Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Uncle Stephen

There are books whose greatness is attention-grabbing, inspiring the reader (especially this one) to flights of superlative description, and there are books more quietly impressive, books that do several things well and thoughtfully without initially inviting rhapsodic response.  Forrest Reid's Uncle Stephen falls into the latter category.  Written in a well-honed but direct style that perfectly defines aesthetic classicism, it is at once a novel of a sensitive (and likely homosexual) young boy's experience of the world, a meditation on the simple beauty of nature, and a supernatural story about the complicated relationship between youth and age.  The author was a friend of Walter de la Mare, and as in his supernatural tales, effects are achieved by allusion and suggestion rather than explication.  The result is a book that reads easily and yet is tremendously involving on levels both emotional and intellectual.

The title character is the uncle of Tom Barber, whose father has just passed away, leaving him with a stepmother who is indifferent to him, two stepbrothers who feel nothing but contempt for him, and a stepsister who likes him, perhaps in a way he is incapable of reciprocating.  Uncle Stephen is in fact his great-uncle, and Tom has never met or heard from him, but nonetheless he comes to believe that this distant relative will provide a better home than his stepfamily ever could.  So he runs away.

Unathletic, interested in books and the beauty of nature, Tom is like many a sensitive child in literature (and life).  What sets him apart is that the people he encounters are not the unfeeling ogres of such stories.  Tom Barber is not a radiant spark hidden under a bushel, but a human being, as responsible as anyone else for his difficulty in relating to the mass of humanity.  His interactions with those who can't understand him ring true, and the range of Reid's sympathy, like Tom's, includes many characters lesser writers would dismiss or stereotype.  Uncle Stephen is not primarily a psychological novel, but it deftly captures the complexity of human relationships.

Reid has a particular gift for describing landscapes in an unadorned manner that nonetheless avoids cliche and syrupy sentimentality.  It helps that the world he describes is as haunting as it is beautiful, always on the edge of something strange and possibly unwelcome.
Chequered bands of golden fire splashed on the moss-dark sward.  A stilled loveliness breathed its innocent spell.  Then suddenly a hare bounded across the path, and the trilled liquid pipings of hidden thrush and blackbird broke on his ears like the awakening of life.  The music came to him in curves of sound.  All the beauty he loved best had this curving pattern, came to him thus, so that even the rounding of a leaf or the melting line of a young human body impressed itself upon him as a kind of music.  The avenue turned, widened, a house was there.
Uncle Stephen is rumored to be some sort of a magician, and his household carries with it the same potent air of mystery as many a haunted estate.  For much of the book the supernatural is offered only hintingly, as in the first few pages of a ghost story, and the fantastic events that are ultimately revealed are as much psychologically symbol as eerie.  Tom has much to learn about trust, faith, and kindness, but the novel is never one-sided or didactic, always acknowledging what is lost as well as what is gained by any change.  Despite a certain rueful wisdom, it remains hopeful, envisioning a better world, perhaps, than can ever exist:
He could not remember the rest of the story, but he knew everybody had been happy because nobody had asked questions.... The earth might be a kind of heaven!  It wasn't really impossible.  Happiness depended on kindness and understanding and-- and-- on not insisting that everybody should have the same feelings and thoughts.... (ellipses in original)
The socio-political connotation of that paragraph is not terribly difficult to work out, but like all the homoerotic elements of Uncle Stephen it remains latent, implicit; the novel could be interpreted without reference to homosexuality, though some aspects of it would become very odd.  Its scope is in any case wider, taking in all manner of sensitivity and social awkwardness, and reaching beyond even that.  This novel, with its disarmingly simple language concealing great depth, is a small masterpiece.
*          *          *
Originally released in 1931, Uncle Stephen was republished by Tartarus Press in 2001.  That edition is out of print, but copies are available at reasonable prices, including at least one from Realms of Fantasy Books for a mere $18 plus shipping.  The novel is also available in inexpensive secondhand paperback editions, as are Reid other two Tom Barber novels.

The Nightfarers

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

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

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

Anno Dracula

There are books one simply shouldn't attempt to describe to the casual reader; regardless of merit, they sound not just uninteresting, but deeply silly.  In eighth grade I was reading Harry Turtledove's Worldwar tetralogy, and a well-meaning classmate mentioned to our history teacher that I was reading a book about World War II.  I was left to explain, "Yes, it's an alternate history where World War II is underway... and then aliens invade."  Mercifully, I've forgotten what Mr. Dennett's reaction was.

The other day I was in the car, reading the new edition of Kim Newman's landmark vampire alternate history Anno Dracula, and I happened to read a passage out to my mother.  (For readers familiar with the book, it was the exchange of insults in the pub.)  She asked what the book's premise was, and I dutifully replied: "Well, it's like Dracula, except Dracula wins and he marries Queen Victoria."  Mother was not amused.

I suppose it does sound ridiculous, but it isn't really.  Dracula was a prince, and his ambitions were not small; had he not been defeated by Van Helsing's merry band, he might well have ingratiated himself with the British royal family, and the consequence would have been the world Newman portrays: a country where vampires have emerged into everyday life, where the best way to advance in high society is to "turn" and vampire-resisters are dragged off to concentration camps, where the prostitutes of the East End are as likely to offer blood as sex.  Unless they're vampires themselves.

The story around which Newman's evocation of this alternate England is woven is the author's second quirky stroke of genius: Jack the Ripper is active in this world as well, but all his victims are vampires.  The police, urged on by the government, are desperate to find this madman and potential folk hero, and so is the Diogenes Club, a secretive organization devoted to the national interest.  The Club's agent, Charles Beauregard, finds himself working alongside the centuries old vampire Geneviève to find the Ripper.  But their investigation is complicated by the sheer range of suspects, not to mention a vendetta against Geneviève and an increasingly repressive palace regime.

As one might expect, the characters of the novel include several from Dracula-- those, at least, who have survived, including Dr. Seward and Arthur Holmwood.  But other Victorian and Edwardian literature is amply represented.  One of the police detectives is Inspector Lestrade, while two doctors consulted about the murderer's knowledge and motivations are named Jekyll and Moreau.  Vampires from other fiction have flocked to England for safety and freedom.  Readers who don't like this sort of cameo appearance are advised not to read Anno Dracula, which is littered with them.  For those who enjoy the game of tracking down references, there are plenty of semi-obscure names to identify.  Historical figures, from Oscar Wilde to Sir Charles Warren, also appear.

But the novel is much more than a complicated game of Where's Waldo.  Its world-building, in which real-world issues like sodomy raids and child prostitution are given a vampire twist, is ingenious enough, but it also includes vivid action sequences, intricate political intrigue, and a well-thought-out investigation.  The Ripper's identity (itself a brilliant notion) is revealed to the reader early on, turning the book into a howcatchem rather than a whodunit, but allowing a powerful, disturbing insight into the killer's motivations.  Anno Dracula is a fast-paced, delightful entertainment, a marvel of storytelling for those who like this sort of thing.

The book, first published in the 1990s, has long been out of print, but was recently released in a new edition by Titan Books.  In addition to the original text, the new edition includes a number of bonus features: annotations by the author, identifying some of the more obscure references; an afterword on the novel's genesis; an excerpt from the novella "Red Reign," which preceded the novel and has a slightly different ending; extracts from Newman's unproduced screenplay for a film version, which includes a few new sequences and some altered characters; "Drac the Ripper," an essay on other Ripper/Dracula stories; and "Dead Travel Fast," a short story featuring Dracula that, while not formally part of the Anno Dracula universe, could fit into it, and is in any case a sharp, nasty piece dealing with a less-appreciated trait of the vampire.

