THE SYNCHRONISED SHARDS OF RANDOM TRUTH AND FICTION
Prime Books paperback (2003) Cold Tonnage hardback (2004)
Overall book design: Garry Nurrish
“Real-Time Review of ‘Weirdmonger’ by DF Lewis” by DF Lewis
posted Thursday, 14 May 2009
This is an experiment suggested by a participant on the All Hallows discussion forum and is related to the real-time reviews of various books I’ve already conducted – as linked from HERE.
Prime Books (2003)
The real-time review below is in celebration of ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, a ‘literary’ theory that I have been studying since the Nineteen Sixties. This theory includes the contention that a book, once posited in the audience arena, is separate from its author, the author in fact becoming just another reader or critic of it.
I shall display below, over the next weeks and months or even years, a story-by-story real-time review by myself of the above book. Many of the stories were written decades ago and I have genuinely forgotten my intentions, even if I knew them at the time!
For a few years, the following wording has been displayed on the book’s web page (HERE) about the 67 stories:-
<< ORDER OF STORIES SHOULD NOT BE ALPHABETICAL:
Some people have contacted me over the months saying that they find the book too difficult to dissect for reading and they either are about to spend (possibly pleasurable) years reading it or have given up trying!
Some say there is a hidden built-in novel.
Others say that the stories are not separate nor a whole, a fact that is seen by some as off-putting.
My advice, for what is worth, is to try the most accessible stories first and work outwards, and these are:
The next set to tackle: are those not listed above or below (i.e. the bulk of the book).
The best stories of all, but not to be read until the above have been read:
Back Doubles, Benoko, Big Ship Little Ship & Brown, A Brief Visit To Bonnyville, The Chaise Longue, The Dead, Egnis, The II King, The Merest Tilt, Small Fry (the best of them all), Small Talk.
Those not to be attempted at all (seriously off-the-wall or dubious):
Salustrade, Shades of Emptiness (the worst of all), The Stories of Murkales, Tentacles Across The Atlantic, Todger’s Town, Tom Rose, The Weird-monger.
Hope that’s helpful. >>
I hope, too, today (14 May 09), as I embark on this experimental exercise in reviewing, that you do not consider it a highly pretentious exercise.
I somehow doubt I shall agree with my earlier self’s lists of stories above and which to read first!
Inside the book itself are these words in a short author biography: “…there is something impersonal about his fiction, as if nobody wrote them: they simply were and, thanks to this Weirdmonger collection, some of them still are.”
The first story is effectively ‘The Brainwright’ (first published in ‘Stand’ magazine in 1990), and now printed in two parts on each inside flap of the dust-wrapper of the hardback version of ‘Weirdmonger‘. This is the only story connected with this book that is re-printed on the internet and you can find it HERE. And read aloud by the author HERE.
“…a puddle-poet full of incomprehensibilities.” A ‘brainwright’ is officially a person employed to assist with the output of one’s own brain. I suggest this story is ironic! It also has a lot of strange antique words thrown together but I enjoyed its musicality. Whether it has any deeper significance for the rest of the book remains a moot point, but I think it is worth pointing out in this initial context that the sub-title of the ‘Weirdmonger’ book is: THE NEMONICON: Synchronised Shards of Random Truth & Fiction. (14 May 09)
Year in brackets is the story’s first date of publication.
The Abacus (1995)
The 67 stories are positioned alphabetically in the book. This is officially the first one and conveniently has an anticipatory appropriate opening: “The shop window was crammed with toys and contraptions which would create a devil of a fuss as soon as the batteries were fitted…”
Nostalgia of old shops and purple carbon-paper accountancy and human-like fingers and the puppet-strings of ancestry … and bobbles of lust that thread what we count upon to what we despair of?
Always In Dim Shadow (1991)
A very short fable of abuse made more powerful by ironic realisation of the title’s acronym.
“The howling voice of a distant mongrel enhanced the loneliness.” (15 May 09)
Angel of the Agony (1994)
I was both impressed and unimpressed when re-reading this one. It shows the worst crimes of my old erstwhile friend Wordy Weird – yet retaining a memorability of vision that transcends those excesses. After negotiating the actual ghostly location that the story’s I-narrator wordily creates so as to give his existence simply a setting or rationale, the reader learns that it is possible for him magically to make himself vanish – vanish inside a wardrobe, whereby the mirror (on its door), a long almost body-shaped mirror that was due to shape further into a real vampire, shatters from his clumsy slamming of the door during the very magic trick of vanishing. The mind boggles. (16 May 09)
Apple Turnover (1994)
A crisp and sour looking apple that turns out to be mushily sweet at the first bite. A sauce for pork. It is a vampire story. It seems meaninglessly improvised to me, but I suspect the earlier DF Lewis would have said it was highly pre-planned. Loved some of the apple images. There’s something about the whole story I can’t quite put my finger on.
“As in a game, the more chances captured and taken from the board the more chance of new chances taking their place. Otherwise, the final catch-all chance would catch up on you all the sooner.” (17 May 09)
Back Doubles (1993)
Back Doubles and Rat Runs are shortcuts for rush hour drivers to miss the busy arterials. This book, I sense, is full of mazy by-passes to avoid meanings for different meanings. This story (the first quite long story in the book) is a (post-Holocaust?) London patchwork of darkly-texted adventures (eschatological and scatological) that the St Paul’s-Cathedral-obsessed protagonist negotiates in a quest for his obsession in-the-stone. After a monstrous vision, it offers alternative endings. And a bus-groupie girl. It sometimes feels randomly thrown together. At other times, organic. Whatever infelicities it harbours, I guess there is nothing quite like it anywhere else!
“There was a girl standing beside the steering-booth, hanging on to the driver’s every word – desperately longing for the casual off-duty hours when all such bus driver groupies would be presented with a Degree in Flirtation.” (17 May 09 – 6 hours later)
A geographically-frustrated romance between Benoko and Girl – and a smuggled drug that brings you down from highs so that a makeshift wooden fairground will appear like a wonderful Disney Land by strength of contrast! This is a much better story than I recall it. I wonder if the Bus-Driver Groupie Girl just hopped stories from the previous one by ease of the titles’ alphabetical proximity? Benoko’s name itself, his form and his personality all morph gradually until we reach the story’s spoiler territory (literally)… so mum’s the word.
The batteries have now been fitted at least – but are the toys themselves yet ignited?
“I could see at least twenty Big Wheels within my own width of vision, churning slowly round like the vestigial windmills of my dreams.” (18 May 09)
Big Ship, Little Ship and Brown (1995)
Sex and geographically-morphing islands in a river (cf. Benoko’s morphing geography) and a missing gap (a harbour wall’s missing missing-wall!) and a near senseless imp called Measles who, once he loses his only sense (smell), merely has death as his reserve sense (a vampire with gaps for missing fangs?). This story (of High Fantasy?) seems to have weighty things to impart in the guise of gaps between weighty things. It was one of my favourites, I recall, from this book. I can’t imagine being able to write it today.
“I can’t get men’s shoes out of my mind. Men’s shoes. Men’s shoes. Always men’s shoes until men’s shoes, just the sound and a new meaning attaching to the sound, take on an evil aura.” (18 May 09 – 4 hours later)
Judging by independent comments over the years, I guess this is considered to be one of my best (or least bad) stories. It tells of an inverse (almost religious) search for a black and white B movie actor whose innards (when unravelled as in a striptease) are also black and white. It has many of my early-nineties hallmarks of Wordy Weird narrating quests generated by pub talk. It is, however, in my opinion, a terrible story. If I had my time again, there are many stories I would now omit from a book of my work and many different ones included, such as some unpublished ones I’ve written since and one or two of my novellas or even extracts from my diptych of novels. None of these have been submitted anywhere and reside unread on the internet in a mistaken belief that this was better than putting them in a slush pile somewhere.
