Filler content with novellas

Reviews of four novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #38:-


THE RÉPARATEUR OF STRASBOURG (PS Publishing hc/signed jhc, 44pp, £12/£25) by Ian R. MacLeod is the story of Ezekiel Morel who makes a career for himself out of repairing damaged artwork in the churches of Strasbourg, but who cannot help sometimes improving on the original, adding his own little touches. The mysterious and beautiful Ariadne visits him in the middle of the night and commissions Ezekiel to paint her portrait, but not as she now appears, as she will look in twenty years’ time. Many years later, unchanged to the naked eye, she once again commissions Ezekiel, this time to paint her as a hag. But when the revolution comes to France, Ezekiel is placed in danger. His estranged son Roland holds power in the city and wishes to be avenged on his father for the slights of the past. Ezekiel finds himself a prisoner, and Ariadne is there too, truly the hag he had painted her as.

This is an engaging story, well written and with convincing characters, with the antipathy between father and son a plot driver. MacLeod brings the period to life on the page, the feel of a time of changes, a land in turmoil as all the old values are swept away and nothing new comes to take their place. The novella cannot help but have a political dimension, especially in the final confrontation between Ariadne and the citizen court, so that it is hard not to read more meaning than the author intended into passages like “the new, small gods who suck the lifeblood of decency from this country”, to interpret them as commentary on current world affairs. There is nothing here that is really new – Chelsea Quinn Yarbro for one has portrayed the vampire as a critic of human affairs in the context of a historical drama, while Ariadne’s origin echoes scenes from Somtow and Rice – but Macleod’s rendition is lively and fun, a diverting alternative to the sparkly template of recent years, showing the vampire as a moral creature but not without malice when provoked.

FLYING FISH (PS Publishing signed jhc, 60pp, £24.99) by Randall Silvis is a more substantial work, albeit the whole vampire thing is a flag of convenience for review purposes. The setting is Hogg Island off the New England coast, a settlement in decline, its community of fishermen dwindling each year. Devon seeks a way out by engaging in an affair with the enigmatic Louisa Cecelia Christensen, or Queenie as she is known to the locals. Queenie doesn’t grow old like other people, and some of the locals claim she was bitten by a vampire spider. The men she takes as lovers see an upturn in their fortunes soon after, unless they are indiscreet in which case certain death befalls them. Devon is ambivalent about his experience with Queenie, who appears to be a child though she is much older than he is, and uses his gift for fiction to make sense of what he is feeling, reading the stories to Queenie.

Beautifully written, this is a strange, haunting tale, the kind of thing that Alice Hoffman might produce on a good day. The imagery is every bit as vibrant as the shadow boxes that Queenie creates, things of dark and light, shifting so that they can never be pinned down. In a way it is a story about the rite of passage, from young manhood into the world of adults, of accepting responsibility and taking positive action. Devon doesn’t make his fortune, but eventually he does come to the realisation of what he wants from life and finds the courage to take that leap into the dark. The stories within the story are like the gemstones encrusted in a piece of jewellery, valuable in their own right while enhancing the work as a whole. They add to the bigger picture, as does the final poem, titled ‘Flying Fish’, that Devon tells to Queenie. This is the kind of text for which the word wise is appropriate. Silvis is a wise writer, telling the story of a wise woman, one who is every bit as magical and unique as others imagine her to be, though not in the ways they imagine. I loved it.

The latest instalment in Paul Meloy’s emerging cosmology, DOGS WITH THEIR EYES SHUT (PS Publishing hc/signed jhc, 58pp, £11.99/£24.99), ties in to previous stories detailing the conflict between the Firmament Surgeons and the Autoscopes, stories which have appeared in various magazines, including those from TTA Press, and are assembled en masse in the collection Islington Crocodiles. Of particular note, it continues the adventures of Lesley, who we first met in the British Fantasy Award winning story ‘Black Static’, from which this magazine took its name.

Fascinated by dogs as a child, the unnamed protagonist moves into a caravan park where he is befriended by Bix, and the canine’s companionship opens him up to strange dreams of a place called Quay-Endula and the young woman Lesley, who captains the ship Rogue Angela and sails in search of salvage to snatch from the grasp of the Toyceivers and their Outrage Contraptions. Along the way he learns something of his true identity and heritage, the role he is to play in the coming war, but before he can get to grips with that our hero must travel to Quay-Endula with Bix and save Lesley from the Flyblown Man.

