Wilkinson collection is fast becoming something of an event. Again,
in the avoidance of showing his roots, he doesn't disappoint in this,
Immaterialists,' the enigmatic Mr Zym was a small publisher of
unlogged poetry whose enigma has outlived his work. But, has his
enigma outlived him? A literary student investigates, despite his
dismissive tutor fearing Zym had "a bubble reputation, long
since popped." The revenant figure of a bald-headed man, close
to the former's rooms, appears portentous, unavoidably bringing
immediacy to his research.
Oftentimes, such territory is handled with a dryness that doesn't
quite succeed in engaging, or displays a colloquial familiarity that
too soon dispels the mystery. Wilkinson, however, strikes the
perfect balance. The final line devastates.
trope of familial psychological breakdown links some of the following
tales. 'A Coastal Quest' sees a woman leave behind her husband and
children to go in search of a 'happier life.' The quest ultimately
reveals her true whereabouts and true role as narrator; as unreliable
to herself as to us. 'The Surrey Alterations' – an uncanny tale
of State coercion, which has – with the best – meaning beneath
it's surface. 'Beyond The Lace' harbours a near-impenetrable
ambiguity, where the initial scenario of a stepfather caring for a
fantasist stepdaughter in the wake of her mother's death in a car
accident gradually shifts as his own perception proves unreliable.
Typical of Wilkinson is his ability to implicate so much in so few
'These Words, Rising From Stone,' a male poet appears silently
persecuted by the ghostly presence of a female rival and a curse he'd
purposely overlooked. 'The Private Thinker' – The precocious godson
of a High Court judge invites a related former school 'friend' to
make an inventory of his late father's property. When the godson
encounters the spirit of the Judge, he also discovers another spirit
with what may be an ulterior motive. 'Evening at the Aubergine Cafe'
sees a Godot-like scenario where two men – denied their past
identities and trapped by absent memory in a prison-like edgeland –
live reductive lives around the cafe of the title.
territory redolent of 'A Clockwork Orange' predominate over the
following two tales. 'To Sharpen, Spin' sees an abusive familial
relationship the lesser of two evils in a society where personal
identity is passe. 'Septs' continues this theme, where the
featured boy has succumbed, squatting in properties already squatted
in, towards a new pagan dawn.
virtual life is the norm in the society drawn in 'The Migration of
Memories.' An ingenious tale, with a domestic take on its legal and
personal consequences. A male newly-retired, who finds his domestic
life is anything but his own, forms the basis of 'The Horseshoe
Homes,' with intimations of both The Prisoner and Animal
of Silence' – a novella – ends the collection. A cloak-and-dagger
tale set in Paris, involving missed appointments, a psychotic former
philosopher and war reporter, rumblings in the next hotel room, the
trail of an elusive walking 'wound,' and the production of miniature
wooden guillotines. Derivative it is not. The ambiguous perceptions –
Wilkinson's hallmark – pervade the narratives throughout.
Speed-reading Wilkinson denies the disturbing effect only achievable
through steady progression. The consequence of so doing reveals, in
all positive ways, that he's done it again.
* * *
Synchronicity is defined as 'the
simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related
but have no discernible causal connection.' Whatever the genre,
synchronicity is the guiding creative force for writers. More often
than not, you must make your own opportunities to advance towards
your goal; but, sometimes, fortune – disguised as chance - appears
merely in wait for discovery. For Jake
Fior – boutique proprietor of Alice Through The Looking Glass, 14,
Cecil Court, London – this book grew out of his specialist field of
a ruse to avoid her mother, having failed her Maths exam, Fior's
Alice Liddell absconds to the High Street charity shops. The last she
visits displays, amongst the bric-a-brac, a full-length, antique
looking-glass. On getting it back to her room, she discovers a rear
label, a former purchaser name, its owner's name of Bishop Berkeley,
and its provenance from 'the Dodgson sale of 1898.' It is from here
where fact and fiction merge as contemporary objet d'art
related to Carroll find linkage
a Looking Glass Darkly –
subtitled 'a reimagination' – draws upon real-life familial links
between Carroll and The Golden Dawn. Interspersing Fior's version of
Carroll's second 'Alice' text with darker parallel scenes featuring
leadership rivals Aleister Crowley and Samual Mathers in a
metaphorical battle to gain ascendency. (Again, based upon an alleged
tells me that, 'as
an overview I'd estimate that I've retained about 35% of Carroll's
original text and the bravura moments almost verbatim.' He adds: 'The
text itself has some allusions that don't get explained in the
afterword, but I wanted to leave some things ambiguous so that people
can find their own meanings in them.' As a reader, I'd have welcomed
an additional scene or two featuring Crowley and Mathers, those
present being wonderfully evocative; however, as a writer, I
understand how one can get sidetracked by scenes parallel to the
prioritised body of text.
