Saturday, 3 November 2018

A Book Review Bonanza

Editorial:  A book review bonanza this month. PROTA 10 - up in January - will be another, but with a running theme - ahead of that desperate 29th March deadline - of Decadents Of Europe. Consequently, Pan Himself is considering a return to his sylvan homeland of Greece where - being a feral creature - the state of the economy is of no concern to Him. Enjoy!
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Life, Be Still! & Other Stories by H.A. Manhood, The Sundial Press

Wikipedia states that Harold Alfred Manhood (1904-91) "lived in a converted railway carriage in the Sussex countryside, growing his own food and brewing his own cider." Mark Valentine, in his introduction, reveals in more detail how this occurred; a scenario sylvan – and out of reach - to most aspiring writers. His gift was considered so great by his interested publisher that he was financially sustained by Edward Garnett at Jonathan Cape to live out this idealised life, just so he could write. It is just as well then that this selection justifies the considerable delay in its appearance. (An occupational hazard for most publishers, negotiating with author estates).
  This first selection since the author's death showcases twenty-nine of the fruits of his labours; rural fables, described in unique similie. Punctuating prose of ominous beauty are intermittent shocks, their clarion being the attempted crucifixon of a wife deemed by her husband to have cheated on him. ('Three Nails'). Surrounding such moments, it soon becomes clear how the sheer beauty of Manhood's prose not only couches such hateful behaviour in context, but rivals most of his inter-war contemporaries, such as HE Bates and AE Coppard.
  Manhood appears skeptical of the supernatural. His own position on religion is at least agnostic, possibly atheist; not as strident as D.H. Lawrence, but a lot less convinced than, say, Dunsany. On ghosts, he offers dismissive explanations in the few tales in which they're referenced. ('No Ghosts' and 'Shall We Ghost?'). On the last of these, however, the pay-off line does at least leave open the possibility. As Mark Valentine states, referring to 'The Unbeliever': "(it) achieves the delicate balance between atmosphere and incident, indirection and conclusion...between belief and unbelief in vaster forces." If actual ghosts are deemed uncredible, still the uncanny pervades. Valentine rightly adds the comparison with Walter de la Mare and his 'advancing the short tale into tremulous new territory.' This is reflected in a pared down modernity to the prose, though a couple of contemporary references – uncontroversial in their time – might make the modern reader wince.
  Manhood – like Claude Houghton, recently excavated by Valancourt - is just the latest example of a writer undeservedly hidden by time and the prioritised urban upheavals of the Thirties. Sundial have done this author equal favour. All seven of Manhood's original volumes of short stories – from which these twenty-nine were selected – will be reissued throughout 2019-20. The first two - Nightseed and Apples by Night – are due to appear in paperback late Spring. Recommended.

Resonance & Revolt by Rosanne Rabinowitz, Eibonvale Press

Socialism is a subject rarely chosen as the main theme for a collection; rarer still in the slipstream of the uncanny. A gap in the market, ironically enough, filled in other media, such as with Mike Leigh's latest, Peterloo, but ill-served in new literature. It's therefore welcome – and timely in our age of particularly vile corporate monsters – that Rabinowitz has now had her short work collected. (Only her second standalone release after the well-received novella Helen's Story (PS Publishing, 2013), that gave voice to Machen's central character and 'victim' from The Great God Pan).
  Her Jewish heritage adds a second finger to the pulse of such currency, acting as historical backdrop to certain entries. First up though is 'In The Pines,' where the lyrics of an old blues number finds 'resonance' and deja-vu for a woman seeking the remnants of her dead husband at a crash site in a song beyond her memory.
  Subsequent tales of dissentient students coming together for protest are first highlighted in 'Return of the Pikart Posse' and 'Bells of the Harelle.' The latter is this collection's finest, most satisfying tale, deserving of future anthologising. Served mainly by its narrative's sense of urgency, the opening line alone pulls you in: "When King Charles's troops entered Rouen to put down the rebellion, the Harelle, the first thing they did was strip the tongues from the city's bells. I listened as they did so, hidden in the belfry tower with my two lovers, Christophe and Adrian." That's how you do it. 'Return of the Pikart Posse' finds an MA student with "a passion for the past" make tangible contact with the spirit of one with a long-harboured passion of her own. In 'Bells of the Harelle' we are in 14th century France and the burgeoning rise of self-determination under the age-old heal of organised religion.
  There are lesser tales. 'These Boots,' 'Keep Them Rollin' and 'Tasting The Clouds' are far smaller windows, rather than visions, into the writer's world and not of comparable quality; least of all of the first four. Two genuine weird tales – atypical presences here – at least reveal Rabinowitz's other abilities. 'The Colour of Water,' and 'The Turning Track' (co-credited with Mat Joiner) are standouts. Rabinowitz is in a position to connect with a readership currently untapped by her contemporaries. I hope she gets the chance to branch out and achieve it.

Revenants & Maledictions - Ten Tales of the Uncanny by Peter Bell / A Ghosts & Scholars Book Of Folk Horror, Sarob Press

On the 30th August 2012, I reviewed here Dr. Bell’s first collection, Strange Epiphanies (Swan River Press, 2012). Then, I wrote how 'Bell's historical knowledge lends an outsider's credence to the researcher-protaganist and her ultimate fate.' Fan-fiction only gives lip-service to this territory often, and derivatively, enough. (I’ve been guilty of this myself). Bell, however, like John Buchan before him – of whom he most resembles – also knows his from first-hand experience, rather than merging topographical fact with topographical fiction and hoping for the best. (Again, guilty). Surprisingly, in Bell‘s foreword, Buchan's is the one name as most likely influence left unmentioned. Such authenticity lent credence to his follow-up collections – A Certain Slant Of Light (Sarob, 2014) and Phantasms (Sarob, 2016) - and this, his latest and third with the same publisher.
  The outstanding tales – as ever, traditionally coastal in setting - utilise their central conceit, the encroaching inevitablility of fate, in unexpected directions. For this reason, 'The Virgin Mary Well,' 'The Island,' 'Blackberry Time' and 'The Robing of the Bride' are its gems, ending the collection on a dramatically Gothic precipice.
  In 'The Virgin Mary Well' a young daughter’s knowledge and curiosity appears greater than her scholar father’s during a week’s stay at a holiday cottage in the Isle Of Man. But, is this a tale of precognition – or possession? A long-harboured disease may have left a residual legacy when a lone visitor to the remote island of Eilean Beag is rowed ashore in 'The Island.' Less than eight pages long, it’s admirable just how much detail is communicated in its evocation.
  Nostalgia for a rural landscape painting that resonates into adulthood with a disturbing manifestation defines 'Blackberry Time.' A young housing agent, directed to photograph her next property for prospective sale, comes up against the possible madness of its faded grande dame owner and her obsession for Egyptian object d’art in 'The Robing of the Bride.' Very Conan-Doylish – at his best - its Gothic ending is a fine way to finish the volume. Amongst a quite crowded market, Bell is, without doubt, one of today's finest exponents of the traditional supernatural tale.