I mention the Anno Dracula universe.  Newman followed the original novel with two sequels: The Bloody Red Baron, set during World War I, and Dracula Cha Cha Cha (released in the US under the dull title Judgment of Tears), set in the 1950s.  A fourth novel, Johnny Alucard, bringing the series into the present day, has long been in the works.  Titan Books now plans to publish the entire series.  Anno Dracula came out this month; The Bloody Red Baron (containing a never-before-published novella) will follow in October 2011, while Dracula Cha Cha Cha (with another new novella) will appear in April 2012 and Johnny Alucard in October 2012.  Fans of Wold Newton-esque vampire fiction have much to look forward to.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three

It's rare for a non-theme horror anthology to have much cumulative effect.  A diverse selection of stories may be intellectually interesting, but it can't often send shivers up the spine in the way an anthology with a common thread can, never mind a single author collection.  Happily, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three is an exception.  At first, I planned to read about half of it in a single night.  But after a run of particularly creepy tales, I didn't want to put it down, and kept telling myself "I'll stop here... or here... or here."  Eventually it was 2:00 AM, and after turning the last page, I found I was seeing things out of the corner of my eye and jumping at small noises.  After I closed my bedroom door and got under the covers, I got to thinking about how anything might be sneaking up on me in the hall outside.  Anything.

Likethe ominous presence that haunts a funeral home in Glen Hirshberg's Jewish ghost story "Shomer."  The atypical werewolf of John Langan's stylish, self-aware "The Revel." Or the sourceless singing that threatens a small boy in "Till the Morning Comes" by Stephen Graham Jones.  Or even the nameless terror unearthed by the amateur filmmakers in Richard Harland's "The Fear," a fine addition to the roster of stories using the lost-movie trope.  Each of these stories gave me the visceral chill that, for all my intellectual pretension, is still my favorite part of reading horror stories.

But nearly every entry in the table of contents for this best-of volume distinguishes itself in some way.  From the love triangle with a ghoulish twist in "City of the Dog," another story by the versatile John Langan, to the disjointed prose poetry of Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.'s "Just Another Desert Night with Blood;" from the hallucinatory Alaskan landscape and violent psychosis of Richard Christian Matheson's "Transfiguration," to the achingly almost-human zombies of Catherynne M. Valente's "The Days of Flaming Motorcycles;" and from the eccentic, decayed seaside attraction of Christopher Fowler's "Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside," to the unlikely friendship struck up between isolated children in "Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls" by Brian Hodge, this anthology goes from strength to strength.

A few miniature trends can be observed.  Several stories offer end of the world scenarios, whether caused by demons, zombies or ordinary birds.  Fractured familial and romantic relationships are also common, as monsters prey on people in the midst of more mundane sufferings.  But it's diversity, not sameness, that defines the 140,000 words of well-crafted, ambitious fiction that accompany Ellen Datlow's usual thorough summary of the year in horror fiction.  Fans of subtle, thoughtful horror probably already know it, but The Best Horror of the Year is a series not to be missed.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

All God's Angels, Beware!

"The Judaeo-Christian creation myth makes the universe sound like the quaint hobby of a kindly landowner pottering about in his conservatory."
"Any freak exiled from sex knows that they have been apportioned tragedy whilst being robbed of dignity."
Both these quotes come from "Suicide Watch," the novelette that closes out Quentin S. Crisp's 2009 collection All God's Angels, Beware!  But do they belong at the head of a review?  Is there any reason to have pulled them out of context, except that the reviewer found them striking enough to post on Twitter?  For the first, probably not, although it may have some value as a barometer; if the sentiment offends you, you should probably not read this book, or anything else Crisp has written or will ever write.  The second is perhaps more relevant, as some degree of sexual dysfunction or abnormality features in several of these stories.  But it's hardly a dominant element, and doesn't deserve consideration above other motifs just as prominent.  So there's no reason for those quotes to have pride of place, except that I want them there.  And that, as the narrator of "Suicide Watch" might suggest, is worth more than any convention that might suggest I cut this entire self-indulgent first paragraph.

I've already reviewed Crisp's earlier collection, Morbid Tales, in glowing terms, and that review itself referred to my praise for Crisp's novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!"  So this time around I shall keep the superlatives to a minimum, and try simply to describe each of the stories in All God's Angels, Beware! as best I can.  The first, "Troubled Joe," features the ghost of a suicide, who has discovered that life as a spirit is as solitary and purposeless as earthly existence.  Like many of Crisp's protagonists, he is sensitive yet bitter, longing for affection but sure he doesn't deserve it and ready to reject anyone who might offer any.  It is difficult to write sympathetically and intelligently about such individuals, but Crisp always does so, and there is a subdued poetry to the ghost's wanderings and his attempts to tell his story to the indifferent living.

"The Were-Sheep of Abercrave" is, as its title might suggest, something of an ironic twist on the weird tale, in which a quirky loner gets his revenge on the small town that rejected him.  Crisp manages to puncture the portentous tone of a certain kind of fiction without abandoning the disturbing atmosphere its best examples create.  That same atmosphere is stronger still in the novella "Ynys-y-Plag," about which there is nothing parodic: it's simply a terrifying story of an isolated Welsh town and the presence that haunts its woods at twilight.  At 74 pages this is the longest story in the collection, and Crisp uses that length to build a dense, many-stranded narrative that unfolds its secrets slowly.  This is horror in the classically visionary mode of Machen or Blackwood, but with an undercurrent of contemporary psychology that an inattentive reader could easily miss.  Sorry, but I feel a superlative coming on: "Ynys-y-Plag" is chilling, and will surely join works like T.E.D. Klein's "Children of the Kingdom" and Michael Shea's "The Autopsy" as a contemporary masterpiece of long weird fiction.

Nearly as long as "Ynys-y-Plag," the novella "Karakasa" is, to all appearances, much less tightly structured.  A dreamlike science fiction story of a future where immortality is fast becoming the norm, holographic objects have as much currency as real ones, and England has been swallowed by a plague of spontaneously self-constructing buildings, it approaches philosophical issues of identity, value, and authenticity from several angles.  The images are often absorbing, and this mostly makes up for the slightly rambling air generated by the plot structure and the narrator's voice.  "A Cup of Tea" is, in its own way, more plotless than "Karakasa," but it's a shorter story, and one in which Crisp's ability to capture the evocative atmosphere of a single moment is used to its greatest possible effect.  It is, not quite an epiphany, and to call it "grace" would be to invoke a wholly alien frame of reference, but an instant where the elements of ordinary life combine to suggest some elusive, greater thing.  The glimpses of the protagonist's existence outside this instant add to a sensibility that is elegiac without being melancholy.

"Asking for It," on the other hand, captures a grim moment of human cruelty, the point at which remembered and current frustrations and slights become too much, and violent impulses bubble up as if from nowhere.  "The Fox Wedding," which immediately follows it, also deals directly with the sexual frustration of socially awkward men, but in a more fantastic way, turning ancient Japanese myth into potent, unpleasant modern symbolism.  "Mise En Abyme," on the other hand, is a thoroughly absurd story, though not without its own stylized sinisterness, as the aptly-named Venn rearranges his wallpaper pattern to discover the source of strange discontinuities in the universe.  Crisp's formal prose prevents all this from becoming intolerably whimsical.

