Sunday, 20 March 2016

Lighthouses – An Anthology of Dark Tales, Edited by Cameron Trost, Black Beacon Books / Night-Pieces – Eighteen Tales by Thomas Burke, Valancourt Books

The lighthouse has been a surprisingly neglected edifice in recent gothic literature. While it is still being utilised by novice writers, recent years have so far divulged few acknowledged classics. If nothing else, editor Cameron Trost has, to some extent, made up for this in its varied representations here. Each can be classed a psychological narrative, but short enough for the sense of adventure to be foregrounded. Trost's own contribution, 'Horror At Hollow Head,' has, from the off, a more traditional feel. An innocent treasure-seeking father and son get more than they bargained for when they belatedly discover an old curse surviving in a community fearful of letting it die. By its climax, you may be left with a pleasing aftertaste of an update on Hope Hodgson or Marion Crawford.
  Two memorable examples of the anthology's psychological approach are Steve Cameron's 'To Keep the Lamp Alight' and Sam Muller's 'The Crystal Lighthouse.' In Cameron's tale, the subjective narration of a long-term friendship between a widower and a local policemfor a man in a close-knit community, where a disappearance remains unexplained, reads as breezy and hale-fellow-well-met. It is only near the end when the innocent, completely explicable, explanations for other disappearances feel just too convenient that you realise there might be more to the narrator than he's letting on. In Muller's tale, where 'placebos still worked fueled by belief,' a loving husband and father purchases a miniature model lighthouse, for his wife, to add to her collection. On receiving it, she is expectedly pleased. Later, the rest of the family arrive for a rare gathering. While talking about future plans, the man's son suddenly goes ballistic. Why is his father behaving as if their mother were still alive? 
  In 'The Tower,' B.T. Joy builds an impressive, encroaching sense of Ligottian horror, as a girl's disturbed, addicted boyfriend, plagued by an ongoing nightmare, appears to find a 'cure' in manifesting the nightmare in reality.
  Mythic pasts widen the territory. In Alice Goodwin's 'Into The Light,' a long-forgotten Greek myth comes back to haunt a woman who accompanies a tour of a long-lost, submerged town. A dark, dangerous stranger who seems barely mortal attends to her, shielding and vaguely explaining the drowned town's wraiths who appear to live on beneath its waves. The lines between life, dream and death are beautifully obscured here, with a climax that builds to epic proportions. In Deborah Sheldon's 'Will O' The Wisp,' we appear back in the superstitious rural heartland of the 17th century. It is the power of such superstitions upon the salvation of a soul that hangs over the fate of a newborn child and whether he shall live or die.
  This is the sixth release from the Black Beacon imprint and is a welcome, varied showcase for new Australian talent in short genre fiction.

Night-Pieces, originally published in 1935, is the first reissue of Burke's evocative little tales since Jessica Amanda Salmonson's The Golden Gong retrospective for Ash-Tree Press in 2001. Her long introduction for that release is virtually a full-length biography in itself, so crucial source material on his history.
  I'll declare an interest in that I've adored Burke's work now for several years. Not because I think the work is necessarily great; most of it isn't quite that. It is his vision and uncanny feel for his own past that fascinates. He seems to draw upon it with ease and manifest it, sensually, as well as any seasoned stage conjuror. Forrest Reid has this capacity when summoning his Irish background in a semi-rural Belfast, as does Burke of his cockney youth in London's Chinatown. You are there, beside them, breathing in the rural country air of the former and the dock-side, incense-laced smog of the latter.
 'Yesterday Street' neatly encapsulates Burke's favoured device. A portal-type tale, where a fond memory of the narrator's youth seems to reappear before him. This triggers his mourning the loss of a contemporary childhood love who, of course, then reappears, precisely as he she was recalled. Not all of Burke's tales were inspired by his past – far from it.
  'The Black Courtyard' is worth quoting as a good example of his successfully unnerving prose style.

'Nowhere was the darkness more intense than there. So intense was it that it seemed to have a quality of life. It menaced the eyes and pressed upon the face. Its silence seemed to whisper upon the ears. It was an organism of blackness whose tendrils almost throttled the breath. But to Perrace and his purposes this profusion of darkness was kind.' (p.69).


'He was in flight. He was fleeing not from fear of arrest, but from fear of a courtyard thick with darkness, deaf to noise, and alive only with the eyes of blind houses. Those houses had seen nothing; in that darkness they could not, even unshuttered, have seen; yet their very blindness had shot him with a deeper fear than the fear of capture.' (p.70).

