A review that originally appeared in Black Static #49 as part of a feature on Tartarus Press:-
Rhys Hughes is not a horror writer, but with his off the wall humour, madcap invention, love of the bizarre and grotesque, endless wordplay, and penchant for pushing logic to the point where it blurs into insanity I would certainly consider him a person of interest. First and foremost he is an ideas man, and there are plenty of ideas in his latest collection, the evocatively titled ORPHEUS ON THE UNDERGROUND AND OTHER STORIES (Tartarus Press hc, 212pp, £35).
In ‘The Upper Reaches’ two airmen guard the wreckage of their crashed plane, but their exploration of the landscape leads to the realisation that they are ghosts, the story written with a double bluff at the start which mirrors its internal structure, with one thing claiming to be another and a horrible final realisation. The Greek lyrist relates to another traveller and busker in title story ‘Orpheus on the Underground’, with visions of different types of afterlife woven into the body of the narrative. There’s a mock-Gothic feel to ‘The Gargoyles of Black Wood’ as a traveller lost in a wood finds a castle and becomes the lynch pin of its owner’s plan to escape his confinement, the story buzzing along nicely and blurring all the lines as it goes. ‘The Despicable Bungling of Yorick Porridge’ starts with its eponymous protagonist having his house wall blown down and then seeking the help of free masons to reconstruct it, with subsequent adventures that become even more bizarre, a gleeful delight in wordplay and ideas the main attraction of the story.
A viewing device enables the dramatis personae of ‘Behind Every Ghost’ to see a procession of spirits stretching back into the mists of time, calling into question their own corporeality, the intriguing concept only a prompt for Hughes to come up with a delicious end twist. In ‘The Ghost Written Autobiography of a Disembodied Spirit’ Hughes has marvellous fun with the idea of a man who takes literally his wife’s declaration “You’re dead to me now”, the story going off in all sorts of directions and with an unflagging invention. The protagonist of ‘Double Meaning’ invents a double to go out and work in his place, then another to take care of the housework, only to find that he himself can be usurped by his creations, the story almost a comic absurdist reinvention of Frankenstein or Michael Keaton vehicle Multiplicity.
An inventor manages to get a stay of execution from the Grim Reaper in ‘The Nick of Time’ by supplying him with a more accurate timepiece than the traditional hourglass, but to keep his soul safe Hanwell must prevent anyone else producing something even more advanced, the story filled with delicious dialogue and witty invention, even as it spirals into realms of absurdity. ‘The Bicycle-Centaur’ Sadulsor Raleigh searches for his father, only to find that he is engaged in raising one of the Old Ones, but this in turn leads to the revelation of why Raleigh can’t enrol in Lampeter University, the story engagingly ludicrous and with each ridiculous step in the plot leading surely to the next. Presented in the form of an interview ‘The Quixote Candidate’ tells the story of a film director who decides that all life is a film and can be edited as required, the conceit remarkably retained throughout, so that everyday actions assume a newly absurdist significance.
A former soldier finds it hard to adapt to mercantile life in ‘The Pocket Shops’ and so he buys a war, the story one of the shorter and less successful ones in the collection, but still filled with wordplay and invention. A bridge falls in love with Venice’s Bridge of Sighs in ‘The Concise Picaresque Adventures of the Wanderlust Bridge’ and sets off on a quest to realise its infatuation, only to discover that the Venetian bridge is not quite what he expected and that in the course of its travels its stonework has been completely eroded. Completely over the top, agreeably so, this is a story that just keeps getting more ludicrous the longer it goes on. In ‘The Phantom Festival’ a music lover attending WOMAD gains access to various ghostly performances taking place in caverns below the campsite, but in searching ever deeper for the origins of music he learns too much, becoming immune to music’s appeal. Within this original framework Hughes has cleverly infiltrated the familiar trope of forbidden knowledge, while also giving us a musical education, all of which is great fun.
A man who believes that the secret to finding lost objects is ‘Not Looking’ discovers that when taken to its logical extreme the theory can cause havoc in his personal reality, the story another one that didn’t quite work for me, with little to offer beyond rigorous application of its central conceit. A politician becomes unpopular in his rural community when the party of which he is a member bans ghost hunting, but his attempts to circumvent this law prove to be a ‘New Improved Recipe for Disaster’ in another story that is as much fun as it is absurd. Finally we have ‘The Great Me’ in which an author and his characters manipulate each other to attain the required end, the return of his head which has been stolen by pickfaces who left a giant ruby in exchange. Yes it is that nonsensical, but written with verve and invention so that once you accept the logic of Hughes world everything else becomes possible.
Nearly every story here is highly entertaining, filled with prose pyrotechnics and inventive verve, a joyful outpouring of literary madness and mayhem. If I have a problem with Hughes’ work, it’s that I seldom make any emotional connection to his stories, so that my enjoyment is almost entirely cerebral rather than anything felt in the gut. That’s a personal preference on my part, rather than any criticism of Hughes, who is probably pitching for cleverness anyway and hitting his target with a ruthless precision. Taken individually several of the stories here are outstanding, and they all have something to commend them, but cumulatively I found them somewhat stultifying, a case of cleverness for cleverness’ sake. My advice is to consume the book in small portions, instead of gulping it all down in the one sitting like some fathead reviewer with a deadline to meet. I suspect you’ll enjoy it more that way. Complementing the text are some splendid ink drawings by artist Chris Harrendence.