Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tea and Biscuits

written today and first published here

I always had the same dream during that period of two weeks when staying with Sarah. It is a long story to tell you about Sarah and how I came into her life. Suffice to say, that I did not befriend Sarah for her large country house; I did not befriend Sarah for the regular sex that later ensued; I did not befriend Sarah for the comfort and confidence-building she provided as we talked into the late afternoons around a moment-in-time, an occasion that we happened simply to call ‘tea and biscuits’.

We often met in the wet streets of Colchester, visiting the cinema for unwanted, unwatched film matinees - flickering screens that seemed to wash over us - then eventually migrating to a cafe that kept open later than the others for our sessions of ‘tea and biscuits’. Neither of us crossed the line. We simply met, then unmet ... until we met again. A routine that was not recognised as a routine. A routine with no obvious end ... until, that is, out of the blue, Sarah invited me for a two week stay in her country house.

I record here – in the hope you may consider this tantamount to a legal document – that I did not spend those wet afternoons in Colchester meeting Sarah in our late middle-age for any other reason than that we had met at a book club and simply met again outside of the book club with no ulterior motive within each of us or no ulterior motive between us together. There was not even the motive of neutralising loneliness. In fact, Sarah never gave me the impression she was lonely at all. And she, I am confident, never received the impression from me that I was lonely. So it was not for that reason. Our meetings just were. The fact we called the core of each meeting ‘tea and biscuits’ seemed to relieve us of the necessity or duty of rationalising our relationship any further.

Our relationship changed, of course, following Sarah’s sudden invitation to me to visit her country house for a two week stay. In hindsight, that was not only the seed of the relationship’s growth but also the seed of its destruction. We should probably have left it at ‘tea and biscuits’.

It is a long story, too, about the circumstances of the recurring dream. It only started coming when first sleeping in the guest room at Sarah’s country house, a place I often visited just for various weekends after the initial much longer toe-in-the-water fortnight.

Suffice to say that most normal dreams – or normal dreams to which I at least am accustomed – feature flowing events, whether linear or non-linear, but certainly events, moving images, echoes of real life in recognisable if possibly mutated interaction, some echoes forgotten, others not. But, no, the dream in question was what I called a ‘candle dream’. Since then, I have heard of many people having candle dreams, once I admitted to those people about having candle dreams, i.e. once having had them during stays with Sarah, with whom, let it be said, I have since lost contact.

How many of you have had candle dreams?

You need to know what a candle dream is before being able to answer my question, I’m sure. Others may know candle dreams with different names. Let me tell you that a candle dream, in my understanding, can be also called a fixed-camera dream, a frozen dream (or, at least, near-frozen), an unwavering dream (even if the candleflame itself wavers), a static dream (even if it flickers slightly), a single-frame dream (even if the image imperceptibly strobes or, as they say in the trade, cart-wheels), a single-flame dream (even if there is an after-image of a flame burnt on the retina by the original flame).

Simply put, a candle dream is of a single candle with a slightly flickering flame (with or without a candlestick, but usually with an ornate candlestick), and your minimalist view of it is as a slightly unwavering, non-shortening candle-wax and, from within the dream, perceived to be alight for eternity. A fear of eternity within a dream, let me tell those of you who are unaware of this fact, is the greatest fear of all. In other words, a candle dream is not a nice dream to dream. It cannot really be called a nightmare, I suppose, because nightmares are traditionally never static, never single-frame, indeed never single-flame. Nightmares have monsters and obvious fears and mutant echoes of life. Many who dream candle dreams rarely have contact with lit candles in real life. Many who dream candle dreams never complain of having nightmares.

One never knows whether any particular candle dream is the last candle dream you will ever dream ... whether, indeed, the eternity you sense from within the dream is a real eternity or not.

Sarah once told me during our tea and biscuits in her drawing-room at the country house that if I could tell someone, like herself, about the dream, as I was then doing as part of our usual small talk, then that fact was proof positive I had escaped the eternity of the candle dream.

