Song for a Saturday – Psychotherapy

I love this.

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Filler content in aisles of plenty

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #35:-

AISLES

Paul Magrs

Allison & Busby pb, 252pp, £9.99

reviewed by Peter Tennant

This latest novel by Paul Magrs is not as wacky and off the wall as the back cover blurb seeks to suggest. Fu Manchu definitely does not chase a screaming Virginia Woolf through the streets of Bloomsbury; that’s just a conceit of one of the characters. On the other hand Iris Murdoch does show up in an internet chatroom to discuss sex, literature and life-after-death.

The novel begins with Robin, like Magrs himself a lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at UEA. Robin goofs off in an internet chatroom, where he is known to his admiring female fans as the masterful Funkymonkey, but then a woman turns up using the handle Iris Murdoch and challenges his status as Alpha Male. Dismissive at first, Robin falls under her spell and starts to wonder if this actually is the deceased novelist, given a voice in this dimension through some quirk of the space-time continuum.

From here the novel moves on in a manner reminiscent of La Ronde, with each subsequent chapter told from the perspective of a different character, all of them somehow connected to Robin, and at the centre of this activity is the unknown and essentially unknowable figure of Marion, with her tragic death in a car accident as the stone dropped into a small pond and sending ripples spreading ever outward. Glenda, Robin’s wife, is quitting her job at a well known chain store and workmate Marion is killed while speeding to Glenda’s leaving do. Waiting for her is husband Tony, and Glenda is obliged to take this broken man under her wing. Then there’s Darren, a colleague of Robin’s at UEA, who is driving home with John, the man he loves but who sadly is not gay, and the two of them are witnesses to the aftermath of the accident. Kim is Marion’s workmate and rival for Glenda’s old job, and she is also one of the women who pays cyber court to Funkymonkey. Kim’s mother Elsa is studying at UEA under Darren and fellow worker Geoff has romantic intentions towards her. Then there’s Clare, Marion’s estranged daughter returning to the family home, resentful of stepfather Tony and finding an ally in Kim. The ripples spread ever outward, lines of connectivity interlacing, until in the final chapter most of the characters meet up in the aisles of a supermarket and old Elsa sorts out what’s what and who’s who, with the biggest mystery the identity of the elderly lady in a faded cardie seated at the supermarket checkout? No, it couldn’t be Iris Murdoch, could it?

What conclusions are we to draw from all this? That it’s a small world certainly, and individual lives overlap and interact in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Disaster and the possibility of disaster seem to be a given. Marion’s car crash hangs over everything. Several of the characters are suffering from serious, possibly terminal, illnesses. Darren and John share a love of disaster movies and discuss them with a relish. And none of the characters, with the possible exception of Murdoch who is dead, seem happy with their lives, not because they are suffering in any real way but through some perceived lack, something other than themselves which they think they need to make them whole.

Aisles, all things considered, is a somewhat ramshackle construction. There’s no grand strategy visible, no master plan looming out of the storm of words and really not much in the way of a resolution despite old Elsa’s best efforts. Instead we get fucked up lives and real people, we get wit and wisdom and warmth, we get long and elaborate conversations about the nature of love, the purpose of literature, the pros and cons of the internet, musings about the afterlife, nostalgia for the good old days which were never as good as they seem, and yes, we get disaster movies. We get the doctrine of shit happens but good things happen too, and in the end just maybe they balance out, so what’s the use of fretting over any of it?  We get all of that and all of it is worth hearing, because Magrs knows how to tell a tale and how to keep his audience engaged with what he is saying and appreciative of his efforts in tackling these themes. He is the teacher who can do. He may not have any answers to the big questions, but you couldn’t ask for a more entertaining and affable writer to kick start the discussion.

This is the first book I have read by Magrs, but somehow I don’t think it’s going to be the last.

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Trailer Trash – The Man from U. N. C. L. E.

Used to love the TV series, but not sure about this:-

Looks to be trying too hard.

