Saturday, 21 November 2015

November Night Tales by Henry Chapman Mercer, Valancourt Books & Swan River Press

Originally published in 1928, two years before his death at 73 - in the week that also robbed us of DH Lawrence – 'November Night Tales' was Mercer's only collection, and penultimate book. Better known in life for non-fiction on his broad specialities of architecture, paleontology and engineering, it soon becomes clear that – unlike so many of his contemporaries - he never allows his first-hand knowledge to stifle style or the sense of adventure. There is a light touch and tight literary discipline in his approach, unencumbered by the usual showy research of the history scholar, while his descriptive sense is sensual but controlled. (His graduating in Liberal Arts also means he consciously avoids the usual contemporary prejudices).
  'Castle Valley' – a forgotten prophecy unfurls as an artist, Pryor, unwittingly paints a castle once planned by an ancestor but never completed. When a polished mineral stone is found on the actual site, dating back to the crystal-gazers of folklore, a train of precognitive events appear triggered. 'The North Ferry Bridge' – a discredited doctor, his rival, his experiment, his kidnapping and a secret foundary of ravenous rats are behind this most Buchan-esque of mysteries. 'The Blackbirds' – an engraving, a lost artist and his fate at the hands of Indian fire-worshippers play-out this very Blackwood-ian tale. 'The Wolf Book' – an occult tapestry, kept in a tin can, and lusted after by lycanthropic peasants in the Carpathians, is just one of a lost series of much sought-after 'wolf books,' also wanted by more modern seekers.
  'The Dolls’ Castle' – the dramatist, Charles Carrington's second appearance, after 'The Blackbirds,' in a satisfying and creepily restrained haunted house tale. “There, propped close together against the dingy plaster, an unaccountable array of diminutive figures,—dolls, in various dresses and of many sizes and kinds, startling, repulsive,— seemed to gaze at them from the shadows. The slanting rays of evening, through several breaks in the dimmed glass, here and there brightening the display, showed the havoc of moth and damp upon the tattered costumes, mouldy hair, and glassy-eyed faces rotted into paintless knobs.” They also dance --- unaided and unseen --- all according to rumour, of course. Mercer appears to have once considered Carrington and Pryor as more regular characters, since the former features in both 'Castle Valley' and 'The Dolls' Castle,' with the latter also in 'Castle Valley' and here.
  'The Sunken City' – the re-emergence of a subterranean city of Homeric legend recurs in this collection's superior tale of cloak n' dagger intrigue. 'The Well of Monte Corbo' – for the fifth time in this collection, the true provenance of a castle and its harboured, mythologised secret is the source of a search between two former art students of parallel sketches by Titian and Durer. This is an additional tale – and up-to-standard – apparently found amongst the author's papers after his death.
  While each tale – featuring either a castle, monastery or secretive outbuilding - can therefore be classed as Gothic, they are all written in the, then, modern idiom. For those with a taste for the retro adventure, had Mark Valentine's or John Howard's names been on the cover, few would have questioned the attribution. This gives them a timeless quality that, conversely, evokes many genre-influenced authors today.
  If not strictly uncanny, each mystery is layered with intimations of precognition and 'coincidence,' suggesting the iconoclast Mercer himself may well have been a believer. Such authenticity of voice makes each entry a superb example of the genre and a satisfying read for the season. The title is newly-re-released, both in paperback from Valancourt and hardback from Swan River; perhaps a more fortuitous circumstance for the collector-reader than the respective publishers.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

UPDATE . . .

'Pan' will return in two weeks, with the last entry of the year four weeks after that in time for Christmas. Other writing projects need attending. Thank you all for your interest, past and present...

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Ten Nights Dreaming and The Cat's Grave by Natsume Soseki, (A New English Translation by Matt Treyvaud), Dover Publications

I stumbled upon the fact that Dover Publications were still releasing new titles just a couple of months ago - having assumed they'd long been languishing in print-on-demand purgatory. Proof to the contrary came in the form of this new English translation of a forgotten Japanese classic.
  Originally serialized in 1908 in the newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun, these ten little fables of fantasy neatly realise the elusive, internal logic we all experience in sleep that so defies the explicable by day. The tales are so short (around three pages apiece) that to precis each would demand a virtual retelling. Instead, it's worth drawing attention to the 'Third,' 'Sixth,' 'Seventh' and 'Ninth' nights as particularly affecting.
  Seeking out Soseki's bibliography, it is extraordinary to discover that it represents only the final decade of his life, from 1905. (If one exludes an unfinished novel from 1916; the year he died). Extraordinary, since Soseki (born Natsume Kinnosuke in 1867) was widely read in life. Some poetic justice perhaps for this occasional composer of haiku; a one-time victim of the incredible state taboo of being the last, late born child, consigned for this reason to orphan care. Unlike most tales of author fatalities however, it was Soseki's very career that appeared to have sustained him from the outset, with popularity arising from his very first release,'I Am A Cat.' ('The Cat's Grave,' a kind of companion tale to the earlier piece, is included here).
  Whatever your experience of Japanese literature, you need little thanks to this latest edition. While the main body of text comes in at only 641/2 pages, succinct explanatory footnotes for its archaic terminology are included alongside an equally explanatory foreword and introduction which serve – rather than hinder – its enjoyment. To a novice, ike myself, they also act as an easy entre into the form.

                                                       Albertine's Wooers

Issue 6 of The Green Book (Swan River Press) is the latest and, so far, best issue in its wealth of rare find features: an early, uncollected, Bram Stoker tale, a forgotten little wartime memoir from Lord Dunsany, a contemporary profile on AE, and an exclusive interview with David J. Skal are the highlights. A tough act for editor Brian Showers to follow. Perhaps it's just as well it's released bi-annually...

