Thursday, 31 July 2014

Cold Hand in Mine - Robert Aickman

The second of my Aickman Faber Finds but I suspect originally published before Wine Dark Sea.  Again, we have eight short stories.  The settings are as varied as ever, with many of the same tropes.  Again, the tales work best when they are truly strange.  I absolutely love it when something extremely strange happens - and that's it: no explanation, no consequences.

Take for example the opening story, 'The Swords'.  A young travelling salesman has his first sexual experience with a woman off the fair, a woman who can be pierced with swords without lasting injury or apparent pain.  The fact that the setting is somewhere in the West Midlands at the height of its grime and squalor only enhances the overall seediness.  Then something happens - I won't say what, save that it's strange, and disturbing and ever so slightly revolting.  Our hero pays off her pimp - somewhere else in the lodging house someone screams - and that's it.  Brilliant.

Something similar happens in 'The Hospice'.  Another commercial traveller, this time seemingly in the 1960s, runs out of petrol and spends the night at the titular establishment.  The meals are absolutely enormous.  They offer him a bed.  He has to share - everyone shares at the Hospice, by choice apparently.  In the night his room mate disappears and locks our protagonist in.  He returns later.  In the morning they carry out a body,  We don't know whose.  And they generously offer our hero a lift to the nearest petrol station ... in the hearse.

These and 'The Same Dog' were my favourites.  'Meeting Mr Millar' was enjoyable, and 'Neimandswasser' reminded me of D H Lawrence's 'The Prussian Officer'.  Some stories are better than others but there are no duds.  I'm really enjoying the range Aickman manages to achieve within quite a limited genre, and the depth of characterisation.  These are what make him a master.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Looking for the Archpoet

I have added a page to the blog (see right), reviewing and comparing a number of books on the same subject - medieval poetry from the fifth to the twelfth century, in particular the elusive and tantalising figure of the anonymous Archpoet.  I have already reviewed one of the books below - the Penguin Selections from the Carmina Burana - but it turned out that was only the start of my quest and I couldn't contextualise what I'd learnt since without referencing it again in this paper.

Anyway, hopefully it's a decent read - even if the subject is a tad obscure!

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Wine Dark Sea - Robert Aickman

With Aickman, the great Faber Finds print on demand service comes into his own.  By issuing three of his strange story collections as Finds, Faber were able to build sufficient interest to republish another collection in traditional form.

I had heard of Aickman, who is popular with cult writers like Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson, and who was the grandson of the great Victorian horror writer Richard Marsh (author of The Beetle, 1897), but whose books are very hard to come by. This seems to be because he was a truly awkward sod.  Then I walked into my local Oxfam and there, on the classics shelf, were all three Faber Find collections, which I am now working my way through.

First off, Aickman has a unique flavour.  His stories are long - 30 pages or more, perhaps best defined as mini novellas - and not especially horrific.  Instead they are strange, just like he said they were.  His characters tend to be loners, outsiders, and we see generally see the world through their eyes.  The locations are incredibly varied - Greek island, Venice, industrial Yorkshire, Sweden, and that's just in this volume. There is often a thread of present-versus-past in which the present tends to come off worst.

There are eight stories here.  The first is the title piece - a tourist goes to a Greek island despite being warned off by the locals and finds himself embroiled in elemental forces personified.  To me it was obvious, not sufficiently strange and certainly nowhere near adequately erotic, albeit we have to remember Aickman died in 1981, in his mid-sixties, so "Wine Dark Sea" might have been hot stuff in its day.  The next story, "The Trains", was my favourite - two postwar young women hiking in Yorkshire have to take refuge in an isolated house.  The twist with the butler was very strange indeed, and I loved that Aickman doesn't bother explaining it.  The butler is called Beech, a tribute to the butler of the same name in Wodehouse's Blandings series - the stories are dotted with such little touches, which only increase the enjoyment.

