Friday, 21 December 2012

Intrusions by Robert Aickman, Tartarus Press

Reggie Oliver is correct when, in this new edition's foreword, he states
these stories are not inconclusive - as so often attributed - (by this
reviewer included) since they each, at least, have a beginning,
middle and end; only 'puzzles remain.' As readers, we can easily trail
the what of unfurling events, but only very rarely the why.
The protaganist's true motive remains staunchly couched in ambiguity,
invariably maintained up to. and including, the tale's climax.
  One harboured motive used on occasion here - as in Aickman's six
previous collections - is that of impotence. A general Aickman scenario
features a main narrator, or character, caught at a time when they are
most psychologically vulnerable to outside influence; possibly at the
point of breakdown.  A mental barrier to self-acknowledgement
presents itself, from the outset, as that character's normalcy.
Effectively, the ambiguity is the normalcy.
  This may all appear somewhat academic and dry, but it explains
why a simple encapsulating review for each tale is such a challenge.
Much is left unexplained, and intentionally so.  As with the most
sublime 'crimes,' it is left to the reader to fill in the gaps. If frustrating
for some, I for one enjoy the challenge.
  'Hand in Glove' concerns two women friends arriving at a scenic
country spot for a picnic, arranged by Winifred for the recuperative
benefit of Millicent after the final breakdown of the latter's
relationship. Intimations of neediness in Millicent are revealed from
the start while she interprets what she sees en route in ways the clear-
headed Winifred casually counters.  While both women share
subsequent experiences, it is undoubtedly a ghostly vision by Millicent,
toward the climax, which begs one question as to whether Winifred
wasn't only her friend but present in a capacity rather more official.
I'll confess the final seven lines not only confirmed this suspicion
but also moved me to tears.
  With 'No Time is Passing' I found Aickman at his most obscure.
With his wife Hesper delayed by a commitment at work, Delbert
Catlow explores for the first time the river at the back of their new
home; a ground floor flat in a nineteenth century house.  A dishevelled
-looking young man on the other side beckons him across to his own
more makeshift dwelling. A moored scull at the bottom of some
descending steps so entices Delbert aboard.  On arrival, he soon
realises his new neighbour may be more than merely eccentric as
bizarre mind games are employed to stop him from leaving.
The tale is literal enough, but signposts are deployed which appear
to have little allusion to anything greater.  e.g. Delbert's stopped watch;
the ninety-minute window before Hesper's likely return, etc.
The title so stating only what is obvious.
  'The Fetch' is a psychological horror of one man's repressed guilt,
where-in the character Leith is trapped by the great fear of his
childhood, manifest in the (subjective?) form of a familiar - a sea-borne
old woman - the 'auld carlin' and 'fetch' of the title - who returns to land
to claim those Leith has loved and, somehow, failed.  Its few water-
dripping approaches are singularly nightmarish; more so delivered in
Aickman's cool, partially glimpsed, 'intrusions.'  He is never bettered
when flashing passed us such glimpses.
  'The Breakthrough' is Aickman at his most atypical; a period piece
centering around a Civil War-era incident where an alleged rebuilding
accident cracks open the local church floor, unleashing a dormant
being that reeks havoc in the 'God-forsaken' village and among the
flock of two sparring churchwardens.  Blackly comedic, it's also
cleverly true to the ignorance pertaining at the time in which it is set.
  'The Next Glade' sees Noelle, a guest at a houseparty, fall prey to
a mystery man who ingratiates himself with her.  He suggests he
visit her later, without, as she points out, having asked for her
address. A little research on her part fails to confirm the identity
of the man or that he was even a guest of the hosts.
On arriving at her place, he appears restless, encouraging Noelle to
walk with him into the woods nearby. Nothing untoward happens,
until the man wanders into the next glade of the title.
Then, to Noelle, at least, he disappears.  On re-emerging much later,
he seems in a different guise altogether, no longer amorous, and more
of a stranger.  As with 'Hand in Glove' and 'Letters to the Postman'
that follows, the narrator appears to have constructed his / her
own fantasy perception around a situation or character, which
objective truth subsequently, partially, unveils.
  'Letters to the Postman' indulges to the full this sub-topic of
wish-fulfillment in a series of anonymous pleas for help, left in a
letterbox by a woman apparently trapped in a violent relationship.
These are supportively answered by the well-intentioned, if possibly
impotent, hand of a rookie mailman who still lives with his mother.
Aickman cleverly plays out Robin Breeze's pubescent-type fantasies
in a way only someone as unworldly as Breeze could've manifested.
Indeed, the 'victim' woman, when she apparently appears, too
conveniently seems the woman of his dreams, until any likelihood of
conjugals are firmly scotched. You feel as if Breeze - rather than
Aickman himself - had written the script for things to turn out as they
  This seventh collection - released in Aickman's sixty-sixth year - rivals
his best work, provided you can indulge in the corresponding, thought-
provoking shocks and character ambiguity that raise the bar in tow.

Selected Stories by Mark Valentine, Swan River Press

In recent years, Mark Valentine has wisely been carving a niche for
himself.  In collections such as 'The Mascarons of the Late Empire
& Other Stories,' (2010) 'The Peacock Escritoire' (2011) and the most
appropriately named 'Secret Europe' (2012) he has taken us
through side alleys of internecine, mainly proletarian, resistance in
European cities leading up to the First and Second World Wars.
It is from such collections that this selection was chosen.
  Tales richly descriptive yet rarely overburdened in length or purple
prose, Valentine brilliantly evokes these Northern European
enclaves of dissent, through a teasing assualt upon the senses.
  The source of the uncanny may not, at first, appear obvious in all.
But it is assuredly always intimating, perhaps just around a corner
or half-hidden within an alcove.  Where with Aickman the uncanny
is communicated through the psyche of the unreliable narrator,
with Valentine it is reflected back to the protaganist by the cumulative
effect of place and its harboured, half-ignored history.
  'The Mascarons of the Late Empire' - the tale that ends this selection -
is a prime example.  The scene describing the Night Market, shown
through eyes of the young immigrant artist and borderline vagrant,
Michael Vay, as he seeks out a face he may have once sketched from
stone, is a sensual delight as the sights, odours and occupations
of the hawkers race about him, graphically half-witnessed, before
"crooked, lichened houses which leaned against each other like
drunken old men seeking mutual support."
  Memorable, it also turns into one of Valentine's finest ever pieces of
continuous exposition.
  By contrast, 'The Unrest at Aachen' at first seems to avoid the
uncanny entirely in the paranoid wake of William le Queux's 1906
novel of an 'imaginary' inter-European war.  That is until the
penultimate page, when a possible watcher from antiquity somehow
evokes an 'Angel of Mons' moment. For "my sight was subdued,"
states the narrator, Yann Medermain, "blurred, and I could not be
sure of what I could see."
  'The Original Light' is another gem.  A gently melancholic
rumination on a dying uncle's long, semi-illicit search for the source
of the natural mystical glow he believes emanates from the 'spirit'
within all objects and the ancestral fascination passed on to his nephew.
Reminiscent of early Blackwood, its equally authentic period feel is
too much on a par with the surrounding tales ever to descend to
saccharin nostalgia.
  A smart dust-jacket in dark violet featuring a central image of a
semi-submerged golden face makes for a sophisticated release.
If you've never before read this author, this thematically-linked
selection of his most recent work is as good a place as any to start.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Ghosts by R.B. Russell, Swan River Press

