Friday, 3 July 2015

Soliloquy for Pan, (Edited by Mark Beech), Egaeus Press

What elevates the good anthology above the poor should not only harbour a varied, contrasting content, but also engage enough both to inform and genuinely entertain. Content shouldn't be too academic; neither should it be too cosy with obviously safe, oft-chosen choices for an assumed, broadly middle-brow, audience. For Soliloquy for Pan - an anthology of new tales and old, punctuated by equivalent essays and verse – editor Mark Beech has, pleasingly, ticked all these boxes.
  It might therefore be unsurprising that the usual, anticipated suspects on this subject – such as Machen, Blackwood, de la Mare, – are largely missing. Then you soon discover it is to Beech's credit he has dispensed with them, most likely for that very reason. (Although all – bar de la Mare – are, at least, referenced). For who he does include, almost to a man – and woman – refreshes it. This clearly wasn't put together for a general audience, whoever they may be; but neither was it compiled for 'experts.'
  Most surprising of the old school entries are a Robert Frost poem ('Pan With Us'), Henry Woodd Nevinson's tale 'A New Pheidippioes,' from 1901 (a wry gem - also new to me) and a London magazine article by Robert Louis Stevenson. ('Pan's Pipes,' (1878)).
  Favourite entries among the new: Stephen J. Clark's darkly intense 'Lithe Tenant,' a tale of ancestral persecution and familial obsession, is among the best. In Lynda E. Rucker's 'The Secret Woods,' a young woman looks back at her orphaned youth and the dream life she'd used as protection from the pain. In 'A Song Out of Reach' by John Howard, an omniscient Tune, bleeding out from every speaker and subsuming all others, has a less than benevolent motive. 'The House of Pan' by John Gale evokes a tone and setting once all-too-familiar from Wheatley or Wakefield, but Gale recaptures them masterfully, using his own voice. Jonathan Wood's 'The Company of the Lake' feels yet older – Regency even – in a meditative, melancholic prose-style describing a nature-loving male quartet of European friends, converging each summer upon the lake of the title, and the amoral presence who watches from afar... Colin Insole's 'The Rose-White Water' is a subtle mix of Gothic new and old as oblivious materialism, while blindly encroaching, is no match for the still present pagan forces of the past.
  Paintings, engravings and illustrations featuring the goat-footed god abound throughout, mainly from the classical 16th-17th century era, eschewing modern interpretations. The green-backed, mock-inlayed, mock-faded front cover, featuring the god gold-embossed, makes it one of the most richly-produced anthologies – by an inde publisher – in some years. After George Berguno's 'The Tainted Earth,' this is Egaeus Press's second near flawless release.

* * * *


Pan and the Peak Experience
(Part 3 of 3)


Dunsany's 'The Blessing of Pan' – though published in 1927 - straddles the past Victorian age with an – albeit grudging - acceptance of modernity, set and likely conceived some thirty years prior to its publishing. You read on, wondering upon whose side the narrator-author will finally align his protaganist cleric; the sole young rebel in search of truth and beauty? Or the conformist majority fearful of change? Perhaps it is too much to anticipate the former – especially from the pen of a then well-seasoned baron knight. But, Dunsany wrongfoots us. The encroaching paganism of Wolding village succeeds beyond the paranoid fears of the Reverend Anwrel; beyond, indeed, the end of the novel, finally delineated as much a right – and rite – to its locals as partaking of the Church of England had succeeded its pre-Christian enchantment.

A still more traditional view yet feels experienced. In E.F. Benson's short tale, 'The Man Who Went Too Far,' (1912) a friend noted, 'a Pan who affords his adherent-victims youth, a state of perpetual peak experience and near-erotic communion with nature, where He ultimately morphs into a terrifying presence,' wherein a 'complete and blinding stroke (is felt) the full knowledge, the full realisation and comprehension that I am one with life.' This latter quote, penned – ironically - by one of three priestly brothers.

This covert, delicious fear of Pan was, by then, nothing new. He'd had a history of being utilised as both libidonous counsellor of one's self and attack dog against one's enemies, but always harbouring an ultimately untameable, dangerous erotic spirit.

'After an unsuccessful hunt, young men would beat Pan's statue with squills. In this way they would stimulate Pan's powers of fertility and direct it towards the animal domain...' (p. 402, Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, 2003).

