Reviews of two short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #53:-
EPISODES FROM ANOTHER WORLD
Storylandia is the title of ‘The Wapshott Journal of Fiction’, published by Wapshott Press. The Spring 2015 issue, STORYLANDIA #15 (Wapshott Press pb, 142pp, $7.50), is dedicated to the work of Julie Travis, a writer who will be familiar to older readers from the early days of our predecessor The Third Alternative and possibly from other places as well. It contains five stories, all of them previously unpublished, and which, though the writer admits a preference for the term “slipstream”, have about them much that should appeal to horror genre purists.
Opening proceedings is ‘From the Bones’ which begins with the discovery of two separate burials on Dartmoor and the unearthing of ancient bodies that have been miraculously preserved and yet prove to have writing on their bones. For amateur archaeologist Vivienne this is the first revelation in a process that leads her to a new understanding of the history of the land, and meetings with those who guard and preserve it. There’s a whiff of writers like Machen and Blackwood about this, but underlying it a kind of pantheism or Gaia worship. Superficially the story is one of mystery, with grace notes of horror, particularly in the strange girl Humm and the things she appears capable of, a character who in some of her attributes brings to mind the unsettling female spirits of J-Horror cinema, though Humm’s intent is not as purely malevolent. But at the same time there is a purpose to all the horror, the terrible deaths that take place, sacrifice to some greater good; there is a feeling akin to sanctity that drives the plot, a reverence for the bleak and wild landscape that is so eloquently rendered on these pages. ‘Grave Goods’ is the story that to my mind seems most deserving a horror label, the tale of Eddy Dobbs who is afforded the chance to wreak revenge on his abusive father in the afterlife. On the surface this story seemed a bit contrived to me, with the idea that you can take goods into the afterlife and that it would be possible to smuggle instruments of torture into a coffin – while I don’t say such things would be impossible, they seem to me rather more in the nature of plot convenience than something that is at all likely. Allow for this though, and something more interesting is on offer, with Travis exploring the nature of abuse and how we are shaped by the incidents in our childhood, so that Eddy, although he regards himself as a good man and in many ways is one, contains within himself more than a little of his father’s worst traits. The story ends with a plot twist and a thoroughly nasty image that sums up the ways in which betrayal takes place. Told from the viewpoint of Case, who is puzzled by the claims of new flatmate Marie and her lack of any ‘Scar Tissue’ on her perfect body, the next story is an account of a strange new life form, one that leaves the reader unable to determine if this creature is a monster or simply different, if she is to be an object of fear or someone who deserves our pity. Marie has experiences that most of us would envy, but is the cost that she pays too high? Travis unravels the mystery with a skilled hand, slowly piling up the clues and leading us deeper into her maze of a story before showing what lies at its heart.
‘Theophany’ is the longest story in the collection and at fifty pages may even qualify for novella status. It returns to themes and ideas Travis explored in her 2008 story ‘Darkworlds’. A chasm opens in the grounds of the Tower of London, allowing the creatures of the Darkworld access to our dimension, while members of the Association plot to make money by selling property in the Darkworld to those of the plutocracy who hope to avoid death. While the bioweapon that is Yellow Jack spreads his terror throughout the city, others struggle to avert disaster by returning the ravens to the Tower. My precis gives only a hint of the convoluted plot and everything else that’s contained within its boundaries, the memorable characters that populate the narrative, the way in which legends and reality and dreams interweave, the shocking moments of violence and descriptions of tormented flesh, and who can forget the image of Yellow Jack on a skeletal horse pursuing a London double decker bus? It is the best of what is on offer here, a story that is as entertaining as it is inventive, with echoes of Barker and the King/Straub collaborations, as I observed when reviewing ‘Darkworlds’. Finally we have ‘Widdershins’, which initially begins as a combination of folklore and ghost story, but then develops into a fully-fledged exploration of time shifts and overlapping dimensions, couched in terms of the fairy tale. It’s a fascinating conflation of ideas, with some wonderful descriptive passages and larger than life characters, especially the unforgettable Mme Gargoyle. By way of coda we get an ‘After Wor(l)ds’ from the author, with Travis speaking of how the numinous has touched on her life and the effect of place on her writing, the ways in which her concerns have evolved and changed over the years (she also uses the phrase “episodes from another world”, which I’ve shamelessly filched for the title of this feature).
