Sunday, 23 November 2014

Written In Darkness by Mark Samuels, Egaeus Press / Supernatural Tales 28, Winter 2014/15, Edited by David Longhorn

Mark Samuels' name has been dormant in my subconscious now for over a decade. In fact, since his first collection. ('Black Altars,' 2003). I'd done nothing to follow him up – until now. The enticing bridge between then and now was his last set, 'The Man Who Collected Machen,' its paperback long visible on the shelves of the – then - varied choice of small, new-imprint bookshops. Barring one or two anthologised tales since, it seems I should have read more. In a recent interview, Samuels stated his belief. It's worth mentioning that he has one: 
 
I am a Roman Catholic. But I really wouldn’t dream of trying to incorporate any moral teaching into my weird fiction. I am not a proselytiser. What attracts me most about the Church is its mystical dimension. I also believe that we exist in a fallen universe and that human nature is immutable.” (teemingbrain.com)

Quite an old-fashioned view from a writer born three years afterme. It is true – on the evidence here – that he never preaches. Still, it is often mindset and accompanying assumptions, we all have, that betrays the path being trod. 'A Call to Greatness' satirizes the Europe of today with the decadent myths of the past. A man of unknown history sends a parcel to a jaded Eurocrat that harbours a grand sweep of a tale of an exotic, fundamentalist fanatic and his account of past glories.
   'The European dream was dead, he thought, the Europe of grand ideals was buried in the ashes of apathy. There was no brotherhood of nations, only the squalid struggle of the political and financial masters to line their own pockets, while the masses were brainwashed into a zombie-like existence under the false flag of liberty. All its values were secular and materialistic – with propagandistic jargon employed to justify citizens from detecting the corrosion of their own souls.' (p.13).

Elsewhere, Samuels comments; 
 
'“The Other Tenant” is a generic satire on the idea that only people on the left can be “nice” (some disgruntled soul called it little more than “red-baiting” in a review of the anthology it first appeared in, which rather proved my point).' (ibid.)

Writing as a leftist myself, I am not convinced. It reads more as a warning against ideology, generally, and its distancing effect upon Robert Zachary in particular. A latterly afflicted individual with no apparent self-awareness beyond present tense perceptions. 'An Hourglass of the Soul' concerns a newly-employed computer operator and his employer's instruction for him to “drop everything for a few days in order to reconfigure the mainframe” at a mysterious, underground complex somewhere in Mongolia. Continuing the sub-genre of dystopian SF is 'The Ruins of Reality,' where, again, extreme power of management over the employee is exercised, only this time to the ultimate degree. Both concern forms of mind-control; the latter particularly graphic in its depiction as enforcement from above compelled from within.
  'Alistair' is classic Gothic territory, involving an old, large, weed-entangled house, the half-hidden generations from whom it was passed and the weird echoes harboured in the newborn.
   'My World Has No Memories' is set upon a small boat, lost and adrift, its one occupant just awoken, with no working guidance, and suffering amnesia. He appears to be a survivor – but from what? And what is the strange organic growth held in a jar?
  In 'Outside Interference,' a skeleton office staff in the midst of transferring to a new building find themselves trapped “in the middle of the coldest winter snap for a century or more.” While, the one way out may be no way out at all.
  'My Heretical Existence' finds a city's sole authority on its hidden masonic 'tribes' become an unwitting inititate. The closest to a derivate entry here.
  'In Eternity Two Lines Intersect' is an appropriate title since it virtually returns us to the setting and circumstance of 'The Other Tenant,' with a recovering patient with lingering psychoses and no apparent memory of his past. Then, this latter point is this collection's running theme.
  Samuels has admitted in various interviews that he works within long-established genre. However, like Reggie Oliver, Mark Valentine and others, he has become something of a master at each. If the settings here are traditional, this is an exceptionally accomplished collection, with not a weak entry amongst them.