'From the Hellenistic period onwards, Pan is the god responsible for sowing panic (panikon) in the enemy, a sudden unforeseeable fear. Soldiers therefore pay cult to him. In the case of the individual, too, Pan can exercise a type of savage and violent possession (panolepsia).' (ibid.)

D.H. Lawrence – no mean author of the uncanny himself – defined the attempt to reign Him in, in 1925:

'The old religion of the profound attempt of man to harmonize himself with nature, and hold his own and come to flower in the great seething of life, changed with the Greeks and Romans into a desire to resist nature, to produce a mental cunning and a mechanical force that would outwit Nature and chain her down completely, till at last there should be nothing free in nature at all, all should be controlled, domesticated, put to man's meaner uses.' (From 'Pan in America,' 1925).

Its very covertness had once harboured implications of something delicious and illicit. As if to imply, 'don't get too close – you might get burned.' Another version of MR James's later warnings to the curious - another paternal finger-wag. Those of a natural inclination towards more objective historial research were thinking otherwise. Machen – as we know – regularly half-articulated the topic throughout his prose, from his alter-ego Lucian Taylor's birds-eye vantage points upon 'The Hill of Dreams' to Laurence Hillyer's 'gleams of light in which he hardly dared believe...' where Bloomsbury's 'dimness was departing...(so) it began to glitter and to shine and to be manifested' in 'The Green Round.' (1933).

'If he had ever thought of the mysteries as things hidden away and apart, remote from the general stream of life, he saw now that he was mistaken. The mysteries were part of the very tissue and being of man; they were not to be avoided.' (p.39-40). A crucial revelation, certainly in contemporary fiction, but also, specifically, in modernism.

Between it and neo-paganism emerge intriguing crossovers of interest. Related considerations of ecological concern and fertility symbolism derived more from anthropology than Biblical doctrine, with writers such as DH Lawrence, WB Yeats and John Cowper Powys. Each bled through the old boundaries. To this day, Christian writers often bracket modernism and neo-paganism together as a Judas-like accusation. But it is clear they have always been positively, mutually reliant; two halves of the same psychological response. One internal, cerebral; the other, outwardly expressed in ritual.
Each intimating a trigger of peak experience; so, each a liberation of the self.

We are left to conclude that the Victorian corset wasn't merely loosened but finally, belatedly, discarded by the mid-Twenties, with the Great God Pan called upon to do the honours. He had certainly waited long enough. At the conclusion of 'Pan the Goat-God,' Merivale states that,

'Pan keeps on being reborn.' (p.228). But she had overlooked His grande finale. It had, after all, already taken place. The first quarter of the 20th century proved to be His ultimately successful breakthrough.


© Mark Andresen (2015)



Friday, 19 June 2015

Mist and Other Ghost Stories by Richmal Crompton, (Sundial Supernatural series), Sundial Press

It is extraordinary to consider that the author of forty-two 'William' collections, over an equivalent number of years, also had time to pen forty adult novels and miscellaneous short stories.
  At the time of writing 'Mist,' Crompton had an opportunity to explore other genre having been forced to give up teaching, incapacitated by polio in her right leg in 1923, consigning her – in her mid-thirties - to a wheelchair. Of the nine latter collections, only 'Mist and Other Ghost Stories' (1928) dealt solely with the supernatural. Surprising, considering Crompton's long-held interest in the subject, since attending St Elphin's Boarding School in Lancashire, which boasted its resident ghostly nun.
  Possession, and its encroaching effect upon loved ones, is the predominant theme in most of the thirteen tales. Pan sensually implicates himself in the object of the first tale, ('The Bronze Statuette') before appearing in person – barely disguised – in the second. ('Strange'). Inherited jealousy rears its ugly head in 'The Spanish Comb,' although a modern feminist perspective wouldn't be without credence.
  Crompton's strongest tales feature women wronged in the more authentic domestic situations. In 'Rosalind,' an artist's model – caught in a love triangle – becomes the victim of one of her suitors' shallow self-interest. In 'The Little Girl' an elderly woman recalls a ghostly friend of her youth and the connected guilt harboured by a late aunt.
  In 'Hands,' a bride, having made the decision not to discuss the late first wife of her new husband, finds herself an unexpected victim of her apparently honourable choice. 'The Sisters' finds a suitor unwittingly coming between two inseparable sisters, as gradual tragedy seals their fate. 'Mist' is the atmospheric portent to the first silent witness of a past crime, seen to be committed with a motive unlike that assumed by the locals. These five are the best, but the remaining eight don't hold a dud.
  If the content appears over-familiar in 2015, derivative they are not. Most admirable in these tales, from a world of middle-class cosiness, is the emotional honesty and lack of faux sentiment in the best. Their perspective, from a stoic, independent woman, adds a modernity in the narrative voices strengthening what might otherwise have solely survived as period charm alone. There may be a sameness in each, but subjective imagination can easily compensate for what is left out. The simple exposition and crisp matter-of-factness of Crompton's prose-style – oddly reminiscent of the 'Williams' - is another of those less-is-more object lessons to the rest of us on how to write today. (At least for the first draft). Those presuming her out-of-date should take a second look.
 It is good to see Sundial back after a year's enforced break. There is a 'forthcoming' list of mouthwatering titles, like this, in dire need of re-release.

