OR: Bastards of the Absolute

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 8th of August last year:-

Having started the week with a review of Soliloquy for Pan it seems appropriate to continue with some thoughts on the only other Egaeus Press title I have in my review cache, the short story collection BASTARDS OF THE ABSOLUTE (Egaeus Press hc, 258pp, £32) by Adam S. Cantwell.

There are eleven stories in this collection, all of which have been previously published, with the rider that “All works revised from their original appearances”. After an introduction by George Berguno, we open proceedings with ‘The Face in the Wall’, a story that put me very much in mind of the oeuvre of Clark Ashton Smith, his tales of fabulous realms and cities. A man is imprisoned in the walls of a city for a never named crime, with only his face protruding and witness to events over a period of years, including plague and invasion. Beautifully written and with a wealth of ideas embedded in the text as surely as its narrator is stuck in the wall, it celebrates the frailty of human life and the immutability of time.

Next story ‘The Filature’ is a superb piece of fiction, one of the best stories in the collection. I originally reviewed it in Black Static #26 when it featured in the Hanns Heinz Ewers tribute anthology Delicate Toxins edited by John Hirschhorn-Smith. I had this to say – “‘The Filature’ by Adam S. Cantwell plays out like a mix of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the film Silk, with a German entrepreneur at the silk factory of a Chinese magnate witnessing the transformation of a young woman, the story starting out naturalistically enough and then drifting into uncharted waters of the imagination, along the way taking in social commentary and the dangers of a too literal reading of religious symbolism.” I liked it even more on a second reading. It is far more complex than my earlier comments might suggest, with finely rendered characterisation and a wealth of details, while at the heart of the story is a tale of transformation that is both horrific and transcendental.

Transformation of a kind is also central to ‘Offal’, told from the perspective of an official sent to deal with an extreme case of hoarding, the tale told in a manner that elevates the material, making it almost science fictional in approach, and overall a fascinating exercise in studying obsessive behaviour. Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, ‘The Notched Sword’ has a protagonist who, like Calvino’s ‘Cloven Viscount’, is split asunder, one half surviving by writing Nazi propaganda. Again, it’s a story that strikes off in different directions, with central to it all the need for artistic validation, to outdo those we consider inferior, no matter what compromises or devil’s bargains we might be forced to make. And on that basis the protagonist stands as a symbol for all those who collaborated with the Nazis, whatever their motives or reasons.

In ‘Beyond Two Rivers: A Symphonic Poem’ the Maestro is in town to conduct at a concert but gets caught up in some sort of revolution, while at the same time one of his assistants is getting a little too pushy. This was one of the weaker stories in the collection and didn’t really do much for me, with the feeling that everything of interest was taking place off the page, leaving the reader to focus on this self-absorbed and not particularly interesting prima donna, though perhaps that was the point of it all. A Soviet censor gets a little too caught up in his work in ‘Only for the Crossed-Out’, elevating his own understanding of his role to the idea that he is personally responsible for stamping out a dangerous ideology, while playing counterpoint to this is a plot strand that emphasises the very ordinariness and unimportance of the man and what he is doing. It is, in its way, an appeal against the obsolescence that comes to us all, with a touch of Kafka in the telling.

Shortest story in the book, ‘The Curse of the Desert and Flesh’ is perhaps also the weakest, presenting us simply with the image of a man on horseback in the desert and engaged in a seemingly hopeless flight. Perhaps he is riding to Samarra. From weakest to best, with ‘Moonpaths of the Departed’ in which a composer is summoned to a remote castle and charged by his wealthy and influential employers with creating a new work for the new century. Long and rambling, with a leisurely pace as one piece after another is slotted into place, the story takes us deep into the caverns beneath the castle and far into the mind-set of loneliness and alienation, with back of it all a cult intent on summoning up an elemental being of pure chaos, the last line of the story throwing everything that has gone before into an unholy ferment. I loved it.

Music is a recurring theme throughout this book. Swedish composer Sibelius is the protagonist of ‘The Kuutar Concerto’, on a drunken and hallucinatory trip through the night time streets of the city encountering people from his past. At back of it all there are hints as to the nature of creativity and the ends that are served by the music, how it should be used to celebrate the pagan past, a gift that was rejected by the composer in favour of something far more secure, but less wonderful. We leave the story with regret for the music that was never composed. A composer at odds with the Soviet state is the subject of ‘Symphony of Sirens’, with much of the story presented as a Q&A dialogue, and at its heart is the idea of something pure and visionary that stands in opposition to the material world as constituted in the rigid outline of the Soviet state.

Final story and also the longest, ‘Orphans on Granite Tides’ tells of the search for a rare manuscript, a competition between rival scholars, with extracts from the document itself which hint that our world is far different from what we think we know of its nature. Wide-ranging and endlessly inventive, this is a story that provides much food for thought, and hints at far more than it cares to reveal, so that there is the expectation of further reward from future readings. It is the perfect end to a collection that shows what weird fiction is capable of when it takes on board cultural concerns and decides to jettison the preconceptions of its critics.

With some superb internal illustrations by Charles Schneider, this is a beautiful volume, one that more than lives up to Egaeus Press’ reputation for producing eminently collectible volumes, and it won’t come as any surprise to learn that the book has already sold out. Regarding that last observation, I note that on Amazon an American dealer is currently offering a used copy for £1486.99 plus, of course, £2.80 postage and packing.

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