Just as Peter Bell’s traditionalist approach highlights Sarob’s preferences, so, inevitably, does this 'best of' selection from thirty-eight years of the Pardoes' well-respected journal, Ghosts & Scholars. In her Introduction, Editor Rosemary Pardoe posits what constitutes the term 'folk horror. ' Of interest in terms of the linkage to other texts, how useful is nailing a genre's definition remains arguable.
  I've chosen six-of-the-best here that succeed, based upon the following criteria: the first being, if the featured territory is especially traditional, does it succeed as a prime example of the genre? The second being, if it isn’t, does it fulfill its aim without overreaching itself?
  As is the convention in compiling, the first three tales are particularly strong. Michael Chislett’s 'Meeting Mr. Ketchum' sees a couple unwittingly seduced to a seemingly disused burial mound and the unknown presence it still harbours. Chico Kidd’s 'Figures in a Landscape' is the oldest entry, dating from 1980. Told in the second-person, a walking holiday in Ireland becomes an encroachment into a stone-tape re-enactment, which wastes not a line. Next comes Ramsey Campbell’s 'The Burning,' While not a fan of Campbell’s oeuvre, I've often found the short tales superior to the novels and this – in achieving its ambiguous melding of the objective with the subjective – is a fine example.
  The call of a bloodthirsty well is central to Carole Tyrrell’s 'Lorelei.' The most visceral entry and only true historical setting (circa 17th century), it’s well realised without lazy reference to dates and cliche. Christopher Harman’s 'Sisters Rise' sees a school-party whose local historian is roped in as attendant guide and the unwitting focus of the enigmatic Tall Maud. A narrative surprisingly cheery considering the subject. In the definitely downbeat 'Discontent of Familiars,' by John Llewelyn Probert, the neglected-looking home of a long-deceased solitary witch still harbours a 'life' that negatively permeates whatever – or whomever – resides there.
  At least two titles in the second half – in reference to criteria one - lacked the necessary impact through to the pay-off. A contributing factor may have been because of the tales they followed; but neither are they the authors' best. Chico Kidd and Carole Tyrell, however, were a revelation, enticing me to seek out their other work.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 9

Editorial: Welcome to PROTA 9 - the last PROTA of the year. (November's 'Pan' will be a book review extravaganza). In this issue, we focus on the great Regency author MARY SHELLEY; too often overshadowed by her even more famous poet husband, Percy Bysshe. First up is a Q&A with freelance artist and sculptor, BRYAN MOORE, who recently completed, in bronze, a noteworthy bust of the author on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the original publication of Mary's seminal novel, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Following this is an equally fascinating second, with Shelley scholar and President of Music Canada, GRAHAM HENDERSON. We end with a double-length review of FIONA SAMPSON's recent biography on Mary. Our fate is sealed where 'er the leaves may fall...


Creator of the Mary Shelley bronze bust on the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein

MA: What originally inspired your choice of subject for sculpting?

BRYAN MOORE: My choices for the author bronze bust series were always authors whose work that I particularly enjoyed, starting with Lovecraft, Poe, Stoker and of course Mary Shelley. Horror fiction would be nowhere today if it weren't for her Herculean efforts in realizing one of the most daring and original works of all time.

MA: How have you found the fundraising journey?

BM: Make no mistake, it's hard work and you can easily stop being an artist and become a full time salesman, but that goes part and parcel in the world of freelance art. My entire career has always been an exercise in selling in one form or another and while it's much easier to sell today with the advent of social media, it's also harder as many other artists are competing for the same dollars that you are. We all have to make our way through life and it's always a struggle no matter who you are or for how long you've been doing your art.

MA: The fundraising aside, what else did you find the biggest challenge in creating the bust?

BM: Time and scheduling. There's never enough of it. Also, nailing down a donor location. I get told 'no' far more often than I get told 'yes.' I also have to hear the endless (and quite useless) opinions of others. I tune it out and my attorney handles the rest.

MA: What reliable pictorial sources for the bust’s creation did you have to hand?

BM: With Mary Shelley, primarily one portrait by Richard Rothwell, which is the most recognizable image that comes to most folks' mind when they think of Mary Shelley. I also had the good fortune to track down the owner of the Camillo Pistrucci bust of Mary Shelley which was actually done in her lifetime. The owner graciously shot turnaround photographs for me of all the angles of the bust, thereby affording me a great opportunity to envison sides of her that were previously left to the imagination; her profile and the back of that mysterious Regency era hairstyle of hers. I'm very lucky to have had such astounding reference at my disposal. The hardest part was not to simply copy Pistrucci or Rothwell's work as those portraits are only another artist's impressions and not actual photographs. Did I nail Mary Shelley's likeness? I hope so but it's really up to the average viewer of my sculpture to comment on that. Time will tell.

MA: Your website reveals other bust-subjects with a link to the 'horror' genre. Is there something uniquely advantageous to creating the bust of a subject rather than by a painting or some other medium? If so, what do you think it is?

BM: As an artist, I could run with my personal passion and sculpt whoever I wanted, but this is a business for me and what is adventageous economically is what I go with most of the time now. I've often found that if an author that I'd like to sculpt is on a t-shirt or a coffee cup or some part of pop culture, then the project will quite likely fund. If it's not, then I don't do it. At this point in my career, there's very little glamour in spending six months of my precious time to end up broke, so I try and go with subjects that I think will fund. It's funny, my next bust is Rod Serling but I'm finding that when I ask anyone under 30 what they think, they have no idea who I'm talking about. I'm clearly a man of my time and who I might like isn't what millenials might like. Seems celebrating literary icons might be a generational thing now. I'd probably make more money if I sculpted a bust of Lady Gaga. Who knows?

MA: I was particularly pleased you chose Mary since a) busts of women still aren’t anywhere near as common as those for men and b) her own story isn’t really well known outside academic biography. What unforeseen outcomes – personal and / or professional - have you experienced since its completion?

BM: None at all with the exception of social media "likes" versus people throwing actual hard cash at it. I thought that the feminist and womens studies audience might rally around it en masse as I felt that it was celebrating a very brave, pioneering, female author, but they didn't, possibly because a man was sculpting her and not a woman. What matters at the end of the day is that there's an audience out there for everything and it's your job as an artist to find it and turn it into cash so that you can realize the work. I always chuckle when I hear artists out there claim that they don't do it for the money. That's true when you first pick up a paintbrush or a hunk of clay and do it because you genuinely love doing it, but if you want to be a professional artist, a solid business sense goes hand in hand with that success and it's very hard for a lot of artists to make that work for them. So many other artist pals often ask me for the "secret of my success.“ So, here it is: 
  Never stop selling until the lights are off on the midway and the ferris wheel stops turning. Never stop selling. Be enough of a carny to never stop until you turn the tip from the midway and into the tent and take the dime out of their pocket and put it into yours. Never stop seeing everyone as a walking twenty dollar bill. If you do, you don't deserve the money that others were smart enough to reach out and grab. Never stop selling. The lights on the midway are NEVER off. That may sound harsh to some, but the reality is that if you aren't a hard hustler in the world of art, you probably aren't cut out to be a professional artist. 

I'd like to thank Bryan for the giving of his time.

Check out BRYAN MOORE's work here:


GRAHAM HENDERSON is President and CEO of Music Canada, a trade association that promotes and protects the value of music and advocates on behalf of its creators. Graham serves on the Boards of the Keats-Shelley Association of America, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the International Federation of Phonographic Industries, The Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall. He an officer of the International Chamber of Commerce’s Intellectual Property Commission and acts as Copyright Rapporteur. Graham is widely recognized as a thought leader for the creative sector. He is a prominent champion of creator’s rights to be fairly compensated, most notably through the 2012 passage of landmark copyright reform legislation by the Parliament of Canada. Graham is also an outspoken champion of music education in Canada and has written and spoken widely on the transformative power of music.

