‘Sourdough and Other Stories’ by Angela Slatter

3 11 2010


'Sourdough and Other Stories' by Angela Slatter, 238+viiipp, Tartarus Press, ISBN: 978-1-905784-25-7, £30 hb


Review by Simon Marshall-Jones

It’s very difficult not to be enthusiastic about this book – not just about the writer and her stories but also about the physical book itself. And, it has to be said that, from this particular bibliophile’s point of view, what Tartarus Press have put together here is nothing short of superb and fully justifies the asking price. Sourdough and Other Stories is a lushly-produced hardback, with clear printing and a silk ribbon marker, and includes a full-colour frontispiece and decorated boards and spine – just the perfect thing to display on a shelf. It’s the sort of thing to stroke and make a complete fetish of.

But it wouldn’t be a complete package without the quality of literature within – otherwise it would be nothing more than mere distraction. Luckily, there are gems hidden between those beautifully-gilded covers. I’ve reviewed Angela Slatter before for Beyond Fiction (The Girl with No Hands – Ticonderoga Publications) and I came away highly impressed, both with the way in which she tells her stories but also by her erudition. The sixteen stories contained within this collection attests to both Slatter’s storytelling and her consistency in creating entertaining tales with deep, almost primeval, resonances. And she does this time after time.

The traditional fairytale is her starting point or, rather, what we have come to think of as fairytales. As I observed in my previous review, many of the most famous tales that have been handed down to us, transmitted by the likes of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, were corrupted and sanitised by a Christian, Victorian and patriarchal-oriented agenda, where women were often portrayed as not only being fallen but the begetter of evil deeds. The dangers were still there, but they were meant to show the child their rightful place,  as well as to educate and prepare them for their roles in adult life, through moral instruction.

Here, Slatter tears those outdated notions apart, reaffirming and restoring the power of the feminine and the pagan. All her female characters display strength of one kind or another, whether it be a refusal to bow down to the dictates of the patriarchal stage on which these tales are played out (Gallowberries, for instance), or the willingness of a young girl to sacrifice herself to atone for a wrong or in a time of need (The Navigator, A Porcelain Soul), or the power of a woman to transform and renew (The Angel Wood, Little Radish). Conversely, the men in Slatter’s fictional locale of Lodellan are often portrayed as the epitome of stupidity: greedy (the Robber Bridegroom in The Story of Ink), cruel and warlike (the Duke and Dante Velatt in A Porcelain Soul), weak (the king in Sister, Sister) and ultimately afraid of the innate power of women, hence their need to subjugate them (the town council and judge in Gallowberries).

Before you imagine otherwise, not all the women are saintly, however – there’s Gwenllian, the rich mistress who asked Blodwen to heal her horrific burns, giving her young child away as payment for her services. Through Blodwen, we learn of the consequences of going against nature, of denying the bond every woman should have with her child and that doing so without thought can sometimes have dire consequences. Then we meet the cruel, spoilt little rich girl fiancée in Sourdough, who, through her arts with potions, causes her husband-to-be Peregrine’s true love to lose their child. That dead child then turns up in a later tale, Lavender & Lychgates, a wonderful story of the scheming ghost of the spoilt girl to bring him back to life, in order to exact revenge against Emmeline (his mother and the girl who did go on to marry Peregrine) and her daughter. Slatter’s women are also more than capable of a darker magic, too, as is evidenced in the bloody The Bones Remember Everything, a decidedly hallucinatory tale. Additionally, they can also be viciously poisonous, like Polly using malign whispers to usurp her sister Theodora’s place as the king’s wife in Sister, Sister.

Ultimately, however, the wrongs that are perpetrated by these bad apples are corrected by other, stronger (in the moral sense) females. Women are portrayed as the real runners of the show, the glue holding society together and the life-givers (and life-takers in dire need, too). They may be downtrodden, vilified, rejected and outcast, but each possesses an inner strength, an inner conviction to go on and do what’s absolutely necessary. Just like the fairy-tales we grew up with, the ones given to us by our Victorian forefathers, these stories deal in archetypes; however, the difference here is that Slatter’s characters are not the stiff, cardboard cut-outs created to make a moralistic point – they are eminently believable and well rounded, thus enabling us much more easily to identify with them and their plight(s).

On top of this, Slatter is also a master world-builder, but a very subtle one with it. The central conceit is that each of the stories is connected in some way to the story(ies) that have gone before – characters, places and events turn up or are reused in some way. The connections are fluid, however: several names turn up in different stories, for instance, but sometimes their link to the first instance is tenuous and yet the connection is most definitely there nonetheless. This fluidity creates a subtly strong weave that helps us build a picture of the world where the characters live their lives and have their being in. The language used to delineate and map it out it isn’t extraneous or richly detailed – it’s precise and economical, yet is highly effective for all that.

Despite the fact that it’s all set in a fairy-tale world, there is that about Slatter’s writing that ultimately connects it to the world we live in. These are real people, the kind of people we know ourselves: they’re just dressed up in the finery (or rags) of a world that’s just beyond this one. It just as surely reflects our reality as the original fairy-tales mirrored the times when Andersen and the Brothers Grimm collated the ones that have come down the years since. Slatter, then, isn’t so much reinventing these tales as realigning them, rearranging them in effect to better fit the 21st century and the collective sensibilities we hold today. The world has moved on considerably since the triumphalist days of Queen Victoria’s Glorious Empire (of which Slatter’s native Australia was a part), but those Victorian retellings haven’t: Slatter is merely fitting them around today’s values. Another Angela (Angela Carter), as Jeff VanDermeer points out in his afterword, started that whole process of updating, re-envisioning and restoring the fairy-tale to its rightful place in our richly-embroidered cultural tapestry, and with something of its original earthy power. Slatter has confidently taken up that gentle torch and illuminated her own path through what, in lesser hands, may be considered something of a minefield – and, in this reviewer’s opinion, long may she continue to do so.

