Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Little Girl In My Room & Other Stories by Claire Farrell, Kindle Direct Publishing

(A shorter review this week due to pressing seasonal commitments).

Plucked at random, this first-time author release from last year showcases’ a dozen little psycho-chillers, mostly from the narrator’s point of view.
  Here is the modish taste for story as extended anecdote – now labelled flash fiction – that could just as well be a series of climactic scenes from first draft novels.  To serve this sparse economy, sentences are either extremely short or just what might otherwise, in longer works, be post-semi-colon pay-offs.
  At first, I felt rising exasperation that I was reading little more than what could pass as the school essay of a precocious fourteen year old.  Then, as each further tale flew by, a strange effect, and one quite claustrophobic, took over.  As though, as a reader, I had to fight, not to get away, but just get out into open air.  The stark simplicity of the prose style had managed to stifle and stymie - an effect reminiscent of early Ballard.
  How intentional this is, is as much a mystery as the un-avatared personality behind the tales.  Farrell’s Facebook page reveals a 28-year-old Dublin-based Irishwoman; an ‘aspiring writer’ who is admirably committing to releasing at least two titles per year.  Equally admirable is her seeming lack of religious guilt that, allied to the supernatural, has hidebound too many previous generations.
  It is, perhaps, pointless to pick out certain tales.  Each covers well-trodden horror ground; familial paedophilia, the summoning of a demon, the out-of-body experience and the unaware ghost.  Naïve souls all, initiating scores of which they think they have control that, inevitably, turn around to bite them.  The revenge fantasy also gets an outing.  In ‘Justice,’ a woman, who may or may not have been spurned, wreaks a psychotic revenge on the object of her obsession, and getting what she wants, deprives us of the by now anticipated twist.
  Farrell at least knows the importance of ambiguity in the genre; where the reader only knows whether he can trust the narrator at the story’s end.  In ‘Peace’, this is too easily foregrounded; in ‘Forever Young,’ anticlimactic. Still, the prose is always precise and clear.  Intimating more than the number of words used remains a hallmark of the superior ‘aspiring writer.’

Friday, 16 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

In lieu of the next review - I'll refrain from the usual stock and pious statements of regret and farewell.  I doubt he'd appreciate it.   Ultimately, cancer's biggest and worse symptom is the puritanical rubbish it evokes in those who don't believe we should be responsible for our own actions.  i.e. those with little talent and no self-reflection.  Only writers seem to know what writers do and why.  I, for one, am always open to those who aren't, to come on board and, as it were, finally 'see the light.'  For there is no absolute right or absolute wrong in this.  That isn't the point.  We simply live and die as a consequence of our own actions - that's it.  Yet it never fails to amaze me how many - at least in the UK and US - cannot seem to accept that; smiling smugly as if that is the sole view of some pampered, soft-handed elite.
  What's brought this on, you might ask?  Too many people I've known, respected, or both, have succumbed to one of cancer's variants over the past thirty years.  What has linked them - apart from an intellectual brilliance - is that each has taken this simple fact on board.
  I didn't agree with CH's position on the Iraq War (which he supported) and he'd occasionally drop the odd pernicious line into his arguments simply to prompt reaction.  Still, one never felt he'd lost control of an argument.  He appeared to know where he was going by his very openness to uncertainty; feeling his way forward intelligently, you might say.  Considering the breadth of subject matter he'd covered in detail over forty years that's extraordinary.  I'll miss his voice.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The German Refugees by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by Mike Mitchell, Dedalus European Classics

Few will instinctively include Goethe in the literary canon of short, uncanny fiction.  This is hardly surprising, as he had published in his 83 years little more than a half-dozen such examples.  Far from lethargy or literary failure being the cause, Goethe was, in truth, the complete iconoclast, of which such pieces represent a mere offshoot of far larger interests.  A short attention span might then be closer to the truth.
  Best known for his two-part theatrical extravaganza, Faust, the plot of The German Refugees demonstrates this intellectual restlessness perfectly.
  The French Revolution is in progress and a resident family of German nobles escape together back across the border.  The men argue amongst themselves of its political rights and wrongs while – as we’ve seen is so often the case in European literature of this time – it takes a strong woman to calm such roused egos; in this instance the Baroness von C. of the party, who tries to reason with two, ultimately parting, combatants.
  Also, the book’s form isn’t typically formal being not so much a short story collection as a piecemeal novella.  Seven separate tales, all untitled, are related within the text by the calming, unbiased presence of the Priest.  Often put upon by the others, he is, on each occasion, otherwise urged to take the family away, imaginatively, from their predicament.  This he does via two ghost stories, two tales of thwarted love, two moral tales and, finally, a sensual, standalone fairy tale, which successfully unites each genre.
  Such a framing device is hardly unusual in literature and was, perhaps, a more commercial option then, in the early, populist rise of the novel and a hoped for adaptation into a play.  (Aged 45, Goethe was at the peak of his fame by this point having been a high-ranking official in Weimar, having begun to tout Faust and, now, something of a Classics scholar in the Arts and Sciences).  He may also have felt something of a social responsibility – taking into account his role as a public servant - in that it features several ‘happy’ endings.  But, don’t be put off.  They don’t feel anodyne or unduly fake in context.
  To 21st century eyes, the whole feels only slightly retro in the exchange of wit and familial interplay - not unlike a Bergman film from the 1960s’ or 1970s’.  Besides, any satirical allusions need not be made by the reader, as the stories remain, as they stand, self-explanatory.  The straightforward, unpretentious language in Mike Mitchell’s translation also belies its original publication date of 1795, making the whole quite a speed of a read.
  For those interested in mopping up the remainder of Goethe’s short fiction, I’d urge you to seek out Tales For Transformation, published in hardback by Peter Owen and in paperback by City Lights.  I will also be returning to the Dedalus European Classics series later in the New Year.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Tales Of Supernatural Terror by Guy de Maupassant, Pan Books (Selected & translated by Arnold Kellett, 1972)