Meloy has produced a complex, convoluted story, with a plot that constantly twists and turns, one in which his dexterity at balancing very human concerns against the greater cosmic backdrop shines through. Central to it all is the richness of his creation, with Lesley in a fantasy template world of taverns and murky backstreets, of fighting ships and funicular railways that feels as real as it is marvellous, a place where she interacts with extraordinary people in an ordinary way, a manner that adds depth to the other concerns, the threat of war with a merciless enemy. Similarly in our world the narrator’s love of dogs and memories of an idyllic childhood are juxtaposed with talk of Firmament Surgeons and Autoscopes, Paladins and Ingress Gantries, elements that play off each other to stunning effect. With hindsight, the war between Firmament Surgeons and Autoscopes has a Miltonian feel to it, a battle between legions of angels and their fallen brethren, with the fate of all Creation hanging in the balance, while on a less serious note, the metal frames that snatch ships from our world to that of the Quays put me in mind of nothing so much as those grab machines they have in seaside amusement parks. Meloy’s invention can’t be faulted, with some memorable scenes of mayhem vividly realised on the page as the Toyceivers fly their Outrage Contraptions, and who can forget such wonderfully named villains as the Flyblown Man and Nurse Melt. And, as a final incentive, for those with a dog fetish there is plenty here to make you feel vindicated in your support of man’s best friend. At the end we’re left thoroughly satisfied and at the same time aching for more, and more is what Meloy promises, with the warning that it’s all going off in Lakenheath.

IN THE BROKEN BIRDCAGE OF KATHLEEN FAIR (Alchemy Press eBook, 53pp, £1.03) is the latest work from the pen of Cate Gardner and, I believe, the first contender in a new line of novellas from Alchemy Press. When we meet her at the start of this story, the eponymous heroine is trapped inside a room filled with outsize furniture, including a birdcage so large that she can sleep inside it. She has no idea of what she’s doing there or memories of her past life, and she is convinced that somebody or something is observing her, studying her behaviour. All this changes when a mirror appears on the wall, one that allows egress to other realms. Kathleen enters the Perfume Emporium, where monstrous Frederick Schentenfreude III concocts his wares by stealing the scent of living beings. Our heroine determines to revive one of his victims, the boy Bobby for whom she conceives a sudden infatuation, but to do this she must convince Schentenfreude that she is romantically interested in him, deal with Bobby’s girlfriend Allyson, and visit Hell where the charismatic Gilbert Down also desires her.

I could make a case for Kathleen being an unborn child come resurrected soul, and in this scenario the story becomes a pre-natal fantasy, a journey of self-discovery and preparation for what is to come, with the room a womb which is too big for her at first but by the end of the story too small forcing Kathleen to leave its confines and travel down a corridor into the light. In support of this interpretation, with its echoes of Gunther Grass’ The Tin Drum, at one point Gilbert informs Kathleen that she’s not even born yet. And there is something of the child about Kathleen in the way that she latches onto Bobby and determines to have him for herself regardless of his or anyone else’s feelings, and the way in which she is prepared to lie and cheat to forward this agenda. In part the story is a rite of passage for the character, a psycho-drama in which Kathleen overcomes her own selfishness and learns to be a better person.

I am of course grasping at straws and, to mix a metaphor or two, doing so with no idea of which particular straw might break the camel’s back of this narrative. Whatever the point or purpose of the story, it exists as a linear series of cause and effect events, a framework within which Gardner exercises that imaginative playfulness which is representative of her work at its best. She gives us larger than life characters, monsters and devils with something of the angelic about them. She presents a novel and compelling vision of hell, with a new variation or two on the idea of the demonic pact as a side dish. She writes about such marvellous things as a duel fought with balloons and a perfume created by stealing the essence of people. She shows us sympathy for the devil and crafts a beguiling fable, one that constantly delights with its verve and invention, and which will resonate in the reader’s mind long after the book has been closed and put away.

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