‘The Winter Ghosts’ review

30 10 2010

[written by writer, reviewer and blogger, Liz de Jager]

Kate Mosse’s writing really does cross genres, managing to be both literary, beautiful, eerie and haunting.

In both her previous novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, there had been underlying hints of the paranormal/supernatural.  But what worked so well for me in these novels is how restrained these elements were – they were never in your face or over the top. And that, on a personal level, is something I could get behind.  Yes, there  is a place and time for in your face howling demons, but my type of ghost or horror story is a lot more subtle.

Ms. Mosse has subsequently given us The Winter Ghosts which is an expansion on her The Cave short story she wrote for Quick Reads and is therefore not a full sized novel but nevertheless a fully contained, albeit brief story.

Here then is the write-up:

From the bestselling author of LABYRINTH and SEPULCHRE – a compelling story of ghosts and remembrance. Illustrated throughout by Brian Gallagher. The Great War took much more than lives. It robbed a generation of friends, lovers and futures. In Freddie Watson’s case, it took his beloved brother and, at times, his peace of mind. In the winter of 1928, still seeking resolution, Freddie is travelling through the French Pyrenees. During a snowstorm, his car spins off the mountain road. He stumbles through woods, emerging in a tiny village. There he meets Fabrissa, a beautiful woman also mourning a lost generation. Over the course of one night, Fabrissa and Freddie share their stories. By the time dawn breaks, he will have stumbled across a tragic mystery that goes back through the centuries. By turns thrilling, poignant and haunting, this is a story of two lives touched by war and transformed by courage. THE WINTER GHOSTS is a gorgeous illustrated novel inspired by The Cave, Kate Mosse’s short story written for the Quick Reads Initiative for adult emergent readers.

Ms. Mosse’s skill lays in placing the reader within her setting, which is important in any kind of spooky/horror/genre novel. When Freddie meets Fabrissa and they settle in to talk about what has gone before, your campfire-gene immediately responds to that. You want somewhere warm and snug to sit quietly and listen to this conversation. Freddie is a deeply thoughtful and unhappy person, haunted by the loss of his brother and his own distancing of himself from friends and family. His isolation leaves him vulnerable and sensitive, allowing Freddie to unwittingly perhaps, pick up on the sensations of long past memories of death, war and destruction in this very old haunted area.

The setting of the winter fete in the old town of Nulle where Freddie and Fabrissa meet is finely detailed and redolent of those beautiful but stark mountain villages you see in old photographs. Wrapped in Cathar history, Fabrissa’s story leads Freddie to realise that maybe he’s not quite where he seems to be and that maybe he has travelled further than he intended to seek solace.

The Winter Ghosts is a beautifully written novel with rich characterisations that contrast with the eeriness of the settings and the stories told. It is not the usual in your face ghost story that we’ve become so inured to, but more a slow acclimatisation and an awakening of the senses, that something is just not right…if only you can figure it out, you just may make it.

Dancing with the Dead: Ghosts in “The Graveyard Book”

29 10 2010

[written by author, Louise Morgan]

That Neil Gaiman has written a book for children called The Graveyard Book should come as no surprise. His previous offerings for young readers have included a story which sees a young girl visit a parallel world where people have buttons for eyes (Coraline) and a book in which a family are driven from their home by rambunctious wolves (The Wolves In The Walls), so it’s fair to say that Gaiman is becoming a master of the mini-macabre.

The Graveyard Book opens at night, with a sleeping family–and their brutal murder at the hands of an all-too-real assailant. One of the family, however, escapes: the young son, barely even a toddler, who finds his way out of the house and through the dark to the nearby graveyard. And who should he find waiting for him but a cast of ghostly characters who will become his new family; who will protect, guide and teach him about the world–and more importantly, about life. After all, who knows more about living than someone who has already done all of theirs?

Gaiman was greatly influenced by The Jungle Book in writing this (even the title alludes to it) and, like the world Kipling created for Mowgli, little Bod (full name: Nobody Owens) is furnished with a wealth of friends and neighbours in his new home in the graveyard–from the homely and well-meaning ghosts of Mr and Mrs Owens who never had a child of their own and become his surrogate parents, to the tricky Liza Hempstock who only wants a gravestone of her own.

The mastery of The Graveyard Book is not in its plot, which follows Bod’s adventures at key points in his journey from infant to adult, nor in the sheer Gothic joy of the graveyard–but in the ghosts themselves. Gaiman knows full well that no two ghosts are the same, just as the people they once were differed. He infuses them with (ironically) life, and energy; wisdom and stubbornness, pity and pathos. Even from the comfort of the graveyard, the echoes of the world outside, the world of the living, seep inside the gates: on the night of Bod’s arrival, the sedate and settled ghosts of the cemetery contrast with the sudden appearance of the shocked ghost of Bod’s newly-dead mother as she appeals to the others to protect her son–a violent death begetting a violent-seeming apparition.

Bod is a boy between the two worlds, between the living and the dead, able to see (rather like Gaiman himself, perhaps) the things that others miss. And it is when the two worlds converge that The Graveyard Book really soars: with the “Macabray”, for instance, the Danse Macabre between the living and the dead–and at the centre of it all, the Lady on the Grey, sinister and smiling at once; one part Gaiman’s own Death of the Endless to one part Terry Pratchett’s mounted Grim Reaper mixed with something strange and new.

