Category: Reviews

Review – An Emporium of Automata

D.P. Watt

automataEach year here at Speculative Fiction Junkie ends with a Top 5 Reads post.  Many of the books that make these lists have been reviewed here during the previous twelve months, but occasionally a book is included on the list that has no accompanying review. This was the case with D.P. Watt’s stunningly excellent collection An Emporium of Automata, which was initially printed in a very limited print run by Ex Occidente Press. It beat out some serious competition to make it onto my Top 5 Reads of 2010 list, so when I learned that Eibonvale Press would be reprinting an expanded edition of the collection, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to give this collection the review it deserves.

This edition of Emporium collects most of D.P. Watt’s short stories that have been published to date and includes three stories that were published after the collection’s initial Ex Occidente Press run. While there are a few that do not leave much of an impression, a majority of them are outstanding works of weird fiction.

“Of Those Who Follow Emile Bilonche” has been a favorite of mine since I first read it a few years ago. It is an engrossing tale of one man’s descent into madness as a result of his obsession with the elusive works of one Emile Bilonche. Irrational obsessions are a frequent subject of weird fiction, but this tale is especially effective because of the slow revelation that despite the protagonist’s high praise for Bilonche, he actually knows almost nothing about him.

Another excellent story is “Room 89.” On the surface, it is a horror story involving a haughty academic vacationing on the Isle of Wight. But beneath the surface, something far more interesting is going on. A closer reading reveals the protagonist to be unwittingly ambling through  a carnival fun house hall of mirrors bursting with disorienting reflections, only some of which are accurate. In this respect, the “Room 89” is a perfect example of the way in which Mr. Watt’s fiction can work on multiple levels.

A final favorite is the first story by Mr. Watt I ever read, “Dr. Dapertutto’s Saturnalia.” This tale opens with a Soviet Inspector being outraged when he receives a package containing a roll of film from Dr. Dapertutto, self-described “Direktor, Entertainer, Reveller, Charlatan and Misanthrope.” To the Inspector, this is the most “blatant and insolent manifestation of bourgeois decadence” he has ever encountered. When a subordinate sent to arrest Dr. Dapertutto returns and reports that the theater had been destroyed the previous November for staging  “theatre of a form unfit for the education and betterment of the Soviet State,” the Inspector decides that he must watch the film and seek out the Direktor himself. The theatrically violent scene that plays out on the film contrasts sharply with the regimented worldview of the Inspector, but the thing that makes this story so effective is the brutally stark way in which the Direktor, rather than the Inspector, is revealed to be the true master of the story’s world.

These stories make clear that Mr. Watt is a master storyteller in every sense of the word, but–as you should expect by now–there is actually more going on here than simple storytelling. Consider a story like “They Dwell in Ystumtuen.”  It begins with a bored and distracted historian trying to recall the details of a public hanging that took place in 19th century Britain. But this image is then juxtaposed with the heart-wrenchingly tragic and brutally violent story of what actually happened to the person who was hanged. The contrast couldn’t be clearer and Mr. Watt states it plainly:

Imagine, if you can, dear reader (mindful, kind or otherwise) the infinite neglect of history by the historian. Imagine the millions of lives heaping up, untold, forgotten, yet undead in the graveyard of memory; begging, or praying, with skeletal hands to be brought back to mind, if only for an instant.

This is as concise and as beautifully written a statement as one can find of a theme that seems to be a near obsession of Mr. Watt’s, which is the overwhelming weight of the absent mass of humanity that has been lost over the ages. This same concern is seen in “The Condition,” when a character exclaims that “There is nothing remaining that has not had its song darkened by this century’s deeds. The world will have to begin art again. And from what it has lost it will realise the value of everything.” Another beautiful illustration of this theme can be found in “Beware the Dust!” from The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller (review here) and indeed this is a theme intricately woven throughout much of Mr. Watt’s work.

This preoccupation with not just the humanity before us but with all of the individual humans who are absent is, I believe, at the root of several of the other strengths of Mr. Watt’s work, including the extreme beauty of his prose and the way that his narrators directly address the reader. While these traits obviously owe a debt to the author’s roots in the theater, their real impetus is the urgency that results from the dizzying work of confronting such a terrible vision.

An Emporium of Automata is a truly landmark collection and is as rich a treasure as literature is capable of producing.

The True First

An Emporium of Automata was first published by Ex Occidente Press in 2010 in a limited edition of 150 copies. Thankfully, Eibonvale Press has done the world the service of republishing the book as both a hardcover and a paperback, with an electronic copy to follow shortly. I purchased a hardcover copy and was very impressed with the physical quality of the book, my first from Eibonvale.

[This review was not based on a review copy]


Review – The Holy Machine

Chris Beckett

One of the greatest literary injustices of recent years is the fact that Chris Beckett’s novel Dark Eden (review here) is almost completely unknown on this side of the Atlantic.  Dark Eden was my Top Read last year and is one of the best books I have ever read. Once I finished it, the only reason I didn’t rush out to grab his debut novel, The Holy Machine, right away is because I try not to review works by the same author consecutively. Once sufficient time  had passed, however, I tracked down a copy of The Holy Machine and eagerly dove in.  Sadly–but perhaps unsurprisingly given how incredible Dark Eden is– The Holy Machine is not even in the same class.

