Filler content with Swan River Press – Part 2

Following on from yesterday’s post, here’s the second part of a feature on Swan River Press that originally appeared in Black Static #45:-

SWAN RIVER PRESS (continued)

Transylvania is known as “the country beyond the forest and the land of the seven fortress towns”, but in John Howard’s THE SILVER VOICES (SRP hc, 168pp, €30.00) through a series of linked short stories we learn of the previously unknown eighth town, Sternbergstadt, or Steaua de Munte as it is now known.

Opening piece ‘Artist in Residence’ has the titular artist hired by a wealthy lawyer to make sketches of the old town before a new renovation project completely transforms it and destroys what his employer believes to be the essence of the town. It’s a story that celebrates history but also shows the compromises we need to make with the past to enable us to move forward and embrace the future, this ideal embodied in the person of the artist every bit as much as it is in the features of the town itself. ‘Boundaries’ is set in Prague after the end of the Great War, with an English businessman encountering an old wartime nemesis who reminds him of the time he spent as a prisoner in Sternbergstadt, and the mystery of how three cricket bats ended up in the town museum, the story sad and gentle, with an elegiac quality commemorating all that was lost to the war, the ways in which the world changed for better and worse.

‘The Rise and Fall of the SSS’ details the attempts of an eccentric scientist to launch a rocket through the auspices of the Sternbergstadt Spaceflight Society, and how his efforts are thwarted by the town drunk. It’s a story full of comedic detail and satirical characters, but at the same time aglow with the wonders and potential of a new age, the blessings that science will confer on us, overall like nothing so much as a hybrid of The Mouse that Roared and Gibson’s story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’. ‘The Reluctant Visionary’ takes us to the turn of the new century, with a successful architect fascinated by the discovery of a document telling of a young man’s life before the war, his love affair and obsession with the film Things to Come. The two strands alternate, with the vision and sense of optimism captured in the film playing counterpoint to how the world actually turned out, past and present merging, and a glorious but possibly false vision of the future arching over all.

The fall of Ceaușescu provides the backdrop to ‘In Strange Earth’, the tale told from the perspective of a low level functionary come hired muscle who flees Bucharest and comes to Steaua de Munte in search of safety, but the town doesn’t quite open up to him as he’d hoped. Again, visions of past and future overlap, while underlying it all is a portrait of how easy it is to be lulled into fascism. There’s a similar warning note to the next story in the book. The protagonist of ‘The Silver Voice’ receives several mysterious communications that reveal a history of his family and its involvement with the fascist Iron Guard, forcing him to make a personal decision as to how he wishes to live his life. It’s a clever story, one that merges fact and fantasy, so that we can never be sure as to the truth behind the vision of “the windowless room”.

Last story in the book ‘To Hope for a Caesar’ is set in Berlin and told from the viewpoint of an English tour guide who gets caught up in the quest for absolution of an elderly politician, a man who stood behind the throne in the East German republic. A fascinating description of power and its use and abuse, it nonetheless doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the stories, at least in the sense of any recognisable connection to Steaua de Munte, though there are links in many of these stories and I could quite easily have missed one. Regardless, the story stands on its own and offers a compelling account of the last days of the war and how the foundations were laid for so much that came after, complete with a critique of dictatorship. As with each of these stories, it’s a narrative in which the dead hand of history and the bright hope for the future contend on the battlefield of the present day.

THE DARK RETURN OF TIME (SRP hc, 134pp, €30.00) by R. B. Russell is a short novel that tells the story of Flavian Bennett, who is staying in Paris and working at his father’s bookshop as a way of dealing with the grief he feels over the death of his girlfriend Corinna, for which he wrongly holds his mother responsible. One day Flavian witnesses an abduction and sees a man walking away from the scene. That man, a wealthy businessman by the name of Reginald Hopper, turns up at the bookshop the next day and becomes an important customer, hiring Flavian as his personal librarian. He wants the Bennetts to search for a rare volume known as The Dark Return of Time, a book of unknown authorship. Also into Flavian’s life comes Candy Smith, who bears a certain resemblance to Corinna, accusing Hopper of being a gangster and murdering her father. Hopper reveals that she shot him and served a prison sentence, so that poor Flavian doesn’t know who to believe. Events reach a head when The Dark Return of Time is finally acquired, with the novel going off in the direction of a thriller, as Flavian and Candy attempt to keep alive and outrun Hopper’s men.