Not that being between the two worlds is easy, of course. Bod outgrows his first playmates, all of whom are stranded as children forever. Nor can it be straightforward trying to make friends in a world that you don’t perhaps fully understand–like school, as Bod discovers. While this could be true of a hundred, a thousand, other books about childhood, by invoking ghosts and spectres with which to people his narrative, Gaiman exaggerates the challenges of childhood and makes the real world, the adult world, the living world which must be negotiated even more alien to our hero.

There is, of course, much more to The Graveyard Book than just its ghosts. There are the humans who tumble in and out of Bod’s life; the deliciously awful ghouls who seek to carry him off; the creepy, whispering menace that lurks in the shadows and waits for its master; and Silas–the lonely figure who protects Bod from the corporeal dangers of the world.

With its graveyard that is all things to Bod: shelter, school, playground and battlefield, the message of the book is clear. Ghosts are not the enemy: the living have little to fear from the dead. The dead are dead, and as Silas tells Bod: “they are, for the most part, done with the world”. It is the living who pose the greatest threat to Bod as he grows: the man who killed his family, the school bullies, policemen, unscrupulous antiques dealers… the list goes on.

The Graveyard Book is, in so many ways, a love song to graveyards and their ghosts, separated from the living but not so different from them after all. Midway through the book, Bod is told: “You’re alive Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything.” and it is not the living who help him realise this, but the dead.

Through the graveyard–the Egyptian Walk and the unhallowed ground, the Owenses, the Lady on the Grey, the formidable Mother Slaughter and even Silas–through the dead, the ghosts, Gaiman asks us to consider what it really means to be alive… and then, simply, quietly, to go out and live.

‘Carnacki the Ghost Finder’

15 10 2010

[written by author, R. J. Barker]

As usual we had dined well with RJ and now it got to the real business of the evening – it was always done thus- with RJ holding court before the roaring fire and the three of us sat awaiting his pleasure.

‘I have been in touch with that Deniz fellow,’ he said amiably.

‘The Swede?’ asked Arkwright.

RJ shook his mane of curly hair.

‘No, Arkwright, Deniz is as English as you or I.  He is, I believe, from Lancashire: he merely lives in Sweden.’

‘Lancashire?’ humphed Arkwright, ‘well that’s nearly as bad if you ask me.’

‘What did Deniz want?’ I asked before Arkwright could make a scene.

‘Well,’ smiled the lugubrious RJ  tamping down a thumbful of Turkish tobacco into his pipe.  ‘It is more what I am to do for him, he is doing a series on ghost stories, you know.’

‘I did not,’ I told him though my heart sank as I realised what was sure to follow.

‘Well, he is,’ remarked RJ.  ‘And I thought I may do a little piece about William Hope Hodgeson.’

‘Really?’ said Arkwright, still spoiling for a fight.  ‘I have heard you be rather scathing about him, in fact, you have referred to ‘The Night Lands’ as unreadable tosh on more than one occasion.’

‘Well,’ RJ lit his pipe with the end of a burning stick from the fire.  ‘I have said that but I was young when I attempted to read it and may have been mistaken,’ he threw the stick back into the crackling fire.  ‘Besides, I think my dislike is partly down to the lack of Carnacki the Ghost Finder within the book and it is him I wish to talk about.

‘What a surprise,’ I remarked, settling in for the usual lecture. ‘At least, RJ, if nothing else, that explains this extraordinarily unfashionable framing device you have used.’

‘Indeed it does,’ said RJ, taking a  deep draw on his pipe, ‘indeed it does.’

It wasn’t really until I started my third go at writing this for Mark that I noticed what a massive influence the ‘Carnacki the Ghost Finder’ stories have had on me.  Reading these stories again in preparation to write this I realised how much they’ve affected my own (sporadic and often rather eccentric) fiction.

The odd framing devices, rambling starts and intrusive narration used by William Hope Hodgeson (WHH) are all things I love.  Probably rather too much and to my own detriment but there you go.  Also, that what I intended to be a quick essay about two particular stories in the series was going to turn into a rather rambling essay about, well, about all manner of things really.  But I hope you’ll forgive me and be at least nominally entertained by what I have to say.

And not be too appalled by the any ill thought-out rambling you may come across.

Amongst my friends whenever the subject comes up of ghost stories I mention the Carnacki the Ghost Finder shorts written by WHH and am invariably met with blank looks.  Which is a pity.  Had Hope-Hodgeson not been killed in World War One maybe he would be a household name and the Carnacki stories would have got the film, or at least television, serialisation they richly deserve.  As it is they seem almost forgotten. Forgotten by some they may be but they remain the only Ghost/Horror stories that have left me with the need to keep the lights on at night.  Particularly two stories; ‘The Hog,’ and ‘The Whistling Room.’

Every Carnacki story starts the same way:  A group of his friends are round for dinner and afterwards Carnacki regales them with his latest adventure. Now I suppose this would be met with  distaste by a modern editor.  (You have killed the tension, Mr Hope Hodgeson. Thank you but this isn’t for us.’)  But for me as a reader it’s not a problem. In fact I think it highlights one of the major differences between a horror story and a ghost story. Where a horror story is driven by peril (and in some cases buckets of guts being thrown around)  a ghost story, for me, derives its ability to cause fear from the peculiarity of the events within in and the atmosphere they create. And it’s in creating this atmosphere of the uncanny that Hope-Hodgeson excels.