  The suppressed, disguised inner life, simply expressed, layered with a glow of sunset-tinted wonder, is the hallmark of Burke's best writing, whomever he writes as narrator. 'In 'The Lonely Inn,' a tale simple but beautifully rendered, the ghost of an old public house claims a friend whose only mistake is in returning to the scene of a former crime.
  'The Hollow Man' is his most famous tale, but, I suspect, through default alone. It neither inspired the 2000 Paul Verhoeven film Hollow Man, nor the 1966 episode of the same name from the US 12 O' Clock High TV series. Yet, these facts have, inadvertently, contributed to the tale becoming more well known, allied to the fact that it has, occasionally, been anthologised. It is, though, one of Burke's most memorable tales. An old friend has travelled alone, from Africa to England, to seek out the man who'd left him to die – by a currently unknown hand - in the African bush. The traveler appears an entirely anonymous zombie, nothing more than the clothes he barely stands up in.
  Arriving in the cafe now run by his former friend and wife, he seats himself down and silently refuses to leave. He remains for days... As things around the cafe owner begin to deteriorate and patrons first move, then leave, in their droves, never to return, the increasingly desperate cafe owner has little choice but ask the traveler what he must do to make him go. His revelation implies the termination of a curse, the cafe owner alone must conclude. The 'off-screen' ambiguity of the ending is one of Burke's finest.
  This is a recommended reissue of truly uncanny tales featuring relate-able, working-class characters – between the Wars - facing a twilit-coloured range of life and death choices.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Ernest Dowson – Collected Shorter Fiction, Edited by Monica Borg & R.K.R. Thornton, Birmingham University Press

Early in 1900, just before he himself died, Oscar Wilde remarked upon hearing of Ernest Dowson's death; "Much of what he has written will remain," and, "I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb, and rue, and myrtle too, for he knew what love is." These are as much an accurate summation of Dowson's little known fiction as of his better known poetry. That known as 'Cynara,' his most oft-quoted example, where...

"All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! In my fashion."

  There is little rose-tinted romance in Dowson's view of love. This is its quiet power. He wrote from the heart; from its effect upon him at the time; from personal experiences he so often came out of the poorer. This reader couldn't help but feel this was due to his once being a hopeless romantic in the first place. Through his twenties, he had transient relationships with teenage showgirls, prostitutes and bar-girls from those venues where he was regular receipient of tots of absinthe and Spanish wine. (Hence the "bought red mouth" in 'Cynara').One such – from a Polish, family-run cheap restaurant near his fathers' London docks where he reluctantly worked – was the proprietors' very young daughter, Adelaide Foltinowicz, whose pragmatism may only have stoked Dowson's lustrous fire. (They remained an unlikely couple for over a decade until Adelaide married someone else).
  To glean a thumbnail sketch of Dowson from Jad Adams' 2000 biography: he was boyishly slight of build, narrow-shouldered, shy, introspective, pale, (from tuberculosis), flannel-wearing, chain-smoking, with an unsmiling 'soft' mouth beneath a mousy moustache, from losing his teeth at an early age and rarely bothering with his set of replacements. Yet, while a depressive, who also drank to smother what he could, he was no miserablist, sudden bursts of energy and a determination to change his immediate situation also taking hold, allied to a serious appreciation of a droll wit. Often homeless, he was as generous to the poor as one on his modest income from writing could be. More problematical – especially today – was his unsatisfactory love-life idealised, like so many men of the time, through at least two affairs with early teenage girls.
  Superficially, Dowson sounds like one of those self-destructive rock stars of more recent times; physically fragile, incapable of looking after themselves, getting into fights, monosyllabic from intoxication, being dependent on drink and occasional coke, overspending on each ensuring constant destitution. Yet, also like them, uniquely brilliant at their equally public talent. It may be difficult to feel even a smidgen of sympathy for a man with such tastes; but Dowson's authenticity managed to elicit a certain beauty from his self-destructive habits.