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Aickman's Heirs, Edited by Simon Strantzas, Undertow Publications

To embrace the work as a whole... I respect Strantzas for wanting to avoid the obvious tribute collection, as he concedes from the outset, so adding to the countless roster of second-rate fan-fiction titles; but his alternative reasoning for the title feels tenuous in the extreme.
  For those anticipating a tribute collection, written-in-the-style, you may be disappointed. The narrative voices are mainly the authors'; which is just as well since the majority, expressed in the modern American-English vernacular, would only further distance us from Aickman's own English RP style.
  While Strantzas warns against this very assumption in his intro, his alternative reasoning for the title seems equally vague – that, while RA's work was idiosyncratic, the way he worked is shared by our generation, influenced by him. i.e. by “mining their own personal psychology” and “tapping into their own subconsciousness, much as Aickman had.” Aickman, yes, and also every other writer on the planet, which fails to justify or explain precisely what set him apart.
  On reading, I remain puzzled as to how these tales – taken in unity – even begin to justify the book's title, if the way Aickman worked is a raison d'etre shared by this generation. Strantzas claims this is through being“open to exploring new avenues of the subtly bizarre.” Then could you not say that about any idiosyncratic author in recent history? Which then was Aickman's avenue? This isn't defined. The approach of each contributor is so much a contrast to its predecessor as to have been lifted from disparate sources. This is less a complaint, though, than a mild word of warning to an Aickman completist going by the title alone. I'd suggest its appeal would lie more with the convert to the uncanny, at large, rather than the seasoned specialist on the author. Strantzas also claims that attempting to write like Aickman is “impossible.” Difficult, certainly, but not insurmountable.
  The best of the work here defies this claim, showing the necessary cool impassivity and psychological insight. Praise then to Richard Gavin, John Howard, D.P. Watt, Michael Cisco, Lynda Rucker, Michael Wehunt, Helen Marshall and Malcolm Devlin. Their entries at least feel influenced by Aickman, without, in any way, aping him, as Strantzas wanted to avoid. Were that the whole collection was so pitched.
  But it is fortunate, for us all today, that we live in an era where the short tale has blossomed in popularity, regularity and quality, in the face of nay-saying publisher agents; one of whom – as recently as 2008 – confidently predicted its demise. Undertow's growing list remains welcome confirmation of that untruth.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications by D.P. Watt, The Interlude House

This is Watt's second collection, swiftly re-released as a paperback, after that of his first, 'An Emporium of Automata.' (Eibonvale Press, 2013). His friend Daniel Corrick wrote in the introduction to that release how “given his taste for visual flair, it is not surprising that the intermingling between sensation and narrative plays a consderable part in some of the stories.”
 Here, this is literally foregrounded with far greater use of accompanying photographs – both personal and 'found' – which directly, and indirectly, evoke some part of a story's narrative. In an interview for Weird Fiction Review, Watt reveals himself – far from unconventional sources - as part of the generation growing away from Arkham-style Americana toward Europe's own Gothic.
  “Influences can be hard to follow but I’d say my interests are more in the realm of the European fantastic rather than the Lovecraftian ‘Weird’ tradition — Hoffmann, Kafka and Huysmans and the strange tales of Aickman are very important to me, as are the works of Grabinski, Schulz and Walser. Where they all live on the weird fiction spectrum I’m not certain, but the breadth of a work ... just goes to show what a wonderful tradition this kind of fiction embraces.” In my own repudiation of conventional horror, I'm with him there.
 “I see fiction as an environment of exploration and experiment, where the reader and writer can use the imagination to examine modes of consciousness and creativity. If fiction were simply the replication of the world then it becomes nothing more than a dull map of a bland terrain, if it can colour the hills purple and the sky green it allows thought some liberation from an obligation to repeat and become confined by routine. It’s also great fun!” Again, who would disagree? 
  Less welcome is the book's accompanying intellectual contrivance. I'm not entirely convinced by Watt's voicing his updated philosophy on Kant's 'categorical imperative,' whose history is sketched by Eugene Thacker in an afterword. Fine in an interview or personal website but, ultimately, the tales must stand alone, apart from, and unencumbered by, any thin support from a philosophical foundation.
  As his admiration for Schulz and Huysman's shows, he adheres to the more disturbing end of the uncanny. Then, as with a writer like Mark Samuels, he is most successful when hope or personal will isn't entirely absent or abandoned.
  Some of Watt's titles are overly pretentious and not exactly enticing to the novice of the 'weird.' (He'd already offerred us 'Pulvis Lunaris, or, The Coagulation of Wood' in the previous release...). Here, the boat is well and truly pushed out, so it helps to be familiar with the influences. By contrast, Watt's website is beautifully sparse – bare of much text at all – reflecting his preference for pictorial evocation. I wish I could feel as warm toward the text here. Yet, three examples highlight his contrasting range.
  E.T.A. Hoffmann's more vintage metaphysical approach is clear and present in the title tale. One atypically uplifting and conventionally told. Taken by a Kafka-esque poster advertising an upcoming magic show by a troupe of travelling players leads the protaganist to a meeting with their MC, who reveals the transformative power of their secret. A good opener.
  'The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller,' appears, according to Watt, 'either loved or loathed.' Whether it's a fit for this collection is arguable, but his journey of a soul vicariously inhabitating a progression of bodies works surprisingly well considering it is – by Watt's own admission – the most experimental.
  '...he was water before he was fire...' is a real gem. Embarking alone upon a summer camping trip to the coast, our protaganist spies a feral man who barely speaks in monosyllables, yet appears seasoned amongst a group of wild swans. Like some outcast Bear Grylls, he shows our man how he perceives nature, leading to an epiphany that also reveals (to him anyway) the true nature of the swans. The only real fear factor in this tale is the unsettling behaviour and unknowable identity of the homo ferus. Yet this is the tale's strength.

  Watt's third collection will find first release next year. Shawn of the lily-gilding philosophy, a voice could reveal itself some way ahead of his contemporaries.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Satyr and Other Tales by Stephen J. Clark, Swan River Press

