Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Epiphanist: Interview

After enjoying The Epiphanist more than I ever expected, I asked author William Rosencrans to answer a few questions about himself and his book by e-mail, and he agreed.


Your author biography on says "William Rosencrans was born and raised in New Orleans, the entropic center of the universe. Immediately after receiving a degree in medieval studies from Tulane University he fled for the wilderness. He spent years living in the Ozarks, then wandered the US before settling down in the mountains of western North Carolina, where he currently works as a stonemason and writer." An unusual career path-- could you tell us more about it, and about your life in general?

Sure. I was raised in a wonderful family by a mathematician, an artist, and a lawyer, who allowed me (mostly) to do whatever I wanted. I never had a curfew; I ate and read and dressed as I liked; and I made friends among the city’s criminal underbelly, its aristocracy, and various layers in between.

In college I declared a major in linguistics, then in astronomy, then in anthropology before deciding on English and medieval studies. Lovelife, employment, hairstyles: all very erratic. In the early 1990s, as New Orleans was becoming the most violent city in the industrialized world, I joined a commune in the Ozarks and learned how to weld, slaughter, garden, and weave a hammock. Four years later I abandoned the commune with my wife and baby daughter; moved the three of us, naively, into a van; traveled the country for two years...

Things are settling down now. For the last twelve years I’ve practiced stonemasonry in Asheville, North Carolina – the longest I’ve stuck with anything.

Tell us something about your development as a writer. Have you always wanted to be one? The Epiphanist is unusually polished and complex for a self-published first novel: is there earlier, unpublished fiction, or other writing? Who and/or what do you see as influences on your work?

Well, I’ve always told stories. But writing? You should take a look at the sample rough draft on my Amazon page. Two and even three lines of writing to every college-ruled line on the paper, heavily annotated, crossed out, arrowed, systems of colored ink violated impatiently... Even a simple three-word phrase can induce a fit of compulsive rewriting and re-rewriting: it might be a better use of my time to rock back and forth in a closet with my knees clutched to my chest.

The problem is that I love words so much. Now and then I open the dictionary at a random spot and read for a while. Boustrophedon, gowpen, sitzmark, slinkskin... Wow. I love them too much to be completely comfortable with the writing process; it should probably only be entrusted to a master.

At the top of my current list of masters are Graham Greene for how much meaning he can condense into a single sentence and Dickens for writing so beautifully and with such generosity. Science fiction favorites: Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Stanislaw Lem, Rudy Rucker... But lists are boring, aren’t they?

What are your hobbies and interests outside of literature?

Stonemasonry has been a major part of my life. I love it. I’ve practiced it for over a decade, building walls, paths, steps, columns, ponds, waterfalls, and so on. (There’s an online portfolio of some of my work at A few months ago I herniated three discs in my back working on a small dam for a distillery in Tennessee, though, so I’m doing lighter masonry work at the moment.

I could also draw all day, and on walks in the summer I like to take a sketchbook with me. Doing pen-and-ink drawings and sketches are an indispensable solace. My mother was a tremendous artist and allowed me unfettered, uncritiqued drawing time whenever I wanted it. And I’ve recently done some woodcarvings, working on big dead treestumps with a chainsaw and chisels.
How did you come to self-publish The Epiphanist? What was the experience of preparing print and electronic editions of the novel like?

It was great. Many fantastic books get rejected a dozen or more times before their publication, which begs the question of how worthwhile it is to try and run the gauntlet of agents and other gatekeepers in the first place, especially since publishers more and more leave the burden of marketing to the author. I was already skeptical of the industry, and after just three rejections I opted to self-publish.

I was encouraged by editing another book, Jean Henri Chandler’s The Codex Guide to the Medieval Baltic, a great work by a great scholar who had decided to self-publish. The draft copy he sent me was a perfect-bound book with a gorgeous cover, lavishly illustrated and beautifully formatted; I was floored to find out that this copy had cost him less to set up and purchase from Lulu, a self-publishing company, than the manuscript of The Epiphanist had cost me to print out at Kinko’s.

After doing some research I decided to do it through Amazon. Incredibly easy. Contractual obligations are negligible. I bought my own ISBN directly from Bowker for about $125, and have purchased copies of the book for potential reviewers. Beyond that I haven't spent a dime.

