Filler content with peacocks and tree spirits

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-


Many writers follow the same career path: you get a story published and then another story, and then a load more stories, in ever more prestigious and better paying outlets as you hone your skills, until finally you’re ready to cherry pick the best fictions from your back catalogue and release them as a first collection, with a few new pieces to entice those who’ve followed your career so far. And then again, every so often there’s a writer who breaks the mould, who appears out of nowhere with a fully developed prose style and kitbag stuffed with literary tricks, whose first collection bursts on the scene without warning or fanfare, like Athena stepping forth from the head of Zeus.

Case in point Michael Eisele, whose debut collection THE GIRL WITH THE PEACOCK HARP (Tartarus Press hc, 268pp, £35) appeared in 2016, containing fifteen stories, none of which had been previously published.

The opening stories in this collection are all concerned with artistic and creative endeavour, themes that recur in Eisele’s work, but married to a style that has something of the fairy tale about it. ‘An Old Tale’ is set in Russia and tells the story of the rivalry between two ballerinas, one a poor girl with immense talent and the other a rich girl with influence. While the latter might triumph in the eyes of the world, it is the purity of the former’s vision that wins her the only accolades that matter in this beautifully written and meaningful story. ‘The Beginning’ is the story of the childhood love between an aristocrat and a gipsy girl and what happened when they tried to make a marriage in adulthood, despite the restrictions of society. The girl’s exuberance finds root in the couple’s son, who while a talented musician simply can’t play the tunes of other people without “tinkering”. Musical expression here is a metaphor for freedom of the human spirit and Eisele appears to be saying that once a work of art has one interpretation/one way of playing it, then it is in effect dead (the inference is that tales too must be constantly retold and reinvented if they are to live). Wide ranging and with a sure understanding of human emotions and the constraints imposed by society and the expectations of others, this was a superb study in disillusionment and at the same time striving for the best. Sequel ‘The Music’ continues the theme (and one of the characters) with a gipsy violinist resisting the attempts of a “maestro” to commit his wild music to the page, to imprison the tunes in musical notation, instead preferring the invention and spontaneity of live performance, the uniqueness of that single moment.

‘The Lighthouse’ has a man who accepts a job as lighthouse keeper succumbing to the blandishments of a mermaid, with dire consequences. It’s a bittersweet tale, one in which the miraculous and the thing sought after are shown to have a vicious streak, though Eisele is canny enough to keep open the possibility that there is good reason for their hostility. With what might easily be interpreted as a passing reference to the oeuvre of Lovecraft, this is the first story in the collection that could properly be regarded as horror fiction. We’re back in old Russia for ‘The Eyes’, with a young woman discovering the truth about her own nature on a wild and unwise sleigh ride, Eisele’s evocation of the winter scenery and the “uppity” nature of his protagonist are spot on. In ‘What Dreams May Come’ we have complementary narratives. In one Meryl attempts to get ahead in the world of advertising, facing all the difficulties that women must confront, and in the other a powerful winged being chooses a mate from among the lesser males vying for her attention. The crux of the story lies in which narrative best reflects the reality of the situation, and as far as that goes Eisele is bordering on a plot that is cliché ridden, but he rises above the banality of the conceit through vivid descriptive writing and characterisation, ultimately offering us a compelling parable that addresses issues of female empowerment and the difficulties presented by the so called glass ceiling.

The female protagonist of ‘Gloria and the Selchie’ in her search for the ideal partner enslaves a supernatural being, with terrible consequences waiting further down the line. There are some delightful touches of black humour in this piece and the matter of fact style of the telling, with hints of an omniscient narrator, effortlessly lure the reader in before the jolt of the harsh denouement. ‘Frogs’ put me in mind of a Lafcadio Hearn story that I can’t recall the title of (and aren’t fussed enough to look up), but is set in Russia rather than feudal Japan, with a communist Commissar who dismisses the superstitions of the simple villagers in his charge only to discover to his cost that there is sometimes superstition with good reason. It’s a predictable enough piece, but made enjoyable by Eisele’s thoroughly engaging prose and the delight of seeing a bad lot get what is coming to them. We’re back among the gipsies for ‘Milosh’, a story of youthful love and betrayal that doesn’t really offer much in the way of surprises but is satisfying and eloquent, with a convincing picture of prejudice and intolerance, subjects that never really go away and, at the present moment, seem more painfully relevant than ever.