I recall choosing stories for this ‘Weirdmonger’ book in a sort of guided random process from the DFL Fiction folder on my then computer (to match the book’s eventual sub-title?). However, ‘Bloodbone’ does contain a sentence of modestly-inbred modesty that encapsulates my time-distanced-objectified feeling towards DFL fiction – in that, self-evidently, only real writers become real writers:
“It was the first time I had been there, so my first surprise, in a long line of other surprises, was the recognition of the likes of me by the likes of someone else.” (19 May 09)
I’d forgotten how shocking this story is, a sick girl in bed, attended by Dr Wormius and Mrs B, and worried she was being dreamed by the man who appeared to be her Grandfather or dreaming of her Grandfather dreaming about her – obsessed with the word ‘delirium’ and fear against the opening of a sash-window and the dreams at cross-purposes with the fluffy toy she’s in got with her in Bed: Bobtail (from ‘Rag, Tag and Bobtail’, a black and white ‘Watch With Mother’ TV programme I loved as a toddler in the Fifties). I’m trying to gauge whether any of the stories so far have got things in common. I suppose they carry things secretly like our bodies do until they suddenly rage or slither forth unwelcomingly (filters can work both ways) through the layers of disbelief that the author has insulated his meanings with. Like the monstrous vision towards the end of ‘Back Doubles’ which gives a lottery of escape with its alternative endings. No such chance of escape, though, in ‘Bobtail’! Hmmm, unless there is a gap somewhere that went missing, some loophole…?
“Dr Wormius opened it with some difficulty, ignoring her pleas. He turned away from the window and made as if to push it up with his back. / Or as if he were saddling something, Susan thought.” (19 May 09 – 4 hours later)
A Brief Visit To Bonnyville (1995)
“‘Which way in?’ asked the guide.”
You can ask that again! This is an ostensibly substantial story about a visit to the seaside, written, I recall, immediately after my move in 1994 to the seaside of North East Essex (where I was originally brought up in the Nineteen Fifties) – after living in a South London / Croydon no man’s land for 22 years as a Company Pensions expert. It turned out to be longer than a brief visit to the seaside, as I am still here!
The story is now too salacious for my taste and imponderable. But I am now just another reader. Not a very sympathetic one. It does have its enticing moments of conundrum and inscrutable vision, however. ‘Claura and the Gulls’ would have been a better title. In a strange way, it now strikes me as very Restoration Comedy with disguises and inferred asides and set-piece tableaux.
“At a point where two prayers cross.” (20 May 09)
Upon re-reading this recently (for reading aloud purposes on-line), I decided this was my favourite prose poem of all time and of all writers. But I have a very narrow definition of prose poem.
It tells of a communal gas oven where its caretaker operates inside it arranging for wool to be pulled over our eyes that it is a beauty parlour. And then wheeling my readers in. Haw Haw.
Treat both triumph and disaster as impostors – Kipling ₪ (20 May 09 – 2 hours later)
The Chaise Longue (1998)
I suddenly thought – I’ve been second-guessing an earlier self of mine above – and I should be reviewing each story in the cold light of today… as it appears on the page uncluttered by any memory of creating it.
This story then has a strange mixture of Pinteresque / Ivy Compton-Burnettesque dialogue as a misguided sticking-plaster for a relationship under ancient duress. Fustian to the nth degree. An experiment in re-coupling the de-coupled. With a sting in its tail. It does strike me as being a powerful scenario, splatting the fiction-reading-head with a de-boxed but still fully ripe wine-bag.
“…decked out in a floral print frock that hugged her bosom tightly enough for the nipples to show through even a heavy-duty brassiere.” (21 May 09)
The Christmas Angel (1995)
This, for me, is a DF Lewis classic. Quite perfect within his own then perceived terms. With the most pathos in any story’s ending that can be squeezed into Christmas Day’s start. Didactic about a then future credit crunch as well as free-wheelingly ‘l’art pour l’art’.
“Unfurling its sugar-glass wings, like silver spider-webs, it peered down with pearl-bead eyes at the piles of presents at the foot of the Tree.” (21 May 09 – 3 hours later)
Dark They Were And Empty-Eyed (1995)
An incantatory monologue of dungeon-dark buffet and pain, whereby the I plops from its socket, just as, indeed, many of this book’s story narrators nil out (pre-figuring the concept of Nemonymity in 2001?)
“… my own mind’s bony meat haven...” (22 May 09)
The Dead (1995)
A Joycean (I guess) dinner party, where items of furniture have finger-holes like ten-pin bowls – and prandial conversation has bizarre innuendo. There are skeleton girls and/or servants haunting the backdrop. It means far more than one would ever expect from that summary! Now after 14 years can I scratch more than just its surface. Also, this story’s Ligotti-like ending is the loosest ending, I feel, that has appeared at the end of any story – ever.
“There was silence, save for the wireless’s residual fidgets of warming down.” (22 May 09 – after 4 hours)
Dear Mum (1990)
A SF story in the form of a letter from a man on an exploratory spaceship to his Mum back on Earth. In hindsight, a sort of email. A bit like Dr Wormius opening the sash-window with his back?
It is potentially very good with a highly poignant ending but it’s not quite carried off, I feel.
“Apparently, immortality’s only half of it.” (23 May 09)
Digory Smalls (1989)
If it is possible at all for there to be an externally favourite or most well-known story by DFL, this possibly one of them. A master and his ‘disabled’ servant explore the interlocking attic-systems of a large house, with horrific and absurdic results. A family’s generations ooze back and forth over time…? An amorality tale. Fiction for fiction’s sake. It certainly remains startling, even to me!
“‘Come, Mister Smalls, no time for larks. We only have a few more attics to negotiate.’ He looked askance at me.” (23 May 09 – 2 hours later)
I am trying to summarise the stories real-time-reviewed so far … in an ambition to match my own apparent success at identifying leit-motifs and gestalts when conducting such reviews on other writers’ books. So far I seem to have drawn a blank with ‘Weirdmonger’. Possibly, then, as an interim measure, we all have attic-systems to traverse towards our eventual heaven – heaven being, for me, an optimum thought that is one’s last thought before expiring. One needs to face the genuine monsters as well as the absurdities of existence: facing them out by absorbing them (but are you the parasite or them?), eventually becoming ‘the old man of the sea’ who perhaps takes on board one’s own internals like the experiences, illnesses, sadnesses, joys etc. of your previous selves (as well as taking on board, altruistically, externals like loved ones and you readers and, by so doing, their internals) along with oneself in the journey or quest for that optimum thought. (23 May 09 – another hour later)
This is scatology as an incantatory and deeply-textured language of religion OR a blueprint for one of humanity’s sewer systems to work via the innards of various giant birds…
Internals and externals in symbiosis.
A tripartite war between life and death and the insidious state that is not really either.
“…it had inserted its sting in his crookback, thus putting down roots towards what it considered to be its sexgoal; the throbbing mush of the host’s heart.” (24 May 09)
“It was as if the truest reality was within herself, which it was her duty to release, for the benefit of others. In return, they gave her the sweet distillations of themselves.”
That seems to bear out my first attempt at a leit-motif for the hindsight of this book so far.
This story, too, seems to be far better than I remember it to be. A commune with some participants lacking sense as well as senses. The Dinner Man… A police raid. There seem to be inner truths here galore. A story that needs to be worn … and visualised, too, as if you were in the story yourself as a blind person.
“Raspberryade was a euphemism…”
“Twilight often summoned stragglers from their late-lyings, who subsisted simply because they’d forgotten to die.”
“The law didn’t like late-risers.”
“…her tongue was almost a second soul. She even could taste with the ends of her teeth.” (24 May 09 – 2 hours later)
Just for the record, this was the one story I wrote a number of years before I started seriously writing and submitting stories in 1986 in which year I had my first story published (‘Padgett Weggs’ – that also appears later in this ‘Weirdmonger’ book).