Editing, cover design, and promotion are all things one could hire out and which I opted to do myself; I think you could expect to spend several thousands of dollars otherwise (the bulk of it being for promotion). I’m a part-time copyeditor and edited a newspaper for a while, so that much was simple. Designing a cover was a painstaking process but I’m satisfied with the result. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service makes the e-book process very simple, and its Createspace branch does the same for printed matter.

Promotion is the tough part. I've been fairly lackadaisical about it, asking as many people as possible to review The Epiphanist or tell friends about it on Facebook or otherwise. Typically I've looked at reviews of books which were similar in style or content to mine, culled the best-written of those reviews, and emailed the authors if their contact info was available to see if they were interested. Out of 102 queries, 33 have responded; 19 of those have agreed to review it.

But those efforts are paltry. It takes real determination to do it right: setting up interviews on local radio stations and book signings at local bookstores; establishing a presence on forums related to your work, and, after you've built up some credibility, announcing the publication of your masterpiece; developing a website... I haven’t done any of this yet.
Where did the idea for The Epiphanist come from? How did you develop its unusual setting, which mixes contemporary and futuristic technology with historically-influenced social, economic, and political structures?

Well, the basic notion of a world in which high and low technologies exist side by side is hardly a new one, but I suppose the specifics here are more heavily researched than normal.

Of course my university studies provided some background. The Middle Ages were actually a time of incredible technological sophistication, every bit as revolutionary as current developments in nanotechnology are for us. A peasant lad travelling from his farmstead in, say, rural Prussia to a major city like Danzig would have been astonished no less than Vladimir is in The Epiphanist when he reaches the Holy City. It didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to superimpose current and future technologies on that same milieu.

The world is like that, though: it’s a temporal palimpsest whose earlier traces underlie everything. I have a certain fondness for the terminology used in medieval European social systems, and I used it extensively in the book, but those systems themselves aren’t too different from what one can find now in much of the world, even here in America in some ways.

The physical setting of The Epiphanist is crucial to this aspect of the story; all that simultaneity seemed to need a hot, overgrown environment to melt together in. The island is actually Borneo, whose jungles and swamps and mountains I spent several years researching – I amassed a huge pile of information about Borneo in the process of writing this book. I don’t like inventing things willy-nilly and I get a bit annoyed with science fiction and fantasy authors who pull implausible concepts out of thin air to move a story forward, or make up weird-sounding words to introduce a note of exoticism. Every strange plant and animal in the book, every peculiar geological feature, from the corpse lilies to the karst forests, is absolutely real. The same holds true for technologies (self-healing ceramics, biomimetics) and religion (early Gnosticism).
Religion is a major topic in The Epiphanist, with different characters offering a variety of views on its legitimacy, its ethics, the question of free will, the nature of visionary experience, and other issues. Would you be willing to discuss your own history with and perspective on religion?

Sure! I was raised in the Episcopalian church until about the age of eleven, at which time two things happened: I read the story of the Golden Calf, and my mother stopped attending. Both things extinguished my interest in religion for many years. The Golden Calf incident... Well, it seemed to me that only a psychopath would order his followers to kill their own sons, brothers, friends, and neighbors for praying to an idol.

For the next decade or so I thought of religion as a profoundly bad thing; there were just too many examples of devout people wreaking havoc in the name of their faith. I’ve since made a sort of peace with it, and a few people have taught me the extraordinary extent to which a religion can ennoble its followers.

Religion is a great framework in which to pose questions about ethics and free will. And it does give people a sense of community and hope. Beyond this, it fascinates me as a writer. The teachings of the Church in The Epiphanist are lifted straight from classical Gnosticism. The notion that there was once a God, that the female half impregnated Herself, that She cast the unborn child from Her womb into the void, that it survived and created a world for itself to be God of, and that we live in that world... Fantastic. Pure science fiction.
Politics is also key to The Epiphanist, which is set in a place in which it and religion are intertwined. Certain characters put forth what might, depending on one's perspective, be called a cynical or a realist view of the concerns and tactics of political leaders. What are your own feelings about the relationship between government and its citizens, and how do they relate to the content of The Epiphanist?