The Holy Machine is set in twenty-first century Illyria, a Mediterranean refuge of science and reason that was founded as a sanctuary from the religious Reaction that swept the rest of the globe. George Simling is a resident of Illyria who falls in love with a robotic prostitute who shows signs of emerging consciousness.  The prevailing rationality of Illyria would not tolerate (or even believe in) a sentient machine and so George decides to take her outside of its strong walls, but the superstitious zealots outside of Illyria despise robots for completely different reasons.

Anyone who has read Dark Eden will not be surprised to see Mr. Beckett tackling themes likes the ones addressed in The Holy Machine, but he does so much less successfully in this earlier novel. To put it bluntly, the book shows many of the markings of the frequently encountered Imperfect First Novel. These include the oversimplification of complex phenomena to the point that the story loses basic credibility (both the rationalism of Illyria and the religiosity of the outside world are overly simplified in the extreme), fundamental failures of worldbuilding in the sense that the reader is asked to believe that the world is large but that it nonetheless inevitably yields a neverending supply of convenient chance reunions between important characters,  and failures of characterization in the sense that nearly every character encountered shares a myopic focus on the exact philosophical issues that the author wants to address.

Ultimately, these flaws wreck the novel. Having said that, though, I am always glad when authors are interested in addressing these issues as directly as Mr. Beckett has and wish that more authors would attempt to do so. Furthermore, what it really boils down to is that if Mr. Beckett had to write The Holy Machine in order to be capable of writing Dark Eden, then I am glad that he wrote it. My advice, though, is to skip The Holy Machine and go straight to Dark Eden.

The True First

The Holy Machine was first published in 2004 by Wildside Press. There were apparently a few hardcover copies printed but these are pretty difficult to locate at this point.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

Review – The Tainted Earth

George Berguño

thetaintedearthIn this golden age of the small press, new independent presses seem to blink into existence on a near weekly basis. One of the best to have appeared in the past year is undoubtedly Egaeus Press. In its brief existence, Egaeus has established itself as a top tier publisher in terms of both the physical quality of the books it is publishing and the caliber of authors it secures.

The third offering from Egaeus is a new collection of strange tales from George Berguño, whose first two collections were published by Ex Occidente Press and are now unobtainable except at very high prices. I enjoyed Mr. Berguño’s first collection, The Sons of Ishmael, but confess that none of its stories  lingered in my mind for more than a few days. The same cannot be said for The Tainted Earth, which contains some very memorable tales. While I have not read Mr. Berguño’s second collection and so cannot say so definitively, I would be surprised if  The Tainted Earth isn’t his best collection yet.

The stories contained in The Tainted Earth are varied in their subject matter and setting. My favorite in the collection is probably “The Ballad of El Pichón,” a tale of an elderly man who sits by Valparaiso Bay selling sparrows painted as canaries to unsuspecting sailors. One day, a young girl stumbles across the man and becomes so intrigued by him that from that point forward she constantly seeks him out, against the stern instructions of her mother. The girl’s actions eventually lead to a horrifying, if poetically satisfying, conclusion and the reader is left with a feeling that Valparaiso is a magical place, even if its magic has a decidedly sinister aspect. I hope that this relatively short story eventually leads to a more lengthy treatment of the city by Mr. Berguño.

“Mouse and the Falconer” is a close second favorite. It is the story of a young man who tracks down an artist hailed by some as a great photographer. The young man agrees to look after the artist’s apartment while the latter is away. Years pass and the young man passes up opportunity after opportunity to immerse himself in life. Eventually, the artist returns and confronts the young man with the sad facts of his life in a direct and powerful way. There is nothing particularly subtle about this story, but it is very effective nonetheless.

Another wonderful story is “The Rune Stone at Odenslunda,” in which a man is writing a tale inspired by an Scandinavian Saga which in turn was recounted on a rune stone that had since been destroyed. The story contains two threads: the Scandinavian saga being retold and the story of how the writer learned about the tale he is recounting. While the interwoven story format is interesting, it is the Scandinavian saga thread that steals the show. It is about a minor king who sends his son to find him a new wife after the boy’s mother dies. The boy returns to his father with the daughter of a witch who eventually takes an interest in the younger man. When the latter spurns her advances, the results are not pleasant.

Towards the back of the collection is a section called “About The Stories” that contains a few remarks from the author about each of its tales. Some authors of weird fiction routinely decline to explain their creations or to speculate on the inspiration behind them, but Mr. Berguño does not hesitate in this regard. While his remarks are interesting, they seemed to bear almost no relation to how I felt about a particular story. For example, in the notes that accompany “The Rune Stone at Odenslunda,” the author states that “[w]hat I wanted to achieve, above all, was to transform an ancient text that praises heroic male deeds into an existential meditation on the futility of heroic action, and the communicative gap between men and women.” I did not read this story in this way at all, although I confess that I can see that this is what the author was doing in hindsight.

