Friday, 17 July 2015

The Uncanny Reader (Stories from the Shadows), Edited by Marjorie Sandor, St. Martin's Griffin, New York

Defining the term 'uncanny' with any real precision is an occupational hazard. Defining what it isn't – through a process of elimination – is very much simpler. This has been considered both on these pages and elsewhere. The latest attempted definition, here in Editor Marjorie Sandor's choice of gems old and new, highlights the challenge.
  What is 'uncanny' may be whatever the author's narrator leaves out in terms of explanation. Its very appeal is its lack of objective conclusion. The uncertain, then, is in the eye of the deceiver. In the case of this 'deceiver,' I believe the best examples eschew the usual tropes of eliciting 'horror,' in favour of a percolating sense in the reader that something undefinable is in the process of going wrong. It is that coolly sophisticated, indefinable sense – found in the best examples – that, for me, defines the term.

“(The uncanny) seeks out a recollected or half-neglected physical place to inhabit: childhood houses, houses under construction, houses revised by later occupants.”

Really? Unlike Marjorie Sandor's personal perceptions from childhood (here referred to in her introduction) for me it avoids the literal walls of the Gothic edifice. Instead, it hides in the mind – of both author and reader; its clammy darkness emanating from somewhere more psychologically internal. Sandor ensures kicking off with the safest bet by another reprint for Hoffmann's 'Sand-man.' What follows it is a chequerboard of those that justify inclusion - and those that do not.
  Those that succeed in this curious genre include Maupassant's meditation on subjective isolation 'On the Water,' Marjorie Bowen's 'Decay,' Aickman's 'Waiting Room,' Shirley Jackson's 'Paranoia,' Kate Bernheimer's 'Whitework' and – ironically – Mansoura Ez Eldin's 'Gothic Night' (again, used in the psychological sense), all using its more subtle, metaphysical language. ­
  I welcomed the chance to belatedly catch-up on a couple of authors long known about but never read - Jonathan Carroll ('The Panic Hand,'), Shirley Jackson and China Mieville ('Foundation') – alongside new discoveries such as Chris Adrian ('The Black Square'), Kate Bernheimer and Yoko Ogawa ('Old Mrs J.'). Then, I am a writer-reader; it's by no means clear how this anthology might appeal to an audience less committed.
  Certain entries here flirt too closely to horror to be true arbiters. Where climactic explanation may be rightfully vague, the Grand Guignol depiction en route is overt in earlier classics. e.g. Lovecraft's 'Music of Eric Zann,' Chekov's 'Oysters' and Bruno Schulz's 'The Birds' step beyond the mere uncanny into horror's more visceral description. Their individual excellence isn't compromised placed in this context. Neither does putting this anthology's title to one side alter the fact of this being a collection of superb tales; just not a superb collection of uncanny tales.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Soliloquy for Pan, (Edited by Mark Beech), Egaeus Press

What elevates the good anthology above the poor should not only harbour a varied, contrasting content, but also engage enough both to inform and genuinely entertain. Content shouldn't be too academic; neither should it be too cosy with obviously safe, oft-chosen choices for an assumed, broadly middle-brow, audience. For Soliloquy for Pan - an anthology of new tales and old, punctuated by equivalent essays and verse – editor Mark Beech has, pleasingly, ticked all these boxes.
  It might therefore be unsurprising that the usual, anticipated suspects on this subject – such as Machen, Blackwood, de la Mare, – are largely missing. Then you soon discover it is to Beech's credit he has dispensed with them, most likely for that very reason. (Although all – bar de la Mare – are, at least, referenced). For who he does include, almost to a man – and woman – refreshes it. This clearly wasn't put together for a general audience, whoever they may be; but neither was it compiled for 'experts.'
  Most surprising of the old school entries are a Robert Frost poem ('Pan With Us'), Henry Woodd Nevinson's tale 'A New Pheidippioes,' from 1901 (a wry gem - also new to me) and a London magazine article by Robert Louis Stevenson. ('Pan's Pipes,' (1878)).
  Favourite entries among the new: Stephen J. Clark's darkly intense 'Lithe Tenant,' a tale of ancestral persecution and familial obsession, is among the best. In Lynda E. Rucker's 'The Secret Woods,' a young woman looks back at her orphaned youth and the dream life she'd used as protection from the pain. In 'A Song Out of Reach' by John Howard, an omniscient Tune, bleeding out from every speaker and subsuming all others, has a less than benevolent motive. 'The House of Pan' by John Gale evokes a tone and setting once all-too-familiar from Wheatley or Wakefield, but Gale recaptures them masterfully, using his own voice. Jonathan Wood's 'The Company of the Lake' feels yet older – Regency even – in a meditative, melancholic prose-style describing a nature-loving male quartet of European friends, converging each summer upon the lake of the title, and the amoral presence who watches from afar... Colin Insole's 'The Rose-White Water' is a subtle mix of Gothic new and old as oblivious materialism, while blindly encroaching, is no match for the still present pagan forces of the past.
  Paintings, engravings and illustrations featuring the goat-footed god abound throughout, mainly from the classical 16th-17th century era, eschewing modern interpretations. The green-backed, mock-inlayed, mock-faded front cover, featuring the god gold-embossed, makes it one of the most richly-produced anthologies – by an inde publisher – in some years. After George Berguno's 'The Tainted Earth,' this is Egaeus Press's second near flawless release.