As we near year's end, I must declare an interest.  Ray Russell,
whose first collection this is in its second edition, has shown him-
self a great champion of other British and European writers of the
independent press.
  As co-proprietor at Tartarus, reviewed recently and soon again in
these pages, his name - along with that of Mark Valentine -
regularly percolates into other genre publications and related blogs.
They are signposts to a quality of work far above the derivative
dribblings of the fan fiction ponce, undeserving of his high profile
in the media spin-offs of TV and Radio.
  These independent writers, along with John Howard, Quentin S.
Crisp, Peter Bell, Carolyn Moncel, Sylvia Petter and others, represent
a 40+ generation who, I believe, are attaining a qualitatively high
benchmark in the independent field.  One I can only dream of
being a part, my own speciality - thankfully - elsewhere.
  'Ghosts' is the umbrella title consisting of that first collection -
'Putting the Pieces in Place' - and the award-winning novella
'Bloody Baudelaire.'  (Recently filmed in Hollywood as
'Backgammon').  The tone of the prose as a whole is patient,
unflappable and contemplative; not unlike the public persona of
Russell himself.  This serves to lull the reader into the necessarily
false sense of security.  In the first tale, a historian - apparently
jaded from a thirty-five-year-long obsession with a diseased
young violinist - sets-up the narrator to unwittingly play her part in
his long-harboured intent. The subplot, recounting his series of
Europe-trekking directives and the motives behind them, feels
surprisingly credible, sophisticated and worthy of a novella in itself.
  'There's Nothing I Wouldn't Do' opens with an admiring
narrator who is soon contradicted by the object of his tribute - an
architecture student called Nina Monkman - who reveals an
oddly blase lack of self-knowledge in her relationships that leads
to one particularly macabre consequence.
  'In Hiding' - as with all the tales here - is as much about
harboured pasts as physical escapees.  Quite who is real and who
are the ghosts we assume to know, at first, but then . . .
It is a tale of sun-drenched melancholy, madness and loss.
  'Eleanor' finds us at a science-fiction convention where the
narrator-host relates his pre-arranged meeting with one of its
guests; the aging author, David Planer, known solely - to fantasy
fans - as creator of a young Goth heroine they've taken on as
their own.  Only, the slightly decrepit Planer now believes she
has an immediate life far closer than anyone might've predicted.
  Jayne in 'Dispossessed' might almost be the obverse side of
Nina Monkman.  Where she seems unthinkingly reactive, Jayne
blithely accepts her blank page inner life and reacts accordingly;
as if ultimately soulless.  Consequently, she is the most unreliable
narrator in the collection if the denouement is anything to go by.
  Of these five tales, only 'Eleanor' rings slightly false.  The set-up
feeling a mite too contrived; the idea someone of Planer's dotage
could create a young character others' of her generation could
relate to and idolise - if not unlikely - at least questionable.
  Ending the book, 'Bloody Baudelaire' is an intense, fractious
human drama, fired by the transient passions of two (or is it
three?) left after a party of the night before.  The characters are
rich, spoilt, of indeterminate age, but at least one still reliant
upon the parental bank.  The great subtlety of the tale is its
non-depiction of its ghost; the uncertain fate of the driven-out
artist Gerald Kent and his bitter relationship with the woman
protaganist, Miranda Honeyman.
  The cover features a striking, soft focus, monochrome
image of Lidwine de Royer; a Paris-based vocalist-harpist
who sings with child-like Bjork-ish beauty on a free
accompanying cd of mainly acoustic compositions by Russell
himself.   This concludes an excellent introduction to this writer's
work, with his latest collection, 'Leave Your Sleep,' (PS Publishing)
also available now.

Friday, 23 November 2012

A Pad In The Straw by Christopher Woodforde, Sundial Press

We are in the immediate post-war era of Home Counties everydayness,
when the green-belt motorist became as much of a regular fixture under
the gaze of the herd-rearing farmer as his own harboured Pagan fables.
  These twenty tales - first published in 1952 - see this sixtieth anniversary
reissue as the first in Dorset's 'Sundial Supernatural' series. A tone of
tinted old world charm and politely accommodating innocence pervade
each, and with good reason.  Woodforde was Chaplain of New College,
Oxford, at the time, writing them down in the wake of declaiming them
aloud to the eight intrigued chorister boys in his charge.
  Also something of an antiquarian scholar of the Middle Ages, these tales
were, in truth, a sideline, his true literary calling as scholar of Middle Age
antiquity expressed in pamphlets and subsequent notable tomes on the
provenance of medieval stained glass. ('Stained Glass in Somerset 1250-
1830' (1946) and 'The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth
Century' (1950) representing the recognised peak of his output).
  If there is a feeling of deja-vu here, then, yes, the biog so far somewhat
mirrors that of M.R. James. Except a lighter touch is employed in the likes
of the title story,  'The Old Tithe Barn' 'The Chalk Pit' and 'The "Doom"
Window At Breckham' where historical location, while key to the re-opening
of old portals, never hold back the tales' forward momentum.
Others, possibly named after, or at least in tribute, to his early teenage
listeners, (such as 'Colin, Peter and Philip,' 'Malcolm,' 'Hugh' and 'Jeremy'
etc.) are equally light jumping-off points by which to inveigle the original
audience's attention.
  What Woodforde quietly excels at is the ability to suddenly reveal the
troubling manifestation right at tale's end, almost as an objectively reported
aside or afterthought.  This lends an added tone of 'authenticity, ' at the very
moment a whimper of an ending is anticipated rather than the received
unnerving sting.
  Myself not being religiously inclined, it's pleasing to note any preacherly
warnings of 'evil' are limited to generalities of youth straying from the path of
personal responsibility by their own naivete, which can hardly be deemed
controversial even by today's atheistic generation.  The air of gentleness,
however, may not be for some modern tastes; but most contain a shock that
suddenly belies it, ensuring you should never take such surface appearances
for granted.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Wormwood, Edited by Mark Valentine, Tartarus Press

Just a note to remind readers that the latest bi-annual issue of the excellent 'Wormwood' (Number 19, Autumn 2012) is now available from Tartarus Press. Featuring in-depth, informative and entertaining essays and reviews by the likes of Henry Wessells, Roger Dobson, Brian J. Showers, Lucien Verval, Jason Rolfe, Reggie Oliver, Douglas A. Anderson and Yours Truly.

The Book Of Monelle by Marcel Schwob, (translated by Kit Schluter), Wakefield Press

No one has quite done desire better than the French - certainly 
compared to the literature of the British in this period.  To them, 
unrequitable love must be seen, by tale's end, to be punished - by 
smothering consignment - from the State, as represented by the 
Church.  'It is, after all, a rather weak-bladdered and embarrassing 
subject to expose one's readers' too, is it not, old chap? Let the 
bugger see the error of his ways - do him and the reader good.'
  Not so to our European cousins, who spent generations shamelessly 
exposing their hearts upon their sleeves.  It is only in recent years the 
British discovered the pained, unreturned passion of the influential 
Regency critic William Hazlitt, or (some of) the harboured peccadilloes 
of Charles Dodgson.
  Real-life cases both, but as is that which inspired 'Monelle' on its first
publication, during its author's lifetime, in 1894.
  Described on the smart, gray back cover of Wakefield Press's new 
edition as having 'immediately (become) the unofficial bible of the 
French symbolist movement,' it is, quite openly, Schwob's own paean 
to a young Parisian prostitute who'd all too soon succumbed to TB the 
end of the previous year.  
  This subplot bookends ten short, scenic fables, ('The Sisters of
Monelle') each as starkly pictorial as a Renoir or Bunel film
generations hence; until, at last, we reach the autobiographical final 
third. The sense of yearning, of clinging to what can only be lost, is 
moving, if not borderline obsessive were it not for the simple, heart-
catching beauty of the prose. The mythic, ornate style intimated in 
otherwise tightly shorn sentences is a precised, subjective version of 
that which sparkles through Schwob's previous short story collection,
'The King In The Golden Mask.' (Still available from Tartarus Press).  
  Still there is hope, but one dependent upon narrator-Schwob's utilising 
free will; "Forget all things," he is advised, "and all things shall be given 
back unto you.  Forget Monelle, and she shall be given back unto you.  
This is the new word.  Imitate the newborn dog, whose eyes are not yet 
open, and who blindly feels out a niche for its cold muzzle."  
Such abandonment to instinct virtually sums up the fin-de-siecle creed.
  Ultimately, the European take on desire is vindicated. The irony being 
such emotional exposures of the self have not diminished these writers' 
reputations in the eyes of their readers; altered them, perhaps, shifting 
our perspectives, but also enriched them.
  A useful afterword by Kit Schluter fleshes out Schwob's biographical
parallel after this lovely, picaresque journey of less than one-hundred 