* * * * *

ST founder, David Longhorn, has been editing this thrice-yearly anthology of new writings from his North-East England home since the year 2000.
   Three of the eight entries are especially satisfying in their narrative focus, interest and completion, without too obvious recourse to well-extracted sources. Gillian Bennett's 'Mr and Mrs Havisham' explores the true identities of a painting's subject, a wronged spirit, a dictatorial husband and the woman who comes between them. My favourite entry here.
   Sam Dawson's 'Look Both Ways' depicts a lonely man's return to the faded seaside haunt of the family holidays of his youth and the spirit of his late younger sister, whose ghost also returns to watch for him and wait... Dawson's depiction of Seahaven, past and present, is very well done in the limited word count.      (He has also drawn this and previous covers).
   Finally, Tim Foley's 'Snowman, Frozen,' which manages to evoke Stephen King while shaving him of his over-long narrative excesses, leaving highlighted the latter's storytelling strength.  Mention should also be made of Michael Chislett's fantastical 'A Name in the Dark.' A woman crossing into a twilit garden steps from this world into another, experiencing a form of fairy-led 'Midsummer Night's Dream' self-revelation. If it reads like part of a larger project, that's because it is, according to its author in the 'about' section at the back. Despite the intriguing opening, this may try the patience of some unused to such a radical change from naturalistic scenes.
   The back pages also feature reviews by Longhorn himself; on Swan River Press's 'Dreams of Shadow and Smoke,' Ron Weighell's first collection in seventeen years, 'Summoning' (Sarob Press), John Howard's essay collection, 'Touchstones,' (Alchemy Press) and 'The Loney'; Andrew Michael Hurley's intriguing, debut, folk-horror novel for Tartarus.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Emperor’s Crystal (Lost Tales Vol. 2) by Lord Dunsany, Pegana Press

Mike and Rita Tortorello's first of their Dunsany Lost Tales chapbooks concentrated upon the early fables of London and faery of less fixed abode. This second veers more toward Orientalism and artistic adoration. As will be the case with the third – out now – each feature elaborate prose of no elaboration; Dunsany's signature style.
  While the majority of Lost Tales Vol. 1 were gleaned from the pages of London's straight and worthy 'Saturday Review,' Vol. 2 takes those from Dunsany's immediately subsequent commissions in the more sceptically leftist, transatlantic 'Smart Set.' Under the new joint-editorship of its young literary intellectuals, George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken. the magazine gained renewed cache, and star-making of its new overseers, if not actual stemming of falling sales. Still, with a roster of first-timers of the same post-Edwardian generation who'd go on to become household names, it afforded Dunsany a major fillip for further networking.
  To the half-initiated, like myself, he presents himself a simple, objective storyteller, only one bearing a visionary soul. As an instinctive Leftist, that Dunsany was a baronet with all the contacts and privilege one of his class had to hand, I'll admit to the harboured baggage of personal prejudice this ignited. I also observe the work that followed, which he, at least unwittingly, influenced. Of Tanith Lee and Ursula Le Guin I've earlier referred.
  The Chinese folk tales here, summoned in 'The House of the Idol Carvers' and 'Cheng Hi and the Window Framer,' also surely resonated with the young Mervyn Peake, whose Bright Carvers and Glassblowers would find their own sub-cultural home with what might otherwise have been a dumbfounded British readership, had they not already coveted the Eastern sojourns of Dunsany himself, Ernest Bramah, or those more seemingly authentic by the Japanese scholar, Lafcadio Hearn.
  His Protestantism is tactfully portrayed as faery fable, where portrayed at all. ('The Loyalist' and 'Researches Into Irish History'). Although, admittedly, it may have touched greater sensitivities in their day. It is not an issue he ever impresses upon the reader, however; being only more concerned – and adept – at the sheer joy of creation.
  Latterly, I read how he also a campaigned for animal rights; about his opposition to the docking of dogs' tails, and subsequent presidency of the West Kent branch of the RSPCA. Thus, in the context of his time and popular adherences, can I at least give him the benefit of the doubt.
But, in the end, it is his aesthetic sense that prevails; his sense of wonder – by his own admission – and big-hearted idealism that broadens the appeal and elevates him over and above more reactionary voices of contemporaries.


