LET me lay my cards on the table at the very beginning.
Few short stories by contemporary writers of my recent reading have given me such pleasure as those that I’ve encountered in my ongoing exploration of The Collected Connoisseur by Mark Valentine and John Howard.
Although first published in 2010, this collection of 23 tales penned by Valentine over a number of years, joined by his friend Howard, is the subject of renewed discussion (and regard), which is why we’re featuring the volume at Horla now.
If M.R. James and Walter de la Mare represent your kind of reading, then I suspect this is a volume you’ll want to acquire.
In many ways, the tales gathered here are the antithesis of much modern story-writing – a form which, notwithstanding prolific writing in the fields of fantasy and science fiction, seems, when it comes to what tends to be called ‘literary fiction’, to have become somewhat preoccupied with unsurprising matters and a style of narrative that tends to the downbeat.
Valentine and Howard present us with stories of a peacock interred in a casket, a dead soldier’s poetry secretly hidden beneath a sundial, masques, spectres, wells, mists, incantations, rocking horses and stranger beasts.
And those, it seems, are barely the beginning.
I’ve yet to read the entire collection. Why hurry what appears to me a good thing?
But, as far as those stories that I have read are concerned, words such as engaging, intriguing and even thrilling seem to me not amiss.
This collection chronicles the adventures of a detective extraordinaire in a succession of supernatural mysteries. Our hero might loosely be described as a gentleman sleuth, his distinguishing characteristic an appreciation of fine art and high culture.
Of a disposition more scholarly than flash, his attraction is to fine, single pieces – conduct which earns him in the art world the appellation ‘The Connoisseur’ – the moniker that’s applied here by the authors (to avoid disclosure of his actual identity).
Summarised baldly for the purpose of a review, that last point may sound a trifle silly. But, the fact is, that, in the stories that I’ve read, it’s a set-up that works.
It’s fair to say that there is a dash of ‘knowing’ humour in these tales. A character called Valentine pops up at times to act as the Boswell or Watson, recording accounts of the adventures, related by The Connoisseur post-event.
The ‘frame’ for those that I’ve read is generally as follows: a welcome to his guest from The Connoisseur in the study of his rooms in an English cathedral city, a libation of some kind, the taking of an armchair and then the host’s vivid account of his latest adventure, often related in a rather wondering, even wistful, way. In winter The Connoisseur draws the curtains tight shut on his ‘fire-lit grotto’ as he re-lives these episodes.
Obvious, if not entirely accurate, comparisons might be made with Sherlock Holmes as well as Arthur Machen’s Dyson.
The story ‘The Hesperian Dragon’, for example, begins in a Holmesian way: Gabriel Larkland, a student of anarchism in Victorian and Edwardian literature, calling on The Connoisseur in his rooms to raise the curtain on a mystery.
The period, generally, seems to be what tends to be referred to in Britain as Inter-War (i.e. the 1920s and 30s).
The writing is both stylised and (this is, undoubtedly, literary fiction) often very stylish, with lines that wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of de la Mare (‘a sad gleam like the first star of evening’, from the story ‘After The Darkness’).
The following – from the story ‘Pale Roses’, in which The Connoisseur pays a visit to a suffering cousin unseen for years – shows how the authors can ‘turn it on’:
‘As I was ushered from her room she rose from her bed to greet me, slender and somewhat spectral in a long white nightgown. We held hands briefly, and I saw that neither the obsidian black of the swaying hair which framed her oval face, nor her amethystine eyes, could quite distract one from the exceeding pallor of her flesh.’
A passage that particularly enchanted me comes in the lovely ‘The Craft of Arioch’, which sees The Connoisseur and his cousin, Rebecca, enter the workshop of a carver of rocking horses. In the dusky light, they ride strange, hybrid beasts.
‘… we approached some of the pieces more closely and regarded them with awe. The craft which had been lavished upon them was clearly of a very high order. Each of the hybrid creatures was carved in its main body from a single piece of wood, and its outer limbs were dovetailed almost imperceptibly into this. The wood was varnished and polished to a deep golden or shining white or sombre black finish, and the hoofs or claws or clenched paws were gilded daintily. Many of the beasts were enshrined in darting prongs of crimson and yellow flame which had been painted with such skill as almost to quicken to life.