Like Theophile Gautier before him, (see my ‘Clarimonde’ review of the 8th November) Guy de Maupassant was another protégé of Hoffmann and his tales of paranoid delusion.  Striking in their difference – even to this novice - is the unnerving suspicion he merely enlarged upon what he himself experienced.
  Among these sixteen swift tales it seems it is the author, rather than a character of his own devising, who narrates.  Either Maupassant never bothered to delineate separate voices, or he remained happy to let the reader assume each were his own.   Certainly, the narrators – if they are plural - are faceless, anonymous; separate names never given us.
  Turning back to Arnold Kellett’s Introduction, a picture is painted, tactfully, between the lines, of a mother’s boy with an overactive imagination who - hating work - got lucky, fucking his way to a modest literary success.  Flaubert – a friend of Mme. de Maupassant – initially guided him, Zola initially published him, and English poet Algernon Swinburne was rescued from drowning by him off the Normandy coast.
  What concerns Maupassant more than the ambiguous source of the terrors described is the effect these terrors had on his characters psyches.  Or, should I say, his own.  He is too scared to seek the source.  In Britain at the time, it was best to keep away from such things in case they were ‘unholy’ or dangerously scientific.  The excuse in Maupassant’s France was pleasingly more personal and pragmatic; keep away because your own mind is too powerful and this power we have yet to understand and harness.
  Clearly, he is communicating these effects based upon his own psychosis.  He seems to be playing out his innermost fears in public as a means to, perhaps, overcome them.
  What intrigues is precisely when this occurred in life.  He’d contracted syphilis before he reached 30; on passing 40 it had reached his cerebral cortex, inciting hallucinations, some of which he turned against himself.
So, the paranoia described across this collection was, quite likely, his own.
  In an earlier collection, Editor Gerald Gould claimed ‘Maupassant, of course, overwrote,’ whereas, here, Kellett states, ‘though he is easy to read, he is notoriously difficult to translate – mainly because of his strict economy of expression.’  Clearly, they cannot both be right.  The good news is Kellett’s assertion rings truest.  You will whip through these tales, without fear of any grandiose Gallic pretension or over-stylised description you might have anticipated.
  ‘The Horla’ is the most famous of these.  A more accurate depiction of a nervous breakdown in progression – its transcendent highs and plummeted lows - you will not find among the files of your average psychotherapist.  (This reviewer should know).
  ‘Who Knows?’ – a phrase of helpless resignation repeated throughout -appears last, from the private mental hospital Maupassant was staying at up to his death aged 43.
  Don’t let this fool you, however.  A second piece of good news for the first-timer to this author is the wry sense of humour, rarely mentioned and likely underused.  The last line in ‘The Wolf’ gives away Maupassant’s true position as a creative artist and I won’t spoil things by repeating it here.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Sunday Times on Penguin Books

I feel it necessary to temper the novice author's enthusiasm with a cautionary note. Saw in today's ST a piece on Penguin Books starting to publish short story ebooks by well known authors. After years of agents claiming no one wants the short story any more, this rather flies in that particular face. Am concerned about the mark-up of £0.99 - £1.99 though. Where does this leave the writer who doesn't mix with London's West End literati, and trying to scrape a living? Will the ebook now encourage them to take on more new names? If not, I suspect there are not going to be the opportunities beyond your own laptop that many seem to think.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Clarimonde and Other Stories by Theophile Gautier, Tartarus Press

You cannot be forgiven if the only Vidal you know of owns a chain of hair salons.  More forgivable might be the assumption that the one true Gautier is also in Fashion.
  After all, most readers of the strange and uncanny rarely venture toward the authors of Europe.  I know it has taken me some blinkered years to look beyond my immediate shelves.
  This is hardly surprising.  This French author, active between the 1830s’ and 1860s’, was only accepted into his own country’s literary canon in 2002, according to the only other recent English translation of Theophile Gautier’s work; My Fantoms, published by the New York Review of Books in 2008.
  Quite why is something of a mystery.  It cannot be the regard of fellow vagabond dissentients such as Charles Baudelaire whose blasphemous, poetical The Flowers of Evil dragged him back to a religiously censorious court on numerous occasions, while still managing republication in his lifetime.  Neither can the issue be with the work itself, which, also Byronic in inspiration, was no more controversial.
  The most likely reason is what Brian Stableford alludes to in his new introduction to Tartarus’s latest release; the ‘moral rigour’ of his subsequent admirers.  Or, as it might be interpreted; ‘Gautier would’ve been such a great writer if only he hadn’t been so infernally kinky.’  The grudging, belated acceptance of Baudelaire by the literary Establishment was enough; a second prick-kicking Romanticist on the subs bench was probably better left there.
 Yet, what might have been considered kinky then intoxicates now.  Read this for the prose style alone, which, for anyone who has read his one anthologised story ‘Loving Lady Death’ (‘La Morte Amoureuse’) - re-translated as the title tale here -  will already have experienced his stunning, sensual evocation of place and time.  This continues in the other eleven tales.
  ‘King Candaules’ astonishes, as, by its end, you realise it is, effectively, a feminist fable against male pride and presumption.  Penned by any other hand, the wife would have been deservedly executed in a coda of preening masculinity.  In Gautier’s, his Queen gets precisely what she wants and on her own terms.  In ‘One of Cleopatra’s Nights,’ a young man also makes the mistake of feeding his obsession.  But, again, he is not punished for sinning in the eyes of any Church; only for the callousness of the advance.
  Elsewhere, the female protagonist Jacintha, in ‘Onuphrius,’ and the female Mummy in ‘The Mummy’s Foot’ each coolly take charge of their destinies after volatile male presumption.  While in ‘Jettatura’ the male lover is again spurned, and ultimately destroyed, seemingly by his own paranoia, fired by the pagan superstition of those around him.  (A contextual nod back to the paranoiac fantasies of E.T.A. Hoffmann – one of Gautier’s biggest influences). There is little doubt from these that Gautier, unlike many in his field before or since, openly adored women - a refreshing change.
  I must comment on the book itself; one of the most beautiful of Tartarus’s releases in recent years’; purple boards with a lemon silk bookmark and an apposite detail from Jean-Andre Rixens' Pre-Raphaelite-ish ‘Death of Cleopatra’ upon its signature, cream-coloured cover.  Steeping each copy in essence of violet or lavender might have gilded the lily, but not been a touch out-of-place.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now by Patrick McGrath, Bloomsbury.

