Filler content from down the swan river

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #37:-


THE SEA CHANGE & OTHER STORIES (The Swan River Press hardback, 144pp, £30) is the first collection of short stories by award winning novelist Helen Grant. Meticulously written and with carefully calculated chills, but with nothing of grossness or the modern penchant for gore, the stories contained in this slim, elegant volume owe much to the influence of M. R. James in mood and approach to supernatural fiction, and indeed at least two of them were directly inspired by his oeuvre.

A case in point, opening story ‘Grauer Hans’, an eerie and understated account of childhood encounters with the bogeyman and how as an adult the narrator must return to confront the thing that so beguiled and terrified her as a child, with a local legend given a compelling twist. Offering a conflation of urban myth and the phenomenon of the imaginary friend, this is a tale in which our perspective is at odds with that of the protagonist; what seems amiable enough to her childhood sensibility is wholly minatory to the reader, so that we fear for her, and yet Grant offers little by way of comfort when the nature of the threat finally becomes clear, instead introducing a cycle of terror that is set to be repeated without end. Title story ‘The Sea Change’ is told from the viewpoint of the friend and colleague of a diver who discovers what appears to be an ancient wreck unearthed by changes in the current and becomes obsessed with it. But what we are dealing with in this slow burn tale is a truly alien menace, one made all the more effective by the writer’s reticence in describing it, wisely leaving the reader’s mind to fill in the gaps, only to finally pin us down with a scene of corporeal dissolution as chilling and repellent as any to be found in the work of Machen and Chambers once we have been lulled into this false sense of security.

Picking up on an unfinished story by James, ‘The Game of Bear’ captures perfectly the feel and tone of its source material, as one gentleman unfolds to another the story of why a children’s game disturbs him and the curse that befell Henry Purdue, a grim and unsettling account of spectral revenge that does the master proud. The shortest story in the book, ‘Self Catering’ introduces a humorous note as an overly fussy man seeks a holiday in a haunted house only to have his requirements met in a rather novel manner, the tale replete with literary references that add vim to a narrative that makes up for what it lacks in credibility with an adroit and deliciously tongue in cheek telling. ‘Nathair Dhubh’ reads like a Welsh version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, two young men scaling the eponymous peak with unlooked for consequences. Not so much story as an account of unusual events, the kind of thing Charles Fort would have appreciated had it been ‘real’, it’s a narrative that is shot through with a sense of the numinous, an awareness that reality holds untold and unimagined potential to mess with the lives of we mortals, that in the end there is only mystery.

James is an inspiration again with ‘Alberic de Mauléon’, which gives us the back story to the creation of a certain canon’s scrap-book, an ingenious tale of two brothers and the sibling rivalry that led to a horrific fate for one of them, or a gratifying comeuppance if you’re not feeling especially charitable. Finally we have ‘The Calvary at Banská Bystrica’, in which a man tells of his journey to Slovakia in search of a missing brother, and finds subtle hints that Robert had got lost in time as well as geography, the story unsettling and made all the more effective for what is not shown to the reader, a subtle evocation of spectral grace notes. Rounding out the collection are some ‘Story Notes’, with Grant detailing the history of her tales and explaining the ideas behind them, a fascinating codicil to a strong collection of supernatural fare from an assured writer, one who takes familiar material and tropes, making them her own.

John Howard’s WRITTEN BY DAYLIGHT (The Swan River Press hardback, 170pp, £30) casts its net a little wider, stories of an unabashedly genre provenance rubbing elbows with work that is slightly more experimental in nature, tales in which a sense of existential dislocation stands in lieu of more obvious supernatural mechanisms. If the restless spirit of M. R. James ruffled the pages of Grant’s book, then for Howard the ghost in the machine is of a more Borgesian complexion, the mood changing as the volume progresses, the comforts of haunt and home merging with some terra incognito of the writer’s psyche.

In opening story ‘“Where Once I Did My Love Beguile”’ a young man’s friendship with an older one leads to an attempt to alter the past and travel in time, with some eerie caves at the centre of this gentle, intriguing piece, one in which belief can alter reality, though not always in the way we imagine, the final twist pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet. ‘Westenstrand’ is an island whose shape and very existence is dependent on the whims of the sea, and with a story set in the Germany of the 1930s and against the rise of National Socialism the topography of the tale mirrors the shifts in a relationship between two lovers, Howard demonstrating the uncertainty of both our feelings towards each other and the ground beneath our feet.

