Horla – Book Reviews & Previews, January 2021

 

NEW & RECENT READING FROM THE SMALLER & SPECIALIST PRESSES

with MATTHEW G. REES

The New Abject – Tales of Modern Unease (Anthology, Comma Press), Waiting  for the end of the World by R.B. Russell (PS Publishing) and The End of the Yellow House by Alan Bilton (Watermark)

ONE side-effect of lockdown, it has been said, is that we are dreaming (in our sleep) more and that we are becoming more aware of our dreams, which are both more distinctive and more memorable.

This, some think, is a response to our confinement and, in the case of many of us, our new remoteness from others.

I suspect that it’s also an expression of our concern about the pandemic.

During the night before writing this, I dreamt that I was traversing a landscape littered with masks – their colours and fabrics quite vivid and sensate. Their density was such that they were impossible to avoid.

Possibly, this was a logical response to the number of face masks now to be found discarded on our streets. (In spite of a storm and heavy rain, I’d spent part of the afternoon  walking – ‘permitted daily exercise’ – and I doubtless stepped past a good many soaked and grimy specimens in the closing gloom.)

Later, in the evening, I read a newspaper whose reports about Covid probably did me little good (in terms of a peaceful night’s rest).

Better perhaps to have read a good book!

Impressive

A new story collection from smaller publisher Comma brings together writing from an impressive list of authors, including Ramsey Campbell, Margaret Drabble and Paul Theroux, to name but three.

Rather like our dreams, The New Abject – Tales of Modern Unease is a response to the state we’re in – or, perhaps more accurately, the state of mind that we’re in.

The paperback’s back cover states that writers were asked to react to ‘two parallel theories of the abject – Julia Kristeva’s theory of the psychoanalytic, intimate abject, and Georges Bataille’s societal equivalent – with visceral stories of modern unease’.

Ra Page (joint editor with Sarah Eyre) expands on this in an introduction.

If some of that sounds a little daunting, readers can, of course, dive straight into the nineteen stories (which include work by Lara Williams, Sarah Schofield, Alan Beard, Adam Marek, Mike Nelson and more). In truth though, Page’s introduction is thoughtful and interesting and, whether you happen to agree with Page’s perspective or not, it’s worth the read.

Page opens his piece with an account of one of his own dreams – in which, post-Covid, he finds an old and unpleasant mask.

Fear

He states: ‘The horror, disgust or recoil we experience when we are faced with what we have shed, let go, expelled, sloughed off – that is the fear of the abject.’

The book is the successor, if you will, to Comma’s award-winning New Uncanny anthology (2018). Not all of its stories are a response to the pandemic. Some were commissioned before the outbreak and the opening story, by the late Bernardine Bishop, goes back further than that. Yet, Page’s belief is that all of the work here has a common thread.

‘Stool’ – Bishop’s opener – doesn’t concern furniture, save for the fact that one of its two central characters, Hazel, makes appearances on TV explaining antiques.

She likes to keep her distance from Joan, a neighbour in her commuter belt community who’s much given to doing favours for locals, and, as a consequence holds many of their door keys.

Unexpected

Hazel’s life takes an unexpected turn when illness forces her to have a colostomy. One day, returning from work, she notices something in her lavatory that ought not to be there.

These bare facts may suggest something dark and perverse. Horror and humour are both in play here. But Bishop’s treatment is generous and non-mocking. The story closes with a kind of equilibrium restored – which echoes editor Page’s point about facing down the broader horror (Covid) that confronts us all.

I feel though that we are perhaps meant to remain a tad suspicious of ‘Good Samaritan’ Joan, who we’re told earlier set off for Hazel’s house with a ‘speculative expression, mixed with a touch of boldness’ in her eyes.

It’s a neat, short and satisfying story – well-placed as an opener that will surely encourage anyone who encounters it to read on.

Meanwhile, Mark Haddon’s ‘O Death’ – number sixteen of the nineteen tales here – is one of the best stories by a contemporary writer that I’ve read for a while.

Balanced

Horror and humour are again nicely balanced in a finely observed tale of a dysfunctional family.

Carol, a singer of classical music, comes to the rescue when her aging father has to go to hospital after a fall. Haddon’s story is brilliant for its use of detail, telling us pretty much all we need to know about this curious little clan through the fixtures and fittings in their house. Carol recounts: ‘My parents still had an electric bar fire with plastic coals; little metal fans rotating in the heat of the hidden bulbs to create a wholly unconvincing fire-effect.’