Friday, 26 October 2012

All God's Angels, Beware! by Quentin S. Crisp, Chomu Press

In each of these ten tales, 'hate' is a term Crisp directs at us, the reader, from the outset. Except in truth it precedes a self-deprecating black humour that undercuts - surely intentionally - his true status as a disappointed romantic. Imagine Dylan Moran channelling Philip K. Dick, or Robert Newman, Alfred Bester, and you have a writer of passions, writing of passions thwarted.
  The feeling of sexual inadequacy and the consequences of the bitterness it can provoke is one predominant theme. In the opener,
'Troubled Joe,' the ghost of a suicide is eternally feted to return at the strike of four (pm) to relive his lifelong loneliness unless he can atone in the only way he knows how. A chance seems to arise in the form of a couple in first love.
  'A Cup Of Tea' brilliantly evokes a day of circuitous despair in long-term unemployment for those of an artistic temperament. (Too close for comfort).
  'Asking For It' follows a loner's thought process in how he might get his own back on a beautiful girl who pointedly ignores him. The shock lies in what happens when - for once - he defies his usual fear.
  The intriguingly titled 'The Fox Wedding' explores a boy's erotic
inadequacy as some kind of Lafcadio Hearn - Geisha nightmare.
  Then there is self-knowledge achieved through a variety of landscapes.  'Ynys-y-Plag' is exemplary, succeeding as a new classic of the uncanny. Presented as a long observational foreword to a twilit sequel of a popular photographic collection, its big success has somehow left its photographer-narrator bereft. Needing new inspiration, he relates how he left his comfort zone of choice landscapes by pinning a location on a map, with eyes closed. (So finding the Welsh town of the title). What follows is a gradually accumulating mystery; of the woodland bwg and the psychological trauma experienced by those who encounter it.  The longest of the tales, it is a slowburner that ultimately delivers.
  'The Were-Sheep of Abercrave,' by contrast, is an entertaining piss-take; both by the author and his narrator of the tale's second half, asked to explain - by the first-half narrator - the 'true' nature of the large black sheep whose ominous gaze he repeatedly encounters.
  A Japanese scholar, Crisp's influence thus encompasses 'Karakasa'; where, ninety years in the future, a commuter finds a museum of 1997 antiquities and ponders upon the value of natural entropy in a new world of holographic perfection where no one questions its pre-eminence.
  'Mise en Abyme' - not unlike Henry Whitehead's 'The Trap' (12th
October review) - involves the exploration of a mirror from within.
Only here it occurs in response to a rather more direct invitation.
  'Italianetto' is very much atypical; a love letter to a boyhood aunt,
only to be rediscovered in adulthood as a famous film star. The upbeat, naive and shiny evocation of an endless summer childhood beams as a beacon amidst the much darker introspections.
  In 'Suicide Watch' the narrator is forced to re-evaluate his own fatalistic motives when invited to help a mutual friend in need. It is appropriate that this tale ends the collection on a note of self-realisation.
  Don't believe from this you will be left feeling as down. There's an
emotional honesty in the voice ensuring his metaphors lack cliche.
This collection may not appeal if you are a totally grounded careerist, blissfully happy with your 2.4 children and a mortgage. But if this is so, then why are you still reading?


Friday, 12 October 2012

Voodoo Tales: The Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead, Wordsworth Editions

There is an issue I've long harboured against pulp Horror, as a sub-genre. While it exists to entice and play upon a reader's ignorance and prejudice, at the same time it too often reveals the writer's own. This latter occasionally turns the stomach in a way almost certainly unforeseen by the author.
  I'd like to say, that-was-then-but-this-is-now; that there's a clear, recognisable trajectory of progression from, say, the 19th century penny-dreadfuls to today, that's seen a market gradually mutate from rank bigotry to informed enlightenment. The written evidence shows otherwise.
  Considering 'Frankenstein' was penned in 1816 by an eighteen-year-old woman depicting the psychology of loneliness through a sympathetic monster created by a mad male protaganist; and Hoffmann's 'The Sand-Man' of the previous year, where the narrator becomes obsessed by his skewed preception of reality, we see how far the pulp sub-genre has singularly failed to travel.
  Of course, these are examples of literary horror; and this aspect of the genre has, fortunately, borne a history rather more progressive. By commercial necessity, pulp horror used a shorthand of social, sexual and racial reference points that we can only hope today's flash fiction and ebook exponents can further advance.
  So it is the less 'pulp-ish' tales in this interesting new collection of Henry Whitehead's original omnibuses, West India Lights, Jumbee & Other Voodoo Tales and The Black Beast & Other Voodoo Tales that are the winners.
  'The Ravel Pavanne' is a hidden gem. A woman classical pianist harbours a love for a fellow pianist whose playing unwittingly conjures a scene in her mind at which she discovers they are both present. It has a warm and subtle beauty.  'The Trap' finds a teacher's curious pupil sucked into an ancient cursed mirror from which there appears no exit. The description detailing the boy's world-in-reverse is both bizarre yet strangely convincing.
  While the last six uncollected tales, and 'The Moon Dial' in particular, also show Whitehead stretching his writerly ability.
Many of the rest are either clearly derivative of contemporaries such as F. Marion Crawford ('-In Case of Disaster Only') Hope Hodgson ('The Sea Tiger') or his friend, Lovecraft, who clearly fired him the most. (Lovecraft has much to answer for, in the breadth of his influence, here - in the 1920s' and 30s' pulps - as now). It might be unfair to accuse him of cribbing from Robert Howard though, since most of these West Indian Voodoo tales are slightly predating, while, according to D.S. Davies's Introduction, Whitehead actually lived in the region for a period, his point-of-view research displayed quite heavy-handedly at times.
  One tale feels beyond the pale today, as pernicious in its influences as it is blatant. I try to avoid giving away in detail story endings but 'The Chadbourne Episode' deserves no such
respect. Quite simply, a town's departing Persian family may,
in the view of the townsfolk and our protaganist, have left an
offspring of cannabalistic ghouls living beneath the local cemetery. Our hero, equipped with his gun, so sets out to blast away at everything in sight - and, indeed, out of it - so he can return home to cook a hearty breakfast for a local hick buddy.
  Unfortunately, by so doing, Whitehead also manages to blast away at any chance of a plot or character motive. It also leaves the very nasty taste in the mouth that assumes all people of colour are 'niggers' who prefer to scuttle underground and spawn in-bred mutations. It is a dumb and despicable piece of reactionary nonsense, even for its time, that would only have worked as a cruel piece of satire on the writer friend he's clearly aping.
  Despite his first-hand knowledge, he here falls in to the same pulp-ish prejudice as everyone else. What maintains the reader's interest are those aforementioned flashes of true originality that, in a writer of the first league, might have represented the majority.