The truth, though, is that Mr. Berguño’s stories are memorable and effective on their face without resort to their underlying purpose or meaning. While some strange tales are effective because of the quality of their prose and others because of the strength of their vision, Mr. Berguño’s stories are powerful because they draw from the same deep well that folk tales do. Authors who can draw on this oldest and most powerful of literary veins as well as Mr. Berguño does are rare, to say the least.

The True First

The Tainted Earth was first published in 2012 by Egaeus Press in a print run of 300.

[This review was based on a review copy]

Review – Blood Song

Anthony Ryan

The success of Anthony Ryan’s novel Blood Song has allowed him to quit his day job and devote himself to writing full time. Who is Anthony Ryan, you ask? You might be surprised to learn that his debut novel Blood Song had over 650 reviews on Amazon with an average rating of 5 at the time I began writing this review. By way of comparison, the entire list of Speculative Fiction Junkie’s Top 5 Reads of 2012 has a combined total of 27 reviews on Amazon. I almost never judge a book by its Amazon reviews and I mention them here only to demonstrate the scale of this book’s popularity. What would you say if I told you that this book won’t even be printed in physical form until July and that it currently exists only in electronic format? I haven’t read or reviewed as much pure fantasy in recent years, but the pre-publication popularity of Blood Song was just too intriguing for me to pass it up.

Blood Song tells the story of Vaelin Al Sorna who as a young boy is left by his father to be raised by the Sixth Order, one of a handful of orders dedicated to preserving the Faith. Each order performs a different primary function in service to the Faith and the Sixth’s is combat. The early part of the book focuses on the training and trials of young Vaelin and his ever closer group of companions as they learn fighting, survival, and other skills. As the book progresses, Vaelin matures quickly and distinguishes himself as a leader. At the same time, he increasingly finds himself entangled in the complex interplay of the Faith and the secular power of the King. He eventually is forced to make a number of difficult decisions that lead to war and to his eventual capture. As the novel opens he is relating his tale to a chronicler while on board a ship that is taking him to fight a duel at the insistence of his captors.

Blood Song thus combines a typical fantasy story with a coming of age tale in much the same manner as The Name of the Wind does. They are also structurally similar in that they both proceed by having the protagonist relate his story to a chronicler. Despite these superficial similarities, though, Blood Song is not even in the same league as The Name of the Wind.

There are a number of problems with the book. The first is that it does an inadequate job of convincing the reader that the children we meet at the beginning of the novel are the same individuals as the adults they have ostensibly become by its end. An author cannot expect a reader to believe in a character’s transformation simply because the author says the character has been transformed; the author must demonstrate and convince us of the character’s transformation and this book flat out fails on that front.

A second issue that detracts immensely from the story is that it fails in a number of ways to convince the reader of the reality and internal consistency of the world in which it unfolds.  The most glaring example of this is the way that no matter how big this world is supposed to be, everyone keeps running into one another everywhere. This is a frequently encountered red flag for lesser quality fantasy fiction and it is disappointing to see it here. Furthermore, travels over great distances and pivotal events like battles are often barely described and instead we join the action after they’ve already concluded. This gives the world a small and unreal feeling and constitutes a near total failure of worldbuilding.

Third, while a number of morally and ethically complex dilemmas are hinted at and portrayed at a superficial level, they are so wholly unbelievable that the treatment of these issues lacks basic depth and credibility. For example, at one point Vaelin realizes that one of his slain opponents was blackmailed into fighting him by threats made against his family. He is so incensed by this that he takes his beef straight to the King (who he has never met before) and demands that the man’s family be taken care of. In exchange, the King extracts his agreement to essentially do the King’s bidding in the future. There is nothing in the entirety of the book that precedes this sequence of events to convince the reader that Vaelin would be so incensed by this situation, much less that he would essentially compromise his entire future to see that a couple of people are treated well. Thus, from its very inception the dilemma of his competing loyalties (to his order on the one hand and to the King on the other) is unconvincing and the reader can’t help but feel that it is a false dilemma. Add to these issues the fact that the novel is at times hokey, overlong, and written in prose that is little more than utilitarian and the book just doesn’t live up to the hype. There is no other way to say it.

Despite the harshness of the foregoing,  the news isn’t all bad because if one looks past the many problems with this book, the underlying story itself is a promising and interesting one, and the book even works well in places. In the future, if Mr. Ryan can simply improve in his execution he has some real potential as a fantasy author.


The True First

Blood Song will be published on July 2, 2013 in the U.S. and U.K. by Ace.  The book is already available in electronic format.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

Review – The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller

D.P. Watt

The Ten Dictates of Alfred TessellerAfter reading D.P. Watt’s debut collection Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers (review here) a few years ago, I was struck by how little attention it was garnering. The situation was much the same by the time I read his follow up collection, An Emporium of Automata. Lately, however, I have seen Mr. Watt’s work mentioned more frequently and I think he is slowly gaining the reputation he undoubtedly deserves as one of the best authors of weird fiction working today.

It had been a while since I had read anything new by Mr. Watt so I was anxious to get hold of his latest  effort, The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller. I read the book. Then I reread it. Then I reread it again. And then I read it a fourth time. I even discussed it with others before writing this review, which is something I don’t normally do. After all of that, I’m still not sure I’m any closer to fully grasping its greater depths. What I can say is that it is an entrancingly beautiful and puzzling book, one that begs to be reread and pondered.

