Horla Review (December 2019)

 

THE MURENGER AND OTHER STORIES

by JON GOWER

Reviewed by MATTHEW G. REES

FIXING on a hallmark that might serve as an authenticator for the short stories of Jon Gower is no easy matter.

If such a stamp were to be created I suspect it might show a figure with a lantern – a little like a St Christopher – negotiating some potentially awkward headland or saltmarsh (in keeping with the lighthouse-guarded coastlands that Gower hails from in Wales).

There is in several of the best of his stories the strong sense that we and his characters are, at times rather blindly, feeling our way through a mystery or – at less benign moments – a chaos that has somehow surrounded us, but which at the same time constitutes the norm of our lives.

This feeling is rather like that which can be found in the films of Mike Leigh – especially in their endings (when the characters have been struck by something significant but carry on, dazed perhaps, more or less as before). At times, Gower’s characters experience true epiphanies. Yet it can be said that some of his best stories are those where, in terms of revelation, his characters wander through a kind of  ‘near-miss’.

Such a story is ‘Skin Hue’ which opens his new collection of fifteen tales The Murenger and Other Stories published by independent press Three Impostors and which comes in the wake of earlier story collections by him including Too Cold For Snow and Big Fish.

‘Skin Hue’ is an engaging story about sunbeds and the tanning industry, which ends in chaos for the characters.

As well as being a neat piece of entertainment that takes a poke at the skin-deep, there is something arresting here for both us and Gower’s characters – whose lives blow-up in their very faces (and other body parts). The ending of the story is particularly satisfying. Not for any reasons of Schadenfreude, but for its feeling of a moment hanging and the bewilderment of all those involved. Gower’s cast stand stranded on the page, as if asking ‘What have we all been doing?’

Pleasing

This matter of the negotiation of chaos is evident – to good effect – in the stories ‘Short Stay’ (brothers who book a holiday in a war zone), ‘The Full Treatment’ (euthanasia) and ‘Heskyn at Large’ (a chef-poisoner of the malice aforethought kind). The same searching navigation is apparent in the story ‘Fire With Fire’ where conflagrations consume England and Wales (and particularly Surrey, in a rather pleasing echo of H.G. Wells: ‘The whole of Box Hill was ablaze…’)

Gower’s writing in this volume is, in the main, brisk and punchy. But he also delivers descriptive passages that work well and has a clear liking for neologisms. One such being ‘lackeying’ – a description of the manner of a civil servant in the inferno story above.

This short passage of description from the story ‘Short Stay’ shows what Gower can do when he wants to:

‘Strange lime-coloured lights moved along the tracks. There was a dread sense of preparedness. The zizz of cicadas outside seemingly amplified as if the insects quivered their song into a huge tin bucket, resonating metallically. In the empurpled sky the moon rose as a cream balloon, washing the plateau outside with serene light quite out of keeping with the heavy armour lumbering forward on great caterpillar tracks down in the valley.’

Or consider this, from ‘Sonata Envy’, a very ‘Gowerish’ tale (for those who’ve read some of his previous stories), about a jealous minor composer prepared to let his envy penetrate dark extremes:

‘Yet, on a good day, when the  muse arrived all calm and tranquil, his melody was clear to hear, there in the sorcelling song of his own curlew, rising high over the peat fields and the sharp spikes of rush and bog grass. Then he needed only transcribe, his notes sitting patiently as they did for the others, like neat hirundines on tightened lines, all strung taught with potential.’ 

Interesting

A thread running through this collection is the author’s keen concern for the natural world, well-illustrated by the revenge story ‘Oology’ (about birds’ eggs and a thief) and the very different ‘The Mind’s Menagerie’ (unusually, for this book, a period piece). This story, unless I’m mistaken, is based on the 18th century German botanist Georg Steller who in Gower’s tale rehearses a wonderful bestiary of creatures in his head when trapped in a cave after his ship is consumed by ice. (Note again, that theme of a character making sense of the world on a journey.) Gower’s interesting conclusion is that what Steller sees, as these images play back in his fevered mind, is a kind of television.

Folklore, in its creepier form, features in this volume in the brief fragment-story ‘Candles’, which recalls the legend in Wales that a single candle burning in a window is a portent of an impending death. Gower’s telling, in an updated context, causes one to think of killers Nurse Beverly Allitt and Doctor Harold Shipman, with a shiver.

Core

In spite of the darker material that peppers this collection, a number of the stories achieve uplifting endings. An example is ‘Only The Lonely’, in which a hospital worker with a particularly weird job abandons a plan to do away with a patient and hopes to befriend him instead. (Gower is strong in terms of what scholar and story-writer Frank O’Connor felt to be the marginal figures and ‘submerged’ populations who were the true core of the short story. Teachers, doctors and accountants are unlikely to feature in a Gower short story unless engaged in something very strange indeed.)