Friday, 28 September 2012

The Old Knowledge by Rosalie Parker, The Swan River Press

A deceptive simplicity of language harbours the road to the unforeseeable twist in this reissue of Rosalie Parker's first collection, originally published by Swan River in 2010.  
  In 'The Rain,' we are with the seemingly innocent protaganist Geraldine all the way, as her city girl ways are frowned upon by rain-drenched, surly yokels of whom she asks assistance and gains little sympathy. Until an encroaching callousness on her part not only questions our allegiance to her but her own perception of what is real.
  In 'Spirit Solutions' ( a tale considered unique enough for immediate entry into Wordsworth Editions 'The Black Veil' anthology back in 2008) a daughter's journal records the last days at the family residence after the death of their father. Holed-up in their sold, snowbound home, with the food running out and computer sole link to the outside world, a website offers salvation from the poltergeist that's long plagued them. But is the true cause of its presence closer to home than any of them realise? Again, we have only the diarist's word as to the facts. This is an extraordinary tale, so ambiguous in protaganist motive that it bears several

  'In The Garden' begins as so innoucuous - a woman talking to someone of her love of gardening - that you doubt any eventual denouement at all, until the final paragraph reveals the very black object of her attention and intent. (Evoking those Amicus horror anthology films of the Seventies').
  Further intimations of madness arise by the end of 'Chanctonbury Ring' where a benign archeologist-cum-geologist has a ghostly encounter with one who reaches to him from the past, for a particular sanctuary he has little choice but provide.
  'The Supply Teacher' of the title has a dubious provenance, engaging her class - in her last lesson - in procuring what they know about the "circulatory system" and the life force that drives it. By class's end, we discover just who it is being supplied. A slight tale with a well-worn theme, but welcome for its wry humour for all that.
  The title tale returns us to the rural, folksy-type settings of 'The Rain' and 'Chanctonbury Ring' where a disturbance of the past (the levelling of a ceremonial burial mound in this case) is undermind by a protector with a particularly unforeseeable motive.
  'The Cook's Story' finds a young woman, (not unlike Geraldine of 'The Rain'), seeking solace after separation in a contrasting remote setting. In this case, a huge Tudor house run by a wealthy, slightly estranged, but kind married couple. An undercurrent of possible unconsumation is beautifully realised throughout with a last desparate action - intended or otherwise - that changes everything. A minor classic.
  Lastly, is 'The Picture'; a traditional-style horror, redolent of early Blackwood, Stoker et al, with a modern setting, as an antique collector buys a portrait of "a dark haired, curiously androgynous figure, half-draped in a voluminous white garment, gaz(ing) adoringly, imploringly, in profile at some unseen entity above." That the seller tells her he had sold it before, tells you he'll most likely be seeing it again as life threatens to imitate art.
  If not breaking new ground with every tale, what's striking in all eight is their perfect pitch. It is clear Parker already knows the rules of the uncanny (of what to hide, what to reveal, and when) and how, ideally, to express them. One of the sub-genre's hardest sleight-of-hands to achieve, but it is with these she reveals her strength.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Natural and Supernatural: A History of the Paranormal from the Earliest Times to 1914 by Brian Inglis, White Crow Books

We live in an era when combative atheist polemics by Richard Dawkins
('The God Delusion') and the late Christopher Hitchens ('The Portable
Atheist') finally managed to write what others of us long harboured
but only when safe amongst acquaintances had the nerve to express;
that there is no 'might' about it; there is no 'perhaps.'
Circumstantial evidence of a vision, ghostly appearance, or precognition,
based on hearsay or a holy book of unstated provenance, however
profuse in the former and strictly followed in the latter, does not and
cannot constitute proof as to the existence of 'a higher being.'
  Which begs the question; if evidence is no longer valid as a means to
justify a world view - any world view - then must we now consider
evidence in all other fields equally discredited as means of proof? -
sourceable evidence alone being no longer enough? If so, there are an
awfully large number of academic essays that'll require re-writing by
theorists who'll now need to reproduce, for the examiner, their own
experience in life. Think of it - criminologists becoming perpetrators;
students profiling the rise in neo-Nazism having to practice what
they preach.
  Of course, this is exaggerating and a possibly too literal approach even
for Professor Dawkins. At least, we are not there yet which is what
makes this reissue from 1978 by the late broadcaster and journalist
Brian Inglis all the more timely.
  Split into ten sub-headings, 'Natural and Supernatural' chronologically
charts the growth of paranormal belief and practice, its many
manifestations around the globe, and, its wide and various conflicts
with the Church's prescriptive teachings. From shamanism in the Old
Testament to Establishment attempts at more committed psychical
research just before the First World War, it remains a consistent and
level-headed account of claimed experience countering assumed belief.
  More sadly consistent, (and the book's cumulative effect writ large
throughout), is the unending, two-thousand year-long refusal of the
Church to come to terms with that which it cannot accept - whatever
is manifested before it. Especially hypocritical considering the
mircales and visions claimed amid the Bible's pages.
Alchemy and witchcraft perhaps deserved short shrift. But seeing
what we've since observed of precognition, hypnotism and the
elusive but undeniable sixth sense, public open-mindedness on such
topics hasn't travelled very far.
  From the outset, Inglis highlights his case by taking the line how a
significant quantity of evidence that supports an account of a
paranormal event occurring should lend that account real credence.
But I wonder. I can hear - and have heard - Dawkins refute such
thinking with the' once-Man-believed-the-world-was-flat' argument.
But Inglis's position is one with an open mind, and he is equal to
demolishing, rather than excusing, other less plausible contemporary
  A new biographical Foreword by Inglis's son Neil states how the
raison d'etre for the book was to act as a "counterpunch against the
emerging sceptical backlash." Perhaps that should read as 're-
emerging' since the paranormal's lack of acceptance before and since
has meant it has never really gone away. This is as good a place to
start as any to discover why.


Thursday, 30 August 2012

Strange Epiphanies by Peter Bell / Old Albert - An Epilogue by Brian J. Showers, The Swan River Press

There is a very familiar landscape evoked through its variants
in this seven story collection.  Uncanny, rural settings, long
ago delineated by the hand of Blackwood or Buchan (the latter
actually namechecked during one tale, 'M.E.F.'), are found
resurrected here, larded with appropriately modern references.
('Nostalgia, Death and Melancholy' for one - described at the
back as 'substantially revised' since first published in 2007  -
takes a pleasing, if unexpected, dig at the bankers).
  Such settings demand an unreliable narrator; usually a lone
explorer with issues; and perceptions, perhaps, skewed by a
dependancy or obsession.  The whole gamut is so represented
although alcohol encroaches with its less-than-benign influence
through most, and 'An American Writer's Cottage' in particular.
  While the depictions and situations feel very familiar, they
are often approached from an unexpected angle.
The clearest example here is 'A Midsummer Ramble in the
Carpathians.'  You read the last word of this title and assume
you'll know what you'll get.  But Bell's historical knowledge
lends an outsider's credence to the researcher-protaganist and
her ultimate fate.
  This is what avoids the usual shameless poncing-off of other
authors work, so prevalent in current transatlantic fantasy;
the authenticity of the voice.  Clearly, Bell knows his subject
through personal exploration, as much as, say, M.R. James
knew his.  The back flyleaf confirms his Northern Briton bard
status:  'He is a historian, a native of Liverpool, an inhabitant
of York, and likes to wander the hidden places of Scotland...'
  You leave his Afterword - a historical note on one of the
earlier tales - feeling there may be more psychologically
autobiographical than is stated, almost making Bell one of his
own characters.  You also leave recalling what enticed you to
such tales in the first place.