MA: What was it about Percy Bysshe Shelley, specifically, that first connected with you and what were the circumstances under which this occurred?

GRAHAM HENDERSON: My very first connection with Shelley was a poem my father gave to memorize. I would have been 10 or 11. It was part of a little binder of typewritten poetry that he had selected. If we were able to recite a poem without a mistake he would give us 50 cents. The Shelley poem he selected was 'Arethusa.' What astonished me then, and astonishes me to this day, was Shelley’s extraordinary mastery of the lyric – enjambment in particular. After that, I can’t say I thought much about Shelley until I encountered him again as part of Kenneth Graham’s “Introduction to English Literature” class at the University of Guelph (Ontario). Perhaps it was the seed sown by my father so many years before that made me susceptible to Shelley. Whatever it was, I plunged in pretty quickly. Without question what appealed to me then was Shelley’s politics. I loved that he was so radical, such a rebel. I also liked the idea that I was studying a poet who for decades had been treated with disdain by the university establishment. This was the Seventies, and Shelley was still living in the shadow of the stern and flawed judgements of Arnold, Eliot and others. It was like I was fighting for an underdog – I identified with him.

MA: I’ve long found it difficult to reconcile the privilege by which Shelley and his contemporaries lived with the revolutionary politics of their beliefs. (For me, the proof they were doing more than merely rebelling against daddy is in the quality of their subsequent work). This may be because there are no obvious modern-day equivalents. Or are there?

GH: Unlike many of his privileged contemporaries, I think PBS demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to “walking the walk”. A student of the classical Greeks through and through, he think he knew that words meant little if your actions don’t match. I think he took his poetry seriously – he attempted to undergo the sort of personal imaginative revolution which he believed was necessary for the world to become a better place. In other words he was not a hypocrite. Not sure you can say that about many political revolutionaries. As for contemporaries, surely the best modern example of this Shelleyan spirit was the great Paul Foot. Both would have been viewed by their contemporaries as class traitors – which is to me a badge of honour.

MA: What did you think of Fiona Sampson’s recent biography on Mary Shelley?

GH: I think Sampson’s book is a great disappointment in much the same way as was Haifaa al Mansour’s movie version of Mary’s life. In each case, almost everyone around Mary is denigrated in an effort to get Mary up on impossibly high pedestal. Biography becomes a sort of zero sum game. In order to, as she says, "find the girl that wrote Frankenstein," she apparently believes she must ferociously attack everyone around Mary. It feels like the sort of angry, adversarial tone which characterizes social media trolling is insinuating itself into mainstream biography. I always thought what made Mary so special was the fact that she was surrounded by brilliant engaged minds and that she matched them all. Let’s briefly take Sampson’s attack on Claire Claremont for example. Here’s what she writes: "[Claire Clairmont] isn't as gifted or as intelligent as Mary; but these are never the qualities that lever literary men into bed. Jane-Clara-Clary-Claire is much the more typical poet's girlfriend. She is no writerly rival but a nice little singer; her dark curls are obviously pretty; and she has no interests (or indeed pregnancy) of her own to get in the way of her continual availability....Claire...has no compunction about acting out, or at least acting up."
  The tone of this is shockingly condescending – written by a man it would be roundly condemned as nothing short of sexist. As for Percy, well, it is pretty obvious that she considers him to be a monster – and not only that, but she has almost no appreciation for the political dimension of his poetry (despite having undertaken Faber’s selection of Shelley’s verse). She writes, "I became fascinated by Mary Shelley and her most famous novel because of her husband. Back in 2011, I found myself trying to make sense of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry. It was a tricky assignment. Percy was above all a creature of his own cultural moment, and nothing dates like a zeitgeist." This is called “telegraphing your punch.” It is also betraying your bias. Before a word has been said about Mary, Sampson places Percy in the trash bin of historically irrelevant writers. He is discarded as a bad, dated poet.
  In her interview with Andrew Marr, Sampson sums up Percy's character with these words: "he obviously liked the ladies, he was apparently a social revolutionary, he was part of a communitarian community." The words "obviously" and "apparently" were freighted with sarcasm and disdain when Sampson used them. Sampson went on to dismiss him as having no "political responsibility" and embracing revolutionary ideas solely for "personal and emotional" reasons. It as if this aspect of his character was somehow inauthentic, incidental and unimportant. This is Sampson's judgement of one of the great political thinkers of his or any era. The great Percy Shelley scholar Timothy Webb once remarked that "politics was probably the dominating concern" of his life. Another great Shelleyan, Terrence Hoagwood, believed that Percy was the greatest English political philosopher of his time. For Pete's sake, this is what Karl Marx had to say:

“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36. Because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at 29 because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.”

During the aforementioned interview, Marr says this: “Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the most disreputable, disgraceful people I have ever come across on the page. I had no idea how awful he was. Almost everybody, certainly every woman, that comes into contact with him either dies or kills herself or is totally destroyed....The only thing that matters to him is Percy Bysshe Shelley."

Sampson does not say one word about this ridiculous characterization (all of which is based on Sampson’s biography), but she chuckles with evident satisfaction.The most irresponsible thing that Sampson does is to engage in armchair psychological analysis – with the patient having been in the grave for 200 years. Even James Bieri who was a psychologist stayed away from this. For example, Shelley, she suggests, “resembles a type of highly gifted young man who receives a diagnosis of bipolar disorder but remains high-functioning because manifesting only on the manic end of the spectrum”.
  As Professor John Mullan wrote in the New Statesman, “Those who like their biography to be austerely reliable will flinch at the frequent introduction of some piece of psychological guesswork with “it’s hard not to feel”, “it’s hard not to suspect”, “one can’t help feeling”, or “it is easy to imagine”.

I personally think Mary would roll in her grave were she to discover her friends and loved ones attacked in her name in such an ad hominem manner. At one point Sampson makes it clear that her biography of Mary is designed for the “MeToo” era. To make this work she needed to invent a super villain and she does so with gusto. This is not measured advocacy, it is advocacy with an axe. There is one extremely curious thing about this biography by the way – she has almost nothing but good things to say about Byron – even defending his decision to send little Allegra to a convent where she died. Go figure. I think Lynn McDowell in her review in The Herald summed it up nicely:

 “Biography is meant to be an objective art. Stick to the verifiable facts; maintain an authoritative tone; don’t invite conjecture and definitely don’t play armchair psychologist. Fiona Sampson, a prize-winning poet and editor, has eschewed all four rules as she seeks to get inside the head of Mary Shelley, so intent on seeing everything solely from her subject’s perspective that she becomes almost enthusiastic about attributing blame for what happens.”

MA: I have my own issues with the biography (reviewed below), but I do think her perspective on Mary’s treatment by her contemporaries, at least, is spot-on. What biographies on either Shelley would you recommend?

GH: My favourite full length biography of Percy is now James Bieri’s – though Richard Holmes was my go to for many, many years. I would also recommend Paul Foot’s 'Red Shelley' – it was breathtaking to read – a magnificent effort to reclaim the radical Shelley for our modern age. Then, of course there is 'The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical' by Kenneth Neill Cameron. The great Shelley scholar Neil Fraistat told me that he was “in awe of that book” – and with good reason. There is also a more recent book by Jacqueline Mulhallen: 'Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary.' It is extremely approachable and enjoyable. As for Mary, I think Anne Mellor’s remains the essential biography.

