Filler content with short story collections – Part 2

The second part of a feature on short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS (continued)

Another beautifully produced book from Ireland’s Swan River, THE SATYR & OTHER TALES (The Swan River Press hc, 240pp, €30.00) brings together title novella ‘The Satyr’ from 2010 and three stories previously published in 2011. As author Stephen J. Clark explains in his introduction much has been reworked, and Clark also provides some beautiful black and white illustrations to accompany the text. The book is produced in a limited edition of 350 copies.

The figure of artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare (1886 – 1956) is central to novella ‘The Satyr’. Among the ruins of London during the Blitz, the fugitive Hughes and a girl who has taken the name Marlene, after the film star Dietrich, wander in search of Spare, who she regards as her artistic mentor. They are pursued by Doctor Charnock, the overseer of an institution in which Marlene was once a patient. With snatches of poetry and song lyrics, plus excerpts from Charnock’s reports on Marlene, and the girl’s own attempts to create a mythology of Spare, the story has a surreal feel to it, a sense of decadence and end of days hanging over everything. It is a rite of passage of sorts, with vivid writing and descriptions that burn into the mind, while overall there is the hint of some truth hovering just out of reach, so that you suspect it is a story that will reward further reading.

While not as ambitious in scope, the three stories grouped under the title ‘The Bestiary of Communion’ that take up the second part of the book are perhaps more accessible, Clark taking on familiar themes and tropes of the genre and giving them his own unique spin. In ‘The Horned Tongue’ bookseller Metternich is mourning the loss of his wife, but in trying to discover the secrets of her last days he stumbles into the clutches of Professor Woland, who assigns him a task and may well be the Devil in disguise. A fusion of the deal with the Devil trope and the occult text device, this was a thoroughly engaging and unique foray into the world of witchcraft, as if Daryl Van Horne had wandered onto the set of Suspiria. In ‘The Lost Reaches’ Jan and Marek are smuggling fugitives across the border, but deep in the forest they stumble across a mysterious house that appears to be a projection of the subconscious of the artist Bruno Schultz. Again there is an almost hallucinatory feel to this story, as manifestations of the artist’s ego take concrete form, or perhaps all the characters are dead and this palace of memory is simply an attempt by their dying psyches to make sense of what has happened to them and preserve something of the past. Finally in ‘The Feast of the Sphinx’ we travel to Prague in 1939 where a Czech policeman is assigned an impossible case, knowing that failure will bring him to the attention of the Gestapo. Guided by the artist Nemec he feels close to discovering something of the numinous, secrets that date back to the reign of Rudolf II and are rooted in alchemical practice. Again it is a fascinating and hallucinatory journey, one in which the threat of Nazi brutality rubs shoulders with the idea of something greater than the life which we know. I’m not sure how much I understood of any of these stories and all of them would reward a second or third reading, but Clark’s subtle prose, vivid and disturbing imagery, and the concepts he weaves into his stories make them irresistible to those whose senses have been jaded by more common fare.

Michael Reynier introduced us to Horthólary in his previous collection of novellas from Tartarus, Five Degrees of Latitude, in which the scholar had to deal with ‘Le Loup-Garou’, and now he gets his own book, HORTHÓLARY: TALES FROM MONTAGASCONY (Tartarus Press hc, 350pp, £35), produced in a limited edition of 300 copies. It contains four novellas chronicling Horthólary’s adventures in fabled Montagascony, a region of eighteenth century France that lies somewhere to the west or east of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne and is every bit as unique.

After an introduction in which the author does his best to convince the reader that his protagonist was a genuine historical figure by means of mock erudition and scholarship, we get into things proper with ‘The Angel of Pessane’, in which a university town appears to have been gifted an angelic visitation and at about the same time an outsider’s corpse is discarded in the woods bordering the town. Charged with investigating by his old friend the Sénéchal, Horthólary is soon unravelling a tale of miracles and metal with strange properties, while at the same time the two friends must outwit Bishop Rapin’s plans to use the death as a pretext to attack the local gypsies. The second story ‘Dii Nixi’ takes us back to Horthólary’s childhood when he and his young friends must confront an infestation from the stars in a story which reads like a conflation of Alien and Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space’. ‘The Nephilim’ is set in his student days, when Horthólary and another prize pupil are sent to Montagascony to investigate reports of giant bones being unearthed, stumbling into something far more fantastical and outré than they could ever have imagined. Finally old age arrives for Horthólary and in ‘Nemestrinus’ the plans of his lifelong rival Rapin (now an Archbishop) come to fruition with the capture of a reputed wizard and the leader of the Palbanite sect.

