Monday, 31 March 2014

Here With The Shadows by Steve Rasnic Tem, Swan River Press

Following his thirty-year retrospective,(Chomu Press's 'Onion Songs'), reviewed last month in these pages, comes Rasnic Tem's latest. A subtle shift in mood and colour immediately becomes apparent. Where certain tales in the former voluminous selection revealed a broad pallet of symbolism and metaphor, the best remained the maturer, quieter tales of love lost and tragedies unresolved. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of Rasnic Tem's, so far, greatest examples; 'Wheatfield With Crows.' (Ironic, considering it's named after a Van Gogh; an artist known for the broadest of strokes). Debuting in last year's Dark World (Tartarus Press) its place at the end of that collection - as here - is appropriate. An amateur artist and his mother return to the scene of what they believe a very personal crime - the unsolved childhood murder of his absconded sister - her daughter - fifteen years earlier. The jaded, half-articulated pain felt by both is beautifully rendered and as hidden as the overgrown stalks of wheat that may harbour their darling forever. 'The Cabinet Child' sees a husband try salving his hidden guilt over his wife's years of disappointment, to whom he'd refused a child, by purchasing a surrogate gift whose true nature remains as closed. Coming over as a conspiracy between both the James's, the ambi- guity of Henry leads to the startling denouement of M.R. Three tales here are new; 'A House by the Ocean,' 'The Still, Cold Air' and 'G is for Ghost.' The first sees a sister, wilfully estranged, then reunited, but at what cost? The second involves a ghostly parental legacy that seemingly returns the contempt their son had held them in, in life. The third concerns a young murder victim who won't stay dead. Interesting then that each of these tales are so connected; by the unrequited echoes harboured in a dilapidated house and its varying forms of familial revenge. The evocation of empty hope, amidst the cold and the damp, is chillingly, cloyingly wrought. It might be argued that no new ground is broken here. Yet when that ground can break the heart by such half-glimpsed evocations of familial loss, the writer's job is surely achieved. Swan River's first, appropriately monochrome, cover is just as effective as its more colour-dominant predecessors. A young tree's awakening as a woman in a snowstormed forest reflects the isolating chill beneath the covers. Another effective collaboration from Meggan Kehrli and Jason Zerrillo.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Transactions of the Flesh, A Homage to Joris-Karl Huysmans, edited by D.P. Watt & Peter Holman, Zagava & Ex-Occidente Press / Onion Songs by Steve Rasnic Tem, Chomu Press

There is little need to be a lover - or harbour knowledge equivalent to its eighteen contributors - of J.K. Huysmans to appreciate the latest 'ZEX' co-production. Only a mind open to the broad scope of European literature at large, past and present. I write this knowingly of the former and, at least, in ongoing hope of the latter. The subject for which these tales are in homage has certainly focussed and exercised these writers more formal literary abilities - with the results, in the main, both lovely and surprisingly fresh. The restraint in ruminations, 'adventures of the self,' (in Jonathan Wood's 'Pray to the God of Flux') feel perfectly contemporary while remaining prescient. Disillusionment, perhaps, making a comeback. Art's historic relationship to Disease bears novel interpretation, in Louis Marvick's 'The Red Seed' and Eugene Thacker's biographical essay on the 'corporeal anomolies' of the tragic, infected, St. Lydwina. ('An Expiatory Pessimism'). Colin Insole's luxuriously decadent 'Salammbo and the Zaimph of Tanit' sees transient beauty emerge from the degradation of an 1860s' Parisien slum to sensualise an amateur artist thus far disappointed in marriage only to be returned, too soon, to the primordial mud from whence it came in a sumptuous paene, as much to Flaubert or Baudelaire as Huysmans alone. I've long been intrigued, and not a little perplexed, at the idea of the Catholic Sensualist; a peculiarly southern European trait. While the UK has had its fair share of self-doubting religios, (such as the Inkling set of Lewis and Tolkien), the issue of sex as felt rarely, publicly, reared its inquisitive head. Huysmans very Frenchness held sway in one characteristic regard; his openness. Just one tale here directly indulges, (purple) head-on; M.O.N.'s 'Indescribable.' The secretive author's title might be deemed unwise, placed before the reviewer, though he or she does manage to avoid nomination for this year's Bad Sex Award by describing feeling with rather more gynacological gymnasticism than the act itself. Other treats here include Berit Ellingsen's northern mythic 'Summer Dusk, Winter Moon,' where an immortal hero is callously used as eternal protectorate to an ungrateful village; a lovely statue whose original model reappears brought to startlingly unexpected life features in Harold Billings's 'Angel Head.' Fans of the ubiqitous Mark Valentine and his writing partner John Howard will be pleased to see they each have characteristic new tales included. ('The Key to Jerusalem' and 'Ziegler Against the World'). There is a nineteenth tale - a newly- translated playlet co-penned by Huysmans himself. ('Pierrot the Sceptic'). A riotous romp, almost Ortonesque, that climaxes the book's intellectual pretensions with a welcome pie-in-the-face. Being a ZEX release this is a very limited edition, but another exceptional production in its faux crushed silk cover in Royal blue and art-endpapers by Louis Ricardo Falero. The finest original collection of the year so far. *********************************************************************** Rasnic Tem, it appears, is another of those authors (for which, Pan readers will note, I've a particular fondness) capable of describing long-harboured mania in language of deceptive simplicity. Even where a character's subjective view of themselves lack subtlety, as with the office worker's constant perception of his life as a circus clown in 'Slapstick,' or the divorcee's suicidal desire for complete alienation in 'Unknown,' the experiential mindset of each rings entirely true. What connects each tale in this forty-two set release, (alongside a whole three-decade gamut of obsession, depression and schizophrenia), is the feeling of a stable delusion suddenly shifted to a unstable reality. Rasnic Tem recognises how the older we get, any relief we may once have felt awakening from a childhood nightmare is now tempered by far more frightening everyday truths. Age and experience offer no safer landings. Another meticulous obsession, prompted by familial loss, is 'drawn' out in 'Doodles,' where a father fills the unfillable space in his life in a way that might see history repeating. In 'The Figure in Motion,' a widower feels compelled to publicly demonstrate only happy memories of the wife he's lost, self-denying to the point where he no longer percieves his own fate. Most painfully touching in this regard is 'Charles.' Seemingly constructed as a modern gothic ghost tale, it soon becomes clear that any apparent spirit is no more than that of the sad, unattainable hope of a dementia-afflicted mother. As 'everyday truths' go, these are drawn as anything but mundane. In 'Cats, Dogs and Other Creatures,' are the parents' children just play-acting fatalities on the lawn? Or are Rasnic Tem's narrative descriptions rather more literal? 'Night, the Endless Snowfall' and 'Archetype' each add to the sense of familial insecurtiy; that families, far from safe, reassuring communities, are as alienating in their own way as any group of perfect strangers.