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.