There are three main characters in The Ten Dictates, two of whom are dead. It is probably easiest to mention the unnamed narrator first, because it is he who connects the other two characters. These other two are Alfred Tesseller and an unnamed person who is the audience for the narrator’s account. I call this person “the Audience” rather than “the Reader” because the Narrator talks to him as though he is not a generic reader but instead a particular person who shares a history with the other two characters and who can be interacted with. The very first paragraph in the novella will give you a sense of what I’m talking about:

You remember Alfred Tesseller — the quiet one who arrived, all those years ago, in our decrepit country classroom. He had that accent that was so strange and yet so enchanting. We thought his family were ancient gypsies and the tales we told about him rivalled any myth performed around immortal fires. You must remember him!

As the book opens, the Narrator recounts for the Audience how he met Alfred Tesseller in the place that the latter had instructed him to:

   There in the undergrowth I found his body, preparing himself for transformation.
But Alfred Tesseller could never be content with the ease of death. He has many places left to visit, and many decades to dismantle. The low hum of working insects around him jittered into words and through them he told me what I would do for him.
And as I grappled with maddening thoughts I rifled his corpse. I do not wish to unnerve you, merely to pass on the few lines I found in his notebook before his metamorphosis, or should I say resurrection, began.
They are simple words, written in the beauty of his flowing foreign script.

In the next few pages, we learn that the Narrator’s own death is what enabled him to accompany Alfred Tesseller on his journey backwards through history:

Beyond the fear we learned brotherly love for all the rotten things of this earth, and many others. We learned how to cascade through memories and fall through lives. Initially my spirit reeled with the monstrosity of this new existence–how at each moment I might collide with Alfred Tesseller’s form and inhabit him as he strode through history. In other moments he set me free, like some demented dog. On our first dreadful journey I learned the loneliness of war.

What follows is a series of loosely related vignettes, glimpses of Alfred Tesseller’s and the Narrator’s journey back through human history, to such places as a World War I battlefield, a bombed out city, a hospital room, an ancient Mediterranean religious ceremony, and more. These are told in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever encountered. Consider this, for example:

I was death–no longer my own futile erasure but all possible deaths. I illuminated her own death–so hidden from each of us but so entirely our own–and she reflected back my own impossible moment in pupils now dark and wide. Two deaths for me, meeting somewhere far back  in her brain to fuse into an image–a moment of cognition that silently sounded out my departure.

Despite the beauty of the prose, however, part of the reason I read the novella four times is because from time to time it can be difficult to understand what is actually happening from one page to the next. And while I understand that obsessively grasping for the finite in a work such as this can be counterproductive, I found myself wishing that Mr. Watt would have provided the reader with a little more explanation as to what was happening, even if this had diminished somewhat the book’s poetic power.

Because my understanding of The Ten Dictates is necessarily filtered through my only partial understanding of it, I may be completely off base when I say this but in my opinion the book’s chief effect on the reader is to convey a mystical sense of the wholeness and completeness of all of the many dramas acted out by humanity over the millennia. Mr. Watt accomplishes this feat by juxtaposing some of our disparate highs and lows with one another and by revealing the illusory nature of time by speeding it up. Take the following for example:

I lay here in the mud trapped inside the bloating body of Alfred Tesseller, strung upon the wire. Beside me lies a broken revolver, a musket, a cannon, a halberd, a sword, a dagger, a club–each mutating into each other as the landscape collapses into fields of grass, expanses of desert, swamps, ruined buildings crumbling into jungle palms.

The result is that the reader is forced to view these scenes from a far greater distance than is ordinarily possible and cannot help but see them as the stuff of myth and drama.

I am sure that there is a lot that I am missing about this most interesting book. I attribute most of this to my own failings as a reviewer and perhaps a small bit to the inscrutability of the book itself. Perhaps I am not alone in having this reaction: while I have seen several enthusiastic reactions to the book, I have yet to come across a single intelligible review of it anywhere. D.P. Watt is one of my favorite writers, and this book shows that he is not afraid to take his work in bold new directions. The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller contains more of what makes D.P. Watt’s voice such a powerful one: prose that is almost unbearably beautiful and a way of speaking to his audience so directly that it lends the work a seldom encountered intensity. I only wish that the book was a little more comprehensible.


The True First

The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller was first published by Ex Occidente Press in 2012 in a limited edition of 171 copies.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

Review – Leave Your Sleep

R.B. Russell

I may be mistaken but I am fairly certain that I have read all of R.B. Russell’s published stories, even when I’ve had to go far out of my way to track them down. I enjoy the subtle unease and tension that characterize most of his work. Unfortunately, I think his latest collection, Leave Your Sleep, is probably my least favorite collection of Mr. Russell’s work to date.