Generally the relationship looks like a pretty bad one, doesn’t it? Everyone seems to agree that it could be much better. Democracy, like Gandhi’s quip about Western civilization, “would be a good idea.”

In The Epiphanist, a nanorobotic fly introduces Vladimir to the concept of the state as an egregor – an entity with its own agenda, distinct from the individuals who nominally control it: a sort of demon. The initial idea came from the concept of demonic “powers and principalities” as expressed by William Stringfellow, a theologian who adapted the idea from the Book of Revelations to American politics.

Do I believe that the state is a demon, complete with horns and tail? Of course not. But it’s a useful metaphor for some states, at least, and the personae they seem to acquire as they grow. And, leaving the metaphor behind, it’s painfully obvious that most people in positions of political power have no concern for average citizens.

In the part of North Carolina where I live, until the late 19th century, we had a population of yeomen, which in the US meant non-slaveholding, small-landowning family farmers. I’m not one to romanticize hard physical labor, especially since my back went out (though white-collar workers throw their backs out, too), but these were independent people who got by perfectly well and had a supportive community. They got sick, like we do; they died, like we do. But they had a degree of autonomy unfathomable to us now. It was a far better situation, in my opinion.
What do you think you'll write next? Is more fiction in the world of The Epiphanist a possibility, or have you said all you want to say about that setting?

I’ve thought about writing a sequel, but Vladimir’s transformations make it pretty much impossible to write from his point of view ever again. It would be a shame to leave the jungles of Borneo forever, though; I really fell in love with them. I’d like to tackle a sequel from another character’s perspective.

I have a number of ideas for other novels. I’ll avoid mentioning specifics. The goal in writing any future novel, for me as much as any other novelist, is to use our beautiful English language as well as possible, pack in some interesting ideas, and do it all in the context of a ripping good yarn.


I'm grateful to Mr. Rosencrans for taking the time to indulge my curiosity, and obviously I encourage you to read his novel. Now.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Epiphanist: Excerpt

From Chapter 1:


He had come at last to the fields. The jungle stopped here abruptly, the trees leaning out past the jungle’s edge as though by the momentum of their growing. A dry, shallow moat, burned clean of vegetation, ran along the boundary to keep the wilderness at bay, and immediately past it, where the trail to the road began, three policemen sat rolling dice. They ignored him. Sir Wenceslas’s tobacco field was laid out neatly under the sun, and the tobacco hands were pulling off the little bouquets of unopened blossoms now that the day was cooling down.  

Past the tall tobacco barn the road opened, and now the entire manor was spread out before him: its contoured hills and sloped fields, rice silos, the banana and lime orchards, the water buffalo in their pasture, the reed-thatched huts of the crofters cobbled together from mud and tufa blocks, and then the battery of coke-ovens hazing the air with sulfur gas. Beyond them the river cut a long lazy curve to the south, and an armored police boat motored across it from the big station house on the opposite bank.

On a little terraced hill was a green park used for feast days where a work party was now setting up tables and ribbons for tomorrow’s holiday, the Feast of the Transfiguration. The cartouchiers would fire a fusillade of star shells and firedrakes. And when the police weren’t looking he could trade them a little nitrous oxide for a paper bag of squibs...

An acre of green rice stippled the mirror of the floodplain. Four people were standing in the water, sickling the earliest of the ripening heads into their baskets. And well past the river and the paddies stood the castle itself, grey granite walls pitted and scarred, surrounded by shockfences and a great self-healing ceramic rampart.    

The hut was empty when he arrived. Nana was in the kitchen at the castle cooking the Baron’s dinner but had made a stack of rice balls with yam, eggplant, and chili pepper from their little plot for dinner, and he took two, though she would yell at him for it. If there were any treats she had hidden them well.

In the shade of a banana tree he ate the rice balls and thought about his teacher and the New Believers. He had seen Revival Moon once, in Chowtown, while Nana was at the bazaar trading cigarettes for cutlery. The man wore only a loincloth, so that his almost fleshless flanks and ribs – wracked by cancer, torn by the flagellants’ lash, branded with charms – would inspire believers and rebuke the wicked. His shaved head was knobby like a fist. He was squatting next to a watering trough for oxen with a copy of the Evangels open on his lap, talking and smiling ecstatically to a small crowd of followers.

