Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Haunts & Horrors by M.P. Shiel, Coachwhip Publications

There has been no reasonably priced edition of M.P. Shiel’s classic uncanny dozen in recent years.  So, Coachwhip - being one of the more reliable P.O.D. publishers – should be congratulated on filling this seminal space.
  The fact that one has been allowed to grow at all is of little surprise.  Mark Valentine has described Shiel’s language as ‘ornate’ and ‘arcane,’ (in his intro. to ‘The Collected Connoisseur’ (Tartarus)) and, on reading these for the first time in 2012, it’s clear he’s not wrong.  He means it as a compliment and – now – so can I. 
  Yes, the tales are larded here and there with Latin words, phrases and archaic, phonetic spellings, but to each prospective newcomer I’d advise a default position; take the time to luxuriate in the prose rather than see it as an obstacle to following the plots.  It is worth it, and you may be repaid by the elaborate beauty of every scene.
   This approach of Shiel’s shares something with his contemporary, Vernon Lee; only her mythic Italianate settings are 17th and 18th century, while his resonate from further back - classic Greco-Rome, allying him to the French Romantics of the generation before.  Shiel’s pallet is also broader.  Here, he adds a Viking epic (‘The Spectre-Ship’) French Gothic Horror (‘The Bell of St Sepulcre’) and the fable of a Sadean slave owner in the American Deep South. (‘A Shot at the Sun’). 
  Of the rest, a welcome late-Victorian decadence pervades.  Drug-addicted protagonists narrate their gradual intoxication, either by their own hand or led by those already fallen. (Interestingly, as often by a man – in, for example, ‘Vaila’ - as by a woman – in, say, ‘Huguenin’s Wife’).
  Another European influence; women get a fairer deal, elsewhere, from Shiel than by many of his English contemporaries; revenge against one so wronged by a man features in the ironically titled ‘The Great King,’ as for a girl in love in ‘The Spectre-Ship’ and for another in ‘A Shot at the Sun.’   While hardly a sign of latent feminism, it is a step up from the callous misogyny of most.
  Shiel’s own fascinating background offers a clue.  Facts appear only unconfirmed but, if true, are telling.  That he was born of mixed parentage on the West Indies island of Montserrat to a mother, perhaps the daughter of freed slaves, and a father,  perhaps the illegitimate offspring of an Irish Customs Officer and a slave woman.  Educated at Harrison College, Barbados, Shiel moved to England aged twenty to teach and translate before turning his hand to what all jobbing thinkers must inevitably slum in – commercial writing.
  His subsequent bibliography is a revelation and one virtually forgotten today: twenty-four novels (+ one posthumous) and five short story collections, of which this is the standard retrospective.  Only one of the twenty-four - ‘The Purple Cloud’ - is about to see reprint as a Penguin Classic.
  Of this new reissue, some may bemoan the inevitable lack of an introduction or any informative footnotes, while the serif-style font – possibly Palatino Linotype – may ensure contempt of others.  Then again, the text pleasingly lacks the usual crop of P.O.D. typo errors while the layout is perfectly sound.  Only the dumb, alliterative title masks the esoteric wonders within.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury Publishing

There is a vein running through modern short fiction that adheres to the dictum ‘less-is-more.’  This can be congratulated where what is being described uses just enough words for us to care about the content; after all, few wish to be bombarded by overtly purple prose.  But if there isn’t enough content at the outset, we are left floundering wondering what we are expected to care about in what remains.  This is the issue I have with this, Lucy Wood’s debut.
  I anticipated at the very least some semblance of character motivation and sense of purpose.  In DIVING BELLES there is too little of the former and none of the latter.  This isn’t to say the collection is without merit.  Wood’s conciseness and conscious avoidance of cliché (to the extent some of her similes and metaphors challenge instant recognition) are without question and work well. 
  With ‘Notes from the House Spirits,’ the most successful entry, a home’s ghost relates its various domestic invasions by the material world.  In the title story, a widow in denial takes up the chance to return to the underwater site where she last saw her husband.  In each case we are given enough information to follow the prescribed structure of the story.  Throughout the other ten entries, Wood otherwise remains strong on setting mood via her descriptions of nature and its elemental changes.
  Elsewhere, the approach of minimalist ‘poetic’ prose leaves too much to call on from the reader.  Strangeness alone fails to communicate the uncanny or inspire any emotion when it feels like strangeness for its own sake.  Recognisable character-types are, at the outset, vital so the strangeness that gradually encroaches, from, or, upon them, becomes the issue.  I am reminded of the on-stage celebrity singer who, after singing the verse of a well-known hit, points his microphone to the audience for them to complete the chorus.  Yes, we might be able to fill in the gaps but would have preferred it came from the star we paid to hear. The result is a feeling of being short-changed.  Consequently, here, ideas remain inevitably under-exploited.
  Of these remainder, the sense of unreality, presumably intended, is misplaced.  Characters merely ‘do’, either out of habit or routine, with no subjective intent or narrative momentum.  Each tale’s ‘climax’ peters out as we wonder just what the author was trying to portray.  (I wonder if Wood has read Beckett).
  There are glimpses of possible, future excellence but they flare all too briefly for certainty in a flash of rare wit or spark of rural dark.  Wood has held back too much here and – unlike her gushing jacket reviewers - seriously undersold. 
  Wood is, by her own account, attempting a novel.  I wish her luck and we now know the strengths she has to draw upon.  But I do hope, with the extra length afforded by the form, she makes us care about her characters and at least intimate before its end why they are doing what they do.