More brief narratives

I recently mentioned that I had several collections of short stories in hand which I intended to get round to in the near future using the tag the Library of Brief Narratives. It’s my intention to include as many short story titles as I can bear throughout 2021, but to get off to a flying start by reviewing a couple of them in December.

I’ve already listed selections and collections with or including realist themes. Now, as a further amuse-bouche for you all, comes another listing of titles with a more speculative range of genres, from SF and fantasy through fairytales and on to horror and suspense.

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Please to remember

Guy Fawkes by George Cruikshank (1840)

V for Vendetta
by Alan Moore and David Lloyd,
with Steve Whitaker and Siobhan Dodds,
additional art by Tony Weare.
Vertigo / DC Comics 2005 (1988-1989)

“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”

What should one do, how should one react, under an unjust, authoritarian government? What is the correct response when faced with the evidence of a fascist state’s war on its own citizens? Should one heed St Paul’s advice to the Romans, to recompense to no man evil for evil; avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath? Or should one take the law into one’s own hands, meet force with force, fight fire with fire, and forever taint oneself with the selfsame actions that the state is accused of?

These are the dilemmas at the heart of this powerful graphic novel, when an individual known only as V — for reasons both personal and societal — makes war on the authoritarian leaders, their minions, their stooges, and the symbols of their power. His own symbol, a V enclosed in a circle, is reminiscent of the universal sign for anarchy but (as V insists) ‘anarchy’ doesn’t refer to no rule at all: it applies to an absence of legitimate government — archon refers to a ruler in ancient Greece — and this pertains in the Britain that’s depicted in V for Vendetta.

Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s Thatcher-era perspective, when individual freedoms and norms of social justice were determinedly being eroded, was an apt time to consider a narrative, a scenario in which a totalitarian Britain would be challenged by a figure from the country’s past, one whose effigy instead of being placed on a bonfire would initiate a pyre of all that was rotten in the state. Ironically, the fictional risorgimento was positioned as beginning in the year that a left-of-centre Labour government in fact won an election but which now fits a political situation three decades on from publication just like a glove.

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A tease

The Fool from the Marseille tarot deck

Utz by Bruce Chatwin,
Picador 1989 (1988)

Tyranny sets up its own echo-chamber; a void where confused signals buzz about at random; where a murmur or innuendo causes panic…

Chatwin’s final fiction, the novella Utz, is a tease in that nothing is quite what it seems. In 1967, a year before the Prague Spring, the unnamed narrator travels to Prague for some academic research where he hears of and meet Kaspar Utz, a collector of Meissen china figures. Behind the Iron Curtain is not of course the ideal place to amass a collection of kitsch artworks but Utz has agreed they will all go to a state museum after his death.

The novella opens with the collector’s funeral; the inevitable question then becomes, What has happened to the porcelain figures? And then, What will the Czechoslovak state now do? But here’s the tease: the narrator takes his time to render this question an urgent issue for the reader. And this being a Cold War story, some of the participants have to learn to be as secretive as the Soviet-era country they are living in.

As for the surname of the German-born baron whose life we are introduced to, will it surprise you to know — despite utz bearing “any number of negative connotations: ‘drunk’, ‘dimwit’, ‘card-sharp’, ‘dealer in dud horses'” — that it’s very possible that the word derives from the German verb uzen, ‘to tease’?

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What a story is

1849 print by William Miller, after Francis Danby, ‘Sunset at Sea, after a Storm’ (1824)

The Wall
by John Lanchester,
Faber & Faber 2019

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

No, The Wall doesn’t actually begin like this, but the hackneyed and often parodied opening is close. Imagine, if you will, an unsettling meld of Kafka’s The Trial, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and current world politics, all nested uncomfortably together in a cli-fi dystopia, and then you may start to have an inkling of the nature of Lanchester’s novel.

And unsettling and uncomfortable it certainly is. We are in some future Britain following an indefinable (and ongoing) climatic disaster called the Change, when the island has been surrounded by a concrete structure to keep out rising sea levels and what are loosely termed the Others. Joseph K’s parents are of a generation who remember a time before the Change and the Wall; Kavanagh himself feels alienated from them and their nostalgia for a life he never knew, yet only has vague dreams of becoming one of the elite who are able to fly around the world.

First of all though he has to do a tour of duty on the Wall, to help defend the country from the Others determined to escape from intolerable conditions elsewhere. But how would he feel if he were to be in the position of one of the Others, how would he behave, how would he react?

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The love you take

Photo © C A Lovegrove

In the Sweep of the Bay
by Cath Barton.
Louise Walters Books 2020

“… And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make.”
— The Beatles, ‘The End’ from the album Abbey Road

Cath Barton’s new novella, as much as her debut The Plankton Collector, focuses on individuals and their relationships; as before, she presents her tale as a series of vignettes which invite us to observe without intruding, to sympathise while yearning for resolutions which may or mayn’t come.