The greatest ghosts have never appeared in print; but only there, covertly felt.  A century ago, British writers such as Blackwood and Oliver Onions – being at least agnostic – had little choice than to manifest an accepted religious concept they didn’t believe in by other, less tested means.  European writers had been doing it for years, of course, but the old Victorian propriety proved hardest to challenge.  It took Freud to shift the goalposts.
  Now, as then, these ghosts stem from the psyches of the protagonists.  Consequently, they have become far more interesting; broad in character and motive because of those very individual psyches’ that produced them.
  Patrick McGrath knows this, and showcases’ three as guilt-ridden, familial anecdotes during times of great historical upheaval for America’s greatest city.
  ‘The Year of the Gibbet’ is 1777, telling of a man’s lifelong guilt at the cost of momentary honesty in childhood that consigned his mother to the rope during the War of Independence.
   A generation on, ‘Julius’ is a heartbreaking tale of another son’s first love, denied by a prejudicial father, and its terrible consequences upon him and his family.
  ‘Ground Zero’ brings this triptych of innocence betrayed up to 9/11 with the psychological fallout of a psychiatrist’s patient, her over-involvement in his welfare, beside the ground-shifting, parallel devastation of the World Trade Centre itself.
  The ghost here in each is the nightmare of guilt – the self-inflicted punishment from doing right.  Although the protagonist in the first tale believes he ‘sees’ his mother returned from the dead, finally giving comfort to his guilt by taking him back with her, the ghost may not be literal here either, but only the final loss of his sanity through another sleepless night.  A nice contemporary nod to the Georgian, Gothic climax.
   The ghost in ‘Julius’ is just as destructive, described as ‘prejudice acquired as a function of fear.’  An earlier, track-covering lie is confessed to all too late to make amends to either the liar or his victim.
  In ‘Ground Zero,’ the ghost’s existence is only third-hand.  A Tower fatality who, in life, had been the previous lover of the patient’s controlling girlfriend and who – perhaps – once mistook another man for him after death.  Described by the patient himself, it is difficult to know who’s account to trust.  Yet, this is the sublime brilliance of all three tales.  The ghosts matter even if they never existed; they are the very human void between fact and perception.  An interpretation of what cannot be understood.
  These three long tales are of quite exceptional quality, with not a word wasted, or a line superfluous.  The tone is consistently measured, yet, perhaps because of this, the emotional pulls when they arrive feel profound.  I’ve mentioned elsewhere how the greatest writers seem to reach their peak when they are best able to describe so much in so few words.  McGrath has surely reached his, but I suspect he has yet to plateau.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Supernatural Buchan: Stories of Ancient Spirits, Uncanny Places and Strange Creatures by John Buchan, Leonaur Ltd.

Ostensibly, a reprint of the 1991 Peter Haining / Robert Hale edition of the ‘Best Supernatural Stories’; despite the lurid re-titling, this remains a welcome re-issue.  The fifteen tales represent Buchan’s uncanny contributions to monthly literary magazines, such as Blackwoods Magazine in the UK and Atlantic Magazine in the US.

  What swiftly hits today’s reader as lasting less well is the passé Celt slang and the cultural references of the time that, naturally enough, permeate throughout.  The stag-hunting, cigar-chomping, colonial old boy network represented may well alienate – or, at least, tire – most interested women readers these days, and, likely, several male.  Yet, equally tempering is Buchan’s healthy scepticism of Christian doctrine and a receptive take on human nature.  An antidote to more smug contemporaries, Kipling and Chesterton.

  Buchan’s sickly, part-incapacitated boyhood affords him a sensitivity to the natural world that partially explains the authenticity of landscape he delineates in his subsequent Richard Hannay cycle of novels.  The allied machismo, therefore, is something well observed rather than a description of himself.

   Consequently, in his autobiography Memory Hold the Door, Buchan confesses to ‘summers of pagan idleness’ by the Tweed during his student days, where, according to Haining, ‘he mostly fished or read, but occasionally let his sense of adventure get him into trouble.’  This included skirting the borderland of Scots country law, joining poacher gangs and such; an element of compensating danger that also found voice in those later heroic thrillers.

  So, the best entries here reveal aspects of his personal mortality on the one hand, and feral learning on the other.  ‘Basilissa,’ ‘The Watcher by the Threshold,’ ‘Tendebant Manus’ and ‘The Death Notice’ find him exploring the former theme, with ’No-man’s-land’ and the deceptively succinct ‘The Keeper of Cademuir,’ the latter.  ‘A Journey of Little Profit’ is a neat enough ‘Devil’s bargain’ tale, but an early example too bogged down with showy, geographical detail.

  An exception to these themes is the fantastically child-like and still highly readable ‘The Magic Walking Stick’; its wide-eyed, wish-fulfilling concept gloriously evoking the ‘Listener’ / ‘Lost Valley’ era of Algernon Blackwood.  Just as such writers are clear influences, so are those he’d inspire.  The metaphysical chase climaxing ‘No-man’s-Land’ and the somnambulant, night time follower of ‘The Grove of Ashtaroth’ prefigure the later, more lurid scenarios from fans Lovecraft and Robert Howard.  You can see why these tales so fired such frustrated psyches.  Watch out for the rising self-loathing – surprising and brilliant – from both the protagonists.