"Italiannetto" achieves the remarkable distinction of being unlike anything else by Crisp I've yet read.  The story of a young boy on vacation, visited by and infatuated with a radiant young associate of his uncle-- but the associate is Annette Funicello, and the experience is being recalled during the young man's adulthood, during which he has become a successful artist.  This may sound distractingly quirky, but in fact it all plays out naturally, with an air of strangeness that is entirely appropriate to the way young boys experience the world.  Without being sloppily sentimental, the story captures the influence certain figures can have on a child's mind, whether those figures are friends of the family or world-famous celebrities.

And then there is "Suicide Watch," which looks at suicide as mark of overwhelming despair, as surrender to an inability to live in the world, as response to the coldness of an indifferent universe, and as something else altogether.  Beyond that, it's not a story that can easily be described, except as capturing, as so much of Crisp's fiction does, the texture of a life forever on the verge of embarrassment and never far from total collapse, and offering redemption of a bizarrely powerful kind.

Quentin S. Crisp is one of those writers whose voice is so strong that the essential features of his fiction remain constant whether the trappings are science fiction, horror, fantasy, or contemporary minimalist fiction.  It's not something that all readers will be able to bear.  His characters' awkwardness, suffering, self-pity will turn off those for whom such modes of existence are impossible to understand.  But for those who are epicures of the upsetting, the degraded, and the unexpectedly numinous, he is (superlative alert) among the finest of contemporary writers.

Monday, May 23, 2011

IT: 25th Anniversary Edition

It's slightly outside this blog's usual topics, but I was interested, so I thought I'd point out that Cemetery Dance Publications is releasing a deluxe 25th anniversary edition of Stephen King's IT.  Three editions, all over-sized and lavishly illustrated, two signed (by author and artists), numbered/lettered and traycased.  The price is higher, but it's never going to be lower, and this will sell out quickly, so if you're interested, check out the details here.

UPDATE: The signed lettered edition has already sold out.  Due to website problems caused by high demand, Cemetery Dance has temporarily suspended orders on the signed limited edition to prevent customers accidentally being charged twice.  The unsigned gift edition is still available for pre-order at the above link; you can join a no-obligation mailing list to be informed when the signed limited is once again available for pre-order here.

FURTHER UPDATE: The signed limited edition went back on sale this morning, and is now sold out.  The product page linked in the first paragraph now includes a waiting list to be notified if copies become available due to non-payment or cancellation.  The gift edition is also selling strongly, and will likely sell out before publication.

We Are For the Dark

This is, I suppose, the third in a series of personal reflections on Robert Aickman collections.  Previous posts dealt with Sub Rosa and Dark Entries.

Robert Aickman's first book was, of course, a collaborative collection with his then-lover, the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Containing three stories by each, the volume, like most to which Aickman contributed, is now out of print and difficult/expensive to find.  However, I was lucky enough to find a copy of the scarce paperback edition at a very reasonable price.

The collection opens with Howard's novelette "Perfect Love," which uses the antiquarian ghost story device of multiple, indirect information sources to fashion a distinctly modern, suggestive story of a great opera singer and the presence that haunts her.  This like all Howard's strange stories, captures much of the same bewildering atmosphere as Aickman's stories, without being quite so narratively obscure.  I still want to read it again to see if I've missed anything, though.

Next is Aickman's "The Trains," a favorite of mine among his work.  From the amusing but insightful portrayal of two young women with different temperaments on a hiking trip, to the sparse, cheerless landscape of the train-dominated valley they find themselves in, to the eccentric household where they take shelter from a storm, this is an ambitious story about the ambiguities of love and desire that more than justifies its length.  And the ghost, though seen fleetingly if at all, is quite frightening.

Aickman's "The Insufficient Answer" was the only one of his three contributions that was new to me.  It's another story in which an unusual, awkward social environment is edged with hints of the supernatural: an English sculptress has withdrawn to an ancient castle high in the mountains of Eastern Europe, and maintains a solitary existence there with a single female companion.  As this was my first reading, it goes without saying that I didn't particularly understand the story, but it's effective all the same, and the (sufficient) answer seems closer to the surface than in some of his work.

"Three Miles Up" is by Howard, but some early reviewers of the book, which does not attribute the stories to their particular authors, took it to be by Aickman.  It's not difficult to see why: taking place during a canal voyage, dealing with two male friends and the mysterious woman they encounter, and ending on a note of baffling ambiguity, it is very Aickmanesque.  It is, however, more viscerally chilling than most Aickman stories.

I wrote about a later, slightly revised version of Aickman's "The View" in my post on Dark Entries, where I also remarked on "something that has often happened to me with Aickman...  I read a story once, think it's rambling and pointless, then read it again and realize how tightly structured and clever it is."  On this, my third reading of "The View," I finally had that epiphany.  Well, I still think that the enigmatic, aphoristic dialogue of "Ariel," the protagonist's mysterious lover, could be trimmed without notable loss to the story, but in that earlier post I was polite about the story without much admiring it.  Now I appreciate better (without accepting) its chains of association and symbolism relating to male and female identity.

The simplest and most terrifying story in We Are For the Dark is "Left Luggage" by Howard, which takes the most innocuous of objects, a stray suitcase, and imbues it with malevolent presence.  As with "Perfect Love," Howard demonstrates mastery of various structural tricks of the ghost story, but "Left Luggage" is so concise and clearly-explained that the effect of those tricks is much greater.

Despite dual authorship by writers with slightly different sensibilities, the stories in We Are For the Dark complement each other nicely, offering a fine mix of the ambiguous and the direct, the quietly unsettling and the outright frightening.  It's a pity that, while all of the stories are, for the moment, relatively easy to find,* they're not readily available under a single set of covers.  Their cumulative effect is not to be missed.

*The Howard stories, along with a fourth strange tale, can be found in the almost-out-of-print Three Miles Up from Tartarus Press,  "The Trains"  in the Aickman reprint collection The-Wine Dark Sea, "The Insufficient Answer" in the instant-remainder anthology Girls' Night Out, and "The View" in the Aickman reprint collection Painted Devils or the Tartarus edition of Dark Entries.

A Lovecraft Retrospective: Artists Inspired by H.P.L.

As marvelous as Centipede Press's Knowing Darkness: Artists Inspired by Stephen King was, A Lovecraft Retrospective excels it in every way.  The text, while dry and not terribly insightful, is more cogent and less error-ridden; the range of artists and styles is, given Lovecraft's longer history, deeper; and the overall quality and wow-factor of the art is greater.  The book itself is even slightly larger.  (And the price tag is higher.)  This is not a book to be flipped through once and then set back on the shelf; it's an artifact to be returned to again and again, allowing the disturbing, evocative images to penetrate deeper and deeper into the mind, until you've been warped permanently.

Friday, May 20, 2011

In Concert, on sale

Just thought I'd point out that In Concert, the collection of collaborations between Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem, is currently 58% off the (slightly inflated) list price at Amazon.com, bringing the cost down to about $40.00, not a bad deal for a signed, numbered, lavishly illustrated edition.  There's a link to the product page below, and if you haven't already seen my review of In Concert, it's here.

