Monday, 4 August 2014

The Silver Voices

The genuinely lost worlds are those that are always with us. The lost worlds of history and the people who haunt them are the subjects of John Howard's stories in The Silver Voices. The collection was originally published in Bucharest by Ex Occidente in 2010, and Swan River Press have produced a splendid new edition with a cover that hints at the period during which most of these stories are set. 

A small caveat: the interlinked stories in this collection sometimes contain elements of the fantastic, but don't (generally speaking) qualify as ghost stories. I suspect that some readers may feel cheated by this, but for my money that's not really an issue. There is a shadowy hinterland on the margins of mainstream fiction that isn't quite genre, and these stories occupy some parts of that terrain.

The one constant in the tales is a fictional(?) Transylvanian town - Steaua de Munte in the kingdom of Romania, Sternbergstadt under the Dual Monarchy. The town is arguably the true hero, in that it endures despite the many adversities of time and conflict. It might even called the Everytown of Howard's Balkan world.

The first story, 'Artist in Residence', concerns conservation, nostalgia, and conflicting ideas of progress. Austria-Hungary is in the throes of modernisation, and the town's mediaeval walls are breached for the sake of fashionable boulevards. An artist is recruited to draw the town as it was, before it is changed forever. As he does so he ceases to be a stranger.

'Boundaries', set during the Great War, is on the face of it a rather frivolous tale of a British officer who organises a cricket match among PoWs. But it also suggests something of the misplaced optimism among the idealists - many of whom had fought in the war - about the possibilities of a new, post-imperial Europe.

Misplaced optimism is certainly the them of 'The Rise and Fall of the SSS', in which Steaua de Munte gets its own rocketry society. For those who like such things, as I do, it is fascinating to chart the way in which spaceflight enthusiasts formed clubs across Europe between the wars. While the (real) British Interplanetary Society came up with the first practical moonshot concept, Howard's enthusiasts fare less well.

As time marches on, the shadows grow longer and the humour - when there is any - grows more grim. 'The Reluctant Visionary' sees a modern architect discover memorabilia from 1936. In that year audiences across the world flocked to see the Wells/Korda classic Things To Come. In a story-within-a-story Felix, a young Romanian who has enjoyed the film finds himself witnessing events similar to those in Wells' Utopian vision, but with an altogether bleaker conclusion. As an unreconstructed Wellsian I found this story near flawless. (To digress for a moment - 'The Reluctanct Visionary' might be read as a response to William Gibson's 'The Gernsback Continuum', which explicitly rejects technological Utopianism.)

The next story, 'In Strange Earth', is set during the collapse of communism, which claimed to provide its citzens with the sort of world Wells and Korda strove to depict. The story contains a ghostly encounter, but its protagonist - a Ceausescu flunky fleeing to the provinces after the Leader falls - is himself a kind of revenant, a living echo of the old regime.

Totalitarianism also looms in 'The Silver Voice'. Here a modern Romanian must explore his family's past when he reads a tale about a strange, hidden room. The room is linked to the rise and fall of Romania's home-grown fascist movement, the Iron Guard, offer the familiar mixture of 'nationalism, religious mysticism, and... anti-Semitism'. (It's also worth noting that they had as their symbol The Triple Cross - you couldn't make it up.) The parallel is neatly drawn between love of country and the troubled relationship of the protagonist with his father. It's also notable for a story-within-a-story that convincingly re-creates the fabulistic style of many pre-war writers.

The final story, 'To Hope for a Caesar', is a tale of intrigue in which a British visitor to Berlin hears the 'confession' of a former communist official. It evokes the insanity of 20th century Europe, in which outwardly normal people had to profess insane beliefs, and switch allegiance between different ideologies overnight. It ends on a note of mystery, as befits a collection of enigmatic tales.

John Howard is clearly in love with history, and the way ideas, lives, and the so-called forces of history are interwoven. It's especially apt that Swan River has reprinted this collection now, one hundred years after so many old certainties were gunned down at Sarajevo.


knobgobbler said...

These sound like some intriguing tales... your 'caveat' brings to mind Elizabeth Bowen and Robert Aickman.
Thanks for pointing it out.

Martin Roberts said...

I'm also reading this collection at the moment, and my overall recurring thought is how a later collection featuring John's fiction is the aptly titled Secret Europe. Also recently reprinted from the Ex Occidente original by Tartarus Press, which also features stories from Mark Valentine.