‘Egnis’ is a strange story, to say the least. About John Egnis staying with his two aunts by a lake resort, his family of wife and children elsewhere, some loose connections with Pepys’ diary, drug smugglers, and guilt – and some really passionate prose that I recall (self-intentionally!) was painfully carved out in the raw old days before I got into my writing rhythm.
Re-reading it coldly today, I sense it is about the ‘internals’ and ‘externals’ of character within a Trojan Horse as part and parcel in a quest for a ‘literary’ meaning more meaningful than the reality it reflects.
“…in an unsubtle little girl way, as she tried to sleep, as she tried to recall the face of her father, as she finally succumbed to the same sleep her father slept, without dream or hope of waking.” (24 May 09 – another 2 hours later)
Encounters With Terror (1995)
A man’s rite of passage from childhood, denoting his various encounters with Terror, ever drawn back to a ‘present moment’ of being caught short in bed during the Nursery Night. Yearning for a Proustian mother’s kiss …plus a crush on a servant girl. Paralleled by his toy clock-work train going in circles … a tripartite war of life and death and something that is neither – as echoed beyond and within this book’s context. Many of these stories suffer from their shortness of the writer’s breath… A question of taste.
“The corpse of the soldier Francis had just killed groaned in death as if it were a fitful nightmare he sleeped. The belly gaped upon wriggling innards as if these were new sexual organs the corpse wanted to be fondled and loved.” (25 May 09)
Find Mine (1998)
A letter to ‘you’ disguised as a story so that when it’s published its intended yet unknown recipient can read it. The ‘synchronised shards of random truth and fiction’ certainly come into play here. And a tripartite war between love and hate and something that is a combination of both.
As an aside, did you know that when you wake up tired and drained even after an apparently good night’s sleep that’s when you’ve been visited by a vampire who’s just had a party in your soul…
SPOILER: “So as to avoid readers of this letter skipping to its end, before reading it as a whole, I’ve decided to conceal my epistle’s valedictory in this particular paragraph.” (25 May 09 – 2 hours later)
First Sight (1995)
A flash fiction of a wink. An eye-patch, when hanging up, looks like a spider with all its legs running into one. Eyelid wing. And someone subsumed by self-harming upon discovering the nature of one’s identity as narrator.
“He revolved like a clown’s head on a seaside pier with a two-way neck…” (25 May 09 – another hour later)
“I often enjoyed usherettes showing me to my seat by torchlight – often better than the film itself.”
A gongoozler is a loiterer at canal-lock gates idly watching canal-boats and their crew work the locks. Here we have a gongoozler (as narrator) who is handsomely (and weirdly) rewarded for some unsolicited help he gave a while ago to one particular canal-boat at the locks. This is a relatively substantial story that seems to reverse the usual interactions of ‘stranger’ and ‘danger’ – combined with salacious disguises and endangered manhood à-la-Zola. The story is captivating, yet slightly reprehensible, to my 2009 eyes. I recall a whole week was spent writing it piecemeal while on a canal-boat holiday. Another “someone subsumed by self-harming upon discovering the nature of one’s identity as narrator”?
“There was also a crackly sweet sound, like children surreptitiously feasting past midnight. It continued until I eventually fell asleep. My dreams had the sound of cricket balls hitting willow bats into the morning.” (25 May 09 – another 2 hours later)
The Hungerers (2000)
I think I’ve understood this story for the first time today, upon re-reading it. A flash fiction whereby a harlot (that arrives via the chimney) is poisoned by a kiss (does she die and get stuck when back in the chimney-flue after the story finished?) — a kiss from her shy innocent customer who once as a boy had his body poisoned (as well as his mind) by a Grandmother who loved him so much that this was the way to protect him from what she must have perceived as Great Old Ones disguised as harlots – creatures who, now, when seen in the cold light of day, distant from the banked coal-fire, are simply doing what is asked of them. Narrator (the harlot) and her customer in poignant negative-symbiosis. And if that is a series of spoilers, well, the story certainly needed being spoilt.
“‘I like live fires,’ he said. ‘When I was a child, I thought each flame had a story to tell. Only later did I realise that a single flame is never the same entity from one moment to the next.’” (25 May 09 – another hour later).
The II King (1998)
“‘Well, it’s written down in a book, so it must be true.’ / ‘What book? This one?’ I pointed to the one he simultaneously pointed at: ‘Miscreant In Moonstream.’ / ‘By Rachel Mildeyes,’ the local proudly stated, as if that capped everything.”
One of those patchwork quilt DFL stories where any connecting thread, if discerned at all, is the audit trail of plot, with the rest being dream images or automatic-writing of the ‘synchronised shards of random truth & fiction’ school of literature! Deep intake of ironic breath. Actually, this is possibly one of the best examples of this school, telling of the II King’s jester who himself tells of matters concerning the II King from within the II King’s own dream. The otherwise sloppy plot luckily has an iron hardware spine – as well as an iron codpiece! SPOILER: The ‘II’ is a dream’s stutter for ‘I’. Or a migraine effect.
“I decided I would not buy Black Haven, after all, at any price and left them to lock up. After all, I had no money in someone else’s dream.” (25 May 09 – another 3 hours later)
In Unison (1995)
What is the most horrific thing a horror writer can imagine? Being paralysed and suffering a complete shut-down of all your senses except thought. Alone in darkness with nothing but the dark fantasies you created during your life.
But who empathises with whom? This whole book here looks inward. Each story in unison with the other. Author out of step.
Meanwhile, in the plot of one of these very dark fantasies (i.e. this one), two women still vie for his attentions!
“If it were not for the stories, he’d be dead. This one about becoming a leaky vegetable was the last and the best. But never to be written. Nobody would ever read it. A dreadful shame.” (25 May 09 – another 2 hours later)
The Jack-in-the-Box (1991)
‘Colin’s Sandwich’ was a British TV situation comedy in the late eighties about a horror writer (starring (Mel Smith). It made fun of horror writers. The story’s protagonist Tim (in pre-Tim Lebbon days) is fed up with the ridicule! Interspersing a fantasy life engendered by vision of his real wife and a Dickensian shop with Ligottian knick-knacks, we have a genuinely original and disturbing story. Another that asks the question: who empathises with whom? Another tripartite war, this time between author and narrator and something else that is neither-or-both. And the story has one of the most frightening last lines of any story (in the context). It could have been done better, though. It seems to me that DFL then (and still?) often misses his chance through hurry or a desire to finish writing many of his stories in one sitting (or so it seems by a cold judgement of the stories themselves).
“He believed the general public needed to be scared stiff, their bodies jolted out of their skins and brains eased from their skulls like shellfish, so that, eventually, they might be able to forget the real evil within themselves already.” (26 May 09)
The Last Prize (1994)
This story was first published in 1994, but written a number of years before that when I lived in Coulsdon near London. It is a nostalgic story about a seaside resort and its pleasure pier (a place where I was brought up as a small child) but it was a story written during a long period of living inland, so was not affected, I guess, by the immediate vicinity of the seaside and its accoutrements. I have since returned to live near that seaside resort and it is a strange war between memory and idealization and a new hindsight that I now watch take place in this story. It tells of a boy and a girl, their dreams when standing at the end of the pier, childishly inventing what is beyond the sea’s horizon, its thickening by rigs into new lands? – and fairy-creatures? It also tells of a new-born romance followed by the loss of innocence. And the encroachment by modernity and self-realised entropy. To my now eyes, the story is exquisite. But am I here steeped in intentionality…? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this experimental reviewing of ‘Weirdmonger’ as a whole seems to tempt me into sinning against what I have long believed literary criticism to be!