For me, there is something about the fifty or so years leading up WWII that produced some of the best ghost stories ever written and the list of authors working then will probably be touched on by more informed minds than my own. I wondered whether it’s because these are the final years where the occult and the sciences were able to lie in the same bed. Alistair Crowley was taken (somewhat) seriously and spiritualism was on the rise. Also, the advent of Electricity had brought on a massive influx of new ideas and possibilities

It may also be that the Carnacki stories were read during the final times in my own youth where I was able to take such ideas seriously and it may be that is what resonates so strongly within me. Carnacki’s enthusiasm is a mirror for the years my Occam’s Razor was rather more blunt than it is now.

There are definite parallels to be made between the Carnacki shorts and H.P. Lovecraft’s work.  Both contain their own mythos and are wont to reference arcane matters which are never fully explained. But where Lovecraft’s world is one of overt pessimism Hope-Hodgeson’s is far more optimistic. Carnicki himself is an affable character and very much the stereotype British gentleman-adventurer. He is also motivated not only by a healthy scientific curiosity but by a genuine compulsion to help those afflicted. In fact, if you had accidentally read from the Necronomicon then Carnacki is probably just the chap you want in your corner.

Now, I have dithered and avoided talking about the stories themselves. For good reason. If you haven’t read these stories I don’t want to ruin them for you. I want you to read them. You should. Even if it’s for no other reason than to read about Carnacki putting his Electric Neon Pentacle[1] to use. The stories themselves are simple. In ‘The Whistling Room’ Carnacki spends the night in a haunted room. In ‘The Hog’ Carnacki attempts to help a man suffering from nightmares. In both cases the author takes a simple set up and creates a juggernaut of disquiet[2]. The central images conjured up in both stories are, for me, terrifying and I defy anyone to walk away from ‘The Hog’ without the image left when Carnacki conjures the beast indelibly tattooed onto their minds.

You can read both stories for free HERE [3] but reading from a screen is not the best way to enjoy them.  I suggest you get hold of a book. Settle down into a comfy chair before a roaring fire. Then make a cup of tea and read by the light of one lamp.

Now, I apologise for rambling on but I must go.  One of my Guests has fallen asleep and Arkwright is trying to break into the Tantalus and get at the good brandy. Good night and may the Malignant Monstrosities of the Outer Circle never disturb your sleep.

[1]How cool is that?  Really cool is the answer.  I’ve also managed to make it sound like a double entendre which wasn’t my intention at all.

[2]Not actually sure that’s possible.

[3]Spooky fact.  The Carnacki stories originally appeared in a magazine called ‘The Idler’.  I am from a village called ‘Idle’ and according to my wife I also am.  Yeah.  I know.  Scary co-incidence.

[Join us later today for Aaron Polson’s review of Ghostbusters]

‘The Shining’ review

12 10 2010

[written by author, Kaaron Warren]

Ghosts have always scared me more than vampires or werewolves or even the guy I used to go to school with who had a pocket full of very small dolls.

Ghosts have intent. Purpose. They are there for a reason and they know more than you do about what comes next, what happens when you die.

They’ve seen it and they didn’t stay there.

So I love a good ghost story, and The Shining is one of the best. I talk about the first night I saw it, here at Temple Library Reviews.

It opens happily, with a fresh start  for the Torrance family, driving through the mountains to a new job for Jack. All seems fine. Then we hear about the Donner party, who became cannibals. “They had to, in order to survive,” Jack says with barely concealed glee. So we see already that he likes to scare his kid, that he takes a sort of pleasure in it. This is the first ghost; this hint that all is not right.

We begin the tour of the hotel, and meet Dick Hallorann. He and Danny (who talks to his finger) bond quickly. Hallorann talks to Danny about the smell of toast, how it leaves an echo. I love the way Scatman Crothers pronounces toast, whistling his s, leaving off the last t. The smell of toasssss and there is the ghost of that word left in the air, giving us time to think about the smell of toast, how it makes you think of the person who made it and is no longer in the kitchen.

Hallorann tells Danny about the ghosts in the hotel, who hang around like toast. The smell of them, the hint of them. Stories to be told. And we soon come to know the sort of person attracted to the place. These people have much in their pasts. They’ve stolen and raped, they’ve killed. They are in a club I don’t want to belong to.

There’s Grady; so evil, so restrained. I’ve heard that Kubrick based the twin girls on the Diane Arbus photograph “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

There are the ghosts in the bar, lost souls. I’ve been in bars like that at three in the morning, and you think you’re having a good time, then you find yourself arguing with the bartender about how much vodka is in your glass, and you turn around and there are pale empty faces in the room, sitting in groups but all of them alone. The bar in The Overlook is like that, all of them laughing, heads thrown back this is hilarious, darling, so funny, yet inside I’m dying. I’m already dead and I know I am yet I’m trapped in this hell of shallow.

The Overlook Hotel is full of peripheral ghosts. We only glimpse them, but every one has  a story, a tragedy of some kind. All of them as awful Jack’s story or the twins murdered by their father or the woman in room 237. That woman, left to die alone in the bath; you think, what was her life? How sad was she?

The Hotel is full of photographs, and the photographs are full of ghosts. They say, “Look at what was. What could have been. What no longer is.”

I had to read the book to figure out what the photographs meant. This was how I discovered Stephen King. I saw the movie, I read the book, I was hooked. The Shining novel scared me more than any other book has, because to me it says, “There are ghosts everywhere. You can’t see them, but they’re watching. And they’re whispering in your lover’s ear to hurt you. They’re whispering in a stranger’s ear, in your mother’s ear. They’ll whisper in your ear, too.”

‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Innocents’

6 10 2010

[written by writer and editor (and Ghost Appreciation Month team member), KV Taylor]

Right, to expand on the themes introduced in that review of The Innocents

The biggest and most important difference between book and film, to my mind, is the governess herself. I have to admit my bias, though I mentioned it before–I believe that Henry James was singularly interested in showing the effects of his society’s demands on the psyche, and in particular the way it stereotyped and repressed what it called feminine.* I’m definitely not claiming this as original scholarship, books and books have been written on the subject, but I am saying it** colors my reading of The Turn of the Screw.

In his novella, James casts doubt on his nameless governess’s reason right from the meeting with the careless uncle; she makes excuses for him, protests much too loudly that he has done everything for the children–and then James shows us how wrong she is repeatedly. He is the master of the unreliable narrator. (The movie is much more forthright; the uncle unabashedly selfish, if still way too charming.) The pattern continues throughout–the astounding leaps in logic she makes in only the last 1/3 of the movie exist from the very beginning of the book. She imagines hearing things–unrelated things!–in the house long before she ever sees a ghost. When she finally does see one, it’s while she’s taking a walk, obsessing about her charming employer and how she’s so glad and proud and lucky to make him happy by never speaking to him; she sees the specter, thinks it’s him at first, and then it’s not.

That’s when things go downhill. She perpetually attributes her paranormal suspicions to intuition and inane “certitudes” in the manner of stereotypical Victorian women in a Sherlock Holmes mystery who “just know” their fiancé has had something dreadful happen to him. (My husband and I laugh about this all the time–there’s a particular Holmes mystery in which the woman says they have “a deep bond of sympathy” that ties them emotionally. I put that exact phrase into “The Horologist” to make him laugh, I kid you not.) Except that James, as usual, presents this with extreme sympathy.

Apart from our governess’s self-professed preoccupations with fantasy and her absent and careless employer, her alternating obsessive beliefs that Miles is angelic and that he must’ve done something horrible, her adoration of the children and desire to be adored in return, the governess is also out of her depth and knows it. The children entertain themselves and are noticeably more well-educated than she–they are polite, sweet-tempered, and obviously tolerating her out of affection more than respect or need. Her only other companion is Mrs. Grose, who is a different animal in the book: her lack of education and station make her far, far more malleable to the hysterical governess’s will and whim, and said governess takes full advantage of that–with a lot less scruple than her little charges show toward her. Mrs. Grose is also saddled very clearly by her own guilt at letting the children be badly treated by Quint and Jessel; it colors her character from the beginning.

And where in the film we see some things that might be construed as evidence of paranormal influence–Miles’s expulsion coming from words he claims just “came into his head” out of nowhere, Flora’s magically quick rowing to the other side of the lake, implied abilities to make wind blow, candles go out, or otherwise perform nerve-shaking parlor tricks–there are none in the novella. All of the children’s behavior is completely explained by their upbringing, precocity, and the strong implications that they were not only influenced, but abused by their last guardians. The events that set the governess off in the book would be easily dismissed by someone with a little more education and experience, or even just sense, and her logic is even more fallacious than in the film–Mrs. Grose’s going along with them only reinforces that idea.

The lone proof that can’t be refuted is that, in the novella, the governess describes Quint and Jessel’s specters perfectly enough that Mrs. Grose recognizes the descriptions and–though she has not shown any evidence of suspecting anything paranormal is going on previously–names them as the source of the governess’s visions. In the film we see the picture of Quint in the attic before his face becomes evident in her visions; oddly, then, the film turns the one piece of supposed evidence*** for the existence of the ghosts in the book on its head and uses it against that particular theory.

Maybe I just don’t want there to be ghosts because it’s a lot scarier if she’s really just going completely mad and dragging us with her–or because, as I said in that last post, the literary accomplishment seems dulled by it, and I like Henry James. Either way, it’s also much more strongly implied that the governess was directly responsible for Miles’s death. The final scene is similar and yet not… but it’s fair to say that for all these differences, in spirit and impact, the film and book stand up to each other. Favorites can only be decided by subjective means. Kind of like question of the existence of the ghosts, really.

And did I mention yet that I need a drink? Because my god, what a depressing story.

* Daisy Miller is misunderstood in her simplicity, to the eternal sadness of the narrator, in the end. The Jeffrey Aspern Papers are held by a widow and her tragic spinster daughter, forced by society into a position where they can be shamelessly manipulated by the rather awful “hero”. Portrait of a Lady is about a woman who had rather be safe from her own passions than live a free life for which she is in all ways equipped–and it is, as any other character in the book would tell you, a complete waste. It’s always a waste, when James writes it, though he never has to come out and say it. He’s just that good.

**That and the fact that his brother was William James. I mean, come on.

***”Supposed” because, as James has taken such pains to show us, she is as unreliable as unreliable narrators come, and these are her words we’re reading, by that time. Again, these aren’t my theories, wikipedia even has a little section on the war over whether or not this is a ghost story here .

[Tomorrow Sharon Kae Reamer, has a little look at The Haunting of Hill House.]

‘Wine and Rank Poison’ by Allyson Bird

4 10 2010

'Wine and Rank Poison' by Allyson Bird, 164pp, Dark Regions Press, ISBN: 978-1-888993-89-9, $16.95 tpk

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

There are good ideas aplenty in this second collection of stories from Miss Bird (following on the heels of last year’s Bull Running for Girls). Tales of revenge enacted for wrongs committed are always guaranteed to have an audience, and this theme forms the core of all ten stories in this volume. In a little twist, there are references in each story to the one before, connecting each one in a loose kind of way. However, for me this collection was very much a book of two halves, and here’s why.