‘Sanity’ is in some ways the reverse of earlier story ‘What Dreams May Come’, with a woman in an asylum being treated for her visions of life as a mage in some other world. It’s an effortless read and passes the time in an agreeable manner, but this go round the whole thing felt just a little too familiar, a case of been there, done that, and bought the magic cape. While the next story is titled ‘Kelpie’ and indeed there is a kelpie in the narrative, it’s in the main misdirection on the author’s part. The soul of the plot lies in the fate of Dara, convicted of witchcraft, but finding that she is something else entirely. It’s a brief piece, one that deftly lampoons the prejudices of those willing to accept help from a healer, but then turning on them when the diktats of some higher power demand a zealot outcry, and written with a delightful twist at the end. ‘Monkey’ is a young boy imprisoned in an asylum, but community service “volunteer” Nadia recognises him for what he really is, and whether she wants to or not is the one that must do something about it and correct a terrible wrong. With this story Eisele ventures into Arabic mythology and folk belief, doing so with respect and sensitivity. One of the longest stories in the book, it is an inventive work, with a new perspective on the internet in general and the dark web in particular, plus a cast of larger than life characters who burst off the page with their rebellious but ultimately noble natures. I loved it.

Title story ‘The Girl with the Peacock Harp’ is in fact a poem, five pages of rhyming verse that detail the just desserts meted out to a lout who doesn’t appreciate good music, or something like that. It’s thoroughly charming, and I suspect rather forgettable. ‘The Change’ is a werewolf variation, with the story’s protagonist a wolf most of the time and having to learn to act human, an idea used before by Ursula K. Le Guin I believe, though not explored as thoroughly. This is amusing and at the same time rather sad, while offering for humans an exercise in seeing ourselves through the eyes of others that feels a bit harsh, in part deservedly so. Finally we have ‘Rolf’, a story told by a crippled beggar seeking alms. It concerns a master mason who unwittingly got dragged into one of the Devil’s plots. A fascinating account, it addresses once again the theme of creativity, with the suggestion that sacrifices are demanded, the ending as predictable and/or inevitable as it was gratifying. It was a strong end to a collection that cast a wide net and was never less than enjoyable and rewarding.

Two years on and we have Eisele’s second collection, TREE SPIRIT AND OTHER STRANGE TALES (Tartarus Press hc, 291pp, £35), and with this book we see an author growing in confidence and flexing creative muscle. Eisele now has the confidence to present fantastic scenarios and settings that stand on their own two feet, without the benefit of a “real world” backdrop, while his welcome use of strong female protagonists feels even more evident than before (even the stories with a male lead, have a woman in the background and shaping the way things fall out).

The collection opens with the story of the painter Schalken and his friendship with a magical being called ‘Mouse’. It’s a piece that touches on many themes, including the hardships of the artistic life and the conflict between being true to oneself and wishing to please a paying client, wrapping it all up in a magical story of otherworldly beings and the truth of our lost empathy with nature. Eisele brings his characters to vivid life on the page, and infuses the narrative with a sense of both loss and hope. ‘Aedan of the Taexili and the Giant’ is a David and Goliath variation, with young Aedan triumphing over his adversary through showing a kindness alien to the nature of his people’s champions. It’s a story that has a delicious sense of irony running through it, with chivalric codes mocked and the true heroes of the piece shown as the women in the story. There’s a fairy tale quality to ‘Leshi’, with Gregor coming into his inheritance and able to revive the fortunes of his family through an alliance with a nature spirit. This is a story that honours old traditions, at its heart the idea of man and nature in balance to the profit of both, all wrapped up in an intriguing plot involving a search for lost treasure and with compelling characters in the deluded Gregor and his more down to earth sister.

