Friday, 15 November 2013

Albertine's Wooers

While you wait for the return of Pan . . .

Austria's pre-eminent purveyor of the short tale sees their full reissue in 700 pages of The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig from Pushkin Press; haunting beauties every one and a bargain to be had at £20 or less if you can get passed the lurid orange cover.  Sadly, the final in Wordsworth Editions' 'Mystery & The Supernatural' range is Ernest Bramah's The Eyes of Max Carrados, comprising his blind detective's three original collections' plus one tale previously unbound. Also from Wordsworth, a very welcome release in their 'Classics' range - detailed with black-and-white portraits - Mary Shelley's Mathilda & Other Stories. The former priced as ever at £2.99, the latter an even greater snip at £1.99. New from Eibonvale Press is Caledonia Dreamin'; a fresh anthology described as 'strange fiction of Scottish descent,' edited by Hal Duncan and Chris Kelso; and don't forget issue 2 of Swan River Press's bi-annual essay collection on Irish Gothic in all its forms, The Green Book.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Mercury Blobs by Sylvia Petter, Raging Aardvark Publishing (Australia)

Mercury directly harms the human neurological system causing problems with speech and memory, among other symptoms. It may also be a useful motive for this collection's various protagonists.
   Here we discover forty pieces of flash fiction and, as such, are glimpses into psyches that any one of which may one day play out into further scenes of a longer family saga. Single descriptions here would be unfair, inevitably giving too much away from such economical prose.
  Favoured themes include murderous intent, vampirism, personal fears, food and, inevitably, 'the ways of love.' The stabs of black humour that peppered Back Burning (Interactive Press) (Petter's second collection, Pan Reviewed two years ago) are here further to the fore. Also present are its touches of humility that thankfully never descend to fake or awkward pathos.
  Alongside the more fantasy-orientated sketches, the all-too-short 'true life' takes are, quite simply, moving, intimating the requisite life experience to expand into a future novel. (Elizabeth Jane Howard could do with a successor). So, Petter is especially strong when wryly reflecting upon seasoned relationships alongside those hoped for that may never be.
  Uncanny glimpses occasionally wink from this necessity of what is left out; be it a near-fatal accident ('The Hook'), a window into the mind of a serial killer ('Widow's Peak'), a dalliance with temptation ('Golden Lover'), or an ambiguous motive (and a favourite, 'Uncle Henri').
  The mature perspectives tantalise, crying out for a longer work, which, I hope, Petter will produce in the fullness of time.


                                                  ALBERTINE'S WOOERS

Reggie Oliver has three works newly available. Virtue In Danger (Ex-Occidente) is a comic novel by the short tale master. Couched within retro theatrical covers and a design of decadent maroon, it tells of the fundamentalist Moral Regeneration Movement and its cult-ish members vying to take over from their adored but ailing leader. The narrative perspective is from one Ivor Smith, an indifferent, independently minded actor unwisely hired by the MRM to theatrically portray their message of high moral tonality. (While "for him the job was simply an escape from a failed marriage and a faltering career"). The lampooning, while undeniably present, is credibly restrained, with the satirical touch of the late Tom Sharpe. In inspiration, I was reminded of the moral campaigners of the Festival of Light and its leaders' attempts to conscript second-rate celebrities to its cause. Recommended. Also out is Oliver's Flowers of the Sea - Thirteen Stories and Two Novellas (Tartarus Press), his sixth collection of strange stories containing ‘Introduction’ by Michael Dirda, ‘A Child’s Problem’, ‘Striding Edge’, ‘Hand to Mouth’, ‘Singing Blood’, ‘Flowers of the Sea’, ‘Lord of the Fleas’, ‘Didman’s Corner’, ‘The Posthumous Messiah’, ‘Charm’, ‘Between Four Yews’, ‘The Spooks of Shellborough’, ‘Süssmayr’s Requiem’, ‘Come Into My Parlour’, ‘Lightning’, ‘Waving to the Boats’ and ‘Author’s Note’. Still available, also from Tartarus, (and reviewed in these pages), is The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler.

Saturday, 12 October 2013



Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Transfiguration of Mister Punch by D.P. Watt, Charles Schneider & Cate Gardner, Egaeus Press

