Saturday, 19 November 2016

Two Bottles Of Relish: The Little Tales Of Smethers And Other Stories by Lord Dunsany, Collins Crime Club

A new reissue of Lord Dunsany uniquely overrides this blog's usual concentrating on work from independents. When that reissue also features slight, blackly humorous detective tales of the 1930s' and 40s', being entirely new to me, Pan's investigation is warranted.
   Smethers is a travelling salesman for Numnumo - a relish for meats and savouries – with a self-confessed genius for 'pushing' it on the thresholds of most residences. Looking for a room in central London, close to the company's head office, he encounters Linley; a 'gent' already looking around the one Smethers has arrived at, who is interested but concerned at the high rent. Smethers offers to go halves with him and Linley agrees. Smethers then gives the first of nine criminal accounts based upon the chess-playing Linley's Holmesian ability to find the culprit based solely upon his unerring logic. Inevitably, there is also the Establishment figure already on the case; here, Inspector Ulton - of the Yard.
  In his first-person narrations, Smethers comes across as a slightly seedy chancer and spiv, not entirely honest, which begs the question how he could afford even half of the rent that got him into the property shared with 'posh' Linley in the first place. (Perhaps Linley was, himself, a 'chip off the old block'?) Then, such unanswered questions are all part of the intriguing mythologies spawned by necessarily brief, swiftly penned, commercial genre fiction.
   The history of the first of Dunsany's Smethers tales is at least thumbnailed in an Ellery Queen intro from 1948. Editor Lady Rhondda printed 'Two Bottles Of Relish' in Time and Tide magazine, November 12-19, 1932. "Lord Dunsany has always thought that Lady Rhondda, a militant feminist, published the story as an example of sheer realism, saying to herself, 'That is just how men do treat women.' Gradually, the widespread nausea (to use Lord Dunsany's own phrase) seems to have worn off..." The tale itself concerns the mysterious disappearance of Nancy Elth, and her £200, who lived with known criminal Steeger. (The Yard's nemesis, who reappears in the following tale).
   The remainder of the tales, in content, are lightly engaging and relatively conventional, lacking the promised 'fantasy' element referred to on the back cover. The major exception is the last; 'The Shield Of Athene.' I'd be unwise to describe a tale, the denouement of which is – if you'll pardon the pun – reflected in the title. It is, however, enjoyably Machen-like, with perhaps a flourish of MP Shiel.
   Unless Dunsany scholars know better – and why wouldn't they? - the remaining tales appear to have had their first publication in this collection. Certainly, his stature by the Forties wouldn't necessarily have required prior publicity for the rest elsewhere. Mention must also be made of the cover for this reissue; a beautiful painting of one standing, and one horizontal, Numnumo bottles, the red relish dribbling from each like newly-spilled blood, with the shadow of the one standing ominous and man-like. The Thirties feel, including the choice of font, is well considered and brilliantly evoked by Mike Topping.
Rebecca Lloyd's latest is a novel, OOTHANGBART, which she describes as a "subversive fable for adults and bears," Over at Egaeus, Mark Beech is about to release A MIDWINTER ENTERTAINMENT, the highlights of which include a new Connoisseur tale by Valentine and Howard, a first English translation (by the excellent George Berguno) of an Anatole Le Braz tale, and the same tasteful mix of old and new, utilised in last year's SOLILOQUY FOR PAN. Finally, both UNCERTAINTIES I and UNCERTAINTIES II are now available from Swan River Press. Included is a new tale from Lynda E. Rucker whose own latest collection, YOU'LL KNOW WHEN YOU GET THERE, is also available from SRP.

Friday, 14 October 2016

A Twist In The Eye by Charles Wilkinson, Egaeus Press

At 66, Charles Wilkinson is one of the strange tale's old school, making him contemporaneous with the likes of Reggie Oliver and Steve Rasnic Tem and a name that's been gradually garnering quiet fame in the autumn of his years. Yet, so far, you'd be easily forgiven if, like me, you'd never heard of him.
  According to his publisher biog., the Birmingham-born writer attended school in a small town on the Welsh Marches, later studying at the University of Lancaster, the University of East Anglia and Trinity College, Dublin. His publications so far include The Snowman and Other Poems (Iron Press, 1987) and The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). A Border Poet member, Ag & Au, a pamphlet of poems, appeared from Flarestack Poets in 2013. Today, he lives in Powys, Wales, "where he is heavily outnumbered by members of the ovine community." A line from the text of one of these tales, the cliff-top wildernesses of his home country featuring heavily.
  The feted Mark Samuels has written the Introduction. Wilkinson shows himself a less pessimistic writer than Samuels - his dystopian settings occasionally have utopian overtones - while sharing his claustrophobic embrace by the weird.
  This title's collective strength is in the genuine unpredictability of its 'twists.' Most are excellent and few disappoint. 'In His Grandmother's Coat,' relates the weird legacy of an unknown curse left by the narrator's grandmother, who bred mink for unspecified cross-breeding. 'Night in the Pink House' – by far the most sinister tale – relates a mutual pleasure of sadism, between a cold, professional state torturer and his equally enthusiastic, wheelchair-bound patient, sharing their interests like a pair of anal collectors from the latter's small, cliff-side haven; one that seems to hide still greater past atrocities. The aloof tone of the torturer's narration is compelling as is the ambiguous nature of his ward.
  'An Invitation to Worship' starts out as deliverence of sanctuary for a wife from a seemingly domineering husband, gradually revealing intimations of a place less of refuge than of cult-influenced capture. 'The Investigation of Innocence' is the sole SF entry where replicant humans' now exist to supply the bees as a means to propagate a new Eden. A very clever concept.
  Then there's 'A Lesson from the Undergrowth.' After burying his father, Neil returns to the isolated home of his young adulthood. It seems still inhabited, almost, if in a state of untended entropy. Memories of events past and present seem to merge into some eternal purgatory from a particular incident revealed only in the final lines. Like the previously quoted titles, the concept only truly reveals itself on reflection, such is the subtlety of the writing.
  Being a collection of above average length (sixteen tales in all) it's perhaps not surprising that only once does it miss a beat; in 'The World Without Watercress,' where-in the conceit of who is the haunter and who the haunted is purposely ambiguous, but doesn't quite convince in connecting with this reader, feeling rather unfinished. 'Hands,' the final tale, is a – literally – touching ghost story of a widower who finds comfort from a spirit able to act out in death their apparent gift in life.
  Impressive conceptually then, the best tales mature and gain increased effect days, even weeks, after their reading. We need not only idiosyncratic voices in fantasy lands of topsy-turvy – there are plenty of those – but voices such as Wilkinson's, taking credible topics and characters and running with them to the furthermost reaches.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Cold Embrace – Weird Stories By Women, (Introduced and Edited by S.T. Joshi), Dover Publications

