Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Phantasmagorical Imperative: and Other Fabrications, by D.P Watt

Please note, this is a review of the pdf of a beautifully-produced book from Egaeus Press. It has a wonderful cover and copious internal illustrations, photographs, and so on. It's very much a collector's item - see below...

Phantasmagorical Imperative


(I'm not one of those collecting it, though, as I asked for a pdf to review.)

In her introduction to this collection of  strange tales Victoria Nelson notes that D,P. Watt's protagonists tend to be 'a cross between M.R. James's buttoned-down antiquarians and H.P. Lovecraft's high-strung, slightly hysterical misfits'. That's a good summation of the kind of person we encounter in this collection of somewhat surreal weird tales, which take place in a twilight zone between mainstream British horror and the Kafkaesque provinces of European literature.

The title story deftly evokes the oddness of the sort of small village that we've seen in quite a few horror films. But the theme here is not so much horror as strangeness. A sort of circus troupe arrives in a place called Werrow and puts on a show that baffles and delights Eugene Miles, or literally a well-born soldier - perhaps one who is part of the cultural mainstream, perhaps? (At once point he reads a military history by Churchill, no less.) In another story Eugene's fascination with the troupe, and one artiste in particular might have led the protagonist to join as a performer (or end up in a cage, as in a tale by J.G. Ballard). But here the conclusion is ambiguous. Nightmarish without being a gore-fest, this one lingers in the mind.

Rural rambling and British eccentricity is to the fore in 'Laudate Dominum (for many voices)', in which a walker who happens to be called Stephen Walker visits the 'Mechanical Music Museum'. His encounter with the strange curator makes for some fine, dark comedy, and the author's love of the bewildering assortment of antique machines is evident. The ending, when it comes, has been telegraphed, but not to excess. The overall effect is of Roald Dahl meeting William Sansom and having a chat about Walter de la Mare.

'By Nature's Power Enshrined' is an interesting departure, thanks to its Victorian setting and the fact that its protagonist is not an eccentric loner. Albert runs a photographic business in Maidstone and struggles to support his wife, Isabelle, and their children. The origin of photography is fascinating subject in itself, and perhaps the most poignant use of the new art-form/technology was in portraiture of the terminally ill. (The practice continued well into the 20th century. Admirers of Nigel Kneale will recall his story 'The Picture', in which a little boy taken from his sick bed to be photographed.) Watt rings the changes on this idea with great skill, as Albert discovers that he can heal the sick. But such power, inevitably, comes as a price. 

'Holzwege' is another historical story, but deals with a very different world. It concerns three young Brownshirts in what seems to be Weimar Germany just before the Nazis seized absolute power. Watt follows his anti-heroes of the SA across country until, lost in a forest, they encounter what may be the Fates or Norns. Probably not vampires, anyway. My grasp of the relevant mythology is a bit feeble, to be honest. This is a poetic, disturbing tale, in which advocates of a cod-Nordic culture based on so-called Aryan myth are destroyed by very potent manifestations of the real thing. The truth is revealed to them, and it even sets them free in its very old-fashioned way.

So, in spring, as the snows receded and revealed the bodies, the forest creatures emerged - beatific vermin - and picked their bones clean of fleshy sin. 
We move on a few decades in European history for 'Dehiscence', a novella, A man is caught up in the chaos of post-WW2 Europe opens a junk shop in Krakow, an establishment in which he offers any old tat for sale. Far from losing money, he becomes wealthy thanks to crass touristic impulses. Driven out by a brutal landlord, he is left wandering with nothing more than a trunk, A series of vignettes, each one springing from the description of a particular wild flower, reveal more about his life and times. It's engaging, but reads more like notes towards a story rather than a story in itself.

The above are, I think, the most compelling of the stories on offer, but I'll probably change my mind if I read the book again. Suffice to say that D.P. Watt is an interesting and original voice, and proof that what we casually term horror is a very broad (and somewhat ornate) church these days.


1 comment:

Todd Treichel said...

The book is indeed a thing of beauty, and the stories you describe sound quite enticing.