Friday, 20 May 2016

Brutal Pantomimes by Rhys Hughes, Egaeus Press / Masques Of Satan by Reggie Oliver, Tartarus Press

Firstly, I'd like to welcome back all Pan's readers' after this (to me) unwanted two-month hiatus. All entirely my fault, after involving my laptop in an accident of my own making. Still, we return with something rather different; a Q & A with the author of the first collection under review, Brutal Pantomimes; the feverishly prolific Rhys Hughes...

Many of your absurdist tales seem to culminate in climaxes that reveal their own internal logic. When you begin drafting an absurdist tale, do you therefore know in advance how it should finish?

Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, and sometimes it’s somewhere between the two extremes. A story can be very carefully planned. For example, with my novel The Percolated Stars I planned each chapter in advance, so I knew what was going to happen in the story when I sat down to write it, but actually I did make adjustments when I was filling in the details too. This method is almost geometric. I might see an overriding shape, a symmetry that controls the story like an internal or external skeleton. With other stories I set off blindly, having no idea what’s going to happen, and writing stories in this manner is almost like reading them as I write. This is the method I am using with the story I’m writing at the moment, a weird Western called The Honeymoon Gorillas that may turn into a novella or even a novel. I don’t know where it’s going or what’s going to happen in it yet. But even this method isn’t as purely random as it might sound, because as I progress with the writing, certain aims and objectives slowly begin to create themselves, to form vague patterns that become sharper as the story moves ahead. It’s like mist starting to form a definite outline. When I work this way, I generally just leave lots and lots of loose ends lying about, as many as possible, and don’t worry about tying them up, because they will often tangle together and tie themselves up. This creates a pleasing unpredictability. Any loose ends that don’t tie themselves up on their own, I will turn my attention to as the story reaches a conclusion. Both these methods have their advantages. Often, however, I will work in a way that combines these extremes. I may have a very nebulous idea of what I want, and I will see certain scenes with clarity, like stills from a film, and then I will try to link what is certain with what is still unknown. Or I may have a very precise frame for the story but within this frame anything can happen provided it fits the frame properly. That’s a bit like some forms of jazz, I guess. Also, I am happy to change direction at any stage in a story and to keep changing it, so I do tend to surprise myself. But now I am no longer really surprised that I surprise myself.

Obviously you've approved them all, but which are your favourite tales in BRUTAL PANTOMIMES — and why?

The first and last stories in the book are my favourites. The opening story, ‘The Jam of Hypnos’ was written secretly in a busy office when I was working for a local government department many years ago. I was supposed to be preparing boring statistical reports on local health issues, but when my manager wasn’t looking I would type a few more lines of my story. With this particular tale I wanted to write something totally absurd that didn’t feel at all absurd. There is something peculiar I have noticed about weird tales. I know that weird tales are supposed to be peculiar, but I don’t mean that. I mean that all supernatural and weird tales are inherently absurd, but we don’t regard them all as absurd. So we treat certain weird tales with a serious respect and others we consider comical pieces. Strictly speaking we should regard them all as comical, but we don’t. It’s something to do with tone. A story by M.R. James, for instance, such as ‘A View from a Hill’ is actually extremely silly in its conception and execution. It’s as comical as a story about, let’s say, a walking talking chair that learns to ride a unicycle. But the James story doesn’t feel comical or silly, despite the fact that binoculars filled with the juice of boiled bones that enable one to see into the past is no less daft an idea that that of a living chair pedalling a unicycle. So I became acutely interested in why this should be. The discrepancy fascinated me. With ‘The Jam of Hypnos’ I tried to write a story that was impossible and utterly whimsical but which felt like a serious weird tale. And it seems to have worked. Readers who don’t like the comical or whimsical or ironic in fiction have praised the story, even though it ends with a man sailing a lake of jam on a raft made of toast. I have used a certain tone and style to deflect the impact of the nonsensical resolution of the story and to make it seem acceptable to those who only enjoy very straight and serious weird tales. As for the last story in my book, the novella ‘The Impossible Inferno’, this is very special to me for several reasons. The central idea of the story is one I carried around in my head for most of my life before I felt ready to embody it in a proper story. I had the idea when I was very young and I knew I lacked the ability to power a story with it then, so I kept it and allowed it to gestate deep in my mind. Finally I sat down and wrote it and it ended up being my 500th story.

Where did your seeming obsession with puns stem from — and does it pre-date your literary influences?

