at the time of initial publication, I would have labelled them quite promising.  Read now when the promise has been fulfilled in books like Morbid Tales and All God's Angels, Beware! and the novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!", they show a distinctive voice in the process of emerging, testing narrative material and a degree of explicitness that would later be rejected.

The longest of the three is "The Psychopomps," a long novelette with an obvious debt to Lovecraft.  The narrator awakens, amnesiac after a car accident, to discover himself in a mansion populated by faceless attendants.  They claim that his inability to see their faces is a sign of a mental injury, and that with their help he can recover from it.  It won't come as much of a surprise that they're not telling the full truth.  The philosophical direction the story ultimately takes is a fruitful one, and it's easy to imagine the contemporary Crisp using the basic device in a powerful story.  But this early work suffers from an awkward mishmash of styles.  At times the language is clearly recognizable as Crisp's, albeit slightly less refined in manner than it would later become.  The description of the narrator's exploration of the house is a case in point:
I was wearing a thick, beetroot dressing gown.  This fact disturbed me, making me feel helpless and ill.  I wanted to change as soon as possible.  Now apprehensive even of crossing the open space of the room, I rushed to the door, twisted the handle and slipped through a gap so slight that I had to squeeze through on tiptoes.  I seemed to have exited onto a sort of gallery.  I glanced furtively over the banisters to see a mosaic-tiled passage below.  The gallery itself was lined with the same sombre wood panelling as my room.  I passed a number of rooms with brass doorknobs.  There seemed to be no one around.  The silence was surely that hard, ticking silence that speaks of the absence of any other soul.  It was strange quite how relieved I was by this.  If possible I wanted to get away without being seen, and for that reason I didn't dare open any of the doors in case my impression was mistaken and someone was there.
Here we see the same sensitive, solitary narrator and quietly atmospheric environment of many a later story.  But there are also passages that echo the intense, panicked style of Lovecraft, but without the antiquated bombast that makes his prose effective, or at least distinctive.
If this is a demon then it is not from hell, but from some sinister interdimensional bureau, a grey, howling twilight world that the human imagination has never captured, but only guessed by accident, perhaps, in a few obscure and haunted pencil sketches.  If this were a nightmare I would have awoken screaming with the jagged fear long ago.  Nightmare is merciful.  Since that face first turned toward me I have been immersed in the cringing waters of terror.  Terror preys upon and mocks me.  I cannot forget that first shock.  No harm has befallen me.  The faces are civilized, but I look at them and suddenly the perfect white lunacy of that first ambush leers out at me again with devouring and eldritch exaltation.
 There are some interesting turns of phrase there (I particularly like "some sinister interdimensional bureau"), but the total effect is to undermine the mood that the subtler passages have generated.  This clash of styles continues throughout the story, and it's only near the conclusion, when the full psychological dimension is revealed, that the concept becomes powerful enough to compensate for that.

"The Legacy" is, in some ways, even more crudely visceral than "The Psychopomps," though its shocks are derived not from the cosmically alien but from the small and familiar: spiders.  A young man handling his grandmother's estate finds something he didn't expect, and very much did not want to know about.  As far as creepy-crawly horror goes, this is reasonably restrained, though the narrator's reaction again has a certain Lovecraftian excess.  There is also the same disparity between the ruminative descriptions of the household and the narrator's memories, which are as accomplished as later stories at capturing the eccentric or disturbing mentality, and the uncomfortably vivid arachnids, many of which are unpleasantly squished in the course of the story.

"Decay" is less disgusting than "The Legacy," less cosmic than "The Psychopomps," yet still not quite what would might have expected from Crisp.  An ambiguous story of a house possibly haunted by the very incarnation of the title force, its six pages illuminate the appeal of the decayed for the mind consumed by lassitude or melancholy.  Once more the language and imagery verge on the classically Gothic, but whatever its date of composition the story feels like a sign of transition toward the author's more suggestive and traditionally literary stories in other collections.  The things that make those later stories so extraordinary are all present in these earlier works, and make them valuable reading for Crisp's admirers despite their limitations as stories in their own right.

Discovery of Heretics: Unseen Writings by Sarban

Discovery of Heretics, a collection of early writings, incomplete drafts, and excerpts from unpublished novels by Sarban, was only made available in a slipcase with Mark Valentine's biography of that author, Time, A Falconer.  At first, this might seem an odd decision, as one could imagine readers who enjoy Sarban's work but aren't interested in his life story.  Reading the book, however, makes the logic behind the decision quite clear.  In the first place, Time, A Falconer provides insight into the origins, composition, and development of the writings in Discovery of Heretics, which as presented in that volume are simply large blocks of text with minimal context.  Second, and more important, the proximity of the biographical study underlines the reality that the primary interest of these "Unseen Writings" is in what they reveal about the author's mindset and personality.  Although the prose is invariably well-crafted and there are some striking passages, only some of the material in Discovery of Heretics is enjoyable as fiction in its own right.

That is, however, no reason to suggest that the book is a failure or ought not to have been published.  In fact, approached in the right spirit, its contents are fascinating.  The volume begins and ends with atypical work: a non-supernatural story and a short play on the one hand, and a few poems on the other.  This is the only complete and finished material in Discovery of Heretics, and it's all competent but unexciting.  The short story is one of those darkly ironic, highly-coincidental pieces that are associated with the likes of O. Henry and Saki, though stylistically it's not much like either.  Even at this early stage, Sarban was capable of fine, clear prose without even minor flaws, and had mastered the manner of his material.  The same is true of the play, "Their Blood Cannot Die," a drearily ideological piece in which characters extol the virtue of Marxist revolution through implausibly long and stilted speeches.  For the kind of literature this is, Sarban approaches it very well, but even at ten pages the thing is hard going.  The poetry is more enjoyable; he would never have been a great poet, but he was capable of working in rhyme without descending into sing-song doggerel, and a couple of the pieces are genuinely atmospheric.

The bulk of the remaining material is several different approaches to writing about a gynocratic society.  There are five versions of this concept, ranging in length from eight to one hundred eleven pages and in date from the late 1940s to the early 1970s.  In some ways, this idea seems to have been Sarban's "Silmarillion."  The scope of the material and the time spent working on it is of course smaller, but the desire to examine these themes, and the closeness of the concept to the author's heart that that desire suggests, are much the same.  The earliest version, "Agorit," is mostly about a misunderstanding in an African airport and a meeting with a mysterious woman; like many items in Discovery of Heretics, it cuts off just as the fantastic aspect of events seems likely to become clearer. 