I suppose I should have insisted that we abandon the sex and return to just meeting in the wet streets of Colchester, visiting the cinema matinees and late-opening cafe as part of a routine that may, in hindsight, have lasted us for a good while, even until we both no longer needed or even wanted company. It is now strange, looking back on it all, how I never questioned, during our small talk, how our afternoons together were always so wet, with Colchester being in the driest part of the country.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cern Zoo Review

A 'Cern Zoo' review by The Author of 'Salmon Widow':

“Untitled”: Far more than “sweet nothings”: a wistful call to arms for the world’s broken hearted. The young inside the old, and - for the lucky few - the other way around.

“Dead Speak”: Polonium behind the arras? Weather hawks fight over knowledge and wisdom. Off at a good clip!

“Parker”: The messenger not the message. An intimate portrayal - and I raise my own Lady Parker in salute!

“Artis Eterne”: I love the timeless, placeless quality - the return to childhood haunts and hauntings. Arthur’s legacy passed like a dusty baton. Some very careful writing. I was completely absorbed.

“The Last Mermaid”: Big and bold. A rich seafood supper indeed!

“The Lion’s Den”: Assured and relaxed, the writing becomes invisible - no higher aim for a writer. Bravo! The animalism is powerful and - for me - is the truest embracer of the Cern Zoo concept. A FAVOURITE.

“Virtual Violence”: Lord of the Flies meets Cluedo. A wild little number. Liked it.

“The Rude Man’s Menagerie”: This piece put me most in mind of the “Untitled” opening story. Loss, memory and the very chalky earth itself reaching up to engulf Rebs. Beautiful. Unusual. Ooh.

“Window to the Soul”: More memories. At a price.

“Pebbles”: I have as much respect for this story as the author obviously has for her or his reader. It hangs like a dream. I loved it. A FAVOURITE.

“The Shadow’s Departure”: Jittery, spiky and full of icicle limbs. Strange, frightening. Truly visual.

“Being of Sound Mind”: Sara is faith personified. A leap of Sara. Did Sara leap? Uncomfortable. Moving.

“Dear Doctor”: Hah!

“Mellie’s Zoo”: The childhood answer to “The Lion’s Den”. The amplified imagination of children create creatures, worlds. Mellie’s purple hippo becomes Sara’s Dolly. The mazey zoo, its puzzles leading to... A deep story that I shall enjoy reading again.

“Turn The Crank”: Breathless, fearless writing! Loved it!

“The Devourer of Dreams”: A canny hand on the tiller here. Respect! A web woven with skill and precision - and the web is woven around... the reader!

“Just Another Day Down On The Farm”: Downbeat, downtrodden, the men are as caged as the animals. The men have no names - nor do their charges. I was numbed with real pain.

“Strange Scenes From An Unfinished Film”: Rather like the final paragraph of “Devourer of Dreams”, “Strange Scenes...” directly addresses the reader/narrator; tricking the light too drastic, the shadows between the sprocket holes of the film blurring story reality and story fantasy. Should he crack open a lager or a Kia-Ora? A bleak triumph.

“Lion Friend”: Perfectly formed - like an acorn in its cup - and polished like the deft shoes of a tap dancer.

“The Ozymandias Site”: This piece of vivacious cognitive estrangement is strong, moving, beautiful rhythmical stuff. Sustained otherness; utter humanity. To actually smell the moon... That such a story was written - and that I was lucky enough to read it - made me dance. I am still dancing. Thank you - whoever you are. A FAVOURITE.

“Cerne’s Zoo”: Animal souls slip through a gentle one. And - like “Devourer of Dreams (yet again!) - it’s a gift that keeps on giving. A little charmer.

“Sloth & Forgiveness”: Now here’s a right old laugh. Not “Albert and the Lion” but “Albert and his One Alternative”. There’s evidence of genuine madness here. I smiled all the way through.

