Saturday, 15 February 2014

Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations by Molly Tanzer, Egaeus Press

'Rumbullion - An Apostrophe' is the meat of the book; a mid-18th century romp of a novella about mysterious sorcerer Count of St. Germain who accepts an invitation for a summer performance in the garden of the Bretwynde family, only to leave a fatality and a case of filial madness in his wake. We are back in the worlds' of Laclos's 'Les Liaison Dangereuse' and Gautier's 'Madamoiselle de Maupin' with all their moral and sexual ambiguity among the upper classes. The tale unfolds as a series of correspondence with the various attendees as Bretwynde son Julian seeks to uncover how his betrothed became so mentally afflicted by the experience. Being subjective views filtered through each character's prejudice or presumption, he - and we - are offered glimpses of horror and unholy possessions that hint at some greater scam. Is the pagan Count behind it all? Or have his alleged necromantic powers just unwittingly opened doors for far darker denizens to pass through? The tale, tautly written with its focus upon adven- ture, is never once undermined by its letter-written structure. The six short tales that fill out the book impress less by comparison. 'In Sheep's Clothing' is an overly proclaimed narra- tive of identity and cannibalism that might have been affecting if more understated. 'How John Wilmot Contracted Syphilis' is better, returning us to the 17th century, relating the title charcter's ruse of pantomimic disguises as a means of getting into (other)fermale patients' undergarments. One of two of the more successful tales. The other, 'The Poison-Well,' is an Angela Carter- like nursery tale. A lowly shrewmouse and a lordly mole argue over the latter's intended installation of a new sunken well to a fatal conclusion. A deceptively simple tale, which, to British suburban readers, may also harbour a whiff of allegory. 'Herbert West in Love' intrigues from the outset, utilising the Lovecraftian character in his student days at Miskatonic University, in a wholly original form. Unfortunately this excellent set-up ends peremptorily rushed, thus more like an early chapter from a projected novella than a short tale, leaving this reviewer in high anticipation while wholly unsatisfied. It might have found greater room, in a collection with a contemporary setting. The last two entries - 'Tubby McMungus, Fat from Fungus' (co- written with Jesse Bullington) and 'Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee' - are fripperies much less to my taste. The former, an anthropo- morphic tale for reading aloud to children with the latter, for a similar audience, in a surreal setting more akin to science-fiction. Still, this is another impressive production by Egaeus; like many of the European independents, beautifully produced on high-quality paper, with the added bonus of contemporary-style woodcuts. Each release is fast becoming an event.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Their Hand Is At Your Throats by John Shire, Invocations Press / Freaksome Tales, Derby Books, edited by William Rosencrans

Two seemingly unrelated new collections, in truth, harbour a definable link. The first in honour of its subject; the second purveyed as pastiche. Each appreciate him well enough to do more than simply mock; their inspiration, overtly, H.P. Lovecraft. If this procures a sigh borne of long having read a multitude of previous poncing copyists, here, each find an extant pulse. Shire's preface reveals his affinity with the subject. '...I've always understood him - the Universe at once malign and indifferent, understood yet made terrible through scientific endeavour.' Most tales, here in his premier collection, though first inde- published between 1997 - 2007 in separate journals, harbour intertextual links. Thus, one wonders what took him so long. Five of the eleven stand out. In 'Investigations,' a hopeless drug addict, habitually-fed as a guinea pig, is taken, by a disturbing pair of suppliers, on an induced journey to a horrific source from which emanates arcane, hidden knowledge. 'Beneath the Black Tower' takes us straight into turn-of-the-century Tibet amongst the British Imperialist troops of Younghusband. Shire makes good new use of the line oft-used about this period, 'perhaps we will never understand,' as one soldier's journal entries relate his mystical and psychological descent in the Gothic, metaphysical structure of the title. Set forty years before, 'Generation' is set in the historical y- fork between discredited alchemy and burgeoning modern science during a monstrous capture in the household of a seemingly well-to-do Victorian family. A tale simultaneously creepy, humorous and well-informed. 'The Tip of the Iceberg' returns us to more familiar horror territory in the same period as science clashes, this time, with religion, as four philosophical seamen embark upon a voyage to the Antarctic and a fate that will ultimately best the philo- sophies of them all. 'Irrevelations' is pure SF. The psychic nature of a 'dead' alien city centred amongst the Mountains of Madness make the authorial link. A spy network's agent is assigned to uncover its true nature with the warning, 'nowhere is safe down there, inside the mind or out.' Shire successfully opens out and makes relevant Lovecraftian fears and assumptions, making them speak to a modern audience. In his Preface, his stated understanding of his subject then suddenly deviates from that of the usual reactionary rebuttalist. 'All it proves to me is that we only have each other. And, therefore, that must be enough...' An unexpected, refreshingly libertarian, conclusion. *********************************************************************** Vachel Vieuxpont Swigferd Gloume - well known to Edwardian scholars as V.V. - 'the Bard from Beyond' - apparently penned over four-hundred short tales and a dozen novels of weird fiction before an enforced weak constitution almost inevitably robbed genre-fiction of another of its mortal heroes at the age of 24. Now, to mark the centenary of his untimely demise, editor William Rosencrans has excavated ten of those formerly un-collected four-hundred from contemporary journals such as London Boys Speculum, The Retractor, The Tonsor's Clarion and, inevitably, Lewd Detective. The results are not bad for a boy forced by his overbearing, homicidal mother to wearing first leg braces, then a whole 'exo-frame,' which, according to Rosencrans, 'held his arms away from his body in the mistaken belief that it would correct his mild scoliosis.' (And, no doubt, onanism). In fact, it lost him the use of his left. His dominated father, just as much a victim of his wife, sealed their son's delicacy of health, ensuring a social shyness that focussed its one outlet into the exercising of a prodigious literary output courtesy of his right. A classic Lovecraftian case if ever there was one. 'Hysteria horrificans,' the opening tale, deals with a Lovecraftian manifestation, if not setting; while the Maestro's influence merely peppers description in the other tales. (Crowley and Burke more obviously informing the rest). 'The Veil Betwixt' is rather more Hoffmannesque as a delusion over a goblin commands a murderous motive. 'And Softly Wailed the Child' is undoubtedly the best tale. More of a conventional mystery, it is also the most satisfying. A Limehouse setting, where-in a police inspector's conscience is caught and diverted by the haunting night cry of a ghostly infant. 'The Hideous Dereliction of Mrs. Blaughducks' concerns the illicit possession and reanimation of the main character's Aunt Myrtle, previously deceased weeks before, by the habitation of a squatting soul. It's the most successful of the darkly humorous gems. 'Manuscript (Found Beneath a Service Pipe)' sees a discredited vivisectionist take glorious revenge against one of his liberal protestors in the most Grand Guignol style. A biographical photo-section from the Gloume Archive tellingly reveals the inbred caste to the family's features that include a 9-year-old V.V., arms akimbo in his exo-frame, as pale and unsmiling as his pale and unsmiling parents before him. So, it is gratifying that the legacy of a poor for- gotten genius, lost so young, lives on in a sympathetic editor's preserving hands.