is, perhaps, more an art book than a conventional novel; more so than
the original work, in content, while the dark presence of Crowley
doesn't deprive the text of its appeal to older children. For any
collector, it is certainly worth purchasing for the additions. There
feature three entirely new Tenniel illustrations, newly coloured by
Kate Hepburn and Fior himself. Images of demons – credited to
E.A.P., 1847 - are augmented by a night sky vista from a
photograph from the 1880s'. Fior himself re-drew Alice in the cover
image of her emerging from the Looking-Glass, hand-coloured, rather
than photo-shopped, heightening the contemporary feel.
was quite a meticulous process. There's also been a lot of care in
the design. The Mathers / Crowley sections that intersperse the
central text have a different typeface headline to introduce them.
This is a modern version of the typeface as used on the spine of the
first edition of The Wind in the Willows (which is another
reason I'm flattered to be included in The Pan Review).' From
whichever field of interest you come to this book, the production
alone will delight.
began by defining synchronicity. You'll note that the
first tale of Charles Wilkinson's third collection is called 'The
Immaterialists.' I'd never heard the term before and wondered about
its definition. In the afterword, about six pages from the end of
Fior's book - entirely different in subject matter and content to
Wilkinson's - the author not only uses it, but tells me. His theme –
eerily enough - is synchronicity.
Toase's first collection - To Drown In Dark Water – is out
from Undertow; Paul Draper's slender volume of folk horror – Black
Gate Tales – is out via Createspace; Sundial Press are about to
release a paperback version of their out-of-print hardback classic,
the Jamesian The Alabaster Hand; speaking of which, Robert Lloyd Parry's Ghosts Of The Chit-Chat has also been re-released in paperback by Swan River Press; a selected 'best of' of Lisa
Tuttle's work– The Dead Hours Of Night – is out from
Valancourt; Snuggly Tales Of Hashish And Opiumgathers
together more themed fin-de-siecle gems – many for the first
time in English - by Baudelaire, Gautier, Schwob, Lorrain and others.
Bell, in his Introduction to this collection, defines a 'death
spancel' ahead of the two tales, which share the name; briefly,
a single strip of flesh, from head to feet, used to, literally, bind
the soul of one passed to one still living; invariably for a
nefarious reason pertaining to the 'Occult.' If this intimates
content of the macabre, you'd be mistaken. Lovers of late Victorian
and Edwardian ghost fiction will assuredly adore the restrained
literary quality of these tales, shining golden, dust-mote beams of
waning sunlight across forgotten rooms of half-glimpsed tenants. This
may be the most significant collection from Swan River since Henry
Mercer's recovered 'November Night Tales,' five years ago. Known
mainly as a poet and novelist, this – incredibly – is the first
time Tynan's lesser known short ghost fiction has been drawn from her
four original collections, published between 1895 and 1906, and the
era's (inevitable) literary periodicals. Considering their consistent
quality, it is, perhaps, the snobbery ghost stories still receive
from the larger publishing houses, such as Faber & Faber, that
they remained for so long under their radar. Atypically for most budding writers, the bulk of Tynan's short
fiction didn't appear in print until her middle years. Coming from
comfortable, middle-class Dublin, her formative poetry – though
well-received – sold little. The friendship and encouragement of
new supporters such as WB Yeats, however, helped Tynan branch out
into freelance journalism. Connecting to her roots in Irish
of her articles display an acute social consciousness; among the
issues she regularly tackled were the treatment of shop girls,
unmarried mothers, infanticide, capital punishment, and the education
of the poor. Her rapid production of novels (from 1895 to 1930 she
wrote more than one-hundred pot-boilers) also did much to boost the
family's finances."(Clarke, Dictionary of Irish
Biography). As well
as the tales themselves, a second strength of this collection are the
short poems, which follow several of these tales, sharing a setting
or theme. So, for example, the tale 'A Sentence of Death,' which
features the ominous appearance of a ghostly carriage, is followed by
the poem, 'The Dead Coach,' while 'The Little Ghost' tale is followed
by a poem of the same name. Far from feeling redundant, these
additions serve to extend and slightly deepen the motif of what has
just played out. As with
Swan River's previous release – Rosa Mulholland's 'Not To Be Taken
At Bedtime' – cover designers Meggan Kerlhi and Brian Coldrick have
excelled themselves, producing one of the publisher's finest; a
vision of swirling decadence in greens and burnt orange.