Make no mistake about it: there are some great stories in Leave Your Sleep. “The Restaurant Saint Martin” was first published in This Hermetic Legislature: A Homage to Bruno Schulz from Ex Occidente Press. It didn’t make much of an impression on me the first time I read it (I didn’t even mention it in my review of that collection), but it really struck me the second time.  It is the story of Ernesto Galman, owner of his family’s jam and preserves company, who routinely stops to enjoy a drink and dessert at the Restaurant Saint Martin at the end of his monthly sales trip to Mendoza.  For him, this secret stop at the perennially unchanging restaurant provides a few moments of respite from the demands of life. On this particular trip, however, he finds someone sitting at his favorite table. The chain of events that unfolds is a supreme piece of Schulzian magic, as this particular month’s respite quickly becomes deadly serious but then is ultimately revealed to be only one possible resolution to what is seemingly an eternally recurring story.

“Leave Your Sleep” is another excellent story. In it, a man reflects on a brief period in his youth when he stayed with his grandparents. While his grandparents routinely made him go to bed early, he quickly noticed a group of children playing within earshot of his bedroom each night. Soon they noticed him and beckoned him to join them in their games. During the early pages of this story, I couldn’t help but think of The Twilight Zone episode called “The Bewitchin’ Pool” out of my mind, but Mr. Russell’s tale is thankfully much better than that deplorable episode (I love The Twilight Zone, but that episode is just awful). Ultimately, “Leave Your Sleep” is about the poorly grasped loss of innocence that often accompanies growing up. The dreamlike quality that Mr. Russell sustains throughout really enhances this story’s power.

“A False Impression” was really a surprise in that I don’t believe Mr. Russell has written a story of this kind before. In it, a solitary man ventures from his home on the moors into the freezing predawn night and has an epiphany about the universe. Other epiphanies follow and the tale ends up being sort of a gentle tale of cosmic horror. It was nice to see Mr. Russel venture into this territory.

So, yes, there are some good tales in Leave Your Sleep. But there are also some not so good ones. To be completely honest, I cannot even believe that Mr. Russell wrote the first story in this collection, “An Unconventional Exorcism.” While its setting, characters, and undercurrent of eroticism are typical of Mr. Russell’s past work, the complete lack of tension and what amounts to an almost comical, sitcomesque ending are completely out of keeping with his previous work. Authors are of course free to branch out from what they’ve done in the past, but I seriously doubt whether fans of Mr. Russell’s other work will find much to enjoy in this story. Much of the same things can be said of a later story in the collection, “The Dress.”

Many of the remaining stories in the collection are not bad per se, but they do not contain the tension and sense of unease that is the precise thing that makes Mr. Russell’s best work so good. I am a huge fan of Mr. Russell’s work, but Leave Your Sleep is easily my least favorite collection of his to date.

The True First

Leave Your Sleep was first published in October of 2012 by PS Publishing in a signed, limited edition of 100 copies as well as an unsigned edition.

[This review was based on an electronic review copy]

Review – At Fears Altar

Richard Gavin

As someone who is entranced by the deep ocean of the weird fiction tradition but has thus far barely ventured  beyond its shallows, I am constantly surprised at the extent to which that tradition appears to be rooted in the work of authors who lived and wrote decades or even centuries ago. While weird fiction is definitely not unique in this respect, its giants seem to loom especially large and cast almost freakishly large shadows on most of those who have come after them.

Nonetheless, there are authors writing today whose work ensures that the weird tradition speaks to the current age and that it does not grow stale in the future. Richard Gavin is such an author, and while he treads many of the paths blazed by his predecessors, his voice has an indelibly strange melody that is all his own.

I first encountered Mr. Gavin’s work a few years ago when I read his excellent collection The Darkly Splendid Realm (review here). That collection contains several of my favorite short stories of all time so I was anxious to read his latest, At Fear’s Altar. It turns out that At Fear’s Altar is nearly as strong as The Darkly Splendid Realm, if not quite its equal.

The collection begins with an unforgettable prologue that makes one practically  salivate for the stories that follow. The first story proper is the opening tale “Chapel in the Reeds.” While it seems susceptible to a number of different interpretations, I think of it as essentially being the story of an elderly widower whose sanity has been eroded past the breaking point by age and loss. As a consequence, his world essentially abandons him. Its familiar paths and comforts cease to reliably provide the succor and context that they once did. The result is disorienting and terrifying, both viscerally and in a cosmic sense.

The next tale, “The Abject,” is probably my favorite in the collection, although it must contend with one of the later tales, “Darksome Leaves,” for that distinction. On the surface, it is the story of an isolated mountain spotted in the middle of the ocean by a group of acquaintances who have gathered to watch an eclipse, but in reality it is about parallel tales of creation gone awry. The story has a heavy dose of cosmic horror, but what gives it real depth is the way that this thread is intertwined with the merely human aspect of the story. Cosmic horror often works by impressing upon the reader a sense of humanity’s insignificance, but this story manages to maintain that feeling while also making the cosmos strangely receptive to the human protagonist’s story.

“Faint Baying from Afar,” which Mr. Gavin refers to as “an epistolary trail after H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Hound’,” is another solid tale. After the first few pages, I thought it might just be a mediocre fan fiction tribute to Lovecraft’s story, but it turns out that it is a fantastic complement to it. It was so effective, in fact, that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think of “The Hound” as complete without it.