“City of Fashion”: Some might read this story and give it no further thought. I think it’s one of the best stories I’ve read in the last ten years. A FAVOURITE.

“Fragment of Life”: Fraught and finely worked. Relentless. The electrician’s brain becomes re-wired and uncrushed. A liberation of sorts, a beginning of an end or... A very, very good story. Loss as a process, not as a memory. Boy, what writing. I should give up. A FAVOURITE.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Like Falling Snow

A story by Simon Strantzas

My review of it:

"I don't need to know any more sick people. I know me..."

I found this story quite unbearable, in a deeply poignant way. It should be read by everyone who is terminally ill. And we all are. I made the 'mistake' of reading it while listening to Mahler's Adagio from his 5th symphony. I shall never be the same...genuinely. The story is like a symphony in itself, alternating between the sick person's diary and a straightforward narration. That we are all part of each other - part of our history and future as self and unself. Even when those we loved we may not have loved enough because of inbuilt negative as well as positive symbiosis.

To think the ghost child within me may live on gives some sort of comfort. As does the story's ending. But deep down, we know that ghost is a snowdust bunny.

Literature like this can give you inspirational remissions along the way, but it is never forever. Old is only one letter short of cold. Esche one letter short of Escher.

"She coughed in a fit [...] until her eyes were full of stars."

My review of the whole book HERE

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Susan Boyle Prefigured

Melissa and the Singer (by Terry Grimwood)

My review of this story:

This is a brilliant story. Simple, staccato language suits Grimwood. Actually, with 'Melissa and the Singer', I was compelled to read to the end voraciously, quite agog. Both cringing and uplifting. I really felt Melissa's emotions. The stress of an office party in all ts nightmarishness. It is an effective story of a gauche, overweight girl in a highly believably-evoked office scenario of professional and personal politics. Presumably, this story was written before the Susan Boyle 'Britain's Got Talent' phenomenon? (The story is in a book that was first published in 2008). Whatever the case, it either prefigures (or echoes) that phenomenon with panache and memorability. I won't forget this story for a long time. I will continue fathoming how Melissa progresses beyond the story's end, Susan Boyle or not.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Night-Farers

I’m starting another of my real-time reviews. This time it is of 'The Nightfarers' a collection of short fiction by Mark Valentine (Ex Occidente Press 2009). I shall attempt to draw out the book's leitmotifs and mould them into its gestalt.
This review will be done slowly, savouringly, in real time, so please do not look back here more than once every few days for additions.
All my real-time reviews are linked from HERE.

Upon the cover is writ large:
Caveat to my review: This book contains a story entitled 'Undergrowth' that was first published in NEMONYMOUS in 2007.
The 1909 Proserpine Prize
This is a delightful tale of a literary pize that should itself win a literary prize for invention an imagination. But no, it is not imagination. It is a truthifiction upon the cross of fantastical literature, in a gloriously textured prose and atmosphere: an admixture of the two Jameses, M.R. and Henry, sown with many of the weird fiction giants, some of whom are mentioned in this very story.
It tells of the judging of a literary prize that is awarded for works in the tradition of Lord Lytton. in the year in question, Hodgson, Stoker, Bowen (Marjorie not Elizabeth), Shiel, Upward, Blackwood and a near nemonymous work which causes the judges much coincidence-angst and trial author late-labelling. Both hilarious and dark. A true treasure of conceits. The best conceit is left to the end.
I was delighted that the Blackwood came close. This was because the work in question, his novel JIMBO, has long been a favourite of mine. To prove it: HERE is me including it in my top ten novels in 2000.
I won't give away what book won and the circumstances of its winning. A story that simply has to be read. (2 August 09)

Carden in Capaea
A philosophy of the ineffable here cast as a highly-honed ‘poetic / scientific’ explication to a within-text audience. On the face of it a fantasy of a fantasy, making a special form of palimpsest. An alchemy of colours, an ethos of dust and nemonymity. The intrinsic power of more words for things than sense. This story is made up of words. There is also a clue in Marsh Fever, and therefore in Swine Flu (?), to unlock further linguistic delight from this text. Yet its sense-flow of words is more limpid than these words of mine portend. We’re all in its audience. Not outside looking in, but inside looking out. And, thus, we reach some form of literary grace. (3 August 09)