Reading Stephen Clark's latest, I recalled an earlier notion that if only BBC Television spent less on the annual prestigious production, they could be more prolific, producing something as exciting - and more economically viable - as an adaptation from one of the current crop of short tale scribes.
While conforming to 'the uncanny' and – arguably – 'the weird,' few need be as semi-accessible as their version of Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. So, why not? Viewers don't only want decent drama - most also need adventure.
  The past decade of the 'Doctor Who' re-mount – and its continuing healthy viewing figures – surely attests to that. We are now entirely drained by vampires and zombies; indifferent to the powers of the superhero. (And when is 'Doctor Who' ever interesting, or credible - even in its genre of fantasy - when the dead keep returning?) What of the personal twists of real history and its odder, more intimate, consequences? Human tales, in other words...
  Clark uses the little known outsider painter and writer, Austin Osman Spare and his world, as the backdrop to the first tale. 'The Satyr' is a novella – a rewrite of the original publication in 2010 - adding, in his prefacing words, 'greater depth with Austin Osman Spare's life and ethos.' In Blitz-torn London, a disturbed woman artist, an alleged disciple of Spare with possibly portentous visionary insight, attracts the obsessional attention of our narrator, a recently released ex-con. Living under the moniker 'Marlene,' she draws, frenziedly, in real time, as he is compelled to follow her on an unforeseeable mystical quest. One in which they, themselves, are being followed. The plot and setting may have been done-to-death – and yet its ingredients are beautifully balanced and strikingly showcased by an accompaniment of Clark's own 'Marlene' drawings.
  The Bestiary of Communion follows, also rewritten, from his subsequent collection of 2011.  In 'The Horned Tongue,' a man mourning the recent death of his wife is visited by an occult sorcerer – a player of fate - who inexplicably knows his guilty past and shows him far more than he wishes . . .until he his given no choice. A cruel story, perhaps, but we follow them more than willingly to its conclusion.
  'The Lost Reaches' is the gem here. Escaping an NKVD patrol in the Carpathian forest, three Poles, carrying a dying husband and exhausted wife, find a house to hide and rest in, amid the snow-packed wilderness. They also find its dimension-defying rooms laid out for black tie guests, who they soon discover are still within; crazed, somnambulant and victims of some controlling force that begins to take them over too. For it is a museum with exhibits that reflect the damaged id of the forgotten author whose possessions are on shadowed display. Clark's descriptions of the borderless interiors bleeding into the outside are memorable dreamscapes.
  'The Feast of the Sphinx,' is rewritten from the original final tale, 'My Mistress, the Multitude.' Back in World War Two, a Czech-sympathising German interrogator in occupied Czechoslovakia becomes drawn into the backstory of his seemingly possessed artist-prisoner and the mystical Countess whose likeness can never be truly captured. In one respect a re-tread of the first tale, except the obsessed, artist pursuer is now male and the controlling object of that obsession, a woman. The unremitting pace of these four little mystical thrillers evoke the best of the pulp-era decadents.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Face of the Earth & Other Imaginings by Algernon Blackwood, (Compiled and Edited by Mike Ashley), Stark House Press

I felt a frisson of joy, stumbling across this recent release - the first 'new' collection of Blackwood since 1989's The Magic Mirror. (Also from Mike Ashley). When it came to humanising nature, most of his contemporaries – from Potter to Grahame - anthropomorphised woodland beasts for children; Blackwood – almost single-handedly – anthropomorphised the elements around them for adults. He achieved this – especially in his pre-World War One work – by manifesting the child-like idealism still slumbering in himself and, unarticulated, in many of us grown-ups. Add the mystical atmosphere – fired by his own belief – and the undeniable beauty of his vision remains unique.
  Today, a brisk surface read by a Blackwood novice could form an assumption of him as a mere sentimentalist; and a dated one at that. In truth, his resonance is far more profound.
  After his death, aged 82 in 1951, his last hurrah of major sales subsequently faded in the wake of 1967's Summer of Love. John Baker re-published The Empty House, The John Silence Stories and Selected Tales collections - and that was it. A sad but significant ending for a bibliography that, by the 1930s', had been a staple of the private and public school curriculum; significant also in its reflecting what were fast turning into more cynical times.
  Mike Ashley's choice and compilation of material is first rate. I only wish Stark House's realisation was equal to it. The usual bold, painterly art cover and graphics work well, always enticing the eye; but, within, there is something about the crowding of the text and the office-type paper – used by so many inde publishers now – that lets the production down. (Presumably to cut costs). That said, it is worth the purchase for Ashley's well-considered chronicling of Blackwood's early oeuvre, highlighting the arc of his nature vision, and the detailed bibliography at the back.
  Some of the journalism acts as useful prologues to some of the later, more famous, short tales (not featured here) for the scholar seeking deeper context. The elemental descriptions in 'The Willows,' 'The Wendigo' and 'Ancient Sorceries' clearly resonated with what he'd already witnessed in these earlier explorations around the mountains and valleys of the Balkans, Canada, Austria and Egypt.
  Ashley – Blackwood's biographer – has separated his finds, culled from Blackwood's early stories and journalism, into four sections: 'Early Tales,' 'Imagination Awakes,' 'Nature Inspires' and 'Conflicts of the Soul.' If not strictly chronological, they are ordered logically enough to easily follow his literary and spiritual journey up to the end of World War One.
  Of the four, Section 3 reveals itself as both key and the most memorable. Here, we come closest to seeing life through Blackwood's eyes as lived. It is nature as a mystical liberation; one with no beginning and no end, ever-active, ever-changing, yet eternal. 'Down the Danube in a Canadian Canoe' - the centrepiece of, perhaps, the whole book – clearly made a lasting impression on him, echoed in several subsequent pieces – including 'Egypt: An Impression.' These are more transcending than mere travelogues, while never descending to the showily sentimental.
  Two pieces in Section 4 stand out as contrasting results of encounters made during World War One, working first for the Field Ambulance Service and, latterly, as an Intelligence Agent. 'Onanonanon' may be unique in the canon for detailing the psychosis of a schizophrenic, first as a boy, then as a man, making disturbing connections. If not his best, then it's certainly his most radical short tale and singularly ahead of its era. (c. 1920). 'The Memory of Beauty,' the final tale here, concerns a convalescing soldier in a nursing home, making a mental connection of his own to somehow recapture the little he can recall of his past. Again, Blackwood avoids saccharin pathos; instead producing a scene genuinely moving to anyone – like myself – who has a relative afflicted with Alzheimer's.
  Then again, from a memory all my own, he unwittingly left me with a smile. A line on the last page leads into the soldier's epiphany: 'He saw two Lebanon cedars, the kitchen garden wall beyond, the elms and haystacks further still, looming out of the summer dusk...' Recall that it was his literary rival, Machen, who was quoted as remarking; Tennyson, you remember, says, “the cedars sigh for Lebanon,” and that is exquisite poetry, but Blackwood believes the cedars really do sigh for Lebanon and that … is damned nonsense!’ 