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Filler content with the great god Pan

Two reviews that original appeared in Black Static #36:-

THE HELEN VAUGHAN FILES

 For those not in the know, Helen Vaughan is the main protagonist in Arthur Machen’s 1893 novella THE GREAT GOD PAN/XELUCHA (Creation Oneiros pb, 127pp, £9.99), here published with M. P. Shiel’s short hallucinatory story Xelucha from 1896.

There’s a lot of subsidiary material on offer, perhaps to entice in those who already have this genre classic taking pride of place on their shelves, including a Foreword by H. P. Lovecraft (actually comments taken from HPL’s oft quoted 1927 essay on Supernatural Horror in Literature – no mediums were employed in the publication of this book), an Introduction by Iain S. Smith of The Arthur Machen Society and a note on the occult artist Austin Osman Spare (1888 – 1956), whose ‘automatic’ drawings accompany the text.

In the opening section Dr Raymond performs experiments on Mary, a young girl in his care, with the intention of opening her up to natural experiences, to see the Great God Pan. Years later, Raymond’s friend Clarke reads an account of mysterious happenings in the community where the experiment was conducted, including the disappearance of a young girl. Skip forward again, and man about town Villiers encounters an old school friend who has been ruined by marriage to the beauty Helen Vaughan. This lady now appears to be running a salon which has become the talk of polite society, only many of the aristocrats who visit end up committing suicide. Villiers and his friend manage to fit the pieces together, reaching the conclusion that this Helen Vaughan is an unnatural creature, the offspring of Mary and Pan, and take the appropriate steps to deal with her menace.

I suspect that this story reads very differently to modern readers than it did with Machen’s contemporaries, as with the person of Dr Raymond, who in the context of the story seems positioned as a well-meaning but hubristic scientist, horrified by what he has brought into the world, but whose sheer arrogance and willingness to experiment on a child seem offensive and immoral from a twenty first century perspective. Such contextual matters are outside the scope of this review however. Machen is at his best in his appreciation of the wildness of nature, the way in which the landscape suggests untold possibilities and hints of inhuman revels. He carefully constructs a schemata in which the ineffable seems just a heartbeat distant from the everyday, with the wonders of the natural world shining through the story, but all the same at the calm centre of the tale is the idea that the mysteries will forever be beyond our grasp, and to attempt to penetrate the veil is to invite disaster. Helen Vaughan is the agent of that disaster, the result of tampering with the unknown, a femme fatale who uses men, causing the death of all who cannot help but aspire to love her. And yes, whether intended or not (and I’d argue not), it is possible to find a streak of something akin to misogyny in this story, the way in which the feminine principle is seen as representative of nature red in tooth and claw, antithetical to scientific reason, an aspect of the work another writer has picked up on in the present day, but more of that in a paragraph or so.

Machen’s powerful story is complemented by the dreamlike ‘Xelucha’ by M. P. Shiel, detailing a man’s nocturnal rambles and an encounter with a woman thought long dead, the story a borderline stream of consciousness piece, a torrent of words seeded with suitably lurid and funereal imagery to justify HPL’s description of it (in Supernatural Literature) as ‘a hideously noxious fragment’.

One could, at a pinch, theorise that the monstrous Xelucha is how Helen Vaughan might have turned out had Machen allowed her to escape the attentions of the heroic Villiers, but writer Rosanne Rabinowitz gives the material a different interpretation in her novella HELEN’S STORY (PS Publishing hb, 146pp, £11.99), allowing the character to tell her side of the story.

Long lived thanks to the circumstances of her birth, Helen eluded Villiers easily enough and has travelled the world for many years under a variety of pseudonyms. In the present day she is once again using the Vaughan moniker and living in Shoreditch, working as an artist and making a name for herself with erotically charged paintings, but back of it all is the desire to reach beyond ‘the vanishing point’ where childhood friend Rachel disappeared and remake the acquaintance of her woodland mentor.