Egaeus Press's debut releases last year - presenting Stephen Clark's lovingly decadent novel, In Delirium's Circle, followed by George Berguno's vital collection of existential war-torn fables, The Tainted Earth - were likely tough acts to follow. Production-wise, they were also quite beautiful, Egaeus's bi-annual releasing intimating that here was a publisher in Mark Beech who merited a book as much an artistic as a literary artefact, the sparse release schedule thus reflecting production cost.
  The Transfiguration of Mister Punch - Egaeus's latest release - therefore had a lot to live up too. According to Beech, three authors were commissioned "working more or less in isolation from one another" to fantastically re-invent the Punch and Judy mythos in a triptych of macabre tales for a modern adult readership.  Charles Schneider produced 'The Show That Must Never Die,' D.P. Watt, 'Memorabilia - An Evening's Entertainment For Two Players' and Cate Gardner, 'This Foolish & Harmful Delight.'
  Schneider's is a fictitious essay, with anecdotal tales, by a Punch puppeteer whose obsessive adherence to his craft and its history turns encroachingly weird. Black and white photographs punctuate the text, informative at first, but gradually disquieting as if we are being slowly throttled by the collar and forced to consider a perpetrator's defence. Despite its novel presentation in word and picture, it is the most traditional of the three entries in its narrative evocation of a sub-Hammer anthology entry from the 1960s' or 1970s'.
   Watt's tale continues this framing device with the character-narrator addressing the reader directly around four short tales. It is the fourth that is most memorable and genuinely chilling; less in the tale itself as in its depiction. The scene of the carnival-disguised 'freakish mummers' who enter a crumbling inn to confront the cornered, guilt-ridden policeman who finds himself in what appears a purgatorial parallel of his town is especially good.
  Of the three, Gardner's is my favourite. Alongside a giant and especially sadistic Punch and Judy, we begin in Hell itself. They escape to the nearest theatre, taking puppet-maker Stjin, robotic ticket-collector Sir Neville, Rasputin and 'Joan' - a high-strung trapeze doll with a yearn to reclaim her half-forgotten humanity - with them. Clive Barker meets Angela Carter in this nightmarish Grand Guignol of enslavement and human - puppet dismemberment. While the unfolding humanity we hope for is delivered in the character of 'Joan' and her bid to reclaim her past.
  The very tightly edited lines, added to the broad rendering of stark imagery - especially in the second and third tales - make me wonder if one or both of them might have once hankered after graphic realisation. They'd certainly work as well.
  I mentioned the book's appearance.  Clearly, Beech continues as he means to go on. The maroon cover, its gold-embossed title on front and spine, and its wealth of illustrations and photographs evoke a strange, forgotten tome from Edwardian antiquity. Textually, it doesn't quite deliver the high standard, and, by its very nature, single-minded focus set by Egaeus's previous two releases. Yet, as with them, the care and dedication wrought on the production as a whole is equal to them.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Defeated Dogs by Quentin S. Crisp, Eibonvale Press / Lost Tales Vol. 1 by Lord Dunsany, Pegana Press

Four characteristic approaches to the tale emerge from a close reading of at least two of Quentin S. Crisp's original collections, of which this is the fifth. The first is the personal metaphysical travelogue, where the author is the roving outsider contemplating his disquieting responses to place and time with an ominous observation of minutiae most of us otherwise take for granted. (Here, in 'The Gay Wolf' and 'The Gwyllgi of the Lost Lanes').
  Next comes the fictional (though, one senses, not entirely fictitious) memoir, where elements of autobiography are re-evaluated and extrapolated to fantastical, yet still credible, conclusions spawned by long-held and internalised fears.  ('Sado-ga-shima,' 'The Broadsands Eyrie'). There is the Eastern epic myth, where Crisp's knowledge of Japanese history is drawn upon to portray beautifully circuitous plot-driven fables, quite on a par with the likes of his academic ancestor, Lafcadio Hearn. (As in 'The Temple'). 
  Finally, there are the straight horror and SF tales where Crisp, alone on such occasions, excuses himself to become the third-person or character narrator. (In 'The Fairy Killer,' 'Dreamspace,' 'Tzimtzum,' 'Lilo' and 'Non-Attachment').
  While I hope I'm open-minded enough to enjoy all four approaches, it is in this last (pardon me) 'category' where Crisp's literary discipline truly shines.  In the first three there is often the sense that he is trying too hard to involve the reader in the ongoing, as-yet-unresolved issues, tensions and hang-ups of his youth.  Whether there is a worthwhile resolution for himself in writing these out in this format only he, as author, can know. The reader can be left hanging, since the unresolved memories are, seemingly, real and not those of a completely fictitious character whose story arc can always be neatly concluded. Personally, I like this involved introspection although the uninitiated should be in sympathy with the darkly melancholic mood to so willingly follow.
  Alongside 'The Temple,' other favourites include the aforementioned 'The Fairy Killer,' where one man's smug, taunting assertions of unbelief reap a broad and terrible cost. A lighter fantasy with a darker underbelly is unlikely to be found.  While 'The Gwyllgi of the Lost Lanes' features one of the most credible evocations of a haunting I've read in some years; cool, journal-style observations adding greater chills than the usual overwrought descriptions.
  This is an equally diverse, but less wilfully idiosyncratic, collection than All God's Angels Beware!, and all the better for it. (Although 'Ynys-Y-Plag' from that release is - in this reviewer's eyes - fast becoming a classic).  Yet, I wonder if Crisp finds his more linear tales easier to write than the personal travelogues.  Then again, I also wonder if they afford him less closure.