Singularly more mature than his ability to look after himself is his own fictionalised view on relationships, played out in these nine short tales – the summation of what he produced of the form. These originally published in the inevitable Yellow Book and other 'decadent' journals of the Nineties. Eight of the nine tales are thematically connected in one way or another; missed opportunities for love where circumstance rather than personal blame – i.e. the restrictions and expectations of Victorian society – conspire to deprive each party. Five of them originally collected under the well chosen banner, 'Dilemmas.' (1895). The young woman in each – the protagonists' object of desire - may be idolised, but never patronised. Biographer Jad Adams gave a class A example:

"Dowson merged religious devotion with earthly love, particularly in his prose. In 'Diary of a Successful Man,' the object of the men's devotion joins a closed order, as the beloved girl does in 'Apple Blossom in Brittany.' This set in the fictional Breton village of Ploumariel where Dowson also set 'A Case of Conscience' and to which he frequently referred when saying he wanted to be back in Brittany. In the story, Benedict Campion, an English Catholic of around 40, is visiting his ward, a girl of 16. Marie-Ursule is an orphan, being educated at a convent under the supervision of the local Cure who, recognising Campion's love for the girl, urges that he marry her. Campion delays, returns to London, and when he next sees Marie-Ursule she is turning to him for advice on whether or not she should enter the Ursuline convent. He feels he cannot deflect her from this higher path... so he acquiesces, and she never knows of his love for her, thus combining religious vocation with the sacrifice of love for a higher purpose." (Adams, p.54).

  I have little doubt that mass appreciation of Dowson as a novelist could have rivalled that of DH Lawrence had he lived to produce them unaided. (He had co-written two, early in his short career and flawed through compromise, with former Oxford chum Arthur Moore). Still, there is a sensitivity, subtlety and emotional authenticity in the short tales that can be seen as a blueprint for more extended prose. Whereas, in much of the poetry, Dowson's depiction of himself in love is as a wraith, or spectre, the ghost of himself with whom a lover may conjoin were he so fortunate. (See 'Saint Germain-En-Laye,' 'A Requiem' and 'In a Breton Cemetery'). That he never lived to mine from these nine – dying from long-term TB at 32 - has undoubtedly held back his reputation.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

November Night Tales by Henry Chapman Mercer, Valancourt Books & Swan River Press

Originally published in 1928, two years before his death at 73 - in the week that also robbed us of DH Lawrence – 'November Night Tales' was Mercer's only collection, and penultimate book. Better known in life for non-fiction on his broad specialities of architecture, paleontology and engineering, it soon becomes clear that – unlike so many of his contemporaries - he never allows his first-hand knowledge to stifle style or the sense of adventure. There is a light touch and tight literary discipline in his approach, unencumbered by the usual showy research of the history scholar, while his descriptive sense is sensual but controlled. (His graduating in Liberal Arts also means he consciously avoids the usual contemporary prejudices).
  'Castle Valley' – a forgotten prophecy unfurls as an artist, Pryor, unwittingly paints a castle once planned by an ancestor but never completed. When a polished mineral stone is found on the actual site, dating back to the crystal-gazers of folklore, a train of precognitive events appear triggered. 'The North Ferry Bridge' – a discredited doctor, his rival, his experiment, his kidnapping and a secret foundary of ravenous rats are behind this most Buchan-esque of mysteries. 'The Blackbirds' – an engraving, a lost artist and his fate at the hands of Indian fire-worshippers play-out this very Blackwood-ian tale. 'The Wolf Book' – an occult tapestry, kept in a tin can, and lusted after by lycanthropic peasants in the Carpathians, is just one of a lost series of much sought-after 'wolf books,' also wanted by more modern seekers.
  'The Dolls’ Castle' – the dramatist, Charles Carrington's second appearance, after 'The Blackbirds,' in a satisfying and creepily restrained haunted house tale. “There, propped close together against the dingy plaster, an unaccountable array of diminutive figures,—dolls, in various dresses and of many sizes and kinds, startling, repulsive,— seemed to gaze at them from the shadows. The slanting rays of evening, through several breaks in the dimmed glass, here and there brightening the display, showed the havoc of moth and damp upon the tattered costumes, mouldy hair, and glassy-eyed faces rotted into paintless knobs.” They also dance --- unaided and unseen --- all according to rumour, of course. Mercer appears to have once considered Carrington and Pryor as more regular characters, since the former features in both 'Castle Valley' and 'The Dolls' Castle,' with the latter also in 'Castle Valley' and here.
  'The Sunken City' – the re-emergence of a subterranean city of Homeric legend recurs in this collection's superior tale of cloak n' dagger intrigue. 'The Well of Monte Corbo' – for the fifth time in this collection, the true provenance of a castle and its harboured, mythologised secret is the source of a search between two former art students of parallel sketches by Titian and Durer. This is an additional tale – and up-to-standard – apparently found amongst the author's papers after his death.
  While each tale – featuring either a castle, monastery or secretive outbuilding - can therefore be classed as Gothic, they are all written in the, then, modern idiom. For those with a taste for the retro adventure, had Mark Valentine's or John Howard's names been on the cover, few would have questioned the attribution. This gives them a timeless quality that, conversely, evokes many genre-influenced authors today.
  If not strictly uncanny, each mystery is layered with intimations of precognition and 'coincidence,' suggesting the iconoclast Mercer himself may well have been a believer. Such authenticity of voice makes each entry a superb example of the genre and a satisfying read for the season. The title is newly-re-released, both in paperback from Valancourt and hardback from Swan River; perhaps a more fortuitous circumstance for the collector-reader than the respective publishers.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

UPDATE . . .