I found the stories in the first part of the collection hard to grapple with; unfocused, slightly scattershot and somewhat confusing in some instances. Take, for instance, Beauty and the Beast, a tale involving Cleopatra waking up to find herself marooned on an island, after her ship founders. On an exploration of said island she comes across the embodiments of ancient Greek archetypes, who lead her into a dreamlike subterranean palace (shades of the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries, perhaps?), where she meets Pan and other creatures out of legend. Yes, there’s a hazy, insubstantial gauziness to the tale, but the ending wrenches you out of the dreamworld with the words “Then the dream changed and she saw that her empire was free of the plague, beautiful pyramids adorned the Cheshire plains and golden cities sparkled in the evening sunset”. That absolutely threw me. The excerpt from her debut novel, Isis Unbound, at the end of the book goes some way in explaining what’s going on – in isolation, however, it’s massively jolting.

Then, I was confused by one particular story – The Convent at Bazzano. The reason why the caretaker’s boys are followed by a shadow-pair is only partially explained – the very last sentence, however, confounded me completely and only left me wondering where it came from. Likewise, one or two other stories felt rushed, and the endings just appeared too suddenly (The Black Swan of Odessa and Atalanta spring to mind here). I reluctantly have to admit I felt a mite disappointed with one or two stories: the build-ups were good, but then everything just kind of deflated very quickly at the end and left me feeling bewildered.

I think part of the problem is to do with the short fiction form. Allyson’s ideas are there certainly, but I never felt that they worked up sufficient space or rhythm to enable her to tell the story properly. Compared to the novel excerpt at the end, where presumably she has allowed herself room to expand on her ideas and themes, the short stories just appear unfocused and staccato. The language is broken up into short sentences, which denied the stories a chance to flow naturally and fluently. Six of the stories here all fitted within ten pages each; the impression I got was that this was a deliberate restriction. For my part, I would much rather have seen fewer, fuller stories, where Allyson’s imagination could have been allowed more freedom in which to roam. To my mind that would have felt more satisfying.

It’s not all doom and gloom however; there are some great stories in here too, in particular Vulkodlak (a take on werewolves and much-deserved revenge), The Legacy (a truly horrific story, where the disjointed nature of the tale is served well by the narrative structure), The Last Supper (a claustrophobic riff on what happens after a family funeral brings up the grief-stricken past, as well as unearthing buried secrets in the process), Coney Island Green (a strange, macabrely sad fairytale-like outing) and, the highlight of the book, For You, Faustine (in some ways a continuation of the Coney Island Green theme). In each of these five tales, the themes are stripped back and laid out directly, exposed to the scrutiny of all. Simple, understandable motivations, with simple, equally understandable results run through each of the five – nothing complicated or obscuring, things we can all relate to.

For what it’s worth, then, here’s my overall take on the collection. The ideas, like I said above, are definitely there; I have no doubt about that and you can feel them wanting to burst through. What let some of the stories down was the way in which they were told. Allyson needs, I think, to step back and let the stories tell themselves, at their own pace and in their own time (granted many of the stories originally appeared in magazines and anthologies, so I get the space restriction thing). I also have a feeling that an outside editor would have been very useful here – I got the distinct feeling that Allyson knew what was happening, but that didn’t necessarily get telegraphed to the reader. The prose, I felt, needed to be tighter and more precise.

Don’t think for one minute that I consider Allyson Bird a bad writer: I don’t. I feel she just needs to take her time (and yes, I am also aware that Miss Bird was writing the Isis Unbound novel [which I am very much looking forward to reading] AND editing the Never Again anthology while this was being put together). I just found it a pity that, with this being my first experience of her writing, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting – however, I would rather be honest than otherwise.

‘The Beautiful Room’ by RB Russell

21 09 2010

'The Beautiful Room' by RB Russell, 12pp, Nightjar Press, ISBN: 978-1-907341-04-5, £3.00

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

As in my previous review (of Mark Valentine’s A Revelation of Cormorants, also from Nightjar Press), this eight-page story is a masterpiece of understated and compact tale-weaving. Superficially, it’s about a dream becoming a nightmare, but there are layers and subtexts here that add up to a dissertation on the complex interactions implicit in any relationship – and being able to negotiate those complexities fluently (or otherwise) can either make or break that relationship.

It all starts innocently enough. A couple, John and Maria, are out property-hunting, and have found a beautiful room suffused with light filtered through muslin curtains. Maria wants to take the room, situated in a house in the country; John prefers the flat in the city. Naturally, in as fraught a pursuit as looking for somewhere to live, nerves get frayed and an argument bubbles up. Soon, however, the pair are distracted by scufflings and scrabblings coming from within the walls. Maria wants to rescue the birds she feels are trapped within the walls; John just wants to get out and get back to the city. It is at this point that the tensions, and the noise, are ramped up in volume.

A simple premise, but nothing more than a mask disguising some complex emotions and relationship dynamics. The tensions were already there to start with, of course: tiny hints are dropped that this is a way of life for the couple, that unresolved and simmering conflicts lie just below the surface. Here, at this intersection of time, the room and the events act as both a focal point and as a pivotal moment: choices need to be made, either through accident or by design.

The moment the birds start flapping about inside the walls is the moment when the fuse has been lit. Maria desperately wants to rescue the birds she thinks are there (and which can be seen as being symbolic of the relationship itself) but John is reluctant; in other words, John just wants things left to work themselves out whilst Maria wants to actively tackle the problems. In fact, one gets the feeling that John’s instinct is to run away and ignore the underlying problems. However, the noise multiplies as soon as John does try to help and the static between the two increases (in the form of an increase in noise and activity from the birds), in effect blocking (or at least garbling) communication between the two. The noise of the flapping increases to such a level that neither can hear the other and a point of no return has been reached, signalling that neither is prepared to listen to the other. Additionally, even when the pair separately yell out the window for help when their only exit gets stuck, there’s no-one out there to respond. The issues have to be faced and resolved by them, and them alone.