MA: What are your favourite PBS poems - and / or pieces of prose - and why?

GH: My favourite poems are the political poems: 'Prometheus Unbound' in particular. I also think 'Julian and Maddalo' is hugely underrated. From his prose, the 'Defense of Poetry.' And of course, his letters, they just sparkle with wit and erudition.

MA: For someone interested who may never have read PBS, or may be daunted by the prospect, which of his works might act as a good introduction?

GH: A perfect gateway drug to the works of Shelley is 'Ozymandias.' Here you see the exquisite lyricism for which he is so justly famous, but you also get (packed into a single sonnet), most of his politic philosophy. I would also suggest 'To Wordsworth,' 'England in 1819,' 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,' 'Ode to the West Wind,' and, of course, 'Arethusa.'

Many thanks to Graham for sparing his time.

To learn more, visit
The Real Percy Bysshe Shelley on Facebook
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In Search Of Mary Shelley – The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson,
Profile Books

It is an occupational hazard for any biographer, faced with a subject who kept either a meagre or incomplete archive, as how best to fill the gaps. I know. One way is to delineate place in its historical context in which these gaps reside. Another is simply to confess the gaps in the text and move on. The first is clearly the preferable option. Then again, it isn't entirely satisfactory either. You ask yourself; what direct effect did these have on the subject? If none seem apparent, based on subsequent research, the biographical gap remains. This is an issue with the opening chapters. Neither of Mary's famous social revolutionary parents – William Godwin (known then for An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793)) nor Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)) are known to have left such relevant, personal reminiscences, certainly regarding their second daughter’s early years. Sampson, understandably, compensates. That compensation, however, reads as too assumption-heavy. The first two chapters are the issue. The first posits the possible scenario around little Mary Godwin’s birth: ‘this must be the scene Mary (Wollstonecraft) imagines as she sends a message for (her husband) William (Godwin) to come and meet his baby.’ Also, ‘what does William feel at this point?...I think he is hovering.’ (p.20). The second about the circumstances of their moving and her early years: ‘For she and Godwin can only approve of such child-centred books,’ and ‘it would be nice to think,’ etc. (p.32). There are other examples. Since subsequent chapters enlighten through academic skill and empathy with the subject, this surmising jars.
  Fortunately, as we reach the growing Mary Godwin’s own journals and work, the biography comes into its own. A profile of the subject swiftly emerges; a woman considerate, compassionate, independent, but publicly shy. In social contexts at least, she harbours a modesty and coolness as 'a devout but nearly silent listener,' she later confesses to holding her back professionally. It is during her impressionable early womanhood - from seventeen to the age of twenty-five - that she meets and falls in love with the simpatico poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She appears well aware of his failings, (including the casual affairs and seeming lack of concern for basic domestic upkeep), tolerating them to an extraordinary degree; presumably since she so admires what he represents, sharing - through her parentage - his dissenting beliefs.
  Now released in paperback, Sampson’s latest biography offers valuable re-evaluation of a writer, less in her husband’s shadow than that of her most famous creation. To its credit, it also reveals the callous disregard Mary experienced, once successful, of her husband’s (so-called) friends and contemporaries. Often claiming penury through excessive travel and, no doubt, gambling, the biography reveals how these rich men’s sons drained her of her own modest earnings for all they were worth to help sustain their formerly pampered lifestyles. Promises of future publication were just as easily disregarded once made.
  Among the guilty of Mary’s fair-weather friends are Thomas Medwin, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Hobbs, Jane Williams and Edward Trelawney. (Trelawney at least offered Mary initial support and is by far the most interesting personality of this group). Later in life, Mary would reflect on what she observed of them: ‘violent without any sense of Justice – selfish in the extreme – talking without knowledge – rude, envious and insolent.’ (p. 244) A twentieth century parallel of such a relationship might be seen in that of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath; in that, despite the parallel talent of the wife, the husband is the one feted by the patriarchal establishment, virtually at her expense, while left to casually cheat upon her with other women, under its protection.
   PB Shelley is drawn as one whose idealism finds difficulty shoehorning itself into domestic life. His regular touring absences also suggest an instinctive avoidance of confrontation, with the inevitable consequence of occasional, eccentric outbursts. While Sampson often refers to him as ‘a dreamer,' it is a dearth in empathy by which he is painted; perhaps the very thing he rebelled against in his Tory grandee father, Sir Timothy. What isn't even glimpsed here, however, is the firebrand radical of Oxford so clearly rendered in Heathcote Williams's celebratory prose poem of 2012. Sampson by contrast, portrays an absconding figure who appears to cynically manipulate his own high ideals soon after tying-the-knot in this, his second marriage. This 'normalizes' him, certainly, but it also feels overly partial.
  Occasionally, he also comes over as Byron at his worst, although there is an irony here. Byron himself comes out of his relationship with Mary rather well. Admiring the MS of Frankenstein, and not questioning its authorship, he acts as patron for her as well as for Percy, sending and receiving publisher-related correspondence to John Murray (his own publisher) and others. After Percy’s tragic early death, he continues to advise and trust Mary as proofreader of his own new work, without – surprisingly – inevitable recourse to the bedroom. Clearly, he held more than just a candle for Percy and his oeuvre and his constancy here is admirable. If nothing else, Byron was no flippant, transient dandy and this instance is a further example of how he held fast to certain principles throughout his own short life.
  While the preponderance of biographer surmising takes up the first two chapters, Sampson subsequently unites the seeming contradictions in Mary’s character; from ‘the icily furious intellectual to pint-sized blonde in a fit of giggles’ portrayed in Richard Rothwell’s famous portrait of 1839, to she who believes ‘self-denial…disappointment, and self-control, are a part of our (self) education.’ (p.235). I was left wondering to what extent Mary was less a victim of her husband, than a victim of her own high level of trust and expectation. By the end, I felt I knew as much of Mary as a single biography could be expected to deliver. It is, however, a pity that Sampson didn't draw upon other existing sources to offer a fuller, less partial portrait of her husband.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 8

Editorial: More by default than contrivance, PROTA 8 is strictly bookish. Our latest guest contributor is author, bookseller and long-term JG Ballard aficianado, STEPHEN E. ANDREWS. Here, he convincingly argues for greater, deeper coverage of literature and its creators across the media, where too often it is the poorest relation amongst popular culture. He ends with a related anecdote, both witty and telling. New releases from Tartarus and Egaeus Press get the regular 'Pan' dissection and we end with the all-too-occasional round-up under Albertine's Wooers. Enjoy...

