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.