White Pages
Oh, Crikey, for me, this is tops. For a start, I love seeking out obscure books in secondhand bookshops simply for the quest itself. But, here, we have the quest for varieties of blank books! Heaven!
I've already formulated a picture of THE NIGHT-FARERS' gestalt: the drogulus. And I already truly think that it is THIS book that is the book I've been seeking all my life.
'White Pages' is beautifully worded and imaginatively illuminated - and prefigures 'Undergrowth, or vice versa. But I'm jumping ahead of myself ... literally.
[A personal note: Nemonymous Six doesn't actually exist, and it probably never will. "The Non-Existent Edition," as it's dubbed by the editor, was announced in May 2006 as existing in the tradition of stories such as 'The Vanishing Life and Films Of Emmanuel Escobada', 'Four minutes thirty-three seconds' (the world's first blank story published in print, i.e. in Nemonymous 2) and 'Mighty Fine Days' (in Nemonymous 2) and 'The Painter' (in Nemonymous 4), plus the blank cover of Nemonymous 4 ... and other features of previous editions. Nemonymous Six is a drogulus... [from 'Wikipedia' that possibly will be blank, too, one day, when the Internet as a whole vanishes up my fundament.]] (3 August 09 - 3 hours later)

The Inner Sentinel
The prose is golden. It is a sheer delight, both textured and simple at once. This is surely a classic weird tale of the first water. Why have I not read it before? It shimmers with dream and MR Jamesian scholarship, but eventually effulgent with Hodgson, Lovecraft, Blackwood, Wagner, Tolkien, Sir Granville Bantock, John Cowper Powys (and more) in varying degrees of word-anvil beating. Here we see the making of the drogulus into a form of waking dream where it seems to begin to exist as a double negative. The word 'Redoubt' takes on a double meaning, in this very sense of 'magic fiction' as opposed to 'magic realism'. I cannot recommend this tale enough to the Weird tale specialist and layman alike. But how do we know we can trust the story's Narrator - or, even, the story's head-lease author? Into the Vale of the Valentine.
On a lighter note (and I do not lightly use that terminology), I was glad to see an Oast-House (that Kentish birther of beer) likened to a 'great cone turned slightly awry, twisted out of true'... LAWKS! I've just quoted part of the text. (4 August 09)

The Dawn at Tzern
I will not repeat mention of the prose in this book. Please take it as read.
This story is a charming tale of an enclave called Tzern, the death of an Emperor, a postman's loyalty to the deceased's immanent spirit by retaining in defiance the old stamps with the Emperor's head, a priest who likes his tobacco and reads things, not into its leaves, but into the wrapping in which it is delivered, who also reads a breviary or what one assumes to be a breviary. A retreating army, one of whom is a young man who thinks himself invulnerable. And that's only scratching the story's surface. It's gorgeous. Thought-provoking. And resplendent with the resurrectional power of a story's soul.
The story's ending, that I will not give away other than to call it a 'dawn', gives justification to my form of real-time reviewing of books. You see what you see. And I see Tzern as in Cern Zoo. And that gives me all manner of readings from and into the story's innermost being and outermost wrapping, readings with which I will not bother you. But they are there. (4 August 09 - 5 hours later)

The White Sea Company
As a long-time visitor to Dunwich, Suffolk and a seeker of the engulfed cathedral, I love this Debussyan, Dunsanyan well-characterised take on the the voyages of historic exploration made meticulously ledger-within-ledger of open-ended terrestrial treasures of discovery emerging either because simply you have not found them before (like Darkest Africa) or because they actually emerge from the fantasy itself as fully-formed land masses. A delightful tale told with conscientious precision as well as with a wide magnanimity of the careless soul. The paper on which words float itself is a White Sea, methinks. (6 August 09)