Nana had found him sitting there and pulled him away, bowing her apologies to the catechist, who ignored her. She was devout, but the fanaticism of the New Believers’ flock seemed to make her uneasy, as did Vladimir’s piety.

Vladimir, who walked to the manor’s small church every evening with Nana to light candles before going to bed, had felt the Holy Spirit enter him many times, starting at a river service when he was eight. First his body had come strangely apart from him; it had slumped over, while he watched from behind his own eyes as Nana reached down to pull him up from the grass. Then it had started to shake and he had stood as if yanked to his feet by two great hands and began shouting strange words in a voice not his own, a man’s voice which bullied, cajoled, and wept, and the pastor had put his rough hands on him for good luck, and then everyone had. 

Afterwards, flushed with compassion for the sinners of Abaddon, he had decided to save Mr. Singh from his atheism, but the next morning the teacher had mocked his efforts with such energy and pleasure that he gave up and spent the next several weeks inventing terrible torments for the old man in Hell: spiked wheels, flensing hooks, iron crowns glowing with heat, beds of black nails, tubs filled with pit vipers and kraits, and other punishments derived from the Inferno Book of the Evangels.

Long known as a libertine who drank, gambled, fornicated with prostitutes, and scorned the Church, Mr. Singh had said that if Moon and the others were right, then he would be punished for his sins after he died. Therefore the New Believers, in calling for his arrest, were claiming divine justice for themselves and were thus guilty of a very terrible sin. He had read passages from scripture which seemed to back him up. Vladimir had, in the end, agreed, and if the fly had spoken the truth and Moon wanted to crucify him, then the Church had a responsibility to rein the catechist in and so prevent an offense against God, and he knew that it would not.

Was the Church, as Mr. Singh said, just another suzerain, and Moon its vassal knight?

The world seemed to draw away from him suddenly as he sat in the garden, finishing the second rice ball. His teacher believed that the world was surrounded by a void. No heavens, no hells, no God. What, then, had taken hold of him at the river, and made him stand up? Whose voice had come from his mouth? 

He felt deeply alone, and spat out the mouthful of rice, a thing of the world he didn’t belong to. A tiny pink snail was crawling up the damp fibrous trunk of the banana tree. He flicked it off and crushed it sadly under the ball of his thumb.

The sun was lower, its light failing on the shadowed ground, and he got up, fed the rabbits in their hutch, and went to tend the coke-ovens. It seemed to take a very long time to get there. Few people were out, and he stared at them as they passed: they looked almost hollow to him, husks animated by something else inside, like snails. A star appeared in the east, or an untwinkling white dot rather like a star.

Farther and farther away the edges of the world were peeling from him, like an old photograph. He cupped his hands around his eyes the better to see it, a frail, pretty thing of painted fields and sky, full of murderers and fornicators, and wept, and began praying for their redemption, their release from the flesh.

He was still weeping, deep in prayer, when he reached the ovens. The smell of rotten eggs was overpowering, and the respirator he put on filled his ears with the sound of his fervent supplications to God. A coal car was scraping along the rails above the battery, dumping charges of fine crushed coal into the glowing trunnels as it went. Below, a figure in an asbestos hood and gown raked the charges flat, the heat from the open doors making his outline flutter. Vladimir was supposed to turn on the pump, and brick the oven doors shut, and the foreman raised her own respirator, exposing a face like cured ham, and yelled at him to get to work, but he couldn’t stop praying.

She swore and pushed him, and he got to his feet, making the sign of the chiasma over her as she shoved him toward the pumphouse. At last she gave up.

“Vladimir! You’re sick again. God damn it, get the fuck up. Get out of here.”

He stared at the animated shell of her face, its rough glossy surface not like skin, and said a prayer for the burned. When he reached out to bless it she reared back.

“Go home,” the woman shouted, and she unbuckled his respirator and tore it away. “Go to your Nana. Go to your Nana, you little shit. She’ll give you your medicine.”