Empire of the Scum:
J.G. Ballard meets the Pond Life Literati

By Stephen E. Andrews

There are more books in the world than there any other type of product. I don’t mean copies of books, but titles as in discrete and specific works. I’m also referring particularly to professionally published texts printed in codex form and deliberately excluding self-published and e-books. This has been the case for many, many decades. In any given year in the UK alone, around 100,000 new titles are issued, a similar number go out of print and there are usually around 600,000 different volumes available to order at any given moment. Globally, these numbers expand into millions. You might think there must be another consumer durable that is created and manufactured in greater numbers and diversity, but you’d be wrong. More than anything, printed books still define human civilisation.
   Despite this fecundity, books are invisible to many: in its fixation on sport as the opium of the people, the mass media’s coverage of literature is neglectful, tantamount to deliberate starvation. The paucity of book programmes on television and radio –those that do exist always focus on authors already famous or whatever the major publishers are currently hyping – is an international disgrace. Consequently, those of us who work in the book trade (whether writers, publishers or booksellers) are like the fish in M. C Escher’s print Three Worlds, barely visible beneath the surface of a murky pond, hardly ever breaking the meniscus above us into the oxygen of public awareness above.
   In the hierarchy of literary Pond Life, booksellers like me are the lowest of the low. Inhabitants of the Empire of the Scum, we can’t ever float like duckweed on the surface as authors who have ‘made it’ do. We speak to more readers than any editor or author ever does every single day. We are quietly influential, but in reality never actually make any work into a bestseller, except maybe in the town our bookshop resides in. There’s a rumour that a bookseller did this with John William’s Stoner, (an almost singular example of a novel becoming a bestseller some forty odd years after initial publication) but the fact is that this is a myth. NYRB Classics reissued Stoner over a decade ago before rights were claimed by Vintage in the UK some years later, but it was one of that imprint’s own surface floaters (the default English ‘literary zeitgeist’ novelist Ian McEwan) talking about the book on national radio that really got copies of Stoner selling en masse.
   Some writers recognise that the committed bookseller is more than an anonymous piece of software in the mainframe of literature. Instead, they treat us with respect as collaborators in bringing something special to individual readers for no more reward than a minimalist wage packet and the joy of sharing the revelation of neglected but striking art. For career booksellers, the most important perk of all is meeting one’s idols and enthusiastically evangelising their works.
   One of my favourite authors is J.G. Ballard. Despite early critical acclaim, Ballard didn’t cross over into mainstream acceptance from the ghetto of SF until his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984. Having entered the book trade in the autumn this event occurred, I can confidently state that if this shortlisting (and the press reviews that accompanied it) had not occurred, Ballard would have remained underwater for most readers for far longer, possibly eternally. After all, Steven Spielberg would never have filmed Crash, would he? Like most commentators and interpreters working above the surface, Spielberg doesn’t really engage with the obscure: all of his literary adaptations are of tomes that were already bestsellers.
   This is where my workmates and I come in. As a rare example of that mutant amphibian known as the Writer-Bookseller, I shamelessly promote work I find stimulating to like-minded readers both in person from behind a counter and in print. My work on guides such as 100 Must Read Books For Men bought me brief notoriety via Radio 4’s Open Book programme while my Amazon bestseller 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels led tangentially to my becoming a contributor to Deep Ends: The J.G. Ballard Anthology, an (almost) annual collection of prose and visual works in honour of my icon published by Terminal Press.
   My first piece for this handsome full-colour illustrated trade paperback anthology was for the 2016 edition, a lengthy anecdotal essay on what it’s been like seeing Ballard break through the surface tension from my perspective as a thirty-year bookseller who had encounters with the great man himself. Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2018 was published very recently and features much enlightening and entertaining material by the likes of Paul Di Fillipo, Maxim Jakubowski, David Pringle (major veteran genre mavens all) and newer arrivals such as myself and James Reich (a nascent generation working at shaking up SF and slipstream writing). Although some of my magnificent peers have contributed startling short stories that homage Ballard in Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2018, I’ve aimed to mesh travel writing with literary history in a Ballardian context in a piece entitled 'Me: Capri: Brigitte Bardot,' this heading reflecting JGB’s condensed novel 'You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe.'
   To give you an idea what my writing – and a bookseller’s life – is like, here’s an anecdote. Some decades ago, Ballard was doing a signing at a large Hampstead bookshop. Twenty minutes into his stint, no-one had turned up to get a copy of his new novel inscribed. Ever amiable and avuncular, Ballard suggested to the bookshop manager that he’d just be off, as the event clearly wasn’t a happening deal. Two minutes after the author had departed, a gleaming black sports car darted up to the pavement outside the shop. Out of the car stepped Bryan Ferry bearing a pile of Ballard first editions for signing; Crash almost met 'Re-Make: Re-Model.' Ferry had tried but, like the rest of us, he could not find a way.

Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2018 is published by Terminal Press.

Tree Spirit & Other Strange Tales by Michael Eisele, Tartarus Press

Committed readers of indie press may be surprised to learn that Michael Eisele's latest short tale collection is only his second. You could be forgiven for assuming otherwise since another mature author by this name had previously self-published four collections and one novel. (Between 2005 – 2008). Another reason for forgiving such an assumption is the sheer assured accomplishment of ours. Add the fact he's made his three-quarter century having previously supported himself across a wealth of trades and temporary manual jobs that took in the America of his birth, Germany, Hungary, ending up in the Brecon Beacons, then such life experience has clearly stood our Michael Eisele in good stead.
   Tree Spirit is only Eisele's second collection - after The Girl With The Peacock Harp (Tartarus, 2016) - where even the 'lesser' tales harbour greatness. Again, we are in the folk-horror territory of fantasy, melding Hoffmann, Carter and Pullman. The opener, 'Mouse,' is a pleasingly fictitious account of the struggling, foundling years of Schalken the painter and the supernatural little familiar destined to immortalise his very soul. 'Sacrifice' drops us into the middle of one dark seeker's ongoing search for the Tablet of Suliman; one needful of a companion who must pay for its purchase with her life. The companion he so casually chooses he soon underestimates.
   'Come Not High' is a sole example of SF where an alien race parallel a Biblical rebirth upon another world. If hardly original in concept, its presence here is a not unwelcome surprise. The title tale, however, may become a classic. Aeons ago, a tribe's woodcarver receives a vision of a tree spirit. She commands him to use his skill to fashion, and so release, her here in the material world, from 'the great spirit tree of the forest,' so she may find renewed life upon the waters of the Great River. Ignorant of the fate such an 'honour' might bestow, his own, as a consequence, becomes all too clear. The tale's strength is its quiet sensuality, as the female spirit gradually draws out the simple woodcarver's love of his craft to ultimately command his fate.
   'The Wife' – along with 'Leshi,' where a wayward son is summoned back to take over his late father's mountain-top pile – is the entry most adhering to the Hoffmannesque Gothic; especially in the nature of the beast to whom she finds herself married. A welcome lightening of mood climaxes the book in a connected trio of gently humorous folk tales; 'Brown Jenkins,' 'The Gardinel' and 'The Black Man.' This three-tale arc is narrated by the semi-literate familiar of a rookie witch who encounters a house, home to one she is feted to replace. These are both amusing and needful of further sequels' should Eisele ever have the yen. 'The Nun's Tale,' ending the collection, focuses on the topic of transfiguration as an elderly Catholic priest recalls his time as a novice, sent to the Amazon rainforest to seek out a missionary priestess lost to civilisation. What he found intimates madness – but in who?
   Amidst the human protaganists, I applaud Eisele for joining Carter and Pullman in updating the classic fairy tale characters of dwarf, giant and werewolf while firmly adhering to the tradition. With no appended credits page, this appears to be first publication for all fifteen tales. The broad use of the genre unified in the quality of feeling and mood. You could do no better than prioritising this title as your main summer read.