Monday, 26 September 2011

The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets by Sophie Hannah, Sort Of Books

While Sophie Hannah’s voice is consistent throughout this ten-tale collection, the book is, in terms of genre, very much of two halves.
  Five of the tales conform to what may be called ‘uncanny.’  The narrator voice, increasingly neurotic as domestic paranoia sets in, gradually making us doubt our first assumption.  ‘The Octopus Nest’ cleverly switches the stalker with the stalked, justifying that doubt in the most satisfying and unexpected way.
  ‘Friendly Amid the Haters’ concerns a harboured bid for revenge against a personal, physical attack, and we wonder, right up until the end, whether her extreme choice will be finally acted upon.
  The title story concerns a woman who lives by the delusion of a double life and how she thinks others perceive it.  Once she reveals she has been sacked by more than one previous employer, it doesn’t take us long to understand why.
  ‘The Nursery Bear’’ has the Aickman influence in a series of odd events that may or may not be linked, but form a dreadful coherence in the narrator’s mind.  With ‘The Octopus Nest’ the highlight, this is the second best tale here flawed only by a late scene involving a mirror-image front room in the neighbour’s house which, somehow, doesn’t work as an enticement to additional fear.  A gilding of the lily this excellent tale doesn’t need.
  In ‘The Tub,’ a woman left licking her wounds from a possibly unrequited love is left to confide in one who desires only her body.  The man lacks any real character beyond his carnal intent, while the woman’s hopeless bid to salvage words of comfort from him becomes increasingly psychotic.
  The remaining five tales dispense with the uncanny element entirely, being little more than blackly humorous episodes of imaginary sitcom.  But Hannah remains strong on her fellow woman and the stifled subjective opinions that stem from saving face.
  ‘We All Say What We Want’ is a wish-fulfilling tryout by a husband and wife who break out of their boring lifestyle by joining a pair of pleasure-seekers.  (Read it and admit to whose side you wish you were on).
  In ‘Twelve Noon,’ a woman’s thin-skinned sense of guilt extends to the time she has left with her limited parking space and its advice, ‘maximum stay two hours – no return within two hours,’ taken as a dire warning.
  ‘Herod’s Valentines’ involves an insecure single who becomes willingly deferential to another, richer, more egocentric, and more sexually profligate than herself.  Agreeing to help her with her sexual half-life for a large amount of money, the second woman only causes problems for herself.  A night-time fantasy involving Christopher and Peter Hitchens is a comic highlight in a clever but slightly too long tale of passive domination.
  ‘You Are a Gongedip’ appears to concern the pathological envy of a publisher’s employee who stalks the writer she had wanted to be, and the (unjustified) psychological revenge she exacts.  Again, Hannah is less convincing with the male voice.  More than once, I was certain Hannah herself was narrator when in truth her gender floundered, uncertainly, as the male author.
  ‘The Most Enlightened Person I’ve Ever Met’ reads as a wish-fulfilment fantasy of Hannah’s very own, where a woman, disappointed by the ending of her relationship, draws her ex-lover into a confession of his failings and a shock final entrapment.
  The quality of Hannah’s writing is high and consistent, although I found the sitcom-type stories held much less interest than those told as ambiguous mysteries.  In these, she displays the best of both worlds.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Edgelander & Other Uncanny Tales, Kindle Direct Publishing

My latest book is now available from Amazon.  A mere taster for bigger and better tales in the future...

I'm always interested in hearing from other writers about their experiences in independent or self-publishing.
The good, the bad, the indifferent.  What, so far, has been yours?  My only goal is to improve my craft at each attempt, until other publishers finally realise what they've been missing.  It is all any of us can do.

What are the downsides of publishing without an agent?  Of getting your work to the public without the formative quality control of an editor?  What are the advantages?

When it comes to layout and technical presentation of a text, to what extent is the human element still necessary in its production?  Should the writer have to be responsible for this at all?  Then there is the question of quality control over democratic access.  Let me know your views.  Mark

Monday, 5 September 2011

Boy In Darkness & Other Stories (Centenary Edition) by Mervyn Peake, Edited by Sebastian Peake, Peter Owen Publishers

One of a dozen reissues this summer to celebrate Peake’s birth centenary has been this modestly slim collection of the half-dozen short stories he’d found time to squeeze out on Sark between the illustrations, paintings, sculpture, plays and poetry.
  Effectively, the title story is a discarded chapter from the second half of ‘Gormenghast,’ set during one of 12-year-old Titus’s initial attempts at escape from the castle and his heredity.
  Lost in an outer forest, the Boy encounters the seemingly demonic Goat and his even more satanic bully of a master, Hyena.  These characters are nightmarish enough, except each are in thrall to a creature even worse; the hollow Lamb and its insatiable hunger for other’s souls.
  Imagine if the ‘Alice’ books had been penned by Clive Barker, drawn by Goya, and you have a fair idea of the tale’s horrific nature.  Always confounding category, this story most clearly highlights Peake’s belief in fantasy as a genre as much for adults as for children.  (In fact, he often felt frustrated by publishers who only perceived it for the young and marketed it as such).  It is a brilliant nightmare, but, ultimately, too graphically so for the trilogy.
  ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ is an autobiographical account of an exotic impulse buy during the Peakes’ time on Sark.  The writing is spare and wry, somehow defying the time in which it was written.
  As is ‘The Connoisseurs,’ which asks of us, what price beauty when a maker’s mark on a piece of art is deemed more important than either its appearance or its positive effect upon the onlooker?
  ‘The Weird Journey’ is a typically Peake-esque flash of madcap wit couched in paradoxical Edwardian SF.  A lot like his nonsense verse.
  ‘Danse Macabre’ exists in the historical Y-fork between the traditional pre-War ghost story and the proto-comedic fantasies of Richard Matheson to come.  A lovely waking dream.
  ‘Same Time, Same Place’ ends the collection and is, perhaps, the most interesting tale behind ‘Boy.’  A young man, desperate to leave the daily monotony of living with his parents, finds release in his growing desire for a woman customer at a Lyon’s Corner House.  He is pleasingly surprised by her own swift, reciprocal willingness, finding her always at her table on his arrival while insistent on remaining as he leaves.  She instantly agrees to marriage after he proposes, and, on the big day, as his approaching bus passes the window of the room in which they are about to register – he receives a frightening revelation.  He decides that, by comparison, his old life wasn’t quite so bad after all.
  This story, wittingly or otherwise, appears to harbour a moral, being a warning against prejudice and the power of immature desire.  As a truly vagabond artist it is difficult to believe Peake sided with the young man, having several outsider-type friends of his own such as Augustus John and the young Quentin Crisp.  At the end, you suddenly feel sorry for the lady he has betrayed and are, surely, meant to.
  This is more a title for fans of Peake, so I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction.  What it offers instead are intriguing glimpses of the creator outside Gormenghast’s dominant realm.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Oriental Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn, Wordsworth Editions