ALBERTINE'S WOOERS

Out now – Swan River Press's Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories of J.S. Le Fanu. Featuring new, and very good, tales by Mark Valentine, Angela Slatter, Derek John, Lynda E. Rucker, Gavin Selerie, Peter Bell and others. Currently awaiting this publisher's third release in as many months, Brian J. Showers appears to be on a roll...Also featuring a new Peter Bell tale is the upcoming issue (no. 28) of the tri-annual Supernatural Tales. See here: http://suptales.blogspot.co.uk/... Still available is Rebecca Lloyd's debut collection from Tartarus Press, Mercy, while Lloyd's 'Gone to the Deep' features in Tartarus's current Strange Tales anthology, Vol. IV.



Friday, 5 September 2014

The Silver Voices by John Howard, Swan River Press / Lost Cartographies: Tales of Another Europe by Cyril Simsa, Invocations Press

What has become known as ‘the other Europe’ in independent literary circles, has also garnered an ‘other currency’ in recent years’.
  Intentionally or otherwise – by the authors’ concerned - the credibility deficit exposed in the euro, that of Maastricht, shifting allegiances, geographic and metaphysical, and the rise of UKIP, have each lent relevance to this topic as a literary theme. To Howard’s credit, his Transylvania – while highlighted as the setting in the cover blurb – never comes close to the increasingly stale whiff of the Undead.
  His theme is ‘nostalgia for the future.’ In each tale we see the architectural and political changes wrought upon the ‘unknown eighth’ Rumanian town, formerly Sternbergstadt,( latterly renamed Steaua de Munte), and its often darkly circuitous consequences to one figure who appeals, in various guises, to each protagonist-narrator; often in search of some form of atonement.
  A lawyer, desperate to hold on to what his beloved town had once been, conscripts a drifting artist to his own personal cause.
  From a bar in Prague, a former political agent re-encounters his former gaoler when a prisoner-of-war and the old colleague who’s reunited them.  This is a cold war-style tale of intrigue where ‘boundaries…may be negotiated and crossed over.’
    A small, fascistic coterie of Futurists try establishing the Sternbergstadt Spaceflight Society in a poorly-supported bid – by its ageing founder - to launch Romania’s first manned rocket, past credibility but not of heart. This is a clever depiction of another possible future; a cul-de-sac of cornered utopianism.
  ‘The Reluctant Visionary’ is the first of this collection’s three true gems.  A newly-qualified architect with a penchant for the Art Deco, born of what he saw reflected in the buildings of Bucharest, steers him back to Steaua de Munte – his old home town. Here, he oversees the restoration of his boyhood cinema. Further research draws him to a newly-opened bookshop, the film of ‘Shape of Things to Come,’ an old photo album, and a local couple’s story, which harbours disturbed visions of an alternate future.
  ‘In Strange Earth’ follows a chance encounter between a loyal, Zelig-like Party member, rising up the ranks through a series of serendipitous triggers, and the local town mayor. When he witnesses the people turn against his leader, he soon realises that, for the first time in his life, his own hide is now vulnerable.  Mine is a simplistic sketch, since, as with the best uncanny tales, the telling is slightly ambiguous, the sense of isolation, beautifully wrought.
  In fact, Howard is so often less of an uncanny voice than that of Mark Valentine, his occasional writing partner. Yet, where he is, he excels, heightening rather than undermining a narrative’s authenticity.
  ‘The Silver Voice’ (effectively, the title tale) is a frame tale-within-a-tale.  A short story, found printed in an old, fascist periodical, hides a central truth – a badge of family shame - relayed by the framing narrator’s grandfather-writer.  An accompanying, anonymously sent, query compels the grandson to embark on a journey to uncover the source of this shame; to, in effect, re-enact the trajectory of the original short tale. An entry as emotionally authentic as it is structurally sound.
    The seven-tale collection closes with ‘To Hope for a Caesar.’ The setting shifts to Berlin. A museum tour guide is held back by a strange older man who, having observed the younger, impresses to him the need for him to contact a third party whom he seeks.  This third man is also a stranger to the tour guide, but he cautiously takes the older man’s card. What transpires leads to a show of manifest wealth bought by familial and political treachery; a selling-out that must somehow be reconciled to today’s more liberal mores.
  I’m pleased both this collection (first published in 2010) and ‘Secret Europe’ (2012 – and now with Tartarus) have so soon found a home for an additional western audience to Bucharest’s more esoteric Ex-Occidente, who published both first editions.
  Howard – a British writer - has carved out an almost unique niche for himself, detailing the geo-political ebb and flow of Eastern European history from the minutiae of its human costs and intrigue.

