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.