It is always refreshing to discover a British author from the late Victorian and Edwardian eras unencumbered by Christianity and its mono-centric repressions.  If unquestioning atheism is too much to ask, then those highly sceptical agnostics have at least gone in their own, intriguingly divergent directions.
  Algernon Blackwood, from youth, favoured a form of Eastern nature mysticism; John Barlas, Baudelairean revolutionary socialism, with Buddhism alone favoured by the writer of this three-volume collection.  Except Lafcadio Hearn was only ever British in the colonial sense, his life cosmopolitan to an almost wayward degree.
  Born of an Irish father and Grecian mother, David Stuart Davies’s usual informative introduction reveals a subsequent existence as a newspaperman in New Orleans, before moving on to Japan, aged forty, to study the culture, eventually settling to marry a local girl and change his name to ‘Yakumo Koizumi.’  (As if ‘Lafcadio’ wasn’t an original enough a choice for him, being pronounced Lefcadia after the Greek-Ionian island upon which he was born).
  The stories making up these three very short - and very plotless - collections, are fables, related to the reader almost as anecdotes, as if around a public bar.  This is just as well considering the Eastern names for places, times, ranks and reliquaries prompting footnotes at the bottom of the first two collections and so the inevitable pause every few pages.  Stick with these, though, as they are not unduly long, certainly informative, while evoking mystical mind pictures that, with focused detail, open up a world of Eastern mythology a textbook three times the size could not inspire.
  Like most fables, the construct in each is the same.  A beautiful and mysterious young woman captures the heart of a brave young soldier (invariably a Samurai in this case) and gives him a life choice by which to prove his heart.  By either reneging on a promise given or justifying it, is his fate sealed.  In the former case, one of the lovers (invariably the woman) dies.  In the latter, the male lover may yet die through proving his worth.  There are rarely happy-endings.
  Glimpses of what might today be considered ‘body horror’ (in truth, self-flagellation) accompanies the climaxes, but a large enough minority ensure you will not be left feeling too depressed.  Of course, these are also morality tales.  A few go against this grain.
  ‘Silkworms’ is inspired by the saying of a Chinese proverb told the author, who then quotes the proverb’s source.  It is as groundbreaking and beautiful a short story as I have ever read.
  ‘Incense’ continues in this vein of being more article than tale, with its history and varied early uses.
  ‘A Passional Karma’ is another suggesting Hearn is quoting an experience from life, while, for a change, it is the woman in the tale it has to tell who has the last laugh.
  Unlike other white Colonial writers of his day, Hearn himself is never judgemental, letting the material do the talking.  Since he integrated, going ‘native,’ this lends modernity to what is a passively appreciative voice.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman, Tartarus Press

There are three main effect-responses a writer wishes to provoke from the reader.
  In no particular order, these can be reduced to 1/ the heart, 2/ the gut, and 3/ the head.  If we take it as an interchangeable list, we can vary the order for various authors.  The final order very much depending upon a writer’s individual approach.
  Hold on, you say; surely, the author isn’t in charge of the response?  What matters is the reader and his reaction to the material?  You think?  I would argue that a competent writer is very much in control of a reader’s response.
I mean, when was the last time ‘War and Peace’ was bought by anyone anticipating knockabout comedy?  Or a James Kelman novel purchased for its solid Jackie Collins-type situations?
  So long as Genres exist for authors to write in – whatever that genre may be – then emotional response will always be their priority.
  The Horror genre might be one easiest to highlight by example, since it exists to provoke the more extreme reactions.  One author specialising in sensationalist pulp-horror, let us say Shaun Hutson, will try to instil a visceral, churning feeling mingled with black humour.  His order of priority of effect-response can be thus;

1/ Gut
2/ Heart
3/ Head.

Graham Masterson – less knowingly witty - might be closer to

1/ Heart
2/ Gut
3/ Head.

While Clive Barker, I would consider

1/ Head
2/ Gut
3/ Heart.