After some stories in the middle of the collection that are less strong in my opinion, two of the final tales really impressed me. “Annexation” reminded me in a lot of ways of “The Abject.” It is the story of a mother searching for a son who has gone missing in pursuit of some sort of Aztec religious epiphany in Mexico. It, too, contains themes of death and renewal, tinged as you might anticipate by now with a healthy dose of cosmic horror. As I mentioned above, another contender for my favorite tale in the collection is the penultimate story “Darksome Leaves,” which reminded me in a lot of ways of another one of my favorite stories by Mr. Gavin, “The Astral Mask.”

At Fear’s Altar is an impressive collection; as impressive as what I’ve come to expect from Mr. Gavin. While it does not contain as many of my all time favorite stories as his last collection, it does contain some truly world class tales. Mr. Gavin’s gift is not just that he writes excellent cosmic horror (which he assuredly does). It’s also that while remaining completely true to cosmic horror’s signature focus on the indifference of the vast cosmos towards humanity, his starting point is often a place of sympathy for the plight of his human protagonists and their myths. This makes it all the more terrifying when the cosmic forces he writes about inevitably vanquish these ill-fated individuals.

The True First

At Fear’s Altar was first published by Hippocampus Press in October 2012. Unforgivably, no hardcover edition is available.

[This review was based on an electronic review copy]

The Desolate Presence and Other Uncanny Stories

Thomas Owen

I was recently lucky enough to snag an affordable copy of Thomas Owen’s elusive The Desolate Presence and Other Uncanny Stories, and doing so ended a quest that began for me several years ago. I had first been clued into the existence of Mr. Owen’s work when I came across a brief article about him by translator Edward Gauvin. Sadly, this only collection of Mr. Owen’s work to have been translated into English proved extremely difficult to find and impossible to find at an affordable price. Once the book arrived, I devoured it quickly and can now report that while it contains some excellent stories, it does not quite live up to its billing in my opinion.

Mr. Owen’s work is often mentioned alongside that of his more famous countryman, Jean Ray, and indeed the two authors’ work does share certain similarities. The tales of both authors often describe cold, windy, mist-shrouded places and both men’s oeuvres are effective primarily because they work by inducing a creeping sense of unease. Ultimately, however, I think Mr. Ray’s work is superior to Mr. Owen’s.

“Two of a Kind” is the first story in the book and it is one of the collection’s best. In it, the protagonist meets a very peculiar man after the two narrowly survive a bizarre train accident. The man, who says that he is “called Vassil, Pierre, John, Hermann, Julius – whichever you prefer,” periodically appears during the remainder of the protagonist’s life, making ominous claims, urging the protagonist not to write or speak about his experiences, and contributing in no small measure to the increasingly debilitated protagonist’s madness.

Another excellent story is “The Girl in the Rain,” in which a vacationer takes a stroll on the beach during a cold rainstorm and encounters a young woman who literally has blood on her hands. He follows her to an abandoned house and finds there something that may have been sort of expected but that is nonetheless inexplicable.

Unquestionably, the best story in the collection in my opinion is “The Sow.” It is the story of a man who is forced by dense fog to make an unexpected stop at what amounts to a local tavern. The locals there challenge him to a game that he proceeds to win.  As a result, he is given a flashlight and sent to the neighboring barn to take a look at “the sow.” She is not what he expects.

Despite the inclusion of some excellent stories, The Desolate Presence suffers from two issues in my opinion. The first is that many of the stories are relatively uninteresting and, dare I say, pointless. Often this is because Mr. Owen seems to rely on the sort of last paragraph gimmicks that most modern readers abhor. “The Hunger,” for example, is an almost absurdly pointless narrative unless one gets satisfaction from the last minute revelation that another character is actually doing what we thought the main character was doing. Along similar lines, “A Dead Butterfly’s Wing” is nothing more than a brief and uninteresting riddle explained over the span of a few pages. Even the best short story writers inevitably produce some less than stellar tales, but the sheer number of them in this collection detracts from its overall quality.

My second issue with this collection is that even its most effective tales often suffer from a lack of tension building. Much of the imagery found in these stories is as effective as anything ever produced in weird literature, but the buildup, the execution often leaves a lot to be desired. It’s as though Mr. Owen had devastating glimpses of the unknown but was then at a loss as to how to convey what he had seen to the reader. The best example of this is probably the eponymous story “The Desolate Presence.”  It has a mightily effective nucleus, but I found myself constantly thinking that an author like Simon Strantzas, Adam Golaski, Richard Gavin, or a dozen other modern masters would have made much more of it.

If you are a weird fiction aficionado wondering whether or not seeking out this elusive volume is a worthwhile endeavor, the answer is definitely yes. The Desolate Presence is a solid addition to the weird literature canon, but it is not a top tier exemplar of the genre.

The True First

The Desolate Presence and Other Uncanny Stories was first published in the United Kingdom in 1984 by William Kimber. It is unclear when the stories that comprise the collection were originally published in French.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

Review – City of Bohane

Kevin Barry

City of Bohane came to my attention accidentally, while I was  searching for another book entirely. The blurb for the book was intriguing so I downloaded the sample from Amazon and was drawn in immediately. Author Kevin Barry has garnered a solid reputation for his short stories, but I doubt that even his most ardent supporters could have anticipated how great his debut novel would turn out to be.