Beautifully written and observed, ‘Silver on Green’ is the story of political exile Miklos, the temptations laid before him and how he managed to evade them, the undercurrent of ambiguity leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions regarding issues of morality and pragmatism, the snares of realpolitik sidestepped by a higher concern. Forgotten composer William Winter is the subject of ‘Winter’s Traces’, a journalist piecing together the tale of how he came to write no more work in a compelling story that celebrates a past age of elegance and more innocent way of life. A tourist finds his way to an isolated group of islands in the enigmatic ‘Out to Sea’, with strong hints of the ineffable in the leisurely narrative, culminating in a vision of acceptance and being accepted.

The relationship between inner and outer worlds is investigated in ‘Time and the City’, with Kayler an explorer in time visiting a metropolis of the far future/distant past and reporting back on what he witnesses, but there is also the suggestion that he creates the thing he describes by observing it, that the City is contained within him, coded into the DNA of mankind. In ways the story brings to mind the cyclopean cities of Lovecraft’s oeuvre, but with a subtext that renders their threat to our sanity more existential in nature than the Rhode Island bard allowed. We are the monsters in the maze, the Elder Gods and Great Old Ones of our own devising. From a cosmic perspective to the wholly mundane in ‘The Way of the Sun’, with a man travelling abroad in search of much needed respite from the world of hustle and bustle, but like Kayler in the previous story, James carries the ‘disease’ inside him, and he cannot achieve his aim until he accepts that he must first escape himself, in which he is hindered by the attentions of helpful/interfering compatriots.

In ‘The High Places’ a man discusses the career of his friend the wartime artist Averill Turner, giving us a fascinating insight into the mind of a creative person and its response to a time of national catastrophe, but peeping out through the bars of the narrative is the possibility that by drawing various buildings Turner was able to save them from destruction. Art is considered as an act of sympathetic magic, given a ‘purpose’ of sorts, with a wry and delightfully ironic twist at the end of the story. The protagonist of ‘Wandering Paths’ is trying to reconnect with his lost love, but he comes adrift in reality as he searches obsessively for a path that will take him to where he wishes to be.

Power politics and diplomacy intertwine in ‘A Gift for the Emperor’, as two Prussian aristocrats try to figure out the implications of a gift from their emperor, what it means and what is required of them in response, the whole hinting at a backdrop of secret history, of momentous events set in train by the slightest movement. And finally we have ‘Into an Empire’, in which a numismatist appears to alter reality by varying his postal ritual, so that coins from a lost empire find their way to his door in a story which is shot through with sympathetic magic and, like several of these works, addresses the links between our inner worlds and those in which the machines of flesh we call our bodies manoeuvre and have their being.

Before closing a word about the books themselves seems in order. Each is produced in an edition of 400 copies with full colour dust jackets, and they are among the most attractive volumes to come to me for review, the care that has gone into their making and design self-evident. Publisher Brian J. Showers has served his authors magnificently.

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Song for a Saturday – Should I Stay Or Should I Go

Today’s tune is dedicated to any Scottish readers of this blog:-

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Filler content with filthy h2o

This review originally appeared in The Third Alternative #41:-


Vertical hb, 281pp, $21.95                                          

Suzuki is being hailed as Japan’s answer to Stephen King, but here in the west he is best known for the novel upon which classic Horror film Ring was based. This collection of seven stories, constructed around the idea of an elderly woman who tells her granddaughter stories inspired by the objects they find washed up on the beach and with the stories linked by water, is named after another film made from his work.

Opening story ‘Floating Water’ is a fine example of Suzuki’s talent and probably the best of what’s on offer here. When a woman and her daughter move into an apartment block the girl makes an invisible friend, but as her mother explores the history of the building and learns of the tragedy that took place there several years before events take a more sinister turn. This is a classic ghost story in the mould of M R James, playing out in a modern urban landscape and, while the resolution is telegraphed, Suzuki doesn’t put a foot wrong in telling, with all the clues deftly inserted and a growing sense of menace that holds the reader’s attention. ‘Solitary Isle’ has a more modern feel to it, as a man gets the chance to visit Battery No.6, an abandoned military post in the middle of Tokyo harbour, and discover for himself the truth of a tale told him long ago by a now dead friend. The story cleverly blends the past with the present and offers ambiguity in its resolution, with hints of both terrible abuse and heavenly transformation, leaving the reader to decide which scenario holds more water. ‘The Hold’ while still very well written is a bit more routine, the story of a man who cannot remember what has happened to his missing wife, followed by her revenge from beyond the grave, the grotesqueness of the closing scenes not really overcoming the burden of a plot most will have seen many times before.

