I'm enjoying this collection of R.B. Russell stories from PS Publishing. It has, however, led me once again to ponder the eternal, unanswerable question - what makes a successful supernatural tale? Not all of the stories here could be classed as supernatural in the conventional sense, but they all play fast and loose with the conventions of realistic narrative. But few qualify as ghost stories and some lie outside the roomier bounds of 'weird fiction'. And I can imagine people who insist on having all the plot threads tied up neatly getting rather cross with this book, because in most cases neat solutions are not what the story is about. Instead, the author offers imagery and ideas to stimulate the reader's imagination, much as a poet might do.
I can be reasonably sure that Ray Russell is drawing upon Continental or Latin American influences rather than the Anglo-American ghost/horror tradition. For instance, 'A Woman of the Party' is, on the face of it, an account of how the female protagonist's personal life is inextricably entangled with the machinations of a totalitarian state (which I took to be East Germany). However, one early incident suggests that something odd is going on - or rather, something odder than living in a society that plants cameras and microphones in your home. There is a time-twisting element, perhaps, but what the story's denouement suggested to me was that, under an oppressive regime, nothing natural to human beings can flourish. Even the most essential truths that we take for granted (in this case, that a child cannot be both born and unborn at the same time) are distorted or destroyed.
The opposite world view seems to prevail in 'The Red Rose and the Cross of Gold', in which a rather mundane account of two men sharing a flat turns into a murder non-mystery i.e. there's no doubt as to who is murdered. But the twist, if that's the right word for it, is that the killer can get away with it because reality can be adjusted to take account of his little problem. The idea that reality as we perceive it is more a matter of stage dressing and can be modified by an effort of will in the right conditions is also central to 'The Restaurant San Martin'. Again, I was left unsure as to the moral or indeed philosophical position I was supposed to adopt. Consider: if all we think of as the world is mere shadow play or illusion, why get worked up when someone is stabbed or shot? In a way this is anti-Lovecraftian fiction - in the world of the Mythos, reality is a roiling nightmare of horrific beings just waiting to pounce. But the 'real reality' can be seen very differently.
More conventional is 'Unconventional Exorcism', which has an almost Alan Bennett-like feel at times - an impression created, perhaps, by multiple references to macaroons. It works rather well as a ghost story using the familiar but not too common device of the medium who is confronted by the very real spirit of someone they had been stringing along with a load of old guff. The more substantial story, 'Leave Your Sleep', also offers ghostly antics, but is more powerful and enigmatic. It's a very successful recreation of a particular stage of childhood, when it becomes vital to keep secrets from grown-ups and be thought 'cool' by our peers. In the story, a boy staying with his grandparents is invited to join the games of the children next door - in a house that appears to be uninhabited. Here is a more conventional story, but one with enough original oddities to stick in the memory.
In several stories people have accidents or are otherwise jolted loose from conventional life and ways of seeing. Thus in 'The Dress' (which first appeared in ST) a woman is baffled by the place of her awakening and does not recognise herself in a bedroom mirror. The story can be read as a straight narrative of someone with obvious emotional problems, or as someone who falls 'under the spell' of a remarkable garment. I think that ambiguity serves the reader well, but again those who like everything neatly tied up might be a bit peeved.
And note, I've written all those paragraphs above without once using the word 'Aickmanesque'. However, Aickman's influence is apparent on Russell's work. Aickman's stories are formally conventional (no fancy typological tricks, somewhat staid prose) but defy the conventions of realistic narrative to some extent. The obvious problem with this - as someone said of free verse - is that it can be like playing tennis with the net down. Where anything is permitted, nothing is interesting. So the author of any story that rejects a realistic explanation (or indeed an unrealistic one, like 'the vampires did it') has set himself a double challenge - to entertain the reader while to some extent failing to satisfy the reader's pre-programmed expectations about what a good story is and does. I think Russell succeeds, more or less. But it's not an easy row to hoe, especially if you start out by doubting the objective existence of your agricultural implement.
Anyway, I have not finished the book yet. Expect a full review in ST#23.
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