Saturday 8 December 2012

Ghosts by R.B. Russell, Swan River Press

As we near year's end, I must declare an interest.  Ray Russell,
whose first collection this is in its second edition, has shown him-
self a great champion of other British and European writers of the
independent press.
  As co-proprietor at Tartarus, reviewed recently and soon again in
these pages, his name - along with that of Mark Valentine -
regularly percolates into other genre publications and related blogs.
They are signposts to a quality of work far above the derivative
dribblings of the fan fiction ponce, undeserving of his high profile
in the media spin-offs of TV and Radio.
  These independent writers, along with John Howard, Quentin S.
Crisp, Peter Bell, Carolyn Moncel, Sylvia Petter and others, represent
a 40+ generation who, I believe, are attaining a qualitatively high
benchmark in the independent field.  One I can only dream of
being a part, my own speciality - thankfully - elsewhere.
  'Ghosts' is the umbrella title consisting of that first collection -
'Putting the Pieces in Place' - and the award-winning novella
'Bloody Baudelaire.'  (Recently filmed in Hollywood as
'Backgammon').  The tone of the prose as a whole is patient,
unflappable and contemplative; not unlike the public persona of
Russell himself.  This serves to lull the reader into the necessarily
false sense of security.  In the first tale, a historian - apparently
jaded from a thirty-five-year-long obsession with a diseased
young violinist - sets-up the narrator to unwittingly play her part in
his long-harboured intent. The subplot, recounting his series of
Europe-trekking directives and the motives behind them, feels
surprisingly credible, sophisticated and worthy of a novella in itself.
  'There's Nothing I Wouldn't Do' opens with an admiring
narrator who is soon contradicted by the object of his tribute - an
architecture student called Nina Monkman - who reveals an
oddly blase lack of self-knowledge in her relationships that leads
to one particularly macabre consequence.
  'In Hiding' - as with all the tales here - is as much about
harboured pasts as physical escapees.  Quite who is real and who
are the ghosts we assume to know, at first, but then . . .
It is a tale of sun-drenched melancholy, madness and loss.
  'Eleanor' finds us at a science-fiction convention where the
narrator-host relates his pre-arranged meeting with one of its
guests; the aging author, David Planer, known solely - to fantasy
fans - as creator of a young Goth heroine they've taken on as
their own.  Only, the slightly decrepit Planer now believes she
has an immediate life far closer than anyone might've predicted.
  Jayne in 'Dispossessed' might almost be the obverse side of
Nina Monkman.  Where she seems unthinkingly reactive, Jayne
blithely accepts her blank page inner life and reacts accordingly;
as if ultimately soulless.  Consequently, she is the most unreliable
narrator in the collection if the denouement is anything to go by.
  Of these five tales, only 'Eleanor' rings slightly false.  The set-up
feeling a mite too contrived; the idea someone of Planer's dotage
could create a young character others' of her generation could
relate to and idolise - if not unlikely - at least questionable.
  Ending the book, 'Bloody Baudelaire' is an intense, fractious
human drama, fired by the transient passions of two (or is it
three?) left after a party of the night before.  The characters are
rich, spoilt, of indeterminate age, but at least one still reliant
upon the parental bank.  The great subtlety of the tale is its
non-depiction of its ghost; the uncertain fate of the driven-out
artist Gerald Kent and his bitter relationship with the woman
protaganist, Miranda Honeyman.
  The cover features a striking, soft focus, monochrome
image of Lidwine de Royer; a Paris-based vocalist-harpist
who sings with child-like Bjork-ish beauty on a free
accompanying cd of mainly acoustic compositions by Russell
himself.   This concludes an excellent introduction to this writer's
work, with his latest collection, 'Leave Your Sleep,' (PS Publishing)
also available now.

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