Editorial: Firstly, a notification sent to me by Editor, Matthew Walther: 'I am writing to pass along the details of a ghost story contest being sponsored by The Lamp magazine that may be of interest to readers of The Pan Review: https://thelampmagazine.com/2021/06/24/the-lamp-christmas-ghost-story-contest/ The winner will receive $1000; two runners up will receive $300 each. All best wishes, Matthew Walther.'
On his website, Sean Birnie describes himself as 'a Technical Demonstrator on the Photography programmes at the University of Brighton, where I deliver beginner and advanced workshops in Adobe applications such as Photoshop and InDesign, studio lighting, and preparation for digital print, and install degree shows, among other things.' His literary art is more evocative of the paintings of Francis Bacon, the focus being the macabre physical – as well as psychological - descent of the human condition. The role of infection in sado-masochistic relationships is the prominent theme across the collection. In the tales 'New To It All,' 'Like A Zip,' 'Holes' and 'You Know What To Do,' pain is utilised as a weapon of control. 'New To It All' has the narrator recount the previously unexperienced sexual habits that (unwittingly?) drew him to his relationships. 'Hand Me Down' finds a new mother's growing paranoia for the safety of her child turn into something entirely. 'Holes' sees a man's quickly growing rash spread to his partner after he already harbours fear for his disappearance.
In 'I Would Haunt You If I Could,' again, infection, stains and encroaching entropy foreground the title tale, and quietly compelling it is too; especially if, like yours truly, you live as a bachelor in rented accommodation. 'You Know What To Do' is my favourite here. A successful new entry in the library of the uncanny, a husband's obsession with the apparently hidden room behind the cupboard under the stairs holds a fascination, which may – or may not – be exerting a dangerous, unspoken obsession.
In 'Dollface,' the question that hangs over the narrative is whether or not a daughter's doll is possessed. Is the father obsessed? (My hunch). Or, since it bears an alleged physical human trait, is the doll even a doll? Only the final tale – 'Other Houses' – which sees the narrator plagued with guilt over the younger sister he believes he pushed into a pond when children, didn't quite hold my attention to the end. Still, as with the previous tales, Birnie displays a superior knack for the uncanny that I so favour. This collection is a solid addition to the library for lovers of quiet horror and an undoubtedly assured debut.
* * *
Infra-Noir 2020 collects all eleven chapbooks, released across last year, in a single volume. 'Craft' - DP Watt's opening contribution demonstrates how the perishability of art can spawn its own unexpected legacy. In 'The Clerks Of The Invisible' - the first of two Mark Valentine tales - a dying bookseller entrusts his literary estate to his chief cataloguer, with the view to contacting interested agents to seek out a mysterious book 'that mattered to him most.' The slenderest of tales by page-count, it is, however, the kind of springboard Orson Welles might have run with to manifest as an on-screen magnum opus. 'The Idyll Is Over' shines with beauty, being one of Jonathan Wood's introspective prose poems.
'Codex Of Light' by Karim Ghahwagi has a monastic society holding candlelight and its smoke in censorious and holy esteem. 'Posterity' by Mark Samuels highlights Sybil Court, 'scholarly trailblazer of posthumous interest in the fiction of Rupert Alderman.' Court feels her reputation as an Alderman scholar could be questioned by her academic-only interpretations rather than primary research of his extant archive. (It's surely no coincidence that the late fictitious author with increasingly remote, right-wing leanings shares the initials of another English author of strange stories).
In 'Ancestor Water' by Rebecca Lloyd (of the great Gothic novel of 2019, The Child Cephalina) an immigrant daughter, naturalised by her time in London, discovers her visiting mother alienated by her Western traits. 'Stained Medium' – the second Mark Valentine – features a bookish student of modern Gnosticism encounters one aged whose own experience is revealed as much closer to home. On a not dissimilar theme, 'The Purblind Bards' by Timothy Jarvis finds one of a band of bardic outcasts in a seaside town reflect upon what brought him to his becoming. 'The Wet Woman' - An out-of-condition actor, about to take on a new film role, is sent by his agent to a health farm to get back into shape. A late lover and rival adds some dark interest to his reluctant presence.
'A House Of Treasures' – Familial intrigue surrounding the presence and significance of Noah Court – discovered in a unique photograph - makes for my new favourite Ray Russell tale. 'Home Comforts' – Sheltering from a downpour in a shop of this name, Megan is shocked to discover that a stuffed, life-size figure in the window is referred to as a real person who works next door. To her own puzzlement, she expresses a determination to purchase it.
Clocking in at a modest, but sufficient, 187 pages, this is one of the more accessible Zagava releases, in a form I hope is repeated in future years. A very worthy primer to this publisher.
* * *
Reggie Oliver's eighth collection – A Maze For The Minotaur – is soon to be released by Tartarus Press...who've also just released a slipcase of two thorough collections-in-one of Oliver Onions tales...Swan River Press follows up its popular first Green Book of 'exclusive' short tales (issue 15) with a second (issue 17)...Valancourt have reissued some choice paperback titles in hardback. Speaking of which, the British Library's publishing arm has just released a collection of six-of-the-best by Margaret Oliphant, The Open Door And Other Stories Of The Seen & Unseen.