                                            *    *    *

Back in the Pan Review (dated 5th July 2012) I briefly reviewed
John Shire's 'An Antique Land.'  This slender little paperback
was put together to represent an incomplete tale patched
throughout by serendipitous little deviations to contemporary
quotes and illustrations.  This purposefully gave that modest
piece an air of mystery, exoticism and scope it might otherwise
have lacked if penned as complete.
  Such is the case with Brian J. Shower's latest, also just out by
Swan River.  Like Shire's title, it sells itself as the spawn of an
accummulation of arcane research from a secondhand source,
where the lines of fact and apochrophal hearsay are wilfully
blurred in the service of presenting an intriguing tale. 
(What might be deemed a stranger, less mainstream version of
Kate Summerscale's semi-fictional biographies).
  A stuffed skylark, sent by a friend, its curious provenance from
a seemingly cursed house named Larkhill, Rathmines, in the old
sector of Dublin, and its original amateur taxidermical owner,
(the hermetic, bird-like figure of Ellis Grimwood), all trigger the
initial investigation.
  Parallel to this journey is 'Old Albert' "himself," the name
derived from an obscure Dublin nursery rhyme that seems
strangely to evoke a sense of deja-vu in the exploratory life of its
narrator.  What opens as exposition almost too dry, soon flowers
into a beautiful mystery of hidden motive and intimating curse as
Larkhill's unconnected, but oddly like-minded, new owners take
over the property and pay their own price. 
  Realising how this sounds, still we are most definitely not in
Stephen King territory - thank God.  The prose is excellently
concise and the mood appropriately ominous, with no
irrelevant domestic intrusions to disturb the narrative flow.
At under sixty pages its economy is also admirable, being
closer to a long short story than novella. 
  An afterword by Adam Golaski stretches the antique,
ectoplasmic finger of 'Old Albert' to the present day with an
equally intriguing, if less economic, 'anecdote.'
Both these Swan River titles come recommended.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Slippery Souls (First Book in the Sunray Bay Series) by Rachael H. Dixon, Amazon Kindle

Fun isn't a word with much cache. It intimates surface pleasure only;
a kind of flip, take-or-leave banality viewed by someone unsure what
true pleasure really is. In literature, it's almost sacreligious.
Consider even the increasingly outdated term, 'good fun.' What is
good fun as opposed to bad? In fact, when it comes to books, isn't bad
fun much more likely to tease an initial interest than good?
  The only exception to this rule is, perhaps, in the field of music;
specifically, its alleged 'fun' side; those dubious novelty records we
grew up with. A bad novelty record enticed us to destroy the radio
and 'hang the DJ.' (This was particularly the case when the notorious
Radio One playlist demanded the latest was played on the hour
alongside every other current single).
  Whereas a 'good' at least held a certain more tolerable charm that
avoided inspiring negative hate. But these always were rare little
beasts. It's pleasing then that Rachael Dixon's first short novel -
described as the first in a series - represents the high end of what good
fun can achieve.
  Libby Hood and her small dog Rufus awake to another normal day
that fatally shifts gear when they inadvertently step into the path of a
speeding car. On 're-awakening' they find themselves on a tourist-
crowded beach called Sunray Bay in high summer. So far, the surface
fun. They also find themselves being followed by a strange donkey-
ride man who will ultimately lead Libby, and us, into a closer set of
relationships she had spent most of this journey of self-discovery
in understandable denial. For the incredulous girl discovers there are
only two kinds of being in this not so benign Purgatory; and both
are monsters. So, she has to be one of them - doesn't she?
  To her credit, Dixon's likely influences are by no means obvious.
The objectification of Libby's soul transposed into her pet might evoke
Pullman's 'His Dark Materials,' while the sadistic, prison-style
governance and its rebel gangleaders roaming the holiday camp
atmosphere harbour a distant echo of Burgess's 'A Clockwork
Orange.' Except 'Slippery Souls' strives to be kinder, more teenage,
and the backstories of the nastier characters play out to reveal they
are more misunderstood than we might, at first, have given them
  There is a playful naivete in the prose style, to the extent I wished
some of the jokey exchanges between Libby and Rufus (who, in
this realm, can now talk) were a little less obviously worded and
rather more cutting. Today's younger readers could almost certainly
take it.
  Yet I admired Dixon's understanding of the need to accumulate pace
alongside the gradually revealed elements of the plot; never an easy
thing to achieve for a first novel. By pulling this off, I was
increasingly gripped right up to the climax.
  'Slippery Souls' is a fantasy not as deep, profound or multi-layered
as most releases reviewed here. But this is not the audience.
Instead, this is a crowd-pleaser for the kind of setting this ebook
represents. It is a cherry-topped, glazed sundae of a late summer read.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Requiems & Nightmares: Selected Short Fiction Of Guido Gozzano, Translated by Brendan and Anna Connell, Hieroglyphic Press

'A direct, unadorned style to express nostalgic memories' is the neat
English-translated line Britannica Online uses to describe Gozzano's
approach and one I wouldn't challenge.
  Born in Turin in 1883, his delicate constitution from birth ensured a too
short life of thirty-two subsequent years.  Perhaps harbouring a sense of
mortality throughout compelled him - paradoxically - to display a
physical amateur prowess across several sports.  At heart, however, he
was a poet, which the bulk of his writings prove.
  He had the advantages for doing so. Born to bourgeois, upper-middle
class parents, he initially studied law but soon found himself tempted
away by the irresistible, burgeoning love of literature and a course run by
tutor Arturo Graf, described in Brendan Connell's Introduction as 'an
exponent of rather dark, fantastic themes.'
  (Oh, to have had such a master...).
  In his sideline short fiction at least, it is this brought to the fore larding
romantic and psychological tales based around his well-healed Turin circle.
Of the eleven chosen here, my favourite is undoubtedly the last;
'A Dream.'  A totally convincing evocation of the kind of nightmare
that numbs out all external sensation during only the deepest of sleeps.
Gozzano adds to the fear - the reader's as well as the main character's -
by manifesting a pernicious controller of one or another's making.
  The prose style elsewhere  is as beautiful as I'd hoped, if, on occasion, a
mite self-conscious.  What avoids the dreaded purple passage
is Govanno's successful adherence to that 'direct, unadorned style'
  There is stylised gossip between characters and fables reinterpreted
for a - then - modern audience.  Intriguingly, while the subject matter
may be deemed very late 19th Century, his interpretation has the
economy of language, alongside present tenses, clearly engaging with
the early 20th.
  Another of the eleven tales and one of the 'Requiems' - 'Pamela Films' -
features an embittered, nay-saying ageing sister of a successful, film
company-owning younger brother from whose fate she inadvertently
benefits.  If not the very first short story about a film company, it is surely
from an Italian Symbolist. Gozzano's young manhood was bestriding the
cusp of changing times.  It is also a comment upon the unbridgable gap
between generations.
  In 1911, Ambrosio Films released a picture directed by his cousin,
Roberto Omegna, entitled, in English, 'The Life Of Butterflies.'
Connell states; ' seems Gozzano collaborated on it in some manner,
though he received no credit.'   For the company five years later, he is
working on a script on the life of St. Francis of Assisi.  He dies of TB,
leaving it unfinished.
  Had he lived, might he have become a great Symbolist director himself? -
anticipating, and being feted by, the young Dali or Bunel?
  It is another of those classic, unanswerable "what if?" scenarios.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

On The Hill Of Roses by Stefan Grabinski, Translated by Miroslaw Lipinski, Hieroglyphic Press

One of four initial releases from this new independent, their decision to translate the uncanny works of neglected Eastern European writers for a Western audience is admirable indeed.
 This collection, originally published in 1918, was Grabinski's second (though first under his own name) leading to his press-inspired, if misinterpreting, moniker of 'the Polish Poe.' For Grabinski's tone of cool introspection pre-empts that of western authors who'd follow in his understated trail.   On each occasion, the senses are assailed and conflicted.
  "I  knew how to arrange the disorderly chaos of stimulants by tracing each one back to its source," claims the narrator in the title tale.  So is the case with the other six; each relater emerging from some undefined psychological trauma for a supposed period of convalescence to face, perhaps intentionally, that which they most fear.
  One wonders - who are they kidding?  Away from the overstated Gothicism of the previous century, Freud's theories now show their influence.  Grabinski's characters purposely question and analyse their own 'madness' from a position of self-induced isolation.  Here, they study themselves.  The sense of dread communicated is thus sourced from the kind of manic depression we recognise today; something internal turning against the self rather than the cliche of the ghostly external force.  The spirits are therefore inside us and so our own.  