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Disagreeable Tales by Leon Bloy, (Translated by Erik Butler), Wakefield Press

“(He) was an utterly generic man – the next best, in a host of insignificant and vacant individuals, to happen by; he seemed one of those people who exist in the plural, so fully do they express atmosphere, collectivity, and sameness... His face seemed to be cast by a spade; it belonged to the innumerable number of fake he-men from the South no interbreeding can refine – but in whom everything, even the uncouthness, is just for show...”
  From 'A Dentist's Terrible Punishment,' featured here with twenty-nine other raucous faux anecdotes, this passage reminded me of one of British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent rhythmically alliterative, but ultimately empty, speeches. I had to smile, in a way that the tale's author Leon Bloy (1846-1917) would surely have approved.
  This is a theatre of blood from the perspective of a catholic outsider. A born contrarian, who seemed to lose as many friends as he gained, Bloy swung from a youthful hatred of the Catholic Church to converting to it in adult life under the pervasive influence of local novelist and short tale author, Barbey d'Aurevilly; a dandyish figure of the previous generation whose open literary non-conformity would soon inspire Bloy's own. Proudly unclubbable as Bloy became - being also unemployable - left the permanently destitute writer with little choice but to plead for financial aid from friends and found acquaintances. This left him with the unenviable moniker, 'the ungrateful beggar,' yet one, if connected to his output, that might also be deemed a selling-point. Among what he produced (three autobiographical novels and eight volumes of journals) nevertheless stand as a barefaced antidote to stuffier English cousins.
  Oddly, what all my biographical sources leave unwritten is Bloy's disparaging, satirical humour; at least highlighted in this collection. Here, he punctures the sinecures of self-serving middle-class complacency with as much black vehemence as any contemporary anarchist. Translator Erik Butler, in his Introduction, at least acknowledges this:
“A few years after Bloy's birth, in 1851, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte staged the coup apropos of which Karl Marx, glossing Hegel, made the famous observation that historical events occur twice: 'the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.' The less-than-great man's reign, which began with harshly repressive measures and, ten years later, introduced the so-called Liberal Empire, was imposing but hollow. The 'real' Napolean had been a revolutionary general who succeeded in conquering half of Europe. Napolean III, as his nephew called himself, measured up only in appearance.”
  Understanding this context helps understand the trigger for Bloy's ripe, lampooning venom. I'd argue he did too well, if not protesteth too much. The paradoxical effect – far from accusing the guilty back into the fold – surely only highlighted to his readership the hypocrisies in organised religion all the more.
  While the tone – at least in this collection – is openly misanthropic, by the standards of the day it is surprisingly un-misogynist; the women characters of their class as well delineated – and taken down – as his men, with the latter on the receiving end of marginally greater contempt.
  Yet, again, how can even today's politically-correct critics not find irresistible wit in, “Her face resembled a fried potato rolled in scraped cheese...her whole person exuded the odour of a landing in a furnished hotel of the twentieth order --- on the seventh floor.” ('Two Ghosts').
  As with most of Wakefield Press's reissued translations, (and Butler has done a deliciously sinuous job), I can give near fulsome recommendation; as long as you are prepared to keep a wryly jaundiced tongue in a capacious, accepting cheek.

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Uncanny Reader (Stories from the Shadows), Edited by Marjorie Sandor, St. Martin's Griffin, New York

Defining the term 'uncanny' with any real precision is an occupational hazard. Defining what it isn't – through a process of elimination – is very much simpler. This has been considered both on these pages and elsewhere. The latest attempted definition, here in Editor Marjorie Sandor's choice of gems old and new, highlights the challenge.
  What is 'uncanny' may be whatever the author's narrator leaves out in terms of explanation. Its very appeal is its lack of objective conclusion. The uncertain, then, is in the eye of the deceiver. In the case of this 'deceiver,' I believe the best examples eschew the usual tropes of eliciting 'horror,' in favour of a percolating sense in the reader that something undefinable is in the process of going wrong. It is that coolly sophisticated, indefinable sense – found in the best examples – that, for me, defines the term.

“(The uncanny) seeks out a recollected or half-neglected physical place to inhabit: childhood houses, houses under construction, houses revised by later occupants.”

Really? Unlike Marjorie Sandor's personal perceptions from childhood (here referred to in her introduction) for me it avoids the literal walls of the Gothic edifice. Instead, it hides in the mind – of both author and reader; its clammy darkness emanating from somewhere more psychologically internal. Sandor ensures kicking off with the safest bet by another reprint for Hoffmann's 'Sand-man.' What follows it is a chequerboard of those that justify inclusion - and those that do not.
  Those that succeed in this curious genre include Maupassant's meditation on subjective isolation 'On the Water,' Marjorie Bowen's 'Decay,' Aickman's 'Waiting Room,' Shirley Jackson's 'Paranoia,' Kate Bernheimer's 'Whitework' and – ironically – Mansoura Ez Eldin's 'Gothic Night' (again, used in the psychological sense), all using its more subtle, metaphysical language. ­
  I welcomed the chance to belatedly catch-up on a couple of authors long known about but never read - Jonathan Carroll ('The Panic Hand,'), Shirley Jackson and China Mieville ('Foundation') – alongside new discoveries such as Chris Adrian ('The Black Square'), Kate Bernheimer and Yoko Ogawa ('Old Mrs J.'). Then, I am a writer-reader; it's by no means clear how this anthology might appeal to an audience less committed.
  Certain entries here flirt too closely to horror to be true arbiters. Where climactic explanation may be rightfully vague, the Grand Guignol depiction en route is overt in earlier classics. e.g. Lovecraft's 'Music of Eric Zann,' Chekov's 'Oysters' and Bruno Schulz's 'The Birds' step beyond the mere uncanny into horror's more visceral description. Their individual excellence isn't compromised placed in this context. Neither does putting this anthology's title to one side alter the fact of this being a collection of superb tales; just not a superb collection of uncanny tales.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Soliloquy for Pan, (Edited by Mark Beech), Egaeus Press

