Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Satyr and Other Tales by Stephen J. Clark, Swan River Press

Reading Stephen Clark's latest, I recalled an earlier notion that if only BBC Television spent less on the annual prestigious production, they could be more prolific, producing something as exciting - and more economically viable - as an adaptation from one of the current crop of short tale scribes.
While conforming to 'the uncanny' and – arguably – 'the weird,' few need be as semi-accessible as their version of Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. So, why not? Viewers don't only want decent drama - most also need adventure.
  The past decade of the 'Doctor Who' re-mount – and its continuing healthy viewing figures – surely attests to that. We are now entirely drained by vampires and zombies; indifferent to the powers of the superhero. (And when is 'Doctor Who' ever interesting, or credible - even in its genre of fantasy - when the dead keep returning?) What of the personal twists of real history and its odder, more intimate, consequences? Human tales, in other words...
  Clark uses the little known outsider painter and writer, Austin Osman Spare and his world, as the backdrop to the first tale. 'The Satyr' is a novella – a rewrite of the original publication in 2010 - adding, in his prefacing words, 'greater depth with Austin Osman Spare's life and ethos.' In Blitz-torn London, a disturbed woman artist, an alleged disciple of Spare with possibly portentous visionary insight, attracts the obsessional attention of our narrator, a recently released ex-con. Living under the moniker 'Marlene,' she draws, frenziedly, in real time, as he is compelled to follow her on an unforeseeable mystical quest. One in which they, themselves, are being followed. The plot and setting may have been done-to-death – and yet its ingredients are beautifully balanced and strikingly showcased by an accompaniment of Clark's own 'Marlene' drawings.
  The Bestiary of Communion follows, also rewritten, from his subsequent collection of 2011.  In 'The Horned Tongue,' a man mourning the recent death of his wife is visited by an occult sorcerer – a player of fate - who inexplicably knows his guilty past and shows him far more than he wishes . . .until he his given no choice. A cruel story, perhaps, but we follow them more than willingly to its conclusion.
  'The Lost Reaches' is the gem here. Escaping an NKVD patrol in the Carpathian forest, three Poles, carrying a dying husband and exhausted wife, find a house to hide and rest in, amid the snow-packed wilderness. They also find its dimension-defying rooms laid out for black tie guests, who they soon discover are still within; crazed, somnambulant and victims of some controlling force that begins to take them over too. For it is a museum with exhibits that reflect the damaged id of the forgotten author whose possessions are on shadowed display. Clark's descriptions of the borderless interiors bleeding into the outside are memorable dreamscapes.
  'The Feast of the Sphinx,' is rewritten from the original final tale, 'My Mistress, the Multitude.' Back in World War Two, a Czech-sympathising German interrogator in occupied Czechoslovakia becomes drawn into the backstory of his seemingly possessed artist-prisoner and the mystical Countess whose likeness can never be truly captured. In one respect a re-tread of the first tale, except the obsessed, artist pursuer is now male and the controlling object of that obsession, a woman. The unremitting pace of these four little mystical thrillers evoke the best of the pulp-era decadents.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Face of the Earth & Other Imaginings by Algernon Blackwood, (Compiled and Edited by Mike Ashley), Stark House Press

I felt a frisson of joy, stumbling across this recent release - the first 'new' collection of Blackwood since 1989's The Magic Mirror. (Also from Mike Ashley). When it came to humanising nature, most of his contemporaries – from Potter to Grahame - anthropomorphised woodland beasts for children; Blackwood – almost single-handedly – anthropomorphised the elements around them for adults. He achieved this – especially in his pre-World War One work – by manifesting the child-like idealism still slumbering in himself and, unarticulated, in many of us grown-ups. Add the mystical atmosphere – fired by his own belief – and the undeniable beauty of his vision remains unique.
  Today, a brisk surface read by a Blackwood novice could form an assumption of him as a mere sentimentalist; and a dated one at that. In truth, his resonance is far more profound.
  After his death, aged 82 in 1951, his last hurrah of major sales subsequently faded in the wake of 1967's Summer of Love. John Baker re-published The Empty House, The John Silence Stories and Selected Tales collections - and that was it. A sad but significant ending for a bibliography that, by the 1930s', had been a staple of the private and public school curriculum; significant also in its reflecting what were fast turning into more cynical times.
  Mike Ashley's choice and compilation of material is first rate. I only wish Stark House's realisation was equal to it. The usual bold, painterly art cover and graphics work well, always enticing the eye; but, within, there is something about the crowding of the text and the office-type paper – used by so many inde publishers now – that lets the production down. (Presumably to cut costs). That said, it is worth the purchase for Ashley's well-considered chronicling of Blackwood's early oeuvre, highlighting the arc of his nature vision, and the detailed bibliography at the back.
  Some of the journalism acts as useful prologues to some of the later, more famous, short tales (not featured here) for the scholar seeking deeper context. The elemental descriptions in 'The Willows,' 'The Wendigo' and 'Ancient Sorceries' clearly resonated with what he'd already witnessed in these earlier explorations around the mountains and valleys of the Balkans, Canada, Austria and Egypt.
  Ashley – Blackwood's biographer – has separated his finds, culled from Blackwood's early stories and journalism, into four sections: 'Early Tales,' 'Imagination Awakes,' 'Nature Inspires' and 'Conflicts of the Soul.' If not strictly chronological, they are ordered logically enough to easily follow his literary and spiritual journey up to the end of World War One.
  Of the four, Section 3 reveals itself as both key and the most memorable. Here, we come closest to seeing life through Blackwood's eyes as lived. It is nature as a mystical liberation; one with no beginning and no end, ever-active, ever-changing, yet eternal. 'Down the Danube in a Canadian Canoe' - the centrepiece of, perhaps, the whole book – clearly made a lasting impression on him, echoed in several subsequent pieces – including 'Egypt: An Impression.' These are more transcending than mere travelogues, while never descending to the showily sentimental.
  Two pieces in Section 4 stand out as contrasting results of encounters made during World War One, working first for the Field Ambulance Service and, latterly, as an Intelligence Agent. 'Onanonanon' may be unique in the canon for detailing the psychosis of a schizophrenic, first as a boy, then as a man, making disturbing connections. If not his best, then it's certainly his most radical short tale and singularly ahead of its era. (c. 1920). 'The Memory of Beauty,' the final tale here, concerns a convalescing soldier in a nursing home, making a mental connection of his own to somehow recapture the little he can recall of his past. Again, Blackwood avoids saccharin pathos; instead producing a scene genuinely moving to anyone – like myself – who has a relative afflicted with Alzheimer's.
  Then again, from a memory all my own, he unwittingly left me with a smile. A line on the last page leads into the soldier's epiphany: 'He saw two Lebanon cedars, the kitchen garden wall beyond, the elms and haystacks further still, looming out of the summer dusk...' Recall that it was his literary rival, Machen, who was quoted as remarking; Tennyson, you remember, says, “the cedars sigh for Lebanon,” and that is exquisite poetry, but Blackwood believes the cedars really do sigh for Lebanon and that … is damned nonsense!’ 