Revealing any more would spoil this beautiful story for any potential reader, but suffice to say that the ending is somehow inevitable. Russell has a deft, airy touch and the tale starts lightly and brightly; this is a young couple, forging ahead career-wise and grabbing every opportunity presented. It comes as something of a surprise, then, when we learn that a subtle darkness exists between them, a darkness that doesn’t need much to overwhelm and drive the pair apart. John is an angry and somewhat selfish man, pointing out that he expects Maria to support him in his new job and all that the move to the new country entails, and to put aside her needs and wants in the process. There is also the hint that the city represents order and security to his mind. Conversely, Maria is much more in tune with the freedom and spaciousness that the rural life symbolises – once more we are reminded that divisions, apparently irreparable ones, eat away at the heart of the relationship. Those divisions are only emphasised by the pandemonium created by the birds, both when trapped within the walls and when John eventually releases them. And, like I said, that situation only has only one ending.

The best writing works on many levels simultaneously, as The Beautiful Room does. As brightly as the story starts, it doesn’t take long for the rot at the core of John and Maria’s relationship to make itself known, albeit unfolding subtly and very gradually. And even when the chaos starts we’re not entirely sure whether the tensions are just the result of the present situation. However, it isn’t long before the reader realises that here is something a lot deeper than just two lovers having a disagreement – it becomes obvious that there’s something fundamentally fractured (and fracturing) between them. And that perhaps the widening chasm that has steadily been growing in their relationship has got to the point of being too big to be bridged.

But the thing that strikes most of all is Russell’s writing. It isn’t direct, in the way some writers are, but is oblique, effectively masking (in the case of this particular story) the deeper undercurrents that bubble just underneath the illusorily calm surface, which are only revealed very gradually and piecemeal. With a few deft strokes of the pen, Russell opens up the festering wounds that exist between John and Maria but without ever losing that lightness. It’s that sharp contrast that helps to underscore the horror of the situation, both in the pandemonium instigated by the birds and the state of the relations between the couple. We ARE horrified, once we realise just what is going on, that they have let things get this far without attempting anything like a form of reconciliation. However, learning about John also, paradoxically, leaves us with hope that maybe Maria will find her own path, and be allowed to soar on her own terms.

What more can I say? Simply that, in my opinion, this is a stunning little story, simply and understatedly, as well as artfully, told. I find myself wishing that I’d heard about these little Nightjar Press chapbook gems a lot earlier – admittedly they haven’t been around for very long, so far only releasing four others (Michael Marshall-Smith’s What Happens When you Wake up in the Night (which won a BfS Award this last weekend), Tom Fletcher’s The Safe Children, Alison Moore’s When the Door Closed, it Was Dark and Joel Lane’s Black Country – watch out for reviews of the last two very soon) and all issued in the same format and in signed limited editions of just 200. More importantly, it bodes extremely well for the future of genre writing in the UK, as well as the health of the independent presses. At just £3.00 apiece, this represents a very high quality bargain – and I would venture to say that you should miss them (and future releases) at your peril. So what are you waiting for?

‘A Revelation of Cormorants’ by Mark Valentine

21 09 2010

'A Revelation of Cormorants' by Mark Valentine, 16pp, Nightjar Press, ISBN: 978-1-907341-05-2, £3.00

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Fiction in the short form, in the mainstream at least, has of recent times seen very lean returns – a state of affairs that this reviewer finds somewhat of a mystery. Apparently, according to the big publishing houses, short story collections just aren’t profitable: novels are the thing. However, there’s one area where the short form is very much alive and kicking, and which is where I rediscovered my love of this type of fiction – the independent press. Presses such as Ash-Tree, PS Publishing, and Gray Friar, to name just a few, regularly put out quality books of collections and anthologies, by writers who understand the inherent advantage of the shorter story over the novel. Telling a tale in less than 5000 words, for instance, takes skill and art; unnecessary fluffing out is completely anathema and compactness is absolutely paramount.

Manchester’s Nightjar Press specialises in publishing short stories, but in an even more condensed and concise form still – the chapbook. Nicholas Royle and John Oakey, publisher and designer at Nightjar respectively, issue superb quality, single story pamphlets (for want of a better word), and amounting to less than 20 pages in length. This is my first encounter with their books, and I have to say I am highly impressed.

Mystery and a hidden yearning are at the heart of Mark Valentine’s A Revelation of Cormorants, one of the latest Nightjar releases. William Utter has isolated himself in Galloway, after being commissioned to compile a book of pithy and apposite quotations concerning the myths, legends and literature surrounding the native birds of Britain. Indeed, the very place where he has sequestered himself, in a little whitewashed cottage on the coast, is itself haunted by those most inscrutable of sea-birds, cormorants. While engaged in his (faux) literary endeavours, he decides to head off to the shore to watch the sea-birds in their natural environment, at the suggestion of the cottage’s caretaker.