                                                                        *        *        *

In Brendan O' Connell's enjoyable introduction to Defeated Dogs, he alludes to Crisp's "myth-forging fantasy haunted by more than the ghost of Lord Dunsany." The man himself has now reappeared in rare form - in both meanings of the term - in a hand-stitched, mauve-covered, limited edition chapbook of Lost Tales, in what Michael Swanwick describes as being sourced "from microfiche copies of the magazines they were published in for the first and only time." In this case, between May 1909 and March 1915.
  In the past I've made it clear that, in the field of fantasy, Dunsany's surface exotica has left me cold. His apparent influence, that spawned the sword n' sorcery epics of Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Tolkien, Moorcock, etc., ensured I'd be giving this particular sub-genre a wide berth.  His non-SNS work (such as The Blessing of Pan and The Charwoman's Shadow) being more welcome but all too rare.
  Lost Tales, however, is a revelation in the former field. Its beauty - swiftly apparent - is the distilled essence of what made his longer, more elaborate work charm so many for so long. Shorn of the interminable asides, musings and epic descriptions of sand-blown travel across vast oasis, what remains here is the poetry, wry wit and child-like wonder at their source.
  From when the 'diaphanous figure of 'Romance' enters with the night draughts of a darkened house lit by a solitary candle in the first tale, to a foreign agent's search for field gun metal from an unlikely source (in the pre-WW1 'The German Spy') to Man's ingratitude after a sardonic contest of wills between God and Satan in the last, ('The Eight Wishes'), this is a precious blueprint of the ambitious fables to come. It is also a laudable starting point from which the initiate Dunsany novice should depart.
  Mike & Rita Tortorello, Pegana's publishers who recovered and reprinted these century-old tales, state there will be a second volume  - entitled The Emperor's Crystal - very soon. This slender but vital collection of little gems would justify its purchase.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Written By Daylight by John Howard, Swan River Press

"I think these ideas are irresistible and ideal material for stories. We are surrounded by tokens of people and events outside ourselves—everything and everybody that isn’t me—they come from somewhere, and if we let them go again, they pass to somewhere else, neither of which can be known with certainty."
(John Howard, from an interview with Mark Valentine, May 2013)
  It is worth reflecting upon this quote when reading this delicate, quite elusive, new collection.
  In "Where Once I Did My Love Beguile," the fate of a boy and a broken pocket watch become inextricably linked, in a near covert tale of time reversal that reads as having been written with the child reader in mind. 'Silver On Green,' reflecting Howard's long interest in foreign coin collecting, sees a European radical with a Blakean sensibility exiled among London's cosmopolitan Bohemia until a warning visitor from his homeland darkly confirms his earlier belief that silver may 'wax and wane like phases of the moon, but the form endures and deep within...remains constant.' A strange tale in another sense, from a twist that, like others here, requires re-reading to even begin to uncover its portent.
  'Winter's Traces' is a real gem that could so easily have failed. A journalist relates his scouring for source material to write a profile-obituary on the late, 'prolific composer of light orchestral music,' William Winter. There is little uncanny about this tale other than  ambiguous gaps in Winter's chronology and a possible reason the late composer cited as to why he withdrew from public life and ceased composing.  Tales about music so often feel overly contrived; but Howard seems to know enough about the critics' point-of-view to seemlessly pull it off.  In 'Out to Sea,' being careful what you wish for becomes an unforeseen initiation as an ominous band of rowers ferry unsuspecting hopefuls between a Mediterranean mainland and six idyllic islands in a seemingly blind gamble.
  'Time and the City' evokes a science fantasy of a fading era where an explorer delineates an impenetrable map of unknown origin through an uncharted region of the distant past from the prone position of an induced coma. 'Into an Empire' is, perhaps, the most beautifully written entry, about a collector of "coins, banknotes, and postage stamps," the transience of objects and the traces they leave behind - evoking the opening quote. It isn't so much a tale as a rumination upon one with a precise o.c.d. routine for buying and receiving who belatedly, unwittingly, discovers what he'd been searching for in the wider, instinctive world around him.
  The dust jacket is worth a mention; a lovely collaboration between the artist Eoin Llewellyn and designer Meggan Kehrli of a sleeping man in Forties-style suit amid a dream landscape of autumnal browns, greens and blues.
  The remaining five in this collection,'Westernstrand,' 'The Way of the Sun,' 'The High Places,' 'Wandering Paths' and 'A Gift for the Emperor' each originally featured in Secret Europe (with Mark Valentine, Exposition Internationale, 2012) so already reviewed in these pages.
  Most of these tales are so subtle as to defy any category of the strange at all, but reward re-reading and are all the greater for it.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Nesting by David Almond, Iron Press

Nesting collects a majority of independently-published tales by which Almond first cut his professional teeth, last reissued in his first two Iron Press collections; Sleepless Nights in 1985 and A Kind of Heaven in 1997.
  The cover's sub-heading, "stories for adults from the best-selling author of  Skellig," feels something of a misnomer.  The simplicity of style, description confined to present or past-present tense action, with few sentences exceeding ten words, instantly evokes Almond's subsequent work for the 11-14 market.  This is no poor thing when communicating the often difficult, half-articulated tensions depicted between parents and offspring, running through this new collection, played out in thirteen darkly reflective tales set amongst the author's Tyneside youth; although it also somehow limits its otherwise  authentic period detail required by a broader readership, which - where it is utilised - he convincingly evokes.
  There are welcome glimpses of the uncanny amongst the tarmacadam tones.  The double-life - both inner and outer - from formative traumas deeply repressed is a linking theme. In 'A Kind of Heaven,' a desperate, possibly psychotic ex-squaddie-turned-street performer becomes a focus of unspoken, masochistic fascination for a questioning, troubled son and an equivalent amount in guilt from his father.
  A variant on the theme continues in a performing 'child' whose singular deformity is used to fairground effect in 'Concentric Circles.'  In 'Spotlight,' a playground game enacted after dark intimates an indefinable sense of threat to the parents by the boy's beckoning and hungry school friends.
  There are also, unexpectedly, a pleasing pair of Eastern-style fables.  In 'The Snake Charmer,' another street-performer appears to meet his mystical match, while 'The Eye of God' concerns religious interpretation and how it can be skewed, even for a devout believer in the power of words.  In 'After the Abandoned Wharves,' a postman on his regular round of an increasingly rundown estate privately vows to exact revenge upon those he sees has allowed this situation to accrue.
  The title story is almost a parable on the 1984-5 miners strike. A young 'twitcher' recounts how his father, being unable to accept his employer's new terms and conditions, would otherwise be forced to break his familial promises to his son and change their way of life forever.  The egg-collecting metaphor here is clear but carefully handled.
  So, the unforeseen hardship engendered in keeping one's word could be considered a third theme that convincingly unites both collections.  As such, this is a moral, but never moralising, collection, harbouring enough objective space in its sparse, tight prose for the uncanny reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