A Book Of The Sea, Edited by Mark Beech, Egaeus Press

The resulting submissions that cohere from disparate collection prompted by Mark Beech's call - enjoy two sets of linking themes. The first can be defined as the evocation and re-creation of lost art; lost for the personal spiritual 'benefit' and self-justification of the tales' protagonists. Good examples abound here from names both new (to me) and established.
   Stephen J. Clark's 'The Figurehead of the Cailleach' is Buchanesque folk horror seen through the filter of his artist's eye. As with the best tales here, it is served by an atmospheric prose that doesn't try too hard, but rather insinuates with a pace both encroaching and ominous. In Karim Ghahwagi's intriguing 'Sorrow of Satan's Book,' the Scandi-sea is haunting atmospheric background to a tale of an art-obsessed film scholar. He is en route to a pre-arranged meeting with a screenwriter to discuss the production of a screenplay for silent film director, Carl Dreyer; only to find, upon arrival, the police cordon of a crime scene. A metaphysical mystery, it hints upon the madness that can be borne of inspiration. Colin Insole's 'Dancing Boy' is a small dilapidated boat, the restoration of which becomes a labour of love for its new owner, ignorant of the curse of its dark past. Jonathan Woods' 'From Whence It Came' concerns an artist's growing obsession with elemental nature, the tides, and his attempts to find the secret, and match, his late feted artist uncle's 'perfection' in paint from the site where he'd once lived.
   The second linking theme utilises the more traditional angle of the protagonist-in-danger spawned by the sea itself. Rosalie Parker's 'Waiting' concerns a young woman – dockside in 18th century England - finding betrayal from the very love that had for too long sustained her. With no overt horror, the ending intimates another sense of loss in just how fickle can be an emotion so powerful. A more overt expression of intense emotion can be read in Tom Johnstone's full-blooded Lovecraftian 'In The Hold It Waits.' A crate harbouring an unknown terror, again in the inevitable century, feted to curse its possessor through events already dire, is edge-of-the-seat stuff. The tension-steeped prose never falters. Familiar territory, yes, but graphically rendered. A rare, very welcome treat is a new tale from George Berguno. (Lauded previously in these pages). The understated 'Woman From Malta' finds a visiting protagonist received with suspicion as a series of actions – in the stead of an unpopular seer - may be more than mere history repeating. It is, perhaps, the collection's most subtle and sophisticated entry.
   The high quality of the majority of submissions left an inevitable few that didn't quite match. The baroque prose-style of one – while committed and contemporaneous – also acted as an occasional obstacle to this more general reader's concentration. A second, interesting in its narrative perspective, lacked the standard of prose attained elsewhere. This may be Mark Beech's most consistently successful collection so far. As ever, the use of well chosen stock period paintings and engravings enhance, rather than overpower or submerge, the texts. The number of featured authors high on my unofficial list of current favourites, is also great.

Albertine's Wooers

Joyce Carol-Oates' Night-Gaunts & Other Tales of Suspense (Head Of Zeus) should harbour the uncanny. Snuggly Books have a whole raft of intriguing new releases, including Colin Insole's Valerie & Other Stories, a very long-awaited, first-time p/b reissue for Count Stenbock's Studies Of Death and new collections by contemporary Decadent-era authors, Renee Vivien and Jane de la Vaudere; Lilith's Legacy: Prose Poems & Short Stories and The Double Star & Other Occult Fantasies, respectively. Finally, for those with more traditional tastes, we have Black Shuck Books A Suggestion Of Ghosts: Supernatural Fiction By Women, 1854-1900; Victorian-era tales collected for the very first time, edited by J.A. Mains with an intro by Lynda E. Rucker.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 7

Greetings from the height of Spring - post-May Day - and three new offerings. We start with something rather different. A timely opinion piece on how women artists in dance music find themselves at a disadvantage whenever deals are struck between the DJ-Producer and music platform. Male vocalists suffer too, but there is an ongoing legal limbo for the invariably female 'featured' singer. It is a plea, but also a challenge. Next, comes a fascinating Q & A (mainly 'A') with dark short tale supremo of forty years and counting, STEVE RASNIC TEM, as his retrospective collection 'Figures Unseen' is released by Valancourt.  Finally, a review of PRIYA SHARMA's impressive debut collection, 'All The Fabulous Beasts.' Slainte...

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An opinion

How male-led technology has deprived women artists

Thirty years ago, the new dance music of house, 'rave' and techno also heralded, unseen behind the celebration, a subtle but decisive shift in the creative hierarchy. With music production, above playing or even performing, becoming an increasingly accessible art-form, the producer became the artist; one considered at least as important, if not more so, than the singer / songwriter herself; for it was mainly women artists who were the faces and voices of this new medium. The faces as the commercial selling point; the voices for the soul and, often, beauty, the new producers couldn’t possibly evoke from their digital electronics alone. The producer then became the DJ, remixing multiple versions of established hits 'live,‘ and performing them before club-goers‘; the new audience for this new form of artist.
  As technology has become increasingly sophisticated and accessible since then, the voice, from wherever the source, has become no more to the successful DJ-Producer than any other sampled sound, remixed and utilised to serve their whims. In tandem, the track’s 'lead‘ vocalist had been quietly and successfully relegated to that of 'featured' vocalist in less than two years. A decade on, the related ambient branch known as trance (or ambient trance or psy-trance) demanded further use of the woman’s vocal as a means to enhance a track‘s already existing beauty and subtlety of atmosphere. By now, the DJ-Producer was The Star and – unchallenged - called the shots.

So, let‘s define what, and who, we are talking about here. Many such cases stem from the role of 'featured vocalist,' where a DJ-Producer invites a professional singer to add their voice onto the chorus or repetitive 'hook' of the track they've constructed in their studio. If the vocalist has written neither the lyric nor melody to that chorus or 'hook,' how it is subsequently used is up to the DJ-Producer. However, this form of ownership – legally or otherwise – is often used to encompass those choruses and 'hooks' that have been written by the vocalist.
  Of course, popular music has always progressed – and thrived – as the technology that produced it became increasingly sophisticated. This has been the case since shellac was discarded for vinyl and the CD for the download. However, the role of creator, and his definition, has since become vague. A position very much to the DJ-Producer’s advantage. The goalposts as to who does what and where have crucially shifted, finding no new home, leaving the woman artist in a legal limbo. The mainly male DJ-Producers have taken advantage of this, big-time. The singer-songwriter who has penned the original track and mix she has contributed her vocal to won’t necessarily receive either payment or named credit for her work. Not only this, any subsequent remix will also be out of her control where a fellow DJ-Producer wants to put his very different signature on the original mix.
  It is the case that not all vocalists' write the tracks they appear on; but, to treat those artists who do the same way, (for independent artists is who they remain), as if they are merely another worthy sacrifice to serve the sound, and ego, of the all-powerful DJ-Producer, should be called out for what it is – artistic theft. Thankfully many artists have recently gotten wise to this situation and refuse to work in the 'featured‘ vocalist role ever again, now viewing it as toxic.

One singer-songwriter, whose debut release made the Top 10 in the early 90s,‘ recently related how she receives requests to use her vocals, for unsanctioned remixes, on a weekly basis. She emphasised that no permissions to use her name or voice on these remixes have so far been given for use on any of the big name music platforms. It appears that, whatever her response, it is casually ignored as is crediting her as vocalist. She says she had previously been burned early in her career and so, unsurprisingly, has been left somewhat scarred.       'These people can leave a sensitive person feeling like they are nothing...,' she says. 'I hear it, day in, day out, from fellow vocalists and it's disgusting, vile behaviour.' She is, however, moving on. She adds how learning from these experiences has enabled her to write and record new music and release it through her own label. She's fighting back – and on her own terms.

