Saturday, 19 November 2016

Two Bottles Of Relish: The Little Tales Of Smethers And Other Stories by Lord Dunsany, Collins Crime Club

A new reissue of Lord Dunsany uniquely overrides this blog's usual concentrating on work from independents. When that reissue also features slight, blackly humorous detective tales of the 1930s' and 40s', being entirely new to me, Pan's investigation is warranted.
   Smethers is a travelling salesman for Numnumo - a relish for meats and savouries – with a self-confessed genius for 'pushing' it on the thresholds of most residences. Looking for a room in central London, close to the company's head office, he encounters Linley; a 'gent' already looking around the one Smethers has arrived at, who is interested but concerned at the high rent. Smethers offers to go halves with him and Linley agrees. Smethers then gives the first of nine criminal accounts based upon the chess-playing Linley's Holmesian ability to find the culprit based solely upon his unerring logic. Inevitably, there is also the Establishment figure already on the case; here, Inspector Ulton - of the Yard.
  In his first-person narrations, Smethers comes across as a slightly seedy chancer and spiv, not entirely honest, which begs the question how he could afford even half of the rent that got him into the property shared with 'posh' Linley in the first place. (Perhaps Linley was, himself, a 'chip off the old block'?) Then, such unanswered questions are all part of the intriguing mythologies spawned by necessarily brief, swiftly penned, commercial genre fiction.
   The history of the first of Dunsany's Smethers tales is at least thumbnailed in an Ellery Queen intro from 1948. Editor Lady Rhondda printed 'Two Bottles Of Relish' in Time and Tide magazine, November 12-19, 1932. "Lord Dunsany has always thought that Lady Rhondda, a militant feminist, published the story as an example of sheer realism, saying to herself, 'That is just how men do treat women.' Gradually, the widespread nausea (to use Lord Dunsany's own phrase) seems to have worn off..." The tale itself concerns the mysterious disappearance of Nancy Elth, and her £200, who lived with known criminal Steeger. (The Yard's nemesis, who reappears in the following tale).
   The remainder of the tales, in content, are lightly engaging and relatively conventional, lacking the promised 'fantasy' element referred to on the back cover. The major exception is the last; 'The Shield Of Athene.' I'd be unwise to describe a tale, the denouement of which is – if you'll pardon the pun – reflected in the title. It is, however, enjoyably Machen-like, with perhaps a flourish of MP Shiel.
   Unless Dunsany scholars know better – and why wouldn't they? - the remaining tales appear to have had their first publication in this collection. Certainly, his stature by the Forties wouldn't necessarily have required prior publicity for the rest elsewhere. Mention must also be made of the cover for this reissue; a beautiful painting of one standing, and one horizontal, Numnumo bottles, the red relish dribbling from each like newly-spilled blood, with the shadow of the one standing ominous and man-like. The Thirties feel, including the choice of font, is well considered and brilliantly evoked by Mike Topping.
Rebecca Lloyd's latest is a novel, OOTHANGBART, which she describes as a "subversive fable for adults and bears," Over at Egaeus, Mark Beech is about to release A MIDWINTER ENTERTAINMENT, the highlights of which include a new Connoisseur tale by Valentine and Howard, a first English translation (by the excellent George Berguno) of an Anatole Le Braz tale, and the same tasteful mix of old and new, utilised in last year's SOLILOQUY FOR PAN. Finally, both UNCERTAINTIES I and UNCERTAINTIES II are now available from Swan River Press. Included is a new tale from Lynda E. Rucker whose own latest collection, YOU'LL KNOW WHEN YOU GET THERE, is also available from SRP.