                                                             *             *            *

Cyril Simsa takes both a more literal, and wittier, view of his ‘other Europe,’ spawned, as it is, from the Czech community of his North London roots. It is his Prague and the surrounding country that features most broadly. Broadly, Simsa’s deprecating wit reveals much future promise in unexpected punchlines;

  “The air was warm under the slanted glass panes of the conservatory roof, even as the moon and stars swooped overhead through the long, elliptical thread of their courses.  It was not for nothing my father had learned to copy the ancient Romans’ underfloor heating system.”
(‘Journey’s End’).

And here;

  “I don’t think he quite knew of what to make of my reaction either, but to give him his due, he did not give away any more than I did.  And I suppose that, after several centuries of being shunned, it must come as something of a surprise to have a dinner guest.  You can’t do a lot of entertaining if your neighbours swoon with horror whenever they see you. It must be so terribly dull to be frightening.”
(‘Imbibing History’).

   In this, his debut collection, the writer is, perhaps inevitably, still in the process of finding his literary voice.  Some metaphors are not entirely comparable; not always perfectly evoking what is described.  Take, “their loose white smocks flapped like owls in the warm riverside breeze.” This, after the wearers are described as ‘tall and sun-browned.’ (‘Imbibing History’). Or, “their bodies black and furry as smoke in the turbid sky.” (Ibid.)  A reference to a cloud of bats, where the smoke being ‘furry’ seems a misnomer.
  This first tale is a contemporaneous riposte to ‘Dracula,’ set in its published year.  It covers overly familiar ground, yet with the sly wink of a convincing female academic archetype. (If an archetype can ever convince…). A cossetted, wide-eyed innocent whose textbook intelligence inadvertently equips her with the ability to fascinate her dark ‘suitor.’
  There are two fantastical bursts that indelibly imprint upon the memory. Long after putting the book down you’ll easily summon the last descent into a water nymph’s netherworld in ‘Under the Waves,’ along with the earth-erupting ascent of a pagan figure of folklore in ‘On the Feast of Stephen.’
  ‘Under the Waves’ is this collection’s highlight.  With its timely setting - the summer before the 1914-18 War - it has the sepia-tinged wonder of a Lake Lady fairy tale by that old outsider-prophet, George Macdonald. A reflective epilogue on a life’s changing pace and perception succeeds as a balanced portrayal of what appears to be Simsa’s twin interests; fantastical interventions to self-realisation.
  In ‘Poorly Formulated Questions,’ a conservative, despotic President – beneficiary of a genetic programme of life extension – is finally tracked down. Or is he? His trailer soon discovers the secret of his elusive, extended life.
  The collection’s timely sub-theme of treachery culminates in ‘Queen of Sumava.’ Two Red Army Colonels are independently posted for rival manoeuvres at the post-War Bavarian border; one with orders to close the border; the other to ‘test’ the present troops. Also here, amidst the unknown-knowns of what the surrounding mountains may harbour, is the source of local superstition, made manifest as its mists come down - the ‘Queen’ of the title.
  Another pleasing contrast with Howard’s collection is the number of female protagonists that Simsa delineates with apparent, simple ease. (In four of the six tales, including one of the two Colonels’ in the last). To achieve this, I wonder if he empathised most with the women in his own family. Certainly, from his Introduction, he states how he grew-up seeing himself something of a stateless outsider who only realised how English he really was when he moved to Prague in the 90s’.
  This is a debut of promise.  Simsa dispenses building atmosphere through over-dominant back-story or character.  Instead, he utilises a lighter touch, an informed wit enlivening both the history and the myth.

                                                         *             *            *

Finally, speaking of wit, I’d like to thank the anagrammatical Paulo Brito for the dedication of one of his infamous, oulipo poems to myself:

My "Beau Présent" of the day
(20th August) goes to
Mark Andresen

A seaman and sand!
A sandman and sea!
Are Mark’s dreams.
Same dreams. Same dramas!
A dark, dense edema?
Sad! Sad!
Mark sees a reader,
a sneaks
and read… read.
Mark dreams a dream.
A masked Eden's remake?
An arena,
a damask snake,
a naked drake,
and…
Mark earned a ranked arena!
Mark’s a dear
as
Mark’s a masked dream maker.
End!