* * * *

Pan and the Peak Experience
(Part 2)



The influence of 'The Golden Bough' cannot be overstated. With its perspective cultural rather than theological, between 1890-1915 it comprised eighteen separate print-runs making it, for a whole post-Victorian generation, as ubiquitous as 'Origin of Species' or The Bible itself. From here, the new generation bridged the crucial link between the pre-Christian natural and post-Gothic supernatural, to manifest a sensibility definably modern.

Initially, this was by no means obvious since the book's influence soon ignited several well known groups and sub-groups, some decidedly eccentric, almost all educationally privileged. e.g. Rupert Brooke with the Bloomsbury Set, Cecil Sharp, Ernest Seton, Ernest Westlake and Gerald Gardner. Today, we may perceive with cynicism such actions of the time as from a bunch of mainly male, upper middle-class sexual inadequates with too much spare cash and time on their hands. While this may largely be true of the excesses of Crowley and his followers, previous decades had laid more mindful, socially conscious, and long-lasting foundations.

The misguided impression that these authors were merely hopelessly fey and faux nostalgists, repudiating modernity, could not have been more wrong. Away from the Wiccan eccentrics and Crowley's sado-masochistic disciples was a desire for a more humanely progressive future, one more spiritually liberating, companion to nature, and non-materialist. A broader influence beyond their bounds was undoubtedly being wrought by more committed writers. In truth, they shared a view of nature parallel to that of the modernists, albeit without the intellectual, urban perspectives.

The new women authors found their own form of empowerment; one less Pan-ish and often more Sapphic. For the literary woman, desireless for the confines of her 'expected place,' the groundwork had also been laid; by Amelia Edwards, Margaret Oliphant and other physical – and metaphysical – explorers of their generation. The next saw Vernon Lee, Mary Butts and May Sinclair follow suit, progressing the feminist cause still further, yet from equivalent circumstances.

Consummate supernaturalist Amelia Edwards' curriculum vitae reads as having little bearing or relevance to her gender and is itself one of the great undersold tales of late-19th century industry and endeavour. Her books on Egypt, its landscape and antiquities, her transatlantic sales of wide-ranging literary interests and unrelenting networking, single-handedly wove a web connecting international scholars and curators that stretched across half the world. Margaret Olipant, her contemporary, bore a toughness through contrasting familial circumstances that manifested a prodigious (rather than merely prolific) number of novels and essays. Even her late clutch of supernatural tales, though rather less in number, leave a legacy all their own. A regular contributor to Blackwood's pages, she virtually coined the term, 'social science,' after one of her pieces in 1860.

Later, Vernon Lee's theory of 'psychological aesthetics' again moved the narrative voice further away from the old Christian certainties. Mary Butts, perhaps closer to neo-paganism from her writings on pre-Christianity and Crowley association, was rare in articulating such mystical topics from a woman's perspective. May Sinclair, known almost exclusively for one of three supernatural collections, shared Lee's interest in the new Freudian psychoanalysis, coining the term 'stream-of-consciousness' in an essay reviewing the narrative voice of the first book in the Pilgrimage novel series of Dorothy Richardson.

By the Twenties, the priestly narrator hadn't so much been sidelined as virtually banished in England's uncanny, with only the traditionally conservative crime thriller filling in the gaping void left by his absence. The new generation of authors may have advanced into modernism, but there remained something of a middle-brow audience; one still hungry for depictions of Establishment tropes being dismantled. (Such tropes having to be present at the outset).