                                                               * * *

                                              ALBERTINE'S WOOERS

The Grimscribe's Puppets collection is out now in paperback from Miskatonic River Press (US), described as "a homage to one of the Grandmasters of Weird Fiction - Thomas Ligotti," and featuring both known and upcoming talents in the genre, Darrell Schweitzer, Scott Nicolay, Daniel Mills, Allyson Bird, Richard Gavin, Simon Strantzas and others.  Graced by an outstanding cover, John Howard's Written By Daylight is out now in hardback from Swan River Press.  Sundial Press have just re-released retro-classic, The Alabaster Hand in h/b intriguingly described thus: "...It is arguable...that no author has come closer to inheriting the mantle of the great (M.R.) James than ghost story writer Alan Noel Latimer Munby (1913-74). 'The Alabaster Hand' was largely written to pass the time away while Munby was a German POW at Eichstatt in Upper Franconia from 1943-45." Finally, Dedalus European Classics 3rd edition of Stefan Grabinski's The Dark Domain is - after a short delay - now available, also with a striking new cover.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The Other Place and Other Stories of the Same Sort by J.B. Priestley, Valancourt Books

This collection of nine tales - republished on the sixtieth anniversay of its original release - constitutes the entirety of novelist and playwright John Boynton Priestley's uncanny short fiction. The tone throughout is one of lighthearted scepticism and a gentle lampooning of suburban city-types of the pre- and post-World War II era.  In our time of literal zombies, Priestley satirises his self-important dullard rotarians as either aliens in disguise or animated corpses.  Or, is it just the madness-inducing monotony of the rat race affecting each narrator's perception?
  Some context: Priestley (1894-1984) - a left-of-centre socialist - had co-founded the Common Wealth Party in 1942. Founded primarily to break the decade-long stranglehold of Conservative power, it was also in response to the perceived additional stagnation caused by the subsequent wartime coalition of the three main parties. Common Wealth disbanded after only three years, however, from a combination of inertia, in-fighting and a lack of direction after War was won.
  It is also just as likely the Party relied upon its intellectuals for ideas, which, in Party politics, is always a hiding to nothing.  Still, Priestley instinctively distrusted 'the establishment' anyway and this was very much reflected in his cash-supplementing short fictions.
  His career path - if it could be called such - paralleled Orwell's perhaps less popular radio broadcasts and this might explain the latter's uncharacteristic jealousy in his including Priestley's name on the pro-communist list of suspects he submitted to the Information Research Department; the new Labour Government's propaganda unit of 1949.
  Four years on, with Orwell's demise and the coronation secured, Heinemann published this collection that gently mocks that era's obsession of white collar paranoia and Priestley's own with self-regarding pen-pushers.
  The uncanny is often secondary to the targets here, but there are intriguing exceptions; the authentic voices of a Midlands working-class family adds piquancy to a lately deceased but still vengeful relative in 'Uncle Phil On TV'; in 'Look After the Strange Girl,' a man from the future is asked to chaperone a woman whose fate must be kept secret; while in 'Night Sequence,' an arguing couple seeking sanctuary apparently spark the spiritual return of a Regency menage-a-trois that makes them reflect upon their own lives.
  Priestley's depracating wit and sketching of class-bound propriety still render vividly these long-unseen tales of haunted English suburbia.  His one other tale of the uncanny is the earlier novel 'Benighted' (1927) - filmed as 'The Old Dark House' by Universal in 1932 - and also available from Valancourt.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Herald of the Hidden and Other Stories by Mark Valentine, Tartarus Press