That she manages to offer us portraits which feel both authentic and honest is testament to her skill and makes the novella such a delight to read. What could have been an exercise in sheer nostalgia becomes a bittersweet reflection of hopes and dreams succeeding and failing, of love blighted by suspicion, and of truths both revealed and covered over.

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How to modernise classics

There’s a fashion for rewriting literary classics in modern dress, whether Shakespeare’s plays or Victorian novels, just as Ancient Greek plays were fair game for such treatment in the past, and as Norse mythology has provided such inspiration in recent years.

But much more remains to be exploited, not least the possibilities suggested by title manipulation. Here are some examples, offered gratis to anyone who feels they want to run with them.

Provided they include the acknowledgement “from an idea by …” on the title pages. Or not.

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Blue jewel in the darkness

Starry sky (WordPress Free Photo Library)

Rocannon’s World (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books 1996

“I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness.”
— Chapter VII

An ethnologist from the League of All Worlds is studying one of the hominid species on an unnamed planet, formally known as Fomalhaut II, when his returning team are killed by a bomb. It appears that the League’s opponents, the inhabitants of the planet Faraday, have established a secret base on this uncharted world from which to launch a preemptive strike against the League. This is the major inciting incident that propels the novel forward.

But before this scenario establishes that we are in science fiction territory a prologue (based on a short story from 1964) places us firmly in a fantasy setting with an account of an heirloom being retrieved from underground troglodytes: we are introduced to a pseudo-medieval society, living in castles, mounted on flying steeds, treating with elvish and dwarvish beings, and a heroine who visits and journeys from a subterranean kingdom, only to return home to find everyone she knew has either died or grown old.

The author’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World was also the first title set in the author’s Hainish universe; as a work we could justifiably term a science fantasy it lays out many of Le Guin’s principal concerns — balanced and sustainable living, environmentalism, psychology and anthropology, morality, human imagination, and much more — all contained within a rarely predictable narrative framework.

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To cut a tale short

Collections of short stories are, I’ve found, tricky things to review compared to a solid novel or longish novella. The reasons are as various as the pieces in the collection can be:

  1. there may be too many individual stories to cover them all in any detail;
  2. mere listing of the contents doesn’t, in my view, constitute a review but often that seems to be main option, which is a disservice to those hoping to decide whether to read the volume;
  3. the selection may be uneven in quality with any poor specimens bringing down the standard of the collection and thus one’s overall assessment;
  4. the variety in terms of subject matter, tone, length and order also make an overall assessment difficult.

But without reviews how is one to tread the labyrinth of the Library of Brief Narratives? I have a number of such collections in my purview waiting for my perusal and assessment so I have those paths to follow.

In the meantime, here is an overview of some of the collections I have reviewed, with brief commentary, for those (like, I think, Cath Humphries) hoping for signposts to new pastures. For this first of two posts I look at collections with a realist slant (links are to my reviews).

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The Land of Nod

Photo © C A Lovegrove

The Death of Grass
by John Christopher,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1956)

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
— William Blake.

Imagine, if you will, a deadly virus emanating from China, one that seems unstoppable despite efforts to find an antiviral solution, and which disrupts societies and causes widespread deaths as it moves across the globe. How will humans, collectively and individually, react, and will their actions be altruistic or selfish?

John Christopher envisaged such a scenario over six decades ago, a few years after the Second World War, but his imaginary Chung-Li virus, unlike coronavirus, didn’t directly affect humans: instead it killed off the grass on which herbivores such as cattle and sheep fed, and grains like rice, wheat, barley and rye which provided many of the staple food products humans relied on.

Against this unfolding catastrophe the author tells the story of how John Custance, his family, friends and others struggle to survive, and how they aim to reach the safety of a secluded defensible valley in Cumbria to establish a new settlement.

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Raising self esteem

Anti-Bullying Week in the UK this year runs from Monday 16th to Friday 20th November. Under the umbrella of the Anti-Bullying Alliance it aims to “stop bullying and create safer environments in which children and young people can live, grow, play and learn.”

Of course bullying doesn’t just happen amongst children: it’s found in the workplace, in politics, in society in general — and people can feel bullied by circumstances as much as by other people — but this week is of necessity directed primarily at youngsters.

Psychologist Emily Lovegrove (Reader, I married her — and vice versa of course), also known as The Bullying Doctor (yes, I’ve heard the jokes), has authored two self-help books for youngsters on coping with bullying.