Today, an anthology of women writers' feels quite passe. Women are hardly under-represented in the field; least of all requiring of showcasing by a named male editor. Then, I suppose, the state of play in the 19th and early 20th century was rather different. This collection of known gems and all too occasional obscurities, is book-ended between an early tale - Mary Shelley's post-Frankenstein 'Transformation' (1830) - and the latest - May Sinclair's excellent 'Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched' (1922).
  In most cases, this is only a worthy collection if you've somehow overlooked, or yet to be introduced to, the cheap and easily available Wordworth Editions Mystery and the Supernatural series. (At least eleven of their nineteen entries are here, in fact). Less often anthologised titles – certainly new to me – are all too few, but include Margaret Olipant's 'The Secret Chamber' (1876), Sarah Orne Jewett's distinctly odd 'In Dark New England Days' (1890), Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's revelatory 'The Hall Bedroom' (1903) and Ellen Glasgow's intriguing 'The Shadowy Third' (1916).
  Re-reading some of the earlier entries reminds me how the sedentary pace and explanatory minutiae, redolent in late Victorian short fiction, so often deflates any sense of approaching menace or threat. For this reason, I now find Vernon Lee's 'A Wedding Chest' (1904) almost unreadable; too many Latin terms crammed into breathless nine-line sentences, misting the reader's focus.
  Even if climaxes are too easily foregrounded, the best of them, here and through the rest of the anthology, concentrate on playing out the plot from the opening page. In Mary Elizabeth Braddon's title tale a love-obsessed young student, a "scoffer at revelation" and "enthusiastic adorer of the mystical" vows that, should fate end their match, one or other of their spirits would return to hold the surviving lover forever. In Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's 'The Hall Bedroom' a landlady relates the journal of one of her former tenants whose extreme sensual experiences at night gradually challenge his earlier, presumably sane, perceptions. A tale that foretells early takes on drug-induced experiments, (such as Crowley's 'The Drug,' previously reviewed here), it is a revelation itself considering its age.
  In 'The Shadowy Third' a nurse is summoned, by a great surgeon, to a country house to look after his bedridden wife. The sudden, unexpected presence of a little girl who may – or may not – be a figment of his ailing wife's imagination, is nevertheless also witnessed by the nurse. When the patient confides in her that her surgeon husband had previously killed the girl, and discovers their mutual connection, the conclusion is made suddenly inevitable. Pleasingly, as with 'The Hall Bedroom,' this is too well written to be a mere shocker.
  Again, this is one of those collections that is passable for those unfamiliar with the form's early highlights. For the rest of us, it is top-heavy with re-runs reprinted elsewhere. I can at least glean some new finds in the latter three that prompt some renewed interest.

Friday, 2 September 2016

NEW FOR 2017!

Greetings, pop-pickers! Pan will return with a new review on the 16th September. There will be at least two more after that for the months of October and November, with, I hope, another 'star guest' Q & A included.

From January 2017, significant changes will occur; Pan will be significantly upgraded - in content as well as appearance.  How? Why? Here goes...

The positive reach and reaction to my Rhys Hughes Q & A, back in May, allied to my very broad tastes in books and music - and music journalism - have positively conspired to encourage me into also broadening the scope of The Pan Review.  

Rather than start-up a second blog, (for which I'll have neither time nor inclination), I feel that adding the subjects of music, and art, to Pan's existing limited repertoire is the more obvious way to go. I realise some regular readers might view such a radical expansion of its mandate with horror. However, I did feel strongly that, after six years, it was time to make one of two choices; closure or growth. I've chosen the latter.

Since there are at least as many singer/songwriter/musicians I'd like to help support out there, as there are authors, this would go some way to satisfying that particular urge. 

If readers are concerned that this will mean the uncanny short story will be seriously marginalised by my musical interests, fear not. If anything, I wish to broaden the mandate here too, to include author profiles, publisher profiles and more 'star guest' Q & As'.  

It might mean more work for me, but that's no bad thing. There will be a much freer look, approach, and less structure, helping maintain a certain creativity so I might avoid becoming stale.

One more thing for now: I am open to positive ideas. I still have a way to go to finalise how I might best help artists and authors here (regards extra publicity) as I'm always mindful to do. So, do get in touch.  Meantime, watch this space...  

Friday, 15 July 2016

Sylvan Dread – Tales Of Pastoral Darkness by Richard Gavin, Three Hands Press / Pagan Triptych – Stories By Ron Weighell, John Howard & Mark Valentine, Sarob Press

