Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Literary Remains & "The Beautiful Room"

The ambiguities that define the stories in R. B. Russell's second collection (after the out-of-print, heinously expensive Putting the Pieces in Place) are not simply about the presence or absence of the supernatural.  Their true significance is as much social and psychological as it is narrative.  Characters find themselves unwilling or unable to confront relationships with others, with art, with themselves, resulting in a mood of unhappy confusion that complements the puzzling occurrences that drive individual plots.

"Llanfihangel," one of the collection's finer stories, draws its power not so much from the narrator's mysterious school friends or the dilapidated and abandoned mansion with which they are associated, as from the evocation of his anxiety over whether he has or hasn't been deceived, and from the realization thus brought on that much knowledge we deem secure is tentative and can easily be manipulated, whether by con artists or by deeper, darker forces.  Another brilliant tale, "Una Furtiva Lagrima," presents an ambiguously supernatural manifestation near its conclusion, but compared to the layered agonies, secrets, and failures to connect of its human characters, the question of a few ghostly figures is almost an afterthought.

Romantic and sexual (dis)connections are a prominent theme, from the perhaps-too-subtle title story, in which a young woman finds the home of a recently deceased ghost story writer to be less empty than expected, to "Blue Glow," in which an uncanny exchange of lifestyles may or may not be just what a newly-divorced man needs, to the especially Aickmanesque "A Revelation" and the final entry, "Where They Cannot Be Seen," an excellent story whose clever conceit I find myself unable even to hint at without giving the game away.

I mention Robert Aickman.  Russell's stories echo Aickman's deft awareness of the balance between social and spiritual unease; the mundane difficulties of foreign travel in "Another Country" are but a prelude to something truly bizarre.  But Russell captures more strongly the psychological discomfort of his narrators and point of view characters, who are more immediately human and sympathetic than Aickman's, less apt to obfuscate, downplay, or be ignorant of their own deeper workings.  (I don't mean to suggest that Russell is unsubtle about characterization, only that its relevance to his stories is more overt than is the case with Aickman.) The atmosphere thus generated is as disquieting as in Aickman, but redolent more of melancholy and less of mystery, although the precise meaning of events is often every bit as elusive.

The stories in this collection are, to be sure, effective taken individually (I first read "Loup-garou," an unsettling story that has less to do with werewolves than you might imagine, in an anthology, and very much admired it).  But read as a cohesive whole, preferably in one sitting, they reveal a profound awareness of human drives and limitations, an understated but very real sense of the large and small tragedies that characterize our lives.  Literary Remains is dark fantasy of the first order.

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Postscript: What I've said of Literary Remains is equally true of Russell's "The Beautiful Room," a short-story chapbook temporarily available for PDF download to BFSA voters and other interested readers.  Check out the Tartarus Press news page for a link.

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