Ralph Tyler and I, whatever the content of this preview copy, were always likely to get along. The author's description of him as being 'from an obscure shire...without private means, or any special esoteric knowledge...he smokes foul cigarettes, slump(ed) in his chair...,' from a council-estate flat - 14, Bellchamber Tower - warmed me to the book's amateur 'detective' almost instantly. It also made me suspect an idealised portrait of the author himself in louche and world-weary student days.
  Here we find paranormal sleuthing manifesting mythic returns amongst the dusk-filled terminal lanes of an overlooked, north-easterly outpost. While intentionally traditional in form, the tales are set in the time they were written - between 1983 and today. (Predating David Renwick's 'Jonathan Creek' - of whom the character initially reminded me - by over a decade). But Valentine has significantly pared down the more rambling and pedantic tropes of the genre's earlier outings, minimising backstory and limiting character description, to speak more directly to today's general readership.  Though brief, they are also not undersold.
  Valentine never puts a foot wrong prioritising tightly-plotted adventure couched in encroaching, supernatural evocation.  He clearly draws upon myths based upon his own researches, rather than relying upon those all too lazily warmed over by others before him.  Greco-Roman demi-gods and Eastern bestial-guards of classical myth abound upon and between the unfrequented Northamptonshire gravel paths, somehow lending both a fresher and more authentic feel to proceedings.  This makes him, when he so desires, one of a select band of what might be termed nostalgic originators; writers too skilled in the literary form of former generations to be mere peddlars of cash-in pastiche. (Otherwise too numerous today).
  As in his 'Collected Connoisseur' (with John Howard, and also from Tartarus), Valentine admits to wearing his influences openly.  But, as well as those mentioned in the Intro., I also found a creditable de la Mare in 'Tree Worship,' (where nature's profound cycle clashes with shallow urban manners), a hint of Henry Whitehead voodoo in 'The Guardians of the Guest Room' and even Crowley (diabolism but with a pay-off too witty for Wheatley) in 'Go to the West'; one of six early, standalone tales completing the collection.
  Throughout the main body of ten Tyler tales, the narrative voice - Tyler's unnamed chronicler - is cool, almost dispassionate, with never a concession to comic-book hyperbole.  Yet neither are we ever too remote from the action when it arrives in small, convincing climaxes.  Although not strictly a companion volume to 'The Collected Connoisseur,' lovers of those tales will, I suspect, enjoy these easily as much.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Ayme, (translated from the French by Sophie Lewis) Pushkin Press

The foremost strength of this ten-tale collection is one so rarely achieved in the literary past.  Most fiction evoking an experience lived within a great historical event is retrospective; if only by a half-decade or two, when real-time events fade just long enough to be satirised or, in some way, symbolically realised.  What makes Ayme's collection extraordinary is this form having been utilised in the midst of the events themselves; and with a cynical, madcap, symbolic relevance we can instantly recognise today.
  First published in 1943, Pushkin's reissue is more timely than its mere seventieth anniversary.  We - with Ayme - are in Paris in the midst of the Nazi occupation, each tale presenting us with characters of mundane, credible reality yet with the oddest kinks and abilities.  There is clear reasoning behind this on Ayme's part; if not openly stated then at least invitingly inferred.
  In one way, the book is a hymn to the people of Paris and its outlying towns, each protagonist essentially good; not all of them pleasant, not all of them in the 'right,'  but, basically, good. (Ayme himself appears, first-person narrating the fourth tale, 'The Problem of Summertime').  The title tale concerns a 'lowly clerk in the Ministry of Records' who takes justifiable revenge against his almost psychotically pedantic boss with the help of the new skill he's stumbled upon, only to then unwittingly commit a fatal error of his own making.
  'Sabine Women' will surely resonate today as the Sabine of the title uses, then abuses, her singular ability; ubiquity.  An early case of a woman having it all - until she discovers the limits to having none whatsoever.  However, she is no fool and never drawn as such.
  'Tickets On Time' - disappointing at least as a title - rings far greater resonance in our time of highly questionable austerity. Written in diary form, occupation-sympathiser Jules Flegmon supports the authorities new restrictions 'for the community's good.'  "In order to better anticipate shortages and to guarantee improved productivity in the working portion of the population,..." it is decreed that pensioners, those with private income and the unemployed shall be put to death - at least for a few days per month to save costs.  That is until Jules discovers that, as a writer, he is included among the intended victims.
  There are other archetypes ripe for targeting.  In 'The Wife Collector' a delusional tax collector's spouse who wilfully overspends for the attentions of an admirer becomes his physical rebate and a prospective Government policy. But again, we never feel contempt for the man. It is too parodic for that. More a sad amusement for what the predicament of Occupation might have driven him to.  In 'The Bailiff' St. Peter and God Himself are depicted, arguing over whether the bailiff of the title should be allowed access considering those whose lives he's wrecked. He is temporarily released back on Earth to show he can make amends.  This he does but not for the reason he - or we - might have foreseen.
  This collection is anarchically funny and evergreen, by a journalist-writer confident in the wake of a successful novel ('The Green Mare' 1933) giving a two-fingered salute to those who'd claim themselves his new masters.  I earlier mentioned a clear reasoning inferred by Ayme's sympathetic depictions of his otherwise mundane characters.  It is of open defiance and brazen dissent.