Never a fan of Grand Guignol horror whose conclusions offer no hope, there is a strange kind of alternative offered in several of Sylvan Dread's conclusions; of renewal and re-birth as part of a lost primeval nature. Amoral, non-human perhaps, but not entropic. Outside each tale's protaganist are the secret motives of nature and its amoral drives for continued procreation. Gavin's philosophical trigger is from the theory of Rudolf Otto; the German scholar of comparative religion, whose Idea Of The Holy is quoted from at the top of the first tale. ('Thistle Latch'). Described by Otto as a "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self,” this might be an aposite definition for the uncanny as a whole.
  'Primeval Wood,' the second tale here, concerns Neil Keller and the hawthorn idol he discovers that appears to infect him with potent dreaming, just as his relationship ends, leaving him vulnerable to fight this unknown and unknowable foe alone. In 'A Cavern Of Redbrick' a boy's regular bike ride around a gravel pit is suddenly disturbed by the ghostly presence of a girl upon the roof of its shed. This 'presence' leads him, unwittingly, to the revelation of a terrible family secret and portentous conclusion.
  In 'Fume' the warden at the holiday hamlet of Beech Point observes the exodus of renters at the end of the summer season. En route home for dinner, Clark spies a small, illicit encampment and stops off to investigate. Within the sole tent he sees what appears to be a swaddled corpse. Bursting its wrapping elicits the 'fume' of the title that also burns his skin and causes a personal change – inside and out - that may be more than mere hallucination. In 'Weaned On Blood' an abbot, newly-arrived at a rural monastry, is initiated into a sacrificial ritual as a means to sustain a much darker tradition. The abbot decides, for the good of the brotherhood, to act unilaterally to reveal the recipient.­
  In 'Mare's Nest', the husband of a couple still very much in love must face the imminent death of his wife. He, a sculptor, she, a poet, they agree upon a pact to both physically manifest and entrap forever the spirit of her favourite self-composed poem of the title. If that sounds trite, the tale's real strength is in the authentic depiction of the husband's uxorious emotions, which are genuinely heartrending.
 This is the fifth collection by a writer who, being usually distant from 'horror,' I've previously overlooked. I see in the case of Richard Gavin at least, this has been my loss. The territory and subject matter may otherwise both be familiar to its seasoned readers. For myself, glimpses of frightening beauty in Gavin's exotic prose style transcends that in much of the genre.

According to one of the three afterwords that inhabit this collection of long short tales, Ron Weighell implies that his contribution to this Blackwood tribute represents the fifth to feature his continuing character, Dr. Andrew Northwoode, "respected Fellow of Belden College, Oxford, and eminent scholar of antiquities various." The Edwardian influence of the prose style and its derring-do usage makes 'The Letter Killeth' easily the most traditional of these three. A strange bequest delivered to the College library, its mystical contents, and the malevolent force it threatens to unleash is well done and informed and affectionate rather than merely derivative.
  It reads more like Machen-informed Wheatley, than Blackwood inspired, but, as other recent author-dedicated anthologies have shown, such inspiration doesn't necessarily mean bland homage. I don't know of Weighell's previous work, but he's clearly a man of some deprecating wit. He ends his short, intermediary afterword (the first of three by each author) disappointed that he had to rely less upon imagination than usual, since he's reached his ongoing character's age-group.
  'In The Clearing' takes its cue from Pan's Garden's 'The Man Whom The Trees Loved.' A city man who, from the opening line, "had never made much time for anyone," suddenly finds a haven for some peace and quiet, where time is all he has. Suspended from his post, (for a reason left intriguingly unexplained), he suddenly faces what has long been harboured, perhaps even repressed, within himself, as previously unexplored feelings uncannily mingle with perceptions he can no longer recognise or trust. Is what he sees merely from his own point of view? Or is he being externally, objectively affected? The tale has a brave ambiguity, that stays with you long after its end. Yet, whether it is entirely successful – in its own terms - is hard to guage in that I wasn't entirely certain what Howard wanted to achieve. Rather than lead you, however, its snail pace demands your attention and gradual recall.
  In its assured feel for the Edwardian uncanny, 'The Fig Garden' is classic Valentine. A childhood ritual among friends, involving a procession and the near-holy imbibing from a figtree, resonates across time and the life of one man, semi-conscious of vague connections he can sense but not clearly define. He comes to suspect he might have a role in something far greater than himself. It vaguely reminded me of David Lindsay's rare mid-Twenties novel, The Violet Apple, in its philosophical theme.
  The dustjacket evokes that of Blackwood's one-hundred year-old novel, Julius LeVallon, by its cool colour pallette and of a sole figure standing awestruck and exultant amongst a mountainous landscape.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Ragman & Other Family Curses by Rebecca Lloyd, Egaeus Press Keynote Edition, 1 / The Felicity Of Epigones by Derek John, Egaeus Press Keynote Edition, 2

Egaeus's first two Keynote Editions – in concept at least - presumably mean to evoke those of John Lane's decadent series of the 1890s'. The black and gold covers are certainly smart enough, without aping the originals' Beardsleyan floridities, while described as "an ongoing series, presenting the best contemporary writers of weird fiction in high quality, pocket-sized hardbacks."
  In an afterword to the first, Rebecca Lloyd posits the questions that drove her to the book's theme; "What is it that keeps people locked into destructive and often bizarre relationships," she asks, "with those who must dominate?" This - Lloyd's third collection – plays out what can happen within the midst of such manifestations. The four long-short tales presented here foreground her strength, highlighting the nightmarish side of familial relationships.
  In 'Ragman,' a moody, manipulative father decides to isolate himself from his family, in his junkyard, surrounded by the bric-a-brac of his trade. His daughter arrives, poorly received, but stays over in a bid to persuade his return. She is reminded of those parts of the yard that made her uneasy in childhood and, apparently, still does; especially the 'mirror hall' and the half-articulated focus of her past fear that begins to daily emerge in the present. Occasionally, the wealth of personal backstory feels in danger of crowding out the plot. This doesn't slow the pace so much as slightly blur the reader's focus. 'Fetch' features the narration of the type of arrogant, misogynist husband you want to punch from his first line; expecting wifely commitment without giving it, while advising upon writerly knowledge not held. It would be funny if not so dangerously close to the well-healed middle-manager types of whom it so expertly offers a glimpse.
  'Teuthida,' Lloyd admits in the afterword, was "inspired by aspects of Lovecraft's life." While this is almost too obvious in the name of main character 'Henry Lawncroft,' this in no way mars the slightly seedy and disturbing aspects of soiled gentility well conveyed through the plot; in particular the odd control-freakery of his mother. 'For Two Songs' is the best tale here. A younger daughter, deemed second-best in the affections of a father, mourning the loss of his eldest, shares wounds as much psychological as physical. The Victorian obsession with death and photography are well-utilised here, where the horror slowly emerges through cool, matter-of-fact conversations.
  I look forward to Lloyd's interest in dysfunctional families being fleshed-out and expounded upon at greater length. With a debut novel imminent, I eagerly await how such ideas might expand given the chance to breathe in more space.