  Possession is another linking motif; the father of 'The Frenzied Farmhouse,' the sado-masochist companion of 'Strabismus' and the wish-fulling architect of 'Projections.'  'At The Villa By The Sea' is a personal favourite.  A man's harboured familial guilt finally revealing itself in an idyllic setting in which he'd appeared master, seems to pre-empt Aickman.  A wonderfully subtle and mature tale for its time.  
  Allied to short, spare sentence structure, all these tales, in fact, feel especially modern.  It would make this collection one closer to the Horror genre, except, as translator Lipinski points out in the Intro;
  "(Grabinski was) not interested in just providing a moment of shock or gore...for their own sake...(but the) intricate dynamics of the human mind."
  The translations themselves are sound, revealing the economic, intelligent beauty noted in the originals. In the first two stories, these are ever-so-slightly undermined by a few technical 'typos,' but, from this new committed publisher, such teethings will surely be corrected.
  If the uncanny of Eastern Europe has yet to come under your radar, this is as good a place as any to start.  Grabinski, at least, was one ahead of the game.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Back Burning and Other Stories by Sylvia Petter, Interactive Press

Back-burning is the term used when man-made fires are deliberately started in a desperate bid to swamp other, out-of-control, brushfires and steer them away from habitation as damage limitation. Here, fire is used throughout as a metaphor in differing situations amongst different characters. Collectively, this might be summed-up in the title story.

A daughter accompanying her mother from her second husband's funeral challenges her allegiance: '"Why didn't you leave Dad...if you loved Ralph so?" "There was you." "Then why didn't you let Ralph go?"(Her mother) sighed. "You know what happens when the brush fires come. You can't escape them when the wind hits and the bush starts to burn."' Petter should know. Born in Vienna and a graduate from the University of New South Wales, she has divided her literary education between these alliterative nations. Such a fate takes a hand in the following twenty-seven titles - each an easily digestible two - six pages - where subjective perceptions are suddenly subverted - and diverted - by circumstance.

In 'The Colour Of Haze' I am reminded of another Sylvia P. with Austrian roots. A German couple are bringing up their daughter, Anna, born in post-war Australia where they now live. One day, Anna returns home from school in tears having been accused by a classmate of being a Nazi; a word she's never heard. Her mother comforts her, but the cold receipt of the news of the death of her father's brother - innocently brought to the kitchen table by Anna - reveals his allegiance. I also wonder if Anna is Petter herself.

The following tale - 'The Past Present' - continues the theme, dealing again with Austrian emigres in Australia. The now middle-aged husband, down on his luck, is encouraged by his wife to teach the old language. But it is one he'd been trying to forget, considering the rest of his past it would inevitably bring up. But a brief contact from a grateful Polish mother of two students builds a touching, unforeseen bridge. The final story builds another bridge; back to the first tale. Only by now the perception has darkened. A seemingly innocent relationship between a daughter and her mother's boyfriend has tragic consequences. Again, the daughter figure narrates, to whom, again, the author seems to relate. Though not obviously 'uncanny,' these tales - making up Petter's second collection - pleasingly twist into shadow as much as light. While there is a faith in human nature that, assuredly, embraces both.


An Antique Land: A Cryptic Caprice Collected & Edited by John Shire, Invocations Press

A slender pocket book running to just 56 pages, you will find, concieved within, a little esoteric patchwork of past meditations on travel; specifically, two metaphysical journeys intercut with mystical woodcuts of vague or unknown provenance. Its contents - piecemeal and incomplete - are inspired not so much 'found' formations as disparately 'sent' submissions, the point of their acquisition long forgotten by the equally long forgotten editor who first advertised for them more than a century ago.  

In his letter accompanying this copy for review, John Shire - Invocations Press founder - admitted to a lack of any grand vision. "I'm still making it up as I go along." What he described to me as "a small love letter to books, disguised as an experiment in cheap publishing..." pulls you in with moments of 'Boys Own' high drama, suddenly interrupted with the seemingly unrelated woodcuts and scenes from a second tale of haunting melancholy. Each is incomplete and the source of nearly all, anonymous. But there is no frustration in this. Rather, such brief glimpses into worlds that never were only serve to whet the pallet for further metaphysical glimpses. On this evidence, I hope what Shire considers a lack of clear direction sustains him further. Then, perhaps this was because I was in transit myself at the time - on a number 31 bus.


A last word on another great new £2.99 release from Wordsworth Edition's 'Mystery & the Supernatural' range. 'Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson' fills a gaping void with tales out-of-print for the last twenty years. Credit to Derek Wright, David Stuart Davies and their colleagues for the additional research, bulking out the seminal collection with further uncovered titles, clocking in this release at an extraordinary 702 pages.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012


I'm taking one month out from THE PAN REVIEW.  Needing to prioritise an upcoming house move and 5,000 word piece for the talented author and editor, Mark Valentine.  Back on the 2nd July - I hope.  Meanwhile, a big thank you to all those who've linked-up and / or added comments.  It's seriously appreciated.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Railway Confessions: A Collection of Short Stories by Carolyn Moncel, Kindle Direct Publishing

I am deviating from the uncanny path for one occasion to follow a more transient journey...
The concept linking the three tales featured is simple.  Three couples taking the same train from Paris to Geneva reveal intimate details about their lives to their companioned fellow passengers under the very human presumption they will be ships that pass in the night.
  Each tale represents one stage in the four-hour journey from Paris to Lyon and on to Geneva itself.  It is a simple, but clever, conceit, adding a present tense imperative to the narration.
  ‘My Brother’s Keeper (Paris 20:00-22:00)’ is the best of the three. Two confessions of unintended consequences at first intimate the possibility both characters have committed the worst of crimes until their mutual guilt bonds them, revealing otherwise.  What could so easily have been too contrived to be credible is rescued by the emotional authenticity played out.
  In ‘A Choice In The Matter (Lyon 22:00-23:00)’ a straight-laced mother who’s reached her middle years finds herself next to a cool young lesbian and her baby daughter.  The older woman has only sons and wants a girl – just like her – before it’s too late.  An intriguing scene toward the end features the older woman torn as the younger offers her her child to briefly look after while she leaves to buy a sandwich.  It is almost painful to observe the older woman pondering the illicit opportunity this suddenly gives her.
  In ‘Pretty Prison (Geneva 23:00-24:00)’ a woman on the brink of divorce, harbouring a recurring dream, meets an older man experienced in the art of the casual affair.  A doctor, he also casually draws away the veil – much to her initial anger - revealing to herself how she truly feels about her cheating husband.  It is easy to dislike her infuriating passenger as much as she, but Moncel ensures a catharsis of sorts has taken place.
  There is much warmth in the narrative voice across the three tales.  This is usually only achieved by an author drawing upon their own experience.  An apparent explanatory ‘interview’ at the end (not something I personally care for) reveals the last was, in fact, autobiographical; one consequence, Moncel claims, of being someone complete strangers find easy to approach on parallel journeys she herself had made.
  Thankfully, there is honesty in her use of language raising the bar to a grittier level, and rather above, what might otherwise have been horribly termed ‘chick-lit.’
Barring the occasional typo, (pleasingly almost absent in the first tale) the layout is also clear and technically very sound. 
  This - Moncel’s third release - shows real heart with no trace of false sentiment.  Some of these characters are ongoing, but I also hope she returns to other journeys she has made, perhaps introducing a darker tone for those of us who are also used to life’s transient encounters.  