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A symbolic London

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St George’s Bloomsbury (1730) in imitation of the Mausoleum, the ancient tomb of Mausolus, but guarded by a lion and a unicorn [own photo]
The Man Who Was Thursday
by G K Chesterton.
Introduction and notes by Stephen Medcalf,
Oxford University Press 1996 (1908)

Having enjoyed Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, a thriller about a projected German invasion of Britain published in the first decade of the twentieth century, I was drawn to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. After all, this first appeared in that same decade, in 1908, and ostensibly concerned an anarchist conspiracy, hatched in Britain, to cause disruption by assassinating the Russian Tsar in Paris. The very title promises us plots, codenames and derring-do. But I was to find that Chesterton’s intentions in writing this novel were rather different from Childers’ concern to highlight what he saw was a very real national threat.

The plot, convoluted as it is, can be reduced to a few sentences. Gabriel Syme is a poet who gets drafted in as a police detective by a mysterious stranger to investigate an anarchist conspiracy. He makes the acquaintance of another poet, Lucian Gregory, along with his sister Rosamond Gregory in the West London suburb of Saffron Park (Bedford Park by another name). Lucian calls himself an anarchist poet, and challenges the more conservative Syme to pay a visit with him to an underground (literally underground, as it turns out) anarchist movement.

The poet-cum-detective incredibly then gets elected to the inner cabal of seven Anarchs who answer to the name of the seven days of the week. Syme, as Thursday, gradually discovers the secret of each of the other Anarchs, with a final revelation taking place at the home of Sunday, the leader of the Central European Council.

If the basic plot appears to follow the precepts of the standard detective thriller, the same can’t be said of the content.

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The storied house

The lodge at Gliffaes Country House, Crickhowell. Photo image © C A Lovegrove

Inverted Commas 19: A sturdy sense of itself

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.

Though I’ve yet to read the collection with which this quote is associated — from Alice Munro‘s own introduction to her Selected Stories, 1968-1994 — I’ve always loved the concept of a storied house ever since I came across it, heaven knows when.

Yes, sometimes readers feel their way through a story as though they’re on a journey through a tangled wood or on a path through an unknown country; but I’m someone to whom the image of a narrative like a storey’d edifice appeals very strongly.

Maybe it’s because I’m fairly visual; because I’m drawn to urban and suburban environments, happy to stand outside a building and admire its architecture; because I love gardens with an arrangement of ‘rooms’ where one can pause and take in one’s surroundings.

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Home is the sailor

Islands off Pembrokeshire © C A Lovegrove

The Gradual
by Christopher Priest,
Gollancz 2017 (2016)

“Home is the sailor, home from the sea”
— from ‘Requiem’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

In many ways a genre-crossing novel, The Gradual exhibits the kind of features I have now come to expect of Christopher Priest’s books, a sense of viewing reality in a distorting mirror — solitary or alienated protagonists — a planetary romance blending aspects of science fiction with the kind of magic we associate with fantasy — allusions and illusions that create dream-like images and sequences.

Above all there is his literary sleight of hand which seems to be part of his trademark style, consisting of a bit of mystification assisted by misdirection. He is kind enough however to reveal to his reader sufficient clues for them to partly work out what’s going on, only to then introduce a plot twist which turns the tables on us.

The Gradual is the testament of one Alesandro Sussken, composer and musician on a world simultaneously similar to but yet completely different from ours. And just as a music composition is an unfolding in time of a sequence of sounds, so Priest’s novel too is about sounds, and time, and even space.

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Gothick Dreams

An 1835 illustration for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

“I waked one morning [in 1764] from a dream, of which, all I could recover, was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine filled with Gothic story), and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down, and began to write…”
— Horace Walpole, in a letter

At the heart of early Gothick literature — I use the spelling ‘Gothick’ to differentiate it from historical or architectural meanings of Gothic — broods The Castle.

And when I say ‘Castle’ I mean those edifices, usually ancient abbeys or mansions, with a clutch of qualities which we immediately recognise, namely antique origins, some of which may be ruinous, harbouring histories of romance, the supernatural, even horror, and — at its heart — mysteries in the form of eldritch scandals or objects, accessed via secret passages, tunnels, caves, crumbling staircases and hidden doors.

The attraction of stories that include these edifices is twofold: first, the intellectual satisfaction that comes from following a confusing trail that may or may not lead to answers; and second, the curiosity that has its roots in psychology, dreams, even nightmares, with an inkling that the skull may itself be the castle and that, within it, the brain’s convolutions hide the ultimate mystery. Let’s have a look at these two aspects.

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#WitchWeek2020: The end is nigh!

If you’re reading this, you’ve lived to tell the tale of Witch Week 2020. When you do, make sure it’s a tale with dark corners, collapsed towers, and horrifying specters. Not to mention lots and lots of shadows. Chris and Lizzie are grateful for the help of everyone who participated: e-Tinkerbell of eTinkerbell, who, in typical English-teacher […]

#WitchWeek2020: The end is nigh!