* * * *

Pan and the Peak Experience
(Part 3 of 3)

Dunsany's 'The Blessing of Pan' – though published in 1927 - straddles the past Victorian age with an – albeit grudging - acceptance of modernity, set and likely conceived some thirty years prior to its publishing. You read on, wondering upon whose side the narrator-author will finally align his protaganist cleric; the sole young rebel in search of truth and beauty? Or the conformist majority fearful of change? Perhaps it is too much to anticipate the former – especially from the pen of a then well-seasoned baron knight. But, Dunsany wrongfoots us. The encroaching paganism of Wolding village succeeds beyond the paranoid fears of the Reverend Anwrel; beyond, indeed, the end of the novel, finally delineated as much a right – and rite – to its locals as partaking of the Church of England had succeeded its pre-Christian enchantment.

A still more traditional view yet feels experienced. In E.F. Benson's short tale, 'The Man Who Went Too Far,' (1912) a friend noted, 'a Pan who affords his adherent-victims youth, a state of perpetual peak experience and near-erotic communion with nature, where He ultimately morphs into a terrifying presence,' wherein a 'complete and blinding stroke (is felt) the full knowledge, the full realisation and comprehension that I am one with life.' This latter quote, penned – ironically - by one of three priestly brothers.

This covert, delicious fear of Pan was, by then, nothing new. He'd had a history of being utilised as both libidonous counsellor of one's self and attack dog against one's enemies, but always harbouring an ultimately untameable, dangerous erotic spirit.

'After an unsuccessful hunt, young men would beat Pan's statue with squills. In this way they would stimulate Pan's powers of fertility and direct it towards the animal domain...' (p. 402, Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, 2003).

'From the Hellenistic period onwards, Pan is the god responsible for sowing panic (panikon) in the enemy, a sudden unforeseeable fear. Soldiers therefore pay cult to him. In the case of the individual, too, Pan can exercise a type of savage and violent possession (panolepsia).' (ibid.)

D.H. Lawrence – no mean author of the uncanny himself – defined the attempt to reign Him in, in 1925:

'The old religion of the profound attempt of man to harmonize himself with nature, and hold his own and come to flower in the great seething of life, changed with the Greeks and Romans into a desire to resist nature, to produce a mental cunning and a mechanical force that would outwit Nature and chain her down completely, till at last there should be nothing free in nature at all, all should be controlled, domesticated, put to man's meaner uses.' (From 'Pan in America,' 1925).

Its very covertness had once harboured implications of something delicious and illicit. As if to imply, 'don't get too close – you might get burned.' Another version of MR James's later warnings to the curious - another paternal finger-wag. Those of a natural inclination towards more objective historial research were thinking otherwise. Machen – as we know – regularly half-articulated the topic throughout his prose, from his alter-ego Lucian Taylor's birds-eye vantage points upon 'The Hill of Dreams' to Laurence Hillyer's 'gleams of light in which he hardly dared believe...' where Bloomsbury's 'dimness was departing...(so) it began to glitter and to shine and to be manifested' in 'The Green Round.' (1933).

'If he had ever thought of the mysteries as things hidden away and apart, remote from the general stream of life, he saw now that he was mistaken. The mysteries were part of the very tissue and being of man; they were not to be avoided.' (p.39-40). A crucial revelation, certainly in contemporary fiction, but also, specifically, in modernism.

Between it and neo-paganism emerge intriguing crossovers of interest. Related considerations of ecological concern and fertility symbolism derived more from anthropology than Biblical doctrine, with writers such as DH Lawrence, WB Yeats and John Cowper Powys. Each bled through the old boundaries. To this day, Christian writers often bracket modernism and neo-paganism together as a Judas-like accusation. But it is clear they have always been positively, mutually reliant; two halves of the same psychological response. One internal, cerebral; the other, outwardly expressed in ritual.
Each intimating a trigger of peak experience; so, each a liberation of the self.

We are left to conclude that the Victorian corset wasn't merely loosened but finally, belatedly, discarded by the mid-Twenties, with the Great God Pan called upon to do the honours. He had certainly waited long enough. At the conclusion of 'Pan the Goat-God,' Merivale states that,

'Pan keeps on being reborn.' (p.228). But she had overlooked His grande finale. It had, after all, already taken place. The first quarter of the 20th century proved to be His ultimately successful breakthrough.

© Mark Andresen (2015)