‘Dream Cruise’ is almost surreal in the menace it presents to the reader as a yacht cruising in peaceful waters encounters an inexplicable obstruction, with the story’s strength lying in the antagonism between the three people on board the yacht and dialogue packed with subtle hints of greed for material things and a terrible price that has to be paid. Another strong story, this time with echoes of Hodgson, ‘Adrift’ begins with the discovery of an abandoned luxury yacht at sea and ends with the fate of the sailor who volunteers to pilot the vessel, learning to his cost what happened to the original crew. The atmosphere and sheer emptiness of the sea, its indifference to those who float upon its surface, is powerfully conveyed in this story, with the traditions and superstitious nature of sailors put to deft use in fleshing out the tale’s backdrop. ‘Watercolors’ is an ambitious piece, a story that takes risks, with sudden shifts of perspective. A theatrical performance in a former nightclub that was the scene of a terrible fire is threatened by an eruption of supernatural manifestations, but these are cleverly incorporated into the play itself so the reader is cast adrift, not knowing where theatre ends and terror begins. Lastly there’s ‘Forest under the Sea’ in which two men become trapped on a potholing expedition, cataloguing the efforts of one of them to get a message to his young son and then moving forward twenty years to show the son himself visiting the site where his father died so tragically. While containing no real surprises, this is an absorbing story of hope crushed and human perseverance against all the odds, its underground setting strongly realised. In an epilogue to the collection, the grandmother tells of how she found and delivered this father’s message in a bottle, perfectly rounding out an excellent collection from a writer whose work I look forward to seeing much more of.

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Trailer Trash – The Babadook

This comes out late October, just in time for Halloween:-

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Filler content with Tartarus

Reviews of two titles from Tartarus Press that originally appeared in Black Static #38:-


Last time I reviewed a brace of titles from Tartarus Press (back in #30), I praised the publisher for its commitment to the discovery of new talent, and this time around I’m going to give them a big thumbs up for bringing the work of non-UK/US writers into the spotlight, for casting their net further afield than the usual gene pool of genre fiction.

Case in point, award winning writer N. A. Sulway. RUPETTA (Tartarus Press hc, 352pp, £35) is her fourth book and, as far as I can discover, the first to be published outside the author’s native Australia. You could make a case for this novel being alternate history, or even steampunk at a push. The moment of divergence takes place in France four hundred years ago when inventor Eloise Reni creates an automaton, a clockwork doll that she calls Rupetta, which develops a consciousness.

The narrative is divided into two strands, chapters cleverly intercutting each other so that our understanding of events gradually evolves as the story unfolds along parallel tracks. One narrative arc follows the life of Rupetta down through the centuries, and tells of her unique relationship – a kind of mystical symbiosis – with the family of Wynders who wield the key to her clockwork, with the suggestion that love itself is what drives them. But as we follow these relationships something strange happens, a religion of sorts centred on Rupetta takes root following the acquisition of royal patronage, but Rupetta herself becomes an outcast, those in power using a doll facsimile to forward their ambitions.

The other strand of the story takes place in the present day, where the Obanites rule, a sect that hopes to attain immortality by replacing their human hearts with clockwork devices that won’t wear out. It is the story of student Henriette (Henri for short), who wishes to follow in the footsteps of her mother, becoming a Historian and Obanite in good standing, but she is swayed from this course by a romantic engagement with the beguiling Miri, a woman who is completely unlike her, while study of the heretics known as the Salt Lane Witches leads Henri to question the Rupettan Annals and the Fourfold Rupettan Law.

