Thursday, July 18, 2013

Orphans on Granite Tides

Readers who've stuck with this blog through thick (the period when I reviewed everything, whether I had something to say about it or not) and thin (now, when this blog gets updated about as often as George R. R. Martin finishes a novel) will recall my enthusiasm for Adam S. Cantwell's A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night. I also enjoyed his contribution to D. F. Lewis' The First Book of Classical Horror Stories. But I still wasn't prepared for the experience of his new novella, Orphans on Granite Tides. Cantwell's earlier stories demonstrated a pitch-perfect command of elegant but understated language and subtle horror, but Orphans on Granite Tides offers a new level of ambition and complexity. Not as superficially frightening as "Moonpaths of the Departed" or "Beyond Two Rivers: A Symphonic Poem," it's more directly philosophical, combining several traditions of supernatural and aesthetic fiction into a rich and strange meditation on mysticism, modernity, and meaning. Some readers will find it too abstruse; I myself began to wonder around the halfway point if it was going to add up to anything. But taken in the right spirit, it's just what small press fiction should be: thoughtful work for a small but demanding audience.

The structure at first suggests straightforward antiquarian horror: a recovered manuscript with an ominous tale to tell. But the manuscript, the personal history of a California Indian whose encounter with Russian settlers begins a journey that will take him around the world, proves to be more mystical than horrific. And like real mystical manuscripts, it can be a frustrating experience for more literal-minded readers, especially since lacunae in the text withhold information that might help one get a grip on things; just as events take an interesting turn, "pages missing" or "text missing" will interrupt the flow. This is, of course, a conscious decision, and it's the right one in terms of what Orphans on Granite Tides is ultimately about, but it may be off-putting for some, especially since it takes a while (perhaps too long) for the frame story, which is more graspable, to come back into play. I'm not going to say too much about the frame story, precisely because its details don't come into focus for a while, but it's an important counterpoint to the manuscript, bringing in the mid-century European vibe that, along with supernatural horror, is the hallmark of Ex Occidente Press.

Enough about plot. What matters here is tone and theme. The Indian's visions are suggestive of hidden cosmic powers in the vein of Lovecraft or Machen, but in the context of the frame story, these elements are less visceral devices and more a way of approaching questions about purpose and meaning in a time when the physical world has been fully explored and humanity has produced technological marvels to rival the mystical experiences of earlier generations. Dislocation abounds. Human activity, even a great exhibition, might be fleeting or self-defeating. There is a melancholy, perhaps, an awareness of something that has been lost, for which the contemporary reader of earlier esoteric texts searches in vain... if the search does not become hollow, an end in itself.

I worry that I'm on the verge of incoherence, perhaps because I haven't fully understood the implications of the unusual conversation with which Orphans on Granite Tides ends, a high-flying debate in which (it seems to me) so many issues are implicit and explicit that it would take forever to tease them all out. I begin to feel that I ought to reread the novella, slowly and carefully, if I want to have any hope of saying something meaningful about it. But then, no. Whether I could write a thesis on it or not, I can still hold onto the aesthetic experience of first reading, the pleasure of realizing how much is at stake in this unusual, fascinating story, the ambitions that led the author to describe it as "a metaphysical grotesque." That shock of intellectual pleasure is, to my mind, at least as true as a more diligent analysis would be... though I expect at least one of the novella's characters would disagree, for dueling sorts of truth, scientific and artistic, are another of the subjects here.

I haven't said very much, but I think in my ramblings I may have given some sense of whether Orphans on Granite Tides is the kind of thing you would enjoy reading. You may also want to read DF Lewis' review; his description of the book as "tantalisingly difficult" is as apt as anything. If you want to be tantalized, you can buy a copy from Ziesings Books, and possibly from other dealers as well. I reviewed the book based on a PDF of the final text, so I can't comment on the physical production, but I'm sure that like other Ex Occidente titles, it's well-designed enough to justify its price, an aesthetic object from another, possibly better age... not unlike a rare manuscript.

The author supplied a review copy.