What elevates the good anthology above the poor should not only harbour a varied, contrasting content, but also engage enough both to inform and genuinely entertain. Content shouldn't be too academic; neither should it be too cosy with obviously safe, oft-chosen choices for an assumed, broadly middle-brow, audience. For Soliloquy for Pan - an anthology of new tales and old, punctuated by equivalent essays and verse – editor Mark Beech has, pleasingly, ticked all these boxes.
  It might therefore be unsurprising that the usual, anticipated suspects on this subject – such as Machen, Blackwood, de la Mare, – are largely missing. Then you soon discover it is to Beech's credit he has dispensed with them, most likely for that very reason. (Although all – bar de la Mare – are, at least, referenced). For who he does include, almost to a man – and woman – refreshes it. This clearly wasn't put together for a general audience, whoever they may be; but neither was it compiled for 'experts.'
  Most surprising of the old school entries are a Robert Frost poem ('Pan With Us'), Henry Woodd Nevinson's tale 'A New Pheidippioes,' from 1901 (a wry gem - also new to me) and a London magazine article by Robert Louis Stevenson. ('Pan's Pipes,' (1878)).
  Favourite entries among the new: Stephen J. Clark's darkly intense 'Lithe Tenant,' a tale of ancestral persecution and familial obsession, is among the best. In Lynda E. Rucker's 'The Secret Woods,' a young woman looks back at her orphaned youth and the dream life she'd used as protection from the pain. In 'A Song Out of Reach' by John Howard, an omniscient Tune, bleeding out from every speaker and subsuming all others, has a less than benevolent motive. 'The House of Pan' by John Gale evokes a tone and setting once all-too-familiar from Wheatley or Wakefield, but Gale recaptures them masterfully, using his own voice. Jonathan Wood's 'The Company of the Lake' feels yet older – Regency even – in a meditative, melancholic prose-style describing a nature-loving male quartet of European friends, converging each summer upon the lake of the title, and the amoral presence who watches from afar... Colin Insole's 'The Rose-White Water' is a subtle mix of Gothic new and old as oblivious materialism, while blindly encroaching, is no match for the still present pagan forces of the past.
  Paintings, engravings and illustrations featuring the goat-footed god abound throughout, mainly from the classical 16th-17th century era, eschewing modern interpretations. The green-backed, mock-inlayed, mock-faded front cover, featuring the god gold-embossed, makes it one of the most richly-produced anthologies – by an inde publisher – in some years. After George Berguno's 'The Tainted Earth,' this is Egaeus Press's second near flawless release.

* * * *

Pan and the Peak Experience
(Part 3 of 3)

Dunsany's 'The Blessing of Pan' – though published in 1927 - straddles the past Victorian age with an – albeit grudging - acceptance of modernity, set and likely conceived some thirty years prior to its publishing. You read on, wondering upon whose side the narrator-author will finally align his protaganist cleric; the sole young rebel in search of truth and beauty? Or the conformist majority fearful of change? Perhaps it is too much to anticipate the former – especially from the pen of a then well-seasoned baron knight. But, Dunsany wrongfoots us. The encroaching paganism of Wolding village succeeds beyond the paranoid fears of the Reverend Anwrel; beyond, indeed, the end of the novel, finally delineated as much a right – and rite – to its locals as partaking of the Church of England had succeeded its pre-Christian enchantment.

A still more traditional view yet feels experienced. In E.F. Benson's short tale, 'The Man Who Went Too Far,' (1912) a friend noted, 'a Pan who affords his adherent-victims youth, a state of perpetual peak experience and near-erotic communion with nature, where He ultimately morphs into a terrifying presence,' wherein a 'complete and blinding stroke (is felt) the full knowledge, the full realisation and comprehension that I am one with life.' This latter quote, penned – ironically - by one of three priestly brothers.

This covert, delicious fear of Pan was, by then, nothing new. He'd had a history of being utilised as both libidonous counsellor of one's self and attack dog against one's enemies, but always harbouring an ultimately untameable, dangerous erotic spirit.

'After an unsuccessful hunt, young men would beat Pan's statue with squills. In this way they would stimulate Pan's powers of fertility and direct it towards the animal domain...' (p. 402, Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, 2003).

'From the Hellenistic period onwards, Pan is the god responsible for sowing panic (panikon) in the enemy, a sudden unforeseeable fear. Soldiers therefore pay cult to him. In the case of the individual, too, Pan can exercise a type of savage and violent possession (panolepsia).' (ibid.)

D.H. Lawrence – no mean author of the uncanny himself – defined the attempt to reign Him in, in 1925:

'The old religion of the profound attempt of man to harmonize himself with nature, and hold his own and come to flower in the great seething of life, changed with the Greeks and Romans into a desire to resist nature, to produce a mental cunning and a mechanical force that would outwit Nature and chain her down completely, till at last there should be nothing free in nature at all, all should be controlled, domesticated, put to man's meaner uses.' (From 'Pan in America,' 1925).

Its very covertness had once harboured implications of something delicious and illicit. As if to imply, 'don't get too close – you might get burned.' Another version of MR James's later warnings to the curious - another paternal finger-wag. Those of a natural inclination towards more objective historial research were thinking otherwise. Machen – as we know – regularly half-articulated the topic throughout his prose, from his alter-ego Lucian Taylor's birds-eye vantage points upon 'The Hill of Dreams' to Laurence Hillyer's 'gleams of light in which he hardly dared believe...' where Bloomsbury's 'dimness was departing...(so) it began to glitter and to shine and to be manifested' in 'The Green Round.' (1933).

'If he had ever thought of the mysteries as things hidden away and apart, remote from the general stream of life, he saw now that he was mistaken. The mysteries were part of the very tissue and being of man; they were not to be avoided.' (p.39-40). A crucial revelation, certainly in contemporary fiction, but also, specifically, in modernism.

Between it and neo-paganism emerge intriguing crossovers of interest. Related considerations of ecological concern and fertility symbolism derived more from anthropology than Biblical doctrine, with writers such as DH Lawrence, WB Yeats and John Cowper Powys. Each bled through the old boundaries. To this day, Christian writers often bracket modernism and neo-paganism together as a Judas-like accusation. But it is clear they have always been positively, mutually reliant; two halves of the same psychological response. One internal, cerebral; the other, outwardly expressed in ritual.
Each intimating a trigger of peak experience; so, each a liberation of the self.

We are left to conclude that the Victorian corset wasn't merely loosened but finally, belatedly, discarded by the mid-Twenties, with the Great God Pan called upon to do the honours. He had certainly waited long enough. At the conclusion of 'Pan the Goat-God,' Merivale states that,

'Pan keeps on being reborn.' (p.228). But she had overlooked His grande finale. It had, after all, already taken place. The first quarter of the 20th century proved to be His ultimately successful breakthrough.