Like so much great fiction, City of Bohane is difficult to summarize. While it is many things, at its heart it is the story of a singular town in western Ireland roughly fifty years from now and of its singular inhabitants.

Bohane is a gritty, drug saturated, unforgivingly violent place that is divided into various quarters, each of which has its own mini-culture and is dominated by one strong personality or another along with the gangs that do these individuals’ bidding. Geographically, the city is dominated by the presence of the Bohane River and by the Big Nothin’ wastes that surround it.

As the novel begins, Logan Hartnett, leader of the gang that more or less runs the show in Bohane, has a lot to worry about. In addition to increasing unrest among the inhabitants of the tower blocks known as the Northside Rises, rumor has it that the Gant Broderick, a former lover of Hartnett’s wife, has, for reasons unknown, returned to the city after an absence of more than twenty-five years. These developments portend imminent violence and it’s clear from the start that bloodshed is inevitable. Other major players in the unfolding drama include Jenni Ching, young and ambitious owner of the Ho Pee Ching Oh-Kay Koffee Shop and Girly, Logan’s ninety year old mother who lives at the top of a hotel and spends her time drinking Jameson, watching old movies, and plotting.

The very first thing that confronts a person who picks up this book is the unique dialect of its characters. Take this, for example, from Page 5:

     ‘Cusacks gonna sulk up a welt o’ vengeance by ‘n’ by and if yer askin’ me, like? A rake o’ them tossers bullin’ down off the Rises is the las’ thing Smoketown need.’
‘Cusacks are always great for the old talk, Jenni.’
‘More’n talk’s what I gots a fear on, H. Is said they gots three flatblocks marked Cusack ‘bove on the Rises this las’ while an’ that’s three flatblocks fulla headjobs with a gra on ’em for rowin’, y’check me?’

I confess that I groaned when I first read passages like this one and that it took me several days to get through fifteen pages of the book, but it didn’t take long for it to grow on me and I actually found myself appreciating it after a time. Interesting as it is, however, the real story about the language in this book is the author’s prose, which while pointedly brusque at times maintains a sort of soothing musicality throughout much of the book. Consider this passage:

     You might see Wolfie Stanners pass through those doors, or Fucker Burke with his prize Alsatian bitch, Angelina, or – swoon of swoons – the killer-gal Ching from the Ho Pee.
These were the legend names on the lips of the young ones in Bohane as the spring of ’54 came through.
And the spirit of the humid night at a particular moment caught the boys, and the badness (the taint) was passed down, and they broke into an old tune that worked off a doo-wop chorus – it fit nicely up top of the calypso beat – and they sang so hoarsely, so sweetly, and their young faces were menacingly tranquil.
Yes and the song carried to the old dears hanging out washing on the rooftops of the Trace, and they paused a mo’, and smiled sadly, and sang croakily the words also: ‘It’s a bomp it’s a stomp it’s a doo-wop dit-eee…it’s comin’ from the boys down in Bohane cit-eee…
And a whisper of change traveled on the April air with the song, it went deeper and on and into the Trace, and the ancient wynds came alive with the season.
Dogs inched their snouts out of tenement hallways and onto the warming stoops.
Upon the stoical civic trees in the Trace squares a strange and smoke-streaked blossom appeared, its flowers a journey from sea grey to soot black, and the blossom was held to work as a charm against our many evils.
Beyond the city, the sea eased after the viciousness of springtide and softly, now, it drew on its cables – its rhythms a soft throb beneath the skin of the Bohane people.

Passages like this one make clear what Mr. Barry meant when he said in a recent interview that he is an author who primarily “works from the ear.” His prose’s musicality lends even the more mundane aspects of his tale a sense that they are part of an artistic whole.

The second thing one notices about City of Bohane is how odd and yet strangely compelling its inhabitants are. On the one hand, many of them appear to be preoccupied with power and violence in a sort of Gangs of New York way. But on the other hand, they are also obsessed with fashion, prone to bouts of over sensitivity, and susceptible to episodes of overwhelming nostalgia for the lost times of both their own lives and the life of their city.

City of Bohane contains no great moral lessons. As the novel ends, there is no great sense of accomplishment or closure. Rather, the reader is left with a sense that he or she has simply witnessed the passage of events and time in the life of a particularly interesting town and its particularly interesting inhabitants.

The True First

City of Bohane was first published in the U.K. by Jonathan Cape in March of 2011. Unforgivably, this true first edition was only released as a paperback. The first hardcover edition was published in the United States by Graywolf Press in March of 2012.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

Review – On the Hill of Roses

Stefan Grabinski

Getting one’s hands on a book released by a new small press for the first time is one of the great pleasures of reading life. Each small press has its own idiosyncrasies, its own priorities, and makes its own humble additions to the sacred art of creating tangible compilations of the magic that is the written word.

The latest small press to draw my attention is Hieroglyphic Press, whose web page states that it is “a small imprint primarily dedicated to publishing works of an eclectic and rarefied nature: to use a quote from elsewhere we wish for spiritual art – Decadence, Esoterica and Symbolism.”