The occultist Wilhelm wishes to command the djinn and will do whatever it takes to attain his goal in ‘Sacrifice’, but the “virgin” he has chosen to use to forward his plans has ideas of her own. The story is predictable, but pleasing all the same for the way in which it unfolds, an almost leisurely pace, and what it reveals of a magician’s life, with the inevitable satisfaction of seeing a bad piece of work get his deserved comeuppance. Reading like a cross between The X-Files and The Jungle Book at times, ‘Come Not High’ offers us a charming alternative to the creation myths, the story as delightful as it is engaging. ‘The Professor and the Nixie’ reads like an alternative version of ‘Leshi’, with an academic fleeing Nazi persecution encountering a water spirit of sorts, or perhaps a ghost. The reader of course knows most of what is going on, even if the Professor remains oblivious, but that doesn’t undermine the power of the story, much of which is rooted in the conflict between traditional values and the new values represented by the Professor in a mild form, and more tellingly by National Socialism. At the story’s heart is the Professor’s moral dilemma, and in a way he loses the chance at love of a kind through making the wrong decision, or perhaps he escapes one fate worse than death only to embrace another. Comedy is provided by the figure of housekeeper with attitude Frau Metz.

In title story ‘Tree Spirit’, woodcarver Arv is chosen by his matriarchal society to fashion a totem, but instead decides with the encouragement of a tree spirit to fashion a canoe and escape the community he finds so parochial and stultifying, but not everyone has the same agenda as he does. A slow, meandering piece, this is a story that grips the attention and holds it all the way, with a subtext that seems to affirm it is better to travel in hope than arrive, the narrative given extra depth by its shamanistic undertones. An injured man is saved through the intervention of the gipsy woman known as ‘Willow Rawnie’, only latterly discovering that he has had an encounter with the numinous. It’s a familiar plot and runs along well-travelled lines, feeling rather like the ghost story equivalent of comfort food, but satisfying for all that, with its evocation of time and place, and the spectral atmosphere of the piece. Building caretaker ‘Mr Saria’ is not at all what he seems, and neither is one other person in a short story that gives us an amusing variation on the idea of aliens among us. ‘The Wife’ is a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ variation, with a young woman throwing her cap at the lord of the manor, only to find that she must take steps to protect herself from what appears to be, in all but name, a werewolf. It’s a clever piece, deftly turning the tropes of the genre on their head, and with resonances that bring to mind the older, bloodier traditions of the fairy tale.

The next story is the first of three concerning the witch Janet Evelyn and told by her familiar ‘Brown Jenkins’ (Janet names him after a Lovecraft creation). It gives us a fascinating account of the true story of witches, and how Janet comes into her heritage, the whole underpinned by sympathy for the witches and condemnation of the way in which they are spurned but at the same time used by the world of men. Fear of those who are different and double standards are the drivers of this story. ‘The Gardinel’ has the witch dealing with problems presented by the creature that is her house, one of many intriguing and inventive otherworldly beings in these stories. A short piece it entertains and at the same time widens our understanding of Janet’s world. Finally in ‘The Black Man’ a preacher pays suit to Janet Evelyn, who falls for his flattery despite Brown’s warnings, but eventually his real motives are revealed and Janet takes suitable revenge. At the heart of the story is the hypocrisy of men, who condemn witches and other fallen women but still want to sleep with them, who use religion as a means to further their own vices, and of course we can delight in the misfortune that befalls the eponymous character.

Inspired by the spirits, Onnai leaves her isolated community and people to pursue the seals that have abandoned them in ‘The Selchie’, only to stumble into the world of men and have to learn how to deal with their complicated ways. It’s a fascinating exercise in seeing ourselves as others see us, and made all the more effective by the restrained nature of the telling and the lack of any violence towards Onnai on the part of humans. Last of all we have ‘The Nun’s Tale’ in which an inmate at a home for retired priests tells of an encounter with a nun who had first-hand knowledge of the divine, though not quite in the manner which she had anticipated. There’s a tall tale feel to this last story, though the character (and the author) is a natural raconteur so that we hang on his every word as the story unfolds, with a convincing evocation of the jungle and its strangeness at the heart of the tale.

Eisele is an author with a unique perspective, albeit there’s much in his work that will feel familiar. These two collections contain stories that are polished, quirky and eccentric; that won’t quite fit into any genre straitjacket but instead entertain and enthral in part by virtue of their protean nature.

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