There is no avoiding it. I have for well over two years thought this story to be a genuine well-seasoned literary gem that shall be an anthologised evergreen. And it is, even more so when seen in the context of this beautiful artefact: 'The Nightfarers'. If you are browsing this book in a bookshop this is the one to read for free as you stand there. Short enough and inspiring enough to set you on your way and loosen your purse - because you're then certain to buy the book itself. A deadly curse, however, if you pilfer it. Anything I say about its plot and sensibility and references will spoil it, I feel, which is rather a cop out thing for a reviewer to say. One person's undergrowth is another's overgrowth. This, though, for me, sprouts between them both: a benignancy bang right in the middle of my soul. (7 August 09)

The Seer of Trieste
Literary constructions built upon a 'genius loci', richly evoked by words and the spirits of words, trawling not only myths of authorial intention but also masked balls, alter-boys, an octopus and more entwined. I sense I need to read this tale at least twice more before I write anything about it. But I fear that the second time I'd be engulfed by a sort of 'Finnegans Wake' monster that was only stirring slightly during the first reading.
I am utterly dumbfounded by this book, I have to say. I have known of MV for many years and in fact a friend of mine used to correspond with him in the late eighties. I may even have done so. But I can no longer be sure. Icons seem to have no past. And, as a result of this book, MV is a new authorial icon for me. (7 August 09 - 4 hours later)

Their Dark and Starry Mirrors
Echoing from the quoted verse on the book's front cover shown above and following the previous story, this is of semi-disgraced seer (or, in this case, eventual non-seer), exiled to scry, for the Caliph, scintilla of distant messages by light and mirror. He is still well-regarded by the court astrologer and, indeed, the harmonics of astrology I myself have studied to the point of scrying the darknesses (droguli) between the stars and the planets as more efficacious than scrying the stars and planets themselves....
This is a beautifully told story of ephemeris and banner. I took it personally. I, too, ill-jested and crossed swords with tradition ... and was exiled to sea-lit Clacton to fiddle with anonymous texts.... (8 August 09)

The Bookshop in Nový Svet
I'll say straight off: I can't do justice to this story. I'd only rewrite the whole story, if I started analysing its connections and charms, its synchronised shards of random truth and fiction, its highly-honed magic of conceit and prosody. Merely, let me say that over many years (during my career as Principal Pension Trust Secretary) I mixed socially and professionally with highly-placed Actuaries but, truth to say, I never imagined them extrapolating their highly-wrought and empirically tested Mortality (Death) and Morbidity (Illness) Tables towards the statistics and mathematically-matched considerations of poetry, art, imagination, 'me-ness' and professional mourning...all for financial gain! There is a poet in this story, too, who is known under the nemonym of Z. I merely add that because of my own mischievous sip at the black spirit. Rest assured, meanwhile, I shall not relinquish my struggle with this book's gestalt as a drogulus-in-disguise. (8 August 09 - 3 hours later)

The English Leopard: An Heraldic Dialogue
A non-linear academic overture to its own inbuilt Notes (Notes with Numbers but no correlative Numbers adjacent to the correct references in the Dialogue's text and, in fact, the last Note has no reference at all to de-Note let alone an adjacent Note number in the text)...followed by a double-barrelled Appendix. The Adjacency and non-Adjacency and Double-Barreledness are tantaleon to a form of Alternate Heraldry in my mind. The core of this Chamber exercise in ill-notated Early Music is the devices of Lion and Leopard and how each or both relate to the de-Noting heraldrically and occultishly of our heritage through the onward thrust of Social, Monarchical / Maniacal, Religious History in England-France and elsewhere. Knowledge of History in general is recommended when construing this admittedly well-limbed exercise. My knowledge of History is cloudy, so I shall move on and seek my drogulus rampant elsewhere. (9 August 09)