“The sea soared and sucked beneath the old pier, licking like grey fire the thick oaken stilts upon which its planking stretched for a good mile. On occasions, the wind whipped up its own vortices, like ghostly dervishes, around the under-hulks of this man-made shipwreck – raising the fury of the sea in gobs of giant’s spit between the gaps in the boardwalk.”
I seem to be reviewing the stories quicker than I anticipated. I am already a third of the way through the book. But who knows if the future will ‘thicken’ like the a diluted sea-into-land, a sluggishness of purpose as I head towards what I have considered in blurred hindsight to be a few stories unworthy of inclusion in this book, even unworthy of my name (eg: Shades of Emptiness, Salustrade, Todger’s Town, Tom Rose, Weirdmonger, The Stories of Murkales, Tentacles Across The Atlantic … coincidence that their titles are later in the alphabet?). (26 May 09 – 2 hours later)
The Merest Tilt (1994)
Well, a real gem of showgirls and froths and frills and creamy realities that the narrator fashions from a selective use of his own diary written during the events of the story. This pencilled diary needed a merest tilt sometimes for him to be able to read parts he had earlier rubbed out. This seems to fit in with the way I’ve been looking at this whole review! Truths and fictions?
A story with its darker moments, too.
“My companions were surly souls with curt courtesies in the taxi. Humourless asides intended to be funny made me cringe. One was my uncle I think (the diary is unclear). Someone else was there whom I’d once loved but did no longer, somehow. Yet another was silent and shadowy who made me afraid to talk out loud in case I revealed something of myself he wanted to catch. There was also a dwarfish creature, pressed up close to me on the back seat, who kept broaching unwanted topics and expecting us to comment.” (26 May 09 – another 2 hours later)
Migrations of the Heart (1993)
Coincidentally, following alphabetically straight on from the previous story, this one says: “I can only convey things by things I leave out.”
A very brief piece of poignancy about a childless couple haunted by the ghost of childlessness and of their own encroaching old age when decisions (like where to sleep) become arbitrary. Alphabetical by way of its own plot, too, incredibly, in the above light! (26 May 09 – another hour later)
A Mind’s Kidney (1993)
Another quick-change act by what turns out to be (from the point of view of the author) a fast-and-loose I-Narrator as in ‘Angel of the Agony’. Also ‘bed-switch’ repercussions almost in tune with those in the immediately previous alphabetical story! All taking place mid bladder-change during a night in strange lodgings, the room having oversized door-hooks and old-fashioned chintzy decoration. A real ghost that is generated by confused thought. The story of my life!
“Filters can work both ways, I thought, in the tired way my thoughts sometimes made me think.” (26 May 09 – another 2 hours later)
Padgett Weggs (1986)
Archetypal early DFL tale of pub talk, St Paul’s Cathedral, Great Old Ones roosting on London’s roofs, walking heads, brain surgery conducted in a pub lavatory, smuggling ambergris…
Also a clumsy wooden arch constructed over the bed as a second ‘roof’ to keep God out … or in! [The latter bit was inspired by the novella ‘Agra Aska’ written in 1983.]
This is one helluva crazy author’s first published story. It cannot be reviewed. It just is. It needed to exist. Ironically iconic. Cone Zero. A zoo of words that escaped their cages.
“Ever since coming to this strange city, he felt that his mind was channelled between two blind alleys – so, although he could indeed think straight, the thoughts themselves were in the dark and ambivalently cobbled together.” (26 May 09 – another 3 hours later)
Queuing Behind Crazy People (1997)
A tale of a film that becomes a tale of its queue outside the cinema, with Ligottian buskers entertaining its length. Some queue-members even have to leave the queue because they spend their entrance money on the buskers. Conversations and friendships underpin the queue. A story of craziness even crazier than the story that tells about such craziness. (This book is a meta-book only crazy because it was ever published in the first place.) Coincidentally, following on alphabetically – in a presumably neat queue of stories – from ‘Padgett Weggs’ which tells of a living human head in separate existence, here a queue-member tells of a head being found in a lobster-pot when fished from the sea by the fishermen. A character called Ken King tries to befriend the we-Narrator after the film simply because he recognised ‘us’ from having sat in the same row in the auditorium. The film itself (which fails to feature in the story because too much time was spent describing its audience’s preliminary queue) was, apparently, banned after its first showing – because of one fleetingly brief scene which most of the audience missed as they were snogging. I won’t mention the toy gun. This story is not iconic like ‘Padgett Weggs’, but it is certainly a memorable busker for you queue of readers who want to read the book as long as you can manage to get into it. Some memorable images, but fundamentally firing blanks.
“That night, we believed Ken King would have an itch in his brain. / A terrible itch. / Such an itch, if it were at a point on one’s back which could not be reached without a degree of bodily contortion, was bad enough. But an itch in the brain–well, Ken King pawed at his ear, trying to dig in as far as he could go. The itch became so unbearable, he prodded his eye, until it wept blood. Then thrust fingers up his nostrils. If he had been able to do so, he would have peeled back his face with a rip-roaring wrench, simply to uncover a route to the bone basin of the lobster brain. And scratch it to his own delight. His last resort, of course, was to detach the head in its entirety, with the neck-flashings removed. / Thoughts themselves were itches he could not remove, whatever method adopted.” (26 May 09 – another 3 hours later)
“You obviously know I have been keeping these pages for, it seems, centuries now, and I do have the misfortune (sometimes) of dipping into purple prose and, at another point of the literary compass, near-illiteracy.”
I think this is the one story in ‘Weirdmonger’ that more people have told me is their favourite story in it. A ghost story that Elizabeth Bowen might have written – and situated in Innsmouth! A family of oblique children and retainers and many aunts and uncles – excitedly taking a cliff walk (in queue form!) to Innsmouth at which destination one of the Uncles has a miscegenate relationship (with a Deep One?). There is also a renowned description of a specialist fork collection in the family house. Here, in this story, resides the hub of a wheel that is ‘Weirdmonger’ – of dimmer-switch controlled character identities and a Narrator that needs tuning in like an ancient wireless, with the signal coming and going. Sometimes static. DFL was probably the first horror writer to use ‘static’ as a pervading symbol or signal.
“‘Ghosts never use speech marks,’ said Aunt Guide, thus proving she wasn’t one.” (27 May 09)
Hmmm – actually, this over-long story is better than I remember it … just! Perhaps Karl Edward Wagner did have a point after all when he chose it for ‘Year’s Best Horror Stories’. I have great respect for him and his fiction and his editorial work. Therefore, I shall hold fire on this story. Make your own mind up. I’ll just itemise the high points (for me) then: an assisted suicide beneath a pyramid of second-hand books, some apocalyptic visions and the language used to describe them, a strange relationship between a pair of twins (perhaps, paradoxically, the ultimate tripartite war!), Salustrade as the highly-strung, imp-like ‘gladiator’, the steampunk SF scenario under a gothic city and the Padgett Weggs finale.
It’s perhaps that some of these high-points don’t make the grade as amenable jigsaw pieces! This story crams in so many DFL emblems it makes the task of this real-time review discovering the book’s audit trail of leit-motifs (leading to an eventual gestalt) either too difficult or too easy. Never in between.
“The books around her were nothing but memories, too – mere pages of live thoughts that were all but dead. How could the bone of one finger split into a ‘V’? For a book to live, though, must it not in fact become such a ‘V’?” (27 May 09 – 2 hours later)
Scaredy and Whitemouth (1994)
This one seemed far better than I remembered. I remembered it as a pedestrian story of a blind girl called Aspen – and her two cats – and someone called David whom she visualised. It is about those things. But the ending came as a complete surprise and the innuendo of some people ‘seeing’ more things by feeling their way reminded me of various processes I’ve experienced when doing these real-time reviews. But that’s not the real reason. This was a story that genuinely touched me as if I’d never written it. The Narrator this time was not on a dimmer-switch, but I, imputed author become the unconnected reader, was dimming and brightening in a slow-motion strobe as if in some process that could only be envisioned by a real blind person. I almost could answer the question: who empathised with whom? Almost.