There’s certainly a lot going on here, far more than my necessarily brief synopsis suggests, but what impressed me the most about this book was Sulway’s exquisite writing, giving us a text in which every single word appears to have been chosen with care, so that their combination renders what the author wishes to convey with both precision and beauty. There’s a rare pleasure to be had from watching the sentences unfurl on the page, luxuriating in the sensations they evoke in the mind, sights and sounds, smells and feelings. And also echoes of horror, as we consider what exactly is involved in many of the novel’s set pieces, the fine lines between madness and sanity, love and hatred.

The back history Sulway gives us, showing the ways in which power is used and corrupted, is well thought out and convincing, providing you accept the existence of Rupetta and what such a thing entails. One could argue that the cult of Rupetta is a metaphor for the Christian religion, a mystical and visionary movement diluted and perverted into yet another mechanism of political control, and in the course of this moved so far from the tenets of its founder that Christ himself might find it hard to recognise. There is also a feminist subtext, with a world in which religion and politics and science appear to have received their most significant contributions from women. At bottom of it all is a contradiction of sorts, the idea that while her so called followers wish to make themselves machine like in her image, Rupetta herself is becoming increasingly human and more capable of love.

And it is in the portrayal of this love that Sulway is at her best, with Rupetta adored as woman rather than goddess incarnate by the clever but naïve Henri. The depiction of academic work and all it involves, the careful and logical progression from one revelation to the next, the attempt to find solid ground on which to stand, underpins the whole work. Henri’s gradual realisation of the truth about both her lover and the untold history of her world, along with the feeling of betrayal she experiences as a result are powerfully evoked on the page, and in many ways the highlight of this remarkable novel. It does somewhat lose focus towards the end, with the conspiracy slant given a more concrete substance and action elements intruding that don’t sit quite as well with what had gone before even though entirely appropriate to the plot that is unfolding, but these things weren’t sufficient to mar the work as a whole, and I regard Rupetta as one of the best books I read in 2013, the kind of fiction that challenges reader expectations.

Translated from the French by William Charlton, DARKSCAPES (Tartarus Press hc, 193pp, £35) is the first English language collection from the pen of widely published writer Anne-Sylvie Salzman (aka Anne-Sylvie Homassel, the name that’s visible on the spine of the book under the dust jacket, almost as if the writer has a secret identity). The material is arranged in four thematically linked sections, with fifteen stories in total, and all but one of the stories is previously published, albeit some are appearing here in English for the first time.

Titled ‘Lost Girls’, the first section opens with ‘Child of Evil Stars’, telling of a doctor’s obsession with the Cyclops-Girl from a travelling freak show, the story rich in period detail and a fascination with the vagaries of anatomy, which are but an echo of the complexities of the human heart, and it ends with a real jolt. Keiko, the protagonist of ‘Fox into Lady’, inexplicably gives birth to a creature like a fox, the monstrous animal consuming her, with the suggestion that this is because she has rejected the role of mother, and possibly a subtext dealing with how our children tend to dominate and take over our lives. There’s a hallucinatory feel to ‘The Old Towpath’, rather too much so for my taste as I found it distractingly vague, with the child Ada conflating reality and the stories she is told, the boundaries between the two blurring until she becomes the victim of her own fancy. One of the highlights of the collection, ‘The Opening’ reads like a story written by somebody who has heard the term ‘dogging’ and totally misunderstood it. By day the beach is a place for tourists and sun worshippers, but at night it is given over to the men and their dogs, with a woman sacrificed in a bizarre ceremony that one young female camper bears witness to, the story brutal and highly disturbing with its images of ritualised misogyny and the acceptance of the characters. ‘Meannanaich’ tells the story of a grief stricken man’s attempts to bring his dead daughter back to life, with a strange undercurrent of menace, one that culminates in a sad and ambiguous ending.

‘Crucifixions’, the second section kicks off with ‘Passing Forms’, in which a man on a walking holiday in Scotland finds a dead girl in a ditch, and then later in another part of the world he discovers another dead body so that he comes to believe that he is somehow responsible, this in turn causing him to re-evaluate his life, the story both haunting and with a genuine feel for the isolated places in which much of the action takes place, while underlying it all is a funeral dirge for lost and wasted opportunities, all the things those mysterious and inexplicable corpses might represent. I couldn’t get a handle on ‘Under the Lighthouse’, a story that is visionary and well written, but which I found disappointingly short on substance.