Friday, 14 October 2016

A Twist In The Eye by Charles Wilkinson, Egaeus Press

At 66, Charles Wilkinson is one of the strange tale's old school, making him contemporaneous with the likes of Reggie Oliver and Steve Rasnic Tem and a name that's been gradually garnering quiet fame in the autumn of his years. Yet, so far, you'd be easily forgiven if, like me, you'd never heard of him.
  According to his publisher biog., the Birmingham-born writer attended school in a small town on the Welsh Marches, later studying at the University of Lancaster, the University of East Anglia and Trinity College, Dublin. His publications so far include The Snowman and Other Poems (Iron Press, 1987) and The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). A Border Poet member, Ag & Au, a pamphlet of poems, appeared from Flarestack Poets in 2013. Today, he lives in Powys, Wales, "where he is heavily outnumbered by members of the ovine community." A line from the text of one of these tales, the cliff-top wildernesses of his home country featuring heavily.
  The feted Mark Samuels has written the Introduction. Wilkinson shows himself a less pessimistic writer than Samuels - his dystopian settings occasionally have utopian overtones - while sharing his claustrophobic embrace by the weird.
  This title's collective strength is in the genuine unpredictability of its 'twists.' Most are excellent and few disappoint. 'In His Grandmother's Coat,' relates the weird legacy of an unknown curse left by the narrator's grandmother, who bred mink for unspecified cross-breeding. 'Night in the Pink House' – by far the most sinister tale – relates a mutual pleasure of sadism, between a cold, professional state torturer and his equally enthusiastic, wheelchair-bound patient, sharing their interests like a pair of anal collectors from the latter's small, cliff-side haven; one that seems to hide still greater past atrocities. The aloof tone of the torturer's narration is compelling as is the ambiguous nature of his ward.
  'An Invitation to Worship' starts out as deliverence of sanctuary for a wife from a seemingly domineering husband, gradually revealing intimations of a place less of refuge than of cult-influenced capture. 'The Investigation of Innocence' is the sole SF entry where replicant humans' now exist to supply the bees as a means to propagate a new Eden. A very clever concept.
  Then there's 'A Lesson from the Undergrowth.' After burying his father, Neil returns to the isolated home of his young adulthood. It seems still inhabited, almost, if in a state of untended entropy. Memories of events past and present seem to merge into some eternal purgatory from a particular incident revealed only in the final lines. Like the previously quoted titles, the concept only truly reveals itself on reflection, such is the subtlety of the writing.
  Being a collection of above average length (sixteen tales in all) it's perhaps not surprising that only once does it miss a beat; in 'The World Without Watercress,' where-in the conceit of who is the haunter and who the haunted is purposely ambiguous, but doesn't quite convince in connecting with this reader, feeling rather unfinished. 'Hands,' the final tale, is a – literally – touching ghost story of a widower who finds comfort from a spirit able to act out in death their apparent gift in life.
  Impressive conceptually then, the best tales mature and gain increased effect days, even weeks, after their reading. We need not only idiosyncratic voices in fantasy lands of topsy-turvy – there are plenty of those – but voices such as Wilkinson's, taking credible topics and characters and running with them to the furthermost reaches.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Cold Embrace – Weird Stories By Women, (Introduced and Edited by S.T. Joshi), Dover Publications