'Pan' will return in two weeks, with the last entry of the year four weeks after that in time for Christmas. Other writing projects need attending. Thank you all for your interest, past and present...

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Ten Nights Dreaming and The Cat's Grave by Natsume Soseki, (A New English Translation by Matt Treyvaud), Dover Publications

I stumbled upon the fact that Dover Publications were still releasing new titles just a couple of months ago - having assumed they'd long been languishing in print-on-demand purgatory. Proof to the contrary came in the form of this new English translation of a forgotten Japanese classic.
  Originally serialized in 1908 in the newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun, these ten little fables of fantasy neatly realise the elusive, internal logic we all experience in sleep that so defies the explicable by day. The tales are so short (around three pages apiece) that to precis each would demand a virtual retelling. Instead, it's worth drawing attention to the 'Third,' 'Sixth,' 'Seventh' and 'Ninth' nights as particularly affecting.
  Seeking out Soseki's bibliography, it is extraordinary to discover that it represents only the final decade of his life, from 1905. (If one exludes an unfinished novel from 1916; the year he died). Extraordinary, since Soseki (born Natsume Kinnosuke in 1867) was widely read in life. Some poetic justice perhaps for this occasional composer of haiku; a one-time victim of the incredible state taboo of being the last, late born child, consigned for this reason to orphan care. Unlike most tales of author fatalities however, it was Soseki's very career that appeared to have sustained him from the outset, with popularity arising from his very first release,'I Am A Cat.' ('The Cat's Grave,' a kind of companion tale to the earlier piece, is included here).
  Whatever your experience of Japanese literature, you need little thanks to this latest edition. While the main body of text comes in at only 641/2 pages, succinct explanatory footnotes for its archaic terminology are included alongside an equally explanatory foreword and introduction which serve – rather than hinder – its enjoyment. To a novice, ike myself, they also act as an easy entre into the form.

                                                       Albertine's Wooers

Issue 6 of The Green Book (Swan River Press) is the latest and, so far, best issue in its wealth of rare find features: an early, uncollected, Bram Stoker tale, a forgotten little wartime memoir from Lord Dunsany, a contemporary profile on AE, and an exclusive interview with David J. Skal are the highlights. A tough act for editor Brian Showers to follow. Perhaps it's just as well it's released bi-annually...

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Aickman's Heirs, Edited by Simon Strantzas, Undertow Publications

To embrace the work as a whole... I respect Strantzas for wanting to avoid the obvious tribute collection, as he concedes from the outset, so adding to the countless roster of second-rate fan-fiction titles; but his alternative reasoning for the title feels tenuous in the extreme.
  For those anticipating a tribute collection, written-in-the-style, you may be disappointed. The narrative voices are mainly the authors'; which is just as well since the majority, expressed in the modern American-English vernacular, would only further distance us from Aickman's own English RP style.
  While Strantzas warns against this very assumption in his intro, his alternative reasoning for the title seems equally vague – that, while RA's work was idiosyncratic, the way he worked is shared by our generation, influenced by him. i.e. by “mining their own personal psychology” and “tapping into their own subconsciousness, much as Aickman had.” Aickman, yes, and also every other writer on the planet, which fails to justify or explain precisely what set him apart.
  On reading, I remain puzzled as to how these tales – taken in unity – even begin to justify the book's title, if the way Aickman worked is a raison d'etre shared by this generation. Strantzas claims this is through being“open to exploring new avenues of the subtly bizarre.” Then could you not say that about any idiosyncratic author in recent history? Which then was Aickman's avenue? This isn't defined. The approach of each contributor is so much a contrast to its predecessor as to have been lifted from disparate sources. This is less a complaint, though, than a mild word of warning to an Aickman completist going by the title alone. I'd suggest its appeal would lie more with the convert to the uncanny, at large, rather than the seasoned specialist on the author. Strantzas also claims that attempting to write like Aickman is “impossible.” Difficult, certainly, but not insurmountable.
  The best of the work here defies this claim, showing the necessary cool impassivity and psychological insight. Praise then to Richard Gavin, John Howard, D.P. Watt, Michael Cisco, Lynda Rucker, Michael Wehunt, Helen Marshall and Malcolm Devlin. Their entries at least feel influenced by Aickman, without, in any way, aping him, as Strantzas wanted to avoid. Were that the whole collection was so pitched.
  But it is fortunate, for us all today, that we live in an era where the short tale has blossomed in popularity, regularity and quality, in the face of nay-saying publisher agents; one of whom – as recently as 2008 – confidently predicted its demise. Undertow's growing list remains welcome confirmation of that untruth.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications by D.P. Watt, The Interlude House