This doesn’t mean these writers lack what isn’t uppermost in the list; merely that one intended effect-response is prioritised over the other as the best means to tell their tales their own way.  Move away from straight horror, towards a less easily definable genre, and this list still applies.
  By this token, there is little doubt that Robert Aickman is a Head, first, heart, second, and gut, third, man.  Here lies an issue, at least, if not a problem.   Even as ‘strange’ rather than horror fiction, the gut reaction to a tale should never be as low as third inconsideration.  An accusation could be levelled that this may not have been the writer’s intention and, again, is more a problem for myself as anticipating reader.  I don’t believe that.  As an issue, I suspect it lies at the heart of Aickman’s detractors.
  ‘Cold Hand in Mine’ – newly reissued by quality independent, Tartarus Press – is a case in point.  As Phil Baker concedes in the latest of their, always excellent, Introductions, “Aickman’s stories are often over-plotted…”  I’ll say.  There is little doubt he pulls this off in most of the tales in the first three books.  There, they work because – however puzzling - the pay-offs never leave us hanging without considered cause.  Here, the climactic results are mixed and a lot more uncertain.
  ‘Meeting Mr. Millar’ promises much, being this collection’s longest narrative, but ultimately pulls its punch.  The Mr. Millar of the title is landlord to the narrator staying in his digs; to the latter he appears as absent in personality as in presence.  He also drinks too much and brings home strange women at night.  This marks him down as someone sinister – apparently.
  Believe me: passed experience has warned me to always approach Aickman with intellectual respect and rigour, knowing it to be a mistake ever to take his narrators’ statements at face value.  Yet, even with this mindset, this tale fails to deliver.  Based on his descriptions, there is no justification whatsoever in ‘Meeting Mr. Millar’s narrator feeling especially freaked by his landlord.  Millar makes shallow, distracted conversation and keeps dubious company at night.  I hesitate to ask; so what?  The narrator’s paranoid overreaction is puzzling, a possible covert source not even hinted at elsewhere in the text.  In trying to provoke a likeminded reaction in the reader, I wonder if Aickman was trying too hard in the preliminaries; the over-plotting Baker refers to.  Personally, I have met far more inexplicable characters in bed-sit land than Millar.
  ‘The Clock Watcher’ is interesting as an intellectual exercise of making stationary objects harrowing, but we are presented only with other cameo characters vaguely paranoid perceptions of various clocks, with no uniting factor even hinted at.  Is Ursula’s own paranoia justified or based upon something else?  Unfortunately, too much is left to chance, unexplained.
So, in this case, we are told too little to care.
  Aickman is on far stronger, and, perhaps, safer territory here in his more conventional storytelling.  Fortunately, his gift for originality isn’t consequently forsaken.  ‘The Swords’ is an intriguing take on unfettered sadism as a competitive circus game.
  ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal,’ the most conventional entry here, is, nevertheless, a beautifully wrought tale of mutating vampirism from the victim’s point of view.  It perhaps feels a less original take on the sub-genre today than on the collection’s original release in 1975, but no less enjoyable for that.
  ‘The Hospice’ - easily my favourite in the collection – is a disquieting tale of a man who has lost his way who – suddenly injured - takes refuge in a care facility.  I later pondered that the whole tale might be based around the infected narrator simply misreading ‘hostel,’ or even ‘hospital,’ as ‘hospice,’ his terror stemming from that misled assumption about its staff and residents; but to criticise further on that would be churlish.
  ‘The Same Dog’ is almost unique in the Aickman oeuvre in actually foregrounding its pay-off in the title.  Still, it is a neatly dour tale of unrequited love meeting physical danger.
  The remaining stories, ‘The Real Road to the Church’ and ‘Niemandswasser,’ remind us where Aickman’s real strength lies; when dispensing with the pay-off entirely to concentrate on the poetry, gradually larding with likely clues, earlier, in the text.  It is here where I care more about his characters, his burgeoning heart compensating for the lack of gut.

Monday, 11 July 2011

TPR - Summer Break

Just to announce that, due to other writing commitments, I'll be taking a break from THE PAN REVIEW.
However, I'll be back - refreshed - on Monday 8th August with the Tartarus reissue of Robert Aickman's
'Cold Hand In Mine.' TC.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Wolves of God and Other Fey Stories by Algernon Blackwood & Wilfred Wilson, Wildside Press.

Perhaps the rarest collection of Blackwood, in truth, it remains one of several never officially reprinted.
  First published in 1921, a re-reading today uncovers certain forgotten facts.
Overall, the collection is uneven.  Of the fifteen tales, the first four are shamelessly derivative of past glories, re-treading plot and country from ‘The Listeners and Other Stories’ (1907) and ‘The Lost Valley’ (1910).
  But, stay with them.  ‘The Tarn of Sacrifice’ has an ex-soldier, back from the Front, and intent on a walking tour of the Lake District.  His clear loneliness for company is served when he all too willingly falls in with a windswept young woman and her father, disturbed by their own past, who welcome him in to their obsessive world of ritual.
  ‘Egyptian Sorcery’ subconsciously links Blackwood to Alistair Crowley and their membership of The Golden Dawn as thought transference becomes the means to pull a man’s beloved sister through a life-saving operation that might otherwise have killed her.  Some intriguing – and, perhaps, unintentionally amusing – gender bending ensues.
  ‘Confession’ is a favourite, and one of the most satisfying tales in its subjective fear and unrelenting build to the climax.  A Canadian soldier, suffering agoraphobia, has to face the fog of London for the first time, en route to a final week of convalescence in Brighton.  Losing his way, he is also on the point of losing control, when a strange woman - only half-conscious of him - draws him into following her.   What follows is the kind of blind circuitous route no one would wish to take.
  The penultimate tale, ‘The Lane That Ran East and West,’ is another gem; as earthily romantic in rural setting and character as the best of D. H. Lawrence.  Running through all his work, Blackwood’s signature ability to deftly meld ‘real’ events with the dream state is, here, depicted at its best.
A woman who spends her life watching various entrances and exits come and go beside the long country road she lives by, one day meets a mysterious passer-by who stops to hand her – and her alone - a fern leaf as a gift for payment she will one day pay to herself.  What comes-to-pass many years later, in a time and place she could never have predicted, reminds her tellingly of this day.
  That good stories have been hiding amongst those already considered inferior isn’t the only forgotten fact about this book.  Most of the unwary protagonists are soldiers, either shell-shocked or otherwise wounded, returning from World War One to a new world they must somehow re-engage with.  (Blackwood’s world of myth and madness would surely have made most wish they hadn’t come back at all!)
  This is hardly surprising, since Mike Ashley’s revealing biography on Blackwood – ‘Starlight Man’ – confirms that most of these tales were written in the immediate aftermath of Armistice, during 1919 – 20.
  And who was Wilfred Wilson?  Ashley confesses to gleaning few facts about him, other than he seems to have been a long-term hill-walking companion of Blackwood’s, who deemed he'd offered him enough research on the lie of foreign lands to justify joint credit.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


English PEN is the UK branch of the International Writers Association
that supports freedom of speech and its proponents throughout the
World.  They are always on the lookout for new supporters, so why
not check them out.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The Box: Uncanny Stories by Richard Matheson, Tor Books