The next attempt, The Gynarchs is a substantially complete novel, of which the present volume includes only selected chapters, comprising 30-40% of the total length.  Even with that selectivity, The Gynarchs is a draggy affair, more a dogged exploration of a milieu than a narrative.  As Mark Valentine observes in Time, A Falconer, the characters are rather coldly observed; one seems not to be expected to sympathize with or care about them, and indeed it's not clear what, if any, position the author is taking on the society he's created.  Writing compellingly about a utopia is, for obvious reasons, difficult at best, and Sarban's vision, dependent on essentialist attitudes about male and female attributes that I have trouble taking seriously, is neither credible nor terrifically interesting.  (The invented language of the milieu is particularly ugly and unevocative.)  The primary fascination of the material is the way Sarban's play with gender roles, his masculine women and feminine men,* suggests certain aspects of his own psychology.  This is where Time, A Falconer is particularly valuable, as Valentine examines these issues thoughtfully, without drawing pat conclusions.  Apart from that borderline-prurient interest, there are some fine descriptive passages in The Gynarchs, redolent of the South American landscapes that evidently informed the work, and an eerie sequence near the end set at a spider temple.

A more striking yet still frustrating refashioning of the concept comes under the title "The Artemists."  This fragmentary work dates from the 1970s, and changing times had allowed Sarban the freedom to be more explicitly sexual in certain ways, though the story is by no means crude.  Unlike The Gynarchs, which was set in a post-apocalyptic future and had no hint of a modern perspective, "The Artemists" brings contemporary young women into its utopia, which they find somewhat less than it's cracked up to be.  Unfortunately, a large chunk of missing text seems to cover the most eventful sections of the fragment, and what's left is mostly made up of two long expository speeches.  The hints of what has been lost, and what was never written at all, suggest a darker, more complicated vision than that of The Gynarchs, and one wishes Sarban had continued with this version.

From around the same time there are two shorter attempts to re-explore the gynarchy, both of which also feature contemporary protagonists, and both of which link the concept to ideas from other unrealized fiction by Sarban.  "The Herbs of Miss Aran" features a intriguing wise-woman figure who, perhaps inadvertently, leads the narrator toward her alternate realm, though again the story breaks off just as he's about to get there.  "Aunt Rachel" is very short, and atypically for Sarban has a female narrator.  Her story of a mysterious imaginary brother is tantalizing, but no more.

A strange sibling also features in "Never Go Back," perhaps the most successful of the works in Discovery of Heretics.  This piece, which runs to about 30,000 words and is only just getting warmed up when it stops, was clearly informed by the collapse of Sarban's marriage and his own frustration with his later life.  It's not autobiographical in the narrowest sense-- the narrator's inability to function in the world is clearly exaggerated beyond Sarban's own-- but there is nonetheless a force and poignancy to the fragment that suggests real experience.  Despite the advice of the title, he returns to his childhood home, and foreshadowing throughout the non-supernatural opening suggests a connection to another plane of existence.  Once again, the fragment ends before we get there.

"The Papers of Henry Sugden," which dates from around the same time as Sarban's three published books, also hints of visitors from another realm.  It too is already at novella length when it breaks off, and the preliminary material, a possibly over-elaborate framing narrative, has only just concluded.  There are ingredients here for a fine tale of classical visionary supernaturalism-- a mysterious young woman, an isolated school, an idealistic young master, the manuscript of a madman-- and as with "Never Go Back," one can only wish it had been completed.

"Fergus Aran" is not, despite what the title (which, like many of the titles here, was devised by the publisher for material left titleless by Sarban) directly linked to "The Herbs of Miss Aran."  However, both stories do deal with unusually close male-male friendships.  Like the assertive or dominant female characters of his other work, these relationships suggest the complexity of Sarban's emotional and sexual attitudes, and "Fergus Aran" seems likely to have developed into another story of non-human incursion into our own world.  The narrator's loneliness is well-described.

A male-male friendship is also at the heart of "Discovery of Heretics," which extracts the opening chapters of an unpublished novel of the same name.  That novel is also known as Paul Wenzel, after the narrator's friend, who he meets during a lonely and dull diplomatic assignment in Cairo.  The descriptions of their life together, exploring area landmarks and discussing Islamic history, are effective, and the dry language nonetheless evokes something of British life in Cairo in the 1930s.  The events of the end of that decade force a separation between Wenzel and the narrator, and their parting has an understated melancholy.  The supernatural and the esoteric appear in these excerpts in distant discussion only, but as a literary story, it works fairly well.

In spite of the individual virtues of some of these pieces, their total effect is somewhat wearying.  Most are either excerpts from novels or fragmentary pieces that would have grown into novels if finished, so the pace is slow, and across several different works grows tiresome.  However, for readers interested in Sarban, the intellectual interest that the book provides, both in terms of Sarban's imaginative world-building and his own revealed lifestyle, will more than make up for that.  Indeed, although I've described The Gynachs and Paul Wenzel in less than enthusiastic terms, and would certainly accept Mark Valentine's belief that they are uneven works, I still hope that complete publication of one or both will eventually become viable.  When you're dealing with a writer of sufficient stature, even early, incomplete, or unsatisfying work becomes worthwhile, and so it is with the unseen writings that make up Discovery of Heretics.

*"Masculine" and "feminine" being used here in terms of their traditional meanings rather than to suggest actual inherent characteristics.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Game of Thrones

Not quite what I usually discuss here, but I've nowhere else to put it: some thought on rereading the first book of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire for the first time in more than five years.

Once upon a time, I loved epic fantasy.

It started with Tolkien, and then, thanks to a marketing gimmick that offered a big chunk of the first book for ninety-nine cents, spread to Robert Jordan.  Other names went into the mix-- Goodkind and Carey and Eddings and Williams and Hobb and so on-- but one came to dominate: George R.R. Martin.  I only picked up A Game of Thrones because of the cover blurb from Robert Jordan, but Martin quickly displaced Jordan from the top spot on my list of favorite doorstopper fantasy writers.  I suffered through all but the first couple months of the five year wait for A Feast for Crows, maintaining my interest in the series even as I gave up on other epic fantasy writers as no longer offering anything I wanted.