With the subtitle “Tales of Another Europe”, LOST CARTOGRAPHIES (Invocations Press pb, 152pp, £8) brings together six stories that, to quote from author Cyril Simsa’s introduction, explore the continent as “a locus of otherness”. As with the Travis, there is a deep and abiding concern for the land, for the sacred places and the areas where the veils between worlds grow thin, for the genius loci that are to be found when one wanders off the beaten path.
Set in the same year as Stoker’s publication of Dracula, and sharing similar events and narrative devices, ‘Imbibing History’ is the longest of what’s on offer, and also to my mind the best. From the journal of the geologist Rosamund Harper, one of those redoubtable female explorers who were a feature of the Victorian age, we learn of her excursion to Hungary and a meeting with Hieronymus Zibrt, an old man who lives alone in a ruined castle, shunned by the locals, and who claims to be a nine hundred year old vampire. And we have his account running concurrently, Zibrt’s admiration for this remarkable woman, her learning and apparent lack of fear, the way in which she takes his appetite for blood in her stride. The narrative unfolds at an almost leisurely pace, with Zibrt recounting details of his long life and the intricacies of vampirism, while Harper responds with observations from science, literature, and psychology, name dropping Darwin and Freud. It is an evocative and fascinating account of a meeting of two minds, of two intellects in sync despite their differences, and it leads to a fatal decision for one of them. With the strong sense of place, the setting so vividly described by Harper, and the reek of authenticity regarding the period in which it is set, a time when science is making so many inroads but superstition remains embedded in the culture, I found it thoroughly engrossing and loved every word of the story. Simsa gives us not a bloodsucking monster along the lines of Dracula and Lestat, but a fully rounded individual, one who has desires and a personal code just as we do, with only the matter of how he feeds to separate him from our common herd.
There’s another unusual encounter in ‘Journey’s End’, with a Dutch merchantwoman meeting Mistress Ragana, who is the embodiment of Death. Again, though lit up with some exotic descriptive passages, this is primarily a meeting of two minds, with the women finding that they have much in common, are both professionals at what they do. That aside, there are more than a few echoes in the text of classic story ‘The Appointment in Samarra’; one could even argue that it provides the framework on which Simsa builds his interpretation of the material. ‘On the Feast of Stephen’ taps into the almost universal legend of a sleeping hero who will rise from the grave to save the country in its hour of need, in this instant Good King Wenceslas whose spirit is invoked by a group of Czech pagans, only his loyalty is first and foremost to the land, not to the curious bipeds who infest it and believe themselves the measure of all things. Written with tongue in cheek, as it chronicles the magic ritual that brings about this chain of events, it’s a story that shifts gradually into more serious territory and comes with a degree of polemic, criticising man’s abuses of his environment, and suggesting that we are the ultimate illness, the sickness that infects this planet, a familiar theme in much horror and science fiction, but seldom as agreeably pitched as here. In ‘Under the Waves’ a water sprite who lives in a pond in the grounds of a feudal estate outside of Prague forms a bond with two young men that is broken by the advent of WWI. Simsa is deft at portraying this unlikely threesome, the commonalities and ties that bind them, while running through it all is an almost elegiac quality, a sense of loss, with the sprite’s tales of how things used to be only a foreshadowing of the changes that are to come as the modern world takes form, rising from the ashes of WWI.
With the next story we shift gears slightly, moving into the future, with an investigator trying to unmask a former politician wanted for crimes against the state. In outline ‘Poorly Formulated Questions’ reminded me of one of those pieces in which a crusader for justice gets to expose the former Nazi war criminal in hiding, but what moves the narrative on and gives it a thoroughly contemporary feel is that the crimes involved here have to do with climate change denial, and in the body of the story is an intriguing argument in which personal freedom is weighed in the scales against the survival of society as a whole, the rights of the individual versus those of the many. It’s a fascinating discussion and one where you find it so easy to see both sides of the argument, even if ultimately the right course of action isn’t really in doubt, though Simsa provides an ending that goes somewhat against the grain. And finally we have ‘Queen of Sumava’ set in a communist state where the border guards find themselves under inspection by a political officer sent by the Central Party, somebody who doesn’t appreciate the way things are done locally, with a blind eye turned to people smuggling and a nature spirit intervening when things go wrong. At the heart of the story is a clash of cultures, that between a new political ideology and something far older, a belief system grounded in respect for the land, with dogma crashing on the rocks of reality. As already noted, it’s a theme that runs through several of the stories in these two collections and which give the respective authors’ work a certain originality, a quality that strongly differentiates them from those tales where the genius loci is simply a convenient monster on which to hang a plot line and complementary atrocity show.
Both collections are highly recommended.