Sunday, 20 March 2016

Lighthouses – An Anthology of Dark Tales, Edited by Cameron Trost, Black Beacon Books / Night-Pieces – Eighteen Tales by Thomas Burke, Valancourt Books

The lighthouse has been a surprisingly neglected edifice in recent gothic literature. While it is still being utilised by novice writers, recent years have so far divulged few acknowledged classics. If nothing else, editor Cameron Trost has, to some extent, made up for this in its varied representations here. Each can be classed a psychological narrative, but short enough for the sense of adventure to be foregrounded. Trost's own contribution, 'Horror At Hollow Head,' has, from the off, a more traditional feel. An innocent treasure-seeking father and son get more than they bargained for when they belatedly discover an old curse surviving in a community fearful of letting it die. By its climax, you may be left with a pleasing aftertaste of an update on Hope Hodgson or Marion Crawford.
  Two memorable examples of the anthology's psychological approach are Steve Cameron's 'To Keep the Lamp Alight' and Sam Muller's 'The Crystal Lighthouse.' In Cameron's tale, the subjective narration of a long-term friendship between a widower and a local policemfor a man in a close-knit community, where a disappearance remains unexplained, reads as breezy and hale-fellow-well-met. It is only near the end when the innocent, completely explicable, explanations for other disappearances feel just too convenient that you realise there might be more to the narrator than he's letting on. In Muller's tale, where 'placebos still worked fueled by belief,' a loving husband and father purchases a miniature model lighthouse, for his wife, to add to her collection. On receiving it, she is expectedly pleased. Later, the rest of the family arrive for a rare gathering. While talking about future plans, the man's son suddenly goes ballistic. Why is his father behaving as if their mother were still alive? 
  In 'The Tower,' B.T. Joy builds an impressive, encroaching sense of Ligottian horror, as a girl's disturbed, addicted boyfriend, plagued by an ongoing nightmare, appears to find a 'cure' in manifesting the nightmare in reality.
  Mythic pasts widen the territory. In Alice Goodwin's 'Into The Light,' a long-forgotten Greek myth comes back to haunt a woman who accompanies a tour of a long-lost, submerged town. A dark, dangerous stranger who seems barely mortal attends to her, shielding and vaguely explaining the drowned town's wraiths who appear to live on beneath its waves. The lines between life, dream and death are beautifully obscured here, with a climax that builds to epic proportions. In Deborah Sheldon's 'Will O' The Wisp,' we appear back in the superstitious rural heartland of the 17th century. It is the power of such superstitions upon the salvation of a soul that hangs over the fate of a newborn child and whether he shall live or die.
  This is the sixth release from the Black Beacon imprint and is a welcome, varied showcase for new Australian talent in short genre fiction.

Night-Pieces, originally published in 1935, is the first reissue of Burke's evocative little tales since Jessica Amanda Salmonson's The Golden Gong retrospective for Ash-Tree Press in 2001. Her long introduction for that release is virtually a full-length biography in itself, so crucial source material on his history.
  I'll declare an interest in that I've adored Burke's work now for several years. Not because I think the work is necessarily great; most of it isn't quite that. It is his vision and uncanny feel for his own past that fascinates. He seems to draw upon it with ease and manifest it, sensually, as well as any seasoned stage conjuror. Forrest Reid has this capacity when summoning his Irish background in a semi-rural Belfast, as does Burke of his cockney youth in London's Chinatown. You are there, beside them, breathing in the rural country air of the former and the dock-side, incense-laced smog of the latter.
 'Yesterday Street' neatly encapsulates Burke's favoured device. A portal-type tale, where a fond memory of the narrator's youth seems to reappear before him. This triggers his mourning the loss of a contemporary childhood love who, of course, then reappears, precisely as he she was recalled. Not all of Burke's tales were inspired by his past – far from it.
  'The Black Courtyard' is worth quoting as a good example of his successfully unnerving prose style.

'Nowhere was the darkness more intense than there. So intense was it that it seemed to have a quality of life. It menaced the eyes and pressed upon the face. Its silence seemed to whisper upon the ears. It was an organism of blackness whose tendrils almost throttled the breath. But to Perrace and his purposes this profusion of darkness was kind.' (p.69).


'He was in flight. He was fleeing not from fear of arrest, but from fear of a courtyard thick with darkness, deaf to noise, and alive only with the eyes of blind houses. Those houses had seen nothing; in that darkness they could not, even unshuttered, have seen; yet their very blindness had shot him with a deeper fear than the fear of capture.' (p.70).

  The suppressed, disguised inner life, simply expressed, layered with a glow of sunset-tinted wonder, is the hallmark of Burke's best writing, whomever he writes as narrator. 'In 'The Lonely Inn,' a tale simple but beautifully rendered, the ghost of an old public house claims a friend whose only mistake is in returning to the scene of a former crime.
  'The Hollow Man' is his most famous tale, but, I suspect, through default alone. It neither inspired the 2000 Paul Verhoeven film Hollow Man, nor the 1966 episode of the same name from the US 12 O' Clock High TV series. Yet, these facts have, inadvertently, contributed to the tale becoming more well known, allied to the fact that it has, occasionally, been anthologised. It is, though, one of Burke's most memorable tales. An old friend has travelled alone, from Africa to England, to seek out the man who'd left him to die – by a currently unknown hand - in the African bush. The traveler appears an entirely anonymous zombie, nothing more than the clothes he barely stands up in.
  Arriving in the cafe now run by his former friend and wife, he seats himself down and silently refuses to leave. He remains for days... As things around the cafe owner begin to deteriorate and patrons first move, then leave, in their droves, never to return, the increasingly desperate cafe owner has little choice but ask the traveler what he must do to make him go. His revelation implies the termination of a curse, the cafe owner alone must conclude. The 'off-screen' ambiguity of the ending is one of Burke's finest.
  This is a recommended reissue of truly uncanny tales featuring relate-able, working-class characters – between the Wars - facing a twilit-coloured range of life and death choices.

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