Accounts of her present mingle with memories of the past, the true story behind ‘The Great God Pan’ (Helen admits to being aware of the book and once met the author), how Dr Raymond feared her, as did the other men who came into her orbit, such as Villiers, all with little or no reason for doing so, a picture emerging of abuse and neglect, cruelty and rejection, of people vilifying the thing they are scared of simply as a way to justify their own behaviour. Like her fictional counterpart, this Helen is the epicentre of a salon of sorts, gathering creative types under her wing and indulging her sexuality free from constraints of guilt and ego. Her desire, the thing that dictates all her actions, is to break through the barriers of reality and reach that other dimension where Pan and Rachel will be waiting for her. She wishes to explore this new world, to engage with a universe that is unsullied and forever beyond the ravishments of our unnatural, technology driven world, and she finds echoes of that distant greatness in the potential lying latent in art and sexuality, the keys to a new form of comprehension. If she has a flaw, then it lies in her difficulty in recognising that not all are ready for the possibilities of the marvellous, an impatience with those who are held back by everyday concerns and the straitjackets of convention.

Rabinowitz has created a work that remains true to but at the same time reinterprets its source material, showing that prototype to have been very much a product of its time, inspired and driven by attitudes that are alien to the sensibilities of many modern readers. Her Helen remains an outsider, the archetypal stranger in a strange land, but at the same time she is somebody more feared than she is fearsome, a victim of others’ terror of the unknown, often codified simply as the desire to avoid scandal. At the end her story marks the power of creativity, the fecundity of both nature and the human mind, while at the same embodying those things in the figure of the shape shifter Pan and the abilities with which his children are endowed.

The book is also available in a signed jacketed hardcover edition limited to 100 copies and costing £24.99.

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Song for a Saturday – Heroes

It’s Valentine’s Day, so here is something I think is romantic, though your mileage may differ.

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Filler content with clay

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #35:-

CREATURES OF CLAY and other stories of the macabre

Stephen Sennitt

Diagonal Books pb, 127pp, £7.99

reviewed by Peter Tennant

Diagonal is the new fiction imprint of David Kerekes’ Headpress, and it was through a previous Headpress volume, Ghastly Terror! The Horrible Story of the Horror Comics, a history of graphic horror, that I first encountered author Sennitt. That book impressed me for both its scholarship and the author’s obvious enthusiasm and love of his subject. I was curious to see what Sennitt could do if he put his own talents to fiction, but this is one of those cases where curiosity killed the cat.

There are thirty stories here and one solitary poem, ‘The Drowned Mermaid’, as a sort of coda at the end of the book. Most of the stories are very short, many of only one or two pages length, with provocative titles like ‘The Music Room’, ‘The Cult of the Obscene Deity’, ‘The Secret Place’, ‘Beneath the Black Obelisk’ and ‘The Black Pyramid’, titles that resonate in the minds of Horror aficionados so that reading the Table of Contents one expects a treat, but the stories themselves do not live up to that promise. Mostly they are obliquely descriptive pieces masquerading as flash fiction, and though Sennitt occasionally stumbles across the odd phrase that brings his subject to life in some new and startling way on the whole the experience of reading them is somewhat akin to undertaking a slightly tedious chore, with brevity their only commendation.

The few longer stories have more going for them, but not a lot. For instance ‘The Night Barge’, with its depiction of a man enlisted in some nefarious activity involving the disposal of dead bodies, has echoes of an Aickman like ambiguity (mind you, first draft Aickman and written on a day when he wasn’t feeling very well), but Sennitt lacks the skill to capitalise on this. Having drawn the situation he doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea what to do with it. Perhaps Sennitt’s talents lean more to the poetic (‘The Drowned Mermaid’ is consistently fine compared to the other material here). He seems more interested in capturing moments than telling stories.

The book is nicely produced and comes with some excellent illustrations, but as to the fiction, well I can’t think of anything else useful to say except to observe that I clean forgot about most of the stories less than a fortnight after reading them. Hopefully the next volume from Diagonal will offer us something more substantial.

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Trailer Trash – Jurassic World

I liked the first in the original trilogy, but felt it was very much a case of diminishing returns with the subsequent outings, so not sure how I feel about this, but it certainly looks pretty.

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