Am I obsessed with puns? Maybe I am. If so, it certainly doesn’t predate my literary influences. It certainly would have come from the books I was reading that I found enjoyable for reasons of their wordplay. Finnegans Wake is the obvious example, but I didn’t read anything by Joyce until quite late in my working life. A more plausible direct influence would be Barefoot in the Head by Brian Aldiss, which utilizes the brilliant conceit that a world war has been fought with psychedelic weapons in order to simultaneously evolve and devolve the language the story is told in. As perceived reality becomes more distorted, so language adapts accordingly. This is still one of my favourite Aldiss novels. Two other books had a similar, perhaps even stronger effect on me. Cabrera Infante’s La Habana para un Infante Difunto and Julián Ríos’ Larva: Babel de una noche de San Juan. Both are not only rife with puns and other verbal tricks of language but also burst with a vigorous eroticism that seems amplified by the way the authors approach the problem of style. The vitality of what happens is matched by the vitality of the telling and both books are not only playful but powerful and enthralling too. Both examples are unusual because modern Spanish literature is not noted for its love of wordplay. The days of Quevedo are long gone. French literature, on the other hand, has many examples of writers who indulge and experiment with puns and wordgames very entertainingly. Boris Vian is one of my main literary heroes and his novels are packed with puns and verbal pyrotechnics. The originality of his language complements the originality of the substance of his books, which are always delightful. He was also a jazz musician and I wonder if the way he wrote somehow was an analogue of the kind of music he played? When I first read his Froth on the Daydream, I realised that I had encountered a writer who was my ideal type. But I must have loved puns before then in order to go with his flow so willingly. I doubt that anyone who dislikes puns can be converted into liking them by any book in existence.

What compels you to being quite so prolific?

Ideas appear in my head all the time. They keep coming and I have to embody them in stories in order to make them go away. If I don’t do this, they will keep on bothering me. When I began writing stories I found the creation of ideas to be hard work, but it’s a question of practice, like anything else. The more you pedal a bicycle, the stronger your calf muscles will become. The more you balance on a giant sphere, the less likely you will be to fall off. The more often you knit with partly boiled spaghetti, the greater the chances that a pasta cardigan will eventually become fashionable reality. And the more you try to write stories with unusual ideas, the more easily and smoothly unusual ideas will come to you, whether you want them to or not! I have reached the stage where ideas come unbidden. They come of their own accord at all times of the day and night, but chiefly when I am out walking. So many ideas come to me now that I have to use up many at the same time by putting them all into one story and seeing how they react to each other. Often they clash or combine and generate something unexpected and useful. This is one of the reasons my style is the way it is. It sounds as if my work will be cluttered as a result but that’s where the challenge to make all the diverse elements fit together properly comes in. That’s what requires the extra effort.

I've read elsewhere you saying you've no interest in being 'political' in your tales. Yet, like several of your literary influences, it is often downtrodden or disadvantaged protagonists who fight to gain freedom or some kind of salvation and often succeed. Could you clarify your position?

I don’t set out to be deliberately political. I have no left wing or right wing or any wing agenda to promote. As for the downtrodden protagonist who fights against the system, such an individual can represent any or no political ideal. The desire to win freedom is deeper than politics, in my view. It’s at the core of existence. Of course, there are those who say that everything is political, and they may well be right, and I guess that liberty is often seen as the biggest political issue of all. But in my own mind ‘political’ fiction means something different, something other than a simple connection with the pure questions of freedom. It means not only a kind of fiction that has an intention to pass on a set of predetermined social or economic messages that have been approved by at least a sizeable minority of other people, but also that there must be some sort of bureaucratic element to the messages. In other words the ideas in the messages are going to need a certain amount of paperwork in order to be implemented. There are going to be financial ramifications, agreements drawn up, contracts, diplomacy, a lot of effort. But freedom shouldn’t have a bureaucratic input at all. So I really don’t think I do political fiction. I guess that the most political aspect of my life is an environmental awareness, but I don’t consciously use my fiction to promote environmental issues, or if I do, then it’s not systematic. But it’s certainly true that the environment is the most important political issue we have right now. Without an environment, none of the other political issues can even exist, because we simply won’t be here.

What literature, or authors, do you read that might surprise people as having no obvious connection to your public work?

