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.

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