[Perhaps one needs two people to try empathising mutually so as to allow a missing missing-wall to be found by a third party as a chink of light through which he or she can ‘read’ both parties far more clearly than they could even ‘read’ each other and themselves. A three-cornered dance ... or a tripartite war’s surrender or peace conference.]
“Aspen had dreams in her sleep. Blindness couldn’t prevent that. She saw the places she visited during the day in precise detail, down to the assistant at the underwear shop with pitted face, toothbrush moustache and tape measure round his shoulders.”
The Scar Museum (1996)
A somehow logical treatment of a protagonist who runs a Scar Museum and stays in hotels in Spa towns so as to cull as many potential exhibits as possible from the inhabitants – paralleled by a metaphor of life’s scars extending to real scars on the mind’s surface, a mind that can also be culled. It tells of his well-narrated encounter with two women and with a pig-like dog called Tussle. And there is a guest appearance by Padgett Weggs in his dosser role. It all makes eminent sense. And fits into a growing hypothesis that this collection is really a novel…
Read as a separate story, it works, too.
It makes unbelievability the new believability.
Some strange expressions like ‘unworld-famous museum’ and ‘undesigner-rip in the jeans’ take this concept of against-the-grain truth into a realm of even weaker tissues of lie. (28 May 09)
Season of Lost Will (1991)
“Freda often thought out loud after her memory started to go. If she could but know where it was going, that might have helped.”
This story has become devastating. When I first wrote it I was around 20 years younger than I am now, and it wasn’t quite so devastating to me then. It is a story of misunderstandings and memories as one grows older as a married couple. It cleverly centres round a mysterious Christmas Card that arrives every year. Time attenuates into a scar of its former condition. Which is best – to lose something or never to know you had it? Then slowly and unenthusiastically queuing behind crazy people for the emergency exit from life’s auditorium.
“The great miracle about it all, he thought, was that people lived as if they were immortal, but knowing at the back of their mind all the time that one day, one unexpected day, they would pass on. That was God’s con trick. What made it more absurd God would never put in an appearance to have the last laugh.” (28 May 09 – 4 hours later)
Second Best (1993)
A densely word-packed flash fiction about Simple Simon and the Pieman and Jack the Giantkiller in a tripartite dream. A ‘bony-meat haven’ or a ‘slight ghost in the night hutch’ or ‘wishbone substance of shadow’?
A question of philosophical identity. And just another piece to fit into the jiggery-pokery that is this book.
“‘The only giants left to kill are ourselves.’ – Rachel Mildeyes.” (29 May 09)
A Selfish Strain (1998)
A ‘dream of real air’ from a world under water? Well sort of. It’s a chunky prose piece “using words less understandable than the alien dialect once crated to Earth in the beaks of insane, if articulate, chickens”. It is about the cynical narrator’s son bringing home a girl friend (who is a bit like one of those Haw Haw creatures in ‘Caretaker’?) – with‘coral seas beyond the stocking-tops’.
DFL stories are often frightening – not so much because they are always Horror stories – but because it’s frightening to think anyone could have written them! Or even wanted to.
“High-faluting college talk, I called it. He needed his brains flushing out.” (29 May 09 – 2 hours later)
The Sun Setting (2003)
This is one of the few works that was first published in the ‘Weirdmonger’ book. Strangely, it is the only story that is out of alphabetical order (as you will see). Perhaps a red-herring in a ‘whodunnit’ or ‘isitreallyanovel?’ novel. It is also, I believe, the shortest piece in the book. About a lake (the lake in ‘Egnis’?) A genuine prose poem, as opposed to a story. I shall break some more reviewing ground by making my review of this piece the whole piece itself from beginning to end:
“THE SUN SETTING
The lake was darker than the deepest sleep. I could still sense the horizon, though, while I or someone like me stood on the water’s edge: sensing that the tideless ripples were louder because it was night and there were less distractions. There were several others, awake or asleep, I wasn’t sure, who stood ranked along the edge: as if waiting for the glorious moment of waking or sunrise whichever came first. A sense of awe. A greater sense of suspense. A sense of sense. It was difficult to express even the simplest sense of all. Meanings lost touch with reality. Whilst thoughts regained reality piecemeal, during the process: a rim of screaming orange slowly worming across the already known horizon of utter darkness. Then the sun ineluctably inched upward, a slowworm, an inchworm, a wormhole of blinding iritis of the eye: sloe gin, searing cocktail of the senses, gingerly ratcheting into focus: half up now, almost three-quarters: as the lake became a sheen of fire; I or someone like me, almost fully awake, turned to see the other watchers of the lake, standing to attention, saluting the sun or, rather, shading their eyes from the sun with their hands: they could almost see the veins under the flesh by looking at the sun through themselves: I recognised one or two of the watchers: friends, relations, enemies even. There was not a single stranger. We were all bleary eyed, squinting, shambling, shuffling, a slow-motion locomotion nearer the lake’s edge, as if in some wildly lethargic attempt to summon the sun to ourselves, gathering it to our bosom. I or someone like me closed one eye. It was like winking. Acknowledging the presence of a life-giving force: after all, the sun gave us life, and we needed to return the favour. Exchange blessings with the most sacred powerhouse of God and Mystery. If God it were. Only representatives knew whom they represented. And the sun could not speak, could not be killed for the message it brought, could not accept blame or praise. Slowly now, far more slowly than we could imagine by wading through the margins of water with which the lake ruffled our bare feet towards its blistering furnace, the sun appeared to engorge as the horizon finally released its lower arc of corona. And nigh filled the sky. I or someone like me held hands with my neighbour, and he or someone like him took hold of his neighbour and she or someone like her took hold of her neighbour … as we walked deeper into the lake. And slowly, so very slowly, watched ourselves as our lives passed before our eyes as if we had actually lived such events in the course of some unspoken reality. The worm drowned. As heads inched beneath the silken smoothness of sparkling fire, it was as if each head was its own sun setting. Some of us or some people like us decided to linger to see the real thing.” (29 May 09 – another 30 minutes later)
Shades of Emptiness (2003)
First published in this book, this is a Joycean you-monologue (you being me) that ranges in quick-fire fashion between ‘identities’, historicities, house parties, slimefests, emptinesses… There are many strong visions and images and spectacular usages of language in this very long ‘story’. But do they cohere? Not to the present reader. This is the ugly face of ‘Weirdmonger’ – perhaps paralleling or symbolising the wider frustrations and eventual failure of those audit-trailers out there or of any seekers of leit-motif from within the whole book to make a gestalt.
“So, you determined to gate-crash and then gate-crash again. If a party was worth a party, it took you ten thousand years to reach its inner sanctum, where the action actually was.” (29 May 09 – another 90 minutes later)
The Shiftlings (1991)
It is a story rather than a prose poem, but I surprisingly find it is shorter than ‘The Sun Setting’! It is a conversation of dreams and the reaching through hair towards the head itself. A wispy ghost story. We are all ghosts, perhaps.
“But you must learn to sort out the straight bits first, or the middle will never come.” (29 May 09 – another 2 hours later)
Small Fry (2003)
First published in this book, this is my favourite DFL story … where all the various DFLeries and DFLisms come together. It tells of an extended family in Wales, their associates in the TV world of the Sixties, the near-physical ghosts, the charade party games, the obliquities that (here at least) mean far more than any linear or straightforward devices can manage, the poignancies often touching upon absurdity or grotesqueness, the tripartite war of unsexual love, sexual love and irregular lust – all conveyed by a language that here works perfectly as a blend of dense texture and clarity, of poetry and prose.
“The magic times always seemed to be saved for a Sunday, when Father took us for views. His old jalopy took the steep winding roads in its stride. Up a Welsh hill, with our breaths snatched away, we gazed awestruck at the way God was able to make things so really big and high, as if He were showing off for the benefit of us small fry.”
