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.