This is Watt's second collection, swiftly re-released as a paperback, after that of his first, 'An Emporium of Automata.' (Eibonvale Press, 2013). His friend Daniel Corrick wrote in the introduction to that release how “given his taste for visual flair, it is not surprising that the intermingling between sensation and narrative plays a consderable part in some of the stories.”
 Here, this is literally foregrounded with far greater use of accompanying photographs – both personal and 'found' – which directly, and indirectly, evoke some part of a story's narrative. In an interview for Weird Fiction Review, Watt reveals himself – far from unconventional sources - as part of the generation growing away from Arkham-style Americana toward Europe's own Gothic.
  “Influences can be hard to follow but I’d say my interests are more in the realm of the European fantastic rather than the Lovecraftian ‘Weird’ tradition — Hoffmann, Kafka and Huysmans and the strange tales of Aickman are very important to me, as are the works of Grabinski, Schulz and Walser. Where they all live on the weird fiction spectrum I’m not certain, but the breadth of a work ... just goes to show what a wonderful tradition this kind of fiction embraces.” In my own repudiation of conventional horror, I'm with him there.
 “I see fiction as an environment of exploration and experiment, where the reader and writer can use the imagination to examine modes of consciousness and creativity. If fiction were simply the replication of the world then it becomes nothing more than a dull map of a bland terrain, if it can colour the hills purple and the sky green it allows thought some liberation from an obligation to repeat and become confined by routine. It’s also great fun!” Again, who would disagree? 
  Less welcome is the book's accompanying intellectual contrivance. I'm not entirely convinced by Watt's voicing his updated philosophy on Kant's 'categorical imperative,' whose history is sketched by Eugene Thacker in an afterword. Fine in an interview or personal website but, ultimately, the tales must stand alone, apart from, and unencumbered by, any thin support from a philosophical foundation.
  As his admiration for Schulz and Huysman's shows, he adheres to the more disturbing end of the uncanny. Then, as with a writer like Mark Samuels, he is most successful when hope or personal will isn't entirely absent or abandoned.
  Some of Watt's titles are overly pretentious and not exactly enticing to the novice of the 'weird.' (He'd already offerred us 'Pulvis Lunaris, or, The Coagulation of Wood' in the previous release...). Here, the boat is well and truly pushed out, so it helps to be familiar with the influences. By contrast, Watt's website is beautifully sparse – bare of much text at all – reflecting his preference for pictorial evocation. I wish I could feel as warm toward the text here. Yet, three examples highlight his contrasting range.
  E.T.A. Hoffmann's more vintage metaphysical approach is clear and present in the title tale. One atypically uplifting and conventionally told. Taken by a Kafka-esque poster advertising an upcoming magic show by a troupe of travelling players leads the protaganist to a meeting with their MC, who reveals the transformative power of their secret. A good opener.
  'The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller,' appears, according to Watt, 'either loved or loathed.' Whether it's a fit for this collection is arguable, but his journey of a soul vicariously inhabitating a progression of bodies works surprisingly well considering it is – by Watt's own admission – the most experimental.
  '...he was water before he was fire...' is a real gem. Embarking alone upon a summer camping trip to the coast, our protaganist spies a feral man who barely speaks in monosyllables, yet appears seasoned amongst a group of wild swans. Like some outcast Bear Grylls, he shows our man how he perceives nature, leading to an epiphany that also reveals (to him anyway) the true nature of the swans. The only real fear factor in this tale is the unsettling behaviour and unknowable identity of the homo ferus. Yet this is the tale's strength.

  Watt's third collection will find first release next year. Shawn of the lily-gilding philosophy, a voice could reveal itself some way ahead of his contemporaries.