Today, an anthology of women writers' feels quite passe. Women are hardly under-represented in the field; least of all requiring of showcasing by a named male editor. Then, I suppose, the state of play in the 19th and early 20th century was rather different. This collection of known gems and all too occasional obscurities, is book-ended between an early tale - Mary Shelley's post-Frankenstein 'Transformation' (1830) - and the latest - May Sinclair's excellent 'Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched' (1922).
  In most cases, this is only a worthy collection if you've somehow overlooked, or yet to be introduced to, the cheap and easily available Wordworth Editions Mystery and the Supernatural series. (At least eleven of their nineteen entries are here, in fact). Less often anthologised titles – certainly new to me – are all too few, but include Margaret Olipant's 'The Secret Chamber' (1876), Sarah Orne Jewett's distinctly odd 'In Dark New England Days' (1890), Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's revelatory 'The Hall Bedroom' (1903) and Ellen Glasgow's intriguing 'The Shadowy Third' (1916).
  Re-reading some of the earlier entries reminds me how the sedentary pace and explanatory minutiae, redolent in late Victorian short fiction, so often deflates any sense of approaching menace or threat. For this reason, I now find Vernon Lee's 'A Wedding Chest' (1904) almost unreadable; too many Latin terms crammed into breathless nine-line sentences, misting the reader's focus.
  Even if climaxes are too easily foregrounded, the best of them, here and through the rest of the anthology, concentrate on playing out the plot from the opening page. In Mary Elizabeth Braddon's title tale a love-obsessed young student, a "scoffer at revelation" and "enthusiastic adorer of the mystical" vows that, should fate end their match, one or other of their spirits would return to hold the surviving lover forever. In Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's 'The Hall Bedroom' a landlady relates the journal of one of her former tenants whose extreme sensual experiences at night gradually challenge his earlier, presumably sane, perceptions. A tale that foretells early takes on drug-induced experiments, (such as Crowley's 'The Drug,' previously reviewed here), it is a revelation itself considering its age.
  In 'The Shadowy Third' a nurse is summoned, by a great surgeon, to a country house to look after his bedridden wife. The sudden, unexpected presence of a little girl who may – or may not – be a figment of his ailing wife's imagination, is nevertheless also witnessed by the nurse. When the patient confides in her that her surgeon husband had previously killed the girl, and discovers their mutual connection, the conclusion is made suddenly inevitable. Pleasingly, as with 'The Hall Bedroom,' this is too well written to be a mere shocker.
  Again, this is one of those collections that is passable for those unfamiliar with the form's early highlights. For the rest of us, it is top-heavy with re-runs reprinted elsewhere. I can at least glean some new finds in the latter three that prompt some renewed interest.

Friday, 2 September 2016

NEW FOR 2017!

Greetings, pop-pickers! Pan will return with a new review on the 16th September. There will be at least two more after that for the months of October and November, with, I hope, another 'star guest' Q & A included.

From January 2017, significant changes will occur; Pan will be significantly upgraded - in content as well as appearance.  How? Why? Here goes...

The positive reach and reaction to my Rhys Hughes Q & A, back in May, allied to my very broad tastes in books and music - and music journalism - have positively conspired to encourage me into also broadening the scope of The Pan Review.  

Rather than start-up a second blog, (for which I'll have neither time nor inclination), I feel that adding the subjects of music, and art, to Pan's existing limited repertoire is the more obvious way to go. I realise some regular readers might view such a radical expansion of its mandate with horror. However, I did feel strongly that, after six years, it was time to make one of two choices; closure or growth. I've chosen the latter.

Since there are at least as many singer/songwriter/musicians I'd like to help support out there, as there are authors, this would go some way to satisfying that particular urge. 

If readers are concerned that this will mean the uncanny short story will be seriously marginalised by my musical interests, fear not. If anything, I wish to broaden the mandate here too, to include author profiles, publisher profiles and more 'star guest' Q & As'.  

It might mean more work for me, but that's no bad thing. There will be a much freer look, approach, and less structure, helping maintain a certain creativity so I might avoid becoming stale.

One more thing for now: I am open to positive ideas. I still have a way to go to finalise how I might best help artists and authors here (regards extra publicity) as I'm always mindful to do. So, do get in touch.  Meantime, watch this space...  

Friday, 15 July 2016

Sylvan Dread – Tales Of Pastoral Darkness by Richard Gavin, Three Hands Press / Pagan Triptych – Stories By Ron Weighell, John Howard & Mark Valentine, Sarob Press