A man out in the forest finds one of ‘Pan’s Children’ and is so horrified that he kills the creature, bringing down vengeance on his own head, one that intensifies his grief by cutting him off from the things that he has come to love, the story reminiscent of Blackwood’s oeuvre. Another highlight, ‘Brunel’s Invention’ has a dreamlike feel to it. It concerns a group of boys on a camping trip, but with the strong suggestion of other things going on in the background, minatory comments from people the boys meet, the fact that nobody appears to interact with the eponymous Brunel, so that we don’t know what is reality and how much is fiction, can’t see the dividing line between the quick and the dead, in this subtle, delicately paced and unsettling story. A shepherd attempting to protect his sheep becomes the victim of a monstrous beast in ‘Shioge’, but there is also the suggestion that he knowingly sacrifices himself for the sake of others, the story short and beautifully written, moody and atmospheric.

The third section of the book is titled ‘The Story of Margaret’ and contains two apparently connected narratives, each throwing light on and raising doubts about the other. ‘What the Eye Remembers’ is the story of two young girls, Margaret and Fanny, both “adopted” and sisters in all but name, and the ways in which their lives mirror each other, until we actually come to wonder if both are real or only the one who is fantasising the existence of the other, an imaginary friend, the story moving to a point where that distinction seems a matter of indifference. These events are then filtered through ‘The Hand that Sees’, told from the viewpoint of Margaret’s husband, a maker of artificial eyes whose obsession with one client is driving him entirely insane. Obsession, a common theme in these stories, plays tag with the idea of reality as simply a matter of interpretation, a case of who is telling the story and what their motives are, the whole bringing to mind the grotesquely ornate structures of Thomas Ligotti at his most baroque.

Last section ‘Wildlife’ begins with the brief story of ‘Hilda’, a selot, destined to become the bane of her owner’s life, though he will not surrender the creature to the proper authorities regardless of the chaos that will ensue, the story having a fablesque feel to it, like something Dahl might have written for grown up children, or Gorey sketched from memory. The protagonist of the next story is fascinated by ‘Lamont’, a strange girl he meets at a party, even though it involves him in a bizarre dream life and equally sordid events in the real world, Salzman returning to the theme of obsession and delineating its effects on the psyche with skill. Lastly we have ‘Feral’, the story of Kim and the mental illness that leads her to abandon civilised society and live as a savage, scavenging among the dregs of the city, a powerful depiction and indictment of what happens to those who cannot cope with their personal demons. It’s a strong ending to a collection whose worth far outweighs the occasional note of vagueness that taints some of these stories, and hopefully Salzman’s reputation as a unique voice will be solidly established on the weird fiction map as a result.

A closing word about the quality of the books; as I’ve come to expect from this publisher they are beautifully produced and, printed in a limited edition of 300 copies each, eminently collectible, something for the bibliophile to cherish.

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Song for a Saturday – The Chain

Here’s Fleetwood Mac:-

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Filler content with Dedalus

A couple of reviews that appeared in Black Static #39:-


Though it would be inaccurate to describe Dedalus as a horror publisher, there are areas where their constituency overlaps with ours: an interest in the grotesque and the decadent, a love of speculative fiction on the cutting edge and eschewing easy categorisation.

Case in point UGLYBUGLY (Dedalus paperback, 299pp, £9.99), the latest novel by Norwegian novelist Lars Ramslie and his first to be published in the UK. Translated by Deborah Dawkin, it tells the story of Earl and Betty, Siamese twins of different gender, something that should be a medical impossibility. Set in a fictional time that resembles the first years of the last century, the novel opens with the two returning from “across the pond”, where they made a tentative living in a freak show before everything turned sour, to their home in Bigtown, and waiting for them is the amputee Mr King, who recruits Earl and Betty to work in his upmarket brothel. This suits the licentious Earl rather well, but is not so agreeable to the religious Betty, and then there is “the thing” to be taken into account, the arm and hand the two share, which at times seems to have an intelligence and will of its own. The couple fall in with a group of wrestlers, including the giant Frehley, his manager Uncle Rust, and the consumptive Cougher, who falls in love with Betty, and against all the odds that feeling is returned. When the twins find themselves in trouble with Mr King it is to these wrestlers that they turn for help.

