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.