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.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Satyr and Other Tales by Stephen J. Clark, Swan River Press

Reading Stephen Clark's latest, I recalled an earlier notion that if only BBC Television spent less on the annual prestigious production, they could be more prolific, producing something as exciting - and more economically viable - as an adaptation from one of the current crop of short tale scribes.
While conforming to 'the uncanny' and – arguably – 'the weird,' few need be as semi-accessible as their version of Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. So, why not? Viewers don't only want decent drama - most also need adventure.
  The past decade of the 'Doctor Who' re-mount – and its continuing healthy viewing figures – surely attests to that. We are now entirely drained by vampires and zombies; indifferent to the powers of the superhero. (And when is 'Doctor Who' ever interesting, or credible - even in its genre of fantasy - when the dead keep returning?) What of the personal twists of real history and its odder, more intimate, consequences? Human tales, in other words...
  Clark uses the little known outsider painter and writer, Austin Osman Spare and his world, as the backdrop to the first tale. 'The Satyr' is a novella – a rewrite of the original publication in 2010 - adding, in his prefacing words, 'greater depth with Austin Osman Spare's life and ethos.' In Blitz-torn London, a disturbed woman artist, an alleged disciple of Spare with possibly portentous visionary insight, attracts the obsessional attention of our narrator, a recently released ex-con. Living under the moniker 'Marlene,' she draws, frenziedly, in real time, as he is compelled to follow her on an unforeseeable mystical quest. One in which they, themselves, are being followed. The plot and setting may have been done-to-death – and yet its ingredients are beautifully balanced and strikingly showcased by an accompaniment of Clark's own 'Marlene' drawings.
  The Bestiary of Communion follows, also rewritten, from his subsequent collection of 2011.  In 'The Horned Tongue,' a man mourning the recent death of his wife is visited by an occult sorcerer – a player of fate - who inexplicably knows his guilty past and shows him far more than he wishes . . .until he his given no choice. A cruel story, perhaps, but we follow them more than willingly to its conclusion.
  'The Lost Reaches' is the gem here. Escaping an NKVD patrol in the Carpathian forest, three Poles, carrying a dying husband and exhausted wife, find a house to hide and rest in, amid the snow-packed wilderness. They also find its dimension-defying rooms laid out for black tie guests, who they soon discover are still within; crazed, somnambulant and victims of some controlling force that begins to take them over too. For it is a museum with exhibits that reflect the damaged id of the forgotten author whose possessions are on shadowed display. Clark's descriptions of the borderless interiors bleeding into the outside are memorable dreamscapes.
  'The Feast of the Sphinx,' is rewritten from the original final tale, 'My Mistress, the Multitude.' Back in World War Two, a Czech-sympathising German interrogator in occupied Czechoslovakia becomes drawn into the backstory of his seemingly possessed artist-prisoner and the mystical Countess whose likeness can never be truly captured. In one respect a re-tread of the first tale, except the obsessed, artist pursuer is now male and the controlling object of that obsession, a woman. The unremitting pace of these four little mystical thrillers evoke the best of the pulp-era decadents.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Face of the Earth & Other Imaginings by Algernon Blackwood, (Compiled and Edited by Mike Ashley), Stark House Press

I felt a frisson of joy, stumbling across this recent release - the first 'new' collection of Blackwood since 1989's The Magic Mirror. (Also from Mike Ashley). When it came to humanising nature, most of his contemporaries – from Potter to Grahame - anthropomorphised woodland beasts for children; Blackwood – almost single-handedly – anthropomorphised the elements around them for adults. He achieved this – especially in his pre-World War One work – by manifesting the child-like idealism still slumbering in himself and, unarticulated, in many of us grown-ups. Add the mystical atmosphere – fired by his own belief – and the undeniable beauty of his vision remains unique.
  Today, a brisk surface read by a Blackwood novice could form an assumption of him as a mere sentimentalist; and a dated one at that. In truth, his resonance is far more profound.
  After his death, aged 82 in 1951, his last hurrah of major sales subsequently faded in the wake of 1967's Summer of Love. John Baker re-published The Empty House, The John Silence Stories and Selected Tales collections - and that was it. A sad but significant ending for a bibliography that, by the 1930s', had been a staple of the private and public school curriculum; significant also in its reflecting what were fast turning into more cynical times.
  Mike Ashley's choice and compilation of material is first rate. I only wish Stark House's realisation was equal to it. The usual bold, painterly art cover and graphics work well, always enticing the eye; but, within, there is something about the crowding of the text and the office-type paper – used by so many inde publishers now – that lets the production down. (Presumably to cut costs). That said, it is worth the purchase for Ashley's well-considered chronicling of Blackwood's early oeuvre, highlighting the arc of his nature vision, and the detailed bibliography at the back.
  Some of the journalism acts as useful prologues to some of the later, more famous, short tales (not featured here) for the scholar seeking deeper context. The elemental descriptions in 'The Willows,' 'The Wendigo' and 'Ancient Sorceries' clearly resonated with what he'd already witnessed in these earlier explorations around the mountains and valleys of the Balkans, Canada, Austria and Egypt.
  Ashley – Blackwood's biographer – has separated his finds, culled from Blackwood's early stories and journalism, into four sections: 'Early Tales,' 'Imagination Awakes,' 'Nature Inspires' and 'Conflicts of the Soul.' If not strictly chronological, they are ordered logically enough to easily follow his literary and spiritual journey up to the end of World War One.
  Of the four, Section 3 reveals itself as both key and the most memorable. Here, we come closest to seeing life through Blackwood's eyes as lived. It is nature as a mystical liberation; one with no beginning and no end, ever-active, ever-changing, yet eternal. 'Down the Danube in a Canadian Canoe' - the centrepiece of, perhaps, the whole book – clearly made a lasting impression on him, echoed in several subsequent pieces – including 'Egypt: An Impression.' These are more transcending than mere travelogues, while never descending to the showily sentimental.
  Two pieces in Section 4 stand out as contrasting results of encounters made during World War One, working first for the Field Ambulance Service and, latterly, as an Intelligence Agent. 'Onanonanon' may be unique in the canon for detailing the psychosis of a schizophrenic, first as a boy, then as a man, making disturbing connections. If not his best, then it's certainly his most radical short tale and singularly ahead of its era. (c. 1920). 'The Memory of Beauty,' the final tale here, concerns a convalescing soldier in a nursing home, making a mental connection of his own to somehow recapture the little he can recall of his past. Again, Blackwood avoids saccharin pathos; instead producing a scene genuinely moving to anyone – like myself – who has a relative afflicted with Alzheimer's.
  Then again, from a memory all my own, he unwittingly left me with a smile. A line on the last page leads into the soldier's epiphany: 'He saw two Lebanon cedars, the kitchen garden wall beyond, the elms and haystacks further still, looming out of the summer dusk...' Recall that it was his literary rival, Machen, who was quoted as remarking; Tennyson, you remember, says, “the cedars sigh for Lebanon,” and that is exquisite poetry, but Blackwood believes the cedars really do sigh for Lebanon and that … is damned nonsense!’