Oxford Dictionaries defines 'felicity' as 'intense happiness' and 'the ability to find appropriate expression for one's thoughts.' 'Epigones' is 'a less distinguished follower or imitator of someone, especially and artist.' The series second title uses the framing device of two reflective love letters to one now lost. (The writer playing the author himself, signing-off as 'D.J.').
  'A Tale from Bede' - on a rain-soaked Sunday morning, a driver, on an aimless journey, arrives at a carboot sale whose silent patrons appear to be in purgatory. Their soiled goods, it seems, are "all they have left." A simple, understated parable of desperation and loss. (Perhaps what Bede himself supposed existed beyond his rather more optimistic message...). 'Le Frotteur de Livres' --- In this most decadent of tales, (a frotteur translated as "one who rubs"), a Freudian analyst recalls an interview he conducted in London with the French founder of 'The Society of Psychoanalysts' who recalls one of his most intriguing formative cases with a most notorious 'pervert.' In particular, his onanistic relationship with increasingly rare texts.
 'In Our Deep Vaulted Cell' follows. (Formerly discussed here 'Oblivion' returns us to a purgatory of a different, more interesting, kind with a superb opening line; "It is Tuesday the 43rd of March and I have hanged myself." 'A Note from the Archivist' continues the masturbatory, obsessional quality of 'Le Frotteur de Livres' and the best of Mark Samuels. A film archivist receives anonymously sent scenes of a great lost film and gradually becomes as increasingly determined to complete it as its late director. 'Cosmogony of Desire' – previously unpublished – is the fictionalised tale of a historical event when, in May 1945, priceless works of art by Gustav Klimt were purposely vandalised by the SS while departing the Schloss Immendorff near Vienna. The cosmogony referred to here felt, to me, at first ambiguous; but seems to refer to male Freudian perceptions of sex and death in art, indirectly connecting the observer to the decomposing paint from its destruction and the reader to the recurrent theme of the earlier tales. Unreservedly recommended.

Friday, 3 June 2016

From Another World And Other Ghost Stories by Rosemary Timperley, Sundial Supernatural series

The term 'mainstream' – when related to literature - can provoke generally negative responses from those of us who have long held hard to the independent press. With no formal training in journalism, without a regular slot on a corporate title, it is easy to sneer. Equally, we can pull-up the metaphorical drawbridge marked 'private property' or 'keep off the grass.' And why not? Most of what I read – and review - was written with neither a particular audience in mind, or for contractual obligation. So, here's to shameful elitism...! It may be produced from personal necessity, often enough, and even occasionally for the obverse, sneer-provoking term, love; but almost never to form. i.e. to editorial decree.
  So, to find myself reviewing my first 'mainstream' collection in eighteen months feels something of a culture shock. Sentences suddenly flow swiftly passed the eyes like cool running water, or a script for CBBC. Understatement is taboo, with description almost condescendingly explicit. ('Yes, I know, I know...,' I find myself murmuring under the breath). Sometimes it's by no means clear which audience was being served; adult or children? Going with it, however, cumulatively elicits the strength of a writer who might otherwise have succumbed to the cosily banal.
  Most tales here derive from Fifties editions of Reveille, The London Evening News and the near-forgotten Truth and London Mystery magazines. Pan, Tandem, Fontana and Armada Ghost and Horror collections complete the contents. Like Richmal Crompton before her (her Mist collection also available from Sundial and previously reviewed here, Timperley honed an easy commercial style through prolific necessity.
  'Christmas Meeting' and 'Harry,' which open the collection, while highly-praised, now feel more like transient playwiths' of the genre; particularly next to what follows. Of the twenty-two tales, there are six which excel beyond the call of contractual duty; 'The Listening Child,' 'The Mistress In Black,' 'To Keep Him Company,' 'Dreams Are More Than Shadows,' 'Voices In The Night' and 'Little Girl Lost' conspire to stubbornly lodge in the mind.
  'The Listening Child' revolves around a mother's fear for the safety of her child, who becomes bewitched by the dark figure of a fiddle-player, only to seemingly follow his pernicious path; 'The Mistress In Black' concerns the ghost of a teacher whose legacy in life seeks resolution in death; 'To Keep Him Company' has more true charm than sentiment as the reason a girl and two boys secretly hang around the young protaganist becomes clear in the final words of their mother. Both 'Dreams Are More Than Shadows' and 'Voices In The Night' involve ghostly new tenants - the latter a victim of premonition. 'Dreams' is notable in being the one tale here you could call ambiguous in its depiction, of who is real and who an illusion; a particularly interesting conceit, beautifully told. 'Little Girl Lost' confounds the usual interpretation of the title, as the 'little girl' here reveals greater knowledge and acceptance of 'the other side' than her understandably skeptical parents.
  With 'The Listening Child' in particular, echoes of Timperley's own background can be gleaned, from its Christian-adherent GP (Doctor Rivers) recommending prayer as a means to, temporarily at least, ward off child-afflicting 'evil.' You can also see it in the now charmingly dated pop-culture references of the post-war middle-class. "The radio news and 'Programme Parade' were over now. Music on gramophone records came next. Linda was glancing through a highly coloured comic, which had just arrived..." etc.
  At her best, Timperley transcends the contemporary mainstream with an unerring ability to elicit familiar fears through wide-ranging depictions of encroaching childhood dangers.
  The cover, a chilling image of a half-visible child beckoning through frosted glass, is also notable for the credit of Sundial's stoical publisher, Frank Kibblewhite.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Brutal Pantomimes by Rhys Hughes, Egaeus Press / Masques Of Satan by Reggie Oliver, Tartarus Press

Firstly, I'd like to welcome back all Pan's readers' after this (to me) unwanted two-month hiatus. All entirely my fault, after involving my laptop in an accident of my own making. Still, we return with something rather different; a Q & A with the author of the first collection under review, Brutal Pantomimes; the feverishly prolific Rhys Hughes...