The sun was setting now. More stars had come out, and he strode away from the glowing ovens and onto the road, waving his arms, shouting benedictions. A patrol car screeched to a stop in front of him and he blessed the driver, who laughed and waved him on. His prayer turned into a carol and he ran singing over the earth with its little huts, all of it like a picture from a book. He could see words written across it now, and he slowed down, amazed, staring at the richly inscribed vision, dwarfed by the great wheel of the constellations. It was a picture from the illuminated version of the Evangels, but one he had never seen before, a secret page. The wind blew down to help. You’re sick again, little sinner, it whispered. Sick under the dome of the heavens.

A figure was walking along the road up to him. It was the Savior, radiant on the darkening road between the lime orchard and the open fields of cassava. As in the illustrations, His face was round and white in death, and He was clad in a white winding cloth. The figure walked or drifted over the road until He was in front of Vladimir and the world folded completely away. There was nothing but the road, and the two of them.

Do you know the Word, the Savior asked. Do you remember how the aeon in Heaven turned away from her consort, and got herself with child; and how she came to know her error before the child was born, that it was deformed, and to spare her shame she cast it from her womb into the void; and how the demigod fell, and did not die but lived as it fell through the void, and created a world for itself. Do you remember the Word.

Savior, he said, I do remember the Word. It’s from the First Book of the Evangels.

Then continue it for Me. 

The false, aborted god created the world of flesh, Vladimir said, and bodies of flesh to be cages, and he trapped sparks from heaven in the cages, and the sparks were of life and we call them souls. And You came to teach us how to open the cages, and were killed by agents of the aborted god, and have come back to help me.

It is so, said the Savior. Now you should go home, and let your Nana give you your medicine, for you are very, very sick.

Then the Savior’s face changed, and Vladimir screamed, and the thing loped after him on all fours, chasing him in the gathering dark back to the croft. Nana was sitting on the bench taking off her sandals when he burst in. Sobbing with terror he told her what had happened, and she sucked in her breath in shock and shushed him, and said his raving was very blasphemous and would bring bad luck. The Savior didn’t look like that in any pictures she had seen, she declared. She made him sit down, filled a hypodermic syringe with his medicine and dosed him, and he fixed his eyes on her old, capable-looking face and stubbled chin as the familiar icy numbness flowed up his arm.

Then she had him lie down facing the wall. After a while his breathing steadied, and he passed out, and when he woke up he was back in the world. He lay still in bed while Nana bustled in the kitchen finishing dinner and grouching to herself. The episode was losing clarity already, like a dream; he couldn’t remember the strange way things had looked, and a wave of melancholy swept over him. His mouth was parched, and he sat up and drank from a clay pitcher of water, crying a little.

The Epiphanist: Review

When discussing self-published writing there is the unavoidable impulse to grade on a curve. There are good reasons for it. Most self-published material is below the not-exact-lofty standards of professional fiction, in ways that become obvious on page one. But even when better books come along, I sometimes find myself diminishing their achievement, thinking of them as "good (for something self-published)," even when they're no worse than what you'd find on a bookstore shelf from a major publisher. And then I read William Rosencrans' The Epiphanist, a novel that made such condescension impossible, a story so polished, thoughtful, and rich in sense of place that it demands to be thought of as a fine science fiction novel full stop. In fact, I liked it so much that I'm breaking new ground for this blog and posting an excerpt and an author interview as well as a review. The excerpt will appear later today, while the interview will follow on Wednesday. I'll update this post once both are available. (If I haven't, leave a comment reminding me.)

Because it is on the simple level of sentence construction that the typical self-published novel most visibly falls down, I should begin with the question of style. Since a long excerpt from The Epiphanist will appear separately, I'll forego my usual practice of quoting a couple passages. It would be hard to find appropriate ones, anyway, though this Amazon review does a good job; what makes Rosencrans so unusual among self-published writers, and, alas, among the traditionally-published as well, is the simple clarity of his sentences. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here, even when there are literal ones, but the language is never cluttered, banal, or obvious. I am embarrassed to admit that a lot of books bring out the clucking English teacher I never became, making me want to go over them with a red pen: "this word isn't used in this sense," "that modifier ought to be somewhere else." Not so with The Epiphanist, which is carefully wrought and occasionally finds a gentle beauty in the flow of images through the mind of its quietly observant protagonist.