Never a fan of Grand Guignol horror whose conclusions offer no hope, there is a strange kind of alternative offered in several of Sylvan Dread's conclusions; of renewal and re-birth as part of a lost primeval nature. Amoral, non-human perhaps, but not entropic. Outside each tale's protaganist are the secret motives of nature and its amoral drives for continued procreation. Gavin's philosophical trigger is from the theory of Rudolf Otto; the German scholar of comparative religion, whose Idea Of The Holy is quoted from at the top of the first tale. ('Thistle Latch'). Described by Otto as a "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self,” this might be an aposite definition for the uncanny as a whole.
  'Primeval Wood,' the second tale here, concerns Neil Keller and the hawthorn idol he discovers that appears to infect him with potent dreaming, just as his relationship ends, leaving him vulnerable to fight this unknown and unknowable foe alone. In 'A Cavern Of Redbrick' a boy's regular bike ride around a gravel pit is suddenly disturbed by the ghostly presence of a girl upon the roof of its shed. This 'presence' leads him, unwittingly, to the revelation of a terrible family secret and portentous conclusion.
  In 'Fume' the warden at the holiday hamlet of Beech Point observes the exodus of renters at the end of the summer season. En route home for dinner, Clark spies a small, illicit encampment and stops off to investigate. Within the sole tent he sees what appears to be a swaddled corpse. Bursting its wrapping elicits the 'fume' of the title that also burns his skin and causes a personal change – inside and out - that may be more than mere hallucination. In 'Weaned On Blood' an abbot, newly-arrived at a rural monastry, is initiated into a sacrificial ritual as a means to sustain a much darker tradition. The abbot decides, for the good of the brotherhood, to act unilaterally to reveal the recipient.­
  In 'Mare's Nest', the husband of a couple still very much in love must face the imminent death of his wife. He, a sculptor, she, a poet, they agree upon a pact to both physically manifest and entrap forever the spirit of her favourite self-composed poem of the title. If that sounds trite, the tale's real strength is in the authentic depiction of the husband's uxorious emotions, which are genuinely heartrending.
 This is the fifth collection by a writer who, being usually distant from 'horror,' I've previously overlooked. I see in the case of Richard Gavin at least, this has been my loss. The territory and subject matter may otherwise both be familiar to its seasoned readers. For myself, glimpses of frightening beauty in Gavin's exotic prose style transcends that in much of the genre.

According to one of the three afterwords that inhabit this collection of long short tales, Ron Weighell implies that his contribution to this Blackwood tribute represents the fifth to feature his continuing character, Dr. Andrew Northwoode, "respected Fellow of Belden College, Oxford, and eminent scholar of antiquities various." The Edwardian influence of the prose style and its derring-do usage makes 'The Letter Killeth' easily the most traditional of these three. A strange bequest delivered to the College library, its mystical contents, and the malevolent force it threatens to unleash is well done and informed and affectionate rather than merely derivative.
  It reads more like Machen-informed Wheatley, than Blackwood inspired, but, as other recent author-dedicated anthologies have shown, such inspiration doesn't necessarily mean bland homage. I don't know of Weighell's previous work, but he's clearly a man of some deprecating wit. He ends his short, intermediary afterword (the first of three by each author) disappointed that he had to rely less upon imagination than usual, since he's reached his ongoing character's age-group.
  'In The Clearing' takes its cue from Pan's Garden's 'The Man Whom The Trees Loved.' A city man who, from the opening line, "had never made much time for anyone," suddenly finds a haven for some peace and quiet, where time is all he has. Suspended from his post, (for a reason left intriguingly unexplained), he suddenly faces what has long been harboured, perhaps even repressed, within himself, as previously unexplored feelings uncannily mingle with perceptions he can no longer recognise or trust. Is what he sees merely from his own point of view? Or is he being externally, objectively affected? The tale has a brave ambiguity, that stays with you long after its end. Yet, whether it is entirely successful – in its own terms - is hard to guage in that I wasn't entirely certain what Howard wanted to achieve. Rather than lead you, however, its snail pace demands your attention and gradual recall.
  In its assured feel for the Edwardian uncanny, 'The Fig Garden' is classic Valentine. A childhood ritual among friends, involving a procession and the near-holy imbibing from a figtree, resonates across time and the life of one man, semi-conscious of vague connections he can sense but not clearly define. He comes to suspect he might have a role in something far greater than himself. It vaguely reminded me of David Lindsay's rare mid-Twenties novel, The Violet Apple, in its philosophical theme.
  The dustjacket evokes that of Blackwood's one-hundred year-old novel, Julius LeVallon, by its cool colour pallette and of a sole figure standing awestruck and exultant amongst a mountainous landscape.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Ragman & Other Family Curses by Rebecca Lloyd, Egaeus Press Keynote Edition, 1 / The Felicity Of Epigones by Derek John, Egaeus Press Keynote Edition, 2