Even as the wait for A Dance with Dragons extended, I kept the characters and situations of the series at the back of my mind.  Then, a few months ago, joy and rapture, a publication date for the new book was announced.  I resolved to reread the first four volumes sometime closer to that release date.  I was a little nervous about it.  My sense of what constitutes good writing had evolved considerably in the years since I'd done anything more than glance at my copies of Game, Clash, Storm and Feast.  Would I find the characters flat, the plot non-existent, the style laughable?

At first, I did have some trouble getting back into the rhythm of Martin's prose.  There is a lot of exposition, not always presented in the most natural manner, and his use of the third-person limited viewpoint sometimes jars with that, as though characters find history, geography, and etiquette lessons running through their heads at convenient moments.  Martin's language, while never awkward, is rather workmanlike, which can have a wearying effect in an 800 page book.  There are times when thematic messages are brought home too heavily, and attempts at pathos backfire, suffering from what one might, after Oscar Wilde, call Little Nell syndrome.

But against these defects are ranged great virtues that reminded me why I've stuck with this series at a time when I'm no longer a fan of epic fantasy.  There's the world-building, which has not only depth but breadth.  Unlike some other writers, who enjoy detailing certain aspects of their milieu but leave others implausibly blank, Martin offers a dizzying array of information: a map, of course, and a basic chronology, but also details of religion, culture, history, myth, agriculture, and warfare.  From mouth-watering descriptions of lavish food to the different heraldic arms of a dizzying number of houses, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is rich in the small realities that make an unfamiliar milieu, whether historical or fictional, come alive.

But a novel is more than its setting, and the real power of the series is its characters, who are wittier, nastier, and more ambitious than anyone you'll ever meet, yet also recognizably human.  Martin plays with the tropes of fantasy-- scheming nobles and mysterious, threatening forces, evil queens and bastards of uncertain parentage.  But the absence of a Dark Lord means that good and evil are harder to separate.  In a violent feudal society where loyalty can come at a steep price, is valor wiser than discretion?  Stout-hearted honor may be laudable when you're on a quest against demons, but when your enemies are humans with complex drives and unknowable motivations, it may bring ruin, or an executioner's sword, down upon your head.  The full scope of this moral ambiguity doesn't become clear in A Game of Thrones, which is, after all, only the first movement of a larger story, but there's enough to make clear that the series won't be offering easy answers or happy endings.  A grim, gritty atmosphere is another of this novel's virtues, though one that makes it decidedly unsuitable for pre-teen fantasy fans.  Knights can be noble and dashing, but they can also be brutal rapists, and while invented colloquial swearing has its place here, more familiar four-letter words add to the air of dark realism.

It may seem an obvious thing to say in light of the recent HBO adaptation (which I haven't seen), but even before that was announced I had thought George R. R. Martin had a very cinematic imagination.  Whether this was the cause or the result of the Hollywood career whose conclusion left him able to write A Game of Thrones, he is especially adept at constructing chapter-ending images that, despite the flat prose, are as exciting as if one were actually there, watching it happen.  The book ends on two gorgeous quasi-cliffhangers that will, I'm sure, make for riveting viewing, leaving those viewers who don't want to read the series deeply satisfied yet desperate to find out what happens next.

Many of the characters of A Game of Thrones are children when the novel begins, and events force them to grow up fast.  Although sometimes it's played too forcefully, this is mostly a good way to bring home the harshness of a medieval milieu.  Westeros may be a glamorous place, but you'd never want to go there, at least during the timespan of this series.  For the rereader, there is a special potency as characters envision reunions that will never occur, promise victories that will be denied them, plan for futures they won't live to see.  As I approached each twist of fate, I found myself hoping that somehow things would play out differently this time, which, of course, they didn't.

There is much less magic in this novel than in other contemporary fantasy.  There are signs and portents, dreams that might be prophetic, and a few rituals that might or might not actually accomplish anything, but this is a world where magic has been unknown for a long time.  Its gradual return, across this volume and future ones, lends it an ominous quality it wouldn't have if it was a commonplace, fully worked-out system.  The magic of A Game of Thrones is mostly in the reading experience, in the use of the epic fantasy form to explore the brutality of medieval life, the virtues and flaws of the wealthy and powerful, and the sense of wonder that any great work of speculative fiction brings.

Tales of Love and Death

I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind-- sex and the dead.  --W. B. Yeats
That quote was the epigraph to Robert Aickman's second collection, Powers of Darkness, but it would self-evidently have served equally well for his fifth, Tales of Love and Death.  That title might lead one to expect stories in which the sexual element found throughout Aickman's work is especially prominent, but in fact the "love" of the title has wider reference, and in some of the stories appears not to be present at all; the meaning of the title would seem be "Tales of Love and/or Death," but that would have been rather less catchy.

Aickman is renowned for his subtlety, but there's nothing subtle about "Growing Boys," the first and longest of these tales.  The story is, in fact, ridiculously overstated, in a way that lends it the same strange and uneasy affect as the elusive tales.  Millie Morke is a woman saddled with an ineffectual husband, a doting but eccentric uncle, and truly demonic twin sons, and the story plays out as a satire on the various flaws of contemporary men.  For readers accustomed to the understated ghostliness of typical Aickman, this gruesome, almost garish story may come as a bit of a nasty shock, but interpreted as black comedy it has a certain charm, and Millie's interactions with a local fortune are more like the author's usual form.

"Marriage" is also about the weaknesses of men, but from a male perspective, and in a lower key.  Indeed, the story is so subtle that, allowing for the guilty mind of the protagonist, it might not be supernatural at all.  Laming Gatestead is dating Helen Brown, a kind but rather dull woman he met at the theater, and infatuated with her roommate, Ellen Black.  What may or may not be a chance meeting with Ellen leads to an affair that leaves Laming by turns overjoyed and miserable, but as the situation develops, he begins to see things that make him regard his life in a new light.  The connection between Helen and Ellen may be eerie, or Laming's infidelity may be commonplace, but either way the story explores the distinction between love and desire, and offers a cool yet sympathetic portrait of a man who has, in every way, gotten in over his head.