© Paulo Brito (2014)

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Dark Return Of Time by R.B. Russell, Swan River Press

Early on in R.B. Russell's second novella, it becomes clear this is to be a taut, conventionally constructed thriller of the old school. And yet . . . In present-day Paris, a bookseller's son bears witness to a brutal double kidnapping; as does a second, well-dressed observer who swiftly makes himself scarce. This mystery witness then visits the son's father's bookshop, and, with insinuating charm, uses a ruse by which to now observe this increasingly wary lad. This is particularly well-handled as Russell succeeds in placing the reader in the role of the book- seller's slightly spoiled and whinging son. Russell - a known authority on strange and uncanny fiction - revealed his 'strange' influences in his first notable novella, 'Bloody Baudelaire.' I say 'revealed'; glimpsed might be a better noun. For Russell is one of those quiet conjurors whose uncanny moments are often three-quarters-hidden behind a slatted blind of noonday normalcy. So here, where the book of the title is the space of semi-recall amid the plot's otherwise hard-boiled, Simenonesque setting. (The title itself the banner to an anonymously penned memoir, its hidden significance leading to a revelatory twist). One false note latterly sounds from Candy; the abused but gutsy femme-fatale, whose initially credible duality finally descends into a cliched pay-off. One, you feel, this emotionally authentic tale should have bettered. Still, Russell excels in enticing the necessary feeling of jeopardy in the reader using a focused economy of language right up to its breathless end.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Strange Thirteen by Richard B. Gamon, Ramble House / Dancing Tuatara Press

Pulp fiction by the mid-1920s' hit an era skeptical of Kipling and jaded by War. It also had an eye reflecting the new medium of the movie matinee. However slow or arch the acting, the audience were assured the inter-titles - and excitable cranks-per-minute - got them to the point. While certain writers for the weekly paper genre cut their teeth upon them before dropping the pseudonym and making it under their own names - or a version of their own - as screen- writers or novelists, others, in both media, vanished without trace. Such appears to have been the case with Richard B. Gamon, originally (and perhaps solely) published by the wonderfully named Henry Drane - an author-subsidized inde- pendent - in 1925. Editor John Pelan, in his Introduction, notes the existence of a novel - 'Warren Of Oudh' - and little else; that is, other than word-of-mouth evidence of several other short tales in likely the same publication. (The equally wonderfully named 'Weekly Tale Teller'). Gamon, Pelan believes, must've spent some time in India, 'most likely in the military.' Certain descriptive words may require an Anglo-Indian dictionary while the narrative flow is mildly awkward and contemporarily arch. For these are Raj tales, with transatlantic characters and narrative tang, to appeal to the broadly spreading markets of both paper and film. There is also just enough surprise in the stories - particularly in the first half of the book - to warrant re- discovery today. Nightly summonings of a four-armed 'god,' mystical shamans and seances evoking past settings and lives abound and are well enough wrought. While Gamon reveals a view of the locals surprisingly sympathetic for the time, they are still rarely given the benefit of the doubt, when in doubt. Still, comparatively liberal for the time. A word of warning. This is a print-on-demand publication of a text in the public domain. Consequently, typos abound. Yet, this is an ongoing presence in such releases so regular buyers may take it on the eye.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry, (Translated by Edward Gauvin), Wakefield Press