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Simon Iff Stories & Other Works by Aleister Crowley, Wordsworth Editions

I had thought the full list of fin-de-siecle fictional detectives who specialised in the strange and uncanny was known to me.   Then Wordsworth trailed this in their catalogue last year; all twenty-three tales of one Simon Iff, penned by Crowley – according to another excellent Introduction by William Breeze – between 1916 and 1919 in a journalistic focused rush.
  Originally published in ‘The International’ literary monthly, they ostensibly represent a further vehicle for Crowley’s notorious, publicity-hungry ego. Yet, they are also a revelation.  In my very first ‘Pan Review’ proper (see ‘The Drug & Other Stories,’ 26th Feb. 2011) I criticised the man’s callous treatment of women in most of those standalone tales.  Here, however, Breeze reveals many of ‘Iff’s continuing characters Crowley drew from friends and enemies he knew at the time, including a woman journalist, (Jeanne Robert Foster), his ex-wife (Rose Edith Crowley) and ex-lovers (Jeanne Robert Foster, again, and Ratan Devi). While his rather brusque depictions may not exactly atone for those in his standalone tales, they at least achieve a surface acquaintance with credibility and, as characters, stay mostly alive and appreciated.
  The Stories here are divided under the four headings in which they first saw print: ‘The Scrutinies of Simon Iff,’ ‘Simon Iff in America,’ ‘Simon Iff Abroad’ and ‘Simon Iff, Psychoanalyst.’  Iff himself is an old man who lives by his (and, of course, Crowley’s) religious philosophy of Thelema (doing-what-thou-wilt-(being)-the-whole-of-the-Law) with his own brand of anticipatory logic.  Denying himself the usual material acquisitions, he sustains himself on a meagre, health-centred diet and yoga.  Compensation is afforded in the rich feeding of his other senses, surrounding himself with beautiful objets d’are while imbibing a rare old wine and expensive cigar.
  Initially, Iff appears relatively sane although his subsequent eccentric outbursts and callous sense of humour feel forced, cartoonish, and, occasionally, in poor taste.  Since the character is virtually Crowley projecting himself in his dotage, this is perhaps unsurprising.  This is particularly noticeable in the later ‘Scrutinies’ and the American stories, where his transatlantic audience might have been deemed less shock-able.  Madcap might sum them up. 
  Simon Iff, Psychoanalyst’ is of additional historical interest with its then new Freudian perspective, but the two short tales it comprises are also more credibly sober as a consequence and little gems of the mystery genre. 
  As if this wasn’t enough, this release is rounded off with the ironically-titled ‘Golden Twigs.’  Eight non-Iff tales based upon J. G. Frazer’s highly influential tome on comparative religions, ‘The Golden Bough.’  These reveal just what a fine short-story writer Crowley could be when he wasn’t quite so hung-up on the need to lampoon and shock.  Fables of a mythic Europe reside, although, unlike Coachwhip’s recent M.P. Shiel reissue, you won’t require a Latin dictionary.
   Wordsworth helpfully include unobtrusive footnotes throughout and a Notes and Sources sections at the back to enable even the greenest Crowley novice.  Retailing, along with the rest of the Mystery & Supernatural series, at £2.99, this particular imprint only increases in interest and value.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Haunts & Horrors by M.P. Shiel, Coachwhip Publications

There has been no reasonably priced edition of M.P. Shiel’s classic uncanny dozen in recent years.  So, Coachwhip - being one of the more reliable P.O.D. publishers – should be congratulated on filling this seminal space.
  The fact that one has been allowed to grow at all is of little surprise.  Mark Valentine has described Shiel’s language as ‘ornate’ and ‘arcane,’ (in his intro. to ‘The Collected Connoisseur’ (Tartarus)) and, on reading these for the first time in 2012, it’s clear he’s not wrong.  He means it as a compliment and – now – so can I. 
  Yes, the tales are larded here and there with Latin words, phrases and archaic, phonetic spellings, but to each prospective newcomer I’d advise a default position; take the time to luxuriate in the prose rather than see it as an obstacle to following the plots.  It is worth it, and you may be repaid by the elaborate beauty of every scene.
   This approach of Shiel’s shares something with his contemporary, Vernon Lee; only her mythic Italianate settings are 17th and 18th century, while his resonate from further back - classic Greco-Rome, allying him to the French Romantics of the generation before.  Shiel’s pallet is also broader.  Here, he adds a Viking epic (‘The Spectre-Ship’) French Gothic Horror (‘The Bell of St Sepulcre’) and the fable of a Sadean slave owner in the American Deep South. (‘A Shot at the Sun’). 
  Of the rest, a welcome late-Victorian decadence pervades.  Drug-addicted protagonists narrate their gradual intoxication, either by their own hand or led by those already fallen. (Interestingly, as often by a man – in, for example, ‘Vaila’ - as by a woman – in, say, ‘Huguenin’s Wife’).
  Another European influence; women get a fairer deal, elsewhere, from Shiel than by many of his English contemporaries; revenge against one so wronged by a man features in the ironically titled ‘The Great King,’ as for a girl in love in ‘The Spectre-Ship’ and for another in ‘A Shot at the Sun.’   While hardly a sign of latent feminism, it is a step up from the callous misogyny of most.
  Shiel’s own fascinating background offers a clue.  Facts appear only unconfirmed but, if true, are telling.  That he was born of mixed parentage on the West Indies island of Montserrat to a mother, perhaps the daughter of freed slaves, and a father,  perhaps the illegitimate offspring of an Irish Customs Officer and a slave woman.  Educated at Harrison College, Barbados, Shiel moved to England aged twenty to teach and translate before turning his hand to what all jobbing thinkers must inevitably slum in – commercial writing.
  His subsequent bibliography is a revelation and one virtually forgotten today: twenty-four novels (+ one posthumous) and five short story collections, of which this is the standard retrospective.  Only one of the twenty-four - ‘The Purple Cloud’ - is about to see reprint as a Penguin Classic.
  Of this new reissue, some may bemoan the inevitable lack of an introduction or any informative footnotes, while the serif-style font – possibly Palatino Linotype – may ensure contempt of others.  Then again, the text pleasingly lacks the usual crop of P.O.D. typo errors while the layout is perfectly sound.  Only the dumb, alliterative title masks the esoteric wonders within.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury Publishing

There is a vein running through modern short fiction that adheres to the dictum ‘less-is-more.’  This can be congratulated where what is being described uses just enough words for us to care about the content; after all, few wish to be bombarded by overtly purple prose.  But if there isn’t enough content at the outset, we are left floundering wondering what we are expected to care about in what remains.  This is the issue I have with this, Lucy Wood’s debut.
  I anticipated at the very least some semblance of character motivation and sense of purpose.  In DIVING BELLES there is too little of the former and none of the latter.  This isn’t to say the collection is without merit.  Wood’s conciseness and conscious avoidance of cliché (to the extent some of her similes and metaphors challenge instant recognition) are without question and work well. 
  With ‘Notes from the House Spirits,’ the most successful entry, a home’s ghost relates its various domestic invasions by the material world.  In the title story, a widow in denial takes up the chance to return to the underwater site where she last saw her husband.  In each case we are given enough information to follow the prescribed structure of the story.  Throughout the other ten entries, Wood otherwise remains strong on setting mood via her descriptions of nature and its elemental changes.
  Elsewhere, the approach of minimalist ‘poetic’ prose leaves too much to call on from the reader.  Strangeness alone fails to communicate the uncanny or inspire any emotion when it feels like strangeness for its own sake.  Recognisable character-types are, at the outset, vital so the strangeness that gradually encroaches, from, or, upon them, becomes the issue.  I am reminded of the on-stage celebrity singer who, after singing the verse of a well-known hit, points his microphone to the audience for them to complete the chorus.  Yes, we might be able to fill in the gaps but would have preferred it came from the star we paid to hear. The result is a feeling of being short-changed.  Consequently, here, ideas remain inevitably under-exploited.
  Of these remainder, the sense of unreality, presumably intended, is misplaced.  Characters merely ‘do’, either out of habit or routine, with no subjective intent or narrative momentum.  Each tale’s ‘climax’ peters out as we wonder just what the author was trying to portray.  (I wonder if Wood has read Beckett).
  There are glimpses of possible, future excellence but they flare all too briefly for certainty in a flash of rare wit or spark of rural dark.  Wood has held back too much here and – unlike her gushing jacket reviewers - seriously undersold. 
  Wood is, by her own account, attempting a novel.  I wish her luck and we now know the strengths she has to draw upon.  But I do hope, with the extra length afforded by the form, she makes us care about her characters and at least intimate before its end why they are doing what they do. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A Brief Q & A with Mark Valentine and John Howard

This week, as a companion piece to my last entry, a brief Q & A with partnered authors of the uncanny, Mark Valentine and John Howard:

Mark Valentine’s first publication was The Garden of Ruin, god of the rain (1980) and his most recent, with John Howard, is the short story collection Secret Europe (Ex Occidente Press, 2012). He has written a biography of the Welsh author and mystic Arthur Machen (Seren, 1990) and Time, a Falconer (Tartarus Press, 2011), a study of the diplomat and fantasist ‘Sarban’. His tales of an aesthetical occult detective were recently brought together in The Collected Connoisseur (with John Howard, Tartarus Press, 2010) and he has published four other short story collections. He edits Wormwood, a journal of the literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent.