The collection includes two atypically short pieces, "Le Miroir" and "Raising the Wind."  The former tells of the decay of an aristocratic Englishwoman as she struggles to survive in Paris, and of the ornate mirror that may or may not be hastening her decline; the latter features two boatmen forced by circumstance into an unusual method of ensuring smooth sailing.  Although both stories, particularly "Le Miroir," offer flashes of Aickman's finest uncanny imagery, they're too brief for the proper atmosphere to develop.  This makes, "Le Miroir," another of Aickman's frequent reflections on how simply dreadful the modern world is for people who used to be rich and important, rather tiresome, which is a pity, as with more deft handling it could have been one of his finest tales.

Although it's closer to normal Aickman length, "Compulsory Games" is another story that feels more dully world-weary than enticingly strange.  Colin and Grace Trenwith have maintained cordial enough relations with their elderly neighbor Eileen McGrath, but when Grace leaves the country to see to an ailing relative, Eileen invites Colin over for dinner, alone.  When that event fails to go according to her plan, whatever that plan might be, Eileen moves in on the returned Grace, inviting her to take flying lessons.  By the end of the story, events have taken their usual bizarre turn, but too much time has been taken up by Colin bemoaning his age and the fact that contemporary life has no room for him.  He's not a well-enough developed character for these meditations to feel organic, and (justly or not) they read more as authorial self-pity than anything else.

"Residents Only" also has its complaints about the late twentieth-century, namely bureaucratic disrespect for an old cemetery, but the evocation of that cemetery's decline and its two mysterious keepers is potent enough to balance the thematic elements, and as in "My Poor Friend," the absurdity of government procedure is drily mocked.  The primary supernatural feature of the story is eminently predictable and takes rather too long to emerge, but the final image is strong enough to earn this a place as a solid, though not exceptional, contribution to the author's oeuvre.

In "Wood," a late marriage to an undertaker's daughter leads to a new life for Mr Munn, but what sort of a life, exactly?  This is, on first reading anyway, the most Aickmanesque story in the collection, with an awkward and unusual wedding celebration leading up to an impossible, inexplicable married life.  Recurring images based around the titular material, and some play with the social and personal distaste morticians often inspire in people who ought to know better, lend this story that sense of an almost-grasped guiding logic that is one of the virtues of this author's strange stories.

Burdened with several weak stories at its center, Tales of Love and Death is not one of Robert Aickman's finest collections, but the dark gusto of "Growing Boys," the wild cemetery of "Residents Only," and the oblique social commentary of "Marriage" and "Wood" are enough to make it a success.  After the shortly-forthcoming Cold Hand in Mine, this will presumably be Tartarus Press' next Robert Aickman reprint, and fans of the author who have yet to encounter some or all of these stories have much to look forward to.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Three Miles Up and Other Strange Stories

After We Are for the Dark, her collaboration with Robert Aickman, Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote only a single further tale of the supernatural, "Mr Wrong," first published nearly a quarter century later.  In 2003, Tartarus Press brought those four tales together in Three Miles Up, a small, elegant hardcover that has just recently gone out of print at the publisher, though as of this writing it is inadvertently still listed on their page of in-print titles.  A few copies remain available at reasonable prices from various dealers, and interested readers might wish to make their purchases sooner rather than later: although the stories may be or become available in other formats, one is unlikely to find the four so handsomely presented within one set of covers.  The cover illustration by R. B. Russell is an especially nice example of his striking black-and-white style, and the introduction by Glen Cavaliero, while not one I entirely agree with, is an intelligent, defensible consideration of Howard's supernatural fiction.

The title story is perhaps the most famous of the four, often reprinted; I first read it in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Ghost Stories but was too immature to appreciate it.  (The same is true of de la Mare's "The Quincunx.")  It is, on a psychological level, a deft account of how close quarters and the presence of a woman in whom both are interested can drive men rapidly back and forth between friendship and frustration.  That young woman, whom they came across when it seemed their bickering was insurmountable and might force an end to the expedition, is mysterious, inscrutable, her dialogue perfectly crafted to seem just odd enough that one suspects she's not what she seems, just ominous enough to tickle the spine.  The travelers' two encounters with the people of the area they're sailing through are likewise disturbing, reversing expectations in ways that heighten the eerieness of it all.  The ending, while open in some ways, suggests not an end to the strangeness but a new, more dangerous phase.

"Perfect Love" is the closest of the four tales to the strange stories of Robert Aickman, not dissimilar in theme, as someone has observed, to his later "The Visiting Star" and "The School Friend."  It generates the same sense of confusion as his stories, and like them, demonstrates on careful (re)reading a coherence one would never have suspected.  It also employs the older technique, of which M. R. James was the master, of using disparate sources, innocuous in themselves, to construct a more complete picture that's chilling.  A meditation on love, on the eccentricity of artists, and on what people give up for the sake of their dreams, it remains my favorite of Howard's ghost stories.

The most frightening, however, remains "Left Luggage," which is, I think, the only story to demonstrate quite the degree of coherence and directness Cavaliero attributes to all four.  It is also the closest of them to a simple, traditional ghost story: an isolated, dry, scholarly protagonist, an inheritance from an eccentric relative, a series of strange events increasing in intensity toward a truly ominous threat.  There is, perhaps, a light satire on fear of intimacy, but more than anything else "Left Luggage" is a chilling yarn.

And then one comes to "Mr Wrong," which is a horse of a different color.  Indeed it is so different in mode and atmosphere from the others that I would not call it a strange story at all.  I might say conte cruel, but it is mostly the word "cruel" that makes that label an attractive one.  This is as, Cavaliero remarks, a story full of unsatisfied characters, unable or unwilling to connect with one another, so that the protagonist is left alone to face the trouble brought on by her secondhand car.  The world of "Mr Wrong" is not so much strange as harsh, sparse, devoid of beauty and burdened with a sense of imminent threat.  (A.S. Byatt's non-supernatural "In the Air" has a similar potency.)  In addition to its haunting this story offers a human evil whose banal yet menacing presence clashes somewhat with the ghostliness.  The conclusion of the story is, as it aims to be, profoundly upsetting, and yet it is the only thing that could have happened in the grim urban modernity of its milieu.  Dissimilar to the others though it may be, "Mr Wrong" is every bit their equal in craft and power.  And Three Miles Up is a gorgeous collection, making available a body of work that might, due to its slimness, otherwise have been unjustly neglected.