Strangers and Pilgrims

The obscurity of so many great twentieth-century ghost story writers is one of the tragedies of contemporary supernatural fiction.  M.R. James has never been out of print, and justifiably so, but what of H.R. Wakefield?  Oliver Onions?  Robert Aickman?  They turn up in anthologies from time to time, but if not for the attention of small publishers like Ash-Tree and Tartarus, they would scarcely have modern collections at all, and the limited printings required by the economics of book production mean that many readers will never come across those volumes.  But slim opportunity is better than none; one can only celebrate what availability there is for these nigh-forgotten masters.  And there is much to celebrate about Strangers and Pilgrims, Tartarus' hardcover collection of supernatural tales by Walter de la Mare.

First, there is the production of the book.   £35/$60 (including shipping) may seem like a lot to pay for a hardcover, but every aspect of its design is attractive but not needlessly flashy: "rich, not gaudy."  From the light yellow jacket to the durable grey covers with gold stamping, from the thick, solid paper stock to the soft ribbon marker, the book is a joy to behold, and larger even than its count of 510 pages might suggest.  This is a book to admire as well as to read, and its understated elegance is the perfect complement to the stories within.

De la Mare is, one gathers, best known as a poet and a writer for children; only his often-anthologized story "Seaton's Aunt" has attained particular fame as supernatural fiction.  That tale, with its evocation of awkward visits to an acquaintance's house and its ambiguous hints of ghosts and emotional vampirism, is indeed a masterpiece, but it is by no means de la Mare's unparalleled triumph.  Like Robert Aickman, he is masterful with the overlap between eccentricity and the inexplicable.  In a story like "Mr Kempe" or "The Recluse," it almost does not matter if the disagreeable figure who hosts the lonely traveler is haunted by anything more substantial than his own quirks of personality, and the insistent verger of "All Hallows" may simply be a lonely old man with an overactive imagination.  The air of unease is the same.

Strangers and Pilgrims is arranged chronologically, which means that the most effective stories come in the middle, bookended by less successful early and late efforts.  But even minor de la Mare has its virtues, and the atmospheric language of a "The Moon's Miracle" or a "Bad Company" prevents their simple plots from becoming a disappointment.  Likewise, de la Mare's stories for children, which often have a simplicity absent from his adult tales, are so charmingly crafted that older readers will be spellbound as well, whether by the elderly lady of "Alice's Godmother" and her deserted house, or by the lonely child and inviting fairy of "Miss Jemima."

De la Mare's skill as a poet serves him well in several of the collection's eeriest tales, including "The Green Room," in which he credibly evokes the evolving style of a young poet as her life ranges from joy to despair, and "Winter" and "Strangers and Pilgrims," two stories that deal with gravestone inscriptions and capture the pregnant stillness and strangeness of burial-grounds with nary a rattling chain or winding sheet on display.

Although, as Mark Valentine observes in his thoughtful introduction, all de la Mare's stories share a sense of the numinous potential on the edges of everyday life, they are so diverse that to call them all "ghost stories" is to do them an injustice.  "The Riddle" is either a tale of unidentified menace or a poignant metaphor for growing up; "The Bird of Travel" is not so much about a family curse as it is about an emotionally-fraught meeting and the meaning of travel.  "A Revenant" is almost an essay-in-fiction, with a lecture on Edgar Allan Poe attended by an unexpected visitor.  And then there are "'What Dreams May Come'" and "The Guardian," two late, enigmatic stories that are alike only in offering that bewildering, inexplicable satisfaction that the best weird tales provide.

Although he was, chronologically speaking, a contemporary of M.R. James, de la Mare writes an entirely different kind of story, one whose supernaturalism is a matter of mood, more subdued even than the terrifying suggestions of MRJ.  More psychological and philosophical, they're nonetheless rich in atmosphere, quietly haunting and disturbing.  Strangers and Pilgrims is a book like no other, and not to be missed.

Bite Sized Horror

For more proof, if more were needed, that the horror genre is doing just fine, one need only turn to Bite Sized Horror.  This miniature anthology, the first volume in the Obverse Quarterly, a new venture somewhere between a book and a magazine, contains only six stories and runs less than 100 pages, but there's enough variety here to please almost any reader, whether her taste runs to subtle ghost stories, supernatural revenge, zombies, or the truly unclassifiable.  Although the quality of the prose is uneven and not all the stories deliver, most do, making an enjoyable evening's reading for the horror fan.

The opening story, Reggie Oliver's "The Brighton Redemption," offers echoes of two famous British crimes, but you don't have to be a devotee of the history of murder to appreciate this quietly disturbing nineteenth-century story of misplaced passion, unjustifiable enthusiasm, and disturbing fascination.  The diary entries of a reforming rector's new curate reveal strange events in Brighton.  As ever, Oliver is a master of period voice and understated terror, and the story is psychologically well-observed as well as chilling.

Paul Kane's "The Between" starts off a little roughly, with a portrait of a betrayed and bewildered husband's divorce proceedings so one-dimensional that the attempt to make him sympathetic backfires, but once the horror kicks in, the story proves to be a gripping, well-choreographed action-horror story of people thrown together in baffling circumstances, reminiscent of some of Stephen King's best work, with some appropriate grue.  The ending is a little abrupt and self-consciously poetic for my taste-- something earthier might have worked better-- but basically satisfying.

"His Pale Blue Eyes" is a zombie story, more or less, but as with all the best zombie stories, it's as much about humans as it is about the walking dead.  A young girl, drilled in the art of survival by her parents, goes out looking for them when they fail to return from the everyday peril of a run to an abandoned grocery store.  As her journey progresses, what seems like it might be a maudlin tale of tragedy and survival becomes something unexpected and harsher.  David A. Riley delivers a taut, surprising story with a credible child protagonist.

At one point in "The Unquiet Bones" by Marie O'Regan, a character thinks, "All we need is lightning and we’re in a horror movie!"  Unfortunately, she's right; the story is too dependent on the tropes of mid-century horror flicks-- broken-down car, mysterious dwelling, eccentric monks, something in the shadows, a strained coincidence passed off as fate-- and never offers enough depth of character or intensity of prose to overcome that limitation.  It's not quite a bad story, but not quite a good one either.

Editor Johnny Mains contributes the anthology's shortest story, "The Rookery."  It takes a certain sensibility to call a story "pleasantly bleak," but anyone who shares that sensibility will know what is meant, and "The Rookery" has an ambiguous grimness about it that works very well.  There's another divorced husband here, but comparisons to "The Between" are beside the point: this one has a thoroughly different direction.

The anthology goes out on a high note with Conrad Williams' "The Carbon Heart."  At first, its narrator's clipped ruminations feel somewhat forced, but as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that such a voice is perfect for this mysterious, elegiac detective story about regret and loss.  The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull serves as a perfect metaphor for the isolation, entropy, and apathy of the characters.

Williams and Oliver are deft stylists, while the anthology's other contributors offer more straightforward prose, with occasional moments of awkwardness that distract without quite detracting from the overall experience.  Bite Sized Horror may not be the most polished horror anthology ever, but it delivers enough unease, terror, horror, and revulsion-- the full range of unpleasant sensations associated with dark fiction-- to please most readers.

