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.