The Mascarons of the Late Empire & Other Studies

i. "The Atelier in Iasi"
In his post that morning, as he was readying for breakfast in his Bucharest flat above the Roman Market, he had received a moderately perplexing piece of correspondence. It had been in a good quality white envelope, crisp as English frost. He refrained from opening it crudely with forefinger and thumb, but reached instead for the little stiletto letter-opener, and slit the top properly. Inside there was a single card, also of proper weight and whiteness, and printed well in embedded black letters, which he could feel, like inverse Braille, when he passed his finger-tips over them. The placing of the characters upon the card was also done with discrimination, with pleasing spacing.
At the head of the card the characters read: AN INVITATION TO A PRIVATE VIEW. And then there was a date, one week hence, using Roman numerals, which he thought was a little eccentric, but different: and after that there was placed a symbol, used, he could see, to cause a break between the opening text and the detail that followed. The symbol loomed larger than the font of the text, and was not quite centred on the full field of the card, which irked him, mildly, at first: but as he stared at it further, he could see that in fact it worked quite well. It was an elegant circle, or perhaps an oval – it seemed to hover between the two – intersected by a single curt stroke, fixed from the north-east to the south-west, or vice-versa if one read it from the base rather than the top. That black stroke was oblique, perhaps slightly italic, almost, one could imagine, tentative.
This description of the aesthetics of an invitation comes from a story concerned, among other things, with the joys, sorrows, and eccentricities of the aesthete's life.  It is, from a certain perspective, odd for the protagonist to linger over the proportions of so disposable a thing, but one of the themes of the story, and indeed much of Valentine's work, is that any object or image can be well or ill-made.  "The Atelier at Iasi" is at once a tribute to a city and a wise, mildly satiric meditation on the mental workings of seekers after beauty.  It has also some of the atmosphere of unease of a traditional weird tale.  Strange invitations, after all, often lead us to places from which it is difficult to escape.

ii. "A Walled Garden on the Bosphorus"
The garden itself was perhaps twenty paces long and rather less than that wide: a walnut tree dwelt in one corner and in another, a medlar with, in spring, its bright silver-green leaves and white flowers, and, in autumn its tight, tawny little fruits. Much of the garden was cobbled, and old moss grew between the cobbles. But there was also a minor rank meadow of wild grass and in this stood an ornate bench painted blue, and a round table on a single elegant stalk: its top was just big enough to accept a coffee tray. Around the bench there were overflowing pots of mint, tarragon and rosemary. A rectangular lead cistern held brackish black water: it was decorated with the dark head of an heraldic panther whose mouth held an arid iron spout.
 In my review of The Peacock Escritoire, I quoted another descriptive passage from a Valentine story, and suggested that anyone ought to find it evocative.  But why?  What, precisely, is the quality of Valentine's imagery that, despite having no interest in picturing the physical arrangement of the objects described, I find it so powerfully suggestive?  Some of it is the formal, mildly antiquated air of the language, which hints at the elegance one associates (however inaccurately) with the refined past.  Some of it is the plain felicity of the sentences, which never contain an awkward phrase or misused word, creating, as in a very different way M. R. James does, an impression of skillfulness that becomes all the more powerful because one cannot pin it down to a specific virtue.  And some of it, I suppose, is Valentine's gift for devising scenes that are redolent of the world he wants to capture.

But again, I am perhaps making it seem that the author's work is images only.  "A Walled Garden on the Bosphorus" also takes in the varied "obscure faiths" of the Ottoman empire, whose names and beliefs are as redolent of the fantastic as if Valentine had fabricated them himself, though by and large he had not.  Felix Vrai, the Frenchman who describes these faiths to the story's narrator, is interested in them neither as theologian or as scholar, "as if he were turning over in his fingers a carved gem, remarking upon how the light and the dark played upon each facet."  He takes a similar joy in simpler things, in inks and sweetmeats, which, seen through Vrai's and Valentine's eyes, do indeed attain strange and remarkable qualities, becoming worthy of contemplation.  Any journey can take on another quality, if one examines the right things.

iii. "The Mascarons of the Late Empire"
He glared about him with gleaming eyes at the heaving throng, the men and women of the night. He saw ex-soldiers still in the torn uniforms of different armies, sullenly begging, or performing pathetic tricks with whatever limbs or senses were left to them; he saw barely clothed gutter children jostling to pick up whatever glitter fell onto the slimy cobbles or streaked street paths; he saw bedraggled, brown-limbed beckoning women laugh at him from the shadows; there were lepers exposing their weeping sores to provoke pity; and the grey-bearded sellers of the grave dust of the saints and prophets were solemnly hawking their sacred wares in blue paper packets, inscribed with strange stark letters. And then he thought he saw, among them all, another face he knew from his book; the only face not made of stone; he saw her wavering on the edge of the crowd, like a white candle; it was the slightest glimpse, yet even within the fevered embrace of the distilled rose he knew it to be her. Reason and hope surged back to him and he told himself she surely must have come to the city in answer to Dr Barusch’s campaign, and (like himself) got lost and drawn in to the vile commotion of the Night Market.
By far he longest of the four stories in this collection, "The Mascarons of the Late Empire" follows four characters, an idealistic linguist, a mapmaker, a bookseller, and a scholar of the titular objects, architectural masks that adorn building walls.  In the last-named character's search for mascarons, which this final city of his search seems to lack, and the unusual human faces he discovers in their place, there is another hint of traditional weird fiction.  But by and large the story is concerned with the fate of a city that is, like the title locale of "The Dawn at Tzern," on the cusp of a great transition.  Its distinctive features, of which the market captured in the passage above is but one, will surely change, and there is an overpowering feeling of elegy in the story's seemingly-mundane conclusion.

iv. "A Lantern for Carpathia"
As we drew nearer, I soon understood: for we were approaching a little hidden cemetery and the light and the scent came from votive candles burning in glass jars, which bore black bruises from the touch of the flames when the hill-winds caught them or perhaps when they were disturbed by the freshet that follows a passing figure. There were maybe forty or fifty stones in the cemetery: and each seemed to have some form of vessel upon them, though only some of these were lit. But in one corner of the graveyard there stood a grey stone column, plain and straight, with a larger flame burning within a glass prism at its peak, and this cast a glow over the whole ground below it, hard, bright and golden at first, but fading in the farther recesses to a pale flicker. I had seen something similar once in a French country churchyard: a lanterne des morts.
I have said before that Valentine's knowledge of diverse subjects leads him down fascinating roads.  Here we have what might have been a historical footnote: a one-day republic, a flash of liberty between two bulks of imperial control.  The narrator, another scholar with an unusual preoccupation, is brought to this cemetery and meets its keeper, the last of that forgotten country.  Personal and national memory are intertwined in this elderly man, and his tale carries with it an almost unbearable melancholy, a mourning not only for a republic and its people but for all the things that must fade away and leave only hints behind, mere stubs of what were once harsh, bright cigarettes.