John Howard was born in London in 1961. He is the author of a collection of short stories, The Silver Voices, and a novella, The Defeat of Grief. His stories also have appeared in the anthologies Beneath the Ground, Cinnabar’s Gnosis, and Never Again. His collaborations with Mark Valentine have appeared in the collections Masques & Citadels, The Rite of Trebizond and Other Tales, and The Collected Connoisseur. He has published many articles on various aspects of the science fiction and horror fields, especially on the work of classic authors such as Fritz Leiber, Arthur Machen, August Derleth, M.R. James, and writers of the pulp era.

Why did you originally approach a Romanian publisher for this and previous projects?

MV: Originally, Ex Occidente Press approached us. Dan Ghetu, who runs the press, had enjoyed some of our earlier stories and asked us to produce a book for his new imprint.

JH: Dan was willing to publish more by us (separately and in collaboration) – which he did – and so it was natural for us to ‘pitch’ the ‘Secret Europe’ idea to him. Dan went along with the way the project developed, as well as requesting and/or making his own changes (such as not including any story notes).

What feedback, if any, have you so far received from British mainstream publishers from your work with Ex-Occidente?

MV: None. However, I’ve never tried to interest them in it.

JH: None – but I’ve never asked for any.
How and why did you both settle on the theme of dissent for many of the tales in this book?

MV: We didn’t discuss this as a theme. Our stories were drawn to it independently.

JH: I didn’t consciously settle on this theme. As many of my stories in SECRET EUROPE are set during times of upheaval (or worse) or impending change, the theme of ‘dissent’ clearly turned out to be relevant and so found its way into the stories through the various characters in their different – or not so very different after all – situations. It often takes an outsider looking in to discern themes.

Another example is in Des Lewis’ real-time reviews, where he (correctly) points out the times I’ve used ‘high places’ – balconies, terraces, towers, hills, etc – in my work. I never realised how often I did it until he mentioned it.

Did either of you ever consider it an issue placing the 'uncanny' tales next to the more political ones?

MV: No. I didn’t think about it. I just wrote the stories that the place or characters seemed to suggest.

JH: I never gave any thought to the arrangement of the individual stories in the book, or of attempting to co-ordinate the order of my stories with Mark’s. We were happy to leave this to the skill and judgement of the publisher. And I think this has worked out well!

As a writing partnership, how do you avoid conflicts? Do you both instinctively write to your own strengths or is it always something that has to be long planned and negotiated?

MV: We have known each other for almost 30 years so probably have a good idea of each other’s interests. For this collection, all we did was to divide Europe up between us, so we didn’t write about the same places. So, yes, the writing is mostly instinctive.

JH: When we’ve collaborated, we’ve avoided conflicts because Mark always has the last word! I’ve been happy with this because the impetus and main ideas have nearly always come from him. This was certainly the case for our six collaborations involving The Connoisseur. He was Mark’s character and Mark knows more about him than I do (although in my time with him I think he’s picked up a few things from me).

I think Mark and I always write to our strengths – many of which we share, and others of which are complementary. I think we largely write instinctively – and more often than not we’ve turned out to have shared those instincts, or they’ve led us in the same direction.

Which stories from SECRET EUROPE do you both consider the most successful at achieving what you'd planned for the book as a whole?

MV: I hope they all work together as a set. While we didn’t have a definite plan for the book, we knew that most of the stories would be set in interwar Europe and in places and situations that might not be all that well known. The interest for me was in trying to imagine the atmosphere of each setting and the preoccupations of the characters.

JH: I’m not sure we really planned anything for SECRET EUROPE as a whole, except to cover as much of Europe geographically as seemed feasible.  I don’t think I started writing my stories to a plan, except that once I’d decided to use a setting (or create a fictional one) I wanted to make it as alive as possible, and hopefully to leave the reader with a sense of having been somewhere in ‘secret Europe’ – even if only for a very brief time, and perhaps with the relief of having got away.

As well as wanting to use places I’d had the chance to visit, I also wanted to write about times and events in recent history that have interested me for years, but which might not be well-known today: for example the brief but bloody civil war in Austria in 1934.

Mark and I divided Europe between us, rather in the manner of Molotov and Ribbentrop; so we never trespassed on each other’s territory, even when we ended up setting stories in the same areas, because of shared interests in them – for example, the Baltic countries.

I don’t think I can answer the question by choosing a story: that’s up to the reader!
My thanks to Mark Valentine and John Howard for giving of their time. I very much look forward to their next releases - both together and apart. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Secret Europe by John Howard & Mark Valentine, Exposition Internationale, (Bucharest)

Like a Cold War-era directive, I received this – one of a limited edition of 222 - through the post from Romania. A smart, Art Deco retro cover, featuring a heraldic red flame upon matt-black boards, above the title - invitingly illicit - compounded the evocation. I was otherwise relieved that your language-illiterate reviewer discovered its contents reassuringly rendered in his own tongue.
  Over just 180 pages, a whole twenty-five tales feature. (Ten by Howard; fifteen by Valentine). But no imaginative deficit is the cause. Economy of language is more often a signifier of focused intent than any dearth of ideas, and I was pleased to uncover this fact through their reading.
  Collectively, the tales are set during the tide of social and political unrest sweeping across Eastern Europe before and between the Wars. Small but telling endeavours are used by its citizens to undermine the governing parties’ grips on power. Howard’s sense of place is confidently realised without dominating plot. (One unavoidable exception is ‘Westenstrand,’ but here the ever-shifting landscape is a character by itself). His best tales relate little telling revenges committed against the state by those who work under or within it – a very European topic. ‘The Silver Eagles’ finds citizen defiance expressed in the counterfeiting of coins, while ‘The White City’ sees comedic lampooning on official stamps.
  Valentine’s tales highlight a more psychological motivation, where we follow individuals’ affected internally by their environments. These, in particular, lard the book with traits of the uncanny. ‘The Other Salt’ harbours a neat twist on a traditional horror motif, while ‘A Lantern For Carpathia’ follows the trail of a lost brand of cigarette to their stoical guardian whose last outpost has one far more compelling story to tell. Together, all feel strangely prescient in our own time of peoples’ uprising against state control.
  Where a sole protagonist is concerned, a remote coolness and ambiguous intent, redolent of Robert Aickman, unites both writers. In Howard’s ‘Wandering Paths,’ a man who has lost his way and the chance to reconcile with his wife seems condemned to pursue his failing geographically; while Valentine’s ‘The Lion of Chaldea’ sees a young Iberian scholar posted by his institute on a goodwill mission to Cadiz and the company of his host; ‘original’ thinker, Dr. Ecquo. Considered a crank by the scholar’s employers, Ecquo claims the citizens of the city once known as Chaldea, "saw the stars very differently from us…where we see mythological figures, creatures, heroes, symbols, they saw – something else." We are asked to consider; is Ecquo truly a crank or, also, ‘something else’?
  The historical and geographical knowledge of their subject, allied to the cool competence and tight, economical use of language united in tales not a word longer than required, suggests this small press release may well be Howard’s and Valentine’s best work so far. I hope they are reissued in time, to be appreciated by a far wider audience.