The overall structure of the book wasn’t quite as smooth as I would have liked, with an unwieldy framing device that had one of the twins dead and the other planning to cut loose, the narrative shifting between past and present, Big and Littletown, with perhaps a little too much of introspection, but it’s nothing that a reader can’t cope with given a few moments to adjust perspective.

The great appeal of the book is in the cast of larger than life characters (literally, in the case of Frehley) that Ramslie assembles to act out his drama. Central to the story, at risk of stating the obvious, are the aptly named Merrik twins, who are brought to vivid life on the page, Ramslie capturing the antipathy between the two of them and the hell of such unlike people being joined together, the compromises they must make to simply get by. The story is told from the viewpoint of the irascible Earl, a character who seems oblivious to flaws in his own nature that are self-evident to the reader. He is the author of his own undoing, dragging Betty down with him. In contrast she is rather self-righteous and somewhat naïve, willing to sacrifice them both for the sake of her good name and a possible reward in the afterlife. And then there are the supporting cast, such as Cougher who spits blood constantly and is beguiled by innocent Betty, Uncle Rust with his love of flea circuses and an addiction he can’t cope with, the wonderfully understated Mr King with his coloured factotum/wrestler Tim, and the giant Frehley, who is an indomitable force within the novel until his life ends abruptly. These are all memorable people, and Ramslie uses them to address issues of prejudice and the ways in which we judge people over superficialities, with one of the most pointed scenes that in which Earl learns the error of his ways in acting superior to Tim because of the colour of his skin.

While the twins’ freak show residency pre-dates the action of the book, it is the milieu and sensibility of the freak show that colours everything within the pages of Uglybugly, the feel of decadence and the bizarre realised on the page. Ultimately this is a beautiful book, and it is such because it takes things that are commonly regarded as ugly and grotesque, only to reinvent them and hold them up for our inspection in ways that show their true nature, the whole of the thing and not just the appearance. Earl and Betty, through no fault of their own, are ostracised from conventional society, but they find succour in the rooms of a brothel and behind the walls of the wrestler’s gym. They find people they can trust and friends they can rely on. They learn to eschew judgement as they themselves are not judged. These are the lessons of Uglybugly and we ignore them at our peril.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, as far as any horror accreditation goes, SATURN (Dedalus paperback, 252pp, £9.99) by Polish writer Jacek Dehnel is of only peripheral interest, though looking at the cover of the book one could be forgiven for thinking that this was the true grue.

That cover reproduces Saturn Eating His Son, one of the fourteen Black Paintings produced by the Spanish artist Goya between 1819 and 1823, and the novel itself is a fictional exploration of the recent theory that these paintings were actually the work of the artist’s son Javier. All fourteen paintings are reproduced in the book, each in its own chapter with a description and interpretation of what we are looking at, text that at times borders on stream of consciousness as possible thoughts evoked in the mind of a beholder are captured in a web of words.

The main body of the story is told in the form of monologues by Goya and Javier, each giving something of themselves, the expectations they had of each other and the failures. Later still the role of Goya is taken over by his grandson Mariano, arguing with his father about the fate of the house in which Javier has painted murals on the wall, compositions so grotesque as to call into question his sanity. And thus, with three generations of the family given a voice, the title is explained – the mythological Saturn, who as the Greek Cronus overthrew his father Uranus and was in turn overthrown by his son Zeus.

The end result is a fascinating book, one in which the story is filtered through three distinct personalities, with the reader left to decide how much to rely on each. We have the great artist Goya, willing to do anything to survive, feeling that he has done his best for his son but disappointed at the latter’s failure to succeed as an artist in the same mould as himself. Contrarily Javier thinks that his father has let him down, that he has been abandoned and his efforts disregarded, and he consoles himself by mocking the commercialism and pragmatism of his father. Then again we have Mariano, an arriviste to the bone, looking at everything in terms of its monetary value and how it will help him to progress in society. The interplay between the three is engaging, touching on such themes as art versus commerce, principles versus pragmatism, and as a side issue there is a gripping account of aspects of the Peninsular War, with the compromises of Goya mirrored in those made with Napoleon by his nation.

As far as identifying the artist of the Black Paintings goes, Dehnel presents no real evidence, but then again I doubt that this was his intention. His book does however work splendidly as a study of the artistic sensibility and the rivalries that exist within families, and the burden of being the child of a famous father.



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