Knowing Darkness: Artists Inspired by Stephen King

The phrase "horror art" may summon up images of  70s-80s market boom covers: glowing eyes, dripping blood, "eerie" light, and so forth.  But those excesses are, of course, far from the whole story, and talented, thoughtful artists have, by desire or commercial necessity, often worked to illustrate dark fiction.  Given Stephen King's status as the most successful horror writer of all time, it's no surprise that his work has inspired thousands of pieces of art, far too many for a single volume to collect them all.  Centipede Press's Knowing Darkness: Artists Inspired by Stephen King, however, collects an amazing range of pieces drawing on King's short stories, novels, and films, in nearly 450 oversize pages, with many dazzling full-page reproductions and fold-outs.  The book's hefty price tag makes this an item for serious collectors only, but the production values make it more than worth the cost to devotees.

In terms of the art, anyway.  The accompanying text, by George Beahm, has its share of issues.  The book is divided into three arbitrary but useful sections, for "Early," "Middle," and "Current" art.  Each section has an overall essay, offering an overview of King's career during the period, and individual essays on a few artists particularly associated with King's work.  The overall essays, too obviously linked to the images chosen for those pages, are rambling and disjointed, occasionally providing interesting information but too often going over details that will surely be familiar to most King collectors or have limited relevance to the art.  The individual essays, based on interviews with the artists, are better, but have an unfortunate breathless quality, with Beahm lauding each artist's vision in terms that would be appropriate for a overblown press release than an archival quality volume.  Beahm's descriptions of various pieces lack insight, simply describing and making basic comments that scarcely tell the reader anything she couldn't see for herself.  The entire text suffers from issues of language usage (misplaced modifiers and other grammatical problems) and proofreading/layout (repeated text, strange formatting, and typographical errors, including the hilarious "There was always a sense of mystery as to what would be around the next behind in the river") that are especially disappointing given the book's cost and otherwise glamorous presentation.

But this is an art book, and it's ultimately the art that matters.  Here, one finds no cause for complaint.  The variety of artists and of works illustrated is commendable, as is the evident effort to find foreign-language art, one-off magazine illustrations, and other ephemera.  The size and detail of the reproductions, many of which were made directly from the original art, reveal gifts that might otherwise have been ignored; much of the mass-market art that looks dingy or workmanlike reduced to fit on a cover and indifferently printed, is revealed to be astonishing in its pristine form.  Limited edition art, previously available in the original volumes at prices even heftier than this volume's, can find a new audience at last.  Many artists have provided original pieces based on works they've never illustrated before, with amazing results.  Any fan of King, or of horror art in general, will "ooh" and "aah" like a child as the turning of each oversized page reveals new talents and new terrors.  Knowing Darkness is an astonishing pleasure.

Dreaming Down-Under

There is something faintly patronizing about identity-based subgenres of imaginative fiction.  They suggest, if unintentionally, that one's success is limited to a particular niche, and can never be comparable to the talent of masters of the genre as a whole.  To describe Terry Dowling or Margo Lanagan as a "great Australian writer" (a phrase that seems to invite the addendum, "one of the few remaining in captivity) is to miss the point.  They are great writers, full stop.  Likewise, Dreaming Down-Under is not simply an effective collection of Australian speculative fiction: it is effective SF, full stop.

On its original release in 1998, this massive anthology came massively hyped, with major marketing and a laudatory preface by Harlan Ellison.  As a demonstration that Australian imaginative fiction is every bit the equal of what's on offer other English-language countries, it deserves all that promotion; as a set of stories in its own right, it falls a little short.  The very scope of the anthology works against it: among its 31 stories, some quite long, are a few brilliant entries and rather too many solid but faintly unsatisfying pieces.  All have interesting concepts and are at least reasonably well-crafted, and in a slimmer volume, the minor works wouldn't be much of an issue, but here they create some risk of reader fatigue.

Perhaps the most common difficulty for these stories is one of scope.  Several are excerpts from, grew into, or are otherwise connected to novels by the same authors, and unsurprisingly these tend to feel incomplete or tentative, like an appetizer with no main course.  The longest story, "And Now Doth Time Waste Me," was unfinished at the time of author George Turner's death, and although one can hardly fault the editors for including the last work by a major talent, the tale comes to an abrupt halt just as its parable of immortality gone wrong begins to take off.

Other stories fall short due to insufficient evocation of the depth necessary to suggest a vivid alternative reality.  This can be a failure of prose style, as in "The Marsh Runners" and "The Third Rail," two dark tales that lack the intensity they'd need to terrify rather than mildly disturb, or of world-building.  It is not enough, in speculative fiction, to detail only those aspects of your milieu that relate to the story at hand.  You must fill in the incidental details of this future, this fantasy world, this nightmare dimension.  This is a difficult task to complete in a short story, and not many of the contributors to Dreaming Down-Under manage it.

There is, however, plenty of variety, with a diverse blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and many different forms of each, from the complex sci-fi world-building of Sean Williams' "Entre les Beaux Morts en Vie" and Cherry Wilder's "The Dancing Floor" to the horror-tinged futures of "The Body Politic" (Tess Williams) and "Unborn Again" (Chris Lawson), from Rosaleen Love's whimsical fairy tale "Two Recipes for Magic Beans" to Cecily Scutt's darkly metaphorical fable "Descent."  If readers had imagined that Australian genre fiction limited itself to some notion of distinctively Australian settings or themes, Dreaming Down-Under proves them wrong; the ideas, dreams, passions, and fears explored by these stories are universal, and the volume is worth reading for anyone interested in contemporary talents who may, by a quirk of geography, be lamentably unfamiliar.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Of possible interest


Dying to Read

Rarely have I read a book with such disparity between substance and style as John Elliott's Dying to Read.  the author's cleverness and breadth of imagination are impossible to deny: his novel is brimming with eccentric yet likable characters, whimsical yet thoughtful dialogue, and absurd yet meaningful situations.  But it's all described in prose so awkward, so frequently difficult to parse, that had the book not come from a trusted publisher I might have given up on it after only a few pages.  I am, I must confess, given to reading like the emotionally-starved English teacher of stereotype, who pauses to cluck at every misplaced modifier or awkward expression.  With Dying to Read it happened at least once on every page.

The most striking problem is Elliott's use of commas, which is so sparing that one is left to wonder whether there was a shortage of them in Twickenham at the time of writing.  That may sound petty, but it isn't really.  Commas are vital to the way the brain interprets compound and/or complex sentences, and their absence where they're expected trips up the reading experience.  When confronted with a sentence like "Like other clients he seemed concerned about the state of his hair for he ran his fingers twice through the thick silver locks which surmounted his still boyish face before his hostess appeared," the mind needs to stop and process all the information that's being provided, which interrupts the flow of the narrative.

Generally the problems of prose in Dying to Read come from these efforts to squeeze more into a single sentence than it can reasonably be expected to hold.  Others, though, feel like the work of a writer who knows enough to attempt a stylistic flourish but not enough to achieve it.  The result is wit without elegance, dialogue where you can see the joke but are too distracted by the woodenness with which it's expressed to be amused.  Expressed in such language, philosophical rumination and emotional reflection feel less profound than they actually are.

