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.