© Mark Andresen (2015)

Friday, 19 June 2015

Mist and Other Ghost Stories by Richmal Crompton, (Sundial Supernatural series), Sundial Press

It is extraordinary to consider that the author of forty-two 'William' collections, over an equivalent number of years, also had time to pen forty adult novels and miscellaneous short stories.
  At the time of writing 'Mist,' Crompton had an opportunity to explore other genre having been forced to give up teaching, incapacitated by polio in her right leg in 1923, consigning her – in her mid-thirties - to a wheelchair. Of the nine latter collections, only 'Mist and Other Ghost Stories' (1928) dealt solely with the supernatural. Surprising, considering Crompton's long-held interest in the subject, since attending St Elphin's Boarding School in Lancashire, which boasted its resident ghostly nun.
  Possession, and its encroaching effect upon loved ones, is the predominant theme in most of the thirteen tales. Pan sensually implicates himself in the object of the first tale, ('The Bronze Statuette') before appearing in person – barely disguised – in the second. ('Strange'). Inherited jealousy rears its ugly head in 'The Spanish Comb,' although a modern feminist perspective wouldn't be without credence.
  Crompton's strongest tales feature women wronged in the more authentic domestic situations. In 'Rosalind,' an artist's model – caught in a love triangle – becomes the victim of one of her suitors' shallow self-interest. In 'The Little Girl' an elderly woman recalls a ghostly friend of her youth and the connected guilt harboured by a late aunt.
  In 'Hands,' a bride, having made the decision not to discuss the late first wife of her new husband, finds herself an unexpected victim of her apparently honourable choice. 'The Sisters' finds a suitor unwittingly coming between two inseparable sisters, as gradual tragedy seals their fate. 'Mist' is the atmospheric portent to the first silent witness of a past crime, seen to be committed with a motive unlike that assumed by the locals. These five are the best, but the remaining eight don't hold a dud.
  If the content appears over-familiar in 2015, derivative they are not. Most admirable in these tales, from a world of middle-class cosiness, is the emotional honesty and lack of faux sentiment in the best. Their perspective, from a stoic, independent woman, adds a modernity in the narrative voices strengthening what might otherwise have solely survived as period charm alone. There may be a sameness in each, but subjective imagination can easily compensate for what is left out. The simple exposition and crisp matter-of-factness of Crompton's prose-style – oddly reminiscent of the 'Williams' - is another of those less-is-more object lessons to the rest of us on how to write today. (At least for the first draft). Those presuming her out-of-date should take a second look.
 It is good to see Sundial back after a year's enforced break. There is a 'forthcoming' list of mouthwatering titles, like this, in dire need of re-release.

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Pan and the Peak Experience
(Part 2)

The influence of 'The Golden Bough' cannot be overstated. With its perspective cultural rather than theological, between 1890-1915 it comprised eighteen separate print-runs making it, for a whole post-Victorian generation, as ubiquitous as 'Origin of Species' or The Bible itself. From here, the new generation bridged the crucial link between the pre-Christian natural and post-Gothic supernatural, to manifest a sensibility definably modern.

Initially, this was by no means obvious since the book's influence soon ignited several well known groups and sub-groups, some decidedly eccentric, almost all educationally privileged. e.g. Rupert Brooke with the Bloomsbury Set, Cecil Sharp, Ernest Seton, Ernest Westlake and Gerald Gardner. Today, we may perceive with cynicism such actions of the time as from a bunch of mainly male, upper middle-class sexual inadequates with too much spare cash and time on their hands. While this may largely be true of the excesses of Crowley and his followers, previous decades had laid more mindful, socially conscious, and long-lasting foundations.

The misguided impression that these authors were merely hopelessly fey and faux nostalgists, repudiating modernity, could not have been more wrong. Away from the Wiccan eccentrics and Crowley's sado-masochistic disciples was a desire for a more humanely progressive future, one more spiritually liberating, companion to nature, and non-materialist. A broader influence beyond their bounds was undoubtedly being wrought by more committed writers. In truth, they shared a view of nature parallel to that of the modernists, albeit without the intellectual, urban perspectives.

The new women authors found their own form of empowerment; one less Pan-ish and often more Sapphic. For the literary woman, desireless for the confines of her 'expected place,' the groundwork had also been laid; by Amelia Edwards, Margaret Oliphant and other physical – and metaphysical – explorers of their generation. The next saw Vernon Lee, Mary Butts and May Sinclair follow suit, progressing the feminist cause still further, yet from equivalent circumstances.

Consummate supernaturalist Amelia Edwards' curriculum vitae reads as having little bearing or relevance to her gender and is itself one of the great undersold tales of late-19th century industry and endeavour. Her books on Egypt, its landscape and antiquities, her transatlantic sales of wide-ranging literary interests and unrelenting networking, single-handedly wove a web connecting international scholars and curators that stretched across half the world. Margaret Olipant, her contemporary, bore a toughness through contrasting familial circumstances that manifested a prodigious (rather than merely prolific) number of novels and essays. Even her late clutch of supernatural tales, though rather less in number, leave a legacy all their own. A regular contributor to Blackwood's pages, she virtually coined the term, 'social science,' after one of her pieces in 1860.

Later, Vernon Lee's theory of 'psychological aesthetics' again moved the narrative voice further away from the old Christian certainties. Mary Butts, perhaps closer to neo-paganism from her writings on pre-Christianity and Crowley association, was rare in articulating such mystical topics from a woman's perspective. May Sinclair, known almost exclusively for one of three supernatural collections, shared Lee's interest in the new Freudian psychoanalysis, coining the term 'stream-of-consciousness' in an essay reviewing the narrative voice of the first book in the Pilgrimage novel series of Dorothy Richardson.

By the Twenties, the priestly narrator hadn't so much been sidelined as virtually banished in England's uncanny, with only the traditionally conservative crime thriller filling in the gaping void left by his absence. The new generation of authors may have advanced into modernism, but there remained something of a middle-brow audience; one still hungry for depictions of Establishment tropes being dismantled. (Such tropes having to be present at the outset).

