Friday, 21 December 2012

Selected Stories by Mark Valentine, Swan River Press

In recent years, Mark Valentine has wisely been carving a niche for
himself.  In collections such as 'The Mascarons of the Late Empire
& Other Stories,' (2010) 'The Peacock Escritoire' (2011) and the most
appropriately named 'Secret Europe' (2012) he has taken us
through side alleys of internecine, mainly proletarian, resistance in
European cities leading up to the First and Second World Wars.
It is from such collections that this selection was chosen.
  Tales richly descriptive yet rarely overburdened in length or purple
prose, Valentine brilliantly evokes these Northern European
enclaves of dissent, through a teasing assualt upon the senses.
  The source of the uncanny may not, at first, appear obvious in all.
But it is assuredly always intimating, perhaps just around a corner
or half-hidden within an alcove.  Where with Aickman the uncanny
is communicated through the psyche of the unreliable narrator,
with Valentine it is reflected back to the protaganist by the cumulative
effect of place and its harboured, half-ignored history.
  'The Mascarons of the Late Empire' - the tale that ends this selection -
is a prime example.  The scene describing the Night Market, shown
through eyes of the young immigrant artist and borderline vagrant,
Michael Vay, as he seeks out a face he may have once sketched from
stone, is a sensual delight as the sights, odours and occupations
of the hawkers race about him, graphically half-witnessed, before
"crooked, lichened houses which leaned against each other like
drunken old men seeking mutual support."
  Memorable, it also turns into one of Valentine's finest ever pieces of
continuous exposition.
  By contrast, 'The Unrest at Aachen' at first seems to avoid the
uncanny entirely in the paranoid wake of William le Queux's 1906
novel of an 'imaginary' inter-European war.  That is until the
penultimate page, when a possible watcher from antiquity somehow
evokes an 'Angel of Mons' moment. For "my sight was subdued,"
states the narrator, Yann Medermain, "blurred, and I could not be
sure of what I could see."
  'The Original Light' is another gem.  A gently melancholic
rumination on a dying uncle's long, semi-illicit search for the source
of the natural mystical glow he believes emanates from the 'spirit'
within all objects and the ancestral fascination passed on to his nephew.
Reminiscent of early Blackwood, its equally authentic period feel is
too much on a par with the surrounding tales ever to descend to
saccharin nostalgia.
  A smart dust-jacket in dark violet featuring a central image of a
semi-submerged golden face makes for a sophisticated release.
If you've never before read this author, this thematically-linked
selection of his most recent work is as good a place as any to start.

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