Monday, 20 January 2020

'Shadowy Waters'

The last story in the anthology The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats is by Reggie Oliver, who has established himself over the last two decades as one of the most highly-regarded authors of the traditional ghost story. 'Shadowy Waters' takes its title from a dramatic poem by Yeats, who was of course a firm believer in a (rather odd) afterlife.

The narrator, Villiers, journeys to Alderness in East Anglia for a funeral and to act as the executor for a former lover, Nell. Villiers is a widowed retired teacher who acted in his younger days, and enjoyed the pleasures of first love with Nell in the seaside town. Nell, however, was a New Age type, and Villiers eventually broke it off, feeling they were too different. When he arrives he finds that Nell apparently left most of her wealth to a donkey sanctuary owned by a spiritualist/guru charlatan, Hamilton Souter. But Nell's lawyer suggests that there may have been a second will, now apparently lost...

Souter is excellently drawn, and the story moves neatly from a poignant meditation on loneliness and regret to full-on horror as serious villainy occurs. A trick box acts as a neat metaphor for the process of both solving a mundane mystery and implying a far greater one. Fortunately for Villiers, Nell comes to the rescue in an unexpected but appropriate fashion. However, the final sentence - 'I was alone again' - sums up what has been lost.

This is a suitably strong ending to an excellent selection, one that explores many facets of the poet's works, life, and philosophy. All credit to editor Mark Valentine and the Swan River Press for producing such a beautiful book. The cover design deserves lavish praise - it is by Meggan Kehrli from artwork by John Coulthart.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

'This Crumbling Pageant'

Lynda E. Rucker's contribution to The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats has an epigram from 'The Second Coming'. 'The darkness drops again' sets the tone for a story about a family having a summer holiday during what may well be the end of the world.

'The news had been bad all day.' So begins the story proper, with Astrid and her kinfolk vacationing by the Mississippi, but obsessively checking their phones for news updates. Astrid happens to find a book in their rented house, a work about Yeats and the Golden Dawn. Her cousin confuses them with the far-right Greek political party, and the poet's dalliance with fascism is inevitably raised. Astrid prefers to focus on automatic writing,

We learn that, since childhood, Astrid has been a visionary - someone who can see the 'thin places' in our reality where something more intense, more really real, breaks through. She succeeds in producing automatic writing on her sketchpad, but cannot bear to read it, insists her brother throw it away.

This is not a story with a climax, a simple pay-off, but offers instead a meditation on the all-too-plausible end to all things human. What precisely is happening is not defined, but it doesn't really need to be. When you're done, you're done. Astrid keeps thinking about the astronauts in the ISS. 'When and how would they learn that the cataclysm had arrived?'

While I was impressed by the story, I wish it had not been so obviously necessary to write it. But here we are. And that was the penultimate story. Next up, a tale by another early contributor to ST, Reggie Oliver.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

'The Messiah of Blackhall Place'

Derek John's contribution to The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats presents your humble reviewer with a slight problem. It was inspired by one of Yeats' best-known poems, but to say which one would give the game away. So let me instead dance around the story a bit and avoid any spoilers.

Set in roughly the same interwar period as John Howard's tale, 'The Messiah of Blackhall Place' concerns a man who takes past in the post-Great War renascence in spiritualism and psychical research. The narrator is a sceptic who will have none of Conan Doyle's fairy photos and feels compelled to unmask obviously fraudulent mediums. However, he does meet a genuine seeker after higher truths, the invalid 'Doctor Vanston', who has formed an elaborate philosophy concerning our next life, or lives.

The story concerns what happens after Vanston dies and apparently becomes a nuisance to a group of table turners, a 'frustrator' who keeps muscling in on seances. The narrator tries to engage his former acquaintance and get him to leave the group alone. The scene in which a spirit guide, an ancient Egyptian, is drowned out by Vanston's monomaniacal communication is especially well done. The picture of the afterlife presented is rich and strange enough to please Willy Yeats' himself. What's more, it turns out that Vanston - or rather, his spirit - has made a major blunder and admitted something terrible to our mortal plane.

This is a resonant, rather serious tale, despite the fact that spiritualism is often seen as faintly absurd. It lingers in the mind, or at least it did in mine.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

'Cast a Cold Eye'

Here I am more than halfway through my running review of The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats, and I have not addressed a really obvious question. Silly me. The question is, do you need an in-depth knowledge of Yeats' life and works to enjoy this anthology? The answer is no, you can appreciate the stories in isolation, as they are not pendants or commentaries. That said, if you are aware of the author's most famous poems it might help you appreciate the stories. 

For instance, 'Cast a Cold Eye' by Timothy J. Jarvis takes its title from Yeats' epitaph, taken from his poem 'Under Ben Bulben'. 

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death,
Horseman, pass by!

The story itself is a little gem of what may be magical realism, or something like it. The overall feel is that Flann O'Brien and J.L. Borges got together down the pub to chat about Yeats. The central premise is simple enough - an Irish poet dies in exile in France, Later his bones, during the turmoil of war, are thrown willy-nilly into an ossuary with those of many obscure locals. 

After hostilities are over the bones are to be repatriated, so a carefully selected, vaguely plausible collection is assembled into a skeleton and sent to Ireland. The adventures of some of these bones constitute the bulk of the story. There is also a clever framing narrative involving a talking skull in a tree in Istanbul - or Byzantium, as Willy Yeats might have called it. 

As the story closes the sea is suitably dolphin torn, perhaps even gong tormented. This is arguably the most poetic story thus far, and perhaps the one that Yeats would have liked best. So, another change of pace and approach in this varied assemblage. What next? Stay tuned as we home in on'The Messiah of Blackhall Place' by Derek John.