* * *
returns with a cutdown version of his dystopias; and – particularly
for first-time readers - they are the better for it, their relative
brevity foregrounding the author's strengths in his now established
field.The first – 'These, His Other Worlds' – concerns a
biographical researcher's ambiguous relationship with his subject and
his mysterious obsessions. The pervasive question of the unreliable
narrator soon arises when a dangerous portal appears to have been
opened; but, who, in truth, has opened it? A strong opener and one my
Standing-out elsewhere, 'Noumenon' concerns a shop-window shadow-play
and the meltdown of a life it increasingly reflects. 'Serendipity'
presents a militaristic world of masked pleasure girls, where their
stilled expressions, reflected in their single monikers, are the only
emotive appearances; ones moulded and repressed. 'Clematis, White and
Purple' sees a man's focus upon his unloved view of a derelict shack
and hoardings, and its silent beckoning tenant, hiding another
threat; one as organic and more pernicious. 'The
Proclamation,' though first published three years ago, feels
especially prescient in this time of pandemic. I wonder at Watts'
intention. It reads to this reviewer as a satire on public idleness
and its societal consequence, where an inner angry voice of ultimate
guilt is too awful – and aweful – to contemplate.
Egaeus's 'Keynote Editions' can restrict an author from extrapolation
to produce their best work, it also enforces a discipline, which
allows him / her an opportunity to highlight their strengths.
'Beatific Vermin,' with the best in this series, proves this.
mid-Fifties' America, KABC was a small TV station, with a small
viewership, running on a shoestring. One night, Hunt Stromberg Jr. -
the station's head honcho – attended the 1954 Bal Caribe Costume
Ball; the time and place to be for all budding Hollywood wannabes to
impress the community's big-wigs and – just maybe – get signed.
Amongst the costumed was 31-year-old actor, dancer and glamour model,
Maila Nurmi, whose career was going nowhere. Inspired by Charles
Addams' 'Homebodies' cartoon strip in The New Yorker, she came as her
own version of the Addams Family matriarch. Already of striking
appearance, (prominent cheekbones, upswept eyebrows and heavy-lidded
eyes), thanks to her Finnish parentage, Nurmi's Gothic dress and
make-up easily won the night. Stromberg – before departing - made a
professional approach, wanting her to 'win the night' each Saturday
on KABC-TV. He had access to old horror movies in the public domain
and wanted Maila, in similar costume and make-up, to draw attention
to the unremarkable series by presenting each one in character.