Awareness of the uncanny in literature was seemingly triggered to a higher level than ever before in the Romantic Age; specifically after Blake and his followers. The problem then, as up to the time under discussion, was the growing self-awareness running well ahead of the language needed to recognise, define and describe it. As the philosopher Colin Wilson once pointed out; 'The problem with the Romantics is that they didn't know how to canalize these volcanic energies from the depths of the psyche. Faced with the awesome spectacle of a mountain by moonlight, Wordsworth confessed that he was filled with a sense of “unknown modes of being.” (p. 29, 'Superconsciousness – The Quest for the Peak Experience,' 2009). A perception that might best be described as mere passive acknowledgement. Most recently, Wilson explored how an individual's awakening of the right-brain, triggered by one's own heightened perception of any positive event, stimulates it to experience joy, actualisation and self-belief. A phase of modern history founded upon what he termed – after Abraham Maslow – 'the discovery of inner freedom.' (p.13). Is it not therefore likely that this would have empowered that individual into first challenging, then overcoming, the accepted, assumed reliance upon a Biblical external force?

Wilson himself was ambiguous on the subject of God, where one might have expected silent atheism. (In the same book, he later refers to atheists as 'stupid'). More than one of his prior generation had no such qualms. Forrest Reid also had experiences that had already played-out the Maslow / Wilson discovery. If not easy to define, of one thing he was certain. They had 'nothing whatever to do with religion...(but)...created by some power outside myself,' ('Private Road', p. 125), 'climbing the mountain road to Glenagivney in Donegal,' until 'I abruptly emerged – a glory of sunset glittering on the sea below me and flaming across the sky.'

Perhaps his most powerful peak experience came one steaming June while a student. He was cramming for intermediate exams in a field in Northern Ireland. Suddenly, anticipating the arrival of Hermes, Dionysos, and 'hairy-shanked Pan-of-the-Goats,' he had the compelling urge of a reaching out to some spiritual liberation also reaching out for him. 'For though there was no wind, a little green leafy branch was snapped off from the branch above me, and fell to the ground at my hand. I drew my breath quickly; there was a drumming in my ears; I knew that the green woodland before me was going to split asunder, to swing back on either side like two great painted doors...'
  Reid says he then hesitated, drew back, but the vision lingered on; 'the tree was growing in my room, and I could feel the hot sunshine on my hands and body.' Hardly surprising that Reid felt the need to repeat this evocative recollection in both the first and second parts of his memoirs. ('Apostate', p.158-9, (1926) and 'Private Road' , p.196-7, (1940)).

(Part 3 next month)

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Strangers and Other Writings by Robert Aickman, Tartarus Press

(Pan is back after six months absence with something of a bang: a review of a volume featuring Robert Aickman's ninth collection of short fiction, the first of three parts of an essay on Pan himself by Mark Andresen ((whoever he is...)) – inspired by the eagerly-awaited Soliloquy for Pan anthology from Egaeus Press, to be reviewed at a later date - and a new 'Albertine's Wooers.' A veritable box of literary Ferrero Rocher...)

* * *

Featuring the first original short fiction collection of Aickman in three decades, 'The Strangers and Other Writings' is the single most important release of the year by an independent publisher. From a modest, but still entertaining, start, it only grows in interest as the author matures.
  'The Case of Wallingford's Tiger' is a slight, datedly witty tale on the fate of a sick tiger, kept as a domestic pet, now a.w.o.l. along with its owner. If the fate of each is already guessed, then it can be assumed the plot is not its strength. This lies in the encroaching sense of menace and the contrived social mores and otherwise unrevealed motives of Wallingford himself; “a solitary man, having no previous friend or acquaintance in the place (who) found the exact level of entertainment for the district, and took trouble to maintain his establishment exactly at that level, neither above nor below it.” Aickman's trademark cool precision is, here, in 1936, aged 22, already in place.
  'The Whistler' is a peek into the delusional, self-abnegating id of a serial killer from the time-forgotten sanctity of his armchair. An intriguing early glimpse into a more blatantly dark Aickman but, as his friend Heather Smith notes, its ending leaves dissatisfaction and confusion. He seems either to have lost interest or inspiration to take him beyond a meditation.
  'A Disciple of Plato,' is a thoroughly satisfying reflection by an infamous roue and seducer in 18th century Rome, posing as a 'philosopher,' meeting his paradoxical match in a woman en route to the convent. 'The Coffin House' feels like a superior first draft for a Sixties-era horror magazine in that the basic story is in place, only lacking its fleshed-out detail. In 'The Flying Anglo-Dutchman' entropy and neglect of the past would become themes of perennial import to Aickman, already defined and neatly compacted in this lovely, reflective tale.
  'The Strangers' is the longest, most satisfying tale and surely not out-of-place had it appeared alongside those in 'Cold Hand in Mine' or 'Tales of Love and Death.' For here, everything we know of his approach is by now in place. Aickman's unreliable narrators, initially conventional, harbour that nascent soulless detachment. The – usually male - narrator is a remote, dysfunctional, matter-of-fact observer with no apparent belief in the ghostly fate he is faced with but seems unable to acknowledge. The cumulative effect from these contrasting entries is that the infamous sense of displacement and remoteness of objective feeling, far from a writerly affectation, may, after all, have been the author's own.
  In 'The Fully-Conducted Tour,' a BBC Radio 4 'Morning Story' from 1976, the narrator recalls a last holiday in Tuscany, twenty years before, in service of his ailing wife. Seeking a lone tour in respect of her, needful of a day to herself, he finds one conducted to a Gothic-style villa by a beautiful guide who singles him out, seeming to offer special treatment – and a warning.
  The title tale, 'A Disciple of Plato' and 'The Flying Anglo-Dutchman' are this collection's revelatory jewels and worth the purchase for these alone. The essays taking up it's second half are revelatory in other ways; I'd assumed Aickman, in belief, something of a right-wing, Church of England-type paternalist. The personally insightful essays show us a man more a libertarian and enthusiast and are to be recommended. I, for one, would want to read more.
  It's always interesting to compare and contrast the birth of a writer's early style with that developed in his or her maturer work. 'The Stranger and Other Writings' reveal blueprint snapshots of the dry wit and cool ambiguity rife in Aickman's best work.

