Friday, 26 October 2012

All God's Angels, Beware! by Quentin S. Crisp, Chomu Press

In each of these ten tales, 'hate' is a term Crisp directs at us, the reader, from the outset. Except in truth it precedes a self-deprecating black humour that undercuts - surely intentionally - his true status as a disappointed romantic. Imagine Dylan Moran channelling Philip K. Dick, or Robert Newman, Alfred Bester, and you have a writer of passions, writing of passions thwarted.
  The feeling of sexual inadequacy and the consequences of the bitterness it can provoke is one predominant theme. In the opener,
'Troubled Joe,' the ghost of a suicide is eternally feted to return at the strike of four (pm) to relive his lifelong loneliness unless he can atone in the only way he knows how. A chance seems to arise in the form of a couple in first love.
  'A Cup Of Tea' brilliantly evokes a day of circuitous despair in long-term unemployment for those of an artistic temperament. (Too close for comfort).
  'Asking For It' follows a loner's thought process in how he might get his own back on a beautiful girl who pointedly ignores him. The shock lies in what happens when - for once - he defies his usual fear.
  The intriguingly titled 'The Fox Wedding' explores a boy's erotic
inadequacy as some kind of Lafcadio Hearn - Geisha nightmare.
  Then there is self-knowledge achieved through a variety of landscapes.  'Ynys-y-Plag' is exemplary, succeeding as a new classic of the uncanny. Presented as a long observational foreword to a twilit sequel of a popular photographic collection, its big success has somehow left its photographer-narrator bereft. Needing new inspiration, he relates how he left his comfort zone of choice landscapes by pinning a location on a map, with eyes closed. (So finding the Welsh town of the title). What follows is a gradually accumulating mystery; of the woodland bwg and the psychological trauma experienced by those who encounter it.  The longest of the tales, it is a slowburner that ultimately delivers.
  'The Were-Sheep of Abercrave,' by contrast, is an entertaining piss-take; both by the author and his narrator of the tale's second half, asked to explain - by the first-half narrator - the 'true' nature of the large black sheep whose ominous gaze he repeatedly encounters.
  A Japanese scholar, Crisp's influence thus encompasses 'Karakasa'; where, ninety years in the future, a commuter finds a museum of 1997 antiquities and ponders upon the value of natural entropy in a new world of holographic perfection where no one questions its pre-eminence.
  'Mise en Abyme' - not unlike Henry Whitehead's 'The Trap' (12th
October review) - involves the exploration of a mirror from within.
Only here it occurs in response to a rather more direct invitation.
  'Italianetto' is very much atypical; a love letter to a boyhood aunt,
only to be rediscovered in adulthood as a famous film star. The upbeat, naive and shiny evocation of an endless summer childhood beams as a beacon amidst the much darker introspections.
  In 'Suicide Watch' the narrator is forced to re-evaluate his own fatalistic motives when invited to help a mutual friend in need. It is appropriate that this tale ends the collection on a note of self-realisation.
  Don't believe from this you will be left feeling as down. There's an
emotional honesty in the voice ensuring his metaphors lack cliche.
This collection may not appeal if you are a totally grounded careerist, blissfully happy with your 2.4 children and a mortgage. But if this is so, then why are you still reading?


Friday, 12 October 2012

Voodoo Tales: The Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead, Wordsworth Editions

There is an issue I've long harboured against pulp Horror, as a sub-genre. While it exists to entice and play upon a reader's ignorance and prejudice, at the same time it too often reveals the writer's own. This latter occasionally turns the stomach in a way almost certainly unforeseen by the author.
  I'd like to say, that-was-then-but-this-is-now; that there's a clear, recognisable trajectory of progression from, say, the 19th century penny-dreadfuls to today, that's seen a market gradually mutate from rank bigotry to informed enlightenment. The written evidence shows otherwise.
  Considering 'Frankenstein' was penned in 1816 by an eighteen-year-old woman depicting the psychology of loneliness through a sympathetic monster created by a mad male protaganist; and Hoffmann's 'The Sand-Man' of the previous year, where the narrator becomes obsessed by his skewed preception of reality, we see how far the pulp sub-genre has singularly failed to travel.
  Of course, these are examples of literary horror; and this aspect of the genre has, fortunately, borne a history rather more progressive. By commercial necessity, pulp horror used a shorthand of social, sexual and racial reference points that we can only hope today's flash fiction and ebook exponents can further advance.
  So it is the less 'pulp-ish' tales in this interesting new collection of Henry Whitehead's original omnibuses, West India Lights, Jumbee & Other Voodoo Tales and The Black Beast & Other Voodoo Tales that are the winners.
  'The Ravel Pavanne' is a hidden gem. A woman classical pianist harbours a love for a fellow pianist whose playing unwittingly conjures a scene in her mind at which she discovers they are both present. It has a warm and subtle beauty.  'The Trap' finds a teacher's curious pupil sucked into an ancient cursed mirror from which there appears no exit. The description detailing the boy's world-in-reverse is both bizarre yet strangely convincing.
  While the last six uncollected tales, and 'The Moon Dial' in particular, also show Whitehead stretching his writerly ability.
Many of the rest are either clearly derivative of contemporaries such as F. Marion Crawford ('-In Case of Disaster Only') Hope Hodgson ('The Sea Tiger') or his friend, Lovecraft, who clearly fired him the most. (Lovecraft has much to answer for, in the breadth of his influence, here - in the 1920s' and 30s' pulps - as now). It might be unfair to accuse him of cribbing from Robert Howard though, since most of these West Indian Voodoo tales are slightly predating, while, according to D.S. Davies's Introduction, Whitehead actually lived in the region for a period, his point-of-view research displayed quite heavy-handedly at times.
  One tale feels beyond the pale today, as pernicious in its influences as it is blatant. I try to avoid giving away in detail story endings but 'The Chadbourne Episode' deserves no such
respect. Quite simply, a town's departing Persian family may,
in the view of the townsfolk and our protaganist, have left an
offspring of cannabalistic ghouls living beneath the local cemetery. Our hero, equipped with his gun, so sets out to blast away at everything in sight - and, indeed, out of it - so he can return home to cook a hearty breakfast for a local hick buddy.
  Unfortunately, by so doing, Whitehead also manages to blast away at any chance of a plot or character motive. It also leaves the very nasty taste in the mouth that assumes all people of colour are 'niggers' who prefer to scuttle underground and spawn in-bred mutations. It is a dumb and despicable piece of reactionary nonsense, even for its time, that would only have worked as a cruel piece of satire on the writer friend he's clearly aping.
  Despite his first-hand knowledge, he here falls in to the same pulp-ish prejudice as everyone else. What maintains the reader's interest are those aforementioned flashes of true originality that, in a writer of the first league, might have represented the majority.