been enigmatically silent at the Bal Caribe. Now, to his delight,
Stromberg also discovered a voice as droll as it was scabrous. Maila,
to avoid copyright issues with Addams, modified her Bal Caribe
costume herself, over-tightening the waist and highlighting the
plunging neckline to more emphasise the 'sexy vampire' look. Thus,
Vampira was 'born.' She described her look as "one part Greta
Garbo, two parts each of the Dragon Lady, Evil Queen (from Disney's
'Snow White')...Theda Bara, three parts Norma Desmond, and four parts
Bizarre magazine." Partnering Maila with in-house script-writer Peter Robinson, (riffing
on her already droll persona) delivered, each Saturday night, darkly
comic gold. So began two years of national fame and accolade – well
beyond KABC's previous profile - Nurmi would, seemingly, never
repeat. Friends with James Dean and Marlon Brando, she'd already had
a baby with Orson Welles a decade before (whose role here leaves a
bitter taste) she'd had to give up for adoption. So, Nurmi, at least,
had the contacts. Now, she needed this to be a springboard to more
secure acting work. Sandra
Niemi – Maila's niece – tells the intriguing story, first
objectively and, in the final chapters, personally. A remote Preacher
father, leaving her mother for too long to bring up Maila, her
brother and sister alone, and a consequent alcohol problem, left
Maila growing into the increasingly estranged wild child of the
family, finding only unsatisfying short-term and exploitative work,
but solace in reincarnation and the afterlife.
last twenty-five years harboured as many personal highs as lows.
Ongoing issues of contractual copyright about the ownership of the
'Vampira' name and image consumed too much of her time. In the
mid-Eighties, she sued the latest horror host Cassandra Peterson,
whose 'Elvira' character she deemed too close for comfort. She lost.
Considering the reneging on promises Nurmi had been expected to
accept since her character's Fifties success, the press and the
poverty this subsequently consigned her to, her feeling of betrayal
was entirely understandable. Yet, like Louise Brooks before her –
of whom she was a fan – her later years brought reflective
appreciation from a new generation to whom her dark double-entendre
and anarchic punningresonated, lauded
as being ahead of their time. (Her life's trajectory of rise --- fall
--- rise somewhat mirrored Brooks's own). That
Sandra Niemi saw her cousin only rarely, lends an additional yen for
empathy, not only from Niemi herself as memoirist, but also to this
Editorial: Well, well, well. A new Pan review? I surprised myself, unsure as to whether He'd ever be back. These will be occasional entries through the year; more semi-regular than regular. The following two - the first of the year - are shorter and less detailed than usual, since they were written for a start-up newspaper, The Word, rather than my own specifications. I hope you enjoy them, nevertheless.
I do appreciate you lovely people's ongoing support through your views and 'follows' over the past year. Has anything of significance happened since my last post? (LOL). Seriously tho', I hope you've been able to cope in your own ways. To have children you can't easily school and parents you can't easily see must be a nightmare. Brave heart, friends. You're always in my thoughts here...
Originally published in The Paris Echo from 1889 – 91, these
thirty-four brief, dark, but wry tales of French Symbolism very soon
reappeared as the collection Coeur Double in that final year.
SF / Fantasy author Brian Stableford has produced its debut English
translation with very helpful footnotes, explaining some of their
more obscure colloquial terms. Veering from uncanny mystery ('The
Veiled Man') to lovelorn rural fable ('The Sabine Harvest') to
drug-induced decadence, ('The Portals of Opium'), the diverse
sub-genres are embraced by the main subject that pertained to the
Symbolist Movement - the pre-eminence of Art.
Mayer André Marcel Schwob – known mainly outside of France for
the beautiful fairy-tale collection The King In The Golden Mask
(1892) – began his short-lived literary career, and life, as a
journalist. Schwob's father, a civil servant, returned with his wife
from Egypt in the mid-1860s' to live in Chaville (Hauts-de-Seine),
where Marcel was born in 1867. His father proved to be the key
enabler in Marcel's future direction. The former's political
activities embraced Republican newspapers such as Le Phare de
Loire, (The Loire Lighthouse), in which many of the tales in
Double Heart swiftly reappeared, in The Paris Echo,
continuing after Marcel's older brother, Maurice, inherited that
editorship in 1892.
'Very interested in languages,' Marcel studied
philology in higher education until interrupted by conscription into
the military. His experiences in all three disciplines would
influence the content of this, his first collection.
He soon became one of a small group who helped translate Oscar
Wilde's Salome manuscript into French, to avoid the British
law forbidding the depiction of Bible characters on stage. A
contemporary of Proust, and influence upon Borges, Schwob was robbed
of wider fame when, in 1905, aged 37, he succumbed to a chronic
intestinal disorder. It's gratifying, however, that new series of
translations, from both Snuggly Books and the Wakefield Press in the
US, are reigniting his brief light.
