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.