Awareness of the uncanny in literature was seemingly triggered to a higher level than ever before in the Romantic Age; specifically after Blake and his followers. The problem then, as up to the time under discussion, was the growing self-awareness running well ahead of the language needed to recognise, define and describe it. As the philosopher Colin Wilson once pointed out; 'The problem with the Romantics is that they didn't know how to canalize these volcanic energies from the depths of the psyche. Faced with the awesome spectacle of a mountain by moonlight, Wordsworth confessed that he was filled with a sense of “unknown modes of being.” (p. 29, 'Superconsciousness – The Quest for the Peak Experience,' 2009). A perception that might best be described as mere passive acknowledgement. Most recently, Wilson explored how an individual's awakening of the right-brain, triggered by one's own heightened perception of any positive event, stimulates it to experience joy, actualisation and self-belief. A phase of modern history founded upon what he termed – after Abraham Maslow – 'the discovery of inner freedom.' (p.13). Is it not therefore likely that this would have empowered that individual into first challenging, then overcoming, the accepted, assumed reliance upon a Biblical external force?

Wilson himself was ambiguous on the subject of God, where one might have expected silent atheism. (In the same book, he later refers to atheists as 'stupid'). More than one of his prior generation had no such qualms. Forrest Reid also had experiences that had already played-out the Maslow / Wilson discovery. If not easy to define, of one thing he was certain. They had 'nothing whatever to do with religion...(but)...created by some power outside myself,' ('Private Road', p. 125), 'climbing the mountain road to Glenagivney in Donegal,' until 'I abruptly emerged – a glory of sunset glittering on the sea below me and flaming across the sky.'

Perhaps his most powerful peak experience came one steaming June while a student. He was cramming for intermediate exams in a field in Northern Ireland. Suddenly, anticipating the arrival of Hermes, Dionysos, and 'hairy-shanked Pan-of-the-Goats,' he had the compelling urge of a reaching out to some spiritual liberation also reaching out for him. 'For though there was no wind, a little green leafy branch was snapped off from the branch above me, and fell to the ground at my hand. I drew my breath quickly; there was a drumming in my ears; I knew that the green woodland before me was going to split asunder, to swing back on either side like two great painted doors...'
  Reid says he then hesitated, drew back, but the vision lingered on; 'the tree was growing in my room, and I could feel the hot sunshine on my hands and body.' Hardly surprising that Reid felt the need to repeat this evocative recollection in both the first and second parts of his memoirs. ('Apostate', p.158-9, (1926) and 'Private Road' , p.196-7, (1940)).

(Part 3 next month)





Friday, 5 June 2015

The Strangers and Other Writings by Robert Aickman, Tartarus Press

(Pan is back after six months absence with something of a bang: a review of a volume featuring Robert Aickman's ninth collection of short fiction, the first of three parts of an essay on Pan himself by Mark Andresen ((whoever he is...)) – inspired by the eagerly-awaited Soliloquy for Pan anthology from Egaeus Press, to be reviewed at a later date - and a new 'Albertine's Wooers.' A veritable box of literary Ferrero Rocher...)