I read a lot of fiction that has no connection or influence on my own work. In fact I often get more enjoyment from such fiction. The problem is that when we are young we read books for enjoyment. Then we decide we want to write books too, so we do. But when they are published and we become authors, we can no longer read books the same way we did. An author isn’t able to read in the same way as a pure reader. The author is constantly looking for techniques in the work he or she is reading, looking for clues, for ways to improve, for things to be deliberately inspired by. Reading becomes almost a search for style, a quest for advancement. Authors can’t immerse themselves in the reading experience is the same way. This is why it’s a relief as well as a pleasure to read books that form no part of one’s own strivings. So most of the books I read are not fantasy based. They may be ironic or satirical or philosophical, but they tend to have at least one foot in this world. Thinking about the authors who I have discovered in the past few years who have most impressed and entertained me, few are associated directly with fantastical or weird writing. Ismail Kadare is probably the best writer I have discovered in recent years. At this very moment I am reading novels by V.S. Naipaul and R.K. Narayan, both of them writers with similar concerns but very different approaches and intentions. Milan Kundera is another author who has been a recent enthusiasm. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is one of my heroes. When I was younger I tended to go for fantasy and science fiction over anything else. These days I often ignore the fantasy and SF sections of a bookstore altogether. It could simply be, I guess, that I have read so much fantasy and SF over the years that I need a break for a few more years. That possibility has crossed my mind.

Your love of the Mediterranean and its various cultures is well known. Is its past culture – to us more conservative Northern Europeans - of hedonism and eroticism of particular appeal? And to what extent do you consciously, or otherwise, draw upon them for your work?

I am sure that the hedonism and eroticism are a large part of the appeal. I know, for instance, that epic fantasy with its roots in the Nordic world, the myths and cultures of the north, has never quite enthralled me in the same way as those more sultry romances that seem to stem from a southern influence. I use the word ‘romance’ in the old fashioned sense. There is also the fact that the Ancient Greek myths were a big part of my childhood reading. The ambience stayed with me. The answer might even be more straightforward than seeking some kind of aesthetic or spiritual connection. It could just be that I prefer warmer climates and I abhor the cold. This is something else that has changed over time. Winter was once my favourite season and the possibility of a snowball fight excited me beyond measure. Now I dread the onset of winter. I am a summer man entirely. This is true to the extent that I truly live only in the summer months. Half of my life is spent waiting and praying for summer. It’s not a real life. I think that spending time in Africa reset my internal thermostat somehow. The obvious solution is to permanently move to a warm country, of course, but this requires money. Nonetheless it remains my goal. I need to find a way of writing books that are more popular than the ones I currently write in order to finance and facilitate my escape.

I'd like to thank Rhys Hughes for taking the time out to respond.

* * * *

Newly-reissued in paperback is Reggie Oliver's third collection, originally published by Ash-Tree in 2007. As with his others,' derivative of any other author of the strange they are not.
  The alleged 'horror' in Oliver's tales rarely, truly rears its head until the denouement. Up until that point, we are on the trail of some seemingly conventional mystery; however, where most of this genre's authors' set a scene heading for some near inevitable downfall, Oliver's disarming wit and personal knowledge of the suburban, thespian classes of Southern England he writes about can successfully blind the most seasoned reader to the most unforeseeable outcomes.
  We rarely share in the Gothicists' dark, internal mania that builds to the inevitable climax. Instead, we are treated to informed, well-crafted and moderately-paced situations redolent of those TV anthology series of the Seventies, filtered through Oliver's brand of disarming irony. The old skool feel stems from his experiences as a then young stage actor and subsequent playwright. A quite unique writer's resume amongst the current generation of 30-40-something bedroom-based Goth Horror-ists.
  The humour emanates from here, too. Hear satirical echoes of Tom Sharpe, David Nobbs and perhaps even The Smoking Diarist, Simon Gray. I suspect Oliver could produce an excellent radio sitcom if he so desired, along the lines of 'Ed Reardon's Week,' straddling realism and surrealism with equal aplomb...
  Regional archetypes represented here include an elderly National Trust guide with an unwitting, sinister connection to the grand house's history; ('The Man in the Grey Bedroom'); a children's entertainer whose true character harbours something much worse; ('Mr. Poo-Poo'); a vengeful spirit, in life betrayed in love, replays fate from a dilapidated theatre; ('Blind Man's Box); while a translator, down on his luck, is offered riches in exchange for prostituting his craft, which either pure logic or pure madness resolves. (The Machen-influenced 'The Silver Cord'). The combination of tales, as ever from disparate sources, works well; being as complimentary as they are contrasting.
  If there is any doubt, it is that some of the tales of modern-day setting feel rather too light to become full-bloodedly 'weird.' This has more to do with the aforementioned Home Counties settings, and staid types chosen, than the prose style, which always satisfies. Oliver is at his best when his narrative preception is ambiguous or strange, be it 'Bloody Bill,' (from The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler) or 'Lightning' (in Flowers Of The Sea). Yet, like all the best authors,' he writes about what he knows, and what he knows rarely fails to engage. He is an individualist rather than a type and God knows we need more of them. I hope an equivalent reissue for the hard-to-find Madder Mysteries isn't too far away.

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.