The story nurtures a sense of unease in the reader – the sense that something has gone terribly wrong in this house, whose occupants, beside the head-injured father, are Carol’s fussy, sherry-drinking mother and her indulged and self-centred brother, who works at a dog kennels and drives a van that bears illiterate signwriting.

Haddon ratchets things up cleverly with little asides as Carol returns home: ‘We passed the muddy swings where Keith Blackshaw had burnt a live frog with a magnifying glass.’

Savage

Carol discovers – or maybe re-discovers (?) – something startling in the house. Her shock – set against the unfussed reaction of her family (the father is more taken aback by a strange turn suffered by their pet cat) -possibly inclines the reader to think that it may be Carol who’s ‘unhinged’ rather than her oddball family. Indeed – spoiler alert – on her way home something savage happens.

Delivered throughout in a seemingly laconic yet actually very tightly written way, Haddon’s story is a lesson in how to write short fiction of this kind.

It’s still early days for me with this book. But the signs are very good indeed. I shall definitely be reading on. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to receive the acclaim of its predecessor.

(The New Abject – Tales of Modern Unease edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page, published by Comma, 290 pages, £9.99 www.commapress.co.uk

Another new book whose publication might be thought of as timely is R.B. Russell’s Waiting for the end of the World.

Ray Russell will be known to many for his involvement with publishing house Tartarus. Over the years, he’s been a contributor to numerous titles. Recently, he’s written an introduction to a translation of The Tenant by Roland Topor, published by Valancourt.

Russell’s book is one that we’re adding to our reading list. Given his past history with interesting projects, we’re taking the liberty of flagging it up now.

Haunted

Here’s the note from the dust jacket:

‘Elliot Barton is haunted by a tragic mistake. At the time it seems like the end of his world, but somehow he has managed to rebuild his life, and now lives happily with his partner, Lana, in their house on Sapphire Street. But Elliot’s good fortune threatens to implode when his old schoolfriend, Vincent, reappears. He has become a Christian, and wants to tell the authorities what happened so many years before. Rather than simply following the teachings of Christ, however, Vincent also claims to have met him.’

Waiting for the end of the World by R.B. Russell, published by PS Publishing Ltd, 279 pages, hardback, £25. www.pspublishing.co.uk

(Continued next column)

Alan Bilton’s previous novel, the dream-like The Known and Unknown Sea (Cillian Press, 2014), was a perhaps prescient account of a pandemic and its impact on a young boy, his family and their town.

His latest novel, The End of the Yellow House (Watermark) strikes me as one to be flagged-up for several reasons.

First-off, comes the book’s spirited – indeed adventurous – non-conformism, in an era when the publishing landscape can seem cautious and predictable.

It’s a period tale homing-in on events at a remote sanatorium in the Russian hinterland at the time of that country’s revolution – chief among them the weird death of the sanatorium’s superintendent, whose corpse is recovered from the depths of a well.

Sticking a label on this book isn’t easy. Murder mystery? Whodunnit? Social history? Supernatural thriller? Literary fiction? The answer – and in a positive way, I believe – is that it’s all of these… and perhaps more.

Revolutionary

Those with a taste for Russian literature might at times fancy they detect the influence of Chekhov (‘Ward No. 6’) or perhaps Nabokov (Speak, Memory) and, in Aleshin – a doctor at the Yellow House who is full of revolutionary fervour – a reminder of Pasha Antipov in Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago.

Yet, while in a way tipping its hat to the classics, Bilton’s novel isn’t actually like them at all. This is a book which does things in its own way, often with some very fine writing indeed.

Readers familiar with Crime and Punishment might recall that yellow is the colour Dostoyevsky uses to highlight decay and deceit.

In Bilton’s book, a policeman who arrives at the dilapidated Yellow House (the remnant of an aristocratic estate) to investigate the murder of its medical chief is himself something of a mystery.

Avenger

His uncertain status may call to mind for some Inspector Goole from J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, or even, given his arrival on horseback, a saddled and spurred avenger of the kind portrayed by Clint Eastwood.

Yet, as I say, this is a book in which Bilton is his own boss – doing things in his own, offbeat way. And so here, our inspector calls not mounted on some fine thoroughbred, but on the back of a lame and weary pony and in a uniform that is both ragged and strangely ill-fitting for someone of his purported rank.