Another, Susan Brice (aka CocoStar), recently reflected:

'Due to the birth of the internet and it's grim dilution of most things (we are in a different time with music), it is mainly male dominated and throw away. The industry as a whole has not changed at all with regards to the 'cut throat' stigma which it seems to rely on.... Most businesses in the world have become harder to run due to dilution, thus creating a plethora of mass production services and items all easily had at the touch of a button. Sad times indeed, but years ago we had to wait for everything which created a feeling of worth and gratitude for the individual. There is no waiting anymore for most things For the younger generations this situation is forcing them into a boredom vortex in a fake 3D world, which is not their fault.'

This artist adds that she has had at least five self-penned songs stolen, the rights for which she is currently fighting.

Consequently, such artists have been left to fend for themselves, leaving them in territory legally impotent. Rather than farm themselves out to DJ-Producers' whose work they might otherwise distantly admire, artists, since burned, are now returning to those whom they’ve worked with in the past and feel they can still trust. Retreating back to those they know appears the only alternative. Long-term, this can’t be a settled response, mitigating against future creative and monetary growth. Some readers may think, 'well, why wasn't this situation dealt with by the artists themselves, years ago?' Such protection to become law requires its recognition in Government legislation. Successive Governments‘ have proven toothless in this regard; consequently, in the eyes of many artists, so have The Musicians‘ Union. As someone pro-union himself, this is disappointing to say the least. According to their homepage, their mandate here is to "lobb(y) Government to protect these rights on the basis that only a small number of MU members have regular salaries. Most are Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), whether they are sole traders or members of a band, and they therefore rely on their copyright and performers’ rights to make a significant part of their income. In essence, their copyright and related rights are an important part of their ‘product’ and of the diverse income streams that make up their income, and, like any SME, they have to protect their product." Fine so far. They add:

'What we are arguing for is fair compensation for musicians from the device manufacturers. These manufacturers are already paying for patents to software developers and the like on each device sold, and yet the act of copying onto these devices the ‘software’ the consumer is most interested in – music - is not currently generating any income for musicians, unless it is through legitimate download purchases.'

Under a page entitled ‘Fair Pay for Musicians’ they state their recognition that, “musicians rely on live revenue to survive. Income from CD sales is decreasing and illegal downloading continues, making a sustainable career difficult without fair pay for live performances.
  Still good. Or is it? Reading between the lines – and looking elsewhere – there is a disconnect here.   This is two-fold. An assumption exists that all artists are full-time and, being so, must be the sole recipients requiring MU support. The problem with this line of reasoning today is that most women artists in particular can’t be full-time due to the very exclusivity of the deals being struck between the platforms and the DJ-Producers. Allied to this is the aforementioned lack of permission sought to use a singer-songwriter’s vocal elsewhere on the track of another DJ-Producer. Such precariousness for the artist means payment is not only inconsistent but often non-existent. Thus, maintaining any kind of career – even as a second-string – is unrealistic. Secondly, if the MU are mandated to do little more than lobby, (and, legally, that’s presumably all they are able to do), then the Government – not known for having fingers on pulses when it comes to an artist’s ability to produce – are the final arbiter. Surely, the MU should be ‘upgraded,’ made independent enough to make their own rules – specific to artists’ needs – apart from Government diktat?

Today, of course, there are many women DJ-Producers challenging this decades-long patriarchy. Annie Mac, Lisa Lashes, DJ Heather, Maya Jane Coles, DJ Rap, Ellen Allien and many others have been well known for years around the clubs of the world, many owning their own labels. Such a high level of commitment, e.g. the touring, anti-social hours, hotel stays, hiring and firing of staff, etc., suggests this much-feted role is no less full-on than that of any successful, full-time band. It also suggests those artists with life commitments prioritised elsewhere (be it another business or to young family) are equally feted to lose out and be treated not unlike agency workers in other, more regular, jobs; where a recording contract is a two-sided deal between the DJ-Producer and music platform, freezing out the artist that actually supplies their product. While a woman artist becoming a DJ-Producer may be one way out, it isn't a solution to the live, ongoing issues of writer credit or vocal theft.

The ripping-off of singer/songwriters is nothing new. It's been going on since the days of Tin Pan Alley and, subsequently, Colonel Tom Parker. Its latest manifestation resides with the deals being cut between music platforms and – the usually male – DJ-Producers. Currently, in the US, The Music Modernization Act is a bill intended to ensure songwriters have 'a seat at the table' when it comes to payment and the collection of royalties from the big digital platforms. One clause, however, has proven controversial. This would exclude any retrospective legal claims from those music platforms who have signed-up to it, such as Spotify. The compromise which ensured their participation. (Update: on the 25th April, the bill was passed, unanimously, by the House of Representatives). This is, at least, the start of some official recognition and recompense and not necessarily the end of the road. Meanwhile, independent voices in the field have started up, offering advise and support to those already established, but suffering the lack of credit and payment. (See below for an example).
  Welcome, if somewhat belated, (if historical social media posts are anything to go by), are the fans finally coming around to showing some empathy with their idols‘ situation; the realisation dawning that they may lose both the work and their favourite artist unless this situation is dealt with. I know of at least one other case (an artist once interviewed in these pages) who – while not entirely giving up on her love – has been forced to work elsewhere due to unreliable payments.
  I’d be the first to admit that the dry concept of regulation in the arts would normally make me very queasy. However, seeing the ease with which work can now be stolen and manipulated, and the negative effects this has on the original artists, surely justifies singling-out this field as a major exception. With credit and payment being such live issues in music – and gender-favouring issues at that – certain obligations must be fulfilled before the DJ-Producer can so casually finger-press that final 'click.'


a Q & A with
Steve Rasnic Tem

FIGURES UNSEEN collects your more recent work, published since 2000. How do you think your writing has matured, or changed, over the last eighteen years, compared to your earliest published work?
Steve Rasnic Tem: Actually, FIGURES UNSEEN collects work from all stages of my career, beginning with my first professionally published short story, “City Fishing.” I think the confusion is because I selected stories from each of my collections, and my first English collection, City Fishing, didn’t come out until 2000. (There was an earlier, French language collection Ombres sur la Route.) Basically, I tried to select a representative sampling of my short fiction, a book I could point to when people asked, “What do you do?”

That said, there is an evolution in my stories from the beginning until now. When I finally became serious about writing I started out studying and writing poetry, and my first fiction actually came out of my experiments writing prose poetry. So these first stories tend to feature the compression of poetry, use echoes and choruses and alliteration and other poetic techniques, and they also tend to be more dream-like and fabulist than the later fiction. They also tend to be very short.

The initial evolution from that early work largely consisted of learning how to write longer stories—more narrative-driven, more complicated plots, more characters, using more than one obsessive theme per story, etc. The use of language and tone also became more complicated. What drives me now is more thematic. I’ve been picking up on events and themes I once found too personally troubling to write about. One thing about getting older—you tend to grow less reticent about revealing yourself. You grow beyond embarrassment.

