Sunday, 23 November 2014

Written In Darkness by Mark Samuels, Egaeus Press / Supernatural Tales 28, Winter 2014/15, Edited by David Longhorn

Mark Samuels' name has been dormant in my subconscious now for over a decade. In fact, since his first collection. ('Black Altars,' 2003). I'd done nothing to follow him up – until now. The enticing bridge between then and now was his last set, 'The Man Who Collected Machen,' its paperback long visible on the shelves of the – then - varied choice of small, new-imprint bookshops. Barring one or two anthologised tales since, it seems I should have read more. In a recent interview, Samuels stated his belief. It's worth mentioning that he has one: 
 
I am a Roman Catholic. But I really wouldn’t dream of trying to incorporate any moral teaching into my weird fiction. I am not a proselytiser. What attracts me most about the Church is its mystical dimension. I also believe that we exist in a fallen universe and that human nature is immutable.” (teemingbrain.com)

Quite an old-fashioned view from a writer born three years afterme. It is true – on the evidence here – that he never preaches. Still, it is often mindset and accompanying assumptions, we all have, that betrays the path being trod. 'A Call to Greatness' satirizes the Europe of today with the decadent myths of the past. A man of unknown history sends a parcel to a jaded Eurocrat that harbours a grand sweep of a tale of an exotic, fundamentalist fanatic and his account of past glories.
   'The European dream was dead, he thought, the Europe of grand ideals was buried in the ashes of apathy. There was no brotherhood of nations, only the squalid struggle of the political and financial masters to line their own pockets, while the masses were brainwashed into a zombie-like existence under the false flag of liberty. All its values were secular and materialistic – with propagandistic jargon employed to justify citizens from detecting the corrosion of their own souls.' (p.13).

Elsewhere, Samuels comments; 
 
'“The Other Tenant” is a generic satire on the idea that only people on the left can be “nice” (some disgruntled soul called it little more than “red-baiting” in a review of the anthology it first appeared in, which rather proved my point).' (ibid.)

Writing as a leftist myself, I am not convinced. It reads more as a warning against ideology, generally, and its distancing effect upon Robert Zachary in particular. A latterly afflicted individual with no apparent self-awareness beyond present tense perceptions. 'An Hourglass of the Soul' concerns a newly-employed computer operator and his employer's instruction for him to “drop everything for a few days in order to reconfigure the mainframe” at a mysterious, underground complex somewhere in Mongolia. Continuing the sub-genre of dystopian SF is 'The Ruins of Reality,' where, again, extreme power of management over the employee is exercised, only this time to the ultimate degree. Both concern forms of mind-control; the latter particularly graphic in its depiction as enforcement from above compelled from within.
  'Alistair' is classic Gothic territory, involving an old, large, weed-entangled house, the half-hidden generations from whom it was passed and the weird echoes harboured in the newborn.
   'My World Has No Memories' is set upon a small boat, lost and adrift, its one occupant just awoken, with no working guidance, and suffering amnesia. He appears to be a survivor – but from what? And what is the strange organic growth held in a jar?
  In 'Outside Interference,' a skeleton office staff in the midst of transferring to a new building find themselves trapped “in the middle of the coldest winter snap for a century or more.” While, the one way out may be no way out at all.
  'My Heretical Existence' finds a city's sole authority on its hidden masonic 'tribes' become an unwitting inititate. The closest to a derivate entry here.
  'In Eternity Two Lines Intersect' is an appropriate title since it virtually returns us to the setting and circumstance of 'The Other Tenant,' with a recovering patient with lingering psychoses and no apparent memory of his past. Then, this latter point is this collection's running theme.
  Samuels has admitted in various interviews that he works within long-established genre. However, like Reggie Oliver, Mark Valentine and others, he has become something of a master at each. If the settings here are traditional, this is an exceptionally accomplished collection, with not a weak entry amongst them.

* * * * *

ST founder, David Longhorn, has been editing this thrice-yearly anthology of new writings from his North-East England home since the year 2000.
   Three of the eight entries are especially satisfying in their narrative focus, interest and completion, without too obvious recourse to well-extracted sources. Gillian Bennett's 'Mr and Mrs Havisham' explores the true identities of a painting's subject, a wronged spirit, a dictatorial husband and the woman who comes between them. My favourite entry here.
   Sam Dawson's 'Look Both Ways' depicts a lonely man's return to the faded seaside haunt of the family holidays of his youth and the spirit of his late younger sister, whose ghost also returns to watch for him and wait... Dawson's depiction of Seahaven, past and present, is very well done in the limited word count.      (He has also drawn this and previous covers).
   Finally, Tim Foley's 'Snowman, Frozen,' which manages to evoke Stephen King while shaving him of his over-long narrative excesses, leaving highlighted the latter's storytelling strength.  Mention should also be made of Michael Chislett's fantastical 'A Name in the Dark.' A woman crossing into a twilit garden steps from this world into another, experiencing a form of fairy-led 'Midsummer Night's Dream' self-revelation. If it reads like part of a larger project, that's because it is, according to its author in the 'about' section at the back. Despite the intriguing opening, this may try the patience of some unused to such a radical change from naturalistic scenes.
   The back pages also feature reviews by Longhorn himself; on Swan River Press's 'Dreams of Shadow and Smoke,' Ron Weighell's first collection in seventeen years, 'Summoning' (Sarob Press), John Howard's essay collection, 'Touchstones,' (Alchemy Press) and 'The Loney'; Andrew Michael Hurley's intriguing, debut, folk-horror novel for Tartarus.

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