Saturday, 6 July 2013

Written by Daylight - Review

Written by Daylight is the first collection of John Howard's stories published by Swan River Press. All eleven tales in WbD are republished from earlier collections or anthologies, but it so happens that all were new to me. As always with The Swan River Press, this is a beautifully produced volume. The cover art is striking and its imagery - an ordinary man's dreams presented as a fantastic vista - seems especially pertinent.

If there is a unifying theme here it is the transience of existence, from the individual to the social and even the geographical. In 'Westenstrand' a man sets off for an island off Germany's North Sea coast during the last months of the Weimar Republic. The island is constantly being reshaped by tide and storm, so that no map can ever be wholly reliable. The protagonist journeys to Westenstrand to try and rekindle a relationship but comes to realise that 'we both understood that the map had changed'.

Changing maps also inform 'Into an Empire', in which a Londoner obsessed with the collapsed empires of old Europe - Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary - collects their coins, notes, and stamps. His behaviour grows more pointlessly regimented, like the regimes that fascinate him, until he undergoes a personal collapse which might also be an epiphany.

Another fine story, 'Time and the City', recalls the British New Wave science fiction of the early Seventies. It might have been penned by J.G. Ballard, Christopher Priest, or Brian Aldiss. It's the tale of a dream-project in which a man is put into a kind of controlled trance so as to visualise an Atlantis-like civilization. It contains some of the best writing in the book, perhaps because John Howard feels more comfortable on the margins of sf. At one point descriptions of 'immense mechanisms' recalled Forbidden Planet, and the story does indeed culminate in the realisation of dreams, albeit in a very different way.

Exiles, migrants (internal and external), loners, and misfits populate these pages. Few find what they are searching for, and indeed they seldom can be sure what it is. Thus in ''Where Once I Did My Love Beguile'' a boy's friendship with an old man reveals a lost love, and causes a strange maybe-miracle that is also a personal tragedy. This one threw me precisely because I expected one character to be the focus of some strange event, whereas in fact a mysterious event occurs in the life of the other. Sort of. To be honest, I'm not sure, but it is a compelling and gently-handled denouement.

'The Way of the Sun' strays close to a comedy of manners, as an Englishman sets out (during what I assume to be the post-war era) to drive the length of Italy along the as-yet unfinished Autostrada del Sole. Along the way shy, sensitive James encounters a British couple who seem to be swingers. Ironically it is through them that he realises his ambition to find 'the balcony of the Mediterranean' in Lamolfo, but they also make it impossible for him to enjoy it. There's a touch of Alan Bennett about it all, but also a sense that James will never be able to make the personal journey he longs for, and will always fall victim to the unwanted attentions of more crass individuals.

'Silver on Green' is different again, but still focuses on the themes of loss, failure, and the possible escape by visionary means from worldly disasters. Here an exiled statesman from a Balkan kingdom sliding towards fascism (I at once thought of Romania and its Iron Guard) beguiles his time in a London suburb by collecting coins of his homeland. The conclusion is deftly handled, but it did seem a little forced to me. Or perhaps it is an argument in favour of a political quietism that I am not willing to accept?

The same can't be said for 'Winter's Traces', in which a writer sets out to discover something about an obscure composer of light music. William Winter, it transpires, was unable to create during the last years of his life because his genius was, in a sense, appropriated by the city he loved, the London of the railway and the Tube. The striking central idea is a poetic one, worthy of Blackwood or Machen, while the description of the composer's idyllic surburban life adds a Betjemanesque touch that I found charming.

In marked contrast is 'A Gift for the Emperor', set in East Prussia just before the outbreak of the Great War. Unusually for him, in this story Howard offers us an admirably settled society - that of the old Junker aristocracy yearning for the days of Bismarck. But the Count and Countess von Stern are thrown into confusion when, instead of an expected visit from the Kaiser, they instead receive a portrait. The picture shows Wilhelm II holding a particular volume of Kipling that he enjoyed when he last graced them with his presence. The couple's confusion and near panic as they try to grasp the significance of the gift is a powerful metaphor (to me, at any rate) for the way Europe's empires slid chaotically into war in the late summer of 1914. The story is a bit of a tease, though - we are left to wonder what particular stories or poems impressed the emperor, and whether Kipling might even be in part to blame for Germany's belligerent stance.

Overall, I was impressed with WbD. One or two stories seemed to me too slight and inconclusive to stay in the mind. But most are not only well-written but also offer remarkable ideas. Reader beware, though - these are not, strictly speaking, ghost or horror stories, and those who like everything explained in the last few paragraphs will find little but frustration here.

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