* * *
Circles Of Dread follows Wakefield Press's recent reissues of
Whiskey Tales, Cruise Of Shadows' and The Great Nocturnal
in their bid to reintroduce Jean Ray's short story collections to
a new, English-speaking audience.
Slightly more strange and macabre than Schwob, Ray's work,
nevertheless, resides in similar territory, sharing that writer's
mordant wit throughout. In his Whiskey Tales introduction,
Nicolay cites Ray as favouring 'a wicked whiplash irony, (which)
rapidly developed into a nuanced and unparalleled ability to punch
around corners as his career progressed'; a purveyor of 'show, don't
tell' and 'be careful what you wish for,' adhered to by purveyors of
what's been broadly termed 'horror' ever since.
Belgium-born Raymundus Joannes de Kremer (his birth name in 1887)
harboured over two-dozen nom-de-plumes throughout his life - and they
weren't all mere 'pen names.' 1926 – the year after his Whiskey
Tales debut – found him imprisoned, serving a six-year
conviction for embezzlement; though released after two. While
incarcerated, he'd penned novellas and the short tales that would
appear in subsequent collections. His now tarnished reputation
compelled him to write under his second pseudonym: 'John Flanders.'
Circles Of Dread – his fourth collection and, here,
English translation – reveals Ray at the height of his powers and
just one release away from what would become his most famous work;
the macabre novel, Malpertuis, that same year. (1943). This,
produced amidst a record-breaking output of commercial fiction, led
by his pulp-ish, German-sourced 'Harry Dickson' detective series,
which he'd taken over from other writers, and ultimately 'owned' as
A few weeks prior to his death, in September 1964, he wrote his own
mock-epitaph in a letter to a friend, summing-up how little esteem he
felt writers were held in, in the wider world: "here lies Jean
Ray / A man sinister / who was nothing / not even a minister."
PAN REVIEW UPDATE: I've decided to put Pan on ice for a while. Various
reasons. I/ I'm about to move house. 2/ The eye operation is coming up,
and 3/ Connected to this, I need to maximise time and attention on the
novel I want to finish mid-year. To those whom I've promised reviews,
these will still go ahead, but will be placed elsewhere. I'm hoping Pan
will return one day, but, for the first half of this year at least, is
untenable in continuing to be a commitment. I'd like to thank all His
readers and followers over the last nine years. Your interest and
support has been hugely appreciated.
Yes, my first full-length paperback collection of uncanny tales is out now:
If any reader decides to purchase, and likes it enough to drop a swift starred review, that would be wonderful and much appreciated. For those outside the UK, it is also available on several of Amazon's other international sites. While, a lower-priced Kindle version is, of course, also available.
Editorial: Welcome, Pan fauns, to the autumn issue. You'll notice I've still not gotten around to committing to the next PROTA, making 2019 noticeably bare in the 'arts' department. Personal health issues and other writing commitments have combined to demand priority. I won't tempt fate with a deadline, but 2020 should see an improvement in this regard. In the meantime, my strange story collection - No-One Driving - should be available, from Amazon's various international pages, as both a paperback and Kindle option from MONDAY 25TH NOVEMBER. I'll tiresomely plug it again,...and again..., no doubt, once it is.
* * *
The Ballet Of Dr. Caligari & Madder Mysteries by Reggie Oliver,
Tartarus Press / Six Ghost Stories by Montague Summers (with an
Introduction by Daniel Corrick), Snuggly Books
The signature marks of an Oliver tale are threefold: his unique twist on established horror monsters, his first-hand knowledge of the acting profession, and his specifically English wit. This might just be my favourite Oliver collection to date. In fact, this release – now out in paperback - should ensure him becoming more widely known by surname alone. That his majority output is short fiction rather than novels remains too often considered anathema to greater commercial success.
