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.