v. Studies

I have said a little about each of the tales in this collection, but in truth much of what I've said about each could be applied to any of the others.  (They have distinctive individual themes as well, naturally.) Each concerns itself with a city living to one degree or another in the shadow of the two great European wars, and with the artistic intellectuals of those cities, the beauty they can find in unexpected places, a beauty not lacking its own dark side, its hints of death, disappearance, memory that is cherished in spite of, or because of, its bitterness.  The total effect of the volume, which can be read in the course of an evening, is to link the personal, the urban, the national, and the numinous, to bring the reader, however briefly, up to an awareness of something much larger than most books of less than one hundred pages could convey.  The Mascarons of the Late Empire & Other Studies is itself like a carved gem, its facets flashing by, dark and light, almost, almost, too quickly to be seen, yet too wondrous to be forgotten.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Nemonymous Night: A Real-Time Review

I'm now reading the first novel by D.F. Lewis, writer, editor, and weirdmonger.  He's also the author of many real-time reviews, in which thoughts on a book are offered up at intervals during the reading process.  And, always eager for something that will disguise the dullness of my reviews, I thought, why not approach his book the same way?  I'm a bit nervous-- I can barely judge a book after reading, let alone during-- but also looking forward to it.

There are no spoilers in the most obvious sense-- it would be hard to spoil this book without transcribing the whole thing-- but I will allude to aspects of the plot that only appear or become clear late in the game.

"These words are not a pretentious authorial introduction to the book."

So far I have read only the Prelude, which is about 1/3 of a page long.  It seems to suggest what I had been more or less expecting based on my (very limited) reading of DFL's other work: a strange, erudite and highly thoughtful piece of writing, not plotless but not plotted in any obvious way.  Apparently it'll also have something to do with carpets.  And there's a Lope de Vega epigraph about the falseness of our notions of identity, which is nice. (9th June 2011: 3:50 PM US Eastern Time)

"Still, then, the horrors hadn't yet started.  Various strange words start to build up-- as if against the dam of sanity: connections and misconnections which fracture and fragment dream and mix it with real life: an impending doom that gradually increases in sickly strength.  In fact, little did they know, but the impending part of the doom was worse than the eventual doom itself."

This is a very odd book.  Given the author's reputation and the publisher's previous releases I shouldn't find this surprising, but I must admit that I do.  Perhaps it's because this type of oddness is one I haven't dealt with before.  If forced to make comparisons, I might suggest minute stylistic similarity to John Elliott (a digressive playfulness with words and phrases) and structural similarity to Michael Cisco (layers of reality that are difficult to disentangle), but I imagine those comparisons are only occurring to me because of the Chomu connection.

So far the plot seems to involve different characters with the same name, or characters who exist in both dream and real life, or characters on distinct planes of reality.  The guiding principle, if any, has yet to emerge, and so I'm taking the book as a sequence of interconnected dreamlike vignettes that build on each other in unexpected ways.  The characters grapple with loss and disappearance, both of real people and of the sense of personal identity, creating a pensive, unsettling, occasionally offset by flashes of absurdism and humor.  Will that be enough to sustain my interest?  Will a distinct narrative emerge?  Only time will tell.  I find myself enjoying this real-time review approach.

[One question I'm facing, though, is how often to update.  There are no chapters in Nemonymous Night, only three lengthy parts.  Last night the question was taken out of my hands by an Internet outage that made it impossible to update the review, but now I'm wondering.  When the impulse hits, I suppose.  Right now I'm at the break in the text on page 44.] (10th June 2011: 8:40 AM US Eastern Time)

"How extraordinary the times had become only hindsight could know.  The identities of Amy and Arthur-- it was believed-- had been stolen by lostlings or foundlings or changelings who had escaped with much of their victims' past cloying to them.  These were apparent children masquerading as the children Amy and Arthur had once been in earlier perhaps less extraordinary times.  This belief in such stolen identities opportunely gave an indication of how truly extraordinary the times actually now were, making it difficult to describe these events with any degree of seriousness.  However, if they're not treated seriously at face value, then times have a tendency of coming back with a vengeance and biting the people who disowned them.

The quirks of a real-time review: within mere pages of my last stopping point there came something that could be used as a guiding principle.  I'm not going to say what it is, because the deeper revelation, obtained on reading further into the book, is that it doesn't matter, is only the illusion of something solid, much as any person's belief in her own identity is merely the illusion of same.  Despite their shifting backstories and situations, the characters of Nemonymous Night retain my interest, and the book has a striking overall coherence.  This has something to do with the book's recurring imagery and language: carpets, as mentioned above, but other things too, from dilapidated top-story flats to the word hawler.  These connections, and the book's continuing rumination on the thinness of identity, make for compelling reading, a kind of prose-poetry, despite the slipperiness of the plot.

There is also a tendency that I might call postmodern, were that not an overused and sterile academic term.  The book's prelude, from which I quoted above, I had not at first taken seriously enough.  One of the things Nemonymous Night is about is its own evolution: the rise and fall of certain narrative strands, the sudden appearance of a character or a detail of setting, toward which the voice of the text slyly alludes without breaking apart entirely.  There is a character who might stand in for the author, or might simply be parallel to the author as other characters are parallel to yet other characters.  From the erratic motion of the narrative to occasional awkwardnesses of language, the novel almost feels like it was written straight from front to back to with minimal planning and/or revision, uncertain itself as to how, or whether, things will come out.  (The manner in which the book was actually written is, of course, beside the point.)