‘Small Fry’ makes me want to question the word ‘weirdmonger’ that one of my children invented for me in the eighties. There is something constructively ambivalent about the word. As in this very story. Not destructive as it is in the actual story entitled ‘Weirdmonger’ later in this book. There is a difference between the Weirdmonger who writes these stories and the character who stole the name from the writer and used it as its name when the writer wasn’t looking and took it on and spoilt it and gave it a spurious ‘truth’. And, damn me, then I actually found it became the overall title of the whole book! (29 May 09 – another 2 hours later)
Small Talk (1994)
“…filled with sinister back-to-back churches and tenebrous terraced steeples. Things with souls seemed to be loitering on the pavements like coffins of flesh, whose talk was so small, silent it was.”
This is a long story of a day trip by car from Croydon to Leeds and back again. It is based on the exact details of the real trip in 1988 to a SF Convention with another writer (called Gary in the story but not a Gary in real life) who was of course then much younger and unfamous. Interpolated between the outward trip and the return trip are a series of discrete (?) short stories that the driver (based on me) fictitiously told the passenger en route. Do these stories cohere and/or stand up as stories or act as reasonless ‘small talk’? Some of them concern car travel: full of every-day and grotesque and absurd images / visions (much like ‘Shades of Emptiness’ but here, I feel the format works better). It is a sort of mini ‘leit-motif to gestalt’ within a larger ‘leit-motif to gestalt’ of the ‘Weirdmonger’ book itself. Dolls within dolls. We nearly had a fatal accident on that real trip, I recall. Would the world have been a better place had that happened – to the two dolls rattled around inside like dice?
“‘Don’t turn left on Sydenham Road!’ he insisted, upon giving me directions back to Croydon. If he said it once, he said it a hundred times.” (30 May 09)
The Spigot and the Speechmark (1996)
We return to the world of an old couple as in ‘Season of Lost Will’ and the use of speechmarks as in ‘Rosewolf’. This story has a ‘snorting monster’ – if sat on a motorbike or on a lavatory.
I remember it getting good reviews when it first appeared in ‘Deathrealm’. But it gains even more power here in the context of this book, I find. Yet some have told me that many of my stories lose power by being in this book’s sheer textual overpowering. Who is right?
Meanwhile, I find myself wishing to go back and edit all these stories. Even destroy them. Can’t do that with a book as easily as I can with all my other stories that I’ve spent some years posting on the Internet. Who knows what I may do when ‘I’ become like this story’s two characters in real life. Not long to go, I guess. (30 May 09 – 7 hours later)
Sponge and China Tea (1989)
This was one of the eight stories by DFL that ended up either in ‘Best New Horror’ or ‘Year’s Best Horror Stories’ in the Nineties. DFL was, however, never really a Horror Story writer as such, but, as someone once said, he is a writer who writes in a genre of one. The big question is – does his work have an audience of one, too?
This story was first published in 1989 in the ‘Dagon’ DFL Special. It is about a daughter and mother, as the latter dies. A horrific, yes horrific, account of this relationship – and the arrival of an old school friend as a travelling salesman whose products bring … hmmm, what shall we call it? … scar tissue (cf. that in ‘The Scar Museum’). He also brings a variety of ‘small talk’ that borders on ‘pub talk’…!
A borderline Ghost Story, too. With marked DFLisms of style.
“The body wherein she lived toward the end had been little better than a wrinkled sack of rattling bones, which sometimes spoke up for itself with a voice I no longer recognised.” (31 May 09)
The Stories of Murkales: Twelve Zodiacal Tales (1987, 1988 – in separate issues of ‘Dagon’)
Re-reading this substantial mini-collection-within-a-collection reminds me that ‘Egnis’ was not the only story in ‘Weirdmonger’ representative of my much earlier writing times when I did not expect ever to be published.
These tales stem, I guess, from the late seventies or early eighties. The twelve tales – highly wrought, containing many astrological references, conveying a Biblical feel of (to coin a phrase) Baffles and Fables – are each representative of a Sign of the Zodiac. There is a strangely Arabic air, inter alia. And a scatological / eschatological feel that is emblematic of later work represented in this book. There seem to be astrological harmonics to which any chance reader of these tales should – the then ‘author-self’ surely hoped – slowly grow attuned. My present-self has severe doubts.
“Each. Sentence. Is. A. Word. In. Itself.” (31 May 09 – 4 hours later)
Stricken With Glee (1992)
A companion story to ‘The Christmas Angel’, with pathos and absurdity in symbiosis. There are back-stokers who live behind all the roaring fires in the large many-chimneyed house – living in tunnels and intermittently opening the backs of fires to throw on more coal. One of the protagonists (protagonists who sit desultorily in front of these many roaring fires to dissipate the aching cold) will need to dress up as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and climb up on the roof to choose which chimney he will use…
Pity he has upset the back-stokers throughout the year!
That’s a story spoiler, by the way. But I love spoiling things –
These stories often work better if the readers fear the author they imagine behind them.
One consolation: the back-stokers are here brilliantly described and I will not quote anything for fear of spoiling your enjoyment even further…. (31 May 09 – another 3 hours later)
The Swing (1997)
This is, I’ve now decided, the perfect DFLism! It works on many levels – the ambition of a swing’s upswing – young love that matures (symbolically and sexually) into a ghostly future – the religionisation of life’s characters such as parents – the full blooming of the story’s swing-emblem into something or someone other…
This whole book is now firmly back on the upswing – having been on the downswing for a while…
There is also a subtly implied re-visit from ‘The Christmas Angel’.
“As they say, whilst human beings reach out for Heaven, angels die the other way”. (1 June 09)
The Tallest King (1988)
This, I’m now reminded, is another pre-DFL DFL-story like ‘Egnis’ and ‘The Stories of Murkales’ written a number of years before the late eighties. This is in a simple style — a fable or fantasy story of islanded communities that reach beyond themselves by the power of individuality.
It stirred the then much younger Mark Samuels to write in the next issue of the magazine where it was first published as follows: “The highlight of the issue was undeniably Des Lewis’ beautiful little story, ‘The Tallest King’. A wonderful faerie-tale told in perfectly child-like manner, and singing with the glory of descriptive prose. Really delightful. What a talent this fellow is.”
“There came a time when the tallest king in the city was a man of strong mind. When he first went up the stairs to the tallest room in the tallest palace in the whole city, he stood with amazement on his tallest chair, peering through the tallest window near the tallest roof, and gazed for the first time on…” (1 June 09 – 2 hours later)
Tentacles Across The Atlantic (The Story) (1996)
“GIMME GIMME GIMME!”
Presumably labelled ‘the story’ to differentiate it from the regular non-fiction column of the same name that DFL wrote in ‘Deathrealm’ during the Nineties.
This is another very long monologue like ‘Shades of Emptiness’ – with some amazing separate images but, ultimately, non-synchromeshing. Or at least my present self so judges. The opening seaside scenario is, however, worth reading the whole book for alone … perhaps.
This is one of the half-a-dozen similar unreviewable stories in this book under ‘S’ and ‘T’ in the alphabetical contents that make the whole book ultimately flawed, and predominantly why I have assumed it to have foundered since it was first published – despite the excellent production qualities of Prime Books and the stunning cover and internal design by Garry Nurrish. Or it is simply wishful thinking to believe that, given a different contents list, it wouldn’t have foundered in any event. A tentacle-tangled wreck on the ocean-bed of misbegotten literature.