It may seem odd to praise a book's style almost entirely by saying that it isn't flawed, but there are stories that almost demand this sort of subdued, difficult-to-describe prose, and The Epiphanist is one, precisely because its world is so lively, both physically and intellectually. The setting is the future (vaguely post-apocalyptic, though the details of how we got from here to there are not a major focus) and the war-torn island of Abaddon. The inhabitants of Abaddon are exiles, those deemed unsuitable for the wider world due to behavior or to perceived flaws in the templates from which they've been genetically engineered. But there is hope: if they can prove their moral worth by passing the examen, a rigorous study of their past actions (as recorded by the ever-present but invisible monitors) and present beliefs, they can enter the Holy City and live a life of peace and luxury. Of course, almost no one is ever deemed worthy. But Vladimir, the novel's young hero, may have some hope-- if he lives long enough to get there.

As this outline may suggest, the distinctive thing about The Epiphanist is its blend of old and new, strange and familiar, futuristic ideas used to explore ancient questions about right action, social order, and the possibility of goodness. The novel takes a nuanced and balanced approach to these questions, allowing different characters to put forth a range of opinions on religion, politics, and the underlying morality of each, always credibly, without force-feeding the reader a required perspective on anything (though that's not to say the book lacks an attitude of its own). The protagonist and title character does, as the title suggests, have his share of sudden revelations, but the reader isn't expected to agree with them, and can enjoy the flow of ideas and plot developments in a number of different ways, right down to the hauntingly ambiguous ending, which manages at once to reveal a good deal and to leave itself open. That Rosencrans can engage such heavy topics in the course of a long story without once becoming dogmatic is another sign of his depth as a writer.

But even before noticing that, the first-time reader of The Epiphanist is likely to be struck by the eccentric richness of its setting. Abaddon is a tropical island, and its flora and fauna have the intensity of the jungle, but the politics, society, and technology of the isle are a fascinating mix of varying places and times, past, present, and future. Gunships, swordsmen, feline-human hybrids, coke ovens, feudalism, limousines, gnosticism: it ought to feel like a meaningless hodgepodge or a showy collection of notions, but instead, unfurled gradually and without ugly exposition in Rosencrans' direct prose, it becomes a credible community, recognizably human for all its wildness, the best kind of science fiction milieu.

I haven't said much about the plot, nor will I. It isn't the point, nor is it especially "action-packed," though there are a few harrowing sequences of different sorts. The joy of The Epiphanist is the surprising world it unfolds (and if you think my laundry list of elements above has given everything away, don't worry: there's more where that came from), the old philosophical issues which are given new relevance in that setting, and the character of Vladimir, who wants to know what is true and right but is torn in a dozen different directions and is, like any of us, capable of terrible things. Like much thoughtful fiction, this novel is more about laying out dilemmas and showing possible responses to them than about providing easy answers, but the narrative arc, which ultimately reminds us that certain historic processes work regardless of how we interpret them, provides a sense of closure greater than that offered by explicit thematic summing-up.

Does this book have limitations? Of course. Gripped as I was by it, I never wanted it to move faster, but some may feel that Vladimir's peregrinations in the middle section go on too long. Readers led by my praise to expect great novelty will probably be disappointed; the blend of ideas here is unlike anything else you've read, but the individual components are readily recognizable from other science fiction. But these are the debatable flaws of a good novel, not the indisputable errors of an obvious failure. The Epiphanist is one of my favorite novels of 2012, and while you may not like it as much as I did, it's definitely worthy of your attention. The Kindle edition is a mere 99 cents (in the US; I assume it's roughly similar in the UK), a remarkable bargain for a novel of this caliber; even a print copy is more than worth its present price. William Rosencrans is a writer of prodigious gifts, and I'm eager to see what he'll do next.

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

Friday, October 12, 2012

Five Degrees of Latitude

I recently read Five Degrees of Latitude, Michael Reynier's debut collection and part of the Tartarus Press  Contemporary Fiction line. I recommend it highly to all admirers of the classical supernatural tale. Reynier's prose is uncommonly polished for a debut author, and his style is perfectly suited to the mode in which these five novellas work. The tales are reminiscent at one time or another of Machen, Blackwood, M. R. James, Edith Wharton, Le Fanu, Hawthorne, Lovecraft, and others, not because Reynier's work is fundamentally derivative but because he is a new and distinctive writer working in that distinguished tradition. United though they are by their elegantly suggestive approach to the supernatural, these tales are each slightly different in tone.