[One of the problems with real-time reviews for me is that they multiply the number of times I have to sit down and start writing, which I hate.  This is why I let reviews pile up and then do several at a time.  Today, apart from further updates to this review, I have three more to write, and if I wait until tomorrow a fourth will have been added to the queue.  At any rate, I am now at the text break on page 101 of Nemonymous Night.]  (10th June 2011: 10:40 AM US Eastern Time)

"It is difficult to imagine the world being better or worse than it actually is.  However, without humanity to stain its pages, who knows what will then become imaginable or even real?  There is a theory-- to which I subscribe-- that humanity 'strobes' in and out of existence , selective collective-memory then forcing the 'alight' stage to forget the previous 'switched-off' one... time and time again.  Mass consciousness flickering in and out of existence like a faulty lighthouse... or, indeed, a fully-working lighthouse."

The sense of plot grows greater with every passing page, even as new elements are introduced and the playfulness continues (characters themselves crying out to be more fully-realized, the writer's unrealized notes on things to add popping up at certain intervals).  Mutation, evolution, degeneration lead to disturbingly vivid hybrid-visions.  A subterranean journey leads to revelations, one of which has all the force of a plot twist in a thriller.  Also, someone is revealed as a cross-dresser.

I often think that fiction is, more than a narrative or thematic experience, an encounter with a writer's sensibility.  Anything can be forgiven as long as the author's voice comes through, sure and strong and unique.  Nemonymous Night positively flaunts its constructed nature, is almost arrogant in its indifference to coherence and structure, and yet, somehow, Lewis ties it all together.

[Have reached the end of the first large section, "Nemonymous Navigation."] (10th June 2011: 3:30 PM US Eastern Time)

"Fiction was always easier than truth, a generalisation with which I would need to come to terms... eventually."

As the second part of Nemonymous Night, which shares its title with the novel as a (w)hole, begins, something happens... well, makes the book more itself.  That is, it extends and intensifies what has gone before.  Hostile readers who have been sticking with the book despite frustration will likely choose this moment to toss it across the room.  Nonetheless, the author manages to maintain, and even to increase, the narrative tension that readers able to handle abstract, intuitive fiction will have already discovered.

The dreams described in the novel are almost miniature stories in themselves, like those mosaics that are made up of a thousand smaller pictures.  Details-- images, lines of dialogue, evocations of emotion-- stick out from the surface, distracting one's attention from the larger creation, at least for a time.  In trying to describe Nemonymous Night, you may have noticed, I fall into an odd prose style, inspired at some remove by the novel itself, as if I have become another of the shifting, seeking characters within its pages.

[at the break in the text on page 213] (10th June 2011: 4:55 PM US Eastern Time)

"...viewing windows close to the leading edge of the bit-tip-- allowing vistas when the storms of the Drill's off-detritus didn't obscure them with the moving rubble of confusions or lies.  A bit like this book where I've invited you to stand at its own viewing-windows in its select, very select, Corporate Lounge of plot and counterplot."

Did I mention that this novel is also a bit Lovecraftian?  Not traditionally so, of course, but with the unspeakable inhuman presence at the core of the earth and the images of possibly-doomed humanity supplicant before it, not to mention a pessimistic philosophical edge, there's a hint of that good old cosmicist materialism.  Also a recurring reference to a particular horror story by Maupassant, which I loved as a child but haven't reread in too long.

I keep circling round the question of how to capture the peculiar appeal of Nemonymous Night.  I think readers will understand that a bizarre, associative novel of the weird whose plot wanders and recirculates like Moses in the desert can nonetheless be rendered fascinating, but I don't think that general understanding does justice to this particular instance.  Part of it, perhaps, is that the recurring images are somehow resonant: angevin harvesting is utter nonsense, but something about it strikes a chord (or maybe a cord) deep within the brain.  And then, underneath the strangeness there is the eternal frailty and fragility of human identity.  The author (of the book, or of one of the books with the book, if the distinction is important) alludes to a recurring dream/nightmare about university that is, in its outline, identical to one I have rather often, though it has plagued me for less time than it apparently has him.  A mundane thing, except that it isn't, at all.  These flashes of the real, or at least the everyday, are another ingredient in the bubbling, neon-colored concoction that is Nemonymous Night.

[At the end of part two.] (11th June 2011: 1:05 PM US Eastern Time)

"Even Man needed a retort." 

Well into part three of the novel, intriguingly headed "Apocryphal Coda."  Events have spun out again, and so far I'm not sure it's been a success.  The material is involving enough on its own, but the sense of continuity with parts one and two has dissipated, making the digressive, self-contradictory language more troublesome to read.  However, there's plenty of time/space for things to pick up again, and in any case I'm enjoying the wanderings of the Weirdmonger, who gives nostalgia an unusual edge.

[At the text break on page 322.] (11th June 2011: 2:32 PM US Eastern Time)

"Even fiction has its own version of pitiful senility amid the other realities to which it ever tries to cling."

I have now finished Nemonymous Night.  And, on another level, have come to terms with the fact that I have scarcely read it at all.  This is not a book where even surface meanings can be grasped after a single reading.  The thinness of its characters, the daffiness of its plot, can inspire one to read quickly, along the images, the aphorisms, to slip through the mind without sticking there, like a television show watched in the background when something else is going on.  The substance of the novel is retained, but the grace of individual passages must wait for slower, contemplative rereading, once the mind has been able to prepare itself for such a thing.

In lieu of a conclusion, have a list of elements from the novel I haven't yet found room to mention: Proust. Big Brother.  Bird flu.  Birthday shoes.  Quarter-p coins. A giant misshapen tree.  Klaxon City.  Blasphemy Fitzworth.  And alter-nemos.

[The end.] (11th June 2011: 3:45 PM US Eastern Time)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Powers of Darkness

Very good horror writers often demonstrate that ordinary life can be horrific and tedious at once for the sensitive person, and one suspects it was so for [Robert] Aickman. [Peter Straub, in his introduction to The Wine-Dark Sea]
In Powers of Darkness, Aickman's second solo collection, he demonstrates that continuum between tedium and terror in six stories of the absurdity of modern life.  From "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen," in which technology, namely the telephone, is simultaneously baffling and monstrous, to "The Wine-Dark Sea," the tale of a fleeting escape from the contemporary, his protagonists navigate a world in which the mundane frustrations of society, culture, and politics can at any moment turn into something darker.  The precise narrative mechanics of these transitions may remain obscure, but Aickman's philosophy and voice-- world-weary, intellectual, mordantly witty-- is clear, and constant.