'A Donkey at the Mysteries' is another of Oliver's eccentric titles hides a real gem of horror and one of his best, the informed allusions evoking the November Night Tales of Henry Mercer. The narrator recalls visiting by boat the Greek island of Thrakonisos when a student of Classical Antiquity. A book on the locale, procured from his hotel, puts him on the trail of its author and the related presence of a mysterious woman close by. His compulsion only draws him towards a fate that seemed already written. Even more than its telling, I adored its sober and informed telling where his student interest soon becomes yours. More typically Oliverian, 'Baskerville’s Midgets' takes place in the fading days of Rep., where-in two rival troupes of height-restricted acts unwittingly seal not only their own fate in the wider context of changing times, overseen by the jaded disinterest of the narrator’s half-alive landlady. Once the signature territiory of the late Angela Carter, Oliver’s subjective experience reveals him more than up to the task.
'The Game of Bear' intrigues as being sourced from one of MR James’s incomplete manuscripts. The game of the title, entailing 'stealthy creepings up and down staircases and along passages (to be) leapt upon from doorways with loud and hideous cries,' is, basically, hide-and-seek. Happening present tense during an adults‘ conversation, one of the pair is reminded of the innate fear its sudden shock conclusion had upon him later in life. The daughter of one of their mutual university friends is cited a hostile presence by one of the speakers, whose presence somehow resonated with his phobia. It is from here that James’s MS ends and Oliver takes up the tale, rightly making Caroline Purdue the foregrounded presence. Where a modern writer completing an earlier author’s work is a fraught task, which rarely satisfies, here is a noble exception to the rule. These, and three others forming the book's first half were first published in the complete Madder Mysteries by Ex-Occidente in 2009.
Subsequently, 'The Ballet of Dr Caligari' neatly parallels the perverted tale-within-a-tale of the classic 1919 film. Here, a young composer is unexpectedly called upon to collaborate on a stage play; a long-held labour of love by an ageing, once feted, choreographer. The denouement is as Grand Guignol as its inspiration. 'Porson's Piece' is as genteel as folk horror gets. Sir Bernard Wilkes is another of Oliver's faded figures; in this case, a former Oxford Philosophy head, with a reputation as a maverick and womaniser. One of his former students – now a BBC producer – means to approach him to take part in an intellectual panel programme. She re-discovers him, slightly dominated by his housekeeper and somewhat haunted by his surroundings. (Hence the title). Genteel, perhaps, but it also delivers a climax with a suitably contrasting chill.
Clergyman, occult specialist, spook tale anthologist, and theatre buff, the name 'Montague Summers' (1880-1948) has somewhat faded from the literateur's radar over the past thirty years. With the asexual image of a plump Edwardian maiden aunt, with a long-held passion for Reformation-era witchcraft, this is, perhaps, unsurprising. (After converting to Catholicism in 1909, a name change – to Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers – intimated another influence). In terms of output, for genre fans he remains best known as the editor-compiler of the 600+ page anthology, The Supernatural Omnibus (1931), subsequently reissued during the Seventies and Eighties, and still an ideal second-base for those wishing to take the form seriously.
Summers' own prose has that genteel, middle-class, is-there-honey-still-for-tea echo, so redolent of England's interwar years. It's an acquired taste and one I've less time for today than formerly, my own having branched out into less derivative, more sophisticated, European literature. (Ironically, helped, in part, by Snuggly's own committed catalogue). The first tale presented here feels somewhat rushed and likely – as is pointed out – victim to being 'typed out by a hand not his own.' A bouyant drawing-room wit airs the narrative‘s lungs, although Summers‘ – like Robert W. Chambers and others before him – is at his best when most serious. (Something this reader hungers after).
The narratives of three of the six, however, have superior focus and, consequently, attention to detail. 'The Governess,' where-in a young woman seeking work is inveigled into a secret, long-held familial feud, plays out a clever, internecine puzzle with a far from predictable climax. 'The Grimoire' features the classic trope of the discovery of an age-old illicit (as in 'un-christian') text, penned by a dark and dubious authority. In this case, an allegedly Roman source, which title translates as The Secret Mystery, or The Art of Evoking Evil Spirits with certain other Most Curious and Close Matters. If a premise lacking in originality, I always enjoy such tales and, here, Summers doesn’t disappoint; as is the case with 'The Man on the Stairs.' In the smoking-room 'of a well-known London club,' a male quartet agree to a £100 wager on surviving the night at the reputedly haunted Cheriton Manor and a portrait of wicked Black Dormer.