* * *

Featuring the first original short fiction collection of Aickman in three decades, 'The Strangers and Other Writings' is the single most important release of the year by an independent publisher. From a modest, but still entertaining, start, it only grows in interest as the author matures.
  'The Case of Wallingford's Tiger' is a slight, datedly witty tale on the fate of a sick tiger, kept as a domestic pet, now a.w.o.l. along with its owner. If the fate of each is already guessed, then it can be assumed the plot is not its strength. This lies in the encroaching sense of menace and the contrived social mores and otherwise unrevealed motives of Wallingford himself; “a solitary man, having no previous friend or acquaintance in the place (who) found the exact level of entertainment for the district, and took trouble to maintain his establishment exactly at that level, neither above nor below it.” Aickman's trademark cool precision is, here, in 1936, aged 22, already in place.
  'The Whistler' is a peek into the delusional, self-abnegating id of a serial killer from the time-forgotten sanctity of his armchair. An intriguing early glimpse into a more blatantly dark Aickman but, as his friend Heather Smith notes, its ending leaves dissatisfaction and confusion. He seems either to have lost interest or inspiration to take him beyond a meditation.
  'A Disciple of Plato,' is a thoroughly satisfying reflection by an infamous roue and seducer in 18th century Rome, posing as a 'philosopher,' meeting his paradoxical match in a woman en route to the convent. 'The Coffin House' feels like a superior first draft for a Sixties-era horror magazine in that the basic story is in place, only lacking its fleshed-out detail. In 'The Flying Anglo-Dutchman' entropy and neglect of the past would become themes of perennial import to Aickman, already defined and neatly compacted in this lovely, reflective tale.
  'The Strangers' is the longest, most satisfying tale and surely not out-of-place had it appeared alongside those in 'Cold Hand in Mine' or 'Tales of Love and Death.' For here, everything we know of his approach is by now in place. Aickman's unreliable narrators, initially conventional, harbour that nascent soulless detachment. The – usually male - narrator is a remote, dysfunctional, matter-of-fact observer with no apparent belief in the ghostly fate he is faced with but seems unable to acknowledge. The cumulative effect from these contrasting entries is that the infamous sense of displacement and remoteness of objective feeling, far from a writerly affectation, may, after all, have been the author's own.
  In 'The Fully-Conducted Tour,' a BBC Radio 4 'Morning Story' from 1976, the narrator recalls a last holiday in Tuscany, twenty years before, in service of his ailing wife. Seeking a lone tour in respect of her, needful of a day to herself, he finds one conducted to a Gothic-style villa by a beautiful guide who singles him out, seeming to offer special treatment – and a warning.
  The title tale, 'A Disciple of Plato' and 'The Flying Anglo-Dutchman' are this collection's revelatory jewels and worth the purchase for these alone. The essays taking up it's second half are revelatory in other ways; I'd assumed Aickman, in belief, something of a right-wing, Church of England-type paternalist. The personally insightful essays show us a man more a libertarian and enthusiast and are to be recommended. I, for one, would want to read more.
  It's always interesting to compare and contrast the birth of a writer's early style with that developed in his or her maturer work. 'The Stranger and Other Writings' reveal blueprint snapshots of the dry wit and cool ambiguity rife in Aickman's best work.

* * *

Pan and the Peak Experience
Why the English uncanny defrocked the priestly hero

A poster recently blogging on a thread devoted to neo-paganism, argued that paganism itself began when ancient men and women looked around – and began to ask 'why?' This is perhaps the simplest starting point on defining its neo-pagan sub-topic. It avoids unending backtracking that remains – to this day – open-ended conjecture on countless public forums. 'Why' is also a question writers have been asking since at least the dawn of the Renaissance – one, I will argue, that found its answer in our time; specifically citable to those authors of the uncanny, working at the turn of the 20th century.

  Patricia Merivale's reflection how, in so many Pan-related tales, 'one should not meddle frivoulously with matters too mysteriously important for one's limited understanding,' ('Pan the Goat-God,' 1969, p. 171) held true for most 'supernatural' authors, to the start of our period and beyond. Yet, for some, the adherence to such condescending paternalism was crumbling. Personal experience was fast becoming a literary norm – thanks to the rises in popularity of biography and the journalist's literary profile. As Gothic horror's commercial star began to develop, branching off into its subtler sub-genre of the uncanny, the former Biblical deference – the starting point of most narrative voices – branched off with it. This much is clear. Less obvious is the 'why' consequent of this development and how it manifested itself in the newer authorial voices.

  The move away from Christian adherence was not, of course, peculiar to genre authors. Yet, there is little doubt it was their more commercial work, which guiltlessly enabled the move away with the figure of Pan, their enabler. Filtering through to fiction and its many genres, so they began to legitimise the non-Christian voice.
  In the Edwardian era, Freud's new dream theories may have found an interested audience but not, as yet, ways for it to respond. In the previous century-and-a-half, an open, considered and objective 'why?' had taken something of a backseat in popular fiction. Then, chances to question Biblical doctrine were too often guiltily submerged beneath the populist demands of Gothic melodrama; where a fatal 'warning to the curious' inevitably became, for the protaganist, a good deed punished. Of course, in the Gothic this device was primarily used to elicit the kind of extreme response from the reader that ensured the purchase of an author's – and so his publisher's – next release. Yet, its lasting appeal could also have a dubious honour for an author, placing him indelibly in the Establishment literary canon; as much a curse as a blessing, depending on the individual author's world view. 