Then it's "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen" about lonely people and the telephone, followed by "Growing Boys", exactly what it says on the tin and hugely enjoyable.  "The Fetch" and "The Inner Room" both feature hopeless fathers, which seems to be another Aickman trope.  The latter didn't quite work for me, albeit I loved it right up to the point at which it was supposed to become disturbing.  On the other hand, the woman who turned out to be the titular fetch was deeply disturbing and lingered round the back of my mind for some days.

Finally 'Never Visit Venice' and 'Into the Woods' were both English-abroad stories in which the locations play a key role.  Venice has become too associated with weird goings-on since Aickman wrote his contribution, so it has lost some of its force.  Again, though, the writing is good and engrossing.  'Into the Woods' is extremely strange and unsettling.  Such an odd idea to begin with - an asylum for insomniacs - which Aickman then builds on with a masterly touch.

The introduction is by Peter Straub.  He was big news in 1988 when this edition was first published.  He isn't now, and the introduction isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Midnight in Europe - Alan Furst

I'd seen the TV version of The Spies of Warsaw, which I liked a lot, but I hadn't read Alan Furst until I came across this, his latest, in my local library.  It takes a while to get the tone, and I was worried at first that we seemed to be spending undue time with characters who clearly weren't going further.  But the main characters, Cristian Ferrar, Spanish ex-pat, living in Paris and partner in a prestigious New York law firm, and Max de Lyon, stateless soldier of fortune, are immensely likeable and multi-faceted.  There are no real villains - the villain is Fascism, in Spain for this novel but looming on the horizon for everyone when midnight turns in Europe.  The 1938 flavour seeps through every descriptive passage.  Nothing jarred against my eye or ear, and that's all a period novel has to achieve.  I liked the comparatively short length - 250 pages in the hardback.  Far too often novels in this eve-of-war espionage genre go on far too long.  Furst's economy of style means nothing wasted, nothing superfluous, and leaves you wanting more.  I certainly do.  The plotting which worried at me to begin with turned out to be a stroke of genius, and by no means the only one.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Don't Point That Thing At Me - Kyril Bonfiglioli

I confess I had never heard of Bonfiglioli, but there has been press lately because Johnny Depp is making a film and Penguin have therefore republished his Mortdecai trilogy, of which this is the first, originally published in the UK in 1972.

Despite the splendiferous name, Bonfigioli was English and his main influence was clearly Wodehouse, with a strong dash of Derek Raymond.  Charlie Mortdecai is the second son of a baronet and relies heavily on his manservant.  The valet or 'thug' is called Jock Strapp, which gives you a flavour of what follows.  Charlie is an art dealer and therefore dodgy.  There is a stolen Goya involved in things somewhere, and that gets him to America on a diplomatic passport but results in him being stalked across the mudflats of Morecambe Bay.

The plot is neither here nor there - though I love the final flourish by which Charlie leaves his fate up in the air.  What matters is the tone, which is maintained throughout, seemingly without effort.  Some of Charlie's observations and one-liners are laugh-out-loud funny.  Every para is read with a smile or a grin.  The good news is, there are two more volumes to acquire and read.  The bad news, it's only two, plus what seems like a prequel and one novel left unfinished when Bonfiglioli died in 1985.  It was finished by Craig Brown and I vaguely recall it now.  I'm not sure I'll bother with it, though.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Whit - Iain Banks

The thing about Iain Banks is, I'm never much interested in the story, which is often the same from book to book - large, complex families with issues and history not quite what it seems.  What takes me by the collar is the authorial voice, different from book to book, and the sheer exhilarating quality of the writing.  Take Whit, for example.  Loopy new age religious cult living a cultish life in pastoral Scotland?  Really, I couldn't care less.  But, cast in terms of Isis's awakening to the real world and the truths that can be found therein, I was enthralled all the way through.  Well, almost all the way.  The trouble with family mysteries is that they have to be tied up, the parties reconciled - and that is done, somewhat perfunctorily, at the end of Whit.  I'm not sure there was any other way it could be done but ... still ... you could cut the last chapter and miss nothing

Banks is a giant of contemporary English literature, a trailblazer of the important Scottish novel in the 21st century.  That he died too soon is inarguable.  I just hope he doesn't fall into post mortem obscurity.