Powers of Darkness has recently been rereleased by Tartarus Press in a durable, elegant hardcover edition of 350 copies, as part of a serious of Aickman reissues.  In addition to the pleasure of its handsome yet reserved design, part of the Tartarus aesthetic and a perfect match for Aickman, there is a new introduction by Mark Valentine, which, like all Tartarus introductions, is succinct and valuable.  Valentine comments aptly on the author's traditionalism and the relationship between aspects of his biography and his stories, as well as making intriguing suggestions regarding writers with similar sensibilities.

"Your Tiny Hand is Frozen" was the first Aickman story the present reviewer ever read, sitting at a worn and graffitied desk on the lowest level of his university library.  He blushes to admit that he didn't make much of it at the time.  This is especially baffling as it is, in fact, one of Aickman's more frightening tales, with a climax that is simple yet horribly vivid.  Edmund St Jude lives in his fiancee's apartment, waiting for her return and doing minor translation work to get by.  When his lonely existence is disrupted by a series of mysterious telephone calls, he finds himself drawn into a powerful yet dangerous obsession.  St Jude is a sensitive man, unable to summon up the force of personality necessary to deal with the faceless bureaucracy of the telephone company, and the headaches caused by the strange calls suggest that Aickman viewed the telephone, and perhaps much modern technology, as more trouble than it was worth: an innovation we would be better off without.

And so, he seems to have thought, was democratically-elected representative government.  The protagonist of "My Poor Friend" expresses a preference for hereditary rule, and Aickman shared that preferece, or at least claimed to do so.  From M. R. James such a statement would seem unthinking conservatism, part of what A. C. Benson not unreasonably identified as a an almost aethetic traditionalism, lacking in ideas or principles.  From Aickman, though, it is clearly the product of thought and bitter experience.  "My Poor Friend," in which an advocate of local electricity befriends a noble, doomed Member of Parliament, rings with authentic detail, drawn, one assumes, from Aickman's encounters with politicians on behalf of the Inland Waterways Association.  The eccentricities of government become almost Gothic as the cynicism of Parliament swallows the narrator's poor friend.  There is a passage that, I think, captures the futility of public attempts to influence government as well for America of the 2010s as it did for Britain of the 1960s:
Generalisations such as these [about hereditary versus representative government] are common talk.  What upset me was how it works in practice.  Government has been carried on less and less visibly for a long time; but the critical thing in Britain has been the swift development of official public relations.  Every public authority that knows its business now has what may be termed a paddock for its critics and opponents, not excluding those inside Parliament.  Quite rapidly it has become almost impossible to be a rebel.  Today the rebels are put in a paddock and then built into the structure.  They are patiently listened to, when they have made themselves assertive enough.  They are pressed to deliver their ideas in writing.  They are invited to serve on Joint Committees.  It is implied to them that if they keep their criticisms 'constructive', they may even become O.B.E.'s.  'Look at our splendid collection of rebels.  It proves how strong, important, and on the right lines we are.'  The Speaker's Corner technique, one may call it: intensely British, brilliantly adaptable, utterly null.  Faced with it, Bessemer [the head of the local electricity organization] emerged, quite unawares, as a mere nineteenth-century evangelist; not only incapable of planting his petards deep enough, but incapable of even seeing that he was paddocked, that his ostensibly critical notions were being applied, Judo-wise, to the actual strengthening of his opponents.  It is sadly true that only the power to inflict actual damage of some kind holds any hope of surmounting the official techniques.
 Tea Partiers and liberals alike take note.

In "Larger Than Oneself" it is not political but religious organizations that take a hit.  Mrs Iblis, despite her apt name, is entirely out-of-place at a gathering of contemporary spiritual authorities, having shown up by mistake after a letter postponing her visit to an eminent journalist failed to arrive.  Aickman perfectly captures the isolation and misery of a party at which one knows nobody and is interested in nothing, and Mrs Iblis' silent suffering is conveyed with a very British restrained irony that makes this one of Aickman's funniest tales.  Beneath the humor, however, is a wise commentary on the futility and the danger of using religion as a crutch, attempting to assign to it a meaning it cannot offer if one lacks inner strength.  Look too hard for something larger than oneself, Aickman suggests, and you may be swallowed by it.

"The Visiting Star" offers irony of a darker sort, as a celebrated actress' visit to a regional theater has unfortunate consequences for a number of area residents, including the author of a book on lead and plumbago mining with whom she shares some disturbing information.  Thematically reminiscent of "Perfect Love," written by Aickman's one-time lover Elizabeth Jane Howard for her collaboration with Aickman in We Are for the Dark, the story is surely a metaphor for the regrets and demands of any difficult, past-her-prime performer.

Aickman often begins to generate unease through awkward social scenarios, typically involving eccentric strangers, where the stomach-twisting quality of embarrassment merges with the stomach-twisting quality of the inexplicable.  In  "A Roman Question," the narrator and his wife must deal with the elderly couple whose house they are staying in during a dull conference, and with the odd young woman also sharing that home.  When the young woman suggests a strange ritual that may help locate the elderly couple's missing son, the five are drawn into something much more interesting, but much less pleasant, than any conference.

"The Wine-Dark Sea" was the second Aickman story this reviewer ever read, and he must confess that on rereading he likes it even less than he did then.  A better title might be "Never Visit Greece," for, like "Never Visit Venice" but thankfully to a lesser degree, it features a world-weary traveler disappointed to find that the foreign country he visits has a lot of stupid, degenerate natives in it.  As in that story, the protagonist finds pleasant distraction in the form of sexually available but mysterious women, and the self-pity is so overpowering, the imagery so bare and straightforward, that the total effect is rather distasteful.  One supposes that the story was, for the author, a powerful expression of principles, but the aphoristic dialogue of the three women is unduly pompous, and the protagonist feels more like a spoiled aristocrat on holiday than a person of any depth.

But the story nonetheless offers flashes of interest, and its flatness is an exception in what is otherwise a fine collection, comparable to Sub Rosa as a top example of the author's early work.  Although Aickman's stories are both viscerally and philosophically unsettling examples of supernaturalism, he should not be overlooked as an observer of and commentator on ordinary life.  From the small details of an uncomfortable reception to larger questions of character, morality, and survival, he is a thoughtful and erudite chronicler of the less gentle aspects of the human condition.  Happiness, many an Aickman story suggests, is possible, but only fleetingly, and at great cost.  It's a notion that deserves more attention than the modern world seems inclined to give it.