Saturday 23 April 2011

Ref. L.T.C. Rolt

Since writing this most recent review, I have discovered the following from Faber & Faber's website:

"Robert Fordyce Aickman was born in 1914 in London. He was married to Edith Ray Gregorson from 1941 to 1957. In 1946 the couple, along with Tom and Angela Rolt, set up the Inland Waterways Association to preserve the canals of Britain."  What do you know...
Next review posted by 7th May 2011.

Sleep No More: Railway, Canal & Other Stories of the Supernatural by L.T.C. Rolt, The History Press

Susan Hill, in her introduction to this reissue from 1948, highlights what made ‘Tom’ Rolt so singular; ‘a trained engineer, a railway enthusiast and the owner of a narrow boat in which he navigated the inland waterways of England and Wales’; and - oh yes - a car restorer, hill walker and philosopher to boot.  They made real men then, my father’s generation, whose own CV was almost as broad.  Shed theorists’ one and all.
  There is yet more within Sleep No More that defines this self-taught artisan as a Jack Of All Trades.  Its fourteen stories directly reflect Rolt’s stated interests through their keen knowledge of environment and setting, lending, at least, a picturesque authenticity.  He seems as assured delineating the intricacies of iron-smelting operation (in ‘Hawley Bank Foundry’) as he does in Grand Prix racing (in ‘New Corner’).  Where he falls down is where he inevitably falls back upon a literary knowledge parallel with our own.  As a mere writer of short fiction therefore, he harbours no great advantage.  His influences are clear and more than borderline derivative for today’s supernatural imbiber.
  ‘Music Hath Charms’ replaces the grave-recovered pipe from MR James’ ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ with a music box; while the aforementioned ‘Hawley Bank Foundry’ resolves itself with a weirdness Lovecraft would have regularly achieved.  ‘Hear Not My Steps’ presents a version of the vengeful phantom reminiscent from Bram Stoker’s ‘Judge’s House,’ while ‘The House Of Vengeance,’ ending the collection, harbours the dated Satanic echoes of Dennis Wheatley.
  Still, ‘Bosworth Summit Pound,’ ‘Cwm Garon’ – the best tale here - and the too short but pleasingly Pagan ‘The Shouting,’ each harbour a lyrical atmosphere that raise Rolt above the banal.  (Oh yes; he was also a poet on the sly).  The latter in particular bravely forsakes explanation of its mysterious, ‘off-camera’ ritual for ambiguity, the manner of which Robert Aickman might have been proud.  Coming in at just 129 pages, these stories apparently represent the sum total of Rolt’s fiction, whose main works were non-fiction and technical.  Despite the derivative source material, it is still testament to him that I am left wanting rather more than he will now be able to give.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Next review uploaded by 23rd April 2011.

Supernatural Tales by Vernon Lee (Edited by I. Cooper Willis), Peter Owen Publishers

The precise flipside of Hill’s novella is this collection of six longish short stories, edited by Irene Cooper Willis.  Where Hill is uncoloured, internal and spare, this writer emotes in prose richly purple, brimming with heightened reaction and mythical allusion.
  Violet Paget burst onto the literary late-Victorian scene a precocious 24-year-old, self-taught, Italian scholar when, in 1880, her Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy was published.  No, I had never heard of her either.  At least, not until the wonderfully titled Virgin of the Seven Daggers was republished in paperback by Penguin Pocket Classics in 2008, (and featured here) accredited to one ‘Vernon Lee.’  (A pseudonym whose resonance I had mistakenly associated with the American Deep South and the world of Mark Twain).
  You will find tongue-twisting Latin names of people and place here, which may be off-putting to the eye in the attempts to focus upon plot.  Yet, there is humour also, delivered in tandem with the vain personal knowledge of her subject that – in equal measure – charms and disarms with wit.  This is especially noticeable in ‘Amour Dure,’ where you will find wry narrative humour suddenly punctuating the hopelessly swelling paranoia of its protagonist.
  These Supernatural Tales – penned by Paget through the 1880s’ for contemporary collections in the wake of her successful Studies – evoke the rich Gothic tapestries of Ann Radcliffe, with the delightful addition of proto-feminist phantoms making justifiable mockery of idiot male passion.  It is therefore no surprise to learn she was ‘in touch with European liberal opinion’ and ‘an acknowledged pacifist’ in Cooper Willis’s Introduction.
  They also evoke an even earlier time – of the Borgias and Orsinis - suggestive of where Paget’s romantically red-blooded heart truly resides.
For students of post-18th century Gothic romance, this collection cannot be overlooked.  For most fans of genre fiction however, its’ equally rich Italianate descriptions might be perceived as obstacles.

The Small Hand - A Ghost Story by Susan Hill, Profile Books

Contrasting two women writers of the genre this month; one from the present and one from the distant past:

Adam Snow is a specialist book dealer, en route to London to seal his latest deal.  Losing his way in the gathering dusk, curiosity takes over as he wheel-spins his car into an un-signed country turn-off.  At its end is a seemingly derelict country house hidden by an overgrown garden.  Getting out, he absorbs his atmospheric surroundings – and then feels a child’s hand slip into his own.  Looking down, he ‘sees’ no one there…
  So begins the latest in Susan Hill’s long line of supernatural novellas; conventional in construct, conservative in tone, yet, for these very reasons, an object lesson all novice authors should trail.  Where plot elements placed early within the first chapter, may or may not significantly percolate later in the story but, to which, must always be returned.  Thus, the small hand drags us onward alongside the story’s protagonist.
  Hill – so well known for 1983’s ‘The Woman in Black’ and its regional theatre adaptations for twenty years since – writes each line with perfect pitch.  Coolly sparse, each edited down to its constituent point for economy of space and time.  Atmosphere never appears sacrificed.  This is so often the writer’s fear, of being overly reductive before you even start.  Thoughts arise of a literary self-harm; what if you undersell the tale?  What if the reader thinks, ‘does he mean this?’ at the precise moment clarity is needed?  What must I hold back?  What must I show?  Too many writers in panic thus overcompensate.
  Hill overcomes such fears by being open and literal with every line.  It justifies the ironic paradox that ambiguity can only be successfully depicted unambiguously.  You, the writer, have sole responsibility to lead the reader on. There will be no second chance to fuck up.  Yet, this can only be achieved if the reader can see where they are going, from the outset, even if they have no idea (and they shouldn’t) where they will arrive.  I found this out for myself very late in the day - as true for a novella as it is for the short story.
  What lacks? – perhaps characterisation of any real depth.  As if that usually considered a necessity might also slow the tale’s already moderate pace.  Its absence deprives us of heightened descriptions, but at least we feel encouraged to make up the spaces there.