Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #36:-
Beautifully produced and published in a limited edition, the first release from Egaeus, Reggie Oliver’s Shadow Plays sold out before I got round to reviewing it. Fortunately I’m timelier as far as their next two volumes are concerned, each produced in a limited edition of 300 copies, and I’m also happy to confirm that the same production standards are in play that applied in the case of the Oliver. More succinctly, whatever their literary merits, these books are exquisite objects and bound to be collectable.
Stephen J. Clarke’s IN DELIRIUM’S CIRCLE (Egaeus Press hb, 256pp, £30) is a novel set in the immediate aftermath of World War II and opens with medium William Fetch, whose forte is automatic drawing, discovering a mysterious letter between the pages of a book in a second-hand shop. It reveals the existence of a group of men who witnessed some esoteric rituals in a small town in Czechoslovakia during the war and are now haunted by their memories, trying with the aid of others to pierce the veil of reality. Fetch writes to the addressee of the letter, a Miss Norfoot, who has written a book on homunculi, and determines to travel down to Newcastle to make contact with the group and become part of their endeavours, but once there he finds that not all is as it seems. The group are involved in elaborate games of which he becomes a part, but they themselves may only be participants in the rituals of another circle of initiates, the ages old House of Sleep. Fetch begins to suspect that his part in all of this was planned and preordained, and circumstances demand drastic action on his part.
To repeat myself, this is a beautifully produced book, with the author supplying a series of black and white drawings that are supposed to represent the ‘visions’ experienced by Fetch (and the character’s name may indeed be a clue to his nature). The method of telling is oblique, with not only the narrative proper but correspondence between the men involved in the circle, Mr Cutler, Mr Yarrow and Mr Eyles, plus entries in various notebooks and journals, and a series of photographs that may contain some hint as to what is really taking place, all used to forward the story. The whole point of the narrative seems to be to confuse both the reader and Mr Fetch, with the suggestion that his identity is being destroyed preparatory to his elevation to the leadership of the House of Sleep, while the recurring theme of masks suggests the mutability of human nature. It’s a strange and esoterically slanted work, one that unnerves and disturbs, with the suggestion of some other pattern behind the reality we know, but at the same time I didn’t find it entirely satisfying, with a little too much left to chance about the organisation of the material. Certainly it thoroughly intrigued me, though whether it did so sufficiently as to prompt a second read in the hope of untangling the book’s mysteries is another matter. Let’s call it a qualified success then or an ambitious failure, but perhaps beautiful experiment is the sobriquet that fits best.
THE TAINTED EARTH (Egaeus Press hb, 223pp, £30) is writer George Berguño’s third collection, with eight stories and a novella between its covers, the content roughly divided between modern tales and those grounded in mythology and folklore, particularly that of the Nordic regions.
Title story ‘The Tainted Earth’ is the tale of Grim, who fled Norway with his family to escape the menace of a tyrannical king, only to find that his son has become enamoured with another Norwegian monarch and history may repeat itself. He tells his story to the Icelandic monster Gryla, realising that the two of them have much in common despite outward differences, the narrative gripping with its twists and turns, and the feeling of inevitability that lies like a funeral pall over it all, while harking back to the old legends which it celebrates. In ‘The Sick Mannes Salve’ the conventions of horror fiction are satirised in a tale which has a writer falling foul of the tropes he imagines only as fictional devices, the story cleverly deconstructing its source material.
‘The Ballad of El Pichón’ is set in Valparaiso, with a young girl’s fascination with a street vendor who paints sparrows yellow and sells them as canaries leading her into a meeting with the Devil, or perhaps not, the story cleverly told and with a magic realist feel to it, the narrative seemingly set outside of time and space. ‘Fugue for Black Thursday’ is based on a painting which leads to the unravelling of a tale about the last days of the Warsaw ghetto and the murder of the artist Bruno Schulz, the story told from the perspective of a Nazi officer who holds himself responsible but at the same time also feels he is somehow a victim of the painter, the story cleverly conflating events and impressions to give us something weird and archetypal regarding the human condition in times of stress.
An art student is the first half of the duo that is ‘Mouse and the Falconer’, and the latter is a world famous photographer and adventurer. The two exist in a relationship that at heart seems almost sexual in nature, touching on the ritualised behaviour of S&M devotees, but at the end what is underlined is the futility of the Mouse, who has sacrificed his life to serve another, though the real tragedy is perhaps that he gave so little. Modern and ancient tales overlap in ‘The Rune Stone at Odenslunda’, a police officer investigating the destruction of an ancient monument, while using the identity Sisyphus he relates the mythic events that led to its installation, the two strands of the story informing each other and Berguño evoking a sense of something timeless in the way in which they overlap, while underlining the futility of heroic action and the desire for revenge.
‘The Good Samaritan of Prague’ is the tale of a forensic accountant who encounters a golem like figure giving away money to homeless people, but with a very sinister subtext that hints at how some are fated to wither and die, and that money can be a curse of sorts. More mythology in ‘Three Drops of Death’, in which the hero must perform extraordinary feats to save the life of the princess he loves, including give up any hope of having her for himself, but there’s a twist in this delightful tale that picks away at the surface of the narrative to show a darker and more manipulative aspect of human nature, even when the human is a hero.
Last but not least we have the triptych novella ‘A Spell of Subtle Hunting’, a story told from the viewpoint of Ernst Junger. In ‘Canto I – Historian of the Strange’ he is a reluctant Nazi officer in occupied Paris, who has an encounter with a strange woman in Pere Lachaise cemetery. She tells him of an all-powerful organisation that collects dreams, their influence on history in direct proportion to the futility of their actions. In ‘Canto II – Bibliotheca Abscondita’ Junger has become an old man, and tells his friend Julien Gracq of this monumental event in his past. Gracq interprets what took place as an act of the surrealist movement, and illustrates the point with a story about the ancient Greek musician Arion, one that is all the more powerful for having no proper ending. Finally in ‘Canto III – Kniébolo’s Lament’ Junger has a dream encounter with Hitler, the nemesis of his Nazi years, who underlines how unimportant Junger was, at the same time showing how even the least notable have a role to play. A strange and many layered work, this is a fiction in which a dreamlike quality infiltrates the text, giving us oneiric imagery and ideas to play with, the dreams illuminating reality and vice versa, along the way playing games with our love of conspiracy theory. At heart it’s a celebration of both surrealism and the obscure, the things and people we don’t notice, regard as irrelevant.
And finally, an encore if you wish, closing out this excellent collection, one in which there are tales within tales and the author has the courage to take risks with his narrative constructions, there are ‘Notes to the Stories’ in which Berguño explains how each came to be. Highly recommended.