Which is a shame, because the central characters, for all their foibles, are roundly-drawn, and the mystery itself is satisfyingly complex, taking in lectures on cynicism, the underworld of spanking fetishists, a talking parrot who may or may not know something useful, and a cross-dressing elderly detective who thinks the best way to solve a murder is to find a piece of fiction that follows a similar pattern.  Events move at a fast pace, and while much of what happens is irrelevant to the investigation itself, germane twists do come up often enough to make the novel compelling despite its stylistic limitations.  There is, I think, no prose sufficiently awful that a worthwhile concept and solid execution can't make up for it, and, for all its frustrations, the prose of Dying to Read is nowhere near awful.  For readers who enjoy whimsical-satirical mystery, it's well worth a look.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Link Arms With Toads!

Literary whimsy, like literary nonsense, demands a harsh edge, a counterbalance to its playfulness that prevents it from becoming irredeemably precious: a dark lining for the silver cloud.  Nonsense is likely to be macabre, as in the death jokes of Lewis Carroll or the dreadful fates of Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies.  Whimsy, on the other hand, can be subtler and more subdued in its flashes of shadow.  Such is the case with Rhys Hughes' Link Arms With Toads! a career-spanning collection that is, in the author's view, the best single introduction to his work.  If it is indeed representative of the quality of his other fiction, Hughes is not only remarkably prolific but also a writer of unconfined imagination with a gift for wordplay and a sharp, wry sense of humor.

The stories in Link Arms With Toads! could be classified in any number of genres and subgenres: fantasy, science fiction, horror, magical realism, the weird, the satirical, tragical-pastoral-historical-comical-- but you get the point.  Within its first fifty pages, the collection presents its reader with a wandering group of seductive music instructors ("The Troubadors of Perception"), a note-perfect parody of M.R. James that also takes in parallel universes ("Number 13 1/2"), a world in which the mystery of under-patronized Indian restaurants has evolved into a space program and a religious experience ("The Taste of the Moon"), and a contemporary-Gothic Birmingham with an unorthodox plan for winning an unorthdox contest ("Lunarhampton").  It should be obvious that a representative selection of Hughes' style is impossible, but here's a paragraph anyway.
He shook a finger.  "Oh no, Ms Sting!  You won't pull that particular shade of wool over my eyes."  In a more conciliatory tone, he added:  "The car is a minor issue.  We all make sacrifices, we all have fears.  My dear mother was startled by a monkey.  She was pregnant and the shock affected her womb.  The world is an absurd place."
Indeed.  And Hughes is the perfect chronicler of that absurdity, not simply because of his gift for whimsy, but because that gift is accompanied by a feeling for the symbolic value of the strange.  No cheap moralizer or allegorist, he nonetheless imbues his tales with awareness of the human yearning for companionship, purpose, clarity, and fulfillment.  "The Expanding Woman," which like quite a few of these remarkable tales is previously unpublished, involves a battle between Klingon and Esperanto, an enormous cracked orbital mirror, and (surprise, surprise) an expanding woman, but it's also a melancholy meditation on the (dis)contents of futurism.  Make no mistake: Link Arms With Toads! is hilarious reading, and can, if one so wishes, be taken simply as an entertainment.  But it's also rewarding for those with higher expectations.

To do the book justice, a reviewer ought to describe and discuss each story, for this is hardly one of those collections in which every tale is like the others.  But my limited store of superlative adjectives is already sorely depleted.  How would I praise the ingenious plotting of the Poe-inspired "Pity the Pendulum," the parable-like irony of "333 and a Third" and "Discrepancy," the sheer bizarrerie of "Hell Toupee"?  I suppose preterition will have to do.  Rhys Hughes is a singular talent, and the fact that this and many of his other collections have been released by small presses should not be taken as a sign to the contrary.  Like his wandering troubadours, he has talent, and ambition, on a greater scale:
While we argue, debate, cajole, the waiter serves us all supper.  We need to fortify ourselves for the tribulations ahead.  But we must not be defiled.  We are minstrels, the lyric poets of the garden cities.  Music alone is the reason for our being, we require no other sustenance.  In this particular cafe our needs are understood.  Do not fret.  We shall rebuild Carcassonne, we shall.  Solemnly, in the sinister light that emanates from the charcoal ovens, we dine on manuscript stew and violin steaks and pick splinters from between our broken teeth.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A story in itself

I've tried twice now to buy a copy of Mark Valentine's collection The Nightfarers, from two different sources; both times it was lost in the mail.  Between the first and second copies the price went up substantially; for a third it seems likely to be higher still.  I want the book enough to pay the difference (and I did get my money back on at least one of the lost copies), but it's hard not to feel personally thwarted.  To distract myself, I've been contemplating a version of these events that is a weird story in itself.

Once, twice, three times the reclusive book collector attempts to obtain a copy of the fabled "lost" collection by the little known author, driven to more unusual and disturbing sources each time.  Finally, he has the book in hand, and after spending no small amount of time admiring the condition, the artwork, the binding, he begins to read.  And what he finds within its pages...

Well, that's where the real writing of such a story would begin, where it would have to distinguish itself from the dozens of other "evil book" tales out there.  I have one or two ideas, but now is not the time.  Maybe, if I get serious about writing again, I'll give this one a whirl.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Great Lover

He reads it slowly, which is unusual for him; he is the type to devour books in as few sittings as I can manage.  But this is not a novel that he can follow with my typical speed.  Its sudden shifts of point-of-view-- between characters, first to third-- and the bursts of nonsensical imagery make it difficult for him to build up a rhythm, and on the rare occasions when he did, I find that reading so quickly makes me loose track of Cisco's dense, stunning imagery.  Also the narrative momentum is low, as characters and situations are gradually introduced alongside descriptions of dreams that may or may not have anything to do with the plot, may or not have make sense on their own terms, but are almost always evocative, of fear or terror or lust or what you will.
Here among the branches and drifting lamps, in a silence punctuated by the barely audible creaking of the boughs and the rasp of leaves falling, settling, delicate corpses are suspended like wasps' nests, dappled with shadow and soft, shabby patches of decay.  They are stored among the branches until all of them have convened, filling the wood with a musty odor, mixed with the smell of the trees the forest has the scent of an ancient spice cabinet.  Incense is wafted over the bodies daily; the censer-bearers move patiently along from trunk to trunk, and tender shoots of smoke slither in the grooves of the bark, coil up in bunches under dully lustrous leaves.

"We must put the bodies in the brine tank."

The music of these words reverberates from one end of the narrative to the other.  Down below you, in the sewers, I struggle in the strong, brown current.  Pale helpless bodies shrink deeper into the protection of my arms.

The map (aside): He works doggedly, with a kind of protestant strenuousness.  Without pause he turns and goes back into the tunnels, drops instantly into the water and is gone, coat flapping behind him in the current like a ray's wing.  He emerges again, a body beneath each arm; the water seems reluctant to release him, dropping from his back like a heavy hood.  These are the last.