We are in the territory of the white picket fence and the twitching curtain; specifically, post-war, Atomic America of the Fifties and Sixties, where the white-collar middle class believed it had much to fear from blue-collar make-doers.
  Time has emphasised the class demarcation as something worth fearing.
In ‘Button, Button,’ – the opening tale turned into a movie for which this release is its tie-in – a door-to-door salesman from a nameless, possibly disreputable, company offers a special offer to a well-to-do New Yorker couple in return for the ultimate sacrifice that may salve the conscience through anonymity.
  ‘Girl of My Dreams’ describes an insecure, psychotic, trailer-trash Bonnie-and-Clyde blackmailing a respectable married woman in her own home.
‘…he appraised the room.  Money was in evidence wherever he looked, in the carpeting and drapes, the period furniture, the accessories…this was it all right.’
  ‘Dying Room Only’ has nice Ford-owning Bob and Jean finding a downbeat roadside café at summer’s unbearable height, that sells only ‘Hi-Li Orange and Dr Pepper,’ leaving Jean alone with the idling, downtrodden drinkers, while her husband’s non-return from the John makes each one culpable.
  ‘A Flourish of Strumpets’ returns us to door-to-door selling of the back-page variety as The Exchange tries soliciting a different kind of service to its not-in-our-backyard Republicans.
  To what extent was Matheson aware of this at the time?
The second half of the collection, penned subsequently, is more varied, but collectively revealing an umbrella theme all their own.
  ‘No Such Thing as a Vampire’ has a medical twist in its tale.  ‘Mute’ - the longest and best story here – describes a voiceless German boy, orphaned from a house fire, and his mysterious survival.  ‘Shock Wave’ is a more conventional horror tale where a church organ, due for removal, takes revenge against its fate on behalf of its covetous owner.
  The remaining four are message stories played for laughs.  ‘The Creeping Terror’ is a punning satire on the Cult Phenomena and the media’s relationship with ‘the facts,’ while ‘Clothes Make the Man,’ ‘The Jazz Machine’ and the very silly ‘’Tis the Season to Be Jelly,’ closing this collection, all deal with the question of man’s ability to hold onto his identity.
  Matheson fans will know too well most of the early tales here, having been anthologised to death over the past forty years.  Yet, for the newcomer, they have morphed into something else; a snapshot of the repressed fears in post-war conservative values faced with the, then, new cushioning appliances and their purveyors of domestic convenience.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Tales of Hoffmann by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Penguin Classics

In the introduction to ‘The New Uncanny,’ Ra Page refers to Sigmund Freud’s seminal 1919 essay on the subject, and the eight irrational fears he defined as often deployed in such tales.
  The eighth is quoted as ‘confusions between reality and imagination (waking dreams, etc.).’  Not that the whole setting, from the outset, is confused, but, more crucially, the ambiguous perception of the main character or narrator and its depiction.  ‘The Sandman’ – used as Freud’s model – is easily Hoffmann’s most famous tale, having appeared as an actual character in everything from the opening of Roy Orbison’s 1963 hit single ‘In Dreams’ to a 1990s’ graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman.
  A mother’s friendly deadline to her bed-wary young son to beware the eye-dust sprinkling Sandman by 9 pm each night gains credence with the simultaneous arrival of Coppelius; his father’s domineering ‘mechanician’ and spectacle-selling hawker.  In hiding one night to discover his identity, the boy misinterprets the adults seemingly shared interest in mystical alchemy, played out in the front room.   Scaring the boy, a lifelong pathological hatred of the figure is triggered, particularly after the boy’s father suddenly dies.
  But - almost another century on - it’s clear something else is going on here.
The physical description of ‘Sandman’ Coppelius is rather less ambiguous than the tale.  The ‘large heavy nose drawn down over the upper lip’ and the seemingly delighted overcharging to a subsequent customer, point to the stereotypical, contemporary sketch of the avaricious Jew.
  Yet, you can’t help feeling the story is greater than this.  Since the whole tale is based upon the varying prejudicial assumptions of those who come into contact with Coppelius, it can also be read as a satire on that very prejudice.  Hoffmann himself is intriguingly wrought in R. J. Hollingdale’s introduction as an ‘anarchic humorist’ who, as a lawyer by day, shamelessly satirized those he’d been working with at night, getting himself, (despite or, perhaps, because of his contemporary literary success), into a lot of libellous trouble.  Such Jekyll / Hyde duality surely makes him as much of a choice character for the graphic novel as The Sandman himself.
  The rest of the book continues in the vein of characters either defying the narrators’ perceptions or justifying them in wholly unexpected ways, leaving each a victim psychologically scarred. .Hoffmann’s cynical wit pervades throughout, presaging that of American author Ambrose Bierce whom he most closely resembles.  Of the other ‘Tales’ worth recommending are ‘Councillor Krespel,’ ‘Doge and Dogaressa’ and ‘The Choosing of the Bride.’  Each, in their entrances and exits, as madly Gothic as the next.
  R.J. Hollingdale also translated this text.  By his own admission, he edited for increased pace more in keeping with our generation than Hoffmann’s, which, if its classic age and status had previously put you off, I’d seriously reconsider.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The New Uncanny, Edited by Sarah Eyre & Ra Page, Comma Press