                                                  Albertine's Wooers

The Green Book, Writings On Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature, Swan River Press, Issue One

It is often the case that the best writers' to purvey a country's literary past to a new generation are their contemporaries who've arrived from outside to live there.  This is surely the case of Brian J. Showers; the Canadian, Dublin-based writer-publisher of Swan River Press.  The task he's set himself here, to uncover a possible "lineage of tradition" in fantastical Irish literature is admirable, and clear he is at least - with or without this long, backtracking journey in bi-annual form - in it for the long haul.
  The contents of this inaugural issue are broad in scope and approach; from the first part of a highly informed if densely-penned academic treatise by Albert Power ('Towards an Irish Gothic') as opener, to an absorbing David Longhorn piece on Conor McPherson's 'supernatural theatre,' folklorist Jacqueline Simpson on 'Le Fanu's Use of Oral Tradition,' and a revelatory interview-review of Ciaran Foy's recent urban horror flick, 'Citadel.'  The sympathetic pro-journalist Michael Dirda contributes a brief, but telling overview on his own favoured fantasists - those who use what he terms 'elegant blarney.'
  My favourite piece here is Dan Studer's 'Adventures of a Dream Child...,' profiling Forrest Reid through a study of his quietly strange, semi-autobiographical Tom Barber trilogy. While, ending the final 'Reviews' section, Bertrand Lucat may finally have turned me on to, at least, some of the novels of John Connolly.  There is always room for growth and focus - as ever thus with first issues' - but The Green Book, in content alone, has already justified future numbers.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Letter From An Unknown Woman and Other Stories (translated from the German by Anthea Bell) by Stefan Zweig, Pushkin Press

Far be it from me - an interested but total amateur on classic European literature - to consider himself qualified to sum-up the virtues, or otherwise, of this greatly renowned, if rarely read, author.
All I know is, by the end of the fourth and final tale, I was smiling; not one, however, of ribald humour; not when that final tale's last line describes one fading with that of the protagonist's dreams.
  I've long harboured a belief that what makes an uncanny tale truly successful is the ease with which its author holds back, or even disguises, the likely motive behind enfolding events. So that, by the end, one feels a rising awareness that we've read only the afterglow of a larger back-story and that there was rather more to say. If, after challenging our expectation, that author has rung real emotion from the reader by never cynically descending to overt romanticism or false pathos, they are one of an elite.
  The title story concerns 'a famous novelist' and the sole multi-page letter he receives from a woman he claims to know nothing about. She, however, claims him as a former lover who left her with child, accusing him of never acknowledging her existence through subsequent meetings she 'knows' has taken place and the love for him she must continue to feel.  Is her loyalty justified?  Is she madly obsessed? Or is he a truly a bed-hopping shit? By the end our former allegiance will be challenged. 'A Story Told in Twilight' describes a nostalgic reverie about a spoiled pubescent youth, the mistaken identity over a ghostly lover, and the fate this missed opportunity for love in one so young delivered.
  'The Debt Paid Late' is the one tale lacking the usual half-glimpsed truths, rolling out a more open, conventional plot.  There is, again, a girlhood obsession, but one unexpectedly and satisfyingly returned during a much-needed break in a mountain-side rural inn.  Perhaps the least fascinating of the tales, still it communicates an authenticity and warmth that equally draws you in. The male visitor to a former love in 'Forgotten Dreams,' the shortest tale, might be Zweig himself.  At its centre resides a discussion on youthful idealism; how one lover's view can seemingly, gradually, run counter to that once presumed mutually held so causing ultimate estrangement.  It is testament to Zweig's genius how such a convincing encounter can run to a mere eight pages.
  'Letter...' is the most recent re-issue of the Zweig ouevre, with the collected tales mouth-wateringly awaiting hardback release at a modest price later this year.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler & Other Strange Stories by Reggie Oliver, Tartarus Press

First published in hardback in 2005, this boldly-titled collection is now re-released with detailed illustrations by the author himself.
  The prose throughout reads as conventional first-person reportage, Oliver's (MR) James-ian knowledge reflected in several ecclesiastical settings.  What elevates it above most such referential nods are the ironic, post-colon reflections of cynical wit informing how seriously - or otherwise - a tale should be taken.
  For a single collection, this is quite a hefty tome; sixteen tales running to 338 pages. Oliver's fascination with all aspects of English history are here; from present-day researching of late 17th century correspondence ('The Sermons of Doctor Hodnet') to that of a contemporary play-script ('The Constant Rake') to an 'am dram' company in an indeterminate period post-War. ('The Skins').
  The title tale concerns the narrator claiming to have found a CD box-set bearing this name in a Magnum record store, its possibly credible contents, and the ubiquitous figure subsequently stalking him, who'll go to suicidal lengths to get it returned.  The tale is surreal and quietly mad, to say the least, positing questions it has no intentions of answering.
  The narrative voice is akin to wry, articulate bar-room anecdotage.  Occasionally, its very matter-of-factness can - where a climactic murder takes place - rob a tale of rising tension. Where it occurs out-of-the-blue, it's with little pre-emptive build that something extraordinary is about to occur.  'A Nightmare Sang' - a black comedy-horror reminiscent of an installment from those overwrought budget filmed anthologies of the 60s' and 70s' - suffers this, and is, consequently, the least successful entry.
  Oliver's strength are those tales in which such killings do not play out.  On the ending that is simply downbeat he is very good. 'The Skins,' 'Difficult People' and 'The Babe of the Abyss' each culminate in a sombre twist, which satisfyingly belies expectation.
  The best tales in this regard are hard to fault and deserving of future anthology.  'The Garden of Strangers' features the aged reflection of a once ambitious American journalist in the Paris of 1900, arrived to interview the ailing Oscar Wilde.  It is one of two meditations on the nature of suicide ('A Christmas Card' being the second) and, perhaps, the most life-affirming as Oliver's Wilde recalls the spirit-visitants he encountered whose respective fate helped inform his own decision.
  'Difficult People' is set in the late Sixties, appearing as a comment on the period and the shallowness of a generation who, through their own belief-system, could so easily be led to a self-destructive fate. Disguising this is a tale of possession by a work of art with a life of its own.
   The Aickman-esque 'Bloody Bill' works superbly as each anecdote presented harbours a mystery that demands, but barely obtains, resolution.  William Hexham - a former Eton housemaster and the 'Bill' of the title - is painted by the younger fellows as a figure to be feared, even hated, for his once physical prowess and quick, overbearing temper.  But is he the man he once was? Has age withered him?  Oliver is cunning in never actually showing what formed this reputation, suggesting Hexham is something other, while intimating what he truly is may be merely dormant - or a harboured sadness of non-achievement.  But the real achievement is in Oliver making us - the reader - fear him.
  The broad sweep of English social history alone, displayed here, should galvanise those new to this author into seeking out his other collections.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Doll: Short Stories by Daphne Du Maurier, Virago Press

