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.

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