These four novellas are far more complex than my “bones of” summations might suggest, with a greater story arc playing out over the course of the book, deepening our understanding of the various characters and their motivations. Horthólary reads like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael. Like the great detective he has a brilliant mind and can be annoying to those such as the Sénéchal who simply can’t keep up with his mental processes, but he also has something of the Holy Man’s humility and compassion, is a person who always seems to have had an old head on his young shoulders. In a book that has many pleasures perhaps the most delightful is Reynier’s exposition heavy manner of storytelling, with elaborate and sometimes rambling asides that flesh out the material, so that we can’t be introduced to a character, no matter how minor, without a potted history, or visit a place without getting a description that would put National Ordnance to shame with its detail. In less skilled hands such methods could be alienating to the reader, but Reynier writes with such luminosity and obvious relish in what he is conveying that the reader can’t help but be drawn in. It is the art of a natural raconteur, bringing the characters and locations to vivid life, but never patronising the reader. Woven into the text are matters metaphysical and gnostic, so that at times it feels like Reynier is creating a mythos of his own, one in which the miraculous is central but at the same time propped up by a scientific knowledge just beyond our own. Central to it all is the Montagascony itself, an area that is fertile for the imagination and rich in folklore and legends of magical beings and witchcraft, a wild place, a locale where the borders have worn thin and monsters like the Egregore are constantly pressing up against the barriers. There are echoes of Lovecraft, but Reynier is his own man and his creation is as original as it is vivid and entertaining, with issues such as misogyny and xenophobia deftly woven into the text to give the stories extra relevance for modern day readers. Be sure to put Montagascony on your travel itinerary in the near future. You will not be disappointed.

Lovecraft is most definitely central to Brian Lumley’s EARTH, AIR, FIRE & WATER (Fedogan & Bremer hc, 336pp, $34.95). With a stunning full colour wraparound cover by Bob Eggleton and striking interior black and white illustrations by Jim Pitts, this assemblage of four novellas by one of the foremost writers in the Lovecraft tradition is undeniably a thing of beauty. Each novella is based on one of the four elements of classic Greek philosophy and science.

We kick off with Earth and ‘Lord of the Worms’, which originally appeared in 1983 and recounts an early event in the life of Lumley’s psychic sleuth Titus Crow. It’s 1945 and a newly demobbed Crow (though his contribution to the war effort was somewhat more esoteric than that of most) seeks gainful employment by cataloguing the library of wealthy occultist Julian Carstairs, but naturally Carstairs has other plans for our hero, plans that intend Crow harm. There are echoes here of Dennis Wheatley’s black magic adventures and his class obsessions, though put to much subtler use, while providing a solid foundation for the story is an attempt at injecting verisimilitude by the introduction of fabled occult texts, numerology, and magical practices, so that the whole has a feeling about it of somebody in the know sharing arcane knowledge. The duel of magic, of bluff and counter bluff, move and evasion, between Crow and the evil Carstairs (echoes of M. R. James’ Karswell), is fascinating to follow, culminating in a moment of pure pulpish undoing. It’s a grand curtain raiser, for both what follows in this volume and the career of Titus Crow.

We go back further still, to 1975 for the Air story, which is aptly titled ‘Born of the Winds’. Set in a snow girt area of Canada, the story makes strong use of local legends, such as that of the Wendigo. Meteorologist David Lawton agrees to help Lucille Bridgeman search the frozen wastes for her son Kirby. Bridgeman’s deceased husband Sam was an anthropologist who held some strange theories, such as belief in an entity known as Lord Ithaqua, the Wind-Walker (a creation of August Derleth). You can probably guess the rest, but as with the Earth offering the lack of any real plot twists or surprises doesn’t in any way detract from the pleasure of reading a story with an engaging narrative voice, a finely tuned plot, and a satisfyingly enigmatic resolution. Lumley introduces a plethora of incidental details, accumulating fake scholarly treatises and subverting actual facts to give his monster a solid grounding in our world, and his evocation of the snow covered landscape in which the bulk of the story takes place is powerful and foreboding.

‘The Gathering’ is the longest story in the collection and the only one that hasn’t been previously published. Set in Lovecraft’s New England, it is the tale of Andrew Gilman who returns to The Hamlet after the death of his father. The whole community seems to be focused on preparing for an event known as The Gathering, and it’s up to Gilman to piece together family history and the strange occurrences that are taking place in an attempt to make sense of it all and find his own place in the greater scheme. Given the setting and the presence of inbred locals, this story brings to mind HPL’s Innsmouth, though here pitched as a Fire story rather than one of amphibian outsiders. I have some reservations, particularly regading the ease with which Andrew takes up with his father’s mistress, but overall it is a well-paced and intriguing tale, one in which the monsters are given a fair shake of the tentacle and shown to be simply different, rather than objects of fear (albeit some of their actions and outer appearances are certainly shudder inducing). Gilman is given a moral dilemma, whether to reject or embrace his heritage, and as a backdrop there is a strong sense of the numinous and cosmic vision.

Innsmouth is referenced in Lumley’s introduction to the Water novella, 2012’s ‘The Changeling’. The story’s unnamed protagonist encounters a stranger on a deserted beach in Greece and hears out his tale, which offers up a very different conception of how life functions and the identity of the dominant species, one that has implications for the narrator. It is the shortest story here and the least, but still powerful stuff with its depiction of bodily transformation and the way in which it touches on our horror of the outsider, while Lumley underpins it with historical and mythological details that create a sense of verity. It is a fitting end to a very strong collection of novellas, one that will be every bit as entertaining for latecomers to Lovecraft’s work as to those steeped in mythos fiction.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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