It may only be a short tale, but even within its eleven pages of story there are meditations on time and nature, and how the cormorants themselves appear to embody the deeper mysteries to be found there and in nature itself. It’s a journey of discovery, of revelation at the very point of crisis, and along the way explores the relationships between natural, geologic timelessness and the finite culture of mankind (as represented through the written word, spanning the lost scripts of ancient civilisations, and right on up to his own collating of the quotes of literary worthies). The tale itself is timeless, its only grounding being the location, and even then there’s no specificity as to where the action is unfurling. Neither do you get any sense of when it all takes place, although, for whatever reason, I kept imagining sometime from early to mid-twentieth century, mainly I think because there was a certain hint of an archaic timelessness threading itself through the language (entirely in keeping with the nature of the story). The tension between the meditations on the time that nature experiences and the timelessness of the story drives it along.

The language of the story is full of references to birds and flight, a symbol perhaps of an unacknowledged yearning to be free. Utter is a compiler, not a writer; a gatherer-together of other people’s insights. That’s a restriction right there; maybe there’s a part of him that wishes otherwise. Going to watch the cormorants dipping and diving over the sea is almost a declaration of independence from the confines of the cottage. It’s that action that marks the beginning of the journey for our erstwhile compiler/narrator, in both a physical and metaphysical sense. There are also constant allusions to the written word (not surprising, given Utter’s chosen profession), tied in to concepts of both the unimaginably long epochs of geological timescales and the relatively shorter ones of mankind’s impact on the world. A deeper thread runs through even this: the idea that nature is itself still an inscrutable mystery despite all our investigation of the world and its phenomena. The cormorant itself is symbolic of that; its black feathers concealing a malachite green tint on its body covering (only seen in certain lights), and its eyes being deeply and unreadably black, almost void-like. Perhaps, then, it’s only at the end, when the narrator is facing death and danger, that the mystery allows itself to be unfolded.

All this exploration of deep themes and ideas, crammed into just eleven pages of tale. THAT’S the art of the short story writer. Mark Valentine manages to condense quite broad and, in some ways, complex, concepts in just that space. Moreover, these are exposited as subtle subtexts, rather than overt ruminations. The ideas contained herein tickle the mind as you’re reading it and automatically trip convoys of thoughts. It almost invites the reader to meditate on what’s been written. There’s no dense questioning, just finely-wrought prose.

This, in other words, is writing of the highest order and all wrapped in a beautifully designed and executed production.

‘Never Again’ edited by Joel Lane and Allyson Bird

20 09 2010

'Never Again' edited by Allyson Bird & Joel Lane, 294pp, Gray Friar Press, ISBN: 978-1-906331-18-4, £10.00UK/$18.00US

Reviewed by Peter G. Bell

I tend to be cautious when it comes to stories with a cause. Not that they can’t be brilliant – To Kill A Mockingbird, The Colour Purple and A Clockwork Orange spring instantly to mind – but writers too readily trip themselves up by focussing on their message, rather than the means by which that message is conveyed. Without due care and attention, the writer simply creates a soapbox from which to preach an agenda. At best, such tales are little more than sermons for the converted. At their worst, they come across as smug and self-congratulatory. So it was with mixed feelings that I approached Never Again, the new anthology of short fiction from Gray Friar Press.

The book describes itself as “an attempt to voice the collective revulsion of writers in the weird fiction genre against political attitudes that stifle compassion and deny our collective human inheritance.” In more concrete terms, it gathers together stories with anti-fascist and anti-racist themes. While this is certainly a worthy cause, the lengthy introduction probably overstates its case a little; can there be many writers (or readers) of fantastic fiction who support fascism and racism? There must be, somewhere, although they’re surely in the minority.

But what of the stories themselves? Editors Joel Lane and Allyson Bird have succeeded in compiling an extremely strong list of talent; any anthology that includes work by such figures as Joe R. Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Volk, Gary McMahon and Rob Shearman is not to be sniffed at.

Unsurprisingly, many of the tales draw on the Holocaust for inspiration, choosing to present fascism in its most overt and organised form. There are a couple of stand-out stories in this category: Nina Allan’s Feet of Clay provides a subtle and haunting opening to the book. Matt Joiner’s South of Autumn takes the unexpected step of weaving folkloric fantasy through the familiar tropes of barbed wire, tattoos and gas chambers, resulting in a satisfying blend of the romantic and melancholic.

Others are less successful. Volk, by rj krijnen-kemp, succeeds in building an oppressive atmosphere but left me confused and searching for any real meaning in its structure. And Lisa Tuttle’s In the Arcade starts promisingly but feels too hurried, never quite giving its engaging central character enough room to breathe.

The anthology spreads its wings as it progresses, encompassing more liberal interpretations of the central themes. Consequently, we’re treated to the wry bizarro fiction of Rediffusion by Rhys Hughes, who has obviously had a run-in with the TV Licensing Authority at some point in the not too distant past.  Alison Littlewood’s In On the Tide is a powerful, sometimes uncomfortable demonstration of the deep hurt that casual racism and the thoughtless inaction of those in a position to help, can cause. And Simon Kurt Unsworth manages to create one of the most profoundly discomforting stories I’ve ever read, without leaving the confines of a modern British café, in A Place for Feeding, my pick of the bunch.

But what good is raising awareness if it doesn’t lead to action? On this front, Never Again puts its money where its mouth is, with profits going to a trio of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. The book also contains contact details for a diverse number of anti-fascist and human rights groups, allowing readers to take the next step under their own steam.

While a few tales do fall into the trap of letting the story serve the theme, and although I would have enjoyed just a little more variety in tone and setting, Never Again is a thoughtful reflection on one of the world’s most enduring social spectres. Its most affecting stories are those that move beyond the idea of fascism as an external force imposed on us by others, and focus instead on the grubbier aspects of human nature that, when left unchecked, give rise to oppression, fear and hatred.

It has made me realise how lucky I am to live in the time and place that I do. And that, I think, can be counted a success.