Several of the tales in FIGURES UNSEEN feel particularly personal. Familial grief and loss seem especially foregrounded in tales such as 'A House by the Ocean,' the seminal 'Wheatfield With Crows,' 'The Figure In Motion' and 'Firestorm.' Was this conscious on your part? Were you - perhaps intentionally - working through similar feelings during their writing?

SRT: I think my work has always been somewhat personal, but I’ve gotten better at incorporating the personal material, so readers are seeing more and more of it. But even when I’m writing about events which I haven’t experienced myself, the key is to be empathetic and to make them personal. Some aspects of writing are very much like acting. You must try to “inhabit” your characters, especially the protagonist. Oftentimes problems in tone and awkwardness are due to the fact that you haven’t learned how to fully inhabit your character yet. Also, usually when I write about personal material it’s after I’ve worked those feelings through, not during.
I particularly enjoyed the dark humour of ‘The Poor’ and ‘Crutches.’ I could relate to how I, myself, view the coldly callous treatment meted out in the former and the sense of inevitable defeatism in the latter. Do you have a strong sense of social injustice, the way Governments’ can often treat people and how they respond?
SRT: The inherent problem with any government is that it by necessity must treat people as numbers and percentages to a certain degree in drafting policy. If it’s a just government then it also tries to protect and preserve justice for the minorities and outliers whose needs and sense of identity is at variance with those in the majority. But still, we’re basically talking about numbers and percentages here. But human beings are not numbers and percentages. They’re far more complicated than that, and they expect and demand empathy. And empathy makes things messy. So messy in fact that there is pressure to disregard empathy in making policy. There is even pressure to disregard empathy when leading one’s life.

The result I get from all this is absurdity. Much of modern life abounds in absurdity. And my sense of the absurd is expressed in stories like “The Poor” and “Crutches” and “Head Explosions” and a number of others. The only way around this is to find ways to humanize government, to make empathy into a tool for handling large numbers of folks. We’re not very good at that yet—maybe we never will be. One of the reasons we’re not very good at it is that anytime we don’t understand someone, any time they scare us or disappoint us or they trigger our own anxieties or even when we just feel sorry for them, we fictionalize them, we make stories up as to who they are and what they’re about. And sometimes those stories are bad enough they veer into prejudice, racism, misogyny, etc. Perhaps if we were more aware of how we fictionalize other people, we’d do it a lot less.

This question is, I’ll admit, something of an old chestnut, but it’s one I’ve yet to reconcile for myself. I’m not a fan of the term ‘horror,’ as describing what I either like or the audience I’d like to attract. As both reader and writer, Robert Aickman’s use of the word ‘strange’ is more my starting point; where the ‘weird shit’ that occurs is almost supplementary, from left-field, rather than the driving force of the tale. What do you think of the term ‘horror’ whenever critically applied to your own work?
SRT: I’ve been back and forth on this question over the years. In part because of its association with movies, “horror” has come to imply this big emotional response, this open-mouthed, hands-in-the-air, heart-stopping response to something incomprehensibly terrible. Well, that doesn’t fit what I write at all, and it doesn’t fit most of what I like to read. 

I do like Aickman’s “strange stories,” and to a certain degree I like “the weird,” but we can get into endless conversations as to actually what these terms mean. In fact, currently we seem to be drowning in terms attempting to pinpoint the various shadings of this literature: “Smart horror” and “Elevated horror” and “the weird” and “dark suspense” and “bizarro” and “dark fantasy,” etc. And in the end they really don’t seem to clarify anything.

But, whatever we do, the label “horror” never seems to go away. That’s the one that sticks, inaccurate or not. And I have to say I have loved a great many things over the years with that label emblazoned on the spine. So I suppose I have come to just accept the term. Call my work “horror,” but if you really want to know what I’m about just read the stories.

Of the current generation, who are your own favourite short tale authors who you feel are woefully underrated or underexposed?
SRT: There are so many—it’s a golden age for this literature in the short form. As for underrated or underexposed, it depends on the context—very few names seem to be known everywhere. But here’s a sampling of people I like to read: Caitlin Kiernan, Simon Stranzas, Lynda Rucker, John Langan, Kristi DeMeester, Nathan Ballingrud, Mark Valentine, Jeffrey Ford, too many to name, really.
How far are you into your latest project and can you hint as to its form or content?
SRT: I’m playing with a lot of things. I just finished a short story I’m very proud of, “The Parts Man,” which will be in The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories this Fall. Also coming this Fall is my short story “Thanatrauma,” another one I’m very proud of, in New Fears 2. In terms of books, I’m half-way through finishing a YA horror novel, Summerdark, and I’m working regularly on the novel Bodies & Heads, a rather strange extension of my short story of the same name that was in The Book of the Dead. It’s hard to say how much I’ve completed on that because I know I’ll be doing a lot of rewriting. Maybe 35%?

Huge thanks to Steve for the giving of his time.

See the Tems' official site here:

All The Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma, Undertow Publications

Priya Sharma describes herself in her day job as a doctor and general practitioner, having formerly studied medicine at university. Certainly, her debut collection reveals an interest in biological transformation and its effect upon personal relationships. Her best more precisely invoke what the back cover refers to as her melding of 'myth and ontology.' On a personal level, this is what I try to achieve in a strand of my own; where an individual in the present cannot – either by choice or design – surpress their past or true nature. This is the overarching theme hiding in plain sight behind the fantasy. Beside this, the bonds of love, lust and loss play out in familial situations.
  'The Crow Palace' refers to 'the altar of the childhood rituals that bound us'; a bird-table gradually constructed in increasing layers, over years, by the father of twins, and possibly at the expense of their own home.
  In 'Egg,‘ a young woman's infertility is bargained away for the promise of motherhood when a witch with ambiguous intent offers her a daughter; except this child is in an egg. Once the shell breaks, she gradually bonds with the offspring as she would any daughter. Yet, this is only the first test of her commitment. Sharma posits an interesting dilemma; the strength of a mother's love in the face of her spawn being a different species.
  'The Sunflower Seed Man' sees the secret of a sunflower, planted by the late husband and father buried beneath it, appear to fulfill its unknown promise from the perception of his wife, desperately mourning his loss.
  In 'The Englishman,‘ the most affecting tale, Kris Sharma has been away from India for twenty-five years. On his return to the country, his wife and old life having passed, he wants to know who he now is and where he now belongs. In his quest for identity, he stumbles upon an answer that, ironically, subsumes it. The title then is also ironic, in that it recognises his definition as one kind of 'Englishman' by the Asian and another kind in England itself. Such a tale, with its nod to the human condition, reveals Sharma as a definite cut above most of her contemporaries.
  'The Nature Of Bees' is a personal favourite. At an age-old family community that harvests honey, a woman falls for a handsome, sensual male whose covert intention is revealed as much wider than she could have foreseen. (I appreciated the false sense of security intimated in his depiction as a louche romantic).
  'Fabulous Beasts' is something of a domestic drama as a father with a history of violence, having served his time, is released back to the family home. His view of reintergrating-into-society is to continue his psycho-sexual dominance from where he left off. However, his growing children share an ability his self-serving mind could never encompass.
  Sixteen tales for a debut collection feels excessive. Fortunately, Sharma is one of those cut-above new voices from whom the best harbour prose, as beautiful as it is visceral, that elevates them above mere horror.

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 8 will be here in July