Many of your absurdist tales seem to culminate in climaxes that reveal their own internal logic. When you begin drafting an absurdist tale, do you therefore know in advance how it should finish?

Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, and sometimes it’s somewhere between the two extremes. A story can be very carefully planned. For example, with my novel The Percolated Stars I planned each chapter in advance, so I knew what was going to happen in the story when I sat down to write it, but actually I did make adjustments when I was filling in the details too. This method is almost geometric. I might see an overriding shape, a symmetry that controls the story like an internal or external skeleton. With other stories I set off blindly, having no idea what’s going to happen, and writing stories in this manner is almost like reading them as I write. This is the method I am using with the story I’m writing at the moment, a weird Western called The Honeymoon Gorillas that may turn into a novella or even a novel. I don’t know where it’s going or what’s going to happen in it yet. But even this method isn’t as purely random as it might sound, because as I progress with the writing, certain aims and objectives slowly begin to create themselves, to form vague patterns that become sharper as the story moves ahead. It’s like mist starting to form a definite outline. When I work this way, I generally just leave lots and lots of loose ends lying about, as many as possible, and don’t worry about tying them up, because they will often tangle together and tie themselves up. This creates a pleasing unpredictability. Any loose ends that don’t tie themselves up on their own, I will turn my attention to as the story reaches a conclusion. Both these methods have their advantages. Often, however, I will work in a way that combines these extremes. I may have a very nebulous idea of what I want, and I will see certain scenes with clarity, like stills from a film, and then I will try to link what is certain with what is still unknown. Or I may have a very precise frame for the story but within this frame anything can happen provided it fits the frame properly. That’s a bit like some forms of jazz, I guess. Also, I am happy to change direction at any stage in a story and to keep changing it, so I do tend to surprise myself. But now I am no longer really surprised that I surprise myself.

Obviously you've approved them all, but which are your favourite tales in BRUTAL PANTOMIMES — and why?

The first and last stories in the book are my favourites. The opening story, ‘The Jam of Hypnos’ was written secretly in a busy office when I was working for a local government department many years ago. I was supposed to be preparing boring statistical reports on local health issues, but when my manager wasn’t looking I would type a few more lines of my story. With this particular tale I wanted to write something totally absurd that didn’t feel at all absurd. There is something peculiar I have noticed about weird tales. I know that weird tales are supposed to be peculiar, but I don’t mean that. I mean that all supernatural and weird tales are inherently absurd, but we don’t regard them all as absurd. So we treat certain weird tales with a serious respect and others we consider comical pieces. Strictly speaking we should regard them all as comical, but we don’t. It’s something to do with tone. A story by M.R. James, for instance, such as ‘A View from a Hill’ is actually extremely silly in its conception and execution. It’s as comical as a story about, let’s say, a walking talking chair that learns to ride a unicycle. But the James story doesn’t feel comical or silly, despite the fact that binoculars filled with the juice of boiled bones that enable one to see into the past is no less daft an idea that that of a living chair pedalling a unicycle. So I became acutely interested in why this should be. The discrepancy fascinated me. With ‘The Jam of Hypnos’ I tried to write a story that was impossible and utterly whimsical but which felt like a serious weird tale. And it seems to have worked. Readers who don’t like the comical or whimsical or ironic in fiction have praised the story, even though it ends with a man sailing a lake of jam on a raft made of toast. I have used a certain tone and style to deflect the impact of the nonsensical resolution of the story and to make it seem acceptable to those who only enjoy very straight and serious weird tales. As for the last story in my book, the novella ‘The Impossible Inferno’, this is very special to me for several reasons. The central idea of the story is one I carried around in my head for most of my life before I felt ready to embody it in a proper story. I had the idea when I was very young and I knew I lacked the ability to power a story with it then, so I kept it and allowed it to gestate deep in my mind. Finally I sat down and wrote it and it ended up being my 500th story.

Where did your seeming obsession with puns stem from — and does it pre-date your literary influences?

Am I obsessed with puns? Maybe I am. If so, it certainly doesn’t predate my literary influences. It certainly would have come from the books I was reading that I found enjoyable for reasons of their wordplay. Finnegans Wake is the obvious example, but I didn’t read anything by Joyce until quite late in my working life. A more plausible direct influence would be Barefoot in the Head by Brian Aldiss, which utilizes the brilliant conceit that a world war has been fought with psychedelic weapons in order to simultaneously evolve and devolve the language the story is told in. As perceived reality becomes more distorted, so language adapts accordingly. This is still one of my favourite Aldiss novels. Two other books had a similar, perhaps even stronger effect on me. Cabrera Infante’s La Habana para un Infante Difunto and Julián Ríos’ Larva: Babel de una noche de San Juan. Both are not only rife with puns and other verbal tricks of language but also burst with a vigorous eroticism that seems amplified by the way the authors approach the problem of style. The vitality of what happens is matched by the vitality of the telling and both books are not only playful but powerful and enthralling too. Both examples are unusual because modern Spanish literature is not noted for its love of wordplay. The days of Quevedo are long gone. French literature, on the other hand, has many examples of writers who indulge and experiment with puns and wordgames very entertainingly. Boris Vian is one of my main literary heroes and his novels are packed with puns and verbal pyrotechnics. The originality of his language complements the originality of the substance of his books, which are always delightful. He was also a jazz musician and I wonder if the way he wrote somehow was an analogue of the kind of music he played? When I first read his Froth on the Daydream, I realised that I had encountered a writer who was my ideal type. But I must have loved puns before then in order to go with his flow so willingly. I doubt that anyone who dislikes puns can be converted into liking them by any book in existence.

What compels you to being quite so prolific?