"Le Loup-Garou" may, as its title suggests, be a werewolf story, but it's also a story about the power of the natural landscape to dominate a human community, and about the psychological struggles that occasionally erupt from beneath that community's surface. A disordered chronological structure creates an impression of eerie timelessness parallel to the mental dislocation of those who live in the forest-shadowed village of La-Chapelle-aux-Trois-Vallons, and also allows the plot to come together at an appropriate pace. That plot is made up of some traditional Gothic elements, but they are used well to create a story of old-fashioned psychological weight; it is here that the comparison to Hawthorne is strongest. And the very final scenes add that frisson of the numinous that distinguishes great supernaturalism.

"No. 3 Hobbes Lane," though as elegantly written as the others, is perhaps the weakest of these novellas. There is a disconnect between its ambitious themes, too bluntly stated in a key final scene, and the narrative devices to which that scene is tied, those of the charming but philosophically flimsy ghostly story. Unlike "Le Loup-Garou," which manages to be supernatural and psychological at once, "No. 3 Hobbes Lane" would be better without its shadowy creatures, relying on on the almost Dickensian drama of Ezekiel Hobbes. But there is a great pleasure to be had in unraveling along with the protagonist the mystery of a house that is turned entirely aware from the grand view toward which all its neighbors face. I do wish, though, that the local dialect had not disappeared from that character's speech just when it became necessary for him to narrate events in a more formal style...

"The Rumour Mill" is perhaps the most unusual of these novellas, and has no supernatural element, though it relies on and uses effectively the familiar device of discovered papers, in this case those belonging to a professor who has since disappeared in the course of experiments that grew out of a children's party game. It isn't terribly difficult to guess the direction in which the story is tending, and once a particular character appears the subsequent course of events is obvious. But there is a note of light comedy to the story that at first entertains and then, given subsequent events, disturbs, and as is often the case in such stories, the arrival at the expected ending still manages to satisfy.

"Sika Tarn" is, to my mind, the most chilling tale in Five Degrees of Latitude, and all the more so because in some sense it ought not to work. At first one seems to be reading a tale of alien presences in a remote landscape; there is an echo, intended I think, of "The Willows." But what haunts this isolated lake turns out to be something entirely different, on a smaller scale, and yet every bit as terrifying and sad as if it had had cosmic implications. What might otherwise have been commonplace devices are deployed in just the right way to make a massive impression, as in Edith Wharton's "Afterward," and the themes at work, similar to those of "No. 3 Hobbes Lane," feel much more natural than in that story, and contribute to the mood. "Sika Tarn," like Quentin S. Crisp's "Ynys-Y-Plag," is one of the finest contemporary novellas in the weird tradition.

"The Visions of Lazaro" demonstrates that it isn't only the tropes of fantasy and horror that make for atmospheric supernatural fiction. The trappings here are those of science fiction, but the effect of this "found manuscript" story is as dislocating and ominous as those of the other four. The inclusion of a fictional "Editor's Note" that clarifies certain plot points is, I feel, a miscalculation; not since The Ring has a genre work explained and explained and explained in a way that sucks out the atmosphere. Some subtle connections that I had missed were revealed, but it's better for such things to be discovered gradually on re-reading and contemplation than to have them handed to you. Still, "The Visions of Lazaro" is a fine piece of weird science fiction, with an almost bittersweet air of pessimism running throughout.

Tartarus Press' primary output is handsome hardcover limited editions, but many of its titles are also available in ebook, either from Amazon sites or direct from the publisher, and it was in that format that I read Five Degrees of Latitude. Although the experience of a Tartarus hardcover is not to be missed for aesthetes of the physical book, quality fiction transcends format: these novellas are every bit as evocative on a screen as they are on the page, and the ebook is more readily affordable for readers on a budget. However it happens, Five Degrees of Latitude deserves to be read by any fan of authors like those mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. Michael Reynier has enormous gifts, and I'm very much looking forward to his next work.