(John Howard, from an interview with Mark Valentine, May 2013)
It is worth reflecting upon this quote when reading this delicate, quite elusive, new collection.
In "Where Once I Did My Love Beguile," the fate of a boy and a broken pocket watch become inextricably linked, in a near covert tale of time reversal that reads as having been written with the child reader in mind. 'Silver On Green,' reflecting Howard's long interest in foreign coin collecting, sees a European radical with a Blakean sensibility exiled among London's cosmopolitan Bohemia until a warning visitor from his homeland darkly confirms his earlier belief that silver may 'wax and wane like phases of the moon, but the form endures and deep within...remains constant.' A strange tale in another sense, from a twist that, like others here, requires re-reading to even begin to uncover its portent.
'Winter's Traces' is a real gem that could so easily have failed. A journalist relates his scouring for source material to write a profile-obituary on the late, 'prolific composer of light orchestral music,' William Winter. There is little uncanny about this tale other than ambiguous gaps in Winter's chronology and a possible reason the late composer cited as to why he withdrew from public life and ceased composing. Tales about music so often feel overly contrived; but Howard seems to know enough about the critics' point-of-view to seemlessly pull it off. In 'Out to Sea,' being careful what you wish for becomes an unforeseen initiation as an ominous band of rowers ferry unsuspecting hopefuls between a Mediterranean mainland and six idyllic islands in a seemingly blind gamble.
'Time and the City' evokes a science fantasy of a fading era where an explorer delineates an impenetrable map of unknown origin through an uncharted region of the distant past from the prone position of an induced coma. 'Into an Empire' is, perhaps, the most beautifully written entry, about a collector of "coins, banknotes, and postage stamps," the transience of objects and the traces they leave behind - evoking the opening quote. It isn't so much a tale as a rumination upon one with a precise o.c.d. routine for buying and receiving who belatedly, unwittingly, discovers what he'd been searching for in the wider, instinctive world around him.
The dust jacket is worth a mention; a lovely collaboration between the artist Eoin Llewellyn and designer Meggan Kehrli of a sleeping man in Forties-style suit amid a dream landscape of autumnal browns, greens and blues.
The remaining five in this collection,'Westernstrand,' 'The Way of the Sun,' 'The High Places,' 'Wandering Paths' and 'A Gift for the Emperor' each originally featured in Secret Europe (with Mark Valentine, Exposition Internationale, 2012) so already reviewed in these pages.
Most of these tales are so subtle as to defy any category of the strange at all, but reward re-reading and are all the greater for it.