The adjective ‘uncanny’ isn’t heard much nowadays.  Scouting round for a single definition, the reason is made instantly clear.
  The OED offers six entries: from ‘mischievous, malicious’ to ‘dangerous, unsafe.’  The Free Online offers five: from ‘peculiarly unsettling…of supernatural origin’ to ‘so keen and perceptive to seem preternatural.’  The Cambridge is happy with just the one, theirs ending almost in apology; ‘strange or mysterious; difficult or impossible to explain.’
  This collection from Comma reflects what is as seemingly indefinable as the term’s true meaning.  Still, the OED also adds, in definition 4b. – ‘partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar’ – as being ‘common from c.1850.’  Popular Gothic fiction of what might be termed ‘uncanny’ peaked at this time, pointing to this literary usage as likely the most influential.  It is also, probably, the most recognisable today.
  So, any of these being the likely parameter, it is puzzling why so few of the stories here succeed.  Matthew Holness’s ‘Possum’ is pure horror, in its depiction from the outset of an animal’s corpse used as a medico-psychopath’s toy.  In Gerard Woodward’s ‘The Underhouse,’ a man meticulously reconstructs a childhood kink by recreating the world he saw when he first stood on his head.  Ian Duhig’s awkwardly titled ‘The Un(heim)lich(e) Man(oeuvre)’ is self-regarding, clever and funny, but far too knowing and information-heavy to leave the uncanny space necessary for building tension or mood.
  This doesn’t mean these tales aren’t good.  The singular originality of each harbours its own strength.  But in no way can they be considered ‘uncanny.’  This requires subtlety, and communicating a covert, rather than overt, sense of fear; a point Ra Page herself alludes to in the Introduction.
  Perhaps, inevitably, the more seasoned writers here translate the term better in their linear contributions, understanding how less is more.  Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Double Room’ foregrounds the growing obsession of a hotel resident who believes his neighbour copies exactly every sound he makes.  Christopher Priest’s ‘The Sorting Out’ follows a woman who believes herself stalked by an absent former boyfriend who won’t let go.  A.S. Byatt’s ‘Dolls’ Eyes’ evokes Angela Carter in less fantastical mood, about a strange, unspoken relationship between another single woman and her ‘reluctant’ collection.
  Each succeeds in continuing the uncanny tradition.  Although, since the back cover proclaims its authors as having been set a challenge to ‘write fresh interpretations of what (it) might mean in the 21st century…’ their success can also be considered only partial.
  A final word on the penultimate entry; Hanif Kureishi’s ‘Long Ago, Yesterday’; I’d never read him before, but this perfectly pitched tale on encountering his late parents at a particular time in his youth and rediscovering, in adulthood, what he’d left behind, touched a nerve that left me on the point of tears.  Beautiful and life-affirming, and proof - if it were needed – how the uncanny, whatever its true concern, is rarely ever about guts and graves.

Monday, 9 May 2011


The lurid retro cover of three cowl-clad spectres surrounding a woman they have swathed in rope before a dominating pair of White Zombie-style eyes ensured this 2004 American release acquired its liberation from among the spines of a local charity bookshop.
  Far from being obscure, it seems U.S. cult magazine McSweeney’s has attracted the biggest names in fantasy fiction in recent years, of which this anthology is one of several.
  Yet, it is likely these stories comprise a mix of entries first considered, then dropped, from short story collections, with others, submitted freelance, turned down by their publishers.  Does this mean they are second rate?
I would say not, though the quality can be uneven.
  The welcome inclusion of talented unknowns and lesser knowns’ certainly give the bigger names a run for their money.  Aylet Waldman’s ‘Minnow’ is stunning in its original take on a couple who have lost their child, only for the mother to believe she hears it still on a neighbour’s monitor.  Steve Erickson’s ‘Zeroville’ takes film obsession to an OCD degree, while Heidi Julavits’s ‘The Miniaturist’ traps us in a strange house with a strange woman who silently invokes an ever-repeating spell.
  Of the bigger names, Margaret Atwood surprises, opening this collection with a neat, understated vampire tale, (‘Lusus Naturae’).  Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘The Devil of Delery Street’ updates the setting and mood music of Catholic guilt, while Joyce Carol Oates’ contribution is surprisingly traditional in a Poe-inspired tale of descending madness spawned of isolation in ‘The Fabled Light-House of Vina Del Mar.’
  Almost inevitably, the longest entry is Stephen King’s (‘Lisey and The Madman’), bearing his usual, strung out emphasis on dull minutiae, quickly sapping the attention.  While China Mieville’s ‘Reports of Certain Events in London’ is certainly original with its unresolved, cut n’ paste mock-up, its very inconclusiveness left me cold.
    Also available from McSweeney’s– if you look hard enough – are their Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans, Quarterly Concern and The Believers.  Surely worth checking out for the titles alone.
  At the back of this one you will see that its sales benefit ‘a writing lab disguised as a pirate-supply store, dedicated to helping students with their writing skills.’  I suppose the charity shop I purchased this copy from can at least salve my conscience as the second-best option.

Visit www.826Valencia.org for more information.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

An Idea for Readers and Writers

An old mate, William Baggs, has asked if I'd post the notice below on his behalf.  
It's kosher no hard sell - but could be worth consideration if your life's getting just too hectic.


I am organising a weekend workshop called ‘Skills for Living’ in London this September and as a close friend, family member or colleague, I would value your support in attending or helping me to promote the event.

‘Skills for Living’ incorporates exercises designed to improve health and general wellbeing, all the stuff I’ve been learning over the past 2 years that has helped me with depression and low energy levels. Basically, it works!

There are two exercises that are particularly beneficial and you will learn and practise these over the weekend:

1. The ‘inner smile’ is a simple but profound exercise for relaxing the heart and opening us up to deeper connection with ourselves and relationship to others. This is used to support general well being and can be particularly helpful with depressionanger and improved relations with others.

2. The 'Circulation of the Light' balance which supports and strengthens the natural flow of energy around the body. It is particularly beneficial in our fight against illness as it's the basis of the energy in the immune system. So if you want to avoid getting sick this is great. But better still if you are frequently have low energy and are run down then this will get your energy moving again. So you can see why it's also good for coldsjet lag and supporting women’s cycles.

There will also be a lot of fun energy practices that deepen understanding of how our minds influence the health of our body’s.

So, I am glad to be sharing this with you and hope that it will be of interest. ANd any support with promotion will be gratefully received. 

For more information on the processes you can check www.acuenergetics.com 

Fri 9th September 1900 til 2130
Sat 10th September 0930 til 1900
Sun 11th September 1000 til 1700
£220 if paid before July 31st
£270 if paid before August 31st
£320 thereafter and on the day

£37 of your fee goes to acuenergetics to register you as a student. There is also a very insightful booklet and DVD for each participant.

venue: Acton, West London 

Contact; billbaggs@hotmail.com Email is best at this stage as I am in Sydney til June 8th.

In gratitude,

William Baggs"