Friday, 9 December 2016

The Once and Future Tourist Attraction

There is no evidence of permanent occupation of the Tor, but finds, including Roman pottery, do suggest that it was visited on a regular basis. Photo Credit

Last year I went up Glastonbury Tor, which is near the town of Glastonbury. Logic. It's supposed to be the burial place of King Arthur, but I found no evidence of this. Admittedly I didn't look very hard, but I feel my non-discoveries were conclusive. He's either not there, or he's very well hidden. Anyway, the article I've linked to gives a bit of background.

Interior of St Michael's Tower. Photo Credit

Just because Arthur isn't there doesn't mean it's not fascinating.
The sides of the Tor have seven deep, roughly symmetrical terraces. Their formation remains a mystery with many possible explanations. One explanation is that they may have been formed as a result of natural differentiation between the layers of lias stone and clay used by farmers during the Middle Ages as terraced hills to make ploughing for crops easier. Other explanations suggested construction of defensive ramparts. Iron Age hill forts including the nearby Cadbury Castle in Somerset show evidence of extensive fortification of their slopes. Another suggestion, proposed by Geoffrey Russell in 1968, is that the terraces are the remains of a three-dimensional labyrinth that guided pilgrims up the sacred hill.
Its a very impressive and mysterious place.

'The Human Cosmos'

The second story in Charles Wilkinson's collection A Twist in the Eye concerns Jim, who runs a small business in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter. Nothing could be more prosaic, but Jim's problems rapidly become the stuff of surreal nightmare. At first he can find the deeds to the flat he's just moved into. Then he catches glimpses of a strange, hairless man who seems to be interested in him, but who he never happens to meet. Meanwhile, Jim's thoughts dwell on a personal project, the creation of a tiny golden figure of a man.

The story is unusual in that, while it uses some of the conventions of the ghost/horror story, it derives its imagery from the Swedenborgian cult, which also influence Le Fanu. Apparently Swedenborg taught that the cosmos is shaped like a man, and that humans are angels in embryo. Both of those ideas seem more weird than horrific, but Wilkinson uses them to wrench his protagonist out of the mundane and into, well, somewhere else. I won't spoil the ending, but it's remarkable.

You can enjoy my profound thoughts on another story very soon.

A Twist in the Eye - 'Returning'

As well as the new book of Joel Lane's non-fiction (see below) I am the lucky recipient of a new collection of stories by Charles Wilkinson, Thanks to Egaeus Press for this review copy of A Twist in the Eye, which is a beautiful book. I need hardly say that I'm a fan of the author's work, as two of the stories included here previously appeared in ST. So, without further ado, let us commence one of my almost-popular running reviews.

A Twist in the Eye

Like most of Wilkinson's fiction, 'Returning' is a low-key, apparently simple affair. An older married couple, Terence and Josie, go on holiday to the same seaside town each year. Their lives, to a casual observer, might seem dull and bounded by timid respectability. But Terence's love for Josie and his sense of impotence as she gradually dies from an unnamed illness is all the more painful for being so understated.

The supernatural element is a spectre of the living, a quasi-doppleganger, that Terence sees during his last holiday with Josie. The twist, if it is one in the familiar sense, is that the 'ghost' he sees is his older self, a widower in decline. Thus Terrence's vision heralds the death of his 'better half'. Wilkinson blurs past and future into a kind of static, eternal present in the tale, which dwells on mortality without rancour. In the face of death we can do nothing but go on being ourselves.

Stay tuned for another mini-review.

A Twist in the Eye

Thursday, 8 December 2016

This Spectacular Darkness - Review Begins

A book of critical essays is a volume to dip into, so in writing about this Tartarus collection of Joel Lane's non-fiction I will be jumping about all over the place and coming back to it over the coming days and weeks. I hope this won't seem too bitty.

One of the marks of a good critic is that they make you want to read authors you are unfamiliar with. This is certainly true of Joel Lane's assessment of Cornell Woolrich. 'The Dark Houses of Cornell Woolrich' is thoughtful, lively, and often funny. Thus Lane ends a paragraph on the 1950 novel Savage Bride by saying, 'If any reader feels compelled to revive this novel as a 'lost pulp classic', I have one suggestion: don't.' Woolrich was clearly a Man With Problems who often wrote quite badly, but after reading this essay I don't think I'll be able to resist buying at least one of his books.

Another virtue in a good critic is to remind you of authors you really should have read more, whose books you should seek out. The essay on Theodore Sturgeon, 'The Territory of the Others', is a case in point. I have read a few novels and perhaps a dozen of Sturgeon's short stories. Lane rightly points out that at the heart of all Sturgeon's fiction is a preoccupation with human identity, whether he was writing horror or science fiction, Lane points out that the author never quite fits in either genre. He was truly a one-off, and I wonder if he has been somewhat neglected because of this?

Harlan Ellison's works were never easy to get hold of when I was a lad, and like Sturgeon he is not easy to classify in genre terms. Lane's reasonable assessment - based on far greater knowledge than mine - is that Ellison has little interest in the 'genuine' supernatural, but finds it useful as a source of metaphor. The demons are almost always personal. And then there are those Ellison  titles, such as 'The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie', 'I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream', and 'Pennies, Off Dead Man's Eyes'. Other highlights are 'Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes', a good variation on the traditional ghost story, and 'Croatoan', which is unusually controversial even for Ellison. Few horror stories are as horrific as 'Croatoan' because it focuses entirely on very believable human frailty and offers no convenient cop-out.

And that's all for now. More later on this remarkable book.