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.