The world of this novel, in general, goes against what many a reader coming to a story set in the Russia of this era might expect. No crisp, snow-filled plains crossed over by horse-drawn sleighs jingling with bells here. Rather, rain, mud and – beyond the rotting walls of the Yellow House – the chaos of the revolution. One great truth about this story is that it’s one that turns the obvious on its head.  

Layered

It’s a layered tale. Yet Bilton sets things up briskly. The Yellow House is a kind of cut-off colony of curious characters – and they’re just the sanatorium’s staff. The guests, or patients – if you will, include bewildered – almost ghostly – gentlefolk, colourful eccentrics (one thinks himself Tsar Nicholas) and terrified rogues (the latter using it as a bolt-hole from the Red Army and other warring factions, in the violent turmoil beyond its walls).

As the novel unfolds, expeditions are made from its sanctuary.

But will these sorties, as well as the inquiries of the inspector, solve the mystery of the death of the sanatorium’s superintendent, and, more importantly, identify his killer?

Expect the unexpected in this immersive, near 400-page novel, which offers twists and turns aplenty. You might think of it as a great Russian zharkoye (winter stew) of a read, with all sorts bubbling in the pot – sorcery, jealousy, passion, greed, intrigue, doubles, disguises, madness, murder.

To me, one of its attractions is the way that just when you think that you have the mastery of it, the story forks afresh and another intriguing character is announced. For this is a novel that stays a step ahead in a pleasingly teasing way. The denouement, particularly, is unorthodox.

Flair

The telling of the tale is frequently a joy. Bilton demonstrates a flair for the fine line that can at times seem lacking in other contemporary fiction. Night settles in ‘like a large, heavy sow’; the endless rain seems to go on forever, ‘like debt’ (on another page it comes down ‘like knives’); a doctor is said to be ‘skinny as a Cracow sausage’. Such treats seem to fall on every page.

And there are captivating passages of description. Among them a hallucinatory vision by Aleshin of a carousel ride from his boyhood:  ‘The next thing he knew he was holding Sasha’s reins beneath a round painted sky, the clouds dotted with tiny balloons and stars. Then the stars started to turn and the contraption started. The mechanical parts were rusty, and the horses whined and squealed.’

At other times, mind-boggling absurdities come – with utter conviction – from the mouths of characters: ‘Germans are as they are because of their digestion. They can’t help it. Too many beans leads to war.’ Elsewhere, folksy one-liners have the ring of authenticity (whether true to the time and the Russian tongue or not): ‘they smeared your beard with mustard’, ‘evil lurks in many pots’ and countless more.

On occasion, the author’s touch is delightfully deft: an attempt by Aleshin – the product of upper-class privilege never mind his professed allegiance to Leninism – to find common cause with a camp of (believed) Red Army troops, ends with him and his colleagues being shot at, in a scene of wonderful absurdity that is both hilarious and shocking.

Indeed, although the core events of the book are macabre, there’s a rich vein of humour throughout.

Humour

One final question I’ve been asking myself is this: does the book – in its writing – sound a plausibly Russian novel? Alan Bilton, although a long-time resident of  Wales, is originally from the North of England. An objective must surely have been for his novel not to sound English but to read ‘like a Russian’ (a challenge that faces many a writer setting a piece of fiction in a country other than their own or in which they’ve passed a significant period of time).

Although he’s been to St Petersburg, I doubt Bilton claims profound first-hand knowledge of Russian life (and, anyway, there’s surely no one now alive who can give us an eyewitness account of what life was really like in revolutionary Russia).

Yet, it seems to me that – by dint of a combination of research (Bilton, left, set about his book during a sabbatical from his academic post at Swansea University), a long-term interest in Eastern European fiction, together with effective writing and clever technique on his part – Bilton has pulled it off. 

I should say that, having done a master’s and a PhD in the Creative Writing department at Swansea, I – of course – know him. But my feelings about this book are genuinely held. It’s the first from new UK independent press Watermark, which Bilton has helped found. One to watch, I suspect.

 This gloriously maverick novel is a triumph of the imagination. It deserves readers – and success.

The End of the Yellow House by Alan Bilton (Watermark) 385 pages, paperback, £9.99

www.watermarkpress.co.uk/shop/alan-bilton-the-end-of-the-yellow-house

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Prior to undertaking a PhD and other studies at the University of Swansea, Wales, Matthew G. Rees (left) lived in Moscow where he taught English at a school near Red Square. He is the author of two collections of short stories: Keyhole and Smoke House & Other Stories. HIs stories have also appeared as chapbooks and in audio versions. He is also a playwright. He is the founder of Horla. www.matthewgrees.com