There’s something to be had from each of the fifteen tales in this collection, but the stand-out stories to my mind are the titular ‘The Murenger’ and the very different ‘Some Killing on Cydwell Flats’, which comes late-on in the book.

(Continued next column)

 

A little research tells me that murenger is an old word for an officer who would have been in charge of a town’s walls and their repair. In Gower’s story the reference is actually to an old, landmark pub of the name – happily still trading – in the centre of the city of Newport in the county of Gwent.

Reading this entry in the collection very much brought to my mind the story-writer and son of that shire, Arthur Machen. Although perhaps known chiefly today for his darker writing, Machen was a lover of good inns and, if fortunate, the good company that might be had in them. And there is the clear sense here that Gower, nowadays a citizen of Cardiff, has passed some pleasant evenings a short way east, within the walls of Newport’s Murenger.

Whether Gower’s account of the pub is a short story in the strictest sense of the term is open to question. It is perhaps really a portrait by way of those explorations that tend to be termed psychogeography, and some imaginings of his own. But I found this narrative – with its references to herbs, gardens and hidden rooms – the most pleasing in the whole collection: a lovely, calming, generous read, very much of a piece with the non-horror material essayed by Machen and that other, unknown world that Machen (left) felt to be all around us.

‘Some Killing on Cydwell Flats’, the other stand-out entry, is much more hard-boiled. It concerns gangsters and gruesome goings-on at a vegetable farm on the Welsh coast. A ‘beet boiler’ plays a grim part.

As is perhaps befitting of a graduate of Cambridge, a former Arts correspondent for the BBC and a university lecturer (under whom I once studied) who’s authored more than thirty books, Gower is familiar with some pretty big and noted tomes. He has, I think I’m right in saying, ‘done’ the complete Dickens. Contemporary writers such as James Lee Burke, the American, also find space on his bedside table, however. And ‘Some Killing on Cydwell Flats’ is quite a little shocker.

Gower’s collection closes with ‘Bowing Out’, a story which, because its subject is Brexit, is likely to please some and displease others, in the way that Brexit does. Here the author unashamedly wears his heart on his sleeve, and it’s a wounded heart at that. The story is very much a lament or requiem for the UK’s departure from the European Union. The thread is a musical performance by an unlikely group of players who find themselves overnight stars in a way that shocks them.

Forgetting politics completely, I find myself questioning the over all strengths of this last story a little. It’s the collection’s longest and seems just a little too diffuse after the directness that has gone before, adrift from Poe’s dictums about unity and point. Perhaps that was Gower’s intent, or grief.

Connections

There are good lines even so, such as this (when a young girl recommends the skills of a drummer): ‘He could play really quietly. He could make the sound of a mist rising from a river…’

In terms of comparisons with other writers, it’s possible to see connections in subject and style with three 20th century Welsh writers of note: Ron Berry (author of the boxing novel So Long, Hector Bebb, which deserves to be much better known) and the story-writers George Ewart Evans and (left) Gwyn Thomas (albeit that Thomas and Gower would very possibly be in conflict politically over the Welsh language and the issue of independence: ironic because Thomas (1913-1981, a son of the Rhondda) strikes me as the writer who Gower, whose mother tongue is Welsh, most resembles in style).

Gower, from a more south-westward and more Welsh-speaking part of Wales, isn’t quite as rooted in the (once) industrial Welsh valleys of that Glamorganshire trio, though he does have a spiritual connection through his grandfather, who mined coal under the Burry estuary near Llanelli.

Sufficient to say that Gower is his own man and brings his own voice to the table.

Thoughtful

A feature of this collection is the warm and thoughtful foreword by his friend, the Welsh novelist Owen Martell.

A curio is the series of still-life photographs by S. Mark Gubb, interleaving each story. On examination, it can be seen that these connect with the various tales. (I was pleased to spot – and connect – a Battenburg cake.) These little images are a lovely touch, of a kind one feels sure Machen, given his literary discourses on tobacco, culinary dishes and cheese (to name but a few) would have admired.

Martell writes – accurately, I think – of Gower being like a pilgrim, passing through life with a kind of ‘awed reverence’.

I would go further and say that Jon Gower is someone who is clearly a lover of life. Publishers Three Impostors put together this collection in celebration of his first sixty years. Here’s to his next sixty!

 

*The Murenger and Other Stories by Jon Gower is published in paperback by Three Impostors press, 177 pages, retail price £10. For more information and to order through their website, visit here: threeimpostors.co.uk

Reviewer Matthew G. Rees is the editor of Horla and is the author of, among other works, the story collection Keyhole, also published by Three Impostors. He has a PhD in Creative Writing.

Credit: photo of Jon Gower by Emyr Jenkins