(Cont. next column)
‘Others had lunging scarlet tongues, or sinuous pale horns. But as we marvelled repeatedly at each work we examined, it was the eyes most of all that caught our attention. Sapphire, jasper, opal, garnet, or perhaps brilliantly-faceted glass simulacra of these, seemed to have been embedded in the hollow sockets, and the scintillant stare possessed by each was remarkably vivid. We wandered around this heraldic menagerie in a trance of delight…
‘I rode a winged cat with preternaturally pointed ears and peridot eyes, an arrow-headed tail and painted coat of brooding indigo…’
The collection is something of an education. Having a ‘high end’ dictionary to hand will help those unfamiliar with words such as ‘manticore’ (a mythical creature from Persian legend) and ‘spinet’ (a small harpsichord) – two that I looked up with interest.
Yet, the stories don’t, I believe, fall prey to pretension – in part because of that ‘knowing’ humour I mentioned earlier; the sense that we and the authors are smiling at the same thing.
The stories are generally shorter than in de la Mare and move more swiftly.
Among other souls, they are peopled with artists, ‘creative types’, aesthetes, society figures, scholars and spectres. Characters have names such as Lucy Selincourt and Austin Blake (a society potter).
Fiction from what might be called the Edwardian era can sometimes seem stodgy to the modern eye and ear. Attempts by contemporary writers to ‘go period’ can feel contrived, often failing to ring true. Happily, that sort of staginess has been absent from the stories that I’ve sampled quite randomly, with no shortage of action and pace.
Mark Valentine – his past publications include a highly readable biography of Arthur Machen – knows this era and this genre. His understanding of how to make the most of its strengths is clear.
Like James and his use of Eastern England for example, here we are treated to some deftly effective embedding when it comes to locations.
The strong opening story ‘The Effigies’ sees us in the Golden Valley of Herefordshire (countryside this reviewer knows well). Elsewhere, we are in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire; later, in the back lanes of Sussex. The planting of these stories, plausibly done in a variety of English shires, serves them well.
In his introduction, Valentine speaks of reading with delight in early life the works of Machen, Dunsany, Blackwood, Hodgson and de la Mare (the latter, of course, author of a story collection titled The Connoisseur).
Another writer whose hand I felt I detected was Hardy (as in such Wessex Tales as ‘Barbara of The House of Grebe’).
Curiosity about his ability (or otherwise) to write the kind of writing he liked to read stimulated Valentine to the task of picking up his pen. This volume answers that.
A fair question which I think arises is: should contemporary writers ‘do’ period; what, if anything, does this dabbling in the past – imitation, if you like – achieve?
I ask as one weary of stories by present-day authors and would-be authors in which those old familiars – Victorian asylums, orphanages, country houses and the rest – wheel heavily into view. Younger students seem strangely hooked on them. Maybe I’m the one in the wrong. After all, their staying power must signal something.
The quality of the writing is, of course, always the important thing.
Pleasingly, with Valentine and Howard, in a genre perhaps not always known for the beauty of its prose, some of the writing is exquisite.
At times, the writing in the tale ‘The Craft of Arioch’ matches, to my mind, the very best in modern descriptive prose. It stands comparison with W.G. Sebald’s account of a badminton match above Lake Bala in his novel Austerlitz and Lawrence Durrell’s description of night-fishing off Corfu in Prospero’s Cell.
It really is that good, demonstrating the power of the written word, among all art forms, to transport.
If work like this also helps keep alive the literature of Mr Valentine’s heroes, then, that also seems to me a useful thing.
I hope the rest of the collection will sustain the standard I’ve found in most of the writing thus far.
I look forward to finding out. The omens are good.
The Collected Connoisseur by Mark Valentine (left) & John Howard is published by Tartarus Press in paperback, 306 pages, price £14.95
Keyhole, a collection of short stories by Matthew G. Rees that leans to the supernatural, is now available from Three Impostors press. (‘Tales shot through with the shudder of the unexpected and magical transformations…’ Jon Gower)
He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea, Wales. His early career was in journalism. Later he entered teaching, working for a time in Moscow. His fiction has been published by, among others, Belle Ombre, The Lonely Crowd, The Short Story and Oddville Press. He is the editor of Horla.