 It might then be wondered why a pre-Christian figure like the Greek god Pan re-captured imaginations in the restlessly pragmatic modern age of the early 20th century, with some renewed relevance. The answer may lie in what could, so far, only be half-articulated by that generation's most open minds. Specifically, intense, subjective awakenings of inner freedom and heightened joy; subsequently defined as 'peak experiences.'
  My Collins Dictionary defines a peak experience as 'a state of extreme euphoria or ecstasy, often attributed to religious or mystical causes.' Yet, the evidence reveals it is both so much more, and so much less, than this. Experiences, anecdotal and personal, have each shown one need not be shackled by either cause. As E. Hoffman noted, discussing the American psychologist who coined the term: 'Maslow found it incredible that some of his undergraduates at Brandeis University unknowingly described their peak-experiences in language of rapture similar to those of famous spiritual teachers, East and West. The implication was clear: we needn't be great religious mystics or even practitioners to undergo an unforgettable epiphany during daily living.' Instead, “the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbours, friends, and family, in one's backyard.” (2011).

  Neither time, concern for the future, nor regret of the past encumbers those precious moments of bliss, of being in-the-now. Whether one sits on a bench looking out at a setting sun of a summer evening, a subtle change of mind to mellow mindfulness during what had been anticipated as a tough, unexpected job, or just after a moment of total stillness, a peak experience can arise. Few of us don't have them. But certain authors, in the 20th century's formative years, were openly owning them as something entirely personal and apart – and good.

Recognising the symptoms of this Pan fad isn't difficult. The problem lies in finding the precise cause; the trigger that spawned the courage to liberate the self above the Christian stricture, without us having to reach all the way back through classical history. The role played by Pan's libido, the major aspect of the god, cannot be overstated. For some of the new generation of writers, the figure was a useful metaphor. Those needing to express their sexuality beyond the next ambiguous hint, found in His manifestation a means for its briefly glimpsed expression. Atheists drew upon His qualities of illicit liberation (e.g. DH Lawrence and Forrest Reid). For those agnostic, or otherwise spiritual, was renewed respect for the 'origins of species.' (e.g. Algernon Blackwood and Walter de la Mare). Each felt emboldened to expound upon the new pragmatism, overriding the former, more passive, aesthete's love of beauty.

  For Pan was becoming the fantastical manifestation of a renewed awareness; of nature and her relationship to the self...

...Even the savage cannot fail to perceive how intimately his own life is bound up with the life of nature and how the same processes, which freeze the stream and strip the earth of vegetation, menace him with extinction.” (Frazer, 'The Golden Bough,' 1906).

When we reflect how often the Church has skilfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted up on a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis...” (ibid.)

...the next stage in the writer's awakening self-awareness.

  When these quotes first saw light in 'The Golden Bough,' non-theist self-awareness in the literature of the uncanny had barely progressed since E.T.A. Hoffmann's excitable boy protagonist of 'The Sand Man' almost a century before. In Britain at least, the ubiquitous priestly narrator ensured any such sinful self-indulgences were swiftly quashed by the climax. (An oxymoron in most cases). Yet, by this year, things were finally changing. Rather than the occasional rebellious release from a small publisher with the sole aim of sparking notoriety and shock, by now the voice of the uncommitted, guiltless narrator was a symptom of what was coalescing into, if not a single movement, then a scattered series of experiential cliques; adepts across all aspects of the Arts.

(Part 2 of this essay continues in the next 'Pan Review')

* * *

ALBERTINE'S WOOERS

Two notable ebook releases: 'These are tales that echoes tell...' In A Season Of Dead Weather (Smashwords Edition) by Mark Fuller Dillon while Rebecca Lloyd 'channels Roald Dahl's wit and flair for the unexpected' in View From Endless Street (WiDO Publishing). Adam S. Cantwell channels Kafka and Borges in his wonderfully-titled debut, Bastards of the Absolute (Egaeus Press). The pathologically prolific Rhys Hughes's most recent collections of surrealist wit, Orpheus On The Underground (Tartarus Press) and Bone Idle In The Charnel House (Hippocampus Press) each prove ubiquity is no underminer of quality. While new talent champion David Longhorn's Supernatural Tales reaches no. 29.










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.