The long-harboured snobbery of the literary establishment over genre fiction has, I must admit, been matched only by my own misconceptions.  The greatest being that Du Maurier was a writer for women only, whose tastes resided in a form of melodramatic romance.  How wrong I was.  The recent reissue of her back catalogue - in the light of Jane Dunn's new biography ('Daphne Du Maurier and Her Sisters,' Harper Press) - reveals a writer with tastes both uncanny and, by contrast, purposefully comedic; highlighted in her shorter fiction. (Other collections in the series, such as 'The Birds,' 'Don't Look Now' and 'The Breaking Point' each harbour tales with these moods).
  Couched within are themes showing her as sceptical of her fellow woman's motives in relationships as she is with men's; while emotions are things that might be subjectively interpreted in a multitude of ways. Here in each case, (bar one), the protagonist is unaware, and so unskilled, in his or her ability to handle the situation they find themselves in.  
  Written between 1926 -32, with Du Maurier only in her early twenties, she treats her subject matter as if her puberty had felt more like an open wound to grit one's teeth against and challenge than a stage in life from which to project.  Each scenario depicts the fatal consequences of perceived betrayal in sexual mores; be it on a long-isolated isle suddenly and fatally exposed to an unforeseen landing. ('East Wind'); or an unstable narrator delusionally in love with a woman who may - or may not - be as disturbed as himself and who already harbours a partner - a silent and still mechanical mannequin.  Or not...? This title tale is, for lovers of the uncanny, a masterpiece of ambiguity, where we are left to question, but never solve, the narrator's true perception.
  In 'Tame Cat,' a girl (most likely Du Maurier herself, as you feel is so often the case) receives the key-to-the-door with excitement and anticipation for the future that also suddenly, cruelly, condemns her.
The girl's ultimate contempt for the man who's perceived her in the way he has is undoubtedly the author's own, and yet also sounded is a certain pity.  That both are victims of circumstance; their natural programming.  Another sub-theme through the tales.
  'Maizie' parallels the previous tale with the girl - now, one of the streets - wishing to escape from the strictures circumstance has forced upon her, only to discover she is, almost literally, upon the bed she's already made. Episodes of sleeping sickness act as precursor to a premonition in 'The Happy Valley'; another tale in Du Maurier's canon of the uncanny.
  Of the 'comedies,' 'The Limpet' is the supreme example.  A narration by one who sees herself the wronged and innocent party through each life we witness her at the same time destroying.  A more wry, telling portrait of a gold-digger even Dorothy Parker would've been hard=pressed to match.  'Frustration,' a lesser and lighter tale, is no less blackly comic.  A couple engaged for seven years finally agree to get hitched. What subsequently plays out in their attempt to so do is the domino-effect scenario where everything that can go wrong - does.
  If you've purposely been avoiding Du Maurier merely for her fame, I'd advise a serious re-think on her shorter fiction.  Her clear-sighted understanding of male/female relationships, a healthy cynicism underlying, easily bridges the gap of the passed eight decades.

                                                        *     *     *     *     *

                                             ALBERTINE'S WOOERS

An occasional, covert glance at other enticing items...Pushkin Press have made a welcome reissue of Stefan Zweig's back catalogue in paperback, with his short fiction to be collected in a hardback volume this autumn....Dadelus have republished Stefan Grabinski's first collection - 'The Dark Domain' - as an e-book...the ever productive Mark Valentine has a new collection 'Herald of the Hidden', out on Tartarus, as are his main poetical, mystical contributions to 'Star Kites'....finally, for now, Swan River Press have just made available the first issue of 'The Green Book'; a quality bi-annual overview of Irish supernatural literature.... 

