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.