This is a fast paced book, one that continually wrong foots the reader, as we hear first Hopper’s story and then Candy’s, and like Flavian don’t know who to believe, while for reasons that eventually become clear he himself is an unreliable narrator. Wrapped into the texture of the story is a love of fine books, with the bibliophiles discussing potential purchases like connoisseurs of fine wine, something that many readers will no doubt identify with. The backdrop of Paris is compellingly realised, so that we can almost smell the Seine as we read, feel the breeze blowing down the boulevard. There is perhaps a slight disconnection between the measured pace and intellectual concerns of the first part and the action driven thrust of the second, with the story going off in the direction of gunfights and car chases, killing and torture, so that you might feel you’re reading a different book, but thanks to some deft foreshadowing it’s not a big disconnect and essential to the overall effect. The central concept, of a book that appears to be the biography of whoever reads it, is a fascinating idea, though somewhat underused I thought, almost a MacGuffin and one that could possibly have been dispensed with. Alternatively it offers a subtext on how every act of reading is a subjective one, that what the reader brings to the table is every bit as vital as what the writer provides, so that in a sense each and every reading of a book is a unique experience. And, of course, this novel itself has the title The Dark Return of Time, and it is the biography of narrator Flavian, a story constructed from his memories and experiences, one that he uses to reconcile himself to the fate of Corinna, trying to save Candy in lieu of the love he lost.

Russell has produced a beautifully written and very clever work of art, one that will perhaps seem entirely different on a second or third reading, as we pick up more information, catch the subtle nuances of the story, and make the book more about us than it is about Flavian and Candy and Hopper, or even R. B. Russell.

THE GREEN BOOK #3 (SRP pb, 106pp, €13.00) is the latest but one issue of a journal that aims to present ‘writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature’. In his introduction editor Brian J. Showers reveals that this time around it will focus on the work of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

Terri Neil opens the score with ‘The Embodiment of Sinister Agencies: Le Fanu and the Ghost of a Hand’, presenting an overview of the disembodied hand in supernatural literature and consideration of why such a thing should be so effective as a source of terror, before focusing in on Le Fanu’s use of the device in ‘An Authentic Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand’, offering various interpretations of the story and underlining its ambiguity in an essay that was intriguing and balanced, authorative without being overly academic for the lay reader. Rob Brown steps into the recent controversy with ‘Hybrids and Hyphenates: H. P. Lovecraft and the Irish’, opening a new front in the assault on HPL’s racism, quoting chapter and verse from the writer’s fiction and correspondence, to show that Providence’s most famous son wasn’t colour blind in his prejudices. While there is no doubt of Brown’s disapproval, he does provide some context by showing that HPL’s dislike of the Irish was more political in nature than racism per se, and hinting that the writer may have grown more tolerant in his later years.

‘Some Notes on Le Fanu’s Beatrice’ by Philip A. Ellis and Jim Rockhill does pretty much what it says on the tin, providing a sober assessment of Le Fanu’s only play, detailing both its virtues and vices and piquing the reader’s interest in learning more. ‘Towards an Irish Gothic Part Three’ by Albert Power offers a critical assessment of the work of Charles Robert Maturin, with particular emphasis on his classic Melmoth the Wanderer, ably demonstrating what made that book such a success, both popular and critical, and underlining Maturin’s importance in the Gothic tradition. J. A. Mains provides the final essay, ‘Shepherding Le Fanu: Herbert van Thal and the Invisible Prince’, detailing the role of the Pan Book of Horror Stories supremo in preserving Le Fanu’s reputation, both as editor and publisher, and to underline the point reproducing the two introductions to works of Le Fanu that van Thal published, detailing the latter’s thoughts on the former and why he is such an important writer. It’s an eminently readable piece, as indeed are all these essays, one that throws light on an episode of genre history that might otherwise have been overlooked and gives credit where credit is due.

The rest of the journal is taken up with a selection of in depth and insightful reviews of relevant material, contributors’ notes, and the aptly titled ‘Book Stalls’ section, in which various dealers lay out their wares for the aficionado of supernatural and gothic fiction. This is the perfect codicil to a lively and engaging little journal that treads the path between accessibility and academic depth with real panache.

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