Filler content with orchestral manouevrings

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #36:-

D. F. LEWIS STRIKES UP THE BAND

THE FIRST BOOK OF CLASSICAL HORROR STORIES (Megazanthus Press pb, 236pp, £9.50) is not, as the title might suggest, a selection of ‘the best bits’ from Poe, Lovecraft, Blackwood etc, but contains twenty one new stories inspired by or referencing classical music. In line with this guiding principle, D. F. Lewis is described as ‘Conductor’ rather than editor.

The overture comes courtesy of Rachel Kendall with ‘Chamber Music’, a story that brought to mind Ballard’s ‘The Drowned Giant’, both for its central conceit of a dead or sleeping giant and the subtext in which the miraculous is reduced to the level of banality. Kendall’s story has something else going on though, a psycho-drama in which the giant could be emblematic of the comatose father of protagonist Claire, his ‘undoing’ representative of adjustments in their parent/child relationship and leading to an acceptance of impending death, with music as the final gift Claire can bring to him.

The composer protagonist of ‘The Universe at Gun Point’ by Andrew Hook seeks inspiration from Satie to win the approval of the woman he regards as his muse in a story that is just a little too obliquely written to succeed, and with a chain of events that seems arbitrary, the refrain of ‘You know this is impossible’ not helping matters, while the final suggestion that everything is illusionary feels like an evasion. A ‘Vertep’, I am ‘reliably’ informed by Wikipedia, is a portable puppet theatre, mostly found in the Ukraine, but in D. P. Watt’s deliciously creepy little story it is a musical box that plays Stravinsky and becomes the focus of an obsession, with elements of Punch and Judy in the mix. Each step of the carefully calibrated downfall is convincingly detailed, the drama slowly shifting from its antiquarian stance to something far more shocking and violent, as life reflects art and art promotes discord.

At the centre of Dominy Clements’ ‘Anemnesis in Extremis’ is the suicide of Mahler’s younger brother Otto, whose spirit visits the story’s protagonist in dreams and reveals to him the secret of a music that can kill, the truth of this proposition shown before the narrative ends, but not quite in the way we imagined. Underlying the text is a great feeling of sadness for lost lives and lost potential, an empathy with those who burn so brightly, but only for a brief time. ‘Rêverie’ by Lawrence Conquest is the story of a composer haunted by his past and feelings of guilt that he didn’t die in a car crash with his wife and son, and these emotions are channeled into the soundtrack he composes for a film, the ghosts finding a way into his psyche, the story setting us up for an urgent, eventful finale.

‘The Ivory Teat’ by Stephen Bacon is a convincing study of madness and alienation, a man not knowing that he is the pianist who creates the music that fills the air in his apartment building, even as his life dwindles around him and other options are taken away. Music is incidental to ‘Human Resources’ by Karim Ghahwagi, which appears to be channeling Thomas Ligotti’s attitudes to the world of work, with an omnipresent and mysterious company and people engaged in pointless labour, the mood of the piece powerful, dystopian and disturbing.

‘Winter’s Traces’ by John Howard is a strong contender for my favourite story in the anthology, with a writer piecing together the life of composer William Winter and discovering why he never wrote any more. It’s a beautifully written story, paced to perfection, with engaging characters that come alive on the page in all their eccentricity and the sense that the writer has a genuine affection for the material, all factors that combine to make the tale thoroughly absorbing as it majestically unfolds. We get something more traditional from Holly Day with ‘Excerpted’, a lively little horror piece about a man who stumbles across some sheet music in which discordant additions have been made to classical compositions. In some ways the story brings to mind Barker’s oeuvre, with the music acting in a similar way to Lemarchand puzzle boxes, plunging the musician into a world of pain and hurt, one where his screams become part of the chorus.

From what little I’ve read of his work, Colin Insole is the writer who most puts me in mind of Lewis himself, with the same predilection for philosophical themes and sleazy settings, like finding an essay on Wittgenstein wrapped up in several rashers of greasy bacon. ‘The Appassionata Variations’ is set in a strange world where Mr Hoffman is the Beethoven virtuoso at the Hotel Promethean, the story told from the viewpoint of one who might be his illegitimate offspring, with matters of music and paternity interweaving, Insole’s writing assured and the composition as whole unsettlingly off kilter. Another highlight, Daniel Mills’ ‘De Profundis’ is the story of young Damien who is studying to be a priest but also a composer who fears he may usher in the end of the world by completing Scriabin’s great work Mysterium. The story develops at a natural, almost leisurely, pace along the way touching on matters of faith and the relationship between music and spirituality, while the back story tells us more of Damien, his childhood convulsions and break with the religion of his father, the rift between the two, allowing room for ambiguity, so that we cannot be sure if the ending is to be taken literally or simply the result of a talented musician having mental health issues.

Aliya Whiteley’s ‘Songs for Dead Children’ has a singer taught how to perform Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder with real emotion by a paediatric oncologist, but though her work is much improved by his input, years later the belated discovery of how he came by such knowledge is the woman’s undoing in a heartrending story that explores the link between creativity and pain. Rhys Hughes provides a coda of sorts with ‘The Trilling Seasons’, a slight but amusing skit at the expense of Vivaldi.

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