Another two of the six, 'A Toy Theatre' and 'Romeo and Juliet,' feature darkly thespian themes of revenge and murder - no stranger to Reggie Oliver - although the latter bears the finer literary, less declamatory, approach. A short, but mixed bag, yet I’m intrigued enough by the best to purchase the follow-up. A second Summers volume, collecting his remaining genre writing – The Bride Of Christ & Other Fictions – is promised from this publisher next year. On a side note; while not strictly genre works, his Omnibus's subsequent non-fictional studies, The Gothic Quest (1938) and A Gothic Bibliography (1941) proved just as influential to burgeoning post-war scholars.
Editorial: Hello everyone. I'm pleased to announce that the latest Dark Lane Anthology, edited by Tim Jeffreys and featuring my uncanny tale, 'No-One Driving,' is out now. Here's Tim's official notice:
"Just to let you know, Volume 8 is now available for Kindle on Amazon.
I also have three new reviews for you. November should see the next Pan Review of the Arts with a couple of interesting Q & As' alongside a couple more interesting new titles. Enjoy...
* * *
Sing Your Sadness Deep by Laura Mauro, Undertow Publications / Masterworks by Simon Jacobs, Instar Books / Pareidolia, Edited by James Everington & Dan Howarth, Black Shuck Books
Mauro’s debut collection follows on from her Dark Minds Press novella, shortlisted last year for a British Fantasy Award, Naming the Bones (2017). Impressive it is too, showing an accomplishment and a humane warmth rarely associated with the uncanny. On this evidence, it is enviable that she only wrote her first tale in 2012.
'Obsidian' is the first of two real gems as an older sister strives to retain care for her younger who is epileptic and possibly autistic. One of the latter’s rituals is to submerge herself beneath the ice of the local lake in the belief she is being called by its aquatic denizen of amoral intent. The jeopardy the elder sister experiences is particularly well-realised as her fears for her younger sister grow. 'The Grey Men' sees the figures of the title hang in the sky above a nervous town like ominous clouds. Their significance remains a mystery until the end when the narrator‘s perspective on events suddenly shifts. 'In The Marrow' sees two young sisters play out their fairyland fantasy as regular visitors to 'the lough' after school. Later, as one lies ill, the other sister appears to bring their fantasy worldview home, convinced she has been exchanged by the little people and her 'real' sister is out their somewhere, healthy, just waiting to be found. A deceptively simple take on the oft-utilised Irish fable of the changeling, Mauro reveals her class in its very economy.
Mauro won a British Fantasy Award in the ‘Best Short Story’ category for ‘Looking for Laika.’ A tale of considerable charm that never sells-out to cynical sentiment. After her Grandad briefly tells her about the dog the Russian space mission sent into space in the early Sixties, young Beverley asks her older brother – ignorant of the original story - to fill in the details. Adding the apocolyptic plot of the dog’s mission to find a new planet for humans to live on, fires the young girl’s imagination still further. When she later claims to have observed a miniature speceship, what else can the family do but humour her? 'Strange As Angels' is – literally - the one entry of full-bloodied horror, after a bizarre, tiny creature flies into the windscreen of the speeding car of a fractious young couple. As the naive woman begins caring for the wounded find, it inevitably grows into treating her as its mother – with macabre results. Finally, a quick word for 'The Pain-Eater's Daughter, ending the collection. I don't think I've ever read a tale on familial empathy and grief quite as moving; not in the last twenty years, at least, and neither in this genre.
These six are favourites of the thirteen, only the half-formed 'Red Rabbit' leaving me unmoved. A superb debut then and, despite the inevitable commercial pull of the novel, I hope we don’t lose Mauro too soon as a short tale aficionado.
Simon Jacobs is from Dayton, Ohio, and currently lives in New York City. This, his second collection. He is the author of the novel Palaces (Two Dollar Radio, 2018), and Saturn (Spork Press, 2016), his debut collection of David Bowie stories.
