Monday, June 6, 2011

The Peacock Escritoire

If Mark Valentine's The Nightfarers was a book for a limited audience, his second* collection from Ex Occidente Press, The Peacock Escritoire, is even more so.  About four times the price of the earlier book, this one comes in a handsome box and is accompanied by a number of additional items, including a set of story fragments, a portfolio of artwork, and what I assume is an imitation peacock feather.  It's limited to 100 copies.  At first, I was ambivalent about all these extras: I love a well-designed book, but I also love not being poor, and I prefer reading books to admiring them.  Eventually, though, I changed my mind about the presentation of The Peacock Escritoire.  I'll get to why in a moment, but first, the book itself.

Valentine is so well-read, so erudite an author that his fiction, although excellent, will often appeal most to a specialized audience.  Unless the reader is familiar with at least one of two highly-regarded early twentieth century stories, the conclusion to "The Late Post" will likely be baffling.  But for the reader who knows what is being gotten at, the homage is a delightful one, and in any case the story's gentle teasing of its protagonist, a solitary type who lives to check the mail, will appeal.  (I can certainly relate.)  I myself felt rather baffled at times by "The Return to Trebizond."  It's not that the story is in any way difficult, it's just that a reader unaware of the history at work may not recognize all the names and factions at play.  But that, of course, is what Internet research is for, and the air of history, tradition, and mysticism is as powerful for the ignorant as for the initiated.

As in the earlier collection, Valentine uses the range of his research and of his imagination to craft tales of the strange and suggestive.  Whether the nominal subject is the dying ruminations of a futurist poet, a grieving widower's discomfort with the change from Julian to Gregorian calendar, an organization that stores records of dreams, or the search for someone to succeed Bulwer-Lytton as the queen's teller of ghost stories, all the stories are about what's described in the collection's epigraph, which comes from the journal of Mary Butts: the "moment when existence has another quality."  Take, for example, the opening paragraph of "The Old Light," the last and shortest tale in The Peacock Escritoire.
If I think about my ideal circumstances in which to read a ghost story, I conjure up a remote cottage, probably white-walled and low, not too far from the sea, but distant from any other habitation.  It will have a proper fire and a hearth, and a supply of seasoned logs, tinder and kindling.  The contents will be comfortable enough without luxury, though threadbare here and there: lived-in, well-loved.  Perhaps the armchair may sag and the table need a playing card under one of its legs to hold it steady.  From its threshold a few lights can be seen to wink at night: a farmhouse, a grange, the old hall it might be, and another isolated glimmering dash of amber, hard to place, and then further out still the steady, certain sweep of the rays from the lighthouse.  That first evening there will be a high wind, booming in the chimney breast, stirring the doors and rattling the window sashes, and there will be sporadic dashes of rattling rain, as if malicious pixies were throwing their shining pebbles at the pane.
If that doesn't summon up images and associations for you, I don't know what will.  I don't mean to suggest that Valentine's work is evocative only, somehow lacking in narrative ingenuity and structure.  Indeed, although I've quoted more than a quarter of the text of "The Old Light," I haven't hinted at the eerie direction in which it moves, which might be called metafictional, were that piece of academic jargon not impossibly inappropriate in tone to the story's effect.  But the diversity of the collection's contents means that the overwhelming impression is indeed of that other quality.

In addition to the bound book itself, the purchaser of The Peacock Escritoire will also find a packet of unbound pages titled "Shards: Journal Notes."  These papers include unfinished stories, bits of esoteric research, and selections from the author's journals in which he muses on topics similar to those of his fiction.  It would be easy to be cynical about this, but as one turns the loose pages, feels the high-quality paper on which they're printed, follows the fragments of fact and fancy as far as they go, one becomes, like Valentine's protagonists, a connoisseur of the recondite, tantalized by suggestions that fade away into nothingness, become haunting memories, treasured even as they frustrate.  This is the virtue of the box set: it lures the reader inside the author's aesthetic sensibility, carrying him or her to a higher level of contemplation than the stories alone ever could.  The Peacock Escritoire is not only a book, but an artifact, and a gorgeous, gleaming one.

*Update: in my haste to write this review, I failed to recall that The Peacock Escritoire is not Valentine's second collection from Ex Occidente, but his third; The Mascarons of the Late Empire & Other Studies was the second.  There is also The Rite of Trebizond and Other Tales, a collaboration between Valentine and John Howard.  As of now all but The Peacock Escritoire are out of print at the publisher, but can be acquired from various dealers in supernatural fiction.  For those wanting an inexpensive introduction to Valentine's style, there is always The Collected Connoisseur from Tartarus Press.

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