Friday, 15 March 2013

The Sea Change & Other Stories by Helen Grant, Swan River Press

With the current vogue of European influence in much independent
fiction, it is not surprising how most of novelist Helen Grant's first
short story collection should be inspired primarily by her former
abodes in southern and eastern Europe.
  Fantasised from these landscapes are the strong echoes of its
traditonal voices.  'Grauer Hans' convinces as a Grimm tale tinged
with Hoffmann.  Her narrator recalls her childhood fear.  After her
mother insisted upon sending her off to sleep to her croon of a
warning lullaby, an aged, seemingly benevolent, goblin subsequently
'appears,' scratching at her window for access.  We already know he
cannot truly be as he seems, but Grant well maintains the narrator's
retrospective naivete, allowing space and time for us to share in the
build-up of its horrific revelation.
  The title tale holds the collection's greatest scare as an aging, mono-
syllabic but experienced diver becomes increasingly obsessed by an
unaccountable wreck.  So obssessed that his capacity for underwater
exploration takes an impossible turn, leading to a nightmarish
encounter. The retrospective horror here is in something much more
subtle than in 'Grauer Hans.'  The reader's realisation that "one of the
most laid-back people I have ever met" on the first page and the "dark
shape in the fading light" at the end are minimally rendered through-
out as one and the same. 
  'The Game of Bear' is an incomplete MR James tale previously
turned by Grant into a competition winner in Ghosts & Scholars,
wherein an actual nightmare ambiguously manifests as an out-of-body
  'Self Catering' is the prankster in the pack.  A man intent on a change
from his usual holiday destination stumbles across a high street travel
agency - with a major difference; one offering "spiritual journeys"
with "a range of unique supernatural experiences" by its exotically-
named and slightly sinister proprietor. (Think an occult 'Mr. Benn').
Its one-joke pay-off the reader may well have seen coming but it's no
less enjoyable for that.
  'Nathair Dhubh' Grant later cites as her first published tale. 
Redolent of 1920s' / 30s' Buchan, it atmospherically paints that world
of rock-climbing derring-do and how some aspect of nature always has
this nasty habit of claiming he who oversteps its mark. 
Grant's effortlessly simple prose style is already set in this otherwise
well-trodden, haunted path of loss and guilt.
  It is these topics of loss, guilt, possession and nightmare which
combine in 'Alberic de Mauleon'; what Grant calls a 'prequel' to
James's 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook.'  A very unexpected type of
brotherly retribution is played out from a devil's bargain in this 17th
century period piece that leads neatly to the door of its subsequent
  In 'The Calvary at Banska Bystrica' we're back in the present, in
Slovakia, where the atoning search for a hateful brother is replayed.
Only there is a greater mystery here as to the brother's true raison 
d'etre, his fate only part-revealed at the end of an ascending path in
some grotesque, physical sublimation.  It is perhaps the most
sophisticated tale in the collection, yet as simply rendered as the rest.
A mix that often makes re-reading a repeatable pleasure.

Coming soon . . . 


Friday, 1 March 2013


Greetings Pan-readers,

This is just to confirm that Pan will return in time for the Spring on FRIDAY 15th MARCH.

Pan Himself willing...


Friday, 4 January 2013

The Tainted Earth by George Berguno, Egaeus Press

This is, perhaps, the most intriguing collection I've read this past year.
A new writer to me, this, Berguno's third, now makes me pine for the
two I've only recently missed. (The Sons of Ishmael and The Exorcist's
; albeit reobtainable as e-books, which, to a reader
of aesthetically designed independent hardbacks, isn't quite the
the same experience).
  Indeed, it feels more like a long anticipated reissue than a new
release - Berguno having only completed the last tale, according to his
afterword, less than four months ago.  I so often find myself most
rating those authors who draw, and build upon, their foreknowledge
of odd pet subjects. For Berguno's research and its utilisation - here, of
Scandinavian folk legends and wartime Europe - resonating to
subsequent eras right up to the present, challenges reader perception
without ever wilfully confusing.  A trick rare for any writer to pull-off.
  Comprising eight tales-within-tales, and ending with a novella, the
title story concerns a father who fails to realise the blood ties he has
with his son are not enough to retrieve him from the existential path
he's taken. 'The Sick Mannes Salve' concerns a will and its elusive
second condition, delivered to a struggling horror writer, by his late
uncle's strange executor and the grotesque, mirrored fate that awaits
  'The Ballad of El Pichon' is another re-told fable on a seafront seller
of fake canaries and the path followed to the dark company he keeps.
'Fugue for Black Thursday' features the first of two World War 2
settings and three seemingly premonitionary sketches by the real-life
Polish author, Bruno Schulz.
  'Mouse and the Falconer' is a satisfying little tale of the consequences
of personal caution challenged by personal courage. 'The Rune Stone at
Odenslunda' - the second Scandinavian fable after 'The Tainted Earth'-
involves the mixed destinies of a fought over love match.
  'The Good Samaritan of Prague' is a Golem tale updated and, truly,
the second 'tainted earth' story here, from the fateful consequence of
the indelible mark left upon the protaganist. 'Three Drops of Death'
is a comic satire concerning the 'hero's desperate bid to save the life of
the girl he loves by two characters who engage in playing him for the
sucker he really is.
  'A Spell of Subtle Hunting' (in three cantos) reveals the second World
War 2 setting, and best outlined by Berguno himself: "...It is a very
intimate tribute to Surrealism.  (It) celebrates the dream, and...

attempts to tell a story where dream and reality coincide.  
Significantly, it celebrates the incomplete, the fragmentary, and 
the useless things in life."  By so doing, it also challenges assumptions
on the things we define as important.
  There are no weak tales here.  The most that can be directed in
terms of any doubt is an occasional over-ripeness of language in
early descriptive passages of this otherwise sublime novella. But all
nine are sublime indeed, indulging and exercising the imagination in
ways reminiscent of Meyrink, Grabinski or Gozzano at their best.
I've no hesitation in naming this collection as a future classic.