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Disagreeable Tales by Leon Bloy, (Translated by Erik Butler), Wakefield Press

“(He) was an utterly generic man – the next best, in a host of insignificant and vacant individuals, to happen by; he seemed one of those people who exist in the plural, so fully do they express atmosphere, collectivity, and sameness... His face seemed to be cast by a spade; it belonged to the innumerable number of fake he-men from the South no interbreeding can refine – but in whom everything, even the uncouthness, is just for show...”
  From 'A Dentist's Terrible Punishment,' featured here with twenty-nine other raucous faux anecdotes, this passage reminded me of one of British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent rhythmically alliterative, but ultimately empty, speeches. I had to smile, in a way that the tale's author Leon Bloy (1846-1917) would surely have approved.
  This is a theatre of blood from the perspective of a catholic outsider. A born contrarian, who seemed to lose as many friends as he gained, Bloy swung from a youthful hatred of the Catholic Church to converting to it in adult life under the pervasive influence of local novelist and short tale author, Barbey d'Aurevilly; a dandyish figure of the previous generation whose open literary non-conformity would soon inspire Bloy's own. Proudly unclubbable as Bloy became - being also unemployable - left the permanently destitute writer with little choice but to plead for financial aid from friends and found acquaintances. This left him with the unenviable moniker, 'the ungrateful beggar,' yet one, if connected to his output, that might also be deemed a selling-point. Among what he produced (three autobiographical novels and eight volumes of journals) nevertheless stand as a barefaced antidote to stuffier English cousins.
  Oddly, what all my biographical sources leave unwritten is Bloy's disparaging, satirical humour; at least highlighted in this collection. Here, he punctures the sinecures of self-serving middle-class complacency with as much black vehemence as any contemporary anarchist. Translator Erik Butler, in his Introduction, at least acknowledges this:
“A few years after Bloy's birth, in 1851, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte staged the coup apropos of which Karl Marx, glossing Hegel, made the famous observation that historical events occur twice: 'the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.' The less-than-great man's reign, which began with harshly repressive measures and, ten years later, introduced the so-called Liberal Empire, was imposing but hollow. The 'real' Napolean had been a revolutionary general who succeeded in conquering half of Europe. Napolean III, as his nephew called himself, measured up only in appearance.”
  Understanding this context helps understand the trigger for Bloy's ripe, lampooning venom. I'd argue he did too well, if not protesteth too much. The paradoxical effect – far from accusing the guilty back into the fold – surely only highlighted to his readership the hypocrisies in organised religion all the more.
  While the tone – at least in this collection – is openly misanthropic, by the standards of the day it is surprisingly un-misogynist; the women characters of their class as well delineated – and taken down – as his men, with the latter on the receiving end of marginally greater contempt.
  Yet, again, how can even today's politically-correct critics not find irresistible wit in, “Her face resembled a fried potato rolled in scraped cheese...her whole person exuded the odour of a landing in a furnished hotel of the twentieth order --- on the seventh floor.” ('Two Ghosts').
  As with most of Wakefield Press's reissued translations, (and Butler has done a deliciously sinuous job), I can give near fulsome recommendation; as long as you are prepared to keep a wryly jaundiced tongue in a capacious, accepting cheek.