Ideas appear in my head all the time. They keep coming and I have to embody them in stories in order to make them go away. If I don’t do this, they will keep on bothering me. When I began writing stories I found the creation of ideas to be hard work, but it’s a question of practice, like anything else. The more you pedal a bicycle, the stronger your calf muscles will become. The more you balance on a giant sphere, the less likely you will be to fall off. The more often you knit with partly boiled spaghetti, the greater the chances that a pasta cardigan will eventually become fashionable reality. And the more you try to write stories with unusual ideas, the more easily and smoothly unusual ideas will come to you, whether you want them to or not! I have reached the stage where ideas come unbidden. They come of their own accord at all times of the day and night, but chiefly when I am out walking. So many ideas come to me now that I have to use up many at the same time by putting them all into one story and seeing how they react to each other. Often they clash or combine and generate something unexpected and useful. This is one of the reasons my style is the way it is. It sounds as if my work will be cluttered as a result but that’s where the challenge to make all the diverse elements fit together properly comes in. That’s what requires the extra effort.

I've read elsewhere you saying you've no interest in being 'political' in your tales. Yet, like several of your literary influences, it is often downtrodden or disadvantaged protagonists who fight to gain freedom or some kind of salvation and often succeed. Could you clarify your position?

I don’t set out to be deliberately political. I have no left wing or right wing or any wing agenda to promote. As for the downtrodden protagonist who fights against the system, such an individual can represent any or no political ideal. The desire to win freedom is deeper than politics, in my view. It’s at the core of existence. Of course, there are those who say that everything is political, and they may well be right, and I guess that liberty is often seen as the biggest political issue of all. But in my own mind ‘political’ fiction means something different, something other than a simple connection with the pure questions of freedom. It means not only a kind of fiction that has an intention to pass on a set of predetermined social or economic messages that have been approved by at least a sizeable minority of other people, but also that there must be some sort of bureaucratic element to the messages. In other words the ideas in the messages are going to need a certain amount of paperwork in order to be implemented. There are going to be financial ramifications, agreements drawn up, contracts, diplomacy, a lot of effort. But freedom shouldn’t have a bureaucratic input at all. So I really don’t think I do political fiction. I guess that the most political aspect of my life is an environmental awareness, but I don’t consciously use my fiction to promote environmental issues, or if I do, then it’s not systematic. But it’s certainly true that the environment is the most important political issue we have right now. Without an environment, none of the other political issues can even exist, because we simply won’t be here.

What literature, or authors, do you read that might surprise people as having no obvious connection to your public work?

I read a lot of fiction that has no connection or influence on my own work. In fact I often get more enjoyment from such fiction. The problem is that when we are young we read books for enjoyment. Then we decide we want to write books too, so we do. But when they are published and we become authors, we can no longer read books the same way we did. An author isn’t able to read in the same way as a pure reader. The author is constantly looking for techniques in the work he or she is reading, looking for clues, for ways to improve, for things to be deliberately inspired by. Reading becomes almost a search for style, a quest for advancement. Authors can’t immerse themselves in the reading experience is the same way. This is why it’s a relief as well as a pleasure to read books that form no part of one’s own strivings. So most of the books I read are not fantasy based. They may be ironic or satirical or philosophical, but they tend to have at least one foot in this world. Thinking about the authors who I have discovered in the past few years who have most impressed and entertained me, few are associated directly with fantastical or weird writing. Ismail Kadare is probably the best writer I have discovered in recent years. At this very moment I am reading novels by V.S. Naipaul and R.K. Narayan, both of them writers with similar concerns but very different approaches and intentions. Milan Kundera is another author who has been a recent enthusiasm. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is one of my heroes. When I was younger I tended to go for fantasy and science fiction over anything else. These days I often ignore the fantasy and SF sections of a bookstore altogether. It could simply be, I guess, that I have read so much fantasy and SF over the years that I need a break for a few more years. That possibility has crossed my mind.

Your love of the Mediterranean and its various cultures is well known. Is its past culture – to us more conservative Northern Europeans - of hedonism and eroticism of particular appeal? And to what extent do you consciously, or otherwise, draw upon them for your work?

I am sure that the hedonism and eroticism are a large part of the appeal. I know, for instance, that epic fantasy with its roots in the Nordic world, the myths and cultures of the north, has never quite enthralled me in the same way as those more sultry romances that seem to stem from a southern influence. I use the word ‘romance’ in the old fashioned sense. There is also the fact that the Ancient Greek myths were a big part of my childhood reading. The ambience stayed with me. The answer might even be more straightforward than seeking some kind of aesthetic or spiritual connection. It could just be that I prefer warmer climates and I abhor the cold. This is something else that has changed over time. Winter was once my favourite season and the possibility of a snowball fight excited me beyond measure. Now I dread the onset of winter. I am a summer man entirely. This is true to the extent that I truly live only in the summer months. Half of my life is spent waiting and praying for summer. It’s not a real life. I think that spending time in Africa reset my internal thermostat somehow. The obvious solution is to permanently move to a warm country, of course, but this requires money. Nonetheless it remains my goal. I need to find a way of writing books that are more popular than the ones I currently write in order to finance and facilitate my escape.

I'd like to thank Rhys Hughes for taking the time out to respond.