I knew nothing at all of 'pataphysics,' a form of anarchic surrealism described here as "a parody of the theory and methods of modern science...often expressed in nonsensical language," pioneered by Alfred Jarry as "the science of imaginary solutions" to punning intellectual puzzles. (Little wonder The Marx Brothers were members of its College, rather contradicting Groucho's famous maxim). Translator Edward Gauvin's introductory essay convincingly places Ferry's inspirations in biographical context, if, in its use of facts, a little too richly dense. We learn - by 'The Conductor's original publication in 1950 - he'd been screenwriter to director Henri-Georges Clouzot, manifesting his magic-realist thrillers, and that this would be his only published collection. First there is the voice; lackadaisical, steeped in cynical wit. Then there is the experience. Unmistakeably, that of a man in middle-age. Buried amidst the surrounding pretension of impressing sources, that's all the novice to this form of words needs to know. Between 1-4 pages, each tale is written as a first-person anecdote, with the subjective frankness of memoir, which, today, can be happily re-read as contemporary flash fiction. The reason for such brevity is, itself, amusing. Gauvin reveals that a confessed dormant but omniscient ennui, or "fatigue and defeat," litter these fictional anecdotes. 'Having exorcised the original reason to write,' writes Gauvin, 'the remaining drudgery seems gratuitous.' (Ahem to that. As someone who's never bought into the concept of Writer's Block, as a unique form of inaction specially set aside for the so-precious author, its admission as a form of anti-inspiration is refreshing. Favoured pieces take the form of what used to be called monographs, or mini- essays; ruminations on literal descents, structurally almost poetic. See 'On the Frontiers of Plaster (A Few Notes On Sleep)' where "...We never rise into sleep, we always fall or sink into it. Sleep is a dark house dug deep in the ground. Happy are they who rent the lowest level, the final floor, where no-one can disturb them..." While the seemingly biographical, 'Failure of a Fine Career In Letters' contains the most memorable of memorable lines of which the piece concerns itself; ''...Dead, the gentleman of Scotland Yard was replaced by his ghost without anyone noticing," subsequently ending midline, reflecting Joyce while foretelling Calvino. 'The Society Tiger' is a glimpse into the author's compassion, (at animal maltreatment) which might otherwise have been assumed wanting elsewhere. The frontispiece image is a welcome photograph of the author, taken the year before his death in 1973. Sitting on a swing in his back garden, Ferry is bald, bespectacled and gnomishly pudgy, his fingers clasped together beneath his belly, like a Buddha with a philosophy doctorate. If any reader doubted satirical humour resided in the suicidal instinct, this intriguing reissue responds in the paradoxical positive.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Here With The Shadows by Steve Rasnic Tem, Swan River Press

Following his thirty-year retrospective,(Chomu Press's 'Onion Songs'), reviewed last month in these pages, comes Rasnic Tem's latest. A subtle shift in mood and colour immediately becomes apparent. Where certain tales in the former voluminous selection revealed a broad pallet of symbolism and metaphor, the best remained the maturer, quieter tales of love lost and tragedies unresolved. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of Rasnic Tem's, so far, greatest examples; 'Wheatfield With Crows.' (Ironic, considering it's named after a Van Gogh; an artist known for the broadest of strokes). Debuting in last year's Dark World (Tartarus Press) its place at the end of that collection - as here - is appropriate. An amateur artist and his mother return to the scene of what they believe a very personal crime - the unsolved childhood murder of his absconded sister - her daughter - fifteen years earlier. The jaded, half-articulated pain felt by both is beautifully rendered and as hidden as the overgrown stalks of wheat that may harbour their darling forever. 'The Cabinet Child' sees a husband try salving his hidden guilt over his wife's years of disappointment, to whom he'd refused a child, by purchasing a surrogate gift whose true nature remains as closed. Coming over as a conspiracy between both the James's, the ambi- guity of Henry leads to the startling denouement of M.R. Three tales here are new; 'A House by the Ocean,' 'The Still, Cold Air' and 'G is for Ghost.' The first sees a sister, wilfully estranged, then reunited, but at what cost? The second involves a ghostly parental legacy that seemingly returns the contempt their son had held them in, in life. The third concerns a young murder victim who won't stay dead. Interesting then that each of these tales are so connected; by the unrequited echoes harboured in a dilapidated house and its varying forms of familial revenge. The evocation of empty hope, amidst the cold and the damp, is chillingly, cloyingly wrought. It might be argued that no new ground is broken here. Yet when that ground can break the heart by such half-glimpsed evocations of familial loss, the writer's job is surely achieved. Swan River's first, appropriately monochrome, cover is just as effective as its more colour-dominant predecessors. A young tree's awakening as a woman in a snowstormed forest reflects the isolating chill beneath the covers. Another effective collaboration from Meggan Kehrli and Jason Zerrillo.