This sounded right up my alley and, combined with the fact that the press will also be publishing a biannual journal to be co-edited by Mark Samuels, made me extremely eager to get my hands on the press’s first effort. In retrospect, I should have realized that it was completely unfair of me to expect that any press could do what none before has managed to do. That is, I should have realized that there is in all likelihood no press on Earth capable of getting me to finally appreciate the work of Stefan Grabinski.

On the Hill of Roses reproduces in its entirety the first collection to be published by Mr. Grabinski under his own name in 1919 and throws in an additional story for good measure.

Much is made of the place that Mr. Grabinski’s work occupies in the history of weird fiction. On its website, for example, the publisher says “[w]e at Hieroglyphic believe that his work forms an important thematic bridge between European Symbolists such [as] De L’Isle-Adam and English language writers of metaphysical fiction such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.” This is all well and good, but we here are at Speculative Fiction Junkie are in the business of reviewing stories for their quality as stories, not for their historical or academic significance per se.

So how do the stories that make up On the Hill of Roses stand up as stories? Not so well, to be honest. In a recent interview, author Simon Strantzas was asked what draws him most frequently to weird fiction. He answered in part that “[g]ood fiction needs to express its themes and characters and plot in a way in which each are balanced, each revealing themselves in a strange and bizarre way.” I agree with him and think that the greatest shortcoming in Mr. Grabinski’s fiction is that it fails in this respect.

Far from balancing themes, characters, and plots, the stories in On the Hill of Roses often contain almost no plot to speak of. One tale, for example, is essentially about a man who takes a nap on a hill against a four-sided brick wall and what he discovers when he decides to climb it one day. In another, the first half describes how the protagonist is followed and tormented by another man every where he goes and the other half is devoted to what happens to the protagonist psychologically once the man is killed. While wonderful works of weird fiction have been constructed from much less, in Mr. Grabinski’s case, the prose is so inartfully sparse and the development of atmosphere so completely absent, that in the final analysis there just isn’t enough of a foundation from which to build quality stories.

What these stories do contain is a surfeit of  tiresome chatter about various psychological and physiological phenomena. Consider this passage from the story that gave this collection it’s name:

Every point of a body sends out a scent of a special and, to a certain extent, individualized tinge that calls forth a corresponding stimulation in my olfactory center. If we conceive a fragrance to be a movement of particles of ether, similar to the motion of a light or heat wave, and the like, then the affair becomes clear. The sum of these stimulations, arranged at the cerebral cortex according to their source, gives an overall impression and through this underground path is transformed into a sum of visual stimulations heading to the optical center and producing mental pictures. In a special circumstance, there probably existed a very close relationship between my sensitivity in my centers of smell and sight. The slightest change in one elicited an immediate response in the other: these centers seemed to share mutually reciprocal sensations. To be sure, another element also involved in this was an intensification of an unusually fine memory, which having had a history of experiencing various stimulating smells in the air would elicit a corresponding series of visuals of every possible association and combination. Perhaps just as a brilliant musical scholar is able to play to the end an entire symphony based on a few notes, I was able to surmise from not much its entirety.

Whatever other purpose this sort of thing might serve, it irretrievably destroys the stories’ pacing along with any sense of atmosphere that they might otherwise possess. Perhaps the best clue to what is going on here is found in translator Miroslaw Lipinski’s statement in the introduction that:

The overwhelming majority of his stories have a sincere investigatory basis. He was not writing stories to simply elicit a frisson or capture a mood, or to top other writers in bizarre situations and effects….In his stories, Grabinski was attempting to address and explore the mysteries of life and the varied, intricate dynamics of the human mind.  Yes, one can read a Grabinski story and just enjoy its form, plotting, and intellectual sharpness, but if one approaches the story from Grabinski’s investigatory perspective, it can become atypically confrontational, even psychologically frightening.

I think Mr. Lipinski has identified the heart of my problem with these stories: they aren’t stories in the conventional sense. Mr. Grabinski is less concerned with writing tales composed of the elements that have defined the best stories for thousands of years; form, plotting, atmosphere and the like. He is more interested in investigating the mysteries of life in a more direct way. His work may be valuable in that sense, but the resulting tales don’t hold up in my opinion as stories per se.

Attempting to rescue an author from obscurity is almost always a worthwhile and noble endeavor, and this is certainly true of the work of those who have labored for years to elevate Mr. Grabinski’s reputation to what they feel is its rightful place. Mr. Lipinski in particular deserves the greatest respect for his tireless work on Mr. Grabinski’s behalf. Regrettably, though, I cannot number myself among the growing ranks of Stefan Grabinski’s admirers. As for Hieroglyphic Press, I am eagerly looking forward to their future output, and I’ll note here that many of Speculative Fiction Junkie‘s favorite independent presses have had books reviewed here that have received relatively low scores, including Cemetery Dance, Midnight House, Night Shade Books, PS Publishing, Tartarus Press, and The Swan River Press.

The True First

The Hieroglyphic Press edition of On the Hill of Roses was first published in 2012 in a limited edition of 300 unnumbered copies.

[This review was not based on a review copy]