Egaeus's first two Keynote Editions – in concept at least - presumably mean to evoke those of John Lane's decadent series of the 1890s'. The black and gold covers are certainly smart enough, without aping the originals' Beardsleyan floridities, while described as "an ongoing series, presenting the best contemporary writers of weird fiction in high quality, pocket-sized hardbacks."
  In an afterword to the first, Rebecca Lloyd posits the questions that drove her to the book's theme; "What is it that keeps people locked into destructive and often bizarre relationships," she asks, "with those who must dominate?" This - Lloyd's third collection – plays out what can happen within the midst of such manifestations. The four long-short tales presented here foreground her strength, highlighting the nightmarish side of familial relationships.
  In 'Ragman,' a moody, manipulative father decides to isolate himself from his family, in his junkyard, surrounded by the bric-a-brac of his trade. His daughter arrives, poorly received, but stays over in a bid to persuade his return. She is reminded of those parts of the yard that made her uneasy in childhood and, apparently, still does; especially the 'mirror hall' and the half-articulated focus of her past fear that begins to daily emerge in the present. Occasionally, the wealth of personal backstory feels in danger of crowding out the plot. This doesn't slow the pace so much as slightly blur the reader's focus. 'Fetch' features the narration of the type of arrogant, misogynist husband you want to punch from his first line; expecting wifely commitment without giving it, while advising upon writerly knowledge not held. It would be funny if not so dangerously close to the well-healed middle-manager types of whom it so expertly offers a glimpse.
  'Teuthida,' Lloyd admits in the afterword, was "inspired by aspects of Lovecraft's life." While this is almost too obvious in the name of main character 'Henry Lawncroft,' this in no way mars the slightly seedy and disturbing aspects of soiled gentility well conveyed through the plot; in particular the odd control-freakery of his mother. 'For Two Songs' is the best tale here. A younger daughter, deemed second-best in the affections of a father, mourning the loss of his eldest, shares wounds as much psychological as physical. The Victorian obsession with death and photography are well-utilised here, where the horror slowly emerges through cool, matter-of-fact conversations.
  I look forward to Lloyd's interest in dysfunctional families being fleshed-out and expounded upon at greater length. With a debut novel imminent, I eagerly await how such ideas might expand given the chance to breathe in more space.

Oxford Dictionaries defines 'felicity' as 'intense happiness' and 'the ability to find appropriate expression for one's thoughts.' 'Epigones' is 'a less distinguished follower or imitator of someone, especially and artist.' The series second title uses the framing device of two reflective love letters to one now lost. (The writer playing the author himself, signing-off as 'D.J.').
  'A Tale from Bede' - on a rain-soaked Sunday morning, a driver, on an aimless journey, arrives at a carboot sale whose silent patrons appear to be in purgatory. Their soiled goods, it seems, are "all they have left." A simple, understated parable of desperation and loss. (Perhaps what Bede himself supposed existed beyond his rather more optimistic message...). 'Le Frotteur de Livres' --- In this most decadent of tales, (a frotteur translated as "one who rubs"), a Freudian analyst recalls an interview he conducted in London with the French founder of 'The Society of Psychoanalysts' who recalls one of his most intriguing formative cases with a most notorious 'pervert.' In particular, his onanistic relationship with increasingly rare texts.
 'In Our Deep Vaulted Cell' follows. (Formerly discussed here 'Oblivion' returns us to a purgatory of a different, more interesting, kind with a superb opening line; "It is Tuesday the 43rd of March and I have hanged myself." 'A Note from the Archivist' continues the masturbatory, obsessional quality of 'Le Frotteur de Livres' and the best of Mark Samuels. A film archivist receives anonymously sent scenes of a great lost film and gradually becomes as increasingly determined to complete it as its late director. 'Cosmogony of Desire' – previously unpublished – is the fictionalised tale of a historical event when, in May 1945, priceless works of art by Gustav Klimt were purposely vandalised by the SS while departing the Schloss Immendorff near Vienna. The cosmogony referred to here felt, to me, at first ambiguous; but seems to refer to male Freudian perceptions of sex and death in art, indirectly connecting the observer to the decomposing paint from its destruction and the reader to the recurrent theme of the earlier tales. Unreservedly recommended.