The Box of Idols
Again I am astonished at this book's substance of language. 'The Box of Idols' tells of a bibliophile who tries to solve the mystery of his friend's idols (or household gods) fidgeting once they were housed in a compartmented box found by chance.
The story's own precision is no match for its own conceits. A story that out-stories itself. An imputed Sherlock Holmes descrying connections, connections that lead to concerns outweighing the weightiest imaginings.
I once owned a toy printing-set when a child, whereby, with tweezers, I meticulosuly transposed the tiny letters from their bank to a their new home of language, then ready to be stamped on an ink-pad of black spirit and later dye-cast upon the white sea of paper. Little did I know what revelations would be unlocked by my future reading of those very same letters - if in different positions - compiling this excellent story today.
The characters are well drawn. The rationale pitch perfect. And the letters thankfully no longer lonely. (9 August 09 - 7 hours later)

The Axholme Toll
This story has the strongest 'genius loci' I think I have encountered in all literature. Seriously. Even more so than this book's own Vale of Valentine I earlier sensed, if not read about: a place where, as towards this story's end, there is an 'amiable and pottering sort of man' assisting you to explore ... a tutelary spirit who may or may not be the head-lease author himself.
I will let the reader explore this story's 'genius loci' for him- or herself, without describing it at second-hand. I have not checked all its facts in obvious places of reference, but the place rings true, in more ways than one of its title. It is a delightful MR-Jamesian journey of a solitude-loving man who meets lore and legends, not head on, but head within. Four ghosts, or what I took to be ghosts, that will haunt me forever. And, serendipitously for me, there is an unresolved famous nemonymous book that acts as backdrop to the 'genius loci'.
This story is this book's island where the only toll needed is the price of this book. It is essential to remain blinkered to the other more modern things that have been built on this 'island'. This story's amiability of narration does just that for you, but, miraculously, not without describing those modern things for the sake of your complete 'reality' as visitor. (10 August 09)

The Seven Treasures of Bucharest
(a collaboration with Geticus Polus)
In the Nineteen Sixties, it is on record that I formed the Zeroist Group, loosely tied with the Dada movement, or an attempt even to reach some Sub-Dada realm. I also collected my then near-juvenile poems under the overall title of 'Dark Lights'... perhaps all that culminated today with Cone Zero ... and this makes me think that the gestalt of this whole book is not one single gestalt but each and every reader's past, each and every reader's own set of personal connections with it, connections and leitmotifs that the book actually entices into existence in different forms according to which reader is reading it at the time.
Looking back at what I have written in the whole review above, this theory of bespoke gestalt very much seems to be the case, and its final realisation or crystallisation was at this very moment ignited by my reading 'The Seven Treasures of Bucharest' (a story in seven parts and of near novella length). However, that is not to say that each reader's individual 'crystallisation' is not a drogulus in itself. Each a drogulus with different characteristics.
'The Seven Treasures of Bucharest' itself tells of arcane matters, but essentially of quests and quests within quests, the garnering of relics or 'ready-mades'. I could delve into each and every 'ready-made', each and every quest endlessly. It is a significant event in my literary life and perhaps I should devote much space here to explaining why. But, no, let it suffice to say that the main quest is for the ultimate throw, the ultimate chance, i.e. the optimum Synchronised Shard of Random Truth and Fiction ... mixed with religious and semi-religious affairs, politics and gameplaying, loyalty to self even if the self's constituent selves are slippery, art and preservation of one's environment in traditional ways, diplomacy, imprisonment, luck, statistics, language, serendipity, the 'Circle of Contemplative Thought'...
"The letters gleamed as if their darkness was coated with a curious light." LAWKS! I've quoted from the text again! I thought that there's no teaching an old dog new tricks. But this book has proved me wrong. I highly recommend the whole book for its separate 'ready-mades' (first the letters and then the words), for its quests within quests (the stories that can either be enjoyed like 'islands' or as a 'white sea company') and, finally, for its gestalt within the larger gestalt that is you.