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.
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.