A wind stirs the wood, the bodies nod dreamily, serene faces dip, fingered by branch shadows.  The wind animates hands and feet, and the bodies gesture with a voiceless grace, celestial, fairy tranquility.  They are like shafts of sunlight dropping down through the forest canopy, light or dark their skin sheds a mist of light, as though these woods had been invaded by an army of gigantic glow worms, inexplicably locked in sleep.
 Yes yes long quotes are all very well, you say, whoever you are on the other side of the screen, but what is the book about?  If I thought I knew, I would tell you.  But all he sees are pieces of the puzzle: lust and death and religion and the contemporary underworld of the subway; a Prosthetic Libido and a City of Sex and Vampirism.  Is the book irreducible because the mysteries it examines are irreducible, or because the reader has Missed the Point?  In any case he will read it again, after he has read more Michael Cisco's work.  Until then, there is only the experience of reading it: almost incidental postmodern asides; language, grammar, usage so eccentric that typos are impossible to tell from artistic license; a sequence of tragic misunderstandings that unfolds at breakneck pace' scenes that are disturbing viscerally, psychologically, philosophically, or all at once.  The Great Lover is, is, is... is.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Last Werewolf

Another horror-relevant Vine review: The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan, which fails as a moral examination but succeeds (mostly) as a thriller.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Collected Connoisseur

I have long nurtured an irrational bias against detectives of the supernatural.  I'm not thinking here of the Anita Blakes and Harry Dresdens of the world; them I don't care about one way or the other.  Instead I mean the more classical breed of investigator; Martin Hesselius, Carnacki, and so on.  I felt that the presence of a recurring character who not only survived a given esoteric manifestation, but could claim to have studied and learned something about it, was inimical to the atmosphere I prefer in supernatural fiction.  I was always vaguely aware that this was a ridiculous thing to believe, but I clung to it, as people will.  It was only appreciation for the prose of Mark Valentine, and desire to read more of his work without paying limited edition prices, that led me to purchase The Collected Connoisseur, which features all twenty-three adventures of the title character, Valentine's own "sleuth of the singular."

Of those twenty-three stories, many are, in narrative terms, slight affairs; vignettes, as Valentine mentions in his introduction, often similar in general structure to one another and to the supernatural literature of the early 20th century, to which the Connoisseur and his world are a conscious homage.  I usually don't enjoy imitation of the styles of turn-of-the-century writers, simply because almost no one is good at it.  The attempts of well-meaning devotees typically feel forced, overly formal, and anachronistic.  Mark Valentine is a blessed exception.  His use of language is both elegant in itself and pitch-perfect in capturing the tone of his forebears.  Here, picked at random, is the opening of one Connoisseur story:
'You may think I have had more than my share of encounters with the extraordinary,' observed The Connoisseur, on one of my visits to his rooms in a quiet byway of the old cathedral city, 'you may even sometimes suspect me of a certain literary embroidery in my account of these events: but the truth is not that I have seen so much but that I have seen so very little.  What we seek, and what we also half-fear, is all around us, always, had we the necessary calm intentness to discern it.  I do not have this, but for certain rare glimpses: yet I believe I have known others who have drawn closer, much closer.'
He paused here, then reached into his quaintly carved escritoire, and added: 'Take this book and see if it helps you to follow my meaning.'  He handed me an elegant volume bound in green morocco with a silver clasp.  Thoughtfully, he continued: 'I suppose you may feel free to copy out and publish the passages I have taken from the letters she sent to me.'  I opened the book and found that it consisted of manuscripts in a fine, rather spiked hand, written in dark ink on ash-grey paper: jagged extracts had been pasted onto the thick soft pages of the album.  I was about to question my friend about the book, but found that he had turned away and was lost in his own reflections.
I think I can do no better than follow his suggestion and set out below, in the same order, some of the writings he had so carefully preserved.
You can probably tell already whether this is the sort of thing you like or not.  These stories are not so much horror fiction as visionary fantasy, though some have their darker moments.  They are concerned with the suggestiveness of the natural world, and of fine art; with the atmosphere of exaltation that a place, an image, a memory can stir up; with, in a word, the numinous.  I am myself immune to such effects in the physical world, about which I am doggedly materialistic; it is, ironically enough, only from fiction that I can gain a fleeting hint of this sensibility, which I believe to be inaccurate in a crudely literal sense, but so marvelous a lie that it is worth pursuing all the same.  The paragraphs quoted above come from "The Secret Stars," which was the final story of the first Connoisseur collection, In Violet Veils; here is the paragraph immediately following, the first selection from those letters.
I seem to find that so many things here are the simulacra, the echo or murmur of other possibilities.  I hold a cold stone in the palm of my hand and at once it makes me think of it as an amulet that gives entrance to an elsewhere that I can hardly define.  It is a dim dun pebble in which thin streaks of quartz almost seem to compose the paths on a chart of an unknowable, unrecognizable terrain.  Or I find a bleached spar of driftwood and it suggests to me the whittled limb of some form still only a potentiality, some as yet uncreated being.  The thick webs of seaweed are to me the spoor of a vast, dark shifting thing, so vast that it cannot be witnessed.  Tussocks of the harsh grass are the green hair of half-buried alien maidens.  And the torn tamarisks haunt the shore with their bitten, brittle, whispering presence.
Such descriptions, finely-hewn and atmospheric without cod-poetic bombast, are to be found throughout The Collected Connoisseur.  Many of the tales follow the same pattern: the Connoisseur is visited by his nameless friend, brings out an artifact associated with one of his unusual experiences, and explains how he brushed up against something startling.  A detective he may be, but there is rarely space for the Connoisseur to do any investigating; solutions tend to present themselves to him without much trouble.  The longer stories that offer exceptions to this rule are often among the best, as in "The Hesperian Dragon," which pulls together several seemingly disparate encounters with the bizarre in a highly satisfying manner; "The Prince of Barlocco," in which the Connoisseur's initial solution to a family's ancient mystery may not be the correct one; and "The Descent of the Fire," the collection's closing piece, which, as Valentine's introduction memorably puts it, features "perhaps the grandest piece of devilry he has to face."

"The Descent of the Fire," like five other Connoisseur stories, was co-written by Valentine and John Howard.  There is a discernible change in the tone and style of these six collaborations.  The settings are more likely to be continental, rather than the British environments of the solo stories, and the prose is, if no less recondite and atmospheric, slightly less refined, with flashes of awkwardness that would have been unthinkable in the earlier efforts.  And yet the change is refreshing rather than disheartening.  After seventeen straight stories in the delicate, almost spiritual manner of the early Connoisseur, the slight broadening of focus and coarsening of expression is quite welcome, and ends the collection on a strong note.

The Collected Connoisseur is certainly not for every reader.  It is a curiosity, a kind of throwback, though its philosophical concerns are timeless.  Those in search of novelty are advised to look elsewhere.  But those for whom the supply of authentic classical supernaturalism can never be enough, those who yearn for lost tales by the likes of Machen, de la Mare, and Dunsany, should consider purchasing this attractive, inexpensive trade paperback at once; unlike so much modern imitation, it won't disappoint.

Random musings on writing reviews

Although I'm hardly a professional reviewer, just some guy with a blog who likes to clarify his opinions to himself by putting them in a form others can read, I do worry about how my reviews look to readers.  One thing I keep thinking is that I'm too positive, too enthusiastic, too much like one of those standards-free praise factories with whom publishers work out a mutually-convenient relationship.  (I should note that, apart from my Amazon Vine reviews, nothing that has appeared here has been based on a review copy.  I would say if it was.)  In part, this is because the models on which I've unconsciously based my reviews have been the chatty review columns you see in some magazines, but the larger "problem" is that I like most of what I read.