* * *

Pan and the Peak Experience
Why the English uncanny defrocked the priestly hero

A poster recently blogging on a thread devoted to neo-paganism, argued that paganism itself began when ancient men and women looked around – and began to ask 'why?' This is perhaps the simplest starting point on defining its neo-pagan sub-topic. It avoids unending backtracking that remains – to this day – open-ended conjecture on countless public forums. 'Why' is also a question writers have been asking since at least the dawn of the Renaissance – one, I will argue, that found its answer in our time; specifically citable to those authors of the uncanny, working at the turn of the 20th century.

  Patricia Merivale's reflection how, in so many Pan-related tales, 'one should not meddle frivoulously with matters too mysteriously important for one's limited understanding,' ('Pan the Goat-God,' 1969, p. 171) held true for most 'supernatural' authors, to the start of our period and beyond. Yet, for some, the adherence to such condescending paternalism was crumbling. Personal experience was fast becoming a literary norm – thanks to the rises in popularity of biography and the journalist's literary profile. As Gothic horror's commercial star began to develop, branching off into its subtler sub-genre of the uncanny, the former Biblical deference – the starting point of most narrative voices – branched off with it. This much is clear. Less obvious is the 'why' consequent of this development and how it manifested itself in the newer authorial voices.

  The move away from Christian adherence was not, of course, peculiar to genre authors. Yet, there is little doubt it was their more commercial work, which guiltlessly enabled the move away with the figure of Pan, their enabler. Filtering through to fiction and its many genres, so they began to legitimise the non-Christian voice.
  In the Edwardian era, Freud's new dream theories may have found an interested audience but not, as yet, ways for it to respond. In the previous century-and-a-half, an open, considered and objective 'why?' had taken something of a backseat in popular fiction. Then, chances to question Biblical doctrine were too often guiltily submerged beneath the populist demands of Gothic melodrama; where a fatal 'warning to the curious' inevitably became, for the protaganist, a good deed punished. Of course, in the Gothic this device was primarily used to elicit the kind of extreme response from the reader that ensured the purchase of an author's – and so his publisher's – next release. Yet, its lasting appeal could also have a dubious honour for an author, placing him indelibly in the Establishment literary canon; as much a curse as a blessing, depending on the individual author's world view. 

 It might then be wondered why a pre-Christian figure like the Greek god Pan re-captured imaginations in the restlessly pragmatic modern age of the early 20th century, with some renewed relevance. The answer may lie in what could, so far, only be half-articulated by that generation's most open minds. Specifically, intense, subjective awakenings of inner freedom and heightened joy; subsequently defined as 'peak experiences.'
  My Collins Dictionary defines a peak experience as 'a state of extreme euphoria or ecstasy, often attributed to religious or mystical causes.' Yet, the evidence reveals it is both so much more, and so much less, than this. Experiences, anecdotal and personal, have each shown one need not be shackled by either cause. As E. Hoffman noted, discussing the American psychologist who coined the term: 'Maslow found it incredible that some of his undergraduates at Brandeis University unknowingly described their peak-experiences in language of rapture similar to those of famous spiritual teachers, East and West. The implication was clear: we needn't be great religious mystics or even practitioners to undergo an unforgettable epiphany during daily living.' Instead, “the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbours, friends, and family, in one's backyard.” (2011).

  Neither time, concern for the future, nor regret of the past encumbers those precious moments of bliss, of being in-the-now. Whether one sits on a bench looking out at a setting sun of a summer evening, a subtle change of mind to mellow mindfulness during what had been anticipated as a tough, unexpected job, or just after a moment of total stillness, a peak experience can arise. Few of us don't have them. But certain authors, in the 20th century's formative years, were openly owning them as something entirely personal and apart – and good.

Recognising the symptoms of this Pan fad isn't difficult. The problem lies in finding the precise cause; the trigger that spawned the courage to liberate the self above the Christian stricture, without us having to reach all the way back through classical history. The role played by Pan's libido, the major aspect of the god, cannot be overstated. For some of the new generation of writers, the figure was a useful metaphor. Those needing to express their sexuality beyond the next ambiguous hint, found in His manifestation a means for its briefly glimpsed expression. Atheists drew upon His qualities of illicit liberation (e.g. DH Lawrence and Forrest Reid). For those agnostic, or otherwise spiritual, was renewed respect for the 'origins of species.' (e.g. Algernon Blackwood and Walter de la Mare). Each felt emboldened to expound upon the new pragmatism, overriding the former, more passive, aesthete's love of beauty.

  For Pan was becoming the fantastical manifestation of a renewed awareness; of nature and her relationship to the self...

...Even the savage cannot fail to perceive how intimately his own life is bound up with the life of nature and how the same processes, which freeze the stream and strip the earth of vegetation, menace him with extinction.” (Frazer, 'The Golden Bough,' 1906).

When we reflect how often the Church has skilfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted up on a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis...” (ibid.)

...the next stage in the writer's awakening self-awareness.

  When these quotes first saw light in 'The Golden Bough,' non-theist self-awareness in the literature of the uncanny had barely progressed since E.T.A. Hoffmann's excitable boy protagonist of 'The Sand Man' almost a century before. In Britain at least, the ubiquitous priestly narrator ensured any such sinful self-indulgences were swiftly quashed by the climax. (An oxymoron in most cases). Yet, by this year, things were finally changing. Rather than the occasional rebellious release from a small publisher with the sole aim of sparking notoriety and shock, by now the voice of the uncommitted, guiltless narrator was a symptom of what was coalescing into, if not a single movement, then a scattered series of experiential cliques; adepts across all aspects of the Arts.

(Part 2 of this essay continues in the next 'Pan Review')

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Two notable ebook releases: 'These are tales that echoes tell...' In A Season Of Dead Weather (Smashwords Edition) by Mark Fuller Dillon while Rebecca Lloyd 'channels Roald Dahl's wit and flair for the unexpected' in View From Endless Street (WiDO Publishing). Adam S. Cantwell channels Kafka and Borges in his wonderfully-titled debut, Bastards of the Absolute (Egaeus Press). The pathologically prolific Rhys Hughes's most recent collections of surrealist wit, Orpheus On The Underground (Tartarus Press) and Bone Idle In The Charnel House (Hippocampus Press) each prove ubiquity is no underminer of quality. While new talent champion David Longhorn's Supernatural Tales reaches no. 29.