* * * *

Newly-reissued in paperback is Reggie Oliver's third collection, originally published by Ash-Tree in 2007. As with his others,' derivative of any other author of the strange they are not.
  The alleged 'horror' in Oliver's tales rarely, truly rears its head until the denouement. Up until that point, we are on the trail of some seemingly conventional mystery; however, where most of this genre's authors' set a scene heading for some near inevitable downfall, Oliver's disarming wit and personal knowledge of the suburban, thespian classes of Southern England he writes about can successfully blind the most seasoned reader to the most unforeseeable outcomes.
  We rarely share in the Gothicists' dark, internal mania that builds to the inevitable climax. Instead, we are treated to informed, well-crafted and moderately-paced situations redolent of those TV anthology series of the Seventies, filtered through Oliver's brand of disarming irony. The old skool feel stems from his experiences as a then young stage actor and subsequent playwright. A quite unique writer's resume amongst the current generation of 30-40-something bedroom-based Goth Horror-ists.
  The humour emanates from here, too. Hear satirical echoes of Tom Sharpe, David Nobbs and perhaps even The Smoking Diarist, Simon Gray. I suspect Oliver could produce an excellent radio sitcom if he so desired, along the lines of 'Ed Reardon's Week,' straddling realism and surrealism with equal aplomb...
  Regional archetypes represented here include an elderly National Trust guide with an unwitting, sinister connection to the grand house's history; ('The Man in the Grey Bedroom'); a children's entertainer whose true character harbours something much worse; ('Mr. Poo-Poo'); a vengeful spirit, in life betrayed in love, replays fate from a dilapidated theatre; ('Blind Man's Box); while a translator, down on his luck, is offered riches in exchange for prostituting his craft, which either pure logic or pure madness resolves. (The Machen-influenced 'The Silver Cord'). The combination of tales, as ever from disparate sources, works well; being as complimentary as they are contrasting.
  If there is any doubt, it is that some of the tales of modern-day setting feel rather too light to become full-bloodedly 'weird.' This has more to do with the aforementioned Home Counties settings, and staid types chosen, than the prose style, which always satisfies. Oliver is at his best when his narrative preception is ambiguous or strange, be it 'Bloody Bill,' (from The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler) or 'Lightning' (in Flowers Of The Sea). Yet, like all the best authors,' he writes about what he knows, and what he knows rarely fails to engage. He is an individualist rather than a type and God knows we need more of them. I hope an equivalent reissue for the hard-to-find Madder Mysteries isn't too far away.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Lighthouses – An Anthology of Dark Tales, Edited by Cameron Trost, Black Beacon Books / Night-Pieces – Eighteen Tales by Thomas Burke, Valancourt Books

The lighthouse has been a surprisingly neglected edifice in recent gothic literature. While it is still being utilised by novice writers, recent years have so far divulged few acknowledged classics. If nothing else, editor Cameron Trost has, to some extent, made up for this in its varied representations here. Each can be classed a psychological narrative, but short enough for the sense of adventure to be foregrounded. Trost's own contribution, 'Horror At Hollow Head,' has, from the off, a more traditional feel. An innocent treasure-seeking father and son get more than they bargained for when they belatedly discover an old curse surviving in a community fearful of letting it die. By its climax, you may be left with a pleasing aftertaste of an update on Hope Hodgson or Marion Crawford.
  Two memorable examples of the anthology's psychological approach are Steve Cameron's 'To Keep the Lamp Alight' and Sam Muller's 'The Crystal Lighthouse.' In Cameron's tale, the subjective narration of a long-term friendship between a widower and a local policemfor a man in a close-knit community, where a disappearance remains unexplained, reads as breezy and hale-fellow-well-met. It is only near the end when the innocent, completely explicable, explanations for other disappearances feel just too convenient that you realise there might be more to the narrator than he's letting on. In Muller's tale, where 'placebos still worked fueled by belief,' a loving husband and father purchases a miniature model lighthouse, for his wife, to add to her collection. On receiving it, she is expectedly pleased. Later, the rest of the family arrive for a rare gathering. While talking about future plans, the man's son suddenly goes ballistic. Why is his father behaving as if their mother were still alive? 
  In 'The Tower,' B.T. Joy builds an impressive, encroaching sense of Ligottian horror, as a girl's disturbed, addicted boyfriend, plagued by an ongoing nightmare, appears to find a 'cure' in manifesting the nightmare in reality.
  Mythic pasts widen the territory. In Alice Goodwin's 'Into The Light,' a long-forgotten Greek myth comes back to haunt a woman who accompanies a tour of a long-lost, submerged town. A dark, dangerous stranger who seems barely mortal attends to her, shielding and vaguely explaining the drowned town's wraiths who appear to live on beneath its waves. The lines between life, dream and death are beautifully obscured here, with a climax that builds to epic proportions. In Deborah Sheldon's 'Will O' The Wisp,' we appear back in the superstitious rural heartland of the 17th century. It is the power of such superstitions upon the salvation of a soul that hangs over the fate of a newborn child and whether he shall live or die.
  This is the sixth release from the Black Beacon imprint and is a welcome, varied showcase for new Australian talent in short genre fiction.

Night-Pieces, originally published in 1935, is the first reissue of Burke's evocative little tales since Jessica Amanda Salmonson's The Golden Gong retrospective for Ash-Tree Press in 2001. Her long introduction for that release is virtually a full-length biography in itself, so crucial source material on his history.
  I'll declare an interest in that I've adored Burke's work now for several years. Not because I think the work is necessarily great; most of it isn't quite that. It is his vision and uncanny feel for his own past that fascinates. He seems to draw upon it with ease and manifest it, sensually, as well as any seasoned stage conjuror. Forrest Reid has this capacity when summoning his Irish background in a semi-rural Belfast, as does Burke of his cockney youth in London's Chinatown. You are there, beside them, breathing in the rural country air of the former and the dock-side, incense-laced smog of the latter.
 'Yesterday Street' neatly encapsulates Burke's favoured device. A portal-type tale, where a fond memory of the narrator's youth seems to reappear before him. This triggers his mourning the loss of a contemporary childhood love who, of course, then reappears, precisely as he she was recalled. Not all of Burke's tales were inspired by his past – far from it.
  'The Black Courtyard' is worth quoting as a good example of his successfully unnerving prose style.

'Nowhere was the darkness more intense than there. So intense was it that it seemed to have a quality of life. It menaced the eyes and pressed upon the face. Its silence seemed to whisper upon the ears. It was an organism of blackness whose tendrils almost throttled the breath. But to Perrace and his purposes this profusion of darkness was kind.' (p.69).


'He was in flight. He was fleeing not from fear of arrest, but from fear of a courtyard thick with darkness, deaf to noise, and alive only with the eyes of blind houses. Those houses had seen nothing; in that darkness they could not, even unshuttered, have seen; yet their very blindness had shot him with a deeper fear than the fear of capture.' (p.70).

