This is Watt's second collection, swiftly re-released as a paperback, after that of his first, 'An Emporium of Automata.' (Eibonvale Press, 2013). His friend Daniel Corrick wrote in the introduction to that release how “given his taste for visual flair, it is not surprising that the intermingling between sensation and narrative plays a consderable part in some of the stories.”
Here, this is literally foregrounded with far greater use of accompanying photographs – both personal and 'found' – which directly, and indirectly, evoke some part of a story's narrative. In an interview for Weird Fiction Review, Watt reveals himself – far from unconventional sources - as part of the generation growing away from Arkham-style Americana toward Europe's own Gothic.
“Influences can be hard to follow but I’d say my interests are more in the realm of the European fantastic rather than the Lovecraftian ‘Weird’ tradition — Hoffmann, Kafka and Huysmans and the strange tales of Aickman are very important to me, as are the works of Grabinski, Schulz and Walser. Where they all live on the weird fiction spectrum I’m not certain, but the breadth of a work ... just goes to show what a wonderful tradition this kind of fiction embraces.” In my own repudiation of conventional horror, I'm with him there.
“I see fiction as an environment of exploration and experiment, where the reader and writer can use the imagination to examine modes of consciousness and creativity. If fiction were simply the replication of the world then it becomes nothing more than a dull map of a bland terrain, if it can colour the hills purple and the sky green it allows thought some liberation from an obligation to repeat and become confined by routine. It’s also great fun!” Again, who would disagree?
Less welcome is the book's accompanying intellectual contrivance. I'm not entirely convinced by Watt's voicing his updated philosophy on Kant's 'categorical imperative,' whose history is sketched by Eugene Thacker in an afterword. Fine in an interview or personal website but, ultimately, the tales must stand alone, apart from, and unencumbered by, any thin support from a philosophical foundation.
As his admiration for Schulz and Huysman's shows, he adheres to the more disturbing end of the uncanny. Then, as with a writer like Mark Samuels, he is most successful when hope or personal will isn't entirely absent or abandoned.
Some of Watt's titles are overly pretentious and not exactly enticing to the novice of the 'weird.' (He'd already offerred us 'Pulvis Lunaris, or, The Coagulation of Wood' in the previous release...). Here, the boat is well and truly pushed out, so it helps to be familiar with the influences. By contrast, Watt's website is beautifully sparse – bare of much text at all – reflecting his preference for pictorial evocation. I wish I could feel as warm toward the text here. Yet, three examples highlight his contrasting range.
E.T.A. Hoffmann's more vintage metaphysical approach is clear and present in the title tale. One atypically uplifting and conventionally told. Taken by a Kafka-esque poster advertising an upcoming magic show by a troupe of travelling players leads the protaganist to a meeting with their MC, who reveals the transformative power of their secret. A good opener.
'The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller,' appears, according to Watt, 'either loved or loathed.' Whether it's a fit for this collection is arguable, but his journey of a soul vicariously inhabitating a progression of bodies works surprisingly well considering it is – by Watt's own admission – the most experimental.
'...he was water before he was fire...' is a real gem. Embarking alone upon a summer camping trip to the coast, our protaganist spies a feral man who barely speaks in monosyllables, yet appears seasoned amongst a group of wild swans. Like some outcast Bear Grylls, he shows our man how he perceives nature, leading to an epiphany that also reveals (to him anyway) the true nature of the swans. The only real fear factor in this tale is the unsettling behaviour and unknowable identity of the homo ferus. Yet this is the tale's strength.
Watt's third collection will find first release next year. Shawn of the lily-gilding philosophy, a voice could reveal itself some way ahead of his contemporaries.