“I will have shown Max my old marbles – the ones I played with at his age. I will have taught him their names: Big Red, Split Dark Blue, Blur Green, Spot Yellow, Thin Red, Big Green, Large Light Blue, Thick Red, Bubble Red...” (1 June 09 – another 3 hours later)
The Terror of the Tomb (1992)
This was a major re-write by a 1990 DFL self of something written by an earlier DFL self in the Sixties. Fundamentally, a sort of absurd horror story or a MR James pastiche or something more concupiscent between the two! It tells of someone investigating grave-robbing in a Sussex village and the subsuming of the Self. The village “had one long main street, where the pubs and bank-fronts huddled close to the gossip shop and the pork butcher’s. But, unlike other country communities, it had back streets and sunless alleys more fitting for a run-down city…”
There is also a Fish Station “where those that can’t breathe in air end up for a while.”
Not forgetting a pub:
“Beneath the Sign of the Dogs that Whine
Their tongues and scissors flicker;
Within the inn there grows a skin,
And the stew is crusting thicker.”
One would forgive neutral observers wondering if the pub was a cover-joint for another scar museum? (1 June 09 – another 4 hours later)
Todger’s Town (1999)
A quilted story that is another of those long dubious ‘shades of emptiness’! Actually, this is a really strange one. It has all the hallmarks of early period DFL. Part of an erstwhile Toilet Mythos, here we have a lavatory-man who “had worked man and boy as a stink-man: clearing the tanks of the rich and selling the produce to the poor.” Full of Lovecraftian references – and Cthulhu monsters roosting on the roofs of working-class ‘back-to-back’, ‘two-up-two-down’ and ‘tunnel-back’ houses, some of these houses with pretentiously overgrown porches sprouting from the front doors. Grovellings and Guttersnipes. And larger-than-life characters and anachronistic Christmases. There is also a terraced road of houses where the lavatory-chain flushes have been placed in the houses next door to the toilets they flush – and imagine the neighbourly squabbles ensuing…! It’s a hoot and a half! Not to everyone’s taste, no doubt.
I earlier tried to wring out a leit-motif aiming at the optimum-last-thought-before-one-dies concept threading this whole book – and here we have just one example:
“…his Mum told me he had died sitting on the lavatory-bowl. I actually received the impression from her that she was annoyed as she had only just finished his laundry. / I knew that Todger always liked to sit on the outside toilet for as long as possible, strumming his double bass. Quite a drawn-out affair, the only peace he got, I suppose. Lavatories were in his blood. I dropped a single rose into the bowl that had borne his end.”
And if that is a spoiler, I apologise. (2 June 09)
Tom Rose (1991)
This is nearly as long as my quilted stories. I remember being surprised (and very proud) when it was accepted by Alan Ross of ‘London Magazine’ for the London Magazine Anthology: ‘Signals’.
It is one of my strongest, strangest stories that I have long since fallen out of love with. About a magician / drag artist performing in a women’s seminary – implicating bodily and religious concupiscence, ghosts that play the ‘Battleships’ game with the story’s protagonist, mixed with gentle unspoken love between two of the seminarists plus a richly textured, often irregular spirituality. The story is both poetic and grotesquely absurd. I now find it difficult to grasp. It is either my best story or my worst. Looking at it coldly today, I sense it to be on the brink of returning into my favour as a reader, but I continue to be wary of it as its author. Its sometimes beautiful, sometimes clumsy prose never ceases to surprise (even shock) me on each re-reading. I intend never to read it again after today.
“The gaps in the text nagged at her, but before she could fill them in, she saw crouched shapes at the back of the hall, shifting in shadows. Like beached monsters trying to prime their dark flesh for easing back into the giant womb of death: as if they were foetuses of ghosts.” (2 June 09 – 2 hours later)
Top of an Angel’s Head (1996)
Two dreams paralleling, feeding into and feeding from each other. One a liaison in a Hodgson-like ghost ship scenario. The other an affair of the same couple in a boudoir-scenario amid fairies. The result of this interweaving of images is one I cannot interpret or evaluate, merely describe. There are echoes of the human heads of previous stories in this book, some of which were smuggling ambergris. Also tissue like that on show at the Scar Museum. The story seems to be lending its own specific weight to some still slowly evolving gestalt… Is this collection a novel, after all? A rhetorical question in a rhetorical review.
“She smiled and went to the side of the room where she had evidently left the breakfast tray. She brought it over and I breathed in the fragrance of rose-hip and hibiscus tea—on which floated blossoms—and delighted in the plateful of steaming rashers that—she told me—hid shy eggs beneath. A hunk of lightly toasted bread, with a skewer in its centre bearing black olives, floated like a full-masted raft in a basin of warm milk that was gradually growing a skin so cultured that it looked like the top of an angel’s head.” (3 June 09)
Uncle Absolutely (1992)
Another story that I’m told by some of my friends is their favourite one in the book. That sort of information from me should have no place in a review. But as I develop this review, I feel I should not withhold anything – as well as simultaneously trying to be objective. Meanwhile, this story is based on some of my childhood memories of living in the Essex seaside town of Walton-on-Naze (in a house called Olive Villa) between my birth in 1948 and 1955 (when my parents with myself moved to Colchester). However, the Uncle character – who is so uncertain of himself that he answers everything with the ritual and incantatory use of the word ‘absolutely’ – is created specifically for this story. Everything else seems more or less real. The Uncle somehow makes it all seem even more real!
The ending is poignant, a poignancy enhanced in the sense that it also proves words in this book are more important than the things they describe, thus working to make those same things seem more real as things … if one can ride the rollercoaster-paradox embodied in that claim! And I too have a soft spot for this story.
“A swing in the large garden which took its own volition from a ghost that was mugging up on childhood.” (3 June 09 – 2 hours later)
An old man on an island (in a scenario and ethos similar to that of ‘Big Ship, Little Ship and Brown’) says goodbye to a girl for whom he has been guardian (her having reached puberty and thus unwise for her to remain with him, now collected by a galleon of strangers as if they had always been destined to arrive upon the very first striking of her clock of womanhood). Unrequited love and lush fantasies of tone. It suits the fading identity of the I-narrator as it ploughs through the plot of life towards its end, with the head-lease author (me) generally controlling the dimmer-switches (sometimes erratically up and down in ‘brightness’) of each story’s protagonist’s or narrator’s character and soul.
“The oar-slaves abruptly took up crooning. Their shanties made me hide my eyes for fear of tears showing. These were songs of the soon to depart. To the knowing, each stanza told of the route and even the destination.” (3 June 09 – another hour later)
The Walking Mat (1993)
This is one of the longer stories in this book, but, unlike many of the previous long ones, it is not a quilted story. It seems organic. A definite ‘genius loci’. It seems to summarise some of the leit-motifs still homing in. It is a man’s return to the half-sunken novelty hotel where his wife died at his hand on honeymoon. It is about the nature of a gratuitous act. It is of a dual symbiosis where one of the participants dies in the process. It is of the evolution of selves. Tripartite wars. The optimum-last-thought-at-the-point-of-one’s-own-death. It is of interaction and dialogue reminiscent of ‘Effervescent’, ‘The Chaise Longue’, ‘The Scar Museum’… It is of many other things I can no longer grasp.
I have been developing a huge amount of self-doubt as I progress through this experimental (‘intentional fallacy’-inspired) real-time review of ostensibly my own book. But one needs to factor in randomness and synchronicity, truth and fiction. Yet it remains essentially pretentious, and if I believe that an author is just as able (or unable) to critique his own book as other so-called independent reviewers – why have I seen fit to interpolate personal anecdotes throughout, i.e. anecdotes about the writing of some of the stories? Perhaps the answer is in the end of ‘The Walking Mat’: an ending of re-enactment and role-playing. If that is a story-spoiler, I apologise, but it is necessary for me to make this ‘self’-important observation in the context of what is fast becoming an important event in my writing life (i.e. this review). An importance I did not predict when embarking a week or so ago upon doing this (on the face of it, crass) experiment. I suppose it is significant that at the outset I speculated upon this review taking months or even years. And here I am, today, nearly finished!