  The suppressed, disguised inner life, simply expressed, layered with a glow of sunset-tinted wonder, is the hallmark of Burke's best writing, whomever he writes as narrator. 'In 'The Lonely Inn,' a tale simple but beautifully rendered, the ghost of an old public house claims a friend whose only mistake is in returning to the scene of a former crime.
  'The Hollow Man' is his most famous tale, but, I suspect, through default alone. It neither inspired the 2000 Paul Verhoeven film Hollow Man, nor the 1966 episode of the same name from the US 12 O' Clock High TV series. Yet, these facts have, inadvertently, contributed to the tale becoming more well known, allied to the fact that it has, occasionally, been anthologised. It is, though, one of Burke's most memorable tales. An old friend has travelled alone, from Africa to England, to seek out the man who'd left him to die – by a currently unknown hand - in the African bush. The traveler appears an entirely anonymous zombie, nothing more than the clothes he barely stands up in.
  Arriving in the cafe now run by his former friend and wife, he seats himself down and silently refuses to leave. He remains for days... As things around the cafe owner begin to deteriorate and patrons first move, then leave, in their droves, never to return, the increasingly desperate cafe owner has little choice but ask the traveler what he must do to make him go. His revelation implies the termination of a curse, the cafe owner alone must conclude. The 'off-screen' ambiguity of the ending is one of Burke's finest.
  This is a recommended reissue of truly uncanny tales featuring relate-able, working-class characters – between the Wars - facing a twilit-coloured range of life and death choices.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Ernest Dowson – Collected Shorter Fiction, Edited by Monica Borg & R.K.R. Thornton, Birmingham University Press

Early in 1900, just before he himself died, Oscar Wilde remarked upon hearing of Ernest Dowson's death; "Much of what he has written will remain," and, "I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb, and rue, and myrtle too, for he knew what love is." These are as much an accurate summation of Dowson's little known fiction as of his better known poetry. That known as 'Cynara,' his most oft-quoted example, where...

"All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! In my fashion."

  There is little rose-tinted romance in Dowson's view of love. This is its quiet power. He wrote from the heart; from its effect upon him at the time; from personal experiences he so often came out of the poorer. This reader couldn't help but feel this was due to his once being a hopeless romantic in the first place. Through his twenties, he had transient relationships with teenage showgirls, prostitutes and bar-girls from those venues where he was regular receipient of tots of absinthe and Spanish wine. (Hence the "bought red mouth" in 'Cynara').One such – from a Polish, family-run cheap restaurant near his fathers' London docks where he reluctantly worked – was the proprietors' very young daughter, Adelaide Foltinowicz, whose pragmatism may only have stoked Dowson's lustrous fire. (They remained an unlikely couple for over a decade until Adelaide married someone else).
  To glean a thumbnail sketch of Dowson from Jad Adams' 2000 biography: he was boyishly slight of build, narrow-shouldered, shy, introspective, pale, (from tuberculosis), flannel-wearing, chain-smoking, with an unsmiling 'soft' mouth beneath a mousy moustache, from losing his teeth at an early age and rarely bothering with his set of replacements. Yet, while a depressive, who also drank to smother what he could, he was no miserablist, sudden bursts of energy and a determination to change his immediate situation also taking hold, allied to a serious appreciation of a droll wit. Often homeless, he was as generous to the poor as one on his modest income from writing could be. More problematical – especially today – was his unsatisfactory love-life idealised, like so many men of the time, through at least two affairs with early teenage girls.
  Superficially, Dowson sounds like one of those self-destructive rock stars of more recent times; physically fragile, incapable of looking after themselves, getting into fights, monosyllabic from intoxication, being dependent on drink and occasional coke, overspending on each ensuring constant destitution. Yet, also like them, uniquely brilliant at their equally public talent. It may be difficult to feel even a smidgen of sympathy for a man with such tastes; but Dowson's authenticity managed to elicit a certain beauty from his self-destructive habits.

Singularly more mature than his ability to look after himself is his own fictionalised view on relationships, played out in these nine short tales – the summation of what he produced of the form. These originally published in the inevitable Yellow Book and other 'decadent' journals of the Nineties. Eight of the nine tales are thematically connected in one way or another; missed opportunities for love where circumstance rather than personal blame – i.e. the restrictions and expectations of Victorian society – conspire to deprive each party. Five of them originally collected under the well chosen banner, 'Dilemmas.' (1895). The young woman in each – the protagonists' object of desire - may be idolised, but never patronised. Biographer Jad Adams gave a class A example:

"Dowson merged religious devotion with earthly love, particularly in his prose. In 'Diary of a Successful Man,' the object of the men's devotion joins a closed order, as the beloved girl does in 'Apple Blossom in Brittany.' This set in the fictional Breton village of Ploumariel where Dowson also set 'A Case of Conscience' and to which he frequently referred when saying he wanted to be back in Brittany. In the story, Benedict Campion, an English Catholic of around 40, is visiting his ward, a girl of 16. Marie-Ursule is an orphan, being educated at a convent under the supervision of the local Cure who, recognising Campion's love for the girl, urges that he marry her. Campion delays, returns to London, and when he next sees Marie-Ursule she is turning to him for advice on whether or not she should enter the Ursuline convent. He feels he cannot deflect her from this higher path... so he acquiesces, and she never knows of his love for her, thus combining religious vocation with the sacrifice of love for a higher purpose." (Adams, p.54).

  I have little doubt that mass appreciation of Dowson as a novelist could have rivalled that of DH Lawrence had he lived to produce them unaided. (He had co-written two, early in his short career and flawed through compromise, with former Oxford chum Arthur Moore). Still, there is a sensitivity, subtlety and emotional authenticity in the short tales that can be seen as a blueprint for more extended prose. Whereas, in much of the poetry, Dowson's depiction of himself in love is as a wraith, or spectre, the ghost of himself with whom a lover may conjoin were he so fortunate. (See 'Saint Germain-En-Laye,' 'A Requiem' and 'In a Breton Cemetery'). That he never lived to mine from these nine – dying from long-term TB at 32 - has undoubtedly held back his reputation.