Masterworks narratives‘ depracating wit are well balanced with a sense of impending jeopardy and disaster; one very much pertinent to our times. 'Let Me Take You To Olive Garden' sees couples upon the brink of coupling, so rudely interrupted by an unforseeable fate. In 'The Histories' two generations collide as a daughter reaching adulthood discovers – through the destritus of her parent’s past - the transient self-interest that informed her absent father’s own. Re-evaluation of past youth continues in 'Secret Message' as an image of one who died young is recalled by a grieving parent in darker terms. 'Partners' is as short and sweet as the second and third tales where, as with the first, cataclysmic fate arrives to deliver something otherwise closer to orgasm.
'Masterworks' sees an actorly couple – Priam and Nell - re-create famous works of art from makeshift materials with themselves as characters. First up sees Priam as Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, head towel-wrapped and reclining as if deceased in a bath. The tone swiftly turns comedic as both recreate a small portion of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights with Priam as Oedipus and Nell (alongside her cat) as the Sphinx. You get the idea. A further dozen classic paintings are reproduced and reflected upon in the form of their personal journals. These 'entries' are entertaining, with a wit just the right side of ribald, intimating an unholy alliance of Reggie Oliver with Michael Frayn.
'Land' sees the narrator recount an increasingly metaphysical journey from a lakeside mountain cabin he’s been hired to act as temporary caretaker for, by a friend who’s offered him a roof in exchange for maintaining his two pet huskies. When one, which is ill, absconds, the narrator fears for its fate – and his own - as his attention is increasingly drawn to the lake itself inhabited by the 'group of narrow, pale shapes floating in the water' and the unseen world beneath its surface. (A serendipitous echo of Laura Mauro’s 'Obsidian' here). Increasingly Hope-Hodgsonesque in feel, this turns out to be an exemplary novella, a journey upon which I was glad to act as companion. Jacobs has a good comedic voice, bordering absurdist, while never descending to farce. 'Land' also shows him more than competent at the terror tale.
Pareidolia, a term I was unfamiliar with, is defined on the back cover as 'the phenomenon where the mind perceives shapes, or hears voices, where none apparently exist.' What, I asked myself, could be a better definition of the uncanny? I’m less a fan of anthologies too contrived or proscriptive in their editors‘demand than I am of those – like here - with a broader mandate.
'I don’t know whether it was Thea who changed the house or the house who changed Thea, but I noticed the house first. The way the woodgrain noticed us back – a thousand faces staring out from narrow panels that warped away from the cabin walls. And when the wind slammed the side of the house, the place would rock and rock and rock and boards would bob and nod. Yes, they said, yes yes yes. Though I hadn’t been aware of asking any questions. Not at the time.'
Sure enough, Sarah Read’s 'Into The Wood' opens the book with real promise. I, too, said 'yes' on reading what could be defined as a prime example of the sub-genre, the reference to the house as a 'who,' a neatly unexpected touch.
Eliza Chan, according to her website, likes 'to collect folk tales and modernise them with a twist,' and 'Joss Papers For Porcelain Ghosts' well utilises the East-Asian source of the former and setting of the latter. A generation gap is widened by the intimated presence of a familial ghost as a flesh, paper and porcelain observer of events, encroaching from the sidelines. The way the visions impinge upon the domestic scene are almost incidental and pleasingly credible. GV Anderson’s Jamesian 'The Butchery Tree' is an English-type folktale in a more traditional setting where 'legend (had) it the last warriors standing after a great battle met their deaths beneath the boughs. It grew in clay and in summer blossomed red.' In Charlotte Bond’s 'The Lens Of Dying,' a sick old man with a terrible hidden past linked to a warped sense of beauty’s transience, pays the ultimate price for his undiscovered worldview. Andrew David Barker’s 'House Of Faces' is, by just a nose, my favourite tale, featuring the last man on Earth; a classic apocalyptic subject where an increasing madness somehow morphs into a new normalcy at the last address shared with his (lost or deceased) wife.
So far, this has been my favourite of Black Shuck’s multi-author anthologies, featuring – Chan’s surprising contribution aside – a traditional feel, suited to my own tastes, which never descends to the reactionary or overused.