“The hotel was expensive. Not so much a sea-view as the fish-eye itself.” (4 June 09)
Wall Pack (1989)
From a walking mat to a walking trip…
A brief rats-in-the-wall horror tale that presumably gave birth to the now memorable cover of the ‘Dagon’ DFL Special (1989). A prose poem in the truest sense – prose that contains a poem. Like many of DFL’s tales, it suffers from a shortness of creative stamina. It equally benefits from a dream-like brevity. Or a dozing waking-dream. And identities that soften at the edges.
“The townships were far and few, between great areas of forest that the cartographer had evidently taken great delight in splodging in green upon his map.” (4 June 09 – 2 hours later)
From a prose poem to a ‘pro’s poem’.
An intellectual whore from whose viewpoint we watch events (Cf: ‘The Hungerers’). From the viewpoint of my current near senile self, this younger piece of an earler self is very clever and subtle … where if I told you its ending I would not merely be issuing a spoiler but an outright story-killer.
“I was what the underworld considered to be a rare bird: an intellectual on the game, if such a concept could even be visualised. I suppose the garters and the suspender belts had set me off: I felt as if I were a model upon a French impressionist’s canvas or a well rouged hussy seen in the margins of Proust’s endless novel. I played Ravel’s piano trio as a backing track when I had a customer in the flat: sometimes a violin sonata by Saint-Saens: they made me feel good: the quiet conversational pieces of mannerist chamber music surprised the men who had been raised on Dire Straits or Pink Floyd or, even, in some aging cases, the Beatles; but they did express keen interest about this music…”
There is a meta-meta-meta-… aspect to many of this book’s stories that imperceptively form a short-circuit of ‘metas’, a short-circuit that in turn serves to earth the reader into the actual current of reality. The rollercoaster-paradox, again? (4 Jun 09 – another hour later)
Watch The Whiskers Sprout (1994)
One of DFL’s long stories that seems both quilted and organic. I’m pretty sure it was generated as an omnibus of several Blasphemy (‘Feemy’) Fitzworth story cells – fortuitously becoming better as a whole than its parts. Hopefully, despite the book’s flaws, I hope that this effect is similar to the ‘Weirdmonger’ gestalt itself.
Feemy is a Victorian cat’s meat man with a steaming meat-cart, sometimes time-travelling to seek out (and stop?) the Great Old Ones. Archetypal, like ‘Todger’s Town’ stink-carts and ‘Padgett Weggs’ pub talk and other shades of emptiness. There is no greater satisfaction for a writer than finally to realise (as he does here today) that his work may have been subsumed by the unique and previously undiscovered archetypes that he once thought he had created himself. A humility that doubles as pride?
Feemy in this story has a changing relationship over the eons with Chelly Mildeyes (aka Lettuce Weggs). The ethos is dynastic and quite unlike anything else, I guess, in the realms of creative writing. I repeat something I said before: DFL is a flawed writer but sometimes his stories are more effective if one appreciates what it must have taken to write them. A complete self-sacrifice. And horrific in the sense of ‘otherness’ and intentional detachment – which factors I suppose, in hindsight, are related to the well-seasoned literary theory upon which this review itself is extemporising.
“Meanwhile, another version of the same cat’s meat man wheeled his cart through the Victorian slumways, humming and, basically, minding his own business. He kept the half-extruded lumps of offal on the boil by means of a coal fire in the bowels of his cart. His customary call rang out: “Gout cat! Spout cat! Watch their whiskers sprout, cat!”” (4 June 09 – another 90 minutes later)
The Weirdmonger (1988)
Another sizeable quilt of story-cells that then fail to become organic. An accretion that is counter-productive rather than expansive … as if ‘Bobtail’ gate-crashes and gate-crashes again and grows within it or nuzzles it in the night without any authorial authorities realising.
Reading it today is very painful for me. I am not the Weirdmonger. On the contrary, he may be the author, and me the fiction. But who then is the Crazy Commentator writing these extrapolations upon the book that he simultaneously lives within? A book he never wanted to bear an overall title that is himself. Eponymity as a corruption of Nemonymity.
The story itself tells of a wandering soothsayer whose words when uttered become intrinsic truths. The relationship of self as Man and Boy. There are some startling images of a bodily nature. Whatever its faults, the ambiance of the story’s ‘Wagger Market’ is memorably accomplished. A fantasy story that is self-evidently proud of itself while its author shamefacedly disowns it. And by disowning it, he has finally begun to own himself once again. A catharsis for which this review was perhaps pre-destined to ignite. If so, the rest of this review must be a cathartic’s coda. A mistuning of truths so that we can all queue (along with all the other crazy people) for a better film inside another cinema.
“The boy, now grown into an ancient man, is the only one left alive who can even attempt to describe the Weirdmonger.” (4 June 09 – another 90 minutes later)
Welsh Pepper (1992)
Other friends have claimed this as their favourite DFL story. It was another one chosen by Karl Edward Wagner for ‘Year’s Best Horror Stories’. It represents variations on a Sergeant Pepper / Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds theme, (and rather in a Sarban vein). Too salacious for my tastes these days.
The protagonist (another on a walking trip) meets a strange clan of people and falls in love with a girl – and there are ‘goads’ needed to clear the clan’s camp of a tree-like creature. Pitifully, that creature was only trying to help the protagonist. The end is poignantly amusing. I can find no tracking for this story along the audit-trail of this review. Perhaps you can?
“I looked back at the rucksack where I had left it, beginning to steam in the growing heat of the morning sun. The umbrella, leaning against it, was opening gradually of its own accord, like a fast-motion flower.” (4 June 09 – another hour later)
Wild Honey (1993)
It is strange that many of the stories that I now do not see eye to eye with are in the tail end of the alphabet. This is another version of an old man’s unrequited love feelings described in ‘Valedictory’, as control of his own dimmer-switch is lost. Now too salacious for my current tastes. Yet delightfully Proustian.
It is akin to ‘The Chaise Longue’ about a woman with a sting and a honey-sac beneath her clothes; I hadn’t noticed that parallel before. I wonder how many other parallels and leit-motifs-in-the-wall I previously missed en route and still miss. I wonder what other bric-a-brac or treasures Digory Smalls failed to find in the attic system of his mind. I’m going to disable this review in a moment and allow it to default… (4 June 09 – another hour later)
In 1978 I was lucky enough to go to the World SF Convention in Brighton where I met many luminaries. Lucky because I didn’t have a ticket but someone I knew in the Croydon SF Group at the time (Richard Wiles by name) was at the last moment unable to go. So he gave me his ticket and name badge. The whole weekend I was Richard Wiles. During the event, I suddenly looked down at the name badge and it dawned on me that Wiles was an anagram of Lewis! Simply that. A personal anecdote, for once, that has no relevance to the story whereunder I tell it. In fact, none of the personal anecdotes or comments or pretentious appraisals heretofore have any relevance to this book.
Meanwhile, this brief story entitled ‘Wiles’ has a front door to a house that has the bolts to lock it on its outside. And these are the story’s (and thus the book’s) last words: “He found his way, eventually, to the top front window. The hair crack revealed what was over the high wall opposite. Nothing but night. The edge of human experience. The shards of embedded glass were splinters of living human reflections. / Wiles collapsed into the unmade bed, hoping for dreams, but finding only a sleep reflecting that endless night.” Sorry if that’s a book-killer. (4 June 09 – another hour later)
The publication history of all the book’s stories are shown HERE.
“As I turned the pages I had the feeling that, step by step, I was following the map of a sick and broken mind. Line after line, the author of those pages had, without being aware of it, documented his own descent into a chasm of madness. The last third of the book seemed to suggest an attempt at retracing his steps, a desperate cry from the prison of his insanity so that he might escape the labyrinth of tunnels that had formed his mind.”
from ‘The Angel’s Game’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafón