Egaeus Press's debut releases last year - presenting Stephen Clark's lovingly decadent novel, In Delirium's Circle, followed by George Berguno's vital collection of existential war-torn fables, The Tainted Earth - were likely tough acts to follow. Production-wise, they were also quite beautiful, Egaeus's bi-annual releasing intimating that here was a publisher in Mark Beech who merited a book as much an artistic as a literary artefact, the sparse release schedule thus reflecting production cost.
The Transfiguration of Mister Punch - Egaeus's latest release - therefore had a lot to live up too. According to Beech, three authors were commissioned "working more or less in isolation from one another" to fantastically re-invent the Punch and Judy mythos in a triptych of macabre tales for a modern adult readership. Charles Schneider produced 'The Show That Must Never Die,' D.P. Watt, 'Memorabilia - An Evening's Entertainment For Two Players' and Cate Gardner, 'This Foolish & Harmful Delight.'
Schneider's is a fictitious essay, with anecdotal tales, by a Punch puppeteer whose obsessive adherence to his craft and its history turns encroachingly weird. Black and white photographs punctuate the text, informative at first, but gradually disquieting as if we are being slowly throttled by the collar and forced to consider a perpetrator's defence. Despite its novel presentation in word and picture, it is the most traditional of the three entries in its narrative evocation of a sub-Hammer anthology entry from the 1960s' or 1970s'.
Watt's tale continues this framing device with the character-narrator addressing the reader directly around four short tales. It is the fourth that is most memorable and genuinely chilling; less in the tale itself as in its depiction. The scene of the carnival-disguised 'freakish mummers' who enter a crumbling inn to confront the cornered, guilt-ridden policeman who finds himself in what appears a purgatorial parallel of his town is especially good.
Of the three, Gardner's is my favourite. Alongside a giant and especially sadistic Punch and Judy, we begin in Hell itself. They escape to the nearest theatre, taking puppet-maker Stjin, robotic ticket-collector Sir Neville, Rasputin and 'Joan' - a high-strung trapeze doll with a yearn to reclaim her half-forgotten humanity - with them. Clive Barker meets Angela Carter in this nightmarish Grand Guignol of enslavement and human - puppet dismemberment. While the unfolding humanity we hope for is delivered in the character of 'Joan' and her bid to reclaim her past.
The very tightly edited lines, added to the broad rendering of stark imagery - especially in the second and third tales - make me wonder if one or both of them might have once hankered after graphic realisation. They'd certainly work as well.
I mentioned the book's appearance. Clearly, Beech continues as he means to go on. The maroon cover, its gold-embossed title on front and spine, and its wealth of illustrations and photographs evoke a strange, forgotten tome from Edwardian antiquity. Textually, it doesn't quite deliver the high standard, and, by its very nature, single-minded focus set by Egaeus's previous two releases. Yet, as with them, the care and dedication wrought on the production as a whole is equal to them.