There are reasons for that.  I find reading books I don't like so dispiriting that I've gotten very good at working out what I will and won't enjoy.  I limit myself to a small group of writers, editors, and publishers who I know produce what I consider quality work.  This is especially important since a lot of what I read is expensive limited editions; if I'm paying $50-$100 for a book, I want to be damn sure I'm going to appreciate it.  The last time I read a supernatural fiction title that I genuinely disliked was April 2010, when I forced myself through two horror anthologies I thought were uneven and generally dull.  The last time I read one that I was even lukewarm toward was The Mammoth Book of Zombie Apocalypse!, which I reviewed here, and which, as you can see, I wasn't exactly scathing about.

It's not that I think, as some people seem to, that negativity is better, or cleverer, than positivity.  But I do think that your enthusiasm carries more weight if you can demonstrate that some things don't earn it.  I could write out a long list of writers and books I don't think much of, but it would hardly be fair to knock them about just to prove I can.  I could start doing reviews of those books, but that would be a dispiriting experience for me (I don't enjoy being negative, except about politicians), and again, not what the authors involved deserve.  So I suppose I'll just stick to what I've been doing, reviewing what I read, and being honest about what I think.  I am making an ongoing effort to make some of my reviews a little more formal and less bloggish (my review of Embassytown is a case in point), but that doesn't quite come naturally either; I tried with Morbid Tales, and it just wouldn't work.  I think my niche as a reviewer may be a passionate one, the equivalent of the guy who sits next to you at the bar and raves about this writer you've never heard of.  I guess I can live with that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Morbid Tales

When reading a single-author short story collection with an introduction or foreword by another writer, I usually leave the foreword until after I've finished all the stories.  When I'm just beginning a book, the substantial claims and effusive appreciation of the introducer can seem wildly overblown and be tremendously off-putting; by the time I reach the end, I'm often inclined to agree with them.  So it was with Quentin S. Crisp's Morbid Tales, of which Mark Samuels writes, "His work is quite simply literature of the highest quality."  Indeed it is.

I shouldn't have been surprised by this, I suppose.  I had described Crisp's novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!" in rapturous terms, as "a literary novel of the first order," which indeed it is.  And yet I wasn't sure what to expect from his collection, even though it was published by Tartarus Press, the standard-bearer for classic and contemporary supernatural fiction.  But as I read the first of the eight stories in Morbid Tales, the novella "The Mermaid," I realized I was once again at the beginning of something truly special.

What distinguishes "The Mermaid" is not its plot outline, which is familiar from many a similar supernatural tale, but its combination of fantasy world-building and psychological depth.  Like many of Crisp's protagonist, the first-person narrator is somewhat at odds with the world, a searcher after beauty and purity of a type that is difficult if not impossible to find.  The titular creatures are the object of his particular obsession, and given the sort of book this is, it will come as no surprise that he eventually finds one.  What ensues is at once a classically eerie tale and a deft portrait of sexual repression and something not unlike pedophilia.  All this is brought across by Crisp's prose, which has a visionary quality and contains but is not confined by the vaguely formal voice of much 20th-century British fiction.
Moments after I had swallowed the powder I experienced a strange, rippling disturbance of my senses.  I heard the bubbling of an underwater world, the great wash and drag of currents through a reef, like the eerie, stifled workings of the inside of a body.  I saw the rush of bubbles, twists of light dissolving, drowning and beneath, and around, the restless swelling shadows of ocean, a phantasmagoria distorted by the constant motion of waves, stirring as furtively as the tentacles of an octopus.  Then I began to hear the chattering of voices in a language unknown to me.  It seemed a language as sad and cold and ancient as the dripping, silvery waves themselves, a language like the forgotten treasure of a sunken ship.  And the voices-- they were shrill, almost human, like the cries of gulls.  I do not know how to describe them except to say that they brought to my mind, without me knowing why, certain very distinct images, such as the fins of fish spread thin and elegant, and fish bones, and sea storms, and fresh, dark, dripping blood, cold and salty.
 "The Mermaid" is the longest of these morbid tales, and perhaps the finest, but there are several other small masterpieces, including "Cousin X," in which a childhood visit from a strange and mysterious cousin opens up a young girl's sense of the world, with far-reaching and rather disturbing consequences; "The Two-Timer," in which a Twilight Zone-style supernatural talent becomes the basis for a meditation on cruelty, unhappiness, and the loss of transcendent innocence; and "The Tattooist," a hypnotic story about pain, sexuality, nostalgia, and joy that I cannot possibly describe simply by listing its plot elements; its success is all in atmosphere and language, the unearthly calm of its engimatic central figure and the paradoxical beauty of the landscapes with which he is associated.

Of the four long stories in the collection, the only one that I don't think succeeds is "The Lake."  The psychology of its protagonist is less clear than in other stories, and as a result the manifestations of supernaturalism, while individually striking, feel disconnected and fail to contribute to a larger whole.  On the level of sentence-by-sentence craft the story is a joy to read, but its conclusion lacks the weight for which it seems to strive.

Of shorter pieces, "The Two-Timer" has already been mentioned.  The relatively brief "Far-Off Things" retells a lesser-known fairy tale in a literary language that captures the underlying cruelty of the story's moral universe, creating a storyteller's distance and then smashing it to great effect.  "Ageless," the shortest of these stories, is a well-crafted evocation of a particular moment, but that moment and ones like it are so much a common thread in Crisp's work that the story feels like a side-note, a variation on a theme rather than something meaningful in itself.  And then there is "Autumn Colours," the final tale in this collection.  It takes up some of the same motifs as others, but approaches them in a different way, resulting in a story that is closer to traditionally-defined contemporary literature, and yet has an effect unlike anything else I've ever read.  (It may, from an allusion within the text, bear some similarity to Japanese literature, with which I am woefully unfamiliar.)  It is not a pleasant reading experience, and after first finishing it I wasn't sure the story was a success.  But I now think that was a kind of shrinking away from its truth rather than an honest critical response.  "Autumn Colours" is, in its own way, as fine a tale as "The Mermaid."

Unfortunately, Morbid Tales was released only in a 300-copy hardcover edition, now out of print and commanding high prices on the secondhand market.  By my own judgment, it is well worth what you'll pay for it, but I know I'm more accustomed than many to paying high prices for quality fiction.  I can only reiterate my recommendation that anyone who comes across this blog entry read Crisp's affordably-priced novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!", and, if you admire that book as much as I did, seek out a copy of Morbid Tales or the (for the moment) in-print limited edition collection All God's Angels, Beware!  It will provide entry to a particular world of beauty, terror, and eccentricity that no other writer can access.

Postscript: After writing the above I discovered that "The Tattooist" is available as an online PDF through the publisher's website.  It, too, would be an excellent way to determine your appreciation of Crisp's work.

Further postscript: it seems that Tartarus Press hopes to issue a paperback reprint of Morbid Tales later this year. Need I say that I encourage you to buy a copy once it's formally announced?

Monday, May 2, 2011


I've written another Amazon Vine review of a book that may be of interest to readers of this blog.  Embassytown, the new novel by China Miéville, is science fiction, but of a dark, horror-tinged variety that I think will appeal to devotees of the strange and supernatural.  My review is here.

I hope to finish Quentin S. Crisp's Morbid Tales tonight and review it here tomorrow, but I originally planned to finish it on the 29th and review it on the 30th, so no promises.