Friday, 5 September 2014

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

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

                                                             *             *            *

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

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

And here;

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

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

                                                         *             *            *

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

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

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

© Paulo Brito (2014)

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

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

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

Saturday, 10 May 2014

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

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

Saturday, 19 April 2014

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

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

Monday, 31 March 2014

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

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

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Transactions of the Flesh, A Homage to Joris-Karl Huysmans, edited by D.P. Watt & Peter Holman, Zagava & Ex-Occidente Press / Onion Songs by Steve Rasnic Tem, Chomu Press

There is little need to be a lover - or harbour knowledge equivalent to its eighteen contributors - of J.K. Huysmans to appreciate the latest 'ZEX' co-production. Only a mind open to the broad scope of European literature at large, past and present. I write this knowingly of the former and, at least, in ongoing hope of the latter. The subject for which these tales are in homage has certainly focussed and exercised these writers more formal literary abilities - with the results, in the main, both lovely and surprisingly fresh. The restraint in ruminations, 'adventures of the self,' (in Jonathan Wood's 'Pray to the God of Flux') feel perfectly contemporary while remaining prescient. Disillusionment, perhaps, making a comeback. Art's historic relationship to Disease bears novel interpretation, in Louis Marvick's 'The Red Seed' and Eugene Thacker's biographical essay on the 'corporeal anomolies' of the tragic, infected, St. Lydwina. ('An Expiatory Pessimism'). Colin Insole's luxuriously decadent 'Salammbo and the Zaimph of Tanit' sees transient beauty emerge from the degradation of an 1860s' Parisien slum to sensualise an amateur artist thus far disappointed in marriage only to be returned, too soon, to the primordial mud from whence it came in a sumptuous paene, as much to Flaubert or Baudelaire as Huysmans alone. I've long been intrigued, and not a little perplexed, at the idea of the Catholic Sensualist; a peculiarly southern European trait. While the UK has had its fair share of self-doubting religios, (such as the Inkling set of Lewis and Tolkien), the issue of sex as felt rarely, publicly, reared its inquisitive head. Huysmans very Frenchness held sway in one characteristic regard; his openness. Just one tale here directly indulges, (purple) head-on; M.O.N.'s 'Indescribable.' The secretive author's title might be deemed unwise, placed before the reviewer, though he or she does manage to avoid nomination for this year's Bad Sex Award by describing feeling with rather more gynacological gymnasticism than the act itself. Other treats here include Berit Ellingsen's northern mythic 'Summer Dusk, Winter Moon,' where an immortal hero is callously used as eternal protectorate to an ungrateful village; a lovely statue whose original model reappears brought to startlingly unexpected life features in Harold Billings's 'Angel Head.' Fans of the ubiqitous Mark Valentine and his writing partner John Howard will be pleased to see they each have characteristic new tales included. ('The Key to Jerusalem' and 'Ziegler Against the World'). There is a nineteenth tale - a newly- translated playlet co-penned by Huysmans himself. ('Pierrot the Sceptic'). A riotous romp, almost Ortonesque, that climaxes the book's intellectual pretensions with a welcome pie-in-the-face. Being a ZEX release this is a very limited edition, but another exceptional production in its faux crushed silk cover in Royal blue and art-endpapers by Louis Ricardo Falero. The finest original collection of the year so far. *********************************************************************** Rasnic Tem, it appears, is another of those authors (for which, Pan readers will note, I've a particular fondness) capable of describing long-harboured mania in language of deceptive simplicity. Even where a character's subjective view of themselves lack subtlety, as with the office worker's constant perception of his life as a circus clown in 'Slapstick,' or the divorcee's suicidal desire for complete alienation in 'Unknown,' the experiential mindset of each rings entirely true. What connects each tale in this forty-two set release, (alongside a whole three-decade gamut of obsession, depression and schizophrenia), is the feeling of a stable delusion suddenly shifted to a unstable reality. Rasnic Tem recognises how the older we get, any relief we may once have felt awakening from a childhood nightmare is now tempered by far more frightening everyday truths. Age and experience offer no safer landings. Another meticulous obsession, prompted by familial loss, is 'drawn' out in 'Doodles,' where a father fills the unfillable space in his life in a way that might see history repeating. In 'The Figure in Motion,' a widower feels compelled to publicly demonstrate only happy memories of the wife he's lost, self-denying to the point where he no longer percieves his own fate. Most painfully touching in this regard is 'Charles.' Seemingly constructed as a modern gothic ghost tale, it soon becomes clear that any apparent spirit is no more than that of the sad, unattainable hope of a dementia-afflicted mother. As 'everyday truths' go, these are drawn as anything but mundane. In 'Cats, Dogs and Other Creatures,' are the parents' children just play-acting fatalities on the lawn? Or are Rasnic Tem's narrative descriptions rather more literal? 'Night, the Endless Snowfall' and 'Archetype' each add to the sense of familial insecurtiy; that families, far from safe, reassuring communities, are as alienating in their own way as any group of perfect strangers.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations by Molly Tanzer, Egaeus Press

'Rumbullion - An Apostrophe' is the meat of the book; a mid-18th century romp of a novella about mysterious sorcerer Count of St. Germain who accepts an invitation for a summer performance in the garden of the Bretwynde family, only to leave a fatality and a case of filial madness in his wake. We are back in the worlds' of Laclos's 'Les Liaison Dangereuse' and Gautier's 'Madamoiselle de Maupin' with all their moral and sexual ambiguity among the upper classes. The tale unfolds as a series of correspondence with the various attendees as Bretwynde son Julian seeks to uncover how his betrothed became so mentally afflicted by the experience. Being subjective views filtered through each character's prejudice or presumption, he - and we - are offered glimpses of horror and unholy possessions that hint at some greater scam. Is the pagan Count behind it all? Or have his alleged necromantic powers just unwittingly opened doors for far darker denizens to pass through? The tale, tautly written with its focus upon adven- ture, is never once undermined by its letter-written structure. The six short tales that fill out the book impress less by comparison. 'In Sheep's Clothing' is an overly proclaimed narra- tive of identity and cannibalism that might have been affecting if more understated. 'How John Wilmot Contracted Syphilis' is better, returning us to the 17th century, relating the title charcter's ruse of pantomimic disguises as a means of getting into (other)fermale patients' undergarments. One of two of the more successful tales. The other, 'The Poison-Well,' is an Angela Carter- like nursery tale. A lowly shrewmouse and a lordly mole argue over the latter's intended installation of a new sunken well to a fatal conclusion. A deceptively simple tale, which, to British suburban readers, may also harbour a whiff of allegory. 'Herbert West in Love' intrigues from the outset, utilising the Lovecraftian character in his student days at Miskatonic University, in a wholly original form. Unfortunately this excellent set-up ends peremptorily rushed, thus more like an early chapter from a projected novella than a short tale, leaving this reviewer in high anticipation while wholly unsatisfied. It might have found greater room, in a collection with a contemporary setting. The last two entries - 'Tubby McMungus, Fat from Fungus' (co- written with Jesse Bullington) and 'Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee' - are fripperies much less to my taste. The former, an anthropo- morphic tale for reading aloud to children with the latter, for a similar audience, in a surreal setting more akin to science-fiction. Still, this is another impressive production by Egaeus; like many of the European independents, beautifully produced on high-quality paper, with the added bonus of contemporary-style woodcuts. Each release is fast becoming an event.